GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) — Three Western Michigan University graduate students moved into their on-campus apartments at the beginning of the fall semester. The campus on which they are living, though, is not Western Michigan’s. And their neighbors are not college students — at least they have not been for a long time. Colett Chapp, […]
By T.S. Strickland,
PACE, Fla. — A conservative congressman from northern Florida called on President Trump to release his tax returns at a town hall meeting here Thursday, reflecting the growing pressure on Republican lawmakers this week to assuage angry constituents.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) faced at least 500 constituents in a crowded bowling alley for nearly two hours Thursday evening in this quiet suburb of Pensacola, where he was grilled about his relationship with Trump, his stance on repealing the Affordable Care Act and his proposal to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency.
Gaetz, winding up a 14-hour listening tour of his home district, also promised that Congress would not repeal the Affordable Care Act without protecting its provision requiring coverage for preexisting conditions.
“No bill will be before the United States Congress that allows people to be discriminated against as a consequence of preexisting conditions,” Gaetz said.
“But, make no mistake,” he added. “Obamacare is a threat to our economy, a threat to our health care, and, as your congressman, I will work everyday to repeal it.”
Gaetz is an unlikely congressman to push for Trump to release his tax returns; he also ended Thursday’s town hall by shouting “Make America Great Again” over roaring opposition from the audience.
The 34-year-old freshman and former state legislator announced his candidacy for Congress last March, when he promised that Trump would “turn that town on its head and hit the restart button,” according to WFSU. He was elected in his safely Republican district with 69 percent of the vote.
Gaetz, who arrived to the town hall 30 minutes late, took questions on a wide range of topics during an event that was often tense but peaceful, with crowds booing the congressman and waving signs.
The congressman had been prepared to be shouted down by a hostile crowd; according to CNN, his staff had created several placards that could be hoisted in the event that the audience became too loud for him to be heard. The posters contained such messages as “professional liberal protesters.”
Donna Waters, a Pensacola attorney and registered Republican, was one of several to press Gaetz about his relationship with Trump.
“There are allegations that a hostile foreign country is committing acts of undeclared war by infiltrating the highest levels of our government,” Waters said. “That offends me. I don’t know if it offends my party, but it offends me. You are on the Judiciary Committee. You have said that they are going to investigate the Russian allegations … Will you call for the release of President Trump’s income tax records?”
Gaetz responded by saying he “absolutely” believed Trump should release his returns. Answering a separate question, he stopped short of calling for a special committee or independent commission to investigate allegations of Russian interference in the U.S. election, as another audience member suggested.
Gaetz also fielded numerous questions about the Affordable Care Act.
Jennifer Zimmerman, a local pediatrician, urged the congressman to leave the legislation intact. Zimmerman said that almost 90 percent of her patients qualify for Medicaid, and she noted that her husband and daughter had both suffered preexisting conditions that had limited their access to health coverage prior to the law’s passage.
“If not for the policies of the ACA, I don’t think any of my family members would be here,” Waters told Gaetz. In response, the congressman told her that he would work to ensure those with preexisting conditions were protected.
Thursday night’s town hall was the final event in Gaetz’s all-day tour of Santa Rosa County that also included visits to business groups, a nursing home and a local middle school, where Gaetz delivered a civics lesson to a group of seventh graders.
The congressman emphasized the importance of free speech, political protest and a vigorous and oppositional press to a functioning democracy. In discussing the Bill of Rights, he lingered on the 10th amendment.
“The magic of American government is that we are suspicious of power,” Gaetz told the students. “We want it for the people, not just the folks who are elected.”
He returned to this point again when a student asked what would become of the EPA’s roughly 15,000 employees should the agency be abolished, as Gaetz has proposed.
“There are a lot of people who work at the EPA now who would not have their jobs,” Gaetz said, though he added that he expected some of those employees to be hired by state and local agencies.
“We believe in a clean environment,” Gaetz said. “The question is, under the 10th Amendment principles I believe in, who is best positioned to do that?”
At midday Thursday, Gaetz also hosted a town hall at a nearby BBQ joint, where he was greeted by a crowd of several hundred, many of whom hoisted signs in opposition to the EPA proposal.
The local Democratic Women’s Club had earlier announced plans to protest at the event, prompting a response from Gaetz’s supporters and the local chapter of Bikers for Trump. “I need all patriots in attendance to protect Congressman Gaetz from any potential disruption of his speech,” supporter Geoff Ross wrote on Facebook prior to the event. “Concealed carry permit holders most welcome — don’t forget your ammo.”
Ross’s comments quickly prompted calls for Gaetz to distance himself from the group. He did the opposite, the bikers “friends” on social media and welcoming them to the event.
“We understand not everyone agrees on every political issue, thus dissent, discord and protests are expected,” Gaetz’s office said in a news release Wednesday. “We believe dissent and protests are signs of a healthy democracy, but most of all we ask everyone attending to behave in a non-violent and non-disruptive manner.”
Gaetz’s office had declared that attendees would need to present identification to attend the event, citing concerns about crowd size. The room where the event was held, at Grover T’s BBQ, could accommodate only 80 of the several hundred people who showed up. Those remaining, mostly protesters, crowded outside while Gaetz fielded questions.
Carri Brown, who lives in nearby Pensacola, did not arrive early enough to make it inside. A retired public utility employee, she came to the event hoping to urge Gaetz to reconsider his bid to do away with the EPA.
Brown lives in Wedgewood, a low-income, historically black neighborhood where residents have waged a decades-long battle against the encroachment of landfills and borrow pits. Residents have complained to local and state officials for years that the pits jeopardized their safety, health and quality of life, to no avail.
“We are surrounded by pits,” Brown said Thursday. “It’s almost like we are in a bowl.”
Brown took a dim view of Gaetz’s assertion that state and local governments are best positioned to protect the environment.
“It’s a farce,” she said.
CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Some Australians foresee trouble in their country’s traditionally strong alliance with the United States because of what they see as “unpresidential” behavior from President Donald Trump, while others think outspoken businessman-turned-Australian-leader Malcolm Turnbull is a good match for him. Australians have long had an affinity with the United States and absorb […]
CAIRO (AP) — Egyptians are bearing down under their worst inflation in a decade, cutting spending as much as possible as prices surge on basic food items, transport, housing, and even some essential medicines. Inflation reached almost 30 percent in January, up five percent over the previous month, driven by the floatation of the Egyptian […]
TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — Police say five people have been injured in a stabbing attack at a group home in Ohio by a woman who allegedly was removed from the home for being disruptive. Toledo police say the woman returned to the home Thursday afternoon after being removed a day earlier. They say she grabbed […]
(WASHINGTON) — White House chief of staff Reince Priebus asked a top FBI official to dispute media reports that President Donald Trump’s campaign advisers were frequently in touch with Russian intelligence agents during the election, a White House official said late Thursday.
The official said Priebus’ request came after the FBI told the White House it believed a New York Times report last week describing those contacts was not accurate. As of Thursday, the FBI had not stated that position publicly and there was no indication it planned to.
The New York Times reported that U.S. agencies had intercepted phone calls last year between Russian intelligence officials and members of Trump’s 2016 campaign team.
Priebus’ discussion with FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe sparked outrage among some Democrats, who said he was violating policies intended to limit communications between the law enforcement agency and the White House on pending investigations.
“The White House is simply not permitted to pressure the FBI to make public statements about a pending investigation of the president and his advisers,” said Michigan Rep. John Conyers, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.
A 2009 memo from then-Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department is to advise the White House on pending criminal or civil investigations “only when it is important for the performance of the president’s duties and appropriate from a law enforcement perspective.” When communication has to occur, the memo said, it should involve only the highest-level officials from the White House and the Justice Department.
The White House official would not comment when asked if the administration was concerned about the appropriateness of Priebus’ communications with McCabe. The official was not authorized to disclose the matter publicly and insisted on anonymity.
The FBI would not say whether it had contacted the White House about the veracity of the Times report.
CNN first reported that Priebus had asked the FBI to weigh in on the matter.
Trump has been shadowed by questions about potential ties to Russia since winning the election. U.S. intelligence agencies have also concluded that Russia meddled in the campaign to help Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Last week, Trump fired national security adviser Michael Flynn because he misled Vice President Mike Pence and other White House officials about his contacts with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. Flynn, who was interviewed by the FBI about his contacts, is said to have talked with the ambassador multiple times during the transition, including about U.S. sanctions policy.
Still, Trump and his advisers have denied contacts with Russian officials during the election. Last week, Trump said “nobody that I know of” spoke with Russian intelligence agents during the campaign.
Priebus alluded to his contacts with the FBI over the weekend, telling Fox News that “the top levels of the intelligence community” have assured him that the allegations of campaign contacts with Russia were “not only grossly overstated, but also wrong.”
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said Priebus’ comments opened the door for FBI Director James Comey to discuss the bureau’s investigation publicly.
“If the White House chief of staff can make public claims about the supposed conclusions of an FBI investigation, then Director Comey can come clean with the American people,” Wyden said.
Justin Shur, a former Justice Department public corruption prosecutor, said it was imperative that Justice Department investigations not be swayed by political considerations.
“As a general matter, investigations and prosecutions should be about gathering the facts and the evidence and applying the law,” Shur said.
During the campaign, Trump and other Republicans vigorously criticized a meeting between then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch and former President Bill Clinton, husband of Trump’s general election opponent. The meeting came as the FBI — which is overseen by the Justice Department — was investigating Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email address and personal internet server.
Asoociated Press writers Eric Tucker and Eileen Sullivan contributed to this report.
BEIJING (AP) — Two hundred striking workers attacked a Chinese-owned garment factory in Myanmar, smashing windows and doors and holding seven Chinese staffers captive for several hours. The cause of this week’s dispute at the factory in the city of Yangon owned by Hangzhou Baiyi Garments was unclear. Pictures and reports in Chinese media portrayed […]
SOUTH OF MOSUL, Iraq (AP) — U.S. Army Lt. Col. James Browning juggled phone calls on an overstuffed sofa in a small village south of Mosul. His counterparts in the Iraqi army’s 9th Division were pushing toward western Mosul, just a few miles away and were coming under mortar fire from the Islamic State group […]
CANNON BALL, N.D. (AP) — Authorities cleared a protest camp where opponents of the Dakota Access oil pipeline had gathered for the better part of a year, searching tents and huts and arresting dozens of holdouts who had defied a government order to leave. It took 3 ½ hours for about 220 officers and 18 […]
Several speakers at an annual grassroots gathering outside Washington, D.C., had just finished defining what makes a true conservative when white nationalist Richard Spencer showed up.
Like an unwanted guest bursting through the front door, Spencer, who has called for “peaceful ethnic cleansing,” gathered reporters in the hallways of the Conservative Political Action Conference in the Gaylord National Harbor Hotel and announced that he was the true conservative.
“I’m not a conservative in the way they would define conservative,” said Spencer, who has cheered Trump’s rise as a coming-out for white nationalists. “I’m conservative in a deep sense — in the sense that I care about my people and maintaining a culture.”
Fifteen feet down the hallway, Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which runs the annual conference of grassroots conservatives, watched Spencer hog the limelight with resignation.
“There’s all kinds of people, I suppose, who can buy tickets,” Schlapp said, when asked why a white nationalist was allowed in.
A few minutes later, Schlapp appeared to change his mind and asked security guards to kick Spencer out.
The back-and-forth over who was allowed in to the hotel was symbolic of the questions roiling the right in the age of President Trump: Who is a real conservative? Which stances define conservatism, and which ones are optional? Who is allowed in the big tent?
It was reminiscent of the furor over Milo Yiannopoulos earlier this week, another alt-right provocateur and Trump supporter who has denounced feminism as “a cancer” and Islam as “sinister.” He was originally invited to deliver a headlining speech at CPAC, but when a video showing him endorsing sex with underage boys was made public, Schlapp disinvited him.
But while Yiannopoulos and Spencer were kept outside, those invited on stage sent competing messages about conservatism.
On Thursday morning, American Conservative Union Executive Director Dan Schneider attempted to cast out the alt right from the right entirely, calling it a “hate-filled left-wing fascist group” that is racist and sexist and, perhaps most critically for the crowd he was addressing, wants big government.
A few hours later on the same stage, Trump advisor Steve Bannon, who once boasted that his website Breitbart was the “platform for the alt right,” took to the stage with White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, the former head of the Republican National Committee and the quintessential Establishment Republican. The joint interview began with an awkward joke about a counter-event opposite CPAC Bannon once organized called the Uninvited.
“Here’s what we decided to do at CPAC with the uninvited,” said Schlapp, who conducted the interview. “We decided to say that everybody’s a part of our conservative family.”
In a sense, there was something familiar about this bundle of contradictions. Past CPACs have found hard-core libertarians side by side with family values traditionalists and foreign policy hawks. But the first gathering of the Trump Administration was more contradictory than most.
In large part that is due to President Trump, who will be addressing the conference on Friday. On the campaign trail, Trump said that he opposed spending cuts on major government programs like Medicare and Social Security and wholeheartedly rejected the free-trade mantra that has guided market-oriented conservatives for decades.
“I don’t think he’s the future of the conservative movement,” said Matt Batzel, a regular attendee and the national executive director of American Majority Action, a conservative organizing group. “What I think Republicans should do is bring in the Trump Democrats, have a big tent, and form a new coalition that embraces Trump populism but is fundamentally still conservative.”
But balancing populism and conservatism can be a difficult line to walk, as the Bannon-Priebus interview showed.
“President Trump brought together the party and the conservative movement,” said Priebus. “And I’ve got to tell you, if the party and the conservative movement are together, similar to Steve and I, it can’t be stopped.”
“You know, I’ve said that there’s a new political order that’s being formed out of this,” added Bannon. “And it’s still being formed. But if you look at the wide degree of opinions in this room — whether you’re a populist, whether you’re a limited government conservative, whether you’re libertarian, whether you’re an economic nationalist — we have wide and sometimes divergent opinions.”
Trump was not always a star here. In the middle of the Republican primary last year with Trump leading the pack, the soon-to-be Republican nominee won just 15% of the vote in the meeting’s straw poll of contestants.
In past years, CPAC has been kinder to libertarians like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul or constitutionalists like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz or local heroes like the union-busting Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. The Tea Party movement found its home here, symbolized in Revolutionary-style tricorn hats and Don’t Tread on Me banners.
But this year those props were replaced by Make America Great Again hats and Trump-Pence pins. Even Cruz, who as recently as last year questioned whether Trump was a “real conservative” and lambasted him for having “New York values,” signed at least one red hat during his visit.
Many attendees at CPAC said they would not define Trump as a true conservative, but that his Cabinet of conservatives and his rollback of certain regulations in the first month of his presidency were welcome.
“We can’t sacrifice our principles just because we’re happy a Republican was elected president,” said Robert Heckman, a political consultant from Alexandria. “Trump is an opportunist. But he’s doing conservative things and that’s fine.”
“You’re not quite sure which way he’s going to lean on some of the subjects,” said Janet Chesser, an attendee from Jacksonville, Florida, who preferred Cruz in the primary. “I can’t say he’s a true, true conservative. But I’ll just have to trust in what he does and if I don’t like it I will speak up.”