At the State of the Union, Trump touts tax cuts and immigration deal

With a president as mercurial as Trump, it was anyone’s guess what would happen during his first State of the Union address. The appearance is the president’s most high profile public speaking moment of the year and Trump was expected to touch on some of the issues of the moment, including funding for a border wall, infrastructure and an immigration deal.

While less likely if things went according to plan though totally possible if he veered off script, it wasn’t clear if Trump would dig into the white-hot topic of the ongoing Russia investigation being conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. That scenario would have proved a nightmare for his legal team and the White House, though with the speech done, they should be able to rest easy (for now).

As the address began, Trump hit a series of surprisingly hopeful notes, with declarations of “a new tide of optimism” and praise for the nation including an unusually ego-less assertion that “our state of the union is strong because our people are strong.”

As he moved deeper into the speech, Trump waded into some familiar ideological territory, chiding those who kneel during the national anthem as an act of protest.

In a portion of his speech touching on the tax cuts, Trump touched on Apple’s recent announcement that it would bring much of its tax-sheltered wealth abroad back to American shores thanks to a friendlier tax rate:

“Since we passed tax cuts, roughly three million workers have already gotten tax cut bonuses. Many of them, thousands and thousands of dollars per worker and it’s getting more every month, every week. Apple has just announced it plans to invest a total of $350 billion in America, and hire another 20,000 workers.”

Trump was widely expected to tout the Republican tax cut plan, his only significant legislative win from a year spent navigating the process of lawmaking with a fully Republican-controlled Congress.

A bit later, Trump detoured into an portion of the speech on the pharmaceutical industry, declaring the “injustice” of high U.S. drug prices as one of his “top priorities for the year.”

“In many other countries, these drugs cost far less than what we pay in the United States and it is very, very unfair,” Trump said.

As expected, Trump announced plans for a $1.5 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill “tapping into private sector investment.”

Toward the end of the speech, Trump launched into the four pillars of a plan that would resolve the congressional gridlock around creating a path to citizenship for DACA-recipients. Expectedly, the path of the Dreamers is tied directly to “building a great wall on the southern border,” which in all likelihood will look more like a patchwork of physical barriers and surveillance technology.

Trump also announced an end to the Visa lottery system in favor of a “merit-based” system of immigration, “a program that randomly plans out green cards without regard for skill, merit, for the safety of American people,” in the president’s words.

“Time to begin moving toward a merit based immigration system, one that admits people who are skilled, who want to work, who will contribute to our society,” Trump said. He also announced plans to limit immigration sponsorships to “spouses and minor children.”

To see how the American public responded to the big speech, Google pulled together some search trends to depict what people were searching for as the address went on.

Popular search terms during the speech included “steve scalise,” “who is sitting behind trump,” “trump party planner, “live fact check trump” and, oddly, “trump clapping,” possibly a reference to what appear to have been his own very amplified claps into the microphone following major talking points.

All told, the speech was a mix of style — rousing the base, hitting the right anecdotes — and a bit of substance around actual policy proposals like the immigration deal. Given the potential nightmare scenarios here, Republicans and White House officials are likely to be pleased with the president’s performance.

By any other presidency’s standards, the speech had some wildly controversial moments — particularly an alarming call to remove federal workers who “undermine the public trust or fail the American people” while rewarding the loyal — but by 2018 standards, and Trump standards, it was fairly safe.

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Why you should care about the warrantless surveillance bill on its way to Trump’s desk

After debate ended in a close cloture vote on Tuesday, the Senate has voted to pass a bill that will renew one of the NSA’s most controversial practices for another six years. The bill, known as the FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act of 2017 or S.139, provides for an extension of the U.S. government’s practice of collecting the private communications of American citizens when they are to communicating with a foreign target. The six year renewal passed in a 65-34 vote.

Over the course of its long path toward renewal, the bill faced vocal opposition from privacy advocates. Many argue that Section 702 violates the Fourth Amendment’s provision forbidding unreasonable searches and seizures without a warrant. The bill’s supporters contend that it is “one of the U.S. government’s most important counterterrorism and counterintelligence tools” — and Congress appears to agree. Last year, in a rare win for anti-surveillance activists, the NSA announced that it would end the most controversial part of the already very controversial practice  — the one that allowed it to surveil Americans who even mentioned foreign targets (this is known as “about” collection).

Unlike many controversial laws, the Section 702 debate didn’t break down neatly along party lines. The Senate’s main opposition movement was bipartisan, led by Republican Rand Paul and Democrat Ron Wyden.

While the evidence backing up Section 702’s counterterrorism success isn’t particularly sound, it’s also beside the point. The key issue is that the law allows the NSA to surveil foreign spying targets, picking up messages to and from Americans who weren’t the initial focus of an investigation in the process. (That’s the bit that would normally necessitate a warrant.)

As the Electronic Frontier Foundation explains:

“Section 702 is supposed to do exactly what its name promises: collection of foreign intelligence from non-Americans located outside the United States. As the law is written, the intelligence community cannot use Section 702 programs to target Americans, who are protected by the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures. But the law gives the intelligence community space to target foreign intelligence in ways that inherently and intentionally sweep in Americans’ communications.”

If you’d like to read the case for Section 702, the House Intelligence Committee’s homepage lays out an argument from its Republican majority, albeit one that’s intentionally misleading about how Section 702 incidentally sweeps up domestic communications. The House Intel page also largely glosses over the core question of constitutionality.

Privacy organizations who view that question as a central one spoke out against the bill as it made its way to the president’s desk on Thursday.

Robyn Greene, Policy Counsel and Government Affairs Lead at New America’s Open Technology Institute:

“It’s shocking that at a time when our government is singling out communities for increased scrutiny based on their country of origin, faith, or race, the Senate would vote to expand Section 702 surveillance, and to empower the government to warrantlessly search through 702 data for Americans’ communications. Those who supported this bill did a disservice to the American people and to our democratic values.”

Neema Singh Guliani, ACLU legislative counsel:

“Congress abdicated its responsibility to ensure that our intelligence agencies respect the Fourth Amendment. Instead of instituting much needed reforms, lawmakers voted to give the Trump administration broad powers to spy on Americans and foreigners at home and abroad without a warrant. No president should have this power, much less one who has endorsed policies designed to unfairly target critics, immigrants, and minority communities…

“The ACLU is currently challenging warrantless surveillance under Section 702 and will continue to fight this unlawful surveillance in the courts. We will use every tool at our disposal to stop the continued abuse of these spying powers.”

Republican Senator Rand Paul:

“I rise in opposition to the government listening to your phone calls, reading your emails, or reading your text messages without a warrant. It doesn’t mean the government will never do this, but it means they would have to ask a judge. They would have to ask a judge if they have probable cause that you have committed a crime. They would have to name you. They would have to name the information they want. It’s called the Fourth Amendment.”

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden on S. 139:

“It is worse than business-as-usual: It explicitly authorizes warrantless searches of law-abiding Americans, us, and allows for the collection of communications entirely among innocent Americans who reference the wrong foreigner, and gives the attorney general unchecked power to decide when the government can use what it finds against us, to pick just three of its many troubling provisions.

“But I’ve been in this fight for a long time. And while today’s vote is a disappointment, the battle to protect Americans from unnecessary government spying isn’t over. Americans across the political spectrum have made clear that liberty and security are not mutually exclusive. Americans won’t stop fighting to end this abuse of power, and neither will I.”

Now, only a signature from President Trump stands between American citizens and six more years of Section 702.

Featured Image: SAUL LOEB / Staff/Getty Images

Tech executives join more than 100 business leaders calling on Congress to move quickly on DACA

Many of tech’s most prominent executives have joined more than 100 American business leaders in signing an open letter asking Congress to take action on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program before it expires on March 5. Tim Cook, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and Sundar Pichai, the chief executives of Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Google respectively, are among the executives who want Congress to pass legislation ensuring that Dreamers, or undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children and were granted approval by the program, can continue to live and work in the country without risk of deportation. Failure to do so will not only result in upheaval, but may also potentially cost the U.S. economy $215 billion, they said.

Tech companies have been among the most vocal supporters of Dreamers since the Trump administration announced in September that it plans to end DACA. Other tech leaders who put their names on the letter, which was sent to Congressional leaders and will also run as a full-page newspaper ad on Thursday paid for by the Coalition for the American Dream (a PDF is at the bottom of this article), include IBM CEO Ginni Rometty; Brad Smith, the president and chief legal officer of Microsoft; Hewlett-Packard Enterprise CEO Meg Whitman; and CEOs or other leading executives of AT&T, Dropbox, Upwork, Cisco Systems,, LinkedIn, Intel, Warby Parker, Uber, Airbnb, Slack, Box, Twitter, PayPal,, Lyft, Etsy, AdRoll, eBay, StitchCrew, SurveyMonkey, DoorDash, Oath and Verizon*.

Addressed to House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, the open letter calls on Congress to vote on extending DACA by January 19 in order to give the Department of Homeland Security time to implement changes before March 5.

That timing would also make sure new legislation is passed before a potential government shutdown if Democrats and Republicans can’t reach a compromise on government spending. The letter says “In addition to causing a tremendous upheaval in the lives of DACA employees, failure to act in time will lead to businesses losing valuable talent, cause disruptions in the workforce and will result in significant costs. Studies by economists across the ideological spectrum have also determined that if Congress fails to act our economy could lose $215 billion in GDP.”

DACA was implemented in June 2012 by the Obama administration after the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which would have given Dreamers a way to apply for permanent residency, failed to pass Congress. DACA grants Dreamers two years of deferred action from deportation and also makes them eligible for a work permit. The Trump administration revoked the DACA program in September, but delayed its cancellation by six months so Congress would have time to figure out what to do with the 800,000 people protected under DACA.

President Donald Trump has expressed support for Dreamers, but he also insisted this week that he would not back a DACA bill unless it included funding for the Mexican border wall that he says will stop illegal immigration.

*Disclosure: TechCrunch is owned by Oath (formerly AOL), which is in turn owned by Verizon.

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H-1B visa extensions for workers waiting on green cards are safe for now

The Trump administration appears to be creating distance between itself and rumors that it might end the practice of extending H-1B visas during the green card application process. The rumored change would have a large impact on foreign tech workers in the U.S., but the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is offering assurances that no such policy change is underway.

In a statement to TechCrunch, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Chief of Media Relations Jonathan Withington noted that the agency is examining other potential policy changes in light of the “Buy American, Hire American” executive order, which the president signed last April. That includes “a thorough review of employment based visa programs,” though USCIS explained that the H1-B extension policy was not on the chopping block.

USCIS clarified its stance in a statement to TechCrunch:

“We are not at liberty to discuss any part of the pre-decisional processes; however, all proposed rules publish in the federal register and USCIS posts all policy memoranda on our website…

“What we can say, however, is that USCIS is not considering a regulatory change that would force H-1B visa holders to leave the United States by changing our interpretation of section 104(c) of AC-21, which provides for H-1B extensions beyond the 6 year limit.

Even if it were, such a change would not likely result in these H-1B visa holders having to leave the United States because employers could request extensions in one-year increments under section 106(a)-(b) of AC21 instead.”

McClatchy reports that this reassurance comes after the business community sharply rebuked the potential policy change, though USCIS denies that claim.

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Twitter asserts that it won’t ban Trump because he’s a world leader

Just days after President Trump’s tweets antagonized a foreign adversary over who would be first to start nuclear war, Twitter has addressed calls for the company to ban the chatty, often bellicose U.S. president.

In a vague post called “World Leaders on Twitter,” Twitter awkwardly sidestepped the controversy over whether Trump’s Twitter account violates its terms of service altogether, instead asserting that it doesn’t matter if a world leader violates its terms of service  — they should have a home on the platform nonetheless. The post never names Trump.

Their words:

There’s been a lot of discussion about political figures and world leaders on Twitter, and we want to share our stance.

Twitter is here to serve and help advance the global, public conversation. Elected world leaders play a critical role in that conversation because of their outsized impact on our society.

Blocking a world leader from Twitter or removing their controversial Tweets, would hide important information people should be able to see and debate. It would also not silence that leader, but it would certainly hamper necessary discussion around their words and actions.

We review Tweets by leaders within the political context that defines them, and enforce our rules accordingly. No one person’s account drives Twitter’s growth, or influences these decisions. We work hard to remain unbiased with the public interest in mind.

We are working to make Twitter the best place to see and freely discuss everything that matters. We believe that’s the best way to help our society make progress.

Whether Trump has in fact violated Twitter’s policies on user behavior is an open debate. Most users can’t back up their casual threats with a nuclear arsenal, so it’s safe to say that the Trump Twitter situation poses some uniquely weighty questions. Some even argue that Trump’s Twitter threats are an exercise in nuclear deterrence and can be categorized more as bizarrely articulated military policy than the kind of tweet that might violate Twitter’s rules banning “specific threats of violence.”

While plenty of Trump’s older tweets dabble in online harassment, it sounds like anything goes for world leaders so long as they’re elected. But lots of despots are “elected.” Would Rodrigo Duterte get the same pass were he to threaten state-sponsored brutality in specific terms? Would Kim Jong-un? According to this, it sounds like yes.

If you’re still using Twitter, you probably won’t be surprised by the fact that the company retains its right to impose its own rules selectively — after all, it’s been doing so for years. Calling for Twitter to take an ideological stand in order to prevent a social media-spurred international nuclear conflict is a nice thought, but considering how deeply committed tech companies are to the illusion of neutrality — which happens to dovetail nicely with the spineless art of self preservation — it’s not a very realistic one.

Featured Image: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

White House bans personal cellphone use in the West Wing

In a statement on Thursday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced that personal cellphones will no longer be allowed in the West Wing.

“The security and integrity of the technology systems at the White House is a top priority for the Trump administration and therefore the use of all personal devices for both guests and staff will no longer be allowed in the West Wing. Staff will be able to conduct business on their government-issued devices and continue working hard on behalf of the American people,” Sanders said in a statement on the new policy.

Rumors of a potential ban have circulated for months. “One official said that there are too many devices connected to the campus wireless network and that personal phones aren’t as secure as those issued by the federal government,” sources told Bloomberg in November. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly is widely viewed as a proponent of the move.

In February, CNN reported that then Press Secretary Sean Spicer forced his own staff to undergo surprise “checks” on their personal devices to check for secret communications with the press or other potential leaks. “Upon entering Spicer’s office for what one person briefed on the gathering described as ‘an emergency meeting,’ staffers were told to dump their phones on a table for a ‘phone check,’ to prove they had nothing to hide,” Politico reported at the time.

While the Trump administration is trying to spin the new “no personal device” policy as a security issue, the fact of reporter Michael Wolff’s bombshell White House exposé release this week certainly calls that into doubt. The administration has railed against leaks and leakers since its earliest days and the personal device ban appears to a belated, and likely doomed, effort to control the messaging that spills out of a deeply chaotic presidency.

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Trump’s website is coded with a broken server error message that blames Obama

If you’re a fan of easter eggs hidden in source code, this is a pretty good one. Apparently, as Washington Post data reporter Christopher Ingraham observed on Twitter, some Trump administration and GOP websites have a portion of code with a joke that throws shade at Obama’s golf habits, the irony nowhere to be found.

We checked the source code and sure enough the line “Oops! Something went wrong. Unlike Obama, we are working to fix the problem… and not on the golf course” appears on sites, like the one hosting this surely statistically sound, Obama-obsessed “Inaugural Year Approval Poll,” but not on pages.

As Ingraham pointed out, it’s also present on some official GOP sites, including the homepage. In both instances, the Obama dig is paired with a 404 error message that states “What do Hillary Clinton and this link have in common? They’re both dead broke.” Both the Obama and Clinton insults have a distinctly Trumpian vibe, but surely neither is an exercise in Freudian psychological projection.

To top it off, the code itself is apparently itself broken, swapping a single equal sign where there should be two. An honest mistake? Or perhaps the world was never meant to be gifted with these very good jokes at all?

Thanks, Obama!

Featured Image: Mark Wilson/Getty Images