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

  • Obama: Dim hopes for two-state solution
  • Israel denies spying on U.S.
  • Alpine jet crash: Searches resume
  • IG: DHS official meddled in visa cases
  • Pelosi defends bipartisan Medicare deal
  • Three House GOP budget votes today
  • Obama to slow Afghan withdrawal
  • WH florist exit: Mystery & drama
Obama: Dim Hopes for Two-State Solution
• President Obama said Tuesday that the U.S. is weighing whether to back Palestinian efforts to seek UN recognition for an independent state and that recent remarks by PM Benjamin Netanyahu dim hopes for a negotiated two-state solution (AP, me)

• “Netanyahu, in the election run-up, stated that a Palestinian state would not occur while he was prime minister,” Obama said at a presser with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. “And I took him
[Netanyahu] at his word that that’s what he meant.”

• “Afterwards, he pointed out that he didn’t say ‘never,’ but that there would be a series of conditions in which a Palestinian state could potentially be created,” Obama said. “But, of course, the conditions were such that they would be impossible to meet any time soon.”

• Obama said he’s evaluating U.S. policy on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. But he said that in light of Netanyahu’s comments, the “possibility seems very dim” for the Israelis and the Palestinians to agree to live side-by-side in peace and security

• Obama said he has a “businesslike relationship” with Netanyahu. “This can’t be reduced to a matter of somehow let’s all, you know, hold hands and sing Kumbaya,” Obama said. “This is a matter of figuring out how do we get through a real knotty policy difference that has great consequences for both countries and for the region.”

• A 19 Feb report by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency says: “The Agency remains concerned about the possible existence in Iran of undisclosed nuclear related activities involving military related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.” (WaPo)
Israel Denies Spying on U.S.
• Israel denied a WSJ report that it has been spying on the U.S. and sharing info from confidential U.S. briefings with members of Congress to build a case against making a nuclear deal with Iran, which has threatened to destroy Israel (WSJ, AP, Hill, TRNS, me)

• “Israel does not spy on the United States, period, exclamation mark,” Yuval Steinitz, minister for intelligence and strategic affairs, told Israel Radio Tuesday. “Whoever published these false allegations possibly wanted to damage the excellent intelligence cooperation between us and the U.S.”  The Israeli denials didn’t address the congressional briefings (important point)

• FM Avigdor Lieberman told Army Radio, “All the information we obtained is from a different side and not through the United States.” At a presser, President Obama said, “We have not just briefed Congress about the progress, or lack thereof, but we also briefed the Israelis and our other partners in the region.”

• U.S. lawmakers denied knowing anything about it. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said he was “not aware of” info being passed to members of Congress. “I’m baffled by it.” Boehner recently invited PM Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress without informing the WH and the speaker leads a GOP delegation to Israel in the coming days

• Sen Bob Corker (R-TN), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said: “I haven’t had any of them coming up and talking with me about where the deal is.” House Intel Committee chair Devin Nunes (R-CA) said Israeli officials “never” briefed his panel on the talks. (So, with whom did Amb Ron Dermer talk when he visited the Hill?)

• About 500 children aged 11 and under are missing from a Nigerian town recaptured from militants. A trader in the north-eastern town of Damasak said that Boko Haram fighters took the children when they fled. The very young boys would likely be sent to madrassas for indoctrination and older boys would be conscripted. Girls would be “married” off (BBC, me)
Alpine Jet Crash: Searches Resume
• A search and recovery operation has resumed in the southern French Alps after Tuesday’s crash of a Germanwings plane with 150 people on board. Officials warn the operation could last for days in a remote mountain ravine. The leaders of Germany, France and Spain are due to visit the crash site (BBC, CNN, TRNS, me)

• The Airbus A320 – flight 4U 9525 – from Barcelona to Dusseldorf crashed after an eight-minute rapid descent, officials say. There were no survivors. Officials believe 67 of those aboard the plane were German citizens, including 16 students returning from an exchange trip. Forty five of the passengers had Spanish names

• Greenwings, a low-cost airline owned by Germany’s main carrier Lufthansa, has an excellent safety record. President Obama on Tuesday said the crash was “particularly heartbreaking” because it involved the loss of so many children. The WH said there was no sign of terrorism. Lufthansa is retiring flight number 9525

• Using helicopters, a recovery team reached the site Tuesday and later found the black box fight recorder. The cockpit voice recorder is damaged, but officials will be able to reconstruct it in the coming hours, French officials say. “The site is a picture of horror,” German FM Frank-Walter Steinmeier said after being flown over the ravine

• The plane began descending one minute after it reached its cruising speed and continued to lose altitude for eight minutes, Germanwings MD Thomas Winkelmann told reporters. He said the aircraft lost contact with French air traffic controllers at 10.53 at an altitude of about 6,000 feet. The plane didn’t send out a distress signal, he said
• The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals Tuesday agreed to hear an expedited appeal of a ruling by a federal judge in Texas that blocked President Obama’s immigration actions to defer deportations and grant other benefits for people in the country illegally: hearing is 17 April (WSJ, me)
IG: DHS Official Intervened in Visa Cases
• After an investigation lasting more than two years, John Roth, the IG of the Dept of Homeland Security, has found that deputy secretary Alejandro Mayorkas intervened directly to gain fast-track consideration of visas for foreign investors connected to Democrats when he was head of the visa agency (NYT, me)

• The inquiry, which was prompted by internal complaints from agency employees, found that Mayokas had become personally involved and brought pressure to expedite visa reviews in three cases in a program that gives visas to certain foreigners who invest in an American business. The report doesn’t suggest illegality or recommend any punishment

• In one case, Mayorkas intervened in a review for an electric car company whose chairman was Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat who is now governor of VA. At the time the chief exec of a company channeling the investments was Anthony Rodham, the brother of Hillary Rodham Clinton, former SecState and likely presidential candidate

• In another case, according to the report, Mayorkas pushed for faster action for Asian investors in a hotel and casino in Las Vegas that was heavily promoted by Sen Harry Reid (D-NV), who was then majority leader


GOP to Hold Hearing

• Chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep Michael McCaul (R-TX), said he planned to hold a hearing this week to review the report’s findings and determine whether “further oversight by my committee is warranted.” Myaorkas in a statement said he disagreed with the IG’s report but would “certainly learn from it.” (learn what, then?)

• In a lengthy statement, Homeland Security Sec Jeh Johnson called Mayorkas “an exceptionally conscientious, honest and patriotic public official.” He said Mayorkas had been “impatient with our sluggish govt bureaucracy.” Johnson said he had “ongoing concerns” about the program and was ordering new procedures to make it less vulnerable to outside influence

• The report didn’t find that Mayorkas took any direct action to favor investors or improperly sway outcomes, and it cites his explanation that he “intervened to improve” the visa process or “to prevent error.” But in the three cases, the report notes, “But for Mr Mayorkas’s intervention, the matter would have been decided differently.”

• The cases were part of a visa program known as EB-5. Foreigners can gain permanent resident green cards for themselves and their families if they invest at least $500,000 in the U.S. and create at least 10 jobs for American workers within two years

Secret Service surveillance video of two senior agents apparently disrupting an active investigation at the WH late at night in March. The vehicle turns toward the entrance, knocks over the traffic barrier and drives very close to the suspicious package before exiting the frame. The two agents had reportedly been drinking – but were not tested (Hill, me)

Pelosi Defends Bipartisan Medicare Deal
• House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) on Tuesday defended a bipartisan Medicare deal she helped negotiate with Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) against criticism from Senate Democrats. The deal would permanently change a formula for physician payments under Medicare, ending the need for Congress to pass an annual fix for preventing cuts (Hill, me)

• The upper chamber Democrats have complained about language in the package that restricts federal funding for abortion. They also want to extend the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) for four years instead of two. “They’ll deal with it when it goes to the Senate,” Pelosi told reporters. Boehner praised the package on Tuesday

• Pro-abortion rights group Planned Parenthood is opposing the doc fix because of the abortion language. But Reps Diane DeGette (D-CO) and Louise Slaughter (D-NY) who co-chair the House Pro-Choice Caucus, noted that the Hyde Amendment provisions in the package will expire at the same time as the funding for CHIP, something secured by Pelosi

• Senate Democrats on the Finance Committee on Saturday issued a statement saying that the emerging deal doesn’t pass their “test.” They cited the two-year CHIP extension, the abortion provision and other items like making wealthier seniors pay a higher share of premiums to help offset the cost of the bill

• There’s not much time before the 31 March deadline to avert Medicare payment cuts to doctors. One GOP member of Congress said Tuesday that a short-term bill might be needed, because it will be difficult for the Senate to approve the package before a two-week recess begins Friday given work this week on the budget (yes, two weeks off)

• The House Intelligence Committee Tuesday introduced long-awaited legislation intended to enhance info sharing between private companies and intel agencies about cybersecurity threats. There are two other House bills, a companion Senate bill and this thing could become law – if the WH goes along. Privacy advocates have some concerns about data collection (Hill, me)

Three House GOP Budget Votes Today

• House Republicans expect a GOP budget that boosts war funding will be adopted as the conference’s budget after a floor vote today. It’s an amended version of Rep Tom Price’s (R-GA) budget that would boost the Pentagon’s war fund to $96 billion. None of that spending would be offset with spending cuts (Hill, TRNS, me)

• It’s one of three GOP blueprints that will receive votes in an unusual move by Republicans leaders that’s being criticized by defense hawks like Rep Duncan Hunter (R-CA): “I don’t like it.” Under the GOP plan, the budget that gets the most votes on the floor will be adopted as the House GOP budget

• The other two GOP plans are Price’s original budget, referred to as “Price-one,” boosting the war fund to $94 billion but requiring $20 billion in offsets, and one prepared by the conservative Republican Study Committee that would cut federal spending more deeply (waaay more deeply)

• If two budgets receive the same number of affirmative votes, the last budget to receive a vote will be the winner. The fix seems to be in. The Price budget with increased defense spending – “Price-two” – is expected to be the last vote on the docket this afternoon for this reason

• GOP leadership decided to pursue the unusual floor strategy to give their members a range of choices that would satisfy both fiscal hawks and defense hawks who each had problems with both versions of the Price budget. (presumably Democrats are playing canasta while all this is going on). GOP leaders would like “Price-two” to win – and seem to have teed that up

• Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) on the Senate floor Tuesday slammed the plan to bolster defense spending: “The Republicans’ extra defense money is a fraud, a hoax, certainly a political gimmick.” Reid said Republicans didn’t raise the cap on the Overseas Contingency Operations Fund to allow for it (Hill, me)

Obama to Slow Afghan Withdrawal
• President Obama announced Tuesday that the U.S. will slow its military withdrawal from Afghanistan, maintaining 9,800 troops in the country through the end of 2015 instead of cutting the number to 5,500 as originally planned (AP, TRNS, me)

• “Afghanistan remains a very dangerous place,” Obama said at a presser with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the WH. Obama added that the size of the U.S. troop presence for 2016 will be decided later this year. Obama said he still intends to complete the drawdown by the end of 2016

• Ghani had asked Obama to slow the withdrawal because Afghan security forces are bracing for a tough spring fighting season and are also contending with ISIS fighters looking to recruit on their soil

• Ghani thanked American servicemen and women and civilian contractors, as well as the American taxpayer. He said the slower U.S. troop withdrawal “will be used to accelerate reforms, to ensure that the Afghan National Security Forces are much better led, equipped, trained and are focused on their fundamental mission.”

• For Obama, Ghani represents the last, best hope to make good on the president’s promise to end America’s longest war by the time he leaves office, keeping just a thousand or so troops at the embassy to coordinate security. Ghani addresses a joint session of Congress today
• The National Park Service is taking public comment on a plan to recruit border collies to “haze” Canada Geese away from the memorials on the National Mall. The birds are pooping all over the place. Border collies are “bred to herd sheep and have a natural instinct to round up flocks of geese” so would be used to irritate the birds. “No birds will be physically harmed.” (WaPo)
WH Florist Exit Mystery Drama
• Was Laura Dowling, the WH’s chief floral designer, fired or did she quit? Nearly six weeks after her silent departure in Feb, the WH released a statement touting Dowling’s “lively and colorful” creations,” which reflected the “historic rooms which they graced.” (WaPo, me)

• An hour later, Dowling herself released a statement – through her attorney – emphasizing that she’d “resigned in order to pursue exciting new opportunities and explore my passion for floral artistry and design.” But when it comes to East Wing drama, there’s always a bit more to the official story

• In this town, matters of taste – much like positions on marriage equality – can “evolve” over time. Just ask Dowling, who left because her “fussy style” was not in line with the first lady’s emerging modern and clean aesthetic, several sources said. “I’m not sure if it was right for the WH,” said one top floral designer in the area who has done work for big events at 1600 Penn

• Recently, the first lady has debuted a different aesthetic at the executive mansion. Last month, the WH revealed the newly refurbished and now decidedly modern Old Family dining room – a new public tour stop. Mrs Obama unveiled her “thoroughly modernized” mark on the WH on 10 Feb. Dowling is said to have been escorted from the WH three days later

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Victoria Jones – Editor

TRNS’ Ellen Ratner, William McDonald, Nicholas Salazar and Mary Jarvis contributed to this report

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