TRNS News Notes is brought to you by Victoria Jones. Victoria Jones is the Chief White House correspondent and global analyst of the Washington DC based Talk Radio News Service, where her insight and analysis are made available to over 400 news talk radio stations around the country and internationally.

In the News

State of the Union

  • Obama: “Turn the Page”
  • Emboldened Obama, but action?
  • GOP: Congress is “back to work”
  • Pols talking I and II
  • Paris mayor: We’ll sue Fox! “No-go zones”
  • Iran sanctions clash looms
  • U.S. officials in Havana for talks today
  • Yemen crisis deepens
  • Biden’s home: Surveillance cameras failed
  • SCOTUS: Religious prison beard ban lifted
State of the Union: “Turn the Page”

• A combative President Obama claimed credit on Tuesday for an improving economy and defiantly told his Republican adversaries in Congress to “turn the page” by supporting an expensive domestic agenda aimed at improving the fortunes of the middle class (NYT, me)

• “We have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on Earth,” Obama said. “Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?”

• He called on Congress to make community college free for most students, enhance tax credits for education and child care, and impose new taxes and fees on high-income earners and large financial institutions. He called for aggressive action to fight climate change. He repeated his support for new regs on internet service

• Confident and at times cocky, the president vowed to continue a foreign policy that combines “military power with strong diplomacy,” and he called on Congress to lift the trade embargo on Cuba and pass legislation authorizing the fight against ISIS

• Obama made no mention of the major losses that his party endured in the midterms. He promised that any attempt to roll back his health care law, an overhaul of regulations on Wall Street or his executive actions on immigration would face vetoes. On Keystone, “Let’s set out sights higher than a single oil pipeline,” he said to Republicans

• “The verdict is clear,” Obama said. “Middle-class economics works. Expanding opportunity works. And these policies will continue to work, as long as politics don’t get in the way.”

• Areas of potential collaboration with Republicans: a business tax overhaul, the granting of authority to strike trade deals and a major initiative to repair crumbling roads and bridges

• Obama said a better politics would allow Republicans and Democrats to come together on reforming the criminal justice system in the wake of shootings in Ferguson MO and Staten Island NY. He said he recognized the criticism of his decade-old claim that there’s not a “black America or a white America, but a United States of America.”

• Obama’s plans are to be financed in large part by $320 billion in tax increases over the next decade on higher income earners as well as a fee on large financial institutions. The tax plan would raise the top capital gains tax rate to 28%, from 23.8%

• It would also remove what amounts to a tax break for wealthy people who can afford to hold onto their investments until death. Obama also said he wanted to assess a new fee on the largest financial institutions – those with assets of $50 billion or more – based on the amount of risk they took on

• Obama said the approach of walling off the U.S from Cuba has been ineffective and that it was time to try a new strategy. He argued that the U.S. had an opportunity to strike a nuke deal with Iran, but made it clear he opposed legislation to impose new sanctions before those talks had played out

• And after several high-profile cyberattacks, Obama called for legislation to bolster protections against such computer-enabled assaults. “No foreign nation, no hacker should be able to shut down our networks, steal out trade secrets or invade the privacy or American families, especially our kids,” he said


• Vid: Obama’s best line of the night: “No more campaigns to run”

Emboldened Obama: But Action?

With economic indicators on the rise and his own poll numbers rebounding slightly, President Obama made no reference at all to losses in the midterms, offered no concessions about his own leadership and proposed no compromises to accommodate the political reality (NYT, WaPo, me)

• Instead, he asked congressional Republicans who have resisted new taxes at every turn over the last six years to raise taxes on the wealthy. He asked lawmakers who won their seats on promises of reining in govt to reopen the spending spigot to provide free community college, child care and paid parental leave

• Every president throws out ideas in a SOTU knowing they will not succeed, at least not right away – to frame the debate, lay down an opening bid, draw a line against opponents or set the stage for future action. But rarely has the disconnect between a president and Congress seemed as wide as it is now

• Unlike President Bill Clinton, who moved to co-opt Republican issues like crime and welfare on his own terms when the other party captured Congress, Obama tacked left even as Capitol Hill tacked right. Rather than declare the end of big govt, he responded with a defense of an activist Washington

What About the Future?

• Even without congressional support, promoting his ideas allows Obama to force other political actors to respond. And he can point to past efforts  that didn’t succeed in Congress but produced progress on other levels. Minimum wage: no federal success, but a number of states have responded and raised it on their own

• Michael Waldman, a former Clinton speechwriter, said, “We don’t know what the big debates and policy fights of the post-Obama era will be. He is putting in his 2 cents. Perhaps Obama’s ideas won’t get enacted. But the Republican leadership’s ideas won’t get enacted either.”

• Obama rebuffed “pundits” and “cynics” who called him “misguided, naive” to have promised to bridge Washington’s divide. “It’s amazing what you can bounce back from when you have to,” he said, quoting a young mother. For a moment he sounded as if he meant himself


GOP Response: Congress is “Back to Work”

• While delivering the SOTU response can be a gateway for gaffes, freshman Sen Joni Ernst (R-IA) appeared to do little harm. “We heard the message you sent in November – loud and clear. And now we’re getting to work to change the direction Washington has been taking our country,” she said in a nearly 10-minute speech (Politico, me)

• Sticking tightly to her prepared remarks, Ernst gave the rebuttal in a warm, yet wooden and rehearsed tone. And her message was a clear attempt to shift the focus away from the old “stale mindset” of gridlocked Washington, which Ernst said “gave us political talking points, not serious solutions.”

• “The new Republican Congress also understands how difficult these past six years have been,” Ernst said. “For many of us, the sting of the economy and the frustration with Washington’s dysfunction weren’t things we had to read about. We felt them every day.”

• Ernst pressured Obama on Keystone, while pledging that Congress will “repeal and replace” Obamacare. The Iraq war veteran called for a comprehensive plan to defeat terrorists from al Qaeda and ISIS while promising responses to the recent bout of cyberattacks and to Iran’s nuclear ambitions

• Ernst used her televised address to share tidbits of her childhood in southwestern Iowa, where she worked the morning biscuit line at Hardee’s to save money for college and plowed fields on her family farm. She didn’t reprise her infamous campaign ad by boasting about her background of castrating hogs


• Vid: State of The Union: Sen Joni Ernst’s (R-IA) Republican response (full) (NYT)

• Pols Talking I

• House Speaker Boehner (R-OH) in statement: “While veto threats and unserious proposals may make for good political theater, they will not distract this new American Congress from our focus on the people’s priorities.” (WaPo, Politico, NYT, Hill, Fox, CNN, me)

• Sen Orrin Hatch (R-UT) in statement: “Rather than outlining pro-growth policies that would provide more opportunity for hard-working families and job creators that have been left behind in the Obama economy, the president slipped back into the role of Campaigner-in-Chief.”

• Former SecState Hillary Clinton, Twitter: “@BarackObama #SOTU pointed way to an economy that works for all. Now we need to step up & deliver for the middle class. #FairShot #FairShare.”

• Sen Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Twitter: “Great speech, Mr President. Looking forward to working with the @WhiteHouse to build an economy that works for all our families.”

• 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Facebook: “More intent on winning elections than on winning progress, he ignores the fact that the country has elected a Congress that favors smaller govt and lower taxes. Rather than bridging the gap between the parties, he makes ‘bridge to nowhere’ proposals. Disappointing. A missed opportunity to lead.”



Pols Talking II

• Former Sen James Webb (D-VA), Twitter: “Not a fan of the ‘middle class’ lingo. Fighting for hard working Americans and small business isn’t about class. #webb2016 #economicfairness”

• Sen John McCain (R-AZ), Twitter: “On critical nat’l security issues, Pres Obama’s speech was unfortunate demonstration of how strategically listless Admin now is.”

• Rep Peter DeFazio (D-OR): “The one bad note was another job-killing, job-exporting free trade agreement identical to the ones pushed by

[former presidents Bill] Clinton [and George W.] Bush.”

• Former Gov Jeb Bush (R-FL), Facebook: “It’s unfortunate President Obama wants to use the tax code to divide us – instead of proposing reforms to create economic opportunity for every American. We can do better.”

• Aaaaand – reprehensibly – Rep Steve King (R-IA), Twitter: “#Obama perverts ‘prosecutorial discretion’ by inviting a deportable to sit in place of honor at #SOTU w/1st Lady. I should sit with Alito.” King likely was referring to “Dreamer” Ana Zamora, a 20-year-old student from Dallas, who sat with Michelle Obama…

• Vine: Sen Ted Cruz (R-TX) had a bad night. The usually verbose Cruz gave his own response in an echoing Capitol hallway, speaking into what seemed to be a cellphone video camera, lacking light. “It’s time to move beyond President Obama.” A minute into the speech, Cruz winced, “Eh, let me start again.” A YouTube video has been taken down… (NYT, me)

Paris Mayor: We’ll Sue Fox News! “No-Go Zones”

• Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, isn’t impressed by Fox News’ groveling apologies for the false claims made on its channel that “they’re places where the govts, like France, Britain, Sweden, Germany – they don’t exercise any sovereignty so you basically have zones where sharia courts are set up, where Muslim density is very dense, where police don’t go in.”

• That was so-called terrorism expert Steve Emerson – blanket apology from him. Hidalgo said on CNN Tuesday: “When we’re insulted, and when we’ve had an image, then I think we’ll have to sue. I think we’ll have to go to court, in order to have these words removed.” (LAT, Telegraph, NYT, Hill, me)

• In response to Hidalgo’s threat, Michael Clemente, Fox News’s executive VP said: “We empathize with the citizens of France as they go through a healing process and return to everyday life. However, we find the mayor’s comments regarding a lawsuit misplaced.”

• Anthony Fargo, director of the Center for International Media Law and Policy Studies, said that in the U.S. the law doesn’t recognize the rights of cities, states and governmental bodies to due for defamation – so Paris could be out of luck

• Pity. Fox News’s Sean Hannity said: “They have no-go zones. If you’re non-Muslim, you’re not allowed. Not police, not even fire dept if there’s a fire. Sharia courts have been allowed to be established. Prayer rugs in just about every hotel.” As PM David Cameron would say, “When I heard this, frankly, I choked on my porridge and I thought it must be April Fool’s Day.”


• The WH Tuesday issued veto threats involving two bills, a Republican bill than would ban abortions after 20 weeks and the Natural Gas Pipeline Permitting Reform Act, which would require approval or denial of natural-gas pipeline applications within 12 months (NJ)


Iran Sanctions Clash Looms

• A bipartisan group of senators is pushing a new round of Iran sanctions despite President Obama’s warning that they would scuttle delicate talks underway to prevent Tehran from being able to develop a nuclear weapon. “Hold your fire,” Obama told Congress during his Friday joint presser with British PM David Cameron (AP, me)

• Senate Foreign Relations Committee holds a hearing today on sanctions. A bill drafted by Sen Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Sen Bob Menendez (D-NJ) wouldn’t impose any new sanctions during the remaining timeline for negotiations. A draft says that if there’s no deal by 6 July, the sanctions that were eased during negotiations would be reinstated – then  stepped up every month

• Nuclear talks have been extended until July, with the goal of reaching a framework by the end of March. Both Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani face stiff opposition to negotiations from conservatives in their respective homelands

• Obama said that if there’s new sanctions legislation, Iran could walk away and say the “U.S. was operating in bad faith and blew up the deal.” And he said the willingness of America’s international partners to enforce existing sanctions against Iran would wane

• Kirk and Menendez are working hard to muster the 67 votes they’d need in the Senate to override Obama’s veto. A vote could occur as early as next month. The Senate Foreign Committee also is working on legislation that would give Congress a right to vote up or down on any deal the admin reaches with Tehran


• As an amendment to the bill to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, the Senate will vote as early as today on whether it believes in the science behind climate change. Democrats can’t wait to put Republicans on the spot on their beliefs ahead of 2016 (Politico, me)


U.S. Officials in Havana for Talks Today

• The U.S. will urge Cuba to lift travel restrictions on U.S. diplomats and agree to establish U.S. and Cuban embassies in historic talks in Havana starting today aimed at restoring relations, a senior State Dept official said Monday. “It’s hard to know exactly what will come out of this first conversation,” the official said. “I am not oblivious to the weight of history.”

• The Obama admin’s agenda includes lifting restrictions on diplomatic movement in both countries, unimpeded shipments of diplomatic goods and free access to the U.S. Embassy by Cuban citizens. Also assurances that security forces that are ubiquitous around the current diplomatic mission will be decreased, and that visiting Cubans won’t be harassed

• President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro on 17 Dec announced plans to restore relations between the Cold War foes, with a view to ending the 54-year-old U.S. economic embargo against the communist-led island. In initial moves, Cuba released 53 political prisoners and the U.S. said it would ease some trade and investment restrictions

• Washington has said it will press Cuba to release more political prisoners and end short-term detentions. The first day of talks will focus on migration issues, including cases of Americans who have fled to Cuba, which has regularly returned U.S. fugitives since 2008, but U.S. authorities say dozens remain (Reuters, WaPo, TRNS, me)

• A U.S. congressional delegation arrived in Cuba on Saturday to get a sense of what the “normalization” of relations would look like. Congressional approval is needed to fully lift the U.S. embargo on Cuba. The State Dept official said the U.S. would raise concerns over Cuba’s human rights record during the talks

Yemen Crisis Deepens

• The leader of Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen has said that the country is at a critical and defining moment. In a televised address, Abdel Malek al-Houthi accused President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and other leaders of putting their interests ahead of the Yemeni people (BBC, WaPo, me)

• Earlier, Houthi rebels – believed to be backed by Iran – shelled the president’s home in Sanaa and seized control of the presidential palace. The UN Security Council condemned the attack and voiced support for Hadi. Tuesday’s assault brought Hadi’s govt to the brink of collapse

 A govt collapse could send the country into full-scale civil war, threatening a Syria-like disintegration that many fear could be exploited by radical groups like al Qaeda. Yemen is home to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the radical group’s most powerful branch. The Houthis have battled militants from AQAP, who are Sunni Muslims

• Houthi militias, who are seeking greater autonomy for their home province, overran the capital Sanaa in September after moving out of their northern stronghold. The Houthis, who adhere to a branch of Shia Islam known as Zaidism, have staged periodic uprisings since 2004 in an attempt to gain greater autonomy

• Hadi’s weakened position is likely to spell trouble for Washington, which has relied heavily on the former general for cooperation in carrying out drone strikes that have targeted AQAP. The Houthis have been vocal critics of the U.S. govt, but not immediately clear if they’d force the Yemeni president to suspend the strikes since they also consider al Qaeda an enemy


Surveillance Cameras Failed: Biden’s Home

• Surveillance cameras at VP Joe Biden’s private Delaware residence failed to capture images of the gunman who fired shots near the house on Saturday night, leaving authorities with no leads or suspects, according to govt officials with knowledge of the home’s security (WaPo, me)

• The cameras were aimed at areas directly adjacent to the house but not at the main road, where agents and neighbors heard a car speed away after approx four to six shots were fired, the officials said – anonymous

• The security system at the house has had a long track record of problems and false alarms. It was so unreliable at times last year, occasionally giving incorrect data, that the Secret Service turned it off for several months – warning agents at the time that cameras and alarms would be shut down indefinitely

• The system was quickly repaired in Nov, after WaPo first inquired about the problems. Now, in the wake of the Saturday shooting, the Secret Service is proposing adding more cameras to cover a broader area to include the road. The incident at Biden’s home follows a string of security lapses, including the notorious fence jumper last year

• The Saturday night incident follows years of internal concerns in the agency about the difficulties of safeguarding the Biden family home, where the VP often prefers to stay. The house sits in a wooded area near a small lake, set back down a long, narrow driveway from a main road


SCOTUS: Prison Beard Ban Violates Religious Rights

• The Supreme Court on Tuesday unanimously ruled that Arkansas corrections officials had violated the religious liberty rights of Muslim inmates by forbidding them to grow beards. The case concerned Gregory Holt, who is serving a life sentence. Holt sought to grow a half-inch beard. More than 40 prison systems allow such beards (WaPo, NYT, ThinkProgress, me)

• Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the court, said Arkansas officials offered no evidence that a short beard presented security risks or served as a hiding place for contraband such as “anything from razor blades to drugs to homemade darts,” as one official argued

• “The same is true of an inmate’s clothing and shoes” and hair on the head, Alito wrote. “Nevertheless, the department does not require inmates to go about bald, barefoot or naked.” . Arkansas only allows beards for dermatological conditions – one-quarter inch


• Lower courts had ruled that deference to prison officials required them to uphold Arkansas’ restrictions, even though a magistrate said it was “preposterous” to believe that contraband could be hidden in a beard

• But Alito wrote that deference requires evidence of the policy’s importance. The federal law said a substantial limit on a prisoner’s exercise of religion can be justified only if it is the least restrictive means to further a compelling govt interest

• Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined Alito’s opinion, and also penned a two sentence concurring opinion: “Unlike the exemption this Court approved in Burwell v Hobby Lobby Stores Inc, accommodating petitioner’s religious belief in this case would not detrimentally affect others who do not share petitioner’s belief. On that understanding, I join the Court’s opinion.”

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Victoria Jones – Editor

Thank you to all the TRNS staff for contributing to this report

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