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Gov: Executive Branch

While members of Congress write laws and are your closest representation in government (and your representative will have an office not far from your home), the actions of the president and the executive branch also greatly affect you.

In this section we report significant events regarding them.

Related Issues

Mueller's Indictments
President: Donald Trump
Trump's Enrichment


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Transportation Sec. Chao's family conflicts of interest

2019-Jun-02By: Barry Shatzman

In 2017, when Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao was planning her first visit to China for the Trump administration, she requested that family members be included in meetings with Chinese officials.

When the request was questioned by the State Department, Chao canceled the trip.

Chao's family runs American shipping company Foremost Group.Though Chao has no formal role in Foremost Group, the company does much of its business with Chinese industry. Chao has used connections to Chinese government officials to help the company.

As Secretary of Transportation, Chao has proposed cuts in programs that would help the U.S. maritime industry. Her family, on the other hand, has provided financial support to China's industry.

That isn't her only family conflict of interest.

Chao is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. They have received millions of dollars from Chao's family - both in gifts and contributions to McConnell's Senate campaigns.

McConnell has been a Republican Party leader in the Senate since 2003. In 2004, his net worth was approximately $3 million. In 2015, it was more than $26 million.

His annual Senate salary is approximately $200,000.

Trump pardons soldier who murdered Iraqi

2019-May-06By: Barry Shatzman

President Donald Trump has pardoned a former soldier who murdered an Iraqi prisoner.

Michael Behenna was convicted of taking the detainee to a secluded area while transporting him back to his village, and then stripping him naked and shooting him. He claimed he was acting in self-defense.

Behenna had served five years in prison, and was on parole at the time of the pardon.

Congress tries to impose its will on Russia investigation

2018-Dec-03By: Barry Shatzman

As the 115th Congress approaches its final two weeks before adjourning, it faces several bills regarding Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

President Trump has called for Mueller to be fired since Mueller's first month on the job. It's likely that he lacks the authority, and that Mueller can be fired only by the person overseeing the investigation.

Previously, that was Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who had the role because then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself. But Trump fired Sessions and appointed Matthew Whitaker to be acting attorney general. Whitaker had spoken out against the investigation - and now he oversees it.

Measures call for both protecting the investigation and for ending it

Some of the bills call for protecting the investigation:

o The Special Counsel Integrity Act would allow a special counsel to be fired only by a Department of Justice (DOJ) official who has been confirmed by the Senate. Dismissal could be only for good cause, and could be appealed in court.

o The Special Counsel Independence Protection Act would allow a special counsel to be fired only for good cause.

o The Special Counsel Security Assurance Act would require court approval for a president to revoke the security clearance of a special counsel.

There also are resolutions calling for an end to the investigation:

o One calls for the investigation to end (or for Mueller to provide a conclusion date) within 30 days of its adoption.

o One calls for impeaching Rod Rosenstein for "high crimes and misdemeanors".

o One calls for Robert Mueller to resign from his special counsel position.

Highly unlikely any of them would pass on their own

The anti-investigation bills, being resolutions solely in the House of Representatives, could not enforce any action even if approved.

The bills to protect the investigation would need to pass both the Senate and the House of Representatives. To become law, they would need to be signed by the president.

Congress also could include one of the bills in a must-pass budget bill, risking a government shutdown if not passed.

EPA head Pruitt faces multiple ethics investigations

2018-Apr-09By: Rob Dennis

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt is under investigation for alleged mishandling of taxpayer money and acceptance of perks, including a bargain condo rental tied to a lobbyist with business before the agency.

During his first months in Washington, D.C., Pruitt rented a condo from the wife of a prominent energy lobbyist for $50 a night, only paying for the nights he stayed there. While Pruitt was renting the condo, the EPA approved a pipeline-expansion plan by one of the lobbyist's clients.

In addition, Pruitt:

o Spent $3 million on security in just a year on the job. Pruitt's 20-member full-time security detail is more than triple the size of that of his predecessor in the Obama administration.

o Flew first class with his security chief, citing "security concerns." Federal employees typically fly coach. So does Pruitt when taxpayers aren't paying.

o Bought a $43,000 soundproof booth to conduct private phone calls.

Under Pruitt's leadership, the EPA used a provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act to give massive raises to two of Pruitt's closest aides, political appointees who had previously worked for him in Oklahoma. The provision is intended to be used to hire experts quickly. Pruitt denied all knowledge of the raises, and EPA chief of staff Ryan Jackson claimed responsibility for them. The same provision was used to hire a former chemical industry lobbyist to run the EPA's Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention.

CFPB top salaries under Mulvaney soar

2018-Apr-05  (Updated: 2018-Apr-21)By: Barry Shatzman

Mick Mulvaney, the acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), requested in January that the CFBP receive no funding. He said the "reserve fund" the bureau had built up for overruns or emergencies should be used up before asking for more money.

He seems to be trying to speed up that process - hiring deputies and paying them salaries that exceed normal pay for their role. Five deputies he hired are being paid approximately $250,000 annually. Two of Mulvaney's hires were for positions that did not exist under previous director Richard Cordray, according the Associated Press.

That's about the same as the vice president. In Congress, only the House Speaker makes more than $200,000. Cabinet members make approximately $200,000.

Leandra English, who was chief of staff for Cordray, made less than $215,000. Kirsten Mork - English's successor under Mulvaney - makes about $45,000 more than that. English now is the deputy director, but the CFPB refused to disclose her current salary to the Associated Press.

In spite of the boosted payroll, the CFPB is doing much less for American consumers than it did under Cordray.

Trump pardons sailor for nuclear sub photos

2018-Mar-09  (Updated: 2018-Mar-15)By: Rob Dennis

President Donald Trump has pardoned a Navy sailor convicted of illegally retaining photos of a submarine's nuclear propulsion system.

Kristian Saucier, a machinist's mate aboard the USS Alexandria from 2007 to 2012, used his cell-phone camera to take six photos in 2009 while the nuclear submarine was docked at a Connecticut naval base. Saucier said he took the photos as mementos. The photos were deemed confidential, the lowest level of security classification.

After the FBI questioned Saucier about the images on the phone, which had been found in a landfill, he destroyed evidence related to the case.

Saucier, 31, pleaded guilty in May 2016 to unlawful retention of national defense information and obstruction of justice, and served 12 months in prison. His sentence ended in September.

Trump frequently referred to Saucier's case during the 2016 presidential campaign, claiming he had been punished for a lesser offense than Hillary Clinton, who mishandled classified information on a private email server when she was secretary of state.

Saucier's pardon was the second of Trump's presidency. He previously pardoned former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, a political ally who was awaiting sentencing for violating a court order.

Dozens of Trump aides lose top-secret clearances

2018-Feb-28By: Rob Dennis

More than 30 White House staffers, including President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, have been stripped of their top-secret clearances.

The staffers had never been approved for permanent clearances. They were provided interim clearances while their applications were being evaluated. They were downgraded to secret on Feb. 23 - when White House Chief of Staff John Kelly instituted a new policy forbidding temporary top-level clearances.

Kelly's policy change came after it emerged that Staff Secretary Rob Porter, who had access to some of the nation's most sensitive secrets, held an interim security clearance for more than a year despite allegations of spousal abuse. Porter resigned earlier in February.

Kushner, whose vast responsibility has included negotiating foreign trade deals and exploring a Middle East peace process, also held an interim clearance for more than a year. His ability to perform in these roles without a top-secret clearance will be impaired - if not rendered impossible.

Kushner's security problems

Kushner's problems obtaining a permanent clearance date to the beginning of the Trump presidency, when he failed to disclose more than 100 foreign contacts on his security clearance application.

Among those contacts were December 2016 meetings with Russian ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak and the head of Russian state-controlled bank Vnesheconombank (VEB), Sergey Gorkov. VEB was placed under U.S. sanctions after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

A Russian spy ring operated out of the bank's Manhattan branch from 2012 to 2014, and a member of that ring met with Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page in 2013. Gorkov, a graduate of the FSB Academy, was appointed head of VEB in 2016 by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who used to chair the bank himself.

Kushner also took part in a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Trump opponent Hillary Clinton.

As a White House staffer, Kushner continued holding undisclosed meetings with foreign officials, the Washington Post reported. Officials in four countries - China, Israel, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates - discussed ways to manipulate Kushner "by taking advantage of his complex business arrangements, financial difficulties and lack of foreign policy experience," the Post reported.

Other clearance problems among Trump staff members

As of November, 100 staffers in the Executive Office of the President still had interim clearances, including Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, CNN reported.

The remaining officials whose clearances were downgraded have not been named. They remain in the White House for now, but their duties requiring a top-secret clearance will be handed off to other staffers.  

Six other White House staffers were fired in February after they failed an FBI background check.  

White House proposes eliminating civil rights agency

2018-Feb-12By: Barry Shatzman

The Trump administration is proposing the elimination of an agency created to ease racial tensions and reduce hate crimes.

The Community Relations Service (CRS) was created by the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

It is part of the Department of Justice (DOJ). The administration's proposal would eliminate the agency's $15 million budget (and 54 jobs) and transfer the its functions to the DOJ's Civil Rights Division .

The difference could be more than administrative, however. The Community Relations Service operates as a mediator, whereas the Civil Rights Division is concerned with enforcement.

The White House proposal is only a proposal. Congress would be required to approve the elimination of the agency's budget.

Trump ordered Mueller fired. White House counsel refused

2018-Jan-25By: Rob Dennis

President Donald Trump ordered the firing of Special Counsel Robert Mueller in June, just a month after Mueller had been appointed to oversee the Russia investigation, the New York Times reported.

Trump backed down after White House Counsel Don McGahn refused to obey the order and threatened to quit if the president insisted. The president can't directly fire Mueller. Only the deputy attorney general who appointed the special counsel can fire him, and only for cause.

Mueller was appointed after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in May. He was appointed to conduct the investigation into the Russian government's interference in the 2016 presidential election, and its possible collusion with the Trump campaign. Trump said he fired Comey in part because of "this Russia thing."

Trump claimed Mueller had three "conflicts of interest" that justified his firing:

o Mueller was involved in an alleged dispute over membership fees when he resigned as a member of Trump National Golf Club in Virginia in 2011.

o Mueller worked for a law firm that previously represented Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

o Mueller was interviewed to be FBI director the day before he was appointed special counsel in May.

McGahn disagreed that these were valid reasons, and refused to call the Department of Justice to have Mueller fired.

Trump pardons AZ sheriff convicted of ignoring judge

2017-Aug-25By: Barry Shatzman

President Trump has pardoned an Arizona sheriff convicted of ignoring a federal judge's orders.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio had ordered Latinos be detained simply because they could not show legal status. A federal judge ruled that the practice involved racial profiling because it involved only Latinos - who were stopped for traffic violations at a much higher rate than other drivers - and ordered Arpaio to end the practice. Yet Arpaio continued the detentions for the next 1-1/2 years.

Lawsuits regarding brutality against detainees since Arpaio became sheriff in 1993 have cost Arizona taxpayers $140 million.

Arpaio was convicted of criminal contempt. He had yet to be sentenced - nor had he used an opportunity to appeal - when Trump issued the pardon.

Trump had asked about rescuing Arpaio - who has been a long-time Trump supporter - from his legal situation even before he was convicted. Had Arpaio wanted to request a pardon, he would have been required to wait five years from the date he completed his sentence.

The two-paragraph statement from Trump did not provide the reason he pardoned Arpaio.

It is likely the Justice Department was not consulted between Arpaio's conviction and the time of the pardon.

Senate bills would make it hard for Trump to fire Mueller

2017-Aug-03  (Updated: 2017-Aug-10)By: Barry Shatzman

Two bipartisan groups of senators have introduced bills that would make it harder for President Trump to fire the investigator hired to investigate him.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller was hired by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein soon after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. He was hired to investigate possible collusion between Trump's campaign and Russia.

Trump has suggested that he would consider having Mueller fired if Mueller's investigation led to areas Trump does not approve of.

Trump cannot directly fire Mueller. That likely would need to be done by the attorney general. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from the investigation, however, so it is unclear how a firing would take place.

The bills have yet to be considered by the Senate. Either one would need to pass both houses of Congress and then be signed by Trump in order to become law. Sen. Tom Carper, a sponsor of one of the bills, said they are mostly symbolic at this point - a way to let Trump know that Congress wants Mueller to be allowed to perform his investigation without outside influence.

In the same timeframe as these bills, 20 Republicans sent a letter to Sessions asking him to investigate "a plethora of matters" related to Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign and officials in the administration of then-President Barack Obama.

COVFEFE Act would make presidential tweets official records

2017-Jun-12By: Barry Shatzman

Rep. Mike Quigley has introduced a bill that would classify social media posts by a president to be considered official presidential records.

President Trump frequently has issued public policy declarations over the social media platform Twitter. At times it is difficult to determine which posts are serious or which merely are Trump using social media as an outlet to vent.

Press Secretary Sean Spicer has said they should be taken as official statements.

Quigley states in a press release for the bill...

"President Trump's frequent, unfiltered use of his personal Twitter account as a means of official communication is unprecedented. If the President is going to take to social media to make sudden public policy proclamations, we must ensure that these statements are documented and preserved for future reference."

The bill is the Communications Over Various Feeds Electronically For Engagement (COVFEFE), named after a seemingly nonsensical word in a Twitter post by Trump.

VA awards contract with no competition - and no price

2017-Jun-05By: Rob Dennis

The Trump administration has picked a firm to modernize veterans' electronic health care records - without putting the contract out for bid or knowing how much it will cost.

Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary David Shulkin announced that the contract will go to Cerner Corp., which already has a $4.3 billion contract to overhaul the Department of Defense's (DoD) health care records system. The VA won't use the same system, but it will use Cerner's software at its core, Shulkin said. Cerner won the DoD contract in a two-year bidding process.  

Federal contracts typically are subject to a competitive bidding process to lower costs and avoid conflicts of interest. However, agencies can waive that process, and Shulkin said he did so "because of the urgency and the critical nature of this decision."

This leaves the government with little leverage over the cost. It could choose to abandon the deal and start over, but that could delay the project more than a bidding process from the start would have.

The VA still must present its justification for awarding the contract without competition.

EPA removes climate change data from website

2017-May-10By: Barry Shatzman

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has removed information related to climate change from its website.

To find the EPA's climate change section on their site, you need to go through the following path... -> Environmental Topics -> Air -> (Air Pollutants) Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions -> Climate Change Home

The section now contains a simple message...

"Thank you for your interest in this topic. We are currently updating our website to reflect EPA's priorities under the leadership of President Trump and Administrator Pruitt. If you're looking for an archived version of this page, you can find it on the January 19 snapshot."

Selecting the archived version will lead you to the old page (which no longer is being updated).

Comparison of EPA Climate Change web pages past and present

The EPA claims the full site will be available in the archive. However, there had been an accompanying student site with resources used by teachers as well as students. The EPA suggested those pages might not have been archived properly.

Criminal investigations slowed due to Trump security

2017-Apr-06By: Barry Shatzman

The Secret Service is pulling agents off criminal investigations in order to help protect President Trump and his family, the New York Times has reported.

To pay for the protection, the Secret Service has requested an extra $60 million, according to the Washington Post.

Bill would require presidents to disclose visitors

2017-Mar-23By: Barry Shatzman

Rep. Mike Quigley has introduced a bill that would require presidents to disclose the names of visitors to the White House. Presidents also would be required to provide a visitors' log for any other places they regularly conduct official U.S. business.

The only administration to voluntarily provide this information was the Obama administration.

The bill is the Make Access Records Available to Lead American Government Openness Act. It forms the acronym MAR-A-LAGO. Mar-a-Lago is the name of the Florida resort owned by President Donald Trump where he has spent a significant amount of time conducting official U.S. business.

First Trump impact - the White House website

2017-Jan-20By: Barry Shatzman

The first change of the Trump administration happened quickly - before the new president even finished his inauguration speech.

The White House website changed over from President Barack Obama to President Trump virtually immediately after Trump's noon eastern time swearing in.

A few things were noticeably missing from the new administration's site - including a report on civil rights, a report on LGBT and transexual issues in the workplace, and the Obama administration's detailed report on climate change.

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