Thursday, May 18, 2017

Return Receipt Requested?

Oh for the good old days of heavy post-coaches and speed at the rate of six miles an hour.
— Philip Hone, Diary, November 28, 1834

The preferred way of answering the question would have been to give Sen. Lindsey Graham (R.SC)a copy of his most recent tax returns. Another, and the one chosen, was to have his lawyers send Senator Graham a letter.

The issue arises because Senator Graham is chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee that has been trying to determine whether there was interference by the Russians in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. That was the election that magically transformed the corrupt businessman, DJT, into a completely unqualified, and totally incompetent, president of the United States. Senator Graham told CNN that he is exploring the possibility that there are ties between Russia and DJT’s businesses. In trying to determine that he asked for evidence of DJT’s business connections to Russia, if any.

If Senator Graham had had access to DJT’s tax returns, he would not have needed the letter. DJT, however, refuses to release those returns because, as he used to say, they were under audit and he couldn’t release them until the audits were completed. Now that his tax lawyers have said that the audits of his tax returns for the years 2005-2008 have been completed, the proffered reasons for refusing to release them is because no one wants to see them except the corrupt press. His refusal to release his returns does not suggest, however, that DJT is uncooperative. He came up with the perfect way to satisfy Senator Graham without exposing his tax returns to the light of day or inquiring eyes. He provided what he called a “certified” letter dated March 8, 2017 from his law firm in response to Senator Graham’s early May request. The word “certified” may or may not refer to the method of delivery as discussed hereafter. Perhaps the word “certified” was used because it adds a certain weightiness to something as mundane as a letter.

The “certified” letter that DJT provided to Senator Graham, was prepared by Sheri Dillon, a lawyer with the Washington firm of Morgan Lewis and Brockus. Sheri was the lawyer who appeared with DJT on January 11, 2017, at DJT’s first press conference as president. The press conference was called, in part, to introduce the public to dozens of boxes of documents assembled by Sheri. The unseen contents of those boxes proved DJT had done what he was required to do to avoid conflicts of interest even though, as Sheri explained at the press conference, “conflicts of interest laws simply do not apply to the president or the vice president.”. Nonetheless, it was reassuring to see all the boxes.

Since Sheri did such a fine job at the January press conference, it was not surprising that she and a colleague in her law firm were the ones who wrote the letter about DJT’s business dealings in Russia. In addition to having represented DJT for many years, there are few lawyers better qualified to make representations about DJT’s business connections in Russia. Not only does Sheri’s law firm maintain an office in Moscow, but in 2016 her firm was named “Russia Law Firm of the Year” by Chambers & Partners, a firm that rates and ranks outstanding law firms around the world.

Sheri’s letter says that 10 years of the same tax returns that Senator Graham (and the public) have not been permitted to see, show that, with three exceptions noted at the end of the letter, DJT has “no income of any type from any Russian sources.” The three exceptions are (a) several million dollars received from the Miss Universe pageant held in Moscow in 2013, (b) $95 million received from the sale of an estate in Florida to a “Russian billionaire” and© “over the years it is likely that [DJT entities or DJT] engaged in ordinary course sales of goods or services to Russians or Russian entities. . .. With respect to this last exception,” Sheri’s letter says, “the amounts are immaterial.” “Immaterial” probably has a different meaning to DJT and Sheri, than it does to the rest of us. Immaterial amounts, according to Sheri, include money received from “sales of goods or services to Russians. . . such as sale . . .for condominiums, hotel rooms . . .Trump licensed products (e.g. ties, mattresses, wine etc.) that could have produced income attributable to Russian sources. . ..”

In addition to the information contained in the letter, its delivery, rather than its contents, is what made it special. In discussing delivery of the letter to Senator Graham in a press conference, Sean Spicer said: “IT IS BEING SENT BY CERTIFIED MAIL.” The fact that it is being sent by certified mail (instead of being hand delivered the way the letter firing James Comey was), means it is more important than a letter dropped in a mail box on the White House grounds. Sean did not indicate whether it was simply sent by certified mail or whether the White House took the additional precaution of sending it “certified mail-return receipt requested,” thus making it an even more important missive.

Only a person unfamiliar with the workings of the DJT White House would find it surprising that the President of the United States would respond to a request for information from a United States Senator by sending the information to the United States Senator by the U.S. Postal Service instead of having it hand carried. On the other hand, it was slightly more respectful than responding to Senator Graham’s request with a tweet.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Trump Trumps Trump

With consistency a great soul simply has nothing to do. —Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays, Self Reliance

One of DJT’s many virtues is that he does not slavishly adhere to positions he has publicly taken when he either (a) forgets that he took them or (b) is reminded by someone with whom he happens to agree at that moment that earlier positons were wrong. This was forcefully brought home on May 5, 2017, when DJT released his budget for 2018, an event that followed a DJT appearance that took place a few weeks earlier. (It is of course, also shown by the fact that he forgot how much he appreciated Jim Comey’s work prior to firing him, but that is for another time.)

On March 29, 2017, DJT took part in what was, without even a hint of irony, described as a “listening session” on Opioids and Drug Abuse. In welcoming his guests, DJT praised his Secretary of Defense and Homeland Security, John Kelly, who, DJT said, had done an amazing job. As proof, DJT said that: in terms of people and the drugs that are being stopped it is “down 61 percent at the border right now. . . . “That is an extraordinary result since at the time DJT spoke, Mr. Kelly had only been in office for eight weeks. Employing the enthusiastic, if incomprehensible rhetoric for which he is known (when speech replaces tweets), DJT said: “This is a total epidemic and I think it’s probably almost untalked about compared to the severity that we’re witnessing.” If ever there was a clarion call to action, that was it, and it was addressed for the next two hours by the participants in the meeting. At the end of the meeting, DJT was asked whether he was taking it (the drug issue) on the road. He responded, “Yes, we will. It’s a big issue-very very big issue.” When DJT got on the road, as it were, a strange thing happened. He got lost.

May 5, 2017, DJT’s support for greater activity with respect to what he had described as the “crippling problem throughout the United States” of drug abuse, disappeared. Its magical disappearance was effected by the release of DJT’s budget for 2018. The proposed budget cut funding for the Office of National Drug Control Policy from $388 million to $24 million, a 95% reduction. If implemented, the office will lose 33 employees.

Rich Baum, the acting director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy who had been appointed by DJT, and attended the listening session, was blindsided, saying: “These drastic proposed cuts are frankly heartbreaking and, if carried out, would cause us to lose many good people who contribute greatly to O.N.D.C. P’s mission and core activities. I don’t want to see this happen.” It is reported that if the funding cuts take place, the high-intensity drug-free communities support program would come to an end as would the high-intensity drug trafficking program.

Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) is the co-author of a major opioids bill that was passed in 2016. He said of the proposed cuts: “We have a heroin and prescription drug crisis in this country and we should be supporting efforts to reverse this tide, not proposing drastic cuts to those who serve on the front lines of this epidemic.”

The cuts do not affect DJT’s approach to medical marijuana issues. Like his position on drug control, his approach to marijuana has undergone a transmogrification.

The budget bill that cut funding for the O.N.D.C.P. that DJT signed, also includes a provision known as the Rohrbacher-Farr amendment. That amendment bars the Justice Department from using any appropriated funds to interfere with implementation of state laws governing the use of medical marijuana. That provision is consistent with the DJT position as expressed by him during the 2016 campaign. He repeatedly said that dealing with marijuana legalization was up to the states. In one interview he said: “I do like it, you know, from a medical standpoint. . . it does do pretty good things. But from the other standpoint, I think that it should be up to the states.” Apparently seconding the DJT campaign position, Sean Spicer, DJT’s press secretary, spoke about DJT’s attitude towards medical marijuana in a press briefing. He said: “[I] think the president understands that [medical marijuana] can be a vital part of treatment, especially for terminally ill patients and people facing certain kinds of medical things. . . . but there is a big difference between the medical and the non-medical.”

At the signing of the appropriations bill on May 5th that includes the ban on using federal funds to block medical marijuana use in states, DJT had forgotten what he’d said a few months earlier and what Mr. Spicer said he believed. Referring to the Amendment that says federal funds cannot be used to block implementation of medical marijuana laws by various States and territories, DJT said that he had a “responsibility to take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” thus suggesting that he might, (if he remembered), ignore the Rohrbacher-Farr amendment and permit the justice department to challenge states that permit the use of medical marijuana. That will please Attorney General Jeff Sessions who has said that marijuana is only slightly less awful than heroin, thinks “Medical marijuana has been hyped too much” and has said arguments for its medical use are “desperate.” It will disappoint the terminally ill and others, who only weeks ago, were described by DJT as benefitting from its use. Quite sad.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

White House Visitors

A free press can be good or bad, but, most certainly, without freedom it will never be anything but bad. . . . — Albert Camus, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death

A number of readers have written me asking me to explain why those particular leaders were selected by DJT to be among the first heads of state to be invited to the DJT White House, when so many others were hoping for invitations. The invitees whose invitations prompt the question, are Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte. Each of the visitors would seem at first blush to have more in common with each other than, the casual observer would at least hope, with DJT. The similarities between the three leaders are palpable. ,

President el-Sisi became president of Egypt by means of a coup, after citizens in Egypt had voted for Mohamad Morsey to be their president in a 2012 election. On July 3, 2013, President Morsey and his closest advisors were arrested on orders from General el-Sisi and General el-Sisi has been Egypt’s president ever since. Mr. el-Sisi’s method of acceding to power cannot have been the reason he was invited to the White House since DJT got there through an honest election process (except insofar as Russia might have meddled a tiny bit as hinted at by fake news.)

President Erdogan proposed an amendment to Turkey’s constitution that was approved by a slim majority in an election in mid-April. That amendment virtually guarantees that the winner of the 2019 presidential election, who will almost certainly be President Erdogan, will have full control of the government. Since the election, President Erdogan has fired 4,000 public officials. Those are in addition to the 50,000 who were removed by him immediately after an attempted coup that took place in July 2016.

President Rodrigo Duterte became president of the Philippines in an election in May 2016, winning by an overwhelming majority. Since becoming president he has sponsored an anti-drug campaign in which more than 6,000 suspected drug dealers or users have been killed. More than 2000 have died in police operations and 4,000 have been killed in vigilante or extra-judicial operations. After he was elected President, President Duterte said he would have the drug problem in the Philippines cleaned up in 6 months, but in an interview in January, 2017, he said the problem was more difficult than he had anticipated and it would take longer than he had hoped.

From the foregoing it is obvious that none of the actions taken by the three visitors to the White House would explain why DJT invited them to the White House. What inspired the invitations (and President Duterte has not yet accepted his), was DJT’s appreciation of the attitudes towards the free press that the three presidents have. They mirror, to a remarkable degree, DJT’s own feelings.

In rally in Pennsylvania, on April 29th, DJT enthusiastically repeated his condemnation of the press, referring to the “failing New York Times” and saying that CNBC and CNN were incompetent and dishonest. He said: “If the media’s job is to be honest and tell the truth, the media deserves a very, very big fat failing grade” and described reporters as “very dishonest people.” Each of his visitors has expressed remarkably similar sentiments.

A law in Egypt passed in December 2016 with President Sisi’s support, creates a council that will be headed by people appointed by the president. It will oversee the media and insure that the media comply with “national security” requirements. The council is to investigate media funding and is empowered to fine or revoke permits of media groups that threaten “national security.” In early December 2016, an al Jazeera journalist was arrested on suspicion of fabricating news, a sort of “fake news” scenario similar to the fake news DJT sees lurking around every newsstand. The Committee to Protect Journalists has described Egypt as a “leading jailer of journalists.”

Like DJT and President al-Sisi, President Erdogan has little use for the press. Since the coup attempt in 2016, President Erdogan has jailed more than 144 journalists and taken control of, or closed, more than 150 media companies. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey has surpassed China as the world’ biggest jailer of journalists.

President Duterte is troubled by a free press. March 30, 2017, he said that The Philippine Daily Inquirer and ABS-CBN had hired “shameless” journalists. He said the entities were “garbage” and used a variety of expletives to describe them. He has said they “slant” stories. The National Union of Journalists in the Philippines said: “The virulence and viciousness of his [Duterte’s]language are an abuse of power, a stain on the freedom of our public forum.”

The foregoing is a sort of good news-bad news scenario. The good news is that DJT did not invite his new found friends to the White House because he approves of how they govern their respective countries. The bad news is he shares their opinions of the press. Guardians of press freedom in the United States may want to keep, for future reference, the responses of the media watchdogs, to the actions against the press taken by DJT’s new found friends. We can all hope they will never be needed.