Monthly Archives: June 2018

Meet the guys who tape Trump’s papers back together

Solomon Lartey spent the first five months of the Trump administration working in the Old Executive Office Building, standing over a desk with scraps of paper spread out in front of him.

Lartey, who earned an annual salary of $65,969 as a records management analyst, was a career government official with close to 30 years under his belt. But he had never seen anything like this in any previous administration he had worked for. He had never had to tape the president’s papers back together again.

Armed with rolls of clear Scotch tape, Lartey and his colleagues would sift through large piles of shredded paper and put them back together, he said, “like a jigsaw puzzle.” Sometimes the papers would just be split down the middle, but other times they would be torn into pieces so small they looked like confetti.

It was a painstaking process that was the result of a clash between legal requirements to preserve White House records and President Donald Trump’s odd and enduring habit of ripping up papers when he’s done with them — what some people described as his unofficial “filing system.”

Under the Presidential Records Act, the White House must preserve all memos, letters, emails and papers that the president touches, sending them to the National Archives for safekeeping as historical records.

But White House aides realized early on that they were unable to stop Trump from ripping up paper after he was done with it and throwing it in the trash or on the floor, according to people familiar with the practice. Instead, they chose to clean it up for him, in order to make sure that the president wasn’t violating the law.

Staffers had the fragments of paper collected from the Oval Office as well as the private residence and send it over to records management across the street from the White House for Larkey and his colleagues to reassemble.

“We got Scotch tape, the clear kind,” Lartey recalled in an interview. “You found pieces and taped them back together and then you gave it back to the supervisor.” The restored papers would then be sent to the National Archives to be properly filed away.

Lartey said the papers he received included newspaper clips on which Trump had scribbled notes, or circled words; invitations; and letters from constituents or lawmakers on the Hill, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

“I had a letter from Schumer — he tore it up,” he said. “It was the craziest thing ever. He ripped papers into tiny pieces.”

Lartey did not work alone. He said his entire department was dedicated to the task of taping paper back together in the opening months of the Trump administration.

One of his colleagues, Reginald Young Jr., who worked as a senior records management analyst, said that during over two decades of government service, he had never been asked to do such a thing.

“We had to endure this under the Trump administration,” Young said. “I’m looking at my director, and saying, ‘Are you guys serious?’ We’re making more than $60,000 a year, we need to be doing far more important things than this. It felt like the lowest form of work you can take on without having to empty the trash cans.”

The White House did not comment on the president’s paper-ripping habit. According to Young and Lartey, staffers in the records department were still designated to the task of taping together the scraps as recently as this spring.

Lartey and Young described a system that stands in stark contrast to how records management was conducted under the Obama administration, which ran a structured paperwork process.

“All of the official paper that went into [the Oval Office], came back out again, to the best of my knowledge,” said Lisa Brown, who served as President Barack Obama’s first staff secretary. “I never remember the president throwing any official paper away.”

Brown described a regimented process for dealing with presidential records. She said all paper that was going to the president “would go in a folder with labels — one color for decision memos, for example, and another one for letters. Documents would go out to the president and then come back to the staff secretary’s office in the same folder for distribution and handling. It was a really structured process.”

Brown said Obama had an eye on preserving documents for history — even ones he was not technically required to send to the National Archives. “I remember the day he sent down to me his race speech from the campaign, handwritten,” she said. “All of the campaign material didn’t need to come into the White House or go to Archives.”

Trump, in contrast, does not have those preservationist instincts. One person familiar with how Trump operates in the Oval Office said he would rip up “anything that happened to be on his desk that he was done with.” Some aides advised him to stop, but the habit proved difficult to break.

Despite the president’s apparent disregard of the Presidential Records Act, sources said, aides around him have tried to take an overly inclusive approach to what would be considered a presidential record.

Anything that’s not purely personal — even just a note handed to an aide at a rally that was passed on to Trump — has been considered a record deemed worthy of being sent to records, where staffers could make sure the White House was being compliant with the law.

That team is now smaller, after many of the career officials were cleared out earlier this year.

Lartey, 54, and Young, 48, were career government officials who worked together in records management until this spring, when both were abruptly terminated from their jobs. Both are now unemployed and still full of questions about why they were stripped of their badges with no explanation and marched off of the White House grounds by Secret Service.

Irene Porada, the head of human resources who personally terminated both men, did not respond to an email requesting comment. A White House spokesman also did not respond to a request for comment about the terminations.

Young agreed to speak to POLITICO after this reporter contacted him to inquire about his termination. He then put this reporter in touch with Lartey, whose story of his dismissal — and the work he was asked to do during his final year of work under the Trump administration — corroborated Young’s account.

Both men originally agreed to speak to POLITICO for a story about why they believe they were unfairly terminated from jobs they expected to hold onto until they retired. Both said they were forced to sign resignation letters without being given any explanation for why they were being dismissed.

In the course of explaining what their work at the White House entailed, however, both described in detail the process of taping back together scraps of paper that the president had ripped up and thrown out. Both said they were happy to discuss the oddity of a job they began to view as a sort of punishment.

They did not, however, approach a reporter with the intent to leak embarrassing information about the president.

Lartey said he was fired at the end of the work day on March 23, with no warning. His top-secret security clearance was revoked, he said. Later, five boxes of his personal belongings were mailed to his home.

“I was stunned,” he said. “I asked them, ‘Why can’t you all tell me something?’ I had gotten comfortable. I was going to retire. I would never have thought I would have gotten fired.” He signed a pre-written resignation letter that stated he was leaving to pursue other opportunities. But he is still unemployed.

Young, who was terminated April 19, said he fought back and had his official status changed from “resigned” to “terminated.”

“I was coerced to sign a resignation letter at that time,” he said. “Then they escorted me to the garage and took my parking placard.”

He described the firing as traumatic and frustratingly Kafkaesque. “The only excuse that I’ve ever gotten from them,” he said, “was that you serve at the pleasure of the president.”

Facebook reveals data-sharing deals with Huawei, other Chinese tech makers

Facebook has data-sharing partnerships with Chinese electronics companies including Huawei, a telecommunications giant that’s been flagged to the U.S. as a national security threat, the social media giant said Tuesday.

“Huawei is the third largest mobile manufacturer globally and its devices are used by people all around the world, including in the United States. Facebook along with many other US tech companies have worked with them and other Chinese manufacturers to integrate their services onto these phones,” Francisco Varela, Facebook’s VP of mobile partnerships, said in a statement.

Facebook controlled and approved any use of Facebook data on Huawei devices “from the get go,” Varela added, and all user information stayed on the devices rather than being sent to Huawei’s servers.

Varela said Facebook had similar deals in place with China’s Lenovo, OPPO and TCL, which make a range of consumer electronics and telecom devices.

The company has said it’s winding down its data sharing partnerships. Doubts are growing in Washington over Facebook’s handling of user data after a New York Times report disclosed the partnerships with device makers, which also include Apple and Samsung.

Blowback over border separations amps up tensions inside Trump administration

The White House was thrown into turmoil after a handful of photographs of school-aged immigrant children, held behind fences in detention centers, ignited on social media.

President Donald Trump and top aides including policy adviser Stephen Miller felt deeply frustrated that these images, which dated back to the Obama administration, were getting pinned on them, according to people familiar with the reaction. So they created a special working group to do what this White House does best — push back and shift blame to Democrats through presidential tweets and a rare on-the-record briefing by Miller.

In reality, Trump’s own administration has increased the likelihood of family separation with a new policy to refer anyone suspected of crossing the border illegally for prosecution, including asylum seekers. The change is in keeping with the “shock and awe” tactics favored by top White House policy aide Stephen Miller, the architect of last year’s travel ban, which was initially blocked by courts after creating widespread chaos at airports.

The shift has brought tensions to a boil between some administration officials and the White House over how far they can push immigration policy, both legally and politically. Interviews with 16 current and former administration officials, immigration experts, and close White House advisers reveal a potentially thorny political quandary for the president: how to balance promises to his base, which favors a tough approach to border security, with efforts to appeal to moderate, independent, and suburban voters who may be turned off by visual images of immigrant parents separated from their kids.

“From the president’s standpoint, it is a double standard. He gets hit hard even though he feels he is just doing what the previous administration had done. The media is so quick to validate a false narrative,” said one former campaign official. “You can’t blame Trump because past administrations never dealt with illegal immigration.”

But some current and former administration officials see the renewed border crackdown as the latest example of enacting an aggressive policy without enough resources in place to deal with the resulting logistics – in part because the chaos may have the desired effect of scaring would-be migrants and deterring them from crossing the border in the first place.

“My sense is that they see what happened with the Muslim travel ban as a pretty good success story,” said one DHS official. “Why try to do the first draft correctly if you get so many bites at the apple?”

Miller has worked closely with a web of political appointees throughout the administration, including Sessions’ son-in-law John Walk, a lawyer in the White House counsel’s office, as well as lawyer Chad Mizelle; Thomas Homan, the soon-to-retire head of ICE; Francis Cissna, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and Gene Hamilton, a former staffer to Sessions on Capitol Hill who’s now at the Department of Justice.

These hardliners feel that Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, a close ally of White House chief of staff John Kelly, isn’t being creative or tough enough in using executive authority to carry out the president’s immigration agenda.

“From my conversations with many officials, both career and appointed, it is apparent that they are concerned about the lack of progress in curbing these illegal entries and making the system work, and their efforts and ideas have been ignored,” said Jessica Vaughan, policy director at the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that favors lower levels of immigration.

Nielsen’s allies argue that such an aggressive approach often ignores legal boundaries or court decisions. And, they point out, when the administration’s immigration moves get challenged, it will be Nielsen and her team, not Miller, who get dragged before Congress or into court to explain.

Even before the latest policy change, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action complaint in San Diego on behalf of a Congolese mother separated from her 7-year-old daughter for more than four months, as well as others in similar situations.

Two DHS officials said they had not seen any legal analysis making the case for the new prosecution strategy before Sessions announced it in May — a standard part of rolling out policy.

“In a normal administration, you make an analysis of the law and the policy change,” said one of the DHS officials. “The notion is to reduce litigation around it.” This person added: “It’s not clear to me that any of that foundational legal work has been done.”

Justice Department spokesman Devin O’Malley rejected the suggestion that the administration lacks the legal authority for stepped-up prosecutions of alleged border crossers.

“For years, the Department of Homeland Security has apprehended and referred tens of thousands of illegal aliens to the Justice Department, which then prosecutes them — just like other federal crimes,” he said in a written statement. “It is unclear how these anonymous sources arrived at the conclusion or insinuation that it is illegal for the attorney general and DHS secretary to prosecute those who break the laws passed by Congress — and which keep our nation and its citizens safe — but I assure you that both are well within their authority to do so.”

One senior administration official said any differences between Nielsen and Miller and other immigration hardliners were not over policy but over style.

“She is smart enough to understand the situation she is in and smart enough to know not to work against the president,” said another administration official.

White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley said “there is no daylight between the White House and Homeland Security on the measures needed to protect our nation. Secretary Nielsen is implementing bold reforms to save and defend innocent American lives.”

DHS spokesman Tyler Houlton added that Nielsen and Trump are “clearly on the same page” when it comes to national security. “Any accusations to the contrary are simply false,” he said, citing DHS’ enhanced vetting of visitors to the U.S., the deployment of National Guard troops to the southwest border, and the move to refer all suspected border crossers for prosecution.

But top government officials have acknowledged that the Health and Human Services Department is almost at capacity with shelter beds for unaccompanied minors, while advocates have raised questions about whether the agencies have enough staff and resources to care for immigrant children, including toddlers.

Shelters for unaccompanied minors, which are overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services, historically have been geared more toward teenagers, who came into the country alone, and who can live in dorm-like settings – not to children who need cribs, formula, help getting dressed or going to the bathroom. Advocates worry about the length of time these children could be held in custody away from their parents, as well as the difficulty of reuniting families held in different parts of the country.

A backup plan exists to help with the resources: the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement maintains 1,218 reserve beds and could open temporary facilities, including one in Homestead, Fla. If the department exceeds its $1.3 billion budget to house unaccompanied minors, it may need to transfer funds from other parts of its budget, which it’s done in the past.

“There’s no way HHS has the capability to handle this kind of influx of children, especially small children,” said Lee Gelernt, an ACLU attorney representing the plaintiffs in the San Diego case. “I think it’s only going to get worse.”

Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the HHS Administration for Children and Families, said the agency “routinely [evaluates] the needs and capacity of an existing network of approximately 100 shelters in 14 states” to care for unaccompanied minors, but the department did not comment on whether facilities are prepared to handle a surge of young children.

DHS referred roughly 29 percent of adults suspected of illegal entry and illegal reentry to the Justice Department for prosecution during a nearly seven-month period through mid-April, according to data provided by a DHS official. The number of suspected border crossers referred for prosecution doubled in the past month, according to the official.

That would mean the department is referring roughly 60 percent of suspected border crossers for prosecution – a dramatic increase, but still short of 100 percent Sessions targeted on May 7.

For immigration hardliners, the new “zero-tolerance” strategy — and its effect on migrant families — is a long-overdue step to deter illegal immigration and phony asylum claims.

“When the only consequence of sneaking across the border is you’re just sent back and can try again, there’s no reason not to try again,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. He likened adults bringing children to the border, who include people fleeing the violent Central American cartels the Trump administration routinely demonizes, to petty criminals: “If you rob a liquor store, you’re going to be separated from your kids.”

Lujan Grisham misstated her income in 2013 financial disclosures

Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham earned more from her role as co-owner of the company that runs New Mexico’s high-risk insurance program than she stated on her congressional financial disclosure forms for 2013, according to a review of the report and newly released tax returns.

In annual financial disclosures required for members of Congress, Lujan Grisham initially reported receiving between $50,001 and $100,000 in dividends in 2013 from the Delta Consulting Group, which she co-founded in 2008 with a political ally who went on to get elected to the New Mexico Legislature. But her tax returnsshow she earned nearly $138,000 in so-called “passive income” from the company that year.

A spokesperson for her office said the discrepancy was “an honest mistake” and a letter was sent to the House Clerk to amend the 2013 financial disclosure.

Lujan Grisham’s tax returns, released just days before she faces two Democratic opponents in the gubernatorial primary, provide a more precise and up-to-date window into her earnings. Between 2013 and 2017, she reported roughly $376,000 in income from Delta.

Critics contend that New Mexico kept its high-risk pool open, even though Obamacare offers similar coverage at a lower cost, because of the clout of Lujan Grisham and her co-owner, Debbie Armstrong. Both Lujan Grisham and Armstrong deny playing roles in the state’s decision to maintain the pool.

Lujan Grisham sold her 50 percent stake in the firm last June, six months after she announced she would run to succeed outgoing Republican Gov. Susana Martinez. Armstrong is now the sole owner of the company.

New Mexico’s high-risk pool continues to cover roughly 2,400 people with serious medical conditions and is one of only nine such state programs that still accepts new enrollment. The program was created in 1987 when, as in many other states, officials aimed to provide a lifeline to the sick before insurers were barred from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions. But critics question why it should remain open now that Obamacare has opened the door for people with pre-existing conditions to receive coverage in the private market.

The pool is a major part of Delta’s business, but its other clients include a nonprofit with ties to Democratic politics and various health-care lobbying organizations. Backers of the high-risk pool in New Mexico say it should remain open partly because removing all enrollees who qualify for Obamacare coverage could cause price spikes in the broader insurance market.

Big Tobacco vs. San Francisco in vaping vote

SAN FRANCISCO — A major tobacco company is pouring millions of dollars into a ballot initiative that would repeal the country’s strongest effort yet to ban the sale of flavored tobaccos, which are attracting a whole new generation of users including children and teens.

A $12 million campaign primarily funded by R.J. Reynolds is urging San Francisco voters next Tuesday to reject the city’s ban on selling flavored vaping products, hookah tobacco and menthol cigarettes. The flavored tobacco comes in brightly colored packages and tastes like bubblegum, mango or chicken-and-waffles, which public health advocates say are designed to entice young people.

Anti-tobacco advocates see the massive R.J. Reynolds campaign as a warning shot to other local governments eyeing similar restrictions as concern mounts about the hazards of vaping. The ballot initiative is a key test of attitudes about e-cigarettes and vaping — specifically whether the public will support a new wave of regulations to limit their use.

“This is clearly the most restrictive measure in the country on flavored tobacco,” said Larry Tramutola, a political strategist running the San Francisco campaign in support of the ban. “If this passes, it will have ripple effects around the country.”

With smoking rates at an all-time low, tobacco companies are increasingly banking on e-cigarettes and other flavored products to boost their bottom lines. New players have also entered the vaping market.

While the industry argues the devices help adult smokers kick the habit, public health advocates contend the flavored products are also getting young people to try nicotine products. Studies also show that young people who vape — inhaling a heated vapor instead of smoking cigarettes — are more likely to go on to become smokers. They’re also ingesting some of the same cancer-causing chemicals in regular cigarettes, research shows.

Often a trendsetter on public health, San Francisco’s supervisors unanimously approved the tough flavor ban last year. It was supposed to go into effect in April but was put on hold after R.J. Reynolds, which owns Newport, the top menthol cigarette brand, secured enough signatures to get the repeal initiative on Tuesday’s ballot.

The company has vastly outspent supporters of the ban, who have received funding from billionaire philanthropist and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The $12 million spent to fight the ban includes both monetary donations and some in-kind services such as consulting and staff time for phone-banks.

The local battle comes as FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb is stepping up federal regulation of tobacco and is considering options to regulate flavored products.

That makes the industry all the more eager to stop what’s happening in San Francisco.

The effort to overturn the ban, known as the “No on Proposition E Campaign,” has blanketed the airwaves with ads that appeal to the progressive city’s libertarian streak, framing the ballot measure as a matter of consumer freedom.

The campaign argues that the ban is a government overreach in a state that already raised the smoking age to 21 and banned the sale of these flavored tobacco products to kids. Repeal backers also argue it will hurt small businesses and create a black market for these products.

“San Francisco voters should say enough is enough and adults should be free to make their own consumer choices,” a longtime San Francisco libertarian activist known as Starchild told those gathered at a “No on Prop. E” rally on the steps of City Hall on Thursday — which also happened to be World No Tobacco Day.

Shawn Richard, a San Francisco resident and founder of Brother Against Guns, called the ban “dangerous,” describing a situation in which young people may turn to selling menthol cigarettes on the black market.

“We don’t want the San Francisco police … having the ability to harass young men of color in our communities,” he said, amid supporters holding signs with such saying as “Ban menthol but not all tobacco products? Another black tax?”

R.J. Reynolds, which in addition to Newport owns Vuse vaping products, did not respond to requests for comment.

The tobacco battle in San Francisco is playing out as Gottlieb signals he’ll pursue tougher regulation of e-cigarettes, citing the “troubling reality” they’ve become popular with kids. The agency earlier this year dinged more than 40 retailers for selling e-cigarettes to kids in a sting that targeted Juul e-cigarettes, a popular device resembling a USB thumb drive that’s flooding schools across the country.

Besides San Francisco, other cities have enacted lesser restrictions on flavored tobacco. In Oakland and Santa Clara County, sales of flavored tobacco products are banned everywhere but stores that predominately sell tobacco. Chicago bans flavored tobacco products within 500 feet of schools. Some other cities, including New York, have exempted menthol products for their bans.

Anti-tobacco activist say fruit and candy flavors are essential to the industry’s mission and future. “The product is designed like a syringe and a needle. You’ve got to get the nicotine in to get the addiction going, and you’ve got to usurp free will,” said Jeffrey Wigand, a tobacco industry scientist who became a whistleblower in the 1990s.

There’s no reliable polling to indicate how San Francisco might vote on Tuesday. But the funding advantage is clearly with No on Prop E campaign, which has raised more than four times as much as public health advocates favoring the ban. About $1.8 million of the $2.3 million raised by supporters of the flavor ban has come from Bloomberg, who has bankrolled other public health campaigns to support soda taxes and smoking bans, among other issues.

The flavor ban has gotten strong pushback from corner shop owners and small business leaders, who warn that their sales will drop steeply if they can no longer carry flavored tobacco products. They also argue that young people are more likely to buy these products online than in stores.

Carlos Solórzano, head of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in San Francisco, supports enforcing the existing laws — but doesn’t want the new one. “If a shop owner sells to a minor, fine them,” he said. “We all can agree this [nicotine addiction] is a health issue that needs to be dealt with, but not in this way.”

Greg Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, supports vaping as way to wean smokers off more dangerous combustible cigarettes. But he admits that siding with the tobacco industry by voting against the measure could be tough for voters.

Still, he said, “I would hope the majority of San Francisco voters would see through the ideological war that’s going on and not try to see a brand new prohibition go into effect.”

Tramutola, the Yes on Prop E campaign manager who previously led successful efforts to tax sugary drinks, said he believes the vote will be close, despite San Francisco’s reputation as a healthy city.

“There’s a certain element that is going to vote no for just whatever reason — either they like to smoke or think it’s an intrusion,” he said.