Dis-United States INC.

John Hanno February 24, 2017                                                 

 

                                       “Dis-United States INC.”

What’s become of America’s political leadership? The new White House wrecking crew has quickly reversed all progress made by the Obama Administration in rebuilding our damaged preeminence in the world, after the previous Republi-con administration employed false pretenses to invade a sovereign nation and turn security of the world upside down.

And the Republican controlled United States Congress has become so toxic and polarized that none of the nation’s pressing issues can be debated on a bipartisan basis or even fairly discussed. These public servants shirk their legislative duty to govern and serve all Americans, and then gripe that the President and the courts are over stepping their constitutional boundaries, when the executive and judicial branches attempt to pick up the slack for congress’s indifference to the other 99% of us. Our founding fathers gave enormous power to the legislative branch but the Republican controlled Congress has abdicated that power to a despot who demands their fealty and benevolence.

The problems seem endless and intractable. Those issues: a living wage jobs program that favors workers in every state, every industry, urban and rural — comprehensive health care reform based on what’s good for the consumer and the national economy, and not just insurance companies and big pharma — energy reform encompassing a credible debate on climate change, global warming, alternative energy and a sustainable future —  financial reform that doesn’t unleash the banksters to pillage our financial well being — tax reform that doesn’t reward corporate cronyism and the super rich while crippling Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other social programs — comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship for those who wiped their tired and weary feet on the welcome map America held out to cheap labor — sensible gun control that a great majority of us believe is reasonable — infrastructure that’s good for all Americans and not just the well connected political benefactors — credible reforms of the Military Industrial and Prison Industrial complexes — and now even Congress’s inability to protect America from a foreign interloper intent on undermining our free and fair elections — can’t be kicked down the road much longer.

No more glaring dereliction of duty, than the failure of Congress to pass campaign finance reform that might pass constitutional muster. Since our “Ult Right” Supreme Court stepped in and gave the rich and powerful carte blanche to undermine our Democracy, with their Citizens United decision (striking down the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act/ McCain Feingold), a political environment we thought couldn’t get any worse, did, and by leaps and bounds. Thanks to the voters who pushed Trump over the line and thus empowered him to name a Supreme Court Justice who will no doubt quell any attempt to overturn that Citizens decision, campaign finance reform may not be fixed for a decade or more.

None of America’s exigent issues will be addressed unless we take the corrosive money out of politics. The Republicans have historically held a big advantage in raising campaign money, so the Democrats have in turn felt compelled to bridge that gap by veering too close to those non-aligned with the bottom half of America, those who live on average $16,000 a year. And that disloyalty showed during this election. The political class, no matter how much they rant about having to spend more than half their time raising campaign money, just can’t forsake the largess heaped on them by the rich and powerful. Their addiction has undermined our democracy and tanked their reputations and approval rating.

What every patriotic American must do before the next election, is to ask themselves some important questions. Are they satisfied with the way the last presidential election was conducted? Was it worth the 3 billion dollars expended? Could America’s families have spent that money more productively? Are they satisfied with the results? Well, we know at least the 66 million who voted for Hillary aren’t; and I’m sure many millions more who voted for Trump and are now having second thoughts that “America Won’t Be Great Again,” for them, sure aren’t. And are voters satisfied with the ability of all national news broadcasters and cable companies (not the print media) to hold politicians accountable for failing to represent American politics honestly and with integrity?

Unless your politicians, no matter the party affiliation, agree to take the “Make America Democratic Again Pledge,” kick them to the curb. They don’t deserve our loyalty. They must pledge to vote for legislation to ban all special interest contributions, fully support public financing for campaigns (believe me, it’s cheaper than $3 billion), demand free access to our public airwaves (including 3rd party candidates), encourage voter participation and not voter suppression, support efforts to abolish gerrymandering, and above all, limit the time we have to endure these caustic campaigns. A two month campaign, as long as everyone is focused on the issues, should be plenty. A two year long campaign is an abomination.

Another example of Congress’s abdication of duty, is their refusal to listen to the boarder states decades long cries for help on the issue of illegal immigration. Bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform pressed by the “Gang of 12,” and many others before them, failed in spite of strong support from ex-border state Governor, George Bush. The staunchest opponent was then Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trumps newly confirmed attorney general (and panderer in chief), who derisively referred to the “Gang of 12” as “the masters of the universe.”

So now the Donald, who pumped up his supporters during the campaign with his promise to build the best wall ever, but failed to mention the $20 or $30 billion price tag, is contemplating using 100,000 national guard troops in border states to round up most of the 11 million undocumented and send them back whence they came. The Donald’s pandering to his alternative fact base, fails to take into account these folks are not nefarious characters, but hard working people who represent 1 in 10 workers and that these law abiding undocumented immigrants are also voracious consumers of the crap we import from China and Mexico, spending every penny of their typically substandard wages on the latest phones and electronics and the latest fashions. Retailers everywhere might have something to say about disappearing these lucrative customers.

As for the decade long attempt at comprehensive energy reform, The House and Senate failed to reach a compromise on the sweeping energy policy bill S.2012, before the end of the 114th Congress. There’s slim to no chance the bill will be revived in the new Congress, considering Trumps one track “fossil fuel” mind on the issue. The two-year fight to substantially revamp U.S. energy policy for the first time in a decade, broke down in the last days of the 114th Congress. After the November election, there was little incentive for finalizing the bill, especially in the House. Alaska’s Sen. Lisa Murkowski, main sponsor of the bill, blamed the House for ignoring the Senate’s final attempts at negotiation. In her Senate speech, Murkowski accused the House of ignoring the Senate’s monumental efforts over 2 years to reach a final compromise on the reform bill and stated:

“The chairmen and the ranking members of the committees of jurisdiction, whether it is here in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the House Natural Resources Committee, the House Science Committee, the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee—we have been meeting to resolve our differences. Again, staff has been working around the clock. Just this weekend, we went through hundreds of pages to close out all of the issues. Again, we did it by the book. We did what we were supposed to be doing. We were the team players here. We adhered to the regular order process.

Senator Cantwell said we were doing the ‘normal’ process. But I think what we are doing now is extraordinary. It is not normal—because it seems that, if there is guerilla warfare that is going on, that seems to be the way to move a bill nowadays. That does not send a very powerful message nor set a good example for how to advance a consensus measure such as we have with the Energy bill.”

Its clear the House felt it would have a better chance at implementing provisions more favorable to their fossil fuel benefactors in the Republican controlled 115th Congress, without the threat of President Obama’s veto. The House version called for reducing funding for the Office of Science’s Biological and Environmental Research Program and the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy. Their bill also placed restrictions on climate research funded by the Department of Energy and would have banned that DOE research to be used in regulatory assessments. The Senate version of the bill increased funding for the Office of Science and didn’t put any restrictions on DOE research.

I won’t go into the Republi-con congress’ obstruction during President Obama’s two terms, I’ve blogged on the issue often; and no need to recap their 60 plus attempts to repeal the ACA, which supposedly cost more than $200,000 for each attempt. But these unpatriotic public servants, only serve their campaign benefactors, not the middle class families and workers who’s lives depend on honest representation.

This dishonesty is all too apparent when it comes to our environment. Republi-cons and Democrats operate in different galaxies; the Republi-cons on Planet quaking, shaking and breaking and the Democrats on Planet “help before I explode.” A perfect example is the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipeline tarbabys we’ve fought over, front and center in the news, for most of the last 2 years. Trump barely took his hand off the inauguration bible when he signed the executive order allowing both of the pipelines President Obama had rejected as detrimental to the battle for preserving mankind. Trump said he received no complaints about the pipelines he quickly approved, proving he really doesn’t or can’t read. It’s not surprising the White House Complaint phone lines were conveniently turned off.

 

(ABC NEWS) “Two days before the Trump administration approved an easement for the Dakota Access pipeline to cross a reservoir near the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe reservation, the U.S. Department of the Interior withdrew a legal opinion that concluded there was “ample legal justification” to deny it.”

“A pattern is emerging with [the Trump] administration,” said Jan Hasselman, an attorney representing the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. “They take good, thoughtful work and then just throw it in the trash and do whatever they want to do.”

The 35-page legal analysis of the pipeline’s potential environmental risks and its impact on treaty rights of the Standing Rock Sioux and other indigenous tribes was authored in December by then-Interior Department Solicitor Hilary C. Tompkins, an Obama appointee who was — at the time — the top lawyer in the department.

“The government-to-government relationship between the United States and the Tribes calls for enhanced engagement and sensitivity to the Tribes’ concerns,” Tompkins wrote. “The Corps is accordingly justified should it choose to deny the proposed easement.”

But Donald “I’m a bigly environmentalist” Trump, previous governor Daltrmple and new governor Burgum couldn’t care less about public and Native American health and safety. North Dakota has spent about $20 million and borrowed almost $6 million from the Bank of North Dakota, employing tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, fire hoses, concussion cannons and other forms of intimidation trying to stamp out our prayerful Native American earth protectors. These funds will have to be repaid with interest, unless the Donald sends them some of his pocket change (good luck with that). Red states are joined at the hip with fossil fuel and will spend any amount to push their extractive agenda; maybe Oil Inc will cut a check to N.D. But the protectors will not go easily; the patriotic Veterans who’ve taken an oath to defend America from evildoers foreign and domestic have vowed to return to Standing Rock to support their Native American brothers and sisters.

And at the urging of Bold Nebraska, Bold Iowa, 350.org and many others, the landowners who’ve sold their souls to the oil and gas evildoers, may be waking up. Those onerous easements they’re required to sign, allows the pipeline companies to “abandon in place” when the oil spigots run dry or when alt energy makes Oil Inc. as bankrupt as the coal companies are today. Ten or fifteen years from now when the oil and pipeline companies are on life support, who’s going to pay to dig up the leaking pipelines contaminating the nations precious drinking water and fertile farm land. It won’t be the government because the fine print in those legal documents they sign granting eminent domain to pipeline interests, disavows them from taking any responsibility for damages. Do these landowners realize how much it will cost to dig up and mitigate their contaminated soil and water? At million of dollars per mile or more, landowners who’ve already spent their 40 pieces of gold will have to abandon their toxic family farms.

With a few exceptions, the cast of characters King Donald has tried to install in his court, to undo all the progress we’ve made in the last eight years, is truly scary:

Michael Flynn, National Security Advisor, who our intelligence agencies claim had a direct phone line to the Kremlin during and after the campaign, was forced to resign because he, like Paul Manafort and Carter Page before him, had become toxic to King Donald’s bromance with Putin; Flynn having lied to the vice president and the FBI about his involvement in Russian intelligence interference in the election and the sanctions imposed by the Obama administration.

Senator Jeff Sessions, Trump’s nominee for Attorney: Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) voted against confirming Sessions, stating: “I have seen Senator Sessions at work in the Senate, and I have serious concerns about his commitment to standing up for the right of everyone in this country to be treated equally under the law. From his extreme stance on immigration, to his vote against the Violence Against Women Act and the Voting Rights Act, to his efforts to undermine women’s constitutionally protected reproductive rights, and his positions on criminal justice reform, civil rights, and so much more— I do not believe that Senator Sessions is the kind of person, committed to the principles of tolerance and inclusiveness, who can do this critical job on behalf of every American.”

Scott Pruitt, EPA Director, who sued the Environmental Protection Agency more than a dozen times while he was Oklahoma attorney general, is now in charge of that department. The Sierra Club’s Michael Brune believes: “Scott Pruitt is now set to be the most dangerous EPA Administrator in the history of our country.”  The top items on Pruitt’s list will be to implement the Donald’s executive orders designed to cripple President Obama’s and the EPA’s Clean Power Plan and the Waters of the U.S. rules. This is the same Oil Inc. panderer who failed to protect Oklahomans’ by refusing to prosecute the companies responsible for the state’s exponential increase in earthquakes caused by fracking. Pruitt is also involved in two additional scandals, one involving the plagiarized clip and paste letters his office submitted supporting the fossil fuel industry and another one involving possible illegal actions his office took in a botched execution in Oklahoma.

Steve Mnuchin, Treasury secretary, another wealthy donor to the Trump campaign, and  a 17-year-veteran of Goldman Sachs, was called “The Foreclosure King” when he was CEO of OneWest Bank.

Andrew Pudzer, labor secretary, was already on shaky ground when the POLITICO tape resurfaced of Puzder’s ex-wife appearing on a 1990 “Oprah” program in disguise, to accuse him of domestic violence. He then withdrew his nomination.

Alexander Acosta, Trump’s new pick for labor secretary should win Senate approval, but will probably face tough questions from Democrats about allegations that he cut a sweetheart plea deal with a billionaire accused of having sex with underage girls, when he was a prosecutor.

Tom Price Health and Human Services, may be guilty of insider stock trading, when he  reportedly made dozens of trades in health stocks when he was a member of the Ways and Means Committee. He’s been implicated in a SEC investigation of the committee. And financial disclosures he submitted for the confirmation hearings revealed that Price invested in a medical device manufacturer a few days before he introduced a bill benefiting that company.

Betsy DeVos, Trump’s new Education Secretary, a staunch opponent of public education and strong proponent of charter schools, may be a nice women who’s heart may be in the right place, but her primary goal might not be for the benefit of America’s century’s long    devotion to quality public education for all of it’s children. It’s hard to believe the Donald couldn’t have chosen one of the 10’s of thousands of highly accredited educators with decades of public school education experience to run that department. Was it because she was a major fundraiser and admitted her family contributed $200 million dollars to the  Republican Party? Every Democrat and two critical women Republican Senators voted against DeVos, so it took Vice President Mike Pence to cast the historic tie-breaking vote to get her confirmed.

Rep. Mick Mulvaney, nominated to lead the Office of Management and Budget, admitted to the Senate Budget Committee that he failed to pay more than $15,000 in payroll taxes for a household employee.

Rick Perry, Energy Secretary, who thought he was accepting a job representing the oil and gas industry, found out he would actually be in charge of America’s national security complex, including our nuclear arsenal, which he knows nothing about.

I can go on and on about Trump’s cabinet and White House: Most of them, including his son-in-law Jared Kushner and Steve “Alt Right Supremacist” Bannon of Breitbart infamy, have no government experience.

Some couldn’t even get past the first step, like Christie and Giuliani. Others like Lewandowski, Page and Manafort, became too toxic and were fired. There were also those who turned down the offers because they thought accepting a job in this administration would be a career ender.

Throw in alternative fact propagandists like Kellyanne Conway and Jason Miller and it’s not surprising they can’t figure out how to turn on the lights.

But what’s most troubling is the conjoined cast of characters who hold a Gordian allegiance and affinity for Putin and the Russian oligarchs. Can our intelligence agencies get to the bottom of the dark and tangled web of business relationships between Trump, Page, Manafort, Tillerson, Flynn, Ross, Putin and the Russian oligarchs? To whom do they owe their loyalties?

These were supposedly the Donald’s “best and brightest.” How can anyone who is of sound mind (well that would explain it) believe this is the “best cabinet ever assembled in our history?”

This so-called American president will say, tweet or retweet anything that pops into his inattentive brain and:

Lies to the ACA health insurance clients, who believed his promises to make Obamacare much better and much cheaper,

Lies to the middle class workers, who’ve lost their jobs to globalization and automation, and brags that he’s the only one who can bring back their jobs,

Lies to all the desperate coal miners who believe he will rebuild the coal industry,

Lies and is using thoroughly debunked claims of widespread voter fraud to push legislation designed only to suppress the vote,

Will undoubtedly renege on his many promises to not attack Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid,

Quickly rewarded the fossil fuel contributors by jump starting pipeline expansion and by allowing coal companies to resume dumping sludge into rivers,

Trump mounts a maniacal war on the media, in order to take the focus off his flagging campaign and the administrations involvement with Putin and Russian interference in the election; but this is actually a war on the American people and on our democracy and constitution. It’s step one in the “How to Make an Authoritarian Government” playbook. CNN’s Jake Tapper aptly calls it “Un-American,”

He marshal’s government forces, including the FBI, against whistle-blowers who shine a light on this administrations radical policies and misdeeds. Honest government should encourage courageous employees coming forward, instead of siccing the FBI on them,

He thinks nothing of engaging in serious and wide spread conflicts of interest involving his family businesses,

He ranted against President Obama for running up the debt, (which the Republi-cons actually caused by invading Iraq and crashing the economy), yet thinks nothing of the enormous bills being run up protecting him, his extended family and his business interests around the world. During the campaign, the Donald berated President Obama for playing too much golf. He said: “this guy plays more golf than people on the PGA Tour,” yet Trump has traveled to Florida every weekend in the last month to his Mar a lago resort to play golf,

All the Republi-cons in congress will turn a blind eye to the Kings Conflict of interests, just as long as he signs the documents, cutting taxes for the rich and corporations and taking away America’s social safety nets and environmental and banking regulations; but what they refuse to admit, is that regulations have been implemented to prevent serious problems and harm; just like fire and electrical code regulations, every one was the result of somebody losing their life or property.

Where are the keepers of the flame for the Grand Old Party? When will the constitution thumping conservative originalists stand up to the King’s dismantling of American democracy?

Trump said he wants to “bring the country together, maybe even some of the world together” but he denigrates and blames everyone and everything except Putin and of course himself.

I won’t recount the history of the Donald’s lack of truth telling again; I’ve already posted several times on the subject. He’s personally created an entire industry of fact checkers, apparently making good on his boasting as a job creator. I’ve heard the word pathological more times since he entered politics than in the last 50 plus years.

Trump and his Republi-con co-conspirator’s diabolical plan, to turn independent, democratic, free and critical thinking and scientific reasoning, into the alternative facts, alternative reality United States Inc., will require our daily vigilance, robust skepticism and tenacious dissent.

It’s the United States Congress’s job to move America forward, but these Republi-cons interpreted that as crippling responsible governance by doing nothing.

And because they failed to do their job, America and the world is saddled with a narcissistic, kleptocratic despot like King Donald, who uses Putin as a template for his radical far right autocratic kingdom. This Presidents Day is a very sad occasion. But I’m heartened by all the “Not My President” demonstrators who took to the streets.

John Hanno

 

ABC NEWS

Trump administration withdrew legal memo that found ‘ample legal justification’ to halt Dakota Access pipeline

By James Hill   February 23, 2017

Two days before the Trump administration approved an easement for the Dakota Access pipeline to cross a reservoir near the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe reservation, the U.S. Department of the Interior withdrew a legal opinion that concluded there was “ample legal justification” to deny it.

The withdrawal of the opinion was revealed in court documents filed this week by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the same agency that requested the review late last year.

“A pattern is emerging with [the Trump] administration,” said Jan Hasselman, an attorney representing the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. “They take good, thoughtful work and then just throw it in the trash and do whatever they want to do.”

The 35-page legal analysis of the pipeline’s potential environmental risks and its impact on treaty rights of the Standing Rock Sioux and other indigenous tribes was authored in December by then-Interior Department Solicitor Hilary C. Tompkins, an Obama appointee who was — at the time — the top lawyer in the department.

“The government-to-government relationship between the United States and the Tribes calls for enhanced engagement and sensitivity to the Tribes’ concerns,” Tompkins wrote. “The Corps is accordingly justified should it choose to deny the proposed easement.”

Tompkins’ opinion was dated Dec. 4, the same day the Obama administration announced that it was denying an easement for the controversial crossing and initiating an environmental impact statement that would explore alternative routes for the pipeline. Tompkins did not respond to a request by ABC News to discuss her analysis or the decision made to withdraw it.

On his second weekday in office, President Donald Trump signed a memorandum that directed the Army Corps of Engineers to “review and approve” the pipeline in an expedited manner, to “the extent permitted by law, and as warranted, and with such conditions as are necessary or appropriate.” “I believe that construction and operation of lawfully permitted pipeline infrastructure serve the national interest,” Trump wrote in the memo.

Two weeks later, the Corps issued the easement to Dakota Access and the environmental review was canceled.

The company behind the pipeline project now estimates that oil could be flowing in the pipeline as early as March 6.

The analysis by Tompkins includes a detailed review of the tribes’ hunting, fishing and water rights to Lake Oahe, the federally controlled reservoir where the final stretch of the pipeline is currently being installed, and concludes that the Corps “must consider the possible impacts” of the pipeline on those reserved rights.

“The Tompkins memo is potentially dispositive in the legal case,” Hasselman said. “It shows that the Army Corps [under the Obama administration] made the right decision by putting the brakes on this project until the Tribe’s treaty rights, and the risk of oil spills, was fully evaluated.”

Tompkins’ opinion was particularly critical of the Corps’ decision to reject another potential route for the pipeline that would have placed it just north of Bismarck, North Dakota, in part because of the pipeline’s proximity to municipal water supply wells.

“The Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux Reservations are the permanent and irreplaceable homelands for the Tribes,” Tompkins wrote. “Their core identity and livelihood depend upon their relationship to the land and environment — unlike a resident of Bismarck, who could simply relocate if the [Dakota Access] pipeline fouled the municipal water supply, Tribal members do not have the luxury of moving away from an environmental disaster without also leaving their ancestral territory.”

Kelcy Warren, the CEO of Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the project, has said that “concerns about the pipeline’s impact on local water supply are unfounded” and “multiple archaeological studies conducted with state historic preservation offices found no sacred items along the route.”

The decision to temporarily suspend Tompkins’ legal opinion two days before the easement was approved was outlined in a Feb. 6 internal memorandum issued by K. Jack Haugrud, the acting secretary of the Department of the Interior. A spokeswoman for the department told ABC News today that the opinion was suspended so that it could be reviewed by the department.

The Standing Rock Sioux and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribes are continuing their legal challenges to the pipeline. A motion for a preliminary injunction will be heard on Monday in federal court in Washington, D.C.

The Corps has maintained, throughout the litigation, that it made a good faith effort to meaningfully consult with the tribes.

The tribes contend, however, that the Trump administration’s cancellation of the environmental review and its reversal of prior agency decisions are “baldly illegal.”

“Agencies can’t simply disregard their own findings, and ‘withdrawing’ the Tompkins memo doesn’t change that,” Hasselman said. “We have challenged the legality of the Trump administration reversal and we think we have a strong case.”

 

EPA chief Pruitt’s newly released emails show deep ties to fossil fuel interests

Michael Walsh, Reporter Yahoo News  February 22, 2017

A batch of 7,564 pages of emails and other records from Scott Pruitt’s tenure as Oklahoma attorney general — made public Wednesday morning — show that he worked with the fossil fuel industry in its efforts to roll back environmental regulations.

The documents were handed over to the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) Tuesday night as a result of an Open Records Act request and lawsuit. Many liberals and environmentalists are outraged that the records were withheld until after Pruitt’s confirmation as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Friday.

CMD said a number of documents were redacted, and additional documents are still being withheld as “exempted or privileged.” The attorney general’s office has been ordered to hand over records related to five other CMD requests by Feb. 27, according to the watchdog organization.

Nick Surgey, a research director at CMD, said Pruitt and the attorney general’s office tried multiple times to have the records request scuttled.

“The newly released emails reveal a close and friendly relationship between Scott Pruitt’s office and the fossil fuel industry, with frequent meetings, calls, dinners and other events,” Surgey said in a statement. “And our work doesn’t stop here — we will keep fighting until all of the public records involving Pruitt’s dealings with energy corporations are released.”

CMD focused on several exchanges that appear to confirm what critics have long said about Pruitt: He was willing to use his elective office as a mouthpiece for the fossil fuel industry.

In 2013, The American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), a trade association for the fossil fuel industry, worked with Pruitt’s office to oppose the EPA’s Renewable Fuel Standard Program (RFS), which requires a certain volume of renewable fuel to replace heating oil or petroleum-based fuel for transportation. AFPM provided Pruitt with the language to file an Oklahoma petition against the RFS, noting that “this argument is more credible coming from a State.”

Other emails show more evidence of Pruitt’s close relationship with the oil and gas production company Devon Energy. In 2014, New York Times reporter Eric Lipton exposed how Devon Energy would draft letters Pruitt would send out on his state government letterhead. A newly uncovered email shows the energy corporation helping Pruitt write a letter to the EPA about limits on methane emissions.

There’s an August 2013 email from Matt Ball, an executive at Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group funded by the Koch brothers, thanking Pruitt and others for “all they are doing to push back against President Obama’s EPA and its axis with liberal environmental groups to increase energy costs for Oklahomans and American families across the states.”

Last week, an Oklahoma County district judge criticized Pruitt’s “abject failure” to abide by the state’s Open Records Act by improperly withholding public records and ordered the attorney general’s office to release thousands of emails by Tuesday, the day of his inaugural speech as EPA administrator.

Though the ruling drew attention to Pruitt’s relationships within the traditional energy sector, there was tremendous pushback from progressives and environmentalists the moment President Trump nominated him to lead the EPA — an agency he sued more than a dozen times.

Environmentalists say that Pruitt’s history of alliance with the fossil fuel industry runs counter to the EPA’s mission of limiting pollution and protecting public health. Oil and gas companies contend that the Obama administration and the EPA’s efforts to protect the environment amount to government overreach and place undue regulations on their industry.

During his inaugural address, Pruitt argued that choosing between supporting jobs and the environment is a false dilemma — although without mentioning the renewable energy industry, which environmentalists say provides jobs while limiting carbon-dioxide emissions.

“We as an agency and we as a nation can be both pro-energy and jobs, and pro-environment. That we don’t have to choose between the two,” Pruitt said in his address to EPA staff. “I think our nation has done better than any nation in the world in making sure that we do the job of protecting our natural resources and protecting our environment, while also respecting the economic growth and jobs our nation seeks to have.”

On Wednesday morning, the Natural Resources Defense Council filed a Freedom of Information Act request for materials and communications related to the drafting of a press release issued by the EPA on the day Pruitt’s appointment was confirmed. The statement was filled with criticism of the agency’s activities and policies under the previous administration, calling it “tone deaf” and a “runaway bureaucracy largely out of touch with how its policies directly affect folks like cattle ranchers.” Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., for instance, is quoted calling the EPA “one of the most vilified agencies in the ‘swamp’ of overreaching government.”

Neither the EPA nor the Oklahoma attorney general’s office responded to requests from Yahoo News for comment.

 

DeSmog

Thousands of Emails from Oklahoma Office of Trump EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt Published

By Steve Horn, February 22, 2017

By Steve Horn, Sharon Kelley and Graham Readfearn

The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) has published thousands of email obtained from the office of former Oklahoma Attorney General, Scott Pruitt, who was recently sworn in as the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the Trump Administration.

Housed online in searchable form by CMD, the emails cover Pruitt’s time spent as the Sooner State’s lead legal advocate, and in particular show a “close and friendly relationship between Scott Pruitt’s office and the fossil fuel industry,” CMD said in the press release. CMD was forced to go to court in Oklahoma to secure the release of the emails, which had sat in a queue for two years after the organization had filed an open records request.

Among other things, the emails show extensive communication with hydraulic fracturing  (“fracking”) giant Devon Energy, with Pruitt’s office not only involved in discussions with Devon about energy-related issues like proposed U.S. Bureau of Land Management fracking rules, but also more tangential matters like how a proposed airline merger might affect Devon’s international travel costs. They also show a close relationship with groups such as the Koch Industries-funded Americans for Prosperity and the Oklahoma Public Policy Council, the latter a member of the influential conservative State Policy Network (SPN).

On the BLM fracking rule, Priutt’s office solicited input from Devon, the Oklahoma City fracking company, which seemed to incorporate the feedback in the company’s formal legal response. Pruitt’s office was aiming to sue the BLM on the proposed rules, a case multiple states eventually won, getting indispensible aid in the effort from the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC).

“Any suggestions? ” Pruitt’s office wrote in a May 1, 2013 email to a Devon vice president. Attachments missing from the FOIA response make it unclear to what extent edits suggested by Devon were actually inserted into the AG’s correspondence, although Pruitt’s deputy later wrote “thanks for all your help on this.”

In two other emails dated May 1, 2013, a Devon Energy director replied with suggested changes to Pruitt’s office. The next day, Pruitt’s office sent the final draft of the letter to Devon, which replied, “I’m glad the Devon team could help, and thanks for all of your work on this.”

This batch of emails was not among those published by the New York Times as a part of its investigation into the correspondence Pruitt and other Republican state-level Attorneys General had with energy companies, which revealed that Devon and ghostwritten letters which Pruitt’s office sent to federal officials and agencies.

“Cut and Paste”

Another section of the emails (page 562) shows that an official from Edison Electric Institute (EEI) emailed Pruitt’s office to solicit an article for the Air and Waste Management Association Journal on the topic of regional haze. When Pruitt’s spokesman said the office will not be able to make the deadline, the EEI official told them not to worry because it can “be cut and paste from past editorials and court filings, language that has already been approved in the past.”

It does not appear Pruitt’s office ever wrote the article, however. But that same month, Stuart Solomon, President of Public Service Company of Oklahoma (a subsidiary of American Electric Power), thanked Pruitt “personally” in a February 2014 email for its help fending off the EPA’s proposed regional haze rule.

“We are pleased the EPA has approved a plan developed by PSO and state leaders,” Stuart Solomon, President and Chief Operating Officer for Public Service Company of Oklahoma, said in a press release at the time. “I want to thank Governor Fallin and her administration for their leadership and assistance in helping develop this plan along with the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality.”

Pruitt and his office were not thanked within the press release. In July 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals issued  a stay on that rule and it was never promulgated.

Koch Ties

The emails also shed new light on the relationship between Pruitt and the sphere of advocacy outfits and legal groups funded by Koch Industries’ billionaires Charles and David Koch.

For example, Pruitt and many other Attorneys General — plus industry actors at companies such as Southern Company, ConocoPhillips, Chesapeake Energy, TransCanada, Devon Energy, Marathon Oil and others — received an invitation (see page 560) to an event hosted by George Mason University,  the Koch-funded libertarian bastion, at its Mason Attorneys General Education Program. That invite came from Henry Butler, Dean of the George Mason University School of Law.

Harold Hamm, President Donald Trump’s campaign energy adviser, was also included on the list of those invited, as well. An email attachment of the invite was not included in the batch.

Beyond George Mason, the emails also show Pruitt’s office maintained communications (see page 683) with Americans for Prosperity Oklahoma State Director, John Tidwell, as well as with SPN member Oklahoma Public Policy Council. SPN receives Koch money.

Too Little, Too Late?

These are some of the highlights found within the massive batch of emails. CMD argues, as the Democratic Party’s Senate leadership posited, that these emails would have been useful in doing their constitutional “advise and consent” confirmation process work for Pruitt.

“There is no valid legal justification for the emails we received last night not being released prior to Pruitt’s confirmation vote other than to evade public scrutiny,” said Arn Pearson, general counsel for CMD. “There are hundreds of emails between the AG’s office, Devon Energy, and other polluters that Senators should have been permitted to review prior to their vote to assess Pruitt’s ties to the fossil fuel industry.”

 

 

EPA chief Pruitt appeals to ‘civility’ but fails to quell environmentalists’ concerns

Michael Walsh 7 hours ago

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s first speech to employees of the EPA at midday on Tuesday did little to assuage the concerns of environmentalists over his ties to the fossil fuel industry.

At the EPA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., Pruitt called for civility and listening in his highly anticipated, tense inaugural address to the staff of an agency that he sued more than a dozen times as Oklahoma attorney general.

“You don’t know me very well. In fact, you don’t know me hardly at all, other than what maybe you read in the newspaper or [have] seen on the news,” he told the crowd. “I look forward to sharing the rest of the story with you as we spend time together. But this is a beginning.”

President Trump’s decision to nominate Pruitt, who has made it clear he has no confidence in mainstream climate science, to lead the EPA immediately incited a backlash from liberals and environmentalists. More than 770 former EPA officials— including scientists, engineers and managers — signed a letter to all the members of the U.S. Senate, urging them to reject Pruitt. Despite near-unanimous opposition by Democrats, he was confirmed last Friday.

On Thursday, an Oklahoma County district judge ordered Pruitt to hand over thousands of emails he exchanged with the energy industry to the Center for Media and Democracy  watchdog group by Tuesday — the day of his EPA speech.

“Why did we have to rush and have this vote before we had this information?” Tiernan Sittenfeld, the senior vice president of government affairs for the League of Conservation Voters, asked Yahoo News. “Everything we know about Scott Pruitt makes abundantly clear that he is unsuitable to be the EPA administrator, and it really begs the question, ‘What was he hiding?’”

In the speech, Pruitt urged EPA staff members to conduct themselves according to values laid out in two books on the American Revolution and its underlying philosophies: “Founding Brothers,” by the American historian Joseph J. Ellis, and “Inventing Freedom,” by a British politician, Daniel Hannan. The values he singled out included civility, rule of law, federalism and listening.

“Civility is something that I believe in very much. We ought to be able to get together and wrestle through some very difficult issues in a civil manner,” he said. “We ought to be able to be thoughtful and exchange ideas.”

Sittenfeld said the speech did not address environmentalists’ concern that Pruitt has always acted to protect the interests of industry. She characterized him as antithetical to the EPA’s mission to protect the environment and human health.

“The speech was pretty much a nothingburger, and given that everything about him is antithetical to the EPA, the onus was really on him to somehow convey if he had different plans that would somehow contradict his record to date,” Sittenfeld told Yahoo News.

As well as suing the EPA at least 14 times, Sittenfeld said, Pruitt has received $350,000 from fossil fuel interests. He also copied letters from oil industry lobbyists and pasted them almost verbatim onto his Oklahoma attorney general letterhead for messages to the Obama administration.

“All of that is extremely concerning and makes clear to us he’s unfit to be the EPA administrator. And nothing about what he said gave us any reason to think otherwise,” she said.

Pruitt’s supporters in the fossil fuel industry, as well as among conservatives opposed to regulations, see him as a corrective to what they consider the Obama administration’s regulatory overreach.

Pruitt quoted Sierra Club founder John Muir toward the end of his speech: “Everyone needs beauty as well as bread, places to pray in and play in.”

Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club, was none too impressed by this reference.

“John Muir is rolling over in his grave at the notion of someone as toxic to the environment as Scott Pruitt taking over the EPA,” Brune said in a statement.

The Hill

This Isn’t Just Trump. This Is Who the Republicans Are.

By Dave Johnson February 18, 2017

It’s not just Trump, Republicans as a party are using Trump to engage in a general assault on protections from corruption, pollution, corporate fraud and financial scams.

So far President Donald Trump has signed very few bills. One lets coal companies dump waste into streams. Another lets oil companies bribe foreign dictators in secret. Now he is moving to block a Labor Department “fiduciary rule” that requires financial advisers to act in the best interests of their clients when advising on retirement accounts.

“Are Republicans dismayed that they have put a loathsome, deranged, misogynistic, racist, psychopathic, uninformed, self-promoting, corrupt, insulting, genital-grabbing, conspiracy-theory-peddling, Jew-baiting, narcissistic-behaving, country-destroying, Putin-loving, generally disgusting, fascist, loofa-faced sh*t-gibbon into power in our White House? No, they are not.”

Here’s the thing: this isn’t just Trump doing this. The Republican-controlled House and Senate passed those two bills, and the Republicans have been fighting that fiduciary rule tooth and nail.

It’s not just Trump, Republicans as a party are using Trump to engage in a general assault on protections from corruption, pollution, corporate fraud and financial scams.

This is who they are.

“We Just Need A President To Sign This Stuff”

This is not just Trump. What we are seeing happening to our government is the end result of a decades-long effort by the corporate-and-billionaire-funded “conservative movement” to capture the Republican party, and through them to capture the country — for profit. And here we are.

Are Republicans dismayed that they have put a loathsome, deranged, misogynistic, racist, psychopathic, uninformed, self-promoting, corrupt, insulting, genital-grabbing, conspiracy-theory-peddling, Jew-baiting, narcissistic-behaving, country-destroying, Putin-loving, generally disgusting, fascist, loofa-faced sh*t-gibbon into power in our White House?

No, they are not. They like it that he’s squatting in the Oval Office.

Grover Norquist, one of the key leaders and strategists of the conservative movement, worded it clearly and succinctly, “We just need a President to sign this stuff.” “Pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen to become President of the United States.”

Stream Protection Rule

After waiting eight years, (yes, they waited that long), the Obama administration finally put a rule in place to protect “streams, fish, wildlife, and related environmental values from the adverse impacts of surface coal mining operations.”

The stream protection rule requires the restoration of the physical form, hydrologic function, and ecological function of the segment of a perennial or intermittent stream that a permittee mines through. Additionally, it requires that the postmining surface configuration of the reclaimed minesite include a drainage pattern, including ephemeral streams, similar to the premining drainage pattern, with exceptions for stability, topographical changes, fish and wildlife habitat, etc. The rule also, requires the establishment of a 100-foot-wide streamside vegetative corridor of native species (including riparian species, when appropriate) along each bank of any restored or permanently-diverted perennial, intermittent, or ephemeral stream.

Sounds great right? Well protecting the environment and protecting people costs money that would otherwise go into the pockets of executives of and investors in coal companies, so…uh uh.

By the way, the rule would have created at least as many jobs as it might have “cost.”

Oil Company Transparency Rule Repeal

Saying, “We’re bringing back jobs big league,” Trump signed a bill repealing a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) rule written under the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law. The rule required oil companies to disclose if they are bribing dictators who steal form their country.

The Hill reports on this, in Trump signs repeal of transparency rule for oil companies,

The legislation is the first time in 16 years that the Congressional Review Act (CRA) has been used to repeal a regulation, and only the second time in the two decades that act has been law.

…[The CRA] was meant to fight corruption in resource-rich countries by mandating that companies on United States stock exchanges disclose the royalties and other payments that oil, natural gas, coal and mineral companies make to governments.

THIS was the priority of the Republican congress.

Retirement Advice Fiduciary Rule

When people ask financial advisers and brokers for retirement advice they get sold high-priced “products” that do not benefit them, but benefit the financial advisers and brokers a lot. (For more on this phenomenon, read Motley Fool’s Where are all the customer’s yachts?)

These scams siphon an estimated $17 billion a year from the retirement accounts of working people.

So Obama’s Labor Department staff (after waiting years and years) wrote a rule requiring these advisers and brokers to act in their clients’ best interest. The Washington Post explained the new rule last year, in Labor Department rule sets new standards for retirement advice.

The Labor Department announced sweeping rules Wednesday that could transform the financial advice given to people saving for retirement by requiring brokers and advisers to put their clients’ interests first.

The long-awaited “fiduciary rule” would create a new standard for brokers and advisers that is stricter than current regulations, which only require that brokers recommend products that are “suitable,” even if it may not be the investor’s best option.

For obvious reasons ($17 billion swiped from working people each year) Wall Streeters didn’t like the new rule one bit. They put a ton of money into killing it. And now Trump is gutting the rule.

This is the classic way people get fucked by a rigged system. Trump is giving Wall Street the freedom to go back to screwing people.

Here is the Google link to a fact sheet on the rule. Click it to see how your government works for you in the Trump era: Fact Sheet: DOL Finalizes Rule to Address Conflicts of Interest …www.dol.gov/ebsa/newsroom/fs-conflict-of-interest.html

This Is Who They Are

Up next on the agenda is gutting the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The government agency’s name sort of says it all, doesn’t it? Of course Wall Street and the Republican Party want it gone.

The New York Times explains, in Consumer Watchdog Faces Attack by House Republicans,

The chairman of the House Financial Services Committee will move forward on legislation to neuter the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and its power to crack down on predatory business practices, according to a leaked memo that emerged on Thursday and infuriated Democratic defenders of the bureau.

THIS is a top priority of the Republican-dominated Congress and the Republican president. It’s not just Trump.

What else is there to say? This is who they are.

 

EcoWatch    Climate Nexus

Assault on the EPA Begins: Trump to Sign Two Executive Orders

The Trump administration is expected to begin attacks on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and climate science at the executive level now that the administration has a leader in place at the agency.

Multiple outlets have reported that President Trump may be planning a visit to EPA headquarters as early as this week, where he could sign executive orders targeting Obama administration climate policies and the agency’s structure.

The Washington Post added additional details yesterday evening, reporting that two executive orders being prepared target the Clean Power Plan and the Waters of the U.S rule for a revamp, while also lifting a moratorium on coal leasing on federal land. Congress is keeping busy with climate rollbacks too, as the Senate eyes a vote on methane regulations this week.

As the Washington Post noted:

One executive order—which the Trump administration will couch as reducing U.S. dependence on other countries for energy—will instruct the Environmental Protection Agency to begin rewriting the 2015 regulation that limits greenhouse-gas emissions from existing electric utilities. It also instructs the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to lift a moratorium on federal coal leasing.

A second order will instruct the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers to revamp a 2015 rule, known as the Waters of the United States rule, that applies to 60 percent of the water bodies in the country. That regulation was issued under the 1972 Clean Water Act, which gives the federal government authority over not only major water bodies but also the wetlands, rivers and streams that feed into them. It affects development as well as some farming operations on the grounds that these activities could pollute the smaller or intermittent bodies of water that flow into major ones.

 

Leonard Pitts: Open letter to our so-called president

By Leonard Pitts Jr. The Miami Herald

February 16 2017

Dear Mr. So-Called President:

So let me explain to you how this works.

You were elected as chief executive of the United States. I won’t belabor the fact that you won with a minority of the popular vote and a little help from your friends, FBI Director James Comey and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The bottom line is, you were elected.

And this does entitle you to certain things. You get your own airplane. You get free public housing. You get greeted with snappy salutes. And a band plays when you walk into the room.

But there is one thing to which your election does not entitle you. It does not entitle you to do whatever pops into your furry orange head without being called on it or, should it run afoul of the Constitution, without being blocked.

You and other members of the Fourth Reich seem to be having difficulty understanding this. Reports from Politico and elsewhere describe you as shocked that judges and lawmakers can delay or even stop you from doing things. Three weeks ago, your chief strategist, Steve Bannon, infamously declared that news media should “keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.”

Just last Sunday, senior policy adviser Stephen Miller declared on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that “our opponents, the media and the whole world will soon see as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.”

What you do “will not be questioned?” Lord, have mercy. That’s the kind of statement that, in another time and place, would have been greeted with an out-thrust palm and a hearty “Sieg heil!” Here in this time and place, however, it demands a different response:

Just who the hell do you think you are?

Meaning you and all the other trolls you have brought clambering up from under their bridges. Maybe you didn’t notice, but this is the United States of America. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? Nation of laws, not of individuals? First Amendment? Freedom of the press? Any of that ringing a bell?

Let’s be brutally clear here. If you were a smart guy with unimpeachable integrity and a good heart who was enacting wise policies for the betterment of all humankind, you’d still be subject to sharp scrutiny from news media, oversight from Congress, restraint by the judiciary — and public opinion.

And you, of course, are none of those things.

I know you fetishize strength. I know your pal Vladimir would never stand still for reporters and judges yapping at him like so many poodles.

I know, too, that you are accustomed to being emperor of your own fiefdom. Must be nice. Your name on the wall, the paychecks, the side of the building. You tell people to make something happen, and it does. You yell at a problem, and it goes away. Nobody talks back. I can see how it would be hard to give that up.

But you did. You see, you’re no longer an emperor, Mr. So-Called President. You are now what is called a “public servant” — in effect, an employee with 324 million bosses.

And let me tell you something about those bosses. They are unruly and loud, long accustomed to speaking their minds without fear or fetter. And they believe power must always answer to the people. That’s at the core of their identity.

Yet you and your coterie of cartoon autocrats think you’re going to cow them into silence and compliance by ordering them to shut up and obey? Well, as a freeborn American, I can answer that in two syllables flat.

Hell no.

 

Vox

A Russian newspaper editor explains how Putin made Trump his puppet

“They consider him a stupid, unstrategic politician.”

February 22, 2017

Mikhail Fishman is the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times, an English-language weekly newspaper published in Moscow. The paper is critical of Vladimir Putin; indeed, it was targeted twice in 2015 by Russian hackers and has been attacked repeatedly by pro-Kremlin pundits.

Fishman, a Russian citizen and himself outspoken critic of Putin, has covered Russian politics for more than 15 years. For the past year, he has monitored the increasingly bizarre relationship between Putin and Trump, with a particular focus on Putin’s strategic aims. In this interview, I ask Fishman how Trump is perceived in Russia, why Putin is actively undermining global democracy, and what Russia hopes to gain from the political disorder in America.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Sean Illing

From your perch in Moscow, how do you see this strange relationship between Putin and Trump?

Mikhail Fishman

It is strange. It looks a bit irrational on Trump’s part to be sure. Why does he have this strange passion for Putin and Russia? I have to say, I don’t believe in the conspiracy theories about “golden showers” and blackmailing. I don’t believe it exists and I don’t believe it’s a factor. But this, admittedly, makes the whole thing that much stranger.

Sean Illing

What makes you so skeptical of the claims in that Trump dossier?

Mikhail Fishman

Two things. One, I’ve been a political journalist for 15 years working and dealing with sources in Russia and elsewhere. And frankly, a lot of this appears shallow to me. I’m sure Russia has plenty of dirt on Trump, but I can’t accept without hard evidence much of the what I’ve heard or read.

Second, this still has the ring of a conspiracy theory, this idea that the Kremlin has blackmailed Trump into submission. I’m generally opposed, on principle, to conspiracy theorizing. So I’m just skeptical until there’s concrete evidence.

Sean Illing

Let’s talk about Trump and Putin as individuals. How are they different? How are they similar?

Mikhail Fishman

I would prefer to talk about how they’re different, because those differences are so obvious and extreme. They come from very different worlds. Putin is an ex-Soviet intelligence officer with all that that implies. Trump is a colorful American businessman and showman.

In their habits, they’re radically different. Trump is a posturing performer, full of idiotic narcissism. He appears to be a disorganized fool, to be honest. Putin, on the other hand, is calculating, organized, and he plans everything. He also hides much of his personal life in a way that Trump does not.

Then there’s also the fact that Putin is so much more experienced than Trump. He has more than 15 years of global political experience. He knows how to do things, how to work the system. He makes plenty of mistakes, but he knows how to think and act. Trump is a total neophyte. He has no experience and doesn’t understand how global politics operates. He displays his ignorance every single day.

Sean Illing

What is the perception of Trump in Russia? Is he seen as an ally, a foe, or a stooge?

Mikhail Fishman

The vision of Trump is basically shaped by the Kremlin and their propaganda machine — that’s what they do. During the election campaign, Trump was depicted not as an underdog but as an honest representative of the American people who was being mistreated by the establishment elites and other evil forces in Washington.

Sean Illing

The Kremlin knew that to be bullshit, right? This was pure propaganda, not sincere reporting, and it was aimed at damaging Hillary Clinton.

Mikhail Fishman

Of course. All of it was aimed at damaging Hillary Clinton. Putin expected Trump to lose, but the prospect of a Clinton victory terrified him, and he did everything possible to undermine her.

Sean Illing

Why was he so afraid of a Clinton victory?

Mikhail Fishman

Because he knew that would mean an extension of Obama’s harsh orientation to Russia, perhaps even more aggressive than Obama. Putin has experienced some difficult years since his 2014 invasion of Crimea, but he didn’t expect this level of isolation. He saw — and sees — Trump as an opportunity to change the dynamic.

Sean Illing

A lot of commentators here believe the most generous interpretation of Trump’s fawning orientation to Putin and Russia is that he’s hopelessly naïve. Do you buy that?

Mikhail Fishman

That’s a good question. Why does he like Putin so much? I think Trump sees Putin as a kind of soulmate. Let’s be honest: Trump is not a reflective person. He’s quite simple in his thinking, and he’s sort of attracted to Putin’s brutal forcefulness. If anything, this is what Trump and Putin have in common.

Sean Illing

Has Putin made a puppet of Trump?

Mikhail Fishman

Of course. This is certainly what the Kremlin believes, and they’re acting accordingly. They’re quite obviously playing Trump. They consider him a stupid, unstrategic politician. Putin is confident that he can manipulate Trump to his advantage, and he should be.

Sean Illing

In other words, they see in Trump a useful idiot.

Mikhail Fishman

Exactly. The Kremlin is limited in their knowledge about what’s going on in Washington, but they see the chaos and the confusion in Trump’s administration. They see the clumsiness, the inexperience. Naturally, they’re working to exploit that.

Sean Illing

What’s the long geopolitical play for Putin? What does he hope to gain from the disorder in America?

Mikhail Fishman

The first thing he wants and needs is the symbolic legitimization of himself and Russia as a major superpower and world player that America has to do deal with as an equal. He wants to escape the isolation of Russia on the world stage, which was what the campaign in Syria was all about. Putin has grand ambitions for himself and for Russia, and nearly every move he makes is animated by this.

Sean Illing

How much of this, from Putin’s perspective, is about discrediting democracy as such?

Mikhail Fishman

He didn’t believe Trump would win, so he was preparing to sell Clinton’s victory as a fraud. And this is part of his broader message across the board, which is that democracy itself is flawed, broken, unjust. Putin actually believes this. He doesn’t believe in democracy, and this is the worldview that he basically shares with Trump: that the establishment is corrupt and that the liberal world order is unjust.

Sean Illing

But Putin’s interest in undermining democracies across the globe is about much more than his personal disdain for this form of government. He wants to point to the chaos in these countries and say to his domestic audience, “You see, democracy is a sham, and it doesn’t work anywhere.” That serves as a justification for his own anti-democratic policies. In the end, it’s about reinforcing his own power.

Mikhail Fishman

That’s true. But again, this what Putin really believes. He does not believe a true and just democracy exists anywhere. This is the worldview they’ve been spinning for years and they’ve really internalized it.

For Putin, this is very much a zero-sum game. The West is the enemy. America is the enemy. Whatever you can do to damage the enemy, you do it. The more unrest there is in America, the better positioned Russia is to work its will on the world stage. He wants to divide democratic and European nations in order to then play those divisions to his advantage.

Sean Illing

A pervasive concern in this country is that Trump admires Putin’s strongman authoritarianism, and seeks to replicate it in America. Do you think this concern is well-founded?

Mikhail Fishman

I think it is. Again, it comes to back what Trump and Putin have in common. They’re both male chauvinists. Trump probably admires the fact that Putin is the kind of guy who feels the need to ride horses shirtless; it appeals to his authoritarian instincts. But this is about much more than imagery.

They are both illiterate people in a way. They’re not widely educated. They do not believe in institutions. They see democratic institutions as burdens, impediments to their will. They don’t believe that social and political life should be sophisticated; they think it should be simple.

And this sort of thinking naturally concludes in one-man rule. I think Trump will fail, but there’s no doubt that he shares these authoritarian impulses with Putin.

New York Times

What a Failed Trump Administration Looks Like

David Brooks     February 17, 2017

 

I still have trouble seeing how the Trump administration survives a full term. Judging by his Thursday press conference, President Trump’s mental state is like a train that long ago left freewheeling and iconoclastic, has raced through indulgent, chaotic and unnerving, and is now careening past unhinged, unmoored and unglued.

Trump’s White House staff is at war with itself. His poll ratings are falling at unprecedented speed. His policy agenda is stalled. F.B.I. investigations are just beginning. This does not feel like a sustainable operation.

On the other hand, I have trouble seeing exactly how this administration ends. Many of the institutions that would normally ease out or remove a failing president no longer exist.

There are no longer moral arbiters in Congress like Howard Baker and Sam Ervin to lead a resignation or impeachment process. There is no longer a single media establishment that shapes how the country sees the president. This is no longer a country in which everybody experiences the same reality.

Everything about Trump that appalls 65 percent of America strengthens him with the other 35 percent, and he can ride that group for a while. Even after these horrible four weeks, Republicans on Capitol Hill are not close to abandoning their man.

The likelihood is this: We’re going to have an administration that has morally and politically collapsed, without actually going away.

What does that look like?

First, it means an administration that is passive, full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing. To get anything done, a president depends on the vast machinery of the U.S. government. But Trump doesn’t mesh with that machinery. He is personality-based while it is rule-based. Furthermore, he’s declared war on it. And when you declare war on the establishment, it declares war on you.

The Civil Service has a thousand ways to ignore or sit on any presidential order. The court system has given itself carte blanche to overturn any Trump initiative, even on the flimsiest legal grounds. The intelligence community has only just begun to undermine this president.

President Trump can push all the pretty buttons on the command deck of the Starship Enterprise, but don’t expect anything to actually happen, because they are not attached.

Second, this will probably become a more insular administration. Usually when administrations stumble, they fire a few people and bring in the grown-ups — the James Baker or the David Gergen types. But Trump is anti-grown-up, so it’s hard to imagine Chief of Staff Haley Barbour. Instead, the circle of trust seems to be shrinking to his daughter, her husband and Stephen Bannon.

Bannon has a coherent worldview, which is a huge advantage when all is chaos. It’s interesting how many of Bannon’s rivals have woken up with knives in their backs. Michael Flynn is gone. Reince Priebus has been unmanned by a thousand White House leaks. Rex Tillerson had the potential to be an effective secretary of state, but Bannon neutered him last week by denying him the ability to even select his own deputy.

In an administration in which “promoted beyond his capacity” takes on new meaning, Bannon looms. With each passing day, Trump talks more like Bannon without the background reading.

Third, we are about to enter a decentralized world. For the past 70 years most nations have instinctively looked to the U.S. for leadership, either to follow or oppose. But in capitals around the world, intelligence agencies are drafting memos with advice on how to play Donald Trump.

The first conclusion is obvious. This administration is more like a medieval monarchy than a modern nation-state. It’s more “The Madness of King George” than “The Missiles of October.” The key currency is not power, it’s flattery.

The corollary is that Trump is ripe to be played. Give the boy a lollipop and he won’t notice if you steal his lunch. The Japanese gave Trump a new jobs announcement he could take to the Midwest, and in return they got presidential attention and coddling that other governments would have died for.

If you want to roll the Trump administration, you’ve got to get in line. The Israelis got a possible one-state solution. The Chinese got Trump to flip-flop on the “One China” policy. The Europeans got him to do a 180 on undoing the Iran nuclear deal.

Vladimir Putin was born for a moment such as this. He is always pushing the envelope. After gifting Team Trump with a little campaign help, the Russian state media has suddenly turned on Trump and Russian planes are buzzing U.S. ships. The bear is going to grab what it can.

We’re about to enter a moment in which U.S. economic and military might is strong but U.S. political might is weak. Imagine the Roman Empire governed by Monaco.

That’s scary. The only saving thought is this: The human imagination is vast, but it is not nearly vast enough to encompass the infinitely multitudinous ways Donald Trump can find to get himself disgraced.

Esquire

President* Trump vs. His Environment

The Trump administration could be catastrophic for combating climate change.

By Charles P. Pierce   February 16, 2017

I wish there was something funny I could write about what’s going to happen to the Environmental Protection Agency once the Senate approves the absurd nomination of Scott Pruitt to head an agency that he is at the moment suing on behalf of the state of Oklahoma. I wish I could muster up a dudgeon of a height appropriate to how little this country will do under this administration to combat the existential threat of climate change. I wish I could say I was surprised by any of it.

But, more than any other set of issues, I find the current state of environmental policy simply exhausting. The environment was nearly a non-issue in the presidential campaign. One of our two major political parties—the one that controls two of the three branches of the national government and a fat share of the state governments around the country—takes as an article of faith that the climate crisis is a vehicle for shrewd scientists to get over on the rest of us. The ocean, as we continue to remind people, doesn’t much care who wins the debate on these topics. Meanwhile, Matt Gaetz, a freshman congresstwerp from Florida, has introduced a bill to do away with the EPA entirely. That seems to be DOA even in this Congress, but putting an extraction industry marionette like Scott Pruitt in charge of the agency, while not killing the EPA, is more like putting it into suspended animation for the foreseeable future.

And now, according to multiple reports, the president* is going to celebrate Pruitt’s eventual confirmation by signing a series of executive orders that virtually will take the EPA out of the climate crisis business. To the logical mind, this is tantamount to issuing an order that the CDC should temper its study of communicable diseases, but the logical mind has taken something of a holiday and apparently has been drunk since the end of January. From The Hill:

At that event, an administration source told Inside EPA that Trump will sign executive orders related to the agency’s climate work and that they could “suck the air out of the room,” according to the report. The official did not say how many orders Trump will sign or what they will address. But the planned event could be similar to one Trump held at the Pentagon after Defense Secretary James Mattis was sworn in. At that event, Trump signed an executive order cracking down on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries for 90 days and halting the U.S. refugee program for 120, including indefinitely banning Syrian refugees. An administration official said a potential Trump visit to EPA headquarters has yet to be confirmed.

Trump has vowed to roll back Obama-era EPA actions, including major climate change regulations like the Clean Power Plan and a water jurisdiction rule opposed by many conservatives. One executive order, according to Inside EPA’s report, could be aimed at the State Department, suggesting Trump will take a position on the United State’s participation in the Paris climate deal. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the Senate last month that he hopes to stay in that climate pact.

Outside of those people who have organized against police violence and, more recently, the movement surrounding the January marches around the country, the environmental movement has been more active in more places than any other oppositional force in the country. It has put together a vast and diverse movement mobilized against everything from pipelines to fracking. It emboldened the previous administration’s commitment to the Paris Accords and against the Keystone pipeline, which, in turn, emboldened people to take camp on the plains in North Dakota and made Standing Rock a symbol.

All of that energy now runs up against, yes, a big, beautiful wall made of special interests and anti-scientific denial. The allies that the movement has in government can do little but slow-walk the march into the past for which the majorities are warming up at the moment. Nowhere is the modern reality further detached from the nostalgic past than in the case of coal mining. It is a dying industry, caught between the hammer of cleaner energy and the anvil of automation. Yet, there are people in the government, right up to the Oval Office, who have promised glibly to bring this industry back. This is a cruel and stupid charade played on desperate people who have seen a way of life slowly withering for decades. And when the promises turn out to have been as empty as they obviously were, those same charlatans will point to environmentalists as the real villains of the piece.

We have an oilman for Secretary of State. We’ve seen the EPA commanded to delete climate material from its official website. Already, using an obscure procedural device, the Republicans in Congress, with help from a couple of Democrats, have opened things up for mountaintop removal mining and cut back on regulations designed to control mining waste that runs into rivers and streams. One can only imagine what gifts the administration plans to give to industry to celebrate putting one of the industry’s puppets in charge of environmental regulation, but whatever those gifts are, this president will sign for them.

That’s why this is so damned exhausting. There is an obvious crisis that everybody acknowledges one way or another. (Even the president* is building seawalls to protect his golf courses against the gigantic hoax fashioned in China.) The military is taking precautions. The intelligence community sees the crisis as a decades-long threat to national security at almost innumerable levels, from population migrations to epidemic disease to countries full of desperate people looking for food and water. There are red lights flashing everywhere in the government and the response of the current administration seems to be to turn as many of them off as they can get their hands on.

Environmentalism—what we called “ecology” when I was a kid—was one of the proudest achievements of 20th century American politics. It proceeded in fits and starts against the powerful economic and social forces arrayed against it, but from it, we got national parks, the Clean Water Act, a visible Los Angeles by daylight, and interstate highways that no longer looked like horizontal landfills stretching to the horizon. There was a bipartisan constituency supporting it.

Now, with an environmental threat comparable in scale to the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, that constituency within the government is scattered and the forces arrayed against it powerfully concentrated. But wildfires do not yield to argument, nor does the winter heat offer to explain itself. (It was over 100 degrees in Oklahoma this week) Go ahead. Pass a law against the sea. Call a cop when it laughs at you.

 

GQ Politics

James Comey Has Some Goddamn Explaining to Do

 

By Jay Willis  February 20, 2017

As details surface of the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia, the FBI director’s pre-election letter about Hillary Clinton’s emails looks more breathtakingly irresponsible than ever.

You remember James Comey, right? The FBI director who dropped a live hand grenade into the toilet that was the 2016 presidential race by disclosing just eleven days before Election Day that the Bureau was investigating newly discovered evidence related to the Hillary Clinton email scandal in which she had been cleared of months earlier? The one who followed up on this inscrutable-yet-ominous-sounding announcement by concluding a few days later that, haha, just kidding, there wasn’t anything remotely relevant in these stupid emails, sorry if I torpedoed your election and maybe helped deliver the White House to a semiliterate social media celebrity? That James Comey? Good, because holy hell does this man have some explaining to do.

Bombshells about the Trump White House’s ties to the Kremlin have come at a dizzying rate of late, as news that erstwhile national security advisor Michael Flynn talked shop with Russian diplomats before the inauguration now gives way to the revelation that Trump campaign aides were chatting up Russian intelligence officials—who all along were tampering with the election in an effort to promote Trump’s candidacy—throughout the presidential race. Here’s a fun detail from the Times report about who knew what when:

The National Security Agency, which monitors the communications of foreign intelligence services, initially captured the calls between Mr. Trump’s associates and the Russians as part of routine foreign surveillance. After that, the F.B.I. asked the N.S.A. to collect as much information as possible about the Russian operatives on the phone calls, and to search through troves of previous intercepted communications that had not been analyzed.

The F.B.I. has closely examined at least three other people close to Mr. Trump, although it is unclear if their calls were intercepted. They are Carter Page, a businessman and former foreign policy adviser to the campaign; Roger Stone, a longtime Republican operative; and Mr. Flynn.

Hmmm, so when the FBI’s probe of the Anthony Weiner sexting scandal turned up a few stray Clinton emails, Director Comey felt the need to immediately share this vital information about the Democratic nominee with the American public. Meanwhile, when the FBI discovered that the other presidential candidate’s closest advisors were in regular contact with Russian intelligence officials, it said…nothing at all.

The agency’s investigation of [former Trump campaign manager Paul] Manafort began last spring as an outgrowth of a criminal investigation into his work for a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine and for the country’s former president, Viktor F. Yanukovych. It has focused on why he was in such close contact with Russian and Ukrainian intelligence officials.

I understand that the sensitive-to-national-security nature of the Trump-Russia investigation means that Comey and friends may have been unable to freely disclose their every finding. But even the fact that Comey was aware of both investigations reinforces the point. If he knew his agency had evidence that the Trump camp just might be colluding with a foreign government to swing the election, pulling the fire alarm on the inane Clinton emails story as he did is the height of irresponsibility, stupidity, partisanship, or some unholy combination thereof.

Just a week before Trump’s inauguration, the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General launched an inquiry into Director Comey’s conduct during the election. Assuming it manages to survive under the new administration, the investigation just got a whole lot more complicated.

 

The Nation

This Is How the Republican Party Plans to Destroy the Federal Government

The Overthrow Project existed before Trump, but it may not survive his presidency.

By Hebert J. Gans

February 13, 2017

Before moderate Republicans became virtually extinct, the party advocated limited government. Today, however, President Trump is pursuing a radical shrinkage of the federal government that comes close to overthrowing it entirely. The goal of this project: to leave the country with a minuscule government that is basically an appendage to private enterprise. Call it the Overthrow Project.

The essence of the Overthrow Project is familiar: to reduce taxes on the very rich, free the business community from taxes and regulations that interfere with its money-making, and subsidize that community with public funds. In addition, the Overthrow Project aims to privatize as many governmental activities as possible. Left for government is the maintenance of the remaining public infrastructure that enables private enterprise to operate efficiently and safely, as well as the assurance of public safety through ever-higher funding of the military, the homeland-security apparatus, the police, and other forces of so called law and order.

Unlike conventional attempts by political parties to remain in power, the Overthrow Project also aims to obtain permanent control over all branches of the federal and state governments. That goal is pursued with an increasingly aggressive and norm-violating form of hardball politics only rarely seen in recent times.

The Overthrow Project also aims to obtain permanent control over all branches of the federal and state governments.

Whether the project is a thought-out strategy or the skillful use of every opportunity to implement its far-right ideology will have to be determined by future historians. Either way, much of the Republican program and strategy originated in the many right-wing think tanks created and supported by the donor class and the business community.

Understanding the GOP’s various activities as a single project makes it possible to see the unstated purposes of these activities and how they are connected.

Donald Trump campaigned as a populist outsider and frequently attacked the Republican establishment. Nonetheless, he has always supported its Overthrow Project, adopting its goals and its hardball methods. In fact, Stephen Bannon, President Trump’s most senior adviser, has been quoted as saying, “Lenin wanted to destroy the state and that’s my goal too.”

Now that Trump occupies the Oval Office, he will do all he can to lower taxes, deregulate the business community, and privatize a large number of governmental activities. Like other Republicans, he is eager to make life yet more difficult for America’s economically and otherwise vulnerable citizens. In addition, he has announced his intent to significantly beef up the military.

Even though Trump promised to bring back the jobs lost by the white working-class members of his base, his actual job-creation proposals appear to be limited to those infrastructure projects that would create profits for the business community.

The deregulation programs will, as always, increase the profits and stock prices of deregulated enterprises in many parts of the economy. The emasculation of the Clean Air Act, for example, will benefit the suppliers of coal, oil, and gas, even though it will require even Republicans to breathe polluted air.

The total or partial privatization projects now being implemented will target public education and the Veterans Affairs department, as well as Obamacare, Medicare, Medicaid, and other entitlement programs. Another attempt to divert part of Social Security to Wall Street can be expected. The further privatization of public lands, including in the national parks, is already being discussed.

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Existing privatized institutions, such as prisons and the military will undoubtedly be expanded. Private contractors have already taken over many of the military’s support functions. The possible elimination of cabinet departments and other federal agencies would generate additional privatization to replace some of the goods and services these have provided. A number of Trump’s cabinet secretaries and other top officials were chosen because they are intent on privatizing major government programs in the agencies they are to lead. Several have clearly been picked in order to decimate and perhaps eliminate their agencies.

The donor class has already gone far to privatize election campaigns, and a number of elected officials have always been at the beck and call of private enterprise.

Should the Overthrow Project be successful, government’s role would be limited to enforcing the rules and regulations for the newly privatized enterprises. Presumably, lawyers working for these enterprises will supply government with many of these rules and regulations and government would mainly protect money making and prevent unfair competition.

The business community would probably have government subsidize privatized public functions that supply what were once public goods. In fact, GOP ideology, which treats the market to as America’s dominant institution, suggests that additional institutions supplying public goods are eligible for eventual privatization.

A central part of the Overthrow Project seeks to enable the Republicans to obtain long-term political control of the federal and state governments. The systematic gerrymandering of congressional and state legislative districts has played a crucial role in the control effort, enabling the Republicans to put far more elected officials in office than the size of their majorities would justify. The various voter suppression, limitation, and discouragement schemes have helped to further increase the Republican vote in many places.

Partly as a result, nearly two-thirds of the state legislatures are now controlled by the GOP, almost enough to propose amendments to the Constitution. A handful more election victories would enable three-fourths of the states to approve the amendments after the Republican majorities in the Congress had passed them.

Gerrymandering and voter suppression often allow elected officials to disregard the wishes and opinions of all but a narrow base of their constituencies. The resulting autonomy frees them to advance party control as well as policies that are favored by only a small part of the population.

Other methods of advancing the party’s control over government are more indirect. These include cutting back funds for the Bureau of the Census and other federal data-gathering programs that implicitly but clearly criticize Republican policies. In years past, members of Congress have already proposed such informational cutbacks, notably those reporting the increases in racial, economic, and other inequalities that could hurt the party politically.

Further initiatives for party control include the intimidation of critics and the barring of access to critical news media. Presidential tweets can distract attention from important events and facts that could interfere with the pursuit of party control. Fake news can have a similar effect, for example by encouraging yet more distrust of the news media and influential political institutions. The recourse to “alternative facts” that seem to legitimize Republican ideology can threaten the country’s reliance on actual facts.

The attempt to achieve long-term party control is accompanied by the rejection of long-held political norms.

The attempt to achieve long-term party control is accompanied by new forms of hardball politics that include the rejection of long-held political norms. A significant example was the Republican-controlled Senate’s refusal to hold hearings on then-President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, thus preventing the Democrats from attaining a liberal majority on the Court. Or consider the post-2016 election vote by North Carolina’s GOP legislators to reduce the powers of the newly elected Democratic governor. That coup is likely to be imitated in other states and could encourage conservative think tanks to invent yet other control schemes.

Yet the most dramatic example of the GOP’s norm violations may turn out to be President Trump’s refusal to sell his properties and financial holdings and put his monies into a blind trust. Since he will continue to collect profits from the businesses he owns, he is in effect telling the country that governing can coexist with, and perhaps be used for, money-making.

All of these actions support the Republicans’ attacks on the foundations of democratic government and thereby advance its overthrow.

Although the Overthrow Project may be revolutionary in the changes it could bring to the country, it will probably not include violence. Instead, its primary effects may include the normalization of the various party-control schemes, the constant violation of traditional norms, the toleration of nepotism, corruption, and the injection of alternative realities into the country’s political life.

Unless the currently widespread protest by large numbers of citizens, the media, and other cultural institutions continues, initiatives of the Overthrow Project and its various effects could become part of the mainstream culture. Even anti-democratic politics and authoritarian decision-making may then seem less and less abnormal.

Donald Trump’s belief that he has the power to implement his proposals by himself, his support of foreign dictators as well as his tolerance of the anti-democratic tendencies of the domestic and global far right all suggest that he may be ready to try some dictatorial methods himself if he cannot get his way by democratic means.

The Democrats may share the GOP’s aim to control all branches of government, but so far they have done little to achieve it. Although they have resorted to some of the same strategies and tactics as the Republicans—gerrymandering, for example—they have never gone about it as systematically as the Republicans.

While a handful of Democrats may support some of the GOP’s tax reform, deregulation, and other policies, the party is not interested in overthrowing the government—or private enterprise. Instead, it seeks to increase the well-being of the economically vulnerable population, particularly with a stronger safety net and an enlarged welfare state.

Yet the Democrats have not been as energetic and determined as the Republicans. Nor have they enforced party discipline. They have never received the level of strategic and tactical guidance the Republicans have obtained from their think tanks.

The Democrats have also eschewed the coup-like initiatives of the Republicans. They have not even figured out how to counter the GOP’s hardball politics, but then they have rarely resorted to its strategic guile and its anti-democratic actions.

Still, the Democrats could halt the Overthrow Project with a single landslide election, and end it if they obtained control of all branches of the federal government for several consecutive presidential and midterm elections.

Actually, the Overthrow Project could even be upset by Donald Trump’s failure to keep his promises to the so-called white working class. If its labor-market troubles and those of other citizens in red states continue, their voters could become politically more active—and in ways that could hurt the Republican Party.

Sooner or later, Republicans will find that decimating the government results in a mass of unintended consequences.

Although some may move further toward the totalitarian right, others might join the now ongoing liberal-left protest movements. However, these movements must transform themselves into a nationwide set of relatively like-minded local and state organizations before they can recruit enough disenchanted Republicans and independents to join them.

Above all, these organizations need to figure out how to persuade enough of the politically passive citizenry, particularly whites, to vote, and to vote Democratic, in the next election.

In order for their message and their proposed policies to be persuasive, significant ideological and class differences would have to be overcome or set aside. At election time, they would have to create a ground game that can also persuade disenchanted voters—and non-voters—to support them.

These tasks may be made a little easier by some systemic and self-destructive obstacles the Overthrow Project will face in the future. For one thing, many Democratic programs cannot be fully eliminated, and the federal government usually continues to grow regardless of which party is in power. In addition, the business community will realize that it cannot flourish or even survive without help from even the most hated federal agencies.

Sooner or later, the Republicans should discover that decimating the government will likely result in a mass of unintended consequences. For example, redistributing tax funds to the rich from the large number of middle- and working-class Americans could seriously damage the consumer economy on which the rest of the economy depends. Defunding programs that enable the poor and the working class to survive will further increase family breakups, domestic violence, drug addiction, suicide, and other human tragedies that even the Overthrow Project cannot totally ignore.

If the global economy continues to stifle the country’s economic growth, Trump’s protectionist fantasies notwithstanding, politics could become yet more adversarial. The resulting spread of governmental paralysis to state and local governments would also affect the Overthrow Project.

As always, much depends on the voters. If they continue to blame government for the decline in their standard of living, the Overthrow Project may muddle through. If, however, enough of the voters decide that private enterprise is making their lives miserable, they might realize that politics can help them. These voters could demand a governmental safety net that is securely anchored with entitlement, job creation, income support, and other programs that benefit them instead of the business community.

If the Republicans want to avoid the possibility of a long-term Democratic takeover of the government, they might not only have to call off the Overthrow Project but even participate in creating that safety net.

 

Trump’s in trouble. Is it Christie time already?

Matt Bai

Somehow, on Valentine’s Day, while he was trying to find a new national security adviser to replace the one he’d just fired, and while he was staring down multiple investigations over potential collusion with Russia, and while he was dealing with the fallout from having conducted missile diplomacy with the Japanese in the public dining room at Mar-a-Lago as if it were one of those party games where everyone got to dress up as a country in World War II … somehow, with all this swirling around him, President Trump managed to lunch with his old friend Chris Christie.

I don’t know what they talked about, exactly, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the opioid crisis, which was the stated reason for the meeting. If Trump’s half as smart as he always says he is, then he offered to send a moving van to Trenton.

Because Trump needs a guy like Christie to come in and grab the wheel of this careening presidency, and he needs it to happen now.

Oh, believe me, I know: Just the mention of Christie is enough to send his legion of critics into feral fits of rage and mockery. He came within inches of an indictment for having presided over the basest kind of political retribution, which ultimately undid both his presidential campaign and his second term as New Jersey’s governor. Even his supporters were stung by how brazenly he swung behind Trump and how small it made him seem.

We wouldn’t even be here were it not for Christie’s vengeful streak. If he hadn’t decided to publicly disembowel Marco Rubio in that last debate in New Hampshire, as payback for a raft of negative ads, Trump would probably be back on the “Apprentice” set right now, ogling the interns.

But whatever else you want to say about Christie (and I’ve always found him to be a more complicated and gifted politician than his detractors can stand to admit), the man knows how to bring focus to a political operation, and how to advance a governing agenda, and how to balance public bluster with backroom pragmatism.

And if there’s anyone on Trump’s senior staff who actually knows how to do any of that, by all means, get to the part of the ship that’s still above water and wave your hands frantically so we can see you.

I’m not saying Reince Priebus isn’t a decent guy in a difficult situation. But Priebus is a Wisconsin political operative who did a creditable job fundraising for the Republican Party. When it comes to running the vast federal government or navigating global alliances, he knows about as much as Omarosa.

Either Priebus deserves credit for assembling the rest of this misfit team or he’s too much of a supplicant to get control over staffing the operation. Whichever it is, he must know by now that he isn’t exactly fielding the A-team.

Kellyanne Conway proved herself to be an elite campaign strategist, for sure, but her descent into “alternative facts” has been painful to watch, and her rebuke from the government ethics office, three weeks into the administration, has to set some kind of record.

Sean Spicer, the press secretary, comes off so hostile and disingenuous that Melissa McCarthy’s impression is actually more sympathetic. Steve Bannon provides a whole lot of hifalutin neo-fascist craziness chaos theory, but that stuff tends to come in handier when you’re fomenting campus revolt than when you’ve got a Russian spy ship  menacing the coast of Delaware.

And let’s not leave out Stephen Miller, who not so long ago was a press aide for Michele Bachmann, and who is somehow now in charge of domestic policy (and occasionally presides over national security meetings, just because). In a typical moment from his startlingly bad debut on the Sunday shows last weekend, Miller told CBS’s John Dickerson: “I think to say we’re in control would be a substantial understatement.”

What does that mean, exactly? Are they declaring martial law? Have they mastered telekinesis?

All through the fall campaign, governing Republicans told me that Trump could be a fine president, because he would surround himself with all the smartest and most capable people. Really, they were telling themselves that. They hoped it was true, and so did I.

But that turns out to be the biggest Trumpian illusion of them all, and it’s not hard to see why. Since Trump had never run for even a seat on a condo board before, he didn’t have the kind of longtime, trusted political team that virtually every other president has counted on, for better or worse.

And since the party elite considered Trump’s candidacy a fringy exercise almost until the moment he won the nomination, his campaign mostly attracted fringy talent. And since Trump never really planned to win the fall election, he had no real plan in place to upgrade his entourage with some of the party’s more experienced hands.

So what we have now is basically a renegade campaign team trying to administer and reform the most complex government in human history. And they actually believe their rhetoric — about how lame politicians are, about how useless experience is, about how business is so much harder than governing.

They thought the whole thing would basically run itself. They literally threw Christie’s transition plan into a trash bin. (Um, hey … has that garbage truck come yet? Anybody up for some dumpster diving?)

The whole mini-debacle at Mar-a-Lago last weekend, when Trump and Shinzo Abe conferred on North Korea in full view of dinner guests, would never have happened if anyone sitting in that room had experience in crisis governing. Days of damaging headlines, all of which amounted to very little, could have been avoided by a modicum of expertise.

Instead, Trump finds himself, for the first time in his political life, in a position where he can’t just change the subject with one controversial tweet, and where he couldn’t just ignore the calls for Michael Flynn’s head. The days of being impervious to criticism are over.

If Trump wants his approval ratings to keep sinking, he should definitely stay the course. Or, like the Fonz in those classic episodes of “Happy Days,” he can admit he was wr … wr … wrong. And then he can make it someone else’s problem to fix the mess.

Why force yourself to fire another senior aide every few weeks or months, like a slow bleed? Better to replace poor Priebus now and let Christie deal with the unpleasantness of fixing things. (If there’s one thing Christie doesn’t mind, it’s unpleasantness.)

A chief of staff can elegantly reboot the system in a way a president can’t. A chief of staff can simply say: “I didn’t hire any of these guys, and I’m letting them go.” Done.

Look, it’s not my job to offer Trump advice on his presidency, and it’s not like he’d listen. Maybe it’s true that we’re all better off if the whole experiment craters in the first six months.

But that’s a pretty big risk to take, and if I were Trump, I’d call Christie back today and tell him I need some order and professionalism in the West Wing.

Which, by the way, is a substantial understatement.

 

The Salt Lake Trib

Washington Post Op-ed: Gerrymandering is the biggest obstacle to genuine democracy in the U.S. So why is no one protesting?

By Brian Klaas Special To The Washington Post

February 18, 2017

There is an enormous paradox at the heart of American democracy. Congress is deeply and stubbornly unpopular. On average, between 10 and 15 percent of Americans approve of Congress – on a par with public support for traffic jams and cockroaches. And yet, in the 2016 election, only eight incumbents – eight out of a body of 435 representatives – were defeated at the polls.

If there is one silver bullet that could fix American democracy, it’s getting rid of gerrymandering – the now commonplace practice of drawing electoral districts in a distorted way for partisan gain. It’s also one of a dwindling number of issues that principled citizens – Democrat and Republican – should be able to agree on. Indeed, polls confirm that an overwhelming majority of Americans of all stripes oppose gerrymandering.

In the 2016 elections for the House of Representatives, the average electoral margin of victory was 37.1 percent. That’s a figure you’d expect from North Korea, Russia or Zimbabwe – not the United States. But the shocking reality is that the typical race ended with a Democrat or a Republican winning nearly 70 percent of the vote, while their challenger won just 30 percent.

Last year, only 17 seats out of 435 races were decided by a margin of 5 percent or less. Just 33 seats in total were decided by a margin of 10 percent or less. In other words, more than 9 out of 10 House races were landslides where the campaign was a foregone conclusion before ballots were even cast. In 2016, there were no truly competitive Congressional races in 42 of the 50 states. That is not healthy for a system of government that, at its core, is defined by political competition.

Gerrymandering, in a word, is why American democracy is broken.

The word “gerrymander” comes from an 1812 political cartoon drawn to parody Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry’s re-drawn senate districts. The cartoon depicts one of the bizarrely shaped districts in the contorted form of a fork-tongued salamander. Since 1812, gerrymandering has been increasingly used as a tool to divide and distort the electorate. More often than not, state legislatures are tasked with drawing district maps, allowing the electoral foxes to draw and defend their henhouse districts.

While no party is innocent when it comes to gerrymandering, a Washington Post analysis in 2014 found that eight of the 10 most gerrymandered districts in the United States were drawn by Republicans.

As a result, districts from the Illinois 4th to the North Carolina 12th often look like spilled inkblots rather than coherent voting blocs. They are anything but accidental. The Illinois 4th, for example, is nicknamed “the Latin Earmuffs,” because it connects two predominantly Latino areas by a thin line that is effectively just one road. In so doing, it packs Democrats into a contorted district, ensuring that those voters cast ballots in a safely Democratic preserve. The net result is a weakening of the power of Latino votes and more Republican districts than the electoral math should reasonably yield. Because Democrats are packed together as tightly as possible in one district, Republicans have a chance to win surrounding districts even though they are vastly outnumbered geographically.

These uncompetitive districts have a seriously corrosive effect on the integrity of democracy. If you’re elected to represent a district that is 80 percent Republican or 80 percent Democratic, there is absolutely no incentive to compromise. Ever. In fact, there is a strong disincentive to collaboration, because working across the aisle almost certainly means the risk of a primary challenge from the far right or far left of the party. For the overwhelming majority of Congressional representatives, there is no real risk to losing a general election – but there is a very real threat of losing a fiercely contested primary election. Over time, this causes sane people to pursue insane pandering and extreme positions. It is a key, but often overlooked, source of contemporary gridlock and endless bickering.

Moreover, gerrymandering also disempowers and distorts citizen votes – which leads to decreased turnout and a sense of powerlessness. In 2010, droves of tea party activists eager to have their voices heard quickly realized that their own representative was either a solidly liberal Democrat in an overwhelmingly blue district or a solidly conservative Republican in an overwhelmingly red district. Those representatives would not listen because the electoral map meant that they didn’t need to.

Those who now oppose President Trump are quickly learning the same lesson about the electoral calculations made by their representatives as they make calls or write letters to congressional representatives who seem about as likely to be swayed as granite. This helps to explain why 2014 turnout sagged to just 36.4 percent, the lowest turnout rate since World War II. Why bother showing up when the result already seems preordained?

There are two pieces of good news. First, several court rulings in state and federal courts have dealt a blow to gerrymandered districts. Several court rulings objected to districts that clearly were drawn along racial lines. Perhaps the most important is a Wisconsin case (Whitford v. Gill) that ruled that districts could not be drawn for deliberate partisan gain. The Supreme Court will rule on partisan gerrymandering in 2017, and it’s a case that could transform – and reinvigorate – American democracy at a time when a positive shock is sorely needed. (This may hold true even if Neil Gorsuch is confirmed to the Supreme Court, as Justices Kennedy and Roberts could side with the liberal minority).

Second, fixing gerrymandering is getting easier. Given the right parameters, computer models can fairly apportion citizens into districts that are diverse, competitive and geographically sensible – ensuring that minorities are not used as pawns in a national political game. These efforts can be bolstered by stripping district drawing powers from partisan legislators and putting them into the hands of citizen-led commissions that are comprised by an equal number of Democrat- and Republican-leaning voters. Partisan politics is to be exercised within the districts, not during their formation. But gerrymandering intensifies every decade regardless, because it’s not a politically “sexy” issue. When’s the last time you saw a march against skewed districting?

Even if the marches do come someday, the last stubborn barrier to getting reform right is human nature. Many people prefer to be surrounded by like-minded citizens, rather than feeling like a lonely red oasis in a sea of blue or vice versa. Rooting out gerrymandering won’t make San Francisco or rural Texas districts more competitive no matter the computer model used. And, as the urban/rural divide in American politics intensifies, competitive districts will be harder and harder to draw. The more we cluster, the less we find common ground and compromise.

Ultimately, though, we must remember that what truly differentiates democracy from despotism is political competition. The longer we allow our districts to be hijacked by partisans, blue or red, the further we gravitate away from the founding ideals of our republic and the closer we inch toward the death of American democracy.

Klaas is a Fellow in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics and author of “The Despot’s Accomplice: How the West is Aiding & Abetting the Decline of Democracy.”

 

Dems tap former Kentucky governor to counter Trump speech

DONNA CASSATA,   Associated Press     February 24, 2017

WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats have tapped former Gov. Steve Beshear to deliver the party’s response to President Donald Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress Tuesday night, highlighting the Kentucky Democrat’s efforts to expand health care coverage under the law Republicans are determined to repeal and replace.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., made the announcement on Friday in which they also turned to immigration activist Astrid Silva to give the Spanish language response to Trump’s speech. Silva is a so-called Dreamer who came to the country at the age of five as an illegal immigrant.

Silva spoke at the Democratic convention and her selection is a reminder of Trump’s initial policies on immigration. While the Trump administration has cracked down on immigrants living in the country illegally, Trump has said he wants to spare the children.

Democrats’ choice of Beshear as Tuesday’s counterpoint to Trump underscored their desire to stress their support for former President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul, which recent polling suggests is increasingly popular among Americans. It also comes as Republican leaders labor to craft a plan for replacing that law they can push through Congress — a problem that may have only intensified after GOP lawmakers held town hall meetings this week attended by boisterous backers of Obama’s statute.

Beshear, now 72, served as Kentucky governor from 2007 to 2015. He embraced Obama’s 2010 health care law and expanded the Medicaid program to cover around 400,000 Kentuckians, dropping the percentage of the state’s uninsured people from over 20 percent to 7.5 percent, one of the nation’s steepest reductions.

At a time when Democrats are trying to figure out how to reconnect with middle American voters who were crucial to Trump’s election victory in November, Beshear gives the party a face from that part of the country. He’s also from the same state as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who easily defeated Beshear when the Democrat challenged him in 1996 and is at the forefront of efforts to repeal the health care law.

“American families desperately need our president to put his full attention on creating opportunity and good-paying jobs and preserving their right to affordable health care and a quality education,” Beshear said in a statement. “Real leaders don’t spread derision and division — they build partnerships and offer solutions instead of ideology and blame.”

Republicans have repeatedly criticized the law as too costly and vowed to repeal and replace Obama’s overhaul.

House Republicans hope to roll out legislation in coming weeks to replace major elements of the Affordable Care Act with a new system involving tax credits, health savings accounts and high risk pools, but crucial details remain unknown.

Beshear’s successor, Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, has asked the federal government to let Kentucky change its expanded Medicaid program. He’s said he would repeal the expansion if he’s not given permission to reshape it.

Bevin has said the existing program is too costly and he wants to require most recipients to pay monthly premiums and have jobs or volunteer for a charity to stay eligible for benefits.

Silva moved to Nevada as a child and contact with former Sen. Harry Reid helped to transform her into an immigration activist.

“President Trump would have people believe that all immigrants are criminals and that refugees are terrorists,” Silva said in a statement. “But like my family, the vast majority of immigrants and refugees came to this country escaping poverty and conflict, looking for a better life and the opportunity to reach the American Dream.”

LA Times

Betsy DeVos says it’s ‘possible’ her family has contributed $200 million to the Republican Party

Joy Resmovits January 17, 2017

Since Donald Trump picked Michigan fundraiser and school voucher advocate Betsy DeVos as his secretary of Education, Democrats and other political observers have examined her generous political contributions and any conflicts they might pose.

On Tuesday, at DeVos’ confirmation hearing, Sen. Bernie Sanders raised the issue again, but DeVos, who is married to the billionaire heir to the Amway fortune, said she didn’t know how much her family had contributed to the Republican Party.

Sanders (I-Vt.) wasn’t deterred.

“There is a growing fear that … we are moving toward what some would call an oligarchic society, where a small number of very wealthy billionaires control, to some degree, our economic and political life,” said the former Democratic presidential candidate.

When DeVos still didn’t offer a number, Sanders said he’d heard that the family collectively had contributed $200 million over the years.

“That’s possible,” she said.

Would DeVos have been chosen to be secretary of Education without those $200 million in donations, Sanders asked?

DeVos said she thought she would have been.

During a three-hour hearing, Sanders and Democrats on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee grilled DeVos about her views on charter schools, sexual assault in colleges, funding, school vouchers and the enforcement of civil rights laws.

She provided few specifics about her plans, repeating that she looked forward to working together with representatives from both parties. DeVos focused on her support for providing families with a variety of education alternatives, though she said she supports public schools and the teachers who work there.

She said she is in favor of holding to the current timeline for implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the major new successor to the controversial No Child Left Behind law that gives states more leeway to help assure student performance and teacher accountability.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) asked whether schools should be rated according to students’ proficiency — how much they know — and their growth — how much they learn each year. When DeVos didn’t respond immediately, Franken said: “It surprises me that you don’t know this issue.”

DeVos also had a pointed exchange with Sen. Christopher S.  Murphy (D-Conn.) about school violence. Murphy asked her whether guns had any place in schools. “I think that’s best left to states and locales to decide,” DeVos said.

When Murphy pressed her on that point, she referred to a school in Wyoming she had heard about from another senator that has a “grizzly bear fence.”

“I would imagine that there’s probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies,” she said.

Murphy asked whether she would support Trump if he were to end gun-free school zones. She said she would support the president, but school violence hurt her heart.

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the committee’s highest-ranking Democrat, said she remained “very outraged” by Trump’s comments made public last year about groping women without their consent. Murray described the behavior Trump had boasted about, and asked DeVos whether it would be considered assault if it occurred at a school.

DeVos said yes.

The committee is planning to vote on DeVos on Tuesday. Senators wanted more time to question her, in particular because they have not yet received a letter from the Office of Government Ethics outlining how DeVos would avoid conflicts of interest in connection with her financial interests and political contributions.

 

Huffington Post  Politics

Here’s How Much Betsy DeVos And Her Family Paid To Back GOP Senators Who Will Support Her

It’s good to be a donor.

By Paul Blumenthal February 3, 2017

WASHINGTON ― The nomination of billionaire heiress Betsy DeVos to head the Department of Education is one vote shy of failing in the Republican-controlled Senate. One thing that could come to her aid is that she and the entire DeVos family are massive Republican Party donors who helped fund the election of the remaining senators who will decide her fate.

Big donors often get positions in government, ambassadorships or ceremonial titles, but rarely do they come as big as DeVos. Sitting Republican senators have received $115,000 from Betsy DeVos herself, and more than $950,000 from the full DeVos clan since 1980. In the past two election cycles alone, her family has donated $8.3 million to Republican Party super PACs.

Campaign Contributions To Senators By The DeVos Family

HuffPost

Source: Center for American Progress; Every Voice; Federal Election Commission.

After Sens. Susan Collins (R-Me.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) announced their opposition to DeVos, her opponents turned their sights on other potential no votes from Republicans. The last hope to scuttle her nomination appears to be Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.). Like a lot of his colleagues, Toomey has received financial support from DeVos and her family throughout his career.

Toomey received $60,050 from the DeVos family during his political career. He was also boosted by two super PACs in his successful 2016 re-election campaign that received DeVos money. Freedom Partners Action Fund, the super PAC founded by the billionaire Koch brothers, spent $7 million to support Toomey’s election while getting $150,000 from the DeVos family. Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC linked to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), spent $15 million to back Toomey after getting more than $2 million from the DeVos family.

For now, it looks like Toomey is a DeVos supporter. He told a Pennsylvania paper, “I will absolutely be voting for Betsy DeVos,” and previously called her a “a great pick.” On Thursday night, he issued a statement declaring again that he’d vote to confirm her. Despite this, Democrats and other DeVos opponents have been pushing Pennsylvania residents to inundate his office with phone calls and letters calling for him to oppose the DeVos nomination.

Collins and Murkowski based their no votes on DeVos on the volume of opposition her nomination elicited from their constituents. They also said that DeVos had limited qualifications for the job and that she did not support public education. For what it’s worth, Murkowski received $43,200 from the DeVos family. Collins did not receive any DeVos contributions.

Campaign finance reform groups have called on senators who received money from DeVos and her family to recuse themselves from voting on her nomination.

“Most people can see that Betsy DeVos lacks the experience needed to succeed as Education Secretary, and it’s easy to assume under the circumstances that she is only up for the job because of her family’s history of generous political giving,” Laura Friedenbach, spokeswoman for the reform group Every Voice, said in a statement. “The only way for senators who have received donations from DeVos and her family to rid themselves of the appearance of corruption is to recuse themselves from voting on her nomination.”

The DeVos family has long been embedded in the firmament of Republican Party politics as donors, party leaders and candidates. Richard DeVos Sr. is the founder of the multilevel marketing firm Amway (now Alticor) and owner of the Orlando Magic. A supporter of free market capitalism and a backer of the Christian Right, the elder DeVos was one of a select few to fund the rise of the New Right in the 1970s. His money helped fund the American Enterprise Institute and found the Heritage Foundation.

Betsy DeVos came from a wealthy family herself, although not nearly as rich as the billions amassed by Richard DeVos Sr. Her father made millions in the car parts industry. Later, her brother, Erik Prince, would become a millionaire running the private security firm Blackwater. She was involved in the 2006 Michigan governor bid made by her husband, Richard DeVos Jr. She also served two stints as the head of the Michigan Republican Party in the late ‘90s and again in the early 2000s.

The effort that she has really poured money into is the cause of market-based education reform. DeVos ran the group American Federation for Children, which has spent millions to support pro-charter school candidates for school board and other state-level offices across the country.

In 1997, after facing years of criticism for her and her family’s campaign contributions, DeVos defended herself in Roll Call.

“I have decided to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence,” she wrote. “Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect something in return. We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues. We expect a return on our investment.”

DeVos Questions If Schools Should Provide Free Lunch

Pranshu Rathi, International Business Times February 24, 2017

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made a seemingly innocuous joke Thursday about no one getting a free lunch. But the comment came as DeVos, a staunch opponent of public schools, is taking over the nation’s free lunch program that provides nutrition to low-income students and is under attack from Republicans, raising questions about whether the administration of President Donald Trump will protect food aid programs for children, NPR reported.

During her opening remarks at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference in the outskirts of Washington, Devos jokingly said she is the “first person to tell Bernie Sanders to his face, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” The debate over free lunch, however, is no joke. Last year, Republicans pushed to introduce a bill that could have stopped thousands of schools from offering free lunch to all public school students.

Republicans were unsuccessful in passing the Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act of 2016 (H.R. 5003) bill that aimed to reform an Obama-era program called Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). Republicans who pushed for the bill argued that the CEP is a waste of taxpayers’ money as it subsidizes the meals of kids who can afford to pay for them. In particular, the bill aimed to reform the minimum eligibility criteria for receiving free lunch, according to the Washington Post.

Under the program, schools or school districts where 40 percent of the students meet the requirement for a free lunch can also provide meals to all students for free. In turn, schools are reimbursed based on the percentage of low-income students. Republicans argued for hiking the 40 percent eligibility criteria to 60 percent.

But Democrats argue providing free lunch to all student reduces the stigma attached to getting free meals at school. “Students are free to eat without being categorized and stigmatized, and this has created a wonderful climate of equality and cooperation,” Pruitt Jill Pruitt, the eighth-grade counselor at Coffee Middle School in south central Georgia, told the Atlantic.

Betti J. Wiggins, executive director of Detroit Public School’s office of school nutrition, said students don’t like to admit they come from poor backgrounds. “Many students whose household incomes say they are full-pay may in reality be the household where our students are the most food insecure,” he said.

In most states, students that come from a family of four earning $44,955 or less qualify for reduced-price meals and student with families earning $31,590 or less get free meals. Roughly 31 million American school children qualify for free lunch.

 

McClatchy DC Bureau

Politics & Government   

Trump’s pick for commerce leaves Russia questions unanswered

By Kevin G. Hall February 26, 2017

WASHINGTON

Wilbur Ross is likely to be confirmed as Donald Trump’s secretary of commerce on Monday despite unanswered questions about his ownership of a Cyprus bank that caters to wealthy Russians.

Ross, a wealthy business turnaround artist, has not responded to a February 16 letter from six Democratic Senators asking him to explain his relationship with several Russian oligarchs who hold stakes in the once-troubled foreign bank.

Ross’s involvement with the Cyprus bank adds to a list of Russia connections that have dogged Trump’s tenure in the White House. Investigations are underway by the FBI, the intelligence community and Congress into ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia’s plot to influence the U.S. election. The president has dismissed those suggestions as a “ruse.”

The Russian business and government elite have often sought financial security in the Mediterranean island’s banking system.

Ross, who turns 80 in November and was a Democrat for much of his life, is a billionaire who has turned around high-profile companies in the steel, coal, textiles and auto-parts sectors. His manufacturing acumen is more relevant to his appointment as commerce secretary.

More recently, he led a rescue of Bank of Cyprus in September 2014 after the Cypriot government — in consultation with Russian President Vladimir Putin — first propped up the institution.

“Cyprus banks have a long and painful history of laundering dirty money from Russians involved with corruption and criminality,” said Elise Bean, a former Senate investigator who specialized in combating money laundering and tax evasion. “Buying a Cyprus bank necessarily raises red flags about suspect deposits, high-risk clients and hidden activities.”

The Russian business and government elite have often sought financial security in the Mediterranean island’s banking system. Oligarch Dmitry Ryvoloviev took a nearly 10 percent stake in Bank of Cyprus in 2010. Two years earlier, amid the U.S. financial crisis when real-estate prices were softening, Ryvoloviev purchased Donald Trump’s Palm Beach mansion for $95 million. The transaction generated questions because of its inflated market price, about $60 million more than Trump had paid for the Florida property four years earlier.

When Europe’s debt crisis spread and affected Cyprus in 2012 and 2013, that nation’s second biggest bank, Laiki Bank, was closed. The government imposed losses on uninsured deposits, many belonging to Russians.

Six Democratic senators, led by Florida’s Bill Nelson, asked for details about his relationship with big Russian shareholders in Bank of Cyprus.

The Cypriot response was partly negotiated with Putin, who the Russian media said wanted to punish wealthy Russians who protected their fortunes abroad. A consortium led by Ross took a majority stake of 18 percent in September 2014. Ross now serves as vice chairman, a post he promised to resign when the Senate confirms him.

Ross had little history in global banking, but in 2011 he took an ownership stake in Bank of Ireland, the only bank in that nation the government didn’t seize. Ross tripled his investment when he sold his Irish stake in June 2014, then months later, he took a gamble on Bank of Cyprus.

Six Democratic senators, led by Florida’s Bill Nelson, asked for details about his relationship with big Russian shareholders in Bank of Cyprus, including Viktor Vekselberg, a longtime Putin ally, and Vladimir Strzhalkovsky, a former vice chairman of Bank of Cyprus and a former KGB agent believed to be a Putin associate.

Aides to several of the senators confirmed late Friday that Ross hadn’t responded to their questions. The White House sent McClatchy to a Commerce Department transition aide, who didn’t respond to questions.

Ross was involved with Russia during the 1990s when President Bill Clinton appointed him to serve on the U.S-Russia Investment Fund. The U.S. government set up an investment fund in 1995 to help push the new Russian nation toward a free-market economy after the Soviet Union collapsed.

The fund was converted to a nonprofit corporation in 2008 and many of its assets sold off. The banking investments were purchased by a subsidiary of German financial giant Deutsche Bank, led at the time by Josef Ackermann. Ross asked Ackermann to serve as chairman of the reconstituted Bank of Cyprus after his 2014 investment.

Ackermann left Deutsche Bank in 2012. The bank paid $7.2 billion in fines last year to the U.S. government over toxic mortgages it packaged and sold between 2005 and 2007. And last month, the bank agreed to pay almost $630 million to regulators in London and New York to end investigations into complex stock trades in Russia between 2011 and 2015.

Cyprus also features prominently in the Panama Papers, the massive leak of offshore company data from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. Journalists from McClatchy and across the globe, working together under the umbrella of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, showed last year how politicians, kingpins and the wealthy all used shell companies to hide their money.

Many in Putin’s inner circle were tied to foreign shell companies that received payments through Russian Commercial Bank in Cyprus and other bank operations there. In fact, Cyprus appears more than half a million times in the roughly 11.5 million files that make up the Panama Papers.

David Goldstein in Washington contributed.

 

Treasury Pick Steve Mnuchin Denies It, But Victims Describe His Bank as a Foreclosure Machine

David Dayen January 19, 2017

Treasury Secretary nominee Steve Mnuchin kicked off his confirmation hearing Thursday with a defiant opening statement, mostly defending his record as CEO of OneWest Bank. He cast himself as a tireless savior for homeowners after scooping up failed lender IndyMac. “It has been said that I ran a ‘foreclosure machine,’” he said. “I ran a loan modification machine.”

But in stark contrast to his fuzzy statistics about attempted loan modifications, the victims of OneWest’s foreclosure practices have been real and ubiquitous.

A TV advertising campaign that’s been running in Nevada, Arizona, and Iowa features Lisa Fraser, a widow who says OneWest “lied to us and took our home” of 25 years, right after her husband’s funeral.

And on Wednesday, four women appeared at a congressional forum organized by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, relaying their stories of abuse at the hands of OneWest. Democrats had hoped to present the homeowners as witnesses at Mnuchin’s confirmation hearing, but were denied by Senate Finance Committee Chair Orrin Hatch.

The women’s stories share a remarkable symmetry to those of nearly a dozen OneWest homeowners reviewed by The Intercept over the past several days. They paint a picture of a bank that did more to trap customers than to help them through their mortgage troubles.

Mnuchin complained to senators that he has “been maligned as taking advantage of others’ hardships in order to earn a buck. Nothing could be further than the truth.”

But the evidence to support that conclusion is considerable.

Heather McCreary of Sparks, Nevada, one of the four individuals in Washington to testify on Wednesday, was laid off from her job as a home health care provider in 2009. She and her family sought a modification from OneWest as they recovered from the lost wages. OneWest did modify the loan, one of the “over 100,000” such modifications Mnuchin touted in his hearing. But after six months of making modified payments, the bank denied McCreary’s personal check, claiming that the payment had to be made by cashier’s check. “I looked at the paperwork, and couldn’t find that on there,” McCreary said. “The Legal Aid person working with us couldn’t find it.”

OneWest told McCreary to re-apply for the modification twice, then cut off all communications and refused to accept payments. “A few months later we had a foreclosure notice taped to the window, with two weeks to get out,” she said. The bank was pursuing foreclosure while negotiating a modification — a practice known as dual tracking that is now illegal.

Tara Inden, an actress from Hollywood, California, couldn’t get a loan modification from OneWest after multiple attempts. Even after finding a co-tenant willing to pay off her amount due, OneWest refused the money and pursued foreclosure. Inden has fended off four different foreclosure attempts, including one instance when she returned home to find a locksmith breaking in to change the locks. “I took a picture of the work order, it said OneWest Bank on it,” Inden said. “I called the police, they said what do you want us to do, that’s the bank.”

Inden remains in the home today. OneWest gave her $13,000 as part of the Independent Foreclosure Review, a process initiated by federal regulators forcing OneWest and other banks to double-check their foreclosure cases for errors. Inden received no explanation for why she received the money, but sees it as a tacit admission that OneWest violated the law in her case.

Tim Davis of Northern Virginia had a mysterious $14,479 charge added to his loan’s escrow balance on multiple occasions, even after a U.S. Bankruptcy Court ordered it removed. “I don’t think that Mr. Mnuchin should be put in a position of government power without further scrutiny,” Davis said in an email.

Donald Hackett of Las Vegas claimed in legal filings that OneWest illegally foreclosed on them without being the true owner of his loan. He ended up losing the case, and the home. “They had to cheat to beat me,” Hackett alleged. “They came in like union busters to try to bust everybody up and scare you, make you afraid.”

While Hackett was unsuccessful, Mnuchin’s bank has been accused by investigators at the California attorney general’s office of  “widespread misconduct” in foreclosure operations, with over a thousand violations of state statutes. The state attorney general, now-Sen. Kamala Harris, decided not to prosecute OneWest for the violations.

Teena Colebrook, an office manager from Hawthorne, California, came to prominence as a Trump supporter disgusted by the Mnuchin selection. She lost her home to OneWest in April 2015, after a years long battle that began with the loss of renters who shared the property. Colebrook was informed that the only way she could receive help from OneWest was if she fell 90 days behind on her mortgage payments. This was not true: qualifying for the government’s Home Affordable Modification Program, or HAMP, did not require delinquency, only a risk of default.

“They won’t tell you in writing and they’ll claim they never said that,” Colebrook said. She found robo-signed documents in her file, had insurance policies force-placed onto her loan unnecessarily, and kept getting conflicting statements about how much she actually owed. Late fees piled up, like outsized certified mailing costs of $2,000, all appended to her loan. She eventually ran out of appeals. “They wanted my property, wouldn’t accept any tender offers,” Colebrook said. “They stole my equity. That’s why I’m so angry. If [Mnuchin] can’t get one person’s figures right, how can he be in charge of the Treasury?”

Colebrook put together a complaint group on the Internet to share stories with other sufferers of OneWest. She found multiple people who said they were told to miss payments and then shoved into foreclosure. Others said they were put through year-long trial modifications (under HAMP they were only supposed to be three months long) and then denied a permanent modification, with an immediate demand for the difference between the trial payment and original payment, which could stretch into thousands of dollars. Others lost homes held by their families for decades.

These stories are familiar to those who experienced the aftermath of the financial crisis. OneWest was neither special nor unique in its urgency to foreclose and unwillingness to extend help to the broad mass of struggling borrowers. But Mnuchin’s nomination has put the spotlight back on a forgotten scandal of deception.

Wednesday’s unofficial hearing was the first in Congress in several years featuring homeowners. In the hearing room, Heather McCreary sat next to Colleen Ison-Hodroff, an 84-year-old widow from Minneapolis asked by OneWest to pay off the full balance due on her residence a few days after her husband’s funeral. Ison-Hodroff said OneWest could kick her out of her home of 54 years at any time. “Allowing an 84 year-old woman to be foreclosed on is not the American way,” McCreary said.

When OneWest foreclosure victims heard that Mnuchin was chosen to lead the Treasury Department, they were shocked. “When he was nominated, it was like the floor crashed underneath me,” said McCreary. “It brought back everything. His name was on my paperwork.”

Other victims offered similar remarks. “For someone who will be tasked with making sure that the economy is doing all it can for people like me, even when it seems the system is rigged against them, Steve Mnuchin is not that person,” said forum participant Cristina Clifford, who lost her condo in Whittier, California, after also being told by OneWest to fall behind on payments.

“I think the first thing is he belongs in a prison,” said Tara Inden.

The Mnuchin nomination can only be derailed through Republican opposition, which is relatively unlikely. But it has set off a new wave of activism nationwide.

Activists have been camped out at Goldman Sachs’s New York City headquarters since Tuesday, targeting Mnuchin’s former employer of 17 years. In an echo of a protest to save her home in 2011, OneWest customer Rose Mary Gudiel of La Puente, California, led a march in the rain to Mnuchin’s Bel-Air mansion on Wednesday night, placing furniture on his driveway before police dispersed roughly 60 activists. (Mnuchin famously scrubbed his address off the Internet after the 2011 protest, saying his family was subjected to “public ire at the banking industry.” But the same organizers found his house again.)

“I put it in the middle of a resurgence of housing justice activism,” said Amy Schur of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment. “Hard-hit communities are organizing across the country like they haven’t in years. Sometimes we might have kept eyes on the powers that be locally, but with the likes of Trump and this cabinet, we have to take this fight nationally as well.”

In These Times

Even Trump Can’t Stop the Tide of Green Jobs

BY Yana Kunichoff   February 22, 2017

Unlike traditional manufacturing jobs, green jobs in the clean energy industry have been on a steady upward swing. (AdamChandler86/ Flickr)

Donald Trump was elected in November on a platform that included both climate denial and the promise of jobs for Rust Belt communities still hurting from deindustrialization. In the months since, his strategy to create jobs has become increasingly clear: tax breaks and public shaming of companies planning to move their operations out of the country.

Take the case of Carrier, a manufacturing plant in Indianapolis that produces air conditioners. Trump first threatened to slap tariffs on Carrier’s imports after the company announced it would move a plant to Mexico. Then, he reportedly called Greg Hayes, CEO of the parent company United Technologies, who agreed to keep the plant in the United States in exchange for $7 million in tax breaks. (Carrier later admitted that only a portion of the plant’s jobs would remain in the country.)

The company’s decision to keep jobs in the United States was declared a victory for the Trump PR machine, but it’s unclear that it can create a major change in access to jobs in the long-term. Hayes, announcing that the tax breaks would allow additional investment into the plant, noted that the surge of money would go towards automation. And with automation, eventually, comes a loss of jobs.

“Automation means less people,” Hayes told CNN.  “I think we’ll have a reduction of workforce at some point in time once they get all the automation in and up and running.”

Unlike traditional manufacturing jobs, green jobs in the clean energy industry have been on a steady upward swing. This past spring, for example, U.S. jobs in solar energy overtook those in oil and natural gas, and a Rockefeller Foundation-Deutsche Bank Climate Change Advisors study found that energy retrofitting buildings in the United States could create more than 3 million “job years” of employment.

That means green jobs remain one of the key hopes for revitalizing communities. But can they move forward under a climate-skeptic and coal-loving president?

Green jobs today

The Obama administration, for the most part, was a strong supporter of clean technology. In 2008, Obama wrangled tax credits for businesses that invest in wind and solar, which were extended in 2015 through 2020. The solar sector in particular saw huge growth. It grew 17 times faster than the overall economy in 2016, according to the National Solar Jobs Census, buoyed in large part by the 2009 stimulus funds that invested in solar energy.

Trump, meanwhile, has promised to place his investment in coal and oil jobs, as well as dismantle the Clean Power Plan that aimed to take on global warming by setting a limit on carbon dioxide pollution. The president has also declared an all-out war on regulation that encompasses rules designed to promote energy efficiency, a step that many see as the first volley in a war against green jobs.

It’s a bleak outlook, but experts say that even the wholesale destruction Trump threatens to bear on everything climate-related likely can’t entirely stop the growth of jobs in the clean energy sector (or unions’ efforts to organize those workers as the sector expands).

Joe Uehlein, founding president of the Labor Network for Sustainability, which seeks to bridge the divide between labor and the climate movement, says that Trump can’t singlehandedly stop the move toward wind, solar and geothermal.

“That train left the station 10-15 years ago and it’s growing at pretty high speed right now,” says Uehlein. “That’s going to continue.”

One key reason that Uehlein and other analysts are still guardedly optimistic is that so much green energy growth happens at the state level. A December 2016 study by the Brookings Institute concluded that with little to no future buy-in from the federal government, states and localities would become increasingly important in turning the economy toward green jobs.

Uehlein says he’s already seen that happen successfully at the state level and that it’s creating good, unionized jobs. He points towards the country’s largest offshore wind farm that was approved in January 2017 and will help New York state get 50 percent of its power from renewables by 2030.

“Labor and the environmental community worked with offshore wind companies and made this happen,” he says, “and it’s the action at state and local levels that is driving this, even under Democratic administrations who have been far better about the environment.”

That reality could be complicated by red states with ideologies that steer them away from investments in environmentally friendly policies. For example, Indiana, Vice President Mike Pence’s home state, in 2015 attempted to ad extra charges to the bills of people using solar energy. Tennessee’s bright sunshine hasn’t been captured by much solar power in large part because the state doesn’t have a renewable portfolio standard mandate that encourages utilities to use green power, as many other states that have benefitted from green energy do. Florida, meanwhile, banned the use of the term “climate change” in government communications, emails or reports.

But that doesn’t change that the interest in green jobs from voters is mostly bipartisan. Several polls in the last six months of Republican voters, many of whom backed Trump, have found support for renewable energy.

Dr. Daniel Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of Berkley, created the U.S. green jobs model to understand the future of the green energy industry through to 2030. The study found that green energy could create millions of jobs.

“It’s a pretty simple call the Trump team will need to make. Do they hang on to the technologies of the past,” Kammen asks, “or do you get more jobs by investing in these new technologies?”

An existential threat to the environment and labor

While the green jobs industry may still grow, Trump’s presidency has created a broader existential crisis both for labor and the environment.

In a report released after his election, the Labor Network for Sustainability put forward a plan called “How Labor and Climate United Can Trump Trump,” addressing the fears that Trump would accelerate the march towards cataclysmic climate change and, in the process, bring about right-to-work laws at the federal level that would spell doom for unions.

Uehlein says that many unions have an “all of the above” policy that supports work in all forms of energy, not only wind and solar but also oil and gas and coal. That is a “recipe for climate disaster,” he says.

Instead, Uehlein argues that labor and environmental groups must put together an alternative agenda around jobs and transitioning to a clean economy, develop a stronger alliance, target Trump’s base to convince them of the troubling nature of his agenda for both labor and the environment and commit to working through the inevitable tensions that will arise, like those presented by the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines.

Most importantly, the report notes, labor can’t support the parts of Trump’s agenda that it finds helpful, and ignore those that are harmful. Climate groups, meanwhile, can’t ignore the economic realities of the communities that voted for Trump.

The report makes its case: “If the climate protection movement wants to have a future, it will have to find a way to appeal to the alienated Trump voters that not only gives lip service to their interests but actually wins them over.” Labor, meanwhile must “use good, stable jobs protecting the climate to challenge the growing inequality and injustice of our society.”

This work was funded in part by the Social Justice News Nexus program at Medill at Northwestern University.

Never has independent journalism mattered more. Help hold power to account:  Subscribe to In These Times magazine, or make a tax-deductable donation to fund this reporting.

Yana Kunichoff is a Chicago-based journalist covering immigration, labor, housing and social movements. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Reporter, Truthout and the American Independent, among others.

 

Wind Energy Will See More Tech Breakthroughs, Falling Costs, Experts Predict

Jeff McMahon,  Contributor, I cover green technology, energy and the environment from Chicago. Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.  

February 27, 2017

Researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory conducted the largest-ever survey of experts on energy last year, asking them to predict whether wind energy would continue to get cheaper toward 2030 and beyond.

When they plotted the 163 expert predictions against traditional analyses, they discovered the experts are more optimistic than their analyses.

“Our experts are somewhat more optimistic about future cost reduction potential than much of the existing literature,” LBL Senior Scientist Ryan Wiser said in Chicago last week. “That suggests our experts are not simply basing their estimates on the existing literature, but are bringing some new information—hopefully insightful information—to the table.”

The survey also collected opinions from a smaller group of 22 “leading experts.” These top researchers and technologists are the people who developed the wind industry over the last 20 to 30 years, Wiser said, and they proved even more optimistic than the larger group.

Their optimism may derive from technological advancements that have yet to be implemented, suggesting that wind energy is not as mature a technology as its slowly evolving turbines make it appear. Immature technologies, as solar energy has demonstrated, tend to enjoy steeper drops in cost.

“That was the question we were trying to get at with this expert survey,” Wiser said. “Is this a mature technology where only somewhat modest incremental improvements are plausible? Or instead do there remain significant opportunities for cost reduction?

“Onshore wind technology is fairly mature,” Wiser concluded, but the survey suggests that “further advancements are on the horizon—and not only in reduced up-front costs. Experts anticipate a wide range of advancements that will increase project performance, extend project design lives, and lower operational expenses. Offshore wind has even greater opportunities for cost reduction, though there are larger uncertainties in the degree of that reduction.”

In the median, the experts predicted on-shore wind energy would see cost reductions of about 35 percent by 2050. The cost of offshore wind would drop 38 percent to 41 percent, they predicted.

Cost reductions matter because wind faces stiff competition from natural gas, and that competition will stiffen further when wind loses its federal production tax credit over the next four years. But even without subsidy, Lazard estimates the cost of wind starts at 3.2¢ per kilowatt hour, making it the cheapest form of energy in America today.

Instead of asking the experts to predict that cost in the future, Wiser’s team asked them to predict each of the five elements that determine cost: up-front installation cost, capacity factor, design life, cost of financing, and operating expense.

“We forced people to think about all of the five components that ultimately go into the levelized cost of energy,” he told a gathering of scientists, economists and public policy experts hosted by the Energy Policy Institute at Chicago [watch the video].

Wiser’s team published the survey findings last fall in the journal Nature Energy.

Researchers traditionally predict future costs through learning curves, which anticipate how much costs will fall as capacity increases, or through engineering analysis.

“Learning curves and engineering analysis are perfectly useful, interesting ways of understanding cost reduction potential,” Wiser said. “We wanted to bring at this problem a somewhat new technique to see how it fit in with other existing literature that was out there.”

A summary of the survey findings released by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

 

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – The U.S. military is not in Iraq “to seize anybody’s oil”, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said, distancing himself from remarks by President Donald Trump at the start of a visit to Iraq on Monday.

Mattis, on his first trip to Iraq as Pentagon chief, is hoping to assess the war effort as U.S.-backed Iraqi forces launch a new push to evict Islamic State militants from their remaining stronghold in the city of Mosul.

But he is likely to face questions about Trump’s remarks and actions, including a temporary ban on travel to the United States and for saying America should have seized Iraq’s oil after toppling Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Trump told CIA staff in January: “We should have kept the oil. But okay. Maybe you’ll have another chance.”

 

Senator John McCain’s belated Valentine’s Day chocolate for the press – “We need you,” he told Chuck Todd on NBC’s  Meet the Press – was devoured by the Sunday Beltway programs today.

The Todd-McCain interview, released in tweeted snippets over the last couple of days but aired in full this morning, included the warning that the suppression of a “free and many times adversarial press” is “how dictators get started.”

Starting with a joke – seemingly – McCain told Todd, “I hate the press. I hate you especially. But the fact is we need you. We need a free press. We must have it. It’s vital.

“If you want to preserve, I’m very serious now, if you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press. And without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That’s how dictators get started.”

Vice pres Pence in a speech in Brussels, Belgium attempted to reassure Europe to assure them we will still support NATO. Should they believe Trump or Pence.

Author: John Hanno

Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. Bogan High School. Worked in Alaska after the earthquake. Joined U.S. Army at 17. Sergeant, B Battery, 3rd Battalion, 84th Artillery, 7th Army. Member of 12 different unions, including 4 different locals of the I.B.E.W. Worked for fortune 50, 100 and 200 companies as an industrial electrician, electrical/electronic technician.

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