Unbowed by Trump, Democrats charge ahead with investigations
By LISA MASCARO and MARY CLARE JALONICK
Thursday, February 7
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump warned Congress that investigations and legislation don’t mix. But Speaker Nancy Pelosi said such threats have no place in the House, as unbowed Democrats charged ahead Wednesday with plans to probe Trump’s tax returns, business and ties to Russia.
The chairman of the intelligence committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, announced a broad new investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and Trump’s foreign financial interests. Other committees’ actions are well underway.
The day after the president essentially laid out the ultimatum to Congress during his State of the Union address, Democrats appeared even more resolved to conduct oversight of his administration and legislate on their priorities.
“The president should not bring threats to the floor of the House,” Pelosi told reporters, rebuking Trump for saying during his address that the “ridiculous partisan investigations” must end because they could harm the economy.
Pelosi said Congress has a responsibility to provide oversight, under the Constitution’s system of checks and balances, and would be “delinquent” if it failed to do so.
Schiff indicated his committee’s investigation will be sweeping. It will include “the scope and scale” of Russian intervention in the 2016 presidential election, the “extent of any links and/or coordination” between Russians and Trump’s associates, whether foreign actors have sought to hold leverage over Trump or his family and associates, and whether anyone has sought to obstruct any of the relevant investigations.
“We’re going to do our jobs, and the president needs to do his,” Schiff said, noting the probe will go beyond Russia to include leverage by the Saudis “or anyone else.”
Schiff said, “Our job involves making sure that the policy of the United States is being driven by the national interest, not by any financial entanglement, financial leverage or other form of compromise.”
Trump immediately shot back, calling Schiff nothing but a “political hack” who has “no basis to do that.”
“It’s called presidential harassment,” Trump said during an event at the White House as he announced his new pick to head the World Bank.
After eight years in the minority, House Democrats are releasing their bottled-up legislative energy at a time when Trump’s annual joint address to Congress lacked many new initiatives of his own.
The Democrats’ agenda goes beyond oversight of Trump’s administration and Russian election interference to the bread-and-butter issues of jobs, health care and the economy that propelled them to the House majority. Pelosi said they still hope to work with the White House on shared priorities, particularly on lowering prescription drug costs and investing in infrastructure.
On Wednesday, one House committee held a hearing on gun violence. Two others gavelled in to address climate change. And three more were debating protecting people with preexisting medical conditions and the Affordable Care Act.
The Foreign Affairs Committee was debating the war in Yemen and a war powers resolution to halt U.S. involvement in the Saudi-led coalition.
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the chairman of the Oversight Committee, said Trump has to understand “that he has to be accountable.”
“It’s not about partisan investigations,” said Cummings. “We all have to be accountable. And it’s a new day.”
The flurry of activity brought a turn of events for the new Congress. Democrats had been off to a rough start as the 35-day government shutdown jammed the agenda and stifled the energetic freshmen class that swept the party to power in the midterm election.
With the longest government closure over, for now, the new majority is eager to deliver on its promises before the next election shifts attention yet again.
Pelosi made a calculation after the election to forego a traditional 100-days agenda — or the 100-hours to-do list she rolled out in 2007, the last time Democrats had the majority — in favor of a return to the legislative process.
It’s partly a nod to the diverse Democratic majority, whose members hold different views on some issues. But it’s also a part of Democrats’ efforts to revive traditional governing, rather than lurching from crisis to crisis, as had become the norm when Republicans were unable to control their often unruly conservative flank. Under new House rules, every bill must pass through committee before coming to a vote on the floor.
James Curry, an associate professor of political science at the University of Utah, said Democrats have a short window to capture the public’s attention. “They want to show voters they can legislate, they can run the government, they can do the things they said they’re going to do,” he said.
“Reality,” Curry added, “is obviously more complicated than that.”
Much of the House’s legislation will fall flat in the Senate, where Republicans retain control. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is expected to ensure his chamber serves as a backstop to prevent Democratic bills from landing on Trump’s desk — although the Senate’s own bipartisan investigation into Russian election interference continues.
The more likely result is that the legislative agenda sets the stage for the next election, in 2020, when voters will be assessing not only the performance of the new House majority but also which party they prefer in the White House.
This month, Democrats expect to pass H.R. 1, a sweeping reform of campaign finance and voting rights laws, and then turn to legislation to expand background checks for sales and transfers of firearms.
At the Natural Resources Committee, overflow crowds of schoolkids, environmental activists and others turned out for the first of what Chairman Raul Grijalva promises will be a month of hearings on the effect of climate change on coastal communities, national parks and other areas under the committee’s oversight.
“Today we turn the page from climate denial to climate action,” said Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat.
The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, expressed disappointment that Trump did not mention gun violence in his State of the Union address Tuesday night.
“It is evident from the energy and the crowd in this room, as well as the millions of people across the country fighting for sensible gun safety laws, that the public is demanding national legislation,” Nadler said as he gavelled open the hearing.
But Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the judiciary panel, called the background checks measure a “fraud” that promises protection against gun violence without achieving it.
The House intelligence committee also voted Wednesday to send the transcripts from the panel’s earlier Russia investigation to special counsel Robert Mueller. Republicans ended that probe in March, concluding there was no evidence of conspiracy or collusion between Russia and Trump’s presidential campaign. Democrats strongly objected at the time, saying the move was premature.
The voluminous cache will include transcripts of interviews with Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr.; his son-in-law, Jared Kushner; his longtime spokeswoman, Hope Hicks; and his former bodyguard Keith Schiller. There are dozens of other transcripts of interviews with former Obama administration officials and Trump associates.
Associated Press writers Matthew Daly, Ellen Knickmeyer, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Jill Colvin contributed to this report.
Follow on Twitter at https://twitter.com/lisamascaro and https://twitter.com/AP_Politics
Analysis: Sen. Warren’s Other ‘American Indian’ Problem
By Michael Graham
The discovery of a document with Sen. Elizabeth Warren declaring her race is “American Indian” in her own hand has reopened the controversy over unsubstantiated claims of minority status yet again. But even if she survives this latest incident or resolves the issue once and for all, Warren’s Native American troubles still won’t be at an end.
For a year, Warren has been working on behalf of the Massachusetts-based Mashpee Wampanoag tribe to secure a $1 billion casino deal with an international gaming corporation. As a result, she’s abandoned long-held social-justice views of gambling’s effect on the poor and vulnerable; linked herself to a troubled Indian tribe whose leaders have been either forced out or jailed; and made herself a champion of a scandal-ridden billion-dollar multinational conglomerate.
How did Warren wind up in the middle of what has come to be known as the “Mashpee Mess”?
Coincidence or not, it started at the same time she began an overt effort to rehabilitate her standing among the Native American community.
The Boston Herald first broke the story that Harvard had listed professor Elizabeth Warren as a minority hire during her 2012 U.S. Senate race. At first, Warren denied any knowledge that she was being represented as a Native American faculty member — a claim that was later proven untrue.
Eventually the public record revealed that, beginning in 1986 (the same year she filled out the now-infamous Texas State Bar form) and continuing through at least 2004, Warren repeatedly declared her race to be “American Indian.” She was so dogged in the matter that, in 1989, two years after being hired at the University of Pennsylvania, she went back to the administration and changed her racial designation from white to Native American.
As a Democrat in solidly-liberal Massachusetts, Warren is safe from any political repercussions from these revelations. She handily defeated incumbent Republican Scott Brown in 2012 and crushed her token GOP opponent six years later. But when President Trump began mocking her presidential aspirations with the nickname “Pocahontas,” the politics changed. When it comes to lockstep party loyalty, America isn’t Massachusetts.
And so, according to the New York Times and Washington Post, Warren began a concerted effort to repair her standing among Native Americans and, it was hoped, neutralize the charge that she had inappropriately claimed a legacy of Indian heritage she did not deserve. The most high-profile part of that effort was the DNA test stunt, widely viewed as a fiasco for both failing to demonstrate that she is in fact American Indian, and offending Native Americans by suggesting that standing in the community is determined by genetics.
However, the DNA test actually occurred about a year into the effort, which was kicked off in January 2018 with Warren’s surprise visit to the National Congress of American Indians in Washington. Her unannounced appearance and speech received glowing reviews from the press. And then a few weeks later, she co-sponsored the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act. Its sole purpose is to seal the deal for a $1 billion casino project for the tribe.
Warren has acknowledged that her decision to embrace a casino is a major reversal for a longtime opponent of casino gambling. Warren opposed the 2011 law that legalized casino gambling in the Bay State, and in 2014 she announced her support for a referendum effort to repeal it.
“It’s a tough call to make,” Warren said at the time. “People need jobs, but gambling can also be a real problem economically for a lot of people. I didn’t support gambling the first time around and I don’t expect to support it (now).”
This is hardly a surprise. Casino gambling is often portrayed by progressives as a greed-driven industry that preys on the vulnerable and desperate. And yet, just four years after she voted against it, Warren was actively advocating for a casino project designed to enrich two organizations involved in scandals of their own.
For years, the Mashpee Wampanoag’s tribal government has been living — and living well — off money fronted to them by Genting Malaysia, a multinational gaming company, in advance of their proposed casino plans. In fact, it appears some members of tribal leadership may have been living too well. The former tribal council chairman responsible for initiating the push for a casino, Glenn Marshall, was sent to prison on charges of fraud and embezzlement from his time working with notoriously corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff — who also went to prison on corruption charges.
The current chairman, Cedric Cromwell, owes tens of thousands of dollars in back taxes and has been stripped of his fiduciary responsibilities for the tribe, including his role as the head of the tribe’s gaming authority. And a recently published audit of the tribal government found “a myriad of deficiencies and weaknesses in internal controls, including accounting policies and procedures more than a decade out of date, discrepancies in the pay rates of employees, and lack of regular inventory of capital assets,” the Cape Cod Times reports. As a result, the tribe is at risk of theft and fraud.
This is the organization into which Genting Malaysia poured nearly half a billion dollars of up-front money against 40 percent of future revenue from the proposed casino. Unfortunately for the Mashpees — and Genting — federal law prohibits tribes recognized after 1934 from receiving the kind of “sovereign territory” land claim the tribe needs for a casino site. Both the federal courts and Department of Interior have ruled against them, so it will literally take an act of Congress to move this project forward.
Which means Genting Malaysia has potentially billions in revenue riding on Warren’s efforts to get that tribal legislation passed.
The company has issues of its own. It’s currently at the center of a massive kickback scandal that brought down the Malaysian government in 2018. Genting is also involved in a billion-dollar lawsuit against Disney and Fox Entertainment over another failed casino project.
The ironies for Warren are impossible to overlook: An avowed opponent of predatory businesses, Warren is pushing a casino in a distressed, low-income section of Massachusetts. A warrior against big business, she’s helping a billion-dollar company seal a massive deal and recover hundreds of millions in potential losses. And an advocate for transparency and oversight, she’s aiding a tribal government rife with mismanagement and accusations of corruption.
All in an effort, many people believe, to mitigate the political damage from her inauthentic claims to be an American Indian.
The question some casino industry observers are asking now is whether it helps or hurts the Mashpee’s cause going forward to have Warren involved? Do advocates for the casino really want Warren, with her problematic past, pushing a Native American project?
Rep. Bill Keating, who represents the Mashpee Wampanoag community in Congress and supports the casino project, said through a representative that “regarding Senator Warren, Congressman Keating believes that any and all support for the bill from Members on both sides of the aisle in both houses of Congress is helpful.”
But when asked if Keating had asked Warren to support the project going forward, his office declined to comment.
“Elizabeth Warren is the gift that keeps on giving to opponents of First Light (the name of the proposed casino project),” said a source in the casino industry. “Her problems become their problems — and vice versa.”
And it’s true: Every time there’s another negative story about the Mashpee casino mess, Warren’s involvement — and her American Indian issues — are back in the press.
Warren insists that her presidential bid is on track and plans to make her formal announcement Saturday in the working-class community of Lawrence, Massachusetts, before campaigning in New Hampshire and Iowa. When asked by a reporter on Tuesday if she planned to withdraw, Warren refused to answer and walked away.
The problems she’s created by embracing a Native American casino project cannot be avoided so easily.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Michael Graham is political editor of NH Journal. He’s also a CBS News contributor. You can reach him at email@example.com.
Oil workers flee Venezuela’s crisis for a better life
By SCOTT SMITH
Friday, February 8
PUNTO FIJO, Venezuela (AP) — Nieves Ribullen, a Venezuelan oil worker sick of struggling to get by as his country falls apart, is betting it all on Iraq’s far-away Kurdish region to give his family a better life.
Over the years he’s watched dozens of co-workers abandon poverty wages and dangerous working conditions at the rundown complex of refineries in Punto Fijo on Venezuela’s Caribbean coast for jobs in far-flung places like Kuwait, Angola and Chile.
Now it’s his turn. Leaving his wife and three children behind, he’ll soon ship out to Iraq’s semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region, where he expects to earn more than $3,500 a month — a fortune compared to the less than $20 he brings home monthly in increasingly unstable Venezuela.
“I only earn enough to buy a kilo (2 pounds) of meat and one chicken each month,” Ribullen said. “We’re in chaos.”
Opposition leader Juan Guaido has rallied support from distraught Venezuelans and roughly 40 countries that now recognize him as Venezuela’s rightful president.
But the accelerating exodus of oil workers means that Venezuela’s crude production — already at a seven-decade low — is unlikely to rebound anytime soon, even if recently-imposed U.S. sanctions are lifted and a business-friendly government replaces the increasingly wobbly President Nicolas Maduro.
Venezuela was once one of the world’s top five oil exporters, pumping 3.5 million barrels a day in 1998 when President Hugo Chavez was elected and launched Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution. Today, the state-run oil company PDVSA produces less than a third of that. Critics blame corruption and years of mismanagement by the socialist government.
Even worse, production is about to sink even further due to fresh sanctions by the Trump administration targeting PDVSA and its Houston-based subsidiary Citgo with the aim of depriving Maduro of more than $11 billion in exports this year.
Despite the short-term pain they will bring Venezuela, Guaido said the sanctions are a critical part of stopping Maduro from consolidating power in what he calls a “dictatorship.”
Venezuela’s oil workers began flooding out in 2003, shortly after Chavez fired thousands of them — many by name on national television — for launching a strike that paralyzed output. The oil workers accused Chavez of riding roughshod over the nation’s democratic institutions, while Chavez said the picketers were plotting a coup.
Tomas Paez, a professor at Central University of Venezuela who studies the Venezuelan exile community, estimates that 30,000 oil workers fled in the initial wave, many banned from working in the country’s oil industry.
He said it’s difficult to gauge how many more have left as Venezuela’s economic problems have worsened under Maduro, but from the tar sands of northern Canada to the deserts of Kuwait, Venezuelan roughnecks now live in more than 90 oil-producing countries.
“Let’s say, where there is oil, there is a Venezuelan,” Paez said.
Many have made new lives in their adopted countries with no plans to return to a gutted Venezuela. And with each new departure, fewer remain behind with the know-how to pump the world’s most abundant oil reserves, once the economic backbone of a thriving country.
“We are losing man hours, hours of training, millions and millions of hours that we can’t calculate,” said union leader Ivan Freites, secretary of the Federation of Professionals and Technicians of Oil Workers of Venezuela. “It’s impossible to recover our trained personnel working abroad.”
In a recent speech laying out the economic plan for his second six-year term, Maduro vowed to catapult Venezuela’s production to 5 million barrels a day. But he provided few details other than promising to take charge personally and root out corruption.
The embattled president retains support from powerful allies, including Russia and China, which are both heavily invested in Venezuela’s oilfields. Maduro’s hand-picked head of the PDVSA, Maj. Gen. Manuel Quevedo, did not respond to requests for comment by The Associated Press.
While the most-talented engineers left long ago — many contributing to a production boom in neighboring Colombia — there’s still demand for labor throughout the industry.
“We’re still in a talent-short market, especially with people willing to go into hardship locations — like Kurdistan,” said Dane Groeneveld, CEO at California-based PTS Advance, an oil industry recruiter, referring to Iraq’s Kurdish region.
“It’s those people who are now getting picked up by national oil companies around the world,” Groeneveld added.
The 43-year-old Ribullen said he was thinking of his family when he made the decision to go to Iraq’s oil-rich Kurdish region — which is semi-autonomous from the central government in Baghdad — and leave his wife and children behind until he’s saved enough to send them to Chile or the United States.
As he spoke, his youngest, 9-year-old Isaak, cuddled up next to him on the couch of their living room. “He doesn’t want me to go,” Ribullen said. “It’s difficult for us.”
He recalled starting work at PDVSA 16 years ago, when he made enough money to buy a Toyota and take his family to the Caribbean island of Aruba on vacation every year. Now, the car is long gone and it’s been seven years since the last family vacation.
Sometimes after his night shift he’s forced to stand in line for hours at the market to buy food for his family. He blames Chavez and Maduro for destroying his country.
Conditions are dangerous at the refinery, where Ribullen says workers clock in every day with memories of a massive explosion that killed dozens of workers in 2012. Workers don’t have company-issued hardhats, boots or gloves.
Once in Iraq’s Kurdish region, he’ll join dozens of other Venezuelan roughnecks who live and work on a remote compound.
“The situation forces me to look for opportunities somewhere else,” he said. “We’re leaving this in God’s hands, asking that he’ll protect us.”
Follow Scott Smith on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ScottSmithAP .
Why Venezuela’s oil money could keep undermining its economy and democracy
February 8, 2019
Scott Morgenstern, Professor of Political Science, University of Pittsburgh
John Polga–Hecimovich, Assistant Professor of Political Science, United States Naval Academy
Disclosure statement: The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Partners: University of Pittsburgh provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
As political and economic crises threaten to topple Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro, political scientists like us are not surprised that he has run into trouble.
Instead, we see Venezuela as another example of what scholars call the “resource curse.” That’s the unfortunate correlation first described by the British economic geographer Richard M. Auty between nations with vast wealth from oil or other natural resources and political instability.
Venezuela is a textbook case of the curse, since nearly 90 percent of its people are now living in poverty in the country with the world’s largest oil reserves. After decades of leaders who failed to harness this commodity for peace and prosperity, it is questionable whether a new government can do a better job.
Only a few oil- and natural gas-rich countries, such as the United States, Canada and Norway have avoided this curse – in part because they built solid institutions and diverse economies before their petroleum drilling began.
The resource curse
The resource curse has afflicted many Latin American countries with profligate and populist elected leaders who succumbed to the temptations of corruption and reckless spending when easy money poured in, followed by right-wing dictatorships imposing repressive technocracies. Oil and wealth from other commodities like gold and copper, and foreign aid, have also supported kleptocrats and dictatorships who have often used their fortunes to retain power in other regions.
The scholars Terry Karl and Thad Dunning have persuasively argued that oil export revenue helped sustain Venezuelan democracy from the 1950s to the early 1980s. The government, they explained, could buy support from the elite with lower taxes and from the poor with social programs.
Oil money, in short, can sustain whatever government is in power, be it dictatorship or democracy.
But when crude prices fall, the loss of revenue polarizes politics as the wealthy and the poor fight over the reduced proceeds. And when these countries not only rely on one export but also very limited markets, that adds to their vulnerability.
Oil sales constituted 98 percent of Venezuela’s export earnings in 2017, with the U.S. buying nearly half of the country’s exported crude.
Boom and bust
After several decades of strong economic performance backed by comparatively impressive social programs, Venezuela’s economy started to sputter in the 1980s. The vast sums of money it had borrowed a decade earlier, backed by future oil revenues, were coming due by that time.
President Carlos Andrés Pérez, who had presided over strong economic growth between 1974 and 1979, returned to power in 1989. However, this time the country faced a weak currency, rising poverty rates, and increased foreign and public debt in combination with low oil prices.
To stabilize the economy, Pérez implemented austerity policies that deregulated capital markets and reduced price controls on gasoline and other products.
These measures exacerbated economic hardships for the poor, and Venezuelans took to the streets to protest in deadly riots known as the Caracazo. Pérez survived two coup attempts in 1992 only to be impeached and forced out of office for embezzlement in 1993.
Popular anger against economic conditions and the dominant political class led voters to back more polarizing politicians. The first coup attempt against Pérez in 1992 was organized by Hugo Chávez, then a lieutenant-colonel, who famously exclaimed to the nation that he had failed “for now.”
He was right. Just six years later, in 1998, he ran for president and won an overwhelming victory.
Luckily for Chávez, oil prices had started to rise again, eventually reaching record levels while he was in power. Aside from a brief downturn brought on by the Great Recession, those high oil prices raised enough revenue to help sustain his support.
He gained extra revenue by restructuring Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), the country’s state-owned oil and natural gas company that now faces U.S. sanctions, to increase his control and to direct a bigger percentage of its export earnings into government coffers.
With that money, he built popular support by paying for dozens of safety net programs, such as the “Barrio Adentro” health initiative for the poor and the “Misión Robinson” literacy program, starting massive infrastructure projects, and continuing to subsidize the world’s cheapest gasoline.
When Chávez appointed allies to prominent posts at PDVSA in 2002, dissident members of the military and radicalized leaders of the Venezuelan Federation of Chambers of Commerce staged a coup attempt that ultimately failed to oust him.
Meanwhile, the government invested too little in the oil industry and mismanaged it. At the same time, it did too little to prepare for the possibility of lower revenue from oil, to boost other exports or to stop depending on the United States as its biggest customer. Following a big decline, Venezuela remained America’s third-largest source of foreign oil as of October 2018.
Maduro’s staying power
Maduro arrived to power in 2013, after the 58-year-old Chávez died from cancer. By then, Venezuelan oil production had declined, and just one year later global oil prices began to collapse.
Maduro’s popularity collapsed too, although he did get re-elected in 2018 in a race without any independent international electoral observers that was marked by boycotts, accusations of repressing the opposition, and vote-rigging.
On top of his misfortune to be leading Venezuela during an oil price slump, Maduro has turned out to be even worse at managing the oil industry than Chávez. He installed military cronies as managers, led by Manuel Quevedo, a major general in Venezuela’s National Guard.
Since his rise, there have been more purges of PDVSA executives, and many reports that lower-level workers are staying home since they can no longer afford the commute on their wages. Adding even further to the commotion, corruption has run rampant.
The increased social and economic upheaval has even led many poor people to withdraw their allegiance to Maduro. Amid the turmoil, the U.S. and many other countries are recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaidó, as the nation’s legitimate president.
Whether or not Guaidó manages to dislodge Maduro’s grip on power, the country’s turbulent history suggests that long-term success will require much more than removing its current embattled leader. Any future leaders must also build the coalitions and institutions necessary to break the resource curse and thus empower Venezuela to finally draw social and economic stability from its oil wealth.