Tuesday Reads: After A Quiet Weekend, Back to Non-Stop News

Sofia Loren playing pool, circa 1950s

Good Morning!!

The news has been overwhelming since Monday morning dawned. I’m feeling overwhelmed and I was going to go with baby animals, but then I found some great historical photos on Twitter.

Trump just finished his insane speech to the UN. I couldn’t stand to listen to him, but I watched with the sound off and closed captions.

The headline from the speech was that Trump threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea and again called Kim Jong Un “Rocket Man.” He also called for complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. That obviously will not happen. So should we prepare for nuclear war?

In addition, Trump ranted about “America first” and said every nation should put itself first–except when he was ranting about Syria, Afghanistan, ISIS, and North Korea. He also threatened to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. According to the talking heads on MSNBC, there were audible gasps from the audience during at some points in the speech.

Meanwhile, Hurricane Maria has already devastated Dominica and is headed for Puerto Rico. The Washington Post: ‘Extremely dangerous’ Hurricane Maria churns toward Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico; Jose to scrape Northeast coast.

The wicked 2017 hurricane season began delivering more punishing blows Tuesday as Hurricane Maria raked across the Caribbean with “potentially catastrophic” winds of 160 mph. To the north, Hurricane Jose churned on a path to brush the Northeast coast with raging surf and potentially damaging gusts.

Maria strengthened to the highest-level Category 5 on Tuesday after making landfall on the island of Dominica. The storm carries the potential to cause widespread destruction along its path from the central Lesser Antilles through Puerto Rico, including some areas battered earlier this month by the huge Hurricane Irma.

James Dean signing autographs

“Maria is forecast to remain an extremely dangerous Category 4 or 5 hurricane while it approaches the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico,” the National Hurricane Center said Tuesday.

Jose is capable of producing coastal flooding and pockets of damaging wind from eastern Long Island to coastal Massachusetts, its effects are most likely to resemble those of a strong nor’easter — rather than a devastating hurricane.

It’s already pouring rain here, and I guess that’s going to continue through tomorrow. We haven’t seem much of the sun here lately, but that’s not a big deal. I just hope Maria slows down before she gets to you all down South.

We got big news in the Russia investigation last night. We learned that Paul Manafort was under surveillance under a FISA warrant beginning in 2014 and again before and after the inauguration while Trump was still talking to him on the phone.  If you haven’t read the NYT and CNN stories, be sure to check them out. We also learned that the FBI raid on Manafort’s home was a “no-knock” warrant and agents surprised him in his bedroom.

NYT: With a Picked Lock and a Threatened Indictment, Mueller’s Inquiry Sets a Tone.

CNN: Exclusive: US government wiretapped former Trump campaign chairman.

Three reactions to these stories:

Lawfare: The Latest Scoops from CNN and the New York Times: A Quick and Dirty Analysis.

As Jim Comey might put it: Lordy, there appear to be tapes….

The Times’ revelation that Manafort has been informed that he will be indicted involves a pretty spare set of reported facts. In fact, there’s really only one fact: “The special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, then followed the house search with a warning: His prosecutors told Mr. Manafort they planned to indict him, said two people close to the investigation.” The language here is not legally precise. It could mean that Manafort has been formally informed that he is an investigative “target”—a designation that means that prosecutors intend to ask a grand jury to indict him. It could, instead, suggest something less than that—a kind of verbal aggressiveness designed to put pressure on him to cooperate.

Helen Keller meets Charlie Chaplin 1919

The significance of this is that it means that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has reached a critical stage—the point at which he may soon start making allegations in public. Those allegations may involve conduct unrelated to L’Affaire Russe—that is, alleged bad behavior by Manafort and maybe others that does not involve the Trump campaign—but which may nonetheless serve to pressure Manafort to cooperate on matters more central. Or they may involve conduct that involves his behavior with respect to the campaign itself. Note that if Manafort cooperates, we may not see anything public for a long time to come. Delay, that is, may be a sign of success. But in the absence of cooperation, the fireworks may be about to begin.

This is not the first indication in recent weeks that the Mueller investigation is nearing the litigation stage. The fact that Mueller’s staff executed a search warrant against Manafort in July—which was first reported Aug. 9 by the Washington Post—was telling, implying that the special counsel had shown a court probable cause of criminal activity.

That’s just a taste. Head over to Lawfare to read the whole thing. You won’t be sorry.

Natasha Bertrand at Business Insider: Raids, warrants, and wiretaps: The Trump-Russia probe ‘has reached a critical stage.’

Recent revelations about special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s election interference and potential collusion with President Donald Trump’s campaign team indicate that the case has reached the point where Mueller may soon start announcing criminal charges.

Washing day in NYC, 1934

The Wall Street Journal and CNN reported on Friday that Mueller had obtained a search warrant for records of the “inauthentic” accounts Facebook shut down earlier this month and the targeted ads these accounts purchased during the 2016 election.

Legal experts said the warrant meant Mueller had been able to convince a federal judge that there was good reason to believe a foreign entity had committed a crime by making campaign contributions in the form of ads and the spread of fake news and that evidence of that crime would be found on Facebook.

Three days later, The New York Times reported that Mueller told Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, he was going to be formally charged with a crime following a raid on his Virginia home over the summer.

Mueller has also issued subpoenas to a Manafort spokesman, Jason Maloni, and former attorney, Melissa Laurenza, to testify before a federal grand jury.

Bertrand’s piece is partially a summary of the longer Lawfare article.

The Washington Post: The Daily 202: Mueller tightening the screws on Manafort. This one is useful summary of the stories that broke yesterday.

Mueller is also “turning up the heat on Facebook.” Vanity Fair:

Facebook is facing an unusual degree of scrutiny as Robert Mueller’s team of prosecutors makes the social network a central focus of the Justice Department’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election, including how the platform was used to disseminate foreign propaganda and misleading news stories. Earlier this month, Facebook told congressional investigators that it sold about $100,000 worth of ads to a pro-Kremlin Russian troll farm that targeted U.S. voters. But while some lawmakers appeared frustrated by Facebook’s overly general answers to their inquiries, Mueller isn’t asking nicely.

The latest revelation could mark a turning point in Mueller’s investigation. In order to obtain a search warrant, the former F.B.I. director would have had to prove that he has evidence suggesting a crime occurred and that it occurred on Facebook. “He would have to sort of lay out evidence showing that this crime had occurred, not just merely say so, but records that he had obtained, testimony that had been given, or interviews that people gave to the F.B.I.,” former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti told CBS News on Sunday. “It’s a very serious and significant move forward for the Mueller investigation.” Anyone who was part of that effort could be criminally liable, he added. Because Mueller has been looking at relatively specific, narrow crimes, Mariotti said he believes the special counsel’s office is “closing in on charging foreign individuals.” As Chris Smithwrote for Vanity Fair on Friday, some lawmakers believe that investigation could include a closer look at the election data operation run by Jared Kushner and Trump’s digital campaign chief, Brad Parscale, as well as their work with the data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica.

More at the link.

Finally, long-time Trump toady Michael Cohen [was scheduled to appear] before the Senate Intelligence Committee this morning. NBC News:

Cohen, who served as executive vice president and special counsel at the Trump Organization and continues to serve as the president’s personal attorney, is perhaps the closest associate to Trump outside of his immediate family. He will speak with professional staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee Tuesday weeks after the president’s son and son-in-law spoke with it and other congressional panels looking into Russia’s meddling in U.S. elections.

Miles Davis defining cool in 1947.

According to congressional sources, the committee intends to pursue several lines of questioning with Cohen, with the goal of putting him on the record on key topics that have drawn scrutiny during the investigation, including potential direct contacts between Trump associates and people with close ties to the Kremlin.

Cohen had been mentioned by name in a dossier on Trump prepared by former British spy Christopher Steele, alleging he attended a secret meeting in Prague in August 2016 to discuss Russia’s hacking of Democratic targets. Cohen has adamantly denied such a meeting, and his own attorney called the allegations “wholly unsubstantiated” and even “libelous” in a letter to leaders of the House Intelligence Committee in August.

Committee staff will also likely ask Cohen about emails he received in 2015 from Felix Sater, a former Trump associate with a criminal past, about a potential deal to open a Trump Tower in the Russian capital. Some of the emails were published by the New York Times in August.

UPDATE: Cohen’s appearance was cancelled because he violated an agreement not to speak to the media. He will now be subpoenaed.

As you know, the Republicans are making a last ditch effort to take health care away from Americans. Margaret Sanger-Katz at the NYT The Upshot: One Reason to Take the Latest Obamacare Repeal Seriously, and Three Reasons It Could Fail.

How seriously should Americans take the Republicans’ last-ditch effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act?

The party has until the end of the month to repeal the health law without needing 60 Senate votes. That’s why the latest proposal, by Senators Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, is getting so much attention.

Pablo Picasso & Brigitte Bardot, 1956

Their bill would eliminate the two big coverage programs created by Obamacare, and instead give blocks of money to state governments, with few limitations on how they can distribute them to provide health coverage to their residents. States would be free to eliminate Obamacare rules requiring that insurance cover a minimum package of benefits, and they could charge sick customers more than healthy customers.

It would also make major changes to Medicaid, reducing federal funding even for populations that were covered before Obamacare. The results would most likely be substantial reductions in the number of Americans with health coverage, and new challenges for Americans with pre-existing health conditions in some states.

There are elements of the bill that are likely to attract support from Republican lawmakers, and from some Republican governors. The policy is in line with many Republican lawmakers’ views that states are better able to manage their health programs than the federal government.

But the bill faces substantial challenges, both political and procedural. Here are three reasons the effort may not succeed — and one very important reason it might.

Read the reasons at the NYT link.

What else is happening? Please post your thoughts and links in the comment thread below.

Advertisements

Friday Reads: Nuclear Don and the Duck and Cover Edition

Good Morning Sky Dancers!

A year ago seems like eons ago in the new accelerated march to no hope what so ever we have in our ongoing National Nightmare of Atomic Don.  I’ve written several ledes to the effect of “Do you know where your nearest bombshelter is” with more of a dramatic, click bait kind’ve style than a serious one.  Omens being what they are right now,  we’re seeing stuff I haven’t seen since 1962 when I spent a week with my fellow second graders practicing duck and cover in the halls of Herbert Hoover Grade School in Council Bluffs, Iowa.  Fortunately, neither President Kennedy or Premier Krushchev were insane.  Kim Jong-Un and Donald Trump both belong in asylums (preferably together).

His ultimate motives, like many details of his life, are uncertain. Since taking power, Mr. Kim has yet to travel abroad or host a visit from another head of state. Only a few people outside North Korea have been allowed to meet him, among them the former basketball star Dennis Rodman, a Japanese sushi chef and the vice presidents of Cuba and China.

What little is known of Mr. Kim’s record suggests ruthlessness — and some ideological flexibility.

South Korean intelligence officials say Mr. Kim has executed scores of senior officials, including his own uncle, a wily power broker who had been seen as his mentor. He is also assumed to have ordered the assassination of his half brother, who was poisoned by VX nerve agent at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia in February.

Yet Mr. Kim is also credited with loosening state controls on the economy and engineering modest growth, and regaining some of the public confidence that the dynastic regime enjoyed under his grandfather and lost under his father, whose rule is remembered for a devastating famine.

“Smart, pragmatic, decisive,” Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, said of Mr. Kim. “But also capricious, moody and ready to kill easily.”

One subject on which Mr. Kim has not wavered is the nuclear program. His father held out the possibility of scrapping the program in return for economic aid and security guarantees and even struck a deal with the Clinton administration, though the North later violated it. But Mr. Kim has taken a more aggressive approach.

Three of North Korea’s five nuclear tests have come under his watch, and there are signs that the country is preparing for another one. North Korea has also conducted about 80 missile tests under Mr. Kim, more than twice as many as under his father and grandfather combined.

The nation crossed a major threshold with the last two missile tests, on July 4 and July 28, which analysts said demonstrated intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting Alaska and, in the most recent test, the mainland United States.

North Korean state media showed Mr. Kim present at both tests, wearing a suit with a Mao-style collar, surrounded by soldiers and smiling broadly.

Today, we have an eager belligerent meeting that nuclear threat challenge.  Last year’s you would not believe the headlines this morning.  This is the kind of bellicose rhetoric that buys us a front seat to war.

Peter Baker / New York Times:
Trump Says Military Is ‘Locked and Loaded, Should North Korea Act Unwisely’

Simon Denyer /Washington Post:

Shane Savitsky / Axios:
82% of Americans fear nuclear war with North Korea

The headline that got to me was that the Homeland Security is actively working with Guam on preparing for a potential nuclear attack. I just want to call all the family in Japan and apologize to them for putting them through this again. The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings happened on August 6, 1945. It may have ended a war last time.  This time, it will not and no one in that region elected a madman US President.

Guam Homeland Security issued a new fact sheet Friday, which the agency says will help residents prepare for an imminent missile threat.

The information was released following this week’s threat by North Korea to launch a missile attack against Guam.

The advice includes tips such as: “Do not look at the flash or fireball – It can blind you” and “Take cover behind anything that might offer protection.”

“Lie flat on the ground and cover your head. If the explosion is some distance away, it could take 30 seconds or more for the blast wave to hit,” the sheet states.

During a press conference at Adelup late Friday afternoon, Gov. Eddie Calvo told reporters that the threat level remains the same and that the island is “safe and sound.”

“There are no changes,” Calvo said. “Everyone should continue to live their lives.”

While the governor said there’s no imminent threat to the island, he said families should still be prepared any situation, including inclement weather, and establish a family emergency plan.

Homeland Security says residents should prepare an emergency supply kit and a family emergency plan. During an imminent missile threat, authorities recommend taking cover as quickly as possible under a concrete structure or below ground after an attack warning is issued.

People should also avoid going outside for at least 24 hours to avoid any possible radioactive material, unless otherwise told by authorities.

If possible, take a shower with lots of soap and water, shampoo but avoid using conditioner that will bind to any radioactive material in your hair, the fact sheet states.

After the explosion, people are encouraged to keep an eye and an ear out for official information so they know where to go, what to do and places to avoid.

You have to wonder if any of the Generals wandering the West Wing approved of the “locked and loaded” rhetoric. Meanwhile, South Korea and the US have a scheduled Military exercise. You also have to wonder if continuing on with that is in any one’s best interest at this point but I’m an economist not a military strategist and yet I wonder every day if you can even do strategy or game theory or even assign probabilities to the unpredictable minds of two mad men.

The annual joint exercises, named Ulchi-Freedom Guardian, have long been planned for 21-31 August, but now come at a time when both Washington and Pyongyang are on heightened alert, raising the spectre of a mishap or overreaction.

The timing is doubly concerning as it is within a timeframe in which Pyongyang says it will be ready to fire four Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missiles toward the US-run island of Guam, an unusually specific threat against the US.

Washington and Seoul say the exercises, involving tens of thousands of American and South Korean troops, are a deterrent against North Korean aggression.

In the past, the practices are believed to have included “decapitation strikes” – trial operations for an attempt to kill Kim Jong-un and his top generals, further antagonising a paranoid leadership.

Trump kept the pressure up with a tweet on Friday morning threatening Pyongyang but indicating he wanted to avoid hostilities.

A US-led move that brought the United Nations security council to impose broad sanctions on North Korea was passed on Saturday, sparking a furious response from Kim’s regime, promising “thousands-fold” revenge.

Speaking off the cuff, Trump then added further heat by threatening to unleash “fire and fury”, to which Pyongyang responded with its plan to fire four missiles to land in waters near Guam. On Thursday, Trump suggested his comment “maybe … wasn’t tough enough.”

How could any of this play out?

It’s the no-win situation that can only be imagined by US military officials tasked with preparing for a worst-case scenario — conducting a preemptive strike on North Korea.

With little time to evacuate, millions of innocent citizens would be caught in the crossfire if the US and its regional allies were to initiate a first strike, that would almost certainly result in high casualties on both sides.

Friday morning, President Donald Trump warned on Twitter that “Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded,” though he said “hopefully Kim Jong Un will find another path!”

A military operation would consist of a swift and multi-dimensional attack, as the fight would be defined by the first minute of combat, according to Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain and senior fellow at the Center for New American Security.

While Hendrix has not been briefed on the specifics of a possible preemptive strike option, he told CNN that the operation would likely include several strategies aimed to neutralize North Korea’s defensive and counterstrike capabilities.

Countering North Korea’s relatively formidable surface-to-air missile defense capabilities, stealth American F-22s, F-35s and B-2 bombers would likely lead a joint air campaign with the help of Japanese and South Korean F-15 or F-16 fighters, he said.

Unmanned aircraft could also be used to limit risk to pilots.

It is surreal to think that the US would ever exercise a first strike ever again. It is naive to think that any one in South Korea or the region would not have their lives ended or upended for years to come.  The US has had a strict “No first use” policy in place for decades.  China has announced that it would fight a US first strike but not support a NK first strike.  

China will prevent the US and South Korea from carrying out strikes on North Korea and trying to overthrow the leadership there, but will remain neutral if Pyongyang launches missiles at American targets first, the state-run Global Times said.

The warning, delivered through an editorial in the Chinese state-run newspaper on Thursday, comes as both the US and North Korea continue to exchange incendiary remarks, raising the risk of overreaction or miscalculation amid the crisis.
Beijing should make it clear that “if North Korea launches missiles that threaten US soil first and the US retaliates, China will stay neutral,” the Global Times wrote.

But if the US and its ally South Korea take on Pyongyang and try to “overthrow the North Korean regime and change the political pattern of the Korean Peninsula, China will prevent them from doing so,” the paper stressed.

The widely-quoted newspaper, published by the Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, also noted that the latest developments are seen in Beijing with growing frustration and deep concern.

“If war really breaks out, the US can hardly reap any strategic harvest and North Korea will face unprecedented risks,” the paper cautioned. “North Korea aims to propel the US to negotiate with it, while the US wants to put North Korea in check.”

Beijing was unable “to persuade Washington or Pyongyang to back down at this time,” the Global Times said, adding it primarily pursues peace and stability in the region. All sides involved in the crisis should understand that “when their actions jeopardize China’s interests, China will respond with a firm hand,” the government paper explained.

China – North Korea’s long-standing economic partner and ideological ally – reiterated on Friday that all sides involved in the crisis must “speak and act with caution” as well as build up trust rather than “taking turns in shows of strength,” according to a Foreign Ministry statement quoted by Reuters.

I for one join the 82%.  Wall Street has taken notice too.  Stocks will likely fall for a 4th day in a row.   I don’t trust anything coming out of the White House because the President is insane.  It’s time Republicans stand up for sanity and our country.

What’s on your blogging and reading list today?


Wacky Reads for a Surreal Saturday

easter-bunny reading

Good Morning!!

Things are looking a bit surreal to me this morning. I babysat for my nephews last night and they managed to stay up until almost midnight! I sent them to bed around 10PM and they both claimed they couldn’t get to sleep. So I was up till all hours watching some strange kid show–a cartoon version of those “Survivor” reality TV programs. It was veeerrrrry strange. I slept too late, and when I checked the news headlines, I saw lots more strange stuff.

So What’s the deal with North Korea anyway? Kim Jong Un seems even crazier than his dear old dad. Supposedly North Korea is now “entering ‘state of war’ with” South Korea.

North Korea said on Saturday that it was entering a “state of war” with South Korea, following a call to arms by the country’s young leader Kim Jong Un and days of increasingly belligerent rhetoric from the isolated state.

The North’s official news agency KCNA published the joint statement issued by the government, political parties and other organizations.

“From this time on, the North-South relations will be entering a state of war and all issues raised between the North and the South will be handled accordingly,” it said.

The statement also warned that if the U.S. and South Korea carried out a pre-emptive attack, the conflict “will not be limited to a local war, but develop into an all-out war, a nuclear war.”

WTF?!!

According to an unnamed “senior administration official” it’s all a bunch of hooey.

“North Korea is in a mindset of war, but North Korea is not going to war,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer insight into the latest administration thinking on the volatile situation on the Korean Peninsula.

The official said North Korea is doing two things that signal it is not spoiling for war: maintaining continuous and unfettered access to the Kaesong Industrial Complex six miles north of the Demilitarized Zone and by continuing to promote tourists visits to North Korea, even amid its banging of war drums.

“There is pot-banging and chest-thumping, but they have literature attracting tourists that explicitly says pay no attention to all that (public) talk about nuclear war or another kind of war,” the official said.

Kaesong is a hive of business activity and about 200 South Koreans travel there daily. It produces about $2 billion of annual trade and commerce revenue for the North. Many experts consider its fate and status the best signal of North Korea’s hostile intentions.

On Saturday, the North renewed its threat to close the complex, reportedly saying through its state-controlled news agency that references to its ongoing operation as a source of capital “damages our dignity.”

I wonder why this “senior official” felt he/she had to remain anonymous?

Some “analysts” who didn’t feel the need to conceal their identities told NBC News that North Korea[‘s] threats [are] predictable but Kim Jong Un is not.

Read the rest of this entry »