August 5, 2020

Trump dominated the news today, which is usually a sign of negative news stories and his need to create distractions from them.

There were certainly negative news stories. The acting inspector general for the State Department is resigning, effective Friday. Stephen Akard took office less than three months ago after Trump fired his predecessor, Steve Linick, apparently at the urging of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Linick was investigating Pompeo’s emergency declaration to permit an $8.1 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia over the objections of lawmakers of both parties.

Linick was also investigating the story that Trump asked the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, Robert “Woody” Johnson, to ask the UK’s then-Secretary of State for Scotland, David Mundell, to bring the British Open to Trump’s Turnberry golf resort in Scotland in 2018. The British Open is a valuable event: in 2019, it brought more than 100 million pounds to the host town where it was played. (This translates to more than $130 million.)

The report about this attempt to use the power of the government for Trump's financial interests was about to come out when Linick was fired. The second-in-command at the UK embassy, deputy chief of mission Lewis Lukens, whom Johnson pushed out of his position after Lukens called the golf course request unethical and possibly illegal, gave an interview to Rachel Maddow tonight. He said State Department leadership is unwilling to try to stop this sort of self-dealing amongst Trump’s appointees because they know they will lose.

Akard gave no reason for his departure, but it might well be connected with either of these investigations.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is investigating potential insider trading over the late July launch of Kodak Pharmaceuticals, a new branch of the old camera and film company intended to begin the process of bringing the production of drugs back to the United States.

Under the Defense Production Act, the Trump administration provided a $765 million loan to support the launch of Kodak Pharmaceuticals. The deal shot Kodak stock upward by more than 2,757%. But there was suspicious activity around this deal. The day before Trump’s announcement of it, the Eastman Kodak Company gave its CEO, Jim Continenza, 1.75 million stock options. Indeed, since May, when talks with the administration about manufacturing the ingredients for pharmaceuticals began, Kodak handed out 240,000 stock options to board members.

Kodak says the timing of the options was a coincidence: the board's compensation committee meeting happened to fall on the day before the announcement. When asked by a reporter about what had happened at Kodak, Trump says he “wasn’t involved in the deal.” This afternoon, the co-director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement Steve Peikin announced he is stepping down. He did not give a reason.

In an interview on the Fox News Channel, Trump said that schools should reopen because children are “almost immune from COVID-19.” Facebook removed the video because “this video includes false claims that a group of people is immune from COVID-19 which is a violation of our policies around harmful COVID misinformation.” The Trump campaign tweeted the video, and Twitter, too, required the account to delete it, blocking the account until it did.

Former acting US Attorney General Sally Yates testified today before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is investigating the 2016 FBI investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. Yates defended the FBI’s observation of Trump’s former National Security Advisor General Michael Flynn. That investigation was necessary to see if Flynn's interactions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak endangered national security, she said. By promising to end US sanctions against Russia imposed by the Obama administration after Russia invaded Ukraine and then attacked the 2016 election, "General Flynn had essentially neutered the US government's message of deterrence," Yates said.

In the hearing, Judiciary Committee Chair Lindsey Graham (R-SC) argued that the FBI interview conducted in January 2017, after Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak had come to light, were simply an attempt to reopen a closed case to hurt Trump. Yates reminded him that the FBI had decided to close the Flynn case before the Kislyak conversations, and those chats changed the landscape. "They were absolutely material to a legitimate investigation…. Interviewing General Flynn was right at the core of the FBI's investigation at this point to try to discern what are the ties between the Trump administration and the Russians."

Yates called the attempt of the Justice Department, now overseen by Attorney General William Barr, attempt to dismiss the Flynn case after he pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI “highly irregular.”

As so many of recent Republican investigators have, though, Graham seemed less concerned with learning what happened than with establishing his own narrative. He interrupted Yates so many times both another Senator and the witness herself called him out on it.

And then there were the distractions.

With the White House and House leaders unable to reach an agreement on a coronavirus bill, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows told reporter Wolf Blitzer that if Congress could not pass a bill, Trump would issue an executive order to cover the issue.

The Constitution establishes that all appropriations bills must originate in the House of Representatives. The House did, in fact, pass a coronavirus bill back in May, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declined to take it up. Now he is sitting out the last-minute negotiations as lawmakers try to find a way to help out the roughly 32 million Americans currently receiving unemployment benefits, since the $600 weekly boost the federal government has added since the spring has ended.

With the Republican National Convention in disarray, Trump today floated the idea of giving his speech accepting the nomination from the White House because, he says, the Hatch Act prohibiting the use of public office for partisan purposes does not apply to the president.

This prompted pushback from members of both parties. The Hatch Act prohibits the use of public office for partisan purposes. While the president and the vice president are indeed exempt from that act, none of the staff that would have to be involved are. Further, using the White House to give a major campaign speech is a major breach of both tradition and decorum. It’s likely that Trump floated this idea as a distraction from the ongoing bad news about coronavirus, or some of the other stories circulating that reflect badly on the administration.

The distractions did not manage to cover up for this:

Tonight, the New York Times broke the story that the Manhattan District Attorney subpoenaed Trump’s records from Deutsche Bank last year and the bank handed them over. Deutsche Bank was the only bank willing to work with Trump after his many bankruptcies. It lent Trump or his company more than $2 billion in the past twenty years.

Earlier this week, we learned that the Manhattan district attorney’s office is looking not only at hush money paid to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal to keep them quiet about sexual affairs with Trump, but also at the crimes of tax fraud, insurance fraud, and bank fraud. The district attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr, is pushing to get Trump’s tax returns to cross-check them with the Deutsche Bank records.

At about 7:30 tonight, the New York Attorney General’s Press Office announced that Attorney General Letitia James will be making “a major national announcement” tomorrow at 11:30 AM.

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Notes:                   

Facebook removal:

Hatch Act:

Major announcement:

Golf course story:

Unemployment:https://www.axios.com/unemployment-continued-claims-coronavirus-fcc4226f-2c2e-47a8-b881-c2e9172b5f40.html

SEC investigation:

https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/05/business/kodak-sec-investigation-trnd/index.html

https://www.complianceweek.com/regulatory-enforcement/sec-enforcement-co-director-steven-peikin-to-step-down/29282.article

Kodak deal: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/31/business/kodak-ceo-stock-options.html

Deutsche bank: https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/05/politics/trump-deutsche-bank-criminal-investigation/index.html

Golf course: https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/23/opinions/trump-woody-johnson-british-open-dantonio/index.html

Arms sale: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/saudi-arabia-arms-deal-trump-what-to-know/

Covid misinformation: https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/08/05/trump-post-removed-facebook/

Speech: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/trump-deliver-republican-convention-speech-white-house-legal/

Deutsche Bank: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/03/nyregion/donald-trump-taxes-cyrus-vance.html

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/05/nyregion/trump-taxes-vance-deutsche-bank.html

https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/05/politics/trump-deutsche-bank-criminal-investigation/index.html

Yates testimony: https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/05/politics/sally-yates-testimony-capitol-hill/index.html

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