The Trump Administration Is Letting Wells Fargo Get Away With Grand Theft Auto

The Nation

The Trump Administration Is Letting Wells Fargo Get Away With Grand Theft Auto

The recent fine assessed by the CFPB is window dressing on a miscarriage of justice.

By David Dayen       April 23, 2018

Donald Trump speaks during an event at the White House in this December 7, 2017 file photo. Trump tweeted on December 8 that fines and penalties against Wells Fargo would not be dropped, and could actually be “substantially increased.” (AP Photo / Evan Vucci)

In January, Wells Fargo announced a one-time benefit from the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of $3.89 billion. With the 40 percent cut in the corporate-income tax, Wells could write down the cost of its deferred tax liabilities—money it owed down the road to the government. So with the stroke of a pen, Donald Trump made Wells Fargo $3.89 billion richer.

The benefits didn’t end there. In the first quarter of this year, Wells Fargo enjoyed a drastically reduced effective income-tax rate of 18.8 percent, down from 27.5 percent a year earlier. That produced a $636 million savings, on top of the $3.89 billion. Wells Fargo’s Q1 income would have declined year-over-year were it not for the tax law.

When you put Wells Fargo’s ongoing tax bounty against Friday’s $1 billion fine from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency for scamming customers on mortgage and auto loans, the penalty looks more like a kickback, worth 22 percent of what Wells Fargo has been gifted in tax savings so far. Over time that $1 billion will constitute a smaller and smaller percentage of the tax perk, more like a tip to the Trump administration—a thank-you for its generous support.

The Trump administration gets something out of it too. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, under the misdirection of anti-regulatory zealot Mick Mulvaney, had been criticized for not recording a single enforcement action in the 135 days since Mulvaney took over. The Wells Fargo fine, an outgrowth of a defensive tweet from the president in response to media reports that the case would be tossed out altogether, is intended to be the exception that disproves the rule. “We have said all along that we will enforce the law,” Mulvaney got to say in a statement. “That is what we did here.”

Except that doesn’t seem to be what Mulvaney did, because “enforcing the law” would have meant sending a criminal referral to the Justice Department for sanction against individual Wells Fargo executives. Instead, the bureau, along with the bank regulators at the OCC, settled for another fine, paid by shareholders instead of executives, ensuring that nobody in charge at Wells Fargo will see the inside of a jail cell for crimes that include what amounts to grand theft auto. Critics of the Obama administration’s approach to corporate crime fumed at a series of weak fines that created no accountability in the banking sector. The Trump administration’s alternative of one marginally bigger fine does not represent an advance.

It’s important to understand just what Wells Fargo did in this case, as described in the consent order. Regulators identified two violations: Wells Fargo charged “rate lock” extension fees to borrowers who wanted to keep their initial interest-rate quote for a mortgage, when the delays were of Wells Fargo’s own making; and the bank “force-placed” auto insurance on borrowers’ loans without telling them, in many cases causing loan defaults and repossessing the vehicles.

We’ve known about the auto-insurance abuses since at least last July, and the rate-lock extension fees since Wells Fargo self-reported last October. The CFPB had already been investigating this before Mulvaney entered the office. “Investigations that take many months or even years, and that are just now being finalized, are due to the aggressive work my team did to bring predatory behavior to light,” said his predecessor, Richard Cordray, who’s now running for governor of Ohio. “To suggest this is the work of Mulvaney, who has done nothing but throw sticks in the spokes of a talented, hardworking CFPB team of devoted public servants, is preposterous.”

The consent order unveils a significant amount of information about how Wells Fargo went about overcharging customers. On the mortgage issue, Wells Fargo brokers sold a policy that would lock in interest rates when delays were caused by borrowers. But the CFPB found internal communications showing that they were not training loan officers correctly on what to tell borrowers about the rate-lock policy. And indeed, the policy was inconsistently applied, with borrowers paying in cases where Wells Fargo was to blame for delays in mortgage processing. An extra quarter-percent in an interest rate can translate into paying thousands of dollars more over the life of a loan, giving borrowers incentives to lock in rates. Charging borrowers these rate-lock fees when Wells Fargo was responsible for the delay amounts to theft.

The auto-insurance scam was even worse. All car owners must have insurance attached to the vehicle. Wells Fargo worked out a plan with auto-loan customers whereby, if the borrower did not obtain insurance, the bank could automatically place it and charge the premiums through the loan payment. It turned out that Wells Fargo executed this force-placed auto insurance 2 million times since 2005, including hundreds of thousands of instances where the borrower already had auto insurance. Numerous other times, the borrower obtained the required insurance but Wells Fargo never canceled the force-placed policy. Even if Wells Fargo eventually canceled the policies, it failed to refund borrowers for unnecessary or duplicative insurance.

The CFPB has documentation that Wells Fargo knew about high cancellations of auto insurance placed on borrowers in error. It knew that the system for force-placing insurance was inadequate and led to hundreds of thousands of unnecessary insurance policies. Furthermore, borrowers who were unaware of the extra insurance premium got behind on payments as a result. Between 2011 and 2016, at least 27,000 car owners went into default and lost their vehicles because of a scam operation Wells Fargo ran. It’s really just stealing cars.

So the CFPB knows who received the briefings that Wells Fargo was stealing cars and ripping off mortgage borrowers. It has names on internal documents of executives who were discussing these issues. It is aware of who turned a blind eye to this scheme that impoverished people and took their cars away. Isn’t that enough to refer to the Justice Department to investigate violations of criminal laws involving theft and fraud? The CFPB cannot make its own criminal cases, but it has every authority to make a criminal referral. The bureau declined to comment on whether it did refer the case to the Justice Department.

Critics of the culture of no accountability on Wall Street have clamored for this level of justice since the financial crisis. Nobody was demanding a relatively higher fine, even one that could be termed as the largest fine in the CFPB’s history. The belief is that the only way to truly hold top bankers accountable would be to make them feel the consequences of their actions. That’s what happened to a small degree earlier this year, when the Federal Reserve relieved Wells Fargo board members of their jobs. And the OCC’s consent order with Wells Fargo gives that agency the power to fire executives or board members in the future, a direct consequences of the Fed’s bold action.

But the real sanction for criminal activity should be a criminal sentence. Wells Fargo merely had to pay back some of its tax benefits. It even booked this charge in the first quarter, retaining a net profit of $4.7 billion. And the CFPB may not be able to bring a case like this in the future, as a bipartisan bill in Congress would strip it of oversight of certain insurance products, like car insurance sold by a financial company.

If this is what’s considered “enforcing the law,” then the law only technically still exists.

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David Dayen is the author of Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud, which won the Studs and Ida Terkel Prize.

Trump officials went on a taxpayer-funded shopping spree. Here’s the bill.

ThinkProgress

Trump officials went on a taxpayer-funded shopping spree. Here’s the bill.

Well over $3 million and counting.

Adam Peck      April 24, 2018

 

Last week, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer joined the cabal of cabinet-level officials from the Trump White House who have to defend themselves against charges of misusing taxpayer dollars for his own benefit.

The New York Post discovered that Lighthizer had authorized nearly $1,000,000 in spending to renovate two of his Washington, DC offices on the taxpayer’s dime. That figure included a 30-inch, $859 plaque emblazoned with the words “Executive Office of the President,” 90 office chairs billed at $600 apiece, and a $3,500 antique desk for himself.

Lighthizer, Donald Trump’s top general in his Great Trade War of 2018, defended the exorbitant spending in the most Republican way imaginable: he blamed President Obama.

“The furniture purchases are the culmination of a longtime, planned project that began under the Obama Administration to replace two-decade-old furniture,” read a statement issued by Lighthizer’s office. “Laughable,” was what one former Obama administration official said in response. Combined, the past two Trade Representatives spent less than half of what Lighthizer’s office spent during the same period of time.

But Lighthizer’s spending got us thinking. Donald Trump filled his cabinet with a who’s who of multi-millionaires (and the occasional billionaire) and yet several of them have spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars for private flights overseas, lavish furniture for their offices and residences, and the occasional soundproof phone booth.

Here’s a quick look at the creative and extravagant ways these millionaires have spent your money (so far).

Credit: Adam Peck. Photos via Getty Image. Photo of urban cowboy Ryan Zinke via @VP/Twitter
Credit: Adam Peck. Photos via Getty. Photo of Urban Cowboy Ryan Zinke via @VP twitter. 
A few notes about what these figures do (and do not) include. Government officials always travel for work, but the Trump administration has an unusual appetite for first class or privately chartered flights. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in privately chartered domestic flights (not including his attempt to book an Air Force jet for his honeymoon), in sharp contrast to former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geither, who always flew in coach on commercial airlines.

 

Credit: Getty Images
Credit: Getty Images CREDIT:
 

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has been dogged by similar accusations of exorbitant spending for months. His office shelled out over $40,000 for the purchase and installation of a soundproof phone booth for his office, more than $2,000 for two desks for his office (after his initial request for $70,000 was denied), and an additional $2,460 to repair the door to his deeply discounted apartment, which was busted down after his security detail grew concerned he was unconscious and in need of medical attention. Turns out he was taking a nap.

Pruitt also spent more than $150,000 on first class flights, an expenditure he defended by claiming to be the target of constant, unnamed threats. “Look, there have been incidents on planes. There have been incidents in airports, and those incidents, you know, occurred, and they are of different types,” Pruitt eloquently told CBS News earlier this year. “These threats have been unprecedented from the very beginning, and the quantity and type are unprecedented.” It’s unclear just how recognizable Scott Pruitt thinks he is to the general public, though judging by how many of you didn’t realize the photo above is a stock image of “caucasian politician” and not, in fact, Scott Pruitt, the answer is: not very.

What’s not included in this total are things like questionable salary expenses. Take Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Mick Mulvaney. From his days in Congress, Mulvaney has sought to abolish the CFPB, arguing the agency tasked with protecting taxpayers from predatory financial institutions is a federal boondoggle. During the most recent budget process, he submitted a request for zero dollars for the agency, arguing it was their duty to be “responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars.” Instead, he hired at least eight people to work at the CFPB, half of whom have annual salaries in excess of $250,000, more than $100,000 above the top salary allowed under the federal government pay scale.

Enbridge shares fall on Minnesota pipeline route ruling

Reuters – Business

Enbridge shares fall on Minnesota pipeline route ruling

Reuters          April 24, 2018 

Toronto, April 24 (Reuters) – Shares of Canadian pipeline operator Enbridge Inc dropped more than 4 percent on Tuesday after a Minnesota judge agreed the Line 3 oil pipeline replacement project was needed, but rejected the company’s preferred route.

Enbridge has proposed a C$8.2 billion ($6.4 billion)replacement of its existing Line 3 export pipeline, which extends from Alberta into Wisconsin, doubling capacity on the line to 760,000 barrels per day.

But the project has run into opposition in Minnesota from the state, along with Native American tribes and environmental activists who have questioned whether the replacement is needed.

Administrative Law Judge Ann O’Reilly, of the Minnesota Office of Administrative Hearings for the Public Utilities Commission ruled late on Monday that Enbridge should be issued permission for the replacement, but said the company should use its existing right of way, adding hurdles to the project’s construction.

Under the judge’s recommended route, the existing pipeline would need to be removed and the new one put in its place. Enbridge had asked to leave its current Line 3 in the ground and lay new pipe, at times following a new corridor in the state.

The company said in a statement that it was pleased the judge had supported the project and said it would review her recommendations on routing.

The latest obstacle to Line 3 comes as work has been halted on Kinder Morgan Canada’s Trans Mountain expansion pending a May 31 decision on whether the project, which faces opposition in the Canadian province of British Columbia, will go ahead.

Canada’s oil producers, meanwhile, are desperate for new export pipelines, as rising production and tight capacity on existing pipelines and via rail has led to Canadian crude trading at a wide discount to the West Texas Intermediate benchmark.

Shares of Enbridge were down 4.72 percent at C$37.94 on Tuesday morning.

($1 = 1.2827 Canadian dollars) (Reporting by Julie Gordon in Toronto; Editing by Dan Grebler)

EPA chief signs proposal limiting science used in decisions

The Seattle Times

EPA chief signs proposal limiting science used in decisions

By Michael Biesecker and Seth Borenstein, Associated Press

Originally published April 24, 2018

In this April 3, 2018, file photo, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt speaks at a news conference at the EPA in Washington. New internal documents say a sweep for hidden listening devices in Pruitt’s office was shoddy and wasn’t properly certified under U.S. government practices (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik,

WASHINGTON (AP) — Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has signed a proposed rule that would restrict the types of scientific studies regulators can use to determine the impact of pesticide and pollution exposure on human health.

Pruitt says the change would increase transparency in the agency’s decision-making by requiring all underlying data used in scientific studies to be made publicly available.

Critics, including former EPA administrators and scientists, say Pruitt’s move is designed to restrict the agency from citing peer-reviewed public-health studies that use patient medical records required to be kept confidential under patient privacy laws.

The embattled EPA administrator signed the proposed order at EPA headquarters Tuesday in an event that was livestreamed on the agency’s website but not open to press coverage.

Wealthiest Americans poised to take advantage of loophole left by GOP tax plan

ThinkProgress

Wealthiest Americans poised to take advantage of loophole left by GOP tax plan

By Rebekah Entralgo      April 23, 2108

Credit: Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The non-partisan Joint Committee on Taxation released a report Monday detailing the effects of the GOP tax bill, ahead of a Tuesday Senate hearing on the same subject.

The findings indicate that nearly 44 percent of the tax cuts for so-called pass-through businesses will go to tax filers making more than $1 million in 2018, while more than 90 percent of the cuts will go to those earning more than $100,000.

Credit: Joint Committee on Taxation

As ThinkProgress previously reported, even though Republicans repeatedly claimed their tax plan would provide cuts for small business owners, pass-through businesses are not small businesses in the mom-and-pop sense, but rather are entities like partnerships, S-corporations, and limited liability companies (LLCs).

The final version of the GOP tax bill transformed the pass-through tax break into a deduction against taxable income, effectively cutting the top rate on pass-through income down from 39.6 percent to 29.6 percent.

This provides top pass-through earners — such as hedge fund owners and lawyers — with an enormous loophole, allowing them to effectively re-characterize parts of their income to pay taxes at a rate 10 points lower than what they are currently paying.

Trump’s ‘small business tax cut’ is actually for rich people who don’t work

It’s not just business owners and lawyers with crafty accountants who stand to benefit from this loophole either: several members of Congress who helped craft the tax bill will benefit as well.

According to a report from the Center For American Progress Action Fund (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed at CAPAF), there are 15 Republicans from tax writing committees in Congress that can expect to receive an average tax windfall of $314,000 from the pass-through provision.

It should come as no surprise that President Donald Trump himself, along with many of his Cabinet members, are the owners of such pass-through businesses. The Trump Organization oversees at least 500 of them. As a result, Trump could get an annual tax cut worth $23 million, while one of his closest advisers and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, could see a cut of up to $17 million.

Average American workers, meanwhile, won’t be seeing much of a tax cut.

The non-partisan Tax Policy Center found that top 1 percent will get an average cut of $1,022,120, while the middle 20 percent will get an average cut of $420.

The public has appeared to catch on to the scam. A Monday Gallup poll found that a majority of Americans, from both sides of the aisle, aren’t sure if their taxes have gone up or down.

This millionaire revealed his tax return to show just how much the GOP tax law favors the rich

MoveOn.org shared a video.
April 23, 2018

In case there was any doubt that the GOP tax plan benefits the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us, this millionaire explains how much he’ll save:

Watch This Millionaire Explain How Easy It is for the Rich to Exploit the System

This millionaire revealed his tax return to show just how much the GOP tax law favors the rich (via Patriotic Millionaires)

Posted by NowThis Politics on Tuesday, April 17, 2018

NowThis Politics

This millionaire revealed his tax return to show just how much the GOP tax law favors the rich (via Patriotic Millionaires)

Senators worry Koch brothers have too much influence in Trump administration

Miami Herald

Senators worry Koch brothers have too much influence in Trump administration

By Anita Kumar     April 20, 2018

In this Aug. 30, 2013, file photo, Americans for Prosperity Foundation Chairman David Koch speaks in Orlando, Fla. The United Negro College Fund announced a $25 million grant from Koch Industries Inc. and the Charles Koch Foundation, a large donation from the conservative powerhouse Koch name that Democrats have sought to vilify heading into the 2014 mid-term elections. Phelan M. Ebenhack AP

Washington: A group of Democratic senators is asking the administration to explain its ties to Charles and David Koch after the conservative, wealthy brothers bragged to donors that they were responsible for some of President Donald Trump’s policies his first year in office.

The senators sent a letter asking for information this week following the distribution of a report to the Seminar Network, a group of donors that fund Koch brothers political and policy efforts, that takes credit for more than a dozen new policies, including replacing the Clean Power Plan, which cut greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, revoking monument designations, streamlining permits for infrastructure projects, repealing limits on short-term health insurance plans; and implementing tax cuts.

“Americans have a right to know if special interests are unduly influencing public policy decisions that have profound implications for public health, the environment, and the economy,” the senators write in their letters obtained by McClatchy.

The letters launch a larger effort by Democratic lawmakers to reveal the extent of the Koch brothers’ influence in the Trump administration.

Next week, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island will launch a series of speeches by senators on the Senate floor to describe Koch-funded groups that push policies.

The Koch network has been open about the issues it supports, even inviting 30 reporters, including one from McClatchy, to its annual gathering of 550 supporters and donors in January in California, Koch network spokesman James Davis said.

“We’ll work with anyone to make progress on these issues,” he said.

The Koch network is currently airing TV ads urging Democrats and Republicans to find a way to protect so-called Dreamers or young immigrants who came to the United States illegally as children.

“This is emblematic of what’s wrong with Washington,” Davis said. “People playing political games rather than coming together and solving issues.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Special interest groups trying to influence the federal government is nothing new. Left-leaning groups, such as the Center for American Progress, a think tank, and the Sierra Club, for example, take credit for policies implemented during President Barack Obama’s administration.

But Stephen Spaulding, chief of strategy at Common Cause, a government watchdog group, said the Koch brothers go far beyond what other groups do in sheer scope, especially with the amount of money spent and number of people involved.

“It’s clear they are doing whatever they can to take advantage of the political dynamics to ram their agenda through,” Spaulding said.

Long-standing members of the Koch network fill the ranks of the federal government, raising concerns about the network’s access to and influence over federal decision making. (six Democratic senators write in letters to the Trump administration)

The Kochs did not support Trump during the election. Charles Koch criticized him and even said that his idea of a Muslim ban were “reminiscent of Nazi Germany.”

Yet 44 Trump administration officials have close ties to the Koch brothers and their political groups, according to a November 2017 report by Public Citizen, a government watchdog group.

Several high-level officials in the Trump administration, current White House Counsel Don McGahn, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president; and Marc Short, director of legislative affairs; worked for the Koch network. Others, including Vice President Mike Pence, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and OMB Director Mick Mulvaney, have benefited from donations.

Koch Industries, the second-largest private company in the nation based in Wichita, Kansas, and its affiliates spent more than $11 million on donations in the 2016 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The Koch network donates money to Republicans as well as organizations that then push officials to act, conduct research and polling, buy TV ads and activists to organize rallies and knock on doors. It also spends millions each year to lobby the federal government.

“This year, thanks in part to research and outreach efforts across institutions, we have seen progress on many regulatory priorities this Network has championed for years,” according to the six-page report “Efforts in Government: Advancing Principled Public Policy,” first reported by the Intercept.

The senators sent letters to the White House, the departments of labor, interior, treasury and veterans affairs, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of Management and Budget, the National Labor Relations Board and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

The senators asked for emails, memos, meeting notes, correspondence and calendar items between federal employees and any employee, member or representative of Koch Industries or any of its subsidiaries or Koch-related groups, the Seminar Network, Americans for Prosperity, Americans for Prosperity Foundation, Freedom Partners, Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, Freedom Partners Action Fund, Concerned Veterans for America, the LIBRE Initiative, Generation Opportunity, i360, Mercatus Center, Texas Public Policy Foundation, Americans for Tax Reform, the Heritage Foundation and National Federation of Independent Business. It asks for the information by May 15.

In addition to Whitehouse, five other senators signed the letter: Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey, both of Massachusetts, Tom Udall of New Mexico, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada.

Locked and Loaded: What Fresh Pretext Will Trigger US in Syria?

MintPress News

Locked and Loaded: What Fresh Pretext Will Trigger US in Syria?

Between the imminent arrival of thousands of U.S. troops, Israel’s continued military action against Syria, and the Syrian rebel’s poised to stage a false-flag attack, it seems that last weekend’s strikes were only the kickoff for an expanding U.S.-led military operation targeting the Syrian government.

By  Whitney Webb       April 18, 2018

A U.S. Marine fires a howitzer in the early morning in Syria in support of the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces), June 3, 2017. (Marines Corps Photo)

DAMASCUS, SYRIA – Though U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis called the recent strikes targeting Syria a “one-time shot,” recent evidence suggests that the U.S. will likely strike Syria again in the coming weeks and months. Indeed, after the U.S. — along with the U.K. and France – chose to attack Syria based on “evidence” from social media and YouTube purporting to show a chemical weapons attack, U.S. officials warned that the U.S. would not hesitate to attack Syria again if similar evidence suggesting Syrian government use of chemical weapons were to emerge, regardless of how flimsy or controversial such evidence might be.

“I spoke to President Trump this morning and he said if the Syrian regime uses this poisonous gas again, the United States is locked and loaded,” stated U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley this past Sunday.

As several analysts have noted, this essentially flings open the door for rebel groups throughout Syria to stage chemical-weapons attacks, knowing that even a single YouTube video will be enough to trigger a military response from the United States that would benefit the rebels’ bid to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In the wake of the recent strikes, rebel groups chided the U.S. for doing insufficient damage to the Assad-led government, calling the strikes a “farce.” Surely, the rebels would consider staging a chemical-weapons attack if it would result in a much more significant strike targeting the Syrian military and government.

Such actions on the part of the rebels would not be unprecedented. For instance, recently released information – as well as the testimony of Western journalists on the ground in Douma – suggest that the chemical attack in Douma was staged.

Less than a month prior to the alleged attack in Douma, Russian officials warned that Syrian rebel factions were planning to stage a chemical attack in order to push the U.S. and its allies to attack the Syrian government. “New provocations with the use of chemical weapons are being prepared — performances will be organized in Eastern Ghouta, among others,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated on March 14th to a group of reporters.

U.S. troop movements belie Mattis’ “one-time shot” line

In addition to the high likelihood that Syrian rebels will attempt to bring about further U.S. military action in Syria, the U.S. military already seems to be preparing for that eventuality. Prior to the strikes, but after the U.S. announced that it was considering military action against Syria, the U.S. Navy stated that the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group (HSTCSG) would leave the U.S. and be deployed to the Middle East, focusing particularly on Syria.

Charles Lister: In addition to USS Donald Cook, the U.S has now dispatched USN Carrier Strike Group 8 to the Mediterranean/# Syria:

– USS Harry Truman aircraft carrier
– Carrier Air Wing VII
– USS Hué City missile cruiser
– x6 Arleigh Burke-class Destroyers
– x1 Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate

The strike group, which consists of 6,500 sailors, is still traveling to Syria and is expected to arrive within the next week. According to the Navy, the group’s mission is set to include “maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts alongside allies and partners” and the group will “provide crisis response capability and increase theater security cooperation and forward naval presence.” Even though Mattis has claimed that U.S. military action targeting Syria was a one-time event, the HSTCSG’s deployment to Syria has not been canceled, suggesting that the U.S. is anticipating more strikes against Syria in the near future.

Beyond the imminent arrival of the Truman Strike Group, the U.S. is also amassing thousands of troops along the Syrian-Jordan border. An estimated 4,000 U.S. troops are set to arrive in Jordan for a military exercise called “Eager Lion,” which will last for 12 days – coinciding with the arrival of the USS Truman. The exercise will take place around Jordan’s capital of Amman, which lies 62 miles (100 km) from the Syrian border. Among the war scenarios to be included in the drill is a simulated attack with chemical weapons.

US Army Central: Senior military leaders from @ArmedForcesJO and @CENTCOM announced the beginning of Exercise Eager Lion 2018 on Sunday.

Israel wastes no time

Furthermore, along with apparent U.S. preparations for war, the U.S.’ staunchest ally in the region seems already to be involved in a hot war with Syria. The day after the strikes launched by the U.S., U.K. and France, Israel bombed the T4 airbase near the Syrian city of Homs — killing 14, including Iranian soldiers. Since then, Israel has continued to bomb Syria, with the latest taking place on Monday when the Shayrat airbase – also near Homs – was bombed.

Israel’s latest bombings seem to be aimed at provoking a wider conflict, given that they have targeted both Iranian and Syrian assets located within Syria. Israel, whose influence over U.S. foreign policy has arguably reached unprecedented levels under Trump, has also been actively pushing for a wider war in Syria over the past year – with Israeli officials calling for the murder of Assad and bombing of the Presidential Palace in Damascus.

Between the imminent arrival of 6,500 Navy sailors and 4,000 U.S. army ground troops around Syria, Israel’s continued military action against Syria, and the Syrian rebels poised to stage a false-flag chemical weapons attack, it seems that last weekend’s strikes against Syria were only the foundation for a more significant U.S.-led military operation targeting the Syrian government.

Whitney Webb is a staff writer for MintPress News and a contributor to Ben Swann’s Truth in Media. Her work has appeared on Global Research, the Ron Paul Institute and 21st Century Wire, among others. She has also made radio and TV appearances on RT and Sputnik. She currently lives with her family in southern Chile.

 Stories published in our Daily Digests section are chosen based on the interest of our readers. They are republished from a number of sources, and are not produced by MintPress News. The views expressed in these articles are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect MintPress News editorial policy.

First-time judge appointed by Trump issues his very first opinion. It’s a doozy.

ThinkProgress

First-time judge appointed by Trump issues his very first opinion. It’s a doozy.

This is not how judges are supposed to behave.

Ian Millhiser     April 19, 2018

Credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Judge James Ho has been a federal judge for only a few months. Until Wednesday, he had never handed down a judicial opinion in his life. But the Trump appointee’s very first opinion, a dissent calling for a sweeping assault on campaign contribution limits, is a doozy.

More than just an ideologically radical opinion, Judge Ho’s dissent from the full United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit’s decision not to rehear Zimmerman v. City of Austin is a monument to conservative political rhetoric and right-wing historical myths. It’s the sort of commentary one would expect to find in an especially strident political magazine — perhaps one of the publications one of Ho’s current law clerks used to write for. It is emphatically not the sort of writing one expects to find in a judicial opinion.

Newly confirmed judges — or, at least, newly confirmed judges who aren’t named “Neil Gorsuch” — are typically more careful than this. They don’t use their very first opinion to burn down the distinction between law and political myth-making.

The core issue in Zimmerman involves an Austin, Texas ordinance prohibiting candidates for mayor or city council from accepting campaign donations greater than $350. It is constitutional, even after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, to limit contributions directly to candidates — the federal contribution limit of $2,700, for example, is constitutional even under the Roberts Court’s reading of the Constitution.

There are also some Supreme Court decisions suggesting that an excessively low contribution limit might violate the Constitution. But a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit held that Austin’s $350 limit is not too low, and 12 of Ho’s 14 colleagues voted not to rehear this case. Judge Ho was one of only two judges who thought that the panel’s decision needed further review. As it happens, Ho spends much of his opinion arguing that the $350 limit is, in fact, too low.

But then he goes even farther. The newly minted judge suggests that all contribution limits “are simultaneously over- and underinclusive—defects that have been held fatal in other First Amendment contexts.” It appears that Judge Ho would even strike down the much higher federal limit.

The most striking part of Ho’s opinion, however, is his conclusion. There, he steps away from legal argument entirely to launch into a political rant against big government — complete with a gratuitous swipe at Obamacare.

To be sure, many Americans of good faith bemoan the amount of money spent on campaign contributions and political speech. But if you don’t like big money in politics, then you should oppose big government in our lives. Because the former is a necessary consequence of the latter. When government grows larger, when regulators pick more and more economic winners and losers, participation in the political process ceases to be merely a citizen’s prerogative—it becomes a human necessity. This is the inevitable result of a government that would be unrecognizable to our Founders. See, e.g., NFIB v. Sebelius, 567 U.S. 519 (2012).

There’s a lot to break down here, but let’s start with the citation. NFIB v. Sebelius was a mostly unsuccessful attempt to convince the Supreme Court to repeal the Affordable Care Act. It has literally nothing to do with any of the legal issues present in Zimmerman. NFIB claimed that a health regulation exceeded Congress’ authority under Article I of the Constitution; Zimmerman is a First Amendment challenge to a campaign finance law.

The only reason to cite NFIB to support the proposition that our government “would be unrecognizable to our Founders” is to take a political swipe at Obamacare and at the Supreme Court that disagreed with Ho’s view of this law.

(Ho’s implication that the Affordable Care Act is inconsistent with the framers’ understanding of the Constitution is also dubious — to the extent that it is even possible to claim that a group of Eighteenth Century political leaders with divergent views shared a common understanding. The very first Supreme Court decision interpreting Congress’ power to regulate interstate commerce provides a great deal of support for the Affordable Care Act.)

Ho’s suggestion that a modern regulatory and welfare state necessarily requires a lax campaign finance regime is also inaccurate. Canada, with its single-payer health care system, has both strict limits on donations to candidates and even stricter limits on campaign spending. In 2015, for example, the Canada Elections Act limited spending by candidates for the most expensive parliamentary race to about $210,000 US dollars. That’s not nothing, but it is far less than the $28 million raised by competing candidates for a US House race last year.

Great Britain, with its socialized medicine, has a similar regime limiting spending by candidates and parties.

Judge Ho’s appeal to the Founders is James Madison fan fiction. It bears no more resemblance to the original understanding of the Constitution than a Harry Turtledove novel resembles the Civil War.

And then there’s Ho’s suggestion that the Founding Fathers would be appalled by Austin’s limit on campaign contributions. Judge Ho begins his opinion with a flourish. “The unfortunate trend in modern constitutional law is not only to create rights that appear nowhere in the Constitution, but also to disfavor rights expressly enumerated by our Founders,” he writes, adding that “this case reinforces this regrettable pattern.”

But Judge Ho’s appeal to the Founders is nothing more than James Madison fan fiction. It bears no more resemblance to the original understanding of the Constitution than a Harry Turtledove novel resembles the Civil War.

For one thing, attempting to figure out how the framers understood the First Amendment is a fool’s game. As Jud Campbell, a young conservative legal scholar, writes in the Yale Law Journal, “after a century of academic debate . . . the meanings of speech and press freedoms at the founding remain remarkably hazy.” First Amendment scholar Rod Smolla is even more pointed — “One can keep going round and round on the original meaning of the First Amendment, but no clear, consistent vision of what the framers meant by freedom of speech will ever emerge.”

Judge Ho, in other words, is claiming a level of certainty about the founding era understanding of the First Amendment that evaded scholars for generations. Ho is either a singular and transformative genius in the field of First Amendment history, or he is letting his political desires get ahead of what anyone actually knows.

But here’s something we actually do know about political campaigns at the time of the founding: Fans of the musical Hamilton may remember President Thomas Jefferson’s dismissive swipe at Vice President Aaron Burr near the end of the play — “Man openly campaigns against me, talkin’ bout ‘I look forward to our partnership.’” One reason this line is so biting is because, for much of American history, the idea that a presidential candidate would actively campaign for their own election was considered a vulgarity. Campaigns were typically conducted by surrogates.

As President Andrew Jackson once said to a friend, “I meddle not with elections. I leave the people to make their own President.”

And here’s something else we know about the founding era: they didn’t have television. Or the Internet. Or anything resembling modern political communications. The Founders and their contemporaries had no concept of what a modern political race would look like, or myriad of ways that contemporary technology allows big spenders to shape elections.

There is simply no way to know, in other words, whether modern campaign finance laws “disfavor rights” that the founding generation understood the Constitution to protect. As Doug Kendall and Jim Ryan once wrote of Justice Clarence Thomas’ originalism, asking how 18th Century figures would have reacted to such a transformed landscape is “as productive as asking an only child: Imagine you have a sister. Now, does she like cheese?