What to Know in Washington: Candidates, Congress Show Iran Worry

Democratic presidential candidates are expressing growing alarm over the escalating confrontation between the U.S. and Iran, and the possibility that it could lead to war.

“It would be an absolute disaster,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). “It would likely make the disaster of the war in Iraq look small and we’ve got to do everything we can to prevent that from happening.”

Sanders said he was trying to rally fellow lawmakers to make it clear to President Donald Trump that he cannot involve the country in a military conflict without authorization.

“The president has to understand that the Constitution mandates that it’s Congress that decides when we go into war, not the president alone,” Sanders said. “So we are working now in one way or another to get 51 members of the Senate and hopefully a majority in the House, to say, you know, you don’t have the authority. He does not have the authority to go to war in Iran,” he added.

Democratic front-runner Joe Biden said Tuesday that he was concerned the Trump administration would instigate a military confrontation. He urged the White House to abide by the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran. Trump withdrew the U.S. from the accord last year.

Tensions heightened this month after the administration revoked waivers that allowed Iran to continue selling oil to some customers despite American sanctions. The U.S. has ordered its non-emergency government staff to leave Iraq amid fears that the region might be heading toward another conflict. Read more from Steven T. Dennis.

Meanwhile, members of Congress are seeking answers from the administration on U.S. plans to respond to escalating tensions with Iran. U.S. officials will meet today with congressional leaders from both parties in both chambers, including heads of both intelligence committees, to discuss the Middle East, according to a person familiar with the plans.

There will be a larger briefing for all House members next week, which will include Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, according to another person.

Photographer: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Bloomberg
Pompeo, back from a surprise trip to Brussels to discuss Iran, could brief lawmakers next week.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J,), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, rejected that timeline for information and warned that uninformed decisions could lead to conflict like the U.S.’s military involvement in Iraq in the last decade, which was justified with faulty intelligence.

“Things are happening at warp speed here,” Menendez said. “We don’t need another Iraq weapons of mass destruction moment, that we’re led into things on false information, unverifiable, untested. So I am alarmed that we cannot even get the basic briefings in a timely manner.” Read more from Steven T. Dennis and Billy House.

Trump to Unveil Kushner’s Immigration Overhaul

Trump today will unveil a new plan to overhaul the existing U.S. immigration system with a program developed by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, that stands little chance of passing Congress. The proposal calls for some of Trump’s promised border wall to be constructed while ignoring key Democratic priorities, such as legal status for millions of migrants brought to the country illegally as children.

The proposal would rank would-be immigrants by metrics including age, English proficiency, an offer of employment at certain wage levels or in specialty jobs, or vocational training, according to three administration officials who asked not to be identified discussing the plan ahead of Trump’s speech.

The proposal includes the construction of Trump’s promised wall at 33 “priority’’ locations along the Mexican border, and higher immigration fees would finance continuous upgrades of infrastructure along the border and at ports of entry. The White House would also overhaul the asylum process to reduce claims for refugee status at the border, after a surge of migrants claiming danger in their home countries overwhelmed immigration courts. Read more from Justin Sink and Margaret Talev.

Trump’s Wall Plan: The Trump administration also unveiled a multi-tiered plan to pay for construction of a Mexico border wall. The government intends to begin awarding the latest tranche of contracts today, drawing on $2.5 billion from the Defense Department, primarily from budgets for drug interdiction and counter-drug activities, the Justice Department said in a court filing yesterday. That amount is all that Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan is currently prepared to give Trump for the project, according to the filing. Another $600 million will come from the Treasury Department’s Forfeiture Fund. Read more from Kartikay Mehrotra.

Democrats Seek to Curb Emergency Funds: Meanwhile, House Armed Services Committee Democrats introduced a bill that would curb Trump’s ability to use military construction funds in case of a national emergency. The bill would limit U.S. emergency military construction authority at $250 million per emergency. The bill would only allow money that cannot be spent for its intended purpose to be used for an emergency, and would require more information in the form of congressional notification. Read more from Roxana Tiron.

Trade War With China Escalates

Move to Curb Huawei: Trump ratcheted up his battle with China for dominance of 5G technology networks, moving to curb Huawei’s access to the U.S. market and American suppliers. The president yesterday signed an order that’s expected to restrict Huawei and fellow Chinese telecommunications company ZTE from selling their equipment in the U.S. Shortly afterward, the Department of Commerce said it had put Huawei on a blacklist that could forbid it from doing business with American companies.

The pair of actions risk aggravating Beijing as the American president seeks to pressure China’s leaders into agreeing to a wide-ranging trade deal. Trump has threatened to impose tariffs on almost all imports from the world’s No. 2 economy after last week hiking duties on some $200 billion in Chinese products. Read more from Margaret Talev, Todd Shields and Shawn Donnan.

China Confirms Arrests of Canadians: China confirmed it has formally arrested two Canadians detained since December, in cases that have further strained tensions between the countries. Michael Kovrig, who works for the International Crisis Group, and entrepreneur Michael Spavor “were arrested in accordance with the law,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said during a regular news briefing today in Beijing. Kovrig was arrested on suspicion of spying on state secrets for foreign entities and other intelligence crimes, while Spavor was held on suspicion of stealing state secrets to foreign entities, Lu said.

The men were detained separately days after the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver at the request of the U.S. Read more from Karen Leigh and Dandan Li.

Trump Weighs Deadline to Curb Auto Exports: Trump will give the EU and Japan 180 days to agree to a deal that would “limit or restrict” imports into the U.S. of cars and parts as part a move to delay new auto tariffs, according to a draft executive order seen by Bloomberg. According to the order, which Trump is expected to sign this week, the administration has determined that imports of cars into the U.S. present a threat to its national security because they have hurt domestic producers and their ability to invest in new technologies. Read more from Jenny Leonard and Shawn Donnan.

Farm Aid Plan: The Trump administration is still in the “throes” of assembling the president’s promised $15 billion agriculture aid package for an industry hurt in the trade war with China, but it will probably include direct payments to farmers similar to those in last year’s trade assistance, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said. Perdue said yesterday his department is “expediting” preparation of the aid plan, which Trump announced Friday as he escalated the trade war. Read more from Mike Dorning.

Happening on the Hill

Trump Hits 40 Appeals Court Appointments: Kenneth Lee became Trump’s 40th appeals court nominee to win confirmation, a milestone not reached by his three immediate predecessors until their second terms. The Senate yesterday confirmed the first generation South Korean immigrant and Jenner & Block partner, 52 to 45, to a seat on the California-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

The Republican majority has uniformly supported Trump judicial nominees, although Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) created controversy on Tuesday when he voted against confirming district court appointee Michael Truncale. Romney reportedly said he did so because Truncale, who was confirmed easily, once had made disparaging comments about President Barack Obama. Romney lost to Obama in the 2012 presidential election. Read more from Patrick L. Gregory.

Infrastructure Follow-up: Trump is set to meet next week with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to discuss funding options for a $2 trillion infrastructure plan, according to a Senate aide. The meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, the aide said. The Democrats said after their last meeting on April 30 that Trump agreed on a $2 trillion goal for rebuilding crumbling U.S. public works but that it was up to the White House to come up way to pay for it. Read more from Mark Niquette.

Women’s Military Issues: More female veterans are serving in the 116th Congress than at any other time, and they’re coming together to tackle the challenges faced by current and former female service members. A group of House lawmakers launched the Servicewomen and Women Veterans Congressional Caucus this week to focus on issues affecting female service members during their service and after they transition out of the military. The new group follows the establishment earlier this month of a joint fundraising venture, an d a female veterans task force to address the needs of the fastest growing cohort in the military. Read more from Megan Howard.

Wyden Questions NRA’s Nonprofit Status: Senate Finance Committee ranking member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said allegations of lavish spending by NRA officials may mean that the organization should have its tax-exempt status revoked. Wyden is the latest in a string of lawmakers who have called for probes of the National Rifle Association, which is tax exempt under code Section 501(c)(4), a category that includes social welfare organizations. The New Yorker earlier this year reported of rampant self-dealing at the NRA, and The New York Times published a story this month detailing turmoil within the organization. Kaustuv Basu has more.

National Parks Bill Gaining Steam: Momentum is building in Congress for a measure that would help reduce a $12 billion maintenance backlog at national parks, according to a bipartisan group of lawmakers. The bill would allocate $6.5 billion for park upkeep through 2024. It already has 207 cosponsors in the House and 36 in the Senate, plus support from the Trump administration. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said he’s confident more senators will sign on. Read more from Stephen Lee.

Rubio’s Corporate Growth Plan: Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is on a crusade to compel corporations to prioritize long-term growth over quarterly profits. That could make him some friends among Democrats, but he’s facing steep resistance from corporate stockholders and his own party. Rubio wants Congress to encourage corporations to spend money to creates jobs and grow the economy. To do that, lawmakers would need to focus on promoting capital investment and de-emphasize the financial sector, he said in a report released yesterday. Read more from Laura Davison.

Climate Guidance Revamp: Trump’s environmental adviser vowed yesterday to give the public a chance to weigh in on the Trump administration’s plans for replacing the Obama administration’s climate policy. Mary Neumayr, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, told Senate Environment and Public Works members she’ll release a draft of the Trump guidance, which has been under review at the Office of Management and Budget since February, and invite the public to comment before making it final. Dean Scott has more.

Elections and Politics

DeBlasio Hits the Trail: New York Mayor Bill de Blasio joined the already thick ranks of contenders for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination this morning, hoping that his advocacy of major investments in education and health care, warnings about income inequality and a high profile as the leader of the largest U.S. city will make his candidacy stand out. He also said he was uniquely qualified to take on Trump.

“I’m a New Yorker. I’ve known Trump’s a bully for a long time,” de Blasio said in a video announcing his candidacy. “This is not news to me or anyone here. And I know how to take him on.”

De Blasio becomes the 23rd active candidate in the race, and many of his competitors have been raising money, hiring staff and campaigning for months. The announcement came hours before he was scheduled to embark on a two-day foray into Iowa and South Carolina — two states among the earliest to select presidential convention delegates next year. Read more from Henry Goldman.

Delta Draws Fire From Sanders, Warren: The machinists union and a group of senators including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) are accusing Delta Air Lines of foul play in the struggle over whether 40,000 of its employees will unionize. The International Association of Machinists filed a complaint with the National Mediation Board, accusing Delta of “systematic, widespread and egregious forms of interference with employee choice” on unionization. Nine senators including presidential candidates Warren and Sanders told Delta CEO Ed Bastian his company is “bombarding employees with anti-union propaganda” and directing management “to actively interfere with the efforts of your workers to decide this question for themselves.” Read more from Josh Eidelson.

Crypto Backers Now a Have Presidential Candidate: There’s one Democratic presidential contender who has got the back of the crypto community. Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur who is running as a Democrat in the 2020 race and who recently unveiled a digital-asset platform, said he’d like to see greater regulatory frameworks for the community and its underlying blockchain technology, which he thinks could help spur new innovation. “I believe that blockchain needs to be a big part of our future,” he said at the Consensus conference in New York. Read more from Vildana Hajric.

Election Agency Resources Shrink: A tiny federal agency charged with helping secure U.S. elections has shrunk even more as the threat of foreign interference has grown. While the Election Assistance Commission is back in business with a full slate of four commissioners for the first time in nearly a decade, its staff and funding have been cut in half during that time, Chairwoman Christy McCormick told the Senate Rules Committee at an oversight hearing. Staffing has dropped to 22 employees from a high of 49, while the EAC’s annual operating budget of just under $8 million has dropped to 50% of what it was in 2010, she said. Read more from Kenneth P. Doyle.

Trump Pardons Former Mogul Black: Trump pardoned former media tycoon Conrad Black yesterday, formally forgiving the Hollinger International founder of a conviction for mail fraud and obstruction of justice. Black, 74, who served three and a half years in prison after a federal jury found he illegally diverted money that belonged to stockholders to himself, founded a company that at one time owned some of the world’s best-known newspapers, including the Chicago Sun-Times, The Daily Telegraph and the Jerusalem Post. Last year, he published a book called “Donald J. Trump: A President Like No Other.” Read more from Justin Sink.

What Else to Know

Trump to Host Switzerland President: Trump and Swiss Confederation President Ueli Maurerwill will meet at the White House today to discuss “the partnership between the United States and Switzerland, including matters such as Switzerland’s role in facilitating diplomatic relations and other international issues,” the White House said in a statement. The leaders will meet in the Oval Office at 11:50 a.m.

Trumps Seek to Block Records Subpoena: Trump again asked a judge to block subpoenas directing Deutsche Bank and Capital One to turn over his bank records, as well as those of his three oldest children and some Trump businesses. The Trumps sued in Manhattan federal court last month to block the banks from complying with the subpoenas, issued by two committees of the Democrat-controlled House. The action is part of a broader effort by the president to try to block or delay potentially embarrassing House investigations as he runs for re -election next year. Read more from Bob Van Voris.

White House Targets Social Media ‘Bias’: The Trump administration is increasing its pressure on social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter over alleged political bias with a White House form for reporting potential censorship of political views. “Too many Americans have seen their accounts suspended, banned, or fraudulently reported for unclear ‘violations’ of user policies,” according to the form, which the White House’s official Twitter account posted yesterday. “No matter your views, if you suspect political bias caused such an action to be taken against you, share your story with President Trump.” Read more from Kurt Wagner and Ben Brody.

Trump to Visit South Korea in June: Trump will visit South Korea while in Asia for the G-20 summit in late June, the White House said yesterday amid concerns of a breakdown in nuclear talks with North Korea. Trump will meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in to discuss nuclear talks as well as ways to bolster the U.S.-South Korea alliance, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement. Trump is expected to make the visit in conjunction with travel to Japan for the international summit, where he said he expects to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Justin Sink reports.

Ex-Treasury Official Joins Exante Data: Brad Setser is now a senior adviser at Exante Data, which analyzes flows in financial markets. Setser is also a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Previously, he served as the deputy assistant secretary for international economic analysis at the Treasury Department and was a visiting scholar at the International Monetary Fund. Read more from Katherine Greifeld.

To contact the reporters on this story: Zachary Sherwood in Washington at zsherwood@bgov.com; Brandon Lee in Washington at blee@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Giuseppe Macri at gmacri@bgov.com; Loren Duggan at lduggan@bgov.com