March 7, 2018

On the one hand, it's nice that President Trump's budget chief and his chief economic adviser overcame their ideological differences to become friendly, as self-proclaimed "right-wing conservative" Mick Mulvaney, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), suggested in his farewell statement to Gary Cohn, the outgoing head of Trump's National Economic Council. On the other hand, calling Cohn a "globalist" leaves the message with kind of an acrid aftertaste.

Cohn is Jewish, and "the term 'globalist' has also been used as an anti-Semitic dog whistle and echoes pernicious anti-Jewish conspiracy theories," explains Ben Sales at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. "For the far right, globalism has long had distinct xenophobic, anti-immigrant, and anti-Semitic overtones," adds Liam Stack at his "glossary of extremist language" in The New York Times. "It refers to a conspiratorial worldview: a cabal that likes open borders, diversity, and weak nation states, and that dislikes white people, Christianity, and the traditional culture of their own country."

But the alt-right slur "isn't entirely about anti-Semitic conspiracy-mongering," says Andrew Prokop at Vox. "There are real underlying policy differences at play here." Which, of course, is what Mulvaney must have been talking about. Still, if Mulvaney had wanted to show his appreciation, maybe he should have just chipped in a few extra bucks to Cohn's farewell gift card. Peter Weber

March 5, 2018
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Since December 2016, Congress has given the State Department $120 million to counter foreign attempts to hijack U.S. elections and sow distrust in American democracy, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has spent none of that money, The New York Times reports. "As a result, not one of the 23 analysts working in the department's Global Engagement Center — which has been tasked with countering Moscow's disinformation campaign — speaks Russian, and a department hiring freeze has hindered efforts to recruit the computer experts needed to track the Russian efforts."

Tillerson, who's been "focusing his energies instead on drastically shrinking the department," spent seven months thinking about whether he even wanted to spend the original $60 million Congress set aside to coordinate a government-wide response to anti-democracy propaganda from Russia and China, the Times reports, and when the State Department finally sent over its request in September, "with just days left in the fiscal year, Pentagon officials decided that the State Department had lost its shot at the money." After months of haggling, the State Department said last week it will take $40 million from this fiscal year's $60 million allotment, and it expects the Pentagon to transfer the funds in April, half a year before the midterms.

The Global Engagement Center currently toils to counter jihadist and extremist propaganda, and its 23 analysts speak Arabic, Urdu, French, and Somali. The Trump administration has "the vehicle to do this work in the center," James Glassman, the State Department's under secretary for public diplomacy, tells the Times. "What they don't have is a secretary of state or a president who's interested in doing this work." You can read more about the holdup and Tillerson's role in it at The New York Times. Peter Weber

March 2, 2018

One of the battles reportedly raging inside the chaotic White House is between Chief of Staff John Kelly and President Trump's daughter Ivanka and son-in-law, Jared Kushner. "Javanka and Kelly are locked in a death match," a White House official told Axios, using Stephen Bannon's celebrity couple name for Trump's senior advisers/children. "Two enter. Only one survives."

Ivanka Trump and Kushner "have been frustrated by Kelly's attempt to restrict their access to the president, and they perceive his new crackdown on clearances as a direct shot at them," The Associated Press reports, citing White House aides and outside advisers, and the frustration is apparently mutual: Kelly "blames them for changing Trump's mind at the last minute and questions what exactly they do all day, according to one White House official and an outside ally."

To be fair, Kushner has been put in charge of solving a monstrous heap of issues, but is mostly supposed to focus on forging Israeli-Palestinian peace, while Ivanka has been known to represent her father at international conferences and the Olympics, as well as push for tax cuts for parents of young children. "Allies of Kushner and Ivanka Trump insist they have no plans to leave the White House in the near future," AP notes, but Kelly's continued tenure is an open question. "The last thing I wanted to do was walk away from one of the great honors of my life, being the secretary of homeland security," Kelly said Thursday, at the Homeland Security Department's 15th birthday celebration. "But I did something wrong and God punished me, I guess."

You have to watch Kelly's eye roll for the quote to really hit home. Peter Weber

February 16, 2018
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Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush bought a $1.5 million mansion in a tony Austin enclave with an $850,000 loan from a bank owned by a major donor who recently employed his wife, Amanda Bush — and "for all practical purposes, it is a secret mansion," reports Jay Root at The Texas Tribune. The 4,000-square-foot gated house is legally owned by a family trust that doesn't include the Bush name, and neither the trust nor the $850,000 loan were disclosed on the personal financial statements Bush has to file to run for office in Texas. George P. Bush is Jeb Bush's eldest son and apparently the lone member of the Bush clan who unabashedly supports President Trump.

George and Amanda Bush are the creators and the beneficiaries of the trust, Bush's campaign said. Under Texas ethics laws, candidates have to disclose a "beneficial interest" in real estate and note any loans of more than $1,000, but the Texas Ethics Commission said it hasn't dealt yet with the Bush "secret mansion" scenario. Bush political director Ash Wright told the Tribune that its reporting is "another absurd fake news story from the liberal media" and explained that "for security reasons, the commissioner used a trust to buy the house to protect his family's address from being publicly listed," citing "death threats."

Root noted that people with military backgrounds like Bush can request that their names be left off county tax rolls by just checking a box on a simple form — which the Bushes did for a rental property, even though the exemption is, by law, only available for a home address. "After the Tribune inquired under freedom of information laws why the rental property's ownership had been deemed confidential," Root says, "the appraisal district abruptly informed Amanda Bush on Feb. 7 that it would rescind the exemption she had applied for — and got — a little over two years ago." Peter Weber

January 10, 2018

Last week, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced he is opening 90 percent of the nation's oil and gas offshore reserves to development, but on Tuesday he said he had taken Florida "off the table," both its Gulf and Atlantic coasts. "Florida is obviously unique," he said after a brief meeting with Gov. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who is expected to run for Senate this year. He explained in a statement that Florida's "coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver."

"The president made it very clear that local voices count," Zinke told reporters Tuesday night. Local voices wanted to know why Florida got a special pass, including several governors of coastal states:

The attorneys general of California and Maryland noted pointedly that their coasts are also economically important national treasures, and Virginia's junior senator weighed in:

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), a longtime critic of offshore drilling who Scott would run against, called Zinke's announcement "a political stunt orchestrated by the Trump administration to help Rick Scott." It's not just Democrats, though; several Republican governors also asked to be exempted from Zinke's drilling expansion — and Scott wasn't one of them, according to the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM).

Florida is politically important, but it's also home to President Trump's favorite coastal escape, the "festering cancerous conflict of interest" Mar-a-Lago, former federal ethics chief Walter Shaub noted in all-caps, advising Zinke, "Go look up 'banana republic.'" Peter Weber

December 26, 2017

Thousands of protesters marched through Lima and across Peru on Monday in protest of President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski's decision Sunday to grant a medical pardon to former President Alberto Fujimori, who was serving 25 years in prison for human rights abuses and corruption. Police responded with tear gas. Kuczynski said in a statement that he made the "especially complex and difficult" decision to pardon Fujimori, 79, and seven other unidentified people on humanitarian grounds, adding, "I am convinced that those of us who consider ourselves democrats cannot allow Alberto Fujimori to die in prison. Justice is not vengeance."

Critics say Kuczynski pardoned Fujimori in exchange for crucial abstentions that allowed him to survive an impeachment vote on Friday. Popular Force (FP), the conservative political party run by Fujimori's children, controls Congress, and daughter Keiko Fujimori — Kuczynski's rival in the 2016 presidential election — had pushed to impeach him over a scandal involving his financial ties to Brazilian construction behemoth Odebrecht; Kenji Fujimori and his FP allies abstained, allowing the impeachment vote to fall short. On Monday, Kenji Fujimori posted a video of himself showing his father the news of his pardon in a hospital, where the elder Fujimori was moved last week after suffering what his doctors say is a potentially fatal heart condition.

Two members of Congress from Kuczynski's party resigned in protest of his pardon, and with 18 percent approval, it's not clear if Kuczynski can weather this new political storm. "I regret Fujimori's humanitarian pardon," tweeted Human Rights Watch's Jose Miguel Vivanco. "Instead of reaffirming that in a state of law there is no special treatment for anyone, the idea that his liberation was a vulgar political negotiation in exchange for Pedro Pablo Kuczynski maintaining power will remain forever." Peter Weber

October 11, 2017
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At the July 20 meeting in the Pentagon that reportedly prompted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to call President Trump a "moron," Trump told the assembled military and national security leaders that he wanted "what amounted to a nearly tenfold increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal," NBC News reported Wednesday, citing "three officials who were in the room." Trump had apparently just been shown a slide charting the decline in the number of America's nuclear weapons since the late 1960s, from about 32,000 nukes to some 4,000 warheads today, and Trump reportedly said he wanted to return to the number America had at its peak.

Tillerson and Trump's other advisers were "surprised" and other officials "rattled by the president's desire for more nuclear weapons and his understanding of other national security issues from the Korean peninsula to Iraq and Afghanistan," NBC News reports, and "officials briefly explained the legal and practical impediments to a nuclear buildup and how the current military posture is stronger than it was at the height of the build-up." No such buildup is planned, NBC News says, but "officials said they are working to address the president's concerns within the Nuclear Posture Review."

On Tuesday, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster warned national security officials they should "realize that speaking to the media about government deliberations is treasonous when it involves national security." As for the leak about the July 20 meeting, "it's unclear which portion of the Pentagon briefing prompted Tillerson to call the president a 'moron' after the meeting broke up and some advisers were gathered around," NBC News says. "Officials who attended the two-hour session said it included a number of tense exchanges." You can read more at NBC News. Peter Weber

September 13, 2017
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After falsely claiming that 3-5 million people voted illegally for his opponent in the 2016 election, President Trump announced his intention in late January to set up a commission to investigate voter fraud, a decision he formalized with an executive order in May. On Feb. 22, a Heritage Foundation employee wrote an email to Attorney General Jeff Sessions saying he'd heard the "disturbing" news that the commission's chairman, Vice President Mike Pence, planned to make the panel bipartisan and urged that only like-minded conservatives be appointed, according to a copy of the email obtained by the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center (CLC) through a freedom-of-information request.

The Justice Department redacted the name of the Heritage Foundation's self-proclaimed vote-fraud expert, but the conservative think tank effectively confirmed to Gizmodo that the author was Hans von Spakovsky, who was later appointed to the commission and is identified by the CLC as "widely considered the architect of the voter fraud myth." At the commission's second public meeting on Tuesday, before Heritage confirmed that Spakovsky wrote the email, Pro Publica's Jessica Huseman asked him "point blank" if he'd "authored this document, he said no." She posted audio of the exchange.

In the email, the Heritage Foundation employee presumed to be Spakovsky argued to Sessions that "there isn't a single Democratic official that will do anything other than obstruct any investigation of voter fraud" and claim that the commission "is engaged in voter suppression," and that "mainstream Republican officials and/or academics" would also make the commission "an abject failure." The author also complained that none of the "real experts on the conservative side" had been appointed "other than Kris Kobach," the committee's vice chairman, Kansas secretary of state, and Breitbart News columnist.

Pence and Kobach eventually appointed seven Republicans and five Democrats to the commission, though one Democrat resigned. But the CLC said that the email adds "to the mounting evidence that the commission has no interest in true bipartisanship or an open discussion of how to solve the real problems in our elections." CLC president Trevor Potter, a former GOP chairman of the Federal Election Commission, said that Kobach's "farcical meetings" continue "to validate the worst suspicions about the commission: that it is designed to shrink the electorate for partisan advantage." He suggested they focus on "a true issue of election integrity" like Russians buying political ads on Facebook.

UPDATE: Spakovsky said in a statement that the email was sent to "private individuals who were not in the administration" and "was unaware that it had been forwarded" to Sessions. He added that he now believes the commission is "committed to uncovering the truth about election integrity and the other issues present in our election system." Peter Weber

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