The True Cost of Trumpism

I was reading a column by Max Boot in The Washington Post a day or two ago about Trump’s decisions regarding the Middle East, and the damage he is causing to our alliances, when one sentence jumped out at me:

“It’s dangerous to have a president who truly does not know what he is talking about.”

We can sugar-coat issues and say that Trump is merely playing to his base, which is partly true, but the bottom line is that Mr. Boot is right … Trump does not know what he’s talking about and it is dangerous … very dangerous.

Freedom House is a U.S.-based non-governmental organization (NGO) that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights.  The organization’s annual Freedom in the World report, which assesses each country’s degree of political freedoms and civil liberties, is frequently cited by political scientists, journalists, and policymakers.  The latest annual report was released on Tuesday, February 5th, and I think it’s important that we think about what it says.  The report is too long for me to replicate here, but I would urge you to read some of it, at least the section on the U.S. — The Struggle Comes Home:  Attacks on Democracy in the United States.  Meanwhile, I have included some of the most relevant points.  All highlighting is my own.

Freedom report

At the midpoint of his term, however, there remains little question that President Trump exerts an influence on American politics that is straining our core values and testing the stability of our constitutional system. No president in living memory has shown less respect for its tenets, norms, and principles. Trump has assailed essential institutions and traditions including the separation of powers, a free press, an independent judiciary, the impartial delivery of justice, safeguards against corruption, and most disturbingly, the legitimacy of elections.

So far, America’s institutions have largely honored this deeply democratic sentiment. The resilience of the judiciary, the press corps, an energetic civil society, the political opposition, and other guardrails of the constitutional system—as well as some conscientious lawmakers and officeholders from the president’s own party—have checked the chief executive’s worst impulses and mitigated the effects of his administration’s approach.

But the fact that the system has proven durable so far is no guarantee that it will continue to do so. Elsewhere in the world, in places like Hungary, Venezuela, or Turkey, Freedom House has watched as democratic institutions gradually succumbed to sustained pressure from an antidemocratic leadership, often after a halting start. Irresponsible rhetoric can be a first step toward real restrictions on freedom. The United States has already been weakened by declines in the rule of law, the conduct of elections, and safeguards against corruption. The current overall US score puts American democracy closer to struggling counterparts like Croatia than to traditional peers such as Germany or the United Kingdom.US_Democracy_Scoreboard_Resized_FIW2019.jpgWhile not without problems, the United States has enjoyed a strong tradition of respect for the rule of law. President Trump has repeatedly shown disdain for this tradition. Late in 2018, after a federal judge blocked the administration’s plan to consider asylum claims only from those who cross the border at official ports of entry, the president said, “This was an Obama judge. And I’ll tell you what, it’s not going to happen like this anymore.”

As a candidate in 2016, he questioned the impartiality of an American-born judge with a Hispanic surname who presided over a fraud suit filed against “Trump University.” Soon after taking office, he disparaged a federal judge who ruled against his travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries as “this so-called judge.”

The president has since urged the Department of Justice to prosecute his political opponents and critics. He has used his pardon power to reward political and ideological allies and encourage targets of criminal investigations to refuse cooperation with the government. He has expressed contempt for witnesses who are cooperating with law enforcement in cases that could harm his interests and praised those who remain silent.

An array of independent media organizations have continued to produce vigorous coverage of the administration. But the constant vilification of such outlets by President Trump, in an already polarized media environment, is accelerating the breakdown of public confidence in journalism as a legitimate, fact-based check on government power. We have seen in other countries how such practices paved the way to more tangible erosions of press freedom and, in extreme cases, put journalists in physical danger. It would be foolish to assume it could never happen here.

Previous presidents have criticized the press, sometimes bitterly, but none with such relentless hostility for the institution itself. Trump alone has deployed slurs like “enemy of the people,” flirted with the idea that the media are responsible for and perhaps deserving of violence, and defended his own routine falsehoods while accusing journalists of lying with malicious, even treasonous intent.

From the outset of his administration, the president has been willing to ignore obvious conflicts of interest, most prominently with his decision not to divest ownership of his businesses or place them in a blind trust. Instead, he moved them into a revocable trust, managed by his sons, of which he is the sole beneficiary. During his presidency, his businesses have accepted money from foreign lenders, including banks controlled by the Chinese government. Trump has swept aside the norm against nepotism by having his daughter and son-in-law, both seemingly saddled with their own conflicts of interest, serve as senior White House advisers. He also rejected the tradition obliging presidents to release their income tax records.

Trump properties have hosted foreign delegations, business dinners, trade association conferences, and Republican Party fund-raising events, complete with Trump-branded wines and other products, likely arranged in the hope of earning the president’s gratitude. The Washington Post revealed that a month after President Trump’s election, lobbyists representing Saudi Arabia booked hundreds of rooms at Trump International Hotel in the capital. Indeed, a number of foreign and domestic interests allegedly sought to influence the new administration by arranging donations to Trump’s inauguration festivities, which are now under investigation.

The importance of credible elections to the health of a democracy should be self-evident. If citizens believe that the polls are rigged, they will neither take part in the exercise nor accept the legitimacy of those elected.  During the 2018 midterm elections, he suggested without evidence that Democrats were stealing a Senate seat in Arizona and committing fraud in Florida’s senatorial and gubernatorial balloting. He complained that undocumented asylum seekers were invading the country so they could vote for Democrats. He suggested that Democratic voters were returning to the polls in disguise to vote more than once.

At the same time, the administration has shown little interest in addressing genuine and documented threats to the integrity of US elections, including chronic problems like partisan gerrymandering and the fact that balloting is overseen by partisan officials in the states. But the most glaring lapse is the president’s refusal to clearly acknowledge and comprehensively combat Russian and other foreign attempts to meddle in American elections since 2016.

Trump has refused to advocate for America’s democratic values, and he seems to encourage the forces that oppose them. His frequent, fulsome praise for some of the world’s worst dictators reinforces this perception. Particularly striking was his apparent willingness, at a summit in Helsinki, to accept the word of Vladimir Putin over his own intelligence agencies in assessing Russia’s actions in the 2016 elections.

Cambodian strongman Hun Sen consolidated one-party rule in sham elections last summer after banning the main opposition party and shutting down independent media. He acknowledged that he and President Trump shared a point of view about journalists, saying, “Donald Trump understands that are an anarchic group.” Poland’s president, whose party has sought to annihilate judicial independence and assert control over the press, similarly thanked Trump for fighting “fake news.” Saudi Arabia’s crown prince almost certainly ordered the assassination of a leading journalistic critic, apparently believing that the action would not rupture relations with the president of the United States. It seems he was correct.

All of these are things we already knew, things we have written of and bemoaned for the past two years.  But, seeing them cited by a respected bipartisan watchdog group as threats to our core principles, as a weakening of our democracy, should give us all renewed reason to sit up and take notice, to keep on fighting against these injustices.  According to the President of Freedom House, Michael Abromowitz …

The grim reality is that Freedom House now ranks the United States well below other large and long-standing democracies, such as France, Germany and Britain.

As Mr. Boot said, It’s dangerous to have a president who truly does not know what he is talking about.”

Biggest Spider Web Ever …

Is there one, single person in Trump’s administration, family, or inner circle who is honest?  In a word, the answer would seem to be a resounding NO!  Just in the past 48 hours, there have been new tales of scandal surrounding son-in-law Jared Kushner, long-time confidante Roger Stone, and close advisor and communications director Hope Hicks. That’s just in the past 24 hours!!!  Never … NEVER in the history of the United States has there been a more corrupt, nastier group of people in a single administration than today.  Trump & Co. make Nixon & Co. look like a bunch of bloomin’ angels!  And this was the man who promised he was going to “drain the swamp” in Washington?  Looks to me as if all he did was bring in a whole lot more, uglier and more lethal crocodiles!  Let us, briefly, take a look at each of these most recent abominations …

Jared Kushner

Kushner-4Jared Kushner’s company, Kushner Companies, is in trouble.  Deep trouble to the tune of $1.2 billion.  Yes, that’s billion.  While Kushner officially divested his interest in the family business when he accepted a job in the Trump administration, he did not stop seeking funding to stop the bleeding in the business.  To that end, he was a liability from day #1, for at least four foreign interests, fully aware of Kushner’s company’s financial woes, considered ways to manipulate him, to use his troubles to their advantage.  United Arab Emirates, China, Israel and Mexico viewed Kushner as likely to be easily influenced.  And that doesn’t even touch on his meeting with Sergey Gorkov, the head of a state-owned Russian development bank in December 2016.

Kushner’s firm has sought investments from the Chinese insurer Anbang and from the former prime minister of Qatar.  Kushner’s company has also received loans from Apollo Global Management, whose co-founder Joshua Harris has met numerous times with Kushner in the White House, and CitiBank, whose CEO Michael Corbat also met with Kushner in early 2017.  There is obviously no clear line of demarcation between Kushner’s role in the White House and his business interests, despite the fact that he supposedly stepped away from Kushner Companies.

Add to that his omissions on his security clearance forms that he has been forced to revise numerous times, his attempt to establish a ‘secret communication channel’ with the Kremlin, and his breaking protocol by not coordinating foreign contacts through the National Security Council, and you have one very smelly situation.

Roger Stone

roger-stoneI can always tell when Roger Stone is back in the news, for the piece I wrote about him and his wife in July 2016  starts getting views, even though that piece is nearly two years old.  This week, it has already received 69 views, so I knew Stone was back on the radar.

On March 17, 2017, WikiLeaks tweeted that it had never communicated with Roger Stone, a longtime confidante and informal adviser to President Donald Trump. In his interview with the House Intelligence Committee last September, Stone, who testified under oath, told lawmakers that he had communicated with WikiLeaks via an “intermediary,” whom he identified only as a “journalist.” And then came evidence of the lie:  Private Twitter messages show that Stone and WikiLeaks communicated directly on October 13, 2016, and that WikiLeaks sought to keep its channel to Stone open after Trump won the election.

While not officially a part of the administration, Roger Stone has been a close friend and confidante of Donald Trump’s for years and served as Trump’s lobbyist for more than a decade.  There is no reason to believe that the two are not still closely allied.  WikiLeaks was, in part, responsible for releasing information that made public the emails of Hillary Clinton and others during the 2016 campaign.

Hope Hicks

hicksWhite House communications director Hope Hicks announced her intention to resign on Wednesday, the day after she refused to answer questions during an appearance before House investigators looking into Russian interference in the 2016 election.  Add to that, the fact that she was the mistress of ousted Staff Secretary Rob Porter, who resigned amid accusations of domestic violence that were known by the administration long before becoming public knowledge.

Setting aside her lack of morals, I prefer to concentrate on her refusal to answer questions under oath.  Being possessed of a naturally suspicious mind, I almost always assume that somebody who refuses to answer questions in this sort of an investigation has something to hide and is protecting either themselves or somebody else.  This situation is no different.  Hicks has been one of the handful of people that have been closest to Trump since the very beginning of his campaign three years ago, so she is certain to know almost everything there is to know. And then to announce her resignation the very next day?  Nope, nothing innocent about this woman, folks.

During her testimony, if one can even call it that, Hicks acknowledged she has had to tell what amounted to ‘white lies’. She pointedly and repeatedly declined to answer questions about the presidential transition or her time in the White House, telling investigators that she had been asked by the White House to discuss only her time on the campaign.

Hicks’ testimony is … or would be if she would give any … relevant, for she has been close to the Trump campaign and administration almost since day #1, plus she was involved with the firing of FBI Director James Comey, as well as that infamous 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between Russians and top Trump campaign officials.  I would like to see her subpoenaed, for her refusal to answer, coupled with her admission to telling lies and subsequent resignation are ringing very loud alarm bells.

And there you have it, folks, the latest filaments that are to be found in that huge spider web known as the Trump administration.  And he called Hillary Clinton ‘crooked’?????

Da Trump Boys Are Unhappy … OH NO!!!

Those Trump boys sure do get around a lot these days.  Junior was in India last week, promoting the business interests of the Trump organization, and then Eric gave a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Maryland.  By the way, in case you have any doubts … we the taxpayers pay for 24/7 security for ‘the boys’, wherever they go and whatever they do. I would not be surprised to find that we foot the bill for at least a portion of their travel expenses as well.  But despite that, ol’ Eric is not happy with those of us who pay for all his pricey perks.

Eric says we are taking away their freedom of speech!  It started with Junior’s trip to India to … to … what?  Some say he went there to conduct the business of the Trump organization, others say that he went there to deliver a foreign policy speech.  Now, even the average Joe on the street can tell you that these two don’t mix.  It is what we call a ‘conflict of interest’.  And perhaps more importantly … Junior is not, at least officially, employed by the United States government, so what the heck business does he have delivering a speech on U.S. foreign policy?

First, his business purpose:  to sell condos.  It is reported that he sold at least $15 million-worth of real estate in a single day by offering potential buyers a dinner with Donald Jr. himself if they purchased a condominium in the new Trump Towers project in Gurgaon.  People would buy a $1.5 million condo just for the chance to eat dinner with Junior and watch him slop food down his front, if he eats in the same way his father does?  Wow!

Trump clan toonGiven the nature of his business trip, it seemed inappropriate to most that he would also deliver a foreign policy speech.  Junior has a degree in Economics from Wharton … not in Political Science, not in Foreign Policy, and not in International Relations.  Economics.  Nothing in his background qualifies him as a foreign policy expert and by all rights, he should have  no inside knowledge of U.S. foreign policy.  His speech was to be titled “Reshaping Indo-Pacific Ties: The New Era of Cooperation”.  Pretty hefty stuff for a lightweight.

And the concerns were many.  Senator Robert Menendez sought assurances from the United States Embassy in Delhi that it was not helping Mr. Trump, writing to the Embassy in New Delhi …

“Given the potential to confuse Mr. Trump’s private business visit with having an official governmental purpose, I write to ensure that the U.S. Embassy presence in India will have no role in supporting Mr. Trump or the Trump Organization during his time in India, other than that necessary to provide any security support for the U.S. Secret Service.”

Joshua White, former director for South Asian Affairs at the National Security Council …

“It is not illegal, but it would muddy the waters and I think make life rather difficult for those in the United States government who are being measured about how they articulate what the administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy is and will become.”

And Marilyn L. Glynn, former general counsel at the Office of Government Ethics …

“Nothing like this — no, never. Unprecedented, unheard-of.”

And so, ultimately, Junior cancelled his speech, and likely breathed a sigh of relief, but not one he will admit to, for now the stance of the boys is that the criticism, the controversy, has robbed them of their right to freedom of speech.  Awwwwwww … pobtecitos!!!

“My brother was over there. We have a bunch of buildings in India. He’s talking about how the Indian people are wonderful people and he enjoys his experience over there and everything else, and then all of a sudden you have this. These are the first people that say the First Amendment should be protected until you say something they disagree with and then they try to shred you to pieces.”

Whine, whine, whine.  Grow a pair, Eric! Funny, isn’t it, that the mounds of criticism and ranting the entire Trump clan, has heaped upon the press, whose freedom of speech is also protected by the very same 1st Amendment, is somehow considered to be ‘okay’?

The Office of Government Ethics (OGE) has been rudderless since the resignation of Walter Shaub last July, after he called out the Trump administration on various conflicts of interest.  However, Emory A. Rounds III was recently nominated to head the office, pending Senate confirmation.  I would like to see him make it his first priority to investigate the travels of both Don Junior and Eric and determine just how much is being paid for by we the taxpayers, for I suspect it is far more than it should be.  And meanwhile, since we do not employ either Junior or Eric, they need to do their jobs as heads of the Trump business ventures and keep their noses, hands and mouths out of our government.

The Judge Who Should Not Be …

Thus far, in his 10 months in office, Trump has nominated 60 mostly white males for positions in the judiciary.  His most recent choice, however, is raising some eyebrows, including my own.  The man is Brett Talley, and while I’m sure there are some people out there who are less qualified, it would be hard to find one in judicial circles, for Mr. Talley has never tried a case before.

Talley-1Talley earned his JD from Harvard Law School in 2007, but spent the next several years working on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, and as a speechwriter for Ohio’s Senator Rob Portman.  He has practiced law, in fact, for just under three years, and again, has never tried a case. So what, you ask, qualifies him for the position of United States District Judge of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama?  Read on …

  • He has pledged support for the National Rifle Association, saying “The NRA stands for all of us now, and I pray that in the coming battle for our rights, they will be victorious.”
  • He panders to Trump: “Those who argue that another Clinton White House is somehow preferable to four years of Trump are blind to the consequences, for the nation, for the party and for the conservative movement.”
  • He was unanimously deemed “not qualified” by the American Bar Association.
  • He once referred to Hillary Clinton as “Hillary Rotten Clinton” on his public Twitter account. He also once posted that she should be in jail.
  • In 2013, he wrote on his blog that armed revolution was an important defense against tyrannical government.
  • He is young (36), white, and male, as have been almost all of Trumps judicial nominations.
  • He will serve in Alabama, a state where Roy Moore served twice and was thrown off the bench both times.
  • He is an author of three published horror novels and two “true ghost” stories. “I consider it a gift. In horror novels being the antichrist is, like, the highest honor possible.”

Talley-2Last Thursday, November 9th, Talley was endorsed in a 11-9 vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the vote will next go to the full Senate for vote.  It will require three republican senators to vote ‘nay’ in order to stop this nomination.  But wait … if you weren’t already convinced that he is highly unqualified, there’s more …

As part of the confirmation process, Talley was required to fill out a questionnaire in which he was specifically asked to identify family members and others who are “likely to present potential conflicts of interest.” He rather failed to mention one very important connection:  his wife, Ann Donaldson, is in fact, the chief of staff to the White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II.  He also conveniently forgot to mention his wife when he described his frequent contact with White House lawyers.

Talley-wifeWhy does his wife and her position matter?  A couple of reasons …

  • District judges often provide the first ruling when laws are called into question, decisions that can put them at odds with the White House and its lawyers. Remember the judges in Hawaii and Maryland who temporarily blocked Trump’s travel ban?
  • Donaldson has emerged in recent weeks as a witness in Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether Trump obstructed justice. She was interviewed by investigators recently about her detailed notes about conversations with Mr. McGahn on topics including the firing of the former F.B.I. director James B. Comey.

In my opinion, which coupled with about $5 will buy you a Starbucks coffee, he is highly unqualified, if for no other reason than that his failure to disclose his wife’s position displays a lack of honesty.  Pair that, if you will, with the fact that he has never tried a case and only practiced law for under three years, and this man is not federal judge material. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders disagrees:

“Mr. Talley served as deputy solicitor general for the state of Alabama, currently serves in the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Policy and was recommended by Alabama’s U.S. senators, He is more than qualified to serve in the federal judiciary.”

I’ve driven a car, too, but it doesn’t mean I know how to build one.

Trump’s goal is to stack the courts with young conservative judges.  Since these are lifetime appointments, this tactic, if successful as it has been thus far, could well result in the next 40 or so years of conservative decisions handed down.  Think what this could do to civil rights, LGBT rights, the rights of non-Christians …

The Senate will surely see their way to refuse to confirm Talley … right?  They should, but then I used to believe in the Tooth Fairy, too.

Rules??? Rules Are For Others …

Note:  On Wednesday, 18 July, Donald Trump spoke with three New York Times reporters — Peter Baker, Michael S. Schmidt and Maggie Haberman — in an exclusive interview in the Oval Office for nearly an hour.  There are a number of points in the interview that I believe need to be addressed at length, and this post is the first of those.

One of our Significant Seven is a beautiful, tiny long-haired cat named Tiger Lily.  We call her the ‘cat from hell’, for she is vicious.  She will beg to be petted, you are contentedly stroking her gorgeous fur, and then out of the blue, with no warning, either her teeth or claws are sunk deeply into your skin.

It would appear that the person occupying the Oval Office has a personality similar to that of Miss Tiger Lily, as he turns on his own just as quickly and with no less viciousness. Take, for example, his remarks about Attorney General Jeff Sessions in his Wednesday interview with the New York Times.

Trump: “So Jeff Sessions takes the job, gets into the job, recuses himself. I then have — which, frankly, I think is very unfair to the president. How do you take a job and then recuse yourself? If he would have recused himself before the job, I would have said, “Thanks, Jeff, but I can’t, you know, I’m not going to take you.” It’s extremely unfair, and that’s a mild word, to the president. So he recuses himself. I then end up with a second man, who’s a deputy.

Haberman: “Rosenstein.”

Trump: “Who is he? And Jeff hardly knew. He’s from Baltimore.”

Trump: “Yeah, what Jeff Sessions did was he recused himself right after, right after he became attorney general. And I said, “Why didn’t you tell me this before?” I would have — then I said, “Who’s your deputy?” So his deputy he hardly knew, and that’s Rosenstein, Rod Rosenstein, who is from Baltimore. There are very few Republicans in Baltimore, if any. So, he’s from Baltimore. Now, he, we went through a lot of things. We were interviewing replacements at the F.B.I. Did you know Mueller was one of the people that was being interviewed?”

Translation:  If I had known Jeff Sessions was going to follow the law, I would not have hired him.

Let me just set the record straight on a few issues here.

  • Sessions had no choice but to recuse himself once it came to light that, as Trump’s campaign advisor, he met, during the campaign, with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and then omitted to inform the Senate Judiciary Committee of the meetings when questioned about it. The law: Justice Department regulations provide that “no employee shall participate in a criminal investigation or prosecution if he has a personal or political relationship” with the subject of the investigation or “any person or organization which he knows has a specific and substantial interest that would be directly affected by the outcome of the investigation or prosecution.” As Sessions told the Senate Intelligence Committee last month, “That regulation states, in effect, that department employees should not participate in investigations of a campaign if they have served as a campaign advisor.” In other words, it’s a no-brainer, at least if you understand basic concepts of conflict of interest. What Trump perceives as betrayal is Ethics 101.

  • As regards the appointment by Rod Rosenstein of Robert Mueller as special counsel: Justice Department regulations require appointment of a special counsel when the attorney general, or someone acting in his stead, determines that investigation through the normal departmental processes “would present a conflict of interest for the Department.” How could this not be true of the Russia matter? Even leaving aside the question of whether the president himself is under investigation, it involves the president’s campaign and closest advisers, including relatives. The special counsel regulations were not put in place to torment presidents but to reassure the public that, even in politically sensitive cases, justice would proceed impartially and unimpeded.

rules-Trump-2It would appear that Trump’s reason for his remarks against Sessions is to cause Sessions to resign. I imagine he presumes that if Sessions resigns, he will nominate a new Attorney General, one who will not have need to recuse himself from the investigation, and one who will do Trump’s bidding, which would likely be to fire Robert Mueller and end the independent investigation into the many threads that tie the Russian government to Donald Trump & Co.

Sessions said he and his Justice Department colleagues intended to continue to serve and he would do so “as long as that is appropriate.” In early June, after Trump ranted to various people that Sessions should not have recused himself, Jeff Sessions is said to have offered his resignation, which Trump refused.  But now, with the heat having been turned up even more in light of Don Trump Junior’s meeting in June 2016, apparently Trump is having second thoughts.

What is most troubling about this is that it highlights the fact that Donald Trump believes he is above the law, that laws and rules do not apply to him, and that he can bully his way through any situation.  As most of you know, I have an immense dislike of Jeff Sessions, consider him to be a bigot and a racist, and think he is possibly the worst possible person to lead the Department of Justice.  That said, I hope he is not forced to resign, simply because at present, with Sessions’ hands tied in the Russian investigation and Rosenstein seeming to be a straight shooter, I believe the investigation will proceed.  If Sessions leaves, all bets are off, unless the Senate wakes up and begins to realize that Trump is a power-hungry madman and refuses to confirm any candidate unless they promise to keep Mueller on as special counsel and let him do his job.

Donald Trump apparently believes that his position, his title, render him immune from the law.  Nothing could be further from the truth, and he needs to start being held accountable for both his words and his actions.  Thus far, few have attempted to do so … it is time for that to change.

Trump Takes Aim At The Watchdogs …

We don’t hear much about the inspectors general who work quietly behind the scenes to keep our government relatively efficient and free of scandal and corruption.  Every major federal agency and program has an inspector general, a nonpartisan, independent official whose staff investigates cases of wasteful spending, criminal activity, employee misconduct and plain bad management. Given the current state of our federal government, these inspectors are more needed than ever.  But …

Just before Trump’s inauguration, an email went out from Katie Giblin, a member of Trump’s transition team, to the inspectors general to let them know that Trump would be considering firing them en masse.  The email said that they would be held over only on a temporary basis and that they should seek other employment. Some inspectors general assigned to cabinet departments received the information by a phone call

A bit of history about the Office of Inspector General. Following scandals in federal programs, inspectors general were placed in a dozen agencies by an act of Congress in 1978. The law tasked the inspectors general with conducting audits and investigations of their departments and issuing reports to Congress and their agency heads. Their goal is to ferret out deficiencies and problems for corrective action. Today there are 73 inspectors general, nearly half of whom are appointed by the president, while the rest are appointed by their agency chiefs. Reflecting their nonpartisan role, inspectors general typically stay in their positions when presidential administrations change.

After much protest from the inspectors and a scheduled hearing by the House Oversight Committee, the Trump team reversed course.  According to Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, the email and phone calls were a mistake made by a junior person on the transition team.  Problem solved, right?  Well, not quite …

So, to continue the story, the inspectors general and their staffs did not get ‘done in’ by the axe, but are instead being depleted through attrition.  Trump’s administration, if it can truthfully be called such, is failing to hire for open positions and planning to slash the offices’ budgets.  Michael Horowitz, chairman of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, recently reported to Congress that in fiscal 2015 alone, the offices identified $26 billion in potential savings and recovered an additional $10 billion through criminal and civil cases. That’s a return of $14 for every dollar in the offices’ budgets.

Let us look at some of the other past successes as a result of these investigations.

  • In 2008, for instance, the Interior Department’s inspector general, Earl Devaney, delivered three reports to Congress detailing widespread corruption and conflicts of interest in the division overseeing the oil industry, leading eventually to a thorough departmental reorganization.
  • The special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction found weaknesses in planning, executing, and sustaining $488 million worth of American investments in Afghanistan’s extractive industries.
  • Inspectors at the Department of Homeland Security unearthed technical problems that resulted in cost overruns of 480 percent while increasing national security risks.
  • The inspector general for the Social Security Administration discovered $345 million in underpayments to 50,000 people.
  • Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program has gone after 96 bankers; at least 36 of whom went to prison.

These guys do good work, but today nearly one-quarter of inspector general offices have either an acting director or no director at all, including the offices at the C.I.A., the National Security Agency, the Department of Defense and the Social Security Administration. The inspectors’ offices are deeply affected by the current federal hiring freeze and would be further harmed by the administration’s proposed budget cuts. The budget takes unexplained specific aim at the Office of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, created in part to monitor the $700 billion taxpayer bailout for big banks. In 2015 its investigators helped prosecute General Motors for covering up a defective ignition switch responsible for at least 15 deaths, securing a $900 million settlement. The administration wants to cut its budget in half, to $20 million.

It is no mystery why Trump & Co wish to derail the Office of the Inspector General and its staff … its function is oversight, and that is exactly what Trump does NOT want.  But it is what We The People must demand, for it is our tax dollars that are being wasted, and further, we do not want to allow the Trump tribe to have free rein to do as they please with no accountability.  Congress has demonstrated bipartisan willingness to step up for inspectors general in the past. Now it needs to protect the watchdogs from an administration that wants to starve them.


No Conflict of Interest Here … No Sir, None At All

“Everything will make more sense if you reimagine the White House as simply the newest branch of the Trump family business empire, its latest outpost.” – Nomi Prins, Moyers & Company

Starting with the basics here.  Ivanka Trump is Donald Trump’s daughter.  Donald Trump, you may remember, is considered the president of the U.S.  Jared Kushner is Ivanka’s husband, making him Donald Trump’s son-in-law.  Like Donald Trump, Kushner is a real-estate tycoon.  Ivanka owns a company that produces clothing and such … in China. Kushner and Ivanka both serve in an advisory capacity to Donald Trump in his role as president.

Concerns of ‘conflict of interest’ have been voiced ever since Trump named Kushner as a senior White House advisor.  Daniel Weiner, a senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice explains:

“It [real estate] is very, very, very different from many other ways that other people make money, partly because its a highly leveraged industry, which means that someone who is at the head of a real estate empire likely owes money to lots of different people. Because if someone is your creditor and then they turn around and they need something from the federal government, it might be hard to say no. And I’m not saying that this is the case with Mr. Kushner, but that is sort of one of the issues that comes up.”

kushnerEarlier this week, the Wall Street Journal reported  that Kushner failed to mention on his government disclosure forms both his multiple loans from various banks on properties that he co-owns and his co-ownership of a real estate finance tech startup that makes him business partners with billionaires like George Soros and Peter Thiel, as well as Goldman Sachs.

And as if that weren’t enough …

conflict-of-interestJared Kushner’s sister, Nicole Kushner, addressed a ballroom full of wealthy Chinese investors to consider investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in a New Jersey real estate project to secure what’s known as an investor visa. The EB-5 immigrant investor visa program, which allows foreign investors to invest in U.S. projects that create jobs and then apply to immigrate, has been used by both the Trump and Kushner family businesses. There were a series of slide shows and presentations, and the brochure carried the line: “Invest $500,000 and immigrate to the United States.”

Essentially, Kushner’s real estate business would be gaining investors, while Kushner would be using his influence within the federal government to provide immigration status.  This after Trump has vowed to “crack down” on immigration.  Conflict of interest?  You decide.

ethics-1And then there is Ivanka herself, who is a web of conflicts of interest.  When Kellyanne Conway used an interview to promote Ivanka’s product line, sales soared, despite a number of retailers reportedly boycotting her products. And not coincidentally, Ivanka’s company won three new trademarks for its products from China on the very day she dined with President Xi Jinping at her father’s Palm Beach club. Since Trump’s win in November, global sales of her merchandise have more or less gone through the roof.Ivanka-2While Donald Trump is exempt from conflict of interest (with the exception of receiving gifts from foreign states without the consent of Congress under the Emoluments Clause, but that is a whole other post), Jared and Ivanka are not exempted.  Naturally, the family being no stranger to lawsuits and legal entanglements, they have followed the recommendations of their attorneys to try to avoid conflict of interest charges.

Jared has resigned from more than 260 outside positions, including as CEO of the Kushner Companies and publisher of the New York Observer. He has divested or committed to divest approximately 80 holdings owned by himself, his spouse or their minor children.  Ivanka has resigned from all her officer positions with her outside companies, including those with the Trump Organization. She has appointed a company president to manage her day-to-day business operations and turned over the businesses themselves to a trust managed by her brother-in-law and sister-in-law.

Even so, there are still serious ethics concerns regarding the couple because (like Donald Trump himself) they have chosen not to divest all their assets or place them in a blind trust to be sold by the trustee. Jared has retained extensive real estate holdings primarily located in Chicago, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Philadelphia and throughout New Jersey. He has secured lines of credit (some of which are shared with his mother and father) through 10 banks, including Deutsche Bank, Bank of America and Citigroup.

The potential conflicts are complex and far too numerous to list here, but suffice it to say that there is little doubt in my mind they are profiting from their White House positions.  Even though they may have stepped down or aside from their business interests, they still retain ownership and are still making money from them.

So who oversees and monitors these two (and other administration officials) for ethics violations?  The media whistleblowers seems to be the first line of attack, according to an article in NPR:

“Of course, the media, whistleblowers and the courts are key elements of the accountability ecosystem. A number of agencies or government bodies also have a hand in holding presidents and appointees accountable on ethics and conflicts of interest:

Congress – Investigative, Disciplinary

Department Of Justice – Investigative, Disciplinary

Office Of Government Ethics – Advisory

FBI – Investigative

Inspectors General – Investigative, Advisory

White House Counsel’s Office – Advisory, Investigative

Government Accountability Office – Investigative, Advisory”

There are so many potential ethical violations just for these two that it reminds me of the most intricate, involved spider’s web you can possibly imagine.  I am no lawyer, but I already have questions that I believe need investigation, and I would like to see their tax returns for last year, and then in a year see their 2017 returns.  But don’t hold your breath.  The Trumps and the Kushners know their way around the world of legal entanglements.  They came to Washington with purpose … and it was not benevolence or altruism.  Conflict of interest?  I believe so.  Let the press dig their claws into this one … I am awaiting the results.

Trump’s Press Conference – Part I

I saw only a few bits and pieces of Trump’s news conference live this morning, his first in some six months, but I have spent the afternoon reading the transcript, analyses and checking facts.  I must say … this past year has wrought a change in my vocabulary.  Prior to 2016, I rarely used profanity, but now it makes up the bulk of my daily conversation.  My Arabic-speaking neighbors have learned much of their English from conversing with me.  They have fully mastered the F-bomb.  Enough said.

Though there were few surprises in Trump’s speech, there are many things that I think need to be addressed.  I will tackle the first in this post, and at least two more in subsequent posts.

Trump’s businesses and conflict of interest:

trump-sons“And what I’m going to be doing is my two sons, who are right here, Don and Eric, are going to be running the company. They are going to be running it in a very professional manner. They’re not going to discuss it with me. Again, I don’t have to do this. They’re not going to discuss it with me. And with that, I’m going to bring up Sheri Dillon, and she’s going to go — these papers are just some of the many documents that I’ve signed turning over complete and total control to my sons.”–

Sheri Dillon, an attorney with the firm of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius1, outlined Trump’s plan to distance himself from his businesses.  In the interest of time and space, I recount only the most relevant portions here (a link to the full transcript is at the end of this post):

“President-elect Trump wants the American public to rest assured that all of his efforts are directed to pursuing the people’s business and not his own. To that end, as he explained a few moments ago, he directed me and my colleagues at the law firm Morgan Lewis and Bockius to design a structure for his business empire that will completely isolate him from the management of the company.

He further instructed that we build in protections that will assure the American people the decisions he makes and the actions that he takes as president are for their benefit and not to support his financial interests.

As he said, he’s voluntarily taking this on. The conflicts of interest laws simply do not apply to the president or the vice president and they are not required to separate themselves from their financial assets.2

President-elect Trump’s investments and business assets commonly known as the — as the Trump Organization … have all been or will be conveyed to a trust prior to January 20th.

He has relinquished leadership and management of the Trump Organization to his sons Don and Eric and a longtime Trump executive, Allen Weisselberg. Together, Don, Eric and Allen will have the authority to manage the Trump Organization and will make decisions for the duration of the presidency without any involvement whatsoever by President-elect Trump.

President-elect Trump will resign from all officer and other positions he holds with the Trump Organization entities.

Further, in addition, his daughter Ivanka will have no further involvement with or management authority whatsoever with the Trump Organization.

The president-elect has also already disposed of all of his investments in publicly traded or easily liquidated investments. As a result, the trust will have two types of assets; first, it will hold liquid assets. Cash, cash equivalents and treasuries and perhaps some positions in a government approved diversified portfolio, one that is consistent with the regulations from the Office of Government Ethics. Second, the trust is going to hold his preexisting illiquid … business assets.

Through instructions in the trust agreement, President-elect trust — President-elect Trump first ordered that all pending deals be terminated. This impacted more than 30 deals, many of which were set to close by the end of 2016 … that caused an immediate financial loss of millions of dollars, not just for President-elect Trump, but also for Don, Ivanka and Eric. (Awwwwwww)

The trust agreement as directed by President Trump imposes severe restrictions on new deals. No new foreign deals will be made whatsoever during the duration of President Trump’s presidency. New domestic deals will be allowed, but they will go through a vigorous vetting process.

The president-elect will have no role in deciding whether the Trump Organization engages in any new deal and he will only know of a deal if he reads it in the paper or sees it on TV. (Are we to believe, honestly, that Donnie Jr. and Eric will not be discussing these things at the dinner table???  Do they really think we are that stupid???)

In sum, all of these actions — complete relinquishment of management, no foreign deals, ethics adviser approval of deals, sharply limited information rights — will sever President-elect Trump’s presidency from the Trump Organization.”

Donald Trump, being who he is, is not in a million years going to completely relinquish all control over his business interests.  I am certain that he will still be overseeing and advising, if only from the sidelines.  To an extent, it is the least of our worries where Trump is concerned, but there remains potential for ‘funny business’, for using the power of his office to enhance his private profits, or worse.  Another president, I wouldn’t even bother to make note, but with this one, dishonesty and illusion are a large part of what defines him, and I hope the media will do their job well in monitoring and reporting on anything that seems unorthodox.

1 Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, the law firm advising President-elect Donald Trump on handling his business conflicts, won the Russia Law Firm of the Year award in 2016.

2 It is essentially true that the president and vice president are exempt from the Conflict of Interest provision under Title 18 Section 208, there are a couple of notable exceptions:

  • Financial disclosure is required of both Trump and Pence
  • Under the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, U.S. government employees, including the president, are banned from accepting presents or compensation from foreign governments

3 Link to full transcript