September 5, 2013

An Arkansas state senator told attendees at a banquet that his job is to serve God, and not his constituents. "There's only one vote that matters, and that's when I stand before the Lord at the judgment seat," said Arkansas state Sen. Jason Rapert. Samantha Rollins

7:25 a.m. ET
Riccardo Savi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit

America Rising, a conservative campaign research group that questions the global and scientific consensus on climate change, has filed at least 20 Freedom of Information Act requests focused on emails from Environmental Protection Agency employees days after the employees were critical of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, President Trump, or Pruitt's direction of the agency, The New York Times reports. Now the EPA has hired a close affiliate of America Rising, Definers Public Affairs, to perform "media monitoring" for the agency, tracking when the EPA is mentioned in the news or on social media.

Allan Blutstein, who works for both America Rising and Definers, told The New York Times he filed the FOIA requests as "more of a fishing expedition" to see if he could find Pruitt or Trump critics inside the EPA who violated agency rules or used the EPA's email system inappropriately. An EPA spokesman said the $120,000 Definers contract is just for media clipping services, not employee surveillance. It's not clear what role Pruitt, who is more secretive and has a much larger security detail than his predecessors, played in the hiring. William K. Reilly, the EPA administrator under George H.W. Bush, said Pruitt is demoralizing his workforce: "This shows complete insensitivity, complete tone-deafness, or something worse."

EPA employees, especially those targeted by the FOIA requests, are a little on edge. "This is a witch hunt against EPA employees who are only trying to protect human health and the environment," Gary Morton, an EPA employee in Philadelphia, tells the Times. "What they are doing is trying to intimidate and bully us into silence." Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a critic of Pruitt, said of all the "nefarious activities from Trump," having the EPA hire "a fossil fuel front group that specializes in political hits and is doing FOIA investigations of your agency's own employees is a new low." You can read more at The New York Times. Peter Weber

7:23 a.m. ET

President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke on the phone Sunday, marking the second time in a week that the leaders have reached out to exchange praise, AFP reports. The weekend call involved the Kremlin thanking the CIA for intelligence that prevented an Islamic State terrorist attack at the Kazan Cathedral, one of the most famous buildings in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

"No Russian lives were lost and the terrorist attackers were caught and are now incarcerated," the White House wrote. "President Trump appreciated the call and told President Putin that he and the entire United States intelligence community were pleased to have helped save so many lives."

Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, also commented publicly: "There are certain sporadic contacts between our security services but in this particular instance this [was] rather useful information that helped save a lot of lives," he said.

Last week, Trump reached out to Putin to thank him for praising America's "strong economic performance," and briefly discussed tensions with North Korea, Politico reports. Jeva Lange

5:53 a.m. ET
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

As Americans get to know first lady Melania Trump, their opinion of her has improved, according to a new Gallup poll. In early January, the percentage of people who viewed Trump favorably and unfavorably was tied at 37 percent; as of early December, a 54 percent majority of Americans view her favorably while 33 percent view her unfavorably and 13 percent have no opinion. President Trump's approval rating has notched up 1 point in that same time period, to 41 percent now, but so has his unfavorable number, 56 percent.

The fact that more people like Melania Trump than President Trump "is consistent with Gallup's findings that recent first ladies are, on average, more popular than their husbands," Gallup says, though "Hillary Clinton averaged 1 point lower favorability than Bill Clinton over the course of his presidency." Still, like her husband, Melania Trump's popularity lags behind her predecessors at this point in her first year as first lady — Michelle Obama had a 61 percent favorable rating, Laura Bush's was 77 percent, and Hillary Clinton's was 58 percent.

Fewer women than men view Melania Trump favorably, 51 percent versus 57 percent, and the same is true of President Trump, with 33 percent of women and 50 percent of men viewing him favorably. Gallup conducted its poll Dec. 4-11 among 1,049 U.S. adults; it has a margin of sampling error of ±4 percentage points. Peter Weber

5:16 a.m. ET
Claudio Reyes/AFP/Getty Images

On Sunday, Chileans voted to give conservative former President Sebastian Piñera a new four-year term, replacing President Michelle Bachelet, who also preceded Piñera's first term (2010-2014). Piñera, a 68-year-old billionaire, beat challenger Alejandro Guillier, a center-left journalist, by a wider-than-expected 9 percentage points. Guillier congratulated Piñera and promised to lead a "constructive opposition" to Piñera's agenda of dismantling Bachelet's center-left reforms. "Chile needs dialogue and collaboration more than confrontation," Piñera said Sunday night.

After underperforming in the first round of voting in November, Piñera veered to the right politically, promising to derail a same-sex marriage bill Bachelet's government introduced in August and improve the living conditions of military officers jailed for crimes against humanity, as well as lower business taxes. His party did not win a majority in Congress, though, complicating his agenda.

In 2018, Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, and Paraguay will all elect new presidents. "Chile is helping kick off a year of important elections throughout the region, and many of the divides seen there will be repeated in their own way in the races to come," Shannon K. O'Neil, a Latin America expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, tells The New York Times. "Today's election pits not just the left versus right for the presidency, but also reflects a lighter version of the insider-outsider drama that is developing in Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil." Peter Weber

4:26 a.m. ET

Despite new public tensions between the White House and Special Counsel Robert Mueller's office, and increasingly strident criticism from conservative pundits of Mueller's Trump-Russia investigation, President Trump told reporters Sunday night that he is not planning to fire Mueller. "No, I'm not," he said when asked outside the White House. He added that how the investigation is being conducted is "not looking good," though, saying "my people were very upset to see" emails from his presidential transition team handed over to Mueller and that there was "no collusion" between his campaign and Russia.

Earlier Sunday, several White House officials said there has been no discussion of firing Mueller in the White House. "As the White House has repeatedly and emphatically said for months, there is no consideration about firing or replacing the special counsel with whom the White House has fully cooperated in order to permit a fully vetted yet prompt conclusion," Trump lawyer Ty Cobb, who's overseeing the Russia investigations response, said in a statement.

"Trump has watched Fox News Channel segments attacking Mueller's investigation, advisers said, including those by Jeanine Pirro," The Washington Post reports, but according to Trump friends and associates, the president blames Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein more for the investigation than Mueller. Peter Weber

3:36 a.m. ET
Alex Wong/Getty Images

On Friday, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) announced that he will vote for the final $1.47 billion Republican tax bill being rushed through Congress, despite his lone GOP no vote when it passed in the Senate. His original concern was the $1 trillion or more the bill will add to the federal deficit — the Congressional Budget Office on Friday put the final deficit hole at $1.455 trillion over 10 years — but Corker said Friday the imperfections are worth helping U.S. businesses. On Friday night, the International Business Times found a newly added provision that would open big tax breaks to real estate developers like President Trump, Jared Kushner, and Corker.

On Saturday, Corker insisted he had not known about the "Corker kickback" before he switched his vote. On Sunday, he asked Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) for an explanation. "The suggestion was that it was airdropped into the conference without prior consideration by either the House or the Senate," Corker said. "Because this issue has raised concerns, I would ask that you provide an explanation of the evolution of this provision and how it made it into conference report. I think that because of many sensitivities, clarity on this issue is very important."

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) provided something of an explanation on ABC's This Week, telling host George Stephanopoulos the measure was added in during "a very intense process" where "the Democrats refused to participate, and what we've tried to do is cobble together the votes we needed to get this bill passed."

It's possible specifically helping real estate LLCs was incidental, as the new provision "combined a capital-investment approach that the House favored with the Senate's tax-cut mechanism," Bloomberg reports. But while "the new law will include lots of what you might call unintended consequences," Axios says, noting how it might increase moving U.S. factories overseas, "often they were intended by the hidden hands that put them there." Peter Weber

1:37 a.m. ET

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission voted along party lines to scrap net neutrality rules, allowing broadband internet providers to treat traffic to websites differently (choke certain sites, speed up others), and FCC Chairman Ajit Pai released a self-consciously geeky video through The Daily Caller in which he claimed to "restore internet freedom" by, among other things, dancing with a light saber. Mark Hamill, who knows some stuff about light sabers, was not amused, and said so.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) jumped in, trying to explain Star Wars to Luke Skywalker with a condescending tweet that presupposes people hate Google and Netflix but love Comcast and Time Warner/Spectrum.

And, well, yeah.

"Smarm-splaining" — the neologisms are strong with this one (even if the spelling isn't). You can decide who won that spat — the iconic actor with a hit movie in theaters or the unpopular senator — and read more about what net neutrality (or lack thereof) actually means for you from The Week's Jeff Spross. Peter Weber

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