It’s the end of another week, and there’s no other way to say it – it was a terrible one. The big story dominating the news this week has been, of course, the horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas – the deadliest mass shooting in our nation’s history. So far, we have no answers as to why the shooter did what he did, and at the moment, it looks possible that we might never understand it.
As for how the country will respond, the conversations about “gun control” are still as divisive as ever, but there does appear to be at least a chance that Republicans in Congress will be willing to go for the very low hanging fruit and pass some sort of law regulating “bump stocks.” Tragically, this week we all learned that bump stocks are the accessories the shooter likely used to modify his semi-automatic rifles so that they fired more like automatic rifles, allowing him to fire off more rounds more quickly. In the aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting, bump stock sales appear to be spiking.
The other important story this week, which we must not lose sight of, is the continuing suffering in Puerto Rico post Hurricane Maria. Trump made a much publicized but very bizarre and callous visit there on Tuesday. He would like us all to believe that the recovery is going great, but the vast majority of Puerto Rico is still without power, and most of the hospitals are running on emergency power. This means they have no air conditioning, and seriously ill patients are lingering in temperatures of greater than 100 degrees. So Puerto Rico is still in desperate need of assistance. Now what else happened this week that you might have missed?
1. Donald Trump’s proposed budget for 2018 would make large cuts in funding for domestic terrorism programs. These are programs directed at both preventing domestic terrorism and helping local governments respond to attacks. There are numerous grants that are run through the Department of Homeland Security which are dedicated to these issues, and Trump’s budget would cut more than $300 million from these grants. One grant, for example, goes to the TSA for security efforts on various modes of transportation and also at major sporting events and other large public events.
Various grants that Nevada received in 2017 for security would be cut by about 25% in Trump’s 2018 budget. One 2017 grant, $500,000 to the Las Vegas Police Department, would be cut entirely in 2018.
Of course, it’s fair to debate the amount of funding that’s actually required for keeping us secure, and to consider whether the money is being spent wisely. But you have to note the irony that Trump, who never misses an opportunity to wrap himself around (or hide behind) the bravery of our heroic first responders and ran an entire campaign based on getting tough on terrorism, is proposing these cuts.
2. In an odd bit of timing, just a few days before the Las Vegas shooting, FBI Director Christopher Wray told a Senate Committee that the FBI has just as many investigations open into domestic terrorism as it does into ISIS.
This came up in response to a concern raised by Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill that in contrast to the numerous hearings on ISIS . . .
We have had zero hearings on the threat of domestic terrorists and the threat they pose and our response to it.
McCaskill had threats from white nationalist extremists in mind when she voiced her concern, but the timing of the conversation is quite eerie nonetheless.
3. In the 9/8 What Did I Miss?, I told you that the EPA’s internal watchdog was investigating EPA chief Scott Pruitt’s frequent trips home to Oklahoma. Well, now it turns out that one of the flights he took back home, ostensibly for “work” reasons, was on a private plane that cost taxpayers more than $14,000. Pruitt also took two other non-commercial flights for work events in other locations (these were on military jets) to the tune of more than $40,000.
4. Pruitt is also having a soundproof phone booth custom built for him at his EPA offices at a cost of nearly $25,000.
Typically, such soundproof booths are used to conduct hearing tests. But the EPA sought a customized version — one that eventually would cost several times more than a typical model — that Pruitt can use to communicate privately.
An EPA spokeswoman claims that the booth is simply a location to hold secure communications, but the EPA already has a SCIF (Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility) on location for that purpose. A consultant with the company that is working on the EPA order said this about the soundproof booth:
This is a first. They are definitely using this booth in a way that wasn’t necessarily intended.
In addition to the fact that Pruitt is running up costs for something that appears entirely unnecessary (while he demands large cuts to the overall EPA budget), this phone booth story adds to the unusual secrecy with which Pruitt is running his agency. You may remember I pointed you to an article about that back in the Environmental Review post a couple months ago.
5. And back to the subject of cabinet members and their private plane rides – Trump’s Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has also been caught traveling around the country on charter & military flights. The Interior Department’s Inspector General is now investigating Zinke’s use of the non-commercial flights.
Zinke is also being investigated by two different federal agencies for a speech he gave when he reached the destination of one of those flights. The speech may have been a violation of the Hatch Act, which bans federal employees from using their position for political purposes.
6. But wait, there’s more! Trump’s Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin is being investigated by the Inspector General for that agency for a taxpayer funded trip to Europe he took over the summer. During the 10-day trip, on which he was accompanied by his wife, Shulkin did attend a couple work-related meetings with British and Danish officials. But he spent the majority of his time in Europe vacationing – e.g. attending Wimbledon, touring Westminster Abbey, taking a cruise on the Thames.
The problem is that the government paid for the flights for both Shulkin and his wife and gave them per-diems for their meals and other expenses while they were there.
And remember, the Treasury Department IG just completed an investigation into Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s travel on private planes (it was determined that while Mnuchin broke no laws with his $800,000 (!!) worth of non-commercial flights, the justifications he gave for needing the flights were, well, lame). And last week, of course, HHS Secretary Tom Price resigned over his extensive use of private and military planes.
I’m guessing if you’re reading this blog, you’re probably not really surprised that when an entitled & corrupt man becomes President he cultivates an entitled & corrupt Cabinet and entitled & corrupt kids. Wait, why’d I bring the kids into this? Well, that brings us to the next item . . .
7. Aside from the absurdly ironic revelation that Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump have been using their own private email servers while working in the White House, which they tried to hide by moving their emails onto the Trump Organization servers when they realized the “jig was up,” this week brought us an even bigger jawdropper.
In a joint effort, Pro Publica and WNYC reported that in 2012, Ivanka and Donald Trump, Jr. were on the verge of being indicted for fraud related to the sales of condominiums in the Trump Soho building.
In one email, according to four people who have seen it, the Trumps discussed how to coordinate false information they had given to prospective buyers. In another, according to a person who read the emails, they worried that a reporter might be onto them. In yet another, Donald Jr. spoke reassuringly to a broker who was concerned about the false statements, saying that nobody would ever find out, because only people on the email chain or in the Trump Organization knew about the deception, according to a person who saw the email.
There was “no doubt” that the Trump children “approved, knew of, agreed to, and intentionally inflated the numbers to make more sales,” one person who saw the emails told us. “They knew it was wrong.”
But lucky for them, right before the indictment dropped, along came Daddy (you know, the guy we now call President) to buy off the District Attorney, Cyrus Vance. Vance overruled the lower level prosecutors who had been doing the work on the case, ordering them to drop the case.
8. And speaking of the kids, in response to a FOIA request from Politico, the DOJ has released memos from past presidential administrations which say that it is not lawful for a President to appoint family members to White House positions. Notice that’s memos – plural. These old memos come from not just one or two prior administrations but from four different past administrations.
Yet somehow, Trump – a man who’s long been known for how closely he intertwines his business with his family – managed to find himself a government lawyer who was willing to say otherwise:
The memos, issued to White Houses run by former Presidents Nixon, Carter, Reagan and Obama, were overruled in January by Deputy Assistant Attorney General Daniel Koffsky, a longtime Justice Department lawyer.
That decision paved the way for President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to become a senior adviser at the White House.
The president’s elder daughter, Ivanka Trump, eventually became a senior adviser as well, albeit in an unpaid capacity.
9. In other news, the Senate confirmed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to a new five year term this week. I’ve written several posts on this blog about the changes Pai has brought – or plans to bring – to areas that are regulated by the FCC. The biggest change Pai is pursuing is the rollback of net neutrality rules.
10. Trump is expected to decertify the Iran nuclear deal next week. That, in and of itself, wouldn’t end the deal, but it would be the first step in a process that could end with the deal blowing up.
If Trump declines to certify Iran’s compliance, U.S. congressional leaders would have 60 days to decide whether to reimpose sanctions on Tehran suspended under the agreement.
Whether Congress would be willing to reimpose sanctions is far from clear. While Republicans, and some Democrats, opposed the deal when it was approved in 2015, there is little obvious appetite in Congress for dealing with the Iran issue now.
The prospect that Washington could renege on the pact, which was signed by the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, the European Union and Iran, has worried some of the U.S. allies that helped negotiate it.
“We, the Europeans, we have hammered this: the agreement is working,” said a European diplomat who asked to remain anonymous. “We as Europeans, have repeated … it’s impossible to reopen the agreement. Period. It’s impossible.”
As with the Paris Climate Accord, Trump is claiming that he’s not simply pulling out of the deal, but negotiating for a better, tougher deal. We all know how Paris turned out.
11. And for those who like to see the inside scoop on how things happen, or for anyone who likes a good detective story, this backgrounder on how the two Politico reporters broke the story that led to Tom Price’s resignation is fascinating:
That Friday morning, we camped out at the Dulles charter terminal. A little after 8 a.m., we saw two SUVs and a police escort roll onto the tarmac, as the cars discharged passengers who then boarded a distinctive 30-seat charter plane with a golden belly. By 8:30 a.m., we watched the charter jet take off, heading north, and tracked it to Philadelphia using FlightAware, an airline tracking website.
It was strong evidence, but it wasn’t enough. We hadn’t seen the faces of Price or the other passengers — including White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, who went on that opioid trip. Using social media and help from sources, we kept tabs on the movements of Price and Conway in Philadelphia, tracing when they wrapped up the event and headed to the airport.
By the time Price boarded the private jet at Philadelphia International Airport for the return trip to Dulles in early afternoon, we had figured out how to get the best view of the Dulles tarmac . . .
12. Lastly, a bonus entry: here’s a Buzzfeed article about the comfort dogs who are helping people in Las Vegas – those who were wounded, the medical staff, the first responders – deal with their trauma.