On Monday, Feb. 11, I gathered with my colleagues in the State Senate and House as Governor Janet Mills delivered her State of the Budget address. I’m pleased to see the governor has prioritized health care, education funding and property tax relief.
The governor’s proposal is a good first step in our budget negotiation process. I look forward to working with my colleagues and other experts from around the state to craft a biennial spending plan that is responsible, smart, and puts the needs of hardworking Mainers first. And I still want to hear from you. If you haven’t reached out to my office already about your concerns or priorities, please don’t hesitate to do so. The more we know about what our constituents want, the better prepared we will be as we go through the budget process.
I’m happy to report that one of my bills, LD 68, “An Act To Improve the Record Keeping of the Public Utilities Commission,” was approved by the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee (EUT). This bill addresses a problem brought to my attention by a constituent. It turns out that while the PUC is a specialized court for utilities, it does not always keep permanent records of cases that come before it. LD 68 changes that. EUT held a public hearing on the bill, then a work session, and recommended the bill be passed by the full Legislature. I hope my colleagues in the House and Senate pass this bill and Gov. Mills signs it into law.
As it is for many people, this issue is personal for me. Our granddaughter was diagnosed with ALL Leukemia in March of her kindergarten year. She was hospitalized for several weeks, and started chemotherapy. When discharged, we were careful about where we took her because of her suppressed immune system. There was whooping cough around at that time, and a relatively high rate of un-immunized children at her school. Our pediatrician gave us information to read, and advised against sending her to school. We followed the doctor’s advice. She has fully recovered, and we are grateful.
Low vaccination rates put kids like my granddaughter and other vulnerable people at risk. People who are immunosuppressed due to transplants or chemotherapy are put at higher risk for contracting deadly diseases, including measles, mumps, rubella, polio, chicken pox, tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis.
Currently, there is an outbreak of measles in Washington state. As of February 21, there were 65 confirmed cases, many of which are people who had not been immunized. Measles can be deadly and is very contagious – someone who has not been vaccinated has a 90% chance of catching measles just by being near someone who has it. In 2017, Maine had its first case of reported measles in two decades. When the rate of immunization falls below a certain level, there is greater risk to all people.
The North Carolina State Board of Elections has thrown out the results of November’s congressional race in the 9th District and ordered a new election, after more evidence came to light of a Republican effort to tamper with absentee ballots. The race had pitted Republican Mark Harris against Democrat Dan McCready. Harris initially appeared to be the narrow winner, but the race was never certified. For months Harris, who is a Baptist preacher, had insisted his campaign did nothing illegal, but on Thursday he called for a new election. This came a day after Harris’s own son—Assistant U.S. Attorney John Harris—testified that he had warned his father about hiring a longtime political operative who had a record of illegally collecting absentee ballots and in some cases filling them out in favor of Republican candidates. North Carolina’s Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper praised the board’s decision, saying it “sends a strong message that election fraud must not be tolerated.” President Trump—who has repeatedly warned about Democrats stealing elections—has yet to comment about the latest news from North Carolina.
In a major victory for civil liberties advocates, the Supreme Court has unanimously ruled to limit the practice of civil asset forfeiture—a controversial practice where police seize property that belongs to people suspected of crimes, even if they are never convicted. On Wednesday, the court ruled the Eighth Amendment protects people from state and local authorities imposing onerous fines, fees and forfeitures to generate money. The case centered on an Indiana man named Tyson Timbs, whose Land Rover was seized when he was arrested for selling drugs. The vehicle was worth $42,000—more than four times the $10,000 maximum fine Timbs could receive for his drug conviction under state law. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Timbs’s favor. Writing on behalf of the justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “The historical and logical case for concluding that the 14th Amendment incorporates the Excessive Fines Clause is overwhelming.” We speak with Lisa Foster, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center. Her organization filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case. Foster is a retired California judge. She served in the Justice Department during the Obama administration and led the department’s efforts to address excessive fines and fees.
Now, according to multiple media reports, the end is drawing near.
But what does that mean? Time Magazine senior editor Ryan Teague Beckwith has described trying to keep up with the twists in the Mueller investigation as akin to understanding the plot of a Russian novel by listening to a book club conversation.
Now, at last, perhaps we will see the full manuscript. Or at least the CliffsNotes (that’s York Notes to you Brits).
Or maybe we won’t.
If it all seems confusing, that’s because no-one knows exactly what happens next – just that something may be about to happen soon.
How soon is ‘soon’?
According to CNN, Mr Mueller’s investigation could be completed “as early as next week”. The Washington Post says it will be “in the coming days”. CBS’s Major Garrett has reported that the end could come “as early as tomorrow”.
Is that soon enough for you?
Just because the Mueller investigation is drawing to a close, however, doesn’t mean we’ll know all the details immediately – or ever. The notoriously tight-lipped former FBI director could simply announce that his work is done, pack his bags and go back to a private life of golf clubs, corporate boards, academic speaking engagements and trips to the Apple store Genius Bar.
Wait, won’t there be a final ‘Mueller Report’ with all the juicy details?
Not necessarily. In fact, probably not.
It doesn’t seem likely there will be a detailed investigative narrative presented to the public similar to the multi-tome report produced by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr back in 1998.
Mr Starr’s wide-ranging investigation that started with a real-estate inquiry and ended up scouring Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky was governed by a federal statute with different rules. And Mr Starr himself – a former judge and Republican administration lawyer – was a different kind of man to the by-the-books ex-Marine Mueller.
Mr Barr must then provide the top members of the Senate and House Judiciary committees with a brief explanation of any actions taken – or instances where he overruled the special counsel’s proposed action.
It is up to the attorney general to decide whether it would be in the “public interest” to make any of these reports or communications accessible to the rest of us.
Traditionally the Justice Department has been reluctant to provide information about investigations that do not lead to criminal prosecution. That was a guideline notably violated by former FBI Director James Comey during his July 2016 press statement outlining the results of a federal investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was Barack Obama’s secretary of state.
It would be ironic, to say the least, if the resulting political fallout from Mr Comey’s decision – which grievously wounded Ms Clinton’s presidential campaign – is cited by Justice Department officials to defend a decision to keep confidential damaging details of the Mueller investigation involving Donald Trump.
What will Bill Barr do?
This is the million-dollar question.
In his testimony during his January Senate confirmation hearings, Mr Barr was repeatedly pressed by Democrats to promise he would make public any findings or reports produced by the Mueller investigation.
“My objective and goal is to get as much as I can of the information to Congress and the public,” he told Senator Dianne Feinstein. “I am going to try to get the information out there consistent with these regulations and to the extent I have discretion, I will exercise that discretion to do that.”
His answers left considerable wiggle room. He could view the Justice Department’s special counsel regulations as a ceiling or a floor – a minimum requirement of disclosure that can be exceeded or a limit to what he can reveal, given confidentiality requirements and prosecutorial guidelines.
So we may not know anything?
It’s certainly a possibility. Or if we do learn something, it could take a while to render it into a form for public consumption (or, given the way things work in Washington, to leak).
Imagine the scene in Washington, as the political world learns Mr Mueller has provided his findings to Mr Barr and then waits – for hours, days, maybe even weeks – to learn what, if anything, will come of it.
There is another possibility, however.
Up until now, Mr Mueller has spoken through his court filings, which are rich in detail and new revelations. While Mr Mueller’s report to the attorney general will be confidential, it may not be his final word at the conclusion of his investigations.
Over the course of the last 21 months, Mr Mueller – in his prosecutorial documents – has explained how Russian agents and operatives allegedly gathered information about the US political process, initiated a social media campaign to influence and enflame American political views, funded on-the-ground political activities, and hacked the emails and files of top Democratic operatives in an effort to damage Mrs Clinton’s presidential campaign.
He has prosecuted multiple members of the president’s inner campaign circle for a variety of misdeeds, including obstruction of justice and lying about Russian contacts.
He helped strike a deal with Mr Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, which unearthed evidence of Trump business negotiations with Russian officials conducted in the heat of the 2016 presidential campaign.
He indicted a Trump confidant, Roger Stone, for lying about his contacts with Wikileaks, the organisation he says was the conduit through which Russia injected its purloined material into the American political bloodstream.
The special counsel could be building a prosecutorial path that leads to the White House, with the final stones about to be set. Court-watchers note multiple sealed indictments have been filed in the federal courts used by Mr Mueller’s team over the past few months. Those could be political and legal bombs, with their fuses lit.
Or they could be duds.
That’s it, then?
Hardly. Even if the Mueller investigation closes up shop and there is no “report”, there are no new indictments and the attorney general’s public pronouncements provide few details, it’s not the end of the story.
There are a number of cases initiated by the special counsel – involving Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, campaign chairman Paul Manafort and deputy campaign aide Rick Gates – that still await final sentencing.
Long-time Trump adviser Mr Stone has yet to go to trial on his charges of lying to Congress, witness tampering and obstruction of justice. Mr Mueller has handed this prosecution over to government lawyers. There’s also a special counsel case against Concord Management and Consulting, which Mr Mueller has charged with assisting Russia’s 2016 social media election-meddling campaign.
Meanwhile there’s a plethora of other ongoing investigations that are being run independently of the special counsel’s office. Federal investigators in New York are looking into possible election-law violations by the Trump campaign and his businesses and misconduct by the Trump inaugural committee.
The US attorneys in Washington and Virginia also have their hands full, with the espionage case involving Russian Maria Butina and an unregistered foreign lobbying prosecution of Mr Flynn’s business associates.
There are also state-level investigations of Mr Trump’s charitable foundation and Trump Organization tax filings, as well as an ongoing lawsuit by Maryland and the District of Columbia alleging that the president, through his business dealings, is violating a constitutional rule prohibiting the acceptance of money from foreign governments while in office.
Mr Mueller may exit the stage, but the drama will continue.
A new report by The New York Times details a number of possible obstruction of justice efforts by President Trump as he tried to suppress or contain multiple investigations about him. The Times says Trump asked former acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker to place a loyalist in charge of an investigation into hush money payments made to women who allegedly had affairs with Trump by his former personal attorney Michael Cohen. Trump reportedly asked for New York federal prosecutor Geoffrey Berman to head the investigation, but Berman had already recused himself from the case. Whitaker testified to Congress earlier this month that Trump never pressured him to intervene in an investigation. Did he perjure himself? The report also details Trump’s ongoing efforts to undermine special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, which he publicly attacked over 1,100 times.
President Donald Trump has continued to escalate tensions with California by calling on the state to return billions in federal funds for a high-speed rail.
His administration plans on cancelling $929m (£711m) in grants for what Mr Trump has called a “failed” project.
These federal funds account for a quarter of the California rail project.
Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom called it “political retribution” for the California-led lawsuit against Mr Trump’s national emergency declaration.
The Trump administration announced on Tuesday that it is looking into cancelling the $929m grant as well as recovering a $2.5bn grant already being spent by the state.
In a tweet on Wednesday, Mr Trump again lambasted the state over the project, saying: “Send the Federal Government back the Billions of Dollars WASTED!”
All but one of the states involved are governed by Democrats.
Trump v California
The battle between Donald Trump and California Governor Gavin Newsom, carried out in speeches, tweets and legal filings, now includes a hefty price tag. The US government has spent billions helping construct a high-speed rail line in California. Now, after cost overruns and cutbacks in the scope of the ambitious project, the president wants the federal money back.
That may be difficult to pull off – and will surely face an extended court battle – but that’s not the point. Mr Newsom is fighting the president over emergency funding for the border wall, so the Trump administration is going after the state’s rail funding.
Tit for tat.
This latest drama puts the conflict between the conservative White House and the most prosperous and populous state in the nation, one fully controlled by Democrats, in stark relief.
California’s leaders have offered their state as a “counter-proposal” to Trump’s America – a demonstration that progressive policies and regulations can go hand-in-hand with economic growth and well-being. It’s the antithesis of the Trumpist view that restrained regulation and limited government involvement open the path to success.
It’s a battle over ideology and principles – a civil war conducted in courts and the court of public opinion.
Following the news of the lawsuit, Mr Trump had slammed Democrats, “the radical left”, the 9th Circuit courts, and taunted California over the rail project.
“This is clear political retribution by President Trump, and we won’t sit idly by. This is California’s money, and we are going to fight for it.”
California’s initial plans, approved in 2008, involved a high-speed rail linking San Francisco and Los Angeles with an estimated cost of $77bn.
Since then, overrunning costs and delays have plagued the project and in his state address last week, Gov Newsom said they would be scaling the project down and focusing on connecting regions in the Central Valley for now.
At the time, Mr Trump attacked the project, saying the state owed the government $3.5bn for the “green disaster”. On Tuesday, his administration took steps towards collecting those funds.
Gov Newsom hit back by saying Mr Trump’s claims were “fake news”.
Can Trump take back the funds?
California and the federal government signed an agreement in 2010 over this funding.
Per the agreement, the federal government is allowed to take the money back if the state does not make “adequate progress” or “fails to complete the project or one of its tasks” or if the state cannot meet the funding-match requisite, CNBC reported.
California has not yet met the $2.5bn funding match, and so it has not been able to use the $929m.
Federal Railroad Administration chief Ronald Batory said in a letter on Tuesday to the state’s rail authority that California has “materially failed to comply with the terms of the agreement”.
The letter cited the governor’s altered plans for the system along with California’s inability to match the federal funds as grounds for terminating the award.
California’s rail authority has not yet responded to the letter.
Art Bauer, a California Senate Transportation Committee staffer, told the Los Angeles Times he could not recall any precedent for such an action, but that “the governor unwittingly gave the federal government a reason to back away from the project”.