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The Pruitt Emails: E.P.A. Chief Was Arm in Arm With Industry

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The GOP, for whatever reason, was determined that Pruitt’s confirmation vote be held before his emails were released (which would have involved a wait of less than a week). Now we see why.

Coral Davenport and Eric Lipton report in the NY Times:

During his tenure as attorney general of Oklahoma, Scott Pruitt, now the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, closely coordinated with major oil and gas producers, electric utilities and political groups with ties to the libertarian billionaire brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch to roll back environmental regulations, according to over 6,000 pages of emails made public on Wednesday.

The publication of the correspondence comes just days after Mr. Pruitt was sworn in to run the E.P.A., which is charged with reining in pollution and regulating public health.

“Thank you to your respective bosses and all they are doing to push back against President Obama’s EPA and its axis with liberal environmental groups to increase energy costs for Oklahomans and American families across the states,” said one email sent to Mr. Pruitt and an Oklahoma congressman in August 2013 by Matt Ball, an executive at Americans for Prosperity. That nonprofit group is funded in part by the Kochs, the Kansas business executives who spent much of the last decade combating federal regulations, particularly in the energy sector. “You both work for true champions of freedom and liberty!” the note said.

Mr. Pruitt has been among the most contentious of President Trump’s cabinet nominees. Environmental groups, Democrats in Congress and even current E.P.A. employees have protested his ties to energy companies, his efforts to block and weaken major environmental rules, and his skepticism of the central mission of the federal agency he now leads.

An Oklahoma judge ordered the release of the emails in response to a lawsuit by the Center for Media and Democracy, a liberal watchdog group. Many of the emails are copies of documents previously provided in 2014 to The New York Times, which examined Mr. Pruitt’s interaction with energy industry players that his office also helps regulate.

The companies provided him draft letters to send to federal regulators in an attempt to block federal regulations intended to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas wells, ozone air pollution, and chemicals used in fracking, the email correspondence shows.

They held secret meetings to discuss more comprehensive ways to combat the Obama administration’s environmental agenda, and the companies and organizations they funded repeatedly praised Mr. Pruitt and his staff for the assistance he provided in their campaign.

The correspondence points to the tension emerging as Mr. Pruitt is now charged with regulating many of the same companies with which he coordinated closely in his previous position. As attorney general of Oklahoma, Mr. Pruitt took part in 14 lawsuits against major E.P.A. environmental rules, often in coordination with energy companies such as Devon Energy, an Oklahoma oil and gas producer, and American Electric Power, an Ohio-based electric utility.

The emails show that his office corresponded with those companies in efforts to weaken federal environmental regulations — the same rules he will now oversee.

“Please find attached a short white paper with some talking points that you might find useful to cut and paste when encouraging States to file comments on the SSM rule,” wrote Roderick Hastie, a lobbyist at Hunton & Williams, a law firm that represents major utilities, including Southern Company, urging Mr. Pruitt’s office to file comments on a proposed E.P.A. rule related to so-called Startup, Shutdown and Malfunction Emissions.

The most frequent correspondence was with Devon Energy, which has aggressively challenged rules proposed by the E.P.A. and the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, which controls drilling on federal lands — widespread in the west. In the 2014 election cycle, Devon was one of the top contributors to the Republican Attorneys General Association, which Mr. Pruitt led for two years during that period.

In a March 2013 letter to Mr. Pruitt’s office, William Whitsitt, then an executive vice president of Devon, referred to a letter his company had drafted for Mr. Pruitt to deliver, on Oklahoma state stationery, to Obama administration officials. Mr. Pruitt, meeting with White House officials, made the case that the rule, which would rein in planet-warming methane emissions, would be harmful to his state’s economy. His argument was taken directly from Mr. Whitsitt’s draft language.

“To follow up on my conversations with Attorney General Pruitt and you, I believe that a meeting — or perhaps more efficient, a conference call — with OIRA (the OMB Office of Information and Regulatory Analysis) on the BLM rule should be requested right away,” Mr. Whitsitt wrote. “The attached draft letter (or something like it that Scott is comfortable talking from and sending to the acting director to whom the letter is addressed) could be the basis for the meeting or call.”

The letter referred to . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

22 February 2017 at 11:00 am

SEC Nominee Has Represented 8 of the 10 Largest Wall Street Banks in Past Three Years

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It should be acknowledged that Barack Obama also went out of his way to pick a Wall Street lawyer, Mary Jo White, to head the SEC. It does seem that whether the president is a Democrat or Republican, Wall Street controls the part of the Executive branch that oversees Wall Street: the corporate takeover of the U.S. Government.

Pam Martens and Russ Martens report in Wall Street on Parade:

President Trump’s nominee to head the Securities and Exchange Commission, Walter J. (Jay) Clayton, a law partner at Sullivan & Cromwell, has represented 8 of the 10 largest Wall Street banks as recently as within the last three years.

Clayton’s current resume at his law firm is somewhat misleading. It lists under “Representative Engagements” in “Capital Markets/Leveraged Finance” the following:

Initial public offering of $25 billion by Alibaba Group Holding Limited;

Initial public offering of $190 million by Moelis & Company;

Initial public offering of $2.375 billion by Ally Financial.

All three of the above IPOs occurred in 2014 – less than three years ago. A quick check of the prospectuses for the IPOs that were filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission shows that Clayton, as a law partner at Sullivan & Cromwell, was representing the underwriters in the offering, which include the largest Wall Street banks. Put the three deals together and you have 8 of the 10 largest banks on Wall Street being represented by the SEC nominee within the past three years. These are the same banks that are serially charged by the SEC for increasingly creative means of fleecing the public.

If that’s not enough to conflict Clayton out of consideration to Chair the SEC post, then conflicts of interest have lost all meaning within the legal lexicon of the United States.

According to the IPO for Alibaba, the underwriters were Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs Group Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co., Morgan Stanley and Citigroup. The prospectus from Alibaba reads as follows: . ..

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Written by LeisureGuy

22 February 2017 at 10:22 am

As the immigrant population of California has increased, the incidence of crime has dropped

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President Trump doesn’t care much for facts, but they are real, and his idea that immigration causes crime is contrary to facts and—since the facts are readily available—also stupid (unless he is using immigrants as an “enemy” (as he uses Muslims) to frighten those who are ignorant of the facts so that they will regard him as a savior).

Here’s a chart Kevin Drum made, and here’s his explanation:

blog_crime_california_usa

I think it’s a danger to the nation that the president operates on false information and, in the case of his economic forecast, deliberately creates false information. The US is headed in a very bad direction: once reality is ignored, as the GOP has long ignored it (cf. climate change), things are off track.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 February 2017 at 12:26 pm

Does the violence across North Africa and the Middle East caused by leaded gasoline

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As Kevin Drum has noted in various posts and articles, there is strong and (to me) compelling evidence that children raised in a lead-polluted environment grow up to be violent adults, and the most pervasive form of lead pollution has been leaded gasoline. The US discontinued leaded gasoline around 1980 (there was a phase-in period when both leaded and unleaded gasoline were sold), and 20 years later, violent crime began a remarkable decline. This phenomenon—discontinuing leaded gasoline followed 20 years later by a significant decline in violent crime—has now been seen in any countries.

This chronology of leaded gasoline history (PDF) is quite interesting as it marks significant dates from the introduction of leaded gasoline in 1923. The PDF notes that Tetra-ethyl lead (TEL or “ethyl”) was the invention of Thomas Midgley, who was posthumously declared to be “responsible for more damage to Earth’s atmosphere than any other single organism that has ever lived.” (Walker 2007) Some of that is because Midgley was also responsible for the adoption of fluorocarbons as propellants for aerosol cans, and fluorocarbons turned out to be vastly destructive of the ozone layer, so those too were phased out.

In a post this morning (mainly on the new Trump aide Sebastian Gorka) has this interesting chart:

blog_middle_east_leaded_gasoline_phaseout_0

Drum’s post is worth reading for the information on Gorka.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 February 2017 at 10:32 am

How Trump spent his first month in office, by the numbers

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In the Washington Post Philip Bump takes a look at how President Trump budgets his time:

From the moment Donald Trump was sworn in as president on the steps of the Capitol until noon Monday, precisely one month had passed. A total of 744 hours.

Here’s how he spent each one.

imrs

The president spent a little under three-quarters of his time in and around Washington during his first month in office. A little less than half of that was time during which he was officially working — as measured by the time between when the media was told to show up in the morning (known as “call time”) until the media was dismissed in the evening (known as “the lid”). This is an imprecise measure of when a president is working, of course; he might take meetings after hours or review documents that are pertinent to his job. That difference is impossible to measure, though, so, in our calculus it blends together with obvious downtime, like when the president is asleep. Or when he’s watching TV, which is also impossible to measure. . .

About a quarter of Trump’s time since he took office has been spent in Florida — mostly at his Mar-a-Lago resort but also on the golf course.

Trump’s team is keenly aware that the president spending a lot of time on the golf course is a bit questionable. That’s not because presidents don’t deserve downtime, mind you — it’s just that Trump was an outspoken critic of Barack Obama’s time on the golf course. “I’m going to be working for you. I’m not going to have time to go play golf,” he said last August.

But he’s found time. Trump’s hit the links at least six times since he took office. On at least five of those occasions, he played a full 18 holes.

On Sunday, the administration claimed that he’d only played “a few holes” both days this weekend. That was revealed as untrue thanks to a blog post indicating that Trump was joined by professional golfer Rory McIlroy for 18 holes two days ago. (The administration’s response to the truth coming out? “He intended to play a few holes and decided to play longer.” The White House spokesman then added, “He also had a full day of meetings.”) . . .

Continue reading.

As Kevin Drum pointed out,  the White House press office now has a strong track record of lying about just about everything. We might save some money and shut down the office since we cannot depend on it.

 

 

Written by LeisureGuy

21 February 2017 at 10:14 am

‘With Such a People You Can Then Do What You Please’ – James Fallows takes stock of Trump and journalism

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James Fallows writes in the Atlantic:

Are Donald Trump’s latest attacks on the press really that bad? Are they that out-of-the-ordinary, given the famous record of complaints nearly all his predecessors have lodged? (Even George Washington had a hostile-press problem.)

Are the bellows of protest from reporters, editors, and others of my press colleagues justified? Or just another sign that the press is nearly as thin-skinned as Trump himself, along with being even less popular?

I could prolong the buildup, but here is the case I’m going to make:  Yes, they’re that bad, and worse.

I think Trump’s first month in office, capped by his “enemy of the people” announcement about the press, has been even more ominous and destructive than the Trump of the campaign trail would have prepared us for, which is of course saying something. And his “lying media” campaign matters not only in itself, which it does, but also because it is part of what is effectively an assault by Trump on the fundamentals of democratic governance.

I don’t know whether on Trump’s own part this campaign is consciously thought-through and strategic: The evidence suggests that he is a man of instinct and impulse rather than patient multi-move deliberation. The evidence about formal and informal members of his constellation, from official advisor Steve Bannon to unofficial ally and model Vladimir Putin, suggests a far more purposeful approach. But whatever its origin, Trump’s record in office is emerging as something different from any previous president’s.

Everyone who has sat in the Oval Office has complained about the way various checks on his power—by the judiciary, the press, stated rules and unstated norms, the opposition party, and alliances and diplomatic obligations—interfere with his ambitions. Trump’s views amount to a rejection of the very existence of those checks. Even in their bitterest tirades against a hostile press (LBJ, Nixon, Clinton, many others), an intransigent court (FDR), a “do-nothing Congress” (Truman, Obama), or feckless allies (take your pick), previous presidents have shown some inner sign that they recognize the legitimacy of a checks-and-balance system, or at least the need to pay it lip service. The standard presidential complaint boils down to: “Sure, we need a free press. I just want it to be ‘fairer’ to me.”

But what Trump has said about the press and all other institutional buffers on his power reflects a simpler calculus, not institutional but tribal. These other centers of power are either for him, or they are against him. If they are for him, they are good—from foreign leaders who congratulate him or call him “brilliant,” to polls that show results to his liking, to “very honorable” news shows like Fox and Friends. Or they are against him, and if the latter they are “so-called,” “phony,” “failing,” “cheating,” “crooked,” or otherwise to be discredited.

Donald Trump accepts the existence of the formal and informal institutional structure that constitutes American democracy only as long as that suits his purposes, and disdains or directly attacks it when it gets in his way. The consistency and extent of this approach have no U.S. precedent that I’m aware of. During the Republican convention in Cleveland last summer, I was in the hall when Trump delivered the most chilling line of his acceptance speech: “I alone can fix it.” Americans have had and supported strong presidents before. This is the closest we have come to a caudillo.

***

On the specific problems with Trump’s attack on the press, such a rich literature has arisen so quickly that it makes most sense just to list some of the highlights. They include: Jonathan Karl of ABC, “The Free Press is a Big Part of What Makes America Great”; Chris Wallace of Fox, “Trump Has Crossed a Line”; Brian Stelter of CNN on the need for “media literacy”; David Remnick of The New Yorker, on “Donald Trump and the Enemies of the American People”; Michael Tomasky of the Daily Beast, on the aptness of the Ibsen play An Enemy of the People; Joel Simon of CJR on Trump’s strategic similarities to Hugo Chavez; Allison Hantschel of First Draft, on “Enemies and their people”; Emily Esfahani Smith of New Yorkmagazine, on the increasingly tribal dimensions of “fact”; Emily Dreyfuss of Wired on the modern nature of the lie; Jon Finer in The Atlantic on why this is a dangerous time for the press and the presidency; and, for good measure, Anthony Lewis’s 2006 review in the NYRB of a biography of Joe McCarthy. Please read all of them and more.

Probably the most sustained of these arguments is that of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial writer Bret Stephens, last week in his Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture at UCLA (as reprinted full-length in Time). He develops at length, and very well, the point I am suggesting  here. It’s fair to disclose that in the pre-Trump era I disagreed with Stephens’s views pretty much across the board on international and domestic policy. He was for the Iraq war and against the Iran nuclear deal; my views were the reverse. Similar, and on the same issues, I took a different view of the pre-Trump world from the Washington Post’s editorial writer Jennifer Rubin. I assume I’ll disagree with them again whenever Trump has gone. But in the year and a half since Trump appeared on the horizon, these two have distinguished themselves in standing up for conservative principles, and the underpinnings of small-l liberal democracy, rather than partisan accommodationism. People looking back on this era will contrast them and their clarity with the party leaders who have been so busily averting their eyes.

Back to Stephens’s address. He starts by contrasting Trump’s media complaints with those of other politicians (emphasis added): . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

21 February 2017 at 9:50 am

Does Sessions Have to Recuse Himself on Russia Investigations?

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This question will come up soon. Helen Klein Murillo writes at Lawfare:

The Russian Connection gravitational vortex continues to pull at the new administration, fed almost daily by new allegations and reporting. Reuters reported over the weekend on three separate FBI probes into Russian interference in the election, including the counterintelligence investigation potentially implicating the Trump campaign. Not to be outdone, yesterday, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal all weighed in with additional reports of questionable activities and ties between Trump associates and Russia.

One legal issue looming in the background is the appropriate role of Attorney General Jeff Sessions in ongoing investigations.

Sessions served as the chairman of the Trump campaign’s national security advisory committee. His close affiliation with Trump and the campaign, and the potential conflicts of interest that creates, has led members of Congress and the public to call for his recusal.

The Michael Flynn investigation serves to highlight the Attorney General’s conflicts issue. The Washington Post reported late last week that former-National Security Adviser and top military adviser to the Trump campaign Michael Flynn may have lied to the FBI during an investigation of his calls with the Russian ambassador. Although it isn’t clear Flynn was intentionally misleading the FBI, and the FBI is not expected to recommend charges, the Department of Justice will have to decide whether to bring charges under 18 U.S.C. § 1001, which makes it a felony to lie about a fact material to the course of a federal investigation.

Meanwhile, President Trump’s assertion at last week’s press conference that he has directed the Attorney General to investigate administration leaks potentially worsens the perception that the Attorney General lacks independence.

All this raises the stakes of and pressure for recusal on investigations related to President Trump and Russia generally. So what are the Attorney General’s legal recusal obligations, and how might those obligations be enforced?

The Law of Recusal

Under 28 U.S.C. § 528, the Attorney General “shall promulgate rules and regulations which require the disqualification of any officer or employee of the Department of Justice . . . from participation in a particular investigation or prosecution if such participation may result in a personal, financial, or political conflict of interest, or the appearance thereof.” So the statute requires recusal where an actual or apparent conflict exists, but leaves it to the Attorney General to promulgate regulations with more detailed criteria for assessing such conflicts. And as with many conflict of interest provisions, the law makes clear that even an appearance of such a conflict is legally problematic.

The operative DOJ regulation is at 28 C.F.R. § 45.2 (a section titled “Disqualification arising from personal or political relationship”). Under the regulation, “no employee shall participate in a criminal investigation or prosecution if he has a personal or political relationship with” either “any person or organization substantially involved in the conduct that is the subject of the investigation or prosecution” or “any person or organization which he knows has a specific and substantial interest that would be directly affected by the outcome of the investigation or prosecution.”

The regulation defines “political relationship” as “a close identification with an elected official, a candidate (whether or not successful) for elective, public office, a political party, or a campaign organization, arising from service as a principal adviser thereto or a principal official thereof.” So as a principal adviser to Donald Trump’s campaign, Sessions seems to fall squarely into the provision, even if you ignore the very real possibility that Sessions himself might have an interest in the outcome.

What’s critical is that the ethics laws here protect faith in our institutions by centering on even the appearance of conflicts. The analysis is not whether one thinks Attorney General Sessions personally can compartmentalize his past allegiance to the Trump campaign and dispassionately conduct the investigation. The regulation’s exemption provision requires a finding not only that the employee can be impartial, but also that “the employee’s participation would not create an appearance of a conflict of interest likely to affect the public perception of the integrity of the investigation or prosecution.” Whatever one thinks of Sessions’s personal probity, it seems clear that his involvement in an investigation of the Trump campaign might cause a reasonable observer to question the investigation’s integrity. During his confirmation hearings, Sessions himself acknowledged the importance of the mere appearance of conflict when he indicated that he would recuse himself from any investigations into Secretary Clinton’s email because comments that he made during the campaign “could place [his] objectivity in question.”

All that said, this is a legal obligation with no practical legal enforcement mechanism. Agency ethics regulations are enforced by means of disciplinary proceedings at DOJ. As the head of the agency, Sessions isn’t likely to discipline himself for violating the regulation. And the regulation in question specifies that it “pertains to agency management and is not intended to create rights enforceable by private individuals and organizations.” So nobody outside is either.

Furthermore, these aren’t criminal laws. The primary criminal ethics law implicating recusal is 18 U.S.C. § 208, which prohibits an official’s participating in a matter in which the individual (or someone with whom the individual has a particular relationship) has a financial interest. The charge here isn’t that Sessions has a financial interest in the outcome, but rather that he has a personal and political conflict.

Political, Not Legal, Enforcement

As with many obligations, the real constraints here aren’t statutory or regulatory. They’re political.

We’ve seen the political enforcement mechanisms at work in . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 February 2017 at 12:21 am

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