February 16, 2018
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Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush bought a $1.5 million mansion in a tony Austin enclave with an $850,000 loan from a bank owned by a major donor who recently employed his wife, Amanda Bush — and "for all practical purposes, it is a secret mansion," reports Jay Root at The Texas Tribune. The 4,000-square-foot gated house is legally owned by a family trust that doesn't include the Bush name, and neither the trust nor the $850,000 loan were disclosed on the personal financial statements Bush has to file to run for office in Texas. George P. Bush is Jeb Bush's eldest son and apparently the lone member of the Bush clan who unabashedly supports President Trump.

George and Amanda Bush are the creators and the beneficiaries of the trust, Bush's campaign said. Under Texas ethics laws, candidates have to disclose a "beneficial interest" in real estate and note any loans of more than $1,000, but the Texas Ethics Commission said it hasn't dealt yet with the Bush "secret mansion" scenario. Bush political director Ash Wright told the Tribune that its reporting is "another absurd fake news story from the liberal media" and explained that "for security reasons, the commissioner used a trust to buy the house to protect his family's address from being publicly listed," citing "death threats."

Root noted that people with military backgrounds like Bush can request that their names be left off county tax rolls by just checking a box on a simple form — which the Bushes did for a rental property, even though the exemption is, by law, only available for a home address. "After the Tribune inquired under freedom of information laws why the rental property's ownership had been deemed confidential," Root says, "the appraisal district abruptly informed Amanda Bush on Feb. 7 that it would rescind the exemption she had applied for — and got — a little over two years ago." Peter Weber

January 10, 2018

Last week, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced he is opening 90 percent of the nation's oil and gas offshore reserves to development, but on Tuesday he said he had taken Florida "off the table," both its Gulf and Atlantic coasts. "Florida is obviously unique," he said after a brief meeting with Gov. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who is expected to run for Senate this year. He explained in a statement that Florida's "coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver."

"The president made it very clear that local voices count," Zinke told reporters Tuesday night. Local voices wanted to know why Florida got a special pass, including several governors of coastal states:

The attorneys general of California and Maryland noted pointedly that their coasts are also economically important national treasures, and Virginia's junior senator weighed in:

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), a longtime critic of offshore drilling who Scott would run against, called Zinke's announcement "a political stunt orchestrated by the Trump administration to help Rick Scott." It's not just Democrats, though; several Republican governors also asked to be exempted from Zinke's drilling expansion — and Scott wasn't one of them, according to the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM).

Florida is politically important, but it's also home to President Trump's favorite coastal escape, the "festering cancerous conflict of interest" Mar-a-Lago, former federal ethics chief Walter Shaub noted in all-caps, advising Zinke, "Go look up 'banana republic.'" Peter Weber

December 26, 2017

Thousands of protesters marched through Lima and across Peru on Monday in protest of President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski's decision Sunday to grant a medical pardon to former President Alberto Fujimori, who was serving 25 years in prison for human rights abuses and corruption. Police responded with tear gas. Kuczynski said in a statement that he made the "especially complex and difficult" decision to pardon Fujimori, 79, and seven other unidentified people on humanitarian grounds, adding, "I am convinced that those of us who consider ourselves democrats cannot allow Alberto Fujimori to die in prison. Justice is not vengeance."

Critics say Kuczynski pardoned Fujimori in exchange for crucial abstentions that allowed him to survive an impeachment vote on Friday. Popular Force (FP), the conservative political party run by Fujimori's children, controls Congress, and daughter Keiko Fujimori — Kuczynski's rival in the 2016 presidential election — had pushed to impeach him over a scandal involving his financial ties to Brazilian construction behemoth Odebrecht; Kenji Fujimori and his FP allies abstained, allowing the impeachment vote to fall short. On Monday, Kenji Fujimori posted a video of himself showing his father the news of his pardon in a hospital, where the elder Fujimori was moved last week after suffering what his doctors say is a potentially fatal heart condition.

Two members of Congress from Kuczynski's party resigned in protest of his pardon, and with 18 percent approval, it's not clear if Kuczynski can weather this new political storm. "I regret Fujimori's humanitarian pardon," tweeted Human Rights Watch's Jose Miguel Vivanco. "Instead of reaffirming that in a state of law there is no special treatment for anyone, the idea that his liberation was a vulgar political negotiation in exchange for Pedro Pablo Kuczynski maintaining power will remain forever." Peter Weber

October 11, 2017
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At the July 20 meeting in the Pentagon that reportedly prompted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to call President Trump a "moron," Trump told the assembled military and national security leaders that he wanted "what amounted to a nearly tenfold increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal," NBC News reported Wednesday, citing "three officials who were in the room." Trump had apparently just been shown a slide charting the decline in the number of America's nuclear weapons since the late 1960s, from about 32,000 nukes to some 4,000 warheads today, and Trump reportedly said he wanted to return to the number America had at its peak.

Tillerson and Trump's other advisers were "surprised" and other officials "rattled by the president's desire for more nuclear weapons and his understanding of other national security issues from the Korean peninsula to Iraq and Afghanistan," NBC News reports, and "officials briefly explained the legal and practical impediments to a nuclear buildup and how the current military posture is stronger than it was at the height of the build-up." No such buildup is planned, NBC News says, but "officials said they are working to address the president's concerns within the Nuclear Posture Review."

On Tuesday, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster warned national security officials they should "realize that speaking to the media about government deliberations is treasonous when it involves national security." As for the leak about the July 20 meeting, "it's unclear which portion of the Pentagon briefing prompted Tillerson to call the president a 'moron' after the meeting broke up and some advisers were gathered around," NBC News says. "Officials who attended the two-hour session said it included a number of tense exchanges." You can read more at NBC News. Peter Weber

September 13, 2017
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After falsely claiming that 3-5 million people voted illegally for his opponent in the 2016 election, President Trump announced his intention in late January to set up a commission to investigate voter fraud, a decision he formalized with an executive order in May. On Feb. 22, a Heritage Foundation employee wrote an email to Attorney General Jeff Sessions saying he'd heard the "disturbing" news that the commission's chairman, Vice President Mike Pence, planned to make the panel bipartisan and urged that only like-minded conservatives be appointed, according to a copy of the email obtained by the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center (CLC) through a freedom-of-information request.

The Justice Department redacted the name of the Heritage Foundation's self-proclaimed vote-fraud expert, but the conservative think tank effectively confirmed to Gizmodo that the author was Hans von Spakovsky, who was later appointed to the commission and is identified by the CLC as "widely considered the architect of the voter fraud myth." At the commission's second public meeting on Tuesday, before Heritage confirmed that Spakovsky wrote the email, Pro Publica's Jessica Huseman asked him "point blank" if he'd "authored this document, he said no." She posted audio of the exchange.

In the email, the Heritage Foundation employee presumed to be Spakovsky argued to Sessions that "there isn't a single Democratic official that will do anything other than obstruct any investigation of voter fraud" and claim that the commission "is engaged in voter suppression," and that "mainstream Republican officials and/or academics" would also make the commission "an abject failure." The author also complained that none of the "real experts on the conservative side" had been appointed "other than Kris Kobach," the committee's vice chairman, Kansas secretary of state, and Breitbart News columnist.

Pence and Kobach eventually appointed seven Republicans and five Democrats to the commission, though one Democrat resigned. But the CLC said that the email adds "to the mounting evidence that the commission has no interest in true bipartisanship or an open discussion of how to solve the real problems in our elections." CLC president Trevor Potter, a former GOP chairman of the Federal Election Commission, said that Kobach's "farcical meetings" continue "to validate the worst suspicions about the commission: that it is designed to shrink the electorate for partisan advantage." He suggested they focus on "a true issue of election integrity" like Russians buying political ads on Facebook.

UPDATE: Spakovsky said in a statement that the email was sent to "private individuals who were not in the administration" and "was unaware that it had been forwarded" to Sessions. He added that he now believes the commission is "committed to uncovering the truth about election integrity and the other issues present in our election system." Peter Weber

August 10, 2017

So, Hillary Clinton got more than 2.8 million more votes than President Trump in the 2016 election (yes, California's votes count), and there is zero evidence of any significant amount of voter fraud, despite Trump's false claims about millions of illegal Clinton voters and the staunch numerical agnosticism of the voter-fraud commission he ordered into being. Still, a new survey from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Yeshiva University found that 47 percent of Republicans said they believe Trump won the popular vote, 68 percent believe that millions of illegal immigrants voted in 2016, and 73 percent said voter fraud happens somewhat or very often.

"This is similar to previous polls," the researchers, Ariel Malka and Yphtach Lelkes, write in The Washington Post. But they took this a step further, asking respondents: "If Donald Trump were to say that the 2020 presidential election should be postponed until the country can make sure that only eligible American citizens can vote, would you support or oppose postponing the election?" Then they asked the same question with the addition that Trump and Republicans in Congress proposed postponing the election together. More than half of Republicans, 52 percent, supported postponing the vote, and 56 said the same thing if the GOP offered the proposal alongside Trump.

This was just a hypothetical question, Malka and Lelkes noted, but "we do not believe that these findings can be dismissed out of hand." They explain:

At a minimum, they show that a substantial number of Republicans are amenable to violations of democratic norms that are more flagrant than what is typically proposed (or studied). And although the ensuing chaos could turn more Republicans against this kind of proposal, it is also conceivable that a high-stakes and polarized debate would do the exact opposite. [The Washington Post]

Hopefully, this particular hypothetical will never be tested. Certainly, it reveals some anxiety about Trump's electoral chances, as well as Republican faith in the integrity of state-run elections. But if you are one of the majority of voters who picked someone else in the 2016 election and are alarmed at Trump's job performance, you might understand the devilish allure of saying yes to postponing an election. Malka and Lelkes surveyed 1,325 Americans, including 650 self-identified Republicans, from June 5-20. Their sample was weighted to match the general population. You can read more at The Washington Post. Peter Weber

July 5, 2017

For the 29th year in a row on Tuesday, NPR hosts, reporters, and commentators read the Declaration of Independence aloud to celebrate the Fourth of July. NPR also tweeted out the founding document, signed 241 years earlier, because not everyone listens to public radio. Some of those people, probably unaware of NPR's July 4 tradition, took some of the tweeted lines the wrong way, presumably mistaking the 1776 resistance against King George III for the "Resistance" opposed to President Trump's policies and agenda.

Others found the whole idea of reading the Declaration of Independence unbalanced, for unexplained reasons. Some of the commenters, when informed of their mistake, gamely took this as a learning experience.

And perhaps one of the lessons from the social media debacle is a reminder of just what a revolutionary declaration Thomas Jefferson wrote and delegates to the Continental Congress risked their lives to sign. Or you could take away the same conclusion Axios' David Nather reached when the Indiana GOP tried to solicit "horror stories" about ObamaCare, and it backfired: "The outcome was predictable, given how the internet works — you're never, ever just reaching like-minded people." Either way, you can read more awkward responses to NPR's attempt at civic engagement at BuzzFeed and HuffPost. Peter Weber

June 15, 2017
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Late Thursday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein issued an unusual statement on anonymous sources, warning Americans to "exercise caution" when reading the news.

People need to think before "accepting as true any stories attributed to anonymous 'officials,' particularly when they do not identify the country — let alone the branch or agency of government — with which the alleged sources supposedly are affiliated," Rosenstein said. "Americans should be skeptical about anonymous allegations. The Department of Justice has a long-established policy to neither confirm nor deny such allegations."

David Cay Johnston, a columnist and author of The Making of Donald Trump, tweeted that The New York Times and The Washington Post both check their stories that use unnamed sources with the Justice Department before they run, and Rosenstein's "bizarre" statement "makes sense if he's channeling/speaking for Trump." Others are wondering if this statement portends a bombshell story coming in the next few days. Catherine Garcia

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