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This story was originally published by The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON — “Do we love law enforcement or what?” President Donald Trump asked a cheering crowd during his “Make America Great Again” political rally Oct. 12 in Lebanon, Ohio.

“Thank you, law enforcement!” the president later told officers, who he called “heroes.”

But when Lebanon City Hall sent Trump’s campaign a $16,191 invoice for police and other public safety costs associated with his event, Trump didn’t respond. Trump’s campaign likewise ignored Lebanon officials’ follow-up reminders to cover the sum — one rich enough to fund the entire police force for nearly two days in this modest city of 21,000, between Dayton and Cincinnati.

The bill remains unpaid.

“There’s a lot of benefit when a president comes here: economic benefits, more visibility for our community,” Lebanon Mayor Amy Brewer said. “But I would hope and believe the Trump campaign would pay its bills. It’s our taxpayer dollars.”

Click here to read the Center for Public Integrity’s version of this story.

The red ink Trump poured on Lebanon’s thin blue line is no anomaly.

President Donald Trump gives the thumbs-up as he poses with local law enforcement officers before boarding Air Force One at Palm Beach International Airport in Florida on April 22, 2018.Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP file

At least nine other city governments — from Mesa, Arizona, to Erie, Pennsylvania — are still waiting for Trump to pay public safety-related invoices they’ve sent his presidential campaign committee in connection with his political rallies, according to interviews with local officials and municipal records obtained by the Center for Public Integrity.

Some invoices are three years old. In all, city governments say Trump’s campaign owes them at least $841,219.

Must Trump pay?

That depends on who you ask. The cities are adamant Trump should pay up. But in many of these cases, there are no signed contracts between the municipal governments and the Trump campaign. The cities dispatched police officers to secure Trump’s events because they believe public safety required it — and the U.S. Secret Service asked for it.

Reached for comment, Trump campaign Director of Operations Sean Dollman referred questions to the campaign’s communications staff, which did not respond to numerous requests.

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Ballroom dancers say Trump immigration clampdown hurts business



ORANGE, Conn. — When no Americans replied to her multiple help-wanted ads for a dance instructor, Connecticut studio owner Chris Sabourin looked overseas for a qualified candidate. But she was stymied again by a federal tightening of visa application rules that she and others contend is hampering the ballroom dance industry.

Sabourin had to eventually give up on one prospective employee after spending the past year and thousands of dollars attempting to hire a top ballroom dancer from Greece to teach at her Fred Astaire studio in Orange, only to have the woman detained at JFK International Airport and sent back home.

“It would just be nice to know why we’re having such a hard time,” Sabourin said. “It’s affecting our business, definitely.”

With a steady interest in learning iconic dances like the foxtrot and tango, fueled in part by popular TV shows like “Dancing with the Stars,” studio owners like Sabourin say their efforts to hire enough professional instructors are hampered without overseas help.

The owners, national representatives of the Arthur Murray and Fred Astaire dance studio chains, and attorneys describe greater backlogs for visa applications and an overall increase in evidence requests, including for redundant information and unnecessary documents.

Immigration lawyers contend President Donald Trump’s administration has erected an “invisible wall” of numerous hurdles that has made it difficult for all kinds of U.S. industries, from ballroom dance to STEM fields, to hire foreign workers for jobs they’ve had a difficult time filling with qualified American applicants.

A review of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) data released in January by the American Immigration Lawyers Association found that average case processing time surged by 46 percent between fiscal year 2016, the last full year of the prior administration, and fiscal year 2018 — from 6.5 months to 9.48 months.

In congressional testimony provided in July, the association’s president, Marketa Lindt, said USCIS’s overall backlog of delayed cases exceeded 5.69 million this past fiscal year, a 69% increase over fiscal year 2014. Meanwhile, federal records reviewed by The Associated Press show there’s been a slight uptick since 2017 in initial application denials for 01 visa applications from individuals with “extraordinary ability or achievement” — the visa that many of the foreign dancers seek — as well as for 01 visa applicants who were given a second chance to meet eligibility requirements.

Representatives of the dance industry say they’ve seen the processing times for these non-immigrant visas, which allow the dancers to work in the U.S. for up to three years, increase from multiple weeks to multiple months, with uncertainty the application will ultimately be approved. In one case, a professional dancer approved for his visa to work at a dance studio in Southbury, Connecticut, was later denied at the American consulate in his home country of Ecuador, one of the last steps in the process.

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“I think these particular professionals, these artists, are falling into this area where USCIS and immigration services are just making it increasingly difficult to come here legally,” said Hartford, Connecticut, immigration attorney Erin O’Neil-Baker, who is currently representing about 10 New England dance studios sponsoring foreign, professional ballroom dancers. “Even if you’re an expert in your field, even if you have extraordinary ability, to stay here, they make it difficult.”

Immigration attorneys point to the “Buy American and Hire American” executive order Trump signed in April 2017 as one reason for processing delays. The order was intended to create higher wages and employment rates for U.S. workers by “rigorously enforcing and administering” the nation’s existing immigration laws.

“Across the board, across all types of applications at USCIS, we have observed a significant uptick in the increase in case processing time,” said Diane Rish, associate director of government relations for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, which warned in its report that processing delays have reached “crisis levels under the Trump administration” for families, individuals and businesses.

The Government Accountability Office told members of Congress in late May it plans to investigate the report’s findings.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., a think tank that supports tighter controls on immigration, said he empathizes with the small business owners and their challenges, but argues they shouldn’t be blaming federal immigration policy for their labor recruitment problems.

“It’s one thing if you’re talking about world-renowned nuclear physicists, where there’s a handful of people on the planet who have an ability and we want them here. Everybody gets that,” he said. “Dance instructors? I’m sorry. That’s something for the market to deal with. If they can’t find people at dance programs in college to entice to be teachers, well, maybe we need fewer dance schools. This is a supply and demand issue.”

Krikorian noted the Trump administration is not making up new rules, but applying existing law as it was intended, “instead of winking and nodding and looking the other way, which is what multiple administrations have been doing for decades.”

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of State said there has “been no policy change” regarding the 01 visas specifically.

But there are concerns the tightening of rules could have long-term ramifications. Michael Wildes, an immigration attorney for First Lady Melania Trump and her family, noted in an op-ed published several months ago in The Hill that immigration lawyers for fashion designers, models and photographers have also “experienced an unprecedented level of push-back from immigration authorities.” He warned there could be “widespread disenfranchisement” among talented and creative people, who decide to forgo the U.S. and opt for Paris or Beijing.

Dance studio owners said the lengthy delays and red tape can be discouraging for their prospective instructors, leading them to give up on plans to work in the U.S.

“They can’t wait that long,” said John Gates, vice president of the Fred Astaire Dance Studios.

Many of the dancers come from Europe, where it’s more common to learn ballroom dance at a very young age — with hundreds of kids in group classes — and to compete at much higher levels than in the U.S. There’s also a desire among foreign dancers who’ve aged out of European competitions in their early 20s to come to the U.S. for the opportunity to keep competing, as well as to teach, and have a very successful career in a country where there are fewer professional ballroom dancers.

Jose Zuquilanda, a 23-year-old ballroom dancer from Ecuador who has competed throughout the world, including in the U.S., had hoped to spend the next few years competing, training, teaching dance and learning how to run a business at a Fred Astaire studio in Southbury, Connecticut. Zuquilanda, who has visited the U.S. dozens of times on tourist visas, successfully obtained an 01 visa for professionals so he could work here legally. But he was recently denied both the 01 and his tourist visa at the American consulate in Ecuador. His mother, Liliana Serrano, who lives in Connecticut, doesn’t understand why her son’s application was ultimately denied.

“They are not only harming his career, they’re harming the Fred Astaire studio,” she said.

Sabourin estimates her studio could generate another $100,000 a year if she could find two more instructors, especially a female dancer to work with the male clients she’s had to turn away, some of whom want to train for amateur competitions.

“The government figures there’s enough Americans to hire,” she said. “Of course, the people that are making those decisions don’t know the different between tap, jazz, ballet and ballroom, but whatever.”

Wayne Smith, executive vice president of Arthur Murray Dance Centers, has been in the ballroom dance business for nearly 50 years. He said the immigration challenges have worsened in the last couple years for his company’s dance studio owners as well.

“This is all the time, currently now. It’s just become a very difficult problem,” said Smith, who said it can be financially challenging for these business owners to afford to hire attorneys who understand the immigration law. “For them to invest that kind of money into it, it’s not really worth it to them in the long run.”

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Trump administration quietly releases Lebanon military aid after mysterious delay



WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has quietly released more than $100 million in military assistance to Lebanon after months of unexplained delay that led some lawmakers to compare it to the aid for Ukraine at the center of the impeachment inquiry.

The $105 million in Foreign Military Financing funds for the Lebanese Armed Forces was released just before the Thanksgiving holiday and lawmakers were notified of the step on Monday, according to two congressional staffers and an administration official.

All three spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly to the matter.

The money had languished in limbo at the Office of Management and Budget since September although it had already won congressional approval and had overwhelming support from the Pentagon, State Department and National Security Council. The White House has yet to offer any explanation for the delay despite repeated queries from Congress.

Lawmakers such as Rep. Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., had pressed the administration since October to either release the funds or explain why it was being withheld. The State Department had notified Congress on Sept. 5 that the money would be spent.

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Earlier this month, the delay came up in impeachment testimony by David Hale, the No. 3 official in the State Department, according to the transcript of the closed-door hearing. Hale described growing consternation among diplomats about the delay.

The White House and the Office of Management and Budget have declined to comment on the matter. The State Department had offered only a cryptic response to queries, defending the assistance but also calling for Lebanese authorities to implement economic reforms and rein in corruption.

As with the Ukraine assistance, OMB did not explain the delay. However, unlike Ukraine, there has been no suggestion that President Donald Trump is seeking “a favor” from Lebanon in exchange for the aid, according to officials familiar with the matter.

The delay had frustrated the national security community, which believes the assistance that pays for U.S.-made military equipment for the Lebanese army is essential, particularly as Lebanon reels from financial chaos and mass protests.

The aid is intended to help counter Iran’s influence in Lebanon, which is highlighted by the presence of the Iranian-supported Shiite Hezbollah movement in the government and the group’s militias, officials have said.

Murphy, asked about the hold up Monday afternoon in an interview on MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports,” said it became apparent to him upon a recent visit to Lebanon that the Lebanese military “badly needs” the aid appropriated by Congress.

“I went to Lebanon to see how badly needed that aid is on the ground. I’ve returned back to Congress to work with my Democratic and Republican colleagues to press the administration to at least explain to us why they have withheld that aid. They have offered no reason,” Murphy said.

At the time of that interview, he had not been told the money had been released.

Murphy described the Trump administration’s withholding of aid as “eerily similar” to the situation in Ukraine.

Some pro-Israel members of Congress have long sought to de-fund the Lebanese military, arguing that it has been compromised by Hezbollah, which the U.S. designates as a “foreign terrorist organization.” Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has long advocated cutting the assistance and is expected to introduce legislation that would bar such aid as long as Hezbollah is part of Lebanon’s government.

The Pentagon and State Department reject that view, saying the army is the only independent Lebanese institution capable of resisting Hezbollah.

Elizabeth Janowski contributed.

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GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter, after claiming ‘witch hunt,’ to plead guilty to misusing campaign funds



U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter says he will plead guilty to misusing campaign funds — a criminal case he’d once decried as a politically motivated “witch hunt.”

The Republican lawmaker will formally enter his guilty plea in a hearing in federal court in San Diego on Tuesday morning, his court docket shows.

In an interview with KUSI News, Hunter said he would plead guilty to one count of misusing campaign funds in the case.

“I did make mistakes. I did not properly monitor or account for my campaign money,” he said. “I am responsible for my campaign and what happens to my campaign money.”

The change of plea was first reported by the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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Prosecutors had charged Hunter and his wife “converted and stole” more than a quarter million dollars in campaign funds for their own use, including trips to Hawaii and Italy, bar tabs, theater tickets and school tuition for their kids. Prosecutors have also charged that Hunter used campaign money to finance romantic flings with lobbyists and congressional aides.

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Both Hunters pleaded not guilty last year, but the Republican congressman and Iraq war vet appeared to blame his spouse for their problems in an interview on Fox News soon after.

“When I went away to Iraq in 2003, the first time, I gave her power of attorney. She handled my finances throughout my entire military career and that continued on when I got into Congress,” Hunter said on “The Story.”

“She was also the campaign manager, so whatever she did, that’ll be looked at, too, I’m sure, but I didn’t do it.”

Hunter’s wife, Margaret, pleaded guilty to conspiring to misuse campaign funds in June, and was expected to testify against her husband at his trial, which had been scheduled for Jan. 22.

“I think it’s important not to have a public trial for three reasons, and those three reasons are my kids,” Duncan Hunter said in the KUSI interview.

He said he did not know how much time he’ll get from the judge, but added, “Whatever my time in custody is, I will take that hit. My only hope is the judge does not sentence my wife to jail. I think my kids need a mom at home.”

Hunter is a staunch ally of President Donald Trump, and was the second sitting member of Congress to endorse his 2016 presidential campaign.

The first, Rep. Chris Collins of New York, pleaded guilty last month to federal charges related to insider trading and resigned his seat. Like Hunter, he had taken a page from the Trump playbook and said the investigation into his actions was “a political witch hunt.”

Hunter, who’d been running for re-election next year, was vague when asked what would happen with his seat.

“We’re going to pass it off to whoever takes the seat next. I think it’s important to keep the seat a Republican seat,” he said. “President Trump right now needs support more than ever.”

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