Sunday, July 22, 2018

Last Call For Supreme Misgivings

Just letting everybody know that there's yet another reason why Brett Kavanaugh shouldn't be confirmed as Justice Anthony Kennedy's replacement on the Supreme Court, and that's because he will destroy the checks and balances on the man who nominated him.

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh suggested several years ago that the unanimous high court ruling in 1974 that forced President Richard Nixon to turn over the Watergate tapes, leading to the end of his presidency, may have been wrongly decided
Kavanaugh was taking part in a roundtable discussion with other lawyers when he said at three different points that the decision in U.S. v. Nixon, which marked limits on a president’s ability to withhold information needed for a criminal prosecution, may have come out the wrong way. 
A 1999 magazine article about the roundtable was part of thousands of pages of documents that Kavanaugh has provided to the Senate Judiciary Committee as part of the confirmation process. The committee released the documents on Saturday. 
Kavanaugh’s belief in robust executive authority already is front and center in his nomination by President Donald Trump to replace the retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy. The issue could assume even greater importance if special counsel Robert Mueller seeks to force Trump to testify in the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. 
“But maybe Nixon was wrongly decided — heresy though it is to say so. Nixon took away the power of the president to control information in the executive branch by holding that the courts had power and jurisdiction to order the president to disclose information in response to a subpoena sought by a subordinate executive branch official.  That was a huge step with implications to this day that most people do not appreciate sufficiently...Maybe the tension of the time led to an erroneous decision,” Kavanaugh said in a transcript of the discussion that was published in the January-February 1999 issue of the Washington Lawyer. 
At another point in the discussion, Kavanaugh said the court might have been wise to stay out of the tapes dispute. “Should U.S. v. Nixon be overruled on the ground that the case was a nonjusticiable intrabranch dispute? Maybe so,” he said. 
Kavanaugh was among six lawyers who took part in the discussion in the aftermath of independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s investigation that led to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. Kavanaugh had been a member of Starr’s team. 
The discussion was focused on the privacy of discussions between government lawyers and their clients. 
Philip Lacovara, who argued the Watergate tapes case against Nixon and moderated the discussion, said Kavanaugh has long believed in a strong presidency. “That was Brett staking out what has been his basic jurisprudential approach since law school,” Lacovara said in a telephone interview Saturday. 
Still, Lacovara said, “it was surprising even as of 1999 that the unanimous decision in the Nixon tapes case might have been wrongly decided.”

Trump is trying to appoint someone who will almost certainly rule in his favor on his multiple Constitutional abuses.  Trump remains under investigation.  Under no circumstances should this nomination move forward while that is the case.

Whether or not Democrats are willing to do what is needed to stop Kavanaugh will determine where this country is in a few short years.

If we still have one.

Russian To Judgment, Con't

It was only a matter of time before news organizations started digging up the travel agenda of accused Russian agent Maria Butina, currently under arrest and federal indictment for, among other things, being the conduit between her Moscow boss Alexander Torshin and the NRA and GOP, but Butina was everywhere, and we're just now starting to learn who else she was involved with.

Accused Russian agent Maria Butina had wider high-level contacts in Washington than previously known, taking part in 2015 meetings between a visiting Russian official and two senior officials at the U.S. Federal Reserve and Treasury Department.

The meetings, revealed by several people familiar with the sessions and a report from a Washington think tank that arranged them, involved Stanley Fischer, Fed vice chairman at the time, and Nathan Sheets, then Treasury undersecretary for international affairs.

Butina traveled to the United States in April 2015 with Alexander Torshin, then the Russian Central Bank deputy governor, and they took part in separate meetings with Fischer and Sheets to discuss U.S.-Russian economic relations during Democratic former President Barack Obama’s administration.

The two meetings, which have not been previously reported, reveal a wider circle of high-powered connections that Butina sought to cultivate with American political leaders and special interest groups.

The meetings with Fischer and Sheets were arranged by the Center for the National Interest, a Washington foreign policy think tank that often advocates pro-Russia views.

The meetings were documented in a Center for the National Interest report seen by Reuters that outlined its Russia-related activities from 2013 to 2015. The report described the meetings as helping bring together “leading figures from the financial institutions of the United States and Russia.”

Not a good look, but it seems the Treasury Department and Fed meetings were an excuse to be in town for the real deal arranged by the Center for National Interest.  And again, the time frame shows this was a long-term operation.

During the same trip, Torshin and Butina also participated in a private “off the record” discussion at the center about the “Russian financial situation and its impact on Russian politics,” according to people familiar with the meeting and the think tank’s report. That event was moderated by the group’s chairman emeritus, former AIG CEO Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, the report showed. Greenberg did not return calls for comment.

Among the think tank’s board members is David Keene, a former NRA president and former chairman of the American Conservative Union. Keene has previously been photographed alongside Butina at events.

Paul Saunders, the think tank’s executive director, said Torshin spoke at an April 2015 event about the Russian banking system and Butina attended. Saunders said people at the organization cannot recall details of Torshin’s presentation.

“We were unaware of any charges or suspicions of illegal or inappropriate conduct or of any connections to Russian intelligence services,” Saunders said in an email.

Prosecutors said the think tank’s magazine published an article by Butina in June 2015 in which she said “certain U.S. politicians and Russians share many common interests.”

Randy Weber, a Republican U.S. congressman from Texas, also met with Torshin during the April trip, according to the think tank’s documents. A spokeswoman for Weber did not respond to multiple calls or emails seeking comment.

But it wasn't just Butina's contact with Americans that was disturbing, it was her contacts with prominent and wealthy Russians in America as well.

Maria Butina, the Russian woman charged in federal court lastweek with acting as an unregistered agent of her government,received financial support from Konstantin Nikolaev, a Russian billionaire with investments in U.S. energy and technology companies, according to a person familiar with testimony she gave Senate investigators
Butina told the Senate Intelligence Committee in April that Nikolaev provided funding for a gun rights group she represented, according to the person. A spokesman for Nikolaev confirmed that he was in contact with her as she was launching the pro-gun rights group in Russia between 2012 and 2014. He declined to confirm whether Nikolaev gave her financial support. 
Nikolaev’s fortune has been built largely through port and railroad investments in Russia. He also sits on the board of American Ethane, a Houston ethane company that was showcased by President Trump at an event in China last year, and is an investor in a Silicon Valley start-up
Nikolaev has never met Trump, according to his spokesman. 
However, Nikolaev’s son Andrey, who is studying in the United States, volunteered in the 2016 campaign in support of Trump’s candidacy, according a person familiar with his activities. Konstantin Nikolaev was spotted at the Trump International Hotel in Washington during Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, according to two people familiar with his presence. 
In a court filing last week, prosecutors said Butina’s emails and chat logs are full of references to a billionaire as the “funder” of her activities. They wrote that the billionaire is a “known Russian businessman with deep ties to the Russian Presidential Administration.” 
Prosecutors did not identify Butina’s funder by name but said he travels often to the United States and was listed by Forbes this year as having a net worth of $1.2 billion — which is the same as Nikolaev’s current listing.

A whole lot of people met Maria Butina over the last three years.  It's clear just how much of a keystone she was to this operation.

A whole lot of people are in trouble because of that.

A whole lot of people should be sweating prison right now.

Maria Butina, Carter Page, Paul Manafort, and Michael Flynn are just the beginning.

Stay tuned.

Sunday Long Read: The Last Blockbuster

Justin Heckert at The Ringer gives us the last days of the final three Blockbuster Video stores in Alaska, stores that went for eight years after their corporate home collapsed in 2010 after a double hurricane of Redbox and Netflix, in a land where renting videos and DVDs was king of the frontier.

It was hard to remember exactly what it had been like to rent a movie. What it felt like on a Friday or Saturday night, hoping all the copies in the NEW RELEASE section weren’t already gone. What it felt like to run into people, the serendipity of movie store as gathering spot, what it felt like to stand around the counter and listen to the banter of the staff, who knew each other’s tastes, and peccadillos. The slogans that were everywhere — MAKE IT A BLOCKBUSTER NIGHT! — on walls and the desks and dangling on string from the overhead tiles. It was hard to remember exactly how bright it was in Blockbuster, and just how big the stores were, and the gray-blue carpeting and that the walls were yellow-dull and they all looked pretty much the same. And that its membership cost nothing at all, that going there and getting a movie didn’t require an entry fee, like the internet. That even the video games had stickers, like it was a corporate mandate to slap them on everything: TO PLAY IS HUMAN. TO REWIND IS DIVINE. That children had a kind of feral autonomy unsupervised in the Family sections of the store. That it was fun to go just to … go, having no idea what to get; that it was OK not to have instant access to the previews of every movie, to make a choice by relying on instinct.

The general manager saw this phenomenon in Anchorage, Alaska. At the Blockbuster on Debarr Road, the busiest Blockbuster and the biggest of the three in the state, a store that had peaked years ago at $2 million in annual sales, one of the most popular stores in the country. A store that had thrived years after corporate went bankrupt in 2010. A store that had survived under the ownership of a man in Texas, made its sustenance in renting tons of New Releases, and TV series, and selling candy, and keeping late fees.

For the regular customers, of course, the residents, renting movies there hadn’t really changed; it was a continuous part of life — they dropped them off in the slot by the door, and used laminated cards, and argued about late fees like it was 1997. And tourists came, too, the tourists who dreamed about Alaska; the tourists who got out of their cabs and rental cars and could see the white panorama of the mountains just beyond the Blockbuster Video sign in that strip mall, who took selfies in the parking lot, the tourists who entered and stood inside the store almost breathless in the landscape of alphabetized physical media. The tourists whom Kevin Daymude watched with their mouths hanging open and the edges of their eyes puckering with tears.

“You get these stories … it’s amazing,” he said. “‘I had my first date at Blockbuster!’ Or, ‘I met someone at Blockbuster and married them; we hit it off with the same kind of movies.’”

Kevin was 55. He was not a fan of technology, or Netflix, a word he used like a slur. He’d worked for Blockbuster for 27 years. “I think technology has really hindered us,” he said. “Hindered our social skills. I mean, how many times you see on commercials, You don’t have to leave the comfort of your own home! Well, I’m sorry, I like to leave my home. I don’t want to sit there and do my shopping online.” Kevin was a former college defensive tackle, and he was bald and had huge forearms and he was tan. He wore slender, black-frame glasses, he had a trimmed silver beard, and in a store that was full of sounds — the beeping of the bar code scanners, the Disney movies playing overhead, the phones ringing, the cases snapping — the most memorable was the wheezing of his constant and almost habitual laugh: “Whoo, hahah, hehhehe!” Everything seemed to make him laugh, which made it fun to be in the store. He hated Redbox. Redbox? “It’s a vending machine,” he said. “Hoo-hehh, heah! Think about it.”

“When I have someone come in and say, ‘Kevin, do you know anything about John Wayne?’ and I say, ‘Well, YEAH, I’m a John Wayne fanatic,’ I mean, that happens. All. The. TIME! Hooehee-hah!”

The assistant manager, Danielle Provence, nicknamed Dani, kind of a badass behind the counter, was great at remembering whether the store had certain movies in stock, and rolled her own cigarettes. She was 24 and took classes at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She said to him, “Do you know why the Scarecrow won an Academy Award?”

“Wizard of Oz?” Kevin asked.

“Ha! No … it’s because he was out standing in his field.”

At this Kevin bellowed, took his glasses off, and said, “Shut uuuup, hehahah!”

“That guy who was just [here], he does the cleanest jokes,” she said. “I love that guy. … That’s his thing! He likes clean ones. They’re hilarious.”

“Oh my gosh, go away,” Kevin replied.

This type of interaction at a video store, this type of customer service, was a dying art, and was definitely not enough to keep the business going. That was the painful truth. No matter how many customers knew Dani and Kevin, or called themselves regulars, or came in to rent 15 individual discs of different TV series, time was running out.

“I gotta come and give Kevin hugs,” said Deb Day, 63, a lady wearing a ball cap who rolled up her sleeves to show vivid tattoos of snakes and flowers and birds on her arms. “Why do I come here? … I could probably find everything I ever wanted online. I was on Netflix for a while. I like coming here, though, because I got to know the people. … And so, when you don’t have this” — she waved her tatted arm around the store — “you really start cutting yourself off. I work with a lot of people who are younger than me, and they laugh at me. For being here. … ‘Why am I not streaming?’ and I tell them, I like being able to get in my car, come here, bitching to Kevin.”

The joke about Anchorage was that it was 10 years behind the Lower 48, like that’s how long it took for time to breach the barrier of the mountains. But the store was going to close and the joke about time no longer applied to the situation. The store was wondrous in its nostalgia, though, in its hum of movement and goings-on; so it was easy to feel the arguments skew in support of the past. Netflix, for example, didn’t have a bargain bin or a giant Yoda holding a cane, and it didn’t have Dani, and it didn’t have Kevin, guffawing about how he’d won Yoda in a contest years ago and put it on top of the Monster Energy drink cooler and swore he would sell it only if he could make 10 grand.

This Blockbuster had 26 copies of Black Panther, an entire shelf, which made the movie seem even bigger. And Toxic Waste–brand gummy bears. The movies in the Foreign section had all been carefully stickered with the tiny flag of the origin country, a nice personal touch. They had seven seasons of Ice Road Truckers. They had Richard Pryor … Here and Now and Road House 2. They had Critters 3 (with a tiny Leonardo DiCaprio!). They had a whole section of martial arts movies, and a Drama section that had faced the outside window so long — 28 years, in the sun — that all the white people on the covers of the DVDs had been blanched even whiter, so that they had almost disappeared. Many of the rental options had been out of print forever. And they had the most ridiculous item of all, the star of the show, Blockbuster’s last big draw, the item behind a glass case with bright lights shining on its leather, the thing people asked Kevin whether they could touch, and talk about, and take pictures with, the thing the local news had livestreamed on Facebook, that tourists and locals had asked Kevin to wear, that one person had offered him $20 to smell: Blockbuster in Anchorage had Russell Crowe’s used jockstrap from Cinderella Man.

It almost seems like these people were too good to be true, like they were a combination of Northern Exposure and Clerks.  But they ran these stores for year, the lived and breathed movies, and some of them were employed for almost three decades.  My generation grew up at Blockbuster.  Hell, I even worked there one summer twenty years ago.

But it's gone, officially gone.  It's not the end of the business though.  Family Video still has 700 locations across the country, mostly in the Ohio Valley, Midwest and the Carolinas.

Not in Alaska though.

The Good, The Bad, And The Shopping

GOP Sen. Rand Paul is in trouble again, this time over accusations by congressional watchdog CREW that he used donor money for personal expenses like lavish shopping trips to Europe.

Sen. Rand Paul spent hundreds of donor dollars on shopping trips and thousands on meals, travel and other expenses abroad, according to a report from nonpartisan watchdog groups released this week.

The spending was funneled through a political leadership committee, which are meant to enable lawmakers to donate to other political campaigns to secure leadership positions. But, according to the "All Expenses Paid" report, they're often used to fund "lavish lifestyles on their donors' dimes."

Paul, Kentucky's junior senator, spent $11,043 at restaurants in Italy and Malta last year through his leadership PAC, Reinventing a New Direction, according to the report.

In the same year, he spent $4,492 on limousine services in Rome and $1,904 on a hotel in Athens that boasts "breathtaking panoramic views."

His PAC, known as RAND PAC, also spent $337 on apparel at a Nebraska Men's Wearhouse, $438 on apparel at a shoe store on Madison Avenue in New York City, $201 at TJ Maxx and $1,575 at a restaurant in the Trump Hotel.

It's that last one that bothers me the most.  Paul has spent years growling about unethical spending like this, and the fact that he's just as crooked as his dad in unsurprising, it's just that he's an even worse liar about it.

In a statement sent Saturday, Paul defended his expenses, saying they were part of fundraising efforts for his leadership PAC

“This week I defended the President’s foreign policy against the establishment of both parties," Paul said. "I was rewarded with a left wing attack story about overseas spending. The truth is, I’m probably one of the only senators who has never traveled at taxpayer expense, and all trips taken were for fundraising and made money for RANDPAC.”

His expenses likely aren't against the law. They do, however, illustrate his use of political contributions for expenses that don't fall squarely in the realm of donations to other campaigns.

Paul is also highlighted in the report for his lower-than-average contributions to other candidates or committees. The report says less than 7 percent of his expenses over the past three election cycles have gone to others, according to figures from the Center for Responsive Politics. On average, 45 percent of lawmakers' leadership PAC spending goes toward such donations.

The Center for Responsive Politics shows that in the 2018 cycle, Paul's contributions to other candidates constitute 15.6 percent of spending from his leadership PAC.

The "All Expenses Paid" report, from Issue One and the Campaign Legal Center, both nonpartisan nonprofits, calls for changes to the leadership PAC fund regulations, arguing that such dollars are being abused with personal expenses by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

"Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have raised and spent millions from their leadership PACs. In doing so, they blur the lines between official and personal activity while schmoozing at venues far beyond the eyes, as well as the pocketbooks, of most of their constituents," the report said.

Of course, the Trump regime changed the rules on PACs this week, now advocacy groups don't have to disclose any donors at all as long as they can prove less than half of their expenses are going to political purposes.  You know, groups like the NRA.

Republicans are crooked as hell.  Yeah, Democrats do it too, but not to this extent.  And Trump just made it a lot easier to get away with.
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