Lost in the Sauce: Nov. 17 – 23

Welcome to the second part of my weekly summary and analysis of political-legal news: Lost in the Sauce, keeping you caught up on the smaller stories that were overlooked in the landslide of big news like the impeachment inquiry.

Why care about these “small” stories? In any other administration, these events would be the big stories! Lost in the Sauce covers important events, policy changes, and legal decisions that will impact our nation (and potentially the world!) despite being overshadowed by the near-daily scandals of the Trump administration.

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Lost in the Sauce: Nov. 17 – 23

Trump Organization investigation

The state grand jury convened by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. to investigate the Trump organization is examining CFO Allen Weisselberg’s role in the hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels. SDNY prosecutors determined that the Trump Organization tried to hide the payments by creating fake invoices and recording them as “legal expenses.” Weisselberg was granted immunity in that investigation, but now the DA is picking up where SDNY left off: determining if the Trump Organization and/or its officials should face state criminal charges for falsification of business records.

  • In his February testimony before the House Oversight Committee (video, Michael Cohen named Weisselberg as a central decision-maker in the plan to make and hide the hush-money payments. Cohen paid Daniels with his own money, as ordered by Trump, and was repaid by the Trump Organization. “Allen Weisselberg made the decision that it should be paid over the 12 months so that it would look like a retainer,” Cohen told lawmakers.
  • Weisselberg has represented Trump for decades, starting out doing the books for Trump’s father in Brooklyn. During a deposition related to a lawsuit over Trump University, a lawyer described Weisselberg as “Mr. Trump’s eyes and ears for his investments.” Weisselberg replied, “Am I his eyes and ears? From an economic standpoint.”

Prosecutors from Vance’s office have also interviewed David Pecker, CEO of American Media Inc. (which publishes the National Enquirer), as part of the investigation into the hush-money payments. Pecker alerted Cohen to Stormy Daniel’s story in October of 2016, helping him to arrange the deal for her silence.

AMI has a history of burying stories that cast Trump in a negative light. In August 2016, AMI paid former Playboy model Karen McDougal $150,000 to buy the rights to her story about an affair with Trump. AMI never published the story, a tactic known as catch-and-kill.

The President admits misconduct

The President of the United States stipulated in court documents that he looted a charity for his own political purposes. That’s an amazing sentence.

Earlier this month, New York Supreme Court Justice Saliann Scarpulla ordered President Trump to pay a $2 million judgment for improperly using his Trump Foundation charity to further his 2016 campaign. As part of the settlement, Trump admitted he personally misused foundation funds, referring to donations collected during a fundraiser for veterans in Iowa in January 2016, only days before the state’s presidential nominating caucuses. The Trump campaign was allowed to control $2.8 million in donations, using the distribution to promote his campaign. In the court filings, Trump acknowledged that the “fundraiser” was, in fact, a campaign event.

Justice Scarpulla writes:

Mr. Trump’s fiduciary duty breaches included allowing his campaign to orchestrate the fundraiser, allowing his campaign, instead of the Foundation, to direct distribution of the funds, and using the fundraiser and distribution of the funds to further Mr. Trump’s political campaign.

Among the stipulations, Trump also admitted that he used his charity to settle the legal obligations of his companies and to pay $10,000 for a portrait of himself, now displayed in one of his Florida properties. If you’d like an example of how Trump misused charity funds, look no farther: James noted that Trump personally ordered his charity to spend $100,000 in order to settle legal claims over an 80-foot flagpole he had built at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

New York Attorney General Letitia James:

“The Trump Foundation has shut down, funds that were illegally misused are being restored, the president will be subject to ongoing supervision by my office, and the Trump children had to undergo compulsory training to ensure this type of illegal activity never takes place again. The court’s decision, together with the settlements we negotiated, are a major victory in our efforts to protect charitable assets and hold accountable those who would abuse charities for personal gain. My office will continue to fight for accountability because no one is above the law — not a businessman, not a candidate for office, and not even the President of the United States.”

  • Further reading: “Trump and his foundation were just forced to admit their fraud. Now the IRS needs to act.” NBC: Think. 11/14/19.

Trump’s best pal Erdogan

Over the past few weeks, we learned of three instances in which Trump favored Turkey’s autocrat President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

First, Trump hosted Erdogan at the White House, two years after his previous visit to Washington. We already knew that Erdogan’s security officials attacked protestors in 2017. What we didn’t know until now was that Erdogan’s bodyguards also attacked U.S. Secret Service members after they attacked protestors. New court documents in a lawsuit against Turkey on behalf of the victims revealed that “two diplomatic security special agents, six U.S. Secret Service officers, and one MPD officer sustained multiple injuries, with at least one taken to the hospital.”

  • Further reading: “Behind the Scenes, Erdogan’s Friendly White House Visit Had Tense Moments.” The New York Times. 11/14/19.

Second, Trump’s White House asked Senator Lindsey Graham to block a resolution that would have formally recognized Turkey’s genocide of the Armenian people. Graham confirmed this was the reason he blocked the resolution that had just passed the House by a 405-to-11 vote, saying he did it because it “would’ve been poor timing” to pass such legislation while Erdogan was still in town. Days later, the resolution came up for a vote again – this time the White House reportedly recruited Republican Senator David Perdue to block it.

  • Erdogan criticized the House’s resolution in a speech before his party. “We are saddened that a slander against our country is being accepted by a country’s parliament,” he said and added, “we would consider this accusation the biggest insult towards our nation.”

Finally, Trump told the Treasury and the Department of Justice to intervene in the case against Halkbank, a Turkish state-owned bank, after being lobbied by Turkey’s president. Halkbank was indicted last month by federal prosecutors for allegedly funneling billions of dollars to Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions. Erdogan is reportedly very concerned about the impact U.S. sanctions could have on the bank and Turkey’s economy.

  • Sen. Ron Wyden has opened an investigation into the handling of the indictment. “Halkbank stands accused of the largest Iranian sanctions evasion scheme in U.S. history. Congress needs to know to what extent Donald Trump and his cronies were carrying water for a state-owned Turkish bank and whether they ran the same Ukraine playbook by roping U.S. government officials into their personal scheme,” Wyden said.

Mar-a-Lago “spy” sentenced

Yujing Zhang, the Chinese businesswoman who was convicted of trespassing at Mar-a-Lago earlier this year, was sentenced to eight months in jail. Zhang was arrested on March 30 and charged with unlawfully entering Trump’s Florida club and lying to federal agents. She was found to be carrying a trove of electronics, including four cellphones, an external hard drive, and a thumb drive containing “malicious software.”

And all the rest…

GOP Senators briefed:

In a briefing that closely aligned with Dr. Hill’s testimony, American intelligence officials informed senators and their aides in recent weeks that Russia had engaged in a yearslong campaign to essentially frame Ukraine as responsible for Moscow’s own hacking of the 2016 election, according to three American officials. The briefing came as Republicans stepped up their defenses of Mr. Trump in the Ukraine affair…American intelligence agencies believe Moscow is likely to redouble its efforts as the 2020 presidential campaign intensifies. The classified briefing for senators also focused on Russia’s evolving influence tactics, including its growing ability to better disguise operations (The New York Times).

Kushner the wall-builder:

President Trump has made his son-in-law Jared Kushner the de facto project manager for constructing his border wall…Kushner convenes biweekly meetings in the West Wing where he questions an array of government officials about progress on the wall, including updates on contractor data, precisely where it will be built and how funding is being spent. He also shares and explains the president’s demands with the group (The Washington Post).

  • The president’s son-in-law and senior adviser is pressing U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to expedite the process of taking over private land needed for the project as the government seeks to meet Trump’s goal of erecting 450 miles of barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border by the end of 2020.

How Kavanaugh was chosen:

Kennedy requested a private moment with President Trump to deliver a message about the next Supreme Court opening, Marcus reports. Kennedy told Trump he should consider another of his former clerks, Brett M. Kavanaugh, who was not on the president’s first two lists of candidates. “The justice’s message to the president was as consequential as it was straightforward, and it was a remarkable insertion by a sitting justice into the distinctly presidential act of judge picking,” Marcus writes in “Supreme Ambition: Brett Kavanaugh and the Conservative Takeover.” Kennedy announced his retirement 14 months later, after Kavanaugh’s name indeed had been added to Trump’s public list of potential Supreme Court picks (The Washington Post).

Secret Service expenditures:

The Secret Service spent more than a quarter of a million dollars at President Donald Trump’s properties over the course of five months in 2017, newly released documents show. The documents outline Secret Service credit card expenditures for Trump properties and businesses between Jan. 27 and June 9, 2017 (Politico).

  • Documents released previously had shown $84,000 in federal spending at Trump properties in the first months of Trump’s time in office. These records, detailing spending on Secret Service credit cards, show another $254,000 by the Secret Service alone (The Washington Post).

Another Trump lie:

CREW received records from the United States Secret Service that, along with emails from Doral city officials, undermine President Trump’s dubious claim that members of the Secret Service wanted the 2020 G-7 Summit to be hosted at Trump’s Doral resort in Miami. The reality appears to be quite different, with the Secret Service instead expressing reluctance, saying “the property does present[] some challenges,” followed by a redaction that implies security concerns.

The records also seem to show that Doral was added for consideration at the last minute, saying “[b]y departure, they had already cut two (California and North Carolina) and added Miami on the back end.” Taken together, the records that CREW obtained call into question nearly every aspect of Trump’s justification of his choice (CREW).

Pay-to-play scheme:

A CBS News investigation has uncovered a possible pay-for-play scheme involving the Republican National Committee and President Trump’s nominee for ambassador to the Bahamas. Emails obtained by CBS News show the nominee, San Diego billionaire Doug Manchester, was asked by the RNC to donate half a million dollars as his confirmation in the Senate hung in the balance, chief investigative correspondent Jim Axelrod reports…A Mr. Trump supporter, Manchester donated $1 million to Mr. Trump’s inauguration fund. He was offered the Bahamas post the day after Mr. Trump was sworn in (CBS News).

  • Manchester’s route to ambassador is very similar to how Gordon Sondland became the US ambassador to the EU.

IRS Whistleblower:

Two senators are reportedly reviewing an Internal Revenue Service whistleblower complaint related to the annual audit of President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence…Staffers for Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) reportedly met with the IRS whistleblower earlier this month. According to two people with knowledge of the matter who spoke to the Post, staffers are in the process of scheduling follow-up interviews to further explore the allegations (Talking Points Memo).

No-fly list lawsuit:

The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear the Trump administration’s appeal in a case involving three Muslim U.S. residents who say FBI agents placed their names on the federal government’s “no fly list” because they refused to spy on their fellow Muslims. The men sued the FBI agents over what they say was an unlawful abuse of a federal watchlist that prohibits suspected terrorists from air travel from, to or over the United States. Their refusal to become government informants in terrorism-related investigations was based at least in part on their religious beliefs (The Hill.

Zuck’s Trump dinner:

President Donald Trump hosted a previously undisclosed dinner with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook board member Peter Thiel at the White House in October, the company told NBC News on Wednesday. The meeting took place during Zuckerberg’s most recent visit to Washington…A source familiar with the dinner told NBC News that Thiel was also present. It is unclear why the meeting was not made public or what Trump, Zuckerberg and Thiel discussed (NBC News).

Russia’s Brexit Operation:

Boris Johnson was on Monday night accused of presiding over a cover-up after it emerged that No 10 refused to clear the publication of a potentially incendiary report examining Russian infiltration in British politics, including the Conservative party. Downing Street indicated on Monday that it would not allow a 50-page dossier from the intelligence and security committee to be published before the election, prompting a string of complaints over its suppression (The Guardian).

  • The Times newspaper reports that the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee was not able to rule out the possibility that Russia influenced the British vote to leave the European Union. The committee concluded that any Russian interference in the 2016 vote was ultimately “unquantifiable.” The report criticised British intelligence services for not devoting enough resources to combating the threat of Vladimir Putin’s Russian regime to the UK, the Times adds (Business Insider).

Giuliani’s son:

According to government documents, Giuliani’s son, Andrew H. Giuliani, makes $95,000 per year working for the White House. His official title is “Special Assistant to the President and Associate Director of the Office of Public Liaison.”T he 31-year-old Giuliani has served in the Office of Public Liaison, which acts as “the primary line of communication between the White House and the public,” since March 2017. He made $77,000 serving as an associate director in 2017, and got a raise in 2018 to $90,700 though his title didn’t change. In the two years he has been employed by the White House, his pay has increased by $18,000. Andrew reportedly acts as a “liaison to the sports community” and helps coordinate visits from sports teams to the White House (CNBC).

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