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Friday Is D-Day For the Republican Health Care Bill

Mother Jones

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From Politico:

President Donald Trump is demanding a vote Friday in the House on the Republican plan to repeal and replace Obamacare, White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said. If the bill fails, Trump is prepared to move on and leave Obamacare in place, Mulvaney said.

This makes sense on a whole bunch of levels:

As a threat against conservatives: Vote for the bill or else Obamacare stays around forever and it’s your fault.

As a boredom minimizer: I doubt very much Trump himself cares one way or the other about health care, and he’s probably tired of all boring technical talk that surrounds it (EHBs, continuous coverage, age bands, etc. etc.). He also instinctively understands that the whole thing is a shit show that’s making him more and more unpopular.

As politics: The current debacle has shown that there’s just no sweet spot acceptable to both moderate and conservative Republicans. Why keep beating yourself up over it?

As revenge against liberals: Trump has said that 2017 is the year Obamacare unravels. He will now do everything he can to make that come true, and there’s a fair amount he can do.

As substance: It frees up time for taxes and trade, things Trump is more interested in.

Besides, I don’t think Trump wants to stay in Washington over the weekend. The Mar-a-Lago golf course beckons. So let’s just put this baby to bed one way or the other, OK?

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Friday Is D-Day For the Republican Health Care Bill

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Sean Spicer Keeps Trying to Mislead the Press About Donald Trump’s Bogus Wiretap Claims

Mother Jones

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On Thursday, mere hours after Chairman Devin Nunes apologized to fellow members of the House intelligence committee for his wild stunt the day before, White House flack Sean Spicer defended Nunes, mischaracterized what he’d revealed, and tried to perpetuate his boss’ bizarre claim that President Barack Obama had ordered “tapps” on his Trump Tower phones during the election season.

In case you missed it, Nunes, a California Republican who was on Trump’s transition team, called a press conference Wednesday to announce that he’d seen intelligence reports indicating that communications of Trump associates—maybe even Trump himself—may have been intercepted in the course of lawful intelligence-gathering on foreign targets after the election. Nunes was so “alarmed” by this that he briefed House Speaker Paul Ryan, reporters (twice), and Trump himself before he shared the information with the ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee, which is investigating possible Trump-Russia collusion.

That Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, was incensed. In a statement Wednesday, Schiff said he’d expressed his “grave concerns” to Nunes, and told him that “a credible investigation cannot be conducted this way.” Did Nunes intend to lead the Trump-Russia probe, Schiff said, “or he is going to act as a surrogate of the White House. Because he cannot do both.”

“The reality is that Nunes made a decision,” Spicer said at Thursday’s White House press briefing. “He briefed the press first…I don’t hear too much crying about that.”

Spicer said there was absolutely nothing wrong with Nunes going to Trump because the information had “nothing to do with Russia.” He then proceeded to mischaracterize that information, saying: “It was helpful for the president to know that the investigation as he had asked for was starting to bear fruit.” Spicer was referring to Trump’s March 5 request for Congress to investigate the president’s baseless wiretapping tweets. “What Chairman Nunes said is that there was evidence of surveillance that occurred during the election, and I think that’s important to note.”

As his boss might say: Wrong! Nunes never indicated that any Trump associates were under surveillance prior to the election. What Nunes said was that they might have been caught on tape incidentally during the transition—after the election. Nunes’ revelations in fact undermine the claim that Obama ordered Trump’s phones tapped. Ordering the illegal wiretap of an American citizen would be a serious crime. And Trump and Spicer, of all people, should know that falsely accusing someone of a serious crime is defamatory at best—if done with malicious intent, it’s also libelous.

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Sean Spicer Keeps Trying to Mislead the Press About Donald Trump’s Bogus Wiretap Claims

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Inside Trump’s Border Crackdown on Women and Kids

Mother Jones

Despite President Donald Trump’s dire warnings of “bad hombres” and drugs flooding into the United States from Mexico, the most urgent issue along the border has been the influx of Central American families and unaccompanied children, many of whom are fleeing gang-fueled violence in their home countries. And the latest statistics from the border show that one of the main goals of the White House’s immigration crackdown is being realized: targeting and deterring these asylum seekers from heading to the United States in the first place.

Last week, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released new data on the number of migrants stopped at the US-Mexico border in February. Customs and Border Protection caught 18,762 people trying to enter the country, a 40 percent drop from January and the lowest monthly total since at least 2000 (the earliest year for which there are statistics). Of those migrants, just 27 percent were unaccompanied children or family groups, typically women traveling with kids—a huge dropoff from the last three months of 2016, when they made up 48 percent of apprehensions at the border.

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The administration was quick to celebrate the numbers. In a statement, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly crowed, “The early results show that enforcement matters, deterrence matters, and that comprehensive immigration enforcement can make an impact.” But immigration advocates caution that Trump’s border enforcement ramp-up—like earlier attempts by the Obama administration to stem the flow of Central American migrants—could be particularly devastating for thousands of women and children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras hoping to claim asylum in the United States.

“I think what we’ve seen over the past three years is that you can’t enforce away a refugee crisis,” says Jen Podkul, the director of policy at Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), a legal aid nonprofit for unaccompanied child migrants and refugees. “Unfortunately, these executive orders and memos are going to push everybody underground.”

Katharina Obser, a senior program officer at the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC), says she’s interviewed countless women in family detention over the past few years. “When we ask them, ‘Knowing what you know and given what’s happened, would you make the decision to leave again?’ The answer is almost always, ‘Yes, I had no other choice…’ There continues to be a lack of recognition that these are asylum seekers who are fleeing very real harm and who should have access to a fair and just immigration system.”

Here are seven ways that the White House has gone about squeezing Central American refugees:

1. Shutting down a safe path for kids

In September 2014, after the huge numbers of Central Americans at the southern border became national news, the Obama administration approved a plan to allow a select group of kids from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras apply for refugee status from within their home countries. The initiative was meant to keep the most vulnerable people from embarking on the dangerous journey north. Though the Central American Minors Refugee/Parole Program was slow to get off the ground, the New York Times reported that 11,000-plus people have applied to the program, with a little more than 2,400 gaining admittance by late February—including 316 during Trump’s first month in office.

Trump’s revised travel ban, however, put the Central American Minors program on ice. In his March 6 executive order, the president suspended all refugee admissions for four months and cut the number of refugees the United States will admit annually to 50,000, down from 110,000 under Obama. And while a federal judge has issued a temporary restraining order on the ban, the CAM program’s future remains cloudy. In his February executive order on border security, Trump pointed a finger at “the abuse of parole and asylum provisions” that can allow immigrants without valid asylum claims into the United States.

2. Turning away asylum seekers at the border

In mid-January, eight immigrant rights organizations sent a complaint to DHS claiming that Border Patrol agents were turning away immigrants seeking asylum at the US-Mexico border. Under federal and international law, the United States must screen people asking for asylum to see if they have a credible fear of persecution in their home countries. If they do, they can get a full hearing in front of an immigration judge. (If they don’t, they can be summarily deported.) According to the complaint, Border Patrol agents in Texas and California had told migrants that they weren’t accepting more people and wouldn’t allow them to meet with asylum officers to file claims.

The incidents mentioned in the complaint began last summer. In one case, a Mexican police officer in a wheelchair was allegedly denied entry several times near San Diego, despite claiming he had been targeted and beaten by a drug cartel. Advocates say the situation could become untenable. “These northern Mexican border towns are so dangerous as it is,” Podkul says. “If there are just vulnerable migrants sitting around, they’re just waiting for something to happen to them.”

3. Threatening to separate moms and children

Earlier this month, Reuters reported that the Trump administration was considering separating migrant mothers from their children upon entry into the United States. Instead of detaining them together, or letting them go while they await a hearing in immigration court, federal agents could split them up—sending moms to detention and kids to government-run shelters.

Following the border crisis in 2014, women traveling with children were detained in special family detention centers that were criticized by attorneys and immigrant rights groups for their poor conditions. Last December, around 400 women and children were released from family detention facilities in Texas after a judge denied the centers the necessary state licenses for detaining kids. Separating moms from their children could get around the problem of holding kids in substandard centers and needing to build more facilities to accommodate families.

In an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on March 7, DHS Secretary Kelly confirmed the Reuters report: “Yes, I am considering it, in order to deter more movement along this terribly dangerous network.” Kelly later said he thought parents who brought their children across the border are manipulating the system “because they know up till this point we will keep the families together.” “As this word gets out that we’re considering it and maybe we’ll implement it,” he said, “that will add again to this factor of people not coming.”

4. Making asylum screenings more difficult

Refugees who do manage to meet with an asylum officer may now face a tougher screening than they would have in the recent past. In mid-February, DHS updated the lesson plans it uses to train asylum officers on handling “credible-fear” interviews. According to the Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit group that provides legal services for women and girls fleeing gender-based violence, the changes include increasing the burden of proof on asylum seekers at a very early stage in the process—when many are particularly vulnerable and often do not have a lawyer.

The lesson plans have also dropped language emphasizing the low threshold for passing the credible-fear interview. For example, earlier lesson plans included passages reminding officers that when there was a reasonable doubt regarding an asylum seeker’s fear of persecution in her home country, “the applicant likely merits” a full hearing before a judge. “The credible-fear process was always intended to be an intentionally low threshold,” the WRC’s Obser says. “It was not meant to be a full-blown asylum hearing.”

5. Detaining asylum seekers awaiting their day in court

The feds used to have several options for dealing with asylum seekers who have passed their credible-fear interviews. They could release them on a written promise to appear at an immigration hearing, they could let them go with an ankle monitor, or they could detain them. Over the last several years, many immigrant families with pending asylum claims were set free, a policy that immigration hardliners have derisively called “catch and release.” During his campaign, Trump promised to end this practice, and his executive order on border security called for detaining every immigrant caught at the border.

To that end, ICE has suggested doubling the number of immigrants it can detain on a daily basis to 80,000. With detention facilities already near capacity, that could mean working with local governments to reopen empty state prisons or even renting beds in local jails. Meanwhile, a February memo from DHS Secretary Kelly says that asylum seekers may be released if they pass their credible-fear interviews and prove to ICE who they are and that they’re not a security risk. If not, they face prolonged detention—and, because it’s especially hard for them to find lawyers and make their cases while held by ICE, likely deportation.

6. Getting tough on unaccompanied kids

According to Kelly’s memo, some 155,000 unaccompanied child migrants have been apprehended at the border in the past three years. Those kids pass through shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services and are often then reunited with relatives living in the United States. Kelly wrote that 60 percent of them have been placed in the care of one or more undocumented parents. The memo suggests that the government will be taking a closer look at these cases and reclassifying unaccompanied kids as simply undocumented immigrants—and deporting them.

KIND’s Podkul argues this will simply keep parents from collecting their children from government shelters, which could put kids in precarious situations—and could keep the federal government from being able to know where kids are and make sure they’re living in safe environments. “You’re either going to have kids lingering in detention,” she says, “or you’re going to have a stranger or a family friend or a neighbor who comes forward to get the kid.”

7. Charging parents with human trafficking

Many of the unaccompanied children reuniting with their families in the United States arrive at the border with the help of smugglers hired by their parents or relatives. “Regardless of the desires for family reunion, or conditions in other countries,” Kelly wrote in his memo, “the smuggling or trafficking of alien children is intolerable.” To that end, Kelly states that anyone who contributes “directly or indirectly” to the smuggling of a child could face deportation or criminal prosecution.

To advocates, this move seems especially punitive. “No person is more concerned about the safety of a child than a parent,” Podkul says. “They’re doing the only thing they know how to do to save their child’s life. By going after them, that’s not going to stop any sort of problem. It’s not going to stop the problem in the home country. It’s not going to stop kids from needing to flee.”

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Inside Trump’s Border Crackdown on Women and Kids

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Trump’s budget is a declaration of war on the environment

The Trump team wants to dramatically shrink much of the federal government, but you know what it wants to shrink most of all? Environmental programs. Under the budget plan released by the White House on Thursday, the Environmental Protection Agency would take a bigger percentage hit than any other cabinet-level department: Its funding would be slashed by almost a third. That means many of the agency’s programs would experience crippling budget cuts, while others would get wiped out entirely. Environmental programs in other departments would come under the ax as well.

President Trump claims he wants to focus on clean air and water instead of climate change, but this new “skinny budget” proposal suggests otherwise. It not only eliminates climate initiatives, but cuts air and water programs, too.

Here are 13 of the most critical proposed budget cuts:

 Slashed: EPA’s budget would be cut by 31 percent, from $8.2 billion to $5.7 billion — its lowest level in four decades, accounting for inflation.
 Slashed: EPA’s staff would be cut by about 21 percent, taking the workforce from around 15,000 people down to some 11,800.
Eliminated: International climate change programs run by the State Department and the EPA would end, including payments the U.S. had pledged to make to United Nations climate efforts.
Eliminated: President Obama’s signature Clean Power Plan, designed to reduce CO2 emissions from power plants, would have all of its funding zeroed out. (Trump is soon expected to issue an executive order calling for the Clean Power Plan to be rewritten.)
Eliminated: Restoration programs for the Great Lakes and the Chesapeake Bay would be completely wiped out.
Eliminated: Energy Star, a popular voluntary labeling program for efficient appliances and devices, would lose all federal funding.
Slashed: The Superfund program for cleanup of contaminated sites would have its funding cut from about $1.1 billion to $762 million. (EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt reportedly pushed to maintain funding for toxic site cleanups, but lost that battle.)
Eliminated: There would be no more funding for long-distance Amtrak trains; federal funds would be focused on Amtrak’s regional service, like in the Northeast Corridor.
Eliminated: The Department of Agriculture’s water and waste disposal loan and grant program, which gives money to rural governments and tribal nations to improve drinking water systems, would end.
Eliminated: All funding would be erased for National Historic Sites, which are managed by the National Park Service.
Eliminated: No funds would go to the Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program, which improves the energy efficiency of low-income families’ homes, helping them save money on utility bills and prevent carbon pollution.
Eliminated: The Department of Energy would lose all funding for its Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which helps to get innovative energy technologies off the ground, and for the Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing Program, which works to develop more advanced, efficient cars.
Slashed: NASA’s climate research programs would get hit hard, with several missions that study climate change getting the ax.

There’s lots more where that came from. If you want to dig deeper into Trump’s budget plans, the Washington Post has an excellent rundown.

Keep in mind, though: Congress gets to write federal budgets, not the president. Trump has now put forward his proposal, but the House and Senate will do their own thing. Even many Republicans are unnerved by Trump’s proposed cuts, environmental and otherwise. Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, chair of the subcommittee that writes EPA’s budget, said she “cannot support” many of the cuts. And Rep. Leonard Lance, a New Jersey Republican, argued that some of the cuts “are penny wise but pound foolish.” That’s putting it mildly.

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Trump’s budget is a declaration of war on the environment

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Trump Declares War on EPA Mileage Standards

Mother Jones

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California has made a lot of noise about being the front line of resistance to President Trump, but mostly it’s just blather. This week, however, it’s finally getting very real:

President Trump will direct the Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday to shelve aggressive vehicle fuel economy targets that are a pillar of climate action and anti-pollution efforts in California and nationwide, according to a senior administration official.

…Targeting them puts the White House on a path of direct and costly confrontation with California….Under the Clean Air Act, the state has the authority to impose emissions standards stronger than those set by the federal government, and a dozen other states have embraced the California rules, as the act allows. About 40% of the vehicles sold in America are subject to the rules California sets. Automakers have said repeatedly that it is untenable to manufacture separate fleets of vehicles to meet different standards.

The state had refrained from charting its own course on mileage goals as part of a compromise with auto companies and the EPA early in the Obama administration. That agreement will start to unravel Wednesday with Trump’s action, which will direct the EPA to re-open the rule-making for the mileage standards. If, as environmental and auto lobbyists anticipate, the administration ultimately decides to weaken the rules, California will almost certainly move to invoke its federal waiver.

There are other disputes on the horizon between California and the Trump administration, but this is the first big one. From the very beginning, California has had an exemption under the Clean Air Act to set its own standards, and these standards have often led the nation. The state is pretty jealous of this prerogative, and it will fight to prevent any change to the law that weakens it. However, unless the Trump administration succeeds in doing that, it’s likely that California will adopt the current EPA standards and car companies will follow along even if Trump trashes the federal rules. It’s either that or build two separate fleets of cars, one for California and its fellow green states, and one for everyone else.

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Trump Declares War on EPA Mileage Standards

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