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For Trump, the ‘Cloud’ Just Grew That Much Darker

WASHINGTON — Upset about the investigation into Russian interference in last year’s election, President Trump sought relief from James B. Comey, then the F.B.I. director. By Mr. Comey’s account, Mr. Trump asked him to help “lift the cloud.”

But thanks to Mr. Trump’s own actions, the cloud darkened considerably on Thursday and now seems likely to hover over his presidency for months, if not years, to come.

Rather than relieve the pressure, Mr. Trump’s decision to fire Mr. Comey has generated an even bigger political and legal threat. In his anger at Mr. Comey for refusing to publicly disclose that the president was not personally under investigation, legal experts said, Mr. Trump may have actually made himself the target of an investigation.

While delivered in calm, deliberate and unemotional terms, Mr. Comey’s testimony on Thursday was almost certainly the most damning j’accuse moment by a senior law enforcement official against a president in a generation. In a Capitol Hill hearing room, the astonishing tableau unfoldedof a former F.B.I. director accusing the White House of “lies, plain and simple” and asserting that when the president suggested dropping an investigation into his former national security adviser, “I took it as a direction.”

Mr. Comey gave ammunition to the president’s side, too, particularly by admitting that he had orchestrated the leak of his account of his most critical meeting with Mr. Trump with the express purpose of spurring the appointment of a special counsel, which he accomplished. The president’s defenders said Mr. Comey had proved Mr. Trump was right when he called the former F.B.I. director a “showboat” and a “grandstander,” a conclusion Democrats once shared when he was investigating Hillary Clinton last year.

But Mr. Comey also revealed that he had turned over memos of his conversations with Mr. Trump to that newly appointed special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, suggesting that investigators may now be looking into whether Mr. Trump obstructed justice by dismissing the F.B.I. director.

“This was a devastating day for the Trump White House, and when the history of the Trump presidency is written, this will be seen as a key moment,” said Peter H. Wehner, who was White House adviser to President George W. Bush. “My takeaway is James Comey laid out facts and was essentially encouraging Mueller to investigate Trump for obstruction. That’s a huge deal.”

The White House was left in the awkward position of trying to minimize the damage. Mr. Trump himself remained uncharacteristically silent, while his advisers kept the daily briefing off camera and sent out the backup to Sean Spicer, the press secretary. “I can definitively say the president is not a liar,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the principal deputy press secretary, told reporters.

Washington has not seen a spectacle quite like this since the days of Watergate, Iran-contra or President Bill Clinton’s impeachment. Whatever the controversies under Mr. Bush and President Barack Obama, neither was ever accused of personal misconduct by a current or former law enforcement official in such a public forum.

Indeed, Mr. Comey highlighted the difference by noting that he had never taken notes of his conversations with either of those presidents because he trusted their basic integrity, but he did write memos about each of his one-on-one encounters with Mr. Trump because “I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting.”

In any other presidency, the events laid out by Mr. Comey — Mr. Trump asking for “loyalty” from the F.B.I. director who was investigating the president’s associates, then asking him to drop an investigation into a former aide and ultimately firing him when he did not — might have spelled the end.

But Mr. Trump has tested the boundaries of normal politics and upended the usual rules. To his supporters, the inquiries are nothing more than the elite news media and political establishment attacking a change agent who threatens their interests.

“This is like an explosive presidency-ending moment,” said John Q. Barrett, a law professor at St. John’s University in New York and an associate independent counsel during the Iran-contra investigation in Ronald Reagan’s presidency. “But we have a different context now.”

The articles of impeachment drafted against President Richard M. Nixon and Mr. Clinton both alleged obstruction of justice, in effect making clear that such an action could qualify under the “high crimes and misdemeanors” clause of the Constitution. The “smoking gun” tape that doomed Mr. Nixon in 1974 recorded him ordering his chief of staff to have the C.I.A. block the F.B.I. from investigating the Watergate burglary. Critics said that Mr. Trump’s comments to Mr. Comey effectively cut out the middle man.

The House impeached Mr. Clinton in 1998 for lying under oath and obstructing justice to cover up his affair with Monica Lewinsky, a former White House intern, during a sexual harassment lawsuit. The obstruction alleged in Mr. Clinton’s case was persuading Ms. Lewinsky to give false testimony, advising her to hide gifts he had given her to avoid any subpoena and trying to find her a job to keep her happy. After a trial, the Senate acquitted him.

As a political matter, both Mr. Nixon and Mr. Clinton faced a House under control of the opposition party, while Mr. Trump has the benefit of a Republican House that would be far less eager to open an impeachment inquiry. And for all of the fireworks on Thursday, the reaction in Congress still broke down largely along partisan lines, with Democrats in attack mode and Republicans either defending Mr. Trump or remaining silent. That may leave the question to Mr. Mueller.

“The polarization seems even worse than during the Lewinsky investigation, which I hadn’t thought possible,” said Stephen Bates, an associate independent counsel during the investigation into Mr. Clinton. “Everyone gets judged in terms of helping or hurting Trump. Whatever Mueller does, half of the country will call him courageous and half will call him contemptible. We just don’t know which half is which.”

The defense on Thursday was left to Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, Marc E. Kasowitz, who selectively used Mr. Comey’s testimony, disputing the damaging parts while citing the parts he considered helpful. He denied that the president had ever asked Mr. Comey for loyalty or to let go of the investigation into Michael T. Flynn, the former national security adviser. But he cited Mr. Comey’s statement that the president himself was not under investigation at the time the F.B.I. director was fired.

He also assailed Mr. Comey for leaking details of his conversations with the president to prompt the appointment of a special counsel, although they were not classified. “It is overwhelmingly clear that there have been and continue to be those in government who are actively attempting to undermine this administration with selective and illegal leaks of classified information and privileged communications,” he said. “Mr. Comey has now admitted that he is one of these leakers.”

Tellingly, the Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee paid no heed to the talking points distributed in advance by the Republican National Committee at the behest of the White House. Instead of attacking Mr. Comey’s credibility, as the R.N.C. and Donald Trump Jr. did, the Republican senators praised him as a patriot and dedicated public servant. They largely accepted his version of events, while trying to elicit testimony that would cast Mr. Trump’s actions in the most innocent light possible.

Mr. Comey cooperated to some extent by trying not to go too far beyond the facts as he presented them, declining, for instance, to say whether he thought Mr. Trump’s statements amounted to obstruction of justice.

“In a credibility battle between Trump and Comey, everybody knows Comey is going to win that war,” said Adam W. Goldberg, who was an associate special White House counsel under Mr. Clinton during Kenneth W. Starr’s investigation.

For Mr. Trump, the battle with Mr. Comey now overshadows much of what he wants to do. Major legislation is stalled. Mr. Kasowitz said the president was “eager to continue moving forward with his agenda, with the business of this country, and with the public cloud removed.”

For now, though, the cloud remains.

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AP Explains: 4/20 grew from humble roots to pot high holiday

Thursday marks marijuana culture’s high holiday, 4/20, when college students gather — at 4:20 p.m. — in clouds of smoke on campus quads and when pot shops in legal weed states thank their customers with discounts.

This year’s edition provides an occasion for pot activists to reflect on how far their movement has come, with recreational pot now allowed in eight states and the nation’s capital, as well as a changed national political climate that could threaten to slow or undermine their cause.

Here’s a look at the holiday’s history.

___

WHY 4/20?

The origins of the date, and the term “420” generally, were long murky. Some claimed it referred to a police code for marijuana possession or that it arose from Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35,” with its refrain of “Everybody must get stoned” — 420 being the product of 12 times 35.

But in recent years, a consensus has emerged around the most credible explanation: It started with a group of bell-bottomed buddies from San Rafael High School in California, who called themselves “the Waldos.” A friend’s brother was afraid of getting busted for a patch of cannabis he was growing in the woods at Point Reyes, so he drew a map and gave the teens permission to harvest the crop, the story goes.

During fall 1971, at 4:20 p.m., just after classes and football practice, the group would meet up at the school’s statue of chemist Louis Pasteur, smoke a joint and head out to search for the weed patch. They never did find it, but their private lexicon — “420 Louie” and later just “420” — would take on a life of its own.

The Waldos saved postmarked letters and other artifacts from the 1970s referencing “420,” which they now keep in a bank vault, and when the Oxford English Dictionary added the term last month , it cited some of those documents as the entry’s earliest recorded uses .

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HOW DID ‘420’ SPREAD?

 

A brother of one of the Waldos was a close friend of Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, as Lesh once confirmed in an interview with the Huffington Post. The Waldos began hanging out in the band’s circle, and the slang spread.

Fast-forward to the early 1990s: Steve Bloom, a reporter for the cannabis magazine High Times, was at a Dead show when he was handed a flier urging people to “meet at 4:20 on 4/20 for 420-ing in Marin County at the Bolinas Ridge sunset spot on Mt. Tamalpais.” High Times published it.

“It’s a phenomenon,” said one of the Waldos, Steve Capper, now 62 and a chief executive at a payroll financing company in San Francisco. “Most things die within a couple years, but this just goes on and on. It’s not like someday somebody’s going to say, ‘OK, Cannabis New Year’s is on June 23rd now.'”

Bloom, now editor in chief of Freedom Leaf Magazine, notes that while the Waldos came up with the term, the people who made the flier — and effectively turned 4/20 into a holiday — remain unknown.

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HOW IS IT CELEBRATED?

 

With weed, naturally. Some of the celebrations are bigger than others; Hippie Hill in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park typically draws thousands. In Seattle, the organizers of the annual Hempfest event are anticipating about 250 people at a private party. Some pot shops are offering discounts or hosting block parties.

College quads and statehouse lawns are also known for drawing 4/20 celebrants, with the University of Colorado’s Boulder campus historically among the largest gatherings — though not so much since administrators started closing off the campus several years ago. Generally, 4/20 events in Colorado have dropped off significantly since the state legalized recreational use in 2012.

Some breweries make 4/20 themed beers — including SweetWater Brewing in Atlanta, whose founders attended CU-Boulder. Lagunitas Brewing in Petaluma, California, releases its “Waldos’ Special Ale” every year on 4/20 in honor of the term’s coiners.

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THE POLITICS

 

This year’s 4/20 follows successful legalization campaigns in California, Nevada, Maine and Massachusetts, which join Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington in allowing recreational marijuana. More than half the states allow medical marijuana.

But it’s still illegal under U.S. law. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered a review of marijuana policy this month to see how it may conflict with President Donald Trump’s crime-fighting agenda.

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly recently called marijuana “a potentially dangerous gateway drug that frequently leads to the use of harder drugs.” That’s a view long held by drug warriors despite scant evidence.

Sixty percent of adults support legalizing marijuana, according to a Gallup poll last fall, and two-thirds of respondents in a Yahoo/Marist poll released this week said marijuana is safer than opioids.

Undermining regulatory schemes in legal pot states could prompt a backlash that would hasten the end of federal prohibition, said Vivian McPeak, a founder of Seattle’s Hempfest.

“We’re looking at an attorney general who wants to bring America back into the 1980s in terms of drug policy,” McPeak said. “I’m skeptical they can put the cannabis genie back into the bottle.”

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WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

 

McPeak says 4/20 these days is “half-celebration and half-call to action.”

For the Waldos, who remain close friends, it signifies above all else a good time, Capper said.

“We’re not political. We’re jokesters,” he said. “But there was a time that we can’t forget, when it was secret, furtive. … The energy of the time was more charged, more exciting in a certain way.

“I’m not saying that’s all good — it’s not good they were putting people in jail,” he added. “You wouldn’t want to go back there.”

U.S. economy grew at weak 1.9 percent rate in 4th quarter

The U.S. economy grew at an anemic 1.9 percent rate in the fourth quarter, unchanged from an initial estimate, although consumers performed better than first thought.

The increase in the gross domestic product, the broadest measure of economic health, represented a significant slowdown from 3.5 percent growth recorded in the third quarter, the Commerce Department reported Tuesday.

The fourth quarter figure was unchanged from the first estimate a month ago, although some of the components were revised. The government found that consumer spending grew at a faster rate, but spending by state and local governments and businesses equipment purchases were weaker.

Growth for 2016 overall was just 1.6 percent, the poorest showing in five years. Since the recession ended in mid-2009, annual growth has averaged 2.1 percent, the worst performance for any recovery in the post-World War II period.

President Donald Trump vowed during the campaign to double economic growth to 4 percent or better. He said his economic program of tax cuts, deregulation and increased spending in such areas as the military and infrastructure would boost the economy back to growth rates not seen on a sustained basis in decades.

However, Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has cited a lower projection. He has said he believes the Trump program would achieve growth 3 percent or better and that the improvements would likely not be felt until 2018, after the Trump program had been enacted.

Even a 3 percent growth goal is viewed by many economists as overly optimistic, given the headwinds the economy faces including an aging workforce and disappointing productivity gains.

At the moment, many economists are forecasting growth for this year of between 2 percent and 2.5 percent. Some say growth could hit 3 percent in the second half of the year if elements of Trump’s economic program such as the middle-class tax cuts win approval in Congress by this summer.

Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics, said that even with the fourth quarter slowdown, the second half of 2016 was much better than the first half, with encouraging signs from business and consumer surveys.

“The marked improvement in the survey evidence recently suggests that growth will continue at a decent pace in the first half of this year,” he said, predicting GDP growth of 2.5 percent in the first quarter.

While the overall GDP figure in the fourth quarter was unchanged, the report Tuesday did show revisions to various components. Consumer spending, which accounts for 70 percent of economic activity, was revised to show solid growth at a 3 percent rate, up from an initial estimate of 2.5 percent growth.

But spending by state and local governments was revised lower to 1.3 percent growth, just half the initial 2.6 percent estimate. Spending by businesses on equipment such as cell phones was revised down to a 1.9 percent increase instead of the initial 3.1 percent estimate. Housing construction was trimmed to growth at a still-strong rate of 9.6 percent but lower than the initial 10.2 percent gain.

The release Tuesday was the second of three estimates the government releases for GDP performance each quarter.

Trump was expected to unveil details of his economic plans before a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night. The budget portion of that program will feature a $54 billion boost in military spending. The extra spending is intended for new aircraft, ships and fighters and will be paid for with $54 billion in cuts in domestic programs and foreign aid.

The Federal Reserve has raised interest rates twice in the past two years but Fed officials have signaled that rates could increase three times this year as the economy moves closer to the Fed’s goals for employment and inflation.

US Holocaust survivors’ requests for help grew by 20 percent in ’16, aid group says

(JTA) — A group that provides assistance to Holocaust survivors in the United States said requests for assistance grew by 20 percent in 2016 over the previous year.

The Blue Card, making the announcement this week ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Friday, said about one-third of the approximately 100,000 Holocaust survivors in the U.S. now are living at or below the poverty line. It is estimated that 61 percent of the survivors living at the poverty line live on less than $23,000 per year, making it difficult to afford proper medical care, mental health care, nutrition and other basic necessities, according to the organization.

In a recent survey of Holocaust survivors that The Blue Card works with, the group found the greatest needs for financial assistance were for home care (13 percent), food (12 percent) and utilities (12 percent), as well as assistance with supplies for Jewish holidays (11 percent), dental care (10 percent), medication (9 percent), housing expenses (9 percent), transportation (9 percent) and medical supplies (8 percent).

Founded in Germany in 1934, and re-established in the United States in 1939, The Blue Card has distributed nearly $30 million to Holocaust survivors.

U.S. Household Income Grew 5.2 Percent in 2015, Breaking Pattern of Stagnation

WASHINGTON — Americans last year reaped the largest economic gains in nearly a generation as poverty fell, health insurance coverage spread and incomes rose sharply for households on every rung of the economic ladder, ending years of stagnation.

The median household’s income in 2015 was $56,500, up 5.2 percent from the previous year — the largest single-year increase since record-keeping began in 1967, the Census Bureau said on Tuesday. The share of Americans living in poverty also posted the sharpest decline in decades.

The gains were an important milestone for the economic expansion that began in 2009. For the first time in recent years, the benefits of renewed prosperity are spreading broadly.

The data was released into a heated presidential race, where Democrats seized on the statistics to promote Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and undercut Donald J. Trump’s dark assessment of the nation’s well-being.

“It has been a long slog from the depths of the Great Recession, but things are finally starting to improve for many American households,” said Chris G. Christopher Jr., director of consumer economics at IHS Global Insight. He said the gains had continued this year.

The economic recovery, however, remains incomplete. The median household income was still 1.6 percent lower than in 2007, adjusting for inflation. It also remained 2.4 percent lower than the peak reached during the boom of the late 1990s. The number of people living in poverty also remained elevated, although it shrank last year by about 3.5 million, or roughly 8 percent.

Mark R. Rank, a professor of social welfare at Washington University in St. Louis, said the new data “is obviously good news.” But he noted that poverty and income inequality in the United States remained more extreme than in most developed countries. “It would take a lot to move that needle,” he said.

 

The Census Bureau also reported that the share of Americans with health insurance continued to increase. It said that only 9.1 percent of the population had no health insurance last year.

Household income rose significantly last year, but it is still slightly lower than it was before the last two recessions. The rate of those living in poverty fell to its lowest level since the Great Recession, but, as with income, the rate is higher than it was before.
Several states, including Alaska, Indiana and Pennsylvania, expanded their Medicaid programs in 2015, taking advantage of increased federal funding under the Affordable Care Act. Private sector coverage also increased as companies hired more workers and offered them better benefits.

With the presidential election looming in less than two months, the annual report provided immediate fodder.

“We lifted three and a half million people out of poverty, the largest one-year drop in poverty since 1968,” President Obama said on Tuesday at a rally in Philadelphia for Mrs. Clinton. “The uninsured rate is the lowest since they began keeping records. The pay gap between men and women shrank to the lowest level on record,” he said, adding, “Thanks, Obama.”

Mr. Trump, the Republican nominee, has repeatedly cited the stagnation of household income as evidence of a broader economic malaise. He did not address the new report directly at a rally in Clive, Iowa, but he said the Obama administration’s economic policies had failed.

“Poverty is beyond belief,” Mr. Trump said. “It’s time to break up the failed Democratic control over our inner cities, and provide real hope and opportunity to every single community in this nation.”

The Census Bureau’s annual report, based on a survey of 95,000 households, is the latest evidence that 2015 was a good year for the economy. Employers added more than three million jobs as the unemployment rate fell to 5 percent. Hourly pay increased by 2 percent, adjusting for inflation. Americans drove more miles in their cars. Even housing showed some signs of a revival.

The details of the bureau’s report revealed that the gains last year were both broad and deep. Notably, lower-income households saw the largest income gains in percentage terms. Real household incomes rose 7.9 percent for households in the 10th percentile and 6.3 percent for those in the 20th percentile. By contrast, the increase was only 2.9 percent for those households in the 90th percentile.

“You know the old saying, ‘When the economy sniffles, the least advantaged catch pneumonia?’” said Jared Bernstein, an economist at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington research organization, and a former adviser to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. “Well, that works the other way, too. The benefits of closing in on full employment disproportionately flow to the least advantaged.”

The increase in median income outpaced average income, which rose 4.5 percent to $79,263. The median income is the amount that divides households evenly between those that make less and those that make more. Average income is generally higher because some households make a lot more.

 

The gains, however, came mostly from job growth rather than wage growth. More people are working, but many of them are still struggling to maintain their standard of living.

Jeff Labruzzo, 56, said he was still earning significantly less than before the recession. Mr. Labruzzo, who lives in southwest Louisiana, treats building sites for termites before concrete is poured. The construction business remains soft, and Mr. Labruzzo said he faced increased competition from firms that employ illegal immigrants. He had five workers, but he recently let two of them go.

“Things are to the point where I’m thinking about just closing up the business and letting my income drop,” Mr. Labruzzo said. As a veteran, he said he could then qualify for government health benefits.

Last year’s income gains do not fundamentally alter the economy’s long-term trajectory. Growth remains slow despite the Federal Reserve’s campaign to stimulate the economy. Predictions of faster growth, followed a few months later by disappointment, have become an annual ritual.

Both Fed officials and outside economists argue that stronger growth requires action by fiscal policy makers. But Democrats and Republicans are at loggerheads over the best steps, and there is little suggestion that a breakthrough is in the offing.

“It is encouraging that our economic recovery is lifting Americans out of poverty and boosting wages,” said Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the minority leader. “But instead of building on this progress, Washington Republicans want to turn back the clock.”

Republicans responded in kind, presenting the data as evidence Democrats should step aside.

“Today’s report is another disappointing confirmation that too many Americans are still struggling to provide for their families and reach their full potential,” said Representative Kevin Brady of Texas, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. “The federal government invests billions of dollars each year in programs to help low-income Americans, but more than 43 million people continue to live in poverty.”

The distribution of income in the United States remains tilted toward the affluent. Last year’s gains by lower-income households were not enough to shift measures of income inequality.
The data also was a mixed bag for minority groups. Poverty rates fell most sharply for African-American and Hispanic households, but their income gains were smaller than for white households.

“One good year does not reverse decades of stagnation,” Mr. Bernstein said. “Middle- and low-income households need a lot more than one good year. We need to keep this going.”

Greek Economy Grows Unexpectedly in Second Quarter

http://www.wsj.com/articles/greek-budget-revenues-miss-target-by-40-in-july-1439454276

ATHENS—Greece’s economy grew unexpectedly in the second quarter of the year on the back of a strong start to the tourism season and resilient consumption, data from the Greek statistics agency showed Thursday.

Seasonally adjusted gross domestic product rose 0.8% from the first quarter, when economic growth was revised up to zero by the Hellenic Statistical Authority, or Elstat. Economists were expecting economic output to drop by as much as 0.6% for the April to June period amid uncertainty caused by ongoing bailout talks with the country’s lenders.

“The surprise is partly explained by some consumption indices, such as retail sales, that were in positive territory in the second quarter and this was helped by some improvement in the labor market,” said Nikos Magginas, a senior economist at National Bank of Greece. “There was also a very strong positive impact from tourism, which is having increasing knock on effects on the economy.”

ENLARGE

On an annual basis, Greek economic output in the second quarter rose 1.4%, Elstat said in a news release.

Greece and its international creditors expect the economy to contract by 2.3% this year after exiting a six year recession in 2014 and growing by 0.8%

The second-quarter data measures Greece’s economic performance before the imposition of capital controls for July that brought Greece to a standstill, sending some parts of the economy into a tailspin.

Data showed Thursday, with revenue falling 40% short of target in July. Budget revenues for the first seven months of the year reached €26.7 billion ($29.7 million), compared with the target of €30.8 billion, the Finance ministry said in a statement.

Many consumers, households and businesses put off making payments in July to preserve cash as withdrawal limits from banks were severely limited.

However, budget outlays for the January-July period were less than expected, reaching €27.7 billion compared with the €32.2 billion target, resulting in a small budget deficit. The total budget deficit for the seven months came in at €1.02 billion, versus the €1.37 billion estimate.

Spending on large ticket items also plummeted last month, with new car sales falling 23.9% to 8,181 in the steepest drop in more than two years, according to earlier figures from Elstat.

Business leaders and economists say that the sooner a final bailout agreement is signed, the sooner the economy will be able to recover.

Later Thursday, or in the early morning hours of Friday, Greek lawmakers are expected to vote on a third bailout worth up to €86 billion.