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“This is a serious situation.”

That’s what Richard Painter, former ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, told me about the allegations facing Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt. On Saturday, The Hill reported that Pruitt conducted official EPA business with the fossil fuel lobbyist whose wife rented Pruitt a $50/night room in the couple’s condominium on Capitol Hill in D.C. The lobbyist, Steven J. Hart, had previously denied doing business with the agency in the past two years. Pruitt had also previously said that “Hart has no clients that have business before this agency.”

Painter, an outspoken critic of the Trump administration’s ethical lapses, told me this news could open Pruitt to criminal charges. “I think [Pruitt] is already in violation of the gift rules, because $50 a room a night in D.C. is a gift,” he said. “But when you meet the gift-giver and sit down and conduct official business with him, you make yourself vulnerable to prosecution under the bribery statute.” Painter also noted, however, that it’s difficult to convict politicians on bribery charges, and that it’s unlikely Trump’s Department of Justice would go after Pruitt. (Painter is exploring a run for U.S. Senate.)

Pruitt has been under fire for nearly a month due to myriad ethical scandals, mostly surrounding excessive spending on travel and security. But Painter said Pruitt’s dishonesty about meeting with Hart does the most potential harm to the public. “I don’t like him wasting taxpayer money—a $43,000 phone booth, I don’t appreciate it,” he said. “But trashing the planet for energy companies is far, far worse.”

This isn’t the first time Pruitt has been caught in a contradiction lately. He told Fox News that he didn’t know about large pay raises given to his top aides, but The Atlantic uncovered an email that suggests he personally approved it.

Updated on April 23 at 1:01 p.m.

December 18, 2018

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In 1976 Woody Allen allegedly had an inappropriate relationship with a minor.

The Hollywood Reporter has published an interview and profile of Christina Engelhardt, a 59-year-old woman who says she had a romantic relationship with the director Woody Allen which started in 1976 when she was 16 and he was 41. Under New York law in that era, Engelhardt (who then went by the name Babi) was under the age of consent—17—when the relationship began. However, she was not a minor for most of the relationship’s duration of eight years.

The relationship was a furtive and secretive one. “They operated under two key unspoken rules: There’d be zero discussion about his work, and — owing to the celebrity’s presumed necessity for privacy — they could only meet at his place,” The Hollywood Reporter notes. Engelhardt claims she visited Allen’s apartment more than 100 times, but never spent the night there. Instead, Allen’s driver would take her away in a Rolls-Royce after each encounter.  

Nor did she meet any of Allen’s friends, with the exception of a few other girlfriends that Allen occasionally brought into their relationships to form a ménage à trois. In the words of The Hollywood Reporter, she had a relationship of “enforced seclusion.”

There’s reason to think that the relationship, along with other affiliations Allen had with young women in that period, inspired his 1979 movie Manhattan. 

Looking back, Englehardt is ambiguous about the experience. “I’m not attacking Woody,” she told The Hollywood Reporter. “This is not ‘bring down this man.’ I’m talking about my love story. This made me who I am. I have no regrets.” But she also says, “it wasn’t until after it was done when I really had time to think of how twisted it was when we were together … and how I was little more than a plaything.”

December 17, 2018


Rudy Giuliani keeps shifting the goal posts.

President Donald Trump’s lawyer strangely combined belligerence with concessions when he was interviewed on Sunday by George Stephanopoulos for ABC’s This Week. While Giuliani made passionate arguments on behalf of the president, he also seemed to acknowledge major wrongdoing. 

At one point, Giuliani attacked Michael Cohen, the president’s former lawyer, for being disloyal:

Giuliani:  It shows all I’m thinking about is me, my own skin. And the Southern District says you can get out of jail if you do this, you’ve got three years now. There’s a real motivation to sing like crazy. He’s got to do a lot of singing to get out of the three years and he will say whatever he has to say. He’s changed his story four or five times.

Stephanopoulos: So has the president.

Giuliani: The president’s not under oath.

In this exchange, Giuliani manages to both echo gangster talk (“motivation to sing like crazy”) and also admit the president has lied about the payments that Cohen made to two women with whom Trump allegedly had affairs.

Giuliani also shifted the goalpost on the issue of whether longtime Trump crony Roger Stone provided then-candidate Trump with information about Wikileaks.

Stephanopoulos: And did Roger Stone ever give the president a heads-up on WikiLeaks’ leaks -- leaks concerning Hillary Clinton, the DNC?

Giuliani: No, he didn’t.

Stephanopoulos: Not at all?

Giuliani: No. I don’t believe so. But again, if Roger Stone gave anybody a heads-up about WikiLeaks’ leaks, that’s not a crime. It would be like giving him a heads-up that the Times is going to print something. One the -- the crime -- this is why this thing is so weird, strange -- the crime is conspiracy to hack; collusion is not a crime, it doesn’t exist.

It’s striking that Giuliani quickly moves from outright denial (“No, he didn’t.”) to a much softer claim of no knowledge (“No. I don’t believe so.”).

Like the president, Giuliani repeatedly fell back on the argument that “collusion is not a crime.” Asked about Cohen providing evidence of contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign, the former New York city mayor said, “I know that collusion is not a crime. It was over with by the time of the election.” 

As Jonathan Chait notes in New York, the oft-repeated refrain “collusion is not a crime” is a bit of misdirection. “The Trumpian mantra, ‘collusion is not a crime,’ is a misleading legalism,” Chait observes. “Think of ‘collusion’ and ‘crimes’ as two large circles in a Venn diagram with a small overlap. Trump is being investigated for many crimes, and his campaign obviously colluded with Russia in multiple ways. Some of the alleged crimes, the overlapping portion of the Venn diagram, involve cooperating with the Russian election intervention.” 

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Michael Flynn’s associates indicted in a Turkey lobbying case that casts a shadow on Trump’s foreign policy.

The New York Times is reporting that two former associates of former national security advisor Michael Flynn have been indicted in a case involving undisclosed lobbying efforts to return an American permanent resident, Fethullah Gulen, to Turkey. Gulen is a rival to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the attempted extradition is widely viewed as a political act.

Charges against the two former associates, Bijan Kian and Ekim Alptekin, were unsealed on Monday in an Alexandria, Va., courtroom,” the newspaper reports. “The two men were charged with a conspiracy to violate federal lobbying rules, and Mr. Alptekin also was charged with making false statements to F.B.I. investigators.”

These alleged acts occurred in 2016, before Donald Trump’s election but while Flynn was part of the Trump campaign. In July 2017, The Washington Times reported that Kian was involved in the Trump transition.

The charges come a day after reports that the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu claimed that Trump administration is still pursuing efforts to extradite Gulen. Both the State Department and the Department of Justice oppose the extradition but it reportedly has support among some White House officials.

In November 2017, The Wall Street Journal reported, “Special Counsel Robert Mueller is investigating former White House national security adviser Mike Flynn’s alleged role in a plan to forcibly remove a Muslim cleric living in the U.S. and deliver him to Turkey in return for millions of dollars, according to people familiar with the investigation.” The alleged kidnapping reportedly would have involved Flynn and his son receiving $15 million for delivering Gulen to Turkey.

Michael Flynn is now a cooperating witness in the Mueller investigation.

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Trump’s attempt to strong-arm the Fed is likely to backfire.

On Monday morning, President Donald Trump reiterated his insistence that the Federal Reserve not raise interest rates. The Federal Open Market Committee is scheduled to meet on Tuesday and are widely expected to announce further rate hikes. As a pre-emptive move, Trump tweeted:

Trump’s habit of trying to push the Federal Reserve to do his bidding is a break from the long tradition of presidents respecting the independence of the central bank.

As Bloomberg notes, Trump’s public castigations run the risk of undermining attempts by the American government to convince the world that the central bank makes decisions based on policy imperatives rather than domestic politics. “U.S. officials have struggled for decades to convince suspicious foreign counterparts about the separation of powers,” the news outlet observes. “They’ve characterized Fed policy as the response of an independent central bank to domestic conditions, not a projection of U.S. might. They didn’t persuade all of the people all of the time—but the framing was central to America’s ability to lead by example.”

New York Times reporter Binyamin Appelbaum suggests that Trump’s move is likely to backfire:

Economist Paul Krugman agrees, and adds that Trump’s move is wrongheaded even if he is right about the policy outcome he wants:

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The death of The Weekly Standard brings jeers and tears.

On Friday, The Weekly Standard was shuttered by its owners Clarity Media Group, bringing to an end the magazine’s 23-year run as America’s leading neoconservative publication. The news of the journal’s demise raised some pressing questions: Was the closure politically motivated, with a Republican media company wanting to silence a magazine notorious for criticizing the president? Or was this, as some reports indicate, more of a business move, with Clarity planning on harvesting the Standard’s mailing list for its planned launch of a Washington Examiner national magazine?

President Donald Trump, for one, greeted the news with undisguised delight:

Some who don’t share Trump’s politics echoed his dismissal of The Weekly Standard. Harvard international affairs scholar Stephen Walt pointed out the magazine’s disastrous advocacy of the Iraq war: 

Journalist Glenn Greenwald, mocking a column by former Weekly Standard writer David Brooks, echoed Walt’s argument:

The column Greenwald criticized was an unusually angry one from the normally complacent and placid Brooks. The New York Times columnist claimed that, “this is what happens when corporate drones take over an opinion magazine, try to drag it down to their level and then grow angry and resentful when the people at the magazine try to maintain some sense of intellectual standards. This is what happens when people with a populist mind-set decide that an uneducated opinion is of the same value as an educated opinion, that ignorance sells better than learning.”

Brooks’s critique of corporate culture was unexpected, since the conservative columnist is normally loath to criticize capitalism except in the vaguest terms. Brooks described Phil Anschutz, the owner of Clarity, as a “run-of-the-mill arrogant billionaire.” Brooks also added that, “Anschutz, being a professing Christian, decided to close the magazine at the height of the Christmas season, and so cause maximum pain to his former employees and their families.” 

The most balanced assessment of The Weekly Standard’s end came from Franklin Foer, writing in The Atlantic. Foer had personal reasons to resent the Standard, since he had been the victim at the hands of The Weekly Standard of what he calls “a bad-faith effort to discredit stories about the war I had published as the editor of The New Republic.” 

Still, Foer was able to put his memory of these attacks aside and praise the Standard for publishing, in addition to much neoconservative agitprop, much graceful, well-reported journalism.

“But it’s worth pausing to consider why a magazine like the Standard can be pleasurable and important, even to those who find its goals and methods noxious,” Foer notes.  “In part, it’s the spectacle of watching lively minds on an expedition. The Standard would go off on quixotic missions, and not all of them in the desert of Iraq. Kristol promoted Colin Powell as a presidential candidate in 1996; then he cheered on John McCain’s challenge to George W. Bush in 2000. The magazine enjoyed making mischief and enemies, which made its pages highly readable.”

December 14, 2018

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A child, age 7, has died in custody of the U.S. Border Patrol.

The Washington Post is reporting that a migrant child from Guatemala has died from dehydration and shock eight hours after she and her family were apprehended by Border Patrol agents. She was part of a group of 163 migrants that had crossed the border. She and her father were arrested on December 6, at 10 PM.

As the newspaper reports, “More than eight hours later, the child began having seizures at 6:25 a.m., CBP records show. Emergency responders, who arrived soon after, measured her body temperature at 105.7 degrees, and according to a statement from CBP, she ‘reportedly had not eaten or consumed water for several days.’”

Speaking on Fox and Friends, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said the story “is a very sad example of the dangers” of migrants entering the United States. She added that, “My heart goes out to the family.”

In response, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois tweeted:

The ACLU issued a blistering condemnation of the government. “The fact that it took a week for this to come to light shows the need for transparency for CBP,” Cynthia Pompa of the ACLU told The Washington Post. “We call for a rigorous investigation into how this tragedy happened and serious reforms to prevent future deaths.” She added that the incident was due to a “lack of accountability, and a culture of cruelty within CBP.”

December 13, 2018


How suspicious should we be of Gulf countries’ donations to academic institutions?

The Financial Times has published an investigation into academic institutions that receive funding from Gulf state countries. This has become a salient issue since the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which highlighted the human rights abuses common to these countries. It’s only likely to become more contentious with the news that special counsel Robert Mueller is expanding his investigation to look at the influence of Middle Eastern money on American politics.

As The Daily Beast reports, “While one part of the Mueller team has indicted Russian spies and troll-masters, another cadre has been spending its time focusing on how Middle Eastern countries pushed cash to Washington politicos in an attempt to sway policy under President Trump’s administration. Various witnesses affiliated with the Trump campaign have been questioned about their conversations with deeply connected individuals from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, according to people familiar with the probe.”

The political influence can be seen as part of a much broader campaign to influence civil society. As The Financial Times notes, Gulf nations have been bountiful in their funding of academic institutions in the United States and the United Kingdom.

“Confident, assertive and keen to exert soft power, Gulf countries have been pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into top academic institutions in the UK and US for years,” The Financial Times reports. “Between them the six Gulf states—Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman—have provided $2.2bn to US universities since the beginning of 2012 to June this year, according to a Financial Times analysis of the US education department’s Foreign Gifts and Contracts Report. The Gulf total represents just under a quarter of all foreign gifts and contracts over that period. Qatar, the world’s richest state in per capita terms, led with $1.3bn, followed by Saudi Arabia with $580.5m and the UAE with $213m.”

In the wake of the investigation into Khashoggi’s killing and evidence pointing to the conclusion it was done at the behest of the Saudi government, this funding has become more controversial. Harvard University has decided not to renew a fellowship program financed by Mohammed bin Salman’s charity. Conversely, MIT, which has been debating the issue, is likely to continue receiving Saudi funds.

Academics interviewed by the newspaper says one major problem with the funding is that it leads to self-censorship. Harvard post-doctoral fellow Bergan Draege claims that taking this funding makes scholars wary of studying gender rights and democracy. “The main difference is more of a focus towards the donor countries, and the output targeting that country focuses less so on certain topics,” he told The Financial Times. “It emphasizes some of the issues and not other issues [gender rights and democracy]. We don’t know if there’s a direct causal link, though.”

December 12, 2018


Theresa May has her party’s confidence—sort of.

British Prime Minister Theresa May won a confidence vote taken among Conservative members of parliament Wednesday evening, London time. She received 200 yes votes (or 63 percent) as against 117 no votes. While this victory allows her to remain head of the Conservatives for another year, it also reveals the existence of a sizable opposition within her own party. Normally, in a parliamentary democracy, a leader needs not just the majority of his or her party but a supermajority. For point of reference, Margaret Thatcher resigned as Prime Minister in 1990 when she got the support of 204 Conservative members of parliament (or about 55 percent) in a no-confidence vote.

With May having more than a third of her own party against, the Brexit agreement she has forged looks dead in the water. The deal involves too many ties to Europe to please hard-core Brexit advocates while it severs too many ties to please European Union supporters. Nor is May in a position to negotiate a new deal, since the EU has taken a  take-it-or-leave-it position. May’s one path forward might be to push for another Brexit referendum.

May continues to be attacked by figures across the spectrum. Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Conservative Member of Parliament on the right-wing of his party, said in an interview, “The prime minister must realize that under all constitutional norms she ought to go and see the Queen and resign.” Jeremy Corbyn, head of the Labour Party, tweeted a similar comment:


Michael Cohen gets three years; the National Enquirer got a deal.

On Wednesday, Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former lawyer and longtime fixer, was sentenced to three years in prison in a case that also implicates the president. The heart of the case is the secret payment of hush money to alleged former lovers of the president in violation of campaign finance laws. Cohen blamed his fate on “blind loyalty” to Trump. “Time and time again, I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds, rather than listen to my own inner voice,” Cohen said in packed courtroom. “My departure as a loyal soldier to the president bears a very hefty price.”

In a related case, Manhattan federal prosecutors made public for the first time the fact that they have a non-prosecution agreement with American Media Inc. (AMI), which owns the National Enquirer. The tabloid paid $150,000 to Karen McDougal, an alleged former lover of Trump, and then buried the story she sold them.

In a statement, prosecutors said, “As a part of the agreement, AMI admitted that it made the $150,000 payment in concert with a candidate’s presidential campaign, and in order to ensure that the woman did not publicize damaging allegations about the candidate before the 2016 presidential election.” Prosecutors said that AMI provided “substantial” assistance to the government. The co-operation of AMI will make it harder for President Trump to argue that Cohen was acting as a rogue operator. The president has longstanding ties to David Pecker, the chief executive of AMI.

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The secretary of state has accused China of hacking the Marriott.

Appearing on Fox and Friends on Wednesday morning, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused the Chinese government of being the perpetrators of one of the biggest known computer hacks in history: the theft of the reservation database of the Marriott hotel chain, which could have compromised the information of up to 500 million people. Pompeo claimed that hackers supported by the Chinese government have “have committed cyberattacks across the world.”

Pompeo’s words are the highest-level American accusations against China on this issue. Previously, The New York Times and other outlets had quoted lower level and sometimes unnamed government sources blaming China.

“The cyberattack on the Marriott hotel chain that collected personal details of roughly 500 million guests was part of a Chinese intelligence-gathering effort that also hacked health insurers and the security clearance files of millions more Americans, according to two people briefed on the investigation,” the Times reported on Tuesday. “The hackers, they said, are suspected of working on behalf of the Ministry of State Security, the country’s Communist-controlled civilian spy agency.”

The decision to highlight the Marriott hacking might be connected with the ongoing trade war the Trump administration has initiated against China. Hostility has increased on a host of issues in past weeks: from the attempted extradition of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou to increased military tensions on the South China Sea.

President Trump has suggested that he could intervene to release Meng, and that her arrest in Canada was a political act.