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Forensic News Roundup: Pentagon Chaos

December 8, 2020 8:02 am Adrienne Cobb

Barr under fire

Attorney General William Barr revealed last week that he had secretly appointed U.S. attorney John Durham as a special counsel in October. Durham is investigating the origins of the FBI investigation into Trump’s 2016 campaign and its ties to Russia. Barr explicitly tied the move to the potential of a Biden administration, writing that it was intended “to provide [Durham] and his team with the assurance that they could complete their work, without regard to the outcome of the election.” In other words, as special counsel Durham cannot be fired by Biden or his AG without “good cause.”
Additionally, Barr’s order gives Durham a sweeping mandate:

In short, Durham can investigate anyone who potentially violated any law that is in any way connected with the investigation of the 2016 election. And that investigation can target Mueller and his staff.

  • House Judiciary Committee Jerry Nadler (D-NY) pointed out that Durham is not eligible to be special counsel: “On its face, this appointment appears to violate the Department’s own regulations—which stipulate, among other requirements, that ‘the Special Counsel shall be selected from outside the United States Government.’ The sitting U.S. Attorney for the District of Connecticut is simply not eligible for the job.”
  • The person who wrote the special counsel regulations as a Justice Department lawyer in the late 1990s, Neal Katyal, agrees with Nadler’s assessment that Durham is not permitted to be assigned his new role. In an op-ed for the New York Times, Katyal writes that for this reason Biden’s administration should be able to dismiss Durham: “ The predicate for a special counsel does not appear to be triggered — instead it looks like the willful act of an outgoing attorney general.”

In an interview with the Associated Press last Tuesday, Barr asserted that the Justice Department “has uncovered no evidence of widespread voter fraud that could change the outcome of the 2020 election.” The declaration reportedly infuriated Trump, who is said to be “livid” that the AG undercut his claims of voting fraud and did not take steps to further the Durham probe before the election.

President Trump and his allies are piling extreme pressure on Attorney General Bill Barr to release a report that Trump believes could hurt perceived Obama-era enemies — and view Barr’s designation of John Durham as special counsel as a stall tactic… Trump has been ranting about the [Durham report] delay behind the scenes and mused privately about replacing Barr with somebody who will expedite the process.

Barr has told associates that he may leave the administration before it officially reaches its end. According to the Washington Post, “Barr first broached the topic with associates shortly after Election Day, when it became clear that former vice president Joe Biden had won.” The news comes as some report that Trump is considering firing Barr in order to expedite politically-motivated actions.
Perhaps in a related incident, the Justice Department has banned a White House liaison from the building after she tried to pressure staffers to give her sensitive information about possible election fraud. Heidi Stirrup, an ally of top Trump adviser Stephen Miller, was installed a few months ago. Trump has already given her a new job, as a member of the Board of Visitors to the US Air Force Academy.


Pentagon chaos

The White House fired Christopher Maier, the head of the Pentagon’s Defeat ISIS Task Force, last Monday, in a move experts say is disruptive to the new administration’s transition. Two recently-installed Trump loyalists, Ezra Cohen-Watnick and Anthony Tata, will be taking over duties.
White House Liaison to the Department of Defense Joshua Whitehouse fired nine members of the Pentagon’s Defense Business Board on Friday and replaced some with Trump loyalists. These include, most notably: Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager; David Bossie, Trump’s deputy campaign manager in 2016; and Cory Mills, a columnist for the far-right Newsmax website, who has claimed the Nov. 3 election results as fraudulent.

  • Note that this is a different purge than the one conducted the evening before Thanksgiving. In that instance, Whitehouse removed 11 of the 13 members of the Defense Policy Board.

Scott O’Grady, Trump’s nominee to be Assistant Secretary of Defense, has been sharing election conspiracy theories and calls for martial law. One of the tweets referenced a petition Flynn shared on Twitter calling for Trump to declare martial law and order a new presidential election. O’Grady is known for surviving behind enemy lines when his plane was shot down over Bosnia in 1995.
Trump loyalist Kash Patel, recently appointed as chief of staff to the Defense Secretary, has reportedly been blocking the Biden administration’s access to top officials and transition information. After articles on the matter were published, the Pentagon said officials will begin meeting with the transition team this week.

In some instances, the chief of staff, Kash Patel, who was assigned to the Pentagon after last month’s election, has recast policy descriptions to include content that reflects favorably on Trump’s policies before the information is shared with the Biden transition, two of the officials said. “He told everybody we’re not going to cooperate with the transition team,” one of the former officials said of Patel, and he has “put a lot of restrictions on it.”

The newly-installed loyalist leadership at the Pentagon is continuing to make big decisions, following up a military withdrawal from the Middle East with troop movements in Africa. While Trump tried to portray it as a termination of “endless wars,” the Defense Department has admitted 700 troops are being withdrawn from Somalia to be repositioned in other African nations.

“The U.S. decision to pull troops out of Somalia at this critical stage in the successful fight against al-Shabaab and their global terrorist network is extremely regrettable,” Senator Ayub Ismail Yusuf told Reuters in a statement, referring to the al Qaida-linked al Shabaab insurgency.

In the middle of the American military turmoil, Russian president Vladimir Putin is establishing a naval base in Sudan. It will be the country’s first naval base in Africa – an increasingly important region for Moscow – and has gone unchallenged by Trump.

Cultivating the image of a world power also plays a role, observers say. “Russia defines itself as a player right on the spot in this important region of the world,” Rolf Welberts, a former German ambassador to Sudan who has also served as head of the NATO Information Office in Moscow, told DW.

During the 2020 fiscal year, the U.S. sold more than $175 billion in weapons to foreign governments, nearly 3% higher than last year.
Related: Trump’s Afghanistan airstrikes increased civilian casualties by 330%. “In 2019 airstrikes killed 700 civilians – more civilians than in any other year since the beginning of the war,” the report by the Costs of War Project at Brown University found (PDF).


Pardons and probes

Last Tuesday, Ivanka Trump testified in a closed-door deposition with investigators from the Washington, DC, attorney general’s office as part of its lawsuit alleging the misuse of inaugural funds. The lawsuit asserts that Ivanka played a key role in the Trump Hotel overcharging the Inaugural Committee for space and services.

[Rick] Gates agreed with the hotel’s managing director and Trump family members to pay $175,000 per day for the committee to reserve space for four days. The committee’s own event planner — Stephanie Winston Wolkoff — advised against the transaction, telling the committee and the Trump family that the charges were at least twice the market rate, the lawsuit states.

The hotel originally tried to charge $3.6 million total. The final rate, while lower, still resulted in more than $1 million in improper payments, according to AG Karl Racine: “Our investigation revealed the Committee willfully used nonprofit funds to enrich the Trump family. It’s very simple: They broke the law. That’s why we sued.”

  • Thomas J. Barrack Jr., a major Trump donor and the chairman of the inaugural committee, and Mickael Damelincourt, the managing director of Trump International Hotel in Washington, have also been deposed. Wolkoff will reportedly be deposed this week.
  • The lawsuit by Racine is a civil case. It is separate from an investigation by federal prosecutors in Manhattan, who conducted an inquiry into donors to the inauguration, which raised and spent at least twice as much as its predecessors.

Trump is not only considering preemptive pardons for as many as 20 aides and associates, he has also discussed giving them out “like Christmas gifts” to people who haven’t even asked. Trump recently told one adviser he was going to pardon “every person who ever talked to me.” The known list includes Rudy Giuliani, Don Jr., Eric, Ivanka, and Jared Kushner. The Giuliani pardon has “been discussed more seriously,” but advisors are hesitant because it may give the appearance that members of his inner circle are criminals, according to an inside source.

  • ABC News reports that discussions of preemptive pardons began in early 2020 during the impeachment trial. Since the election, however, the White House has “been flooded with requests” for pardons. A senior official told the Daily Beast that “a lot of the appeals have been nakedly political and partisan.”

While the president has the power to issue pardons before charges are filed, blanket pardons and self-pardons have not been legally tested. There is little precedent laying out the degree to which a pardon can be used to instead foreclose criminal liability for anything and everything. There is also no definitive answer on self-pardons because no president has ever tried to pardon himself and then faced prosecution anyway. However, presidential pardons cannot protect an individual from state charges.

  • At least six recipients of pardons or commutations from Trump also have paid the president via his businesses or otherwise helped him profit.

The push for pardons even involved a criminal investigation when over the summer, the DOJ looked into a bribery-for-clemency scheme conducted by a top Trump fundraiser and Jared Kushner’s lawyer. A billionaire real estate developer enlisted the help of Elliott Broidy and Abe Lowell in securing clemency for a Berkeley psychologist who had received a 30-month prison sentence on a conviction of tax evasion. The developer, Sanford Diller, would make “a substantial political contribution” to an unspecified recipient in exchange for the pardon.

As part of the effort, someone approached the White House Counsel’s Office to “ensure” that the “clemency petition reached the targeted officials,” according to the court documents. They did not say who made the contact or how the White House responded.


Money talk

Trump has raised $495 million since mid-October, with $207.5 million of it pouring in after Election Day. Much of the money is going into Save America, a political action committee that the president can use for various activities after he leaves office. Since late October, Trump’s campaign has spent only $8.8 million on legal challenges related to the election. The campaign has sent 498 post-election fundraising pitches to donors, setting a monthly record.

  • Trump has only spent $8,000 of his personal money on his 2020 campaign.

The money raised by Trump’s PAC can be spent on almost anything, including payments directly to Trump himself, as long as he declares it as income. With a candidate committee, there is a personal-use prohibition. With a leadership PAC, however, there’s no prohibition on how they use the money. There are limits on how much money it can receive: up to $5,000 per year from individuals or other committees.
In the past three months, Trump’s campaign and its affiliated committees spent more than $1.1 million at Trump’s own properties. There were several bills in excess of $100,000 for facility rental and catering — which likely included rentals of ballrooms for fundraisers or meetings at Trump properties. But the forms don’t say which Trump property was rented, or when.
The Republican National Committee paid $300,000 for copies of Donald Trump Jr’s new book, Liberal Privilege, to give away to party donors. The money was paid to a company called Pursuit Venture LLC, which lists Trump Jr. as its principal. Previously, the RNC spent nearly $100k on Don Jr.’s book “Triggered.”
The mystery over a new consulting group paid by the RNC increased with the revelation that it was the Republican Party’s highest-paid vendor of the 2020 election. The company, Digital Consulting Group LLC, was formed in February 2020. After a $2 million expenditure right off the bat, in the next eight months, the RNC gave the firm more than $42 million for media buys, consulting, and marketing.

  • Reminder: In late July, the CLC filed a complaint with the FEC accusing the Trump campaign of laundering nearly $170 million through firms belonging to Parscale and campaign lawyers. The complaint claims that the campaign used one of those companies, American Made Media, to launder money to other vendors without disclosing the spending to the FEC.

The Trump Organization plans to resume foreign real estate projects when Trump leaves office, raising concerns that the arrangement could be used to pay back Trump for his policies as president. Furthermore, Trump’s suggestion that he’ll run again in 2024 may lead foreign entities to give his company favorable terms in the hopes of influencing a future president (again).
A group of tenants have sued the Trump family for allegedly participating in a rent fraud scheme netting them millions. The lawsuit was filed in State Supreme Court in Brookly by 20 people who live or lived in more than 30 rent-regulated apartment complexes. According to the suit, the Trumps artificially increased the rent, charging tenants more than they would otherwise be legally allowed, and pocketing the extra proceeds.


Miscellaneous

Trump called the speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives twice during the past week to ask for help overturning his loss in the election. The calls mark the third state where Trump has directly intervened in an attempt to change the election results. He previously reached out to Republicans in Michigan, and on Saturday he pressured Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp in a call to try to replace that state’s electors.
New York District Judge Nicholas Garaufis ruled against the Trump administration on Friday, restoring the DACA program to its pre-Trump era status. He ordered the Department of Homeland Security to post a public notice by Monday to accept first-time applications and ensure that work permits are valid for two years.
The Trump administration on Monday rejected setting tougher standards on soot, the nation’s most widespread deadly air pollutant. The agency locked in current thresholds for fine particle pollution for another five years, despite mounting evidence linking air pollution with illness and death. Many activists and public health experts have pushed for stricter national soot standards, saying that a mounting body of scientific evidence linking air pollution to lethal outcomes from respiratory diseases, including covid-19.



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