Friday Grab Bag

Friday Grab Bag

A White House in chaos; a slush fund for Trump staffers, and more items in the news

Beat Down

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly suddenly is a marked man, his reputation in tatters and his tenure in peril over his handling of the resignation – or was it dismissal? – of presidential Staff Secretary Rob Porter.

There are multiple reports that Kelly learned months ago of credible allegations that Porter had physically and emotionally abused his two ex-wives but allowed Porter to remain on the job and then publicly vouched for him when the allegations hit the media this week.

Remember that Kelly, a retired Marine general with a no-nonsense reputation, was brought into the White House last summer to shape up a chaotic operation. It hasn’t exactly worked out, and Kelly’s missteps are part of the reason why.

Among the unanswered questions this morning – How can a background check on the staff secretary, who probably spends more time with the president than any other staffer, be allowed to drag on for more than a year?


Slush fund?

Walter Shaub, who gave up his job as head of the Office of Government Ethics in frustration with the Trump administration’s ethical short-sightedness, has a revealing op-ed in today’s Los Angeles Times.

Shaub wrote that his former agency has signed off on “a shockingly permissive arrangement” to help White House appointees and others linked to Trump pay their legal fees.

“The Patriot Legal Expense Fund Trust” was created under Internal Revenue Service regulations covering political organizations. “Other legal defense funds for government workers — for example, those set up for President Clinton’s staffers when he was under investigation — have been structured as trusts for one employee at a time,” Shaub said. “In such trusts, the money collected can only be disbursed to that single beneficiary. It can’t be used to favor or shun potential recipients based on what they may or may not reveal to investigators.

“Not so with the Patriot Fund. Despite its name, it is set up not as a trust but as a limited liability company — an LLC — and its funds can go to any of the White House staffers, campaign workers or other Trump associates who get caught up in the Russia investigations. The fund’s charter is largely silent as to the selection process except to grant absolute power to the fund manager, who alone passes judgment on who is worthy or unworthy of support.”

Shaub added that documents creating the fund bar the manager from revealing how decisions to spend the money are made. “One rule of the Patriot Fund, it seems, is you don’t talk about the Patriot Fund,” he observed.


Gerrymander Shuffle in PA

Pennsylvania lawmakers seem to have found a way to sidestep today’s court-ordered deadline for their delivery to Gov. Tom Wolf of a map with non-gerrymandered boundaries for the Keystone State’s 18 congressional districts.

There are reports this morning that the Republican-controlled legislature will send Wolf, a Democrat,  a “draft” map today to meet the deadline and work over the weekend and into next week to finalize it for the governor’s signature.

The State Supreme Court, which last month ruled that the existing districts were unconstitutionally gerrymandered, has given Wolf a Feb. 15 deadline for final action on a new map. If the court finds the new districts wanting, it will take charge of revising them. The tight timeline is necessary because primary elections are scheduled in May for the November congressional elections.


Russia hearings update

The Hill, a Washington newspaper focused on congressional coverage, reports this morning that the Senate Intelligence Committee is close to completing a report highlighting vulnerabilities in U.S. voting systems.

The committee has been something of an oasis of bipartisanship amid rancorous congressional inquiries into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential race.  The Hill said its initial report “is expected to focus on vulnerabilities in the country’s election infrastructure — rather than some of the more controversial questions surrounding the committee’s investigation, like ties between President Trump’s campaign and Russia.”

In a related development, Politico reports that Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-IA, is leaving the door open to an agreement with Democrats to hold public hearings on Russia’s election interference.

Grassley said public sessions may be convened once committee staffers are able to complete editing and release transcripts of the committee’s closed-door hearings on the matter. Democrats want the committee to hear from additional witnesses, including Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, in open session.