Sunday, August 9, 2020

Trump cannot name his priorities. But autocrats do not have to.

Susan B. Glasser, in the New Yorker, challenges Trump: “Mr. President, What Are Your Priorities?” Is Not a Tough Question. Trump is running for reëlection, but, unlike four years ago, he can’t even say why.

Here are Glasser’s opening observations.

It was not supposed to be a trick question, or even all that tricky. For any other candidate, it would have been the softest of softballs, the slowest of pitches. But when the Fox News host Ainsley Earhardt asked Donald Trump the other morning, “Mr. President, what is your second-term agenda? What are your top priorities?,” his inability to answer was one of the most revealing moments of his reëlection campaign so far. “I want to take where we left,” Trump said. “We were better than we were ever,” he added, wistfully conjuring the booming pre-pandemic America of his fantasies, where everybody had a job and the stock market was great. Facing uncontrolled death from the coronavirus and an economy that is cratering because of it, Trump is desperate for a do-over. Other than that, he had pretty much nothing to say about why he should be elected to a second term, although he took more than three hundred words to say it. The bottom line seemed to be that Trump is promising four more years of “jobs” and of stopping U.S. allies, especially Germany, from “ripping us off.” And that’s it.

This painful exchange, which even the Fox hosts eventually cut off, after a few cringe-inducing minutes, was little noted among the many whoppers, distortions, and outrages offered up by Trump this week. It wasn’t even the big news out of that particular Fox interview, the coverage of which rightfully focussed on the President’s absurd claims that the coronavirus is just “going away” and that schools should reopen because children are “almost immune” to covid–19. Throughout the week, Trump’s near-delusional state about the pandemic has been on awkward display, most notably in his instant classic of an interview with the Axios journalist Jonathan Swan, whose simple but skeptical queries about the virus revealed a President unable to comprehend basic facts about the public-health crisis or devise a national plan for combatting it. “It is what it is,” Trump told Swan, when asked about the large, and growing, American death toll—a line that may well go down as one of his most chillingly callous.

But Trump’s struggle to answer such an important and straightforward question about what he would do in a second term should not be overlooked, because it goes to the heart of why his campaign—and the country that he nominally governs—is in such trouble. As an incumbent, Trump is certainly in a bind: he can hardly campaign on his record, when the United States is in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and close to a hundred and sixty thousand Americans are dead of the coronavirus. There’s only so much blame that Trump can deflect; this is a catastrophe that happened on his watch, and—no matter how many times he calls it the “China virus” or warns Americans that Joe Biden will turn the country into a godless hellscape—he knows it.

Trump’s vapid answer is more than a reflection of a political-messaging dilemma—it’s a sign of decline, both in terms of the President’s ability to respond cogently to a simple query and as a warning for American democracy, given that such a large segment of the electorate apparently finds it acceptable to support a leader whose only campaign selling point is himself. Is Trump’s inability to come up with something to say about the next four years a reflection of the fact that even he thinks he is going to lose? Perhaps, but it’s also a measure of how far Trump has descended into full “l’état, c’est moi”-ism. Running for reëlection without offering even a hint of a program is a sure indicator of at least aspirational authoritarianism.

Susan B. Glasser, a staff writer, was the founding editor of Politico Magazine. In September, she will publish, with Peter Baker, “The Man Who Ran Washington.”

More follows the break.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Trump faces deposition in rape case

There are lots of stories this morning. For example, the Rethugs in Congress just torpedoed chances for another stimulus package by refusing to participate in negotiations - their way or no way. But here is a short announcement from Heather Cox Richardson (Letters from an American) about Trump’s legal worries.

Last night, a judge ruled that Trump can no longer stall a defamation lawsuit filed by E. Jean Carroll, an advice columnist who claims Trump raped her twenty years ago. Carroll sued Trump when he called her a liar. Her lawyers will now be able to depose Trump, and to try to get a DNA test from him to compare the results to material on the dress she was wearing when he allegedly attacked her. Today Carroll tweeted at the president: “IT’S ON!! See you in court.”

Indeed.

Friday, August 7, 2020

The grift that keeps on giving - to NRA execs that is. NY suit targets NRA for corruption.

The pustule known as the National Rifle Association has broken open and stinks.

Rachel Maddow reviews some of the ways NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre, his family, and other NRA executives spent millions of the organization’s dollars on lavish personal expenses.

New York’s Attorney General, Letitia James, has filed suit against the not-for profit NRA charging self-dealing and misconduct . Keep in mind that “one of the remedies of her action is dissolution of the NRA itself. She used the same tactics to dissolve the Trump Foundation in November.

Barbara McQuade explains The Real Reason New York’s Attorney General Went After the NRA. Why was it left to New York’s attorney general to file a civil suit? The silence of the U.S. Department of Justice is deafening.

New York Attorney General Letitia James may be able to do what no politician before her has been able to accomplish – take down the National Rifle Association.

Her lawsuit alleging self-dealing and misconduct could, if successful, dissolve the entire organization. While the suit is civil in nature, it reads like an old-fashioned corruption indictment.

It alleges that the not-for profit organization violated New York state laws governing charities by diverting tens of millions of dollars away from the organization’s mission for the personal benefit of its leaders, with Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s Executive Vice President for the past 29 years, and three other officers named as defendants along with the organization itself. According to the complaint, LaPierre used NRA funds for eight private plane flights to the Bahamas, where they enjoyed life on the 107-foot yacht of an NRA vendor, as well as for safaris in Africa and elsewhere. The complaint also claims that LaPierre allotted millions of dollars for private security for himself without sufficient oversight (and cited “security” concerns to explain why he didn’t disclose those trips to the NRA’s board), that he spent $1.2 million of the group’s funds on gifts from Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman for favored friends and vendors, and that he negotiated a post-employment contract for himself valued at $17 million without board approval.

New York, like most states, requires non-profit organizations to file annual financial reports as a condition of its non-profit status, which confers tax benefits for the organization and its donors. The law requires funds to be used to serve the organization’s members and advance its charitable mission. The complaint alleges that the NRA’s leaders “blatantly ignored” those rules by failing to ensure proper internal controls, ignoring whistleblowers and concealing problems from auditors.

Like other cases of corruption, this easily could have been framed as a criminal case. Filing false registration and disclosure documents as part of a scheme to defraud can serve as the basis for federal mail or wire fraud, and often does in public corruption cases. When I served as a federal prosecutor, my former office brought public corruption cases on such theories in similar cases in which officials misused funds for personal benefit. Why then, is it left to James, whose office’s oversight over charities is civil in nature, to bring this action? The silence of the U.S. Department of Justice here is deafening.

But the effect of the state attorney general’s civil case might be even more devastating than a criminal case because one of the remedies of her action is dissolution of the NRA itself. She used the same tactics to dissolve the Trump Foundation in November. There, she reached a settlement with President Donald Trump and family members to pay $2 million to resolve allegations of misuse of charitable funds to influence the 2016 presidential primary election and to further his own personal interests. Among the improper use of funds was doling out $500,000 to potential voters at a 2016 campaign rally in Iowa. As part of that settlement, James required Trump to personally admit to misusing the Foundation’s funds. Sometimes, parties to settlements are permitted to publicly state that a resolution is not an admission of wrongdoing. James would not let them off so easily. Her success in the Trump Foundation case puts teeth into her legal quest to dissolve the NRA as well.

Since 1871, the NRA has been the nation’s largest gun advocacy group. Founded to improve marksmanship following the Civil War, the organization has lately become a powerful lobbying organization and campaign funder that can make or break candidates for political office depending on their stance on firearms regulations. As its website boasts, the NRA is “widely recognized today as a major political force.” Following mass shootings in America, Democratic candidates for office have blamed the NRA for the inability to pass gun reform legislation, and have demanded campaign finance reform to expose and limit the organization’s influence on elections.

No doubt, there will be Second Amendment advocates who claim that the New York lawsuit is politically motivated effort to strike a blow against gun ownership. Indeed, if the allegations are true that the NRA engaged in cartoonishly corrupt self-dealing and misconduct, then the dissolution of the NRA would end its 139-year run as the nation’s strongest advocate for gun rights.

The law may be the only weapon that can take down the NRA. And if James can prove her case, then the demise of the NRA will be a self-inflicted wound.

But will the NRA members wake up to the egregious actions of the NRA leaders? And will said members admit that their inaction allowed that corruption to fester in plain sight?

Barbara McQuade is a professor from practice at the University of Michigan Law School. She served as United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan and Co-Chair of the Terrorism and National Security Subcommittee of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee from 2010–2017.

Surely he jests!

I guess not.

Here’s a juicy jesty item from the Washington Post’s morning update.

At a White House meeting, Trump praised Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) for his “fantastic job” in managing the coronavirus, which surged out of control in the state over the summer and still averages between 14,000 to 16,000 new cases a week, despite falling in recent days.

300,000 COVID-19 deaths expected by December

Charlie Sykes reports on America’s failure to deal with the COVID–19 pandemic, Via NYT newsletter:

Our colleague David Leonhardt — the usual writer of this newsletter — and a team of other Times journalists around the world interviewed scientists and public health experts to reconstruct America’s unique failure. Their reporting points to two central themes.

First, the United States has a tradition of prioritizing individualism over government restrictions. That aversion to collective action helped lead to inadequate state lockdowns and inconsistent adherence to mask wearing based on partisanship instead of public health.

Second, many experts agree, America’s poor results stem in substantial measure from the performance of the Trump administration. “If you had to summarize our approach, it’s really poor federal leadership — disorganization and denial,” said Andy Slavitt, who ran Medicare and Medicaid from 2015 to 2017.

Exit take: More than 160,000 Americans have now died from the pandemic and the IHME model now projects that nearly 300,000 will die by December unless mask use becomes near-universal.

NY and DC AGs sue the NRA

Yesterday morning the State of New York’s AG sued the NRA, and the Washington DC AG brought suit against the NRA’s foundation. To understand why, follow the money. Don’t get distracted by NRA’s gripes about politics. Focus instead on the evolution of the organization that taught me gun safety (as a junior high student) to a political organization that spends millions on lavish lifestyles of its execs. That spending caused a $28 million surplus change into a $36 million deficit in just 3 years.

Here are excerpts from yesterday’s Letters from an American by Heather Cox Richardson. I selected passages about the history of NRA and then moved on to matters of NRA’s politics and finance. Cox Richardson has a lot more in her August 6 Letter. To close I tacked on some of what Charlie Sykes had to say about the suit in this morning’s bulwark email.

The NRA was chartered in New York in 1871, in part to improve the marksmanship of Americans who might be called on to fight another war, and in part to promote in America the British sport of elite shooting. By the 1920s, rifle shooting was a popular sport.

In the 1930s, amid fears of organized crime, the NRA backed federal legislation to limit concealed weapons, prevent possession by criminals, the mentally ill and children, to require all dealers to be licensed, and to require background checks before delivery. NRA officers insisted on the right of citizens to own rifles and handguns, but worked hard to distinguish between, on the one hand, law-abiding citizens who should have access to guns for hunting and target shooting and protection, and on the other hand, criminals and mentally ill people, who should not. The NRA backed the 1934 National Firearms Act, and parts of the 1968 Gun Control Act, designed to stop what seemed to be America’s hurtle toward violence in that turbulent decade.

But in the mid–1970s, a faction in the NRA forced the organization away from sports and toward opposing “gun control.” It formed a political action committee in 1975, and two years later elected a president who abandoned sporting culture and focused instead on “gun rights.”

The NRA had gone into politics. Its officials now opposed all limits on gun ownership, even though basic safety measures have always been popular, even within the NRA’s own membership. In 1980, the NRA endorsed a presidential candidate for the first time ever, standing behind Ronald Reagan. Now a player in national politics, the NRA was awash in money from gun and ammunition manufacturers. By 2000, the NRA was one of the three most powerful lobbies in Washington. It spent more than $40 million on the 2008 election.

In 2016, donations to the NRA jumped sharply. While in 2012, it spent $9 million, and in 2014 it spent $13 million, in 2016, it spent more than $50 million on Republican candidates, including more than $30 million on Trump’s effort to win the White House. This money was vital to Trump, since many other Republican super PACs refused to back him. The NRA spent more money on Trump than any other outside group, including the leading Trump super PAC, which spent $20.3 million.

The lawsuit announced this morning concerned a different kind of NRA spending. For six and a half years, NRA leaders have misspent funds, lavishing the money of the nonprofit organization on their own lifestyles. In 2015, the NRA had a surplus of almost $28 million. By 2018, it was running a $36 million deficit. This spending came to light after Republican operative Oliver North, a key player in the Iran-Contra Scandal, became president of the organization in September 2018. In April 2019, North called for an investigation into the NRA’s finances and asked longtime chief executive of the organization Wayne LaPierre to resign. LaPierre responded that North was trying to get him out of the organization by threatening to release “damaging” information about him. North resigned.

Now New York Attorney General Letitia James has taken up the issue. She sued LaPierre. She also sued John Frazer, the organization’s general counsel; Josh Powell, a former top lieutenant of LaPierre; and Wilson Phillips, a former chief financial officer. Their trips to the Bahamas, Nieman Marcus clothing, and nights at the Four Season cost the organization $64 million over the past three years. James wants to bar all four men from running non-profits in New York in the future. “It’s clear that the NRA has been failing to carry out its stated mission for many, many years and instead has operated as a breeding ground for greed, abuse and brazen illegality,” James said. “Enough was enough. We needed to step in and dissolve this corporation."

As James announced her lawsuit, the Washington D.C. Attorney General, Karl Racine, sued NRA Foundation, the organization’s charitable arm that teaches, for example, firearm safety, say it has been diverting funds to the NRA to pay for top official’s spending sprees.

The NRA immediately countersued, claiming James’s lawsuit was about politics, not the law, and that James is violating the First Amendment to the Constitution, which mandates that the government must not hamper free speech. Mr. LaPierre said: “This is an unconstitutional, premeditated attack aiming to dismantle and destroy the N.R.A. — the fiercest defender of America’s freedom at the ballot box for decades. We’re ready for the fight. Bring it on.”

Asked to comment, Trump said “That’s a very terrible thing that just happened. I think the NRA should move to Texas and lead a very good and beautiful life.”

UPDATE: Here is some of what Charlie Sykes had to say about [The NRA’s Bonfire of Grift] in this morning’s bulwark email.

The lawsuit lays out a pattern of breathtaking grift, self-dealing, and greed.

Whatever AG James’s ideological motivations, the suit ultimately isn’t about gun rights or protecting the Second Amendment; it’s a story of old-fashioned, flat-out corruption. According to the lawsuit, NRA boss Wayne LaPierre and his cronies “engaged in a decades-long pattern of fraud to raid the coffers of the powerful gun rights group for personal gain, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday by the New York attorney general, draining $64 million from the nonprofit in just three years.”

And much of it is not new.

The group’s bitter internal battle burst into public view in April 2019 at the NRA’s annual convention in Indianapolis, when then-NRA President Oliver North was forced out by LaPierre after pressing for an internal financial review.

The Washington Post and other news organizations subsequently revealed how the NRA directed funds to board members and how LaPierre racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in charges at a Beverly Hills clothing boutique and on foreign travel.

The Post also reported how, after a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., LaPierre told close associates he was worried about how easily he could be targeted and needed a more secure place to live and sought to buy a $6 million, 10,000-square-foot French-style country estate in Westlake, Tex.

The suit expands on previous allegations that LaPierre improperly charged the NRA for private jet travel and luxury vacations that had no clear business purpose. The filing claims he billed the NRA more than $500,000 for private charter flights he and his family took to visit the Bahamas eight times over three years.

Last year, a spokesman for LaPierre told The Post his visits to the Bahamas were for NRA business. But the New York attorney general’s investigation found the trips were private vacations.

Shouldn’t gun rights activists who have been systematically ripped off be upset about this? Some are, but we expect the usual tribal reactions to the suit.

More ads from Lincoln Project and Priorities USA

Lincoln Project and Priorities USA bludgeon Trump, McConnell, and Republicans in their latest ads By David Gordon at Blog for Arizona.

For people worried that the Lincoln Project are just Republicans who will revert to their old selves once Trump is out of office, their latest ad “Care” should reassure them.

So should the numerous ads they have run against Republican officials like rich Mitch McConnell and Trump Hack Martha McSally.

In the “Care” ad, the Lincoln Project condemns Republicans led by Trump and McConnell for “delaying vital economic support to the American People.”

Priorities USA also released two well-produced ads that attack Trump. One of them endorses Biden’s approach to solving COVID and the economy.

The first ad, called “Real Deal” reminds viewers that Trump has been a racist all his life (duh.)

The second ad, called “Grasped” attacks Trump for his mishandling of the Coronavirus.