Iraqi forces retake all oil fields in disputed areas as Kurds retreat

The New York Times reports: Kurdish separatists in northern Iraq surrendered all disputed oil fields to Iraq’s military on Tuesday, retreating in the face of overwhelming force that appeared to halt, at least for now, their independence hopes from a referendum held less than a month ago.

In a swift and largely nonviolent operation that came a day after Iraqi forces reclaimed the contested city of Kirkuk from the Kurdish separatists, Baghdad’s troops occupied all oil-producing facilities that the separatists had held for three years, and which had become critical to the Kurdish autonomous region’s economic vitality.

The loss of those resources will erase billions of dollars in export earnings that has flowed to the Kurdish region from the sale of oil. Kurds took over the disputed areas adjacent to their region after Iraqi troops fled an assault by the Islamic State extremist organization in 2014.

Those areas were included in the Sept. 25 referendum in which the Kurdish region voted overwhelmingly for independence. The vote angered not only the central government in Baghdad and the United States, but also neighbors Turkey and Iran, which have sizable Kurdish populations.

The Iraqi military operation to retake the disputed areas was aided by an agreement with a Kurdish faction to withdraw from them peacefully.

The territorial surrender, and its economic importance, raised new doubts about the political future of the Kurdish president, Massoud Barzani, the driving force behind the referendum, who was clearly outmaneuvered by the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS is not beaten and will return

Shiraz Maher writes: Raqqa has crumbled far more quickly than anyone imagined. In just over four months, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), with Western air support, have liberated most of the city from Islamic State (IS). The de facto capital of the so-called caliphate, Raqqa was tightly controlled by its rulers, but it was a bustling hub of activity and urban life. For the hordes of foreign fighters who joined IS, it was almost enough to make them forget the virtues of the afterlife.

The fall of the city to SDF forces is a particularly bitter blow to IS, coming so soon after it lost control of its other main base, Mosul, across the border in Iraq. Yet the Islamic State message remains as defiant as ever. The terror group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, released a 46-minute audio message in September lauding the efforts of his fighters in Mosul. Yes, they lost the city but, Baghdadi insisted, this was only after sacrificing their flesh and blood. “Thus, they were excused,” Baghdadi said.

He also pointed to the group’s ability to strike Western capitals with terrorist attacks. “The Americans, the Russians and the Europeans are living in terror in their countries,” said Baghdadi, “fearing the strikes of the mujahedin.” Direct addresses from Baghdadi have been rare. This latest speech signalled his need to rally supporters after a series of defeats. [Continue reading…]

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U.S.-backed force claims capture of ISIS’s de facto Syrian capital Raqqa

The Washington Post reports: U.S. backed forces in Syria claimed full control of the Islamic State’s onetime capital of Raqqa on Tuesday, heralding an end to the militants’ presence in their most symbolically important stronghold and bringing closer the likelihood of their complete territorial demise.

Talo Silo, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, said that military operations had halted and that members of the joint Kurdish-Arab force were clearing the city of explosive devices and hunting for sleeping cells.

It was still unclear whether some Islamic State pockets remained, but the SDF portrayed the battle for Raqqa as effectively over.

Besieged and severely weakened, dozens of militants had launched a final stand from inside Raqqa’s main hospital and stadium. But hundreds of others surrendered during the final days of the battle after local officials brokered a controversial deal which could see many escape prosecution. [Continue reading…]

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Somalia bombing may have been revenge for botched U.S.-led operation

The Guardian reports: The man who killed more than 300 people with a truck bomb in the centre of Mogadishu on Saturday was a former soldier in Somalia’s army whose home town was raided by local troops and US special forces two months ago in a controversial operation in which 10 civilians were killed, officials in Somalia have said.

The death toll from the bombing now stands at more than 300, making it one of the most devastating terrorist attacks anywhere in the world for many years. On Tuesday remains of victims were still being brought out of rubble spread over hundreds of square metres.

Investigators believe the attack on Saturday may in part have been motivated by a desire for revenge for the botched US-led operation in August.

Al-Shabaab has not claimed responsibility for Saturday’s attack but a member of the cell detained by security forces has told interrogators the group was responsible, one security official told the Guardian. [Continue reading…]

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Russian troll factory paid U.S. activists to help fund protests during election

The Guardian reports: Russian trolls posing as Americans made payments to genuine activists in the US to help fund protest movements on socially divisive issues, according to a new investigation by a respected Russian media outlet.

On Tuesday, the newspaper RBC published a major investigation into the work of a so-called Russian “troll factory” since 2015, including during the period of the US election campaign, disclosures that are likely to put further spotlight on alleged Russian meddling in the election.

The existence of the troll factory, which has a history of spamming Russian and English blogs and comment forums, has been reported on by many outlets including the Guardian, but the RBC investigation is the first in-detail look at the organisation’s activity during the election period.

RBC said it had identified 118 accounts or groups in Facebook, Instagram and Twitter that were linked to the troll factory, all of which had been blocked in August and September this year as part of the US investigation into Russian electoral meddling.

Many of the accounts had already been linked to Russian disinformation efforts in western outlets, but RBC said its sources at the troll factory had provided screenshots of the internal group administration pages of some of the groups, as proof they were run from Russia. It also spoke to former and current employees of the troll factory, all of whom spoke anonymously.

Perhaps the most alarming element of the article was the claim that employees of the troll factory had contacted about 100 real US-based activists to help with the organisation of protests and events. RBC claimed the activists were contacted by Facebook group administrators hiding their Russian origin and were offered financial help to pay for transport or printing costs. About $80,000 was spent during a two-year period, according to the report.

The main topics covered by the groups run from Russia were race relations, Texan independence and gun rights. RBC counted 16 groups relating to the Black Lives Matter campaign and other race issues that had a total of 1.2 million subscribers. The biggest group was entitled Blacktivist and reportedly had more than 350,000 likes at its peak. [Continue reading…]

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Putin’s ‘chef,’ the man behind the troll factory

CNN reports: Yevgeny Prigozhin is a Russian oligarch dubbed “chef” to President Vladimir Putin by the Russian press. In 2002, he served caviar and truffles to President George W. Bush during a summit in St. Petersburg. Before that, he renovated a boat that became the city’s most exclusive restaurant.

But his business empire has expanded far beyond the kitchen. US investigators believe it was Prigozhin’s company that financed a Russian “troll factory” that used social media to spread fake news during the 2016 US presidential campaign, according to multiple officials briefed on the investigation. One part of the factory had a particularly intriguing name and mission: a “Department of Provocations” dedicated to sowing fake news and social divisions in the West, according to internal company documents obtained by CNN.

Prigozhin is one of the Kremlin’s inner circle. His company is believed to be a main backer of the St. Petersburg-based “Internet Research Agency” (IRA), a secretive technology firm, according to US officials and the documents reviewed by CNN. Prigozhin was sanctioned by the US Treasury Department in December of 2016 for providing financial support for Russia’s military occupation of Ukraine. Two of his companies, including his catering business, were also sanctioned by Treasury this year. [Continue reading…]

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FBI uncovered Russian bribery plot before Obama administration approved controversial nuclear deal with Moscow

The Hill reports: Before the Obama administration approved a controversial deal in 2010 giving Moscow control of a large swath of American uranium, the FBI had gathered substantial evidence that Russian nuclear industry officials were engaged in bribery, kickbacks, extortion and money laundering designed to grow Vladimir Putin’s atomic energy business inside the United States, according to government documents and interviews.

Federal agents used a confidential U.S. witness working inside the Russian nuclear industry to gather extensive financial records, make secret recordings and intercept emails as early as 2009 that showed Moscow had compromised an American uranium trucking firm with bribes and kickbacks in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, FBI and court documents show.

They also obtained an eyewitness account — backed by documents — indicating Russian nuclear officials had routed millions of dollars to the U.S. designed to benefit former President Bill Clinton’s charitable foundation during the time Secretary of State Hillary Clinton served on a government body that provided a favorable decision to Moscow, sources told The Hill.

The racketeering scheme was conducted “with the consent of higher level officials” in Russia who “shared the proceeds” from the kickbacks, one agent declared in an affidavit years later.

Rather than bring immediate charges in 2010, however, the Department of Justice (DOJ) continued investigating the matter for nearly four more years, essentially leaving the American public and Congress in the dark about Russian nuclear corruption on U.S. soil during a period when the Obama administration made two major decisions benefiting Putin’s commercial nuclear ambitions. [Continue reading…]

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George Soros transfers $18 billion to his foundation, creating an instant giant

The Wall Street Journal reports: George Soros, who built one of the world’s largest fortunes through a famous series of trades, has turned over nearly $18 billion to Open Society Foundations, according to foundation officials, a move that transforms both the philanthropy he founded and the investment firm supplying its wealth.

Now holding the bulk of Mr. Soros’s fortune, Open Society has vaulted to the top ranks of philanthropic organizations, appearing to become the second largest in the U.S. by assets after the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, based on 2014 figures from the National Philanthropic Trust.

Soros Fund Management LLC’s 87-year-old founder now shares influence over the firm’s strategy with an investment committee of Open Society. Mr. Soros set up the committee and is its chairman, but it is meant to survive him, people familiar with it said.

A new chief investment officer at the Soros firm is less a trader than an allocator of capital to various internal and external asset managers. Unlike past investment chiefs, the official, Dawn Fitzpatrick, doesn’t report to Mr. Soros or others at his firm but to the philanthropy’s investment committee. [Continue reading…]

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Neutron star collision showers the universe with a wealth of discoveries

 

Science News reports: Two ultradense cores of dead stars have produced a long-awaited cosmic collision, showering scientists with riches.

The event was the first direct sighting of a smashup of neutron stars, which are formed when aging stars explode and leave behind a neutron-rich remnant. In the wake of the collision, the churning residue forged gold, silver, platinum and a smattering of other heavy elements such as uranium, researchers reported October 16 at a news conference in Washington, D.C. Such elements’ birthplaces were previously unknown, but their origins were revealed by the cataclysm’s afterglow.

“It really is the last missing piece” of the periodic table, says Anna Frebel, an astronomer at MIT who was not involved in the research. “This is heaven for anyone working in the field.” After the collision, about 10 times the Earth’s mass in gold was spewed out into space, some scientists calculated.

Using data gathered by about 70 different observatories, astronomers characterized the event in exquisite detail, releasing a slew of papers describing the results. A tremor of gravitational waves, spotted by the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, LIGO, on August 17, provided the first sign of the cataclysm. [Continue reading…]

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Music: Marutyri — ‘Oddness’

 

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How America became a timid, cowardly, selfish nation

Susan B Glasser writes: Ai Weiwei is making a strong case for himself as America’s leading dissident of the Trump era.

Never mind that he’s Chinese, or that he lives in Berlin in de facto exile these days.

The legendary artist, who has long embraced political themes in his work, has gone full-out activist in a new feature-length documentary film about the global refugee crisis, called Human Flow and released in theaters across the U.S. Friday, and in a new, New York City-wide public art exhibit of 300 works in dozens of locations called “Good Walls Make Good Neighbors.”

Both are explicit rebuttals of the nationalistic, America-First-fueled policies espoused by Donald Trump, from his proposed Mexican border wall to his curbs on immigration that include admitting the smallest number of refugees to the U.S. in decades.

In a new interview for The Global Politico during a rare visit to Trump’s Washington, Ai referred to Trump’s win as “the moment I think history stopped,” a “backward” evolution that undermines liberal ideas like freedom of speech and human dignity everywhere.

Authoritarian leaders in China and elsewhere are the beneficiaries of Trump and the crisis of American democracy, said Ai, who spent four years under house arrest and forbidden to leave China before being allowed to leave the country two years ago.

“China is laughing about this situation,” he said. “China, Russia, they all laugh about it.”

When we met in Georgetown recently, I found Ai most compelling when talking about why he made the film, a “strangely beautiful” documentary, as the New York Times put it, shot in 23 countries from Asia to Africa to the Middle East and Europe over the course of a year.

It’s a call to action for Americans, he told me, and a commentary on what he sees as the breakdown of our society into a “timid” and “cowardly” and “selfish” place, one whose new role in the world is very much at odds with its self-identity as this liberal, generous nation.

“We have to save our own soul and our own mind and our own society,” he said. [Continue reading…]

 

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Deadly overconfidence: Trump thinks missile defenses work against North Korea, and that should scare you

Ankit Panda and Vipin Narang write: Could a president’s overconfidence in U.S. defensive systems lead to deadly miscalculation and nuclear armageddon? Yes. Yes, it could. Last Wednesday, referring to potential American responses to North Korea’s missile and nuclear program, President Donald Trump told Sean Hannity “We have missiles that can knock out a missile in the air 97 percent of the time, and if you send two of them it’s gonna get knocked out.” If Trump believes — or is being told — that American missile defenses are that accurate, not only is he factually wrong, he is also very dangerously wrong. This misperception could be enough to lead the United States into a costly war with devastating consequences.

Here’s why: If Trump believes U.S. missile defenses work this effectively, he might actually think a first strike attempt to disarm North Korea of its missile and nuclear forces would successfully spare U.S. cities from North Korean nuclear retaliation. They probably wouldn’t. Believing that each ground-based midcourse missile defense (GMD) interceptor can provide anything close to a 97 percent interception rate against retaliation raises the temptation to attempt a so-called “splendid first strike” based on the assumption that missile defenses can successfully intercept any leftover missiles North Korea could then fire at the United States.

In this article, we first lay out the complexity of American missile defenses and explain why it’s way off the mark to believe U.S. ground-based missile defense interceptors are even close to as effective as Trump suggested. We then explain how overconfidence in national missile defense may tempt the president to consider a first strike with no actual guarantee that it can spare an American city — or multiple cities — from potential North Korean thermonuclear retaliation. For a president who has already expressed an inclination to visit “fire and fury” on Kim Jong Un and threatened to “totally destroy” his country, we’re obligated to take Trump’s misplaced confidence in GMD very seriously. His attraction to attempting a first strike will only grow if he is blind to an important gap in U.S. defenses. Not only might he still want to denuclearize North Korea by force, he might think it is actually possible to do so without putting the U.S. homeland at risk. [Continue reading…]

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North Korea says ‘a nuclear war may break out any moment’

The Associated Press reports: North Korea’s deputy U.N. ambassador warned Monday that the situation on the Korean peninsula “has reached the touch-and-go point and a nuclear war may break out any moment.”

Kim In Ryong told the U.N. General Assembly’s disarmament committee that North Korea is the only country in the world that has been subjected to “such an extreme and direct nuclear threat” from the United States since the 1970s — and said the country has the right to possess nuclear weapons in self-defense.

He pointed to large-scale military exercises every year using “nuclear assets” and said what is more dangerous is what he called a U.S. plan to stage a “secret operation aimed at the removal of our supreme leadership.” [Continue reading…]

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The Founding Fathers designed impeachment for someone exactly like Donald Trump

Barbara Radnofsky writes: Their writings and debates surrounding the creation of the Constitution make clear that the framers feared a certain kind of character coming to power and usurping the republican ideal of their new nation. Having just defeated a tyrant — “Mad” King George III of England — they carefully crafted rules to remove such a character: impeachment. In the process, they revealed precisely the kind of corrupt, venal, inattentive and impulsive character they were worried about.

The very embodiment of what the Founding Fathers feared is now residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Again and again, they anticipated attributes and behaviors that President Trump exhibits on an all-too-regular basis. By describing “High Crimes and Misdemeanors,” the grounds for impeachment, as any act that poses a significant threat to society — either through incompetence or other misdeeds — the framers made it clear that an official does not have to commit a crime to be subject to impeachment. Instead, they made impeachment a political process, understanding that the true threat to the republic was not criminality but unfitness, that a president who violated the country’s norms and values was as much a threat as one who broke its laws. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s presidency is bad for business — his own

NBC News reports: Donald Trump’s presidency is bad for business — his own. Unless his business is getting presidential business.

Conflict of interest concerns over the mix of presidential politics and his personal businesses have followed Trump ever since he announced his candidacy after gliding down the escalator of his namesake tower. And it’s been difficult for the public to get a clear view of the extent to which the two worlds have become blended. Even the former White House ethics director, who resigned in July, noted, “There’s an appearance that the businesses are profiting from his occupying the presidency. And appearance matters as much as reality.”

A larger picture of that reality is now emerging, thanks to data gleaned from government reports, potential business partners and, most recently, newly released financial data from the U.K. – which, unlike the U.S., mandates that most private companies must publicly release its annual financial reports.

While some of the Trump brands show signs of duress, a select few — where politics and business are most thickly stirred — are seeing their revenue soar.

Last week’s release of 2016 financial reports for Trump’s luxury golf courses in Scotland offer a rare, detailed look at the Trump operation’s financial health. The iconic Turnberry resort, which he famously visited in the middle of the Brexit referendum, saw losses that doubled to $23 million in 2016 and revenue that fell by 16 percent, according to the documents.

Losses at Trump International Golf Links, north of Aberdeen, Scotland, also increased — by 28 percent to $18.4 million, the filings showed. Revenue fell by 12 percent. [Continue reading…]

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If Trump doesn’t want a nuclear war with North Korea, a ‘No First Use’ pledge might work better than threats

Steven J. Brams writes: Donald Trump has threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea with “fire and fury” should it cross some ambiguous tripwire. By being vague about where that tripwire lies, Trump seems to believe that his threat, coupled with harsher economic sanctions, will force Kim Jong Un to back down.

But just the opposite seems to have occurred. Instead, a war of words has broken out between Trump and Kim. This underscores the dangers that arise when there are no clear policy guidelines about what conditions constitute a threat to peace and can lead to war. It also tells us what may happen when each leader plays a “madman strategy” — pretending to be a madman to induce his antagonist to capitulate.

Game theorists such as Thomas Schelling have pointed out that the madman strategy can sometimes get results. It is equivalent to throwing the steering wheel out the window of your car, in sight of your adversary, when playing a game of chicken — showing that you are not going to be able to swerve, so your adversary must do so to avoid a head-on collision. Clearly, chicken is a dangerous game.

On the one hand, disaster might strike if both players stick with the madman strategy of making irrevocable commitments. The personal invectives and threats that Trump and Kim have hurled at each other might eventually be sufficient to cause one of them to escalate to nuclear war. If their posturing becomes real, this strategy’s logic leads to mutual catastrophe. [Continue reading…]

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The danger of President Pence

Jane Mayer writes: On September 14th, the right-wing pundit Ann Coulter, who last year published a book titled “In Trump We Trust,” expressed what a growing number of Americans, including conservatives, have been feeling since the 2016 election. The previous day, President Trump had dined with Democratic leaders at the White House, and had impetuously agreed to a major policy reversal, granting provisional residency to undocumented immigrants who came to America as children. Republican legislators were blindsided. Within hours, Trump disavowed the deal, then reaffirmed it. Coulter tweeted, “At this point, who DOESN’T want Trump impeached?” She soon added, “If we’re not getting a wall, I’d prefer President Pence.”

Trump’s swerve did the unthinkable—uniting Coulter and liberal commentators. After Trump threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea, Gail Collins, the Times columnist, praised Vice-President Mike Pence as someone who at least “seems less likely to get the planet blown up.” This summer, an opinion column by Dana Milbank, of the Washington Post, appeared under the headline “‘PRESIDENT PENCE’ IS SOUNDING BETTER AND BETTER.”

Pence, who has dutifully stood by the President, mustering a devotional gaze rarely seen since the days of Nancy Reagan, serves as a daily reminder that the Constitution offers an alternative to Trump. The worse the President looks, the more desirable his understudy seems. The more Trump is mired in scandal, the more likely Pence’s elevation to the Oval Office becomes, unless he ends up legally entangled as well.

Pence’s odds of becoming President are long but not prohibitive. Of his forty-seven predecessors, nine eventually assumed the Presidency, because of a death or a resignation. After Lyndon Johnson decided to join the ticket with John F. Kennedy, he calculated his odds of ascension to be approximately one in four, and is said to have told Clare Boothe Luce, “I’m a gambling man, darling, and this is the only chance I’ve got.”

If the job is a gamble for Pence, he himself is something of a gamble for the country. During the tumultuous 2016 Presidential campaign, relatively little attention was paid to how Pence was chosen, or to his political record. And, with all the infighting in the new Administration, few have focussed on Pence’s power within the White House. Newt Gingrich told me recently that the three people with the most policy influence in the Administration are Trump, Chief of Staff John Kelly, and Pence. Gingrich went on, “Others have some influence, such as Jared Kushner and Gary Cohn. But look at the schedule. Pence has lunches with the President. He’s in the national-security briefings.” Moreover, and crucially, Pence is the only official in the White House who can’t be fired. [Continue reading…]

Pence has “a devotional gaze rarely seen since the days of Nancy Reagan.”

Yes, in the sense of devotional meaning, sickeningly subservient. Pence is indeed unwaveringly loyal to his master.

But — at least to my eye — Pence’s expression signals something more visceral: unremitting nausea.

Mike Pence is a man who looks like he is permanently on the brink of vomiting.

I don’t take this as a sign of a tortured conscience, but instead see it as more of an abiding malaise that indicates what it feels like being Pence.

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Inside the ‘adult day-care center’: How aides try to control and coerce Trump

The Washington Post reports: One defining feature of managing Trump is frequent praise, which can leave his team in what seems to be a state of perpetual compliments. The White House pushes out news releases overflowing with top officials heaping flattery on Trump; in one particularly memorable Cabinet meeting this year, each member went around the room lavishing the president with accolades.

Senior administration officials call this speaking to an “audience of one.”

One regular practitioner is Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who praised Trump’s controversial statements made after white supremacists had a violent rally in Charlottesville and also said he agreed with Trump that professional football players should stand during the national anthem. Neither issue has anything to do with the Treasury Department.

Former treasury secretary Larry Summers wrote in a Twitter post that “Mnuchin may be the greatest sycophant in Cabinet history.” [Continue reading…]

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The mystery of Wilbur Ross’ missing billions

Forbes reports: Dressed in a blue suit and red tie, Donald Trump’s 79-year-old pick for Secretary of Commerce sat before a panel of senators for nearly four hours in January, deflecting dozens of questions with relative ease. When one legislator at the confirmation hearing asked Wilbur Ross how he would ensure that his official actions did not create conflicts of interest, given his vast personal holdings, Ross left little room for criticism. “I intend to be quite scrupulous about recusal and any topic where there is the slightest scintilla of doubt,” he said.

What he left unsaid, however, was that between the November election and January inauguration, he had quietly moved a chunk of assets into trusts for his family members, leaving more than $2 billion off of his financial disclosure report—and therefore out of the public eye. Ross revealed the existence of those assets, and the timing of the transfer, when Forbes asked why his financial disclosure form listed fewer assets than he had previously told the magazine he owned.

The hidden assets raise questions about whether the Secretary of Commerce violated federal rules and whether his family owns billions in holdings that could create the appearance of conflicts of interest.

Federal law requires incoming cabinet members to disclose assets they currently own, as well as any that produced income during the current and previous calendar years, even if they no longer own the assets. Ross says he followed all rules. But how someone could apparently hold $2 billion in assets, without producing big income that would show up on a financial disclosure report, raises more questions than answers.

Three months before the 2016 election, Ross’ assistant described his portfolio to Forbes as a mix that would theoretically throw off plenty of cash: $1.3 billion of municipal bonds, $1.3 billion worth of interests in general and limited partnerships, $550 million of equities, $225 million of art, $180 million in cash and $120 million worth of real estate.

That adds up to $3.7 billion. Last year, Forbes asked for documentation to prove the existence of those assets, received nothing in return, and ultimately estimated Ross’ fortune at a more conservative $2.9 billion for its annual Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans, published in October. This year, the Secretary of Commerce said he would dig up a breakdown of the assets he transferred into trusts, but he never sent anything. It is unclear whether he cited accurate figures either year. [Continue reading…]

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