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Democrats in uproar after Wisconsin GOP rams through power grab

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By Jane C. Timm

Hours after Republicans pushed through bills curbing the powers of the incoming Democratic governor and attorney general, Wisconsin Democrats charged Wednesday that it was nothing but a naked partisan power grab denying the will of the voters and would lead to gridlock and lawsuits.

“Certainly, physically I’m tired, but I’m sort of demoralized by what took place,” state Rep. Gordon Hintz, the Assembly Democratic leader, told NBC News. “It was a bad day for democracy.”

The legislation weakens the governor’s authority, limits early voting and dilutes the attorney general’s power by requiring a legislative committee to sign off on withdrawing from federal lawsuits. Gov.-elect Tony Evers and Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul campaigned on withdrawing Wisconsin from a multi-state lawsuit that seeks to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Evers called the bills a “hot mess” on Wednesday, and said he’d personally call on Walker to veto the legislation. He also encouraged Wisconsin voters to pressure Walker not to sign the bills into law.

Republicans say it’s a better balance of power, while Democrats and advocates say the laws are a power grab by a GOP hellbent on limiting the power of their political rivals.

“Power-hungry politicians rushed through sweeping changes to our laws to expand their own power and override the will of the people of Wisconsin who asked for change on Nov. 6th,” Evers said in a statement earlier Wednesday.

Former Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat who served as the state’s attorney general as well, said the legislature’s move “lacked class.”

Doyle remarked that while former President George H.W. Bush was being praised for gracefully losing an election — famously wishing successor and rival President Bill Clinton well in a letter — the state’s Republicans were engaging partisan ploys.

“In Wisconsin, you’ve seen the Republicans go the opposite way: We’re mad, we lost, and we’re going to try and change the rules,” he told NBC News.

He said the legislation’s restrictions on the governor’s ability to staff the state jobs agency until September will make the governor’s work more challenging.

Hintz said he fears the bills will lead to gridlock because of court challenges and unintended consequences.

“Rushing through legislation on three days notice, in an all night session, always leads to unintended consequences and outcomes that you ultimately have to go back and fix. It’s a very bad way to do business,” Hintz said.

Gov. Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island, chair of the Democratic Governors Association, said that Republican legislative efforts in Wisconsin as well as in Michigan are “a dangerous assault on our democracy.”

“Changing the rules when you don’t like the outcome is a move befitting a playground bully, not elected leaders in the world’s greatest democracy. Yet unfortunately, that’s exactly what we’re seeing lame-duck Republicans attempt in Wisconsin and Michigan,” she said.

Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, a Republican who lost his re-election effort last month to Evers, was booed and heckled at a Christmas tree lighting ceremony on Tuesday for his support of the bills; the legislation will go into effect upon his signature.

Democrats won every statewide election including governor and attorney general and 205,000 more votes than Republicans according to Washington Post election data, but Republicans maintained a 27-seat majority in the legislature.

Hintz said the legislation — and GOP control — is thanks to partisan redistricting done by Republicans, insulating them from facing blowback at the ballot box.

“This is the government you get when you get to pick your voters,” he told NBC News.

Doyle, who retired from politics in 2011, said the week’s events in Wisconsin were a good example of the nation’s political dysfunction.

“These districts are so divided, so safe Democrat or safe Republican,” he told NBC News. “That means that you have this phenomenon where the legislatures are playing to their bases and not to the middle. And I think everybody who looks at what’s happening with our current situation in legislatures — and in Congress — would say that’s the cause of the problem.”

Shaquille Brewster contributed.



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Trump ‘in very good health’ but slight weight gain puts him in obese category

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By David K. Li

President Donald Trump is in good overall health, although a 4-pound weight gain since last year puts him into the obese category, according to a memo from the White House physician Thursday.

The new details on his health come after Trump, 72, underwent four hours of tests at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Friday for his annual physical.

“After taking into account all the laboratory results, examinations and specialist recommendations, it is my determination that the president remains in very good health overall,” according to the White House doctor, Sean Conley.

Trump, who is 6 feet, 3 inches tall, weighs 243 pounds, the memo said.

That put his body-mass index at 30.4 and anything greater than 30 is considered “obese,” according to the National Institutes of Health.

In 2018, Trump came in at 239 pounds, which put his BMI at 29.9 and in the “overweight” category.

The president does not smoke or drink, but famously enjoys fast food.

The president’s other vital signs this year were normal, and his total cholesterol was down from 223 to 196.

The decline is likely due to an increase in his cholesterol medication from 10 mg to 40 mg, NBC medical analyst Dr. Shamard Charles said.

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Trump appointee dodging investigators in political retaliation case, government watchdog says

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By Dan De Luce

The Department of Homeland Security’s chief watchdog is calling for disciplinary action against a Trump administration political appointee who has refused to cooperate with an investigation into alleged retaliation against career civil servants, according to a memo released Thursday.

Christine Ciccone, a former senior official at the State Department and now an assistant secretary of legislative affairs at DHS, has failed to agree to an interview with investigators “despite repeated requests made to both her and her attorney over many months,” DHS Acting Inspector General John Kelly wrote to Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in a Feb. 13 memo.

The State Department Office of Inspector General said a senior official’s refusing to submit to an interview is “unprecedented.”

That office is looking into allegations of retribution against career State Department employees, and has tried to speak with Ciccone as a “key witness” in that inquiry since September, Kelly wrote in a memo released by three Democratic lawmakers.

Multiple whistleblowers inside the department have contacted congressional committees alleging politically-motivated personnel decisions during Ciccone’s time as deputy chief of staff to former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the lawmakers said in a statement.

The inspector general’s office at the State Department has “documentary evidence demonstrating Ms. Ciccone’s involvement in personnel actions against at least three career employees,” the office told congressional committees Monday.

But it could not finish the review as it had not been able to interview Ciccone, according to the lawmakers’ statement.

Kelly recommended Secretary Nielsen discipline Ciccone due to her failure to cooperate.

U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen speaks at the press briefing at the White House in Washington on June 18, 2018.Brendan Smialowski / AFP – Getty Images file

The appointee’s response “sets a dangerous precedent contrary to the fundamental tenants” of the law establishing government inspector generals, and carries “the potential to undermine our critical oversight function,” he wrote.

When asked about the memo, the Department of Homeland Security did not say whether Nielsen would take any disciplinary action against Ciccone.

The secretary “is reviewing the issue,” DHS Press Secretary Tyler Houlton told NBC News in an email.

“Christine Ciccone is an exceptional member of the DHS team and has helped advance crucial efforts to secure our homeland during her time with the Department,” Houlton said.

The State Department declined to comment on the record.

Through her lawyer, Ciccone has asked for access to her old email account at the State Department. The OIG has said she can have that access once she agrees to a date to meet its officials.

Ciccone is just one of several officials who have come under scrutiny over allegations that career diplomats and civil servants have faced retribution from political appointees at the State Department since President Donald Trump entered office.

From center, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-AK, from left, and Tillerson’s deputy chief of staff Christine Ciccone, from right, meet with US/Alaska Permanent Participants to the Arctic Council in Fairbanks, Alaska, on May 10, 2017.Nicholas Kamm / AFP – Getty Images file

Even though career civil servants take an oath to the Constitution and have a professional tradition of carrying out the policies of administrations from both sides of the political spectrum, whistleblowers have told lawmakers that political appointees in the Trump administration have allegedly questioned the loyalty of some career employees and sought to undercut them.

The memo on Ciccone was released by three congressional Democrats, House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel, House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings and Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Bob Menendez. In a joint statement, the three lawmakers called Ciccone’s behavior “outrageous.”

The three lawmakers demanded Nielsen take prompt action to uphold the inspector general office’s legal authority and to report back to their committees by Friday to update them on the case.

A Democratic congressional aide, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said the case was “another example of how Trump administration political appointees believe that the rules don’t apply to them.”

The State Department has said previously that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would not tolerate political retribution against career employees.

But the congressional committees continue to hear complaints that political retribution allegedly persists in the department, two Democratic congressional staffers told NBC News.

In March 2018, Rep. Cummings and Rep. Engel obtained emails from a whistleblower that they say showed senior officials at the White House and the State Department worked with a network of conservative activists to try to remove or sideline career employees who were considered untrustworthy due to their work with the previous Obama administration or other reasons.

Among those allegedly targeted was a career civil servant, Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, who entered the federal government during President George W. Bush’s administration. Nowrouzzadeh was singled out by a right-wing news outlet as insufficiently loyal to Trump and sympathetic to Iran. She wrote to her supervisor Brian Hook, then the director of the policy planning staff and now overseeing Iran policy at the State Department, asking for his help to “correct the record,” according to the emails.

Hook forwarded her email to other political appointees at the State Department, who then passed it along to the White House. In the internal emails discussing her, officials cited her Iranian heritage and falsely claimed she was born in Iran.

Against her request and the scheduled term of her appointment to that office, Nowrouzzadeh’s tenure on the policy planning staff was cut short by three months, according to the emails.

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Senate confirms Trump nominee William Barr as attorney general

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By Rebecca Shabad

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday voted to confirm William Barr as attorney general, 54-45.

The confirmation of President Donald Trump’s nominee, who will oversee special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe, had been expected given the GOP’s 53-47 control of the chamber. He was sworn in several hours later at the White House.

During his confirmation hearing last month, Barr told Congress that he believes Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign should continue unimpeded.

Republicans praised the Barr as a steadying presence, with White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders tweeted that his confirmation was a “victory for the rule of law.”

“He is a steady hand at a time of turmoil and he will bring much needed reform to the Department of Justice,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement.

Several Democrats who did not support the nomination pointed to the incoming attorney general’s views on executive power, with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., saying he had been “concerned with the views Mr. Barr expressed on the unitary executive theory and expansive presidential power. We need an Attorney General who recognizes the need for checks and balances, including within the Executive Branch.”

Barr, who was to be sworn in at the White House later Thursday afternoon, will assume the nation’s top law enforcement position with the results of Mueller’s probe expected to land on his desk in a matter of weeks.

Democrats questioned at his confirmation hearing whether he would make public the results of Mueller’s investigation, as Barr suggested that neither the Mueller report nor even a redacted version of it would be made public, but possibly only a summary written by the attorney general. The law requires only that Mueller transmit his report to the AG.

Barr also faced criticism from Democrats over an unsolicited memo he sent to the Justice Department last year in which he criticized part of the special counsel’s probe as “fatally misconceived” and he was questioned about his views on executive power ability to be independent from Trump.

Barr, 68, who has been counsel at the Kirkland & Ellis law firm, served as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush from 1991 until 1993, following an 18-year civil service career that began at the CIA.

The new attorney general, nominated by Trump in December to replace Jeff Sessions, will be only the second person to hold the job twice. John Crittenden was the first, in the 19th century.

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