The Trump Crime Family Strikes Again

 

New reporting from the New York Times tonight:

 

Trump Ordered Officials to Give Jared Kushner a Security Clearance

 
 
 
Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, received a top-secret security clearance despite concerns from intelligence officials.

 

WASHINGTON — President Trump ordered his chief of staff to grant his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, a top-secret security clearance last year, overruling concerns flagged by intelligence officials and the White House’s top lawyer, four people briefed on the matter said.

Mr. Trump’s decision in May so troubled senior administration officials that at least one, the White House chief of staff at the time, John F. Kelly, wrote a contemporaneous internal memo about how he had been “ordered” to give Mr. Kushner the top-secret clearance.

The White House counsel at the time, Donald F. McGahn II, also wrote an internal memo outlining the concerns that had been raised about Mr. Kushner — including by the C.I.A. — and how Mr. McGahn had recommended that he not be given a top-secret clearance.

The disclosure of the memos contradicts statements made by the president, who told The New York Times in January in an Oval Office interview that he had no role in his son-in-law receiving his clearance.

Mr. Kushner’s lawyer, Abbe D. Lowell, also said that at the time the clearance was granted last year that his client went through a standard process. Ivanka Trump, the president’s eldest daughter and Mr. Kushner’s wife, said the same thing three weeks ago.

Asked on Thursday about the memos contradicting the president’s account, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said, “We don’t comment on security clearances.”

Peter Mirijanian, a spokesman for Mr. Lowell, said on Thursday: “In 2018, White House and security clearance officials affirmed that Mr. Kushner’s security clearance was handled in the regular process with no pressure from anyone. That was conveyed to the media at the time, and new stories, if accurate, do not change what was affirmed at the time.”

The decision last year to grant Mr. Kushner a top-secret clearance upgraded him from earlier temporary and interim status. He never received a higher-level designation that would have given him access to need-to-know intelligence known as sensitive compartmented information.

It is not known precisely what factors led to the problems with Mr. Kushner’s security clearance. Officials had raised questions about his own and his family’s real estate business’s ties to foreign governments and investors, and about initially unreported contacts he had with foreigners. The issue also generated criticism of Mr. Trump for having two family members serve in official capacities in the West Wing.

Mr. Kushner has spent this week abroad working on a Middle East peace plan. Among his meetings was one with Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia.

While the president has the legal authority to grant a clearance, in most cases, the White House’s personnel security office makes a determination about whether to grant one after the F.B.I. has conducted a background check. If there is a dispute in the personnel security office about how to move forward — a rare occurrence — the White House counsel makes the decision. In highly unusual cases, the president weighs in and grants one himself.

In Mr. Kushner’s case, personnel division officials were divided about whether to grant him a top-secret clearance.

In May 2018, the White House Counsel’s Office, which at the time was led by Mr. McGahn, recommended to Mr. Trump that Mr. Kushner not be given a clearance at that level. But the next day, Mr. Trump ordered Mr. Kelly to grant it to Mr. Kushner anyway, the people familiar with the events said.

The question of Mr. Kushner’s access to intelligence was a flash point almost from the beginning of the administration. The initial background check into Mr. Kushner dragged on for more than a year, creating a distraction for the White House, which struggled to explain why one of the people closest to the president had yet to be given the proper approval to be trusted with the country’s most sensitive information.

 
John F. Kelly, while he was White House chief of staff, kept contemporaneous documentation about Mr. Trump’s handling of Mr. Kushner’s security clearance, people briefed on the matter said.

The full scope of intelligence officials’ concerns about Mr. Kushner is not known. But the clearance had been held up in part over questions from the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. about his foreign and business contacts, including those related to Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Russia, according to multiple people familiar with the events.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Mr. Kushner was part of a group that met with a Russian lawyer who went to Trump Tower claiming to have political “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. And during the presidential transition, Mr. Kushner had a meeting with the Russian ambassador at the time, Sergey I. Kislyak, and the head of a Russian state-owned bank. When he applied for a security clearance, he did not reveal those meetings.

He later made several amendments to that section of his application, known as an SF86. His aides at the time insisted he had omitted those meetings inadvertently.

Mr. Kushner initially operated with a provisional clearance as his background check proceeded.

In an entry to Mr. Kushner’s personnel file on Sept. 15, 2017, the head of the personnel security division, Carl Kline, wrote, “Per conversation with WH Counsel the clearance was changed to interim Top Secret until we can confirm that the DOJ or someone else actually granted a final clearance. This action is out of an abundance of caution because the background investigation has not been completed.”

In a statement to The Times when Mr. Kushner received the clearance last year, Mr. Lowell said that “his application was properly submitted, reviewed by numerous career officials and underwent the normal process.”

During a review of security clearances in February 2018 that was prompted by the controversy surrounding Rob Porter, then the White House staff secretary, who had been accused of domestic abuse, Mr. Kushner’s clearance was downgraded from interim top secret to secret, limiting his access to classified information. At the time, Mr. Kelly wrote a five-page memo, revoking temporary clearances that had been in place since June 1, 2017.

That affected both Mr. Kushner and Ms. Trump, who told friends and advisers that they believed that Mr. Kelly and Mr. McGahn were targeting them for petty reasons instead of legitimate concerns flagged by officials.

Mr. Kushner and Ms. Trump both complained to the president about the situation, current and former administration officials said. In Mr. Kushner’s case, Mr. Trump would often turn to other aides and say in frustration, “Why isn’t this getting done?” according to a former administration official. On at least one occasion, the president asked another senior official if the person could sort out the issue. That official said no, according to this account.

Mr. Kelly did not believe it was appropriate to overrule the security clearance process and had brushed aside or avoided dealing with Mr. Kushner’s requests, a former administration official said. Mr. Kelly did not respond to a request for comment.

House Democrats are in the early stages of an investigation into how several Trump administration officials obtained clearances, including Mr. Kushner.

Mr. Trump’s precise language to Mr. Kelly about Mr. Kushner’s clearance in their direct conversation remains unclear. Two of the people familiar with Mr. Trump’s discussions with Mr. Kelly said that there might be different interpretations of what the president said. But Mr. Kelly believed it was an order, according to two people familiar with his thinking.

And Mr. Trump was definitive in his statements to The Times in the January interview.

“I was never involved with the security” clearances for Mr. Kushner, the president said. “I know that there was issues back and forth about security for numerous people, actually. But I don’t want to get involved in that stuff.”

A recent report by NBC revealed that Mr. Kline had overruled two career security specialists who had rejected Mr. Kushner’s application based on the F.B.I.’s concerns. A senior administration official confirmed the details laid out in the NBC report.

Mr. Kline was acting on the directive sent down by the president, one of the people familiar with the matter said.

The day that Mr. Lowell described Mr. Kushner’s process as having gone through normal routes, aides to Mr. Kushner had asked White House officials to deliver a statement from Mr. Kelly supporting what Mr. Lowell had said. But Mr. Kelly refused to do so, according to a person with knowledge of the events

Lindsey Graham Unmasked

If you didn’t already hate Lindsey Graham, you will now:

Monday, February 25, 2019

by Heather Digby Parton

This profile of Lindsay Graham in the New York Times Magazine doesn’t fully answer all the questions people have about why he’s decided to ecstatically lick Trump’s boots and attack Democrats like a feral dog but it does exlpain some of it. It starts off with a political appearance in South Carolina where he gives Trump a run for his money in sheer, right wing viciousness. Then it wonders how he got there:

What did happen to Lindsey Graham? I raised the question directly to him the following afternoon in his Senate office in Washington. Graham was collapsed behind a cluttered desk, sipping a Coke Zero and complaining of exhaustion.

“Well, O.K., from my point of view, if you know anything about me, it’d be odd not to do this,” he said.

I asked what “this” was. “ ‘This,’ ” Graham said, “is to try to be relevant.” Politics, he explained, was the art of what works and what brings desired outcomes. “I’ve got an opportunity up here working with the president to get some really good outcomes for the country,” he told me.

An outcome of particular interest to Graham, at the moment, is getting re-elected to a fourth Senate term in South Carolina, where Trump owns commanding approval numbers, especially among the hard-core Republicans who in the past questioned Graham’s devotion to their conservative cause. Sure, Graham allowed, you might emphasize some things more than others when you’re trying to appeal to the party base. “You just showcase your issues, right?” he said. During his last re-election campaign, in 2014, Graham asserted his base bona fides by railing against President Barack Obama’s White House “scumbags” and warning that “the world is literally about to blow up.” He has always been conservative, he emphasized. “But in our business, you’re not defined by the 80 percent agreement. You’re defined by the 20 percent” that the base might object to. (His relatively liberal position on immigration once led Rush Limbaugh to dub him “Lindsey Grahamnesty.”)

Graham reminded me that when McCain was facing re-election in 2010, he turned himself into “the most conservative member of the U.S. Senate.” That was the race in which McCain claimed that he never embraced the “maverick” label, and people were asking, “What happened to John McCain?” Graham chuckled at the memory.

In acknowledging this, Graham was speaking to me as a fellow creature of Washington, fully versed in the election-year “showcasing” he is now engaged in — one of the “people who are so smart” that he derided the day before. “If you don’t want to get re-elected, you’re in the wrong business,” he said.

Graham would shortly head over to the Capitol for Trump’s State of the Union address, about which the president called him a few hours earlier, seeking input. “Should I go conciliatory or to-hell-with-it?” Trump asked him, according to Graham. “What kind of tone should I take?” In recounting this latest exchange, Graham shook his head and half shrugged. “I have never been called this much by a president in my life,” he told me. His tone reflected a mixture of amazement and amusement, with perhaps a dash of awe. “It’s weird, and it’s flattering, and it creates some opportunity. It also creates some pressure.”
[…]
The price of relevance, for Graham, has been a willingness to defend the president on television and speak out on issues that he knows might be of minor consequence in the scheme of things but clearly animate Trump. In recent weeks, for instance, Graham — in his capacity as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee — has demanded a briefing on such Fox News snack food as whether the F.B.I. acted with too heavy a hand in its arrest of the longtime Trump political adviser Roger Stone. Graham also vowed to investigate a claim made by Andrew McCabe, the former deputy director of the F.B.I., that top Department of Justice officials had discussed circumstances in which Trump could be removed from office via the 25th Amendment. “An administrative coup,” Graham said ominously on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

When I asked Graham whether he ever worried about being seen as a toady to Trump, his voice assumed a slightly clipped edge. “No, here’s what I worry about,” he told me. “That we’re going to get it wrong in Syria and Afghanistan. I worry more about the policy stuff. And I have more influence than I’ve ever had.”

Graham credits his relationship with Trump with the president’s slowing down his decision to withdraw from Syria. He noted that Trump asked him whether the United States should use force in Venezuela. Graham said that he preached caution and that Trump became exasperated, or pretended to be. “He said to me, ‘You want to invade everywhere except where I want to invade,’ ” Graham said, laughing. And Trump, he insisted, knew where he stood on the special counsel’s Russia investigation. “I told the president that if you colluded with the Russians, if your campaign sat down and worked with foreign intelligence operatives to manipulate the results of the election, that’d be the end of us, ” Graham said.


Notice that his criteria is extremely narrow — they had to sit down and work with foreign intelligence operatives to manipulate the results of the election. I’m guess that’s unlikely so Lindsay won’t be out there condemning the president for what he knows very well that he did.

But it’s worth it because Trump likes to call him:

Graham says he has achieved graduating levels of relevance with Trump. “I went from, ‘O.K., he’s president’ to ‘How can I get to be in his orbit?’ ”— “orbit” is another favorite Graham word — “to ‘How can I have a say in what’s going to happen today, tomorrow and next week?’ ” he told me.

I asked Graham if he considered himself part of the wider Trump orbit or the more select one. “Well, I’m getting into the smaller orbit now,” he said. I asked him who else was in that precinct of the Trump solar system. He mentioned Melania, Ivanka, Jared. “He’s got a bunch of old friends that still have a say, New York types,” Graham said. “But the circle is small.”

Trump is an entertainer and an agitator, which Graham says he can relate to, in a way. “The point with Trump is, he’s in on the joke,” Graham said. I asked Graham if he is in on the joke, too. “Oh, 100 percent, 100 percent.” He laughed. “Oh, people have no idea.” I asked him to explain the joke to me. “If you could go to dinner with us. … ” he said, shaking his head.

At the end of our second interview, in mid-February, I asked Graham if he trusted Trump. Graham’s eyes seemed to bulge for a split second. He sat back in his chair and paused. “That’s a good question,” he told me.

He paused some more. “Do I trust him?” he said at last. “I trust the president to want to be successful,” he said. The president’s mercurialness, he acknowledged, could be a problem. “He will change his mind in a New York minute,” Graham said. “You never know where he’ll be. I mean, I woke up one day, and we’re pulling out of Syria.”

But to this point, he and Trump have been able to work together. “He’s asked me to do some things, and I’ve asked him to do some things in return,” Graham said. Then, as if looking wistfully over his shoulder at his old maverick-sidekick days, he offered, “There’s sort of a Don Quixote aspect to this.” It was an odd thing for a man who was espousing the median Republican-circa-2019 position to say.

“At the intersection of all this theater is that he wants to be a successful president,” Graham said of Trump, “and I want him to be successful under terms that I think are good for the country.” Understood, but unspoken, was that these terms would also be good for Lindsey Graham.


Well, yeah. But the truth is that it’s only the latter. Nothing Trump does is good for the country on anyone’s terms and Graham knows it.

This is about Huckleberry being a star. But if he thinks Trump actually cares about what he thinks, he’s barking up the wrong tree.

I would just note this little “joke”

He noted that Trump asked him whether the United States should use force in Venezuela. Graham said that he preached caution and that Trump became exasperated, or pretended to be. “He said to me, ‘You want to invade everywhere except where I want to invade,’ ” Graham said, laughing.


Awww. They are both inveterate warmongers but they just want to kill different people. How nice.

A Warning From Sen. Chris Murphy

  Things seem to be taking a turn for the worse in Venezuela.   Venezuelan opposition lawmaker ‘POISONED’ at Colombian border – ‘It’s a GRAVE situation’   According to BNO news, Freddy Superlano was poisoned at a restaurant in Cucuta, a city near the country’s border with Venezuela. His party, which is led by Juan…

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Marcy Wheeler Thinks it’s True

She has been right on just about everything regarding Trump/Russia/Muller. One of the few experts on this topic. She doesn’t post clickbait and doesn’t make gutsy predictions. Wheeler is calm, measured, knowledgeable. Her record on all-things-Muller has been impeccable.

We almost certainly are NOT getting The Mueller Report next week. But we are likely to get a pretty damning report about “collusion” this week.

A report talking about “collusion” is coming this week

But maybe NBC’s sources are speaking metaphorically, and mean something else that isn’t the conclusory report but that will more closely resemble what everyone thinks of when they talk about The Report.

That’s likely to happen, but if it does, it’ll just be a partial report.

That’s because both Mueller and the defense have to submit a sentencing memo in Paul Manafort’s DC case Friday. As I noted back in November when Mueller’s prosecutors declared Manafort to have breached his plea agreement, this sentencing memo presents an opportunity for Mueller to “report” what they’ve found — at least with respect to all the criminal actions they know Manafort committed, including those he lied about while he was supposed to be cooperating — without anyone at DOJ or the White House suppressing the most damning bits. DOJ won’t be able to weigh in because a sentencing memo is not a major action requiring an urgent memo to the Attorney General. And the White House will get no advance warning because Big Dick Toilet Salesman Matt Whitaker is no longer in the reporting chain.

So, as noted, Mueller will have an opportunity to lay out:

  1. The details of Manafort’s sleazy influence peddling, including his modus operandi of projecting his own client’s corruption onto his opponents
  2. The fact that Manafort already pled guilty to conspiring with a suspected Russian intelligence asset
  3. The details about how Manafort — ostensibly working for “free” — got paid in 2016, in part via kickbacks from a Super PAC that violated campaign finance law, possibly in part by Tom Barrack who was using Manafort and Trump as a loss-leader to Middle Eastern graft, and in part by deferred payments or debt relief from Russian-backed oligarchs
  4. Manafort’s role and understanding of the June 9 meeting, which is a prelude of sorts to the August 2 one
  5. The dates and substance of Manafort’s ongoing communications with suspected Russian intelligence asset Konstantin Kilimnik, including the reasons why Manafort shared highly detailed polling data on August 2, 2016 that he knew would be passed on to his paymasters who just happened to be (in the case of Oleg Deripaska) a central player in the election year operation
  6. The ongoing efforts to win Russia relief from the American Ukrainian-related sanctions by pushing a “peace” plan that would effectively give Russia everything it wants
  7. Manafort’s ongoing discussions with Trump and the Administration, up to and including discussions laying out how if Manafort remains silent about items two through six, Trump will pardon him

Because those items are all within the substance of the crimes Manafort pled guilty to or lied about during his failed cooperation, they’re all squarely within the legitimate content of a sentencing memo. And we should expect the sentencing memo in DC to be at least as detailed as the EDVA one; I expect it, like the EDVA one and like Manafort’s plea deal, will be accompanied by exhibits such as the EDVA one showing that Manafort had bank accounts to the tune of $25,704,669.72 for which suspected Russian intelligence asset Konstantin Kilimnik was listed as a beneficial owner in 2012. Heck, we might even get to see the polling data Manafort shared, knowing it was going to Russia, which was an exhibit to Manafort’s breach determination.

The only thing limiting how much detail we’ll get about these things (as well as about how Manafort served as a secret agent of Russian backed Ukrainian oligarchs for years) is the ongoing sensitivities of the material, whether because it’s grand jury testimony, SIGINT collection, or a secret Mueller intends to spring on other defendants down the road.

It’s the latter point that will be most telling. As I noted, thus far, the silences about Manafort’s cooperation are — amazingly — even more provocative than the snippets we learned via the breach determination. We’ll likely get a read on Friday whether Mueller has ongoing equities that would lead him to want to keep these details secret. And the only thing that would lead Mueller to keep details of the conspiracy secret is if he plans to charge it in an overarching conspiracy indictment.

We may also get information, however, that will make it far more difficult for Trump to pardon Manafort.

So, yeah, there’s a report coming out this week. But it’s not The Report.

Any overarching conspiracy indictment will not be coming this week

It’s possible Mueller is close to charging an overarching conspiracy indictment, laying out how Trump and his spawn entered into a quid quo pro with various representatives of the Russian government, getting dirt on Hillary and either a Trump Tower or maybe a bailout for the very same building in which Manafort met with Konstantin Kilimnik on August 2, 2016. In exchange for all that, Trump agreed to — and took steps to deliver on, with some success in the case of election plot participant Deripaska — reversing the sanctions that were such a headache to Russia’s oligarchs.

Such an indictment, if Mueller ever charges it, will look like what Trump opponents would like The Report to look like. In addition to naming Don Jr and Jared Kushner and Trump Organization and a bunch of other sleazeballs, it would also describe the actions of Individual-1 in adequate detail to launch an impeachment proceeding.

But that indictment, if Mueller ever charges it, won’t be coming on Friday or Monday, as Williams predicts, because it likely requires whatever it is Mueller is trying to parallel construct from that foreign-owned company. And even if SCOTUS denies its appeal today, it’s unlikely that evidence will be in hand in time for a Friday indictment.

Mueller could ensure a report gets delivered to Jerry Nadler next week … but that’s unlikely

There’s one other possibility that would make Williams’ prediction true: if Mueller deliberately triggered the one other way to deliver a report, by asking to take an action William Barr is unlikely to approve, and if Mueller was willing to close up shop as a result, then a report would go to Congress and — if Barr thought it in the public interest — to the public.

Upon conclusion of the Special Counsels investigation, including, to the extent consistent with applicable law, a description and explanation of instances (if any) in which the Attorney General concluded that a proposed action by a Special Counsel was so inappropriate or unwarranted under established Departmental practices that it should not be pursued.

[snip]

The Attorney General may determine that public release of these reports would be in the public interest, to the extent that release would comply with applicable legal restrictions.

The only thing that Mueller might try to do that Barr would not approve (though who knows? maybe what Mueller has is so egregious Barr will surprise us?) is to indict the President.

I think this is unlikely, for all the reasons the first possibility laid out here is unlikely: that is, Mueller is still waiting on two details he has been chasing for quite some time, and I doubt he’d be willing to forgo that evidence just to trigger a report. It’s also unlikely because Mueller is a DOJ guy, and he’s unlikely to ask to do what he knows OLC says he should not do.

Still, it’s hypothetically possible that Mueller believes Trump is such an egregious criminal and national security risk he needs to try to accelerate the process of holding him accountable by stopping his investigation early (perhaps having the DC AUSAs named on the Miller and Mystery Appellant challenges take over those pursuits) and asking to indict the President.

But if that’s what Williams is reporting, he sure as hell better get more clarity about that fact, because, boy would it be news.

All of which is the lesson of this post: If you’re being told — or telling others — that Mueller’s report is imminent, then you’re either being told very very big news, or bullshit. Do yourself and us a favor of learning the base level regulations to understand which it is.

She went on to write a follow-up:

The Significance of the Rod Rosenstein / William Barr Window

As I noted here, CNN has a report that not only backs NBC’s report, but provides flesh to the logic that Mueller is providing his report to DOJ next week. That would mean several things I said in this report are incorrect — mostly that Mueller would wait until the Andrew Miller and Mystery Appellant challenges are resolved (remember, as I noted, he knows what both of those challenges will get him).

I don’t know what to expect next week. I have suspicions but won’t share them because I don’t want people to treat my suspicions with any more weight than suspicions deserve, which is not much.

I do, however, want to talk about the timing.

This is happening in the window of time when Rod Rosenstein is still around and — because William Barr has presumably not been through an ethics review on the investigation — presumably back in charge of sole day-to-day supervision of the investigation. But it is happening after Barr has been confirmed, and so any problems with the investigation that might stem from having an inferior officer (an unconfirmed hack like the Big Dick Toilet Salesman) supervising Mueller are gone.

I’m fairly certain the concerns about Barr coming in and forcing Mueller to finish this are misplaced. I say that, in part, because Mueller seemed to be preparing for this timing. I say it, too, because Barr is too close to Mueller to do that to him.

That says that Mueller is choosing this timing (and choosing not to wait for the appeals to be done). Whatever reason dictates this timing, by doing it in this window, Mueller can ensure the legitimacy of what happens, both legally (because Barr will be in place) and politically (because it will be clear Rosenstein presided over it).

So whatever comes next week, people on both sides should accept that it is the outcome of the investigation that Mueller deemed appropriate.

Good Anne Applebaum Piece

 

Apologies for the light blogging this week. I started a new job and am working crazy hours until the end of this week. I’m currently working on the second part of my Watergate series during the little time I have to myself.

In the meantime, I’m posting a piece from the foreign-policy-centric Anne Applebaum of WaPo. In case you missed it, Pence had quite the awkward time this weekend in Munich. Here he is telling the audience he brings greeting from Donald Trump.

*crickets*

An off-key Pence sings from the Trump hymnal to a stony European reception

 
February 17

MUNICH — Even inside a hotel so secure that it has body scanners at the entrance and snipers on the roof, Vice President Pence travels with a vast security detail. Its main function, it seems, is to elbow people out of the way so that the vice president and his unsmiling wife can walk through a lobby, crowded with European officials and military brass, and speak to no one. Which is perhaps unsurprising, for Pence was heading to the main forum of the Munich Security Conference on Saturday — an annual event whose origins lie deep in the Cold War — to make statements so tone-deaf and, frankly, peculiar that their intended audience could not have been the one in the room.

Part of his problem is the new context. Two years ago, when Pence spoke at the same forum, many in Europe were still hoping to work with the Trump administration. His speech was banal and uninspiring — it was “an entirely conventional restatement of American commitment to Europe,” I wrote at the time — but Europeans were so relieved to hear it that they decided, on balance, to believe him. Now they don’t. At a side event honoring the late senator John McCain, who had been the moving spirit of the Munich conference for decades, Pence announced that “I bring greetings from the 45th president of the United States of America, President Donald Trump.” He then waited for applause. None came.

But Pence’s keynote speech was more than merely embarrassing. It was awkwardly worded and stiffly delivered. It was sycophantic: Over and over again, he repeated the words “under President Trump’s leadership,” referring to the president as “a champion of freedom” and the “leader of the free world.” It was hypocritical: Pence’s voice seemed to crack when he spoke of the suffering of Venezuelan refugees — “We hugged their children. We heard of their hardship and their plight” — as if his administration hadn’t inflicted plenty of hardship on migrant children wrenched from their parents at the U.S. border with Mexico.

Pence’s speech was also ahistoric, even nonsensical. In one hard-to-follow chain of connections, he bundled together Auschwitz and Iran, somehow implying that Europeans who still back a deal designed to deprive Iran of nuclear weapons were supporting anti-Semitism. In a room full of people working for the European Union and NATO, institutions that were explicitly created, decades ago, to prevent another Auschwitz, this would have been offensive if anybody had actually understood what Pence was trying to say.

That, plus the undertone of maudlin religiosity — “I also have that faith, in those ancient words, that where the spirit of the Lord is, there’s liberty” — made it clear that this speech was not, as I say, directed at the Europeans in the room. It was made for the benefit of Trump, or maybe Pence’s evangelical friends and supporters back home.

And that isn’t surprising, for this administration’s foreign policy has long ceased to have much to do with people who are actually in the room. Just before Pence visited Munich, he and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attended a surreal Middle East conference in Warsaw whose main purpose, as far as anyone could tell, was to boost Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reelection campaign ahead of an April 9 vote. White House senior adviser Jared Kushner is allegedly hard at work on an equally surreal Middle East “peace plan,” which the president’s son-in-law is devising in secret and apparently without Palestinian input.

These peculiar efforts by Kushner, Pompeo and Pence keep them inside the president’s inner circle, and perhaps they cheer up a few donors and boosters. Meanwhile, the U.S. embassy appeared set on preventing the congressional delegation from encountering too many Germans in Munich, canceling members’ attendance at annual meetings and dinners that they have traditionally attended. Conference attendees didn’t know whether to feel insulted or to just laugh.

Certainly they have stopped paying lip service to an administration that has showed it prefers its authoritarian friends to its oldest allies. There is no point in nice state visits or in trying to cultivate Ivanka Trump. It’s better to speak bluntly, and on Saturday morning, German Chancellor Angela Merkel certainly did. She mocked the idea that German cars made in South Carolina could be a “security threat” to the United States, as the tariff-minded Trump administration has suggested. She said the removal of U.S. troops from Syria will not spread freedom, but will “strengthen Russia and Iran’s hand.”

And, like other Europeans, she refused to heed Pence’s call to reimpose sanctions on Iran. European leaders have learned that there is no point in seeking agreement with Trump, for he doesn’t respect those who do. And this, in the end, is why Pence’s pseudo-patriotic speech sounded so off: America cannot be the champion of “liberty” or the “leader of the free world” if the free world — insulted by the U.S. president, snubbed by his surrogates — refuses to follow.

Elliott Abrams, parasite

Apologies for the lack of posts this week. I started a new job and have been working crazy hours. This week will be just as bad. Luckily, mi padre is going to write a few pieces to keep things moving. I’m working on part two of Watergate which I hope to have done soon.

In the meantime, I found a thread from historian and writer from the New Republic, Patrick Iber, concerning Iran-Contra and Elliott Abrams:

 

I don’t have time to do a proper Elliot Abrams thread but here is the issue as I see it: Abrams in the 1980s was not just an ordinary Reagan administration official, he was an especially hard-line Reagan administration official. We must remember that Reagan was facing an opposition Congress, which tried to cut off aid to forces that were using repression and murder as tools to achieve their political ends.

Abrams would say these were terrorist guerrilla forces. Alas, the peaceful, non-violent activists had mostly been killed by that point. Remember, in El Salvador they killed Oscar Romero, a mainstream social justice Catholic (not even a liberation theologian) while he said mass. When four U.S. churchwomen were murdered, Al Haig* tried to say there may have been an “exchange of gunfire.”

 

And all of this behavior, which brought so much suffering to El Salvador, to Guatemala, to Honduras, to Nicaragua, was seen by Abrams and his allies within the administration as the fault of international Communism. Now of course there was aid to guerrilla groups from Cuba and so on, nor were they perfect. But the truth commission reports put around 90% of the extrajudicial killings on government forces. And this was clear throughout the conflict.

And people who tried to make clear that the US-backed side of the conflict was committing serious human rights abuses and hold them accountable were seen by Abrams as doing the work of Communism. He saw advocates of dialogue as enemies. Here are a couple of paragraphs from William LeoGrande’s “Our Own Backyard,” the definitive book on U.S. politics in Central America in the 1980s. Abrams made targets of human rights advocates, not just guerrillas.


And, for example, he tried to use blackmail to make sure Costa Rica’s Oscar Arias (recently disgraced by allegations of sexual assault but a Nobel laureate for his role facilitating negotiations that led to peace) would cooperate with the illegal US war in Nicaragua.


Not to mention the lying to Congress, which, let’s remember, happened because the Reagan administration wanted to back an illegal war after having been specifically prohibited from doing so by law. Democracy promotion indeed! Look: I know the journalist who broke the El Mozote story, Alma Guillermoprieto. We’ve been friends for years. She is still traumatized by what she saw there. The US embassy officials in El Salvador, meanwhile, didn’t venture out. They didn’t want to see. They didn’t even want to understand what they were complicit in. To them it was just Commies and their allies over there and freedom-fighters on the other side.

Democracy promotion as Abrams understood it has a particular pedigree in Cold War anti-Communism. In my work I look at CIA democracy promotion through culture in the 50s/60s. After that got exposed in 1967, it was revived in the National Endowment for Democracy under Reagan. The longtime head of the NED, just like those Cold War anti-Communists, began as a socialist. The “State Department socialists” people sometimes call them, although Abrams is not that, he began his political life as a Scoop Jackson/Moynihan hawk.

And they’re both anti-dictatorship and anti-Communist. But when they’ve got a left-wing dictatorship on their hands, that’s when they really start salivating. And, like it or not, NED support has been there in Venezuela for the opposition for years. I’m not going to defend Maduro, and for someone on the left I have been publicly critical of not only Maduro but also of autocratic aspects of Chavismo over the years. Nor am I even going say that these connections to the US make Guaidó or his demands illegitimate.

But the very legitimate worry is that by having Abrams prominently involved in Venezuela will empower hard-liners in the opposition, who have their own problems with “democracy”. I’m not trying to make an equivalence here, but you can’t look at his record and think that this would be a person who will support a negotiation that could lead to a peaceful resolution to the crisis. Maduro has also an obstacle to that, no doubt.

But having Abrams involved sends the worst kind of signals about the intentions of the U.S., and about the frame of mind of those who are seeking to intervene. In my opinion Venezuela’s next leader should be elected in free and competitive elections, and be able to speak both to the legitimate concerns and needs of chavista voters as well as supporters of the opposition.

I don’t see why Abrams should have any role to play in this, and I don’t see why we should rehabilitate someone who, in my estimation, is guilty, has not paid for his crimes, and has not accepted that he is guilty.


*Al Haig served as Nixon’s Chief of Staff after H.R. Handleman was fired for the Watergate burglary. He also served as Reagan’s Secretary of State.

The Golden Era of Corruption

 

Yes, that is how historians will describe the Trump Years. It’s so bottomless that not even people who cover this stuff for a living can keep up with it.

Just as an example, here are the myriad stories that broke about – just about the Trump Organization – over a 24 HOUR PERIOD this week:

 

1)Trump’s nonprofit Inaugural committee paid the Trump Hotel DC $175,000 per day for event space – that could violate tax laws prohibiting self-dealing.

by Ilya Marritz of WNYC and Justin Elliott of ProPublica

 

https://www.wnycstudios.org/story/new-evidence-emerges-possible-wrongdoing-trump-inaugural-committee

 

2) Sixteen men and women from Costa Rica and other Latin American countries said they were employed at Trump Bedminster. All said they worked without legal status – and their managers knew.

by Joshua Partlow, Nick Miroff, and David Farenthold of WaPo

 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/my-whole-town-practically-lived-there-from-costa-rica-to-new-jersey-a-pipeline-of-illegal-workers-for-trump-goes-back-years

 

3) Since he took office, Trump has appointed at least eight people who identified themselves as current or former members of Mar-a-Lago to senior posts in his administration.

by Brad Heath of USA Today

 

https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/investigations/2019/02/08/donald-trump-picks-ambassadors-golf-club-mar-lago-members/2748260002/

 

4) Rep. Jackie Speier (D–CA) told CNN’s New Day she thinks President Trump’s real estate dealings violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which governs U.S. businesses’ dealings with foreign investors.

“I have thought for a very long time that the President, as a real estate developer, had violated what’s called the Foreign Corrupt Practices act.”

Speier says she’s focusing on three Trump hotel projects: Toronto, Soho and Panama.

5) Trump’s inauguration planner got a discount at the Trump Hotel DC, yet was told to submit her receipts to Reince Preibus (for reimbursement). Meaning the RNC is funneling money directly into Trump’s pocket!

by Emily Jane Fox of Vanity Fair

 

https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2019/02/behind-the-scenes-of-trumps-107-million-inauguration

 

6) Citizens For Ethics (CREW) leaned that Ivanka Trump’s business picked up a new trademark in Canada.

So Ivanka now has trademarks for passport organizers in both Canada and Mexico even while her father tries to revise NAFTA.

 

 

7) The president’s businesses received nearly $3.8 million from political committees during the two-year 2018 campaign cycle, The top political customers: Trump’s re-election campaign and the Republican Party. 

 

by Megan R. Wilson of Bloomberg News

https://about.bgov.com/news/trump-businesses-get-a-boost-from-republican-party-patronage/

 

8) The RNC has paid a firm owned by former Trump Org employee, and Donald Trump’s body guard, Keith Schiller, $225,000.

by Christina Wilkie of CNBC

 

https://www.cnbc.com/2019/02/08/firm-owned-by-trumps-longtime-bodyguard-has-received-225000-from-rnc.html

 

9) A U.S. Army regiment held its annual ball last night at the Trump Hotel DC- so soldiers were potentially sending money up the chain of command. Pictures of them in uniform in front of the hotel’s logo made it to social media.

by Zack Everson of 1100 Penn

 

https://zacheverson.substack.com/p/old-guard-parties-commander-in-chief

 

10) Senator Warren wrote a letter to three Mar-a-Lago members who’ve been influential in V.A. decisions. She does not believe any of the three are V.A. employees or contractors. She doesn’t believe they ever received VA ethics training. And she wants to find out what companies they’ve invested in.

https://www.warren.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/2019.02.6%20Letter%20to%20Mar-a-Lago%20Trio%20re%20Personally%20Profiting%20from%20VA%20Interference.pdf

 

11) The Trump campaign spent nearly $100K of donor money on the law firm representing Kushner.

by Soo Rin Kim, Katherine Faulders, and Matthew Mosk of ABC News

 

https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/429172-trump-campaign-spent-nearly-100k-of-donor-money-on-law-firm

John Dingell, American Treasure

 

I’m posting John Dingell’s final words, which he submitted to the Washington Post.

This was a public servant who truly made America great.

 


John D. Dingell in 2014. (Jeff Kowalsky/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
February 8 at 4:03 PM
 

John D. Dingell, a Michigan Democrat who served in the U.S. House from 1955 to 2015, was the longest-serving member of Congress in American history. He dictated these reflections to his wife, Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), at their home in Dearborn, on Feb. 7, the day he died.

One of the advantages to knowing that your demise is imminent, and that reports of it will not be greatly exaggerated, is that you have a few moments to compose some parting thoughts.

In our modern political age, the presidential bully pulpit seems dedicated to sowing division and denigrating, often in the most irrelevant and infantile personal terms, the political opposition.

And much as I have found Twitter to be a useful means of expression, some occasions merit more than 280 characters.

My personal and political character was formed in a different era that was kinder, if not necessarily gentler. We observed modicums of respect even as we fought, often bitterly and savagely, over issues that were literally life and death to a degree that — fortunately – we see much less of today.

Think about it:

Impoverishment of the elderly because of medical expenses was a common and often accepted occurrence. Opponents of the Medicare program that saved the elderly from that cruel fate called it “socialized medicine.” Remember that slander if there’s a sustained revival of silly red-baiting today.

Not five decades ago, much of the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth — our own Great Lakes — were closed to swimming and fishing and other recreational pursuits because of chemical and bacteriological contamination from untreated industrial and wastewater disposal. Today, the Great Lakes are so hospitable to marine life that one of our biggest challenges is controlling the invasive species that have made them their new home.

We regularly used and consumed foods, drugs, chemicals and other things (cigarettes) that were legal, promoted and actively harmful. Hazardous wastes were dumped on empty plots in the dead of night. There were few if any restrictions on industrial emissions. We had only the barest scientific knowledge of the long-term consequences of any of this.

And there was a great stain on America, in the form of our legacy of racial discrimination. There were good people of all colors who banded together, risking and even losing their lives to erase the legal and other barriers that held Americans down. In their time, they were often demonized and targeted, much like other vulnerable men and women today.

Please note: All of these challenges were addressed by Congress. Maybe not as fast as we wanted, or as perfectly as hoped. The work is certainly not finished. But we’ve made progress — and in every case, from the passage of Medicare through the passage of civil rights, we did it with the support of Democrats and Republicans who considered themselves first and foremost to be Americans.

I’m immensely proud, and eternally grateful, for having had the opportunity to play a part in all of these efforts during my service in Congress. And it’s simply not possible for me to adequately repay the love that my friends, neighbors and family have given me and shown me during my public service and retirement.

But I would be remiss in not acknowledging the forgiveness and sweetness of the woman who has essentially supported me for almost 40 years: my wife, Deborah. And it is a source of great satisfaction to know that she is among the largest group of women to have ever served in the Congress (as she busily recruits more).

In my life and career, I have often heard it said that so-and-so has real power — as in, “the powerful Wile E. Coyote, chairman of the Capture the Road Runner Committee.”

It’s an expression that has always grated on me. In democratic government, elected officials do not have power. They hold power — in trust for the people who elected them. If they misuse or abuse that public trust, it is quite properly revoked (the quicker the better).

I never forgot the people who gave me the privilege of representing them. It was a lesson learned at home from my father and mother, and one I have tried to impart to the people I’ve served with and employed over the years.

As I prepare to leave this all behind, I now leave you in control of the greatest nation of mankind and pray God gives you the wisdom to understand the responsibility you hold in your hands.

May God bless you all, and may God bless America.

#NeverBernie (or Tulsi Gabbard)

This piece from The Atlantic sheds light on why Joe Kennedy III endorsed Elizabeth Warren today. My thoughts on Sanders are well known. He’s an awful candidate, a divisive figure, and a sketchy politician.

The more I think about it, the more I realize there is NO WAY I would vote for Sanders or Tulsi Gabbard. Both are completely unfit for the highest office in the land – just a tiny bit better than Trump. Speaking of which, expect Putin’s army of trolls and bots to descend on social media like locusts once again. These two will become the beneficiaries for 2020.

There are still a ton of unanswered questions about Sanders’ votes on Russia and his 2016 campaign manager’s ties to Russia.

Bernie Sanders

 

Bernie Sanders has seen himself as on a mission since he started running for office in the 1970s, and he sees no reason to stop now. He thinks he’s dramatically changed the conversation over the past three years, and he feels like he’s close to achieving his ultimate goal.

Plus, there’s Donald Trump.

When the president used his State of the Union speech on Tuesday to preview his own reelection campaign and warn against creeping socialism, Sanders was only encouraged. He’d love to take on Trump directly, and people around him think he’ll be able to use Trump’s threat to coalesce support in the primaries.

“Nothing unifies Democrats like being made a villain by Trump,” said one Sanders ally.

The senator from Vermont has been huddling with staff in meetings and brainstorming on phone calls over the past few weeks, chewing over plans. Barring a surprise, last-minute change of heart, he will jump into the 2020 race, convinced he can win, according to people familiar with his plans. His spokeswoman, Arianna Jones, did not return a request for comment on Sanders’s plans.

Last time, he didn’t get in until the end of April 2015. This time, the launch will be in February. He sees advantage in a much more crowded 2020 field. The left-leaning politics he campaigned on in 2016 have been broadly embraced in a progressive surge among Democrats, and Sanders has succeeded in diminishing the nominating power of so-called super delegates, the elected officials and party elders who help consolidate establishment power within the Democratic National Committee.

Sanders will likely announce an exploratory committee in the coming weeks, followed by a rally. One major early focus will be finding a campaign manager and other top-level staffers who are not white, and preferably not male, in light of his problems appealing to minority voters in 2016 and recent revelations of sexual harassment by lower-level staffers on the 2016 campaign. Staff interviews have been quietly under way.

But a core team of advisers will return from 2016, spearheaded by Sanders’s wife and closest adviser, Jane O’Meara Sanders.

His aides know this race will be different from his 2016 run against Hillary Clinton, when he surprised even himself with how close he came to knocking her off. Democratic leaders have been impressed by the extent to which the ideas from his campaign have carried forward, injecting far-left populism into the mainstream of Democratic politics—even as many in the party still bitterly point to his candidacy as weakening Clinton to the point that Trump was able to win.

Sanders has heard the argument that his stature would be diminished by running again if he doesn’t end up winning the nomination. He’s heard the argument that he might split the progressive vote and allow a more moderate candidate to win, but that hasn’t moved him either. That’s not how Sanders thinks, people who know him point out.

“He understands what happens in the streets is what prompts actions in Washington,” said Vincent Fort, a former Georgia state senator who supported the last campaign and has been in touch with Sanders’s team about this campaign.

There are also the nuts-and-bolts political considerations that Sanders doesn’t focus as much on, but that his team pays close attention to: He’s the one with the massive email list. Alone among those eyeing the Democratic nomination, he’s the one who had 40,000 people watching various live-streams of his State of the Union response. He’s the one whose team thinks he could, on day one, raise more money online and get more attention than any of the other candidates.

Sanders believes that he continues to have the strength in Iowa and New Hampshire to either win or come close there—especially with other candidates fragmenting support and lowering the bar for what it will take to win. Likewise, in a South Carolina primary that has both Cory Booker and Kamala Harris competing for African American votes and, likely, Joe Biden drawing on his own decades of connections there, Sanders sees a path to slip through and win.

Biden in the race, after all, would make it so that the senator isn’t the only white man in his 70s in the field.

If the early states all come together, Sanders would be positioned to power through the front-ended primary calendar that has California, Texas, and several other big states voting on the first Super Tuesday, March 4, just a month after Iowa. No one else in the field has anything like his proven success with both grassroots supporters and the small-dollar online fundraising that it will take to fund the kind of massive national operation any 2020 campaign will require.

“With all the other people in, the fact is, Bernie is the one whose ideas everyone else is ‘borrowing,’ whether it be Wall Street reforms, or Medicare for all, or free college. These are all ideas that Bernie came up with first and best,” Fort said. “I’m a little bit skeptical of the sincerity of some of the latecomers.”

Changes to DNC procedures, which Sanders and his team fought for, have diminished the role of the caucuses where Sanders ran the strongest in 2016, but they have also taken power away from the elected officials and party elders who might, for example, help tilt a tight race to Biden or another candidate who isn’t an outsider insurgent.

Sanders’s team has been eyeing Beto O’Rourke nervously, given the former Texas congressman’s strong online presence and appeal with many of the same types of voters that Sanders taps into. O’Rourke also drew significant support from young former Sanders staffers who helped build the 2016 campaign into what it was. But there’s a sense that O’Rourke’s support is flagging, as he continues to talk about running without making a decision.

Now a Sanders candidacy would seem to be the biggest threat to Elizabeth Warren, who’s been campaigning on her own anti-corporate platform, with proposals such as a new tax on the ultrarich. Aides to the senator from Massachusetts have been preparing her on how to respond. But though they will clearly compete for some of the same voters, Sanders and his aides have always seen him as a greater threat to her than she is to him, and have been encouraged by the continuing problems she’s facing from the controversy over her claims of Native American heritage. He’s the one with the devoted followers, Sanders and his aides believe, and some of them are still angry at Warren for deciding to sit out the 2016 primary race rather than endorsing him.

What a Sanders candidacy may do for Warren, though, is enable her not to seem as radical as his democratic socialism. It might also enable her to note that she’s a generation younger than Sanders, as opposed to currently being the oldest Democratic candidate in the field. And a Sanders candidacy might allow Warren to argue that she’s largely in line with him politically, but the one who could actually win.

A Warren spokeswoman declined comment on how Warren would position herself if Sanders runs.

Sanders boosters note that with a field this big, coming in first in Iowa might take only about 30 percent of the vote, and that he came just shy of 50 percent of the vote there against Clinton. Rules changes to the caucuses might also play to Sanders’s favor, clarifying an arcane process that weighs votes in a way that can make the final results not fully representative of the number of people who actually show up on caucus night.

But Sanders skeptics doubt that he fully appreciates how much of the approximately 45 percent of the primary vote he received in 2016 was fundamentally an anti-Clinton vote, and doubt that he realizes how many of those people might leave him once they realize how many other choices they have. Unlike in his last run, he will start right away with the spotlight of a presumed front-runner on him, and issues involving his background and record that were overlooked in 2016 will likely receive new scrutiny. Warren, Biden, and Harris have been the focus of most of the Republican attacks and reporters’ digging so far, but that dynamic may shift if Sanders continues to run as strong as public polling suggests.

There’s the potential that once he’s in, any stumbles will be higher profile, and any drop-off in the polls could suggest he’s leaching support. Already, in the past week he waited until after all the declared Democratic candidates to call for Virginia Governor Ralph Northam to resign over the blackface/Ku Klux Klan–hood photo. He also faced outrage for doing his own State of the Union response for the third year in a row; this year’s followed Stacey Abrams’s official Democratic response. Some griped that he was being disrespectful, a charge that Sanders and his team found ridiculous, even as they dealt with the fallout.

He spent most of his response explaining how Trump’s supposed economic miracle hasn’t reached many people in the country.

“I know that this will probably not shock you—I hate to say this—but not everything Donald Trump said tonight was true or accurate,” Sanders said immediately after the president’s address in a live video on social media. “For many of President Trump’s billionaire friends, the truth is, they have never, ever had it so good. But for the middle class, and for the working families of our country, the truth is that the economy is not so good.”

A Crazy Day

 

The Associated Press reports:

Federal prosecutors in New York are probing whether the National Enquirer’s parent company violated a cooperation agreement in its handling of the story regarding Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

Bezos claims American Media Inc. threatened to publish intimate photos of him unless he stopped investigating how the tabloid obtained his private exchanges with his mistress.

Two people familiar with the matter tell The Associated Press that prosecutors are looking at whether an email exchange Bezos published shows AMI violated an agreement it struck to avoid prosecution for alleged campaign finance violations. The people were not authorized to speak publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The agreement requires AMI commit no crimes for three years. AMI did not respond to requests for comment.

It was a safe assumption this would happen after last night’s bombshell development.

What seems like a slam dunk – that David Pecker and AMI voided the plea agreement with the FBI’s Southern District of New York branch – I’m not entirely convinced the SDNY can prove AMI committed a crime.

Here’s Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor:

Did the National Enquirer and its parent company commit a crime or otherwise break the law in its recent actions towards Jeff Bezos?

In the Medium post contained in the tweet above, Amazon founder (and Washington Post owner) Jeff Bezos explains how the parent company of the National Enquirer engaged in what Bezos characterizes as “extortion and blackmail” towards him. It is worth reading.

In the Medium post, Bezos explained that he hired someone to conduct an investigation of the National Enquirer and its parent company. He notes that there are “now several independent investigations looking into this matter,” suggesting there are criminal investigations. To be clear, if the National Enquirer or its parent company caused someone to hack into Bezos’ computer, server, or smart phone, that is a crime. (The National Enquirer’s parent company claims it did not do so.) The subject of Bezos’s post is something that happened after.

Specifically, the parent company of the National Enquirer told Bezos that it had many compromising photos and texts that it had not published but would publish if he did not agree to certain terms, which it sent to Bezos, who included them within the Medium post. The terms were written by a Deputy General Counsel for AMI (the parent company), and they were sent *after* a descriptive email from AMI’s Chief Content Officer describing in graphic detail the private photos and messages that AMI had in its possession.

In the proposed terms, among other things, both sides (Bezos and AMI) agreed to release each other of any legal claims, Bezos agreed to state that AMI’s coverage of Bezos was not politically motivated, and AMI agreed not to publish any of the private material. The terms explicitly stated that if Bezos didn’t abide by the deal, AMI could publish the material. To be clear, when I say “terms,” I’m using a legal word–this is drafted as if they are terms in a settlement agreement between AMI and Bezos. That is important.

So is this extortion or blackmail, as Bezos claims?

Yes, given the ordinary meaning of those terms. But whether this is actually a *crime* is much more complicated than that. Situations like this are common and I have represented clients in a situation similar to Bezos.

What is extortion? Typically it’s when someone demands money in exchange for keeping something embarrassing private. While we ordinarily have a First Amendment right to say whatever we please, it can be a crime to threaten to say something unless money is paid.

This situation is more complex than that. Bezos has potential legal claims against AMI, if AMI engaged in wrongdoing against Bezos. Also, the AMI Chief Content Officer hinted that they believe the Washington Post will publish a false story about AMI. AMI would surely argue that this is a legitimate settlement of its dispute with Bezos. They realize that Bezos has claims against them, and perhaps they could make claims against Bezos or the Washington Post. The agreement would release those claims.

AMI would also argue that the agreement calls for both sides not to publish damaging information about the other side, and that the descriptive email from the Chief Content Officer was merely part of its settlement negotiations, to show Bezos that their offer had value.

To make this out as an extortion case, prosecutors would have to argue that the claims Bezos had against AMI constituted “money or property” of Bezos and that the whole settlement proposal was merely window dressing for the extortion of Bezos by AMI. You can make those arguments, but it would be a very hard trial to win. And that’s without considering a potential First Amendment defense. AMI would also have an advice of counsel defense, because those terms appear to have been drafted by a lawyer.
 
So what about the AMI Non Prosecution Agreement with the Southern District of New York federal prosecutors? (Link below.) The agreement would obligate AMI to fully cooperate with a SDNY investigation of this matter. But if this wasn’t a crime, it doesn’t violate the agreement. It does shift things to an extent because prosecutors could claim that this was a crime and use that to void the Non Prosecution Agreement.
 
AMI would certainly challenge that in court, but the standard would not be the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard that they would be entitled to in a criminal trial. That said, for the reasons above, I don’t think federal prosecutors will go down that road. (If they did, they would spend a lot of resources fighting with AMI just to have the right to bring criminal charges against individuals at AMI that they were willing to forego bringing in the first place. Not a good use of prosecutorial resources.) As I mentioned earlier, moves like this are fairly common when there are legal disputes between people or companies as a way for one side to gain leverage over the other. It is despicable but I have had no success convincing federal prosecutors to bring charges.
 
Okay, so again, it’s unclear where the law stands with regard to what AMI and David Pecker attempted to do to Jeff Bezos.
 
But there’s much more going on here than just whatever happened with these two. I posted some of the things Will Bunch brought up earlier.
 
But there’s also this development: Ronan Farrow, one of the preeminent investigative journalists of the #MeToo era, posted the following statement today:
 
I and at least one other prominent journalist involved in breaking stories about the National Enquirer’s arrangement with Trump fielded similar “stop digging or we’ll ruin you” blackmail efforts from AMI. (I did not engage as I don’t cut deals with subjects of ongoing reporting.)
 
This prompted Ted Bridis, a former editor at the Associated Press, to reply:
 
We were warned explicitly by insiders that AMI had hired private investigators to dig into backgrounds of journalists looking into the tabloid’s efforts on behalf of Trump. Never saw evidence of this either way, and it didn’t stop our reporting.
 
I’d just like to remind people that this blackmail technique is very popular in Putin’s Russia. It’s used against political opposition, journalists, and probably even allies.