December 27, 2020
Tonight, Trump relented and signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, which includes the coronavirus relief measure and the 2021 appropriations bill (along with other measures).
He accompanied it with a statement claiming he would demand changes to the law, but these have no force; Congress will almost certainly ignore him. He also continued to pressure Senate Republicans to increase payments to individuals and families, saying that the House would vote to increase the amount of stimulus payments on Monday and that the Senate should agree. But he seemed to confuse the CAA with the National Defense Authorization Act he vetoed, said that Congress has agreed to do things it hasn’t, and then threw in complaints about voter fraud. The statement was weirdly disconnected from the way the legislative process actually works.
Trump tried to suggest he was saving the nation from the crisis he, himself, has caused, but it is likely that he finally signed the bill because his stubbornness was not playing well across an increasingly desperate nation, especially as he is golfing at Mar-a-Lago and Vice President Mike Pence is skiing in Vail, Colorado. Americans were generally angry over his inaction on a bill that would provide relief for those suffering from the economic crisis, funding for the distribution of vaccines, and funding for the government. As Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) pointed out today, “If his goal was really to get a better deal on the budget, he would have vetoed it immediately and begun negotiating. But his goal is actually national arson—chaos for the fun of it. So he sits on the budget—does nothing—in order to guarantee a government shutdown.”
He was also under pressure from Republican Senators, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who likely told him his stubbornness was undermining the Republican Senate candidates in Georgia before the January 5 runoff. While Trump is furious with McConnell and the other Senate Republicans who have acknowledged Biden’s win, he is apparently not furious enough that he wants to see McConnell replaced by a Democrat, as would happen if the Senate is split evenly between Republicans and Democrats.
So the CAA will become law, and the drama of lawmaking for this congressional session should be over. But it is not quite over yet. Trump vetoed the National Defense Authorization Act, which specifies how the defense budget will be spent, on Wednesday, December 23. The NDAA has passed with bipartisan majorities since the 1960s when it first began, and presidents have always signed it. But Trump has chosen to veto it, on the grounds that it calls for the renaming of U.S. military bases named for Confederate generals and that it does not strip social media companies of protection from liability when third parties post offensive material on them.
The National Defense Authorization Act this year does something else, though, that seems to me of far more importance to the president than the naming of military bases.
It includes a measure known as the Corporate Transparency Act, which undercuts shell companies and money laundering in America. The act requires the owners of any company that is not otherwise overseen by the federal government (by filing taxes, for example, or through close regulation) to file a report that identifies each person associated with the company who either owns 25% or more of it or exercises substantial control over it. That report, including name, birthdate, address, and an identifying number, goes to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN). The measure also increases penalties for money laundering and streamlines cooperation between banks and foreign law enforcement authorities.
America is currently the easiest place in the world for criminals to form an anonymous shell company which enables them to launder money, evade taxes, and engage in illegal payoff schemes. The measure will pull the rug out from both domestic and international criminals that take advantage of shell companies to hide from investigators. When journalists from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and BuzzFeed, as well as a number of other organizations, dug into documents from FinCEN that had been leaked to BuzzFeed this fall, they discovered shell companies moving money for criminals operating out of Russia, China, Iran, and Syria.
Shell companies also mean that our political system is awash in secrecy. Social media giants like Facebook cannot determine who is buying political advertising. And, as Representative Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) noted, shell companies allow “foreign bad actors” to corrupt our system even more directly. “[I]t’s illegal for foreigners to contribute to our campaigns,” he reminded Congress in a speech for the bill, “but if you launder your money through a front company with anonymous ownership there is very little we can do to stop you.”
We know the Trump family uses shell companies: Trump’s fixer Michael Cohen used a shell company to pay off Stormy Daniels, and just this month we learned that Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner approved a shell company that spent more than $600 million in campaign funds.
The new requirements in the NDAA apply not just to future entities, but also to existing ones.
Congress needs to repass the NDAA over Trump’s veto—indeed it is likely that the CTA was included in this measure precisely because the NDAA is must-pass legislation—and both the CTA and the NDAA bill into which is it tucked have bipartisan support. Trump has objected to a number of things in the original bill but has not publicly complained about the CTA in it. It will be interesting to see if Congress repasses this bill in its original form and, if not, what changes it makes.
Finally, we have a little more information now about the attack in downtown Nashville, Tennessee, on Christmas morning, when an explosive device in a recreational vehicle exploded near an AT&T transmission building near Second Avenue North and Commerce Street.
At 5:30 on December 25, the sound of what seemed to be gunfire woke residents in the area, then a computerized message warned them to evacuate before a bomb went off. The recording began a countdown to detonation. Law enforcement officers knocked on doors telling people to evacuate. At about 6:30, the device exploded. The blast damaged more than 40 businesses, sent three people to the hospital, and disrupted cell service, 911 systems, and the Internet throughout Tennessee as well as in parts of Kentucky and Alabama. Planes were temporarily grounded at Nashville International Airport. Yesterday, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee asked Trump to issue an emergency disaster declaration, which would free up federal money to help clean up and rebuild.
This evening, the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee, Donald Cochran, identified Anthony Quinn Warner, a 63-year-old white man and former IT specialist, as the bomber. “He was present when the bomb went off,” Cochran said, and he “perished in the bombing.”
Trump has not yet commented.
EDIT: At the request of the Editor-in-Chief of BuzzFeed, I have inserted the role that BuzzFeed and its journalists played in the FinCEN story. For more, please see my Letter of September 21, 2020.