Tag Archives: corruption

Distraction

Note: Apologies for the extra and misleading email yesterday. The blog referenced (to which the link would not work) will post on the 16th. (I sometimes work ahead–and in those cases, obviously don’t know what I’m doing…)

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I know that many of you who read this blog also subscribe to Heather Cox Richardson’s  Letters from an American. That almost-daily letter is particularly valuable for those who are trying to just keep up with the daily outrages and indignities coming from the White House, since she tends to focus on updating readers to the fire hose of improprieties that exhaust so many of us.

The other day provided an example: from continued fallout over Trump’s “suckers and losers” insult to America’s soldiers, to documentation of his continuing buildup and corruption of the Military-Industrial Complex, to not-so-surprising revelations in Michael Cohen’s new book, to the absolutely unprecedented, legally-appalling effort of Bill Barr’s version of a Justice Department to assume Trump’s defense against Jean Carroll’s defamation suit, it was just another day in TrumpLand.

On the off-chance that you missed that last offense, here’s a brief background: Carroll is one of the many women who have accused Trump of sexual assault. She alleged that he raped her some 20 years ago, and when he responded in true Trumpian fashion that he’d never even met her (as usual, there are contemporaneous photographs to the contrary) and she “wasn’t his type,” she sued him for defamation.The courts have thus far refused to dismiss or halt that lawsuit.

Now, lawyers with the Department of Justice (presumably with straight faces) are arguing that Trump was acting in his official capacity as president when he denied knowing her and thus should be defended by the DOJ, which is funded by taxpayer dollars. As Richardson reported,

CNN legal analyst Elie Honig called this “a wild stretch by DOJ…. I can’t remotely conceive how DOJ can argue with a straight face that it is somehow within the official duties of the President to deny a claim that he committed sexual assault years before he took office.” He continued: “This is very much consistent with Barr’s well-established pattern of distorting fact and law to protect Trump and his allies.”

(I am at a loss to understand Barr, who–unlike Trump– is not stupid. My operating theories since he began acting like the President’s consiglieri vacillate between mental illness and blackmail, since he clearly knows that history will not be kind…)

All this is, in a fashion, beside the point. 

Much has been made of Trump’s ability to distract—to point to the “shiny object” (squirrel!!), to create a new outrage in order to distract attention and media from his most recent crimes and misdemeanors. It’s true that the media turns its attention to the most recent example of norm-and-rule breaking, but what makes this constant misbehavior a really effective distraction is simply the “fire hose” rate of discoveries of the administration’s corruption and incompetence.

It becomes impossible to keep up–and it exhausts those of us who continue to try.

The sheer volume of the misbehavior prevents the sort of continued, in-depth reporting of  a single incident of unethical or criminal behavior–the sort of ongoing media attention that would be paid to such incidents occurring in past administrations. Think of the amount and duration of reporting on Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, or the Watergate break-in. Substantial research has shown that it takes numerous repetitions of news items before they “sink in” and become common knowledge.

Historians will undoubtedly have a field day with the literally hundreds of examples of this administration’s criminal, unethical and deeply disturbing behaviors, but the rapidity with which these incidents come to our attention and then vanish means that they barely have time to make an impression on the significant number of citizens who do not follow political issues closely.

There’s an analogy here to that old joke to the effect that, if you have run over someone with your car and maimed them, you’d do well to back up and finish them off.  A few corrupt transactions will attract sustained attention, but the daily trashing of laws and norms will simply wear us out. 

Law And Order

No mentally-competent American still believes that Donald Trump is (1) honest (2) intelligent (3) informed or (4) sane. In a way, we are probably fortunate that he is so incredibly incompetent and unable to restrain himself from broadcasting his idiocy–if he was smart and just as corrupt, he could pretend to be other than what he is. Fortunately, he is too stupid to hide what he is.

Give him credit for one thing, though: he knew enough to commute Roger Stone’s sentence rather than pardoning his creepy co-conspirator.

The difference is significant: a pardon erases the conviction of guilt. A President’s decision to commute a sentence, however, doesn’t eliminate a federal conviction or imply that the person was innocent. It doesn’t even remove the ramifications of a criminal conviction, such as losing the right to vote or inability to hold elected office.

So–since even Trump must have recognized that letting Stone off the hook via either mechanism would engender huge blow-back–why not give his old pal a pardon?

Mother Jones asks–and answers–that question.

Why the second-class treatment of a commutation instead of a pardon? Wasn’t Stone important enough for a pardon?

But wait. Someone who gets a pardon can no longer invoke the Fifth Amendment as a justification for refusing to testify in court. If Stone were called in some other case, he’d be required to spill any beans he had. But if I understand the law correctly, a commutation is more limited. The conviction stands, and the possibility of putting yourself in further jeopardy remains. Thus your Fifth Amendment rights stand.

So if you wanted to help out a buddy, but you also wanted to make sure he couldn’t be forced to provide dangerous testimony in the future, commutation sure seems like the best bet, doesn’t it?

Reactions to the commutation have reminded us that Trump has either pardoned or commuted the sentences of a long list of other truly despicable–and unambiguously guilty– men: Joe Arpaio (Contempt of Court) Michael Milken (Fraud)  Scooter Libby (Perjury) Eddie Gallagher (War Crimes) and Rod Blagojevich (Corruption) come to mind.

There is another interesting wrinkle, legally, to Trump’s latest favor to the dark side.

Seth Abramson, an attorney and commentator, has characterized Stone’s commutation as that of a “co-conspirator,” and opined that–because it amounts to a “self-pardon”–it is obstruction of justice and thus unconstitutional. Nancy Pelosi has weighed in by recommending passage of a law forbidding a President from pardoning or commuting a sentence if the conviction was for illegal behavior to protect the President–which Stone’s quite obviously was.

Perhaps the most succinct summary of the situation came from Mitt Romney–who seems to be the only Republican in the Senate with either scruples or a backbone. Romney tweeted

Unprecedented, historic corruption: an American president commutes the sentence of a person convicted by a jury of lying to shield that very president.

There is broad recognition that another four years for this grotesque buffoon would be the end of America’s experiment with democratic self-government. Inconceivable as it seems, however, he continues to have the devotion of his base/cult. They won’t desert him and they will turn out for him.

If we want to save America in November, we’d better get massive turnout of people who come prepared to “vote blue no matter who.”

How Do We Spell Corruption? T-R-U-M-P

Well, I suppose the headline really should read “Trump Administration,” since Trump has managed to assemble a group of people who are both magnificently inept and thoroughly dishonest.

It’s something every day–usually, thanks to the Coronavirus pandemic, buried under the propaganda and disinformation being spewed every day by the buffoon-in-chief.

NBC recently reported on a story first broken by Pro Publica.

On a Tuesday just before Halloween in 2018, a group of federal prosecutors and agents from Texas arrived in Washington. For almost two years, they’d been investigating the opioid dispensing practices of Walmart, the largest company in the world. They had amassed what they viewed as highly damning evidence only to face a major obstacle: top Trump appointees at the Department of Justice.

The opioid crisis was the most pressing public health issue facing the country before the arrival of the current pandemic. What the investigators had uncovered was proof of clearly criminal activity by Walmart–activity that played a significant part in creating and sustaining that crisis.

Opioids dispensed by Walmart pharmacies in Texas had killed customers who had overdosed. The pharmacists who dispensed those opioids had told the company they didn’t want to fill the prescriptions because they were coming from doctors who were running pill mills. They pleaded for help and guidance from Walmart’s corporate office.

Investigators had obtained records of similar cries for help from Walmart pharmacists all over the country: from Maine, North Carolina, Kansas and Washington, and other states. They reported hundreds of thousands of suspicious or inappropriate opioid prescriptions. One Walmart employee warned about a Florida doctor who had a “list of patients from Kentucky that have been visiting pharmacies in all of central Wisconsin recently.” That doctor had sent patients to Walmarts in more than 30 other states.

How did “corporate” respond? By repeatedly forbidding pharmacists from cutting off any doctor. Pharmacists were told to “evaluate each prescription on an individual basis.”  One opioid compliance manager even sent an executive an email (viewed by ProPublica, which confirmed its contents), that Walmart’s focus should be on “driving sales.”

The prosecutor investigating Walmart’s behavior prepared to indict the corporation for violating the Controlled Substances Act.  She had the support of her boss, who also believed the evidence justified what would have been an unprecedented step.(Fortune 500 companies don’t get indicted–gee, I wonder why…)

Before the Texas prosecutors could file their case, however, Walmart escalated concerns to high-ranking officials at the DOJ, who then intervened. Brown was ordered to stand down. On Aug. 31, 2018, Trump officials officially informed Walmart that the DOJ would decline to prosecute the company, according to a letter from Walmart’s lawyer that lays out the chronology of the case.

The Texas prosecutors appealed to higher-ups at DOJ, pointing out that dispensing opioids without a legitimate medical purpose is legally indistinguishable from dealing heroin.

Criminal law says if a person or entity is willfully blind or deliberately ignorant, they are as liable as if they had acted intentionally. Once Walmart’s headquarters knew its pharmacists were raising alarms about suspicious prescriptions, but the compliance department continued to allow — even push — them to fill them, well, that made the company guilty, the Texas prosecutors contended.

This wasn’t a situation where a few employees “went rogue.”  Worse, the company was a repeat offender; seven years earlier, Walmart entered into a settlement with the DEA in which it promised to improve its controls over the abuse of opioid prescriptions.

The DOJ didn’t budge, so prosecutors tried another tactic: criminal charges against individual employees. Trump officials blocked that, too. Then prosecutors tried to bring a civil case, and Trump officials blocked that.

The lengthy story at the link is detailed enough to dispel any doubts about how thoroughly this administration has corrupted the DOJ.

The news of the Walmart investigation comes at a time when the Trump administration is being assailed for legal favoritism and cronyism. Attorney General Bill Barr has inserted himself into multiple investigations of Trump friends and associates. In February, four prosecutors on the case of Roger Stone, a Trump friend and adviser, quit the case in protest after political appointees undercut their sentencing recommendation.

The Trump DOJ has also pulled back on white-collar and corporate investigations and prosecutions. White-collar prosecutions are at a record low. Walmart itself seems to have already benefited from the Trump administration’s approach to corporate misconduct. The company was the subject of a seven-year investigation into bribery allegations in Mexico and around the globe. The Obama administration sought $600 million in fines, according to The New York Times, which broke the story, but failed to reach a resolution with the company. The Trump DOJ settled the charges for $282 million in June 2019.

It certainly pays to have low friends in high places…..

 

Radio, Television And Fake News

When Trump announced his ban on travel to most–but not all–European countries, commentators generally panned the move as irrelevant to containment of the virus, which is already spreading in the U.S. Whether Trump’s loyal cult will understand the uselessness of that move–or grasp the degree of incompetence being demonstrated in the face of the coronavirus pandemic–is unknown, but I’d guess it’s improbable.

What the cult won’t even see or hear about are aspects of the travel ban that certainly don’t surprise the rest of us. According to Politico

President Donald Trump’s new European travel restrictions have a convenient side effect: They exempt nations where three Trump-owned golf resorts are located.

Because of course they did.

This is what happens when stupid meets corrupt. As the article notes, residents of the exempted countries are free to live and work in the United Kingdom, meaning they could fly to the United States from a British airport as long as they hadn’t spent time in their countries of origin within the last 14 days. And as leaders of the EU have emphasized, pandemics are global crises. They aren’t limited to any continent and they require cooperation rather than unilateral action.

Meanwhile, His Idiocy has expressed an intent to continue the Hitler-like rallies where he feeds off the resentments and bigotries of the crowd. Until just the last few days, right-wing commentators had joined him in downplaying the risks and dangers of the coronavirus–which brings me to a recent paper by Yochai Benkler, a Harvard professor and co-author of Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics.

Benkler and his colleagues reviewed four million political news stories over the course of three years. They found that “the right wing media ecosystem is distinct and insular from the rest of the media ecosystem,” which hardly comes as a shock to most of us. But they also discounted the influence of the Internet, concluding (as many commenters to this blog have concluded) that radio and television are far more culpable in conveying misinformation.

“A critical implication of our findings is that it is highly unlikely that technology played a central role in causing this asymmetric media ecosystem,” he explained. “If anything, Democrats tend to be younger, and younger people tend to use online and social media more than older people. [Two separate studies found] that sharing of ‘fake news’ was highly concentrated in a tiny portion of the population, was largely done by conservatives, and interacted with age–primarily driven by people over 65. In other words, the problem of online dissemination seems to be driven by older conservatives–precisely the demographic of Fox News.”

And yet while there is plenty of sharing of fake news and other forms of deceptive propaganda online, Benkler explained, these stories only really “explode” once they appear on Fox News. If they remain solely online, the spread is limited.

Benkler attributed the phenomenon to Rush Limbaugh, whose radio show, starting in 1988, demonstrated that conservative “outrage-bait and propaganda” could generate huge profits.

By attacking the groups who sought to change society — feminists, civil rights activists — Limbaugh captivated white Christian men and tapped into their identities.

“The whole business model was not about informing, but creating a sense of shared identity,” he explained.

Despite right-wing efforts to paint false equivalencies, Fox has no leftwing counterparts–Democratic diversity defeats similar propaganda efforts on the left.

Benkler has a somewhat surprising antidote to the rightwing echo chamber.

The most recent Pew survey of news sources used and trusted by Democrats and Republicans suggests that, surprisingly, the most used and trusted sources by both centrist lean republicans and lean democrats are CBS, ABC, and NBC. It becomes critical that these outlets be particularly attentive to how they cover the news, what sort of frame they offer for propagandist pronouncement by the president, and so forth. The hard core of the Republican base who spend their days purely in Limbaugh-Hannity land are lost. But they are only enough to win a Republican primary, not repeated elections. And so the critical pathway to a more reasoned public discourse is for these core mainstream media, trusted by a substantial minority of lean-republican voters, to be ever more vigilant not to spread disinformation, not to stoke the fires, and to understand that professionalism and truth seeking do not mean neutrality when you are reporting in a highly asymmetric media ecosystem like ours. (emphasis mine)

When the pandemic is finally over, I wonder if anyone will compare coronavirus infection rates in the Trump cult to those in the fact-based population?

 

A Little Help For My Friends…

Welcome to our banana republic, where rules don’t matter but relationships and loyalty to the despot do.

Where to start?

Well, first there were the pardons.  In the New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin explained that authoritarians dispense both punishment and largesse based on their own whims–unconstrained by quaint mechanisms like legal rules.

The point of authoritarianism is to concentrate power in the ruler, so the world knows that all actions, good and bad, harsh and generous, come from a single source. That’s the real lesson—a story of creeping authoritarianism—of today’s commutations and pardons by President Trump.

By now, Americans who follow the news know the names of the high-profile criminals Trump pardoned:  Rod Blagojevich, the corrupt former governor of Illinois, who was eight years into a sentence of fourteen years; Michael Milken, the junk-bond king; Bernard Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner, and Edward J. DeBartolo, Jr., former owner of the San Francisco 49ers. (The last three all pled guilty.)

The common link among this group is that all have some personal connection to the President. Blagojevich was a contestant on “Celebrity Apprentice,” and he was prosecuted by Patrick Fitzgerald, a close friend of and lawyer for James Comey, the former F.B.I. director who is a Trump enemy. Explaining his action today, Trump said of the case against Blagojevich, “It was a prosecution by the same people—Comey, Fitzpatrick—the same group.” Milken’s annual financial conferences are a favorite meeting place for, among others, Trump’s moneyed friends. (Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner spoke at last year’s gathering.) Milken is also an active philanthropist, as Trump observed: “We have Mike Milken, who’s gone around and done an incredible job for the world, with all of his research on cancer, and he’s done this and he suffered greatly. He paid a big price, paid a very tough price.” Trump’s explanation for the Kerik pardon is probably the most revealing. The President said that Kerik is “a man who had many recommendations from a lot of good people. (Kerik was appointed police commissioner by Rudolph Giuliani.)

Toobin says Trump’s pardons show that he can reward his friends and his friends’ friends. The message is clear: better to be a dictator’s friend, since he can also punish his enemies.

Other media sources have pointed out that all of the recipients–there were 11 total– had either an inside connection or had been promoted on Fox News. Then, of course, there was money:  Business Insider reported that Trump also pardoned Paul Pogue, a construction-company owner who pled guilty in 2010 to underpaying his taxes by nearly half a million dollars. Coincidentally, Pogue’s son and daughter-in-law donated over $200,000 to Trump’s campaign just since August,  although their cumulative previous donations to Republican campaigns came to less than $10,000.

And speaking of the pardon power…

According to Julian Assange’s lawyer, President Trump offered the WikiLeaks chief a pardon if he would agree to say that Russia had nothing to do with hacking emails from Democrats during the 2016 presidential election.

It’s all about helping your friends and screwing over those who are insufficiently devoted to the “dear leader.”

Last week, Trump named Richard Grenell, reportedly a “fierce advocate” of the President who has been the (detested and embarrassing) ambassador to Germany, as acting director of national intelligence, overseeing the 17 U.S. spy agencies. From all reports, Grenell is a massively unqualified rightwing political hack.

There’s also the fact that Grenell may have been put into the acting DNI role to protect the president’s political interests.

Grenell is replacing former National Counterterrorism Center director and retired Vice Admiral Joseph Maguire in the acting role. On Thursday afternoon, the Washington Post reported that Trump berated Maguire last week over a classified briefing one of his deputies had given Congress on 2020 election security.

The New York Times reports that the official, Shelby Pierson, “warned House lawmakers last week that Russia was interfering in the 2020 campaign to try to get President Trump re-elected” and that that briefing “angered Mr. Trump, who complained that Democrats would use it against him.”

Thanks to the spineless and arguably treasonous Republicans in the U.S. Senate, Trump no longer feels the need to hide his corruption. Instead, he revels in it.