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.

Trump presidency is in a hole

After 70 days in office Mr Trump is stuck in the sand.

DONALD TRUMP won the White House on the promise that government is easy. Unlike his Democratic opponent, whose career had been devoted to politics, Mr Trump stood as a businessman who could Get Things Done. Enough voters decided that boasting, mocking, lying and grabbing women were secondary. Some Trump fans even saw them as the credentials of an authentic, swamp-draining saviour.

After 70 days in office, however, Mr Trump is stuck in the sand. A health-care bill promised as one of his “first acts” suffered a humiliating collapse in the—Republican-controlled—Congress. His repeated attempts to draft curbs on travel to America from some Muslim countries are being blocked by the courts. And suspicions that his campaign collaborated with Russia have cost him his national security adviser and look likely to dog his administration (see article). Voters are not impressed. No other president so early in his first term has suffered such low approval ratings.

The business of government

Mr Trump is hardly the first tycoon to discover that business and politics work by different rules. If you fall out over a property deal, you can always find another sucker. In politics you cannot walk away so easily. Even if Mr Trump now despises the Republican factions that dared defy him over health care, Congress is the only place he can go to pass legislation.

The nature of political power is different, too. As owner and CEO of his business, Mr Trump had absolute control. The constitution sets out to block would-be autocrats. Where Mr Trump has acted appropriately—as with his nomination of a principled, conservative jurist to fill a Supreme Court vacancy—he deserves to prevail. But when the courts question the legality of his travel order they are only doing their job. Likewise, the Republican failure to muster a majority over health-care reflects not just divisions between the party’s moderates and hardliners, but also the defects of a bill that, by the end, would have led to worse protection, or none, for tens of millions of Americans without saving taxpayers much money.

Far from taking Washington by storm, America’s CEO is out of his depth. The art of political compromise is new to him. He blurs his own interests and the interests of the nation. The scrutiny of office grates. He chafes under the limitations of being the most powerful man in the world. You have only to follow his incontinent stream of tweets to grasp Mr Trump’s paranoia and vanity: the press lies about him; the election result fraudulently omitted millions of votes for him; the intelligence services are disloyal; his predecessor tapped his phones. It’s neither pretty nor presidential.

That the main victim of these slurs has so far been the tweeter-in-chief himself is testament to the strength of American democracy. But institutions can erode, and the country is wretchedly divided (see article). Unless Mr Trump changes course, the harm risks spreading. The next test will be the budget. If the Republican Party cannot pass a stop-gap measure, the government will start to shut down on April 29th. Recent jitters in the markets are a sign that investors are counting on Mr Trump and his party to pass legislation.

More than anything, they are looking for tax reform and an infrastructure plan. There is vast scope to make fiscal policy more efficient and fairer (see article). American firms face high tax rates and have a disincentive to repatriate profits. Personal taxes are a labyrinth of privileges and loopholes, most of which benefit the well-off. Likewise, the country’s cramped airports and potholed highways are a drain on productivity. Sure enough, Mr Trump has let it be known that he now wants to tackle tax. And, in a bid to win support from Democrats, he may deal with infrastructure at the same time.

Yet the politics of tax reform are as treacherous as the politics of health care, and not only because they will generate ferocious lobbying. Most Republican plans are shockingly regressive, despite Mr Trump’s blue-collar base. To win even a modest reform, Mr Trump and his team will have to show a mastery of detail and coalition-building that has so far eluded them. If Mr Trump’s popularity falls further, the job of winning over fractious Republicans will only become harder.

The character question

The Americans who voted for Mr Trump either overlooked his bombast, or they saw in him a tycoon with the self-belief to transform Washington. Although this presidency is still young, that already seems an error of judgment. His policies, from health-care reform to immigration, have been poor—they do not even pass the narrow test that they benefit Trump voters. Most worrying for America and the world is how fast the businessman in the Oval Office is proving unfit for the job.

Read the complete article on The Economist magazine web site.

Trump-Russia inquiry in ‘grave doubt’

The top Democrat on one of the congressional committees investigating ties between Donald Trump and Russia has raised “grave doubt” over the viability of the inquiry after its Republican chairman shared information with the White House and not their committee colleagues.

In the latest wild development surrounding the Russia inquiry that has created an air of scandal around Trump, Democrat Adam Schiff effectively called his GOP counterpart, Devin Nunes, a proxy for the White House, questioning his conduct.

“These actions raise enormous doubt about whether the committee can do its work,” Schiff said late Wednesday afternoon after speaking with Nunes, his fellow Californian, before telling MSNBC that evidence tying Trump to Russia now appeared “more than circumstantial”.

Two days after testimony from the directors of the FBI and NSA that dismissed any factual basis to Trump’s 4 March claim that Barack Obama had him placed under surveillance, Nunes publicly stated he was “alarmed” to learn that the intelligence agencies may have “incidentally” collected communications from Trump and his associates.

Nunes, who served on Trump’s national security transition team, said the surveillance “appears to be all legally collected” and masked the identities of Americans, but did so in such a way that Nunes could hazard a guess as to whom the intercepted communications discussed. Nunes added that the alleged intercepts did not actually concern Russia.

“Details about persons associated with the incoming administration, details with little apparent foreign intelligence value were widely disseminated in intelligence community reporting,” said Nunes, who has shifted the focus of the inquiry onto leaks that Trump blames on the intelligence agencies.

Nunes went to the White House to brief the president, who seized on the chairman’s comments as vindication, even though there is little evidence even in Nunes’s vague and often conditional remarks that they revive Trump’s claim that Obama had Trump Tower wiretapped.

“I somewhat do. I must tell you I somewhat do. I very much appreciated the fact that they found what they found, I somewhat do,” Trump said Wednesday afternoon.

Nunes took whatever material he had acquired to Trump before sharing it with the committee – a decision that represented nearly a final straw for Schiff, who called for an independent commission to investigate ties between Trump and Russia.

In language that stripped away any pretense of cordiality remaining on the committee, Schiff said Nunes would have to decide whether to helm a credible inquiry or whether to operate as a White House adjunct, complicit in what Schiff intimated was a “campaign by the White House to deflect from the [FBI] director’s testimony”.

Asked if Schiff was considering pulling out of the inquiry, Schiff said he would have to “analyze what this development means”, suggesting a potential Democratic departure from one of the most internationally watched congressional investigations in recent history.

“If you have a chairman who is interacting with the White House, sharing information with the White House, when the people around the White House are the subject of the investigation and doing it before sharing it with the committee, it puts a profound doubt over whether that can be done credibly,” Schiff said.

Schiff reiterated that from what he had gleaned from his conversation with Nunes, “there is still no evidence that the president was wiretapped by his predecessor”.

Read the complete article on The Guardian newspaper website.

Trump on track to spend exorbitant amount of taxpayer dollars on travels

The Mar-a-Lago Resort in West Palm Beach, Florida on 11 February 2017. Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The Mar-a-Lago Resort in West Palm Beach, Florida on 11 February 2017. Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Nothing used to rile devoted Barack Obama critics like the president’s winter Hawaiian vacation. A watchdog group once calculated that the Aloha state trips cost taxpayers $3.5m a pop – in airfare, security arrangements, communications and medical staff.

Among the harshest critics of Obama’s travel was Donald Trump, then a private citizen. “President Obama’s vacation is costing taxpayers millions of dollars—-Unbelievable!” Trump tweeted in 2012. Two years later, Trump tweeted that “Obama’s motto” was: “If I don’t go on taxpayer funded vacations & constantly fundraise then the terrorists win.”

The joke, it turns out, is on Trump. Now he is the president – and it appears that he is on track to spend many more millions of taxpayer dollars on trips that might be construed as vacations for him and his family than Obama ever dreamed of. The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward… Mar-a-Lago?

By one sketchy estimate, Trump and his family, in their security and travel demands, have already rung up as much in accounts payable by taxpayers as the Obama and Biden families did in eight years, a figure elsewhere calculated, by the Washington DC-based Judicial Watch, as topping $97m.

How is it possible? The complicated receipt involves weekend trips by Trump to Mar-a-Lago, his resort in Palm Beach, Florida; travel by his children and their government security details on Trump family business; and costs associated with protecting Trump’s Manhattan home, the high-rise Trump Tower building, where Trump’s wife and youngest child live but where the real estate mogul himself has not set foot since becoming president.

“When President Bush went to the ranch, it was not surrounded by an enormous city – that didn’t involve the same kind of security challenges,” Pitney said. “When President Obama went to Martha’s Vineyard, again fairly isolated, not the same kind of challenges as a highly visible location in the middle of a very crowded city.”

“This also relates to his failure to disclose his taxes,” Pitney said. “He’s the first president in 40 years who hasn’t publicly disclosed his taxes, and many people suspect that he’s employed various legal maneuvers to avoid paying taxes. If that is true, he’s imposing costs on other taxpayers that he’s not bearing himself.”

According to a $37.4m reimbursement claim filed with Congress at the time of the inauguration, New York City spends $500,000 a day protecting Trump tower, mostly in police overtime costs. A trip by Eric Trump in January to visit a condominium development in Uruguay produced a hotel bill of $97,830 for secret service and staff, the Washington Post revealed. Other expensive overseas trips the scion has taken on family business so far this year include visits to the Dominican Republic (polo grounds, hotel, golf course); Dubai (golf course); and Vancouver (hotel).

Read the complete article on The Guardian newspaper web site.

10 Most Censored Countries

Eritrea and North Korea are the first and second most censored countries worldwide, according to a list compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists of the 10 countries where the press is most restricted. The list is based on research into the use of tactics ranging from imprisonment and repressive laws to harassment of journalists and restrictions on Internet access.

The tactics used by Eritrea and North Korea are mirrored to varying degrees in other heavily censored countries. To keep their grip on power, repressive regimes use a combination of media monopoly, harassment, spying, threats of journalist imprisonment, and restriction of journalists’ entry into or movements within their countries.

Seven of the 10 most censored countries-Eritrea, Ethiopia, Azerbaijan, Vietnam, Iran, China, and Myanmar-are also among the top 10 worst jailers of journalists worldwide, according to CPJ’s annual prison census.

1. Eritrea

Leadership: President Isaias Afewerki, in power since 1993.

How censorship works: Only state media is allowed to disseminate news; the last accredited international correspondent was expelled in 2007. Even those working for the heavily censored state press live in constant fear of arrest for any report perceived as critical to the ruling party, or on suspicion that they leaked information outside the country.

2. North Korea

Leadership: Kim Jong Un, who took over after his father, Kim Jong Il, died in December 2011.

How censorship works: Article 53 of the country’s constitution calls for freedom of the press, but even with an Associated Press bureau-staffed by North Koreans and located in the Pyongyang headquarters of the state-run Korean Central News Agency-and a small foreign press corps from politically sympathetic countries, access to independent news sources is extremely limited. Nearly all the content of North Korea’s 12 main newspapers, 20 periodicals, and broadcasters comes from the official Korean Central News Agency, which focuses on the political leadership’s statements and activities.

Read about all 10 countries here.

True freedom of the press does not exist in these 10 countries. One thing they all have in common is government control of information, usually through a single source, something which Trump wants the public to eventually accept.

trumpsociopath

But the media bashing right now is a bit of a red herring. Trump is up to something. Let’s not forget Trump is a narcissistic sociopath. I did a quick google on ‘Trump sociopath’ and found thousands upon thousands of articles, so I’m not alone in believing Trump is a sociopath. Read for yourself here, and here, and here, and Conservative commentator Glenn Beck during an broadcast interview here for starters.

While it is easy and fun to point out what a doofus Trump is, let us never forget he is a sociopath. While he is entertaining us with his rants about the media, fake news, he is also distracting us from what is likely a more sinister event or events.

It is incumbent upon journalists to keep digging everywhere for truth about Trump, his Trump Organization, his ties to Russia, any threats to White House staff or any government employee, any actions which go against the Constitution or law, and not be distracted by the media antics of a buffoon.

America is a great country. It needs the real truth, and not Trump’s version of truth.

Reince Priebus, FBI director James Comey and deputy director Andrew McCabe had a conversation which appears to violate justice department rules

FBI director James Comey leaves a meeting on Capitol Hill on Friday in Washington DC. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

FBI director James Comey leaves a meeting on Capitol Hill on Friday in Washington DC. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

The White House has confirmed that its chief of staff spoke with top FBI officials about the bureau’s inquiry into links between Donald Trump’s associates and Russia – a conversation which appears to violate justice department rules to ensure the integrity of investigations.

The administration had sought to push back against reports from CNN and the Associated Press that the chief of staff, Reince Priebus, had asked the FBI’s top two officials to rebut news reports about Trump allies’ ties to Russia.

But in doing so, the White House on Friday acknowledged that Priebus, the FBI director, James Comey, and deputy director, Andrew McCabe, had discussed what the FBI knew about Russian ties to the Trump presidential campaign.

“The White House appears to have violated accepted protocols and procedures,” said former FBI special agent Ali Soufan.

“As an FBI agent, we always know there shouldn’t be any appearance of political interference over a pending investigation. Any kind of appearance of political influence will be considered against existing protocols and procedures.”

Another retired FBI special agent, Michael German, said the FBI leadership had potentially jeopardized an investigation.

“It is illegal for an FBI employee to take information from an ongoing criminal investigation and share it with a potential witness or subject of that investigation. Obviously, if the justice department ultimately initiates a prosecution in this matter, this purported conversation would be exculpating evidence. Again, if it is true that high bureau officials believe the current FBI investigation is [bullshit], they should close the investigation and be prepared to justify this decision, not leak their opinion to anyone outside of the investigation”, German said.

Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee – which is also investigating Trump’s ties to Russia – called on Comey to explain the communications.

“Politicized assertions by White House chief of staff Priebus about what may or may not be the findings of an FBI investigation are exactly the wrong way for the public to hear about an issue that is of grave consequence to our democracy. The American people deserve real transparency, which means Director Comey needs to come forward, in an open hearing, and answer questions,” Wyden told the Guardian.

“If, as Priebus claimed, the FBI not only discussed this issue with the White House but coordinated the White House’s public statements, the American people would also have reason to doubt the impartiality both of the bureau and the Department of Justice to which the FBI is responsible. These claims deserve further investigation.”

In both public and private meetings with Congress, Comey has continued to refuse to address whether the FBI has an active inquiry into Trump associates’ ties to Russia, despite continuing pressure from the press. Both the House and Senate intelligence committees have their own investigations into the matter, and congressional Democrats continue to push for an independent inquiry.

Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, said Priebus “has committed an outrageous breach of the FBI’s independence” and “tainted the integrity of the FBI”.

Read the complete article on The Guardian newspaper web site.