Browsing the blog archives for February, 2018.


Bob Mueller Is Still Investigating

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Trump Maladministration

The latest:

Rick Gates done gone and flipped, folks. And he must have flipped good.

The lead Russia investigator asked a federal court in Alexandria, Virginia Tuesday to dismiss a series of criminal charges against Gates, including tax and bank fraud, in exchange for his guilty plea and testimony in the wider probe into the 2016 presidential election.  …

… The additional leniency comes after Gates agreed to a plea deal last Friday with Mueller that stipulates he must cooperate “in any and all matters” that the special counsel’s office decides are “relevant.”

Gates likely can help the government in its prosecution of his longtime business partner Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman who is fighting Mueller’s indictments for money laundering, failing to register as an agent of a foreign government, and bank and tax fraud.

Gates is also expected to provide a wider window for Mueller into the Trump campaign, where he worked as deputy chairman under Manafort and later as a liaison to the Republican National Committee.

But Manafort is still fighting. The Gates news was yesterday; today Manafort pleaded not guilty to some of the charges against him, including some brand new ones.

Manafort and Gates were originally indicted in Washington in October on charges of conspiracy and fraud stemming from their lucrative lobbying work in Ukraine — a case that arose out of Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign and possible ties to the Trump campaign.

second federal indictment charging the pair with new tax and bank fraudcharges related to real-estate loans was lodged against them in Virginia last week.

Soon after, prosecutors announced they had struck a cooperation agreement with Gates, who is a former Trump campaign aide. And hours later, Manafort was hit with new charges in Washington — including an accusation that he secretly recruited and funded a group of former European politicians to lobby in the United States on behalf of Ukraine.

Josh Marshall writes,

Let’s start with one key point: The main deliverable Vladimir Putin wanted from the Trump administration, whatever role he played in the latter’s election, was an end to the punitive sanctions imposed by the US and Europe after the Russian seizure of the Crimean Peninsula and incursions into eastern Ukraine in February 2014. There are many parts of the package Putin wanted and Trump seemed to want to provide, from things as limited as the late 2016 sanctions imposed by President Obama to as maximal and aspirational as the disruption of the NATO alliance. But the end of the 2014 sanctions and the acceptance of Russian sovereignty in Crimea was the core deliverable at the heart of a broader rapprochement or even global US-Russian partnership. That was the big thing Russia wanted and indeed still wants.

Manafort wasn’t simply at the heart of the 2016 election story, he was at the center of this origination point story as well. Manafort’s meal ticket and main client was Viktor Yanukovych, the Russia-aligned President of Ukraine. Yanukovych was driven from power by his inability to manage the cross-cutting fissures in Ukraine, the pulls of Russia and the EU, specifically his decision to reject a deeper association with the EU and swing around to a redoubled bond with Russia. It was Yanukovych’s fall from power and subsequent flight to Russia which at least triggered the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s shadow war in the east. In other words, the fall of Manafort’s client in Ukraine was the triggering event which led to the punitive sanctions the removal of which was the core thing Vladimir Putin was hoping to receive from Donald Trump. That Manafort, who’d been Yanukovych’s political advisor and fixer for a decade would end up running Trump’s campaign is, to put it mildly, remarkable. 

Do read all the juicy details in Josh Marshall’s piece. Note that we have to wait until September for Mueller’s trial. But we’re not done.

Reports are that people being interviewed by Mueller are being asked very pointed questions about what Trump might have known about stolen Democratic Party emails before they were released.

Witnesses who were involved with Trump’s campaign are being asked if the president knew that WikiLeaks was going to publish the stolen emails, according to NBC News. Particular attention has been paid to Trump’s infamous July 2016 public comments at a news conference shortly after WikiLeaks began publishing Democratic National Committee emails.

“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump told reporters at the time.

The investigators are also probing whether Trump had prior knowledge of WikiLeaks’ plans to publish the Democratic emails and why Trump has consistently taken pro-Russia policy positions that have seemingly conflicted with his otherwise hawkish foreign policy views. There have also been questions about the connections between Roger Stone and Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks and a man known to have been compromised by the Russian government. It had already been reported in The Atlantic that Stone exchanged direct messages with WikiLeaks, and in November it came out in The Atlantic that Assange had asked the Trump campaign to be made into Australia’s ambassador to the United States.

Even better, Mueller has taken an interest in Trump’s business dealings in Russia before he began campaigning for president:

Three people familiar with Mueller’s investigation have told CNN’s Kara Scannell, Pamela Brown, Gloria Borger, and Jim Sciutto that the special counsel has started questioning witnesses about Trump’s dealings in Russia — specifically the fate of a Trump Tower in Moscow — and when exactly Trump made the decision to run for president. Mueller may also be digging into whether there’s any compromising information on Trump that might connect the two, one source speculated to CNN. …

…Mueller’s team is trying to pinpoint when Trump became serious about a presidential run, and if it might coincide with any sketchy business dealings. A source told CNN that “a witness told Mueller’s team his impression was that Trump was serious about running back in 2014,” and that Mueller’s team also wanted to know if Russians had visited Trump Tower in New York before 2015. This unnamed witness reportedly said no.

Trump’s 2013 trip to Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant has attracted much attention in the Russia scandal — and the CNN report says that Muller also put it under scrutiny. Investigators are interested in who Trump met with during his time there.

That Russia visit has long been an odd bullet point in the Trump-Russia saga — one that has continued to pop up because the Russian financiers who helped bankroll the pageant helped arrange the infamous 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Don Jr. regarding promised dirt on Hillary Clinton.

The CNN report suggests that Mueller is also interested in the scrapped plans for a Trump Tower in Moscow — both the one in 2013 connected to the Miss Universe pageant and a renewed attempt led by Trump Organization lawyer Michael Cohen in 2015. (Cohen says he ended negotiations in January 2016.)

But wait, there’s more. Recently Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign announced that a fellow named Brad Parscale would be campaign manager. Who is Brad Parscale? The short answer is that he was the guy in charge of digital strategy in the 2016 campaign. “Digital strategy” in this case was mostly about getting word out on social media, especially Facebook. Here’s a December 2017 article by Sean Illing at Vox explaining why this is a big deal.

In June 2016, the Trump campaign hired Cambridge Analytica to take over its data operations.

We know from the reporting of Nicholas Confessore and Danny Hakim at the New York Times that Jared Kushner, who was charged with overseeing Trump’s digital operations, is the reason Cambridge Analytica joined the Trump campaign.

Kushner hired a man named Brad Parscale, a Texas-based digital expert who had worked previously for team Trump. According to Confessore and Hakim, Cambridge Analytica convinced Parscale (who has since agreed to be interviewed by the House Intelligence Committee) to “try out the firm.” The decision was reinforced by Trump’s campaign manager, Steve Bannon, who is also a former vice president of Cambridge Analytica.

It’s not clear to what extent Cambridge Analytica helped (Parscale denied that Cambridge was of any use in a recent 60 Minutes interview), but we do know that Trump’s digital operation was shockingly effective. Samuel Woolley, who heads the Computational Propaganda project at Oxford’s Internet Institute, found that a disproportionate amount of pro-Trump messaging was spread via automated bots and anti-Hillary propaganda. Trump’s bots, they reported at the time of the election, outnumbered Clinton’s five to one.

So there’s more detail about what all these bots were up to, and then …

In early July, Shane Harris of the Wall Street Journal released a series of reports that offered some of the most compelling evidence yet that Trump’s campaign colluded with Russian hackers.

Harris interviewed a man named Peter Smith, a pro-Trump GOP operative who sought to acquire the 30,000 deleted emails from Hillary Clinton’s private server. Of the several hacker groups Smith reached out to, at least two had connections to Russia — that’s according to Smith.

Smith told Harris that he was in regular contact with Gen. Michael Flynn, who at the time was one of Trump’s closest confidants — and of course later became Trump’s national security adviser.

Here’s a key passage from the Harris report, which my Vox colleague Andrew Prokop highlighted at the time:

“He [Smith] said, ‘I’m talking to Michael Flynn about this — if you find anything, can you let me know?’” said Eric York, a computer-security expert from Atlanta who searched hacker forums on Mr. Smith’s behalf for people who might have access to the emails. …

…In phone conversations, Mr. Smith told a computer expert he was in direct contact with Mr. Flynn and his son, according to this expert. … The expert said that based on his conversations with Mr. Smith, he understood the elder Mr. Flynn to be coordinating with Mr. Smith’s group in his capacity as a Trump campaign adviser.

Harris examined intelligence reports that described the efforts of Russian hackers to retrieve emails from Clinton’s server and pass them along to Flynn, who would then share them with the Trump campaign.

By itself, Harris’s reporting makes no connection to Cambridge Analytica. But in August the Associated Press published a report that helped connect the dots. In an amended public financial filing, Flynn was forced to disclose “a brief advisory role with a firm related to a controversial data analysis company that aided the Trump campaign.”

The “data analysis company” is none other than Cambridge Analytica. The precise amount of money Cambridge paid to Flynn is unknown, as are the details of Flynn’s role.

Of course, Jared also in the news for losing his temporary security clearance. He is now downgraded to seeing only “secret,” as opposed to “top secret,” material. That ought to remove him from any further dealings in foreign policy, but we’ll see. See also Charles Pierce.

Trump today is spinning his wheels over the Nunes memo and the phony issue that the FBI and Justice Department somehow stricked a judge into issuing a FISA warrant based on the Steel Dossier. I’ve already discussed this to death here.  Trump is furious at Jeff Sessions for not prosecuting somebody already.

Sessions has responded by saying, “We have initiated the appropriate process that will ensure complaints against this Department will be fully and fairly acted upon if necessary. As long as I am the Attorney General, I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honor, and this Department will continue to do its work in a fair and impartial manner according to the law and Constitution.” It occurs to me that working for Trump is its own punishment.

White House Communications Something Hope Hicks testified before the House Intelligence Committee yesterday, and today she announced she will be resigning. Make of that what you will. White House press official Josh Raffel, who mostly works for Kushner, is leaving also.

And that’s just the stuff that’s happened the past several hours.

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Your Tax Dollars Not at Work

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Trump Maladministration

A couple of stories that explain different parts of the same phenomenon: First, we read at the New York Times that companies are not spending the Trump tax cuts in ways that will help their employees, or the economy.

President Trump promised that his tax cut would encourage companies to invest in factories, workers and wages, setting off a spending spree that would reinvigorate the American economy.

Companies have announced plans for some of those investments. But so far, companies are using much of the money for something with a more narrow benefit: buying their own shares.

Those so-called buybacks are good for shareholders, including the senior executives who tend to be big owners of their companies’ stock. A company purchasing its own shares is a time-tested way to bolster its stock price.

But the purchases can come at the expense of investments in things like hiring, research and development and building new plants — the sort of investments that directly help the overall economy. The buybacks are also most likely to worsen economic inequality because the benefits of stocks purchases flow disproportionately to the richest Americans.

Like nobody saw that coming, huh? The other story, at the Los Angeles Times, is about how Trump’s “reforms” to the Affordable Care Act are costing us more in tax dollars while insuring fewer people. Michael Hiltzik writes,

Those fiscal geniuses in the White House and Republican-controlled Congress have managed to do the impossible: Their sabotage of the Affordable Care Act will lead to 6.4 million fewer Americans with health insurance, while the federal bill for coverage rises by some $33 billion per year.

Also, by the way, premiums in the individual market will rise by an average of more than 18%.

Heck of a job.

 I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again — to Republicans, the purpose of a health care system is to maintain a profitable health care industry. If the Free Market (blessed be It) can’t accomplish that alone, then government will prop it up so that industry CEOs can continue to make more money than God. If, along the way, some people actually receive health care, that’s considered acceptable if it doesn’t eat too much into profits. Perhaps they can write it off as public relations, or something.

One of the Trump “reforms” driving up cost are short-term policies.

 Expansion of short-term non-compliant policies: 2.5 million more Americans without minimum essential coverage. Short-term policies, which were limited under the Obama administration to three months maximum and no renewals, would be expanded under Trump to last up to a year. Under the law, short-term policies don’t count as real Obamacare insurance.

But that’s okay, because the individual mandate has been de-fanged. There’s no penalty for not having pliant insurance any more.

The mechanism by which the GOP policies will crater the individual insurance market isn’t hard to understand. Both major initiatives — eliminating the individual mandate and offering bare-bones policies — siphon younger, healthier consumers out of the individual market. …

…The economically rational response for the healthy in that segment would be to pay $100 or less a month in premiums and barely use any services over the course of the year. The danger, of course, is that anyone can get hit by a bus or find themselves holding an unexpected cancer diagnoses. Then they’re screwed.

Catherine Rampell writes more about this at WaPo:

…next year there will be about 9 million fewer Americans with real health insurance coverage than would have been the case had pre-Trump policies stayed in place, according to a report released Monday by the Urban Institute.

By “real health insurance,” I mean plans that actually cover things — as opposed to plans that just take your money and then, legally, pay few if any claims. (These are sometimes nicknamed “buffalo plans,” because they pay out pretty much only if you get run over by a herd of buffalo.) …

…They don’t, for example, have to be issued to people with preexisting conditions. There also are no federal requirements for what kinds of care they have to cover, or how much of it. If these plans want to take your premium money and then never pay out a dime on prescription drugs or cancer treatments, under federal law, they don’t have to.

And the data show they often don’t, which is why this is such a lucrative business to be in.

If, as expected, younger and healthier people drop “real health insurance” for these scam plans, that would leave a higher concentration of older and sicker people in the regular insurance pool, which of course is expected to drive up premiums a whole lot more. And when premiums go up, taxpayer subsidies have to go up as well. So, fewer people covered, higher government cost.

Of course, the next step will be to get rid of the subsidies. That’s right after they “privatize” Medicare.

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The Gun Problem Is Guns, Especially Semiautomatic Guns

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Trump Maladministration

Predictably, since Trump promised to really truly fix the Gun Problem he has pursued nothing but red herring solutions, namely arming teachers and doing something about “mental health.”

I’ve already written about the widespread but mistaken belief that school shooters are all “mentally ill.” Trump seems to think it would be easy to just round up the “mentally ill” people and lock them up in hospitals.  “We’re going to be talking about mental institutions. And when you have some person like this, you can bring them into a mental institution, and they can see what they can do. But we’ve got to get them out of our communities,” the president said during a meeting at the White House with state and local officials.

I don’t know who he thinks is going to pay for those mental hospitals, but never mind. It wouldn’t work, anyway.

In the 1960s, states across the country began to close or shrink mental hospitals after a series of court decisions that limited the powers of state and local officials to commit people. The decline continued for decades, in part because of cuts in both state and federal budgets for mental health care.

Those institutions housed people with severe mental disorders, like schizophrenia, who were deemed unable to care for themselves. And while spree killers may be angry and emotionally disordered, few have had the sorts of illnesses that would have landed them in hospital custody.

The latest school shooter, Nikolas Cruz, 19, was clearly troubled and making threats, and he was stockpiling weapons. But he had no mental diagnosis. He has been described as angry, possibly depressed, perhaps isolated — not so different from millions of other teenagers.

A full psychiatric evaluation, if he’d had one, might have resulted in a temporary commitment at best, but not full-time institutionalization, experts said.

The idea that more such institutions would prevent this kind of violence “is ridiculous, because you can’t put half the people in the country with a mental disturbance in mental hospitals,” said Dr. Michael Stone, a forensic psychiatrist at Columbia University who has studied mass killers.

It’s also the case that the law put up a lot of barriers to committing people to mental institutions against their will. It used to be too easy to commit people who were more inconvenient than disturbed. Although there’s no question we need much better mental health services in this country, it shouldn’t be the job of the health care system to warehouse people who might be potential criminals. That’s taking us into dystopian “Minority Report” territory.

The quoted article goes into an analysis of recent mass shooters and whether a “mental health” filter would have prevented them from shooting. Most had no known “mental health” issues that would have gotten them hospitalized even overnight. Even the Sandy Hook killer, Adam Lanza, who clearly was not all there, was not considered a candidate for hospitalization after a psychiatric evaluation at the Yale School of Medicine. Most others — including Dylan Klebold, Eric Harris, Elliot Rodger, Dylann Roof, and Stephen Paddock — were angry and anti-social to varying degrees but not suffering anything that would have gotten them hospitalized even overnight. Whether any of them were “mentally ill” and not just maladjusted depends on how you define “mental illness,” actually. The exceptions were Jared Loughner and James Holmes, who were psychotic and who *might* have qualified for commitment, had there been beds available. But you never know.

But let’s look at this from another angle. We are told incessantly that “if you see something, say something.” Apparently a lot of people were saying something about Nickolas Cruz. He was very angry and very anti-social, and had collected several weapons — including an AR-15 and an AK-47 — most of which had been purchased legally. The New York Times has a story about all the warnings about Cruz that people called in to authorities, and it’s chilling stuff. Some of the people warned authorities explicitly that he might shoot up a school. He had an out-of-control temple, was threatening and violent, and he was stockpiling weapons. The signs were crystal clear this guy was dangerous.

But, in the end, there was little law enforcement could do because they had no authority to confiscate his guns.

Yep, until you’ve actually committed a crime, you are officially a law-abiding citizen, and your legally purchased firearms may not be taken from you. It doesn’t matter how angry and threatening you are.

The Associated Press reported this week:

Only five states have laws enabling family members, guardians or police to ask judges to temporarily strip gun rights from people who show warning signs of violence. Supporters of these measures, deemed “red flag laws” or gun-violence restraining orders, say they can save lives by stopping some shootings and suicides.

Florida is not one of those states. The article says that California enacted such a law after Elliot Rodger went on a woman-hating shooting spree. The article identifies Rodger as “mentally ill,” but you can find plenty of mental health experts disputing that. However, it’s a fact that Rodger’s parents called authorities to do something about their son, who had made violent threats online, but when police actually went and talked to him they decided he was harmless. One wonders if the Elliott Rodger law would have stopped Elliot Rodger.

And Adam Lanza’s mother actually encouraged her son to shoot guns, because she thought of shooting as something fun they could do together. She was the first one he killed.

Even so, if the cops could have confiscated Nicholas Cruz’s firearms (assuming they would have, or that he didn’t have a few stashed out of sight) that might have stopped him. So that’s something.

The problems with putting all “mentally ill” people into some database so that they are blocked from purchasing firearms is that (a) this would stop very few mass shooters, and (b) this could discourage people from seeking psychiatric help for fear of ending up in a government database.

Some states are stripping gun rights from people who have been convicted of domestic violence or stalking, both of which are big red flag behaviors. This is a fairly obvious move that should have been done nationwide years ago, but of course the NRA objects.

The NRA’s solution for domestic violence is, of course, to arm women. The problem with this is that when women do eventually shoot and kill an abusive partner, most of the time she’ll get convicted for manslaughter. It’s also the case that in the real world, women are sometimes shot with their own guns. There’s all kinds of data showing than women who live with abusive men are much more likely to be murdered when there’s a gun in the house — no matter who owns it — than if there isn’t. Of course, the obvious solution is to not live with abusive men, but that’s a whole ‘nother issue.

And then there’s arming teachers. The only people who think that’s a good idea are those who learned everything they know about active gunfire situations by watching Fast and Furious movies. Those with real-world hostile gunfire experience — like war veterans and cops — think it’s a terrible idea.

“Shooting under stress is extremely difficult. Even for the most well-trained shooters,” Jay Kirell, an Afghanistan veteran who has written about difficulties veterans face in civilian life, tweeted. “A teacher is not going to be able to do this. Cops & soldiers literally get paid to do this & most of them can’t shoot accurately under stress.”

“Not because they suck, but because it’s nearly impossible to hit a target in one shot when pumped full of adrenaline,” Kirell added. “And if you’re in a school with a shooter and dozens of children, if you’re not shooting accurately you’re just creating crossfire.”

And let’s talk about the practicalities of keeping firearms in classrooms where they will be quickly available to the teacher in case of a shooter in school, but where the students can’t ever get it. Don’t make me laugh. And that’s assuming that the teacher doesn’t have a few screws loose and shouldn’t be trusted with a firearm. Or, what happens when the cops show up at an active shooting situation and see the armed math teacher, who happens to be a black man?

I realize part of the appeal of the “arming teachers” arguments comes from belief in the Magic Firearm that will dissuade shooters just be being there. There is no evidence that shooters choose targets just because they are allegedly “gun free zones.” Several mass shootings — Las Vegas comes to mind — have taken place where guns were completely welcome. And since most mass shooters kill themselves as the police close in, one assumes they aren’t afraid to die.

Let’s review what we’ve covered so far — the solution to the Gun Problem is to lock up “mentally ill” people wholesale whether they’ve been convicted of anything or not. The answer is to report scary people to authorities, who presumably will haul them away. The answer is to turn schools into armed fortresses. The answer is to put the names of mentally ill people into data bases so they can be singled out.

Does anyone else see the pattern here? We’re basically penalizing people wholesale so that a minority of Americans can own and carry any damn fool firearm they want. Why is that?

Now I’m hearing that the gun problem is not a gun problem, because more Americans used to own guns than they do now and there didn’t use to be all these mass shootings. Which is true. The percentage of Americans who own firearms has slowly declined over the years. And I can remember in the 1960s a lot of the boys in my high school owned guns, and no one worried about school shooting. But most of those guns were bolt-action .22 caliber (or not much larger) rifles, which were used mostly to shoot cans and squirrels. They weren’t AR-15s and AK-47s.

Semiautomatic firearms have been available for civilian purchase since the 1960s but were not widely owned until the 1980s, this article says. Ironically, it was a 1989 school shooting that opened the floodgate.

Civilians started to be able to buy the weapons shortly after they were developed for the military, but Chivers argues that doing so was still relatively uncommon. Many American gun-owners didn’t know or didn’t think about the option of owning a semiautomatic weapon.

That changed after a shooting at a Stockton, Calif., elementary school on Jan. 17, 1989, that left 5 dead and 29 wounded.

“Before Stockton, most people didn’t know you could buy those guns,” Chris Bartocci, a former employee of AR-15 manufacturer Colt and author of Black Rifle IItold CNN. He argues that people went out and bought the weapon after reading and hearing the news reports about the school shooting.

The Feb. 6, 1989, TIME cover story tried to make sense of how the gunman got a hold of a Chinese-made semiautomatic weapon in the first place. It reported that as trade increased following the normalization of relations, so did imports of Chinese copies of the AK-47, “which soared from a mere 4,000 a year as recently as 1985-86 to more than 40,000” in 1988. AR-15 sales went up too.

I couldn’t find current numbers on annual sales of semiautomatic weapons, but today semiautos, both long guns and hand guns, are the most popular in terms of sales. (For those of you who are new here and wonder why I’m not talking about automatic weapons, see Know Your Gunz.)

Now, if you listen to the gun, um, enthusiasts, you would think that America’s Freedom depended on nothing else but the ability of private citizens to purchase semiauto firearms. But if we’re waxing nostalgic about what’s changed, and why was it okay for boys to own guns years ago and not now, the difference is technology. It’s the relatively recent proliferation of semiautomatic firearms in private hands in the U.S. that puts us all in danger.

Yes, you can shoot people with bolt-action rifles, too. But not as many people as quickly. And I also think there’s something about the semiautos, especially the ones that look like bad-ass military weapons, that are compelling males with issues to pick them up and shoot them into other human beings. It’s the very act of sending all that metal into flesh that promises catharsis and resolution, somehow. Back in the day, if a young man needed to do something reckless to prove his masculinity and resolve his grievances, he’d harass and assault girls (which isn’t okay, either) or get into fistfights or drive cars too fast (ditto). Acting out Rambo fantasies by shooting up one’s schoolmates is relatively new, but one suspects the fantasy requires a semiauto weapon. A bolt-action .22 caliber rifle just won’t do.

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Today in Criminal Justice News

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Trump Maladministration

By now you’ve heard that yesterday Missouri Governor Eric Greitens was arrested and charged with felony invasion of privacy charges. The Springfield News-Leader says this is a class D felony, and no one expects he will face jail time if convicted. The charges are connected to his affair with his former hairdresser that I wrote about awhile back.

However, David Graham writes for The Atlantic that the FBI is investigating Greitens also, and  there have been hints and grumblings in the local newspapers about campaign finance violations surrounding Greitens. So he may yet get into more trouble.

He has sworn not to resign from office, but today he resigned his position on the executive committee of the Republican Governors Association. Lots of news stories today are referring to him as a one-time rising star of the Republican Party. He was planning to run for POTUS some day, apparently. I guess not.

In other news — Rick Gates just pleaded guilty to conspiracy against the United States. I was under the impression that Mueller had already flipped him, but apparently that wasn’t so; he was only just now flipped.

Dylan Matthews explains the indictment:

So let’s be clear: “Conspiracy against the United States” isn’t what it sounds like. It has nothing to do with foreign actors influencing an election. It certainly has nothing to do with treason, which would require the US and Russia to be actively at war with each other.

The statute, rather, is an extension of the ordinary crime of conspiracy. Basically, Gates has admitted to conspiring to commit offenses against, and to defraud the US government. The offenses involve false statements or misrepresentations of financial and lobbying activity. He is also pleading guilty to a single charge of false statements, but not to other offenses alleged as part of the initial indictment, which should reduce his potential prison sentence.

“The statute defines separate and additional offenses if two or more people enter into an illegal agreement with the intent to engage in criminal conduct, and commit an overt act in furtherance of that agreement,” Lisa Kern Griffin, a professor of law at Duke who specializes in criminal law and criminal procedure, told me last October.

The “two or more people” are, of course, Gates and Paul Manafort, and this all relates to indictments for money laundering efforts that Mueller brought against them for in October. However, I understand that the charges Gates pleaded guilty to were from new indictments, not the same ones from October.

Among other things, we learned today that the pair created a “paper” trail because Manafort didn’t know how to convert PDFs into Word documents. Manafort wanted to falsify company documents but couldn’t figure out how to make changes on a PDF. So he and Gates were emailing files back and forth as Gates did the file conversions and Manafort edited the files.

I guess what we learn from this is “Don’t do the crime if you can’t cough up the $2 a month for the Adobe package that allows you to convert PDF files to Word by yourself.” That may need some work.

See also Tierney Sneed at Talking Points Memo:

The filing by Mueller outlined two counts that prosecutors were bringing against Gates in a “superseding information.” An information typically precedes a plea agreement. Those charges are significantly less than what was in the earlier indictments filed against Gates, suggesting that it is a precursor to Gates pleading guilty in an agreement with Mueller.

The first count is conspiracy against the United States. The second count is for making a false statement. Remarkably the alleged false statement was made by Gates to the Special Counsel’s Office and the FBI on Feb. 1, months after the original indictment was issued, according to the information. That suggests Gates lied in the course of plea negotiations. His lawyers moved to withdraw from the case the same day.

Gates’ apparent decision to cooperate with Mueller followed an unexpected and dramatic path, including a drawn-out effort to switch up his legal team and a new set of charges filed by Mueller that were revealed Thursday evening.

This may tell us why Gates’s lawyers wanted off his case; they knew he was lying.

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Trump Is For and Against Arming Teachers

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Trump Maladministration

Over the past several hours Trump have gone through several cycles of recommending school teachers be armed and then denying that he said school teachers should be armed. But sometimes he has made both claims in the same interview, so the “two Trump” theory doesn’t explain this. Split personality?

For example, on CNN yesterday he said this:

“If you had a teacher who was adept with the firearm, they could end the attack very quickly,” he said, stating that schools could arm up to 20% of their teachers to stop “maniacs” who may try and attack them.
“This would be obviously only for people who were very adept at handling a gun, and it would be, it’s called concealed carry, where a teacher would have a concealed gun on them. They’d go for special training and they would be there and you would no longer have a gun-free zone,” Trump said. “Gun-free zone to a maniac — because they’re all cowards — a gun-free zone is ‘let’s go in and let’s attack because bullets aren’t coming back at us.’ “

Most mass shooters commit suicide as soon as police close in, so the idea that fear of being shot might deter them seems … illogical. But let’s go on. After headlines broke out saying that Trump advocated arming teachers, he threw a fit.

That tweet was followed by these:

So now there are headlines all over the place saying that Trump proposed giving teachers guns and also denies proposing giving teachers guns. Yes, this is not leadership.

The “let’s arm teachers” proposal has been Out There for several years, and so far 18 states have acted on it. Educators are solidly against it. Seems to me that keeping loaded firearms in classrooms poses a greater danger to students than school shooters. It’s also the case that if shooters presume the teacher might be armed, teacher would be shot first.

Education groups argue that schools should instead invest in more school resource officers — trained law enforcement officers who can more effectively respond in a crisis. They believe that having guns in a classroom makes that classroom less safe and that having teachers potentially carrying guns will only make a school shooting more confusing for police trying to stop it.

“There is not a schools person I know who would make this case in any credible manner,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “Anyone who suggests this has no real understanding of what goes on in schools, or worse doesn’t care, and is more focused on the needs of gun manufacturers and the NRA than of children.”

“You’re asking the teacher to have the presence of mind to not only do what her instincts compel her to do, but then find her loaded handgun and get in position … and be a good enough shot — in the middle of all of this — so that she can be the marksperson who then maims or kills the intruder with the rifle,” Weingarten said. “That may work on a movie, but in real life that is not a situation that most people will — even those who have been trained — will be able to do.”

Yep, pretty much.

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On the Right, the Only Good Shooting Victim Is a Dead Shooting Victim

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Trump Maladministration

The Parkland High School students who are organizing to do something about gun violence are now the victims of a right-wing smear campaign.

David Hogg, a student journalist who interviewed students on lockdown during the shooting, made several TV appearances demanding leaders take action. Another student, Emma Gonzalez, called out the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the legislators who do its bidding. Melissa Falkowski, a teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, went on CNN calling on Congress to do more to “to end gun violence, to keep our kids safe.” Lori Alhadeff, whose 14-year-old daughter was killed, screamed at President Trump on CNN to “do something.” Student survivors are organizing a march on Washington D.C..

And now, Parkland survivors are targets for fake news campaigns, conspiracy theories, harassment and doxxing. Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones has already suggested that the entire shooting is a false flag, which implies that all of the survivors are actors in an elaborate hoax. As survivors speak up, there are already attempts to attack and discredit them individually.

Survivor David Hogg has been the target of conspiracy theories since he began speaking out. The day after the shooting, one far-right account noted in a since-deleted tweet that Hogg was suspicious for speaking so eloquently.

Yes, in Trumpworld, being able to speak in complete sentences makes you a suspect. Do go to the link and scroll down to see the sick stuff being repeated about these students.

See also:

Former Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) has joined a growing far-right smear campaign against the students who survived last week’s massacre in a Parkland, Florida high school. …

…Kingston attacked the students as mere stooges for “left-wing groups who have an agenda” during an appearance on CNN Tuesday morning. Kingston added he believed George Soros was actually orchestrating the students’ activism.

Alex Leary, Tampa Bay Times, “Parkland students come under attack for their outspokenness: Critics begin to question their motives.”

This is just sick. But so usual.

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David Brooks: Still Clueless After All These Years

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Trump Maladministration

David Brooks’s latest column advises us gun control advocates that we’ll make better progress toward enacting gun control laws if we stopped being so mean to gun-rights people.

This has been an emotional week. We greet tragedies like the school shooting in Florida with shock, sadness, mourning and grief that turns into indignation and rage. The anger inevitably gets directed at the N.R.A., those who support gun rights, and the politicians who refuse to do anything while children die.

Many of us walked this emotional path. But we may end up doing more harm than good. If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it is that guns have become a cultural flash point in a nation that is unequal and divided. The people who defend gun rights believe that snobbish elites look down on their morals and want to destroy their culture. If we end up telling such people that they and their guns are despicable, they will just despise us back and dig in their heels.

So if you want to stop school shootings it’s not enough just to vent and march. It’s necessary to let people from Red America lead the way, and to show respect to gun owners at all points. There has to be trust and respect first. Then we can strike a compromise on guns as guns, and not some sacred cross in the culture war.

Like the gun owners of Red America haven’t been having their way at every turn for the past several decades; like the gun owners of Red America haven’t put us all on notice that if we so much as make buying guns the least bit inconvenient they’ll use us for target practice; like the Democratic Party for years pretty much even stopped talking about gun control because they’re afraid of the wrath of the NRA?

Let us take a few moment for group incoherent blubbering.

Update: I just found this at Vox:

Over the past few decades, gun ownership in the US has evolved from a practical issue for rural homeowners and hunters to a kind of gesture of tribal solidarity, an act of defiance toward Obama, the left, and all the changes they represent. The gun lobby has become more hardened and uncompromising, pushing guns into schoolschurches, and universities.

This has taken place in the context of a broader and deeper polarization of the country, as Red America and Blue America have become more ideologically homogeneous and distant from one another. The two sides are now composed of people who quite literally think and feel differently — and are less and less able to communicate. The gun issue is a salient example, but far from the only one.

This suggests that if the status quo on guns in the US is to change, it will be through overwhelming political force, not through evidence and argument. Guns have now ascended to the level of worldview and identity, areas largely beyond the reach of persuasion.

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Manafort May Be the Key

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Nunes Memo, Trump Maladministration

Jeremy Stahl wrote at Slate:

The Russians appeared to start to develop a deeper sophistication around U.S. politics in the spring and summer of 2016. This coincided with the same brief period that Manafort was in charge of the Trump campaign. The Russian efforts included purchasing political ads for Trump and against Clinton on social media starting in April, staging pro-Trump rallies and false flag “pro-Hillary” events starting in June, and doing the sort of low stakes political dirty tricks that have been a mainstay of the Republican Party for decades.

For his part, former CIA Director John Brennan speculated on Friday that it would emerge that U.S. persons had actively conspired with the Russians. “While some may have been unwitting, I do think that some individuals maybe were knowledgeable about what they were doing and basically strayed from what they should have been doing,” he told MSNBC.

 If you missed Franklin Foer’s profile of Manafort in The Atlantic, do read it. It’s fascinating. This includes some details on Rick Gates, who has been one of Manafort’s sidekicks for several years. Manafort is an amoral sleazebag of the first order who has sucked up a mega-fortune for himself by out-sleazing other sleazebags, and it’s a wonder to me some mobster didn’t put a hit out on him years ago.
Reports that Bob Mueller has pressured Gates to flip on Manafort has upped the ante in the Trump-Russia investigation. The Guardian reports today:
The Guardian reported in December that the FBI asked officials in Cyprus for financial information about FBME, a defunct bank used by wealthy Russians that has been accused of serving as a money launderer by US financial regulators. FBME has denied all allegations of wrongdoing.

Manafort served relatively briefly as Trump’s campaign manager. He resigned from the campaign in August 2016 following media reports that raised questions about his former work as a lobbyist for pro-Kremlin forces. On the day he resigned, Manafort opened a shell company that received $13m in loans from two businesses with ties to Trump, according to media reports.

Manafort also had business ties to Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch who is close to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

On Friday, new court documents filed by prosecutors alleged that bail documents submitted by Manafort had revealed new alleged criminal conduct involving bank fraud. Prosecutors said that Manafort had obtained a mortgage on a property using fake profit and loss statements, which overstated his income by millions of dollars.

Obviously, Mueller is squeezing Manafort to flip on Trump, and I’ll bet he’ll succeed. If the Russian mob doesn’t get to him first, anyway.

Trump seems to know the walls are closing in:

President Trump lashed out with fresh anger about the intensifying Russia probe over the weekend, accusing Democrats of enabling a foreign adversary to interfere in the 2016 election and attacking the FBI as well as his own national security adviser.

In a defiant and error-laden tweetstorm that was remarkable even by his own combative standards, Trump stewed aloud about the latest indictments brought by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III against Russians for their elaborate campaign to denigrate the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, and push voters toward Trump.

See also:

President Trump began the weekend believing that something good had just happened to him. An indictment leveled against 13 Russians for interfering with the 2016 election had not accused him or anyone around him of wrongdoing. “No collusion” was his refrain.

But once ensconced at his Florida estate on Friday, Mr. Trump, facing long hours indoors as he avoided breezy rounds of golf after last week’s school shooting a few miles away, began watching TV.

The president’s mood began to darken as it became clearer to him that some commentators were portraying the indictment as nothing for him to celebrate, according to three people with knowledge of his reaction. Those commentators called it proof that he had not won the election on his own, a particularly galling, if not completely accurate, charge for a president long concerned about his legitimacy.

Many people have pointed out that the indictments announced Friday pretty much invalidates the infamous Nunes memo. Jennifer Rubin:

Republicans’ clumsy efforts to attack the FISA warrant for Carter Page or to smear Comey don’t matter. House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes’s (R-Calif.) plots and antics and concocted memo are irrelevant. The investigation, at least a good deal of it, rests on facts that are unknown to the House Republicans and are beyond dispute. No Republican is going to stand up to say the indictment is a “hoax” or the allegations against these 13 Russians are “fake.” …

Indeed, Republicans look precisely like the “unwitting” operatives in the indictment who reportedly lent assistance to the Russian operatives. Republicans’ efforts to distract and distort the growing body of evidence make them unwitting (we hope) pawns in the Russians’ efforts to deny their role. (If House Speaker Paul D. Ryan has any political survival skills, now would be a good time for him to yank Nunes off the Intelligence Committee.) And incidentally, Democrats might want to forget about their counter-memo now that the GOP and Nunes have been utterly discredited. They don’t need to stab a corpse.

Trump is so obviously guilty of something that even the terminally clueless Thomas Friedman is connecting the dots:

President Trump is either totally compromised by the Russians or is a towering fool, or both, but either way he has shown himself unwilling or unable to defend America against a Russian campaign to divide and undermine our democracy.

That is, either Trump’s real estate empire has taken large amounts of money from shady oligarchs linked to the Kremlin — so much that they literally own him; or rumors are true that he engaged in sexual misbehavior while he was in Moscow running the Miss Universe contest, which Russian intelligence has on tape and he doesn’t want released; or Trump actually believes Russian President Vladimir Putin when he says he is innocent of intervening in our elections — over the explicit findings of Trump’s own C.I.A., N.S.A. and F.B.I. chiefs.

In sum, Trump is either hiding something so threatening to himself, or he’s criminally incompetent to be commander in chief. It is impossible yet to say which explanation for his behavior is true, but it seems highly likely that one of these scenarios explains Trump’s refusal to respond to Russia’s direct attack on our system — a quiescence that is simply unprecedented for any U.S. president in history. Russia is not our friend. It has acted in a hostile manner. And Trump keeps ignoring it all.

And Manafort could be the key to unraveling the whole mess.  See also “Could Paul Manafort Bring Down the Whole Trump Family” by Bob Dreyfuss, from August 2017.

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Jared and Ivanka Are Buried in Debt

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Trump Maladministration

Let this soak in: Politico reported last week that the debt Jared and Ivanka were carrying on one Visa card dropped from a range of $100,001 to $250,000 down to a range of $50,001 to $100,000. “However, in revisions to the form before it was formally certified by the Office of Government Ethics on Dec. 26, the outstanding debt for the three credit lines was raised to the higher level.”

That’s credit card debt, people. Average interest rates on credit cards is about 15 percent right now, and of course plebians like us pay a lot more, like 20-something percent. People who run up credit card debt like that have financial issues, somehow. Maybe what they call a “cash flow” problem.

This week, we learned that “Jared and Ivanka have gone from cumulative debt of somewhere between $19 million and $98 million to a range of $31 million to $155 million in the last year alone.” And here I would have been telling them they’d better be saving their money, because once the Trump Administration finally goes down their earning opportunities are going to go down with it.

We learned this week that along with his much amended security clearance forms, Jared recently has been correcting his financial disclosure forms.

Jared Kushner quietly filed an addendum to his personal financial disclosure adding even more previously undisclosed business interests in recent weeks — and may have even more to disclose, according to real estate documents shared with TPM.

Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and a top adviser, wrote a letter to White House Deputy Counsel Stefan Passantino dated Jan. 3, 2018 adding a number of additional business interests that had not previously been on his personal financial disclosure form.

That letter, which has not been previously reported, corrects and adds new corporate positions and details of his companies’ structures that he legally was required to disclose, in a seeming attempt to square his filing with spouse Ivanka Trump’s as well as clean up some previously overlooked items.

Also, too:

According to a separate recent update from Ivanka Trump, Kushner appears to have taken out millions more in loans in recent months, a sign that his business may be on the rocks. The couple are currently battling a lawsuit filed in December that accuses them of illegally omitting information for 32 other companies, raising the possibility of hidden conflicts of interest.

Somehow, all those “business interests” must not be generating what we call “income.”

Now, let’s talk about Jared’s lack of a security clearance. Jennifer Rubin wrote,

Kushner met with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, to discuss a secret back channel and with the head of a sanctioned Russian bank, VneshEconomBank (VEB). (“The conversation is curious not only because it represents a top Trump official secretly meeting with an arm of the Russian government, but also because accounts of the meeting differ in important ways,” The Atlantic’s David Graham noted at the time. “Kushner says he attended the meeting in his capacity as an adviser to President-elect Trump. But VEB says that the meeting concerned Kushner’s family real-estate business.”) And he was present at the now-infamous June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower attended by a Kremlin-connected lawyer.

Kushner’s financial problems make these contacts all the more troubling. As he was racking up debt, Fordham Law School professor Jed Shugerman tells me, Kushner “also just coincidentally was setting up secret lines to the Kremlin and was meeting with (Russian President Vladmir) Putin’s banker a month after the election. And he just coincidentally was meeting with Russians offering dirt in Trump Tower during the election.” He explains, “Kushner’s massive debts are an important piece of the entire Russia conspiracy on some of the parties’ motives (Kushner, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and Trump) for such inexplicable behavior and such risk-taking.”

And here is what we call the very obvious “bottom line.”

In sum, Kushner has huge and growing debt, many suspicious Russian contacts and a close relationship (perhaps second only to Ivanka’s) with Trump. “The more money Kushner owes, especially to lenders or guarantors who do not have America’s best interests at heart, the more he and his father-in-law the president are subject to compromising pressures at best and outright blackmail at worst,” constitutional lawyer Larry Tribe tells me. “The fact that Kushner, without full security clearance, is permitted to peruse the president’s daily briefing, containing the most secret information that exists, makes all of Kushner’s financial obligations and debts urgent threats to our national security. This situation is unconscionable.”

Does anyone seriously think that Trump and the Kushners are above compromising American interests to make some money on the side? Of course they aren’t.

See also “Jared Kushner May Soon Be Working at TGI Fridays — If They’ll Have Him.”

When Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump accepted jobs as senior advisers to the president (a.k.a. “Dad”), they allegedly saw the gigs as stepping stones that would one day lead to a scenario in which one of them was president. But if the events of the past week (not to mention the past 15 months!) are any indication, political ascendance is not exactly in the cards for these two. Ivanka, of course, has her #WomenWhoWork hashtag to fall back on. Jared’s prospects, sadly, look less bright. His safety net—Kushner Cos.’s real-estate empire—is rapidly filling with holes, thanks in part to his own industry know-how, which could be charitably described as somewhat lacking.

Remember, neither Jared nor Ivanka have ever actually held jobs.

Speaking of security clearance — let’s look up the food chain a bit to Trump himself. Jonathan Chait writes that there’s a real possibility Trump is being blackmailed by Russia now.

Ronan Farrow’s new story shows that Trump habitually pays for sex. He had an affair with former Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal, and offered her money after sex, which she turned down. At another point in the story, he offered adult entertainer Jessica Drake $10,000 for “her company.”

Farrow’s reporting also implies, without quite establishing as an absolute certainty, that Trump maintained a system for silencing his sexual partners. A network of sleazy operators, sometimes working in conjunction with National Enquirer publisher David Pecker, Trump’s close friend, would pay off women to prevent their stories from seeing the light of day. In any case, previous reporting by The Wall Street Journal has already established that Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, paid at least one of his former mistresses to stay quiet.

So, we know Trump habitually pays for sex, and we also know he is willing to pay to keep embarrassing secrets from going public. That is to say, these secrets could be leveraged against him.

This renders the sleazier allegations from the Steele Dossier a lot more credible, Chait writes. Of course, even if they aren’t true, there’s a huge possibility that Trump has financial secrets Putin knows about and America doesn’t.

But I bet Bob Mueller will sniff them out, if he hasn’t already …

But certainly the Russian blackmail theory explains why Trump steadfastly refuses to do anything about Russia. See “Trump’s Conspicuous Silence Leaves a Struggle Against Russia Without a Leader.”

See also “Mueller levels new claim of bank fraud against Manafort.”

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Kill the Chicago Myth

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Trump Maladministration
I’m already seeing the gun nuts trot out the old myth that Chicago has the nation’s strictest gun control laws and the highest rates of gun violence. Neither statement is true.
 
Chicago used to have stricter gun control laws, but its 1982 ban on handguns was struck down by the courts in 2010. Illinois’s concealed carry ban was struck down two years later, and this applied to Chicago as well. Now its gun control laws are pretty standard, for the U.S.
 

Chicago does not have the strictest gun laws in the country. It’s time for gun lovers to stop spreading that lie.

A decade ago that was indeed a title Chicago wore proudly. We were the only major city that still had an ordinance banning residents from keeping a handgun in their home.

The handgun ban made us the primary target of the National Rifle Association and the Second Amendment Foundation, and in 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court forced Chicago to fall into line with the rest of the country.

Since then, the courts have peeled off so many layers of our once stellar gun ordinance that it’s barely recognizable. We’re still maneuvering to keep gun stores and shooting ranges from opening in the city limits. But the courts have ruled against us on that, too, so we know it’s just a matter of time.

So much for the nation’s strictest gun control laws (I believe that honor actually goes to New York City, which also has a much lower rate of gun violence than most other U.S. major cities).
 
But what about Chicago’s awful gun violence rate? Chicago has a lot of gun violence, that’s true. And if you look at raw numbers, Chicago does have more shooting victims than other cities. But Chicago also has more people than most other cities. When you look at the data adjusted for population — killings per 100,000 residents — a different story unfolds, and Chicago falls way down the list. For many years the honor of most gun killings per capita has been held by New Orleans. I understand St. Louis is currently #2, having overtaken Detroit in recent years. Then we’ve got Baltimore, Oakland, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Memphis, Buffalo, District of Columbia, Stockton, Miami, Milwaukee, and Pittsburgh. Then comes Chicago. New York — you know, the place that really does have tough gun control laws — isn’t in the top 20 at all.
 
So please, people, every time you see somebody spread the lie about Chicago gun laws and gun violence, set them straight. Thanks much.
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