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Trump’s Business Schemes Warrant Their Own Investigation

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Roughly one year ago, Special Counsel Robert Mueller was charged with investigating any links or coordination “between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump,” as well as any “matters” or “federal crimes” that “may arise directly from the investigation.”

That probe now divides the right.

Conservatives like David French believe that the facts continue to justify its existence. As he noted last week in National Review, Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee have now confirmed that Russia attempted to aid Trump in the 2016 election, that Donald Trump Jr. “received a direct and unambiguous invitation to collude with Russia,” and that “he took the meeting.” What’s more, members of his campaign team, including Paul Manafort, George Papadopolous, Carter Page, and Michael Flynn, all interacted with Russia in ways that, at the very least, cry out for further inquiry. That demands a thorough probe that sets all relevant facts before the public.

In contrast, populist-right entertainers like Tucker Carlson, who hold themselves to lesser standards of intellectual honesty, say that the special-counsel investigation is a “witch hunt” created by a deep-state cabal of usurpers. And when the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York raided Michael Cohen’s office, talk-show host Sean Hannity complained, “Mueller basically back-doored his way into every single Trump business deal.”

That last talking point is striking.

Lots of Republicans repeat it. They insist an investigation into Russian links or coordination has no business delving into the business deals of Trump and his associates. To their narrow concern, one must remain agnostic. So far, the public lacks sufficient information to judge whether Mueller has pursued only matters arising directly from his investigation or somehow exceeded that mandate. If he’s exceeded it, that will indeed warrant criticism.

Still, it is striking how many Republicans are more concerned with the possibility that Mueller is exceeding his mandate than they are with glaring evidence that the president and some of his closest associates are crooked hucksters who saw the White House as their latest opportunity to earn money unethically.

The business dealings of Trump and his associates raise so many red flags that Congress should launch a formal inquiry into them independent of the Russia investigation—and voters should hold members of Congress who oppose such an inquiry accountable.

Consider all the facts that only a Congress in dereliction of its duty would fail to probe:

  • Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, set up a limited liability corporation under a pseudonym where he received millions of dollars from foreign and domestic interests with business before the government.
  • Cohen also “helped a major donor to Mr. Trump’s inauguration pitch a nuclear-power investment to the Qatari sovereign-wealth fund at a meeting in April,” The Wall Street Journal reports. According to The Washington Post, Cohen solicited $1 million from the government of Qatar in exchange for influence and access to the incoming Trump Administration. And Cohen’s financial transactions were generating so many suspicious activity reports that a gangster’s lawyer could hardly have raised more concerns.
  • According to the Associated Press, Elliott Broidy, a top Trump fundraiser, spearheaded “a secret campaign to influence the White House and Congress” with political donations, working on behalf of Saudi Arabia and the UAE—and against Qatar—with the expectation of getting a billion in business. At the same time, according to The Daily Beast, “he was also receiving the biggest payouts in the history of his company from the U.S. government.”
  • The same man was involved in a suspicious $1.6 million hush-money payment to a Playboy model that was facilitated in part by Michael Cohen.
  • According to the South China Morning Post, “A billion-dollar Indonesian property development with ties to US President Donald Trump has become the latest project in China’s globe-spanning Belt and Road infrastructure project,” and news that the project would benefit from $500 million in government loans from China coincided with Trump intervening on China’s behalf in a dispute with the Commerce Department. The affair seems to be a violation of the Foreign Emoluments Clause.
  • Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., appears to be another violation.
  • In the years before Trump ran for president, his company somehow had hundreds of millions of dollars on hand for cash transactions inconsistent with both industry practices and how it had done business for its prior history. And a reporter from a golf magazine says that Eric Trump told him several years ago that they had all the investment money they need from Russia.
  • In Sunny Isles Beach, “over 60 individuals with Russian passports or addresses bought nearly $100 million worth of units in Trump-branded condominium towers in a part of South Florida known as Little Moscow. Among them were Russian government officials who made million-dollar investments and a Ukrainian owner of two units who pleaded guilty to one count of receipt of stolen property in a money-laundering scheme involving a former Ukrainian prime minister.”
  • According to Adam Davidson of The New Yorker, “One foreign deal, a stalled 2011 plan to build a Trump Tower in Batumi, a city on the Black Sea in the Republic of Georgia, has not received much journalistic attention. But the deal, for which Trump was reportedly paid a million dollars, involved unorthodox financial practices that several experts described to me as ‘red flags’ for bank fraud and money laundering; moreover, it intertwined his company with a Kazakh oligarch who has direct links to Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin. As a result, Putin and his security services have access to information that could put them in a position to blackmail Trump.”
  • According to The New York Times, “Federal prosecutors are investigating Kushner Companies, the real estate firm owned by the family of Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, over its use of a program that grants visas to wealthy overseas investors.”
  • Trump promised voters that he would put his businesses in a blind trust. But the actual trust, which reportedly gives his sons control of his company, isn’t actually blind in any meaningful way; it allows President Trump to withdraw money from the company at any time; and the Trump Organization will not even release the full language of the document to the public.
  • Finally, Trump promised voters that he would eventually release his tax returns. But he lied. Having gotten elected, he has simply kept concealing them. What truth is it that he is so determined to keep the people from learning?

And there’s much, much more, some of it potentially influencing matters as important as the approach to regional wars that the Trump administration takes.

“Trump’s business empire provided the entire basis for his claim to be qualified to be president,” Jonathan Chait recently observed in New York magazine. “He managed to conceal the nature of that business empire by withholding his tax returns, and media scrutiny of his business dealings has still only scratched the surface. Those secrets carry alongside them national-security risks of unknown scale. The argument now put forward by the president and his defenders is that the FBI has no business exposing these secrets, which ought instead to remain locked in the vaults of Trump’s shadowy counter-parties.”

His defenders make that argument by focusing on Mueller’s mandate and arguing that his business dealings are beyond it. It’s up to the critics who are more clear-eyed about Trump’s corruption to stop allowing that evasion. It is time to press for Congress to investigate the dark black clouds of smoke billowing out of Trump’s business empire—and if a majority of its members refuse, it is time for voters to send the message that no legislator so irresponsible as to see all that smoke and decline to look for fire deserves the seat.

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JimB
11 hours ago
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The Hidden Costs of Buying Cheap Stuff From China

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The package came in a small black box, covered in tape. It had no return address. Under layers of packaging, there was a box labeled Smart Watch, with no brand name. Inside the box was the watch itself, which looked nothing like the inexpensive Apple Watch I’d hoped it would be. Instead, the large digital face featured icons for Twitter, Facebook, a pedometer, and a photo-taking app called “Camina” rather than “camera.” It was about what you’d expect for a smart watch that cost less than $20.

I ordered the watch from Wish.com, one of a growing number of sites that allows consumers from around the world to buy deeply discounted goods from China, directly from sellers or manufacturers there. After receiving promotional emails from Wish offering bikinis for $4 (marked down from $75!), camera drones for $29 (down from $1,399!), and, for some reason, a spoon that says “My Peanut-Butter Spoon” for $1 (down from $12), I could no longer resist. I ordered the smart watch, advertised as “Hot Sell New product Q18S Smart Wrist Watch” for $18, marked down, supposedly, from $896. The product had more than 8,000 reviews in dozens of languages, averaging four stars. “Its cool I like it for the price,” read one.

Wish is emblematic of a growing trend in e-commerce: shoppers buying directly from Chinese manufacturers and merchants. Wish and sites like AliExpress, LightInTheBox, and even Amazon have enabled more Chinese sellers to penetrate the U.S. market, where they compete with U.S. manufacturers and U.S. retailers who themselves have been importing goods from China. Though the products from these sites take longer to arrive because they’re coming from overseas, some analysts think sites like Wish represent the future of shopping. Wish is, according to Forbes, worth $8.5 billion, about the same as Macy’s, J.C. Penney, and Sears combined. Its valuation has more than doubled since a year ago, when it received $500 million in funding. Its logo now appears on the jerseys of the Los Angeles Lakers.

These sites represent a different type of shopping than customers have engaged in for decades, even with the rise of e-commerce. For much of the 20th century, shoppers would drive to a store, browse through rows of goods, and then buy the clothes or headphones or cameras they wanted and then drive home. Then, they would browse the websites of stores and retailers and order clothes or headphones or cameras delivered to their doorsteps. But now, these new sites are helping consumers skip that retailer middleman; the websites are themselves the retail middleman. People can buy cheap stuff like bikinis or drones directly from the manufacturer or seller, no matter where that retailer is based.

“As long as retail has existed, you’ve always had retailers sell to customers, because many manufacturers were unfit to do so,” Juozas Kaziukėnas, the founder and CEO of Marketplace Pulse, an e-commerce research site, told me. “But over time, as information has spread and it becomes easier, you have manufacturers selling, too.” Kaziukėnas estimates that as many as one-third of Amazon’s sellers are based in China. Often, Chinese sellers will ship products in bulk to the United States, where they’ll sit in warehouses operated by Amazon, Wish, or other companies, until U.S. companies order them, he said.

Though it’s difficult to track just how much the direct-from-China market has grown, the number of packages received from overseas in the United States has exploded in recent years. The U.S. Postal Service delivered 175 million letters and packages from overseas in the first three months of 2018, up from 97 million in the same period in 2013, according to the USPS. The Postal Service makes it easy for Chinese sellers to ship cheaply to the United States: Under a program called ePacket, merchants can ship items that weigh less than 4.4 pounds, and receive tracking and delivery confirmation services for a low rate. Often, it costs less to ship a package to a U.S. destination from China than it does to ship that item domestically.

Sites like Wish have created a whole new type of shopping for customers whose first priority is low prices. They include Darlene Echaverria, 58, who stumbled across Wish when shopping for her grandson in 2016. He had asked for some Adidas Yeezy shoes, which sell for about $300. Echaverria, a retired nurse, wasn’t going to spend that much on sneakers, so she googled the shoes to see if she could find a cheaper version. Her search brought her to Wish, where a sneaker that looked similar to the Yeezy sneaker was selling at just $16. “I thought it was too good to be true,” she told me. When they came after a few weeks, her grandson loved them, but she had ordered the wrong size, so Echaverria now wears them.

Since then, she’s purchased dozens of things on Wish, including $4 bras, $6 jeans, and a $60 coat. She bought a $400 pool vacuum cleaner that was marked down to $75, and it still works, she says. She estimates that she bought things from the site a few times a week, until her husband nagged her to cut it out. Sometimes, the site will offer her things for free, like clothing for her Chihuahua rat terrier—she just has to pay for shipping. Since the goods aren’t coming from a retailer, they’re often packaged oddly: Shoes come wrapped in bubble tape with no shoebox, electronics come without any English instructions. But Echaverria says that as long as people know they’re getting a cheap item from China, they’ll like Wish. “You have to set your expectations realistic. If you don’t you’re going to be disappointed,” she says. “It’s not like you’re going to Dillard’s and spending $100 on jeans. You’re getting $5 jeans.”

Wish presents a significant challenge to the U.S. importers and manufacturers who have to compete with websites selling cheap stuff directly from China. “If you’re a manufacturer in the United States, you’re not happy about this, because you can’t make anything as cheaply as the companies in China can,” Kaziukėnas told me. It’s much cheaper to make goods in China because of the low cost of labor and lax labor requirements. That’s why shoppers once flocked to stores like Target or Walmart, where they could buy low-priced goods imported from China. Target and Walmart provided quality control, but for customers willing to take a risk, sites like Wish work well. Why buy a $40 bikini made in America when you can buy a $4 bikini directly from China? For that matter, why buy a $20 bikini made in China but imported by a U.S. company like the Gap when you can buy a $4 bikini directly from China?

An $18 watch ordered from Wish.com (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

Sites like Wish also create problems for localities trying to collect sales tax on items sold online. Most sellers from China are third-party sellers, which means that sites like Amazon and Wish do not have to collect sales tax on items sold in most states. (Many states are currently fighting this practice in court.) Even if more states begin requiring third-party sellers to begin collecting sales tax, it will be more difficult to enforce the law against companies based in China than those with a U.S. presence. “A lot of states say a lot of these Chinese companies are not paying taxes at all because they are foreign entities and they don’t care,” Kaziukėnas said.

Still, there are signs that some customers won’t stand for low-quality products. As I’ve written before, sites like Amazon that enable third-party sellers—including those in China—to sell counterfeit and knockoff products are facing a wave of lawsuits from consumers and companies that say the websites themselves should be responsible when customers receive poor-quality or counterfeit products. One series of lawsuits blames Amazon for selling hoverboards from China whose batteries explode. Customers who buy products from Wish or other direct-from-China sites may be so disappointed with their purchases that they’ll return to buying from brand-name merchants whose products they trust. “We have a pretty high bar for quality in this country,” Sucharita Kodali, a retail analyst at Forrester, told me. “People will try this stuff once, have a bad experience, and they never buy it again.”

Reviews of Wish suggest that many customers have indeed had bad experiences. The 512 customer reviews of Wish on Hiya.com are mostly negative, with one-star reviews and customers calling the company a “scam” and a “rip-off.” They tell stories of the site sending rings that turn fingers green, products paid for and never received, and requests for returns and refunds ignored. “Yes, you save money, if you actually get your stuff! Never again will I ordered [sic] from Wish,” one customer, Regina Ashley, wrote. (Ashley, a Virginia resident, confirmed to me in an email that she had written the review.)

I reached out to Wish to ask them about their business model and negative customer reviews, but the company doesn’t appear to have much of a presence in San Francisco, where its website says its headquarters are located. In the “Contact Us” section, Wish shows a Google Map of downtown San Francisco, but with no pin on the map to show where the company is located. I emailed support, which was the only way I could figure out how to contact Wish, and said I was a reporter hoping to talk to a spokesperson. The reply was cryptic: “Unfortunately, it doesn’t sound like we require your services at this time, but thank you for your interest and thank you for contacting us,” an email from a customer-support member, Justin, read. When I replied that I wasn’t looking for customer support, but a press person, I didn’t hear back.

My own Wish shopping experience didn’t make me likely to go back to the site. The “Smart Watch” pedometer does not measure my steps, no matter how hard I stomp. Reading the tiny two-page user guide, which is printed in Chinese on one side and English on the other, does not help. Here are the first two sentences about the pedometer function: “Pedometer designed specifically for those concerned about the health. recommends the use of chest stride proudly state of motion, the magnitude of the normal walking arm, enabling a more accurate count to the number of steps.”

The watch keeps asking me to insert a SIM card to use most of its functions, yet none of the three phone stores I went to in San Francisco’s Chinatown could find a SIM card that worked. One store kept feeding the watch different SIM cards, just to receive an error message. I bought a memory card so I could use the watch’s camera function, but the camera takes photos upside down, and only if you hold the watch at an odd angle.

For now, I plan to relegate it to my drawer of cheap crap I’ve bought from different places: dollar stores, vending machines at supermarkets, Amazon.com. At the end of the day, it seems, you still get what you pay for.

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JimB
18 hours ago
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How Ed Sheeran is tackling ticket touts

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The pop star has taken an aggressive stance by cancelling more than 10,000 tickets for his tour.
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JimB
18 hours ago
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Impeachment Is Not the Answer

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The title and timing of To End a Presidency: The Power of Impeachment might lead the unwary reader to expect a polemic. But no. Inside these covers is a learned, judicious, and surprisingly cautious study of the impeachment power by Laurence Tribe, who ranks high among America’s leading constitutional scholars, and his former student, Joshua Matz. Their message: Impeachment is a very, very dangerous thing. Proceed with caution.

Worse: “Well-justified calls to impeach the president can simultaneously empower him, harm his political opponents, and make his removal from office less likely … Because removing a truly determined tyrant may unleash havoc, the risks of impeaching a president are apt to be most extreme precisely when ending his tenure is most necessary.”

By perverse contrast: “An impeachment may be most likely to succeed in Congress when other, less extreme measures are also most viable.”

We live in a time of what the authors call “impeachment talk.” They note that only five presidents faced credible impeachment threats up until the year 1992: Andrew Jackson, John Tyler, Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan. By contrast, every president since 1992 has faced a credible impeachment threat—and, of course, Bill Clinton actually was impeached.

The authors make a cynical but shrewd observation about post-1992 impeachment talk: It is often stirred not by the president’s opponents, but by the president’s supporters, as a way to sustain political engagement between elections.

Many conservatives were thrilled in March 2006 when Democratic Senator Russell Feingold proposed censuring [George W.] Bush for warrantless domestic surveillance. At that point, the president’s public approval ratings had collapsed. With midterm elections on the horizon, Republicans feared losing control of Congress. What better way to fire up the base than to warn that Democrats would impeach Bush if they prevailed? “This is such a gift,” Rush Limbaugh told listeners. The Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed entitled, “The Impeachment Agenda,” which the Republican National Committee shared with 15 million supporters … As reporter David Kirkpatrick observed at the time, “in playing up the impeachment threat, conservatives have forged an alliance of sorts with the most liberal wing of the Democratic Party.”

The script would be reversed in the Obama presidency, and for exactly the same reasons. Despite the extreme abuse hurled his way, Barack Obama was never in danger of being impeached. But his supporters believed he was, and that belief served as an important political resource to Democrats as Republicans gained control of Congress and many state legislatures starting in 2010.

Since the 1990s, we have entered the age of the permanent campaign, with permanent fundraising, permanent partisanship—and, in tandem, permanent impeachment hearings. Americans speak more roughly about their presidents and, precisely because they do, often do not take their own words seriously. How often was Obama called a dictator? And yet people who used that language most effectively acknowledged afterward that they never meant it to be taken seriously.

Perhaps they imagine that concerned language about Trump should be interpreted the same way, as just an over-emphatic expression of ordinary political difference. As Americans talk more about impeachment, they seem to care less. The idea that a president could be a threat to the democratic system as a whole, a threat to be heeded seriously by people of all points of view, has faded—perhaps because, for so many Americans, faith in that system has faded, too. The authors write:

Many Americans who voted for Trump view themselves as belonging to a victimized, disenfranchised class that has finally discovered its champion. For some of them, Trump’s appeal is less what he will accomplish programmatically than whom he will attack personally. Were Trump removed from office by political elites in Washington, DC—even based on clear evidence that he had grossly abused power—some of his supporters would surely view the decision as an illegitimate coup. Indeed, some right-wing leaders have already denounced the campaign to remove Trump as a prelude to civil war. This rhetoric, too, escapes reality and indulges pernicious tendencies toward apocalyptic thinking about the impeachment power.  

Tribe and Matz regard Trump as bad news: bad for the political system overall, and bad for their own specific liberal policy preferences. And yet the most remarkable thing about To End a Presidency is the spirit of moderation they bring to their vision of how those harms should be mitigated.

If there is one central piece of advice that Tribe and Matz would impart, it is this: Impeachment is a political question, not a legal one. Do not imagine that even if you could perfectly know what the Framers meant by “high Crimes and Misdemeanors”—the Constitution’s enigmatic catch-all grounds for impeachment after Treason and Bribery—that you could solve the problem of when or whether to impeach. As they tell it, impeachment may be unwise even when justified. “Under most circumstances, removing the president from office this way is bound to be divisive and disheartening,” they write. “Even when taking that step is fully justified, the price may be higher and the benefits more modest than some would envision.”

So what is to be done? Their answer, in a word, is politics. Grand visions of putting on trial a corrupt or tyrannical or treasonable president “falsely devalue other ways of defending democracy, including popular activism, local and state political engagement, filing lawsuits, donating to civil rights groups, and undertaking private ventures in the public interest.”

The Republicans who failed to remove Andrew Johnson in 1868 did chasten him to cease sabotaging black civil and voting rights in the final year of his presidency. They then elected a replacement more committed to Reconstruction’s goals, Ulysses S. Grant. This is the model they urge the Americans of today to emulate as long as they can. And if that point is ever passed—if evidence reveals a danger so urgent, imminent, and overwhelming that impeachment becomes inevitable—Tribe and Matz plead for limiting the goals of any impeachment process as narrowly as possible in order to achieve the broadest possible coalition in support.

Trump will not be removed from power unless a large number of Republicans and independents, along with Democrats, agree that he has to go. But the truth is that most of those voters don’t believe the sky is falling. Nor are they automatically inclined to view impeachment as an appropriate sanction for Trump—even when they disagree with him or find him embarrassing. In engaging with those voters, urging impeachment and suggesting that it will undo all of his major decisions could prove counter-persuasive. They may be pleased with some of Trump’s appointments and policies since taking office. They may look skeptically on Democrats who favored impeachment on Inauguration Day. And they may be especially wary of joining an impeachment crusade led by a party that they otherwise disdain. … It is hard enough to persuade the president’s supporters under any circumstances that he should be removed for “high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” We doubt the wisdom of making it harder still by describing that effort as the first shot of a revolution—or, even less realistically, as a revolution in itself.

The clear-eyed and clear-thinking message of To End a Presidency deserves the widest audience. It is an aspirin to cool a political fever, and a hopeful summons to defend an imperiled democracy with a renewed and enlarged commitment to democratic action.

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JimB
18 hours ago
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What did Donald Trump do today?He issued a commemorative coin, which is actually...

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What did Donald Trump do today?

He issued a commemorative coin, which is actually a huge problem.

This morning, Trump's White House Military Office unveiled its official "challenge coin" commemorating the summit meeting with North Korea. Challenge coins are traditional gifts given by diplomatic or military leaders, especially for participation in significant events. 

Normally uncontroversial, the Trump coin has managed to stir controversy for a number of reasons. It depicts Trump and Kim Jong-un as equals--which has real-world diplomatic overtones. The ruling members of North Korea's hereditary dictatorship have been trying for decades to force the United States to acknowledge them as peers, knowing that this would make it more difficult to act against the regime when necessary.

The coin also refers to Kim by his preferred honorific, "Supreme Leader." Kim inherited this title after his father Kim Jong-il died, and held on to it--as Trump has noted with undisguised admiration--by ordering the assassination of all potential rivals from within the ranks of the North Korean elite. His government is known to engage in any number of brutal forms of human rights abuses, including torture, enslavement, and the punitive rape of women for their family members' political crimes. The United States did not typically (until now) acknowledge the legitimacy of Kim's government by using that title.

But most significantly, the coin "commemorates" a summit that still may not happen. Even Trump is having second thoughts about the wisdom of the meeting he single-handedly brought about. Trump has apparently belatedly realized what everyone else concerned already knew: that Kim has no intention of actually giving up his nuclear weapons, an outcome that Trump promised would be the result. (In fairness to Kim, while Trump claimed that Kim had offered "denuclearization," Kim's own statement on the matter said no such thing.)

Since agreeing to become the first U.S. president ever to dignify the North Korean regime with a summit, Trump has called Kim "very honorable," praised his "excellent" treatment of hostages, and capitulated to Kim's demand that he cancel joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises.

Why does this matter?

  • Even a president as fond of dictators and strongmen as Trump is should have been able to understand why trusting Kim Jong-un to do right by the United States was a bad idea.
  • Diplomacy and foreign policy are too important to screw up this badly, especially where hostile nuclear powers are involved.
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JimB
22 hours ago
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How are his advisors letting him do this?
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Could smartphones replace bank branches?

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Banks sent 512 mobile alerts last year as our money management moves from spreadsheets to smartphones.
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JimB
22 hours ago
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New payment architecture sounds full of potential... for disaster.
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