Supreme Court Nominee Gorsuch Ready for His Confirmation Hearings

By Bill Mears

In an isolated area of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in the White House complex, Judge Neil Gorsuch has spent the past few days being put through the rhetorical ringer. For hours on end, he sits alone at a table, peppered with questions about his personal and professional record, all in an effort to see if he will crack under the pressure.

The informal, but intrusive prep sessions are known as "murder boards"  for their intensity, designed to simulate what the 49-year-old nominee to the Supreme Court might face next week in his Senate confirmation hearings.

"He's a home run, he's smooth, he's going to go through great," said Thomas Dupree, a former Bush Deputy Assistant Attorney General, "The [opposing] senators will take their shots, "but I think he's close to a lock."

The stakes are enormous, not only for the nominee but also for the man who selected him from a list of 21 possibles announced during the presidential campaign. Aides say President Trump hopes a successful confirmation will build momentum for his separate political agenda.

 In the broader realm, filling the seat left by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia will ensure the high court remains a shaky right-leaning majority. And having that fifth conservative vote will help guide the administration as it makes strategic decisions about which high-profile issues to pursue in court-- like immigration, the environment, transgender rights, and expanded executive authority.

"It's important Democrats and Republicans not roll over on this pick," said Elizabeth Wydra, president of the left-leaning Constitutional Accountability Center.  "The American people want their justices to be an independent check even to the President nominating you, to follow the Constitution, not their own political values."

But liberal advocacy groups have all but abandoned efforts to defeat Gorsuch through public opinion, with scant paid issue advertising. Many progressives lament Democratic senators have been distracted by other ideological fights.

The justices themselves hope the arrival of Gorsuch will end what court sources say has been a tense 13-month period since Scalia's sudden passing. The current 4-4 ideological divide has kept the court off its internal workplace rhythms-- operating in something of  a judicial vacuum, reluctant to tackle those hot-button issues that would lead to precedent-setting impact.

A Record to Match      

A Fox News analysis of Gorsuch's record on and off the bench-- including some 3,000 rulings he has been involved with-- reveals a solid, predictable conservative record, in many ways mirroring Scalia's approach to constitutional and statutory interpretation. And the Colorado native's flair for colorful opinion writing is much in the mold of Scalia, whose sharp pen and wicked wit delighted conservatives

The issues he has confronted vary widely-- from libel, capital punishment, regulatory enforcement, and tax subsidies. But the overall articulate message remains consistent:  less is more when it comes to interpreting the rule of law.

--"Ours is not supposed to be the government of the 'Hunger Games' with power centralized in one district," he wrote in 2015, with an oft-used reference to pop culture, "but a government of diffused and divided power, the better to prevent its abuse."

--Federal worker protections strive "to prevent employers from callously denying reasonable accommodations that permit otherwise qualified disabled persons to work, not to turn employers into safety net providers for those who cannot work," he wrote in a 2014 opinion, displaying sympathy for a Kansas woman undergoing cancer treatment, but nevertheless denying her discrimination claim.

Perhaps his highest profile case was the 2013 concurrence supporting the right of for-profit, secular institutions (and individuals too, he argued) to oppose the Obama's administration mandate to provide contraceptives to their workers. Gorsuch affirmed his past ardent commitment to religious freedom against claims of government "intrusion."

In the so-called "Hobby Lobby" case, the judge concluded, "For some, religion provides an essential source of guidance both about what constitutes wrongful conduct and the degree to which those who assist others in committing wrongful conduct themselves bear moral culpability."

Gorsuch later supported the right of religious non-profits, like Catholic charities, to also challenge the contraceptive coverage mandate. The Supreme Court later partially vindicated Gorsuch's views on both cases.

Sometimes, the judge's conservative bona fides collide, as in the case of a notorious Wyoming inmate.  Andrew Yellowbear, a Native American who murdered his daughter, wanted to use an existing sweat lodge in the prison facility as part of his religious tradition.

Gorsuch wrote the majority opinion that under a federal law,  the inmate deserved that right, striking down the state's discretionary correctional policy. It was a setback for law-and-order supporters.

"While those convicted of crime in our society lawfully forfeit a great many civil liberties," he concluded, "Congress has instructed that the sincere exercise of religion should not be among them-- at least in the absence of a compelling reason. In this record we can find no reason like that."

In his questionnaire to lawmakers, the nominee said none of his own written opinions were ever reversed by the Supreme Court.

One of Gorsuch's off-the-bench remarks is generating some concern, a 2005 opinion piece in "National Journal," written shortly before he donned the judicial robes.

"American liberals have become addicted to the courtroom," he wrote, "relying on judges and lawyers rather than elected leaders and the ballot box, as the primary means of effecting their social agenda on everything from gay marriage to assisted suicide to the use of vouchers for private-school education. This overweening addiction to the courtroom as the place to debate social policy is bad for the country and bad for the judiciary."

And Gorsuch's 2006 book "The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia" has both worried and encouraged some fellow conservatives, His conclusion that the doctor-approved procedure was "essentially a right to consensual homicide" might be used by as a red flag by abortion rights activists and death penalty opponents as a parallel argument, even though Gorsuch made clear in the book it should not .           

Zeroing In

Party sources say Democratic senators will focus much of their attention on seeking Gorsuch's views on abortion, since he has not ruled directly on the right to the procedure.

 "I will not support any candidate who intends to turn back the clock on civil rights, including women's reproductive rights and LGBT equality," said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), who has not said whether she would ultimately vote for  Gorsuch.

Other areas of Democratic interest:

-- Separation of powers, and whether Gorsuch would be an independent voice to strike down excesses in Trump's executive authority, including the president's revised order banning travel for immigrants from certain countries.

-- Voting rights and campaign finance reform, specifically whether the nominee thinks current unlimited corporate donations to PACs are permissible.  

 -- Workers rights, and whether challenges over pay equity, pension benefits, job discrimination claims, and family and medical leave.

 Some progressives have actually urged Democrats not to ask any questions at the hearings, as a dramatic rebuff for Republicans refusing to give President's Obama's high court nominee-- Judge Merrick Garland-- a hearing or vote.

And they demand a filibuster to prevent Gorsuch from ever getting a floor vote.

Bitter feelings linger. "This is a stolen seat being filled by an illegitimate and extreme nominee," said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), "and I will do everything in my power to stand up against this assault on the Court."    

Backdoor Grilling

Along with his courtesy visits to more than 70 members of the Senate who will decide his fate, Gorsuch has prepared for the spotlight by reviewing his own record, and enduring those closely-guarded mock hearings.

The private rehearsals are coordinated by the White House Counsel's Office, and include more than a dozen participants-- government lawyers, conservative academics, and some of his former law clerks. The goal is to anticipate every possible line of questioning and danger zone-- to give measured answers but not reveal too much. 

Sources say Gorsuch has settled in being himself, avoiding unscripted responses that might provide the televised "soundbite" to derail what has so far been a flawless confirmation journey. Administration officials are privately confident he will shine in the hearings.

Republicans point to Gorsuch's unanimous 2006 confirmation to his appeals court seat as a template to blunt any efforts to filibuster this time. Sources expect him to repeat  in the upcoming hearings what he said 11 years ago, about the kind of judge he considered unacceptable: "Someone who is not willing to listen with an open mind to the arguments of counsel, to his colleagues, to precedent."

 

 

 

US officials tell Fox News Russian spy ship is back

By Lucas Tomlinson

The Russian spy ship first spotted off the Delaware coast last month is back.

US officials tell Fox News, the Russian spy ship Victor Leonov has returned to waters off the east coast of the United States after a brief stop for fuel and resupply in Havana last week.

The ship has been spotted by US intelligence approximately 20 nautical miles (23 miles) southeast of a US Navy submarine base in Kings Bay, Georgia heading north, according to the officials.

The U.S. Navy’s Atlantic fleet of ballistic missile submarines are based in Kings Bay.

The Russian spy ship has remained in international waters, according to officials.

US territorial waters extend 12 nautical miles from shore

The Russian spy ship last patrolled off the east coast of the United States two years ago.  The Victor Leonov departed from Russia’s northern fleet based in the Barents Sea near Norway in early January.

At one point last month, the Russian spy ship ventured as far north as 30 miles off the coast of Connecticut, home to another US Navy submarine base. 

In a White House press conference last month, President Donald Trump weighed in on the story first reported by Fox News.

“Hey, the greatest thing I could do is shoot that ship that's 30 miles offshore right out of the water.  Everyone in this country is going to say, oh, it's so great.  That's not great.  That's not great.  I would love to be able to get along with Russia.”

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said in a tweet the day before Trump’s comments that Russia was trying to “expand influence.”

“Russia is acting like it has a permission slip to expand influence, test limits of reach. Questions are obvious: does it, and if so, why?”

In Six Years 465,000 Killed in Syrian Civil War

By Jake Smith

The Syrian civil war began six years ago on Wednesday following the start of the Arab Spring, and since its beginning, 465,000 people have been killed or gone missing, according to a new report by The Syrian Observatory of Human Rights.

The war began as an uprising against the Bashar al-Assad regime. Since then, the country has been a hotspot for terrorism and regional power struggles, allowing the Islamic State to develop significant territorial control.

The conflict has caused the biggest humanitarian crisis since World War II, with an estimated 4.8 million refugees who have been forced to leave their homes to seek safety.

Violence against civilians is far from over in Syria – 2016 was the worst year for children in Syria. Child injuries rose by 25 percent and death by 20 percent. The war has caused 321,000 deaths, and the Observatory estimates 96,000 of those deaths were civilians.

The Trump Administration continues to assert its committment to destroying ISIS, announcing on March 9th it will send an additional 400 troops to Syria. The additional troops would increase U.S. presence in Syria to its highest ever.  The U.S. began their intervention in Syria on September 22nd, 2014. Since then, over 5,000 US and allied airstrikes have hit ISIS positions.

 

US Economy Adds 235,000 Jobs in February

By Jake Smith

President Donald Trump received some positive news on his 50th day in office. The US economy added 235,000 jobs in February lowering the unemployment rate to 4.7%, slightly down from 4.8% in January.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the “employment gains occurred in construction, private educational services, manufacturing, health care, and mining.”

President Trump retweeted the Drudge Report saying “GREAT AGAIN: +235,000.” Press Secretary Spicer also tweeted “Great news for American workers: economy added 235,000 new jobs, unemployment rate drops to 4.7% in first report for @POTUS Trump.”

This gain in jobs is supplemented by a slight improvement in the civilian labor force participation rate to 63.0%. The average hourly earnings of Americans also increased by 0.2 percent in President Trump’s first full month in office.

President Trump’s election in November sparked a stock market rally, this coupled with the continuous decrease in unemployment, and better performing economy sets the stage for the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates as early as next week.

Bureau of Labor Statistics

Round Two: States to Challenge President Trump’s New Travel Ban in Court

By: Jake Ryan Smith

Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson is asking a federal judge to extend the initial freeze of Trump’s original travel ban to the new ban. Hawaii Attorney General Doug Chin will join in the fight against President Trump’s travel ban calling it, “nothing more than Muslim Ban 2.0.”

The Trump administration consulted numerous departments within the federal government and revised the order to adhere to the ruling by the 9th Circuit Court. Although, Ferguson argues the constitutionally of the new travel ban and says the new executive order applies the same harms as the original ban.

The new order removes Iraq from the list of banned countries, will no longer bar Syrian refugees indefinitely, and all visa holders will be allowed into the country. The new order also removed language that would give preferential treatment to religious minorities over Muslims.

A Federal Court has agreed to hear the case on March 15th, President Donald Trump’s revised travel ban is set to take effect on March 16th.

Secretary Tillerson to Make First Trip to Asia

By Jake Smith

Former Exxon CEO, Rex Tillerson, will make his first trip to Asia as Secretary of State next week. He will meet with senior leaders to discuss U.S. economic and security interest. His journey will begin in Japan on March 15th; he will then travel to South Korea on March 18th and end his tour in China from March 18th-19th.

Secretary Tillerson will arrive in South Korea with a new acting president, Hwang Kyo-ahn. South Korea’s President, Park Geun-hye, has been removed from office on Friday after the rulings by the highest Constitutional Court. The citizens of South Korea will elect their new president in a snap election on May 9th.

Tillerson is traveling to Asia on the heels of North Korea’s recent UN-resolution violating ballistic missile test and the assassination of Kim-Jong Nam in Malaysia, Nam being the half-brother of North Korean’s Dictator Kim-Jong Un.

The United States began its deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD) to South Korea on Tuesday to fulfill its security obligations to the Korean Peninsula. The implementation of THAAD quickly provoked outrage from leaders in China and North Korea. The system is expected to be fully operational as early as June.

The Trump administration is likely to continue seeing security complications in the Asian theater with North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and an aggressive China, eagerly seeking regional superiority. 

White House Press Secretary Checks Staffer's Phones to Combat Leaks

A senior White House official tells Fox News White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer attempted to target leakers during a phone check last week.

The phone check happened last Tuesday, where Mr. Spicer called together a group of about 10 people who had been in a previous meeting from which some information had leaked. 

When staff entered the room, Spicer asked them to lay whatever phones they had with them on the table.  Staff were not asked to retrieve any phones that they had left in other locations (office, car, home, etc).

Spicer told the group that he had heard from reporters that some White House staff had been using apps like Confide and Signal – which erase messages after they have been viewed.  Spicer informed the group that apps like those run afoul of the Federal Records Act, which requires that all written communications to and from the White House be archived. 

Spicer asked to look at the staff’s phones to see if they had those apps installed.  When it came to personal phones, Spicer asked permission to look at them – he did not ‘demand’ to look at them.  I am told that none of the staff refused the request to look at their personal phones.

Spicer also looked for evidence that a couple of specific phone numbers had been called.

When asked whether Spicer has an idea of who leaked the information from the previous meeting, the Senior Administration Official said “we’re not going to talk about that at this point.”

 

EXCLUSIVE: Pentagon believes attack on Saudi frigate meant for American warship

By Lucas Tomlinson

The Pentagon believes the suicide attack by Iranian- backed Houthi rebels targeting a Saudi frigate off the coast of Yemen may have been meant for an American warship, two defense officials tell Fox News.

The incident in question occurred in the southern Red Sea Monday. Two Saudi sailors were killed, 3 wounded. At first it was thought to be the result of a missile.

But based on new analysis of a video showing the yesterday's attack American intelligence officials now believe this was in fact a suicide bomber whose small boat rammed the side of the Saudi vessel.

In the audio heard on the video, a voice narrating the attack shouts in Arabic, "Death to America, Death to Israel, Death to the Jews."

U.S. defense analysts now believe those behind the attack either thought the bomber was striking an American warship or this was a “dress rehearsal” similar to the attack on the USS Cole, according to one official.

The attack Monday near the Bab al Mandab Strait connecting the Red Sea to Gulf of Aden occurred in the same area where US Navy warships came under missile attack in October near  the coast of Yemen.

An American destroyer shot down those incoming missiles-- the first successful engagement in combat using an American SM-2 missile.

USS Nitze, an American destroyer retaliated two days later launching Tomahawk missiles on October 13 at multiple Houthi radar sites in Yemen - that was in October.

This latest incident came a day after President Trump spoke by phone with the Saudi King, to discuss setting up safe zones for refugees in Syria and Yemen. Senior US defense officials who we have spoken to today say they are concerned by this latest incident but are confident American warships can defend themselves against

The United States has supported a Saudi-led air campaign against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen since 2015.

US transferring 4 Gitmo detainees to UAE and Saudi Arabia, US officials

The US military will transfer four more Gitmo detainees this week ahead of President Obama leaving office Friday, two US officials with knowledge of the transfers tell Fox News.

Three detainees will be sent to the United Arab Emirates and one to Saudi Arabia on two separate US military flights, the officials said.

41 detainees will remain at Gitmo after the latest transfers are complete.  It is not immediately clear if any more transfers will take place before President Obama leaves office Friday.

President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to end detainee transfers from Gitmo after taking office Friday.

The four detainees are expected to depart Gitmo Wednesday and arrive in UAE and Saudi Arabia Thursday, the officials said.

The Pentagon does not typically acknowledge detainee transfers until at least 24 after they arrive in third-party nations.

Earlier this week, 10 detainees were transferred to Oman.

In August, 15 Gitmo detainees were sent to the UAE in the largest single transfer to date. 

ISIS may have surface-to-air missile system, US gen says

ISIS may have taken Syrian regime surface-to-air missile site

The Islamic State may have taken possession of a Syrian military surface-to-air missile system, the top US general in Iraq told Pentagon reporters Wednesday.  ISIS recaptured the Syrian city of Palmyra over the weekend after Syrian regime troops fled in a hurry, leaving behind a trove of weapons.

“We believe it includes some armored vehicles and various guns and other heavy weapons, possibly some air defense equipment," Army Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, said. "Anything they seized poses a threat to the coalition.”

Townsend emphasized that if the Russians do not take out the weapons seized by ISIS, “we will.”  In the meantime, Townsend said he would let the Russians “sort that out” since Palmyra is in western Syria where the Russians and Syrian regime routinely carry out strikes. 

A separate US defense official tells Fox News, ISIS is in control of an SA-3 missile system taken from the Syrian regime outside Palmyra.  Townsend would not go into specifics about the possibility that ISIS had in its possession some “air defense equipment.”  

The Washington Post first reported ISIS had taken possession of the SA-3 surface-to-air missile system.  It is not immediately clear if ISIS knows how to use it.

ISIS continues to plan attacks against the West from Raqqa

“They still have the ability to plot and cast into motion attacks on the West and that’s a great concern to us,” said Townsend about ISIS inside Raqqa, reiterating earlier concerns from his last press briefing in late October.  “We are hammering away at them to prevent that.”  Townsend said the three ISIS leader killed in a drone strike last week were actively plotting attacks against the West.

Mosul – 25% retaken by US-backed  Iraqi forces

Townsend says that 25% of Mosul has been recaptured by US-backed Iraqi forces.  He warned that fighting in western Mosul, separated by the Tigris River, could be “potentially harder” because ISIS had put up more defensive positions there.

Townsend said the “locus” of ISIS’s chemical weapons program is based in Mosul, but believes it could be moved as Iraqi forces gain ground there.  He did not specify where the weapons would be moved.

12-15,000 ISIS fighters left

Townsend agreed with special envoy Brett McGurk’s estimation that roughly 12-15,000 ISIS fighters remained in Iraq and Syria.  It’s “ballpark close enough,” Townsend said.

Raqqa – “double or triple” more US-trained Syrian forces needed

Townsend said there have been 3,000 Arab fighters trained to date by the US military in Syria.  He said it would take “double or triple” that number before a US-supported assault force is ready to retake the ISIS capital.  The shortage of US-trained Arab fighters is a “big problem,” he said.  Training more Arab Syrian forces is part of the reason behind the deployment of 200 more US troops to Syria, he said.

Aleppo – US general says his focus is ISIS

“So I watched Aleppo on TV, it's horrible.  Like most of you, and I read intelligence so I get special access to intelligence about Aleppo, but Aleppo is not in our charter here.  So I'm blessed although it's a curse,” said Townsend.

It does complicate our life here, imagine fighting one war with another war raging just beside, and sometimes overlapping our war against ISIL here in northern Syria, so it's certainly a complicator,” he said.

Townsend said Aleppo would not have a significant impact on the US-led coalition’s battle against Raqqa.

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