Thursday Reads: Hurricane Florence and Other News

Hurricane, Bahamas, by Winslow Homer

Good Morning!!

Hurricane Florence coverage is dominating the news as the storm approaches the Carolinas. Will the storm live up to the hype? For the sake of the people in it’s path, I hope it continues to weaken.

The Weather Channel: Hurricane Florence Long Siege is Beginning; Storm Surge, Catastrophic Flash Flooding, High Winds to Hammer the Carolinas, Appalachia.

Hurricane Florence is making its final approach to the Carolinas, with landfall possible either overnight tonight or Friday, kicking off an agonizing crawl through the Southeast into early next week, producing catastrophic inland rainfall flooding, life-threatening storm surge and destructive winds.

As of Thursday morning, Florence’s eye was located about 160 miles east-southeast of Wilmington, North Carolina, moving northwestward.

Outer rainbands are already pushing ashore in eastern North Carolina, only the beginning of what could be a record wet siege from a tropical cyclone in parts of the Tar Heel State….

On the Eye of the Hurricane, by Danittza Zimic

The National Hurricane Center noted Wednesday evening that while Florence has weakened some, “the wind field of the hurricane continues to grow in size. This evolution will produce storm surges similar to that of a more intense, but smaller, hurricane, and thus the storm surge values seen in the previous advisory are still valid.” [….]

“This will likely be the storm of a lifetime for portions of the Carolina coast,” the National Weather Service in Wilmington, North Carolina, wrote in its Tuesday evening area forecast discussion. A Wednesday morning forecast discussion said flooding in southeast North Carolina and northeast South Carolina could be “unprecedented.”

USA Today: Hurricane Florence nears coast: ‘This is a life-threatening situation.’

The storm was about 145 miles east-southeast of Wilmington, North Carolina, and 195 miles off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina Thursday as of 8 a.m. EST. But with tropical force winds extending almost 200 miles from the center, Florence was a poised to bring havoc well before making landfall.

That could happen sometime Friday, probably somewhere near the states’ border. FEMA administrator Brock Long urged people in mandatory evacuation areas to get out. And he warned that the storm cleanup will take time and patience….

Hurricane Katrina, by Carol Warner

More than 1 million people were evacuated from coastal areas, and 10 million live within areas of hurricane or tropical storm warnings and watches. Storm surge of up to 13 feet will be “life threatening” and rainfall of up to 40 inches will mean “catastrophic” flooding, he National Hurricane Center said.

“We want to continue to send the message that this monster of a storm is not one to ride out,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said.

Some folks still plan stay put, according to the article.

Meanwhile, we learned a couple of days ago that the Trump regime stole money from FEMA to pay for it’s child separation policy and immigrant concentration camps. But it turns out the situation is even worse than we thought.

CNN reports: It’s not just FEMA: ICE quietly got an extra $200 million.

The Trump administration this summer quietly redirected $200 million from all over the Department of Homeland Security to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, despite repeated congressional warnings of ICE’s “lack of fiscal discipline” and “unsustainable” spending.

Menemsha Hurricane, by Thomas Hart Benton

The Department of Homeland Security asked for the money, according to a document made public this week by Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley. Of the $200 million, the document says $93 million will go to immigrant detention, a 3% budget increase that will fund capacity for an additional 2,300 detainees; and $107 million for “transportation and removal,” or deportations, a 29% budget increase.

The additional $200 million would put ICE’s budget for detention and transportation at more than $3.6 billion.

The money came from different parts of DHS, including FEMA, the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office, Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers, Coast Guard, Transportation Security Administration, cybersecurity office and Customs and Border Protection.

Read the rest at CNN.

The residents of the states in the Florence’s path should be very nervous. This morning Trump again attacked Puerto Rico on Twitter. CNN: Trump falsely claims nearly 3,000 Americans in Puerto Rico ‘did not die.’

Nearly 3,000 people died in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. President Donald Trump denied this reality as a hurricane barrels toward the Carolinas.

“3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico. When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths. As time went by it did not go up by much. Then, a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3000,” he said in a tweet Thursday morning as Carolinians prepared to be pummeled by Hurricane Florence.

Hurricane Irene, by Eileen Dorsey

Earlier this month, the island’s governor formally raised the death toll from Hurricane Maria to an estimated 2,975 from 64 following a study conducted by researchers at The George Washington University. CNN’s own reporting reflects similar numbers. The university study accounted for Puerto Ricans who succumbed to the stifling heat and other aftereffects of the storm and had not been previously counted in official figures. Much of the US territory was without power for weeks.

Trump has consistently denied any fault for his administration in the aftermath of the storm. In fact, the President has instead sought praise for his handling of Hurricane Maria, saying earlier this week that it was “an incredible, unsung success.” [….]

“I think Puerto Rico was incredibly successful,” Trump said Tuesday in the Oval Office, noting that the island location is “tough” during a hurricane due to the inability to transport vital equipment and supplies by truck. “It was one of the best jobs that’s ever been done with respect to what this is all about.”

Whether or not FEMA is prepared and has the necessary funds, Trump will claim he did a fabulous job.

The Senate Intelligence Committee met this morning, and they decided to postpone the vote on Brett Kavanaugh until next Thursday, Sept. 20 at 1:45PM after Democrats successfully pushed for the
delay
. CBS News:

Under the committee rules, any member can ask for a one-week delay on the vote of a nominee. After numerous Democrats deployed a strategy of holding up hearing business, citing lack of access to documents pertaining to Kavanaugh’s record, the minority pushed for another delay in the confirmation process.

Maurice Sapiro: Orient Point, After The Hurricane

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, began the committee’s business by motioning to adjourn “to make sure we have the time and information we need, the documents, the facts, the witnesses in order to proceed on the Kavanaugh nomination.”

“This nomination is going to be tainted, it will be stained by process…broken the traditions of this committee.” He added the nomination was rushed through to judgement in a “highly partisan and unfortunately failed way.”

Blumenthal argued that there’s an “even more urgent and pressing duty to get those documents and having witnesses to enable us to evaluate serious concerns raised as a result of evasive and seemingly misleading answers given to us at the hearing.”

Read more at the link. At least they bought time for more public opposition to Kavanaugh. Susan Collins of Maine has been subjected to sustained pressure, and she hasn’t handled it well at all.

Slate: Susan Collins Complains of “Bribery” After Nonbillionaires Try to Influence Her Kavanaugh Vote.

On Monday, Sen. Susan Collins accused political opponents of Judge Brett Kavanaugh of attempted “bribery.” The charge itself is without any legal merit whatsoever. That complaints about the campaign finance effort came from Collins, Republican election lawyer Cleta Mitchell, and an aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell make the episode almost too rich to be believed. Their cries of bribery, illegality, and lack of principle lay bare the bankrupt campaign finance system that Mitchell and McConnell helped create and that Collins has contributed to with previous Supreme Court votes and will supersize with her likely vote to confirm Kavanaugh.

The Hurricane, by Michael Rucker

Collins labeled as a “bribe” a fundraising plan by two progressive Maine groups, aided by the company Crowdpac, to raise funds for Collins’ eventual opponent in 2020. People are pledging to give money via Crowdpac to that unknown future opponent, but donors will only be charged for the donation if Collins votes “yes” on Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. As of Tuesday night, the groups reported pledged donations of more than $1 million, with a $1.3 million goal. There were more than 39,000 individual pledges ranging from $1 to the maximum allowable donation to a candidate of $2,700.

Now we can argue about whether the political threat to Collins funded by tens of thousands of small donations should be illegal. But claims by Mitchell and others that the fundraising effort is illegal are wrong, in part thanks to the deregulated campaign finance system that Mitchell and others have helped to create through litigation and a sympathetic Supreme Court.

Read more at Slate.

For the past couple of days we’ve been hearing that Paul Manafort is negotiating for a plea deal to avoid having to go through a second trial. But it looks like he is still counting on a pardon from Trump once he’s finished with the legal process.

Today Politico reports that Trump and his legal team aren’t the least bit concerned.

At any time, Trump could wipe out Manafort’s earlier convictions and eliminate the need for the D.C. trial or a plea deal by pardoning Manafort. The president has sounded open to the idea, expressing deep sympathy for his former campaign chief….

The Storm, by Jim Booth

Several aides and advisers have told POLITICO they believe Trump will grant clemency to Manafort, but Giuliani has said the president has agreed to put off any consideration of the issue until the Mueller probe concludes.

Asked Wednesday whether a plea deal would close the door on Manafort getting a Trump pardon, Giuliani replied, “No, it doesn’t. I can’t speak for his exercising discretion on a pardon. But I don’t see why it would foreclose it, no.”

Isn’t dangling a pardon obstruction and/or witness tampering? Giuiliani also revealed that Trump’s and Manafort’s attorneys are still in a joint defense agreement, so Trump is privy to everything Manafort is doing and vice versa.

Giuliani also confirmed that Trump’s lawyers and Manafort’s have been in regular contact and that they are part of a joint defense agreement that allows confidential information sharing.

“All during the investigation we have an open communication with them,” he said. “Defense lawyers talk to each other all the time where as long as our clients authorize it therefore we have a better idea of what’s going to happen. That’s very common.”

Giuliani confirmed he spoke with Manafort’s lead defense lawyer Kevin Downing shortly before and after the verdicts were returned in the Virginia trial, but the former mayor wouldn’t say what he discusses with the Manafort team. “It’d all be attorney-client privilege not just from our point of view but from theirs,” he said.

It appears the fix is in. For all we know the attorneys already could have worked out how they will handle the pardon. Of courses that still would not get Manafort off the hook for state charges or for being forced by Mueller to testify before the grand jury. But Giuliani says they won’t act on a pardon until the investigation is over, so I guess until it happens, Manafort could still take the fifth and refuse to answer questions. I hope Mueller refuses any plea that doesn’t include cooperation from Manafort.

So . . . what else is happening? Let us know your thoughts in the comment thread below.

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Tuesday Reads: Breaking News and A Change of Pace

Girls under Trees, August Macke, 1914

Good Afternoon!!

There’s been a development in the Manafort case. The jury has sent out a note with a question for the judge. Unfortunately, the question is somewhat ambiguous.

It sounds like they are saying they are deadlocked on one of the 18 counts, but it’s also possible they are saying they can’t reach a unanimous decision on any of the counts. The judge is taking a five minute recess to prepare his response. I’ll update when I learn more.

Joyce Vance responds:

More breaking news on MSNBC, a report from WNBC that Michael Cohen is in talks with the prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, and a plea deal could be reached as early as today. It’s possible that we will learn something this afternoon.

The jury is back in the courtroom. Ken Dilanian says they are probably deadlocked on only one count, and they need guidance on how to enter that into the verdict sheet. Expert on MSNBC is saying it would be highly unlikely that there would be not guilty decisions on 17 counts.

The jury has now received instruction from the judge and has returned to the jury room. Ken Dilanian says the indecision is on only one count. So maybe we’ll get a verdict today. I sure hope so.

WNBC: Ex-Trump Lawyer Michael Cohen Discussing Plea Deal With Federal Prosecutors in Manhattan.

President Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen is discussing a possible guilty plea with federal prosecutors in Manhattan in connection with tax fraud and banking-related matters, multiple sources familiar with the matter tell NBC News and News 4.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen leaves federal court in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Those sources stress no deal has been reached but do say the potential deal could be reached as early as Tuesday.

The plea could have significant implications for Trump, who has blasted Cohen ever since his former fixer and his attorney, old Clinton hand Lanny Davis, began signaling this summer that Cohen might cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

When reached by NBC, Davis said he cannot comment on advice of counsel since there is an ongoing investigation.

Maybe that partially explains Trump’s hysterical behavior over the past several days.

Jonathan Dienst of WNBC is now reporting on MSNBC that we should know something in an hour or so. The two sides are close, but if the deal falls through, the prosecutors will proceed to prepare charges against Cohen and indict him in the next week or two.

Some stories to check out while we wait for these breaking stories to resolve themselves:

The Hill: Paul Manafort never believed the rules applied to him; I know — I worked with him for a decade, by K. Riva Levinson.

A good plot, most writers will tell you, is built on conflict. Working for Washington’s first bipartisan lobbying firm, Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly, reporting to Paul Manafort, was my conflict; what came thereafter, my self-reckoning.

I was a recent college grad, broke, with no political connections when I managed to talk my way into an interview with Manafort and told him, boldly — and naively — “There is no place I will not go.” And from 1985 to 1995 (the beginning and end of BMS&K), there was no place that Manafort wouldn’t send me: war zones, states under armed occupation, the African bush or the cocaine-trafficked jungles of Latin America.

I had a front-row seat to a world changing in fast-forward with the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was thrilling, scary and, at times, overwhelming. But I never said no to a mission, or turned back. And despite all that unfolded, I will always remain grateful to Manafort for giving me a chance to learn first-hand how world events are often shaped.

BMS&K was where my mettle was tested, my foundational skills acquired, and where I struggled with my conscience, asking myself, “What am I doing here?”

Manafort had no such concerns about right and wrong.

I saw in Manafort no evident distress about the collateral damage that unfolded, the lives that were damaged or lost. He could self-justify anything. And as time went on, it seemed to me that he became all about the money. I and my colleagues were left to defend the extravagant expenses he charged to our clients.

I watched Manafort bend the rules, and so did everyone else, until eventually the firm’s new management asked him to leave. I left him, too.

I haven’t seen nor spoken directly with Paul since 1995, though I did receive an angry email when The Guardian wrote a story upon the release of my book in June 2016, quoting a passage where I call him “mercenary.”

The Washington Post: I miss Richard Nixon, by Philip Allen Lacovara.

I am hardly a Nixon defender. I was part of the special prosecutor investigation that led to his downfall. I was and remain shocked at the extent of his crass and criminal behavior, which first became palpable to me listening to the secret Oval Office tapes that we pried away from him, eventually including the “smoking gun” tape the Supreme Court ordered him to turn over. It was that evidence that convinced Nixon’s closest supporters that his defense against impeachment and removal from office would have been unsustainable, and that he had no choice but to resign in disgrace.

I even created a rift with Leon Jaworski, Archibald Cox’s successor as Watergate special prosecutor, when I publicly protested the pardon that President Gerald Ford issued to Nixon shortly after the resignation, thereby shielding Nixon from the legal consequences that were soon to be visited upon his co-conspirators, who, after conviction, spent years in prison for the coverup.

But then I look at the incumbent, and I become wistful.

…unlike Nixon, Trump was born with a golden spoon in his mouth and has exploited his family’s power and wealth from his earliest days. Supposed bone spurs insulated him from the crucible of military service, when many of his contemporaries were called to duty to fight in Vietnam. He relishes the flamboyant and the superficial, though the glitz comes with hefty dose of cheesiness — which I can attest to as someone who lived briefly in one of his “Trump Towers.”

Except for Trump’s own unsupported braggadocio, he entered the Oval Office ignorant of even the rudiments of American history and world affairs. He is a man of no particular political principles; his vacillation between parties (and occasionally as an “independent”) reveals the lack of any political core. Nor did he have any experience in public office, civil or military, or familiarity with the practical art of governing.

Nixon, on the other hand, grew up impoverished and was the archetypical self-made man. He was demonstrably thoughtful — even brilliant. At a conference several years ago at Duke University, where he attended law school during the Depression, I heard stories of his struggles living in a cold-water flat but achieving a distinguished record that was respected decades later.

Lacavera notes that Nixon, unlike Trump, “understood government and policy,” and he “had enough decency and respect for the office to cloak his conniving in secret.” Nixon also had a consistent political philosophy, while Trump clearly has no moral or political core. Read more at the WaPo.

Joseph James DeAngelo, the “golden state killer” via REUTERS

Now for a change of pace, I want to share a couple of nonpolitical reads. This spring the sensational serial rape and murder case of the so-called “golden state killer” was solved through research on an open source DNA website. The suspect was identified as Joseph James DeAngelo of Citrus Heights, CA, a suburb of Sacramento. In the past few days, I came across two similar stories.

Novelist Matthew Sullivan writes at The Daily Beast: I Grew Up in the Shadow of a Neighborhood Killer. He May Have Finally Been Caught.

To anyone living in the suburban boomtown of Aurora, Colorado in the 1980s, the horror story is familiar: at some point after midnight on the night on January 16, 1984, on a quiet cul-de-sac in a newer housing development near the Aurora Mall, an intruder armed with a hammer entered the home of Bruce and Debra Bennett.

They were a young couple with two young daughters, aged 7 and 3, and they had recently moved to Aurora to raise their girls after the 27-year-old Bruce wrapped up a stint in the Navy.

The Bennet family

As of now there’s no way to know the exact sequence of events that happened in the house that night, but the whole family was likely asleep when the intruder slipped in.

Using the hammer he brought with him and a knife he may have taken from their kitchen, the intruder attacked Bruce and Debra. Bruce fought back, grappling with the man in the bedroom and up and down the stairs, but the man overcame him, slit his throat and left him on the steps to die.

By the time the man left, he had also violently attacked and sexually assaulted both Bennett daughters.

The three older Bennetts were dead. The intruder had bludgeoned the three-year-old daughter and left her for dead as well, but according to Kirk Mitchell, who has spent years reporting on this case for the Denver Post, when her grandmother arrived the next morning, worried because Bruce hadn’t shown up for work, she found the youngster in her bed, barely alive. The littlest Bennett had survived.

There had been similar attacks and murders in the area. The crimes cast a shadow over the entire community; but the killer that kids in the neighborhood called “The Hammer Man” was never caught. Sullivan’s descriptions of how the crimes affected him and the community as a whole is fascinating. But now a suspect has been identified through DNA.

Alexander C. Ewing, “the Hammer Man”

One afternoon in early August, 2018, my phone began to erupt with messages from friends and family, co-workers and classmates, all of them living in Denver. Each said the same thing:

They got him.

They got him.

They got him! [….]

Each night, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation runs a comparison against the Combined DNA Index System database (CODIS), run by the FBI, which collects and indexes DNA from different states and agencies.

In early July of this year, the agency got a hit: a match was found between the DNA of the wanted John Doe suspect—the unknown man whose semen was traced to both the Bennett and the Smith crime scenes—and that of a 57-year-old prisoner in Nevada whose cheek was swabbed in 2013 as part of a new state law, his data uploaded.

The man, Alexander C. Ewing, was serving a 40-year sentence for two counts of attempted murder and other crimes and was eligible for parole in three years. According to a Washington Post report, he lived in Denver in 1984—and worked in construction.

One more story from The Washington Post: A baby was abandoned in a phone booth 64 years ago. Now, DNA has helped explain why.

Steve Dennis’s birth certificate didn’t say where he was born or when, or to whom. It just said he was found in a telephone booth.

Steve Dennis

Two bread deliverymen had found him there early one January morning in 1954, back when Dennis didn’t yet have a name. They found the “big blue-eyed infant” wrapped in blankets inside a cardboard box in the phone booth just outside Yielky’s Drive-In near Lancaster, Ohio, the Lancaster Eagle-Gazette reported at the time. There was no telling how long he had been there, perhaps only a few hours. The baby was very cold to the touch, the paper reported, and so was the bottle of milk left with him in the box.

The mystery soon captivated the residents of Lancaster. In just two days, dozens inquired about adoption, and “literally scores of persons” tried to help police identify the baby abandoned in the phone booth, the Eagle-Gazette reported in 1954.  Nobody knew who put him there or why, and for a long time in the decades that followed, Dennis didn’t know either.

For years, the whole story struck him as too bizarre to even be true, as he told the Eagle-Gazette’s Spencer Remoquillo in a follow-up story 64 years later, on Friday. Dennis had always known he was adopted as a baby, but he didn’t learn about the phone booth until he was a teenager. He got curious. He traveled all the way to Lancaster just to see it for himself. But he didn’t find very much there, he told the Eagle-Gazette. He didn’t think he would ever find his birth parents, and for most of his life he didn’t think anything of it, either.

But that changed when his two children, 18 and 14 years old, started asking questions.

Dennis solved the mystery of his origins through Ancestry DNA. Read the rest at the WaPo. It’s quite a story.

So . . . what stories have you been following?


Monday Reads: The Wheels of Justice Turn very Slowly

Rediscovered painting by Raphael, circa 1520

Good Afternoon Sky Dancers!

I’m focusing on the last standing functional branch of our Democracy today. I’ve noticed that some of the court cases recently have shown us that a few of our institutions are still working despite attempts to take them down.  I also cover a bit of that because, as you know, “these are the times that try men’s souls”.

The Special Counsel’s Appointment and Authority has been upheld by one of the first Trump Court Appointee’s this morning. This is significant as Mueller’s team takes aim at Roger Stone who dallied with Guccifer 2.0 and may be one of the first of the campaign’s inner circle to be directly indicted for playing footsy with the Russians. This is via CNN:

A federal district judge who was appointed by President Donald Trump has upheld Robert Mueller’s appointment and constitutional authority in the special counsel’s case against Russian social media propagandists.

Judge Dabney Friedrich, who serves at the trial-court level in DC federal court, said Concord Management and Consulting could not have its case tossed on constitutional grounds. The Russian company accused of backing a social media effort to sway voters against Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton claimed Mueller didn’t have power to bring the case because he was not appointment by the President and confirmed by Congress. Mueller was appointed under the authority of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who has broad power as the acting head of the Justice Department for the 2016 election probe.

“The appointment does not violate core separation-of-powers principles. Nor has the Special Counsel exceeded his authority under the appointment order by investigating and prosecuting Concord,” Friedrich wrote in an opinion published Monday morning. She was one of the first judges Trump placed into a federal court position.

Friedrich cited opinions by three other federal judges — Amy Berman Jackson, who oversees Paul Manafort’s criminal foreign lobbying case; T.S. Ellis, who oversees Manafort’s financial fraud case; and DC District Court Chief Judge Beryl Howell — to back up her decision.
All three judges also denied requests to invalidate Mueller’s authority, with Howell writing as recently as late July that a witness subpoenaed to turn over documents and to testify before the grand jury about Roger Stone would have to. That witness, Andrew Miller, has been held in contempt of the court and now may appeal.

 

Bronze statue of Astraea

Both Manafort and Stone and key associates have tried to dart and dodge aspects of their indictments.  So far, they’ve failed.

The prosecution is wrapping up its tax- and bank-fraud case against Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman.

After the blistering pace set by U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III, the trial ground to a sudden halt on Friday for an unexplained reason. The judge and lawyers spent half the day huddled behind closed doors, with the trial not resuming until mid-afternoon.

The star of the trial was Gates, who was depicted by the defense as an unprincipled crook who ripped off Manafort and maybe the Trump campaign, and cheated on his wife to boot. But he also described to prosecutors how he helped Manafort hide millions of dollars that he earned from political consulting work in Ukraine in offshore accounts, and helped forge documents that made it easier for Manafort to defraud banks.

The jury heard from plenty of financial experts who backed up those claims. The professionals who helped Manafort, including his bookkeeper and tax accountant, said Manafort was the one in charge and insisted on giving final approval. The accountant said she was aware that Manafort’s tax returns contained false information. Bankers testified they wouldn’t have approved Manafort’s loan requests had they received the correct information from him about his income and debts.

Stephen Calk, chief executive officer of Federal Savings Bank in Chicago, expedited approval of two loans for Manafort totaling $16 million as he pushed Manafort for help landing a job with the Trump administration soon after the 2016 election, a former bank employee testified.

Manafort’s defense gets a chance to put its case before the jury this week, although it’s not required to do so. It’s unclear whether Manafort plans to testify or when jurors will begin deliberating.

Lady Justice Streets of Dublin.  Jenny Rainbow (artist)

However, the White House continues to skirt laws and ethics guidelines.  This one is a whopper of an issue.  The Daily Beast has this lede: ‘White House: It’s in ‘Public Interest’ for Staff to Skirt Ethics Rules to Meet With Fox News’ written by Lachlan Markay. No wonder they want to change the way administrative judges are appointed.

It is “in the public interest” for a the White House’s top communicator to be excused from federal ethics laws so he can meet with Fox News, according to President Donald Trump’s top lawyer.

Bill Shine, Trump’s newly minted communications director, and Larry Kudlow, the White House’s top economist, who worked at CNBC before his White House post, have both been excused from provisions of the law, which seeks to prevent administration officials from advancing the financial interests of relatives or former employers.

“The Administration has an interest in you interacting with Covered Organizations such as Fox News,” wrote White House counsel Don McGahn in a July 13 memo granting an ethics waivers to Shine, a former Fox executive. “[T]he need for your services outweighs the concern that a reasonable person may question the integrity of the White House Office’s programs and operations.”

Kudlow, a former CNBC host, received a similar waiver allowing him to communicate with former colleagues.

Including Shine and Kudlow, the White House has granted a total of 20 waivers to provisions of various federal ethics laws and the ethics pledge that President Trump instituted by executive order the week he took office. Federal agencies have granted many more such waivers.

Very Old White Guy from Iowa Grassley has decided September 4th is the day to trot out the Kavanaugh confirmation.

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation hearings will start on Sept. 4 and last between three and four days, Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) announced on Friday.

That scheduling tees up the GOP to meet its goal of getting President Donald Trump’s pick seated on the high court by the time its term begins in early October, barring unforeseen obstacles or a breakthrough by Democrats who are pushing to derail Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

The Supreme Court battle so far has focused on documents related to Kavanaugh’s five years in the George W. Bush White House. Democrats have excoriated the GOP for declining to seek records from the nominee’s time as Bush’s staff secretary and condemned the Republican decision to rely on a Bush-driven review process for the early round of vetting, while the majority party hails the vast scope of documents that are set for release.

Grassley said earlier this month that he anticipates being able to complete Kavanaugh’s consideration by the Judiciary panel within about two weeks after the close of the confirmation hearings, which will feature questioning of the nominee beginning on Sept. 5. After the Judiciary panel clears Kavanaugh, Grassley added, the nomination is expected to reach the Senate floor within days.

“At this current pace, we have plenty of time to review the rest of emails and other records that we will receive from President Bush and the National Archives,” Grassley said in a Friday statement setting the hearing dates. “It’s time for the American people to hear directly from Judge Kavanaugh at his public hearing.”

The FBI has overridden its normal process of employee discipline to fire Agent Peter Strzok who basically was exercising his first amendment rights to criticize D’oh Hair Furor.  I’m wondering how long it will take to fire up a law suit on this one. This is from Matt Zapotosky at WAPO.

The FBI has fired agent Peter Strzok, who helped lead the bureau’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election until officials discovered he had been sending anti-Trump texts.

Aitan Goelman, Strzok’s lawyer, said FBI Deputy Director David L. Bowdich ordered the firing on Friday — even though the director of the FBI office that normally handles employee discipline had decided Strzok should face only a demotion and 60-day suspension. Goelman said the move undercuts the FBI’s repeated assurances that Strzok would be afforded the normal disciplinary process.

“This isn’t the normal process in any way more than name,” Goelman said, adding in a statement, “This decision should be deeply troubling to all Americans.”

The FBI declined to comment.

The termination marks a remarkable downfall for Strzok, a 22-year veteran of the bureau who investigated Russian spies, defense officials accused of selling secrets to China and myriad other important cases. In the twilight of his career, Strzok was integral to two of the bureau’s most high-profile investigations: the Russia case; and the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state.

Meanwhile, Cruella D’Vos “Just Pulled a Full Marie Antoinette And Retracted Fraud Rules Against For-Profit Colleges.” This is from Elura Nanos writing for Law & Crime.

Welp, now we’ve at least closed the circle on Betsy DeVos and for-profit colleges. She’s gone from evading questions about whether she would regulate these fraud machines to disbanding the team charged with investigating them. Now, she flat out withdrew the gainful employment rule, signaling to all that under her watchful eye, the DeVrys, the Trump Universities, and the Corinthian Colleges are free to flourish – while unwitting students and their families can simply eat cake.

The “gainful employment rule,” you may remember, is the one adopted in 2016 under the Obamaadministration, after several cash-cow diploma mills found themselves defending fraud lawsuits brought by swindled students. The rule prohibited these businesses from using deceptive practices to entice customers to plunk down thousands in student loan money when the corresponding “degree” wasn’t worth the expensive paper on which it was printed. Or in other words, exactly what Trump University was accused of doing. It was also the rule Senator Elizabeth Warren skeweredDeVos on at DeVos’ confirmation hearing.

Well, as they say “No justice, No Peace”.

This is pretty outrageous.

The Clearwater man who shot and killed a father of three outside a convenience store in a parking dispute last month — setting off a stand your ground debate that has swept Florida and the nation — has a history of road rage.

Since 2012, according to records and interviews, 47-year-old Michael Drejka has been the accused aggressor in four incidents. Investigators documented three cases in police reports.

The other was not shared with authorities at the time but involved the same handicap-reserved parking spot outside the Circle A Food Store near Clearwater and another shooting threat.

Two involved allegations of Drejka showing a gun. In another, a trooper accused him of aggressive driving and cited him after a crash when Drejka braked hard in front of a woman driving with two children.

Drejka has not spoken publicly in the weeks since he shot and killed 28-year-old Markeis McGlockton. No one has spoken much about him, either. Not family. Not neighbors. Not lawyers. Several alleged victims in previous incidents either declined to comment or could not be reached. Drejka remains, in many ways, an enigma to the public. He has not been arrested.

The shooter was white and the victim was black.  Just an hour ago, however, we got this lede from the Tampy Bay Times: “Shooter charged with manslaughter in Clearwater stand your ground case”.

Prosecutors charged Michael Drejka, the man accused of killing Markeis McGlockton in a shooting that has reignited a debate around Florida’s stand your ground law, with manslaughter Monday.

According to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, Drejka was taken into custody Monday morning. He is being booked into the Pinellas County Jail, where he will be held in lieu of $100,000 bail.

Drejka, 47, has avoided arrest since he shot 28-year-old McGlockton on July 19 because of the controversial self-defense law that eliminated one’s duty to retreat before resorting to force.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced July 20 that his agency was precluded from arresting Drejka because evidence showed it was “within the bookends of stand your ground and within the bookends of force being justified,” which provides immunity from arrest, the sheriff said. He forwarded the case Aug. 1 to the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office to make a final charging determination.

Lady Justice by Cartoonist Gunduz Agayev

So, I have ignored Omarossa today but I will pass this bit of sad news on about our country’s Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.

Music legend Aretha Franklin is “gravely ill,” her family told WDIV-TV (Channel 4) on Monday.

Channel 4 anchor Evrod Cassimy said this morning in a tweet: “I spoke with her family members this morning. She is asking for your prayers at this time.”

She is said to be dying at this time so we’re losing a great voice and person again.

So that’s a little this and that on what may be our last functional branch of government.  Pray it stands its ground.

What’s on your reading and blogging list today?


Lazy Saturday Reads: Russia News

The Athenaeum – Thérèse Reading in the Park at Meric (Jean Frederic Bazille)

Good Afternoon!!

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….

Maxwell Doig

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.

Girl in Green by Sara Hayden (1862–1939), American

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.

Louis Buisseret (1888-1956, Belgian) Contemplation 1938

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?

William Moore Davis (1829 – 1920, American)

“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.”

Summer (c.1958). Donald Moodie (British, 1892-1963)

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?


Thursday Reads: Trump Anxiety, QAnon, and the Manafort Trial

Good Afternoon!!

Ever since my mom had her stroke, I’ve been struggling more than ever in dealing with Trump news. When I sit down to write a post, I feel paralyzed by feelings of fear, dread and disgust. The only thing that keeps me going is knowing that I’m not alone. I think the majority of Americans are feeling something like this even if they’re not following the news as closely as we do.

NBC News: Barnes & Noble says sales of books related to anxiety are soaring. Here’s why.

Shoppers are increasingly looking at workbooks that help them cope with anxiety, Barnes & Noble senior director of merchandising, Liz Hardwell, said in a statement issued Wednesday afternoon. Although times may be tough, wrought with political tension, “the good news is that book buyers across the country are also looking for solutions to their stress,” she said.

Top-selling titles, based on the bookseller’s sales data, include “The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook” by Edmund Bourne, “The Anxiety Toolkit: Strategies for Fine-Tuning Your Mind and Moving Past Your Stuck Points” by Alice Boyes, and “The Anxiety and Worry Workbook: The Cognitive Behavioral Solution” by David Clark and Aaron Beck.

New York-based Barnes & Noble…said the state of California has had the largest increase in interest in anxiety books in stores over the past year. The next largest increases were in Michigan and Massachusetts. Meanwhile, shoppers in Texas, North Carolina and Florida had the biggest decrease in interest in anxiety books, according to the bookseller’s sales data.

That has to be related to Trump, right? The highest interest books about anxiety is in blue states and the lowest in red states.

Of course the Trumpists have their own sources of anxiety, but their fears are based on fake “news.” I tried to read this Washington Post article yesterday, and had to stop for fear my head would explode: The mystery of ‘Q’: How an anonymous conspiracy-monger launched a movement (if the person exists).

From somewhere in the vast and mysterious “deep state,” a dissident agent rises up to give the people cryptic clues about how their heroic president will push back the forces of evil and make America great again. The renegade informant is known only as “Q,” and if such a person actually exists, it’s not in a movie, but somewhere in the Washington bureaucracy.

Energized by Q’s complex web of conspiracy notions about the forces aligned against President Trump, Q’s followers have spread virally both online and now out in real life, too, forming a movement known as QAnon that is making itself visible at Trump’s rallies and other public gatherings.

QAnon is something old — the latest in a string of conspiracy ideas that take hold of the public’s imagination in times of social stress and technological change. And QAnon is something new — a leaderless popular movement made up of people who believe in no one and therefore are willing to believe almost anything.

Apparently, these Q people think they are getting secret messages from things Trump says or does.

To believers, Q is a pseudonym for a well-placed U.S. government agent who is posting online distress messages and bits of intel, known as “bread crumbs,” in an effort to save the country — and Trump — from hostile forces within the government. Q’s missives started appearing last October on 4chan, the mostly anonymous website where fringe ideas incubate and blossom.

In messages written in a telegraphic, cryptic style, Q called on Americans to rally behind Trump as he planned a counteraction against forces that would investigate him and remove him from office. Some QAnon followers believe Trump himself inspired their movement with a comment he made last October at a photo session with military leaders. The president pointed to the officers’ uniforms and said, “You know what this represents? Maybe it’s the calm before the storm.”

In far-flung corners of the Internet, some speculated that that storm was a counterstrike against the deep state. Then along came Q to turn that speculation into concrete predictions — of the arrest of Hillary Clinton, of a roundup of anti-Trump liberals, of a crackdown on child-sex-trafficking rings.

There’s much more at the link, if you can manage to wade through all the crazy. These people are turning up with their Q signs and T-shirts at Trump rallies, as you could see in the news coverage of the Tampa rally this week.

This story at the Daily Beast is really wacky: QAnon, the Pro-Trump Conspiracy Theorists, Now Believe JFK Jr. Faked His Death to Become Their Leader.

Believers in the bizarre pro-Trump conspiracy theory called QAnon were out in force at the president’s rally in Tampa, Florida on Tuesday, waving signs and cut-outs of the letter “Q” in front of the television cameras.

Trump points at a man in a Q shirt at a Duluth, MN rally.

The surprisingly large number of Trump supporters who believe in the off-the-wall conspiracy theory and the attendant media attention marks a new height for QAnon, which grew from the internet swamps of 4Chan and 8Chan….

For QAnon believers, special counsel Robert Mueller isn’t really investigating the Trump campaign—he’s actually working with Trump to take down a cabal of deep-state plotters and pedophiles. Soon, QAnon fans believe, Trump will team up with the military to throw top Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama into Guantanamo Bay.

But what QAnon believers actually believe is constantly changing. After taking advantage of the murder of DNC staffer Seth Rich and promoting dangerous ideas like Pizzagate, QAnon supporters have found a new tragedy to exploit: the death of John F. Kennedy Jr., son of the late president.

Until July, QAnon supporters believed that “Q,” the anonymous online forum poster whose cryptic clues make up the conspiracy theory, was a high-ranking Trump administration official, or maybe even Trump himself. But now, a good portion of QAnon believers have become convinced that Q is none other than JFK Jr, even though he died in a plane crash nearly 20 years ago.

Click on the link to read the rest.

In other news, today is day three of the first Paul Manafort trial. Some interesting reads:

Franklin Foer at The Atlantic: A Hell of a Performance by Paul Manafort.

A week ago, while lawyers futzed with pretrial motions, Manafort arrived in court wearing a green jumpsuit. But the trial is the show of his lifetime. His oversize frame is once again permitted to occupy a suit—a fact that everyone in the courtroom incessantly noticed, given how much of the afternoon’s testimony came from his former clothiers, one of whom described submitting Manafort invoices that exceeded $800,000.

Paul Manafort’s $15,000 ostrich jacket

Whatever the outward signs that Paul Manafort is experiencing public torment, the presence of other men in tailored suits seems to have allowed Manafort to elevate himself into a strange sense of ease. The most compelling drama of the trial so far is watching Manafort comport himself. And the spectacle is pure Manafort.

He stands trial for abusing money he received as a world-renowned political consultant. Jurors have heard from witnesses who have described him as a master craftsman of public image; old colleagues have testified to his narrative gifts. These talents were so often used to smooth over the reputations of awful men—the kleptocrats, strongmen, and oligarchs whom he ingratiated with the American elite. Now, it’s his own image and his own narrative that he must manage, with an audience of expressionless jurors tucked away at the side of the room. And as the jury of his peers comes and goes from the room, Manafort makes a point of flashing his well-buffed smile. It’s the look of a man projecting confidence. It’s kind of convincing.

Foer, who has followed Manafort’s corrupt career for many years, describes a man who may believe he’ll get away with his criminality one more time:

When Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s prosecutors laid out their case in opening arguments, they correctly diagnosed Manafort’s sense of impunity. He’d kept right on scheming, they argued, because he believed that he would get away with it. Today, the presiding judge in the case, T. S. Ellis III, made a point of constantly chiding the government. He blamed prosecutors for describing Manafort’s clients as “oligarchs,” a term he called unfairly “pejorative.”

Manafort paid $12,000 for this suit from House of Bijan.

The Republican-appointed judge warned Mueller’s team against trying Manafort for “his lavish lifestyle.” As Manafort heard these arguments, I watched him from across the room. I saw him gazing ever so thoughtfully and detected a flicker of something else, too. In that moment, it wasn’t” hard to imagine him believing that he might just get away with it one more time.

Read the whole thing at The Atlantic.

TPM has posted photos of Manafort’s Fancy Clothes, Including The Ostrich Jacket.

If there was anything prosecutors at Paul Manafort’s trial were trying to impress on the jury Wednesday, it’s that he liked to spend money wired from his foreign bank accounts on fancy things — items that could not conceivably be considered business expenses and thus tax deductible.

Things like a $21,000 Limited Edition black titanium Royal Way watch with crystal, a Mercedes Benz for his wife, and a $15,000 jacket made of ostrich. Judge T.S. Ellis was not a fan of the prosecution’s focus on Manafort’s lavish lifestyle, and would often cut off questioning if it delved too into the details of the luxury items Manafort was purchasing, allegedly with income he failed to discloAse on federal tax forms and money he wired from foreign bank counts that he didn’t report to the U.S. government….

Luckily, photos of Manafort’s high-end apparel, taken during a FBI raid of his home last summer, were made public by Special Counsel Robert Mueller Wednesday.

Check out the photos at TPM.

Yesterday, prosecutors said they weren’t sure they would call Rick Gates as a witness. Today they announced that he will appear. Again, from TPM:

A day after giving a coy answer to the judge about whether it would call Rick Gates as a witness, the prosecution confirmed Thursday that the plan remains for Gates to testify in the ongoing Virginia trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

Rick Gates

“We have every intention to call him as witness,” prosecutor Greg Andres said in court before the jury was ushered into the room.

For months, Gates has been shaping up to be the key government witness in the case, after he agreed in February to cooperate with investigators. Gates was a longtime protege of Manafort’s, and was originally indicted with him by separate federal grand juries in Virginia and Washington, DC.

During opening statements, Manafort’s lawyer signaled his defense would largely be built on not only tearing down Gates’ credibility but pinning the blame for alleged financial misdeeds on Gates, including claiming that Gates embezzled money from Manafort.

One more Manafort-related article by Dana Millbank: The deep cynicism of Bernie Sanders’s chief strategist.

Tad Devine, during his run as chief strategist for the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, railed against the corrupting influence of money in politics.

He repeatedly echoed the Sanders message that “our economy is rigged,” that “special interests” buy politicians, that “all of the new wealth is going to the top of America,” that there is a “corrupt system of campaign finance” of which Hillary Clinton offered an “egregious” example. Sanders, by contrast, “supported the little guy.”

Bernie Sanders and Tad Devine

Those who heard Devine’s interviews and watched his Sanders TV ads therefore may be surprised to know that, in the years and months leading up to the Sanders presidential campaign, Devine was making gobs of money to secure the election of one of the world’s most corrupt political figures and then his allies.

Thanks to Robert S. Mueller III’s prosecution of Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman and sometime business associate of Devine, we now have an unusual glimpse into the role the Democratic ad man had in electing and preserving the power of Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych, a crooked pro-Putin autocrat. Though American political consultants routinely rake in cash from foreign leaders — even shady ones — Devine’s seamless pivot from advocate for antidemocratic thug to champion of a principled democratic reformer shows extraordinary flexibility.

Of course we all knew Bernie was fraud all along; I wonder if the media will ask him to rationalize his choice of Devine to run his 2016 campaign?

What else is happening? What stories are you following today?


Tuesday Reads: Russia Russia Russia

Good Morning!!

There has quite a bit of breaking news on the Russia investigation front this week, and it’s only Tuesday. We learned last night that Paul Manafort tried to suborn perjury from witnesses in his case. Perhaps that’s why Trump has been madly tweeting about Manafort and the investigation generally.

The Washington Post: Mueller accuses Paul Manafort of witness tampering.

Federal prosecutors accused former Trump presidential campaign chairman Paul Manafort of witness tampering late Monday in his criminal case and asked a federal judge to consider revoking or revising his release.

Prosecutors accused Manafort and a longtime associate they linked to Russian intelligence of repeatedly contacting two members of a public relations firm and asking them to falsely testify about secret lobbying they did at Manafort’s behest.

The firm of former senior European officials, informally called the “Hapsburg group,” was secretly retained in 2012 by Manafort to advocate for Ukraine, where Manafort had clients, prosecutors charged.

Konstantin Kilimnik

In court documents, prosecutors with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III allege that Manafort and his associate — referred to only as Person A — tried to contact the two witnesses by phone and through encrypted messaging apps. The description of Person A matches his longtime business colleague in Ukraine, Konstantin Kilimnik.

So Manafort could soon be headed for jail unless he decides to cooperate with Mueller. Read the rest at the WaPo. Some commentary:

John Cassidy at The New Yorker: More Legal Trouble for Paul Manafort—and Donald Trump.

Coincidences do happen, but this seems to be an unlikely one. On Sunday morning, seemingly apropos of nothing, Donald Trump posted a messageon Twitter that stated the following: “As only one of two people left who could become President, why wouldn’t the FBI or Department of ‘Justice’ have told me that they were secretly investigating Paul Manafort (on charges that were 10 years old and had been previously dropped) during my campaign? Should have told me!”

Even by Trump’s standards, this message seemed a bit weird. A few minutes later, the President posted another one, which said, Paul Manafort came into the campaign very late and was with us for a short period of time (he represented Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole & many others over the years), but we should have been told that Comey and the boys were doing a number on him, and he wouldn’t have been hired!”

Trump says a lot of things on Twitter, of course. But prior to this outburst, he hadn’t talked much recently about Manafort, who made millions of dollars working as a political consultant for despots around the world and is facing trial in two federal courts on charges that include money laundering, bank fraud, and failing to disclose his U.S. lobbying work for a foreign government—all of which were brought by the special counsel, Robert Mueller. Why Trump’s sudden interest? One possible inference was that the President had somehow heard that there was more bad news coming about Manafort, and he was trying to limit some of the damage in advance of its release. If that was indeed the case, we now know the source of Trump’s concern.

In a filing made in U.S. district court, in Washington, on Monday night, Mueller’s office accused Manafort, who is out on bail, of trying to tamper with potential witnesses earlier this year, and asked a judge to consider jailing him before his trial. At this stage, obviously, we don’t know how the court will rule. But Manafort is already facing considerable pressure to coöperate with the special counsel’s investigation. If the court were to revoke his freedom, this pressure would sharply increase.

Franklin Foer at The Atlantic: Paul Manafort Loses His Cool.

At the height of his powers as a political consultant, Paul Manafort was known for his cool. In fact, the value of his counsel increased at moments of crisis. While others panicked, Manafort rarely evinced a hint of frazzle. He could still think strategically, detach himself from emotion, and issue clearheaded guidance. But he could afford to keep his head at such moments, because the problems he was called on to solve belonged to others.

Robert Mueller’s allegation that Manafort attempted to tamper with a witness permits us to peer inside Manafort’s mind as it has functioned in a very different set of circumstances. When it comes to Manafort’s own deep problems—his moment of legal peril—he seems unable to muster strategic thinking. He has shown himself capable of profoundly dunderheaded miscalculations.

It’s hard to understand how he could have attempted the scheme described by Mueller in the midst of the highest-profile, most scrutinized criminal inquiry of the century. But that alone fails to capture the depths of his blundering.

Foer describes how each of Mueller’s filings in Manafort’s case has made it clear that Manafort’s every move is being closely watched by federal investigators, and yet Manafort apparently thought he could get away with contacting witnesses.

Each of Mueller’s new filings has further revealed the extent to which he is surveilling Manafort and his closest associates. A week before Manafort apparently attempted to tamper with the witness, Mueller stated plainly that he was watching their encrypted communication channels. And before that, Mueller showed that he was keeping tabs on Manafort’s email when he exposed an op-ed that Manafort had ghostwritten in his own defense, in violation of a judge’s gag order.

If we look back on Robert Mueller’s strategy over the past few months, the special prosecutor seems to repeatedly signal to Manafort: Look, I know everything; you have no choice but cooperation. It’s a pattern that continues with this filing, the first instance in which Mueller has deployed material supplied by Manafort’s old alter ego, Rick Gates. When Gates agreed to cooperate with Mueller, he handed over a raft of emails. We can see in the exhibits that Mueller attached to this filing that Gates possesses a comprehensive archive of Manafort’s dealings, a blueprint of his operation. There will be no ellipses in the Manafort trial. Gates can fill all the gaps.

There is another suggestive fact that Mueller posits in passing. Manafort’s witness-tampering scheme featured a co-conspirator. Mueller doesn’t name the accomplice, but his identity is not hard to discern from Mueller’s description. Manafort tried to contact his Hapsburg Group collaborators through his old Russo-Ukrainian aide, Konstantin Kilimnik.

Rick Gates

Why did Manafort think he could get away with continuing to communicate with Kilimnik? Mueller is slowly but surely ensuring that Manafort will either cooperate or spend the rest of his life in prison.

Meanwhile, at Mother Jones, David Corn warns that the simple narrative of Russia’s attack on our democracy is getting lost in the details as Trump, Fox News, and Devin Nunes work constantly to obfuscate the truth with big lies: Donald Trump Is Getting Away With the Biggest Scandal In American History.

The other evening I was on a cable news show to cover the latest Russia news of the day—and I had an epiphany.

We were talking about a recent scoop from Michael Isikoff, the co-author of my latest book, Russian RouletteHe had reported that a Spanish prosecutor had handed the FBI wiretapped transcripts of a Russian official who was suspected of money laundering and for years had been trying to gain influence within the American conservative movement and the National Rifle Association. We then discussed a New York Times article revealing that Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s longtime fixer, had met with a Russian oligarch in January 2017, around the time a US company affiliated with this tycoon began making $500,000 in payments to Cohen. Next we turned to the latest in the so-called Spygate nonscandal—the false claim, championed by Trump and his defenders, that the FBI infiltrated a spy into his presidential campaign for political purposes.

Then the show moved on. We had spent 15 or so minutes on these important developments, delving into the details—but without referring to the essence of the story. And it hit me: Though it’s clear Trump’s presidency has been hobbled by the Russia scandal, the manner in which this matter plays out in the media has helped Trump.

Meanwhile Trump, backed up by Fox News, keeps pushing out his propaganda.

Michael Isakoff and David Corn

The other side—the accurate perspective—isn’t that complicated. In 2016, Vladimir Putin’s regime mounted information warfare against the United States, in part to help Trump become president. While this attack was underway, the Trump crew tried to collude covertly with Moscow, sought to set up a secret communications channel with Putin’s office, and repeatedly denied in public that this assault was happening, providing cover to the Russian operation. Trump and his lieutenants aligned themselves with and assisted a foreign adversary, as it was attacking the United States. The evidence is rock-solid: They committed a profound act of betrayal. That is the scandal.

But how often do you hear or see this fundamental point being made? The media coverage of the Trump-Russia scandal—which has merged with Cohen’s pay-to-play scandal, the Stormy Daniels scandal, and a wider foreign-intervention-in-the-2016-campaign scandal—has yielded a flood of revelations. Yet the news reporting tends to focus on specific components of an unwieldy and ever-expanding story: a Trump Tower meeting between Trump aides and a Kremlin emissary; what special counsel Robert Mueller may or may not be doing; the alleged money-laundering and tax-evasion skullduggery of Paul Manafort; a secret get-together in the Seychelles between former Blackwater owner Erik Prince and a Russian financier; the Kremlin’s clandestine exploitation of social media; Russian hackers penetrating state election systems; Michael Flynn’s shady lobbying activities; Trump’s attempted interference in the investigation; and so much more. It is hard to hold on to all these pieces and place them into one big picture.

Please go read the rest–it’s fairly lengthy. I’m not sure what the solution to this is; It’s not likely that non-Fox news sources are going to start hammering a simple narrative to push back on the Trump big lies. I can only hope that when Mueller issues his report, it will pull all the complex details together into a coherent and understandable story.

Finally, get this–Vladimir Putin is now bragging publicly about his “close relationship” with Trump. Axios reports:

Russian President Vladimir Putin tells Austrian TV that he and President Trump have a close working relationship, although it’s complicated by U.S. politics.

“You should ask our colleagues in the United States. In my opinion, this is the result of the ongoing acute political struggle in the United States. Indeed, Donald Trump and I have, firstly, met more than once at various international venues and secondly, we regularly talk over the phone.”

Interviewer: “You and Donald Trump talk so nicely over the telephone, but Trump has been President for a year and a half and there still has not been a bilateral summit between you, in contrast to Bush and Obama with whom you met within the first six months of their presidencies. Why is it taking so long?”

Putin:

“Our foreign affairs departments and special services are working fairly well together in areas of mutual interest, above all in the fight against international terrorism. This work is ongoing.”

“As for personal meetings, I think that the possibility of these meetings depends to a large extent on the internal political situation in the United States….”

“In a recent telephone conversation, Donald said he was worried about the possibility of a new arms race. I fully agree with him.”

“[W]e will do all we can to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula. So of course we pin great hopes on the personal meeting between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, because mutual claims have gone way too far.”

Putin calls the “president” *Donald.* And I guess if “Donald” does achieve any success with North Korea, Putin expects to share the glory.

So . . . what stories are you following today?


Thursday Reads: The Usual Insanity Reigns in Trump World

Good Afternoon!!

As usual, there’s way too much news out there this morning. In Trump world, there’s never an opportunity to catch your breath and focus on one important thing. I can’t cover everything, so here are some random stories that caught my interest.

Cecile Richards has a new book out–Make Trouble: Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding the Courage to Lead: My Life Story–and she included some creepy revelations about Jared and Ivanka Kushner. People Magazine: Planned Parenthood CEO Says Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump Offered ‘Bribe’ to Stop Abortions.

In a riveting passage from Cecile Richards’ new memoir, the Planned Parenthood chief says Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump were, during Donald Trump’s 2016 transition as president-elect, so eager to be recognized as shrewd political dealmakers that the soon-to-be first daughter and her husband made an offer that felt like a “bribe”: an increase in federal funding for Planned Parenthood in exchange for its agreement to stop providing abortions.

Richards says she “reached out” to Ivanka at the suggestion of a friend, in hopes of finding an ally in the Trump White House. Ivanka insisted on bringing Jared, so Richards asked her husband Kirk Adams to come with her.

According to a statement from Planned Parenthood given to Time.com, the purpose of the meeting “was to make sure that Ivanka Trump fully understood the important role Planned Parenthood plays in providing health care to millions of people and why it would be a disastrous idea to block people from accessing care at Planned Parenthood.”

After Richards explained this, she writes that Kushner told her Planned Parenthood “had made a big mistake by becoming ‘political.’ ”

“The main issue, he explained, was abortion,” Richards writes. “If Planned Parenthood wanted to keep our federal funding, we would have to stop providing abortions. He described his ideal outcome: a national headline reading ‘Planned Parenthood Discontinues Abortion Services.’”

According to Make Trouble, Kushner said that if Richards agreed to the plan then funding could increase, but he urged them to “move fast.”

“If it wasn’t crystal clear before, it was now. Jared and Ivanka were there for one reason: to deliver a political win,” she writes. “In their eyes, if they could stop Planned Parenthood from providing abortions, it would confirm their reputation as savvy dealmakers. It was surreal, essentially being asked to barter away women’s rights for more money. It takes a lot to get Kirk mad, but it looked like his head was about to explode.”

Richards explained that there was “no way” Kushner’s proposal would work and that they’d continue to fight for funding.

“‘Our mission is to care for women who need us, and that means caring for all of their reproductive needs — including safe and legal abortion,’” she recalls saying.

Can you imagine the nerve? In Trump world, everything is about money. These people can’t even begin to conceive of the notion that there are people with personal values that are non-negotiable.

There’s another new book about Trump world–this time by Trump booster Ronald Kessler. Still, a few embarrassing tidbits are coming out in advice of its release date.

The Cut: Trump Reportedly Called Jared Kushner a ‘Little Boy.’

According to journalist Ronald Kessler in his new bookThe Trump White House: Changing the Rules of the Game, when Kushner addressed reporters during a live television appearance, President Trump told the aides watching with him, “Look at Jared, he looks like a little boy, like a child.”

Kessler also claims that Trump once told Kushner and his daughter, Ivanka, that “they never should have left New York,” and he “made it clear to them that he would not mind if they gave up their White House roles.” [….]

Trump calling Jared “a child” seems rather unfair. Not only has president given his son-in-law a set of absurdly stratospheric, decidedly adult responsibilities, Kushner clearly looks more like a haunted doll than a little boy.

Kessler writes that Kellyanne Conway is the “number one leaker” in the White House except for Trump himself, who leaks as as an “anonymous source” to specific reporters in hopes of positive coverage. According to Kessler, Melania Trump is an important adviser to her husband, and she once “walked out on” Trump in 1998 when she found out he was cheating on her. Now you don’t have to read the book, which reported is filled with Trump boosterism.

Luke Harding, who wrote the terrific book Collusion, has a new piece on Paul Manafort’s machinations at The Guardian: Former Trump aide approved ‘black ops’ to help Ukraine president.

Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort authorised a secret media operation on behalf of Ukraine’s former president, featuring “black ops”, “placed” articles in the Wall Street Journal and US websites, and anonymous briefings against Hillary Clinton.

The project was designed to boost the reputation of Ukraine’s then leader, Viktor Yanukovych. It was part of a multimillion-dollar lobbying effort carried out by Manafort on behalf of Yanukovych’s embattled government, emails and documents reveal.

The strategies included:

 Proposing to rewrite Wikipedia entries to smear a key opponent of the then Ukrainian president.

 Setting up a fake “thinktank” in Vienna to disseminate viewpoints supporting Yanukovych.

 A social media blitz “aimed at targeted audiences in Europe and the US”.

 Briefing journalists from the rightwing website Breitbart to attack Clinton, when she was US secretary of state.

Manafort’s Ukraine strategy anticipates later efforts by the Kremlin and its troll factory to use Twitter and Facebook to discredit Clinton and to help Trump win the 2016 US election. The material seen by the Guardian dates from 2011 to 2013.

Read the rest at The Guardian.

Another interesting long read from The Guardian by Donna Ladd: Dangerous, growing, yet unnoticed: the rise of America’s white gangs. It’s a portrait of one man–Benny Ivy–who as a kid joined “one of the oldest and largest white gangs in the US, the Simon City Royals.”

The Royals’ roots date to Chicago’s North Side in 1952, when two violent white “greaser” gangs – the Ashland Royals and Simon City – guarded Simon Park turf as Puerto Ricans moved in.

Early greasers were immigrants, often Italian, maligned by wealthier whites for greasing machines in blue-collar jobs. In 1968, the greasers united as the Simon City Royals, often rumbling with the nearby Latin Kings as well as the white supremacist Gaylords. (Their rhetoric is familiar: a Gaylords nostalgia websitecalled Latino gangs “storage bins for illegal immigrants”.)

The Royals were one of the biggest and most violent street gangs in Chicago by the 1970s, when they joined the Folk Nation alliance with the Black Gangster Disciples, began admitting Hispanics and, later, women and black members.

But by the 1980s, the gang had weakened after its leadership got locked up or killed.

Strength shifted to prisons, and the brand spread to midwestern and southern states like Mississippi, where the Royals are now one of the largest and most violent gangs in the state.

Surveys of young Americans have shown that 40% identifying as gang members are white, but police tend to undercount them at 10% to 14% and overcount black and Hispanic members, says Babe Howell, a criminal law professor at City University of New York who focuses on crime and race.

“Police see groups of young white people as individuals, each responsible for his or her own conduct, and hold young people of color in street gangs criminally liable for the conduct of their peers,” she says.

Much more at the link.

Trump is insisting on sending National Guard troops to the southern border because he heard about a so-called “caravan” of migrants marching across Mexico. We now have a “president” who uses to executive ordered to deal with fake crises. Trump probably doesn’t know that U.S. troops can’t take any actions against people to enforce domestic laws because of the Posse Commitatus Act. So he’s sending the troops down there anyway instead of just letting them train to do their real jobs. So what about this “caravan?”

The New York Times: ‘You Hate America!’: How the ‘Caravan’ Story Exploded on the Right.

It was the kind of story destined to take a dark turn through the conservative news media and grab President Trump’s attention: A vast horde of migrants was making its way through Mexico toward the United States, and no one was stopping them.

A Central American woman gives water to a baby as a large group of immigrants sets up camp for a few days at a sports center in Matias Romero in Mexico’s Oaxaca state late Monday. (Felix Marquez / Associated Press)

“Mysterious group deploys ‘caravan’ of illegal aliens headed for U.S. border,” warned Frontpage Mag, a site run by David Horowitz, a conservative commentator.

The Gateway Pundit, a website that was most recently in the news for spreading conspiracies about the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., suggested the real reason the migrants were trying to enter the United States was to collect social welfare benefits.

And as the president often does when immigration is at issue, he saw a reason for Americans to be afraid. “Getting more dangerous. ‘Caravans’ coming,” a Twitter post from Mr. Trump read.

The story of “the caravan” followed an arc similar to many events — whether real, embellished or entirely imagined — involving refugees and migrants that have roused intense suspicion and outrage on the right. The coverage tends to play on the fears that hiding among mass groups of immigrants are many criminals, vectors of disease and agents of terror. And often the president, who announced his candidacy by blaming Mexico for sending rapists and drug dealers into the United States, acts as an accelerant to the hysteria.

That’s the fake story, now for the real story.

The New York Times: Inside an Immigrant Caravan: Women and Children, Fleeing Violence.

MATÍAS ROMERO, Mexico — With a sarcastic half-smile, Nikolle Contreras, 27, surveyed her fellow members of the Central American caravan, which President Trump has called dangerous and has used as a justification to send troops to the border.

More than 1,000 people, mostly women and children, waited patiently on Wednesday in the shade of trees and makeshift shelters in a rundown sports complex in this Mexican town, about 600 miles south of the border. They were tired, having slept and eaten poorly for more than a week. All were facing an uncertain future.

“Imagine that!” said Ms. Contreras, a Honduran factory worker hoping to apply for asylum in the United States. “So many problems he has to solve and he gets involved with this caravan!”

The migrants, most of them Hondurans, left the southern Mexican border city of Tapachula on March 25 and for days traveled north en masse — by foot, hitchhiking and on the tops of trains — as they fled violence and poverty in their homelands and sought a better life elsewhere.

This sort of collective migration has become something of an annual event around Easter week, and a way for advocates to draw more attention to the plight of migrants.

But this particular caravan caught the attention of Mr. Trump, apparently after he heard about it on Fox News. In a Twitter tirade that began Sunday, he conjured up hordes of dangerous migrants surging toward the border. He demanded that Mexican officials halt the group, suggesting that otherwise he would make them pay dearly in trade negotiations or aid cuts.

Mr. Trump even boasted that his threat had forced Mexico’s government to halt and disperse the caravan participants. But there was no evidence of that on Wednesday.

Read the rest at the NYT.

What stories are you following today?