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Caitlin MacNeal

Caitlin MacNeal is a News Writer based in Washington, D.C. Before joining TPM, Caitlin interned and wrote for the Huffington Post, the Sunlight Foundation and Slate. She is a graduate of Georgetown University.

Articles by Caitlin

In a series of tweets Thursday night and Friday morning, President Donald Trump touted his administration’s response to the devastation in Puerto Rico after two hurricanes tore through the island and bashed the media coverage of the federal government’s recovery effort so far.

Trump claimed that the media was not covering his administration’s efforts “fairly” and boasted that Puerto Rico’s governor told him he was pleased with the federal government’s response so far.

The administration has come under fire for the way federal officials have described the recovery efforts given that nearly the entire island is without power and residents there have struggled to get food.

Trump has consistently boasted about the administration’s efforts and acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke described the situation as a “good news story.” The San Juan mayor also blasted Trump for tweets mentioning Puerto Rico’s debt instead of focusing solely on recovery efforts.

Some lawmakers in Congress criticized Trump for initially declining to waive a law that restricts shipping between American ports to American ships, though the administration waived the law Thursday.

In addition to flying on private planes for several domestic trips, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price flew on military planes for trips to Europe, Africa and Asia over the summer, costing taxpayers more than $500,000, Politico reported Thursday evening.

The report on Price’s travel patterns abroad comes as he is under intense scrutiny for spending thousands of taxpayer dollars on private jets to fly up and down the East Coast for official events. The health secretary said yesterday that he will repay the government $51,887.31 for the cost of his seats on the charter planes, not the entire bill for the flights, which cost more than $400,000 in total, per Politico’s estimates.

The White House approved Price’s use of a military plane for the trips abroad and told Politico that military planes are sometimes necessary for Cabinet heads.

“Use of military aircraft for Cabinet and other essential travelers is sometimes an appropriate and necessary use of resources,” White House deputy press secretary Raj Shah told Politico.

HHS spokeswoman Charmaine Yoest told Politico that the use of a military plane was “important for maintaining security and having secure communications.”

On the trips abroad, Price’s wife accompanied him, and HHS told Politico that the secretary paid the government for the cost of his wife’s travel. Some Price staffers flew on commercial flights for the trips abroad, per Politico.

Price traveled to Berlin, Geneva, Beijing, Ho Chi Minh City and Tokyo on a government plane for meetings with international health officials, Politico reported. He also took a separate trip to Liberia to discuss the response to Ebola, per Politico.

Kathleen Sebelius, a former health and human services secretary under President Barack Obama, told Politico that she always flew commercial on her trips abroad. Another health secretary under Obama, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, used a government plane for a trip to Cuba, former HHS aides told Politico, but Burwell did not respond to questions about her travel abroad.

The acting director of the Office of Government Ethics said Thursday that he will maintain the watchdog’s practice of directing legal defense funds established for employees of the executive branch to bar contributions from anonymous sources.

The legal advisory issued Thursday is an apparent reversal from a brief, earlier update under OGE’s new acting director, David Apol, which suggested that the office would allow legal defense funds to accept donations from anonymous sources, such as lobbyists.

The last official guidance issued on the matter is a legal opinion from 1993, which established that legal defense funds for executive branch staffers could accept anonymous donations from lobbyists. Since the Clinton administration, however, the OGE in practice has directed those setting up such funds not to accept any anonymous contributions.

The ethics office sparked confusion earlier this month by placing a note atop the 1993 opinion, stating that the finding had not changed. The move suggested that under Apol, OGE might permit legal defense funds to accept anonymous contributions, although a spokeswoman for the office told TPM at the time that the policy had not changed and that it was still directing funds to bar anonymous donors.

These rules have come under much greater scrutiny since current and former staffers to President Donald Trump hired legal representation to field special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the U.S. election. So far, Trump ally Roger Stone and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn have established legal funds, but it has not been reported that any current White House staffers have legal funds.

The advisory issued Thursday formalizes that OGE will direct any legal defense funds set up for executive branch staffers to include a clause stating that “contributions shall not be accepted from anonymous sources.”

But ethics experts note that the guidance on legal defense funds is still vague, and they argue that OGE should establish stricter guidelines.

“It’s still somewhat remarkable that there aren’t more specific regulations and guidelines with respect to legal expense trust funds in the executive branch. The guidance is very thin, particularly when compared to the guidance provided by the House and Senate Ethics Committees,” Robert Walker, a government ethics expert at Wiley Rein LLP, told TPM.

Walker said that OGE should give clear guidance on who can and cannot serve as trustee for a staffer’s legal defense fund; what information those funds would be required to make public; and what limitations have been established on how much an individual can donate.

He said that while it may have been “practical” for OGE to issue vague guidelines, the ethics watchdog should eventually craft regulations with more specific instructions for this type of legal defense fund.

Walter Shaub, the former OGE director who resigned after Trump took office, also criticized a “lack of transparency” in the new legal advisory from Apol. In a series of tweets, he noted that OGE did not make it clear whether it will require funds to publicly disclose their donors, nor did it publicize any guidance for who can be a funds’ trustee, among other issues.

The advisory stated that the legal defense funds must comply with certain gift rules, which Shaub noted bar contributions from a source who is donating because of the beneficiary’s official position. Walker noted that question was raised before the Trump administration and has been “carried over” by the advisory issued Thursday.

“This is an inherent tension and issue with the whole notion of legal expense trust funds in the executive branch,” he observed. “How do you get around the fact that they’re all probably being given because of the official position of the individual? I think OGE probably would be better of addressing that squarely.”

Walker added that OGE needs to say how the funds “might be best structured to avoid potential conflicts and the appearance of conflicts.”

After President Donald Trump said he was “not happy” about Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s use of private planes, the Cabinet official told reporters on Thursday that he believes he still has the President’s confidence.

“I think we’ve still got the confidence of the President,” Price told reporters after an event in Washington, D.C. promoting flu vaccines, as quoted by Politico.

The secretary would not answer reporters’ questions about whether he regrets using private jets or whether he plans to reimburse taxpayers for the cost of the trips, according to Politico.

Price spent more than $300,000 of taxpayer money on private charter plane flights up and down the East Coast to attend events in his official capacity as Health and Human Services secretary. His extensive use of private planes has prompted the House Oversight Committee to open an investigation into Trump administration officials’ use of non-commercial planes.

Trump signaled Wednesday that he’s not pleased with Price’s penchant for taking charter planes.

“I will tell you personally, I’m not happy about it,” Trump told reporters Wednesday. “I’m going to look at it. I am not happy about it, and I let him know it.”

Asked if he would fire Price, Trump replied, “We’ll see.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) on Wednesday night placed blame on the Senate for Congress’ failure to pass Obamacare repeal or any other major legislation so far this year, arguing that the House has done its job.

Ryan noted that the House has passed more than 300 bills, including legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare, but that most of those bills have yet to move in the Senate. The House did pass a bill to repeal Obamacare, but only after its first attempt failed before reaching the floor. It’s also not clear that the House would have approved any final legislation passed by the Senate, knowing it would head straight to President Donald Trump’s desk.

The speaker said that the Senate is hamstrung by its need to confirm Trump’s nominees and by its filibusters, which Ryan has advocated eliminating.

“Of course I’d like to see them do majority votes on these things,” Ryan said. “They don’t have the votes there for it, that’s the flat-simple answer.”

Watch Ryan’s interview with Hannity via Fox News:

In a blistering statement Wednesday afternoon, the leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) called out the Trump administration for its rushed consultation of the committee before announcing it would lower the refugee cap next year.

Grassley and Feinstein complained that they learned of the refugee cap in the news before they had a meeting with the administration, despite asking months ago for a meeting on the issue. State Department officials met with the members of both the House and Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday afternoon, and only scheduled the meeting on Tuesday, per Grassley and Feinstein.

“We are incredibly frustrated that the annual consultation for refugee admissions, which is required by law, was finalized just one day in advance. It is simply unacceptable to read in the press that the administration had reached its decision on the refugee cap before the mandated meeting with Congress had even been scheduled,” Grassley and Feinstein said in the statement.

“Since August, our offices have made bipartisan requests to the State Department on this meeting. Congress and the law require real engagement on this important subject,” they added. “An eleventh-hour meeting to check a legal box is not sufficient.”

The Trump administration has yet to formally announce next year’s refugee cap, but plans to limit the number of refugees accepted into the U.S. to 45,000, down from the 110,000 the Obama administration aimed to admit in 2017.

The Republican chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), seemed less upset about the Trump administration’s consultation process, praising the plan in a statement Wednesday evening.

“For generations, the United States has been a safe haven for those around the world fleeing persecution in their home countries. The Trump Administration’s refugee ceiling for the coming year maintains our nation’s generosity toward those in need, and importantly, ensures limited resources are used wisely and our citizens are protected in light of ongoing terrorist threats,” Goodlatte said in a statement.

 

 

Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, has spent more than $58,000 of taxpayer money on four trips using government and private planes to attend events throughout the United States, according to Thursday reports from CBS News and the Washington Post.

“Administrator Pruitt took one charter flight and three government flights,” EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman confirmed to CBS News.

In June, the EPA spent about $36,000 to fly Pruitt and three staffers from Cincinnati to New York on a military plane so that they could catch a flight to Italy for meetings with environmental ministers. According to travel documents viewed by the Washington Post, the White House approved the flight and the EPA explained that it used the military plane because no commercial flight would have gotten Pruitt to New York in time for his flight to Italy.

In July, Pruitt and six staffers flew to Guymon, Oklahoma, spending more than $14,000 on an Interior Department plane. The EPA said that Pruitt was unable to make the 10-hour round-trip drive due to time constraints, per the Washington Post.

Pruitt and three staffers flew on a private plane costing more than $5,700 to an event in Colorado in August. The EPA charted the plane because the commercial flight Pruitt planned to take was delayed by eight hours, per the Washington Post. A few days later, Pruitt spent about $2,000 to fly on a North Dakota state plane to attend an event at the University of North Dakota’s Environmental Research Center, per CBS News.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) sent a letter to the EPA’s inspector general on Tuesday asking for the agency watchdog to review Pruitt’s use of non-commercial flights, according to the Washington Post.

Pruitt is the third Trump administration official to come under scrutiny for his use of non-commercial planes to attend official events. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price has spent more than $300,000 on non-commercial flights to attend events up and down the East Coast, often for short trips and events close to major airports. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s use of a government plane to fly to Kentucky to attend a local chamber of commerce event and to view the eclipse is also under review.

The use of non-commercial planes by these officials has prompted the House Oversight Committee to review the use of such flights by the Trump administration. The committee sent letters to the White House and 24 federal agencies on Tuesday, asking that they detail officials’ use of government-owned and private planes.

Pruitt was also already under investigation by the EPA inspector general for his travel in the first half of the year, following reports that Pruitt used taxpayer money to fly to his home state of Oklahoma several times.

The EPA chief’s spending on other items, while calling for drastic cuts across the agency, also has invited scrutiny. The EPA chief has assembled an 18-member 24/7 security detail, pulling agents from the agency’s criminal investigations unit. That level of security is unprecedented for an EPA chief. Pruitt is also building a private, sound-proof booth in his office, which will cost nearly $25,000.

 

President Donald Trump on Wednesday insisted that Republicans are close to passing a bill to repeal Obamacare and dubiously predicted that Congress would manage to pull off the feat early next year.

“We have the votes for health care. We have one senator that’s in the hospital. He can’t vote because he’s in the hospital,” Trump told reporters outside the White House, echoing a claim he made earlier in the morning on Twitter. The President was likely referring to Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), who is not in Washington, D.C. due to a health issue.

The President’s claim seems far-fetched, given how much the Senate has struggled on the issue this year and the fact that the chamber’s ability to pass a repeal bill with a simple majority expires at the end of this week.

Trump told reporters that Congress would tackle Obamacare repeal again in “January or February,” later amending that to January, February or March—a remarkably fast timeline given Congress’ plan to tackle tax reform next. It’s also not clear how Congress would pass the bill in early 2018 without the authority to do so through the reconciliation process.

The President complained that Republicans fell just short of earning enough support to repeal Obamacare this week, and alluded to Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) opposition to the latest health care bill and frustration with the partisan process.

“I feel we have the votes. I’m almost certain we have the votes. But with one man in the hospital, we cannot display that we have them,” Trump said Wednesday. “Plus, some people want to go through a process just to make themselves feel better. That’s okay.”

He that Republicans would be able to go through a process between now and early next year that would assuage concerns about the rushed process from some senators, like McCain and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).

“What we’re going to do is, we will do the block grants, we will do the health care. We will get a longer process going for the couple of people that did want to see more process even though they’re a yes vote,” Trump said.

In the meantime Trump said he would try to negotiate with Democrats on health care and said he may sign executive orders on the subject.

“I am considering an executive order on associations and that will take care of a tremendous number of people with regard to health care,” he said. “And I’ll probably be signing a very major executive order where people can go out, cross state lines, do lots of things and buy their own health care, and that will be probably signed next week. It’s being finished now. It’s going to cover a lot of territory and a lot of people.”

President Donald Trump on Wednesday signaled that he’s less than pleased with Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s use of private planes to fly up and down the East Coast.

“I will tell you personally, I’m not happy about it,” Trump told reporters outside the White House when asked about Price’s use of private planes. “I’m going to look at it. I am not happy about it, and I let him know it.”

Asked if Price is “in trouble,” Trump told reporters, “You’ll have to ask senators about that.”

It’s not clear what Trump meant: The House Oversight Committee did send letters to Price and other department heads on Tuesday asking for details on any officials’ use of private or government planes.

Asked later on if he would fire Price, Trump responded, “We’ll see,” as he turned away from reporters to board Marine One.

The White House previously had distanced itself from Price’s use of private planes. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders noted last week that Price’s mode of transportation was not approved by the White House, and Trump also said last week that he was “looking into” Price’s travel, refraining from defending a member of his Cabinet.

The House Oversight Committee on Tuesday sent letters to the White House and 24 federal agencies demanding details on the use of private and government planes by Trump administration officials.

Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) and Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-MD) wrote in the letters that they are “examining the extent to which non-career officials at federal departments and agencies either use government-owned aircraft for personal travel or private non-commercial aircraft for official travel.” They noted that federal law requires officials to use the “most expeditious” mode of transportation possible and that official travel should not “include personal use.”

The letters follow reports from Politico about Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s use of private jets to fly around the country. He used private planes at least five times, costing taxpayers more than $300,000 since May, and Price visited family and friends on those trips as well.

HHS has defended Price’s use of private planes, arguing that he sometimes needs to use a private plane due to his busy schedule. The White House has not offered a full-throated defense of Price, however, noting that HHS and not it cleared the secretary’s use of private planes.

The HHS inspector general has already launched a probe into Price’s use of private planes, and Cummings previously sent a letter to Price asking for information on his flights.

The Tuesday letters mark involvement from the Republican chair of the oversight committee and an expansion of the inquiry about plane use to other federal agencies.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has also come under fire for his use of a government plane to attend a local chamber of commerce event in Kentucky, where he also watched the solar eclipse with his wife.

Read one of the letters the House Oversight Committee sent out Tuesday:

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