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 was a pleasantly slow holiday week in America, but rarely do seven whole days go by without some new allegations of crimes by the Trump Crime Family.
On Wednesday, ProPublica reported that an analysis of Trump Organization tax and loan documents revealed a gap between the financial information Trump's company reported to lenders when seeking massive loans on Trump's signature Manhattan property and the numbers they handed over to the government when tax-time came around. "The findings," wrote Heather Vogell, "add a third major Trump property to two for which ProPublica revealed similar discrepancies last month."
In the latest case, the occupancy rate of the Trump Tower’s commercial space was listed, over three consecutive years, as 11, 16 and 16 percentage points higher in filings to a lender than in reports to city tax officials, records show.
For example, as of December 2011 and June 2012, respectively, Trump’s business told the lender that 99% and 98.7% of the tower’s commercial space was occupied, according to a prospectus for the loan. The figures were taken from “borrower financials,” the prospectus stated.
In tax filings, however, Trump’s business said the building’s occupancy was 83% in January 2012 and the same a year later. The 16 percentage point gap between the loan and tax filings is a “very significant difference,” said Susan Mancuso, an attorney who specializes in New York property tax...
Trump had much to gain by showing a high occupancy rate to lenders in 2012: He refinanced his share of Trump Tower that year and obtained a $100 million loan on favorable terms.
The vast majority of the gap between occupancy figures could be explained by diverging reports on how much space the Trump Organization used in Trump Tower. In loan documents, the company said it and its affiliates occupied 74,900 square feet in mid-2012, or 31% of the building. But tax reports from the January before and after listed the company and related parties as occupying 41,600 square feet — or about 18% of the tower...
More than a dozen tax and finance experts, presented with ProPublica’s earlier findings, also said they could not decipher a reason for the differences. As with Trump Tower, the discrepancies made the two properties — a skyscraper located at 40 Wall Street and the Trump International Hotel and Tower near Columbus Circle — appear more profitable to the lender and less so to property tax officials.
Those discrepancies were “versions of fraud,” according to Nancy Wallace, a professor of finance and real estate at the Haas School of Business at the University of California-Berkeley. The penalties for false filings can include fines or criminal charges.
If the story is accurate, it would appear to be either a case of tax or accounting fraud. And keep in mind that cooking the books like this has been a key feature of the Trump family accumulating its fortune for generations, according to an investigation conducted last year by The New York Times. "By age 3, Mr. Trump was earning $200,000 a year in today’s dollars from his father’s empire. He was a millionaire by age 8," reported The Times, with much of that wealth coming from tax fraud.
A vast trove of confidential tax returns and financial records  reveals that Mr. Trump received the equivalent today of at least $413 million from his father’s real estate empire, starting when he was a toddler and continuing to this day.
Much of this money came to Mr. Trump because he helped his parents dodge taxes. He and his siblings set up a sham corporation to disguise millions of dollars in gifts from their parents, records and interviews show. Records indicate that Mr. Trump helped his father take improper tax deductions worth millions more. He also helped formulate a strategy to undervalue his parents’ real estate holdings by hundreds of millions of dollars on tax returns, sharply reducing the tax bill when those properties were transferred to him and his siblings....
That New York Times report made headlines for a few days and was then largely forgotten. The same is true of a judge ordering Trump "to pay $2 million to settle claims that he used his personal foundation as a piggybank to advance his personal and political interests" earlier this month, according to Mother Jones.
The settlement stems from a lawsuit filed last year by New York’s attorney general, which accused the president of a pattern of “persistently illegal conduct” involving the Donald J. Trump Foundation. Donald Jr., Eric, and Ivanka were also named in the case.
Propublica's investigations, which suggest that the president's* family business continues to use fraudulent accounting practices for least three of its properties to rip off the government he's currently running, will no doubt have a similar impact.
It's hard to avoid comparing the fallout from these reports, which may cumulatively amount to billions in tax and accounting fraud, with the Whitewater "scandal" that dogged most of Bill Clinton's presidency.
For those who were too young at the time or don't recall the details, back when Clinton was the governor of Arkansas, he and Hillary bought 230 acres of land with a couple of friends, hoping to subdivide it into plots for hunting and fishing cabins. The land was poor, interest rates were spiking which drove up the cost of second homes, and they ended up losing $40,000 on the deal.
Whitewater only became of interest to investigators when Clinton's partner, Jim McDougal, got into some deep trouble for an entirely different real estate deal, and the Clintons were eventually cleared of any wrongdoing. Nonetheless, it cast a shadow on Clinton's entire presidency and, after $60 million worth of investigations, it eventually led to his impeachment for lying under oath about a consensual affair.
One moral of the story is that if you're going to be a lawless president, your best bet is to commit so many crimes that they eventually become routine and get lost in the news cycle.
And with that, here's this week's roundup...
Speaking of Trump and
other people's taxes, CREW reports that he "hit an important milestone as he returned to Florida over the Thanksgiving holiday: 100 visits to Mar-a-Lago."
In 1,040 days as president, he has prioritized visiting his properties over the course of his presidency, making time for nearly 400 visits to the businesses that he still owns and profits from. Of all of his properties, it appears that Mar-a-Lago is his favorite to funnel untold sums of taxpayer money to, even rebranding Mar-a-Lago the “Winter White House.”
It is always a safe bet that the regime is actually engaging in whatever crimes they falsely accuse their opponents of committing. Case in point, via The Wall Street Journal...
Two associates of Rudy Giuliani tried to recruit a top Ukrainian energy official in March in a proposed takeover of the state oil-and-gas company, describing the company’s chief executive and the then-U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch as part of “this Soros cartel” working against President Trump.
“You’re a Republican, right?” Andrew Favorov, the head of natural gas for state-run Naftogaz, recalled the men, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, asking him, after their reference to investor and Democratic donor George Soros. “We want you to be our guy.”
Speaking of grifters shaping US foreign policy, Vanity Fair reported that WeWork's disgraced former CEO, Adam Neumann, "was working on Jared Kushner’s Mideast peace effort."
Neumann assigned WeWork’s director of development, Roni Bahar, to hire an advertising firm to produce a slick video for Kushner that would showcase what an economically transformed West Bank and Gaza would look like... Kushner showed a version of the video during his speech at the White House’s peace conference in Bahrain last summer...
Neumann told colleagues that he was saving the women of Saudi Arabia by working with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to offer women coding classes, according to a source. In another meeting, Neumann said three people were going to save the world: bin Salman, Jared Kushner, and Neumann. Shortly after the news broke in October 2018 that Saudi agents tortured dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and carved his body with a bone saw, likely on order from the crown prince himself, Neumann told George W. Bush’s former national security adviser Stephen Hadley that everything could be worked out if bin Salman had the right mentor. Confused, Hadley asked who that person might be, according to a source familiar with the meeting. Neumann paused for a moment and said: “Me.”
Donald Trump took a surprise visit to Afghanistan for some photo-ops with the troops on Thanksgiving. During his stopover, Trump declared that "the U.S.-Taliban talks he abruptly canceled in September are back in motion," according to WaPo.
Trump said the Taliban “wants to make a deal. And we’re meeting with them, and we’re saying it has to be a cease-fire. They didn’t want to do a cease-fire, but now they do want to do a cease-fire...It will probably work out that way... We’ve made tremendous progress.”
You should know by now how the rest of this song goes: "But on Friday neither the Taliban nor the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani indicated that a cease-fire was near, or even being discussed in resumed U.S. negotiations."
We've noted the regime's past hostility toward investigating white supremacist terrorism. This week, CREW sued the Department of Homeland Security for refusing to turn over documents "that would explain former-DHS Advisor for Policy Katharine Gorka’s involvement in revoking grants combating white supremacy and white nationalism." Gorka is the wife of Sebastian Gorka, the fascist former deputy assistant to Trump.
Before joining the government, [Katharine] Gorka was a contributing author of Breitbart, a website favored by white nationalists and white supremacists. While Gorka was a DHS official, DHS focused almost exclusively on combating Islamic extremism while reducing or eliminating funding of programs to combat white supremacy. DHS even reportedly considered renaming the DHS Countering Violent Task Force to “Countering Islamic Extremism” or “Countering Radical Islamic Extremism.”
This comes in the wake of leaked emails revealing that senior White House advisor Stephen Miller, the regime's point-person on immigration and refugee policy--sent a bunch of white supremacist claptrap to his sources at Breitbart.
In related news, The Huffington Post reported this week that while Trump has yet to build a single foot of new border wall, Miller and a small group of anti-immigrant hardliners have effectively built a gigantic new wall through a series of subtle bureaucratic maneuvers.
In the two years and 308 days that Donald Trump has been president, his administration has constructed far more effective barriers to immigration. No new laws have actually been passed. This transformation has mostly come about through subtle administrative shifts—a phrase that vanishes from an internal manual, a form that gets longer, an unannounced revision to a website, a memo, a footnote in a memo. Among immigration lawyers, the cumulative effect of these procedural changes is known as the invisible wall...
“What became clear to me early on was that these guys wanted to shut down every avenue to get into the U.S.,” [a] former senior DHS official said. “They wanted to reduce the number of people who could get in under any category: illegals, legals, refugees, asylum seekers—everything. And they wanted to reduce the number of foreigners already here through any means possible.” No government in modern memory has been this dedicated to limiting every form of immigration to the United States. To find one that was, you have to go a long way back, to 1924.
The State Department's top human rights post has been unoccupied for the past three years. In January, Trump nominated Marshall Billingslea to the position, but according to The WaPo, Billingslea is tainted by a record that doesn't appear to reflect a lot of concern for human rights.
[His nomination] raised immediate alarms among the activists and former government officials who believe his confirmation would send a dismal message about the United States’ commitment to human rights abroad. A September confirmation hearing has intensified those concerns, with several officials accusing Billingslea of improperly minimizing his role in the interrogation debate inside of the George W. Bush administration.
The story that we think probably should have dominate the front pages this week comes via The New York Times...
With world leaders gathering in Madrid next week for their annual bargaining session over how to avert a climate catastrophe, the latest assessment issued by the United Nations said Tuesday that greenhouse gas emissions are still rising dangerously.
“The summary findings are bleak,” said the annual assessment, which is produced by the United Nations Environment Program and is formally known as the Emissions Gap Report. Countries have failed to halt the rise of greenhouse gas emissions despite repeated warnings from scientists, with China and the United States, the two biggest polluters, further increasing their emissions last year.
The result, the authors added, is that “deeper and faster cuts are now required.”
Global greenhouse gas emissions have grown by 1.5 percent every year over the last decade, according to the annual assessment. The opposite must happen if the world is to avoid the worst effects of climate change, including more intense droughts, stronger storms and widespread hunger by midcentury. To stay within relatively safe limits, emissions must decline sharply, by 7.6 percent every year, between 2020 and 2030, the report warned.
Separately, the World Meteorological Organization reported on Monday that emissions of three major greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide — have all swelled in the atmosphere since the mid-18th century.
We don't have much good news to share with you this week, but on our podcast, We've Got Issues, political scientist Lee Drutman argues that Trump has energized an entire generation in ways that have historically led to periods of reform and renewal when our democracy seemed imperiled in the past. Check it out.