Jeff Bezos stands his ground

Much remains mysterious about the Enquirer’s actions, and in particular its connections, if any, with President Trump and the government of Saudi Arabia — a possibility that Bezos alluded to in his blog post. Both the Saudis and Trump are aggrieved at The Post, and Trump wrongly blames Bezos for the newspaper’s accurate but unflattering coverage of him. When the Enquirer’s initial article about Bezos’s extramarital relationship was published, the president gloated in a tweet: “So sorry to hear the news about Jeff Bozo being taken down by a competitor whose reporting, I understand, is far more accurate than the reporting in his lobbyist newspaper, the Amazon Washington Post. Hopefully the paper will soon be placed in better & more responsible hands!”

The president would obviously love to see a sale of The Post to a friendlier owner — perhaps Trump pal David Pecker, the chairman and chief executive of AMI. (One is reminded of autocrats such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who have benefited from bullying media organizations into submission in their own countries.) The Enquirer was threatening Bezos in order to get him to affirm that its coverage was not “politically motivated or influenced by political forces.” Might the Enquirer have, at a minimum, pursued the story to curry favor with Trump?

.. This is apparently not the first time the publication has been accused of extortionate demands. Other journalists, including Ronan Farrow of the New Yorker, have said they were threatened by the Enquirer’s lawyers while investigating the tabloid’s relationship with Trump. And Bezos wrote that “numerous people have contacted our investigation team about their similar experiences with AMI.” These machinations are now being exposed because of Bezos’s smart and courageous decision to confront the Enquirer rather than give in. “I prefer to stand up, roll this log over, and see what crawls out,

.. I suspect David Pecker will rue the day that his friend Donald Trump became president — if he does not already. And he is not alone.

  • Paul Manafort had a flourishing business as an international influence-peddler before he became Trump’s campaign chairman. He now faces a long stretch in prison after having been convicted of felony financial charges. Trump’s friend
  • Roger Stone has now been indicted for the first time after a long career as a political dirty trickster.
  • Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, has gone from well-respected general to felon.
  • Michael Cohen had a cushy career as Trump’s personal lawyer before his client became president. Now Cohen, too, is a felon. Numerous other Trump associates and family members are facing, at a minimum, hefty legal bills and, at worst, serious legal exposure.

Every organization Trump has been associated with — the Trump Organization, the Trump Foundation, the Trump campaign, the Trump administration — is being investigated by prosecutors and lawmakers. His name, long his biggest asset, has become so toxic that bookings are down at his hotels. And Trump, a.k.a. Individual 1, faces a serious threat of prosecution once he leaves office. Before it is all over, Trump himself may regret the day he became president. His unexpected and undeserved ascent is delivering long overdue accountability for him and his sleazy associates. We have gone from logrolling to having logs rolled over — and it’s about time.

Tensions quickly spiral as Democrats ramp up investigations of Trump administration

Among Schiff’s new committee hires is Abigail C. Grace, who served as an Asia policy staffer on the National Security Council during the Trump administration until departing last spring for a Washington think tank.

At the Center for a New American Security, Grace worked as a research associate in the Asia-Pacific Security Program, a relatively junior-level position. She published essays on Asia policy and was quoted in news articles, including in The Washington Post, offering analysis about Trump’s Asia strategy. She announced her departure from the think tank last week and began work Monday on Schiff’s team, specializing in East Asia affairs, said people who know her.

.. “Although none of our staff has come directly from the White House, we have hired people with prior experience on the National Security Council staff for oversight of the agencies, and will continue to do so at our discretion,” the aide said.

A fluent Chinese speaker who accompanied Trump on his visit to five Asian countries in November 2017, Grace is expected to help the committee conduct oversight as the administration pursues high-stakes negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and a trade war with China.

Grace was not a political appointee but rather a civil servant who started at the NSC working on Middle East affairs during the Obama administration in 2016, before switching to a focus on East Asia, said those familiar with her work. Her duties included assisting Matt Pottinger, the NSC’s senior Asia director who helps national security adviser John Bolton coordinate policy among the federal agencies and advise Trump.

.. Some senior Trump aides have privately expressed concern that Schiff’s hiring of former White House staff members is a bid for inside information that could be particularly damaging — a sign of the growing alarm over the president’s vulnerability in a new era of divided government.

But former staffers from the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, as well as longtime civil servants, said it was not unusual for government policy experts to leave and wind up advising or working for lawmakers.

“It happens every day,” said a Capitol Hill staffer who is not on Schiff’s committee. The staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, rattled off a number of former Hill aides who had worked as policy experts in past administrations. “My understanding is that Schiff was going from the minority to the majority and had to staff up more fully. It’s the normal way things operate.”

.. Also on Thursday, the House held a hearing on obtaining Trump’s tax returns, listening to tax experts who discussed the impact of legislative language that would force presidential candidates to release 10 years of tax returns after they win their party’s nomination.

Three congressional officials are empowered legally to seek taxpayer information from the Treasury Department: the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and the chairman of the Joint Committee on Taxation. But Rep. Mike Kelly (Pa.), the ranking Republican on the subcommittee that held the hearing, said Congress is barred from releasing tax returns for political purposes.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), responding to criticism from liberals that the House leadership has not moved quickly enough to obtain Trump’s tax returns, said, “You have to be very, very careful if you go forward.”

“In terms of the tax issue, it’s not a question of just sending a letter,” Pelosi said. “I know there’s this impatience because people want to know, that answers the question, but we have to do it in a very careful way.”

Trump calls for unity, stands firm on wall, leaves Socialist Dems on defensive at State of Union

An economic miracle is taking place in the United States — and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations,” Trump said, in an apparent reference to Democratic congressional probes of his administration and possibly to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way.”

At the same time, the president did not back down from his insistence that Congress fund a border wall, which was at the center of a 35-day government shutdown that ended only a few weeks ago and could fuel another shutdown on Feb. 15. Tolerance for illegal immigration, Trump said, is “not compassionate,” but “cruel.” “Simply put, walls work and walls save lives,” Trump said. “So let’s work together, compromise and reach a deal that will truly make America safe.” However, top Democrats signaled that Trump’s State of the Union address did little to convince them that a legislative compromise to construct his proposed border wall is possible.

Read: Trump’s State of the Union speech

TRUMP AND AOC FEELING ‘SOCIAL’: President Trump vowed during his State of the Union address on Tuesday that “America will never be a socialist country,” in an apparent rebuke to self-described Democratic socialist Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders that drew loud cheers and a standing ovation from Republicans in the House chamber — as well as supportive applause from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi … In response, after the speech, Ocasio-Cortez told Fox News: “I thought it was great. I think he’s scared.”

The progressive firebrand pointedly did not applaud as Trump condemned human trafficking and illegal immigration in his address. In an interview later Tuesday night, Ocasio-Cortez said she was asking herself, “Is this a campaign stop or is this a State of the Union?” She is set to unveil a massive “Green New Deal” with Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ed Markey next week.

Peggy Noonan: AOC had ‘rare bad night’ – and the rookie lawmaker responds

House of Pain for President Trump

The new Democratic majority in Congress maps out its investigations of the Trump administration.

To avert an investigative free-for-all, Democrats decided early on that they needed to prioritize their inquiries within a basic narrative framework: How is misbehavior X endangering the health and safety of our democracy or of the American people?

Issues ranking high on Democrats’ inquiry list include the administration’s

  1. response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico; its decisions
  2. not to defend the pre-existing conditions provision of Obamacare and to undermine the program by starving it of funds; its policy of
  3. separating migrant families at the southern border; and its
  4. rollback of environmental protections. Other prime lines of inquiry are
  5. whether former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke stood to benefit personally from decisions he made in office,
  6. whether Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross lied to Congress about his efforts to add a question about citizenship to the new census — and
  7. pretty much every decision made so far by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Such potential maladministration may not be as buzzy as, say, exploring
  8. whether Mr. Trump paid hush money to former mistresses or
  9. underpaid his taxes by a few hundred million dollars. But it does concretely influence the health and well-being of the public.

This is not to say Mr. Trump will get a pass on his personal behavior, simply that Democrats will try to keep the focus on the bigger picture. For instance, Mr. Trump’s continued refusal to release his tax returns is part of his family’s sketchy financial dealings, which raise serious questions about everything from emoluments violations to inappropriate dealings with foreign interests. The crucial question isn’t whether the president has violated the law but whether he has been selling out the nation for personal gain.

Guatemala’s President Shuts Down Anti-Corruption Commission Backed by U.N.

President Jimmy Morales of Guatemala on Friday shut down a crusading anticorruption commission sponsored by the United Nations that has pressed a number of high-profile investigations, including one pending against the president himself related to campaign financing.

Speaking in front of civilian and military leaders, Mr. Morales said he had informed the United Nations secretary general of his decision to revoke the body’s mandate and “immediately” begin transferring its capacities to Guatemalan institutions.

Minutes before the surprise announcement, army vehicles donated by the United States that Guatemala uses to fight smuggling operations were deployed to the commission’s headquarters in the capital in what critics called an attempt at intimidation.

The decision caps a long history of friction between the president and the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, also known as Cicig for the initials of the commission’s name in Spanish.

In August 2017, Mr. Morales announced that he was expelling the commission’s chief, Iván Velásquez, but that move was quickly blocked by Guatemala’s top court.

At the time, Mr. Morales declared Mr. Velásquez a persona non grata and fired his foreign minister for refusing to carry out the order to expel him, before later backing off and saying he would obey the court’s decision.

.. “We sincerely regret the great mistake that the president made public in not renewing Cicig’s mandate,” said Jordán Rodas, Guatemala’s human rights prosecutor. “We are grateful for its valuable contribution in the country to the fight against corruption and impunity.”

Checking Robert Mueller

The sentencing judge brings to light dodgy FBI conduct in the Mike Flynn case.

Robert Mueller has operated for 19 months as a law unto himself, reminding us of the awesome and destructive powers of special counsels. About the only possible check on Mr. Mueller is a judge who is wise to the tricks of prosecutors and investigators. Good news: That’s what we got this week.

.. The agents (including the infamous Peter Strzok) showed up within two hours. They had already decided not to inform Mr. Flynn that they had transcripts of his conversations or give him the standard warning against lying to the FBI. They wanted him “relaxed” and “unguarded.” Former Director James Comey this weekend bragged on MSNBC that he would never have “gotten away” with such a move in a more “organized” administration.

.. The whole thing stinks of entrapment, though the curious question was how the Flynn defense team got the details. The court filing refers to a McCabe memo written the day of the 2017 meeting, as well as an FBI summary—known as a 302—of the Flynn interview. These are among documents congressional Republicans have been fighting to obtain for more than a year, only to be stonewalled by the Justice Department. Now we know why the department didn’t want them public.

.. They have come to light thanks to a man who knows well how men like Messrs. Mueller and Comey operate: Judge Sullivan. He sits on the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia, and as he wrote for the Journal last year, he got a “wake-up call” in 2008 while overseeing the trial of then-Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska. Judge Sullivan ultimately assigned a lawyer to investigate Justice Department misconduct.
.. The investigator’s report found prosecutors had engaged in deliberate and repeated ethical violations, withholding key evidence from the defense. It also excoriated the FBI for failing to write up 302s and for omitting key facts from those it did write. The head of the FBI was Mr. Mueller.
.. Judge Sullivan has since made it his practice to begin every case with a Brady order, which reminds prosecutors of their constitutional obligation to provide the defense with any exculpatory evidence. On Dec. 12, 2017, days after being assigned the Flynn case, Judge Sullivan issued such an order, instructing Mr. Mueller’s team to turn over “any evidence in its possession that is favorable to defendant and material either to defendant’s guilt or punishment.” Had any other judge drawn the case, we likely would never have seen these details of the FBI’s behavior.

It’s clear that something has concerned the judge—who likely sees obvious parallels to the Stevens case. The media was predicting a quick ruling in the Flynn case. Instead, Judge Sullivan issued new orders Wednesday, demanding to see for himself the McCabe memo and the Flynn 302. He also ordered the special counsel to hand over by Friday any other documents relevant to the Flynn-FBI meeting.

.. Given his history with the FBI, the judge may also have some questions about the curious date on the Flynn 302—Aug. 22, 2017, seven months after the interview. Texts from Mr. Strzok and testimony from Mr. Comey both suggest the 302 was written long before then. Was the 302 edited in the interim? If so, by whom, and at whose direction? FBI officials initially testified to Congress that the agents did not think Mr. Flynn had lied.

Judges have the ability to reject plea deals and require a prosecutor to make a case at trial. The criminal-justice system isn’t only about holding defendants accountable; trials also provide oversight of investigators and their tactics. And judges are not obliged to follow prosecutors’ sentencing recommendations.

No one knows how Judge Sullivan will rule. His reputation is for being no-nonsense, a straight shooter, an advocate of government transparency. Whatever the outcome, he has done the nation a favor by using his Brady order to hold prosecutors to some account and allow the country a glimpse at how federal law enforcement operates. Which is the very least the country can expect.

 

Why Trump will look back fondly on the Mueller probe

It’s possible-to-likely that sometime next year, President Trump will look back on the Mueller probe with yearning and nostalgia — given what’s about to happen to his administration in the newly Democratic House of Representatives.

.. Of these 27 committees, by my count, 22 deal with substantive matters in which the Democrats have already expressed displeasure with, or horror at, or concern over, the behavior of the Trump administration.

Let’s go through a few of them, shall we? The House Armed Services Committee deals with the US military and the Pentagon. Questions have been raised about the politicized nature of the president’s deployment of troops to the US border to protect the nation from the migrant caravan.

I bet you haven’t heard of Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, who will chair the committee. But you will. Oh, yes, you will — when he hauls Defense Secretary Jim Mattis into a hearing to go over how much the mission cost and who ordered it and what the purpose was and whether Mattis himself agreed with the idea.

He will be on the front pages of every newspaper and his hearing will be carried live on the cable news channels.

How about the House Foreign Affairs Committee? New York’s own Eliot Engel will be chairing that one, and you can bet Engel will be interested in hearing from State Department officials about the goings-on behind the scenes between Saudi Arabia and the United States, including questions about the commingling of American foreign policy with Trump family business interests.

Oh, and let’s not forget the House Judiciary Committee, shall we? My congressman, Jerry Nadler, will be in charge of that one. And he’s already vowed to call Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker as his first witness, over Whitaker’s “expressed hostility” to Mueller and the threat he represents to the “integrity of that investigation.”

But you can bet Nadler won’t stop with Whitaker. He’ll aim for Trump and those closest to him. He wants to look into Russian collusion as a possible preliminary to impeachment proceedings against the president.

Even a boring committee like Natural Resources has a fat target: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who has had two different matters referred by the department’s inspector general for possible criminal prosecution.

Notice I haven’t even mentioned Ivanka’s e-mails. Or Jared Kushner’s family deals in China. Or about a hundred other controversial topics. And I can’t mention things that haven’t happened yet — weird new developments of the sort the Trump administration seems to generate every week and will certainly continue to generate in 2019.

Mueller’s probe has been mostly very quiet, except when indictments are issued and trials are conducted. It has also been largely confined to a single subject area. Most of the matters I’m talking about here will be discussed loudly and without restraint by those elected officials who will feel particularly emboldened by the midterm election results.

Those results not only showed a Democratic gain of as many as 40 seats in the House, but a national popular-vote margin of more than eight points over the Republicans in an off-year in which Democrats received nearly as many votes collectively as Donald Trump scored in 2016.