It's that time of year again, where I extrapolate the future and mostly get it wrong, only this year the stakes are a lot higher if I'm off.
Thursday, December 31, 2020
The Manhattan District Attorney's Office has retained forensic accounting specialists to aid its criminal investigation of President Trump and his business operations, as prosecutors ramp up their scrutiny of his company's real estate transactions, according to people familiar with the matter.
District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. opened the investigation in 2018 to examine alleged hush-money payments made to two women who, during Trump’s first presidential campaign, claimed to have had affairs with him years earlier. The probe has since expanded, and now includes the Trump Organization's activities more broadly, said the people familiar with the matter. Vance’s office has suggested in court filings that bank, tax and insurance fraud are areas of exploration.
Vance has contracted with FTI Consulting to look for anomalies among a variety of property deals, and to advise the district attorney on whether the president’s company manipulated the value of certain assets to obtain favorable interest rates and tax breaks, according to a person with knowledge of the investigation who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because the matter remains highly sensitive. The probe is believed to encompass transactions spanning several years.
Spokesmen for Vance and FTI Consulting declined to comment.
Representatives for the Trump Organization did not respond to a request for comment. In the past, company officials have rejected the merits of Vance’s investigation, calling it politically motivated.
Headquartered in Washington, FTI provides a range of financial advisory services to clients worldwide in public and corporate sectors. “We provide the industry's most complete range of forensic, investigative, data analytic and litigation services,” according to a corporate brochure, which also noted FTI’s “extensive experience serving leading corporations, governments and law firms around the globe.”
The analysts hired by Vance probably have already reviewed various bank and mortgage records obtained from Trump’s company as part of the ongoing grand jury investigation, and they could be called on to testify about their findings should the district attorney eventually bring criminal charges, said the person familiar with the arrangement.
A significant number of Americans believe misinformation about the origins of the coronavirus and the recent presidential election, as well as conspiracy theories like QAnon, according to a new NPR/Ipsos poll.
Forty percent of respondents said they believe the coronavirus was made in a lab in China even though there is no evidence for this. Scientists say the virus was transmitted to humans from another species.
And one-third of Americans believe that voter fraud helped Joe Biden win the 2020 election, despite the fact that courts, election officials and the Justice Department have found no evidence of widespread fraud that could have changed the outcome.
The poll results add to mounting evidence that misinformation is gaining a foothold in American society and that conspiracy theories are going mainstream, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. This has raised concerns about how to get people to believe in a "baseline reality," said Chris Jackson, a pollster with Ipsos.
"Increasingly, people are willing to say and believe stuff that fits in with their view of how the world should be, even if it doesn't have any basis in reality or fact," Jackson said.
"What this poll really illustrates to me is how willing people are to believe things that are ludicrous because it fits in with a worldview that they want to believe."
1) Joe Biden defeats Donald Trump and becomes President. Yeah, this is a safe guess and a pretty likely outcome, but I think it's what will happen. Biden has been ahead in the primaries and leading in head-to-head matchups with Trump for all of 2019. I have to believe that Biden will win, but whether or not Trump concedes in 2021 is a question for 2021.
2) Trump will be acquitted in his Senate trial. I know, I know, next I'll tell you water is wet and the sun is made of burny stuff that is hot. But it'll happen, and it'll be a big reason why...
3) The Democrats will reclaim the Senate in 2020. Those votes to acquit are going to wreck vulnerable GOP senators like Susan Collins, Cory Gardner, Martha McSally and Thom Tillis, and I think they're going to lose. A 50-50 tie with Biden winning means Biden's VP is the tiebreaker and the Dems will prevail...unless Joe Manchin switches parties or something. That's why I'm predicting Dems get 51 or 52 seats with Iowa's Joni Ernst losing, Pat Roberts's open seat in Kansas getting picked up, and Doug Jones holding on.
Hold on this one until next week.
4) Democrats keep the House. Nancy Pelosi continues to outmaneuver the White House and I think high turnout in November will not only assure a Biden win, but a big House gain for Team Blue.
I'll take the win on this one,despite Dems losing a dozen seats.
5) The US Supreme Court will give states sweeping powers in rulings on abortion and discrimination. I don't want to be right on this one, but I forsee a huge hole being blown in Roe and another in the Civil Rights Act as SCOTUS will come down on the side of letting states make their own rules on abortion clinic access and LGBTQ discrimination, and by January 1, 2021 it's entirely possible that there will be a dozen states with no abortion clinics, and there will be no protections for sexual orientation or gender identity at the federal level.
This has not happened. Yet.
6) US Attorney General Bill Barr will announce indictments for James Comey and John Brennan. Trump has wanted these two heads for ages, and he's going to get them. The court fights are going to be bad, but Trump rounding up FBI folks for personal revenge will be the last straw for a lot of voters.
Nope, and Barr actually resigned rather than doing this.
7) The Dow Jones will end up under 25,000 by December 31. I don't think the recession will hit in 2020, but it'll definitely catch up to us next year. The global slowdown will be too much to overcome.
8) Marvel movies will not rule the box office in 2020. That's not to say parent company Disney won't have an incredible year again, with a pair of Pixar features (Onward, Soul), Harrison Ford starring in Call of the Wild based on the Jack London novel, and live action movies of Mulan and Jungle Cruise. But of the three Marvel properties, New Mutants, Black Widow, and Eternals, I only see Black Widow breaking half a billion.
9) Trump will finally get around to those pardons. He'll have nothing to lose once, well, he loses. Oh wait, he'll be headed for state cases against him and jail time, but in the meantime the pardons will be the least awful thing he does.
Boy did he ever turn pardons into a side business, full-on white-collar crime boss style.
10) And of course, ZVTS will make it through year 12. It'll be thanks to all of you who have stuck with me since the 2008 primary race and through 4 presidential contests.
Wednesday, December 30, 2020
President Trump has ended former President Obama's 12-year run as the most admired man in America, edging out his predecessor in the annual Gallup survey released Tuesday.
Eighteen percent of the survey's respondents named Trump as their most admired man, compared to 15 percent who named Obama and 6 percent who named President-elect Joe Biden. Three percent named National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci, while 2 percent chose Pope Francis.
Rounding out the top 10 were Tesla CEO Elon Musk, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James and the Dalai Lama, all of whom received 1 percent.
The sitting U.S. president has been named the pollster’s most-admired man in 60 out of 74 years, including all eight years of Obama’s presidency and every year of George W. Bush’s presidency except for 2008. Trump had finished second to Obama in 2017 and 2018.
The 2020 rankings are the 10th time Trump has ranked among the top 10. Before entering the political sphere, he made the list in 1988, 1989, 1990 and 2011. Biden made only his second appearance in the top 10 after making the list in 2018.
Among Republicans surveyed, 48 percent of respondents named Trump as their most admired man. No other public figure got more than 2 percent Republican support, according to Gallup. Among independents, both Obama and Trump received 11 percent support. Fauci was the choice of 5 percent of Democrats but just 1 percent of Republicans.
Louisiana Congressman-elect Luke Letlow died Tuesday at Ochsner LSU Health in Shreveport from complications of COVID-19.
Letlow, 41, was transferred from St. Francis Medical Center to the Ochsner LSU Health ICU on Dec. 23 and has been treated there since then.
Letlow is survived by his wife, Julia Barnhill Letlow, and two young children — Jeremiah, 3, and Jacqueline, 11 months.
"The family appreciates the numerous prayers and support over the past days but asks for privacy during this difficult and unexpected time," spokesman Andrew Bautsch said in a statement. "A statement from the family along with funeral arrangements will be announced at a later time."
Tuesday, December 29, 2020
Getting a cranky, stubborn President Trump to belatedly sign the COVID relief bill, after unemployment benefits had already lapsed, was like being a hostage negotiator, or defusing a bomb.
Driving the news: The deal was closed on a Sunday afternoon phone call with Trump, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy. "This is good," Trump finally said, an official familiar with the call told me. "I should sign this."
How it happened: Over many days, Mnuchin and McCarthy — aided by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who golfed with Trump in West Palm Beach on Friday — indulged the president's rants, told him there was great stuff in the bill, and gave him "wins" he could announce, even though they didn't change the bill.
Playing to his vanity, they invoked his legacy, and reminded him he didn't want to hurt people.They convinced the author of "The Art of the Deal" that he had shown himself to be a fighter, and that he had gotten all there was to get.
Trump's sweeteners, from his 8:15 p.m. statement: "[T]he House and Senate have agreed to focus strongly on the very substantial voter fraud which took place in the November 3 Presidential election."
"The Senate will start the process for a vote that increases checks to $2,000, repeals Section 230, and starts an investigation into voter fraud. Big Tech must not get protections of Section 230! Voter Fraud must be fixed! Much more money is coming. I will never give up my fight for the American people!"
Reality check ... Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who worked hard to understand Trump, told me: "It may be too late. Too late for him, too late for the economy, too late for Covid, and too late for the Georgia senators."
Monday, December 28, 2020
The Rev. Raphael G. Warnock and Jon Ossoff, the Democratic challengers in the Senate runoffs in Georgia, have each raised more than $100 million since October — enormous sums that surpassed their Republican opponents by a significant margin and underscored Democrats’ confidence after recent gains the party has made in the state and their hopes that they might capture the Senate.
The contests have drawn a surge of attention and investment from outside of Georgia, given the stakes, and the campaigning has only intensified in the final weeks before the runoff, which is scheduled for Jan. 5.
Senator David Perdue, one of the Republican incumbents, raised $68 million in the period between Oct. 15 and Dec. 16, according to reports to the Federal Election Commission made public on Thursday. Senator Kelly Loeffler, the other Republican, raised close to $64 million during that period.
Mr. Ossoff, who is running against Mr. Perdue, became the best-funded Senate candidate in history after pulling in $106.7 million, according to the filings, and Mr. Warnock, who is challenging Ms. Loeffler, has raised $103.3 million.
The Democrats’ haul was powered in large part by a flurry of smaller donations collected from across the country, filings show, with nearly half of the funds coming from people who donated less than $200.
For Mr. Perdue and Ms. Loeffler, the smaller donations accounted for less than 30 percent of what they raised.
Eight days out from Election Day in Georgia's crucial Senate runoff races, Democratic candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock are "sounding the alarm" about their ability to keep pace with GOP spending, calling for a "significant increase" in grassroots donations to prevent running out of money.
"To win this election in 8 days, we need to continue our historic efforts to turn out every single voter — but we won't be able to do that if our fundraising revenue continues to fall," Warnock campaign manager Jerid Kurtz and Ossoff campaign manager Ellen Foster wrote in a memo obtained by NBC News.
According to financial disclosure forms, Warnock and Ossoff both raised more than $100 million over the past two months, outraising their Republican opponents, Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, by a significant margin. But GOP outside groups are outspending Democratic groups.
"That means our Republican counterparts don't have to spend as much of their precious resources on TV and can invest in the area that is most important at this stage: direct voter contact," the memo states.
Sunday, December 27, 2020
In a city synonymous for half a decade with disaster, something remarkable happened in February 2019. A team of researchers reported that Flint’s homes—even the ones at the highest risk for undrinkable, lead-poisoned tap water—finally had clean water running through their pipes.
After years of painstaking cleanup and rebuilding, the study’s results were a sparkling capstone. Earlier tests already hinted at good news, and this one confirmed it: In the vast majority of such homes, lead levels were 5 parts per billion or better—far below even the strictest regulations in the country. Local news outlet MLive trumpeted the news, and Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality tacked it to their ongoing list of promising signs that indicated the city’s potable present and future.
But a few weeks later, another, equally remarkable thing happened. As part of a United Nations-sponsored “World Water Day” celebration, the City of Flint parked 12 semitrailers stacked with pallets of bottled water on the city’s street corners, offering them to any city resident who could show an ID. People flocked to the pickup locations. They lined up their cars and popped their trunks to collect cases of water to use in their homes—water in bottles, from somewhere else, that they actually trusted.
The wariness wasn’t out of ignorance. Equally wary was Jim Ananich, a lifelong Flint resident and outgoing leader of the Democratic minority in the Michigan State Senate. Ananich wasn’t in line that day, but he understands why people were.
“I can’t tell somebody they should trust [claims that the water is safe], because I don’t trust them—and I have more information than most people,” said Ananich. “Science and logic would tell me that it should be OK, but people have lied to me.”
For Americans who stopped following the Flint water crisis after its first few gritty chapters, it might come as a surprise how far the city has come: Today, after nearly $400 million in state and federal spending, Flint has secured a clean water source, distributed filters to all residents who want them, and laid modern, safe copper pipes to nearly every home in the city that needed them. Its water is as good as any city’s in Michigan. And to compensate its just under 95,000 people for the damage they’ve suffered—economically, medically and psychologically—the city and state reached a settlement in August that will pay nearly $650 million to Flint residents.
From an outside perspective, it sounds like a happy ending. For people who live in Flint, the story looks very different. After six years of lies, deliberate or not, a revolving door in a disempowered City Hall, and the dysfunction wrought by a high-profile, high-stakes recovery process, they find themselves still unable to trust either their water or the people telling them to drink it.
“The anger, the lack of trust, it’s all justified,” Ananich says.
The breakdown in trust is rooted not only in the water crisis itself, but its domino effect on state and local politics over the following years: a halting pipe-replacement program marked by accusations of graft; a criminal investigation into those responsible for the crisis that mysteriously “rebooted” and dropped charges against state officials; a city government still decimated by post-Great Recession, state-imposed austerity measures; a basic inability to believe what should be neutral facts.
Providing water and appropriating settlement funds are simple compared with the task the city now faces: convincing its residents not only that they have a future, but that they can trust their government to provide for their most basic of needs.
“We just want to live normally, and actually be able to drink the water that comes out of our tap safely, with no concerns,” said Melissa Mays, a vocal Flint water activist. “Like normal people.”
Saturday, December 26, 2020
Millions of Americans saw their jobless benefits expire on Saturday after U.S. President Donald Trump refused to sign into law a $2.3 trillion pandemic aid and spending package, protesting that it did not do enough to help everyday people.
Trump stunned Republicans and Democrats alike when he said this week he was unhappy with the massive bill, which provides $892 billion in badly needed coronavirus relief, including extending special unemployment benefits expiring on Dec. 26, and $1.4 trillion for normal government spending.
Without Trump’s signature, about 14 million people could lose those extra benefits, according to Labor Department data. A partial government shutdown will begin on Tuesday unless Congress can agree a stop-gap government funding bill before then.
After months of wrangling, Republicans and Democrats agreed to the package last weekend, with the support of the White House. Trump, who hands over power to Democratic President-elect Joe Biden on Jan. 20, did not object to terms of the deal before Congress voted it through on Monday night.
But since then he has complained that the bill gives too much money to special interests, cultural projects and foreign aid, while its one-time $600 stimulus checks to millions of struggling Americans were too small. He has demanded that be raised to $2,000.
“Why would politicians not want to give people $2,000, rather than only $600?...Give our people the money!” the billionaire president tweeted on Christmas Day, much of which he spent golfing at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida.
Many economists agree the bill’s aid is too low but say the immediate support is still welcome and necessary.
A source familiar with the situation said Trump’s objection to the bill caught many White House officials by surprise. While the outgoing president’s strategy for the bill remains unclear, he has not vetoed it and could still sign it in coming days.
If a Democrat Presidential Candidate had an Election Rigged & Stolen, with proof of such acts at a level never seen before, the Democrat Senators would consider it an act of war, and fight to the death. Mitch & the Republicans do NOTHING, just want to let it pass. NO FIGHT!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 26, 2020
Friday, December 25, 2020
Police say an explosion in downtown Nashville early Christmas morning that shattered storefronts and left at least three people hospitalized with noncritical injuries “appears to have been an intentional act.”
Authorities were called to the area around 6 a.m. local time to respond to a report of a suspicious vehicle outside the AT&T office building, the tallest skyscraper in the state, Metro Nashville Police Department spokesperson Don Aaron said in a morning news conference
After checking out the vehicle, the officer who responded “had reason to call our hazardous devices unit,” Aaron said.
The blast went off around 6:30 a.m. local time, according to police, smashing windows, signs and garage doors along a block in the city’s Arts District and sending a plume of bright orange flames into the sky.
President Donald Trump leaves the White House next month with the country more sharply divided than when he moved in and amid caustic assessments of his record in office, a new USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll finds.
Fifty percent of Americans now predict history will judge him as a "failed" president.
The survey, taken in the waning weeks of his administration, shows the risks of actions he is contemplating on his way out the door. Americans overwhelmingly say issuing a preemptive pardon for himself would be an abuse of presidential power, and an even bigger majority, including most Republicans, say he should attend President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration to demonstrate the peaceful transfer of power.
Trump hasn't announced whether he will attend the inauguration Jan. 20, and White House officials say he has been weighing pardons for himself and family members. On Tuesday, he issued 20 politically charged pardons and commutations, with more expected to follow. Much of his energy since the Nov. 3 election has been spent seeking ways to overturn the results, making allegations of widespread fraud.
"The last four years have been lacking in compassion and empathy, lacking in anything other than advancing the personal interests of President Trump and his friends and allies and family," said Babette Salus, 60, a retired attorney and Biden voter from Springfield, Illinois, who was among those surveyed. "There have probably been worse presidents, (but) I'm not sure there has been a worse one in my lifetime."
The poll of 1,000 registered voters Dec. 16-20 has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
Asked how history would judge Trump's presidency, 16% predict he will be seen as a great president, 13% as a good president, 16% as a fair president, and 50% as a failed president. Five percent are undecided.
Trump's ratings are more sharply negative than the ones Barack Obama, himself a controversial president, received when he left office four years ago. Then, a USA TODAY/Suffolk Poll found that half of Americans predicted history would view Obama in a positive light, with 18% calling him a great president and 32% a good one. Twenty-three percent called him a failed president.
Thursday, December 24, 2020
Alabama GOP Rep. Mo Brooks and fellow House conservatives met privately on Monday with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence as the lawmakers prepared to mount a long-shot bid in January to overturn the Electoral College results that made Joe Biden the official winner of the election.
The discussion focused on Trump's baseless claims and conspiracies that the election was stolen from him, participants said, and lawmakers emerged confident that there were would be a contingent of House and Senate Republicans who would join the effort and prompt a marathon debate on the floor on January 6 that would spill into January 7.
Pence's involvement in the meeting is significant because he will preside over the joint session of Congress that would count the electoral votes that day. Brooks said that Pence attended "different parts" of the meeting.
"I believe we have multiple senators and the question is not if but how many," Brooks said, something that would defy the wishes of Senate Republican leaders who are eager to move on and urging senators not to participate since doing so could force them to cast a politically toxic vote against Trump.
Brooks told CNN on Monday night that they would seek to challenge the election in at least six battleground states, saying he needs to coordinate "as many as 72" five-minute speeches that GOP lawmakers would make that day. "That's a significant task," he said.
The effort is doomed to fail but would create a spectacle that Senate GOP leaders want to avoid. And if a House member and a senator object to six states' results, it would lead to at least 12 hours of debate, in addition to the time for casting votes on each of the motions, potentially prolonging the fight until the next day.
Senate Majority Whip John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican, told CNN the House conservative effort is futile and urged Senate Republicans not to join the effort.
"I think the thing they got to remember is, it's not going anywhere. I mean in the Senate, it would go down like a shot dog. I just don't think it makes a lot of sense to put everybody through this when you know what the ultimate outcome is going to be," he said.
The White House meeting, Brooks said, was to discuss "how bad the voter fraud and election theft" was in November, even though such claims have been rejected by election officials and courts across the country.
Brooks said the meeting was attended by a "double digit" number of lawmakers, but he wouldn't say if senators were part of the meeting. Brooks said the group had a separate meeting with Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani. And the Alabama congressman also said he saw at the White House Sidney Powell, the attorney whose conspiracies about the election have prompted Trump's interest. But, he said, they didn't meet with her.
Other GOP lawmakers have also confirmed their attendance at the meeting, including Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar, who told CNN: "We talked about a lot of things."
Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert, a staunch Trump defender, said this when asked if Trump urged him to object to the election results at the meeting: "He didn't urge anything, he didn't need to, I've been planning on objecting all along."
Rep. Jody Hice, a Georgia Republican who attended the meeting, tweeted: "I will lead an objection to Georgia's electors on Jan 6."
Sources told CNN that other members were there, including Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, a prominent ally of the President who has been urging him to continue the battle.
While the House conservatives have virtually no chance at succeeding, it would put many Republicans in an awkward spot. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his top lieutenants have urged senators not to join House conservatives because they would then be forced to cast a vote that would make them choose between Trump and the will of the voters.
But several senators have not ruled out joining the effort, including Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Rand Paul of Kentucky. And Trump has heaped praise on Alabama's incoming senator, Tommy Tuberville, for signaling he'd object to the results.
Another incoming senator, Kansas Rep. Roger Marshall, wouldn't say if he would join House conservatives' effort to contest a state's election results. Marshall was a signatory on the House GOP's amicus brief backing the Texas suit seeking to invalidate votes across several battleground states that the Supreme Court rejected earlier this month.
In an audacious pre-Christmas round of pardons, President Trump granted clemency on Tuesday to two people who pleaded guilty in the special counsel’s Russia inquiry, four Blackwater guards convicted in connection with the killing of Iraqi civilians and three corrupt former Republican members of Congress.
It was a remarkable assertion of pardon power by a president who continues to dispute his loss in the election and might well be followed by other pardons in the weeks before he leaves office on Jan. 20.
Mr. Trump nullified more of the legal consequences of an investigation into his 2016 campaign that he long labeled a hoax. He granted clemency to contractors whose actions in Iraq set off an international uproar and helped turn public opinion further against the war there. And he pardoned three members of his party who had become high-profile examples of public corruption.
The 15 pardons and five commutations were made public by the White House in a statement on Tuesday evening. They appeared in many cases to have bypassed the traditional Justice Department review process — more than half of the cases did not meet the department’s standards for consideration — and reflected Mr. Trump’s long-held grudges about the Russia investigation, his instinct to side with members of the military accused of wrongdoing and his willingness to reward political allies.
Hundreds if not thousands of clemency seekers have been looking for avenues of influence to Mr. Trump as he weighs pardons before leaving office. The statement highlighted a number of prominent Republicans and Trump allies who had weighed in on behalf of those granted clemency. Among them were Pam Bondi, a former Florida attorney general and lobbyist who helped defend Mr. Trump during his impeachment, and Pete Hegseth, a Fox News commentator who has pushed for previous pardons of service members.
President Donald Trump on Wednesday evening announced 26 new pardons, including for longtime ally Roger Stone, former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner's father, Charles.
The pardons extend Trump's streak of wielding his clemency powers for criminals who are loyalists, well-connected or adjacent to his family. While all presidents issue controversial pardons at the end of their terms, Trump appears to be moving at a faster pace than his predecessors, demonstrating little inhibition at rewarding his friends and allies using one of the most unrestricted powers of his office.
The pardons of Manafort and Stone reward two of the most high-profile and widely condemned former advisers of the President, both of whom were indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller, went to trial and were convicted by juries of multiple crimes.
Manafort, who is serving home confinement, admitted his crimes and initially agreed to cooperate with Mueller then lied to prosecutors, while Stone never cooperated after lying to Congress to protect the President. Manafort spent close to two years in prison for bank and tax fraud, illegal foreign lobbying and witness tampering conspiracies before being released because of the Covid-19 pandemic, while Stone's sentence for obstruction of Congress and threatening a witness was commuted by Trump earlier this year days before he was set to surrender.
Charles Kushner, meanwhile, had been prosecuted by then-US Attorney for New Jersey Chris Christie in the early 2000s for tax evasion, witness tampering and illegal campaign contributions.
He eventually pleaded guilty to 16 counts of tax evasion, one count of retaliating against a federal witness -- his brother-in-law -- and another count of lying to the Federal Election Commission.
Christie in early 2019 went on to say that Charles Kushner committed "one of the most loathsome, disgusting crimes" he had prosecuted, referring to an elaborate revenge plot that the older Kushner hatched in 2003 in order to target his brother-in-law, William Schulder, a former employee turned witness for federal prosecutors in their case against Kushner.
As a part of the plot, Kushner hired a prostitute to lure Schulder into having sex in a Bridgewater, New Jersey, motel room as a hidden camera rolled.
A tape of the encounter was then sent to Kushner's sister and Schulder's wife, Esther. Ultimately, the intimidation stunt failed. The Schulders brought the video to prosecutors, who tracked down the woman and threatened her with arrest. She promptly turned on Kushner.
Also included in Trump's pardon list Wednesday evening is former California GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter's wife, Margaret, just one day after Trump granted Duncan Hunter a full pardon. Margaret Hunter had pleaded guilty last year to conspiring "knowingly and willingly" to convert campaign funds for personal use.
Beyond the high-profile pardons, Trump also pardoned more than 20 other individuals, including those who had pleaded guilty to various cyber crimes, firearm possession and mail fraud. He also commuted the sentences of three others.
Wednesday, December 23, 2020
The phone call took place on the morning of 14 December 2020; several hours before Bellingcat and its partners would publish their investigation into the Navalny poisoning. Legal and journalistic standards obliged the co-publishing partners to confront the main subjects of the investigation and offer them the right of reply.
Prior to offering these rights-of-reply, Alexey Navalny requested the opportunity to confront, by telephone, members of the FSB squad implicated in his poisoning. Bellingcat agreed and arranged for its representatives to be present during the calls, for the purpose of obtaining any additional information that might be exchanged.
The calls were made beginning at 4:30 am CET (6:30 am Moscow time) from a location in Germany, where Navalny has been recuperating since his poisoning. In order to increase the chance of his calls being answered by the FSB operatives, Navalny used an IP telephony application which permits the custom-setting of a caller ID. In this case, the number that was selected for ID spoofing was that of an FSB landline which, call records showed, had been in regular communication with several of the squad members.
In the initial calls, which were made to the key members of the FSB squad and chemical weapons scientists who had been in contact with them during the operation, Navalny introduced himself and asked why the respective person had agreed to be involved in a plot to kill him. The called parties did not reply and hung up, with the exception of one of the contacted chemical-weapons scientists: Oleg Demidov — who said he had Covid-19 and couldn’t talk.
In addition to calling most of the FSB operatives on his own behalf (and failing to get a response), Navalny decided to call two members of the FSB squad, Mikhail Shvets and Konstantin Kudryavtsev, by impersonating a senior security official. To both of these officers, Navalny introduced himself as a fictional character: Maxim Ustinov, an “aide to [Chairman of Russia’s Security Council] Nikolai Patrushev”. The premise of the call was that Navalny — playing the role of “Maxim Ustinov” — would ask the officers for an oral report on the reasons for the failure of the Navalny poisoning operation.
The first call — to Mikhail Shvets, a member of the squad who had tailed Navalny during his July 2020 trip to Kaliningrad — was unsuccessful. Shvets listened to Navalny’s introduction as “Maxim Ustinov” and replied “I know exactly who you are”, before hanging up.
The second and last call was to Konstantin Kudryavtsev — a member of the FSB team who had graduated from the Military Biological-Chemical Academy and then worked in the 42nd (biological warfare defense) Institute of the Ministry of Defense, before joining the FSB. As we reported, Kudryavtsev traveled to Omsk twice in the aftermath of the poisoning: once on 25 August and a second time on 2 October 2020. His phone records had also shown that just before and during the suspected time-range of the poisoning, he had been in regular communication with Col. Stanislav Makshakov, the direct commander of the FSB squad and deputy director of FSB’s Criminalistics Institute.
This call was successful. Kudryavtsev initially thought he was receiving a call from Artyom Troyanov (his first line upon answering the phone was “Artyom, greetings…”), an FSB officer who — in Kudryavtsev’s own words — uses that landline number. “Maxim”, the non-existent aide to Nikolay Patrushev, told him that his call was routed via the FSB phone exchange, which might explain why it appears as someone else’s number, and Kudryavtsev appeared to believe this.
“Maxim” told Kudryavtsev that his boss had requested an urgent report from all members of the FSB team involved with the Navalny operation due the enormous problems this operation has led to. (Kudryavtsev implied that he understood what these problems were, saying “I also watch TV and read the Internet”). Kudryavtsev was initially hesitant to talk on an open line, and said he was not informed about all aspects of the operation due to compartmentalizing of information on a need-to-know basis. From his own subsequent account, it appears he was primarily involved with the evidence clean-up following the poisoning attempt and not the poisoning itself. However, “Maxim” was able to convince Kudryavtsev that his presumed boss needs every team member’s personal assessment of the operation, and furthermore, that the call had been authorized by Gen. Vladimir Bogdanov, director of FSB’s Special Technology Department. The latter piece of information appeared to persuade Kudryavtsev, and he agreed to answer detailed questions from Alexey Navalny, acting as the fictitious “Maxim”. This phone call was made before any publication on the FSB squad and their link to the Navalny poisoning operation, and without any of the operatives being publicly named. Thus Kudryavtsev’s decision to open up and share top-secret details seemed to be swayed by the detailed, non-public knowledge “Maxim” appeared to have about the composition of the FSB team that was involved in the operation.
The call lasted for 49 minutes. Navalny did not break character until the end.
Tuesday, December 22, 2020
Democrats are getting out-advertised in the Georgia Senate runoffs thanks to a megadonor-funded blitz from GOP super PACs in the races that will decide control of the Senate.
Republicans hold an overall advertising advantage across the state, largely fueled by $86 million in outside spending supporting their candidates, compared to just $30 million spent by Democratic outside groups on TV advertising so far, according to AdImpact. Democratic candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock are hauling in record small-dollar cash, far ahead of GOP Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler — but not enough to own the airwaves.
Super PACs pay more per ad than candidates do, so Ossoff and Warnock have been able to blunt the GOP’s financial edge, especially in the Atlanta media market, where nearly two-thirds of people in the state reside. But GOP TV ads are running in much higher rotation in other markets, according to data from AdImpact, and the disparity has sparked concern among Democrats that the two campaigns aren’t getting enough help with control of the Senate on the line.
Interviews with a dozen Democratic strategists and donors outlined several key reasons why Republicans have been able to build an advertising advantage. There’s fatigue among Democrats’ biggest donors after pouring millions into the 2020 general election, as well as mild skepticism that Ossoff and Warnock can actually win.
“[Donors] say, ‘I’m tired,’ they say, ‘I’m spending on ground game,’ … and lastly, they say, ‘I don’t think [Democrats] are going to win,’ even though they don’t have good data to back that up,” said one prominent super PAC official, granted anonymity to discuss the issue candidly. “The outside money’s been obscene [on the Republican side], and outside money on the Democratic side has been slow.”
Most crucially, there is growing suspicion among some Democratic donors — grounded in the party’s failure to flip control of the Senate in November — that massive TV ad campaigns don’t equal success, and money might be put to better use with organizations operating on the ground in Georgia instead of on the air.
“There’s a feeling in the donor community that too much was spent on TV and not enough on field operations,” said Ami Copeland, a Democratic strategist who served as Barack Obama’s deputy national finance director in 2008. “We had parity plus last time on TV, and it didn’t work. If donors are shifting their contributions and their support to ground operations, that at least shows a willingness to learn very quickly as to what might work and try something a little different.”
That strategic choice is showing up on the ground: Organizations focused on voter registration and mobilization, like Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight, are swimming in record cash. The Indian American Impact Fund announced this week they’d drop $2.5 million to turn out Asian American and Pacific Islander voters through digital ads, mail and field operations. BlackPAC, Collective PAC and the New Georgia Project are all out in force with field programs in the state, even though some activists still say they could use more cash to fund their efforts in these all-important races.
“I do think there’s been a shift with Democratic donors, particularly women donors, who are far more progressive about supporting and understanding [the importance of a] ground game,” said LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, another group based in Georgia doing on-the-ground organizing. “There’s been some shift where there’s more resources on the ground, but I don’t think it’s at the level or at the scale we need.”
Indeed, even while Democrats aren’t thrilled to be outspent on TV, the disparity isn’t generating the five-alarm panic that it might have before November. Most Democrats argued a runoff puts heavier emphasis on turning out voters rather than persuading them, a reality that lends itself to door-to-door canvassing rather than to non-stop TV ads.
A Democratic donor adviser also noted that high-dollar contributors are “very reluctant to put a lot of money on traditional advertising plans” right now.
Monday, December 21, 2020
As I said earlier this year, 2020 has been rough on all of us, so if my missives into the void have been of any use to you, please consider dropping a few bucks in the tip jar. If you can't, no problem. I'm glad to have everyone as a reader after all this time and I appreciate your continued support above all.
You can use the Donate button below, or the link at paypal.me/zandarvts.
Light posting for the rest of the year. I'm going to need to recharge for January.
As usual I will review my predictions for this year and attempt to come up with ones for next year but at this point I have no idea what I would predict because it might actually come true and this year has just been one long continuous fecal hurricane with a few bright spots of almost comically jarring pre-2020 normality in it as a painful reminder of what used to be.
At least I hope it's light posting for the rest of the year, I feel like that may not happen if things really go reactor core breach politically and there's a non-zero chance of that.
Going into 2021 I have determined this:
Sunday, December 20, 2020
The Trump appointee who oversees the government’s global media operations is moving to shut down a federally funded nonprofit that helps support internet access around the world, documents show, a decision that could limit people’s ability to get around constraints in places that tightly control internet access, like Iran and China.
The appointee, Michael Pack, the chief executive of the U.S. Agency for Global Media is seeking to restrict the nonprofit, the Open Technology Fund, from receiving federal funding for three years, in part because of a dispute over whether the fund should support work done by the Falun Gong, the spiritual movement known for spreading anti-China, pro-Trump misinformation.
His action, a month before President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. takes office, would be difficult for the new administration to undo.
The nonprofit, which is funded by the global media agency, helps develop technology that makes it easier for more than 2 billion people in over 60 countries to access the internet. It is known for helping create tools like Signal, an encrypted messaging application, and Tor, a web browser that conceals a user’s identity while logged onto the internet.
Officials at the fund have 30 days to appeal Mr. Pack’s decision, according to documents. Mr. Pack, an ally of Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s former adviser and strategist, will oversee any appeal, legal experts said. His final decision must be made by Jan. 19, one day before Mr. Biden takes office, the documents show.
Legal experts said that Mr. Biden will likely not be able to immediately overturn Mr. Pack’s decision, indicating it could be months before all legal questions surrounding Mr. Pack’s decision are answered.
During that time, the Open Technology Fund would not be able to receive any money from the federal government, and will only have enough funds to keep its staff of 10 employed until June, officials at the nonprofit said.
Without funding, projects that help provide nearly 1 in 4 Iranian citizens and 10 million people in China access to the internet could be at risk of stopping, the officials added.
“This is the kill shot,” Laura Cunningham, acting chief executive officer of the Open Technology Fund, said in a statement to The New York Times. “Without OTF, users around the world will be cut off from the global internet.”
There is a “substantial likelihood” that top leadership at the U.S. Agency for Global Media engaged in wrongdoing, according to an ongoing investigation by the independent agency that oversees civil service law.
The Office of Special Counsel made this determination on Wednesday following numerous complaints by the Government Accountability Project (a whistleblower advocacy group) about U.S. Agency for Global Media CEO Michael Pack and other top political officials. GAP said this type of finding is “notable and rare.” Pack––a former conservative filmmaker and an ally and former colleague of Steve Bannon, former Breitbart News executive and White House chief strategist–– took over about six months ago and his tenure has been marred with controversy and fears about politicization of the agency’s journalism.
“Our clients – current and former staff at [the global media agency], [Voice of America] and its sibling organizations – have reported to federal whistleblower agencies egregious and continuing acts of wrongdoing by Mr. Pack and his enablers,” said David Seide, GAP senior counsel. “It is gratifying that one of those agencies, OSC, has independently determined that there is a significant probability that our clients’ information reveals wrongdoing. It is a significant step, but far from the last one.”
Based on its assessment of the whistleblower complaint, OSC asked Pack to order a review of several actions at the agency since he took over in June and then report back, according to a press release by GAP. Some of them include:
- Alleged violations of the law that protects the “firewall” that prevents political interference at VOA;
- Termination of the presidents of Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks and Office of Cuba Broadcasting (the news organizations under USAGM);
- Dismissal of the news organizations’ bipartisan board members and replacement with mainly political officials;
- Termination of the president and CEO of the Open Technology Fund, an independent nonprofit within the agency dedicated to internet freedom;
- Prohibition of the offices of General Counsel, Chief Strategy, and Congressional and Public Affairs and others from talking with outside parties, without approval from the front office;
- Hiring and contracting freeze;
- Pressure on career staff to “illegally repurpose” appropriated funds; and,
- Refusal to renew visas for non-U.S. citizen journalists working for VOA.
“It would be problematic for the head of the agency to investigate himself for misconduct,” GAP’s Seide told Government Executive.
In fall of 2019, exactly zero scientists were studying COVID‑19, because no one knew the disease existed. The coronavirus that causes it, SARS‑CoV‑2, had only recently jumped into humans and had been neither identified nor named. But by the end of March 2020, it had spread to more than 170 countries, sickened more than 750,000 people, and triggered the biggest pivot in the history of modern science. Thousands of researchers dropped whatever intellectual puzzles had previously consumed their curiosity and began working on the pandemic instead. In mere months, science became thoroughly COVID-ized.
As of this writing, the biomedical library PubMed lists more than 74,000 COVID-related scientific papers—more than twice as many as there are about polio, measles, cholera, dengue, or other diseases that have plagued humanity for centuries. Only 9,700 Ebola-related papers have been published since its discovery in 1976; last year, at least one journal received more COVID‑19 papers than that for consideration. By September, the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine had received 30,000 submissions—16,000 more than in all of 2019. “All that difference is COVID‑19,” Eric Rubin, NEJM’s editor in chief, says. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, told me, “The way this has resulted in a shift in scientific priorities has been unprecedented.”
Much like famous initiatives such as the Manhattan Project and the Apollo program, epidemics focus the energies of large groups of scientists. In the U.S., the influenza pandemic of 1918, the threat of malaria in the tropical battlegrounds of World War II, and the rise of polio in the postwar years all triggered large pivots. Recent epidemics of Ebola and Zika each prompted a temporary burst of funding and publications. But “nothing in history was even close to the level of pivoting that’s happening right now,” Madhukar Pai of McGill University told me.
That’s partly because there are just more scientists: From 1960 to 2010, the number of biological or medical researchers in the U.S. increased sevenfold, from just 30,000 to more than 220,000. But SARS-CoV-2 has also spread farther and faster than any new virus in a century. For Western scientists, it wasn’t a faraway threat like Ebola. It threatened to inflame their lungs. It shut down their labs. “It hit us at home,” Pai said.
In a survey of 2,500 researchers in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, Kyle Myers from Harvard and his team found that 32 percent had shifted their focus toward the pandemic. Neuroscientists who study the sense of smell started investigating why COVID‑19 patients tend to lose theirs. Physicists who had previously experienced infectious diseases only by contracting them found themselves creating models to inform policy makers. Michael D. L. Johnson at the University of Arizona normally studies copper’s toxic effects on bacteria. But when he learned that SARS‑CoV‑2 persists for less time on copper surfaces than on other materials, he partially pivoted to see how the virus might be vulnerable to the metal. No other disease has been scrutinized so intensely, by so much combined intellect, in so brief a time.
These efforts have already paid off. New diagnostic tests can detect the virus within minutes. Massive open data sets of viral genomes and COVID‑19 cases have produced the most detailed picture yet of a new disease’s evolution. Vaccines are being developed with record-breaking speed. SARS‑CoV‑2 will be one of the most thoroughly characterized of all pathogens, and the secrets it yields will deepen our understanding of other viruses, leaving the world better prepared to face the next pandemic.
But the COVID‑19 pivot has also revealed the all-too-human frailties of the scientific enterprise. Flawed research made the pandemic more confusing, influencing misguided policies. Clinicians wasted millions of dollars on trials that were so sloppy as to be pointless. Overconfident poseurs published misleading work on topics in which they had no expertise. Racial and gender inequalities in the scientific field widened.
Amid a long winter of sickness, it’s hard not to focus on the political failures that led us to a third surge. But when people look back on this period, decades from now, they will also tell stories, both good and bad, about this extraordinary moment for science. At its best, science is a self-correcting march toward greater knowledge for the betterment of humanity. At its worst, it is a self-interested pursuit of greater prestige at the cost of truth and rigor. The pandemic brought both aspects to the fore. Humanity will benefit from the products of the COVID‑19 pivot. Science itself will too, if it learns from the experience.
An 1807 law invoked only in the most violent circumstances is now a rallying cry for the MAGA-ites most committed to the fantasy that Donald Trump will never leave office.
The law, the Insurrection Act, allows the president to deploy troops to suppress domestic uprisings — not to overturn elections.
But that hasn’t stopped the act from becoming a buzzword and cure-all for prominent MAGA figures like Sidney Powell and Lin Wood, two prominent pro-Trump attorneys leading efforts to overturn the 2020 election, and even one North Carolina state lawmaker. Others like Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser who was recently pardoned for lying to the FBI, have made adjacent calls for Trump to impose martial law. The ideas have circulated in pro-Trump outlets and were being discussed over the weekend among the thousands of MAGA protesters who descended on state capitols and the Supreme Court to falsely claim Trump had won the election.
At its core, the Insurrection Act gives the president authority to send military and National Guard troops to quell local rebellions and violence, offering an exemption to prohibitions against using military personnel to enforce domestic laws. Historically, it has been used in moments of extreme national strife — the Civil War, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, violent labor disputes, desegregation battles, rioting following Martin Luther King Jr.’s death.
Only once, however, has it been used in the wake of an election — and that was to stop a literal militia from seizing the Louisiana government on behalf of John McEnery, a former Confederate officer who had lost the 1872 governor’s race.
Nonetheless, in the minds of some authoritarian-leaning and conspiracy-minded Trump supporters, the Insurrection Act has become a needed step to prevent President-elect Joe Biden from assuming the presidency. Their evidence-deficient reasoning: Democrats illegally rigged the election and are attempting a coup, and Trump must send in the troops to undo this conspiracy.
The conviction shows how hard-edged MAGA ideology has become in the wake of Trump’s election loss. While scattered theories about a “deep state” arrayed against Trump have long circulated in MAGA circles, calls for troops to stop a democratically elected president from taking office have taken those ideas to a more conspiratorial and militaristic level. It also displays the exalted level to which Trump has been elevated among his most zealous fans as his departure looms.
“The central theme here is that there supposedly exists a network of nefarious actors trying to undermine Trump and destroy the United States, and that this is a tool that Trump could use to save the day,” said Jared Holt, a research fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Research Lab, who focuses on far-right extremism.
The Insurrection Act has been rarely invoked since the civil unrest of the 1960s — the last time was to quell violence during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. And when it has been used over that period, it was always at the request of a state governor.
But over the past several years, it has gained popularity among the far-right fringes, mainly as a way for Trump to solve all their problems, from expelling undocumented migrants, to arresting generals and other “deep state” actors for allegedly plotting coups against Trump.
The idea has also become intertwined with the QAnon movement, the far-reaching and baseless conspiracy that Trump is secretly working to disrupt a cabal of pedophiliac, sex trafficking Democrats and global elite.
President Donald Trump convened a heated meeting in the Oval Office on Friday, including lawyer Sidney Powell and her client, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, two people familiar with the matter said, describing a session that began as an impromptu gathering but devolved and eventually broke out into screaming matches at certain points as some of Trump's aides pushed back on Powell and Flynn's more outrageous suggestions about overturning the election.
Flynn had suggested earlier this week that Trump could invoke martial law as part of his efforts to overturn the election that he lost to President-elect Joe Biden -- an idea that arose again during the meeting in the Oval Office, one of the people said. It wasn't clear whether Trump endorsed the idea, but others in the room forcefully pushed back and shot it down.
The meeting was first reported by the New York Times.
White House aides who participated in the meeting, including White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and counsel Pat Cipollone, also pushed back intensely on the suggestion of naming Powell as a special counsel to investigate voter fraud allegations Trump's own administration has dismissed (or, as seems more feasible, hiring her in the administration for some kind of investigatory role). Powell has focused her conspiracies on voting machines and has floated the notion of having a special counsel inspect the machines for flaws.
Another idea floated in the meeting was an executive order that would permit the government to access voting machines to inspect them.
One person described the meeting as "ugly" as Powell and Flynn accused others of abandoning the President as he works to overturn the results of the election.
"It was heated -- people were really fighting it out in the Oval, really forceful about it," one of the sources said.
One of the sources described an escalating sense of concern among Trump's aides, even those who have weathered his previous controversies, about what steps he might take next as his term comes to an end.
Shortly after that meeting, Trump's campaign staff received a memo from the campaign legal team on Saturday instructing them to preserve all documents related to Dominion Voting Systems and Powell in anticipation of potential litigation by the company against the pro-Trump attorney.
New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen says elected representatives who refuse to accept the peaceful transition of power should be sanctioned. “These senators and members of Congress who have refused to acknowledge that we had a free and fair election in which Joe Biden beat Donald Trump by over 7 million votes, are bordering on sedition and treason in thinking that they are going to overturn a duly elected president,” she said.