Veterans Affairs watchdog discovers massive ethics violations, misuse of taxpayer funds by Secretary David Shulkin
The scandal around Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin's European travel is growing, with The Washington Post reporting the VA chief of staff "doctored an email and made false statements" in order to use taxpayer money to cover the overseas expenses of Shulkin's wife.
On Tuesday, USA Today reported that the VA inspector general was investigating Shulkin's trip to Denmark and London last July, which appeared to be unnecessarily long, at 10 days, and used taxpayer money to pay for Merle Bari to travel with her husband. Additionally, the couple reportedly spent half the trip sightseeing, ventures Shulkin allegedly improperly directed his staff to arrange.
The inspector general found that the VA chief of staff, Vivieca Wright Simpson, changed the language in an email "to make it appear that Shulkin was receiving an award from the Danish government — then used the award to justify paying for his wife's travel," The Washington Post reports. Bari's airfare ran more than $4,300 and the inspector general's office claimed that the three and a half days of meetings in Copenhagen and London totaled at least $122,334.
Bari herself reportedly made requests directly to a VA aide, including emails like: "Is there earlier flight from Copenhagen? Wimbledon tickets? High tea? Roman baths in [B]ath. Would want to do baths not just tour."
Shulkin is an Obama administration holdover, having formerly served as the undersecretary for health at the VA. Shulkin has also been accused of improperly accepting tickets for him and his wife to attend Wimbledon on the same trip, although he falsely claimed he bought them himself during a Washington Post Live event last year.
Shulkin dismissed the allegations against him in a statement: "It is outrageous that you would portray my wife and me as attempting to take advantage of the government," he said. Read more of the details about the trip at The Washington Post. Jeva Lange
Teachers union president slams Trump's proposal to arm teachers: 'Would kindergarten teachers be carrying guns in holsters?'
President Trump's plan to arm teachers to prevent school shootings like the one in Parkland, Florida, has an important opponent: actual teachers.
In a statement Thursday, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said her union's position is firm, even among teachers who are gun owners: "Teachers don't want to be armed, we want to teach. We don't want to be, and would never have the expertise needed to be, sharp shooters; no amount of training can prepare an armed teacher to go up against an AR-15."
She had some practical questions, too:
How would arming teachers even work? Would kindergarten teachers be carrying guns in holsters? Is every classroom now going to have a gun closet? Will it be locked? When you have seconds to act when you hear the code for an active shooter, is a teacher supposed to use those seconds getting her gun instead of getting her students to safety? Anyone who pushes arming teachers doesn't understand teachers and doesn't understand our schools. Adding more guns to schools may create an illusion of safety, but in reality it would make our classrooms less safe. [Randi Weingarten]
Special Counsel Robert Mueller levied 32 new charges against Paul Manafort and Rick Gates on Thursday, the latest development in the Justice Department's sprawling probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. The charges against Manafort, President Trump's former campaign chairman, and Gates, a former campaign aide and Manafort's business associate, include multiple charges of tax and bank fraud.
The indictment, handed down Thursday by a federal grand jury, includes a litany of financial crimes, alleging the men filed false income tax returns and failed to disclose foreign accounts. One specific charge claims that Gates helped Manafort launder "more than $30 million in income," Reuters reported. In October, Manafort and Gates were indicted on 12 counts, including conspiracy against the United States and conspiracy to launder money, in the first round of charges to result from Mueller's probe.
The timing of the Thursday filing is notable, The Washington Post noted, because there is "significant uncertainty in the case about when a trial might happen, or even who the defense lawyers will be." Gates' three lawyers have all asked to be dismissed from the case.
Since October, George Papadopoulos, a former foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, and Michael Flynn, Trump's first national security adviser, have pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Last week, 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies — including an infamous "troll farm" known as the Internet Research Agency — were charged with conspiracy for online efforts intended to influence the election, the first charges from Mueller's office that concern election meddling specifically.
President Trump has proposed that the solution to preventing school shootings is arming teachers. Former New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton ... disagrees.
"Proposals to arm American teachers are the height of lunacy," Bratton wrote Thursday in a Twitter thread. He sarcastically added that schools should perhaps "arm school bus drivers and school crossing guards" and said that such proposals are merely "political Band-Aids." The president and the NRA announced their support for armed teachers in the wake of a mass shooting last week at a high school in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead.
"The answer to gun violence isn't more guns," Bratton declared. Citing New York City's decline in gun violence over the last 25 years, the former police commissioner said "fewer guns has resulted in dramatically less gun-related violence of all types." Bratton also seemed to imply his support for an assault weapons ban, as he noted that a previous ban on assault weapons "lowered crime involving that weapon."
Proposals to arm American teachers are the height of lunacy. Are we also then going to arm school bus drivers and school crossing guards. The #NRA & gun manufacturers would love that.
— Bill Bratton (@CommissBratton) February 22, 2018
Although Bratton was a controversial police commissioner because of his support of a "broken windows" policy that cracked down on minor crimes, he has long been a proponent of gun control and has previously claimed the National Rifle Association has a "stranglehold" on Congress. Kelly O'Meara Morales
Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) invoked The Simpsons to make a point about politics.
Cruz was being interviewed by Ben Domenech, the founder of the conservative publication The Federalist, who began the exchange by referring to a Simpsons episode where patriarch Homer and his daughter Lisa talk about gun control. "Homer points out that guns are for things like protecting your family, hunting delicious animals, and making sure that the King of England never shows up to push you around," Domenech said.
With a laugh, Cruz replied, "All good things," before Domenech noted that Lisa told her father that the Second Amendment is just "a relic of the Revolutionary War era." "I think the Democrats are the party of Lisa Simpson," Cruz replied, while "Republicans are happily the part of Homer, and Bart, and Maggie, and Marge," referring to the rest of the Simpson clan.
Cruz's comparison may not portend a bright future for the Republican Party: In an episode called "Bart to the Future," President Lisa Simpson is tasked with cleaning up a "budget crunch from President Trump." Kelly O'Meara Morales
Nevada Republican Senate candidate Danny Tarkanian could not have picked a poorer time to potentially provoke President Trump. Tarkanian attacked his primary opponent, incumbent Sen. Dean Heller (R), on Nevada radio station KBET on Thursday, claiming Heller "talks to Ivanka Trump all the time. Well, Ivanka Trump was a Democrat, and she's very, very moderate to liberal, compared to the Republican base."
— Comfortably Smug (@ComfortablySmug) February 22, 2018
Tarkanian, who is backed by Trump's former chief strategist Stephen Bannon, apparently miscalculated: "Ivanka Trump is viewed favorably by 81 percent of Republicans," CNN notes. Tarkanian's attack was apparently intended as an "effort to capture voters who bought into Trump's campaign pledges and are loyal to the president, but suspicious of those around him in Washington — particularly on Capitol Hill."
Heller is one of the most endangered Republicans in the 2018 midterm elections; if he wins the June 12 Republican primary, he will face off against Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen this fall. Trump has expressed his irritation with Heller, who voted against an ObamaCare repeal last year, threatening "he wants to remain a senator, doesn't he?" Still, the Las Vegas Review-Journal claimed earlier this month that whatever path to victory Tarkanian may have once had against Heller, it now "no longer exists."
In an email to CNN, Tarkanian clarified that he "did not say nor mean to infer a relationship with Ivanka is a bad thing. It is a good thing. She is the daughter of the president." Jeva Lange
President Trump on Thursday threatened to punish the entire state of California for not adhering to his preferred immigration policy.
Specifically, Trump said he was considering removing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers from the state because of its newly adopted statewide "sanctuary" status, which provides some protections for undocumented immigrants. His remarks came suddenly, The Washington Times reports, during a meeting on school safety at the White House and after he spent nearly a minute explaining why California so desperately needed a strong ICE presence.
"Frankly, if I wanted to pull our people from California, you would have a crime nest like you've never seen in California," Trump said, after complaining that the state was not doing enough to deport undocumented criminals in gangs like MS-13. "All I'd have to do is say: 'ICE and border patrol, let California alone.'"
"You'd see crime like nobody's ever seen crime in this country," he continued, calling the state's sanctuary status "a disgrace." He also predicted that if he did pull federal border enforcement agents, California would long desperately for their return: "In two months they'd be begging for us to come back. And you know what? I'm thinking about doing it."
Watch his remarks below. Kelly O'Meara Morales
— KION News 5 46 (@KION546) February 22, 2018
Democratic senators claim that border agents lack the software to detect whether a passport is forged
The U.S. may have a serious fake passport problem, two Democratic senators say.
In a letter Thursday to Kevin McAleenan, the acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, Sens. Ron Wyden (Ore.) and Claire McCaskill (Mo.) claim that the law enforcement agency lacks "the software necessary to authenticate the information stored on" newer passports, which have been outfitted with smart chips. These so-called e-Passports bear chips that store traveler data that has been locked with verified digital signatures. Border Patrol agents are supposed to be able to access the chips and verify their information through dedicated machines.
But while CBP agents at airports and border crossings can in fact download the data off of the smart chips, Wyden and McCaskill write that the agency's software actually "cannot verify the digital signatures stored on the e-Passport chips." Without signature verification, CBP is "unable to determine" whether an individual's passport may have been "tampered with or forged," the senators claim.
Wyden and McCaskill say that CBP has had this e-Passport verification problem since 2007 because of the software deficit. Moreover, the senators claim that the agency has known this security gap exists since 2010, when the government released a report on the matter. Roughly 60 countries issue e-Passports to their citizens, including Iran, the Philippines, Russia, Turkey, Sweden, and the U.S.
"It is past time for CBP to utilize the digital security features it required be built into e-Passports," the duo writes, calling for the agency to "develop and implement a plan to properly authenticate e-Passports by Jan. 1, 2019." Read the letter to CBP here. Kelly O'Meara Morales