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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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