Zinke boosted fortunes of ‘scam PAC’ operators

Politico reports: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has directed millions of dollars in political contributions since 2014 to a network of Washington operatives that prominent conservatives have accused of profiting by misleading donors.

Beneficiaries of Zinke’s largesse include groups linked to Washington-area political operative Scott Mackenzie, organizer of a Virgin Islands GOP political action committee that hosted the secretary at a St. Croix fundraiser in March. Before that, when Zinke was a Republican congressman from Montana, his political operation steered significant portions of its spending to a handful of Washington, D.C.-area consulting firms that also have had ties to Mackenzie and his associates.

Zinke has continued this relationship even as other Republicans have recoiled from dealing with Mackenzie, whose critics say he operates “scam PACs” that raise small-dollar donations from conservative voters but then spend the bulk of the money on consultants and overhead. The critics include former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who filed a suit accusing Mackenzie and other defendants of running a “national fundraising scam” after they gave his 2013 campaign for governor less than a half percent of the money they had raised in his name. [Continue reading…]

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Turning tables in Magnitsky case, Russia accuses a nemesis of murder

The New York Times reports: The case of Sergei L. Magnitsky, the Russian tax lawyer who was imprisoned in 2008 on false charges and died in jail, began as a tragedy. But now, after years of sanctions, countersanctions, bitter feuds and one noteworthy meeting in Trump Tower, the case seems to be entering the realm of farce.

Mr. Magnitsky, who worked for William F. Browder, a hedge fund manager who was once the largest foreign portfolio investor in Russia, was jailed on tax evasion charges while unraveling a $230 million government tax “refund” that Russian officials had fraudulently granted themselves. He died in prison after being beaten and denied medical care, earning the Kremlin widespread condemnation.

Mr. Browder, who was living in London at the time, began lobbying Western governments to punish those responsible for Mr. Magnitsky’s death, an effort that bore fruit when the United States, Estonia and most recently, Canada, imposed sanctions on Russians involved in Mr. Magnitsky’s death.

That campaign touched off a nasty confrontation with the Kremlin, and the two sides have been trying ever since to undermine the credibility of the other. Recently, however, Russian prosecutors have taken that effort to a remarkable new level, claiming that Mr. Magnitsky was actually murdered by Mr. Browder.

A powerful law enforcement organization, the Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor General’s Office, is investigating Mr. Magnitsky’s death as a murder, presenting as evidence what it says are intercepted communications from Western intelligence agencies.

The theory was first floated in a documentary broadcast on Russian state television last year, but widely brushed off as crude propaganda. It seemed aimed, as with many Russian disinformation campaigns, at muddying the waters around the issue without necessarily claiming to be credible.

It seems the prosecutors have been assembling the case since last year, but their activities came to light just this month when a lawyer representing Mr. Magnitsky’s family gained access to the court docket containing the information presented as evidence by the prosecutors. [Continue reading…]

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Pressure from China on return of fugitive businessman Guo Wengui sparks frantic response from Washington

The Wall Street Journal reports: Guo Wengui, a wealthy Chinese businessman, sat in the sun room of his apartment on the 18th-floor of the Sherry-Netherland Hotel on New York’s Fifth Avenue. With him were four officials from China’s Ministry of State Security, whom Mr. Guo had agreed to meet.

For many months, Mr. Guo, from his self-imposed exile, had been using Twitter to make allegations of corruption against senior Chinese officials and tycoons. During the hourslong conversation, the officials urged him to quit his activism and return home, after which the government would release assets it had frozen and leave his relatives in peace.

Liu Yanping, the lead official, said he had come on behalf of Beijing “to find a solution,” according to Mr. Guo and a partial audio recording Mr. Guo said he made of the May encounter and posted online in September.

Mr. Liu’s demeanor made clear this wasn’t a friendly negotiation, and he hinted at the risks for Mr. Guo. “You can’t keep doing this forever,” Mr. Liu can be heard telling Mr. Guo on the audio recording, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. “I’m worried about you, to tell you the truth.”

The dramatic meeting sparked an unresolved debate within the Trump administration over the Guo case and laid bare broader divisions over how to handle the U.S.’s top economic and military rival, according to people familiar with the matter. U.S.-China relations have been upset by disagreements over trade, cyberespionage and policy toward North Korea, and Mr. Guo’s New York stay is only adding to the tension.

The Chinese officials, who were in the U.S. on visas that didn’t allow them to conduct official business, caught the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which wanted to move against them, according to people familiar with the matter. The bureau’s effort ran into friction with other U.S. officials, including those at the State Department, who have tended to favor a less-confrontational approach, according to the people.

Some U.S. national security officials view Mr. Guo, who claims to have potentially valuable information on top Chinese officials and business magnates and on North Korea, as a useful bargaining chip to use with Beijing, the people said.

The episode took a twist when President Donald Trump received a letter from the Chinese government, hand-delivered by Steve Wynn, a Las Vegas casino magnate with interests in the Chinese gambling enclave of Macau. Mr. Trump initially expressed interest in helping the Chinese government by deporting Mr. Guo, but other senior officials worked to block any such move, according to people familiar with the matter.

Beijing officials tell their American counterparts they are justified in engaging in such activities because the U.S. carries out similar operations on foreign soil as well, U.S. law-enforcement officials say.

In June, U.S. officials revisited the JFK incident during a policy coordination meeting that grew heated.

Ezra Cohen-Watnick, then senior director for intelligence programs at the National Security Council, confronted Susan Thornton, an East Asia expert who serves as Acting Assistant Secretary of State, charging her agency was improperly hindering law-enforcement efforts to address China’s repeated violations of U.S. sovereignty and law, according to people familiar with the discussion.

State department officials criticized the FBI for not seeking permission from them before initially engaging the Chinese officials, the people said.

State Department official Laura Stone said she was already facing retaliation from Beijing, saying Chinese officials had allegedly confiscated her notebook as she was trying to leave the country, the people said.

The FBI’s assistant director of the counterintelligence division, Bill Priestap, deadpanned in response: “Was it because you had been trying to kidnap and extort someone in China?”

Separately, at a June meeting in the Oval Office, counterintelligence officials briefed President Trump on Beijing’s alleged efforts to steal cutting-edge research from labs and trade secrets from U.S. companies, according to people familiar with the meeting.

The president, surrounded by his top aides, including Vice President Mike Pence, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, his former chief strategist Steve Bannon and other national security and economic advisers, asked to see policy options in 90 days. In the meantime, he said he knew of at least one “Chinese criminal” the U.S. needed to immediately deport, according to the people.

“Where’s the letter that Steve brought?” Mr. Trump called to his secretary. “We need to get this criminal out of the country,” Mr. Trump said, according to the people. Aides assumed the letter, which was brought into the Oval Office, might reference a Chinese national in trouble with U.S. law enforcement, the people said.

The letter, in fact, was from the Chinese government, urging the U.S. to return Mr. Guo to China.

The document had been presented to Mr. Trump at a recent private dinner at the White House, the people said. It was hand-delivered to the president by Mr. Wynn, the Republican National Committee finance chairman, whose Macau casino empire cannot operate without a license from the Chinese territory. [Continue reading…]

In an age in which the line between news and entertainment has never before been so blurred, all I can say about the following analysis from China Uncensored is that it is certainly entertaining — how objective and reliable, I don’t have time to determine:

 

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John Kelly and the dangerous moral calculus of working for Donald Trump

Ryan Lizza writes: Anyone in politics or government who works for Donald Trump, whether on the payroll or in some other supporting role, is forced to make a sacrifice. Working for Trump means that one’s credibility is likely to be damaged, so there is a kind of moral calculation that any Trump supporter must make: Does working for him serve some higher purpose that outweighs the price of reputational loss?

There is a hierarchy of justifications for backing Trump. At the bottom are the spokespeople and purely political officials who are almost instantly discredited, because they are forced to defend the statements of a President who routinely lies and manufactures nonsensical versions of events. Sean Spicer learned this on his first day on the job, when Trump sent him into the White House briefing room to tell the press lies about Inauguration-crowd sizes. He never recovered. But there was also no higher purpose for which Spicer could claim he was serving Trump, except that he was a political-communications official, and being the White House spokesman is the top prize in that profession.

Republicans in Congress are a little farther up the pyramid. Many privately say that they believe Trump is a disaster of a President, an embarrassment to the G.O.P., and, as Bob Corker recently said publicly, echoing what he claimed were the views of most Republican senators, setting America “on the path to World War III.” They justify their support by noting that Trump will implement the core Republican agenda, and that alone is worth the price of a person at least some of them believe is unfit to be President. They may be privately embarrassed by Trump, the agreement goes, but at least he has appointed a reliable conservative to the Supreme Court, almost repealed Obamacare (and still might), and has a decent chance at signing a big tax cut into law. How morally justifiable one believes this argument is depends a lot on how bad one believes Trump is for the country and the world, though a Third World War seems like it would be a steep price to pay for Neil Gorsuch. [Continue reading…]

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Conflict of interest: Trump personally interviewed U.S. attorney candidates

Politico reports: President Donald Trump has personally interviewed at least two potential candidates for U.S. attorney positions in New York, according to two sources familiar with the matter — a move that critics say raises questions about whether they can be sufficiently independent from the president.

Trump has interviewed Geoffrey Berman, who is currently at the law firm Greenberg Traurig for the job of U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, and Ed McNally of the firm Kasowitz Benson Torres for the Eastern District post, according to the sources.

It was unclear when the discussions took place. Trump has not announced nominees for those positions. Neither Berman nor McNally responded to calls or emails requesting comment.

The White House did not deny that Trump had personally conducted the interviews with those two candidates. A White House official noted: “These are individuals that the president nominates and the Senate confirms under Article II of the Constitution.”

“We realize Senate Democrats would like to reduce this President’s constitutional powers,” the White House official said. “But he and other presidents before him and after may talk to individuals nominated to positions within the executive branch.”

The Southern District of New York is an especially notable position since it has jurisdiction over Trump Tower. Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney there, has said he had been told that Trump would keep him on despite the change in administrations. Yet he was among those abruptly fired by Trump in March. [Continue reading…]

It’s a shame we can’t see how Trump shook hands with each candidate and see how they yielded (or didn’t) to his standard shoulder-dislocation test — the test in which he yanks a body to find out whether it is suitably compliant with his demands.

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FBI uncovered Russian bribery plot before Obama administration approved controversial nuclear deal with Moscow

The Hill reports: Before the Obama administration approved a controversial deal in 2010 giving Moscow control of a large swath of American uranium, the FBI had gathered substantial evidence that Russian nuclear industry officials were engaged in bribery, kickbacks, extortion and money laundering designed to grow Vladimir Putin’s atomic energy business inside the United States, according to government documents and interviews.

Federal agents used a confidential U.S. witness working inside the Russian nuclear industry to gather extensive financial records, make secret recordings and intercept emails as early as 2009 that showed Moscow had compromised an American uranium trucking firm with bribes and kickbacks in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, FBI and court documents show.

They also obtained an eyewitness account — backed by documents — indicating Russian nuclear officials had routed millions of dollars to the U.S. designed to benefit former President Bill Clinton’s charitable foundation during the time Secretary of State Hillary Clinton served on a government body that provided a favorable decision to Moscow, sources told The Hill.

The racketeering scheme was conducted “with the consent of higher level officials” in Russia who “shared the proceeds” from the kickbacks, one agent declared in an affidavit years later.

Rather than bring immediate charges in 2010, however, the Department of Justice (DOJ) continued investigating the matter for nearly four more years, essentially leaving the American public and Congress in the dark about Russian nuclear corruption on U.S. soil during a period when the Obama administration made two major decisions benefiting Putin’s commercial nuclear ambitions. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s presidency is bad for business — his own

NBC News reports: Donald Trump’s presidency is bad for business — his own. Unless his business is getting presidential business.

Conflict of interest concerns over the mix of presidential politics and his personal businesses have followed Trump ever since he announced his candidacy after gliding down the escalator of his namesake tower. And it’s been difficult for the public to get a clear view of the extent to which the two worlds have become blended. Even the former White House ethics director, who resigned in July, noted, “There’s an appearance that the businesses are profiting from his occupying the presidency. And appearance matters as much as reality.”

A larger picture of that reality is now emerging, thanks to data gleaned from government reports, potential business partners and, most recently, newly released financial data from the U.K. – which, unlike the U.S., mandates that most private companies must publicly release its annual financial reports.

While some of the Trump brands show signs of duress, a select few — where politics and business are most thickly stirred — are seeing their revenue soar.

Last week’s release of 2016 financial reports for Trump’s luxury golf courses in Scotland offer a rare, detailed look at the Trump operation’s financial health. The iconic Turnberry resort, which he famously visited in the middle of the Brexit referendum, saw losses that doubled to $23 million in 2016 and revenue that fell by 16 percent, according to the documents.

Losses at Trump International Golf Links, north of Aberdeen, Scotland, also increased — by 28 percent to $18.4 million, the filings showed. Revenue fell by 12 percent. [Continue reading…]

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The mystery of Wilbur Ross’ missing billions

Forbes reports: Dressed in a blue suit and red tie, Donald Trump’s 79-year-old pick for Secretary of Commerce sat before a panel of senators for nearly four hours in January, deflecting dozens of questions with relative ease. When one legislator at the confirmation hearing asked Wilbur Ross how he would ensure that his official actions did not create conflicts of interest, given his vast personal holdings, Ross left little room for criticism. “I intend to be quite scrupulous about recusal and any topic where there is the slightest scintilla of doubt,” he said.

What he left unsaid, however, was that between the November election and January inauguration, he had quietly moved a chunk of assets into trusts for his family members, leaving more than $2 billion off of his financial disclosure report—and therefore out of the public eye. Ross revealed the existence of those assets, and the timing of the transfer, when Forbes asked why his financial disclosure form listed fewer assets than he had previously told the magazine he owned.

The hidden assets raise questions about whether the Secretary of Commerce violated federal rules and whether his family owns billions in holdings that could create the appearance of conflicts of interest.

Federal law requires incoming cabinet members to disclose assets they currently own, as well as any that produced income during the current and previous calendar years, even if they no longer own the assets. Ross says he followed all rules. But how someone could apparently hold $2 billion in assets, without producing big income that would show up on a financial disclosure report, raises more questions than answers.

Three months before the 2016 election, Ross’ assistant described his portfolio to Forbes as a mix that would theoretically throw off plenty of cash: $1.3 billion of municipal bonds, $1.3 billion worth of interests in general and limited partnerships, $550 million of equities, $225 million of art, $180 million in cash and $120 million worth of real estate.

That adds up to $3.7 billion. Last year, Forbes asked for documentation to prove the existence of those assets, received nothing in return, and ultimately estimated Ross’ fortune at a more conservative $2.9 billion for its annual Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans, published in October. This year, the Secretary of Commerce said he would dig up a breakdown of the assets he transferred into trusts, but he never sent anything. It is unclear whether he cited accurate figures either year. [Continue reading…]

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Malta car bomb kills Panama Papers journalist

The Guardian reports: The journalist who led the Panama Papers investigation into corruption in Malta was killed on Monday in a car bomb near her home.

Daphne Caruana Galizia died on Monday afternoon when her car, a Peugeot 108, was destroyed by a powerful explosive device which blew the vehicle into several pieces and threw the debris into a nearby field.

A blogger whose posts often attracted more readers than the combined circulation of the country’s newspapers, Caruana Galizia was recently described by the Politico website as a “one-woman WikiLeaks”. Her blogs were a thorn in the side of both the establishment and underworld figures that hold sway in Europe’s smallest member state. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s pick for NOAA chief causes a storm

Politico reports: As a top executive at AccuWeather, Barry Myers has pushed for limits on the kinds of products that the National Weather Service offers to the public, saying they offered unfair competition to his industry.

Now, President Donald Trump’s nomination of Myers to lead the weather service’s parent agency could allow him to make those kinds of restrictions mandatory — to the benefit of his family-run forecasting company.

The AccuWeather CEO’s nomination to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is stirring criticism from people who worry he would hobble the weather service, which provoked an industry backlash more than a decade ago by making hour-by-hour forecasts, cellphone alerts and other consumer-friendly data widely available online. A bill that Myers supported 12 years ago, sponsored by then-Sen. Rick Santorum, would have prohibited the agency from competing with private providers in most circumstances.

Myers, who has served as a NOAA adviser, has more recently spoken of cooperation with the agency, including industry’s advocacy for Congress to fund its budget. But his critics expressed misgivings nonetheless.

“I fear that he’ll do irreparable harm to an agency whose primary mission is to save lives,” said Daniel Sobien, the president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, which strongly opposes Myers’ nomination. “There seems to be a huge conflict of interest considering his business background and belief system.” [Continue reading…]

It seems long overdue that use of the phrase “Trump administration” be abandoned. “Donald Trump’s den of thieves” would be a more accurate term for describing this plutocracy.

Trump’s choices do not raise the risk of conflicts of interest; on the contrary he displays a strong preference for individuals whose corrupt nature mirrors his own.

Corruption is the glue that holds this enterprise together.

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Self-aggrandizing Interior Secretary Zinke gives his regal trappings to his government post

The Washington Post reports: At the Interior Department’s headquarters in downtown Washington, Secretary Ryan Zinke has revived an arcane military ritual that no one can remember ever happening in the federal government.

A security staffer takes the elevator to the seventh floor, climbs the stairs to the roof and hoists a special secretarial flag whenever Zinke enters the building. When the secretary goes home for the day or travels, the flag — a blue banner emblazoned with the agency’s bison seal flanked by seven white stars representing the Interior bureaus — comes down.  

In Zinke’s absence, the ritual is repeated to raise an equally obscure flag for Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt.

Responding this week to questions from The Washington Post, a spokeswoman for Zinke, a former Navy SEAL commander, defended the Navy flag-flying tradition as “a major sign of transparency.”

“Ryan Zinke is proud and honored to lead the Department of the Interior, and is restoring honor and tradition to the department, whether it’s flying the flag when he is in garrison or restoring traditional access to public lands,” press secretary Heather Swift said in an email.

Zinke, a Stetson-wearing former Montana congressman who has cultivated an image as a rugged outdoorsman, has come under a harsh spotlight in recent weeks for behavior criticized as extravagant for a public official. The agency’s inspector general opened an investigation after he ran up bills for travel on chartered jets and mixed business with political appearances, sometimes accompanied by his wife, Lola. It’s one of five probes underway of Cabinet secretaries’ travel.

Zinke upset some of the 70,000 employees at the agency that manages public lands by stating that 30 percent of the workers are “not loyal to the flag” in a speech to oil and gas executives. It is unclear whether the reference was literal or figurative.

Zinke rode to work on horseback on his first day in office and displays animal heads on his wood-paneled office walls. For a while, he kept a glass-case display of hunting knives but was asked to remove them because of security risks, according to people familiar with the decision.

He has commissioned commemorative coins with his name on them to give to staff and visitors, but the cost to taxpayers is unclear. Zinke’s predecessors and some other Cabinet secretaries have coins bearing agency seals, but not personalized ones.

The flag ritual is unique in President Trump’s administration. The White House does not raise the presidential flag when Trump alights at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. There is no Defense secretary’s flag atop the Pentagon. [Continue reading…]

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Background check chief has ‘never seen’ mistakes and omissions at level of Jared Kushner forms

CNN reports: The head of a government bureau responsible for clearing background checks told lawmakers Wednesday he has “never seen that level of mistakes” when asked about numerous omissions in Jared Kushner’s security clearance application.

Charles Phalen, the director of the National Background Investigations Bureau, a newly created division within the Office of Personnel Management, made the comment in response to a question during a House subcommittee oversight hearing.

Democrats have called on the White House to revoke security clearances granted to Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, and Ivanka Trump over reports of their use of personal email accounts and Kushner’s multiple updates to his security clearance questionnaire, known as SF-86, for failing initially to include meeting with foreign officials. [Continue reading…]

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Harvey Weinstein and the Trump children show why the U.S. shouldn’t have elected prosecutors

Annalisa Merelli writes: Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance Jr is a Democrat who has been New York County’s chief prosecutor since 2008. He is also, at the moment, a very controversial figure.

On Oct. 4, the New Yorker (paywall) revealed that Vance had ordered his prosecutors to drop an investigation into Donald Trump’s children, Ivanka and Donald Jr, for allegedly inflating the worth of a property in New York to prospective buyers. Just a few days later, the same magazine (paywall) revealed that he had decided not to press sexual abuse charges against Harvey Weinstein, the high-powered Hollywood producer, after listening to a police tape of Weinstein aggressively propositioning a model, Ambra Battilana Gutierrez. Weinstein has now been accused of sexual harassment and rape by a host of women.

What links these two cases is that in both of them, Vance received hefty campaign donations from lawyers for the people involved. Donald Trump’s lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, had given $25,000 to Vance’s campaign, the New Yorker reported. Vance had returned the money after Kasowitz asked him to intercede on the Trump children’s behalf—as is customary with people involved in investigations. But a few months after deciding not to prosecute them, Vance accepted another, larger donation and fundraising help from Kasowitz, worth a total of about $50,000. Similarly, a few months after Vance decided to drop the case against Weinstein, the producer’s attorney, David Boies, donated $10,000 to the prosecutor’s campaign.

In both cases, naturally, Vance denies that his office’s decision not to prosecute had anything to do with campaign donations. But even if this is true, it’s hard for him or any other US district attorney to dispel the taint of corruption in cases like these. It’s widely understood that in politics, votes cost money and money usually comes attached to requests for favors. That undermines trust in the justice system. And this is a uniquely American problem, as the US is the only country in the world that elects prosecutors by popular vote. [Continue reading…]

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Traveling in style: Trump’s White House wrestles with Cabinet costs

The Washington Post reports: The Trump administration, one of the wealthiest in modern U.S. history, is facing widening criticism over travel expenditures among some of the billionaires, budget hawks and business executives who head federal agencies.

Inspectors general have opened at least five investigations into charter or military flights by Cabinet officials amounting to millions in federal spending. Their decisions to veer away from cheaper commercial flights have led to criticism from Democrats in Congress and government accountability groups about a culture of entitlement in Trump’s administration.

New examples of questioned expenditures include those of Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who on Friday turned over his travel records under pressure from House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) and the panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.). Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt faces an expanding investigation into his travel by private jet.

The drumbeat of controversy over Cabinet travel threatens to undermine a core pillar of Trump’s relationship with his base — his promise to “drain the swamp” of elite Washington, rein in waste and represent the working class. [Continue reading…]

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The swamp rises around an administration that promised to drain it

Anne Gearan writes: The image of a top government official, a Washington fat cat, blowing taxpayer money to pay for private chartered airplanes is exactly what President Trump seemed to have in mind when he promised voters he would “drain the swamp.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s use of expensive private jets for routine government travel lost him his job Friday when the White House announced the president had accepted his resignation after days of controversy.

But beyond the eye-roll irony of the scandal enveloping a Republican politician who promoted himself as a penny-pinching budget hawk, Price is not the only example of waste, carelessness or entitlement in an administration that pledged to speak for the little guy.

At least four other Cabinet officials have taken unusual chartered or military air trips on the public dime. There is also the matter of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s $25,000 secure phone booth and the unauthorized use of private email by White House adviser Jared Kushner and others — a development that follows a campaign where Trump lambasted Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email system when serving as secretary of state. [Continue reading…]

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Trump kids’ ski vacation incurs over $300,000 in security costs

CBS News reports: The annual Aspen ski vacation taken in March by President Trump’s children, Ivanka and Eric Trump, and their families, including son-in-law Jared Kushner, left taxpayers on the hook for security costs of at least $330,000, CBS News has learned.

Records obtained by CBS News through a Freedom of Information Act request show that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spent $329,561 for the week-long vacation. Housing costs were $195,700 at hotels across town.

The Secret Service also spent $26,000 on rental vehicles. Equipment costs were close to $22,000 — to accompany the family on the slopes, the Secret Service had to buy lift tickets and rent skis and boots. They also rented bikes and bought other unidentified items at outfitting supplier REI and Backcountry.com. [Continue reading…]

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VA chief took in Wimbledon, river cruise on European work trip; wife’s expenses covered by taxpayers

The Washington Post reports: Nearly three days into a trip to Europe this past July, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin had attended a Wimbledon championship tennis match, toured Westminster Abbey and taken a cruise on the Thames.

The 10-day trip was not entirely a vacation. Shulkin was in Europe for meetings with Danish and British officials about veterans’ health issues.

Yet he and his wife spent about half their time sightseeing, including shopping and touring historic sites, according to an itinerary obtained by The Washington Post and confirmed by a U.S. official familiar with their activities.

Shulkin’s six-person traveling party included his acting undersecretary of health and her husband, his chief of staff and another aide, the itinerary says. They were accompanied by a security detail of as many as six people.

The agency said Friday that the government paid airfare for Merle Bari, Shulkin’s wife, because she was traveling on “approved invitational orders.” The government also provided a per diem for her meals, the agency said.

While some Trump administration Cabinet members have faced scrutiny over their use of private and government jets, Shulkin traveled on a commercial flight, seated in coach on at least one leg.

The European visit, however, puts a focus on the mixing of business and leisure during these trips, which can come at great taxpayer expense. Shulkin’s immediate predecessor, Robert McDonald, took no foreign work trips, according to a former VA official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Shulkin’s trip came less than two weeks after he signed a memo instructing top VA staffers to determine whether “employee travel in their organization is essential.” [Continue reading…]

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