Yesterday I called Dakinikat early in the morning to tell her about a long investigative piece at The Miami Herald: Trump cheered Patriots to Super Bowl victory with founder of spa where Kraft was busted. She posted a brief excerpt from it in her Friday post. It was just one more example of the corruption Trumph has enabled since becoming “president,” right? Well it looks like there’s a lot more to this story and it could blow up into a huge scandal.
Yesterday multiple photos of prominent Republicans posing with Li “Cindy” Yang, the subject of the Miami Herald story, were posted on Twitter.
Yang founded a chain of “Asian day spas” in Florida, including Orchids of Asia Day Spa, which was recently busted for sex trafficking. Yang is no longer the owner of Orchids, but she and her family members still own numerous such “massage parlors” called Tokyo Day Spas, which are known for providing “sexual services.”
From the Miami Herald story linked above:
Before the 2016 general election, Yang offered no evidence of political engagement. She hadn’t voted in 10 years, records showed. But she has now become a fixture at Republican political events up and down the East Coast. Her Facebook is covered in photos of herself standing with President Trump, his two sons, Eric and Donald Jr., Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sen. Rick Scott, Sarah Palin, the president’s campaign manager and an assortment of other high-level Republican operators she has met at charity events, political fundraisers and galas, many of which require hefty donations to attend. She sometimes carries a rhinestone encrusted MAGA clutch purse.
Yang has shown considerable political largesse. Since 2017, she and her close relatives have contributed more than $42,000 to Trump Victory, a political action committee, and more than $16,000 to the president’s campaign.
In February 2018, Yang was invited by the White House to participate in an event hosted by the Asian American and Pacific Islander Initiative, an advisory commission Trump established by executive order the year before. Later in the year, she attended at least two more AAPI events in Washington, D.C., according to her Facebook page.
The article says that Yang is planning to get out of the day spa business and plans to move to Washington, DC. More on Yang from the Herald piece:
When Donald Trump became a serious candidate for president, politics began to dominate her social media presence.
In January 2017, she was in the crowd at Trump’s inauguration in Washington, D.C. Later that year, she snapped a photo with Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway. In December, she attended her first elite event at President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago, a poolside steak lunch.
In September 2018, Yang received a personalized note from the president and first lady. It read: “Thank you for your friendship and dedication to our cause. Leaders like you in Florida are the key to fulfilling our bold agenda to Make America Great Again!” [….]
Over the past two years, Yang has racked up a who’s who of photos with politicians at more than a dozen political events. She has enough pictures of the president’s private clubs to fill an album.
In 2018, she attended a Safari Night at Mar-a-Lago hosted by the president’s sister, Elizabeth Trump Grau, as well as the White House’s celebration of the Lunar New Year at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. She took photos with Florida’s soon-to-be-governor, Ron DeSantis, at a pro-Israel gala held at Mar-a-Lago, met U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao in Washington, D.C., and posed with Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale, U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, U.S. Rep Matt Gaetz and former Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. She also posted a photograph of herself with DeSantis at a restaurant, saying she was having “brunch this morning with Florida’s next Governor.”
She was photographed with Donald Trump Jr. at a winter Mar-a-Lago gala for Turning Points USA, the conservative college organization, and met Eric Trump last month.
Yang claims she doesn’t know Trump personally and is just a volunteer at campaign events. But it turns out there’s a lot more to this story. David Corn at Mother Jones this morning: A Florida Massage Parlor Owner Has Been Selling Chinese Execs Access to Trump at Mar-a-Lago.
…there is another angle to the strange story of Yang: She runs an investment business that has offered to sell Chinese clients access to Trump and his family. And a website for the business—which includes numerous photos of Yang and her purported clients hobnobbing at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s private club in Palm Beach—suggests she had some success in doing so.
Yang, who goes by Cindy, and her husband, Zubin Gong, started GY US Investments LLC in 2017. The company describes itself on its website, which is mostly in Chinese, as an “international business consulting firm that provides public relations services to assist businesses in America to establish and expand their brand image in the modern Chinese marketplace.” But the firm notes that its services also address clients looking to make high-level connections in the United States. On a page displaying a photo of Mar-a-Lago, Yang’s company says its “activities for clients” have included providing them “the opportunity to interact with the president, the [American] Minister of Commerce and other political figures.” The company boasts it has “arranged taking photos with the President” and suggests it can set up a “White House and Capitol Hill Dinner.” (The same day the Herald story about Yang broke, the website stopped functioning.) [….]
The GY US Investments website lists upcoming events at Mar-a-Lago at which Yang’s clients presumably can mingle with Trump or members of his family. This includes something called the International Leaders Elite Forum, where Trump’s sister, Elizabeth Trump Grau, will supposedly be the featured speaker. Attendees, the site says, will include “Chinese elites from various countries, including the US states, as well as elite leaders from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Australia, Europe and other countries and regions.” Another event for which Yang’s firm says it can provide access is Trump’s annual New Year’s celebration at Mar-a-Lago. Elsewhere on the website, the firm boasts that “GY Company arranged a number of guests to attend the 2019 New Year’s Eve dinner. All the guests took photos with” members of Trump’s family. This page displays photos of Chinese executives and a Chinese movie star with Donald Trump Jr., suggesting that these pics were arranged by the company, and also includes a photo of Yang with Elizabeth Trump Grau.
I wonder if Yang has anything to do with all those Chinese licensing agreements and trademarks Ivanka keeps getting? Honestly, there is no bottom to the Trump family’s corruption, and there are probably more grifters like Yang picking up the scraps.
In other news, Gabriel Sherman has background on why former Fox News exec Bill Shine is no longer in charge of the White House communications shop: “Trump has been calling him Bill “no shine”: Why Roger Ailes’s Former Right Hand is Leaving the West Wing.
“Bill was iced out,” a Republican close to the White House told me, echoing the view of multiple sources that the president had been souring on the former Fox News co-president for months. “Trump has been calling him Bill ‘No Shine,’” one source briefed on the conversations told me.
Trump’s decision to hire Shine last July completed the Fox-ification of the West Wing. Shine got the job after his close friend Sean Hannity lobbied Trump to name Shine chief of staff. “The relationship was always Hannity based,” a former West Wing official explained. “When Trump hired him it was like he thought, ‘I’m getting Hannity.’ I’m like, no you’re getting the guy who produced Hannity.” Trump put Shine in charge of the beleaguered White House press operation with a mandate to plug leaks and improve his image. Shine accomplished neither. In Shine’s defense, the brief was impossible given Trump’s destructive Twitter habits. “Trump needs someone to blame for his bad press,” another former West Wing official said.
Shine was in over his head from the beginning. As Roger Ailes’s right hand, he had virtually no direct contacts with reporters and no involvement in Fox’s P.R. department. “Bill’s not a strategist,” a former Fox executive told me. That lack of experience was evident last September when Shine was caught flat-footed during the rollout of Bob Woodward’s book Fear. “Trump started complaining to people there was no advance prep on Woodward’s book,” the Republican close to the White House said. “Trump let Shine know he wasn’t happy.”
Trump should just hire Hannity as chief of staff and be done with it.
Medhi Hasan of The Intercept did a hard-hitting interview with Erik Prince and got him to admit to attending a high-level meeting at Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign. (The New York Times reported on the meeting in May 2018). Here’s a summary of the story at HuffPost: Ex-Mercenary CEO Erik Prince Admits To Trump Tower Meet With Donald Jr. And Saudi Emissary.
Erik Prince, former head of mercenary business Blackwater, revealed in a bombshell interview Friday that he attended a meeting in Trump Tower with Donald Trump Jr. and a representative of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to discuss “Iran policy” during the presidential campaign.
The interview marked the first time Prince has publicly acknowledged such a meeting. Prince said in congressional testimony in 2017 that he had no “official” or “unofficial” role in the campaign — other than a “yard sign” and writing “papers” — according to the transcript of his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee. Nor did he mention the meeting in his testimony, according to transcripts.
The New York Times reported last year that Prince organized the 2016 meeting at Trump Tower with President Donald Trump’s eldest son and Lebanese-American businessman George Nader. Nader revealed at the meeting that the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia wanted to aid Trump in his bid for the presidency, according to the newspaper.
The meeting also reportedly included now-top White House aide Stephen Miller and Israeli social media expert Joel Zamel.
The August meeting is yet another secret huddle with a representative of foreign governments that may have provided illegal international aid to sway the American election.
More stories to check out, links only:
Anne Applebaum at The Washington Post: The more we learn about Brexit, the more crooked it looks.
The Washington Post: Trump budget to propose slashing domestic spending, boosting defense.
The New York Times: Chelsea Manning Is Jailed for Refusing to Testify in WikiLeaks Case.
The New York Times: The Daintiest Slap on Paul Manafort’s Wrist.
The Los Angeles Times: How could anyone think Paul Manafort lived an ‘otherwise blameless’ life?
What stories are you following today?
Happy Valentine’s Day, Sky Dancers!!
Andrew McCabe’s book The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump will be released on Tuesday, and he will be interviewed on 60 Minutes on Sunday night. This might be one 60 Minutes I decide to watch.
McCabe was deputy director of the FBI under James Comey and he became acting director after Trump fired Comey. Trump attacked McCabe repeatedly, and eventually succeeded in driving him out of office. Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired McCabe one day before he could have retired with his full pension.
Today The Atlantic published an article adapted from McCabe’s book: Every Day Is a New Low in Trump’s White House.
On Wednesday, May 10, 2017, my first full day on the job as acting director of the FBI, I sat down with senior staff involved in the Russia case—the investigation into alleged ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. As the meeting began, my secretary relayed a message that the White House was calling. The president himself was on the line. I had spoken with him the night before, in the Oval Office, when he told me he had fired James Comey.
A call like this was highly unusual. Presidents do not, typically, call FBI directors. There should be no direct contact between the president and the director, except for national-security purposes. The reason is simple. Investigations and prosecutions need to be pursued without a hint of suspicion that someone who wields power has put a thumb on the scale.
The Russia team was in my office. I took the call on an unclassified line. That was another strange thing—the president was calling on a phone that was not secure. The voice on the other end said, It’s Don Trump calling. I said, Hello, Mr. President, how are you? Apart from my surprise that he was calling at all, I was surprised that he referred to himself as “Don.”
The president said, I’m good. You know—boy, it’s incredible, it’s such a great thing, people are really happy about the fact that the director’s gone, and it’s just remarkable what people are saying. Have you seen that? Are you seeing that, too?
He went on: I received hundreds of messages from FBI people—how happy they are that I fired him. There are people saying things on the media, have you seen that? What’s it like there in the building?
McCabe describes the reaction of FBI employees as one of shock and dismay. Trump then said he wanted to come to the FBI and “show all my FBI people how much I love them.” McCabe thought that was a terrible idea, but agreed to meet with Trump about it. Next, Trump:
…began to talk about how upset he was that Comey had flown home on his government plane from Los Angeles—Comey had been giving a speech there when he learned he was fired. The president wanted to know how that had happened.
I told him that bureau lawyers had assured me there was no legal issue with Comey coming home on the plane. I decided that he should do so. The existing threat assessment indicated he was still at risk, so he needed a protection detail. Since the members of the protection detail would all be coming home, it made sense to bring everybody back on the same plane they had used to fly out there. It was coming back anyway. The president flew off the handle: That’s not right! I don’t approve of that! That’s wrong! He reiterated his point five or seven times.
I said, I’m sorry that you disagree, sir. But it was my decision, and that’s how I decided. The president said, I want you to look into that! I thought to myself: What am I going to look into? I just told you I made that decision.
The ranting against Comey spiraled. I waited until he had talked himself out.
After that Trump taunted McCabe about his wife’s losing campaign for the Virginia Senate, asking McCabe, “How did she handle losing? Is it tough to lose?” and later saying “Yeah, that must’ve been really tough. To lose. To be a loser.”
I once had a boss who was a monstrous whack job like Trump. It was crazy-making. The entire department under this man functioned like an alcoholic family with an unpredictable, out-of-control father. You never knew what horrible thing would happen next. It was total chaos, as the White House seems to be. I’m glad McCabe is telling the truth about what he experienced.
Two more articles based on the McCabe book:
CBS News 60 Minutes: McCabe Says He Ordered the Obstruction of Justice Probe of President Trump.
The New York Times: McCabe Says Justice Officials Discussed Recruiting Cabinet Members to Push Trump Out of Office.
I expect Trump will be ranting about McCabe on Twitter and in the Oval Office, but he can’t do anything to shut McCabe up anymore.
Soon we’ll have a new U.S. Attorney General, William Barr, and already the corruption surrounding him has a very bad odor. CNN reports that Barr’s daughter and son-in-law are leaving the Justice Department for new jobs at FinCEN and the White House Counsel’s office respectively.
Mary Daly, Barr’s oldest daughter and the director of Opioid Enforcement and Prevention Efforts in the deputy attorney general’s office, is leaving for a position at the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), the Treasury Department’s financial crimes unit, a Justice official said.
Tyler McGaughey, the husband of Barr’s youngest daughter, has been detailed from the powerful US attorney’s office in Alexandria, Virginia, to the White House counsel’s office, two officials said.
It’s not clear if McGaughey’s switch is a result of Barr’s pending new role, and the kind of work he’ll be handling at the White House is not public knowledge.
Daly’s husband will remain in his position in the Justice Department’s National Security Division for now.
The moves were by choice and are not required under federal nepotism laws, but Walter Shaub, the former director of the Office of Government Ethics, called them “a good idea” to “avoid the bad optics that could come from the appearance of them working for him.”
However, Shaub added that McGaughey’s detail to the White House counsel’s office was “concerning.”
“That’s troubling because it raises further questions about Barr’s independence,” Shaub said.
Read more at the CNN link.
If you listened to Rachel Maddow’s podcast about Spiro Agnew (or even if you didn’t) you should read this op-ed at The Washington Post by three attorneys who were involved in that corruption case: We should demand high standards from William Barr. Spiro Agnew’s case shows why, by Barnet D. Skolnik, Russell T. Baker Jr., and Ronald S. Liebman.
In the winter of 1973, 46 years ago, the three of us were assistant U.S. attorneys in Baltimore starting a federal grand jury investigation of a corrupt Democratic county chief executive in Maryland. That investigation ultimately led to the prosecution of his corrupt Republican predecessor — the man who went on to become the state’s governor and then President Richard M. Nixon’s vice president, Spiro T. Agnew.
On Oct. 10, 1973, Agnew entered a plea to a criminal tax felony for failure to report the hundreds of thousands of dollars he’d received in bribes and kickbacks as county executive, governor and even vice president. All paid in cash, $100 bills delivered in white envelopes.
And he resigned.
From the beginning of our investigation, months before we had seen any indication that he had taken kickbacks, Agnew, along with top White House and administration officials and even Nixon himself, repeatedly tried to impede, obstruct and terminate the investigation in nefarious ways. Some of those efforts were unknown to us then and have come to light only now thanks to MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and her “Bagman” podcast.
When newspapers began to report that he was under criminal investigation in the summer of 1973, Agnew aroused his base by screaming “witch hunt” and launching a vicious assault on the “lying” press, the “partisan” Justice Department, and the “biased” and “liberal Democrat” prosecutors in Baltimore.
If Agnew and Nixon had succeeded in derailing our investigation, the most corrupt man ever to sit a heartbeat away might have become the president of our country when Nixon was forced to resign less than a year later. But our investigation was protected — first, by our staunch and courageous boss, the late George Beall, the U.S. attorney for Maryland and a prominent Maryland Republican, and second, by the man who had become the new U.S. attorney general that spring, Elliot L. Richardson.
The authors then go on to explain why Barr should not be confirmed unless he commits to releasing Robert Mueller’s findings to the public. Read the whole thing at the WaPo.
There is so much more news! Here are some links to check out:
Just Security: Who is Richard Burr, Really? Why the public can’t trust his voice in the Russia probe. (This is an incredibly important story. Corruption is all around us.)
The New York Times: House Votes to Halt Aid for Saudi Arabia’s War in Yemen.
Gulf News: Trump backer Tom Barrack defends Saudi Arabia.
HuffPost: I Wish I’d Had A ‘Late-Term Abortion’ Instead Of Having My Daughter. (Trigger warning for rape description)
The New York Times: Ryan Adams Dangled Success. Women Say They Paid a Price.
So . . . what stories have you been following?
It has been another disastrous week in Trumpland. The “president” seems to be losing what control he ever had. He spends his days watching TV, throwing tantrums on Twitter, and dreaming up ways to punish his many “enemies.” He’s Nixon on steroids, and the Republicans continue to refuse to do anything to check his corruption and abuses of power.
On Wednesday, Trump unilaterally revoked the security clearance of former CIA chief John Brennan, and despite condemnations by former members of the intelligence community, he plans to keep revoking the clearances of anyone who dares to criticize him or who may have been in some way involved with the Russia investigation.
The Washington Post: White House drafts more clearance cancellations demanded by Trump.
The White House has drafted documents revoking the security clearances of current and former officials whom President Trump has demanded be punished for criticizing him or playing a role in the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to senior administration officials.
Trump wants to sign “most if not all” of them, said one senior White House official, who indicated that communications aides, including press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Bill Shine, the newly named deputy chief of staff, have discussed the optimum times to release them as a distraction during unfavorable news cycles.
Yes, they admit these will be used to distract the public on bad news days for Trump!
Some presidential aides echoed concerns raised by outside critics that the threatened revocations smack of a Nixonian enemies list, with little or no substantive national security justification. Particular worry has been expressed inside the White House about Trump’s statement Friday that he intends “very quickly” to strip the clearance of current Justice Department official Bruce Ohr, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations….
It was unclear what the argument would be for revoking Ohr’s clearance, since Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, while not specifying Ohr’s current job, has said he has had no involvement in the Mueller investigation, begun last year.
But Ohr knew Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence agent who was hired in 2016 by Fusion GPS, then working for Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee, to investigate Trump’s ties to Russia. Ohr’s wife also worked for Fusion GPS. According to news reports and congressional testimony, the two men discussed Trump before the election. Ohr later reported the conversation to the FBI.
Ohr is the only current official on the White House list of clearances Trump wants to lift. The others are former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper Jr.; former CIA director Michael V. Hayden; former FBI director James B. Comey; Obama national security adviser Susan E. Rice; former FBI officials Andrew McCabe, Lisa Page and Peter Strzok; and former acting attorney general Sally Yates. Several of them have said they no longer have clearances.
It’s difficult to believe that Trump’s actions could not be seen as obstruction of justice and witness tampering, since many of those on the “enemies list” are potential witnesses in Robert Mueller’s investigation. Yesterday, The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake addressed the issue: How Trump’s security-clearance gambit could actually get him in deeper trouble with Mueller.
I was on an MSNBC panel Thursday night with Elie Honig, a former federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York, who suggested Trump’s revocation of security clearances could be construed as retaliation against witnesses. “It’s a federal crime — §1513 if anyone wants to look it up — to retaliate against someone for providing truthful information to law enforcement,” he said. “So he’s getting closer and closer to really dangerous ground here.”
Here’s the text of Section 1513(e):
Whoever knowingly, with the intent to retaliate, takes any action harmful to any person, including interference with the lawful employment or livelihood of any person, for providing to a law enforcement officer any truthful information relating to the commission or possible commission of any Federal offense, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 10 years, or both.
Honig explained to me Friday that he didn’t necessarily think Trump’s revocation of Brennan’s security clearance would be a violation, given Brennan isn’t a major figure on the probe’s key events. But if he presses on and does it with others, Honig argued, it could.
Read the rest at the WaPo.
Last night Rachel Maddow interviewed John Brennan. Talking Point Memo: Brennan On Revoked Clearance: ‘This Country Is More Important Than Mr. Trump.’
Former CIA Director John Brennan was defiant Friday night in response to President Donald Trump’s revocation of his security clearance, and to Trump’s threatening to revoke the clearances of several other former intelligence and national security officials who’ve become harsh critics of his.
“I think this is an egregious act that it flies in the face of traditional practice, as well as common sense, as well as national security,” Brennan told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. “I think that’s why there’s been such an outcry from many intelligence professionals.”
Brennan told Maddow that he is thinking about taking legal action.
“A number of lawyers have reached out to say that there is a very strong case here, not so much to reclaim [my clearance] but to prevent this from happening in the future,” Brennan told Maddow, asked if he was considering legal action against the administration.
Some groups, including the ACLU, have alleged that revoking Brennan’s clearance in retaliation for his criticism of Trump, as the White House said was the case, was a violation of the former CIA director’s First Amendment rights.
Brennan repeated his accusation that Trump’s Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir was “nothing short of treasonous.”
And he said a Washington Post report that his clearance revocation had been timed “to divert attention from nonstop coverage of a critical book released by fired Trump aide Omarosa Manigault Newman” was “just another demonstration of [Trump’s] irresponsibility.”
“The fact that he’s using a security clearance of a former CIA director as a pawn in his public relations strategy, I think, is just so reflective of somebody who, quite frankly — I don’t want to use this term, maybe — but he’s drunk on power.”
Three reactions to Trump’s latest power grab to check out:
Tim Weiner at The New York Times: Trump Is Not a King.
In times of crisis, the leaders of the military and intelligence communities try to put aside their differences, often many and sundry, and work together for the good of the country. That’s what’s happening today with a remarkable group of retired generals, admirals and spymasters who have signed up for the resistance, telling the president of the United States, in so many words, that he is not a king.
Thirteen former leaders of the Pentagon, the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. have signed an open letter standing foursquare against President Trump, in favor of freedom of speech and, crucially, for the administration of justice. They have served presidents going back to Richard M. Nixon mostly without publicly criticizing the political conduct of a sitting commander in chief — until now.
They rebuked Mr. Trump for revoking the security clearance of John Brennan, the C.I.A. director under President Obama, in retaliation for his scalding condemnations and, ominously, for his role in “the rigged witch hunt” — the investigation into Russia’s attempt to fix the 2016 election, now in the hands of Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel. The president’s latest attempt to punish or silence everyone connected with the case, along with his fiercest critics in political life, will not be his last….
The president aims to rid the government and the airwaves of his real and imagined enemies, especially anyone connected with the Russia investigation. Somewhere Richard Nixon may be looking up and smiling. But aboveground, the special counsel is taking notes.
The list of the signatories to the open letter defending Mr. Brennan is striking for the length and breadth of their experience. I never expected to see William H. Webster — he’s 95 years old, served nine years as F. B.I. director under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, then four more as C.I.A. director under Reagan and President George H. W. Bush — sign a political petition like this. The same with Robert M. Gates, who entered the C.I.A. under President Lyndon Johnson, ran it under George H. W. Bush and served as Secretary of Defense under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. These are not the kind of men who march on Washington. These are men who were marched upon.
Read more at the NYT.
Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine: Trump Is Making the Department of Justice Into His Own Private Goon Squad.
One morning earlier this week during executive time, President Trump tweeted out his assessment of the Russia investigation. “The Rigged Russian Witch Hunt goes on and on as the ‘originators and founders’ of this scam continue to be fired and demoted for their corrupt and illegal activity,” he raged. “All credibility is gone from this terrible Hoax, and much more will be lost as it proceeds. No Collusion!”
Amid this torrent of lies, the president had identified one important truth. There has in fact been a series of firings and demotions of law-enforcement officials. The casualties include FBI director James Comey, deputy director Andrew McCabe, general counsel James Baker, and, most recently, agent Peter Strzok. Robert Mueller is probing the circumstances surrounding Trump’s firing of Comey for a possible obstruction-of-justice charge. But for Trump, obstruction of justice is not so much a discrete act as a way of life.
The slowly unfolding purge, one of the most vivid expressions of Trump’s governing ethos, has served several purposes for the president. First, it has removed from direct authority a number of figures Trump suspects would fail to provide him the personal loyalty he demanded from Comey and expects from all officials in the federal government. Second, it supplies evidence for Trump’s claim that he is being hounded by trumped-up charges — just look at all the crooked officials who have been fired! Third, it intimidates remaining officials with the threat of firing and public humiliation if they take any actions contrary to Trump’s interests. Simply carrying out the law now requires a measure of personal bravery.
Trump has driven home this last factor through a series of taunts directed at his vanquished foes. After McCabe enraged Trump by approving a flight home for Comey after his firing last May, the president told him to ask his wife (who had run for state legislature, unsuccessfully) how it felt to be a loser. This March, Trump fired McCabe and has since tweeted that Comey and McCabe are “clowns and losers.” The delight Trump takes in tormenting his victims, frequently calling attention to Strzok’s extramarital affair — as if Trump actually cared about fidelity! — underscores his determination to strip his targets of their dignity.
Click on the link to read the rest.
Bob Bauer at Lawfare: Richard Nixon, Donald Trump and the ‘Breach of Faith.’
Journalist and presidential historian Theodore H. White thought of Richard Nixon’s downfall as the consequence of a “breach of faith.” Perhaps it was a “myth,” but an important one, that “is responsibility,” White wrote. But it was important nonetheless that Americans believe that this office, conferring extraordinary power, would “burn the dross from [the president’s] character; his duties would, by their very weight, make him a superior man, fit to sustain the burden of the law, wise and enduring enough to resist the clash of all selfish interests.”
A president who frustrates this expectation, failing to exhibit the transformative effects of oath and office, will have broken faith with the American public. And yet, White believed that Nixon’s presidency had been an aberration. “[M]any stupid, hypocritical and limited men had reached that office,” he wrote. “But all, when publicly summoned to give witness, chose to honor the legends” of what the office required of a president’s behavior in office.
White’s understanding of what constitutes a “breach of faith” is well worth recalling in considering the presidency of Donald Trump. As White understood it, the term encompassed more than illegal conduct or participation in its cover-up. It was a quality of leadership—or more to the point, the absence of critical qualities—that defined a president’s “betrayal” of his office. What elevated Nixon’s misdeeds to a fatal constitutional flaw, forcing him to surrender his presidency, was the breaking of faith with the American people. Nixon brushed the legal and ethical limits on pursuing his own political and personal welfare. He held grudges and was vindictive; he looked to destroy his enemies rather than simply prevailing over them in hard, clean fights. He lied repeatedly to spare himself the costs of truth-telling.
All of this may be said of Donald Trump, but for a key difference: Nixon was anxious to conceal much of this behavior from public view.
Much has been said and written about Trump’s leadership style: the chronic resort to false claims; the incessant tweeting of taunts and personal attacks on his adversaries; the open undermining of members of his own administration; the abandonment of norms; the refusal to credit, respect or support the impartial administration of justice where his personal or political interests are stake; and the use of office to promote his personal business enterprises. By now, almost two years into his administration, it is clear that this is who he is.
Like Nixon, Trump seems to believe that his behavior is justified by the extraordinary and ruthless opposition of an “establishment”—comprised mainly of the media, the opposition party, and intellectuals—to his election and his politics.
Please go read the rest at Lawfare.
That’s all I have for you today. Please share your thoughts and links in the comment thread below.
Remember Peter Smith, the guy who was trying to help the Trump campaign get Hillary Clinton’s emails? He ended up supposedly committing suicide in a Minnesota hotel room in July, 2017, shortly after he was interviewed by Shane Harris of The Wall Street Journal. After the story broke, Matt Tait published an article at Lawfare about his involvement in the story. Today Buzzfeed News reporters Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier have a new story on Smith: GOP Operative Made “Suspicious” Cash Withdrawals During Pursuit Of Clinton Emails.
In one of the most intriguing episodes of the 2016 presidential campaign, Republican activist Peter W. Smith launched an independent effort to obtain Hillary Clinton’s emails to help defeat her and elect Donald Trump. His quest, which reportedly brought him into contact with at least two sets of hackers that he himself believed were Russian, remains a key focus of investigations into whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Kremlin.
Now, BuzzFeed News has reviewed documents showing that FBI agents and congressional investigators have zeroed in on transactions Smith made right as his effort to procure Clinton’s emails heated up. Just a day after he finished a report suggesting he was working with Trump campaign officials, for example, he transferred $9,500 from an account he had set up to fund the email project to his personal account, later taking out more than $4,900 in cash. According to a person with direct knowledge of Smith’s project, the Republican operative stated that he was prepared to pay hackers “many thousands of dollars” for Clinton’s emails — and ultimately did so….
The money trail, made public here for the first time, sheds new light on Smith’s effort, in which he told people he was in touch with both Russians on the dark web and Trump campaign officials — particularly Michael Flynn, who was then a top adviser to the Trump campaign and later served as national security adviser before having to resign after misleading White House officials about his meetings with the Russian ambassador to the United States.
Intelligence agencies have given the FBI information that Russian hackers talked about passing Clinton’s emails to Flynn through a cutout, according to two law enforcement officials with direct knowledge of the matter. It is not known if that cutout was in any way connected to Smith.
Smith claimed that the Russians had hacked Hillary’s private server and he was determined to get his hands on the emails.
Smith assembled a group of people including experts in technology, lawyers, and even a Russian-speaking investigator to figure out how to obtain Clinton’s emails, according to the Journal. On the Friday before the Labor Day weekend, Smith incorporated a company called KLS Research. In a proposal Smith put together describing the effort to obtain the emails, he named the company as the “preferred vehicle” for the research into Clinton’s email, and Smith would tell Tait that KLS Research would also help “avoid campaign reporting.”
Smith and his longtime business partner, John Szobocsan, were the two signers for a bank account linked to KLS Research….
Soon after Labor Day, Smith appears to have finished an operational plan, which included the names of top Trump campaign officials, some of whom have denied speaking with Smith anytime during the campaign. Smith’s report is dated Sept. 7.
The next day, Smith withdrew $9,500 from the KLS Research account and deposited it into his personal bank account, both held at Northern Trust. From there, Smith took out a little more than $4,900 in cash and sent checks to an accountant and an LLC controlled by a private real estate company. Later in September, Smith made withdrawals of $500 and $700 from KLS Research.
These transactions came to light after Northern Trust received a subpoena from the FBI for Smith’s records last December. The subpoena specifically sought information about the $9,500 withdrawal from KLS Research’s account.
After scouring nine accounts that Smith controlled, Northern Trust turned over documents showing 88 suspicious cash withdrawals totaling about $140,000 between January 2016 and April 2017, including a $3,000 withdrawal six days after the election. Northern Trust found these transactions suspicious because officials could not determine the purpose of the withdrawals and because some of them took place over the time Smith was engaged in his project to obtain Clinton’s emails. Many of the cash transactions, the bank noted, were less than $10,000, small enough not to trigger an automatic alert to the government. After receiving the subpoena, the bank sent a report to Treasury’s financial crimes unit, which shared its findings with the FBI, special counsel Robert Mueller, and Senate Intelligence Committee investigators.
The story reports that “three US law enforcement officials” confirmed that Smith is still “an important figure” in the investigation and that Mueller’s investigators have interviewed people involved with Smith. I wonder if Mike Flynn is helping out with this aspect of the investigation?
Head over to Buzzfeed News to read the rest of the story.
Lawfare has a lengthy post up about the Buzzfeed story: Peter Smith’s Search for Hillary Clinton’s Emails: The Subplot Thickens. Here’s just a taste:
On its own, the Buzzfeed story might not be a groundbreaking development. But the article doesn’t stand alone. It comes in the wake of Mueller’s indictments of Russians involved in the Kremlin’s social media manipulation operation and, more importantly for present purposes, the hacking and leaking of Democratic Party materials during the 2016 campaign. In that context, it is highly significant that Buzzfeed reports that Smith’s efforts are actively being investigated by the special counsel’s team. Not only has Mueller’s team interviewed “people who Smith tried to recruit and others who worked on his operation to obtain Clinton’s emails,” it has also “tried to determine if [former national security adviser Michael] Flynn assisted Smith in his operation”—a question that Smith’s possible payments to hackers are “key” to answering, Buzzfeed writes.
So how do the facts reported in the Peter Smith stories, particularly Buzzfeed’s latest, line up with Mueller’s indictments? Mueller’s allegations describe, in detail, a complex Russian conspiracy to shape the 2016 U.S. elections—a conspiracy that involved an influence operation conducted on social media, the publication of hacked information, and outreach to a person in contact with the Trump campaign, reportedly Roger Stone.
The Peter Smith stories—between the Journal’s reporting, Tait’s Lawfare account and the latest report from Buzzfeed—describe another plot, one that took shape on this side of the Atlantic. Whether this second plot amounts to a conspiracy is a legal question beyond the scope of this post, but it appears to have involved, at a minimum, an agreement among a number of actors to obtain illegally hacked emails, perhaps by buying them. Tait wrote that he specifically warned Smith that the person purporting to have Clinton’s emails was likely part of Russia’s campaign against the United States and that Smith didn’t care about the source, as long as he got the emails. So it’s certainly plausible that the Smith operation also involved a conspiracy of some sort.
Meanwhile, Russian state TV is getting more and more blatant about Putin’s influence on Trump. Raw Story: Russian state TV warns Trump to ‘do what we say’ if you want ‘support in the elections.’
Julia Davis, who runs the Russian Media Monitor website, reports via Twitter that news show “60 Minutes” this week held a panel discussion about actions Russia should take to retaliate against the latest round of American sanctions.
Vitaly Tretyakov, the dean of the Moscow State University’s School of Television, argued that the Russian government should use whatever leverage it had over Trump to bend the president to its will.
“Let’s turn this into a headache for Trump,” he said, according to Davis’ translation. “If you want us to support you in the elections, do what we say.”
At The Washington Post, Anne Applebaum asks if American institutions are really strong enough to stop Trump: Are you still sure there’s no need to worry?
“Don’t worry, the institutions will stop him.” Or: “Don’t worry, he hasn’t done any real damage yet, the institutions have stopped him.” How many times have you heard some version of this analysis since the election of President Trump? Sometimes, the speaker is an optimist, someone with faith in the U.S. Constitution. Sometimes, the speaker is a skeptic, someone who dislikes the alleged “hysteria” of those who think Trump’s corrupt habits, autocratic language and authoritarian behavior are doing lasting damage. Either way, they are reassured, and reassuring: Congress will stop him. The judiciary will stop him. The FBI, the Republican Party, the Constitution will stop him. Don’t worry.
But America’s federal institutions are not the only ones designed to prevent someone like Trump from undermining the Constitution. We have other kinds of institutions, too — legal organs, regulatory bodies, banks — that are supposed to prevent men like Trump from staying in business, let alone acquiring political power. The truth is that many of these equally important American institutions failed a long time ago. Trump is not the cause of their failure. He is the result.
One example: Paul Manafort.
Here is a man who is alleged to have declared income as “loans,” concealed foreign bank accounts and lied about money that Ukrainian oligarchs were paying him via shell companies in Cyprus. For decades, in other words, U.S. law enforcement institutions were unable to spot the money-laundering, tax evasion and fraud that his partner Rick Gates spent several hours describing, even when carried out by a prominent person. As long ago as 1985, Manafort’s name featured in Jacob Weisberg’s still-famous New Republic cover story about Roger Stone, then his consulting partner. The headline: “The State-of-the-Art Washington Sleazeball.”
For decades, Manafort’s “political consultancy” has helped crooks and autocrats retain power. But even leaving aside the question of morality: Why wasn’t Manafort put out of business for suspected fraud years ago? Did the police not have the resources? The motivation? Whatever the reason, here, for the optimists and skeptics, is a clear institutional failure: A society allegedly obsessed with “law and order,” so much so that it has the highest incarceration rates in the world, couldn’t be bothered to investigate a famously sleazy man who was spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on antique rugs and men’s suits in Northern Virginia.
And what about Trump’s career?
Nearly 40 years ago, in 1980, Trump employed 200 illegal Polish workers to destroy the Bonwit Teller department store, a historic building on Fifth Avenue, to make way for what would become Trump Tower. The men earned half the union wage and worked 12-hour shifts without hard hats; at one point, their contractor stopped paying them. Eventually they sued. In 1998, Trump paid $1.375 million to settle the case.
Trump broke immigration law and employment law, and he violated union rules, too. Yet neither immigration authorities nor employment regulators nor union bosses put him out of business. Why not? Why were the terms of that settlement kept confidential? Why, with his track record, was he allowed to get a casino license? Building permits? Wall Street banks did, it is true, stop lending to him. But when he began looking abroad for cash — doing extremely dodgy deals in Georgia and Azerbaijan, for example — no one stopped him.
Read the whole thing at the Post.
What else is happening? What stories are you following?
Good Morning Sky Dancers!
I’m going to share linky goodness on three story lines today. The first is the tit for tat tariff war with China. Don’t forget Hair Loser told us that “winning trade wars is easy”. Unfortunately, he ignores those of us that practice the economic dark arts of econometrics!
This minor trade war could escalate into something far worse. We have had the tit-for-tat: China has responded with its own list of tariffs to America’s so-called 232 measures (on steel and aluminium). We have had the same relatively proportionate exchanges on America’s 301 actions (on technology). In each case the steps have been modest. Economists estimate that America’s more extensive list, which omits key consumer items such as iPhones, will add just $12.5bn to the roughly $500bn in Chinese annual imports to the US. This is small potatoes. If Washington and Beijing simply stopped here, the world could carry on as normal. But dynamic situations do not normally halt of their own accord. That is why the markets have reacted so badly. They see the potential for escalation. A Chinese official was quoted as saying: “It is only polite to reciprocate”. Whatever Trump does, China will match. The ball is now in Trump’s court, which is never an ideal place for it to be. For more, readers should go to Shawn Donnan’s always excellent “Free trade” newsletter.
So, let’s look at Hair Loser’s blatherings on his ongoing list of Making America Gilded Again. This one is from CBS: “Trump says trade war is “already lost,” and he “probably won’t” attend White House Correspondents Dinner”. And is it his fault? Ohhhhh, of course not.
President Trump said in a radio interview aired Friday that the U.S. isn’t in a trade war because the trade war is “already lorst,” and said he “probably won’t” attend the White House Correspondents Dinner in Washington later this month because the press is “so fake.”
Mr. Trump made those comments in an interview with WABC’s “Bernie and Sid in the Morning,” taped Thursday. The interview took place before the president’s Air Force One comments denying any knowledge of a hush money payment by his lawyer to porn actress.
Mr. Trump explained why he is going after China on tariffs. On Thursday night, Mr. Trump announced he has directed the U.S. Trade Representative to considerin new tariffs on China, in response to China’s decision to slap $50 billion in tariffs on U.S. imports. China’s $50 billion was a response to the White House’s announcement of $50 billion in tariffs on China. But Mr. Trump insisted that the U.S. isn’t in a trade war — in the past he has called trade wars “good, and easy to win” — because the U.S. already “lost” a trade war.
“Well, fellas, we’ve already lost the trade war,” the president said. “We don’t have a trade war. We’ve lost the trade war because for many years, whether it’s Clinton or the Bushes, Obama, all of our presidents before, for some reason it just got worse and worse. And now it’s $500 billion in deficits and a theft of $300 billion in intellectual property. So you can’t have this.”
The president said the stock market might take a bit of a hit in the short term —— but the country will be stronger in the long run, he insisted.
“Now we could—the easiest thing for me to do would be just to close my eyes and forget it,” Mr. Trump said. “If I did that, then I’m not doing my job. I’m not saying there won’t be a little pain but the market’s gone up 40 percent, 42 percent—so we might lose a little bit of it—but we’re going to have a much stronger country when we’re finished. And that’s what I’m all about. We have to do things that other people wouldn’t do.”
Of course, he also denied we were in a trade war with China. Hair Loser has such mental acuity! Why, he’s a stable genius!
“We are not in a trade war with China,” President Trump tweeted Wednesday morning.
The president is correct. What looks like a trade war is really a struggle for the control of the technologies that will dominate coming decades.
The trade war narrative seems at first glance to fit the facts. On March 8, the United States, pursuant to Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum from China and other countries.
On March 22, President Trump issued a memorandum directing Lighthizer to consider 301 tariffs on China. Beijing, within a few hours, announced tariffs of its own on $3 billion of U.S. goods.
This Wednesday, Beijing made another announcement, this time proposing tariffs on $50 billion of imports from America.
This looks frightening because no one knows what happens when a dispute engulfs the planet’s two largest economies. As Neil Irwin of The New York Timeswrote Thursday referring to China, “a trade war with such a major trading partner is without precedent in modern times.”
President Trump, whether he ends up in a trade war or not, has zeroed in on the core of the competition between China and the U.S. Lighthizer’s proposed tariff list Tuesday includes duties on some mundane items but especially goes after the Chinese aerospace, information and communications tech, and robotics sectors. As Zhou Hao of Commerzbank in Singapore told Bloomberg, “The U.S. list suggests that the government is targeting the ‘Made in China 2025’ initiative.”
That initiative, announced in 2015 by China’s State Council, seeks to make that country nearly self-sufficient in 10 crucial industries, including aircraft, robots, electric cars, and computer chips. Beijing has set out specific goals for market shares by industry.
The plan aims for near self-sufficiency in components by 2020 and materials five years later. Moreover, Beijing, stepping into trade-violation territory, wants Chinese industries to possess 80 percent of their home market in the listed sectors.
CM2025, as the initiative is known in China, calls for jumbo-sized, low-interest loans from state investment funds and development banks, aid for the purchase of foreign competitors, and research subsidies.
Raise your hand if you think Hair Loser knows anything about the details of CM2025. He may know enough to think if they’re getting out of those import areas to be more secure, maybe he can riff on that idea too! But, better he should focus on a cyber wall. The literal stuff only makes us weaker. From The Hill: “Trump says ‘pain’ from China tariffs will make US ‘much stronger’”. Feel the pain!!!! Are we winning now? Are we great again?
President Trump says in a new interview that tariffs targeting China over intellectual property theft could cause some “pain” in the U.S. economy, but promised that America would emerge stronger as a result.
“I’m not saying there’s not gonna be any pain,” Trump said Friday in an interview with “Bernie & Sid in the Morning” on 77 WABC in New York City.
He also acknowledged the initial reaction from markets is likely to be negative.
They “could lose a little bit,” he said
Dow Jones industrial average futures plummeted on Thursday after news broke that Trump has asked officials in the administration to prepare tariffs on another $100 billion of imports from China, escalating a fight with Beijing.
Futures on the index fell 222 points, suggesting the market would open down 271.22 points on Friday, CNBC reported.
A relatively poor jobs report released Friday that found the nation added 103,000 jobs in March is also likely to push markets lower, but Trump said he was not worried about a negative reaction from his move on trade.
“We’re gonna be much stronger for it,” he added later in the interview.
China has responded to the latest round of tariff plans with a statement threatening an all-out trade war.
“We do not want to fight, but we are not afraid to fight a trade war,” China’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Oh, wait, that sounds more like losing again. So, let’s head over to Trump’s Best and Brightest and Most Corrupt Cabinet. Pruitt is now labelled as “too corrupt to be corrupted” by Ryan Cooper at The Week.
As defined by Congress, the EPA is supposed to protect the health of Americans by enforcing environmental law, but Administrator Pruitt’s tenure has been focused almost entirely on dismantling as much of the existing architecture of environmental protections as possible. More than any previous EPA head, he has worked to accomplish the exact opposite of the intended purpose of the agency. He has rolled back President Obama’s automobile efficiency standards, the Clean Power Plan, and stacked scientific advisory boards with science deniers and partisan hacks. Overall there have been 41 instances of EPA deregulation under Pruitt as of early February alone. His EPA insists that a gigantic toxic waste dump in Puerto Rico is fine, despite the fact that it was badly flooded during Hurricane Maria and many locals have suspicious illnesses.
And where he can’t simply torch regulation (because it’s often wildly illegal), he’s stalled implementation as long as possible, through administrative delays, legal red tape, and simply refusing to staff tons of positions.
Perhaps most deviously, as Emily Atkin writes, he recently changed the scientific basis for EPA rulemaking to disqualify any research not based on public data, following a trail blazed by notorious climate change denier Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas). That superficially reasonable-sounding policy rules out most air quality research of any kind, which are based on medical datasets that are not public because of federal privacy law.
The objective, obviously, is to come up with any sort of pretext to make it easier for polluters to pollute. This one places a handy Catch-22 in the face of nearly anybody who wants to do serious science on pollution and health.
Oh and also Pruitt has an unprecedented 24/7 squad of bodyguards, a $25,000 secret phone booth in his office, spent $9,000 sweeping his office for surveillance bugs, and took multiple charter, private, and first-class flights costing at least $163,000 in total.
If there’s one silver lining to Pruitt’s effort to leave no American child brain un-poisoned, it’s how he demonstrates the extent to which a committed ideologue can bend an agency to his will. The EPA is supposed to follow the latest science in carrying out its legal mandate, but by tendentiously disqualifying science that doesn’t reach a prearranged ideological conclusion, Pruitt has effectively gutted the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.
Navarro, who kept accidentally calling Steve Mnuchin Steve Munchkin,” noted that Pruitt’s problem is that his flubs aren’t happening in a vacuum, other cabinet secretaries are doing the same.
“There is one more chapter in this telenovela,” she said. “In the sense that we’ve heard about excesses by Ben Carson, by Munchkin-Mnuchin-whatever. It is $130,000 doors or $130,000 lunch tables or jetting around to see an eclipse. This is one more instance of what we’re seeing after Donald Trump promised to be different, and the Republican Party again and again looks the other way. Whether it’s Stormy Daniels or tariffs or deficits or overspending. They look the other way. If this were a Democratic administration, people would be brought in to testify and there would be investigations.”
“I will say to you, the problem with that [Scott Pruitt] interview is — I mean first of all, it was so bad it made Betsy DeVos look like Albert Einstein,” she continued. “But more than that, he went around the White House to give his buddies and cronies a huge pay raise despite the White House was saying not to do it. That should really bother us, as republicans, as Americans, as taxpayers. That is our money that he is misspending and it should bother all of us despite partisanship.”
Pruitt definitely acts like a worse demigod than Trump. My guess is Hair Loser wants no competition from jerks like him.
Several weeks after taking the helm of the Environmental Protection Agency, Administrator Scott Pruitt was running late and stuck in Washington, D.C., traffic. Sources tell CBS News that he wanted to use his vehicle’s lights and sirens to get to his official appointment, but the lead agent in charge of his security detail advised him that sirens were to be used only in emergencies.
Less than two weeks later that agent was removed from Pruitt’s detail, reassigned to a new job within the EPA.
Still, recently Trump has shown more preference to Pruitt over Sessions even suggesting he might replace Sessions with Pruitt.
President Donald Trump floated replacing Attorney General Jeff Sessions with Scott Pruitt as recently as this week, even as the scandal-ridden head of the Environmental Protection Agency has faced a growing list of negative headlines, according to people close to the President.
“He was 100% still trying to protect Pruitt because Pruitt is his fill-in for Sessions,” one source familiar with Trump’s thinking told CNN.
Though the President has, at times, floated several people a day for multiple positions in his administration that are already occupied, the proposition reveals just how frustrated Trump remains with Sessions because of his decision to recuse himself from overseeing the Russia investigation more than a year ago, while signaling how confident he has remained in Pruitt despite a dizzying number of ethics issues.
So, the third headline comes from the US Treasury and sanctions imposed on Russian Oligarchs. We’re waiting for Hair Loser’s pissing wisdom on this via Twitter.
The Trump administration announced new sanctions on Russian tycoons, companies and key allies of President Vladimir Putin, hitting the crucial energy sector and adding to a flurry of moves by Western powers against Moscow in recent weeks.
“The Russian government operates for the disproportionate benefit of oligarchs and government elites,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement Friday. “The Russian government engages in a range of malign activity around the globe, including continuing to occupy Crimea and instigate violence in eastern Ukraine, supplying the Assad regime with material and weaponry as they bomb their own civilians, attempting to subvert Western democracies, and malicious cyber activities.”
Those penalized include seven Russian oligarchs, 12 companies and 17 senior government officials under provisions of a law Congress passed last year to retaliate against Moscow for meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Among the most prominent Russian tycoons identified Friday is metals magnate Oleg Deripaska, the billionaire founder and majority shareholder of En+ Group. Deripaska, 50, made headlines last year due to his links to Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort. The tycoon has had difficulties in the past in getting a U.S. visa.
Friday’s announcement builds on a string of punitive actions taken by the U.S. against the Kremlin. Congress and Trump’s national security advisers have pushed for tougher sanctions against Russia for its interference in the 2016 U.S. election and its prolonged, destructive cyberattacks in Ukraine and elsewhere.
But in a farewell speech at the Atlantic Council in Washington this week, Trump’s outgoing national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, said the U.S. has “failed to impose sufficient costs” on Putin’s government for its military and political aggression worldwide.
The Kremlin continues to call for dialogue with Trump. Speaking in Moscow Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov complained about America’s increasingly hostile diplomatic stance towards Russia but expressed hope that Trump and Putin could conduct a “broad dialogue” so long as it does not “fall victim to domestic political intrigues” in Washington.
Other individuals targeted on Friday include members of Putin’s inner circle, some of whom are under scrutiny from U.S. investigators for activities related to the 2016 presidential election.
Among them are Suleiman Kerimov, a top Putin adviser; Kirill Shamalov, who married Putin’s daughter in 2013; and financier Viktor Vekselberg, who attended Trump’s presidential inauguration.
Sanctions target Alexander Torshin, deputy governor of the Central Bank of the Russian Federation, who reportedly is under investigation in the U.S. on suspicion of funneling money to the National Rifle Association to assist the Trump campaign.
And, just in case you missed it … “EXCLUSIVE: Saudi crown prince bragged that Jared Kushner gave him CIA intelligence about other Saudis saying ‘here are your enemies’ days before ‘corruption crackdown’ which led to torture and death”
What’s on your reading and blogging list today?
As usual in the horrifying new world of Trump, there is so much shocking news that there’s no way to deal with all of it. I guess the top story has to be that Trump’s former lawyer John Dowd dangled pardons in front of Michael Flynn and Paul Manifort last summer.
The New York Times: Trump’s Lawyer Raised Prospect of Pardons for Flynn and Manafort.
A lawyer for President Trump broached the idea of Mr. Trump’s pardoning two of his former top advisers, Michael T. Flynn and Paul Manafort, with their lawyers last year, according to three people with knowledge of the discussions.
The discussions came as the special counsel was building cases against both men, and they raise questions about whether the lawyer, John Dowd, who resigned last week, was offering pardons to influence their decisions about whether to plead guilty and cooperate in the investigation.
The talks suggest that Mr. Trump’s lawyers were concerned about what Mr. Flynn and Mr. Manafort might reveal were they to cut a deal with the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, in exchange for leniency. Mr. Mueller’s team could investigate the prospect that Mr. Dowd made pardon offers to thwart the inquiry, although legal experts are divided about whether such offers might constitute obstruction of justice.
Mr. Dowd’s conversation with Mr. Flynn’s lawyer, Robert K. Kelner, occurred sometime after Mr. Dowd took over last summer as the president’s personal lawyer, at a time when a grand jury was hearing evidence against Mr. Flynn on a range of potential crimes.
Flynn ultimately took the safe route and agreed to cooperate with the Mueller investigation; but this could explain why Paul Manafort is holding out even though the evidence against him is overwhelming and he could face life in prison if convicted.
Constitutional experts are now discussing whether Trump could get away with pardoning Manafort and others, even if he did it with corrupt intent. Some opinions:
Alex Whiting at Just Security: Why Dangling a Pardon Could Be an Obstruction of Justice—Even if the Pardon Power is Absolute. A brief excerpt:
Some experts have argued that the pardon power is absolute and that the President’s motives in issuing a pardon thus could not be questioned, while others contend that it could be a crime to issue a pardon for corrupt purposes (such as in exchange for cash). But the debate over the absolute nature of the pardon power is actually not relevant to the alleged incidents involving Trump’s lawyer. Indeed, that entire debate can be set aside for the moment. Why? Because there’s been no pardon. Instead, a pardon has only been dangled before Flynn and Manafort, and the analysis of whether that action could become part of an obstruction case against Trump raises entirely different considerations….
The pardon dangle works completely differently—and in important respects has the opposite effects. First, this kind of dangle is not a public act. Therefore, as long as it remained secret, it could be done without incurring any of the political downstream consequences that come with actually pardoning someone. It hides the President from scrutiny rather than exposes him to it as a potential check on the use of the power. Second, the objective of the dangle appears to have been to foreclose the prospect of Flynn and Manfort’s cooperating or testifying. Once again, this is the opposite effect of an actual exercise of the pardon. The message of the dangle was sufficiently clear: hang in there and keep fighting (do not cut a deal with the special counsel) because you will be pardoned before you spend a day in jail. The President and his lawyer’s hope would have been that with the threat of jail eliminated, neither former aid would feel compelled to plead guilty and cooperate with Mueller to reduce his sentence. But, since they were not actually pardoned or not yet anyway, they still kept their Fifth Amendment privileges, and so Mueller could not simply demand they testify before the Grand Jury. In this way, the dangle could operate to stop any cooperation from Flynn and Manafort, who could then be pardoned later if and when they were indicted or even after their cases went through pretrial, trial and appeal. Indeed, you also have to put yourself back at the time these events all took place: before Manafort was indicted and Flynn pleaded guilty. That’s when the dangle could work its magic.
Because a pardon dangle is secret and seeks to discourage cooperation with an ongoing investigation without public scrutiny or consequences, it should be analyzed differently than a pardon when it comes to an obstruction case.
Former U.S. Attorney Harry Littman at The Washington Post: We may know why Paul Manafort has kept quiet. But his bet is still risky.
Manafort’s refusal to cooperate can’t be driven by a rational calculation that he has any reasonable chance of escaping conviction, multimillion-dollar legal fees and a prison sentence that will result in years behind bars.
The indictments against him lay out an overwhelming case of money laundering in particular. The meticulously gathered evidence will be as clear for the jury as a laundry detergent commercial: The jury will see the dirty money go in and the clean money come out. To the extent there had been a small risk, inherent in paper-driven chases, that the jury could become bored at the accounting presentation and tune out, Mueller now has a narrator for the trial in Manafort’s co-conspirator Rick Gates.
So is hoping for a Trump pardon a good bet for Manafort?
…the Times story does not definitively solve the Manafort mystery. First, Dowd’s reported overture, particularly if done with the president’s knowledge or consent, could have constituted a conspiracy to obstruct justice, a separate impeachable offense. That presumably is why the story includes a categorical denial from Dowd that he ever discussed pardons for the president’s former advisers with lawyers. For Dowd, the conduct would be putting his license at risk.Second, Manafort surely recognizes that he can’t fully count on Trump, both because the president is a habitual liar and because the political dynamic is subject to such extreme and violent turns. (Of course, under this hypothesis, Manafort retains the valuable insurance policy of spilling the goods if Trump double-crosses him, leaving both huge losers in a real-life prisoners dilemma.)
Third, Manafort could still be required to testify after any pardon, when he would no longer be in federal jeopardy. Undoubtedly, the plan would be for him to deny assurances of a pardon from Trump. Still, were Mueller to catch him in a lie, the special counsel would surely come down on him.
Finally, it is likely that in the event of a pardon for federal crimes, which is all Trump can provide, some state attorneys general, such as New York’s Eric T. Schneiderman, would prosecute Manafort for financial crimes under their potent state statutes.
Maybe Manafort figures a possible pardon is a better bet than hoping Putin doesn’t send his goons to shut him (Manafort) up for good.
A few more pardon stories:
Bloomberg: Pardon Talk Could Put Trump Lawyer in Hot Water.
The Washington Post: This overlooked part of the Constitution could stop Trump from abusing his pardon power.
Another big story broke late yesterday. Trump fired Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin. Today Shulkin is speaking out, claiming he was fired because he opposed privatizing the VA. Shulkin spoke to NPR’s Morning Edition:
Fired Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin tells NPR’s Morning Edition that political forces in the Trump administration want to privatize the VA — and that he was standing in the way.
“There are many political appointees in the VA that believe that we are moving in the wrong direction or weren’t moving fast enough toward privatizing the VA,” he said. “I think that it’s essential for national security and for the country that we honor our commitment by having a strong VA. I was not against reforming VA, but I was against privatization.”
Those political forces may be why Shulkin says he wasn’t allowed to speak out to defend himself against an ethics controversy over use of funds on a trip to Europe that he says was overhyped and intended to weaken him.
“This was completely mischaracterized,” Shulkin said. “There was nothing improper about this trip, and I was not allowed to put up an official statement or to even respond to this by the White House. … I think this was really just being used in a political context to try to make sure that I wasn’t as effective as a leader moving forward.”
Shulkin argued his case in an op-ed at The New York Times: David J. Shulkin: Privatizing the V.A. Will Hurt Veterans.
That’s a lot of news, but I’ve barely touched on everything that’s happening. Here’s a shocking Trump corruption story that broke at The Guardian this morning: FBI looked into Trump plans to build hotel in Latvia with Putin supporter.
In 2010, a small group of businessmen including a wealthy Russian supporter of Vladimir Putin began working on plans to build a glitzy hotel and entertainment complex with Donald Trump in Riga, the capital of Latvia.
A senior Trump executive visited the city to scout for locations. Trump and his daughter Ivanka spent hours at Trump Tower with the Russian, Igor Krutoy, who also knows compatriots involved in arranging a fateful meeting at the same building during the 2016 US election campaign.
Then the Latvian government’s anti-corruption bureau began asking questions.
The Guardian has learned that talks with Trump’s company were abandoned after Krutoy and another of the businessmen were questioned by Latvian authorities as part of a major criminal inquiry there – and that the FBI later looked into Trump’s interactions with them at Latvia’s request.
Those involved deny that the inquiry was to blame for the deal’s collapse.
Latvia asked the US for assistance in 2014 and received a response from the FBI the following year, according to a source familiar with the process. Latvian investigators also examined secret recordings in which Trump was mentioned by a suspect.
This means the FBI looked into Trump’s efforts to do business deals in the former Soviet Union earlier than was widely known. Robert Mueller, the special counsel, is now investigating other Trump dealings with Russians as part of his wide-ranging criminal inquiry into alleged collusion between Moscow and members of Trump’s 2016 campaign team.
The Riga developers saw their potential partner in New York as a ticket to lucrative western revenues.
This shit just never ends. I haven’t even touched on the North Korea news or the Bolton mess or the fact that Trump wants to put his personal physician in charge of the VA. More headlines to check out:
The Washington Post: Who is Trump’s new Veterans Affairs pick, Ronny Jackson?
The Washington Post: Three big questions about a Trump-Kim summit.
Talking Points Memo: WSJ: Kushner Has Phoned Bolton For Advice In The Past Year.
The Daily Beast: ICE Now Detaining Pregnant Women, Thanks to Trump Order.
Good Afternoon Sky Dancers!
Now this is a national day of observance that I can go all in on! I’m thrilled BB let me know about the reason for the season having taken two days of morning naps in a row!
National Napping Day is observed annually the day following the return of daylight saving time. National Napping Day provides everyone with the opportunity to have a nap and catch up on the hour of sleep they lost due to the spring forward time change.
So, now that we’ve established a visual and emotional happy place, let’s move into the utter display of corruption and incompetence presented by Education Secretary “I’m mostly misunderstood” DeVos. Can any one be more clueless about a job than this woman other than KKKremlin Caligula himself? Leslie Stahl managed to ask her basic questions that left the Secretary flummoxed and stumbling on 60 Minutes.
The reason Betsy DeVos wanted to be secretary of education was so she could promote school choice, offering parents options other than traditional public schools – where 90 percent of kids go. She has proposed massive cuts in public education funding and wants to shift billions to alternative players like private, parochial and charter schools.
Betsy DeVos: We have invested billions and billions and billions of dollars from the federal level And we have seen zero results.
Lesley Stahl: But that really isn’t true. Test scores have gone up over the last 25 years. So why do you keep saying nothing’s been accomplished?
Betsy DeVos: Well actually, test scores vis-à-vis the rest of the world have not gone up. And we have continued to be middle of the pack at best. That’s just not acceptable.
Lesley Stahl: No it’s not acceptable. But it’s better than it was. That’s the point. You don’t acknowledge that things have gotten better. You won’t acknowledge that, over the–
Betsy DeVos: But I don’t think they have for too many kids. We’ve stagnated
Lesley Stahl: Okay, so there’s the big argument. So what can be done about that?
Betsy DeVos: What can be done about that is empowering parents to make the choices for their kids. Any family that has the economic means and the power to make choices is doing so for their children. Families that don’t have the power, that can’t decide: “I’m gonna move from this apartment in downtown whatever to the suburb where I think the school is gonna be better for my child” if they don’t have that choice – and they are assigned to that school, they are stuck there. I am fighting for the parents who don’t have those choices. We need all parents to have those choices.
Like most right wing extremist theocrats, DeVos isn’t interested in the truth about a train wreck in Michigan she helped create. Choice is a code word for publicly funded Christian Madrassas that are segregated by social class and race.
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, former chair of Michigan’s Republican Party, appeared taken aback when asked during a 60 Minutes interview Sunday whether her home state’s school’s have become better under policies she pushed.
As chair of the American Federation for Children in Michigan, DeVos worked to expand chartered private schools in the state. Most of the reading and math scores among students at charter schools in Michigan are below average and overall academic progress lags behind other states.
“Have the public schools in Michigan gotten better?” 60 Minutes journalist Lesley Stahl asked DeVos in the interview, pointing out that public schools also haven’t flourished under policies she championed.
“I don’t know. Overall—I can’t say overall that they have all gotten better,” DeVos replied.
Along with her husband Dick DeVos, a billionaire heir to the Amway fortune, DeVos has backed state bills in Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Florida for voucher programs where students can get public funding to subsidize the cost of attending a private or religious school. She proposes expansion of that system and has pushed for it in Michigan for decades.
“Your argument that if you take funds away that the schools will get better, is not working in Michigan where you had a huge impact and influence over the direction of the school system here,” Stahl said.
“I hesitate to talk about all schools in general because schools are made up of individual students attending them,” DeVos replied. She said she had “not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming” to find out what is going wrong.
DeVos will be heading up the Task Force on School Safety. Wonder if that means Blackwater units in every school? And what about those Grizzlies?
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will lead a commission tasked with broadly examining ways to protect schools from gun violence, the White House said Sunday.
Administration officials also said the White House would support arming school personnel who volunteer for the job, offering federal funds to provide “rigorous firearms training” to qualified employees.
The proposal has angered education groups, who have said arming educators could put both adults and students at risk. National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García last month said, “Bringing more guns into our schools does nothing to protect our students and educators from gun violence.”
But DeVos, who has met with students, teachers and families in the wake of the deadly Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., said little progress had been made protecting students over the past several years. “No student, no family, no teacher and no school should have to live the horror of Parkland or Sandy Hook or Columbine again,” she said.
While not immediately committing to any ideas or timetables, DeVos said, “No stone will be left unturned” in the effort to uncover and highlight evidence-based approaches proven to reduce violence.
“We’ve had to talk about this topic way too much over the years,” DeVos told reporters during a conference call Sunday. “And there’s been a lot of talk in the past but very little action.”
Still not convinced she’s like one of the worst people in the world. Take her student loan storm trooper attitude and link it to this headline: ‘Education Department awards debt collection contract to company once tied to DeVos’.
A company that once had financial ties to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was one of two firms selected Thursday by the U.S. Department of Education to help the agency collect overdue student loans. The deal could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
The decision to award contracts to Windham Professionals and Performant Financial Corp. – the company in which DeVos invested before becoming secretary – arrives a month after a federal judge ordered the department to complete its selection of a loan collector to put an end to a messy court battle. Windham and Performant beat out nearly 40 other bidders for contracts valued at up to $400 million, but their win may be short-lived if the losing companies fight the decision.
The selection of only two [companies] opens the door to protests from the unsuccessful bidders,” wrote Michael Tarkan, senior research analyst at Compass Point, in a research note on Performant. “Based on prior contract awards, we would not be surprised to see protests, lawsuits and appeals which could all delay the start date for the new contract.”
Historically, the department has used as many as 17 companies to recoup past-due student loans. Earlier attempts to whittle down the number of firmshave been met with resistance. Companies that lost out on a 2016 debt collection contract have been embroiled in a lawsuit that has prevented the federal government from assigning new accounts.
But, hey, she’s “conservative” so Twink DeVos should be all about state’s right! Am I right? Uhmmmmm, nope!
The Education Department issued guidance Friday informing state regulators to back off the companies managing its $1.3 trillion portfolio of student loans, arguing that only the federal government has the authority to oversee its contractors.
“State regulation of the servicing of direct loans impedes uniquely federal interests,” the department wrote. “State regulation of the servicing of the Federal Family Education Loan Program is preempted to the extent that it undermines uniform administration of the program.”
The notice arrives as states have stepped in to fill what many see as a void in the federal oversight of student loan servicers, the companies the Education Department pays nearly $1 billion to handle debt payments. The move has created consternation within the industry, which has lobbied Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Congress to prevent states from imposing additional rules and regulations. Now the department is taking action, but some legal experts say the declaration is a hollow gesture.
“Nowhere in this document does the Department of Education quote a statute from Congress that says the department is authorized to block states from stopping deceptive debt collection practices. That’s because such a law does not exist,” said Christopher Peterson, a law professor at the University of Utah and former enforcement attorney at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “Many states are likely to view this document as legally dubious . . . and will wait for courts to weigh in with their own interpretation.”
California, Connecticut and the District of Columbia require servicers to obtain a license to operate within their borders as a way to bring the companies under their regulatory purview. Their local agencies have the authority to monitor loan servicers’ compliance with federal laws, investigate their behavior and refer cases to the attorney general.
And from that radical rag Forbes Magazine“4 Ways Betsy DeVos Plans To Make It Harder For Ripped-Off Students To Get Loan Forgiveness.” Trump University any one?
With thousands of “borrower defense to repayment” applications pending, Betsy DeVos wants to impose a higher burden of proof for defrauded students seeking student loan forgiveness.
Borrower defense offers federal student loan forgiveness for students who were defrauded by for-profit colleges, including the now-closed Corinthian Colleges.
If this revision from the Department of Education goes through, students will face bigger hurdles along the path to borrower defense student loan forgiveness.
Although it’s unclear whether the proposal would affect existing applications, it would at least introduce four major challenges for future applicants.
Other headlines guaranteed to drive you back under the covers via Memeorandum:
John Bacon from USA Today: Death penalty for drug dealers? Count Trump in
Anita Kumar from McClatchy DC: Ivanka Trump never cut ties with the Trump Organization. That’s turned into a problem.
Jake Pearson from Associated Press: Trump Jr., donor have longtime undisclosed ties
Annie Gowen from The Washington Post: Hillary Clinton says ‘follow the money’ in the Trump-Putin relationship
And now, you can close your eyes and repeat after me: Let’s make America and America again!
What’s on your reading and blogging list today?