Lost in the Sauce: Manufactured controversies to distract from pandemic failure

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.

Title refers to the sections “Flynn hits a snag” and “Manufacturing an unmasking controversy”

Scroll to the end for a short summary if you’re short on time (look for the red “Summary” heading)

Housekeeping:

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War on accountability

Late Friday night, President Trump continued his purge of inspectors general with the firing of State Dept. IG Steve Linick, who was initially appointed to the position in 2013. Multiple reports indicate that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recommended Linick’s firing because the IG has opened an investigation into wrongdoing by Pompeo himself.

House Committee on Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel and Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Ranking Member Bob Menendez have opened an investigation into Linick’s removal, demanding that the White House and State Dept. preserve all related records:

“President Trump’s unprecedented removal of Inspector General Linick is only his latest sacking of an inspector general, our government’s key independent watchdogs, from a federal agency… Such an action, transparently designed to protect Secretary Pompeo from personal accountability, would undermine the foundation of our democratic institutions and may be an illegal act of retaliation.”

Trump claimed Linick was fired because he no longer has “the fullest confidence” in the IG, but as even Republicans have pointed out, that is not sufficient cause for removing a Senate-confirmed official:

“Congress requires written reasons justifying an IG’s removal,” said GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley, the co-founder and chairman of the Whistleblower Protection Caucus, in a statement Saturday. “A general lack of confidence simply is not sufficient detail to satisfy Congress.”

Linick’s replacement is an ally to Pompeo, raising the suspicion that he was fired in order to terminate a possible investigation into the Secretary of State. According to NBC News, Linick was looking into Pompeo’s misuse of a political appointee at the Department to perform personal tasks for himself and his wife, including walking his dog, picking up his dry cleaning, making dinner reservations. This wouldn’t be out of character for Pompeo, who has been criticized for using federal resources for personal endeavors:

Mr. Menendez has called for Mr. Pompeo to explain how he can justify frequent trips to Kansas, his adopted home state, using State Department funds and aircraft. He has brought his wife, Susan Pompeo, on many trips abroad, telling others she is a “force multiplier” for him. And CNN reported last year that congressional officials were looking at potential misuse of diplomatic security personnel for personal errands. That did not result in the opening of a formal inquiry.

Ongoing purge

In the past six weeks, Trump has now replaced or moved to replace five IGs.

On Friday, May 1, news broke at 8 pm that Trump was nominating a replacement for acting-Health and Human Services inspector general Christi Grimm. In April, Grimm released a report finding “severe shortages” of coronavirus testing kits, delays in results, and “widespread shortages” of equipment like masks. Grimm has so far remained in her previous position at HHS.

Tuesday, April 7, Trump shifted acting Defense Department inspector general Glenn Fine to a different position in order to make him ineligible to serve as Chair of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee.

At 10 pm on Friday, April 3, Trump fired Intelligence community inspector general Michael Atkinson for forwarding the Ukraine whistleblower complaint to Congress last year.

Also on Friday, May 15, Trump nominated a permanent replacement for the acting inspector general at the Department of Transportation Mitch Behm, who is a member of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee. However, like Grimm, Behm will retain his previous position when/if the replacement is confirmed by the Senate.


Flynn hits a snag

Two weeks ago, the Justice Department moved to drop charges against Michael Flynn, Trump’s former National Security Adviser.

Last week, the judge in the case – Emmet Sullivan – slammed on the breaks by announcing that he is appointing a former federal judge to argue against the dismissal. Sullivan is reportedly considering whether Flynn should be held in contempt of court for perjury because he has now pleaded both guilty and innocent under oath to lying to the FBI.

The former judge appointed by Sullivan is retired Eastern District of New York Judge John Gleeson, who also served as the chief of the Criminal Division in the EDNY’s U.S. Attorney’s Office. Gleeson recently wrote an op-ed with other DOJ alum bashing Attorney General Bill Barr’s decision to drop Flynn’s prosecution:

”There has been nothing regular about the department’s effort to dismiss the Flynn case. The record reeks of improper political influence… Flynn’s guilt has already been adjudicated. So if the court finds dismissal would result in a miscarriage of justice, it can deny the motion, refuse to permit withdrawal of the guilty plea and proceed to sentencing.”

Rewriting history

Trump, Barr, and their allies have been attempting to rewrite the history of Flynn’s actions, his firing, and the Mueller probe that led to his arrest. Veddy wrote a great timeline of events here, but just to highlight the main theme: Flynn lied to the FBI about his Russian contacts, Flynn lied to the Trump White House about his contacts, Flynn testified under oath that he wasn’t set up, and Flynn pleaded guilty under oath in 2017 and in 2018, to two separate judges.

Within days, White House lawyers — including the White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II — had concluded, after reviewing the transcripts of the calls, that Mr. Flynn had repeatedly lied about his discussions with Mr. Kislyak.

“What I can tell you is that I knew that he lied to me,” the vice president told CBS News, “and I know the president made the right decision with regard to him.”

Now, however, Pence is peddling a different story:

“I think General Michael Flynn is an American patriot; he served this country with great distinction,” Mr. Pence said last week in an interview with Axios on HBO. “And for my part, I’d be happy to see Michael Flynn again.”

  • Further reading: Flynn lying about contacts with Russian officials is only a small part of the story. As Paul Waldman of WaPo says: “Flynn should never have been allowed within 10 miles of the White House. He was a dangerous, dishonest and shady operator who was also kind of a loon.”

Manufacturing an unmasking “controversy”

Early last week, acting director of national intelligence (DNI) Richard Grenell declassified a list of names of former Obama administration officials who allegedly requested the “unmasking” of Trump associates caught in surveillance of foreign officials. Crucially, the Obama-era officials did not know who they were “unmasking” at the time – there would be no reason to request their identity be revealed otherwise.

Republican senators Ron Johnson (R-WI) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) then publicly released the declassified list, which includes John O. Brennan, the C.I.A. director; Samantha Power, the ambassador to the United Nations; James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence; James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director; and Douglas E. Lute, the American ambassador to NATO. Unsurprisingly, Joe Biden – then Vice President – was also on the list.

“It’s not at all surprising that individuals in official positions related to U.S.-Russia relations would want to know what was behind intelligence reports,” said Mr. Lute, who declined to discuss the classified intelligence he saw. “What is surprising is that our acting director of national intelligence would be moved to compile and release this list of officials — most with longstanding, distinguished public service careers — apparently to fuel a partisan conspiracy theory.”

Trump and his allies are trying to spin this as Obama and Biden “illegally spying” on Trump’s 2016 campaign, using the catchphrase Obamagate. However, unmasking is routine and legal: In 2016, there were 9,217 unmasking requests; 9,529 requests in 2017; 16,721 in 2018; and 10,012 last year.

  • Further reading: “Trump allies push ‘Obamagate,’ but record fails to back them up,” NBC News; “The only culprit in the Flynn ‘unmasking’ scandal is the Trump administration,” “WaPo; “Anticipating Phase Two of the Trumped Up ‘Obamagate,’” Just Security

Media gets played

Trump is great at getting the media to talk about what he wants to be in the news, pushing more important stories out of public discussion. There is no evidence to support Trump’s claim that Flynn was somehow framed by Obama and Biden, yet we are still talking about Obamagate.

With Obamagate, we’re entering a new cycle of flooding the zone, in which it’s increasingly obvious that Trump’s strategy will be to keep throwing into the media ecosystem stories designed to divert attention away from his record… The goal of zone-flooding is simple: introduce bullshit stories into the information bloodstream, sit back while the media feverishly covers them (from all sides), and then exploit the chaos that results from the subsequent fog of disinformation.

…reporting on deliberately misleading stories in ostensibly objective ways serves only to reward the bad-faith actors spreading the nonsense in the first place. (Vox

Trump himself cannot even articulate what crime he is accusing Obama of committing:

WaPo’s Philip Rucker: “What crime exactly are you accusing President Obama of committing, and do you believe the Justice Department should prosecute him?”

Trump: “Uh, Obamagate. It’s been going on for a long time. It’s been going on from before I even got elected, and it’s a disgrace that it happened, and if you look at what’s gone on, and if you look at now, all this information that’s being released — and from what I understand, that’s only the beginning — some terrible things happened, and it should never be allowed to happen in our country again…”

Rucker: “What is the crime?”

Trump: “You know what the crime is. The crime is very obvious to everybody. All you have to do is read the newspapers, except yours.” (video)


Trump court cases

Deutsche and Mazars

Last week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in three cases related to Trump’s finances: congressional subpoenas given to Mazars (his accounting firm) and Deutsche Bank (his bank), as well as a New York state grand jury subpoena to Mazars. All three involve the question of whether presidential immunity can prevent a third party from complying with subpoenas for the President’s personal, financial records.

For detailed summaries of the arguments, see this Lawfare piece.

The arguments advanced by Trump’s lawyers essentially would make the president a king:

Trump believes he should be excused not just from congressional oversight, not just from criminal investigation, not just from questioning by the press, but even from politics itself… Again and again before the high court, Trump’s lawyers used the word “harassment” to describe Congress’s requests, claiming they had no legitimate legislative purpose.

It seems likely that Chief Justice John Roberts will be the deciding vote in the cases involving congressional subpoenas. However, rather than ruling in favor of either side, the court could hold that all interbranch information disputes have to be resolved politically, and not judicially. Such a decision would leave Mazars and Deutsche Bank free to choose to comply with the subpoenas themselves. However, in the long term it would force Congress to choose between almost no oversight or strongly-coercive options like impeachment or contempt.

Emoluments

The Richmond-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals voted, 9-6, to reject Trump’s bid to shut down the lawsuit the governments of Maryland and the District of Columbia brought alleging violations of the Constitution’s emoluments clauses.

Writing for the court, Judge Diana Motz found that the president had to comply with the law: “Such restraints are positive law, and of course the President must comply with the law. The duty to do so, however, is not a uniquely official executive duty of the President, for in the United States, every person — even the President — has a duty to obey the law.”

Trump’s lawyer Jay Sekulow said they would appeal the ruling: “We disagree with the decision of the Fourth Circuit. This case is another example of Presidential harassment. We will be seeking review at the Supreme Court.”

Defamation suit

Lawyers for President Trump this week reiterated their argument that a defamation lawsuit from a woman who alleges Trump groped and kissed her without consent should be halted because the president is immune from lawsuits filed in state courts while serving in office.

…This week’s filing came in a defamation case brought by Zervos, a former contestant on the reality show “The Apprentice,” who alleges that Trump aggressively groped and kissed her in a Los Angeles hotel room in 2007, at what she thought would be a meeting to discuss a job opportunity at the Trump Organization. (WaPo)


Stock probes

The FBI seized Sen. Richard Burr’s cell phone as part of a Justice Department probe into stock transactions he made ahead of the economic crash caused by the coronavirus.

The move required approval at the top levels of the department, marking a dramatic escalation of the investigation into Burr’s actions. In order to obtain a warrant, authorities must show that there is probable cause that a possible crime has been committed.

Burr stepped down as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee for the duration of the investigation.

Federal agents have also reportedly contacted Sens. Feinstein and Loeffler for information on stock trades they made around the same time. However, Burr’s stock moves are particularly suspicious because he sold a large number (33) in a single day (on Feb. 13) – more than he’s ever sold at once before. Furthermore, Burr acknowledged that he was personally behind the sales, whereas Loeffler said she used a third party and didn’t direct the sales (further investigation should determine if that is the truth).


More COVID-19 profiting

It seems the list of companies that wrongly-benefited from coronavirus relief is never-ending:

  • “Trump’s Vaccine Czar Holds Millions in Stock Options at Company That Got Federal Funding for COVID-19 Work,” Daily Beast
  • A private jet company founded by a donor to President Donald Trump received nearly $27 million in government funding under a program run by the Treasury Department
  • An Omaha, Nebraska-based private jet company whose principal owner donated generously to Donald Trump and Republicans ahead of the 2016 election received $20 million in taxpayer aid from the federal bailout package passed in March.
  • A company whose largest shareholder is Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale received nearly $800,000 from the federal coronavirus relief fund for small businesses
  • The federal government gave Alabama a blank check for $1.8 billion. It should have known better. That money was supposed to help Alabama protect its citizens from COVID-19 … But Alabama Senate leaders want to use $200 million of that money to build a new State House… There’s $25 million in there for the Alabama Robotics Technology Park.
  • Congress designated $13.5 billion of the CARES Act for public schools. The money was supposed to be distributed to school districts based on the number of low-income students they enroll. A new directive from the Education Dept., however, tells districts to share far more of the money than expected with private and religious school students, even though fewer than 5% of those children are poor.
  • Further reading: The Bailout Is Working — for the Rich. The economy is in free fall but Wall Street is thriving, and stocks of big private equity firms are soaring dramatically higher. That tells you who investors think is the real beneficiary of the federal government’s massive rescue efforts.

Next coronavirus relief?

Last week the House passed a $3 trillion pandemic relief package. The bill includes nearly $1 trillion in aid to battered states, cities and Native American tribes, and another round of bolstered jobless benefits and direct government payments to Americans. Additional contents:

The package contained a number of Democratic priorities, including $100 billion for rental assistance and $75 billion in mortgage relief. It would allocate $3.6 billion to bolster election security, and would provide a $25 billion bailout for the Postal Service, a lifeline that the agency has said is critical to its survival, but that Mr. Trump opposes.

However, Trump and Senate Republicans say the legislation is a non-starter. Coming up this week, the Senate is expected to consider multiple lifetime judicial appointments then head home for recess.

Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-SD) estimates that another aid bill won’t be considered until next month.

Pelosi: “They may think it’s OK to pause, but people are hungry across America. Hunger doesn’t take a pause. People are jobless across America. That doesn’t take a pause. People don’t know how they’re going to pay their rent across the country. We have to address this with humanity.”

  • Further reading: Why we need automatic stabilizers, “programs that ramp up automatically when the economy tanks. For example, as people lose jobs, they become eligible for food stamps or unemployment benefits.” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) has proposed legislation that would “tie unemployment insurance benefits to economic conditions and prevent Republican economic sabotage.”

Trump profits

  • Since taking office, the U.S. government has paid at least $970,000 to President Trump’s company – including payments for more than 1,600 nightly room rentals at Trump’s hotels and clubs. “The records show that taxpayers have now paid for the equivalent of more than four years’ worth of nightly rentals at Trump properties, including 950 nights at Trump’s golf club in Bedminster, N.J., and 530 nights at the president’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida.”
  • The Secret Service this week signed a $179,000 contract to rent golf carts and other vehicles this summer in Bedminster, N.J., indicating that Trump is planning to visit his golf club in the area. Trump has visited his properties 250 times as president, including 22 visits to Bedminster, according to a tally by The Washington Post.
  • President Trump has temporarily withdrawn a controversial dock proposal at his Palm Beach resort that had raised larger questions about the legality of the change of his official residency from New York to Florida.
  • Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida has partially reopened with alleged “social distancing” in the pool and Jacuzzi.
  • Trump’s business partner in Indonesia exhumed graves in West Java to build resort: The remains were being moved to make room for a mega-resort that will include a Trump-branded hotel and golf course.

Other stories…

Some stuff that you may want to know about:

  • $1.9 billion in CARES Act tax benefits are being claimed by at least 37 oil companies, service firms, and contractors
  • The Environmental Protection Agency will no longer impose limits on perchlorate, a toxic chemical compound linked to fetal and infant brain damage
  • In a federal lawsuit filed Monday, conservation groups allege the Trump administration’s continued use of temporary appointees to lead large federal lands agencies is a violation of federal law and the Constitution’s “advice and consent” clause.
  • Weeks before a Republican donor and top White House ally becomes postmaster general, the U.S. Postal Service has begun a review of its package delivery contracts and lost its second-highest executive, which will leave its board of governors without any officials who predate President Trump.
  • ACLU: DeVos is Rolling Back Protections for Sexual Harassment and Assault Survivors in Schools. We’re Suing to Put a Stop to It.
  • Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort released to home confinement amid coronavirus concerns.. Meanwhile, Michael Cohen release delayed without explanation.
  • Democrats blast ‘blatant misuse’ of Russia deterrence funding on border wall
  • US expelling hundreds of child migrants, citing coronavirus pandemic
  • ICE Agents Fight Sex Trafficking by Paying Potential Victims for Hand Jobs. In “Operation Asian Touch,” federal agents coerced suspected human-trafficking victims into sex acts. Local cops seized money and threw them in jail.
  • Coronavirus-related mail voting is off again in Texas, as state Supreme Court weighs in
  • Michigan governor says legislators ‘didn’t want to be around’ for anti-lockdown protests ‘they incited’


Summary

Title refers to the manufactured “Obamagate” controversy:

  • The judge in Flynn’s case appointed a retired federal judge to argue against tthe DOJ’s requested dismissal of charges. The former judge, John Gleeson, will also consider whether Flynn should be held in contempt of court for perjury.
  • Trump, Barr, and their allies have been attempting to rewrite the history of Flynn’s actions, his firing, and the Mueller probe that led to his arrest.
  • Early last week, acting director of national intelligence (DNI) Richard Grenell declassified a list of names of former Obama administration officials who allegedly requested the “unmasking” of Trump associates caught in surveillance of foreign officials.
  • Republican senators Ron Johnson (R-WI) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) then publicly released the declassified list – which includes then VP Biden.

The rest:

  • Trump continued his purge of inspectors general with the firing of State Dept. IG Steve Linick
  • Linick was investigating Pompeo’s misuse of a political appointee at the Department to perform personal tasks for himself and his wife, including walking his dog, picking up his dry cleaning, making dinner reservations
  • the Supreme Court heard arguments in three cases related to Trump’s finances: congressional subpoenas given to Mazars (his accounting firm) and Deutsche Bank (his bank), as well as a New York state grand jury subpoena to Mazars.
  • The full 4th circuit appeals court ruled against Trump in an emoulment’s lawsuit brought by Maryland and DC. It will be taken to SCOTUS.
  • The FBI seized Sen. Richard Burr’s cell phone as part of a Justice Department probe into stock transactions he made ahead of the economic crash caused by the coronavirus.
  • Since taking office, the U.S. government has paid at least $970,000 to President Trump’s company
  • Trump administration is funding President Trump’s border wall with money meant to deter Russian aggression in Europe
  • The Environmental Protection Agency will no longer impose limits on perchlorate, a toxic chemical compound linked to fetal and infant brain damage
  • Education Dept. Secretary DeVos is Rolling Back Protections for Sexual Harassment and Assault Survivors in Schools
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