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The Department of Defense Is Investigating Michael Flynn

Mother Jones

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The Defense Department’s inspector general has opened an investigation to determine whether Michael Flynn, Donald Trump’s former national security advisor, accepted payments from a foreign government without permission, according to documents released Thursday by Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.).

“These documents raise grave questions about why General Flynn concealed the payments he received from foreign sources after he was warned explicitly by the Pentagon,” Cummings, the top Democrat on the House oversight committee, said in a statement. “Our next step is to get the documents we are seeking from the White House so we can complete our investigation. I thank the Department of Defense for providing us with unclassified versions of these documents.” Earlier this week, Cummings blasted the White House for refusing to provide his committee with documents related to whether Flynn disclosed his foreign payments when he reapplied for a security clearance last year.

Prior to working for Trump, Flynn had led the Defense Intelligence Agency under former President Barack Obama. Flynn was pushed out of that job in 2014 and the DIA explicitly told Flynn that he could not to accept any compensation from a foreign state without prior permission from the federal government. Flynn, however, took $45,000 in speaking fees from television network RT (formerly know as Russia today), which U.S. intelligence officials describe as a Russian propaganda outlet.

Flynn claims the DIA was briefed on the payment, but the information released by Cummings shows that the agency cannot find any documentation “referring or relating” to his “receipt of money from a foreign source.” There’s also another relationship that Cumming says is alarming and may not have been properly disclosed: Flynn’s company received $530,000 from a firm owned by a Turkish businessman with close ties to the government. Flynn’s lawyer wrote that the business relationship “could be construed to have principally benefited the republic of Turkey,” and Flynn filed belated paperwork identifying his work as a foreign agent after losing his post in the Trump administration.

During Thursday’s White House briefing, Press Secretary Sean Spicer blamed the Obama administration when he was asked about the thoroughness of Flynn’s vetting by Trump’s transition team. “There’s an issue…that the Department of Defense Inspector General is looking into,” Spicer said. “We welcome that, but all of that clearance was made by the Obama administration and apparently with knowledge of the trip that he took.”

Earlier this week, Cummings and House oversight committee chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) held a joint press conference, during which they revealed that Flynn may have broken the law by not disclosing the payment from RT when he reapplied for a security clearance last year.

But Republicans on the oversight committee are furious about Cummings’ decision to make the documents public. “Though we’ve walked hand-in-hand with the Democrats during this investigation, this morning they broke with long-standing protocol and decided to release these documents without consulting us,” a spokeswoman for Chaffetz said on CNN.

Democrats say they’ve been working with the Pentagon to release unclassified versions of the documents to the public. A spokeswoman for Cummings said Republicans on the committee were informed the documents would be released this morning. “I honestly don’t understand why the White House is covering up for Michael Flynn,” Cummings said at a press conference today following the release of the documents. “There is a paper trail that the White House does not want our committee to follow it.”

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The Department of Defense Is Investigating Michael Flynn

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Chart of the Day: Obamacare’s Triumph—Except in the South

Mother Jones

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The CDC has a new report out on the chronically uninsured. Here’s the good news:

Starting in 2014, when Obamacare went into effect, the number of chronically uninsured plummeted by more than half, from 15.7 percent to 7.6 percent. That’s a huge public policy victory.

Now here’s the bad news—at least for some people:

States that resisted Obamacare in general, and refused the Medicaid expansion in particular, were largely in the South. In 2013 those states already accounted for 46.1 percent of the uninsured even though they have only 35 percent of the US population. By 2016, as other states were making progress, their share of the chronically uninsured skyrocketed to 54.7 percent.

Put another way: by 2016, the per capita rate of chronically uninsured in the South was more than twice what it was in the rest of the country even though southern states could have reduced their uninsured rate practically for free. This is the triumph of Republican bitterness over human decency.

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Chart of the Day: Obamacare’s Triumph—Except in the South

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Here’s Why Trump Is Having a Cow Over Canadian Milk

Mother Jones

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Donald Trump hasn’t done much in his young presidency to delight high-powered Democratic lawmakers like Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). But last week, Trump did just that when he picked a fight with Canada’s dairy farmers, after receiving a letter urging him to do so from Schumer, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.).

Trump’s beef with Canadian dairy played well with Republicans, too. At a speech in dairy-heavy Wisconsin last week (video here), Trump fulminated against our northern neighbor’s milk policy and vowed to organize what sounds like a dramatically awkward group phone call involving the state’s most prominent politicians: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). “We’re going to get together and we’re going to call Canada, and we’re going to say, ‘What happened?'” he thundered. “And they might give us an answer, but we’re going to get the solution, not just the answer, okay?”

Okay!

If you’re wondering what the hell Trump is babbling about—and why Canadian milk generates such strange, and angry, bedfellows south of its border—here’s a primer.

• US dairy producers are churning out way too much milk, and they have been for a while. “Farmers in the U.S. are pouring out tens of millions of gallons of excess milk, amid a massive glut that has slashed prices and has filled warehouses with cheese,” the Wall Street Journal reported last October. In the first eight months of 2016, the paper added, US dairy farmers dumped out 66 Olympic swimming pools worth of milk, the “most wasted in at least 16 years.” In 2015, too, there was “so much milk flowing out of US cows…that some is ending up in dirt pits because dairies can’t find buyers,” Bloomberg reported at the time.

The backstory: Goaded by rising demand for dairy products from Asia and low prices for feed, US farmers scaled up in 2014, increasing their herds and squeezing out more milk per cow. Trouble is, farmers in other big milk-producing regions like New Zealand made the same bet, and now there’s a global milk glut. The practice of dumping surplus milk has continued into this spring, the US Department of Agriculture recently reported.

US agriculture programs give dairy farmers incentive to produce as much as possible, embroiling them in boom-and-bust cycles like the current one, driving small farms out of business and forcing survivors to scale up. As recently as 1950, around 3.5 million US farms kept dairy cows; by 2012, that number had dwindled to 58,000, even as overall production surged. The shakeout continues. “In 2010, Vermont had more than 1,000 dairy farms, but by the end of last year there were just over than 800,” NPR recently reported.

Meanwhile, the massive overproduction persists amid heroic, government-led efforts to prod Americans to consume more dairy. As Josh Harkinson reported in 2015, USDA dietary guidelines urge everyone nine years old or older to drink three cups of milk per day, a recommendation that owes much more to industry lobbying than it does to sound nutrition science. Then there’s Dairy Management, a group overseen by the USDA that works with “influential and globally recognized companies such as McDonald’s, Domino’s, Quaker, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut” to work more dairy into fast food. Oy.

• Canada’s dairy farmers are largely insulated from these cycles. That’s because, in sharp contrast to the US government, Canada’s dairy policy is based on production quotas that prevent farmers from either under- or overproducing. The program guarantees farmers get a price that covers their production costs, and slaps a high tariff on dairy imports, protecting them from foreign competition. Canadian consumers tend to pay more for milk than their peers, but not prohibitively so. Overall, Canadians devote just 9.7 percent of their overall expenditures to groceries, one of the lowest rates in the world. (US consumers have the lowest rate of all: 6.4 percent.)

Canada’s dairy program, known as “supply management,” might sound crazy to US ears, but it has advantages. In an excellent 2010 Gastronomica article, Barry Estabrook noted that, while decades of booms and busts had hollowed out dairy farming in New England and upstate New York, small and mid-sized dairy farms just over the border in Ontario—farming the “same gently rolling tapestry of field and forest”—are thriving.

• But there’s a hole in Canada’s dairy-tariff wall. So-called ultra-filtered milk—made with a process that concentrates milk proteins, separating out the fat—is a relatively new invention, designed to make dairy products that are highly concentrated and shelf-stable, and thus easy to export. Because of a loophole in trade law, Canada’s dairy tariffs don’t apply to it, and so the US dairy industry has been exporting ultra-filtered milk into Canada for years, where it competes with less processed domestic skim milk in cheese making. Major production plants have “been built in recent years along the Canada-US border in states like New York and Wisconsin to service Canadian demand,” reports the Canadian news site iPolitics.com; and it has grown into a $150 million market for US producers.

• Canada just slammed shut that loophole—enraging the US industry and capturing Trump’s attention. In a policy change announced in February and put into effect recently, Canada dropped the price for processed dairy products, essentially pricing US ultra-filtered milk out of its market. Two US dairy companies geared to the Canadian market—one in Wisconsin, one in New York—immediately complained of lost sales; the Wisconsin one, Grassland Dairy products, delivered bad news to 75 farms: It would no longer buy their milk. The development inflamed politicians in Democratic Party-dominated New York and and GOP-heavy Wisconsin, and eventually in the White House.

• But the US dairy industry has been itching for years to break down Canada’s tariff wall and undercut its dairy program—as have Democratic politicians. Under Barack Obama, US negotiators pushed hard to fully pry open the Canadian market to US dairy under the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the trade deal championed by Obama and ultimately killed by Trump. And Tom Vilsack, who served as Obama’s secretary of agriculture for the entire eight-year term, now leads the US Dairy Export Council, a Big Dairy group that for years has pushed against Canada’s program. Vilsack recently signed a letter to Trump demanding “immediate action” against Canada for icing out US ultra-filtered milk.

• Canada aside, though, US dairy farmers clearly can’t export their way out of the dairy glut. As Chris Holman, a Wisconsin farmer who is active in the Wisconsin Farmers Union, noted in a recent blog post, the underlying problem is a “vicious cycle” that leads to oversupply: “When markets are up, farms often expand and production increases to take advantage of better prices. When the milk supply goes up and markets are down, farms often expand and production increases as they try to keep their heads above water.” Holman recently told me that “if every dairy farm in Wisconsin culled one cow out of production, it would more than make up for the milk lost to Canada, and everyone can keep farming.”

But organizing such a move would essentially require supply management—something anathema to big US dairy processors, which enjoy all the cheap milk encouraged by a lack of production controls. Ferd Hoefner, former policy director and current senior strategic adviser for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, told me that the 2014 farm bill included a supply management program for dairy, but it was struck down at the last minute.

• Wisconsin is a dairy-heavy state—and one that Trump barely won. And also the home of Ryan, with whom Trump needs to be friendly if he is going to get anything done in Congress. Moreover, his anti-trade tirades have not been popular with US Big Ag interests, which rely heavily on exports. Applying his fierce trade rhetoric to pry open Canada’s domestic dairy market may be a way for him to appease those interests.

Meanwhile, this week, Trump added more fuel to his trade war with Canada, imposing hefty duties on lumber imports from there. As the Los Angeles Times noted, “Dairy and lumber are sensitive industries in the heartland and rural parts of America, and any moves to strengthen those domestic constituents could help the administration garner congressional support for its broader trade policy objectives.” And picking on Canada is less risky than picking on his usual targets, China and Mexico. “It’s not like Canada is going to open up the border and let a whole bunch of Central Americans into the United States. So Canada is a pretty safe target,” Laura Dawson, director of the Canada Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, told Politico.

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Here’s Why Trump Is Having a Cow Over Canadian Milk

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Trump Administration Launches Office Focused on Crimes by Immigrants

Mother Jones

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The Trump administration officially launched an office on Wednesday dedicated to the victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants—an effort that immigrant advocates say does not align with actual crime data and appears designed to demonize immigrants.

The Department of Homeland Security announced the creation of the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) office, which will provide aid to people affected by crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. According to DHS and officials with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement—which will house the office—this assistance will include a hotline to answer questions about the immigration enforcement process and a notification system to provide updates to registered victims about the custody status of immigrant perpetrators.

The services provide by VOICE are not new: Most are already offered by ICE’s community engagement office, and the office draws upon personnel and resources that the agency already has. But administration officials have shifted the tone of the conversation by focusing on victims of crimes committed by immigrants.

“All crime is terrible, but these victims are unique—and too often ignored,” Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said during the Wednesday launch event in Washington. “They are casualties of crimes that should never have taken place, because the people who victimized them oftentimes should not have been in the country in the first place.”

In reports and statements leading up to the launch, VOICE has been described as focusing exclusively on people affected by crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. But DHS officials on Wednesday said that the office would provide services to victims of “crimes with an immigration nexus,” suggesting that the scope of the agency could expand beyond the undocumented. DHS officials told reporters that VOICE will focus on crimes committed by anyone who could potentially face deportation, a grouping that could include immigrants with legal status.

The office has been in the works for several months and was developed with input from victims and their families, many of whom attended the launch event. It was first mentioned in the president’s January executive order addressing illegal immigration, and its purpose was further clarified in a memo published by Kelly in February. President Donald Trump first spoke publicly about it in his February address to Congress, when he said, “We are providing a voice to those who have been ignored by our media and silenced by special interests.”

The launch drew immediate criticism from immigration advocates. “The goal of this program is to instill fear of non-white immigrants,” the National Day Laborer Organizing Network said in a statement. “It is another deliberate step taken by the Trump administration towards creating institutions that legitimize racist propaganda. That’s what this is about, instilling fear in order to subject people to double suspicion, double punishment, and deprivation of due process.” Others have argued that while the administration focuses on crimes committed by immigrants, it has pulled back from assisting immigrant crime victims, leaving many immigrants fearful of reporting crimes to police.

“I think it is absurd to highlight the crimes committed by a small group of people without reporting on the crimes committed by everybody,” Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration policy analyst with the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, said in an interview before the Wednesday launch. With the establishment of VOICE, he added, the administration appears to be “trying to show how dangerous a group of people is when they have no statistical evidence towards that claim.” Crime data suggests that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born citizens.

At Wednesday’s event, DHS officials argued that VOICE is not about demonizing immigrants, but instead will focus on assisting victims and families who are confused about how immigration enforcement works. “The immigration system is so complicated, there wasn’t anyone there to tell victims what has been happening on the immigration side,” said DHS spokesman David Lapan. “This office can help victims’ families understand the immigration elements of the crimes committed.”

But that mission has been complicated by the president’s rhetoric on immigration and the undocumented. Trump has frequently highlighted the immigration records of violent offenders. One of his central campaign promises was to build a wall between Mexico and the United States, and he has pledged to ramp up deportations.

Launching just days before Trump’s 100th day in office, VOICE comes at a difficult moment for the administration. On Tuesday, a federal judge blocked part of the president’s order that would have withheld funding from so-called sanctuary cities, which refuse to comply with Trump’s call to detain and deport undocumented immigrants.

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Trump Administration Launches Office Focused on Crimes by Immigrants

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It’s Embarrassing To Be an American These Days

Mother Jones

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I want to repeat something from the previous post because it deserves a post all its own. This is Donald Trump’s “tax plan”:

Trump has embarrassed us in so many ways that I guess this is small beer, but FFS. This is the United States of America, the biggest, richest country on the planet. The leader of the free world. And this is what we get from our president these days. He wants to cut taxes by $4 trillion or more—$4 trillion!—and he can’t be bothered to produce more than a single page of bullet points about it. No details. No legislation. No analysis from the OMB. Nothing. Just a comic book version of a tax overhaul.

The contempt and incompetence this displays is breathtaking.

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It’s Embarrassing To Be an American These Days

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