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March 22 2017 9:42 AM

Report: Paul Manafort Drafted a Plan in 2005 to Influence American Politics for Putin’s Benefit

On Wednesday, the Associated Press reported that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort crafted a plan to influence American politics for a Russian billionaire aligned with Russian president Vladimir Putin in 2005. From the AP:

Manafort proposed in a confidential strategy plan as early as June 2005 that he would influence politics, business dealings and news coverage inside the United States, Europe and the former Soviet republics to benefit the Putin government, even as U.S.-Russia relations under Republican President George W. Bush grew worse. Manafort pitched the plans to Russian aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska, a close Putin ally with whom Manafort eventually signed a $10 million annual contract beginning in 2006, according to interviews with several people familiar with payments to Manafort and business records obtained by the AP. Manafort and Deripaska maintained a business relationship until at least 2009, according to one person familiar with the work.
"We are now of the belief that this model can greatly benefit the Putin Government if employed at the correct levels with the appropriate commitment to success," Manafort wrote in the 2005 memo to Deripaska. The effort, Manafort wrote, "will be offering a great service that can re-focus, both internally and externally, the policies of the Putin government."

According to the AP, Manafort told Deripaska that he and Putin should lobby the United States to allow oligarchs to maintain control of formerly state-owned property in Ukraine and recommended the building of “long-term relationships” with Western journalists. Manafort also boasted to Deripaska that his pro-Putin work in Ukraine included efforts to push pro-Putin policy "at the highest levels of the U.S. government - the White House, Capitol Hill and the State Department" and that he had enlisted the aid of a law firm with ties to then-President Bush.

Manafort, who confirmed for the AP that he worked for Deripaska but told the AP that nothing about that work was “inappropriate or nefarious,” reportedly said earlier this year that he still speaks with President Trump by telephone. Manafort’s former business partner Rick Gates, who was not mentioned in the documents the AP reviewed, said he was unaware of the nature of Manafort’s work with Deripaska but told the AP that he was generally aware Manafort had a relationship with him. Gates, who currently runs a pro-Trump nonprofit called America First Policies, has reportedly visited the White House several times and helped plan the inauguration.

Manafort was asked to resign from the Trump campaign in August, after an AP report revealed that he had run a secret lobbying campaign in Washington on the behalf of Ukraine’s pro-Russia ruling party. FBI Director James Comey confirmed this week that the FBI is investigating Trump’s ties to Russia but declined to say if Manafort is a target of that investigation. White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told the AP "we do not feel it's appropriate to comment on someone who is not an employee at the White House." Another administration official told Fox’s John Roberts the Trump campaign was unaware of Manafort’s work with Deripaska.

March 21 2017 11:31 PM

Rex Tillerson Doesn’t Exactly Sound Like Someone Who Wants to Be Secretary of State

Despite its early days as a political meme factory with a conservative bent, the Independent Journal Review wants very badly to be a real publication that young people not only click on occasionally, but also take seriously. The publication’s utterly absurd Obama-themed conspiracy theory story last week showed how far the publication has to go. The dilemma facing the IJR is that its growth as a receptacle for pro-Trump gossip has endeared it to the White House, which, in turn, has generated opportunities to appear more like a nonterrible website. The latest example of this mutual back-scratching situation came in the State Department’s decision to restrict press access on Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent trip to Asia to a single journalist, Erin McPike of the Independent Journal Review. The diplomatic press corps protested the decision; it didn’t matter.

So, on Tuesday, we got the IJR’s distillation of Tillerson, the oilman diplomat, which was a generally dull, scattered, overly adverbed account that featured a chocolate chip cookie on Tillerson’s desk, made mention of the “tumultuous Middle East” and troops “bounding into Iraq,” while, unfortunately, including this sentence: “Broadly, now that Trump’s in office, witness how business background melded with style has upended global dialogue about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)…” But just as hope appeared to be lost, the piece offered up this tidbit that appears to get to the heart of Tillerson’s Eeyore demeanor: He doesn’t want to be secretary of state! Or, at least, he didn’t.

From the IJR:

So why, then, did he want the gig?
“I didn’t want this job. I didn’t seek this job.” He paused to let that sink in. A beat or two passed before an aide piped up to ask him why he said yes. “My wife told me I’m supposed to do this.”
After watching the contortions of my face as I tried to figure out what to say next, he humbly explained that he had never met the president before the election. As president-elect, Trump wanted to have a conversation with Tillerson “about the world” given what he gleaned from the complex global issues he dealt with as CEO of Exxon Mobil.
“When he asked me at the end of that conversation to be secretary of state, I was stunned.”
When Tillerson got home and told his wife, Renda St. Clair, she shook her finger in his face and said, “I told you God’s not through with you.”
With a half-worn smile, he said, “I was supposed to retire in March, this month. I was going to go to the ranch to be with my grandkids.”
… “My wife convinced me. She was right. I’m supposed to do this.”

There we go. Good takeaway quote. At last, we're getting somewhere. Now just imagine what we’d know if there had been a dozen seasoned journalists on the plane.

March 21 2017 7:20 PM

Gosh, Golly, Goodness: Neil Gorsuch Sure Does Avoid Answering Questions in a Folksy Way

Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch is not only very good at refusing to answer senators’ questions, he’s also quite skilled at sounding very polite while doing so. Gosh, this is just exactly how a judge ought to sound. Golly, these senators sure do have some frustrating questions. Goodness, this confirmation process is taking a long time.

March 21 2017 6:27 PM

Franken to Gorsuch: “I Had a Career in Identifying Absurdity, and I Know It When I See It”

On Day 2 of Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation hearings, we’ve learned the Supreme Court nominee is extremely adept at evading questions. Midway through the afternoon, Sen. Al Franken figured out how to pin him down, asking Gorsuch to explain his dissent in TransAm Trucking v. Administrative Review Board—the “frozen trucker” case.

For a more legally rigorous explanation of how to read Gorsuch’s dissent, see Jed Handelsman Shugerman’s assessment in Slate. And for a nuanced explanation of why questioning Gorsuch’s thinking in the “frozen trucker” case may not be a winning argument for Senate Democrats, Elie Mystal has a compelling piece in Above the Law.

Nevertheless, what is satisfying and noteworthy about this specific exchange is that Franken—in his typical method of conceding his own limitations—turns this case into a story that reveals the “absurdity” of Gorsuch’s reasoning.

He starts by telling the story of Alphonse Maddin, a trucker who realized that his trailer’s brakes were frozen. He calls in for repairs but is told to wait. In the meantime, while waiting in extreme temperatures, he starts to experience what he thinks are signs of hypothermia. As Franken says, “If you fall asleep waiting in 14 below zero weather you can freeze to death. You can die.”

If Maddin had kept the trailer with frozen brakes attached, he would have been able to drive at 10 or 15 miles per hour on the highway. Franken asks Gorsuch whether he would have personally felt safe on the road with Maddin driving that truck. Gorsuch sputters before finally admitting he would not.

After waiting hours, Maddin unhitched and abandoned his trailer temporarily so he could get warm. He returned just 15 minutes later. Franken asks Gorsuch what he would have done in such a situation.

“Oh, senator," Gorsuch replies. "I don’t know what I would have done if I were in his shoes, and I don’t blame him at all for a moment for doing what he did do. I empathize with him entirely.”

Still, Maddin was fired for his actions. And Gorsuch was the only judge to uphold the company’s decision to fire him. Franken concludes:

It is absurd to say this company is in its rights to fire him because he made the choice of possibly dying from freezing to death, or causing other people to die possibly by driving an unsafe vehicle. That's absurd. Now I had a career in identifying absurdity. And I know it when I see it. And it makes me—you know, it makes me question your judgment.

Franken bypasses the academic discussion of how Gorsuch read the law and instead makes a much more effective point—that Gorsuch’s ruling in this case reveals something about his heart. And his heart is cold. Maybe not 14 degrees below zero, but certainly a few degrees south of freezing.

March 21 2017 5:36 PM

Today in Conservative Media: Neil Gorsuch “Obliterates” the Democrats

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A daily roundup of the biggest stories in right-wing media.

As confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch entered their second day, conservative media outlets focused on how Trump’s pick was faring.

Heading into the hearings, most conservative commentators remained enthusiastic about the nominee. Glenn Beck, for example, proposed on his radio program that Gorsuch would be “better than Scalia” when it comes to not deferring to bureaucrats.

Some sites, however, warned about Democratic obstruction, even as they were amused by liberal complaints. Breitbart, in particular, ran multiple posts on perceived griping from the left, featuring headlines such as “Al Franken: Gorsuch Represents Ideology That Has Already ‘Infected the Bench’ ” and “Leahy: Gorsuch ‘Selected by Extreme Interest Groups,’ ‘Nominated by a President Who Lost the Popular Vote.’ ” Neither of those posts directly criticized the senators’ remarks, apart from some light snark, but each generated thousands of comments from the site’s vociferous readers.

On Tuesday afternoon, Breitbart continued to promote a Charles Hurt post from Monday that began with an elaborate narrative about the United States Botanical Garden’s rare-to-bloom corpse flower. “Yes, in most of America, good people see a skunk and quickly scurry the other way. Here in Washington, it’s called a homecoming,” Hurt wrote, before comparing congressional Democrats to flies converging on the hearing. It was not clear what Gorsuch represented in this odoriferous metaphor.

As the hearing carried on, conservative outlets suggested that Gorsuch was deftly holding his ground. A Daily Caller post discussed a former University of Colorado law student’s claim that Gorsuch believes women in the workforce abuse maternity benefits, comparing her accusations to those of Anita Hill. The article concluded by noting, “The University of Colorado is most famous, of course, for launching an on-campus spying campaign encouraging students to report incidents of ‘bias’ to government officials at the school.” Other sites suggested the nominee needed little assistance to defend himself. Fox News, for example, wrote, “President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee on Tuesday swiftly batted down” the accusation by explaining that it had simply come up in a discussion of hypothetical scenarios.

Similarly, in “Gorsuch Obliterates Charges of Not Standing for ‘Little Man,’LifeZette ran through a list of his opinions that, he claimed, show he does not always favor corporations over the people. The Daily Caller also praised Gorsuch’s response, writing, “It’s almost as if Judge Neil Gorsuch knew this question was coming.” National Review wrote that Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who had asked that question, paid too much attention to his political beliefs, revealing that she fails to “set impartiality as a requirement for Supreme Court Justice nominees.” And a Fox News headline read, “Gorsuch Rebuffs Leahy on Trump Travel Ban Questions.”

Some sites focused on Gorsuch’s emotional state. The Blaze ran an article titled, “Gorsuch Reveals How He Felt When He Heard He Was on Trump’s SCOTUS List,” though it did not actually reveal how Gorsuch felt at the time. Likewise, on its home page, Fox News promoted its live blog by quoting the nominee’s assertion, “I regret putting my family through this,” a remark that he apparently delivered in reply to a question about the Citizens United decision.

Meanwhile, the Federalist offered an admiring appraisal of Gorsuch’s capacities as a prose stylist in “5 Writing Myths Neil Gorsuch’s Lively Opinions Bust to Bits.” Those busted myths include the premise that you shouldn’t use contractions in formal prose and that long sentences demonstrate a writer’s intellect. To show that Gorsuch “brings a breath of fresh air to the field of legal writing,” the Federalist quoted from an opinion in which Trump’s pick asserts that one who has merely conspired with the Aryan Brotherhood cannot be called a member of the organization.

On social media, conservative Facebook sites continued to work through Monday’s James Comey hearing, featuring widely shared memes suggesting collusion between the Democrats and Russia:

Another popular post suggested that the president could fire Comey:

March 21 2017 5:26 PM

The Laptop Ban Was Reportedly in Response to New Intelligence. It Still Doesn’t Make Sense.

Nancy Youssef of BuzzFeed reports that the ban on a number of electronic devices in the cabins of direct flights to the United States from 10 Middle Eastern airports was in response to “increased chatter picked up in recent weeks from militants saying they want to hide explosives in computers,” according to an unnamed U.S. official. The new policy was reportedly pushed by the White House before Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly signed on to it.

This goes beyond the statements put out by DHS so far, which have pointed only to a number of recent plots against airliners, none of them actually involving electronics in the cabins of U.S.–bound passenger planes. Officials have told other outlets that the policy was not based on a new, specific threat, though it’s not clear just how “specific” the chatter discussed in the BuzzFeed article was. However, the British government announced on Tuesday that it is also instituting a ban on large electronic devices on inbound flights from six countries in the Middle East and North Africa, some of them overlapping with the U.S. list. The Canadian transport minister says it may follow suit as well after consultations with Kelly. And the threat was compelling enough that Democrat Adam Schiff—ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee and one of the Trump administration’s most outspoken critics—said that a DHS briefing convinced him to “fully support the new security precautions.”

Still, coming on the heels of the Muslim travel ban, many of us are not inclined to give the Trump administration the benefit of the doubt on any new restrictions on travel from the Middle East. (The fact that none of the countries that apparently pose this new threat were included in the travel ban should raise even more questions about the criteria used to create that list.) And a number of things about the device ban don’t make a lot of sense. Why couldn’t a laptop converted into a bomb work just as well in the cargo hold as in the cabin? Why couldn’t someone plotting such an attack simply take a connecting flight through another airport? How come Britain’s restrictions don’t apply to the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, or Morocco—which are on the U.S. list—but do apply to Tunisia, which is not on the U.S. list? (A British government spokesman told the BBC, simply, “We have each taken our own decisions.”) Why wouldn’t DHS simply cite recent intelligence, as it has for previous, seemingly less urgent warnings, rather than giving vague reasoning to the public?

There are other reasons for concern. Journalists, activists, and anyone who might travel with sensitive data should be justifiably worried about the prospect of handing their devices over to unknown hands. Trump administration policies were already having a significant impact on the U.S. tourism industry, even before the announcement of yet another inconvenience for travelers to the United States. The fact that no U.S. airlines will be impacted—none have direct flights to the U.S. from these airports—makes this look suspiciously like protectionism.

It’s also been amply demonstrated that once these restrictions are implemented, they tend not to be lifted any time soon. Fifteen years after Richard Reid’s attempted shoe-bombing, most Americans are still required to take off their shoes at the security checkpoint.

And yet—a number of officials who are not the Trump administration or its supporters seem to think this is a reasonable precaution based on whatever this threat is. At this point, we’re just being asked to take their word for it.

March 21 2017 4:09 PM

Watch Sen. Whitehouse Grill Gorsuch About Dark Money, Corporate Power, and Citizens United

Tuesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court has not revealed a great deal about the nominee. Gorsuch has proved adept at avoiding substantive answers, citing his commitment to impartiality as reason to remain silent on important issues. But Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse rattled Gorsuch with a series of increasingly tough questions about corruption, corporate spending, and Citizens United. Noting that outside groups are spending millions of dollars urging Gorsuch’s confirmation—and previously spent millions attacking Judge Merrick Garland—Whitehouse brought up Philip F. Anschutz, a secretive billionaire with ties to Gorsuch. He then asked Gorsuch about the constitutionality disclosure requirements for political contributions and expenditures. Gorsuch refused to answer directly, of course, but the resulting colloquy is quite fascinating.

Clearly, Whitehouse was trying to press Gorsuch on whether he believes disclosure requirements violate the First Amendment by chilling the “speech” of donors and corporations who would like to spend millions of dollars electioneering. Justice Clarence Thomas has championed that view, asserting that the Constitution protects corporations’ right to spend and donate unlimited sums of money on politics in absolute secrecy. But in Citizens United, every justice except Thomas agreed that Congress could force corporations to comply with disclosure requirements when they spend money politicking. Gorsuch never revealed whether he sides with Thomas or the court’s majority—but he did state that disclosure laws may sometimes “chill expression,” leaving the door open to a future decision invalidating them on First Amendment grounds.

Whitehouse also landed a jab when he pointed out that the individuals and corporations that dominate our politics today spend vast amounts of money attempting to mold the judiciary. Donors like the Koch brothers pour their wealth into organizations like Cato, which, in turn, lobbies the court to strike down regulations that will benefit the Kochs’ businesses. Several justices also socialize with these billionaires. And because of our lax disclosure laws, it is often very difficult to determine who is spending money and how. For example, Whitehouse said, someone is spending $10 million to get Gorsuch confirmed.

“Hypothetically,” he continued, it could be “your friend Mr. Anschutz. We don't know because it is dark money.” He asked Gorsuch why someone thought it was worth $10 million to get him confirmed.

“You’d have to ask them,” a frustrated Gorsuch responded.

“I can’t,” Whitehouse said, “because I don’t know who they are. It’s just a front group.”

Whitehouse previewed this line of questioning on last week’s Amicus podcast with Dahlia Lithwick. The real thing sounded even better.

March 21 2017 1:31 PM

Schumer Suggests Gorsuch Confirmation Should Be Delayed Until Trump FBI Investigation Is Over

 

It is a common lament among progressives that Democrats in Congress don't have enough of a spine, and, as such, many are watching the party's handling of prospective Supreme Court justice Neil Gorsuch closely. The thinking goes that Democrats should protest the treatment of Obama SCOTUS nominee Merrick Garland—who went 10 months without even getting a hearing before his nomination expired—by refusing to participate in the process of confirming Gorsuch. Democrats don't have the numbers to ultimately stop Gorsuch from joining the court, but they could force majority leader Mitch McConnell to use the filibuster-eliminating "nuclear option" to confirm him, boycott votes and hearings, continually remind the press and public how badly Garland was treated by comparison, etc. And while Democrats on the Judiciary Committee have all been attending Gorsuch's confirmation hearings, which began Monday, minority leader Chuck Schumer just took to the Senate floor to float a mischevious line of reasoning that could suggest a turn toward obstructionism:

“I’d like to point out that it is the height of irony that Republicans held this Supreme Court seat open for nearly a calendar year while President Obama was in office, but are now rushing to fill the seat for a president whose campaign is under investigation by the FBI,” Schumer said, according to remarks sent out by his office.
Schumer said that, to him, it seemed “unseemly to be moving forward so fast on confirming a Supreme Court Justice with a lifetime appointment” due to the looming FBI investigation, which could potentially last for months or years.

If Schumer and the Dems actually follow through here, it's actually a pretty solid political troll strategy: satisfying the militant party "base" while reminding everyone else that it's not entirely implausible to think the current president might eventually be impeached for having colluded with a foreign enemy.

March 21 2017 11:49 AM

Paul Ryan Is Trying to Win Trump’s Support by Calling Him “the Closer” and That Is Very Funny

Politico ran two pieces on Monday about the disinterest that Donald Trump has been showing toward his and Paul Ryan's flailing Obamacare replacement bill. (Trump mentioned the bill only sparingly in a long campaign-style speech in Louisville, Kentucky, on Monday night, for example.) One of the pieces was about all the work Trump's aides are doing to coordinate health care strategy with House Republicans while their boss is busy golfing and complaining to random friends about the legal failure of the Muslim travel ban. That piece includes this gem of insight into the way that other political figures are forced to try to interact with a president who has no attention span and rarely seems to understand the details of anything he's talking about:

Members of Speaker Paul Ryan’s team, trying to appeal to Trump’s ego and deal-making sensibilities, have begun calling him the “closer” or the "ultimate closer.”

While flattery is never a bad strategy with Trump, it does seem like a president who has chalked up exactly zero significant policy accomplishments after two months in office may not truly be the ultimate closer. And even before taking office, Trump was involved in a staggering 3,500 lawsuits, which might indicate that—book titles aside—he is not particularly personally skilled in the art of conflict resolution.

As it happens, Trump had a meeting with House Republicans on Tuesday morning in which he tried to convince hard-line anti-spending holdouts to vote for the AHCA bill. How'd that go? Let's check in with hard-line leader Rep. Mark Meadows, who Trump apparently addressed directly during the meeting, via the Washington Post:

Meadows told reporters that the president had not made the sale, that the call-out was good-natured, and that conservative hold-outs would continue pressing for a tougher bill.
“I’m still a ‘no,’” he said. “I’ve had no indication that any of my Freedom Caucus colleagues have switched their votes.”

Hmm, yes, it looks like Trump was basically Brenda Leigh Johnson (that's Kyra Sedgwick's character in the seminal TNT police procedural The Closer, obviously!) in there.

How does Paul Ryan think everything went?

You did great, chief. Can I call you "champ"? How about "stud"? You're a real big stud, boss. Go get 'em.

March 21 2017 6:00 AM

U.S. Bans Laptops, Tablets, and Other Devices on Flights From 10 Middle Eastern Airports

 

The Department of Homeland Security has announced a new policy requiring large electronic devices to be placed in checked baggage on flights to the United States from 10 airports in the Middle East and North Africa. The policy pertains to any device larger than a “commonly available smartphone,” including laptops, tablets, e-readers, cameras, and electronic game systems. Medical devices are not included.

The affected airports are

  • Queen Alia International Airport in Amman, Jordan
  • Cairo International Airport
  • Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul, Turkey
  • King Abdul-Aziz International Airport in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
  • King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
  • Kuwait International Airport
  • Mohammed V Airport in Casablanca, Morocco
  • Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar
  • Dubai International Airport
  • Abu Dhabi International Airport

The policy comes as the Trump administration is preparing to defend its controversial travel ban in court and one week after a prominent Saudi prince visited the White House in hopes of improving ties between the countries.

An FAQ issued by the department didn’t cite a specific threat for prompting the new policy but stated that “we have reason to be concerned about attempts by terrorist groups to circumvent aviation security.” These particular airports were apparently chosen because of the “current threat picture.”

The DHS document cited a February 2016 laptop bombing onboard a flight from Mogadishu, Somalia (which does not have direct flights to the United States) to Djibouti as well as some fairly irrelevant examples, including the soda can bomb that brought down a Russian airliner in 2015 and greatest hits like the shoe bomber, the underwear bomber, and the liquid explosives plot of 2006.

DHS notes that these are only 10 of the 250 airports that serve as points of departure for flights to the United States, but several of them are major hubs. Dubai alone—the busiest airport for international travel in the world—serves 90 airlines flying from all over the world. This new device policy will affect a large number of passengers from Africa, South Asia, and East Asia, as well as the Middle East. It will also, of course, affect Americans traveling via these airports as well.

The ban was officially announced Tuesday morning, but Royal Jordanian Airlines apparently jumped the gun, tweeting a message Monday about the new policy on its flights to the United States, as well as its flight to Montréal, which stops in Detroit.

rj

(The tweet has since been deleted; Royal Jordanian’s twitter feed has been surprisingly feisty lately, running several ads mocking the Trump administration’s travel ban.)

In recent years, American airlines have been lobbying the U.S. government to renegotiate the treaties that remove restrictions on international air travel, arguing that wealthy countries in the Gulf like the United Arab Emirates and Qatar create unfair competition by subsidizing their state-owned airlines. They probably won't complain too much if the prospect of a 12-hour flight without a Kindle or laptop prompts travelers—particularly business travelers—to think twice about taking those cheaper flights routed through Dubai and Doha.

Update, March 21, 2017: Rep. Adam Schiff, ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee and usually a strong critic of the Trump administration, particularly the travel ban, says he supports the new policy based on the information he's received:

"Over the weekend, I received an additional briefing by the Department of Homeland Security, and I fully support the new security precautions implemented by the Department over the weekend. These steps are both necessary and proportional to the threat. "

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