Thursday Reads

Good Morning!!

If feels as if the long weekend has already begun. The Fourth of July is traditionally a time when the Boston area empties out as people head to the Cape or New Hampshire. I just hope that people will be careful about crowding the beaches. Fortunately, bars won’t be opened here until phase 4, so that is one advantage we have. Yesterday, Gov. Charlie Baker warned Massachusetts residents: ‘No Victory Laps From COVID-19′: Gov. Baker Urges Social Distancing Over July 4 Weekend. NBC10:

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker on Wednesday urged residents to practice social distancing over the Fourth of July weekend, saying people should continue to take the coronavirus pandemic seriously to prevent a resurgence of cases.

“We have a big weekend coming up, it’s the Fourth of July, and I really hope people continue to take things seriously,” Baker said during a press conference at the Greater Boston YMCA.

“There are no victory laps from COVID… It’s not going to take the summer off,” he said, urging people to continue wearing masks and practicing social distancing and hygiene….

The governor said key metrics in the state’s efforts to contain the virus were continuing to trend downward. The state on Tuesday reported no new coronavirus deaths, the first time that’s happened in months.

“The continued fight against the virus depends almost completely and exclusively on all of us maintaining our vigilance and continuing to do the things that have made such a big difference in Massachusetts.”

Yesterday, the U.S. exceeded 50,000 new cases of Covid-19 for the first time. The Washington Post:

The United States reported 52,789 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, the largest single-day total since the start of the pandemic. President Trump speculated in a Fox Business interview that the virus was “going to sort of just disappear” at some point.

Experts say that is unlikely, unless an overwhelming majority of people are infected and develop immunity, which could lead to millions of deaths, or through the successful development and deployment of a vaccine. There is a chance the coronavirus will never go away, some experts have warned.

Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, attributed rising case numbers in the United States at least partially to the fact lockdown measures were more lenient than those in some European countries that have since managed to turn the tide on the virus.

More than 800,000 new coronavirus cases were detected in the United States in June. At least 125,602 deaths have been reported since the start of the pandemic.

CNBC reports on an alarming study of coronavirus deaths from Yale researchers: Official U.S. coronavirus death toll is ‘a substantial undercount’ of actual tally, Yale study finds.

The number of confirmed U.S. deaths due to the coronavirus is substantially lower than the true tally, according to a study published Wednesday in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Using National Center for Health Statistics data, researchers at Yale University compared the number of excess U.S. deaths from any causes with the reported number of weekly U.S. Covid-19 deaths from March 1 through May 30. The numbers were then compared with deaths from the same period in previous years.

Researchers found that the excess number of deaths over normal levels also exceeded those attributed to Covid-19, leading them to conclude that many of those fatalities were likely caused by the coronavirus but not confirmed. State reporting discrepancies and a sharp increase in U.S. deaths amid a pandemic suggest the number of Covid-19 fatalities is undercounted, they said.

“Our analyses suggest that the official tally of deaths due to Covid-19 represent a substantial undercount of the true burden,” Dan Weinberger, an epidemiologist at Yale School of Public Health and a lead author of the study, told CNBC. Weinberger said other factors could contribute to the increase in deaths, such as people avoiding emergency treatment for things like heart attacks. However, he doesn’t think that is the main driver….

The 781,000 total deaths in the United States in the three months through May 30 were about 122,300, or nearly 19% higher, than what would normally be expected, according to the researchers. Of the 122,300 excess deaths, 95,235 were attributed to Covid-19, they said. Most of the rest of the excess deaths, researchers said, were likely related to or directly caused by the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, Trump claimed yesterday that the virus will magically disappear. CNN: Trump’s aides debate a new virus approach as President claims it will ‘disappear.’

A divide has emerged inside President Donald Trump’s inner circle over whether he should turn his attention back to the coronavirus pandemic or continue to focus on reopening the economy, sources familiar with the matter tell CNN.

As cases surge in dozens of states, Trump has remained mostly silent on the matter, focusing instead on protecting statues and stoking racial and cultural divisions. While others in his administration — including Vice President Mike Pence — make appeals for Americans to continue socially distancing and wear masks, Trump again suggested Wednesday the virus would “disappear.”
That has led to concerns, even among some of his own aides, that Trump appears disengaged from a deadly crisis that continues to grip the nation.

Gee, no kidding.

Several of Trump’s top aides, including chief of staff Mark Meadows and son-in-law Jared Kushner, have begun to worry about the President’s chances to win reelection, advisers familiar with the matter said — fears borne out by a steady stream of public polls showing Trump trailing his election rival, Joe Biden, by double digits. Both Meadows and Kushner have urged a focus on the economy over the public health emergency.

Some of Trump’s political advisers believe he has suffered grave political damage due to the pandemic, which has caused widespread economic hurt and death. Even as Trump and others in the White House project optimism that the economy will surge closer to the election, Trump’s handling of the pandemic has drawn rebukes — particularly as cases begin to spike.

“There is a fair amount of concern,” one adviser said, describing the President as “frustrated” by recent polling indicating Biden could win the November election by a wide margin.

Trump couldn’t possibly care less about the pandemic, about Russia paying to kill American troops or about actually doing the job of POTUS. All he seems to care about is being cheered at rallies, protecting statues of racists, and playing golf. Windsor Mann at The Bulwark: Donald Trump Is All Done Caring. An excerpt:

Trump is not interested in the actual job of the presidency. He’s interested in the attention the presidency affords him.

After his election, he discovered that running for president was easier and more fun than being president. Which is why he continued to hold campaign rallies even after he was elected. He wasn’t campaigning for anything. He just liked hearing crowds screaming his name. Unlike most politicians, who campaign in order to govern, Trump campaigns as a way to avoid governing.

By the same token, his politics are an extension of his ego—which is why, at his rallies, he tells the crowds how big his crowds are and not what his policies are. Trump says he’ll hold rallies after he wins the 2020 election, too—even though he will be ineligible to run for the presidency again.

Instead of holding rallies for the purpose of getting elected, Trump wants to get elected so he can keep having rallies….

Twitter performs for Trump the same function as his rallies. Because he’s the president, he can tweet something mean, false, and/or nonsensical and, instead of cheers, get instantaneous likes and retweets—validation in milliseconds. After tweeting “CHINA!” in May, he got 236,000 retweets and 797,000 likes. Tweeting while you watch Fox & Friends, it turns out, is even more gratifying than shouting at the TV. When you tweet, the whole world listens to you, and some people even applaud….

The problem for Trump is that his presidency has no point. It is as devoid of purpose as his days are of work. He doesn’t want to make America great. He wants America to make him feel great.

Still, the bad news keeps coming for Trump. Every time he claims that the Russian bounty story is a “hoax,” someone in the intel community leaks more details. Now we have the name of a guy who received payments. The latest from The New York Times: Afghan Contractor Handed Out Russian Cash to Kill Americans, Officials Say.

KABUL, Afghanistan — He was a lowly drug smuggler, neighbors and relatives say, then ventured into contracting, seeking a slice of the billions of dollars the U.S.-led coalition was funneling into construction projects in Afghanistan.

But he really began to show off his wealth in recent years, after establishing a base in Russia, though how he earned those riches remained mysterious. On his regular trips home to northern Afghanistan, he drove the latest model cars, protected by bodyguards, and his house was recently upgraded to a four-story villa.

Now Rahmatullah Azizi stands as a central piece of a puzzle rocking Washington, named in American intelligence reports and confirmed by Afghan officials as a key middleman who for years handed out money from a Russian military intelligence unit to reward Taliban-linked fighters for targeting American troops in Afghanistan, according to American and Afghan officials.

As security agencies connected the dots of the bounty scheme and narrowed in on him, they carried out sweeping raids to arrest dozens of his relatives and associates about six months ago, but discovered that Mr. Azizi had sneaked out of Afghanistan and was likely back in Russia. What they did find in one of his homes, in Kabul, was about half a million dollars in cash.

Click the link to read the rest.

More bad news for Trump:

NBC New York: Jeffrey Epstein Confidante Ghislaine Maxwell Arrested, Sources Say.

The Washington Post: New York court sides with publisher of explosive book by President Trump’s niece.

The New York Times: Biden Outraises Trump for Second Straight Month, With $141 Million June Haul.

Stanley Greenberg at The Atlantic: Believe the Polls This Time. These aren’t Hillary Clinton’s numbers. Biden has a wide lead because the landscape has changed.

I hope all you Sky Dancers have a great Independence Day weekend. Please stay safe!


Lazy Caturday Reads: News Potpourri

Jones, Leslie, 1886-1967 (photographer) Date created 1938, Boston Public Library

Good Morning!!

I could hardly bring myself to read news this morning, but I forced myself to see what stories are out there. My offerings:

The biggest one is about Trump ignoring reports of Russians trying to kill American troops in Afghanistan.

The New York Times: Russia Secretly Offered Afghan Militants Bounties to Kill U.S. Troops, Intelligence Says.

American intelligence officials have concluded that a Russian military intelligence unit secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing coalition forces in Afghanistan — including targeting American troops — amid the peace talks to end the long-running war there, according to officials briefed on the matter.

The United States concluded months ago that the Russian unit, which has been linked to assassination attempts and other covert operations in Europe intended to destabilize the West or take revenge on turncoats, had covertly offered rewards for successful attacks last year.

Islamist militants, or armed criminal elements closely associated with them, are believed to have collected some bounty money, the officials said. Twenty Americans were killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2019, but it was not clear which killings were under suspicion.

The intelligence finding was briefed to President Trump, and the White House’s National Security Council discussed the problem at an interagency meeting in late March, the officials said. Officials developed a menu of potential options — starting with making a diplomatic complaint to Moscow and a demand that it stop, along with an escalating series of sanctions and other possible responses, but the White House has yet to authorize any step, the officials said.

An operation to incentivize the killing of American and other NATO troops would be a significant and provocative escalation of what American and Afghan officials have said is Russian support for the Taliban, and it would be the first time the Russian spy unit was known to have orchestrated attacks on Western troops.

Any involvement with the Taliban that resulted in the deaths of American troops would also be a huge escalation of Russia’s so-called hybrid war against the United States, a strategy of destabilizing adversaries through a combination of such tactics as cyberattacks, the spread of fake news and covert and deniable military operations.

Read more about this at The Washington Post: Russian operation targeted coalition troops in Afghanistan, intelligence finds.

I wonder if GOP senators are going to do anything about this, or will they think it’s just fine for Trump to keep being pals with Putin no matter what he does?

The New York Times has another big story on how the coronavirus pandemic sneaked up on us: How the World Missed Covid-19’s Silent Spread.

Dr. Camilla Rothe was about to leave for dinner when the government laboratory called with the surprising test result. Positive. It was Jan. 27. She had just discovered Germany’s first case of the new coronavirus.

But the diagnosis made no sense. Her patient, a businessman from a nearby auto parts company, could have been infected by only one person: a colleague visiting from China. And that colleague should not have been contagious.

The visitor had seemed perfectly healthy during her stay in Germany. No coughing or sneezing, no signs of fatigue or fever during two days of long meetings. She told colleagues that she had started feeling ill after the flight back to China. Days later, she tested positive for the coronavirus.

Girl with her kitten, mid-1800s

Scientists at the time believed that only people with symptoms could spread the coronavirus. They assumed it acted like its genetic cousin, SARS.

“People who know much more about coronaviruses than I do were absolutely sure,” recalled Dr. Rothe, an infectious disease specialist at Munich University Hospital.

But if the experts were wrong, if the virus could spread from seemingly healthy carriers or people who had not yet developed symptoms, the ramifications were potentially catastrophic. Public-awareness campaigns, airport screening and stay-home-if-you’re sick policies might not stop it. More aggressive measures might be required — ordering healthy people to wear masks, for instance, or restricting international travel.

Dr. Rothe and her colleagues were among the first to warn the world. But even as evidence accumulated from other scientists, leading health officials expressed unwavering confidence that symptomless spreading was not important.

In the days and weeks to come, politicians, public health officials and rival academics disparaged or ignored the Munich team. Some actively worked to undermine the warnings at a crucial moment, as the disease was spreading unnoticed in French churches, Italian soccer stadiums and Austrian ski bars. A cruise ship, the Diamond Princess, would become a deadly harbinger of symptomless spreading.

Read the rest at the NYT.

More interesting Covid-19 articles:

The New York Times: New Numbers Showing Coronavirus Spread Intrude on a White House in Denial.

Bloomberg Opinion: A Horrifying U.S. Covid Curve Has a Simple Explanation.

Bloomberg Law: Virus Fatality Picture Is Obscured by Ultimate Lagging Indicator.

The Daily Beast: Here’s What It Looks Like When People Don’t Wear Masks.

CNBC: This chart shows the link between restaurant spending and new cases of coronavirus.

CNN Politics: Measures to protect Trump from coronavirus scale up even as he seeks to move on.

AP: Reporter at Trump’s Tulsa rally tests positive for COVID-19.

Meanwhile, as the virus rages through the South and West, Trump is trying to finally kill Obamacare. The Washington Post: Trump administration’s move to end Obamacare amid pandemic reignites political fight.

The Trump administration touched off another politically charged battle over the future of Obamacare with its latest maneuver to dismantle the law amid a pandemic — a move that Democrats immediately weaponized for competitive campaigns this fall and few Republicans defended.

The 82-page brief filed late Thursday to the Supreme Court in a high-profile case brought by GOP state attorneys general undercuts President Trump’s repeated pledges to ensure coverage for people with preexisting conditions as his administration and the broader Republican Party seek to wipe away that protection.

Trump vowed as recently as last weekend, at a campaign rally in Tulsa, that he would “always protect patients with preexisting conditions, always, always.” But his own administration’s position in court is that the 2010 Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate is unconstitutional, and therefore so is the entire law — even its most popular provisions, such as coverage for those with preexisting conditions….

Republican officials and strategists working on competitive campaigns were privately aghast Friday at the administration’s decision to reignite the issue, particularly as health care is at the forefront of voters’ minds because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The ties between the pandemic and access to Obamacare were underscored this week with a new report from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which found that 487,000 Americans used a special enrollment period for the health care law after losing their own coverage, probably due to job losses.

Trump wants to throw protesters in jail if they try to take down Confederate monuments. Politico: Trump issues executive order warning cities, protesters over destruction of monuments.

President Donald Trump on Friday ordered the Justice Department to prioritize prosecution of protesters who damage federal monuments and limit federal funding for local governments that are perceived to not be adequately protecting those monuments.

The executive order also emphasized strict sentencing, with a maximum of 10 years in prison, for those found guilty of such acts, a key plank of Trump’s law and order strategy the president has repeatedly tweeted and talked about in recent weeks.

Trump’s order comes as protests across the country against systemic racism and police brutality have resulted in the toppling of monuments to Confederate leaders, slave owners and European colonists.

The order characterizes protesters as actively seeking to undermine the integrity of the United States government — referring to them as “Anarchists and left-wing extremists” — and comes a day after Trump labeled demonstrators as “terrorists” who will face “retribution.”

Judge Amy Berman Jackson said yesterday that Roger Stone won’t get a 2-month delay before heading to jail. The Washington Post: Roger Stone ordered to report to prison July 14, as judge denies request for two-month delay.

A federal judge has ordered Roger Stone to report to prison July 14, granting him a two-week delay because of the coronavirus pandemic, but not the two months that President Trump’s confidant had requested with prosecutors’ assent.

Stone, 67, had been due to surrender June 30 to a federal prison in Jesup, Ga., while he appeals his November conviction on charges of lying and witness tampering in a congressional investigation.

In an order and sealed opinion late Friday, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson granted a two-week delay. Prosecutors had not opposed Stone’s request for a delay until Sept. 3, saying the Justice Department’s policy during the pandemic has been to grant up to a 60-day extension upon defendants’ request “without respect to age, health, or other COVID-19 risk factors.”

More stories to check out, links only:

The Washington Post: Barr forms task force to counter ‘anti-government extremists’

CNN: In Texas, questions grow about a lesser-known US Attorney ousted by Attorney General Barr.

Vox: “It’s ideologue meets grifter”: How Bill Barr made Trumpism possible.

Above the Law: Bill Barr Has Thoughts On ‘Blacks’

The New York Times: U.S. Must Release Children From Family Detention Centers, Judge Rules.

Los Angeles Times: Working-class white women are turning on Trump.

The New York Times: How Trump and the Black Lives Matter Movement Changed White Voters’ Minds.

Harry Enten at CNN: Candidates who recover from Trump-like deficits are rarely incumbents.

NBC News: Facebook just lost one of the biggest advertisers in the world for the rest of 2020.

Take care of yourselves and have a nice weekend everyone!


Lazy Caturday Reads: So Much Winning!

Maine Coon Cat

Good Morning!!

Trump threw a tantrum and forced a partial government shutdown that will force some government employees to work with out pay and others to be furloughed without pay. Merry Xmas from the fake “president.”

The Washington Post Editorial Board: Trump’s shutdown stunt is an act of needless stupidity.

As it became apparent Friday that no agreement could be reached on a stopgap spending measure, President Trump warned that a shutdown would “last for a very long time.” Affected is about a third of the government workforce — about 800,000 employees — in key departments, including Homeland Security, State and Justice. Because of the weekend and upcoming Christmas holidays, the impacts of a shutdown may not immediately be felt, but there should be no mistake that curtailment of these government agencies will impose costs across Washington and the country.

That seemed to be of little matter to Mr. Trump, who last week boasted he would be “proud” to shut down the government, glad to “take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down.” He changed his tune on Friday in trying to shift the blame to Democrats for not going along with his demand for money to build a border wall he once promised would be financed by Mexico. Nothing better illustrates the needless stupidity of the shutdown than Mr. Trump’s claim to be taking a stand for border security when one of the agencies being caught up is Customs and Border Protection.

Himalayan Cat

Any doubt that it is politics — not principle — driving Mr. Trump was erased when he flip-flopped this week on the stopgap spending bill. He signaled he would sign on to a measure, passed by both House and Senate, without wall funding, but then buckled to criticism from the conservative media.

The likes of Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, and Rush Limbaugh are determining Trump’s domestic policies. His foreign policy are being run out of Moscow and Istanbul and he is being celebrated by the Kremlin, Iran, and the Taliban for his decisions to pull troops out of Syria and Afghanistan.

Julia David at The Daily Beast: Russia Gloats: ‘Trump Is Ours Again.’

The Kremlin is awash with Christmas gifts from Washington, D.C. and every move by the Trump administration seems to add to that perception. On Wednesday, appearing on the Russian state TV show “The Evening with Vladimir Soloviev,” Director of the Moscow-based Center for Middle Eastern and Central Asian Studies Semyon Bagdasarov said that the U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis is “struggling to keep up” with the flurry of unexpected decisions by the U.S. President Donald Trump. The news that Mattis decided to step down sent shock waves across the world, being interpreted as “a dangerous signal” by America’s allies.

Norwegian Forest Cat

Meanwhile, the Mattis departure is being cheered in Russia. Konstantin Kosachev, head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Upper House of the Russian Parliament, has said that “the departure of James Mattis is a positive signal for Russia, since Mattis was far more hawkish on Russia and China than Donald Trump.” Kosachev opined that Trump apparently considered his own agenda in dealing with Russia, China and America’s allies to be “more important than keeping James Mattis at his post,” concluding: “That’s an interesting signal, and a more positive one” for Russia.

Jubilation was even more apparent on Russia’s state television, which adheres closely to the Kremlin’s point of view. The host of the Russian state TV show “60 Minutes,” Olga Skabeeva asserted: “Secretary of Defense Mattis didn’t want to leave Syria, so Trump fired him. They are leaving Syria.”

The Washington Post: U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria is ‘a dream come true for the Iranians.’

 One of the biggest winners of President Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria will be Iran, which can now expand its reach across the Middle East with Washington’s already waning influence taking another hit.

The abrupt reversal of U.S. policy regarding its small military presence in a remote but strategically significant corner of northeastern Syria has stunned U.S. allies, many of whom were counting on the Trump administration’s seemingly tough posture on Iran to reverse extensive gains made by Tehran in recent years.

Ragdoll Cat

Instead, the withdrawal of troops opens the door to further Iranian expansion, including the establishment of a land corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean that will enhance Iran’s ability to directly challenge Israel. It also throws in doubt Washington’s ability to sustain its commitment to other allies in the region and could drive many of them closer to Russia, an Iranian ally, analysts say.

“This is a dream come true for the Iranians,” said Riad Kahwaji, who heads the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, a defense consultancy in Dubai. “No longer will Iran take the Trump administration seriously. It’s an isolationist administration, it will no longer pose a threat, and Iran will become bolder in its actions because they know this administration is more bark than bite.”

NBC News: Taliban greets Pentagon’s withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan with cries of victory.

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — News that the White House had ordered the Pentagon to draw up plans for a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan provoked widespread criticism that the move would kneecap efforts to broker a peace deal to end America’s longest war.

But there was one group on Friday celebrating the reports — the Taliban.

Senior members told NBC News the news was a clear indication they were on the verge of victory.

Siberian Cats

“The 17-year-long struggle and sacrifices of thousands of our people finally yielded fruit,” said a senior Taliban commander from Afghanistan’s Helmand province. “We proved it to the entire world that we defeated the self-proclaimed world’s lone super power.”

“We are close to our destination,” added the commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the group’s leadership had prohibited members from talking to the media about current events. He added that all field commanders had also been told to intensify training efforts to capture four strategic provinces in the run up to the next round of talks between the U.S. and Taliban, which are expected in January.

Are you tired of winning yet?

The Syria pullout has “Thwarted ‘Major’ Operation Targeting ISIS,” according to Bob Corker. From The Daily Beast:

The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee revealed on Friday that the U.S. military was planning a “major clearing operation” targeting ISIS before President Donald Trump decided abruptly this weekto withdraw U.S. forces from Syria.

“One thing that hasn’t been reported is, we were six weeks away from a major clearing operation that has been planned for a long time. I got briefed on this a year ago—with ISIS in the Euphrates River Valley,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) said Friday on Capitol Hill, referring to the area where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is believed to be hiding.

Chartreaux Cat

Trump’s decision, which at least partly led to the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, has rattled congressional Republicans, who have questioned the wisdom of withdrawing from Syria before ISIS is fully eradicated. In defending his decision, Trump claimed that the extremist caliphate has been defeated, but Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a top Trump ally, called that claim “fake news,” and said America’s adversaries will benefit from Trump’s order.

I’ll wrap this up with three opinion pieces:

Dana Millbank at The Washington Post: It’s official. We lost the Cold War.

Perhaps the timing of George H.W. Bush’s death last month was merciful. This way he didn’t have to see America lose the Cold War.

Bush presided over the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. But the triumph he and others earned with American blood and treasure over 71 years, defeating the Soviet Union and keeping its successor in check, has been squandered by President Trump in just two.

Trump’s unraveling of the post-war order accelerated this week when he announced a willy-nilly pullout from Syria, leaving in the lurch scores of allies who participated in the campaign against the Islamic State, throwing our Kurdish partners to the wolves, isolating Israel, and giving Russia and Iran free rein in the Middle East. Then word emerged that Trump is ordering another hasty withdrawal, from Afghanistan. Trump’s defense secretary, retired Gen. Jim Mattis, resigned in protest of the president’s estrangement of allies and emboldening of Russia and China.

Egyptian Mau Cat

The TV series “The Man in the High Castle” imagines a world in which Nazis won World War II. But we don’t need an alternative-history show to imagine a Soviet victory in the Cold War. We have Trump.

David Rothkop at The Daily Beast: Mattis’ Message to the World: Trump Is Out of Control. The gist:

Mattis, who took his duty very seriously, came to the conclusion that the value of such checks was now gone. Repeatedly—in Helsinki with Putin, in Singapore with Kim, in his defense of Saudi Arabia’s murderous crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, in his attacks on the FBI and the intelligence community, in his rejection of facts obvious to all—Trump has shown he cannot be controlled from within the administration.

Now, we can expect even worse. The checks on his relations with Putin within the administration are gone. The experienced hands are few and far between and the policy process is non-existent, the most dysfunctional in U.S. history—which suits both Trump and Bolton. Bolton and Pompeo, Iran hawks and apologists for the Saudis, the Israelis, and other Gulf states, will have more freedom. Relations with the military, already bad, will sour. Stephen Miller will gain stronger control over our border and immigration policies which suggests more human rights abuses are ahead. Our allies will have few champions and even less trust in the administration.

All this will happen because today Trump’s most highly regarded aide sent a message to the world and in particular to those responsible for presidential oversight on Capitol Hill. The president is not only outside the mainstream in his thinking, he is out of control. The man who controls the world’s most powerful military and the resources of the world’s richest government, is beyond assistance, beyond redemption, beyond influence other than by our enemies and his greed and narcissism.

Susan Glasser at the New Yorker: The Year in Trump Freakouts.

Bengal Cat

President Trump is ending the year as he began it: outraging Washington with a Twitter diktat, one that was cheered in Moscow and jeered on Capitol Hill. On Wednesday morning, the city awoke to an unexpected Presidential announcement that Trump was unilaterally pulling American forces out of Syria, despite having agreed this fall that U.S. troops would remain on the ground there indefinitely. Trump portrayed the decision as both a final victory over the Islamic State, which had overtaken much of the country from the Russia-supported regime of the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, and the fulfillment of a campaign promise to exit the Middle East. A full-scale bipartisan freakout ensued, culminating late Thursday with the long-awaited, long-feared news that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis would join the procession of Trump officials calling it quits. Was it a direct result of the abrupt about-face on Syria? “I believe it is right for me to step down from my position,” Mattis wrote in his resignation letter to the President, “because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours.” What we do know is that all the chaos at year’s end is a powerful reminder that the manner in which the President operates is so outside of any normal parameters for governing, so disdainful of process, and so heedless of consequences that his decisions don’t resolve crises so much as create them.

It is, of course, possible to have a reasonable policy debate over whether U.S. forces belong in Syria, given the military’s small footprint (about two thousand troops), the haziness of American objectives, and the fact that there is no political appetite for an expanded intervention in the country’s long-running civil war. But it is not possible with Trump. The retired Admiral James Stavridis, the former commander of nato forces, called the President’s decision “geopolitically the worst move I have seen from this Administration.” Others disagreed, seeing in Trump’s move a disaster in process that otherwise resembled President Barack Obama’s desire to withdraw from the endless conflicts of the Middle East. “Trump is very capable of doing intelligent things in very stupid ways,” Ian Bremmer, the head of the geopolitical-analysis firm the Eurasia Group, said in an interview with CBS on Thursday morning.

It is hard to get past the stupid, though.

It certainly is “hard to get past the stupid” with Trump. I haven’t even scratched the surface of today’s news. What stories are you following? Please share.


Monday Reads

Owl reading

Good Morning!!

There’s not a lot of good news to report this morning except that the Miami Heat lost the NBA championship last night, cementing LeBron James’ reputation as a choker. He couldn’t win in Cleveland, and he can’t lead in Miami. He’s just all about LeBron.

The situation in Iraq is getting more dire. I’m sure you heard about the reported mass executions of Iraqi troops by ISIS militants yesterday. From The New York Times:

BAGHDAD — Wielding the threat of sectarian slaughter, Sunni Islamist militants claimed on Sunday that they had massacred hundreds of captive Shiite members of Iraq’s security forces, posting grisly pictures of a mass execution in Tikrit as evidence and warning of more killing to come.

The possible mass killing came as militants cemented control of the city of Tal Afar, west of Mosul, after two days of fierce clashes with Iraqi troops, residents and senior security officials said. The city came under mortar attack, sending residents fleeing toward Sinjar in the north, which is under control of Kurdish pesh merga troops. Residents said the militants freed dozens of prisoners.

BAGHDAD — Wielding the threat of sectarian slaughter, Sunni Islamist militants claimed on Sunday that they had massacred hundreds of captive Shiite members of Iraq’s security forces, posting grisly pictures of a mass execution in Tikrit as evidence and warning of more killing to come.

The possible mass killing came as militants cemented control of the city of Tal Afar, west of Mosul, after two days of fierce clashes with Iraqi troops, residents and senior security officials said. The city came under mortar attack, sending residents fleeing toward Sinjar in the north, which is under control of Kurdish pesh merga troops. Residents said the militants freed dozens of prisoners.

Lovely. “War Crimes” hardly seems strong enough to characterize such horrendous acts.

In an atmosphere where there were already fears that the militants’ sudden advance near the capital would prompt Shiite reprisal attacks against Sunni Arab civilians, the claims by ISIS were potentially explosive. And that is exactly the group’s stated intent: to stoke a return to all-out sectarian warfare that would bolster its attempts to carve out a Sunni Islamist caliphate that crosses borders through the region.

The sectarian element of the killings may put more pressure on the Obama administration to aid Iraq militarily. In fact, the militants seemed to be counting on it. A pronouncement on Sunday by the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had a clear message for the United States: “Soon we will face you, and we are waiting for this day.”

Owl2

CNN reports that some U.S. embassy staff in Iraq have been moved to another location.

The Iraqi air force struck back at the militant group ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, killing more than 200 militants, Iraqi state TV reported Monday morning. The air raids took place in Saqlawiyah, northwest of Fallujah, according to a graphic run by state TV.

ISIS has been ruthlessly fighting to take control of Iraq and has apparently posted chilling photos on jihadi Internet forums seeming to show the executions of Iraqi security forces.

ISIS, an al Qaeda splinter group, wants to establish a caliphate, or Islamic state, that would stretch from Iraq into northern Syria. The group has had substantial success in Syria battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces.

According to The Washington Post, the insurgents have captured American equipment and may be in possession of “advanced radios” that would make them much more effective.

Iraq’s security forces, propped up by American equipment and weapons, have been routed by a contingent of insurgents bent on extending their territory from strongholds in Syria deep into Iraq. As Mosul and other cities fell, the West saw a host of images of once-American Humvees and helicopters firmly in the hands of its enemies.

Outrage followed shock, as years of effort in Iraq by the U.S. military seemed to unravel in a coup-de-grace that played out over the Internet. Analysts speculated that the newly seized weapons and vehicles could turn fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria into an even stauncher foe.

Yet, among the towed Black Hawk helicopters, Howitzer cannons and Humvees plastered all over social media lies an unseen weapon that could make the ISIS fighters exponentially more lethal if employed properly: advanced radio equipment.

Read more at the link.

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Iran is sending in troops to aid the insurgents, according to CNN.

What’s happening in Iraq now has all the makings of a civil war — and a full-blown foreign policy crisis. The United States is mulling direct talks with Iran while it boosts security at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad with military personnel.

Why Iran? In recent days, Iran has sent hundreds of troops to fight alongside Iraqi government security forces in Diyala province, a senior security official in Baghdad told CNN.

The article summarizes the latest events on the ground as of early this morning. Finally, an editorial in The Independent UK states bluntly that

The outside world, starting with the United States, cannot hope to reverse the course of events in Iraq by intervening on the ground, and President Barack Obama was right to rule out US troops going back there.

However, that doesn’t mean taking up an observer’s seat as the region descends into ever greater chaos. Washington should encourage the tentative rapprochement between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, both of which are starting to see just how dangerous the Sunni-Shia power struggle is becoming to each of them. We should do our utmost to shore up the defences of vulnerable but still stable states in the region, such as Jordan.

Western countries could also afford to be more generous in helping to address the humanitarian aspect of the latest crisis. Britain has so far offered an extra £3m to help tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the advance of Isis, most of whom are now camping in Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Iraq. It goes without saying that they do not have access to things like the best survival backpack or basic nutrition, it hardly seems an adequate gesture.

With any luck, the Sunnis in Syria and Iraq will at some point turn against their self-styled deliverers in Isis. In that case, it is vital that the Shia-dominated regime in Baghdad comes under pressure to keep the door open to talks about some kind of federal option for the Sunnis, and for the Kurds. It is late in the day for Iraq even to try to play with the federalisation option, but just possibly some kind of gossamer-thin state can be salvaged from the current mess. Right now, none of the options looks good, but despair is not the answer.

In other news,

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Chelsea Manning has broken her silence with an op-ed in the Sunday New York Times in which she harshly criticizes the methods used by the military to control press coverage of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and–presumably–the U.S. media’s acquiescence to that control. For example,

If you were following the news during the March 2010 elections in Iraq, you might remember that the American press was flooded with stories declaring the elections a success, complete with upbeat anecdotes and photographs of Iraqi women proudly displaying their ink-stained fingers. The subtext was that United States military operations had succeeded in creating a stable and democratic Iraq.

Those of us stationed there were acutely aware of a more complicated reality.

Military and diplomatic reports coming across my desk detailed a brutal crackdown against political dissidents by the Iraqi Ministry of Interior and federal police, on behalf of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. Detainees were often tortured, or even killed.

Read much more at the link.

Speaking of media co-option, the NYT has an interesting op-ed by long-time reporter David Carr about the media’s failure to anticipate Eric Cantor’s stunning defeat in Virginia’s primary last week.

It’s now clear why the primary defeat of the House majority leader,Eric Cantor, came so completely out of the blue last week: Beltway blindness that put a focus on fund-raising, power-brokering and partisan back-and-forth created a reality distortion field that obscured the will of the people.

But that affliction was not Mr. Cantor’s alone; it is shared by the political press. Reporters and commentators might want to pause and wipe the egg off their faces before they go on camera to cluck-cluck about how Mr. Cantor, Republican of Virginia, missed signs of the insurgency that took him out. There was a lot of that going around, and the big miss by much of the political news media demonstrates that news organizations are no less a prisoner of Washington’s tunnel vision than the people who run for office.

All politics is local, which may explain why The Richmond Times-Dispatch and The Chesterfield Observer both took David Brat’s Tea Party challenge to Mr. Cantor seriously, but few of the publications inside the District that follow the majority leader’s every wiggle and wobble sensed that he was leaving the home fires dangerously unattended….

The same forces that keep politicians penned up within a few blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue work on journalists as well. No one wants to stray from the white-hot center of power for fear of being stuck in some forsaken locale when something big happens in Washington — which is why it has become one of the most overcovered places on earth.

This problem is compounded by the “diminution” of regional newspapers. Read more at the link.

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I haven’t had time to work through the whole thing yet, but Alec MacGillis has a long profile of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker that seems worth a read: The Unelectable Whiteness of Scott Walker: A journey through the poisonous, racially divided world that produced a Republican star.

I’ll end with some exciting science news from The Boston Globe: Boston-Led Team Developing ‘Bionic Pancreas’ for Diabetics.

Scientists have made big progress on a ‘‘bionic pancreas’’ to free some people with diabetes from the daily ordeal of managing their disease. A wearable, experimental device passed a real-world test, constantly monitoring blood sugar and automatically giving insulin or a sugar-boosting drug as needed, doctors said Sunday.

The device improved blood-sugar control more than standard monitors and insulin pumps did when tested for five days on 20 adults and 32 teens. Unlike other artificial pancreases in development that just correct high blood sugar, this one also can fix too-low sugar, mimicking what a natural pancreas does.

The device was developed at Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston University. Results were featured Sunday at an American Diabetes Association conference in San Francisco and were published online by the New England Journal of Medicine.

More from NPR: Father Devises A ‘Bionic Pancreas’ To Help Son With Diabetes. Very interesting!

I have a few more links that I’ll post in comments.

So . . . what else is happening? Please post your thoughts and links on any topic in the comment thread.


Monday Reads

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Good Morning!

Another day, another shooting spree. The gun nuts don’t even take Sunday off. In Las Vegas, a married couple in their late 20s killed two police officers, Alyn Beck and Igor Soldo, and a civilian before killing themselves.
From the Las Vegas Review-Journal: Shooters in Metro ambush that left five dead spoke of white supremacy and a desire to kill police.

Two Las Vegas police officers were killed Sunday in what appears to be a politically motivated ambush in a pizza restaurant that spilled over to a nearby Wal-Mart, where the two shooters committed suicide after killing a woman in the store….

A law enforcement official who has been briefed on the incident said an officer — unconfirmed reports indicate it was Soldo — was refilling a soft drink when the female shooter approached him from behind and shot him in the head, killing him instantly.

The woman then shot the other officer several times as he drew his pistol. Gillespie said the officer was able to return fire but it was unclear if he hit anyone….

Witnesses told police one of the shooters yelled “This is the start of a revolution” before shooting the officers. Gillespie later said he could not confirm that.

The shooters then stripped the officers of their weapons and ammunition and badges, according to a law enforcement official with knowledge of the investigation. They then covered the officers with something that featured the Gadsden flag, a yellow banner with a coiled snake above the words, “Don’t tread on Me.”

Gee, you mean these terrorists weren’t muslims or Obama supporters? After shooting the two police officers the couple went across the street to a Walmart where they shot and killed a yet unidentified woman near the entrance. The woman then shot and wounded her partner and shot herself, and the man finished himself off. The two were carrying large duffle bags, and the bomb squad was called to the scene as well as to the couple’s apartment a few miles away. Now get this (emphasis added):

Several neighbors identified the man as Jared, while one called the woman Amanda.

Like many of the neighbors contacted, Krista Koch said she didn’t know the couple’s last names. She described them as “militant.” They talked about planning to kill police officers, “going underground” and not coming out until the time was right to kill.

Brandon Monroe, 22, has lived in the complex for about two weeks. He said the man who lived in the apartment that was being searched often rambled about conspiracy theories. He often wore camouflage or dressed as Peter Pan to work as a Fremont Street Experience street performer. A woman lived with him, Monroe said, but he didn’t see her as often.

They were weird people, Monroe said, adding that he thought the couple used methamphetamine.

“The man told Monroe he had been kicked off Cliven Bundy’s ranch 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas while people from throughout the U.S. gathered there in protest of a Bureau of Land Management roundup of Bundy’s cattle.” Jessica Anderson, 27, said. She lived next door.

There is still more detail at the article link.

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Updates on the Bergdahl story:

From the Wall Street Journal, Official: Bowe Bergdahl has declined to speak to family.

While he spent five years in captivity after being captured by Afghan insurgents in 2009, Bergdahl doesn’t yet want to talk to his family on the phone, the official said.

Bergdahl has likely been shielded from most of the backlash his release has generated in the U.S. Some former platoon soldiers have accused him of deserting his post and lawmakers from both parties have questioned the decision to trade America’s lone prisoner of war in Afghanistan for five Talibanofficials held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Local authorities canceled a homecoming celebration in his Idaho hometown because of the backlash. The celebration was canceled specifically because of threats made against the family, officials said.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation confirmed that it was investigating threats made against Bergdahl’s parents.

From The New York Times: Bergdahl Was in Unit Known for Its Troubles.

The platoon was, an American military official would assert years later, “raggedy.”

On their tiny, remote base, in a restive sector of eastern Afghanistan at an increasingly violent time of the war, they were known to wear bandannas and cutoff T-shirts. Their crude observation post was inadequately secured, a military review later found. Their first platoon leader, and then their first platoon sergeant, were replaced relatively early in the deployment because of problems….

Indeed, an internal Army investigation into the episode concluded that the platoon suffered from lapses in discipline and security in the period before Sergeant Bergdahl — a private first class at the time who was promoted while in captivity — disappeared into Paktika Province, two officials briefed on the report said.

Bergdahl was not a peacenik.

Sergeant Bergdahl was viewed as standoffish or eccentric, smoking a pipe instead of spitting tobacco, as so many soldiers do, and reading voraciously when others napped or watched videos. But he was not isolated from his platoon mates, some said. And while he was, like other soldiers in the platoon, often disappointed or confused by their mission in Paktika, some of his peers also said that Sergeant Bergdahl seemed enthusiastic about fighting, particularly after the platoon was ambushed several weeks before his disappearance.

“He’d complain about not being able to go on the offensive, and being attacked and not being able to return fire,” said Gerald Sutton,who knew Sergeant Bergdahl from spending time together on their tiny outpost, Observation Post Mest Malak, near the village of Yahya Khel, about 50 miles west of the Pakistani border.

Read much more at the link.

From the LA Times: Most of 5 freed Taliban prisoners have less than hard-core pasts.

Obama critics have said the swap [of prisoners for Bergdahl] could endanger American lives, with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) calling the five Taliban members “the hardest and toughest of all.”

A closer look at the former prisoners, however, indicates that not all were hard-core militants. Three held political positions in the Taliban government that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 and were considered relative moderates. A fourth was a mid-level police official, experts say.

The fifth, however, has a darker past. Mohammed Fazl was chief of staff of the Taliban army and is accused of commanding forces that massacred hundreds of civilians in the final years of Taliban rule before the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. He was arrested in November 2001 after surrendering to U.S.-allied warlords in northern Afghanistan.

“Fazl is the only one of the five to face accusations of explicit war crimes and they are, indeed, extremely serious,” Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a Kabul-based research group, wrote in a commentary published Wednesday.

The backgrounds of the prisoners, who are confined to the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar for one year under the terms of the exchange, indicate that they would have little utility on the battlefield after more than a decade in prison. They range in age from 43 to 47. In their absences, the Taliban movement they served has evolved into a complex and extremely violent insurgency that routinely kills civilians and has been decimated — although far from defeated — by years of U.S. counter-terrorism operations.

From the New York Times: Critics of P.O.W. Swap Question the Absence of a Wider Agreement.

When the heads of the two major intelligence committees criticized the Obama administration on Sunday for swapping Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five members of the Taliban, they homed in on one part of the deal that the White House has struggled for a week, unsuccessfully, to explain. The question is why the five were released without any commitments to a larger agreement, under which the Taliban would renounce international terrorism, and begin a process of reconciliation with the government of Afghanistan.

According the The Independent UK, a computer has for the first time convinced humans that it was a real person: Turing Test breakthrough as super-computer becomes first to convince us it’s human.

A programme that convinced humans that it was a 13-year-old boy has become the first computer ever to pass the Turing Test. The test — which requires that computers are indistinguishable from humans — is considered a landmark in the development of artificial intelligence, but academics have warned that the technology could be used for cybercrime.

Computing pioneer Alan Turing said that a computer could be understood to be thinking if it passed the test, which requires that a computer dupes 30 per cent of human interrogators in five-minute text conversations.

Eugene Goostman, a computer programme made by a team based in Russia, succeeded in a test conducted at the Royal Society in London. It convinced 33 per cent of the judges that it was human, said academics at the University of Reading, which organised the test.

It is thought to be the first computer to pass the iconic test. Though other programmes have claimed successes, those included set topics or questions in advance.

The Wall Street Journal reports on an airport attack in Pakistan that killed at least 28 people: Karachi Airport Attack: Pakistani Taliban Claim Responsibility.

KARACHI, Pakistan—Militants stormed Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport late Sunday, exchanging fire with security forces and leaving at least 28 people dead, officials said.

Separately, gunmen and suicide bombers attacked pilgrims from the minority Shiite sect of Islam in the west of Pakistan, killing at least 25 pilgrims.

The Pakistani Taliban, a group closely linked to al Qaeda, claimed responsibility for the airport attack. The group, formally known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, said the attack was revenge for recent Pakistani military airstrikes against them, which followed a breakdown in peace talks with the militants in the last few weeks….

At the airport, the assault began at around 10:20 p.m. local time Sunday and lasted at least six hours, with gunfire, explosions and a raging fire. All flights at the airport were suspended late Sunday. By midday Monday, local time, security officials said the airport was clear of militants. Flights were expected to resume by late afternoon.

“They attacked the airport security personnel and then entered,” Adnan, a witness who only gave his first name, said.

The assault focused on the airport’s relatively less heavily guarded Terminal One, which is used for cargo and VIP flights. Two cargo bays appeared to have been destroyed, witnesses said.

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Hillary is about to begin her book tour, and the LA Times calls it a dry run for 2016.

e’s traveled the country mixing weighty policy pronouncements with joking references to her hair. She’s reflected on gender bias and offered career advice to young women, gushed about becoming a grandma and raked in a fortune in speaking fees on the lecture circuit.

After all that — and even having a shoe flung at her at a trash collectors’ convention in Las Vegas — Hillary Rodham Clinton takes her flirtation with the 2016 presidential race to a new level this week, beginning a minutely orchestrated book tour that will whisk her coast to coast for a mix of book signings and carefully calibrated television interviews.

Since stepping down as secretary of State 16 months ago, Clinton has managed to effectively freeze out any Democratic competition for the presidential nomination, no small feat in a party with a history of upstarts and upsets — especially for someone who has yet to say whether she even plans to run.

Throughout, she’s weathered a relentless degree of scrutiny, her daily travels exhaustively chronicled, her every utterance parsed for meaning. Even matters like her daughter Chelsea’s pregnancy are put to the will-or-won’t-she test.

The LA Times also reports that Hillary predicted the Bergdahl controversy, In new book, Clinton predicted furor over Taliban prisoner deal.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton acknowledged in her new book that negotiations with the Taliban were bound to be hotly controversial with Americans, but wrote that bringing home captive Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl had to be a top priority.

Clinton writes in “Hard Choices” that “opening the door to negotiations with the Taliban would be hard to swallow for many Americans after so many years of war,” according to an account of excerpts published Thursday by CBS News. Yet in every contact with the Taliban, U.S. officials demanded the release of Bergdahl and made clear that “there would not be any agreement about prisoners without the sergeant coming home.”

Clinton’s book, due for release Tuesday, was written well before the swap of five top Taliban officials for Bergdahl last Saturday set off controversy in Washington. Her comments underscored, however, that the Obama administration was determined to complete the deal, despite its political risks.

That’s all the news I have for you today. What stories are you following? Please post your links in the comment thread.