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.
This week was marked by more than the usual amount of speculation about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into the Trump Crime Family.
CNN and NBC both reported that Attorney General William Barr, whom some Republicans close to Trump predicted would soon bring the probe to an end, would do just that as soon as next week. (Swamp Alert: Trump just hired Barr’s son-in-law, Tyler McGaughey, to advise him on “legal issues,” including those that may “intersect with the [Mueller] investigation.”)
Meanwhile, the world of Mueller-watchers waited until late Friday night for a sentencing memo in the Paul Manafort case to be filed in the hope that it might shed some light on what’s to come.
In the end, the sentencing memo was sealed and a “senior” DOJ official said that a report will not be forthcoming next week after all. So the wait continues.
As Marcy Wheeler has pointed out, the evidence of Trump’s campaign conspiring with Russia to defraud the United States during the 2016 election is already definitive and out in the open, and the remaining question is whether it is prosecutable as such.
That conversation is about the counter-espionage case stemming from Russian – and perhaps other countries’ –efforts to help put a pliable figure into the White House. But there's another possible scenario which may become clear at the end (two if you believe that there’s a chance that Trump and his minions aren’t dirty). We may come to think of Trump’s inner circle as more of a bunch of opportunistic grifters who saw an opportunity to make a buck off deep-pocketed Russian oligarchs – and others! -- and then found that they’d gotten themselves in way over their heads when the FBI came around and started asking questions.
We know that the Trump Organization has relied on Russian capital of dubious origins for years, and that the sanctions levied against various high-level Russian actors was costing them dearly. They have a lot of cash to burn, and Trump was very much in need of an infusion of funds during the 2016 campaign. He has long surrounded himself with mobsters and conmen, and it’s not hard to imagine that both he and his family and the hangers-on who flattered his ego saw that there was a huge opportunity to make lucrative deals by offering ultra-wealthy Russians with a lot of cash promises of sanctions relief. At the time, none of them thought he had a chance of actually becoming president. But then at some point they may have realized that they could win, would be hopelessly compromised and they've been zealously obstructing any investigation into their activities ever since.
These aren't mutually exclusive categories; it's possible that what began as a simple bunco operation became a counter-espionage case during the course of the campaign. We shall (probably soon) see.
Speaking of opportunistic scammers being manipulated by foreign actors foreign policy, an investigation by House Democrats found that “senior White House officials, retired generals and Trump’s close relatives and business cronies have been secretly pursuing a multibillion-dollar scheme to cut a nuclear deal with Riyadh” according to The Guardian.
At WaPo, Paul Waldman wrote that this latest scheme “stars a cast of familiar and not-so-familiar characters — including former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, Trump buddy and billionaire investor Tom Barrack, and even Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law.”
JUST IN: Democrats on the House Oversight Committee have released an interim report based on multiple whistleblower… https://t.co/SD0BjayoHF— NPR Politics (@NPR Politics)1550595181.0
As you probably know, the Saudis (and Emirates) have been locked in a conflict with Qatar for the past two years. So of course the Qataris don’t want to be the only country in the region that isn’t buttering up Trump and his circle of hucksters. Stuart Jolly, Trump’s former national field director, “registered as a foreign agent of Qatar late last year, the latest figure in Trump’s orbit to profit from a scramble by Gulf states to win favor in Washington,” reported Ben Schreckinger at Politico. His hire “adds to the list of allies of former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski that have forged ties to Qatar, a gas-rich nation currently under a blockade that Saudi Arabia and others imposed over allegations that the country was funding terrorism and too cozy with Iran.”
More foreign policy madness: Josh Rogin reported for WaPo that “in a private meeting in Munich with more than a dozen lawmakers, acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan got an earful about President Trump’s plan to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria by the end of April. Shanahan’s response left lawmakers in both parties even more worried about the United States’ Syria policy and lacking confidence in the team leading it.”
And you probably caught wind of Trump’s rather embarrassing pick to represent the US at the United Nations.
The president's nominee for UN Ambassador discussing the "good sciences" on "both sides" of climate change https://t.co/F4QSVWdEUp— Chris Hayes (@Chris Hayes)1550880779.0
Kelly Kraft is the wife of the CEO of Alliance Resource Partners, one the largest coal mining companies in the Unit… https://t.co/CPHbkSKDTm— Eric Lipton (@Eric Lipton)1550877501.0
How about a quick roundup of Trump regime scammers?
A grand jury is looking at allegations that former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke lied to federal investigators, according to the WaPo.
Oopsies – “Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross violated his ethics agreement and submitted a financial disclosure form that ‘was not accurate,’ according to the Office of Government Ethics.” Ross says it was all a big mistake and could happen to anyone, according to CNN.
And Heidi Przybyla reported this week for NBC that “House and Senate Democrats say they have obtained evidence that a senior official at the Department of Education tried to oust the department’s independent watchdog after she pushed back on an attempt to interfere in an active investigation of Secretary Betsy DeVos.”
Whatever happens in the White House stays in the White House (or it would if they weren't a bunch of backstabbing miscreants who leak like a sieve).
The White House is forcing interns to sign non-disclosure agreements and threatening them with financial ruin, The… https://t.co/Lr2Uqwygvg— Kyle Griffin (@Kyle Griffin)1550761213.0
One tricky thing about reporting on Marshal Tweeto is that you never know if what he’s saying has any connection to reality, and that includes statements that reflect poorly on him and his regime.
Case-in-point: Last week, Trump tweeted out that he was canceling emergency funds earmarked for California which has been devastated by wildfires. That led to a ton of outrage, but a few days later FEMA officials made it clear that he had never issued such a directive. Buzzfeed News has more on that.
(But note that Trump’s “war on California” is nevertheless very real. This week the DOT said that it was cancelling almost $1 billion in funding for the Golden State’s high-speed rail network.)
#MAGA: “The average tax refund issued so far this year is down by 17 percent, the IRS said, a steep decline that promises more headaches for Republican lawmakers,” reported Politico this week. “This filing season is the first under Republicans’ overhaul of the tax code, and lawmakers have already been under fire as some taxpayers find their expected refunds smaller or gone altogether. The payments are sacrosanct to many Americans who rely on them to fill holes in their budgets.”
Speaking of Trump supporters becoming tired of winning, “South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem said Friday that President Donald Trump’s trade wars have ‘devastated’ her state,” according to Politico. Noem is a Republican supporter of Donald Trump.
And Bloomberg reported that this issue led to an awkward moment this week when “an exasperated Robert Lighthizer, the U.S. trade representative, tried to gently educate his boss, Donald Trump, on the meaning of a ‘memorandum of understanding’ in the Oval Office on Friday, leading to a presidential lecture in front of television cameras and a top Chinese official….”
The exchange between the president and his top trade negotiator unfolded Friday when the president was asked during a meeting with a Chinese trade delegation about how long so-called memorandums of understanding would last in an eventual accord with Beijing. Negotiators have been drafting MOUs on areas such as agriculture, non-tariff barriers, services, technology transfer, currency and intellectual property as the two nations work toward a deal.
Trump told gathered reporters that the memorandums would “be very short term. I don’t like MOUs because they don’t mean anything. To me, they don’t mean anything.”
Lighthizer then jumped in to defend the strategy, with Trump looking on. “An MOU is a binding agreement between two people,” he said. “It’s detailed. It covers everything in great detail. It’s a legal term. It’s a contract.”
But the president, unswayed, fired back at Lighthizer. “By the way I disagree,” Trump said.
The top Chinese negotiator, Vice Premier Liu He, laughed out loud.
According to an analysis by USA Today, while “the Trump administration has been blocked from systematically breaking up migrant families…, hundreds of children crossing the border continue to be separated from their parents in a process requiring none of the oversight used to remove children in the United States from their homes.”
And Tal Kopan reported for The LA Times that the Trump regime “is moving ahead with its plan to stop granting work permits to the spouses of many high-skilled visa holders, an effort that could jeopardize tens of thousands of immigrant families in California alone.” This is part of Trump’s systematic assault on immigrants who have all their papers in order and are in the country legally.
We embrace the conventional wisdom that Donald Trump, who was very pro-choice before getting involved in Republican politics, doesn’t actually care about abortion and is just pandering to the religious right.
Whatever his true feeling are, his regime is really dedicated to sucking up to White Evangelicals. “The Trump administration announced on Friday that it will bar organizations that provide abortion referrals from receiving federal family planning money, a step that could strip millions of dollars from Planned Parenthood and direct it toward religiously-based, anti-abortion groups,” reported Pam Belluck for The NYT this week.
Finally, we will leave you with this bit of good news: “A judge has just thrown out two amendments to the North Carolina Constitution that voters approved in November,” reported The Charlotte News and Observer. “One of the amendments was to implement a voter ID requirement, and the other was a cap on the state income tax rate.”