From Russia with Donald Trump

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As of 2018, we don’t know whether the Trump campaign willingly colluded with Russia in its efforts to undermine the 2016 election. But we do know that Russia hacked into DNC emails and spread fake news propaganda on social networks to help Donald Trump. We know the Russians wanted Trump to win and did whatever they could to accomplish that. We know the Trump campaign was at least okay with the Russian hacking and efforts. Hell, one Trump campaign official even drunkenly bragged about the Russians hacking into Hillary Clinton’s emails. And we know that several Trumpworld figures have corresponded with Russian hackers, Russian oligarchs, and people with ties to the Russian government. Furthermore, Trump has praised Russian President Vladimir Putin in his speeches, even when he’s every opportunity to criticize the Kremlin dictator. Though collusion hasn’t been proven, what we do know of Trumpworld’s connections with Russia gives us a reasonable case for Robert Mueller to investigate.

On November 9, 2016, just a minutes after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, a man named Vyacheslav Nikonov made a very unusual statement in the Russian State Duma. “Dear friends, respected colleagues!” he said. “Three minutes ago, Hillary Clinton admitted her defeat in US presidential elections, and a second ago Trump started his speech as an elected president of the United States of America, and I congratulate you on this.” Since Nikonov is the leader of the pro-Putin United Russia Party, his announcement that day was a clear signal that Trump’s victory was a victory for Putin’s Russia.

Longtime journalist Craig Unger has attempted to gather all the evidence we have of Donald Trump’s connections to the Russian mafia and government and lay it all out in a clear, comprehensive narrative in his book, House of Trump, House of Putin: The Untold Story of Donald Trump and the Russian Mafia. Though the book claims to tell the “untold story,” it’s not entirely unclear of how much is new. Because like a lot of the skeletons in Trump’s gilded closet, one of the hardest things to accept about the Trump-Russia saga is how transparent it is. In fact, so much evidence hides in plain sight, and somehow that’s made it more difficult to accept. In his book, Unger names 59 Russians as Trump business associates and follows the purported financial links between them and the Trump Organization, going back decades. Many of them are quite shady. Although Unger doesn’t provide any evidence that Trump gave Russia anything concrete in return for their help, the case he makes for how much potential leverage the Russians have over Trump is damning. In fact, Unger thinks Russia’s use of Trump constitutes “one of the greatest intelligence operations in history,” as he puts in his book.

As Craig Unger claims. what most Americans don’t understand is that the Russian mafia is different from the American mafia. While American crime syndicates are often targets for FBI investigation, the mafia is essentially a state actor in Russia. When asked about the mafia, former KGB Russian counterintelligence operations Gen. Oleg Kalugin told Unger, “Oh, it’s part of the KGB. It’s part of the Russian government.” In Russia, there’s no Wall Street or anything like Goldman Sachs. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, rich gangsters and government officials were able to privatize and loot state-held assets in coal, oil, minerals, and banking. In Vladmir Putin’s Russia, criminal syndicates have become increasingly intertwined with its intelligence services, blurring the line between mafia dons and spies. In fact, Russia expert Mark Galeotti would agree with Unger since he wrote in his book, The Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia that Putin’s Kremlin consolidated power by “not simply taming, but absorbing, the underworld.” Putin didn’t care what these gangsters did as long as they strengthened his power and personal financial interests. Since the 1990s, its estimated that some $1.3 trillion has flowed out of Russia.

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Semion Mogilevich is one of the richest and most influential gangsters in the world. Known as the ultimate Russian mob boss, he may not have any direct connection to Donald Trump. But many of his associates and underlings do.

One of the key mob bosses is the squat Ukranian Semion Mogilevich. In Russia, he’s a big time Russian crime boss with a multibillion empire and a wide range of crimes that will make Al Capone look like an inept convenience store robber. According to the FBI, Mogilevich started out as the key money-laundering contact for the Solntsevskaya Bratva, or Brotherhood, one of the richest criminal syndicates in the world. Craig Unger believed that he could’ve been the CEO of Goldman Sachs if he was born in America. The FBI considers Mogilevich the “boss of bosses” of the Russian mafia who’s even feared by his fellow gangsters as “the most powerful mobster in the world.” He’s run drug trafficking rings at an international scale. He’s used a jewelry business in Moscow and Budapest as a front for art that Russian gangsters stole from museums, churches, and synagogues all over Europe. He’s even been accused of selling $20 million in stolen weapons to Iran. From what the FBI has on him, Mogilevich has laundered money through more than 100 front companies around the world and held bank accounts in at least 27 countries. Mogilevich is famous for designing elaborate financial schemes that are extremely difficult, even possible to detect. Since the planning and setup can take years and involve a wide range of people in various positions of power whose roles/identities are sometimes never discovered. In Russia, his influence reaches all the way to the top. Ex-Russian spy, Alexander Litvinenko said in an interview with investigators in 2005, “Mogilevich have good relationship with Putin since 1994 or 1993.” A year later Litvinenko was dead, suspiciously poisoned by Kremlin agents. Many of the Russian mobsters who bought units from Donald Trump have ties to this man.

According to Craig Unger, it probably all began as a money-laundering operation with the Russian mafia. After all, anyone who’s known about Donald Trump for a long time knows that he likes doing business with gangsters. Partly because they pay top dollar and loan money when traditional banks won’t. Essentially, for more than 30 years Trump was working with the Russian mafia. He profited from them. They rescued and bailed him out, taking him from being $4 billion in debt to becoming a multibillionaire again. And they fueled his political ambitions. And since Trump had worked with the Russian mafia, he was in bed with the Kremlin as well, whether he knew it or not.

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This is a chart of the Russian-linked and notorious criminals who lived and worked at Trump Tower. Since the place has been the HQ for money laundering operations and more. Helps that during the 1980s, it was the only high-rise to accept anonymous buyers.

To Craig Unger’s knowledge, the very first documented episode he could find was in 1984 when a man named David Bogatin met with Donald Trump in Trump Tower right after it opened since it was the only high-rise in New York City at the time to accept anonymous buyers. Now Bogatin is a Russian mobster, convicted gasoline bootlegger, and close ally of major Russian mob boss and king of money launderers Semion Mogilevich. Anyway, Bogatin came to that meeting prepared to spend $6 million which is equivalent to $15 million today. At that meeting, he bought 5 condos, which the Kremlin later seized on claims they were used to launder money for the Russian mob. We don’t exactly know what was in Trump’s head at the time or what he knew. But Unger has documented 1,300 transactions of this kind with Russian mobsters. These real estate transactions were all cash purchases made by anonymous shell companies that were obviously fronts for criminal money-laundering operations. By the early 2000s, 1/3 of the buyers of Trump Tower’s most expensive condos were either Russia-linked shell companies or individuals from the former Soviet Union. In Florida, about 63 Russian buyers spent at least $98 on Trump properties while another 1/3 of the units were bought by shell companies. Since this represents a large chunk of Trump’s real estate activity in the United States, it’s difficult to argue he had no idea what was going on. Aside from Bogatin, there’s his brother Yakov, who was involved in an elaborate stock fraud with Mogilevich. Two of Trump’s Sunny Isles buyers Anatoly Golubchik and Michael Sall were convicted of taking part in a massive international gambling and money laundering syndicate run out of the New York Trump Tower.

Another Trump buyer was an Uzbek mob-connected diamond dealer named Eduard Nektalov. At the time, Nektalov was under investigation by a Treasury Department task force for mob-connected money laundering. He bought a condo in midtown Manhattan’s Trump World Tower on the 79th floor, directly below Kellyanne Conway. A month later, he sold his unit for $500,000 profit. The next year after rumors circulated of him cooperating with federal investigators, Nektalov was gunned down on Sixth Avenue.

In 1991, Semion Mogilevich paid a Russian judge to spring fellow mob boss Vyachelsav Kirillovich Ivankov, from a Siberian gulag. In Russia, Ivankov was infamous for torturing his victims and boasting about murders he arranged. After his release, Ivankov headed to New York City on an illegal business visa. Once there, he bought a Rolls Royce dealership to use “as a front to launder criminal proceeds.” One of Ivankov’s partners in the operation was Felix Komarov, an upscale art dealer who lived in Trump Plaza on Third Avenue. After receiving a briefcase filled with $1.5 million in cash, over the next 3 years, Ivankov oversaw the mob’s growth from a local extortion racket to a multibillion dollar enterprise. According to the FBI, he recruited 2 “combat brigades” of Special Forces veterans from the Soviet war in Afghanistan to run the mafia’s protection racket and kill his enemies. Feds later found out that Ivankov made frequent visit to Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where Russian gangsters routinely laundered huge sums of money. So much that it was repeatedly cited by the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network for having inadequate money-laundering controls. And in 2015, was fined $10 million and admitted for having “willfully violated” anti-money-laundering regulations for years. The also found that he lived in a luxury condo at Trump Tower. Though despite being Donald Trump’s neighbor, there’s no evidence they knew each other personally. But the fact a top Russian mafia boss lived and worked in Trump’s building shows just how much high-level Russian gangsters saw Trump’s properties as a home away from home.

Then there’s Russian mob leader Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov who ran an entire gambling and money-laundering network out of Unit 63A at Trump Tower (which is 3 floors below Donald Trump’s residence). In fact, Tokhtakhounov was a VIP attendee at Trump’s 2013 Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow just 7 months after the FBI busted his gambling rings and rounded up 29 suspects. The operation, which prosecutors called “the world’s largest sports book,” was run out of Trump Tower condos, including the building’s whole 51st floor. In addition, Unit 63A served as “sophisticated money-laundering scheme” moving an estimated $100 million out of the former Soviet Union, through shell companies in Cyprus, and into investments in the United States. According to the federal indictment, the money launderers paid Tokhtakhounov $10 million. A decade earlier, Tokhtakhounov was indicted for conspiring to fix the ice-skating competition at the 2002 Winter Olympics and was the only suspect to avoid arrest.

Russian mobsters and oligarchs also had ties to some of Donald Trump’s other properties outside the United States. In November 2017, NBC News reported Trump’s Panama hotel had ties to organized crime. While a Russian state-owned bank under US sanctions helped finance the construction of the 65-story Trump International Hotel and Tower in Toronto. And in December 2016, Jared Kushner met with that bank’s CEO. Since this represents a large chunk of Trump’s real estate activity in the United States, it’s difficult to argue he had no idea what was going on.

But how did Donald Trump become a “person of interest” to the Russians over 30 years ago, before his ascent to the presidency was even fathomable? It’s actually not as strange as it seems. First of all, Russians have always wanted to align with certain powerful businessman. Nor was Trump the only guy they targeted. For the Russians have a history going back to the American businessman Armand Hammer during the 1970s-80s who they turned into an asset. In fact, Russia had hundreds of agents and assets in the US. According to Gen. Kalugin, the US was a paradise for spies and they had recruited roughly 300 agents and assets in the country. Trump was one of them.

Nor were Russian operations just limited to money laundering for there was a parallel effort to seduce Donald Trump. Sometime in 1986, Russia’s ambassador to the US, Yuri Dubinin visited Trump in Trump Tower, said that his building was “fabulous,” suggested that he should build one in Moscow, and they arranged for a trip to the Russian capital. According to Gen. Kalugin, this was likely the first step in the process to recruit and compromise Trump, which they probably succeed with flying colors. Since Trump is a sucker for flattery. So we shouldn’t be the least surprised if the Russians have compromising materials on Trump’s Moscow activities. Since they’re very good at acquiring compromising stuff on just about anyone. Not that it would be hard for them.

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Here’s a picture of Donald Trump with Tevfik Artif and Felix Sater. Artif would be busted for running a prostitution ring on his boat in Turkey. While Sater served as an informant while doing his Russia-linked dirty deeds to avoid prison time for racketeering.

Though we don’t have evidence whether such compromising material on Donald Trump’s Moscow activities exists and Craig Unger has tried but couldn’t find any corroboration from several people who assured him it does. But that’s all beside the point. Since Unger believes that the real evidence is already out there in the form of the Bayrock Group, a real estate development company located on Trump Tower’s 24th floor. The founder was a Kazakh man named Tevfik Arif while the managing director was Felix Sater. In 2005, Bayrock proceeded to partner with Trump and helped him develop a new business model he desperately needed. Because Trump was $4 billion in debt after his Atlantic City casinos went bankrupt that he couldn’t get a bank loan from anywhere in the West. Bayrock came in with a new business model that says, “You don’t have to raise any money. You don’t have to do any of the real estate development. We just want to franchise your name, we’ll give you 18 to 25 percent royalties, and we’ll effectively do all the work. And if the Trump Organization gets involved in the management of these buildings, they’ll get extra fees for that.” Apparently, Trump found the idea fabulously lucrative. Meanwhile, the Bayrock associates (particularly Sater) operated out of Trump Tower as well as constantly flew back and forth to Russia. In his book, Unger detailed several channels through which various people at Bayrock have close ties to the Kremlin. While he talked about Sater’s trips to Moscow even as late as 2016, hoping to build Trump Tower there.

Yet, Bayrock and its deals became quickly mired in controversy. First, Forbes and other publications reported that the company was financed by a notoriously corrupt group known as the Trio. In 2010, Turkish prosecutors arrested Tevfik Arif on charges of setting up a prostitution ring after found aboard his boat with 9 young women, 2 of whom were 16 years old. He was later acquitted since the women refused to talk. That same year, 2 former Bayrock executives filed a lawsuit alleging Artif started a firm “backed by oligarchs and money they stole from the Russian people.” In addition, the suit alleged Bayrock “was substantially and covertly mob-owned and operated.” According to them, the company’s real purpose was to develop expensive properties bearing the Trump brand and use the projects to launder money and evade taxes. Though the suit doesn’t claim that Donald Trump was complicit in the scam, The Financial Times found that Trump SoHo had “multiple ties to an alleged international money-laundering network.” In one case, a former Kazakh energy minister is being sued in federal court for conspiring to “systematically loot hundreds of millions of dollars of public assets” before purchasing three condos in Trump SoHo to launder his “ill-gotten funds.”

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Donald Trump has often denied his association with Felix Sater. Yet, in reality, the two have been quite close as this business card shows.

During his collaboration with Bayrock, Donald Trump became close to the man who ran the firm’s daily operations, Felix Sater. Sater had numerous ties to Russian oligarchs and Russian intelligence. His father was a boss for Semion Mogilevich who was convicted for extorting local restaurants, grocery stores, and a medical clinic. Sater tried making it as a stockbroker. But his career came to an end in 1991 when he stabbed a Wall Street foe in the face with a broken margarita glass during a bar fight, opening wounds requiring 110 stitches. He then lost his trading license over the attack and served a year in prison. In 1998, Sater pleaded guilty to racketeering on grounds of operating a “pump and dump” stock fraud partnership with alleged Russian mobsters that bilked investors of at least $40 million. To avoid prison time, Sater turned informer. But according to documents from the lawsuit against Bayrock, he also resumed “his old tricks.” By 2003, the suit alleges, Sater controlled the majority of Bayrock shares and proceeded to use the firm to launder hundreds of millions of dollars while skimming and extorting millions more. In addition, the suit claimed that Sater committed fraud by concealing his racketeering and that he threatened “to kill anyone at the firm he thought knew of the crimes committed there and might report it.”

By Felix Sater’s account in sworn testimony, he was very tight with Donald Trump. He flew to Colorado with him. He accompanied Donald Jr. And Ivanka on a trip to Moscow at Trump’s invitation. And he met with Trump’s inner circle “constantly.” In Trump Tower, he often dropped by Trump’s office to pitch business ideas. Trump and his lawyers claim he wasn’t aware of Sater’s checkered past when he signed on to do business with Bayrock. This is plausible since Sater’s plea deal in the stock fraud was kept secred due to his role as an informant. But even after The New York Times revealed Sater’s criminal record in 2007, Sater kept using office space provided by the Trump Organization. In 2010, he received a Trump Organization business card reading: FELIX H. SATER, SENIOR ADVISOR TO DONALD TRUMP. As of 2017, Sater apparently remains close to Trump’s inner circle. One week before National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was fired for failing to report meetings with Russian officials, Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen hand-delivered a “back channel plan” for lifting sanctions on Russia to Flynn’s office. According to the Times, the co-author was Felix Sater.

Nonetheless, like many of Donald Trump’s business projects, his deals with Bayrock didn’t bear fruit. International projects in Russia and Poland never materialized. A Trump Tower being built in Ft. Lauderdale ran out of money before completion, leaving behind a massive concrete shell. Trump SoHo was ultimately foreclosed and resold. But Trump’s Russian investors left him with a high-profile property he could leverage since he and Ivanka are still listed as managers. And it’s said he made $3 million from it in 2015.

But is there any evidence that Donald Trump actively sought out Russian money by making clear that his businesses could be used to hide ill-gotten gains? According to Craig Unger, it’s difficult to say. Because he’s not sure if Trump had to. From how the Russian mob transactions took place, Trump didn’t have to say anything. After all, the Trump Organization was desperate for money and knew the caliber of people they were dealing with. So they were either okay with this or deliberately chose not to do their due diligence. Other real estate developers may do this as well, but they usually don’t become president of the United States.

Donald Trump seems much more motivated by money than political ideology. But was his drift into politics in any way influenced by his financial entanglements? There’s no clear answer. Yet, Craig Unger told Vox one weird anecdote about Trump’s first wife, Ivana, whom he married in 1977. Apparently, Czech secret police had started following her and her family in the late 1980s and one of their files said that Trump was being pressured to run for president. But what does that mean? Who was pressuring him and why? How were they applying the pressure? And did it have anything to do with potentially compromising materials the Russians had on Trump during his 1987 trip to Moscow? What we do know is that when Trump returned from his first Moscow trip, he took out full-page ads in the Washington Post, New York Times, and Boston Globe which pushed anti-European and anti-NATO views that were aligned with the Soviet plan to destroy the Western alliance. Whether he always believed such things or not, it’s worth noting.

Now Craig Unger didn’t go to Russia for obvious reasons given how Vladimir Putin tends to murder critical reporters. But most of what he found out came from public sources, which is stunning. One of his sources tipped him off on the high-ranking Russian mob boss Semion Mogilevich, whom he had never heard of before. He’s even been accused of selling $20 million in stolen weapons to Iran. Anyway, that led Unger to an online database revealing home ownership in the state of New York, along with purchases and sales. So he went to the Trump properties. Every time Unger found a Russian name, he’d research it. He’d take their name and Mogilevich in Google and as he told Vox, “it was like hitting the jackpot on a slot machine, time after time after time.” Among the Russians Unger found on the Trump property listings, there were countless people either indicted on money laundering or gunned down on Sixth Avenue. He also found a huge percentage with criminal histories, which sort of got him started. He also had a research assistant who spoke Russian and helped him break the language barrier for him.

But does Craig Unger’s book about Donald Trump and Russia offer anything new? Well, the insights Unger gained from Gen. Kalugin were completely new. Yet, most of what he did was compile what was out there but haven’t been pieced together. For instance, he found a lot of the Russian-connected stories published in the crime pages of the New York Post and the New York Daily News. These were just straight-up crime stories you’d see in a tabloid. After all, Americans don’t think crime stories involving the Russian mob would have any geopolitical implications or forces behind it. Nevertheless, many of these seemingly random Russian crime stories appearing in the tabloids again and again was connected to a much larger operation ensnaring Trump and the people around him.

Still, even if Donald Trump has no idea how many deals he and his businesses made with Russian investors, he certainly didn’t “stay away” from Russia. After all, he and his organization have aggressively promoted his business there for decades, seeking to entice investors and buyers for some of his most high-profile developments. Whether he knew it or not, Russian mobsters and corrupt oligarchs used his properties not only to launder vast sums of money from extortion, drugs, gambling, and racketeering, but even as a base for their criminal activities. In the process, they propped up Trump’s business and enabled him to reinvent his image. Without the Russian mafia, Trump wouldn’t be president of the United States.

However, if Donald Trump is a Russian asset, he’s not the only one targeted. During the 1980s and 1990s, the US government saw a pattern by which criminals used condos to launder money. As former Clinton official Jonathan Winer told The New Republic, “It didn’t matter that you paid too much, because the real estate values would rise, and it was a way of turning dirty money into clean money. It was done very systematically, and it explained why there are so many high-rises where the units were sold but no one is living in them.” One of the things Craig Unger’s book shows is that there’s a new kind of global war going on in which the weapons are information, data, social media, and financial institutions. The Russian mafia is only one weapon in this global conflict and the Russians have been smartly fighting it since the fall of the Soviet Union. The Russians start businesses and front companies and commodities firms appearing legitimate but essentially work to advance the Russian state’s interests. Many of today’s Russian oligarchs seek to portray themselves as unremarkable businessmen, preferring that their life-and-death struggles for riches in the 1990s fade into history. Yet, as their influence in the west grows, it becomes more important to understand any links to the authoritarians and kleptocrats back home. The Russians are very good at getting people financially entangled and then using that leverage to get what they want. This appears what the Russians have done with Trump and now he’s president. As former top official Elsie Bean told The Financial Times, “Russia has long been associated with dirty money. Anyone getting substantial funds originating in the former Soviet Union should have known that the funds were high risk and required a careful due diligence review to ensure the money was clean.”

Nonetheless, the most troubling part of all this is that the Russians simply exploited our own corrupt system. The studied our pay-to-play culture, found its weak spots, and very carefully manipulated it. As long as our culture remains unchanged, we should expect this kind of exploitation. Sometimes the worst part about a scandal is what’s legal. The Russians studied our campaign system and campaign finance law and masterfully exploited it. They’ve used pharmaceutical companies, energy companies, and financial institutions to pour money into politics. And we really have no idea the extent of their influence. Vladimir Putin may be right in his insistence that American democracy is also corrupt while he’s showing us exactly how screwed up it is. Donald Trump is just the most glaring example. But there are others, most of who we don’t know anything about.

Whether you believe Donald Trump is owned by the Russian mob or not, Craig Unger presents a compelling case in his book. Though some of his statements in issues might read like conspiracy theories, but so much of it makes a lot of sense. Besides, Unger isn’t the only guy who thinks the Russian mafia owns Trump. Nor Trump is the only prominent figure with shady Russian ties as you can see within his administration. Nor is the Trump Organization the only entity. Trump’s longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen had an uncle who owned a Brooklyn catering hall called El Caribe, which “for decades was the scene of mob weddings and Christmas parties,” and housed offices of “two of New York’s most notorious Russian mobsters.” Then there’s the matter with the NRA receiving money from 23 Russian donors during the 2016 campaign. Not to mention, Rep. Dana Rohrbacher was considered “Putin’s favorite congressman” long before Trump ran for president and was instrumental in killing some critical anti-Russian legislation. Thankfully, he’s lost to a Democrat this year. We may not know whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia or the full extent of the Trump-Russian relationship. But as with many aspects of Trump’s business practices, what we know is damning. There is no doubt that Trump has taken Russian money. And when Trump receives millions of dollars from someone, he’s more likely to be beholden to them. But that doesn’t mean Trump is loyal to them, because he’s just as likely to drop his Russian backers once they prove no longer useful. Since Trump’s true loyalty is only to himself. So we must be concerned.

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The Coming Saturday Night Massacre

There are times when moments you long wait for don’t always taste so sweet as you’d think they would be. On November 7, 2018, Donald Trump asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign, ending the longtime Alabama senator’s nearly 2 years running the Department of Justice. Now you’d think this would be a good thing. After all, Sessions is so racist that Coretta Scott King wrote a letter to the US Senate not to confirm him as a federal judge during the 1980s. And as attorney general, Sessions pulled back federal oversight of local police departments. He’s moved to prosecute anyone who illegally crosses the US-Mexico border, regardless of the conditions they’re facing back home, while pushing immigration judges to take on more deportation cases. And he’s even rescinded previous limitations on harsh mandatory minimum prison sentences for low-level drug offenses, and asked prosecutors to consider the death penalty in some drug trafficking cases. Furthermore, Sessions was an early Trump ally and a true believer with his boss on practically every single issue the Justice Department oversees whether it’s policing, immigration, prisons, or voting rights, all of which make up key parts of Trumpism. And because he so much embodied Trumpism is why I am happy to see him go. And it’s deliciously ironic that Trump removed one of his most loyal foot soldiers, which could imperil many parts of Trump’s agenda.

However, despite how it’s a spectacular blow to Trumpism, we shouldn’t celebrate Jeff Sessions’ firing. In fact, we should be very alarmed by it since the reason for his ouster is quite scary. In Donald Trump’s eyes, the ousted attorney general committed an unforgivable sin and act of betrayal that saw his ouster as a long time coming. For months, Trump has expressed anger which has prompted repeated questions about how long the attorney general would last. After all, Sessions has previously offered to resign at least once, which Trump refused to accept. But he’s also become Trump’s punching bag who’s had to endure tons of abuse all because he recused himself from the probe into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, when it came out he had met with then- Russian ambassador to the US, Sergei Kislyak. This set the stage for the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein who has repeatedly declined to fire him even at Trump’s request. Trump has also complained that Sessions wasn’t sufficiently loyal because, since then he’s failed to prevent Mueller from indicting a growing number of Trump confidantes and targeting others. Trump’s anger also transferred another gripe that Sessions wouldn’t investigate connections between Hillary Clinton and Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign. And in February 2018, Trump complained that Sessions wouldn’t corroborate his unfounded belief in the existence of a widespread conspiracy theory, led by federal law enforcement personnel to undermine his candidacy during the 2016 presidential election. Because Trump believes that the FBI tricked the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) to surveil former campaign member, Carter Page, based on a Democrat-connected Steele dossier. Yet, none of this is true. For one, the FBI investigation into the Trump campaigns Russian connections began when Trump aide George Papadopoulos drunkenly bragged about getting Clinton dirt from the Russians to an Australian ambassador. Second, surveilling Page was justified with ample evidence beyond the so-called “Steele Dossier” and was renewed several times by appointed judges all appointed by GOP presidents and selected for FISC duty by Chief Supreme Court Justice John Roberts. Because they deemed the ongoing surveillance as fruitful. Now Mueller is currently investigating whether Trump’s alleged efforts to push Sessions out formed part of an endeavor to obstruct the probe, which would be a potentially criminal offense.

Now when a cabinet member resigns, you’d normally expect the Department No. 2 to take over in an acting capacity until a president hires a permanent replacement. In Sessions’ case, that should be Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. But Trump hates him since he’s overseeing the Mueller probe, has refused to fire Mueller, and doesn’t really care much about politics. So Trump tweeted that Sessions’ chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker would take over as acting DOJ head and will oversee the Mueller probe for the time being. Still, the fact he could either let Mueller do what he’s doing, curtail, or shut down the investigation should concern you. After all, Whitaker’s name cropped up in September as a replacement for Rosenstein when he appeared on the verge of getting fired himself. A former Iowa attorney, he’s the “eyes and ears” in the Justice Department, according to the New York Times. He’s also a fiscal and social conservative who unsuccessfully ran for the US Senate in 2014. Yet, what’s the most disturbing about Whitaker is that he was paid to sit on the advisory board of World Patent Marketing, which was ordered to pay a $26 million following federal legal action on allegations it tricked aspiring inventors into paying thousands of dollars to obtain patents and licensing deals for their inventions. As federal authorities noted, they “failed to fulfill almost every promise they make to consumers.” According to court filings, Whitaker received payments of $1,875 from the Florida-based company and sent a threatening email to a scam victim who complained to the Better Business Bureau, where he cited his former role as a federal prosecutor.

Still, why would Donald Trump tap in Matthew Whitaker as a temporary replacement for Jeff Sessions? Because while Whitaker aligns with Trump and Sessions on issues regarding crime and immigration, he comes with an added perk of having criticized the Mueller probe. In fact, Whitaker has expressed skepticism about the Mueller probe before joining the Trump administration as Sessions’ chief of staff in the fall of 2017. In August he wrote a CNN op-ed blasting the investigation which stated, “Mueller has come up to a red line in the Russia 2016 election-meddling investigation that he is dangerously close to crossing. If he were to continue to investigate the [Trump family’s] financial relationships without a broadened scope in his appointment, then this would raise serious concerns that the special counsel’s investigation was a mere witch hunt.” In July of that year, he appeared on CNN offering his own take on how an acting attorney general could sideline Mueller. He said, “I could see a scenario where Jeff Sessions is replaced with a recess appointment and that attorney general doesn’t fire Bob Mueller, but he just reduces his budget to so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt.” Beyond this Mueller scrutiny, Whitaker has publicly lambasted Hillary Clinton. While serving head of the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, a right-leaning organization criticizing Democrats on ethics matters, Whitaker said in May 2017 that Clinton should be “extremely grateful” she wasn’t prosecuted for having a private email server. 3 months later, he wrote for The Hill that Clinton’s Ukraine connections were “worth exploring.” And let’s just say when a man dips into Clinton conspiracy theories, you know he shouldn’t be running the Justice Department.

But the truth is with Donald Trump firing Jeff Sessions and replacing him with loyalist Matthew Whitaker should literally scare the shit out of us. Indeed, Sessions was a terrible attorney general and an unapologetic racist sack of shit who’s been rolling back Americans’ civil rights. Granted, I don’t like the guy at all and part of me wants to feel glad to see him go. But while he’d do anything for Trump’s love, there were certain lines he wouldn’t cross. And it’s because Sessions wouldn’t cross them that he’s no longer attorney general. Nonetheless, Sessions’ firing should inspire the same surprise and anger on the level of May 2017’s James Comey firing as head of the FBI, which much of Washington treated as a serious crisis in American democracy. Because both cases have Trump nakedly assert power over an investigation’s direction while sacking people to block oversight into his own conduct.

However, this time, the panic is more muted. While Democrats and some Never Trumpers are objecting, Jeff Sessions’ firing doesn’t have the same earth-shattering impact the Comey firing did. And the fact Donald Trump has been signaling this move for awhile normalized it, routinized it, and made it thinkable. It probably didn’t help he did it the day after Democrats won control of Congress in the midterms. Yet, slowly but surely this is how the threat to American democracy has kept growing during the Trump era. Since actions once considered as inconceivable and abhorrent back in 2016 have become accepted parts of our everyday reality. They’re just facts of life in a country governed by Trump’s Republican Party.

As we know, the Robert Mueller investigation grew out of the firing of FBI Director James Comey as a way of protecting the Trump-Russia investigation from presidential interference. Since Day 1, Donald Trump has been raging against Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the probe. In addition, he demanded that Sessions either take control of the investigation or resign and let someone else do it. Ever since then, Trump has repeatedly violated the norms of governing the way a president should treat an attorney general and the Justice Department. For Christ’s sake, he admitted that the Comey firing was about the Russia investigation on national television. He’s suggested that the attorney general’s job should be defending the president, not investigating him. He blasted the “Jeff Sessions Justice Department” for bringing charges against Republican members of Congress before the midterms because it might jeopardize Republican chances of holding onto the House. Individually, each of these shatters longstanding norms of how a president is supposed to think and act about the Department of Justice. Yet, it’s harder to muster outrage over each one individually. Though disturbing as these incidents are, no single one constitutes the end of American democracy, or even the DOJ’s independence. But even if these little norm violations don’t make a big difference by themselves, they cumulatively amount to a major change in how a president gets to treat an agency that’s supposed to be a check on his power. The same thing happened, in microcosm with Jeff Sessions’ firing. Trump’s berating of the attorney general in public, the insults, the humiliation weren’t enough to incite intense public outrage. But they served together to construct a new normal when it comes to a president’s relationship with an attorney general. By the time we got to the actual firing and replacement with a loyalist, it felt less like a novel event and more like an inevitable result of an ongoing process. And it’s this what makes Trump’s approach to firing Sessions such a worrying moment.

While it’s difficult to see how American democracy would collapse would look like in practice, Donald Trump’s firing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions shows how democratic backsliding is possible. Since taking office in Hungary in 2010, President Viktor Orban spent the last 8 years setting up a system resembling democracy but isn’t actually one. He didn’t abolished elections, but gerrymandered parliamentary districts and seized control of the civil service administering elections. He didn’t ban the free press, but either bought up critical publications or forced them to sell to government-friendly allies. There was never a specific moment in time when you could say that Hungary wasn’t a democracy. It just evolved over time into something different and unfree. Same thing happened in Venezuela.

Nonetheless, Donald Trump’s firing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a serious threat to the health of American institutions. Even if acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker doesn’t fire Robert Mueller right away, it’s possible he could hamstring the probe behind the scenes with bureaucratic tools like refusing to approve Mueller’s indictments and subpoenas. Indeed, Whitaker has even floated the idea of cutting probe funding. He could run the same playbook of small fights over a major confrontation that helped him assume office without a huge public fuss.

Whether knowingly or not, Donald Trump is exploiting a weakness in the democratic immune system. Democracies depend on a motivated and involved public for their survival. But if politicians only take one small step away from democracy at a time, each one narrow enough to be justifiable by their political allies, then a systematic shift away from democracy and constraints on presidential power never ends up truly galvanizing the opposition. Since if you don’t give anyone a crisis point to rally around, you can get away with a lot. But the slow degradation of institutions and the normalization of an authoritarian approach to politics, makes any warning about a particular development seem out of proportion to the immediate threat. But let’s be honest about the big picture. Along with the public flagellation and eventually firing of Jeff Sessions, Trump’s approach to politics is damaging the foundations of American democracy. Though the Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives is certainly a good thing and will provide a check for Trump, the threats of American democracy can’t be solved with one election. Since they involve big structural problems like polarization of elites and politicians, growing hatred of the opposition party, deep emotional affiliation with one’s own party, and white anxiety over the loss of control over American politics and culture that’s driving authoritarian impulses and conservative polarization within White America and the Republican Party.

Tragedy at Tree of Life

At 10:00 am on Saturday, October 27, 2018, a gunman opened fire during a shabbat service at Squirrel Hill’s Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. After several people barricaded inside the building and called the authorities, the shooter fired at police officers upon their arrival after he was detained in 2 confrontations. 11 people are now dead while 6 others were injured, including 4 police officers. Identified as 46-year-old Robert Bowers who carried an assault rifle and 3 semi-automatic handguns, he is now in custody and could be charged with a hate crime as soon as possible. Pittsburgh’s top FBI official said, “this is the most horrific crime scene I’ve seen in 22 years with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.” So far, the authorities haven’t yet confirmed any information on the perpetrator’s motive. Since initial eyewitness accounts can turn out to be wrong as the investigation unfolds. Though KDKA has reported that eyewitnesses heard the shooter shout, “All Jews must die” before firing during the morning shabbat service. Still, the shooting may have been the deadliest attack on Jewish people on American soil.

According to preliminary reports, Robert Bowers was an avowed anti-Semite with a number of posts on the far-right social networking site Gab. There, he blamed Jews for among other things, mass migration and climate change. Posts that appeared authored by Bowers include one written about an hour before the shooting stating, “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics. I’m going in.”

The Tree of Life shooting comes amid a steady increase in anti-Semitic incidents and hate crimes since the 2016 campaign and Donald Trump’s inauguration. And it represents a further intensification of the resurgence of toxic and at times, violent Anti-Semitism during this time. According to the FBI, in 2016, hate crimes had increased 5% since 2015, and 10% since 2014. And out of the 1,273 hate crimes for which FBI found religious hatred as a motivation which is 20% of the total, half were against Jews. In the last year for which complete data was available, the Anti-Defamation League found there have been 1,986 reported incidents in the United States that year, including acts of vandalism and physical violence. That figure was a 57% increase from 2016, which itself has seen a 35% uptick from 2015. The 2016-17 surge was the highest increase on-record since the ADL began reporting on them in 1979. As the 2016 presidential campaign reached fever pitch, over 800 journalists received a staggering 19,000 anti-Semitic messages on Twitter. During events like the 2017 Unite the Right in Charlottesville, Virginia, right-wing extremists openly recited Nazi slogans and carried Nazi paraphernalia.

Incendiary rhetoric has remained intense throughout 2018. Verbal attacks against liberal Jewish philanthropist George Soros whose political activities have become subject to far-right conspiracy theories, have reached fever pitch. In fact, just this month Donald Trump publicly blamed Soros for funding the activist opposition to now-Supreme Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination who’s been accused of multiple sexual assault allegations. More recently, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz and Campbell’s Soup executive vice president Kelly Johnson blamed Soros for financially supporting the Honduran migrant caravan making its way to the US border, accusing him of being in control of migrants and refugees. Soros was among the recipients of a series of mailed pipe bombs sent to prominent left-wing media outlets and politicians, including the Clintons and the Obamas.

Now I don’t know much about George Soros except he’s a rich old Jewish liberal with lots of money. However, tune into Fox News, and you’ll find plenty of right-wing conspiracy theorists claim that he’s the devil incarnate or the head of the Illuminati or New World Order. Yet, despite that I know full well he can’t be as nearly as terrible as conservative nutjobs make him out to be, rhetoric against Soros reflects a wider trend in anti-Semitic discourse: a conspiracy theory of imagined “globalists” secretly pulling the puppet-strings of the capitalist world order that’s been a populist rhetorical mainstay since at least the European not-so-Enlightenment in the 18th century. According to the Washington Post, Soros’ “name has become a synonym for a well-worn anti-Semitic canard: the idea that Jews are malevolent fomenters of social dissent, agitators slyly funding and masterminding protest, seeking to undermine a white, Christian social order.” Should the Tree of Life’s shooter’s anti-Semitic motivations be confirmed, it would be the culmination of a week of extraordinary right-wing violence.

Tree of Life’s neighborhood of Squirrel Hill is usually considered Pittsburgh’s de facto Jewish community center. While the Tree of Life synagogue represents a powerful symbol of Jewish life. And the recent shooting reflects another disturbing trend such as the degree to which places of worship have been targets for acts of possible domestic terrorism. From synagogues to Christian churches and Sikh temples, these places have increasingly become targets for extremist violence within the last decade. Many of these have been explicitly white supremacist or right-wing in nature, targeting perceived liberals, ethnic minorities, or women. In each case, these attacks have been designed to maximize emotional effect. Since they’re community hubs designed for children, adults, and the elderly. By targeting a house of worship, the attacker commits a powerful symbolic transgression of profaning a sacred and communal space. Attacking a place of worship isn’t just an attack on worshippers but attack on the community itself. Examples include:

2008: Jim David Adkisson opened fire at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee during a community theater production of Annie. He killed 2 and wounded 7 others. Citing Unitarian progressive policies, Adkisson later told police he did so because he believed the Democrats were “ruining” the United States and that all liberals should be killed. He pled guilty and is currently serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

2012: An avowed white supremacists and Army veteran Wade Michael Page attack a gurdwaras or Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. He killed 6 people and wounded 4 more before killing himself. A longtime member of the white power music scene, Page had been on federal investigators’ radar for years before committing this deadly act.

2015: White supremacist Dylann Roof murdered 9 members of the congregation along with the senior pastor at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Roof had written frequently and publicly about his desire to kill non-whites as he wrote in his prison journal, “I would like to make it crystal clear, I do not regret what I did. I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed.” Since his 2017 conviction, Roof is currently on death row.

2017: Devin Patrick Kelley opened fire at First Baptist Church at Sutherland Springs, Texas, killing 26 in the deadliest church shooting in American history. Unlike the other perpetrators, Kelley didn’t have clearly defined political views or a specific agenda. But he did have a history of domestic violence which included fracturing his infant stepson’s skull in 2012. While the shooting precipitated by conflict with his mother-in-law who attended First Baptist. Kelley was killed during the attack.

Anyway, the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue is another indication that we must acknowledge that homegrown, right-wing, domestic terrorism is huge problem in the United States. While the 2008 election of Barack Obama as well as 2007 and 2008 economic collapses have created fertile ground for hateful, right-wing extremism. Despite the outrage of the conservative news crowd over the prophetic 2009 Department of Homeland Security report, we’ve had extremists occupy federal land in Oregon, pipe bombs mailed to Democratic Party leaders, and commit mass shootings targeting minority groups. Sure Fox News will coddle their old white conservative viewers by assuring that they’re okay and that everything is fine with white conservative America as long as certain outgroups don’t get their way. Despite that the Republican Party has sold their souls to Donald Trump. While Trump continues to pander to right-wing extremists and white supremacists as well as inspire and incite violence at his rallies and tweets. And yet, when it comes to properly labeling domestic terrorism as terrorism, the right-wing conspiracy theory mad cable news network is hardly outside the mainstream. Since all 24-hour news are reluctant rattle the status quo cages too much. Since a cable news network needs you to keep watching and will make sure to keep you glued to your TV by not suggesting that the US is rife with right-wing extremist terror. Despite the fact it totally is. Why? For one, they don’t want to alienate conservative viewers who might meet such notions with an all-consuming outrage. At the same time, they don’t want to stir liberal viewers in to activism that goes far beyond watching TV. And in our current American landscape, TV news is king. There are certainly good-faith arguments against label this kind of violence terrorism which mostly have to do with waiting for the FBI to issue that label, or the fact that terrorism definitions usually involve some organized, radicalized sect than lone wolf operators inspired by YouTube, Fox News, or Trump.

However, homegrown, right-wing domestic terrorism isn’t going away any time soon. Donald Trump keeps using incendiary rhetoric encouraging violence against vulnerable people. Though he’d strongly condemn the Pittsburgh attack and anti-Semitism, Trump has failed to do so at other key points in his presidency, particularly the racist violence in Charlottesville last year. Besides, for week, Trump has been stocking fears about the migrant caravan, because his appeal to his supporters is based on fear of immigrants and racial minorities. And because he doesn’t take responsibility for anything, Trump blames the media for fueling political divisions and hate in America and for unfairly casting him as a contributor to the current situation. Despite that Trump has made extremist right-wing views more acceptable in the Republican Party. As long as Republicans keep backing Trump up and refuse to acknowledge the clear and present danger of right-wing extremism within the US, domestic terror incidents will only increase and intensify, especially since they won’t support gun control.

Which brings me to another point. If we want to prevent mass shootings and acts of terror in the United States, then we need to enact strict gun restrictions. Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf has enacted a measure to keep firearms out of the hands of known domestic abusers. After all, mass shooters usually had a history of domestic abuse so it’s a step in the right direction. But state and local gun restrictions can only go so far. After all, while Chicago may have strict gun laws, its rate of gun violence is high. Mostly because many of the guns used to commit crimes are coming from outside its borders. So federal action is sorely needed. For if we don’t enact sensible gun laws to keep firearms out of criminals’ hands, we will see more mass shootings in the future.

Born in a Golden Cradle

We all know full well how Donald Trump repeatedly paints his start in business as an up-by-the bootstraps, riches-to-slightly-more-riches tale. He’s cast himself as a New York real estate Oliver Twist with only his name and a $1 million loan from his dear old dad to keep him company. Only to become a self-made billionaire real estate mogul. Trump not only used this description to promote his image as a skilled businessman, but also portray himself as a “self-made man” during his presidential candidacy.

Despite the image Donald Trump projects to his base at his ego boosting rallies, he has actually spent 5 decades pretending not only that his father never rescued him from financial dire straits, but played a minimal role in his business success. When he said that Fred only gave him a $1 million loan, Trump glossed over how central his dad was to his career. When Trump entered the Manhattan real estate business in the mid-1970s, Fred cosigned bank loans for tens of millions of dollars. These loans made it possible for Trump to develop early projects like the Grand Hyatt hotel. When he targeted Atlantic City’s casino market, Fred loaned him about $7.5 million to get started. When he floundered there during the 1990s, Fred sent a lawyer to a Trump casino to buy $3.5 million in chips so his son can use the funds for a bond payment and avoid filing for corporate bankruptcy. In other words, Trump’s wealth has always been “deeply intertwined with, and dependent on” on his father’s wealth.

On Tuesday, October 2, 2018, the New York Times published investigation results into Donald Trump’s wealth and tax practices. They revealed a pattern of tax evasion and business practices that allowed him to receive at least $413 million in today’s dollars from his father. According to the report, Trump and his siblings got hundreds of millions of dollars in today’s money from their dad’s real estate empire, starting from their childhoods. As they write:

“Much of this money came to Mr. Trump because he helped his parents dodge taxes. He and his siblings set up a sham corporation to disguise millions of dollars in gifts from their parents, records and interviews show. Records indicate that Mr. Trump helped his father take improper tax deductions worth millions more. He also helped formulate a strategy to undervalue his parents’ real estate holdings by hundreds of millions of dollars on tax returns, sharply reducing the tax bill when those properties were transferred to him and his siblings.”

In sum, Donald Trump’s parents transferred more than $1 billion to their children and paid about $52.2 million in taxes. Given the relevant tax rates on gifts and inheritances, they should’ve paid $550 million, which is 10 times more. The IRS didn’t really notice it. While the Times didn’t see Trump’s own tax returns, their reporting was based on documents, records, and interviews pertaining to Fred Trump’s financial empire. These included, “tens of thousands of pages of confidential records — bank statements, financial audits, accounting ledgers, cash disbursement reports, invoices and canceled checks” along with more than 200 tax returns from Fred and various companies and trusts he set up. Even though he can’t be prosecuted for them due to statute of limitations expiration, evidence suggests that Donald’s actions on paying taxes weren’t always above the fray.

When Donald Trump’s finances were “crumbling” during the 1980s and 1990s, Fred Trump’s companies increased distributions to him and his siblings. From 1989-1992, Fred created 4 entities paying Donald $8.3 million in today’s money. When Donald’s finances were at their worst in 1990, Fred’s income shot up $49,638,928 and earned him a $12.2 million tax bill. According to the New York Times report, there are indications Fred, “wanted plenty of cash on hand to bail out his son if need be.” A former Trump Organization told Tim O’Brien in 2005, “We would have literally closed down. The key would have been in the door and there would have been no more Donald Trump. The family saved him.” Of course, it wasn’t really Trump’s family who saved him from personal bankruptcy, it was his dad. On another occasion, Trump allegedly gave his dad a $15.5 million share of the Trump Palace condo skyscraper in New York to square off some debts with his loans. But Fred then sold the shares back to his son for $10,000, making the whole exchange of $15.49 a taxable gift. Fred never declared it as such.
But it wasn’t always rich dad bailing out his son. Fred and Donald Trump worked together. As the elder man aged, his kids had to continue the tax schemes their parents put in place. In 1997, Donald and his siblings gained control of most of their dad’s empire. They significantly undervalued the properties, claiming they were worth $41.4 million and selling them off for 16 times the amount.

Nonetheless, the wealth transfer between Fred Trump and Donald Trump (along with his siblings) was a lifetime affair. As the New York Times notes:

“By age 3, Mr. Trump was earning $200,000 a year in today’s dollars from his father’s empire. He was a millionaire by age 8. By the time he was 17, his father had given him part ownership of a 52-unit apartment building. Soon after Mr. Trump graduated from college, he was receiving the equivalent of $1 million a year from his father. The money increased with the years, to more than $5 million annually in his 40s and 50s.”

As the Times writes, there’s a fine line between tax evasion and tax avoidance. Rich people employ all kinds of tricks to lower their taxes all the time. But since Donald Trump has refused to release his tax returns, these journalistic investigations raise questions of what he’s hiding in his finances. For what the publication doesn’t have is what the American people have become accustomed to getting from their presidents like recent tax returns. Instead, the Times gave close scrutiny Fred Trump’s businesses which reveal the range of apparent illegal activity. Yet, everything the Times has is fairly old since Fred passed nearly 20 years ago while his years in business ended before that. So they no longer reflect the current state of Trump’s financial affairs. Furthermore, any illegal activity the Times sources revealed in this article can’t be prosecuted due to statute of limitations expiration.

The New York Times’ investigation is exhaustive and, to some extent, defies summary. But it’s worth recounting the most egregious thing they found as an illustrative example of the scope of crimes that serious forensic accounting can reveal. Basically, this was a 2-scams-for-the-price-of-one-caper, in which Fred Trump formed a shell company his children secretly owned. The company pretended to perform useful services for rent-stabilized buildings Fred owned, allowing to gift money to his children without paying a gift tax. Then, its bogus accounting was used to justify rent increases to regulators. As the Times wrote:

“The most overt fraud was All County Building Supply & Maintenance, a company formed by the Trump family in 1992. All County’s ostensible purpose was to be the purchasing agent for Fred Trump’s buildings, buying everything from boilers to cleaning supplies. It did no such thing, records and interviews show. Instead All County siphoned millions of dollars from Fred Trump’s empire by simply marking up purchases already made by his employees. Those millions, effectively untaxed gifts, then flowed to All County’s owners — Donald Trump, his siblings and a cousin. Fred Trump then used the padded All County receipts to justify bigger rent increases for thousands of tenants.”
This is a particularly shocking crime because of the way it was used to defraud thousands of tenants as well as tax authorities. But this wasn’t the only time Fred cheated the public. After all, he got his start in profiteering in millions from programs to help returning GIs receive housing, prompting President Dwight D. Eisenhower to throw a fit. In 1954, he was called before the Senate to testify about how he overcharged the federal government by inflating costs associated with a taxpayer-subsidized housing development in Brooklyn. As a result, Fred was banned from bidding on federal housing contracts. So he focused on state-subsidized projects. However, in 1966, Fred was called before a state investigations board to sit through embarrassing public hearings exploring how he overbilled New York State for equipment and other costs. These hearings essentially marked the end of Fred’s career as a major developer in public subsidized housing. Donald Trump would say that the government essentially reached in and took his dad’s business away from him. But this explanation ignores the fact that Fred’s business wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without government subsidies in the first place.

However, in terms of Donald Trump cheating on his taxes, it’s far from unique. In 1983, he’s admitted to sales tax fraud. He’s lost 2 income tax civil fraud trials. Hell, his own tax lawyer testified that Trump’s 1984 tax return was fraudulent. More strikingly, even before the Times’ investigation, we had numerous examples of Trump operating as a habitual criminal. While Trump would like to American people to forget about this, he got his start as a celebrity after the New York Times published an article detailing federal housing discrimination charges brought against him and his father. Ultimately, the charges were settled without admission of fault, which would be a pattern for Trump over the years. Even so, the fact his first foray into the real estate business involved criminal acts didn’t stop him from continuing in that business. When Trump branched out into casinos, he got caught accepting an illegal loan from his dad to stay afloat and got off with a slap on the wrist. He was even allowed to continue with the business as well.

From empty-box tax scam to money laundering at his casinos, racial discrimination in his apartments, Federal Trade Commission violations for his stock purchases, and Securities and Exchange Commission violations for his financial reporting, Donald Trump has spent his entire career breaking various laws, getting caught, and then essentially plowing ahead unharmed. Caught engaging in illegal racial discrimination to please a mob boss? Paid a fine. There was no sense this was a repeated pattern of violating racial discrimination law (despite being caught before in a housing discrimination case by the federal government). Nor there was certainly any desire to take a closer look at Trump’s various personal and professional connections to the Mafia. In New York, Trump Tower’s construction employed hundreds of undocumented Polish immigrants, paid them laughably low wages, and worked them beyond legal limits. Though Trump denied knowledge of the situation, a judge said his testimony wasn’t credible. Court records show that Trump and his children misled investors in failed condo projects in Baja California and Florida. Even as late as the post-election transition, Trump was allowed to settle a lawsuit about defrauding customers at his fake university for $25 million rather than truly face the music like a potential prison term. But he still insisted he did nothing wrong despite evidence to the contrary.

One of Donald Trump’s real insights in life was to see a bug in the system. When it comes to these white-collar crimes, it’s typically the government officials’ interest to agree to a settlement giving them positive headlines, raise some cash, and move on to the next investigation. But while these decisions can make sense individually, they let serial offenders repeat their crimes over and over again. After all, you wouldn’t want police to solve other crimes this way. Meanwhile, throughout the decades of Trump’s rise, the legal climate has only gotten more permissive.

The fact that Donald Trump appears to have been involved in serious financial crimes in the past is the most likely reason for his unprecedented lack of transparency. He didn’t magically stop committing them in the mid-1990s. Rather he’s just been getting away with it in an era of reduced law enforcement and fears his documents wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny. As a candidate, Trump promised to release his tax returns. Now that he’s in office, he has refused to do so. In response to the Times’ investigation, the White House released a statement full of bluster about the “wonderful” things Trump has achieved as president. But it didn’t deny any of the alleged facts. Instead, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders merely observed that “many decades ago the IRS reviewed and signed off on these transactions.”

It’s not entirely clear if the IRS reviewed all of these transactions. But it’s unquestionably true that Donald Trump got away with it. Because lots of people get away with a lot of crimes and that doesn’t make it okay. The IRS is no more perfect in its work than any other law enforcement agency. To make matters worse, the IRS has been starved of resources, making it even harder to catch rich tax cheats. To be clear, this wasn’t caused by austerity by budgetary necessity. Based on macroeconomic estimates, the IRS believes that business owners like Donald Trump underpay their taxes by $125 million a year. Investing more in catching these tax cheats would pay off easily. But congressional Republicans haven’t wanted to do it because they think it’s good that rich business owners can get away with cheating on their taxes. Yet, this also gives tax-cheating businesses a very good reason to fear transparency and disclosure. While the IRS is relatively unlikely to get a hard, rigorous look at any particularly rich person’s complicated tax submissions. But since Trump is president, he’d find Congress and the press heavily scrutinizing his finances. Trump got away with tax evasion during an era of generally more rigorous enforcement. It’s very unlikely that he simply stopped doing it during the more recent years when enforcement got laxer. If he disclosed his tax returns, we’d find out about the scams he’s running. Because that’s why Trump doesn’t want us to see them. And why we absolutely need to. We won’t really know why Donald Trump hides his tax returns until he stops concealing them. But the New York Times’ investigation sends a clear message that he’s got a track record of doing illegal stuff with his taxes.

However, though Donald Trump won’t release his tax returns as president, Congress can make him. But congressional Republicans have steadfastly refused to do so. Nonetheless, the American people have a right to know whether or not the man in the White House is a crook. Though the case for oversight became stronger once Trump became president, Republicans who once distanced themselves from him became uniformly devoted to covering up for him. In addition, Republicans have totally resisted Democratic efforts to force disclosure.

While congressional Republicans may tell themselves these returns are no big deal, they have no idea how serious the crimes are they’re helping Donald Trump hide. Mostly because Republicans decided it’s good when rich people cheat on their taxes despite that it’s not. In fact, cheating on taxes contributes to inequality, higher interest rates, weaker public services, and a range of social news. And despite the Republicans’ best efforts, it’s still illegal. Though the tax code currently has minimal taxes on inheritances and gifts as well as large loopholes for the wealthiest of the wealthy. The New York Times investigation into the Trump family’s wealth demonstrates how wealthy families wiggle out of taxes through licit and illicit means. Thus, starving the government of tax revenue, making the tax code less progressive than it’s designed to be, and effectively increasing the tax burden on low-income families and their businesses. The richer the family, the more likely they engage in tax evasion. In fact, one study shows that the richest .01% were shown to evade 25% of taxes, several times the rate seen among the general public. Because Trump is president, we need to know if he’s been breaking the law. All we need to do is have a congressional committee vote. But to get it, we need a new Congress.

Of course, since I’ve conducted extensive research on Donald Trump since he ran for president, the fact he’s not the self-made man he portrays himself to be doesn’t surprise me. I long knew that he never would’ve become what he is today if he hadn’t been born into wealth and privilege. And I knew about his dad vouching for him on his early projects and helping him out of his financial problems. Yet, millions of Americans still believe Trump as a modern Midas who’d lift them out of hard times as the super-rich flourish while everyone else’s incomes remain mostly flat. But the truth is that the man in the Oval Office isn’t the wealth-building entrepreneur he claims to be. In fact, he’s a financial vampire extracting cash from enterprises while leaving behind unpaid workers, vendors, and governments. And if you want to know what that will lead to, just take a visit to Atlantic City.

The Professor and the Judge

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There are plenty of reason not to want Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh confirmed. He’s a conservative ideologue masquerading as a judge. He’s a corporate whore who thinks net neutrality violates the cable companies’ freedom of speech. And he’s ruled in favor of corporate power over democracy and the public interest on almost every kind of dispute you can think of. He won’t release 100,000 pages of documents relating to his work for the Bush administration in the 2000s. He’s perfectly fine with disabled people getting elective surgery against their will. He likens contraceptives to abortion inducing drugs which they’re most certainly not. He’s lied under oath on multiple occasions. He has gambling problems as his $200,000 credit card for debt for “baseball tickets.” And he believes that a president shouldn’t be indicted while in office. In sum, he’s a horrible Supreme Court pick in every conceivable way and has absolutely no business in ruling in critical matters that will affect American lives for decades to come.

Now as a Catholic liberal, I may have political misgivings on why Judge Kavanaugh shouldn’t sit on the bench of the US Supreme Court. Yet, most importantly is Kavanaugh’s history with women and his sexual assault allegations. Kavanaugh’s nomination seemed like moving ahead. The New Yorker published an explosive report about a letter California US Senator Dianne Feinstein sent to the FBI but was reluctant to discuss in public. Since she was worried the letter could expose Ford to partisan attacks. Written by a California psychology professor Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, she said the announcement of Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court had spurred her recollection of a party encounter in high school where he held her down to a bed, ground against and groped her, attempted to remove her clothes, and tried to force himself on her, covering her mouth when she tried to scream. Finding it difficult to breathe, she thought Kavanaugh was accidentally going to kill her. Luckily, Ford escaped when Kavanaugh’s friend Mark Judge jumped on them and the all fell. She fled the room and locked herself in a bathroom until she heard the two boys go downstairs and their voices recede. Terrified she’d run into them and attack again, Ford ran out of the house. But the encounter was “a source of ongoing distress for her” as she remembered Kavanaugh and Judge laughing at her suffering. To put it in layman’s terms, Kavanaugh tried to rape her which has scarred her for life despite that she narrowly got away. This is a violent crime, not sexual misconduct. Though she was 15 and Kavanaugh was 17 at the time in the 1980s, she doesn’t remember some key details such as the house they were in. She was on her way to the bathroom when Kavanaugh and Judge attacked and shoved her into a bedroom. Yet, she recalls that everyone had one beer while Kavanaugh and Judge had been drinking more heavily.

Christine Blasey Ford didn’t tell anyone about the allegations with anyone until 2012 during a couples therapy session with her husband. She first reached out to her representative, Rep. Anna Eshoo and directly contacted Feinstein’s office. After repeatedly discussing the matter with both offices, Ford decided not to go public.

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Dr. Christine Blasey Ford is certainly a hero in this case since her decision to go public with her sexual assault allegations against Judge Brett Kavanaugh led others to speak out. Here’s a tweet quoting Deborah Ramirez cheering her on.

On September 16, 2018, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford came forward in a Washington Post story. To corroborate her account, Ford provided the Post with a polygraph and session notes from her therapists from 2012. Though the therapist’s notes don’t name Kavanaugh, they record Ford’s claim being attacked by students “from an elitist boys’ school” who went on to become “highly respected and high-ranking members of society in Washington.” Both her husband and a friend have confirmed her claims. He friend told the Los Angeles Times that he’s witnessed the lasting trauma affect her life and her struggle to come forward with him in early July. He claimed that Ford was averse to purchasing a master bedroom without a second exit. According to him, “Obviously, something happened that traumatized her so much that she’s afraid of being trapped.”

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford had nothing to gain from her testimony on Judge Brett Kavanaugh. For coming forward with sexual assault allegations against powerful men can lead result in losing career and reputation. Ford has received death threats. She’s had to take time off from her job. She and her family were forced out of her home. She’s had to shut down her social media. She’s had to fly all the way from her Bay area home to Washington, which terrified her. She’s had to use therapist notes and pass lie detector tests just to be believed. Not to mention, Republicans have refused to take her story seriously for craven selfish and partisan reasons. While many conservatives have attacked her as an anti-Trump activist whose motives and biases are as suspicious as her Northern California address. At her hearing, Ford had to recall as much as she could remember to come across as credible. As she had to retain her composure describing that painful memory she spent years trying to forget in front of white old men who don’t care what she has to say while feeling like she could fly into an unstoppable rage inside. Nonetheless, he gutting testimony was compelling as her expertise as in clinical psychology shone through her explanations on how trauma works.

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Here’s Brett Kavanaugh’s 1982 yearbook entry from Georgetown Prep. It goes far from the Boy Scout image he’s tried to present at his hearing. More like a partying frat boy you’d want to punch in the face.

Nor is Dr. Christine Blasey Ford the only woman accusing Judge Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault. Shortly after she came forward, Deborah Ramirez told the New Yorker that in a drinking game during a 1983 dorm party at Yale, Kavanaugh exposed his genitals to her and shoved his penis to her face. All without Ramirez’s consent as she pushed him away. Not long after that, Michael Avenatti published an affidavit signed by Julie Swetnick who claimed attended a parties during high school where Kavanaugh plotted with friends to drug and “gang rape” girls. And that Kavanaugh was present she was gang raped at a party. Yet, she doesn’t explicitly say whether he participated. There are also plenty of witnesses who can corroborate on Ford and Ramirez. Two of Ramirez’s classmates can recall hearing about Kavanaugh’s indecent exposure, with one recalling several of the same details. His fraternity had a very shady reputation. In Ford’s case, aside from the therapist notes and polygraph tests, there’s even more evidence. Mark Judge’s memoir of his high school days at least recalls Kavanaugh’s underage drinking and partying. Kavanaugh’s high school calendar details numerous beach trips, parties with friends, and times he was “grounded.” In addition, his high school yearbook entry listed him as Keg City Club treasurer along with terms like “boof,” “devil’s triangle,” and “Renate Alumnius.”

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s decision to come forward was a civic duty for she really doesn’t want a man who put her through the worst time of her life sit on the highest court in the nation. Or at least an FBI investigation to clear her memory which she asked for repeatedly. And I think it’s a reason that should concern us all. After all, statistics show that most incidents of rape and sexual assault go unreported and ignored. And out all reported incidents, only 6% of rapist are subject to any meaningful consequences. Most victims of sexual assault don’t come forward because those who do, often face scrutiny by an unsympathetic crowd, especially if the perpetrator is a pillar in the community, partner, a boss, or family member. Should the assailant have any power, then expect people rallying to defend them. When a woman’s sexually assaulted, people often see her situation as her fault. They say that she’s a slut and shouldn’t be screwing multiple men. They say she shouldn’t have been around men or be so sexually aggressive. They say that she should’ve dressed more modestly or danced less provocatively. They talk about how she drank too much. They remark on how Johnny’s a good boy who’d never go to town on an unconscious woman near a dumpster. Or how Chrissy’s “false” rape accusation is laden with ulterior motives of revenge for not asking her out to the prom. So we can’t have her sexual assault allegation ruin Kevin’s chances of getting into a big name college on a football scholarship. Or how we don’t want
to ruin Damien’s future despite that he tried to force himself on Shelley who’s set for a lifetime of trauma.Many women have faced death threats coming forward. Some have lost their jobs. Some have even faced criminal charges in falsely reporting a crime. Some had family, friends, and community turn against them. Some have had their reputations ruined and received death threats. While others are often ignored by law enforcement as the perpetrator goes on with his life without repercussions. As society teaches girls and women that they’re responsible for preventing rape because boys and men can’t control themselves and that they should accept their egregious behavior as normal, which is utter bullshit and insulting on multiple levels. For if men were truly unable to control their sexual urges, then how could priests remain celibate and husbands be unfaithful to their wives? Thus, it’s glaringly apparent that when they say, “boys will be boys,” they’re telling girls, “don’t expect boys to be responsible for violating you, since they matter more than you. And if they do anything to you that leaves any lasting trauma and suffering that’s not a big deal, it’s your fault. So shut up.” Sexual assault and harassment may be common, but that doesn’t mean it’s normal. And it’s certainly not right.

I have never been sexually assaulted. Mostly because I didn’t go to a lot of parties during my high school and college years. But I’ve been bullied all through my school days. I’ve been sexually harassed on multiple occasions by many immature classmates in middle and high school. And I’ve endured humiliation while many of my fellow schoolmates laughed on. I was constantly told to ignore it despite that I found it impossible. I was often upset that these people didn’t care about my feelings. I was angry that they didn’t listen to me whenever I told them to cut it out or take my pleas seriously. And even if I did tell a teacher about it, I knew it would only be a matter of time they’d start again. To deal with it day after day is often exhausting and frustrating. Fortunately, I wasn’t too traumatized by the whole thing and was glad it all ended by the time I went to college. Yet, I’m sure I have some scars that I had to suffer in silence so as not to draw attention to myself.

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Here we have Brett Kavanaugh with his wife during a Fox News damage control interview. Even at this angle, he appears kind of creepy to me.

In addition, I become furious whenever I see a smart capable woman like Hillary Clinton and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford having to put up being bullied by privileged and terrible men who deserve no place in the halls of power. During the presidential debates between Clinton and Donald Trump, I often saw myself in Clinton trying to get her vision across to the American people. Only for Trump to blurt out stupid shit about her dirty laundry and getting all the attention. He clearly had no interest in government policy. He only wanted to take Clinton down in the most humiliating way possible while drowning out whatever she had to say in the media. To see Clinton having to deal with all this shit really makes my blood boil. When I saw Judge Brett Kavanaugh lash out over the sexual assault allegations against him as liberal part to take him down, I was reminded by how many guys have treated me the same way. Seeing the kind of hell Ford had to go through, I believe her. While I was lucky enough not to experience sexual assault, I know what it’s like having people laugh at you when you’re in a state of misery.

With a man like Judge Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, he can rule on cases relating to sexual assault and other misconduct for decades to come. The fact that he’s already a federal judge is extremely disturbing since he’s in a position of great power and influence. When it comes to sexual assault cases, judges have been especially lenient to white male perpetrators like Steubenville football players and Brock Turner. As a man born into wealth with an Ivy League pedigree and groomed to ascend to the highest court in the land as a conservative ideologue, Kavanaugh perpetuates and benefits from this kind of good-old-boy favoritism in the justice system on sexual assault cases. They may sympathize with these scions and prominent citizens. And thus, may be compelled to give these rich guys a more generous ruling than they deserve. All while having no concern for the women who’ve been harmed in the act and suffer in the legal proceedings with justice denied.

I am used to Supreme Court picks being partisan bloodbaths. But once a nominee is accused of sexual assault and other egregious misbehavior, they are automatically disqualified no questions asked. After all, sexual assault allegations would get you disqualified from many low-income jobs for obvious reasons. The Supreme Court shouldn’t be any different. Obviously, 11 Republican senators on the Judiciary Committee didn’t see it that way and now Judge Brett Kavanaugh has moved to a full Senate confirmation once the FBI investigation is over. Yet, after Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony and Kavanaugh’s explosive temper tantrum, it’s disturbingly clear that these old white men had already made up their minds. They don’t care about whether Kavanaugh has the character to be a fair and impartial judge. They know he’s a conservative hack job who’d give them and their corporate donors favorable rulings on every issue you can imagine. Yet, they can just as easily ask Kavanaugh to withdraw and have Donald Trump nominate another conservative judge who hasn’t sexually assaulted anyone. But no.

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The fact Donald Trump bragged about sexual assault and Republicans still elected him president gives you all you need to know about the GOP and sexual harassment and assault. At least when it happens to one of their own. I’m sure they view the sexual assault allegations against Judge Brett Kavanaugh the same way.

Nevertheless, the Republicans’ willingness to put Judge Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court shows how far they’ve fallen since they’ve embraced Donald Trump as their leader. At some level, Republicans may see sexual harassment and assault as morally wrong. But at another level, they don’t necessarily see it as a big enough deal or problem people should care about. When Trump was caught bragging about sexual assault on that Hollywood Access bus tape, a whole bunch of Republicans abandoned him fearing he was about to lead the party into an electoral disaster. Only to drop the matter entirely as soon as Trump proved his doubters wrong. Not a single Congressional Republican expressed the slightest interest in hearing from Trump’s accusers, looking into their accusations in any way, or otherwise seeking to find the truth of the matter. Republicans can appear appalled when it’s expedient to do so, particularly in regards Bill Clinton’s extramarital affairs. But they’ll pretend the whole thing never happened when it serves their interests. And that’s a pattern. When a top Fox News executive was drummed out for covering up so many sexual harassment charges that his ongoing employment was a huge liability, the White House snatched him up. When White House Chief of Staff John Kelly heard that staff secretary Rob Porter abused 2 ex-wives and a former girlfriend, he tried keeping it quiet. When the Federalist Society asked a Republican PR firm to they contracted with to lend someone to Senator Chuck Grassley to run point communications for the Kavanaugh nomination, they sent a guy they knew was a sexual harasser who later quit when it came out. Sexual harassment and assault are things Republicans know they’re supposed to care about. But Republicans in the internal party structure don’t care about them. So they don’t do anything unless public opinion forces their hand. Unless it’s Arizona US Senator Jeff Flake being confronted by 2 sexual assault survivors, most Republicans don’t take sexual assault seriously when the accusations surround one of their own.

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Remember, kids, anything you do will be on your permanent record. Also, just because you’re born into wealth and privilege doesn’t mean you’re entitled to a Supreme Court seat. In addition, if you act like this at your job interview, no one’s going to hire you. Still, Judge Brett Kavanaugh burst into fury and viciously denied being the frat boy back in his high school and college days. While being a lying sack of shit who doesn’t take responsibility for his actions and shouldn’t get a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court.

Yet, what I find most unsettling with Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s character than the sexual assault allegations is how he reacted to them. Not only did he deny sexually assaulting Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, he claimed he didn’t know her. Despite that she testified that she went out with one of his close friend who’s mentioned in his now notorious calendar 13 times. Furthermore, he cast himself as the clean-cut choir boy he wasn’t. Sure he drank, but not to the point where it affected his memory (despite that multiple classmates said he was a heavy drinker and an aggressive drunk, including his former roommate at Yale). And that he could legally drink in Maryland was legal in 1982 (he couldn’t). He may have had inside jokes, but never demeaned women (despite his “Renate Alumnius” entry was a sexist smear on a teenage girl’s promiscuity). While he enjoyed a lively social life, church always came first (though we can’t prove this. Yet, I bet he showed up to Sunday Mass with a hangover). Oh, and he was a virgin in both high school and college (despite that he tried to get into a girl’s pants and may have participated in gang rapes). Now I don’t think heavy drinking and partying during one’s school days isn’t disqualifying for the Supreme Court or any other high office. But not being honest about one’s frat boy past is, given that Kavanaugh has repeatedly lied to the Senate Judiciary Committee as well.

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Seeing Judge Brett Kavanaugh being denied a Supreme Court seat will set a powerful example to young men that actions have real consequences. And that sexual conduct without consent is not okay. But seeing that Republicans want to confirm him regardless of whether the allegations are true, I have good reason to worry that won’t happen. Because when it comes to sexual harassment and assault allegations against fellow Republicans, Republicans don’t care.

But more disturbingly, Judge Brett Kavanaugh called the circus around his sexual assault allegations, “a calculated and orchestrated political hit, fueled with apparent pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election, fear that has been unfairly stoked about my judicial record, revenge on behalf of the Clintons, and millions of dollars in money from outside left-wing opposition groups.” Obviously, he doesn’t acknowledge his drinking or the harm he might’ve inflicted on Ford’s life. He said these words with the entitled vicious rage of an alcoholic guy who’s used to getting his own way. And now he’s just learning like the rest of us did a long time ago that life isn’t fair and he can’t stand that. Furthermore, he’s a Trump-like partisan who feels entitled to say and do whatever he wants, uses emotional bullying and intimidation to get his way, and who doesn’t take responsibility for his actions. Whether Kavanaugh is confirmed or not, a large share of the American public will never trust him as impartial. While most will continue to see him as the privileged, arrogant, and self-righteous prick he’s revealed himself to be. The US Senate must not confirm this unrepentant asshole to our nation’s highest court. For like America Ferrera, I am sick of seeing capable, intelligent, and credible women come up against whiny, incompetent men-children and be suppressed. The matter of Kavanaugh’s confirmation isn’t just a vote. But rather a referendum of who we are as a nation. What are we willing to accept and where are we, really? And how much longer will women’s lives and dignity be secondary to the needs of powerful men? Confirming Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court will send the wrong message to women and girls that their concerns don’t matter. His nomination must not continue any further.

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Outcasts in Their Own Country

In the United States, it’s taken for granted that being born in this country automatically makes you a American citizen. After all, most Americans support the notion of birthright citizenship since it was established by a 1898 Supreme Court case brought on by a Chinese American man and by virtue of the US Constitution’s 14th Amendment. Most Americans assume there’s a clear-cut line between legal immigrants and undocumented immigrants, between citizens and noncitizens, and naturalized citizens and those native born.

On Wednesday, August 29, 2018, the Washington Post reported that the Trump administration have told “hundreds, even thousands” of Latinos born near the US-Mexican border that their US birth certificates aren’t sufficient proof of US citizenship to get their passports approved or renewed. Making matters worse, they’re being subjected to ridiculous document requests like baptismal records and insulting questions like “Do you remember when you were born?” Some are having their passports revoked and being thrown into deportation proceedings, or even barred from reentering the United States when they tried returning to Mexico.

Nonwhite and immigrant Americans already know that the Trump administration lacks any respect for them as Americans or as human beings. In this context, denying passports to native-born citizens can seem like racism at best and state violence at worst. Generally, the Trump administration’s immigration actions aren’t shocking because they’re unprecedented power grabs. But rather efforts to aggressively use the executive branch’s existing powers which simply have been used with more restraint in the past. As an escalating effort started by past presidents, this story is no exception. Since the Trump administration has shown a knack and xenophobic zeal for finding parts of the immigration system giving the federal government the most power and bringing their full strength to bear on already vulnerable people like South Texan Chicanos.
The new wave of passport scrutiny is specifically targeted at South Texan Latinos born near the US-Mexican border in particular circumstances. According to the State Department, “the U.S.-Mexico border region happens to be an area of the country where there has been a significant incidence of citizenship fraud.” This sounds very racist, playing into suspicions that even Latinos who’d been living in Texas before it was America aren’t even American, along with conflations of Latinos as well as legal and undocumented immigrants.

But there’s a particular history behind it, though racism is certainly a part of such policy. In the latter half of the 20th century, the federal government cracked down on South Texas midwives for birth certificate fraud like signing a birth certificate attesting to delivering a baby on US soil, when the baby had actually been born across the border in Mexico. Between 1960 and 2008, at least 75 South Texas midwives were convicted of fraudulent activities.

Of course, the problem is that these midwives also signed a bunch of birth certificates for children actually born on US soil. In addition, there aren’t easy ways to distinguish real US births from false ones, especially when most families in infrastructure-poor and poverty-stricken South Texas couldn’t afford a hospital birth. Confusing matters even further, some families reportedly received birth certificates saying their US-born children had been born in Mexico, to allow them to attend public schools there. Since before the last 2 decades, it wasn’t uncommon for families to frequently travel between the US and Mexico, or even split time between the 2 on a weekly basis.

In 2007, the US changed the law: from 2009, it would require everyone coming into the US from anywhere in the Western Hemisphere to show a passport (including American citizens coming from Mexico). As that change approached, area Latinos began complaining about their passports being denied due to their birth certificates deemed as suspicious. This resulted in an ACLU filing a lawsuit in 2008. The next year, the two sides agreed to a process by which passport denials to midwife-born applicants would be reviewed. One of the settlement documents was a sample letter requesting more information from the applicant to supplement the record. Some of the listed items were faintly ridiculous like baptismal records or evidence of prenatal care. But others were straightforward, if often difficult like requests for school and employment records.
However, even after the 2009 settlement, rejections of midwife-issued birth certificates continued. In 2012, CNN wrote an article about the matter. In 2014, NPR’s Morning Edition ran a segment featuring accounts of people having their passports snatched while trying to enter the US, being harassed by Border Patrol agents, and being forced to agree to their own deportation.

What’s changed under Donald Trump mostly seems to be the scope of the denials. Not only has there been a “surge” in new denials, as well as of people actually put into deportation proceedings (which ICE officials can choose to do when a passport is denied for absence of evidence for US birth. But they don’t have to do it). In addition, the government appears to have expanded its “suspicions” not just to midwife-signed birth certificates, but also those signed by South Texas obstetrician Jorge Treviño who delivered thousands of babies, often in home births before his death in 2015. Since the government has an affidavit from an anonymous Mexican doctor alleging that Trevino falsified a birth certificate.

But perhaps most importantly, this is happening under Donald Trump who doesn’t have much goodwill toward immigrants, Latinos, or white liberals. Thus, the report has raised concerns not only of the harassment facing particular South Texan passport applicants, but how broadly the Trump administration could challenge citizenship and voting rights of other groups as well. When most Americans see clear cut lines pertaining to legal status and citizenship, the Trump administration often sparks outrage for doing things that appear to cross these lines. They’ve arrested undocumented immigrants at their green card interviews. They’ve begun an effort to comb old naturalization applicants for fraud, in an effort labeled a “denaturalization task force.” They’ve tried to end DACA, putting its 800,000 recipients’ legal status in a constant state of uncertainty. And now they’re questioning the citizenship of people who’ve lived in the US for decades as native-born US citizens.

However, more disturbingly, in all these cases, the Trump administration isn’t crossing an unprecedented line. It’s just merely exploiting places where the category boundaries are murkier and often by building on what past administrations have already done. Generally, these boundary areas are where immigration officials show the most caution. They have the discretion in who they pursue and who they don’t. At the margins, they’re more likely to use discretion to show sympathy to people who’ve been living in the US and have roots here. Even if they could be more aggressive in trying to push them out. It’s possible that the government has changed its policy across the board on birth certificates issued by midwives or other “suspicious” practitioners or more broadly even people born in the US to noncitizen parents, though there’s no evidence of that. It’s also possible the government hasn’t changed its policies as the government claims, just fighting more of the individual cases falling under the process the 2009 settlement set.
But what makes Trump officials’ immigration policy different isn’t necessarily what they’re doing, but how aggressively they’re doing it. The Trump administration doesn’t have to deny every or even any application from anyone whose birth certificate was signed by a “suspicious” practitioner. Yet, it’s using the power’s full extent given by law. So it’s easier to put pressure on groups that already have been targeted because they’ve already been targeted.

Nonetheless, targeting South Texan passport applicants isn’t necessarily a test run for an inevitable expansion to widespread revocation of citizenship or nonwhite Americans writ large. Since denaturalization efforts don’t automatically call all naturalized Americans’ citizenship into question. This remains crucially true because targeted people have recourse to the legal system. And even South Texans whose citizenship is challenged usually win their cases though they have to appeal to federal courts to do it which usually costs thousands of dollars and time. However, that’s the other thing about pushing on those already marginalized. They’re the ones least likely to have the resources to overcome harassment or the support to call an end to the practice.

However, make no mistake that Donald Trump understands his base. Sure many working class Trump supporters have real concerns since real wages haven’t increased and those manufacturing jobs aren’t coming back. Not to mention, they know full well that their lives seem harder than their parents. But they also angry and want someone to blame. And it can’t be people who look like them since they see these money-grubbing robber barons as beacons of hope that their lives may improve, instead of the corporate con artists preying on their misery. In Hispanic immigrants and their children, Trump has a perfect scapegoat. Steve Bannon remarked in an interview that Trump won on “Pure anger. Anger and fear is what gets people to the polls.” It’s no coincidence that Trump once whips up fears by trying to strip vulnerable people of their citizenship and imply to his base these people shouldn’t be here and are right to be concerned about immigration fraud. We should also note how Trump got into politics by promoting birtherism and called President Barack Obama’s birth certificate a fraud after he showed it. Revoking passports may not be illegal, but they’re nonetheless dehumanizing, especially when the individual is a South Texas Latino who’s lived in the US their whole life.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Rod Rosenstein Has Left the Building (Okay, He Hasn’t, Yet)

On Friday, September 20, 2018, the New York Times reported that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said he wanted to record conversations with Donald Trump in 2017. He also discussed using the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office. He also talked about wearing a wire to catch him on tape. Though Rosenstein denied the report, one source told the Times he was being sarcastic. Eventually neither was carried out. The Times report was primarily based on anonymous source accounts and contemporaneous Andrew McCabe memo descriptions.

On Monday, September 24, 2018, news came that Rod Rosenstein’s position as deputy attorney general is now facing an uncertain future. Initial reports said he resigned or got fired, which was later debunked. As of now, it’s expected that Rosenstein will meet with Donald Trump to discuss his future with the Department of Justice. But the deputy attorney general expects to be fired. At any rate, the deputy attorney general’s possible departure is significant. Due to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal from the Russia probe over lying to Congress about his Russian contacts, Rosenstein was responsible for overseeing Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign during the 2016 presidential election.

  • According to court testimony, Mueller’s team has admitted to informing Rosenstein of all major decisions in advance, and that he’d have authority to overrule them.
  • Rosenstein approved Mueller’s assembly of an all-star team that totaled 17 prosecutors at its height.
  • In August 2017, Rosenstein wrote a memo to Mueller listing many people and topics he was authorized to investigate. The publicly released version is heavily redacted.
  • Rosenstein held press conferences announcing Mueller’s 2 major indictments of Russians for election interference like the February social media indictment and the July email hacking indictment.
  • Rosenstein was also reportedly involved in Mueller’s decision to refer an investigation into Michael Cohen to federal prosecutors in Manhattan, resulting in Cohen’s guilty plea to tax, bank fraud, and campaign finance violations in August.

Furthermore, Rosenstein has helped to preemptively protect Mueller from firing by testifying that regulation under which he appointed the special counsel gives him to send him on his way. So it’s clear that a Trump order to fire Mueller would be legally dubious.
For over a year, Rod Rosenstein has had to walk a delicate tightrope. On one hand, he was committed to protecting the investigation from conservatives inside and outside Congress who believed it biased against Donald Trump and urged him to fire the special counsel. Yet, Rosenstein couldn’t champion the investigation too much or else he’d draw Trump’s ire. In other words, he had to keep both sides happy as they constantly went at each other’s throats. During a House Judiciary Committee hearing in December 2017 over the Strzok-Page exchanges, Rosenstein defended the texts’ release to satisfy the anti-Mueller Republicans, saying “We consulted with the inspector general to determine that he had no objection to releasing the material. If he had, we would not have released it.” Yet, Rosenstein also defended Mueller when asked whether he’d fire him. He replied, “If there were good cause, I would act. If there were no good cause, I would not. It would’ve been difficult to find anyone more qualified for this job.” Yet, keeping both sides happy allowed Rosenstein to claim support for his staff while also backing Donald Trump. It’s not a glamorous job but if he’s gone many fear Rosenstein might be replaced with a Trump crony who’d rein in the probe or even shut it down completely.

The current deputy attorney general’s potential departure strikes at the Trump-Russia investigation’s heart. Because Mueller had to run major investigative decisions past him. Rosenstein’s temporary replacement, Solicitor General Noel Francisco, could simply refuse to approve Mueller’s requests, effectively slowing the investigation to a crawl. Or he could fire Mueller outright if he felt there was a reason to do so. Rod Rosenstein refused to do that. Instead, he allowed Mueller’s probe to proceed unimpeded while Mueller indicted top Trump campaign officials. The Mueller probe’s future and perhaps even that of Trump’s presidency once depended on how well Rosenstein performed this delicate balancing act.

Those who worked for him have long characterized Rod Rosenstein as an apolitical straight shooter who doesn’t put up with bullshit and always tries to be fair. Appointed as a US attorney for Maryland by President George W. Bush in 2005 and kept on by President Barack Obama, he joined the Trump administration with broad bipartisan support at his confirmation. Sure, he and Jeff Sessions wrote a letter calling of the firing of FBI Director James Comey for his actions against Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election. However, it turns out that Rosenstein isn’t a man without bias. Since his bias tends to be for the rule of law and country over party or anyone in the White House. But he made up for it by hiring Robert Mueller as special counsel, and authorizing him to look into possible Trump-Russia ties as well as “any matters that arose or may arise from the investigation.” He didn’t stop Mueller from pursuing the investigation the way he saw fit. And he made every indication that he intended to keep letting Mueller proceed with his probe.

Nonetheless, Donald Trump has publicly and privately raged about the Russia probe and his Justice Department for months. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein have been his ire’s frequent targets. Trump has repeatedly complained that the Russia investigation is a “witch hunt,” that “flipping” witnesses (like Michael Flynn, Rick Gates, and Paul Manafort) should be illegal, and that the Justice Department isn’t doing enough to investigate Democrats like Hillary Clinton and isn’t personally loyal to him. As a result, Trump’s staunchest allies in Congress and in conservative media have joined him in this effort as well, training criticism on Sessions and Rosenstein. Hardline House conservatives have even threatened to force a vote on Rosenstein’s impeachment based on paper thin pretexts before eventually backing down. So the fear of Trump firing Rosenstein and replacing him with a kiss-ass crony that could either slow down the Mueller probe or shut it down entirely is well-justified.

But if Rod Rosenstein is fired or resigns, Solicitor General Noel Francisco can change all that, especially if Donald Trump throws enough Twitter tantrums to give significant pressure. Firing Robert Mueller may not completely undermine the investigation. Since 5 Trump associates have pleaded guilty and prosecutors are likely to follow leads from the investigation’s beginning in June 2016. The future is still unclear. But if Francisco doesn’t do Trump’s bidding, Trump could fire him, which can be more detrimental to Mueller’s probe and be in the making of a Saturday night massacre. A new deputy attorney general could effectively cripple the Mueller probe by rejecting his requests to investigate more people, get new evidence, or pursue more charges against more people of interests. In effect, Rosenstein’s potential ouster puts Mueller’s investigation in its most precarious position to date, possibly allowing Donald Trump, his family, and associates to escape further scrutiny. And considering the horrible stuff Trump and his swamp cronies have done, our country can’t face this.