"I wish circumstances were different and I didn't feel the need to make public remarks today," said Walter Shaub, the director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics (OGE), to begin his address Wednesday at the Brookings Institute about government ethics and why President-elect Donald Trump should take them more seriously. "You don't hear about ethics when things are going well. You've been hearing a lot about ethics lately." Trump had laid out his plan to distance himself from his business interests to avoid conflicts earlier in the day, and Shaub said that plan is "wholly inadequate." "Nothing short of divestiture will resolve these conflicts," he explained.
The point of speaking publicly about the fixable ethics shortcomings of the incoming administration, Shaub said, is to defend the post-Watergate ethics structure built to safeguard the public good and to urge Trump to change course. "I've been pursuing this issue because the ethics program starts at the top," he said, and it is hard to persuade other officials to comply if the president does not.
And he's been trying to get his message to Trump, particularly. He started with some tweets, Shaub said, because "I was trying to use the vernacular of the president-elect's favorite social media platform to encourage him to divest." His speech on Wednesday included Biblical scripture, an appeal to patriotism, and the advice of Trump's favorite Supreme Court justice, Antonin Scalia:
Back when he was working for the Justice Department, the late Antonin Scalia also wrote an opinion declaring that a president should avoid engaging in conduct prohibited by the government's ethics regulations, even if they don't apply. Justice Scalia warned us that there would be consequences if a president ever failed to adhere to the same standards that apply to lower level officials. [Shaub, Brookings Institute]
At Trump's press conference, his conflicts-of-interest lawyer, Sheri Dillon, had noted that "the conflicts of interest laws simply do not apply to the president or the vice president and they are not required to separate themselves from their financial assets." That's true. But as Shaub noted: "The sheer obviousness of Justice Scalia's words becomes apparent if you just ask yourself one question: Should a president hold himself to a lower standard than his own appointees?" The jury is still out. Watch below. Peter Weber
If you ask President Trump, Canada has decided to stop being polite and start getting real, and is sticking it to America in the form of cheap softwood.
As Seth Meyers explained on Thursday's Late Night, a fight is potentially brewing between the U.S. and Canada over dairy farmers and lumberjacks, "which sounds like a Canadian romance novel." Canada is being accused of undercutting U.S. dairy farmers and lumber suppliers, and the U.S. retaliated by putting a tariff on Canadian softwood lumber exports. Trump claims that Canada has been "rough" with the U.S. for years, but as Meyers sees it, the worst thing the country has ever done isn't artificially lower the price of lumber, but rather attempt "to pass off ham as bacon." It sounds like maybe that bajillion dollar wall should go to the border up north instead. Catherine Garcia
Trump says he really wanted to 'terminate' NAFTA, threatens to end U.S.-South Korea trade pact instead
Spurred on by chief strategist Stephen Bannon and trade adviser Peter Navarro, President Trump was eager to announce he's triggering a U.S. exit from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) at a rally on Saturday, his 100th day in office, Trump told reporters Thursday night. "I was all set to terminate," he told The Washington Post. "I looked forward to terminating. I was going to do it." He has said publicly that phone calls from Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau changed his mind.
"They called me up, they said, 'Could we try negotiating?'" Trump explained. "I said, 'Absolutely, yes.' If we can't come to a satisfactory conclusion, we'll terminate NAFTA." He told The Wall Street Journal that he told Peña Nieto he'd have to "think about it," but after Trudeau called a half an hour later, he decided "they're serious about it and I will negotiate rather than terminate." Trump's senior advisers say the president had already decided not to pull the plug before he spoke with the Canadian and Mexican leaders, dissuaded by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue, adviser Jared Kushner, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce members.
Purdue made his case with a map of areas that would be affected by pulling out of NAFTA, many of them "Trump country" agricultural and manufacturing belts. "It shows that I do have a very big farmer base, which is good," Trump told The Washington Post. "They like Trump, but I like them, and I'm going to help them." He still took some persuading, Trump said, recounting that at one point he turned to Kushner and asked, "Was I ready to terminate NAFTA?" Kushner said yes.
With NAFTA safe for now, and Trump eager to reassure his nationalist-minded supporters before the 100 day mark, Trump took aim at another free trade deal Thursday night, calling the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (Korus) with South Korea "a horrible deal," adding, "We're getting destroyed in Korea." He called the deal, ratified in 2011, "a Hillary Clinton disaster" that "should've never been made," and noted that unlike NAFTA, if he withdraws from the deal, it will terminate immediately, not in six months. "We've told them that we'll either terminate or negotiate," Trump told The Washington Post. Trump also said he wanted to charge Seoul about $1 billion for using the U.S. THAAD missile-defense system, an idea South Korea rejected. Peter Weber
NRA members planning on attending President Trump's speech at the association's annual conference Friday in Atlanta are being asked to leave their guns at home.
Under federal law, the Secret Service can keep guns out of sites being visited by protected people, even in states with open carry laws, and such a restriction is extremely common for any event where the president is speaking. In a statement to CNN, the Secret Service said that "individuals determined to be carrying firearms will not be allowed past a predetermined outer perimeter checkpoint, regardless of whether they possess a ticket to the event." The NRA said that lawfully carried firearms will be permitted in every other area of the conference, being held this year at Georgia World Congress Center. Catherine Garcia
As he approaches his 100th day in office, President Trump is feeling nostalgic, fondly remembering his days before having the nuclear codes, when he spent his time firing people on television and eating well done steaks in Manhattan restaurants.
"I loved my previous life," he told Reuters in an interview Thursday. "This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier." When he was just a New York businessman with a penchant for gold furnishings, he was used to not having any privacy, but he told Reuters he still isn't quite used to having Secret Service agents with him at all times. "You're really into your own little cocoon," he said, "because you have such massive protection that you really can't go anywhere." That includes getting behind the wheel. "I like to drive," he said. "I can't drive any more." There are a few things from his past life he still gets to do — play golf, tweet at all hours of the day, and visit his private club in Palm Beach, Mar-a-Lago, where he has spent half of his weekends as president.
Although Trump did take some time during the interview to rehash the election results — passing out a map to Reuters reporters that showed the areas he won in red — he also looked ahead. He's not going to attend the White House Correspondents' Dinner this weekend because he thinks the media has been treating him unfairly, but that won't stop him from attending it in 2018. "I would come next year," he said. "Absolutely." Catherine Garcia
On Thursday night, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to issue a stay of execution for Arkansas death row inmate Kenneth Williams, 38, clearing the way for his execution before midnight. Williams is the fourth and apparently final inmate Arkansas will put to death before its supply of one of three lethal-injection drugs expires at the end of April. Originally, Gov. Asa Hutchinson had scheduled eight executions, two at a time, over 11 days; courts have stayed four of them. Williams had been scheduled for execution at 7 p.m., but Arkansas had postponed it pending word from the Supreme Court.
(UPDATE: Williams was pronounced dead at 11:05 p.m. local time, after the lethal injection regime was administered starting at 10:52 p.m., according to prison officials.)
Lawyers for Williams and Harvard Law School's Fair Punishment Project had appealed his execution by arguing that the previous executions had been flawed and left the inmates suffering as they died, and also that Williams is developmentally disabled. Lawyers for the state told the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals that while Williams has "low average" intelligence, he did not cooperate with the doctors testing his mental capacity. Williams was convicted of murdering two people and later confessed to a third murder, and when he escaped from prison, he killed a fourth person when his getaway car slammed into a water truck. Peter Weber
If Congress is unable to pass a bill to fund the government by a Saturday morning deadline, it won't be that big of a deal, President Trump told Reuters in an interview Thursday.
"We'll see what happens," he said. "If there's a shutdown, there's a shutdown." Unless a bill is passed by 12:01 a.m. ET Saturday, the government will have to temporarily lay off hundreds of thousands of federal workers, which Trump admits would be a "very negative thing."
On Wednesday, the GOP introduced a bill that keeps the government afloat for another week, which would give Republicans and Democrats more time to negotiate a plan that funds the government through Sept. 30. Trump told Reuters his administration is prepared for a shutdown, and if it does take place, it will be the Democrats' fault. Catherine Garcia
Experts in financial crime from the United States Postal Inspection Service are now involved in the Justice Department's investigation of Fox News, several people with information on the matter told CNN Thursday.
The USPIS looks into mail fraud and wire fraud cases, and over the past few weeks, investigators have been interviewing former Fox News staffers, inquiring about managers and their business practices, CNN's Brian Stelter reports. In February, it was reported that the Justice Department was investigating Fox News, and at the time, they were said to be focusing on the settlements made with women who accused former Fox News boss Roger Ailes of sexual harassment, and whether shareholders needed to know about the agreements.
Now, CNN reports, investigators are also examining possible misconduct by Fox News personnel, specifically asking about people known as "friends of Roger," who were loyal to Ailes. They were employed by Fox News as consultants for unknown purposes, and one sent Fox News a monthly invoice for $10,000, CNN reports. 21st Century Fox declined to comment. Catherine Garcia