Welcome to 'Stupid Watergate' courtesy of Donald Trump
Press conference of Donald Trump, President of United States of America, during NATO. (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 were at least under-appreciated – due to the daily firehose of political pratfalls, unhinged tweet storms and other sundry embarrassments coming out of the current White House.


Amid  this week’s convictions, guilty pleas and phony tough-guys flipping on Tangerine Trujillo, we learned that The National Enquirer has been running a sprawling kompromat operation. Welcome to Stupid Watergate.

According to the Associated Press, the tabloid made a habit of buying damaging stories about celebrities -- including a certain crackpot game-show host who would go on to become the president – and burying them in a safe, which then became “a great source of power” for David Pecker, the CEO of The Enquirer’s parent company, American Media Inc. Stories about Trump’s sordid affairs -- and who knows, maybe alien babies? -- “were stored alongside similar documents pertaining to other celebrities’ catch-and-kill deals, in which exclusive rights to people’s stories were bought with no intention of publishing to keep them out of the news. By keeping celebrities’ embarrassing secrets, the company was able to ingratiate itself with them and ask for favors in return.” J. Edgar Hoover would be proud.

This story came out when the Wall Street Journal reported that Pecker had been granted immunity by federal prosecutors in New York to cooperate in the Michael Cohen case. That probe was initiated when Robert Mueller referred it to the Southern District of New York, and the story only highlights how little we know about what Mueller and his 17 hot-shot investigators and prosecutors have on the Trump Crime Family

We’ve been thinking all week about Felix Sater. Sater, you’ll recall, is the ex-con with links to the Russian mafia who worked on and off with Donald Trump “in search of deals in Russia and other former Soviet republics,” according to Bob Dreyfuss, for nearly a decade. Dreyfuss wrote that, “of all the characters caught up in Russiagate, none come close to Sater for having a decades-long record as a larger-than-life, outside-the-law, spy agency-linked wheeler-dealer from the pages of a John le Carré novel. His past record includes a conviction for lacerating a man’s face with a broken margarita glass in a bar brawl and his involvement in a multimillion-dollar stock fraud and money-laundering scheme.”

It's been 13 months since The Financial Times reported that Sater, who had funneled gobs of cash from oligarchs in the Eastern bloc into Trump properties, was cooperating with federal prosecutors investigating international money laundering in connection with the Trump-Russia probe. And we haven’t heard much about that angle since.

As everyone debates whether this felony or that outrage will finally prove to be an inflection point -- or the beginning of the end of Trump’s presidency -- keep in mind that if and when it comes, it’s probably going to be in the form of something that we didn’t see coming in advance. With Mueller’s quiet, leak-free probe, the iceberg metaphor seems apt: Only the one percent of it that’s floating above the surface is visible. Most of it can't be seen at this point.

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In related news that largely slipped under the radar this week, “a Russian charged with hacking LinkedIn is of great interest in a U.S. probe of election meddling,” reported Bloomberg’s Kartikay Mehrotra.

The lead attorney for Yevgeniy Nikulin, who was extradited to the US from the Czech Republic in March and has been sitting in a California jail since, said that “Russian officials have shown unusually strong interest in [Nikulen’s] case, arranging at least once to visit him in jail when the attorneys weren’t present.” The lawyer added that “he remains concerned, maybe ‘paranoid,’ over Nikulin’s safety after a former Russian spy and his daughter were poisoned earlier this year in England with a nerve agent.”

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This, via Maplight, is such a blatant example of plutocracy in action:

“As Republicans were finalizing tax cut legislation in late 2017, a foreign-owned bank seeking to shape the bill gave a seven-figure yacht loan to a top GOP lawmaker on the committee writing the measure. Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-FL), “who sits on the House Ways and Means Committee and leads its tax policy subcommittee,” bought the 73-foot yacht “on the same day he voted for the GOP tax package.”

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You probably heard about the majority-black county in Georgia that came under fire this week over a plan to shutter seven of its nine polling places before the November election. They withdrew the scheme after it generated a huge backlash, but as Kira Lerner reported for Think Progress, their justification for this rather blatant act of voter suppression was that the polling places weren’t accessible as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. That didn’t hold water as the county had known about this fact for several years.

In any event, Lerner wrote that this tactic is not new.

Jim Tucker, an attorney and member of the Native American Voting Rights Coalition, said he learned earlier this year that the Department of Justice’s Disability Rights Section is targeting at least three largely Native American counties, where facilities used as polling locations often lack paved parking lots, designated handicapped parking spots, entrance ramps, wide doorways, and other ADA-required features. In several counties, the Justice Department has threatened enforcement actions if local governments do not either spend large sums of money to modernize polling locations or shutter them altogether.

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What does impunity-by-Congressional-majority look like in the real world?

“Top White House staffers on Tuesday said that 'official' government events are part of President Donald Trump’s efforts to help Republicans in the coming midterm elections ― an admission that public dollars are being used for partisan political purposes.”

That’s blatantly illegal, yet two regime officials didn’t hesitate to brag about it on a conference call with reporters, according to HuffPo’s S.V Date.  

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We’ve mentioned in the past that under Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, AKA Scott Pruitt 2.0, all scientific research projects are being vetted by a political review process to make sure that they align with the regime’s agenda. Kim Il-sung thought of the idea first, probably.

Anyway, because these grifters are as goofy as they are malign, David Roberts reported for Vox this week that the official doing that work is a guy named Steve Howke whose only qualification for the gig is that he’s an old football buddy of Zinke’s.

He went to school with Zinke from kindergarten through Whitefish High School in Montana, where they played on the team together. He considers Zinke a “close friend” and supported his campaign for House.

And as for his qualifications, “Howke’s highest degree is a bachelor’s in business administration,” Pickett reports. “Until Zinke appointed him ... Howke had spent his entire career working in credit unions.”

These people are so fucking ridiculous.

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This next story did get some decent coverage, but we just want to make absolutely sure you caught it. The New York Times reported this week that the Trump regime’s own data show that their rollback of Obama-era clean power plant rules will result in 1,400 premature deaths per year.

And they’re totally cool with that.

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This new rule is part of the EPA’s new “climate change plan,” which, befitting a regime led by a guy who says global warming is a Chinese hoax, is “seemingly designed to weaken as much as legally possible the federal government’s response to the greatest long-term threat the world faces,” according to The Times.

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Trump and his henchmen have been working overtime to rescind “temporary protected status” from various groups of migrants and refugees who would be at risk if they were returned to their home countries for one reason or another. They’re doing this because they’re white supremacists, and assholes.

This week, CNN obtained internal documents that show DHS officials bending over backwards to justify the moves despite their own agency’s analysis that sending them back would, in fact, threaten their lives.

There was a simple explanation in October 2017 when a Department of Homeland Security official was asked why a memo justifying ending immigrant protections for Central Americans made conditions in those countries sound so bad.

"The basic problem is that it IS bad there," the official wrote. Nevertheless, he agreed to go back and see what he could do to better bolster the administration's decision to end the protections regardless…

In one exchange, the now-director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, Francis Cissna, remarks that a document recommending that TPS for Sudan be terminated reads like it was going to recommend the opposite until someone was "clubbed ... over the head."

"The memo reads like one person who strongly supports extending TPS for Sudan wrote everything up to the recommendation section and then someone who opposes extension snuck up behind the first guy, clubbed him over the head, pushed his senseless body of out of the way, and finished the memo. Am I missing something?" he wrote to key DHS staffers. Another high-ranking official then asks for the memo to be "revised."

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And NBC reported that “the FBI has dramatically slowed the pace of security reviews for refugees in recent months, which former Trump administration officials and human rights advocates say is part of an intentional bid by White House hardliners to restrict the number of refugees allowed in the U.S.”

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This is happening…

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This week, the only positive development we can leave you with is this Adam Davidson profile of long-time Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg, the guy who knows where all the skeletons are buried and who was given immunity to cooperate with federal investigators this week. With Michael Cohen and David Pecker also cooperating, all the financial crimes, at least, are going to come out someday soon.