Lost in the Sauce: A full year spending taxpayer money at Trump properties

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.

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New Russia bounties details

Trump not only failed to push back against Russia’s continuing escalation in the middle east, the president also pushed the CIA to share intelligence with the Kremlin despite no discernible reward.

Why would the Russian government think it could get away with paying bounties to the Taliban to kill American soldiers? One answer to that question may be the extraordinary response that Moscow received when the Trump administration learned of a precursor to the bounty operation. From mid-2017 and into 2018, Pentagon officials became increasingly confident in intelligence reports that the Kremlin was arming the Taliban, which posed a significant threat to American and coalition forces on the ground in Afghanistan.

…First, President Trump decided not to confront Putin about supplying arms to the terrorist group. Second, during the very times in which U.S. military officials publicly raised concerns about the program’s threat to U.S. forces, Trump undercut them. He embraced Putin, overtly and repeatedly, including at the historic summit in Helsinki. Third, behind the scenes, Trump directed the CIA to share intelligence information on counterterrorism with the Kremlin despite no discernible reward, former intelligence officials who served in the Trump administration told Just Security.

According to Marc Polymeropoulos, who until July 2019 oversaw clandestine operations in Europe and Eurasia, the White House instructed a skeptical intelligence community to share counterterrorism intelligence with Russia:

“The U.S. got absolutely nothing in return. There was a lot of focus on this from the White House and it came to naught…There was disdain for doing this [with] the Russians, but policymakers wanted this. There was never a single U.S. life saved in the provision of Russian information. Nothing of value was ever given.” (DB)

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper confirmed Thursday that he had been briefed on information regarding Russian payments to the Taliban, seemingly acknowledging that Russia’s support for the militant group in Afghanistan is not a “hoax,” as President Donald Trump has claimed.

Further reading:

  • Senate Democrats sent a letter demanding copies of past Presidential Daily Briefs, particularly from February when Trump was informed of the Russian bounties.
  • The Trump Administration has opened an internal investigation to try to uncover who leaked the Russian bounty story to the press. The administration believes it has narrowed down the universe of suspects to fewer than 10 people. Chief of Staff Mark Meadows reportedly set “a trap in an attempt to catch any leakers.
  • Beth Sanner, a senior official at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence who also serves as Trump’s primary intelligence briefer, spoke about her experience delivering intelligence to Trump. The White House blames Sanner for allegedly never “orally” briefing Trump on the bounties.

Trump’s finances

Trump’s annual financial disclosure report was due to be released more than a week ago, but the White House says it needs more time – despite already receiving a 45-day extension. “The President has a complicated report and he’s been focused on addressing the coronavirus crisis and other matters,” a White House official said.

The main takeaways: Last week, the Supreme Court issued opinions in cases involving Trump’s finances: The court rejected the president’s assertion that he is immune from the law’s requirements, ruling that he could not block subpoenas from Congress and grand juries. However, the justices allowed Trump to draw out the process even longer – particularly Congress’s subpoenas.

In the first, Trump v. Vance, the court dismissed this claim as it pertains to criminal investigation. As Roberts wrote, “no citizen, not even the President, is categorically above the common duty to produce evidence when called upon in a criminal proceeding.”

So the financial records sought by the Manhattan district attorney must be turned over. However, since they are being given to a grand jury, they’ll be kept secret for the foreseeable future.

In the second case, Trump v. Mazars, the court didn’t agree with Trump’s sweeping claims that Congress has no right to subpoena his financial records, but it punted the case back down to lower courts for further consideration of the separation of powers issues at play. (WaPo)

Vance case already moving forward, quickly. U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero is taking back control of the case, setting a July 16 hearing date. “The order came sooner than expected and seemed to signal that the judge would move swiftly to try to resolve the matter,” (NYT).

  • Earlier in the legal process, Judge Marrero ruled against Trump’s attempt to shield his finances from Vance, calling the president’s argument that he was immune from criminal investigation “repugnant to the nation’s governmental structure and constitutional values.”
  • “This a major blow to Trump’s vision of a monarchical presidency,” Jens David Ohlin, vice dean of Cornell Law School, said about the SCOTUS opinion. “The standard for a prosecutor is very broad, so I expect it to be able to basically go forward,” said Mimi Rocah, a former federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit temporarily halted an emoluments lawsuit targeting Trump’s business dealings at his D.C. hotel. The subpoenas, issued by the attorneys general of Maryland and the District, are on hold while Trump asks the Supreme Court to review the case.

In the other emoluments lawsuit, over 200 Democratic members of Congress formally petitioned the Supreme Court last week to hear the case. The DC Circuit previously dismissed the case, finding that individual members of Congress do not have legal grounds to enforce the foreign emoluments clause.

Further reading:

  • Manhattan DA Vance Appeals Ruling In Bid To Revive State-Level Prosecution Of Paul Manafort. A New York state grand jury indicted Manafort on mortgage fraud charges in March 2019, but a judge threw out Vance’s prosecution for violating protections against double jeopardy.
  • Deutsche Bank Settles Over Ignored Red Flags on Jeffrey Epstein. “Despite knowing Mr. Epstein’s terrible criminal history, the bank inexcusably failed to detect or prevent millions of dollars of suspicious transactions,” the New York Department of Financial Services said. Deutsche Bank seemed to ignore similar red-flags with Trump. Congress’s subpoena includes the bank’s records related to the president and his businesses.
  • Video compilation of Trump obfuscating about his tax returns.

Is this justice?

Trump commuted the sentence of Roger Stone, his 36th pardon/commutation. This is a record low number, by far, for the modern presidency. However, an unusually high number of these (31 out of 36) were based on a personal or political connection. Additionally, Trump has almost entirely bypassed the DOJ’s pardon attorney who is supposed to vet and recommend pardons.

  • Trump confidant Roger Stone leaped over thousands of inmates seeking clemency: Roughly 13,500 inmates who have sought clemency are in limbo, according to the Justice Department’s website.

Here’s a look at the crimes for which the law-and-order president has opted to unilaterally circumvent justice:

  • Lying about contacts involving a man, Julian Assange, who served as a conduit for Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election and who is currently under indictment (Stone)
  • Three war crimes, including two murders (Clint Lorance)
  • Murder (Michael Behenna)
  • Alleged murder (Mathew Golsteyn)
  • Arson that burned 139 acres of federal land (Steven and Dwight Hammond)
  • Corruptly trying to sell a U.S. Senate seat for personal gain (Blagojevich)
  • Using his high profile after the 9/11 attacks to commit tax fraud (Kerik)
  • Refusing a judge’s order to stop detaining people suspected of being undocumented immigrants (Arpaio)

Robert Mueller published a defense of the charges against Roger Stone. “We made every decision in Stone’s case, as in all our cases, based solely on the facts and the law and in accordance with the rule of law. The women and men who conducted these investigations and prosecutions acted with the highest integrity. Claims to the contrary are false,” Mueller wrote.

More from Mueller: “A jury later determined [Stone] lied repeatedly to members of Congress. He lied about the identity of his intermediary to WikiLeaks. He lied about the existence of written communications with his intermediary. He lied by denying he had communicated with the Trump campaign about the timing of WikiLeaks’ releases. He in fact updated senior campaign officials repeatedly about WikiLeaks. And he tampered with a witness, imploring him to stonewall Congress.”

Michael Cohen was taken back to federal prison, allegedly for writing a tell-all book against the administration’s wishes. Cohen’s lawyers say he initially raised objections to signing a home confinement contract that required him to promise he wouldn’t speak to any journalists, use social media, or publish a tell-all book about Trump for the duration of his sentence. Then, when the U.S. Marshals arrived to arrest Cohen, he agreed to sign to avoid jail, “but the Marshals said it was out of their hands.”

David C. Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project: “I have never heard of such a spectacularly overbroad restriction on speech as a condition of probation or supervised release.”

Robert Corn-Revere, Partner, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP: “The release conditions that seek to impose a gag order on Michael Cohen are an obvious violation of his First Amendment rights. There is no conceivable legitimate basis in American law for forcing someone to choose between his freedom and silence.” (Just Security)

More to read:

  • The DC Circuit US Court of Appeals stayed its decision ordering Judge Emmet Sullivan to end former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn’s criminal case while the entire en banc panel of appellate judges considers the issues.
  • U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman testified before the House Judiciary Cmte. last week, telling the panel that Barr tried to pressure him into resigning and implying that Barr lied in an official DOJ statement to the public. “I was not going to resign so that [Barr] could disregard normal procedure and appoint someone from outside the Southern District as acting head instead of our Deputy U.S. Attorney… The Attorney General said that if I did not resign from my position I would be fired. He added that getting fired from my job would not be good for my resume or future job prospects. I told him that while I did not want to get fired, I would not resign.”
  • Senate Finance Committee Chair and Judiciary Committee member Chuck Grassley took to Twitter last week to pressure John Durham to prosecute Trump’s political opponents before the election. See also: “The Durham Investigation: What We Know and What It Means,” Lawfare.
  • AG Barr moved EDNY prosecutor Richard Donoghue to main Justice and installed top DOJ official Seth DuCharme at EDNY. CNN previously reported that both officials “are said to be favorites of the attorney general.”

Other court cases

Paul Erickson, the former boyfriend of Russian agent Maria Butina, was sentenced to seven years in prison for wire fraud and money laundering as part of fraudulent investment schemes he operated for many years.

A federal appeals court ruled Sunday that the first federal execution in nearly two decades may proceed as scheduled on Monday. The family of the victims asked the courts to put the execution on hold due to concern about the pandemic. Staff members involved in preparations for the executions tested positive for the coronavirus on Saturday.

  • Related: Late last month, SCOTUS declined to hear a challenge to the federal death penalty method, allowing the executions of four men scheduled in the coming weeks to go forward.
  • Related: The series of executions the Trump administration has planned this month “will mark the culmination of a three-year campaign to line up a secret supply chain to make and test lethal injection drugs.” Human Rights Watch: “The Trump administration has been so determined to resume federal executions that it built a secret supply chain for the lethal drugs so that participating companies wouldn’t face public pressure to have nothing to do with this barbarity.”

A federal judge on Friday blocked a new federal regulation that would have required insurers on the Obamacare exchanges that cover abortions to issue separate bills for that coverage. The decision marks a setback in the Trump administration’s long-standing efforts to limit abortion access through federal programs.

Trump campaign & properties

Trump has officially spent more than a year at his properties during his time in office. Yesterday, July 12, was his 369th visit to a property he owns and his 277th time at one of his golf clubs.

The Trump Organization is planning a major expansion of its flagship international property in Scotland, commissioning a detailed masterplan to develop as many as 225 properties, as well as leisure facilities and shops.

The Trump Organization is also planning a major expansion in Middle Eastern countries and China after Trump leaves office. The development of these plans while Trump is still in office highlights the massive conflict of interest created by his refusal to completely divest of his assets.

Trump postponed his re-election rally in New Hampshire, citing “safety concerns” over a tropical storm barreling toward the Northeast. However, the forecast did not line up and campaign insiders said the campaign feared low turnout would infuriate Trump.

More to read:

  • The Trump campaign may display statues at future events, though it is not clear who the statues would depict. Sources say one idea was for “America’s Founding Fathers.”
  • Five years after claiming he didn’t want rich donors’ money because he would not be beholden to anybody, the president’s official PAC has collected $75.3 million from 90 six-figure donors. The RNC has likewise collected a total of $130.4 million from 555 six-figure donors.
  • Eight lobbyists who are now working to help Trump get re-elected — either in paid or unpaid capacities — have been paid nearly a combined $120 million lobbying the government since Trump was elected in 2017.
  • NBC News and CNN summarized Mary Trump’s book.

Immigration news

During the pandemic the Trump administration has: (1) Effectively blocked asylum at the border and turned away minors fleeing to the U.S.; (2) Blocked certain people from obtaining green cards; (3) Blocked foreign workers from entering the U.S.; (4) Told international students to go home or transfer if their school holds their classes online.

How ICE Helped Spread the Coronavirus. Unsafe conditions and scattershot testing helped turn ICE into a domestic and global spreader of the virus. Pressure from the Trump administration led countries to take in sick deportees.

The Trump administration is turning legal immigrants into undocumented ones. Without telling Congress, the administration has scaled back the printing of documents it has already promised to immigrants — including green cards.

More to read:

  • “Harvard and M.I.T. Sue to Stop Trump Visa Rules for Foreign Students,” NYT. “California sues Trump administration over policy restricting international students at state colleges,” LA Times.
  • “Trump Says Upcoming Immigration Measure Will Include DACA,” NPR. “Business Leaders Urge Trump to Leave DACA Alone After Court Ruling,” NYT.
  • Katie Miller, press secretary for Mike Pence (and wife of Stephen Miller), quoted in Jacob Soboroff’s new book: “DHS sent me to the border to see the separations for myself — to try to make me more compassionate — but it didn’t work.”

Appointees and purges

Trump’s new global media chief intends to kick international journalists out of Voice of America. After firing the top editors of four outlets, including Radio Free Europe, Michael Pack is now refusing to renew the visas of foreign-born journalists who are vital to its mission of producing news reports in 47 languages.

WaPo: A failure to renew the visas and contracts would devastate VOA’s ability to deliver news to foreign audiences, including in authoritarian states where many people depend on U.S. broadcasting for uncensored information… Mr. Pack and his chief supporter, former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon, have vowed to purge U.S. broadcasters of what they regard as “deep state” elements.

Commerce Dept. IG releases “Sharpiegate” report: Political pressure from the White House and a series of “crazy in the middle of the night” texts, emails and phone calls caused top federal weather officials to wrongly admonish a weather office for a tweet that contradicted Trump about Hurricane Dorian in 2019.

Everything started with an email from acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney to Commerce Secretary Ross. Mulvaney explained that Trump tweeted based on the latest info they had seen and did not understand why the Birmingham office would tweet a correction. “As it currently stands,” Mulvaney wrote, “it appears as if the [National Weather Service] intentionally contradicted the president. And we need to know why. He wants either a correction or an explanation or both.”

Russell Travers, former head of the U.S. government’s hub for analysis of counterterrorism intelligence, was fired in March after going to the intelligence community IG with concerns about the administration. Days after Travers told Ric Grennell, then Director of National Intelligence, that he had gone to the IG, Grenell fired him. Weeks later, Trump fired the IG, Michael Atkinson.

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a key witness in Trump’s impeachment inquiry, is retiring from the US Army after more than 21 years of military service. Vindman has endured a “campaign of bullying, intimidation, and retaliation” spearheaded by the President. He was up for a promotion, which was opposed by Trump. Senior Trump officials told the Defense and Army Secretaries to dig for misconduct that would justify blocking Vindman’s promotion. They couldn’t find anything, sources said.

Other stories

News that didn’t fit in the previous sections…

Last week, three major oil and gas pipelines were stymied—two by court decisions and one by economic pressures. A federal judge ruled that the Dakota Access pipeline — which Trump approved within a month of taking office — must be shut down by Aug. 5, saying federal officials failed to carry out a complete analysis of its environmental impacts. 

Government watchdog revealed that NOAA is refusing to act on findings by its own scientists to protect the critically endangered right whale. Internal emails show the agency “only want[ing] to share good news” about right whales, in order to downplay the effects of fisheries on the species. There are roughly 400 North Atlantic right whales remaining. Where cause of death is known, 100% of right whale mortality is from ship strikes or entanglements in fishing gear.

Elaine Duke, a lifelong Republican who was acting secretary of homeland security in 2017, says that President Trump brought up the idea of selling Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, in an NYT interview.

Trump’s Consumer Watchdog just allowed payday lenders to give loans to people who can’t afford them. The CFPB rule undoes an Obama-era requirement that payday lenders must first assess whether someone taking out a loan can actually afford to repay it.

The military’s top officer on Thursday described Confederate leaders as traitors and said he is taking a “hard look” at renaming 10 Army installations that honor them, despite President Trump’s opposition to any changes.

The Wisconsin supreme court gave state Republicans a significant victory on Thursday, upholding a suite of laws passed during a lame-duck session in 2018 designed to curb the power of incoming Democratic officials.