Posts Tagged ‘U.S. Senate’

U.S. weapons makers “express concern” over Trump’s Saudi Arabia deals — Khashoggi case strains U.S.-Saudi relations

October 13, 2018

Major U.S. defense contractors have expressed concern to the Trump administration that lawmakers angered by the disappearance of a Saudi journalist in Turkey will block further arms deals with Saudi Arabia, a senior U.S. official told Reuters on Friday.

Turkish reports that journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a vocal critic of Riyadh, was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and removed have hardened resistance in the U.S. Congress to selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, already a sore point for many lawmakers concerned about the Saudi role in Yemen’s civil war.

Saudi Arabia rejects the allegations in Turkey as baseless.

Related image

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had spoken of  “moderate Islam” and had touted man social reforms — Here with President Donald Trump in the White House on March 14, 2017. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Thursday he was wary of halting arms sales to Riyadh because of Khashoggi as it would just shift its weapons purchases to Russia and China.

Saudi Arabia, where Trump last year announced a $110 billion arms package, has been a centerpiece of his overhaul of weapons export policy in which he has gone further than any of his predecessors in acting as a weapons salesman. However, critics say the new approach gives too much weight to business interests versus human rights concerns.

The senior U.S. official declined to identify the companies that had contacted the administration over their Saudi arms deals. Defense contractors did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) and Raytheon Co (RTN.N) have been the most active U.S. defense companies with potential sales to Saudi Arabia since Trump announced the package as part of his “Buy American” agenda to create jobs at home.

In Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike are alarmed by the disappearance of Khashoggi, a U.S. resident who wrote columns for the Washington Post. He entered the consulate on Oct. 2 to collect documents for his planned marriage. Saudi officials say Khashoggi left the building shortly afterwards, but his fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, said he never re-appeared.

Even before Khashoggi’s unexplained disappearance, Democratic lawmakers had “holds” for months on at least four military equipment deals, largely because of Saudi attacks that killed Yemeni civilians.

“This makes it more likely they’ll expand holds to include systems that aren’t necessarily controversial by themselves. It’s a major concern,” the senior administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

About $19 billion in deals have been officially notified to Congress, according to government records, making it unlikely that they can be halted. These include training packages for Saudi troops and pilots and the THAAD anti-missile system that could cost as much as $15 billion.

One lobbyist for a defense company who spoke on condition of anonymity said worries about a potential across-the-board blockage of Saudi sales by Congress had surfaced in recent days, a development that would hurt a range of contractors.

A second U.S. official said there were also current holds in place on training sales for the Saudi government.

Under U.S. law, major foreign military sales can be blocked by Congress. An informal U.S. review process lets key lawmakers use a practice known as a “hold” to stall deals if they have concerns such as whether the weapons being supplied would be used to kill civilians.

Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, an outspoken critic of Saudi Arabia, threatened on Thursday to introduce a resolution of disapproval for any Saudi military deal that came up.

Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters on Thursday he recently told a defense contractor not to push for a deal with the Saudis, even before the Khashoggi case.

“With this, I can assure it won’t happen for a while,” Corker said.

While details of all the previously blocked Saudi deals were not immediately available, one was the planned sale of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of high-tech munitions to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Since 2015, Gulf Arab states have fought to restore a government in Yemen driven out by the Houthis, Shi’ite Muslim fighters Yemen’s neighbors view as agents of Iran. The war has killed more than 10,000 people and created the world’s most urgent humanitarian emergency.

Senator Robert Menendez, the top Foreign Relations Committee Democrat, said the Trump administration had not satisfied concerns he first raised in June about the sale to members of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen of Raytheon’s precision-guided munitions.

Khashoggi case strains U.S.-Saudi relations

Reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Mike Stone and Patricia Zengerle in Washington; editing by Bill Rigby and Grant McCool


See also:

Saudi Arabia Can Win Islam’s War of Ideas (From March 15, 2018)

Saudi Arabia Can Win Islam’s War of Ideas


High Noon for Judge Kavanaugh

October 4, 2018

The time for talking is over. The time has come for the Senate and nation to cast votes.


A disruptive Code Pink demonstrator is pulled down by a U.S. Capitol Police officer in Washington, D.C., Sept. 6.
A disruptive Code Pink demonstrator is pulled down by a U.S. Capitol Police officer in Washington, D.C., Sept. 6. PHOTO: CHIP SOMODEVILLA/GETTY IMAGES

In the matter of the Democratic Party versus Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, it is time to have it out.

We have arrived at an inevitable moment in every classic Western showdown. There is nothing left to talk about. We don’t need any more FBI reports. It’s time to go out into the street and settle this. As a man who was done talking in Sam Peckinpah’s “Ride the High Country” said: “Start the ball, old man!”

It’s time to start the ball—first with a vote on the Senate floor, and then with votes across the country for Senate control in November.

We are a civilized people. We don’t actually shoot each other, most of the time. Street gangs do that, and the U.S. Senate isn’t a street gang. But it has begun to look more like Dodge City than the seat of a great nation.

Senate hearings have become dogfights attended by mobs. Demonstrators routinely throw themselves on the floor in front of senators’ offices. The Jeff Flake entrapment after the Judiciary Committee vote was a low point in modern Senate history, with the senator cornered inside an elevator by a woman shrieking “Look at me!” for inevitable capture by a video.

By now in the Kavanaugh saga, with all the moral intimidation, gender-baiting and bad faith thrown at their side, you would think each of the 51 Republican Senators would vote to confirm out of simple self-respect. But self-respect has become a hard thing to maintain under the weight of modern media, so people just bend.

The Kavanaugh confirmation was always going to be a big political moment, but no one could have predicted it would expand across four weeks into one of the most defining political events in a generation.

Before this began, the conventional wisdom was correct that the midterm elections would be a referendum on He Who Cannot Be Avoided—President Trump. After lying low through most of the hearings, Mr. Trump surfaced Tuesday evening in Mississippi with a diatribe against Christine Ford’s variable memory.

I’m not sure another Trump cannonball matters at this point. The Kavanaugh confirmation, watched by millions, has put in play considerations bigger than Donald Trump or Brett Kavanaugh.

Start with the other transcendent event of our time: The 2016 presidential election result. Within hours, the Trump victory put in motion an anti-Trump “resistance” that transferred control of the Democratic Party to its leftmost wing.

The nonstop war between Mr. Trump on one side and the left and the national press corps on the other has caused a few realities from the 2016 election to drop from view.

The 63 million or so Americans who voted for Donald Trump weren’t the lunatic fringe. For many, Mr. Trump was their vessel for two concerns—the future of the Supreme Court and the implications of a Hillary Clinton presidency after Barack Obama’s two terms.

The Kavanaugh nomination has put both these powerful subtexts from 2016 back in play. The Democrats have managed to shift the midterm elections away from Mr. Trump’s personality and make it about the Supreme Court, the status of the law in the U.S. and the nature of Democratic rule.

The sincerity of Ms. Ford’s testimony notwithstanding, this phase of the confirmation began with no corroborative evidence against Judge Kavanaugh and is ending with no evidence. The acceptance of this no-evidence standard, not just by the Judiciary Committee Democrats but by nearly all Democrats and most of the media, is something people have noticed.

One reader of this column said a litmus test of pure belief in the context of a nomination to the nation’s highest legal institution brought to mind a famous dictum by Fidel Castro: “Within the revolution, everything. Against the revolution, nothing.”

As to the many who said in 2016 their vote was less about Donald Trump than about preventing a Clinton presidency, the hearings have put faces on the reality of Democratic congressional control: Feinstein, Leahy, Durbin, Whitehouse, Klobuchar, Coons, Blumenthal, Hirono, Booker and Harris. As the committee’s senior Democrat, Dianne Feinstein would become arbiter of the federal judiciary.

The coverage of Brett Kavanaugh’s past has also put a whiff of anti-Catholicism in the air, with the constant invocations of “Georgetown Prep,” suggesting not subtly that this all-boys school, founded by Jesuits in 1789, was an abusers’ breeding ground. To invoke a legal term, this is a slander, and many at this point resent it.

It’s possible the Democrats are aligned with a deeper shift in the nation’s psyche. Despite a modern world created by precise algorithmic proofs, we may be entering a time driven more by inner mental states. Some are calling it an era of post-truth. For the law, I would call it an era of jury nullification. Chuck Schumer wants results without votes.

It is time for Sens. Jeff Flake, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp to stand for one Senate tradition: a public vote.


Appeared in the October 4, 2018, print edition as ‘High Noon for Kavanaugh.’

NYT: Lindsey Graham Calls Kavanaugh Hearing ‘the Most Unethical Sham’ — Graham’s increasingly cozy relationship with Mr. Trump

September 28, 2018


Senator Lindsey Graham, the blunt-speaking South Carolina Republican, vented to reporters on Thursday outside the hearing room where the Senate Judiciary Committee was hearing explosive testimony about sexual assault allegations against Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, President Trump’s embattled Supreme Court nominee.

Then he went back inside and really let loose.

“What you want to do is destroy this guy’s life, hold this seat open and hope you win in 2020,” Mr. Graham, red-faced and dropping all pretenses of legislative comity, yelled at his Democratic colleagues. “This is the most unethical sham since I’ve been in politics.”

With those words, Mr. Graham all but cemented a slow-motion public political transformation over the past two years — from an anti-Trump, maverick Republican senator who often sought legislative compromise to Mr. Trump’s closest ally and most ardent defender.

By Michael D. Shear

The New York Times

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speaks as Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)

As one of Mr. Trump’s rivals for the presidency in 2016, Mr. Graham called him “the world’s biggest jackass,” a “race-baiting xenophobic religious bigot” and a “kook” unfit to be president. For his part, Mr. Trump responded by calling Mr. Graham “an idiot” and “not as bright, honestly, as Rick Perry.”

But after Mr. Trump was inaugurated, Mr. Graham gradually changed his tune. He was spotted playing golf with Mr. Trump and chatting on the phone with the president. He has occasionally taken issue with Mr. Trump’s tweets, but has largely supported his agenda.

For longtime observers of politics in Washington, it has been a remarkable change, underscored recently by the death of Senator John McCain of Arizona, who was Mr. Graham’s best friend in Washington and one of the president’s fiercest critics.

There were those in both parties who might have once thought that Mr. Graham would assume Mr. McCain’s mantle as the straight-talking Republican in the Senate, challenging his own party and frequently working with Democratic colleagues to reach bipartisan compromises.

But Mr. Graham’s increasingly cozy relationship with Mr. Trump suggests that such expectations are misplaced.

During the first two years of the administration, Mr. Graham has supported the president’s plans to build up the military, end the Iran nuclear deal, cut taxes, eliminate regulations and reorient the nation’s foreign policy.

In recent weeks, Sam Nunberg, a former Trump aide, speculated that Mr. Graham might be Mr. Trump’s choice to become attorney general if the president fires Jeff Sessions from the post.

And on Thursday, Mr. Graham became the fiercest defender of the president’s choice to replace Anthony M. Kennedy on the Supreme Court in the face of explosive allegations of sexual misconduct.

For almost two hours, Mr. Graham — and the rest of the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee — sat silently during the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, the research psychologist who has accused Judge Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her in high school.

But when it came time for Mr. Kavanaugh to testify, Mr. Graham, who is a former Air Force lawyer, could no longer sit still.

With Mr. Kavanaugh sitting before him, Mr. Graham assailed the Democrats on the panel. He accused them of merely wanting to accumulate power. And he dared his Republican colleagues to vote against Mr. Kavanaugh’s nomination.

“If you vote no, you’re legitimizing the most despicable thing I have seen in my time in politics,” Mr. Graham said, his voice rising in a way that is rarely seen in Senate hearings. Turning again to the Democrats to his left, he fumed: “You want this seat. I hope you never get it.”

That position is a reversal of sorts for Mr. Graham; throughout 2016, he supported Republican political tactics to block former President Barack Obama from filling a similar vacancy on the Supreme Court.

Mr. Graham ended his brief tirade with an announcement to Mr. Trump’s nominee: “I intend to vote for you. And I hope everybody who is fair minded will.”

Mr. Graham is up for re-election in 2020, and there is certainly no political harm for him in binding himself to the president in one of the most Trump-friendly states in the country.

It is not yet known whether the dramatic and emotional performance will help persuade his Republican colleagues to vote for Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination in the face of the allegations by Dr. Blasey and two other women.

But one thing is clear: The unleashed anger is certain to be noticed by the president, who had pledged the evening before that he would watch the testimony of Mr. Kavanaugh and his accuser.

And for Mr. Trump, who has bragged about never saying he is sorry, one particular phrase may stand out.

Looking at Judge Kavanaugh — with the cameras rolling — Mr. Graham said, “You’ve got nothing to apologize for.”

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A14 of the New York edition with the headline: Graham Erupts at ‘the Most Unethical Sham,’ Capping a Turn Toward Trump

Time to Confirm Brett Kavanaugh

September 28, 2018

The Judge rightly called out the politics of ‘search and destroy.’ No confirming evidence beyond her own testimony from the accuser….

U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill, Washington, U.S., Sept. 27.
U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill, Washington, U.S., Sept. 27. PHOTO: JIM BOURG/ZUMA PRESS

Thursday’s Senate hearing on Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination was an embarrassment that should have never happened. Judge Kavanaugh was right to call the confirmation process a “disgrace” in his passionate self-defense, and whatever one thinks of Christine Blasey Ford’s assault accusation, she offered no corroboration or new supporting evidence.


Ms. Ford certainly was a sympathetic witness—by her own admission “terrified” at the start and appearing to be emotionally fragile. Her description of the assault and its impact on her was wrenching. She clearly believes what she says happened to her. Her allegation should have been vetted privately, in confidence, as she said she would have preferred. Instead ranking Democrat Dianne Feinstein held it for six weeks and it was leaked—perhaps to cause precisely such a hearing circus.

Yet there is still no confirming evidence beyond her own testimony, and some of what she says has been contradicted. The female friend Ms. Ford says was at the home the night of the assault says she wasn’t there. The number of people she says were there has varied from four to five and perhaps more, but every potential witness she has cited by name says he or she doesn’t recall the party.

She still can’t recall the home where the assault took place, how she got there or how she got home that evening. She has no witnesses who say she told them about the alleged assault at the time—until she first spoke of it at a couples therapy session 30 years later in 2012. Mr. Kavanaugh’s name doesn’t appear in the notes of her therapist.

As for Judge Kavanaugh, his self-defense was as powerful and emotional as the moment demanded. If he was angry at times, imagine how you would feel if you were so accused and were innocent as he says he is. To deny the allegations as he did—invoking his children and parents and so many others who know him—and be lying would mean that he is a sociopath. If he were found to be lying, he would be impeached and probably prosecuted. Nothing in his long record in public life betrays the kind of behavior he is accused of against women.

Had he not been as forceful, his opponents would have said he looked guilty. Because he called the Democrats out for their character assassination, the critics now say he lacks the right temperament. The truth is that there is no answer, and no demeanor, that Brett Kavanaugh could offer that the left would credit. Their goal isn’t the truth. They want to destroy Judge Kavanaugh.

Republican Senators turned over their questioning of Ms. Ford to a trained prosecutor from Arizona, who attempted to clarify facts and fill holes in her testimony. Democrats showed zero interest in getting any facts from Ms. Ford. They spent their question time saying they believed Ms. Ford while badgering Republican Chairman Chuck Grassley to call other witnesses.

Yet those potential witnesses have all given sworn statements to Senate staff under penalty of felony that say they don’t recall the party or the alleged assault. Hauling them before the Senate wouldn’t illuminate the truth any more than Thursday’s hearing did.

Incredibly, Democrats spent their time with Judge Kavanaugh asking about drinking games and lines in his high school yearbook. Once Senator Lindsey Graham made that look foolish , Democrats focused on their only other argument, which is that the FBI should investigate. But they well know the FBI would merely repeat the interviews they and the Senate Judiciary staff have already done.


The real Democratic goal is to push a confirmation vote past Election Day. They can then spare their incumbents running for re-election from taking a difficult vote. If they win the election, they will then try to block any confirmation until they take over the Senate in January. No nominee to the right of Merrick Garland would then be confirmed in the final two years of the Trump Presidency. The Supreme Court would be divided 4-4 until 2021 at least.

Senate Republicans should understand that these are the real political stakes. This nomination isn’t only about the fate of a single man whose reputation can be discarded like some tabloid celebrity. This is about the future of the Supreme Court and who will control the Senate. If Republicans reject Mr. Kavanaugh based on what we know now, millions of voters will rightly be furious.

But as important, a rejection will bring dishonor to the Senate. It will validate the ambush and smear politics that Democrats are using. And it will turn Supreme Court nominations over to the justice of the social-media mob and the politics of accusation. It’s time for Senators to stand up and confirm Brett Kavanaugh.

Appeared in the September 28, 2018, print edition.

U.S. Senate Proposal Calls for Regulating Big Tech

August 2, 2018

White paper suggests limiting anonymity, making sites liable for content

A new policy paper making the rounds in Congress and tech circles could signal the future of regulating big tech.

The white paper, which was first obtained by Axios, was written by the office of Sen. Mark Warner (D., Va.), vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Warner is one of the leading Democrats investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. He and his colleagues have pointed to the Russian use of platforms like Facebook—which has some 230 million users in the United States alone—to try to influence the outcome of the election.

At one time a darling of the press and business world, big tech has seen its metaphorical stock fall in recent months amid bipartisan complaints. Russia’s interference and the farming of data by Cambridge Analytica has raised the ire of liberals. Conservatives, meanwhile, have long complained of bias from social networking sites, who they say unfairly target conservative content over similar posts from liberals.

These complaints only scratch the surface of the concerns the new paper raises. Modern tech relies on aggregating huge quantities of information, the privacy implications of which are not yet fully understood. And firms like Google and Facebook have come to dominate the internet (the two companies alone have influence over 70 percent of internet traffic), a position which skeptics view as a threat to competition and the robust health of the tech sector.

By Charles Fain Lehman
Image result for facebook corporate, art, pictures

In response, the white paper proposes 20 ideas for policymakers to reign in social media giants. These ideas, it argues, would help to ensure consumer privacy, curb anticompetitive behavior, and limit malicious abuse by trolls, scam artists, and foreign governments.

Much of the paper focuses on increasing large firms’ transparency, making it easier for users and the general public to know what information is being collected for what purposes. A “public interest data access bill” would mandate that large platforms provide anonymized activity data to third-party researchers, allowing them to see usage trends and identify potentially concerning currents. And first party consent rules would require users’ “explicit and informed consent” before sites could sell their information.

Data transparency would serve a second purpose of making it easier for would-be competitors to enter the market, learning about what current industry leaders do. Other proposals to enhance competitiveness include mandatory data portability and interoperability, both of which would make it easier for users to “switch” if they don’t like a platform.

All of these data protections might be rolled into a single, more radical proposal—creating an American version of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation. The GDPR, implemented across the European Union, guarantees individuals certain rights to their data, including portability and access, and a “right to be forgotten.” It also allows for harsh penalties against rule breakers—Google and Facebook have already surpassed $9 billion in fines.

Data privacy is of course not the only policy focus. The paper calls for substantive rules like disclosures of the sources of online political ads, and the banning of dark patterns (interface designs meant to trick users into selecting a desired outcome). It also endorses a “public initiative for media literacy” to educate Americans on how to spot misinformation.

All of the proposals are likely to prove controversial, but some especially so. Mandatory labeling of bots, labeling of the geographic origin of posts, and the identification and removal of “inauthentic” accounts are all likely to attract the condemnation of privacy advocates who argue that the subjects of autocratic regimes, for example, rely on the internet’s anonymity for their personal safety.

Also likely to attract concern among the internet privacy community is the idea of making platforms legally liable for failing to take down defamatory content. Such an idea—which would protect users from faked images and videos of themselves—would run afoul of section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which makes platforms not liable for the content posted on them.

Congress has already recently curtailed Section 230, making sites like Craigslist liable for sex trafficking ads, which they host. The associated legislation was cheered by law enforcement, but heavily opposed by opponents of internet regulation.

One idea is conspicuously missing from the paper: breaking up large tech firms under the auspices of antitrust law. That’s the goal of groups like Freedom from Facebook, which calls on the Federal Trade Commission to break up the social media giant’s many properties and impose several of the same proposals that show up in the white paper.

“#FreedomFromFacebook applauds @MarkWarner for taking the first steps to reign in corporate monopolies like @Facebook,” the group wrote on its Twitter page Tuesday.

US senators refuse to back down on ZTE ban

July 13, 2018

Lawmakers seek a defence-bill amendment to punish the Chinese telecoms firm after Commerce Department says a less-harsh deal is almost in place

South China Morning Post

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 July, 2018, 5:15am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 July, 2018, 8:25am

A bipartisan group of six US senators urged their colleagues now drawing up a final defence appropriations bill to retain a ban on selling components to Chinese telecoms giant ZTE Corp, a day after the US Commerce Department said a deal was close with the company to lift the ban.

Republicans Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton and Roy Blunt, together with Democrats Chris Van Hollen, Mark Warner and Bill Nelson sent a letter to the Senate and House Armed Services Committees on Thursday to urge the chairmen, Senator John McCain and Representative Mac Thornberry, to include the amendment in the defence bill.

“We strongly oppose the June 2018 deal with ZTE negotiated by the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) to lift the seven-year ban against the export of US parts and components to ZTE,” the senators wrote.

They expressed concerns that ZTE – along with Huawei, another telecoms giant – “are beholden to the Chinese government and Communist Party, which provides the capacity for espionage and intellectual property theft, and therefore poses clear threats to the national security, people, and economy of the United States”.

The resistance adds yet another wrinkle to a deal that Commerce struck last month to save ZTE, after US President Donald Trump directed the department to come up with an alternative to the seven-year ban, framing it as a favour to his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping and part of a larger strategy to win trade concessions.

On Wednesday, Commerce said in a statement that it had signed an agreement for ZTE to deposit US$400 million into an escrow account, the last step before the ban can be lifted. Additionally, ZTE paid a US$1 billion fine to the US Treasury last month.

The settlement also required ZTE to replace its senior management team and put in place a compliance team appointed by the US.

ZTE shares jumped 25 per cent on the Hong Kong stock exchange on Thursday.

The company has been in a months-long effort to resume operations after the US banned it in mid-April from buying American parts, penalising ZTE for violating US sanctions by selling products to Iran and North Korea. The company shut down most its operations weeks after the ban was imposed.

After Trump instructed Commerce to devise a less-harsh penalty, the action met with bipartisan resistance in Congress, with lawmakers urging Trump to reinstate the ban because of the national security threat they said ZTE poses.

The US House and Senate have each passed amendments to their defence bills that would roll back Trump’s settlement.

An amendment restoring the ban was passed by the Senate. A few weeks later, the House of Representatives passed its own version that would allow ZTE to continue using US suppliers, but would bar ZTE from selling its products and services to US government agencies.

The Senate and the House are in the process of reconciling the differences between the two versions. The lawmakers intend to have the final version ready by the end of the month before the House goes into recess.

Senate Obstruction in Profile

June 25, 2018

A respected Trump Justice nominee is held up for more than a year.

Jeff Sessions and Brian Benczkowski in 2009.
Jeff Sessions and Brian Benczkowski in 2009. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS/HARRY HAMBURG

Key positions throughout the federal government remain vacant more than 500 days into Donald Trump’s Presidency. The President hasn’t put forward enough nominees, a mistake the media have focused on. Yet Senate Democrats—and the occasional Republican—have held up qualified nominees at a scale unprecedented in recent history.

No one understands this better than Brian Benczkowski, who was nominated more than a year ago to lead the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. Mr. Benczkowski is a highly qualified choice for Assistant Attorney General: He has held five leadership positions at Justice, including chief of staff to former Attorney General Michael Mukasey. Obama and Clinton appointees have praised his selection, yet Senate Democrats have treated Mr. Benczkowski as if he were Vladimir Putin’s personal attorney.

Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats sent a letter to President Trump in May—11 months after receiving the nomination—regarding the nominee’s “Russian connections.” They urged the president to drop Mr. Benczkowski over his “representation of the Putin-allied Alfa Bank and his refusal to recuse himself from Russia-related matters.”

What did Mr. Benczkowski’s representation entail? In 2016 news reports surfaced of connections between the Trump Organization and Alfa Bank. At the behest of one of his law partners, in 2017 he hired cybersecurity firm Stroz Friedberg to examine some of Alfa Bank’s electronic records. Mr. Benczkowski testified that the limited investigation he oversaw turned up no connections between the bank and Mr. Trump’s business.

Democrats nonetheless demanded that he recuse himself from anything related to Russia. Given the absence of a conflict, Mr. Benczkowski declined to commit to a broad Russia-related recusal, though he said he would recuse from anything involving Alfa Bank.

Democrats now claim Mr. Benczkowski would undermine the Robert Mueller investigation. Never mind that the nominee made clear that he supports the probe and explicitly rejected Mr. Trump’s “witch hunt” characterization. Mr. Mueller reports to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who supports Mr. Benczkowski.

Democrats also cite his “dearth of courtroom experience” as a reason to oppose someone for a position whose work involves setting policy priorities, not trying cases. Three Criminal Division chiefs under Barack Obama signed a letter backing his nomination, noting “he respects the role of the Justice Department and will work hard to protect the integrity and independence” of the institution.

The worst of this Democratic harassment began after the Senate Judiciary Committee approved Mr. Benczkowski’s nomination along party lines last September. A Senator can’t stop a nominee but he can drag out confirmation. And Senate Democrats have done so at a record pace during the Trump Administration.

After a nominee is confirmed by committee, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell asks for unanimous consent to take up the nomination. If a Senator objects, this triggers a cloture vote, which requires 30 hours of debate on the Senate floor. With limited floor time Senate leaders might have to choose between passing a farm bill or approving a State Department official.

Some Republicans have also abused the rule. In January Senator Cory Gardner vowed to hold every Justice Department appointment until Attorney General Jeff Sessions took a softer stance on marijuana. Three months later, after the President promised the feds wouldn’t interfere with Colorado’s legal marijuana industry, the Senator lifted his hold. Senate leaders still want to get Mr. Benczkowski and other Justice officials a floor vote, but they’ll have to keep waiting as the Senate is forced to triage nominees.

Through June 21, Trump nominees have taken an average of 87 days to confirm, according to the Partnership for Public Service. Obama appointees had to wait an average of 67 days. Among 670 “key executive branch” positions—agency heads, ambassadors and other leadership roles—147 Trump nominees are still awaiting Senate action.

This is largely because as of June 5 Mr. Trump’s nominees had faced 101 cloture votes. In the first two years of every administration going back to Jimmy Carter, there were only 24 such votes for judicial and executive nominees. Mr. Obama’s nominees faced only a dozen cloture votes in his first two years.

Top jobs at Treasury, Justice, Defense and State remain unfilled as an understaffed Trump Administration grapples with a host of international challenges. These jobs are being filled on a temporary basis, but that’s no way to run a government—even if you don’t like the guy at the top.

U.S. Senate passes defense bill, battle looms with Trump over China’s ZTE

June 19, 2018

The U.S. Senate passed a $716 billion defense policy bill on Monday, backing President Donald Trump’s call for a bigger, stronger military but setting up a potential battle with the White House over Chinese telecommunications firm ZTE Corp.

A sign of ZTE Corp is pictured at its service centre in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China.
A sign of ZTE Corp is pictured at its service centre in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China. PHOTO: STRINGER/REUTERS

The Republican-controlled Senate voted 85-10 for the annual National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, which authorizes U.S. military spending but is generally used as a vehicle for a broad range of policy matters.

Before it can become law, the bill must be reconciled with one already passed by the House of Representatives. That compromise measure must then be passed by both chambers and signed into law by Trump.

Considered must-pass legislation, the fiscal 2019 Senate version of the NDAA authorizes $639 billion in base defense spending, for such things as buying weapons, ships and aircraft and paying the troops, with an additional $69 billion to fund ongoing conflicts.

This year, the Senate included an amendment that would kill the Trump administration’s agreement to allow ZTE to resume business with U.S. suppliers, one of the few times the Republican-led Senate has veered from White House policy. That ZTE provision is not included in the House version of the NDAA.

While strongly supported by some of Trump’s fellow Republicans as well as some Democrats, the measure is opposed by the White House and some of its close Republican allies, who control the House as well as the Senate.

It could face a difficult path to being included in the final NDAA, especially if Trump lobbies the Republican-led Congress against it, as he is expected to do.

Republicans and Democrats have expressed national security concerns about ZTE after it broke an agreement to discipline executives who had conspired to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran and North Korea.

The U.S. government placed a ban on ZTE earlier this year, but the Trump administration reached an agreement to lift the ban while it is negotiating broader trade agreements with China and looking to Beijing for support during negotiations to halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Republicans Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio and Democrats Chuck Schumer and Chris Van Hollen, who led the Senate push for the ZTE provision, said in a joint statement after the vote that they were “heartened” by support, adding: “It is vital that our colleagues in the House keep this bipartisan provision in the bill as it heads toward a conference.”

  • 000063.SZ
  • LMT.N
  • GD.N
  • HII.N

But the final NDAA could include only a much less stringent provision, included in the House bill, that would bar the Defense Department from dealing with any entity using telecommunications equipment or services from ZTE or another Chinese company, Huawei Technologies Co Ltd HWT.UL.


The Senate version of the NDAA also seeks to strengthen the inter-agency Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which assesses deals to ensure they do not compromise national security.

The bill would allow CFIUS to expand the deals that can be reviewed, for example making reviews of many proposed transactions mandatory instead of voluntary and allowing CFIUS to review land purchases near sensitive military sites.

The Senate NDAA also includes an amendment prohibiting sales to Turkey of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets made by Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) unless Trump certifies Turkey is not threatening NATO, purchasing defense equipment from Russia or detaining U.S. citizens.

Senators included the legislation because of the imprisonment of U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson and the purchase of the S-400 air defense system from Russia.

The measure also includes an amendment to bar the U.S. military from providing aerial refueling support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen unless Secretary of State Mike Pompeo certifies that Saudi Arabia is taking urgent steps to end the civil war in Yemen, ease the humanitarian crisis there and reduce the risk to civilians.

Shipbuilders General Dynamics Corp (GD.N) and Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc (HII.N) could benefit from the bill’s authorization of advance procurement of materials needed for the Virginia class nuclear submarines.

Reporting by Patricia Zengerle an Mike Stone; Additional reporting by Diane Bartz; Editing by Chris Sanders and and Peter Cooney


“Blue Wave” Democrats Hoped to Ride to Midterm Election Wins Not As Big As Thought — Republican chances improve

May 29, 2018

3 Reasons Republicans Are More Optimistic About the Midterms

Republicans’ prospects for the midterm elections are improving, thanks to President Trump’s approval rating, the improving economy, and new poll results. Gerald F. Seib explains. Photo: Getty


Image may contain: cloud and sky

RealClearPolitics senior elections analyst Sean Trende joined Griff Jenkins on Monday’s edition of ‘Fox & Friends’ to discuss President Trump’s improving job approval numbers and Democrats’ chances for retaking the House.

Trende says that the buzz surrounding the “blue wave” Democrats hope to ride to a Congressional majority in November might be based on hype more than data.

Griff Jenkins asked Trende about his RCP article from last week, How The Battle For The House Is Shaping Up, where he said: “Six months is several lifetimes in politics. But there is little doubt that the Republicans’ chances have improved over the past five months, perhaps dramatically so.”

“I think we’ve gone from the Democrats being the favorite to retake the House to something of a dead heat,” Trende explained.

GRIFF JENKINS, FNC: Listen, the president’s approval rating is up. We’ll just put it up quickly so you see it if you haven’t already. 42% approve, that is incredibly up from the 30% that most Democrats refer to in recent weeks. Tell me, why are we seeing this approval? And you have about three things you believe we should be looking at right now.

SEAN TRENDE, RCP: There’s a couple of things going on. I think the good economic news is starting to break through. I think people are starting to question where the Mueller investigation is going. I think it had kept the president down for a while. And I think the tax cuts energized the Republican base and are playing a role in the president’s improving fortunes.

JENKINS: Now, traditionally, about 23, 24 seats change hands in these midterm elections. Aside from the environment that we’re in, how do you factor in this environment now?

TRENDE: Well, I think if you looked six months ago, you would say it was doomsday for the Republicans with the Republican down in the 30s, showing a double-digit lead for Democrats. But that’s just not the world we’re in today. The president is up into the low to mid 40s, and his job approval, the generic ballot has closed to a four-point lead for the Democrats, so I think we’ve gone from Democrats being heavy favorites to take the House to something of a dead heat and maybe a thumb on the scale for the Republicans…

JENKINS: I don’t know if you saw yesterday a headline on ‘The New York Times’ saying that even California Democrats are feeling the heat out there. They’re worried about the prospects of Republicans actually having amazing results there. What do you make of that?

TRENDE: No, I think it’s a real concern for the Democrats. They have this top two primary system where everyone runs in the same race, and the top two make it to the election. There’s a lot of Democrats running, they could divide the democratic vote, and you could end up with two Republicans in the general election shutting the Democrats out, which is sort of a nightmare scenario for Democrats.

West Virginia Election: Coal Man Don Blankenship Says He is “Trumpier than Trump”

May 7, 2018

Don Blankenship said on Monday that he is “Trumpier than Trump” in response to a tweet from the president urging West Virginians to support the GOP Senate candidate’s primary opponents.

Image may contain: 1 person, closeup

“As some have said I am Trumpier than Trump, and this morning proves it,” Blankenship, a former mining CEO, said in a statement responding to a tweet from Trump.

“The President is a very busy man and he doesn’t know me, and he doesn’t know how flawed my two main opponents are in this primary,” Blankenship said. “The establishment is misinforming him because they do not want me to be in the U.S. Senate and promote the President’s agenda.”

Blankenship also said he had resurrected the GOP in West Virginia.

“West Virginia voters should remember that my enemies are Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and my opponents would not even be running as Republicans had I not resurrected the Republican Party in West Virginia,” he said.

Trump tweeted on Monday that West Virginians should support either West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey or Rep. Evan Jenkins in the GOP primary over Blankenship, a former coal executive who was convicted of violating mine safety and health standards.

Republicans fear that if Blankenship won the primary, he would almost certainly lose to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) in November. They also think he could cause collateral damage on other GOP candidates.

Blankenship, who was in prison for a year after his conviction, has been surging in recent polling.

The Republican establishment has responded by fiercely pushing against his nomination.

Republicans fear that Blankenship’s nomination could be a repeat of last year’s Alabama special election where Roy Moore beat the more moderate Luther Strange for the Republican nomination only to be beaten by the Democratic candidate Doug Jones after allegations broke that Moore had sexually assaulted underage women.

The West Virginia primary will take place on Tuesday.