During the 2016 campaign, David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post uncovered evidence that Donald Trump had used his foundation as a personal piggy bank to settle lawsuits, buy portraits of himself, pay debts, and more, in violation of laws forbidding charities from engaging in self-dealing. The Pulitzer Prize Committee was impressed and awarded Fahrenthold the Pulitizer Prize for National Reporting in 2017. Trump could not have cared less, and pooh-poohed Fahrenthold. Now, the President may have to care, because the New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood sued him and three of his adult children yesterday for self dealing, violating campaign finance laws, and illegal coordination with his campaign. This is a civil, rather than a criminal case, and it involves state law rather than federal law, so pardons won't solve the problem here.
Underwood is seeking $2.8 million in damages and a 10-year ban on Trump serving as officer, director, or trustee of any nonprofit. She is calling for a shorter ban for Trump's children. Underwood also sent a letter to the IRS asking it to investigate if any federal tax laws were broken.
At the heart of the suit are the large number of payments the foundation made to people and organizations that have nothing to do with the foundation's stated (charitable) purpose. For example, at one point, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi was investigating the claims of people who claimed to have been defrauded by Trump University. The foundation then made a $25,000 donation to Bondi's reelection campaign, and she quickly ended the investigation. To top it off, the foundation "forgot" to mention the payment on its tax returns. As a second example, when Trump's Mar-a-Lago golf club was found to be in violation of a city ordinance, Trump settled the dispute by having his foundation pay $100,000 to a city-approved charity. Finally, as a third example, Trump once promised $1 million to any golfer who got a hole-in-one at one of his clubs. When someone did it, Trump refused to pay, but eventually agreed to have his foundation pay $158,000 to a charity run by the golfer. None of this stuff is legal.
Trump's reaction to the lawsuit was to lash out at Underwood and blame the suit on the Democrats. He said he would never settle and will fight the suit. Most likely, though, he will fold fairly quickly. After he was sued for fraud concerning Trump University, he said he wouldn't settle, but he settled not long thereafter. The last thing he needs now is a long drawn-out court case with ironclad evidence that he broke the law. Coughing up a bit under $3 million and staying off charitable boards for 10 years is a lot easier for him.
But even if he pays up, Trump may not be out of the woods due to the letter Underwood sent to the IRS. The agency could impose civil penalties or even recommend federal criminal charges because Trump signed the tax returns under a statement in which he said (under penalties of perjury) that the foundation did not engage in transactions with interested parties and did not carry out political activity, both of which it did. People have gone to prison for this. Jenny Johnson Ware, a criminal tax attorney who has represented clients accused of filing false charitable tax returns, said: "If I were representing someone who had committed these acts, who was not President of the United States, I would be looking to negotiate a resolution." (V)
A 500-page report, issued by the Dept. of Justice's Inspector General Michael Horowitz yesterday, said that then-FBI-director James Comey was "insubordinate" in handling the Hillary Clinton email investigation. However, Horowitz did not challenge the decision not to prosecute Clinton. It also concluded that there was no FBI bias in the matter. In other words, Clinton got a raw deal, Donald Trump is wrong about "locking her up," and he is also wrong about the "deep state."
That is not going to stop the President from claiming vindication, however. One seven-word text message between two FBI agents who were lovers was included in the report. In response to Lisa Page's question about whether Trump could become president, Peter Strzok replied: "No. No he won't. We'll stop it." Trump will now seize on these seven words, in a 500-page report, as proof the deep state was against him, even though both Page and Strzok were low-level employees. Also of note here is that Strzok was the one who wrote the first draft of Comey's statement about "new emails!" that Comey released just 11 days before the election. Many people believe that Strzok's letter swung the election to Trump, greatly weakening any case that he was working to undermine Trump.
Comey reacted to the 500-page report minutes after it was released (he is apparently a speed reader). He said he disagreed with some of it but respected the inspector general for doing such a thorough job investigating it. He also repeated his earlier position that he was in a tough spot when information about new emails came to his attention and that he knew he was going to be criticized whether he released that news before the election or after it.
Ironically, the IG said that Comey had violated Justice Dept. protocols by using his personal email account for government work while investigating Hillary Clinton for using her personal email account for government work. This was not lost on Clinton, who took to Twitter to do a little trolling on Thursday:
But my emails. https://t.co/G7TIWDEG0p— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) June 14, 2018
In short, the 2016 election will not be ending anytime soon. (V)
This move has been rumored for weeks, and on Friday, it is going to become official: The Trump administration will impose $50 billion in tariffs on Chinese imports. Xi Jinping has previously said his administration will respond with $50 billion in tariffs of its own, on things like cars, planes and soybeans (in other words, heavily weighted toward goods produced in red states, particularly the ones Trump won by a small margin). The odds are good that Xi was not bluffing. And Trump, for his part, said that $50 billion in Chinese tariffs would be met with another $100 billion in American tariffs. With the caveat that both sides keep puffing up their chests and then backing down, this is certainly what the start of a trade war looks like.
Interestingly, this comes on the same day that Donald Trump got some very good news (though he probably doesn't realize it). When it comes to economic indicators, he is mostly fixated on unemployment and the Dow Jones index. However, a much better indicator of the economy's health is consumer spending, which rose 0.9% in May, and which is up 5.9% from a year ago. Broadly speaking, consumer spending is the key when it comes to keeping the economic engine humming. Of course, with his budding trade war, it seems like Trump is determined to throw a wrench into the gears. (Z)
Donald Trump is naturally thrilled at all the positive attention he's gotten after his 45-minute meeting, er...summit, with Kim Jong-Un. And he's hungry for more. But, as we have noted repeatedly, he's not endowed with an abundance of imagination. He gets praise for pardoning a dead, black boxer, for example, and so he starts looking for another dead, black boxer to pardon. He gets plaudits for summiting with an authoritarian masquerading as a democratic leader, and so he starts looking for another authoritarian masquerading as a democratic leader to summit with. Thus, Vladimir Putin, batter up! Nothing is official yet, but apparently both the Donald and Vlad want it to happen.
Of course, there are some pretty significant differences between Putin and Kim. Lots of presidents have met with the leader of Russia, so a Putin summit won't really allow Trump to claim he's doing something unprecedented. He won't like that. Also, nobody has accused Trump of colluding with Kim, so there was nothing concerning or suspicious about meeting with the North Korean on that level. Not so with Vlad. Perhaps most importantly, Kim is very skilled at manipulating other leaders and also "the narrative," but the former KGB lieutenant colonel Putin is the world's champion in this area. The upshot is that a Trump-Putin summit seemingly has less upside for the President and more downside. So, maybe the Trump administration thinks twice and puts the brake on. If they do meet, expect an agreement about the de-Crimeanization of Russia, to be achieved in some unspecified way, by some unspecific date in the hazy future. (Z)
And speaking of North Korea, Donald Trump continues to extend his victory laps for as long as is possible. He was on Fox News Wednesday night, and he told a heartwarming story of how several parents of MIA Korean War soldiers came to him on the campaign trail and begged him to figure out what happened to their sons. The president was very proud of himself that he delivered.
Now, it is true that there are many thousands of American soldiers who fought in the Korean War and who are unaccounted for (between 7,700 and 8,000 of them). It is also true that Trump took a concrete step towards learning the fate of some of those folks. However, he could not leave well enough alone, and his heartwarming story thus became a reminder that (1) He knows fairly little about U.S. history, (2) He is willing to lie about nearly anything. If he knew his history a little better, he would know that the U.S. was involved in Korea from 1950 until 1953. If we imagine that the missing soldier in question was lost near the end of the war, that he had just enrolled upon turning 18, and that he was born to parents who were only 15 years old when they had him, then those hypothetical parents would now be...98. Not impossible, but not terribly likely, especially "multiple" times on the campaign trail. And if we go with a more reasonable figure (the WaPo has the math) then our estimate must account for the fact that the average age of parents at first birth back then was 22, and the majority of the solders who went MIA were lost in the first year of the war. That means that the hypothetical parents who "talked" to Trump would likely be around the age of...108.
In the scheme of things, this is not such a big lie compared to some of the others that come out of the White House these days. And there's at least a decent chance that Trump's story is partly true—he may have been approached by, for example, elderly siblings or cousins of MIA soldiers and just assumed they were parents. After all, as a fellow who once went on Howard Stern's show and said that 17 X 6 is 112, Trump is not great at math either. Still, if Barack Obama had told this lie (or made this error), he would have been blasted six ways to Sunday. In eight years, for example, he never fully lived down the moment he accidentally said fifty instead of forty, as in "we've campaigned in fifty...uh...seven states." It's just a reminder of how different standards seem to be these days. (Z)
Both the Washington Post and Politico have stories that the Republican Party is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Donald Trump. It's not surprising that the two outlets have reached this conclusion, since GOP Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel just announced that the Party's main principle these days is loyalty to Trump:
Complacency is our enemy. Anyone that does not embrace the @realDonaldTrump agenda of making America great again will be making a mistake.— Ronna McDaniel (@GOPChairwoman) June 14, 2018
Basing a party on fealty to an individual, as opposed to a political program, takes us pretty far down the road to authoritarianism. The threat that McDaniel tagged on at the end is just the icing on the cake.
The elections this spring have also provided plenty of evidence that it's now the Party of Trump. Consider:
While it's true that the occasional kook or racist managed to make his way through the system before Trump (we're looking at you, Rep. Steve King, R-IA), the number of fringe candidates and the success they are having is surely Trump's doing.
Or, let's look at this another way. Imagine a 2020 candidate for president ran on the following platform:
One would tend to assume that the candidate in question was a Democrat, right? Except that every one of those statements comes from the 1980 Republican Platform. It is true that party platforms often contain platitudes that the party has no intention of living up to. It is also true that there are some elements of the 1980 platform—tax cuts, gun rights, disdain for socialized medicine—that would be acceptable to today's Republican officeholders. However, it is almost inconceivable that anyone in the party of Trump would say, or commit to, any of the things listed above. And that's before we talk about things that were taken as such a given—like standing up to Russia, or guaranteeing the integrity of elections, or dislike for madman dictators like the Kim family in North Korea—that the GOP didn't even bother to put them in the platform.
There are many Republicans who are unhappy with the direction the Party has taken, having abandoned nearly all of its core positions on free trade, immigration, dictators, the rule of law, etc., in favor of "whatever Trump wants." Quite a few of them spoke out about McDaniel's tweet and the message it sends. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) said: "It's not a good place for any party to end up with a cult-like situation as it related to a president that happens to be of—purportedly—of the same party." The problem is that all of the people willing to challenge Trump are either retiring (Corker, Jeff Flake), or dying (John McCain), or are political pundits. Anyone who plans on holding political power beyond January 3, 2019 dares not say a word against the President. Up and down the line, the only thing that Republican politicians are judged by is whether they are loyal to Trump.
In the end, the GOP may come to regret the situation it has created for itself. If they are going all-in on being the Party of Trump, who is almost certainly sui generis, what will they do once they no longer have him as a candidate? Especially since, by that time, enormous numbers of younger voters may have reached the conclusion that the GOP is the party of racists and plutocrats, and is not for them. Many prominent Republican officeholders who predate Trump (think Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, or Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC) are privately worried about these problems but are scared witless to say it out loud. (V & Z)
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) is in a tough reelection battle with Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL). Scott has been making a huge effort to connect with Florida's millions of Latinos. He has a web page in Spanish, is learning to speak Spanish, and gives frequent interviews to Spanish-language media. Nelson does none of this and is not widely known in the Latino community. Party insiders are worried that Scott will scoop up enough of the Latino vote to win what is expected to be a close election. Mayra Macias, a former political director of the Florida Democratic Party, had this to say about Nelson: "At the end of the day, he can be great on all the issues, but if people don't know that that's happening, it almost doesn't matter."
Nelson appears to be aware of the problem now, and is just starting to address it, but it may be too little, too late. For example, the #1 sporting event for Spanish speakers in the U.S. is the World Cup. Scott is running Spanish-language ads on Telemundo during it; Nelson is not.
Except for Cuban-Americans, Florida Latinos are solidly Democratic, though their turnout record is abysmal. If Nelson does not change his campaign fast, so that he can get those voters excited about him, he will be giving up thousands of gettable votes, as Latinos either stay home or flip to Scott. (V)