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Trump railroads Republicans with new watchdog firing

Several Senate Republicans reiterated Monday that the president is required by law to elaborate on his decision to fire Steve Linick, the State Department’s inspector general. They said they would wait for his response to Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who has sent letters to Trump demanding more detailed explanations of his firings of both Atkinson and Linick. When he fired Linick and Atkinson, Trump simply said in his official notification letters that he had lost confidence in both men.

“It’s very clear that the president has to provide a justification 30 days prior to the removal of an inspector general,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who co-wrote the 2008 law requiring notification to Congress ahead of an inspector general’s removal. “It is not a sufficient justification to say he simply lost confidence. As the co-author of that law, I know that is not what we intended. We intended a more fulsome explanation.”

But Trump unequivocally defended his most recent move — further underscoring that GOP senators’ warnings aren’t having an effect.

“It happens to be very political whether you like it or not. And many of these people were Obama appointments. So I just got rid of him,” the president said.

Trump’s decision to fire Linick without complying with the 2008 law is the latest example of the president’s concerted campaign against high-level administration officials in the aftermath of his acquittal in the Senate’s impeachment trial, with a particular focus on those who played a role in his impeachment.

Several Republican senators who faulted Trump for his conduct toward Ukraine during the trial but still voted to acquit him said they had hoped Trump would learn a lesson from the impeachment saga. But Trump has emerged emboldened and eager for retribution, even as Republicans speak out against him.

“We deserve an explanation,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). “These are important positions. They are watchdogs for these agencies, and they have an important role to play, and I think it’s important for us to be a part of the oversight process.”

But Republicans also acknowledged that the president has the authority to decide who serves in his executive branch, and most stopped short of endorsing more aggressive mechanisms to compel the president’s compliance. As Democrats introduced legislation that would require congressional approval for the firing of an inspector general, several Republicans said it was too soon to consider such an action — and reiterated that the president is already required by law to provide a detailed justification, even as he maintains the authority to hire and fire these officials.

“The inspector general serves a purpose,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of GOP leadership. “But they do serve at the discretion of the president, which seems to be contradictory but that’s the way the law is written.”

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told reporters on Monday that he would consider supporting legislation from Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) aimed at shielding inspectors general from politically motivated terminations, but he didn’t rule out introducing his own proposal.

“I would like to see a way to preserve the independence of the inspectors general,” Romney said. “There are multiple ways one could potentially do that.”

Linick’s firing drew criticism from some Senate Republicans over the weekend, including Grassley, Collins and Romney. They’re the same GOP senators who sought details on Trump’s firing of Atkinson, who was also sacked on a Friday night with little by way of an official explanation.

And on Monday, Grassley sent yet another letter to the president demanding that he provide a written explanation for his removal of Linick by June 1. The Iowa Republican also followed up on his previous demand about Atkinson’s firing. That response was due on April 13, but Trump has thus far ignored the letter.

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Marco Rubio tapped to serve as Senate Intelligence Committee chairman

“Senator Rubio was the natural choice for this temporary assignment on the basis of accumulated committee service,” McConnell said in a statement. “His proven leadership on pertinent issues only made the decision easier.”

Rubio is among the Senate’s most vocal Russia and China hawks, and he has actively sought to position himself as a go-to Republican voice on foreign policy and national security issues. He is expected to largely continue Burr’s bipartisan approach to the committee’s Russia investigation.

But Rubio has also made his mark as chairman of the Small Business Committee, where he has played an integral role in the Senate’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. His panel was responsible for the creation of the Paycheck Protection Program, a lifeline for small businesses and a key component of the $2 trillion CARES Act and the following $484 billion relief bill. It was not immediately clear on Monday whether Rubio would be required to relinquish his chairmanship of that panel.

Burr stepped aside as chairman of the Intelligence Committee as the scandal surrounding his stock trades deepened last week. Last Wednesday night, FBI agents served a warrant on the North Carolina Republican and seized his cell phone. In addition to the Justice Department investigation, the Senate Ethics Committee is also looking into Burr’s stock transactions.

Earlier this year, Burr sold off hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of shares around the time he was receiving closed-door briefings about the coronavirus pandemic. ProPublica reported that Burr’s brother-in-law dumped several shares on the same day.

The transactions have prompted allegations of insider trading and self-enrichment. Members of Congress and their staffers are barred from using non-public information gleaned through their official duties to inform their financial decisions.

The secretive Intelligence Committee, which conducts nearly all of its business in private classified facilities, will be busy in the weeks and months to come.

The panel is expected to vote this week on President Donald Trump’s nominee to be the director of national intelligence, Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas), sending the nomination to the full Senate for consideration.

And it will soon release the fifth and final installment in its exhaustive, years-long investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. In what may have been Burr’s last move as chairman, the committee announced Friday that the report was submitted for classification review. It is expected to focus on the allegations of coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, as part of a review of the counterintelligence investigation.

When it comes to the committee’s business, Burr is viewed as a straight shooter and he has a solid working relationship with the panel’s Democratic vice chairman, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia. Burr’s moves as chairman have often drawn the ire of Trump and his supporters, including his decision to issue a subpoena to the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr.

Rubio is expected to take a similar approach as chairman — and like Burr, he has a close relationship with Warner. The pair have teamed up on issues including China’s theft of intellectual property, and they joined forces in 2018 in an effort to unify European nations, through their parliamentarians, against Russia’s incursions into the continent.

In 2016, Rubio criticized Trump for using hacked materials released by WikiLeaks — specifically, personal emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman — in his presidential campaign, and warned that Republicans could be the next targets.

“I want to warn my fellow Republicans who may want to capitalize politically on these leaks: Today it is the Democrats. Tomorrow it could be us,” Rubio said at the time.

“As our intelligence agencies have said, these leaks are an effort by a foreign government to interfere with our electoral process and I will not indulge it,” he added.

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Senate’s big week back: Nominations, with a side of coronavirus

Republican-led committees are scheduled to hold hearings for high-level presidential nominees including for the nation’s top intelligence post, while GOP leaders aim for votes later this month on key national-security tools that remain dormant. But the Senate also plans to resume its record pace of confirming President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees, including a high-profile confirmation hearing this week.

Democrats are seething over the Senate’s non-coronavirus related priorities, as they continue to push for hundreds of billions of dollars in federal aid to state and local governments struggling to deal with the pandemic. They’re also pushing for rigorous oversight of the Trump administration’s handling of the crisis.

“It seems to me there is a lot of whining going on, but maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) quipped when asked about Democrats’ protests.

But most Democrats said it was simply too early and unsafe for the Senate to be back.

“If we are going to be here … let the Senate at least conduct the nation’s business and focus like a laser on Covid-19,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said.

“It is amazing to me that McConnell brought us back, and not a thing about Covid is on the floor,” he later told reporters.

The return of the Senate’s in-person partisan squabbling comes amid fears that a potential outbreak in the Capitol could paralyze the institution, while Washington has yet to peak in coronavirus cases. The House remains out but could return by next week.

Schumer slammed GOP leaders for their plan to convene a Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, where the panel will consider a McConnell protégé who was nominated to the second-most powerful court in the country. Schumer called that nominee, Justin Walker, a “manifestly unqualified, totally divisive right-wing judicial nominee.” The American Bar Association also rated Walker as “not qualified,” citing insufficient legal experience.

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said the Senate’s agenda doesn’t reflect the nature and magnitude of the crisis.

“We’re surrounded by stay at home orders in D.C., Maryland and Virginia,” Durbin told reporters. “Why are we here? A hearing on Justin Walker on Wednesday? … Does this sound like a compelling national emergency that draws us in at risk. I don’t think it does.”

“I think we’re here to confirm really bad judges,” added Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-ill.).

Despite Democrats’ long-simmering frustrations with McConnell’s push to confirm conservative judges to the federal bench, senators will have their work cut out for them when it comes to the pandemic. On Tuesday afternoon, the Banking Committee will hold a confirmation hearing for Brian Miller to be the special inspector general for pandemic recovery — a position created to provide oversight of a $500 billion fund to help businesses and industries struggling amid the crisis.

Still, Democrats are pushing for more oversight, including breaking the White House’s blockade on testimony from members of the coronavirus task force.

“Hopefully we’ll do some work and not just do confirmations — I mean, the oversight of the Covid package is horrible. We can’t get any information,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said.

McConnell has been pushing for the Senate to resume its normal business — which includes a hearing with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, on May 12 — with the Kentucky Republican positing that as long as frontline health care workers are on the job treating coronavirus patients, the Senate has an obligation to do its own work, too. The White House blocked Fauci from testifying this week at a House subcommittee hearing.

“I don’t think anybody could seriously argue that filling critical national security posts is not essential Senate business,” McConnell said. “On the floor and in committee, the Senate will be acting on key nominations that relate directly to the safety of the American people, oversight over our coronavirus legislation, and more.”

Most of that work must be done in person, GOP senators said.

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