Lost in the Sauce: March 15 – 21

Welcome to Lost in the Sauce, keeping you caught up on political and legal news that often gets buried in distractions and theater… or a global health crisis.

Announcement: After consideration, I am going to try to do a weekly round-up of the administration’s coronavirus response. I’m not sure what day this will be posted, perhaps Thursdays. I debated if (1) I’ll have time/energy to do it regularly and (2) if it will do more harm than good (eg putting too much negativity out there). So we’ll try it out this week, see what happens. The sign up form now has an option to choose to receive an email when the coronavirus-focused round up is posted.

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Let’s dig in!

Purge quietly continues

Counterterrorism purge

Acting DNI and Trump loyalist Richard Grenell fired the top two officials (non-paywalled version) at the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) on Wednesday. Acting Director Russell Travers and his deputy Peter Wall were “resistant to pressure to cut personnel” at the center, which was set up after 9/11 to protect the country from further terror attacks.

One of the former officials said that Travers walked into a meeting on Wednesday expecting to brief Grenell on the center when he was told that he was out. He had no intention or desire to retire, they said.

In the meeting, Grenell told Travers he would like to know “how long it would take you to leave,” according to one of the former officials, who was briefed on the meeting. Travers replied that he would need “a few weeks” to complete the administrative work, the official recounted.

“They said, ‘Great, we’ll afford you the opportunity to retire,’ ” the former official said.

While some inside the intelligence community say the diminishing threat from Al Qaeda and ISIS should lead to a downsizing of the center, others argue that it should keep its current size and instead take up the fight against far-right extremist groups.

There are reports that the NCTC is understaffed already and further downsizing will only bring chaos:

The NCTC’s biggest problem right now, officials say, is that it is understaffed. Of its roughly 1,000 employees, about 700 are full-time government workers and 300 are contractors. About 30 percent of the government workers are supposed to be loaned by the CIA and other agencies. But a significant number of these interagency transfer positions are vacant, an NCTC veteran said, weakening the cross-government mission. With Grenell’s hiring freeze, and the reluctance of the CIA and other agencies to send transfers, the personnel shortage is becoming more severe.

Former intelligence chiefs sound alarm

The following former intelligence chiefs wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post (non-paywalled summary) warning that “[w]e cannot let the covid-19 pandemic be a cover for the deeply destructive path being pursued by the Trump administration.”

Travers and his deputy, a career National Security Agency officer, were the epitome of what we strive for in national security: nonpartisan experts who serve the president and the American people with no regard to personal politics. Now both are gone, to be replaced by as-yet-unnamed acting heads who will undoubtedly know less and who will be more beholden to the intelligence community’s politicized leadership.

…Congress must reinvigorate the strictest of oversight to preserve what is left of the country’s prized, apolitical intelligence community. Post-9/11 reforms happened for a critical reason: The U.S. bureaucracy wasn’t prepared for a new era of threats. Indeed, the NCTC is a model of how the government should work in close coordination and with unity of effort in response to a crisis. It provides critical lessons for today’s challenge. The administration’s continued politicization of intelligence pulls the nation further from this goal, making us more vulnerable to the next national security threat regardless from where it emanates.

OPM resignation

The Director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), Dale Cabaniss, resigned suddenly last week after reportedly experiencing “poor treatment” from the parachuted-in head of the Office of Presidential Personnel (OPP), John McEntee, and White House liaison Paul Dans. The OPM is in charge of processing and approving/denying security clearances and functions as the human resources management policy shop for the federal government’s civil service.

McEntee was a Fox News production Assistant who joined the Trump campaign to organize and execute Trump’s rallies. At only 27 years old, he joined Trump’s administration as his body man (personal aide who accompanies the president everywhere). However, in 2018 McEntee was forced to resign due to gambling debts that prevented him from gaining a security clearance. Trump’s re-election campaign immediately hired him. Then, in January 2020, McEntee returned to the White House to direct the OPP, where Trump tasked him with identifying and purging officials throughout the administration who were not thought to be loyal enough to the president.

McEntee’s return to the White House has roiled the administration with some officials criticizing the former Trump campaign staffer for what they see as an effort to stock the administration with his friends, including at least three college seniors… James Bacon, 23 and a senior at George Washington University, was hired to be one of McEntee’s righthand men as he tries to fill the Trump administration with loyalists and fire anyone who they suspect of disloyalty.

DOJ drops Concord case

Early last week, the Justice Department filed a motion to dismiss the charges against Concord Management and Consulting LLC and Concord Catering, both companies run by “Putin’s chef” Yevgeny Prigozhin. The original indictment was filed by Mueller against the two Concord companies, 13 Russian individuals, and the Internet Research Agency for conspiring to defraud the U.S. by interfering in the 2016 election. While the Concord companies will no longer be prosecuted, the Justice Department will continue to pursue the charges against the other entities and individuals, including Prigozhin himself.

Prosecutors explained that going forward with the trial would risk national security because Concord has been gaming the system to Russia’s benefit:

DOJ attorneys involved in the case, [Marc Raimondi, a spokesman for the Justice Department’s National Security Division] said, reached the decision by evaluating “the risk versus the reward. Who are you going to hold accountable? They have nobody except an outside attorney. So what are you getting in return for all of this information that we’re providing that details how we conduct investigations into foreign interference?”

Others have raised questions about the decision to drop the case, especially in light of Attorney General Barr’s continued interference in Mueller’s cases.

“I don’t buy it,” tweeted Marc Polymeropoulos, a former CIA officer who worked on the assessment of Russian election interference that was partially released to the public. “DOJ does this all the time with CIA info. There’s a process for this. Something smells…”

“This is highly irregular,” said Barbara McQuade, a former federal prosecutor. “These decisions are made before indictment.”

Trump cases

Trump-appointed judge Trevor McFadden again put the Ways and Means Committee lawsuit for Trump’s taxes on hold last week. McFadden issued the stay for the same reason as he did the first time: to wait until a final decision is reached in the case for Don McGahn’s testimony. The full D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals is set to hear the McGahn case at the end of April, but the coronavirus outbreak could postpone the proceedings indefinitely.

McGahn presents several threshold questions that bear heavily on the Executive’s motion to dismiss here… The subpoena-enforcement issue is unsettled for now. And piecemeal litigation would be an inefficient use of resources. These reasons alone favor a stay… Thus, the Court will await further proceedings in McGahn before it acts…

  • Reminder: McFadden donated to Trump’s campaign before he was nominated and confirmed to the Court of Appeals.

Also due to the coronavirus outbreak, the Supreme Court will be delaying oral arguments for the foreseeable future. This includes the three cases seeking Trump’s financial records: Manhattan DA Vance’s subpoena to Mazars, the House Oversight Committee’s subpoena to Mazars, and subpoenas issued by two House committees to Deutsche Bank and Capital One. The hearings were scheduled for this week. It is not clear when arguments will take place.

McConnell presses judges to retire

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is pressing (non-paywalled) sitting judges who are eligible to retire to quickly step aside so Trump can nominate and confirm their replacements before the November elections. There are about 90 Republican judges (ie appointed by Reagan, Bush Sr., and Bush Jr.) who have the choice to retire.

According to the New York Times, “Republicans are reminding the judges that it could be another eight years — 2029 — before they could leave under a Republican president.” This gives the impression that Republicans are increasingly worried about Trump’s prospects for re-election.

Judicial advocacy group Demand Justice’s Executive Director Brian Fallon: Mitch McConnell is directly pressuring sitting judges to retire to manufacture new vacancies for Trump to fill with younger nominees. This is conservative court packing.

Texas upholds voter fraud sentence

A three-judge panel of the Fort Worth appeals court upheld a lower court’s sentence of 5 years in prison for illegal voting. Crystal Mason cast a ballot while on supervised release because she did not know that she couldn’t vote after she was released from jail; according to the law, felons must finish their sentences entirely, including probation. Mason cast a provisional ballot in the 2016 election that was not counted. When taken to trial in 2018, Mason’s probation officers testified to the court that they never told Mason that she couldn’t vote.

“Contrary to Mason’s assertion, the fact that she did not know she was legally ineligible to vote was irrelevant to her prosecution,” Justice Wade Birdwell wrote for a three-judge panel on Texas’ second court of appeals.

According to The Guardian: “The decision to prosecute Mason was unusual. Since 2014, at least 12,668 people have voted using a provisional ballot in Tarrant county and 88% of them have been rejected because the voter was not eligible. Mason is the only voter who used a provisional ballot who was prosecuted for illegal voting.”

Mason’s attorneys intend to ask the full court of appeals to rehear the case.

Duncan Hunter sentenced

Last Tuesday, former California Rep. Duncan Hunter (R) was sentenced to 11 months in jail and three years of probation after pleading guilty to misusing more than $200,000 in campaign funds for personal expenses.

Federal prosecutors charged that Hunter had fraudulently spent more than $200,000 on expenses that included a $14,000 Italian vacation and thousands of dollars on routine items like groceries, bedding and other household items.

Margaret pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring with her husband to use $25,000 in campaign funds for personal use, and is yet to be sentenced. Duncan Hunter appeared to blame his wife for the then-alleged crimes in a television interview at the time, saying she was the one handling his finances.

Border wall still being built

Despite the pandemic sweeping America, causing severe shortages everywhere, the Trump administration is continuing to spend resources on building a wall at the southern border. Last week, the Department of Homeland Security and the Customs and Border Patrol announced a plan to build over 91 miles of barriers along the Arizona-Mexico border, waiving a series of federal laws in order to speed up construction.

DHS published a notice on Monday in the Federal Register waiving 37 environmental and cultural laws to expedite construction of the 91.5 miles in Arizona, plus 86 miles along other parts of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Environmentalists warn that the 30-foot-high steel fencing will close all remaining wildlife corridors that the few jaguars still active in the United States use to wander their habitat: “The new border walls will mean the end of jaguar recovery in the United States,” said Randy Serraglio, a conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This tragedy’s all the more heartbreaking because walling off these beautiful wildlands is completely unnecessary and futile. It has nothing to do with border security and everything to do to with Trump’s racist campaign promise.”

Cost of border wall vs cost of ventilators

Out of curiosity, I calculated how many ventilators could be purchased with the money Trump is pouring into the border wall this year. Taking into account just the $7.2 billion in military funds Trump transferred to the wall project earlier this year, the administration could buy 144,000 ICU-grade ventilators for the nation.

Currently, the U.S. emergency medical stockpile has only 13,000 ventilators according to the coronavirus task force. Hospitals are reportedly avoiding ordering ventilators themselves because they can’t afford the $25,000-50,000 price tag per machine.

Border Patrol didn’t keep records of families

report by the Government Accountability Office revealed that Customs and Border Patrol agents consistently failed to record when children were separated from family units at the southern border:

GAO found Border Patrol did not initially record 14 of the 40 children as a member of a family unit (linked to a parent’s record) per Border Patrol policy, and thus did not record their subsequent family separation.

GAO found an additional 10 children among the 40 whose family separations were not documented in Border Patrol’s data system as required by CBP policy during this period. Border Patrol officials were unsure of the extent of these problems, and stated that, among other things, data-entry errors may have arisen due to demands on agents as the number of family unit apprehensions increased

Bennie Thompson, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee:

“Not only was this administration’s family separation policy heartless — they bungled its implementation at every turn,” Thompson said in a statement. “The Acting DHS Secretary claims no children have been lost — but is withholding documents on this matter from Congress. It’s time for the Administration to come clean and provide these so we can get a full accounting of this policy.” (Source)

Trouble at Trump Doonbeg

A local Irish planning board denied the Trump Organization’s request to build a sea wall to protect its Doonbeg golf resort from coastal erosion. The board said it was “not satisfied beyond reasonable scientific doubt that the proposed development would not adversely affect the integrity of the Carrowmore Dunes special area of conservation.”

The Trump Organization may close the resort if it is not allowed to build the sea wall, it says. Local residents and businesses are upset with the ruling because the Doonbeg course provides jobs for roughly 300 locals.

The struggling Irish resort has had one steady source of income, though: American taxpayers paid Trump’s company $15,144.94 for Secret Service lodging during Vice President Mike Pence’s September 2019 trip to the resort, according to CREW.

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. Despite Trump spending $41 million to buy, renovate, and operate the property, Doonbeg has never turned a profit. That hasn’t stopped (and some suggest it has encouraged) Trump making a visit to the property.

…To accommodate Pence’s stay at Doonbeg, taxpayers also had to foot the bill for extensive travel. In September, CREW reported that government contracts for limousine transportation associated with the visit amounted to $599,454.36. The new documents show a $222,764.05 bill for the same limo service, but it is unclear whether that is in addition to the previously reported contracts, or a part of that cost.

Trump Jr.’s donor party

Don Jr.’s girlfriend, Fox News-alum Kimberly Guilfoyle, had a “lavish” birthday party at Mar-a-Lago last Sunday, attended by dozens of Trump family and friends. The party-goers reportedly picked up the tab, included at least four financial supporters of the president’s re-election campaign. The New York Times reported (non-paywalled) that the attendees paid a signifcant amount of the $50,000 total cost.

Brendan Fischer, an official at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan watchdog group, called the party “an illustration of the blurred lines between Trump’s presidency, his campaign, and his family’s personal and financial interests.”

…Donald Trump Jr. reportedly joked that Ms. Guilfoyle would be soliciting contributions for his father’s re-election from party attendees.

“You are in this room for a reason,” he said, according to The Washington Examiner. “You guys have been the warriors, the fighters, the people who have been there every time we have made a call, every time we made a request.”

Kentucky voting restrictions

While the nation has been distracted with the pandemic, Kentucky lawmakers approved new photo ID requirements that make it harder for Americans to vote. Previously, a voter only had to sign an affidavit swearing that they were unable to obtain acceptable identification for whatever reason. Now, lawmakers will only accept specific approved reasons for lacking an ID and require that only Kentucky IDs can be used to vote.

DMV offices, one of the most common places people would obtain a photo ID throughout the state are also closed as Kentucky deals with 47 cases of Covid-19 thus far. The Kentucky primary is scheduled to take place on 23 June (the state postponed it from 19 May amid the coronavirus outbreak) and the deadline to register is 20 April.

While Kentucky’s governor, Andy Beshear, is a Democrat and can veto the bill, the state’s legislature is controlled by Republicans and can vote to override the veto. It is likely they will override a veto because the Republicans want the new law in place for Mitch McConnell’s re-election this November.

DHS IG’s office

The Washington Post reports that the Inspector General’s office of DHS is essentially dormant under Trump:

The Department of Homeland Security’s internal watchdog division has been so weakened under the Trump administration that it is failing to provide basic oversight of the government’s third-largest federal agency, according to whistleblowers and lawmakers from both parties.

DHS’s Office of the Inspector General is on pace to publish fewer than 40 audits and reports this fiscal year, the smallest number since 2003 and one-quarter of the agency’s output in 2016, when it published 143, records show. The audits and reports cover everything from contracts and spending to allegations of waste and misconduct.

Meanwhile, DHS has an unprecedented amount of vacancies:

It has been nearly a year since the Department of Homeland Security has had a Senate-confirmed leader. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, the fourth person to lead the agency in three years, has been on the job less than six months.

In addition, 65 percent of top jobs in the department are vacant or filled by acting appointees, more than in any other federal agency, according to the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit group that advocates for more effective government. Among the vacancies are the No. 2 official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the department’s top lawyer and the head of the country’s immigration system.

Environmental sabotage continues

  • Centers for Biological Diversity: The Trump administration has proposed to approve genetically engineered crops on national wildlife refuges throughout the southeastern United States, a step likely to increase use of glyphosate and other pesticides known to harm wildlife. The Obama administration acted in 2014 to phase out GE crops on all national wildlife refuges following a successful decade-long campaign by the Center for Food Safety and others. The Trump administration reversed that decision in 2018…
  • Huffington Post: The Trump administration has hired Anna Seidman, formerly a longtime lawyer at the trophy hunting advocacy group Safari Club International, to lead the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s international affairs program… The Safari Club has close ties to the administration ― its political action committee donated $11,000 to President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign ― and is one of several groups that successfully lobbied Trump’s Interior Department to roll back prohibitions on importing the trophies of lions and elephants killed for sport in certain African countries.
  • Huffington Post: [On Wednesday] the Trump administration widened what critics call one of its most aggressive assaults on science, auctioned drilling rights in the Gulf of Mexico and greenlit the expansion of a mine…. the Interior Department wrapped up an auction to sell oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico, offering up some 78 million offshore acres ― an area roughly the size of New Mexico. It proved to be a bust, bringing in approximately $93 million for just shy of 400,000 acres, the smallest total for an offshore auction since 2016.

Far right threat

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) reports that there has been a 55% increase in the number of far-right extremist groups since 2017. Several of these groups identify themselves as “accelerationists,” who believe “mass violence is necessary to bring about the collapse of our pluralistic society,” according to the report.

Much of the movement’s energy lies in the growing accelerationist wing, which, for the most part, is organized in informal online communities rather than formal groups.

Also last week, Yahoo News revealed an intelligence brief written by the Federal Protective Service warning that white supremacists on the encrypted messaging app Telegram have discussed plans to weaponize the coronavirus via “saliva,” a “spray bottle” or “laced items.”

According to the Federal Protective Service intelligence brief, the discussion of spreading the coronavirus occurred in a channel on the app Telegram that is devoted to the “siege culture” philosophies of neo-Nazi author James Mason and “accelerationism.” Mason wrote a series of newsletters titled “Siege” in the 1980s that advocated for acts of racial terrorism in order to hasten a war that would cause the breakdown of society.

Pompeo threatens ICC

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo responded to news that the International Criminal Court will investigate alleged war crimes committed by United States forces in Afghanistan by bashing the decision and threatening court staff and their family members:

“It has recently come to my attention that the chef de cabinet to the prosecutor, Sam Shoamanesh, and the head of jurisdiction, complementarity, and cooperation division, Phakiso Mochochoko, are helping drive ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda’s effort to use this court to investigate Americans,” the secretary of state said. “I’m examining this information now and considering what the United States’ next steps ought to be with respect to these individuals and all those who are putting Americans at risk.”

“We want to identify those responsible for this partisan investigation and their family members who may want to travel to the United States or engage in activity that’s inconsistent with making sure we protect Americans,” he continued.

Amnesty International condemned Pompeo’s statement:

“Perpetrators the world over now have a clear message from the United States: they too may demand impunity when their nationals are accused of the gravest of crimes… Secretary Pompeo’s open threat against family members of ICC staff is an ominous move. If there remained any doubt that the Trump Administration’s hostility towards the court is fundamentally punitive and callous in nature, these doubts have now been dispelled.”

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