White House Moves to Block Ethics Inquiry Into Ex-Lobbyists on Payroll

Walter M. Shaub Jr., the head of the Office of Government Ethics, in his office on Monday. The White House has challenged Mr. Shaub’s authority to demand information on former lobbyists now working for the government. Credit T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

The Trump administration, in a significant escalation of its clash with the government’s top ethics watchdog, has moved to block an effort to disclose the names of former lobbyists who have been granted waivers to work in the White House or federal agencies.

The latest conflict came in recent days when the White House, in a highly unusual move, sent a letter to Walter M. Shaub Jr., the head of the Office of Government Ethics, asking him to withdraw a request he had sent to every federal agency for copies of the waivers. In the letter, the administration challenged his legal authority to demand the information.

Mr. Shaub returned a scalding, 10-page response to the White House late Monday, unlike just about any correspondence in the history of the office, created after the Nixon Watergate scandal.

Dozens of former lobbyists and industry lawyers are working in the Trump administration, which has hired them at a much higher rate than the previous administration. Keeping the waivers confidential would make it impossible to know whether any such officials are violating federal ethics rules or have been given a pass to ignore them.

Mr. Shaub, who is in the final year of a five-year term after being appointed by President Barack Obama, said he had no intention of backing down. “It is an extraordinary thing,” he said of the White House request. “I have never seen anything like it.”

Marilyn L. Glynn, who served as general counsel and acting director of the agency during the George W. Bush administration, also called the move by the Trump White House “unprecedented and extremely troubling.”

“It challenges the very authority of the director of the agency and his ability to carry out the functions of the office,” she said.

In a statement issued Sunday evening, the Office of Management and Budget rejected the criticism and instead blamed Mr. Shaub, saying his call for the information, issued in late April, was motivated by politics. The office said it remained committed to upholding ethical standards in the federal government.

“This request, in both its expansive scope and breathless timetable, demanded that we seek further legal guidance,” the statement said. “The very fact that this internal discussion was leaked implies that the data being sought is not being collected to satisfy our mutual high standard of ethics.”

Ethics watchdogs, as well as Democrats in Congress, have expressed concern at the number of former lobbyists taking high-ranking political jobs in the Trump administration. In many cases, they appear to be working on the exact topics they had previously handled on behalf of private-sector clients — including oil and gas companies and Wall Street banks — as recently as January.

Read the complete article on The New York Times web site.

How Rollbacks at Scott Pruitt’s E.P.A. Are a Boon to Oil and Gas


Devon Energy’s Beaver Creek gas plant outside Riverton, Wyo. The company was prepared to install sophisticated equipment to reduce emissions of hazardous air pollution. Since Scott Pruitt assumed the helm of the Environmental Protection Agency, the company has pulled back from its proposals. Credit Ryan Dorgan for The New York Times

FREMONT COUNTY, Wyo. — In a gas field here in Wyoming’s struggling energy corridor, nearly 2,000 miles from Washington, the Trump administration’s regulatory reversal is crowning an early champion.

Devon Energy, which runs the windswept site, had been prepared to install a sophisticated system to detect and reduce leaks of dangerous gases. It had also discussed paying a six-figure penalty to settle claims by the Obama administration that it was illegally emitting 80 tons each year of hazardous chemicals, like benzene, a known carcinogen.

But something changed in February just five days after Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general with close ties to Devon, was sworn in as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Devon’s pushback, coming amid an effort to ease a broad array of federal environmental rules, is the first known example under the Trump administration of an accused polluter — which has admitted violating the law — backing away from a proposed environmental settlement. It is already being hailed by other independent energy companies as a template for the future.

The E.P.A. has not yet made a public response to Devon’s new posture, and Mr. Pruitt declined to comment for this article. But the new approach follows a series of important victories for the energy industry in Washington that could reshape environmental policy on a national scale and undermine the Obama administration’s campaign to combat climate change.

In just the last three months, with Mr. Pruitt in charge, the E.P.A. postponed a long-planned rule requiring companies like Devon to retrofit drilling equipment to prevent leaks of methane gas — a major contributor to climate change — and to collect more data on how much of the gas is spewing into the air.

”Devon is doing to the oil and gas industry what Donald Trump did to the Republican Party, pushing the whole agenda into a world of extremes,” said Mark Brownstein, a vice president at the Environmental Defense Fund.

The rollbacks cap a carefully coordinated campaign over the last eight years led in part by Devon, which is based in Oklahoma City and is the nation’s eighth-largest natural gas producer, and Mr. Pruitt, who served six years as Oklahoma attorney general before Mr. Trump named him E.P.A. chief.

Devon and Mr. Pruitt, while he was still attorney general out West, teamed up to block new federal rules imposed by the Obama administration that required fossil fuel companies to more closely monitor oil and gas wells for leaks, and disclose chemicals used in hydraulic fracking. Devon also poured millions of dollars a year into lobbying — and hundreds of thousands into campaign contributions to Mr. Pruitt and other Republicans — as it pushed regulators and lawmakers in Washington to do away with the restrictions.

Read the complete article on the New York Times web site.

House May Need to Vote Again on GOP Obamacare Repeal Bill

House Republicans barely managed to pass their Obamacare repeal bill earlier this month, and they now face the possibility of having to vote again on their controversial health measure.

House Speaker Paul Ryan hasn’t yet sent the bill to the Senate because there’s a chance that parts of it may need to be redone, depending on how the Congressional Budget Office estimates its effects. House leaders want to make sure the bill conforms with Senate rules for reconciliation, a mechanism that allows Senate Republicans to pass the bill with a simple majority.

Republicans had rushed to vote on the health bill so the Senate could get a quick start on it, even before the CBO had finished analyzing a series of last-minute changes. The CBO is expected to release an updated estimate next week.

“Unaware,” said Representative Jeff Denham of California, with noticeable surprise Thursday, when advised that his party leaders still hadn’t sent the bill over to the Senate. Denham was one of the House Republicans who ended up voting for the measure, after earlier in the week opposing it.

“I am on the whip team and we have a lot of conversations, but we have not had that one. So I am going to look into it,” said Denham, a member of the party’s vote-counting team.

In the Senate, the bill must hit separate $1 billion deficit reduction targets in the jurisdiction of the Finance Committee and the chamber’s health committee. Republican aides said failing to meet those numbers would force the House to fix the bill even if the legislation meets the overall cost-savings target.

If Republican leaders hold onto the bill until the CBO report is released, then Ryan and his team could still redo it if necessary. That would require at least one more House vote of some sort.

Ryan told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt on Friday that he doesn’t think the House will need to vote again on the health law. “We just want to, out of an abundance of caution, wait to send the bill over to the Senate when we get the final score,” Ryan said.

It’s unclear what assumptions the CBO will make about what states will do with that newly created flexibility. If millions of people sign up for much cheaper, minimal insurance, that could trigger billions — and potentially even hundreds of billions — in costs over a decade because of the House bill’s health insurance tax credits.

Read the complete article on Bloomberg web site.

Fact Check: Trump Is Contradictory on Comey and Misleading on Russia


At a news conference on Thursday, President Trump exaggerated the scale of his proposed tax cut and made a dubious comparison between Israel’s West Bank barrier and his proposed border wall. Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times

President Trump defended his conduct related to the investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia and made several misleading claims on Thursday afternoon.

In a joint news conference with President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, Mr. Trump denied there was any collusion between his campaign and Russian officials, explained why he had fired James B. Comey as F.B.I. director and trumpeted his legislative agenda. Here’s an assessment.

Mr. Trump contradicted Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein and his own earlier statement on firing Mr. Comey.

Explaining the ousting of Mr. Comey, Mr. Trump again pointed to Mr. Rosenstein’s “very, very strong recommendation,” adding that he believed it had resulted from Mr. Comey’s “poor, poor performance” in a congressional hearing this month.

But just hours earlier on Thursday, Mr. Rosenstein told the full Senate that Mr. Trump had made his decision before Mr. Rosenstein wrote the memo. Mr. Trump himself claimed full responsibility a week earlier.

“And in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story,’” Mr. Trump told Lester Holt of NBC News on May 11. “It’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.”

He misleadingly claimed that ‘everybody, even my enemies, has said there is no collusion.’

Mr. Trump may have been referring to testimony from James R. Clapper Jr., the former director of national intelligence, but if so, he is distorting Mr. Clapper’s words.

In a March interview on NBC, Mr. Clapper said that, “to my knowledge,” there is no evidence of collusion by the Trump campaign with Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election and stood by it in a congressional hearing on May 8. A few days later, he explained on MSNBC that “it’s not surprising or abnormal that I would not have known about the investigation, or even more importantly, the content of that investigation” because he always deferred to the F.B.I. on such matters.

He exaggerated his proposed tax cut as ‘the biggest tax cut in the history of our nation.’

The tax plan the Trump administration released on April 26 consisted of a single page with bullet points. More details may emerge, but for now, the publicly available proposal would not amount to the biggest tax cut ever by most measures.

Mr. Trump’s plan would reduce the highest marginal rate for individuals to 35 percent from 39.6 percent. This change pales in comparison to other rate reductions: 33 percentage points under President Calvin Coolidge, 22 points under President Ronald Reagan, 21 points under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and 15 points under President Warren G. Harding.

Read the complete article on the New York Times web site.

Sea level rise will double coastal flood risk worldwide

Small but inevitable rises in sea level will double the frequency of severe coastal flooding in most of the world with dire consequences for major cities that sit on coastlines, according to scientists.

The research takes in to account the large waves and storm surges that can tip gradually rising sea levels over the edge of coastal defences. Lower latitudes will be first affected, in a great swath through the tropics from Africa to South America and throughout south-east Asia, with Europe’s Atlantic coast and the west coast of the US not far behind.

“It is pretty much inevitable that we are going to see increased frequency of extreme water levels – there is no way around this,” said Sean Vitousek, at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who led the research.

Climate change is causing sea levels to rise at about 4mm per year, as ice caps melt and the oceans warm and expand. This will continue for many years due to the carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere.

The steady rise in sea level is unlikely to cause flooding directly as coastline developments are designed to withstand the larger ebb and flow of the tides. But the rising level gives a higher starting point for the storm surges and big waves that can overwhelm coastal defences.

The research, published in the Scientific Reports journal, is the first to analyse these factors, particularly waves, on a global scale. It found that the most at-risk areas were in the low latitudes, where tidal ranges are smaller meaning sea level rise is proportionally more significant.

Previous research estimated the damages from coastal flooding could soar to $1tn a year by 2050.

Read the complete article on The Guardian newspaper web site

Why Trumponomics won’t make America great again

The impulsiveness and shallowness of America’s president threaten the economy as well as the rule of law. Graphic: The Economist

Accordng to this article in The Economist: DONALD TRUMP rules over Washington as if he were a king and the White House his court. His displays of dominance, his need to be the centre of attention and his impetuousness have a whiff of Henry VIII about them. Fortified by his belief that his extraordinary route to power is proof of the collective mediocrity of Congress, the bureaucracy and the media, he attacks any person and any idea standing in his way.

Just how much trouble that can cause was on sensational display this week, with his sacking of James Comey—only the second director of the FBI to have been kicked out. Mr Comey has made mistakes and Mr Trump was within his rights. But the president has succeeded only in drawing attention to questions about his links to Russia and his contempt for the norms designed to hold would-be kings in check.

Just as dangerous, and no less important to ordinary Americans, however, is Mr Trump’s plan for the economy. It treats orthodoxy, accuracy and consistency as if they were simply to be negotiated away in a series of earth-shattering deals. Although Trumponomics could stoke a mini-boom, it, too, poses dangers to America and the world.

Trumponomics 101

In an interview with this newspaper, the president gave his most extensive description yet of what he wants for the economy (see article). His target is to ensure that more Americans have well-paid jobs by raising the growth rate. His advisers talk of 3% GDP growth—a full percentage point higher than what most economists believe is today’s sustainable pace.

In Mr Trump’s mind the most important path to better jobs and faster growth is through fairer trade deals. Though he claims he is a free-trader, provided the rules are fair, his outlook is squarely that of an economic nationalist. Trade is fair when trade flows are balanced. Firms should be rewarded for investing at home and punished for investing abroad.

The second and third strands of Trumponomics, tax cuts and deregulation, will encourage that domestic investment. Lower taxes and fewer rules will fire up entrepreneurs, leading to faster growth and better jobs. This is standard supply-side economics, but to see Trumponomics as a rehash of Republican orthodoxy is a mistake—and not only because its economic nationalism is a departure for a party that has championed free trade.

The real difference is that Trumponomics (unlike, say, Reaganomics) is not an economic doctrine at all. It is best seen as a set of proposals put together by businessmen courtiers for their king. Mr Trump has listened to scores of executives, but there are barely any economists in the White House. His approach to the economy is born of a mindset where deals have winners and losers and where canny negotiators confound abstract principles. Call it boardroom capitalism.

That Trumponomics is a business wishlist helps explain why critics on the left have laid into its poor distributional consequences, fiscal indiscipline and potential cronyism. And it makes clear why businessmen and investors have been enthusiastic, seeing it as a shot in the arm for those who take risks and seek profits. Stockmarkets are close to record highs and indices of business confidence have soared.

In the short term that confidence could prove self-fulfilling. America can bully Canada and Mexico into renegotiating NAFTA. For all their sermons about fiscal prudence, Republicans in Congress are unlikely to deny Mr Trump a tax cut. Stimulus and rule-slashing may lead to faster growth. And with inflation still quiescent, the Federal Reserve might not choke that growth with sharply higher interest rates.

Unleashing pent-up energy would be welcome, but Mr Trump’s agenda comes with two dangers. The economic assumptions implicit in it are internally inconsistent. And they are based on a picture of America’s economy that is decades out of date.

Contrary to the Trump team’s assertions, there is little evidence that either the global trading system or individual trade deals have been systematically biased against America (see article). Instead, America’s trade deficit—Mr Trump’s main gauge of the unfairness of trade deals—is better understood as the gap between how much Americans save and how much they invest (see article). The fine print of trade deals is all but irrelevant. Textbooks predict that Mr Trump’s plans to boost domestic investment will probably lead to larger trade deficits, as it did in the Reagan boom of the 1980s. If so, Mr Trump will either need to abandon his measure of fair trade or, more damagingly, try to curb deficits by using protectionist tariffs that will hurt growth and sow mistrust around the world.

A deeper problem is that Trumponomics draws on a blinkered view of America’s economy. Mr Trump and his advisers are obsessed with the effect of trade on manufacturing jobs, even though manufacturing employs only 8.5% of America’s workers and accounts for only 12% of GDP. Service industries barely seem to register. This blinds Trumponomics to today’s biggest economic worry: the turbulence being created by new technologies. Yet technology, not trade, is ravaging American retailing, an industry that employs more people than manufacturing (see article). And economic nationalism will speed automation: firms unable to outsource jobs to Mexico will stay competitive by investing in machines at home. Productivity and profits may rise, but this may not help the less-skilled factory workers who Mr Trump claims are his priority.

The bite behind the bark

Trumponomics is a poor recipe for long-term prosperity. America will end up more indebted and more unequal. It will neglect the real issues, such as how to retrain hardworking people whose skills are becoming redundant. Worse, when the contradictions become apparent, Mr Trump’s economic nationalism may become fiercer, leading to backlashes in other countries—further stoking anger in America. Even if it produces a short-lived burst of growth, Trumponomics offers no lasting remedy for America’s economic ills. It may yet pave the way for something worse.

A complete transcript of The Economist’s interview with Mr Trump is available here.

Palace whispers in the court of King Donald

Image from The Economist magazine article.

IT IS too soon to know whether Donald Trump’s sudden, regal dismissal of the FBI director—“Off with his head!”—will trigger a constitutional crisis. Much depends on who is appointed to succeed James Comey, and on the fate of FBI probes into Russian meddling in the election of 2016.

It is not too soon to make a more general observation. Less than four months into the reign of King Donald, his impetuous ways are making it more likely that his presidency will be a failure, with few large achievements to its name. That is not journalistic snark but a statement of fact, based on warnings from prominent Republicans and Democrats, notably in the Senate.

The 100 members of the Senate have a touchy relationship with every president. They are grandees, with a keen sense of superiority over the toiling hacks who serve in the House of Representatives and the here-today-gone-tomorrow political appointees who run the executive branch. Senators are treated as princes when they travel overseas, briefed by grizzled American generals and treated to tea by local potentates. In their dreams, election campaigns might still involve addressing crowds from the flag-draped caboose of a private train. Small wonder, then, that senators often resent the still-grander life of a president. Yet their dismay over Mr Trump sounds different.

As the Trump era began, Democratic senators recalled how this populist president had scorned both parties on the campaign trail, and wondered whether he might seek new, bipartisan coalitions to help hard-pressed working Americans. Democrats would muse, off the record, about the terms they would demand for supporting policies like a vast infrastructure programme. Perhaps, for example, they might seek union wage rates for workers building Mr Trump’s new airports and bridges. Republican senators worried, privately, about the same thing from the other side. They fretted that their new president would strike bargains with the new Democratic leader in the Senate, the canny, deal-cutting Charles Schumer of New York. To comfort themselves, Republicans imagined Mr Trump as a sort of salesman-CEO, selling comprehensive tax reform and deregulation to the masses while delegating day-to-day government to conventional conservatives such as his vice-president, Mike Pence.

Not any more. Increasingly the mood among Senate Republicans is a mixture of incredulity and gloom, as each political success (the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch as a Supreme Court justice, deftly handled cruise-missile strikes on Syria) is followed by a momentum-killing outburst from the president.

Some cast Mr Trump’s woes as a crisis of messaging and of White House staff discipline. At a recent lunch for Senate Republicans , Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the owl-like majority leader, scolded Mr Pence over a Trump tweet that suggested a government shutdown might be a nifty idea. You don’t believe that, we don’t believe that, and that sort of tweet only makes our lives harder, Mr McConnell reportedly told the vice-president. Prominent Republicans and Democrats have offered Mr Trump the same advice: find a chief of staff in the ferocious mould of James Baker, chief enforcer in the White Houses of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Some senators have still more specific counsel to offer. They urge Mr Trump to create a domestic policy team that apes the professionalism of his national security team. They praise his second national security adviser, Lieutenant-General H.R. McMaster, for turning around a group left in chaos by his ill-starred predecessor, Mike Flynn, and hail the way that his defence secretary, James Mattis, works with the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. Not only do the chieftains of the Pentagon and State Department meet on their own at least once a week for breakfast to share their thinking, when recommending policies they try to present the president with a single option.

At the root of each fresh crisis lies Mr Trump’s character. If he were a king in velvet and ermine that would matter less. But he is an American president. Party loyalty may save him from a revolution. But, startlingly early on, his own colleagues are starting to wonder what King Donald is for.

Read the complete article on The Economist magazine web site.