Senate confirms climate skeptic to head DOJ environment office

The Senate voted Thursday to confirm a climate change skeptic and former industry attorney to lead the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) environment division.

Lawmakers voted 52 to 45 to confirm Jeffrey Bossert Clark to be the assistant attorney general for environment and natural resources. Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), both running for reelection GOP states, joined all Republicans present in voting to confirm Clark.

Clark is and attorney at the law firm Kirkland & Ellis, where he has represented numerous industry clients, including oil giant BP in its efforts to fight certain claims from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster and spill, and the Chamber of Commerce. He’s said climate change science is “contestable.”

“Jeff Clark is one of the leading environmental litigators in the country, and has been counsel in many of the most significant environmental and natural resource cases of the past two decades, both here at the Department of Justice and in private practice,” Attorney General Jeff Sessionssaid in a statement welcoming Clark to the department.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said before the Thursday vote that Clark is imminently qualified for the position.
“Mr. Clark’s legal colleagues describe him as one of the most capable lawyers with whom they’ve ever worked, and no fewer than seven former assistant attorneys general for the environment and natural resources division tell the Senate that his well-rounded background and prior experience in the division make him an excellent choice for this position,” he said.
Clark’s past experience includes a stint as deputy assistant attorney general in the same DOJ division.

Democrats said Clark’s history shows he would further President Trump’s pro-industry environmental record, to the loss of the climate and public health.

“He is a favorite of the Federalist Society, having chaired that  group’s environmental law and practice group. But his nomination is  strongly opposed by groups that care about protecting the environment,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).

“He is exactly the  wrong person to be in this job of enforcing regulations to protect our  environment.”

Clark’s responsibilities at the DOJ will include being the top law enforcement official in pursuing claims against polluters and companies that violate environmental laws. He’ll also be responsible for defending Trump’s aggressive deregulatory agenda against an onslaught of lawsuits.

“Jeffrey Bossert Clark’s blatant hostility toward environmental protection is good news for polluters, but awful news for the rest of us,” Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook said in a statement. “The guy who defended the company that caused the worst oil spill in U.S. history is not likely to aggressively go after corporate environmental outlaws.”

Trump nominated Clark to the post in June 2017, but the full Senate didn’t act on the nomination until this week.

Sessions both thanked senators for confirming Clark and criticized the length of time it took.
“He is ready to lead this division — and it should not have taken us 16 months to get him confirmed,” he said.

Clark will replace Jeffrey Wood, who has been acting assistant attorney general in the environment division since Trump’s inauguration in January 2017.

[The Hill]

Trump’s new EPA chief caught liking racist and conspiratorial social media posts

The acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency was caught liking racist and conspiratorial social media posts using his personal accounts — some as recently as in the past month.

The Huffington Post reported that Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler “liked” a Facebook post showing Barack and Michelle Obama looking at a banana — a racist archetype comparing the former president and first lady to monkeys.

Along with liking the image from an Italian meme page that translates to “My mom is a virgin,” the EPA chief also retweeted infamous Pizzagate conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec.

First uncovered by the liberal American Bridge 21st Century political action committee, most of the posts Wheeler engaged with were made before he came acting EPA administrator in July 2018 following Scott Pruitt’s resignation in the wake of his ethics scandal.

Wheeler retweeted Posobiec from his personal Twitter account in February of 2018 — months after the former Naval intelligence officer had been ousted from military service. The right-wing figure’s ouster followed his promotion of the conspiracy theory that the Democrats were involved in a child sex ring and used a DC pizza parlor as a front for their nefarious gains.

In late September, after taking over at the EPA, Wheeler liked a tweet made by Infowars editor Paul Joseph Watson alleging that Twitter discriminates against conservatives.

In an email to HuffPost, the acting EPA chief defending his social media use.

“Over the years, I have been a prolific social media user and liked and inadvertently liked countless social media posts,” Wheeler said. “Specifically, I do not remember the post depicting President Obama and the First Lady. As for some of the other posts, I agreed with the content and was unaware of the sources.”

[Raw Story]

Donald Trump Contradicts Brett Kavanaugh, Saying Nominee Admitted to ‘Difficulty’ With Drinking as Young Man

President Donald Trump appeared Monday to contradict the testimony and public comments by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh about his drinking during his high school and college days, with the president stating Kavanaugh had noted he had “difficulty as a young man.”

Trump defended Kavanaugh, stating he had been forthright with the Senate Judiciary Committee despite attacks from Democrats. The president said that Kavanaugh had explained his drinking as having “difficulty as a young man with drink…He was very strong on the fact that he drank a lot.”

However, Kavanaugh had stated before the committee on Friday and during his interview with Fox News a week ago that his drinking was not overly excessive and was in line with his peers.

“And yes, there were parties. And the drinking age was 18, and yes, the seniors were legal and had beer there. And yes, people might have had too many beers on occasion and people generally in high school—I think all of us have probably done things we look back on in high school and regret or cringe a bit, but that’s not what we’re talking about,” Kavanaugh told Fox.

Kavanaugh also told Fox that he never drank to the point of blacking out, which he also reiterated to the committee during his often combative testimony and defense.

“Sometimes I had too many beers. Sometimes others did. I liked beer. I still like beer. But I did not drink beer to the point of blacking out, and I never sexually assaulted anyone,” Kavanaugh said in his statement.

The federal judge was also grilled by senators about his drinking and he repeatedly said he had never blacked out or did not drink to the point that he could not remember what happened the evening before.

Trump was also asked if the allegations of sexual assault against Kavanaugh were proved to be true by the FBI’s current investigation would he consider pulling support for Kavanaugh.

The president said he was “open” but vehemently defended Kavanaugh. He challenged the way in which Democrats had conducted themselves during the confirmation process while blasting numerous senators like Diane Feinstein and Cory Booker, and even claimed to know of a Democratic senator in “very very bad situations … somewhat compromising.” Trump did not name the senator and said he would save the answer “for a book like everybody else.”

Trump’s press conference Monday was originally planned to discuss a new trade deal with Mexico and Canada, and the president fought off questions about Kavanaugh until he could answer inquiries about the trade deal.

[Newsweek]

Media

Trump anti-discrimination official once called most hate crimes hoaxes

A senior Trump appointee responsible for enforcing laws against financial discrimination once questioned in blog posts written under a pen name if using the n-word was inherently racist and claimed that the great majority of hate crimes were hoaxes.

Eric Blankenstein, a policy director at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, expressed those and other controversial views more than a decade ago on a political blog he co-authored with two other anonymous contributors.

In a 2004 post, Blankenstein wrote that a proposal at the University of Virginia to impose harsher academic penalties for acts of intolerance was “racial idiocy.” He questioned how authorities could know the motivation of someone using a racial slur.

“Fine . . . let’s say they called him n—– ,” he wrote, spelling out the slur. “. . . would that make them racists, or just a——-?”

Blankenstein also wrote that “hate-crime hoaxes are about three times as prevalent as actual hate crimes.”

The details about Blankenstein’s blog have not been previously reported. He wrote under the name “egb3r,” an alias built from his initials. The Washington Post verified the writer is Blankenstein by examining biographical details in the blog that include his age, his graduation from the University of Virginia, the date of his marriage and a reference to his father, a lawyer.

In a statement, Blankenstein acknowledged that he had written the posts but said they have no bearing on his work today. “The insight to be gained about how I perform my job today – by reading snippets of 14 year old blog posts that have nothing to do with consumer protection law — is exactly zero,” he said.

“Any attempt to do so is a naked exercise in bad faith, and represents another nail in the coffin of civil discourse and the ability to reasonably disagree over questions of law and policy,” he said. “The need to dig up statements I wrote as a 25 year old shows that in the eyes of my critics I am not guilty of a legal infraction or neglect of my duties, but rather just governing while conservative.”

Blankenstein, 39, is one of several Trump appointees at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency created by President Barack Obama following the 2008 financial meltdown. He is among the highest paid employees in the government, earning $259,500, records show.

He is responsible for supervising lenders and enforcing an array of consumer protection laws, including the four-decade-old Equal Credit Opportunity Act, landmark civil rights legislation aimed at protecting blacks and other minorities from discriminatory practices and promoting “fair lending.”

[Washington Post]

FBI Director Christopher Wray becomes the latest target of Trump’s ire

In recent conversations with confidants, President Donald Trump has added FBI Director Christopher Wray to his list of key members of his administration whom he complains about, three people familiar with the discussions tell NBC News.

Trump has criticized Wray as another figure in the Justice Department who is not protecting his interests — and is possibly out to undermine his presidency, these people said.

Trump is “in the worst mood of his presidency and calling friends and allies to vent about his selection of (Attorney General Jeff) Sessions and Wray,” said one person familiar with the president’s thinking. This person said the president was particularly focused on both men over the Labor Day weekend.

Trump has frequently tweeted about the Russia probe and more than once has criticized the Justice Department, the FBI and Sessions by name. But until now, the president has been cautious about publicly criticizing the person he appointed after firing former FBI Director James Comey.

Now he’s increasingly grouping Wray with Sessions, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and the special counsel’s Russia investigation, all subjects of relentless criticism from the president.

Trump nominated Wray for the FBI post last summer, weeks after the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller and months after Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation.

Since then, Wray has largely avoided the president’s public ire. While Trump has criticized the FBI generally, saying the bureau is biased against him, he has not gone after Wray personally.

That has changed, the people familiar with the president’s thinking said, as Trump’s frustration with his Justice Department has escalated. He’s pointed to issues such as the resistance by the FBI to turn over documents to congressional Republicans. The FBI declined to comment for this story. NBC News has reached out to the White House for comment.

Wray has defended the FBI against Trump’s attacks. In December, after Trump said the FBI’s reputation was in “tatters,” Wray pushed back publicly.

“The FBI that I see is tens of thousands of agents and analysts and staff working their tails off to keep Americans safe from the next terrorist attack, gang violence, child predators, spies from Russia, China, North Korea and Iran,” he said during a congressional hearing.

Trump has at times been wound up by Tom Fitton, the president of the conservative advocacy group Judicial Watch, and a regular commentator on Fox News, who has been sharply critical of Wray and what he describes as corruption at the FBI.

Wray has reportedly threatened to resign at least once over potential pressure from the president to fire his then-deputy Andrew McCabe. Asked in July by NBC’s Lester Holt whether he’d ever reached a point where a line had been crossed and he threatened to resign, Wray did not deny he had.

“I’m a low-key, understated guy, but that should not be mistaken for what my spine is made out of. I’ll just leave it at that,” Wray said.

[NBC News]

Trump Rages Against ‘Gutless’ White House Official Who Wrote Stunning NYT Op-Ed

President Donald Trump tore into the anonymous source who penned the shocking New York Times op-ed from a senior White House official who admitted to trying to “stop” the president.

Speaking at a White House event on Wednesday, Trump raged against the unnamed person.

“Nobody has ever done in less than a two-year period what we have done,” he said. “So when you tell me about some anonymous source within the administration, probably who’s failing, and probably here for all the wrong reasons…”

Trump pivoted from there to blast the Times. But later, he doubled back to what he termed the “gutless editorial.”

“So if the failing “The New York Times” has an anonymous editorial — can you believe it?” Trump said. “Anonymous. Meaning gutless. A gutless editorial.”

In the Times op-ed, the unnamed official wrote that they and others within the Trump administration are working to “stop” the president.

“The dilemma — which [Trump] does not fully grasp — is that many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations,” the official wrote. “I would know. I am one of them.”

[Mediaite]

Trump attacks Jeff Sessions for not forcing the Justice Department to ignore Republican crimes

President Donald Trump on Monday publicly criticized his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for allowing Republican congressmen to be indicted for alleged criminal behavior.

“Two long running, Obama era, investigations of two very popular Republican Congressmen were brought to a well publicized charge, just ahead of the Mid-Terms, by the Jeff Sessions Justice Department. Two easy wins now in doubt because there is not enough time. Good job Jeff…” Trump tweeted.

The president was apparently referring to Congressmen Duncan Hunter (R-CA) and Chris Collins (R-NY). Hunter was charged with illegally using campaign funds to pay personal expenses while Collins was charged with taking part in an insider trading scheme.

“….The Democrats, none of whom voted for Jeff Sessions, must love him now. Same thing with Lyin’ James Comey. The Dems all hated him, wanted him out, thought he was disgusting – UNTIL I FIRED HIM! Immediately he became a wonderful man, a saint like figure in fact. Really sick!” Trump added in another tweet.

[Raw Story]

Here’s the photo of a very white summer intern class the White House didn’t release

Past group photos of White House interns under President Donald Trump have drawn criticism for showing a group of overwhelmingly white young people. This summer, the White House didn’t make much progress on diversity — they just didn’t release the photo.

A group picture with President Donald Trump showed the summer 2017 class was very white and very male. In the fall 2017 picture, observers pointed out one of the interns seemed to be making a white power gesture. (He denied it.) And the spring 2018 class was, again, very white(although with more female interns represented).

The White House appears not to be in a hurry to put out its summer 2018 intern picture, but Vox obtained a copy.

The photo of 128 summer interns surrounding President Trump gives an overall impression of a sea of white faces, with those who appear to be people of color dramatically outnumbered. That’s despite the fact that almost half of millennials in the United States are minorities.

The White House’s summer internship program this year ran from May 30 to August 10, and the photo, which has appeared on at least one now-former intern’s Instagram account, has yet to be released. Last year, members of the media were invited into the summer 2017 photo op, with the Associated Press capturing video of the picture being taken. This year, the spring 2018 class picture was distributed by the White House as one of its photos of the week.

But the summer internship program has been over for two and a half weeks, and the White House has yet to distribute it, as its photo of the week or otherwise. The White House did not immediately return a request for comment on the photo, its release, and the diversity of its intern class.

[Vox]

Student Loan Watchdog Quits; Blames Trump Administration

The federal official in charge of protecting student borrowers from predatory lending practices has stepped down.

In a scathing resignation letter, Seth Frotman, who until now was the student loan ombudsman at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, says current leadership “has turned its back on young people and their financial futures.” The letter was addressed to Mick Mulvaney, the bureau’s acting director.

In the letter, obtained by NPR, Frotman accuses Mulvaney and the Trump administration of undermining the CFPB and its ability to protect student borrowers.

“Unfortunately, under your leadership, the Bureau has abandoned the very consumers it is tasked by Congress with protecting,” it read. “Instead, you have used the Bureau to serve the wishes of the most powerful financial companies in America.”

The letter raises serious questions about the federal government’s willingness to oversee the $1.5 trillion student loan industry and to protect student borrowers.

Frotman has served as student loan ombudsman for the past three years. Congress created the position in 2010, in the wake of the financial crisis, as part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. As ombudsman and assistant director, Frotman oversaw the CFPB’s Office for Students and Young Consumers and reviewed thousands of complaints from student borrowers about the questionable practices of private lenders, loan servicers and debt collectors.

Since 2011, the CFPB has handled more than 60,000 student loan complaints and, through its investigations and enforcement actions, returned more than $750 million to aggrieved borrowers. Frotman’s office was central to those efforts. It also played a role in lawsuits against for-profit giants ITT Tech and Corinthian Colleges and the student loan company Navient.

Over the past year, the Trump administration has increasingly sidelined the CFPB’s student loan office. Last August, the U.S. Department of Education announced it would stop sharing information with the bureau about the department’s oversight of federal student loans, calling the CFPB “overreaching and unaccountable” and arguing that the bureau’s actions were confusing borrowers and loan servicers alike. Of the move, Frotman writes, “the Bureau’s current leadership folded to political pressure … and failed borrowers who depend on independent oversight to halt bad practices.”

In May, Mulvaney called for a major shake-up in Frotman’s division. The Office for Students and Young Consumers would be folded into the bureau’s financial education office, signaling a symbolic shift in mission from investigation to information-sharing. While the CFPB told NPR at the time that the move was “a very modest organizational chart change,” consumer advocates reacted with alarm.

Christopher Peterson, director of financial services at the nonprofit Consumer Federation of America, called the move “an appalling step in a longer march toward the elimination of meaningful American consumer protection law.”

In his resignation, Frotman also accuses the CFPB’s leadership of suppressing a report, prepared by his office, revealing new evidence that some of the nation’s largest banks were “saddling [students] with legally dubious account fees.”

The Trump administration has also taken steps outside the CFPB to curb oversight of the student loan industry. The Justice and Education departments have argued that debt collectors should be protected from state efforts to regulate them. And, earlier this month, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos moved to scrap a rule meant to punish schools where graduates struggle with poor earnings and deep debt. The department defended its decision, saying it would instead give borrowers school performance data so they can decide for themselves what colleges offer the best value.

Mick Mulvaney was tapped to run the CFPB while also serving as director of the Office of Management and Budget. Before joining the Trump administration, he was a Republican congressman from South Carolina and a fierce critic of the bureau he now manages. He once called the CFPB “a joke … in a sick, sad kind of way” because, Mulvaney argued, it often acted above the law with no accountability to Congress.

Frotman has served at the CFPB for seven years, since its inception. He arrived in early 2011 as part of the Treasury Department’s implementation team. Frotman began in the Office of Servicemember Affairs as senior adviser to Holly Petraeus. That office was instrumental in expanding service member protections under the Military Lending Act and in cracking down on lenders and retailers that preyed on service members.

Petraeus, now retired, tells NPR she felt “privileged” to have worked with Frotman at the CFPB. “Seth is a true public servant. I think he’s leaving for the purest of motives: He wants to help student borrowers.”

In response to a request for comment, the CFPB issued this statement: “The Bureau does not comment on specific personnel matters. We hope that all of our departing employees find fulfillment in other pursuits and we thank them for their service.”

[NPR]

 

DeVos is reportedly considering letting schools use federal money to arm teachers

US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is considering a policy change that would allow states and school districts to use federal money to buy guns for teachers, according to a report by the New York Times’s Erica Green.

This comes as the idea of arming teachers is picking up steam among some conservatives since the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February. Two Florida universities have pilot programs to arm educators, and the Florida state legislature passed a bill in March that would allow armed teachers in school classrooms.

The federal government typically bans the use of federal funds to purchase firearms for schools. But DeVos and officials at the Department of Education are reportedly considering the use of Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants — which don’t exclude states or local districts from buying guns. The department wouldn’t need Congress’s approval, since the grants are already law.

These grants are part of the Every Student Succeeds Act, a major federal education law passed in 2015. The grants are typically used to boost student health and wellness, but they don’t say they can’t be used to buy firearms.

With all the discussion about increasing the number of armed professionals in schools this year in the wake of more high-profile school shootings, Congress has stopped short of using federal money to arm teachers. A school safety bill passed earlier this year that contained $50 million per year for districts, but it banned the districts from using any of the money to buy firearms.

The Education Department is trying to downplay the report: “The Department is constantly considering and evaluating policy issues, particularly issues related to school safety,” Education Department spokesperson Liz Hill said in a statement to Vox. “The Secretary nor the Department issues opinions on hypothetical scenarios.”

Hill also told Education Week, “The NY Times piece is getting blown way out of proportion.”

There’s also a new effort underway in the Senate to try to stop DeVos from moving forward, should she choose to. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), an outspoken supporter of gun control issues, introduced an emergency amendment to an Education Department funding bill on Thursday that would ban DeVos from using federal money to arm teachers.

“My lord — we can’t let this happen,” Murphy said.

Texas initially asked about buying guns with federal money

The Education Department reportedly started studying the issue after getting a question from officials in Texas about whether the federal ESSA grants could be used to buy guns, according to Education Week’s Andrew Ujifusa.

“Department officials have been researching the issue, like they do with every issue, in response to this Texas letter,” a senior Trump administration official told Ujifusa, noting that while discussions were ongoing, no final decision has been made yet.

If DeVos were to approve the money to allow local districts to buy guns or train teachers on using them, the decision would likely be extremely controversial, both within the education community and outside it.

National gun safety groups and teachers unions issued statements condemning the Education Department for even considering the move.

[Vox]

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