Our Unfair Tax System

The great Benjamin Franklin once said that there are few things inevitable in life than death and taxes. Nonetheless, like many things in American life, the tax system is also rigged. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the richest Americans pay less of their income in taxes than the rest of us. Not to mention, rich people are also known to take advantage of various loopholes in the tax code they take advantage of since we’ve all heard about the Panama Papers. But often we don’t realize how screwed up the American tax system could be, especially in recent years.

Over the past 8 years, budget cuts have crippled the IRS. As a result, enforcement staff has dropped by a third and audits have declined across the board. Now since everyone dislikes paying taxes, you may not see much of a problem with it. But when government agencies suffer from lack of funding long enough, you realize how much the American public needs them to adequately do their jobs. The IRS is no different. Without enough staff, it has slashed even basic functions. It has drastically pulled back from pursuing people who don’t bother filing their tax returns. Since 2011, new “non-filer” investigations dropped from 2.4 million to 362,000 in 2017. Since tracking down these people and businesses down, determining what they owe, and reviewing what they submit in response can be time consuming. According to the IRS inspector general, this results in at least $3 million in lost revenue each year. Collections from people who do file but don’t pay have also plummeted. Since tax obligations expire after 10 years should the IRS not pursue them. Before the budget cuts began, such expirations were relatively infrequent. In 2010, only $482 million in expirations lapsed. In 2017, the number was $8.3 billion, which is 17 times as much. While the IRS’s ability to investigate criminals has been stymied as well. All in all, these IRS budget cuts have cost an estimate of $18 billion a year, but the true cost can run tens of billions more. So much that many current and former IRS employees fear that the United States could be on the verge of an era of brazen tax cheating from which it can’t recover. By any objective this is catastrophic of law enforcement that deprives an already cash-strapped government of hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue every year.

What’s worse is that the IRS faces a structural political problem. After all, it’s never been a popular agency since nobody likes paying taxes to support vital government services that benefit the American people. On one side are the anti-tax Republicans who are perfectly happy with passing tax-cuts for the rich and has been very anti-IRS since the 1990s. In fact, decades of Republican attacks and budget cuts have left the IRS a shell of its former self. On the other side are Democrats afraid of publicly supporting the taxman since nobody likes paying taxes. Not to mention, not all rich tax evaders are Republican donors either.

For rich people and corporations, it means less thorough audits on their assets should the IRS stop by and more leeway to send their money in an overseas tax shelter. After all, they’re the biggest beneficiaries of the IRS’s decay since it takes specialized well-trained personnel to audit a business or billionaire or to uncover a tax scheme. Those IRS employees are leaving in droves and are taking their expertise with them, often to the private sector. Auditing taxpayers with accounts in tax havens is difficult. Revenue agents have to investigate the cheating’s scope to and figure out whether it’s intentional. Tracking down necessary documents from foreign countries can add frustrating delays. Thus, the average time for an offshore audit is usually 3 years. For the country’s largest corporations, the danger of being hit with a billion-dollar tax bill has greatly diminished. Since the rich evade taxes the most simply because they have the resources to do so, the IRS has become less of a force to be feared. For studies have shown that audits have made people less likely to dodge taxes in the future. Take away the enforcement, evaders are emboldened and grow in number.

For the poor who receive the Earned Income Tax Credit, it may mean less audits. Yet, the audits are much more punishing. For someone living month-to-month, such exams can be devastating. That when ETIC recipients are audited, they’re less likely to claim the credit in the future. And because of a 2015 EITC law, EITC recipients are more likely to have their refund held. In 2017, ETIC recipients were audited at twice the rate of taxpayers making between $200,000 and $500,000 a year. Only those making more than $1 million were examined at significantly higher rates. In 2018, the IRS audited 381,000 ETIC recipients, which was among 36% of all audits the agency conducted that year, up from 33% in 2011 when the budget cuts began.

Now the Earned Income Tax Credit has had bipartisan support from both Democrats and Republicans alike since the 1970s. Conceived as a “work bonus” and welfare alternative, the program has grown over the subsequent decades. These days, the average credit is about $2,500 but the amount can exceed $6,000 for larger families. While the US Census Bureau has estimated that the EITC and the child tax credit together boost millions of children out of poverty every year more than any other government program. But unlike food stamps and Social Security, the EITC has no application process. Instead, taxpayers simply claim the credit on their tax returns. According to IRS estimates, millions of people get it wrong in both directions. Since about a fifth of US taxpayers don’t seek EITC while almost a quarter of the $74 billion paid out was “improperly” issued. And it’s that $17 billion estimate of “improper payments” is why the IRS focus on the EITC so much. However, some experts, including the IRS’s Tax Advocate Service, think this estimate is way too high. While one reason is it’s based on the outcome of audits. Since low-income taxpayers are much less likely to have competent representation to dispute the IRS’s conclusions.

Regardless of the precise error rate, the IRS acknowledges the problem’s primary cause isn’t fraud but the law itself. Since the law is too complex that it’s too easy for someone to think themselves eligible for EITC when they’re not. For instance, the same child might be a “dependent” but not a qualifying child under the EITC. While the IRS’s instructions to claiming credit run to 41 pages. As Washington and Lee law professor Michelle Lyon Drumbl told ProPublica, “My third-year law students, they sit down and study this material, and sometimes they still don’t get it.” And if third-year law students can’t determine who qualifies for EITC, then we shouldn’t hold low-income taxpayers’ improper claims against them.

In addition, since the 1990s, congressional Republicans have focused on these major problems and harshly criticized the IRS for failing to stop them. Despite that their rich donors’ overseas tax shelters pose a much larger problem than improper IRS refund payments to poor people. In 2015 congressional Republicans passed and President Barack Obama signed a bill requiring the IRS to hold EITC refunds until February 15 each year. The law’s purpose was to give the IRS more time to match tax returns with the corresponding W-2s to avoid misstatements of income. But it also meant that people to be audited are more likely to see their refund held instead of receiving the credit then undergoing the audit. For low-income taxpayers, that’s a crucial difference.

Furthermore, the IRS has a difficult task in auditing taxpayers claiming EITC because low-income families are often complicated. They’re more likely to be more multi-generational than more affluent filers as well as more likely to add or subtract household members from year to year. According to a study by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, only about 48% of low-income households with children were married couples, while it was 75% for other households.

IRS computers choose who to audit. Should those taxpayers respond, someone must review the documents. According to attorneys from the Low Income Taxpayer Clinic program, fewer employees to do that result in delays mounting in an already arduous process. Thus, it regularly takes more than a year to release a taxpayer’s refund, even if they have representation. As Texas RioGrande Legal Aid attorney Mandi Matlock told Pro Publica, “If the service doesn’t have the personnel to evaluate evidence submitted in a timely manner, then they should not be initiating the exams in the first place.” The IRS makes the situation needlessly worse by conducting virtually all EITC audits by correspondence, which are automated as with most Americans’ interaction with the IRS. And the computer-generated letters are far from simple that a survey by the Taxpayer Advocate Service found that more than a quarter of audited EITC recipients didn’t understand why the IRS put them under a microscope.

Generally, in regards to taxes, we generally accept the notion that the more money you make, the more likely you’ll get audited. EITC recipients who normally make less than $20,000 a year have long been the major exception and are already under more scrutiny compared to other taxpayers. Why? Many people claim the credit in error. And due to consistent pressure by congressional Republicans, the IRS has kept the audit rates higher. Because God forbid that poor people shouldn’t be carefully scrutinized any time they receive help staying alive. This is how you get the EITC audits along with drug tests and work requirements for food stamps and Medicaid just to make the poor ashamed of their poverty that’s out of their control. At the same time, there hasn’t been similar pressure to address more costly problem areas like tax evasion by business owners and rich people. Despite that they’re more likely to evade taxes and the IRS receives more revenue from auditing them. Besides, even if they owe money, rich people are way less likely to experience any financial hardship. Yet, as far as the GOP is concerned, rich people and corporations should do whatever they want like dodge taxes, engage in insider trading, and take advantage of ordinary workers.

Budget cuts and staff losses make this distortion starker. Despite that the richest taxpayers get audited at higher rates than the poorest, the gap’s been closing. Former deputy IRS Commissioner John Darlrymple told ProPublica “What happens is you have people at the very top being prioritized and people at the very bottom being prioritized, and everyone else is sort of squeezed out.” In other words, as the IRS has shrunk in size and capability, audits of the poor have accounted for more of what it does. Oregon US Senator Ron Wyden told ProPublica, “Those struggling to make ends meet are being unfairly audited while the fortunate few dodge taxes without consequence. The IRS needs more manpower to go after tax cheats of all sizes, and working Americans need a simpler way of obtaining a tax credit they’ve earned.” Thus, the more the IRS focuses on auditing poor tax cheats who are trying to get by, the rich ones are increasingly more able to dodge their taxes without consequence. It’s kind of like how a business executive who steals millions of dollars in insider trading get a short jail sentence at a minimum security facility while the desperately poor kid gets at least 5 years in prison for armed robbery at a convenience store. Sure, neither are right to do what they did, but the rich guy’s crimes inflict far more damage to society than the convenience store robber ever could. While the convenience store robber receives a disproportionately harsh sentence.

Taxpayers of all kinds cheat since cheating is part of human nature. While no social class has a monopoly on moral values. Yet, despite the scrutiny, IRS studies found that EITC recipients aren’t the worst offenders. For instance, in regards for certain kinds of business income, people pay only 37% of what they owe because they simply don’t report the income. As a result, hundreds of billions in government revenue is lost, which is way more than even the highest improper EITC payment estimates. But people owning business are audited by the IRS at the same rate as EITC recipients. National taxpayer advocate Nina Olson told ProPublica that the IRS disproportionate focus on stopping “improper payments” to EITC recipients is misguided. She asked, “What’s the difference between an erroneous EITC dollar being sent out and a dollar attributed to unreported self-employment income not collected?” Since she noted that unreported business income is “where the real money is.”

When EITC cheating does occur, tax preparers are usually the culprits. According to the National Consumer Law Center’s Chi Chi Wu, “They know the system, they game the system and ultimately the taxpayer ends up on the hook if there’s an audit.” While undercover NCLC and Government Accountability Office investigations found multiple preparers advising taxpayers to file bogus EITC claims. Using a tax preparer to figure out your taxes isn’t unusual in the US since 60% of American taxpayers use one. But commercial tax preparers have a dubious reputation as a predatory industry targeting the poor. And when EITC recipients are audited in the future, they’re less likely to claim credit in the future. But most states don’t require tax preparers to be licensed and the IRS has limited ability to oversee them. In fact, after launching a program certifying preparers and subjecting them to regular compliance checks, a federal appeals court ruled in 2014 that the IRS doesn’t have that power. Congress could pass a bill to confer that authority to the agency and should. But despite some bipartisan support for the idea, it hasn’t.

In any case, as soon as Donald Trump and his cronies lose the vestiges of political power, we must reform the tax system. While most Americans see tax evasion as illegal and morally wrong, the wealthy and powerful abide by a different set of rules than the rest of us. Not only does the tax system enable the wealthy to take advantage of tax loopholes, it also lets them to blur the line between legal tax avoidance and illegal tax evasion with little consequence. We must reform the tax system to close the loopholes rich people use to dodge taxes and substantially increase funding to the IRS to ensure that the laws we do enact are strongly enforced.

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The Insidious Inauguration Committee

In previous posts about President Cheeto Fascist, I have talked about how he manages to make almost any kind of charity or fundraising into a moneymaking scheme. And I talked about how he’s much more inclined to listen to donors willing to buy access to him through staying at his resorts and joining his clubs. Anyway, on Thursday, December 13, 2018, prosecutors in the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York announced they were looking into Donald Trump’s inaugural committee, according to the Wall Street Journal. Apparently, investigators are interested in the committee’s spending and into the potential corruption involving favors for its donors. While the Journal reports that the criminal probe stems at least in part from material during the FBI’s April raid on Michael Cohen’s residence and office.

Even before this, multiple media outlets reported earlier in 2018 that special counsel Robert Mueller was investigating potential Russia-tied donations to Donald Trump’s inaugural committee. Yet, this news is the first confirmation of a broader probe into his inauguration and its money. After all, aside from working as Paul Manafort’s henchmen, Rick Gates also helped run it. Nonetheless, given Trump’s history involving making money off his campaign and presidency, this news shouldn’t come as a surprise. Since there have long been glaring questions behind Trump’s inauguration and where it went. Because his inaugural committee raised a truly astonishing $106.7 million, doubling the previous record Barack Obama‘s 2009 inaugural set. But what they did with it remains unclear. Nonetheless, in a 2018 ProPublica and WNYC report, former chair of George W. Bush’s second inauguration, Greg Jenkins was dumbstruck. He told ProPublica, “They had a third of the staff and a quarter of the events and they raise at least twice as much as we did. So there’s the obvious question: Where did it go? I don’t know.”

After that truly unfortunate night in November when Donald Trump unexpectedly won the 2016 presidential election, he was tasked with setting up an inauguration that would be worthy of his name and “opulent” reputation, which would be a gilded trash heap. Now the federal government pays for the swearing-in ceremony and logistics. But Trump would have to pay for all the before and after parties and events like the pre-inaugural National Mall concert, dinners and events for elite supporters, and the inaugural ball. So he needed a lot of money. Of course, raising money for one’s inauguration isn’t unusual for an incoming president. Rather than fund the festivities himself, the so-called wealthiest not-my-president-elect ever, Trump decided to follow suit raising the cash from billionaires, wealthy financiers, and corporations.

So a week after his horrifying electoral victory, Donald Trump named a murderers’ row of superrich Republicans as “finance vice chairs” for the event. These included:

  • Sheldon Adelson– casino billionaire known for donating to Republican causes and had his wife receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom that she didn’t seem to deserve.
  • Steve Wynn– casino billionaire Donald Trump might’ve screwed over in Atlantic City who was later accused of sexually abusing his employees.
  • Elliot Broidy– a defense contractor and well-known Republican fundraiser who was later involved in hush money payments to a Playboy model and a client to Michael Cohen. In 2009, he pleaded guilty to paying bribes to get investments from the New York state pension fund. His felony conviction was later downgraded to a misdemeanor. He’s also come under scrutiny in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
  • Anthony Scaramucci– some corporate guy who was Donald Trump’s communications director for 10 days during the summer of 2017 and had to resign over an obscene interview with the New Yorker.

The committee’s treasurer Doug Ammerman was named by prosecutors as an unindicted co-conspirator in a tax shelter fraud during the early 2000s. He was also a partner at accounting firm, KPMG, which later admitted to criminal liability. A Senate investigation at the time include emails from Ammerman suggesting he was aware of the scheme. In addition, he’s currently accused in a shareholder lawsuit of dumping stock in a grilled chicken chain, El Pollo Loco, where he served on the board, ahead of a bad quarterly report.

The chair of the inaugural committee in charge of it all was Tom Barrack, a real estate billionaire investor and close friend of Donald Trump for 4 decades. Anyway, Barrack’s business interests have recently been concentrated in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. According to him, his goal was for the inauguration to have a “soft sensuality” and “poetic cadence.” Though I would more or less the event as akin to something between The Hunger Games and Titanic. To assist with planning and fundraising, Barrack turned to Manafort right-hand man, Rick Gates. After all, Barrack had known Paul Manafort since the 1970s and helped convince Trump to bring him on to the campaign. But to no one’s surprise, the choice raised eyebrows since Manafort had been ousted as Trump’s campaign chairman after the release of several scandal-laden stories about his work in for pro-Russian Ukranian politicians. And yet, Gates became instrumental in the committee’s activities as a possible “shadow” inauguration chair and Barrack’s “chief deputy.” As we know both Manafort and Gates have agreed to plea deals with Robert Mueller and promised to cooperate with government investigators. Gates kept his word. Manafort didn’t.

While Donald Trump’s inauguration crowd was nowhere near the largest in history, the inaugural fundraising certainly was. Tom Barrack, Rick Gates, and the team racked in more than $106 million, a jaw-dropping sum doubling the previous record set by Barack Obama’s team in 2009. However, the fundraising scheme went like this: the more you give, the more exclusive events you got access to. According to the Center for Public Integrity, listed perks with each donation target include:

  • $250,000 will get you a Union Station candlelight dinner with the Trumps and Pences.
  • $500,000 will get you a dinner with then Vice President-elect Mike Pence.
  • $1 million will get into the “Leadership Luncheon” at Donald Trump’s Washington DC Hotel.

OpenSecrets.org provided a donor list of those willing to fork over large sums. Among those include:

Finance Industry Big Shots (all donate $1 million each):

  • Robert Mercer– a rich eccentric billionaire who owns Brietbart and Cambridge Analytica that the New Yorker called “the reclusive hedge-fund tycoon behind the Trump presidency.”
  • Paul Singer– another hedge-fund billionaire who funds the Washington Free Beacon website which had ironically paid the opposition firm Fusion GPS to dig up dirt on Donald Trump during the primaries. Their efforts resulted in the infamous Steele Dossier which famously alleged the pee-pee tape situation. Wonder what inspired him to change his mind about the guy.
  • Steve Cohen– a man whose hedge fund group was closed down due to insider trading allegations.

Corporate America:

  • Contributed $2 million: AT&T
  • Contributed $1 million: Bank of America, Boeing, Dow Chemical, Pfizer, and Qualcomm
  • Contributed at least $500,000: JP Morgan Chase, FedEx, Chevron, Exxon, Fidelity, Citgo, and BP America.

Secret Conservative Groups (Donated $1 million each):

  • The American Action Network– a dark money nonprofit that’s spent tens of millions on elections since 2010.
  • “BH Group LLC” – a mysterious shell company whose true source remained unknown for more than a year. Only in 2018 did journalist Robert Maguire trace that contribution to a group tied to the conservative legal movement and Federalist Society executive Leonard Leo who’s found a prominent role advising Donald Trump on judicial nominations.

But these are only samples all of the donors who contributed vast sums from their bottom lists of cash reserves so they can have input in shaping policy that benefits their bottom line. After all, they didn’t just hand over their cash for the inaugural festivities. Nonetheless, they’re not the only kinds of donors who forked over their cash to Donald Trump’s inaugural committee either. For we must not forget those donors with major ties to Russia and other foreign countries who reportedly caught Robert Mueller’s eye. ABC News reported that Mueller questioned “about millions of dollars in donations to President Donald Trump’s inauguration committee” — specifically about “donors with connections to Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.” As far as the Associated Press is concerned, Mueller’s investigators have interviewed inauguration chair Tom Barrack. But the AP’s sources gave conflicting accounts on what they asked him about. One claimed they only asked him about Paul Manafort and Rick Gates. Another claimed questioning included, “financial matters about the campaign, the transition and Trump’s inauguration in January 2017.” In June 2017, another ABC News report stated that Mueller investigators why several billionaires with “deep ties to Russia” got access to “exclusive, invitation-only receptions” during the inauguration.

Nevertheless, beyond the many questions about the money Donald Trump’s inauguration committee collected, there have long been many questions about money going out of it. Though I highly suspect that much of it went straight to the Trump Organization. In the ProPublica and WNYC piece, several people involved in previous inaugurations were stumped over how Trump’s team could have possibly spent more than $100 million for what they got. Unfortunately, unlike in political campaigns, the inaugural committee isn’t required to disclose very much about its spending. Yet, in its nonprofit tax form, the committee does have to break down its expenses in broad categories. But they need not explain every line item.

In any case, according to the tax form, about half the money (more than $50 million) went to just 2 vendors. $25.8 million went to WIS Media Partners, an event production firm started by a now-former adviser to Melania Trump. Another $25 million went to Hargrove, Inc. for “event production.” What did these firms do with these massive sums? God only knows. But that leaves about $50 million remaining. From that, another $10 million in total went to another 3 vendors, $4.6 million was paid out in salaries, and $5 million was left over and given out as grants. Yet, where tens of millions more went remains a mystery, beyond the broadest categories given on the disclosure forms. For now, whether this was sloppy financial mismanagement or something shadier is unclear. Though given Donald Trump’s propensity for moneymaking schemes, it’s more likely the latter. Not to mention, if there’s anyone who knows where the money went, it’s Rick Gates. And whatever he knows, prosecutors know, too.

But whatever the case, the fundraising involved with Donald Trump‘s inauguration should show us that this unrespectable man is no savior to his white working class supporters. In fact, he just sees them as suckers gullible enough to buy into his fraudulent promises he never intends to keep. He is a man who can be bought and usually is. He may appreciate his supporters’ votes and constant praise they bestow on him at his ego boosting rallies. But if they really want his ear, then they will have to accumulate more wealth than most will ever be able to make in their lifetimes. Maybe even get a membership at his exclusive clubs and resorts that can cost thousands of dollars. If not, then millions. Besides, Trump has a well known history of screwing his employees just to enrich his own coffers. And he’s currently getting rich from the presidency with our taxpayer dollars.

Donald Trump as President Is the Real National Emergency

After weeks of battling over funding for a worthless border wall that won’t do shit, overseeing the longest government shutdown in US history, and finally signing on to a deal to fund the government, Donald Trump has declared a national emergency over a contrived crisis at the US Mexican Border. On Friday, February 15, 2019, Trump invoked this power in a unilateral effort to make progress on the stupid border wall Congress has previously denied him. Initially, he demanded $5 billion for constructing a 200-mile barrier at the border. Naturally, congressional Democrats have repeatedly refused to go anywhere near that number. In the final deal, he got about $1.3 billion for border fencing, far less than the desired amount. So unhappy with the money and not getting his way, Trump went to declare a national emergency to get more.

So where will all this money come from? Well, Donald Trump will try cobbling together from a number of areas and redirect them for border wall construction. According to White House officials, this money would comprise of $600 million from the Treasury Forfeiture Fund or money seized by the US government, $2.5 billion from the Department of Defense’s counter-drug activities, and $3.6 billion from other military construction accounts. Though Trump won’t try to take anything from disaster relief, yet.
Now the fact Donald Trump has declared a national emergency in addition to a spending deal isn’t surprising since he’s been wavering on the idea for weeks. So why declare a national emergency when he’s already got a spending deal? Because Trump doesn’t want to admit he lost. Since he’s already getting less for border fencing than he would’ve gotten in the bill he refused to sign in December and caused a 35-day shutdown over it. So he’s going for executive action instead despite that it’s debatable whether he can since no emergency at the border exists.

Since 1976, many presidents have declared national emergencies since there were 31 before Donald Trump’s declaration. However, the National Emergencies Act of 1976 only allows presidents to declare national emergencies in specific circumstances. So Trump can only use specific powers Congress has already codified in law. And he has to say which power he’s using. Besides, thanks to a little incident called Watergate, the 1976 law was meant to rein in presidential power and how presidents declared national emergencies. But it doesn’t define what counts or doesn’t.

Despite Donald Trump’s fearmongering about an influx of dangerous undocumented immigrants and terrorists at the US Mexican border, no such crisis exists. In fact, there’s no significant shift in the situation in recent days or weeks suddenly rendering such urgent action needed. However, we do have lingering crises with healthcare, opioids, climate change, aging infrastructure, family separations at the border, economic inequality, environmental devastation, right-wing and white supremacist terrorism, and more. But no. Besides, Trump has spent 2 years of an entirely-controlled Republican Congress to do something about immigration. While there’s been no significant shift in the situation that suddenly renders urgent actions unnecessary.

This isn’t the first time that Donald Trump has invented an immigration crisis when it’s convenient. Ahead of the midterms, he warned about a dire threat from a migrant caravan, only to essentially drop the issue after the elections. Sure, asylum seekers in the US have been on the rise, but seeking asylum is legal. But Trump’s not focusing on that. Congress won’t pay for his stupid border wall. And Trump thinks he’ll lose his base if he abandons it. So he’s creating a panic and going to any length possible to get it done.
Essentially, given the context, Donald Trump’s national emergency declaration is illegal and sets a dangerous precedent if it succeeds. Under Article I of the US Constitution clearly states, “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.” So only Congress can make such laws relating to public funds in non-emergency situations. Thus, no one person can seize control of our nation’s public funds. And even if Trump can declare a national emergency to get the money he wants, that’s not enough to build a wall. He also needs the authority of eminent domain from numerous unwilling owners, which must be expressed by the legislature. And there’s no clear authorization here.

This also puts a test on the Republican Party’s lack of willingness to stand up to Donald Trump. After spending years of complaining about Barack Obama’s overreach, they have so far deferred to Trump and encouraged Americans to do the same. But in this case, Republicans have expressed concern that Trump’s emergency declaration might lead to future Democratic presidents doing the same on issues like healthcare or climate change. Of course, their fears are well founded, since healthcare and climate change are actual national emergencies. The fact Trump basically declared a national emergency at the border before golfing at Mar-a-Lago for the weekend, it’s clear he’s abusing his power. Thus, Trump’s emergency declaration is an obvious fraud since in a real emergency, you act fast.

As usual, Donald Trump will likely face court challenges over this declaration and he’ll probably see it as some vast radical left-wing conspiracy that’s out to get him. While he deserves to lose, it’s possible he could prevail since courts often give presidents undue deference on immigration and national security issues. But should he win, it would set a very dangerous precedents. Again, he can also see pushback from Congress, which can pass a joint resolution to override it with 2/3 majority in both houses. But that’s not going to happen since the Republicans have control of the Senate and will do whatever Trump wants. Nonetheless, the fact Trump basically declared a national emergency at the border before golfing at Mar-a-Lago for the weekend, it’s clear he’s abusing his power. Thus, Trump’s emergency declaration is an obvious fraud since in a real emergency, you act fast. In fake national emergencies, you act when the political timing is right to cover your ass because you need to back down from an ill-advised congressional fight followed from an ill-advised campaign promise.

Of course, US-Mexico border security isn’t perfect. But the world is full of problems that aren’t “emergencies” in the sense of requiring some kind of urgent extralegal repurposing of funds. Nonetheless, by robbing the nation’s drug interdiction and military construction budgets for his stupid border wall, Donald Trump will more likely make the nation’s problems worse than better. Since fencing our southern border has been ongoing for decades and is subject to diminishing returns, with valuable sections already fenced in.

In the past couple of months, the real crisis on display is Donald Trump’s total incompetence you can see from miles away. For he doesn’t understand a policy agenda or get anything done. Without Paul Ryan around to drive a legislative agenda he could rubber stamp, he’s failing. First, it’s shutting down the government and throwing millions of people’s lives into chaos. Second, it’s reopening the government having gotten nothing he could’ve had in December while adopting a “Hail Mary” scheme that will only make things worse. Though it’s better than a real shutdown, we should all be worried that Trump can’t handle a real crisis if it’s staring at him in the face.

This whole stupid wall farce began back in 2015 when Donald Trump promised to build a wall across the entire US-Mexican border and make Mexico pay for it. Even anyone with half a brain could see that this was an extremely stupid idea that was wasteful and unworkable in every way. But somehow thanks to racism and xenophobia, Trump transmogrified his opponents‘ mockery into a test of will. According to him, the political establishment didn’t want to secure the border, but Trump did. And the wall was proof. Now that Trump is in office much to our nightmares, he has been confronting the reality that his critics were right in every way. Since Mexico obviously won’t pay for his stupid border wall, he needs congressional appropriations and the cost-benefit analysis is valid. Trump has long ago conceded that he can’t build a wall across the entire border since there are places where It’s infeasible and useless. Not to mention, he’s also conceded that there won’t be a wall at all, but the previous steel bollard anti-pedestrian fencing he had previously mocked is a useful barrier and that Border Patrol prefers its see-through quality.

Thus, on a practical level, this whole dispute is simply about the spending levels and construction pace of a type of border hardening that’s been underway for years. While Republicans think it’s important, Democrats find this border hardening rightfully wasteful. Any halfway competent president would see this as the most banal political controversy imaginable. Since if you want to get money for a pet project, you have to offer something to your opponents in exchange. But Donald Trump’s problem here is that the wall is such a terrible idea that his allies and staff know it. The sort of illicit border crossings that these pedestrian fences are supposed to prevent have already fallen to very low levels and the immigration conversation has moved on to other things like the treatment of asylum-seeking families from Central America. But because the wall is bad, immigration hawks don’t want to make any meaningful concessions to get it. Anytime talks seem to take off about some swap of help for DREAMers in exchange for wall money, the hawks swoop in with a bunch of other demands having nothing to do with the wall. That conservatives don’t want to make concessions on an inherently bad idea is reasonable. But at the same time, if your allies aren’t willing to make concessions on a bad idea, it’s better to let the matter slide, not throw a tantrum. But Trump won’t do that.

First, the shutdown and now the “emergency” both stem from the basic fact that Donald Trump will neither admit the whole spiel was crock nor decide to act like someone who genuinely wants a wall and make a deal to get it. Instead, everyone’s time and money will be wasted on litigation while money will be taken away from duly authorized programs and sent to a useless construction project nobody really wants. This isn’t the worst thing anyone has done in American politics. Hell, it’s not even close to being the worst thing Trump has ever done. But it’s arguably the most absurd. Not to mention, it once again raises the fundamental question about Trump. When you have a president who can’t handle relatively banal problems like a $5 billion appropriation for a pet project, what will happen when a real crisis hits? Oh, wait, he is the crisis.

The Mad Hatter Gets Cuffed

In the early daylight hours of Friday, January 25, 2019, longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone was arrested at his Florida home in connection with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. He was indicted for obstruction, making false statements, and witness tampering. These charges center on Stone’s lies to the House Intelligence Committee during a 2017 hearing about his statements and efforts to get in touch with WikiLeaks during the 2016 presidential campaign. The indictment conspicuously mentions that “a senior Trump campaign official was directed to contact Stone” about what WikiLeaks might have on Hillary Clinton. However, the indictment doesn’t attempt to explain why Stone would lie about this or tell a definitive story about what happened between him and Wikileaks at the time. Nor has he been charged with any criminal activity during the campaign. In fact, the actual charges against Roger Stone don’t allege that he committed any crimes during the 2016 campaign. Instead, they alleged him attempting to obstruct investigations into what happened afterward.

The hacking and leaking of the Democrats’ emails has long been the centerpiece of the Mueller investigation. Already, Robert Mueller has charged several Russian intelligence officers with this. Eventually, WikiLeaks publicly posted many of these emails with the Democratic National Committee’s in July 2016 and Clinton campaign chair John Podesta’s 4 months later.

Roger Stone’s various statements including public ones, raised questions on whether he had some sort of inside knowledge about WikiLeaks or its plans. He’s denied knowing anything about it, claiming that anything he knew about WikiLeaks came from an intermediary, radio host Randy Credico. Now Stone has been accused of lying to the House Intelligence Committee in 2017 (on 5 counts) and trying to tamper with Credico as a witness so that he’d stick to that false story. Overall, while the indictment aptly establishes that Stone lied about WikiLeaks, it doesn’t tell the full story about what happened between Stone, WikiLeaks, and the various intermediaries in 2016.

Dressed like a super villain, Roger Stone has been a longtime GOP operative whose reputation for dirty tricks days all the way back to Richard Nixon’s 1972 reelection campaign. During the mid-1980s, Stone has been an on-and-off adviser to Donald Trump and co-founded a famous lobbying firm with Paul Manafort during that same decade. When Trump began his presidential campaign in 2015, Stone was a part of his original team. But he lasted only a month, departing the operation in early August after clashing with staffers. Nevertheless, he remained in Trump’s orbit, communicating with the candidate himself afterward. In fact, he helped engineer Manafort’s hiring on the campaign. As the 2016 general election neared, Stone frequently spoke about the hacks and leaks of Democratic emails and other documents. In August, he praised a Russian intelligence run online persona said to be responsible for them, “Guccifer 2.0.” In addition, he claimed that he “communicated” with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange who posted the DNC emails. While he repeatedly hinted of more damaging Clinton material coming during the next 2 months. Only after the election did we learn about his private communication with both entities.

According to the new indictment, after July 22, 2016, “a senior Trump Campaign official was directed to contact Roger Stone about any additional releases and what other damaging information” WikiLeaks “had regarding the Clinton Campaign.” This indicates that the Trump campaign wanted to stay updated on what WikiLeaks had about Hillary Clinton and that Stone was the guy who kept them in the know. But prosecutors don’t give away any more details about who directed that campaign official to reach out to Stone. For that reason, this tidbit implication isn’t totally clear. But prosecutors certainly included this tantalizing detail for a reason.

Around this time, Roger Stone also had a set of communications with conservative author and conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi, regarding getting contact from Julian Assange. On July 25, Stone emailed Corsi telling him to “get to” Assange in the “Ecuadorian Embassy in London and get the pending” WikiLeaks “emails.” Corsi forwarded the message to an “overseas individual.” On July 31, Stone wrote to Corsi that Trump campaign adviser Ted Malloch ”should see” Assange. On August 2, Corsi emailed Stone claiming knowledge of Assange’s plans. According to him, “Word is friend in embassy plans 2 more dumps. One shortly after I’m back [from a trip in Europe]. 2nd in Oct. Impact planned to be very damaging..” Corsi continued: “Would not hurt to start suggesting HRC old, memory bad, has stroke — neither he nor she well. I expect that much of next dump focus, setting stage for [Clinton] Foundation debacle.”

Not long afterward on August 4, Roger Stone emailed fellow ex-Trump adviser Sam Nunberg, “I dined with Julian Assange last night.” Though Stone said it was a joke when the email became public long afterwards.The day after he emailed Sam Nunberg, Stone penned a Brietbart article taking Guccifer’s story about being the lone hacker who stole the DNC emails at face value and argued that Russia probably didn’t do it (despite that they certainly did and that Guccifer was a Russian intel official). He also tweeted, “Julian Assange is a hero.” On August 8, 2016, Stone began publicly claiming to have inside information, saying “I actually have communicated with Assange. I believe the next tranche of his documents pertain to the Clinton Foundation but there’s no telling what the October surprise may be.”

A few days later, Roger Stone began tweeting and DMing with Guccifer 2.0 (who again, has been identified as a Russian intelligence officer). Some of these DMs later leaked, leading Stone to post what he claimed was the full exchange (it wasn’t). Not surprisingly, the posted messages were mainly friendly chitchat and not particularly substantive (which weren’t mentioned in the new indictment). On August 21, 2016, Stone tweeted an odd prediction, “Trust me, it will soon the Podesta’s time in the barrel. #CrookedHillary.” Months before the Podesta emails became public, many would point out to this and ask whether Stone had any advance knowledge of the Podesta email leak. But Stone later claimed that since this came in the midst of a scandal surrounding Paul Manafort’s Ukraine work, he merely predicted “Podesta’s business dealings would be exposed.”

In October 2016, Roger Stone took on a new role of WikiLeaks hype man. He again claimed inside knowledge saying a “friend” of his met with Julian Assange and learned “the mother lode is coming Wednesday.” He tweeted: “Wednesday @HillaryClinton is done. #Wikileaks.” When nothing came that Wednesday, Stone tweeted: “Libs thinking Assange will stand down are wishful thinking. Payload coming. #Lockthemup.” Assange posted the Podesta emails 2 days later. Immediately, there were questions about whether the garrulous operative have been involved. This spurred WikiLeaks to tweet that the group “has never communicated with Roger Stone.” The Atlantic reported that Stone DMed the WikiLeaks Twitter account afterward, complaining they were “attacking” him. WikiLeaks responded, “The false claims of association are being used by the democrats to undermine the impact of our publications. Don’t go there if you don’t want us to correct you.” Stone shot back, “Ha! The more you ‘correct’ me the more people think you’re lying. Your operation leaks like a sieve. You need to figure out who your friends are.”

By 2017, Roger Stone was putting forward an apparent cover story for whatever actually happened in 2016. He insisted that everything he heard about Julian Assange and WikiLeaks came from his “intermediary” talk radio host Randy Credico. When Stone went in to testify before the House Intelligence Committee during a closed session in September, he stuck to that story.

Roger Stone had also put an effort to get Randy Credico to stick to his false story, sometimes using Godfather references. When Credico repeatedly asked Stone to correct his testimony, Stone refused. When Credico was called to testify before the House Intelligence Committee in November 2017, Stone tried to convince him to lie in support to Stone’s initial testimony. According to prosecutors, Stone did this quite colorfully, telling Credico he should claim that he was his only contact to Julian Assange, that he didn’t remember what he told Stone, or what Stone referred to as pulling a “Frank Pentangeli,” recanting testimony during a hearing. In December, according to prosecutors, Credico informed the House Intelligence Committee that he’d plead the Fifth if subpoenaed to testify in part to “avoid providing evidence that would show Stone’s previous testimony to Congress was false.”

But Roger Stone and Randy Credico continued to discuss the Russian investigation. While Stone repeatedly made it clear that Credico would pay if he talked to law enforcement and contradicted his statements. He texted the radio host at one point, “‘Stonewall it. Plead the fifth. Anything to save the plan’ … Richard Nixon.” Stone later said, “If you turned over anything to the FBI you’re a fool.” Eventually, when Credico wouldn’t stick to his story, Stone got angrier, writing in April 2018, “You are a rat. A stoolie. You backstab your friends.” He then threatened to steal Credico’s therapy dog before deciding he’d threaten the host’s life instead.

There’s ample documentary evidence that Roger Stone’s story about Randy Credico being his only contact with Assange is indeed, false. For the email exchanges with Jerome Corsi show that Stone talked to both men (with Stone and Credico’s correspondence telling a similar story). While there are allusions to what Stone had told top Trump campaign members about WikiLeaks’ plans. But it doesn’t read as any sort of final effort from prosecutors to sum up what happened back then. Or perhaps the Mueller crew don’t have sufficient evidence to show it.

In his book, Silent No More: How I Became a Political Prisoner of Mueller’s “Witch Hunt,” conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi goes into a lot of detail about what Robert Mueller’s prosecutors asked him and what evidence they had. Here, Corsi makes some surprising disclosures and admissions that really could shed light in the Mueller investigation. These parts of Corsi’s book are based on notes his lawyers took during the question sessions, according to him. In fact, he’s released a draft plea document Mueller put together, backing up some of them. According to his book, Corsi went in to talk with Mueller prosecutors in September 2018. At the time, he had little to offer, denying he helped Roger Stone get in touch with WikiLeaks. Instead, he claimed warning Stone that such activity that could expose him to surveillance and investigation. Mueller’s team broke off the interview with a prosecutor stating they have “demonstrable proof that what you said was false.” They suggested he review his old emails and come back for another session.

But before the next session, Jerome Corsi writes, Mueller prosecutor Aaron Zelinsky agreed to give his lawyer David Gray more details about what to expect next time. According to Corsi, Zelinsky told Gray:

  • They had evidence Corsi told multiple people that Julian Assange had John Podesta’s emails as early as August 2016, 2 months before that news became public.
  • That Corsi said that Assange had planned to release those emails in October, in a “drip-drip-drip” fashion, which proved spot on.
  • That they had evidence that Roger Stone had called Corsi shortly before the infamous Access Hollywood tape was released and urged him to get word to Assange to start dumping the Podesta emails to counteract the fallout. (This is a particular interesting claim because the first Podesta email batch was released a half an hour after the Access Hollywood tape was. There had long been speculation that the timing was connected, but there hasn’t been any evidence to support that).

In Jerome Corsi’s second round of questioning with Mueller’s team in September 2018, he admitted that all this is true. He also confessed to helping Roger Stone concoct a “cover story” to explain away the suspicious Podesta tweet. This seems to suggest that Trump associates had good advance information about the stolen (Russian-hacked) Podesta emails and that some sort of effort at coordinating their release to benefit Donald Trump’s campaign. Of course, Corsi walks back on the information he provides but what he does admit is a huge problem for Stone. Even worse, Corsi wrote that he explained on that during a conference call with the staff of the WorldNetDaily so there would be witnesses to back up this version of events, if it’s true. And perhaps those witnesses talked to Robert Mueller already.

Though most of Jerome Corsi’s book is untrustworthy conspiracy-fringe nonsense, he doesn’t appear to fabricate these emails and phone records. Since the Roger Stone indictment cited much of the email evidence Corsi cites in his book. Yet, the draft plea deal document alleges that Corsi deleted from before the Podesta release before the Mueller team found them. And he tried shifting his story in an attempt to hide what actually happened. Nonetheless, what this book seems to suggest is that Mueller had been intently interested in making some sort of case against Stone directly involving WikiLeaks and the Podesta emails. And he assembled a great deal of evidence toward that end even if investigators didn’t have enough to indict Stone on this. But the special counsel could still be pursuing that part of the probe so more charges against Stone and possibly Corsi.

The Senseless Shutdown

We all know that Donald Trump’s presidency is one long series of unfortunate events that’s making living in the United States a dystopian nightmare. As we all know, Trump managed to win over his supporters by promising a big, beautiful wall that Mexico will pay for. Despite that Mexico sure isn’t, especially since Trump called them rapists and criminals in a campaign speech. Now that Trump is president, he wants $5 billion to fund his wall at the US-Mexico border, which Congress doesn’t want to give him. Because it’s a stupid waste of money, which is plain to see if you just look at a map of North America. Or a history book on the Great Wall of China, which has benefitted the country more as a tourist attraction than protecting against Mongol invaders. Honestly, even Republicans wouldn’t give Trump any wall money when they were in charge of the legislative branch. As a result, the federal government has shut down in December and now we’re deep into its third week. While at least 800,000 federal workers are now struggling to keep it together along with the countless subcontractors and citizens who depend on them.

For the legions of government employees and contractors, the holidays was hell as they agonized over how to cover their electric bill, mortgage payment, or trip to the grocery store. And God only knows whether 2018 would be the worst Christmas of their lives that Donald Trump’s latest temper tantrum has upended. Some 420,000 of these are “essential personnel” and working without pay. This comprises of 41,000 law enforcement officials, 54,000 Border Patrol agents, and 53,000 Transportation Security Administration workers. 380,000 of these employees have been furloughed, including 28,000 Forest Service staff, 16,000 in the National Park Service, and 16,7000 at NASA. The longer the stoppage goes on, the more people will feel the squeeze. Already, the Small Business Administration has been shut down, delaying loan processing. A growing number of national parks, museums, and historic sites will need to close, disrupting tourism and for surrounding businesses. At some parks during the holidays, there were as many rangers and other support staff furloughed. While trash piled up, toilets overflowed, and facilities were vandalized. FDA routine screenings have been put on hold. The Federal Communications Commission is set to halt most of its operations as far as I know. The Indian land situation is about to get dire. Not to mention, the food stamp program is almost out of cash. The list goes on and on.

Sure federal employees will receive back pay, but only retroactively through a Congressional act after the government reopens. Yet, in the interim we must understand that their suffering will not influence Donald Trump to cave. Because Trump doesn’t care who gets hurt when it comes to getting what he wants. As of January 5, 2018, the GoFundMe website has 1,000 results for pages regarding the government shutdown. Most of the federal workers who’ve posted pages on the site ask for amounts ranging from $1000-$5000. While most pages have yet to receive any donations.

For the workers affected, those facing the greatest economic uncertainty are contractors who make up more than 40% of the government workforce. These not only comprise of white-collar workers, but also thousands of blue-collar jobs like janitors and security guards. Unlike the regular government employees, many contractors won’t be compensated for lost time. For these Americans, the shutdown’s effects can be potentially devastating even after the government reopens.

Apparently, Donald Trump’s supporters elected him because they saw him as a wily tycoon and deft dealmaker who could shake up Washington and bring decades of big-business knowhow to the Oval Office. In reality, Trump was never a peerless or even particularly skillful dealmaker. In fact, many of the most significant business transactions he engineered imploded. But because he was born into wealth, he could make his way in the world as a shameless self-promoter, a marketing confection, and billboard who frequently licensed his name on buildings others had paid for. In Trump’s professional life, his inept deal making often resulted in unmanageable debt and multiple bankruptcies. While his presidency has saw bungled, hapless efforts to overturn the Affordable Care Act, forge a nuke agreement with North Korea, wage trade wars with China, Mexico, and Canada, retain Republican control of the House, turn military and diplomatic strategy on its head, lay siege on any sensible immigration policy, and force a government shutdown to secure funding for a stupid border wall along the US-Mexico border.

Striking deals must have intimacy with the finer points of what every party wants out of a negotiation like realistic goals, maturity, patience, flexibility, and enough leverage so the other side can’t stall or walk away from the table. Of course, in his repeated efforts to build the wall to satisfy the white supremacists in his base, Donald Trump hasn’t met any of those perquisites. Nor has he addressed any of the real shortcomings or necessary enhancements of federal immigration policy. Obviously, Trump lacks the sophistication or interest to steep himself into policy details. So he already enters the immigration debate and deal making on his dumb wall at a distinct disadvantage. While Democrat and Republican politicians on Capitol Hill have immersed themselves in immigration discussions for years.

However, Donald Trump is perfectly willing to burn things down and ruin people’s lives just to get his own way. After all, look what he did in Atlantic City and tried to do to tenants at 100 Central Park South during the 1980s and 1990s. And he needlessly publicized himself as the shutdown’s author. Politicians in Washington DC should know that voters get sick of government shutdowns and don’t like those responsible for them. Of course, you can count on Trump trying to blame the Democrats for it or try to spin it as a positive thing once people get fed up with it. Still, if people know you as the guy who likes blowing things up, you’ll have a difficult time making deals. Besides, Trump had plenty of chances to avoid it and might’ve gotten the wall he wanted. In fact, one generous bipartisan Senate proposal offered $25 billion for a wall as long as the government opened a path to citizenship for 1.7 million young, undocumented immigrants in the US. Trump would’ve been wise to accept this deal. But no.

Good dealmakers prepare their teams to get the support they need to see the negotiation through. Donald Trump has overlooked the fact that more capable Republican dealmakers have initiated and guided his signature accomplishments of putting 2 conservative justices on the Supreme Court, pushing through an ill-advised tax overhaul nobody but Corporate America wanted, and passing criminal justice reform. On the other hand, building a wall has been Trump’s signature publicity stunt and has invoked fantasies to promote it like promising that Mexico would pay for it. Also, he’s become so emotionally invested in to the fruitless effort that he’s put himself at a strategic disadvantage. And Trump is now so consumed with appearing to win that he may not win at all. Left reeling and desperate, Trump has recently hinted that he may declare a national emergency on the southern border so he could simply appropriate the taxpayer funds he wants. This move may not even be legal and may compel Democrats to file a lawsuit to stop him regardless, and will likely further alienate some Republicans already fed up by his antics.

However, this is who Donald Trump is. All he cares about is fostering his own carnivalesque image. While has very little real interest in policy outcomes or other consequences unless they affect him personally. And he’s been there before. In 1988, he overpaid in a Plaza Hotel deal because he was so irrationally enamored by the property. He lost it in a bankruptcy a few years later. At the same time, he screwed up negotiations for another project that would’ve made him a transformative figure in New York real estate. Because Trump can’t exercise restraint, foresight, and financial discipline necessary to complete the deal. In 1996, he passed on a selling stake in one of his casinos that would’ve netted him $180 million and helped prop up his struggling Atlantic City operation because he didn’t want his name removed from the property. As you can see reading my blog post on Trump’s Atlantic City casino woes, countless people suffered from his actions. While he has still not learned his lesson and most likely never will.

But we must understand this isn’t a fight over border security. Despite Donald Trump’s wild claims, there’s no flood of savage foreigners pouring across the border. Even so, reasonable Democrats and Republicans recognize the need for bigger staff, better technology, and better fencing. Not to mention, both sides acknowledge the need for a sensible and more humane immigration and asylum policies. Even for competent administration, achieving all of this has proven to be a tall order. But already, Congress has already been allocating more money for border security. Despite that the Trump administration has spent less than 10% of what Congress had allocated this past year. Thus, to avoid the complex hard work that has traditionally gone with his job, Trump has instead created a political impasse over a symbol, a wall. Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney derided this wall as “an easy thing to sell politically” that “doesn’t really solve the problem.” While former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly told the Los Angeles Times that the administration had long ago abandoned the idea of a concrete wall as irrelevant to border security’s real needs.

Not that Donald Trump seems much interested in either the public will or the public good. Because Trump never has. For him, this shutdown is a self-declared point of pride like a gaudy display of his boldness, his manliness, and his political steadfastness. But in reality, it reveals his selfishness and his apathy. Nonetheless, this political charade is mostly about Donald Trump taking it out on everyone over not getting his own way. So he’s making it miserable for everyone and doesn’t care who gets hurt. Is making all these people go without pay worth it? For God’s sake, no way in hell. These people have work for the benefit of the people each and every day. They deserve better than be furloughed or work without pay over a budget dispute on a stupid wall that our country doesn’t even need. Many of these workers have suffered already with making rent, paying bills, or getting groceries. As of now federal workers and contractors reckon with the possibility that the shutdown will drag on for months, leaving them with no steady income to pay mounting bills. Even for regular non-contract employees who’ll eventually receive back pay after the shutdown is over, the grinding anxiety and financial costs of scraping by in the meantime will mount with each passing day. Many of these workers live paycheck to paycheck, with very little wiggle room. Some of their creditors are more understanding than others. But even one missed payment can carry heavy consequences.

Tales of Plea Deals: Part 4 – Maria Butina

On Thursday, December 13, 2018, 30-year-old Russian national and alleged spy Maria Butina admitted in federal court that she made contacts with the NRA and top Republican officials in an attempt to secretly influence US politics at Russia’s behest. A so-called “gun rights activist,” she pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to act as a foreign agent as part of a cooperation agreement with prosecutors. In addition, she admitted to acting under the direction of Alexander Torshin, another Russian fixture and gun rights supporter. She also worked with another individual to infiltrate conservative circles, who’s identified in documents as ”US Person 1” and is believed to be Paul Erickson, a longtime GOP operative with NRA connections. Also, he and Butina dated and lived together. The case against Maria Butina is separate from special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Yet, her activities fit into a broader Russian effort to influence US politics.

Allegedly from Siberia, Maria Butina claimed she moved to Moscow in 2010 in hopes of starting a furniture business and then an advertising agency once she realized the former venture was too expensive. Though the exact sequence of events is unclear, we know that 2 things happened soon afterward. First, Butina founded a Russian gun rights group called Right to Bear Arms though that may have been a front. Since Russia is known to have very strict gun laws, anyway. Second, she began working as Alexander Torshin’s special assistant. Citing a shared interest in gun rights, the two were introduced to top NRA officials, began regularly attending NRA conventions in the United States, and became NRA “life members.” They also began to reciprocate with their own invitations to NRA bigwigs to visit Moscow for Right to Bear Arms events. The first of which took place on November 2013 and featured “a concealed carry fashion show.” It is there she met GOP operative Paul Erickson whom she got very close to at some point. Eventually, they dated and lived together. By 2015, the were close enough for Butina to email Erickson her proposed plan to influence American politics.

So what was this plan to influence US politics? The Justice Department claims that around March 24, 2015, Maria Butina emailed Paul Erickson a proposal project called “Diplomacy” apparently looking for his input. The email itself had the subject line “The Second Pozner.” An FBI agent’s affidavit suggests this refers to “Vladimir Pozner, a propagandist who served in the disinformation department of the Soviet KGB and who often appeared on Western television.” The project proposal makes several assertions:

  • Republicans will likely win control of the US government in the 2016 elections.
  • The GOP is “traditionally associated with negative and aggressive foreign policy” toward Russia. But now can be a good time to improve relations.
  • The NRA has a “central place and influence” in the Republican Party since it helps fund political candidates and sponsors events.
  • Butina and Torshin already have NRA ties to the NRA’s leadership and she’s visited the US once.
  • Therefore, Butina requested a $125,000 budget so she could participate in “all upcoming major conferences” related to the Republican Party before the 2016 elections.

Now you’d think Paul Erickson would get suspicious here. But he soon wrote back to Maria Butina with advice on her “special project,” including a list of potential media, business, and political contacts she could meet with “off the record.” He wrote, “If you were to sit down with your special friends and make a list of ALL the most important contacts you could find in America for a time when the political situation between the U.S. and Russia will change, you could NOT do better than the list that I just emailed you. All that is needed is for your friends to provide you with the financial resources to spend the time in America to TAKE ALL OF THESE MEETINGS.”

So what we have here is a plan to influence the Republican Party to be friendlier with Russia, based on the perceptive and accurate insight that the GOP is extremely beholden to the NRA, which is why it’s almost impossible. Keep in mind this was months before Donald Trump entered the presidential race, and when most believed the Republican Party would choose a more hawkish and traditional nominee. As for who was ultimately behind it? A more recent government filing mentions that Maria Butina refers to a particular “funder” who has “deep ties to the Russian Presidential Administration.” This isn’t Alexander Torshin but an unidentified Russian oligarch with a $1.2 billion net worth.

But even before Maria Butina wrote this plan, she had made some inroads in conservative activist circles. In 2013, she got Trump future National Security Adviser John Bolton to record a video message on gun rights for her group. In 2014 the conservative TownHall website ran an interview with her under the headline, “Meet the woman working with the NRA and fighting for gun rights in Russia.”

Yet, when Republican presidential candidates began traveling the country to campaign in 2015, Maria Butina, too, started popping up at events and even posed for photos with candidates like Scott Walker, Rick Santorum, and Bobby Jindal. Soon after Donald Trump entered the race and skyrocketed to the top of the polls, Butina attended an event with him, too. This was the Freedom Fest at Las Vegas in July 2015. In fact, Trump called on her to answer a question. Saying she was from Russia, Butina asked, “If you would be elected as the president, what would be your foreign politics, especially in the relationships with my country? And do you want to continue the policy of sanctions that are damaging to both economies, or do you have other ideas?” Trump answered by talking about how “the whole world hates us” under Obama, and then said, “I know Putin, and I’ll tell you what, we get along with Putin. I don’t think you’d need the sanctions. I think that we would get along very, very well. I really believe that.”

In their book, Russian Roulette, Michael Isikoff and David Corn reported that Donald Trump’s own advisers would look back on the exchange and find it strange:

“Steve Bannon raised it with RNC chair Reince Priebus. How was it that this Russian woman happened to be in Las Vegas for that event? And how was it that Trump happened to call on her? And Trump’s response? It was odd, Bannon thought, that Trump had a fully developed answer.

“Priebus agreed there was something strange about Butina. Whenever there were events held by conservative groups, she was always around, he told Bannon.”

Maria Butina’s work continued in late 2015 and early 2016, as she went back and forth between the US and Russia:

  • She talked with Alexander Torshin about his plans to meet California Representative Dana Rohrbacher, the most pro-Russian member of Congress in Russia in August 2015.
  • In December 2015, Butina’s group helped pay for another NRA bigwig trip to Moscow. The delegation included Paul Erickson, former NRA president David Keene, then-Milwaukee sheriff David Clarke, and top NRA donors.
  • She and Torshin attended the National Prayer Breakfast in February 2016.
  • She and Erickson incorporated a shell company Bridges LLC, in South Dakota that same month, for unclear reasons.
  • She and Erickson also began planning a series of “friendship and dialogue dinners” with various American political players in Washington DC and New York.

However, around March 2016, references about a communications channel between the Russian government and the Republican Party began to pop up. By this point, the first round of primaries have already taken place and Donald Trump was the clear favorite to win the nomination. That month, Butina emailed an American that “Putin’s side” had given them a “yes.” She wrote that a “representative of the Russian Presidential administration” had given approval for “building this communication channel,” according to the FBI agent’s affidavit.

In May 2016, Paul Erickson sent an email to Trump campaign (and Jeff Sessions) staffer Rick Dearborn, with the subject “Kremlin connection.” He wrote: “Happenstance and the (sometimes) international reach of the NRA placed me in a position a couple of years ago to slowly begin cultivating a back-channel to President Putin’s Kremlin. The Kremlin believes that the only possibility of a true reset in this relationship would be with a new Republican White House.” He said that Vladimir Putin is “deadly serious about building a good relationship with Mr. Trump,” and wanted Trump to visit Moscow before the election. So, he said, the NRA’s convention in Louisville, Kentucky, would be a good place for “first contact” because “President Putin’s emissary on this front” would be there. Another conservative activist Richard Clay sent a similar email to Dearborn soon afterward, and specified that Alexander Torshin as the emissary. The email was reportedly forwarded to Jared Kushner who wrote back that they shouldn’t accept, which is ironic since he attended the infamous Trump Tower meeting with Donald Trump Jr. and Paul Manafort.

Later that month when the NRA held its convention in Louisville, Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin attended yet met Donald Trump Jr. at the dinner. According to Trump Jr.’s lawyer, they only made “gun-related small talk.” Two weeks later, Trump Jr. received an email offer of information that would incriminate Hillary Clinton as part of “Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Though there’s no clear indication that the 2 incidents are connected.

As the 2016 election drew nearer, Maria Butina moved to the United States on a student visa in order to receive a graduate degree from American University. At some point, she began living with Paul Erickson who’s twice her age. Yet, a government filing claims that she “appears to treat” this relationship “as simply a necessary aspect of her activities.” In other words, Butina was simply just using Erickson for her work with the Russians. But given how Erickson is twice her age and resembles Dilbert’s boss, you probably knew already. In October 2016, Erickson emailed an acquaintance that he’d help secure “a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key [Republican] leaders through, of all conduits, the [NRA].” But Donald Trump’s prospects looked grim that month since he was down and the polls while Hillary Clinton was generally believed to win. On October 5, Butina and Alexander Torshin exchanged the following direct messages, according to the FBI agent’s affidavit:

Butina: “Time will tell. We made our bet. I am following our game.” …

Torshin: “This is hard to teach. Patience and cold blood + faith in yourself. And everything will definitely turn out” …

Butina: “Yesterday’s dinner showed that American society is broken in relation to Russia. This is now the dividing line of opinions, the crucial one in the election race. [Republicans] are for us, [Democrats] against — 50/50. Our move here is very important.”

A week later, they exchanged more messages with Maria Butina writing, “Important things are ahead of us. Right now everything has to be quiet and careful.”

Unfortunately, we all know that Donald Trump won the 2016 election. After the race was called, Maria Butina wrote to Alexander Torshin, “I’m going to sleep. It’s 3 am here. I am ready for further orders.” 4 days later, Butina hosted a costume party for her birthday at a Washington restaurant. She dressed as the Russian empress Alexandra while Erickson came as Rasputin. There, Butina “brazenly claimed that she had been part of the Trump campaign’s communications with Russia,” according to 2 witnesses who talked to The Daily Beast.

Paul Erickson worked his GOP connections to influence Donald Trump’s transition team and the new administration’s staffing. Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin discussed who might be appointed secretary of state, with Butina asking about how “our people” felt about one name. She and Paul Erickson attended one of the inaugural balls together, and hosted guests at the Dupont Circle restaurant Russia House. Meanwhile, Butina planned another visit by Torshin and other Russians for the National Prayer Breakfast, set to be held shortly after Trump was sworn in “to establish a back channel communication,” as she emailed Erickson. She then set up a meeting between Trump and the Russians on the morning of the prayer breakfast, February 2, 2017. But at the last minute, the administration officially flagged Torshin’s name on the attendees list due to his suspected ties to organized crime. So the meeting didn’t happen.

After that, there’s been less published in reports and government filings about what Maria Butina has been up to. She allegedly asked a DC civil rights group about its cyber vulnerabilities for a supposed school project, according to the Washington Post. She dined with a Russian diplomat who the government suspects is an intelligence officer. At some point, the government obtained a note mentioning, “Maria’s ‘Russian Patriots In-Waiting’ Organization” and an “FSB offer of employment.” In April 2018, she testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee while she received her master’s degree in May. Then in July 2018, Butina and Paul Erickson ended their DC lease and began preparing for a trip. That is, until the FBI swooped in and arrested Butina. Since the bureau had its eyes on her since she moved to the US two years ago. But this arrest was rushed out of fear she’d leave the country and slip away from them.

Maria Butina initially pleaded not guilty to the charges against her, which at the time included as acting as an agent to a foreign government and conspiring to do so. However, that December, Butina pled guilty to the lesser charge of conspiring to act as a foreign agent. She still faces a maximum of 5 years in prison, though she’s unlikely to be sentenced to that amount given her deal with prosecutors. Nonetheless, by pleading guilty, Butina admitted that she tried to “establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence in US politics.” She sought those “unofficial lines” of communication for the “benefit of the Russian Federation,” acting through a Russian official.

Through it all, Maria Butina communicated regularly with the Russian official believed as Alexander Torshin, reporting to him about her efforts and observations. Though the two met Donald Trump Jr. at an NRA dinner. In Russia, Torshin is a major figure in its politics, serving in its parliament’s upper house for years. Since 2015, he’s been a deputy director at the central Russian bank. Torshin is also a gun enthusiast and longtime supporter of gun rights. Nonetheless, Spanish authorities have linked Torshin to money laundering and a Russian organized crime syndicate called the Taganskaya. In fact, they planned to arrest him when he was scheduled to fly into the Mallorca airport in 2013, but he didn’t show up. While the FBI is investigating whether he “illegally funneled money” into the NRA that was then spent to help Trump win. If true, this would be a major scandal implicating the NRA. But the group denies it. And this year, the US Treasury Department put Torshin on a list of sanctioned Russian officials and oligarchs.

Maria Butina also sought advice and helped plan events with the person believed as Paul Erickson, whose role in this and potential legal exposure, is still unclear. Erickson has a colorful history. He’s worked for conservative activist Richard Viguerie, for Pat Buchanan’s 1992 campaign, for Lorena Bobbit’s husband/victim, and for Zairean dictator Mobuto Sese Seko. More recently, he’s been on the American Conservative Union’s board and has close ties to NRA leadership since he fundraised for them. A Forbes columnist called him, “a sort of ‘secret master of the political universe’ known almost exclusively to the cognoscenti.”

Nonetheless, the exact nature and breadth on what’s being investigated on Maria Butina remains vague, making it unclear on how much legal jeopardy Donald Trump’s camp and the NRA is in. If the NRA really was tricked by a Russian spy, the whole group can be victim in all of this. Yet, a series of McClatchy reports dating from January, asserting that the FBI is investigating the NRA’s finances and specifically when Alexander Torshin “illegally funneled money” to the group “to help Donald Trump win the presidency.” Anyway, the NRA isn’t legally obligated to publicly reveal its donors and doesn’t do so. But we know it spent tens of millions of dollars in the 2016 to get Trump elected. Oregon US Senator Ron Wyden’s aide told McClatchy that the NRA had dodged questions on whether it accepted money from shell companies that could’ve been routed to the Russians.

As for Donald Trump’s associates, well, the government filings on Maria Butina are conspicuously light on references to her outreach to Trump’s team despite it being widely reported in the media. However, in May 2018, a Spanish organized crime prosecutor said that his government had given wiretaps on Alexander Torshin’s conversations to the FBI “just a few months ago” before adding, “Mr. Trump’s son should be concerned.”

Tales of Plea Deals: Part 3 – Michael Flynn

On Tuesday, December 4, 2018, Special Counsel Robert Mueller dropped a highly anticipated sentencing memo for former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI last year. Now the memo has large sections redacted since they described Flynn’s assistance with still ongoing investigations. But that still leaves a lot of text between the lines, amounting to 4 key findings.

First, Robert Mueller thinks Michael Flynn is doing such a good job cooperating with the investigation, that he’s happy to recommend Flynn serve no prison time. In fact, the special counsel praises Flynn’s input as “substantial,” writing that a “sentence that does not impose a term of incarceration” for him would be “appropriate and warranted.” Mueller continues, “His early cooperation was particularly valuable “because he was one of the few people with long-term and firsthand insight regarding events and issues under investigation by the SCO” (special counsel’s office). He then adds that Flynn’s decision to cooperate “likely affected the decisions of related firsthand witnesses to be forthcoming with the SCO and cooperate”— and redacts the sentence that follows. As for the specifics on Flynn’s cooperation, Mueller writes that the former National Security Adviser has “participated in 19 interviews” with either the special counsel’s office or other Justice Department office lawyers, as well as provided “documents and communications.” This stands contrast to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort who lied to federal investigators and gave the Trump White House advice on how to attack the Feds. You can guess Mueller’s sentencing memo on him will not be kind at all. And former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos who Mueller’s team claimed didn’t provide “substantial assistance” and complained that he talked to the press.

Second, Michael Flynn is currently cooperating with 3 different investigations, including Robert Mueller’s probe into Donald Trump’s campaign ties to Russia, a separate criminal investigation, and a third probe of some kind. But most of the other investigations’ details are redacted. And we don’t even know what type of investigation the third one is. For the criminal investigation, Mueller wrote that Flynn “provided substantial assistance.” But how? Well, figure that out yourself since the special counsel has redacted the 3-paragraph section explaining how. The third investigation just consists of a brief paragraph that’s all blacked out.

Third, Michael Flynn’s cooperation with Robert Mueller’s investigation apparently breaks down into 2 main areas. One focuses on contacts between Donald Trump’s transition team and Russia. As for the other area, well, we don’t know about that yet. Though the former section is heavily redacted, it’s not entirely. According to Mueller, Flynn helped his investigation “on a range of issues, including interactions between individuals in the Presidential Transition Team and Russia.” Anyway, Mueller starts off with the conduct to which Flynn pleaded guilty to like his own interactions with then-Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak about sanctions and a United Nations Security Council vote on Israeli settlement policy. In addition, the memo also mentioned that other transition team members “publicly repeated false information conveyed to them” by Flynn about his Kislyak contacts. This apparently refers to 2 people: Sean Spicer and then-Vice President-elect Mike Pence. At the time, both publicly claimed that Flynn and Kislyak didn’t discuss sanctions. But this section on the transition contacts ends with a few more redacted lines. We don’t know what they say. But one obvious question has long been just what Donald Trump new about Flynn’s Kislyak contacts and the false information Flynn gave to Spicer and Pence. Flynn could clearly explain this to Mueller. A second section appears to follow, signifying a subject change, but it’s redacted. Mueller begins that Flynn “also provided useful information concerning” ….. whatever, but we can only speculate.

Finally, the many redactions indicate that there’s still a lot going on behind the scenes that Robert Mueller doesn’t want the public to know about yet. Although there’s a round of reports and rumors that Mueller is ready to wrap up his investigation, the Flynn sentencing memo makes it clear that he’s not ready to show us all his cards just yet. Not only did Mueller’s team redact significant parts of the Trump-Russia section, but also entire sections on 2 other separate investigations. These redactions remind us of how little we know about what’s going on behind the scenes at the Justice Department and how much remains unsolved, or so it seems.

Nonetheless, though Robert Mueller gave a favorable assessment on Michael Flynn, the relationship isn’t a harmonious one. On Tuesday, December 11, 2018, Flynn submitted a filing containing details that seemingly implied how the FBI improperly questioned him over his contacts with Sergei Kislyak. The filing mentioned that agents hadn’t warned him that lying to the FBI was a crime and that then-FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe suggested that the questioning could be done more quickly if Flynn didn’t have a lawyer present. But that Friday, Mueller’s team fired back arguing that Flynn’s lies were premeditated and that he now attempted to “minimize the seriousness” of his crime. The special counsel emphasized that in lying to the FBI, Flynn had stuck to a false story he told others for weeks. Besides, Mueller wrote that Flynn would have to be idiot not to know that lying to the FBI was a crime (though he puts it more eloquently).

Some conservative media outlets have gone even further, suggesting that perhaps Michael Flynn didn’t really lie to the FBI, perhaps “misremembered” according to an editorial in the Wall Street Journal. But considering the timeline of Flynn’s contacts with Kislyak, this doesn’t make sense. Moreover, Flynn admitted to lying to the FBI under oath.

When the FBI questioned Michael Flynn on January 24, 2017, Flynn repeated his false story about his Kislyak contacts. He claimed he hadn’t urged Russia not to retaliate on sanctions (he did) and that he didn’t remember Kislyak calling him back to assure that Russia honored his request not to lash out. He also lied about a UN Security Council vote on Israeli settlements policy. Since he admitted to this under sworn testimony as part of a plea deal, Flynn doesn’t dispute this.

But in their sentencing memo, Michael Flynn’s lawyers seemed to make certain innuendos about the FBI’s behavior in setting up and conducting the interview. They called these “additional facts” that they deemed “relevant to the Court’s consideration”:

  • Then-Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe called Michael Flynn to tell him that the FBI wanted to interview him about his Kislyak contacts and had asked not to bring a lawyer because it would slow the process. Flynn agreed. (What?)
  • Peter Strzok and another agent showed up to interview Michael Flynn. Beforehand, the agents decided they wouldn’t warn Flynn that it was a crime to lie to the FBI. (Considering the career he’s had in military and the federal government, Flynn should’ve obviously known that lying to the FBI is a crime.)
  • Peter Strzok and the other agent also decided not to confront Michael Flynn if he lied. Instead, they’d try to refresh his memory by using “the exact words Flynn said” during his calls with Kislyak. (Was the FBI wiretapping Flynn’s calls to Russia? Seriously, Flynn had deliberately lied to the FBI and had made up his story at least 2 weeks in advance.)
  • One agent later said that Michael Flynn seemed “unguarded” during the interview, and that he appeared to see the agents as “allies.” (There is no way Flynn was unguarded for he had repeated his false story on more than one occasion. Besides, there’s no way he saw the FBI agents as allies.)

This memo is meant to obviously imply that Michael Flynn was railroaded, his interview was unfair, and that Peter Strzok and Andrew McCabe were in on the fix. Keep in mind that Strzok and McCabe have been subjected to frequent conservative attacks and have both been since fired from the FBI. The Wall Street Journal editorial page soon wrote about “The Flynn Entrapment” portraying him as a “tragic” Mueller target. Furthermore, the publication claimed it wasn’t “believable” that “a highly decorated officer would lie to FBI officers he agreed to see without counsel.” Instead, the Journal claimed that perhaps Flynn simply “misremembered.” But whatever happened, the FBI’s behavior “reeks of entrapment.”

However, this hypothesis that Michael Flynn “misremembered” makes absolutely no sense. In fact, Flynn started lying about his Kislyak contacts 2 weeks before the FBI interviewed him, and 2 weeks after the contacts themselves. Furthermore, Robert Mueller’s team made this a point in their filing, arguing that Flynn’s “decision to make false statements was voluntary and intentional.” They also emphasized that Andrew McCabe told Flynn exactly what he’d be questioned about before the FBI agents went over. Finally, they write:

“A sitting National Security Advisor, former head of an intelligence agency, retired Lieutenant General, and 33-year veteran of the armed forces knows he should not lie to federal agents. He does not need to be warned it is a crime to lie to federal agents to know the importance of telling them the truth. The defendant undoubtedly was aware, in light of his “many years” working with the FBI, that lying to the FBI carries serious consequences…

“The defendant agreed to meet with the FBI agents, without counsel, and answer their questions. His obligation to provide truthful information came with that agreement; it did not turn on the presence of counsel.”

Other conservative critics have mentioned that the FBI agents who interviewed Michael Flynn didn’t originally leave with the impression that he outright lied to them. Some have questioned whether Flynn lied at all. Though they acknowledge that Flynn admitted to making false statements to the FBI as part of his plea. But they think Robert Mueller strong-armed him into making that admission.

Indeed, the document describing Peter Strzok’s account of Michael Flynn’s interview, states that he had a “sure” demeanor that he “did not give any indicators of deception,” and that both agents had “the impression” that Flynn “was not lying or did not think he was lying.” But we remember that just because it may not seem that someone’s lying doesn’t mean they’re telling the truth. Though the document poses the question of how and why the government changed its mind. Or why the agents who interviewed him found Flynn’s denials at least plausible. Nonetheless, we don’t know what happened next because much of the document is redacted.

In any case, Robert Mueller’s team claims that the 2 agents were “misled by the defendant’s false denials” like Trump’s transition team members (Mike Pence, Sean Spicer, and Reince Priebus) were. So they write, “Those misimpressions do not change the fact,” that Flynn “was indeed lying, and knowingly made false statements to FBI agents in a national security investigation.” They remind that Flynn has already admitted making these false statements ”in sworn testimony” to the court. Furthermore, we shouldn’t forget about Flynn’s work with the Turkish government during the 2016 presidential campaign in which he received $530,000 for it from a Dutch shell company. Oh, and he extensively praised the Turkish government in an op-ed for The Hill. So the FBI interview wasn’t the first time Flynn had been deceptive about his foreign government contacts. Since such deception isn’t that unusual for him. Anyway, Flynn’s sentencing hearing didn’t go well so it’s been delayed as of December 2018.