The Slatest
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Nov. 30 2016 4:14 PM

Federal Ethics Agency Spent the Afternoon Sarcastically Praising Donald Trump

The U.S. Office of Government Ethics, as its name suggests, interprets and advises federal officials on the ethics laws and rules designed to help keep them honest. “When government decisions are made free from conflicts of interest, the public can have greater confidence in the integrity of executive branch programs and operations,” its mission statement admirably declares. Given what likely awaits the agency in less than two months’ time, it understandably had some, um, thoughts on Donald Trump’s vague, predawn Twitter announcement that he will be “leaving his great business” to focus on the presidency.

Remarkably, those exclamation-filled tweets from a normally staid Twitter account don’t appear to be the result of a hack. “Like everyone else, we were excited this morning to read the President-elect’s twitter feed indicating he wants to be free of conflicts of interest,” agency spokesman Seth Jaffe said in a statement on Wednesday afternoon. He added: “We don’t know the details of their plan, but we are willing and eager to help them with it.”

Don’t expect Trump to take OGE up on its offer. For nearly a year now he has maintained that when he is president, he will place his financial assets in a “blind trust” that will be run by his children. As I’ve explained before, however, Trump’s take on a “blind trust” is conveniently neither inherently blind nor particularly trustworthy. In a real blind trust, an independent trustee—that is, not someone’s own children—takes over a public official’s portfolio, thereby allowing the official to operate without knowledge of where or how his money is invested, so that it can’t influence his decisions. Furthermore, Trump would almost certainly need to divest himself of his interest in his company and its properties since, even in an unlikely world where he and his adult kids could refrain from talking shop, he wouldn’t be able to forget where much of his cash comes from, given that he’s slapped his last name on so many of his projects.

Trump being Trump, however, he has steadfastly refused to acknowledge that reality, and his morning announcement—which was really just an announcement that a future announcement was in the works—doesn’t actually change anything. Barring a significant reversal, the Trump family’s business interests will become intertwined with, and in many ways indistinguishable from, U.S. policy as soon as he is sworn in next January. The OGE isn’t happy about that—quite rightly.

I’ve reached out to the agency to see if it would like to elaborate on its Twitter strategy or on Trump’s announcement in general, but I haven’t yet heard back. I suppose it’s possible that someone at OGE is optimistically taking Trump at his word that he’ll do the right thing, perhaps as a way to entice him to actually do the right thing in the end. Far more likely, however, they’re using sarcasm to point out that Trump is actively refusing to promise to take the necessary steps to avoid obvious conflicts of interest between the Trump administration and the for-profit Trump Organization. Regardless of whether OGE is being willfully naive or slyly sarcastic, it’s striking that a federal agency tasked with steering the White House around ethical problems feels Twitter is the best medium to convey its important advice to the incoming president of the United States of America. Sadly, they may be out of other options.

Update, 4:31 p.m.: More from Jaffe, who sent along this statement concerning the tweets specifically:

The tweets that OGE posted today were responding only to the public statement that the President-elect made on his Twitter feed about his plans regarding conflicts of interest. OGE’s tweets were not based on any information about the President-elect’s plans beyond what was shared on his Twitter feed. OGE is non-partisan and does not endorse any individual.

Nov. 30 2016 1:11 PM

N.C. Officer Who Shot, Killed Keith Scott Won’t Face Charges

The North Carolina police officer who shot and killed Keith Lamont Scott earlier this year will not face charges in connection with Scott’s death, local authorities announced Wednesday. The Charlotte Observer with the details:

[District Attorney Andrew] said that evidence in the case shows that Scott stepped out of his SUV with a gun in his hand and ignored at least 10 commands from the five officers on the scene to drop it.
Murray said that Scott obtained the gun – which had been stolen in Gaston County – 18 days before the confrontation. One bullet was found in the chamber of the gun, the safety was off and Murray said Scott’s DNA was found on the grip and ammunition slide.

Scott (who was black) was shot and killed by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officer Brentley Vinson (who is also black) in September, an event that sparked several days of protests in the city, some of which turned violent. The unrest was fueled in large part by an assertion from Scott’s wife that he was unarmed at the time of the shooting, a claim that was initially backed up by several since-retracted reports from people on social media claiming to have witnessed the shooting firsthand. The police’s curious decision not to immediately release video of the deadly incident added to the confusion and anger. (The bodycam and dashcam footage ultimately did not clearly show whether Scott was armed.)

On Wednesday, Murray suggested the decision not to charge Vinson turned out to be a relatively easy one. He said he showed the case to more than a dozen veteran prosecutors, and not one believed there was enough evidence to move forward. According to police, Vinson and his fellow officers were staked out in the parking lot of Scott’s apartment complex looking for a suspect in an unrelated case. The officers then claim to have seen Scott rolling a joint in his car, something they were ready to ignore until they spotted him holding a semi-automatic pistol. It was only then, authorities say, that the officers decided to confront Scott. Vinson ended up firing four shots, three of which hit Scott.

It was never likely that Vinson would face charges. Our laws, maddening as they can be, give officers broad leeway to use lethal force, either when they fear their lives are in danger or when they are making an arrest. The Supreme Court cemented the scope of that authority in 1989’s Graham v. Connor, a case involving police officers that apparently mistook a diabetic who was behaving erratically due to his low blood sugar for a belligerent drunk. In short, according to the U.S. criminal justice system, it’s not whether the officer is objectively correct when he uses force; it’s whether he subjectively believed that he was right in the moment he did.

Nonetheless, an attorney for the Scott family said Wednesday’s announcement is not the end as far as they are concerned. “We still have concerns,” Charles Monnett said after the press conference, according to CNN. “We still have real questions about what decisions were made that day.”

Nov. 30 2016 11:51 AM

Nancy Pelosi Is Still the Top Democrat in the House

Nancy Pelosi will remain minority leader in the House:

Pelosi's victory was never really in doubt. The man she defeated, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, is a career back-bencher—as the Washington Post notes, he “literally sits in the last bench in the chamber”—which made his late run to lead House Democrats in the next Congress largely a symbolic gesture.

As Slate’s Jim Newell has explained, Pelosi is regarded by friends and enemies alike as both a skilled legislator and shrewd politician. Her problem, however, was that those skills haven't translated into national success for her party lately. Following an election in which Democrats lost the White House and failed to regain control of either chamber of Congress, the 76-year-old Pelosi became an easy target for those who believe her party failed to offer a compelling pitch to the white working class.

Democrats have controlled the House for only four years of what has been Pelosi's 14-year-and-counting run as leader of her caucus. But while their time in the minority has left many House Democrats frustrated, it wasn’t enough to deny her another two-year term.

Slate will have more analysis and reaction from Washington in a bit.

Nov. 29 2016 10:46 PM

Mitch McConnell Disagrees With Donald Trump’s Twitter Handle on Flag Burning

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, on Tuesday, used real words, said aloud, that fundamental component of human interaction, to disagree with the recent, seemingly extemporaneous stance on flag-burning taken by our soon-to-be twitterbot-in-chief, Donald Trump. "The Supreme Court has held that that activity is a protected First Amendment right," McConnell told reporters. "In this country, we have a long history of protecting unpleasant speech."

The Republican leader was compelled to defend the rights enshrined in America’s founding documents, because of this thought-fart the day before from president-elect Donald Trump.

Twitter policymaking is not a thing.

Nov. 29 2016 9:18 PM

Trump and Carrier Agree to Save Half of the 2,000 Jobs Set to Move From Indiana to Mexico

By the end of the campaign there was a lot riding on Carrier’s plan to move 2,000 manufacturing jobs out of Indiana south to Mexico. Donald Trump made a campaign pledge to keep the air-conditioner maker’s parent company, United Technologies, from closing two factories and eliminating thousands of jobs in his running mate's home state. On Tuesday, multiple outlets report that the Trump transition team is set to announce a deal Thursday that will keep half of those jobs from leaving for Mexico.

It’s unclear what tools the Trump negotiating team used to limit the job losses that were set to be staggered over a three-year period. The U.S. government is a big customer of United Technologies and accounts for roughly $5.6 billion in military sales for the company each year. Losing even a small portion of those contracts would make the relocation to Mexico, which is expected to save the company $65 million a year in labor costs, far less appealing.

“In exchange for keeping the factory running in Indianapolis, Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence are expected to reiterate their campaign pledges to be friendlier to business by easing regulations and overhauling the corporate tax code,” the Times reports. “In addition, Mr. Trump is expected to tone down his rhetoric threatening 35 percent tariffs on companies like Carrier that shift production south of the border.”

Update, 10:48 p.m.:

Nov. 29 2016 6:27 PM

Trump Reportedly Set to Tap Goldman Sachs Alum as Treasury Secretary

The New York Times, citing sources close to the president-elect’s transition team, reports that Donald Trump is expected to announce Steven Mnuchin as his pick to lead the Department of Treasury, possibly as soon as Wednesday:

Mr. Mnuchin, 53, was the national finance chairman for Mr. Trump’s campaign. He began his career at Goldman Sachs, where he became a partner, before creating his own hedge fund, moving to the West Coast and entering the first rank of movie financiers by bankrolling hits like the “X-Men” franchise and “Avatar.” …
Mnuchin, the son of a Goldman Sachs partner, joined the firm after graduating from Yale University. He worked there for 17 years, rising to oversee trading in government securities and mortgage bonds. After leaving Goldman in 2002, he founded Dune Capital Management, a hedge fund named after the dunes near his beach house in the Hamptons.

In the gentle words of the Times, Mnuchin’s resume “fits uneasily with much of Mr. Trump’s campaign rhetoric” about Wall Street and the financial industry, which is true much the same way Trump’s own gilded, status quo-blessed life belies his anti-establishment posturing. Mnuchin has no government experience, but would become the third Goldman alumnus to lead Treasury, joining Henry Paulson Jr., who served under President George W. Bush, and Robert Rubin, who served under President Bill Clinton.

“It's hard to see Mnuchin cracking down on Wall Street,” Jeff Hauser, the director of the Revolving Door Project, a nonprofit that scrutinizes executive-branch appointments, told Politico this summer when Mnuchin’s name was first floated for the job. “Indeed, one imagines Mnuchin's banking agenda would be to rehabilitate Trump's reputation with Wall Street.”

In his public comments, Mnuchin hasn’t gone quite as far as Trump has when it comes to preaching the gospel of anti-regulation. In July, for instance, he suggested that Dodd-Frank “needs to be looked at.” Trump, meanwhile, has promised he’d repeal the 2010 law, which among myriad other things would shutter the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency that was the brainchild of Elizabeth Warren. Trump is also on record calling for an indefinite moratorium for any new financial regulations until the economy shows “significant growth,” a threshold that his team has conveniently never defined.

Slate will have more on the news shortly, but for now you can browse Mnuchin’s IMDB page, which includes executive producer credits for such movies as Suicide Squad, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and The Intern.

Nov. 29 2016 5:22 PM

Liberals Believe Fake News Too

Since the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States of America, liberals have been looking for someone or something to blame.  In the midst of much handwringing, fake news, and social media’s role in spreading it, has been identified as a culprit, with one underlying premise being that conservatives are more liable to be caught in the net of fake news due to their ideological rather than fact-based media consumption habits.

“Fake stories about Hillary Clinton being a murderer emerged from a long legacy of right-wing media that has long pushed against established norms of journalism to spread fear and distrust,” wrote Vox’s Jason Mittell and Chuck Tryon. “Fake news has always been much more of an issue for conservatives,” argued Salon’s Matthew Sheffield, citing Cold War-era right-wing conspiracy theorizing. The New Republic’s Jeet Heer, meanwhile, wrote that the real problem was not the fake news itself, but the “partisan appetite for validating narratives that caused the spike in popularity for fake news,” specifically the motivated reading of those on the right. And one of the biggest proliferators of fake news told the Washington Post that he specifically targeted Trump voters because he felt they were more gullible. He’s not alone: A BuzzFeed analysis found that 38 percent of posts from three large right-wing politics pages featured “false or misleading information,” compared to 20 percent from three large left-wing pages.

So, yes, conservatives have a serious fake news problem. And the spread of false stories that were damaging to Hillary Clinton and good for Donald Trump likely had a damaging impact on our democratic process. However. In the weeks since Trump won, as petitions and various other attempts to overturn the results of the election have taken over many a Facebook feed, it has become increasingly clear that the right wing does not have a monopoly on believing things that aren’t true.

Green Party candidate Jill Stein has raised at least $6.2 million for a doomed recount effort in three critical Electoral College states. She’s done this by feeding into the theory that the election might have been hacked by Russians or other nefarious actors—a claim for which there is no direct evidence. A report by New York Magazine’s Gabriel Sherman airing the claims of a group of computer scientists and election lawyers who believe the election may have been tampered with spread like wildfire on liberal Facebook last week, prompting further calls for a recount. That group’s circumstantial proof was quickly debunked. And while there are good governance reasons to do a paper recount, even the academic being cited by Stein in her court filings has said he thinks it’s unlikely the election was hacked. The Obama administration—which has more to gain from a Clinton presidency than just about anyone—has said, “we stand behind our election results, which accurately reflect the will of the American people.” But that hasn’t slowed down the movement for a recount.

Liberals were actually primed for this brand of foolishness throughout the primary season by Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, who tacitly encouraged his supporters to believe that the primary vote had been “rigged” for Hillary. “It seems that there’s been a lot of voter disenfranchisement and maybe some unsavory numbers,” one Bernie supporter told me on California primary day back in June, echoing the sentiments of many with whom I spoke.

The left, of course, had been willing and able to buy ideological pleasing falsehoods long before Bernie. Just one example: In its right-wing fake news critique, Vox called out “Infowars, the fearmongering media empire of Trump ally Alex Jones, where right-wing conspiracies flourish and leak into public consciousness via affirmations by other right-wing media and, now, the president-elect.” What Vox failed to mention is that Jones made his name by creating the myth that a Republican administration was behind the 9/11 attacks. More on the left than you would hope bought this tripe. According to one 2007 Zogby poll, about 40 percent of liberals said they believed that the government either perpetrated the attack or “let it happen.”

Conservatives don’t even have a monopoly on being fooled by propaganda. As the Washington Post reported last week, one organization has started to catalogue the worst media offenders in disseminating anti-western Russian propaganda that has proliferated from Putin-sponsored media organs like Russia Today. Many of the offenders called out as “useful idiots” for picking up on and spreading this propaganda are alternative media sites with a left-wing bent like Naked Capitalism, Black Agenda Report, Consortium News, Truthdig, and Truth Out. (Some alternative media outlets have pushed back against the claim that some among them are witlessly spreading Russian disinformation.)

And then there was the story of Ivanka Trump saying she would mace her leering father if he weren’t her father, which spread among the left over Thanksgiving weekend. After Trump’s disgusting comments about women, and the persistent leftwing fantasy that Ivanka will one day reveal herself to be better than the rest of her family, it was all too easy for Trump-haters to believe the mace story to be true. Only, it wasn’t.

Nov. 29 2016 3:55 PM

North Dakota Police Want to Deny Standing Rock Protesters Food and Shelter

North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple on Monday ordered thousands of Native American and environmental activists to leave the federal property on which they’ve been protesting construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline for months. The evacuation order came days after the federal government set a Dec. 5 deadline for the protesters to clear out, but neither state nor federal officials had said how, exactly, they planned to get everyone to comply. It appears we now have the answer: by making them too cold and hungry to stay put. Via Reuters:

North Dakota law enforcement will begin to block supplies from reaching protesters at a camp near the construction site of an oil pipeline project in an effort to force demonstrators to vacate the area, officials said on Tuesday. … Supplies, including food and building materials, will be blocked from entering the main camp…, said Maxine Herr, a spokeswoman from the Morton County Sheriff's Department. …
The building materials intended for the site are a top priority because the camp is not zoned for permanent structures, Fong said. Propane tanks also will be blocked because they have been used in attacks against law enforcement, she said.

When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the site, first set the deadline they stressed that protesters—who believe the pipeline endangers local indigenous communities and their sacred lands, and more broadly threatens the environment—would not be removed by force. The supply blockade is theoretically a more peaceful way to get protesters to depart as winter approaches, but it remains an open question how authorities would respond if anyone tries to deliver supplies against government orders. While the order went into effect immediately, as of Tuesday morning no cars or trucks carrying supplies had yet been turned back, according to the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services.

If completed, the pipeline would carry 570,000 barrels of Bakken Crude oil per day from the Dakotas to Illinois. But for that to happen, it first needs to cross the Missouri River. Originally, the plan was for the pipeline to cross the river just north of Bismarck, but that route was scrapped over concerns about possible drinking water contamination. The engineers then rerouted the project beneath a lake near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation instead. As Nives Dolsak and Aseem Prakash put it in Slate earlier this month, the message the government is sending is clear: “While the risk of water contamination is not acceptable for Bismarckians, it is OK for the Sioux Indians.”

Elsewhere in Slate:

Nov. 29 2016 2:04 PM

Obama Is Leaving Trump the Power to Wage War Almost Anywhere

The New York Times reported Monday that the Obama administration has decided to expand its war on terror by designating the Somali militant group al-Shabaab as a target under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force. That authorization, which was originally intended as a green light to go after the perpetrators of 9/11, will now provide legal justification for an escalating campaign of airstrikes in the Horn of Africa.

Al-Shabaab didn’t even exist in 2001, but the AUMF has proven to be an extraordinarily flexible document, serving as the legal basis for attacks against “associated forces” of al-Qaida throughout the world, most notably ISIS, which is actually a rival of the terror network that the AUMF was drawn up to address. How has the Obama administration justified this? It has taken the self-serving position that although it would like Congress to pass a new resolution authorizing force against ISIS, it doesn’t actually need one. And so far, it’s been right: Just last week, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by a U.S. Army captain accusing the administration of waging the war against ISIS illegally.

Obama pledged in 2013 to replace the AUMF with something more tailored and specific, but disagreements with Congress over the what a new agreement would look like and the deteriorating conditions in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan have led the administration to not only continue waging war in those countries under the AUMF, but to expand the list of targets it covers. As Monday’s Times story notes, the 2001 authorization passed by Congress was never meant to authorize attacks against “every Islamist militant in the world,” but that’s quickly what it’s becoming.

With the exception of a few voices in Congress (including, notably, Sen. Tim Kaine, though he didn’t make it much of an issue when he was running for vice president), the administration never faced much political pressure on the legality of its expanding war on terror. Republicans opposed even minor attempts to limit the scope of counterterrorism activities. Most Democrats were wary of criticizing the administration and perhaps assumed that Obama would exercise his extraordinary powers responsibly.

Now that a man who made “bomb the shit out of them” a campaign pledge and thinks he should be allowed to kill terrorists’ families is about to enter the Oval Office with few limits on when and where he can wage an ill-definied war, Democrats may wish they had done their jobs.

Nov. 29 2016 1:55 PM

Tennessee Blaze Wreaks Havoc at Popular Tourist Sites Including Dollywood

More than 14,000 people reportedly have been forced to evacuate as wildfires blazed through the most visited national park in the United States, officials in eastern Tennessee announced on Tuesday.

People in towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge had to evacuate as fire spread across the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, impacting 100 houses and 30 businesses and injuring about a dozen people, the Washington Post and New York Times reported.

More from the Times:

No deaths had been reported as of Tuesday morning, the [Tennessee Emergency Management Agency] said, and four people with burns had been transported to hospitals. The agency said that about 11,600 people had been left without power in Sevier County.
Gatlinburg is a resort town about 50 miles from Knoxville at the national park’s base in eastern Tennessee. Nearby Pigeon Forge is home to the Dollywood theme park and water park. Both towns feature Christmas-themed entertainment at this time of year, drawing visitors from around the country.

The Associated Press offered more on the issues facing Dollywood:

Officials with Dollywood, the amusement park named after country music icon Dolly Parton, said the theme park wasn't damaged, but more than a dozen cabins operated by the park had been.
Dollywood suspended park operations at least through Wednesday. Its DreamMore resort will be open on a limited basis as a shelter and for registered guests.

Social media users and local media have been posting harrowing images of the fire online:

The Post reported that 10,000 fish, penguins and other animals at the Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg had been threatened by the fire, but were reportedly safe after having “narrowly [escaped] flames and smoke that had threatened the structure overnight.”