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.

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)

The Great Republican Tax Cut Backfire

HuffPost

The Great Republican Tax Cut Backfire

Robert Kuttner, HuffPost      April 23, 2018

Did you have a happy Tax Day? Are you feeling grateful for the Republican tax cut?

Evidently, most American taxpayers are not.

In a sublime case of poetic justice, the so-called Tax Cut and Jobs Act is backfiring on the Republicans big time. Most voters are unimpressed, and Republicans themselves are ceasing to emphasize it in their campaign material.

In the March 13 special election for the Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, where Democrat Conor Lamb narrowly beat Republican Rick Saccone, Republicans actually pulled ads that bragged about the tax act, because their polls showed that it was more of a target than an achievement.

Republican strategists who wanted President Donald Trump to emphasize the tax cut this spring were initially annoyed that he was talking about trade, immigration and Korea instead. Now they realize that Trump may be onto something.

Even better, Democrats are sensing that the tax issue can be turned against the Republicans in the 2018 and 2020 elections. This outcome is the result of Republican overreach, opportunism, and sheer greed.

Previous Republican tax cuts, under Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush, were also tilted to the top, but made sure to include some real benefits for regular people. But this bill was so heavily skewed to the wealthy that most people won’t see any benefits at all in their paychecks.

In their excess, Republicans also managed to accomplish something ― for their opposition ― that has entirely eluded Democrats on tax politics since Reagan: total party unity. Reagan’s two big tax cuts in 1981 and 1986 peeled off lots of Democratic votes in Congress. Though the substance of the supply-side cuts was bogus, many Democrats figured that if the bill was going to pass anyway, they should share in the credit. The same thing happened with the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003.

This time, however, the tax bill was both so extreme in its substance, and so purely partisan in the way it was enacted, that not a single Democrat in either the House or the Senate voted for it.

Republicans were counting on the sheer complexity of tax policy to put one over on the voters, but their con was much too easy to grasp.

By increasing the deficit to the tune of some $1.8 trillion over a decade, they were setting up demands for offsetting cuts in widely supported programs like Medicare and Social Security.  Those calls are already coming, from Republicans who belatedly and disingenuously discovered the tax bill’s impact on the deficit. And this presents a fat target for Democrats.

Some of the law’s specific measures, such as the $10,000 limit on the deductibility of state sales and income taxes and local property taxes, were intended to punish voters in blue states with relatively progressive taxes and decent public services, such as New York and California. But there are at least 20 endangered Republican House members in such states who will find out that this spiteful provision is impossible to defend.

When the bill passed, many Democrats were gun-shy about making this a prime election issue, on the premise that tax cuts are invariably popular. This one isn’t.

The tax law also gives Democrats the chance to ask: What else might we do with $1.8 trillion? For instance, a true invest-in-America program that rebuilds archaic infrastructure and creates lots of good jobs. Or substantial relief from crippling college debt. On multiple levels, the tax act invites debates that play to the strengths of Democrats.

Each claim in the Republican propaganda is phony. The growth stimulated by the bill will not enable the cuts to pay for themselves. The changes in the tax code are not increasing investment — mainly, they are promoting more corporate stock buybacks that artificially pump up share values and further enrich the rich.

Far from creating incentives to reverse off-shoring, the law actually enables corporations to pay a lower rate of tax on profits earned overseas. And despite a good deal of messaging by corporate allies of Trump claiming that worker raises and bonuses are the fruit of the tax cuts, the small number of pay increases are a pittance compared with the tax savings for companies.

Last week, headlines were made by the news that regulators had levied a $1 billion fine against Wells Fargo for chronic frauds against its customers. That $1 billion was less than a third of the money that Wells Fargo saves from the tax cut.

The ancient Greeks held that character is fate. And the tax act speaks volumes about the character of today’s Republican Party.

Republicans are supposed to be for fiscal balance. But when there is an opportunity to deliver trillion-dollar favors for corporations and the rich, deficits are no problem.

Republicans are allegedly for states’ rights. But this law greatly limits the ability of states to make their own choices about taxing and spending.

Republicans are supposed to be for economic efficiency. But this tax bill creates incentives for economically perverse activity, such as stock buybacks and sheer gimmicks such as “pass-through” entities where the point is not to improve the economy, but to merely to give the wealthy a break.

Trump promised to Make America Great Again. This law promotes more off-shoring.

The law is such a political loser for Republicans, and the hypocrisy is so ripe, that one has to believe that Republicans sensed this was going to be their last chance for a long while to grab whatever they could. They made few concessions to political realism.

Now, they brace themselves for a long period in the political wilderness, knowing this law has helped to seal their fate.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. His new book is: Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?

Protect our oceans from off-shore oil drilling.

From The Nation – EarthJustice

Because The Earth Needs a Good Lawyer

Take Action! Protect our oceans from off-shore oil drilling.

Trip Van Noppen, President Earthjustice

President Obama’s permanent withdrawal of the vast majority of the Arctic Ocean and important parts of the Atlantic from new offshore oil and gas drilling is under attack by President Trump and his dirty-energy allies.

On April 28, 2017, Trump issued an order attempting to reverse the Arctic and Atlantic offshore drilling bans and calling for expanded drilling in our oceans. The attempt to jettison Obama’s historic protections for our oceans is unlawful, and we’re challenging it in court.

Earlier this year, Trump went a step further by proposing a new five-year plan for offshore leasing that would expand drilling to every coast of the United States. This plan puts wildlife, coastal communities, and our climate at risk for the sole benefit of Big Oil, and it takes us in exactly the wrong direction.

For years, Earthjustice has been instrumental in preventing risky and rushed oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean. The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world, putting tremendous strain on the Arctic’s diverse wildlife and people. Experts agree that an oil spill in the Arctic would be catastrophic and could not be contained in the remote, icy, and stormy seas.

Drilling in the Atlantic could harm unique and critical habitat for whales, swordfish and sea turtles, and threaten the region’s vibrant fishing and tourism industries. Public opposition to Atlantic drilling is strong and growing.

The Gulf of Mexico—already debilitated by drilling and spills—could bear even more of a burden under this proposed plan. The Pacific coast may also be facing federal offshore leasing for the first time in decades.

Opening new waters and expanding existing areas to oil and gas drilling is dangerous and just not worth it. Tell congressional leaders they should condemn Trump’s attempt to open our oceans to new exploration and drilling. Urge them to add their voices to the majority of Americans who support permanently protecting these sensitive and irreplaceable waters.

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.

Homebuilders paid for Pruitt’s Colorado hotel stay

Politico

Homebuilders paid for Pruitt’s Colorado hotel stay

By Lorraine Woellert          April 17, 2018

During his visit to Colorado Springs, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt gave a speech to the builders and invited them to EPA headquarters in Washington, where he later told his staff to regard them as the agency’s “customers.” Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo

A group of Colorado home-builders paid for a luxury hotel stay last fall for EPA chief Scott Pruitt, eight months after the Trump administration began work on a major priority for their industry by unwinding an Obama-era wetlands regulation.

During his visit to Colorado Springs, Pruitt gave a speech to the builders and invited them to EPA headquarters in Washington, where he later told his staff to regard them as the agency’s “customers,” the head of the group told POLITICO.

The $409.12 hotel stay may have met federal legal requirements if EPA’s ethics officers had approved it ahead of time. But it’s likely to add to the storm of ethics controversies surrounding Pruitt, who faces scrutiny from EPA’s inspector general, the White House and members of Congress for his travel and security spending and a $50-a-night Capitol Hill rental he accepted from the wife of an energy lobbyist.

The $409 hotel room “might be the least of his problems, but it’s emblematic of all his problems,” said Virginia Canter, an ethics lawyer for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit watchdog group.

“It’s one thing when a head of an agency or senior official is engaged in legitimate outreach,” Canter added. “But to give a speech, accept a benefit of overnight lodging, then a few weeks later instruct your staff that these are your clients strikes me as inappropriate. At a minimum it raises an appearance issue.”

Pruitt is known to actively seek speaking slots at events with key groups with a stake in the agency’s actions. A former staffer, Kevin Chmielewski, has told lawmakers that Pruitt directed his staff to find places he could visit, congressional Democrats wrote in a letter last week. A former lobbyist also recalled Pruitt and his staff persistently asking for an invite to a conservative event that fundraisers frequently attend.

EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the travel arrangements.

Pruitt agreed to speak to the Housing and Building Association of Colorado Springs after it offered to cover his expenses, including his flights and $409.12 to put him up at The Broadmoor, a lakeside golf resort, on Oct. 4, according to the builder group’s chief executive officer, Renee Zentz. The hotel advertises itself as “a legendary Forbes Five-Star and AAA Five-Diamond resort with impeccable service and distinctive amenities.”

EPA never billed the trade group for his flights, Zentz said in an interview. And while Pruitt stayed at The Broadmoor as the group had agreed, his entourage spent the night at a different hotel, Zentz said.

“We didn’t pay for his team but we paid for him. That was the agreement when we talked to him,” Zentz said. “We just wanted to get him here, we were just so excited to have him.”

The trip’s headline event was a Pruitt speech to a lunch gathering of about 150 people on Oct. 5, Zentz said. In a stroke of good timing, board members from the National Association of Home Builders were meeting in nearby Santa Fe, N.M., and flew up for the event. NAHB President Jerry Howard hustled in from Washington to moderate Pruitt’s remarks.

The group’s invitation describes the event as “a rare opportunity to hear directly from the EPA administration” and “our chance to make sure the concerns of our industry are being listened to.”

“It just was an awesome opportunity,” Zentz said. “It was a pretty big feather in our cap locally.”

Builders rank among Pruitt’s biggest supporters, even amid his recent spate of negative headlines. They also have lauded the administration’s efforts to roll back regulations on clean water and storm runoff, including a sweeping Obama-era EPA regulation called Waters of the United States that several industries have denounced as a multibillion-dollar drag on the economy. Granger MacDonald, then-chairman of the National Association of Home Builders in Washington, was at the White House in February 2017 when President Donald Trump signed an executive order that took the first step toward undoing that rule, one of his first acts in office.

Pruitt, who attended the signing ceremony, has since set about crafting a much more limited regulation to protect waterways and wetlands. Environmental groups have said the move could leave 60 percent of U.S. stream miles and 20 million acres of wetlands unprotected and vulnerable to development or pollution.

Before the October lunch in Colorado Springs, Pruitt sat down to an invitation-only coffee with about 20 business owners and builders, who complained about EPA’s approach to stormwater controls and other regulations. At the end of that meeting, Pruitt instructed staff to arrange a meeting in Washington with industry representatives, Zentz said.

That meeting took place at EPA headquarters on Oct. 24, when Pruitt and his staff met with eight to 10 industry representatives, including a Colorado builder from Zentz’s group.

Pruitt “wanted to hear from our districts. He called a representative from every single district,” Zentz said. “He put his staff in the room and said, ‘This is our customer, this is who we’re going to listen to.’

“He told his staff, ‘These are our customers,’” Zentz said. “He listened.”

Federal law allows government officials to accept travel reimbursement, including hotel stays, with prior approval from agency officers. But even if the agency had approved the room, it was inappropriate, CREW’s Canter said.

“It appears to be abuse of the travel approval,” she said. “It’s not intended to be used to provide luxury accommodations to the head of the agency so he can turn around two weeks later and say we give these guys favorable treatment.

Emily Holden and Annie Snider contributed to this report.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is pictured. | Getty Images

The Hypocrisy of Trump’s “Mission Accomplished” Boast About Syria

The New Yorker

The Hypocrisy of Trump’s “Mission Accomplished” Boast About Syria