Trump appointees, this time in USDA, continue to violate federal ethics laws

From today’s New York Times by Danielle Ivory and Robert Faturechi:

At a private meeting in September, congressional aides asked Rebeckah Adcock, a top official at the Department of Agriculture, to reveal the identities of the people serving on the deregulation team she leads at the agency.

Teams like Ms. Adcock’s, created under an executive order by President Trump, had been taking heat from Democratic lawmakers over their secrecy. What little was publicly known suggested that some of the groups’ members had deep ties to the industries being regulated.

Ms. Adcock, a former pesticide industry executive, brushed off the request, according to House aides familiar with the exchange, who asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly. Making the names public, they recalled her saying, would trigger a deluge of lobbyists.

In fact, interviews and visitor logs at the Agriculture Department showed that Ms. Adcock had already been meeting with lobbyists, including those from her former employer, the pesticide industry’s main trade group, CropLife America, and its members. CropLife pushes the agenda of pesticide makers in Washington, including easing rules related to safety standards and clean water.

Ms. Adcock, who left the trade group in April, maintained contact with her former industry allies despite a signed ethics agreement promising to avoid for one year issues involving CropLife as well as matters that she had lobbied about in the two years before joining the government.

In one meeting, Ms. Adcock discussed issues banned by the ethics agreement with an executive who had been her lobbying partner weeks earlier at CropLife, according to the accounts of participants and the visitor logs, obtained through a public records request by The New York Times and ProPublica.

Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for the U.S.D.A. who also spoke on behalf of Ms. Adcock, said she had not violated her ethics agreement by meeting with her former industry allies. He also denied that Ms. Adcock had discussed issues related to her previous lobbying at the meeting, or that she had suggested that her deregulation team would be swamped by lobbyists if names of its members were released.

“The career ethics officers at U.S.D.A. agree that this is not a violation of the ethics agreement that Rebeckah Adcock signed,” said Mr. Murtaugh, citing a 2009 memo by the Office of Government Ethics.

Others dispute that interpretation of the memo; the ethics office declined to say whether the memo applied to the meeting, citing its policy not to discuss individual cases.

Read entire article here.

Health Secretary Resigns After Drawing Fire for Expensive Chartered Flights

From today’s New York Times by Peter Baker:

Tom Price, the health and human services secretary, resigned under pressure on Friday after racking up at least $400,000 in travel bills for chartered flights and undermining President Trump’s promise to drain the swamp of a corrupt and entitled capital.

Already in trouble with Mr. Trump for months of unsuccessful efforts to repeal and replace President Barack Obama’s health care program, Mr. Price failed to defuse the president’s anger over his high-priced travel by agreeing to pay a portion of the cost and expressing “regret” for his actions.

“I’m not happy, O.K.?” Mr. Trump told reporters as he was about to head to his New Jersey golf club for the weekend, barely an hour before the resignation was announced. “I can tell you, I’m not happy.” He called Mr. Price “a very good man” but added that the secretary’s offer to reimburse the government for just part of the cost of the flights “would be unacceptable.”

The White House announcement of Mr. Price’s departure was spare, with none of the customary praise of his work or thanks for his service. The statement issued by the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said simply that Mr. Price had “offered his resignation earlier today and the president accepted.”

Mr. Trump tapped Don J. Wright, a deputy assistant secretary for health and the director of the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, to serve as acting secretary. Possible candidates for a successor include Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and Scott Gottlieb, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.

Read the complete article here.

By Pulling Out on Paris, Trump’s Policy “America First” Means “America Last”

Today President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. would pull out of the Paris Climate Accord signed by his predecessor President Barack Obama less than two years ago. At the time, the agreement was hailed as the single most important policy initiative for countries to curb carbon emissions in an effort to slow the massive and potentially cataclysmic climate changes that have been accelerated by human activity and energy pollution over the last 100 years.

In pulling out of the agreement, Trump fulfilled a campaign pledge based on soliciting the fear of working class Americans that they would suffer economically and stoking their false hopes that doing so would bring back jobs in destructive industries such as coal-fired energy plants.

The truth is coal suffers not merely from the fact that it is pollution heavy, but also from the fact that is costly to retrieve, refine, and burn—so much so that cheap and plentiful natural gas, and not the alleged bogey-man of environmental regulations, was the single largest factor leading to the market decline of coal and, to a lesser extent, oil.

So, pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement will not bring back jobs to those parts of the country that have historically relied on pollution-heavy technologies such as coal (in wide ranging places like West Virginia and Montana), and for that reason is economically inefficient and filled with false hope. What is worse, Trump’s policy change signals to the rest of the world that “American First” means American will no longer lead the world in making smart decisions to leave future generations with a habitable planet and ecology.

In short, Trump just said “Fuck You” to future generations who should be concerned about the lasting effects that relying on polluting technologies now will leave for our children and their children to clean up after we are long gone. Americans are rightly outraged, and we must work to ensure that this disastrous policy change is reversed—yet again!—in 2020.

Bribe Cases, Secret Jared Kushner Partner, Potential Conflicts of Interest

From today’s New York Times by Jesse Drucker

It was the summer of 2012, and Jared Kushner was headed downtown.

His family’s real estate firm, the Kushner Companies, would spend about $190 million over the next few months on dozens of apartment buildings in tony Lower Manhattan neighborhoods including the East Village, the West Village and SoHo.

For much of the roughly $50 million in down payments, Mr. Kushner turned to an undisclosed overseas partner. Public records and shell companies shield the investor’s identity. But, it turns out, the money came from a member of Israel’s Steinmetz family, which built a fortune as one of the world’s leading diamond traders.

A Kushner Companies spokeswoman and several Steinmetz representatives say Raz Steinmetz, 53, was behind the deals. His uncle, and the family’s most prominent figure, is the billionaire Beny Steinmetz, who is under scrutiny by law enforcement authorities in four countries. In the United States, federal prosecutors are investigating whether representatives of his firm bribed government officials in Guinea to secure a multibillion dollar mining concession. In Israel, Mr. Steinmetz was detained in December and questioned in a bribery and money laundering investigation. In Switzerland and Guinea, prosecutors have conducted similar inquiries.

The Steinmetz partnership with Mr. Kushner underscores the mystery behind his family’s multibillion-dollar business and its potential for conflicts with his role as perhaps the second-most powerful man in the White House, behind only his father-in-law, President Trump.

Although Mr. Kushner resigned in January from his chief executive role at Kushner Companies, he remains the beneficiary of trusts that own the sprawling real estate business. The firm has taken part in roughly $7 billion in acquisitions over the last decade, many of them backed by foreign partners whose identities he will not reveal. Last month, his company announced that it had ended talks with the Anbang Insurance Group, a Chinese financial firm linked to leading members of the ruling Communist Party. The potential agreement, first disclosed by The New York Times, had raised questions because of its favorable terms for the Kushners.

Read the entire article here.

Trumpism: The Dangers of Disruption

From today’s New York Times (Opinion Section):

by Francis Fukuyama, Senior Fellow, Stanford University

In Silicon Valley, where I live, the word “disruption” has an overwhelmingly positive valence: Thousands of smart, young people arrive here every year hoping to disrupt established ways of doing business — and become very rich in the process.

For almost everyone else, however, disruption is a bad thing. By nature, human beings prize stability and order. We learn to be adults by accumulating predictable habits, and we bond by memorializing our ancestors and traditions. So it should not be surprising that in today’s globalized world, many people are upset that vast technological and social forces constantly disrupt established social practices, even if they are better off materially.

Of course, globalization has produced enormous benefits. From 1970 to the 2008 financial crisis, global output quadrupled, and the benefits did not flow exclusively to the rich. According to the economist Steven Radelet, the number of people living in extreme poverty in developing countries fell from 42 percent in 1993 to 17 percent in 2011, while the percentage of children born in developing countries who died before their fifth birthday declined from 22 percent in 1960 to less than 5 percent by 2016.

Yet statistics like these do not reflect the lived experience of many people. The shift of manufacturing from the West to low labor-cost regions has meant that Asia’s rising middle classes have grown at the expense of rich countries’ working-class communities. And from a cultural standpoint, the huge movement of ideas, people and goods across national borders has disrupted traditional communities and ways of doing business. For some this has presented tremendous opportunity, but for others it is a threat.

Mr. Trump’s ascent poses a unique challenge to the American system because he fits comfortably into the trend toward illiberal democracy. He validated himself through popular support, but his entire career has been spent trying to bypass inconvenient rules — like the requirement to pay his own subcontractors. Much of his popularity rested heavily on his willingness to break existing customs about political correctness. This seemed politically bracing at first, but quickly became worrisome when Mr. Trump suggested that as president, he would “open up our libel laws” to initiate civil suits against his media critics. His pitch to the American voter was “I alone” can fix the country’s problems through sheer force of personality, and not through a reform of the country’s institutions.

That Mr. Trump expressed admiration for Mr. Putin, and that Mr. Putin returned the favor, should come as no surprise. Like Mr. Putin, Mr. Trump seems to want to use a democratic mandate to undermine the checks and balances that characterize a genuine liberal democracy. He will be an oligarch in the Russian mold: a rich man who used his wealth to gain political power and who would use political power to enrich himself once in office. And like Mr. Putin, Mr. Trump was able to create alternative narratives that often went unchallenged by his supporters.

Read the full article here.

Trump Cabinet Signals Embrace of Wall Street Elite

We told you so, America. Trump voters have elected a billionaire business man, with a myriad of conflicts of interest between his private companies and his new public position, and who has deep ties to Wall Street and the wealthy and political elite of this country. There will be no change under Trump; only more of the same status quo economics that has hurt ordinary working Americans and enriched the wealthy even more. It almost belongs in a Charles Dickens novel. So sad!

From The New York Times, December 1, 2016. Read the full story here.

In a campaign commercial that ran just before the election, Donald J. Trump’s voice boomed over a series of Wall Street images. He described “a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth, and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations.”

The New York Stock Exchange, the hedge fund billionaire George Soros and the chief executive of the investment bank Goldman Sachs flashed across the screen.

Now Mr. Trump has named a former Goldman executive and co-investor with Mr. Soros to spearhead his economic policy.

With Wednesday’s nomination of Steven Mnuchin, a Goldman trader turned hedge fund manager and Hollywood financier, to be Treasury secretary, a new economic leadership is taking shape in Washington.

That two investors — Mr. Mnuchin and Mr. Ross — will occupy two major economic positions in the new administration is the most powerful signal yet that Mr. Trump plans to emphasize policies friendly to Wall Street, like tax cuts and a relaxation of regulation, in the early days of his administration.

While that approach has been cheered by investors (the stocks of Bank of America, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley have been on a tear since the election), it stands in stark contrast to the populist campaign that Mr. Trump ran and the support he received from working-class voters across the country.

Don’t believe economic lies that Trump peddles this election

From today’s NYT article on Trump’s economic policy speech:

“But the economic agenda Mr. Trump described included many traditionally Republican policies that offer little to no direct benefit to working-class Americans, while giving a considerable financial boost to the wealthiest.

For example, Mr. Trump called for ending what Republicans label the “death tax.” He did not mention that the estate tax currently exempts the first $5.45 million for an individual and $10.9 million for a married couple — meaning that only the very wealthy pay even a dime. If Mr. Trump’s net worth is as large as he has says, his heirs would have a great deal to gain from eliminating the estate tax; the typical displaced steelworker or coal miner, or even a relatively prosperous retiree, would have nothing to gain.”

If disaffected workers want to make gains, they should not vote for someone who will institute “labor” reforms that make the already wealthiest American even more wealthy, while leaving workers themselves farther behind. The only way American workers will be able to make gains is by advocating for and passing labor reform that improves wages, while limiting the income gains of the wealthiest Americans who, let’s face it, already have enough to get them by comfortably.