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Trump Is Waiving His Own Ethics Rules to Allow Lobbyists to Make Policy

Mother Jones

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It seems clear now why the Trump administration fought so hard to avoid making public the details of the waivers it granted to White House staffers who might otherwise have been in violation of the president’s self-imposed ethics rules. They show that President Donald Trump, who made “drain the swamp” a campaign battle cry, has enlisted numerous swamp-dwellers—former lobbyists, consultants, corporate executives—to staff key positions in his White House and has granted them broad exemptions to work on issues directly related to their former jobs and clients.

After repeatedly slamming DC lobbyists during the campaign, Trump used one of his first executive orders to lay out ethics rules for his new administration. The January 28 order barred Trump officials from working on issues related to their former employers for at least two years, and these rules applied not only to lobbyists, but to anyone who worked for a business or organization potentially affected by federal policy decisions. The prohibitions were not absolute: Waivers would be available in certain cases.

The Trump administration initially balked when the Office of Government Ethics demanded the White House hand over the waivers it had granted. But after a standoff the administration relented late Wednesday and released about 14 waivers covering White House staffers. They make clear that Trump’s ethics rules are remarkably flexible and that his top staffers don’t need to worry too much about staying on the right side of them. On paper, Trump’s rules are similar to those imposed by President Barack Obama, but it appears that Trump is far more willing to hand out exemptions. At this point in the Obama administration, just three White House staffers had been granted ethics waivers. So far, Trump has granted 14, including several that apply to multiple people.

White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and adviser Kellyanne Conway were both granted waivers to deal with issues involving their previous employers. In the case of Priebus, this narrowly applies to the Republican National Committee. But Conway is now free to work on issues involving her ex-clients from her previous life as an operative and pollster—clients that included political campaigns, nonprofit activist groups, and corporations.

Conway’s relationships with these clients were murky to begin with; she was never required to disclose who she worked for. We do know that she repped virulently anti-immigration and anti-Muslim groups. The names of some of her corporate clients also have trickled out, including Major League Baseball, Hasbro, American Express, and Boeing. The waiver may have been granted to help smooth the way for Conway after evidence emerged that she continued to operate own her polling and consulting company even after she’d gone to work in the White House—a possible violation of conflict-of-interest laws that drew the attention of congressional Democrats who have begun probing her relationship with the company.

Conway’s waiver was not retroactive, but there is another that specifically allows White House employees to communicate freely with former employers and coworkers at media organizations—and applies back to January 20. Trump’s executive order didn’t simply prohibit any of his hires from working on matters relating to a former employer—it specifically covered “any meeting or communication relating to the performance of one’s official duties.” This means at least two of Trump’s top aides, former Breitbart News chairman Steve Bannon and his assistant Julia Hahn, would be prohibited from chatting with their former colleagues at Breitbart about anything work-related—a rule that Bannon appears not to have followed. While not named, it seems likely that protecting the Breitbart alums from ethics complaints was the aim.

Another takeaway from Trump’s waivers is that they appear to be far less restrictive than Obama administration waivers. Many Obama waivers (there were only 10 total granted to White House employees during his administration) were very narrowly tailored. For example, James Jones, Obama’s national security adviser, was granted a waiver to allow him to introduce Bill Clinton at an event for the Atlantic Council, even though Jones had previously worked for the group. John Brennan, at the time one of Obama’s deputy national security advisers, had previously worked for The Analysis Company, and he was granted a waiver to use the company’s data while investigating the so-called “Underwear Bomber” incident. Brennan was not cleared to talk to any of the company’s employees, however.

Trump’s waivers, on the other hand, are broad.

For instance, Trump granted a waiver to Michael Catanzaro, who is the president’s most senior energy policy aide, allowing him to work freely on “broad policy matters and particular matters of general applicability relating to the Clean Power Plan, the WOTUS Waters of the United States rule, and methane regulations.” Catanzaro worked as a registered lobbyist for several oil and gas companies as recently as January, which made the waiver necessary. On his most recent lobbying disclosure form—filed on behalf of one of his clients, natural gas company Noble Energy—Catanzaro wrote that he was working on “EPA and BLM’s proposed and final regulations covering methane emissions from new and existing oil and gas facilities.” Nearly identical language appears in his most recent lobbying disclosure on behalf of another natural gas company, Encana. In other words, Catanzaro is now making policy on the very issues he was paid by corporations to lobby on. There are no restrictions in Catanzaro’s waiver relating to his previous clients.

Another lobbyist turned Trump aide is Shahira Knight, who was previously employed as vice president of public policy for mutual fund giant Fidelity and now serves as Trump’s special assistant for tax and retirement policy. Her waiver grants her permission to work on “matters of general applicability relating to tax, retirement and financial services issues.” Fidelity’s most recent lobbying report—filed while Knight ran its lobbying shop—lists the main issue areas targeted by the company’s lobbyists: finance, retirement, banking, and taxes.

While the Obama administration reluctantly granted waivers for narrow sets of circumstances, the Trump waivers appear to be written to carefully exempt the previous lobbying work done by White House aides.

And this is just the beginning. The administration released only the waivers granted to White House employees—the release does not include waivers granted to administration officials who work for federal agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency or the Treasury Department. The White House will turn those waivers over to the Office of Government Ethics on Thursday, but it’s not clear when they will be made public.

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Trump Is Waiving His Own Ethics Rules to Allow Lobbyists to Make Policy

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The Genius Who Helped Unlock the Human Genome Is Taking On the Opioid Crisis

Mother Jones

Francis Collins, the gregarious 67-year-old who directs the National Institutes of Health, doesn’t shy away from a challenge. Collins made a name for himself in the early 2000s when, as director of the Human Genome Project, he oversaw the completion of sequencing 3 billion genes. Now, as the head of the nation’s foremost biomedical research engine, Collins faces a new task: finding solutions to the opioid epidemic, which killed more than 33,000 Americans in 2015.

At the Prescription Drug Abuse and Heroin Conference last month, Collins announced a public-private partnership, in which the NIH will collaborate with biomedical and pharmaceutical companies to develop solutions to the crisis. President Donald Trump and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price “strongly supported” the idea, he said. This isn’t Collins’ first such partnership: During his tenure as director—Barack Obama appointed him in 2009—Collins has developed ongoing collaborations with pharmaceutical companies such as Lilly, Merck, and GlaxoSmithKline for Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis. For each partnership, the NIH and the companies pool tens of millions of dollars, with the agreement that the resulting data will be public and the companies will not immediately patent treatments. The jury’s still out on results—the partnerships are about halfway through their five-year timelines. But Collins, a self-described optimist, remains hopeful. “Traditionally it takes many years to go from an idea about a drug target to an approved drug,” said Collins at the conference. “Yet I believe…a vigorous public private partnership could cut that time maybe even in half.”

I talked to Collins about the partnership, potential treatments in the pipeline, and the NIH’s role in confronting the ongoing epidemic.

Mother Jones: Why is a public-private partnership needed?

Francis Collins: While NIH can do a lot of the good science, and we can accelerate it if we have resources, we aren’t going to be the ones making pills. Many of the large-scale clinical trials are not done generally by us but by the drug companies. A successful outcome here—in terms of ultimately getting rid of opioids and the deaths that they cause—would not happen without full engagement by the private sector.

MJ: Which companies will be involved?

FC: It will be a significant proportion of the largest companies. I can’t tell you the total list—as I said, the 15 largest were there. Certainly the groups that already have some drugs that are somewhere in the pipeline will be particularly interested in ways to speed that up.

MJ: What do you hope will come out of it in the short term?

FC: I think that we could increase the number of effective options to help people get over addiction, and the treatments for overdose, particularly when fentanyl is becoming such a prominent part of this dangerous situation. The current overdose treatments are not necessarily as strong as they need to be. We could make progress there pretty quickly, I think—in a matter of even a year or two—by coming up with formulations of drugs that we know work but in a fashion that would have new kinds of capabilities. The drugs would be stronger, as in the overdose situation, or have the potential of longer-acting effects, as in treating addiction. It’s not necessarily a different drug, but a different formulation of the drug. And drug companies are pretty good at that.

MJ: And in the long term?

FC: The goal really needs to be to find nonaddictive but highly potent pain medicines that can replace the use of opioids given the terrible consequences that surround their use. This will be particularly important for people who have chronic pain, where we really don’t have effective treatments now. The good news is that there’s a lot of really interesting science pointing us to new alternatives, like the idea of coming up with something that interacts with that opioid receptor but only activates the pathway that results in pain relief—not the somewhat different pathway that results in addiction. That’s a pretty new discovery that could actually be workable, and a lot of effort ought to be put into that.

I’d like all of us, the academics, the government, and the private sector, to think about this the way we thought about HIV/AIDs in the early 1990s, where people were dying all around us in tens of thousands. Well, that’s what’s happening now with opioids. This ought to be all hands on deck—what could we do to accelerate what otherwise might take a lot longer? It’s interesting talking to the drug companies, who have really gotten quite motivated and seem to be determined to make a real contribution here. There are quite a number of new drugs that are in the pipeline somewhere, and they haven’t been moving very quickly, because companies haven’t been convinced there was enough of a market—opioids are relatively cheap. And also they’ve been worried that it would be hard to get new pain medicines approved if they had any side effects at all. Now that we’ve seen opioids have the most terrible side effect of all—namely, death—it would seem that as new analgesics come along, that the ability to approve some that might give you a stomachache now and then would probably be better.

MJ: There’s a lot of wariness of big pharmaceutical companies right now, given Big Pharma’s role in creating this problem to begin with. How do you make sure that whatever treatments are developed are affordable?

FC: That’s a very big concern for everybody right now. It’s front and center in these discussions about development of new drugs and pricing of existing drugs. And I don’t know the full answer to that. This is just part of a larger discussion about drug pricing which applies across the board, whether we’re talking about drugs for cardiovascular disease or cancer or, in this case, alternatives for opioids. But we need them. As much as people might want to say, “Oh, pharmaceutical companies, they’re all just out to make money,” they also have the scientific capabilities and they spend about twice what the government does on research and development. If they weren’t there, we’d be completely hopeless as far as new treatment.

MJ: Trump’s latest budget proposes a 20 percent cut to the NIH for 2018. Are you worried about having enough funding?

FC: Of course I am. And not just for this, but for all the other things that NIH is called upon to do as part of our mission. I’m an optimist, and what I have seen in my 24 years at NIH is that opportunity in medical research is not a partisan issue—it’s not something that’s caught up in politics most of the time. And having seen the enthusiasm represented by the Congress in their passage of the 21st Century Cures Act just four months ago with incredible positive bipartisan margins, I think when the dust all settles, people will look at these kinds of investments and see them as a high priority for our nation. But of course, that’s my optimistic view.

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The Genius Who Helped Unlock the Human Genome Is Taking On the Opioid Crisis

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If Trump’s White House Has Secret Recordings, Destroying Them May Be a Crime

Mother Jones

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On Friday morning, Donald Trump tweeted, “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press.” Not only was this a loosely veiled threat directed at the former FBI director, whom Trump unceremoniously fired on Tuesday, but it also suggested that Trump possessed recordings of their conversations—perhaps even a tape of their January 27 dinner, where the president claims Comey told him he was not under investigation as part of the bureau’s probe of the Trump campaign’s Russia ties.

During a press briefing on Friday afternoon, White House press secretary Sean Spicer declined to answer questions about whether Trump had a secret White House recording system. The good news for historians is that if such tapes do exist, the Trump administration is required by law to preserve these presidential records and turn them over to the National Archives and Records Administration.

A spokesman for NARA forwarded requests for comment on the preservation of Trump’s tapes, if they exist, to the White House, which did not respond to a request for comment from Mother Jones. But Lisa Rosenberg, executive director of Open the Government, a coalition of good-government and watchdog groups, says the the rules are clear: Under the Presidential Records Act, recordings between the president and a senior government official that occur in the White House are not private recordings; they are presidential records that will eventually be released to the public. (An administration can delay the public release of materials for up to 12 years after the president leaves office.)

“We’re not just talking about who he’s having dinner with, we’re talking about information that impacts decision-making that impacts public policy, and in this case it might impact national security and integrity of the elections,” she says. “Even though we might not know what will be said for 12 years, we can still learn from that. We’re still learning from past administrations about any number of issues that continue to resonate to this day. We need to be able to learn from our mistakes, and our successes, so it’s in the public interest. That’s why the Presidential Records Act exists.”

Unfortunately, Rosenberg says, there is no real mechanism to ensure the White House is preserving the tapes as records for future release. She notes that the Presidential Records Act doesn’t have an enforcement mechanism, but there are other legal reasons the records might have to be preserved.

For example, they could be subpoenaed by congressional or FBI investigators probing the Russia scandal or other matters. (President Richard Nixon, who famously recorded his Oval Office meetings and calls, refused to respond to a subpoena for secret recordings of his Oval Office meetings—a refusal that eventually led to one of the articles of impeachment that were drawn up against him.) On Friday, Reps. John Conyers and Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrats on the House Judiciary and Oversight committees, respectively, sent the White House a letter demanding it turn over any tapes relating to Comey.

Norm Eisen, a former ethics lawyer for the Barack Obama administration, says the existence of recordings means they can be targeted by Congress and that White House officials should be aware of the need to save any that have been made.

“Given the current circumstances, the destruction of such tapes would raise serious obstruction of justice issues,” Eisen says.

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If Trump’s White House Has Secret Recordings, Destroying Them May Be a Crime

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Will the Government Shut Down This Week?

Mother Jones

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President Donald Trump’s 100th day in office will see the federal government shut down if Congress can’t come to a budget agreement by the end of the week. Congress needs to pass a funding bill by the end of the day Friday, or else federal programs will no longer be able to spend money on Saturday, Trump’s 100th day in the White House.

Both Republicans and Democrats are largely content to maintain current funding levels by passing a continuing resolution rather than hashing out an entirely new budget. (The budget Trump introduced earlier this year calls for massive cuts across nearly every part of the federal government except the military.) But there are a few policy differences that could muck things up and send federal employees packing next week. And Republicans can’t count on getting enough votes from their own caucus to pass a spending bill, since Senate Democrats can filibuster any measure they find objectionable.

Here are the issues that could prevent a deal:

The wall

Trump might have promised throughout the campaign that Mexico was going to pay for a border wall, but everyone in Washington knows that if Trump is actually going to begin construction on the wall, he’ll need Congress to appropriate the funds. So far, that’s a nonstarter among Democrats.

Last week this looked like it could be the disagreement that would break the government. But on Tuesday, Republicans handed Democrats a funding plan offer that doesn’t include the wall.

Still, Trump could insist on getting at least a partial victory on the wall. On Tuesday morning, he took to his favorite medium to reiterate his plans:

Obamacare

Despite Trump’s goal of seeing the Affordable Care Act repealed during the first 100 days of his presidency, Republicans haven’t settled on a repeal bill that can clear the House, let alone the Senate. But as Mother Jones explained last week, Trump has a backup option that he could pull out if he truly wants to send the ACA marketplaces into a death spiral. The White House doesn’t need congressional approval to end funding for a provision of the law that forces insurance companies to offer lower deductibles, copayments, and other out-of-pocket expenses to low-income families. Cutting off those funds would cause premiums to spike and more insurers to leave the marketplaces.

Earlier this month, Trump threatened to do just that in order to get Democrats to help Republicans repeal Obamacare. Trump’s famed negotiating skills backfired this time, and some Democrats now say they’re willing to block the spending bill and shut down the government if these funds aren’t included (though the message hasn’t exactly been unified among Democratic leaders). Unfortunately for Trump, it sounds as if House Republicans might agree with the Democrats. “I don’t think anybody wants to disrupt the markets more than they already are,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who chairs a House subcommittee on health care, told the New York Times earlier this month, saying he supports the funds.

Defense spending

It’s the least likely of these three issues to prompt a shutdown, but Democrats and Republicans are still hashing out the details of defense spending levels. Trump asked for a ton of extra money—a $54 billion increase—for the Pentagon budget. Democrats are fine with a more modest defense spending hike, but only if it’s paired with extra spending for domestic programs, as has been the case in the past few budget deals. On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer warned that his party wants to maintain that same ratio for the current deal.

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Will the Government Shut Down This Week?

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Gerrymandering Is Headed Back to the Supreme Court

Mother Jones

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The New York Times reports that gerrymandering is headed to the Supreme Court again:

A bipartisan group of voting rights advocates says the lower house of the Wisconsin Legislature, the State Assembly, was gerrymandered by its Republican majority before the 2012 election — so artfully, in fact, that Democrats won a third fewer Assembly seats than Republicans despite prevailing in the popular vote. In November, in a 2-to-1 ruling, a panel of federal judges agreed.

….In Supreme Court cases in 1986, 2004 and 2006, justices variously called partisan gerrymanders illegitimate, seriously harmful, incompatible with democratic principles and “manipulation of the electorate.” But they have never struck one down….One participant in the 2004 decision, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, may prove the fulcrum in the court’s deliberations….“The ordered working of our Republic, and of the democratic process, depends on a sense of decorum and restraint in all branches of government, and in the citizenry itself,” he wrote then.

At a time of soaring concern over hyperpartisanship, those words could resonate. That sentence “is the most important line” in the court’s decision, said Edward B. Foley, director of the Election Law Project at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law. “He’s going to look at what’s going on in North Carolina as the complete absence of that. I think that helps the plaintiffs in any of these cases.”

Today’s gerrymandering is not your grandfather’s gerrymandering. It’s a practice that’s been around for a long time, but back when it depended on humans it was necessarily limited. There were a few legislative geniuses who could wreak real havoc, and anyone could gerrymander well enough to gain a seat or two. But computers have changed the game fundamentally. Every legislature is now a supergenius at gerrymandering, which is why estimates of the number of congressional seats attributable to gerrymandering have been going up for years.

There’s a point, I think, where the Supreme Court has to recognize that quantitative changes over time have finally produced a qualitative change. Modern gerrymandering is just too good. The silver lining here is that if computers can revolutionize gerrymandering, they also hold out hope of revolutionizing the detection of gerrymandering. You can no longer say that there’s no possible standard for ruling that a particular district map is unconstitutional. In fact, there are several plausible candidates. Hopefully the court will finally recognize this.

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Gerrymandering Is Headed Back to the Supreme Court

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The Trump Administration Just Suffered a Defeat on Voting Rights

Mother Jones

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In a significant rebuke of the Trump administration Monday, a federal judge in Texas rejected the Department of Justice’s request to halt a major voting rights case that had been filed during Obama administration.

The case in question dates back to 2013, when the Obama DOJ joined voting rights advocates, Democratic lawmakers, and a group of Texas residents in suing to block a draconian voter ID law in Texas. This coalition scored a major victory last year when a federal appeals court ruled that the law discriminated against minorities and needed to be softened. The Texas legislature is currently working on amending the law.

However, the appeals court left open a key question in the case: whether the discrimination was intentional. It sent the case back to federal district court for a determination on that issue. The question of intent is significant. The finding of a discriminatory effect necessitates altering the law. But if the court finds that Texas acted with a discriminatory intent, the judge could throw the law out entirely. What’s more, if Texas is found to have engaged in intentional voting discrimination, a judge could require the state to seek federal approval for future changes to its voting laws. In arguing that Texas lawmakers indeed sought to discriminate against minorities, critics of the law pointed out that it allows voters to prove their identifies with concealed carry permits, which are disproportionately held by white people, but excludes IDs issued to state employees and state university students, which minorities are more likely to have.

But after Trump was sworn in and Jeff Sessions became attorney general, the federal government changed course. In February, the DOJ requested to withdraw its claim that the law was enacted with discriminatory intent, arguing that the Fifth Circuit’s instructions were to let the legislature amend the law before the courts decided whether to resolve to the intent question. In March, the government urged the court not to issue any opinion until after the legislature had acted. On Monday, the court allowed the US government to withdraw from the case—but rejected its reasoning for trying to halt the case.

United States District Court Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos took issue with the idea that the state legislature’s action would remove the need to litigate the intent issue. “It is well-settled that new legislation does not ipso facto eliminate the discriminatory intent behind older legislation and moot a dispute regarding the violation of law,” the judge wrote. In her eight page order, she went on to dispute the logic the government’s lawyers presented in their briefs and cited multiple cases to explain why the case should proceed. The judge indicated she will issue a ruling on the discriminatory intent question this spring, without waiting on Texas lawmakers to act.

In a series of tweets, Gerry Hebert, an attorney representing the plaintiffs fighting this law, celebrated the judge’s order as “good news for voters seeking relief” and an “important victory.”

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The Trump Administration Just Suffered a Defeat on Voting Rights

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Tom Price Intervened on Rule That Would Hurt Drug Profits, the Same Day He Acquired Drug Stock

Mother Jones

This story originally appeared on ProPublica.

On the same day the stockbroker for then-Georgia Congressman Tom Price bought him up to $90,000 of stock in six pharmaceutical companies last year, Price arranged to call a top U.S. health official, seeking to scuttle a controversial rule that could have hurt the firms’ profits and driven down their share prices, records obtained by ProPublica show.

Stock trades made by Price while he served in Congress came under scrutiny at his confirmation hearings to become President Trump’s secretary of health and human services. The lawmaker, a physician, traded hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of shares in health-related companies while he voted on and sponsored legislation affecting the industry, but Price has said his broker acted on his behalf without his involvement or knowledge. ProPublica previously reported that his trading is said to have been under investigation by federal prosecutors.

On March 17, 2016, Price’s broker purchased shares worth between $1,000 and $15,000 each in Eli Lilly, Amgen, Bristol-Meyers Squibb, McKesson, Pfizer and Biogen. Previous reports have noted that, a month later, Price was among lawmakers from both parties who signed onto a bill that would have blocked a rule proposed by the Obama administration, which was intended to remove the incentive for doctors to prescribe expensive drugs that don’t necessarily improve patient outcomes.

What hasn’t been previously known is Price’s personal appeal to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services about the rule, called the Medicare Part B Drug Payment Model.

The same day as the stock trade, Price’s legislative aide, Carla DiBlasio, emailed health officials to follow up on a request she had made to set up a call with Patrick Conway, the agency’s chief medical officer. In her earlier emails, DiBlasio said the call would focus on payments for joint replacement procedures. But that day, she mentioned a new issue.

“Chairman Price may briefly bring up … his concerns about the new Part B drug demo, as well,” she wrote. “Congressman Price really appreciates the opportunity to have an open conversation with Dr. Conway, so we really appreciate you keeping the lines of communication open.”

The call was scheduled for the following week, according to the emails.

An HHS spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment from Price. DiBlasio and Conway didn’t respond to questions about the phone call.

The proposed rule drew wide opposition from members of both parties as well as industry lobbyists and some patient advocacy groups. It was meant to change a system under which the government reimburses doctors the average sales price for drugs administered in their offices or inside clinics, along with a 6 percent bonus. Some health analysts say that bonus encourages doctors to pad their profits by selecting more expensive treatments.

Critics argued that the rule might cause Medicare enrollees to lose access to lifesaving drugs. Lawmakers worried the federal government was potentially endangering patients and turning them into guinea pigs in a wide-scale experiment in cost savings.

However, supporters of the rule said the experiment in payments was the kind of drastic action needed to rein in soaring health costs. “We are actively reforming every other aspect of our health-care system to pay for value except pharmaceuticals,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., said at the time. “Drug manufacturers are the only entity that can charge Medicare anything they want.”

The six companies that Price invested in were steadfastly opposed to the rule. McKesson formally warned investors in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing that such a change could hurt share prices. The firms lobbied the government to kill the plan.

And at two of the six companies Price invested in, people who used to work for the congressman were part of the lobbying effort.

Price’s former chief of staff, Matt McGinley, lobbied House members for Amgen, disclosure records show. Another former Price aide, Keagan Lenihan, lobbied on behalf of McKesson, where she was director of government relations at the time. Lenihan has since reunited with Price, returning to government to work as a senior adviser to her old boss at HHS.

Neither McGinley nor Lenihan responded to requests for comment.

Although Price said he wasn’t aware of his broker’s trades at the time they were made, he would have learned of his holdings no later than April 2016 when he signed and filed his latest financial disclosure forms. In earlier disclosures, Price signed forms listing his other health-related holdings, which included some drug stocks.

Price’s personal intervention raises more questions about the overlap between his investments and his work as a member of Congress.

According to House ethics guidelines, “contacting an executive branch agency” represents “a degree of advocacy above and beyond that involved in voting” on legislation where a financial conflict of interest may exist.

“Such actions may implicate the rules and standards … that prohibit the use of one‘s official position for personal gain,” the guidelines state. “Whenever a Member is considering taking any such action on a matter that may affect his or her personal financial interests, the Member should first contact the Standards Committee for guidance.”

Tom Rust, chief counsel for the House Ethics Committee, declined to comment, saying any consultations with members of Congress are confidential.

In December, after Trump was elected and named Price as his choice to lead HHS, Obama administration health officials scrapped their plan to change the drug reimbursement system. “The complexity of the issues and the limited time available led to the decision not to finalize the rule at this time,” a spokesman said.

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Tom Price Intervened on Rule That Would Hurt Drug Profits, the Same Day He Acquired Drug Stock

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Government Official Who Negotiated Trump Hotel Deal Says Deal Is Fine

Mother Jones

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A top government official who negotiated a controversial deal to lease a historic Washington, DC, property to Donald Trump has announced that he sees no problem with the arrangement—despite a clause in Trump’s contract that prohibits any elected officials from benefiting from the deal.

Since before Trump’s inauguration, ethics experts and Trump critics have cried foul over the 60-year lease Trump signed with the General Services Administration in 2013 to take over the Old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue. Long before he ran for president, Trump beat out a handful of large hotel chains to redevelop the property, which had long languished under poor management, costing taxpayers millions of dollars each year.

In late November, George Washington University law school professor Steve Schooner wrote in Government Executive magazine that the lease Trump signed includes a clause that prohibits any elected officials from benefiting from the deal. For months, the GSA has been silent on the question of whether Trump’s election causes a breach of the contract.

Today, Kevin Terry, a GSA contracting officer who oversaw the original contract negotiations with Trump, released a letter declaring that there was no reason for concern. In the letter, which is reprinted in its entirety below, Terry takes the position that there is no violation of the clause because the Trump Organization has been rearranged to steer any profits from the hotel away from Trump’s bank accounts while he’s in office. Trump owns more than 76 percent of the project; his children own the remainder.

According to Terry’s letter, the Trump Organization has presented documents to the GSA showing that although any profits (or losses) are accrued among the partners based on their ownership, any profits that would have gone to Trump himself will be kept separate and unavailable for Trump’s personal use until he is out of office. Under the terms of the original agreement, Trump could have withdrawn money with ease, but the new corporate structure (established before Trump’s inauguration) would prevent this, Terry wrote.

Schooner, who raised the original concerns, was scathing in his response to Terry’s letter. “Disgusting,” he wrote in an email to Mother Jones. He is bothered that Terry’s analysis does not take into account—or even acknowledge—the inherent conflict of interest in the decision.

“It is deeply troubling that the contracting officer’s letter makes no reference to the underlying conflicts of interest, which, of course, undercuts any suggestion that he (the contracting officer) engaged in independent analysis,” says Schooner, who teaches government contracting law. “The CO’s decision favors the President, who, in effect, is his supervisor, just as it favors the GSA (in terms of maintaining the status quo); but it also pleases his (the CO’s) ultimate supervisor – the head of the agency – who serves at the President’s pleasure.”

In December, congressional Democrats said they had been briefed by GSA officials who believed Trump would be in violation of the lease when he was inaugurated. Today, Reps. Elijah Cummings and Peter DeFazio, the top Democrats on the House Government Oversight and House Transportation and Infrastructure committees, respectively, condemned Terry’s decision, calling it is a reversal from what the GSA had previously told them.

According to Terry’s letter, while Trump is in office, his share of the hotel’s profits will be available for the hotel to use in its operations. The Democratic lawmakers said that was not an acceptable arrangement. “This decision allows profits to be reinvested back into the hotel so Donald Trump can reap the financial benefits when he leaves the White House,” Cummings and DeFazio said in a statement. “This is exactly what the lease provision was supposed to prevent.”

Terry’s letter is defensive and makes a dig at critics of the deal.

“To date, most of the review and reporting on the clause has focused on only a few select words, and reached simplistic ‘black and white’ conclusions regarding the meaning and implications of the clause,” Terry wrote. “However, it has been less widely reported that other legal professional and former government contracting officials have reviewed the language and come to different conclusions.”

Not all attorneys agreed with Schooner’s interpretation of the contract’s clause about elected officials. Some argued that the contract was written in a way that barred elected officials from becoming new parties to the deal but did not seem to prohibit someone from becoming an elected official after signing the contract. In a letter to the GSA that was included with Terry’s announcement, Trump’s personal attorney, Sheri Dillon, made a similar argument.

But that’s apparently not the reasoning that Terry used in making his decision that there was no breach of contract. Instead, he relied on the belief that Trump would have to wait until he left office to receive any profits from the hotel.

Terry’s letter points out that the property was a money-loser for the federal government before the Trump lease, but that the Trump Organization has been paying $250,000 a month in rent since it signed the lease. According to Terry, Trump has paid $5.1 million so far.

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Contracting Officer Letter March 23 2017 Redacted Version1 (PDF)

Contracting Officer Letter March 23 2017 Redacted Version1 (Text)

Originally from – 

Government Official Who Negotiated Trump Hotel Deal Says Deal Is Fine

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There Is No Pivot. There Will Never Be a Pivot.

Mother Jones

Another week, another pivot gone awry:

For Mr. Trump, this was supposed to be a week of pivoting and message discipline. The president read from a script during public appearances and posted on Twitter less often. He invited lawmakers from both parties to the White House for strategy sessions on the health measure. He scheduled policy speeches, like one near Detroit, where he announced that he was halting fuel economy standards imposed by Mr. Obama.

….But by Friday, as Mr. Trump worked to call attention to his powers of persuasion in securing commitments from a dozen wavering Republicans to back the health measure, the White House was left frantically trying to explain why Mr. Spicer had repeated allegations that the Government Communications Headquarters, the British spy agency, had helped to eavesdrop on the president during the campaign.

There’s a piece of me that hardly blames reporters for replaying the “pivot” narrative over and over. Let’s face it: It defies human understanding that an easily bored 8-year-old has been elected president of the United States. But he has—and every week he promises to be good. Maybe he even tries. Who knows?

For something like 50 or 60 consecutive weeks, the Trump entourage has been insisting that the boss is going to pivot and start being presidential real soon now. How long before everyone understands it’s not going to happen?

We have 3.8 years of this acting out left. It’s time for everyone to give up on the fantasy that Trump is going to turn into an adult someday.

Original article:  

There Is No Pivot. There Will Never Be a Pivot.

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Climate activists carved a clever message into a Trump golf course.

During a Wednesday visit to Michigan, President Trump will announce that efficiency standards established by the Obama administration will undergo further review, according to a senior White House official.

The Obama standards for vehicles manufactured between 2022 and 2025 were originally adopted in 2012 with a promise to automakers that a review before April 2018 would assess whether they could realistically meet the goal. Days ahead of Trump’s inauguration, Obama EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy announced the review was complete. The standards — requiring new cars and light trucks to get an average of 36 miles per gallon, up from 26 today — would remain unchanged.

The auto industry was incensed, claiming there hadn’t been proper consultation or data collection. In February, automakers reached out to new EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and asked him to reconsider. Now, they’re getting a second chance at relaxed guidelines.

Another review of the standards could take years. To stand up to legal challenge, the government will have to prove the data undergirding the EPA’s original review was inadequate.

But the Trump administration contends the new review is no big deal. “I don’t think we’re saying we’re going to pull [regulations] back,” said the White House official. “We’re just doing the review that was originally agreed to.”

Originally posted here – 

Climate activists carved a clever message into a Trump golf course.

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