Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Andrew Puzder withdraws labor nomination, throwing White House into more turmoil

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By Ed O'Keefe and Jonnelle Marte

Andrew Puzder, President Trump’s labor secretary nominee, withdrew from consideration Wednesday amid growing resistance from Senate Republicans centered primarily on Puzder’s past employment of an undocumented housekeeper.
The collapse of Puzder’s nomination threw the White House into further turmoil just two days after the resignation of Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, amid revelations that ­Flynn had spoken repeatedly, and possibly illegally, with the Russian ambassador last year about lifting U.S. sanctions.
Puzder’s fate amplified the deteriorating relationship between the White House and Capitol Hill, where bipartisan support grew Wednesday for expanded investigations into ties between Trump, his presidential campaign and Russian officials.
The White House, including Trump, offered no comment on Puzder’s withdrawal nor any indication of whom the president would nominate in the restaurant executive’s place. Puzder issued a statement saying he was “honored” to have been nominated. “While I won’t be serving in the administration, I fully support the President and his highly qualified team,” he said.
A top Trump campaign supporter, Puzder had attracted widespread criticism regarding his business record and personal background. He was set to testify Thursday at a confirmation hearing that had been delayed for weeks to allow for the completion of an ethics review of his vast personal wealth.

Andrew Puzder withdraws as nominee for secretary of labor

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Andrew Puzder, CEO of CKE Restaurants and President Trump's pick for labor secretary, withdrew his nomination on Feb. 15. (Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)
Critics have railed against Puzder’s positions against minimum-wage increases and more generous overtime benefits. Some have also accused him of sexism, pointed to a rancorous divorce that involved later-recanted allegations of domestic abuse as well as racy TV ads run by his restaurant chains that featured scantily clad women eating hamburgers.
But it was Puzder’s hiring of an undocumented worker for domestic work — as well as his support for more liberalized immigration policies — that pushed several Senate Republicans away, they said.
Puzder had told the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions this month that he had been unaware of the housekeeper’s immigration status when he hired her and that he paid federal and state back taxes after terminating her employment.
Similar revelations have forced Cabinet nominees to withdraw dating to at least Bill Clinton’s presidency, but it was less clear this year, in the unpredictable, rule-breaking era of Trump, whether that norm would apply. In the end, the revelation was particularly troubling to lawmakers because of the job Puzder was seeking: running the Labor Department.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), a member of the Senate health committee, said Wednesday that revelations about Puzder’s personal employment practices gave him “serious concerns” that he had conveyed to Senate leaders. Three other GOP senators on the committee, Susan Collins (Maine), Johnny Isakson (Ga.) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), had also publicly voiced doubts.
In the hours before Puzder withdrew, 12 Republican senators “at a minimum” were withholding support, according to a senior Republican who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid political retribution. The quick erosion of support compelled Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to tell the White House on Wednesday that Puzder lacked the support needed to survive, according to two senior Senate aides who requested anonymity. Shortly after that, Puzder withdrew.
Senators may yet face another contentious confirmation vote Thursday, when Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), Trump’s nominee to lead the Office of Management and Budget, is scheduled for a final vote on the Senate floor. On Wednesday, Mulvaney lost the backing of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who objects to Mulvaney’s support for military spending cuts.
Puzder has spent much of his career in the restaurant industry speaking out against wage and labor regulations. The former commercial trial lawyer has been a staunch opponent of rules finalized by the Labor Department last year — and since put on hold — that would have expanded the number of people eligible for overtime pay. He also has been critical of substantially increasing the minimum wage, arguing that it could push companies to cut jobs and encourage businesses to invest more money in automation.
As a result, Puzder’s nomination immediately came under intense scrutiny from unions, labor groups and consumer advocates who worried the executive would prioritize businesses over workers. As recently as this week, workers from his fast-food chain and advocates for a higher minimum wage marched outside of CKE’s restaurants to protest the nomination. Worker advocates had also hand-delivered petitions to senators’ local offices and organized trips for CKE employees to travel to Capitol Hill and share their grievances with senators.
Democrats cheered Puzder’s withdrawal and sought to take credit for helping pressure Republicans to withdraw support.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called Puzder’s decision “a victory for the American worker. Puzder should never have even been nominated to lead the Labor Department, and Senate Republicans clearly recognized this, too.” He called on Trump to nominate someone who “champions workers’ rights rather than suppresses them.”
Progressives and Democrats said they hoped Trump’s next pick for labor secretary would be someone with a clear willingness to speak up for disadvantaged workers.
“We need a labor secretary in the mainstream who supports the workplace protections that he or she would be charged with enforcing — and who cares about workers,” said Emily Martin, general counsel for the National Women’s Law Center, which opposed Puzder’s nomination because of “sexist” advertising run by Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s — two of Puzder’s restaurant chains — and reports of harassment from employees working for the chain.
Several names that had emerged on Trump’s shortlist for labor secretary late last year began recirculating Wednesday. Among them: Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.) and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. After Puzder’s withdrawal Wednesday, Walker tweeted: “The future is too bright in WI for me to do anything other than being Governor.”
Puzder would have been the first labor secretary since the Reagan era to take the job without some experience in public service. He made a minor foray into politics in 2011, when he served as an economic adviser and spokesman for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who recently endorsed his nomination.
In 2016, Puzder was an avid Trump supporter. In addition to serving as an economic adviser to his campaign, he and his wife, Deanna Puzder, contributed a total of $332,000 to Trump’s bid, joint fundraising committees and to the Republican National Committee, according to the Federal Election Commission.
Senators often do not weigh in on a nominee publicly until after a confirmation hearing, but Republicans have been mostly in lockstep to support Trump’s top Cabinet nominees. Only one other pick — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — drew as much public wavering among Republicans before his hearing, when five GOP senators expressed doubts. Ultimately, all of them voted for Tillerson.
Beyond the committee where Puzder was scheduled to appear Thursday, three other Republicans — John Thune (S.D.), Rob Portman (Ohio) and Thom Tillis (N.C.) — publicly expressed concerns about his nomination.
Thune’s hesitancy was notable because he is the third-ranking Senate Republican and responsible for helping to build support for big-ticket GOP causes. He told reporters Wednesday that he wanted to know more about why Puzder employed an undocumented housekeeper and how he paid her. Tillis cited the same concerns to reporters.
Collins and Murkowski also voted against Betsy DeVos, Trump’s choice for education secretary, forcing Vice President Pence to become the first vice president to cast a tiebreaking confirmation vote for a Cabinet member. Both senators are among several who had seen footage of a 1990 “Oprah Winfrey Show” episode in which Puzder’s former wife appeared in disguise to describe allegations of domestic violence.
The health committee requested that Winfrey’s production company provide copies of the episode for senators to review. Puzder has always denied the allegations, and his ex-wife recanted the accusations in 1990 when the couple reached a child-custody agreement at the time of their divorce and again in a letter to senators last month.
Aides said before Puzder’s withdrawal that Portman was still reviewing his history and did not want to weigh in yet, but the senator represents a state where labor unions were building support against the nomination. Portman won reelection last year with the endorsement of several labor unions, a rare feat these days for a Republican.
Another blow to Puzder’s chances came on Wednesday morning when the conservative National Review announced its opposition. The publication cited Puzder’s past support for increased levels of legal immigration for high-skilled or seasonal workers — a position at odds with Trump’s calls for limited legal immigration.
The magazine’s editors acknowledged “the impulse of the White House and the Senate to try to bulldog through rather than to give obstructionist Democrats a scalp.” But, they wrote, “The country, and the administration, can weather a redo on this one.”
The National Restaurant Association — which had marshaled members across the country to help Puzder — called his withdrawal “extremely unfortunate.”
“Andy Puzder would have made a great labor secretary,” said Cicely Simpson, the group’s executive vice president. “We hope that President Trump’s next labor secretary nominee, like Andy, has experience creating jobs and a deep understanding how to get business and government to work together to grow the economy.”
Paul Kane and Ashley Parker contributed to this report.

NSA so concerned over Donald Trump's ties to Russia they've 'withheld information from presidential briefings'

Follows claims National Security Adviser Michael Flynn discussed sanctions with Kremlin ambassador

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By Jon Sharman

A website that until very recently was published by Donald Trump's son-in-law has claimed that US spies are withholding their most sensitive intelligence from the White House.
For the past three weeks, according to a former National Security Agency (NSA) analyst and counter-intelligence officer, some the America's spy agencies have begun withholding intelligence from the Oval Office amid fears "the Kremlin has ears inside" the White House situation room.
The claims follow reports that National Security Adviser Michael Flynn discussed lifting sanctions against Moscow with a Russian diplomat before Mr Trump took office.
An NSA official told the New York Observer it was holding back some of the "good stuff" from the White House, while one Pentagon worker said: "There's not much the Russians don't know at this point. Since January 20, we’ve assumed that the Kremlin has ears inside the [situation room]."
The FBI is still investigating Gen Flynn's conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Nine sources told the Washington Post the pair had discussed sanctions imposed on Russia by outgoing President Barack Obama, despite Gen Flynn twice saying "no" in response to interview questions when asked if the sanctions, over Russia’s interference in the US election, were brought up.
In the past Mr Trump has been criticised for a perceived lack of respect for the intelligence community, while as President-elect he called the storm over Russian hacking of the election a "political witch-hunt".
The New York Observer's website is an amalgamation of several media brands bought by Mr Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
Mr Kushner was the owner of the news website until last month when he was named a senior White House adviser.
He is married to Mr Trump's eldest daughter, Ivanka.

Immigrant Mother in Denver Takes Refuge as Risk of Deportation Looms

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DENVER — In the basement of a white stone church here on Tuesday night, Jeanette Vizguerra gathered up her three youngest children, slipped them into pajamas and asked herself perhaps the hardest question of her life.
Should she present herself to the immigration authorities Wednesday morning for a scheduled check-in, risking deportation?
Or should she stay in the church, one of the few places federal agents do not go, almost surely resigning herself to months or years trapped inside?
“Tonight, I have to think,” Ms. Vizguerra said. “Because I promised my children — and it was a promise — that it was going to be very difficult to remove me from this country. I have already fought so long to be here; now is not the time to give up.”
It has been a difficult week for Ms. Vizguerra, 45, one of millions of undocumented immigrants contending with an uncertain future in the Trump administration. After she was convicted several years ago of using fake documents, Ms. Vizguerra, who has spent 20 years working in the United States, was ordered out of the country. But she was granted at least five postponements of deportation, and in December, her lawyer, Hans Meyer, asked for another.
Nothing happened. She was due for a regular check-in at the local office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Wednesday, and as the day crept closer, Ms. Vizguerra realized the possibility that she could be whisked onto a plane and separated from her three American-born children: Zury, 6, Roberto, 10, and Luna, 12.
Their care would fall to her husband, Salvador, 45, who works long hours as a driver for a tile company, and an older daughter, Tania Baez, 26, a preschool teacher with three children of her own. Unlike her younger siblings, Ms. Baez is not a citizen by birth, but she has a work permit under the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which President Trump criticized during the campaign but has not moved to end.
The last week or so has thrust the family into a state of extended emergency. On Feb. 5, Ms. Vizguerra called a family meeting over dinner, banning electronics from the table to convey the seriousness of the matter. The family cats, Miranda and Zayra, meowed as she explained the plan.
If officials were to come to the home in the days before the meeting at the I.C.E. office, no one should answer the door, she said. If they gained entry, Luna, a reedy middle schooler with braces, should use her phone to film the events. Roberto should open the emergency contact list in his phone and begin to call family friends and advocates. And Zury, the youngest, should go straight to her parents’ bedroom, close the door and stay there. “I told them, ‘I know it’s going to be difficult for you,’” Ms. Vizguerra said. “‘I want you to be brave.’”
Three days later, the packing began, with the children stuffing their mother’s leggings, sweaters and shampoos into suitcases and boxes. Terrified by the prospect of familial separation, Ms. Vizguerra began to consider taking refuge at the First Unitarian Society church in Denver, whose congregants previously gave sanctuary to another immigrant.
She reminded Luna which drawers belonged to which child and told her it would be her job to make sure her siblings dressed properly. She showed her where the extra soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste were kept.
Then Ms. Vizguerra stocked the refrigerator with microwave dinners, something even a 6-year-old could make.
Ms. Baez, the oldest daughter, has begun contemplating caring for three more children. “I completely understand his side,” she said of Mr. Trump. “But he grew up entitled. He’s never lived in poverty. He’s never lived in fear.”
“I just think if he walked an immigrant’s life,” she added, “he’d change his mind.”
Ms. Vizguerra came to the United States from Mexico in 1997. She worked as a janitor and a union organizer, and she later owned a moving and cleaning business. In 2009, she was caught with fake identification that her lawyer said she had acquired in order to work. She pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, setting off a chain of events that led to the deportation order. In the Denver area, she is a well-known advocate for immigration overhaul.
Ms. Vizguerra’s situation — first the government ordered her to leave, then it allowed her to stay — is reflective of Obama-era immigration policies that his critics called muddled and inconsistent. And even as Mr. Obama allowed some people to stay here, he deported millions of others.
“I am hoping,” said Tom Tancredo, a former Colorado congressman and a prominent critic of illegal immigration, “that the ‘Trump raids’ will eventually net the numbers Obama rounded up in his raids.”
Mr. Trump has done away with the Obama administration’s policy of prioritizing the most serious criminals for deportation, making anyone with a record a candidate for quick removal. Now Ms. Vizguerra and others like her are worried that immigration officials will no longer give them a pass.
On Tuesday night, she slept in the church basement with her three youngest children, to avoid the risk of arrest at home. At that point, she still had not decided whether to show up at her I.C.E. meeting.
“My intuition,” Ms. Vizguerra said, “tells me that if I go in, I’m not coming out.”
When the time came on Wednesday, she decided not to go. Then Mr. Meyer, her lawyer, learned that Ms. Vizguerra’s request for another “stay” of her deportation had been rejected.
Ms. Vizguerra’s supporters held a news conference outside the I.C.E. office, and she telephoned in. With the phone pressed against a megaphone, she explained why she did not show up: “In my heart,” she said in Spanish, “I knew that they would deny me a stay.”
As of Wednesday evening, she was still at the church, staying in a room she helped prepare three years ago, when she and other immigrant advocates thought it would be a good idea to create a safe space for people facing deportation. She chose the yellow paint for the walls.
The room holds two beds, a lamp propped on a cardboard box, and a Valentine from her youngest daughter. “I could be here days, months, maybe even years,” she said.
Under federal policy, immigration officers are supposed to avoid entering churches and other “sensitive locations,” unless they have advance approval from a supervisor or face “exigent circumstances” that require immediate action.
There was no sign of I.C.E. agents Wednesday evening outside the church. Shawn Neudauer, a spokesman for I.C.E., would not say what the agency planned to do next.

Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts With Russian Intelligence

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WASHINGTON — Phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election, according to four current and former American officials.
American law enforcement and intelligence agencies intercepted the communications around the same time they were discovering evidence that Russia was trying to disrupt the presidential election by hacking into the Democratic National Committee, three of the officials said. The intelligence agencies then sought to learn whether the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians on the hacking or other efforts to influence the election.
The officials interviewed in recent weeks said that, so far, they had seen no evidence of such cooperation.

But the intercepts alarmed American intelligence and law enforcement agencies, in part because of the amount of contact that was occurring while Mr. Trump was speaking glowingly about the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin. At one point last summer, Mr. Trump said at a campaign event that he hoped Russian intelligence services had stolen Hillary Clinton’s emails and would make them public.
The officials said the intercepted communications were not limited to Trump campaign officials, and included other associates of Mr. Trump. On the Russian side, the contacts also included members of the government outside of the intelligence services, they said. All of the current and former officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the continuing investigation is classified.
The officials said that one of the advisers picked up on the calls was Paul Manafort, who was Mr. Trump’s campaign chairman for several months last year and had worked as a political consultant in Ukraine. The officials declined to identify the other Trump associates on the calls.
The call logs and intercepted communications are part of a larger trove of information that the F.B.I. is sifting through as it investigates the links between Mr. Trump’s associates and the Russian government, as well as the hacking of the D.N.C., according to federal law enforcement officials. As part of its inquiry, the F.B.I. has obtained banking and travel records and conducted interviews, the officials said.
Mr. Manafort, who has not been charged with any crimes, dismissed the officials’ accounts in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “This is absurd,” he said. “I have no idea what this is referring to. I have never knowingly spoken to Russian intelligence officers, and I have never been involved with anything to do with the Russian government or the Putin administration or any other issues under investigation today.”
He added, “It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian intelligence officer.’”
Several of Mr. Trump’s associates, like Mr. Manafort, have done business in Russia. And it is not unusual for American businessmen to come in contact with foreign intelligence officials, sometimes unwittingly, in countries like Russia and Ukraine, where the spy services are deeply embedded in society. Law enforcement officials did not say to what extent the contacts might have been about business.
The officials would not disclose many details, including what was discussed on the calls, the identity of the Russian intelligence officials who participated, and how many of Mr. Trump’s advisers were talking to the Russians. It is also unclear whether the conversations had anything to do with Mr. Trump himself.
A report from American intelligence agencies that was made public in January concluded that the Russian government had intervened in the election in part to help Mr. Trump, but did not address whether any members of the Trump campaign had participated in the effort.
The intercepted calls are different from the wiretapped conversations last year between Michael T. Flynn, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, and Sergey I. Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the United States. In those calls, which led to Mr. Flynn’s resignation on Monday night, the two men discussed sanctions that the Obama administration imposed on Russia in December.
But the cases are part of American intelligence and law enforcement agencies’ routine electronic surveillance of the communications of foreign officials.
The F.B.I. declined to comment. The White House also declined to comment Tuesday night, but earlier in the day, the press secretary, Sean Spicer, stood by Mr. Trump’s previous comments that nobody from his campaign had contact with Russian officials before the election.
“There’s nothing that would conclude me that anything different has changed with respect to that time period,” Mr. Spicer said in response to a question.
Two days after the election in November, Sergei A. Ryabkov, the deputy Russian foreign minister, said “there were contacts” during the campaign between Russian officials and Mr. Trump’s team.
“Obviously, we know most of the people from his entourage,” Mr. Ryabkov told Russia’s Interfax news agency.
The Trump transition team denied Mr. Ryabkov’s statement. “This is not accurate,” Hope Hicks, a spokeswoman for Mr. Trump, said at the time.
The National Security Agency, which monitors the communications of foreign intelligence services, initially captured the calls between Mr. Trump’s associates and the Russians as part of routine foreign surveillance. After that, the F.B.I. asked the N.S.A. to collect as much information as possible about the Russian operatives on the phone calls, and to search through troves of previous intercepted communications that had not been analyzed.
The F.B.I. has closely examined at least three other people close to Mr. Trump, although it is unclear if their calls were intercepted. They are Carter Page, a businessman and former foreign policy adviser to the campaign; Roger Stone, a longtime Republican operative; and Mr. Flynn.
All of the men have strongly denied that they had any improper contacts with Russian officials.
As part of the inquiry, the F.B.I. is also trying to assess the credibility of the information contained in a dossier that was given to the bureau last year by a former British intelligence operative. The dossier contained a raft of allegations of a broad conspiracy between Mr. Trump, his associates and the Russian government. It also included unsubstantiated claims that the Russians had embarrassing videos that could be used to blackmail Mr. Trump.
The F.B.I. has spent several months investigating the leads in the dossier, but has yet to confirm any of its most explosive claims.
Senior F.B.I. officials believe that the former British intelligence officer who compiled the dossier, Christopher Steele, has a credible track record, and he briefed investigators last year about how he obtained the information. One American law enforcement official said that F.B.I. agents had made contact with some of Mr. Steele’s sources.
The agency’s investigation of Mr. Manafort began last spring as an outgrowth of a criminal investigation into his work for a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine and for the country’s former president, Viktor F. Yanukovych. It has focused on why he was in such close contact with Russian and Ukrainian intelligence officials.
The bureau did not have enough evidence to obtain a warrant for a wiretap of Mr. Manafort’s communications, but it had the N.S.A. scrutinize the communications of Ukrainian officials he had met.
The F.B.I. investigation is proceeding at the same time that separate investigations into Russian interference in the election are gaining momentum on Capitol Hill. Those investigations, by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, are examining not only the Russian hacking but also any contacts that Mr. Trump’s team had with Russian officials during the campaign.
On Tuesday, top Republican lawmakers said that Mr. Flynn should be one focus of the investigation, and that he should be called to testify before Congress. Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said the news about Mr. Flynn underscored “how many questions still remain unanswered to the American people more than three months after Election Day, including who was aware of what, and when.”
Mr. Warner said Mr. Flynn’s resignation would not stop the committee “from continuing to investigate General Flynn, or any other campaign official who may have had inappropriate and improper contacts with Russian officials prior to the election.”

Disabled, Shunned and Silenced in Trump’s America

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By Melissa Blake

I’m a woman. I’m physically disabled. And I’ve never been more scared than I am right now.
I sat there staring at my computer screen as the words “page not found” popped up on the White House website. My eyes did a double take and then my heart sank.
I felt like I’d just been punched in the gut as I realized that the Disabilities section had been removed from the site in the wake of President Trump’s inauguration. Just 12 hours before, after being sworn into office, he spoke of empowering the American people in his inauguration speech, saying: “Today’s ceremony, however, has very special meaning. Because today we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the American people.”
That’s not what I heard, however, as I stared at my computer screen that night, feeling angry and defeated. What I did hear was the tiny voice that has been in the back of my mind throughout my life. It’s the one that has tried to undermine me and make me doubt myself. It’s the one that has made me question my worth and my place in society.
“You don’t matter.”
“You’re not worth it.”
“You’re not a person.”
In his campaign, and so far in his presidency, that has been Trump’s message to me. And it’s not O.K. (A search for “Americans With Disabilities Act” on the White House web page returned no matches, with the suggestion “Try entering fewer or broader query terms.” That didn’t work either. An archived version of the Obama administration’s disabilities page can be found here.)
I’ve heard people say: “Well, the Trump administration is just updating the site. All those sections will be back up.” That may be true, but is that really the point? Knowing that didn’t make the discovery sting any less for me.
As we know, the president has not merely shown a total lack of awareness of disability rights issues and of the crucial role that people with disabilities can play in an inclusive society — he has been dismissive and rude toward us. We are all familiar with his mocking of the physical appearance of the Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, as we are with his denial of the real meaning of the incident, and his refusal to apologize. On matters related to us, we’ve heard nothing since.
Though I can’t speak for Kovaleski, I do feel I can identify with him. I was born with Freeman-Sheldon syndrome, a genetic bone and muscular disorder, and had 26 surgeries by my midteens. I also majored in journalism in college and worked as a reporter. There have been times when I’ve felt like my wheelchair overshadowed everything about me and there were times where I could sense the person on the other side of the interview table was taken aback upon first meeting me. I’d hate to think that Trump’s treatment of a dedicated reporter is anywhere close to indicative of how people view the disability community.
Because of my condition, I’ve spent my life feeling overlooked, excluded and underestimated. I’ve had people make assumptions about my abilities just by looking at me. I’ve had people talk over me — or, worse, assuming I can’t communicate and directing questions about me to the people around me as if I wasn’t even there. If they actually took the time to get to know me, they’d learn a few things — that I graduated from college with honors, earned a degree in journalism and have worked as a blogger and freelance writer for nearly a decade.
In all of this, if I could speak directly to Trump I would tell him this: Words have meaning. Words have power. You wield that power every time you open your mouth, and whether you acknowledge it or not, you have a responsibility to use those words thoughtfully and wisely with people’s best interests in mind. Using them hurtfully, dismissively or with contempt will have the effect of wounding certain American citizens, and those wounds will last longer than any news conference or sound bite. The internet never forgets.
It’s 2017 and the disability community has come a long way. Yet sometimes I still feel as though we’re living in the 1950s. I often struggle with finding ways to fix this. I do know that it starts with changing the way society views those with disabilities. We can no longer be seen only as shut-ins, unable to care for ourselves. More and more of us are out there, in the world, proclaiming our dignity, demanding our basic rights — in short, living our lives. Most important, we’re not going anywhere. With about 20 percent of the population living with a disability, we’re becoming harder and harder to simply overlook.
Though it has been said before, this bears repeating. What Trump has done is bullying and shaming people in the worst possible way — by judging them. I think about young people with disabilities. Has Trump given any thought to them? What about the teenager with a disability who’s getting bullied every day at school? What about the kid who has spent more time in the hospital than on the playground? What about the young woman struggling with self-esteem issues, desperately trying to come to terms with her disability? If mocking and bullying are seen as O.K., vulnerable people with disabilities may come to believe that they deserve it. I know from experience that this is a dangerous message to send.
The truth is, I’m afraid. I’m afraid of living in a country that would shun people with disabilities as if they didn’t exist. I’m afraid to live in a country that sends these kinds of messages and think it’s perfectly all right. Because it’s most definitely not all right and never will be.
If Trump really cared about giving people their power back, it would behoove him to actually sit down with members of the disability community and listen — really listen — to their stories and their concerns and their recommendations for the future.
My mantra has always been “I’m a person,” and that has never been truer than right now. Yes, I am a person. I matter. People with disabilities matter. I will never stop fighting for our rights and against bullies. I will never not be a person. I’m taking back my power and I want President Trump to know it.

Senate Democrats unify around congressional probe of Trump ties to Russia

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By Karoun Demirjian and Sean Sullivan

Senate Democratic leaders agreed Wednesday to a bipartisan probe inside Congress of allegations that people linked to President Trump — including ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn — had frequent contacts with Russia during and after the 2016 presidential campaign.
Democrats agreed to push forward with an ongoing Intelligence Committee investigation into Russia’s purported activities into the election, expanding the probe to include contacts made by Flynn and perhaps other Trump campaign officials with the Kremlin. They united around this course of action despite pressure from some Democrats to demand an independent commission to pursue the matter from outside Congress.
The decision was made at a Democratic conference meeting Wednesday morning hastily called by Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.). Schumer aimed to get his colleagues on the same page following a fresh report from the New York Times that Trump campaign aides spoke frequently with Russian intelligence operatives during the campaign. Flynn resigned Monday night after The Washington Post revealed that he spoke about sanctions with Russia’s ambassador to the United States after the election.
Schumer; Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.), the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee; and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, explained their stance afterward in a joint appearance.
They demanded that all committee investigations related to allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election and contacts with Trump surrogates be bipartisan and comprehensive and that panel members be “committed to making their findings as public as possible.”

Trump faces renewed questions on Russia

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President Trump on Feb. 15 faced renewed questions on whether his 2016 presidential campaign had contacts with Russian officials. Meanwhile, Trump’s nominee for labor secretary, Andrew Puzder, withdrew a day before his confirmation hearing. (Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)
Democrats also want the Justice Department — specifically, the FBI — to continue investigating the allegations that Russia intervened in the 2016 election in an attempt to help Trump win. But they are insisting that former senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), now the attorney general, recuse himself from the proceedings.
Leading Senate Democrats — some of whom advocated for an independent commission — acknowledged that isn’t possible unless Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) signs off on such a move.
“I’ll be perfectly blunt: We need to have Sen. McConnell’s blessing before we’ll get a commission done. He’s not there,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin (Md.), who has been pushing for an independent commission. “I think Senator Schumer, if he had his druthers, would take a commission immediately — but we can’t get it.”
Schumer had previously endorsed the idea of an independent commission to investigate suspected links between Russia and the Trump campaign. Other Democrats feared risking what precious momentum they had built for an investigation at all by pushing to take such a probe outside Congress.
“We’ve already started this process; we’re already starting to review the raw intelligence; we’re well down this path,” Warner told reporters Wednesday. “I understand others look at other things — I think that would greatly delay the process, and what I think everyone wants, regardless of where we stand, is we want to get this done expeditiously.”
Warner insisted that he has “faith in Senator Burr’s commitment” to pursue the investigation fairly, adding that, “If at any point we’re not able to get the full information and we’re not pursuing the information to where the intelligence leads, that we’ll look at other options.”
But for other Democrats, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr’s (R-N.C.) integrity isn’t the issue – McConnell is.

Lawmakers call for preserving sanctions against Russia

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House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) urged Democrats and Republicans to unite to oppose dropping sanctions on Russia at a news conference, Feb. 15. (The Washington Post)
“I’m just not convinced that Mitch McConnell is going to let the Intelligence Committee get to the real story,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who advocated an independent commission.
Senate Republican leaders, meanwhile, responded to Flynn’s resignation by saying that the Intelligence Committee probably will examine the circumstances. They reiterated that position Wednesday.
“I don’t think we need a select committee. We know how to do our work. We have an Intelligence Committee,” McConnell said in an interview on MSNBC.
One Republican, however, said lawmakers should establish a “joint select committee” — consisting of members of the House and the Senate — to examine the allegations in the Times report.
“Now, was this outside the norm? Was this something damaging to the country?” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said in a Fox News Channel interview Wednesday morning. “I don’t know, but if there were contacts between Russian officials and Trump campaign operatives that [were] inappropriate, then it would be time for the Congress to form a joint select commission to get to the bottom of all things Russia and Trump.”
Democrats are insisting on some ground rules for the investigations, which could take place in multiple panels.
They are demanding that the Trump administration preserve all its records from the transition period, citing “real concern” that officials might “try to cover up ties to Russia” by deleting emails, texts and other documents establishing links between the Trump White House and the Kremlin, Schumer said. Democrats also are demanding that Flynn, former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and other campaign officials make themselves available to testify before the committees.
But Democrats’ demands still depend in large part on what Republican leadership is willing to accommodate.
Republican leaders have not ruled out calling on Flynn and other campaign or administration officials to testify. But a majority of the Senate Intelligence Committee would have to agree to issue a subpoena compelling such testimony.
The GOP is divided over the revelations that Flynn misled his superiors about the substance of his conversations with Russian ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak during the transition period. Some Republicans insist that the real scandal is not the fact that Flynn lied about whether he discussed sanctions with Kislyak — but that those conversations ever became public.
“The leaks are coming from somewhere, and the surveillance came from somewhere . . . obviously it’s coming from people that don’t want to see this administration succeed,” said Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs committee chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.).
He added that incoming administration members like Flynn “would be derelict in their duty not to be reaching out and getting up to speed” through conversations with people like the Russian ambassador — though, Johnson stressed, he didn’t know the substance of those conversations.
That line from certain GOP leaders has infuriated other Republicans.
“All of us know that leaks happen in this town, and we all don’t like it — but the fact is that you now have a much larger issue to address,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) “The national security adviser lied to the vice president of the United States. That’s a pretty serious event.”
Over in the House, Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) is already prioritizing investigating leaks over Flynn’s contacts with Kremlin officials. And leading Democrats are powerless to stop them.
“Frankly it’s safer for them to talk about leaks than be critical of the president,” House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said of his GOP colleagues. “There’s still a lot they want from this president in the form of tax cuts and regulatory giveaways, so I think they’re hoping to get what they can get before they have to confront him.”
Democrats in the Senate worry about facing the same fate, should GOP leaders decide they have bigger priorities than Trump’s Russia ties.
“I’ll acknowledge that Sen. Burr is moving in the right direction, and my lack of faith is probably not so much in Senator Burr but in Republican leadership,” Murphy said. “I ultimately think their priority is getting a trickle-down tax cut done, and a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, not getting to the bottom of this scandal.”