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Tierney Sneed

Tierney Sneed is a reporter for Talking Points Memo. She previously worked for U.S. News and World Report. She grew up in Florida and attended Georgetown University.

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House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) said Thursday that the appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as a special counsel for the Justice Department’s Russia investigation was “perfectly appropriate.”

I believe that the professionals at the Justice Department need to do their jobs independently, objectively and throughly, and I believe that the special counsel, which is Robert Mueller now, helps them do that,” Ryan said at his weekly press conference.

Before the Justice Department’s announcement of Mueller’s selection, most Republicans opposed bringing on a special counsel into the investigation. The calls for a special counsel grew after President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, who was previously overseeing the probe, and after reports that Trump had pressured Comey to drop the probe before firing him.

Ryan said Thursday that the appointment of a special counsel “helps assure people and the Justice Department that they’re going to go do their jobs independently and thoroughly.”

The major overhaul of Medicaid House Republicans passed with their bill to repeal Obamacare earlier this month would cut $43 billion in Medicaid funding for non-disabled children over 10 years, a study by the consultant firm Avalere found. The study also broke down the cuts by states, finding that Texas, Florida and New York would be the biggest losers in Medicaid funding for children’s health care coverage.

The House GOP bill, the American Health Care Act, transforms the traditional Medicaid program from an unlimited match rate to what is known as a per capita cap, meaning the feds would set a limit on the funding offered to states on a per enrollee basis. Because the metric Republicans use to raise the caps over time is slower than the inflation rate of Medicaid, the cuts to the program would grow bigger over time.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the original version of the legislation would cut $880 billion from the program over the next decade.

The GOP Senate is in the process of writing its own bill to dismantle the Affordable Care Act that they said will include an overhaul of Medicaid. So far, they have signaled that they will embrace the House’s per capita cap’s approach, but are tinkering with the nuts and bolts of how the caps would work.

 

Robert Mueller, the freshly named special counsel in the Russia investigation, is no stranger to bucking the wishes of a President seeking to get his way.

In 2004, Mueller, then the FBI director, participated in an intervention to prevent President George W. Bush’s chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., and White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales from obtaining the signature of a hospitalized and barely-conscious John Ashcroft, the attorney general at the time, to reauthorize the the administration’s domestic surveillance program, which the Justice Department had declared illegal.

Mueller was alerted they were heading to the hospital by then-Deputy Attorney General James Comey, who went on to succeed Mueller as FBI director and whom, ironically, Trump just last week fired from that post over the Russia probe. Comey and Mueller rushed to the hospital to intercept Card and Gonzales, with Mueller calling hospital security to warn against letting the White House officials  into Ashcroft’s room. The two arrived just before Card and Gonzales, who were rebuffed by Ashcroft when they presented him the executive order reauthorizing the program.

Now Mueller will be wading into a politically explosive matter involving a foreign country’s meddling in a presidential election, alleged ties between Trump associates and Russia, and a President who has been accused of obstruction of justice for allegedly pressuring Comey to drop the probe. The announcement came a mere 24 hours after news reports suggesting the existence of a memo written by Comey detailing the pressure from Trump to wind the Russia probe investigation.

Mueller, 72, was appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who was overseeing the investigation after Attorney General Jeff Session recused himself from campaign-related investigation. Though registered as Republican, Mueller has often been described apolitical and is widely respected, with boosters on both sides of the aisle. His appointment as special counsel was immediately met with near-unanimous praise.

When he stepped down as FBI director in 2013, Mueller was the second-longest serving director in its history. He was appointed by George W. Bush in 2001, having served several stints in various US attorney’s offices as well as roles in the Justice Department that included overseeing its criminal division. He was officially sworn in as director only days before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, though he had been serving as acting deputy attorney general for some time before that. He oversaw a transformation of the agency after the attacks to expand its focus on counter-terrorism and homeland security. In his tenure under the Bush administration, he faced scrutiny over why the 9/11 attacks weren’t prevented, oversaw the handling of the anthrax crisis and expanded the federal government’s surveillance and detention procedures.

His 10-year term was extended for two years by President Obama, who praised him for “extraordinary leadership and effectiveness.” At the twilight of his tenure was the FBI’s investigation into the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. Since leaving the FBI, he has worked in private law practice at WilmerHale and also conducted a review of the NFL’s handling of domestic abuse allegations (his involvement in the NFL investigation was questioned given the football organization’s ties to the law firm).

He will resign from WilmerHale to avoid any conflicts of interest while overseeing the Russia investigation, the Justice Department said in its announcement of his appointment.

Correction: Mueller was serving as acting deputy attorney general before he became FBI director in 2001, not as acting FBI director. We regret the error.

The Senate Judiciary Committee demanded Wednesday that the FBI and the White House turn over evidence relating to former FBI Director James Comey’s interactions with President Trump after reports of a memo that Comey was said have written detailing a request from Trump to wind down the Russia investigation.

The letters were signed by both the Chair Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), as well as the chair and ranking member of the subcommittee on crime and terrorism, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).

The committee’s letter to the White House noted Trump’s tweets last week suggesting he had “tapes” of his conversations with Comey and included audio recordings in its request for “all White House records memorializing interactions with Mr. Comey relating to the FBI’s investigation of alleged ties between President Trump’s associates and Russia, or the Clinton email investigation, including all audio recordings, transcripts, notes, summaries, and memoranda.”

The committee’s letter to the FBI asks the agency to hand over the Comey memo if it exists, as well as other documents “memorializing interactions he had with Presidents Trump and Obama, Attorneys General Sessions and Lynch, and Deputy Attorneys General Rosenstein, Boente, and Yates regarding the investigations of Trump associates’ alleged connections with Russia or the Clinton email investigation.”

House Oversight Committee Chair Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) also put in a request with the FBI for such memos Tuesday evening, but his request pertained to all Comey memos stretching back to the beginning of the Obama administration, not just those related to the Russia inquiry or the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as Secretary of State.

Alice Ollstein contributed reporting.

The “nothing to see here” mentality that has dominated congressional Republicans’ approach to President Trump’s growing pile of scandals finally cracked Tuesday night.

With the new allegation that Trump asked then-FBI Director James Comey to tamp down the Russia investigation, the House GOP is now making at least a public showing of exercising its oversight responsibilities.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) announced Tuesday evening that he was requesting documents from the FBI related to the Comey allegations, while House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) stressed that Congress’ “job is to get the facts and t0 be sober about doing that.”

“Look, there has been a lot of reporting lately. I think that requires close examination,” Ryan said at a press conference Wednesday morning.

The House leadership’s acknowledgment that deeper digging was necessary – though how much and how aggressively remains to be seen – comes after months of turning a blind eye to other questions of inappropriate behavior raised about the Trump administration at the outset of his presidency.

There are signs that Republicans aren’t being totally earnest in their freshly-minted crusade for more information. Chaffetz’s letter to the FBI requests Comey memos not just for the first few months of the Trump administration but dating all the way back to the beginning of the Obama presidency in 2009.

GOP lawmakers are still insistent that they will stay focused on their agenda of repealing Obamacare and cutting taxes, even as a drip-drip-drip of leaks about Trump’s handling of Comey’s firing continues. But now, there is potential for a paper trail – in the form of memos Comey was said to have written about his conversations with Trump – to be obtained and analyzed.

“The Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman has requested the memo in question, and I am actually interested in the entire compendium of Comey memos. I think that might be something of interest to the Congress,” Rep, Michael Burgess (R-TX) said Wednesday morning.

Coming out of their regular House GOP conference meeting, Republicans mostly ducked questions from reporters about the potential that Trump engaged in obstruction of justice in trying to quash the Russia probe. Wednesday is their first full day back after Trump’s abrupt firing of Comey last week, and the reports since then that Comey wrote a memo detailing a February request from the President to lay off of his former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.

A few GOP members were willing to pretzel-twist themselves into a defense of Trump, but some were more circumspect with their desire to see a fact-finding process play out.

“I’m a process guy. I believe that there are processes that are available to us, organic to us, in both the House and the Senate, and I believe that we need to let those processes unfold,” Rep. Steve Womack (R-AK) told reporters, adding that lawmakers needed to have a “Joe Friday mentality”

“Just the facts, and it will be the facts that will allow us to go from that point forward should there be a necessity to move in another direction,” he said.

More than a few GOP members said that they would like Comey to publicly testify, in addition to calling for the release of the memo at the center of the latest reports.

“If he’s got a charge to make, he needs to make it,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) said. But he, like most Republicans, was not ready to join Democrats in their call for a special prosecutor or select committee to intervene.

“Until you have a charge of criminal activity – and I would certainly consider a charge by the former director of the FBI a credible charge – but until that’s made, you don’t really have anything to justify a special prosecutor,’ Cole said.

One of the few Republicans who has called for a special prosecutor, Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI), took the extra step of floating the possibility of impeachment Wednesday.

“If the allegations are true, yes,” he said, when asked if what the Comey memo detailed was grounds for impeachment.

According to members, the details of the Trump allegations weren’t discussed in the conference meeting, but rather, it was broadly acknowledged that steps were being taken to look into them and they should refrain from speculating.

“The Speaker stressed that we still had oversight responsibilities no matter who’s in the White House and  that we’re going to fully perform those oversight responsibilities,” Rep. Bill Flores (R-TX) said.

A new study offers an estimate on the number of people who would be most vulnerable to premium hikes or losing coverage altogether due to the House GOP Obamacare repeal bill’s rollback of the Affordable Care Act’s protections for those with pre-existing conditions.

An analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that more than six million people would have both the type of conditions and the lapse in coverage that would allow insurers to charge them more, under a state waiver option offered in the legislation, the American Health Care Act.

When House Republicans voted on the bill earlier this year, they offered little in terms of analysis of the impact of the waiver provision, which was unveiled about a week before the vote on the legislation. The CBO is expected to release its own analysis of the legislation next week.

The Kaiser study, released Wednesday, looked at the number of people who had gaps in coverage according to most recent National Health Interview Survey, and further broke them down by the survey’s estimate of people with pre-existing conditions that could have prompted a denial of insurance coverage in the pre-Affordable Care Act days.

The analysis found that 6.3 million people met these conditions, making them vulnerable to a provision in the House GOP’s American Health Care Act that allows states to opt out of Obamacare insurer mandates prohibiting insurers from jacking up premiums based on one’s health status. Under the waiver option, known as the MacArthur amendment, insurers in opt-out states would be able charge those with pre-existing conditions more than the the standard premium rate if the consumers had a lapse in coverage longer than 63 days.

“In many cases, people uninsured for several months or more in a year have been without coverage for a long period of time. In other cases, people lose insurance and experience a gap as a result of loss of a job with health benefits or a decrease in income that makes coverage less affordable,” the analysis said. “Young people may have a gap in coverage as they turn 26 and are unable to stay on their parents’ insurance policies. Medicaid beneficiaries can also have a gap if their incomes rise and they are no longer eligible for the program.”

The analysis said that even more than the 6.3 million cited have other types of conditions, such as asthma depression or hypertension, that could lead to a rise in premiums under AHCA, even though they were not declinable in the pre-ACA days.

Republicans have come under fire for the bill’s rollback of the ACA’s protections for pre-existing conditions. Technically, under the GOP bill, Obamacare’s “guaranteed issue” provision — meaning its ban on insurers denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions — would stay on the books. But by allowing states to opt out of the ACA’s so-called community ratings based on health status the GOP bill would essentially allow insurers to price sick people out of the market.

The bill narrowly passed the House after an additional $8 billion was added to the $130 billion or so already in the bill to help finance state high-risk pools and other programs Republicans say could be set up to protect people with pre-existing conditions. That amount is far below what experts have estimated an appropriate risk pool to cost and the legislation is vague in its directive for states to do so if they seek to waive out of the ACA’s consumer protections.

The Senate is currently working on its own Obamacare repeal bill.

The Kaiser study pointed to a number of unknowns that could affect how many people would actually experience premium hikes due to pre-existing conditions and coverage lapses. Obviously it would depend greatly on how many states ultimately took the waiver.

Kaiser also pointed out that the number of people who would have a lapse in coverage could be higher than the 2015 survey on which its estimates are based. For one, the tax credits under the GOP bill are less generous for certain groups of people — particularly lower-income and older consumers — than the current Obamacare subsidies, meaning more people could have a harder time affording continuous coverage. The GOP bill also imposes major cuts to Medicaid, and those who would no longer be eligible for the Medicaid expansion that is phased out in the Republican legislation could be susceptible to lapses in coverage.

Lawmakers were just beginning to grapple with the week’s first White House controversy when news of yet another Trump-related scandal began echoing through Capitol Hill.

It was like Groundhog Day in the Senate basement late Tuesday. As senators were heading into the Capitol for an evening vote, they were met with a flurry of reporters quizzing them on a freshly published report that stands to engulf Washington while congressional Republicans try to stay on track with their agenda.

Twenty four hours ago, the news was classified information Trump passed on to Russian officials. Tuesday, it was a New York Times report detailing a memo in which it is said Comey described a Trump request to wind down the FBI’s investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.

“Each day as this unfolds, this pattern of obstruction of justice grows,” Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) told reporters.

The cycle was repeating with Republicans again rebuffing questions from reporters about the new revelations by saying that they had seen the report yet, and were reluctant to comment on anonymously-sourced press stories anyway.

“I have heard about. I haven’t read the story, and I am not going to comment until I know more about it,” Sen. James Risch (R-ID), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) told reporters he had only heard of report in the last five minutes. “I’ve got to read it” before commenting, he said.

After the memo was described to him, Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), a member of the GOP Senate leadership team, was asked if he thought the revelation would be troubling.

“Haven’t seen it,” he said.

Democrats — not surprisingly — used the latest news to amp up their calls for more oversight of the Trump administration.

“This is why we need a special prosecutor,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) told reporters.

Blumenthal said that he thought even Republicans have been “shaken” by the pace of controversies coming out of the White House but have a “distance to go” before joining Dems in the call for a special prosecutor.

Where there was some agreement was the growing desire to have Comey testify in public, which Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the Judiciary Committee’s top Democrat, reiterated.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a member of the Judiciary Committee, told reporters that he had asked Comey to come before his committee “to tell his side of the story.”

“I think it would be good for him if he did. It would be good for the country. I hope he’ll take me up on the offer,” Graham said.

Republicans coming out of a Senate health care working group meeting said a major focus of Tuesday’s discussion were short term proposals to entice insurers to stay in the fragile Affordable Care Act exchanges while a longer term legislative effort to repeal Obamacare is worked out.

It’s not clear whether such measures would come in the form of Trump administration executive actions or legislation from the Senate, and if the latter, whether that legislation would be separate from the main repeal bill.

“We need to decide whether that will going to be part of our legislative effort,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) told reporters after the meeting, as he was heading into the full GOP conference lunch.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) said Republicans were seeking feedback from insurers as to what it would take to bring more certainty to the individual market.

“We are trying to grapple with what we can do short term to stabilize these markets, to prevent them from collapsing, see if we can stabilize insurance rates at least for 2018. We’re running out of time,” Johnson told reporters.

The main concern insurers have raised as they prepare to file their intentions for 2018 is the fate of Obamacare’s cost sharing reduction payments, which subsidize insurers for keeping out-of-pocket costs down for low income consumers. They payments have been the target of a House GOP lawsuit, and President Trump has repeatedly threatened to halt them to hasten a collapse of Obamacare, which he thinks would bring Democrats to the negotiating table.

The Senate Republicans said Tuesday that the CSR payments were part of the health care working group’s discussions, but they wouldn’t say whether the Trump administration needed to do more to make clear that they would continue.

Republicans in the past have blasted the subsidies and other Obamacare programs for insurers as “bailouts” but are now floating proposals to continue them, as they would take the blame for a collapse of the market due to the current political and policy uncertainty.

“I support doing what we need to do, in the short term, even though they may be policies I don’t support,” Johnson said.

Small businesses will no longer be able to use a platform on the HealthCare.gov Obamacare exchanges to offer their employees insurance plans, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday.

The move to scale back the enrollment portal, known as the Small Business Health Options Program (or SHOP), has minimal practical import — it was used by some 8,000 employers to cover a cumulative 40,000 employees, according to the Journal — but symbolically it represents the Health and Human Service Department’s efforts to wind down certain administrative aspects of Obamacare, while Republican lawmakers seek to repeal parts of the law.

The roll back of the SHOP exchanges was announced by the Trump administration Monday in a statement in which Seema Verma, the director of Centers for Medicare/Medicaid, said that the “goal is to reduce ACA burdens on consumers and small businesses and make it easier for them to purchase coverage.”

The enrollment portal was originally created to allow workers at businesses with 50 employees or less to shop around for plans while using the contributions of their employers. According to the Journal, the platform was not utilized widely because the tax credits the ACA offered small businesses were not large enough to bring them to the exchange. Many employers sought to use private brokers to find plans instead, and under the new policy, they will still be able to use their tax credits when seeking plans through brokers.

The 17 states that run their own small business enrollment portals will also be unaffected by the Trump’s administration’s new policy, according to the Journal.

The people who professionally study election protocols are very worried about the commission President Trump has created to ostensibly study election protocols. The so-called “Presidential Commission on Election Integrity,” which was unveiled in an executive order last week, is being viewed with deep skepticism in the voting rights community.

That is in no small part due to Trump’s outlandish and unsubstantiated claims that millions of people voted illegally in the 2016 election; the commission appears to be the result of Trump’s promises of a “major investigation” into voter fraud.

But there are also other hints, tells and coded language signaling that the aims of the commission are less concerned with nonpartisan study of election protocols and more likely to be seeking to trumpet allegations of voter fraud, which has historically been used as an excuse to enact restrictive voting laws.

Here are five points on what Trump’s bogus ‘Elections Integrity’ commission is really about:

Beware the heavy emphasis on voter fraud.

Voter “fraud” or “fraudulent” voting is mentioned five times in the executive order, which goes on to define four types of alleged illegal voting that will be within the purview of the commission. Prospective commissioners floated for the commission—and especially its vice chair, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach—have made careers out of fanning the flames around flimsy fears of voter fraud and advocating for stricter voter laws.

Study after study has found voter fraud—and particularly the types of fraud prevented by a voter ID—to be extremely rare. Yet Kobach said that it was “a very large number” that was “ probably in excess of a million,” when defending Trump’s baseless allegation that millions of illegal voters where the reason he lost the popular vote.

What these stricter laws end up doing is making it harder for certain groups, particularly low income voters and minorities, to vote. One of the two Democrats reportedly tapped for the commission, Maine Secretary of State told TPM last week he would “walk away” if the commission was used as a “trojan horse” to impede access to the ballot box.

The who is as important as the what.

The Trump administration is stressing that commission will be bipartisan, but the lack of participation to this point by any moderate, widely-respected Republican election officials is notable. Instead the GOPers tapped so far for the commission are on the fringe when it comes to voting issues.

Vice President Mike Pence is chairing the commission and joining him in serving on it is Indiana’s Secretary of State Connie Lawson (R). Indiana authorities, under both their watch, launched a sketchy raid of a voter registration drive last fall, and the two Republicans have been accused of overhyping the results. Lawson has since purged Indiana’s voter rolls of nearly half-million names ahead of the next election. Previously, as a state legislator, Lawson was an original sponsor of the state’s 2005 voter ID law, which was upheld in a seminal Supreme Court case.

Former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell has also been tapped for Trump’s commission. Blackwell was at the forefront of the initial push to implement voter ID laws in the mid-aughts. As Ohio’s top elections official, he was investigated by Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee for his handling of the 2004 elections in the state. He imposed stringent requirements on voter registration drives, including a directive to ignore registrations not printed out on 80-pound stock paper.

Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap (D) stands out among the group, for being skeptical of voter restrictions and instead, as he described himself to TPM last week, as a “strong advocate for voter access” who was skeptical of restrictive laws. The other Democrat so far named, New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner has some—let’s say—unique views on administering elections and once said that early voting, which is used disproportionately by minority voters, “cheapens the value” of election day. He is also supportive of a Republican bill in the state that adds new requirements for certain voters to prove they live in the state, a move critics say is to make it harder for students to vote.

Red flag: No mention in the order of voter suppression.

Reports leading up to the formal unveiling of the commission suggested looking at voter suppression would also be among its charges, as a way to get Democrats to sign on.

The executive order makes no such reference in the commission’s mission, suggesting that the study of voter suppression is not actually a priority of the commission.

Kobach has continued to claim that voter suppression will also be studied. But it’s hard to take that seriously, given that voter suppression is not defined, nor even mentioned in the entire executive order text and many of the people floated to be on the commission have played it down as an issue.

Telltale sign: A peculiar focus on “confidence” in the election system.

The main focus of commission, the order says, is to study whether the public’s “confidence’ is being “undermined” or “enhanced” by certain election protocols. The emphasis on confidence reflects a broader shift in the legal defense of restrictive voting laws: in the absence of legitimate cases of voter fraud to justify the new laws, proponents have argued that because people believe there is a prevalence of voter fraud, the laws are necessary.

“All of us who work in this area know that measuring confidence in electoral rules is something that is both easy to do and amenable to gross manipulation,” Nate Persily, who served as a senior research director for President Obama’s Presidential Commission on Election Administration, told TPM over email.

Persily, an election law expert at Stanford Law, has worked on studies that showed factors like partisanship, education and one’s trust in government influence confidence in an election, beyond actual instances of fraud or restrictions placed on voting ostensibly meant to prevent fraud.

The order is fixated on voter registration issues.

The order mentions time and again the commission’s interest in instances of “fraudulent” or “improper” voter registration. This is no coincidence. Overblown concern about non-citizens being registered to vote is the latest frontier in the campaign to enact stricter laws.

Kobach has been seeking to implement a proof-of-citizenship registration requirement, while elsewhere organizations that conduct voter registration have been targeted by GOP lawmakers.

Election experts and voting rights advocates acknowledge that yes, occasionally mistakes are made and people such as felons or non-citizens are accidentally registered to vote, for instance, while getting a driver’s license. But oftentimes, the ineligible voter never casts a ballot, and doesn’t even realize he or she was registered, and thus prosecutions have been rare.

Furthermore, the order disregards the importance of intent in the commission’s investigation of irregularities.

The commission will study acts conducted “regardless of the state of mind or intent of that individual,” the order says in its definition of “improper voting” and “improper voter registration.”

“They seem to want to reach even those individuals and elections administrators who make an honest mistake or in the course of administering an election to hundreds of millions of Americans,” said Janai Nelson, Associate Director-Counsel of the NAACP-LDF.

Nelson worried that those instances “may be manipulated to paint a picture of voter fraud that really is not existent.”

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