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Trump’s Greenlight: Asking for Foreign Aid and Assistance via Prime Time TV

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

The balls on this guy. It’s no wonder Trump walks like he does, having to drag around abnormal fleshbags of unmitigated gall and corruption everywhere he goes.

By now most of our regular readers have seen Trump interviewed by ABC News’ George Stephanopolous. In case you haven’t:

This is still stunning for its in-your-face indifference to campaign finance law:

Asked by ABC News Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos in the Oval Office on Wednesday whether his campaign would accept such information from foreigners — such as China or Russia — or hand it over the FBI, Trump said, “I think maybe you do both.”

“I think you might want to listen, there isn’t anything wrong with listening,” Trump continued. “If somebody called from a country, Norway, [and said] ‘we have information on your opponent’ — oh, I think I’d want to hear it.”

“It’s not an interference, they have information — I think I’d take it,” Trump said. “If I thought there was something wrong, I’d go maybe to the FBI — if I thought there was something wrong. But when somebody comes up with oppo research, right, they come up with oppo research, ‘oh let’s call the FBI.’ The FBI doesn’t have enough agents to take care of it. When you go and talk, honestly, to congressman, they all do it, they always have, and that’s the way it is. It’s called oppo research.” …

There’s a lot packed into this exchange with Stephanopolous, the most obvious being Trump’s blow off of Title 52 USC 30121 which prohibits candidates and campaigns from receiving anything of value from a foreign national. Specifically:

52 U.S. Code § 30121 – Contributions and donations by foreign nationals

(a) Prohibition It shall be unlawful for—
· ·  (1) a foreign national, directly or indirectly, to make—
· · · · (A) a contribution or donation of money or other thing of value, or to make an express or implied promise to make a contribution or donation, in connection with a Federal, State, or local election;
· · · · (B) a contribution or donation to a committee of a political party; or
· · · · (C) an expenditure, independent expenditure, or disbursement for an electioneering communication (within the meaning of section 30104(f)(3) of this title); or
· · · · (2) a person to solicit, accept, or receive a contribution or donation described in subparagraph (A) or (B) of paragraph (1) from a foreign national.

(b) “Foreign national” defined As used in this section, the term “foreign national” means—
· ·  (1) a foreign principal, as such term is defined by section 611(b) of title 22, except that the term “foreign national” shall not include any individual who is a citizen of the United States; or
· ·  (2) an individual who is not a citizen of the United States or a national of the United States (as defined in section 1101(a)(22) of title 8) and who is not lawfully admitted for permanent residence, as defined by section 1101(a)(20) of title 8.

Emphasis mine.

“Directly or indirectly” may include the kinds of contributions the National Rifle Association made to candidates’ campaigns with Russian money, especially after guidance from Maria Butina and/or her boss Aleksandr Torshin, and/or her American handler, Paul Erickson.

“Other thing of value” may include polling data or stolen emails or manipulation of the media since any of these items might otherwise require a candidate’s campaign to buy these items. We don’t yet know exactly what Paul Manafort and Konstantin Kilimnik exchanged on August 2 — including 75 pages of “gibberish” polling data and likely high-level analysis and specific post-meeting performance — 2016 but if it was important enough to warrant sustained prevarication, it was something valuable.

Trump can no longer claim stupidity and ignorance after the Special Counsel’s Office investigation into Trump-Russia. His blow-off reveals a deliberate mindset, an intent to violate the law if the opportunity presents itself.

Even merely listening to an offer of aid or assistance directly or indirectly from a foreign national is problematic because the offer itself may be valuable.

“There isn’t anything wrong with listening,” Trump said, which is what his son, son-in-law, and campaign manager did in June 2016 during the Trump Tower meeting. Their presence merely to listen was a greenlight advising foreign nationals that Trump’s campaign was willing and approved help from outside the U.S. to influence the U.S. elections.

And that’s what Trump did during his interview with Stephanopolous: he greenlighted more foreign aid and assistance to help his campaign.

He did it from behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office. He never once slowed Stephanopolous to tell him “I can’t talk about campaign efforts while being interviewed as president in the office of the presidency.”

Was he soliciting for his campaign while on camera? For all the hullabaloo today about Kelly Anne Conway’s egregious and repeated Hatch Act violations, Trump’s likely violation campaigning while on our dime got lost.[1]

Not only did he express a willingness to violate campaign finance law and allow himself to be influenced in the process, not only did he commit a Hatch Act violation, fail to separate his work as president from work for his personal re-election campaign,[1]  but he pissed on Republican candidates known and as-yet unknown who may choose to primary him.

He didn’t differentiate for which opposition he was open to receiving an opposition research pitch from foreign entities. He did not say he was interested in hearing solely about Democratic candidates.

Nor did he entertain listening solely for his presidential race. Opponents aren’t just those running against you in a campaign. One could argue that Trump has the entire U.S. intelligence apparatus at his disposal but he can’t be sure they would provide campaign data or offer to perform dirty tricks on behalf of the POTUS. A foreign entity, especially a hostile one? Sure.

Which is exactly what the Russian Internet Research Agency did in 2016 targeting Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz during the Republican primary.

In spite of the 2016 attacks and Trump’s express willingness to entertain foreign assistance, the Republicans have just plain rolled over for Trump. You think the House Democratic leadership is feckless? Bah. Republicans are utter dupes.

Trump telegraphs the defense he’ll use — and the attack he attends to take — when he calls the material he’s soliciting “oppo research.” The aid Trump’s campaign received in 2016 wasn’t opposition research on Hillary Clinton; it was stolen emails leaked to generate negative sentiment about Clinton. It was micro-targeted negative messaging aimed at vulnerable populations to persuade leaners and suppress tentative voters, and a bunch of unauthorized but welcomed advertisements. It was likely more in the form of attempts on voting infrastructure, whether merely to collect data or to manipulate the system.

When Trump called it “oppo research,” he was establishing what he believed was a parallel — what the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) acquired through its law firm, Perkins Coie, which in turn purchased opposition research from Fusion GPS. Fusion GPS obtained the services of former MI6 officer Christopher Steele to continue a dossier originally started on behalf of Washington Free Beacon in late 2015. Trump and other campaign minions like Carter Page have frequently claimed the opposition research dossier was “dodgy” and illegitimate, and yet Trump feels entitled to opposition research without restrictions, as if Clinton and the DNC had not followed campaign finance laws.

Whatever the quality of its contents, the Steele dossier was a campaign expenditure, a compilation of information ultimately paid for by the campaign and the DNC — wholly legal — and the material was contracted by an American entity from another American entity.

What Trump’s campaign received in 2016 — goods and services were given to the campaign directly and indirectly by foreign entities like the Internet Research Agency — were NOT legal.

Trump will do whatever he can to muddy the distinction between wholly legal campaign expenses and contributions or things of value received from foreign nationals in order to protect his chances at re-election and lay the ground work to attack his last campaign opponent.

There’s one more disturbing nit about Trump’s solicitation. What Trump has done in his greenlighting on camera is solicit foreign assistance. This does not rule out solicitation of foreign direction.

At what point is the Department of Justice’s National Security Division engaged when the president greenlights or solicits foreign assistance and direction?

Should the presidential campaign be under counterintelligence investigation right now and forward?

Not that there aren’t already ample reasons for the Trump 2020 campaign to be scrutinized given the number of Chinese nationals hanging out at Mar-a-Lago, with at least one allegedly bundling donations for Trump’s re-election.

Might make one wonder if Trump’s greenlight on ABC is after the fact — and not after the fact about the 2016 election.

______

[1] Edited to reflect the Hatch Act does not apply to the president — however, this is problematic as Trump has shown repeatedly, including in this interview. At what point is he talking about accepting ‘foreign assistance and direction’ from foreign nationals or other nation-states for the purposes of his personal re-election campaign and accepting the same for U.S. interests? His personal interests are not one-for-one the same as the nation’s interests, unless of course he’d like to deed over all his businesses.

I’d also like to point out the phrase ‘foreign assistance and direction’ is the distinction the DOJ uses to differentiate non-domestic from domestic terrorism. That the president was entertaining the idea of using ‘foreign assistance and direction’ to aid his campaign whether spelled out in those specific terms or not surely worries U.S. intelligence community members who recognize the inherent risks.

The Hatch Act should be revisited with Trump and the office of the presidency in mind not only because of his greenlighting foreign pitches of assistance to his campaign. Throughout the last two years Trump has spoken at rallies which have occurred in tandem with special and mid-term elections in order to sway locals to vote for the GOP candidate. His arrival and support at each of these venues comes at the expense of public funds — local, state, federal  — and not the GOP or Trump’s campaign committee. He has also stiffed at least ten cities for additional expenses related to his attendance at rallies, a form of additional tax the citizens didn’t approve in advance. But they’re forced to produce additional security because he’s the president even though he’s there to campaign.

The job of the presidency must be separated from campaigning, and no campaigning should happen without the campaign absorbing the expense. Add this to the Hatch Act: the president should NOT be immune.

[Photo: Emily Morter via Unsplash]

Oddly-Timed Story: White House Counsel McGahn’s Call to FCC’s Ajit Pai

[NB: Check the byline — it’s Rayne and some of this post is speculative.]

Maybe it’s something; maybe it’s nothing. But with White House Counsel Don McGahn under so much scrutiny this week, the timing of the story about McGahn’s call to the Federal Communications Commission seems odd.

You may recall I wrote recently (item 2) about the proposed merger of Sinclair Broadcast Group and Tribune Media, a deal which would have created a behemoth reaching at least 72% of U.S. households via local broadcast TV stations. FCC chair Ajit Pai revealed in testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee on Thursday this past week that McGahn had called him about the Sinclair Broadcast Group-Tribune Media merger.

Let’s look at the timeline of events related to this deal:

22-JAN-2017 — Ajit Pai named FCC chair on Trump’s second full day in office.
7-MAR-2017 — Trump nominates Ajit Pai to a second five-year term with the FCC as its chair.

Trump and Pai met at the White House on Monday for a meeting that was closed to the press, although an FCC official said that no pending business before the agency was discussed.

17-MAR-2017 — Rumors surfaced about a Sinclair-Tribune merger.
8-MAY-2017 — Sinclair announced it would buy Tribune; assets would include WGN (Chicago) and WMIL (Milwaukee) radio stations. Tribune newspapers were not included in the deal.
2-OCT-2017 — Senate confirms Pai as FCC chair.
24-OCT-2017 — FCC killed a rule requiring broadcasters to have physical offices in their primary local coverage area. The move was seen as beneficial to Sinclair’s merger as they would not have to change office locations.

16-JUL-2018 — Pai expressed concerns about the merger deal, drafting a Hearing Designated Order (HDO) to place the merger before an administrative judge.
17-JUL-2018 — McGahn called Pai for an update on the Sinclair-Tribune merger.
18-JUL-2018 — FCC signs and issues the HDO.
18-JUL-2018 — House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology announced an FCC oversight hearing for 25-JUL-2018.
24-JUL-2018 — Trump tweets about his disappointment with FCC about the Sinclair-Tribune deal:

So sad and unfair that the FCC wouldn’t approve the Sinclair Broadcast merger with Tribune. This would have been a great and much needed Conservative voice for and of the People. Liberal Fake News NBC and Comcast gets approved, much bigger, but not Sinclair. Disgraceful!

25-JUL-2018 — During House Energy and Commerce Committee FCC oversight hearing, Chairman Frank Pallone asked Pai, “If the President or anyone in the White House discusses or has discussed the Sinclair-Tribune merger with you or anyone at the FCC, will you commit to disclosing that in the public docket? Yes or no?” Pai responded, “Yes, except, Congressman, we have ex parte rules, because this is now a restricted proceeding. We are limited in what information we can receive and what we can put on the record. But consistent with our restricted ex parte rules, we would be happy to accommodate to the extent we can.” (video excerpt)
02-AUG-2018 — Pai did not mention the call from McGahn during an FCC press conference.
09-AUG-2018 — Tribune, not Sinclair, terminated the deal.
16-AUG-2018 — Pai appears before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, disclosing McGahn’s call.
18-AUG-2018 — NYT publishes the first of two pieces on McGahn.
19-AUG-2018 — NYT publishes the second of two pieces on McGahn.
20-AUG-2018 — House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Pallone Jr. said McGahn’s call to Pai should have been disclosed the previous week during a hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing the previous week. Pallone wants answers about that call.

A couple things stand out immediately. First, Pai parsed responses to the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Senate Commerce Committee. He was already on thin ice because of his claim a DDoS swamped public comments related to net neutrality but the FCC’s inspector general found Pai to be less than honest about the DDoS.

Second, the story about McGahn calling Pai was published on Thursday afternoon, approaching an advanced news dump zone during August. Why did NYT run not one but two stories about McGahn over the weekend? Why didn’t they wait until Monday? It’s as if somebody realized they needed to get a story out in spite of late summer weekend doldrums.

In this past weekend’s hullabaloo about McGahn’s “cooperation” with Special Counsel’s Office, there was a concerted effort to portray McGahn as serving and protecting the presidency, not Trump. As White House Counsel this is McGahn’s job but the obvious effort to distance McGahn from Trump should be noted.

Which makes me wonder: why did McGahn as White House Counsel, responsible for protecting the presidency, need an update from the chair of the independent FCC on a media merger? Why wouldn’t Commerce Department address this if Trump was curious? Or why wouldn’t Trump act like an ass and bumble a demand for information directly over Twitter as he has before with companies like Boeing?

As Marcy has pointed out, McGahn has extensive background in campaign finance; he was the Trump campaign’s counsel during the 2016 election season. Coincidentally he was counsel when David Smith, CEO of Sinclair Broadcasting Group, told Trump, “We are here to deliver your message.

Sounds like an offer of an unreported in-kind campaign donation to me since there are no reports that Smith or anyone at Sinclair made a similar offer to any other GOP primary candidate or to Hillary Clinton. Sinclair vigorously denied they hadn’t offered equal time when Sinclair’s offer to Trump was reported:

. . .there was a flap when Trump advisor Jared Kushner told a private business luncheon in December that Sinclair executives worked with the campaign to spread pro-Trump messages in Sinclair newscasts, which reach 81 markets in key heartland regions that supported Trump. Sinclair vehemently denied the claim, asserting that it offered equal amounts of air time for in-depth interviews to Trump and his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, and that Clinton declined the invitation.

Did McGahn know about and approve this offer?

Pai’s squirrelly behavior about Sinclair-Tribune as well as McGahn’s sudden distancing from Trump cast a different light on David Smith’s so-helpful offer and Sinclair’s mandatory group-wide airing of former White House communications aide Boris Epshteyn’s program — the same Epshteyn who has a history of pro-Russian sentiment. Add these couple line items to the timeline:

25-MAR-2017 — Epshteyn left his role as Special Assistant to The President and Assistant Communications Director for Surrogate Operations, having previously served in Trump campaign communications and as director of communications for Trump inauguration committee.
17-APR-2017 — Sinclair announced Epshteyn joined them as a political analyst.

Conveniently after the rumors emerged about the Sinclair-Tribune merger but before it was formally announced — what a coincidence.

It doesn’t appear Epshteyn was replaced in the White House. Was Epshteyn placed with Sinclair at Trump’s request — not because of Epshteyn’s rumored confrontational approach to Fox News — after having been parked with the White House for two months post-inauguration for the purposes of resume padding?

Is Epshteyn really an independent political analyst or is he still shilling for Trump as an under-cover communications aide on Sinclair’s dime — gaslighting America for Trump’s benefit — given David Smith’s eagerness to deliver Trump’s message? Is Epshteyn really doing advance work for Trump 2020 campaign?

Is this the reason why Sinclair issued a diktat to all its 173 stations that they must read on air a statement about other media outlets’ “fake news,” in order to elevate their content, including Epshteyn’s by contrast, engaging in what NPR’s David Folkenflik called “negative campaigning”?

Is this the reason why Ajit Pai didn’t disclose the call from McGahn and attempted to obstruct access to information about the call behind an HDO that McGahn called not on behalf of the president but on behalf of the Trump 2020 campaign?

Did McGahn help push the two back-to-back NYT articles this weekend to wallpaper over what may have been a Hatch Act violation — using his role as White House Counsel to reach Ajit Pai and press for approval of the Sinclair-Tribune merger to benefit Trump 2020?

Reaching at least 72% of American households from now until Election Day 2020, to push anti-Democratic Party content while collecting data on viewers and shaping voter turnout, might have been adequate motivation to do so if one were working for the Trump campaign — not to mention  McGahn’s legal exposure.

It’d be nice if one of the Congressional committees conducting oversight of the FCC asked Pai more pointed questions about that phone call.

It’d be nice, too, if somebody asked any of the 2016 GOP primary candidates or Hillary Clinton’s campaign team if they received the same offer from Sinclair’s Smith extended to Trump or his proxies (hello, Jared).

And there’s more than one David helming a media empire who needs to answer some questions about their friend Trump.