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Kushner’s legal team looks to hire crisis public relations firm

The Free Press WV

Senior White House official Jared Kushner and his legal team are searching for a crisis public relations firm, according to four people familiar with the matter.

Kushner’s lawyer, Abbe Lowell, has quietly called at least two firms, these people said. The inquiries have occurred in the past two weeks and officials at the firms were asked not to discuss the conversations with others.

In a statement, Lowell confirmed he was looking for a firm that would handle media for all high-profile clients that receive attention from the press. His other clients include Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat whose months-long corruption trial ended last month when jurors deadlocked. The Justice Department has not announced whether it plans to retry him.

Lowell said “this inquiry” from The Washington Post is a prime example of why such a firm, which he has yet to hire, is needed.

Investigators for special counsel Robert Mueller have asked witnesses questions about Kushner’s interactions with former national security adviser Michael Flynn as part of his larger investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, according to people familiar with the investigation. Kushner has been identified by people familiar with his role as the “very senior member” of the Trump transition team who directed Flynn in December to reach out to the Russian ambassador and lobby him about a United Nations resolution on Israeli settlements, according to court documents. Federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York have also subpoenaed documents about his family company’s use of the EB-5 visa program at a planned Jersey City development.

Crisis PR firms are often retained to handle a negative development or an avalanche of media inquiries. Kushner has been in the headlines almost daily and he has complained to friends about the nonstop negative attention from the news media. White House officials have speculated for months that Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, would return to New York, but he has told associates over the last month that he plans to stay.

At least one firm, Mercury Public Affairs, passed up the opportunity to work with Kushner’s team, people familiar with the discussions said. Mercury’s lobbying work has also come under scrutiny by Mueller, which could have complicated its ability to represent Kushner.

Michael McKeon, a partner at Mercury, declined to comment. The firm, which has not been accused of wrongdoing by Mueller’s team, has said it is cooperating with investigators.

Kushner is largely represented in the White House by Josh Raffel, who joined the administration earlier this year to handle media inquiries for the Office of American Innovation, which Kushner leads.

Make no mistake – Trumpism is Bannonism

The Free Press WV

The new shtick in GOP circles is to applaud Roy Moore’s loss and vilify Steve Bannon as a threat to conservatism. I get that, but why do many of these same people still back President Donald Trump?

After all, Bannonism – the “philosophy” that Trump ran on and adopted – is a toxic brew of anti-government nihilism, protectionism, America First-ism, white nationalism, evangelical grievance-mongering, Russian bootlicking and seething hatred of the media. There’s little to no difference between that and the daily tweets of Trump or the programming on Fox News, which dutifully carries Trump’s water.

It’s frankly baffling that Republicans could take comfort in Moore’s defeat and Bannon’s embarrassment and yet still enthusiastically defend Trump.

Now it is true that Trump has something Bannon does not, namely an absolute indifference to the economic populism on which the Trump campaign ran. Bannon was content to raise taxes on the rich, opposed beginning the agenda with repeal of the Affordable Care Act and loathed the small-government mentality embodied in House Speaker Paul Ryan’s agenda.

Trump, having no real views or empathy for others, is happy to pursue supply-side economics on stilts. His inner circle consists of clueless millionaires and billionaires (the sort who pose with a sheet of dollar bills) who reinforce his selfish desire to diminish his own tax bills (with elimination of the alternative minimum tax, the 25 percent pass-through rate and now the lower top marginal tax rate).

So is this the part of Trumpism – its sheer contempt for the middle class and poor – that leaves Republican pundits and lawmakers still defending Trump? On this one, Bannonism seems a bit less out-of-touch than the Trump-Ryan-Mnuchin economic approach.

Bannon’s “crime” in the right’s playbook was picking a lunatic for the Alabama Senate seat. But then again, Trump was no less reckless with the party’s fortunes when he attacked dissenting Republicans (Nevada Republican Dean Heller can likely wave goodbye to his seat after his embarrassing performance during the “Obamacare” repeal debacle) or embraced crackpots such as Kelli Ward in Arizona.

The natural inclination of Republicans is to treat Trump like a helpless victim at the mercy of the mercurial Bannon (not unlike the “SNL” parody sketch). In a written statement, Steven Law, president of the Senate Leadership Fund PAC, declared: “Not only did Steve Bannon cost us a critical Senate seat in one of the most Republican states in the country, but he also dragged the President of the United States into this fiasco.“

Dragged the president into this fiasco? Really? The president was counseled to stay out of the race but chose to plunge in, either out of orneriness, a desire to get credit for a win he expected or out of identification with the seething hatred of media elites. Bannon dragged him in?

As Trump critic Rick Wilson writes, “Wednesday’s walk backs, revisions, and memory-holing of Donald Trump’s full-throated endorsement of Roy Moore aren’t a coincidence, but no one’s falling for it. Donald Trump strongly and powerfully supported [Moore].“

And so those Republicans rejoicing in Bannon’s humiliation should remind themselves that Trump is every bit as toxic, politically reckless and arrogantly out-of-touch with democratic values and ideals as Bannon. In fact, Trump from the Oval Office poses a far greater danger to the GOP and the country. And listen, for all his faults Bannon – to our knowledge – at least has not been accused of serial sexual predation.

Maybe, Republicans, the problem isn’t Bannon.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Washington Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.

GOP finalizes tax plan, expands benefits for working families to win over Rubio

The Free Press WV

Congressional Republicans secured enough support Friday afternoon to pass their massive tax plan into law after two critical holdouts, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., signaled they would vote for it.

Rubio emerged as a final challenge in a complicated political puzzle that the White House and GOP leaders have been assembling for the past two months. His decision to vote for the package came after a standoff with Republican leaders that led to a last-minute expansion of the Child Tax Credit.

Corker’s support was unexpected, as he had voted against the measure two weeks ago and none of his demands about deficit reduction had been met. But he said in a statement that he believed the bill was a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” that, combined with changes to immigration and trade policy, would help the economy.

The support of Corker and Rubio virtually ensures that Republicans now have the votes they need to pass the measure through the Senate next week.

It would push into law a $1.5 trillion tax package that would affect almost every American family and business, which was mostly written by Republicans behind closed doors and with little debate in a way that shielded it from many attacks and amendments from Democrats.

Republicans thought they had finished crafting the tax bill on Thursday, but Rubio threatened to block the measure if more changes weren’t made to expand access to the Child Tax Credit for low and middle-income families.

Many of his colleagues were furious, but they relented and made changes overnight to expand the tax credit for millions of working families. On Friday afternoon, Rubio spokeswoman Olivia Cubas-Perez said he would vote for the bill.

Rubio, in a series of Twitter posts, called the planned expansion of the Child Tax Credit a “solid step toward broader reforms” that he wanted to continue working on in the months and years to come.

Under the plan, Americans will lose the personal exemptions that often dictate how much money is withheld from their paychecks. They will instead pay taxes through a new regime that exempts a higher level of income from taxation and then subjects much of the rest to lower tax rates. Many more Americans will have access to the Child Tax Credit, but they will also lose the ability to deduct large amounts of state income and local property taxes. On net, Republicans believe the changes will lower most people’s taxes. But there will be many Americans who see their taxes go up, particularly those in high-tax states like New York, New Jersey, and California.

The House and Senate plan to vote on the tax bill next week, clearing the way for President Donald Trump to sign it into law. Many of its changes - lower tax rates and fewer deductions - will go into effect in January, though it will likely take some time for the economy to adjust.

The package has sweeping political and economic changes, and the ramifications might not be fully known for years.

It would represent Trump’s first major legislative victory, and includes both an overhaul of the tax code and a targeted change to Affordable Care Act, which Republicans have long sought to dismantle.

The tax plan has enormous benefits for many businesses, with a permanent and sharp reduction in tax rates that Republicans believe will trigger more economic growth and lead to higher wages.

It also changes the tax system for American households, temporarily lowering rates and creating new limits on deductions that are expected to lower the taxes of most Americans but could still lead millions to owe the government more.

The plan will also add at least $1 trillion to the debt over 10 years, based on numerous economic forecasts, an issue that will likely intensify policy debate in Washington into 2018.

The bill was originally pitched as a sweeping tax cut for the middle class, but it changed over the course of several months as Republicans demanded a variety of changes.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., extracted more tax cuts for businesses whose owners file their taxes through the individual income tax code.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and east-coast Republicans demanded changes that allow Americans to deduct up to $10,000 state and local taxes.

House Republicans tried to cap the mortgage-interest deduction to interest paid on up to $500,000 in new home loans, but they acquiesced eventually to a $750,000 cap.

A number of GOP donors complained that the bill could push their taxes up, so Republicans agreed to a late change that lowers the top tax rate to 37 percent.

Corker’s attempts to change the bill were rejected by GOP leaders, as he had tried to put in place a mechanism that would limit its impact on the debt if it doesn’t lead to the type of economic growth that Republicans had promised. He voted against the bill in early December, but he was the only defection at the time and Republicans were able to pass the bill without him.

For many Americans, the tax bill could have an immediate impact.

It could alter the tax benefit of mortgages issued in just two weeks, and Americans could see more take-home pay in their paychecks by February.

The process of filing taxes each year will change, however, and could lead Americans to change how they allocate money. It could also lead companies to restructure, based on their income, investment, and spending patterns.

Many of the changes made late in the negotiations benefited businesses and the wealthy, but Rubio’s late-stage demands pulled the package back a bit more toward its working-class roots.

Republicans had proposed to expand the Child Tax Credit from $1,000 to $2,000, but the benefits formula they’d planned to use would have capped the credit for many low and moderate-income families at $1,100. Rubio demanded the credit be raised, and Republicans at first believed he would balk, in part because he voted for the Senate bill even after the party his effort to expand the Child Tax Credit in that measure.

But when he threatened Thursday to block the bill and appeared to have the backing of Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, Republican leaders agreed to make changes and expand the tax credit up to $1,400 for those families.

Lee late Friday said he looked “forward to reading the full text of the bill and, hopefully, supporting it.“

Republicans had only passed an earlier version of the bill through the Senate with a 51-49 vote, and losing two more members could have proven fatal. Rubio’s support appeared to give them the margin of victory they needed to enact it into law.

Democrats have blasted the tax plan, accusing it of showering corporations with lower taxes at the expense of driving up the debt and giving only temporary and uneven benefits to the middle class. Public opinion polls show many Americans share this view, but Republicans have persisted, with many believing it will lead to a surge in economic growth and buoy their prospects going into the 2018 midterm elections.

Hey, Congress – #metoo means you, too

The Free Press WV

A spirited back and forth this week with Councilwoman Catherine Moy on abortion, #metoo and Congress got me thinking.

While she and I will never see eye to eye on abortion, I agree we need to pressure our representatives to change the laws so they’re held accountable in sexual harassment cases just like the rest of us. It’s long past time to blow up the old boys network.

In the past two months we’ve been astonished to see so many public figures from Louis CK to Kevin Spacey to Charlie Rose to Matt Lauer and Garrison Keillor and others lose their livelihood and esteem due to alleged sexual misconduct. The repercussions have been swift from all corners of public life.

Well, almost all corners.

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, have introduced the Member and Employee Training and Oversight On (ME TOO) Congress Act to bring some of the same accountability to Congress on the issue of sexual harassment and misconduct that we’ve seen in other industries.

The current congressional procedure gives a sexual harassment victim 180 days to file a claim. Once filed, the victim must undergo up to 30 days of counseling before he/she is faced with 15 days to decide to continue with the claim. If they do, they must sign a nondisclosure agreement and enter into mediation with the member of Congress being represented by a taxpayer-funded attorney. If a settlement is reached, again, an NDA prevents victims from discussing it.

If no agreement is reached, the victim undergoes a 30-day “cooling off period” before deciding whether to file a lawsuit. Any settlement is paid out of a taxpayer-funded pool of money set aside for harassment and workplace discrimination cases. And it’s been widely reported that Congress has shelled out more than $17 million of your money in the past 20 years settling harassment, discrimination and other workplace claims.

What kind of system is this? The victim has to have mandatory counseling but the perpetrator doesn’t? Nondisclosure agreements to hide the misdeeds? Taxpayer money? Only an abuser or those who want to protect abusers could come up with a system like this.

The ME TOO Act would waive the 30-day counseling and mediation periods, provide legal advice to victims and eliminate the requirement to sign a nondisclosure agreement before filing a complaint. If a sexual harassment settlement is reached, it would require the member of Congress to pay the settlement out of his or her own pocket. And it would require the public disclosure of the office involved as well as the settlement amount. The law would extend these protections to all fellows, interns and pages.

The legislation has garnered more than 120 cosponsors, including Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, as well as 19 Republicans.

Both the House and the Senate required members last month to undergo anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training. That’s a start.

If you want Congress to face the same kind of procedures and accountability as you would at your place of business, then you should contact your representative in Congress. It’s important to strike right now because although many are saying the #metoo movement has changed the game, we can never be sure of that. Never underestimate the ability of Congress to do nothing. This moment could pass and this legislation can die. Surely those in Congress engaging in inappropriate behavior have no incentive to pass laws that are going to expose them.

Our leaders need to be held to the highest standards. If they’re abusing their office, exploiting their staff or colleagues or otherwise engaging in inappropriate conduct, they don’t get to hide their misdeeds and force us to pay for it. If you act like a pig, you don’t get to save your bacon. Peace.

~~  Kelvin Wade ~~

Final tax plan expected to keep medical deduction and grad student waiver, a relief to millions

The Free Press WV

Andrew Devendorf has contacted Sen. Marco Rubio’s office every other day for the past month to beg the Florida Republican to make sure Congress’s final tax bill doesn’t make graduate school unaffordable for him and 179,000 other PhD students in the United States. Rubio has emerged as a potential swing vote on the tax bill, giving him possible leverage as Republicans finalize their plan with the goal of getting legislation to President Donald Trump’s desk by Christmas.

It looks like Devendorf’s efforts paid off. Tuition waivers for graduate students are expected to remain tax-free. The medical deduction, which helps 8.8 million Americans with severe conditions like Alzheimer’s, is also expected to remain.

“Nothing’s final of any of this stuff, but we’re trying to make sure that the provisions in law that are available to students for education continue to be available,“ Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., a member of the Conference Committee, said Wednesday.

Thune said the medical expense deduction - which allows families to deduct extraordinary medical treatment expenses above 10 percent of their income - was also likely to in the bill, a huge relief for millions of Americans living in nursing homes or fighting cancer or other chronic diseases. That deduction is “a priority for some of our members, and we’re trying to be responsive to that,“ Thune said. “It was a big issue for [Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine)] . . . I think she’ll be happy with the way it comes out.“

The tax bill that the House passed in November scrapped the medical deduction entirely, a move that would have caused a jump in taxes of thousands - and in some cases tens of thousands - of dollars for millions of middle-class families. The House bill also would have made taxes go up significantly for many graduate students who receive tuition waivers in exchange for the teaching and research they do at universities. The Senate kept both provisions intact (and even made the medical deduction a bit more generous).

While the Republican tax bill would reduce taxes for the vast majority of Americans, about seven percent would end up paying more, including some families earning $50,000 to $100,000, a group most consider middle class. Most of those potentially facing tax hikes are people who take a lot of deductions.

Devendorf is in the first year of a PhD program clinical psychology at the University of South Florida in Tampa. His older brother committed suicide. Since then, Devendorf, said, he has dedicated his life to studying psychology in the hope that he can help others with mental health issues. (Suicide is the second leading cause of death among Americans ages 15 to 34, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.)

At the university, he receives a $14,000 a year stipend and pays taxes on that income. But under the bill that passed the House, he would have to pay taxes on that stipend plus the $30,000 tuition waiver he gets from his university, even though he never actually receives any money from the waiver. Taxing the waiver would bump up his tax bill substantially, making it difficult for him to continue his studies.

“Our stipend is already super hard to live on . . . how am I going to fund myself it this passes?“ he said this week. “I come from a middle-class family. This isn’t a lucrative field.“

Devendorf said he is waiting to see the final bill before he truly feels relieved.

Thune said the text would likely come out Friday. Details of the final agreement between the House and Senate have started to leak out, including a bigger tax break for wealthy Americans, but senators are careful to say nothing is final until it’s written down. Republicans have to keep to a tight budget: They can’t exceed $1.5 trillion in costs. There were many last-minute changes that various lawmakers wanted, meaning something would have to go.

“I’m doing everything I can to fight this,“ Devendorf said.

Judiciary chairman says 2 Trump picks not moving forward

The Free Press WV

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee says two of President Donald Trump’s nominees for federal judge are going nowhere.

Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley told reporters on Wednesday that, based on his conversations with the White House, he doesn’t expect the controversial nominations of Brett Talley and Jeff Mateer to move forward.

In speeches, Mateer has described transgender children as evidence of “Satan’s plan.”

Talley has never argued a case in court and was rated “unanimously unqualified” by the American Bar Association.

Grassley said in an interview with CNN on Tuesday that he told the White House to rethink both nominations.

Mateer was tapped to be a federal judge in Texas, while Talley was picked for U.S. District Court in Alabama.

Justice official defends Mueller, sees no cause for firing

The Free Press WV

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, facing congressional questions about anti-Donald Trump text messages exchanged between two FBI officials assigned to the Russia probe, defended special counsel Robert Mueller on Wednesday and said he had seen no cause to fire him or received encouragement to do so.

Rosenstein appeared before the House Judiciary Committee one day after the Justice Department provided congressional committees with hundreds of text messages between an FBI counterintelligence agent assigned to Mueller’s team and an FBI lawyer who was on the same detail.

Those messages, which occurred before Mueller was appointed in May to investigate potential coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign, show the officials using words like “idiot” and “loathsome human” to characterize Trump as he was running for president in 2016. One of the officials said in an election night text that the prospect of a Trump victory was “terrifying.”

The disclosures of the text messages added to concerns among members of Congress that Mueller’s team is tainted by political bias.

But when Rosenstein was asked by lawmakers if he had seen good cause to fire Mueller, whom he appointed and whose work he oversees, he replied that he had not. Rosenstein also defended the credentials of Mueller, a former FBI director, and said he was an appropriate choice to run the Justice Department’s Russia investigation after the firing of FBI Director James Comey.

“The special counsel’s investigation is not a witch hunt,” Rosenstein said in response to questions about whether he agreed with Trump’s characterization of the probe. “The independence and integrity of the investigation are not going to be affected by anything that anyone says.”

Peter Strzok, a veteran FBI counterintelligence agent, was removed over the summer from Mueller’s team following the discovery of text messages exchanged with Lisa Page, an FBI lawyer who was also detailed this year to the group of agents and prosecutors investigating potential coordination between Russia and Trump’s Republican campaign.

“When we have evidence of any inappropriate conduct, we’re going to take action on it. That’s what Mr. Mueller did here. As soon as he learned about this issue, he took action,” Rosenstein said.

Hundreds of the messages, which surfaced in a Justice Department inspector general investigation of the FBI’s inquiry into Democrat Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, were being provided to congressional committees and were reviewed by The Associated Press on Tuesday night.

Rosenstein acknowledged in response to Democratic questioning that reporters were invited to the Justice Department to review the messages — which was unusual given that they part of an ongoing watchdog report — but said that decision was acceptable because the information was determined to be “appropriate for public release.”

“Our goal, Congressman, is to make sure it’s clear to you we are not concealing anything that is embarrassing to the FBI,” he said.

The existence of the text messages, disclosed in news reports earlier this month, provided a line of attack for Trump, who used the revelation to disparage FBI leadership as politically tainted. Republicans have seized on the exchange of texts between two officials who worked for Mueller to suggest that the team is biased against Trump and its conclusions can’t be trusted.

Working telephone numbers for Strzok and Page could not immediately be found.

Strzok had been deeply involved in the FBI’s inquiry into Democrat Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server and was in the room when Clinton — Trump’s 2016 Democratic opponent — was interviewed by the FBI. He later helped investigate whether the Trump campaign worked with Russia to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

The texts seen by the AP began in the summer of 2015, soon after the FBI launched its email server investigation, and continued over the next year and a half as the presidential race was in full swing and as Trump and Clinton were looking to defeat their primary challengers and head toward the general election.

The messages — 375 were released Tuesday evening — cover a broad range of political topics and include an exchange of news articles about the race, often alongside their own commentaries.

There are some derogatory comments about Democratic officials, including presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and former Attorney General Eric Holder, but some of the harshest comments are reserved for Trump.

In a March 4, 2016, back-and-forth provided to Congress, Page refers to Trump as a “loathsome human” and Strzok responds, “Yet he may win.” After Strzok asks whether she thinks Trump would be a worse president than fellow Republican Ted Cruz, Page says, “Yes, I think so.”

The two then use words like “idiot” and “awful” to characterize Trump, with Strzok saying, “America will get what the voting public deserves.”

In another exchange, on Oct. 18, 2016, Strzok writes to Page and says: “I am riled up. Trump is an (expletive) idiot, is unable to provide a coherent answer. I CAN’T PULL AWAY. WHAT THE (expletive) HAPPENED TO OUR COUNTRY??!?!”

Weeks later, on election day, as it seemed to become clearer that Trump could defeat Clinton, he says, “OMG THIS IS (expletive) TERRIFYING: A victory by Mr. Trump remains possible…”

Page replies, “Yeah, that’s not good.”

In August 2016, Strzok responded to a New York Times story that carried the headline of “Donald Trump is Making America Meaner” by saying, “I am worried about what Trump is encouraging in our behavior.”

But he also adds, “I’m worried about what happens if HRC is elected,” using the initials for Hillary Rodham Clinton.

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