Political Animal

Quick Takes: Will Trump Pull Out of the Paris Climate Agreement This Week?

* Trump said that he would make his decision on the Paris Climate Agreement this week and the folks at Axios say they have the scoop.

President Trump has privately told multiple people, including EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, that he plans to leave the Paris agreement on climate change, according to three sources with direct knowledge.

But as they go on to explain, it won’t happen with a single announcement. There are 3 possible avenues:

Trump could announce he is pulling the U.S. from the deal, which would trigger a withdrawal process that wouldn’t conclude until November 2020 at the earliest…

Trump could declare that the Paris deal is actually a legal treaty that requires Senate approval. Such a vote would fail, and then Trump would have Senate backing to not abide by the deal, which he deems a treaty…

Trump could withdraw the U.S. from the treaty that underpins the Paris deal, which is called the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. This would be the most extreme option because it would take the U.S. out of all global climate diplomacy. This process would take just one year.

* We’ve seen polls that indicate Trump’s approval among his supporters might be slipping a bit. Another indicator could be what is happening with right wing media.

“Breitbart News is the #45th most trafficked website in the United States, according to rankings from Amazon’s analytics company, Alexa.com,” they wrote on January 9, 2017. “With over two billion pageviews generated in 2016 and 45 million unique monthly visitors, Breitbart News has now surpassed Fox News (#47), Huffington Post (#50), Washington Post (#53), and Buzzfeed (#64) in traffic.”…

Just a few months later, the numbers have a different story to tell. As of May 26, 2017, according to Alexa.com—the same web-ranking analytics company that Breitbart drew its numbers from in January—Fox News is the 64th most-trafficked site in the country. Huffington Post is at 60. Buzzfeed is at 50. The Washington Post, on the strength of a series of eye-popping scoops, is at 41.

Breitbart is in 281st place…

Other conservative media sites have also experienced declines in traffic in recent months, but none as pronounced as Breitbart’s. According to Alexa data, National Review Online, Infowars.com, The Daily Caller, and Drudge Report all saw slumps in their rankings. Over the last week, as Trump was engulfed in the Comey scandal, Fox News’s viewership dropped to third place behind CNN and MSNBC for the first time in 17 years.

* I love Philip Bumb’s post for the title alone: “The fake news is coming from inside the White House.” He starts by pointing to Trump’s tweets.

To believe Donald Trump, you must believe two largely contradictory things.

You must believe that there are a slew of leakers in the executive branch who are providing damning details to the press illegally, and who must be rooted out and punished…

You must also believe that the press makes up imaginary leakers simply to slowly and incrementally report false stories that are tangentially embarrassing to the president.

* I’m going to suggest that you read the entire thread of tweets from Richard Florida that starts with this:

* Finally, Joseph Babcock recounts his experience of living in Vietnam when President Obama paid a visit.

By the time Air Force One landed at Ton Son Nhat, Saigon felt primed for its moment. Crowds lined the streets around the President’s hotel and in front of the embassy. Everyone—students, office workers, street vendors, grandmothers—wanted a glimpse of Obama. They said his name with the flat monotone that Vietnamese speakers use when saying a word that doesn’t contain diacritics, the last syllable drawn out so that it sounded like “Obam-aaah!” People in the crowd waved little Vietnamese and American flags, a sight that was kind of amazing in itself considering that this was right around the corner from the War Remnants Museum, formerly called the Exhibition House for U.S. and Puppet Crimes.

That was captured by this video from Pete Souza:

Babcock notes that we didn’t see the same kind of thing for Trump during his trip abroad last week and drew some conclusions.

It’s not exactly surprising that the outpouring of love I saw the Vietnamese show President Obama was largely missing from President Trump’s first trip abroad. On the contrary, thousands showed up for “Trump Not Welcome” marches in Europe this week…

No matter who holds the office, the American presidency remains a symbol of power, wealth, and military strength. Those broad strokes remain pretty much constant. It’s the individual who fills in the rest, who determines whether he or she will be seen as a symbol of hope and encouragement—a person who spreads good vibes, as we might say here in Southern California—or a symbol of anger and crabbed fear.

Sometimes the Neoconservatives are Right

John McCain doesn’t sound like he’s buying the idea that Jared Kushner’s efforts to set up a private line of communication with the Kremlin is normal in any way. Here’s what he said about it on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s “7:30” program:

“I know some administration officials are saying this is standard procedure. I don’t think it’s standard procedure prior to the inauguration of the president of the United States by someone who is not in an appointed position,” he said. “This is becoming more and more bizarre. In fact, you can’t make it up.”

At this point, I just want to pause to point out a couple of things. First, it was John McCain who personally delivered former MI6 officer Christopher Steele’s “dodgy dossier” on Trump’s Russian connections to FBI director James Comey.

‘I did what any citizen should do. I received sensitive information and handed it to the FBI,’ he told CNN – the network which broke the story that the document existed. It was then published in full by Buzzfeed.

‘That’s why I gave it to the FBI. I don’t know if it is credible or not but the information I thought deserved to be delivered to the FBI, the appropriate agency of government.’

He added: ‘It doesn’t trouble me because I don’t know if it is accurate or not. I have no way of corroborating that.

‘The individual gave me the information. I looked at it. After receiving that information I took it to the FBI.’

One reason that John McCain was interested in these rumors is because he thinks Vladmir Putin is a bigger threat to the United States than ISIS, but another reason is that the Russians hacked his campaign. On August 12th, 2016, DCLeaks released “roughly 300 emails from Republican targets, including the 2016 campaign staff of Arizona Senator John McCain [and] South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham.”

Obviously, John McCain didn’t support Donald Trump for the Republican nomination, but he seems to realize that the Russians’ interest in Trump was at least in part an effort to sideline neoconservative anti-Putin hardliners like Sen. Graham and himself. These neoconservatives would have been happy with Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, but much less so with Rand Paul or certainly Trump. That his campaign was targeted by the Russians right along with Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party is not surprising.

Yet, the neoconservatives aren’t wrong all the time, and in this case their suspicions about Russia’s interest in Trump and possible two-way collusion are about more than self-preservation. McCain is pretty slick but he and Graham are most definitely loaded for bear when it comes to Trump. If there is ever an impeachment trial in the Senate, you can be almost certain that these two Republican senators won’t be taking the president’s side.

Sen. Chuck Grassley is Covering for Jared Kushner

If you’re like me, your eyes glaze over a little bit when people start talking about the intricacies of our immigration policies and the various kinds of visas we offer to foreign nationals. I certainly feel that way about the EB-5 visa, although I felt compelled to look into it since it has embroiled Jared Kushner and his family in controversy, and now Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) is calling for an investigation.

The EB-5 visa was created in 1990 and put into its current form in 1993. The simplest way of understanding it is that it creates an avenue for foreigners to get permanent residence in the country (and possibly citizenship) if they’re willing to invest a million bucks in a business that will eventually employ at least ten people. There’s a provision for investing in economically needy areas that only a requires that you invest half a million. The changes made in 1993 introduced some problems and changed the nature of the program.

In order to make the program more investor-friendly, Congress enacted the 1993 Appropriations Act which amended the EB-5 program to create the “Pilot Immigration Program” — the Immigrant Investor Pilot Program (IIPP). Under the IIPP, foreign nationals could invest in a pre-approved regional center, or “economic unit [referred to as regional centers], public or private, which is involved with the promotion of economic growth, including increased export sales, improved regional productivity, job creation, or increased domestic capital investment.” Investments within a regional center provide foreign nationals the added benefit of allowing them to count jobs created both directly and indirectly for purposes of meeting 10-job creation requirement. This was intended to help potential investors to meet “the program’s stringent requirements” through passive investment. With the IIPP, the EB-5 visa became an investors visa as opposed to an entrepreneur’s visa.

Basically, the IIPP made it possible to simply invest money without having any personal connection or role with any particular project. Since it allowed privately run “regional centers,” it introduced an incentive for private citizens to solicit funds from rich foreigners using eventual American citizenship as the dangle. It didn’t take long for the program to run into controversy, as these private entities started working the regulatory agency responsible for refereeing the application process.

In c.1995 former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) officials formed a company called AIS that acted as intermediaries between INS and immigrant entrepreneurs in the EB-5 program. Whereas EB-5 required an investment of 500,000 AIS only required $125,000 cash with the rest — $375,000 in the form of a promissory note. AIS claimed the promissory note would “be forgiven once the immigrant’s permanent residency application was approved”. The U.S. immigration agency, which was then known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), had interpreted the regulations regarding financial qualifications in a way that accepted this arrangement until c. 1998 when they were under investigation by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). There were allegations that the INS was giving preferential treatment to AIS in EB-5 matters.

If you’re pitching a foreign millionaire on investing in your “regional center,” you’ll need to convince them that you can deliver on your end of the deal. And since your end isn’t some assurance that they’ll get a good financial return on their investment but that they’ll get the citizenship they desire, you’ll want to gain influence and control over the citizenship approval process.

This is where the Kushner family comes into it.

It’s not unusual for commercial real estate builders to utilize the EB-5 visa. Most major hotel chains have used the program to raise capital, in part because it is cheaper than borrowing from a bank. The Kushner family has a history with the EB-5, using it for example to finance a project in Journal Square in New Jersey. Just last March, Kushner Properties announced that they were abandoning a plan to use EB-5 financing to team up with a Chinese insurance company named Anbang and convert the Manhattan skyscraper at 666 Fifth Avenue into luxury residential units. Still, when President Trump signed his first major piece of legislation on May 5th, it included an extension of the Immigrant Investor Visa Program through September 30, 2017. Whatever else you might say about it, the program has benefitted the president since he has used it to finance some of his Trump-branded building projects.

Chuck Grassley has had problems with the EB-5 for a while now, describing it as a program that “has been rife with fraud and national security weaknesses.” In February, he teamed with Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) to introduce a bill that would terminate the EB-5.

What he wants to investigate at the moment is what he considers fraudulent representations made by a Chinese firm named Qiaowai that was marketing a Kushner Industries project in Jersey City to Chinese investors. That Grassley is concerned about this is understandable, but it appears to be missing the larger point. And that’s a point that is not lost on the president:

The most serious point of contention between the president and his son-in-law, two people familiar with the interactions said, was a video clip this month of Mr. Kushner’s sister Nicole Meyer pitching potential investors in Beijing on a Kushner Companies condominium project in Jersey City. At one point, Ms. Meyer — who remains close to Mr. Kushner — dangled the availability of EB-5 visas to the United States as an enticement for Chinese financiers willing to spend $500,000 or more.

For Mr. Trump, Ms. Meyer’s performance violated two major rules: Politically, it undercut his immigration crackdown, and in a personal sense, it smacked of profiteering off Mr. Trump — one of the sins that warrants expulsion from his orbit.

In the following days during routine West Wing meetings, the president made several snarky, disparaging comments about Mr. Kushner’s family and the visas that were clearly intended to express his annoyance, two aides said. Mr. Kushner did not respond, at least not in earshot.

In simple terms, the president is angry that the Kushner family is using his name to promise citizenship to prospective Chinese investors, while Chuck Grassley is angry that a Chinese company used those assurances to make the same claim. This looks like a way for Grassley to continue his war on the EB-5 visa while actually shifting the accountability for this case away from the Kushner family.

This is a clever way for Grassley to protect the White House while seeming to be a tough guy. But it’s fraudulent. There are legitimate moral and national security questions about the EB-5 visa, but the main problem has been that it invites people to commit corrupt acts. There could be no more corrupt act than having the president (or his staff) making private assurances to potential investors that they’ll get citizenship in return for their investments in private commercial investment vehicles.

Trump’s Team Intent on Setting Up Back Channel Communications With Russia

It is worth noting that at least three members of the Trump administration have now lied (or failed to disclose) meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak: Michael Flynn, Jeff Sessions and Jared Kushner.

We don’t know what Sessions discussed with Kislyak during his meetings with the ambassador. But I’ll refer you to Martin Longman’s excellent documentation of the events that surrounded the private meeting between the two in September.

Flynn’s lies about his meetings with the ambassador in late December 2016 led to him being fired as Trump’s National Security Advisor after they were made public. But a couple of weeks ago we learned this:

Conversations between Flynn and Kislyak accelerated after the Nov. 8 vote as the two discussed establishing a back channel for communication between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin that could bypass the U.S. national security bureaucracy…

As I pointed out at the time, there was also a clandestine meeting in January between Erik Prince, who had been consulting with the Trump transition team, and a Russian close to President Vladi­mir Putin “as part of an apparent effort to establish a back-channel line of communication between Moscow and President-elect Donald Trump.”

In March, the White House confirmed that Jared Kushner—along with Michael Flynn—met with Kislyak at Trump Tower in early December. Last Friday, Reuters reported this:

U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and close adviser, Jared Kushner, had at least three previously undisclosed contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States during and after the 2016 presidential campaign, seven current and former U.S. officials told Reuters.

Those contacts included two phone calls between April and November last year, two of the sources said.

On the same day, the Washington Post reported that, during the meeting at Trump Tower in December, Kushner, Flynn and Kislyak had discussed setting up “a secret and secure communications channel between Trump’s transition team and the Kremlin, using Russian diplomatic facilities in an apparent move to shield their pre-inauguration discussions from monitoring.”

What we can learn by putting these pieces of the puzzle together is that several members of the Trump team were intent on setting up a back channel of communication between the Trump administration and Russia that would bypass the U.S. national security bureaucracy, with Kushner going so far as to suggest using Russian diplomatic facilities in the United States. Flynn discussed it with Kislyak immediately following the election, Flynn and Kushner followed up on that in early December, and Prince was dispatched to a clandestine meeting to talk about it in January.

Over the weekend, with the focus on Kushner, the public line from the White House was not to deny his role in this, but to suggest that it was “normal and acceptable,” which is absurd. The fact that Prince was still working on it in January indicates that it wasn’t simply meant as a means to communicate during the transition, but was a way to bypass our national security apparatus during his presidency, at a time when the Trump campaign was under investigation for colluding with the Russians to influence the U.S. election.

While exploring how worried Kushner should be about these revelations, Ryan Lizza reminds us of his role in Trump’s decision to fire Comey. He points to reports that indicated Kushner “had urged Mr. Trump to fire Mr. Comey,” as well as the fact that when Rosenstein appointed a special prosecutor, more than a dozen aids met with the president to discuss how to respond.

“Most of those gathered recommended that the president adopt a conciliatory stance and release a statement accepting Mr. Rosenstein’s decision and embracing a swift investigation that would clear the cloud of suspicion hovering over the West Wing,” the paper said. But there was one dissenter: Kushner, who was “urging the president to counterattack.”

This reporting makes it clear that it wasn’t just Trump who had a conflict of interest when deciding on whether to fire Comey…less has been said about Kushner’s conflict. Should Kushner, who we now know is under some level of scrutiny by the F.B.I., be advising his father-in-law to fire the F.B.I. director and “counterattack” the special counsel?

As has so often been the case with the revelations coming from the Trump/Russia probe, this is not the behavior of someone who was engaging in negotiations that were “normal and acceptable.” We don’t yet know why members of the Trump team were so intent on setting up a back channel of communication between the administration and Russia. We also don’t know whether or not they were ultimately successful in doing so. What we do know is that they were working on this since shortly after the election and that they have repeatedly lied about it while attempting to obstruct the investigation.