Lost in the Sauce: March 8 – 14

Welcome to Lost in the Sauce, keeping you caught up on political and legal news that often gets buried in distractions and theater.

Two important things:

FIRST, since the coronavirus was the one big story last week, I’m going to do away with the “Main Course” division this week – these are all “sides” in the sense that I have a feeling many people missed these developments.

SECOND:

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Let’s dig in!

Biden-probe subpoena

Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-WI) canceled a planned vote to issue a subpoena in its investigation into Hunter Biden and his work in Ukraine. Johnson informed the committee that instead of subpoenaing former consultant Andrii Telizhenko, he will issue a subpoena to the Democratic public relations firm he worked for: Blue Star Strategies.

Although Johnson said the subpoena vote was canceled to give senators time to “receive additional briefings,” a Ukrainian source (Chief editor of The Odessa Review Vladislav Davidzon) told CNN that the subject of the subpoena, Telizhenko, offered him cash to lobby Republican politicians to speak out against Ukraine’s anti-corruption efforts – specifically Ukrainian lawmaker’s attempts to censure two media networks for “broadcasting Russian propaganda.”

In October 2018, the same month that lawmakers voted in favor of a resolution to sanction the two stations, Telizhenko wrote to Davidzon, asking: “Have a question do you or your father have contacts with US Senators? I really need a favour for witch (sic) I can pay up to 5k.”

…After expressing concerns about how the new Ukrainian proposals could shut the broadcasters down, Telizhenko then says: “My question is is it possible to get an official comment on a Senators (Rand Paul, Lindsey Graham for example) website next week about this situation of censorship in Ukraine? Really important for me and need fast.”

Ranking member on the committee, Sen. Gary Peters, opposed subpoenaing Telizhenko because he warned that the investigation could be tainted by Russian disinformation. The revelation that Telizhenko has indeed worked for Russian interests seems to substantiate his concerns.

  • Sen. Murphy’s strategy: Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) formally requested the inspectors general for the State Department, the Treasury Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and the National Archives investigate whether those agencies are selectively cooperating with Republican-led efforts to “investigate” Joe and Hunter Biden — while refusing cooperation with Democratic oversight efforts directed at Trump.

Politicizing intelligence

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence provided its first briefing to Congress since the previous DNI, Joseph Maguire, was fired by Trump for allowing his aide to tell Congress that Russia was acting to boost his re-election chances. The current acting-DNI, Ric Grenell, backed out of briefing Congress himself, reportedly because he did not want to discuss issues that make President Trump angry. Instead, his office was represented by William Evanina, the top counterintelligence official at the ODNI.

The latest briefing provided information contradictory to Maguire’s briefing, confusing and frustrating House members. Grenell’s office told Congress that the Kremlin is not “directly aiding any candidate’s re-election or any other candidates’ election.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer reportedly confronted the ODNI officials, accusing them of politicizing critical intelligence and providing insufficient and contradictory information about Russia’s interference.

Russia ramps up interference

While the Trump administration continues to hide and spin intelligence, the media reports that Russia continues to interfere in the U.S. political system. According to seven current officials, the Kremlin is increasing efforts to inflame racial tensions in America as part of its ongoing operation to influence the November elections.

…Now, Russia is also trying to influence white supremacist groups, the officials said; they gave few details, but one official said federal investigators are examining how at least one neo-Nazi organization with ties to Russia is funded. Other Russian efforts, which American intelligence agencies have tracked, involve simply prodding white nationalists to more aggressively spread hate messages and amplifying their invective. Russian operatives are also trying to push black extremist groups toward violence…

Last week, Facebook and Twitter announced they had discovered a Russian-led network of professional trolls outsourced to operatives in Ghana and Nigeria. The network’s 71 Twitter accounts, 49 Facebook accounts, and 85 Instagram accounts were removed.

“These 71 removed accounts, operating out of Ghana and Nigeria and which we can reliably associate with Russia, attempted to sow discord by engaging in conversations about social issues, like race and civil rights,” said Twitter’s safety team in a statement.

Senate Democrats, including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, sent a letter requesting that the EU introduce additional sanctions against “Putin’s Chef” Yevgeny Prighozin to deter him and the Kremlin from interfering in elections this year.

“As the presidential election in the United States draws closer, our concerns about foreign interference have intensified…The U.S. and European Union should be unified in facing this common threat and take concrete measures to isolate this malign actor and his affiliated firms. This includes sanctions, but also a joint diplomatic approach to urge that countries avoid engaging with Mr. Prigozhin, Wagner and any other organization associated with him.”

Purge continues

Acting-DNI Ric Grenell imposed a hiring freeze at the ODNI starting last week, ordering a review of the agency’s personnel and mission:

Some current and former officials said they saw the effort as an attempt to oust intelligence officers who disagreed politically with Mr. Trump. Those officials questioned why Mr. Grenell, in the job temporarily, would undertake a large-scale reorganization, particularly one that previous directors had considered but put aside…Kashyap Patel, an aide in the director’s office who was transferred last month from the White House [and former aide to Representative Devin Nunes], is involved in the review…

The White House is also holding up the nomination of Kathryn Wheelbarger for one of the Pentagon’s top intelligence jobs because she is not considered sufficiently loyal to Trump. Wheelbarger, who has been serving as acting assistant secretary of Defense for international security affairs since November 2018, is nominated to become the deputy undersecretary of Defense for intelligence.

The post that Wheelbarger would fill is one of 21 senior positions at the Pentagon that are empty or filled on a temporary basis, a record high for the Trump administration.

In the middle of a global pandemic, one of the lead response agencies is losing its chief: Mark Green is set to resign from the U.S. Agency for International Development at the end of the month. Green will be replaced by USAID Deputy Administrator Bonnie Glick, a Trump loyalist.

FEC nominee confirmation

Last Tuesday, the Senate held a confirmation hearing for Trump’s nominee to the Federal Election Commission, James “Trey” Trainor. It’s been over two years since Trainor was first nominated to fill the seat left empty by Republican Commissioner Lee Goodman in 2018. Then, last year, the commission’s vice chairman, Matthew Petersen, resigned, leaving only three members in place. The FEC needs a minimum of four members to take actions like investigating campaign finance violations, enforcing rules, and issuing fines.

Trainor is a controversial nominee with a history of advancing partisan gerrymandering and past work for Trump. After the Supreme Court invalidated a key part of the Voting Rights Act, Trainor worked with gerrymandering expert and Republican strategist Thomas Hofeller to successfully implement redistricting maps in Texas that were previously ruled to be discriminatory. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said the following at Tuesday’s hearing:

“He has worked closely with Thomas Hofeller, notorious for masterminding Republican gerrymandering schemes, to redraw maps that significantly disenfranchise minority voters at the local level. Mr. Trainor’s former law firm described him as being ‘intimately involved’ in Texas’s 2003 redistricting, which the Supreme Court deemed in violation of the Voting Rights Act. Mr. Trainor has argued the Voting Rights Act has become a political tool.”

Schumer also quoted Trainor as saying in 2017 that political donations should be anonymous.

“The Republicans have nominated someone who wants to roll back Citizens United, which the overwhelming majority of the American people support, public disclosure of who’s giving,” Schumer said, adding: “It’s amazing.”

Trainor faced pressure to recuse himself from overseeing any campaign finance matters involving Trump, because he served as a legal adviser on Trump’s 2016 campaign team. Ranking Senate Rules and Administration Committee Member Amy Klobuchar pressed Trainor:

“So you’re not going to just recuse yourself from the beginning on a Trump matter?” Klobuchar asked, visibly surprised.

“No, not as a blanket recusal, and I don’t think that there is anyone at the commission currently who has a blanket recusal,” Trainor said. “I think we should all follow the same rules and guidelines.”

Judges finally speak out

U.S District Judge Lynn Adelman, of Wisconsin, published an article in the Harvard Law and Policy Review titled “The Roberts Court’s Assault on Democracy.” Adelman takes Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts to task for joining the court’s hard right justices in “undermining American democracy” by “carrying out a sustained assault on the right of poor people and minorities to vote” and “reinforcing the enormous imbalance in wealth and political power that has developed in recent decades.”

He described Roberts’ 2005 Senate confirmation testimony as “misleading” and declared that “the Roberts Court has contributed to insuring that the political system in the United States pays little attention to ordinary Americans and responds only to the wishes of a relatively small number of powerful corporations and individuals.”

Adelman also attacks President Trump for helping the Republican party continue policies that worsen wealth inequality:

Although he ran as a populist and promised to promote policies that benefited ordinary people, upon taking office Trump almost entirely reversed course. He appointed mostly wealthy far-right Republicans and their supporters to his cabinet and to key positions in his administration… Trump also supported a tax bill that provided big benefits to the country’s largest corporations and wealthiest individuals and virtually nothing to the majority of American taxpayers.

…Because Congressional Republicans depend on a relatively small number of wealthy donors to stay in power, their major public policy goal is to do whatever makes such donors happy.

Last week, another prominent member of the judicial community publicly blasted the Chief Justice: Former Hawaii District Judge for 27 years James Dannenberg submitted his resignation from the Supreme Court Bar to Roberts. In a public letter, Dannenberg criticized Roberts for “allowing the Court to become an ‘errand boy’ for an administration that has little respect for the rule of law.”

“I have been a member of the Supreme Court Bar since 1972, far longer than you have,” Dannenberg’s letter to Roberts begins.

The Court, under your leadership and with your votes, has wantonly flouted established precedent. Your “conservative” majority has cynically undermined basic freedoms by hypocritically weaponizing others… More than a score of decisions during your tenure have overturned established precedents—some more than forty years old– and you voted with the majority in most. There is nothing “conservative” about this trend. This is radical “legal activism” at its worst.

…The only constitutional freedoms ultimately recognized may soon be limited to those useful to wealthy, Republican, White, straight, Christian, and armed males— and the corporations they control. This is wrong. Period. This is not America.

…I no longer have respect for you or your majority, and I have little hope for change. I can’t vote you out of office because you have life tenure, but I can withdraw whatever insignificant support my Bar membership might seem to provide.

Important court rulings

McGahn and border wall

The full bench of the powerful D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals announced on Friday that it will rehear the House’s appeal for Don McGahn’s testimony, vacating the three-judge panel’s previous ruling that judges can’t resolve subpoena disputes between the executive branch and Congress. Arguments are set for April 28.

The same court will also take on the House’s challenge of Trump’s emergency declaration to use over $6 billion of federal funds to fund his southern border wall even though Congress only appropriated $1.375 billion. Trump-appointed judge Trevor McFadden dismissed the House’s initial lawsuit last year.

Mueller’s grand jury

In a 2-1 ruling, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the Justice Department must allow Congress access to secret material collected by Mueller’s grand jury in its Russian interference investigation. Judges Judith Rogers and Thomas Griffith – Clinton and W. Bush appointees, respectively – found that the House’s impeachment investigation is a legal judicial process that exempts Congress from secrecy rules that typically shield grand jury materials. The Appeals Court decision can be appealed to the Supreme Court.

Trump appointee Judge Neomi Rao dissented, saying the House did have legal grounds to ask the court to enforce the subpoena since the impeachment investigation has ended. Rao has taken Trump’s side in virtually every case she’s heard.

it’s hard not to see the trap Rao has built around Congress. Her Mazars opinion claims that Congress has only one path it can use to investigate President Trump. Then, when Congress traveled down the very same path that Rao identified in Mazars, Judge Rao invents a new limit — suggesting that Congress may only get one shot at an impeachment inquiry. Moreover, as Tatel suggests in the Mazars majority opinion, Rao appears to have invented the constitutional limit she placed on congressional investigations out of thin air.

The Atlantic’s David Frum wrote that Rao’s Mazars dissent was “wild talk that would shut down almost all congressional investigations.” Maybe that’s the point — at least as long as Trump is in the White House.

Food stamp cuts

Friday evening, U.S. District Court Judge Beryl Howell issued an injunction preventing the Trump administration from implementing a rule change that would force nearly 700,000 Americans off food stamps.

“Especially now, as a global pandemic poses widespread health risks, guaranteeing that government officials at both the federal and state levels have flexibility to address the nutritional needs of residents and ensure their well-being through programs like SNAP, is essential,” Howell wrote.

Trump cases

The Washington Post reported that District Court Judge Lorna Schofield ordered Trump and his three adult children to “search through 15 years of business records for materials that could inform a lawsuit alleging they profited by promoting a marketing scam targeting vulnerable investors.”

Trump is being sued by four people who say they were duped into joining the multilevel marketing company ACN years ago because of his endorsement. The suit characterizes ACN as a pyramid scheme and accuses Trump of having made misleading claims as a paid pitchman prior to his presidency. All four say they suffered financially as a result.

…In this case, unlike in others, he has not asserted presidential immunity as a defense, and his legal team has already turned over a number of documents.

Atlantic City officials announced they will soon be filing an injunction in Superior Court to demolish the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino tower because it is an “imminent hazard.” The city’s mayor, Mary Small, told the press that chunks of the building’s concrete and stucco facade are actively raining onto nearby streets.

“We could have had a fatality,” Small said. “Things will not be tolerated in the city of Atlantic City.”

The crumbling building has been owned by billionaire and Trump-ally Carl Icahn since 2016, though it has been closed since 2014.

Icahn endorsed Trump for president in 2016 and financially supported his campaign. Icahn also served as special economic adviser on financial regulation to Trump briefly in 2017, leaving amid concerns of conflicts of interest. In one of many concerning incidents, it was reported that stock for CVR Energy, in which Icahn has 82% ownership, doubled after President Trump’s election, increasing $455 million in value.

  • Don’t miss: Teen models, powerful men and private dinners: when Trump hosted Look of the Year. “In the early 90s, Donald Trump judged the world’s biggest modeling competition – since hit by allegations of abuse… The stories we have heard suggest that Casablancas, and some of the men in his orbit, used the contest to engage in sexual relationships with vulnerable young models. Some of these allegations amount to sexual harassment, abuse or exploitation of teenage girls; others are more accurately described as rape.”

Trump profiting off presidency: Week 164

  • CNN: Hotels, clubs, and restaurants owned by Trump or bearing his name have billed various federal agencies and personnel more than $1 million since he became the Republican nominee for president…About half of the documented expenses involve the U.S. Secret Service, which has been charged more than $600,000 by various Trump properties between September 2016 and August 2019.
  • CREW: Taxpayers paid President Trump’s Doonbeg resort $15,144.94 for Secret Service lodging during Vice President Mike Pence’s September 2019 trip to Ireland… We can now say definitively that Pence’s detour not only cost taxpayers extra due to large transportation costs, but also that the bill subsidized one of Trump’s struggling businesses.
  • CREW: On March 7, less than two weeks after President Trump returned from an official visit to India, the business he still owns and profits from made an announcement: it would now ship Trump-branded products to India. This appears to be a clear violation of the Trump family’s pledge of no new foreign business during the Trump presidency, and an invitation for corruption… India is joined on the announcement by Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Scotland (which we must note is still technically part of the United Kingdom) and Germany.
  • ProPublica: The Trump Organization paid bribes, through middlemen, to New York City tax assessors to lower its property tax bills for several Manhattan buildings in the 1980s and 1990s, according to five former tax assessors and city employees as well as a former Trump Organization employee. Two of the five city employees said they personally took bribes to lower the assessment on a Trump property; the other three said they had indirect knowledge of the payments.
  • New York Times summarized by HuffPo: President Donald Trump’s campaign manager is quietly channeling money to Eric Trump’s wife, Lara Trump, and Donald Trump Jr.’s girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle… The family benefits are linked to a network of politically connected private companies — operating with the support and help of Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner — that have charged roughly $75 million since 2017 to the Trump reelection campaign, the Republican National Committee, and other Republican clients

States, elections, and environment

  • Ecowatch: A federal judge in Alaska ruled late Wednesday against a Trump administration plan to open 1.8 million acres of America’s largest national forest to logging. The Forest Service plan targeted part of the Tongass National Forest on Prince of Wales Island.
  • Press release: The Center for Biological Diversity sued the Trump administration today for failing to decide whether 241 plants and animals across the country — from the Midwest’s golden-winged warbler to Venus flytraps in the Carolinas — should be protected under the Endangered Species Act. The lawsuit, filed in district court in Washington, D.C., is one of the largest ever under the Act and seeks to undo years of illegal inaction by the Trump administration.
  • NYT: A New York man who threatened to kill Representative Ilhan Omar in a hate-filled call to her office was sentenced to a year and a day in prison… Mr. Carlineo admitted to making the threatening call, and described himself as a patriot who loved Mr. Trump and hated “radical Muslims in our government,” according to the criminal complaint.
  • ProPublica: The Republican National Committee has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to contractors closely connected to the organization’s chairwoman, Ronna McDaniel. One contract went to her husband’s insurance company. Two others went to businesses whose executives recently donated to Ronna for Chair, a largely inactive political action committee that McDaniel controls.
  • CNN and NYT: Infowars founder and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was arrested in Texas on a charge of driving while intoxicated… [Also,] The New York State attorney general has issued a cease-and-desist order to Alex Jones, the conservative radio host, alarmed by false claims on his website that his diet supplements and toothpaste could be used to fight the coronavirus.

Immigration news

  • Politico: Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Tuesday he was unaware of any indication from his agency that physical barriers along America’s borders would help halt the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. — contradicting an assertion President Donald Trump made earlier in the day.
  • The Guardian: Doctors are concerned the spread of coronavirus to the US’s prison-like immigration detention centers is inevitable and will hit a system blighted by overcrowding and medical negligence… Dr. Josiah Rich, an epidemiologist at Brown University, said one tool the US government has to prevent the spread of coronavirus is to release some of the 43,990 people in immigration detention, while their legal cases are being processed. People are held in these detention centers for civil immigration violations, not criminal charges, and the government can release them unless they are considered a danger to the community.
  • NPR: The U.S. Supreme Court delivered the Trump administration another win on one of its signature immigration policies on Wednesday, allowing it to continue the controversial “Remain in Mexico” policy across the entire southern border. The policy, officially called the Migrant Protection Protocols, requires asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their day in U.S. immigration court. That has led to roughly 60,000 migrants getting sent back across the border since MPP was first implemented in January 2019.
  • NPR: Hundreds of asylum-seekers who reach the Texas-Mexico border aren’t getting a chance to make their case in U.S. immigration court. Instead, the migrants — mostly women and children — are put on planes to Guatemala and told to ask for asylum in that country.
  • CNN: In explosive audio obtained through the work of a leading human rights group and released by CNN, a Trump administration attorney is heard finally admitting what experts and advocates have been insisting from the start: Remain in Mexico, the administration policy forcing tens of thousands of vulnerable asylum-seekers to wait for their U.S. immigration court dates in Mexico, is in fact dangerous.
    • “I think what I’m hearing from the government is, and I’ll be honest, I don’t like it,” the judge said, according to the audio. “What I’m hearing is, that well everybody has to take that risk and that chance, and you get kidnapped, you get kidnapped, that’s the risk you take for being in Mexico, and wanting to apply for asylum here in the United States … I don’t think it’s humane. But we’re talking about human beings and lives. It’s not a piece of paper in my opinion. And I really don’t like what I just heard.”
  • Washington Post: Pregnant woman dies after falling from border wall, a sign of migrants’ desperation… A year ago, during the height of the family migration surge, the couple probably would have tried to turn themselves in to seek asylum, he said. But an array of new restrictions imposed by the Trump administration is driving border-crossers to take more risks, migrant advocates say.

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