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Defense Secretary nominee Esper grilled over contractor ties in heated confirmation hearing

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Defense Secretary nominee Esper grilled over contractor ties in heated confirmation hearing

Mark Esper, who took over the role of Acting Secretary of Defense after former Acting Secretary Patrick Shanahan stepped down in June, faced tense moments in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday during his confirmation process for the permanent Secretary job.

Esper, a former Army veteran who served 10 years on active duty and 11 years in the National Guard and Army Reserve, was grilled by multiple senators over his history as a lobbyist for Raytheon, a defense contractor he left in 2017 before becoming Secretary of the Army. Esper insisted there is nothing to worry about.

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“It’s my commitment to the nation’s security, it’s my commitment to the men and women in uniform that drives me,” Esper said when asked about Raytheon by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. “Not anything else.”

After he became Acting Defense Secretary, Esper said in a memo that he would limit his involvement in any matters related to Raytheon, and that his staff would “screen all matters” and consult with the Standards of Conduct Office where appropriate.

During the hearing, he stated that he will employ a “robust screening process” and “remain in constant contact with our ethics personnel.” When asked by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., if he would recuse himself from matters involving Raytheon, Esper asserted that he is ”fully committed to living up to my ethics commitments.”

That was not enough for 2020 Democratic candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who claimed that because Esper qualified his recusal instead of committing to recuse himself from any and all matters related to his former employer, it was “a conflict of interest given that Raytheon does billions of dollars worth of business every year with the Defense Department.”

Esper responded by saying that ethics officials at the Pentagon recommended that he not recuse for all matters.

Warren then pointed to an exception to ethics obligations that she said Esper referred to in a memo, which would allow for a waiver that would permit him to get involved in matters that directly affect Raytheon’s financial interest if no other official can do the job.

“This smacks of corruption, plain and simple,” Warren said.

But in a letter to Esper from the Department of Defense’s Office of the General Counsel obtained by Fox News, Director Scott Thompson refuted Warren’s accusations, “At no time while serving as the Secretary of the Army or the Acting Secretary of Defense did you request, seek, or receive a waiver or authorization related to your Ethics Agreement and ethics obligations.”

Esper, who earlier in the hearing said he does not have any financial stake in Raytheon other than the deferred compensation, took issue with Warren’s implication that he is incapable of ethically performing the duties of the job.

“At the age of 18 I went to West Point and I swore an oath to defend this Constitution and I embraced the motto called Duty and Honor and Country and I’ve lived my life in accordance with those values ever since then,” Esper said. “I went to war for this country, I served overseas for this country, I’ve stepped down from jobs that paid me well more than what I was working anywhere else. And each time it was to serve the public good and to serve the young men and women of our armed services.”

According to the Fox News Research Dept. and Open Secrets.org, Warren received $31,919 in campaign donations from the defense industry for her 2020 campaign.  Raytheon gave her nearly $9,000 in 2018.  The company is headquartered in her home state.

Other issues that came up during the hearing included how the United States should deal with Iran.

Esper pointed to the need to focus on Iran and lingering threats from groups like al Qaeda, while building American military capabilities. At the same time, he made clear that “we do not want war with Iran.”

Regarding Russian efforts to interfere with American elections, Esper said the U.S. is in a better position than in the past, but there is still work to be done.

“We’ve been doing more but way short of what is necessary,” he said, adding “we need to be on guard and vigilant.”

In terms of new military technology, Esper said artificial intelligence is of the utmost importance.

“I think artificial intelligence will likely change the character of warfare, and I believe whoever masters it first will dominate on the battlefield for many, many, many years,” he said.

“We have to get there first. We have to.”

The testimony came as tech investor Peter Thiel called out Google for working with China, and not the U.S., on a massive artificial intelligence project. Thiel said the relationship could be “treasonous,” and President Trump said Tuesday morning that his administration would look into it.

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If confirmed, Esper would be the first permanent Defense Secretary since James Mattis stepped down at the end of 2018. Shanahan, who filled the role on an interim basis afterwards, had been considered for the permanent job, but reportedly withdrew due to a 2010 domestic incident that he did not want to be brought up during the confirmation process.

For the duration of Esper’s confirmation process, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer has assumed the role of Acting Defense Secretary, since federal law forbids people under consideration for a permanent secretary position to serve as acting secretary.

Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said that a final confirmation vote for Esper could take place as soon as later this week, but no later than next Tuesday.

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Trump rips New York Times over Kavanaugh piece, calls for resignation of anyone involved in ‘SMEAR story’

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Trump rips New York Times over Kavanaugh piece, calls for resignation of anyone involved in 'SMEAR story'

President Trump blasted The New York Times over its supposed bombshell report on Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, calling on “everybody” involved in the “smear” to resign.

“I call for the Resignation of everybody at The New York Times involved in the Kavanaugh SMEAR story, and while you’re at it, the Russian Witch Hunt Hoax, which is just as phony!” Trump tweeted Monday evening.

“They’ve taken the Old Grey Lady and broken her down, destroyed her virtue and ruined her reputation… She can never recover, and will never return to Greatness, under current Management. The Times is DEAD, long live The New York Times!”

NEW YORK TIMES CRITICIZED FROM BOTH SIDES OVER NOW-REVISED KAVANAUGH ALLEGATIONS

Late Sunday, The New York Times walked back an explosive report about a resurfaced allegation of sexual assault by Kavanaugh from his college days. The piece by Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly, adapted from their forthcoming book, alleged there was corroboration of an incident in which Kavanaugh, as a college student at Yale, exposed himself to a female classmate at a party.

However, The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway — who reviewed an advance copy of the book – flagged an omission and the paper eventually revised the controversial story after being lampooned on social media over the gaffe.

The update included the significant detail that several friends of the alleged victim said she did not recall the purported sexual assault. The newspaper also stated for the first time that the alleged victim refused to be interviewed, and has made no other comment about the episode.

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Trump was asked about whether anyone from The Times should be “fired” over the controversy. He called it a “fair” question but didn’t directly give an answer.

“I think The New York Times made another terrible mistake,” Trump said. “It’s a shame that a thing like that could happen… They used to have a thing called fact-checking. They don’t have fact-checking anymore.”

Fox News’ Brian Flood and Gregg Re contributed to this report.

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With New Mexico rally, Trump seeks to flip state won by Clinton in 2016

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With New Mexico rally, Trump seeks to flip state won by Clinton in 2016

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump will hold one of his signature rallies on Monday night in New Mexico, a longtime Democratic stronghold his campaign has added to the list of states it hopes to win in the November 2020 election.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump holds a campaign rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina, U.S., September 9, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

The last time New Mexico supported a Republican in a presidential race was 2004. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton beat Trump there by 8 percentage points three years ago.

Trump’s campaign sees an opening in the state with Latinos, who it believes will swing his way despite tough immigration policies, including a crackdown on migrants from Central America and a push to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.

Democrats have criticized those efforts. But a Trump campaign aide said the Republican president could win over Latinos who came to the United States legally and believe others should, too.

“Big crowd expected in New Mexico tonight, where we will WIN. Your Border Wall is getting stronger each and every day — see you in a few hours!” Trump tweeted ahead of his trip.

The campaign also views Trump’s support for the fossil fuel industry as a plus in the state, which is rich in oil and natural gas, said the campaign aide, who declined to be named. Trump is likely to discuss energy on Monday night.

Trump won the White House in 2016 with electoral votes from traditional Republican-leaning states and some surprise Democratic-leaning ones.

The Trump campaign says it wants New Mexico’s five electoral votes to augment the 306 electoral votes the president received in his first election, not create a separate path for victory. A candidate must get 270 electoral votes nationally to win.

Democrats, who did well in New Mexico during the 2018 mid-term elections, are skeptical.

“Last cycle, Democrats crushed Republicans in New Mexico because voters are fed up with President Trump’s toxic healthcare agenda and broken promises,” said David Bergstein, a communications director for the Democratic National Committee focused on battleground states.

“We take nothing for granted, but this GOP strategy looks like they’re concerned about a realistic pathway to 270 electoral votes,” he added.

Trump won electoral-vote-rich swing states such as Ohio and Florida in 2016, while also picking up Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania from Democrats.

The campaign says it is eyeing more pickups in 2020, including Colorado, New Hampshire, Minnesota and Nevada.

Reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Tom Brown

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California adds Iowa to ‘travel ban’ over refusal to fund gender transitions

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California adds Iowa to 'travel ban' over refusal to fund gender transitions

California announced Monday that it has added Iowa to the list of states on its ever-expanding “travel ban” list because of that state’s new prohibition against funding gender-transition surgeries under Medicaid.

The announcement by state Attorney General Xavier Becerra means that as of Oct. 4, California will no longer offer taxpayer-funded trips to Iowa for any public employee or student at a state-run university.

Becerra’s authority came from a 2016 California law signed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown that bars state-funded travel to other states that undercut LGBT rights. The list already included Alabama, Kentucky, North Carolina, Texas, Oklahoma and Mississippi.

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Conservatives have called the law ineffective, inconveniencing, possibly unconstitutional and hypocritical. The state’s sports teams have turned to private funding to get around the restrictions, according to The Los Angeles Times.

A homeless woman smokes as she waits for city crews to clean the area near Los Angeles City Hall Monday, July 1, 2019. California is overrun with homeless individuals. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

A homeless woman smokes as she waits for city crews to clean the area near Los Angeles City Hall Monday, July 1, 2019. California is overrun with homeless individuals. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

“The Iowa Legislature has reversed course on what was settled law under the Iowa Civil Rights Act, repealing protections for those seeking gender-affirming health care,” Becerra said in a statement. “California has taken an unambiguous stand against discrimination and government actions that would enable it.”

The brouhaha began after the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in March that taxpayers could be forced to pay for gender reassignment surgery. Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a law effectively overriding that ruling two months later.

At the federal level, the Trump administration has disputed the idea that sex-based discrimination prohibitions under law include protections for gender identity. The Health and Human Services Department, in May, angered progressive advocates with rules that both allowed doctors not to perform certain operations and stated that “gender identity” was not protected under sex discrimination law in health care.

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Fox News’ Sam Dorman contributed to this report.

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