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Trump Isn’t Enforcing His Plan to Avoid Violating the Emoluments Clause

Mother Jones

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In January, Donald Trump’s lawyer said that the Trump Organization would donate any profits earned at Trump hotels from a foreign government to the US Treasury. The move was supposedly an attempt to stay on the right side of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, which prohibits US government officials from taking gifts or benefiting from foreign governments. Ethics experts noted that the pledge, issued by attorney Sheri Dillon, did not truly address this violation of the Constitution. Trump needed to divest his ownership of the hotels, they contended. And now new documents released by congressional Democrats show that Trump is not taking even his insufficient effort seriously.

Because Trump still owns his hotel properties and companies that operate hotels, anyone—a person or business here or overseas, or a foreign government—can directly line the pockets of the US president simply by reserving rooms or renting out conference or banquet facilities at a Trump hotel. Since the inauguration, several foreign governments have rented space at the Trump hotel in Washington, DC, and foreign diplomats have reported being approached by Trump hotel staff soliciting business.

To address the emoluments issue, profits from these sort of transactions involving foreign governments are supposed to go to the US Treasury. But it’s hard to determine what counts as profit. And under the plan developed by Dillon, the calculation of profit would be made by the Trump Organization itself, without independent oversight. And there would be no auditing to ensure that all money from foreign governments was covered.

How does the Trump Organization determine which foreign funds ought to be donated? Not too assiduously, it appears. The House Oversight Committee several weeks ago asked the Trump Organization for information on this process. In response, the company sent the committee a nine-page pamphlet that instructs staff at its properties on how to handle this matter. The pamphlet indicates that the Trump Organization is not enthusiastic about gathering this information and doesn’t want its guests bothered by any efforts to comply with the Emoluments Clause.

The pamphlet notes that the hotels should not calculate the profit from foreign patronage but rather estimate it. After all, it says, calculating the actual profit would take a lot of effort: “To attempt to individually track and distinctly attribute certain business-related costs as specifically identifiable to a particular customer group is not practical, nor would it even be possible without an inordinate amount of time, resources and specialists.”

The pamphlet presents a formula by which managers can estimate how much money should head to the US Treasury. In one example, a hotel that earned $10 million in revenue but had $8.5 million in expenses would be considered to have a profit of 15 percent. If it took in $500,000 from foreign governments, it should donate 15 percent of that revenue—that is, $75,000—to the US Treasury. (This basic formula does not take into account the complexities of actual transactions. For instance, what if a foreign government bought $1 million in services from a Trump hotel that was only breaking even? This would certainly benefit Trump, but none of these funds would end up being donated.)

When it comes to identifying foreign revenues, the pamphlet tells Trump hotel staff not to try too hard, for that could annoy the customers: “To fully and completely identify all patronage at our Properties by customer type is impractical in the service industry and putting forth a policy that requires all guests to identify themselves would impede upon personal privacy and diminish the guest experience of our brand.” So, the pamphlet points out, the Trump Organization will not try to identify customers who do not inform the hotel that they are representing a foreign government.

The pamphlet, which you can read in full below, was released by Democrats on the House Oversight Committee along with a letter sent to the Trump Organization on Wednesday morning. The letter, signed by Rep. Elijah Cummings, the senior Democrat on the committee, complained that the company had failed to fully explain how it would avoid violating the Emoluments Clause.

In the letter, Cummings scolded the Trump Organization for its seemingly lackadaisical approach. “This pamphlet raises grave concerns about the President’s refusal to comply with the Constitution merely because he believes it is ‘impractical’ and could ‘diminish the guest experience of our brand,'” he wrote. “Complying with the United States Constitution is not an option exercise but a requirement for serving as our nation’s President.”

The Trump Organization did not respond to a request for comment.

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Trump Org Pamphlet on Foreign Profits (PDF)

Trump Org Pamphlet on Foreign Profits (Text)

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Trump Isn’t Enforcing His Plan to Avoid Violating the Emoluments Clause

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Michael Flynn Is Pleading the Fifth

Mother Jones

Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn will invoke the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination on Monday and refuse to comply with a congressional subpoena, according to the Associated Press. The Senate intelligence committee had asked Flynn for documents in his possession that might relate to the committee’s investigation into Russia’s interference with the 2016 election.

It’s not a surprising move—Flynn was not expected to turn over the documents without immunity, “because he would be waiving some of his constitutional protections by doing so,” according to the AP. Last week, Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the intelligence committee, prematurely said Flynn would not cooperate.

It’s unclear how Republicans will respond to Flynn’s decision. The intelligence committee could ask Congress to vote on whether to hold Flynn in contemptan option that would force Flynn to face possible fines or jail time if he continued to withhold the documents. “I’m not going to go into what we might or might not do,” Burr said last week when asked what the committee would do next if Flynn refused to cooperate with the investigation. “We’ve got a full basket of things that we’re willing to test.”

Meanwhile, Democrats on the House’s oversight committee are increasing pressure on Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) to subpoena the White House for documents on how the White House vetted Flynn, which the committee asked for two months ago. “The White House is obstructing our investigation on the Oversight Committee, covering up for General Flynn, and refusing to produce a single document that Chairman Chaffetz and I asked for in a bipartisan letter two months ago,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (R-Md.), ranking member of the committee, said in a statement over the weekend. “I have prepared a subpoena that the Chairman could sign today.” Cummings says if Chaffetz doesn’t want to issue the subpoena himself, he should allow committee members to take a vote on it.

Chaffetz isn’t always so shy about using the power to subpoena—he asked for the FBI’s full investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails and just last week demanded that the FBI hand over the Comey memos, which detail President Donald Trump’s attempts to curb the federal investigation into Flynn, according to an explosive report last week from the New York Times.

Update, 3:32 p.m. ET: Former Trump campaign associates Paul Manafort and Roger Stone turned in documents Monday for the Senate intelligence probe according to NBC News.

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Michael Flynn Is Pleading the Fifth

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One Chart Shows How the Trump Tax Plan Will Totally Pay For Itself

Mother Jones

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Here’s the first quick-and-dirty estimate of how much Donald Trump’s tax plan would cost. It comes from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget:

Oh please. This is a ridiculously pessimistic estimate because CRFB doesn’t account for the economic growth this tax plan will unleash. They estimate that productivity would need to grow 3.8 percent per year to make Trump’s plan pay for itself, something they scoff at. But that’s well within reason:

I don’t see a problem with that. Do you? Yes? That’s probably because you don’t believe in the power of the white American worker. That’s why you lefties lost the election.

Perhaps you sense that I’m taking this less than seriously. Guilty as charged. But if Trump himself doesn’t take his plans seriously, why should I?1

1Also, the eagle-eyed might have noticed that although the 1-page tax plan summary we got today was very similar to Trump’s campaign document, one thing was left out: it no longer claims to be revenue neutral. Funny how that works.

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One Chart Shows How the Trump Tax Plan Will Totally Pay For Itself

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Devin Nunes Is Playing a Familiar Republican Game Today

Mother Jones

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When a big story breaks while I’m at lunch, it can be a real pain in the ass. Instead of following it in real time, I have to rush around later trying to piece together what’s happened. On the other hand, sometimes this is a blessing, because by the time I get to the story it’s clearer what the real issue is. I think today is an example of the latter.

For starters, here’s a nutshell summary of what happened. Devin Nunes, the Republican chair of the House Intelligence Committee, took the stage a few hours ago to declare himself “alarmed.” He believes that some of Donald Trump’s transition team might have been “incidentally” recorded during surveillance of foreign nationals. He won’t say who. Nor will he say who the foreign nationals were, other than “not Russian.” And as soon as he was done with his press conference, he trotted off to the White House to brief President Trump.

There are several problems here. First, Nunes didn’t share any of this with Democrats on the committee. Second, incidental collection is both routine and inevitable in foreign surveillance. Congress has had ample opportunity to rein it in if they wanted to, and they never have. Third, if this was part of a criminal investigation, Nunes may have jeopardized it by going public. Fourth, the chair of the Intelligence Committee isn’t supposed to be briefing the president on the status of an investigation into the president’s activities.

This is plenty to embarrass the great state of California, from which Nunes hails. But for what it’s worth, I don’t think any of this is the biggest issue. This one is:

He claims to have gotten the information personally from an unspecified source, and had not yet met with FBI Director James Comey to review the raw intelligence intercepts he was provided. Why would he go public without first consulting spies to see if what he had was actually worth sharing with the public?

Oh. This is one of those deals where the Republican chair of a committee gets some information; releases a tiny snippet that makes Republicans look good; and then eventually is forced to release the entire transcript, which turns out to be nothing at all like the snippet. We’ve seen this gong show a dozen times in the past few years.

My advice: ignore everything Nunes said. He’s obviously carrying water for Trump, hoping to drive headlines that vaguely suggest the Obama administration really was listening in on Trump’s phone calls. I gather that he’s succeeded on that score. For now, though, there’s no telling what this raw intel really says. Eventually the intelligence community will provide analysis, and committee Democrats will get to see the transcripts too. Then we’ll have a fighting chance of knowing whether it’s important or not. In the meantime, everything Nunes said is literally worthless. He’s not “probably right” or “probably wrong.” He’s nothing.

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Devin Nunes Is Playing a Familiar Republican Game Today

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House Democrats Demand Investigation of Trump’s National Security Adviser

Mother Jones

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On Monday night, all 17 Democrats on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform sent a letter to Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the committee chairman, requesting that he either initiate a full investigation of Michael Flynn—President Donald Trump’s national security adviser who was caught misrepresenting conversations he had with the Russian ambassador—or “step aside and allow the Committee to vote on conducting basic oversight going forward.”

Flynn has been under fire since the Washington Post reported last week that he had discussed “US sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador to the United States during the month before President Trump took office,” despite claims to the contrary from Trump administration officials, including White House press secretary Sean Spicer and Vice President Mike Pence. Flynn, too, had previously denied discussing with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislya the sanctions levied by President Barack Obama in response to Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 election during a series of conversations in late December. But a spokesman for Flynn told the Post on Thursday that “he couldn’t be certain that sanctions never came up.”

On Monday, Kellyanne Conway, a senior White House adviser, said Flynn “does enjoy the full confidence of the president.” Less than an hour later, Spicer issued a statement saying that Trump was “evaluating the situation.” Monday night, the Post reported that then-Acting Attorney General Sally Yates told the White House in late January that she believed “Flynn had misled senior administration officials about the nature of his communications with the Russian ambassador.” The paper noted that she had “warned that Flynn was potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail.”

The House Democrats’ letter to Chaffetz notes that Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, has repeatedly asked Chaffetz to investigate Flynn’s contacts with the Russian government and put forward the case for an investigation:

Grave questions have been raised about the fitness of General Flynn to serve as National Security Adviser and to continue having access to classified information. It has now been reported that General Flynn took payments of an undisclosed amount to travel to Moscow to dine with Vladimir Putin and celebrate RT, which US intelligence officials warn is the “Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet”; that he potentially failed to obtain the consent of Congress to receive those funds in violation of the Constitution; that he communicated repeatedly with Russian officials while that nation was engaged in an attack on our democracy and our presidential election; that he secretly discussed with the Russian ambassador, in possible violation of the Logan Act, sanctions imposed by President Obama in response to these Russian attacks; and that he may have lied about these discussions not only to the American people, but to his own White House colleagues, including the Vice President.

If you are not willing to initiate this investigation…then we ask that you not prevent us from calling up this matter at the next business meeting so we may request a vote on this and other proposals going forward on this matter.

Chaffetz, who was eager to investigate Hillary Clinton’s email controversy, has come under pressure from Democrats on the committee and his own constituents for going soft on Trump and not launching inquiries regarding Trump’s financial conflicts of interest. Cummings and other Democrats have previously asked Chaffetz for a committee investigation of contacts between Trump associates and Russia—and he has ignored these requests.

Read the full letter below:

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House Oversight Democrats Letter to Chaffetz Feb. 13 (PDF)

House Oversight Democrats Letter to Chaffetz Feb. 13 (Text)

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House Democrats Demand Investigation of Trump’s National Security Adviser

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