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Politics

Orrin Hatch Prepares for His Senate Exit

By Niels Lesniewski
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The FBI faced a dilemma and had to take “extraordinary” actions when it realized in 2017 that the former director of security for the Senate Intelligence Committee appeared compromised in his role safeguarding information and had a clandestine relationship with a national security journalist.

Had James Wolfe been an executive branch employee, the FBI would have notified intelligence agencies if a Top Secret clearance holder was compromised so they could protect national security, federal prosecutors wrote in a court filing Tuesday.

But because of Wolfe’s role and the potential disruption to the congressional oversight process, the FBI determined it first would conduct an additional investigation and monitoring of Wolfe’s activities.

And FBI executive leadership took “the extraordinary mitigating step” of limiting its initial notification to committee Chairman Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., and ranking member Mark Warner, D-Va.

“Had this delicate balance not been achieved,” prosecutors wrote, it could have disrupted information flow from the intelligence community to the committee and caused “an untenable degradation of national security oversight.”

The Justice Department revealed those and other details of its probe into Wolfe’s handling of nonpublic information Tuesday in the court filing, where they argued he should face two years in prison, in part because he abused the trust of the legislative branch to safeguard information.

“He abused that trust by using his position to cultivate relationships with reporters, employing encrypted communications, and offering to serve as a confidential source,” prosecutors wrote. “Wolfe then lied, and lied persistently, about his actions and his relationships to the FBI agents who were investigating an unauthorized disclosure of classified information.”

A sentencing hearing for Wolfe on a charge of lying to the FBI is set for a Washington courtroom on Dec. 20 — a year after Wolfe left his job — and he plans to address the judge.

Attorneys for Wolfe, who was a committee aide for nearly 30 years, filed a sentencing memo Tuesday that sought probation and community service. He shared only limited, unclassified information about committee matters and has already paid a heavy price for his conduct, the attorneys argue.

“He lost his job and career, he betrayed his commitment to his wife and family and country, and he has been the subject of numerous articles falsely damning him for purportedly betraying his responsibilities regarding Classified Information,” Wolfe’s attorneys wrote.

Wolfe leans in part on a letter from Burr, Warner and former committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who asked the judge for leniency and said they don’t believe a prison sentence would do any public good.

“Like many others, we were surprised and disappointed when we learned of the allegations against Jim as they were totally out of character for someone who we considered a friend and had provided thoughtful support to the Committee’s membership and staff for so long,” the senators wrote.

The senators added that to the extent there was disclosure of nonpublic information, “it was of information considered Committee Sensitive, and the most severe punishment for such action has already, effectively, been imposed.”

Wolfe pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in October because he denied having contacts with reporters who wrote about a secret surveillance court and his “close personal relationship” with a reporter that started when she was an intern in 2013 and included tens of thousands of text messages and other communications.

Wolfe was responsible for helping to enforce committee rules that restricted contacts with the media as well as care and protection of classified information in the Capitol, the DOJ said in its memo.

The FBI launched the probe in April 2017 when classified national security information about surveillance of former Trump campaign aide Carter Page appeared in a news article. But DOJ said it expanded once agents realized it needed to investigate whether Wolfe had disseminated classified information.

Even as agents were delving into his actions, Wolfe began communicating with two new national security reporters in late 2017 through an encrypted service called Signal, the Justice Department wrote.

The Justice Department pointed to Wolfe’s role with members of Congress as part of its reasons for asking for the two-year sentence.

“Having served in this trusted capacity for nearly three decades — virtually his entire professional career — Wolfe was relied upon to ensure that classified national security information furnished to the SSCI by the Executive Branch was adequately protected,” prosecutors said.

Watch: Burr on Russia Investigation: 'We've Gotta Do It on Facts'

 

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ANALYSIS | Vice President Mike Pence looked taken aback, barely moving and saying nothing as President Donald Trump and the top congressional leaders bickered and moved the country — with each insult and barb — closer to a partial holiday season government shutdown.

The former GOP congressman’s statuesque performance was a contrast to the kinetic scene unfolding around him, another made-for-television moment that allowed the bombastic GOP president to pick a fight with the two Democrats perhaps most reviled by his conservative base on live cable TV.

Trump’s Oval Office meeting with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., was initially scheduled to be private. However, the president — a former reality television star and executive producer — had other ideas. He summoned the small group of journalists in the day’s press pool to watch the negotiation — such as it was — live.

[Politically Wounded Trump Complicates Border Talks With Pelosi, Schumer]

The GOP president started with his usual border wall sales pitch, including several false and partially false statements. He jabbed at the Democratic leaders. And they were willing — even eager at times — to take the bait as Pelosi, according to an aide in the room, told members of her caucus once back at the Capitol: “It was so wild. It goes to show you: You get into a tinkle contest with a skunk, you get tinkle all over you.” Here are three takeaways from the incredible Oval Office border brawl.

Presidents and congressional leaders of different political parties typically try to pass blame for government shutdowns onto each other. Not Trump during a meeting several sources used the same word to describe: “incredible.” The president preemptively took ownership over the possible closure of the Homeland Security Department and a handful of other federal entities unless a deal is reached by 11:59 p.m., EDT, on Dec. 21.

“I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck, because the people of this country don’t want criminals and people that have lots of problems and drugs pouring into our country. So I will take the mantle,” Trump said. “I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you for it. The last time you shut it down, it didn’t work. I will take the mantle of shutting down.”

Pelosi later told the group of House Democrats that getting that vow from Trump was “an accomplishment.” She also could not help but jab Trump where it might hurt. “It’s like a manhood thing for him. As if manhood could ever be associated with him. This wall thing,” she said, according to the aide. 

One former GOP congressional aide responded by saying, “Schumer got what he needed: On any partial shutdown, POTUS is willing to take the heat.”

Those who have watched Trump closely know he often pivots toward his conservative base when he senses political trouble. He did so again on Tuesday, first with a series of tweets ahead of the meeting making the case for the border barrier then repeatedly in the Oval Office as the sparks flew.

“When you look at what happened with the caravans, with the people, with a lot of — we shut it down; we had no choice. We shut it down. But it could be a lot easier if we had real border security,” Trump said at one point, returning to his midterm campaign-trail rhetoric. He also landed a few body shots on Schumer, another native of New York City’s tough-talking outer boroughs, like this one: “The last time you shut it down you got killed.”

“Every time this president senses trouble — and I mean with the special counsel investigation and everything with [former personal attorney] Michael Cohen and all that — he does things like this that rev up his base,” said Elaine Kamarck, a former Clinton White House official now with the Brookings Institution. “This was him going back to his comfort zone.”

But the Democratic leaders also landed plenty of shots on the president.

[Seven VP Candidates if Trump Dumps Pence for 2020 Re-Election Fight]

Here’s one from Schumer: “The Washington Post today gave you a whole lot of Pinocchios because they say you constantly misstate ... how much of the wall is built, and how much is there.”

And Pelosi: “Mr. President, please don’t characterize the strength that I bring to this meeting as the leader of the House Democrats, who just won a big victory,” which prompted Schumer to come in like a professional wrestling tag team partner rushing through the ropes to further soften an opponent: “Elections have consequences, Mr. President.”

No, not Mitch Williams, the hard-throwing 1990s MLB relief pitcher best known for his time with the Philadelphia Phillies. But one Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who has helped broker several shutdown-averting or -ending deals over the last decade.

Tuesday’s West Wing dramatics likely won’t change how the border wall talks go over the next 10 days, Kamarck said. That’s because “it was always going to be McConnell who cuts this deal.”

“I expect it will be McConnell and Schumer who eventually get together and figure this out,” she said. “The adults will figure this out, then it’ll be up to McConnell to go convince the president to go along with it. … He’ll be the one who’ll have to explain to the president that a shutdown would be worse for us (Republicans) than it would be for the Democrats.”

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.

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The campaign finance issues looming around Rep.-elect Ross Spano, R-Fla., have grown more troublesome in recent days with new questions about the role of a longtime friend in funding his campaigns and hiring his new Congressional staff.

Spano has not been sworn into Congress yet, but already faces bipartisan calls for inquiries by the Federal Election Commission and the House Ethics Committee into how he funded his campaign to replace in Rep. Dennis A. Ross in the 15th District.

Spano acknowledged in a letter to federal regulators in November he may have violated campaign finance rules against straw donations by taking out $180,000 in loans from two benefactors and directing approximately the same amount to his campaign.

Spano accepted $75,000 from Cary Carreno — a businessman in utilities, longtime donor and a childhood friend — on Oct. 29, eight days before the election, and lent his campaign $70,000 the same day. 

Over the course of the campaign Carreno loaned Spano a total of $110,000, according to the letter.

Spano has blamed any lawbreaking on an error by his campaign treasurer, who denied she knew anything about the loans to the Tampa Bay Times.

“The only information I received was they were drawn from his personal account,” she said.

Carreno personally fired the treasurer, according to a recent Politico report. At the same time, Carreno’s company donated $11,000 to a super PAC aligned with the candidate called CIVIC.

A super PAC donor performing an action on behalf of a campaign such as firing the committee’s treasurer raises red flags, experts say. Under campaign finance law, candidates and their staffs cannot directly coordinate with super PACs.

Also, Carreno served as the treasurer, then deputy treasurer of Spano’s campaign committee during his first bid for a seat in the Florida statehouse in 2012 — a campaign that sourced 20 percent of its funding from personal loans — Florida Politics reported. The source of those loans remains uncertain.

Carreno has also been interviewing candidates to staff Spano’s congressional office, according to Politico. The possibility of impending legal troubles have reportedly spooked away would-be staffers. 

“He has not been involved in any official capacity in the DC hiring process, and there are no current plans to bring him on as a staff member,” Spano spokesman Sandi Poredo told the publication. 

Both Republicans and Democrats in the Florida Congressional delegation have endorsed an inquiry into Spano’s loans.

“There are FEC rules, there is an enforcement mechanism and if the FEC is going to do an investigation it should be done in a free and fair way,” Florida Republican Rep. Michael Waltz said in an interview with WFVT.

Watch: Border Babbling Continues Back at Capitol

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision to put himself on the farm bill conference committee was insurance that one of his policy priorities — and a key issue for his 2020 re-election campaign — would make it to President Donald Trump’s desk this year.

“At a time when farm income is down and growers are struggling, industrial hemp is a bright spot of agriculture’s future,” McConnell said Tuesday morning. “My provision in the Farm Bill will not only legalize domestic hemp, but it will also allow state departments of agriculture to be responsible for its oversight.”

The Senate then acted quickly to vote to adopt the conference report Tuesday afternoon, passing it 87-13. It now heads to the House, which could pass it as early as Wednesday and then send to Trump for his signature. 

When at home in Kentucky, McConnell has regularly visited hemp farmers and processing facilities, often stressing to critics that industrial hemp comes from a different plant from marijuana. His leadership role in securing legal status for the potentially lucrative cash crop is sure to come up over and over again.

“My being in the majority leader position is a real advantage to Kentucky. It gives us a chance to kind of punch above our weight,” McConnell said in an interview that aired over the weekend. “This opportunity for Kentucky produces things like the legalization of industrial hemp.”

“I’m in the middle of every discussion on every issue, looking for opportunities to help our state” he said. “I don’t think we ought to prematurely give that up because it only comes along occasionally. We had one other — Alben Barkley back in the 30s.”

Barkley, a Democrat, was the majority leader for about a decade, from the middle of 1937 all the way through World War II.

“This could be big,” McConnell said on WKYT in Lexington. “I don’t want to overstate this. We all know how important tobacco was to Kentucky a few years ago, but there’s excitement about hemp.”

“There’s hemp all over America right now. It’s all imported,” McConnell said. “There’s no reason by American farmers shouldn’t be able to grow this crop.”

The interview came before text of the farm bill conference agreement was released Monday night (which McConnell said on Twitter that he had signed with a hemp pen), but as reported last week, it was clear by the time the interview with the local CBS station was recorded that the conference would go his way.

And McConnell was clearly continuing to record more local interviews about the farm bill and the new hemp program.

The language would enable hemp growers to get access to crop insurance, and as for the regulatory environment, the agreement removes the plants from the controlled substances list, which McConnell said, “moves it out of the Justice Department, over to the Department of Agriculture.”

Kentucky has already run pilot programs, so the commonwealth farmers might have an early leg up over those in some other states.

“I don’t know how big this can become, but I know we’re ahead of everybody else. We’re not afraid of the competition,” McConnell said.

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Former Rep. Van Hilleary will head back to Capitol Hill next year, this time as chief of staff to Rep.-elect John W. Rose.

A member of the GOP class that swept to power in the 1994 election, Hilleary represented Tennessee’s 4th District between 1995 and 2003. He left office to run for Tennessee governor in 2002, but lost to Democrat Gov. Phil Bredesen. He ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2006.

“He will bring the Washington know-how to our team, but is not a Washington insider. He is my friend and I could not be more proud to have him on board. Together, we will work to bring the highest level of service to this office so the people I serve are represented in the fullest manner possible,” Rose said in a statement.

Hilleary came into Congress as one of the “Republican revolutionaries” of the GOP’s strongly conservative Class of 1994, which broke a 40-year Democratic hold on the House.

He is not the only former lawmaker turned staffer. Former Rep. Ron Barberwill return to serve as district director for Rep.-elect Ann Kirkpatrick. Barber held that position for Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a job he had when he was shot in the 2011 mass shooting that injured 12 others and killed six at a “Congress on Your Corner” event in Casas Adobes near Tucson. Giffords subsequently left the House, and Barber won a 2012 special election to fill her seat and re-election in the 2012 general election. He lost to Republican Martha McSally in 2014. 

And in 2004, after Republican Rep. Ed Schrock of Virginia did not run for re-election, he returned to the House as a staffer on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. 

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Politics

Senate Releases 2019 Legislative Calendar

By Niels Lesniewski
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Heard on the Hill

Farewell to George H.W. Bush

By Bill Clark
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