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The Press Gets Utterly Snookered on the White House Rebranding of the Same Old Unrelenting Obstruction of Congressional Prerogatives

Yesterday, the White House sent a letter to Nancy Pelosi and just some of the Committee Chairs conducting parts of an impeachment inquiry into the President, purporting to refuse to participate in that impeachment inquiry. Since then, there has been a lot of shocked coverage about how intemperate the letter is, with particular focus on the fact that White House Counsel, Pat Cipollone, used to be considered a serious lawyer. There has been some attempt to analyze the letter as if it is a legal document and not instead the President’s rants packaged up in Times Roman and signed by one of his employees. A number of outlets have thrown entire reporting teams to do insipid horse race coverage of the letter, as if this is one giant game, maybe with nifty commercials on during halftime.

None I’ve seen have described the letter as what it is: an attempt to rebrand the same old outright obstruction that the White House has pursued since January.

The tell — for those teams of well-compensated journalists treating this as a factual document — might have been the addressees. While the letter got sent to Adam Schiff, Eliot Engel, and Elijah Cummings, it did not get sent to Jerry Nadler, who has been pursuing an impeachment inquiry of sorts since the Mueller Report came out. The White House knows Nadler is also part of the impeachment inquiry, because even as the White House was finalizing the letter, Trump’s DOJ was in DC Chief Judge Beryl Howell’s courtroom fighting a House Judiciary request for materials for the impeachment inquiry. In the hearing, DOJ literally argued that the Supreme Court’s 8-0 US v. Nixon was wrongly decided.

Howell picked up on that point by pressing DOJ to say whether then-U.S. District Court Chief Judge John Sirica was wrong in 1974 to let Congress access a detailed “road map” of the Watergate grand jury materials as it considered President Richard Nixon’s impeachment.

Shapiro argued that if the same Watergate road map arose today, there’d be a “different result” because the law has changed since 1974. She said the judge wouldn’t be able to do the same thing absent changes to the grand jury rules and statutes.

Howell sounded skeptical. “Wow. OK,” she replied.

DOJ also argued that Congress would have to pass a law to enshrine the principle that this binding Supreme Court precedent already made the law of the land.

In the HJC branch of the impeachment inquiry, the few credible claims made in yesterday’s letter — such as that Congress is conducting the inquiry in secret without the ability to cross-examine witnesses or have Executive Branch lawyers present — are proven utterly false. And with the claims made in yesterday’s hearing, the Executive demonstrated that they will obstruct even measured requests and negotiations for testimony.

The Trump White House obstructed normal Congressional oversight by absolutely refusing to cooperate.

The Trump White House obstructed an impeachment inquiry focused on requests and voluntary participation.

The Trump White House obstructed an impeachment inquiry where subpoenas were filed.

The Trump White House obstructed an impeachment inquiry relying on whistleblowers who aren’t parties to the White House omertà.

The Trump White House obstructed what numerous judges have made clear are reasonable requests from a co-equal branch of government.

Nothing in the White House’s conduct changed yesterday. Not a single thing. And any journalist who treats this as a new development should trade in her notebooks or maybe move to covering football where such reporting is appropriate.

It is, however, a rebranding of the same old unrelenting obstruction, an effort to relaunch the same policy of unremitting obstruction under an even more intransigent and extreme marketing pitch.

And that — the need to rebrand the same old obstruction — might be worthy topic of news coverage. Why the White House feels the need to scream louder and pound the table more aggressively is a subject for reporting. But to cover it, you’d go to people like Mitt Romney and Susan Collins, who already seem to be preparing to explain votes against the President. You even go to people like Lindsey Graham, who is doing ridiculous things to sustain Rudy Giuliani’s hoaxes in the Senate Judiciary Committee — but who has condemned the principle of making the country dramatically less safe for whimsical personal benefit in Syria. Or you go to Richard Burr, who quietly released a report making it clear Russia took affirmative efforts to elect Trump in 2016.

This week, Trump looked at the first few Republicans getting weak in the knees and his response was to double down on the same old policies, while rolling out a campaign trying to persuade those weak-kneed members of Congress who are contemplating the import of our Constitution not to do so.

The President’s former lawyer testified earlier this year, under oath, that this has always been a branding opportunity to Donald Trump.

Donald Trump is a man who ran for office to make his brand great, not to make our country great. He had no desire or intention to lead this nation – only to market himself and to build his wealth and power. Mr. Trump would often say, this campaign was going to be the “greatest infomercial in political history.”

His latest attempt to cajole Republican loyalty is no different. It’s just a rebranding of the same intransigence. Treating it as anything but a rebranding is organized forgetting of what has taken place for the last nine months, and journalists should know better.

House Committees’ Deposition: U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker

[NB: Check the byline, thanks!]

If yesterday’s blizzard of disinformation tweets is any kind of measure, the GOP is worried about today’s interview of the former U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine, Kurt Volker, before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Committee on Foreign Affairs, and the Committee on Oversight and Reform. You may recall he resigned from his role as a diplomat last Friday.

In a letter sent to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on September 27, it looked as if the biggest questions for State personnel would arise from what it was Giuliani was doing in and about Ukraine.

… The Department has also acknowledged that Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker played a direct role in arranging meetings between Rudy Giuliani, wo has no official role in the U.S. government, and representatives of President Zelensky.5 In addition, the whistleblower complaint indicate that “multiple U.S. Officials” were “deeply concerned by what they viewed as Mr. Giuliani’s circumvention of national security decisionmaking processes to engage with Ukrainian officials and relay messages back and forth between Kyiv and the President”6 These officials reported that “State Department officials” had spoken with Mr. Giuliani “in an attempt to ‘contain the damage’ to U.S. national security,” as well as to the new Ukrainian administration to help it “understand and respond to “Mr. Giuliani’s backchanneling.7

Whew. When you put it that way one can well understand the frustration of former member of parliament and presidential adviser Serhiy Leschenko when he wrote in a recent op-ed,

… Giuliani and his associates are trying to drag our newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky, into a conflict between two foreign political parties, drastically limiting Ukraine’s room for maneuver in respect to the United States, perhaps its most important international partner. …

Today’s deposition is part of what the letter from the committees to Pompeo called “part of the impeachment inquiry.” It’ll be valuable as part of the investigative process determining culpability and to what degree on the part of participants who may have been manipulating U.S. foreign policy for the benefit of Trump’s re-election campaign.

But it will also be valuable for our relationship with Ukraine. They need to see the U.S. living up to its promise as a democracy while identifying where our relationship with Ukraine was hijacked.

The questions may be fairly simple:

— what was the understanding of Volker or other State Department personnel about the nature of Rudy Giuliani’s relationship to the U.S. government?
— did Volker every hear of Giuliani having meetings with Ukrainians prior to the July 25 call? What did the meetings entail and was each meeting debriefed with State?
— did Rudy Giuliani ask Volker or other State Department personnel for assistance in contacting Zelensky or other Ukraine officials?
— did Volker or the State Department ever ask Giuliani to contact Zelensky or other Ukraine officials?
— if anyone from State Department did ask, who was it and under what context did they make this request?
— were Volker and/org other State Department personnel asked by Giuliani or others to disparage former ambassador Marie Yovanovitch or in any way hamper her diplomatic work?
— did Volker and/or other State Department personnel ever see or hear Ukraine officials encouraged to disparage former ambassador Marie Yovanovitch or in any way hamper her diplomatic work?
— what did Volker know about the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky, ex. attendees at the White House, or participating remotely like from Ukraine?
— did subsequent meetings between Volker and Ukraine officials imply a quid pro quo agreement, aid for a deliverable?
— did the diplomatic office in Ukraine have its own transcript, complete or partial, or a memorandum of telephone conversation for the July 25 call?

I’m sure there’s more to be asked but these are pretty important questions. What about you? What would ask and how if you were in charge of this interview?

There’s a strong chance Pompeo, the Department of Justice, or the White House may interfere and prevent Volker’s deposition. We’ll see.

Timing of the deposition isn’t clear; I haven’t been able to find it anywhere. The deposition doesn’t appear to be open, either, as I see nothing on the calendars I’ve checked. If you find information please share it in comments.

At Time of Trump-Zelensky Call, Mulvaney Was Already Under Notice From Cummings, Engel and Schiff Not to Hide Records

Note the byline.

In perusing the House Oversight Committee website while looking for something else, I ran across this remarkable letter dated February 21, 2019. It is addressed to Mick Mulvaney as Acting White House Chief of Staff and is from Elijah Cummings, Chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, Eliot Engel, Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and Adam Schiff, Chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. The letter is part of an ongoing effort by Congress to obtain records from meetings between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin that occurred in Hamburg on July 7, 2017 and in Helsinki on July 16, 2018.

The letter reprises press reports of Trump confiscating notes from interpreters and having a general reputation for tearing up documents. Although prompted by their frustration in getting records from these two meetings, the three committee chairmen expand the scope of their direction to Mulvaney to preserve records:

Recall that the Trump-Zelensky phone call took place on July 25, 2019, just over five months after the letter was sent. It seems particularly on point that the letter warned Mulvaney against “relocation” as well as “intentional handling which would foreseeably make such records incomplete or inaccessable”. Certainly, by relocating the Situation Room’s transcript to the code-word level computer system, Mulvaney (or other actor(s) in the White House) did indeed make the record incomplete and essentially inaccessible until the whistleblower complaint forced the publication of a partial transcript.

And how did the White House respond to the letter? The return letter came from White House Counsel Pat Cipollone exactly one month later, blowing off the request for records from the two Trump-Putin meetings in its entirety, citing a claim that the President alone conducts foreign policy. And yet, the letter claimed that the White House fully complies with the Presidential Records Act, under which the three committee chairmen had submitted their request.

I’m wondering if this letter, with its highly specific warning, will increase the legal difficulties for Mulvaney once the impeachment investigation spotlight begins to point his direction.

Thug, Mob, Rogue: Trump Organization’s Own Description of Its Panama Hotel

While Trump and his son-in-law (and a number of his cabinet members) have clearly been profiting personally from Trump’s presidency (see my NYT op-ed on Jared’s woes), thus far their pursuit of self-interest hasn’t caused any international incidents (moving the US embassy to Jerusalem has come closest).

The scuffle between the Trump organization and the majority owner of the Panama City Trump hotel might just change that.

The problems go back aways (I’ll lay out some of the timeline below). But the short version is that the majority owner of the property, Orestes Fintiklis, got the other owners to vote to fire the Trump Organization in October, claiming the diminished brand and (importantly) a bad sales strategy is part of why the property is at less than 30% occupancy. The Trump Organization (screaming RICO) tried to force the matter into arbitration in December. And Fintiklis has now sued in SDNY to prevent that.

Things started getting crazy a week ago Thursday, when Fintiklis tried to fire the Trump employees, then cut off power, and then got the Panamanian government to side with him and arrest a Trump employed security guard. Significantly, the two sides are fighting over the control room and Fintiklis alleges that Trump employees are shredding documents.

Two people familiar with Fintiklis’s account said that, after his arrival, hotel employees barricaded office doors with furniture, and they added that documents were shredded. The two people said Trump Organization employees — including an executive who flew down from New York City — also blocked access to a control room that houses servers and surveillance-camera monitors.

This room, the two people said, is shared by the hotel operation and the managers of the residential side of the building, which is no longer operated by the Trump Organization.

I find that interesting given the Reuters report, from last November, describing how Ivanka put a Brazilian money launderer with ties to Russian organized crime, Alexandre Ventura Nogueira, in charge of many of the advanced sales in the project.

A Reuters investigation into the financing of the Trump Ocean Club, in conjunction with the American broadcaster NBC News, found Nogueira was responsible for between one-third and one-half of advance sales for the project. It also found he did business with a Colombian who was later convicted of money laundering and is now in detention in the United States; a Russian investor in the Trump project who was jailed in Israel in the 1990s for kidnap and threats to kill; and a Ukrainian investor who was arrested for alleged people-smuggling while working with Nogueira and later convicted by a Kiev court.

Three years after getting involved in the Trump Ocean Club, Nogueira was arrested by Panamanian authorities on charges of fraud and forgery, unrelated to the Trump project. Released on $1.4 million bail, he later fled the country.

He left behind a trail of people who claim he cheated them, including over apartments in the Trump project, resulting in at least four criminal cases that eight years later have still to be judged.

[snip]

When first approached by Reuters, Nogueira declined to answer questions. Writing on October 4, he said in an email: “Anything I would say could also damage a lot of important and powerful people. I am not sure I should do that.”

Later, Nogueira agreed to meet. In a lengthy interview, he described his contacts with the Trump family and his role in the Ocean Club project. He said he only learned after the Ocean Club project was almost complete that some of his partners and investors in the Trump project were criminals, including some with what he described as connections to the “Russian mafia.” He said he had not knowingly laundered any illicit money through the Trump project, although he did say he had laundered cash later in other schemes for corrupt Panamanian officials.

The role Nogueira played is similar to the one Sergey Millian played for a Trump property in LA, which basically amounts to artificially inflating the sales so as to be able to get the loans for the underlying property.

Two Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ranking Member Eliot Engel and Norma Torres, have decided to take this opportunity to ask the Trump Organization if it knew the Panama facility was being used as a money laundering vehicle.

With the possibility that Fintiklis will gain control of the facility before any records of money laundering get shredded, I want to look at the timeline the Trump Organization lays out in their statement on the fracas.

Just before the 2016 election, Fintiklis, who is Cypriot though has a residence in Florida, bought into a majority share in the hotel from the original owners. The Trump Organization could have blocked that sale but, no, they could not, because otherwise the hotel would go under.

In October 2016, the original developer of the Hotel, Newland International Properties Corp., notified Trump Hotels that it was actively negotiating a bulk sale of its remaining 202 units to a company controlled by Mr. Fintiklis. Because the Co-Ownership Regulations for the Hotel preclude any one person from owning more than ten units without Trump Hotels’ consent, Trump Hotels could have blocked the sale as a matter of right. Concerned, however, about the future of the Hotel and the fate of the Hotel’s highly dedicated and loyal staff, Trump Hotels agreed to allow the sale to proceed on one condition: that Mr. Fintiklis agree that he would not in any way attempt to interfere with Trump’s management of the Hotel or take any other steps to terminate its management agreement.

So weeks after Trump became President, Fintiklis agreed to the terms of the sale and eventually finalized the purchase in August.

In February 2017, Mr. Fintiklis agreed, in writing, to these terms and, in August 2017, closed on the purchase of the units, becoming the owner of 202 of the 369 hotel units.

At that time, last August, Fintiklis spoke in rosy terms of the deal, including the hotel operator (that is, Trump).

We are excited to welcome such an iconic property to our investment portfolio and we look forward towards working with the local team, the hotel operator and the Panama community, to establish the Property as the premier hotel in the country and the entire region.

The Trump Organization accuses Fintiklis of orchestrating a conspiracy to remove Trump Hotels from the property.

Unfortunately, within weeks of the closing, it became apparent to Trump Hotels that Mr. Fintiklis had other motives. Rather than abide by the clear terms of the agreement he had signed, Mr. Fintiklis had been conspiring with others to remove Trump Hotels as manager and fire most, if not all, of its loyal and dedicated employees. Looking back, it is now apparent that Mr. Fintiklis, in flagrant violation of the commitments he had made, never had any intention of keeping his word and had been plotting a takeover and termination of Trump Hotels all along.

On October 14, 2017, Mr. Fintiklis furthered his fraudulent scheme, calling a meeting of the hotel condominium under the false pretense of a “meet and greet” and used that moment to hold unlawful votes and declare Trump Hotels in default of the management agreement. Within minutes of the meeting concluding Mr. Fintiklis sent Trump Hotels a default notice and filed for arbitration to terminate the management agreement. Clearly, Mr. Fintiklis had been concocting and planning this scheme for months.

The Trump folks, too, emphasize that part of this fight is over the facility’s computer system.

Together, Mr. Fintiklis and Mr. Lundgren, over the past several days, have resorted to thug-like, mob style tactics, repeatedly attempting to force their way into Trump Hotels’ offices, infiltrate and disrupt its computer systems and threatening and intimidating any employee of the Hotel that resisted.

Now, the Trump Organization made less than a million dollars off management fees for this facility in the last year or so.

In his most recent personal financial disclosure, Trump said his company had received $810,000 in management fees over the preceding 15 ½ months.

They are not getting rich off this facility, certainly not rich enough to sustain the legal fight already brewing over retaining the contract.

These people are all douchebags and the brawling side show is fairly amusing. But it does seem that Fintiklis bought into something far more than a mostly empty hotel, and he’s now using it as leverage against the Trump family business.

The fight over the Trump Panama hotel seems to be as much about the fight over records that may show whether Ivanka knew she was involved in money laundering with Russian mobsters and Colombia narcotics traffickers as it is over who gets to run the mostly empty hotel.

Which is a reminder that it’s not just Robert Mueller who has Trump by the nuts.