Lost in the Sauce: Trump family created secret shell company to pay themselves
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.
NOTE: This post focuses on the events from roughly the 13th to the 19th. Events from this week (e.g. pardons) will be in the next post.
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The grift intensifies
A campaign shell company created in part by Jared Kushner secretly paid the president’s family members and spent more than $600 million. The nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center argued in an FEC complaint that the company, American Made Media Consultants Corporation (AMMC), functioned as a “clearinghouse” to illegally “launder” campaign funds and shield the identities of the ultimate recipients of payments. Lara Trump and the nephew of VP Pence previously served on the board of AMMC when it made massive spending decisions.
The Campaign Legal Center also filed an FEC complaint against a pro-Trump super PAC for making “illegal, unreported, and excessive” contributions to the Trump campaign. The PAC Our American Century is accused of illegally paying to distribute an advertisement video produced by the Trump campaign across several critical swing states in violation of federal campaign contribution laws.
Remember the DOJ bribery-for-pardons investigation? Last week we learned that the billionaire advocating for a pardon promised to donate $6 million to support President Trump… and may have done so. While donations from the man, Sanford Diller, do not appear on Trump’s federal campaign reports, ABC News reports that the $6 million in contributions were actually “made in 2016 to a pro-Trump nonprofit political committee, which — unlike a campaign — is not required by federal law to disclose its donors or donation amounts.”
Diller had arranged for his friend, Berkeley psychologist Hugh Baras, to retain help from [Kushner lawyer] Abbe Lowell, one of the most prominent and powerful D.C. attorneys. Documents reviewed by ABC News indicate that Lowell prepared a memo to argue the case. But no pardon was ever issued and Baras, who was 73 at the time, served out his sentence.
Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-OR) and House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX) are investigating whether Jared Kushner manipulated foreign policy to obtain a billion-dollar bailout from Middle Eastern officials. The events in question involve Kushner pushing the administration to support a blockade against Qatar out of possible “retaliation” for the country’s refusal to invest in a distressed Kushner property.
Wyden: “…we remain troubled that Qatari funds ended up in a billion dollar rescue for a company directly tied to Mr. Kushner while he remained a senior White House official deeply involved in formulation of U.S. policy towards the Middle East.”
Turning Point USA held two large events in Florida this weekend, including one at Mar-a-Lago, sparking concerns of additional super-spreader events. On Friday, the conservative organization held its annual winter gala at Trump’s club, putting money in his pocket. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell also attended.
Photos posted on social media showed Friday’s maskless gala crowd mingling in apparent violation of Palm Beach County’s coronavirus protocols…local governments have urged residents not to attend crowded gatherings such as the one at Mar-a-Lago on Friday.
Trump is reportedly planning on spending his post-presidency time at Mar-a-Lago, but his neighbors are revolting, asserting he cannot legally reside there. In 1993, Trump signed an agreement with Palm Beach that allowed him to convert the property to a moneymaking club. “Per the use agreement of 1993, Mar-a-Lago is a social club, and no one may reside on the property,” wrote Reginald Stambaugh, a lawyer representing the DeMoss family, which has a property next to Mar-a-Lago.
Further reading: Eric Lipton of the NYT breaks down how pro-Trump Super PACs are lining the Trump family’s pockets: “Donors write checks to a SuperPAC that supports Trump. SuperPAC writes checks to Trump family.”
Trump has been itching to fire FBI Director Christopher Wray in recent months, reportedly coming so close to doing so that administration lawyers had to talk him out of it. White House counsel Pat Cipollone warned Trump that ousting Wray could be seen as retaliation and put him in potential legal jeopardy.
Speaking of Cipollone, Trump is also apparently close to firing him, as well. According to Axios, Trump is particularly “fed up” with Cipollone because the attorney has spoken out against some of the more extreme efforts to overturn the results of the election.
Trump thinks everyone around him is weak, stupid or disloyal — and increasingly seeks comfort only in people who egg him on to overturn the election results. We cannot stress enough how unnerved Trump officials are by the conversations unfolding inside the White House… Trump has even been asking advisers whether they can get state legislatures to rescind their electoral votes. When he’s told no, he lashes out even more, said a source who discussed the matter with the president.
- Rudy Giuliani’s son, Andrew Giuliani, and former acting director of national intelligence Ric Grenell were appointed to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.
- Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk was appointed to the President’s Advisory 1776 Commission, which Trump created to advance “patriotic education.”
- Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the former aide to Michael Flynn who was fired by H. R. McMaster, was appointed to Chair the Public Interest Declassification Board.
- Anthony Tata, the Pentagon’s acting policy chief, has been appointed to the Board of Visitors to the United States Merchant Marine Academy.
- Former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who was part of Trump’s legal team during his impeachment trial, will become a member of the Kennedy Center Board of Trustees.
- White House aide and Trump confidante Hope Hicks will be a member of the Fulbright Scholarship Board.
- Former White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham, known for not holding a single press briefing during her entire 10-month tenure, was appointed to the Board of Directors of the National Board for Education Sciences.
Further reading: Trump administration appointed a donor to The Eric Trump Foundation to a $160,000/year position in the Small Business Administration
A day after Congress approved a nearly $900 billion stimulus bill, Trump suddenly threatened to veto it unless lawmakers increase the direct relief checks from the current $600 to $2,000. The video posted to Twitter “stunned” both White House and congressional aides.
“I am also asking Congress to immediately get rid of the wasteful and unnecessary items from this legislation, and to send me a suitable bill, or else the next administration will have to deliver a covid relief package, and maybe that administration will be me,” Trump said (clip).
- Trump effectively gave the Democrats a Christmas gift by allowing them to highlight that they support more money for Americans, unlike Republicans. Speaker Pelosi quickly responded to Trump’s video: Republicans repeatedly refused to say what amount the President wanted for direct checks. At last, the President has agreed to $2,000 — Democrats are ready to bring this to the Floor this week by unanimous consent. Let’s do it!
- Important note: The “unnecessary items” Trump refers to are actually in the government funding bill that is tied to the Covid relief bill. The two were passed in the Senate with one vote. Similarly, vetoing the Covid stimulus bill would also veto the funding bill, leading to a government shut down on Monday.
Perhaps one of the “unnecessary items” in the stimulus bill is one sought by Trump himself: a tax break for corporate meal expenses. Trump has for months talked about securing the deduction, which critics say would largely benefit business executives who do not urgently need help at this time.
During negotiations, however, Democratic leaders agreed to the provision in exchange for Republicans agreeing to expand tax credits for low income families and the working poor in the final package… “Republicans are nickel-and-diming benefits for jobless workers, while at the same time pushing for tax breaks for three-martini power lunches. It’s unconscionable,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee.
Brian Murphy, former acting chief of the DHS’s intelligence office, testified before Congress that the administration told him to hold back on circulating assessments of the threat of Russian interference in the approaching Nov. 3 election in part because it “made the President look bad.” Murphy also said that the department leadership of urging him to “blame Far Left groups in an exaggerated fashion” for violence during summer protests in Portland, Oregon.
Members of the Congressional Oversight Commission have asked for the Treasury IG to investigate why Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin ended U.S. Federal Reserve emergency lending programs, citing “irregularities” in how Mnuchin came to his decision. Lawmakers including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have said that the actions amounted to a misreading of the law and were politically motivated to hamstring the incoming Biden administration.
- Commission member Bharat Ramamurti: “By the way, the Treasury Department is now declining to commit to release the legal memo justifying Sec. Mnuchin’s decision, even though he assured me at last week’s hearing that he would provide the Oversight Commission with a copy of it.”
On Friday, the Supreme Court punted a decision on Trump’s plan to exclude all unlawful immigrants from apportionment data for the 2020 census, writing the “judicial resolution of this dispute is premature,” and thus the coalition of state and local governments and NGOs did not have standing—the legal right to sue—in this case. The court ruled 6-3 on the matter, with Justices Stephen Breye, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan dissenting.
- Trump’s policy, if successful, would strip seats in the House of Representatives from diverse states with large immigrant communities.
- As Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern pointed out: “Churches have standing to challenge inoperative COVID restrictions but states don’t have standing to challenge blatantly illegal census manipulation that’s poised to strip them of congressional representation.”
A Manhattan Supreme Court Judge ordered the Trump Organization and its attorney to turn over documents previously protected by mistaken attorney-client privilege to New York Attorney General Letitia James. James is looking into whether the Trump family and various corporate entities improperly inflated assets to obtain tax benefits.
Southern District of Ohio Judge Michael Watson struck down Ohio’s policy prohibiting transgender residents from correcting the gender marker on their birth certificate. Watson, a George W. Bush appointee, provides transgender Ohioans the ability “to correct their birth certificates so that this necessary identity document is consistent with their gender identities.”
A federal grand jury on Thursday indicted six men in the alleged conspiracy to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The group “practiced assaulting a building in teams” and discussed destroying a highway bridge near Whitmer’s house to prevent law enforcement from responding. Now that they’ve been formally indicted, prosecution can proceed.
Further reading: “House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler intends to reissue a subpoena for former White House Counsel Don McGahn’s testimony in 2021.” “In second loss for Kobach Monday, judge says he can’t get paid by We Build the Wall.”
Early last week, Bellingcat and CNN published evidence that an elite toxins team of Russia’s FSB trailed opposition politician Alexey Navalny for years before poisoning him in August. In his first comments on the investigation, Putin said that if the FSB wanted Navalny dead, they would have “finished it.”
On Monday, Navalny posted a recording of a telephone call in which he duped FSB operative Konstantin Kudryavtsev into admitting his role in the poisoning. Posing as an official in Russia’s National Security Council, Navalny got Kudryavtsev to detail the entire operation, including how the nerve agent was applied to a pair of Navalny’s underwear.
Navalny asked: “What item of clothing was the emphasis on? What is the most risky piece of clothing?”
Kudryavtsev replied simply: “Underpants.”
Navalny followed by asking exactly where the Novichok was applied — the inside or outside seams.
“The insides, the crotch,” replied Kudryavtsev.
Immigration: A draft Department of Homeland Security Inspector General’s report revealed that nearly a dozen immigrants arrested by ICE were kept in solitary confinement for more than two months, including two people who were isolated for more than 300 days.
Immigration: A non-profit reports that more than 1,300 people have been raped, kidnapped, or otherwise assaulted since February 2019, when the Trump administration began requiring asylum-seekers to wait out their claims in Mexico.
- Related: “Immigrant Families Are Being Deported Without Their Asylum Claims Heard Lawfully, Advocates Say.”
Immigration: Last Tuesday, New York Gov. Cuomo signed a new law blocking federal immigration enforcement officials from making arrests at courthouses without a judicial warrant.
Environment: The Trump administration announced last week that the monarch butterfly will not be protected under the Endangered Species Act despite “a substantial probability” of population collapse in the next two decades. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the species is threatened enough to be included on the list but due to a lack of resources, protections may not be granted until 2024.
Between 1994 and 2016, the eastern monarch population plunged more than 80%…a total of less than 2,000 monarch butterflies were found this year in California, where there used to be millions — representing a stunning population drop of more than 99% since the 1980s… “The incredible migration of western monarchs is a unique yet fragile piece of North America’s natural history, and it is on the brink of collapse,” said Paige Howorth, director of invertebrate care and conservation at San Diego Zoo Global.
- HOW TO HELP: Plant milkweed. Don’t use pesticides. Check out these organizations: Save Our Monarchs and the National Wildlife Federation.