Trump’s bullshit on Russia frustrates even his allies

The New York Times reports: In the span of 72 hours, President Trump described the email hacking that roiled the 2016 campaign as a Democratic “hoax” and as clear aggression by Russia that his predecessor, President Barack Obama, failed to address.

Other times, Mr. Trump has said the hacking might have been done by China.

Or, as he claimed during the first general election debate, the hacking could have been the work of a lone wolf weighing 400 pounds, sitting on his bed at home.

Then there was the time Mr. Trump blamed “some guy in his home in New Jersey.”

Or, as Mr. Trump has also suggested, there might not even have been hacking at all…

On Saturday, Mr. Trump tried again to focus attention on Mr. Obama.

“Since the Obama Administration was told way before the 2016 Election that the Russians were meddling, why no action?” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter. “Focus on them, not T!”

He followed that up with: “Obama Administration official said they ‘choked’ when it came to acting on Russian meddling of election. They didn’t want to hurt Hillary?”

Government officials, members of Congress from both parties and even some Trump supporters had hoped that, with the campaign behind him, Mr. Trump would finally speak declaratively about the email hacking and recognize the threat Russian cyberattacks present, without asterisks, wisecracks, caveats or obfuscation.

That hope has dissipated. The latest presidential tweets were proof to dismayed members of Mr. Trump’s party that he still refuses to acknowledge a basic fact agreed upon by 17 American intelligence agencies that he now oversees: Russia orchestrated the attacks, and did it to help get him elected. [Continue reading…]

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Europe has been working to expose Russian meddling for years

The Washington Post reports: As the United States grapples with the implications of Kremlin interference in American politics, European countries are deploying a variety of bold tactics and tools to expose Russian attempts to sway voters and weaken European unity.

Across the continent, counterintelligence officials, legislators, researchers and journalists have devoted years — in some cases, decades — to the development of ways to counter Russian disinformation, hacking and trolling. And they are putting them to use as never before.

Four dozen officials and researchers interviewed recently sounded uniformly more confident about the results of their efforts to counter Russian influence than officials grappling with it in the United States, which one European cyber-official described as “like watching ‘House of Cards.’ ”

“The response here has been very practical,” observed a senior U.S. intelligence official stationed in Europe. “Everybody’s looking at it.”

In the recent French elections, the Kremlin-friendly presidential candidate lost to newcomer Emmanuel Macron, who was subjected to Russian hacking and false allegations in Russian-sponsored news outlets during the campaign. In Germany, all political parties have agreed not to employ automated bots in their social media campaigns because such hard-to-detect cybertools are frequently used by Russia to circulate bogus news accounts. [Continue reading…]

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Kushner firm’s $285 million Deutsche Bank loan came just before Election Day

The Washington Post reports: One month before Election Day, Jared Kushner’s real estate company finalized a $285 million loan as part of a refinancing package for its property near Times Square in Manhattan.

The loan came at a critical moment. Kushner was playing a key role in the presidential campaign of his father-in-law, Donald Trump. The lender, Deutsche Bank, was negotiating to settle a federal mortgage fraud case and charges from New York state regulators that it aided a possible Russian money-laundering scheme. The cases were settled in December and January.

Now, Kushner’s association with Deutsche Bank is among a number of financial matters that could come under focus as his business activities are reviewed by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is examining Kushner as part of a broader investigation into possible Russian influence in the election.

The October deal illustrates the extent to which Kushner was balancing roles as a top adviser to Trump and a real estate company executive. After the election, Kushner juggled duties for the Trump transition team and his corporation as he prepared to move to the White House. The Washington Post has reported that investigators are probing Kushner’s separate December meetings with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, and with Russian banker Sergey Gorkov, the head of Vnesheconombank, a state development bank. [Continue reading…]

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How Putin seduced Oliver Stone — and Trump

Masha Gessen writes: Watching four hours of Oliver Stone interviewing President Vladimir Putin of Russia is not a lesson in journalism. Mr. Stone is an inept interviewer, and he does not get Mr. Putin to say anything the world hasn’t heard from him before. Watching the interviews for entertainment is a questionable proposition, too: The four-part series contains many dull exchanges and even more filler, like footage of the two men watching “Dr. Strangelove” together.

Still, “The Putin Interviews,” which were released this month by Showtime, may be worth watching for the view they provide of a particular kind of relationship.

Many Americans have been looking for an explanation for Mr. Trump’s apparent adoration of Mr. Putin. How can a powerful, wealthy American man hold affection for the tyrannical, corrupt leader of a hostile power?

Oddly, “The Putin Interviews” provide psychological and intellectual answers to that question. For Mr. Stone appears to have the same sort of breathless admiration for Mr. Putin as Mr. Trump does. In filming their interaction, he has broadcast the conditions on which this kind of admiration rests. Should you ever wish to experience affection for a dictator, you too should make sure that these conditions are in place. [Continue reading…]

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Authoritarianism is making a comeback. Here’s the time-tested way to defeat it

Maria J Stephan and Timothy Snyder write: After the spread of democracy at the end of the 20th century, authoritarianism is now rolling back democracy around the globe. In the US, supporters of democracy disarmed themselves by imagining an “end of history” in which nothing but their own ideas were possible. Authoritarians, meanwhile, keep practicing their old tactics and devising new ones.

It is time for those who support democracy to remember what activists from around the world have paid a price to learn: how to win.

Modern authoritarians rely on repression, intimidation, corruption and co-optation to consolidate their power. The dictator’s handbook mastered by Orban in Hungary, Erdogan in Turkey, Maduro in Venezuela, Zuma in South Africa, Duterte in the Philippines and Trump here provides the traditional tactics: attack journalists, blame dissent on foreigners and “paid protestors,” scapegoat minorities and vulnerable groups, weaken checks on power, reward loyalists, use paramilitaries, and generally try to reduce politics to a question of friends and enemies, us and them.

Yet tyrants’ tactics require the consent of large numbers of people. The first lesson, then, is not to obey in advance. If individuals make the basic effort to consider their own sense of values and patriotism rather than subconsciously adjusting to the new reality, aspiring authoritarians have a major problem. Good citizens will then ask: but what should we do? History provides an answer: civil resistance.

Unarmed civilians using petitions, boycotts, strikes, and other nonviolent methods have been able to slow, disrupt and even halt authoritarianism. Civil resistance has been twice as effective as armed struggle. [Continue reading…]

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Bloomberg’s next anti-Washington move: $200 million program for mayors

The New York Times reports: Michael R. Bloomberg will throw his financial might into helping beleaguered American mayors, creating a $200 million philanthropic program aimed at backing inventive policies at the city level and giving mayors a stronger hand in national politics.

Mr. Bloomberg intends to announce the initiative on Monday in a speech to the United States Conference of Mayors in Miami Beach, where he will castigate federal officials and state governments around the country for undermining cities. He plans to describe the program, called the American Cities Initiative, as a method of shoring up the global influence of the United States despite turmoil in Washington.

A wealthy former mayor of New York who seriously explored running for president in 2016 as an independent, Mr. Bloomberg, 75, has embraced a public role since the election as a kind of elite-level organizer against certain policies of the Trump administration.

In an interview, Mr. Bloomberg said his city-focused initiative would serve in part as an extension of his advocacy for national policies that address climate change, gun violence, public health and immigration. That largely liberal agenda is aligned with the growing aspirations of big-city mayors, who are mainly Democrats and who have vowed to check conservative mandates emerging from Washington by using their power at the local level. [Continue reading…]

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Trump wants to spend more on military affairs and less on humanitarian aid for Africa

The New York Times reports from the MUA mission in Malawi: If ever there was an example of American and African military bonhomie, it was at a recent summit meeting here over glasses of South African Pinotage and expectations of Pentagon largess.

Gen. Daniel B. Allyn, vice chief of staff of the United States Army, gave the African generals advice from his days in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Maj. Gen. Joseph P. Harrington, the head of United States Army Africa, gave a shout-out to the West African military leaders who helped prod the former Gambian president, Yahya Jammeh, out of office after he lost his bid for re-election last year. Lt. Gen. Robert Kariuki Kibochi, the commander of the Kenyan Army, got understanding nods from the Americans when he made clear how much blood African peacekeepers put on the line.

But even here, among men who have been given every reason to expect that they will be receiving more money from the Trump administration, there is unease that the additional American heft may come at a steep price. Pentagon officials are themselves concerned that shifting to a military-heavy presence in Africa will hurt American interests in the long term by failing to stimulate development. An absence of schools and jobs, they say, creates more openings for militant groups.

“We have statements out of Washington about significant reductions in foreign aid,” Gen. Griffin Phiri, the commander of the Malawi Defense Forces, said in an interview during the African Land Forces Summit, a conference of 126 American Army officers and service members and their counterparts from 40 African nations. “What I can tell you is that experience has shown us that diplomacy and security must come together.” He bemoaned “mixed messages” coming out of Washington.

Actually, the message is not so mixed, foreign policy experts say. If Congress passes Mr. Trump’s proposed Pentagon budget for the 2018 fiscal year — it calls for an additional $52 billion on top of the current $575 billion base budget — the United States will spend more money on military affairs in Africa but reduce humanitarian and development assistance across the continent. The Trump budget proposes cutting aid to Africa to $5.2 billion in the 2018 fiscal year from $8 billion now, a stark drop. Even some of the money still in the Trump proposal would shift to security areas from humanitarian and development, foreign policy experts say. [Continue reading…]

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The race to solar power Africa

Bill McKibben writes: The cacao-farming community of Daban, in Ghana, is seven degrees north of the equator, and it’s always hot. In May, I met with several elders there to talk about the electricity that had come to the town a few months earlier, when an American startup installed a solar microgrid nearby. Daban could now safely store the vaccine for yellow fever; residents could charge their cell phones at home rather than walking to a bigger town to do it. As we talked, one of the old men handed me a small plastic bag of water, the kind street venders sell across West Africa—you just bite off a corner and drink. The water was ice-cold and refreshing, but it took me an embarrassingly long moment to understand the pleasure with which he offered it: cold water was now available in this hot place. There was enough power to run a couple of refrigerators, and so coldness was, for the first time, a possibility.

I’d come to Daban to learn about the boom in solar power in sub-Saharan Africa. The spread of cell phones in the region has made it possible for residents to pay daily or weekly bills using mobile money, and now the hope is that, just as cell phones bypassed the network of telephone lines, solar panels will enable many rural consumers to bypass the electric grid. From Ghana, I travelled to Ivory Coast, and then to Tanzania, and along the way I encountered a variety of new solar ventures, most of them American-led. Some, such as Ghana’s Black Star Energy, which had electrified Daban, install solar microgrids, small-scale versions of the giant grid Americans are familiar with. Others, such as Off-Grid Electric, in Tanzania and Ivory Coast, market home-based solar systems that run on a panel installed on each individual house. These home-based systems can’t produce enough current for a fridge, but they can supply each home with a few lights, a mobile-phone charger, and, if the household can afford it, a small, super-efficient flat-screen TV.

In another farming town, in Ivory Coast, I talked to a man named Abou Traoré, who put his television out in a courtyard most nights, so that neighbors could come by to watch. He said that they tuned in for soccer matches—the village tilts Liverpool, but has a large pocket of Manchester United supporters. What else did he watch? Traoré considered. “I like the National Geographic channel,” he replied—that is, the broadcast arm of the institution that became famous showing Westerners pictures of remote parts of Africa.

There are about as many people living without electricity today as there were when Thomas Edison lit his first light bulb. More than half are in sub-Saharan Africa. Europe and the Americas are almost fully electrified, and Asia is quickly catching up, but the absolute number of Africans without power remains steady. A World Bank report, released in May, predicted that, given current trends, there could still be half a billion people in sub-Saharan Africa without power by 2040. Even those with electricity can’t rely on it: the report noted that in Tanzania power outages were so common in 2013 that they cost businesses fifteen per cent of their annual sales. Ghanaians call their flickering power dum/sor, or “off/on.” Vivian Tsadzi, a businesswoman who lives not far from the Akosombo Dam, which provides about a third of the nation’s power, said that most of the time “it’s dum dum dum dum.” The dam’s head of hydropower generation, Kwesi Amoako, who retired last year, told me that he is proud of the structure, which created the world’s largest man-made lake. But there isn’t an easy way to increase the country’s hydropower capacity, and drought, caused by climate change, has made the system inconsistent, meaning that Ghana will have to look elsewhere for electricity. “I’ve always had the feeling that one of the main thrusts should be domestic solar,” Amoako said. “And I think we should put the off-grid stuff first, because the consumer wants it so badly.” [Continue reading…]

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These are the civilian victims of the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS

Mike Giglio reports from Mosul: Residents of this quiet street in eastern Mosul sometimes see their former neighbor return to his rubbled home. He cuts a lonely figure as he climbs through the crushed concrete and twisted iron, stooping to dig for mementos — a photo, a scrap of clothes. Then he sits and cries.

Hassan Ali Hassan, 45, is a Jordanian who has lived for three decades in Mosul, where he married a local woman and raised a family. In June 2014, after ISIS captured the city, he tried to escape with his wife and three daughters to Amman, but the militants seized their passports and ordered them to stay.

Hassan and his family were still trapped in the city on Dec. 14, 2016, as Iraqi forces pressed their US-backed offensive to retake Mosul from ISIS. The fighting had not yet reached their neighborhood, and the family shared a late breakfast before Hassan stepped out to get gas for their generator. Barely a minute had passed when a massive explosion erupted behind him. He ran back to find his home demolished and engulfed in flames, pulverized by an airstrike carried out by the US-led coalition fighting ISIS. Body parts of his wife and daughters littered the street.

“We found some on the other houses here,” recalled a neighbor, Yasir Mohamed, on a recent afternoon, as some semblance of life returned to their neighborhood, called Hay al-Sukar, which was freed from ISIS in January. Reached later by phone, Hassan still seemed to be in shock. “Just everything was in pieces,” he said. “Everyone was dead.”

“Everything happened before my eyes,” he kept repeating.

Homes like Hassan’s riddle Mosul’s streets as Iraqi forces push into the last ISIS-held districts of the city. The US-led air campaign has taken a devastating toll on civilians — and there has yet to be an accounting of its extent. In any neighborhood, residents can quickly point the way to the wrecked houses nearby, detailing which ones held ISIS militants and which ones held only civilians. In late May, a reporter and photographer from BuzzFeed News visited seven sites where witnesses alleged that civilians were killed by airstrikes from the coalition. US warplanes lead the air campaign, but allies such as Britain, Australia, Canada, and France also participate.

The battle has seen some of the deadliest urban combat since World War II — and it has been defined by airstrikes. As of June 3, the coalition had launched some 24,464 munitions into Mosul since the offensive began in October 2016, according to US Department of Defense statistics, and the intensity of the strikes has increased under the Trump administration. In the two years prior to the offensive the US-led coalition launched roughly 13,000 strikes in Iraq. But it’s not just airstrikes that have been raining down on Mosul, endangering civilian lives. The US army has deployed advanced HIMARS rocket launchers, capable of firing six guided missiles from a range of more than 40 miles away. Both sides have used mortar bombs and other artillery. Iraqi jets have carried out airstrikes too. [Continue reading…]

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Cyber-attack on UK parliament: Russia is suspected culprit

The Guardian reports: The Russian government is suspected of being behind a cyber-attack on parliament that breached dozens of email accounts belonging to MPs and peers.

Although the investigation is at an early stage and the identity of those responsible may prove impossible to establish with absolute certainty, Moscow is deemed the most likely culprit.

The disclosure follows the release of the first details of the “sustained” cyber-attack that began on Friday. Fewer than 90 email accounts belonging to parliamentarians are believed to have been hacked, a parliamentary spokesman said.

Amid fears that the breach could lead to blackmail attempts, officials were forced to lock MPs out of their own email accounts as they scrambled to minimise the damage from the incident. [Continue reading…]

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Being bilingual makes you experience time differently

Quartz reports: A new study shows that the words we use to talk about time also shape our view of its passage. This, say researchers, indicates that abstract concepts like duration are relative rather than universal, and that they are also influenced rather than solely innate.

The work, published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Experimental Psychology: General on April 27, examined how Spanish- and Swedish-speaking bilinguals conceived of time. The researchers—from University of Stockholm in Sweden and the University of Lancaster in the UK—found that their subjects, 40 of whom were native Swedish speakers and 40 of whom were native Spanish speakers—tended to think about time in terms that correspond to each language’s descriptors when linguistically prompted in that particular language but moved fluidly from one concept of time to another generally. This was true regardless of their native language.

Different languages describe time differently. For example, Swedish and English generally refer to time according to physical distance (“a long time,” “a short break”). Meanwhile, languages like Spanish or Greek, say, refer to time in volume generally (“a big chunk of time,” “a small moment”). [Continue reading…]

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Music: Meshell Ndegeocello — ‘Aquarium’

 

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Antarctica is melting, and giant ice cracks are just the start

National Geographic reports: Seen from above, the Pine Island Ice Shelf is a slow-motion train wreck. Its buckled surface is scarred by thousands of large crevasses. Its edges are shredded by rifts a quarter mile across. In 2015 and 2016 a 225-square-mile chunk of it broke off the end and drifted away on the Amundsen Sea. The water there has warmed by more than a degree Fahrenheit over the past few decades, and the rate at which ice is melting and calving has quadrupled.

On the Antarctic Peninsula, the warming has been far greater—nearly five degrees on average. That’s why a Delaware-size iceberg is poised to break off the Larsen C Ice Shelf and why smaller ice shelves on the peninsula have long since disintegrated entirely into the waters of the Weddell Sea. But around the Amundsen Sea, a thousand miles to the southwest on the Pacific coast of Antarctica, the glaciers are far larger and the stakes far higher. They affect the entire planet.

The Pine Island Ice Shelf is the floating terminus of the Pine Island Glacier, one of several large glaciers that empty into the Amundsen Sea. Together they drain a much larger dome of ice called the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which is up to two and a half miles thick and covers an area twice the size of Texas. The ice sheet is draped over a series of islands, but most of it rests on the floor of a basin that dips more than 5,000 feet below sea level. That makes it especially vulnerable to the warming ocean. If all that vulnerable ice were to become unmoored, break into pieces, and float away, as researchers increasingly believe it might, it would raise sea level by roughly 10 feet, drowning coasts around the world. [Continue reading…]

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Trump allies push White House to consider regime change in Tehran

Politico reports: As the White House formulates its official policy on Iran, senior officials and key Trump allies are calling for the new administration to take steps to topple Tehran’s militant clerical government.

Supporters of dislodging Iran’s iron-fisted clerical leadership say it’s the only way to halt Tehran’s dangerous behavior, from its pursuit of nuclear weapons to its sponsorship of terrorism. Critics say that political meddling in Iran, where memories of a 1953 CIA-backed coup remain vivid, risks a popular backlash that would only empower hardliners.

That’s why President Barack Obama assured Iranians, in a 2013 speech at the United Nations, that “we are not seeking regime change.”

But influential Iran hawks want to change that under Trump.

“The policy of the United States should be regime change in Iran,” said Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who speaks regularly with White House officials about foreign policy. “I don’t see how anyone can say America can be safe as long as you have in power a theocratic despotism,” he added. [Continue reading…]

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Vladimir Putin is suddenly on the defensive against corruption

Stephen Sestanovich writes: For years now, Putin has claimed — with brazen but disarming candor — to be fighting hard against corruption and the abuse of state power. In his 2015 speech to parliament, he complained that the bullying of legitimate businesses by bribe-seeking officials was a blight on the Russian economy. In his April 2016 call-in, he took questions about shakedowns by government inspectors, about real estate scams enabled by the courts, about the enslavement of workers in a fish cannery (ignored by the police), about the illegal seizure of a Moscow research institute by officials who wanted its land, and more. Putin has said that without fundamental reforms, the country’s economic growth will “hover around zero.” Last summer he told parliamentary candidates of his own party, United Russia, that they had to work harder to win the people’s trust.

Most of this was, of course, meaningless rhetoric. Any serious follow-through would threaten the system Putin has created.

But that’s why we should pay attention when he changes course. On the program last week, Putin announced that corruption is simply “not among the top” issues bothering Russians. When an earnest high school student complained about light punishment meted out to corrupt officials, the president’s initial, prickly response was to suggest that someone else had written the question. His lame concluding plea: “Let us rely on the work of the judicial system.”

Dismissing corruption and the abuse of power didn’t keep Putin from playing his usual role as national problem solver. Was a young teacher paid too little? The president said he’d look into it. Was a single mother in Siberia homeless after forest fires? Putin said he’d talk to the governor of her region. And the woman who lost her home to floods in southern Russia? Again, he promised to talk to her governor.

Yet through all this Putin kept repeating that there was something “strange” about the problems being raised. After all, money had been budgeted to help victims of natural disasters. Maybe, he volunteered, one of the governors was just new on the job? He steered consistently clear of the need for systemic reform or stronger anti-corruption initiatives. Sure, officials at all levels sometimes made wrong decisions, Putin admitted, adding, “I will reprimand them for this” (a typical response). And when asked what he did when people cheated him, the president modeled acceptance: “I try not to make a fuss.”

It’s obvious why Putin has gotten nervous about the corruption issue. His most visible political opponent, Alexei Navalny, has made it the centerpiece of hugely popular online videos and of recent rallies against the “crooks and thieves” of the current regime. It was always a bit shocking that Putin thought he could claim to be a champion of clean government, but somehow he got away with it. Now, apparently, he worries that even talking about corruption will validate Navalny’s critique. [Continue reading…]

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Why CIA vets say Putin hates America — and why Trump shouldn’t trust him

The Daily Beast reports: The Russian intelligence officers picked up the American spies from Moscow’s Metropole Hotel and drove them a few short blocks to an ornate, lushly appointed guest house. It used to be the home of a wealthy Jewish dentist before being turned into a meeting place for Russia’s intelligence services.

The 17th-century mansion served as backdrop of a 2007 summit of CIA officers, FBI agents, and their Russian counterparts, as the Bush administration tried to build a cooperative relationship with Moscow on counterterrorism.

Over glasses of cognac and the occasional shot of chilled vodka, the Russian and American agents sat across from each other at a long conference table, in what turned into an interrogation instead of the hoped-for bridge-building exercise. The Russians probed the Americans to find out where their sources were, how big their networks were and any potential weaknesses to exploit them later.

“It was worse than a polygraph,” one former senior intelligence officer told The Daily Beast. “They used different people to ask us the same questions over and over, each time phrased in slightly different ways, as if to see whether we were lying,” and to trick information out of them.

That interaction is emblematic of 20 years of U.S. attempts to reach out to Moscow, with the initially Pollyannish new American administration seeking cooperation, and the Russians using each opportunity to gather intelligence on their enemy to advance their own interests.

“We, the United States, are the ‘main enemy’ to them,” said former CIA officer John Sipher. “In their mind, they are at war with us. Anything that’s hurtful to the United States is positive for Russia.” That goes doubly for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who once led Russia’s FSB, the successor to the infamous Soviet-era KGB. [Continue reading…]

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