Thursday Reads: All Hell Is Breaking Loose!

Good Morning!!

Following politics these days is a full-time job. Yesterday I went out for a few hours and, as often happens, all hell had broken loose by the time I got back to my computer.

  1. Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee that is investigating ties between the Trump campaign and Russia held two press conferences to claim that Trump transition members–and maybe Trump himself–were incidentally picked up by surveillance in Trump Tower. Then, instead of sharing this information with members of his committee, he went running to the White House to brief Trump. What Nunes said didn’t make a lot of sense, so here’s an explanatory piece at Lawfare.
  2. The Supreme Court reversed a decision by Trump’s SCOTUS pick Neil Gorsuch shortly after Gorsuch defended the decision during his confirmation hearing.
  3. The Associated Press breaks the news that Paul Manafort “secretly worked for a Russian billionaire with a plan to ‘greatly benefit the Putin Government…'”
  4. AP also reported that Michael Flynn never signed the ethics pledge required for people working in the White House. Has anyone signed it?
  5. There was a horrible attack in London–JJ covered it well yesterday.

When I got home, Devin Nunes was all over the TV, soon followed by a press conference by Adam Schiff, the Democratic ranking member of Nunes committee.

Democrat Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, held a hastily-planned press conference to respond to committee chairman Devin Nunes‘ decision to give President Donald Trump updates on the Russia investigation and wiretapping without showing the evidence to Schiff. He said that Nunes’ actions mean that there is reason to create an independent commission to investigate Russia’s involvement.

Schiff, who is also from California, said that Nunes’ actions created “enormous doubt” that Congress can handle an independent investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election. He said he will ask House Speaker Paul Ryan about creating an independent commission….

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif. (right), holds a press conference with ranking committee member Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., about their investigation of Russian influence on the American presidential election.

Schiff also said that he hopes these press conferences weren’t part of a “broader campaign” by the White House to distract attention away from FBI Director James CButomey‘s testimony that there is no evidence that President Barack Obama ordered Trump Tower to be wiretapped during the campaign. Comey also confirmed that the FBI is running an investigation into possible ties between members of the Trump campaign and Russia.

Schiff also told Chuck Todd yesterday that there is now more than circumstantial evidence of collusion between the Trump gang and Russia. But that’s all yesterday’s news.

The AP has a new exclusive out about Manafort: U.S. Probes Banking of Ex-Trump Campaign Chief.

U.S. Treasury Department agents have recently obtained information about offshore financial transactions involving President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, as part of a federal anti-corruption probe into his work in Eastern Europe, The Associated Press has learned.

Information about Manafort’s transactions was turned over earlier this year to U.S. agents working in the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network by investigators in Cyprus at the U.S. agency’s request, a person familiar with the case said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to publicly discuss a criminal investigation.

The Cyprus attorney general, one of the country’s top law enforcement officers, was made aware of the American request….

Manafort, who was Trump’s unpaid campaign chairman from March until August last year, has been a leading focus of the U.S. government’s investigation into whether Trump associates coordinated with Moscow to meddle in the 2016 campaign. This week, the AP revealed his secret work for a Russian billionaire to advance the interests of Russian President Vladimir Putin a decade ago.

Rick Gates

The Washington Post has a story on Manafort’s business partner, who is still a very important member of the Trump administration: Manafort is gone, but his business associate remains a key part of Trump’s operation.

…even as Trump officials downplay Manafort’s role, his ­decade-long business associate Rick Gates remains entrenched in the president’s operation. Gates is one of four people leading a Trump-blessed group that defends the president’s agenda. As recently as last week, he was at the White House to meet with officials as part of that work.

Through Manafort, Gates is tied to many of the same business titans from Ukraine and Russia, including Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch with strong ties to Russian President Vladi­mir Putin. On Wednesday, the Associated Press reported that Manafort had a multimillion-dollar contract with Deripaska between at least 2005 and 2009 that was aimed at helping the political interests of Putin.

Manafort has acknowledged the contract with Deripaska but denied that it, or any other of their dealings, had anything to do with the Russian government. In a brief interview, Gates described his work as being focused on “supporting the private equity fund started by the firm and democracy building and party building in Ukraine.”

Gates also acknowledged a role in at least two recent, controversial deals involving separate Putin-connected oligarchs, including one other with Deripaska. Both led to lawsuits in which Gates was listed as a partner to Manafort, though Gates said he holds no equity interest in the firm.

Read the rest at the WaPo.

Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov

Then there this story from Haaretz: The Russian Crime Organization That Operated in Trump Tower.

The FBI did wiretap Trump Tower, but its target was not the future president of the United States and the operation was over well before Donald Trump even declared his candidacy. Instead, the bureau was listening in on a Russian crime organization that worked out of offices on the building’s 63rd floor, just three stories below Trump’s penthouse. As reported by ABC News on Tuesday, the FBI had the building under surveillance, including electronic monitoring, from 2011 to 2013. The investigation led to the indictment of Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, who is wanted by Interpol and on the lam in Russia, and 33 individuals suspected of working for him.

“He is a major player,” Mike Gaeta, who ran the FBI’s Eurasian organized crime unit in New York and led the 2013 FBI investigation, told ABC News about Tokhtakhounov, who holds both Russian and Israeli citizenship.

“He is prominent. He has extremely good connections in the business world as well as the criminal world, overseas, in Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, other countries.

Again, read more details at the link.

Another prominent Russian was assassinated on a street in Ukraine. The Independent: Former Russian MP shot dead in Kiev, Ukraine.

Denis Voronenkov was killed around noon and his bodyguard was injured in the attack, Kiev police chief Andriy Kryschenko said.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said the killing was an act of Russian “state terrorism.”

The Kremlin called allegations Moscow was behind the murder “absurd.”

Denis Voronenkov shot dead on Kiev street.

Mr Voronenkov, 45, a former member of the communist faction in the lower house of Russian parliament, had moved to Ukraine last autumn and had been granted Ukrainian citizenship.

The former MP had criticised Moscow’s illegal annexation of Crimea and had been due to testify against ex-President Viktor Yanukovych, a firm ally of President Vladimir Putin.

His bodyguard reportedly returned fire and wounded the attacker, who is being treated in hospital.

Another former MP and Kremlin critic living in Kiev said Mr Voronenkov was killed while heading to meet with him.

Mr Voronenkov was “an investigator who was deadly dangerous for the [Russian] security agencies,” Mr Ponomaryov wrote on Facebook, according to a translation from The Moscow Times.

They’re dropping like flies. I’d say Paul Manafort’s should be watching his back.

Then there’s the lawyer who was thrown out of his window in Moscow. It’s a complicated story that Michael Weiss explains at The Daily Beast: Russian Lawyer Thrown From Window Was a Witness for the U.S. Government. I won’t try to excerpt it; it’s not long though.

Nikolai Gorokhov

This morning, Rep. Elijah Cummings called for an investigation of Rep. Devin Nunes. The Hill reports:

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) on Thursday called for an investigation into House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who bypassed the panel to brief President Trump on information related to U.S. surveillance of his transition team.

During an interview on CNN’s “New Day,” Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, called the Intelligence panel a “very special committee.”

“They are privileged to information that most members of Congress may never see and so you expect them to be extremely confidential,” he added.

“What he did was basically to go to the president, who’s being investigated, by the FBI and others and by the intelligence committee, to give them information.”

Late last night, CNN broke this story: US officials: Info suggests Trump associates may have coordinated with Russians.

The FBI has information that indicates associates of President Donald Trump communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, US officials told CNN.

This is partly what FBI Director James Comey was referring to when he made a bombshell announcement Monday before Congress that the FBI is investigating the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, according to one source.

The FBI is now reviewing that information, which includes human intelligence, travel, business and phone records and accounts of in-person meetings, according to those U.S. officials. The information is raising the suspicions of FBI counterintelligence investigators that the coordination may have taken place, though officials cautioned that the information was not conclusive and that the investigation is ongoing.

This is out of control. What more wild news will today bring? And I haven’t even mentioned the GOP “health care” bill which is in deep trouble.

What stories are you following today?


Tuesday Reads

Good Afternoon!!

As usual these days, I don’t know where to begin. We are living through something so strange and unprecedented that I just find myself shaking my head at each new revelation. Once again, I’m going to illustrate this post with baby animal pics, just because.

One crazy-making thing for me is the fact that the Senate is currently grilling a candidate for the Supreme Court who has been nominated by a man who may have committed treason. Neil Gorsuch should not be approved until the investigation of Trump’s involvement with Russia’s interference in the election is complete. I’m actually having difficulty watching the Gorsuch hearing. The word I think of when I look at and listen to him is “oily.” I hope some of you are following the questioning and can share your impressions.

I did watch the entire “Comey hearing” yesterday, and I’m still processing the latest revelations. I expect the press will be on this now and news outlets will compete to give us new information on a daily basis. We may have to function during political chaos for months and years to come. I can only hope the Republicans begin to develop spines as the 2018 election gets closer.

While the House Intelligence Committee testimony by FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers was still going on, White House spokesman Sean Spicer bizarrely continued to defend Trump’s accusation that Obama wiretapped Trump Tower. He also claimed that Michael Flynn was only “volunteer” for the Trump campaign and that Paul Manafort had only a “limited role.”

Vanity Fair on the press briefing yesterday:

During the campaign, Flynn was a top adviser and, at one point, was vetted to become Trump’s running mate. He later accepted a job as national security adviser, one of the most important roles in the West Wing, before resigning 24 days into the new administration, after it was revealed that he had not been entirely forthcoming about his conversations with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

“General Flynn was a volunteer of the campaign,” Spicer said on Monday, brushing off concerns that Flynn had been a high-level Trump campaign adviser with any degree of influence while maintaining ties to Russia.

On Manafort, CNN reports:

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer incorrectly diminished the role of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, remarks made at the same time as a House Intelligence Committee hearing investigated whether campaign aides colluded with Russia during last year’s presidential race.Spicer, pressed on a number of Trump associates’ connections to Russian operatives, claimed Manafort played a “limited role (in the campaign) for a very limited amount of time.”

Manafort was hired by the Trump campaign in March 2016 to lead the delegate operation on the floor of the Republican National Committee in Cleveland.

Manafort was promoted in May to campaign chairman and chief strategist. And when campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was fired in June, Manafort — who butted heads with Lewandowski — was widely seen as the campaign’s top official.

Manafort is largely credited with securing Trump the Republican nomination, through a mix of deep ties in the Republican establishment and tireless organizing to win the Republican delegate fight which almost derailed Trump one year ago.

I wonder why the White House is so desperate to disown Manafort, who is a close friend of Trump buddy Roger Stone and has lived in Trump Tower since for more than a decade? The Washington Post may have provided a partial answer this morning: New documents show Trump aide laundered payments from party with Moscow ties, lawmaker alleges.

A Ukrainian lawmaker released new financial documents Tuesday allegedly showing that a former campaign chairman for President Trump laundered payments from the party of a disgraced ex-leader of Ukraine using offshore accounts in Belize and Kyrgyzstan.

The new documents, if legitimate, stem from business ties between the Trump aide, Paul Manafort, and the party of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, who enjoyed Moscow’s backing while he was in power. He has been in hiding in Russia since being overthrown by pro-Western protesters in 2014, and is wanted in Ukraine on corruption charges.

The latest documents were released just hours after the House Intelligence Committee questioned FBI Director James B. Comey about possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Moscow. The hearing that also touched on Manafort’s work for Yanukovych’s party in Ukraine.

Comey declined to say whether the FBI is coordinating with Ukraine on an investigation of the alleged payments to Manafort.

More details at the link.

Another Russia fan who is still in the Trump administration is good old Rex Tillerson. Have you hear about the recent changes to his travel schedule? This seems odd after what we heard at the Intel Committee hearing yesterday.

NBC News: Rex Tillerson to Skip Key NATO Summit, Plans to Travel to Russia.

America’s smaller European allies have expressed concern about President Donald Trump’s mixed signals on whether he would protect them against Russia.

The uncertainty threatened to deepen late Monday when U.S. officials said that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson planned to skip what would have been his first official meeting with NATO in April.

However, Tillerson will travel later in the month to a series of unspecified meetings in Russia, a State Department spokesman confirmed to NBC News.

Whoa! Skipping the NATO meeting and heading to Moscow? I’m speechless.

Here’s an interesting opinion piece by Walter Shapiro at Roll Call: James Comey and the Art of the Shiv.

Before Comey returned to his offstage role, he dropped enough bombshells to solidify his reputation as the most significant FBI director since J. Edgar Hoover. Joined by his crusty sidekick, Adm. Michael Rogers, who heads the National Security Agency, Comey gave an artful lesson in how to stick a shiv into a sitting president without ever raising his voice or making a specific accusation.

Early in the hearing, Comey shredded Trump’s cockamamie Twitter claim that Barack Obama had wiretapped him before the election. As Comey solemnly stated, “I have no information that supports those tweets and we have looked carefully inside the FBI.”

Comey had arrived at the hearing with his own smoking gun that he brandished at the beginning of his opening statement — official confirmation that the FBI is investigating “any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russian efforts.”

Comey’s offensive against the White House even extended to refuting a presidential tweet about the ongoing hearing. Connecticut Democratic Rep. Jim Himes asked Comey to respond to a Trump tweet claiming, “The NSA and FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence the electoral process.” Comey dismissed Trump’s fanciful version of the truth by saying, “It wasn’t certainly our intention to say that today.”

Shapiro thinks Comey’s “role in upending” Hillary Clinton gives him credibility against Trump. I’m not so sure. Still, the piece is worth a read.

This morning Trump went to Capitol Hill in person and tried to convince hostile House Republicans to vote for his disastrous health care bill. If this is how he negotiates deals, it’s surprised he didn’t have more than 6 bankruptcies.

The Washington Post: Trump to GOP critics of health care bill: ‘I’m gonna come after you.’

Assuring Republicans they would gain seats if they passed the bill, the president told Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, to stand up and take some advice.

“I’m gonna come after you, but I know I won’t have to, because I know you’ll vote ‘yes,’” said the president, according to several Republican lawmakers who attended the meeting. “Honestly, a loss is not acceptable, folks.”

But after the meeting, Meadows told reporters that the president had not made the sale, that the call-out was good-natured, and that conservative hold-outs would continue pressing for a tougher bill.

“I’m still a ‘no,’” he said. “I’ve had no indication that any of my Freedom Caucus colleagues have switched their votes.”

House Republicans made some changes to the bill yesterday, but according to Ezra Klein: The new Republican health care bill doesn’t fix the old bill’s problems.

There are three problems you could have imagined the manager’s amendment to the American Health Care Act trying to fix:

  1. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the AHCA will lead 24 million more Americans to go uninsured, push millions more into the kind of super-high-deductible care Republicans criticized in the Affordable Care Act, and all that will happen while the richest Americans get hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts. Voters — including the downscale rural whites who propelled Donald Trump into the presidency — aren’t going to like any of that.
  2. Virtually every health policy analyst from every side of the aisle thinks the AHCA is poorly constructed and will lead to consequences even its drafters didn’t intend. Avik Roy argues there are huge implicit tax increases for the poor who get jobs that lift them out of Medicaid’s ranks. Bob Laszewski thinks the plan will drive healthy people out of the insurance markets, creating even worse premium increases than we’re seeing under Obamacare. Implementing this bill, as drafted, would be a disaster.
  3. As written, the AHCA is unlikely to pass the House, and so GOP leadership needs to give House conservatives more reasons to vote for the bill, even if those reasons leave the legislation less likely to succeed in the Senate. For this bill to fail in the House would embarrass Speaker Paul Ryan and President Trump.

Of the three problems in the AHCA, the third is by far the least serious — but it’s the only one the manager’s amendment even attempts to solve. These aren’t changes that address the core problems the GOP health care bill will create for voters, insurers, or states; instead, it’s legislation that tries to solve some of the problems the bill creates for conservative legislators. It might yet fall short on even that count.

This is a trap for Republicans. Both the process and the substance of the American Health Care Act have revealed a political party that has lost sight of the fact that the true test of legislation isn’t whether it passes, but whether it works.

One more from Mother Jones on the Trump kleptocracy:

The Trump Organization Says It’s Vetting Deals for Conflicts—But Refuses to Say How.

The week after Donald Trump’s inauguration, as questions swirled about the ethics ramifications of his refusal to divest from his business holdings, the Trump Organization announced that it had created a system for vetting new deals that could benefit the president. The company said it had tapped George Sorial, a Trump Organization executive, to be chief compliance counsel and Bobby Burchfield, a Washington-based corporate lawyer, to serve as an outside ethics adviser who would scrutinize new Trump company transactions for potential conflicts of interest. Trump’s private lawyer, Sheri Dillon, had pledged in early January that Trump would “build in protections” to assure Americans that his actions as president “are for their benefit and not to support his financial interests.” But two months into Trump’s presidency, there are serious questions about the rigor and transparency of the Trump Organization’s vetting process.

The first deal completed after Trump’s swearing-in suggested the vetting procedures are weak. This transaction, as Mother Jones reported, was the sale of a $15.8 million condo to a Chinese American businesswoman who peddles access to Chinese elites and who has ties to a front group established by China’s military intelligence apparatus. Angela Chen’s connections to Chinese officials and military intelligence evidently weren’t a cause for concern to the Trump Organization. The condo sale went through on February 21, with Chen apparently paying the $15.8 million in cash—roughly $2 million more than a unit one floor below. (Chen had lived in the same Trump-owned Park Avenue building in a smaller apartment for years. Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump lived in the same building before their move to Washington.) Contacted by Mother Jones earlier this month, Burchfield, the Trump Organization’s outside ethics adviser, declined to comment on the sale or how it was vetted.

Robert Weissman, president of the good-government group Public Citizen, says the Chen deal raises questions about whether any real vetting happened. “Here, where we actually need extreme vetting, it appears to be absent,” he says. “It’s absolutely unclear if Burchfield or anybody else is doing anything pursuant to what they alleged they would do. And if they are, we don’t know what it is. But we should not presume it’s happening.”

On Thursday, Burchfield, a veteran corporate litigator who specializes in political law and largely represents Republican clients, declined to comment regarding the vetting process for new Trump deals. He would not talk about any transactions approved or denied since he began advising the Trump Organization. At Trump’s January 11 press conference, Dillon promised that the outside ethics adviser would provide “written approval” of any new deal, ostensibly explaining why a transaction does not pose a conflict for the president. Burchfield has not publicly disclosed details about the written approval process.

Read more details at Mother Jones.

What stories are you following today?


Thursday Reads: “Deconstruction of the Administrative State” — President Bannon

Good Morning!!

The tRump administration plans for the US government are beginning to take shape. The plan is to hollow it out from the inside. The only question is whether tRump plans to make the U.S. a wholly owned subsidiary of the Russian kleptocracy or whether he wants to make himself a dictator in the mode of Vladimir Putin.

From the cover story of Time this week: Inside Donald Trump’s War Against the State, by Massimo Calabresi.

At 6:35 a.m. on March 4, President Donald Trump launched an attack against the government of the United States. Deploying his favorite weapon, Twitter, he wrote, “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” In fewer than 140 characters, he accused a former President of an impeachable offense, suggested that Justice Department agents might have engaged in a felony and gestured at the possibility that federal judges enabled a political outrage.

He wasn’t finished. Over the next half hour–as Trump’s staff, left behind in Washington, began waking up and unlocking their phones to discover what the boss was up to down at Mar-a-Lago–the President added two more tweets suggesting that Obama and federal investigators had broken the law and should be prosecuted. He capped his indictment with a fourth blurt, comparing the allegation with the worst political crisis of his 70-year lifetime. “How low has President Obama gone to tapp [sic] my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”

Trump was right that the government now faces a test of historic dimensions. The FBI is probing a plot by Russia to subvert the core exercise of American democracy in the 2016 presidential election. Revelations of contacts between Trump aides and Russian officials have forced the resignation of the President’s National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, and the recusal of his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions. This probe, which may or may not have involved court-approved surveillance, has unleashed an orgy of political exploitation, resulting in a crisis of confidence in the government’s ability to play by the rules.

But no matter what he tweets from his Palm Beach Xanadu, Trump is more author than victim of this crisis. Neither he nor his White House staff provided any evidence for his extraordinary accusations against what some of them call a “deep state.” Obama denied Trump’s assertions, and was soon joined by former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and, via intermediaries, FBI Director James Comey. Trump is rallying his political base against the federal agencies he oversees, thus partnering his presidency with a radical fringe. Win or lose, the standoff he has engineered will diminish the credibility of the government.

Go read the whole thing for more on President Bannon’s quest to destroy the federal government.

Steve Sack / Minneapolis Star Tribune

ProPublica has been investigating how the process of hollowing out is happening: Meet the Hundreds of Officials Trump Has Quietly Installed Across the Government.

A Trump campaign aide who argues that Democrats committed “ethnic cleansing” in a plot to “liquidate” the white working class. A former reality show contestant whose study of societal collapse inspired him to invent a bow-and-arrow-cum-survivalist multi-tool. A pair of healthcare industry lobbyists. A lobbyist for defense contractors. An “evangelist” and lobbyist for Palantir, the Silicon Valley company with close ties to intelligence agencies. And a New Hampshire Trump supporter who has only recently graduated from high school.

These are some of the people the Trump administration has hired for positions across the federal government, according to documents received by ProPublica through public-records requests.

While President Trump has not moved to fill many jobs that require Senate confirmation, he has quietly installed hundreds of officials to serve as his eyes and ears at every major federal agency, from the Pentagon to the Department of Interior.

Unlike appointees exposed to the scrutiny of the Senate, members of these so-called “beachhead teams” have operated largely in the shadows, with the White House declining to publicly reveal their identities.

While some names have previously dribbled out in the press, we are publishing a list of more than 400 hires, providing the most complete accounting so far of who Trump has brought into the federal government.

The White House said in January that around 520 staffers were being hired for the beachhead teams.

Read much more at the link.

The next three links may provide some clues to whether or not tRump is trying to increase Russian influence in our government.

Think Progress: Trump leaves key cybersecurity jobs vacant across the government.

The Trump administration is leaving many top technology jobs across government vacant, raising concerns about the security and maintenance of federal computer systems in the wake of an election where hacks dominated the headlines. The White House’s own cybersecurity practices are another source of concern, say experts.

Of the nine agency-level Chief Information Officer (or CIO) roles that are politically appointed, only one is currently filled — and that top tech slot is occupied by a holdover from the Obama administration.

The Federal CIO and Federal Chief Information Security Officer (or CISO) jobs are also vacant, as is the White House CISO gig.

“These are critical roles in terms of shepherding any sort of policy towards cyber and technology across the government,” said Paul Innella, the President of cybersecurity consulting firm TDI.

Leaving the jobs unfilled “doesn’t send a good message” about the new administration’s commitment to keeping its systems safe, according to Innella.

Former director of the CIA and NSA Michael Hayden in an op ed at The New York times: How Trump Undermines Intelligence Gathering.

The relationship between a new president and the intelligence agencies that serve him can be difficult in the best of times. But it’s hard to imagine a more turbulent transition than the current one, which has been marred by assertions that the administration has tried to both politicize and marginalize intelligence gathering.

No White House likes it when intelligence agencies — such as the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency or the Defense Intelligence Agency — deliver bad news, or when that information undercuts the executive’s preferred policies or political positions. But I can’t remember another White House so quick to dismiss those agencies’ judgments or so willing to discredit them as dishonest or incompetent.

We’ve seen presidential tweets with “intelligence” in accusatory quotation marks, a kind of dog whistle that equates intelligence assessments with news reporting that the president condemns as “fake.” In addition to lumping the intelligence agencies in with the “dishonest” mainstream media, the president has compared his espionage services to Russians, Nazis and WikiLeaks.

Last weekend, Mr. Trump accused President Barack Obama of ordering phones at Trump Tower tapped during the 2016 campaign, a claim so outrageous that James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, denied it a day later. (So did the F.B.I. director, James Comey, according to this paper.) And last month, Mr. Trump blamed the intelligence community, along with the press, for the downfall of his first national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, saying on Twitter that “information is being illegally given to the failing @nytimes and @washingtonpost by the intelligence community (N.S.A. and F.B.I.?).”

I want to highlight these two paragraphs (emphasis added):

As the former director of both the N.S.A. and the C.I.A., I know that leaks are a real problem that can endanger national security. But why would the administration reflexively and punitively blame its own services for leaks, since we do not yet know who is responsible for them?

The president has asserted that the leaking will stop “because now we have our people in,” a choice of words that creates more than a little shudder in the ranks of intelligence professionals, who prefer to work in the background for presidents, Democratic or Republican.

Max Boot at Foreign Policy: WikiLeaks Has Joined the Trump Administration.

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump declared, “I love WikiLeaks!” And he had good reason to display affection to this website run by accused rapist Julian Assange. By releasing reams of emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, WikiLeaks helped tilt the 2016 election in Trump’s favor.

As president, Trump hasn’t come out and said anything laudatory about WikiLeaks following its massive disclosure of CIA secrets on Tuesday — a treasure trove that some experts already believe may be more damaging than Edward Snowden’s revelations. But Trump hasn’t condemned WikiLeaks. The recent entries on his Twitter feed — a pure reflection of his unbridled id — contain vicious attacks on, among other things, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the New York Times, and Barack Obama but not a word about WikiLeaks. Did the president not notice that the intelligence community he commands has just suffered a devastating breach of security? Or did he simply not feel compelled to comment?

Actually there is a third, even more discomfiting, possibility: Perhaps Trump is staying silent because he stands to benefit from WikiLeaks’ latest revelations.

I hope you’ll read the whole thing.

More reads, links only:

CNBC: EPA chief Scott Pruitt says carbon dioxide is not a primary contributor to global warming.

Business Insider: ‘There are no sacred cows’: Breitbart’s honeymoon with establishment wing of Trump White House may be over.

Mother Jones: A Running List of People Who Hate Trumpcare..

Buzzfeed: Republican Chairman Says Sean Spicer Should Stay “In His Lane” On Health Care Bill.

Thanks to NW Luna for this link from The Smoking Gun: Roger Stone’s Russian Hacking “Hero.”

Buzzfeed News: Nigel Farage Just Visited The Ecuadorian Embassy In London.

T.A. Frank at Vanity Fair: The Terrifying Truth Behind the Trump-Russia Mess. (Caveat: I don’t usually agree with Frank and I have a lot of problems with this piece.)

Also from Vanity Fair: Is Louise Mensch Really the Root of this Trump Fiasco?

Please post your thoughts and links in the comment thread and have a great Thursday!


Tuesday Reads

Good Afternoon!!

It’s another busy day in tRumpville–not for him, of course, just for us peons. King Donald is so bored that he went out to meet a White House tour group this morning.

So the Muslim ban is back with a vengeance. Plus the GOP “health care” plan is out and it’s even worse than anyone imagined. Dakinikat wrote about tRump’s immigration policies yesterday, but we’re getting more details this morning. As for Ryancare or trumpcare or whatever the f$ck you want to call the health insurance plan from hell, it looks like it will be dead on arrival.

On top of all that Russia and Wikileaks released a bunch of CIA files to try to distract everyone from the antics circus clown they put in charge of what used to be the USA. I don’t have room to write about everything, but here are a few reads to get you started.

Politico: Trump plan pays for immigration crackdown with cuts to coastal, air security.

The Trump administration wants to gut the Coast Guard and make deep cuts in airport and rail security to help pay for its crackdown on illegal immigration, according to internal budget documents reviewed by POLITICO — a move that lawmakers and security experts say defies logic if the White House is serious about defending against terrorism and keeping out undocumented foreigners.

The Office of Management and Budget is seeking a 14 percent cut to the Coast Guard’s $9.1 billion budget, the draft documents show, even as it proposes major increases to other Department of Homeland Security agencies to hire more border agents and immigration officers and construct a physical barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The budget numbers mark the most detailed breakdown yet about how President Donald Trump envisions restructuring DHS to meet his pledge to halt illegal immigration and deport some of the millions already here.

Overall, DHS would get a 6 percent boost to its budget, to $43.8 billion. But to help pay for that, the administration would slice the budget of the Coast Guard and cut 11 percent in spending from the TSA — reductions that critics say would weaken safeguards against threats arriving by sea or air.

OMB also wants to cut 11 percent from the budget of FEMA, which oversees the national response to disasters such as floods and hurricanes.

The stupid is strong in this one. Obviously the mass deportation agenda has absolutely nothing to do with national security.

Speaking of national security, tRup appears to be mostly ignoring the international crisis being fomented by North Korea–at least he has said nothing publicly about how he plans to handle it. Rex Tillerson hasn’t said anything about this situation either. Has anyone seen or heard from him?  The Washington Post reports: North Korea says it was practicing to hit U.S. military bases in Japan with missiles.

North Korea was practicing to strike United States military bases in Japan with its latest barrage of missiles, state media in Pyongyang reported Tuesday, and it appeared to be trying to outsmart a new American antimissile battery being deployed to South Korea by firing multiple rockets at once.

Kim Jong Un presided over Monday’s launch of the four missiles, “feasting his eyes on the trails of ballistic rockets,” the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported in a statement that analysts called a “brazen declaration” of the country’s intent to strike enemies with a nuclear weapon if it came under attack.

“If the United States or South Korea fires even a single flame inside North Korean territory, we will demolish the origin of the invasion and provocation with a nuclear tipped missile,” the KCNA statement said.

The four ballistic missiles fired Monday morning were launched by the elite Hwasong ballistic missile division “tasked to strike the bases of the U.S. imperialist aggressor forces in Japan,” KCNA said. The United States has numerous military bases and about 54,000 military personnel stationed in Japan, the legacy of its postwar security alliance with the country.

Three of the four missiles flew about 600 miles over North Korea and landed in the sea, within Japan’s exclusive economic zone off the Oga Peninsula in Akita prefecture, home to a Japanese self-defense forces base. The fourth fell just outside the zone.

One thing that’s happening is that the US is sending an anti-missle defense system to South Korea, according to NBC News:

The United States has begun shipping a controversial anti-missile system to South Korea after North Korea test-launched four medium-range missiles on Monday, U.S. officials told NBC News.

The system, called THAAD, which stands for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, is an anti-missile system designed to counter a threat like that from North Korea.

Other THAAD systems are already active in Hawaii and Guam to defend against North Korea, but the shield hadn’t yet been deployed to South Korea — a scenario that Beijing has denounced as a “clear, present and substantive threat to China’s security interests.”

Two mobile launchers landed in South Korea late Monday, part of a missile defense system that the U.S. military says is meant to defend the country against a North Korean attack.
U.S. Forces Korea

I wonder if tRump will give us a heads-up if he decides to start a war with China and North Korea? Huffington Post: North Korea Warns Of ‘Actual War’ Over Military Exercises.

North Korea said on Tuesday it would pursue its nuclear deterrent and weapons program as huge U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises it says model a “pre-emptive nuclear attack” against Pyongyang continued.

South Korea and the United States, which led condemnation of North Korea’s latest missile tests at the Conference on Disarmament, said their military drills were to test defensive readiness against possible aggression from the North.

North Korean diplomat Ju Yong Choi told the United Nations-backed forum that the allies’ annual exercises were “a major cause of escalation of tension that might turn into actual war”.

“The DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is firm in its determination to further bolster its defense capabilities with a nuclear deterrent as a pivot so as to put an end to danger of nuclear war caused by the United States,” Ju said.

During the 90-minute session, envoys from more than 20 countries, including North Korea’s main ally China, as well as Britain, France, Russia and the United States, condemned North Korea’s test-firing of four ballistic missiles on Monday.

On the health insurance (definitely not health care) bill, here’s Sarah Kliff at Vox: The American Health Care Act: the Republicans’ bill to replace Obamacare, explained. Also at Vox, Ezra Klein: The GOP health bill doesn’t know what problem it’s trying to solve. You’ll need to go read both of those–there’s much too much to excerpt.

But here’s a little news from the ridiculous Jason Chaffetz. Think Progress: GOP congressman says Trumpcare will force people to choose between new iPhone and health insurance.

During a Tuesday morning appearance on CNN, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) suggested that under Trumpcare, Americans will face some tough choices — like buying an iPhone or making sure they can see a doctor.

Pressed by CNN’s Alisyn Camerota about whether he’s concerned Trumpcare’s reduced tax incentives and lack of individual mandate will result in less people having insurance, Chaffetz said, “Well, we’re getting rid of the individual mandate. We’re getting rid of those things that people said that they don’t want.” ….

The cost of a new iPhone 7 without a contract is roughly $700. By comparison, the per-capita cost of health care in the U.S. last year was $10,345. Even when insurance coverage that defrays some of that cost is factored in, Americans still spend way less on phones than they do on health care….

If too many healthy people decide to forego health care they don’t think they’ll need in favor of new phones under Trumpcare, prices will go up for those remaining in the health insurance market, creating a “death spiral.”

Chaffetz is such a nasty man, to paraphrase tRump on Hillary.

CIA headquarters in Langley, VA

The New York Times on the Wikileaks story, which sounds very serious: WikiLeaks Releases Trove of Alleged C.I.A. Hacking Documents.

WASHINGTON — WikiLeaks on Tuesday released thousands of documents that it said described sophisticated software tools used by the Central Intelligence Agency to break into smartphones, computers and even Internet-connected televisions.

If the documents are authentic, as appeared likely at first review, the release would be the latest coup for the anti-secrecy organization and a serious blow to the C.I.A., which maintains its own hacking capabilities to be used for espionage.

The initial release, which WikiLeaks said was only the first part of the document collection, included 7,818 web pages with 943 attachments, the group said. The entire archive of C.I.A. material consists of several hundred million lines of computer code, it said.

Among other disclosures that, if confirmed, would rock the technology world, the WikiLeaks release said that the C.I.A. and allied intelligence services had managed to bypass encryption on popular phone and messaging services such as Signal, WhatsApp and Telegram. According to the statement from WikiLeaks, government hackers can penetrate Android phones and collect “audio and message traffic before encryption is applied.”

The source of the documents was not named. WikiLeaks said the documents, which it called Vault 7, had been “circulated among former U.S. government hackers and contractors in an unauthorized manner, one of whom has provided WikiLeaks with portions of the archive.”

WikiLeaks said the source, in a statement, set out policy questions that “urgently need to be debated in public, including whether the C.I.A.’s hacking capabilities exceed its mandated powers and the problem of public oversight of the agency.” The source, the group said, “wishes to initiate a public debate about the security, creation, use, proliferation and democratic control of cyberweapons.”

The documents, from the C.I.A’s Center for Cyber Intelligence, are dated from 2013 to 2016, and WikiLeaks described them as “the largest ever publication of confidential documents on the agency.” One former intelligence officer who briefly reviewed the documents on Tuesday morning said some of the code names for C.I.A. programs, an organization chart and the description of a C.I.A. hacking base appeared to be genuine.

It will be very interesting to see how tRump responds to this disastrous situation, which obviously is the work of his buddy Vladimir Putin.

Here’s an interesting article by Noah Feldman at Bloomberg on tRump’s accusation that former President Barack Obama “wiretapped” phones in tRump Tower: Trump’s Wiretap Tweets Raise Risk of Impeachment.

The sitting president has accused his predecessor of an act that could have gotten the past president impeached. That’s not your ordinary exercise of free speech. If the accusation were true, and President Barack Obama ordered a warrantless wiretap of Donald Trump during the campaign, the scandal would be of Watergate-level proportions.

But if the allegation is not true and is unsupported by evidence, that too should be a scandal on a major scale. This is the kind of accusation that, taken as part of a broader course of conduct, could get the current president impeached. We shouldn’t care that the allegation was made early on a Saturday morning on Twitter.

The basic premise of the First Amendment is that truth should defeat her opposite number. “Let her and Falsehood grapple,” wrote the poet and politician John Milton, “who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”

But this rather optimistic adage only accounts for speech and debate between citizens. It doesn’t apply to accusations made by the government. Those are something altogether different.

In a rule of law society, government allegations of criminal activity must be followed by proof and prosecution. If not, the government is ruling by innuendo.

Shadowy dictatorships can do that because there is no need for proof. Democracies can’t.

Thus, an accusation by a president isn’t like an accusation leveled by one private citizen against another. It’s about more than factual truth or carelessness.

Read the rest at the link.

What else is happening? Please post your thoughts and links in the comment thread and have a terrific Tuesday!


Thursday Reads: Attorney General Jeff Sessions Must Resign

4221396001_5344692652001_5344663214001-vs Good Morning!!

Another day, another massive tRump scandal. Late last night The Washington Post reported that Attorney General Jeff Sessions met with Russian envoy twice last year, encounters he later did not disclose.

Then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) spoke twice last year with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Justice Department officials said, encounters he did not disclose when asked about possible contacts between members of President Trump’s campaign and representatives of Moscow during Sessions’s confirmation hearing to become attorney general.

One of the meetings was a private conversation between Sessions and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak that took place in September in the senator’s office, at the height of what U.S. intelligence officials say was a Russian cyber campaign to upend the U.S. presidential race….

When Sessions spoke with Kislyak in July and September, the senator was a senior member of the influential Armed Services Committee as well as one of Trump’s top foreign policy advisers. Sessions played a prominent role supporting Trump on the stump after formally joining the campaign in February 2016.

At his Jan. 10 Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing, Sessions was asked by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) what he would do if he learned of any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of the 2016 campaign.

“I’m not aware of any of those activities,” he responded. He added: “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.”

Sessions also lied in response to a written question from Senator Patrick Leahy:

In January, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) asked Sessions for answers to written questions. “Several of the President-elect’s nominees or senior advisers have Russian ties. Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after election day?” Leahy wrote.

Sessions responded with one word: “No.”

Ambassador Kislyak

Ambassador Kislyak

Sessions first claimed he couldn’t remember what he spoke to Kislyak about; later he said it wasn’t anything to do with the campaign. So which is it: he doesn’t recall or he does recall and it wasn’t relevant to the investigation of contacts between Russian officials and the tRump campaign? Session is going to have to explain and soon. I’d also like someone to explain why the Russian ambassador was the Republican National Convention where one of the meetings with Sessions took place. Is that normal? Was he at the DNC too?

Meanwhile, Nancy Pelosi has released a statement calling for Sessions to resign. Huffington Post:

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign following a Washington Post report that he spoke with Russia’s ambassador to the United States twice last year and failed to disclose it at his confirmation hearing in January.

“Jeff Sessions lied under oath during his confirmation hearing before the Senate,” Pelosi said in a statement released late Wednesday. “Under penalty of perjury, he told the Senate Judiciary Committee, ‘I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.’ We now know that statement is false.”

Several other Democratic legislators have joined Pelosi in calling for Sessions to step down. Others have said he needs to immediate recuse himself from any investigations involving the tRump administration. Naturally, the White House is claiming this is just an attack on them by “partisan Democrats.”

Obviously, this is a fast-breaking story. Senator Chuck Schumer is holding a press conference right now calling for the DOJ to appoint a special prosecutor and for the Inspector General to open an investigation into Sessions and whether he has worked with tRump to interfere with the investigations. Schumer also stated that “it would be better for the country if he [Sessions] resigned.

Top Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy has called for Sessions to recuse himself, according to the LA Times. Even Jason Chaffetz agrees with that. Huffington Post: Growing Number Of Republicans Call On Jeff Sessions To Step Aside.

Key Republicans in Congress are questioning whether Attorney General Jeff Sessions should recuse himself from any investigation into Russia’s role in the election. House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) called on the former senator to step aside Thursday amid reports that he failed to disclose conversations he had with the Russian ambassador to the U.S.

Late Wednesday night, The Washington Post reported that Sessions spoke twice last year with the Russian official and didn’t tell lawmakers during his January confirmation hearing. U.S. investigators have also looked into Sessions’ communications as part of a larger investigation into possible links between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government, according to a Wall Street Journal report Thursday.

Another big story broke last night at about the same time as the Washington Post story on Sessions.

china_g20_us_russia-jpeg-91a1b_c0-0-3167-1846_s885x516

The New York Times: Obama Administration Rushed to Preserve Intelligence of Russian Election Hacking.

In the Obama administration’s last days, some White House officials scrambled to spread information about Russian efforts to undermine the presidential election — and about possible contacts between associates of President-elect Donald J. Trump and Russians — across the government. Former American officials say they had two aims: to ensure that such meddling isn’t duplicated in future American or European elections, and to leave a clear trail of intelligence for government investigators.

American allies, including the British and the Dutch, had provided information describing meetings in European cities between Russian officials — and others close to Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin — and associates of President-elect Trump, according to three former American officials who requested anonymity in discussing classified intelligence.

Separately, American intelligence agencies had intercepted communications of Russian officials, some of them within the Kremlin, discussing contacts with Trump associates….

Mr. Trump has denied that his campaign had any contact with Russian officials, and at one point he openly suggested that American spy agencies had cooked up intelligence suggesting that the Russian government had tried to meddle in the presidential election. Mr. Trump has accused the Obama administration of hyping the Russia story line as a way to discredit his new administration.

gettyimages-485195152

At the Obama White House, Mr. Trump’s statements stoked fears among some that intelligence could be covered up or destroyed — or its sources exposed — once power changed hands. What followed was a push to preserve the intelligence that underscored the deep anxiety with which the White House and American intelligence agencies had come to view the threat from Moscow.

It also reflected the suspicion among many in the Obama White House that the Trump campaign might have colluded with Russia on election email hacks — a suspicion that American officials say has not been confirmed. Former senior Obama administration officials said that none of the efforts were directed by Mr. Obama.

Read the rest at the NYT.

One more story from NBC News: The White House Now Has Three Options on Russia.

The stories about Sessions have led Democratic lawmakers either to call for Sessions to recuse himself from any investigation looking into Russia, or to resign because he misled Congress about his contacts with the Russian government. And now Sessions has three options — and all of them are bad.

One, he agrees to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee to clean up what he said during his confirmation hearing, and to answer any and all questions about Russia. Two, Sessions bites the bullet and appoints a special prosecutor — to save himself from a committee grilling and delay the resignation calls. Or three, he digs in. But if Team Trump choose Door No. 2 and the special prosecutor, it needs to do so ASAP. Why? Because if the administration is truly clean here, it gives them time and space to be vindicated.

More at NBC News First Read.

I’m going to go ahead and post this now so you all can comment on the this breaking story. I’ll add some more links in the comment thread.


Thursday Reads: A Mixed Bag

picket-news-680x420

Good Morning!!

Breaking this morning at 9:19AM: Alan Colmes has died after a brief illness. He was just 66 years old. From Mediaite:

Fox News moments ago reported on Colmes’ death with a segment narrated by Sean Hannity, who paired with Colmes for years on the venerable talk show Hannity & Colmes.

Hannity identified his old colleague as, “one of the nicest, kindest, and most generous people,” while his family released a statement a short time ago that read in part:

He was a great guy, brilliant, hysterical, and moral. He was fiercely loyal, and the only thing he loved more than his work was his life with [wife] Jocelyn [Elise Crowley]. He will be missed. The family asks for privacy during this very difficult time.

I’ll update if I get more information.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is in Mexico this morning on another Trump clean-up mission. The New York Times reports: Rex Tillerson Arrives in Mexico Facing Twin Threats to Relations.

The Trump administration calls the visit a step toward mutual understanding, a way to move the relationship forward.

But as Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson arrived in Mexico on Wednesday, twin threats hung over the frayed relationship between the two nations: President Trump’s new orders to round up and deport immigrants who are in the United States illegally, and a separate effort to take a hard look at all American aid to Mexico, possibly using it to pay for a border wall instead.

256715c1da5a8afa4220280f533263d1

By Friday, American officials are required to finish calculating all the money and grants that the United States provides to Mexico, a task that Mr. Trump first demanded in the executive order he signed last month directing the construction of a border wall.

The timing adds to the deep tensions between the two countries. Mr. Tillerson, the top American official to visit Mexico since Mr. Trump’s inauguration, arrived with John F. Kelly, the secretary of Homeland Security, only a day after the Trump administration released documents ordering a crackdown on immigration in the United States.

Newspapers here have described the Trump administration’s new deportation policies in apocalyptic terms, saying in some cases that they represented “war” on the millions of Mexicans in the United States.

Mexico’s foreign minister, Luis Videgaray, said Wednesday that the package of immigration directives is “something that, without doubt, worries all of us Mexicans” and will be “the first point on the agenda” when he meets with his American counterpart.

I guess we’ll hear more later on, but it doesn’t look good.

Some weird Russia news today from Politico: Manafort faced blackmail attempt, hacks suggest.

A purported cyber hack of the daughter of political consultant Paul Manafort suggests that he was the victim of a blackmail attempt while he was serving as Donald Trump’s presidential campaign chairman last summer.

The undated communications, which are allegedly from the iPhone of Manafort’s daughter, include a text that appears to come from a Ukrainian parliamentarian named Serhiy Leshchenko, seeking to reach her father, in which he claims to have politically damaging information about both Manafort and Trump.

Attached to the text is a note to Paul Manafort referring to “bulletproof” evidence related to Manafort’s financial arrangement with Ukraine’s former president, the pro-Russian strongman Viktor Yanukovych, as well as an alleged 2012 meeting between Trump and a close Yanukovych associate named Serhiy Tulub.

544377588

“Considering all the facts and evidence that are in my possession, and before possible decision whether to pass this to [the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine] or FBI I would like to get your opinion on this and maybe your way to work things out that will persuade me to do otherwise,” reads the note. It is signed “Sergii” — an alternative transliteration of Leshchenko’s given name — and it urges Manafort to respond to an email address that reporters have used to reach Leshchenko.

In the text to Manafort’s daughter to which the note was attached, the sender writes from a different address, “I need to get in touch with Paul i need to share some important information with him regarding ukraine investigation.” The sender adds “as soon as he comes back to me i will pass you documents,” but also warns: “if I don’t get any reply from you iam gonaa pass it on to the fbi and ukrainian authorities inducing media.”

Manafort says he gave the texts to his attorney, but shouldn’t he have reported them to the FBI too? These texts were reportedly obtained from a “hacktivist.” Read the rest at the link.

Another Trump adviser is in hot water, according to a Newsweek exclusive:

An embattled White House terrorism advisor whose academic credentials have come under widespread fire telephoned one of his main critics at home Tuesday night and threatened legal action against him, Newsweek has learned.

Sebastian Gorka, whose views on Islam have been widely labeled extremist, called noted terrorism expert Michael E. Smith II in South Carolina and expressed dismay that Smith had been criticizing him on Twitter, according to a recording of the call provided to Newsweek.

“I was like a deer in the headlights,” Smith, a Republican who has advised congressional committees on the use of social media by the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) and al-Qaeda, tells Newsweek. “I thought it was a prank. He began by threatening me with a lawsuit.”

cba0ff84948733f57f02408d48a58660

Gorka apparently used his personal cell phone, with a northern Virgina area code, rather than making the call from his White House office or government-issued cell phone, where it would be officially logged, Smith says. The terrorism expert says he suspected Gorka “was trying to conceal the call.”

Smith says he did not begin recording the call until after Gorka allegedly threatened to sue Smith. In an email to Newsweek, Smith said that, “Gorka asserted my tweets about him merited examination by the White House legal counsel. In effect, he was threatening to entangle me in a legal battle for voicing my concerns on Twitter that he does not possess expertise sufficient to assist the president of the United States with formulating and guiding national security policies.”

Read more about Gorka at the link. He was previously a writer at Breitbart.

A Muslim woman who was on the National Security Council has written in The Atlantic about why she resigned after 8 days under Trump:

Like most of my fellow American Muslims, I spent much of 2016 watching with consternation as Donald Trump vilified our community. Despite this––or because of it––I thought I should try to stay on the NSC staff during the Trump Administration, in order to give the new president and his aides, a more nuanced view of Islam, and of America’s Muslim citizens.

I lasted eight days.

When Trump issued a ban on travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries and all Syrian refugees, I knew I could no longer stay and work for an administration that saw me and people like me not as fellow citizens, but as a threat.

The evening before I left, bidding farewell to some of my colleagues, many of whom have also since left, I notified Trump’s senior NSC communications advisor, Michael Anton, of my departure, since we shared an office. His initial surprise, asking whether I was leaving government entirely, was followed by silence––almost in caution, not asking why. I told him anyway.

I told him I had to leave because it was an insult walking into this country’s most historic building every day under an administration that is working against and vilifying everything I stand for as an American and as a Muslim. I told him that the administration was attacking the basic tenets of democracy. I told him that I hoped that they and those in Congress were prepared to take responsibility for all the consequences that would attend their decisions.

He looked at me and said nothing.

It was only later that I learned he authored an essay under a pseudonym, extolling the virtues of authoritarianism and attacking diversity as a “weakness,” and Islam as “incompatible with the modern West.”

I’ll end with two new articles about Trump’s conflicts of interest and corruption.

2cf407be1dda20c9c8dd052a8450220c

Johnathan Chait at New York Magazine: This Obscure News Story, Which Should Be Huge, Shows How Trump Gets Away With Corruption.

The House of Representatives has refused to investigate either one of the two massive ongoing legal and ethical violations involving the Trump administration: President Trump’s opaque ties (financial and otherwise) to Russia, and his ongoing self-enrichment in office and violations of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause.

If the House won’t investigate, what happens next? Well, the next-best course of action would be some form of public debate on the matter. This is not nearly as good as a real investigation, since the absence of subpoena power means Republicans can simply deny Trump has done anything wrong while blocking any efforts to acquire the evidence that would prove the case. But at least it’s something. That’s why House Democrats introduced a “resolution of inquiry” that would force House action on these issues.

Today, Politico reports the House’s response: It will divert the resolution to the House Judiciary Committee, which will (almost certainly) vote on Tuesday along party lines to kill the inquiry. It will be a minor story that probably receives scant or nonexistent coverage from television news, and then it will be quickly over. To be sure, coverage of Trump’s scandals will surely continue. But coverage of the House role in permitting Trump’s behavior will be extremely minimal.

The problem — which is a longstanding one and has protected both parties over the decades — is that the chain of responsibility is too long and obscure to have any bearing on the average voter. The average House Republican votes for the party leadership, which then allocates decisions like this to individual committees, which can be stacked with partisan loyalists from safe districts. (Of course, the overwhelming majority of House members come from safe districts that insulate them from accountability — another longstanding flaw in the system.)

Please go read the rest.

media

Mother Jones: Donald Trump’s Mystery $50 Million (or More) Loan.

Among Donald Trump’s debts—the source of some of his most intractable conflicts of interest—is a mystery loan that Trump has not publicly explained. And this means that the president could have a secret creditor to whom he owes tens of millions of dollars.

According to Trump’s financial disclosure records and various news report, Trump is carrying hundreds of millions of dollars in debt. These transactions could provide his creditors with leverage over the new commander-in-chief. Moreover, it would be difficult for Trump to refinance or modify the terms of his various loans without raising suspicion that he is receiving favorable treatment because of his position. (Imagine a bank gives him a good rate. Would this suggest it might receive preferential treatment from the US government Trump heads?) Because Trump has refused to release his tax returns, it’s impossible for the public to know exactly how much he owes and to whom. And Trump never kept his campaign promise to reveal all his creditors and obligations.

The financial disclosure form he filed last year did note more than a dozen loans totaling at least $713 million. But the full amount could be more. And buried in the paperwork is a puzzling debt that ethics experts say could suggest that Trump has a major creditor he has not publicly identified.

According to the disclosure, in 2012, Trump borrowed more than $50 million from a company called Chicago Unit Acquisition LLC. (The true value of the loan could be much higher; the form requires Trump only to state the range of the loan’s value, and he selected the top range, “over $50,000,000.”) Elsewhere in the same document, Trump notes that he owns this LLC. That is, he made the loan to himself. There’s nothing necessarily unusual about that.

Then it gets weirder and more complicated. Read about it at Mother Jones.

That’s all I have for you today–a bit of a mixed bag. What stories are you following? Let us know in the comments.


Tuesday Reads: Trump Vs. Pence and Hillary Clinton Speaks Out on Anti-Semitism

Stand Up for Science Rally in Boston, Feb. 17, 2017

The crowd at the Stand Up for Science Rally in Copley Square Boston, Feb. 17, 2017

Good Morning!!

The photos in this post are from the Stand Up for Science Rally in Boston on Friday.

How bad is the tRump presidency? Elderly people who remember great presidents like FDR are dissing tRump in their obituaries. Liz Smith of Norwalk, Ohio, died on Feb. 13. From her obit:

She was born June 12, 1929 in Pittsburgh, PA to the late Leo N. and Cathrine (Picker) Hierholzer. She was a graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania and received her Bachelor’s of Science in Music Education. She was a switchboard operator for many years. She was a lifetime member of Girl Scouts USA and was a 45 year volunteer for Erie Shores Girl Scout Council, and for 25 years she was a driving force behind Norwalk’s Girl Scout Day Camp. She was a recipient of the Thanks Badge, which is the highest award in Girl Scouting. She volunteered for the United Fund, Salvation Army soup kitchen, participated in crop walk, visited shut-ins at nursing homes, was an MDA Volunteer and a member of Huron County Democratic Party and a poll worker. She was an active member of St. Mary Catholic Church and served on parish council, renovation committee, finance council, funeral luncheons and parish festival committees , office aide at St. Mary’s, former Eucharistic minister and liaison for the Toledo Diocesan Association for the parish. She enjoyed traveling, especially to Yellowstone Park and heli-hiking in the Canadian Rockies, white water rafting on the New River in West Virginia and the Snake River in Idaho, Orient Express trip from Vienna to Paris, entire tour of Nova Scotia including Cape Breton. Liz is smiling now, not to be living during the Trump Presidency.

She isn’t the only one. See more at Indy100.

Boston, MA -- 2/19/2017 -  A dog named Louis Vuitton wears an Alternative Fact sweater as scientists, science advocates and community members rally in Copley Square.  (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff) Topic: 20scientists Reporter:

Boston, MA — 2/19/2017 – A dog named Louis Vuitton wears an Alternative Fact sweater as scientists, science advocates and community members rally in Copley Square. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)
Topic: 20scientists
Reporter:

Over the weekend, VP Mike Pence and Defense Sec. James Mattis were travelling around the world trying to convince U.S. allies that they–not the actual president–speak for our country. Today Reuters reports that the “White House delivered EU-skeptic message before Pence visit – sources.”

In the week before U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visited Brussels and pledged America’s “steadfast and enduring” commitment to the European Union, White House chief strategist Steve Bannon met with a German diplomat and delivered a different message, according to people familiar with the talks.

Bannon, these people said, signalled to Germany’s ambassador to Washington that he viewed the EU as a flawed construct and favoured conducting relations with Europe on a bilateral basis.

Three people who were briefed on the meeting spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter. The German government and the ambassador, Peter Wittig, declined to comment, citing the confidentiality of the talks.

A White House official who checked with Bannon in response to a Reuters query confirmed the meeting had taken place but said the account provided to Reuters was inaccurate. “They only spoke for about three minutes and it was just a quick hello,” the official said.

The sources described a longer meeting in which Bannon took the time to spell out his world view. They said his message was similar to the one he delivered to a Vatican conference back in 2014 when he was running the right-wing website Breitbart News.

In those remarks, delivered via Skype, Bannon spoke favourably about European populist movements and described a yearning for nationalism by people who “don’t believe in this kind of pan-European Union.

“Western Europe, he said at the time, was built on a foundation of “strong nationalist movements”, adding: “I think it’s what can see us forward”.

c5c0ft8wqaena3c

Who should we believe: multiple sources who spoke to Reuters or the the lying White House? This morning Anita Kumar of Reuters (via The Miami Herald) asks how long Pence will have influence on policy: Pence has clout in Trump White House, but for how long?

Donald Trump has given Pence, whose connections, conservative credentials and knowledge of policy far outstrip those of his boss, a role that has him at the president’s elbow every day, relying on Pence to navigate Washington in ways that other modern presidents have not needed.

Pence is in the Oval Office when Trump calls foreign leaders. He’s in the room when the president meets with business executives, county sheriffs and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He’s there holding the executive orders after the president signs them. And he always has the best seat in the house when Trump holds a news conference.

Trump likens himself to a CEO who surrounds himself with multiple advisers, and it’s clear right now that Trump feels comfortable having Pence around. But observers caution it may not end up that way, as the new White House shakes itself out and other advisers learn the ways of Washington.

“Everything is going to depend on who Donald Trump believes is trustworthy,” said Leslie Lenkowsky, a former professor at Indiana University who has known Pence for two decades.

Pence’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Trump and Pence didn’t know each other well before Trump tapped him to be his running mate last summer. Pence had endorsed Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, for president just days before the crucial Indiana primary and had criticized Trump for, among others things, calling for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country.

c5du2ztwiaav22r

Kumar isn’t specific about what she thinks might lead to a break between tRump and Pence, but after this weekend, I think Americans and Europeans are wondering when Pence will be sent to the doghouse.

The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin (via The Chicago Tribune) asks: Will it soon be Donald Trump vs. Mike Pence?

Trump, like most demagogues, needs an enemy — the elites, the press, Clinton. If he had to survive on his own merits and accomplishments, he’d flop. Press or Trump? Clinton or Trump? It’s all a tactic to keep his own popularity high, or as high as it can be.

Alas, the technique has not really paid off since people tend to judge presidents in office on what they do in office. Trump’s historically horrendous approval numbers (38 approve, 56 disapprove in Gallup; Pew had a nearly identical split, 39/56.) As Trump’s performance sends more voters, and lawmakers, reeling and the investigation of his and his aides’ ties to Russia get underway, we should remember how critical Vice President Mike Pence becomes. If things get really bad — impeachment or some 25th Amendment “solution” — the choice will not be Trump vs. Clinton. It will be Trump vs. Pence, who’d take over if Trump left or was removed. Uh-oh. Pence is in positive territory (43/39 in the Pollster.com average), and among Republicans, especially those on Capitol Hill, he’s exceptionally popular.

In other words, if down the road the president continues to unravel, there may be a very big bipartisan consensus to show Trump the door. It’s not like they’d be getting Clinton; they’d be getting the not erratic, not flashy, not crazy Mike Pence.

c5csbr-wyaixov4

Speaking of Hillary Clinton, the former First Lady, Secretary of State, and presidential candidate has spoken out about Trump’s refusal to condemn the many anti-Semitic threats and attacks around the country. The Washington Post: After weekend of anti-Semitic acts, Clinton urges Trump to ‘speak out.’

Hillary Clinton called on President Trump on Tuesday to speak out against anti-Semitic vandalism and threats after more than 170 Jewish graves were found toppled at a cemetery in Missouri.

A tweet from Clinton did not specifically mention the gravesite disturbances in University City, Mo., but noted increasing reports of “troubling” threats against Jewish community centers, cemetery desecrations and online intimidation.

She urged her former presidential campaign rival to lead denunciations amid complains by critics that the White House has not spoken out forcefully enough against anti-Semitic acts.

And what do you know? Trump has finally said something, according to Politico: Trump calls anti-Semitism ‘horrible.’

President Donald Trump on Tuesday decried anti-Semitism, calling recent threats against Jewish community centers “horrible” and a “reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil.”

“This tour was a meaningful reminder of why we ha ave to fight bigotry, intolerance and hatred in all of its very ugly forms,” Trump said Tuesday, delivering brief remarks after visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture for the first time. “The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centers are horrible and are painful and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil.

”Former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton had called on Trump earlier Tuesday to speak out against anti-Semitic violence, an issue he side-stepped at his press conference last week….

Ahead of his brief address, the president had told MSNBC’s Craig Melvin that “anti-Semitism is horrible and it’s gonna stop and it has to stop.” He added that the racial divide in America is “age-old” and speculated that “something” is going on that prevents the country from fully healing.

c5ec4n_wiaesibd

Yeah, “something” is definitely going on–a bunch of ignorant white people elected a racist POTUS. The ADL had also called on tRump to speak out. It really doesn’t seem like enough to me, but it’s a start. Here’s a summary of what’s been happening from HuffPo: Jewish Community Centers Across the Country Hit with Another Wave of Bomb Threats.

Forcing evacuations in ten states Monday. There have been 67 incidents at 56 Jewish community centers in 27 states and one Canadian province since the start of 2017. Vandals also toppled over 100 headstones at a prominent Jewish cemetery in St. Louis. Ivanka Trump, who converted to Judaism, tweeted about the incidentsMonday, and not all of Twitter was pleased.

Here’s a report on the vandalizing of a the Jewish cemetery from The St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Up to 200 headstones damaged at Jewish cemetery, director says.

Anita Feigenbaum, executive director of the Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery, said officials will be cataloging the damage Tuesday and notifying relatives whose families are affected. A monument company will decide which headstones need to be replaced and which need to be reset, she said.

Feigenbaum was emotional in describing the damage she saw.

“It’s hard to even express how terrible it was,” she said Tuesday morning. “It was horrible.”

Police are investigating the vandalism, which happened sometime over the weekend. No arrests had been made, as of Tuesday. Asked whether the incident is being investigated as a hate crime, Detective Lt. Fredrick Lemons II said police were keeping all options open….

The damage was done to an older part of the cemetery, on the southeast end. In one swath, for example, spread across about 40 yards, two dozen stones are toppled but 10 rows of stones nearby are untouched. A semicircle of destruction included stones marked with names of Schaefer, Weisman, Weinstein, Pearl and Levinson, but one headstone in the middle, with the name Levy, was unscathed. The years of death on these stones ranged from about 1921 to 1962.

Visitors streamed in to see if their family stones were pushed over.

Trump and the Bannon crowd own this.

What else is happening? Please post your thoughts and links in the comment thread and have a terrific Tuesday!