Trump Tweets Wildly Inflated Death Toll for Sri Lanka Bombings

President Donald Trump botched his initial statement about the deadly bombings in Sri Lanka on Sunday morning, tweeting that the death toll was in the hundreds of millions.

“Heartfelt condolences from the people of the United States to the people of Sri Lanka on the horrible terrorist attacks on churches and hotels that have killed at least 138 million people and badly injured 600 more. We stand ready to help!” Trump wrote in a tweet that was left up for at least 20 minutes before he corrected the number to 138, according to CNN’s Brian Stelter.

Before noticing the error and taking the tweet down, Trump then tweeted to wish the country a “Happy Easter.”

Trump’s condolences come in the wake of a brutal series of bombings at luxury hotels and churches in Sri Lankan cities of Colombo, Negombo, and Batticaloa on Easter Sunday. The latest reported death count estimated that 207 people had been killed in the blasts.

Police have made a handful of arrests, according to CNN, but no group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack.

[Mother Jones]

Trump hotels exempted from ban on foreign payments under new stance

The Department of Justice has adopted a narrow interpretation of a law meant to bar foreign interests from corrupting federal officials, giving Saudi Arabia, China and other countries leeway to curry favor with Donald Trump via deals with his hotels, condos, trademarks and golf courses, legal and national security experts say.

The so-called foreign emoluments clause was intended to curb presidents and other government officials from accepting gifts and benefits from foreign governments unless Congress consents.

But in a forthcoming article in the Indiana Law Journal, the Washington University Law professor Kathleen Clark reveals justice department filings have recently changed tack. The new interpretation, Clark says, is contained in justice filings responding to recent lawsuits lodged by attorneys generals and members of Congress.

Clark’s article notes that in more than 50 legal opinions over some 150 years justice department lawyers have interpreted the clause in a way that barred any foreign payments or gifts except for ones Congress approved. But filings by the department since June 2017 reveal a new interpretation that “… would permit the president – and all federal officials – to accept unlimited amounts of money from foreign governments, as long as the money comes through commercial transactions with an entity owned by the federal official,” the professor writes.

The justice department stance now closely parallels arguments made in a January 2017 position paper by Trump Organization lawyer Sheri Dillon and several of her law partners. On 11 January 2017, just days before he was sworn in, Dillon said Trump isn’t accepting any payments in his “official capacity” as president, as the income is only related to his private business. “Paying for a hotel room is not a gift or a present, and it has nothing to do with an office,” Dillon said.

That goes against what many experts believe.

“For over a hundred years, the justice department has strictly interpreted the constitution’s anti-corruption emoluments clause to prohibit federal officials from accepting anything of value from foreign governments, absent congressional consent,” Clark told the Guardian.

“In 2017, the department reversed course, adopting arguments nearly identical to those put forward by Trump’s private sector lawyers. Instead of defending the republic against foreign influence, the department is defending Trump’s ability to receive money from foreign governments,” Clark added.

A justice department spokesperson declined to comment, but pointed to its filings in the emoluments lawsuits which Clark has noted contain five arguments similar to those used by Trump’s business lawyers. Among the key justice arguments is that the foreign emoluments clause only was intended to prohibit the president accepting gifts and employment compensation from a foreign government, but allows him to benefit from what it calls “commercial transactions”.

Other legal scholars also voice strong qualms about the justice department’s current position on emoluments and criticize the administration’s lax attitude about conflicts involving Trump and his business empire.

“The heart of the matter is that these are clauses meant to guard against undue foreign influence and conflicts of interest,” John Mikhail, a professor at Georgetown Law Center, said.

Two attorneys general from the District of Columbia and Maryland have filed lawsuits arguing the Trump International Hotel in Washington, where numerous foreign and state delegations have stayed or hosted events, has violated the anti corruption clauses. Some 200 members of Congress have also filed a lawsuit alleging that Trump has conflicts of interest in at least 25 countries.

The inspector general at the General Services Administration, which oversees the government-owned Old Post Office building leased by the Trump International Hotel, has faulted the agency for “improperly ignoring (the) emoluments clauses” and for conflicts of interest involving the hotel while Trump is in office.

Former intelligence officials also expressed concerns. “There’s a perception among lobbyists for foreign governments that the White House is for sale,” said Robert Baer, a 21 year CIA veteran with a Middle East background. “It’s a counter intelligence nightmare.”

The Trump Organization did pledge that while Trump was president it would donate any profits from foreign entities to the treasury. To that end it has written checks for $342,000 to the government covering the years 2017 and 2018. But some ethics watchdogs have questioned the methodology for calculating these payments, arguing it doesn’t account for foreign revenues to Trump businesses which overall have had yearly losses.

Further critics note that while Trump opted to let his two sons run his real estate businesses, and pledged he would not be involved with it as long as he was president, he has not been shy about publicly touting his properties including his Scottish golf course. Advertisement

A chief focus of critics and the emolument lawsuits has been the Trump International Hotel which has become a mini mecca for numerous foreign delegations – including ones from Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Turkey and the Philippines – who have used it for overnight stays and various meetings.

The hotel is leased from the GSA for 60 years and located on Pennsylvania Avenue just a few blocks from the White House. The IG’s report this January said the lease should have been reviewed again with Trump’s election to determine if it was in violation of the emoluments clause.

Critics of Trump’s ongoing ties to the Trump International and his business empire also note that some countries with major political and business problems in Washington have frequented his properties. “It appears that President Trump may be benefiting from foreign use of his properties designed to influence his decisions,” said the former Republican congressman Mickey Edwards.

For instance, a 60-person Malaysian government delegation stayed at Trump International in the fall of 2017 at a time when the justice department was conducting a major corruption investigation of Malaysian officials including the then prime minister, Najib Razak, who had a White House meeting with Trump during their stay, as first reported by radio station WAMU and Reveal.

Meanwhile, lobbyists for Saudi Arabia, which has aggressively courted Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, spent at least $270,000 at his DC hotel after Trump won the election, booking 500 rooms over an estimated three-month period, according to a Washington Post report.

Last March, a Saudi delegation traveling with the country’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman seemed to enjoy a lavish stay at Trump’s New York hotel, which helped to reverse a two-year revenue decline at the property, according to the Washington Post.

These foreign dealings with Trump hotels are exhibit A for many critics of the weak kneed enforcement of the emoluments clause in the Trump era.

“This administration gives off every appearance of turning the White House into a giant cash register,” said Mikhail. “ Rather than drawing bright lines between the Trump Organization and the Trump administration they seem intent on blurring those lines.”

The lawsuits have to wend their way through the courts – which could see tough battles given mixed court rulings thus far. But critics in Congress and outside are raising more questions about emoluments and Trump’s business conflicts as new issues keep arising.

“Congress now must conduct independent oversight so the American people can determine for themselves whether the President is acting in our nation’s best interests or his own,” said congressman Elijah Cummings, the chairman of the House committee on oversight and reform.

Mike Carpenter, who served on the National Security Council in the Obama years, added: “When foreign powers patronize the president’s businesses it creates an enormous national security risk.”

[The Guardian]

Trump told CBP head he’d pardon him if he were sent to jail for violating immigration law

During President Donald Trump’s visit to the border at Calexico, California, a week ago, where he told border agents to block asylum seekers from entering the US contrary to US law, the President also told the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, Kevin McAleenan, that if he were sent to jail as a result of blocking those migrants from entering the US, the President would grant him a pardon, senior administration officials tell CNN.

Two officials briefed on the exchange say the President told McAleenan, since named the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, that he “would pardon him if he ever went to jail for denying US entry to migrants,” as one of the officials paraphrased.

It was not clear if the comment was a joke; the official was not given any further context on the exchange.The White House referred CNN to the Department of Homeland Security. A DHS spokesman told CNN, “

At no time has the President indicated, asked, directed or pressured the Acting Secretary to do anything illegal. Nor would the Acting Secretary take actions that are not in accordance with our responsibility to enforce the law.”

[CNN]

Trump Reportedly Told Border Agents to Do Something That’s Illegal

President Donald Trump unsuccessfully pushed to close the border in El Paso, Texas, told Border Patrol agents to turn back migrants despite the fact that doing so would be illegal, and has been pushing to reinstate a more aggressive family separation policy than the one that tore apart more than 2,500 families last spring, CNN reported on Monday. 

Last month, Trump ordered since-ousted Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to shut down some or all El Paso border crossings the next day, on March 22, at noon, according to CNN. Nielsen told Trump that would be a bad and even dangerous idea, and that the governor of Texas, Republican Greg Abbott, has been very supportive of the President. She proposed an alternative plan that would slow down entries at legal ports. She argued that if you close all the ports of entry all you would be doing is ending legal trade and travel, but migrants will just go between ports. According to two people in the room, the President said: “I don’t care.”The federal government is required to process migrants who cross the border without authorization and allow asylum seekers to make their cases for protection if they demonstrate a “credible fear” of being persecuted in their home countries. Trump reportedly told Border Patrol agents in Calexico, California, on Friday that they should simply force back the migrants they encounter.Behind the scenes, two sources told CNN, the President told border agents to not let migrants in. Tell them we don’t have the capacity, he said. If judges give you trouble, say, “Sorry, judge, I can’t do it. We don’t have the room.” After the President left the room, agents sought further advice from their leaders, who told them they were not giving them that direction and if they did what the President said they would take on personal liability. You have to follow the law, they were told.Trump has also spent months pushing to reinstate some form of the family separation policy that he was forced to abandon in June, CNN and NBC News are reporting. Trump is calling for a more comprehensive version of the policy than the one that was adopted across the border last spring. Instead of separating families who cross the border without authorization by prosecuting them for illegal entry, Trump also wants to split families who come to official ports of entry to request asylum, which now requires weeks of waiting.According to multiple sources, the President wanted families separated even if they came in at a legal port of entry and were legal asylum seekers. The President wanted families separated even if they were apprehended within the US. He thinks the separations work to deter migrants from coming. Sources told CNN that Nielsen tried to explain they could not bring the policy back because of court challenges, and White House staffers tried to explain it would be an unmitigated PR disaster. “He just wants to separate families,” said a senior administration official.

The CNN report comes three days after Trump unexpectedly pulled his nominee to lead US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, one day after Trump pushed out Nielsen, and the same day the New York Times reported that the hardline head of US Citizenship and Immigration Services—the DHS agency responsible for legal immigration—is also expected to leave government soon. Trump’s most important asylum crackdown, known as Remain in Mexico, was also temporarily blocked by a federal judge on Monday.

[Mother Jones]

Trump directed Gary Cohn to pressure DOJ to block AT&T-Time Warner deal

President Trump reportedly directed his former economic adviser, Gary Cohn, to pressure the Justice Department to block the AT&T-Time Warner merger, according to a report in The New Yorker.

In an explosive new investigation into the relationship between the Trump White House and Fox News, the magazine reported new details that contradict the administration’s assurances that Trump had no role in the Justice Department’s lawsuit trying to stop the merger.

Citing an unidentified “well-informed source,” The New Yorker reported that in summer 2017, months before the Justice Department filed its antitrust lawsuit, Trump called Cohn and then-chief of staff John Kelly into the Oval Office and told them that he wanted to “make sure” the Justice Department’s lawsuit seeking to block the merger was filed.

“I’ve been telling Cohn to get this lawsuit filed and nothing’s happened!” Trump told Kelly, according to the report. “I’ve mentioned it 50 times. And nothing’s happened. I want to make sure it’s filed. I want that deal blocked!”

Trump repeatedly criticized the $85 billion deal on the campaign trail and as president, vowing to block the merger and saying that it was “not good for the country.”

But, according to The New Yorker, many saw Trump’s opposition to the deal as motivated by his disdain for CNN, which is owned by Time Warner. But the Justice Department has insisted that the president’s unhappiness with CNN, which he often targets in tweets and at rallies as “fake news,” did not influence the case.

After Trump’s direction in the 2017 meeting, The New Yorker reported, Cohn refused to follow the instruction, knowing that it would be “highly improper” for Trump to involve himself in stopping the merger.

“Don’t you f—ing dare call the Justice Department,” he reportedly told Kelly. “We are not going to do business that way.”

A spokesperson for Cohn declined to comment to The New Yorker, and Kelly did not respond to request for comment.

A former White House official who was not named in the report told The New Yorker that Trump often “vented” in “frustration” about the AT&T-Time Warner deal and his desire to block it.

“The President does not understand the nuances of antitrust law or policy,” the former official said. “But he wanted to bring down the hammer.”

A federal judge ruled against the Justice Department last June, allowing the merger to go forward. The Trump administration appealed the decision, but a federal appeals court last month upheld the lower court’s decision.

The anecdote about Trump’s instruction to Cohn appears in The New Yorker’s report as an example of how the Trump administration’s actions have been “pro-Fox.”

The New Yorker reported that Trump’s effort to have Cohn push to block the AT&T-Time Warner merger, in addition to the administration’s approval of the Disney-Fox merger and opposition to the Sinclair-Tribune merger, would all have benefitted the Murdoch family and Fox News.

The Hill has reached out to 21st Century Fox and the Department of Justice for comment.

[The Hill]

Trump just declared a national emergency at the border

After battling for weeks over funding for a border wall, overseeing the longest government shutdown in US history, and finally signing on to a deal to fund the government, President Donald Trump has declared a national emergency over a contrived crisis at the US-Mexico border.

On Friday, Trump invoked his power to declare a national emergency in a unilateral effort to make progress on the border wall Congress has thus far denied him. He initially demanded $5 billion for the construction of about 200 miles of barrier at the border, and Democrats in Congress have repeatedly refused to go anywhere near that figure. He got about $1.3 billion for border fencing in the deal he finally agreed to, a far cry from the desired amount. So he’s going with a national emergency to get more.

“We’re going to confront the national security crisis on our southern border, and we’re going to do it, one way or another, we have to do it,” he said in a speech at the White House Rose Garden on Friday.

Trump will try to cobble together funds from a number of areas and redirect them toward border wall construction. White House officials ahead of the announcement on Friday said he would redirect about $600 million from the Treasury Forfeiture Fund, an account funded by money seized by the US government; $2.5 billion from the Department of Defense’s counter-drug activities; and $3.6 billion from other military construction accounts. Trump won’t try to take anything from disaster relief.

“I didn’t need to do this,” Trump said on Friday. “But I’d rather do it much faster.”

That the president has finally decided to declare an emergency isn’t entirely surprising — he has been wavering on the idea for weeks.

So why declare a national emergency in addition to the spending deal? The short answer is that Trump doesn’t want to admit he lost. He’s already getting less for border fencing than was in the original spending bill he refused to sign in December — and caused a 35-day government shutdown over — so he’s looking to executive action instead.

There has been some debate about whether Trump can indeed declare an emergency at the border considering there isn’t really one, and the answer, at least initially, seems to be that he can.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor on Thursday that he would support the emergency declaration.

[Vox]

Trump tweets to declare he was cleared by filings that named him as unindicted co-conspirator

After being named as an unindicted co-conspirator in legal filings by federal prosecutors, President Donald Trump claimed total vindication.

“Totally clears the President,” Trump tweeted Friday.

[Raw Story]

Cohen claims ‘regular contact’ with Trump legal team when crafting false statement to Congress

President Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen said Friday he was in “close and regular contact” with Trump’s White House staff and legal team when he prepared a statement for Congress that he now says falsely downplayed Trump’s effort to land a Trump Tower Moscow deal during the 2016 presidential campaign.

In a filing seeking a lenient sentence, Cohen’s attorneys say his false statement to Congress — which Cohen pleaded guilty to on Thursday — was based on Trump and his team’s efforts to “portray contact with Russian representatives” by Trump, his campaign or his company “as having effectively terminated before the Iowa caucuses of February 1, 2016.”

“Seeking to stay in line with this message, Michael told Congress that his communications and efforts to finalize a building project in Moscow on behalf of the Trump Organization, which he began pursuing in 2015, had come to an end in January 2016, when a general inquiry he made to the Kremlin went unanswered,” Cohen’s lawyers Guy Petrillo and Amy Lester write.

But “Michael had a lengthy substantive conversation with the personal assistant to a Kremlin official following his outreach in January 2016, engaged in additional communications concerning the project as late as June 2016, and kept [Trump] apprised of these communications,” they wrote. “He and [Trump] also discussed possible travel to Russia in the summer of 2016, and Michael took steps to clear dates for such travel.”

They also say Cohen kept Trump “apprised” of his contacts with Russia during the campaign.

In the filing, Cohen’s lawyers say his false statement to Congress arose out of loyalty to Trump, who they refer to throughout as “Client-1.”
“Furthermore, in the weeks during which his then-counsel prepared his written response to the Congressional Committees, Michael remained in close and regular contact with White House-based staff and legal counsel to Client-1,” his lawyers wrote.

Cohen’s filing also explicitly describes his efforts to silence two women who claimed to have had sexual relationships with Trump in the closing weeks of the 2016 campaign. Cohen pleaded guilty in August to making hush-money payments to one woman and arranging an effort with the National Enquirer to bottle up the other’s story in violation of campaign finance laws.

Cohen’s lawyers explicitly describe the payments as “centered on extramarital affairs of a presidential candidate.”

They also repeatedly refer to Cohen, 52, as “Michael,” an attempt to cast him in a softer light as he prepares to be sentenced. The filing includes two dozen letters of support from Cohen’s family, friends and associates attesting to his character.

Petrillo and Lester say Cohen should be sentenced to “time served” rather than face incarceration based on his remorse and his ongoing cooperation with special counsel Robert Mueller.

“Michael participated in seven voluntary interview meetings with the Special Counsel’s Office of the Department of Justice,” they wrote. “He intends to continue to make himself available to the SCO as and when needed for additional questioning. He also agreed to plead guilty to an additional count, namely, making false statements to Congress, based in part on information that he voluntarily provided to the SCO in meetings governed by a limited-use immunity proffer agreement.”

Petrillo and Lester say Cohen’s cooperation with Mueller, as well as New York prosecutors investigating the Trump Foundation, underscore his “personal resolve, notwithstanding past errors, to re-point his internal compass true north toward a productive, ethical and thoroughly law abiding life.”

Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani, who once called Cohen an “honest” person, has repeatedly slammed him as a self-serving liar since he turned on Trump over the summer.

After Cohen’s second guilty plea this week, Giuliani reemphasized Cohen’s history of lying.

“It’s no surprise that Cohen lied to Congress. He’s a proven liar who is doing everything he can to get out of a long-term prison sentence for serious crimes of bank and tax fraud that had nothing to do with the Trump Organization,” Giuliani said in a statement. “It is important to understand that documents that the Special Counsel’s Office is using to show that Cohen lied to Congress were voluntarily disclosed by the Trump Organization because there was nothing to hide.”

Giuliani said Trump had been “open and transparent” about his efforts to build a Trump Tower Moscow. In fact, Trump had long sought a deal to build in Russia but as his campaign gained traction, he downplayed his business relationships there and repeatedly insisted he had nothing to do with Russia, a denial he underscored repeatedly after the discovery of Russia efforts to interfere in the election.

[Politico]

Trump Organization planned to give $50 million penthouse to Putin amid Moscow deal

The Trump Organization planned to offer a $50 million penthouse suite to Russian President Vladimir Putin amid negotiations over a real estate deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, according to a report by BuzzFeed News. 

The bombshell report includes Felix Sater, a longtime Donald Trump associate accused of having Russian mafia ties, telling BuzzFeed News that he and Michael Cohen, the president’s former attorney and fixer, thought giving the suite to Putin could help sell other apartments.

“In Russia, the oligarchs would bend over backwards to live in the same building as Vladimir Putin,” Sater told BuzzFeed News. “My idea was to give a $50 million penthouse to Putin and charge $250 million more for the rest of the units. All the oligarchs would line up to live in the same building as Putin.”

BuzzFeed notes other unnamed officials confirmed the existence of the plan and the officials said Cohen discussed the idea with a representative of Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary.

It’s unclear whether Trump was aware of the plan, which never came to fruition due to the Trump Tower deal in Russia falling through.

Sater, a Russian immigrant who spent a year in prison for a 1991 stabbing, told the news organization that Cohen, at the time, remarked that it was a “great idea.”

Cohen’s attorney, Lanny Davis, declined to comment on the report when reached by USA TODAY. Rudy Giuliani, a lawyer for President Trump, said the story was “unknown to the president.”

Giuliani added the project was “too premature for anything like that” and called the idea to give Putin a suite “crazy.”

The revelations come at a time where the president’s Trump Tower deal in Moscow has come under intense scrutiny by special counsel Robert Mueller, who is examining Russian interference in the 2016 election.

On Thursday, Cohen pleaded guilty in federal court in New York to lying to Congress about the plan to build a Trump Tower in Russia all in the hope of shielding Trump from criticism.

Court documents filed as part of Cohen’s plea deal detailed Trump’s business dealings in Russia lasted longer during his campaign than previously acknowledged.

Federal prosecutors said Cohen lied when he submitted an Aug. 28, 2017, letter to the Senate and House intelligence committees. The letter said the project had ended by January 2016, when planning continued months longer during the presidential campaign.

Prosecutors said that Cohen lied to the committees to “minimize links between the Moscow Project and (Trump) and give the false impression that the Moscow Project ended before the Iowa caucus and the very first primary in hopes of limiting the ongoing Russia investigations.”

Sater, who had a large role in developing the Trump SoHo Hotel in New York, is also under scrutiny in Mueller’s investigation.

He wrote an email to Cohen in 2015 bragging about his ties to Putin, according to the New York Times. “Our boy can be president of the USA and we can engineer it,” Sater wrote in one of the emails. “I will get all of Putin’s team to buy in on this.”

The Times noted that Cohen never replied to the emails and viewed them as “puffery.” Sater, who spent a year in prison for stabbing a man and later scouted for Trump investments in Russia, said he was simply expressing “enthusiasm” for the Trump Organization.

[USA Today]

Trump Dismisses Report on Ivanka: She ‘Did Some Emails,’ They Weren’t Classified Like Hillary’s

President Donald Trump dismissed the Washington Post report on his daughterIvanka Trump, accessing and sending government-related emails on her private email account.

“Early on, and for a little period of time, Ivanka did some emails,” the president said. “They weren’t classified like Hillary Clinton. They weren’t deleted like Hillary Clinton, who deleted 33 [thousand] … She wasn’t doing anything to hide her e-mails.”

Trump claimed that his daughter’s emails were in the presidential record. The Washington Post piece was unclear on that point.

“Using personal emails for government business could violate the Presidential Records Act, which requires that all official White House communications and records be preserved as a permanent archive of each administration,” the piece read.

“What Ivanka Trump did, all in the presidential records, everything is there,” Trump said. “There was no deletion, no nothing. What it is is a false story. Hillary Clinton deleted 33,000 e-mails, she had a server in the basement, that is the real story.”

[Mediaite]

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