Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

How South Korea Scaled Virus Testing As US Lagged Badly Behind

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

By Stephen Engelberg, Lisa Song, and Lydia DePillis

In the aftermath of a 2015 outbreak of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome that killed 38 people and cratered the economy, South Korea took a hard look at what had gone wrong. Among the findings: A lack of tests had prompted people ill with the disease to traipse from hospital to hospital in search of confirmation that they had MERS, a coronavirus far more virulent than the one that causes COVID-19. Nearly half the people who got the disease were exposed at hospitals.

Korean officials enacted a key reform, allowing the government to give near-instantaneous approval to testing systems in an emergency. Within weeks of the current outbreak in Wuhan, China, four Korean companies had manufactured tests from a World Health Organization recipe and, as a result, the country quickly had a system that could assess 10,000 people a day.

Korea set up drive-through test stations, an approach only now being launched in the United States. Health officials initially focused their efforts on members of a secretive megachurch in Daegu with a branch in Wuhan, but they then broadened their reach to Seoul and other major cities. As of Saturday, South Korea had tested more than 248,000 people and identified 8,086 cases.

So far, 72 have died, or 0.9 percent of those infected. Compare that with the Chinese province of Hubei, where the coronavirus first emerged. With no forewarning, the fatality rate for the province currently stands at about 4.5 percent.

The contrast to the United States, which tested a few thousand people in the weeks when health experts say the outbreak was spreading across this country, could not be more stark. Instead of using the template approved by the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention set out to create its own test from scratch, only to see that effort plagued by delay and dysfunction that continues to this day.

America’s inability to know who is infected has broad implications. It means that infected people have wandered through offices, buses, restaurants, emergency rooms and malls, indiscriminately spreading the virus.

Testing vs. Not Testing

Gye Cheol Kwon, the chairman of the Korean Society for Laboratory Medicine, said South Korea’s experiences during the 2015 outbreak prompted the creation of a system for “timely and practical use of unapproved diagnostic products when there were no approved diagnostic tests.”

“With our past experience with MERS,” he wrote in an email, “we found it very important to diagnose people quickly and to prevent spread to the community through isolation of infected people.”

The quick fielding of a widely available test gave South Korea a key advantage in fighting the spread of the disease, said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “They used the WHO test, so they had a test that was validated early on. Then, they made a simple decision: Test as many people as possible. They organized themselves to get specimens and then made sure they had a very high throughput in the labs.”

He added, “This was crucial to figuring out where the infection was and where it was not, and then they used this knowledge to direct their public health efforts.”

What they did with that data, to contain the disease, could inform a science fiction movie. Beginning in February, the government posted the precise movements (without names) of everyone who tested positive — everything from the seat numbers they occupied in movie theaters to the restaurants where they stopped for lunch. The government obtained the information from cellphone records, credit card receipts and other private data it is authorized to collect in a health emergency. Other Asian democracies have taken comparably intrusive steps in the name of public health. Hong Kong has tracked some high-risk people under quarantine with wristbands.

Kwon acknowledged in his email that the posting of the information was a “double edged sword” that raised public anxiety about where they could safely go. “However, we believed that if the government did not post extensive details about infected people on social media, COVID-19 would have spread even more quickly.”

In America, the CDC initially set the parameters of who could be tested narrowly, reflecting the scarcity of the test kits. The rules limited testing to people who had been to countries with known hot spots, even while epidemiologists warned that such restrictive criteria would mean missing early detection of cases in which the virus was spread among people with no links to travelers. This limitation appears to have given the disease a head start in some communities, notably Seattle. Then, even when criteria were loosened, the ongoing lack of testing capacity meant that the disease continued to spread, untracked.

ProPublica reporters have heard from dozens of people, throughout the course of the crisis, who could not get a test despite having some or all of the symptoms of the novel coronavirus: fevers, coughs and such a hard time breathing they went to the hospital.

Among them was Caryl Helsel, 55, who returned to New York from a trip to Seattle. She developed a cough and then a fever of 104 with an “excruciating, painful headache” that felt like none she’d ever had. “I thought I was going to die,” Helsel said. She called her doctor’s office on March 5 and said she’d spent time at a Seattle Starbucks where a worker had tested positive. She was told she didn’t meet the testing criteria, since she hadn’t traveled out of the country or been in contact with someone suspected of having the coronavirus.

She was told that despite the “existing pockets” of cases in the U.S., Seattle wasn’t deemed a high-risk area. By this point, the virus was consuming Seattle and its suburbs. Officials didn’t — and still don’t — know the full extent of the outbreak, because not everyone there who is sick is being tested.

Kevin Sullivan, 41, lives just outside of Kirkland, Washington, where the virus tore through the Life Care Center nursing home, killing 22 people as of Friday. He was turned down for testing twice despite developing a “low grade” fever, dry cough and trouble breathing. The first time, he was told by his primary care practice that there were no tests available. “Excuse my language, but ‘what the fuck?’ was kind of my response.” He later called a local hospital, but was told that his symptoms weren’t severe enough to merit a test, and that the most he could expect from a visit was an inhaler.

Doctors who have suspected that people had COVID-19 say they have been unable to test them for it. “Throughout the country, the No. 1 issue is getting tests, because only the CDC and the Department of Health could test. So we had to call them, and they would say no,” said Dr. Celine Thum, who works at a busy trauma hospital in New York City.

She added: “I’m sure if you talked to other ER doctors, they might have sent home people who might’ve had it. … I’m getting texts from people who have flu-like illness, fever, who are tested negative for flu. And they’re like, ‘Oh, I’m going to get tested now,’ and then they’re like, ‘It’s all a lie, there are no tests.’”

With no solid numbers, state and local officials have offered wildly varying guesses of the level of infection. On Thursday, the director of Ohio’s Department of Health, Amy Acton, said as many as 100,000 people in the state could have the coronavirus. The next day, she acknowledged that she was “guesstimating.”

Trevor Bedford, a computational biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center who has been analyzing the outbreak in Seattle, said this was “certainly a strong overestimate.” An authoritative count maintained by Johns Hopkins University puts the U.S. total of cases at 2,952 and the world’s at over 156,000, as of the morning of March 15.

Will America’s New Testing Plan Work?

President Donald Trump declared a national emergency on Friday and promised, as he has before, that tests would be available to anyone who needed them. At a press conference that day, Trump announced partnerships with major national health care providers even as regulators gave emergency approval for use in the United States to new tests designed by Swiss health giant Roche.

It is not too late for large-scale testing in the United States to make a significant difference, said Vanderbilt’s Schaffner and Eric Feigl-Ding, a researcher at Harvard who is also a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists. “The U.S. doesn’t yet have a runaway epidemic like Wuhan or Italy,” Ding said. “Testing will be part of the containment that will flatten the curve,” the ongoing effort to slow the pace of infections so the health care system is not overwhelmed by a flood of patients needing intensive care.

Right now, additional testing will “clear the backlog,” confirming the illnesses of people who are already sick. But in the coming weeks, broader testing will help identify the “frontier” of the epidemic, the locations where new cases are breaking out, allowing epidemiologists to isolate the patients and trace contacts. “It’s like a battlefield,” Ding continued, “we need to get to the front lines. We can’t get there a week or two after the fact.”

Estimates range on how many tests the United States, with its population of 329 million, will ultimately need. Many put it at tens of millions in the coming months.

If the current approaches fail — and there are reports that key chemicals needed to run some of the tests are in short supply — American health care workers will be forced to treat everyone who has severe symptoms of the disease, a waste of resources since some will undoubtedly be suffering from other less serious respiratory illnesses and yet require the protective equipment and other precautions needed for COVID-19 patients.

Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and professor at the University of Toronto, said deciding treatment without lab tests is “old school, but it works.” When China ran low on test kits, doctors started diagnosing COVID-19 based on people’s symptoms, Furness said.

“Whenever kits are short, there’s no question that’s what lies ahead,” Furness said.

“It’s a Failing”

While Trump said Friday in answer to a question from a reporter that “I take no responsibility” for the lack of tests, other officials have acknowledged flaws in the process. “It’s a failing,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of the Trump administration’s COVID-19 task force, said on Thursday. “Let’s admit it.”

There seems little question that a critical misstep involved the CDC’s opting not to use the earlier test design approved by the WHO. On CNN Thursday night, Fauci was asked directly if that had been a mistake. He would not use the word but conceded that, looking back, it could well be seen that way. He offered little explanation for why the U.S. seemed so out of position on the question of widespread testing other than to admit the truth of it.

“The system is not really geared to what we need right now,” he said.

It will be months if not years before the U.S. failure to field tests in the crucial weeks in January and February of 2020 will be fully understood.

Jeremy Konyndyk said he saw a devastating lack of urgency in the White House’s approach to the pandemic. Konyndyk, who led the government’s response to international disasters as director of the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, said the government should have moved swiftly in the early weeks of 2020 when the virus overwhelmed the health care system in Wuhan with an avalanche of untreatable pneumonia cases, much like Korean officials did.

“We know that it was floating around in China undetected for some time before we realized they had it,” he said, “so we have to realize it’s a vulnerability here.”

Instead, he said, the CDC tried to create a more complicated test than the WHO’s that could tell the difference among coronaviruses. “It’s a neat idea if it works, but it smacks of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good,” said Konyndyk, now a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, and a sharp critic of the government’s decision making regarding the virus.

“But that’s CDC’s normal standard operating procedure,” he said. “My impression is that it was less a conscious decision that, ‘We don’t like the WHO test and we don’t want to do it,’ and more just, ‘We’re going to do our own test because that’s how we do it.’

“I don’t think they saw it as urgent. And this, too, is inexplicable to me. We kept hearing from the administration that it was a low risk to the U.S., and I think they sincerely believed that. And it was low risk in the sense that if you see a forest fire sweeping towards you, burning up every town in its wake, but it’s three towns away, then they’re right, at this moment you’re not at risk of being burned alive.

“But that doesn’t mean you’re at low risk. It’s insane to me that they weren’t thinking of it that way. They were thinking that somehow between those three towns away — and us — there was some sort of fire break that would magically prevent us from being burned alive.”

Agnel Philip, Joshua Kaplan, Joseph Sexton, Nina Martin, Lexi Churchill and Beena Raghavendran contributed reporting.

Trump Inc.: Former FBI Official McCabe On Trump’s Ties To Russian Mob

Before he became infamous for working on the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails and the Trump Russia investigation, former acting FBI chief Andrew McCabe investigated the Russian mob in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. McCabe has been asking some of the questions we at “Trump, Inc.” have asked ourselves about Trump’s business. So we compared notes recently.

In this conversation with WNYC senior editor Andrea Bernstein and Pro Publica reporter Heather Vogell, of “Trump, Inc.,” McCabe discussed why it makes sense that some of the people he investigated in the 1990s have resurfaced in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, what questions he still has after the Mueller Report, and why he and former FBI director Jim Comey have said Trump’s management style reminds them of the mob.

Trump has long denied any wrongdoing, and he has said he was simply acting as an ordinary businessman in his Russia dealings.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

WNYC’s Andrea Bernstein: I want to start by asking you about your FBI training. You write about being at Quantico and you say, “I embraced every bit of this culture, even the most arbitrary aspects of the discipline.” You say that you loved “wearing the same style of polo shirt every day for weeks on end, loved the fact that everybody around me wore the same polo shirt too.” Why was it important to you, to dress the part?

Andrew McCabe: You know, I think each of those little details, though not significant individually, were a way of communicating to us that we had joined an organization that was much bigger and more significant than our individual preferences or our lives.

Bernstein: I have to say, you definitely look like a G-man.

McCabe: I’m going to say thank you.

Bernstein: Early on in your career, you were assigned to investigate the Russian mob at a specific point in history in New York, and Brighton Beach was a big place where a lot of this activity was based. I’m wondering if you could paint a picture for listeners of what Brighton Beach was like then, and what the Russian mob was like then and how it all came to you?

McCabe: So the FBI field office in New York City had experience with developing new programs in what we called nontraditional organized crime. The folks who ran the organized crime program recognized the situation that we had with a very large Russian-speaking population in New York — one with a deep historical connection to organized crime activity in Russia — and so they made the decision to start a Russian organized crime squad.

So when I got there in ’96, it was really still in its infant stages. Pretty much everybody on the squad were very young, new agents. “First office agents,” as we call them in the Bureau. And so we found Brighton Beach to be just a fascinating, chaotic, confusing place filled with opportunity to identify and investigate criminal activity.

Brighton in those days was a thriving, bustling, Russian-speaking community. You’d drive down Brighton Beach Avenue and all of the signs for all the stores were written in both English and Russian. It was not uncommon to walk down Brighton Beach Avenue and just not hear anyone speaking anything other than Russian. Places like Tatiana’s, Rasputin, the Odessa. All these very fancy restaurants that also operated as night clubs. And there was a thriving kind of social scene around those nightclubs, which often led to criminal activity and became the kind of focus of the organized crime community in New York at that time.

ProPublica’s Heather Vogell: You wrote about how the Russian mob started turning more toward financial crimes and business to pursue its goals. Could you talk a little bit about that transformation?

McCabe: Sure. This was one of the fascinating things about working on that squad. You could be working an extortion or kidnapping case one day, and then a really esoteric financial fraud the next. The thing that set the Russians apart from their Italian counterparts in the organized crime community was their creativity. They very quickly became the originators of the new scams.

So they did things like the tax cheating scams on gasoline and diesel fuel that were very common in the New York-New Jersey area in those days. They really professionalized the auto insurance scams around false accidents and medical mills and clinics where people would go and get processed to increase the billings against auto insurance companies. We did a lot of that work. And then, of course, we spent a lot of time on what became known as the Bank of New York money laundering scandal. So a few enterprising employees of the Bank of New York essentially took their private banking and internal computer software, which they had access to because one of them had a position in, I believe, the private banking section of Bank of New York, and began operating their own financial institution with individuals for the purpose of transferring money from Russia first to New York and then to many other places around the world.

Bernstein: We have spent the last year thinking about whether there is a line from some of the small-time crooks in Brighton Beach to Russian interference in the 2016 election. The list of people who seem to matter now were in some way connected to this scene. There’s Felix Sater, who is connected to the Trump Tower Moscow deal; there was Michael Cohen. They later show up trying to build a Trump Tower Moscow. And then there’s Yevgeny Dvoskin, who was convicted in the gasoline scam that you were just talking about in Brighton Beach and is now a banker in Russia.

McCabe: That’s right.

Bernstein: So they were all connected to Brighton Beach years ago, and then they show up in negotiations and 2015 and 2016. What do you make of that?

McCabe: Well, it is at first blush curious, and then when you think about it a little bit longer, it makes perfect sense. Brighton Beach — we thought of it as kind of the Normandy landing in America for Russian organized crime folks.

So there were many people who had experience with organized crime in Russia who came to the United States and settled in Brighton Beach just because they thought it was the new frontier. And this is a place you can make a lot of money.

And then there were some who we believe were actually sent by organized crime criminal organizations in Russia for the purpose of organizing and developing business and things like that. So if you are someone, or you are an organization, that is not opposed to dealing with people with that sort of background, with those sorts of connections, with that sort of history, then you’re gonna find yourself negotiating with and being represented by people who had experience in those early ’90s heydays of Russian organized crime and Brighton Beach.

That doesn’t really surprise me that much that you see connections like that back to the Trump Organization.

Bernstein: OK, so let’s talk about that a little more, because to us we’re like, wow! That is crazy that these characters keep re-emerging in the story, and a generation later. So when you say it doesn’t seem strange to you when you think about it, can you unpack that a little more? I mean, why is it that they’re coming to work with the Trump Organization and the man who is now the president of the United States?

McCabe: Well, as I said, it makes sense to me as an investigator. I don’t mean to say that it’s a good thing. But these are the same folks in many cases — guys like Felix Sater and others people — who we investigated back in the early and mid-’90s. If you are an organization that doesn’t have a problem with dealing with someone who has a known organized crime past and has actually been convicted of federal crimes for that same sort of activity, then you know you’re going to find yourself making deals with and being represented by Felix Sater.

Bernstein: So how does that make you feel? Here’s the president of the United States, who is in a business deal or talking about a business deal with somebody that you investigated when you started, and when the United States started, investigating the Russian mob.

McCabe: It is to my recollection and experience absolutely unprecedented and deeply concerning. From a strictly counterintelligence perspective, these are the exact sort of connections and historical overlaps that you look for when you’re trying to determine whether or not a person or an organization could be subject to foreign influence.

If you think about it just in the context of a standard background check for access to classified information, one of the things that can slow down an unbelievably complicated background check for any individual is if they have a relative in a foreign country. That requires all kinds of other degrees of investigation because you have to understand who is that person and what position are they in and that sort of thing.

Now think of that in terms of someone who is taking extraordinary steps to develop a potentially billion-dollar real estate investment not in any foreign country, but in Russia. I mean, that is incredibly concerning to any counterintelligence professional who is trying to make an assessment as to when, how and where will that foreign government attempt to influence this person.

Vogell: So we have all these characters re-emerging from Brighton Beach. Can you talk about the significance of that in light of what we now understand in terms of the interplay between organized crime and the state security services and the top levels of the Russian government?

McCabe: Yeah. So there’s a lot there. But I would start, I think, by saying it is very hard to desegregate organized crime from the government in Russia. I mean, we learned from the Mueller report that Vladimir Putin met quarterly with the oligarchs. The oligarchs are the modern-day masters of organized crime in Russia. They are the folks who, by one way or another, rose to the top of that pile and now control massive assets as a result. Huge fortunes.

Vogell: So how, in your understanding, did this tie back to the Russian government?

McCabe: The place where those two things come together — the organized crime figures and the government — is through the intelligence services. So there’s always been this kind of synchronicity between the arm of the government that understands organized crime, knows who the players are, understands the businesses and the things that different individuals are engaged in, and has the kind of boots on the ground, if you will, to make those sorts of connections. Those are the intelligence services in Russia.

Bernstein: There is a mountain of evidence suggesting a Trump-Russia thing. But so far no one — not not us, not you, not Robert Mueller — has been able to say what that thing is.

And as you have puzzled over this relationship, does it seem possible that there in fact isn’t a thing?

McCabe: I think that mountain of evidence that you referred to makes it strongly likely that there is a thing. Does that mean we’ll ever figure out what it is? No. But it certainly means we should keep looking.

If you look at even just the Trumps’ history with Deutsche Bank: It’s almost impossible to look at those series of relationships and transactions and defaults and failures followed by more and more loans. There has to be a thing at the core of that relationship between the Trump Organization and Deutsche Bank. Do we know what it is just yet? No. Will we ever? I’m not sure, but we certainly should keep looking.

Bernstein: So after the Mueller report was released, we locked ourselves in the big conference room and read it for hours.

McCabe: I did the same thing.

Bernstein: And then when we read it, we were like, well, we still have so many questions about Trump and his business dealings in Russia and how that might have linked to foreign influence in the election. If I’m hearing you correctly, I’m hearing you say that you still have a lot of questions, too.

McCabe: Well, I think anybody who follows these issues can’t help but have a lot of questions. And I don’t think that Director Mueller and his team went about their work assuming that they would answer every question about Donald Trump and about the Trump business enterprises and about his historical business entanglements with Russians or anyone else. They tried to be as narrowly tailored in their remit as they could possibly be. But sure, I still have many questions about the president and his associates’ connections with Russia. I think you can’t help but walk away from the report with a lot of things that you’d like to see more information about.

Bernstein: So you just switched to the second person you said “you can’t help.” But we’re not you. We didn’t actually start this investigation; we didn’t work on this investigation; we weren’t investigating the Russian mob two decades ago. So I’m wondering what we are to conclude from that.

McCabe: What we are to conclude from the fact that I still have questions?

Bernstein: Correct.

McCabe: Well, I think you see it the same way that I do.

I mean, I think that the issues that you address in the podcast are the best indication of that. I think even such basic things as, why is this president fighting tooth and nail to continue to withhold and conceal his own personal financial records in a way that no other president — Republican or Democrat — has ever endeavored to conceal? Those are the sorts of questions that, if you are an investigator, and you know this as well as I do, give rise to the curiosity that leads you to investigate.

Like why is it that there are so many representatives, so many people, even if it’s just a handful, people who have official connections to sanctioned entities or banks in Russia who are interacting with the president, with his associates, with his family members? Have we ever seen that before by any president or really any high-level government official? I haven’t, in the years that I’ve been doing this. So those are questions that I think were outside the scope of what Director Mueller was doing to some extent, but certainly questions I’d love to see answered.

Bernstein: Trump says in his Russia dealings he was acting like an ordinary businessman. So let’s talk about the Trump administration for a moment. You know we are big students of the history of President Trump. And before he was President Trump, he was a businessman here in our city. And one of the tactics that he honed very well was to try to kill off investigations about him or that might potentially involve him before they started.

And just observing from the outside seeing these sustained attacks by the president on you, on Peter Strzok, both of you, forced out, forced off the Russia beat, makes me feel like there’s this incredible brain drain going on. Are you alarmed by that?

McCabe: Well, I think that there’s no question that this president, that’s his approach to perceived adversity. He attacks people personally. He will stop at nothing to undermine reputations and employment and everything else. That’s certainly what I’ve experienced. And Peter and others I think have been on the sharp end of that as well.

Am I concerned that there’s no one left in the FBI to investigate these sorts of things? No. The investigative experience in that organization is deep and significant and done, hopefully, by people whose names you and the president don’t know, so they can continue doing that work carefully and quietly in the way that it needs to be done.

Bernstein: In your book you write a lot about your private thoughts in the years that you were working in the Trump administration, and as you were having these strange and sometimes alarming conversations with the president. One of the strangest interactions at that time that you wrote about was a meeting with President Trump and the White House counsel Don McGahn when you were being pressured to say it was a good idea for the president to come and address the FBI. You were writing that your permission would somehow give him cover to do something he was planning to do. In the end, he didn’t make the trip but you wrote, “The president and his men were trying to work me the way a criminal brigade would operate.” What did you mean by that?

McCabe: You know, it’s a method of operation that I’d seen many times before in my own investigative history working in Russian organized crime. The leader of the crew, the leader of an organized criminal enterprise doesn’t come out and tell someone what to do. They throw it out as an option that they want that other person to select. And so that way after the fact they can say: “Oh, I was just doing what they asked me to do. I wasn’t forcing them to pay me $100 a week to protect their furniture store. I simply gave him the option to do that, and he selected it for himself.”

So it’s a kind of a subtle, passive-aggressive kind of bullying that comes with an unspoken threat. That’s very effective. I mean, organized criminal enterprises have been doing that for as long as organized crime enterprises have existed. And so that’s what it felt like in the Oval Office that day as I was being kind of progressively backed into the corner to state the words that they wanted to hear me state.

Bernstein: Just to follow up with that, Jim Comey in his book references La Cosa Nostra. He also says the way that the president operated reminded him of the way the mob operated. But what are you guys saying here?

McCabe: It’s impossible to interact with the president and the administration without drawing that comparison. If you’re somebody who comes from an investigative background, somebody like Jim Comey or myself or anybody else who’s had experience with organized crime, the parallels are undeniable. The parallels in the way business is conducted, the way conversations proceed, the way you are asked for personal loyalty rather than loyalty to the oath that you’ve taken, the way that everything is analyzed on this kind of black-and-white paradox: you’re either with us or you’re against us, or either on our team and a part of this effort or you are somebody that we need to destroy. It’s just such an obvious comparison. I’m not trying to undermine Jim Comey or myself, but it is an undeniable parallel between the way this president conducts himself and those around him support him and conduct themselves and the things that we have seen from organized crime groups.

Bernstein: So is there an inference to be made from that or is that just an observation?

McCabe: That’s just an observation. It certainly leads to another round of questions as to why somebody would conduct themselves that way. But until you see that entity actually conducting crimes, you’re not really in a position to call it an organized crime enterprise, right? And I think that effort is ongoing.

Vogell: So we wanted to talk a little bit more about Robert Mueller, who you worked very closely with when he was FBI director.

McCabe: Yes.

Vogell: You had some wonderful and revealing personal details about his work habits and his general demeanor in the book. Especially, the one I liked, was about how on charts that showed different networks of criminal connections, he hated it when there were too many bold colors on those. Tell us a little bit more about that and what that taught you about his personality and how that was important at the time.

McCabe: You know, through your interactions with the director you would pick up those little gems like, oh my gosh, you can’t use a diagonal line on your chart. They have to be straight lines and perpendicular lines. You can’t use bold colors, as you’ve mentioned. He hated some case names, the code names that were used for major cases. And so you’re constantly kind of navigating your work with an eye on like, oh you can’t do this because the director wouldn’t like it, or you should do that because he’ll like it better.

So it was hard to do at the time and it could be a cause of great stress, but it was also a very effective way of completely transforming the way that we approached our work at least in the terrorism area.

Vogell: It was a level of discipline, is what you’re saying?

McCabe: That’s right. A level of discipline and accountability.

Vogell: There was at one point more recently when you were sort of pining for the old Bob Mueller “say nothing” FBI, right in the middle of all of these political firestorms that were going on.

McCabe: Yeah.

Vogell: Did you feel that you had gotten a long way from where you were just a few years earlier with him? And not entirely necessarily because of the directors themselves, but the whole climate and environment had changed, and did you feel the whole organization struggling to adjust to that?

McCabe: You know, I did. It was a little bit of a nostalgic look back. There were many days I was in the Hoover Building wishing I was back in Brighton Beach. Those were simpler and in many ways more satisfying times. But we changed significantly as an organization, particularly in terms of the way that we approached our responsibilities to informing the public and informing Congress of what we were doing after Director Mueller left. And that’s because those things had changed around us. In the age of 24-hour news cycles and social media and constant reporting and everything that we were doing, there was certainly a need for the Bureau to evolve in its approach to public relations and things of that nature.

And Jim Comey was the perfect guy to do it, because he had such significant abilities as a communicator and brought a great understanding of the impact of social media and media in general to the Bureau. But it did get us to a place where, you know, once you invite that guest over you’re kind of stuck entertaining that guest for as long as they stay, which in this case was forever.

Bernstein: Forever is a long night.

McCabe: It is. It is.

Bernstein: So you have been through an awful lot in the last four years. How are you feeling now about the future of our country and national security?

McCabe: You know, like many people, I am still surprised day in and day out by the things, the developments that I see in the news each day. This latest constitutional crisis that we seem to be stumbling our way towards causes me great concern. Understanding that maybe we’re at a point in history now where the executive branch not only doesn’t cooperate with the legislative branch, but completely denies and ignores their constitutional responsibilities to conduct oversight. That’s not someplace I ever thought we’d end up. Seeing things like that is tough. And I think it reinforces for us the incredible challenges that we face with this current administration.

However, I try to step back and take the long view. I try to remind myself that we as a nation have been through really infinitely tougher challenges before. We have made mistakes in the past, and we’ve gotten past those mistakes by owning up to them and acknowledging them transparently and honestly and having leadership with the courage and the moral backbone to do that and to guide us to a better place. And I think that that will happen for us this time as well. I’ve no reason to believe it won’t. And so I am still confident and optimistic about the future. I don’t know how long this kind of period of chaos will last, but it won’t last forever. And I think at the end of the day we will navigate this in the same way we have every other challenge that’s faced this country.

Bernstein: Thank you very much, Andrew McCabe.

McCabe: Sure. Thank you for having me. It’s been really fun.

Stay up to date with email updates about WNYC and ProPublica’s investigations into the president’s business practices.

You can contact us via Signal, WhatsApp or voicemail at 347-244-2134. Here’s more about how you can contact us securely.

You can always email us at tips@trumpincpodcast.org.

And finally, you can use the postal service:

Trump Inc at ProPublica
155 Ave of the Americas, 13th Floor
New York, NY 10013

“Trump, Inc.” is a production of WNYC Studios and ProPublica. Support our work by visiting donate.propublica.org or by becoming a supporting member of WNYC. Subscribe here or wherever you get your podcasts.

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

IMAGE: Donald Trump with Russian mob figure Felix H. Sater (right) and Tevfik Arif at the official unveiling of Trump SoHo in September 2007, when it was still under construction. Credit Mark Von Holden/WireImage

Romanian Prime Minister Is Staying at Trump’s D.C. Hotel

By Ilya Marritz, WNYC, Justin Elliott, ProPublica, and Zach Everson

The prime minister of Romania stayed at President Donald Trump’s hotel during her trip to Washington over the weekend. She is the first foreign government leader known to have booked a room at the property in more than a year.

The stay at the Trump International Hotel by Viorica Dancila, who is attending the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, provides the latest piece of evidence that Trump’s company continues to do business with foreign officials. Such payments could violate the Constitution’s anti-corruption provisions, which prohibit the president from accepting gifts or “emoluments” from foreign governments.

Dancila was seen Friday night inside the hotel’s atrium surrounded by a group of about eight people after leaving the hotel’s BLT Prime restaurant. She made her way to one of the building’s elevators, which are operated with room keys of hotel guests. She was seen again on Sunday, entering an elevator shortly after 6 p.m. On Monday she tweeted a picture of herself meeting with Vice President Mike Pence at AIPAC.

Trump still owns the hotel through a trust from which he can draw money at any time. Trump’s lawyers have rejected the idea that a hotel visit from a foreign official can be construed as an emolument, saying instead that it is a “fair value exchange” not addressed in the Constitution. Trump faces several lawsuits over the emoluments issue, filed by the attorneys general of the District of Columbia and Maryland, Democratic lawmakers and a government watchdog.

The Trump Organization has pledged to donate all profits from foreign governments to the U.S. government. As of February 2019, the company had provided the Treasury Department with more than $340,000. The company has not explained how it calculates foreign profits or disclosed if those figures were audited by an independent party.

It is not clear how many rooms the Romanians booked, what price was paid or who paid. The Romanian Embassy in Washington did not respond to phone calls or emails. Last year, the Romanian Consulate in Chicago held its national day celebration at the Trump hotel in that city.

A spokeswoman for the Trump hotel declined to comment. The White House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The last foreign leader known to have to stayed at the hotel was Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, in September 2017.

Romania, a member of NATO, has a range of military and trade interests with the U.S. It recently increased its military spending, in accordance with Trump’s complaints that European states should bear more of the costs of their defense. Dancila has said she would like Romanian citizens to be able to travel to the United States without a visa; so far, the State Department has not added Romania to its visa waiver program.

While Dancila was in Washington, she announced her intention to move her country’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, though it’s not clear whether that will happen. Last year, the United States moved its embassy to Jerusalem, but few other countries have followed it.

Also during her visit to Washington, Romanian news outlets reported that Dancila met with executives of a number of companies, including three military contractors: Oshkosh Defense, Parsons and Textron.

Two key Trump allies have made overtures to the Romanian government since Trump was elected.

One of them is the president’s attorney in the Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe, Rudy Giuliani. Last August, Giuliani sent a letter to Romania’s president “to express my concerns about continuing damage to the rule of law in Romania being done under the guise of effective law enforcement.” Romania, which Transparency International ranks among the most corrupt countries in Europe, has seen several high-profile graft prosecutions.

Giuliani told the Washington Post he had been hired to write the letter by the consulting firm Freeh Group International Solutions, but he did not specify his client.

Giuliani was at the Trump International Hotel on Friday. He was not seen with Dancila, and his spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Another Trump associate, fundraiser Elliott Broidy, has also reportedly done business in Romania. The New York Times reported Broidy’s security company, Circinus, sought contracts with the Romanian government.

In January 2017, the leader of Dancila’s political party was a guest of Broidy’s at a celebration of Trump’s inauguration at the Trump International Hotel in Washington. Liviu Dragnea posted a photo of Trump to his Facebook page the night before Trump was sworn in as president.

Broidy resigned from a Republican National Committee leadership post in 2018.

Dancila, who took office in January 2018, is an ally of Dragnea. Their political party, the Social Democratic Party, has a lobbyist in Washington, who was hired in 2017 to arrange a meeting between Dragnea and Trump, according to disclosure filings. Romanian media reported that Dragnea was invited to the AIPAC meeting but did not attend.

Dragnea himself has been a target of Romania’s prosecutors. He applauded Giuliani’s letter criticizing prosecutorial “excesses” in a statement on his website.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the U.S.-supported news agency, wrote in November that Dancila “has little executive power. Liviu Dragnea, the chairman of the ruling Social Democratic Party, basically runs the government but can’t be prime minister because of a conviction for vote-rigging.”

 

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

 

Documenting Hate In America: What We Found In 2018

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

Swastikas drawn on the office of a Jewish Ivy League professor. Latinos harassed for speaking Spanish in public. Hijab-wearing women targeted in road rage incidents. Neo-Nazis bragging online about a murder. These are just some of the incidents that we and our partners have reported in our second year of Documenting Hate, a collaborative project investigating hate with more than 160 newsrooms around the country.

Since we launched the project in January 2017, victims and witnesses of hate incidents have sent us more than 5,400 reports from all 50 states. We’ve verified nearly 1,200 reports, either via independent reporting or through corroborating news coverage. We’ve also collected thousands of pages of hate crime data and incident reports from hundreds of police departments across the country.

Here are some of the highlights from the project this year, including ProPublica’s work and reporting by partners using our tips and resources. (Read all our reporting from the past year here.)

Dozens of Hate-Fueled Attacks Reported at Walmart Stores Nationwide, Univision

Univision’s Jessica Weiss identified dozens of harassment incidents at Walmarts and other superstores. Walmarts often act as “de facto ‘town centers,’” and people of color end up getting targeted, such as being told to go back to their country or to speak English. Just this month, two men in Louisiana were arrested for allegedly yelling racial slurs at a black woman leaving a Walmart and smashing a shopping cart into her car.

They Spewed Hate. Then They Punctuated It With the President’s Name, Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting

Reveal went through hundreds of tips in which President Donald Trump’s name was mentioned, identifying incidents all over the country ranging from harassment to assault. Reporter Will Carless spoke to 80 people who reported these tips, and he found an additional 70 cases reported in the media or confirmed with documentation.

“Dozens of people across the country said the same thing: What hurts most in these attacks is being told that you don’t belong in America,” Carless wrote. “That you’re not welcome. That since Trump was elected, the country has been reserved for a certain group — a group that doesn’t look like you or dress like you or practice the same religion as you.”

A Killing at Donkey Creek, ProPublica

ProPublica’s Rahima Nasa reported on potentially bias-motivated crimes that weren’t prosecuted as hate crimes, including the killing of a Native American man in Washington state. Even though there were indications he was targeted and run over because of his ethnicity, prosecutors didn’t bring bias crime charges. The man convicted of the homicide received only 7 ½ years in prison.

Police Are Mislabeling Anti-LGBTQ and Other Crimes as Anti-Heterosexual, ProPublica

ProPublica’s Rahima Nasa and I discovered that some police officers were marking some crimes as anti-heterosexual, including anti-LGBTQ bias crimes and offenses that weren’t even bias-related. Those crimes were then reflected erroneously in the FBI’s national hate crime data. Some of the police departments we contacted said they’d fix the errors. “Thank you for bringing it to our attention, because we never would have known,” one records officer told us.

Hate in Schools, Education Week

Education Week’s Francisco Vara-Orta examined hate incidents in schools, which affect black, Latino, Muslim and Jewish students. He built on previous reporting our partners had done to analyze patterns, finding that hate speech, both written and spoken, was the most common occurrence, while the largest number of reports happened the day after the 2016 election. Swastikas were the most common hate symbol; the most common words were the n-word, various versions of “build the wall” and “go back to [foreign country].”

Hate in America, News21

This year, we partnered with News 21, a project of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. A team of News21 reporters did a deep dive into how hate crimes are investigated and tracked, how laws are enforced, and what groups are targeted. They found that more than 2.4 million suspected bias crimes were committed between 2012 and 2016, based on an analysis of the National Crime Victimization Survey, but only 12 percent of the nation’s police departments reported any hate crimes to the FBI during this period. They also found that only about 4 percent of hate crime victims who reported to police had those crimes verified by law enforcement, and that only 100 hate crimes were prosecuted at the federal level from January 2010 to July 2018.

In The Name Of Hate, Muslim Women Face Road Rage Behind The Wheel, HuffPost

HuffPost’s Rowaida Abdelaziz identified road rage incidents affecting Muslims and people of Arab descent. Hijab-wearing women reported hearing slurs or seeing threatening gestures from drivers, or even nearly getting driven off the road. Those interviewed said it happens so often that they don’t see a point in reporting it, especially since it’s hard to gather evidence while driving. Abdelaziz also wrote about a road rage incident recorded by a college student in Texas, which prompted an open letter from the local mayor.

Hate in Maryland: From Racist Taunts to Swastikas to a Campus Stabbing, Bias Reports Up Sharply in State, The Baltimore Sun

The Baltimore Sun’s Catherine Rentz gathered and analyzed two years worth of hate crime data from Maryland police departments, and she found that police categorized more than half of reported hate crimes as inconclusive. Law enforcement only forwarded verified reports to the FBI to include in their annual data, leaving out potential bias crimes in which a perpetrator wasn’t identified. Ten of the state’s counties reported zero hate crimes.

Documenting Hate: New American Nazis, ProPublica and Frontline

In a two-part documentary, ProPublica’s A.C. Thompson and Frontline investigated white supremacist groups the Rise Above Movement and Atomwaffen, discovering members and associates’ involvement in violence and even murder. Reporters identified neo-Nazis who were active-duty members of the military, and one white supremacist with a government security clearance. The project had major impact. It led to indictments and arrests, a firing, a prison sentence and a change in Marine Corps policy.

Jewish Professor Finds Swastikas Outside Her Office at Columbia Teachers College, Gothamist/WNYC

While overall crime is down in New York City, hate crimes are on the rise, and our partner WNYC has been reporting on many of the incidents happening around the city.

We’ve received hundreds of reports about swastikas, and one report ended up going national after WNYC’s Arun Venugopal broke the story of anti-Semitic vandalism in a Columbia University professor’s office. The professor, who researches the Holocaust, said it was the second time her office had been vandalized. WNYC also reported that one of New York City’s top civil rights officials was targeted in a hate incident, but when she reported it to police, they allegedly discouraged her from making a report.

The Cities Where the Cops See No Hate, BuzzFeed News

Nearly 90 percent of law enforcement agencies that voluntarily submit data to the FBI claim to have no hate crimes. So Peter Aldhous of BuzzFeed News reviewed more than 2,400 incident reports of assaults from 10 police departments that reported zero hate crimes in 2016. In the process, he identified assaults that should have been classified as potential bias crimes but weren’t.

We’re still figuring out where the Documenting Hate project goes from here, but we’re proud of the work it has produced, both by our newsroom and by our partners. It’s a topic that, unfortunately, retains its relevance and its urgency.

Have you been a victim or witness of a hate incident? Please tell us your story.

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Immigrant Children Victimized By Sexual Assault In Shelters

Reprinted with permission from Pro Publica.

A World Cup soccer match was playing on the shelter’s TV when the two older teenagers tackled Alex on July 1 and dragged him into the empty bedroom. Wrestling him onto his stomach, one of them, a tattoo on his forearm, got on top. As Alex struggled to move, he said he could feel the teen’s penis grinding against his butt.

“Take off his shorts!” he heard the other teen, who’d bragged he’d been a gang member in Honduras, shout. “Let’s get him naked!”

Just 10 days earlier, Alex, 13, had been caught by the Border Patrol after traveling from Honduras with his 17-year-old sister and 5-year-old stepbrother, to flee the country’s gang violence. Now, they were being held at Boystown outside Miami, one of more than 100 youth shelters in the government’s sprawling system meant to provide a temporary haven for migrant children caught crossing the border.

The two teens had been taunting Alex since he’d arrived at the shelter, making crude sexual jokes about his pregnant sister. Now, in the bedroom, Alex said, they yanked down the front of his shorts.

“At least your sister has already tasted a man,” he heard one of them sneer. “But you haven’t even tried a woman.”

Alex said he fought as hard as he could, somehow managing to pull up his shorts and kick until he broke free. As he lay on the floor catching his breath, he said, the boys fled, warning him to keep his mouth shut.

Over the past six months, ProPublica has gathered hundreds of police reports detailing allegations of sexual assaults in immigrant children’s shelters, which have received $4.5 billion for housing and other services since the surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America in 2014. The reports, obtained through public records requests, revealed a largely hidden side of the shelters — one in which both staff and other residents sometimes acted as predators.

Several of the incidents have led to arrests of shelter employees or teenage residents. And in one particularly heinous case, a youth care worker was convicted in September of molesting seven boys over nearly a year at an Arizona shelter. The employee had worked for months without a full background check.

Coverage of such incidents by ProPublica and other media triggered demands for investigations.

Arizona’s governor ordered a statewide inspection of the shelters, leading to the shutdown of two centers run by Southwest Key after the nonprofit failed to provide proof that its employees had completed background checks.

And late last month, federal investigators warned that the Trump administration had waived FBI fingerprint background checks of staffers and had allowed “dangerously” few mental health counselors at a tent camp housing 2,800 migrant children in Tornillo, Texas.

But ProPublica’s review of the hundreds of police reports showed something else about the assaults. Something that went beyond background checks. Kids at shelters across the country were, indeed, reporting sexual attacks in the shelters, often by other kids. But again and again, the reports show, the police were quickly — and with little investigation — closing the cases, often within days, or even hours.

And there are likely even more such cases. ProPublica’s cache of records is missing many police reports from shelters in Texas, where the largest number of immigrant children are held, because state laws there ban child abuse reports from being made public, particularly when the assaults are committed by other minors.

Now, as the immigration system struggles to house and care for 14,600 children — more than ever before — an examination of how federal and state authorities investigated the assault against Alex, one of those children, reveals startling lapses.

For a few days, Alex said, he didn’t report his assault, heeding his attackers’ warning, worried that speaking up would delay his release from Boystown. But as they continued to harass him, he decided to tell his counselor.

The counselor told him that a surveillance tape had captured the teenagers dragging him by his hands and feet into a room, and that there might have been a witness.

But Alex’s report did not trigger a child sexual assault investigation, including a specialized interview designed to help children talk about what happened, as child abuse experts recommend.

Instead, the shelter waited nearly a month to call the police. When it finally did, a police report shows, the shelter’s lead mental health counselor told the officers “the incident was settled, and no sexual crime occurred between the boys like first was thought among the staff.”

And instead of investigating the incident themselves, officers with the Miami-Dade Police Department took the counselor’s word for it and quickly closed the case, never interviewing Alex.

A spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Miami, which received $6 million last year to care for about 80 children at Boystown, said it handled Alex’s case correctly, blaming him for any delays. In response to questions, a Miami-Dade police spokesman said the department was reopening the case.

An examination of Alex’s case shows that almost every agency charged with helping Alex — with finding out the full extent of what happened in that room — had instead failed him.

The police closed Alex’s case 72 minutes after responding to the call.

Read Now Show less