Oversight slowly getting started
Last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appointed the remaining Democratic members to the newly-created House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis. Led by Majority Whip James Clyburn (SC), the panel includes: Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (NY) Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters (CA), Small Business Committee Chairwoman Nydia Velazquez (NY), Jamie Raskin (MD), Bill Foster (IL), and Andy Kim (NJ).
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) can appoint five Republicans to serve on the committee, but it is unclear if he will do so. On Thursday, McCarthy called the panel a political exercise, saying: “I’m not convinced that we even participate in something like this.”
CARES Oversight Commission
There is a separate committee – the five-person Congressional Oversight Commission – that is also meant to keep tabs on how the CARES Act is implemented. There is significant confusion around how this panel differs from the Select Committee created by Pelosi.
The Oversight Commission still lacks a chair, meant to be chosen jointly by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker Pelosi. The other four members: Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), chosen by McConnell; Rep. French Hill (R-AR), chosen by McCarthy; former Elizabeth Warren advisor Bharat Ramamurti, chosen by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer; Rep. Donna Shalala (D-FL), chosen by Pelosi.
Pelosi’s pick, Rep. Shalala, recently came under harsh criticism for failing to disclose stocks that she sold as she was preparing to enter Congress in 2019. Pelosi has no intention of removing her from the commission.
Shalala said she had been in the process of placing her assets into a blind trust when the trades were made. The trust still has not been finalized, the Herald reports, so the disclosures were still required…under the 2012 STOCK Act, regulation meant to prevent congressional insider trading.
The Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC) is a panel of 21 inspectors general mandated “to promote transparency and support and conduct oversight of the funds provided to address the pandemic response by the CARES Act, the Paycheck Protection Program,” and other related legislation. The committee exists as part of the Committee of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE) and is therefore under the purview of the chair of that committee, DOJ IG Michael Horowitz.
The CIGIE had chosen Pentagon IG Glenn Fine to chair PRAC, but at the beginning of April, Trump replaced Fine with a different acting official within the Pentagon, thereby preventing Fine from leading the coronavirus oversight effort. PRAC pushed forward regardless last week, revealing a new website to keep the public informed on its activities. Horowitz lists himself as the acting-chair, with no replacement for Fine yet appointed.
The CIGIE named its executive director, last week, as well: Robert Westbrooks, the current inspector general of a massive federal retirement benefit program called the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.
Other oversight actions
Watchdog group Accountable US is trying a new tactic to investigate the Trump administration’s failure to provide states with adequate testing and other support to respond to the pandemic, filing nearly 200 public records requests across all 50 states seeking communications between state officials and the federal government.
Since states tend to be faster and more responsive to public records requests, the approach may offer a quicker path toward transparency and accountability than document requests to the federal government — or congressional investigations.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee, led by Chairman Eliot Engel, is investigating the Trump administration’s decision to withhold funding to the World Health Organization. “The Administration’s explanation for this decision is inadequate, and the Committee on Foreign Affairs is determined to understand the reasons behind this self-defeating withdrawal from global leadership,” the chairman wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Engel set a May 4 deadline – today – for fulfilling a variety of documents requests. If the administration does not comply, “the Committee will consider all other measures at its disposal to compel their production.”
- Semi-related: The president announced the nomination of an inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services, who, if confirmed, would replace an acting official whose report embarrassed Mr. Trump.
The never-ending list of problems
From the perspective of average Americans, there were a great many problems with the CARES Act passed at the end of March. Individuals and entities who needed assistance the least ended up receiving the most.
- Lobbyists: At least 25 former officials who once worked for the Trump administration, campaign, or transition team are now registered as lobbyists for clients with novel coronavirus needs.
- One firm in particular, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, emerged as the first quarter lobbying winner, receiving more than $11 million from clients. That’s a 21% increase over last year’s first quarter revenue. 52% of the firm’s new clients registered with the firm solely for pandemic-related legislation.
- More than a month after the CARES Act was passed, the Treasury Department has yet to disburse $8 billion in coronavirus relief funds to Native tribes. Tribes are suing the department for missing its April 26 deadline to distribute funds.
- More than a dozen Indian nations have brought a second lawsuit against the Treasury for its plan to give for-profit Native corporations (ANCs) a share of the $8 billion fund. Last week, US District Judge Amit Mehta ruled in favor of the tribes, concluding that there is no evidence that ANCs are actually providing public services during the pandemic. Judge Mehta’s order did not force the Treasury to disburse the funds, however, so it is still not known when tribes will receive the aid.
- In the last four weeks, the billionaire class has added $308bn to its wealth. Eight of those billionaires have seen their net worth surge by over $1bn each, including the Amazon boss, Jeff Bezos, and his ex-wife MacKenzie Bezos; Eric Yuan, founder of Zoom; the former Microsoft chief Steve Ballmer; and Elon Musk, the Tesla and SpaceX technocrat.
- The mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, has alleged that none of the island’s eligible residents have received their expected stimulus payments from the federal government. The direct deposits will be released to some of Puerto Rico’s residents after the U.S. Treasury approves of Puerto Rico’s distribution plan, Francisco Parés, Secretary at the Puerto Rico Treasury Department, said last week.
- Tiny airports rake in big cash after botched stimulus formula: Airports with little or no debt and a decent amount of cash on hand were entitled to receive a relatively large share of the money. But that inherently benefited small airports because they don’t have the huge amounts of debt associated with capital projects at larger airports. For example, a tiny airport in Devils Lake, N.D., scored enough money under the federal stimulus law to cover its expenses for 50 years. JFK International in New York, got barely enough aid to make it through three months of operations.
Small business loans
- Dallas billionaire Monty Bennett – a major Trump donor – became the largest recipient of funds from the Paycheck Protection Program. Last week, his company Ashford Inc. was defiant, saying it would be keeping the $126 million in forgivable loans. Then Saturday, Ashford backtracked, saying it will return all funds “due to the [small business] agency’s recently changed rules and inconsistent federal guidance that put the companies at compliance risk.”
- Elite private schools were approved for and accepted small business loans, including schools with endowments exceeding tens of millions of dollars. St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Maryland, attended by Trump’s son Barron, is planning on keeping the small business loan it secured. Sidwell Friends, the alma mater of President Obama’s daughters, also intends to keep its loan, as does Brentwood School in LA, attended by Treasury Secretary Mnuchin’s two children.
- In addition to the Trump-connected companies identified in my previous post, three more have been identified: Capstone Turbine Corp., got $2.6 million in loans; Continental Materials received $5.5 million in loans; Easypost, whose CEO is a Trump donor, obtained an unspecified loan as well.
- The Center for Responsible Lending warned that “Roughly 95% of Black-owned businesses, 91% of Latino-owned businesses, 91% of Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander-owned businesses, and 75% of Asian-owned businesses stand close to no chance of receiving a PPP loan through a mainstream bank or credit union.”
- The first round of coronavirus aid to small businesses was a boon to rural states that backed President Donald Trump but haven’t been hit as hard by the pandemic as Democratic strongholds on the coasts. Of the 10 states that had the largest shares of approved loans as a portion of eligible payrolls in the aid program, eight of them backed President Donald Trump in the last election.
On Tuesday, the full D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in the House’s case to enforce a subpoena for the testimony of former White House Counsel Don McGahn.
Throughout the three-hour teleconference argument, judges raised concerns about whether cutting off the courts to Congress would remove any incentive for future presidents to cooperate or negotiate with lawmakers trying to check executive power.
Most of the nine judges who joined in the rare en banc session Tuesday seemed receptive to the House’s concerns, with one judge musing the Trump administration was so intent on sidelining the courts that the public would be left only with “revolution” as an alternative.
Note: Judges Gregory Katsas and Neomi Rao did not participate Tuesday. Both were nominated by the president and previously held high-level positions in the Trump administration.
Border wall case
The full D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals also heard a case about Trump’s border wall spending:
The House lawsuit claims Trump violated the Constitution by ignoring the spending limits imposed by Congress and diverting more than $6 billion allocated for other purposes to fund the wall… Justice Department lawyers told the appeals court Tuesday a single chamber of Congress cannot sue the administration because the power to appropriate federal funds is assigned to Congress as a whole.
Judge Thomas B. Griffith appeared to embrace that argument, asking the House lawyer: “Isn’t it pretty clear that you need to have the Senate with you right now to bring this suit?”
Mueller grand jury case
The DC Circuit Court of Appeals gave the Justice Department 10 days – until May 11 – to turn over Mueller’s grand jury materials to the House Judiciary Committee or file for an injunction with the Supreme Court, teeing up yet another dispute at the high court.
On Wednesday, Michael Flynn’s attorneys made public FBI investigation notes related to the probe that led to Flynn’s indictment, guilty plea, and recent attempt to take back his plea. Trump supporters seized on a handwritten note from then-FBI counterintelligence director Bill Priestap, discussing how agents should approach a critical 2017 interview with Flynn about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the United States before Trump took office.
Flynn & Trump supporters argue the documents show that Flynn was railroaded into pleading guilty, with his lawyers saying it is “stunning” evidence that their client was “set up and framed by corrupt agents at the top of the FBI.”
“What’s our goal? Truth/Admission or to get him to lie, so we can prosecute him or get him fired?” Priestap wrote. “If we get him to admit to breaking the Logan Act, give facts to DOJ & have them decide. Or, if he initially lies, then we present him [redacted] & he admits it, document for DOJ, & let them decide how to address it.”
Chuck Rosenberg, a former U.S. attorney who also served as Comey’s chief of staff, said the notes do not make a case for entrapment.
“It is not a close call,” said Rosenberg. “In this situation, Flynn had three options: tell the truth, lie or refuse to talk. The FBI did not plant a lie, urge him to repeat the lie, record him in the lie, and then prosecute him for lying. That might be entrapment. Here, Flynn was predisposed to lie, chose to talk, and then lied. That’s not entrapment.”
“Even if the government knows you’re lying, lying to the government is a crime,” Harry Sandick, a defense attorney who previously worked in the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Office, said. False statements, even if the government knows they’re false, are still criminal as long as their material to the investigation.
It is very unlikely that the courts will dismiss Flynn’s case because of these documents. Instead, it is more likely that the documents provide cover for Trump to issue a pardon to Flynn. Since the release, Trump has tweeted about Flynn’s case numerous times, saying in one instance: “What happened to General Michael Flynn, a war hero, should never be allowed to happen to a citizen of the United States again!”
- Fox News also took up Flynn’s case, with Hannity saying the FBI forced Flynn to lie and Lindsey Graham saying that Michael Flynn was railroaded.
- Further reading: “White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany promised at her first press briefing Friday that she will “never lie” but she did mislead in an answer about fired national security adviser Michael Flynn.”
Roger Stone disclosures
Newly-released documents from the FBI reveal that Roger Stone had extensive contact with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange during Trump’s 2016 campaign.
In the missives, Stone and Assange discussed the origin of damaging information on Hillary Clinton that U.S. officials believe was hacked by Russians and handed to WikiLeaks. In a direct message on Twitter cited by the FBI, Stone told Assange “as a journalist it doesn’t matter where you get information only that it is accurate and authentic,” adding, “If the US government moves on you I will bring down the entire house of cards.”
After Stone congratulated Assange on “the trumped-up sexual assault charges” being “dropped,” an apparent reference to a sexual-assault investigation by Swedish authorities, Assange replied: “Between CIA and DoJ they’re doing quite a lot. On the DoJ side that’s coming most strongly from those obsessed with taking down Trump trying to squeeze us into a deal.” Stone wrote back that he was doing everything possible to “address the issues at the highest level of Government.” (DB)
- Trump tweeted: Does anybody really believe that Roger Stone, a man whose house was raided early in the morning by 29 gun toting FBI Agents (with Fake News @CNN closely in toe), was treated fairly. How about the jury forewoman with her unannounced hatred & bias. Same scammers as General Flynn!
- WaPo: The Secret Service rented a room at President Trump’s Washington hotel for 137 consecutive nights in 2017 — paying Trump’s company more than $33,000 — so it could guard Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin while he lived in one of the hotel’s luxury suites
- During a phone call with governors, Trump – who owns a hotel on the Las Vegas Strip – asked Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, whether he had made a decision on opening his state “and the Strip, etc., etc., with all your hotels.” A Las Vegas re-opening, Trump said, “will be a big thing.”
- CNN: Several Trump Organization golf properties previously closed to comply with various business restrictions related to the coronavirus outbreak have reopened… Trump National Doral Miami Golf Club reopened for members on Friday and as of Saturday, guests of the hotel are also able to golf… Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Florida, has been open only to members since Wednesday. And Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, reopened Saturday, also to members only. Trump National Golf Club Washington, DC, in Potomac Falls VA, is open Saturday.
- Salon: On the same day that President Donald Trump ordered a temporary halt on some green cards, his second son promoted Trump-branded “quarantine wine” on social media. Though he initially vowed to “temporarily suspend” all immigration to the country, the president ultimately signed a more limited order. The ban did not suspend the visas for agricultural workers from which Trump Vineyards benefits.
- WSJ: President Trump’s reelection campaign has placed an order for “red, Trump-branded face masks for supporters… Campaign officials have discussed giving away the masks at events or in return for donations.” …Along with selling the masks, the campaign is planning a TV blitz and several events focused on older voters.
- The Trump administration initially intended to manufacture millions of cloth face masks to give to Americans to survive the coronavirus pandemic. The idea was ultimately scrapped over worries about logistics.
- NPR: From Puzzles To Plastic Straws: Merch Plays A Key Role In Trump’s Fundraising. At a time when jigsaw puzzles may be harder to come by than toilet paper, the hot new item in the Trump campaign online store is a 200-piece puzzle, featuring a faintly smiling President Trump standing in front of an American flag, giving two thumbs up. The $35 puzzle is just the latest example of the campaign capitalizing on in-the-moment merchandise.
- Those of us keeping track of Trump campaign emails have noticed an uptick in the promotion of other lockdown-friendly merch like “Trump-Pence Pint Glasses” and “Trump-Pence 2020 Playing Cards.”
- Daily Beast: Trump Victory, a joint fundraising committee between the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee, and the RNC itself, have paid the Pluvious Group, a GOP consultancy in Los Angeles, nearly $2 million since Trump became the nominee in 2016…Pluvious [was] part of a federal criminal investigation in late 2018 into “whether foreigners contributed money to the Trump inaugural fund and PAC by possibly using American intermediaries.”… [and] was part of a money laundering scheme in California that allowed donors to hide their identities in filings to work around contribution limits
- Dallas News: Texas Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton said that election officials in Texas who offer mail ballots to people who normally wouldn’t qualify but are afraid of catching the coronavirus could be subjected to criminal punishment. Paxton’s guidance to county election officials comes two weeks after a state judge in Travis County ruled that Texas voters who fear catching the coronavirus could vote by mail.
- Texas voters sue over age restrictions for mail-in ballots: The voters — all between the ages of 18 and 28 — want the courts to rule that the state’s age restriction for voting by mail, which limits eligibility to those 65 and older, violates constitutional protections.
- A federal judge has ruled against a conservative group’s lawsuit that sought to block [Nevada’s] planned all-mail primary election in June.
- Louisiana lawmakers remotely voted by mail to roll back an expansion of vote by mail for voters concerned about the coronavirus.
- AP: A federal appeals court panel ruled Wednesday that Kansas can’t require voters to show proof of citizenship when they register, dealing a blow to efforts by Republicans in several states who have pursued restrictive voting laws as a way of combating voter fraud.
- “California Republicans Sue to Stop Collection of Ballots Amid Pandemic,” Courthouse News
- Kansas City Star: In a Capitol hearing room that was nearly empty because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Missouri Republicans took another step Thursday evening toward repealing redistricting changes enacted by voters in 2018.
- Bloomberg: The Federal Reserve revamped its Main Street Lending Program in ways that will allow battered oil companies to qualify for the aid after industry allies lobbied the Trump administration for changes… Environmentalists blasted the shifts they said rewarded oil companies that took on too much debt and were overproducing crude even before the coronavirus pandemic caused demand to plunge.
- The 12 member energy panel on Trump’s so-called “Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups” panel, advising how to reopen the economy, includes 8 oil and gas executives who have collectively made more than $4.2 million in political contributions since Trump launched his presidential bid in June 2015. The energy group includes no one from the renewable energy world.
- Guardian: US fossil fuel companies have taken at least $50m in taxpayer money they probably won’t have to pay back, according to a review of coronavirus aid meant for struggling small businesses…A total of $28m is going to three coal mining companies, all with ties to Trump officials…
- Reuters: As the United States pressed Saudi Arabia to end its oil price war with Russia, President Donald Trump gave Saudi leaders an ultimatum: Cut oil supply or lose U.S. military support.
- “Trump renews threats to withhold federal funds from sanctuary cities amid pandemic,” CNN
- Chicago Tribune: President Donald Trump’s Justice Department can’t withhold federal grants from sanctuary cities such as Chicago that extend protections to undocumented immigrants, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday.
- Kera News (local Texas news): The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t stopped the Trump administration from building miles of border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Advocates say the administration is ramping up lawsuits against South Texas landowners to take their land for border wall construction and is accelerating the approval of construction contracts.
- Federal judges in Ohio and Florida have ordered ICE to release some additional detainees due to the risk of contracting COVID-19. While the Ohio order only applied to a couple of detainees with medical conditions, the Miami judge ordered hundreds to be released, citing conditions that amount to ”cruel and unusual punishment.”
- “Internal ICE Reviews Of Two Immigrant Deaths Stoke Fears About COVID-19 Care,” NPR
- Miami Herald: At least 60% of immigration detainees who have been tested nationwide have the virus that causes COVID-19… [however] the numbers from ICE reveal that only 1.38% of its detainees have been tested.