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By James Rainey
It took just a few hours into the new year for President Donald Trump to do what he has done repeatedly through his first two years in office — claim credit for positive economic news.
“Do you think it’s just luck that gas prices are so low, and falling? Low gas prices are like another Tax Cut!” Trump exclaimed on Twitter.
It took critics a few more hours to do what they have often done during the first two years of Trump’s tenure — assert that the president was oversimplifying, at best.
Trump’s claim of positive pocketbook news for Americans appeared to be offered, at least in part, as an antidote to a sour 2018 on Wall Street, where stocks posted their worst performance in a decade.
The outlook was much better for consumers at the fuel pump, where gas dipped to less than $2 in some locations and to less than $2.25 in thousands of other spots, energy analysts said in November.
Not long after, President Trump took to Twitter to thank Saudi Arabia for keeping oil prices low. “Oil prices getting lower,” he wrote. “Great! Like a big Tax Cut for America and the World. Enjoy!” Later that same day, Thanksgiving eve, he quipped that he had driven gas prices so low that “more people are driving and I have caused traffic jams throughout our Great Nation.” Adding: “Sorry everyone!”
Experts said Trump can take some credit for the increased supply of gas that has driven prices lower, but that fuel economics is a hugely complex subject, impacted by many variables.
The influence that Trump can legitimately claim some credit for is the increase in production that has accompanied America’s massive increase in hydraulic fracturing — the process of pumping liquid underground at high pressure to free up oil and gas deposits.
“There has been an increase in production that has put a downward pressure on prices. He can claim some credit for that,” said Severin Borenstein, director of the Energy Institute at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. “But, at the same time, most of the increase in production took place well before Trump took office, in the 2010 to 2015 time period.”
But while the U.S. has become the biggest oil producer, most of world’s supply comes from other nations only tangentially influenced by Trump, or any other American, experts said.
The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and its dominant player, Saudi Arabia, have talked about restricting production to drive up prices, but have largely failed to do so. The cartel next meets in Austria in April to consider another production-limit proposal that theoretically could drive up prices.
The glut of oil from Saudi Arabia and other OPEC nations has been magnified because another major oil source, Iran, has seen its exports increase. Though President Trump promised to get tough on the regime in Tehran, his deal to reinstate sanctions on Iran included waivers that allowed eight countries to temporarily buy oil from Iran.
Combined with the OPEC production, the freed-up Iranian oil has helped to glut the market.
“You could say he helped lower oil prices, but he did it by being weaker than expected on a country he’s labeled as an enemy of America and by potentially derailing economic growth through a trade war with China,” Ashley Petersen, a senior oil market analyst at the energy advisory firm Stratas Advisors told Vox. “Not exactly bragging points.”
Petersen also emphasized that tying one’s economic fortunes to the notoriously volatile price of oil and gas is a dicey proposition. “There are so many variables that go into oil prices, almost none of which are under his control, that taking credit for a price drop will inevitably backfire when the price rises again,” Petersen added, in the same interview.
The discussion about the benefits of lower gas prices also leaves unmentioned a collateral impact: Cheaper gas increases consumption and automobile emissions, adding to Earth-warming greenhouse gases, said Borenstein, the business professor.
“Lower gas prices surely make people happy,” said Borenstein. “But they also lead to more investment in low fuel economy cars and more driving. And that means even less progress on fighting climate change, which we know is largely man made.”
ACLU sues U.S. border agencies over targeting of activists, lawyers at border
WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union has sued three government agencies on behalf of immigration activists who were allegedly surveilled and flagged for questioning when crossing the U.S.-Mexico border because of their work with immigrants, according to court documents filed in the Central District of California.
The complaint alleges that the three plaintiffs — activists Nora Elizabeth Phillips, Erika Da Cruz Pinheiro and Nathaniel Garrett Dennison — were targeted for “detention and interrogation” under a “secret investigative program designed to monitor these humanitarian workers … and impede their ability to travel.” The suit names Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection and the FBI as defendants, as well as FBI Director Christopher Wray and Acting ICE Director Matthew Albence.
In March, NBC News and NBC 7 San Diego uncovered details of the program after obtaining a CBP list of names of journalists, activists and lawyers who were to be stopped by CBP agents when crossing the border. The ACLU cited the reporting as the impetus for the lawsuit.
“The disclosure of the secret program spurred outrage from civil society organizations, prompted members of Congress to call for an inquiry into the agencies’ actions, and led Customs and Border Protection’s Inspector General to initiate its own investigation into surveillance,” the lawsuit said.
The list obtained in March targeted only immigration workers in the San Diego area, but an NBC News report later found that activists and lawyers in other areas, such as El Paso, were also targeted.
Two immigration lawyers stopped in El Paso said they were held for hours and asked to hand their cell phones over to immigration agents so that they could obtain their contacts.
In the complaint, the ACLU said the “plaintiffs have been singled out and targeted solely because of their protected speech and association, including their provision of legal counsel to asylum seekers, their association with others providing humanitarian aid, and the assistance they provided to clients seeking to redress or to express themselves publicly.”
When the first report was published in March, the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees CBP and ICE, said the individuals were targeted as part of an investigation into violence that erupted at the San Diego-Tijuana border in late 2018 when a so-called migrant caravan arrived. But many of those targeted have said they were nowhere near San Diego at the time and had no involvement with the caravan.
John Sandweg, former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told NBC News in March that border agents should never target people at the border for inspection based on their profession, including their work with asylum seekers.
The ACLU is asking the court to issue an injunction that would declare the activity of the border agents unlawful under the First Amendment and award damages.
Plaintiff Nora Phillips is the co-founder of Al Otro Lado, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that provides legal and mental health services to migrants. Pinheiro is a co-founder of the same group and organizes legal clinics inside Mexico. Dennison is a documentary filmmaker and shelter volunteer.
DHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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Mueller makes last-minute request for aide to appear with him during his testimony
One of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s longtime aides will appear alongside him during his highly-anticipated testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, a spokesperson said Tuesday, but is not expected to be sworn in.
Mueller’s team made a last-minute request that Aaron Zebley be sworn in and testify with him during his scheduled hearings before Congress on Wednesday, a congressional source familiar with the request told NBC News.
Mueller is slated to testify on his report into Russian interference in the 2016 election and the country’s influence on President Donald Trump for three hours before the House Judiciary Committee, take a break, then appear for at least two additional hours before the House Intelligence Committee.
For the first hearing, Zebley will sit alongside Mueller as his counsel, according to the Judiciary Committee spokesperson. The committee, however, is not updating its guidance to include Zebley as a witness. This means that Zebley will not be sworn in. Mueller can confer with him as he is questioned by the panel, according to committee rules, but cannot answer questions.
The ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, said Tuesday that GOP members had “not gotten assurances from the House Democrats on the committee that he [Zebley] will not speak.”
“He’s not supposed to speak in that role to anyone on the committee or asked questions. And we’re asking, and, frankly, that that be confirmed before the hearing. So we don’t have to waste time with it tomorrow,” Collins said.
Jim Popkin, Mueller’s spokesperson, disputed the idea that Zebley’s presence at the hearings amounted to an 11th-hour addition.
“Aaron Zebley was the Deputy Special Counsel and had day-to-day oversight of the investigations conducted by the Office,” Popkin said in a statement Tuesday. “He will accompany Special Counsel Mueller to the Wednesday hearings, as was discussed with the committees more than a week ago.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Tuesday during a conversation at the Center for American Progress that his panel was still working out what Zebley’s function might be.
Trump lashed out about Zebley’s role in Mueller’s testimony, tweeting Tuesday night that the decision “very unfair.”
“Just got back only to hear of a last minute change allowing a Never Trumper attorney to help Robert Mueller with his testimony before Congress tomorrow,” Trump said. “What a disgrace to our system. Never heard of this before.”
Zebley is especially close to Mueller, serving as his chief of staff at the FBI when Mueller was the director. Zebley is also an alumnus of the law firm WilmerHale, where Mueller worked after leaving the FBI.
Zebley followed Mueller to the Justice Department when he was tapped to be special counsel in 2017. Zebley is also a former FBI agent who was involved in an international hunt for al Qaeda terrorists before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In June, Mueller agreed to testify before Congress about his Russia investigation after he was subpoenaed by Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., the chairman of the House Judiciary, and Schiff.
Popkin said Monday that the former special counsel will make a brief opening statement when he testifies about his 22-month investigation, and will offer his 448-page report as his full statement for the record.
In May, Mueller stressed at a press conference that if he were called to testify he would stick closely to his written report. “Any testimony from this office would not go beyond our report. It contains our findings and analysis, and the reasons for the decisions we made,” he said.
“We chose those words carefully, and the work speaks for itself. The report is my testimony. I would not provide information beyond that which is already public in any appearance before Congress.”
In a letter on Monday, the Justice Department also issued stern guidance to Mueller, stating that “any testimony must remain within the boundaries of your public report because matters within the scope of your investigation were covered by executive privilege.”
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