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The Other Steadily Dripping Flood

The historic and ongoing natural disaster in Texas and Louisiana has flooded almost everything else out of the news, except for a few stray reports about the nutcase regime in North Korea escalating nuclear tensions, so you might not have noticed that the steady drip, drip, drip of leaks about “Russia” is also approaching flood levels.
The past week has provided at least three new plot twists in the ongoing unnatural disaster, none of which are helpful to President Donald Trump. None are the evidence of impeachable offenses that his most strident critics have been hoping, but they all require some creative explaining from his staunchest admirers.
The Washington Post reported that the congressional investigating committees will soon have documentary evidence that in October of 2015 Trump signed a letter of intent for an ambitious skyscraper project in Moscow, which isn’t necessarily illegal but doesn’t look good. Trump was four months into his presidential campaign at the time, running on a strikingly Russia-friendly foreign policy platform and offering unusual praise for the country’s dictator and predicting on “Face the Nation” that “I think I would probably get along with him very well,” while indignantly denying any suspicion that it might be for self-interested reasons. At the time he categorically denied any business dealings with any sorts of Russians, seemed quite offended that anyone would suspect otherwise, so the skyscraper project he was pursuing with the apparent help of a Russian-mob connected associate who kept dropping the Russian dictator’s name in the ensuing e-mail chain might not be illegal but doesn’t look good.
If we know about that letter of intent it’s a safe bet that so does famously dogged special-counsel-into-the-matter Robert Mueller, who apparently already had enough reason to suspect other fishy deals between Russians and people near to Trump to obtain all sorts of extraordinary subpoenas and search warrants, and it’s another interesting plot twist that Politico reports Mueller has lately been working on the case with New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. The more attentive fans of the long-running Trump reality show might recall Schneiderman as one of the attorneys general who brought a civil case against Trump University, which ended with Trump paying a $25 million settlement but not having to acknowledge the undeniable fact it was pretty much a scam all along, and how Trump had frequently “tweeted” about what a “lightweight” Schneiderman is, so his reintroduction into the plot does not bode well.
There’s widespread press speculation that Mueller brought Schneiderman aboard because a few people who held high levels in the Trump campaign that he clearly regards as criminal suspects can’t get a presidential pardon on state charges, a concern heightened by Trump’s controversial pardon of an Arizona sheriff for seemingly political reasons last week, and that seems reasonable to us. Anyone Trump did preemptively pardon would forfeit a Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, though, and Mueller seems to think he has even higher-level fish to fry this in this investigation, so it also seems reasonable that Schneiderman’s longstanding scrutiny of Trump’s New York-based and still wholly-owned business empire has come up with some hard-to-explain evidence of its own.
One of the people near to Trump that Manafort clearly considers a potential criminal suspect is the former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who has plenty of Russian connections from his lobbying-for-dictators business that he doesn’t even deny, and Mueller has enough reason to suspect Manafort of something or another that he persuaded a federal judge to grant an extraordinary pre-dawn search warrant on Manafort’s home, so of course Manafort was also back in the news. The National Broadcasting Company reported that the notes he took on his smart phone during a meeting he took with the president’s son and son-in-law and a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer and a couple of other fishy Russians, which are now in the hands of those pesky congressional investigations and presumably Mueller, and that they mention the word “donor.” Trump’s most staunch defenders described the meeting as meaningless, and pointed to everyone’s account that Manafort was staring at his smart phone the whole time as proof, but they’d also previously insisted that no one near Trump ever had any sort of meeting with anyone remotely Russian.
It might nor might not have anything to do with all this, but Bloomberg News also reported that Trump’s son-in-law and highest-level advisor Jared Kushner and his family’s still wholly-owned New York-based real estate empire is desperately seeking foreign financial aid to stave off bankruptcy. That happens to the best of families and isn’t illegal, we suppose, but neither does it look good.
Sooner or later the sun will shine down on the good people of Texas and Louisiana, and the hard work of recovery will commence, and we’re hopeful that politics won’t prevent the federal government from doing its part. All the drip, drip, drip from the Korean peninsula to the ongoing investigations in Washington and New York will sooner or later bob up above all the water on the front page, though, and don’t say you weren’t warned.

— Bud Norman

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A Poor Excuse for an IRS

The Internal Revenue Service’s harassment of numerous conservative groups that had applied for tax-exempt status was quite the scandal a while back, so bad that even the media took notice, the president was obliged to express his outrage, and the government’s more dogged apologists were forced to come up with some sort of explanation. Those bold enough insist there was no scandal at all thought they’d finally come up with the proof, a document indicating that the IRS was also ordered to “Be On the Look Out” for liberal groups, but it now looks as if they’ll have to find another excuse.
Claiming that the agency was mistreating citizens equally was an odd enough defense to begin with, but more information from the Treasury Department’s Inspector General who originally exposed the scandal indicate that it also has the disadvantage of being untrue. In a letter to Rep. Sander Levin, the Michigan Democrat who has been making much of the document, Inspector General for Tax Administration J. Russell George notes that the “BOLO” — in the IRS acronym — did not apply during the years being investigated, and that agency’s treatment of various groups was not equal in any case. In his politely worded slap-down of a letter George further noted that only six groups with “progressive” or “progress” in their names were cited as potential political cases between May 2010 and Mary 2012, while 292 groups with names suggesting a conservative leaning were listed, with 100 percent of the conservative groups subjected to review while only 30 percent of the liberal groups received the same treatment.
As much as some people would hate to believe that anyone in the government might want to punish its law-abiding critics for their exercise of free speech, George’s revelations are hardly surprising. The IRS’ unequal treatment of “tea party” groups followed the President’s expressed opinion that the groups were racist, the Vice President’s likening the groups to terrorists, the Mayor of New York City’s speculation that they were involved in a plot to bomb Times Square which predictably enough turned out to be the work of an Islamist extremist, and vulgar efforts to vilify the anti-tax-and-spend movement by journalists, celebrities, activists, and partisans too numerous to mention. When “tea party” groups are receiving unequal treatment from the IRS in such an atmosphere, it will take more than one document to suggest that it’s mere coincidence.
The latest excuse was better than the previous efforts to blame Republican budget cuts, which became all the more laughable in light of subsequent scandals about the IRS spending habits, but in the end it will only have the effect of getting the scandal briefly back in the news. With so many people willing to overlook this outrageous abuse of government power, the better strategy might be a shrug and hopes that yet another scandal will crowd it out of the news.

— Bud Norman

The Right to Bear Flabby Arms

Sooner or later the do-gooders were going to get around to the fat people. Picking on the smokers, tokers, gun-toters, and taxpayers was never going to sate their lust for lovingly-applied power, and fat people make such an inviting target for even the most well-meaning bullies.
The crusade suffered a setback on Monday when a court threw out New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ban on “sugary drinks” larger than 16 ounces at restaurants, but that surely won’t be the end of it. Bloomberg, a media magnate-turned-municipal nanny who seems intent on proving the old Wallis Simpson adage that you can never be too rich or too thin, has already vowed an appeal. Having already prevailed in his war on smokers and gotten away such heavy-handed anti-heaviness tactics as his ban on trans-fats and salt shakers, Bloomberg has every reason to expect that he’ll prevail yet again.
We had hoped that the court would find a citizen’s right to order any size soda he damn well chooses somewhere within all those penumbras and whatnots where they found a right to abortion, but instead they found the ban merely “arbitrary and capricious” because it was enacted by the mayor’s health board rather than the city council and applied only to restaurants and not convenience stores or other purveyors of jumbo-sized pop. This means that the mayor need only ram it through an equally self-righteous majority of councilmen and then make it even more far-reaching, so we expect that the beautiful people of New York City will soon be spared the unsightly spectacle of their heftier fellow citizens waddling around sucking up caffeinated calories from bucket-sized cups. The meddlesome mayor has graciously announced that he “probably” won’t mandate gym memberships and no-pain-no-gain workouts, and thus far his assaults on too-loud earphone use are only rhetorical, but by the time Bloomberg is finished even the most fashionable New Yorkers will likely be pining for the decadent freedom of a small prairie town.
Whatever the fate of Bloomberg’s soda ban he can count on the continued assistance of Michelle Obama, the famously buff First Lady who has made fat kids her favorite cause. Obama’s latest effort against childhood obesity came in a speech at George Washington University, where she suggested that “product placement” in grocery stores could create a world in which “kids are begging and throwing tantrums to get you to buy more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.” Setting aside the question of whether Madison Avenue’s most sophisticated techniques could ever cure a normal child of his sweet tooth, there’s something slightly discomfiting about the notion of the government compelling private enterprises to employ shrewd marketing techniques to promote its own notions of what individuals should do in their private lives. This sort of thing is sometimes called fascism, at least when Republicans do it, and good intentions make it no more palatable.
Those of you who don’t smoke, stay trim, and keep your earphones turned to a Carpenters level of volume should be congratulated on your virtuous lifestyles but should not feel immune from the nosiness of the nanny state. You’re doing something they don’t like, and after they get all those fat people whipped into shape they’ll sooner or later get around to you.

— Bud Norman