Saturday, January 20, 2018

Last Call For Here We Go Again

Yet another Republican in Congress is facing calls to resign after a sexual misconduct scandal, this time it's Republican Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania, who actually is on the House Ethics Committee looking into sexual harassment scandals.

Representative Patrick Meehan, a Pennsylvania Republican who has taken a leading role in fighting sexual harassment in Congress, used thousands of dollars in taxpayer money to settle his own misconduct complaint after a former aide accused him last year of making unwanted romantic overtures to her, according to several people familiar with the settlement.

A married father of three, Mr. Meehan, 62, had long expressed interest in the personal life of the aide, who was decades younger and had regarded the congressman as a father figure, according to three people who worked with the office and four others with whom she discussed her tenure there.

But after the woman became involved in a serious relationship with someone outside the office last year, Mr. Meehan professed his romantic desires for her — first in person, and then in a handwritten letter — and he grew hostile when she did not reciprocate, the people familiar with her time in the office said.

Life in the office became untenable, so she initiated the complaint process, started working from home and ultimately left the job. She later reached a confidential agreement with Mr. Meehan’s office that included a settlement for an undisclosed amount to be paid from Mr. Meehan’s congressional office fund.
Sexual misconduct accusations against powerful men across a range of industries in recent months have prompted a national conversation about gender dynamics in the workplace, and the inadequacy of support systems for victims. In Congress, several lawmakers have left office or announced their retirements in recent months over sexual harassment claims.

Still, Congress remains a workplace where victims say they have few effective avenues for recourse.

Mr. Meehan’s case sheds new light on secretive congressional processes for handling such complaints, which advocates say are slanted to favor abusers, allowing them to use the vast resources of the federal government to intimidate, isolate and silence their victims.

Meehan has to go, of course.  But the bigger political picture means this was a disctrict the GOP definitely wanted to keep, one where Meehan won handily in 2016 but Clinton carried his district.  It's exactly the kind of race the Democrats need to win in order to take the House back.

And now Meehan just handed it to them.  Nice.

School's Out Forever

After years of the state resisting, Kentucky GOP Gov. Matt Bevin and state Republicans approved charter schools in the state last year, the last Southern state to do so.  They should have paid attention to the biggest charter school scandal in America just across the Ohio River, where the Education Classroom of Tomorrow program, ECOT, just blew up into $80 million in taxpayer fraud and thousands of students with no classes to attend on Monday.

The west side of Columbus, Ohio, is a flat expanse of one-story houses, grimy convenience stores, and dark barrooms, and William Lager, in his business wear, cut an unusual figure at the Waffle House on Wilson Road. Every day, almost without fail, he took a seat in a booth, ordered his bottomless coffee, and set to work. Some days he sat for hours, so long that he’d outlast waitress Chandra Filichia’s seven-hour shift and stay on long into the night, making plans and scribbling them down on napkins. 
The dreams on the napkins seemed impossibly grandiose: He wanted to create a school unlike anything that existed, a K-12 charter school where the learning and teaching would be done online, and which would give tens of thousands of students an alternative to traditional public schools across the state. It would offer them unheard of flexibility—a teen mom could stay with her child and study, while a kid worried about being bullied could complete lessons at home. And it would be radically cheaper than a traditional classroom, since there would be no buildings to maintain, no teachers’ unions to bargain with. At the time—the late 1990s—it was a revolutionary idea. Lager called it, in the heady days when the internet seemed to promise a solution to every problem, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow. 
But back then—before Lager had his mansion and lake house, before he rose to become a hero of the school choice movement, before Jeb Bush flew in to give ECOT’s commencement speech and Betsy DeVos helped him and his cohort transform Ohio’s educational landscape—Filichia, the Waffle House waitress, could tell Lager seemed broke. Balding, round-faced, and concentrating intently as he scribbled, she even once caught him trying to pass off photocopies of discount coffee coupons. But he didn’t plan on using a Waffle House as his office forever. “One of these days I’m going to have a real big business,” she remembers him telling her, “and you can come work with me, and you won’t ever have to work anywhere else.” 
Lager kept his promise, sort of. His back-of-the-napkin vision soon became an improbable reality, and though she’d never gone to college, in 2000 Lager hired Filichia, and eventually, she says, she became one of ECOT’s registrars. In that role, the 24-year-old had a front-row seat to watch the company’s growth. As it expanded from an upstart to a juggernaut—this year it educated some 12,000 students across Ohio, and two years prior its student body was the largest in America—she began to turn on Lager, angered that the school seemed to provide some students with a sham education, functioned more like a profit center than an educational institution, and ignored its own attendance policies, a fact later corroborated by court documents. “I am a single mom, so obviously I needed money and stayed there,” Filichia told me. “But after so long, when I saw how bad these poor kids were doing, I couldn’t do it anymore.”
Yesterday, after 17 years of operation, the school came to a spectacular end, and many of Filichia’s concerns suddenly seemed prophetic. (Lager and ECOT officials did not reply to repeated requests for comment.) Despite years of critics raising similar concerns, the school’s demise happened quickly, after two Ohio Department of Education reviews from 2016 and 2017 found that ECOT had overbilled taxpayers by $80 million for thousands of students it couldn’t show were meeting the department’s enrollment standards. As a result, last summer the state ordered the school to begin paying back almost $4 million per month in school funds, which ECOT claimed it was was unable to do. Then, last week, the school’s charter sponsor, the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West, claiming concern that ECOT wouldn’t have the funds to last out the year, suddenly announced plans to drop the school. Many of ECOT’s 12,000 current students learned on the nightly news or read in newspapers that unless an emergency deal could be worked out, the institution was in imminent danger of folding up before the start of next semester, set to begin on January 22, leaving many parents confused and panicking, with only days to choose a new school and get their child enrolled.

The drama reached its climax yesterday. The board members of Lake Erie West held a public meeting in Toledo to vote on how they would respond to ECOT’s plea that they remain the school’s sponsor, at least temporarily. About 40 students, parents, and teachers, some of them breaking down in tears, reportedly showed up. “If this is really about our children,” one parent, Lisa Burford, pleaded, “I hope that you consider our children.” Burford explained that her daughter, who was deaf, had struggled with Toledo’s traditional schools and had been better off in ECOT’s online program, where she was scheduled to graduate in May. ECOT had been deeply troubled long before this year—it had a graduation rate of just 40%, and produced more dropouts than any other school in the nation, according to an investigation by the New York Times. But, for some, it was a school of last resort, and now that last resort was about to vanish. All three board members of Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West voted to withdraw their sponsorship of ECOT, effectively shuttering the school immediately. The decision cast doubt over whether or not Burford’s daughter, and thousands like her, would be able to graduate at all this year. But it also cast a doubt over why Lager’s troubled school had been allowed to operate so long, and why it had been given almost a billion dollars in taxpayer money that would otherwise have gone to local school districts. “A lot of these students,” Burford said, “don’t have any other choices.” 
Now, with ECOT imploding, some state politicians have floated the idea that Lager, who has made millions in profits off the school and come a long way from the Waffle House, should be personally held responsible for paying back some of the $80 million owed to the state. But while the coming days will reveal if the political will or mechanisms exist to make this happen, it’s unclear how he might ever be held accountable—because the real scandal is that ECOT grew up legally, with the support of state politicians and national GOP power brokers, and that in many ways it has served as a model for schools like it across the country. Now, the same districts ECOT pulled its funds from are scrambling to find a way to take in its former students, and Ohio is facing a reckoning, after nearly two decades when the state became one of the country’s freest laboratories for pro-charter policies. “Why did it take a generation and a half of kids to go through this crappy system for us to do something about it,” Stephen Dyer, a former Ohio state representative asked me in exasperation in December. “The reason is because a lot of money came in.”

ECOT was held up all though the 2000's as the model of charter schooling and remote learning in America, where the country was sure to be headed in primary education, where expensive teachers and school buildings would be replaced by inexpensive technology and we could educate all of the kids and it would be magical, except what happens is we take your money because we've turned your child's education into a profit center and besides, we need uneducated people to do grunt work and vote Republican.

Meanwhile on this side of the river in Bevinstan, Matt Bevin's promise not to cut education funding lasted about as long as a butterfly fart in a hurricane.

Scott County Schools Superintendent Kevin Hub estimates, after hearing Gov. Matt Bevin’s budget address Tuesday, that his district could take at least “a $10 million hit” in state budget cuts, $2.1 million of that in transportation. 
Hub is among the Kentucky school officials concerned about picking up most of the tab for student transportation. Hub said the district was already covering half of its needed transportation expenses. 
“Everybody expects us to put good, well-maintained buses with well-experienced drivers on the road, and we are not going to scrimp on those funds. We’re going to be receiving less than $1 million for a fixed expense that costs us nearly $5 million,” Hub said. 
Bevin’s budget proposal would cut about $138 million in state funds for student transportation in school districts. In his speech, Bevin said he wanted districts to make up that money by spending some of the $950 million in their reserve funds. 
“We are going to expect the local school districts to contribute to transportation more than in the past... they are not going to be funded to the same degree by the state as they have historically,” Bevin said. 
Administration officials said they wanted to focus on the classroom, so the savings came from transportation. 
The shift of costs “will be a significant concern” to many districts, especially those that are large geographically and are already financially strained, said Eric Kennedy of the Kentucky School Boards Association.

Guess who will bear the brunt of those cuts?  That's right, urban schools in Lexington and Louisville will take about half those cuts by themselves, while poor mountain districts with limited tax bases and students that depend on buses getting through winding roads will hurt too.

But considering Bevin is also cutting $112 million from the roads budget, it's going to be a grim trek for kids to get to school in Kentucky.  Or much of anywhere, for that matter.

And I guarantee you the state GOP will follow through with Bevin's cuts.  They've been wanting to do it for decades.

Immigration Elmination

The House GOP has their own DACA fix bill called the Securing America's Future Act, which is such a massively horrible immigration bill that even the Cato Institute's David Bier finds it repugnant.

By far the worst aspect of the SAF Act cuts overall legal immigration by 25 percent—some 2.6 million people per decade (pp. 5-21). Given how fiscally and economically positive the average immigrant to the United States is, this is a huge unnecessary blow to the economy. Eliminating the random diversity visa lottery is welcome, but unlike the bipartisan Senate deal—which replacesit with a merit-based system—SAF simply eliminates those green cards. Even ending the other family based categories might be worth swallowing if the bill shifted the numbers to the employment-based side. But the employment-based increase is just 55,000 compared to a reduction of more than 315,000 elsewhere. 
SAF also changes asylum law to make it more difficult for asylum seekers to apply by greatly increasing the standard of proof to apply for asylum (p. 23). I have previously written about how these changes will make it virtually impossible for asylum seekers who don’t already have attorneys waiting for them and evidence gathered to prove their claims to even apply for asylum. 
The worst enforcement provision is criminalizing simply being in the United States without status or violating any aspect of civil immigration law (p. 170). This would turn millions of unauthorized immigrants into criminals overnight. It would also criminalize legal immigrants who fail to update their addresses, carry their green card with them at all times, or otherwise abide by the million inane regulations that Congress imposes on them. Take, for example, the status provided to Dreamers in this bill. It requires them to maintain an annual income of at least 125 percent of the poverty line (p. 396). If they fall below that level for 90 days—not only are they subject to deportation again—they would be criminals. This bill literally criminalizes poverty among Dreamers. This legislation would immediately undo much of the progress that the Feds have made on criminal justice reform and reducing its prison population
Several other security provisions are also problematic. Mandatory E-Verify (p. 87) will impose massive regulatory costs on small businesses, establish a federal national identification system that includes all U.S. workers, and cause hundreds of thousands of Americans to have their jobs delayed or lost entirely due to database errors—all while having a track record of failure in every state that has tried to use it to prevent illegal employment. My detailed comments on this specific E-Verify proposal are here
Biometric exit (p. 356) is a multi-billion dollar boondoggle that would add absolutely nothing to security while imposing huge costs of travelers and intruding into Americans privacy. Increasing the number of Border Patrol agents by 25% at a time when each agent is already catching less than two crossers per month makes no sense (p. 319). Authorizing states to use the National Guard along the border on the U.S. taxpayer dime is another provenwaste of money (p. 286)—even Border Patrol says so
The bill authorizes spending of $124 billion over five years on border security alone (p. 348). The bill makes little effort to find a means to pay for this gargantuan sum. For comparison, the entire Border Patrol budget last year was $3.8 billion
Republicans are essentially asking Democrats to trade the legalization of 700,000 unauthorized immigrants for the criminalization of all others, banning 2.6 million legal immigrants over the next decade, the elimination of almost all family sponsorship preference categories and the diversity visa lottery, deporting tens of thousands of asylum seekers, huge increases in border security spending, a massive new regulatory program that applies to every employee and employer in the country (“E-Verify”), and so much else. This bill has no chance of becoming law, but it is a remarkable illustration of how far apart the parties are on this issue.

I disagree with Bier on that last part.  Republicans could make this bill law in days if they wanted to.  There's nothing stopping Mitch McConnell from ending the filibuster and passing this in the House and Senate and putting it on Trump's desk other than will.

They still might tie this thing to must-pass budget or debt bills.  Who knows at this point anymore.

But understand that Republicans want to criminalize and deport millions, maybe tens of millions.  They are looking for a way to do it, and they keep moving to put the infrastructure they will need to do it in place.

Jared, The Galleria Of Crime

The Trump money laundering empire doesn't just involve Russian money, as two stories involving Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner hit yesterday, buried under the government shutdown fight.  First, Kushner is the point man behind the Trump organization's Chinese financial ties. And once again the focus is on a foreign ambassador to the US, in this case China's chief diplomat in America, Cui Tiankai, and Rupert Murdoch's ex-wife, Wendi Deng Murdoch.

By the spring of 2017, investigators in charge of evaluating whether to give Kushner a permanent security clearance had new information to consider. U.S. intelligence agencies aggressively target Chinese government communications, including Cui’s reports to Beijing about his meetings in the United States.

According to current and former officials briefed on U.S. intelligence about Chinese communications, Chinese officials said that Cui and Kushner, in meetings to prepare for the summit at Mar-a-Lago, discussed Kushner’s business interests along with policy. Some intelligence officials became concerned that the Chinese government was seeking to use business inducements to influence Kushner’s views. The intelligence wasn’t conclusive, according to those briefed on the matter. “I never saw any indication that it was successful,” a former senior official said, of Chinese efforts to compromise Kushner. The Chinese could have mischaracterized their discussions with Kushner. But the intelligence reports triggered alarms that Chinese officials were attempting to exploit Kushner’s close relationship with the President, which could yield benefits over time. “They’re in it for the long haul,” the former official said. (A spokesman for Kushner said, “There was never a time—never—that Mr. Kushner spoke to any foreign officials, in the campaign, transition, and in the Administration, about any personal or family business. He was scrupulous in this regard.”)

In March, 2017, Bill Priestap, the F.B.I.’s chief of counterintelligence, visited the White House and briefed Kushner about the danger of foreign-influence operations, according to three officials familiar with the meeting. Priestap told Kushner that he was among the top intelligence targets worldwide, and was being targeted not only by China but by every other major intelligence service as well, including those of the Russians and the Israelis. Priestap said that foreign spy agencies could use diplomats and spies masquerading as students and journalists to collect information about him. (An F.B.I. spokesperson declined to comment.)

Priestap and Kushner discussed some of Kushner’s contacts, including Wendi Deng Murdoch, the ex-wife of Rupert Murdoch. Kushner and Ivanka Trump had known her for about a decade, and she was a regular guest at their Washington home. U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials have long speculated about Wendi Murdoch’s ties to the Chinese government. Internally, some Chinese officials spoke about her in ways that suggested they had influence over her, the former senior official, who was briefed on the intelligence, said. Other officials said that the intelligence was inconclusive.

The allegations against Wendi Murdoch are complicated by her divorce from Rupert Murdoch. On January 15th, some of the allegations were published in the Wall Street Journal, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch. (A spokesperson for Wendi Murdoch said, “The idea that she is involved in anything covert is so absurd, it could only have come from an unnamed source.” A spokesperson for Rupert Murdoch said that Murdoch does not believe Wendi is a spy.)

When Kushner was briefed by the F.B.I., he saw little cause for alarm, according to a person close to Kushner. He had no doubt that China and other countries were trying to persuade him to do things or to provide information, but he was, despite his inexperience in diplomacy and intelligence, confident in his ability to navigate these situations. After all, he told others, New York real estate is not “a baby’s business.”

Kushner thought he was smarter than the intelligence communities of both Russia and China.  Of course, he was wrong.  Not only does the FBI have Kushner in their sights, but so does Robert Mueller.  And Mueller just got a heap of new ammo to use in his fight from the Germans, who are cleaning house over at the Trumps' favorite European money laundering outfit, Deutsche Bank.

A German business magazine is reporting that Deutsche Bank, the German financial giant which is a major lender to both President Donald Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, identified “suspicious transactions” related to Kushner family accounts, and has reported them to German banking regulators. The bank is reportedly willing to provide the information to special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s team of investigators.

Manager Magazin, a respected German business magazine, reported in its latest print edition, which hit German newsstands on Friday, that Paul Achleitner, chairman of Deutsche Bank’s board, had the bank conduct an internal investigation and the results were troubling. Those results have been turned over to the Federal Financial Supervisory Authority—Germany’s bank regulatory agency, which is commonly known as BaFin.

“Achleitner’s internal detectives were embarrassed to deliver their interim report regarding real estate tycoon [Jared] Kushner to the financial regulator BaFin,” the Manager Magazin article, translated from German, reports. “Their finding: There are indications that Donald Trump’s son-in-law or persons or companies close to him could have channeled suspicious monies through Deutsche Bank as part of their business dealings.”

The magazine did not provide additional details about the “suspicious monies”, but Manager Magazin reports that Deutsche Bank’s leadership is worried about the public relations hit the bank might take when—not if—the results of the investigation are turned over to Mueller. “But what BaFin will do about [the bank’s findings] is not the bank’s greatest concern,” the article states. “Rather, it’s the noise that US special counsel Robert Mueller (73) will make in his pursuit of Trump. For he will likely obtain this information—a giant risk to [the bank’s] reputation.”

The article also claims that the investigation into Kushner and his family business is not over, and that internal technical issues are complicating the search, adding that “Achleitner simply doesn’t have a view of the whole picture.” Deutsche Bank did not respond to a request for comment, nor did Abbe Lowell, Kushner’s personal attorney.

If the report is true, it joins a flurry of efforts to unravel the Kushners’ financial dealings with the bank. In December, a German newspaper reported that Mueller had subpoenaed documents from Deutsche Bank —a report that Trump’s attorneys pushed back on. The bank is, by far, Trump’s largest creditor, having lent him more than $300 million in recent years through it’s private bank—a division that caters to wealthy clients and is sometimes willing to make loans that the commercial banking division won’t. The Trumps and Kushners relationship to Deutsche Bank is a particularly large conflict of interest, given the bank’s history of clashing with regulators—it has made several multi-billion dollar settlements with regulators in the US and Europe for its role in the LIBOR-rigging scandal and the 2008 mortgage crisis. It continues to be under investigation for its role in a possible money-laundering scheme that helped Russians evade sanctions and move money out of that country.

In other words,  Kushner's involvement in both the money laundering side and the political influence side of the Mueller investigation is as deep as it gets.  I wonder if he'll rat out his father to save his own neck?

Ahh, but we know Steve Bannon is cooperating with Mueller, so maybe Kushner's window has closed.  We'll see.  2018 is when Mueller closes in on the biggest scandal in US history.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Last Call For Shutdown Countdown

Senate vote to keep the government open failed.  Republicans couldn’t even get 50 votes from their own caucus to pass the House GOP bill, so a shutdown at his point seems inevitable. Five Democrats voted for the cloture measure: McCaskill, Heitkamp, Manchin, Donnelly and Doug Jones, but cloture needed 60 votes and Republicans Lindsey Graham, Mike Lee, Jeff Flake and (of course) Rand Paul voted against it.

GOP just shut down the government.


Just A Steel Clown Guy On A Saturday Night

Steel workers in the Rust Belt voted for Trump because of "economic anxiety" and whatnot, abandoning the Dems in the hope that The Donald would treat blue-collar union workers better than the black guy did a couple years ago.  Turns out that the steel industry lined up to be the among the first shafted by Trump's promises.

The president of the United Steelworkers union says the group is "terribly disappointed" with President Trump, who he says has done nothing to protect American jobs since taking office last January.

In an interview with CNN, United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard said that American workers are in some ways worse off now than they were just a year ago.

"We're terribly disappointed and hugely frustrated," Gerard told CNN. "There's been no action that has done anything to protect and defend American jobs. ... In some cases we're worse off now than we were then."Chief among Gerard's concerns is the Trump administration's investigation, announced last April, into steel and aluminum imports from China and other countries suspected of violating trade practices.

At the time, Trump called the investigation “a historic day for American steel and, most importantly, for American steelworkers," and predicted that his administration would take action stemming from the investigation by the summer. So far, no action has been taken.

Part of the Trump administration's dialing back of pressure on China has been due to North Korean aggression, which Trump hopes China will help the U.S. solve.

To recap, Trump's stupid belligerence only made things worse with North Korea, and then Trump screwed over US steelworkers to make China happy so that they would agree to help him clean up his mess with Pyongyang.

But hey Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio, this is the guy you voted for, who would save US steel jobs because the Democrats were too busy helping those people and not you.  Well, guess what?  Trump always screws over the people he works with, and we warned you that would happen.  You didn't listen, because you hated Hillary more than you loved common sense.

Now you've been sacrificed on the altar of political expediency in under a year.

Still think he'll make your America great again?

The Next Flipping Point

Republican Tim Murphy resigned from the House late last year after an ugly scandal involving multiple affairs and an abortion and the special election to replace him is the next major political contest in 2018 and it's one the Democrats can definitely win.

After a shocking win in a rural Wisconsin senate race Tuesday, Democrats are feeling increasingly bullish they can win another target deep in Trump territory, flip their first House seat since Trump’s 2016 victory and strike fear into the hearts of Republicans across the country. 
Their target: a blue-collar southwestern Pennsylvania House seat recently vacated by disgraced former Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA) in territory national Democrats haven’t seriously contested this decade.

Strategists in both parties see a surprisingly close race developing in the district ahead of the March 13 special election. After some major investments, Republicans are pulling out the big guns on Thursday: A visit from President Trump himself, who will hold an official event on the district’s edges where he’s expected to boost the Republican candidate. 
“Clearly there’s a lot of intensity and energy on the Democratic side and they’ve outperformed their recent numbers in other special elections. We’ve got to take this very, very seriously,” Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) told TPM. “I do think we are taking this seriously and I think we’re going to win, but we’re not going to be asleep at the switch.” 
Republicans know a loss in this deep-red, blue-collar district after blowing an Alabama Senate race, getting crushed in Virginia’s gubernatorial race and losing more than 30 statehouse seats in the past year would further alarm their party — and be a sign that the 2018 Democratic wave might be large enough to drown some members who never thought they’d even need to swim. 
If we lost that race, it’d be quite an earthquake. I don’t know if I’d say on the scale of Alabama, but it’d be close,” one Pennsylvania Republican congressman told TPM.
Republicans have reason for concern.

Democrats have landed a top-notch recruit in Conor Lamb, a 33-year-old former Marine and federal prosecutor whose family is a Democratic powerhouse in the Pittsburgh area. Republicans have by their own account nominated a somewhat lackluster candidate, dubbed “not Jack Kennedy” by one national Republican. State Rep. Rick Saccone (R) is a conservative firebrand who’s known as a weak fundraiser. 
That matchup, paired with white-hot opposition to the president from the left, has created a single-digit race, according to private polling from both sides. And while Democrats admit it’s an uphill battle in the GOP-friendly district, they’re feeling bullish that they can pull off an upset that would prove they can win in rural, populist terrain. 
“I think he’s going to win,” Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) told TPM Monday night, calling it “a very strong indicator of a good year” for Democrats that the race is competitive.

I think Conor Lamb has an excellent chance, and the reason why is Trump's absolute failure in Steel Country.  The GOP isn't taking chances after Tuesday's disaster and Roy Moore's crash and burn.  They think Trump will help, so Trump will be on the road "helping" them.

More on Steel Country this afternoon. Trump is very vulnerable there and it's why he wants to scrap NAFTA.


Thursday, January 18, 2018

Last Call For Russian To Judgment, Con't

The FBI is investigating whether a top Russian banker with ties to the Kremlin illegally funneled money to the National Rifle Association to help Donald Trump win the presidency, two sources familiar with the matter have told McClatchy
FBI counterintelligence investigators have focused on the activities of Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of Russia’s central bank who is known for his close relationships with both Russian President Vladimir Putin and the NRA, the sources said. 
It is illegal to use foreign money to influence federal elections. 
It’s unclear how long the Torshin inquiry has been ongoing, but the news comes as Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s sweeping investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, including whether the Kremlin colluded with Trump’s campaign, has been heating up. 
All of the sources spoke on condition of anonymity because Mueller’s investigation is confidential and mostly involves classified information. 
A spokesman for Mueller’s office declined comment.

You have to admit, Russians funneling money to Trump through the NRA is about the maximum GOP in GOP scandal. And this isn't the first time Alexander Torshin's name has come up in the Russian collusion investigation, either.

Allegations of collusion continued to pile up against Donald Trump Jr. this week, with the New York Times reporting Friday that the first son went to a May 2016 dinner attended by a top Russian official who was trying to set up a covert meeting with the campaign.

NBC News confirmed Saturday that Donald Trump Jr. talked with Alexander Torshin, a friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the deputy head of the country's central bank, at an event hosted by the National Rifle Association in Kentucky. But the first son's lawyer insisted the duo didn't sit together.

Don Jr. met with Torshin at an NRA event in 2016 right here in Kentucky.  Hmmm.  Jared Kushner is linked to the same NRA event too.

President Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, failed to disclose what lawmakers called a "Russian backdoor overture and dinner invite" involving a banker who has been accused of links to Russian organized crime, three sources familiar with the matter told NBC News. 
An email chain described Aleksander Torshin, a former senator and deputy head of Russia's central bank who is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, as wanting Trump to attend an event on the sidelines of a National Rifle Association convention in Louisville, Kentucky, in May 2016, the sources said. The email also suggests Torshin was seeking to meet with a high-level Trump campaign official during the convention, and that he may have had a message for Trump from Putin, the sources said.

Torshin has quite the reputation internationally, it turns out.  He's been in Washington DC a lot, lately, like the time he tried to meet Trump himself at the National Prayer Breakfast last spring.

The leader of the delegation, central bank Deputy Chairman Alexander Torshin, a former senator who laughs off Spanish claims that he’s a crime boss, was even hoping to shake hands with Trump, an old acquaintance. But the White House nixed the meet-and-greet at the last minute without explanation, according to two Russians familiar with the matter. 
The brief meeting Torshin was due to have with Trump was canceled after a White House aide realized the Russian had been suspected of being a mafia “godfather,” Yahoo News reported, citing five people it didn’t identify. 
The White House said a meeting with Torshin at the National Prayer Breakfast was never on Trump’s agenda. 
Torshin declined to elaborate on his trip, saying only that he’s been to the annual event 12 times. In an interview with Bloomberg last year, the gun enthusiast said he’s known Trump for five years and the two men last had a jovial exchange at the National Rifle Association convention in Tennessee in 2015, just before the future president announced his run for the White House.

Spanish cops pretty much know he's a mobbed up, and rather deep.

On February 1, Alexander Porfirievich Torshin, 63, a Russian politician and banker who is close to Vladimir Putin and whom the Spanish anti-corruption prosecutor and the Civil Guard define in their reports as a godfather from a notorious Russian mafia organization, had in his diary for the next day an appointment to meet in Washington with the world’s most powerful man: Donald Trump. The encounter was due to take place before an official and well-attended breakfast meeting, which Torshin attended as the head of a Russian delegation. The meeting was canceled that very night, according to sources from the White House, given the wave of criticism in the US press related to the influence of certain Russian circles in President Trump’s power teams. But the information reveals the heights to which this person, who has been investigated by the Spanish authorities, had reached in his rise to the upper echelons of the American leader’s circle.

Now the FBI is investigating Torshin and any illegal campaign contributions he may have made to the NRA.  Better believe Mueller knows far more about this subject than the story lets on, too.

Stay tuned.

Shutdown Countdown, Con't

There seems to be little chance that parts of the US federal government will be operating on Saturday. House Republicans can't get their act together, Senate Republicans don't have the votes either, and Trump is all over the place on what he may or may not do, calling the current proposal "horrible" and saying he won't sign it.

President Donald Trump on Wednesday aligned himself solidly with conservative Republicans on immigration, criticizing a proposed bipartisan deal as “horrible” on U.S. border security and “very, very weak” on reforms for the legal immigration system.

The Senate proposal - aimed at addressing Democrats’ demands for protections for young adults brought to the United States illegally as children and dubbed “Dreamers” - fell far short of what most Republicans believe needs to happen, the president said.

“It’s the opposite of what I campaigned for,” Trump told Reuters in an interview.

The plan was presented to Trump last week by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and Democratic Senator Dick Durbin.

Trump drew international condemnation after reports emerged that he had questioned the value of taking immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean nation of Haiti during a closed-door meeting with lawmakers at the White House last Thursday, referring to them as “shithole” countries.

Trump has denied using that word. Trump in the interview on Wednesday declined to say what specific words he used.

“I‘m not going to get into what I said, but I will tell you, it was a tough meeting,” Trump said.

Many Democrats have said they will not vote for spending legislation to keep the federal government funded past a Friday deadline without an immigration deal, and Republicans will need at least some Democratic votes to pass the funding extension in the Senate.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus met with White House Chief of Staff John Kelly to try to help a deal along, but Kelly basically told them to go make tortillas or something, and it did not go well.

In a sign of the new low bar set for policy talks in Washington, several members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus insisted to TPM that their meeting with Kelly never became heated or devolved into profanity. But neither did it give them a clear path forward on eleventh-hour negotiations around the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

“The problem is not the ability to have a cordial conversation, the problem is having a substantive conversation where we learn what the administration wants in return for saving the DREAMers,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) complained in Spanish as he exited the meaning. “I didn’t get a sense that the administration has a clear bottom line.”

Menendez added that, while unclear, the White House’s demands seemed to be “way beyond” what is realistic.

“What they want in return [for DACA] is a continuously moving target, and it continuously expands,” he said, in English. “Interior enforcement, more border patrol, a wall, asylum reform—these are the type of things we talked about for a comprehensive immigration package that covered broader 11 million undocumented people. The administration continues to seem to want everything Democrats were willing to give in the process of considering comprehensive reform just for these 700,000 young people [under DACA]. But holding them hostage to that type of view is simply not acceptable.”

In the meeting, members said, they pushed Kelly to narrow the scope of a deal, putting aside the President’s previous demandsfor terminating the diversity lottery visa program and for dramatically cutting back on family reunification programs, and focusing instead just on DACA paired with some form of border security. Kelly did not agree to this framework, the lawmakers said, though he “listened respectfully.”

At this point, Trump doesn't even know what Trump wants, so there's not going to be a deal until somebody talks the old man into it.

Meanwhile come Monday a lot of Americans are going to suffer most likely.  There's still a possibility that we could go through a short-term punt into next month, but at this point who knows.

Spiking The Storm

So the story broke over the weekend (from the Wall Street Journal, no less) that Donald Trump allegedly had an affair with a porn star named Stormy Daniels in 2016, allegations that probably would have made a difference in the election.  Affairs aren't illegal (and certainly aren't anything new in politics) but Daniels alleges that Trump's lawyers payed her a pretty large sum of money ($130,000) to keep quiet about the affair ahead of the election, which makes this a much larger deal.

This story gets a whole lot worse as it turns out news outlets knew about the affair and the payoff, and spiked the story.  And of course the biggest news outlet that knew was FOX News.

Fox News had a story at the height of the presidential election that detailed an alleged sexual relationship between porn actress Stephanie Clifford -- whose stage name is "Stormy Daniels" -- and Donald Trump, but opted not to publish it, four people familiar with the matter told CNN. 
The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that Trump attorney Michael Cohen had arranged a $130,000 payment to keep Clifford silent about the alleged relationship in October 2016. Cohen, Clifford, and the White House denied the report. 
The allegation of a relationship was no secret to Fox News, though. 
One of the network's reporters, Diana Falzone, had filed a story in October 2016 about an alleged sexual relationship between Clifford and Trump, people familiar with the matter said. 
Falzone had an on-the-record statement from Clifford's manager at the time, Gina Rodriguez, confirming that her client had engaged in a sexual relationship with Trump, three of these people said, and Falzone had even seen emails about a settlement. 
But the story never saw the light of the day, to the frustration of Falzone, two of the people said. 
"She had the story and Fox killed it," one of the people familiar with the matter told CNN
Falzone is a reporter for Fox News who frequently covers celebrity news and issues related to sexual harassment. She filed a lawsuit against the network in May 2017 alleging gender discrimination. Fox News has denied her allegations and the case is ongoing.

It gets worse.  Falzone wasn't the only reporter who tracked this story down.  Slate's Jacob Weisberg fully admits he followed this story before the election.

Daniels said she was talking to me and sharing these details because Trump was stalling on finalizing the confidentiality agreement and paying her. Given her experience with Trump, she suspected he would stall her until after the election, and then refuse to sign or pay up. 
As an alternative to being paid for her silence, Daniels wanted to be paid for her story. She thought it might come out anyway, as one version did on the website the Smoking Gun in October 2016. (The site reported the allegation that Trump and Daniels had an affair, not that they had negotiated a settlement.) Daniels said she wanted, in her words, something to show for her experience. Another motivation to go public, she said, was her anger about Trump’s newfound opposition to abortion and gay marriage. 
I told Daniels that Slate did not pay sources but encouraged her to come forward without compensation. I proposed interviewing her on Trumpcast and writing her story. She never said yes and never said no. Late in the discussion, I asked a Slate colleague to help me verify her account. We both spoke to Daniels and to Gina Rodriguez, a former porn actress turned agent, who Daniels was using to negotiate with media organizations. I gathered that Daniels was also discussing going public on Good Morning America. At one point she considered holding a press conference in Dallas, where she lives. 
And then, about a week before the election, Daniels stopped responding to calls and text messages. A friend of hers told me Daniels had said she’d taken the money from Trump after all. I considered publishing the story without her cooperation. After all, she had never said anything was off the record. But if I did so, she would presumably disavow what she had told me, and the only people I had corroborating her story were sources Daniels herself had pointed me to. For the most important aspect of the story—the contract for her silence—I also lacked independent corroboration
Around the time Daniels went silent, the Wall Street Journal ran a piece headlined “National Enquirer Shielded Donald Trump From Playboy Model’s Affair Allegation.” That story, which was published four days before Election Day, revealed that American Media—whose CEO is Trump’s friend David Pecker—had seemingly paid Karen McDougal $150,000 for her silence. For any other politician, a scandal like this would be career-ending. But in the run-up to the election, the Journal story had little impact.

So both FOX and Slate knew.  If Daniels was actively shopping her story, it's possible other news outlets knew about the story too...but in every case it was spiked and lost in the noise.

Trump could have basically gotten away with anything in the election run up to November 2016.

And he did.  Our media helped him do just that.


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Last Call For The Blue Wave Rising, Con't

In 2017, Dems had mixed success in special elections in deep red areas of the country.  Yes, they managed to push back in places where Trump won by 10 or 20 points (or more) and come very close to winning, but Republicans could also say that the Dems couldn't seal the deal and that the GOP would merely suffer "traditional" midterm losses, not a 2010- or 2014-style midterm tsunami that would crush the GOP the way Dems hemorrhaged House, gubernatorial and state legislature seats in those years.  As bad as that would be for the GOP, they could console themselves with the notion of a lot of safe Republican seats that would still be above water when the wave crashed upon them in November.

That was at least the special election story before yesterday, when Republicans in Wisconsin promptly lost a state Senate seat in a district Trump won by 17 points.

Democrats snagged a GOP-leaning state Senate seat in western Wisconsin on Tuesday, buoying progressive hopes that they could ride a wave of victory this fall.

Patty Schachtner, the chief medical examiner for St. Croix County, will take the seat that had been held for 17 years by former Sen. Sheila Harsdorf (R-River Falls). Harsdorf stepped down in November to take a job as GOP Gov. Scott Walker's agriculture secretary. 
In an interview, Schachtner said she thought she beat state Rep. Adam Jarchow (R-Balsam Lake) because the race had turned nasty in mailings from groups outside the district. 
“It wasn’t nice. It was mean,” she said of the campaign literature. “People just said, ‘You know what? We’re nicer than that.’” 
In a post on Twitter, Jarchow said he had called Schachtner to congratulate her.
“I look forward to working with her as our new state Senator,” he wrote in his tweet. “Thank you to all who worked so hard for our campaign.”

Also Tuesday, in special elections for the state Assembly, voters in Washington County chose a Republican and voters in Racine County chose a Democrat, according to unofficial results.

But the focus Tuesday was on the 10th Senate District, which consists of parts of Burnett, Polk, St. Croix, Pierce and Dunn counties along Minnesota's border.

Schachtner's win gives Democrats momentum, but they remain deep in the minority. Once she is seated, Republican will hold an 18-14 advantage, with one district vacant. That seat belonged to Sen. Frank Lasee (R-De Pere), who joined Walker's administration last month, and won't be decided until November, when 17 of the state's 33 Senate districts are up for election.

This is a state legislature seat that never should have been in doubt in Scott Walker's red Wisconsin.  And nobody panicked faster than Walker himself.

Walker, who had tweeted earlier Tuesday urging residents of the 10th Senate district to get to the polls and vote for Republican Adam Jarchow, wrote online after the race had been decided that “Senate District 10 special election win by a Democrat is a wake up call for Republicans in Wisconsin” who must do a better job touting their record to voters. 
“WAKE UP CALL: Can’t presume that voters know we are getting positive things done in Wisconsin. Help us share the good news,” the governor wrote in a subsequent post, adding in two others that the state’s GOP also can’t presume voters are aware “that more people are working than ever before” and that “we invested more actual dollars into schools than ever before.”

It's only getting worse for the party of Trump and they know it.

Meanwhile In Bevinstan...

GOP Gov. Matt Bevin's austerity regime will come to fruition (or in this case, rot) in 2018 and voters here seem wholly uninterested in stopping him.  First, he finally dropped the other shoe on killing Medicaid expansion yesterday, taunting health advocacy groups who have promised to take him to court. Bevin says without blinking that he will take health care away from ten percent of the state if the courts dare find his new Medicaid work rules unconstitutional.

Gov. Matt Bevin has issued an executive order that would strip Medicaid coverage from nearly half a million Kentuckians should his proposed overhaul of the federal-state health plan be struck down in court. 
No one has filed a legal challenge to Bevin's changes to Kentucky's Medicaid program that federal authorities approved Friday. 
But several advocacy groups have said some of the changes — such as requiring some "able-bodied" adults to work or volunteer at least 20 hours a week — likely will be challenged in court because they violate federal law that establishes Medicaid purely as a health program and does not authorize work requirements. 
Advocates who criticized Bevin's overhaul of Kentucky's Medicaid program were also critical of the executive order he issued Friday, the same day the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services approved his plan to reshape Medicaid in Kentucky.

"Is the Governor of Kentucky saying that if he is caught doing something illegal, he will take health care away from hundreds of thousands of Kentuckians who have done nothing wrong?" asked Leonardo Cuello, director of health policy for the National Health Law Program. 
Cuello's Washington-based health advocacy group is considering a legal challenge to Bevin's plan.

Ahh, but if you think Bevin is bluffing, you should see his 2018 austerity budget proposal that cuts billions from education, infrastructure, and eliminates 70 social programs in the state over the next two years.

Gov. Matt Bevin on Tuesday night proposed a budget that he said would eliminate 70 state programs and cut spending at most agencies by 6.25 percent while fully funding state pension plans.

And the governor gave a high priority in the lean spending plan to the main public school funding program known as SEEK (Support Education Excellence in Kentucky), saying its funding will not be cut.

"The real budget focus this year is getting our financial house in order," Bevin told a joint meeting of the Kentucky House and Senate in an hourlong State of the Commonwealth and budget address.

The key step in doing that, he said, is by fully funding the hundreds of millions of dollars more that he said are needed by state retirement systems, which are $43 billion in debt.

Bevin's budget does not anticipate tax reform, but the governor said that issue remains a priority. He said if tax reform cannot pass in the current regular session, he will push that a special session later in the year.

In his speech, Bevin did not identify any of the 70 programs to be eliminated. He said they were "scattered throughout state government." A briefing released by his administration during the speech said the budget closes the state's film incentive program to new applicants.

He said the eliminations result in massive savings that minimized cuts to other parts of state government, where cuts much deeper than 6.25 percent were feared.

Some areas of the budget would get an increase, like social worker, adoption programs and opioid abuse prevention, but dozens of higher education, arts, teacher recruiting, agriculture, job training, scholarships, environmental, library aid, rural hospital and women's programs would be eliminated entirely, and of course the billions in cuts across the board for just about everything left.

And of course "tax reform" means Bevin wants to go the full Brownback and eliminate the state's income tax on businesses and put the tax burden squarely on workers with new sales and vice taxes.  It's Kansas all over again, only with a massive state pension problem hanging over everyone to boot. Not even Brownback wanted complete austerity, he just tried to wreck roads and schools.
If you're wondering what the post-Obama GOP austerity agenda looks like without Trump's ego mucking things up, Kentucky in 2018 is the place where you want to look.

Coming soon to a state near you if the GOP has its way.

It's Mueller Time, Con't

Yesterday former Trump strategist Steve Bannon blew off the House Intelligence Committee in his closed door meeting with them, prompting a subpoena which Bannon blew off again, citing executive privilege.  Today we know why: Bannon is already talking to Robert Mueller.

Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon broke some bad news to House investigators Tuesday, announcing that the White House had invoked executive privilege to keep him from answering many of their questions. 
But executive privilege—the president’s right to keep certain information from the public so he can have frank conversations with aides—will not keep Steve Bannon from sharing information with special counsel Robert Mueller’s team, according to a person familiar with the situation
Mueller will hear everything Bannon has to say,” said the source, who is familiar with Bannon’s thinking. 
During a closed-door hearing before the House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, Bannon reportedly told lawmakers that President Donald Trumphas invoked broad executive privilege for the purposes of congressional inquiries. Because of that, Bannon refused to answer committee members’ questions about what happened during the presidential transition and in the White House. 
This sweeping understanding of privilege will not effect what Bannon tells Mueller’s team, according to our source. (To be sure, Bannon isn’t known for being predictable, and it’s possible his team may still look for ways to dodge Mueller’s queries.) 
But it means he isn’t answering many of Congress’s questions. A source familiar with Bannon’s interview told The Daily Beast that despite the subpoena—issued by Devin Nunes, the typically Trump-friendly chairman of the committee—Bannon refused to answer questions about events that happened after Election Day.

And Bannon is talking to Mueller because Mueller hit Bannon with a grand jury subpoena last week.

FBI agents showed up at Steve Bannon’s Washington home last week intent on serving him with a subpoena to appear before a grand jury investigating possible ties between President Donald Trump's campaign and Russia, according to a source familiar with the proceedings. 
The agents were unaware at the time that Bannon had retained Washington lawyer William Burck just hours earlier, according to two people familiar with the events that took place on Jan. 9. Once redirected, the agents sent the order to Burck, who is also representing two other witnesses in the probe being led by special counsel Robert Mueller, a former director of the FBI. 
Bannon, who served as President Donald Trump’s chief strategist until he departed the White House in August, could end up being interviewed by Mueller’s team before the end of the month, according to one source who agreed to discuss the matter on the condition of anonymity.

Mueller is compelling Bannon to talk, period.  Bannon in turn is counting on three things:

  1. The info he has is valuable enough to Mueller to shop a deal.  Bannon is the closest member of Trump's inner circle yet to be hit by a grand jury subpoena.  Except that subpoena wasn't served, as Bannon decided to cooperate and agree to a Mueller interview instead.  It's possible that Bannon may try to screw Mueller, but I'm betting Mueller is holding some pretty powerful cards in order to compel Bannon to talk, and in turn, what Bannon knows is useful enough for Mueller not to just crush him immediately.
  2. He knows Devin Nunes won't hold him in contempt.  Dems may want to know what Bannon knows (and even some Republicans want to know that) but Devin Nunes isn't about to risk Trump's considerable wrath here.  Not only would that be political suicide, it would probably be legal suicide too, as Nunes has already recused himself from the Russian investigation and Bannon could have some very ugly revelations about Nunes's involvement.  Whether or not Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the committee, can find a way to hold Bannon in contempt, I don't know.  Schiff I think will defer to Mueller and with good reason.
  3. He doesn't want his testimony leaked, so he said nothing.  There's nothing to leak in a closed-door session if you don't say anything.  See number one up there.  Any bombshells that Bannon delivered yesterday would have been in today's paper, damaging his chances to cut a deal with Mueller.  Besides, anything he said yesterday would have absolutely gotten back to Trump, again, compromising the potential value of his information to Mueller.  Bannon's a sleazeball racist happy to put neo-Nazis and white supremacist assholes on his dance card all day, but he doesn't want to go to prison, and he needs something powerful in order to stay out.
So yeah, if Bannon is talking to Mueller, Trump knows he's in dire trouble.  Trump can shift blame on the Flynn and Manafort indictments, but if Mueller's got Bannon, Trump is done.

And Trump knows it.

[UPDATE] BuzzFeed just dropped this little firecracker.

Officials investigating the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election are scrutinizing newly uncovered financial transactions between the Russian government and people or businesses inside the United States. 
Records exclusively reviewed by BuzzFeed News also show years of Russian financial activity within the US that bankers and federal law enforcement officials deemed suspicious, raising concerns about how the Kremlin’s diplomats operated here long before the 2016 election. 
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team, charged with investigating Russian election interference and possible collusion by the Trump campaign, is examining these transactions and others by Russian diplomatic personnel, according to a US official with knowledge of the inquiry. The special counsel has broad authority to investigate “any matters” that “may arise” from his investigation, and the official said Mueller’s probe is following leads on suspicious Russian financial activity that may range far beyond the election.

 Stay tuned.
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