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E.g., 9/17/2019
E.g., 9/17/2019
Image: Donald Trump, William Barr, Wilbur Ross

Commerce secretary's investments spark controversy (again)

09/17/19 10:24AM

The sheer volume of controversies surrounding Wilbur Ross is almost impressive. Just over the last couple of months, Donald Trump's Commerce secretary reportedly threatened to fire NOAA officials unless they endorsed the president's misjudgment about a hurricane, was blamed for the White House's failed Census gambit, and was characterized as a hapless leader of a cabinet agency that's reportedly reaching "new heights of dysfunction."

And while Ross and his team have pushed back against each of these stories, things don't appear to be getting any better for the Commerce secretary. Forbes' Dan Alexander reported last night:

Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross did not cut ties to a shipping fund he promised to divest, according to a new financial disclosure report obtained by Forbes. He still owns an interest in Starboard Recovery Associates LP worth $1,000 to $15,000. Under the liabilities section of the filing, Ross also lists a "capital commitment" to a related company for $1 million to $5 million. [...]

According to the new filing, Ross' remaining interest in Starboard gives him an indirect share of a handful of shipping assets with nondescriptive names like WLR/TRF KZ Holding I LLC and WLR/TRF Tanker Two LLC. Forbes obtained additional documents that describe the business of several of those holdings. Many of the companies were created to invest in the products of shipyards in the Philippines, China, Vietnam, Japan and South Korea.

In case this isn't already obvious, it's not great when a Commerce secretary, whose agency works on international shipping, maintains private investments in international shipping.

If this sounds at all familiar, it's because there have been other reports along these same lines during his tenure about Ross maintaining stakes "in companies co-owned by the Chinese government, a shipping firm tied to Vladimir Putin's inner circle, a Cypriot bank reportedly caught up in the Robert Mueller investigation and a huge player in an industry Ross is now investigating."

Two months ago, Ross said he was moving forward with a plan to sell all of his equity holdings, though as Forbes added last night, the Commerce secretary "did not get rid of everything."

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North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un walks to greet Donald Trump at the Military Demarcation Line that divides North and South Korea, in the Joint Security Area (JSA) of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized zone (DMZ) on June 30, 2019.

After visiting North Korea, Trump says he won't visit North Korea

09/17/19 09:20AM

A South Korean newspaper reported yesterday that North Korea's Kim Jong-un invited Donald Trump to Pyongyang as a way to restart failing nuclear talks. A reporter asked Trump yesterday whether the report was accurate.

"I don't want to comment on that," the American president replied. "The relationship is very good, but I don't want to comment on it."

A moment later, Trump was asked whether he'd be willing to go to North Korea. The Republican added:

"Probably not. I don't think it's ready. I don't think we're ready for that. I would do it sometime at -- sometime at a later future. And depending on what happens, I'm sure he'll love coming to the United States also. But, no, I don't think it's ready for that. I think we have a ways to go yet."

Not to put too fine a point on this, but didn't Trump already go to North Korea?

The rogue nuclear state may not be "ready" to welcome a sitting American president to North Korean soil, but it was just a few months ago when Trump nevertheless walked through the demilitarized zone and made a spectacle of a stroll alongside his dictatorial pal.

The New York Times reported in July, "In another administration, such a move might have been deliberated for weeks, put through an interagency process and approved only as part of a comprehensive approach to pressuring North Korea into giving up its nuclear program -- a reward for progress. Mr. Trump himself had previously been talked out of just such a move by cautious advisers. But this time he could not resist the idea of a showy 'first,' whether it fit a long-term strategy or not."

He couldn't even tell the truth at the time about how the events unfolded:

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Elaine L. Chao, U.S. Secretary of Transportation, awaits in front of an art project during a meeting in Leipzig main station in the context of the International Transport Forum in Leipzig, Germany, May 22, 2019.

Elaine Chao, Trump's Transportation Sec, faces House inquiry

09/17/19 08:41AM

Earlier this summer, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao faced accusations that she made special arrangements to benefit projects in Kentucky -- where her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), is the senior senator. This was unrelated to separate reporting alleging that the Republican cabinet secretary held onto stock in a transportation company after she was supposed to have divested.

And as it turns out, those aren't the only Chao-related controversies being examined on Capitol Hill. The New York Times reported yesterday afternoon:

The House Oversight and Reform Committee asked Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao on Monday to turn over documents related to communication with her family's shipping company as the panel stepped up an investigation into whether any actions taken by Ms. Chao amount to a conflict of interest.

The request by the committee in the Democrat-controlled House relates to actions Ms. Chao has taken that potentially benefited Foremost Group, a New York-based shipping company owned by her family.

As Rachel noted on the show last night, Chao has made a habit of doing events with her father, who runs her family's shipping company, and emphasizing in interviews the good relationship between Donald Trump and her dad.

As the cabinet secretary ought to realize, this is inherently problematic, since her family's business has been trying to project its international reach. The more Chao's father can give the appearance of having an in with the United States government, the more it's likely to help the business' bottom line.

It's hardly unreasonable for the House Oversight Committee to seek some additional information about the Transportation secretary and her possible efforts to benefit her family's business.

But taking a step back, there's another question worth considering: is there really another member of Donald Trump's cabinet under investigation?

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History mandates presidential candidates release tax returns, but not how many

Fight over tax returns takes a turn Trump probably won't like

09/17/19 08:00AM

The fight over Donald Trump's hidden tax returns is a conflict on many fronts, but as NBC News reported yesterday afternoon, there's a new subpoena for the presidential materials that takes the effort in a new direction.

The Manhattan District Attorney's Office headed by Cy Vance has sent a grand jury subpoena to President Donald Trump's accounting firm to get his tax returns and corporate tax returns for the past eight years, a person with direct knowledge of the matter tells NBC News. [...]

Legal experts with such requests say that the subpoena will likely focus not just on the tax returns but will likely also ask for the underlying documents used to generate the tax returns such as bank statements, expense statements, and other financial documents.

Because the current president is at the center of a variety of jarring scandals, it's worth emphasizing that this subpoena has nothing to do with the Russia affair. Rather, Trump has also been caught up in a hush-money controversy involving pre-election payments to his alleged former mistresses, which helped put his personal attorney in prison, and which is part of an ongoing investigation launched by a New York district attorney's office into the Trump Organization.

Prosecutors are exploring whether the president's business falsified records to obscure the purpose of Trump's payment to Stormy Daniels.

As Matt Stieb noted, "Unlike previous subpoenas, this one is in the context of a criminal investigation with a sitting grand jury, making it more difficult for the president's lawyers to dodge this filing with a lawsuit."

What's more, as Rachel noted on the show last night, the new subpoena comes on the heels of Michael Cohen's reportedly entering into an agreement with New York City prosecutors in which he's providing information about the president's business operation.

If you're anything like me, you might be thinking at this point, "Geez, how many fights over Trump's tax returns are there?" Circling back to our earlier coverage, it's not a short list:

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Monday's Mini-Report, 9.16.19

09/16/19 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:

* Strike: "Tens of thousands of auto workers across the country went on strike Sunday night after negotiations faltered between their union and General Motors. The strike began at 11:59 p.m. ET., with as many as 50,000 United Auto Workers at dozens of facilities from Michigan to Texas expected to participate."

* Quite an operation: "Russian spies in the U.S. conducted a massive operation to track and collect encrypted FBI radio traffic, but there is no evidence they ever cracked the codes and obtained the contents of the communications, two former senior FBI officials tell NBC News."

* In related news: "With Congress mulling legislation to slap new sanctions on Russia for its attack on the 2016 American election, an important Russian bank connected to Vladimir Putin's government has turned for help to a well-positioned lobbyist in Washington: a Trump insider and former Republican House member named John Sweeney. In August Sweeney signed a whopping contract to lobby on behalf of this bank to stave off sanctions from the US government."

* The connection between this and Israeli elections is obvious: "U.S. President Donald Trump said on Saturday he had spoken with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about a possible mutual defense treaty between the two nations, a move that could bolster Netanyahu's re-election bid just days before Israelis go to the polls."

* A White House plan on guns is expected any day now: "Democratic leaders urged President Trump to support a House-passed background check bill, as lawmakers wait to see what measures the White House will endorse to reduce mass shootings."

* Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: "The Trump administration reached a milestone this week in its plan to open a pristine part of Alaska to oil and gas development with the release of a final report on the environmental impact of the plan."

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Pence, Pompeo ignore concerns over Trump's self-dealing

09/16/19 12:52PM

For those concerned with Donald Trump profiting off his presidency, it's been a difficult few weeks. It started with the Republican announcing an effort to have the next G-7 summit held at one of his Florida properties. Soon after, Vice President Mike Pence traveled to Ireland for meetings in Dublin, but as the president's "suggestion," he stayed three hours away at a Trump-owned property on the other side of the country.

This, of course, was followed by reports about military personnel staying at Trump's business in Scotland, while supporting a nearby airport on which the president's business heavily relies.

In light of the coverage, headlines, and initiated investigations, it stood to reason that the president and others in his orbit would exercise some caution in this area, at least for a while. But while that may have seemed like common sense, Team Trump chose a brazen course. The Washington Post reported on Thursday:

Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are scheduled to speak this week at President Trump's hotel in Washington -- lending their names to events put on by a paying customer of Trump's private business.

The planned speeches suggest that President Trump and his Cabinet are not shying away from events that drive revenue to Trump's company, even after multiple stories have brought new scrutiny to the blurring of lines between Trump's business and presidency.

Pence spoke on Thursday at a gala hosted by Concerned Women for America, a prominent group in the religious right movement, while Pompeo appeared a day later at a "celebration luncheon" put on by the same organization.

I imagine some Americans are starting to get used this dynamic, but this isn't the sort of thing that's supposed to happen. Concerned Women for America, in this case, wasn't just another far-right group hosting an event in the nation's capital; it was also playing the role of Donald Trump's customer. The vice president and the secretary of State didn't see any harm in helping the president's customer with its event.

Or put another way, a conservative organization is helping put money in Trump's pocket, and two leading members of Trump's cabinet helped put money in the group's coffers.

It was against this backdrop that Pompeo thought it'd be funny to tell a little joke about the circumstances. "I look around, this is such a beautiful hotel," the cabinet secretary said. "The guy who owns it must have been successful somewhere along the way." He added, "That was for the Washington Post."

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Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 9.16.19

09/16/19 12:00PM

Today's installment of campaign-related news items from across the country.

* Julian Castro only had three congressional endorsements for his presidential campaign and over the weekend, that number dropped to two: Rep. Vicente González (D-Texas) switched his support to Joe Biden.

* Three years after easily winning New Hampshire's Democratic presidential primary, Bernie Sanders' support isn't quite where he wants it to be in the Granite State. To that end, the Vermont independent reassigned his New Hampshire state director, moving Joe Caiazzo to neighboring Massachusetts. He was replaced by Shannon Jackson, who oversaw Sanders' Senate re-election campaign in 2018.

* For the third time in two weeks, a leading Democratic contender in Colorado's U.S. Senate race has quit: former Ambassador Dan Baer has withdrawn, conceding that former Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) was all but certain to win the party's primary.

* Donald Trump's three most notable 2020 primary rivals -- Mark Sanford, Joe Walsh, and William Weld -- wrote a joint op-ed, making a spirited case that state Republican Parties are making a mistake by cancelling the party's presidential nominating contests in order to help Donald Trump.

* In related news, Michigan Republicans cannot legally cancel their presidential primary, but state GOP officials have changed their delegate apportionment rules to all but guarantee that Trump receives all of the state's delegates in 2020.

* Almost immediately after parting ways with the Trump White House, former National Security Adviser John Bolton brought his PAC and super PAC back to life. He soon after announced new support for a variety of Republicans, including Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).

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About The Rachel Maddow Show

Launched in 2008, “The Rachel Maddow Show” follows the machinations of policy making in America, from local political activism to international diplomacy. Rachel Maddow looks past the distractions of political theater and stunts and focuses on the legislative proposals and policies that shape American life - as well as the people making and influencing those policies and their ultimate outcome, intended or otherwise.


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