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Matt Shuham

Matt Shuham is a news writer for TPM. He was previously associate editor of The National Memo and managing editor of the Harvard Political Review. He is available by email at mshuham@talkingpointsmemo.com and on Twitter @mattshuham.

Articles by Matt

Two Democratic senators on Tuesday called for hearings to scrutinize the millions of dollars EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has spent on a massive security detail and first class flights, among other supposed security measures, saying internal EPA documents dispute Pruitt’s justification for the expenses.

“Documents provided to us by EPA official(s) suggest the agency has relied on questionable ‘threats’ to the Administrator, including reports of non-violent protests, negative feedback about the Administrator’s actions, or other First Amendment protected activity, to justify millions of dollars in additional security spending, including first-class air travel, as compared to his predecessors at the agency,” Sens. Tom Carper (D-DE) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) wrote to the chairman of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works, Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY).

The senators pointed to Pruitt’s sprawling security detail — which he’s taken with him on personal trips home to Oklahoma and to events like the Rose Bowl — and first class flights Pruitt has taken “ostensibly to more effectively protect the Administrator while travelling [sic] by air,” among other expenses. (Read the full letter, published online by CNN, here.)

In response to the letter, an EPA spokesperson told multiple outlets what the agency has long claimed: that Pruitt faces “an unprecedented amount of death threats against him.”

Whitehouse and Carper referred to similar past claims in their letter and said: “These assertions do not appear to be consistent with the non-public EPA documents we have obtained and enclose here.”

The senators focused in large part on an October memo sent by a member of Pruitt’s detail to the special agent in charge of the detail, Nino Perrotta. Perrotta operates a private security company on the side and was Pruitt’s pick to the lead the detail.

The 16 threats described in the memo, the senators said, included protesters attempting to disrupt a private event at which Pruitt gave a speech and an individual who wrote on social media that, according to the memo, “he is not happy with some of the Administrator’s policies and wanted to express his displeasure.” None of the incidents listed in the memo “concerned air travel,” the senators said.

And a February review of the October security memo by the EPA’s Office of Homeland Security Intelligence Team concluded that it “DOES NOT” (emphasis original) use “sound analysis or articulate relevant ‘threat specific’ information appropriate to draw any resource or level of threat conclusions regarding the protection posture for the Administrator.” The same team was quoted as saying it hadn’t seen any evidence that Pruitt would be at greater risk on a commercial flight than any other passenger.

H/t The Hill, CNN.

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White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders is scheduled to give a press briefing at 2:30 p.m. ET Tuesday. Watch live below:

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said Tuesday morning that it would be “suicide” for President Donald Trump to fire special counsel Robert Mueller.

Trump wondered aloud about that possibility Monday night, as he spoke extemporaneously for several minutes on the “witch hunt” Mueller’s probe had become, in his eyes, in light of raids on his personal attorney Michael Cohen’s home, office and hotel. Mueller’s team didn’t actually carry out the raids: FBI agents working with the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York — whom Trump personally interviewed for the job — did.

“I think it would be suicide for the President to fire him,” Grassley said in a brief interview clip aired on CNN. “I think the less the President says about this whole thing, the better off he will be. And I think that Mueller is a person of stature and respected and I respect him. Just let the thing go forward.”

Grassley made the same comment, nearly word for word, to Fox Business’ Maria Bartiromo a couple hours earlier.

“I have confidence in the Mueller, the President ought to have confidence in Mueller,” Grassley said. “And I think to answer your question, it would be suicide for the President to want— to talk about firing Mueller. The less the President said on this whole thing, the better off he would be, the stronger his presidency would be.”

Grassley added, perhaps in an attempt to communicate directly with the President, that Mueller “would appreciate being fired so he would have an excuse for getting out of [the probe],” which Grassley said “looks like a dead end,” in terms of evidence of collusion between Trump and Russia.

Democrats, he said, would “have a good issue in this upcoming election” if Trump fired Mueller.

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President Donald Trump on Monday responded to the FBI raids on his personal lawyer Michael Cohen’s office, home and hotel room, calling the raids “disgraceful” and “a whole new level of unfairness.”

“So I just heard that they broke into the office of one of my personal attorneys, a good man, and it’s a disgraceful situation,” Trump told reporters at the start of a meeting in the White House with Vice President Mike Pence, top military brass and national security advisers.

In fact, Cohen’s own lawyer acknowledged in a statement that the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York had “executed a series of search warrants,” which would have to be approved by a federal judge.

“It’s a total witch hunt,” Trump continued. “I’ve been saying it for a long time. I’ve wanted to keep it down. We’ve given, I believe, over a million pages worth of documents to the special counsel. They continue to just go forward.” 

“I have this witch hunt constantly going on for over 12 months now,” Trump said, adding: “It’s an attack on our country, in a true sense. It’s an attack on what we all stand for.”

Trump called Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office “the most conflicted group of people I have ever seen” and complained, as he often has, about Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from Russia- and campaign-related matters.

“He should have certainly let us know if he was going to recuse himself and we would have put a different attorney general in,” Trump said of Sessions. “So he made what I consider to be a very terrible mistake for the country.”

Trump complained that no one “is looking at the other side,” a reference to Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.

After concluding his comments, Trump listened to reporters’ shouted questions and repeated one: “Why don’t I just fire Mueller?” he wondered aloud.

“Well, I think it’s a disgrace what’s going on. We’ll see what happens. But I think it’s really a sad situation when you look at what happened.” 

“And many people have said you should fire him,” he continued. “Again they found nothing and in finding nothing that’s a big statement. If you know the person who’s in charge of the investigation, you know all about that. Deputy Rosenstein, Rod Rosenstein, he wrote the letter very critical of Comey.” 

That’s a reference to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s letter to Trump criticizing former FBI Director James Comey’s handling of the Clinton email server probe. Rosenstein later acknowledged that he found out Trump would fire Comey before writing the letter, and Trump himself has said he would have fired Comey regardless of Rosenstein’s letter.

“I fired Comey,” Trump continued. “I turned out to do the right thing, because you look at all of the things that he’s done and the lies, and you look at what’s gone on at the FBI with the insurance policy and all of the things that happened, turned out I did the right thing. But he signed, as you know, he also signed the FISA warrant so Rod Rosenstein, who is in charge of this, signed a FISA warrant, and he also signed a letter that was essentially saying to fire James Comey, and he was right about that. He was absolutely right.”

Trump has referenced the text message about an “insurance policy” between FBI Agent Peter Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page, both of whom were once members of Mueller’s team, before. In January he called it a “treasonous act.”

Rosenstein, as Trump said, did sign off on an application to surveil former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.

“So we’ll see what happens,” Trump said, before concluding by again calling the probe a “witch hunt.”

Watch part of the President’s remarks below:

This post has been updated.

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One of the two senior EPA staffers who received five-figure raises said in an email last month that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt himself had approved the salary increase, the Atlantic reported Monday. The reported email contradicts Pruitt’s own recent claim that he knew nothing about the raises at the time.

“I did not know that they got the pay raises until yesterday,” Pruitt said in an interview with Fox News Wednesday, referring to two senior aides who received five-figure raises even though the White House’s Presidential Personnel Office had rejected Pruitt’s request for the raises.

The Atlantic had reported the previous day that Pruitt, after that rejection, signed off on a plan to use a loophole in the Safe Drinking Water Act to hire the aides as administrative staffers, which allowed them to receive salary increases without the White House’s approval.

Now, the Atlantic is reporting that one of the two aides given a raise, EPA senior counsel Sarah Greenwalt, emailed the EPA’s HR department in mid-March claiming that Pruitt had approved the raise.

An unnamed administration official who saw Greenwalt’s email in recent days told the Atlantic that the it “definitively stated that Pruitt approves and was supportive of her getting a raise.”

A second unnamed administration official said that it “essentially says, ‘The administrator said that I should get this raise.'”

Pruitt’s chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, told the Atlantic Monday that “Administrator Pruitt had zero knowledge of the amount of the raises, nor the process by which they transpired.”

“These kind of personnel actions are handled by myself, EPA’s HR officials and PPO,” he added.

The first unnamed official said their “jaw dropped” when they saw Pruitt’s Fox News interview.

One of the unnamed officials told the Atlantic that, upon finding Greenwalt’s email following Pruitt’s interview, senior political appointees panicked.

“It’s an ‘oh, shit’ moment that they’re trying to figure out before the IG finds the email,” the source told the magazine, referring to an EPA inspector general’s probe of Pruitt’s behavior. “Because it’ll be damn near impossible to have Sarah explain her way out of it.”

After the Fox interview, senior political appointees at the EPA — including the two who received the five-figure raises, Greenwalt and EPA scheduling director Millan Hupp, whose pay was increased by $56,765 and $28,130, respectively — joked that Trump’s infamous line that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone” now applied to Pruitt, according to an unnamed official who witnessed the celebration.

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White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Monday defended President Donald Trump’s baseless claim that “millions and millions of people” voted illegally by saying that “a large number of incidences” of voter fraud were “reported.”

She also seemed to admit, months after the fact, that the White House’s “voter fraud” panel was really an attempt to find evidence for Trump’s baseless claim.

Sanders’ assertion about the “large number” of reports of fraud came during a White House press briefing Monday after a reporter brought up the President’s frequent claimmade most recently in West Virginia last week — that millions of people have voted illegally in the past.

Trump has never offered credible evidence to support these kinds of claims because there isn’t any. Large scale voter fraud is a myth.

“The President still strongly feels that there was a large amount of voter fraud and [he] attempted to do a thorough review of it, but a lot of the states didn’t want to cooperate and participate,” Sanders said, avoiding the reporter’s question about the factual basis for Trump’s claim.

“We certainly know that there were a large number of incidences reported but we can’t be sure exactly how much because we weren’t able to conduct the full review that the President wanted because a number of states did not want to cooperate and refused to participate,” she added.

The “review” Sanders referenced was the White House’s since-disbanded voter fraud commission, which was created after Trump’s earlier claim of millions of illegal votes in the 2016 election. Dozens of states refused to hand over election data to the group, which the President created with an executive order.

It’s telling that Sanders mentioned the commission, vice chaired by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, while attempting to defend Trump’s claim about illegal voting. When the commission was established, Kobach explicitly said that it was “not set up to disprove or to prove President Trump’s claim, nor is it just looking at the 2016 election.”

The commission met only twice and one of its few Democratic members, Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, alleged in a lawsuit that he’d been excluded from its operations. Kobach later struggled to defend his own state’s attempt to institute a restrictive voter registration law.

Neither Sanders nor another White House spokesperson responded to TPM’s questions regarding the press secretary’s claims.

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Country music star Jason Aldean made the case for new gun laws in an interview with the Associated Press published Monday.

“It’s too easy to get guns, first and foremost,” Aldean told AP.

“When you can walk in somewhere and you can get one in 5 minutes, do a background check that takes 5 minutes, like how in-depth is that background check?” he continued. “Those are the issues I have. It’s not necessarily the guns themselves or that I don’t think people should have guns. I have a lot of them.”

Aldean and his band were on stage at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in October when Stephen Paddock began his shooting spree, killing 58 and injuring hundreds.

Paddock legally purchased 33 guns in the year leading up to the shooting, at least 12 of which were semi-automatic rifles outfitted legally with bump stocks, which allow the rifles to mimic the firing rate of fully automatic weapons. Federal law does not require gun stores to report the purchase of multiple rifles, though it does require reporting multiple handgun purchases.

The musician told AP that in debates over gun control, “[n]obody is looking at what the actual issue is and really how to come to an agreement and make a smart decision.”

“It’s a no-win situation,” he added separately, referring to the gun control debate. “I think no matter what you say, whether you’re for gun control or not, I mean, you’re setting yourself up to be crucified in the public eye or in the media.”

The singer also said he identified with the survivors of the February mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in South Florida, some of whom have led a sustained effort to advocate for new gun laws.

“Unless anybody has witnessed anything like that or been a part of it, it’s really hard for people to really understand where you’re coming from on that stuff,” Aldean said. “It’s like the kids from the school in Florida, that shooting. I get it, man. I understand how they are feeling.”

H/t The Hill.

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In a letter to the EPA’s designated ethics official Friday, the acting director of the Office of Government Ethics said several of EPA chief Scott Pruitt’s actions “raise concerns” and may have violated President Donald Trump’s ethics pledge for administration officials.

The New York Times first reported the letter — from the acting director of the Office of Government Ethics, David J. Apol, to the EPA’s designated ethics official, Kevin Minoli — on Monday.

Apol played the hits, starting with Scott Pruitt’s below-market-rate lease of a townhouse from a powerhouse lobbying couple, one of whose clients had business before the EPA.

The OGE official noted that Pruitt “apparently did not seek ethics advice prior to entering into the lease” and, “only after” reporting by ABC News and Bloomberg exposed the deal, provided the EPA’s ethics advisers “with limited information” about the arrangement.

Apol also mentioned reports on Pruitt’s use of an EPA staffer’s time to help him find an apartment and his frequent taxpayer-funded flights home to Oklahoma for questionable purposes; that is, for boosting Pruitt’s profile before a potential campaign for elected office.

The letter ended by mentioning the New York Times’ recent report that Pruitt demoted or reassigned high-ranking EPA officials who questioned certain of his leadership and spending decisions — like his desire to use sirens and flashing lights to allow his motorcade to slice through Washington, D.C. traffic.

“If true,” Apol wrote, “it is hard to imagine any action that could more effectively undermine an agency’s integrity than punishing or marginalizing employees who strive to ensure compliance with the laws and regulations that safeguard that integrity.”

The Times noted that OGE does not have power over Pruitt, but that the office could appeal to President Trump to impose some sort of discipline on the Cabinet secretary.

A few minutes after the New York Times’ Eric Lipton published his story, the Office of Government Ethics posted a link to the letter:

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Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD) on Sunday defended EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt against those who have called for his resignation after a series of damaging scandals. Rounds said Pruitt’s critics were “nitpick[ing] little things.”

Pruitt has faced numerous reports of impropriety in recent days, from using a loophole in the Safe Drinking Water Act to give two senior aides huge raises (Pruitt denied he knew about the raises) to reportedly reassigning or demoting internal EPA employees who questioned some of his behavior and spending.

Asked whether Pruitt should still be EPA administrator, Rounds told NBC’s Chuck Todd Sunday that he should and that Pruitt was “following through with the policies that the President said he wanted to implement.”

“When does ethics matter, though?” Todd asked. “Because Tom Price did less and was fired.”

Rounds was dismissive.

“The reason why all of the emphasis right now is on Mr. Pruitt is because he is executing these policies, and they’re not real popular policies with a lot of people,” he said. “But he is executing the policies that this President said he would put in place.”

“Does that justify this behavior?” Todd asked.

Rounds said some of the Pruitt coverage could be “overblown,” and added: “Mr. Pruitt has been doing a good job as the secretary of the EPA. He’s moving forward exactly as this President said he would.”

What about the “mixed message,” Todd asked, of ignoring ethics concerns if a Cabinet secretary is advancing Republicans’ favored agenda?

“Which one of the challenges would you like to start?” Rounds asked, before referring to Pruitt’s multimillion dollar security detail. “Would you like to say, oh, he has too big of a security detail? Is that suddenly the reason why you fire someone?”

“At what point, though, does that accumulate and you wonder if he’s not a steward of the taxpayer dollar?” Todd asked.

“Let’s take a look at how many dollars the EPA can actually save, the big picture,” Rounds said, frustrated. “We’ll nitpick little things. ‘He has too many people on the security detail.’ It may add up to more than what the previous guy did. But what about the big picture of how he’s taking care of the taxpayer’s dollars with the department, the EPA?”

“And what about the regulations that he said he’s going to clean up on that he is?” Rounds continued. “And what about the response directly back out to allow businesses to actually grow and expand. This President said number one, we had to have tax policy, we’ve got it. We said we had to have regulatory reform, we’ve got it. Scott Pruitt is a big part of that. He’s executing what the President wants him to execute.”

He had a point: Despite the White House’s light protestations of Pruitt’s reported behavior, Trump has defended his EPA administrator publicly as recently as Saturday night.

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President Donald Trump on Sunday denounced the alleged “mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria,” but neither the President himself nor many members of Congress explicitly said that Trump would, nor should, respond as he did a year ago, with a military strike of his own.

Beginning on Saturday, according to the Associated Press, reports of a gas attack began streaming out of the rebel-held town of Douma in Eastern Ghouta, outside of the country’s capital, Damascus. At least 40 people have died, according to AP. A joint statement from the Syrian Civil Defense and the Syrian American Medical Society, according to the report, claimed that hundreds of people had shown signs of a chemical attack, including a chlorine-like smell.

Just more than a year ago, Trump ordered an missile strike on a Syrian air base — after the United States gave Russia advanced warning — following the Syrian regime’s alleged use of the nerve gas sarin in an attack on civilians. Trump has criticized President Barack Obama (though not at the time) for not responding militarily over similar alleged chemical weapon use by Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad in 2013, after Obama called the use of chemical weapons a “red line” in 2012.

The White House homeland security adviser, Thomas Bossert, told ABC News’ Martha Raddatz that he “wouldn’t take anything off the table” when asked if Trump could order another missile attack in response to the alleged chemical weapon use.

Not long after that comment, though, Raddatz asked about Trump’s recent line during a speech in Ohio that  “We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon” — a claim that his administration soon walked back.

“American troops aren’t going to fix the six or seven different ongoing conflicts and wars going on in the Middle East or in Syria at this stage,” Bossert said. “We need regional partnership increased and we need U.S. presence decreased.”

Several Senate Republicans voiced their support for a military strike in statements and Sunday show appearances. Some encouraged an American or international response without specifying what they meant.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that Trump’s comments about withdrawing from Syria had “emboldened” Assad “and his Russian and Iranian backers.”

“President Trump was quick to call out Assad today, along with the Russian and Iranian governments, on Twitter,” McCain added. “The question now is whether he will do anything about it. The President responded decisively when Assad used chemical weapons last year. He should do so again, and demonstrate that Assad will pay a price for his war crimes.”

“It’s a defining moment in his presidency, because he has challenged Assad in the past not to use chemical weapons,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said in a separate interview with Raddatz. “We had a one-and-done missile attack. So Assad is at it again.”

“They see us, our resolve, breaking,” he said. “They see our determination to stay in Syria waning. And it’s no accident they used chemical weapons.”

“To me, I would destroy Assad’s air force,” Graham suggested, one of several aggressive responses he laid out.

The senator added: “If it becomes a tweet without meaning, then he has hurt himself in North Korea. If he doesn’t follow through and live up to that tweet, he’s going to look weak in the eyes of Russia and Iran. So this is a defining moment, Mr. President.  You need to follow through with that tweet. Show a resolve that Obama never did to get this right.”

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD) said that Trump was “a new sheriff in town” when he ordered the 2017 missile strike and added: “He’s got to send a message once again that what he said, he meant.”

“It was appropriate a year ago, it would be appropriate today,” the senator added. “But let’s get all our facts together.”

Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) told CNN’s Jake Tapper that a military response “may be an option that we should consider now.”

“But it is further reason why it is so important that the President ramp up the pressure and the sanctions on the Russian government,” she added. “Because without the support of Russia, I do not believe that Assad would still be in office.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), in a statement Sunday morning, said in part that “[t]he world must hold Assad and his enablers in Russia and Iran responsible for this.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), without explicitly supporting a military response, said in a tweet that the alleged attack “is a horror that cannot be tolerated by responsible nations” and that “[t]he U.S. must continue to lead an international effort to hold the Assad regime and Russia accountable for their actions.” 

“The President is now obligated to act,” Republican strategist and former Bush administration official Karl Rove told “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace, adding later: “He’s on the line.”

Democrats were less explicit.

The ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), said in a statement that “[t]his latest catastrophe is proof that a limited use of military force in Syria without a broad and fully-resourced diplomatic strategy, as President Trump chose to do in April of 2017, was ineffective.”

“To make matters worse, the President’s recent plans to freeze U.S. assistance to the Syrian people, and the administration’s failure to put forth a comprehensive plan, other than calling for an ‘immediate response’, are the latest missteps in their calamitous retreat from American leadership around the world,” Menendez added.

The senator said the United States “must not waiver” in its rejection of the use of chemical weapons but called for Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo, currently the CIA director, “to articulate an actual policy for Syria.”

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, told CBS’ “Face the Nation” that he hoped Congress would be briefed on the alleged chemical weapons use.

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot known because the Syrian regime has closed the area,” he added. “So we’re not going to have the direct information, so it will be challenging for us to know. Everything points to that this was controlled by President Assad and again a violation of international norms, and there needs to be an international response.”

This post has been updated.

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