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Archive for April 13th, 2018

Why the question of whether Michael Cohen visited Prague is massively important for Donald Trump

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Andrew Prokop explains in Voxi:

Did Trump lawyer Michael Cohen secretly visit Prague to meet with Russians in 2016? The future of Donald Trump’s presidency could hinge on whether the answer to that question is yes.

That’s because the claim that such a meeting happened is one of the most specific claims in Christopher Steele’s dossier alleging collusion between the Trump team and Russia to influence the 2016 election — and because, since the very first day that dossier was publicly released, Cohen has adamantly denied taking any such trip, and Trump’s team has relied on that denial to dispute the dossier’s accuracy. “I have never been to Prague in my life. #fakenews,” Cohen tweeted on January 10, 2017, hours after the dossier was posted.

Yet a new report from McClatchy’s Peter Stone and Greg Gordon claims that special counsel Robert Mueller has evidence that Cohen did, in fact, enter Prague through Germany at the height of the 2016 campaign, in “August or early September.”

The McClatchy report is based on anonymous sources, and we don’t yet know what the purported evidence is. It could still prove to be mistaken. (Cohen himself didn’t comment.)

But if it is in fact accurate, the report would utterly devastate one of the Trump team’s leading arguments that there was no Trump-Russia collusion. That’s because, to be blunt, there is no reason for Cohen to try to debunk the Steele dossier by lying and saying that he didn’t visit Prague at all if he actually did, unless he was trying to cover up extremely serious wrongdoing that happened during that visit.

If Cohen did in fact visit Prague in 2016, but for innocuous reasons that Steele’s sources twisted, he could have just said that at the time. Instead, he vociferously denied that he went to Prague at all. If that was false, there would be no reason for him to take that tack — unless he was trying to cover up something very serious and hoping to get away with it.

What the Steele dossier alleged about Michael Cohen visiting Prague

The Steele dossier, you will remember, was a months-long research project in which former MI-6 agent Christopher Steele dug into Donald Trump’s connections to Russia. Steele was paid by the firm Fusion GPS, which was paid by a lawyer for the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee.

The dossier, as publicly released, is a series of 17 reports written over six months, based on a plethora of sources, that allege deep and corrupt ties between Trump and Russian officials.

Cohen emerges as a major character in the final set of reports. In one dated October 19, 2016, Steele wrote (emphasis added):

Speaking in confidence to a longstanding compatriot friend in mid-October 2016, a Kremlin insider highlighted the importance of Republican presidential candidate Donald TRUMP’s lawyer, Michael COHEN, in the ongoing secret liaison relationship between the New York tycoon’s campaign and the Russian leadership. COHEN’s role had grown following the departure of Paul MANNAFORT [sic] as TRUMP’s campaign manager in August 2016. Prior to that MANNAFORT had led for the Trump side.

According to the Kremlin insider, COHEN now was heavily engaged in a cover up and damage limitation operation in the attempt to prevent the full details of TRUMP’s relationship with Russia being exposed. In pursuit of this aim, COHEN had met secretly with several Russian Presidential Administration (PA) Legal Department officials in an EU country in August 2016. The immediate issues had been to contain further scandals involving MANNAFORT’s commercial and political role in Russia/Ukraine and to limit the damage arising from exposure of former TRUMP foreign policy advisor, Carter PAGE’s secret meetings with Russian leadership figures in Moscow the previous month. The overall objective had been “to sweep it all under the carpet and make sure no connections could be fully established or proven.”

Then in a report dated the next day, October 20, Steele gave more specifics. He said Cohen’s “clandestine meeting” with Russian officials was in Prague, and mentioned a Russian NGO, Rossotrudnichestvo, as a potential host for the meeting.

The final report in the published Steele dossier, dated December 13 (after Trump was elected president), reiterated the claim of a Cohen/Prague meeting — now saying it happened in August or September 2016 — and gave many more supposed specifics (emphasis added):

COHEN had been accompanied to Prague by 3 colleagues and the timing of the visit was either in the last week of August or the first week of September. One of their main Russian interlocutors was Oleg SOLODUKHIN operating under Rossotrudnichestvo cover. According to [redacted], the agenda comprised questions on how deniable cash payments were to be made to hackers who had worked in Europe under Kremlin direction against the CLINTON campaign and various contingencies for covering up these operations and Moscow’s secret liaison with the TRUMP team more generally.

The report claims that Cohen discussed how to destroy evidence of this purported hacking operation in the event of a Clinton victory.

These are, of course, highly inflammatory claims that a Trump Organization executive and lawyer was collaborating closely with Russian government officials regarding paying hackers who had worked against the Clinton campaign in some way. But for 15 months after the dossier’s publication, no evidence emerged that this had actually taken place.

Cohen immediately tried to use the “Prague visit” claim to debunk the dossier

On January 10, 2017 — 10 days before Donald Trump’s inauguration — CNN reported that Trump had been briefed on the claims of the Steele dossier, and BuzzFeed News subsequently published the dossier itself.

Some time went by without any comment from Trump’s teams on the shocking allegations. And then Michael Cohen spoke up: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 April 2018 at 8:33 pm

A teen missed the bus to school. When he knocked on a door for directions, a man shot at him.

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And people say the US is racist and gun-crazy! Eli Rosenberg reports in the Washington Post:

The 14-year-old was walking to high school after sleeping late and missing the bus when he decided to ask a neighbor for directions.

It was a banal request, but it nearly got the student from Rochester Hills, Mich., killed Thursday.

The woman who opened the door after Brennan Walker, who is black, knocked on it started yelling at him. Then the woman’s husband grabbed a shotgun and fired it at him, Walker and police officials said.

Walker told WJBK TV that “she was like, ‘Why are you trying to break into my house?’ I was trying to explain to her that I was trying to get directions to Rochester High. And she kept yelling at me. Then the guy came downstairs, and he grabbed the gun, I saw it and started to run. And that’s when I heard the gunshot.”

After sprinting away from the house, Brennan, who was not hit, hid and broke down in tears, the outlet reported.

“I’m kind of happy that, like, I didn’t become a statistic,” Brennan told the outlet, saying his mother had told him that black boys were at risk of being shot by others.

Jeffrey Zeigler, a retired firefighter who is white, was charged with assault with intent to murder and a felony firearm charge, local news outlets reported, and his bond was set at $50,000. He faces as much as life in prison, according to a video of his arraignment.

“There’s a lot more to the story than what’s being told, and I believe that will all come out in court,” Zeigler said at the arraignment. “I was in bed yesterday morning when my wife started screaming and crying … ”

The judge interrupted Zeigler to prevent him from finishing.

The man’s wife appeared to have called 911 around 8:20 a.m. saying that her husband had chased a black male who had tried to break in, according to the Associated Press.

“It is just absurd that this happened,” Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard told WJBK. “I feel terrible for the young man; I feel terrible for the mom and the anxiety that they had to go through. We are going to ask for every charge permissible for this guy who stepped up and fired a shotgun because someone knocked on his door.”

Brennan’s mother, Lisa Wright, told the outlet that she had heard that the man missed only because he forgot to take the gun’s safety off.

She said police showed her surveillance video of the episode taken from a camera installed at the home where the incident happened.

“One of the things that stands out, that probably angers me the most is, while I was watching the tape, you can hear the wife say, ‘Why did these people choose my house?’ ” Wright said. “Who are ‘these people?’ And that set me off. I didn’t want to believe it was what it appeared to look like. When I heard her say that, it was like, but it is.”

Rochester Hills Mayor Bryan Barnett said in a statement that he was “personally sickened by the initial reports and they suggest behavior completely unacceptable and inconsistent with the character and values of our community.”

The situation is similar to another that took place in Michigan, in Dearborn Heights, where a white man shot a 19-year-old black woman after she knocked on his door after crashing her car nearby. That man, Theodore Wafer, was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to a minimum of 17 years in prison in 2014. . .

Continue reading. I wonder whether this couple voted for Trump or for Clinton.

 

 

Written by LeisureGuy

13 April 2018 at 7:36 pm

The Most Important News out of Jim Comey’s Explosive New Book

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David Corn writes in Mother Jones:

On Thursday evening—like a thunderclap—the new book by James Comey, the Trump-fired former FBI chief, slammed into the political-media world. Comey’s A Higher Loyalty is due out on Tuesday, but stories about what’s in the book, as was inevitable, began detonating several days ahead of the publication date.

The New York Times posted its review of the work— “It’s Very Persuasive”—leading with Comey’s comparison of Donald Trump to the dishonest mob bosses the former FBI chief used to pursue, those wise-guys who demanded blind loyalty from their minions. The New York Post pushed that angle too, with a headline blaring, “Comey Says Trump Reminded Him of Gambino Mob Boss.” And the Washington Postfocused on Trump’s fixation on the infamous Steele dossier—not its allegations of covert Trump-Russia ties, but specifically its unproven “golden showers” allegation. As Comey tells it, Trump repeatedly insisted to the G-man that this tale was untrue. (In our new book, Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald TrumpMichael Isikoff and I report that Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence officer who compiled that document, now believes the odds the pee party actually transpired are about “fifty-fifty.”)

Comey’s observations of Trump are valuable—comments on the size of Trump’s hands aside—and the recounting of his interactions with the president, which offer a few more details than Comey provided when he testified before Congress last year, ought to disturb anyone who cares about having a reasonable and stable commander in chief. Comey clearly knows how to sell this significant and troubling story. But of the material that has become available, one portion of the book stands out as far more worrisome than Trump’s obsession with the allegations of urinating prostitutes or his Soprano-like behavior.

This is the passage from the Washington Post relating what happened when Comey, then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, then-CIA chief John Brennan, and NSA head Mike Rogers briefed Trump in early January 2017 on the intelligence community’s report that concluded the Russians had mounted an information warfare attack on the 2016 election to help Trump become president. Midway through its article on the Comey book, the Post describes his account:

Trump was accompanied at the Trump Tower session by his national security team, as well as by political aides Reince Priebus and Sean Spicer, who were slated to become White House chief of staff and press secretary respectively. Trump asked only one question, Comey writes: “You found there was no impact on the result, right?”

James R. Clapper Jr., then the director of national intelligence, replied that the intelligence community did no such analysis.

Comey recalls being struck that neither Trump nor his advisers asked about the future Russian threat, nor how the United States might prepare to meet it. Rather, he writes, they focused on “how they could spin what we’d just told them.”

With Clapper and then-CIA Director John O. Brennan—both Obama appointees—still in the room, Priebus and other Trump aides strategized for political advantage, Comey writes. The Trump team decided they would emphasize that Russian interference had no impact on the vote—which, Clapper reminded them, the intelligence community had not determined.

Trump was two weeks away from being sworn in as president. He was just informed that the US national security establishment had confirmed its assessment that Vladimir Putin had covertly attacked American democracy and that this assault was designed to affect the results of the election. And Trump responded with no interest in any aspect of this unprecedented intervention other than its political implications—for him. In front of the leaders of the intelligence community—two of whom would continue to work for himTrump did not even bother to feign concern. He went straight to what mattered most: What does this mean for me?

The president-to-be was engaging in a profound dereliction of duty. His No. 1 job is to defend the United States from foreign attack. And he didn’t give a damn. He was kicking off his presidency with an action—or inaction—that could be seen as a betrayal of the nation he was supposed to serve.

As Isikoff and I point out, after this meeting, Trump tweeted, “Intelligence stated very strongly there was absolutely no evidence that hacking affected the election results.” This was not true. The report did not say that. And Clapper, according to Comey, had explicitly spelled this out for Trump. Still, Trump lied—and Priebus and Spicer went along.

This anecdote from Comey’s book certainly raises a question of Trump’s fitness for office. It also presents what might be an uncomfortable question for Comey, Brennan, Clapper, and Rogers. They saw . . .

Continue reading.

I did pre-order the book…

Written by LeisureGuy

13 April 2018 at 1:31 pm

Scott Pruitt, bottom-dwelling scum

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Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin report in the Washington Post:

A former senior aide to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has given congressional investigators a detailed list of what he describes as Pruitt’s wasteful spending and unethical behavior, according to a letter signed Thursday by Democrats in both houses of Congress.
Kevin Chmielewski, a former Trump campaign aide who until recently served as Pruitt’s deputy chief of staff for operations, told congressional staffers that Pruitt routinely pushed for unjustified expenditures on his travel, lodging and changes to his office, and that he marginalized employees who questioned his directives.
The allegations are included in a letter to Pruitt sent Thursday by five Democrats in the House and Senate, including Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.) and Sen. Thomas R. Carper (Del).
EPA officials previously have dismissed Chmielewski as one of a group of “disgruntled” employees who were dismissed or reassigned. Chmielewski has said he was removed from his position and placed on administrative leave after refusing to approve inappropriate expenditures.
“We will respond to Members of Congress through the proper channel,” EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said in a statement Thursday.
Many of Chmielewski’s assertions have previously been reported, but his allegations against Pruitt — which stretch on for several pages — offer a firsthand accounting of what he saw behind closed doors at the EPA.
Chmielewski claims that Pruitt often chose travel destinations based on a desire to visit particular cities or countries rather than official business, according to the letter. He said Pruitt also directed staffers to book flights on Delta, even when it was “not the federal government’s contract carrier for the route,” in order to accrue more frequent flier miles. He also said Pruitt routinely asked his staff to “find reasons” for the administrator to travel to Oklahoma, so that he could then remain in his home state for long weekends, often at taxpayer expense.
In addition, Chmielewski claimed that Pruitt “frequently stayed in hotels that exceeded the allowable U.S. government per diem,” and that while planning trips to Italy and Australia — the latter trip was canceled — Pruitt refused to stay at hotels recommended by the U.S. Embassy, even though the hotels suggested by embassy officials “had law enforcement and other U.S. resources on site.”
A current EPA official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly, said Pruitt had pushed to stay in a boutique hotel in Australia but not in Italy, as Chmielewski has told investigators.
Pruitt repeatedly opted to stay in Sofitel chain hotels both domestically and overseas, according to multiple aides, even when those costs exceeded the allowed government per diem.
Chmielewski also claimed that Pruitt’s chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, was excluded from scheduling meetings about the EPA leader’s travel after raising concerns about his expenditures, according to the letter.
Chmielewski’s allegations extend to a series of other questions about spending and management decisions for which Pruitt is facing scrutiny. He said the EPA administrator far exceeded the . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 April 2018 at 10:51 am

How Vermont’s NRA A-rated governor was ‘shocked’ into backing new gun laws

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Meagan Flynn reports in the Washington Post:

Surrounded by gun-control opponents heckling him outside the Vermont State House on Wednesday, Gov. Phil Scott (R) signed into law the most restrictive gun-control measures in the state’s history.
While some had come to thank him, Scott knew that many there who voted for him based in part on his A-grade rating from the NRA were “disappointed and angry” with him, he said.
Some yelled “Traitor!” and “BS!” as he tried to assure them that the laws he was about to sign were not intended to “take away your guns — period.” Others told him he had lost their votes and brandished signs that said “One Term Gov” and “Not My Governor.”
But it was clear from his remarks that Scott had already considered all of that. Two months ago, after police foiled an alleged shooter’s plans to storm a local high school and kill as many as possible, Scott said he could no longer sit back and do nothing. He had already made up his mind then.
“I know these discussions have been difficult, emotional and complex — barriers that frequently lead to inaction,” he told the crowd. “But this is not the time to do what’s easy. It’s the time to do what’s right.”
The three laws Scott signed Wednesday ban the possession and sale of bump stocks and magazines holding more than 10 rounds for a long gun and 15 for a handgun, unless purchased before Oct. 1.
To ensure background checks on private gun sales, the new laws require that all guns be bought and sold through a licensed firearm dealer, excluding sales between immediate family members. Buyers must be at least 21, unless they complete a Vermont hunter safety course or are in the military or law enforcement. The laws also allow police to confiscate a gun from a person under specific circumstances when the person poses a threat.
Under House bill 422, law enforcement can temporarily confiscate a gun from a person who has just been arrested for domestic violence, in which case a judge would decide whether to return the gun to the defendant at the next-business-day arraignment hearing.
The judge could decide that not possessing a gun should be a condition of the defendant’s release, or that the gun should be taken from the defendant under other abuse-prevention orders. Under Senate bill 221, the state can seek an “extreme protection order” that “prohibits a person from possessing a firearm for up to one year” if a court finds that the person “poses a significant danger of causing injury to himself or another person.”
Violation of these laws could result in jail time between six months and a year or fines between $500 and $1,000.
The passage of the gun-control laws in Vermont marks a significant change in course in a state where bipartisan resistance to gun-control measures thwarted even the most modest gun-restriction proposals for years. Vermont still does not require law-abiding gun owners to have a permit to carry guns in public. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 April 2018 at 10:47 am

Posted in Government, Guns, Law

One reason Chicago is so violent: Brain-damaging lead found in tap water in hundreds of homes tested across Chicago, results show

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Michael Hawthorne and Cecilia Reyes report in the Chicago Tribune:

Amid renewed national attention to the dangers of lead poisoning, hundreds of Chicagoans have taken the city up on its offer of free testing kits to determine if they are drinking tap water contaminated with the brain-damaging metal.

A Tribune analysis of the results shows lead was found in water drawn from nearly 70 percent of the 2,797 homes tested during the past two years. Tap water in 3 of every 10 homes sampled had lead concentrations above 5 parts per billion, the maximum allowed in bottled water by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Alarming amounts of the toxic metal turned up in water samples collected throughout the city, the newspaper’s analysis found, largely because Chicago required the use of lead service lines between street mains and homes until Congress banned the practice in 1986.

The testing kit results provide the most conclusive evidence yet of widespread hazards that have remained hidden for decades. Yet as Mayor Rahm Emanuel borrows hundreds of millions of dollars to overhaul the city’s public water system, Chicago is keeping lead service lines in the ground.

Under the city’s plumbing code — the same ordinance that for nearly a century mandated the use of lead pipes to convey water to single-family homes and small apartment buildings — individual property owners are responsible for maintaining service lines. The mayor’s office has said it is up to homeowners, not the city, to decide if it is worth replacing the lead pipes at their own expense.

As a result, critics say, the city is leaving scores of Chicagoans at risk and failing to seize an opportunity to fix more than one problem when crews dig up streets to replace aging water mains.

“Chicago could be a leader on nationwide solutions to this problem, but instead they appear to be sticking their heads in the sand,” said Tom Neltner, chemicals policy director at the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund and former assistant commissioner of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

Adam Collins, Emanuel’s chief spokesman, referred questions to the Department of Water Management, where a spokeswoman earlier had said she would need to consult with the mayor’s office before responding to the Tribune’s analysis. Asked why the city hasn’t removed lead service lines it once required by law, the department emailed a three-sentence statement:

“Since Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office, he has made it a priority to improve Chicago’s overall water quality and infrastructure,” the statement reads. “Today, the city’s water exceeds the standards set by the (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) for clean, safe drinking water. And the Department of Water Management continues to take a proactive approach to mitigating lead in our water system and is continually evaluating additional methods of lead mitigation.”

City and EPA officials advise that residents can protect themselves by flushing household plumbing for three to five minutes when water hasn’t been used for several hours. But in one of five Chicago homes tested since January 2016, the Tribune analysis found, samples contained high levels of lead after water had been running for three minutes.

Even after water had been running for five minutes, 9 percent of the homes tested had lead levels above the FDA’s bottled water standard. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 April 2018 at 10:38 am

Trickle-down does not work: How tax cuts for the rich led to the Oklahoma teachers strike

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Alvin Chang reports in Vox:

The Oklahoma teachers strike is now in its second week — but it was a long time in the making.

In the mid-2000s, the Oklahoma state legislature approved several tax cuts that largely helped the rich. “That was a time when the economy was booming and oil prices were high, and for a time it looked like you could have it all,” said David Blatt, who runs the Oklahoma Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.

But after the economy tanked in 2008, the state legislature didn’t change course. In fact, it kept cutting taxes for the wealthiest Oklahomans while leaving schools underfunded.

This has made Oklahoma teachers deeply distrustful of their state leaders.

Before the strike last week, the state legislature tried to avert the work stoppage by passing a $447 million tax increase that effectively gives teachers an average annual pay bump of $6,000. That concession from the state legislature didn’t meet the teachers’ full demands, but it was a huge win considering the state legislature hadn’t approved a tax increase since 1990.

But teachers are still angry and distrustful of state legislators, and they have plenty of momentum heading into day eight of the strike.

To fully contextualize this situation, let’s run through a few charts:

1) Oklahoma has been cutting the top tax rate for more than a decade

In the mid-1990s, Oklahoma’s top individual income tax rate was lowered to 6.65 percent.

But there was a caveat to this tax cut: If the state didn’t raise enough money, that rate would jump back up to 7 percent. In 2003, that’s exactly what happened — but state leaders repealed that trigger. They kept the rate at 6.65 percent.

And they never looked back:

Before the recession, the state could have tax cuts while also funding public services like education. Then the recession, as well as downturns in the oil and gas industry, hit Oklahoma hard.

Blatt told me, “There was no corrective mechanism to raise the taxes back up — particularly because some of these tax cuts were backloaded and phased in. Basically, we’ve just had a one-way ratchet where taxes had been lowered.”

2) These tax cuts hit education the hardest

These tax cuts, which were passed in 2004, ultimately caused Oklahoma to lose about $1.022 billion in annual revenue. (This is in 2016 dollars.)

The Oklahoma Policy Institute extrapolated that out to the proportion education typically receives. It found that the tax cuts took away about $350 million from state education every year.

The state’s education budget is about $2.9 billion.

3) Who benefited most from the tax cuts? The wealthy.

But these tax cuts weren’t being given back to middle-class Oklahomans. For the most part, these cuts benefited the affluent and wealthy.

In fact, the bottom 80 percent of earners saved the same amount as the top 1 percent.

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 April 2018 at 10:24 am

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