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Daily Reads: Did Jeff Sessions Hide Another Russian Contact?; Trump Business Conflicts May Shape Policy

A roundup of stories we're reading at BillMoyers.com HQ...

Did Sessions Conceal Another Contact With Russian Officials?

US Attorney General Jeff Sessions arrives for an event at the Justice Department May 12, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

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Another “forgotten” meeting? –> CNN is reporting that congressional investigators are looking into what may be a third undisclosed contact between Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the campaign. Sessions failed to disclose two other meetings with Kislyak during his confirmation hearings and then later on his application for a security clearance.

According to The Guardian, Nigel Farage, the former leader of Britain’s far-right UKIP party and big-time Brexit advocate, is a “person of interest” in the FBI’s investigation because of his ties to both Trump and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. According to the report, Farage may have information relevant to the case but “has not been accused of wrongdoing.”

Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, cleared former FBI director James Comey to testify before congressional investigators next week. Eric Lichtbau reports for CNN that Comey plans to “confirm bombshell accusations that… Trump pressured him to end his investigation into a top Trump aide’s ties to Russia.”

Meanwhile, White House spokesman Sean Spicer announced on Wednesday that he and his colleagues would no longer take any questions from reporters about the biggest story of Trump’s presidency. According to The Hill’s John Bowden, Spicer directed that all future questions related to Russia be directed at Trump’s attorneys. Leaving it to the lawyers may not be a bad strategy given that a Monmouth poll released yesterday found that more respondents believe Spicer’s communication work hurts the president (42 percent) than say it helps (28 percent). But more than six in 10 say “Trump does more to hurt his own cause when he speaks on behalf of the administration.”

One question Spicer may not want to answer is why the White House “is moving toward handing back to Russia two diplomatic compounds, near New York City and on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, that its officials were ejected from in late December as punishment for Moscow’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.” Karen DeYoung and Adam Entous report for The Washington Post that the administration had linked the return of the properties to a concession from Moscow on a US consulate in St. Petersburg, but then reversed course.

(Pro-Trump) media consolidation –> Craig Aaron writes at In Other Words that Trump’s “Federal Communications Commission is paving the way for Sinclair Broadcast Group — already the nation’s largest TV conglomerate — to take over Tribune, which owns 42 stations in many of the country’s big cities.” Aaron adds that Sinclair is “notorious for slipping right-wing views and Republican talking points into its newscasts,” and argues that the “deal would have been unthinkable in any other administration” but “Trump’s FCC is actually rewriting the rules to make it happen.”

Why we fight –> With Republicans overseeing two understaffed congressional probes into “the Russia thing,” and Mueller tasked with investigating potential crimes, there is at present no credible, independent investigation into the broader Russian influence campaign, elements of which might have been improper but nonetheless legal. That’s the backdrop for this weekend’s #MarchforTruth, the next big test of the anti-Trump resistance. On Saturday, concerned citizens in up to 140 cities will call for a bipartisan commission to be established – modeled on the 9/11 Commission – for Trump to release his tax returns and for any crimes that might be uncovered to be prosecuted. At The Nation, Joshua Holland has the story of how three friends on Twitter who had zero experience in organizing got the ball rolling.

Connecting some dots –> Yesterday, we recommended a piece by Max Boot about Trump heaping praise on Philippine strongman Rodrigo Duterte. Following up on that piece, Brian Klaas writes at USA Today that as Trump praised “Duterte’s death squads in the Philippines, Trump Tower Manila is going up.” Klass mentions Trump’s “adoration for authoritarian” leaders in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, and concludes that “staggering conflicts of interest that directly link Trump’s bank account to despots around the world are already transforming U.S. foreign policy.”

Speaking of family businesses, David Kocieniewski, Wenxin Fan and David Levitt report for Bloomberg that real estate moguls Charles and Murray Kushner, Jared Kushner’s father and uncle, respectively, have been feuding for years, “but one thing now unites the brothers: Both have had projects promoted to Chinese investors by playing the White House card.” Neither Trump nor Jared have any direct relationship with the projects in question. According to the report, “Jared and the president have been accused of using their offices to promote their family businesses. Now the extended and estranged branch of the family seems to have joined in.”

Another story that does involve Jared directly comes to us from Washington Post’s Shawn Boburg. He reports that Kushner and his real estate partners leveraged a federal program “designed to benefit projects in poor, job-starved areas” to save “millions of dollars as they built an opulent, 50-story residential tower in [Jersey City’s] booming waterfront district, just across the Hudson River from Lower Manhattan.” Using a tactic that critics compare to the gerrymandering of congressional districts, they worked with New Jersey officials “to come up with a map that defined the area around [the property] as a swath of land that stretched nearly four miles and included some of the city’s poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhoods. At the same time, they excluded some wealthy neighborhoods only blocks away” in order to make “it appear that the luxury tower was in an area with extraordinarily high unemployment.”

And Lachlan Markay reports for The Daily Beast that “Donald Trump has exempted his entire senior staff from provisions of his own ethics rules to allow them to work with political and advocacy groups that support the administration.”

Into the vacuum –> The most prominent example of Trump’s reorientation of US foreign policy is his disdain for the liberal Western alliance, and Alison Smale and Jane Perlez report for The New York Times that for Europe, “in the current febrile state of global politics, China in particular may prove a steadier ally on climate change and free trade than Mr. Trump, even if it comes with its own tensions and complexities.” Following Trump’s visit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, already being called the “leader of the free world” by some observers, met with the Chinese and also with a delegation from India, which she later called “a reliable partner.”

And here at Moyers & Company, our own John Light writes about what may come next if Trump announces that the US is withdrawing from the Paris climate deal this afternoon, as he is widely expected to do. Leaving the deal, writes Light, will be “a boon to China, which can now position itself as the world’s leader on fighting climate change, a mantle Chinese President Xi Jinping first attempted to claim at the Davos World Economic Forum last winter.”

Punishing the very people they’re trying to protect –> At Reason, Elizabeth Nolan Brown writes, “Teens who text each other explicit images could be subject to 15 years in federal prison under a new bill that just passed the House of Representatives.” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) said the bill raises “new constitutional concerns” and would “exacerbate overwhelming concerns with the unfair and unjust mandatory minimum sentencing that contributes to the overcriminalization of juveniles and mass incarceration generally.”

The high cost of cheap bigotry –> Bernards Township, New Jersey, denied a local Islamic society a permit to build a mosque after the proposal “faced intense neighborhood opposition” which included local residents claiming that all terrorists are Muslims and that Islam isn’t a real religion. Six months ago, a federal judge ruled that local officials had “made decisions that treated the [mosque] differently than other houses of worship,” and this week the township settled the case for $3.25 million, including $1.75 million for the group’s legal fees.

Crackpot may be thwarted by obsolescence –> Chris Sevier is an opponent of same-sex marriage who files frivolous lawsuits based on the idea that if two consenting adults of the same sex can get hitched, then he should be able to marry any person or thing or combination of people and things. He’s been barred from practicing law in Tennessee, but he’s currently suing the state of Utah to demand the right to marry his laptop computer. In his motion to have the case dismissed, the state’s attorney general gave a number of reasons to toss it, but the best one came at the very end: “unless Sevier’s computer has attained the age of fifteen it is too young to marry under Utah law,” he wrote. [via: Fox News]

Daily Reads was compiled by BillMoyers.com staff and edited by Kristin Miller.


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