Just when it seemed the controversy surrounding the Donald J. Trump Foundation couldn't get any worse, the Washington Post's David Fahrenthold published new revelations this morning that, if true, suggest serious wrongdoing.
Donald Trump spent more than a quarter-million dollars from his charitable foundation to settle lawsuits that involved the billionaire's for-profit businesses, according to interviews and a review of legal documents.
Those cases, which together used $258,000 from Trump's charity, were among four newly documented expenditures in which Trump may have violated laws against "self-dealing" -- which prohibit nonprofit leaders from using charity money to benefit themselves or their businesses.
This is hardly the first controversy surrounding Trump's charitable foundation, but it may be the most damaging for one straightforward reason: it doesn't require a lot of explanation. As Josh Barro put it, the summary fits in a sentence: "Donald Trump took money other people gave his charity and used it to pay his businesses' fines."
Not to put too fine a point on this, but what's being described here sounds an awful lot like a slush fund.
The issue of "self-dealing" came up a bit last week, when we learned that Trump allegedly used foundation money to buy a giant portrait of himself, which was apparently then sent to one of Trump's golf resorts. As Fahrenthold explained, "If Trump did not give the painting to a charity -- or find a way to use it for charitable purposes -- he may have violated IRS rules against 'self-dealing,' which prohibit nonprofit leaders from spending charity money on themselves."
But today's story takes the issue quite a bit further, raising the possibility that Trump routinely used foundation money -- funds that often came from other people, intended for charitable purposes -- to pay off settlements when his business enterprises faced lawsuits.
The obvious question, of course, is whether or not it was legal for Trump to use charitable money to pay off legal settlements from for-profit businesses. The Post's report said Trump's alleged practices "may have violated U.S. tax law and gone against the moral conventions of philanthropy." read more
Today's installment of campaign-related news items from across the country.
* According to this week's NBC News|SurveyMonkey Weekly Election Tracking Poll, Hillary Clinton leads Donald Trump by five, 50% to 45%, among likely voters in a four-way match-up. Last week, Clinton was ahead by four.
* Clinton turned her attention directly to younger voters yesterday, with a speech in Philadelphia and a new op-ed at mic.com on "what millennials have taught me."
* The Commission on Presidential Debates announced yesterday that the topics for next week's debate will be "America's Direction," "Achieving Prosperity," and "Securing America."
* Republican mega-donors Joe Ricketts and Sheldon Adelson are opening their deep pockets for the GOP right now in ways that Democrats should probably find alarming.
* Speaking of campaign finance, some members of the right-wing House Freedom Caucus are refusing to donate to the National Republican Congressional Committee.
* In case there were any doubts about Sen. Roy Blunt (R) being vulnerable in Missouri, note that the National Republican Senatorial Committee made its first ad buy on his behalf this week, and "more ads are on the way."
* The latest Monmouth University poll shows Trump ahead of Clinton in Georgia by only three points, 45% to 42%, despite Georgia's traditional status as a "red" state.
* And speaking of competitive Southern states, a new Elon poll shows Trump leading Clinton in North Carolina by the narrowest of margins, 44% to 43%. read more
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has largely pulled off an impressive public-relations gambit in recent years. The Republican leader has recast himself as an anti-poverty crusader, without making any meaningful changes to his far-right agenda, simply by using the word "poverty" a whole lot.
But it's occasionally worthwhile to look past the rhetoric and focus on the hard data. The Washington Postreported the other day:
The House Republicans' proposal for tax relief could force the government to borrow trillions of dollars to continue operating and might even weaken the economy, according to a new analysis from the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.
By 2025, when the reductions would be fully implemented, 99.6 percent of the tax cuts would benefit the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans, according to the analysis. This group would enjoy the greatest relief as a share of their income (increasing their incomes after taxes by 10.6 percent on average) and in terms of dollars (an average annual savings of $240,000 for each household).
I can appreciate why a bunch of statistics may be difficult to digest, but let these findings sink in for a minute. Ryan's tax plan is crafted in such a way as to give 99.6% of the benefits to the wealthiest of the wealthy by 2025. The other 0.4% would be divided up across the other 99% of us.
This is a feature, not a bug, of the House Speaker's approach to economic policy. Ryan genuinely believes that massive tax breaks for those at the very top will spur economic growth that would, in time, benefit everyone. For the Wisconsin congressman, trickle-down policy, its track record notwithstanding, remains the most responsible course to broad national prosperity.
If that means designing a tax plan that's ridiculously tilted towards the rich, so be it. Anyone who questions the wisdom of such a proposal will face accusations of "class warfare" -- a phrase intended to end all conversations -- as if Ryan isn't trying to redistribute wealth from the bottom up.
New York's Jon Chait joked yesterday, "The new Paul Ryan tax cuts make the Bush tax cuts look like socialism." read more
Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf will be on Capitol Hill today, where he's likely to receive a very unwelcome reception from the Senate Banking Committee, whose members will be demanding answers about the banking giant's latest controversy.
To briefly recap, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently reached a record settlement with Wells Fargo after the company was caught allegedly bilking consumers, enrolling customers in banking services without their permission, then charging them fees for accounts and services they neither sought nor authorized.
Stumpf has been in damage-control mode -- see, for example, his apologetic op-ed today in the Wall Street Journal -- though there are still some unanswered questions about what Wells Fargo executives knew and when they knew it.
Of course, all of this comes against the backdrop of the U.S. presidential campaign, and the story has not escaped Hillary Clinton's attention. In fact, the Democratic candidate released a well-timed open letter to Wells Fargo customers overnight. It reads in part:
"I was deeply disturbed when, last week, we found out that Wells Fargo had engaged in widespread illegal practices over many years. The bank secretly opened up millions of accounts for customers without their consent – betraying their customers, misusing their personal information and leading many to be slapped with unjust fees and other charges. Today, Wells Fargo's CEO will appear before Congress. He owes all of you a clear explanation as to how this happened under his watch.
"There is simply no place for this kind of outrageous behavior in America.
"Our economy depends on a strong and safe banking system to help keep it moving. But even after Americans spent years working hard to recover from the Great Recession, the culture of misconduct and recklessness that preceded that crisis too often persists. I have a plan to address it."
The first tenet of the plan: defend the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which uncovered the wrongdoing and negotiated a massive settlement.
In the wake of Republican gains in the 2014 midterms, expectations were understandably low for the 114th Congress. President Obama and the GOP majority on Capitol Hill freely acknowledged they agreed on practically nothing, leading to widely held assumptions that Congress would simply tread water for two years, accomplishing nothing.
There was, however, an exception: criminal justice reform. If policymakers were going to do anything of significance, this was the issue to watch. Obama told the NAACP last year that there's actually broad agreement on overhauling the costly and ineffective status quo: "It's created some unlikely bedfellows. You've got Van Jones and Newt Gingrich. You've got Americans for Tax Reform and the ACLU. You've got the NAACP and the Koch brothers.... That's good news."
And while that was all true, the bad news is nothing is going to happen. NBC News reported the other day:
In a huge disappointment to advocates, legislation to reform components of the criminal justice system will not come before the House adjourns this month as previously planned, according to two sources who have worked closely on the effort. [...]
House Speaker Paul Ryan had said earlier this year that he planned on bringing up criminal justice reform bills in September during the small window that Congress is in Washington between their August break and before they adjourn at the end of September to continue campaigning for re-election. But that timing has proven difficult.
With members trying to avoid a government shutdown, and then leaving D.C. as quickly as possible, the issue appears to be effectively dead. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), one of Congress' most notable champions of a bipartisan compromise, is starting to look ahead to 2017.
In theory, one of the principal sticking points in any legislative fight is cost -- Republicans, reflexively skeptical of "government spending," are generally opposed to any priority that requires greater public investment -- but criminal justice reform actually saves money. It's one of the reasons there were high hopes for the bill in this Congress.
About a month ago, Carlos Gutierrez, Commerce Secretary in the Bush/Cheney administration, announced his rather enthusiastic support for Hillary Clinton's candidacy. And while it always comes as something of a surprise when a notable Republican official throws support to a Democratic candidate, there's a fairly long list of Bush administration officials who are quite eager for Donald Trump to lose.
Indeed, Politicoreported overnight that even George H.W. Bush himself has privately said he intends to vote for Clinton over his party's nominee.
But perhaps the highest profile veteran of the Bush cabinet to raise anti-Trump concerns is former Defense Secretary Bob Gates, who stayed on as a member of President Obama's cabinet, and who wrote a rather striking piece on the 2016 race for the Wall Street Journal.
At least on national security, I believe Mr. Trump is beyond repair. He is stubbornly uninformed about the world and how to lead our country and government, and temperamentally unsuited to lead our men and women in uniform. He is unqualified and unfit to be commander-in-chief.
And that's really just the overarching summary of Gates' concerns. The former Pentagon chief also said Trump is "in a league of his own" when it comes to "credibility problems"; he condemned Trump for being "cavalier about the use of nuclear weapons"; he criticized Trump's "insults" of service-members and their families; and he lamented the fact that Trump is "willfully ignorant about the rest of the world, about our military and its capabilities, and about government itself."
The world we confront is too perilous and too complex to have as president a man who believes he, and he alone, has all the answers and has no need to listen to anyone. In domestic affairs, there are many checks on what a president can do; in national security there are few constraints. A thin-skinned, temperamental, shoot-from-the-hip and lip, uninformed commander-in-chief is too great a risk for America.
And while all of this seems quite fair under the circumstances, Trump seemed surprisingly eager to prove Gates right about being thin-skinned and temperamental.
In the 2004 presidential election, the first national race after 9/11, there was considerable focus on national security and the question of which candidate was better prepared to combat al Qaeda. Just a few days before the election, Osama bin Laden released a new video, which only served to intensify the debate.
Though CIA analysts later concluded that the terrorist's message was "clearly designed to assist" then-President George W. Bush's re-election, the video had largely the opposite effect. John Kerry later said the bin Laden tape contributed to his defeat.
Twelve years later, bin Laden is dead and al Qaeda's potency has waned, but a similar political fight is nevertheless underway. The New York Timesreported overnight:
With a manhunt still in progress before an arrest later in the day, [Hillary Clinton] sought to shift the terms of the presidential contest back in her direction. She called [Donald Trump] a "recruiting sergeant for the terrorists" and, from a rainy airport in White Plains, offered herself as a seasoned warrior against terrorism. [...]
Citing former intelligence and counterterrorism officials who have criticized Mr. Trump's caustic remarks about Islam, Mrs. Clinton leveled an attack that might have shocked the political world in any other campaign: In addition to calling him a "recruiting sergeant" for terrorists, she accused him of giving "aid and comfort" to the Islamic State with his campaign oratory.
Not surprisingly, the Republican nominee returned fire, arguing that ISIS terrorists are "hoping and praying that Hillary Clinton becomes president so that they can continue their savagery and murder."
At a certain level, this seems like predictable campaign posturing in the midst of a competitive presidential campaign. When the public's attention turns to national security and terrorist threats, it's only natural for a candidate to say something along the lines of, "The bad guys would much rather deal with my opponent than me."
But isn't this a knowable thing? ISIS won't get a vote in the American presidential election, but isn't there independent information that offers some sense of their political preferences? read more
Malcolm Nance, former Navy counter-terrorism analyst, talks with Rachel Maddow about what aspects of the bombs attributed to Ahmad Khan Rahami tell investigators about the thinking and training of the person who made them. watch
Matt Katz, reporter for WNYC radio, talks with Rachel Maddow about the opening arguments in the New Jersey Bridgegate trial, and how both the prosecution and defense are painting an unflattering picture of Governor Chris Christie's involvement in the lane closures. watch
Rukmini Callimachi, a reporter for the New York Times who covers ISIS and al Qaeda, talks with Rachel Maddow about what leads ISIS to claim credit for attacks in the U.S. and what investigative routes are being explored in the Ahmad Khan Rahami case. watch
Rachel Maddow reports on what facts are known about the man whose knife attack in St. Cloud, Minnesota has been claimed by ISIS, and whether that claim of responsibility is merely a boast or whether there is a meaningful connection between the attacker and ISIS. watch
Rachel Maddow reports on the differences in the explosive recipes used in the devices authorities are attributing to Ahmad Khan Rahami, including two different pressure cooker bombs in New York City, and several pipe bombs in New Jersey. watch
* Ahmad Rahami: "The desperate search for a 28-year-old man wanted in connection with a series of blasts that terrorized New York and New Jersey over the last three days ended Monday in a gun battle with police officers. Ahmad Rahami was taken into custody after he was shot in the leg during the 10:30 a.m. confrontation in Linden, New Jersey, law enforcement sources said."
* Minnesota: "Nine people were hurt in a knife rampage at a Minnesota mall during which the attacker made references to Allah, authorities said. The suspect was shot dead by an off-duty police officer at the Crossroads Mall in St. Cloud, which began around 8 p.m. (9 p.m. ET) on Saturday. The suspect was wearing a private security uniform, officials said."
* Syria: "Syria's military declared the end of a nationwide cease-fire Monday, blaming rebel groups for violating the truce and dealing a blow to U.S. and Russian efforts to halt the bloodshed."
* Related news: "The United States' accidental bombing of Syrian troops over the weekend has put it on the defensive, undercutting American efforts to reduce violence in the civil war and open paths for humanitarian relief."
* Philadelphia: "A wild chase and shootout through the streets of Philadelphia left two police officers and three civilians wounded and a woman and the suspect fatally shot."
* Energy: "Gasoline prices increased again across the Deep South on Monday, 10 days after the discovery of a pipeline rupture in Alabama that threatened fuel supplies and prompted worries about environmental contamination."
* Emissions: "The 27 states challenging Obama's Clean Power Plan in court say the lower emissions levels it would impose are an undue burden. But most are likely to hit them anyway. Already, Arkansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma and South Dakota appear to be meeting the CPP's early targets. And changes in the power market, along with policies favoring clean generation, are propelling most of the rest toward timely compliance, according to researchers, power producers and officials, as well as government filings reviewed by Reuters." read more
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.