Cabinet official brags that no one protested Trump in Saudi Arabia, where protesting is illegal

Judd Legum [thinkprogress.com]

On the one hand, it’s a police state. On the other hand, they gave him a lot of dates.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

In a Monday morning appearance on CNBC, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross touted that, during President Trump’s visit Saudi Arabia, “there was not a single hint of a protester anywhere there during the whole time we were there.”

Pressed by the anchor, Becky Quick, that the lack of protests could be attributable to Saudi Arabia being a police state where protesting is banned, Ross brushed it off.

“The mood was a genuinely good mood,” Ross said. As proof he offered that Saudi state security personnel gave him “two gigantic bushels of dates,” which Ross said was “a from-the-heart, genuine gesture.”

A recent study by Human Rights Watch found that Saudi Arabia “continued arbitrary arrests, trials, and convictions of peaceful dissidents.” According to the report, in 2015, “over a dozen prominent activists convicted on charges arising from their peaceful activities were serving prison sentences.”

One dissident, Waleed Abu al-Khair, is serving “a 15-year sentence imposed by Saudi Arabia’s terrorism court that convicted him in 2014 on charges stemming solely from his peaceful criticism in media interviews and on social media of human rights abuses.”

Another writer, Zuhair Kutbi, was jailed after “he discussed peaceful reform proposals in a TV interview.”

Other protesters have been sentenced to death:

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Saudi courts have sentenced two men to death and five others to long prison terms after trials that made a mockery of due process. Authorities charged all seven following protests by members of the Shia minority in 2011 and 2012 in Eastern Province towns that resulted in hundreds of arrests.

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Ross’ comments were eerily reminiscent of comments by the Saudi ambassador to the UN, Abdallah al Mouallimi, who insisted that if you ask the Saudi people, they would overwhelmingly support their government.

Reminded by anchor Al Jazeera host Mehdi Hasan that advocating for a change in government is illegal, Al-Mouallimi just repeated his point.

Trump himself has attacked the activities of protesters in the United States, calling their activities after the election “unfair.” In a court filing, Trump’s lawyers argued that protesters have “no right” to express dissent at his campaign rallies.

Judd Legum

Editor-In-Chief, ThinkProgress

Great news: Mexico offers to pay for Trump’s impeachment

By  [timesunion.com]

Marking a potentially big turnaround in rocky U.S.-Mexico relations, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto on Wednesday offered to pay for President Trump’s impeachment instead of a $21.6 billion border wall separating the two nations.

“We would pay for the ‘whole enchilada,’” Peña Nieto told reporters on the steps of the National Palace in Mexico City. “Impeachment is far cheaper than a border wall, and frankly, no one will want an expensive border wall after Trump’s gone, anyway.”

Budget deficit hawks and even some GOP leaders welcomed Peña Nieto’s offer, which comes amid growing calls for Trump’s impeachment for his part in a series of scandals that has rocked Washington and plunged the White House into chaos.

“While the cost of impeachment is just a drop in the bucket of the multi-trillion dollar federal budget, every little bit helps,” said Sen. John McCain, effusively praising the Mexican financial offer at a news conference. “And it’s time to get this idiot out of office anyway.”

The latest scandal broke Tuesday with reports that Trump allegedly asked former FBI director James Comey to end the criminal investigation into Trump’s then national security advisor, Michael Flynn. Trump’s behavior fueled accusations the White House obstructed justice, a potentially impeachable offense. On Monday, news broke that Trump may have leaked highly classified information to Russian spies in the Oval Office, prompting calls from Democrats and even some Republicans for an independent prosecutor into Trump’s potential wrongdoing.

The GOP has indicated it would not include money for Trump’s border wall in its fiscal 2017 budget, and the Department of Homeland Security has estimated that the 1,250 mile series of walls and fences pushed by Trump would cost as much as $21.6 billion. In contrast, the most recent U.S. impeachment, of former President Clinton, added up to about $80 million, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Mexico’s timely offer could bring a much-needed thaw in U.S.-Mexico relations, which iced up after Trump’s insistence — during the 2016 presidential campaign — that America’s southern neighbor bear the full cost of a wall to block out Mexican rapists, murderers and drug pushers. Mexico’s refusal to pay prompted Trump to threaten to retaliate with a border tax on Mexican imports to cover the wall’s cost.

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Inside an embattled Trump’s most consequential evening of turmoil yet

Washington (CNN)  No one inside the West Wing had to ask how the President’s mood was on Wednesday afternoon as aides awaited his return from delivering the commencement address to the Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut.

The speech, once intended to offer encouragement and inspiration, became laced with grievances in the hours before the remarks were delivered.
“No politician in history — and I say this with great surety — has been treated worse or more unfairly,” President Donald Trump told graduating ensigns, before projecting an entrenched battle to come.
“Don’t give in,” he said. “Don’t back down.”
Hours later, his words appeared to gain new meaning.
Trump and his aides received less than an hour’s notice Wednesday before the Justice Department announced it was bringing in Robert Mueller, an ex-FBI director, as a special counsel to take over the investigation into Russia’s election meddling. It was the third straight day this week that brought deeply damaging news to an increasingly beleaguered commander-in-chief.
When he learned of the development, Trump himself was in the middle of interviewing candidates for the FBI director post, which is vacant because he fired the last person leading the Russia probe. A half-dozen advisers — led by his White House counsel, who first informed him of the decision — crowded into the Oval Office to plot a response.
It was a blindside that will substantially escalate the investigation into the Trump campaign’s dealings with Russia. It’s also another reminder to an increasingly besieged President of the limitations on his own power, even within the executive branch.
“As I have stated many times, a thorough investigation will confirm what we already know — there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity,” Trump declared in a crisp, 57-word statement released 80 minutes after news emerged of the Justice Department’s decision, which aides say he dictated from the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office.
“I look forward to this matter concluding quickly,” said Trump, who continued his FBI interviews even as news of the special prosecutor became public. “In the meantime, I will never stop fighting for the people and the issues that matter most to the future of our country.”
The White House Wednesday night was aiming for a measured response to Mueller’s appointment and ended the night relatively pleased at the muted approach they believed the President put forward.
But that clearly dissipated by Thursday morning.
“With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special (counsel) appointed!” the President complained on Twitter.  He added, “This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!”

Containing the fallout

As the President was meeting with four finalists for the suddenly vacant FBI post Wednesday, some aides hoped a quick decision could help turn the corner on another week that had already become one of the toughest of his nascent presidency.
Those hopes were dashed by news of the special prosecutor, which was ordered by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in a letter Wednesday.
As the President held brief conversations with the FBI contenders, word reached the White House counsel’s office on the second floor of the West Wing that the order had been signed.
The President wasn’t asked. He was told.
“It’s still sinking in,” one administration official said, describing an air of uncertainty in the West Wing. “We were told about it. Not asked about it.”
The surprise announcement frustrated Trump, according to his aides, who have now spent the past three evenings seeking to contain the fallout from a series of rapid-pace headlines that further complicate the ties between the President and Russia.
Inside the West Wing, staffers again clambered for a response. Only two days ago, press secretary Sean Spicer insisted there was no use for a special counsel.
“There’s, frankly, no need for a special prosecutor,” he told reporters Monday.
The terse statement Wednesday was issued under the President’s name, the only comment of the evening. Trump and his chief of staff Reince Priebus gathered staff to bolster the mood, according to one senior White House official.
“Let them do their thing and we will do ours,” one official said in describing the message in the meeting. “We’re all in this together.”
But elsewhere, signs of fresh chaos were emerging.
Advisers planning Trump’s first foreign trip, which begins Friday, canceled scheduled briefings on the matter to avoid having reporters milling about the West Wing. Vice President Mike Pence roared away in his motorcade.
Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s senior counselor who had been scheduled for an appearance on Fox News, abruptly canceled.
“It does seem a little chaotic over there, I gotta be honest with you,” said her would-be interviewer Tucker Carlson, a frank admission from a host who regularly defends the administration.
Into the night, the White House struggled to contain its frustration. Senior advisers told junior aides to focus on their work and compartmentalize the latest round of drama, which now the West Wing has even less control over.
The President and those around him saw again Wednesday night the limits of his own executive authority, a feeling presidents before him have bemoaned and he has witnessed multiple times in his four months in office.
One aide described the mood in two words: “Chaotically dark.”
‘Enjoy your life’
As for the President, his foul mood has only persisted, even as he approaches the major endurance test of an eight-day foreign swing to five countries.
People close to Trump say he remains angry and frustrated with his staff. Rumors of a shakeup — which have shadowed the White House since the day Trump took office — only increased in volume as the barrage of bad news continued.
Trump continues to strain the patience and emotions of his underlings, who find themselves struggling to understand the impulsive and often self-damaging behavior of their boss.
The frustrations extend beyond the White House. One senior GOP source — who has been in regular contact with Rosenstein, who helped execute the Comey firing, but Wednesday signed the order naming a special counsel — said the deputy attorney general had become angry and exasperated with the Trump White House over their handling of the Comey matter.
Rosenstein, who was so upset after last week’s proceedings that he was “talking about packing his bags,” is throwing Trump “overboard” with this special counsel, the source suggested.
Meanwhile, at the White House, staffers say they’re exhausted after a week of arrows.
“It’s just been three days straight of these 5:45 pm announcements,” one aide said.
Trump has sought to mask any strain during his increasingly rare public appearances.
He emerged from his White House residence with a smile early Wednesday, blissfully ignoring reporters who shouted questions at him as he made his way across a sun-drenched South Lawn toward the Marine One helicopter.
Flying to Connecticut to deliver his first commencement address to a US military academy — a yearly tradition all presidents generally fulfill — Trump was accompanied by a collection of aides he’s openly considering firing.
His remarks, which wavered between doses of inspiration for the young graduates and angry screeds on his rivals, previewed a coming battle.
“You have to put your head down and fight, fight, fight,” he declared, before ending his remarks with advice he likely wishes he could take himself.
“Enjoy your life,” he said.

Sheriff Clarke Joins the Trump Administration

As indictments loom over Milwaukee County Jail after a high-profile death in custody, the county’s controversial sheriff is moving into a role in the Department of Homeland Security.

MATT FORD [theatlantic.com]

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

David Clarke, the controversial sheriff of Wisconsin’s Milwaukee County and a conservative media darling, is joining the Trump administration as an assistant secretary in the Department of Homeland Security. Clarke announced the move in a local radio interview Wednesday afternoon.

The hiring comes as public scrutiny of the jail he oversees in Milwaukee reaches a fever pitch. There are about 3,200 county jails in the United States, but few have drawn as much recent attention as the one he supervises. Four inmates died while in its custody last year, and another sued the jail after her baby died shortly after birth. But local prosecutors have focused their attention on the fate of Terrill Thomas, one of the four, who died of dehydration in solitary confinement. He was 38 years old.

Investigators probing Thomas’s April 2016 death soon discovered it came after jail officials cut off water access to his cell for seven days. What followed was a flurry of legal activity against the jail’s leadership. His family filed a federal lawsuit against Clarke and the jail in March, alleging that Thomas had been “subjected to a form of torture” by being denied water. An inquest jury said Monday there was probable cause to charge seven jail officials, including two supervisors, with felony neglect of a prisoner. Clarke was not among them, but District Attorney John Chisholm told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that he could charge more or fewer officials than what the jury recommends.

News outlets previously reported that the Trump administration was considering Clarke to lead the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Partnership and Engagement. In that role, as an assistant secretary, he would be the department’s top liaison with the more than 18,000 local law-enforcement agencies throughout the country. Fortunately for Clarke, the post wouldn’t require Senate approval, sparing him from what would likely be a contentious confirmation battle about any role he may have had in the jail-neglect case. The White House acknowledged move to HuffPost shortly after Clarke’s announcement.

Clarke built his brand not on policing, per se, but on politics. He’ll now have the chance to operate in a more political realm, and at the same time extricate himself from a growing scandal at the jail he runs. Despite that turmoil, Clarke’s ascendancy into the Trump administration isn’t necessarily a surprise. With the defeat of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in last November’s election in Arizona, Clarke is now the most prominent conservative sheriff in the country—and the most controversial.

His rigid conservative views, as well as his outspokenness in sharing them, made the Wisconsin sheriff a popular guest on conservative media outlets in recent years. Amid increased public scrutiny of law-enforcement agencies—scrutiny Trump administration officials actively oppose—a black conservative sheriff condemning the Black Lives Matter movement on Fox News was a potent image.

Clarke’s opining often went beyond policing issues: On his podcast, he referred to Planned Parenthood as “Planned Genocide” and American higher education as “a racketeering ring.” But his most frequent target is criminal-justice reform—an issue that’s increasingly popular on both the left and the right, but one that’s been dismissed by Clarke as “utterly destructive to the rule of law and public safety.” In one notable instance, his analysis repeated racist tropes about African Americans. “Let me tell you why blacks sell drugs and involve themselves in criminal behavior instead of a more socially acceptable lifestyle — because they’re uneducated, they’re lazy, and they’re morally bankrupt,” Clarke told Glenn Beck in a 2015 interview.

Clarke hasn’t backed down from his draconian approach toward those under his jurisdiction in the jail.

Left-leaning activist groups receive most of his ire, and his language toward them often veers into the eschatological. In a speech at the Republican National Convention last summer where he endorsed Trump, he compared the Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street movements to “anarchy” and described protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore as “the collapse of the social order.” The previous year, he predicted that Black Lives Matter would “join forces with ISIS” to destroy the American government. Clarke’s antipathy toward protest movements apparently extends only to those on the left: In a tweet one month before the November election, Clarke described the federal government and media as “corrupt” and said it was “pitchforks and torches time.”

Ironically, despite his national profile as a tough-talking lawman, Clarke’s law-enforcement responsibilities as sheriff of Milwaukee County are fairly limited. The sheriff’s department is a law-enforcement agency, but virtually all of the day-to-day policing in his county is performed by the Milwaukee Police Department. Clarke served on that police force for almost three decades, including as a detective on the city’s homicide squad. His current portfolio is more administrative than investigative, but as Maurice Chammah noted in a 2016 profile for this magazine, the sheriff’s exercise of his office has still drawn criticism:

Traditionally, Clarke’s department has investigated a small number of crimes, patrolled the county’s highways and parks, managed security at the courthouse and airport, and run the county’s two jails, [the Milwaukee County Jail] downtown for pretrial detainees and one south of the city for those serving their sentences. Previously, a county-executive appointee ran the latter—the Milwaukee House of Correction—until 2008, when a federal report found it was plagued by security and safety problems. As a result, Clarke was granted control. He was initially lauded for revamping the jail and overcoming a deficit that ran into the millions—all in just a few months.

But over the next five years, the praise disappeared as Clarke eliminated nearly all programs for prisoners (except a boot camp) and woke prisoners up with bullhorns. He was a proponent of “nutraloaf,” a mix of chicken, biscuit mix, vegetables, and beans served to inmates being disciplined. After one inmate sued, saying that a rancid nutraloaf meal caused him to vomit so much he lost 14 pounds in 19 days, an insurance company settled on the food manufacturer’s behalf. In 2013, the county board moved to take back control of the facility. Clarke in turn sued them but lost. Since then, the county has increased job-training and GED programs in the jail, and those who finish their sentences are enrolled in health care through the Affordable Care Act; the jail is one of the first in the country to do so.

Clarke hasn’t backed down from his draconian approach toward those under his jurisdiction in the jail. In statements to reporters about the Thomas family lawsuit, the sheriff directed attention to Thomas’s alleged criminal activities. It’s worth noting that because he died in jail custody before a trial, Thomas wasn’t convicted of those offenses in a court of law.

“I have nearly 1,000 inmates. I don’t know all their names but is this the guy who was in custody for shooting up the Potawatomi Casino, causing one man to be hit by gunfire [and] while in possession of a firearm by a career convicted felon?” Clarke told the Associated Press in March. “The media never reports that in stories about him. If that is him, then at least I know who you are talking about.” He did not address the history of psychiatric issues described by Thomas’s family in their lawsuit.

One can see echoes of Trump’s combative approach to controversy in Clarke’s words: a hyperfocus on alleged criminal misconduct by others, thinly veiled insinuations of media bias, the sidestepping of personal accountability. The degree to which elements of that approach affected Milwaukee County Jail’s operations is unclear. But it would seem to make Clarke a natural fit for an administration that also views the world, and especially the justice system, in stark and uncompromising terms.

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Report: Russian bank whose CEO met secretly with Jared Kushner helped finance Trump’s Toronto hotel

 [businessinsider.com]

From left: Donald Trump Jr., Donald Trump, Ivanka Trump, and Eric Trump. Mike Cassese/Reuters

A Russian state-owned bank under US sanctions, whose CEO met with President Donald Trump’s son-in-law in December, helped financed the construction of the president’s 65-story Trump International Hotel and Tower in Toronto, according to a new report.

The bank, Vnesheconombank, or VEB, bought $850 million of stock in a Ukrainian steelmaker from the billionaire Russian-Canadian developer Alexander Shnaider, who was constructing the hotel at the time, The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday.

Shnaider initially purchased the stock via his company, Midland Resources Holding, for about $70 million after the collapse of the Soviet Union, according to The Journal.

The money from the sale of that stock to VEB — which The Journal said went through while Russian President Vladimir Putin was chairman of VEB’s supervisory board — was used to help finance the construction of the Toronto hotel “at a key moment for the project.”

From the Journal:

“After Mr. Shnaider and his partner sold their stake in the steelmaker, Mr. Shnaider injected more money into the Trump Toronto project, which was financially troubled. Mr. Shnaider’s lawyer, Symon Zucker, said in an April interview that about $15 million from the asset sale went into the Trump Toronto project. A day later, he wrote in an email: ‘I am not able to confirm that any funds’ from the deal ‘went into the Toronto project.'”

Zucker did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Business Insider. But he told The Journal that Midland Resources “has never had any relationship with VEB” and “does not dictate where their purchasers borrow funds.”

Toronto police place construction cones around the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Toronto, Ontario, in March 2012. Hyungwon Kang/Reuters

The Trump Organization has distanced itself from the Toronto project, which faced financial difficulties last year. The organization “merely licensed its brand and manages the hotel and residences,” it told The Journal in a statement.

The project was initially a joint venture between Trump and Shnaider, who approached Trump in 2004 asking to license the Trump name for the 65-story tower. Trump said at the time that he would “manage the hotel’s operations,” according to The Journal, while Shnaider and his business partner, Val Levitan, would focus on the development.

Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a top White House adviser, met with the Vnesheconombank CEO Sergey Gorkov in December, The New York Times reported in late March. Putin appointed Gorkov in January 2016 as part of a restructuring of the bank’s management team, according to Bloomberg.

At the time, Kushner was trying to find investors for an office building on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

Hope Hicks, a White House spokeswoman, told The Times that Gorkov and Kushner didn’t discuss the Kushner Tower project, and a White House official said in a statement that Kushner met with Gorkov as part of his role as “the official primary point of contact with foreign governments and officials.”

But the meeting was reportedly orchestrated by Russia’s ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak, who also met with Kushner in December, and itcaught the eye of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has invited Kushner to testify about his meetings with Gorkov and Kislyak. The committee is investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and whether any members of Trump’s campaign colluded with Russian officials.

Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper appeared to signal during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month that the intelligence community was scrutinizing Trump’s business ties to Russia.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the Judiciary subcommittee on crime and terror, asked Clapper if he ever found “a situation where a Trump business interest in Russia” gave him “concern.”

“Not in the course of the preparation of the intelligence community’s assessment,” Clapper said.

Graham pressed Clapper on whether he had ever come across such a situation, to which Clapper replied, “I can’t comment on that because that impacts an investigation.”

As Trump praised and defended Putin along the campaign trail, many questioned whether the real-estate mogul had any financial incentives — including business ties or outstanding debt — to seek better relations with Moscow.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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