In it, but not of it. TPM DC

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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After the Senate failed yet again on Tuesday to repeal Obamacare, President Donald Trump early Wednesday morning turned to his go-to solution for the Senate’s stalemates: nuking the filibuster.

As the Senate struggled to find consensus on a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare over the summer, Trump on several occasions urged Senate leaders to completely eliminate the filibuster, which allows the minority party to force a 60-vote threshold on legislation. Senate Republicans have been using a process called reconciliation to circumvent the filibuster on health care, but their authority to do so expires at the end of this month, leaving them unable to try to repeal Obamacare again any time soon.

Ending the filibuster would not likely solve Senate Republicans’ problem on health care. They have failed to earn the support of 50 Republican senators for any repeal bill they have tried to pass this year. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has also shot down Trump’s suggestion, noting that there is not enough support in the Senate to change the rules.

In another tweet Wednesday morning, Trump insisted that Republicans are close to the 50 votes they need to pass a repeal bill, despite the fact that three senators firmly stated they could not back the Graham-Cassidy legislation.

He also suggested that Republicans did not vote on the bill because one senator was in the hospital.

It was not entirely clear to whom Trump was referring, though he was likely talking about Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS). Cochran was away from Washington, D.C. for medical reasons early this week, but he was not in the hospital, the senator’s office told Politico reporter Seung Min Kim.

 

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After former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore defeated Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL) in the Republican primary Tuesday night, President Donald Trump was quick to ditch Strange and rally behind Moore.

After firing off a tweet congratulating Moore in his victory in the race, Trump deleted several tweets he sent earlier in the day urging Alabama voters to re-elect Strange to the Senate seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The deleted tweets were captured by Politwoops, a tool that collects politicians’ deleted tweets currently run by ProPublica.

Trump backed Strange, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) choice to hold the Senate seat, early on in the race, but several prominent Trump supporters, like Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, campaigned for Moore, an ultra-conservative Republican who has been kicked off the Alabama supreme court twice.

After initially endorsing Strange, Trump appeared to hesitate and wavered on plans to hold a rally for Strange in Alabama after polls showed Moore in the lead. However, the President relented, holding a rally for Strange and sending out several since-deleted tweets urging Alabama voters to back Strange.

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Controversial former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore has crushed Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL) and the entire Republican establishment, a victory that could have major reverberations in Washington and in the 2018 midterms.

The Associated Press has called the primary runoff for Moore, an iconoclastic social conservative, who led Strange by 57 percent to 43 percent with 45 percent of precincts counted.

His victory is a blow to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), whose allies spent close to $10 million trying to boost Strange and stop Moore, and shows the limitations of an endorsement from President Trump, who agreed to back Strange and stumped for him in the race’s closing days.

Moore is a hardline religious conservative who was twice kicked off the Alabama Supreme Court for refusing to obey the rule of law and disregarding higher court rulings, first for erecting then refusing to remove a monument of the ten commandments a decade ago then for rejecting the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing gay marriage.

He’s said “homosexual conduct should be illegal,” suggested the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks happened because America has turned away from God, and claimed that parts of the American Midwest were living under Muslim Sharia law.

But in spite of those controversial views (and with many base voters, because of them) Moore cruised to first place in the first round of voting and easily bested Strange in the runoff.

That was as much due to Strange’s own problems as Moore’s strengths. McConnell’s support is a two-edged sword given his unpopularity with large segments of the Republican base. A bigger problem was Strange’s appointment by then-Gov. Robert Bentley (R), who was forced to resign under cloud of a sex scandal. Strange, as attorney general, had been in charge of investigating him, and many voters saw the appointment as fishy.

Even Trump couldn’t save him from those issues, showing the limits of his pull with GOP base voters, especially when he gets crossways with them.

Moore’s primary win pours gasoline on the anti-establishment fire burning through the GOP base. Conservative voters are irate that Republicans haven’t been able to get more done in Washington. Serious Trump-fueled primary challengers are already threatening Sens. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Dean Heller (R-NV) from the right, Sen. Bob Corker’s (R-TN) Tuesday decision to retire opens the door for a potentially bloody open-seat primary, and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) may get a primary challenge as well.

“We’re already witnessing some of that every day,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) warned reporters Tuesday afternoon about the base fervor against McConnell and the status quo.

Top establishment Republicans were looking to spin a possible Strange loss away even before polls had closed, blaming circumstances unique to the state.

“Races, particularly special elections are hard to read into,” National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Cory Gardner (R-CO) told TPM Tuesday afternoon, even as he insisted that Strange would win. “This is particularly unique due to the governor of Alabama’s activities.”

Strange made a point to thank Trump, who had to be convinced to come in to back him at the last minute, but not McConnell, whose allies spent huge to help him, in his statement admitting defeat.

“I am especially grateful for the support of President Trump and Vice President Pence, as well as the strong example set by my friends Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions. I congratulate Roy Moore on the result this evening,” he said in a statement.

While Trump eventually came in to back Strange, many of his allies threw their support to Moore, a rabble-rousing outsider who has a lot more in common temperamentally with the president than his endorsed candidate. Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon used his website Breitbart to rally hard for Moore, and Trump backers from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) to Fox News host Sean Hannity supported him as well.

Trump congratulated Moore on the results — though he initially got the timing of the general election wrong before sending a corrected tweet saying it was in December, not November.

The Senate Leadership Fund, a McConnell-affiliated group that spent close to $10 million on the race, put out a statement conceding defeat even before the AP called the race.

“We are proud to have fought alongside President Trump and the NRA in support of a dedicated conservative who has loyally supported this President and his agenda,” SLF President Steven Law said in a statement sent shortly after 9 p.m. EST. “While we were honored to have fought hard for Big Luther, Judge Roy Moore won this nomination fair and square and he has our support, as it is vital that we keep this seat in Republican hands.”

That’s a strong likelihood — but no guarantee. Democrats are excited about their nominee, former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, and believe that Moore’s divisive views have a small chance of giving them a shot in the race.

“Voters can’t look past Roy Moore’s fringe beliefs, habit of putting himself first and his dishonesty. Even Republicans have said Moore is unfit to serve and spent millions to keep him out of office. Doug Jones is a man of character and integrity, who is unafraid to stand up for what’s right and has a proven record of independence that will serve Alabama families in the U.S. Senate,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) said in a statement.

Trump carried the state by a lopsided 62 percent to 34 percent, however, and while Republicans quietly grumble they may have to spend some money for Moore they’re not yet that worried that he could blow the race.

And if Moore does make it to Washington, he’s guaranteed to be a thorn in the side of McConnell and GOP leadership — as he made clear in a primary victory speech that sounded much more like a sermon than a stump speech.

“We have to return the knowledge of God and the Constitution of the United States to Congress,” he declared.

This story was last updated at 10:15 p.m. EST.

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The Environmental Protection Agency is spending $24,570 to build a “privacy booth” for the agency’s chief, Scott Pruitt, the Washington Post reported on Tuesday.

The Washington Post reported, citing a contract the agency signed with Acoustical Solutions, LLC, that the EPA agreed to pay nearly $25,000 for a “privacy booth for the administrator,” scheduled to be completed Oct. 9, 2017.

According to Acoustical Solutions’ website, the company manufactures and distributes “acoustical products” that can be used for “office/conference room privacy, reduction in mechanical and equipment noise, secure rooms (SKIF) environments, scientific testing rooms, gun ranges and many other environments.”

The EPA, according to the Washington Post, requested a soundproof booth that cost considerably more than a standard model.

Steve Snider, a sales consultant with Acoustical Solutions, told the Washington Post that the EPA “had a lot of modifications” in its request.

“Their main goal was they wanted essentially a secure phone booth that couldn’t be breached from a data point of view or from someone standing outside eavesdropping,” he said.

An EPA spokeswoman told the Washington Post that the booth would be a SCIF, or Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, and said it was “something which a number, if not all, Cabinet offices have and EPA needs to have updated.”

The Washington Post reported, however, citing unnamed EPA employees, that the agency already has such a facility, but that the agency did not specify what about it was due for an update.

Pruitt reportedly already has a round-the-clock security detail of unprecedented size, according to the Washington Post, which reported on Wednesday that Pruitt has 18 people on his security detail, though he has pushed for a 31 percent funding cut across the EPA.

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Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) won’t run for another term in office, he announced Tuesday, creating a vacuum at the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a vacancy for the Senate that’s likely to be hard-fought in the primary and potentially the general election.

“After much thought, consideration and family discussion over the past year, Elizabeth and I have decided that I will leave the United States Senate when my term expires at the end of 2018,” Corker said in a statement Tuesday afternoon.

The decision means one of the Senate’s most interesting members won’t be around Washington much longer. Corker, a two-term senator, has had President Trump’s ear at times (he’d been on Trump’s short list for Secretary of State) and had shown a willingness to harshly criticize the president when he disagreed with him.

Corker led the charge in pushing through new sanctions against Russia this past summer, which Trump had reluctantly signed after huge bipartisan support in Congress.

And he was particularly critical after Trump’s post-Charlottesville comments blaming “both sides.”

The President has not yet been able to demonstrate the stability, nor some of the competence that he needs to demonstrate in order to be successful,” Corker declared at the time.

Trump fired back with a tweet saying Corker had repeatedly asked him whether or not to run again — and insinuating he might face a primary fight.

Corker drew bipartisan praise upon his announcement.

“Even when he’s been investigating smugglers’ tunnels near the Gaza strip, talking to foreign leaders, or giving advice to President Trump, Bob has never let his feet leave the ground in Tennessee. He says what he thinks, does what he believes is best for Tennesseans, and has helped lead his colleagues on complicated issues involving the federal debt and national security,”Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said in a statement. “His absence will leave a big hole in the United States Senate, but I know he’s carefully weighed his decision, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he tackles next.”

His Senate Democratic colleagues were just as kind.

“No matter the challenge, you can always count on Senator Corker to bring a reasoned, thoughtful approach, and to make decisions based not on partisanship but on what he believes is in the best interests of the American people. I am sorry to hear of his decision not to run for another term in the Senate,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) said in a statement. “I also hope this is a wake-up call to all of us in the Senate that we need to recommit ourselves to creating an environment where reasonable, thoughtful people of both parties can come together to solve problems.”

Corker’s retirement is likely to trigger a knock-down, drag-out GOP primary to replace him — and potentially an opening for Democrats in the heavily Republican state if the wrong candidate emerges for the GOP.

Corker was already facing a potential challenge from the populist right from former State Rep. Joe Carr (R), an anti-immigration hardliner who lost a 2014 primary challenge to Alexander.

Other potential candidates include Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), a Trump ally who has $3 million in the bank, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R), and Tennessee State Sen. Mark Green (R), who Trump had nominated for Army secretary but was forced to withdraw due to controversial remarks he’d made about LGBT people and Muslims.

One intriguing possibility: Former University of Tennessee (and Indianapolis Colts) football star Peyton Manning, who is rumored to be interested in the race. Manning, a Republican, played golf with Trump earlier this year.

The seat is highly likely to remain in GOP hands, barring disaster — Corker narrowly won his seat in a terrible year for the GOP, 2006, and the state has moved hard right in recent years. Trump carried it by 61 percent to 35 percent last fall. But many of the state’s Republicans have a moderate streak, and the wrong GOP nominee could make things interesting and give Democrats hope that Tennessee could be the third seat they need in their pipe-dreams of winning back Senate control, though that would mean holding all 10 Democratic seats in states Trump won last year and winning both Arizona and Nevada.

Nashville attorney and Iraq War veteran James Mackler (D) was already in the race against Corker, and Democratic strategists think he’s a solid potential nominee. Moderate Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN) is another name who could be an intriguing statewide candidate, as is former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D).

Democrats were happy to highlight Corker’s retirement — though they stopped short of promising to fight for the race.

“Senator Corker’s decision is the latest example of a key theme driving GOP Senate primaries across the country: divided and leaderless, Republican Senate campaigns have nothing to run on but a string of broken promises, and this dynamic will continue to define Republican Senate primaries across the map,” the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said in a statement.

This post was updated at 6:06 p.m.

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After Senate Republicans officially gave up on the Graham-Cassidy Obamacare repeal bill Tuesday afternoon, some Republican senators and members of leadership suddenly warmed to reopening bipartisan talks on a bill to stabilize the Affordable Care Act markets.

The talks led by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN, pictured above) and Patty Murray (D-WA), the leaders of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, were abruptly abandoned a week ago when Republican leaders decided to push the Graham-Cassidy bill through the Senate. Now that another week’s worth of desperate attempts to whip votes for an Obamacare repeal bill have failed, some Republicans pointed to Alexander as the next step on health care.

Sen. John Thune (R-SD), the No. 3 Republican in the Senate, told reporters that Alexander and Murray should continue their stabilization work.

“There are going to be some things that in the near-term may have to be done to stabilize markets, and that kind of thing can be done in a bipartisan way,” Thune said.

He noted that Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) would continue to work on gaining support for their bill, but could not offer an exact timeline.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) also encouraged Alexander to continue with bipartisan talks, but seemed pessimistic about the outcome.

“Sen. Alexander’s going to continue with his meetings with Sen. Murray, so they are going to continue on the bipartisan discussions,” he told reporters.

“I want much more flexibility to the states than any Democrat has ever been willing to offer,” Barrasso said when asked if he supports those talks. “And if we can’t get the flexibility to the states, so that people can buy in their own home state what works for them personally, then I’m not supportive of a direct continuation of those payments.”

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), one of the co-sponsors of the Graham-Cassidy bill, said that the failure of the repeal bill would “give Democrats an opportunity to really step up to the plate” to work with Republicans on bipartisan legislation.

Two of the three senators who publicly opposed the bill, Susan Collins (R-ME) and John McCain (R-AZ), also called for bipartisan talks to resume.

“I very much want us to resume the work that the Health committee was doing under the leadership of Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray. I believe that that offers great promise for stabilizing insurance markets and helping to lower premiums,” Collins told reporters before Republican leaders announced they wouldn’t move forward with the Graham-Cassidy bill.

Alexander said in a statement Tuesday afternoon that he will work with Murray and Republicans on a bipartisan stabilization bill

“I will consult with Senator Murray and with other senators, both Republicans and Democrats, to see if senators can find consensus on a limited bipartisan plan that could be enacted into law to help lower premiums and make insurance available to the 18 million Americans in the individual market in 2018 and 2019,” the senator said in a statement.

But despite those lawmakers’ willingness to see Alexander and Murray work toward agreement, bipartisan talks will face some resistance in the Senate Republican caucus.

Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) told reporters Tuesday that bipartisan talks in the HELP Committee are a “sham” and predicted that the panel would not be able to come to any agreement.

“Talk to a Democrat and tell me where there’s any bipartisan agreement right now coming out of that committee,” he said.

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Cameron Joseph contributed reporting.

It’s dead—again.

Emerging from a closed-door lunch meeting, Republican senators told reporters that leadership had decided to call off a vote this week on a bill to repeal much of the Affordable Care Act and convert Medicaid into a shrinking block grant.

“I don’t believe there is going to be a vote,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said with a smile, declining to reveal how she would have voted on the controversial bill, but adding: “There’s still a lot of work to do on health care.”

Other Republican members were less zen about the news that they would once again fail to fulfill their signature campaign promise to nuke Obamacare.

“I’m apoplectic,” Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) told TPM. “I’m kind of disgusted that after 9 months the self-interest is still outweighing the national interest in our caucus in some ways. This should not have happened. This did not have to happen.”

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With friends like these, who needs Steve Bannon?

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) (pictured, right) gave a fairly candid assessment of the closely watched Alabama Senate GOP primary runoff on Tuesday afternoon, admitting his preferred candidate, appointed Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL) (pictured, left), was the underdog.

“Roy Moore is probably the favorite right now but it depends on turnout, the ground game,” Shelby told reporters in Washington on Tuesday. “If there’s a small turnout or an average turnout, a turnout like it was, Moore should win. A bigger turnout would probably favor Senator Strange.”

Shelby insisted high turnout would give Strange a “window to win,” and argued that it’s a “closer race than we think at the moment,” alluding to a spate of recent polls that show Strange, the establishment favorite, trailing firebrand former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore by a double-digit margin.

Strange is trailing in spite of a hearty endorsement from President Trump and close to $10 million in outside spending from allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Many Trump allies, including former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, are in Moore’s camp.

The race may be the first time that a Trump-endorsed candidate loses election since his nomination, and Republicans are widely concerned that it will pour fuel on the fire of the establishment-populist war already wracking the GOP.

Polls close at 8 p.m. ET in Alabama.

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Following reports that White House aides have been using private email accounts to conduct official business, the leaders of the House Oversight Committee, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), sent a letter to the White House on Monday asking that the administration identify any staffers using private email.

“With numerous public revelations of senior executive branch employees deliberately trying to circumvent [federal] laws by using personal, private, or alias e-mail addresses to conduct official government business, the Committee has aimed to use its oversight and investigative resources to prevent and deter misuse of private forms of written communication,” Gowdy and Cummings wrote in the letter to White House Counsel Don McGahn explaining their oversight request.

The congressmen cited a Sunday report in Politico that revealed Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner used private email to communicate with other members of the administration. Stephen Bannon and Reince Priebus, former administration aides, also used private email, according to Politico. Newsweek reported Monday that Ivanka Trump used her personal email in at least one instance to correspond with another administration official. At least six administration officials, including Gary Cohn and Stephen Miller, have used personal email accounts for White House business, the New York Times reported Monday.

The White House did not dispute reports that administration officials used personal email accounts for some official business on Monday. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that personal email use in the Trump administration is “very limited” and noted that McGahn has instructed staff to only use their official email accounts.

Gowdy and Cummings asked McGahn to identify any White House staffers who have used a personal email account, an alias email, text messages, or encrypted message apps for official business to ensure that members of the administration are complying with laws governing record preservation.

The use of personal email accounts by members of Trump’s administration has drawn considerable attention given that Trump throughout the 2016 campaign painted Hillary Clinton as a criminal for using a private email server.

Read the letter from Gowdy and Cummings:

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