The FBI reportedly is probing whether a Russian banker with ties to the Kremlin illegally funneled money to the National Rifle Association (NRA) to help Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, McClatchy’s DC Bureau reported (1/18).

But if the gun lobby did take Russian money, it likely couldn’t have done it without a determined campaign by Republicans, with a major assist from the Supreme Court, to weaken laws governing money in politics, Allegra Kirkland noted at TalkingPointsMemo.com (1/22). To understand the news about the FBI’s probe, we need to understand how the effort to gut campaign finance laws has left the US deeply vulnerable to foreign money infiltrating our elections.

“Citizens United opened up the floodgates to any kind of corporate money,” Craig Holman, a campaign finance expert at good government group Public Citizen, told TPM. “It’s easy to launder foreign money through corporate entities or LLCs, and it goes entirely unreported as coming from foreign sources.”

McClatchy reported that Maria Butina teamed up with Paul Erickson, a Republican operative and NRA member, to set up an LLC, named Bridges, in February 2016. Butina is a top aide to the Russian banker, Alexander Torshin, who is a long-time ally of the NRA. Erickson told McClatchy last year that the company was created in case Butina needed financial help for her graduate studies in the US. McClatchy described that as “an unusual way to use an LLC.”

Foreigners are barred from contributing to US political campaigns. But the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, which allowed corporations to spend unlimited amounts on political activities, fueled a spike in the number of 501(c)(4) “social welfare” non-profits, which are permitted to spend big on political campaigns without disclosing the source of their funds, Kirkland noted. That makes it hard for government watchdogs or federal agencies to know with certainty if foreign money is being funneled to these so-called “dark money” groups

Campaign finance advocates and prominent Democrats warned about the danger back in 2010. During his first State of the Union address that year, Obama cautioned that the Citizens United ruling, which had come days earlier, “will open a floodgate for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limits in our elections.”

In response, Justice Samuel Alito, seated in the audience, mouthed “not true.” His disagreement was echoed by Capitol Hill Republicans and conservative organizations, who argued that the existing legal prohibition on foreign corporations spending money on US campaigns would be sufficient (though no one disputed that they could now do so through their American subsidiaries).

Even PolitiFact called Obama’s claim “mostly false” at the time.

But Larry Noble of the Campaign Legal Center told TPM that the law is now easy to get around. 501(c)(4)s are required to file reports, including the donor’s name, if money comes in that is expressly earmarked for an ad boosting a particular candidate. But as long as the non-profit doesn’t divulge the specific content of an ad to the donor, no disclosure is necessary.

Anonymity, of course, would be appealing to those like Torshin, the Russian banker whose activities are reportedly under investigation by the FBI, Kirkland noted.

WHITE HOUSE MIGHT START DEPORTING DREAMERS MARCH 5. During a White House press briefing Jan. 22 after the Senate voted to pass the continuing resolution to reopen the government, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said if Democrats don’t comply with President Trump’s demands, the administration may begin deporting Dreamers. “We haven’t determined that. We are hopeful we don’t have to do that and we don’t have to get there,” Sanders said. “We would like Democrats to get serious about solving problems.”

Democrats voted in favor of reopening the government at least until Feb. 8 in return for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s stated “intention” to hold a fair vote on legislation to protect Dreamers with a fix to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

But even McConnell’s spokesman has made it clear that he is not agreeing to vote on any specific legislation, just a process that could end in a stalemate, Rebekah Entralgo noted at ThinkProgress (1/22).

Adding fuel to this political fire is the fact that Trump doesn’t seem to know exactly what he wants with regards to a DACA fix. Trump rejected a bipartisan proposal that included DACA protections and a increased border security (1/11). Had he accepted the deal, Congress likely would have been able to avoid a government shutdown (1/19).

Some Dreamers already have lost their DACA protection since the September announcement suspending the program. One of them is Jorge Garcia, a 39-year-old husband and father who has lived in the US for nearly 30 years. He was able to stay in the US under the Obama administration but no longer met the DACA age requirements and was deported from Detroit to Mexico under Trump’s standards.

Because DACA protections aren’t indefinite, recipients are required to reapply every two years. On March 6, the number of immigrants losing DACA protections and work permits will accelerate exponentially. The immigration advocacy organization FWD.us estimates roughly 1,700 immigrants will lose their DACA protections each day between March 5 and November 5.

TALK SHOWS LARGELY IGNORE WOMEN’S MARCHES. On the weekend of Jan. 20, the anniversary of Donnie Trump’s inauguration, the Women’s March in New York City drew 200,000 people. Chicago drew 300,000. Los Angeles, more than half a million. And then there were the “small” marches—20,000 in Phoenix, Ariz. Five thousand in Lansing, Mich. Thousands in Asheville, N.C., and Pittsburgh, Pa., and cities around the country. One of the March’s main events, called #PowerToThePolls, took place in Las Vegas, Nev. (1/21), and aimed to register a million voters. The Women’s March described the effort as targeting “swing states to register new voters, engage impacted communities, harness our collective energy to advocate for policies and candidates that reflect our values, and collaborate with our partners to elect more women and progressives candidates to office.” But you wouldn’t know it if you get your news from the Sunday talk shows. As Media Matters reported:

On ABC’s This Week, host George Stephanopoulos briefly acknowledged the “Women’s Marches in hundreds of cities all across the country” in his opening monologue, and later in the show, panelist Karen Finney mentioned “all the people who were marching in the streets yesterday.” No one responded directly to her comments about the marches. On CBS’ Face The Nation, conservative webzine The Federalist’s publisher Ben Domenech noted the “pro-life March For Life that happens every year, followed by the Women’s March on the other side” while discussing Trump’s first year in office.

The only significant discussion, defined as a back-and-forth exchange between two or more people, of the weekend’s marches was on NBC’s Meet the Press, where panelists remarked on the event in a meager 20-second exchange. Host Chuck Todd also mentioned the “hundreds of thousands of women march[ing] across the country protesting the president, many with an eye towards more women winning office this November” in his opening monologue.

Laura Clawson noted at DailyKos.com (1/22), “Well over a million people marched, not just in the big cities or the blue states but in the small cities and the swing states and the red states. And to the biggest media voices with the highest-prestige shows, it was barely worth a mention.”

REPUBS FEAR BLUE WAVE. Republicans are starting to express concern about a potential blue wave in November in a backlash against Trump and the plutocrat-friendly Republicans in charge of Congress. Republicans hold a 238-193 majority, with 4 vacancies, and gerrymandering protects incumbents in most of the states they control, and the Senate map this year puts 26 Democratic seats at play, including 10 states that Trump won in 2016, while only eight Republican seats are up. But with Republicans holding only a one-seat majority in the Senate, two of those Republican seats are in potential tossup states, Arizona and Nevada. And Dems have recruited strong challengers, with 291 women in House races, while at least 29 House Republicans are opting for retirement. Polls asking which party Americans want in charge of Congress show a double-digit advantage for Dems.

But Donald Trump hasn’t given up hope. In private conversations, Trump has told advisers he doesn’t think the 2018 election will be as bad as others are predicting. He has referenced the 2002 midterms, when George W. Bush and Republicans fared better after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Washington Post reported, leading some to wonder if Trump would welcome a major terrorist attack before the election. He certainly won’t hesitate to blame Democrats for any such attack.

PAUL RYAN GETS $500K PAYDAY AFTER BILLIONAIRE TAX CUTS. In June 2017, Republican leaders attended an Aspen retreat and were given very specific directives by the Koch Brothers-led billionaire alliance and a threat: Do what we say or the alliance will no longer fund the Republican party. 

One Texas-based donor warned Republican lawmakers that his “Dallas piggy bank” was now closed, until he saw legislative progress, the Guardian reported (6/26/17). “Get Obamacare repealed and replaced, get tax reform passed,” said Doug Deason. “Get it done and we’ll open it back up.”

And so they did, Jen Hayden noted at DailyKos.com (1/21). On the backs of middle-class and low-income families, the wealthiest Americans got their long sought after tax cut. In the days immediately after the tax cut was signed into law, one of the Koch brothers made good on his promise and cut a check to Paul Ryan for $500,000.

Just 13 days after the tax law was passed, Huffington Post reported (1/20), Charles Koch and wife, Elizabeth, donated nearly $500,000 to Ryan’s joint fundraising committee, according to a campaign finance report (1/18).

Five other donors, including billionaire businessmen Jeffery Hildebrand and William Parfet, each contributed $100,000 in the last quarter of 2017, according to the records.

“Just imagine how much money they’ll throw at Republicans if Democrats don’t roar back to win big in the 2018 midterms and Republicans achieve Paul Ryan’s longtime dream of ending Social Security and Medicare,” Hayden wrote.

PA. COURT STRIKES DOWN GOP GERRYMANDER, ORDERS NEW CONGRESSIONAL MAPS FOR 2018. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled (1/22) that the state’s gerrymandered congressional maps violate the state’s constitution.

Pennsylvania’s map is so aggressively gerrymandered that Republicans won 13 of the state’s 18 congressional districts in 2012, despite the fact that Democrats won a majority of the popular vote — and Republicans have held those districts ever since, Ian Millhiser noted at ThinkProgress (1/22).

The court order specified that it struck down the state’s congressional maps on the “sole basis” that it “plainly and palpably violates the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.” The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is the final arbiter of questions of state constitutional law, so the court’s reliance on Pennsylvania’s constitution should prevent this case from being appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States, which has a Republican majority, Millhiser noted.

The court ordered the state legislature to submit new maps to the governor by Feb. 9, and the governor has until Feb. 15 to approve the maps and submit them to the court for review. If these deadlines are not met, “this Court shall proceed expeditiously to adopt a plan based on the evidentiary record developed in the Commonwealth Court.”

One bright light for Republicans, Millhiser noted, is that it requires districts to be “composed of compact and contiguous territory” and that they “do not divide any county, city, incorporated town, borough, township, or ward, except where necessary to ensure equality of population.” Because Democrats tend to live clustered together in cities, while Republicans tend to be more spread out across suburbs and rural areas, a requirement to draw compact maps that incorporate county and municipal boundaries will tend to favor Republicans.

Nevertheless, the decision moves Pennsylvania towards a much fairer electoral system, and will remove several bricks in the red wall Republicans build in the House of Representatives through gerrymandering.

TRUMP MADE 2,140 FALSE OR MISLEADING CLAIMS IN FIRST YEAR. One year after taking office, President Trump has made 2,140 false or misleading claims, according to the Washington Post’s Fact Checker database. That’s an average of nearly 5.9 false or misleading claims a day.

“We started this project as part of our coverage of the president’s first 100 days, largely because we could not possibly keep up with the pace and volume of the president’s misstatements,” Glenn Kessler and Meg Kelly wrote in the Post (1/20). “Readers demanded we keep it going for another year. The database has proved so useful — and even sparked the interest of academicians — that we now plan to keep it going for the rest of Trump’s presidency.”

While the president is known to make outrageous claims on Twitter — and that was certainly a major source of his falsehoods — he made most of his false statements in unscripted remarks before reporters, the Fact Checkers noted. “Prepared speeches and interviews were other key sources of false claims. That’s because the president relies on talking points or assertions that he had made in the past — and continued to make, even though they had been fact-checked as wrong.

“This makes Trump somewhat unique among politicians. Many will drop a false claim after it has been deemed false. But Trump just repeats the same claim over and over, perhaps believing that repetition will make it ring truer.

“By our count, there were only 56 days — or about 15 percent of the time — on which we recorded no claims. These were often days when the president golfed.

“But there were also 12 days in which Trump made more than 30 claims. These were often days when he held campaign-style rallies, riffing without much of a script. On July 25, when he held a rally in Youngstown, Ohio, we recorded 52 claims. On Nov. 29, when he spoke in St. Louis, we counted 49 claims. On Dec. 8, he touted Senate hopeful Roy Moore at a rally in Pensacola, Fla., and that yielded another 44 claims.”

From his earliest days as president, Trump repeatedly took credit for events or business decisions that happened before he took the oath of office — or had even been elected. Sixty-two times, he has touted that he secured business investments and job announcements that had been previously announced and could easily be found with a Google search.

Among other deals, Trump took credit for a $1 billion investment by Fiat Chrysler (which the company said was due to talks with unions in 2015), a $1 billion General Motors investment (also in the works for some time), 10,000 jobs added by Walmart (announced in 2016), 10,000 jobs created by Intel (announced originally in 2011), 1 million planned jobs by Chinese e-company Alibaba (a plan outlined in 2015) and a $25 billion investment by Charter Communications (in the works since 2015). Trump also touted a big investment by Japanese company SoftBank — which announced its investment fund three weeks before the U.S. elections, when Trump faced a narrow path to victory.

“Obviously, now that he’s been president for a year, there should be less of a need for Trump to point to deals that predated his presidency,” the Fact Checkers noted.

The Post also has been tracking the status of 60 key promises made by Trump. As of Jan. 17, he’s kept 11 and broken 15, while compromising on 7, according to Fact Checker. The rest are either stuck or still in progress.

PolitiFact, a nonpartisan fact-checking site that has been following Trump since 2011, reports that, as of Jan. 22, it has examined 495 statements and found 4% were entirely true, 12% were mostly true, 15% were half true, 21% were mostly false, 33% were entirely false and another 15% were not only false, but “pants on fire” lies.

3.2M AMERICANS LOST HEALTH INSURANCE IN 2017. For the first time since the Affordable Care Act began, the uninsured rate went up in 2017, despite surprisingly robust Obamacare enrollments at the end of the year. Gallup has been tracking the uninsured rate since the beginning of 2008 every quarter, showing steady increases in the number of people who have health insurance since 2013, when the Affordable Care Act kicked in. Then Trump got elected and, Joan McCarter noted at DailyKos.com (1/16), “as with everything else good, it’s eroding.”

Black and Hispanic adults saw a 2.3 and 2.2 point increase in their uninsured rate in 2017, respectively. By comparison, the uninsured rate for whites grew less than 1 point over that same period. The percentage of low-income adults without health insurance in 2017 rose 2 points, while middle- and high-income Americans’ saw their uninsured rates increase by 1.4 and 0.8 points, respectively.

People of color and people with an household income of less than $36,000 per year are most at risk to lose insurance or be unable to get it, McCarter noted. Additionally, “the uninsured rate among adults aged 18-25 rose by 2 points,” which will further destabilize the market as insurers have to raise rates on the older and sicker people still in it. But the most significant change is “the decline in the percentage of Americans purchasing their own plans, likely through ACA healthcare exchanges,” a reversal of positive trends of people using the exchanges, where about 80% of customers qualify for federal subsidies.

This despite an economy that continues to be strong. Between the out-and-out sabotage that drove insurers out of some markets or to raise premiums, the continued “Obamacare is dead” refrain from Trump and Republicans, and in general rising uncertainty, don’t expect this bad trend to stop. Now that the individual mandate has been repealed in the last-minute tax giveaway to the rich, it’s definitely going to continue.

BANK OF AMERICA, FLUSH WITH TAX CUT WINDFALL, INCREASES FEES ON LOW-INCOME CUSTOMERS. Bank of America, which will receive a $3.5 billion tax windfall from the recently enacted Republican tax bill, has eliminated its free checking account program for low-income customers looking to avoid extra fees for having a low balance, Rebekah Entralgo reported at ThinkProgress (1/22).

Beginning in January, all eBanking customers will face a $12 monthly fee unless the customer has a direct deposit of $250 or more or a minimum balance of $1,500. The process of switching over Bank of America customers to this service began as early as 2015. The bank does have a checking account geared towards low-income customers that charges only a $4.95 monthly fee, but it doesn’t allow customers to write paper checks, a financial necessity in the lives of some individuals.

A monthly fee of $12 could cause some customers to overdraft on their accounts, resulting in even more fees. Overdraft fees collectively cost consumers over $15 billion annually, and around 18% of account holders pay three or more overdraft fees a year, with half of that group paying 10 or more fees a year. These fees have caused some financially unstable individuals to skip banking altogether, largely affecting black, lower-income customers.

Overall, some 9.6 million, or 7% of all Americans, manage their finances without a bank account, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). Of those, 18.7% are families earning under $30,000, compared to only 1.1% of families earning over $50,000. Eighteen percent of black individuals are without a bank, compared to only 3% of whites.

Bank of America, the second-largest US bank by assets, claims this move is the latest change in its quest to “[streamline] the company by exiting business lines and shedding ‘non-core’ products.” The bank’s chief financial officer, Brian Moynihan, is pushing the bank to do business primarily with customers who have high credit scores. According to the Charlotte Observer, Moynihan told investors and analysts last week during the bank’s fourth-quarter earnings conference call that their focus remains on “prime” and “super prime” borrowers with average credit scores of at least 760.

Local member-owned, not-for-profit credit unions often offer much better deals on checking accounts and loans than commercial banks.

ZINKE’S ‘POLITICAL STUNT’ ON OFFSHORE DRILLING BACKFIRES. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is facing criticism from the White House for his unexpected decision to exempt Florida from the administration’s sweeping new proposal to subject essentially all federal waters to offshore oil and gas drilling, according to news reports.

One White House official accused Zinke of going “rogue” by abruptly removing Florida from the list of states only one week after the Interior Department released its five-year offshore drilling plan, Axios reported (1/21). Oddly, Zinke announced his decision to let Florida off the hook on Twitter, instead of through more formal channels, Mark Hand noted at ThinkProgress (1/22)

Moreover, at a House hearing (1/19), Walter Cruickshank, acting director of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), told lawmakers that Florida is not off the table for offshore drilling activities, contradicting Zinke’s earlier tweets, which only added to the confusion over where the administration stands on offshore drilling. Cruickshank said Zinke’s statement “is not an official statement.”

Sources also told Axios that Zinke’s alleged unilateral decision to remove Florida from the plan has damaged his standing with President Trump. Zinke gave the White House no notice of the action, the news outlet reported.

On Jan. 4, the Trump administration released its proposed five-year offshore oil and gas leasing plan, kicking off a 60-day public comment period during which affected communities would be given the chance to weigh in on the administration’s plan. Legal experts, however, have pointed out that Zinke’s move to hastily exempt Florida is likely illegal.

Offshore leasing decisions are subject to a number of federal laws, including the Administrative Procedures Act and the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, that dictate formal processes for how the Department of the Interior must consider, and revise, its decisions regarding which offshore areas can be opened up to oil and gas.

By announcing a change in the proposal only a few days into the process, Zinke demonstrated that the administration isn’t following the required procedure, legal experts argued. The move also raised flags about whether the decision was arbitrary or capricious, two things prohibited by administrative law.

“It’s anyone’s guess what’s going on in Donald Trump’s head, but what we do know is that while Secretary Zinke makes empty promises and tries to govern by tweet, coastal communities are left guessing about whether or not they will be subjected to the dangers of offshore drilling,” Lena Moffitt, senior director of the Sierra Club’s Our Wild America campaign, said (1/22). “This debacle has further highlighted Donald Trump and his administration’s incompetence and failure to take the health, safety, and economic well-being of coastal communities seriously.”

In response to Zinke’s move to exempt Florida, both Democratic and Republican governors have called for their coastal states to be spared from the offshore drilling expansion.

REPUBLICAN SENATOR BLAMES MEDICAID FOR OPIOID EPIDEMIC. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, has decided that Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act caused the opioid crisis, and he issued a report and held a hearing on it (11/17). But German Lopez noted at (1/17) there is a timing issue: Medicare didn’t expand under the ACA (a.k.a. “Obamacare”) until 2014 — well after opioid overdose deaths started rising in the late 1990s, and after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2011 declared the crisis an epidemic. Since then, Lopez noted, the crisis became more about illicit opioids, such as heroin and fentanyl, rather than conventional opioid painkillers.

“It’s pretty ridiculous,” Andrew Kolodny, an opioid policy expert at Brandeis University who was scheduled to testify at the Senate hearing, told Lopez.

Given the evidence, Kolodny argued that the new hearing and report are really about a broader Republican agenda to cut Medicaid. After all, this is something that Republicans have been trying to do for years; as House Speaker Paul Ryan once said, he’s been “dreaming” of cutting Medicaid since he and his buddies were “drinking out of kegs.”

“People are using the opioid addiction epidemic to further their own political agenda,” Kolodny said. “That bothers me. I think it becomes a distraction.”

KY. GOV. SAYS HE’LL SHUT DOWN MEDICAID FOR 500,000 IF WORK REQUIREMENTS ARE CHALLENGED. Republican Gov. Matt Bevin of Kentucky was the first governor to be granted a waiver from President Trump’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to allow him to humiliate and badger low-income people trying to get health care under the Affordable Care Act, Joan McCarter noted at (1/16). From now on, anyone on Medicaid or applying for it in the state will have to prove either that they are too infirm to work or have school or care-taking obligations that preclude it. And Bevin said he will take all Medicaid expansion away if a court alters his work requirements. There have been no suits filed yet.

Several advocacy groups have said some of the changes—such as requiring some “able-bodied” adults to work or volunteer at least 20 hours a week—likely will be challenged in court because they violate federal law that establishes Medicaid purely as a health program and does not authorize work requirements, the Louisville Courier Journal reported (1/16).

“Is the Governor of Kentucky saying that if he is caught doing something illegal, he will take health care away from hundreds of thousands of Kentuckians who have done nothing wrong?” asked Leonardo Cuello, director of health policy for the National Health Law Program, which is considering a legal challenge to Bevin’s plan.

Bevin said his changes would affect mostly adults added to Medicaid after his predecessor, Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, expanded it under the Affordable Care Act that authorized states to add poor adults up to 138% of the federal poverty level. That represents an annual income of about $16,643 for an individual.

Health advocates have been critical of the work requirements, arguing that research shows at least 60% of adults on Medicaid already work, generally at low-wage jobs that don’t include health benefits.

NET NEUTRALITY GAINS MOMENTUM AS 50 SENATORS JOIN RESOLUTION TO REJECT FCC DECISION. Senate Democrats announced (1/16) that the entire Senate Democratic Caucus is co-sponsoring legislation to restore open-internet protections. This brings the total to 50 senators who have agreed to support Sen. Ed Markey’s resolution of disapproval, which would undo the unpopular Federal Communications Commission decision to repeal Net Neutrality.

Under the Congressional Review Act (CRA), the resolution needs only one additional vote to pass the Senate. Support for the resolution includes all 47 Senate Democrats, 2 Senate independents and Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.

According to the CRA, Congress has 60 legislative days from the time the rules are submitted to vote to reject the FCC repeal. A resolution requires only a simple majority in both chambers. This specific resolution, which would overturn the FCC’s Dec. 14 vote to destroy Net Neutrality, will be introduced after the agency delivers the final rules to Congress in the coming weeks.

According to recent polls, strong majorities of both Republican and Democratic voters oppose the FCC decision to gut the Net Neutrality rules. A University of Maryland poll from December 2017 found that more than 83% of voters favor keeping the rules, including 75% of Republicans, 89% of Democrats and 86% of independents.

Since December, more than a million people have called Congress to urge their lawmakers to overturn the FCC decision, the Free Press Action Fund noted.

From The Progressive Populist, Febuary 15, 2018


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