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…]


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…]


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…]


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…]


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…]


HHS Secretary Tom Price resigns after criticism for taking charter flights at taxpayer expense

The Washington Post reports: Tom Price, President Trump’s embattled health and human services secretary, resigned Friday amid sharp criticism of his extensive use of taxpayer-funded charter flights, the White House said.

The announcement came shortly after Trump told reporters he considered Price a “fine man” but that he “didn’t like the optics” and planned to make a decision by the end of the day.

“I’m not happy, I can tell you that. I’m not happy,” Trump said as prepared to leave the White House en route to his private golf club in Bedminster, N.J.

In a statement, the White House said Trump would designate Don J. Wright as acting secretary. Wright currently serves as the deputy assistant secretary for health and director of the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. [Continue reading…]


Trump embarrassed by his own appointees misusing taxpayers’ money

The New York Times reports: After being rebuked by President Trump for racking up at least $400,000 in travel on chartered flights, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said on Thursday that he would pay back taxpayers for his part of the bill and stop flying on private jets.

But that does not mean his job is safe.

Mr. Trump has grown incensed by Mr. Price’s liberal renting of expensive planes, which he views as undercutting his drain-the-swamp campaign message, according to several administration officials with direct knowledge of the president’s thinking. Through intermediaries and the media, Mr. Trump has let it be known that offering reimbursement as repentance was no guarantee that Mr. Price would keep his job.

On Thursday, Mr. Price tried anyway.

“I look forward to gaining, regaining the trust that the American people, some of the American people, may have lost in the activities that I took,” Mr. Price said in an appearance on “Special Report with Bret Baier” on Fox News.

Mr. Price called Mr. Trump “a remarkable leader,” and said the president had expressed displeasure to him “very clearly.” [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke chartered a flight from Las Vegas to near his home in Montana this summer aboard a plane owned by oil-and-gas executives, internal documents show.

The flight, along with private flights during a trip to the Virgin Islands, could propel Zinke into the growing debate over the costs of travel by Cabinet secretaries, some of whom have chosen expensive charter jets and military planes at high expense to taxpayers over the cheaper option of flying commercial.

In June, Zinke and his staffers took a four-hour flight from Las Vegas to Kalispell, Mont., aboard a private plane owned by the executives of a Wyoming oil-and-gas exploration firm, aviation and business records show.

The landing in Kalispell put Zinke a short drive from his home in Whitefish, Mont., where he spent the night, documents show.

The flight cost taxpayers $12,375, according to an Interior Department spokeswoman. Commercial airlines run daily flights between the two airports and charge as little as $300. [Continue reading…]


Trump could save more than $1 billion under his new tax plan

The New York Times reports: President Trump could cut his tax bills by more than $1.1 billion, including saving tens of millions of dollars in a single year, under his proposed tax changes, a New York Times analysis has found.

On Wednesday, the White House announced a sweeping plan to cut a variety of taxes that would overwhelmingly benefit the wealthy. The estimate of Mr. Trump’s savings is based in part on information from his 2005 federal tax return. The analysis compares what his tax burden would be under current law with what it would be under the proposal.

Mr. Trump’s 2005 return is the most recent available publicly and was released in March by David Cay Johnston, a former New York Times reporter. The Times’s figure also relies on an estimate of Mr. Trump’s net worth, calculated by the Bloomberg Billionaire’s Index to be $2.86 billion.

“I don’t benefit. I don’t benefit,” Mr. Trump said on Wednesday. “In fact, very, very strongly, as you see, I think there’s very little benefit for people of wealth.”

In fact, high-income earners like Mr. Trump are likely to benefit disproportionately if the White House proposal becomes law. The estimates, calculated with the help of Robert Willens, an accounting expert, and Stephen Breitstone, a tax lawyer, provide a view into precisely how. [Continue reading…]


Price took military jets to Europe, Asia for over $500K

Politico reports: The White House approved the use of military aircraft for multi-national trips by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price to Africa and Europe this spring, and to Asia in the summer, at a cost of more than $500,000 to taxpayers.

The overseas trips bring the total cost to taxpayers of Price’s travels to more than $1 million since May, according to a POLITICO review.

Price pledged on Thursday to reimburse the government for the cost of his own seat on his domestic trips using private aircraft – reportedly around $52,000 — but that would not include the cost of the military flights.

Price’s wife, Betty, accompanied him on the military flights, while other members of the secretary’s delegation flew commercially to Europe. [Continue reading…]


U.S. denies request for Puerto Rico shipping waiver

Reuters reports: The Trump administration on Tuesday denied a request to waive shipping restrictions to help get fuel and supplies to storm-ravaged Puerto Rico, saying it would do nothing to address the island’s main impediment to shipping, damaged ports.

The Jones Act limits shipping between coasts to U.S. flagged vessels. However, in the wake of brutal storms, the government has occasionally issued temporary waivers to allow the use of cheaper, tax free, or more readily available foreign flagged ships.

The Department of Homeland Security, which waived the act after hurricanes Harvey and Irma, did not agree an exemption would help this time.

On Monday, U.S. Representative Nydia Velázquez and seven other representatives asked Elaine Duke, acting head of Homeland Security, to waive the nearly 100-year-old shipping law for a year to help Puerto Rico recover from Hurricane Maria.Gregory Moore, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection, an office of Homeland Security, said in a statement that an assessment by the agency showed there was “sufficient capacity” of U.S.-flagged vessels to move commodities to Puerto Rico.

“The limitation is going to be port capacity to offload and transit, not vessel availability,” Moore said.

The government’s rationale for a waiver after the storms hit Texas, Louisiana and Florida was to ease movement of fuel to places along the U.S. East Coast and make up for temporary outages of high capacity pipelines.

“The situation in Puerto Rico is much different,” Moore said in the statement, adding that most of the humanitarian effort would be carried out with barges, which make up a large portion of the U.S. flagged cargo fleet.

Puerto Rico has long railed against the Jones Act, saying it makes the cost of imported basic commodities, such as food, clothing and fuel, more expensive.

“Our dependence on fossil fuel imports by sea is hampering the restoration of services,” said Juan Declet-Barreto, an energy expert at the nonprofit group the Union of Concerned Scientists. The refusal to allow the waiver “is raising fears on the island that they are going to be left behind in this disaster.” [Continue reading…]

Nelson A. Denis writes: After World War I, America was worried about German U-boats, which had sunk nearly 5,000 ships during the war. Congress enacted the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, a.k.a. the Jones Act, to ensure that the country maintained a shipbuilding industry and seafaring labor force. Section 27 of this law decreed that only American ships could carry goods and passengers from one United States port to another. In addition, every ship must be built, crewed and owned by American citizens.

Almost a century later, there are no U-boats lurking off the coast of Puerto Rico. The Jones Act has outlived its original intent, yet it is strangling the island’s economy.

Under the law, any foreign registry vessel that enters Puerto Rico must pay punitive tariffs, fees and taxes, which are passed on to the Puerto Rican consumer.

The foreign vessel has one other option: It can reroute to Jacksonville, Fla., where all the goods will be transferred to an American vessel, then shipped to Puerto Rico where — again — all the rerouting costs are passed through to the consumer.

Thanks to the law, the price of goods from the United States mainland is at least double that in neighboring islands, including the United States Virgin Islands, which are not covered by the Jones Act. Moreover, the cost of living in Puerto Rico is 13 percent higher than in 325 urban areas elsewhere in the United States, even though per capita income in Puerto Rico is about $18,000, close to half that of Mississippi, the poorest of all 50 states.

This is a shakedown, a mob protection racket, with Puerto Rico a captive market. The island is the fifth-largest market in the world for American products, and there are more Walmarts and Walgreens per square mile in Puerto Rico than anywhere else on the planet. [Continue reading…]


Puerto Rican golf resort that Trump promised to save (but so didn’t)

In October 2016, BuzzFeed reported: Donald Trump claimed he had a plan to save a failing Puerto Rican golf resort: He would streamline its budget and attract new members. Those promises, repeated for years, helped the club sell a raft of government-backed bonds that it had very little chance of repaying.

Trump collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees from the resort, but he never did oversee the golf course’s daily operations. He didn’t attract more than a handful of new members or reduce its multi-million dollar annual losses. Its costly, self-dealing contracts remained in place. In late 2011, six months after selling the bonds, the club defaulted, leaving Puerto Rican taxpayers — already suffering through a major economic crisis — on the hook for as much as $32.7 million, according to an analysis by Securities Litigation and Consulting Group.

The Trump family distanced itself from the project’s failure, claiming that the real estate developer merely licensed his name to the property. But a review of hundreds of pages of corporate and legal filings, undertaken by BuzzFeed News, shows that Trump promised the club’s investors and the government of Puerto Rico something entirely different. [Continue reading…]


Zinke says 30 percent of Interior ‘crew’ are not ‘loyal to the flag,’ as he promotes oil drilling and logging on public lands

The Associated Press reports: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said Monday that nearly one-third of employees at his department are not loyal to him and President Donald Trump, adding that he is working to change the department’s regulatory culture to be more business friendly.

Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, said he knew when he took over the 70,000-employee department in March that, “I got 30 percent of the crew that’s not loyal to the flag.”

In a speech to an oil industry group, Zinke compared Interior to a pirate ship that captures “a prized ship at sea and only the captain and the first mate row over” to finish the mission.

“We do have good people” at Interior, he said, “but the direction has to be clear and you’ve got to hold people accountable.”

Zinke’s comments echo complaints by some White House allies that a permanent, “deep state” in Washington has sabotaged Trump’s efforts to remake the government.

Zinke did not go that far, but he lamented a government culture that prizes analysis over action, saying: “There’s too many ways in the present process for someone who doesn’t want to get (a regulatory action) done to put it a holding pattern.”

To remedy that, Zinke said he is pursuing a major reorganization that would push much of the agency’s decision-making outside Washington and move several agencies, including the Bureau of Reclamation and Bureau of Land Management, to undetermined Western states.

The moves follow military strategy, Zinke said: “Push your generals where the fight is.”

While details remain largely under wraps, Zinke said he was excited.

“It’s going to be huge,” he said in a speech to the National Petroleum Council, an advisory committee that includes leaders of the oil and gas industry. “I really can’t change the culture without changing the structure.”

Besides moving employees, Zinke said he wants to speed up permits for oil drilling, logging and other energy development that now can take years. [Continue reading…]


GOP funds Donald Trump’s defense in Russia probe with help from a handful of wealthy people

The Wall Street Journal reports: President Donald Trump’s attorneys in the probe of Russian election interference are being funded in part through a Republican Party account with a handful of wealthy donors—including a billionaire investor, a property developer seeking U.S. government visas and a Ukrainian-born American who has made billions of dollars doing business with Russian oligarchs.

The Republican National Committee, through an account typically used for its own legal bills, paid more than $300,000 last month to help cover Mr. Trump’s private legal fees, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.

The fund has also paid another nearly $200,000 to lawyers for the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., according to a person familiar with the payments. Those expenditures will be disclosed in the RNC’s September report, the person said.

The RNC legal fund in August raised about $280,000, according to FEC filings. The previous month, that fund raised more than $700,000. Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign has also contributed to the president’s personal legal expenses.

In past administrations, private legal fees have taken a significant toll on the first family’s personal finances. When former President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton left the White House in 2001, Mrs. Clinton’s financial disclosure showed they owed lawyers between $2.3 million and $10.6 million after years of scrutiny by Congress and independent counsel Ken Starr.

Vice President Mike Pence, meanwhile, has opted not to have the campaign or the RNC pay for his private legal representation in the Russia probe, which he hired in June, nor is he having a leadership political-action committee for which he raises money foot the bill.

The RNC and campaign’s payment arrangement for Mr. Trump’s lawyers is legal. But ethics experts cautioned that Mr. Trump’s decision to rely on party and campaign accounts to pay for his attorney fees can raise thorny political issues.

“Big-dollar special interest fundraising to pay the president’s legal bills most certainly raises the threat of corruption,” said Paul Ryan, vice president of policy and litigation at the nonpartisan transparency advocacy group Common Cause. “Lots of donors to the RNC are looking for access and influence. A big check for the president’s legal bills is one more way to do it.” [Continue reading…]


‘How do we use [this] to get whole?’: The most intriguing new Paul Manafort-Russia email

Aaron Blake writes: The trouble Paul Manafort is in is still coming into focus. The latest development: emails he sent to a Ukraine-based employee of his consulting business talking about setting up a briefing with a Russian oligarch close to Vladimir Putin.

The Washington Post’s Tom Hamburger, Rosalind S. Helderman, Carol D. Leonnig and Adam Entous just broke that big story, and it comes on the heels of a New York Times report this week that investigators have told Manafort they plan to indict him — apparently in hopes of getting him to flip on President Trump.

For me, though, the most intriguing email in The Post’s report is this one:

In one April exchange days after Trump named Manafort as a campaign strategist, Manafort referred to his positive press and growing reputation and asked, “How do we use to get whole?”

Manafort spokesman Jason Maloni said Wednesday that the email exchanges reflected an “innocuous” effort to collect past debts.

“It’s no secret Mr. Manafort was owed money by past clients,” Maloni said.

We can argue over what’s innocuous and what’s not, but that seems to be an acknowledgment from his own spokesman that Manafort was discussing how he could leverage his status as a leading strategist on an American presidential campaign to chase down debts he was owed — i.e. to enrich himself financially. [Continue reading…]


Michael Flynn prepping for a $1 million legal tab

The Daily Beast reports: Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn plans to spend more than a million dollars on his legal defense, a source familiar with the situation told The Daily Beast on Monday. But because of the structure of the fund he has set up to pay for it, the public won’t know who is footing the bills.

The retired Army lieutenant general is facing legal scrutiny as part of an ongoing federal probe into alleged Russian government meddling in the 2016 presidential election. He’s now searching for ways to pay the resulting legal bills, including through a crowdsourcing effort he announced on Twitter on Monday morning.

“We deeply appreciate the support of family and friends across this nation who have touched our lives,” Flynn wrote.

Flynn is dealing with a multitude of potentially complex legal problems stemming from the Russia investigation, which has expanded to examine the private business activities of a number of current and former Trump aides and associates, including Flynn’s advocacy on behalf of a Turkish government-linked company last year. He belatedly disclosed that work under a federal law governing domestic lobbying and public relations on behalf of foreign governments and political parties. [Continue reading…]


Mueller team’s focus on Manafort spans 11 years

CNN reports: Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team is reaching back more than a decade in its investigation of Paul Manafort, a sign of the pressure Mueller is placing on President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman.

The FBI’s warrant for a July search of Manafort’s Alexandria, Virginia, home said the investigation centered on possible crimes committed as far back as January 2006, according to a source briefed on the investigation.

The broad time frame is the latest indication that Mueller’s team is going well beyond Russian meddling during the campaign as part of its investigation of Trump campaign associates. Manafort, who has been the subject of an FBI investigation for three years, has emerged as a focal point for Mueller. [Continue reading…]


Trump’s divisive presidency reshapes a key part of his private business

The Washington Post reports: For two years, a shelter for victims of domestic violence called Safe+Sound Somerset held its fundraiser golf tournament at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J.

They loved it.

Then they quit it.

“Beautiful golf course. Beautiful facilities. We were treated well. But we couldn’t go back,” said Debbie Haroldsen, the charity’s acting executive director. President Trump’s campaign-trail comments about women and Mexicans had offended staff and clients. They found another course.

In Florida this year, the president’s politics attracted a new client for one of his businesses. Steven M. Alembik, a conservative activist, is planning a $600-per-seat gala at the Mar-a-Lago Club.

His logic: Trump helped Israel. So Alembik will help Trump in return.

“He’s got Israel’s back,” Alembik said. “We’ve got his back.’”

Trump’s divisive political career is reshaping a key — and previously apolitical — part of his business empire. [Continue reading…]


Trump advisers secretly met with Jordan’s king while one was pushing a huge nuclear power deal

BuzzFeed reports: In the days leading up to Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, when his soon-to-be national security adviser Michael Flynn was reportedly pushing a multibillion-dollar deal to build nuclear reactors in Jordan and other Middle East nations, Flynn and two other top Trump advisers held a secret meeting with the king of Jordan.

The meeting — details of which have never been reported — is the latest in a series of secret, high-stakes contacts between Trump advisers and foreign governments that have raised concerns about how, in particular, Flynn and senior adviser Jared Kushner handled their personal business interests as they entered key positions of power. And the nuclear project raised additional security concerns about expanding nuclear technology in a tinderbox region of the world. One expert compared it to providing “a nuclear weapons starter kit.”

On the morning of Jan. 5, Flynn, Kushner, and former chief strategist Steve Bannon greeted King Abdullah II at the Four Seasons hotel in lower Manhattan, then took off in a fleet of SUVs and a sedan to a different location.

People close to the three Trump advisers say that the nuclear deal was not discussed. But a federal official with access to a document created by a law enforcement agency about the meeting said that the nuclear proposal, known as the Marshall Plan, was one of the topics the group talked about. [Continue reading…]