January 12, 2018
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Over one-fifth of President Trump's condos sold in America were purchased in transactions that have the characteristics of possible money laundering, BuzzFeed News reports. Over 1,300 of condominiums developed by Trump or licensed under his name "were bought not by people but by shell companies, and ... the purchases were made without a mortgage, avoiding inquiries from lenders," BuzzFeed News writes. The Treasury Department has flagged such sales as telltale signs of potential money laundering schemes, although not all such sales are necessarily indicators of illegal activity.

In one particularly startling case, though, the Trump SoHo Hotel Condominium in Manhattan, where Trump is 18 percent owner, made more than three-quarters of its sales to shell companies that paid in cash. BuzzFeed News is careful to note, however, that their reporting also "examined non-Trump buildings in Manhattan and South Florida and found that roughly the same percentage of units were sold to shell companies in all-cash transactions as in Trump buildings."

In 2015, a New York Times investigation estimated that "nearly half of the most expensive residential properties in the United States are now purchased anonymously through shell companies." However, as some have pointed out, those other properties notably do not have the name of the president of the United States attached to them.

This is not the first time purchases at Trump developed or licensed condos have raised suspicions. Former Panamanian financial crimes prosecutor Mauricio Ceballos told NBC News and Reuters that the Trump Ocean Club in Panama City is "a vehicle for money laundering." Writing for The Week, Paul Waldman observes that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has "made a point of hiring a number of lawyers for his team who have expertise in money laundering and other financial crimes." Mueller is reportedly looking into "Russian purchases of apartments in Trump buildings," Bloomberg News writes.

Read more about Trump property sales at BuzzFeed News. Jeva Lange

December 5, 2017

Put your money where your mouth is, the challenge goes — and Republican Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) is doing just that. Flake tweeted Tuesday that he was making a personal donation of $100 to Doug Jones, the Democratic candidate for Senate in Alabama:

Jones is fighting to win the Alabama seat against Republican Roy Moore, who stands accused by multiple women of conducting inappropriate sexual relationships with them while they were teenagers and he was a district attorney in his early 30s. One of Moore's accusers says he groped her when she was just 14, while another says he tried to sexually assault her in the parking lot of a restaurant when she was 16.

After the allegations were reported by The Washington Post, the White House and other top Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (Wis.) distanced themselves from Moore. But on Monday, President Trump reversed course, calling Moore to offer his endorsement; the Republican National Committee quickly followed suit by reinvesting money and staff into Moore's campaign just weeks after withdrawing support.

On Monday, Flake, who is not running for re-election, broke from his party colleagues, tweeting, "A Roy Moore victory is no victory for the GOP and the nation." Alabama's special election is Dec. 12, and Real Clear Politics currently shows Moore leading Jones by an average of 1.5 percentage points. Kimberly Alters

November 25, 2017
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Amazon founder Jeff Bezos saw his net worth top $100 billion after Amazon stock, of which Bezos is the single largest owner, climbed 2.5 percent on Black Friday. The bump earned Bezos $2.4 billion on Friday alone.

Microsoft's Bill Gates was the first person to reach $100 billion in 1999. By Bloomberg's count, Bezos is the richest person in the world and the only individual to currently boast a 12-figure fortune, as Gates, in second place, now has a mere $89 billion to his name.

Bezos' gain is part of a larger story of how online shopping continues to eat up market share. Shoppers dropped $640 million online Friday by 10 a.m. Eastern, an 18 percent increase over Black Friday 2016. Investment banking firm Jefferies found only only 13 percent of customers said they'd be spending more on Black Friday this year, compared to 17 percent last year, indicating that more people are shopping online throughout the month than on just one day. Bonnie Kristian

November 6, 2017
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As House Republicans finalize their tax reform plan this week, their colleagues in some blue states remain wary of the bill's elimination of certain deductions. Republicans have proposed offsetting the $2 trillion in cuts outlined in their bill by tweaking certain deductions, which would raise $1 trillion in revenue over 10 years, The New York Times reports.

Policies under the knife include the federal deduction for property taxes in New Jersey, the deduction for state and local income taxes, and the mortgage interest deduction. The GOP plan proposes capping the federal deduction for property taxes in the Garden State at $10,000 as well as restricting the mortgage interest deduction only loans up to $500,000, The New York Times explains.

In the case of the state and local tax rule, one-third of New Jersey taxpayers claim that deduction. California and New York alone account for nearly one-third of the value claimed under that deduction nationwide. "I view it as a geographic redistribution of wealth," said Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.). "You're taking more money from a state like New York, to pay for a deeper tax cut elsewhere.

The House plans to pass its bill by the end of the week. The Senate is working on its own version of a tax overhaul and is expected to release the bill in the coming days. Read more about the GOP's blue-state conundrum at The New York Times. Kimberly Alters

November 1, 2017
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Theater owners are already complaining about Disney's strict rules for exhibiting Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which comes out on Dec. 15, 2017. "Disney will receive about 65 percent of ticket-sales revenue from the film, a new benchmark for a Hollywood studio," The Wall Street Journal writes. "Disney is also requiring theaters to show the movie in their largest auditorium for at least four weeks."

Typically studios take about 55 percent of ticket-sales from movie theaters, although bigger blockbusters sometimes send back around 60 percent. Previous Star Wars films required theaters send back 64 percent of sales. Now if theaters violate Disney's conditions, they could get dinged with an additional 5 percent of ticket sales being returned, bringing the total up to 70 percent.

That presents a conundrum for small-market movie theaters. "There's a finite number of moviegoers in my market, and I can service all of them in a couple of weeks," explained the owner of a single-screen theater in Elkader, Iowa. In order to show The Last Jedi and avoid a fine, small-town theaters would need to keep the movie playing in near-empty theaters toward the end of its four-week run — while still giving Disney a steep cut of the sales. Read the full report at The Wall Street Journal. Jeva Lange

October 19, 2017
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By the end of Donald Trump's presidential campaign last year, "drain the swamp" had become a regular chant at his rallies. A year on, though, President Trump has done little to follow through with his promises, Politico reports. "I don't think that anything's really changed," said Republican lobbyist Brian Wild. "If anything, the lobbying business is booming right now."

Before taking office, Trump proposed five major changes to lobbying rules, only one of which has been fully delivered nine months after his inauguration — "signing an executive order … that banned executive branch officials from lobbying for foreign governments and overseas political parties after they leave the administration." Other promises, including "to broaden the definition of lobbying, to ban lobbyists for foreign interests from making campaign contributions, and to lengthen the amount of time former lawmakers are banned from lobbying," have not been followed through, Politico writes.

Others say they have noticed pressure on lobbyists since Trump took office. The administration has "encouraged not only our office but other offices to proceed with 'drain the swamp' legislation," said George Cecala, the deputy chief of staff to Rep. Bill Posey (R-Fla.).

But even with things perhaps moving behind the scenes, it's still a good time to be a lobbyist in Washington: Spending on lobbying in 2017 was the highest since 2012, the Center for Responsive Politics found, totaling nearly $1.7 billion just in the first half of the year. Read more about why draining the swamp is an impossible task at The Week, and more about Trump's unfulfilled promises at Politico. Jeva Lange

October 11, 2017

The buzziest part of President Trump's new interview with Forbes staff writer Randall Lane is his suggestion that he and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson take an IQ duel to see who's the real "moron." But the article is really about Trump being a dealmaker not a businessman, why that's a different thing, and his fixation on numbers. "Numbers offer Trump validation," Lane writes. "They determine the winner or loser of any deal and establish an industry hierarchy. It's why Trump, more than any of the 1,600 or so people who've been on the Forbes 400, has spent more time lobbying and cajoling Forbes to get a higher valuation — and validation."

Brian Williams asked Lane about that on MSNBC Tuesday night. "We wrestle with him annually," Lane said. "Donald Trump cares more about where he ranks on the Forbes 400 than anyone in our 35-year history." In fact, Lane said, "we used to have at Forbes what we called the 'Donald Trump rule,' which whatever Donald Trump tells you, you divide by three and that probably is what he's really worth."

Williams brought up Trump's IQ challenge, and Lane pulled back for a bigger picture. "Numbers are very important to Donald Trump," he said. "It explains a lot, it explains his obsession about crowd size, it explains why every time there's a bad poll, he attacks the messenger. Donald Trump is somebody — he's a businessman who's always been about the gut. And while we're in an age of Big Data, where most businesses are looking at the data and then making decisions based on the data, Donald Trump is somebody who goes by instinct and gut and then looks for numbers to justify his gut."

That's been a mixed bag for Trump in business. We'll see how it works in politics. Peter Weber

October 5, 2017
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Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has already invited scrutiny of his travels after chartering an oil executive's private plane, costing taxpayers more than $12,000. Now the former Congressman's trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands is getting a second look, "raising questions about his habit of mixing official government business with political activism," Politico writes.

Interior records show that Zinke has met with political donors or groups more than half a dozen times while on taxpayer-funded department trips, Politico reports. It is illegal to use government resources for partisan ventures. While none of Zinke's trips seem to blatantly break the law, House Democrats have alleged the secretary's travels "give the appearance that you are mixing political gatherings and personal destinations with official business." In one instance from the spring, Zinke visited the U.S. Virgin Islands ostensibly to understand the Interior's role in the territory, but also attended a local Republican Party fundraiser.

Zinke has spent about $20,000 on three charter flights since taking the job, Politico reports. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned last week after being embroiled in controversy over his use of private planes while in office, costing taxpayers more than $1 million; Energy Secretary Rick Perry flew charter to Ohio the day before Price's resignation; EPA chief Scott Pruitt has spent more than $58,000 on private and military flights; and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has faced criticism for requesting use of a government jet to whisk him and his third wife away to Europe this summer for their honeymoon and for possibly using a trip to Kentucky to view the solar eclipse. Jeva Lange

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