December 17, 2018
When President Donald Trump was sworn in on January 22, 2017, his first instinct was to place his right hand on his own book, The Art of the Deal, rather than the Bible. Looking back, some might say that the how-to book would have been the better choice, in light of the financial machinations that allegedly took place leading up to that day.
Federal prosecutors in New York now are investigating whether foreigners illegally funneled donations to Trump’s inaugural committee and to a pro-Trump super PAC in hopes of “buying influence” in the administration, The New York Times reports.
That would pose a big problem for the White House, because U.S. law prohibits foreign contributions to federal campaigns, political action committees, and inaugural funds.
The inquiry has focused in on money emanating from nations in the Middle East—including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Prosecutors are interested in finding out if entities from those nations used “straw donors” to disguise their donations to the two funds.
Thomas Barrack Jr., a billionaire financier and a longtime associate of Trump’s, raised money for both funds—but his spokesperson, Owen Blicksilver, told the news outlet, “Tom has never talked with any foreign individual or entity for the purposes of raising money for or obtaining donations related to … the campaign, the inauguration, or any such political activity.”
The super PAC, Rebuilding America Now, was formed in June 2016—during a period when the Trump presidential campaign reportedly was short of cash and out of favor with Republican donors. While Trump was adamant that he could finance his own campaign, he refused to dig too deeply into his own pockets.
According to several Times sources, Paul Manafort, the campaign manager at the time, suggested that Barrack step in to raise funds for the PAC, which could collect unlimited amounts of money as long as it avoided coordinating closely with the candidate.
However, in an interview with investigators a year ago, the Times said, Barrack commented that Manafort seemed to view the political committee as an arm of the campaign, despite laws meant to prevent such coordination, according to a person familiar with the interview.
In fact, Manafort asked two campaign aides, Laurance Gay and Ken McKay, to help run the operation. A press officer said at the time that the committee violated no rules because the campaign never paid the two men. Neither man returned repeated phone calls from the Times seeking comment.
According to filings with the Federal Election Commission, the committee raised $23 million and provided funds for Trump advertisements, polls, and other political expenditures. While most of the money came from U.S. donors, prosecutors have asked witnesses whether anyone from the Middle East also contributed to the kitty, perhaps using American intermediaries to cover the transactions.
After the election, the Trump campaign had money rolling in, raising an astounding $107 million for the inauguration—four times as much as the pro-Trump PAC and twice as much as the amount raised for President Barack Obama’s first inauguration.
Today, the question remains, how was that money used for Trump’s much smaller-scale inaugural event—and what happened to any unspent dollars?
Last week, for the first time, Ivanka Trump became publicly involved in the POTUS’s election probe. According to reports by Newsweek and ProPublica, she hiked the rates for the meeting rooms and the ballrooms at the Trump International Hotel in Washington DC specifically during the days that visitors to the inauguration would be in the city. Any extra profits would have gone straight to the Trump Organization.
The inaugural committee complied with all laws and “has not been contacted by any prosecutors,” Blicksilver, who is also a spokesman for the fund, told The New York Times. Its finances “were fully audited internally and independently,” and donors were fully vetted and disclosed to the Federal Election Commission, as required, he said.
That remains to be seen. If there has been an audit, there is no external evidence of it. Although many news outlets, including the Times, have requested a copy of the financial analysis, none has been made available.
However, prosecutors certainly would be able to obtain those documents, if they exist.
Research contact: @nytimes
December 14, 2018
In a rare rebuff to the White House, the U.S. Senate passed legislation on December 12 to reverse a Trump administration policy that limits donor disclosure requirements for political nonprofits, Politico reported.
In a 50-49 vote, the Senate approved a Resolution of Disapproval introduced by Senators Jon Tester (D-Montana) and Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) to repeal a controversial new rule—Returns by Exempt Organizations and Returns by Certain Non-Exempt Organizations—which they said allowed “dark money groups to hide the identities of their donors.”
Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine)—who is not known for facing off with her Republican colleagues in final votes—joined every Democrat in support of the measure, which required only a simple majority to pass under the Congressional Review Act.
“These dark money forces are a threat to our democracy and they must be reined in,”Tester commented, adding, “Today’s action sheds more light on the wealthy few who are trying to buy our elections and drown out the voices of regular folks. We must wrestle our country back and continue to bring transparency and accountability back to political campaigns.”
Tester had been optimistic earlier this week about the resolution’s prospects.“I think it’s gonna be close but I think we’ve got the votes,” he said on December 11, according to Politico.
“Today the Senate voted on a bipartisan basis to throw out Trump’s dark money rule and bring transparency back to our elections,” Wyden said. “This is a huge first step in America’s fight against anonymous political insiders looking to tighten their grip on Washington. I urge [House Speaker] Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) to act swiftly on this issue of great importance and lead the House in reversing course on the Trump administration’s reckless decision.”
Predictably enough, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) was opposed to the vote, remarking that the resolution was an “attempt by some of our Democratic colleagues to undo a pro-privacy reform. … In a climate that is increasingly hostile to certain kinds of political expression and open debate, the last thing Washington needs to do is to chill the exercise of free speech and add to the sense of intimidation.”
The measure is unlikely to be taken up by the GOP-controlled House—and it was opposed by conservative groups, including the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity, Politico reported.
“We are committed to enhancing government transparency, protecting the privacy of American citizens, and the freedom of association enshrined in the Constitution,” Brent Gardner, AFP’s chief government affairs officer said in a statement “S.J. Res. 64 fails on all of these fronts.”
Research contact: @marianne_levine
December 13, 2018
The answer to the question above? Apparently, not Mexico—which was what President Donald Trump repeatedly promised during the 2016 campaign. And probably not Congress either.
During a surreal meeting in the Oval Office on December 11, The New York Times reports, President Donald Trump engaged in an argument in front of reporters with two Democratic leaders, Representative Nancy Pelosi (12th District, California) and Senator Chuck Schumer (New York), over the his own threats to shut down the government unless he gets $5 billion to build a border wall.
During what the news outlet characterized as “an extraordinary public airing of hostilities that underscored a new, more confrontational dynamic in Washington,” the president vowed to block full funding for the government if Democrats refused to allocate money for the wall on the southwestern border, saying he was “proud to shut down the government for border security.”
He repeatedly told Pelosi that he “only need[ed] ten Democratic votes in the House” to pass the funding for the wall. In turn, she replied that he didn’t have the votes—and would not have them in the future.
According to the Times report, the two Democratic leaders took issue with the president’s position and his false assertions about the wall—which he claimed was already under construction—in front of a phalanx of news cameras, imploring him repeatedly to continue the tense conversation without reporters present.
However, the news outlet said, “Trump insisted on a conspicuous clash that undercut Republican congressional leaders and his own staff working to avoid a shutdown at all costs, or at least to ensure that Democrats would shoulder the blame for such a result.”
“If we don’t have border security, we’ll shut down the government — this country needs border security,” Mr. Trump declared as the diatribe unfolded, and Schumer reminded the president repeatedly that he had called several times for a shutdown, appearing to goad him into taking responsibility.
Ultimately, the discussion again raised doubts about whether Trump and the Congress could reach agreement by a December 21 deadline to keep much of the government open, appearing to harden diametrically opposed positions on the wall.
Research contact: @nytimes
December 12, 2018
As Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election focuses in on the denizens of the White House, approval of the president’s conduct has dwindled—matching its all-time low in CNN polling, the cable news network reported on December 11.
In the new poll, Trump’s approval rating for handling the Russia investigation has dipped to 29%, matching a low previously hit in June of this year.
The findings, from a poll fielded on behalf of CNN by SSRS, come as half of Americans say they think it is likely that the Mueller investigation will implicate the president in wrongdoing.
The survey was conducted December 6-9—at a time when court filings in cases against Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen revealed the alleged lies that Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman and former personal lawyer, respectively, told either publicly or to the special counsel’s investigators.
President Trump claimed last weekend that the filings by the SCO and the federal court in the Southern District of New York cleared him of any wrongdoing and called for the investigation to end, CNBC reports.
However, the news outlet says, the Cohen filing implicates Trump in the scheme to pay off at least two women who alleged they had had affairs with Trump in order to keep them silent during the campaign; and the Manafort filing suggests the former campaign chair continued to lie about his contacts with the White House this year.
Interestingly enough, Mueller’s approval rating also is down in the poll: 43% approve and 40% disapprove. That compares to a 48% approve to 36% disapprove split in early October. The dip in Mueller’s numbers comes almost entirely among Independents, among whom approval has fallen 10 points to 36%. Among partisans on both sides, Mueller’s approval holds about even with where it was in an October survey: 71% of Democrats approve as do 21% of Republicans.
Trump’s approval rating drop, however, comes among his own partisans as well as among independents. Among Republicans, 51% approve of Trump’s handling of the investigation, a new low by one point, while among independents, 26% approve, also a new low. Just 15% of Democrats approve of the president’s handling of the investigation, up from October but about on par with the level who felt that way earlier this year.
Overall, a majority (54%) continue to say that most of the things Trump has said publicly about the Russia investigation are false, while just over one-third say they are mostly true (36%). That’s largely unchanged since August.
There has also been no meaningful change on whether the investigation itself is a serious matter or mainly an effort to discredit Trump’s presidency: 59% say it’s a serious matter, 35% an effort to discredit Trump.
Half of Americans think it is very or somewhat likely that the Mueller investigation will implicate Trump personally in wrongdoing. That figure is higher among Democrats (78% say it’s likely), but still, nearly a quarter of Republicans think Trump is likely to be personally implicated (23%) as do about half of independents (47%). Aside from partisanship there’s a stark divide here by education among whites, with 58% of whites with college degrees saying they think Trump is likely to be implicated vs. 43% of whites without degrees.
Looking at Michael Cohen’s recent revelation that work continued on a potential project in Russia during the 2016 campaign, 44% believe Trump acted unethically in considering projects in Russia during the campaign, 26% say it was unwise but not unethical, and 23% say there was nothing wrong with Trump’s action.
Trump’s overall approval rating for handling the presidency matches its pre-election level just about exactly, 39% approve and 52% disapprove. Trump’s favorability rating is also steady at 40% favorable to 55% unfavorable.
Research contact: @jennagiesta
December 11, 2018
Nick Ayers, who currently serves as chief of staff for Vice President Mike Pence, has turned down the opportunity to do the same job for President Donald following John Kelley’s departs at the end of the year, Salon reported on December 10.
Had he accepted the position, Ayers would have been the third chief of staff to serve the POTUS in the Trump administration—following Reince Priebus (January 20, 2017-July 31, 2017) and John Kelly (July 31, 2017-present).
Ayers, who has worked for Pence since July 2017—and previously served as national chairman for the vice presidential campaign in 2016—is known as a savvy political strategist with many contacts on the Hill. Before his close association with the vice president, the 36-year-old power player—named in 2010 as one of TIME magazine’s most influential people in politics under the age of 40—was executive director of the Republican Governors Association from 2007 to 2010.
“Thank you @realDonaldTrump, @VP, and my great colleagues for the honor to serve our Nation at The White House. I will be departing at the end of the year but will work with the #MAGA team to advance the cause. #Georgia,” Ayers tweeted late on December 9
According to the Salon report, Trump himself alluded to the possibility that Ayers might not accept the job later the same evening, tweeting that “I am in the process of interviewing some really great people for the position of White House Chief of Staff. Fake News has been saying with certainty it was Nick Ayers, a spectacular person who will always be with our #MAGA agenda. I will be making a decision soon!”
It is noteworthy, the news outlet said, that almost seven years ago, the president criticized President Barack Obama for running through three chiefs of staff in less than three years — Rahm Emanuel, Pete Rouse (who served as interim), Bill Daley and finally Jack Lew, who left at the end of Obama’s first term.
“3 Chief of Staffs in less than 3 years of being President: Part of the reason why @Barack Obama can’t manage to pass his agenda,” Trump tweeted at the time. Yet once Kelly departs and is replaced, Trump will have a similar record for his own chiefs of staff.
Nevertheless, Ayers seems to be leaving the White House on good terms, with Pence tweeting on Sunday that “@nick_ayers has done an outstanding job as my Chief of Staff and I will always be grateful for his friendship, dedication to the @VP team and his efforts to advance the @POTUS agenda. Thank you Nick! Karen and I wish you, Jamie and the kids every blessing in the years ahead.”
Now that the president has been left in the lurch, several new candidates reportedly are under discussion—including Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney; Representative Mark Meadows (R-North Carolina), the chair of the conservative House Freedom Caucus; and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.
Research contact: @MatthewRozsa
December 10, 2018
During a week when former President George H.W. Bush’s legacy has been validated and his choices lauded, President Donald Trump confirmed that he will nominate former Attorney General William P. Barr—who served in same role in the Bush administration from 1991 to 1993— to lead the Justice Department again, telling reporters on December 7 that Barr was “my first choice since day one.”
Barr is, perhaps, best known for successfully urging the elder Bush in 2001 to pardon a number of key figures involved in the Iran-Contra scandal, including former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. He also has been critical of the Mueller investigation—perhaps explaining why Trump is so enamored of this candidate.
According to a December 7 report by The Washington Post, “Barr is likely to face tough questions at his confirmation hearing about how he will handle the ongoing special counsel investigation into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election.”
Assuming that the nomination is confirmed by the Senate, Barr would replace Acting AG Matthew Whittaker, whom Trump elevated to that role after requesting the resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions early in November.
That move—which leapfrogged the DOJ professional who actually was next in line for the job, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein—has been widely criticized on the grounds that Whittaker is not qualified; is under investigation, himself; and has said that the president “made the right call” when he fired FBI Director James Comey.
In another round of musical chairs in the administration, Chief of Staff John Kelly was reportedly expected to resign on Friday night, December 7. Kelly had worn out his welcome with the POTUS, who stopped talking to him in recent days in hopes that we would take the hint and depart the White House.
Finally, Trump also has said, according to The Washington Post, that he will nominate Heather Nauert to replace Nikki Haley as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, describing the State Department spokesperson, a relative novice on foreign policy, as “very talented, very smart, very quick.” Haley announced her pending resignation in October.
Research contact: email@example.com
December 7, 2018
Payback is a “bitch.” But Donald Trump is not worried about the $21 trillion national debt—up from $19.9 trillion on January 20, 2017—that the nation now owes, according to a December 5 report by the Daily Beast.
Sources close to the president say he has repeatedly shrugged it off—implying that he doesn’t have to worry about the money owed to America’s creditors, because he won’t be around to shoulder the blame when it becomes a crippling issue.
The friction came to a head in early 2017 when senior administration officials offered Trump charts and graphics laying out the numbers showing a spike in the national debt in the not-too-distant future, the online news outlet said.
“Yeah, but I won’t be here,” the president bluntly responded, according to a source who was in the room when Trump made the comment.
For those who have worked with Trump, the Daily Beast says, it was no surprise. Several people close to the president, both within and outside his administration, confirmed that the national debt has never bothered him in a truly meaningful way, despite his public lip service. “I never once heard him talk about the debt,” one former senior White House official attested.
What’s more, in Trump’s view, cutbacks aren’t even necessary. Instead he is focused on economic growth: Indeed, one current senior Trump administration official vented to the news outlet that Trump “doesn’t really care” about actually attacking the debt “crisis,” and prefers simply “jobs and growth, whatever that means.”
Rather than placing blame, Hogan Gidley, a White House spokesperson, passed the buck to the legislative branch. “While the president has and will continue to do everything in his power to rein in Washington’s out-of-control spending,” he said in an interview, “the Constitution gives Congress the power of the purse and it’s time for them to work with this president to reduce the debt.”
For the most part, the Daily Beast reports, the Republican Party has gone along—noting, “ Over the first two years of the Trump administration, congressional Republicans have slashed taxes dramatically while increasing defense and discretionary spending; all without giving much indication that they’re going to take a stab at dramatically gutting certain popular entitlements.”
In the end, right-leaning reformers shouldn’t stake their reputations on decreased spending. After all there is still a wall to build—and that will cost billions. A former Trump official added, “It’s not like it’s going to haunt him.”
Research contact: @swin24
December 6, 2018
New White House Counsel Pat Cipollone began work on December 3, following a nearly two-month delay since his appointment—and with dwindling time to help colleagues fend off both the Russia investigation and a coming onslaught of House Democratic oversight demands, Politico reports.
Cipollone, a partner at the D.C. law firm, Stein Mitchell Cipollone Beato & Missner, also has Justice Department credentials—having served there during the George H. W. Bush administration. He already has advised the White House on the Mueller probe—however, those in the know anticipate that Emmet Flood will continue to take “first chair” in that legal challenge.
President Donald Trump tapped Cipollone to replace Chief White House Counsel Don McGahn, who stepped down just before the midterm elections, on October 17, following a turbulent tenure during which he clashed with the president (and also testified to Mueller’s team). Cipollone’s start date was confirmed to Politico by “two sources familiar with the timing.”
Even before assuming his official duties, the political news outlet confirmed, Cipollone had reached out to White House legal aides responsible for everything from judicial nominations to federal litigation to presidential pardons. His first major test will involve handling (or holding off) several investigations launched by House Democrats, who will assume committee chairmanships in January.
Mike Purpura, a Justice Department alumnus who worked in George W. Bush’s counsel’s office, is likely to serve as deputy White House counsel leading the response to congressional investigations, according to a source familiar with the plans, Politico said. In that role, he is expected to emerge as a central behind-the-scenes player in the West Wing over the next two years, helping to shield the president from newly emboldened Democrats with subpoena power.
Research contact: @elianayjohnson
December 5, 2018
Peter J. Messitte, a federal judge for the U.S. District Court of Maryland ruled on December 3 that lawyers for Maryland and Washington, D.C., plaintiffs in an emoluments-related lawsuit can start issuing subpoenas. The suit alleges that President Donald Trump has used his luxury hotel near the White House to unconstitutionally profit from his political office, Politico reported on December 3.
The case would set the stage either for potentially shutting down the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., or for requiring Trump to divest entirely from the property—where many foreign diplomats currently are staying when they visit the Beltway and where many U.S. politicians are holding dinners and events to gain favor with the president.
In fact, the GSA lease for the property—which governs the use of the Old Post Office Building in the District of Columbia, where the hotel is situated—clearly states: “No … elected official of the Government of the United States … shall be admitted to any share or part of this Lease, or to any benefit that may arise therefrom.”
According to Politico, the attorneys general in Maryland and Washington said they planned to serve as many as 20 companies and government agencies with subpoenas by midday on December 4.
In response, Politico reported, the Justice Department on November 30 said it would try to halt the attorneys’ general case with an appeal to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, but by the end of the day on Monday, December 3, the DOJ had yet to file anything in that court.
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh said that, if Justice Department lawyers do seek to stop the case, he said he was confident the delay would be temporary.
“They have a very high burden to win on a Writ of Mandamus, I don’t think they can meet that standard here,” Frosh told Politico. “They’ve done everything they possibly can to stop us from getting discovery.”
Research contact: @Woellert
December 4, 2018
It’s “déjà vu all over again,” for President Barack Obama’s former aides—who are saying that Beto O’Rourke’s campaign against Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in the midterms gave them flashbacks to their own candidate’s precocious political rise, according to a December 2 report by NBC News.
Indeed, according to the network news outlet, the closely fought campaign by the charismatic and youthful Democratic white congressman—who serves Texas’ 16th District— has catapulted him to the position of unlikely heir to the first black president’s “hope and change” mantle.
Obama, himself, said as much, CNN reported, at an event in Chicago in late November, noting, “What I like most about his race was that it didn’t feel constantly poll-tested. It felt as if he based his statements and his positions on what he believed. And that, you’d like to think, is normally how things work. Sadly, it’s not.”
Already, some of #44’s former political lieutenants have been publicly encouraging O’Rourke to consider a 2020 presidential bid; while privately counseling him on what to expect, should he jump in.
And it looks as if he’s willing: O’Rourke said on November 26 that he would prefer to finish his congressional term January 3 before deciding what’s next. But that’s a far cry from repeatedly saying during the Senate campaign that he had no White House aspirations whatsoever.
In O’Rourke, NBC News reported, Obama veterans see not only an inspiring political celebrity, but, like Obama, a tactical innovator who eschewed the political industrial complex of pollsters and consultants; and used technology in new ways to connect directly with supporters and multiply the force of his fundraising and ground game.
“The reason I was able to make a connection with a sizable portion of the country was because people had a sense that I said what I meant,” Obama told his former strategist David Axelrod during an interview last week, adding that O’Rourke has that same quality.
O’Rourke has received invitations to speak to Democratic groups in early presidential states like Iowa and New Hampshire, but has yet to accept them, a former senior adviser to his campaign told the network.
“We’ve had a lot of former Obama alumni saying: ‘If we can be helpful as you think about this, let us know. If you want our perspective on what it’s like to run a national campaign, let us know,'” said the former O’Rourke aide, who spoke to NBC News on condition of anonymity.
And a new group, co-founded by a former Obama field organizer, has been created to attempt to draft O’Rourke into the presidential race. “Beto has a special ability—like President Obama did—to make people believe in the best version of America,” Lauren Pardi, who worked on Obama’s campaign in New Hampshire, told the network news outlet.
It may not be reaching too far to predict that, along with having the same initials in their names—Barack O’Bama, Beto O’Rourke—they may enjoy the same political destiny.
Research contact: @aseitzwald