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May 22 2017 12:07 PM

The White House Is Fighting to Keep Its Ethics Waivers Secret

The White House’s secretive approach to its handling of internal ethics has reached a farcical new place. The New York Times reported on Monday that the Trump administration is trying to indefinitely delay the Office of Government Ethics’ effort to force the White House to disclose any ethics waivers it has granted to the many former lobbyists now working in the administration:

… the White House, in a highly unusual move, sent a letter to Walter M. Shaub Jr., the head of the Office of Government Ethics, asking him to withdraw a request he had sent to every federal agency for copies of the waivers. In the letter, the administration challenged his legal authority to demand the information.
Dozens of former lobbyists and industry lawyers are working in the Trump administration, which has hired them at a much higher rate than the previous administration. Keeping the waivers confidential would make it impossible to know whether any such officials are violating federal ethics rules or have been given a pass to ignore them.

Trump signed an executive order in late January that barred lobbyists and lawyers hired as political appointees from working on “particular” government issues that involved former clients for two years. The president, however, reserved the right to issue a waiver to anyone he wanted—something President Obama did as well. But Obama automatically made any such decisions public, along with a detailed explanation of why they were made. Trump is doing all he can to keep the waivers he approves under wraps.

Shaub, who has been a thorn in Trump’s side since even before he took office, had set a June 1 deadline for the administration to turn over the documents. The OGE chief says he plans to make the waivers public if and when he gets his hands on them. “It is an extraordinary thing,” he told the Times about the requested delay. “I have never seen anything like it.”

The Trump administration’s argument for the delay is difficult to follow. In his letter to Shaub last Wednesday, Office of Management and Budget chief Mick Mulvaney asked for more time to address “legal questions regarding the scope of OGE’s authorities,” but never specified what those questions actually were. Then, in a statement provided to the Times on Sunday, OMB changed its tune to accuse Shaub of playing politics. “This request, in both its expansive scope and breathless timetable, demanded that we seek further legal guidance,” the statement read. “The very fact that this internal discussion was leaked implies that the data being sought is not being collected to satisfy our mutual high standard of ethics.”

OMB’s adjectival complaints about Shaub’s request don’t hold much water. The reason it is “expansive” is because it needs to be: Trump has hired countless industry lawyers and former lobbyists across his administration, many of which he has attempted to keep off the public’s radar. The reason the request is “breathless” is because it should be: Every day those waivers remain secret is a day the American public has no way of knowing whether Trump appointees are following the law or breaking it to advance their own financial interests. Meanwhile, OGE’s authority to ask for such information from ethics officers at individual federal agencies is quite clear—indeed, making such requests is among the agency’s chief oversight powers. (There might be an argument to be made that the White House is not technically a federal agency and therefore not subject to such oversight, but Trump is attempting to stop the process across the entire federal government, not simply the office of the executive.)

As long as the White House continues to stonewall OGE—and Congress continues to sit on the sidelines—it’s not clear exactly what else Shaub and his agency can do to acquire this critical information other than continue to cry foul in public. As I’ve explained before, in a normal, non-Trump world, if the agency were to run into trouble getting what it wanted from an individual agency, the office would then turn to the president for help. In Trump World, though, the president seems quite content to ignore any and all ethics rules he finds inconvenient.

Know anything about a potential conflicts of interest in the Trump administration? DM Josh Voorhees on Twitter or email him at

May 22 2017 12:04 PM

Member of "Alt-Reich Nation" Facebook Group Arrested in Murder of Black College Student

On Sunday, University of Maryland police chief David Mitchell announced that the FBI had been called on to assist in the investigation of the murder of black visiting student Richard Collins III as a hate crime. Mitchell’s suspected killer Sean Urbanski, who has been charged with first and second degree murder and first degree assault, is a member of a racist Facebook group called Alt-Reich Nation.

Collins was killed after being approached by Urbanski while waiting for an Uber with two other students. From the Baltimore Sun:

Collins' friends told police they heard the suspect scream as he approached them.
The suspect said "Step left, step left if you know what's best for you," police wrote in charging documents. Collins said "no," police wrote. The suspect continued to approach, and stabbed him once in the chest.

According to the Sun, witnesses have said that Urbaski, a University of Maryland student, appeared intoxicated at the time of the attack. The Sun also reports that a few overtly racist events have occurred at the University of Maryland this year. “A noose was found in a fraternity house earlier this month,” the Sun’s Carrie Wells writes, “and posters promoting nationalism were found on campus earlier this year.”

Mitchell asked for the FBI's help after discovering Urbanski's Facebook group, which was taken down on Sunday. From Buzzfeed:

"When I looked at the information that’s contained on that website, suffice to say that it’s despicable. It shows extreme bias against women, Latinos, members of the Jewish faith, and especially African-Americans,” Mitchell said at a press conference. “Which brings up questions as to the motive in this case. Knowing that, we will continue to look for digital evidence, among other items of evidentiary value.”

Collins was due to graduate from Bowie State University on Tuesday. He was 23 and had just been commissioned as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army.

May 22 2017 11:30 AM

The President Just Told a Room of Israelis That He "Just Got Back From the Middle East"

Another great moment for America courtesy of President Donald Trump, who is in Jerusalem meeting with Israeli leaders—who, I guess, he does not consider Middle Eastern because they are not Arabs:

We try to keep it clean and professional around here, but, honestly? What a dumbass.

May 22 2017 10:55 AM

Watch Melania Trump (Appear to) Slap Donald Trump's Hand Away From Hers on a Tarmac in Israel

One imagines that many world leaders throughout history—especially those named Bill Clinton—have made public appearances with their spouses while their relationships, in private, were less than serene. Still, you rarely see tension break through in the way it appears to have done in the video above of Donald and Melania Trump's arrival in Tel Aviv Monday. To use a few technical terms commonly thrown around in the world of geopolitical analysis: Yikes! Ouch! No bueno!

Melania Trump, of course, does not live in the White House, ostensibly because she is staying with Barron Trump while he finishes his school year in New York City. Also, remember this?

Update, 11:40 a.m.: Haaretz has the slo-mo.

Seems intentional.

May 22 2017 10:18 AM

Report: Michael Flynn Will Invoke Fifth Amendment, Refuse to Comply With Senate Subpoena

Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn will invoke the Fifth Amendment in refusing a Senate committee's document subpoena, the Associated Press is reporting:

The Fifth Amendment protects an individual's right not to give testimony that may implicate him or her in a crime. Flynn's potentially improper financial connections to Russia and Turkey are reportedly the subject of the ongoing federal investigation that was led by the FBI and will now be supervised by special counsel Robert Mueller. The Senate Intelligence Committee, which is conducting its own investigation of the matter, had specifically requested documents related to Flynn's interactions with Russia. It's not yet known how the Senate plans to respond to Flynn's refusal; Slate discussed the options it might have in this situation in a post last week.

Also, just to get it out of the way: Invoking the Fifth Amendment doesn't mean you're guilty.

May 21 2017 12:41 PM

Homeland Security Hopeful Clarke Plagiarized Portions of Thesis on U.S. Security

Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke claimed earlier this week that he had been appointed as an assistant secretary in the Department of Homeland Security. A few days later, CNN reported that the controversial sheriff who is fond of appearing on Fox News plagiarized significant portions of his master’s thesis about homeland security—“Making U.S. security and privacy rights compatible.” Overall, Clarke failed to properly attribute sources a whopping 47 times, according to the CNN.

“In all instances reviewed by CNN's KFILE, Clarke lifts language from sources and credits them with a footnote, but does not indicate with quotation marks that he is taking the words verbatim,” the cable news network said. Clarke earned a master’s degree in security studies in 2013 from the Naval Postgraduate School. The school's academic integrity guidelines clearly lay out how this material should be cited:

Whenever you make use of another person’s distinctive ideas, information, or words, you must give credit. If a passage is quoted verbatim, it must be set off with quotation marks (or, if it is a longer passage, presented as indented text), and followed by a properly formulated citation. The length of the phrase does not matter. If someone else’s words are sufficiently significant to be worth quoting, then accurate quotation followed by a correct citation is essential, even if only a few words are involved.

The school removed Clarke’s thesis from its website shortly after CNN’s story was published.

Clarke quickly took to Twitter to attack the reporter behind the story, noting the reporter has made similar accusations against other Trump allies in the past. “Guy is a sleaze bag,” Clarke tweeted. “I'm on to him folks.” In an email to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Clarke said that “only someone with a political agenda would say this is plagiarism.”

Earlier this year, Monica Crowley backed down from a job as director of strategic communications for the National Security Council following a similar discovery of plagiarism by CNN.

Clarke announced on Wednesday he would be joining the Department of Homeland Security. But the department has not confirmed the appointment.

May 21 2017 11:55 AM

Lawmaker Faces Lynching Threats After Calling for Trump’s Impeachment

A black congressman from Texas has been on the receiving end of some horrifically racist slurs after he vowed to pursue impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump earlier this week. Texas Rep. Al Green played constituents a few recordings of some of the voicemail messages he received over the past few days. He later posted those recordings on YouTube.

"You'll be hanging from a tree," one caller said. Another warns that “you ain’t going to impeach nobody. Try it and we will lynch all of you.” Not surprisingly, the messages are filled with racial slurs, and the n-word is frequently uttered.

“It does not deter us,” Green said of the threats. “We are not going to be intimidated. We are not going to allow this to cause us to deviate from what we believe to be the right thing to do and that is to proceed with the impeachment of President Trump.”

Green told constituents in southwest Houston that he wanted them to hear the kind of threats he is receiving in part to explain the high level of security at his townhall meeting. Police officers were visible around the townahll and all participants were checked by security. “When a person talks about lynching you, we think that's a pretty serious threat,” he said.

Green was the first House Democrat to publicly call for Trump’s impeachment. “I rise today, Mr. Speaker, to call for the impeachment of the president of the United States of America for obstruction of justice,” Green said on the House floor on Wednesday. “I do it because, Mr. Speaker, there is a belief in this country that no one is above the law. And that includes the president of the United States of America. Mr. Speaker, our democracy is at risk.”

May 21 2017 11:08 AM

North Korea Fires Another Missile as It Continues to Defy International Community

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un once again showed that he is not going to let up on his country’s frequent ballistic missile tests, regardless of the international condemnation. Pyongyang carried out the latest ballistic missile test on Sunday, firing a medium-range projectile that flew about 310 miles. The rocket that was fired Sunday had a shorter range than the country’s most recent tests but appears to have been an “upgraded, extended-range version of the North's solid-fuel submarine-launched missile,” reports Reuters. Japan said the missile landed in the Sea of Japan without reaching the country’s exclusive economic zone.

When North Korea fired a similar missile in February, the fact that it was powered by solid fuel was seen as particularly significant. Missiles that run on solid fuel can be fired immediately and don’t require the same labor-intensive process to prepare as liquid-fueled missiles. That means missiles can be fired before satellites can track them.

This latest launch comes merely a week after Pyongyang fired a rocket that it claimed could carry a nuclear warhead. Two missile tests in such a short period of time came shortly after South Korea’s new President Moon Jae-in took office with a platform that involved pushing for a more moderate approach to relations with North Korea. Now any hope for more diplomacy seems to be vanishing. The tests were “reckless and irresponsible actions throwing cold water over the hopes and desires of this new government and the international community for denuclearization and peace on the Korean peninsula,” South Korea’s foreign ministry said.

North Korea has now fired eight ballistic missile tests this year.

May 21 2017 9:53 AM

China Cripples CIA Spying Operations by Killing or Imprisoning Up to 20 Sources

A bombshell New York Times report reveals that the Chinese government “systematically dismantled” spying operations by the CIA, killing or imprisoning as many as 20 sources over a two-year period starting in 2010. U.S. officials characterized the effort by Beijing as one of the worst intelligence breaches in decades and the whole thing remains a mystery. Although some are convinced the identity of the sources was revealed due to a mole within the CIA, others say China managed to hack the agency’s system of communication.

With the killings and detentions, China destroyed a network of sources that took years to build. And the CIA has not managed to recover. One of the sources was apparently shot and killed in front of colleagues at a government building in China, a sign of how Beijing wanted to send a message to other potential informants.

U.S. officials first began suspecting something was wrong when the high quality information about the Chinese government started to dry up. The FBI and CIA then set out to analyze what happened as sources continued to vanish. Some immediately suspected a mole within the CIA, and investigators quickly began to focus on a former agency operative who had worked in the China division. But they were never able to gather enough evidence to arrest him. Some continue to resist the mole theory though and say the CIA officers were often sloppy with sources.

Despite the continuing disagreement about what happened, there is little doubt about the effect of the crackdown. “The number of American assets lost in China,” notes the Times, “rivaled those lost in the Soviet Union and Russia during the betrayals of both Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, formerly of the C.I.A. and the F.B.I., who divulged intelligence operations to Moscow for years.”

May 20 2017 6:59 PM

Watch Trump’s Awkward Dance Moves in Saudi Arabia

President Trump and a few members of his Cabinet got into what has become a sort of tradition for foreign trips: the awkward dancing. Trump and some members of his staff were caught on tape bopping along during a traditional “Ardha” sword dance. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross also danced with swords firmly on their shoulders. One person who didn’t appear to join in on the fun? White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.

All the dancing was part of a hugely elaborate royal reception for Trump, who sealed a $110 billion arms deal with the kingdom. "That was a tremendous day, tremendous investments in the United States," Trump said during a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef.

Former President George W. Bush took part in a similar ceremony in 2008.