The President Is Not Above the Law

From the New York Times Editorial Board:

“This great nation can tolerate a president who makes mistakes,” declared Senator Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican. “But it cannot tolerate one who makes a mistake and then breaks the law to cover it up.”

No, Mr. Hatch wasn’t talking about Donald Trump. It was 1999, and he was talking about Bill Clinton.

At that time, the American system — and the flawed yet sometimes heroic people their fellow Americans choose to lead them — underwent, and passed, a hard test: The president, his financial dealings and his personal relationships were painstakingly investigated for years. Prosecutors ultimately accused Mr. Clinton of lying under oath, to cover up a sexual affair. The House of Representatives impeached him, but the Senate declined to convict, and Mr. Clinton stayed in office.spot2.jpg

The public, which learned in detail about everything investigators believed Mr. Clinton had done wrong, overwhelmingly agreed with the judgment of the Senate. It was a sad and sordid and at times distracting business, but the system worked.

Now Mr. Hatch and his fellow lawmakers may be approaching a harsher and more consequential test. We quote his words not to level some sort of accusation of hypocrisy, but to remind us all of what is at stake.

News reports point to a growing possibility that President Trump may act to cripple or shut down an investigation by the nation’s top law-enforcement agencies into his campaign and administration. Lawmakers need to be preparing now for that possibility because if and when it comes to pass, they will suddenly find themselves on the edge of an abyss, with the Constitution in their hands.

Read the complete article here.

Breaking: FBI raids Trump lawyer’s office

From today’s LA Times:

President Trump lashed out Monday at news that his personal attorney, Michael Cohen, was the subject of an FBI raid, calling it “a disgraceful situation” and adding that “many people have said” he should fire Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel heading the Russia investigation.

“They broke into the office of one of my personal attorneys,” Trump told reporters before a meeting with his military advisors, adding that “I have this witch hunt constantly going on for over 12 months now.”

“It’s a disgrace,” he said. “It’s an attack on our country. It’s an attack on what we all stand for.”

The raid is “a whole new level of unfairness,” Trump added, saying that he learned about the raid, from news reports, “like you did.”

He called attorneys working under Mueller “the most conflicted group of people I have ever seen.” The raid on Cohen’s office was undertaken by agents working with the federal prosecutor’s office in Manhattan, acting on a referral from Mueller.

“They’re not looking at the other side. They’re not looking at Hillary Clinton and all the horrible things she did,” Trump said, repeating a charge that he has made before that the lawyers working for Mueller were all Democrats.

The president also renewed criticism of Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, saying he “made a terrible mistake” by recusing himself from involvement in the Russia investigation, “a very terrible mistake for the country.”

Read more about the raid here.

Cambridge Analytica CEO Suspended, Involved in Hacking American Elections

From National Public Radio News:

Cambridge Analytica has suspended its CEO, Alexander Nix. The London-based company, which is accused of using data from 50 million Facebook users to influence the 2016 presidential campaign, announced the move Tuesday afternoon — one day after the release of a video that appears to show Nix acknowledging the firm’s engagement in political dirty tricks.

“In the view of the Board, Mr. Nix’s recent comments secretly recorded by Channel 4 and other allegations do not represent the values or operations of the firm,” the company’s board of directors said in a statement, “and his suspension reflects the seriousness with which we view this violation.”

The board said it is replacing Nix with Alexander Tayler in the interim as an independent investigation is conducted.

Also, the British government says it has opened an investigation of its own, seeking a warrant to search databases and servers belonging to the company. U.K. Information Minister Elizabeth Denham had demanded access to Cambridge Analytica’s databases by Monday following reports that the company improperly mined user data from Facebook to target potential voters.

However, after the firm missed the deadline, Denham told Britain’s Channel 4: “I’ll be applying to the court for a warrant.”

Cambridge Analytica says it used legal means to obtain the data and did not violate Facebook’s terms of service. Facebook has promised “a comprehensive internal and external review.”

Denham’s statement follows the latest revelation in the British media about the firm co-founded by former White House adviser Steve Bannon and heavyweight Republican donor Robert Mercer. The company is an offshoot of behavioral research and strategic communications company SCL Group with ties to the 2016 Trump presidential campaign.

Read the complete article here.

#RussiaGate: AG Sessions Interviewed in Mueller’s Russia Investigation

Breaking news from today’s New York Times:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions was questioned for several hours last week by the special counsel’s office as part of the investigation into Russia’s meddling in the election and whether the president obstructed justice since taking office, according to a Justice Department spokeswoman.

The meeting marked the first time that investigators for the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, are known to have interviewed a member of Mr. Trump’s cabinet.

In response to questions from The New York Times, the spokeswoman, Sarah Isgur Flores, confirmed that the interview occurred. Mr. Sessions was accompanied by the longtime Washington lawyer Chuck Cooper to the interview.

The attorney general announced in March that he had recused himself from all matters related to the 2016 election, including the Russia inquiry. The disclosure came after it was revealed that Mr. Sessions had not told Congress that he met twice with the Russian ambassador to the United States at the time, Sergey I. Kislyak, during the campaign.

Mr. Sessions, an early supporter of Mr. Trump’s presidential run, had been among a small group of senior campaign and administration officials whom Mr. Mueller had been expected to interview.

Read the complete article here.

Trump says Flynn’s actions during presidential transition were lawful

From today’s Reuter’s News Service:

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Saturday that actions by his disgraced former national security adviser Michael Flynn during the presidential transition were lawful and said that there was no collusion between his 2016 White House campaign and Russia.

Flynn was the first member of Trump’s administration to plead guilty to a crime uncovered by special counsel Robert Mueller’s wide-ranging investigation into Russian attempts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election and possible collusion by Trump aides.

Flynn, a former Defense Intelligence Agency director, held his position as Trump’s national security adviser only for 24 days. He was forced to resign after he was found to have misled Vice President Mike Pence about his discussions with Russia’s then-ambassador to the United States Sergei Kislyak..

“What has been shown is no collusion, no collusion,“ Trump told reporters as he departed the White House for the New York trip. ”There’s been absolutely no collusion, so we’re very happy.”

As part of his plea on Friday, Flynn agreed to cooperate with the investigation.

The retired U.S. Army lieutenant general admitted in a Washington court that he lied to FBI investigators about his discussions last December with Kislyak.

In what appeared to be moves undermining the policies of outgoing President Barack Obama, the pair discussed U.S. sanctions on Russia, and Flynn asked Kislyak to help delay a United Nations vote seen as damaging to Israel, according to prosecutors.

Flynn was also told by a “very senior member” of Trump’s transition team to contact Russia and other foreign governments to try to influence them ahead of the vote, the prosecutors said.

Sources told Reuters the “very senior” transition official was Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor. Kushner’s lawyer did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Watch the video here.

Former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos pleads guilty to lying to the FBI agents in Mueller probe

From today’s LA Times Update on #RussiaGate :

A former foreign policy advisor to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russians who claimed to have “thousands of emails” on Hillary Clinton, in the latest charges filed in the investigation of the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia.

George Papadopoulos, 30, of Chicago, has agreed to cooperate with the investigation led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, according to a plea agreement unsealed on Monday.

He pleaded guilty on Oct. 5 to making false statements to disguise his contacts with Russians whom he thought had “dirt” on Clinton, according to court papers. He was arrested in July as he got off a plane at Dulles International Airport.

After he was contacted by an unnamed Russian professor in March, Papadopoulos exchanged emails with an official in the Russian foreign ministry, court papers say. Among the topics he discussed was a possible visit by Trump to Russia.

“As mentioned we are all very excited by the possibility of a good relationship with Mr. Trump,” one Russian emailed him.

In April, after he had become an advisor to the campaign, Papadopoulos met with the Russian professor at a London hotel. The professor said he had just returned from a trip to Moscow, where he was told “the Russians had emails of Clinton.”

Papadopoulos told other leaders in the Trump campaign that he was in contact with Russians, and said there were some “interesting messages coming in from Moscow about a trip.”

Read more about the collusion of Trump’s campaign with the Russian government here.

Pence casts deciding vote in Senate to deny consumers rights to sue banks

From today’s Washington Post by Ken Sweet:

Call it a win for “the swamp.”

President Trump and Republicans in Congress handed Wall Street banks a big victory by effectively killing off a politically popular rule that would have allowed consumers to band together to sue their banks.

The 51-50 vote in the Senate, with Vice President Mike Pence casting the deciding vote, means bank customers will still be subject to what are known as mandatory arbitration clauses. These clauses are buried in the fine print of nearly every checking account, credit card, payday loan, auto loan or other financial services contract and require customers to use arbitration to resolve any dispute with his or her bank. They effectively waive the customer’s right to sue.

The banking industry lobbied hard to roll back a proposed regulation from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that would have largely restricted mandatory arbitration clauses by 2019. Consumers would have been allowed to sue their bank as a group in a class-action lawsuit. Individual consumers with individual complaints would still have to use arbitration under the rules.

President Trump is expected to sign the Senate resolution into law, overturning yet another Obama-administration initiative. Trump spent months of the 2016 campaign accusing his opponent Hillary Clinton of being in the pocket of the big banks and therefore unwilling to take on Wall Street.

At least among voters, the CFPB’s regulations had bipartisan support. A poll done by the GOP-leaning American Future Fund found that 67 percent of those surveyed were in favor of the rules, including 64 percent of Republicans. Other polls on the subject show similar levels of support.

The overturn marks a significant victory for Wall Street. After the financial crisis, Congress and the Obama administration put substantial new regulations on how banks operated and fined them tens of billions of dollars for the damage they caused to the housing market. But since Trump’s victory last year, banking lobbyists have felt emboldened to get some of the rules repealed or replaced altogether. Top or near the top of the list was the CFPB’s arbitration rules.

“(The) vote is a giant setback for every consumer in this country. Wall Street won and ordinary people lost. This vote means the courtroom doors will remain closed for groups of people seeking justice and relief when they are wronged by a company,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, in a statement.

The big banks and its lobbyist groups are calling this a victory for U.S. consumers, saying that arbitration is faster and the rules would have been an economic stimulus package for class-action trial lawyers. They also cite statistics from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s own 2015 study that show that the average award from a class-action lawsuit is roughly $32 while an award from arbitration is $5,389.

But reality is more complicated. At best, the banking industry’s arguments twist the truth.

The reason why the award for most class-action suits is small is because people don’t typically sue individually his or her bank over a small sum of money, like an overdraft charge or account service fee, because it’s not worth the financial effort to recover a $10, $25, or $35 fee. Arbitration cases are less common, and usually involve more substantial disputes, hence the larger awards. Also the majority of consumers resolve their dispute with their banks in person, typically at a branch or over the phone.

If the CFPB’s rules had gone into effect, companies like Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and Equifax would have been exposed to billions of dollars in lawsuits for future bad behavior. The Center for Responsible Lending estimates the U.S. banking customers paid $14 billion dollars in overdraft fee last year, and the industry has gotten in trouble in the past for shady tactics like transaction reordering, where a bank would reorder a day’s debits and withdrawals to extract the most overdraft fee income from its customers that day.

To overturn the CFPB’s rule, Congress used the Congressional Review Act. The CRA allows Congress to overturn any executive agency’s rules or regulations with a bare majority vote, but more importantly, the law prohibits that agency from issuing any “substantially similar” regulations without Congressional authorization. That means that until Congress passes a law to restrict arbitration, the CFPB’s hands are now permanently bound on this issue.

The political winds are in Wall Street’s favor going forward. Cordray’s term at the CFPB will end in mid-2018 but he is expected to step down before then to make a run for Governor of Ohio. Trump will be able to choose his own appointee and will likely pick someone more likely to favor the banks.

The CFPB was created after the financial crisis as part of the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory reform law that passed in 2010. The bureau was crafted to be independent and powerful, funded by the Federal Reserve instead of through the traditional Congressional appropriations process. Its director has considerable authority to pursue issues he or she considers important and generally cannot be removed from office.

There’s another major financial consumer protection now pending in front of Congress focused on the payday lending industry. The CFPB finalized new regulations weeks ago that would severely restrict the ability for payday lenders to make loans that its customers, often the poor and financially desperate, cannot afford. The payday lending industry is pushing hard to overturn these rules using the same process that was used to overturn the arbitration rules.

Ralph Nader: Trump’s Anti-Consumer Agenda Hurts His Voters

From today’s New York Times “Opinion” Section by Ralph Nader;

As a candidate, Donald Trump promised regular people, “I will be your voice,” and attacked the drug industry for “getting away with murder” in setting high prices for lifesaving medications. But as president, he has declared war on regulatory programs protecting the health, safety and economic rights of consumers. He has done so in disregard of evidence that such protections help the economy and financial well-being of the working-class voters he claims to champion.

Already his aggressive actions exceed those of the Reagan administration in returning the country to the “Let the buyer beware” days of the 1950s.

Though Mr. Trump is brazen in his opposition to consumer protections, many of his most damaging attacks are occurring in corners of the bureaucracy that receive minimal news coverage. His administration, for instance, wants to strip the elderly of their right to challenge nursing home abuses in court by allowing arbitration clauses in nursing home contracts. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has announced that it is canceling a proposed rule intended to reduce the risk of sleep apnea-related accidents among truck drivers and railway workers.

And the Environmental Protection Agency is busy weakening, repealing and under-enforcing protections, including for children, from toxic exposure. Scott Pruitt, the director, went against his agency’s scientists to jettison an imminent ban on the use of chlorpyrifos, an insecticide widely used on vegetables and fruits. Long-accumulated evidence shows that the chemical is poisoning the drinking water of farm workers and their families.

This assault began with Mr. Trump choosing agency chiefs who are tested corporate loyalists driven to undermine the lifesaving, income-protecting institutions whose laws they have sworn to uphold.

At the Food and Drug Administration, Mr. Trump has installed Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former pharmaceutical industry consultant, who supports weakening drug and medical device safety standards and has shown no real commitment to reducing sky-high drug prices. At the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos, a billionaire investor in for-profit colleges, has weakened enforcement policy on that predatory industry, hiring industry insiders and abandoning protections for students and taxpayers.

Mr. Pruitt, as the attorney general of Oklahoma, filed suits against the E.P.A. He has hired former lobbyists for the fossil fuel and chemical industries. Mr. Trump’s aides and Republicans in Congress are pushing to restrict access to state courts by plaintiffs who seek to hold polluters accountable.

The administration is even threatening to dismantlethe Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and fire its director, Richard Cordray, who was installed after Wall Street’s 2008 crash. Their sins: They returned over $12 billion to defrauded consumers and plan to issue regulations dealing with payday debt traps and compulsory arbitration clauses that deny aggrieved consumers their day in court. (The Senate is now considering legislation to gut the arbitration rule.)

Draconian budget cuts, new restrictions on health insurance, diminished privacy protections and denying climate change while putting off fuel-efficiency deadlines and auto safety standards will hurt all Americans, including Mr. Trump’s most die-hard supporters.

Read the complete article here.

N.F.L. Players May Have an Ally in Their Protests: Labor Law

From today’s New York Times by Noam Scheiber:As National Football League team owners consider President Trump’s call to fire players who refuse to stand for the national anthem, they have stumbled into one of the most consequential debates in today’s workplace: How far can workers go in banding together to address problems related to their employment?

In principle, the answer in the N.F.L. and elsewhere may be: Quite far.

To the extent that most people think about the reach of federal labor law, they probably imagine a union context — like organizing workers, or bargaining as a group across the table from management.

As it happens, the law is much more expansive, protecting any “concerted activities” that employees engage in to support one another in the workplace, whether or not a union is involved. The National Labor Relations Board and the courts have defined such activity to include everything from airing complaints about one’s boss through social media to publicly supporting political causes that have some bearing on one’s work life.

The league’s operations manual says players must be on the sidelines during the anthem and should stand. While the law might not bear on whether an individual player can kneel during the anthem, many experts say it could protect players from repercussions for making such a gesture together — or taking other action — to show solidarity on the job.

And as unionization continues its decades-long decline, some believe that these alternative forms of taking collective action may be crucial to enabling workers to speak up.

Read the entire article here.

How to Restore Government Ethics in the Trump Era

From today’s New York Times by Walter Shaub, Director of the United States Office of Government Ethics:

Shortly after his inauguration, President George H. W. Bush counseled freshly minted White House appointees that, “It’s not really very complicated. It’s a question of knowing right from wrong, avoiding conflicts of interest, bending over backwards to see that there’s not even a perception of conflict of interest.” He paired this straightforward declaration with action, establishing unified standards of conduct for the executive branch and resolving his own conflicts of interest. These words and deeds set the tone for ethical governance.

Since the enactment of the Ethics in Government Act, our past presidents entered government with an appreciation for the importance of tone from the top. Though exempt from the conflict of interest statute, which bars other officials from working on matters affecting their financial interests, they all voluntarily divested conflicting holdings and put the proceeds in blind trusts or nonconflicting assets. They knew their exemption from the statute was not a reward for attaining high office but a pragmatic recognition that America needs its president engaged in urgent matters of state. By holding themselves to the same exacting standards as the rest of the executive branch, they sent a clear message to those serving under them.

This tradition came to an abrupt stop with President Trump. By continuing to hold onto his businesses and effectively advertising them through frequent visits to his properties, our leader creates the appearance of profiting from the presidency. As things stand, we can’t know whether policy aims or personal financial interests motivate his decisions as president. Whatever his intentions may be, the resulting uncertainty casts a pall of doubt over governmental decision-making.

This shift fundamentally changes the executive branch ethics program. I have been a student of that program since I first came to the Office of Government Ethics in 2001, appointed by Marilyn L. Glynn, then the office’s general counsel. Every past administration actively supported O.G.E.’s work and respected it for taking stands when necessary. That White House support provided the office with the leverage it needed to fulfill its mission.

I am not suggesting that it was always easy. Having served for much of my career on the front lines of the presidential nominee program, I regularly locked horns with nominees and White House lawyers in both the Bush and Obama administrations as we wrestled over our differing notions of how best to address ethical risks. Sometimes those deliberations were animated; occasionally they were heated. I am also sure that more than a few nominees felt bruised by the painful process of resolving their conflicts of interest. Even if we did not always agree, however, White House officials always understood that O.G.E.’s only goal — and, indeed, my only goal — was to protect the integrity of the government’s operations. The incidental beneficiaries of those efforts were the Bush and Obama administrations and the nominees we kept out of trouble. That’s why it is disheartening now to witness parts of the ethics program slipping away.

The Office of Government Ethics has been performing the same service it has always provided with respect to the current administration’s nominees. In fact, I have succeeded in moving President Trump’s nominees on average almost a week (six days to be exact) faster than I moved President Obama’s nominees during the last presidential transition, without compromising O.G.E.’s high standards. I am particularly proud of this accomplishment because this administration’s nominees generally hold far more complex financial interests than the last administration’s nominees, a circumstance that would normally be expected to slow O.G.E.’s work. Unfortunately, it has been harder to address other aspects of the lagging ethical culture in the current administration.

The cascading effects of the president’s departure from existing ethical norms have touched others in government. The tone from the top led one White House appointee to use her position to hawk the merchandise of the president’s daughter and another to endorse the president’s book. It led a cabinet official, whose recent wedding reportedly featured a chartered bus ride from the president’s hotel, to urge the public to see a movie he produced. The press secretary touts one of the president’s commercial enterprises as the “winter White House,” and the State Department has publicized it around the globe. A White House lawyer made the extraordinary assertion that “many regulations promulgated by the Office of Government Ethics (‘OGE’) do not apply to employees of the Executive Office of the President.” Appearing to echo this view, the Office of Management and Budget challenged O.G.E.’s authority to collect routine ethics records. Even some presidential nominees have pushed back against ethics processes with uncommon intensity.

Affected, too, is the very official charged with responsibility for White House ethics, the counsel to the president. His office recently ginned up ten unsigned, undated waivers, many of which seem intended to have retroactive effect, raising the specter of a possible effort to paper over ethics violations. Worse, the counsel appears to be both issuer and recipient of two waivers. His deputy also beat back a press inquiry regarding the applicability of ethics rules to one of the deputy’s former clients. In addition, his office has dragged its feet on responding to O.G.E.’s questions about appointees, despite the office’s statutory duty to review their disclosures and certify their ethical compliance.

Projecting their own cynical partisanship, some defenders of this conduct dismiss any expressions of concern — or, in my case, resignation — as politically motivated.Underlying my own expressions of concern, however, is fidelity to the principle that public service is a public trust. I would not have gone looking for this particular fight; it found me. I can assure those reciting the administration’s talking points that I have not enjoyed the attention, nor have I enjoyed watching the negative effects on the ethics program. As I told the Senate during my confirmation hearing in 2012, I am a true believer in the foundational principles of the executive branch ethics program. I am also acutely aware that the program owes a debt to both parties for its past successes and that it will take both parties to restore the program to good health. To advocate for the executive branch ethics program is to advance the nonpartisan mission of an essential institution of our representative form of government.

Defenders of the status quo also seem unwilling to acknowledge the existence of a problem absent clear evidence of significant violations. This argument risks legitimizing an approach of bare minimum legal compliance. The existence or absence of identified violations is not the only measure of an ethics program — no program can detect every violation and those detected are often hard to prove. At its heart, an ethics program acts as a prevention mechanism through systems designed to reduce the risk of violations occurring. Those systems depend on adherence to ethical norms.

Recent experiences have convinced me that the existing mechanism is insufficient. The Office of Government Ethics needs greater authority to obtain information from the executive branch, including the White House. The White House and agencies lacking inspectors general need investigative oversight, which should be coordinated with O.G.E. The ethics office needs more independence, including authority to communicate directly with Congress on budgetary and legislative matters. Because we can no longer rely on presidents to comply voluntarily with ethical norms, we need new laws to address their conflicts of interest, their receipt of compensation for the use of their names while in office, nepotism and the release of tax forms. Transparency should be increased through laws mandating creation and release of documents related to divestitures, recusals, waivers and training. Disclosure requirements can be refined and the revolving door tightened. These changes would give O.G.E. the tools it needs to address the current challenges and, perhaps more importantly, reinforce for presidents the importance of setting a strong ethical tone from the top.