Good morning from Augusta, where we’ll have an eye on the busy Maine Legislature and another on Washington, D.C., where former FBI Director James Comey will testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee after President Donald Trump fired him in May.
Comey previewed his testimony in a seven-page opening statement released by the committee on Wednesday. It said that in meetings and phone calls, the president said he expected “loyalty,” hoped Comey could drop an investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s ties to Russia and asked what could be done to “lift the cloud” over his presidency.
Trump’s private lawyer said the Republican president felt “vindicated” in a statement, noting that Comey confirmed what Trump has already claimed — that the president himself wasn’t under FBI investigation. But that’s separate from questions about him pressuring Comey.
Those are the questions sure to be explored by senators on Thursday, including Republican Susan Collins and independent Angus King of Maine, who serve on the intelligence committee. Both have previewed their possible tacks in interviews during the past week.
Collins told CNN last night that Trump’s “loyalty” request was “clearly inappropriate,” chalking it up to the president’s “lack of understanding and appreciation … of the role of the FBI.” She said she’s interested “the context and the exact words that were said” during Comey’s conversation with Flynn.
On Sunday, she told CBS’ “Face the Nation” that she was eager to question Comey on his assurances to Trump that he wasn’t being investigated, wondering why he’d tell him that.
It’s addressed to a point in Comey’s statement, in which he says it was discussed with the FBI’s leadership team before he briefed Trump in January on “personally sensitive” pieces of the investigation into Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election.
King, who caucuses with Democrats, had a moment in the national spotlight on Wednesday, when he challenged intelligence officials about their conversations with the White House and got few answers. But he has tried to play down the hearing to a degree so far, warning on WCSH to not “get too amped up about this” because Comey will likely “try to keep his testimony low key.”
He told CNN on Tuesday that he’s interested in the circumstances surrounding Comey’s firing and previous meetings, but that he has more questions that he’ll wait until the hearing to reveal. So, tune in: TV Newser also has the major networks’ coverage plans for today.
When we were discussing coverage plans, my Daily Brief colleague, Chris Cousins, had one thing he wanted Comey to address: “I want to hear him sing ‘Comey Comey Comey Comey Comey chameleoooooon.’ ” Here’s your unlistenable alt-right soundtrack. — Michael Shepherd
- At another hearing in Washington today, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree plans to grill Trump’s interior secretary on Maine’s national monument. The Trump administration put the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument on its list of 27 monuments to be reviewed for compliance with federal law last month. On Thursday, Pingree, a Democrat from Maine’s 1st District who supported former President Barack Obama’s designation of the monument near Millinocket last year, plans to ask Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke about his intentions for it at a hearing of the House Interior Appropriations Committee at 9:30 a.m. You can watch it here. — Michael Shepherd
- The Maine Senate gave decisive approval Wednesday to a bill that would restore the state’s corps of public health nurses. The vote was 30-5 in favor of LD 1108, with all 17 Democrats and 13 of 18 Republicans supporting it. It was sponsored by Sen. Brownie Carson, D-Harpswell, and follows a BDN Maine Focus story last summer detailing a major and unannounced contraction of Maine’s public health nursing program as the LePage administration refused to fill vacancies despite the Legislature funding positions. When Gov. Paul LePage took office in 2011, Maine employed about 50 nurses spread across the state whose job was to respond to disease outbreaks and other public health emergencies; visit postpartum mothers and their babies at home, a strategy that can prevent infant deaths; and provide school nurse services in rural schools that couldn’t manage to hire nurses of their own. Today, the number of nurses is down to about 20. “We don’t know what the next outbreak will be or the next public health crisis will be,” said Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, who voted for the bill. “The key is getting to it prepared and, at present, we are simply unprepared.” It faces further action in both chambers. — Matthew Stone
- One bill to expand Maine’s TANF program is off and running, others not so much. A handful of bills designed to make changes in the state’s public assistance program for families went through the House on Wednesday. LD 336 would extend Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits to two-parent families and increase from $200 to $300 the special housing allowance for qualified families. The bill, which has a multi-million-dollar price tag but would be funded with federal dollars that have been piling up unspent in Maine, skated through the House on Wednesday on a 146-0 vote. LD 1302, which would increase funding for vehicle repairs for TANF recipients from $1,000 to $2,000, was approved on an 83-63 vote. LD 481 would alter the formula for determining the level of TANF benefits to disperse, based on a person’s income, for the effect of ramping down TANF benefits gradually as a person’s income increases. It passed 77-70 on Wednesday in the House. LD 480, which would restrict the issuance of a range of social service benefits for certain non-citizens, failed on a 77-70 vote. Also defeated on similar votes were LD 219 and LD 10, which would similarly restrict funds in the General Assistance program and increase penalties for fraudulent activity. LD 33, which would have decreased the lifetime limit on receiving TANF benefits from five years to three years, was defeated by mostly Democrats, 77-69. Based on the votes, it looks as if LD 336 alone could fare well as it goes to the Senate and ultimately to LePage, but the others were essentially party-line votes that probably spell those bills’ eventual doom. — Christopher Cousins
- Strong support is emerging for a bill to bolster the purchase of Narcan without a prescription. LD 1594 would create Maine Board of Pharmacy training for pharmacists who wish to dispense the overdose antidote medication to people at risk of overdose or people who are in a position to assist those people. Pharmacists can already dispense the medication; this bill would put some structure behind the practice if it is enacted. That seems likely following a 126-20 vote Wednesday in the House, though it still needs to survive the Senate and a likely veto by LePage.. — Christopher Cousins
Today in A-town
It’s been the same story for several days and will continue during the next couple of weeks: The House and Senate have dozens of bills on their dockets and will likely debate them into the early or mid-afternoon. Check out their calendars here and here, respectively.
Quite a bit of attention will be focused on LD 832, which would force LePage to release $15 million worth of voter-approved bonds for the construction of affordable housing for senior citizens. The bonds were approved by voters in 2015 but LePage has refused their sale and vetoed the bill. The Senate overrode the veto with a 26-9 vote on Wednesday but finding enough support among Republicans in the House could be a challenge.
Atop the committee schedule today is a work session on ranked-choice voting in the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, where the committee should make progress on recommending a path forward for the voter-approved law already found unconstitutional by Maine’s high court. We think it’s tracking toward repeal.
Keep it tuned to the Bangor Daily News for major developments. — Christopher Cousins with Michael Shepherd
- LePage quietly dismissed watchdogs who revealed a crisis in Maine’s youth prison — Jake Bleiberg and Rosie Hughes, Bangor Daily News
- Sen. Angus King grills intelligence officials over specifics of private conversations with Trump — Reuters
- ‘I expect loyalty,’ Trump told Comey, according to written testimony — The Washington Post
- Maine lawmakers buck LePage, pass mineral mining rules after years of debate — Christopher Cousins, BDN
- Democratic offer to trim voter-approved surtax fails to break Maine budget impasse — Michael Shepherd, BDN
- Maine Senate backs reinstating ‘tip credit’ for restaurant servers — Shepherd
- LePage’s latest salvo in energy fight aims to link long-term energy deals to forest jobs — Darren Fishell, BDN
- LePage preparing to grant more inmates early releases, says corrections chief — Jake Bleiberg, BDN
- Maine drinkers, get ready to start paying a deposit on your nip bottles — Cousins
- Maine’s highest court sides with island inn over neighbor’s complaint — Alex Acquisto, BDN
The State House scandal nobody’s talking about
I was milling around outside a Senate staffer’s office on Tuesday when I noticed a poster that said a conspicuous trophy with several fish on it is missing and telling anyone who finds it to return it to its home in the office of House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport.
So, I texted Gideon spokeswoman Mary-Erin Casale, who said the Senate “stole our trophy” from a regular fishing tournament between the chambers and left a ransom note demanding “a session’s worth of Coffee Mate creamer,” calling it “an outrage!”
This wasn’t exactly denied by the Republican majority in the Senate, which responded on Twitter to say, “Not everyone gets a trophy!”
But Casale backed her accusation with harder proof on Wednesday, providing another ransom note received by Gideon’s office, saying, “If you want to see the trophy again, we want 1000 shovels manufactured at a facility in Waldo County.”
Maybe it’s crony capitalism or maybe he’s being framed, but Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, is a shovel entrepreneur who runs Mt. Waldo Plastics in North Frankfort. Here’s your soundtrack. — Michael Shepherd
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