Thursday, June 15, 2017

Trump Administration Quietly Rolls Back Civil Rights Efforts Across Federal Government

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By  Jessica Huseman and Annie Waldman

For decades, the Department of Justice has used court-enforced agreements to protect civil rights, successfully desegregating school systems, reforming police departments, ensuring access for the disabled and defending the religious.
Now, under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the DOJ appears to be turning away from this storied tool, called consent decrees. Top officials in the DOJ civil rights division have issued verbal instructions through the ranks to seek settlements without consent decrees — which would result in no continuing court oversight.
The move is just one part of a move by the Trump administration to limit federal civil rights enforcement. Other departments have scaled back the power of their internal divisions that monitor such abuses. In a previously unreported development, the Education Department last week reversed an Obama-era reform that broadened the agency’s approach to protecting rights of students. The Labor Department and the Environmental Protection Agency have also announced sweeping cuts to their enforcement.
“At best, this administration believes that civil rights enforcement is superfluous and can be easily cut. At worst, it really is part of a systematic agenda to roll back civil rights,” said Vanita Gupta, the former acting head of the DOJ’s civil rights division under President Barack Obama.
Consent decrees have not been abandoned entirely by the DOJ, a person with knowledge of the instructions said. Instead, there is a presumption against their use — attorneys should default to using settlements without court oversight unless there is an unavoidable reason for a consent decree. The instructions came from the civil rights division’s office of acting Assistant Attorney General Tom Wheeler and Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Gore. There is no written policy guidance.
Devin O’Malley, a spokesperson for the DOJ, declined to comment for this story.
Consent decrees can be a powerful tool, and spell out specific steps that must be taken to remedy the harm. These are agreed to by both parties and signed off on by a judge, whom the parties can appear before again if the terms are not being met. Though critics say the DOJ sometimes does not enforce consent decrees well enough, they are more powerful than settlements that aren’t overseen by a judge and have no built-in enforcement mechanism.
Such settlements have “far fewer teeth to ensure adequate enforcement,” Gupta said.
Consent decrees often require agencies or municipalities to take expensive steps toward reform. Local leaders and agency heads then can point to the binding court authority when requesting budget increases to ensure reforms. Without consent decrees, many localities or government departments would simply never make such comprehensive changes, said William Yeomans, who spent 26 years at the DOJ, mostly in the civil rights division.
“They are key to civil rights enforcement,” he said. “That’s why Sessions and his ilk don’t like them.”
Some, however, believe the Obama administration relied on consent decrees too often and sometimes took advantage of vulnerable cities unable to effectively defend themselves against a well-resourced DOJ.
“I think a recalibration would be welcome,” said Richard Epstein, a professor at New York University School of Law and a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, adding that consent decrees should be used in cases where clear, systemic issues of discrimination exist.
Though it’s too early to see how widespread the effect of the changes will be, the Justice Department appears to be adhering to the directive already.
On May 30, the DOJ announced Bernards Township in New Jersey had agreed to pay $3.25 million to settle an accusation it denied zoning approval for a local Islamic group to build a mosque. Staff attorneys at the U.S. attorney’s office in New Jersey initially sought to resolve the case with a consent decree, according to a spokesperson for Bernards Township. But because of the DOJ’s new stance, the terms were changed after the township protested, according to a person familiar with the matter. A spokesperson for the New Jersey U.S. attorney’s office declined comment.
Sessions has long been a public critic of consent decrees. As a senator, he wrote they “constitute an end run around the democratic process.” He lambasted local agencies that seek them out as a way to inflate their budgets, a “particularly offensive” use of consent decrees that took decision-making power from legislatures.
On March 31, Sessions ordered a sweeping review of all consent decrees with troubled police departments nationwide to ensure they were in line with the Trump administration’s law-and-order goals. Days before, the DOJ had asked a judge to postpone a hearing on a consent decree with the Baltimore Police Department that had been arranged during the last days of the Obama administration. The judge denied that request, and the consent decree has moved forward.
The DOJ has already come under fire from critics for altering its approach to voting rights cases. After nearly six years of litigation over Texas’ voter ID law — which Obama DOJ attorneys said was written to intentionally discriminate against minority voters and had such a discriminatory effect — the Trump DOJ abruptly withdrew its intent claims in late February.
Attorneys who worked on the case for years were barely consulted about the change — many weren’t consulted at all, according to two former DOJ officials with knowledge of the matter. Gore wrote the filing changing the DOJ’s position largely by himself and asked the attorneys who’d been involved in the case for years to sign it to show continuity. Not all of the attorneys fell in line. Avner Shapiro — who has been a prosecutor in the civil rights division for more than 20 years — left his name off the filings written by Gore. Shapiro was particularly involved in developing the DOJ’s argument that Texas had intentionally discriminated against minorities in crafting its voter ID legislation.
“That’s the ultimate act of rebellion,” Yeomans, the former civil rights division prosecutor, said. A rare act, removing one’s name from a legal filing is one of the few ways career attorneys can express public disagreement with an administration.
Gore has no history of bringing civil rights cases. A former partner at the law firm Jones Day, he has instead defended states against claims of racial gerrymandering and represented North Carolina when the state was sued over its controversial “bathroom bill,” which requires transgender people to use the facility that matched their birth gender.
All of the internal changes at the DOJ have left attorneys and staff with “a great deal of fear and uncertainty,” said Yeomans. While he says the lawyers there would like to stay at the department, they fear Sessions’ priorities will have devastating impact on their work.
The DOJ’s civil rights office is not alone in fearing rollbacks in enforcement. Across federal departments, the Trump administration has made moves to diminish the power of civil rights divisions.
The Department of Education has laid out plans to loosen requirements on investigations into civil rights complaints, according to an internal memo sent to staff on June 8 and obtained by ProPublica.
Under the Obama administration, the department’s office for civil rights applied an expansive approach to investigations. Individual complaints related to complex issues such as school discipline, sexual violence and harassment, equal access to educational resources, or racism at a single school might have prompted broader probes to determine whether the allegations were part of a pattern of discrimination or harassment.
The new memo, sent by Candice Jackson, the acting assistant secretary for civil rights, to regional directors at the department’s civil rights office, trims this approach. Jackson was appointed deputy assistant secretary for the office in April and will remain as the acting head of the office until the Senate confirms a full-time assistant secretary. Trump has not publicly nominated anyone for the role yet.
The office will apply the broader approach “only” if the original allegations raise systemic concerns or the investigative team argues for it, Jackson wrote in the memo.
As part of the new approach, the Education Department will no longer require civil rights investigators to obtain three years of complaint data from a specific school or district to assess compliance with civil rights law.
Critics contend the Obama administration’s probes were onerous. The office “did such a thorough review of everything that the investigations were demanding and very expensive” for schools, said Boston College American politics professor R. Shep Melnick, adding that the new approach could take some regulatory pressure off schools and districts.
But some civil rights leaders believe the change could undermine the office’s mission. This narrowing of the department’s investigations “is stunning to me and dangerous,” said Catherine Lhamon, who led the Education Department’s civil rights office from August 2013 until January 2017 and currently chairs the United States Commission on Civil Rights. “It’s important to take an expansive view of the potential for harm because if you look only at the most recent year, you won’t necessarily see the pattern,” said Lhamon.
The department’s new directive also gives more autonomy to regional offices, no longer requiring oversight or review of some cases by department headquarters, according to the memo.
The Education Department did not respond to ProPublica’s request for comment.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has also proposed cutting over 40 positions from the civil rights office. With reduced staff, the office will have to “make difficult choices, including cutting back on initiating proactive investigations,” according to the department’s proposed budget.
Elsewhere, Trump administration appointees have launched similar initiatives. In its 2018 fiscal plan, the Labor Department has proposed dissolving the office that handles discrimination complaints. Similarly, new leadership at the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed entirely eliminating the environmental justice program, which addresses concerns that almost exclusively impact minority communities. The Washington Post reports the plan transfers all environmental justice work to the Office of Policy, which provides policy and regulatory guidance across the agency.
Mustafa Ali, a former EPA senior adviser and assistant associate administrator for environmental justice who served more than 20 years, quit the agency in protest days before the plan was announced. In his resignation letter, widely circulated in the media, Ali suggested the new leadership was abandoning “those who need our help most.”

Here's the PR Firm Behind 'Your Energy America' Front Group Pushing Atlantic Coast Pipeline

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By Steve Horn

Your Energy America” is a newly formed front group pushing Dominion Energy's Atlantic Coast natural gas pipeline. By tracing hosting information for the group's website, DeSmog has found evidence pointing to the PR firm behind the group: DDC Advocacy, which has known ties to the Republican Party. 
Short for Democracy, Data & Communications, DDC's founding partner, chairman, and CEOB.R. McConnon in the past “has acted as a key contact and spokesperson for [National Federation for Independent Business],” according to his LinkedIn. NFIB takes funding from Koch Industries and other major corporate interests, and McConnon began his career as a policy analyst for the Koch-founded Citizens for a Sound Economy, the precursor to Americans for Prosperity
“Your Energy” was launched in the heat of the Virginia gubernatorial primary races and is run by the American Gas Association. The race for Virginia's highest office recently saw Democratic Party candidate Ralph Northam and GOPcandidate Ed Gillespie come out ahead as their parties' nominees for the looming November election.

Dominion's Atlantic Coast pipeline, slated to run from West Virginia to North Carolina and slice through western Virginia, serves as a key issue in the race, with both Northam and Gillespie coming out in support of the pipeline. According to ThinkProgress, “During the primary, Northam and his PAC received $109,283.30 from Dominion’s executives, board members, lobbyist, and PAC,” while Gilespie received $43,125.
Your Energy Virginia, an offshoot of Your Energy America, whose website is also hosted by DDCserved as a sponsor for the Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s 2017 Energy and Sustainability Conference held in May. Dominion served as the lead sponsor for that convening, which featured a keynote address by Virginia's Democratic Governor, Terry McAuliffe.

Today, we're at ’s 2017 & Sustainability Conference!

A source who requested anonymity and attended the Chamber of Commerce event told DeSmog, he saw Ryan LowryDDC’s Vice President of Client Relations, wearing a Your Energy Virginia name badge at the event. DDC has played a pioneering role in pushing web-centric “astroturf” public relations campaigns, which it calls “grassroots.”
“The firm was among the first to try to use technology for grassroots advocacy,” Jim Gianiny, DDC's president, said in 2010 interview with the Personal Democracy Forum. “The firm built up a consulting and grassroots advocacy practice around its technology to become the full-service issue advocacy firm that we are today.”

Koch, American Petroleum Institute Clients of DDC

DDC is an Associate Member of Edison Electric Institute (EEI), a lobbying and advocacy wing of the electric utilities industry which has paid DDC over $1.8 million to do public relations work since 2012, according to U.S. Internal Revenue Services (IRS) tax forms. According to a list of web domains hosted by DDC and obtained by ThinkProgress in 2009, the Koch Industries political affairs committee, KochPAC — as well as several tobacco companies — have websites hosted by DDC.
“We’re strategic partners and problem solvers for your most complex public affairs issues,” DDC says on its website. “We offer the most innovative digital tools, technology and data to help you get the results you need, when and where you need them.”
2007 client list tracked down by DeSmog shows that DDC has also worked with companies such as BP, Dominion, Edison Electric, Southern California Edison, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, San Diego Gas & Electric, News Corp (owner of Fox News), and others. On its website, a DDC case study page also says it did the digital work for the American Petroleum Institute's Energy Citizens campaign to promote hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in the Marcellus Shale.
DDC has actively partnered with the American Petroleum Institute (API) for years, designing, executing, and managing all facets of their key national advocacy program,” explains the profile.
DDC was tasked with creating an on-the-ground campaign focused on raising the profile of Energy Citizens in support of natural gas production from the 'Marcellus Shale' formation in Pennsylvania. This was the first time a consumer-based advocacy group would collaborate with other local landowners, small businesses, and industry groups to support natural gas development from the Marcellus Shale site; conveying positions to government officials, the media, and the broader public; as well as building organizational momentum.”
In the “Energy Citizens” Marcellus campaign, DDC said it helped to convene two roundtable meetings with local congressional representatives, get 170 letters of support published and sent to Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale Commission, and recruited over 2,300 people to take up the cause.
According to IRS tax filings reviewed by DeSmog, API paid DDC $29.3 million for its work between 2011 and 2015.

Tobacco, Bush Ties To DDC

DDC also has its own political action committee named DDC PAC, which has given thousands of dollars in campaign contributions exclusively to Republican Party candidates. The Guardian reported in 2013 that DDC was working for Phillip Morris on a website trying to fend off efforts to mandate plain packaging for the tobacco industry.
In 2011, DDC acquired the firm BlueFront Strategies, which was at the time owned and founded by Sara Fagen, who served as White House political director for President George W. Bush and as a top strategist to the 2004 Bush re-election campaign. Fagen, who served as a fundraiser and did data work for Jeb Bush's short-lived 2016 presidential run, now works as a partner at DDC. Her husband, Joel Fagen, works for Fox News.

Corporate Get Out the Vote

The day before the June 13 gubernatorial primary election in Virginia, The Intercept's Ryan Grim reported that Dominion had done an internal push of its employees to go to the polls and vote for Northam. DDC has actually done this sort of thing before, according to a 2012 article by Lee Fang published in The Nation, which pointed to a similar effort to urge Koch Industries employees to get out the vote for Republican Party presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
DDC Advocacy is part of a cottage industry of Beltway consultants who specialize in helping businesses activate their employees and customers into mini lobbyists,” reported Fang. “It's not clear if DDC Advocacy is replicating the type of explicit candidate endorsements pioneered by Koch for these other companies.”
Dominion itself has a get-out-the-vote website,, which is hosted by the firm Charles River Associates. Charles River's clients have included Dominion, American Petroleum Institute, Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia, Peabody Energy, and others.

Sara Fagen, then named Sara Taylor and a key aide to Bush chief of staff and campaign chief Karl Rove, was credited by The Washington Post as a “microtargetting guru” who in 2004 “was among those who helped use sophisticated analysis of consumer data to enable the Bush campaign to target potential voters even when they resided in Democratic-leaning voting districts.” DDC spent over $4 million on various get-out-the-vote techniques in 2012 on behalf of Republican Party presidential candidate Romney, according to U.S. Federal Election Commission data, which does not require DDC to disclose who paid the firm to do the work.
Getting out the vote is one thing, but creating the veneer of a grassroots movement in support of pipelines is another related, but albeit distinct, thing altogether. What they share in common: a need for the appearance of everyday people working together as a means to an end.
The fossil fuel industry craves its own grassroots movement, and they really are having a hard time not appearing to be the thugs that they are,” Kert Davies, executive director of the Climate Investigations Center, recently told ThinkProgress of Your Energy America. “In most cases, our communities are an obstacle for these companies to get through so that they can make money.”
DDC representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

Prominent GOP Senate chairman wants Trump to pay Obamacare subsidies

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Sen. Lamar Alexander Thursday became the second prominent Republican in a week to recommend that the Trump administration reimburse Obamacare insurers for $9 billion the companies will pay this year to help low-income plan members pay for coverage.
The Affordable Care Act requires individual insurers to provide the financial assistance, known as cost-sharing subsidies, to help pay deductibles, coinsurance and other out-of-pocket costs for enrollees with incomes below 250 percent of the federal poverty level.
The Trump administration has, so far, refused to provide the money, thinking it will prompt congressional Democrats to negotiate with Republicans on legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
But without the reimbursements, Obamacare insurers are having difficulty setting their 2018 premiums as federal and state rate-filing deadlines rapidly approach. Experts say marketplace premiums would spike up to 20 percent next year if the money is withheld. Other insurers would likely exit the individual market entirely.
On Thursday, during a subcommittee hearing of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Alexander, who chairs the HELP committee, told Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price that the Trump administration should pay the subsidies this year.
“And we should probably go ahead and do it through 2019,” Alexander continued…“The payments will help to avoid the real possibility that millions of Americans will literally have zero options for insurance in the individual market in 2018.”
Tennessee has been one of the nation’s most troubled individual insurance markets as prominent carriers like Humana, UnitedHealthcare and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee have left entirely or pulled out of most large urban markets.
Last week, Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, Chairman of the influential House Ways and Means Committee, called on Congress to okay the money as well, citing the need to stabilize insurance markets.
Price said the payments are under review by the Trump administration, but because they are the subject of an ongoing lawsuit, he could not comment on the administration’s plans. He noted, however, that President Trump’s budget proposal “reflects the continuation of the (subsidy) payments until litigation is resolved.”
The lawsuit, brought by House Republicans against HHS during the Obama administration, claims the payments are illegal because they aren’t authorized by Congress through the proper legislative process.
U.S. District Court Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled in favor of Republicans. She ordered the payments be stopped, but suspended the order while the Obama administration appealed. The appeal, inherited by the Trump administration, has been put on hold.
Both Brady and Alexander feel Obamacare is crumbling under its own weight due to high costs and a lack of young, healthy enrollees. But their recommendations to fund the subsidies indicate that Republicans are mindful of the potential election-year chaos that would ensue if the subsidies weren’t paid.
“As a part of a transition from a collapsing market to a stable market, I believe Republicans will need to do some things temporarily that we don’t want to do in the long-term,” Alexander said of the subsidy payments
A host of groups representing hospitals, patients and care providers have urged the Trump administration to continue the payments. So has America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry’s main trade group.
In an e-mail statement, Kristine Grow, AHIP’s senior vice president for communications, said she appreciates “that policymakers recognize how essential it is to stabilize the individual market. Supporting CSR funding and other stabilization programs will help ensure stability and choice for Americans who buy their own insurance.”


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THE POLITICAL APPOINTEES tapped by President Donald Trump to oversee federal health care programs — including the potential transition to a new Republican bill to replace the Affordable Care Act — joined the government just after working as lobbyists and attorneys for the largest health care interests in America.
Several senior Health and Human Services Administration appointees previously worked for insurers seeking to influence the consumer regulations mandated by the ACA, according to new political appointee financial disclosures obtained by The Intercept. The appointees work closely under HHS Secretary Tom Price — a former member of Congress and longtime ACA opponent who has pushed his old colleagues on the Hill to repeal the ACA.
Eric Hargan, the nominee for deputy secretary at HHS, and Paula Stannard, Price’s senior counselor, previously worked in the lobbying and government affairs departments of their respective law firms, Greenberg Traurig and Alston & Bird. Hargan and Stannard both disclosed serving health insurance giant UnitedHealth as a client.
UnitedHealth, which prompted worries about the ACA’s tenability when it exited most of the health exchanges that underpin President Barack Obama’s signature health care reform law, has lobbied the federal government on a number of issues. The group targeted its work in Washington at ACA policies dealing with mandating insurers cover a series of basic medical services known as essential health benefits; limits on how much insurance prices can differ between age groups; and the health insurance industry taxes. All these policies are in Republicans’ sights as they move to repeal Obama’s reforms.
Hargan is but one of several top HHS appointees with health insurance industry ties.
HHS Associate Deputy Secretary for Health Reform Randolph Wayne Pate previously worked as the vice president for public policy for Health Care Services Corporation, an insurance company that operates Blue Cross Blue Shield plans in five states. In recent months, Pate’s previous employer has lobbied on bills to provide waivers for health insurance companies to duck costly consumer mandates, such as prohibiting discrimination over age.
Price’s Chief of Staff Lance Leggitt listed 40 previous health care-related clients as a partner of the law firm Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz. Leggitt served as the chair of the federal health care practice of the firm, which lobbies for the insurer Aetna and the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America, a trade group. Leggitt disclosed being paid $801,008 in compensation.
Keagan Lenihan, who serves as a senior counselor to Price, previously worked as a top lobbyist for McKesson Specialty Health, the largest distributor of drugs and other health care products in the country. As recently as last year, Lenihan attempted to influence lawmakers on “pharmacy reimbursement issues and implementation of the Affordable Care Act,” according to disclosures.
McKesson has faced accusations that it ignored warning signs and distributed dangerous opioids to pill mills, worsening the drug overdose crisis. In January, the firm paid a record $150 million settlement for failure to report suspicious orders of controlled substances, including oxycodone and hydrocodone pills.
The Intercept reached out to HHS for comment on the appointees’ past ties to health care industries and their lobbying, but did not receive a response.
Private health care interests, particularly health insurers, have worked closely with Republican leaders to shape the next iteration of health reform. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., attended a fundraiser hosted by health insurance lobbyists just before appearing to explain his party’s approach to repealing and replacing the ACA. The major provisions of the plan passed by House Republicans includes a major tax cut for insurers, along with an option for states to opt-out of consumer protections — proposals demanded by health insurance companies.

Special counsel is investigating Jared Kushner’s business dealings

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By Sari HorwitzMatt Zapotosky and Adam Entous

Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller is investigating the finances and business dealings of Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, as part of the probe into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, according to officials familiar with the matter.
FBI agents and federal prosecutors have also been examining the financial dealings of other Trump associates, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn, former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Carter Page, who was listed as a foreign policy adviser for the campaign.
The Washington Post had earlier reported that investigators were scrutinizing separate meetings that Kushner held with Russians in December — first with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak and then with Sergey Gorkov, the head of a state-owned Russian development bank. At the time of that report it was not clear that the FBI was investigating Kushner’s business dealings.
The officials who described the financial focus of the investigation spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
At the December meeting with Kislyak, Kushner suggested establishing a secure communications linebetween Trump officials and the Kremlin at a Russian diplomatic facility, according to U.S. officials who reviewed intelligence reports describing Kislyak’s account.

The White House has said the subsequent meeting with the banker was a pre-inauguration diplomatic encounter, unrelated to business matters. The Russian bank, Vnesheconombank, which has been the subject of U.S. sanctions following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, has said the session was held for business reasons because of Kushner’s role as head of his family’s real estate company. The meeting occurred as Kushner’s company had been seeking financing for its troubled $1.8 billion purchase of an office building on Fifth Avenue in New York, and it could raise questions about whether Kushner’s personal financial interests were colliding with his impending role as a public official.
Mueller’s investigation is still in a relatively early phase, and it is unclear if any criminal charges will be brought when it is complete.
“We do not know what this report refers to,” said Jamie Gorelick, a lawyer for Kushner. “It would be standard practice for the Special Counsel to examine financial records to look for anything related to Russia. Mr. Kushner previously volunteered to share with Congress what he knows about Russia-related matters. He will do the same if he is contacted in connection with any other inquiry.”
Kushner has agreed to discuss his Russian contacts with the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is conducting one of several investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Kushner rarely speaks publicly about role in the White House, but he has become a major figure in the administration with a sprawling list of policy responsibilities that includes Canada and Mexico, China, and peace in the Middle East.
Peter Carr, a spokesman for Mueller, declined to comment for this story, but said “that the Special Counsel’s Office has undertaken stringent controls to prohibit unauthorized disclosures and will deal severely with any member who engages in this conduct.”
Mueller, who was appointed as special counsel by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on May 17, is investigating possible coordination between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election, and related matters. The inquiry has expanded to include an examination of whether Trump attempted to obstruct justice, The Post reported Wednesday.
Trump on Thursday tweeted that the investigation was “the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history - led by some very bad and conflicted people!”
Trump also compared his position to the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server in another tweet.
“Crooked H destroyed phones w/ hammer, ‘bleached’ emails, & had husband meet w/AG days before she was cleared- & they talk about obstruction?” he wrote.
After Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey, Trump said that Comey had told him three times that he was not under investigation. Comey confirmed that in his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week. The first time he told Trump was in his first meeting with the president before the inauguration on Jan. 6.
Before he met with the president, Comey gathered his leadership team at the FBI to discuss with them whether he should be prepared to assure then-President-elect Trump that the FBI was not investigating him personally.
Comey testified that not everyone on his FBI team agreed he should. Comey did not name the dissenter, but The Washington Post has learned it was FBI General Counsel James A. Baker. Comey testified that the member of his leadership team said that although it was true at the moment that Trump was not under investigation, it was possible that could change.
“His concern was, because we’re looking at the potential — again, that’s the subject of the investigation — coordination between the campaign and Russia, because it was President Trump — President-elect Trump’s campaign, this person’s view was, inevitably, his behavior, his conduct will fall within the scope of that work,” Comey said.
“And so he was reluctant to make the statement that I made,” Comey said.
Baker’s views didn’t change, even as Comey told Trump a second and third time that he was not being investigated.
“His view was still that it...could be misleading, because the nature of the investigation was such that it might well touch — obviously, it would touch the campaign, and the person at the head of the campaign would be the candidate. And so that was his view throughout,” Comey said.
Baker declined to comment.
In the days following Trump’s firing of Comey on May 9 and before Mueller’s appointment, the obstruction-of-justice investigation of the president began, according to people familiar with the matter.
Discussing the firing of Comey, Trump said in an interview with NBC, “In fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.’”
Comey took notes after each of his nine meetings or phone calls with Trump, including one alone with the president in the Oval Office on Feb. 14, the day after Flynn was forced to resign. Comey testified that Trump said to him, “I hope you can let this go. The president has denied that he told Comey to drop the Flynn investigation.
Comey told lawmakers he gave notes he had taken after that meeting and his other eight meetings or phone calls he had with Trump to Mueller.
Two senior intelligence officials, Daniel Coats, the current director of national intelligence, and Mike Rogers, the head of the National Security Agency, agreed to be interviewed by Mueller as early as this week.
Trump spoke to Coats and Rogers about the Russia investigation, according to officials. Coats told associates that Trump asked him whether he could intervene with Comey to get the FBI to back off its focus on Flynn, the officials said. Coats later told lawmakers he never felt pressured to intervene.
Trump later telephoned Coats and Rogers to separately ask them to issue public statements denying that there was any evidence of coordination between Trump’s campaign and Russian officials. Coats and Rogers refused to comply with the president’s requests, officials said.

Trump Versus Comey: The Politics of Loyalty and Lying

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By Henry A. Giroux

Donald Trump's firing of James Comey as the director of the FBI has caused a firestorm around the country but for the wrong reasons. Rather than framing Trump's actions as another example of the unravelling of a lawless and crooked government, the mainstream press has largely focused on the question of whether Trump or Comey is lying. Even worse, the debate in some quarters has degenerated into the personal question of whose "side" one is on regarding the testimony.
Testifying before a Senate Intelligence Committee, Comey claimed that in meetings with the president, Trump had not only asked him if he wanted to keep his job but had also demanded what amounted to a loyalty pledge from him. Comey saw these interventions as an attempt by Trump to develop a patronage relationship with him and viewed them as part of a larger attempt to derail an FBI investigation into National Security Adviser Michael Flynn's links to Russia. What Comey implied but did not state directly is that Trump wanted to turn the FBI into the loyal arm and accomplished agent of corrupt political power. In other words, without making a direct allegation, Comey laid out a case for charging Trump with the crime of obstruction of justice. That case is further bolstered by the revelation that Trump is now reportedly considering whether to fire Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel who was appointed to investigate whether Trump's campaign colluded with Russian officials. Even Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader and Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House, have publicly stated that this is a bad idea. What many people miss is that rumors of Trump's possible firing of Mueller are nothing more than part of a politics of diversion -- one which constantly shifts the terms of the debate about Trump's trampling on the rights of the American people and his willingness to divert serious questions about his acts of collusion and obstruction of justice.
Expressing a blatant contempt for the truth, Trump tweeted that Comey's testimony had vindicated him and that Comey was a liar and a leaker. Of course, Trump made no mention of the fact that Comey leaked non-classified information because he did not trust anyone at the Department of Justice, especially since it was led by Trump's crony, Jeff Sessions. Since Trump is a serial liar, there is a certain irony in Trump accusing Comey of lying. As Mehdi Hasan, appearing on Democracy Now!, observes:
From a political point of view, we know that one of the biggest flaws in Donald Trump's presidency, his candidacy, his ability to be president, is that he's a serial fabricator. Now you have the former top law enforcement officer of this country going in front of the Senate, under oath, saying he -- that, you know, "Those are lies, plain and simple," he said, referring to Trump's description of his firing. He said, "I was worried he would lie." He says, "I was worried about the nature of the man." … And there was a quite funny   tweet that went viral last night, which said, you know, "Trump is saying he's a liar. Comey is saying Trump's a liar. Well, who do you believe? Do you believe an FBI director who served under two -- who served under three presidents from two parties? Or   do you believe the guy who said Obama was born in Kenya?" And, you know, that's what faces us today.
Needless to say, given the FBI's history, Comey being a highly respected director of the FBI -- let alone a Republican -- does not support the fact that Comey is less likely to lie. But one cannot miss the irony in Trump's attempt to smear Comey as cowardly by accusing him of lying, given the fact that Trump is a serial liar who has unapologetically declared war not just on the truth but also on critical thought itself. Trump cannot be trusted because he not only infects political discourse with a language of hate, bigotry and lies, but also because he has allowed an ideology built on the use of disinformation to take over the White House. Under the Trump administration, the truth is distorted for ideological, political and commercial reasons. Lying has become an industry and tool of power. All administrations and governments lie, but under Trump lying has become normalized. It is a calling card for corruption and lawlessness, one that provides the foundation for authoritarianism.
Trump is a salesman and a bully. He constantly assumes the macho swagger of a used car salesman from a TV commercial while at the same time, as Rebecca Solnit observes, he bullies facts and truths as well as friends and acquaintances. He is obsessed with power and prides himself on the language of command, loyalty and humiliation. He appears fixated on the fear that the United States could still act on the memory, if not the ghosts, of a real democracy.
Asha Rangappa, a former FBI agent writing in the Washington Post, argues that one of the most revelatory moments in the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing took place when Comey revealed that in nine conversations with Trump either directly or by phone, Trump focused exclusively on whether the investigation into the Russian matter was affecting him personally. She writes:
As a former FBI counterintelligence agent, what I saw as the most explosive aspect of  the testimony didn't involve any legal violation of the U.S. code or questions about whether Comey had broken established Department of Justice protocols. Instead, it was the prima facie evidence that Comey presented that Trump appears unwilling to uphold his oath "to preserve, protect, and defend" the country -- which puts the security of our nation and its democracy at stake. In the nine times Trump met with or called Comey, it was always to discuss how the investigation into Russia's election interference was affecting him personally, rather than the security of the country. He apparently cared little about understanding either the magnitude of the Russian intelligence threat, or how the FBI might be able to prevent another attack in future elections…. This … underscores Trump's disregard for his fundamental duty, which is to ensure the security of the nation, its government and its citizens from foreign enemies.
A democracy cannot exist without informed citizens and public spheres and educational apparatuses that uphold standards of truth, honesty, evidence, facts and justice. Under Trump, disinformation masquerading as news -- often via his Twitter account -- has become a weapon for legitimating ignorance and civic illiteracy. Not only has Trump lied repeatedly, he has also attacked the critical media, claimed journalists are enemies of the American people and argued that the media is the opposition party. There is more at stake here than the threat of censorship or the normalization of lying; there is also an attack on long-valued sources of information and the public spheres that produce them. Trump's government has become a powerful disimagination machine in which the distinction between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy are erased.
Trump has democratized the flow of disinformation, and in doing so, has aligned himself with a culture of immediacy, sensationalism and theater where thoughtful reading, informed judgments and a respect for the facts disappear. He propagates fiction disguised as "news" as a way to discredit facts, if not thinking itself. This practice operates in the service of violence because it infantilizes and depoliticizes the wider public creating what Viktor Frankl has called in a different context, "the mask of nihilism." Trump capitalizes on a digital culture of immediacy and short attention spans in which complexity collapses in a barrage of tweets and the need for a narrative that offers a sense of consistency and a respite from fear.
Trump's attack on Comey goes beyond a personal insult and act of egregious lying, as well as, in all likelihood, an obstruction of justice. It is also a register of his attempt to discredit criticism and the shared public reality among institutions that is central to a democracy. The dissolution of public goods and the public sphere has been underway since the late 1970s, and Trump capitalizes on that in an attempt to both depoliticize and bind the American people through a kind of dystopian legitimacy in which words no longer matter and anything can be said. He works to undermine the capacity for truth telling and political speech itself.  Under the Trump regime, consistent narratives rooted in forms of civic illiteracy and a deep distrust of the truth and the ethical imagination have become the glue of authoritarian power. All of this is reinforced by a disdain for measured arguments, an embrace of the spectacle and an alignment with a banal theater of celebrity culture. In this context, rumors are more important than truth telling. Indeed, in this theater of the absurd, society loses its safeguards against lies, corruption and authoritarianism. In a culture of short attention spans, Trump provides a tsunami of misrepresentations and values in which thinking is done by others, power is exercised by a ruling elite, and people are urged to cease narrating their own experiences and give up their ability to govern rather than be governed. Trump offers his followers a world in which nothing is connected, destabilized perceptions reinforce a politics that turns lethal and community becomes dystopian -- unconnected to any viable democratic reality.
Roger Berkowitz, in a brilliant analysis of Trump and his followers that draws upon the work of Hannah Arendt, argues in the LA Review of Books that Trump's supporters don't care about his lies or his disdain for facts. They rely on him for a consistent narrative of a reality in which they are a part. Berkowitz's piece is worth citing at length. He writes:
The reason fact-checking is ineffective today -- at least in convincing those who are members of movements -- is that the mobilized members of a movement are confounded by a world resistant to their wishes and prefer the promise of a consistent alternate world to reality. When Donald Trump says he's going to build a wall to protect our borders, he is not making a factual statement that an actual wall will actually protect our borders; he is signaling a politically incorrect willingness to put America first. When he says that there was massive voter fraud or boasts about the size of his inauguration crowd, he is not speaking about actual facts, but is insisting that his election was legitimate. 'What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part.' Leaders of these mass totalitarian movements do not need to believe in the truth of their lies and ideological clichés. The point of their fabrications is not to establish facts, but to create a coherent fictional reality. What a movement demands of its leaders is the articulation of a consistent narrative combined with the ability to abolish the capacity for distinguishing between truth and falsehood, between reality and fiction.
As important as the Trump-Comey affair is, it runs the risk of both exacerbating the transformation of politics into theater and reinforcing what Todd Gitlin refers to as Trump's support for an "apocalyptic nationalism, the point of which is to belong, not to believe. You belong by affirming. To win, you don't need reasons anymore, only power." Trump values loyalty over integrity. He lies, in part, to test the loyalty of those who both follow him and align themselves with his power. The Trump-Comey affair must be understood within a broader attack on the fundamentals of education, critical modes of agency and democracy itself. This is especially important at a time when the United States is no longer a functioning democracy and is in the presence of what Zygmunt Bauman and Leonidas Donskis refer to in their book Liquid Evil as "the emergence of modern barbarity." Trump's discourse of lies, misrepresentations and fakery makes it all the more urgent for us to acknowledge that education is at the center of politics because it is crucial in the struggle over consciousness, values, identity and agency. Ignorance in the service of education targets the darkness and reinforces and thrives on civic illiteracy. Trump's disinformation machine is about more than lying. It is about using all of the tools and resources for education to create a dystopia in which authoritarianism exercises the raw power of ignorance and control.
Artists, educators, young people, journalists and others need to make the virtue of truth-telling visible again. We need to connect democracy with a notion of truth-telling and consciousness that is on the side of economic and political justice, and democracy itself. If we are all going to fight for and with the most marginalized people, there must be a broader understanding of their needs. We need to create narratives and platforms in which those who have been deemed disposable can identify themselves and the conditions through which power and oppression bear down on their lives.
This is not an easy task, but nothing less than justice, democracy and the planet itself are at risk.