• Alex Wong/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- While traveling to Morocco last year, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt promoted an issue that could benefit his past energy industry donors -- and also clients of the lobbying firm tied to his controversial Capitol Hill condo deal, several Democratic lawmakers told ABC News.The Morocco trip, which cost more than $17,000 from Pruitt's flight alone, was previously flagged to investigators for the EPA’s inspector general because of the costs of his first-class travel.The EPA's inspector general expanded the inquiry into Pruitt's travel following a December letter to his office from Sen. Tom Carper, D-Delaware, who wanted information about reports that the trip cost as much as $40,000.Carper also asked the inspector general to look into the purpose of Pruitt's trip, citing concern that natural gas exports are not part of EPA's mission to "protect human health and the environment."In response to that request, the IG said he would expand the scope of the investigation of Pruitt's travel costs through the end of 2017 and would look at whether EPA followed all policies and procedures. The IG did not say in the letter that the inquiry would include the subject matter of the trip.Now several lawmakers are calling for the internal watchdog to also look at one of Pruitt’s missions while there — promoting U.S. liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports.That appears to fall outside the typical purview of the agency, the lawmakers told ABC News. The job of encouraging U.S. oil and gas exports usually falls to the U.S. Energy Department.“I think it’s outrageous,” said Rep. David N. Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat, told ABC News late Tuesday. “The EPA is charged with serving the American people to keep our air clean and our water safe. This is not an area within his portfolio. He’s not supposed to be globetrotting to promote the sale of LNG.”Details of the December 2017 trip, which included a two-day layover in Paris, have drawn scrutiny from Democratic lawmakers, especially since reports surfaced that Pruitt was renting a $50-a-night bedroom from the wife of J. Steven Hart, the chairman of Williams and Jensen, a firm that does extensive lobbying in the oil and gas arena. The condo was co-owned by Hart’s wife, who is a healthcare lobbyist.At least two of William and Jensen’s clients, Cheniere Energy and Exxon Mobil, had lobbyists working on issues tied to LNG, disclosure filings show. Hart was registered personally to lobby for Cheniere, though he said in a statement that he made no contacts to Pruitt or the EPA on behalf of them or any other client.Last year, Cheniere Energy Inc. reported paying Hart’s firm $80,000, and the firm specifically lobbied on “issues related to the export of liquefied natural gas (LNG), approval of LNG exports and export facilities.” The firm also lists on its website that it lobbies on other EPA policies like the Clean Air Act.Cheniere Energy spokeswoman Rachel Carmichel told ABC News the company ended its relationship with Hart’s firm in December 2017. The spokeswoman went on to say Cheniere was unaware of the relationship between Pruitt and the lobbyist and had not used Hart’s firm to have conversations with the EPA.Exxon Mobile has not responded to questions about the matter.EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox told ABC News that no one from Cheniere or Williams and Jensen attended meetings with Pruitt during the Morocco trip, or beforehand to prepare for the foreign visit. Wilcox pointed to a press release issued following the trip, that described Pruitt’s activities in the country.While there, the release says, Pruitt “outlined U.S. environmental priorities for updating the Environmental Work Plan under the U.S.-Morocco Free Trade Agreement.” The release also says Pruitt discussed “the potential benefit of liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports o
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  • Chip Somedevilla/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Senators from major soybean-producing states in the Midwest, including Republicans, are steaming over China’s threat to impose tariffs on U.S. soy exports, blaming President Donald Trump's aggressive actions against China for the trade retaliation that could hit farmers and ranchers particularly hard. The Chinese tariffs would almost certainly hit farmers and others who voted for President Donald Trump harder than those who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.Of the top 10 soybean-producing and exporting states, eight voted for Trump and only two for Clinton.The new penalties are largely seen as retaliation for the tariffs the Trump administration announced against China, the largest purchaser of American soybean exports. In addition to steel and aluminum tariffs, the White House also announced Tuesday additional tariffs on Chinese electronics and other technology-related items.Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, whose home state was the second-biggest producer of soybeans exports in 2016, the last year such Department of Agriculture statistics were available, said he had warned the president of exactly this sort of retaliatory move during a White House meeting in February.“The Administration knew that if it imposed tariffs on Chinese goods, China would retaliate against U.S. agriculture,” Grassley said in a statement. “Today shows that’s exactly what happened.”Grassley added that although the United States should defend its interests against foreign countries who aren’t playing by international trade rules, farmers and ranchers should not bear the brunt of any trade war.The Senate Judiciary Committee chairman said he would be addressing the issue of tariffs through that panel, which oversees patent, copyright and trademark policy, as well as in his capacity as a member of the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over trade policy.In addition to soybeans, China is also imposing tariffs on more than 20 other critical American farm and ranch exports, including corn, pork and beef, which will largely hit the same states. The list also includes whiskeys, which would hit Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s home state of Kentucky particularly hard.McConnell and his House counterpart, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., have long warned that the United States’ aggressive actions could spur a trade war. During a visit with farmers and business leaders in his home state Tuesday – before China announced its new tariffs – McConnell expressed concern over what he viewed as a growing trend in the administration to wield tariffs as a trade cudgel.“This is a slippery slope, so my hope is that this will stop before it gets into a broader tit-for-tat that can't be good for our country."Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., sent a tweet Wednesday urging President Trump to work with China to protect American workers in the heartland. Her home state is a leading exporter of soybeans, beef and corn. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the third-ranking Senate Republican, noted that every third row of soybeans in his state is exported."This would no doubt have a damaging impact on the agriculture economy and on the hardworking men and women who support it. I will continue to keep pressure on the administration and do all that I can to ensure South Dakota's farmers and ranchers are protected," he said in a statement.Midwestern Democrats were also quick to weigh in. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said in a statement that this brewing trade war is the product of the president’s hair-trigger way of dealing with crises.“Illinois' farmers now join DACA recipients as the latest victims of President Trump’s temper,” Durbin said. “America cannot move forward in a blizzard of tweets and wild threats from this President.”Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., recommended that a more productive avenue would be to explore trade enforcement me
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  • ABC News(WASHINGTON) -- Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt pushed back Wednesday in his first public and direct response to ethics questions raised about his living arrangements in Washington D.C., saying living in a Capitol Hill condo owned by a lobbyist did not violate any rules. Pruitt made his first specific comments on the reports of his rental in a condo co-owned by a D.C. lobbyist in in-person interviews with two conservative news sites: The Daily Signal, which is connected to the Heritage Foundation — a conservative think tank — and the Washington Examiner on Tuesday. He also filmed an interview with Fox News, which aired part of the interview on Wednesday.He declined to take questions from other outlets, including ABC News' Mary Bruce, at an event to announce a review of the fuel efficiency standard on Tuesday.In the wake of reporting about Pruitt's living arrangements, spending on security and questions about his travel, multiple members of Congress — including two Republicans — have called for Pruitt to resign.The White House has launched a formal inquiry into Pruitt's living situation. Press secretary Sarah Sanders confirmed that President Donald Trump and White House chief of staff John Kelly spoke to Pruitt earlier this week.Sanders also said the White House is reviewing the situation during the White House briefing on Wednesday. When asked if the president still has confidence in Pruitt she said "The president thinks he has done a good job, particularly on the deregulation front. But again we take this seriously and we're looking into it."In the Daily Signal interview, Pruitt described the other news outlets' reporting on his living arrangements as "intermittent," "very sporadic and not terribly complete with respect to what the truth is."ABC News first reported last week that Pruitt rented a room in a Capitol Hill townhouse co-owned by a lobbyist, Vicki Hart. Pruitt paid $50 a night only for nights that he stayed in the room. The housing recommendation came from Vicki Hart's husband, J. Steven Hart, who, like Pruitt, is an Oklahoma native. He is also the chairman of the powerhouse lobbying firm Williams & Jensen, which represents several clients with energy and environmental interests that fall under EPA's jurisdiction. In the article, Pruitt cites a memo from an EPA ethics officer that found the arrangement didn't violate the agency's gift rules because the administrator paid fair market rent. That memo says that "Under the terms of the lease, if the space was utilized for one 30-day month, then the rental cost would be $1,500, which is a reasonable fair market value."“And I think what’s missed in this: I didn’t rent a unit. I didn’t rent an apartment. This was an Airbnb-type situation where I rented literally one room that was used in a temporary status until I found more permanent residence," Pruitt told the Daily Signal.His comparison to the nightly rental service Airbnb touches on a concern already raised publicly by ethics experts.Ethics experts outside of the EPA have said that it is unusual to have an arrangement where a tenant only has to pay for nights they stay in the unit and that the owner agrees to hold that room open when the tenant is not there.Walter Schaub, former director of the Office of Government Ethics under the Obama administration, said that part of the agreement could violate gift rules even if the EPA determined that it did not. He started working for that office as a lawyer in 2006."The idea that it's perfectly normal in this town to get a prime location and this house really is that, its right next to the House, Senate office building on Capitol Hill, for $50 a night and the owner will hold the house open for you for any night that you don’t use it, he won’t rent it to anyone else but you only pay for the night’s you actually stay there at well below market rate. There’s no doubt that
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  • iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The White House on Wednesday looked to downplay renewed fears of a potential trade war with China after stocks were jolted by Beijing's announcement overnight of $50 billion in proposed retaliatory tariffs against the U.S.  “There’s no trade war here,” National Economic Council director Larry Kudlow said in an interview with Fox Business. “What you've got the early stages of a process that will include tariffs, comments on the tariffs, then ultimate decisions and negotiations."Kudlow made the comments after the stock market dropped more than 500 points upon its opening, at least in part a reaction to the tit-for-tat announcement by China of its plan to institute $50 billion in tariffs against U.S. agricultural and aviation sectors. The Dow had recovered much of that ground by midday and turned positive by afternoon."I understand the stock market’s anxiety," Kudlow said. "I get that. But on the other hand, don't overreact.”Earlier in the morning, President Donald Trump doubled down on his recent announcements to slap tariffs on China's steel, aluminum and technology sectors, saying the current U.S. trade deficit dwarfs any losses that would come from the current trade spat. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross later echoed the president's sentiment in an appearance on CNBC, describing China’s $50 billion in proposed tariffs as “relatively proportionate” to the tariffs already announced by the administration and “hardly a life-threatening activity” in terms of potential impact on the overall economy."This $50 billion that they're talking about amounts to about three-tenths of a percent of our GDP," Ross said. "I’m frankly a little surprised that Wall Street was so surprised by it. This has been telegraphed for days and weeks."Kudlow went as far to suggest that there remains flexibility on both sides regarding whether the tariffs will actually take effect, depending on the result of ongoing negotiations between the U.S. and China."I doubt if there would be any concrete actions for several months. We will see how that plays out,” Kudlow said. “Nothing concrete has actually happened.”
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  • Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- President Donald Trump's outgoing National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster blasted Russia and President Vladimir Putin's "growing" confidence and "aggression" in what he said were his last public remarks as he transitions out of his role and makes room for his replacement, John Bolton.  "For too long some nations have looked the other way in the face of these threats. Russia brazenly and implausibly denies its actions," he said during a dinner hosted by the Atlantic Council at its headquarters in Washington D.C. on Wednesday evening. "And we have failed to impose sufficient costs."The comments came just hours after Trump said, "Nobody's been tougher on Russia than I have."While McMaster highlighted some of the administration's actions against Russia, critics point to Trump's repeated praise for Putin and his stated desire to work with him, not deter him."I think I could have a very good relationship with Russia and with President Putin, and if I did, that would be a great thing," Trump said Tuesday. "And there's also a possibility that that won't happen. Who knows?" McMaster has been a strong critic of Russia.Under his leadership, the National Security Council recommended Trump expel 60 alleged Russian intelligence officers over the poisoning of an ex-spy and his daughter in the United Kingdom — an action that Trump took in solidarity with over two dozen U.S. allies. Russia has denied involvement.The Trump administration has also sanctioned Russia for its cyber attacks, including on the 2016 presidential election, and for its incursion into eastern Ukraine — to whom the U.S. is now selling lethal arms, a step the Obama administration never took.But McMaster said the U.S. must do more."We are acting, but we must recognize the need for all of us to do more to respond to and deter Russian aggression," he said, laying out four steps in particular: integrating the government's various tools to respond, enhancing cyber defenses, greater allied investment, and a strong commitment to western values."We must strengthen our resolve, cooperate to share responsibility, catalyze positive change, and compete effectively in new arenas," he said, warning, "There’s nothing inevitable about the course of human events and history, and there is no arc of history — there is no so-called end of history — that will ensure our success."But he had this message for Putin: "Russian aggression is strengthening our resolve and our confidence. We might all help Mr. Putin understand his grave error."Tuesday's address was not the first time McMaster has had tough words for Russia — but most recently, when he spoke out, his own boss fired back at him."The evidence is now incontrovertible" that Russia interfered in the U.S. election, he said in February after special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russian officials and laid out their campaign in detail. Hours later, Trump tweeted, "General McMaster forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians and that the only Collusion was between Russia and Crooked H, the DNC and the Dems. Remember the Dirty Dossier, Uranium, Speeches, Emails and the Podesta Company!"John Bolton will take over on April 9 as National Security Advisor. McMaster, an active duty three-star general, said he was grateful for "the great privilege to serve the United States for 34 years."McMaster joined Tillerson in criticizing Russia on his way out the door.Hours before Trump took to Twitter to discuss his ouster, Tillerson was his most critical of Russia, telling reporters traveling back from Africa with him, "I've become extremely concerned about Russia... What we've seen is a pivot on their part to be more aggressive, and this is very, very concerning to me and others, that there seems to be a certain unleashing of activity that we don't fully understand what the objective behind that is."Trump's
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  • iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- In a statement meant to clarify the U.S. presence in Syria, the White House did not announce an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces, despite President Donald Trump's repeated calls in the past week to leave the country "very soon." "The military mission to eradicate ISIS in Syria is coming to a rapid end, with ISIS being almost completely destroyed," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said.But she added, "The United States and our partners remain committed to eliminating the small ISIS presence in Syria that our forces have not already eradicated. We will continue to consult with our allies and friends regarding future plans."The statement offered no timeline for a troop withdrawal, nor did it change the U.S. policy in Syria – which has been for the approximately 2,000 American forces there to train, advise, and assist Syrian Democratic Forces in the fight against ISIS."We expect countries in the region and beyond, plus the United Nations, to work toward peace and ensure that ISIS never re-emerges," she added. Last week during a speech on infrastructure in Ohio, Trump surprised even the most senior members of his Cabinet by announcing the U.S. planned to get out of Syria "very soon," according to a senior administration official and a U.S. official familiar with the matter.The president has expressed to top members of his national security team that he would like to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, but none of them expected he'd say it publicly, these officials said.Then, speaking beside the leaders of Baltic nations at the White House on Tuesday, Trump repeated that call, saying the U.S. will be making a decision “very quickly in coordination with others in the area as to what we'll do” and suggesting that if others, like Saudi Arabia, want the U.S. to maintain a presence in Syria, perhaps they should pay for it.“I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home. I want to start rebuilding our nation,” Trump said during the press conference. "It's time. We were successful against ISIS. We'll be successful against anybody militarily, but sometimes it's time to come back home — and we're thinking about that very seriously."At the same time that Trump was encouraging U.S. troop withdrawal, a top general, diplomat, and development official laid out a strategy for America's involvement in Syria going forward."The hard part, I think, is in front of us," Gen. Joseph Votel, the U.S. Central Command chief, told an audience at the U.S. Institute of Peace Tuesday, "and that is stabilizing these areas, consolidating our gains, getting people back into their homes, addressing the long-term issues of reconstruction and other things that will have to be done."Votel estimated that more than 90 percent of ISIS's territory in Syria has been reclaimed since 2014.The general was joined by the U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Mark Green and the Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS Brett McGurk — and all three discussed the importance of their agencies' work to ensure the defeat of ISIS as a key U.S. national security concern."We're in Syria to fight ISIS. That is our mission, and that mission isn't over, and we're going to complete that mission," McGurk said.
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