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House leaders agree to vote on amendment restricting surveillance of internet browsing

The Lofgren measure is expected to closely mirror one that narrowly failed in the Senate offered by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.). Their proposal would require government officials to obtain a court-approved warrant before accessing Americans’ web browsing histories — or, in an urgent situation, to obtain these histories and retroactively get them approved by a judge.

“This isn’t even a partisan proposition,” Wyden said last week. “Any administration could be tempted to collect the web browsing and internet search history of political enemies — politicians, activists, journalists.”

The amendment failed 59-37, one vote shy of the 60-vote threshold required for approval on a day when senators who may have pushed it over the top were absent.

The Senate subsequently passed on an 80-16 vote the broader reauthorization of three components of federal surveillance law known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and sent it back to the House for consideration.

The legislation includes a handful of new privacy protections that were blessed by Attorney General William Barr, who helped negotiate the version of the bill approved in the Senate. The measure created an unusual alliance of House progressives skeptical of government surveillance and Republicans aligned with Trump’s allegations that FISA provisions were abused to spy on former campaign adviser Carter Page late in the 2016 election.

The timing of the House’s consideration of the Lofgren amendment is still being worked out, according to the Democratic aide, but it is likely to be adopted after being shaped by Pelosi’s office and key Democratic lawmakers.

Lofgren and Davidson advocated for their amendment in a letter Wednesday to the House Rules Committee, noting that the Wyden-Daines proposal had a bipartisan majority of the Senate and that at least two senators indicated they would have voted for it had they been present.

“Our internet activity opens a window into the most sensitive areas of our private life,” they added. “Without this prohibition, intelligence officials would potentially have access to information such as our personal health, religious practices, and political views.”

The House is expected to pass the surveillance measure next week.

Martin Matishak contributed to this report.

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Top House Dems demand Trump reinstate ousted State watchdog

The lawmakers are asking Pompeo to provide by June 4 details about his contacts with the White House regarding Linicks’ removal, as well as the rationale behind the choice of his temporary replacement, Stephen Akard, whom Democrats worry will be a conduit to provide information about Linick’s confidential work to agency leaders. The Democrats are also asking Pompeo for guest lists connected to his series of “Madison Dinners,” as well as invoices, approvals and ethics decisions regarding the use taxpayer funds on the events.

The lawmakers sent a second letter to Akard, similarly asking him to provide details of his appointment by June 4. They also ask him to catalogue any of the ongoing investigations, audits and reviews Linick was conducting before his removal.

They’re also urging Akard to resign from a separate State Department post in which he reports to Pompeo. The dual role, they say, could be used to funnel information from the inspector general’s office to the officials being scrutinized, including Pompeo, and that would likely chill whistleblowers from coming forward, the Democrats write.

“This inherent conflict of interest will prohibit you from having the independence necessary to conduct fair and rigorous oversight of the Department and the Secretary,” the lawmakers wrote.

Linick’s ouster was the latest in a string of moves by Trump to either remove or fire inspectors general he deems disloyal to his administration. Trump has attacked all of the watchdogs appointed to their posts by President Barack Obama, even though some have worked across administrations of both parties for decades. Trump has relied heavily on acting inspectors general, who are more easily removed from their roles compared with Senate-confirmed appointees, whose ousters require notification to Congress.

Linick is the second Senate-confirmed inspector general removed by Trump in recent months. Trump also abruptly ousted intelligence community watchdog Michael Atkinson, citing his handling of a whistleblower complaint that accused Trump of wrongdoing in his effort to pressure Ukraine to investigate his political rivals. The report, which Atkinson sought to provide to Congress before the Justice Department blocked him, was later made public by the administration and ignited the House’s impeachment of the president in December.

Though just two inspectors general have been fired abruptly, Trump has also demoted the watchdog tapped by fellow inspectors general to monitor his administration’s handling of the coronavirus response. He also nominated a member of the White House counsel’s team to fill a newly created watchdog role for the Treasury’s $500 billion economic stabilization fund created to bolster the economy amid the pandemic, a move that sparked an outcry from Democrats.

Though lawmakers of both parties have urged Trump to nominate permanent inspectors general, Democrats also criticized Trump for picking a replacement for the acting Health and Human Services inspector general, Christi Grimm, who drew Trump’s ire when she issued a report cataloging a lack of federal preparedness for the coronavirus crisis.

It’s unclear whether Democrats will be able to procure any details from the State Department. The House has struggled to obtain information from the State Department in previous efforts, including during its impeachment process, when Pompeo ignored Intelligence Committee subpoenas for documents about the president’s efforts regarding Ukraine. Pompeo testified to the House Foreign Affairs Committee earlier this year but faced no questions about Ukraine.

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Lindsey Graham seeks broad authority to subpoena former Obama administration officials

Graham intends to seek a Judiciary Committee vote on the matter Thursday. The proposal would allow Graham to obtain documents or testimony from any figures referenced in a report by the Justice Department Inspector General’s review of the FBI’s handling of a surveillance warrant connected to that investigation. That probe found corner-cutting, missteps and abuses by officials in the process used to surveil Carter Page, a former adviser to the Trump campaign.

The subpoena is unusually broad — committee subpoenas are usually specific to a smaller number of targets. But its approval, which will likely fall along party lines, would give Graham enormous, unilateral authority to conduct the probe.

Trump allies have been forcefully demanding for months that Graham take a more aggressive posture toward investigating the origins of the Russia probe, which Trump has assailed as a “hoax” against him for years.

Graham’s proposal would allow him to subpoena some of Trump’s most frequent Twitter targets, including former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe and former FBI officials Lisa Page and Peter Strzok.

The list also includes officials involved in the decision-making surrounding the January 2017 interview of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI later that year but previously moved to withdraw the plea and accuse the FBI of “egregious misconduct.” The DOJ recently asked a judge to drop the criminal case against Flynn.

Trump in recent days has leaned on allies in the Senate, including Graham and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), to ramp up their probes of Obama administration officials, as Trump has sought to level unsupported allegations of criminality by his predecessor against his incoming administration. Graham recently shot down a suggestion by Trump to call Barack Obama himself, an action that Trump’s Justice Department has argued is unconstitutional, despite the current president’s call.

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Bipartisan vow masks a rancorous reality for coronavirus oversight panel

In fact, the parties started the day miles apart and ended it even further away. The first meeting of the new panel tasked with probing the government’s coronavirus response won’t be remembered for unearthing groundbreaking new policy information — and might not be remembered at all. But it was a visual distillation of the increasing dysfunction that has gripped Congress amid the coronavirus response and threatens to undermine oversight efforts going forward.

For starters, Democrats beamed into the briefing from their living rooms while most of the Republicans gathered in the Capitol and lambasted Democrats for refusing to convene in Washington. At Scalise’s first chance to speak, he turned his camera around and panned the hearing room, which he said was a spacious venue where lawmakers, staff, the public and press could safely social-distance while appearing in person.

“With just 12 members, we can achieve model social distancing,” Scalise said, as the camera showed three staffers gathered closely together at the rear of the room, and GOP lawmakers disregarding the attending physician’s request that they wear masks. He added, “A virtual briefing unnecessarily send the wrong message. Congress should be leading the way. We should not be the last to come back.”

Republicans also slammed Democrats for hastily convening the briefing — which featured five expert witnesses, including former FDA Commissioners Scott Gottlieb and Mark McClellan — and declining to offer Republicans a chance to choose their own witness.

But the stark divide between the parties extended to the substance of the briefing as well. Democrats — echoing the predictions of public health experts — described a crisis that could linger for another year until a vaccine is developed. They worried about shortages of medical equipment, coronavirus tests and the prospect of renewed outbreaks that could erupt if the country reopens too quickly. They also repeatedly laid the crisis at the feet of a slow-going federal response that has at times left states to fend for themselves.

“We’ve lost 82,000 Americans to coronavirus in less than three months, 21 million Americans thrown out of work, more than 1.3 million infections,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.). “I can understand our colleagues’ desperate efforts to distract form the crisis and to talk about almost anything else and to plunge us into partisan conflict.”

Republicans, meanwhile, emphasized the skyrocketing unemployment rate and suggested the ills of mass unemployment could outweigh the efforts to guard against the virus through stay-at-home orders.

“The key to all of this is perspective,” said Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-Mo.), describing suicides and postponed health procedures as a grave threat. “I don’t minimize [coronavirus] risk at all. It’s there. The problem is, the rest of society has certainly got a health problem as well.”

Conservative Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) slammed one of the witnesses, Harvard University Global Health Institute Director Ashish Jha, as a partisan for suggesting that federal failures to ensure enough testing were the reason for the nationwide economic lockdown.

Jha retorted: “Every expert on the left, right, and center agrees that we had to shut our economy down because the outbreak got too big. The outbreak got too big because we didn’t have a testing infrastructure that allowed us to put our arms around the outbreak. And so testing was the fundamental failure that forced our country to shut down.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushed the House to establish the coronavirus select committee last month, amid slow-going efforts to police the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus response. She tapped Clyburn, the Democratic caucus’ third-ranking member, to lead it and dismissed Republican claims that it would be used as a bludgeon against Trump in the heat of his 2020 reelection campaign.

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House coronavirus oversight panel demands large companies repay small-business loans

Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s select committee overseeing the federal coronavirus response has settled on its first course of action: name and shame.

The 12-member committee, which Republicans reluctantly joined Thursday after musing about a boycott, has identified five large public companies that nevertheless applied for and accepted small-business loans meant to aid those struggling to survive amid the pandemic. And the lawmakers are asking them to return the funds by next week or face a long list of document demands.

“Since your company is a public entity with a substantial investor base and access to the capital markets, we ask that you return these funds immediately,” according to letters sent to each of the companies. “Returning these funds will allow truly small businesses — which do not have access to alternative sources of capital — to obtain the emergency loans they need to avoid layoffs, stay in business, and weather the economic disruption caused by the coronavirus crisis.”

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Dozens of Russia probe transcripts poised for release after end of intel review

“After more than a year of unnecessary delay, the ODNI has finally concluded its protracted classification review of the Committee’s transcripts, and it also appears the White House has now abandoned its improper insistence on reviewing key transcripts, which the Committee appropriately rejected,” a House Intelligence Committee spokesman said in a statement.

The spokesman indicated that the panel would be reviewing the intelligence community’s proposed redactions: “Our review of ODNI’s newly proposed redactions will be as expeditious as possible given the constraints of the pandemic, and we look forward to releasing these transcripts, which relate to misconduct by the Trump campaign and the president himself.” Aides to Grenell did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The release of the transcripts themselves has been a saga. The GOP-led intelligence committee voted to send them to the intelligence community for a classification review in September 2018, and then-chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) suggested they could be released in time for the midterm elections. But the panel didn’t transmit the transcripts to the DNI’s office until November, nine months after the conclusion of an investigation riven by partisan sniping and distrust.

In March 2019, the ODNI informed lawmakers that the White House intended to review the transcripts — a prospect that Schiff rejected as an inappropriate incursion on the committee’s request for a classification review. Intel officials agreed not to share the transcripts with the White House, but the episode led to a lengthy standoff. In June, intelligence officials proposed redactions for 43 of the 53 transcripts but indicated the White House wanted access to the remaining ten.

By September, as the House was gearing up for impeachment hearings against Trump, Schiff convened the committee for a vote to release the 43 vetted transcripts as well as two of the 10 stalled transcripts that were determined to include no classified information. The panel unanimously supported his proposal. Nunes, at the time, dinged the DNI’s office for foot-dragging, and Schiff said the White House had “hijacked” the process. He indicated he intended to quickly release the vetted transcripts.

But as the impeachment process raged, the transcript matter went on the backburner, where it remained until last week, when Trump allies began demanding that Schiff produce them publicly. As the calls from conservatives mounted, Grenell sent his letter indicating that the issue with the 10 disputed transcripts had been resolved and there are no remaining impediments to releasing them.

It’s unclear how quickly the panel can review ODNI’s redactions, but the transcripts are expected to reach thousands of pages and reopen matters related to the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia — and the insistence of Trump and his allies that the entire matter was a “hoax” meant to derail his presidency.

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Senate prepares to confront Trump’s attacks on independent watchdogs

The hearing is Democrats’ first chance to shine a public light on the matter since early April, when Trump fired Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community inspector general, over his handling of a whistleblower complaint accusing the president of wrongdoing — one that ultimately led to Trump’s impeachment in the House and acquittal in the Senate.

Since then, Trump has demoted the inspector general responsible for broadly overseeing the government-wide coronavirus response and nominated a replacement for the Health and Human Services inspector general, after accusing her without evidence of being an anti-Trump partisan.

Miller is seeking to counter concerns by pointing to his long track record in federal service in multiple presidential administrations, including as inspector general of the General Services Administration during the Bush and Obama administrations.

“I am amazed and humbled by the letters of support that I received … from all varieties of political stripes — from officials in the Obama, Bush, and Clinton administrations,” Miller said in his prepared remarks. “I would like them to know that I will always endeavor to be the man they describe in their letters.”

Miller is likely to face questions over how he will handle a scenario in which he is stonewalled while seeking information about the pandemic response fund — a situation that triggers a requirement in the new $2 trillion law, known as the CARES Act, to report such obstruction to Congress.

Trump indicated in his signing statement that he rejects requirements that inspectors general unilaterally communicate with Congress – and that he will ultimately decide whether the inspector general is able to speak to lawmakers about that issue, emphasizing that inspectors general are executive branch officials who report to him. His statement, though, ignores the longstanding independence afforded to inspectors general, which Trump has repeatedly tested during his term.

Though Democrats have raised the loudest alarms about Trump’s treatment of inspectors general, some Republicans, too, have gently encouraged him to reconsider his posture, including Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and James Lankford (R-Okla.).

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