Blurred Lines
December 14, 2018

President Trump's organization reportedly received money from the Presidential Inaugural Committee in 2017, with at least one organizer expressing concern that they were being overcharged.

ProPublica reported Friday that the inaugural committee paid the Trump Organization for rooms, meals, and event space at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., and Ivanka Trump herself was involved in working out the price. While it's unclear what price was ultimately settled upon, ProPublica published copies of emails between one lead planner, Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, and inauguration chairman Rick Gates.

"I wanted to follow up on our conversation and express my concern," Wolkoff writes to Gates, going on to remind him that "when this is audited it will become public knowledge." The committee had been offered a price of $700,000 to use the hotel for four days.

The report notes that if the Trump Organization overcharged the inaugural committee, that could be a tax law violation, as this would be an example of a person with influence over a non-profit charging it above market rates. A spokesperson for Ivanka Trump told ProPublica that she recommended charging a "fair market rate."

Federal prosecutors are reportedly already investigating whether the inaugural committee misspent money and whether foreign entities may have donated to the committee in an attempt to buy access to the administration. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Friday that the committee "doesn't have anything to do with the president or the first lady." Read more at ProPublica. Brendan Morrow

May 21, 2018

On Sunday afternoon, President Trump signaled he will follow through with his threat to directly interfere in the Justice Department's investigations of his campaign and himself.

After Trump's tweet, which Jonathan Swan at Axios likened to "rolling a grenade into the Department of Justice," the Justice Department said Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had asked Inspector General Michael Horowitz to expand an ongoing review to "include determining whether there was any impropriety or political motivation in how the FBI conducted its counterintelligence investigation of persons suspected of involvement with the Russian agents who interfered in the 2016 presidential election," and any "evidence of potential criminal conduct" would be referred to "the appropriate U.S. Attorney."

Trump spent much of the weekend tweeting angrily about the investigation, now headed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, following reports Friday night that a covert FBI and CIA informant who served in the Reagan, Ford, and Nixon administrations had approached three Trump campaign aides in 2016 after the FBI became concerned they might be acting as Russian agents.

Analysts said Rosenstein is attempting to defuse a crisis some Trump allies say the president is creating to force Rosenstein to quit. Trump has the constitutional right to do this, but "I can't think of a prior example of a sitting president ordering the Justice Department to conduct an investigation like this one," University of Texas law professor Stephen Vladeck tells The New York Times. "That's little more than a transparent effort to undermine an ongoing investigation," and if Trump followed through on his threat, "it seems to me that the recipients of such an order should resign." Peter Weber

June 27, 2017

The White House appeared to draw a new red line on Syria Monday night, with Press Secretary Sean Spicer warning that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had been caught making "potential preparations for another chemical weapons attack" that "would likely result in the mass murder of civilians, including innocent children," and if he "conducts another mass murder attack using chemical weapons, he and his military will pay a heavy price." The rest of the government, including the military, appears to have been caught off guard by the announcement.

Five U.S. defense officials "said they did not know where the potential chemical attack would come from, and were unaware the White House was planning to release its statement," BuzzFeed News reports. "Several State Department officials typically involved in coordinating such announcements said they were caught completely off guard by the warning, which didn't appear to be discussed in advance with other national security agencies," the Los Angeles Times reports. "Typically, the State Department, the Pentagon, and U.S. intelligence agencies would all be consulted before the White House issued a declaration sure to ricochet across foreign capitals."

Various agencies and departments referred reporters to the White House for comment. It's "unclear how closely held the intelligence regarding a potential chemical attack was," The New York Times notes, after similarly reporting that "several military officials were caught off guard by the statement" from Spicer. "While the White House's motivation in releasing the highly unusual statement is uncertain, it is possible that Mr. Trump or his advisers decided a public warning to Mr. Assad might deter another chemical strike," the Times suggests, adding that the president has "absolute power to declassify anything he chooses to release," including intelligence on chemical weapons.

At least one Trump administration official appeared unfazed by the statement:

After U.S. intelligence pointed the finger at Assad for an April 4 chemical weapon attack on Syrian civilians, Trump ordered 59 missiles fired at an Assad air base; Russian blamed the anti-Assad opposition, claiming Syrian warplanes had hit rebel stockpiles. Last week, the U.S. shot down a Syrian government warplane after it targeted U.S. allies fighting the Islamic State. Peter Weber

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