The headlines that the Trump administration's economic hands and other top officials continue generating usually would keep congressional investigators fully occupied.
But they've taken a back seat so far to even bigger developments transfixing the attention of official Washington and beyond — from the Ukraine scandal and the impeachment inquiry it has launched, to the ongoing crisis in Syria.
Here's what you should know about five revelations from the past several days alone that are all deserving of follow-up.
1. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin helps wire tax breaks for Mike Milken, a close friend.
Mnuchin personally intervened to end-run Treasury Department guidelines and help designate property owned by the 1980s junk bond king as part of an opportunity zone, the New York Times’s Eric Lipton and Jesse Drucker report. The move boosted the value of Milken's property, though the program is meant to benefit distressed communities.
Milken served two years of a 10-year prison sentence, paid $600 million in fines and earned a lifetime ban from the securities industry following a 1990 conviction on insider trading charges. He has since rehabilitated his fortune along with his reputation — and, as the Times story notes, developed close ties to Trump’s inner circle. Beyond Mnuchin, who took a cross-country trip on Milken’s private jet earlier this year, Milken has given coveted speaking slots at his charity’s annual convention to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.
Milken and officials with his charity lobbied the Treasury Department to loosen rules governing the designation of the zones so land Milken owns in Nevada qualified. Annie Donovan, the former head of the department’s office in charge of the designations, told the Times, “People were troubled.” Per the story, “She and two of her former colleagues said they were upset that the Treasury secretary was intervening to bend rules, though they said they didn’t realize at the time that Mr. Mnuchin’s friend [and business partner] stood to profit. The agency’s employees, Ms. Donovan said, ‘were put in a position where they had to compromise the integrity of the process.’ ”
2. The Pentagon spurns front-running Amazon to award $10 billion contract to Microsoft after Trump weighs in.
Amazon had been expected to earn the cloud-computing business from the Defense Department. But Trump and other administration officials “made it clear they did not want the contract to go to Amazon,” my colleagues Aaron Gregg and Jay Greene write, reflecting the president’s personal animus toward Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post.
"Federal acquisition laws forbid politicians, including the president, from influencing contract awards," my colleagues note. And Amazon was considered the favorite for the work “because of its years of experience handling classified data for the CIA.” But according to the forthcoming book by Guy Snodgrass, speechwriter for then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Trump called Mattis in the summer of 2018 and directed him to “screw Amazon” out of the chance to bid. Snodgrass writes that Mattis ignored the order.
“The president’s role in the procurement will almost certainly become the subject of litigation,” Aaron and Greg write.
3. A company in which Trump’s brother Robert has a financial stake won a $33 million government contract.
The company, CertiPath, received the contract earlier this year from the U.S. Marshals Service to provide security at federal courthouses and cellblocks, my colleague Joshua Paltrow reports. A company linked to Robert owns a stake in the firm.
“After the contract was awarded, an anonymous rival bidder filed a complaint with the Justice Department’s office of the inspector general alleging that CertiPath had failed to disclose that ‘one of the President’s closest living relatives stood to benefit financially from the transaction,’ according to a copy of the July 22 complaint letter obtained by The Washington Post,” Paltrow writes.
No money has been paid out on the contract “because a second company, NMR Consulting, of Chantilly, Va., also filed a protest of the bid with the Government Accountability Office, on July 1.” But CertiPath has been paid $6 million for government work since Trump took office. The company’s founder and CEO said in a statement Robert is an investor in an entity that holds a minority share in the company and “his name has never been used or mentioned by CertiPath in any solicitation for a government contract, whether state or federal.”
4. A property management company owned by Jared Kushner’s family faces a lawsuit from the Maryland attorney general over housing conditions at its Baltimore properties.
“Westminster Management LLC engaged in “unfair or deceptive trade practices” at 17 residential communities located in Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Prince George’s County, claims a lawsuit filed Wednesday," my colleague Rebecca Tan reports. “The affiliate of Kushner Cos. ‘victimized consumers, many of whom are financially vulnerable,’ the lawsuit alleges, placing them in units ‘infested by rodents and vermin, plagued with water leaks . . . and, at times, lacking in basic utilities.’”
Brian Frosh, the Maryland attorney general (and a Democrat), said the scope of the violations and the number of affected tenants were the worst he has ever seen, Tan reports. “In a statement Wednesday, Kushner Cos. chief executive Laurent Morali said the company was prepared to defend itself against what it called ‘bogus allegations.’”
5. The National Archives and Records Administration is probing Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s use of private email for government business.
Trump campaigned on demonizing Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server, but senior officials in his administration have demonstrated a lax approach to the practice. “The inquiry was triggered by an unflattering profile of Ross last month in The Washington Post, which cited government-related emails the watchdog group Democracy Forward received from Ross’ private account,” Politico’s Josh Gerstein reports. “The group obtained the messages through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.” Justice Department lawyers are fighting in court to get Commerce off the hook from conducting a search of Ross's private accounts.
— E.U. grants U.K. a Brexit delay until Jan. 31. The Post's Michael Birnbaum: "The postponement came in response to a request from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was forced to ask for more time after Parliament shot down his effort to speed the country out of the European Union by the previous deadline of Oct. 31... Ambassadors from the 27 remaining E.U. members agreed Monday to postpone the departure date until the end of January, although Britain could still leave earlier if Parliament ratifies the separation deal ahead of time. In Europe’s jargon-loving precincts, that means Britain has received a 'flextension.' ...
"Leaders are tired of debating Brexit at a moment when many European economies are flagging, extreme parties are still nipping at their heels and many citizens just want to move on. But they also fear igniting an economic blaze by kicking Britain out of the bloc before it is ready."
— Hiring drops to a seven-year low. AP's Chris Rugaber: "A measure of hiring by U.S. companies has fallen to a seven-year low and fewer employers are raising pay, a business survey has found. Just one-fifth of the economists surveyed by the National Association for Business Economics said their companies have hired additional workers in the past three months. That is down from one-third in July. Job totals were unchanged at 69% of companies, up from 57% in July. A broad measure of job gains in the survey fell to its lowest level since October 2012. The hiring slowdown comes as more businesses are reporting slower growth of sales and profits."
— Investors worry about past pullbacks: “Stocks are flirting with record territory but have been stuck in a narrow trading range since the beginning of last year, leaving investors grasping for a fresh driver that could propel the decadelong bull market to even greater heights,” the WSJ’s Amrith Ramkumar reports.
“ … Most of the index’s gains came in the first four months of 2019, following a brutal selloff in last year’s fourth quarter. Stocks have treaded water lately, averaging a daily move of 0.4% or less in five of the past seven weeks. The recent muted moves reflect investor fears that a bleak outlook for global growth and corporate earnings will limit the stock market’s gains. The three-month stretch without a new high is the S&P’s fifth-longest in the past five years, according to Dow Jones Market Data.”
— Parts of phase 1 China deal are almost done: “U.S. and Chinese officials are ‘close to finalizing’ some parts of a trade agreement after high-level telephone discussions ... the U.S. Trade Representative’s office and China’s Commerce Ministry said, with talks to continue,” Reuters’s David Lawder and Andrea Shalal reported late last week.
“China’s Commerce Ministry said both sides confirmed the United States will import Chinese-made cooked poultry and catfish products, while China will lift a ban on U.S. poultry. Beijing wants the United States to cancel some existing U.S. tariffs on Chinese imports, people briefed on the Friday call told Reuters, in return for pledging to step up its purchases of U.S. commodities like soybeans.”
Meanwhile, Trump administration considering blacklisting more Chinese companies: “Peter Navarro, a top Trump adviser who has spent much of his career calling for an aggressive crackdown on trade with China, has looked at blacklisting Chinese companies that steal American IP from doing business in the United States, according to three people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity,” my colleague Heather Long reports.
“Getting on the list makes it difficult to operate in the United States without obtaining a special license. The entity list mainly includes companies that pose a military or terrorist threat to the United States, but the Trump administration has frequently argued that economic security is part of national security. In a brief interview, Navarro called it ‘fake news’ that he was working on an executive order to blacklist more Chinese companies, but people familiar with the plan have seen versions of it in writing.”
And economists want a new approach to the debate: “A group of prominent economists from the U.S. and China called for the world’s two largest economies to abandon their trade war and agree to a new path forward that would give both countries more latitude to both pursue their own domestic economic policies and hit back at those that hurt them,” Bloomberg News’s Shawn Donnan reports.
“In a joint statement issued in China ... 37 economists — including Joseph Stiglitz, Michael Spence and three other Nobel winners — bemoaned what they said has been a descent of the trade conflict into a binary debate where the only emerging solutions are either wholesale economic reforms by China leading to a converging of economic models or an economically-damaging ‘decoupling.’ The group argued a more sensible framework for future trade relations would give China room to pursue industrial policies that are often a target of criticism from the U.S., while also allowing the U.S. latitude to respond with targeted tariffs if China’s policies were damaging its interests.”
— GM labor deal could cost rival automakers: “The new labor deal secured at General Motors Co. GM this past week to end a 40-day strike will not only add to the auto maker’s labor costs but could also pose problems for its Detroit rivals,” the Wall Street Journal’s Nora Naughton and Mike Colias report.
“The United Auto Workers will use the agreement at GM as a template that is expected to reach similar terms on wages and benefits in separate contract talks with Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, under the union’s traditional pattern bargaining. GM workers won considerable gains in this latest contract, including across-the-board wage increases, an accelerated timetable for new hires to reach top hourly pay and a path to full-time status for temporary workers.”
— HSBC to launch overhaul after profits miss. Bloomberg's Harry Wilson and Alfred Liu: "HSBC Holdings Plc embarked on its biggest overhaul in years after profit missed estimates, warning that it will pare back underperforming operations in the face of slowing economic growth and geopolitical uncertainty.
"The bank, which makes almost 90% of its profit in Asia and employs 240,000 people, walked away from a key profitability target and said write-offs are likely for some of its European business and technology spending. For acting Chief Executive Officer Noel Quinn, who took over in August following the ouster of John Flint, the review is his chance to put his stamp on the sprawling lender. Cuts at the investment bank have already begun."
- JPMorgan weighs moving thousands out of New York. Bloomberg's Michelle Davis: "Despite more than two centuries of history in a city synonymous with the global financial industry, JPMorgan is quietly shrinking its workforce there. The bank’s been building up its presence in other locations and is now considering relocating several thousand New York-based employees out of the area to help rein in costs ahead of a possible economic downturn, according to people with knowledge of the bank’s strategy."
— Louis Vuitton owner offers to buy Tiffany: “Louis Vuitton owner LVMH has approached Tiffany & Co with a $14.5 billion acquisition offer, people familiar with the matter said, at a time when the U.S. luxury jeweler grapples with the impact of tariffs on its exports to China,” Reuters’s Greg Roumeliotis reports. “LVMH, which has for years been looking for ways to expand in the U.S. market, submitted a preliminary, non-binding offer to Tiffany earlier this month, one of the sources said.”
— H&M CEO pushes back on climate activists: “Karl-Johan Persson, the 44-year-old H&M CEO and son of its billionaire chairman, is speaking out as a pattern of shaming that initially targeted air travelers spreads into more industries, including his. The movement has gained traction as Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teen activist, inspires millions of people across the globe to take to the streets and voice their anger over what she says is a climate crisis," Bloomberg News’s Hanna Hoikkala reports.
"The H&M CEO is a key figure in the $2.5 trillion fashion industry that has come under increasing scrutiny amid concerns about pollution and workers’ rights in the developing economies that have tended to do the bulk of the manufacturing ... Many of the protests are ‘about stop doing things, stop consuming, stop flying,’ Persson said. ‘Yes, that may lead to a small environmental impact, but it will have terrible social consequences.’ ”
- Alphabet, AT&T, T-Mobile, Lowes, Walgreens Boots Alliance, Spotify, Beyond Meat and Texas Roadhouse are among the notable companies reporting their earnings, per Kiplinger
- The Brookings Institution holds an event on reversed mortgages
- The House Financial Services Committee is scheduled to markup a 10-year extension of the Export-Import Bank
- General Motors, BP, Amgen, Kellogg, Pfizer, MasterCard, Mattel, Electronic Arts, Allstate, ConocoPhillips, Yum China, Xerox, Denny’s and GrubHub, report their earnings.
- The Financial Services Committee continues its markup
- Apple, Facebook, AK Steel, Lyft, Sony, Starbucks, Yum! Brands, McKesson, General Electric, MetLife and MGM Resorts are among the notable companies reporting their earnings.
- CFTC Chairman Heath Tarbert keynotes the annual Futures & Options Expo. in Chicago
- Fiat Chrysler, Re/Max Holdings, Bristol-Myers, Clorox, Cigna, DuPont, Altria, Royal Dutch Shell, Sirius XM and Sanofi are among the notable companies reporting their earnings.
- Alibaba, U.S. Steel, Dominion Energy, AbbVie and Chevron are among the notable companies reporting their earnings.