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Three Things: Hey You, Mr./Ms./Mx. Pissed-Off

[NB: Check the byline, thanks. /~Rayne]

I get it. You’re furious, en fuego, royally pissed off. You’ve traveled through shock and traversed anger, raging for days now since Attorney General Bill Barr issue that POS four-page letter chock full of holes big enough to drive a 40-foot dry van through again and again.

And now you’ve hit bottom, burned out and blue having reached another stage in the grieving process.

We all know this isn’t the end of it, no matter how much gaslighting and abuse the White House, its proxies, the right-wing horde, and asshats like David fucking Brooks spew. You know what you saw in the speaking indictments, plea agreements, and sentencing memos produced over the last two years.

We all know who ‘Individual 1’ is no matter how much he and his myriad minions and handlers would like us to forget his role as an unindicted co-conspirator who denied the public the right to know the truth about his past during the 2016 election.

At least one conspiracy to defraud the American public is right there spelled in black and white under our noses, and again in congressional records as part of Michael Cohen’s testimony before the House. Trump worked with Cohen to lie to the voting American public, violating campaign finance laws in doing so.

“If the people don’t have the facts, democracy doesn’t work,” as Judge Amy Berman Jackson told former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort during his sentencing hearing, another liar Trump brought into his team, allowing Manafort to change the Republican’s platform on Ukraine without a wide and open discussion among conservatives about it.

Trust your eyes and ears. You’re right to be angry and disappointed. Take a deep cleansing breath in and center yourself, feel that righteous burn of indignation, then let out the poison.

And then take another deep breath, roll up your sleeves, grab your phone, and let’s kick some ass.

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What: Barr didn’t confine himself to his four-page POS summary on Sunday. Oh no. He had to make it really fucking personal for a huge swath of Americans by refusing to allow the DOJ to defend the Affordable Care Act. From the ABA Journal:

The DOJ’s new stance would strike down additional provisions that allow children to have coverage on their parents’ policies until age 26 and that guarantee “essential health benefits” such as mental health, maternity and drug coverage. The stance also would eliminate an expansion of Medicaid and free preventive services for people on Medicare.

Quite literally Americans could die because of this move.

Needed:
— Call your representatives and tell them you support the current ACA legislation in the absence of a better, Medicare for All replacement.
— Ask your reps to do what’s necessary to ensure the DOJ fulfills its mission to enforce the laws of this country, which at this time includes ACA.

You can see Barr is now setting a precedent for a unilateral executive branch which can pick and choose the laws it will enforce in spite of precedent backing existing laws. This can’t go any further.

Congressional Switchboard: (202) 224-3121

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What: Betsy ‘Multi-Yacht’ Devos decided disabled Americans do not merit an opportunity to achieve; she’s proposed ending funding for Special Olympics.

That shallow, stupid wretch has no real idea what Special Olympics means to the disabled, especially children and their parents. One of my family members has worked for more than a decade at a Special Olympics camp, spending weeks with children who otherwise wouldn’t be able to go to camp like abled children. The kids meet other kids like themselves, make new friends, learn new skills, hone their physical abilities, begin to see themselves as capable of so much more. And their parents get a much-needed respite from caring for children who may need around-the-clock monitoring.

But as the former director of the Office of Government Ethics says, the cruelty is the point. Devos is Cruella De Ville who will kill puppies for their coats given the chance. Pro-life, my foot; she cares not a whit what life is like for the disabled after birth.

She quite literally wants to axe Special Olympics and take the money to give to charter schools, which fail at around 25% rate. The money she will steal from the disabled will literally go down a rat hole and nobody except the charter school profiteers will benefit from this scam.

In fact the amount we spend as taxpayers providing additional support to Special Olympics could be offset easily if Trump spent four less weekends at his golf courses on our dime.

There are those who argue it’s really Trump who insisted on this cut and Devos is merely is grunt doing the scut work of hurting the disabled. Sure — but a person whose values are genuinely aligned with caring for fellow humans would have told Trump to stick this sidewise and quit their post instead.

The chances of this proposal passing the House are slim to none, especially after Devos was grilled by Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) on Tuesday, but it’s a line in the sand we should draw.

Needed: Call your members of Congress in both houses and let them know this kind of cruelty to disabled Americans is unacceptable and it will not fix the inherent problem of making schools into privatized profit centers with an unacceptably high rate of failure.

Congressional Switchboard: (202) 224-3121

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What: Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt is appearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee as Trump’s corrupt nominee for Interior Secretary.

If you have a moment or two, watch for the swamp monster — the one in the green mask sitting behind Bernhardt, not Bernhardt (because when you’ve seen one of the fleshy pink swamp monsters, you’ve seen many).

Needed: This guy is selling out our national resources. Call your senators and tell them hell no on this dirtbag, we don’t need another swamp monster helming the Interior Department.

Congressional Switchboard: (202) 224-3121

~ 0 ~
Don’t forget to check your phone’s battery charge. Get calling!

This is an open thread, by the way.

All the News Fit to Treat Badly

This screenshot depicts U.S. news media’s gross failure.

There have been numerous stories this week about the Trump cabinet which received slapdash coverage. All of them are scandals and should have resulted in the firing or resignation of two, possibly three cabinet members.

And yet the public is deluged with and seeking more information about a celebrity’s personal screw-up resulting in prosecution — a story which has no real impact on their personal lives. The public doesn’t appear to know how very badly Trump’s cabinet members are treating the public’s trust, or the risk posed by turning a blind eye to these cabinet members’ bad faith and corruption as nearly all of them are in the line of presidential succession.

In short, the public isn’t being informed about real news.

If the public is asking about a celebrity, leave it to celebrity gossip sites to answer. The public needs reporting about these failing cabinet members, and they need to know these stories are far more important than celebrity buzz, affecting the country’s ability to function normally. If the public isn’t asking about these cabinet members, it may be a sign that the media is failing them and/or the trend data may be manipulated.

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How much do you or your family members and friends know about Wilbur Ross’s repeated lies about his personal holdings? The Office of Government Ethics refused to certify his most recent financial disclosure statement because he didn’t sell stocks that he said he’d sold. This has been going on since he became Commerce Secretary. His work in that role has been dismal as it is, not to mention his questionable relationship to a bank in Cyprus. But to lie and lie repeatedly to the government about his personal finances? There’s no excuse for his not knowing what assets he’s holding because he has to file a tax return reflecting ownership, earnings and subsequent profits and losses.

There’s also no excuse for news media to treat Ross’s lies as if they are perfectly normal for the person who is eighth in line of presidential succession and responsible for fostering, promoting, and developing the foreign and domestic commerce of the largest economy in the world. News outlets should be asking the White House every damned day why Ross hasn’t been booted out the door.

~ ~ ~

How much do you or your family members and friends know about former federal prosecutor and current Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta’s role in the ridiculously light sentence human trafficker Jeffrey Epstein received? Or Acosta’s role in violating the Crime Victims’ Rights Act, directly affecting at least 30 of Epstein’s victims?

News media paid a little more attention to this case because the crimes underlying it were of prurient interest. But they have already forgotten justice for the victims, blowing off Acosta’s continued employment in a role overseeing workplaces where human trafficking may occur. Acosta is right behind Ross in the presidential succession lineup. News media should likewise ask why Acosta still has a job as Labor Secretary right after they ask about Ross’s continued employment.

~ ~ ~

How much do you or your family members and friends know about former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s alleged lies to federal investigators regarding disapproval of Native American casinos? This wasn’t the only probe Interior Department Office of Inspector General had been looking into; it’s the one which has been referred to a grand jury. What other damage may Zinke have done while he was at Interior? What continues under acting Interior Secretary?

Zinke had been two slots ahead of Ross in the presidential succession lineup. At least Zinke is no longer with the administration, unlike Ross and Acosta, or Betsy DeVos.

~ ~ ~

A staffer for Education Secretary DeVos attempted to obstruct investigation into DeVos’ restoration of approval for a college accreditor by trying to remove the acting inspector general looking into the re-approval. It’d be nice to know if DeVos instructed her deputy secretary Mitchell Zais to remove Sandra Bruce because was continuing her investigation, or if Zais tried this on his own. This is yet another cabinet-level scandal the public doesn’t know enough about compared to a celebrity story.

DeVos has been a threat to public education since her approval hearing when she suggested guns were needed in the classroom to protect against bears. She’s a threat to more than education as 13th in line of succession for the presidency, too, given there are open slots for Secretaries of Defense and Interior. College students struggling with tuition debt and students who’ve participated in active shooter drills would love to know why DeVos still has a job. They ought to know someone is asking every day.

~ ~ ~

And Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao couldn’t let these four cabinet secretaries have all the fun. She may have been improperly coordinating with our glorious Senate Majority Leader Mitchell McConnell — also her spouse — to ensure their home state Kentucky received a lion’s share of transportation projects.

Fortunately Chao is not in the line of presidential succession because she is foreign born.

Fortunately, her spouse McConnell isn’t in the succession lineup at all.

Unfortunately, these were just a handful of stories which should have ranked higher in the mind of the public and the media’s effort.

This is an open thread.

Alfa-Trump Redux: Full Spectrum Circumstance

The Trump Tower – Alfa Bank story is back!

Back in October 2016, Franklin Foer wrote about some metadata analysis showing that a marketing server paid for by Trump Organization was messaging with a server at Russia’s Alfa Bank. The story, as Foer presented it, was quickly challenged. I myself focused on a side angle to the story: that in addition to communications with Alfa Bank, the Trump marketing server was also communicating with Grand Rapids’ Spectrum Health, which (the original public pitch of the story suggested) might show a tie between the DeVos family — or maybe Erik Prince — and Trump. From the vantage of October 2016, that didn’t make sense, as the DeVoses (as distinct from Betsy’s brother Erik) were actually remarkably hesitant to support Trump until after the DNS lookups ended.

Dexter Filkins has now reexamined the story. It concludes — via a proliferating set of academics and cybersecurity experts departing from the norm in both those fields and insisting on hiding their identities — that there must be some kind of communication going on.

(Max and his colleagues did not see any D.N.S. evidence that the Trump Organization was attempting to access the server; they speculated that the organization was using a virtual private network, or V.P.N., a common security measure that obscures users’ digital footprints.)

If this was a communications mechanism, it appeared to have been relatively simple, suggesting that it had been set up spontaneously and refined over time. Because the Trump Organization did not have administrative control of the server, Paul and Leto theorized that any such system would have incorporated software that one of the parties was already using. “The likely scenario is not that the people using the server were incredibly sophisticated networking geniuses doing something obscure and special,” Max said. “The likely scenario is that they adapted a server and vender already available to them, which they felt was away from prying eyes.” Leto told me that he envisioned “something like a bulletin-board system.” Or it could have been an instant-messaging system that was part of software already in use on the server.

Kramer, of Listrak, insisted that his company’s servers were used exclusively for mass marketing. “We only do one thing here,” he told me. But Listrak’s services can be integrated with numerous Cendyn software packages, some of which allow instant messaging. One possibility is Metron, used to manage events at hotels. In fact, the Trump Organization’s October, 2016, statement, blaming the unusual traffic on a “banking customer” of Cendyn, suggested that the communications had gone through Metron, which supports both messaging and e-mail.

The parties might also have been using Webmail—e-mail that leaves few digital traces, other than D.N.S. lookups. Or, Paul and Leto said, they could have been communicating through software used to compose marketing e-mails. They might have used a method called foldering, in which messages are written but not sent; instead, they are saved in a drafts folder, where an accomplice who also has access to the account can read them. “This is a very common way for people to communicate with each other who don’t want to be detected,” Leto told me.

I hope to return to some of the moves Filkins makes in his story generally after I come home from this trip. But for now, I just want to look at how Filkins deals with the Spectrum Health tie, which Filkins focuses on even more than Foer. Here’s how he introduces the connection:

Only one other entity seemed to be reaching out to the Trump Organization’s domain with any frequency: Spectrum Health, of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Spectrum Health is closely linked to the DeVos family; Richard DeVos, Jr., is the chairman of the board, and one of its hospitals is named after his mother. His wife, Betsy DeVos, was appointed Secretary of Education by Donald Trump. Her brother, Erik Prince, is a Trump associate who has attracted the scrutiny of Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Trump’s ties to Russia. Mueller has been looking into Prince’s meeting, following the election, with a Russian official in the Seychelles, at which he reportedly discussed setting up a back channel between Trump and the Russian President, Vladimir Putin. (Prince maintains that the meeting was “incidental.”) In the summer of 2016, Max and the others weren’t aware of any of this. “We didn’t know who DeVos was,” Max said.

This is a remarkable paragraph, repeating a lot of the shitty link analysis that people always do when they try to explain the Spectrum tie. In it, a children’s hospital named after Dick DeVos’ mother is the smoking gun in an international spy plot. Then, having utterly ignored the status of the relationship between the DeVoses and Trump at the time of the DNS lookups, Filkins looks at what has happened since: the appointment of close Mike Pence ally and leading GOP education ideologue Betsy to be Education Secretary, and Erik Prince’s covert meeting with an entirely different — and far more suspect — bank, using means that are precisely the kinds of means you’d expect Erik Prince to use (and not using the network of a hospital that his brother-in-law chairs but doesn’t run, because why the fuck would a Navy Seal use more covert methods that Navy Seals know well instead of using a server with an easily subpoenaed footprint in the US??).

The paragraph misses some other details of note. For example, after Dick got on a commercial puddle jumper to fly to interview with Trump, he was appointed to the FAA Advisory Board, another position for which he is an obvious and arguably well-qualified pick. It also doesn’t note that Prince — who is a separate political entity from his sister and brother-in-law — was threatening anti-Trump Republicans both before and after the election, something that might support this theory except for all the other more obvious ways Prince accomplished such efforts.

Which is to say that, while the piece acknowledges that to conclude the Trump – Alfa Bank records are suspect, you also have to explain why the Spectrum ones would be, it does no reporting to discern why that would be the case.

Later in the piece, after trying to explain DNC lookups involving a third entity that had previously only been alluded to (and only alluded to because without explanation, it would have and did problematize past claims), Filkins strains further to suggest the ties between Spectrum and Trump have been proven by events that have taken place since.

In one tranche of data that he gave them, they noticed that a third entity, in addition to Alfa Bank and Spectrum Health, had been looking up the Trump domain: Heartland Payment Systems, a payments processor based in Princeton. Of the thirty-five hundred D.N.S. queries seen for the Trump domain, Heartland made only seventy-six—but no other visible entity made more than two. Heartland had a link to Alfa Bank, but a tenuous one. It had recently been acquired by Global Payments, which, in 2009, had paid seventy-five million dollars for United Card Services, Russia’s leading credit-card-processing company; two years later, United Card Services bought Alfa Bank’s credit-card-processing unit. (A spokesperson for Global Payments said that her company had never had any relationship with the Trump Organization or with Alfa Bank, and that its U.S. and Russia operations functioned entirely independently.)

Spectrum Health has a similarly indirect business tie to Alfa Bank. Richard DeVos’ father co-founded Amway, and his brother, Doug, has served as the company’s president since 2002. In 2014, Amway joined with Alfa Bank to create an “Alfa-Amway” loyalty-card program in Russia. But such connections are circumstantial at best; the DeVos family seems far more clearly linked to Trump than to Russia.

It’s this sentence — “the DeVos family seems far more clearly linked to Trump than to Russia” — that exemplifies this story, and its epistemology, for me. It treats the DeVos family — Dick, his wife Betsy Prince DeVos, his brother Doug, his charitable mother Helen, and his brother-in-law Erik Prince, to say nothing of the hospital administrators that actually run Spectrum — as a monolith they’re simply not, reads their current varied relationships with Trump back into a history where only Erik’s relationship resembled his current one, and then concludes that a link with Dick through Helen-Betsy-Erik is all you need to explain why these presumed conspirators would use a hospital rather than any of the many entities the DeVoses privately hold (and therefore more directly manage) or the Prince entities that already have built-in covert channels with a proven past ability to reach out to oligarchs discretely.

I mean, I absolutely think there’s a place for more journalism on what Erik was doing during the election, his role as a cut-out to Trump, and how he has helped to discipline the Republican party since. Or, if you want to pursue some theory of nefarious plot explaining how the originally reluctant DeVoses came to become close Trump associates, you’d explore far more about Mike Pence’s obvious role in it all (to say nothing of Pence’s frequent meetings with the DeVoses since), something Jean Camp is well situated to do from Indiana.

But one thing any such journalism would show is that Prince has the ability to conduct convert communications via much more effective channels, and Betsy and Dick DeVos have the network to achieve their political goals via means that don’t require hijacking a hospital server they don’t directly control.

Meanwhile, the story doesn’t explore the tangential role of Alfa Bank, via Alex van der Zwaan, in the Skadden Arps part of the Paul Manafort story, and doesn’t explain that any focus on Alfa Bank prior to Trump’s inauguration might have distracted from the sanctioned Russian banks that, at least as far as is currently known, are the actual key players in the Trump Russia story. It also doesn’t explain that key events in any conspiracy between Trump and Russia were communicated via insecure Trump Organization hosted email, often (in Manafort’s case, for long after he had been indicted) backed up to the iCloud.

This Trump Tower – Alfa Bank story continues to spin journalists, not to mention academics and infosec experts, into uncharacteristic habits that don’t appear to be leading to any real clarity about the topic at hand.

The Sickening Decay of Lamar Alexander

Lamar Alexander is a small-town boy from Maryville, TN, near Knoxville*, the son of a preschool teacher and a high school principle. He was a fine pianist, and athlete, and high school class president. He went to Vanderbilt, where he compiled a great record, went to law school, and clerked for Judge Minor Wisdom at the Fifth Circuit. He became involved in national politics, serving under Bryce Harlow in the Nixon White House, and as a staffer for Senator Howard Baker. He was also active in Tennessee politics, where he was campaign manager for the first Republican governor in 50 years. Alexander was elected governor in 1978, succeeding Ray Blanton. Blanton didn’t run, probably because he was suspected of issuing pardons for bribes and of selling state liquor licenses, both of which turned out to be true. At that time, I was working in the Tennessee Attorney General’s office, and I vividly remember discussions about an early swearing-in to prevent Blanton from further crimes, as well as some arguably funny stories about the sale of liquor licenses.

His Commissioner of Commerce and Insurance was John Neff, a decent and highly competent man as were all of Alexander’s appointees. In mid-1980 Neff hired me to be his Assistant Commissioner for Securities, a post I held for three and a half years. That gave me the opportunity to see up close that Alexander was a decent governor. He never once interfered in any of the decisions I made as Commissioner, either in prosecuting or in rule-making. He never interfered with my hiring decisions, though he presumably knew directly or indirectly that I was a Democrat. Among positive things, he was an education reformer. I didn’t agree with all his ideas, but there was no doubt of his personal dedication to improving the education system in Tennessee, and his willingness to spend political capital and work with Democrats to achieve his goals.

After two terms as governor, Alexander was appointed President of the University of Tennessee, where he did a decent if vanilla job. He left that position to become Secretary of Education under the first Bush. There was a hint of weirdness: Alexander overruled an advisory committee and approved the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools as an accrediting organization. The group had been denied that status under Reagan, probably because it was formed to accredit colleges that taught creation science. The group is still accredited, having been reapproved in 2013**.

Alexander’s career was buoyed up by a number of Tennessee businessmen and friends, including Jack Massey (KFC), Ted Welch (real estate), Tom Beasley (Corrections Corporation of America), and Chris Whittle. Welch was a major Republican fundraiser. These connections nourished Alexander’s political career, and while in the private sector, he became fairly wealthy. Envious people might raise questions about the arrangements that led to his wealth, but this was and is common, and more or less acceptable for politicians not named Clinton. He was an unsuccessful candidate for president in 1996 and 2000, and was elected to the Senate in 2002, both times running as a moderate Republican.

Alexander was a member of Westminster Presbyterian Church, a PCUSA church in Nashville, where I was a member of the choir for over 20 years. The choir processed in and out on Sunday morning, and I saw him often with his wife, Honey. The preacher was K. C. Ptomey, a brilliant man and a wonderful preacher. His command of Presbyterian and Christian history and dogma was amazing, and I learned a great deal from listening to him Sunday after Sunday, and at least one Sunday School class he led that didn’t conflict with choir practice. As a young man in the early 60s, K.C. was involved in efforts to open the Presbyterian Church to African-Americans. You could not hear a sermon without realizing that K.C. was a good person.

Massey, Welch and Ptomey are dead now. Alexander is wealthy and probably won’t run again, given his age and the rise of Trumpism in Tennessee. He isn’t beholden to anyone, and is free to follow his conscience. He certainly knows that Trump is ignorant and a bully, and he’s smart enough to suspect that Trump is mentally unstable. He certainly knows about the White Nationalist Steve Bannon and the rest of the Dr. Strangelove characters and witless nepotists in the White House. He doesn’t have to kiss Trump’s ring, but he does: he’s carrying the nomination of Betsy DeVos forward, and promises to “repair” (the Frank Luntz rebrand word) Obamacare.

To me Alexander represented the classic Republican realist/moderate, and I assume that was the kind of man his mentors and wealthy donors supported. I have no idea what they would think of Trump or of the man Alexander has become. I imagine his parents would be appalled by his support of Betsy DeVos.

But I feel certain that K.C. would be ashamed of Lamar Alexander, and deeply depressed that he puts party over country, rejecting the principles, the ethics and the ideals K.C. lived and taught. It makes me sad too.

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* Some of this history is based on personal knowledge, and some is from this Wikipedia entry.

** Full disclosure: when I was with the State AG, I handled two cases for the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, which was in charge of policing colleges, both involving religious schools. I was successful in the case that went to trial, and the other school made arrangements to be accredited by an agency acceptable to THEC.