What to Know in Washington: Russia Sanction Threats Renewed

Bloomberg Government subscribers get the stories like this first. Act now and gain unlimited access to everything you need to know. Learn more.

The conclusion by Special Counsel Robert Mueller that Russia interfered in the 2016 election has renewed congressional threats of new sanctions against the country as retribution and to discourage future threats from the government in Moscow and other adversaries.

“I’d like to punish them more,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has introduced legislation to impose sanctions on an array of Russian assets. “I’d also like to defend the infrastructure because it’s just not Russia we’re worried about.”

Graham’s bill includes sanctions on Russian banks, new sovereign debt, liquefied natural gas investments, political figures and oligarchs. It also calls for a report on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s net worth and assets. It would block President Donald Trump from pulling out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization without clearance from the Senate.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), said Russians “need to pay a price” for their election interference, described by Attorney General William Barr in his report to Congress as comprising of both a disinformation campaign and a computer hacking operation.

“Left to their own devices they’re going to continue to sow as much discord and disruption as they possibly can,” Cornyn said in an interview, underscoring the need to deter the country from future meddling as much as to punish it for past offenses. Read more from Daniel Flatley and Nancy Ognanovich.

Photographer: Alex Wroblewski/Bloomberg

Mueller Probe Lives On: Meanwhile,Mueller’s investigation spawned a number of significant inquiries related to Trump that have outlasted the special counsel’s probe. Mueller informed Attorney General William Barr on Friday that his probe into Russian election meddling is over after 22 months. Mueller began handing off several investigations to U.S. attorney’s offices in Washington, New York and elsewhere. Erik Larson and Chris Strohm round up the outstanding investigations.

House Oversight: In the House, Democrats yesterday took the first steps toward advancing legislation they said would address a series of Trump administration scandals by giving new investigative powers to the Office of Government Ethics. The ethics office, which has played an advisory role for the White House and executive branch agencies for nearly four decades, needs new authority, including subpoena power, “to clean up the mess of this administration,” said House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.).

Cummings and other Democrats cited Trump Cabinet officials who left the government under an ethical cloud, including Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt, to argue for strengthening standards. Read more from Kenneth P. Doyle.

Also Happening on the Hill

Pay Bias Bill Heads to House Floor: The House today is scheduled to vote on legislation intended to help squelch pay disparities for workers doing the same job. The Paycheck Fairness Act is expected to first draw some partisan debate before the chamber moves for a final vote. Democrats and Republicans have already clashed on the legislation, which would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to require companies to show that pay disparities among workers doing the same job are based on “bonafide job-related factors” that are “consistent with business necessity.”

The bill has been introduced consistently since the 1990s as an effort to close race and sex pay gaps, but it hasn’t been able to clear both chambers. The re-introduced bill is anticipated to pass the House but stall in the Republican-controlled Senate. Read more from Tyrone Richardson.

Senate Disaster Aid Vote: Republicans and Democrats continue negotiating the details of a disaster package after the Senate yesterday voted 90-10 to bring a $14 billion relief bill to the floor for debate.

Trump during a private lunch with Republican senators yesterday leveled criticism at Puerto Rico’s use of past disaster aid, further complicating the negotiations. Trump used charts to illustrate his view that Puerto Rico has been given too much in disaster aid over recent years compared to states like Texas and has failed to make good use of it, senators said.

Many Republicans are eager to move past Trump’s objections to helping Puerto Rico so they can designate supplemental federal funds to address the effects of hurricanes and tornadoes in southeastern states, western wildfires and Midwest flooding. The Senate will resume consideration of the measure today. Read more from Erik Wasson and Laura Litvan.

For more on the legislation, read the BGOV Bill Summary from Michael Smallberg and Sarah Babbage.

Senate Blocks ‘Green New Deal’: The Senate blocked Democrats’ Green New Deal, as McConnell attempted to force the party’s presidential contenders into an embarrassing vote over a far-reaching and costly climate-change proposal that Republicans say voters will oppose. The vote yesterday was 0-57, with most Democrats voting “present” to sidestep the GOP maneuver and buy time to build their campaign positions.

The vote is just the first step by Republicans to put the Green New Deal in the spotlight. The proposal—mostly a collection of goals for mitigating climate change rather than a fully formed plan of action—has been a favorite target for criticism by Republicans since freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) rolled it out in February.

“I could not be more glad that the American people will have the opportunity to learn precisely where each one of their senators stand on this radical, top-down, socialist makeover of the entire U.S. economy,” McConnell said before the vote. Read more from Laura Litvan and Steven T. Dennis.

Border Emergency Survives as Veto Override Falls Short: The Democratic-controlled House lost a veto override vote yesterday that aimed to halt Trump’s national emergency plan to fund a border wall. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), who wrote the resolution, said in a joint statement that the House and Senate votes against the emergency declaration “will provide significant evidence for the courts as they review lawsuits.” A coalition of 16 states, led by California, sued the Trump administration last month in an effort to block the declaration.

“We will continue to review all options to protect our Constitution and our democracy from the president’s assault,” Pelosi and Castro added. Read more from Arit John.

Republicans Says USMCA Passage a Priority: House Republicans had a “great meeting” with Trump on the renegotiated NAFTA trade deal and discussed how to get the accord between the U.S., Canada and Mexico through Congress, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) told reporters yesterday after the meeting at the White House. Scalise said his team is talking to Democrats about the trade deal, which must be approved by Congress.

“This is an area where Republicans and Democrats together can agree this is a better deal for America,” the top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), said. Brady said Republicans are willing to work with Democrats to fine-tune the agreement, including on enforcement issues, Greg Sullivan and Justin Sink report.

Politics & Elections

Taking on Trump: The path to the White House for Democrats runs, in part, through Trump country. Yet few of the candidates running for the party’s nomination have demonstrated much ability to win on the president’s territory. Only three of the major Democratic contenders hail from states Donald Trump won in 2016, and most of the candidates who’ve run for statewide office haven’t had to — or been able to — win where the president was strong, a Bloomberg analysis of county-by-county election results since 2014 shows.

Sen. Bernie Sanders is the early Democratic front-runner, according to surveys, and someone with a message focused on working-class Trump voters resentful of the power of corporate America and the wealthy. Still, he represents solidly Democratic Vermont where only one of 14 counties went for Trump. Sanders did carry that county on his way to re-election last November, though by his smallest margin in the state.

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke comes from a Democratic stronghold in heavily Republican Texas, and he came within 2.5 percentage points of toppling GOP Senator Ted Cruz in the 2018 election. But he did that with an energized Democratic base and carried just six of the 227 counties Trump won in the state. Read more from John McCormick.

Biden on Anita Hill: Former Vice President Joe Biden said he regrets not doing more to ensure that Anita Hill was able to share her accusations of sexual harassment against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas nearly three decades ago. “To this day I regret I couldn’t give her the kind of hearing she deserved,” Biden, who was the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Thomas hearings in 1991, said in New York yesterday at what could be one of his final public appearances before entering the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

“I wish I could’ve done something,” he added. Biden has faced criticism from feminists and others for not doing more to help Hill tell her story and has offered public apologies in recent years, but it remains one of the vulnerabilities he’ll have to deal with if he enters the race. In retrospect, he said, he should have held a hearing “where the tone and questioning was not hostile.” Read more from Jennifer Epstein.

Movers & Shakeups

Space Command Chief Tapped: A plan by Trump and the Pentagon to stand up a new war-fighting space command alongside the planned Space Force military service took a crucial step forward yesterday when the president nominated a commander. Gen. John “Jay” Raymond was picked to head the U.S. Space Command and now must be confirmed by the Senate. The four-star general is currently in charge of Air Force Space Command in Colorado and would take on both roles. Raymond, whose nomination was announced by Vice President Mike Pence’s office, has deep experience and has overseen Air Force space operations since Oct. 2016. He is likely to be confirmed to the new command, which is less controversial and more widely supported on Capitol Hill than Trump’s Space Force. Read more from Travis J. Tritten.

More Nominations: Thomas Feddo will be nominated for assistant secretary for investment security at the Treasury Department, the White House said in a statement yesterday. Feddo, formerly a partner at Alston & Bird LLP, currently serves as deputy assistant secretary for investment security.

The White House also announced the nomination of Michelle Bekkering to be assistant administrator of USAID for economic policy. She has previously served at the National Security Council in George W. Bush’s administration and former Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s (R-Calif.) office.

Moore’s Fed Policy: Stephen Moore, who Trump may nominate for a seat on the Federal Reserve Board, told the New York Times in an interview that the central bank should immediately reverse course and lower interest rates by half a percentage point. That’s a contrast from language used by sitting board members in recent days. San Francisco President Mary Daly told reporters yesterday that the appropriate policy is being patient. Minneapolis’ Neel Kashkari and Chicago’s Charles Evans also called for caution since the Fed met last week.

Moore made his comments in an interview with the newspaper, in which he also said he wouldn’t be a “sycophant” for Trump if nominated and confirmed. He said he regretted previous remarks calling for the Fed chairman Jerome Powell to resign. Read more from Enda Curran.

What Else to Know

U.S.-China Trade: U.S. and Chinese officials resume high-level trade talks this week as they close in on a deal that could just be the first step in the long road to economic peace. Trump’s top trade negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin are due to visit Beijing on Thursday and Friday, while top Chinese negotiator, Vice Premier Liu He, plans to travel to the U.S. the following week.

The burst of diplomacy suggests both sides remain determined to reach an agreement that would avoid any escalation of the eight-month trade war that has seen them impose duties on $360 billion of each others’ imports. Andrew Mayeda has the latest on the talks.

NATO’s Stoltenberg to Meet With Trump: NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg will meet with Trump on April 2 to discuss “the unprecedented successes of NATO, including the recent increased commitments on burden-sharing among European allies, and ways to address the current, evolving challenges facing the Alliance,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement. Read more from Chelsea Mes.

Nielsen Heads to Central America: Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen will be in Central America today to sign a “first of its kind” regional pact that aims to improve information sharing and coordination to curb human trafficking, drugs and waves of migration, according to a White House statement. She met with senior officials from Mexico yesterday to discuss border security, the statement said.

Cash Cutoff Unlikely in College Probe: The eight colleges involved in the recent multi-million dollar admissions scandal are under investigation by the Education Department, but higher education experts doubt they will face any financial sanctions. The schools, which include Yale University and the University of Southern California, are entangled in schemes that included sports coaches allegedly accepting bribes to recruit non-athlete students so they could gain admission. Other parents allegedly paid to artificially inflate their children’s SAT and ACT scores. An investigation by the Justice Department led to 50 arrests earlier this month.

While there is no evidence so far that top administrators at the schools were aware of the cheating, the Education Department opened an investigation into the schools on Monday night. The department warned colleges they risk a loss of federal funding if they were found to lack the administrative capabilities needed to administer the financial aid program, or if the schools substantially misrepresented their programs to prospective students. Higher education experts said none of those things appear to be an issue among the schools accused of admitting students with rigged applications. Read more from Emily Wilkins.

Pentagon Transgender Policy Final Clearance: The Pentagon was cleared yesterday to impose its new transgender service policy after the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals lifted the only remaining federal injunction holding it back. The court order means that beginning April 12 the military can proceed with its plan to bar prospective transgender recruits with histories of gender dysphoria or gender reassignment surgery. Any transgender troops without those medical histories will be required to serve in their birth gender. Read more from Travis J. Tritten.

Google’s Work in China Spurs Pentagon Meeting: When Google’s boss sits down with a top U.S. military official today, the conversation will likely center on Google’s presence in China —particularly a lab that may be more trouble for the company than it’s worth. CEO Sundar Pichai will meet in Washington with Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a person familiar with the situation said.

The internet giant extended the invitation after criticism from Dunford about Google’s artificial intelligence work in China, which he said “indirectly benefits the Chinese military.” Dunford cited an AI lab Google opened in Beijing in late 2017. Less than two years later, the small office is causing a massive headache for Google, sitting at the locus of a collision between the firm’s global ambitions and the U.S. military’s mounting unease over China’s technical might. Read more from Mark Bergen.

North Korea Talks: As talks between Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un flourished last year, South Korean leader Moon Jae-in enjoyed international praise for bringing them together. Now that they’ve split, he’s facing pressure to get them back to the table. Trump’s decision to walk away from his Hanoi summit with Kim continues to reverberate a month later in Seoul, where Moon has come under fire from the conservative opposition for accepting the North Korean leader’s disarmament pledges. The Kim regime has hit hi m from the other side, withdrawing staff from a new joint liaison office last week and criticizing South Korea as “cowardly” for backing his U.S. allies’ stance against easing sanctions. Read more from Jon Herskovitz and Jihye Lee.

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: Loren Duggan at lduggan@bgov.com; Giuseppe Macri at gmacri@bgov.com

Coming up at BGOV

Webinars

The Pentagon’s March to the Cloud
April 18, 2019
Register Now

Stay informed with more news like this – from the largest team of reporters on Capitol Hill – subscribe to Bloomberg Government today. Learn more.

Top