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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

By Brian Bennett, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The nation’s Homeland Security chief pushed back Thursday against Republican threats to cut off funding for the department to protest President Barack Obama’s immigration policies.

The department’s budget runs out at the end of February, and Republicans have threatened to hold up additional appropriations unless the Obama administration pulls back plans to stop the deportation of up to 4 million immigrants who are in the country illegally.

“In these times, the Homeland Security budget of this country should not be a political football,” Jeh Johnson, the secretary of homeland security, said at the Wilson Center, a think tank in Washington.

The United States faces increased threats from terrorist groups, Johnson said, particularly in the wake of the three-day killing spree that left 17 people dead in Paris this month. An al-Qaida offshoot in Yemen claimed responsibility.

To press his point, Johnson showed the audience a photo of himself as an 8-year-old boy with his family next to their Buick convertible. It was parked a few feet from the U.S. Capitol during a sightseeing visit in 1966.

That would not be allowed today, Johnson said.

“Sadly, there are threats to our homeland security today that did not exist in 1966,” Johnson said. “We have to be vigilant.”

Johnson said that his agency and the FBI do a “reasonably good job” of tracking Westerners who have joined the civil war in Syria, or the insurgency in Iraq, and may try to return home to launch attacks.

Europe faces a greater immediate danger, Johnson said, because thousands of French, British, German, Dutch and other citizens have traveled to Syria, compared with about 100 Americans.

“They have much bigger numbers,” he said.

Johnson said his department is reviewing security measures to screen travelers, mostly from countries in Europe, who don’t require visas to enter the United States.

U.S. lawmakers have asked the administration to further restrict the so-called visa waiver program to help prevent fighters with European passports from crossing a U.S. border.

Earlier this month, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) described the visa waiver program as the “Achilles’ heel of America.”

Passengers from visa waiver countries need not be interviewed by an American consular officer. They instead fill out an online information form before boarding a U.S.-bound flight.

The information is checked against U.S. databases for ties to terrorist groups or suspicious travel patterns. Last year, the U.S. increased the amount of information such travelers must provide.

Three former secretaries of homeland security also spoke out Thursday about threats by Congress to shut down funding for the department.

Tom Ridge, Michael Chertoff and Janet Napolitano sent a joint letter to Senate leaders asking them not to link Homeland Security funding with the effort to stop Obama’s immigration actions.
“Funding for the entire agency should not be put in jeopardy by the debate about immigration,” the three wrote in the letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV).

Ridge and Chertoff served in the Republican administration of President George W. Bush. Napolitano, a Democrat, headed the department during Obama’s first term.

Obama has said he would veto a spending bill that stripped funding for his new executive actions on immigration.

In addition to enforcing immigration and customs laws, the Homeland Security Department is responsible for aviation and border security, protecting the president and responding to natural disasters.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany was forced to defend President Donald Trump's recent attacks on MSNBC host Joe Scarborough on Tuesday, an unenviable task she nevertheless intentionally signed up for. She desperately tried to divert the attention back to Scarborough — without engaging in the president's conspiracy theorizing — but offered no credible defense of the president's conduct.

Trump has been spreading the debunked theory that Scarborough killed a staffer in 2001 while he was in Congress, even though it was determined she died of natural causes. The staffer's widower wrote a released a letter on Tuesday pleading with Twitter to take down the president's offensive tweets promoting the thoery. He said he was "angry," "frustrated," and "grieved" by the president's promotion of the harmful allegations. Trump is perverting his late wife's memory, he said, and he fears her niece and nephews will encounter these attacks.When asked about the letter, McEnany said she wasn't sure if the president had seen it. But she said their "hearts" are with the woman's family "at this time." It was a deeply ironic comment because the only particularly traumatizing thing about "this time" for the family is the president's attacks, which come nearly two decades after the woman's death.

McEnany refused to offer any explanation of Trump's comments and instead redirected reporters to a clip of Scarborough on Don Imus's radio show in 2003. In that show, Imus made a tasteless joke obliquely referring to the death, and Scarborough laughed at it briefly.

"Why is the president making these unfounded allegations?" asked ABC News' Jonathan Karl. "I mean, this is pretty nuts, isn't it? The president is accusing someone of possible murder. The family is pleading with the president to please stop unfounded conspiracy theories. Why is he doing it?""The president said this morning, this is not an original Trump thought. And it is not," she said, bringing up the Imus clip. But she made no mention of why the president is bringing up the issue 17 years later and with a much larger platform.

When pressed further on the president's conduct, she again diverted blame to Scarborough, saying his morning show unfairly criticizes the president. But again, she offered no substantive defense of Trump.

After McEnany had moved on, PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor brought it up again: "Why won't the president give this widower peace and stop tweeting about the conspiracy theory involving his wife?"

McEnany said she had already answered the question, which she hadn't, and said the onus is on Scarborough to explain the Imus clip."The widower is talking specifically about the president!" Alcindor shot back. But McEnany called on Chanel Rion, with the aggressively pro-Trump outlet OAN, who changed the subject to conspiracy theories about the origins of the Russia investigation.

"Are you not going to answer that?" Alcindor called out, still trying to get a substantive response to her question, but Rion spoke over her.

At the end of the briefing, another reporter asked whether Trump was looking for any actual law enforcement steps be taken in response to his conspiracy theory. But McEnany had nothing to add, and simply told people to listen to the Imus clip again. As she hurried out of the briefing room, a reporter asked if Trump would stop promoting the theory — but she left without answering.

Watch the exchange about Klausutis, which begins at 48:45.