John Bolton caught using a ‘shadow’ council to funnel new personnel into the White House

Donald Trump’s third national security adviser John Bolton has a group of associates outside the White House some call the “shadow” National Security Council for their influential role in shaping the adviser’s operations within the administration.

The New York Times reported Monday that Bolton’s “shadow NSC” includes Charles M. Kupperman, a former official in the Ronald Reagan administration that currently holds a temporary leadership position on the council. Three other Bolton associates — Frederick H. Fleitz, Sarah Tinsley and David Wurmser — are also in consideration for jobs on the NSC as well.

After being hired in March to replace H.R. McMaster, Bolton, the Times noted, “engaged in his own speeded-up transition process” with the help of his outside advisers. They work out of downtown D.C. offices associated with the adviser’s various conservative political organizations, and help provide advice on the NSC’s operations as well as assisting in vetting “prospective new hires for views that would be compatible with his own.”

Bolton’s use of temporary and informal advisers “has raised concerns among government watchdog organizations and N.S.C. veterans and scholars, who say it raises questions of conflicts of interest, and creates an echo chamber of identical views with little room for dissent at the agency charged with coordinating policy throughout the government’s military, foreign policy and intelligence communities and synthesizing the best advice for the president.”

One such associate is Matthew C. Freedman, a conservative operative Bolton met in the 1980’s considered to be the most influential of all the “shadow NSC” members.

“After his early foray in government,” the Timesreported, “Mr. Freedman went on to become a foreign lobbyist working with Paul Manafort in the 1980s and 1990s for sometimes unsavory but well-paying foreign leaders, including Ferdinand Marcos, the Philippine strongman.”

Freedman also worked on the Trump transition team, but was kicked off after he used an email address from one of his lobbying jobs to conduct government business. He interviewed potential NSC hires from one of Bolton’s DC offices, and has reportedly been a driving factor behind massive firings at the NSC since Bolton took over as national security adviser — an allegation Freedman denies.

[Raw Story]

Out of Public View, Trumps and Kushners Are Talking Business

The Kushner and Trump families have both been in New York real estate for decades.

But until relatively recently, they didn’t work together on large projects.

That appears to be changing with a new Jeresy Shore development led by the Kushners, which the New York Times is reporting will have at least one hotel managed by the Trumps. According to the Times, there is a signed letter of intent.

“The long-running talks blur the line between family, business and politics in ways that lack precedent: Both Mr. Trump and Mr. Kushner, the president’s senior adviser and son-in-law, retain financial interests in their family businesses,” the Times writes. “The Trump Organization’s outside ethics adviser has raised questions about a potential deal—one reason the two-year-long discussions have not been completed.”

The report quotes an ethics advisor who points out that this conflict of interest may be the reason Trump hasn’t pushed his son-in-law out of the White House, despite Kushner losing his top-secret security clearance and reports that other nations were looking to exploit his massive debt load in negotiations.

“The concern is that the president might not want to do anything that would upset the Kushner family agreement to do business with his company,” said the ethics advisor.

The story goes on to detail all the places the Kushners have borrowed money and to discuss the rarely used emoluments clause of the Constitution.

[RawStory]

Trump Organization orders tee markers featuring presidential seal

The Trump Organization has ordered tee markers that feature the presidential seal, which could violate a federal law dictating that the seal can only be used for government business, ProPublica reported Monday.

Sign and metalworking company Eagle Sign and Design told ProPublica that it had gotten an order to create dozens of tee markers featuring the presidential seal to be used on Trump golf courses.

One of the markers — used on courses to show golfers where they should tee off — was also displayed in a Facebook album by the company titled “Trump International Golf Course.”

The company declined to tell ProPublica who had ordered the markers. However, the publication and WNYC viewed an order form that listed the customer as “Trump International.”

“We made the design, and the client confirmed the design,” Eagle Sign owner Joseph E. Bates told ProPublica.

Several of Trump’s golf courses feature the name “Trump International,” including the West Palm Beach, Fla., course that the president frequents while he’s at his nearby Mar-a-Lago resort. Some Trump courses have featured markers with the Trump family crest.

Federal law states that the presidential seal can only be used for government business. Use of the seal otherwise can lead to criminal charges and is punishable by up to six months in prison.

The Trump Organization and the White House did not return ProPublica’s request for comment. The Department of Justice declined to comment to the publication.

Past presidents, including former President Obama, have used golf balls featuring the presidential seal while golfing in office.

The Trump Organization is being run by President Trump’s sons, Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr., while their father is in office.

[The Hill]

Officials from four countries discussed exploiting Jared Kushner

Officials from at least four countries have discussed ways they could use Jared Kushner’s intricate business arrangements, lack of experience and financial woes to manipulate President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser, The Washington Post reported Tuesday.

The paper reported that it is unclear, based on current and former US officials familiar with intelligence reports on the matter, that the countries — – Mexico, Israel, China and the United Arab Emirates — acted on the conversations.

The revelation is the latest in a series that call into question Kushner’s ability to work in the White House given his complex business ties.

CNN reported earlier on Tuesday that Kushner has been stripped of his access to the nation’s top secrets after chief of staff John Kelly mandated changes to the security clearance system. Kushner had been working on a temporary clearance, but, under the new system, aides who previously had “top secret” interim clearances saw their access downgrade to the less sensitive “secret” designation.

[CNN]

Jared Kushner ‘Tried and Failed to Get a $500m Loan from Qatar Before Pushing Trump to Take Hard Line Against Country’

Jared Kushner tried and failed to secure a $500m loan from one of Qatar’s richest businessmen, before pushing his father-in-law to toe a hard line with the country, it has been alleged.

This intersection between Mr Kushner’s real estate dealings and his father-in-law’s international issues highlights the difficulties of an administration besiged with an unprecedented number of conflicts of interest.

Early in his real estate career, Mr Kushner purchased a building at 666 Fifth Avenue in New York for $1.8bn – a record-setting deal at the time.

These days, however, more than a quarter of the office space in the building is vacant. According to The New York Times, the building has not generated enough to pay its debts in several years, forcing Kushner Companies to cover the multimillion-dollar difference.

In 2015 – while Donald Trump was firing up his presidential campaign – Mr Kushner was working with his biological father to keep the property from going underwater. The men zeroed in on Qatari billionaire sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al-Thani (HBJ) as a potential investor.

HBJ eventually agreed to invest $500m in the property, sources tell The Intercept, on the condition that Kushner Companies found the rest of the money for the multi-billion-dollar project on its own.

For help, Kushner Companies turned to Chinese insurance company Anbang. The company agreed to secure a $4bn construction loan to develop the property in early March. But weeks later, as concerns about conflicts of interest mounted, Anbang pulled out.

Without the help of Anbang, Kushner Companies could not meet the rest of HBJ’s funding demands. According to one source in the region, HBJ killed the deal. According to another, he simply put it on hold.

Either way, a diplomatic crisis centred around Qatar broke out shortly thereafter. In early June, at least six Gulf Region countries severed or reduced ties to the country, claiming it had supported terrorism.

The countries issued a list of demands necessary for Qatar to regain favour, including shutting down the media network Al-Jazeera, cutting ties with various Islamist groups, limiting ties with Iran, and expelling Turkish troops.

The move sent the tiny, isolated nation into an economic tailspin. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson quickly encouraged the countries to engage in “calm and thoughtful dialogue“ and asked for “no further escalation by the parties in the region”.

Mr Trump, however, unleashed a string of criticism toward the country, calling it a “funder of terrorism at a very high level”.

“So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off,” he tweeted on 6 June. “They said they would take a hard line on funding, extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar.”

The President’s position took Mr Tillerson by surprise, and sources say he suspected Mr Kushner was behind it all.

A source close to Mr Tillerson told The American Conservative that the Secretary of State is convinced that some of Mr Trump’s remarks were written by UAE ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba – a close friend of Mr Kushner.

“Otaiba weighed in with Jared and Jared weighed in with Trump,”  the source said. “What a mess.”

But even if the source’s account of the proceedings is true, it still leaves open the question of why Mr Kushner wanted to convince the President to speak out against Qatar.

Mr Tillerson’s reasons for supporting the small country, and urging a quick end to the conflict, however, are more clear: The US runs a crucial airbase out of the country, which runs air campaigns against Isis in Iraq and Syria, and helps protect Israel.

Mr Tillerson left on Monday for a trip to Turkey, Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia to help mediate an end to the crisis. Kushner Companies did not respond to The Independent’s request for comment.

[The Independent]

Trump Holds $10 Million Dollar Fundraiser at His Hotel

Protesters greeted the president with cries of “Shame!”as he arrived at the $35,000 per person bash.

Many were unhappy with the Republican healthcare plan, holding placards that said “Healthcare, not tax cuts”.

Holding the fundraising event at Trump International Hotel has increased concerns about conflicts of interest.

Richard Painter, who served as the chief ethics lawyer in the White House for former President George W Bush, said it was unacceptable for the president to be potentially benefiting financially from this kind of event. He should have picked another hotel, he said.

But Kathleen Clark, a law professor who specialises in government ethics at Washington University in St. Louis, told USA Today it did not break any laws.

It is not clear if the hotel is being paid to host the event.

Republican National Committee officials were expecting to raise about $10m, with about 300 places available.

Not all the money raised will go towards the Trump 2020 campaign – some will go to other Republican Party causes.

It is unusual for a president to raise cash for re-election so early in his first term, only five months since the former property developer took office.

“Of course he is running for re-election,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters on Wednesday.

Reporters were barred from attending the event.

The president has previously been criticised for entertaining foreign leaders at another of his properties in Florida.

A lawsuit filed in June argued President Trump was “flagrantly violating the constitution” by accepting payments from foreign governments, a charge the White House has strongly denied.

[BBC]

Trump sons met with GOP officials over political strategy

Family members of President Trump, including his two sons, met for hours Thursday with Republican Party officials to discuss political strategy, ABC News has learned from sources with direct knowledge of the meeting.

The president’s sons, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric, in addition to Eric’s wife, Lara, attended the meeting at Republican National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C., sources told ABC News.

The meeting was first reported by the Washington Post, who said the Trump family members were invited by the RNC and that their appearance there bothered at least two prominent Republicans over questions of whether the president’s sons should be involved in high-level party discussions considering they run the Trump real estate business

The Post reported that some other people familiar with the meeting thought it was fine for Trump family members who helped with the president’s election campaign to offer their views ahead of the 2018 midterm elections and the 2020 presidential race.

[ABC News]

Trump Is Not Even Pretending to Keep Promise to Donate All Hotel Profits From Foreign Governments

Just before taking office, President Donald Trump promised to donate all profits earned from foreign governments back to the U.S. Treasury.

But MSNBC has learned the Trump Organization is not tracking all possible payments it receives from foreign governments, according to new admissions by Trump representatives. By failing to track foreign payments it receives, the company will be hard-pressed to meet Trump’s pledge to donate foreign profits and could even increase its legal exposure.

The Trump Organization does not “attempt to identify individual travelers who have not specifically identified themselves as being a representative of a foreign government entity,” according to a new company pamphlet. The policy suggests that it is up to foreign governments, not Trump hotels, to determine whether they self-report their business.

That policy matches what several sources told MSNBC — Trump Organization employees are not soliciting information about whether reservations or business is from a foreign government.

Why foreign profits could be a problem for Trump

Since Trump’s election, critics have argued that the complex nature of his businesses opened up vast potential for conflicts of interest both at home and abroad. Of particular concern was the likelihood of foreign governments spending money at Trump properties. The Emoluments Clause in the U.S. Constitution bars foreign gifts to the president, and an open federal case in New York alleges the Trump Organization is in violation of that clause.

Back in January, Trump and his team said they did not believe renting a hotel room constituted a violation. Still, Trump pledged to track and donate all profits at his companies from foreign government travel and commerce.

Sheri Dillon, an attorney for the Trump Organization, said during a news conference the president-elect had directed that hotel profits from foreign governments would be donated to the U.S. Treasury because “he wants to do more than what the Constitution requires.”

“President-elect Trump has decided, and we are announcing today, that he is going to voluntarily donate all profits from foreign government payments to his hotels to the United States Treasury,” she said.

According to the new pamphlet, the Trump Organization does not plan to calculate foreign government profits, but rather to estimate them.

“To attempt to individually track and distinctly attribute certain business-related costs as specifically identifiable to a particular customer group is not practical,” the pamphlet states.

Congress to get involved

Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, said the policy as written is insufficient.

“Under the policy outlined in this pamphlet, foreign governments could provide prohibited emoluments to President Trump, for example through organizations such as RT, the propaganda arm of the Russian government,” Cummings wrote in a new letter to the Trump Organization. He received the pamphlet from Trump’s chief compliance counsel.

“Those payments would not be tracked in any way and would be hidden from the American public,” Cummings added, pressing the Trump Organization to brief Congress on the matter by June 2.

Trump Organization spokesperson Amanda Miller said Wednesday in response, “We have received and are in the process of reviewing the letter. We take these matters seriously and are fully committed to complying with all of our legal and ethical obligations.”

A lawyer involved in the emoluments case against Trump who asked not to be identified said the company’s approach violates the Constitution’s ban on the president receiving foreign gifts.

Trump officials have argued there is no legal obligation to rebuff any foreign payments, but said they are donating foreign government profits in an abundance of caution.

The newly released pamphlet states the company will donate profits from its “wholly-owned properties” and profits from “management fees that is deemed attributed from foreign governments’ patronage,” and make an annual donation to the U.S. Treasury “in one lump sum payment.”

A Trump representative said that “the pertinent accounting rules” are well understood in the hospitality industry. But experts told MSNBC that there is no standard accounting system to track profits from foreign dignitaries.

Most hotels in the United States prepare financial statements in accordance with the Uniform System of Accounts for the Lodging Industry. While the system tracks customers, it does not track guests’ professions.

In theory, Trump Hotels could create specialized codes to flag when a foreign diplomat books a room or buys hotel services.

“The margins are pretty standard for a hotel,” said Joel Feigenheimer, a hospitality professor at Florida International University, so the company could track the profit margin on each foreign government booking.

But tracking by accounting code is just one small piece of the pie. Then the companies have to decide how to determine who represents a foreign government.

“What is the proof that they are or are not a foreign dignitary?” asked Toni Repetti, an assistant professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas Harrah College of Hotel Administration. “How do you know? There’s no universal list.”

“If someone doesn’t want you to know who they are — whether it’s a government, or a girlfriend or boyfriend who is cheating — you don’t register under your real name,” said Feigenheimer. “There’s no reason for these people to register. It is not the Chinese’s problem if they are staying at the Trump hotels.”

The new Trump policy, however, leaves that reporting up to foreign governments.

Who knows who’s staying at the hotels?

One approach that Trump hotels could use is already employed by many hotel chains — the well-known “government rate” offered for U.S. government employees.

The State Department issues diplomats “mission tax exemption cards,” which provide a point-of-sale exemption from sales tax on goods and services, including hotel rooms, across the United States. The Trump organization could keep track of foreign government payments based on which guests are using the mission tax exemption card.

Jim Abrams, a legal adviser with the California Hotel & Lodging Association, suggested that the Trump Organization post on its hotel websites a notice to foreign dignitaries asking that they notify the hotel if they plan to book a room. That would be the cleanest way to do it,” he said.

If the Trump Organization has not already started tracking foreign government diplomats who stay at Trump hotels, Repetti predicted that it would be “a nightmare” to gather the information.

“It would be almost impossible,” she said. “Someone is going to have to come in and go through every single reservation.”

The Trump Organization’s decision to use estimates could also be practically and legally problematic.

The term “profit” can have different meanings, which impacts what the Treasury receives.

“[While] net income is defined by generally accepted accounting principles, the term profit is not,” said Ralph Miller, co-author of the Uniform System of Accounts for the Lodging Industry. “It’s revenue minus costs, but which costs and at what level and over what period of time?”

Abrams also discussed the problem of defining what is “profit.” “If I was a cynical person, I’d say they’d take the one measure that puts the least amount of money in the treasury.”

Another sticking point is how to calculate expenses. Typically, hotels have a wide variety of expenses — such as electricity to keep on the lobby lights, heat for guest rooms, interest payments on loans, property taxes, the hotel chef’s salary, to name just a few of the costs to run the hotel.

Depending on how the Trump Organization includes those costs in calculating profit, the size of the donated profits could change significantly.

“It’s just very difficult to try and determine in advance what the calculation may look like,” Miller said.

Ultimately, there may not be any significant donation to the Treasury, said Abrams.

“If he is only giving away the net income and then claiming a deduction, then he hasn’t fully given away all his earnings from activities,” said University of Pennsylvania Tax Professor Michael Knoll, who cautioned, “We have no idea what he is going to do unless there is a lot more disclosure.”

How much foreign business?

There is no uniform data on how many foreign diplomats stay in American hotels annually. However, the American Hotel & Lodging Association reported that in 2014, the latest year for which statistics are available, 74.8 million international travelers came to the United States. The association said that international visitors accounted for about 20 percent of all lodging sales. The average length of stay for overseas hotel visitors was about 10 days.

There are many Trump-linked hotels that could scoop up some of that business. Thirty two hotels, resorts and golf clubs bear Trump’s name, including the iconic Mar-a-Lago club, which doubled its initiation fee to $200,000 after Trump won the election.

Records show the ownership structure of his resorts and hotels widely varies. In some instances, the Trump Organization licenses Trump’s name to developers for a one-time flat fee or for a share of profits. In other instances, his ownership stake in the hotels is hidden under layers of shell companies. In many cases, the Trump Organization receives some profits but is not an owner of the building itself.

“He learned his lesson about over-leveraging and a lot of how he invested in real estate was licensing his name to other developers,” said Barry LaPides, a partner at Berger Singerman, who practices complex commercial real estate.

At Trump Hotel SOHO, the owners of the property, a Los Angeles-based real estate investment group, pay the Trump Organization 5.75 percent of the hotel’s annual operating revenues, according to a report in the New York Daily News. In Chicago, Trump owns a Trump hotel through a series of LLCs (limited liability companies). The LLC agreements are not public.

Public reporting, although incomplete, has indicated Trump’s hotel in Washington, D.C., has received business from foreign governments like Bahrain, Kuwait, Azerbaijan and Saudi Arabia.

“He knows who is staying here,” Libowitz said of Trump.

No matter what reasons foreign governments have for doing business with the Trump Organization, no court has ever ruled on whether their commerce amounts to a gift under the Constitution. That is because no president has ever overseen such a large company while in the White House.

The Trump Organization’s approach may expand its legal liability, adding to headaches in court if a judge finds this foreign commerce is a gift. Or it may not matter, in the end, if courts rule that the Constitution does not require a president to reject this kind of benefit.

The next round of the battle over Trump’s empire will play out in a federal court in New York, where Trump’s critics are asking for a ruling that would prevent his companies from taking not only profits from foreign governments, but any of their business at all.

“You don’t get to violate the Constitution and say that you’re only going to address some instances and not others because it’s inconvenient,” said Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

[MSNBC]

Man Behind Flynn’s Turkey Lobbying Holds Conference At Trump Hotel

A conference at the Trump International Hotel is putting President Donald Trump’s conflicts of interest into the spotlight again.

The Annual Conference on U.S.-Turkey Relations usually happens at the Ritz-Carlton in D.C. but is moving to the president’s hotel this year, right down the street from the White House. Organizers say the Ritz wasn’t available.

One of the groups hosting the event is run by Ekim Alptekin. He also founded the firm that paid former national security adviser Michael Flynn to lobby on behalf of the Turkish government.

Alptekin himself has ties to the Turkish government.

There are ethical concerns here, notably from the Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The clause prohibits presidents from accepting any sort of personal benefit from foreign governments.

And since Trump still has a stake in the hotel, he directly profits from the guests who rent space there — including conference hosts with ties to foreign governments.

The conference’s website says CEOs, entrepreneurs, and key members of the U.S. Congress and the Turkish Parliament will be attending.

[ABC News]

In a Beijing Ballroom, Kushner Family Sells $500,000 ‘Investor Visa’ to Wealthy Chinese

The Kushner family came to the United States as refugees, worked hard and made it big — and if you invest in Kushner properties, so can you.

That was the message delivered Saturday by White House senior adviser Jared Kushner’s sister to a ballroom full of wealthy Chinese investors, renewing questions about the Kushner family’s business ties to China.

Over several hours of slide shows and presentations, representatives from the Kushner family business urged Chinese citizens gathered at the Ritz-Carlton hotel to consider investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in a New Jersey real estate project to secure what’s known as an investor visa.

The EB-5 immigrant investor visa program, which allows foreign investors to invest in U.S. projects that create jobs and then apply to immigrate, has been used by both the Trump and Kushner family businesses.

But President Trump’s vow to crack down on immigration, as well as criticism from members of Congress, has led to questions about the future of a program known here as the “golden visa.”

The EB-5 has been extremely popular among rich Chinese who are eager to get their families — and their wealth — out of the country, though the fact that some move their money out illegally has made the program unpopular with the Chinese government, too.

In the ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton on Saturday, Chinese investors were advised to invest sooner rather than later in case the rules change. “Invest early, and you will invest under the old rules,” one speaker said.

The woman identified as “Jared’s sister” was believed to be Nicole Kushner, who is involved in the family business, not Dara Kushner, who generally stays out of the spotlight. But the woman’s face was not clearly visible from the back of the ballroom, where reporters were told to remain.

Saturday’s event in Beijing was hosted by the Chinese company Qiaowai, which connects U.S. companies with Chinese investors. The tagline on a brochure for the event: “Invest $500,000 and immigrate to the United States.”

Qiaowai is working with Kushner to secure funding for Kushner 1, a real estate project in New Jersey. Promotional materials tout the buildings’ proximity to Manhattan and note that the project will create more than 6,000 jobs.

“This project has stable funding, creates sufficient jobs and guarantees the safety of investors’ money,” one description reads.

Although there was no visible reference to Trump, the materials noted the Kushner family’s “celebrity” status. Wang Yun, a Chinese investor who attended the event, said the Kushner family’s ties to Trump, via son-in-law Jared, were a part of the project’s appeal — but also a source of concern.

“Even though this is the project of the son-in-law’s family, of course it is still affiliated,” Wang.

Wang reasoned that the link to Trump would be a boon if the presidency goes well but could be disastrous if it does not: “We heard that there are rumors that he is the most likely to be impeached president in American history. That’s why I doubt this project.”

Many of the people who attended the event declined to be interviewed, citing privacy concerns, or were blocked by organizers from speaking to the news media.

Though the event was publicly advertised in Beijing, the hosts were exceptionally anxious about the presence of reporters.

Journalists were initially seated at the back of the ballroom, but as the presentations got underway, a public-relations representative asked The Washington Post to leave, saying the presence of foreign reporters threatened the “stability” of the event.

At one point, organizers grabbed a reporter’s phone and backpack to try to force that person to leave. Later, as investors started leaving the ballroom, organizers physically surrounded attendees to stop them from giving interviews.

Asked why reporters were asked to leave, a public-relations representative, who declined to identify herself, said simply, “This is not the story we want.”

(h/t Washington Post)

Reality

Other people at the event tweeting pictures of the booth.

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