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By Tom DiChristopher, CNBC

President Donald Trump set in motion a vast rollback of energy, climate and environmental regulations during his first two years in office. Over the next two years, those actions will face intense scrutiny on Capitol Hill.

On Thursday, Democrats will take control of the House of Representatives and the committees that conduct government oversight. Within the first few months of the year, incoming committee chairs intend to hold a series of hearings to pick apart Trump’s energy and environmental policies and what role industry insiders played in crafting them.

The Trump administration has targeted dozens of rules. Some of the biggest items on its agenda include withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate agreement, expanding drilling on federal lands, and watering down rules ranging from limits on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants to fuel efficiency in cars and trucks.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, the Arizona Democrat tipped to chair the House Natural Resources Committee, says Americans can expect the committee to probe the financial costs and public health risks associated with Interior Department policies under Trump. Those include rolling back methane emissions rules from oil and gas operations and making virtually all federally administered offshore waters available to drillers.

“The Trump administration has spent two years giving away the store to fossil fuel companies, and Republicans in Congress cheered every step of the way,” said Grijalva. “We need to know what kind of impact this corporate favoritism is having on average Americans’ health and quality of life.”

With House Republicans wielding committee gavels during the first two years of the Trump administration, the president’s deregulatory agenda has proceeded with minimal scrutiny. Now, administration officials and energy industry executives are bracing for a grilling on Capitol Hill.

“No one ever expects the Spanish Inquisition, which is what these guys are about to face,” said Rich Gold, a partner at lobbying firm Holland & Knight, referencing the famous “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” sketch.

Building a record to battle Trump

Gold, who heads his firm’s public policy and regulation group, says the hearings create several opportunities for Democrats.

First, they will bog down the administration in requests for information, leaving it less bandwidth to continue slashing regulations. Second, the hearings create an on-the-record account detailing how the administration developed its policies and who it consulted to craft its agenda.

That record provides fodder for the many lawsuits aimed at defeating Trump’s energy and environmental rollback. It can also be leveraged by Trump’s challenger in the 2020 presidential contest to make the case that Trump put industry profits ahead of public health and climate action.

The hearings also present an opportunity for Democrats to trip up administration officials and damage the administration’s credibility, says Gold.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who will likely become Speaker of the House, last week opened another avenue to scrutinize Trump’s policies with the creation of the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.

Trump rejects the consensus among climate scientists that global warming is primarily caused by human activity and presents an urgent threat to the world. He dismissed a recent report by his own administration that climate-related impacts could shave 10 percent off the U.S. economy by 2100.

In a statement, Pelosi said, “The American people have demanded action to combat the climate crisis, which threatens our public health, our economy, our national security and the whole of God’s creation.”

Don’t bet on big energy legislation

But with Congress divided and many Republicans still downplaying global warming risks, few Washington watchers expect much, if any, meaningful energy or climate legislation to emerge from Capitol Hill.

“I don’t have high expectations about legislation,” said David Konisky, associate professor at Indiana University Bloomington’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. “I think most of the activity from the Democrats will be oversight of policy and activities inside the EPA and the Department of Interior.”

One area that could generate bipartisan support is carbon capture and storage, says Ben Finzel, president at Washington communications firm RenewPR.

The technology strips carbon emissions from power plants and other industrial activity and sequesters it underground. The process has not been proven commercially viable at scale, but it is widely seen as critical to mitigating the impacts of climate change because developing nations around the world are still building coal plants.

“The interesting thing about carbon capture is that it really is bipartisan and there are folks on both sides of the aisle in both chambers that like the concept of addressing at least a piece of energy policy, whether it be jobs or emissions reduction or technology innovation,” said Finzel, whose clients include the Carbon Capture Coalition, which advocates for the technology.

Rebuilding American infrastructure is also seen as some of the most fertile ground for bipartisan compromise and could yield progress in the realm of energy. Democrats say they want an infrastructure bill to include provisions to modernize the nation’s energy infrastructure, expand renewable energy and bioenergy and invest in energy efficiency and smart technology.

Gold, the public policy head at Holland & Knight, says disagreements over how to fund infrastructure spending could be an obstacle, but it’s one area where Trump is fairly content to let Congress hammer out the details. An infrastructure bill would also give him another legislative credential after two years with little to show in terms of bipartisan lawmaking.

“I think he has to go bold on something like that because if he doesn’t, what he’s done so far is not going to get him across the finish line” in the 2020 presidential election, he said.

But Democrats must also contend with intraparty fighting.

The party’s progressive wing, led by freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, is pushing for a “Green New Deal,” a sweeping stimulus package that calls for generating all U.S. electric power from renewable sources within 10 years. Some centrist Democrats and members of the establishment worry the plan is unfeasible and threatens to alienate independents and moderate Republicans ahead of 2020 elections.

Ocasio-Cortez has taken a combative stance and said Pelosi’s new select committee will be weaker than one the leader convened when she was last Speaker of the House.

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a rare coal supporter within the Democratic party, will also become the ranking member on the Senate Energy Committee. Environmentalists and progressives worry that Manchin will use the position to advocate for the coal industry, a powerful player in his state.



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Trump’s sudden decision on North Korea sanctions undermined national security team

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By Josh Lederman

WASHINGTON — In a single tweet, President Donald Trump overturned his own “maximum pressure” campaign against North Korea and publicly undermined his own national security team with a decision to yank back sanctions that his administration had announced only a day before.

The official explanation from White House press secretary Sarah Sanders — “President Trump likes Chairman Kim and he doesn’t think these sanctions will be necessary” — raised more questions than it answered.

Is the pressure campaign over? Will more sanctions be eased? Why are they no longer necessary when no nuclear deal has been reached? And why were the sanctions announced with great fanfare in the first place if the president opposes them?

As it turned out, the sanctions Trump was referring to hadn’t been announced in the first place.

Although Trump’s tweet was perceived to be referring to sanctions that the Treasury had announced before, targeting two shipping companies accused of evading North Korea sanctions, a Trump administration official told NBC News late Friday that it was actually about larger set of new sanctions that the Treasury Department was planning to announce imminently.

That raised even further questions about why Trump didn’t know that the sanctions hadn’t yet been announced and, in any case, why he would have allowed sanctions to go forward only to publicly yank them back.

The White House National Security Council had no comment beyond the one-sentence statement from Sanders. The State Department wouldn’t say whether the U.S. was calling off its maximum pressure campaign, referring all questions to the White House. And the Treasury Department had no immediate response on why the policy process broke down and how the sanctions, now already in effect, will be rolled back.

“I’m at a loss for words,” said David Maxwell, a North Korea expert and retired Army Special Forces colonel now at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawkish think tank. “It’s playing right into Kim Jong Un’s hands.”

Less than 24 hours earlier, senior Trump administration officials had gathered reporters covering North Korea to brief them on the significance of the new sanctions, which targeted two shipping companies accused of evading sanctions on North Korea. The officials emphasized that the U.S. was putting “unprecedented” pressure on North Korea through better sanctions enforcement in hopes of persuading Kim, the North Korean leader, to choose to denuclearize.

The officials had warned that North Korea was increasingly evading sanctions, particularly at sea, and put companies worldwide on notice that the U.S. would be watching. They said more companies would be punished if caught evading sanctions on the North.

“Everyone should take notice,” Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, wrote Thursday in a tweet promoting the new sanctions. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin added that the U.S. would “continue to enforce our sanctions.”

Now those threats are likely to fall flat. As they have before, countries and companies will be forced to make a bet about who to listen to when it comes to U.S. policy: The president, or his senior aides?

For Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other top officials, the president’s willingness to reverse his own administration’s policies undercuts their credibility when they work to execute his policies and explain them on the world stage.

“There’s a question of whether Treasury will be allowed to fully enforce U.S. law against violators,” said Bruce Klingner, a former CIA deputy division chief for Korea and a Heritage Foundation scholar. “This was a major mistake.”

The reversal fits a pattern that has played out repeatedly throughout Trump’s presidency.

In his first year, only an hour after former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson voiced support for Qatar in its dispute with its Arab Gulf neighbors, Trump appeared in the Rose Garden and took the opposite side in the spat. During the government shutdown in January, Trump undercut Vice President Mike Pence by rejecting the very deal Pence was trying to sell in Congress. And top Trump aides were so distraught over his announcement on Twitter that the U.S. was withdrawing from Syria, despite repeated assurances that it would keep troops there to fight Iran and prevent extremists from regrouping, that some of them resigned.

National security analysts said pulling back on North Korea sanctions is particularly perplexing given that the economic pressure campaign is the element of Trump’s approach that has actually worked, bringing Kim to the table twice for unprecedented talks with a U.S. president. The goal of those talks is a deal to rid North Korea of nuclear weapons, but the last summit in Hanoi last month ended without an agreement, with Trump saying the North simply wasn’t willing to concede enough on denuclearization.

Trump had refused Kim’s request that the U.S. start easing sanctions immediately in exchange for only a partial destruction of Pyongyang’s nuclear program, officials said at the time.

“We should have learned from Hanoi that maximum pressure is achieving an effect, because it’s the one demand that Kim Jong Un has made,” said Maxwell, who formerly served on the United States Forces Korea planning staff. “He doesn’t care about an end of war declaration, exchange of liaisons. He wants sanctions lifted.”

So what has changed? Rather than leaning in further to peace and denuclearization efforts since Hanoi, North Korea has been leaning away. Hours before Trump’s tweet on the sanctions, North Korea said it was withdrawing from its joint liaison office with South Korea, a decision that Seoul called “regrettable.”

And not only has the North not dismantled its nuclear sites, but only two days after the Hanoi summit collapsed, the country started pursuing the “rapid rebuilding” of the long-range rocket site at Sohae Launch Facility, NBC News reported in early March, in a sign that North Korea was in fact working to advance its intercontinental ballistic missiles program.

The key factor, according to the White House’s explanation, is Trump’s personal affection for the North Korean dictator, whom Trump’s own State Department accuses of gross human rights violations.

Trump’s willingness to give the benefit of the doubt to foreign leaders based on a personal bond has been on display before. In his dealings with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Philippine President Rodgrigo Duterte, Trump has relied on his own instincts and sense of a warm personal relationship rather than U.S. intelligence assessments or the advice of his top advisers.



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Get ready for Trump to spin the Mueller report

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By Jonathan Allen

WASHINGTON — Like any master showman, President Donald Trump surely knows the goods can’t stay hidden from the audience forever.

The Mueller Report will come out.

There’s pressure from Trump’s presidential rivals and from Congress — the House recently voted unanimously for its release. The president himself has said he favors putting it out. And there’s a long history of government documents, from the Pentagon Papers to the Iran/Contra report and the Starr report, making their way into the public domain through authorized release, congressional dump and just plain old leaking.

Like Trump himself said, that might be exactly what he wants.

If he’s exonerated, he’ll be the first to shout “NO COLLUSION!” from the Twitter mountaintops and from campaign rallies in the valleys of the Midwest.

“Without an indictment against him, Trump is going to hammer home the waste of time, taxpayer money and resources to prove that he was right all along and that he did nothing wrong,” said Ron Bonjean, a veteran Republican strategist who helped shepherd Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch through the Senate confirmation process.

Download the NBC News mobile app for breaking news alerts and full coverage of the Mueller report.

Trump may do that even if the report casts brutal aspersions on his activities and those of his family and friends — or if it delivers a mixed bag of reasons that special counsel Robert Mueller declined to prosecute certain individuals in the Trump orbit.

After all, Trump’s no stranger to spin.

The bottom line for him, and for GOP voters, is that Mueller didn’t file charges against him.

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Mueller submits report on Trump investigation to AG Barr, no new charges

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By Dareh Gregorian and Julia Ainsley

Special counsel Robert Mueller on Friday wrapped up his nearly two-year investigation into Donald Trump and Russia and sent his report to Attorney General William Barr.

No details of Mueller’s findings have been released, but Barr said he may be able to brief congressional leaders on the report as soon as this weekend.

“I am reviewing this report and anticipate that I may be in a position to advise you of the Special Counsel’s principal conclusions as soon as this weekend,” Barr wrote in a letter on Friday to a group of lawmakers on the House and Senate judiciary committees.

Barr also said in his letter that he was required to inform congressional leaders if Mueller — whom Trump has relentlessly attacked as conducting a “witch hunt” — had proposed anything “inappropriate or unwarranted” as part of the probe.

“There were no such instances during the Special Counsel’s investigation,” the attorney general said, adding that he would determine how much of the report could eventually be released to Congress and the public.

Trump’s outside lawyers, Rudy Giuliani and Jay Sekulow, issued a statement saying, “We’re pleased that the Office of Special Counsel has delivered its report to the Attorney General pursuant to the regulations. Attorney General Barr will determine the appropriate next steps.”

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said, “We’re pleased that the Office of Special Counsel has delivered its report to the Attorney General pursuant to the regulations. Attorney General Barr will determine the appropriate next steps.” In a tweet, she said that the White House had not seen the report.

The transmission of the report to Barr concludes an investigation that has resulted in the indictments of 34 people, infuriated the president and thrown the administration into turmoil.

The Mueller report was delivered in person to the attorney general’s office earlier Friday afternoon, before 4 p.m. At 4:30 pm, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein called Mueller and thanked him for his work.

Minutes later, Barr’s chief of staff called Emmett Flood, a White House lawyer, and read him the letter they were sending to Congress. The relevant committees in Congress all got the Mueller report at the same time, promptly at 5 pm.

The long-awaited end to the probe comes almost two years after Mueller was appointed by Rosenstein to investigate “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump” and “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.”

To date, almost three dozen people and three companies have been criminally charged in the sprawling probe, including Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn; former campaign chairman Paul Manafort; former political adviser Roger Stone; former personal lawyer Michael Cohen; and numerous Russian nationals. There have been a number of guilty pleas and convictions — but none of the charges have directly accused anyone in Trump’s orbit of conspiring with the Russian intelligence operation to help Trump get elected in 2016.

There will be no more indictments now that the probe is concluded, NBC News has learned.

It’s unclear how detailed Mueller’s report is, or when his conclusions may become public. According to Justice Department guidelines, his confidential report to the attorney general is supposed to explain “the prosecution or declination decisions reached by the special counsel.”

Download the NBC News mobile app for breaking news alerts and full coverage of the Mueller report.

The attorney general is required to report Mueller’s findings to Congress “with an outline of the actions and the reasons for them,” the guidelines say, but it’s unclear how long that may take.

As the Mueller investigation picked up steam and various Trump associates were charged, the president increasingly went on the offensive, blasting it as a “witch hunt” and “a hoax,” calling Mueller’s investigators “angry Democrats” and singling out some who’d worked on the case. He labeled Cohen “a rat” for cooperating with investigators.

Trump refused to sit for an interview with Mueller — his lawyers said they were concerned about a “perjury trap” — but he did submit written responses to Mueller’s questions in November.

Mueller was appointed special counsel on May 17, 2017 — eight days after Trump fired James Comey as FBI director. Comey had been leading the investigation into Russian meddling and any possible Trump campaign involvement. The president initially said he’d canned Comey at the urging of Rosenstein and then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, but later told NBC “Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt it was his decision, and cited his frustration with the Russia probe.

“And in fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won,” Trump told Holt.

That fueled law-enforcement concerns that Trump was trying to obstruct the investigation — worries that were heightened a day after the firing, when he hosted two Russian diplomats in the Oval Office.

“I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Trump told them, according to The New York Times. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

Those and other actions taken by the president since the probe began led Mueller to investigate whether Trump was trying to obstruct justice in the case, sources have told NBC News.

The FBI probe into the campaign’s alleged Russia ties started in July 2016 after a little-known Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, told an Australian diplomat that the Russians had obtained thousands of emails that would embarrass Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. The Australian government passed that information on to the FBI after hacked Democratic National Committee emails were posted online.

That wouldn’t be the only hack. Russian cybercriminals targeted Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails, U.S. intelligence officials found. They were released online just hours after the “Access Hollywood” scandal threatened to sink Trump’s campaign.

Adding to investigators’ suspicions was Trump’s often-abrasive deference to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who he repeatedly praised as “tough” and “strong.” He was also dismissive of U.S. findings that Russia was behind the cybercrimes, noting, “It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?”

Trump initially denied that he and his campaign had anything to do with any Russians — claims that have since fallen apart.

Flynn had sat with Putin at a dinner in Moscow in 2015, and would be fired from his job as national security adviser for misleading Vice President Mike Pence about the content of his conversations with a Russian diplomat. Cohen and Trump associate Felix Sater were in talks during the campaign to develop a Trump Tower in Moscow, which would reportedly come complete with a multimillion-dollar apartment for Putin. The president’s son Donald Trump Jr. set up a meeting at Trump Tower with a Russian entourage after they offered unspecified “dirt” on Clinton’s campaign courtesy of the Kremlin.

“If it’s what you say I love it,” Trump Jr. said in accepting the meeting, which would include Manafort and Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner.

Tom Winter contributed.

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