November 21, 2017

The Trump administration is close to naming a Republican professor whose work has been used to support GOP redistricting efforts as deputy head of the Census Bureau, Politico reports. The rumors of Thomas Brunell's impending appointment are concerning to many voting rights advocates because as deputy head, he would not require Senate confirmation and therefore could not be blocked. After the resignation of former Census Director John Thompson in June, and Trump's failure to nominate anyone for permanent director in his wake, Brunell could become the most powerful permanent official in the agency.

If indeed appointed, Brunell's decisions ahead of the 2020 Census would theoretically shape the future of American elections: "There are tons of little things he could be doing to influence what the final count looks like," a former high-ranking official in the Commerce Department explained to Politico. "The ripple effect on reapportionment would be astounding."

What's more, Brunell has little obvious experience for the job, having no background in statistics or in government, as the position's appointees typically do. In addition to a Ph.D. in political science, Brunell is the author of a 2008 book, Redistricting and Representation: Why Competitive Elections are Bad for America. In it, he argues:

…[P]artisan districts packed with like-minded voters actually lead to better representation than ones more evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, because fewer voters in partisan districts cast a vote for a losing candidate. He has also argued that ideologically packed districts should be called "fair districts" and admits that his stance on competitive elections makes him something of an outlier among political scientists, who largely support competitive elections. [Politico]

The former director of the Census-tracking organization Census Project, Terri Ann Lowenthal, said if the rumors of Brunell's appointment are true, "it signals an effort by the administration to politicize the Census. It's very troubling." Read more about Brunell at Politico. Jeva Lange

November 17, 2017
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The Trump Organization and family failed to make inquiries into who was purchasing condos in the Trump Ocean Club International Hotel and Tower in Panama City, instead accepting money from a range of shady clients including members of the Russian mafia and drug cartel money launderers, an NBC News/Reuters investigation found. "I had some customers with questionable backgrounds," said Brazilian real estate salesman Alexandre Ventura Nogueira, who sold hundreds of units in the building beginning in 2006 but now lives as a fugitive due to an unrelated money-laundering scheme. "Nobody ever asked me," Ventura added. "Banks never asked. Developer didn't ask and [the] Trump Organization didn't ask. Nobody ask, 'Who are the customers, where did the money come from?' No, nobody ask."

Former Panamanian financial crimes prosecutor Mauricio Ceballos put it more bluntly, calling the Trump Ocean Club "a vehicle for money laundering."

Although the Trump Organization was not the developer for the building, it did license its brand and it operates the hotel and receives a cut of the condo sales. President Trump continues to make money from the project, earning $13.9 million over the last three years. In the words of Ventura, the Ocean Club was Ivanka Trump's personal "baby." NBC News writes that while there is "no indication that the Trump Organization or members of the Trump family engaged in any illegal activity, or knew of the criminal backgrounds of some of the project's associates," a willingness to turn a blind eye could nevertheless get the Trumps in trouble with U.S. law.

Panama constitutional law professor Miguel Antonio Bernal said there are hundreds of buildings in Panama City like the Trump Ocean Club that are used for money laundering. "There are more than 500 buildings like this," he explained. "But this — the difference of this — is that this has the name of the actual president of the United States." Read the full investigation here. Jeva Lange

November 16, 2017
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Taxpayers are covering the six-figure salaries of at least 10 Justice Department lawyers and paralegals that are working on defenses of President Trump's private businesses, USA Today reports. Government lawyers are working on four lawsuits and making the case that it is not unconstitutional for Trump's businesses to earn money from foreign officials or governments while he is in the White House.

"We've never before had a president who was branded and it's impossible to divorce from that brand," argued Stuart Gerson, who served in the Justice Department under former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. "It's blurring the lines because it's so unusual. I can't think of a precedent where another civil division lawyer has been called on to defend the president under these circumstances."

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has argued in Trump's defense: "It's the responsibility of the Department of Justice to defend the Office of the Presidency in carrying out its activities against charges that are not deemed meritorious," he recently said. "We believe that this is defensible and we've taken the position that our top lawyers' believe is justified."

While Trump is also using private attorneys to defend his businesses from the lawsuits, USA Today calls the "free government attorneys … a bargain," noting that private lawyers cost $500 to $1,000 in Washington, D.C. and New York. Of course, the government attorneys aren't free for taxpayers: There is not an official number from the government on what the legal teams cost, but payroll records put the range between $133,000 and $185,000 a piece. Jeva Lange

November 14, 2017

The Russian foreign ministry made dozens of money transfers in 2016 with memo lines that read "to finance election campaign of 2016," BuzzFeed News reports. The FBI is now reportedly investigating those transactions, which make up a large part of more than 60 suspicious transfers that totaled over $380,000 and went to Russia's embassies around the world, including in Afghanistan and Washington, D.C.

"We had an election and the intelligence community concluded Russia interfered in it," one FBI agent told BuzzFeed News. "How could we not investigate a suspicious financial transaction that contained a memo that said, 'finance election campaign 2016?' Given the climate and what was in that memo line it would be very irresponsible for us not to investigate. It's a good lead."

It is unclear how the money that was transferred was actually used, or if the "election campaign of 2016" is in fact referencing the U.S. election. "Seven nations had federal elections during the span when the funds were sent — including the Duma, Russia's lower house of Parliament, on Sept. 18, 2016," writes BuzzFeed News. "Russian embassies and diplomatic compounds opened polling stations for voters living abroad."

Still, there is plenty of room for intrigue: An unverified dossier alleging ties between President Trump and Moscow makes reference to Russian diplomatic staff "in key cities such as New York, Washington, D.C., and Miami" being rewarded for "relevant assets" with a "'pension' distribution system as cover" that paid out "tens of thousands of dollars," Business Insider's Natasha Bertrand notes. Read the full report, including details of how the memo was discovered, at BuzzFeed News. Jeva Lange

November 6, 2017

Co-working space startup WeWork is launching its first school next fall, with the mildly terrifying ambition of educating students "from birth to death," Bloomberg reports.

Launched in 2010, the $20 billion startup co-founded by Adam and Rebekah Neumann is best known for its trendy rentable desks and beer on tap. Education, though, is something entirely new: "In my book, there's no reason why children in elementary schools can't be launching their own businesses," explained Rebekah Neumann in what has to be one of the year's most easily-answerable questions (because they're 5).

The inaugural "pilot" class of seven students range from 5 to 8 years old, although WeWork eventually wants to run classes featuring students as young as 3 and all the way up to 12th-graders:

The students […] spend one day at a 60-acre farm and the rest of the week in a classroom near the company's Manhattan headquarters, where they get lessons in business from both employees and entrepreneur-customers of WeWork. Neumann, who attended the elite New York City prep school Horace Mann and Cornell University, studying Buddhism and business, said she's "rethinking the whole idea of what an education means" but is "non-compromising" on academic standards. [Bloomberg]

Still, critics have suggested that the WeWork school model for "conscious entrepreneurship" more or less ruins childhood. The "very instrumental approach [to learning], essentially encouraging kids to monetize their ideas, at that age, is damaging," said Samuel Abrams, the director of Columbia University's National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education. "You're sucking the joy out of education at a time when kids should just be thinking about things like how plants grow and why there are so many species."

The Neumanns eventually want to expand the schools into a global network called WeGrow (not to be confused with the "Wal-Mart of Weed"). Read more about WeWork's education ambitions at Bloomberg. Jeva Lange

November 3, 2017
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Jared Kushner recently voluntarily turned over campaign documents, including any materials related to conversations with Russians, to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, people familiar with the actions of President Trump's son-in-law told CNN. The documents are apparently similar to the batch Kushner gave Senate Intelligence Committee investigators in July, although at the time the committee responded by saying they were "concerned" by omissions, including potentially relevant material in Kushner's private email account, Politico reports. Kushner's lawyer said in September that the email account has already been searched.

Although White House insiders told CNN that Kushner is not a target in Mueller's investigation, Kushner's actions "signal that Mueller's investigators are reaching the president's inner circle and have extended beyond the 2016 campaign to actions taken at the White House by high-level officials."

Kushner was present at the meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer who promised dirt on Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign. He also reportedly encouraged, or at least supported, Trump's decision to fire former FBI Director James Comey. Prior to Mueller's appointment, the FBI had already been investigating Kushner's actions as part of the Trump campaign and transition team.

On a Tuesday phone call with former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, Trump reportedly blamed Kushner for Mueller's advancing investigation. Jeva Lange

November 2, 2017

Over the past year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has struggled to recall the specifics of his interactions with Russian agents during the 2016 election. In June, for example, Sessions said it was "possible" he had spoken with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at the Mayflower Hotel in April 2016 — but if it had happened, he couldn't "recall" it. A photo released later clearly placed the pair together at the hotel.

On Thursday, Sessions proved once again that he was befuddled by what may or may not have happened during the Trump campaign:

Special Counsel Robert Mueller's indictment of former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos earlier this week alleged that Papadopoulos attempted to set up a meeting between the Republican candidate and Russian President Vladimir Putin. As CNN points out, "an Instagram picture on Trump's account shows Sessions attended the meeting at which Papadopoulos made the suggestion." Trump didn't shoot down the idea, but Sessions allegedly did, a person in the room told CNN.

"This new revelation is significant because Sessions told Congress under oath in June that he had 'no knowledge' of any conversations by anyone connected to the Trump campaign about 'any type of interference with any campaign' by Russians," NBC News reports. A Senate aide told CNN that Sessions could even be required to testify again in order to clarify what happened.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) asserted Thursday that "Jeff Sessions concealed his meetings with the Russians and he had an obligation to be more forthcoming about meetings that involved Papadopoulos." Jeva Lange

October 27, 2017
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Two of President Trump's former campaign aides were locked in a duel with each other to win a massive lobbying contract with a pair of Turkish businessmen — including one with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin — during the lead-up to the election, Reuters reports.

Former CIA Director James Woolsey met with Turkish businessmen Ekim Alptekin and Sezgin Baran Korkmaz eight days before joining the Trump campaign to pitch the pair on a $10 million contract with him and his wife, Nancye Miller, that would have aimed to discredit a Pennsylvania-based cleric who has been a thorn in the side of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Alptekin had separately agreed to a $600,000 contract with Trump adviser (and later, briefly, national security adviser) Michael Flynn to research the cleric, Fethullah Gulen; that contract is now under investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Alptekin was found to have business ties in Russia, including ones directly linked to Putin himself, Politico writes, adding that "the revelation of Russian business ties to the man who hired Flynn threatens to complicate the White House's struggle to escape the shadow of the FBI investigation into whether members of the Trump campaign coordinated with Russian agents."

In the September 2016 meeting just before joining the campaign, "Miller said she and Woolsey were in a better position than Flynn to influence decision-makers about Gulen's alleged role in the [failed 2016 Turkish] coup, according to Alptekin and two other people familiar with the discussion," Reuters writes. Among Miller and Woolsey's proposed strategies: a plan to loop in Jeff Sessions — now Trump's attorney general — to author an article about Turkey. Jeva Lange

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