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North Carolina U.S. Senator Richard Burr steps down from chairmanship after FBI searches phone

Burr is under investigation for stock trades made before markets tanked due to coronavirus crisis

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

WASHINGTON (CFP) — The political and legal jeopardy facing U.S. Senator Richard Burr intensified Thursday, after the FBI executed a search warrant for his phone as part of an investigation into stock sales he made before the coronavirus crisis caused a market plunge.

Just hours after the Los Angeles Times broke the news about the search warrant, the North Carolina Republican temporarily stepped aside as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said Burr would relinquish the chairmanship “during the pendency of the investigation.”

“We agreed that this decision would be in the best interests of the committee,” McConnell said in a statement.

U.S. Senator Richard Burr, R-North Carolina

In brief remarks to a reporter Thursday, Burr, who has previously denied any wrongdoing in the stock sales, said he had been cooperating with the investigation, which he said should be allowed “to play out.”

Burr said he decided to step down from his chairmanship because the investigation “is a distraction to the hard work of the committee, and the members and I think that the security of the country is too important to have a distraction.”

Burr had been cruising toward retirement in his last term in the Senate as head of one of its most important committees before he was hit by blowback from stock sales he made in February, which are now being investigated by both the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

At issue is whether Burr used inside information he obtained as a senator to make the stock sales, which would violate federal law.

An FBI search warrant would have required a finding by a federal judge of probable cause that a crime had been committed and approval at the highest levels of the Justice Department, an indication of the seriousness of Burr’s potential legal jeopardy.

An analysis of financial disclosure reports by the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan research group, showed that on February 13, Burr sold 33 stocks worth between $628,000 and $1.7 million dollars, including stocks in hotel companies hard hit by the coronavirus. The stock market began to plunge about a week later.

Senators only have to report financial transactions within ranges on disclosure reports, so the exact amount of Burr’s stock sales is unknown.

Prior to his stock sales, Burr, as the intelligence committee chair, was receiving daily briefings from Trump administration officials about coronavirus.

ProPublica subsequently reported that Burr’s brother-in-law, Gerald Fauth, sold stock on the same day.

Members of Congress are permitted to own and trade stocks. However, trades have to be disclosed, and it is illegal for them to buy and sell stock based on insider information that isn’t available to the general public, under a law passed in 2012 that Burr voted against.

Burr has said his stock trades were based solely on publicly available information.

In addition to the stock sales themselves, Burr’s public comments during the early days of the coronavirus crisis have contributed to the firestorm he now faces.

On February 7, Burr co-wrote an opinion article for Fox News in which he said that the United States “is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus” and said public health officials were moving “swiftly and decisively” to deal with the threat.

But a week later, he began selling stock, and on February 27, he told a private meeting of North Carolina business leaders that coronavirus “is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history,” according to audio of the speech obtained by National Public Radio.

Burr also likened coronavirus to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that is believed to have killed at least 17 million people worldwide, NPR reported.

Burr, 64, was first elected in 2004. He has announced he won’t seek re-election to a fourth term in 2022.

It will be up to McConnell to pick a new chair for the intelligence panel Among the names being considered is Florida U.S. Senator Marco Rubio.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Rubio indicated he would be wiling to serve but downplayed the impact of the change, saying “whoever gets it is going to be a backup quarterback coming into the game for a few plays while the guy goes through a concussion protocol.”

Several other senators have had their stock trades come under scrutiny amid the coronavirus market plunge, including Kelley Loeffler of Georgia and Dianne Feinstein of California.

A spokesperson for Loeffler said Thursday that she has not been served with a search warrant.

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4 Southern GOP senators defy Trump on border emergency; North Carolina’s Thom Tillis makes about face to support president

Rubio, Paul, Wicker and Alexander break with Trump in voting to overturn emergency declaration

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

WASHINGTON (CFP) — With the support of four Southern Republicans and all four Southern Democrats, the U.S. Senate has voted to overturn President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency in order to find money for a barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border.

U.S. Senator Thom Tillis

But one GOP senator who had come out publicly in favor of overturning the declaration — Thom Tillis of North Carolina — reversed course and voted no, after intense lobbying from the White House and an avalanche of criticism from Trump partisans back home.

Trump has vowed to veto the resolution overturning the declaration, which passed by a 59-41 margin in the Republican-controlled Senate on March 14. The House passed it in late February by a vote of 254-182.

However, opponents of the declaration do not have enough support in either House to override Trump’s veto, which will be the first of his presidency.

The four Southern Republicans who broke the with president were Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida, Roger Wicker of Mississippi, and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.

All four Southern Democrats in the Senate also voted yes — Mark Warner and Tim Kaine of Virginia, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Doug Jones of Alabama.

Frustrated by the unwillingness of the Democrat-controlled House to vote money for the border wall, Trump declared a national emergency on February 15, which will allow him to shift $8 billion from other federal programs and use it for wall construction. Most of the money will come from appropriations for military construction and drug interdiction.

Alexander

In a floor speech before the vote, Alexander said he objected to Trump’s use of an emergency declaration to provide border wall funding after Congress failed to appropriate the money.

“The problem with this is that after a Revolutionary War against a king, our nation’s founders gave to Congress the power to approve all spending so that the president would not have too much power. This check on the executive is a crucial source of our freedom,” Alexander said.

Rubio

Rubio said he agreed with Trump that an emergency exists at the border but said he objected to shifting money out of the military construction budget to finance the border barrier.

“This would create a precedent a future president may abuse to jumpstart programs like the Green New Deal, especially given the embrace of socialism we are seeing on the political left,” he said in a statement on Twitter.

Paul and Wicker also cited constitutional considerations as the reason for their vote to overturn the declaration.

Wicker

Paul

“I stand with President Trump on the need for a border wall and stronger border security, but the Constitution clearly states that money cannot be spent unless Congress has passed a law to do so,” Paul said in a statement.

Wicker said he regretted “that we were not able to find a solution that would have averted a challenge to the balance of power as defined by the Constitution.”

“The system of checks and balances established by the Founders has preserved our democracy. It is essential that we protect this balance even when it is frustrating or inconvenient,” he said in a statement.

Tillis made a splash when he published an op-ed piece in the Washington Post on February 25 saying he would vote to overturn the emergency declaration because it would set a precedent that “future left-wing presidents will exploit to advance radical policies that will erode economic and individual freedoms.”

Tillis faced an avalanche of criticism from the president’s supporters in the Tar Heel State and was facing the likelihood of a primary challenge in his 2020 re-election race.

“A lot has changed over the last three weeks — a discussion with the vice president, a number of senior administration officials … a serious discussion about changing the National Emergencies Act in a way that will have Congress speak on emergency actions in the future,” Tillis said.

Republican senators had considered changing the National Emergencies Act to make it more difficult to declare emergencies in the future, but the plan faltered when House Democrats came out against it.

Tillis said he concluded that the crisis at the border was sufficiently serious to warrant the emergency declaration.

“We have narcotics flooding our country, poisoning our children and adults of all ages, and a lot of it has to do with the porous border and the seemingly out of control crossings,” Tillis said.

But Democrats back home pounced on Tillis for his change of heart.

“Tillis again reminded the entire state who he is — a spineless politician who won’t keep his promises and looks out for himself instead of North Carolina,” said Democratic Party spokesman Robert Howard in a statement.

Rubio and Paul do not face re-election until 2022; Wicker’s current term lasts through 2024.

Among the Democrats who voted against Trump, Jones is the only one who is running for re-election in 2020. Warner isn’t up for re-election until 2022, and Manchin and Kaine’s current terms last through 2024.

Jones is considered among the most vulnerable Democrats up for election in 2020, in a state where Trump remains popular.

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Decision ’18: Florida governor’s race ends as Andrew Gillum reconcedes

Governor-elect Ron DeSantis will ascend to governorship after just four years in politics

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

TALLAHASSEE (CFP) — The Florida governor’s race has come to an end with Democrat Andrew Gillum’s second concession to Republican Governor-elect Ron DeSantis.

Gillum — who had conceded on election night but took it back after late-reporting results showed the race tightening — took to Facebook Saturday to offer his congratulations to DeSantis and thank his supporters.

“More than 4 million of you decided that you wanted a different direction for the state of Florida,” he said. “We want you to know that we see you, we hear you, and that you voices will continue to power us.”

DeSantis responded to Gillum’s reconcession on Twitter: “This was a hard-fought campaign. Now it’s time to bring Florida together.”

After a statewide machine recount, Gillum still trailed DeSantis by 32,500 votes, which was more than the margin that would have triggered a hand recount of over-votes and under-votes that is underway in races for U.S. Senate and state agriculture commissioner.

Florida Governor-elect Ron DeSantis

When DeSantis takes the governor’s chair in January, it will mark the latest step in his swift political rise, becoming the chief executive of the nation’s third-largest state at the age of 40, after just four years in politics.

DeSantis, who has degrees from Harvard and Yale, spent six years as an attorney in the U.S. Navy. In 2012, he was elected to a U.S. House seat representing part of metro Jacksonville.

In 2016, he entered the race for U.S. Senator Marco Rubio’s seat, which he had given up to run for president. But when Rubio reversed course after losing the Republican presidential nomination to President Donald Trump, DeSantis withdrew and ran for re-election to his House seat.

After Trump became president, DeSantis became one of his strongest defenders on television — a relationship that paid huge dividends when he decided to enter the governor’s race in January,

DeSantis was considered a long shot to defeat the establishment favorite, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. Then Trump tweeted an endorsement that catapulted DeSantis to a lead in the polls over Putnam that he never relinquished.

In the primary, the DeSantis campaign aired a TV ad in which he is seen reading Trump’s autobiography to his infant son and showing his daughter how to build a wall out of blocks, an echo of Trump’s call for a physical barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Trump tweeted out congratulations after Gillum’s concession: “Against all odds, he fought & fought & fought, the result being a historic victory. He never gave up and never will. He will be a great Governor!’

However, Trump — who during the campaign had accused Gillum of being a “thief” — also tweeted out kind words about the Tallahassee mayor: “He will be a strong Democrat warrior long into the future – a force to reckon with!”

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum

Gillum, 39, became mayor of Tallahassee in 2014. Like DeSantis, he also won his party’s primary over the establishment favorite, former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, a victory which instantly made him a national political celebrity.

In his concession, Gillum indicated that he planned to remain in the political arena, although he gave no specifics. He will step down as mayor in January.

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U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis announces run for Florida governor

DeSantis’s decision follows a favorable Twitter mention from Donald Trump

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

TALLAHASSEE (CFP) — Equipped with a favorable mention from President Donald Trump on Twitter, Republican U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis has announced that he will run for Florida governor in 2018.

U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Florida

DeSantis, who is serving his third term in Congress, made the announcement January 5 on the conservative-friendly confines of the Fox & Friends morning program on the Fox News Channel.

“I’m in a position to exercise the leadership that can build on the great work that Governor Rick Scott has done to advance economic opportunity, reform education and drain the swamp in Tallahassee, which needs to be drained just like Washington,” DeSantis said.

His decision to enter the race sets up a primary battle with Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a former congressman who has the backing of much of Florida’s GOP establishment.

DeSantis, on the other hand, has the imprimatur of Trump, who offered an almost-endorsement of his candidacy December 22 on Twitter: “Congressman Ron DeSantis is a brilliant young leader, Yale and then Harvard Law, who would make a GREAT Governor of Florida. He loves our Country and is a true FIGHTER!”

Although Trump did not actually use the e-word, DeSantis is playing up the favorable mention, noting on his website that he has been “endorsed by President Trump.”

DeSantis, 39, a Harvard law graduate and former military prosecutor, was elected in 2012 from Florida’s 6th District, which stretches along the Atlantic coast from the Jacksonville suburbs to Daytona Beach. He is a member of the conservative, anti-establishment House Freedom Caucus.

In 2016, DeSantis ran for the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate but abandoned his campaign when Marco Rubio decided to seek re-election after leaving the presidential campaign.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam

The major obstacle in DeSantis’s way to becoming governor is Putnam, 43, the one-time boy wonder of Florida politics who was the elected to the legislature at age 22 and to Congress when he was just 26.

Putnam served five terms in the U.S. House, rising to chair the House Republican Conference, the No. 3 position in the House GOP hierarchy. before being elected as agriculture commissioner in 2010.

He was re-elected in 2014 with 58 percent of the vote and has already raised more $15 million for the governor’s race.

Also considering the governor’s race on the Republican side is Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who represents a suburban Tampa district in the legislature and was elected speaker in 2016.

The Democratic primary for governor is shaping up as a battle between former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and Miami Beach Mayor Phillip Levine.

Graham, who served a single term in Congress before leaving after she was redrawn into a politically unfavorable district, is the daughter of former governor and U.S. senator Bob Graham. If elected, Gillum would be Florida’s first African American governor.

Scott, the incumbent Republican, is term-limited and considering a run for the U.S. Senate against Democrat Bill Nelson.

Republican Karen Handel wins hotly contested U.S. House race in suburban Atlanta

Handel turns back challenge from Democrat Jon Ossoff in most expensive House race ever

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

ROSWELL, Georgia (CFP) — Republican Karen Handel has won a runoff for Georgia’s 6th District U.S. House seat, dashing Democratic hopes of embarrassing President Trump by snatching away a seat that has been safely in GOP hands for decades.

U.S. Rep.-Elect Karen Handel, R-Georgia

Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state and Fulton County Commission chair, won 52.1 percent in the June 20 vote, defeating Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old filmmaker and former congressional aide making his first bid for political office, who took 47.9 percent.

She will be the first Republican woman ever to represent Georgia in Congress.

Speaking to supporters at a hotel in Dunwoody, Handel said she was “extraordinarily humbled and honored at the tremendous privilege and high responsibility that you and the people across the 6th District have given to me to represent you.”

She also said Ossoff’s supporters should “know that my commitments, they extend to you.”

“We may have some different beliefs, but we are part of one community,” she said. “My pledge is to be part of the solution to focus on governing, to put my experience to work to help solve the very serious issues we’re facing in this country.”

Handel also thanked Trump, who tweeted on her behalf throughout the race, and Vice President Mike Pence, who traveled to Georgia to campaign with her as national Republicans scrambled to avoid what would have been an embarrassing defeat.

Jon Ossoff, D, Georgia 6th District candidate

Ossoff, speaking to his supporters at a hotel in Sandy Springs hotel after the race had been called for Handel, saluted his volunteers, “more than 12,000 of you who, as darkness has crept across this planet, have provided a beacon of hope for people here in Georgia, for people across the country and for people around the world.”

“At a time when politics have been dominated by fear and hatred and scapegoating and division, this community stood up … and showed the world that in places where nobody thought it was even possible to fight, we could fight. We showed them what courage and kindness and humility are capable of,” he said.

Handel’s win, along with a win by Republican Ralph Norman in the South Carolina 5th District special election on the same night, means Republicans have successfully defended all four of the House seats that became vacant when their occupants were appointed to positions in the Trump administration. The other elections were in Kansas and Montana.

However, in three of those four races, the Republican winners polled substantially worse than did Trump in November. The only exception was Handel, who ran 4 points ahead of Trump.

Ossoff had come in first in the April primary but fell short of the majority needed to win outright. Handel, who edged out a flock of Republican candidates to make the runoff, was able to consolidate GOP support and win the runoff, despite being outspent by 4-to-1 by Ossoff, who tapped anti-Trump sentiment to raise more than $23 million.

In all, total spending by candidates and outside groups in the 6th District race topped $50 million, making it the most expensive House race in U.S. history. But despite all that spending, Ossoff’s vote share was less than a point higher than what Hillary Clinton pulled down in the district in November.

The 6th District arcs across Atlanta’s northern suburbs, taking in parts of Cobb, Fulton and DeKalb counties. Since its present configuration was drawn after the 1990 census, the seat has been held by Newt Gingrich, who went on to become speaker of the House; Johnny Isakson, who went on to the U.S. Senate; and Tom Price, who gave it up when Trump picked him to head the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

While Price had won the seat easily in 2016, Trump only carried it by a scant 1.5 percent, on his way to becoming the first Republican to lose Cobb County since 1976. Trump also lost the March 2016 Republican primary in the district to U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.

For Handel, 55, winning the 6th District seat revives her once-promising political career, which was battered by back-to-back losses to Governor Nathan Deal in a GOP runoff in 2010 and a Republican primary for the U.S. Senate in 2014.

She served as secretary of state from 2007 to 2011 and as chair of the Fulton County Commission from 2003 to 2006.

In her victory speech, Handel thanked House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana for his advice during her campaign, and she asked her supporters to “lift up” Scalise and three others wounded June 14 while practicing for a charity baseball game by a shooter with apparent political motives.

“We need to also lift up this nation so that we can find a more civil way to deal with our disagreements because in these United States of America, no one should ever feel their life threatened over their political beliefs,” she said.

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