The ongoing turmoil in Ukraine and what it means for U.S./Russia relations, the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance, the politics of Obamacare, and lingering questions about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s involvement in last September’s George Washington Bridge traffic jam were all topics of discussion on the Sunday political talk circuit this week.
On ABC’s “This Week,” Russian ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak made it clear that his country has no intention of withdrawing troops from the Crimean peninsula.
“We are now in the territory of the Russian Federation,” he said in reference to the region, adding that people must be “realist” about the situation.
“There was an expressed will of people living in Crimea to become a part of the Russian Federation at the moment when there was an unconstitutional takeover of power with the use of force in Kiev,” he continued.
Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union,” suggesting that some U.S. officials have accepted that Russia’s annexation of Crimea is a done deal.
“The Crimea is dominantly Russian; a referendum was passed. That, I think, has been done,” she said.
The California Senator’s remarks clash with the White House’s and United Nations’ recent declarations that the Russian actions in Crimea violate international law, a position which has led the U.S. and European Union to impose two rounds of sanctions on Russia, including travel bans and asset freezes against people in President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.
Feinstein, who heads up the Senate Intelligence Committee, went on to suggest that conversations between officials from both countries last week might mark the beginning of a resolution to tensions between the U.S. and Russia.
“What gives me a sense that we may be able to solve the situation is the fact that Putin did call our President and suggestions were made,” she said.
During the same appearance, Feinstein addressed President Barack Obama’s proposals to reform the NSA’s bulk data collection efforts.
The California Senator, a noted proponent of the government’s data collection efforts, said that she supports the President’s reform proposals, which include placing new limits on the number of “hops” intelligence officials can make from a suspect in collecting call data and limiting the amount of time the data can be stored to 18 months.
Another of the President’s proposals would allow telecommunications companies, not the NSA, to store Americans’ personal information, a provision that Feinstein says she is worried about because the spy agency is “supervised and watched.”
Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), an outspoken surveillance critic, also discussed Obama’s proposed NSA reforms on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
The Oregon Democrat disagreed with Feinstein with regard to telecommunications companies holding on to user data rather than the government. Wyden went on to say that he would prefer banning “all dragnet surveillance on law-abiding Americans, not just phone records but also medical records, purchases and others” to any of the reforms offered by the President.
“What the government has been doing is running a Federal human relations database,” Wyden said. “When the government has the information [of] how [you] called, when you called, they know a lot about your private life.”
Wyden went on to harshly criticize the officials in charge of the Nation’s intelligence gathering efforts.
“I think we need an upgrade in the intelligence leadership,” Wyden responded to a question about his faith in Intelligence Director James Clapper.
With the latest Obamacare non-deadline set for Monday, Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) told “Fox News Sunday” that the White House’s claim that 6 million people have signed up for healthcare through the government exchanges means nothing.
“I think they’re cooking the books on this. People want to know the answers,” he said.
He continued, “They also want to know, once this is said and done, what kind of insurance will those people actually have? Will they be able to keep the doctor they want? How much more is it going to cost them? We know that some of the best cancer hospitals in the country want very little to do with people that actually buy this.”
Meanwhile, former Obama adviser David Plouffe told “This Week” that Obamacare is a success that will improve even further as more Americans sign up for healthcare coverage.
“The law’s working, and this was a seminal achievement. By the way, if you count people going directly to private insurance companies, Medicaid, children’s health care, you’re talking well north of ten million people have health care and tens of millions of more have security,” he said. “And the politics are tough. They will always be tough. I think they’ll get better over time. The law is working and the Republican playbook of repeal Obamacare, repeal Obamacare, repeal Obamacare gets tough as more and more people get healthcare. And I think smart Republicans understand that.”
To that, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol added, “No actual Democratic Senator running for reelection sounds like David Plouffe.”
On “State of the Union,” former deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton supported Kristol’s assertion, noting that Democrats’ decisions to run on, or from, Obamacare will be based on the attitudes of individual voting districts.
“I’m not going to sit here and say this is the biggest political asset the Democrats have going into the election, especially when the battlefield districts are ones Mitt Romney largely won. But ultimately, Democrats are going to do what is right for their district. They’re either going to fight and show what is good about Obamacare or they’re going to show where it has defects,” he said.
A $1 million, taxpayer-funded internal investigation conducted by a law firm with ties to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie cleared him of any knowledge of the politically motivated lane closures that precipitated a massive traffic jam in September.
The law firm blamed the George Washington Bridge lane closures on Christie’s former deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly, an “emotional” and “erratic” person who was “personally involved” with the Governor’s chief of staff Bill Stepien, until Stepien broke up with her.
Christie fired Kelly in January.
Christie’s recent rhetoric suggests that the Governor believes the worst of the political scandal is behind him. But Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who’s heading up a separate investigation in the New Jersey General Assembly, suggests otherwise.
Wisniewski told “This Week” that, while his investigation team hasn’t had the chance to talk to some key players in the scandal, the email that implicated Kelly was likely sent at the direction of a superior in the Governor’s office.
He said, “Bridget Kelly who sent the e-mail that said time for traffic in Fort Lee; we don’t know why or who authorized her.
“It’s hard to believe, understanding how this Governor’s office works, that she woke up and decided it would be a great idea to find traffic.”
At the suggestion that the investigation had not found any evidence to that effect, Wisniewski said, “We have not and are not finished.”
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani acknowledged that the investigation into Christie’s bridge scandal isn’t over, saying of the completed internal investigation, “I would not accept it as a complete investigation, but I would accept it for what it’s worth.”
On Saturday, Christie signaled that he’s considering an establishment-backed run in the 2016 GOP Presidential primary when he courted elite donors of the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas. The event, which brought out GOP insiders like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Ohio Governor John Kasich and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, is a chance for GOP establishment hopefuls to impress the Republican Party’s “most elite donors,” particularly casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.
Notably absent from the event were any of the lawmakers deemed “wackobirds” by Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) last year — which is all the same, because much of its talk centered around donors’ worries of “isolationist” rhetoric in the GOP.
To tie this all back to Christie’s bridge scandal is simple: If he comes away unscathed, he could be the GOP establishment candidate bankrolled to beat out a Presidential challenger like Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.). Early polls show that Paul could likely retain the populist support needed to win the Presidency for the GOP in 2016. But, unlike Christie, Bush and other neocons, he lacks the good graces of the Republican establishment powerbrokers who have handpicked previous party standard-bearers.