Most members of President Trump's Cabinet do not have senior leadership teams or top deputies in place amid historically slow nominating and hiring of White House appointees, "but they do have an influential coterie of senior aides installed by the White House who are charged — above all — with monitoring the secretaries' loyalty," The Washington Post reported Sunday, citing "eight officials in and outside the administration." The Post called the arrangement "unusual," and some of those political liaisons, called White House senior advisers, have apparently overstayed their welcome.
At the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, Don Benton — a former Washington state senator who ran Trump's campaign in the state — offered his unsolicited opinion on policy matters so frequently that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has reportedly disinvited him from meetings, in a situation one official described to The Post as out of an episode of Veep. Pentagon officials privately call Brett Byers, charged with keeping an eye on Defense Secretary James Mattis, "the commissar," The Post reports, helpfully explaining that the nickname is "a reference to Soviet-era Communist Party officials who were assigned to military units to ensure their commanders remained loyal."
Most of these political overseers, placed near the Cabinet secretary's office in every department, have little expertise in the subject matter handled at their assigned agencies — Frank Wuco at Homeland Security, for example, plays a fictional jihadist on YouTube to illustrate his blogged contention that Islam is the root of the terrorist threat — and some observers expect their influence to wane once the departments get staffed up. Also, some Cabinet secretaries have been more welcoming of their White House liaisons.
Trump allies argue that the arrangement is necessary for a new president from a different party — though none of Trump's three predecessors employed a similar system. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who still advises Trump, describes the political monitors as part of Trump's pledge to root out corruption in Washington — in this case, the "swamp" would be career bureaucrats and not, say, lobbyists. "If you drain the swamp, you better have someone who watches over the alligators," he said. "These people are actively trying to undermine the new government." You can read more, including what some experts see as the likely outcome of this system, at The Washington Post. Peter Weber
A Pennsylvania high school valedictorian had his microphone cut off in the middle of his speech when he began criticizing the school's "authoritative nature." Peter Butera received a standing ovation from fellow students when the principal ordered him off the stage for saying that administrators suppressed student expression. "Cutting the microphone," Butera said, "proved my point to be true."
At a dinner during the SkyBridge Alternatives (SALT) Conference last month, former Vice President Joe Biden reportedly ripped into financier Bill Ackman in a way that only Biden can. The scuffle between Biden and the man known for his losing bets on Herbalife stock apparently started after former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) asked Biden why he didn't run for president in 2016, Fox Business reported:
Biden explained that part of the decision stemmed from the death of his son Beau Biden, who died of brain cancer in 2015. The room grew quiet as Biden became emotional, and said: "I'm sorry ... I've said enough."
That's when Ackman blurted out, "Why? That's never stopped you before."
The formal, and understated, dinner conversation suddenly turned tense, according three people who were present and confirmed both the substance and the wording of Biden's responses.
Biden, these people say, turned to someone seated near him, and asked, "Who is this asshole?," a reference to Ackman.
Then he turned directly to Ackman and stated: "Look, I don't know who you are, wiseass, but never disrespect the memory of my dead son!" these people say.
Ackman attempted what was described as an apology, to which Biden said, "Just shut the hell up." [Fox Business]
Attendees — including talk show host Steve Harvey, 60 Minutes reporter Lara Logan, and former Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou — were apparently "stunned" by the exchange. "Biden was in rare form," a person with "direct knowledge" of the incident told Fox Business.
Biden's spokeswoman declined to comment, though she did not deny the incident. Ackman's spokesman denied there was an argument between Biden and Ackman, though he did not dispute the words that were reportedly exchanged. Becca Stanek
CNN has a new weapon in the ongoing war between the media and the White House: a court room sketch artist.
On Friday, the press was banned from bringing cameras into the daily briefing with White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, so CNN sent its sketch artist, Bill Hennessy, to illustrate the scene. "Some conservative media voices dismissed it as a stunt," CNN writes, "but CNN argued that the sketch session did serve a journalistic purpose, in the same way that courtroom sketches do. CNN equated the briefing to a Supreme Court argument — an on-the-record event at which cameras are banned."
The White House hasn't been clear about why it is increasingly banning cameras from the briefings — Spicer said it's because he doesn't want reporters using the briefings to become YouTube stars (?), while White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon alleged it's because Spicer "got fatter" (??).
— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) June 23, 2017
A Pennsylvania radio host resigned after his bosses ordered him to stop criticizing President Trump. WTPA's Bruce Bond said his general manager told him "it is not permissible on WTPA airwaves to talk disrespectfully of the president," and that angry listeners had threatened "advertiser boycotts." Bond chose to quit, saying he couldn't "walk on eggshells" every time politics or Trump came up.
On Friday, a fifth Republican came out against the Senate's version of the GOP health-care bill. Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) said that "in this form," he would "not support" the Senate plan to repeal and replace ObamaCare. "There isn't anything in this bill that would lower premiums," Heller said, calling claims otherwise a "lie."
Four other Republicans — Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.), Mike Lee (Utah), Ted Cruz (Texas), and Ron Johnson (Wis.) — announced they would not support the bill shortly after it was unveiled Thursday. The bill, dubbed the "Better Care Reconciliation Act," proposes slashing Medicaid, eliminates ObamaCare's individual mandate, and allows states to waive some previously required benefits.
The GOP can only withstand two defections and still pass the bill. A vote is expected next week. Becca Stanek
The Senate Judiciary Committee announced Friday that it is expanding its probe into Russia's influence over the 2016 election to include an investigation of the firing of FBI Director James Comey and, by extension, former President Barack Obama's attorney general, Loretta Lynch, and her "alleged political interference," CBS News reports.
The committee is interested in a New York Times article from April that cited a hacked Russian intelligence memo that quoted a Democratic operative as "express[ing] confidence that Ms. Lynch would keep the [investigation into Hillary Clinton's private email server] from going too far." Many U.S. intelligence officials, including the FBI, believe the memo is unreliable or an outright fake.
"Still, the document, according to The Washington Post, factored into then-FBI Director James Comey's controversial decision to publicly announce the end of the Clinton email investigation — without discussing it in advance with Lynch," CBS News writes. And in his letter to President Trump recommending the firing of Comey, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein wrote that Comey "was wrong to usurp [Lynch's] authority on July 5, 2016, and announce his conclusion that the case should be closed without prosecution. It is not the function of the director to make such an announcement."
The Senate Judiciary Committee letter announcing the new probe was signed by Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) as well as Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). Jeva Lange
Americans are twice as likely to believe former FBI Director James Comey over President Trump, a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Friday found. Forty-five percent of Americans say they are likelier to believe Comey's version of his encounters with Trump regarding the Russia probe, while 22 percent said they're more likely to believe Trump's. Another 21 percent said they believed neither Trump nor Comey, and 8 percent said they believed both men.
Trump has vehemently denied details of Comey's testimony under oath before the Senate Intelligence Committee, including Comey's claims that Trump asked for a pledge of loyalty and pushed Comey to drop the investigation into ousted National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
Opinions about who to believe were starkly divided along party lines. A mere 2 percent of Democrats said they'd believe Trump over Comey, while 76 percent said they'd believe Comey over Trump. While Trump earned significantly more trust than Comey from his fellow Republicans, only 50 percent said they were more likely to believe the president's version of events. Just 10 percent of Republicans said they'd be more likely to believe Comey.
The poll was taken from June 17-20 among 900 adults, and its margin of error is plus or minus 3.3. percentage points. Becca Stanek