Interior nominee David Bernhardt’s ethics problems aren’t going away

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

President Trump’s pick to the lead the Interior Department heads for a confirmation vote as early as Thursday, with his career as a lobbyist raising ethical and legal concerns and doubts about his independence from the energy and water industry groups he long represented.

Acting Secretary David Bernhardt spent about eight years as a partner in Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, one of the nation’s top-grossing law and lobbying firms, according to public rankings. There he represented energy, mining and Western water interests that deal with the Interior Department, including two California entities, Westlands Water District — the nation’s largest irrigation district — and Cadiz Inc.

Bernhardt’s firm sued the department four times on Westlands’ behalf. He personally argued one appeals case challenging federal endangered species protections for imperiled salmon. He did legal work for Cadiz, which wants to build a water pipeline on a railroad right of way that crosses federal land in the California desert.

When Bernhardt was confirmed as deputy secretary in 2017, he had to sign the administration’s ethics pledge and recuse himself from participating in “particular matters” involving more than two dozen former clients. Some of the recusals were effective for two years, others for one. In the last year, he has helped put policies in place that benefit businesses he once represented as a lobbyist.

Read the complete article here.

Corruption: Cohen’s Testimony Opens New Phase of Turbulence for Trump

From today’s New York Times:

A small group of Republican strategists opposed to President Trump, branding themselves Defending Democracy Together, quietly conducted polling and focus groups last fall to gauge whether the president was vulnerable to a primary challenge in 2020. Assembling a presentation for sympathetic political donors, they listed points of weakness for Mr. Trump such as “tweeting/temperament” and “criminality/corruption.”

The group concluded that Mr. Trump’s scandals were not yet badly damaging him with Republican-leaning voters: “Even relatively high information voters aren’t paying particularly close attention to day-to-day scandals,” the presentation stated. But it added that there was “room to educate voters” on the subject.

Michael D. Cohen, Mr. Trump’s former lawyer, may have begun that education on Wednesday.

With Mr. Cohen’s appearance before a House committee, the public airing of ethical transgressions by Mr. Trump reached a new phase, one that may be harder to ignore for friends and foes alike. The spectacle of Mr. Trump’s onetime enforcer denouncing him in televised proceedings, detailing a catalog of alleged cruelty and crimes, signaled the pressure the president’s already strained coalition could feel in the coming months as Congress scrutinizes him and the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III completes his investigation.

Republicans still find it difficult to imagine that Mr. Trump’s electoral base would ever desert him, though they acknowledge that bond may soon be tested as never before. Mr. Trump’s core supporters — numbering about two in five American voters, polls suggest — have stayed with him through revelations of financial and sexual impropriety, painful electoral setbacks and the longest government shutdown in history.

Read the complete article here.

CBO estimates shutdown cost $11 billion, $3 billion won’t be recovered

From today’s ABC News Online:

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the longest-running government shutdown in U.S. history came at a price. It cost the economy $11 billion, with $3 billion that will never be recovered, according to a report released Monday.

For the fourth quarter of 2018, the CBO estimated real gross domestic product was reduced by $3 billion compared to what it would have been. The level of real GDP for the first quarter of 2019 is estimated to be $8 billion lower, due to a combination of the partial government shutdown delaying approximately $18 billion in federal spending, suspending services for federal workers and a reduction in demand lowering output in the private sector.

“Risks to the economy were becoming increasingly significant as the shutdown continued,” the report read. “Although their precise effects on economic output are uncertain, the negative effects of such factors would have become increasingly important if the partial shutdown had extended beyond five weeks.”

While CBO anticipates a majority of the lost real GDP will be recovered, about $3 billion will not be. That’s about 0.02 percent of the projected annual GDP in 2019, according to the report.

“Among those who experienced the largest and most direct negative effects are federal workers who faced delayed compensation and private-sector entities that lost business,” the report said. “Some of those private-sector entities will never recoup that lost income.”

Read the complete article here.

Interactive Map: Government Shutdown Is Affecting Federal Workers in All States

From today’s New York Times:

About 800,000 federal workers are furloughed or working without pay across the country because of the government shutdown, many of them concentrated in the West.

Over all, federal workers account for about 1.5 percent of the country’s labor force, with a fifth of them in the Washington metro area. But the shutdown has hit some agencies — and states — harder than others.

Outside the capital, states with large numbers of workers for the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior are more likely to feel the shutdown’s effects. And nearly the entire staff of the Environmental Protection Agency is furloughed, including hundreds of workers in North Carolina and Illinois.

A budget agreement to end the shutdown remains the subject of a fierce partisan fight in Congress, with federal workers caught in the middle. Some senators who count these workers among their constituents are pushing for an end to the impasse, but federal employment does not appear to have a clear relationship to lawmakers’ positions on the shutdown.

Read the complete article here.

Pence and Cabinet Members Are Due a Raise, as Federal Workers Go Unpaid

From today’s New York Times

Vice President Mike Pence, members of the cabinet and other high-ranking political appointees in the Trump administration are positioned to receive a pay bump of about $10,000 a year even as 800,000 federal employees are entering their third week without paychecks.

The increases are the result of Congress’s failure to renew a longstanding freeze on raises for high-ranking officials and political appointees. An extension of the freeze was included in the spending bills funding multiple government agencies that were not acted on before the expiration of the 115th Congress on Thursday.

That has created an unexpected optics issue for the Trump administration: While correctional officers, Transportation Security Administration agents, and other federal employees work without pay during the government shutdown, Mr. Pence’s annual salary could jump to $243,500 from $230,700. Cabinet secretaries who are paid $199,700 a year could see their annual pay rise to $210,700.

The administration appeared to be aware of the perception problem, and hoped to avoid it. Asked at his news conference on Friday if he would freeze the raises during the shutdown, President Trump said he “might consider that.” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, later explained that the administration was “exploring options to prevent this from being implemented while some federal workers are furloughed” and described the situation as “another unnecessary byproduct of the shutdown” that she said could be remedied by Congress.

Read the complete article here.

“Unqualified” Trump appointee set to take over consumer protection agency

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

If all goes according to Republican plan, this is the week a person with no experience in consumer protection will take over the consumer watchdog agency that the party has been steadily weakening to the point of irrelevancy.

Kathy Kraninger, a White House budget official, received the green light for final approval last week after Republican senators shut down debate on her nomination with a party-line vote of 50 to 49. The only wild card is whether memorial services for former President George H.W. Bush will delay action by a few days.

Kraninger would replace White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney, who has been leading the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on an interim basis and fulfilling President Trump’s pledge to make the agency friendlier to the businesses it was intended to crack down on — banks, payday lenders and others.

“If the Senate approves this unqualified acolyte of Mick Mulvaney, who has no consumer protection or financial regulation experience, expect her to simply follow his playbook,” said Ed Mierzwinski, senior director of the federal consumer program for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

That means Kraninger will “leave service members and their families at the mercy of predatory lenders, work with payday lenders to eliminate the payday lending rule even Congress was afraid to vote to repeal, and reduce enforcement penalties, if any, to parking tickets, not punishments,” he said.

Read the complete article here.

Trump’s Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke Faces Increased Ethics Scrutiny

From today’s New York Times:

Ryan Zinke, the secretary of the Interior Department and a key figure in President Trump’s push to roll back environmental regulations and ramp up oil drilling, is facing increased scrutiny amid federal investigations into allegations that he abused travel spending and maintained close ties with industries he oversees.

The criticism escalated sharply after reports this week that the Interior Department’s inspector general had referred one of the inquiries to the Justice Department, a potential prelude to a criminal investigation.

T​he​​ investigations have raised questions about Mr. Zinke’s oversight of the Interior Department, where he is essentially the largest land manager in the United States. He has authority over the nation’s 300 million acres of public lands as well as vast waters off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and the Gulf of Mexico.

Mr. Zinke faces at least a half-dozen ethics investigations. At least nine other inquiries into alleged ethics violations have been closed, in some cases because Mr. Zinke was cleared, in others because of a lack of cooperation with investigators.

While it is not known which ​inquiry​ has been referred to the Justice Department, a person familiar with the matter, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said it was most likely one examining a Montana land deal that involved an organization run by Mr. Zinke’s wife​ and a development group backed by the chairman of Halliburton, which is one of the nation’s largest companies involved in drilling for oil and gas on public lands.

Read the complete article here.

Now for Rent: Email and Phone Numbers of Millions of Trump Supporters

From today’s New York Times:

Early in his presidential campaign, Donald J. Trump dismissed political data as an “overrated” tool. But after he won the Republican nomination, his team began building a database that offers a pipeline into the heart of the party’s base, a comprehensive list including the email addresses and cellphone numbers of as many as 20 million supporters.

Now, consultants close to the Trump campaign are ramping up efforts to put that database — by far the most sought-after in Republican politics — to use, offering it for rent to candidates, conservative groups and even businesses.

It is an arrangement that has the potential to help the Republican Party in key midterm races, while providing a source of revenue for President Trump’s campaign and the consultants involved.

It has also set off concerns about diluting the power of one of Mr. Trump’s most potent political assets, while raising questions about whether his team is facilitating the sort of political profiteering that he disparaged during his campaign.

It is not unusual for candidates to rent supporter data to — or from — other campaigns. The new effort by Mr. Trump’s team, however, appears to be the first time the campaign of a sitting president facing re-election has opted to market its list.

Federal election law allows campaigns and political action committees to sell or rent their lists, provided that the payments received are fair market value.

In recent weeks, Mr. Trump’s campaign, which is not known for its adherence to political norms, quietly signed a contract with a newly formed Virginia-based company called Excelsior Strategies to market the emails and cellphone numbers — what is known in the political industry as first-party data.

Read the complete article here.

North Dakota voter ID law upheld by Supreme Court could affect Senate race

From CBS News Online:

The Supreme Court ruled this week to uphold a North Dakota voter identification law which requires that voters present an ID which includes a residential address in order to vote, potentially restricting the rights of Native Americans in the state who do not have residential addresses.

The law, signed by Republican Gov. Doug Burgum in 2017, had been blocked by a U.S. District Court which found it to be discriminatory towards the state’s Native American population. The Eighth Circuit overturned that ruling, and the Supreme Court upheld the circuit court’s decision, with only Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan dissenting. The two noted in their dissent that this ruling was confusing because voters who used their identification to vote in the primaries could now find that same identification insufficient, because “the injunction against requiring residential-address identification was in force during the primary election and because the secretary of state’s website announced for months the ID requirements as they existed under that injunction.”

Native Americans living on reservations often do not have residential addresses, but have IDs which feature P.O. boxes. Native Americans are North Dakota’s largest minority population, comprising over 5 percent of the state’s population.

This Supreme Court ruling could significantly affect the re-election chances of Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who is trailing Republican opponent Kevin Cramer in polling. Heitkamp won her seat by just under 3,000 votes in 2012, with the help of Native American voters. If a few thousand Native American voters lack the necessary identification and are unable to vote, that could damage Heitkamp in a close race.

However, it is possible to obtain a residential address before Election Day, according to a Facebook post by the organization Native Vote ND, which encourages voter participation by Native Americans in the state.

Read the complete article here.

The Plot to Subvert an Election: Unraveling the Russia Story So Far

From today’s New York Times:

ON AN OCTOBER AFTERNOON BEFORE THE 2016 ELECTIONa huge banner was unfurled from the Manhattan Bridge in New York City: Vladimir V. Putin against a Russian-flag background, and the unlikely word “Peacemaker” below. It was a daredevil happy birthday to the Russian president, who was turning 64.

In November, shortly after Donald J. Trump eked out a victory that Moscow had worked to assist, an even bigger banner appeared, this time on the Arlington Memorial Bridge in Washington: the face of President Barack Obama and “Goodbye Murderer” in big red letters.

Police never identified who had hung the banners, but there were clues. The earliest promoters of the images on Twitter were American-sounding accounts, including @LeroyLovesUSA, later exposed as Russian fakes operated from St. Petersburg to influence American voters.

The Kremlin, it appeared, had reached onto United States soil in New York and Washington. The banners may well have been intended as visual victory laps for the most effective foreign interference in an American election in history.

For many Americans, the Trump-Russia story as it has been voluminously reported over the past two years is a confusing tangle of unfamiliar names and cyberjargon, further obscured by the shout-fest of partisan politics. What Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel in charge of the investigation, may know or may yet discover is still uncertain. President Trump’s Twitter outbursts that it is all a “hoax” and a “witch hunt,” in the face of a mountain of evidence to the contrary, have taken a toll on public comprehension.

But to travel back to 2016 and trace the major plotlines of the Russian attack is to underscore what we now know with certainty: The Russians carried out a landmark intervention that will be examined for decades to come. Acting on the personal animus of Mr. Putin, public and private instruments of Russian power moved with daring and skill to harness the currents of American politics. Well-connected Russians worked aggressively to recruit or influence people inside the Trump campaign.

To many Americans, the intervention seemed to be a surprise attack, a stealth cyberage Pearl Harbor, carried out by an inexplicably sinister Russia. For Mr. Putin, however, it was long-overdue payback, a justified response to years of “provocations” from the United States.

And there is a plausible case that Mr. Putin succeeded in delivering the presidency to his admirer, Mr. Trump, though it cannot be proved or disproved. In an election with an extraordinarily close margin, the repeated disruption of the Clinton campaign by emails published on WikiLeaks and the anti-Clinton, pro-Trump messages shared with millions of voters by Russia could have made the difference, a possibility Mr. Trump flatly rejects.

Read the complete article here.