What Fresh Hell? Trump's kleptocracy comes into sharper focus
Donald Trump and family (Shutterstock)

Welcome to another edition of What Fresh Hell?, Raw Story’s roundup of news items that might have become controversies under another regime, but got buried – or at least were under-appreciated – due to the daily firehose of political pratfalls, unhinged tweet storms and other embarrassments coming out of the current White House.

kleptocracy [klep-tok-ruh-see]

1. a government or state in which those in power exploit national resources and steal; rule by a thief or thieves.

The Original Sin that led to all of the grift and corruption we’re seeing from this regime occurred when the media and political establishments allowed Trump to run for the presidency without releasing his tax returns and take office without divesting his business interests.

Of course they were busy obsessing over Hillary Clinton’s emails. But not only did that signal to Trump and his minions that they could get away with just about anything, it also resulted in a degree of opacity that only law enforcement can penetrate. Soon after Trump was elected, The Wall Street Journal summed up this problem with a story about the labyrinthian web of front-companies that connected Trump to just one of his more modest assets...

President-elect Donald Trump owns a helicopter in Scotland.

To be more precise, he has a revocable trust that owns 99% of a Delaware limited liability company that owns 99% of another Delaware LLC that owns a Scottish limited company that owns another Scottish company that owns the 26-year-old Sikorsky S-76B helicopter, emblazoned with a red “TRUMP” on the side of its fuselage.

We don’t really know the angles Trump’s played to enrich himself and his loyalists using the power of the White House, and depending on the outcomes of various investigations, we may never know. But we have gotten some insights into the Trump money machine, thanks to some good reporting and, in some cases, from court filings. And one consistent theme has been huge slush funds of various types paying out giant sums to people in Trump’s inner circle, and in some cases to Trump himself.

The writing was on the wall during the 2016 campaign, when the Trump Organization quintupled the rent it was charging the Trump Campaign as soon as donors started picking up the tab. And on the same day in 2016 that Trump cut a fundraising agreement with the RNC, “the campaign made payments to three Trump properties" totaling around $200 grand.

This has continued since the election. As Walter Shaub, a former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, wrote for The Washington Post this week, “we taxpayers are paying tens of millions for [Trump] to spend almost a third of his days in office visiting his properties. Some of the money goes into his pocket. We learned last fall that the Secret Service had paid him over $150,000 in golf cart rental fees for the privilege of guarding his life while he golfs. Last month, Public Citizen issued a report finding that Trump’s businesses had billed $15.1 million to campaign, political committee and federal government sources since he first launched his presidential campaign.”

The Republican National Committee has been paying almost $38,000 per month to rent a “basically empty” office space from Trump for his own 2020 campaign since late last year. The campaign itself paid the Trump Organization almost a half-million in inflated rent before the RNC took over the payments. According to The HuffPo, “in all, the Trump campaign spent $774,163 in donor money at Trump-branded businesses last year.”

We still don’t really know where the $107 million Trump’s grifter friends raised for his inauguration went. It was a cheap affair, but they managed to spend twice as much as Obama had for his star-studded inauguration in 2008. But we did know that a longtime friend of Melania’s, Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, opened up a firm a month after the election that would grab $26 million of that sum for “planning” the event. This week, we learned that Mueller’s following the money, much of which came from foreign sources.

Wolkoff is by no means alone. A whole pack of grifters have been getting rich since Trump’s election. His former bodyguard, Keith Schiller, left the White House and has been raking in $15,000 per month from the RNC ever since for “security consulting.” (Schiller had already cashed in to the tune of almost $300,000 during the 2016 campaign from the Trump Organization, the Trump Campaign and the RNC.) Elliott Broidy, the GOP deputy finance chair and close Trump associate also managed to secure $200 million in new contracts from the UAE after the election, thanks to the shady middleman George Nader, who is now cooperating with Mueller. That was part of a coordinate effort to turn Broidy “into an instrument of influence at the White House for the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates,” according to The New York Times. And as we mentioned last week, one of those countries’ rivals, Qatar, has pushed back against their influence by buying four increasingly-hard-to-sell Trump properties, the most recent of which was purchased just after a judge dismissed a lawsuit against Trump for violating the Emoluments Clause.

Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowsky has opened up or partnered with no fewer than three DC lobbying firms since the election (he denies working for a fourth). Brad Parscale, the guy Trump hired to throw together a website for $1,500 and whose firm ultimately took in $94 million from the 2016 campaign, continued to get an average of $474,000 per month from the RNC after the election. Nobody really knows what Mike Pence’s nephew, John Pence, is doing for Trump’s reelection campaign, but he’s making in the neighborhood of $120,000 per year for something, according to financial disclosures. And this goes on and on – there are actually way too many of these kinds of stories to detail here in full.

And then this week, thanks to the Woodward and Bernstein of the Trump era -- a porn star and her lawyer – we learned that Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime consigliere and bagman, used the shell company that he’d set up to pay hush money to Stormy Daniels -- and to a Playboy playmate whom Trump probably knocked up before shifting the blame to Broidy -- to… solicit payments from various corporations -- including one tied to a Russian oligarch -- for “access” to Trump which, at least in some cases, he didn’t even deliver.

Everything in his history suggests that Trump himself has probably gotten a cut of at least some of these deals. Everything you’ve read above may be legal, but not if all this money was being shoveled around for corrupt purposes. Again, Trump’s long history of sleazy business dealings make this a pretty safe bet.

Let’s pause here to recall that Robert Mueller’s team includes some of the country’s top prosecutors and investigators specializing in fraud and financial crimes, and they have had most of this information long before we even knew it existed. It’s possible that these crooks will get away with it, but if I were them, I wouldn’t bet my freedom on it.

And with that news, let’s consider some other outrages that may have been lost in the shuffle this week…


Remember Scott Pruitt’s luxurious $120,000 trip to Italy, very little of which was spent working? Remember the sumptuous dinner that he enjoyed at Rome’s Hotel Eden, which runs around $300 a head?

This week, we discovered that Pruitt dined that evening “with Cardinal George Pell, a prominent climate-science denialist and Vatican leader who was also facing sexual abuse allegations.” The EPA intentionally left Pell’s name out of its description of the evening, according to The New York Times. “Kevin Chmielewski, Mr. Pruitt’s former deputy chief of staff for operations, said in an interview that top political appointees at the agency feared that the meeting would reflect poorly on Mr. Pruitt if it were made public. Twenty days after the dinner, authorities in Australia charged Cardinal Pell with sexual assault…” That would reflect poorly, but maybe more so for the alleged child molester than Pruitt.


It should probably come as no surprise that “top aides to Scott Pruitt at the Environmental Protection Agency are screening public records requests related to the embattled administrator, slowing the flow of information released under the Freedom of Information Act — at times beyond what the law allows.” More on that one at Politico.


Will this ultimately add fuel the opioid crisis?

The Labor Department plans to unwind decades-old youth labor protections by allowing teenagers to work longer hours under some of the nation’s most hazardous workplace conditions.

Only time will tell.


Here, via the Washington Post, is a great example of a bigoted policy that’s stupid even on its own terms…

The Trump administration has moved to expel 300,000 Central Americans and Haitians living and working legally in the United States, disregarding senior U.S. diplomats who warned that mass deportations could destabilize the region and trigger a new surge of illegal immigration.

It's a bit like anti-choicers favoring abstinence-only education, which leads to more unintended pregnancies and ultimately more abortions. Stop hitting yourselves, wingnuts.


Only the best… oh, you know...


This story is consistent with the Trump regime’s relentless attempts to purge all information about climate change – which Marmalade Mussolini thinks is all a Chinese hoax – from the entire government.

Paul Voosen writes for Science Magazine:

You can't manage what you don't measure. The adage is especially relevant for climate-warming greenhouse gases, which are crucial to manage—and challenging to measure. In recent years, though, satellite and aircraft instruments have begun monitoring carbon dioxide and methane remotely, and NASA's Carbon Monitoring System (CMS), a $10-million-a-year research line, has helped stitch together observations of sources and sinks into high-resolution models of the planet's flows of carbon. Now, President Donald Trump's administration has quietly killed the CMS, Science has learned.


And yet another policy of ignoring real threats

Trump’s national security team is weighing the elimination of the top White House cybersecurity job, multiple sources told POLITICO — a move that would come as the nation faces growing digital threats from adversaries such as Russia and Iran. John Bolton, Trump’s hawkish new national security adviser, is leading the push to abolish the role of special assistant to the president and cybersecurity coordinator, currently held by the departing Rob Joyce...


Finally, three ugly stories about what happens when you put white nationalists in charge of your justice system…

Sam Levin reported for The Guardian this week that Rakem Balogun, a father of three, “is believed to be the first person targeted and prosecuted under a secretive US surveillance effort to track so-called 'black identity extremists.'” Balogun was held without bail for five months for being a vocal activist against police brutality.

The charges against him didn’t stand up, because we still have a more or less functional judicial system, but Balogun “lost his home and more while incarcerated.”


Meanwhile, in Houston, undocumented immigrants who are caught perpetrating low-level offenses make bail, and then are scooped up by ICE as they leave the courthouse. Seems brutal but straightforward. But according to the Texas Observer, “abysmal record-keeping and an increasingly secretive immigration force have created a catch-22” for these mostly poor workers: “as they languish in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody, sometimes for months, they are asked to do the impossible: show up for their Harris County court hearings…. The penalties for missing court are serious: Bonds can be raised or revoked, and the court can issue arrest warrants or new citations in a revolving-door scenario reminiscent of a Kafka novel.”


Finally, The Intercept reported this week that Customs and Border Patrol appear to be targeting activists offering life-saving aid to undocumented immigrants.

“Nine volunteers with No More Deaths, an official ministry of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson, [have been] hit with federal charges in recent months for leaving water in a remote federal wilderness preserve where migrants routinely disappear and die,” writes Ryan Devereaux.  The latest “arrest came just hours after No More Deaths published a report that documents evidence of Border Patrol agents destroying jugs of water that the group leaves for migrants in the desert.”

And here’s a key point:

Border Patrol agents and humanitarian groups in Arizona, such as No More Deaths, have long operated with an understanding that spaces used to save human lives are generally off limits to law enforcement. The verbal agreement upheld by Border Patrol agents in the Tucson Sector and volunteers in the area is built on a set of written principles modeled after Red Cross guidelines on the treatment of humanitarian aid organizations, which include a passage that reads, “Medical treatment provided by humanitarian aid agencies should be recognized and respected by government agents and should be protected from surveillance and interference.”

Graft and cruelty: the twin hallmarks of the Trump regime. Make sure you register and vote this fall.