Nel's New Day

February 20, 2019

First Amendment Contorted by Love for Saudi Arabia, Clarence Thomas

Remember Jeff Bezos? For a week, the media focused on his “junk,” his battle with the National Enquirer, and his search for the person who ripped off his photos and documents such as texts and emails. Turns out that the guilty person is Bezos’ girlfriend’s gay brother. Then Bezos generated more media buzz when he pulled the Amazon headquarters from New York City, much to the disgust of some and delight of others.

The Bezos scandal highlighted the tie between the Enquirer and the Saudi government through Bezos’ letter to AMI, the owner of the tabloid. In its mandate that Bezos state he had “no knowledge” that the Enquirer’s coverage of his affair was “politically motivated or influenced by political forces,” people guessed that the issue was Dictator Donald Trump (DDT). David Pecker, AMI’s owner and DDT’s close associate, had an immunity deal with the DOJ for their criminal suppression of stories about DDT during his campaign, paying people for stories and then not printing them. Karen McDougal’s alleged affair with DDT was one of these articles that were killed before the election.

But Pecker may wanted the Washington Post, owned by Bezos, to stop printing negative news about Saudi Arabia. Pecker used his ties with DDT to cultivate Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) for business opportunities, including borrowing money to buy major publications such as Sports Illustrated, Time Magazine, Fortune, and Money.  magazine. AMI’s 97-page glossy propaganda about Saudi Arabia and featuring MBS on the cover sold at Walmarts across the nation as part of Pecker’s pandering.

Jamal Khashoggi, U.S. resident and journalist, worked for the WaPo, and his writings were highly critical of MBS. Before the Saudis tortured and dismembered Khashoggi, MBS had said that he would use a “bullet” on Khashoggi if he got the chance, according to WaPo reporting. On the same day the Wall Street Journal wrote that MBS was actively enlisting U.S. media outlets to remake his image in the West and met with Vice Media co-founder Shane Smith on a yacht to discuss “an international media empire to combat the kingdom’s rivals and remake its image in the West.”

“For reasons still to be better understood, the Saudi angle seems to hit a particularly sensitive nerve,” Bezos wrote. Former longtime Enquirer editor Jerry George said that Pecker was using Bezo’ damaging photos and documents as bargaining chips. As the story unraveled, Pecker failed because Bezos refused to give into blackmail. George cited AMI’s pro-Saudi propaganda as “suspicious” because the company was “cash poor” and “suddenly” got an “influx of cash.” He suggested that “there’s another shoe to drop,” referring to Robert Mueller’s investigation into “the Saudis’ role in all of this.” A restriction of AMI’s immunity included the company staying out of politics, and WaPo revealed that the company may not have lived up to its promises.

Last year, AMI contacted the DOJ to see if the company should register as a foreign agent but said that it didn’t get any Saudi funding for their Saudi propaganda. The DOJ said probably not, but AMI wrote that a Saudi adviser submitted content for its publication and then made changes to the final version after receiving an early draft. AMI’s extortion of Bezos has brought its relation to the Saudis has brought the issue back into visibility.

DDT, who denied his own intelligence showing that MBS was responsible for Khashoggi, now faces an investigation by House Democrats about DDT’s illegal push to sell nuclear power plants to Saudi Arabia over objections by national security officials and attorneys, a plan that may have directly benefited his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Despite warnings of “potential conflicts of interest, national security risks and legal hurdles” in 2017, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and other DDT employees push for the sales. DDT plans to bypass Congress with an illegal technology transfer that can spread nuclear weapons throughout the Middle East.

Former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pled guilty of lying to the FBI, was an early advocate for these sales after DDT’s inauguration and recommended that Barrack, who raised $107 million for DDT’s corrupt inaugural committee, be a special representative to carry out his nuclear plan. Appearing to be from DDT, a memo told federal agencies to do Barrack’s bidding.

The House reports Flynn’s working with retired military officers to circumvent U.S. law. After he resigned, the National Security Council continued with its plan in opposition to advice from its own ethics counsel. The next adviser, H.R. McMaster, said that the illegal work must stop, but McMaster left almost two months ago. Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation has examined the possibility of Middle Eastern monarchies financially influencing DDT’s political activities, starting with his presidential campaign. Congress has not look at claims about the nuclear sales until this year because of GOP control.

In more First Amendment issues, the Covington Catholic High School (KY) teenager who appeared to harass Nathan Phillips, a Native American elder and veteran, is suing WaPo for $250 million. The defamation lawsuit alleges that the newspaper “engaged in a modern-day form of McCarthyism” and “wrongfully targeted and bullied” the “innocent child” Nick Sandmann. According to his lawyers, Sandmann is suffering from “the pain and destruction its attacks would cause to his life.”

The lawsuit reads like a political polemic:

“[The Post wanted to advance its well-known and easily documented, biased agenda against President Donald J. Trump (“the President”) by impugning individuals perceived to be supporters of the President…. [The Post’s coverage was] in furtherance of its political agenda … carried out by using its vast financial resources to enter the bully pulpit by publishing a series of false and defamatory print and online articles which effectively provided a worldwide megaphone to Phillips and other anti-Trump individuals and entities to smear a young boy who was in its view an acceptable casualty in their war against the President.”

Earlier this month, the Sandmann lawyers sent letters warning litigation to over 50 media organizations, celebrities, and politicians. As the wealthiest man in the world, WaPo owner Jeff Bezos has the most money and is considered DDT’s biggest media enemy, and the $250 million is the same amount that Bezos paid for the Post in 2013. Nick’s parents, Ted and Julie Sandmanns, say they want to “teach the Post a lesson it will never forget.” They argue that Nick is not a public figure, lowering the bar for winning their lawsuit.

While Nick was described as a “child,” the lawsuit calls Nathan Phillips “a phony war hero” who “targeted and bullied” Sandmann. Phillips said that Sandmann and his peers from Covington surrounded him after he tried to stop possible violence between them and a few Hebrew Israelites. About Sandmann’s comment on the Today show, Phillips used the terms “insincerity, lack of responsibility”—“coached and written up for him.” About the encounter, Phillips said that he was trying to get out of an ugly situation. “That guy in the hat [Sandmann] stood in my way, and we were at an impasse.” Phillips added, “Then I went to go pray about it …. I forgive him.”

The Sandmanns may find support in their war on freedom of the press from Supreme Court Clarence Thomas. He hopes to attack the media through his proposal to reconsider the 1964 case New York Times v. Sullivan which determined that public figures must have greater proof to claim libel. Thomas’ “roadmap” to  helping DDT’s change in libel laws permitting him to sue news organizations came after Thomas and his far-right activist wife Ginni Thomas had dinner with DDT and his wife Melania Trump. Trump’s pledge to change libel laws so he can sue news organizations for their reporting.

Last Tuesday, Thomas expressed concern about the high court’s refusal to hear an appeal from Katherine McKee, who claimed Bill Cosby’s lawyer leaked a letter that distorted her background and damaged her reputation after she claimed that Cosby raped her. Lower courts cited the Times v. Sullivan precedent in dismissing her case with the justification that disclosing her accusation required her to meet a higher libel standard of malice that applies to public figures. The decision to not take the case was unanimous, but Thomas wrote a sole opinion that the 1964 case was wrongly decided.

Since 1964, public officials can sue for libel only if the person responsible for the statement knows that the statement is false or if the person recklessly disregarded its falsehood. Subsequent Supreme Court cases have added all public figures to public officials to protect journalists and media organizations from intimidation by wealthy and/or powerful public figures wishing to exploit minor errors in reporting. That Supreme Court decision protect the media reporting on Thomas sexual harassment by Anita Hill. Thomas, who claims to be an originalist, following only the word of the U.S. Constitution and not its meaning, said, “We should carefully examine the original meaning [of the First Amendment.]” An early interpretation of this right, as shown by the first Sedition Act in 1798, was that the government could punish any published story, and the Sedition Act still exists. If the Supreme Court supports Thomas, the First Amendment could disappear.

May 15, 2013

GOP Searches for Prey

The Komodo dragon is the biggest lizard in the world, about 10 feet long and weighing about 150 pounds. Their size puts them in control of their environment, ambushing their prey, although they tend to eat a great deal of carrion. Their teeth allow them to tear huge chunks of flesh, eating up to 80 percent of their weight in one meal. Dragons of equal size may wrestle, with the losers either retreating or getting killed and eaten by the victor. They also eat their young if the juveniles don’t hide in trees. These creatures have a great deal of trouble hearing and very bad night vision. In captivity, they almost never breed.

Watching the GOP party makes me think of the Komodo dragons, starting with former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. He’s on the road with his new book, Rumsfeld’s Rules: Leadership Lessons in Business, Politics, War, and Life, a collection of 380 personal and professional rules. One of these  is “You never want a serious crisis [to] go to waste.”

About this rule, Rumsfeld said, “A crisis can permit you to do things you couldn’t absent an opportunity like that to change the nature of things.” That’s what the GOP party has done since Barack Obama became president, and right now they’re working even harder on it that usual.

Seemingly unable to cause a disaster with their Benghazi pseudo-investigation, they moved on to the latest controversies, the IRS targeting specific groups for additional investigation and the DoJ’s examination of Associated Press’s telephone logs.

Despite the president’s declaration that the IRS targeting these groups is “intolerable and inexcusable” and the IRS acting commissioner’s resigning, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) are out for blood. They are positive that the IRS has committed criminal acts and are calling for an investigation. McConnell’s approach is bearing fruit because the Tea Party has finally endorsed him as the GOP Senate candidate in 2014.

Their declarations have a few problems. First, the IRS targeted liberal groups as well as conservative ones for additional scrutiny. Conservatives may not realize this because USA Today didn’t mention this fact until the 18th paragraph of its article and then just a few words. But Emerge America was denied tax-exempt status and forced to disclose its donors and pay taxes. None of the GOP groups have complained about having their applications rejected. Progress Texas and Clean Elections Texas had the same kind of scrutiny. Subjected groups from all political spectra removes the onus from the IRS.

Nobody has even called the IRS efficient or competent so it shouldn’t come as a surprise now that it isn’t. Perhaps a permanent commissioner at the IRS agency would help. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), in his “look-at-me-for-president” demeanor, called for the commissioner to be fired. In fact, there is currently no commissioner because Bush’s appointee—in charge while the Tea Party felt targeted—resigned last November, and the Senate, including Rubio, was clear that they wouldn’t approve any of the president’s nominations. It’s status quo for Senate approvals: the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives hasn’t had a director since 2006 because of Senate refusal to act on nominees.

This is the first time that the IRS targetings have become a national scandal, but it isn’t the first time that they have done this targeting. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) found only one Republican, Rep. Walter Jones (NC), to join him in an investigation during the George W. Bush administration when the IRS threatened to revoke the tax-exempt status of All Saints Episcopal in Pasadena after an anti-Iraq War sermon the Sunday before the 2004 election. At the same time conservative churches across the country were mobilizing voters to support Bush.

In 2004, the IRS went after the NAACP because its chairman criticized Bush for being the first sitting president since Herbert Hoover not to address the organization. In 2006, Public Interest Watch, with 97 percent of its funding from Exxon Mobile, got the IRS to investigate Green Peace, who had labeled the oil company the “No. 1 Climate Criminal.” At about that time, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) wanted “legislative changes” to define the differences between politics and social welfare, but the Senate never got around to it, leaving the IRS auditors to make up their own rules.

The second problem is that decades of laws, regulations, and court decisions are vague and contradictory. The tax code requires that a 501(c)(4) must operate “exclusively” to promote social welfare, a category that excludes political spending. Some court decisions ruled that a minimal amount of political spending would be permissible, but the I.R.S. has for years maintained that groups meet that rule as long as they are not “primarily engaged” in election work, a substantially different threshold. Nobody knows what “primarily engaged” means.

Meanwhile huge SuperPACs are getting away with being tax-exempt while doing massive advertising campaigns. Crossroads has the tax-exempt status, claiming involvement primarily on research and educational activities, but spends most of its money on political advertising.  American Tradition Partnership doesn’t even bother to file federal tax returns.

The third problem, according to Lawrence O’Donnell, started with the Republicans in 1959 when the meaning of the section related to Section 501(c)(4) was changed from “exclusively” to “primarily.” Ezra Klein wrote in the Wonkblog, a great summary of the current IRS troubles:

“The IRS does need some kind of test that helps them weed out political organizations attempting to register as tax-exempt 501(c)4  social welfare groups. But that test has to be studiously, unquestionably neutral.”

O’Donnell said, “If in 2010, there was a flood of Tea Party applications for tax exempt status and many fewer applications for tax exempt status from liberal political groups, then it only makes mathematical sense that more questions would be directed at Tea Party applications.”

Yet the GOP is determined to pin the IRS problems on the president. Although he has no proof, Grassley said that the IRS was “getting pressure from somebody either high up in the Obama campaign or high up in the White House.” There’s nothing to support his position, but GOP love conspiracy theories.

While the GOP is up in arms about the IRS scandal, they have stayed quiet about the phone logs subpoenaed from Associated Press. Even critics of Attorney General Eric Holder like Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) just say they’ll see “how this plays out.” Even the other Texas senator, Ted Cruz, is silent about it. There’s a good reason. Last year, Republicans called for an explanation of the national security leaks—in short, they asked for exactly what happened to AP. Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) insisted on reporters being subpoenaed.

With their interest in subpoenaing the media, the GOP certainly won’t approve of the “reporter shield” bill that the Obama administration has requested Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to reintroduce. Such a law would help reporters protect the identity of their sources. Republicans killed similar bills in 2008 and 2010.

The situation can be summarized within the length of a tweet: “GOP calls on Holder to investigate leaks. Holder appoints US Attorney. US Att. subpoenas AP records. GOP calls on Holder to resign.” Steve Benen adds “that the U.S. attorney subpoenaed AP records thanks to an existing vulnerability the administration doesn’t support, but can’t fix thanks to Republican opposition.”

Even Bush’s former AG Albert Gonzalez, who couldn’t even find a law firm to hire him, entered the discussion. He cited a time when he decided against subpoenaing a reporter’s notes but skipped over his massive domestic wiretapping program and “improperly gained access to reporters’ calling records as part of leak investigations”—a lot, according to the New York Times. 

Thus the GOP, feeding on carrion, are stuck with a non-existent Benghazi investigation, an IRS debacle coming from the GOP lack of ability to take action, and a press-government interaction that’s bound to make them look bad. We can guarantee, however, that they’ll continue to tear huge chunks out of the first two while ignoring the third one, that is a serious problem for continued democracy in the United States. And of course, the GOP won’t do anything about finding jobs for the people in the United States.

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