Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross benefits from business ties to Putin’s inner circle

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur L. Ross Jr. has a stake in a shipping firm that receives millions of dollars a year in revenue from a company whose key owners include Russian President Vladimir Putin’s son-in-law and a Russian tycoon sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department as a member of Putin’s inner circle.

Ross, a billionaire private equity investor, divested most of his business assets before joining President Donald Trump’s Cabinet in February, but he kept a stake in the shipping firm, Navigator Holdings Ltd., which is incorporated in the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific. Offshore entities in which Ross and other investors hold a financial stake controlled 31.5 percent of the company in 2016, according to Navigator’s latest annual report.

Among Navigator’s largest customers, contributing more than $68 million in revenue since 2014, is the Moscow-based gas and petrochemicals company Sibur. Two of its key owners are Kirill Shamalov, who is married to Putin’s youngest daughter, and Gennady Timchenko, the sanctioned oligarch whose activities in the energy sector, the Treasury Department said, were “directly linked to Putin.”

Another powerful owner is Sibur’s largest shareholder, Leonid Mikhelson, who controls an energy company that was also sanctioned by the Treasury Department for propping up Putin’s rule.

In the aftermath of the election, investigations by Congress and the U.S. Justice Department have explored potential business ties between Russia and members of the Trump administration. While several of Trump’s campaign and business associates have come under scrutiny, until now no business connections have been reported between senior Trump administration officials and members of Putin’s family or inner circle.

During his confirmation process, Ross was asked repeatedly about his business ties to Russia, mostly related to his former role as vice chairman of the Bank of Cyprus, which has a long history of financing Russian oligarchs. “The United States Senate and the American public deserve to know the full extent of your connections with Russia and your knowledge of any ties between the Trump Administration, Trump Campaign, or Trump Organization and the Bank of Cyprus,” a group of five Democratic senators wrote Ross after the hearing but prior to his confirmation. Ross responded briefly to a question submitted for the hearing, saying the Russians who invested in the bank “were not my partners,” but he didn’t respond to the senators’ letter.

Commerce and conflict

The commerce secretary’s indirect business connection with Putin’s son-in-law and oligarch allies emerges from an examination of public records and a leak of millions of offshore financial documents from the Bermuda law firm Appleby obtained by German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and its global network of media partners. They represent the inner workings of Appleby from the 1950s until 2016. The files include documents from Appleby’s corporate services division, which became independent in 2016 under the name Estera.

The leaked files showed a chain of companies and partnerships in the Cayman Islands through which Ross has retained his financial stake in Navigator.

The fact that Ross’ Cayman Islands companies benefit from a firm controlled by Putin proxies raises serious potential conflicts of interest, experts say. As commerce secretary, Ross has the power to influence U.S. trade, sanctions and other matters that could affect Sibur’s owners. Likewise, Sibur’s owners, and through them, Putin himself, could have the ability to increase or decrease Sibur’s business with Navigator even as Ross helps steer U.S. policy.

Richard Painter, who served as chief ethics lawyer during the George W. Bush administration, said Ross might have to recuse himself from a range of sanctions decisions. He added that while there was no inherent violation in Ross’ holdings, the Navigator arrangement warrants closer scrutiny.

Read the complete article on the Internation Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

Image source: International Consortium of Investigative Journalists

The Art of The Schlemiel

Photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters

Donald Trump’s time in office had been a spectacular failure, like a schlemiel. Here’s a very short list of promises made by Donald Trump which have stalled in legislation.

Call for an international conference to defeat ISIS
Repeal Obamacare
Increase visa fees
Move U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem
Replace J-1 Visa with Inner City Resume Bank
Cut taxes for everyone
Eliminate the carried interest loophole
Impose death penalty for cop killers
Enact term limits
Appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton
Make no cuts to Medicare
Make no cuts to Social Security
Make no cuts to Medicaid
Eliminate Common Core
Add additional federal investment of $20 billion toward School Choice
Open up libel laws
Build a safe zone for Syrian refugees
Close parts of the Internet where ISIS is
Bring back waterboarding

There are many, many more promises which the Donald has uttered and has failed to pass through legislation at this point in time in office. His “Art of the deal” book should have been titled “The Art of The Schlemiel”.

Schlemiel, noun, (US, slang) an awkward or unlucky person whose endeavours usually fail.

How Trump’s paranoid White House sees ‘deep state’ enemies on all sides

Internal document shows the ‘alt-right’ Steve Bannon wing of the administration’s fervent belief that America is at risk from ‘the Opposition’ – a cabal of bankers, globalists, the media and even Republican leaders.

An extraordinary memo by a former national security official contains a list of Donald Trump’s perceived enemies within, offering an insight into paranoia gripping the White House.

The author, Rich Higgins, was ousted last month by the national security adviser, HR McMaster. But the president reportedly saw the memo when it was passed to him by his son, Donald Trump Jr, and was said to be “furious” at Higgins’s forced departure.

Entitled POTUS & Political Warfare and written in florid pseudo-intellectual language, the memo illustrates the siege mentality that fuels Trump, his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, and the “alt-right” in their endless running battles with the media, the so-called “deep state” and others.

The seven-page document – leaked to Foreign Policy magazine – claims the Trump administration is suffering under “withering information campaigns designed to first undermine, then delegitimize and ultimately remove the president”.

It continues: “Recognizing in candidate Trump an existential threat to cultural Marxist memes that dominate the prevailing cultural narrative, those that benefit recognize the threat he poses and seek his destruction.”

Writing in May this year, Higgins, who was in the strategic planning office at the National Security Council, goes on to identify seven groups that he claims are part of a huge conspiracy to bring the president down.

Higgins’s memo, full of academic jargon and numerous references to Marxism, concludes that the “defense of President Trump is the defense of America” and compares him to Abraham Lincoln, although the hyper-suspicious Richard Nixon might be more accurate.

The memo produced a combination of amusement and fear among analysts. Ken Gude, a senior fellow on the national security team at the Center for American Progress thinktank in Washington, said: “It’s the craziest thing I’ve seen come out of the National Security Council staff, that’s for sure. It’s the bizarre ramblings of a conspiracy theorist. It’s unhinged.”

Gude noted that the list of Trump’s foes “could be read to describe just about everybody except for loyalists. It’s quite alarming to think this is how people close to the president view the world and view the country.”

He added: “It’s in some ways reassuring that this individual was removed but it’s deeply troubling he got there in the first place and it seems to be a reflection of some individuals close to the president. Steve Bannon doesn’t descend into the depths of lunacy this memo expresses but it is a similar worldview that links globalists and Islamists in a world conspiracy.”

Higgins’s removal has been taken as a sign that McMaster, currently under fire from Breitbart, has gained the upper hand in the White House power struggle. The national security adviser has been with Trump at his golf club in Bedminister, New Jersey, this week, whereas Bannon has not. But the so-called Breitbart wing has shown before it should not be counted out.

Gude added: “This faction is losing but as long as they have the ear of the president, and they appear to and he may be one of them, they won’t be talking without influence, so it’s something to be concerned about.”

The overwrought language of the memo – “political warfare as understood by the Maoist Insurgency model” – suggests an author who was trying too hard to impress Bannon and potentially Trump himself. But the broad outline of its ideas are in keeping with the “alt-right” echo chamber.

Joshua Green, author of the new bestseller Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency, said: “The memo itself is so overheated and batty that it doesn’t sound like Bannon. Or it sounds like Bannon if Bannon took a bong before writing it. I’ve never heard him use phrases like ‘cultural Marxist memes’ that Higgins does.”

But he added: “I’m not sure I entirely understand what the point of the memo is or who it’s meant to be read by, but the general paranoia that Trump is under assault by enemies including people in the administration is certainly something in the thinking of people around Bannon.”

Read the complete article on The Guardian newspaper web site.

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.

 

Protecting Trump costs 8 times more than Obama

Schumer says it costs $500,000 per day for nearly 200 police officers to protect Trump Tower. Photograph: Derek R Henkle/AFP/Getty Images

Schumer says it costs $500,000 per day for nearly 200 police officers to protect Trump Tower. Photograph: Derek R Henkle/AFP/Getty Images

New York Senator Chuck Schumer has ramped up pressure on Donald Trump and the federal government to accept the mounting costs of protecting the president, the first family and their extended entourage.

Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader, inserted himself into the debate on Sunday, saying it costs $500,000 per day for nearly 200 police officers to protect Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, which houses the Trump family business headquarters and serves as the home of the first lady, Melania Trump, and the couple’s son, Barron. The senator estimated the cost could rise to as much as $183m annually.

At current estimates, even a four-year Trump administration could be heading for a billion dollars in taxpayer-borne costs – an eight-fold increase of the $97m Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group, estimates it cost to protect Barack Obama over the two terms of his administration.

The estimated costs of guarding Trump Tower have varied from $1m a day (during daily protests before the inauguration) to around $100,000 for the first lady and Barron, 10, who are staying in New York until at least the end of the school year.

Schumer urged Trump to include the costs in the federal budget, noting that New York City has only been reimbursed $7m of $35m requested for the cost of protecting the tower for the period between election day and the Inauguration.

“It’s simply unfair to have New York City taxpayers alone bear the burden of NYPD protection at Trump Tower. President Trump: this is your protection, so I challenge you to put these costs in your upcoming federal budget and make a commitment to reimburse New York City,” Schumer said during a press briefing at his Manhattan office.

In contrast, the cost of protecting former president Obama during his four trips to the city last year came to just $4.1m. The costs of protecting the Obama family home in Chicago over the same pre-inauguration period in his presidency was estimated at $2.2m.

Senator Schumer’s comments come as the full costs of protecting the first family in the lifestyle that it is accustomed are only just starting to be understood.

Last week, officials in Palm Beach said the cost of hosting the president at his Mar-a-Lago estate amounted to $60,000 a day for police overtime.

Trump stayed at Mar-a-Lago for nearly 16 days, from 16 December to 1 January as president-elect, and has visited his private resort home on three consecutive weekends this month, driving up the costs to an estimated half-million dollars.

Kirk Blouin, the town’s director of public safety, told the Sun-Sentinel that the municipality was “overwhelmed”.

Trump’s frequent trips to his self-styled Winter White House in Florida are burdening local businesses. While Air Force One lands at Palm Beach, Lantana, the small airport near Mar-a-Lago, is closed for business during the president’s trips. A banner-flying company operating from there told the Chicago Tribune it has lost more than $40,000 in contracts.

Schumer said he would cooperate with Palm Peach counties in trying to claw back the costs, adding that the cost of protecting the president in Florida was “an additional and unusual expense”.

“We have not had a president with an auxiliary White House,” he added.

Additional costs are also mounting for protecting the Trump children in their daily lives and on their frequent business trips abroad.

Last week, Eric Trump and his brother, Donald Trump Jr, traveled to Dubai to open a Trump-branded golf course. Estimates compiled by the Washington Post, put the cost of Secret Service hotel bills alone in excess of $16,000. Meanwhile, Eric Trump’s trip to visit a Trump-brand condo tower in Uruguay cost an estimated $100,000 in hotel bills.

Read the complete article on The Guardian newspaper web site.

Trump’s own White House Shopping Channel

Photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters

Photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters

Weekend’s at Trump’s Mar-A-Lago, membership formerly $100,000/year but now $200,000 and perhaps $300,000 next year, Trump charging Secret Service millions for rooms in Trump Tower in New York or other Trump owned properties, staff promoting Trump products, Trump tweeting about Nordstrom dropping his daughters line because of poor sales, these are just a few of the examples of Donald Trump using the White House as his personal Shopping Channel.

The blatanly obvious promotions by Trump during his presidency should worry everyone who thought Trump would form an honest and ethical government. But another, more odious connection is between Trump interests and foreign powers.

As long as Trump continues to profit from his business empire — which he does whether or not he is nominally in charge — the possibility that outside actors will attempt to affect his policies by plumping up his pocketbook will remain very much in play.

Take the Mar-A-Lago as an example. Trump doubles membership fees once he is president, then decides he will spend his weekends there. Trump didn’t personally benefit, but his properties did. If you were a foreign power wouldn’t you want to purchase a few memberships for the opportunity to be close to the President and have the opportunity for a ‘chat’.

Let’s face it, after Trumps disastrous TV appearance this week and his equally disastrous Mar-A-Lago national security blunder with diners popping away with cameras everything Trump was reading and signing, you have to admit Trump isn’t the sharpest pencil in the pack.

Notably, the Trump Organization simply cannot turn over to the US treasury all profit from interactions with foreign powers. For example, consider the significant benefit conferred by a foreign state that decides to host a series of widely advertised functions at a local Trump hotel, greatly increasing the property’s cultural cachet and thus markedly boosting its profit margins and those of other properties branded “Trump”.

For these and other reasons, Trump will remain in violation of the emoluments clause even if he adheres to any plan he offers government. While his lawyer denied that the clause applies to “fair value exchanges” – presumably as distinguished from sweetheart deals – that conclusion defies common sense.

Why should an otherwise forbidden foreign payment to the president be allowed, but only if the president gives that foreign government its money’s worth in services, advancing interests that may be contrary to the U.S.’s own?

This week, some of Trump’s critics moved forward with legal action. The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, filed a lawsuit alleging that Trump’s business holdings violate the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which makes it illegal for government officials to “accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.” CREW’s bipartisan legal team includes, among others, Norm Eisen and Richard Painter, who served as ethics lawyers under Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, respectively; Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard University; and Zephyr Teachout, a professor at Fordham University (and former congressional candidate) who is considered an authority on the Emoluments Clause. All have been vocally critical of Trump’s continued refusal to sell off his business, and are now taking their case to court to argue that several of Trump’s businesses present avenues by which foreign governments could seek to influence the president by, for example, booking stays at one of his hotels or renting space at one of his properties. Additionally, the lawsuit seeks to force Trump to reveal his tax returns, something every president has done since Gerald Ford but which Trump has refused to do, significantly limiting the public’s ability to understand the president’s finances. When asked about the lawsuit, Trump described it as “totally without merit.” Eisen was quick to respond on Twitter, offering to “debate Trump (or his chosen champion) on the merits of our case anytime,” making it clear that CREW intends to continue to pursue its case. (CREW has also filed a separate complaint to the General Services Administration arguing that Trump has violated the lease on his Washington, D.C. hotel, which states that “no … elected official of the Government of the United States … shall be admitted to any share or part of this Lease, or to any benefit that may arise therefrom.”)

Trump has appointed officials which may turn a blind eye to such lawsuits merely because the lawsuits are vexing.

Read more here.

Trump to tighten grip on Intelligence agencies following ‘leaks’.

 Stephen A. Feinberg, right, a founder of Cerberus Capital Management, at the Capitol in December 2008. He is said to be in talks for a White House role examining the country’s intelligence agencies. Credit Brendan Smialowski for The New York Times


Stephen A. Feinberg, right, a founder of Cerberus Capital Management, at the Capitol in December 2008. He is said to be in talks for a White House role examining the country’s intelligence agencies. Credit Brendan Smialowski for The New York Times

President Trump plans to assign a New York billionaire to lead a broad review of American intelligence agencies, according to administration officials, an effort that members of the intelligence community fear could curtail their independence and reduce the flow of information that contradicts the president’s worldview.

The possible role for Stephen A. Feinberg, a co-founder of Cerberus Capital Management, has met fierce resistance among intelligence officials already on edge because of the criticism the intelligence community has received from Mr. Trump during the campaign and since he became president. On Wednesday, Mr. Trump blamed leaks from the intelligence community for the departure of Michael T. Flynn, his national security adviser, whose resignation he requested.

There has been no announcement of Mr. Feinberg’s job, which would be based in the White House, but he recently told his company’s shareholders that he is in discussions to join the Trump administration. He is a member of Mr. Trump’s economic advisory council.

Mr. Feinberg, who has close ties to Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s chief strategist, and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, declined to comment on his possible position. The White House, which is still working out the details of the intelligence review, also would not comment.

Mr. Bannon and Mr. Kushner, according to current and former intelligence officials and Republican lawmakers, had at one point considered Mr. Feinberg for either director of national intelligence or chief of the Central Intelligence Agency’s clandestine service, a role that is normally reserved for career intelligence officers, not friends of the president. Mr. Feinberg’s only experience with national security matters is his firm’s stakes in a private security company and two gun makers.

On an array of issues — including the Iran nuclear deal, the utility of NATO, and how best to combat Islamist militancy — much of the information and analysis produced by American intelligence agencies contradicts the policy positions of the new administration. The divide is starkest when it comes to Russia and President Vladimir V. Putin, whom Mr. Trump has repeatedly praised while dismissing American intelligence assessments that Moscow sought to promote his own candidacy.

The last time an outsider with no intelligence experience took the job was in the early days of the Reagan administration, when Max Hugel, a businessman who had worked on Mr. Reagan’s campaign, was named to run the spy service. His tenure at the C.I.A. was marked by turmoil and questions about the politicization of the agency. He was forced to resign after six months, amid accusations about his past business dealings. (He later won a libel case against the two brothers who made the accusations.)

Even the prospect that Mr. Feinberg may lead a review for the White House has raised concerns in the intelligence community.

Against this backdrop, Mr. Trump has appointed Mike Pompeo, a former Republican congressman from Kansas, to run the C.I.A., and former Senator Dan Coats, an Indiana Republican, to be the director of national intelligence (he is still awaiting confirmation). Both were the preferred choices of the Republican congressional leadership and Vice President Mike Pence and had no close or longstanding ties to Mr. Trump. In fact, they each endorsed Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for president during the 2016 Republican primaries.

Mr. Coats is especially angry at what he sees as a move by Mr. Bannon and Mr. Kushner to sideline him before he is even confirmed, according to current and former officials. He believes the review would impinge on a central part of his role as the director of national intelligence and fears that if Mr. Feinberg were working at the White House, he could quickly become a dominant voice on intelligence matters.

Read more at the New York Times and The Guardian.

Trump’s dinner party a bust

 Donald Trump will be attending his first White House correspondents’ dinner as president. ‘There will be minimal celebrities in that room,’ said one media executive. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images


Donald Trump will be attending his first White House correspondents’ dinner as president. ‘There will be minimal celebrities in that room,’ said one media executive. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The White House correspondents’ dinner is a fixture of the Washington scene, a spring event at which the cream of political journalism shares bonhomie, fine food and comedy roasting with the politicians it reports on – including the president. Under Donald Trump, however, the dinner is facing uncertainty.

Trump, who has repeatedly attacked “the very dishonest press” and accused leading news outlets of peddling “fake news” about him, is expected nonetheless to attend the dinner, at the Washington Hilton on 29 April.

Many news outlets, however, are planning to give the event a miss. The New York Times has not sent journalists to the dinner since 2008. The Guardian, which normally attends, will not be represented there this year. Jeff Mason, a Reuters journalist and president of the WHCA, has been obliged to confirm that the event will happen.

Celebrities are also choosing to spend the night elsewhere. Actors from the casts of TV political drama shows such as House of Cards, Veep and Scandal, for example, have attended in recent years. They are not expected to be present this time. And according to the Hollywood Reporter, the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) has yet to secure a comedy headliner.

One comedian, Samantha Bee, will be dining on Washington on the night of 29 April. The Full Frontal host will be debuting what she declines to call a rival party, even though it is titled Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and is being held on the same night at the historic Willard Hotel, a block away from the White House.

Over the years, the dinner has spawned a number of receptions and after-parties. Some of those are now being cancelled or losing co-hosts. Vanity Fair, for example, has pulled out of co-hosting a prestigious after-party, leaving Bloomberg to go it alone. The New Yorker has cancelled its curtain-raiser. It is reportedly unclear if MSNBC will hold its own traditional after-party, while ABC and Yahoo, which have previously co-hosted a pre-dinner reception, have not confirmed if they will do so this year.

Whoever is eventually named as master of ceremonies for the dinner will have a chance to tease, needle or even roast the president, as Stephen Colbert famously did to a not-very amused George W Bush in 2006. And Trump will get a chance to reply in kind.

He may see a chance for revenge. Famously, in 2011 Barack Obama and TV host Seth Meyers roasted a stone-faced Trump, a guest at the dinner who was also a key champion of the widely debunked “birther” movement, which claimed Obama was not born in the US and thus ineligible to be president.

His audience may lack familiar faces. In the past, stars such as Scarlett Johansson, Kerry Washington and the cast of Game of Thrones have been guests at the sprawling, ticketed dinner in the Hilton ballroom, which seats 2,670. This year, an unnamed Washington media executive was quoted as saying: “There will be minimal celebrities in that room … it’s going to be difficult to get any talent there.”

Read the complete article on The Guardian web site here.

U.S. Department of Education office needs grammar and spelling lessons

The US Department of Education suffered an embarrassment on Sunday, when a tweet published to its official account misspelled the surname of the African American author and civil rights activist WEB Du Bois.

“Education must not simply teach work,” the tweet said, “it must teach life. W.E.B. DeBois.”

The error, coming during Black History Month, did not go unnoticed. Chelsea Clinton, daughter of beaten presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, asked: “Is it funny sad or sad funny that our Dept of Education misspelled the name of the great W. E. B. Du Bois?”

The department later issued an apology: “Post updated,” read a tweet followed by a corrected version of the “DeBois” tweet. “Our deepest apologizes [sic] for the earlier typo.”

The apology was subsequently corrected, and the first apology tweet deleted. The first tweet about Du Bois was not immediately deleted.

The invented quote and misspelled name were the latest Black History Month embarrassments for the Trump administration. At a White House “listening session” with African American community leaders on 1 February, Donald Trump appeared not to be aware that Frederick Douglass, the 19th-century champion of emancipation, was dead.

“Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice,” he said.

Even the Vice-President tweeted some embarrassing errors.”

Lincoln was being tweeted about by Republicans again on Sunday, the 208th anniversary of his birth. The Twitter account of the Republican party posted a quote that it falsely attributed to the 16th president.

“And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count,” wrote @GOP. “It’s the life in your years.”

There is no evidence that Lincoln said this. The quote has been traced only as far back as 1952 speeches by former Illinois governor and presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson and to advertisements from the 1940s, rather than to Lincoln’s lifetime in the mid-19th century.

Read the complete article on The Guardian web site here.

What is Donald Trump likely to achieve in power?

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All that just about everyone can agree on is that Mr Trump promises to be an entirely new sort of American president. The question is, what sort?

For sure, Mr Trump is changeable. He will tell the New York Times that climate change is man-made in one breath and promise coal country that he will reopen its mines in the next. But that does not mean, as some suggest, that you must always shut out what the president says and wait to see what he does.

When a president speaks, no easy distinction is to be made between word and deed. When Mr Trump says that NATO is obsolete, as he did to two European journalists last week, he makes its obsolescence more likely, even if he takes no action. Moreover, Mr Trump has long held certain beliefs and attitudes that sketch out the lines of a possible presidency. They suggest that the almost boundless Trumpian optimism on display among American businesspeople deserves to be tempered by fears about trade protection and geopolitics, as well as questions about how Mr Trump will run his administration.

Start with the optimism. Since November’s election the S&P500 index is up by 6%, to reach record highs. Surveys show that business confidence has soared. Both reflect hopes that Mr Trump will cut corporate taxes, leading companies to bring foreign profits back home. A boom in domestic spending should follow which, combined with investment in infrastructure and a programme of deregulation, will lift the economy and boost wages.

Done well, tax reform would confer lasting benefits (see Free exchange), as would a thoughtful and carefully designed programme of infrastructure investment and deregulation. But if such programmes are poorly executed, there is the risk of a sugar-rush as capital chases opportunities that do little to enhance the productive potential of the economy.

That is not the only danger. If prices start to rise faster, pressure will mount on the Federal Reserve to increase interest rates. The dollar will soar and countries that have amassed large dollar debts, many of them emerging markets, may well buckle. One way or another, any resulting instability will blow back into America. If the Trump administration reacts to widening trade deficits with extra tariffs and non-tariff barriers, then the instability will only be exacerbated. Should Mr Trump right from the start set out to engage foreign exporters from countries such as China, Germany and Mexico in a conflict over trade, he would do grave harm to the global regime that America itself created after the second world war.

Just as Mr Trump underestimates the fragility of the global economic system, so too does he misread geopolitics. Even before taking office, Mr Trump has hacked away at the decades-old, largely bipartisan cloth of American foreign policy. He has casually disparaged the value of the European Union, which his predecessors always nurtured as a source of stability. He has compared Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor and the closest of allies, unfavourably to Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president and an old foe. He has savaged Mexico, whose prosperity and goodwill matter greatly to America’s southern states. And, most recklessly, he has begun to pull apart America’s carefully stitched dealings with the rising superpower, China—imperilling the most important bilateral relationship of all.

The idea running through Mr Trump’s diplomacy is that relations between states follow the art of the deal. Mr Trump acts as if he can get what he wants from sovereign states by picking fights that he is then willing to settle—at a price, naturally. His mistake is to think that countries are like businesses. In fact, America cannot walk away from China in search of another superpower to deal with over the South China Sea. Doubts that have been sown cannot be uprooted, as if the game had all along been a harmless exercise in price discovery. Alliances that take decades to build can be weakened in months.

Dealings between sovereign states tend towards anarchy—because, ultimately, there is no global government to impose order and no means of coercion but war. For as long as Mr Trump is unravelling the order that America created, and from which it gains so much, he is getting his country a terrible deal.

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How will Mr Trump’s White House work? On the one hand you have party stalwarts, including the vice-president, Mike Pence; the chief of staff, Reince Priebus; and congressional Republicans, led by Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. On the other are the agitators—particularly Steve Bannon, Peter Navarro and Michael Flynn. The titanic struggle between normal politics and insurgency, mediated by Mr Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, will determine just how revolutionary this presidency is.

As Mr Trump assumes power, the world is on edge. From the Oval Office, presidents can do a modest amount of good. Sadly, they can also do immense harm.

From The Economist magazine article here.

Republicans fear Trump’s parade of insults might help cost him the election

Pointed criticism: Donald Trump should ‘focus on Hillary. No one else,’ according to former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. Photograph: Jan Diehm

Pointed criticism: Donald Trump should ‘focus on Hillary. No one else,’ according to former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. Photograph: Jan Diehm

What do Rosie O’Donnell, Serge Kovaleski, Megyn Kelly, John McCain, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Gonzalo Curiel, Khizr Khan and Alicia Machado have in common?

All have been on the receiving end of Donald Trump’s insults as the businessman spent more than a year pursuing futile feuds that may go a long way toward costing him the White House.

A chorus of hands slapping against Republican foreheads was almost audible each time the nominee threw off any pretence of self-discipline and lashed out, distracting onlookers from his efforts to present himself as moderate or exploit Hillary Clinton’s weaknesses. This week they are doubtless praying that he doesn’t squander the golden opportunity presented by the FBI’s investigation into a new batch of emails that may be related to Clinton’s private server.

“Trump is on the verge of blowing it,” Ari Fleischer, former White House press secretary, tweeted on 30 September. “Free advice: Focus on Hillary. No one else. Hillary is your opponent. No one else is.”

According to a running total compiled by the New York Times, Trump has insulted 279 people, places and things on Twitter alone. Republicans were ultimately forced to conclude that Trump would be Trump, a 70-year-old man who cannot change and has no intention of doing so. They will never know if staying “on message” might have left him running far closer in the polls.

‘The straw that broke the camel’s back’

Rich Galen, once press secretary to vice-president Dan Quayle, said his patience ran out in July when the nominee claimed that Gonzalo Curiel, a judge who was born in Indiana, was biased against him in a civil case over Trump University because his parents were from Mexico.

“That was antithetical to everything I’ve worked for in public life,” Galen said.

“It looks like the actual turning point was the Miss Universe woman, which not only offended women but they told their husbands they should be offended too. It’s one thing to diss John McCain but he’s a big boy and can look after himself. When he went after a woman over an image problem, that would unite 90% of women and men and was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Machado won the Miss Universe pageant in 1996. Clinton brought up the largely forgotten case at the end of the first presidential debate, saying Trump had called her “Miss Piggy” and, because she is Latina, “Miss Housekeeping”. To the dismay of his party, Trump took the bait and talked about Machado for days, telling Fox News: “She gained a massive amount of weight, and it was a real problem.”

“He sees the entire universe in terms of how it affects him,” Galen said. “He simply doesn’t have the temperament to be president of the United States. He figured out what the country had been mad about; he was the wrong messenger for the right message.”

Read the complete article on The Guardian web site here.