Justice Department, FBI seem at odds over budget

The firing of FBI Director James Comey isn’t the only thing top Justice Department officials and FBI leaders disagree about at the moment.

They also don’t see eye to eye about something else always of great import in Washington: money.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe have presented starkly different views to Congress about how President Donald Trump’s budget would impact the FBI’s operations.

To hear McCabe describe it, Trump’s budget would require significant belt-tightening across the law enforcement agency.

“It will certainly impact us in many ways. It is a broad and deep reduction that will touch every program. it will touch headquarters. It will touch our field offices,” McCabe told a House Appropriations subcommittee Wednesday. “It is a reduction that is not possible to take entirely against vacancies. It’s a reduction that will touch every description of employee within the FBI. We will lose agent positions. We will lose analyst positions and, of course, professional staff.”

For his part, Rosenstein sounded much more sanguine about the Justice Department’s budget, insisting that areas such as national security and violent crime would not see any cuts.

“I believe that if you look at the budget, we are not cutting the critical areas — violent crime, terrorism, the areas that you’ve raised are areas where there will be no cuts, cybercrime, all those areas,” Rosenstein said at a parallel Senate hearing, under questioning by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “And so the effort in this budget, as I understand it, is to reduce only in areas that are not critical to those operations.”

Rosenstein also said the number of FBI agents would rise by 150 under the Trump budget to 12,484. (The last data on the FBI website has the agent ranks at about 13,500.)

The deputy attorney general’s comments were in line with those of Justice Department budget officials, who told reporters last month that the only significant reductions in the department’s budget were deletion of one-time construction costs, funding for cyclical events like the presidential conventions, and the termination of a handful of programs

“Any decreases are in one-time costs for nonessential line items, such as construction costs that are not needed in FY2018,” a Justice spokesman said.

Part of the disparity may be derived from idiosyncrasies of the Trump budget, which was based on funding levels in the continuing resolution passed in April and not the final, full-year omnibus appropriations bill passed in May.

In any event, congressional staff say that in real-world numbers, the FBI is looking at a cut of nearly $45 million from current funding levels of about $8.7 billion for salaries and expenses. That reduction is drawing concern from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

In addition to Graham’s questions about the cuts, Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) — who heads up the relevant House appropriations subcommittee — expressed worry about reducing the FBI’s budget.

“The request appears to leave the FBI with a hole to fill,” Culberson said Wednesday.

Budget documents show almost 2,100 positions being cut from the FBI under the Trump proposal, but only about a third of those — about 650 — seem to be jobs that are currently filled. The rest are long-unfunded or never funded positions being eliminated across government, slots Rosenstein referred to as “ghost positions.”

According to the budget data, about 470 FBI jobs are being added, including 150 agent positions, but that does not appear to be enough to cover the eliminated positions.

At the Senate hearing last week, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont said it’s bizarre that with all Trump’s rhetoric about cracking down on drugs and violence, he’s trying to cut the FBI. Leahy suggested the budget may reflect the president’s irritation with the ongoing investigation into Russia’s alleged involvement in the 2016 election and any potential connection to the Trump campaign.

“The president’s budget request for the Justice Department is abysmal,” Leahy said. “Ironically, in a budget touted as tough on crime, the president cuts funding for FBI operations and investigations by $44 million, we know we have to move ahead with the new FBI headquarters, there’s no funds for that. I have my own suspicions about why the president may seek cuts to FBI operations and personnel.”

Whatever the Trump team may be trying to do with the FBI’s budget, it looks like Congress may not go along.

When Culberson asked how congressional budgeteers could help the FBI, McCabe again insisted his agency was facing cuts and asked the lawmakers to consider reversing them.

“The most valuable thing would be to try to restore the reductions that we are likely to sustain,” the acting FBI chief replied.

Source: http://www.politico.com/blogs/under-the-radar/2017/06/23/justice-department-fbi-trump-budget-239918

The GOP’s one-man fire brigade

Karen Handel wasn’t the only big winner in Tuesday’s special election. Republican operative Corry Bliss, who heads the super PAC officially blessed by House GOP leadership, arguably had just as much riding on the outcome.

He had never managed a House race before he took the helm of the Congressional Leadership Fund, which poured over $10 million into the recent special elections. But now Bliss is coming off four straight victories, and he’s credited with quelling Republican fears that the president will drag down the party’s prospects in the 2018 midterm elections.

“He’s on a hot streak,” said Mark Isakowitz, chief of staff to Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, whose reelection campaign Bliss led to a 21-point victory last year.

Sitting in his office the day after Handel’s win, he says the special election wins mean “probably nothing” about the party’s fortunes in next year’s midterm elections.

But Bliss has proselytized relentlessly about the declining importance of television, which Trump used to great effect, and the rising importance of ground game, something Barack Obama and Democrats were quicker to exploit than their Republican counterparts. He was bitterly critical of what he regarded as the Republican National Committee’s weak field program last year in Ohio, where he built one independently on Portman’s behalf — a move that ruffled feathers with the RNC.

The senator waltzed to victory, but Bliss clashed repeatedly with then-RNC chairman Reince Priebus and his chief of staff Katie Walsh over Portman’s field program, and Priebus and Walsh later waved Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan away from hiring him to run the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee. Sources close to Bliss and Priebus say they have a cordial relationship now.

“[Bliss]is very intense and he is outspoken and unafraid of saying what he thinks and he doesn’t care if people are offended or not,” said famed GOP ad maker Larry McCarthy.

The results in Georgia appear to have validated Bliss’ unconventional approach. While super PACs rarely invest in field programs, CLF poured over $2 million into the one in Georgia’s 6th District, a risky strategy that allowed Democrats to outspend Republicans on television.

“The traditional mindset is: You can’t be outspent on TV,” Bliss says. “We made the determination that was not necessary to win and that we could be more impactful doing data and field work.”

One example: In liberal DeKalb County, CLF targeted 8,100 voters that it had identified as "reluctant Republicans" and saw a marginal shift in Handel’s direction as a result. Overall, while Democratic turnout in the district was high, Republican turnout was even higher.

Bliss’ reputation as a crisis manager precedes this year’s special elections. He was dispatched at the last minute to save Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts’s flailing campaign in 2014 and showed up at campaign headquarters with one sheet of paper on which he’d printed “Harry Reid, Harry Reid, Harry Reid,” according to Chris LaCivita, who ran the campaign with him.

“This is your strategy for the debate,” Bliss told Roberts.

Dating back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the president’s party loses an average of 27 seats in the midterm elections, a number that would cost the GOP its House majority. Bliss recognizes the challenge next year is defying history at a time when the major battle is like to be over control of the House — and the Democratic Party is highly motivated by deep animosity toward the president.

“The House is center stage and every one of these difficult races where we’re going to have to defend incumbents is going to get a lot more attention than it would have in previous cycles,” said John Ashbrook, a former aide to Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and a longtime Bliss friend. "He brings a new aggressiveness to House races that they have not really adopted compared to Senate races."

Bliss thinks he can protect the Republican majority with his relentless focus on ground game, which has become something of an obsession for him. “When you’re having a discussion with him, his eyes are like lasers and they burn right through you. He could’ve played the George C. Scott role in the movie Patton,” said McCarthy, who worked with Bliss on the Portman campaign as well as on the recent special election in Montana.

That intensity and bluntness has earned Bliss both respect — mostly from his clients, including Portman, Roberts, and 2012 Senate candidate Linda McMahon — and enmity from his foes. Red-faced and relentlessly disciplined, his dark hair cut like a Roman centurion, Bliss’ demeanor has led to a reputation as a straight-talking operator who can get his clients to do what needs to be done to win.

He is also is fiercely competitive, a quality honed on the horse farm in upstate New York where he grew up. His father is a legendary horse breeder and his mother was an accomplished equestrian. Horse racing remains his favorite hobby. “The guy is like a savant on horse betting,” said Ashbrook. “He could teach a graduate level class on betting the track.”

Bliss was a latecomer to politics, which he says is essentially like sports for grown-ups. “When I was in college, I didn’t know there was such a thing as the college Republicans,” he says. In law school, he says gained a disdain for liberal administrators and professors and learned that he didn’t want to be a lawyer – though he remains a member of the New York, New Jersey, and D.C. bars.

Like any sports fan worth his salt, Bliss is a legendary trash talker, and his office is festooned with his victory trophies. Framed newspaper articles broadcasting his political victories are the only decorations in his office. A report about the Kansas Senate race carries the headline “Roberts fends off Orman,” a reference to Roberts’ opponent, Greg Orman, whom he defeated by 10 points.

“Fend, my ass,” Roberts scrawled on the page. On another newspaper report, Roberts wrote, “I will try to be the bad ass you are.”

After Bliss helped McMahon defeat the former Connecticut Congressman Chris Shays in a 2012 Senate primary, Shays blasted McMahon and her campaign aides in an interview. “Congressman Shays is a classless, bitter sore loser who should do the people of Connecticut a favor and keep his mouth shut and move back to Maryland,’’ he told a local paper. “However, I would like to offer a portion of my salary to be used to pay for the psychiatric care that Congressman Shays desperately needs. And lastly, I know that Congressman Shays has dreams of running for governor, and I will keep my opposition research book under my pillow with the hopes of being able to use it, pro bono, if he launches another failed campaign.’’

Even if Bliss isn’t attributing much meaning to the recent spate of special elections, it doesn’t mean that he won’t spike the ball. “Jon Ossoff is officially the biggest loser in the history of Congress,” he wrote in a memo distributed to donors the day after Handel’s victory. Shortly after Handel’s victory was announced, he dropped a hockey analogy: “The Democratic Party has become the Washington Capitals: Every time it matters, they lose.”

That trash talking extends to Republicans, too. Bliss took a lot of heat for deriding Montana Congressman-elect Greg Gianforte, who was convicted of assaulting a reporter the night before his election, as a “C-minus” candidate, and has warned the party that candidates like Gianforte aren’t going to cut it in next year’s environment.

Special elections are notoriously unreliable indicators of midterms, and it has been 15 years since the incumbent party did not lose seats in a midterm year. So on a whiteboard in his office, Bliss has a list of names — Bacon, Knight, Valadao, Denham, Royce — all Republican congressmen in whose districts CLF is setting up or has already set up formal offices from which to run a field program.

Bliss, who’s behind his desk every morning by 7 am, spent most of the day after Handel’s victory calling donors and explaining his approach in Georgia.

“It worked,” he told them. “Give me more.”

Source: http://www.politico.com/story/2017/06/23/corry-bliss-congressional-leadership-fund-239917

Palmieri: Obama officials ‘made the best decisions they could’ on Russia hacking

Jennifer Palmieri, Hillary Clinton’s former communications director, said on Friday that the Obama administration "made the best decisions they could" when deciding when to publicly disclose evidence that Russian officials tried to interfere with the 2016 election.

Palmieri’s comments came after the release of an investigation by the Washington Post, which revealed how former President Barack Obama and his aides wrestled with when to release the highly sensitive intelligence, as they feared being accused of trying to influence the election themselves.

"And you know, I know that the Obama White House is in a very difficult situation, and they made the best decisions they could," Palmieri, who previously served as Obama’s White House communications director, said on MSNBC.

"We call those 51-49 decisions. I’m sure you experienced them," she said to host Nicolle Wallace, who served as a communications director for the Bush White House.

"We called them ‘crummy and crummier,’" Wallace joked.

Clinton has widely blamed Russian officials’ meddling — including the hack of the Democratic National Committee and of her campaign chairman, John Podesta — for her election loss, but she has not publicly and directly criticized Obama for not earlier disclosing the interference attempts.

Ultimately, Palmieri credited the White House’s hesitancy as being in the national interest.

"I think they did it in the best interest of the country," Palmieri said, adding that Democrats should have sounded a greater alarm at the hacks and that the press should have covered the interference more thoroughly.

Source: http://www.politico.com/story/2017/06/23/jennifer-palmieri-obama-russia-hacking-decisions-239913

Intelligence officials worry State Dept. going easy on Russian diplomats

Intelligence officials and lawmakers are concerned that the State Department is dragging its feet in implementing a crackdown on Russian diplomats’ travel within the U.S., despite evidence that Moscow is using lax restrictions to conduct intelligence operations.

The frustration comes amid bipartisan concern that the Trump administration is trying to slow other Congressional efforts to get tough on Russia. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told a House committee last week that a new Senate sanctions package designed to punish Russia for its interference in the 2016 election would limit Trump’s “flexibility” and impede possible U.S. “dialogue” with Moscow.

At issue separately is a provision already signed into law, as part of Congress’s annual Intelligence Authorization Act, approved in May, which requires the State Department to more rigorously enforce travel rules for Russian diplomats inside the U.S. The Kremlin’s U.S.-based diplomatic corps, according to several U.S. intelligence sources, has been known to skip notification rules and use the lax restrictions to roam around the country, likely engaging in surveillance activities.

The law includes a requirement that the State Department work with the FBI and the Director of National Intelligence’s Office to ensure that Russian diplomats notify the State Department of their travel plans, and actually wind up where they say they’re going.

But intelligence officials say there are early indications that the State Department, which is trying to avoid an escalation in tensions with Russia that might prevent friendly dialogue, is resisting the new measure, which formally goes into effect on Aug. 2. The officials wouldn’t give specifics, but said there has been little forward progress on actually implementing the new policy, which also includes notifications between the State Department and Congress, and is relatively easy to put into place.

While the State Department still has time before the deadline, much of the officials’ frustration comes from months of perceived inaction by State as Russian diplomats traveled freely throughout the last year and a half, and there’s little optimism that will change.

The State Department said it is taking the new requirement seriously.

“The Department is aware of the mandate in Section 502 of the Intelligence Authorization Act and is discussing it internally and with other U.S. government agencies,” A State Department official said. “The Department understands the importance of strict enforcement of travel protocols and procedures applicable to Russia’s accredited diplomatic and consular personnel.”

Russia hawks in Congress are already publicly voicing concern that the State Department is not doing enough ahead of the deadline to start cracking down on Russian diplomats’ movements inside the U.S.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) pressed the FBI on the subject at a recent open hearing, and asked whether the State Department was being more cooperative with the agency, which also plays a role in tracking foreign diplomats’ whereabouts.

“I’d rather not comment on that here,” Bill Priestap, the head of the FBI’s counterintelligence division said. “We’re still working through the implementation.”

The new restrictions were proposed in Congress last summer after it was found that the Kremlin’s diplomatic corps frequently waited until the last possible moment to notify the State Department of their travel plans, as required by law, if they notified the State Department at all. Often, the diplomats wound up in places they didn’t disclose they were going.

Priestap declined to discuss specifics of the travel notification issue, but said that the notion of Russian diplomats wandering around the country unchecked would be a concern for the bureau.

“If that were to happen, that would absolutely complicate our efforts,” Priestap said, declining to comment on the existence of the problem.

But U.S. intelligence officials tell POLITICO that the burgeoning issue has absolutely impacted the U.S.’s counterintelligence efforts at home. And there is tangible frustration that the State Department is fighting implementation of an overall easy fix of ensuring the Russians adhere to basic travel guidelines.

One frustrated U.S. official complained the State Department has mistakenly assumed its mandate is to keep foreign governments happy. “That’s not their job,” the official said, adding that the State Department is too worried about “rocking the boat.”

The new requirements aren’t stringent, nor completely new — instead, they underscore procedures that are already supposed to be happening. For example, Russian diplomats are allowed to travel with appropriate notification. Rules require that a diplomat notify the State Department 48 before their travel, if they intend to travel more than 25 miles outside their posting. The State Department is then supposed to notify the FBI.

Still, intelligence officials say the State Department has shown little appetite to actively crack down on Russian personnel, fearing backlash from Moscow.

With the departure of John Kerry and Obama’s State Department ranks, there was tempered optimism from the intelligence community that new leadership might be more willing to crack down where Kerry — hopeful for a counterterrorism cooperation with the Russians — wouldn’t. But Tillerson’s comments and State’s apparent lack of interest in enforcing the new travel restrictions has effectively muted that.

For years, there has been tangible frustration among intelligence officials and even some foreign service officers at the Obama administration’s hesitation to undertake aggressive counter espionage methods at home, especially as the Kremlin aggressively goes after U.S. diplomats based in Russia. In a well-publicized incident last year, the FSB beat up a CIA officer returning to the U.S. embassy in Moscow, hurting him so badly he was forced to be immediately flown from the country for medical treatment.

Source: http://www.politico.com/story/2017/06/23/state-department-russian-diplomats-illicit-travel-239915