US President Can't Escape Troubles on the Road

Mired in a web of scandal and lies back home, Donald Trump embarked on his first international trip this week to the Middle East and Europe. It was seen by the administration as a possible new beginning. But it hasn't worked out that way.

Perhaps the trip didn't first begin on board Air Force One or with the King of Saudi Arabia, but instead back in the restroom at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, where a Fox News reporter exclaimed euphorically: "This is gonna be epic!"

Outside, an early summer thunderstorm poured down on Washington, the kind that is dazzling and loud, but which does little to bring down the stifling temperature. Some 60 journalists, camera crews and technicians, in addition to a handful of White House staffers and Secret Service agents, were waiting inside the terminal of the military airport. The president would first depart on Air Force One a day later, after the storm passed. But the press had to travel ahead on a charter jet in order to prepare for his arrival in Riyadh. The flight from Washington, with a stopover in Frankfurt, took 15 hours, but the New York Times wore a tie nonetheless.

Riyadh, Jerusalem, Rome, Brussels and, in the end, the G-7 summit in Sicily -- five stops in nine days. Donald Trump is discovering the world. Expectations for the trip, it should be noted, weren't particularly high. When it comes to Trump, a lot can happen, especially disasters. Recent weeks have shown just how unpredictable this man is, how thin-skinned and intractable -- and how poor he is at gauging moods and people. But what happens if he meets with national leaders who don't fawn over him? What if he feels as though he is on the defensive or has to deal with some kind of crisis that, for once, isn't of his own making?

Trump's hope had been to escape the Russia scandal and the ensuing turbulence -- and to attempt a fresh start. As it turned out, that hope dried up during the trip. The new revelations about Trump aren't slowing down and ongoing hearings in Congress continue to generate headlines.

It was a tour of the kind that few other presidents have undertaken. For Trump, a man who abhors anything foreign to him, detests anything unusual and would prefer to sleep in his own bed or at least one of his hotels, it has been a feat of endurance.

He reportedly even asked his advisers if the trip could be made shorter. Perhaps just five days instead of nine?

From the very beginning, Trump was the most unlikely of tourists. The man who wanted to prevent Muslims from traveling into the United States took part in a sword dance in the royal court of the King of Saudi Arabia. He joined the leaders of Kazakhstan, Burkina Faso and Somalia for a meal. The "America First" man who wanted to withdraw from conflicts promised peace to the Israelis and Palestinians. A man who swears by revenge met the pope in Rome before joining the leaders of the European Union in Brussels, an institution he hopes will fail. What could possibly go wrong?

Wall Street Journal, Saturday, May 20, Page 1:
'Fired FBI Director James Comey To Testify in Public'
In Saudi Arabia, the king arrived in a golf cart as Donald Trump disembarked from Air Force One in Riyadh. It was shortly before 10 a.m., but the air was already hot and dry at 43 degrees Celsius (109 degrees Fahrenheit). The sound of cannons echoed over the runway and a military band played. For a few minutes, American domestic policy, the chaos in the White House and the Russian scandal, seemed to have evaporated in the shimmering heat. Military jets roared in from the left at a frighteningly low altitude. Trump looked to the skies and peered on as the aircraft trailed red, white and blue smoke. The message from King Salman to Trump was clear: You are safe here. Nobody will harm you. It was as though the king were welcoming an equal: King Donald.

Trump's most recent scandal began two weeks ago when he fired the head of the FBI. James Comey had spent months investigating Russian influence on the U.S. presidential election, including contacts between Trump's team and people close to Vladimir Putin. From Trump's perspective, it made sense to can Comey because he thought it would mean one less problem for him. Unfortunately for Trump, however, the FBI director had written up notes after a meeting with Trump indicating the president had requested he suspend the investigation.

Three days before Trump departed on his trip, came the news of the appointment of a special counsel to conduct the investigation. The pressure on the president was increasing by the day. That was the background to this trip.

Washington Post, Sunday, May 21, Page 1: 
'A GOP congressman from Kentucky wonders: Is 'this Trump thing' sustainable?'
Trump -- a well-known critic of Islam -- planned to give a speech in Riyadh outlining his approach to the religion. First, though, came the banquet and the appearances -- as though in a theater -- of the secondary characters in this drama. Stephen Bannon, Trump's chief ideologist, sauntered through a side door into the auditorium of the King Abdullah Conference Center. He was followed by Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, the glamorous couple. Then came Trump's press secretary Sean Spicer, a tragicomic figure if there ever was one -- half liar and half court jester.

People reveal a lot about themselves when they enter a room that isn't familiar to them. Spicer's eyes were glassy and peering out at a middle distance. He held onto a black folder with several documents protruding from it. Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner resembled Hugo Boss models as they floated by.

The only person who appeared to be looking around with interest was Bannon, the man whose radicalism helped Trump win the election -- and on whom Trump has soured, as has been the fate of so many others.

Trump thrives on chaos. His preferred working method is to have a dozen staffers in the Oval Office who he can summon or kick out at any time, like a petty king. No one is safe from his rage, not Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and not National Security Adviser Herbert Raymond McMaster, who also traveled with the delegation. Trump enjoys having people fight for his favor, even during this trip. And soon, Bannon would no longer be part of his traveling entourage.

Back in the conference center, though, his eyes were roaming across the white tables, where diplomats and leaders from Muslim countries were sitting in front of gold plates, silver bowls of chicken, roasted vegetables, rice in grape leaves, figs, tartlets and chocolate. All around the room, men could be seen in white robes, but there were no women at all. Bannon had paved the way for Trump's "America First" strategy, and now, here he was, the White House's most adamant hater of Islam, right in the heart of the Muslim world.

'Not a Hint of a Protester'
He could see the Koran surahs on the walls, crystal chandeliers as heavy as small cars and the dome in the center. The expression on his face said: What the hell am I doing here?

Trump is not the first president to have sought refuge by traveling abroad. In 1974, Richard Nixon also traveled to Saudi Arabia and Israel in order to temporarily escape the Watergate scandal. The trip had been intended as a way to divert attention and present Nixon as a dignified statesman. But the plan failed miserably and he resigned not long after his return.

Trump was then invited up to the stage, where a number of men were seated in leather chairs. They included kings, princes, emirs and even a few democrats from 50 different countries in the Muslim world. A frown crept onto Trump's face and his shoulders slouched forward. That morning at 9 a.m., he'd had a meeting with the King of Bahrain, followed by one with the Emir of Qatar. There were smiles, handshakes and small talk, something Trump hates. "Love your shoes. Boy, those shoes.

Man," Trump told Egypt's president.

For trip preparation's, Trump had relied more heavily than ever on his son-in-law. For months, Kushner had been in close contact with the Saudi royal house. He had worked almost obsessively to ensure that his father-in-law's trip would be a success and to avoid the impression that it was a pleasure trip. In March, Kushner had invited the deputy crown prince to the White House. The prince now returned the favor with an opulent dinner in Riyadh.

Trump got up from his chair to give a speech on Islam, a rhetorical tight rope act. On one hand, he had to cater to a subset of people back in the United States who hate the Muslim religion. On the other, he had to avoid alienating Arabs with whom he would like to do business.

Stephen Miller, a 31-year-old adviser to Trump who, together with Bannon, had planned and implemented the entry ban for Muslims, wrote the speech. The big question had been whether or not Miller would be able to include the term "Islamist terrorism." The term irks many Muslims because it directly ties their religion with terrorism. Kushner and McMaster also opposed using it.

Although he said he was not there to lecture, Trump did say that Muslim nations "must be willing to take on the burden, if we are going to defeat terrorism." He also sharply criticized Iran, a country that has just re-elected moderate President Hassan Rohani. Trump spoke of a "battle between good and evil." Then he said that "Islamist extremism" must be confronted. The fact that he avoided the formulation the hardliners had wanted indicated that he was seeking to strike a milder tone.

The most surprising thing about Trump's speech was its harmlessness. He emphasized the war on terror and sought to build trust. George W. Bush could have given the same speech. The problem is that for every sentence uttered by Trump, you can find a polar opposite statement from the campaign trail. In Riyadh, he described Islam as "one of the great faiths." But last year, speaking of the United States, he said, "Islam hates us." That's indicative not of fickleness, but of a lack of interest in politics.

The fact that Trump is leading an administration centered around his family is something that appeals to people in the Persian Gulf. The Saudis value the fact that the new American president isn't as bothered by human rights as some of his predecessors. Trump needed success and the leaders in the Gulf region have money. In the end, he left with $110 billion in defense contracts in his hands. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also promised to provide $100 million for Ivanka Trump's proposed Women Entrepreneurs Fund, which is to be administered by the World Bank.

The visit went excellently. "Not a single hint of a protester," Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said, pleased. The fact that protests are prohibited in Saudi Arabia didn't even seem to cross his mind.

New York Times, Monday, May 22, Page 1: 

'Comey Drama'
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin laughed as Trump descended the gangway in Tel Aviv. "We are happy to see that America is back in the area," he said. Many of Rivlin's compatriots have not forgotten how, during his first visit to the Middle East as president, Obama visited Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but snubbed Israel.

During the trip, a change became palpable in Trump. He appeared to become more secure and more disciplined -- and he held back any possible outbursts, initially at least. Instead of the threats he often tweets out, this time he stuck to links to his speeches. His advisers seem to have him under better control when traveling. Besides, to this point, he had largely been well-received with little criticism, aside from a few newspaper editorials that criticized his weapons deals and what they saw as his excessive closeness with the Saudi ruling family.

But when he spoke, Trump's voice sounded is if he were on Valium. It wasn't that long ago that he criticized Obama for using a teleprompter, saying nobody wanted a scripted president. But it is Trump who is the teleprompter man now -- and he seldom goes off script.

Regardless, even if his staff is learning from his mistakes, they still haven't succeeded in making Trump eloquent. After his short tour through the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, he wrote in the guestbook: "So amazing & will never forget!" It's something he could have written of a visit to Disneyland.

Breaking News, Politico, Tuesday, May 24:
'Former FBI Director John Brennan: Russia may have successfully recruited Trump campaign aides.'

The Palestinians also know how to win Trump over. Like the Saudis, they hung up huge banners prior to the U.S. president's visit showing him and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas flanking the slogan: "The city of peace welcomes the man of peace." They were clearly visible to Trump as he drove in his convoy to Bethlehem, past a wall of the kind he would like to build on the American border with Mexico. Once in the city, he visited the Church of the Nativity and announced his intention to help the Palestinians boost their economy and combat terrorism.

The afternoon found him, arms crossed, on a podium in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was standing at the lectern next to him, gushing with praise for his new friend, but Trump seemed absent. He turned his head from side to side, squinted into the audience and rocked back and forth in his chair. The corners of his mouth curled up into a smile, which vanished just as suddenly as it had appeared. As always happens when he is forced to sit by as attention is lavished elsewhere, Trump was getting restive. He tapped his fingertips together and looked as though he had to exert significant amounts of self-control to prevent himself from jumping up and shoving Netanyahu aside.

When it was finally his turn to step up to the microphone, Trump's agitation disappeared. He expressed gratitude for the Israeli premier's hospitality, saying we had "a very unforgettable dinner. We had a great time. We talked about a lot of very, very important things." He added that the bond between the U.S. and Israel was "unshakable" -- and was forced to pause several times during his speech because of the applause.

Trump and his delegation didn't make the preparations for this stage of his journey easy. First, it was announced that Trump would speak at Masada, the historic Jewish fortress on the Dead Sea. But when it became clear that he would be unable to land at the site in his helicopter, the visit was called off, apparently because Trump didn't want to have to ride in the cable car to the mountaintop citadel.

Later, the Americans abruptly cancelled a dinner that the Israeli defense minister had planned for Monday. And then it emerged that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had had to order his cabinet to appear on the tarmac for the arrival of Air Force One after some members had indicated they would not attend.

Back in the museum, Trump said that the Palestinians were ready for peace. "I know you've heard it before. I am telling you -- that's what I do. They are ready to reach for peace." Suddenly, the audience wasn't clapping quite as enthusiastically as it had been before. The appearance demonstrated just how dependent Trump is on applause, how eagerly he laps up approval. He is almost like a junkie whose euphoria and pleasure at the apex of his high knows no bounds, but once it quickly begins to fade, he immediately needs a new fix.

What, though, is the mood like on board Air Force One? "Good," says the Los Angeles Times.

"Okay," says Reuters.

A dozen reporters have been allowed to ride along in the president's official plane, the so-called pool, which includes news agencies and the largest newspapers and television channels. The rest of the press travels ahead in a chartered plane, in which there is a clear pecking order. In the front the plane to the left of the aisle, correspondents from CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox News and CNN can be found. On the right are the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, AFP, AP and Reuters. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the deputy White House press secretary, usually sits in seat 4D, across from the restroom and next to the Bloomberg correspondent. Sean Spicer is traveling on Air Force One. Everybody else has seats further back, including Sky News, Politico and Vanity Fair, along with technicians, camera operators and foreign media representatives. The costs for the charter are divided up among the journalists, with everybody paying the same price regardless of where they sit.

Fantastic for Sales
Attitudes toward Trump on board range between skepticism and hostility. The prevailing view seems to be that, for democracy, the administration is a catastrophe, but from a journalistic perspective, it is a fantastic story, measurable in rising click rates, circulation and television ratings. Indeed, the New York Times had its best quarter in years at the end of 2016, with over 276,000 new digital subscriptions. Trump is fantastic for sales.

The problem is that most of the journalists traveling along with Trump hardly ever get any facetime with the president. Those who aren't part of the 13-member media pool that constantly accompanies Trump sit in a windowless press room and watch CNN or read Twitter, along with the summaries of fellow reporters who are closer to the action. They only realize they are in a different country when the hotel personnel greet them with "buon giorno" instead of "salam aleikum."

On one evening at about 10 p.m., a young man stuck his head through the door of the hotel press room. He was wearing a perfectly cut suit and looked as though he had just stepped out of an ice bath following two hours of ab training. "Hey guys, how are you? Still jetlagged?" Jared Kushner asked. "How's the trip so far? Are you enjoying it?"

He then spoke of short-term and long-term possibilities, ambitious goals and paradigm shifts in the Middle East. He sounded like his own Power Point presentation. Leaning against the wall to the right was Ivanka Trump, clutching her handbag. After about 10 minutes, she gave a thumb's up, the Trump family's favorite gesture, and disappeared with Jared into the night.

Donald Trump is a creation of the media age: Without journalists and television, he would never have become famous and likely would not have ascended to the presidency. As a result, Trump's relationship to the media is obsessive. It is his mirror, into which he gazes several times each day, his echo chamber, the justification for his existence. He watches a lot of television, showing a distinct preference for Fox News, and reads newspapers primarily to confirm his suspicion that they write nothing but tripe.

Trump's White House predecessors used to hold regular press conferences during extended trips to keep journalists informed. But Trump's team has decided that the risk is too great that their boss might lose his temper in the face of an uncomfortable question. Breitbart and other right-wing news outlets that are fans of Trump, after all, remained at home in the United States. Softball questions wouldn't be likely.

New York Times, Wednesday, May 24: 
'Top Russian Officials Discussed How to Influence Trump Aides Last Summer'
And then she did it again. As Melania Trump stepped out of Air Force One at her husband's side in Rome, she pulled her hand away from him just as she had done in Tel Aviv. It looked as though she was trying to avoid holding hands with the president. It was just a brief scene, lasting hardly even a second, and it wasn't even particularly noticeable.

But the First Lady usually exhibits impeccable self-control. It seems unlikely that she simply forgot that half the world was watching. Perhaps it was intentional, a signal to demonstrate that she isn't the kind of woman who can be ordered around. But her husband won't likely have been particularly pleased by such images. Still, the trip had gone largely according to plan to that point. The Saudi Arabians were taken by the first lady's dignified demeanor and, of course, by the fact that she constantly remained in the background and left the stage to her husband. Her appearance in a dress that was rather short for Saudi tastes seemed of little concern.

During the visit to Pope Francis, however, Melania wore a black veil over her hair, making her look like a widow attending her deceased husband's funeral. And the pope wore a facial expression as though he were standing across from the devil incarnate. It was just Donald Trump. It was the moment at which the president must have realized that the pleasant, uncomplicated portion of his trip had come to an end. Now, he was in Europe, and he could no longer be sure that everybody he met actually liked him. Not after the campaign he ran and not after the delight he expressed following last year's Brexit referendum.

Trump's daughter Ivanka, his son-in-law Jared Kushner and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were also on hand for the meeting with the pope. Missing, however, was Sean Spicer, who is Catholic and who had reportedly been greatly looking forward to the opportunity to kiss the pope's ring. His absence was apparently a bit of diplomatic spitefulness on the part of the Holy See. Steve Bannon and Reine Priebus had been sent back to Washington earlier.

Pope Francis presented Trump with three books upon departure, one on family, another on the joy of the gospel and, finally, a copy of his 2015 encyclical on the need for urgent measures to combat climate change. "Well, I'll be reading them," said Trump, a man who has bragged in the past of having only ever read a single book to completion in his life -- his own.

How was your meeting with the pope, Mr. President? an AP journalist called out to him during a photo op. "He is something," Trump replied. "We had a fantastic meeting."

Report on CNN.com, Thursday, May 25:
'AG Sessions did not disclose Russia meetings in security clearance form, DOJ says.'
On Thursday morning, Trump arrived at a place he never wanted to be. He climbed out of his armored Cadillac and stepped into the 320-million-euro Europa Building in Brussels, where the European Council meets -- the heart of the EU. His trip back to reality was now complete, following his brief excursion to the Orient, where people received him as a savior -- or at least as someone who could sell high-quality weapons of war.

Trump was there for a meeting with Council President Donald Tusk and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, held in a nondescript conference room. The two Europeans were eager to elaborate to Trump on how they see the world and the trio talked for three-quarters of an hour behind closed doors. Later, Tusk would say that there was broad agreement on many issues, but he added: "I'm not 100 percent sure that we can say today -- we, meaning Mr. President and myself -- that we have a common position, common opinion about Russia." He said that he had wanted to deliver a message to Trump, that the friendship between Europe and the U.S. is based on values such as freedom, human rights and the respect for human dignity. It was a diplomatic slap in the face, similar to the one German Chancellor Angela Merkel had delivered shortly after Trump's election.

Afterward, Trump joined newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron, of all people, for lunch. Trump, after all, had seemed to support Macron's opponent, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, in the election. When the two men shook hands for a closing photo op, the Frenchman grabbed Trump's hand and squeezed hard. Trump squeezed back. For a moment, they looked like opponents locked in a wrestling match. Trump wanted to let go, but Macron squeezed even harder until his knuckles turned white.

Not long later, the two met again for the opening ceremony of NATO's new headquarters. Behind him was a piece of twisted metal from the World Trade Center while next to him stood Angela Merkel.

While Merkel gave a ceremonious speech about the historical importance of NATO, Trump spoke again about alliance funding -- about the "massive amounts of money" that 23 of the 28 NATO member states allegedly owe the United States. He then said: "I never asked once what the new NATO headquarters cost. I refuse to do that. But it is beautiful." The others stood next to him like schoolchildren. Merkel repeatedly looked at the ground while Macron grinned. The applause was reserved. To make sure that he was in the front row for the joint photo following the event, Trump rudely shoved aside the prime minister of Montenegro.

The leaders then enjoyed a meal together before Trump flew onward to Sicily in the evening for the G-7 summit starting on Friday. Prior to departure, Trump received word that a U.S. federal appeals court had refused to lift a temporary block on his revised travel ban for Muslims.

It was a reminder that he really can't get home quickly enough. There is plenty to do in Washington.

Trump administration plans to minimize civil rights efforts in agencies

The Trump administration is planning to disband the Labor Department division that has policed discrimination among federal contractors for four decades, according to the White House’s newly proposed budget, part of wider efforts to rein in government programs that promote civil rights.

As outlined in Labor’s fiscal 2018 plan, the move would fold the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, now home to 600 employees, into another government agency in the name of cost-cutting.

The proposal to dismantle the compliance office comes at a time when the Trump administration is reducing the role of the federal government in fighting discrimination and protecting minorities by cutting budgets, dissolving programs and appointing officials unsympathetic to previous practices.

The new leadership at the Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, has proposed eliminating its environmental justice program, which addresses pollution that poses health threats specifically concentrated in minority communities. The program, in part, offers money and technical help to residents who are confronted with local hazards such as leaking oil tanks or emissions from chemical plants.

Under President Trump’s proposed budget, the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights — which has investigated thousands of complaints of discrimination in school districts across the country and set new standards for how colleges should respond to allegations of sexual assault and harassment — would also see significant staffing cuts. Administration officials acknowledge in budget documents that the civil rights office will have to scale back the number of investigations it conducts and limit travel to school districts to carry out its work.

  How Trump is rolling back Obama’s legacy View Graphic  

[Obama, Biden rewrite the rulebook on handling sexual assault on campus]
And the administration has reversed several steps taken under President Barack Obama to address LGBT concerns. The Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example, has revoked a rule ensuring that transgender people can stay at sex-segregated shelters of their choice, and the Department of Health and Human Services has removed a question about sexual orientation from two surveys of elderly Americans about services offered or funded by the government.

The efforts to reduce the federal profile on civil rights reflects the consensus view within the Trump administration that Obama officials exceeded their authority in policing discrimination on the state and local level, sometimes pressuring targets of government scrutiny to adopt policies that were not warranted.

Administration officials made clear in the initial weeks of Trump’s presidency that they would break with the civil rights policies of his predecessor. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered a review of agreements to reform police departments, signaling his skepticism of efforts to curb civil rights abuses by law enforcement officers. His Justice Department, meantime, stopped challenging a controversial Texas voter identification law and joined with the Education Department in withdrawing federal guidance allowing transgender students to use school bathrooms corresponding to their gender identity.

While these decisions have been roundly criticized by liberal activists, administration officials said that civil rights remain a priority for the Trump White House.

“The Trump administration has an unwavering commitment to the civil rights of all Americans,” White House spokeswoman Kelly Love said in an emailed statement.

But Vanita Gupta, who was the head of Justice’s civil rights division from October 2014 to January 2017, said that the administration’s actions have already begun to adversely affect Americans across the country.

“They can call it a course correction, but there’s little question that it’s a rollback of civil rights across the board,” said Gupta, who is now president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Labor’s budget proposal says that folding its compliance office into the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission “will reduce operational redundancies, promote efficiencies, improve services to citizens, and strengthen civil rights enforcement.”

Historically, the two entities have played very different roles. Unlike the EEOC, which investigates complaints it receives, the compliance office audits contractors in a more systematic fashion and verifies that they “take affirmative action” to promote equal opportunity among their employees.

Patricia A. Shiu, who led the compliance office from 2009 to 2016, said the audits are crucial because most workers don’t know they have grounds to file a complaint. “Most people do not know why they don’t get hired. Most people do not know why they do not get paid the same as somebody else,” she said.

Under Obama, officials in the compliance office often conducted full-scale audits of companies, examining their practices in multiple locations, rather than carrying out shorter, more limited reviews as previous administrations had done.

Some companies have questioned the more aggressive approach, noting the office has consistently found since 2004 that 98 percent of federal contractors comply with the law.

But the compliance office also scored some major recent legal victories, including a $1.7 million settlement with Palantir Technologies over allegations that the data-mining company’s hiring practices discriminated against Asians. In a case involving Gordon Food Service, which serves the Agriculture Department, the Pentagon and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the office found the company had “systematically eliminated qualified women from the hiring process.” The firm agreed to pay $1.85 million in wages to 926 women who had applied for jobs and hire 37 of them. Gordon Food was also forced to no longer require women to take a strength test.

In Education Department budget documents, the administration acknowledges that proposed funding levels would hamper the work of that department’s civil rights office. The budget would reduce staffing by more than 40 employees.

“To address steady increases in the number of complaints received and decreased staffing levels, OCR must make difficult choices,” the budget documents say. “OCR’s enforcement staff will be limited in conducting onsite investigations and monitoring, and OCR’s ability to achieve greater coordination and communication regarding core activities will be greatly diminished.”

Some critics of the civil rights office said school districts often felt they were presumed guilty in the eyes of the federal government.

“There was sort of this sense that . . . if there was a complaint filed, there must have been done something wrong,” said Thomas J. Gentzel, executive director of the National School Boards Association. “But there’s usually two sides to a story.”

Education Department spokeswoman Liz Hill said that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Candice E. Jackson, who has been named as the acting head of the civil rights office, are committed to protecting all students from discrimination.

“Each civil rights complaint received by OCR is given due care and attention, with OCR serving as a fair and impartial investigative office,” Hill said.

Jackson’s nomination has added to the anxiety of civil rights activists. Jackson, a lawyer from Vancouver, Wash. and author of a book about women who had accused President Bill Clinton of sexual assault, has written that programs aimed at fostering a diverse student body dismiss “the very real prices paid by individual people who end up injured by affirmative action.”

Similar concerns have been raised about Trump’s likely selection of Eric S. Dreiband to head the Justice Department’s civil rights division. A former Bush administration official and veteran conservative Washington lawyer, Dreiband has represented several companies that were sued for discrimination. (Dreiband is representing the Washington Post in an age and race discrimination case in federal court in the District.)


Trump’s “America First“ Infrastructure Plan: Let Saudi Arabia and Blackstone Take Care of It


Throughout the presidential campaign, Donald Trump blasted his rival for taking money from Saudi Arabia, which, he regularly charged, has a horrific human rights record and was behind the attack on September 11.

“You talk about women and women’s rights? So these are people that push gays off buildings. These are people that kill women and treat women horribly. And yet you take their money,” he complained.
Trump, of course, has never been married to anything he has said in the past. But even by Trumpian standards, a recent series of deals he struck with Saudi Arabia stand out.

The two that made the news — a $110 billion arms deal and a $100 million gift to an Ivanka Trump-inspired endowment — are remarkable in their own right.

But the third, which was rolled out much more quietly, is no less stunning: The Saudi kingdom joined forces with a top outside adviser to Trump to build a $40 billion war chest to privatize U.S. infrastructure.

The vehicle would employ the same kind of public-private partnerships, known as P3s, the Trump administration has endorsed for its trillion dollar infrastructure plan. The deal hands over control of projects to rebuild American roads and bridges to the private sector and a foreign country.

The Saudi Public Investment Fund announced its $20 billion investment with Blackstone, the private equity giant whose CEO, Stephen Schwarzman, chairs the Strategic and Policy Forum, a key group of private-sector advisers to President Trump. In recent months Schwarzman has become a key adviser to the president, speaking to him “several times a week,” according to Politico. Schwarzman, who has an estate near Mar-a-Lago and has known Trump for years, is a Republican megadonor, giving over $4 million to Super PACs that support conservative candidates in the last election cycle.

The Saudi investment was announced when Trump was in Saudi Arabia and was touted by the White House as part of Trump’s commitment to render deals for outside investment in America. Blackstone described the deal as “the culmination of a year’s discussions” and insisted the White House was not involved. 

But the managing director of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, Yasir Al Rumayyan, explicitly said that the deal “reflects our positive views around the ambitious infrastructure initiatives being undertaken in the United States as announced by President Trump.”

The timing was also notable, coming just after Trump son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner negotiated a $110 billion arms sale to the Saudis. Kushner and Blackstone have a long history; Blackstone is one of the largest lenders to Kushner’s business, with over $400 million in financing since 2013.

Schwarzman, of course, is not a disinterested adviser to the president. He and his firm stands to gain massively from public policy decisions, whether Trump’s reversal on Chinese currency manipulation (Blackstone is heavily invested in China and even warned investors that labeling China a currency manipulator would harm the company financially) or the administration’s reticence on closing the carried interest loophole (which not only benefits Blackstone but Schwarzman himself). The loophole generates billions of dollars for Blackstone.

“Donald Trump brokering a deal between Saudi royalty and private equity magnates associated with both the Republican and Democratic Party is about as much corruption and self-dealing as can be squeezed into a single sentence,” said Jeff Hauser, director of the Revolving Door Project. “This deal essentially constitutes the singularity of corruption and represents all that is broken with our global politics.”

This conflict carries over to infrastructure, a business Blackstone has been focused on since last year. They’re looking to capitalize on Trump’s victory, and his long-promised plan to use private money to leverage around $200 billion in public funds over ten years for building projects. The infrastructure plan surprisingly got slipped into Trump’s budget proposal

“There is broad agreement that the United States urgently needs to invest in its rapidly aging infrastructure,” said Blackstone president Tony James this week. James is a donor to Democratic presidential candidates.

Most Democrats have dismissed Trump’s infrastructure plan as “sleight-of-hand,” because his budget actually cuts transportation spending, more than offsetting the $200 billion investment. The cuts include zeroing out a popular state grant program called TIGER, along with slashes to Amtrak and other transit projects. 

In addition to P3s, Trump’s advisers talk of using a model popular in Australia, where proceeds from sales of public assets get funneled into new projects. So under the Trump plan, direct federal investments in infrastructure would be lowered, while private control of projects would ramp up. This benefits Blackstone and Saudi Arabia.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, in a puzzling statement, characterized the Trump budget as not a cut in infrastructure spending, but a “dropoff.”

State and local governments don’t lack private capital for infrastructure; municipal bonds are a $3.7 trillion market. Advocates are concerned that companies like Blackstone want an equity stake in infrastructure that will prove more costly than muni bond funding. P3s could generate high tolls and user fees, as the private sector expects a greater return on investment. 

In addition, critics charge that P3s narrow where infrastructure projects happen; replacing water systems for the poor in Flint won’t make back the kind of money that a bridge or toll road connecting an affluent suburb might. P3s more generally have been criticized for limiting democratic control of public assets. 

“Why would we take some of the resources we have and hand them away to Wall Street?” asked Donald Cohen of the anti-privatization group In the Public Interest. “And give them control over the asset for 20, 30, 40, 50 years?”

Saudi Arabia put up half of Blackstone total investment in their infrastructure fund. A single investor putting that big a commitment into one private equity fund is atypical, and would essentially have a foreign government profit from fees like toll roads.

When the United Arab Emirates attempted to use the state-owned company Dubai Ports World to buy six U.S. seaports in 2006, it generated significant controversy, stoked by right-wing media figures like Lou Dobbs and Democrats such as Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, was saw an opportunity to damage then-President Bush. The deal eventually fell apart, as Dubai Ports World sold off its stake. By contrast, the Blackstone-Saudi deal has not registered much comment.

But Saudi Arabia’s money will get funneled through a close Trump adviser in a grab for state and local infrastructure, with the expectation of billions of dollars in profits off the roads, bridges, and transit systems the public uses every day. Blackstone expects to use the $40 billion in the infrastructure fund to leverage the purchase of $100 billion in projects, fully 10 percent of Trump’s total commitment. 

James told The New York Times that Blackstone could “establish overnight a leadership position” in infrastructure with the Saudi investment. Blackstone’s stock has surged since the Trump election and went up over 7 percent when the Saudi deal was announced.

Schwarzman, whose most recent birthday party featured trapeze artists, live camels, and Gwen Stefani, was in Riyadh last week for a whirlwind of dealmaking known as the U.S.-Saudi CEO Forum

The private equity titan is hardly the only financier personally benefiting from an advisory position with the Trump administration. For example, legendary trader Carl Icahn, another adviser, has been using his influence to get the administration to change ethanol rules that would save companies he owns hundreds of millions of dollars. Icahn has also been personally speculating on financial instruments related to his push for changes in ethanol rules.


Join The Intercept in Documenting the Conflicts of Interest of Hundreds of Trump Appointees


The Trump administration has faced a growing clamor over the glaring conflicts of interest of many of its high-level appointees.

Michael T. Flynn, President Trump’s former national security adviser, is currently under investigation for his failure to report $45,000 in fees for a speech given in Moscow to RT, the Russian state media outlet. The billionaire investor Carl Icahn has been criticized for serving as an informal and unpaid adviser to Trump, including on areas in which Icahn has a direct financial interest.
What’s more difficult to track, however, are the conflicts of interest of lower-level appointees — the personnel who execute Trump administration policy on a day to day basis.

To shed light on these appointees’ backgrounds, The Intercept and the Center for Media and Democracy have requested the Office of Government Ethics Form 278, the standard financial disclosure document, for hundreds of Trump officials. We have now received over 150 of them and compiled them in a public Google Documents table, and will be adding more as they arrive.
As seen below, we have begun examining these appointees’ previous lives in the D.C. swamp, including stints as lobbyists and trips through the industry-government revolving door.

We invite readers to join us in combing through the pasts of these appointees, as well as informing us of any officials whose disclosure forms we have not obtained. Many appointments are made without announcements and are not identified on the relevant agency websites.

We will credit you if we use any of your work in future stories. We can be contacted by email at lee.fang@theintercept.com (encryption key available here) and nick@prwatch.org, or via Twitter at @LHFang and @NickSurgey. Instructions for communicating with The Intercept anonymously and with additional security are available here.

The documents show numerous potential conflicts of interest:

Anthony DeMartino, appointed as deputy chief of staff to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, previously consulted for defense contractor Palantir, helping the firm cultivate “government relationships,” according to his ethics disclosure. DeMartino’s consulting work was conducted through “SBD Advisors,” a firm with ties to high-level military officials. Former Defense Secretary Ash Carter previously worked for SBD Advisors, and its current advisory board includes retired Adm. Michael Mullen, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Barack Obama. The Defense Department did not respond to a request for comment.

Anthony DeMartino Office of the Secretary of Defense
Deputy Chief of Staff
Form 278

Travis Scott Fisher and Daniel Simmons, two appointees at the Department of Energy, previously worked for the Institute for Energy Research, a pro-fossil fuel think tank founded by oil and gas billionaire Charles Koch. The Department of Energy is deeply involved in the approval of liquified natural gas export projects, a field in which Koch’s business has deep involvement. The Department of Energy did not respond to a request for comment.

Travis Scott Fisher Department of Energy
Assistant to the Secretary
Form 278
Daniel Simmons Department of Energy
Assistant to the Secretary
Form 278

In other cases, Trump officials appear to have failed to follow the instructions for Form 278, which state that filers must name any source that paid more than $5,000 for their services. This is designed to force attorneys and lobbyists to disclose their significant clients.

Nathan Miller, appointed as a senior adviser to the Small Business Administration, is a former corporate lobbyist at a company called Public Strategies Washington. According to the required lobbying disclosure forms, Miller and other PSW staff met with Senate officials on behalf of clients including Bain Capital, Lockheed Martin, and Liberty Mutual last year in return for payments to his firm far over $5,000. However, none of these clients are listed in Miller’s presidential appointee disclosure form. Carol Wilkerson, the spokesperson for the SBA, sent us the following statement: “Utilizing our normal review processes, we have determined that appropriate disclosures were made with respect to Mr. Miller’s New Entrant OGE 278e Report.”

Nathan Miller Small Business Administration
Senior Adviser
Form 278

Anthony Pugliese, a senior White House adviser to the Department of Transportation, previously worked as a state-based lobbyist in Pennsylvania. Pugliese’s state lobbying disclosure shows clients including John Deere and Luxottica Retail North America. But Pugliese’s federal ethics disclosure reveals no client information. The Department of Transportation press office did not respond to a request for comment.

Anthony Pugliese Department of Transportation
Senior White House Adviser
Form 278

 Michael Egan, appointed as the special assistant to Department of Defense White House liaison, previously worked for the Boston Consulting Group. Egan lists three consulting clients but does not disclose their identities, instead writing “Not specified” and the city where each client is headquartered. The Defense Department did not respond to a request for comment.

Michael Egan Department of Defense
Special Assistant to the White House Liaison, OSD
  Form 278

Justin Schwab, a senior attorney appointed to the Environmental Protection Agency, initially only listed his former law firm Baker Hostetler and did not disclose any clients. After being contacted by reporters, Schwab refiled his disclosure, revealing that he previously worked for Southern Co., a major utility that is directly affected by the Clean Power Plan climate change regulation. “We decline to comment,” wrote Enesta Jones, EPA spokesperson, when reached for a response.

Justin Schwab EPA
Senior Adviser
Form 278


FRONTLINE shows the Bannon’s war

The inside story of Trump adviser Stephen Bannon’s war — with radical Islam, Washington and White House rivals.

It is an eyeopening documentary!

Economist Joseph Stiglitz: Trump's Budget Takes a Sledgehammer to What Remains of the American Dream

AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, the Trump administration unveiled its $4.1 trillion budget. The plan includes massive cuts to social programs, while calling for historic increases in military spending. The budget proposes slashing $800 billion from Medicaid, nearly $200 billion from nutritional assistance programs, such as food stamps and Meals on Wheels, and more than $72 billion from disability benefits. The plan would also completely eliminate some student loan programs. It would ban undocumented immigrants from receiving support through some programs for families with children, including the child care tax credit. On Tuesday, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont slammed Trump’s budget.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: This is a budget which says that if you are a member of the Trump family, you may receive a tax break of up to $4 billion, but if you are a child of a working-class family, you could well lose the health insurance you currently have through the Children’s Health Insurance Program and massive cuts to Medicaid. At a time when we remain the only major country on Earth not to guarantee healthcare to all, this budget makes a bad situation worse in terms of healthcare. In other words, this is a budget that provides massive tax breaks for billionaires and corporate CEOs, and massive cuts to programs that tens of millions of struggling Americans depend upon.
When Donald Trump campaigned for president, he told the American people that he would be a different type of Republican, that he would take on the political and economic establishment, that he would stand up for working people, that he understood the pain that families all across this country were experiencing. Well, sadly, this budget exposes all of that verbiage for what it really was: just cheap and dishonest campaign rhetoric that was meant to get votes, nothing more than that.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. The ACLU, NAACP and Planned Parenthood have all come out criticizing the budget. Some conservatives are also criticizing the budget. Republican Congressman Mark Meadows of North Carolina told The New York Times, "Meals on Wheels, even for some of us who are considered to be fiscal hawks, may be a bridge too far," unquote.

The budget also calls for an historic 10 percent increase in military spending and another $2.6 billion to further militarize the U.S.-Mexico border, including $1.6 billion to build Trump’s border wall. In a rare proposed benefit for families, the budget allocates $19 billion for six weeks of paid parental leave for new families—a project that’s been spearheaded by his daughter and senior White House adviser, Ivanka Trump. The budget projects 3 percent economic growth, which economists say is widely unrealistic.

Unlike previous presidents, Trump is unveiling his proposed budget while he’s abroad. David Stockman, former budget director for President Ronald Reagan, said, quote, "This budget is dead before arrival, so he might as well be out of town," unquote.

Well, for more, we go to Joe Stiglitz, Nobel Prize-winning economist, Columbia University professor, chief economist for the Roosevelt Institute. He’s the author of numerous books, most recently, The Euro: How a Common Currency Threatens the Future of Europe.

Joseph Stiglitz, welcome to Democracy Now!

JOSEPH STIGLITZ: Nice to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you respond to the budget that’s just been revealed?

JOSEPH STIGLITZ: It’s like everything else: It’s made up. You could say it’s a collection of lies put together. It doesn’t make any economic sense. I don’t think anybody who’s looked at it has—can fathom the economics. I mean, you mentioned one thing, the 3 percent growth rate, which is the largest deviation in estimate relative to the CBO on record. You know, when I was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, we wanted to be responsible, and we always were conservative and were very careful, getting the views of everybody, wanted to make sure that our numbers were reasonable. He’s made no pretense to be reasonable.

In fact, what’s striking is, while he assumes that there’s going to be more growth, if you look at the budget, it’s designed to reduce growth. He cuts out support for science, for R&D, which is the basis of productivity growth. He cuts out support for job retraining, so when people leave one job, they can be trained for the next job. He cuts out support for Pell grants, so those who have low income can get the education so they can live up to their potential. All these are things that actually lower economic growth. So I would say this is not a growth budget, this is a no-growth budget.

And then he has the numbers, you know, the gall to have things like—you know, just mind-bending. He says he’s going to—elsewhere, he said he’s going to eliminate the estate tax. And his budget says that he’s going to raise several hundred billion dollars’ more money from an estate tax that is zeroed out. Now, you can make a statement that if we lowered the estate tax a little bit, maybe people will be induced to die more, and maybe we’ll get more revenue. You could make that kind of statement. But one thing you don’t need a Ph.D. is, zero times any number is zero. So if you have a zero estate tax, no matter how many people are dying and how wealthy they are, you’re going to get zero revenue.
And remember, what he’s doing, he’s cutting out the estate tax that benefits 0.2 percent of the economy—of our society. You know, you have to have an estate of more than 10 million, if you’re a married couple, in order to pay anything on the estate tax. And meanwhile, he’s cutting benefits for ordinary Americans—education, health, as you mentioned, food, nutrition. It’s not just the system of social protection that we’ve created, but even the bottom safety net that is—catches people when they’re in trouble.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Donald Trump two years ago, speaking—this is May 21st, 2015—to the right-wing outlet The Daily Signal.
DONALD TRUMP: I’m not going to cut Social Security like every other Republican, and I’m not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid. Every other Republican is going to cut. And even if they wouldn’t, they don’t know what to do, because they don’t know where the money is. I do.
AMY GOODMAN: So, he has said, when he was campaigning—actually, he was campaigning against other Republicans when he made the point, "I’m not going to cut Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security." I mean, we had endless choices of clips to choose from. Joe Stiglitz?

JOSEPH STIGLITZ: He lied. He is cutting Medicaid, the largest cut to Medicaid, even beyond what was in his repeal and replace, that didn’t get very far. These are even bigger Medicaid cuts. In terms of so Social Security, one important part of Social Security is disability payments.


JOSEPH STIGLITZ: And, you know, that’s really important. People do get to say, well, they have auto accidents, they get sick, they get cancer—you know, all kinds of things that make them unable to work.

AMY GOODMAN: They get hurt at work.

JOSEPH STIGLITZ: They can’t work. And he’s cutting that. It’s an important part of our Social Security, of security that people—we provide, as a society, as a basic system of social protection. He’s cutting back on those expenditures. So, all I can say is, you look at that clip, and what he’s doing today is just the opposite.

AMY GOODMAN: So you’re talking about cutting—I mean, already the proposed budget from the House was massive when it came to cuts, something like $880 billion in Medicaid cuts. He’s suggesting $616 more billion—$616 billion more, which would basically gut Medicaid.

JOSEPH STIGLITZ: That’s right. And remember, it’s not just for poor people. It’s a major problem for our elderly, who have to go into old age homes, hospice, you know, all—so, it is an extraordinarily important program. Another way of seeing the massiveness of these cuts is that, if you look at what we call a non-defense discretionary—that is to say, you take out Social Security, you take out Medicare, and you take out military—he’s proposing a 40 percent cut in all these programs. And remember, these programs have been cut year after year for the last 25 years, under both Democrats and Republicans, so it’s not like there’s a lot of fat on this. These are already fairly lean. And what he’s doing is just taking an ax to them, a 40 percent reduction.

The consequence of his proposal, I don’t think even he fully understands. For instance, we would lose the vote at the U.N. if he carried out his programs. I mean, so, basically, we’re—we’re saying to international—

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean we’d lose the vote at the U.N.?

JOSEPH STIGLITZ: Well, because he’s cutting out all support for international organizations. And if we don’t pay our dues, our core dues, to the U.N., we lose our vote. And they’re an important source of our influence in international politics. So, you know—and this is a consequence of what he is proposing. There is no discussion of what the implications of this 40 percent cut in government. You know, there are some programs that can be cut. That’s clear. But he hasn’t gone pruning. He’s taken an ax and said, "Oh, I can get a balanced budget, if I make up numbers about growth and if I just pretend that I’m going to take a 40 percent cut from somewhere."

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Mick Mulvaney, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.

MICK MULVANEY: I think, for years and years, we’ve simply looked at a budget in terms of the folks who are on the back end of the programs, the recipients of the taxpayer money. And we haven’t spent nearly enough time focusing our attention on the people who pay the taxes.
AMY GOODMAN: Mick Mulvaney. Your response, Joe Stiglitz?

JOSEPH STIGLITZ: Oh, totally wrong. I mean, I was in the White House for four years. And we did a very, very careful analysis of the benefits and costs, how it would affect taxpayers and ordinary consumers, the rich, the poor, the middle class, when we evaluated the program. We were very, very aware that this was money that people had worked for, earned, and that, on the other hand, they need help in a whole variety of areas, help in sending their kids to college, in buying a home. You know, the—

AMY GOODMAN: This would drastically shrink low-income student loan program.

JOSEPH STIGLITZ: Oh, some of the programs would be wiped out. So, you know, the American dream, we’ve gradually understood, is really a myth, the fact that anybody can go from the bottom to the top. This is, what is remnant of that American dream, he’s saying, "I’m going to hit it with a sledgehammer."

AMY GOODMAN: Under Trump’s budget, the Environmental Protection Agency faces a 31 percent cut, the steepest cut of any agency or department across the government. Well, during a press conference on Tuesday, a reporter asked White House budget director Mick Mulvaney about the EPA cuts.

REPORTER: Can you characterize the treatment of climate science programs and cuts to those? And do you–do you describe those as a taxpayer waste, if you do cut them?
MICK MULVANEY: You tell me. I think the National Science Foundation last year used your taxpayer money to fund a climate change musical. Do you think that’s a waste of your money?
REPORTER: What about climate science?
MICK MULVANEY: I’ll take that as a yes, by the way.
AMY GOODMAN: There’s Mick Mulvaney. Joe Stiglitz?

JOSEPH STIGLITZ: Well, you know, of course, every government program has the worst thing. The financial sector and the private sector makes a mistake. Remember we had a crisis in 2008? That was a misallocation of trillions of dollars. So, I don’t want to pretend that every program is perfect. But if you get rid of environmental protection, we’re going to be suffering from dirty air, dirty water, toxic waste, that lower our health. And here’s the point. He wants faster economic growth. A less healthy America is not going to be as productive.

AMY GOODMAN: And the massive increase in military spending? I mean, you’ve written books about this, about the wars and what they cost us.

JOSEPH STIGLITZ: That’s right. And we’re fighting, we might say, a war on terrorism. But another aircraft carrier is not going to win—help us in the war on terrorism. You know, the Cold War, that fight with Russia, in the form that it was, ended a quarter-century ago, and yet we’re spending money as if it hasn’t ended. So we’ve been spending lots and lots of money on weapons that don’t work, against enemies that don’t exist. If he used that criteria that he said for shutting down a department, the Defense Department would have been shut down long ago. You know, the $1,000 toilet, the hammers that cost $100 or things like that—if we used the criteria of misspending, the Defense Department is illustration number one.

AMY GOODMAN: So we just have a minute right now. Republicans have joined with Democrats in condemning this, saying that this budget is dead on arrival. He has it released when he’s out of town. What actually happens here? You were a chief economic adviser in a White House, under President Clinton. What happens next? What happens to this budget?

JOSEPH STIGLITZ: Well, actually, the House Budget Committee starts putting together their own budget. You know, this will be a little bit in their background. It will give a little bit of impetus to the extremists. You know, it’s so ironic. He’s talking about Islamic extremists while he’s in Saudi Arabia, and here we have budget extremists back home, really extremist. And so, it is giving a license for that kind of extremism in thinking about the social fabric in our country. But they will go ahead on their own and try to structure. The House, led by Ryan, is going to come up with a more extreme budget than I think is going to be acceptable to the American people. Fortunately, the Senate will try to be—tame it in and bring it in. A good chance that they won’t be able to compromise. That is to say, they won’t be able to put together the numbers that work. And what happens then is, the government operates on a continuing resolution, where what you say is, "We haven’t figured out how to make a new budget. We’ll keep the old budget for another three months or six months, until we can reach an agreement."

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much, Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Prize-winning economist, Columbia University professor, chief economist for Roosevelt Institute, served as chair of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Bill Clinton, author of numerous books, most recently, The Euro: How a Common Currency Threatens the Future of Europe.

A Short History of Presidential Obstruction of Justice


The Department of Justice has announced the appointment of Robert S. Mueller, former director of the FBI, as special counsel to oversee its investigation of Russian meddling in the presidential election and possible connections to associates of President Donald Trump. “It is in the public interest for me to exercise my authority and appoint a special counsel to assume responsibility for this matter,’’ said Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein in a statement. “My decision is not a finding that crimes have been committed or that any prosecution is warranted. … What I have determined is that based upon the unique circumstances, the public interest requires me to place this investigation under the authority of a person who exercises a degree of independence from the normal chain of command.’’

What exactly is obstruction of justice? And has President Donald Trump engaged in it, by reportedly telling FBI Director James Comey that he hoped Comey would “let go” of the bureau’s investigation of Trump’s National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and then firing Comey months later?

The answer to the first question is: Criminal obstruction of justice is broadly defined, and according to 18 U.S. Code § 1503, includes “any threatening letter or communication [which] influences, obstructs, or impedes, or endeavors to influence, obstruct, or impede, the due administration of justice.”

The Criminal Resource Manual for U.S. attorneys points out that “the Supreme Court has concluded that ‘endeavor’ is broader than ‘attempt’” — and quotes the court stating that in the statute it means “any effort or essay to accomplish the evil purpose that the section was enacted to prevent.”
Therefore, says the Justice Department, “it follows that an endeavor to obstruct justice need not be successful to be criminal.”

But the answer to the second question is this: Trump may or may not have engaged in obstruction of justice under normal judicial standards, but that’s irrelevant — the only thing that matters is whether Congress decides he did so under whatever standards they believe are appropriate.

It’s nearly certain that presidents can’t be prosecuted under criminal law while in office. No one’s ever made a serious attempt to do so, and while no court has ever ruled on whether it’s possible, a 2000 analysis by the Department of Justice agreed with the department’s 1973 examination of the same issue that “a sitting President is constitutionally immune from indictment and criminal prosecution.” (The author of the 2000 memo, Randolph D. Moss, went on to be appointed by President Obama to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.)

There is, however, a remedy for presidential misconduct, provided by Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution: impeachment and removal from office.

According to Section 4, any civil officer of the United States — which of course includes the president — can be removed from their position for “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

The process begins in the House of Representatives. Impeachment is the equivalent of an indictment in the regular justice system. If a majority of the House approves one or more articles of impeachment, a trial is held in the Senate under the supervision of the chief justice of the Supreme Court, with senators acting as the jury. If two-thirds of the Senate votes to convict, the official is removed from office — and generally barred from ever again holding any other position, as the Constitution puts it, “of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States.”

What complicates the issue is that, while treason and bribery are relatively clear offenses, the Constitution is silent on what “other high crimes and misdemeanors” might be.

This is a particular problem because only two presidents, Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998, have ever been impeached and tried in the Senate, and neither was convicted. And Richard Nixon, the president most associated with impeachment, in fact was not impeached. Instead, after the House judiciary committee approved three articles of impeachment, he saw the writing on the wall and resigned before they were voted on by the full House.

It is true the Senate has tried 13 lesser officials, mostly judges, who’d been impeached by the House. But that’s still not much to go on; impeachment is essentially a justice system that has held only 15 trials total in 229 years, so there’s little precedent for any part of the process. This means that impeachment is inevitably, irredeemably political: An impeachable offense is whatever Congress decides it is, and no action is impeachable if Congress doesn’t want it to be.

That said, when attempting to impeach presidents, Congress has often tried to hew to criminal law to some degree — which is where obstruction of justice has come in, twice.

Congress did not accuse Johnson of obstruction of justice, instead claiming he was guilty of violating the 1867 Tenure of Office Act, a law which was eventually repealed 20 years later, in 1887, and is now forgotten.
But the first article of impeachment against Nixon adopted by the House judiciary committee in 1974 centered on an accusation that he had “prevented, obstructed and impeded the administration of justice” — similar to the criminal statutory language of 18 U.S. Code § 1503 quoted above, which may be of interest to Donald J. Trump, that forbids any action that “influences, obstructs, or impedes … the due administration of justice.”

Some of the accusations against Nixon in Article I have, at least to date, no parallel with Trump. For instance, the judiciary committee charged Nixon with suborning perjury and withholding evidence. Yet other parts of Article I sound quite familiar. Nixon was, the judiciary committee said, guilty of “interfering or endeavoring to interfere with the conduct of investigations by … the Federal Bureau of Investigation.” This did not include firing an FBI director, but rather a vague offer from a Nixon underling to the judge overseeing the prosecution of Daniel Ellsberg that the judge might be hired as FBI director. According to the Bill of Particulars attached to the three articles of impeachment, this violated 18 U.S. Code § 1503.

Another aspect of Nixon’s obstruction of justice was that he was responsible for “making or causing to be made false or misleading public statements for the purpose of deceiving the people of the United States into believing that a thorough and complete investigation had been conducted with respect to allegations of misconduct on the part of personnel of the executive branch.” Trump has of course called the various investigations of Russian interference “a total hoax” and a “taxpayer funded charade” that “should have been over with a long time ago.”

Moreover, the committee’s Article II was in some ways similar to the first, charging Nixon with “impairing the due and proper administration of justice and the conduct of lawful inquiries.” Nixon’s alleged actions included having “knowingly misused the executive power by interfering with agencies of the executive branch, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation.” All three articles concluded that Nixon’s conduct warranted “impeachment and trial, and removal from office.”

In Clinton’s impeachment, the House Judiciary Committee adopted four articles, two of which were approved by the full House. One of the two, Article III, used exactly the same language as Article I from 1974, accusing the president of having “prevented, obstructed and impeded the administration of justice.”

However, none of the charges in 1998’s Article III against Clinton involved the FBI or were of the level of seriousness of the other accusations against Nixon. Instead, the judiciary committee claimed Clinton was guilty of, among other things, encouraging Monica Lewinsky to file a false affidavit and tampering with a witness.

That brings us to Trump and the possibility that he could be impeached for obstruction of justice.
Significantly, Jason Chaffetz, the Utah Republican who chairs the House oversight committee, sent a letter Tuesday to the FBI requesting any memoranda created by Comey recording his communications with Trump. The committee needs them, wrote Chaffetz, to discover whether Trump “attempted to influence or impede the FBI’s investigation” of Flynn. This language is clearly drawn from the various statutes on obstruction of justice — in particular from 18 U.S. Code § 1503, which, again, makes it illegal to take any action which “influences, obstructs, or impedes, or endeavors to influence, obstruct, or impede, the due administration of justice.”

None of this, of course, means it’s likely the Republican-controlled Congress will produce articles of impeachment, or pass them out of the House, or vote to convict Trump in the Senate. But in the event that that comes to pass, the standard criminal definition of obstruction of justice will suddenly become relevant for Trump — because while presidents can’t be prosecuted while they’re in office, once they leave they can be prosecuted for crimes they committed while there.

That’s why Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon after he resigned. Nixon, he wrote, “has become liable to possible indictment and trial for offenses against the United States” — but that had to be stopped because “the tranquility to which this nation has been restored by the events of recent weeks could be irreparably lost by the prospects of bringing to trial a former President of the United States.”

Given the nontranquil reaction to Ford’s pardon, it might be politically difficult for President Pence to try it again. So just in case Trump needs to know, the maximum penalty for obstruction of justice under § 1503 is 10 years imprisonment – per count.

After James Comey’s Firing, Who Will Stop Trump’s Tinpot Dictatorship?


“You’re fired!” That’s what Donald Trump would bark from his boardroom chair at the end of each episode of “The Apprentice.” For years, millions of Americans would smile, laugh, and even cheer in front of their television sets as the property tycoon performed his signature move.

There is little to laugh about this week. The firing of FBI Director James Comey by President Trump will be remembered as a dark and depressing day in the downward spiral of American democracy. It’s difficult to disagree with the scathing assessment of CNN’s senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, who described the sacking as a “grotesque” abuse of power. “This is the kind of thing that goes on in non-democracies,” he told host Wolf Blitzer in a clip that has since, deservedly, gone viral. “They fire the people who are in charge of the investigation.” Toobin continued: “This is something that is not within the American political tradition. … This is not normal, this is not politics as usual.”

There is indeed nothing “normal” about removing the head of the FBI from his post less than four months into a new presidency — and an FBI boss who has been credited with delivering that president his election victory, against the odds. You have to go all the way back to 1993 to find the last — and only other — time a president (William J. Clinton) decided to dismiss his FBI chief (William S. Sessions). And the latter, unlike Comey, was accused of a long list of bizarre ethics violations including, as the Washington Post reported at the time, “charging the government for personal travel,” diverting FBI aircraft to pick up his wife, Alice Sessions, in other cities, and deploying FBI cars “to take her to get her nails done.”

Nor is there anything “normal” about an American president sending his long-standing head of private security, and former bodyguard, to hand-deliver a letter of termination to his FBI chief. There are tinpot dictators in Africa who would have avoided doing that simply in order to avoid giving the wrong impression. Tinpot Trump, however, didn’t care. (His brutish security chief, Keith Schiller, lest we forget, spent the presidential campaign smacking Latino protesters and manhandling Latino reporters on behalf of his boss.)

Acting Attorney General Sally Yates was also sacked by Trump via hand-delivered letter. The U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, was sacked by Trump after he refused to resign. What do Comey, Yates, and Bharara have in common? “They all were investigating Trump when they got fired, and there’s a Russia thread in each of their cases,” observes Shannon Vavra of Axios.

“You’re fired!” This is how Tinpot Trump deals with those who seek to hold him to account. We can’t say we weren’t warned. He has, after all, never hidden his authoritarian inclinations, his brazen disregard for political, legal, and social norms.
This handout image released on May 9, 2017 by the White House shows a copy of the termination letter from US President Donald Trump to FBI Director James Comey, May 9, 2017 in Washington, DC.US President Donald Trump on Tuesday, May 9, 2017 fired his FBI director James Comey, the man who leads the agency charged with investigating his campaign's ties with Russia -- a move that sent shockwaves through Washington. / AFP PHOTO / The White House / THE WHITE HOUSE / XGTY== RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE / MANDATORY CREDIT: "AFP PHOTO / THE WHITE HOUSE" / NO MARKETING / NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS / DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS == (Photo credit should read THE WHITE HOUSE/AFP/Getty Images)
This handout image released on May 9, 2017, by the White House shows a copy of the termination letter from President Donald Trump to FBI Director James Comey.

Photo: The White House/AFP/Getty Images

Trump, the property tycoon, slammed Mikhail Gorbachev for not responding to anti-Soviet protesters with a “firm enough hand,” while gazing in awe at the Chinese show of “strength” against the Tiananmen Square protesters in 1989.

Trump, the presidential candidate, lavished praise on Vladimir Putin as a president who “has been a leader far more than our president [Obama] has been” and who had “great control over his country.”

Trump, the president, in his very first speech to the nation, did his best impression of super-villain Bane from “The Dark Knight,” delivering a dystopian address on “American carnage” while vowing to “make America strong again.” On Twitter, he has referred to the media as an “enemy of the American people” and denounced a “so-called judge” who dared to rule against his “Muslim ban.”
Is it any wonder that experts on authoritarianism and fascism have been sounding the alarm bell for many months now? Listen to Ruth Ben Ghiat, the New York University history professor who has written a book on the rise of Mussolini in pre-war Italy. Trump “is an authoritarian,” she told me on my Al Jazeera English show in February, “who has the ability to stretch the boundaries of democracy to something unrecognizable.”

Is it any surprise that commentators have been invoking President Richard Nixon’s infamous “Saturday Night Massacre,” in which he fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox? Listen to John Dean, former White House counsel to Nixon, who believes Trump is much worse than Nixon and told The Atlantic in January: “The American presidency has never been at the whims of an authoritarian personality like Donald Trump.”

With Nixon, the checks and balances worked. He was stopped. Eventually. Who will stop Tinpot Trump? The congressional Republicans? You’re kidding, right? They have marched in partisan lockstep with their Dear Leader since he won their party’s presidential nomination last summer.
Consider their treatment this week of Yates, who testified in front of the Senate on Monday. Sen. Ted Cruz, whose wife Trump mocked as ugly and whose father he accused of colluding in the assassination of JFK, decided to attack Yates on behalf of the president over her refusal to defend Trump’s “Muslim ban” in court.

Sen. Lindsay Graham, who Trump has called “incompetent” and an “embarrassment,” decided to echo a key Trump talking point by asking Yates about who leaked classified information about former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s ties to Russia, rather than about the substance of those ties.

These are the elected representatives in whose hands rests the fate of the U.S. Republic? Seriously?
Who will stop Tinpot Trump? The Democrats? They will line up to appear on MSNBC and loudly demand a special prosecutor; they may even become bold enough to talk impeachment. But they are the minority party in both chambers. They don’t have the votes to demand anything. Nor do they have much credibility in the eyes of the public — a recent poll revealed the Democrats to be less popular than the Republicans, Vice President Mike Pence, and Trump himself.

Who will stop Tinpot Trump? The courts? Here and there, maybe, but over one and possibly even two terms? And as the president’s patronage powers kick in? I doubt it. Remember: The Trump effect on the U.S. judiciary will go far beyond the appointment of ultra-conservative Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Trump has inherited more than 100 court vacancies from Obama, which is more than double the number of vacancies Obama inherited from Bush in 2009.

Who will stop Tinpot Trump? The U.S. media? Give me a break! So much of the so-called fourth estate has embarrassed itself with fawning and deferential coverage of the president; cable news sees Trump less as a threat to democracy and more as a cash cow and ratings boon. In recent weeks, CBS Sunday morning anchor John Dickerson was escorted out of the Oval Office after he asked Trump a question the latter didn’t like, while CNN’s Van Jones and Fareed Zakaria fell over one another to declare Trump “presidential” because he gave a good speech and launched a few missiles at Syria.

American checks and balances are out of whack. The firing of the FBI director is only the beginning. There will be more sackings; more political corruption; more abuses of power. And, again, we can’t say we weren’t warned. Tinpot Trump, cautioned John Dean back in January, “is going to test our democracy as it has never been tested.” Whether American democracy is up to that test is another matter.