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Is this the ugliest museum sign in the country?

When the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., reopened last month, it celebrated the occasion with a garish sign over the entrance to the nineteenth-century building that reads “DEDICATED TO ^the future of ART.” Kriston Capps at Washington City Paper called it a “searingly ugly sign” and The Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott said the building was “defaced with a silly addition.”

Several federal agencies apparently agree. The National Park Service has joined the National Capital Planning Commission and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts in accusing the Smithsonian of violating preservation laws, putting serious federal grant money in jeopardy, the Post reports:

Although the NCPC and CFA are asking the world’s largest museum complex to bring the signs to their boards for approval, the Park Service is appealing to the Smithsonian’s wallet, suggesting the institution’s failure to comply jeopardizes a $335,000 grant awarded in 2010.

The Smithsonian is being tight-lipped; a spokeswoman would only tell the Post that the institution hasn’t replied to the Park Service. This will likely be settled by lawyers, which could take just as long as the sign’s planned run: up to a year.

April 26, 2018

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What’s next for Bill Cosby?

A Pennsylvania jury found the comedian guilty on Thursday on three counts of aggravated indecent assault for using drugs to sexually assault Temple University employee Andrea Constand 13 years ago. It’s the first major criminal conviction of a celebrity in the #MeToo era and a moment of vindication for more than 60 women who said Cosby assaulted them over a five-decade period.

Under Pennsylvania law, each of the three counts against Cosby carries a sentence of five to 10 years. It’s unlikely he’ll receive a full 30-year sentence since state law allows the sentences to run concurrently if they’re for the same offense. Cosby, who is 80 years old, may also receive a lower sentence because of his advanced age and lack of previous criminal convictions. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Judge Steven O’Neill denied prosecutors’ request to revoke Cosby’s bail, allowing him to stay at home pending a sentencing hearing to determine his fate.

After sentencing, Cosby’s legal battle will move to the appeals process, where he’ll likely try to challenge some of the more damaging evidence against him. His lawyers unsuccessfully fought to keep prosecutors from using depositions he took as part of a 2005 civil lawsuit filed by Constand. In those depositions, Cosby admitted to plying women with quaaludes in the 1970s, bolstering the accounts of many women who accused him of sexual assault. O’Neill also allowed five other women who said Cosby assaulted them to testify before the jury, allowing prosecutors to establish a pattern of behavior that supported Constand’s account.

Cosby already escaped a reckoning once before. In his first trial, the judge declared a mistrial after the jury deadlocked last June. Jurors offered conflicting accounts of what happened during their deliberations, but indicated at least two of them refused to convict the former entertainer after more than 50 hours of deliberations. This time, a new jury only needed around 13 hours to pass judgment.

CSPAN

House Republicans cite “McCarthyism” and “party jets” in defending Scott Pruitt.

During the first of two hearings on Capitol Hill on Thursday, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator faced tough questions from House Democrats over his myriad ethics scandals and deregulatory fervor. Their Republican colleagues were more forgiving.

“To the public, I think this has been a classic display of innuendo and McCarthyism that we’re seeing too often here in Washington, that unfortunately I think works against civility and respect for people in public office,” said Congressman David McKinley of West Virginia, the chairman of the Congressional Coal Caucus. “I was hoping we’d be able to stay on policy today as much as we could, but I can see some just can’t resist the limelight, the opportunity to grandstand.” McKinley thanked Pruitt for his service.

In the last month, Pruitt has been accused of doing official EPA business with an energy lobbyist whose wife was Pruitt’s landlord, which could violate bribery laws. He’s been accused of spending at least $3 million on a round-the-clock security fleet, far more than his predecessors and higher-level cabinet officials. He’s also been accused of approving large raises for political aides against White House orders, and retaliating against EPA employees who disagree with his spending habits.

At Pruitt’s morning hearing before the House Energy and Commerce committee, a few Republicans expressed concern over these allegations. But most defended the EPA chief. Ohio Congressman Sam Johnson said it was “shameful” that the hearing had turned into a “personal attack” against Pruitt. The committee’s chairman, Gregg Harper, compared the accusations to “political bloodsport.” Texas Congressman Joe Barton called Pruitt “a victim” of D.C. politics.

Barton also offered a unique defense of Pruitt’s habit of spending thousands on first-class airplane tickets to travel across the United States on trips that he doesn’t tell the public about. First-class trips, he said, “may look bad” but are “not illegal.” Barton added that it’s not like Pruitt was flying in “party jets that were used by rock stars.”

“Have you ever rented a party jet?” Barton asked.

“No,” Pruitt responded.

“No,” Barton replied. “That’s good.”

Frank Pallone is giving Scott Pruitt hell.

“You are unfit to hold public office, and undeserving of the public trust,” Pallone, a Democratic congressman from New Jersey, told the EPA administrator in a congressional hearing on Thursday. He also called Pruitt an “embarrassment” and called on him to resign.

Pruitt’s two appearances today—before the House Energy and Commerce committee this morning, and the House Appropriations committee in the afternoon—are supposed to be about the EPA’s budget. But Pallone, citing the ethical scandals dogging Pruitt—like his potentially corrupt living arrangement with an energy lobbyist and his high spending on security and travel—set a combative tone in his opening remarks.

Administrator Pruitt has brought secrecy, conflicts of interest and scandal to the EPA,” he said. “In any other administration, Republican or Democrat, you would be long gone by now.”

Pallone also subjected Pruitt to tense questioning over his policy agenda. He brought up the EPA’s decision to delay banning hazardous chemicals like methylene chloride—which is found in paint stripper—and cited the names of two men who died after exposure to the substance. “Do you have anything to say to these families at this point?” Pallone asked.

Pruitt responded that the EPA is considering banning of the chemical—a proposal that dates back to the Obama administration—but that “there has been no decision at this time.”

“Obviously you have nothing to say to these families,” Pallone said. “These chemicals are still on the shelves ... it makes a mockery of the EPA.”

April 25, 2018

Why it’s nearly impossible for Trump to kill the Russia investigation.

While fears that President Donald Trump might oust Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and special counsel Robert Mueller have ebbed in recent days, concerns remain about the long-term fate of the Russia investigation. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow argued last night that Mueller has taken steps to make sure it could continue without him.

It’s not clear if Mueller’s actions are a conscious effort to entrench the investigation beyond the special counsel’s office. Given the investigation’s scope, there are legitimate reasons for him to liaise with the National Security Division and other key offices in the Department of Justice. The Manafort investigation also has deep roots in the federal prosecutor’s office in eastern Virginia that precede Mueller’s appointment.

The Russia investigation is not immortal, but it is very hard to kill. Whether and how it would die depends on the whims of the president and the integrity of DOJ personnel who respond to them. Former FBI Director James Comey made a similar point in an interview with Maddow last week.

“If somebody did want to end the Mueller investigation, how would they do it?” she asked him.

“I actually don’t think you could accomplish that by firing Director Mueller,” he replied. “I think you’d have to fire everybody in the FBI and the Justice Department to accomplish that in practice, given the commitment of the people in those organizations.”

Jack Goldsmith, a former DOJ official in the George W. Bush administration, argued in January that DOJ’s culture of independence would make it hard to find a willing executioner for the Russia investigation, and that even pardons wouldn’t be able to halt its progress. “They wouldn’t stop the Justice Department from reporting Mueller’s findings to Congress under the special counsel regulations,” he wrote. “They wouldn’t stop related state prosecutions. And they would be political dynamite that would destroy Trump’s presidency.”

Even if Trump succeeds in purging the Justice Department, he can’t force Rosenstein and Mueller to unlearn whatever they’ve learned so far. There’s always the risk that Mueller could simply tell Congress and the American people what he found out if he’s fired prematurely. And Comey’s book tour underscores that some Justice Department personnel could do far more political damage from the outside than from within.

April 23, 2018

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Jonathan Chait is wrong to conflate suffering with victimhood.

The New York magazine writer worries that female Democratic politicians risk falling into a “victim trap” if the media focuses too much on their experiences with sexism or harassment. “On the left, victimhood is a prime source of authority, and discourse revolves around establishing one’s intersectional credentials and detailing stories of mistreatment that reinforce them,” Chait wrote in a post on Sunday. The danger, he said, is that a “heavy emphasis on a politicians’ suffering might undercut their ability to project an image of strength and competence.”

But are stories about suffering inherently demeaning? Can’t suffering also be a sign of strength?

Consider the way that successful male politicians are often portrayed by the media. Bill Clinton, the son of a single mother, came from a hardscrabble childhood. Barack Obama overcame racism (and in a famous 2008 speech on racism, he detailed microaggressions that Chait warns against discussing). George W. Bush became a born-again Christian, helping to save him from alcoholism. Even Donald Trump has a tale of woe: He rose from the ashes of bankruptcy to become even more rich and famous than before.

Politicians tell these stories, and the media repeats them, because suffering provides a ready narrative of redemption and perseverance. It humanizes them. The same is true of the stories about Kirsten Gillibrand being sexually harassed and Kamala Harris being interrupted by male colleagues. In fact, these stories may be even more politically powerful because of how many people can relate to them—about half of the country, to be exact.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

“This is a serious situation.”

That’s what Richard Painter, former ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, told me about the allegations facing Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt. On Saturday, The Hill reported that Pruitt conducted official EPA business with the fossil fuel lobbyist whose wife rented Pruitt a $50/night room in the couple’s condominium on Capitol Hill in D.C. The lobbyist, Steven J. Hart, had previously denied doing business with the agency in the past two years. Pruitt had also previously said that “Hart has no clients that have business before this agency.”

Painter, an outspoken critic of the Trump administration’s ethical lapses, told me this news could open Pruitt to criminal charges. “I think [Pruitt] is already in violation of the gift rules, because $50 a room a night in D.C. is a gift,” he said. “But when you meet the gift-giver and sit down and conduct official business with him, you make yourself vulnerable to prosecution under the bribery statute.” Painter also noted, however, that it’s difficult to convict politicians on bribery charges, and that it’s unlikely Trump’s Department of Justice would go after Pruitt. (Painter is exploring a run for U.S. Senate.)

Pruitt has been under fire for nearly a month due to myriad ethical scandals, mostly surrounding excessive spending on travel and security. But Painter said Pruitt’s dishonesty about meeting with Hart does the most potential harm to the public. “I don’t like him wasting taxpayer money—a $43,000 phone booth, I don’t appreciate it,” he said. “But trashing the planet for energy companies is far, far worse.”

This isn’t the first time Pruitt has been caught in a contradiction lately. He told Fox News that he didn’t know about large pay raises given to his top aides, but The Atlantic uncovered an email that suggests he personally approved it.

Updated on April 23 at 1:01 p.m.

April 20, 2018

MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images

The DNC’s Russia lawsuit goes where Mueller hasn’t (yet).

The Democratic National Committee’s new lawsuit accuses the Trump campaign and Moscow of working in concert to undermine Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid, releasing embarrassing documents stolen through cyberattacks. It’s a familiar claim to those who’ve followed the Russia investigation for the past 18 months, but it’s also one that special counsel Robert Mueller hasn’t made—so far.

Mueller has been pretty busy, of course. He’s brought indictments against multiple people in President Donald Trump’s inner circle on charges largely unrelated to Russian meddling. Some defendants, including former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates, have taken plea deals for lying to investigators. In February, Mueller’s team filed quasi-symbolic indictments against Russian intelligence operatives who used social media sites to spread disinformation.

But the special counsel’s office hasn’t yet taken action publicly on the seminal act of Russian interference: cyberattacks against the DNC and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta in 2015, followed by the releases of stolen files at key moments during the campaign. The embarrassing contents helped topple DNC chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz on the eve of the convention and damaged Clinton’s standing among Democrats who supported Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

The party’s 66-page complaint, filed on Friday in a federal court in Manhattan, tries to fill the gap left by Mueller to date. It draws from news reports and Mueller’s indictments so far to draw connections between Trump, his inner circle, WikiLeaks, and a constellation of Russian officials and oligarchs, all to accuse the president of committing “an act of previously unimaginable treachery.”

Taking a president and his campaign to court for criminal activity isn’t without precedent: The DNC sued Richard Nixon’s campaign for the break-in at the party’s Watergate headquarters, eventually receiving a $750,000 settlement in 1974.

April 16, 2018

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Michael Cohen’s mystery client is none other than Sean Hannity.

The Fox News host is infamous for his zealous defense of President Donald Trump against all manner of foes and scandals. The bond between the two men now appears to be more than ideological: Cohen’s lawyers revealed in a federal court in New York City on Monday that Hannity is the previously unnamed third client of the president’s longtime personal lawyer (the other two are former RNC official Elliott Broidy and Trump himself). The legal matters on which Hannity received counsel from Cohen are currently unknown.

The revelation comes as Cohen and Trump try to convince a judge to shield their communications from federal investigators, who carried out a surprise raid on Cohen’s office, home, and hotel room last week for evidence in a criminal investigation. That probe began with a referral from special counsel Robert Mueller to the federal prosecutor’s office in Manhattan. That office is now reportedly looking into potential bank fraud and campaign-finance violations by Cohen.

Hannity is the Russia investigation’s most persistent and misleading critic, using his nightly television perch on Fox News to accuse Mueller and other Justice Department officials of acting as a “deep state” working to illegitimately bring down Trump’s presidency. Trump occasionally urges his supporters via Twitter to watch the show when it airs. During his first episode after the raid last week, Hannity described the search of Cohen’s office in similarly bombastic terms.

This is an unprecedented abuse of power,” Hannity warned in his opening monologue. “It needs to be countered and countered immediately.” Later, he declared that it was vital to “investigate [Mueller’s] team of partisan witch hunters” for “trying to overturn a duly elected president.” At no point did Hannity note that he had also sought and received legal advice from Cohen, or that his own legal affairs could be caught up in the investigation.

Updated on April 16 at 5:21 p.m. ET

April 13, 2018

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Trump’s politicized pardons are the rule, not the exception.

The president on Friday pardoned Scooter Libby, a former chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney who was convicted in 2007 for lying to the FBI and a federal grand jury about leaking an undercover CIA operative’s identity. (George W. Bush had partially commuted Libby’s sentence, sparing him jail time, but rebuffed pressure from Cheney and other conservatives to issue a full pardon.)

Trump’s decision fits a distinct pattern. While George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and other presidents all used the constitutional power of mercy to benefit their political allies from time to time, Trump almost exclusively uses pardons to favor his supporters and infuriate his adversaries, not to alleviate injustices.

This trend began last August with the pardon of Joe Arpaio, an Arizona sheriff and enthusiastic political supporter of Trump who had defied a judge’s order in a racial-profiling lawsuit. Last month, Trump wiped away the sentence for Kristian Saucier, a Navy sailor convicted of illegally photographing a nuclear submarine’s top-secret propulsion system. Trump invoked Saucier’s case on the campaign trail to criticize Hillary Clinton, whom he also accused of mishandling classified information. Only Trump’s decision last December to commute a life sentence for an Iowa meatpacking executive enjoyed bipartisan support.

Friday’s pardon of Libby also sends a thinly veiled message of support to Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller in the Russia investigation. Wiping away Libby’s conviction for lying and for obstruction of justice during a special prosecutor’s high-profile inquiry is hardly a subtle move.

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The president is in a rage over James Comey’s book.

A Higher Loyalty drops on Tuesday, but, in keeping with longstanding publishing tradition, the good bits have already been selectively leaked to outlets in advance. We’ve learned that the former FBI director compares Trump to a mafia boss, that Trump’s “leadership is transactional, ego driven, and about personal loyalty,” and that Comey admits that the widespread belief that Clinton would become president may have played a role in his decision to announce that the FBI was reopening an investigation into her use of a private email server less than two weeks before the election.

We also learn that Trump was obsessed with the “pee tape,” the most salacious allegation in the infamous Steele Dossier. Comey writes that Trump “strongly denied the allegations, asking—rhetorically, I assumed—whether he seemed like a guy who needed the service of prostitutes. He then began discussing cases where women had accused him of sexual assault, a subject I had not raised. He mentioned a number of women, and seemed to have memorized their allegations.”

Trump took the bait, sending out two tweets attacking Comey on Friday morning.

But of course, Trump admitted, only days after Comey’s dismissal, that he really fired Comey over the Russia investigation.