In a rare move on Capitol Hill, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell scheduled an unusually early vote this morning at 6:30 a.m. to advance billionaire Betsy DeVos’s nomination for education secretary to the full Senate. The early morning straight-party cloture vote dealt with a key Senate hurdle required to advance DeVos’s nomination to the Senate floor. The full Senate is slated to vote as early as Monday. DeVos is facing escalating opposition from lawmakers and education advocates. DeVos is a longtime backer of charter schools and vouchers for private and religious schools. She and her husband have also invested in a student debt collection agency that does business with the Education Department. On Thursday, parents and teachers flooded the Senate phone system calling lawmakers to demand they oppose her confirmation. Around 1 p.m., Nevada Republican Senator Dean Heller tweeted, “We are experiencing heavy call volumes in all our offices. Staff is answering as many as possible. Please continue calling to get through.” This week, two Republican lawmakers—Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski—announced plans to vote against DeVos, leaving Senate Republicans one vote short of confirming her. If the Senate vote is 50-50, Vice President Mike Pence would then cast the deciding vote—an event that has never happened to any other presidential nominee in history. If only one more Republican senator decides to vote against her, DeVos’s confirmation will be rejected. This means the full Senate will not move forward with Jeff Sessions’s attorney general confirmation vote, because if he is confirmed, he will no longer be a senator, which would mean one less vote for DeVos.
Counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway is facing widespread criticism after she attempted to justify President Trump’s executive order banning people from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the U.S. by inventing a terrorist attack that never happened. This is Conway speaking to MSNBC’s Chris Matthews.
Kellyanne Conway: “I bet it’s brand-new information to people that President Obama had a six-month ban on the Iraqi refugee program after two Iraqis came here to this country, were radicalized, and they were the masterminds behind the Bowling Green massacre. Most people don’t know that, because it didn’t get covered.”
The Washington Post reports there was no terrorist attack carried out in Bowling Green, Kentucky, by Iraqis or anyone else. There were two Iraqi men living in Bowling Green who were arrested in 2011 on charges of having attempted to send money and weapons to al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Washington Post also reports the Obama administration never imposed a ban on Iraqi resettlement, contrary to Conway’s claims. The Obama administration did implement a more extensive screening procedure for Iraqi refugees after the 2011 arrests.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer falsely claimed Thursday that Iran attacked a U.S. naval vessel—which, if it were true, would constitute an act of war. In fact, Spicer was referring to a Houthi rebel attack against a Saudi ship off the coast of Yemen on Monday. This is Sean Spicer.
Press Secretary Sean Spicer: “I think General Flynn was really clear yesterday that Iran has violated the joint resolution, that Iran’s additional hostile actions that it took against our Navy vessel are ones that we are very clear are not going to sit by and take.”
This false claim comes after National Security Adviser Michael Flynn condemned Iran’s recent ballistic missile test launch and said the U.S. was putting Iran “on notice.” This morning, President Trump tweeted, “Iran is playing with fire–they don’t appreciate how 'kind' President Obama was to them. Not me!” Many experts, as well as Iran’s Foreign Ministry, say the missile test does not violate the terms of a 2015 U.N. Security Council resolution. The test also does not violate the terms of the landmark 2015 nuclear deal between Iran, the U.S. and other nations. The White House is expected to impose additional sanctions against Iranian individuals and entities over the missile test.
Reuters reports the U.S. Treasury Department has eased sanctions against Russian intelligence agency FSB. The sanctions were imposed by President Obama over the alleged Russian hacking of the U.S. election in order to help Donald Trump win.
Defense Secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis is visiting South Korea and Japan today. Speaking in Seoul, he issued a warning to North Korea.
Defense Secretary James Mattis: “Any attack on the United States or on our allies will be defeated, and any use of nuclear weapons would be met with a response that would be effective and overwhelming.”
The Trump administration issued an unexpected statement Thursday to the Israeli government, following the announcement that Israel plans to build the first entirely new Jewish-only settlement in the occupied West Bank in 20 years. In response, the White House said, “While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal.” Trump’s pick for U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, is a longtime supporter of Israel’s settlements and raised millions of dollars to support them.
Arizona Senator John McCain called Australian Ambassador Joe Hockey Thursday in efforts to smooth over relations with Australia after President Trump insulted Australia’s prime minister and abruptly ended the phone call over the weekend. On Saturday, Trump complained to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull about the terms of a refugee deal between the U.S. and Australia and told Turnbull that their conversation was the “worst call by far” that he’d had with a foreign leader that day. Under the Obama administration, the United States had pledged to accept and resettle 1,250 refugees from a detention center in Australia.
President Trump has selected Gina Haspel to be the new deputy director of the CIA. The Intercept reports Gina Haspel was directly involved in the CIA’s torture program under the George W. Bush administration. She was responsible for running a secret CIA black site in Thailand where prisoners were waterboarded and tortured. The Intercept also reports Haspel played a role in the 2005 destruction of two interrogation videotapes that depicted the torture of prisoners.
President Trump spoke at a National Prayer Breakfast Thursday, at which he vowed to “destroy” the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 provision that prohibits tax-exempt religious or charitable organizations from “directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” The provision does not prohibit political activity by churches or religious organizations overall, but it does place some limits on the role of religious institutions in U.S. elections. White evangelical Protestants have long pushed for the amendment to be repealed. This is President Trump.
President Donald Trump: “Among those freedoms is the right to worship according to our own beliefs. That is why I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution. I will do that, remember.”
In New York City, more than 1,000 Yemeni-American-owned bodegas went on strike Thursday to protest President Trump’s executive order banning people from Yemen and six other majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States. Thousands of these bodega owners and workers, as well as their family members, rallied at Borough Hall Thursday evening.
Abdul Rahman: “So I do work in a grocery store, and we closed to come out here. It is our duty to come, so Donald Trump can see what we are about. This is wrong what he’s doing. It’s wrong. It’s wrong.”
After widespread protests, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has stepped down from Trump’s Economic Advisory Council. Over the last week, thousands of people deleted the Uber app from their phones, after the company turned off surge pricing at JFK airport Saturday in a move many saw as an attempt to break the New York Taxi Workers Alliance strike on picking up travelers from JFK airport in solidarity with the massive protests that had erupted there over Trump’s immigration ban. On Trump’s Inauguration Day, activists chained themselves to each other to shut down the headquarters of Uber in San Francisco.
And magazines The New Yorker and Vanity Fair have pulled out of White House Correspondents’ Dinner parties, amid President Trump’s proclaimed “war with the media.” The New Yorker has canceled its annual kickoff party, while Vanity Fair has said it will not co-sponsor the dinner’s exclusive after-party. Comedian Samantha Bee has announced she’ll hold an alternative event the same night as the April dinner. In 2011, President Trump, then a reality TV star who had already begun floating the idea of running for president, was eviscerated by comedian Seth Meyers during the Correspondents’ Dinner.
Seth Meyers: “And then, of course, there’s Donald Trump. Donald Trump has been saying that he will run for president as a Republican—which is surprising, since I just assumed he was running as a joke. Donald Trump often appears on Fox, which is ironic, because a fox often appears on Donald Trump’s head. Donald Trump said recently he has a great relationship with the blacks, though unless the Blacks are a family of white people, I bet he’s mistaken.”
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