Archives for January 2017

Moscow spy scandal snowballs: What we know

RFE/RL reports: The murky investigation of Russian intelligence officers reportedly facing treason charges has taken a fresh turn, with the Interfax news agency quoting unnamed sources as saying that two suspects are accused of collaborating with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The news, unverified and uncorroborated, is the latest in a growing number of remarkable leaks that hint at possible struggles and hidden agendas inside Russia’s formidable security apparatus.

To date, not a single Russian official or law enforcement agency has commented on the record about the reported case against the Federal Security Service (FSB) officers, identified as Sergei Mikhailov and Dmitry Dokuchayev, and other alleged accomplices.

Instead, numerous Russian media citing anonymous sources have reported the suspects may be tied to hackers targeting the Russian elite and may have disclosed information related to cyberattacks targeting the U.S. election system.

These reports come on the heels of an assessment by U.S. intelligence agencies in early January concluding that Russia orchestrated a hacking campaign aimed at helping President Donald Trump defeat his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, in the election.

The anonymous sources have not expressly linked the reported accusations against Mikhailov and Dokuchayev to the breaches of Democratic Party servers, though the Novaya Gazeta newspaper has reported there may be links to attacks on U.S. state-electoral systems. [Continue reading…]


Bannon is not Trump’s servant. The president is his tool

Lawrence Douglas writes: That didn’t take long. From no-drama Obama to all-trauma Trump: the shift has been seismic, leaving millions in this country and abroad frightened and struggling to make sense of America’s new political landscape.

Some of the upheaval appears to be the consequence of incompetence, the predictable result of an under-qualified real estate mogul struggling to master the most powerful and demanding job on the planet.

But not so with the travel ban. In this case, upheaval was the intent – not to the degree we have seen; that clearly caught the administration off guard. But it was upheaval nonetheless.

As we now know, the drafting and rollout of the travel ban was largely the work of Steve Bannon, the president’s chief political strategist. It was Bannon who reportedly overruled the proposal to exempt green card holders from the ban. And it was Bannon who pushed the order through without consulting experts at the Department of Homeland Security or at the state department.

The Nacht und Nebel quality of the ban’s announcement makes clear that the president’s chief strategist wanted to send tremors through the world. Here was bold proof that the portentous accents of Trump’s inaugural address, also Bannon’s work, was not mere rhetoric. [Continue reading…]


Did Trump just appoint John Miller as his new White House spokesman?

Donald Trump has a history of posing as a fictitious spokesman for the Trump Organization who would variously call himself “John Miller,” John Barron,” and “John Baron,” while showering “his” boss with praise.

Since Trump has never explained why he has posed as his own publicist, his motives remain a matter of speculation. In a court hearing he did admit to using the name John Miller, so this suggests he may not have been driven by a need to later cover his tracks by disowning his own statements.

On the contrary, a more plausible explanation might be that Trump trusts no one to speak on his behalf and thus sometimes on occasions where he feels obliged to create the appearance of a some distance between himself and what is supposedly being said about him, he resolves his own fear of misrepresentation by playing the role of his own spokesman.

The problem Trump has consistently had in pulling off this stunt is that he’s a lousy actor. Trump playing the role of John Miller sounds indistinguishable from Trump. Trump is always Trump.

Last night the “Office of the Press Secretary” at the White House released a statement explaining why Trump had just fired Acting Attorney General Sally Yates. It refers to Trump in the third person: “Tonight, President Trump relieved Ms. Yates of her duties…” and yet the language and tone of the statement is from beginning to end, pure Trump — from his histrionic declaration that he has been “betrayed” to his signature put down, “weak” on this and “very weak” on that. In Trump’s impoverished lexicon his critics invariably get cast down as “weak” the purpose being, presumably, that they can then be seen in contrast to Mighty Trump — the undefeated heavy champion of the world.

Does it really matter whether the words come directly from Trump or from the office of his press secretary? One way or another this is the voice of the president.

Well actually, it really does matter that we know without doubt whether these are Trump’s words.


Because deciphering the political machinations going on inside the White House has increasingly become a question of trying to determine the extent to which the guiding hand behind what are ostensibly presidential actions belongs not to Trump but to Steve Bannon.

Knowing when Trump is or is not speaking may be critical when assessing how much power is now being wielded by the man who was dubbed as “the Most Dangerous Political Operative in America” long before he entered the White House and swiftly claimed a permanent seat on the National Security Council.


What connects attacks in Québec and Charleston? Trump needs to know

Richard Wolffe writes: One of them shot and stabbed to death Jo Cox. Another massacred nine churchgoers in Charleston. Then six Canadians were gunned down at evening prayers in Québec City.

It’s long past time to recognize the mortal threats within our own borders. Donald Trump can ban all the Muslims he wants; Justin Trudeau can welcome all the refugees he likes.

But the truth is that white nationalist terrorists are as much of a threat to civilized society as their radical Islamist counterparts.

Thomas Mair murdered Cox as she was campaigning to stay inside the European Union. “Britain first,” said the Nazi-loving white supremacist, as he brutally attacked the British MP and mother of two.

Dylann Roof hoped to incite a race war when he fired more than 70 bullets into a Bible study group that had welcomed him into the fellowship hall of Emanuel AME Church.

Alexandre Bissonnette, charged with six counts of murder in a Québec City mosque, is said to be well known to refugee groups for his frequent online insults about immigration and his admiration for Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right Front National.

Mair and Roof both found their sick inspiration in online communities of hatred and violence. It may be that Bissonnette did too.

The great Primo Levi would recognize what connects these men and what is happening to our culture. “The plague is over but the infection spreads: it would be foolish to deny it,” he wrote, more than two decades after he left the Nazi concentration camps.

The scientist survivor was clear about the source of the infection he observed in such clinical detail: “Mainly, at the root of it all, a tide of cowardice, an abysmal cowardice, masked as warrior virtue, love of country, and loyalty to an idea.” [Continue reading…]

The Intercept reports: White supremacists and other domestic extremists maintain an active presence in U.S. police departments and other law enforcement agencies. A striking reference to that conclusion, notable for its confidence and the policy prescriptions that accompany it, appears in a classified FBI Counterterrorism Policy Guide from April 2015, obtained by The Intercept. The guide, which details the process by which the FBI enters individuals on a terrorism watchlist, the Known or Suspected Terrorist File, notes that “domestic terrorism investigations focused on militia extremists, white supremacist extremists, and sovereign citizen extremists often have identified active links to law enforcement officers,” and explains in some detail how bureau policies have been crafted to take this infiltration into account.

Although these right-wing extremists have posed a growing threat for years, federal investigators have been reluctant to publicly address that threat or to point out the movement’s longstanding strategy of infiltrating the law enforcement community.

No centralized recruitment process or set of national standards exists for the 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States, many of which have deep historical connections to racist ideologies. As a result, state and local police as well as sheriff’s departments present ample opportunities for white supremacists and other right-wing extremists looking to expand their power base. [Continue reading…]


Standing against Trump: About 900 State Department officials sign dissent memo on Muslim ban

Reuters reports: About 900 U.S. State Department officials signed an internal dissent memo protesting a travel ban by U.S. President Donald Trump on refugees and travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, a source familiar with the document said on Tuesday, in a rebellion against the new president’s policies.

A senior State Department official confirmed the memorandum had been submitted to acting Secretary of State Tom Shannon through the department’s “dissent channel,” a process in which officials can express unhappiness over policy (

White House spokesman Sean Spicer said on Monday he was aware of the memo but warned career diplomats that they should either “get with the program or they can go.”

A draft of the dissent memo seen by Reuters argued that the executive order would sour relations with affected countries, inflame anti-American sentiment and hurt those who sought to visit the United Spates for humanitarian reasons.

It said the policy “runs counter to core American values of non-discrimination, fair play and extending a warm welcome to foreign visitors and immigrants. [Continue reading…

San Francisco Chronicle reports: San Francisco police officers and sheriff’s deputies will not follow President Trump’s executive orders on immigration and arrest residents living in the city without proper documentation, Mayor Ed Lee, Police Chief William Scott and Sheriff Vicki Hennessy wrote in a letter to the Department of Homeland Security on Monday.

Holding strong to their commitment to stand against Trump in his crackdown on immigration and sanctuary cities, Lee, Scott and Hennessy said San Francisco’s public safety agencies will not enforce federal immigration law and that the city “declines to participate in any agreements” noted in the two executive orders Trump signed at the White House last week.

Both of Trump’s orders “empower State and local law enforcement agencies across the country to perform the functions of an immigration officer in the interior of the United States to the maximum extent permitted by law.”

But Lee, Scott and Hennessy say in the letter to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly that it is “in the interest of public safety” that San Francisco officers and deputies do not enforce federal immigration law. [Continue reading…

The Associated Press reports: Democrats in the California Senate ramped up their fight Tuesday against President Donald Trump, advancing a bill that would provide statewide sanctuary for immigrants by keeping local law enforcement from cooperating with federal immigration authorities.

The move in the nation’s largest state — home to an estimated 2.3 million immigrants without legal authorization — came days after Trump launched a crackdown on immigration and sanctuary cities across the nation.

The state Senate Public Safety Committee approved the measure with a 5-2 party-line vote after Trump signed an order threatening to withdraw some federal grants from sanctuary cities. [Continue reading…]

Time reports: Zeinab’s son Bahman has been studying for a PhD in Virginia since 2014. So when the chance came to visit him this January, she leapt at it. She applied for a visa at the U.S. consulate in Dubai via a travel agency in Iran—a common way to obtain documentation.

That’s where her passport was, ready to be processed, when Donald Trump’s executive order temporarily banning Iranians and nationals of six other majority Muslim countries from the U.S. was signed. Her dreams of seeing her son have vanished. “I was so, so happy and now I am so, so sad,” says the 60-year-old, who now faces separation from her son until he finishes his studies in two years. “Everyone always said America was the beacon of freedom, but after this I’m not so sure.”

Thousands like Zeinab — who did not want to give her last name for fear of impacting her son’s status in the U.S.— feel personally targeted by Trump’s order, especially as relations between the two countries had experienced an uptick since the nuclear deal in 2015 between Iran and 6 major world powers including the United States.

Now those improved relations are under threat, as Iran’s conservatives see the order as an opportunity to score political points with only months to go before a presidential election. Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, an MP and part of the loosely knit coalition of hardliners and conservatives called Principalists, said it violated the terms of the nuclear deal he and others like him are highly critical of. “Any action by America that prevents the creation of appropriate political and trade relations after the nuclear deal is a direct violation of it,” he was quoted as saying by the Tasnim News Agency on Monday.

Iran’s moderate President, Hassan Rouhani, who is seeking re-election, took a more cautious approach and only reminded everyone of the futility of building walls between nations — perhaps mindful of the fragility of a nuclear deal which he has staked his presidency on, but that Trump has promised to tear up: [Continue reading…]


Trump’s plan for refugee zones in and around Syria will not materialize

Yezid Sayigh writes: U.S. President Donald Trump appeared to fulfill one of his many campaign promises last week. A draft of his executive order on immigration appeared on January 25 and raised the possibility of U.S. action to set up safe zones for displaced Syrians. Trump confirmed this in a television interview the same day, saying “I’ll absolutely do safe zones in Syria for the people.”

Reactions varied. Members of the Syrian opposition cautiously welcomed anything that would reduce the bloodshed in their country, while in Moscow a Kremlin spokesperson warned the proposal might “further aggravate the situation with refugees.”

The flurry of excitement was cut short, however, as the final version of the executive order published on January 27 dropped all mention of safe zones. And yet Trump returned to the theme two days later during phone calls to Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed, in which he requested their support for safe zones in Syria (and Yemen) according to an official White House statement.

What are Trump’s real intentions? More importantly, who will police a safe zone if one is established?

The initial draft of the executive order gave some clues. Most significant was the proposal “to provide safe areas in Syria and in the surrounding region.” This suggested a rebranding exercise, in which refugee concentrations in countries such as Jordan and Lebanon or their absorption in Gulf states would be labeled “safe zones.” Expediently for Trump, this would remove the burden of financial outlay from U.S. shoulders, while precluding any need for military action to protect refugees inside Syria.

Furthermore, even if the original draft of the executive order had been preserved, it only directed the secretaries of state and defense to “produce a plan.” But contingency planning does not commit the U.S. administration to any course of action, nor does it make action probable. [Continue reading…]

Middle East Eye reports: Lebanon’s president has insisted that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria will remain in office, saying he wants Syrian refugees currently in his country to go home.

“President Assad will stay, and those who are asking for his departure are ignoring Syria,” newly elected Lebanese President Michel Aoun told French TV channel LCI on Monday.

Aoun, a former army general during the country’s civil war, was elected president in October, ending a 29-month presidential vacuum as part of a political deal that made Sunni leader Saad al-Hariri prime minister.

“We were facing the prospect of a second Libya here, but for the Assad regime that represents the only power that through its capacities restored the regime, a restoration that has united everyone and the government,” Aoun said.

Aoun is an ally of Hezbollah, Lebanon’s Iran-backed party, which is fighting in Syria on Assad’s behalf.

The Lebanese militia and political party were critical to Aoun’s ascendancy to the presidency.

“Lebanon cannot take in Syrian refugees indefinitely on its territory,” the 81-year-old said. “We hosted them for humanitarian reasons, and they must return to their country.” [Continue reading…]


U.S. allies draw close to Trump at their peril

The New York Times reports: A close relationship with any American president is regarded as crucial by allies and foes alike, but especially by intimates like Britain, Canada, Japan and Mexico. Yet like moths to the flame, the leaders of those nations are finding that they draw close at their peril.

While [Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa] May is the latest prominent figure to suffer repercussions for her handling of Mr. Trump, the leaders of those other three close allies have also felt the sting of public anger soon after what seemed to be friendly telephone calls or encounters. They then find themselves facing a no-win situation, either openly criticizing the leader of their superpower ally or pulling their punches and risking severe criticism at home.

One Western leader to escape this fate so far is the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who has kept a cool distance from Mr. Trump. In a telephone call on Saturday, she reminded him of Washington’s obligations under the Geneva Conventions to accept refugees fleeing war, a view underlined by her official spokesman.

The danger of playing nice with Mr. Trump should come as little surprise to his country’s allies. Besides campaigning on an “America First” platform, he has regularly argued that allies have been taking the United States for a ride, in trade, security and financial terms.

While he has been cordial in public settings with the leaders of those allied nations, Mr. Trump has turned on them soon afterward.

“The problem for May is that Trump doesn’t value relationships. He values strength and winning,” said Jeremy Shapiro, the director of research at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a former senior State Department official. “If you rush to the White House to offer a weak hand of friendship, you guarantee exploitation.” [Continue reading…]

Paul Mason writes: We have two choices: we can acquiesce and let this sociopathic sex pest grab our collective hand amid the scary world he has created. We can abase ourselves for special favours – such as exemption for British dual nationals. Or we can reject Trump in his entirety.

Just as Trump is meddling – via Ukip – in the racial politics of Britain, British liberalism and socialism has the duty now to intervene in the social politics of the US. We must bet on Trump’s defeat in 2020, help train and fund lawyers and journalists to hold him in check, and – once he is gone – attempt to rebuild the multilateral order. Yes, and ruin his state visit: through all forms of protest legally possible.

The shape of a Dump Trump foreign policy is clear: Britain must strengthen its alliance with countries whose governments and peoples share our values: France, the Netherlands, Germany, Canada and Greece. Although we are headed out of the EU, the case for the softest possible form of Brexit is only strengthened by the US’s descent into arbitrary government. [Continue reading…]


Even as Trump seeks warmer ties with Russia, U.S. deploys troops across Eastern Europe

The Washington Post reports: On a snowy field in southwest Poland, U.S. tanks and troops gathered on Monday to defend against a resurgent Russia that President Trump wants to befriend.

The major new deployments of tanks and other heavy equipment will fan out to nations on the Russian frontier this week, part of the largest infusion of U.S. troops to Europe since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. But the long-planned effort comes at the most unsettled time for U.S.-European relations since World War II, with Trump questioning old alliances and seeking to build bridges to the Kremlin.

When President Barack Obama committed the troops, about 3,500 in all, to Europe last February, then followed up with additional commitments to NATO over the summer, they were a bipartisan expression of support for U.S. allies at a moment of heightened fear about Russia.

Now, however, they are coming despite the White House, not because of it. Eastern European ­nations say they fully trust Washington’s commitments — but the jubilation of the summer has been replaced by concern over Trump’s overtures to Russian President Vladimir Putin. NATO leaders acknowledge that the alliance will be rocked if Trump abandons the troop deployments.

The uncertainty has led to an unusual gap between Trump’s rhetoric and that of nearly the entire military establishment underneath him. [Continue reading…]


U.S. funding cuts to UN agencies would be costly for peace and security

Julian Egan writes: The draft executive order from the new US administration that would slash a minimum of 40% of funding to multilateral institutions, such as the UN and the World Bank, threatens deep and destabilising consequences for the international system and the people it aims to help. And it won’t help the US, either.

This comes in a year where the UN secretary general will give special attention to how the UN can meet its core mandate on peace and security, culminating in a global session on sustaining peace in September.

Looking at the violent conflict and suffering around the world, it is obvious that the UN and other international institutions can do better. But the UN and the World Bank do matter as the only global institutions dedicated to finding solutions to transnational threats and challenges that affect us all, whether that is violent extremism, Ebola or climate change.

After all, one of the reasons the second world war broke out was the failure of the League of Nations, which the US did not ultimately join, despite being one of its key architects. After the war claimed tens of millions of lives, the UN was created to “save future generations from the scourge of war”. For all the organisation’s failings, on the whole it has played a central role in creating common responses to global ills. [Continue reading…]


Trump’s talk about Muslims led acting attorney general to follow the law and defy the president


The New York Times reports: As Republicans seethed over President Barack Obama’s executive order on immigration in early 2015, Senator Jeff Sessions sharply questioned Sally Q. Yates about whether she had the independent streak needed to be the Justice Department’s second in command.

Mr. Sessions, Republican of Alabama, wanted to know whether Ms. Yates, a federal prosecutor from Georgia who made her career charging domestic terrorists and white-collar criminals, would be willing to stand up to the president.

“If the views the president wants to execute are unlawful, should the attorney general or the deputy attorney general say ‘No?’ ” Mr. Sessions asked during a confirmation hearing for Ms. Yates.

“I believe the attorney general or deputy attorney general has an obligation to follow the law and Constitution and give their independent legal advice to the president,” Ms. Yates replied.

As acting attorney general on Monday, Ms. Yates faced what she believed to be the realization of that hypothetical.

President Trump’s own words convinced her that his executive order on immigration was intended to single out Muslims, senior officials said. Hours after she refused to defend that order, Mr. Trump fired her.

Ms. Yates, 56, a relative newcomer to Washington, has become a hero to many on the left and the face of a simmering resistance inside the government to Mr. Trump’s administration.

After receiving a hand-delivered dismissal letter, she packed up her office around midnight and left the department, a politically divisive moment in a career that until now had earned her bipartisan praise.

“She will be a hero of the American people, a hero of what’s right,” Senator Johnny Isakson, Republican of Georgia, said in 2015 at her confirmation hearing. “She’ll call them like she sees them, and she will be fair, and she will be just.” [Continue reading…]


Donald Trump’s role in the Quebec City massacre

Donald Trump has consistently identified Muslims as perpetrators of terrorism rather than victims of terrorism — despite the fact that by vast numbers the victims of terrorism are indeed overwhelmingly Muslims.

Trump has relentlessly fueled Islamophobia and insisted that the key to combating terrorism is to label it Islamic.

Trump chose as his closest national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who has described Islam as a cancer.

Trump just signed an executive order that singles out 200,000 Muslims as a potential threat to America.

Shortly after Trump signed this order, Alexandre Bissonnette, a vocal Trump supporter, known for his online attacks on refugees, went to a Quebec City mosque and carried out a mass shooting, killing six people and injuring 19 others.

As The Globe and Mail reports:

The suspect in the deadly attack on a Quebec City mosque was known in the city’s activist circles as an online troll who was inspired by extreme right-wing French nationalists, stood up for U.S. President Donald Trump and was against immigration to Quebec – especially by Muslims.

To fail to draw a connection between Trump’s campaign rhetoric, his choice of advisers, his executive order targeting Muslims and Bissonnette’s murderous rampage would be absurd.

In the hostile climate Trump has helped cultivate, there have been anti-mosque incidents in at least 41 states.

Within hours of Trump signing the executive order a mosque in Texas went up in flames.

The massacre in Canada could just as easily have happened in the United States. Indeed, the risk of a similar attack is so great that it seems less a case of if than when.

Donald Trump has promised to make America safe and yet through his words and actions has already done enough to suggest that the stable of Trump brands will sooner or later acquire one that he will vociferously disavow as a slur on his name: Trump terrorism.

That is not to suggest that Trump actually wants anyone to engage in acts of terrorism.

At the same time and for the same reasons as Alex Massie spelled out after Jo Cox’s murder in Britain last June, those who fuel anger cannot absolves themselves of responsibility for what follows:

When you encourage rage you cannot then feign surprise when people become enraged. You cannot turn around and say, ‘Mate, you weren’t supposed to take it so seriously. It’s just a game, just a ploy, a strategy for winning votes.’

When you shout BREAKING POINT over and over again, you don’t get to be surprised when someone breaks. When you present politics as a matter of life and death, as a question of national survival, don’t be surprised if someone takes you at your word. You didn’t make them do it, no, but you didn’t do much to stop it either.

Sometimes rhetoric has consequences. If you spend days, weeks, months, years telling people they are under threat, that their country has been stolen from them, that they have been betrayed and sold down the river, that their birthright has been pilfered, that their problem is they’re too slow to realise any of this is happening, that their problem is they’re not sufficiently mad as hell, then at some point, in some place, something or someone is going to snap. And then something terrible is going to happen.

Trump’s biggest lie is to promote the myth that the greatest threats to American lives reside outside this country’s borders.

Right now the very opposite is true as the most incendiary catalyst of violence sits in the Oval Office.


How to build an autocracy

David Frum writes: No society, not even one as rich and fortunate as the United States has been, is guaranteed a successful future. When early Americans wrote things like “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” they did not do so to provide bromides for future bumper stickers. They lived in a world in which authoritarian rule was the norm, in which rulers habitually claimed the powers and assets of the state as their own personal property.

The exercise of political power is different today than it was then — but perhaps not so different as we might imagine. Larry Diamond, a sociologist at Stanford, has described the past decade as a period of “democratic recession.” Worldwide, the number of democratic states has diminished. Within many of the remaining democracies, the quality of governance has deteriorated.

What has happened in Hungary since 2010 offers an example — and a blueprint for would-be strongmen. Hungary is a member state of the European Union and a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights. It has elections and uncensored internet. Yet Hungary is ceasing to be a free country.

The transition has been nonviolent, often not even very dramatic. Opponents of the regime are not murdered or imprisoned, although many are harassed with building inspections and tax audits. If they work for the government, or for a company susceptible to government pressure, they risk their jobs by speaking out. Nonetheless, they are free to emigrate anytime they like. Those with money can even take it with them. Day in and day out, the regime works more through inducements than through intimidation. The courts are packed, and forgiving of the regime’s allies. Friends of the government win state contracts at high prices and borrow on easy terms from the central bank. Those on the inside grow rich by favoritism; those on the outside suffer from the general deterioration of the economy. As one shrewd observer told me on a recent visit, “The benefit of controlling a modern state is less the power to persecute the innocent, more the power to protect the guilty.”

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s rule over Hungary does depend on elections. These remain open and more or less free — at least in the sense that ballots are counted accurately. Yet they are not quite fair. Electoral rules favor incumbent power-holders in ways both obvious and subtle. Independent media lose advertising under government pressure; government allies own more and more media outlets each year. The government sustains support even in the face of bad news by artfully generating an endless sequence of controversies that leave culturally conservative Hungarians feeling misunderstood and victimized by liberals, foreigners, and Jews.

You could tell a similar story of the slide away from democracy in South Africa under Nelson Mandela’s successors, in Venezuela under the thug-thief Hugo Chávez, or in the Philippines under the murderous Rodrigo Duterte. A comparable transformation has recently begun in Poland, and could come to France should Marine Le Pen, the National Front’s candidate, win the presidency.

Outside the Islamic world, the 21st century is not an era of ideology. The grand utopian visions of the 19th century have passed out of fashion. The nightmare totalitarian projects of the 20th have been overthrown or have disintegrated, leaving behind only outdated remnants: North Korea, Cuba. What is spreading today is repressive kleptocracy, led by rulers motivated by greed rather than by the deranged idealism of Hitler or Stalin or Mao. Such rulers rely less on terror and more on rule-twisting, the manipulation of information, and the co-optation of elites.

The United States is of course a very robust democracy. Yet no human contrivance is tamper-proof, a constitutional democracy least of all. Some features of the American system hugely inhibit the abuse of office: the separation of powers within the federal government; the division of responsibilities between the federal government and the states. Federal agencies pride themselves on their independence; the court system is huge, complex, and resistant to improper influence.

Yet the American system is also perforated by vulnerabilities no less dangerous for being so familiar. Supreme among those vulnerabilities is reliance on the personal qualities of the man or woman who wields the awesome powers of the presidency. A British prime minister can lose power in minutes if he or she forfeits the confidence of the majority in Parliament. The president of the United States, on the other hand, is restrained first and foremost by his own ethics and public spirit. What happens if somebody comes to the high office lacking those qualities?

Over the past generation, we have seen ominous indicators of a breakdown of the American political system: the willingness of congressional Republicans to push the United States to the brink of a default on its national obligations in 2013 in order to score a point in budget negotiations; Barack Obama’s assertion of a unilateral executive power to confer legal status upon millions of people illegally present in the United States — despite his own prior acknowledgment that no such power existed.

Donald Trump, however, represents something much more radical. A president who plausibly owes his office at least in part to a clandestine intervention by a hostile foreign intelligence service? Who uses the bully pulpit to target individual critics? Who creates blind trusts that are not blind, invites his children to commingle private and public business, and somehow gets the unhappy members of his own political party either to endorse his choices or shrug them off? If this were happening in Honduras, we’d know what to call it. It’s happening here instead, and so we are baffled. [Continue reading…]


This Trump petition shows UK citizens will not bend a knee to hate

Suzanne Moore writes: If you had told me a few months back I would be encouraging people to sign a petition to prevent embarrassment being caused to the Queen, I would have laughed. Petitions are so overused these days that they can seem meaningless – and surely there are bigger issues at stake than the feelings of the monarch. But that was before Donald Trump and his decency-shredding goons were in power, before this shameful Muslim ban. These are not normal times – despite our government and much of our press pretending that they are. It is good to see that Trump is being fought on every level from huge marches, to spontaneous demonstrations to legal challenges. This petition is another small front. It is not an attempt to ban Trump, it simply asks that he does not make a state visit, that the red carpet is not rolled out for him. It says a state visit could cause the Queen “embarrassment”.

This is a smart move because Trump does care about pomp, ceremony and hierarchy. Symbolism matters more to him than reality. Never accepted socially in the upper echelons of American society, it matters hugely that he is now seen with those his supporters recognise as important. He kept the menu from his dinner with Theresa May remember, as a reminder that he’d “had lunch with the British prime minister”.

Embracing him with the royal flummery would signal to his base that this country held him in high regard, that he was head of a respected government. Both these things are untrue. May’s embarrassing renewal of the vows of the special relationship didn’t even amount to a one-night stand. As soon as she had got on the plane he was signing this vile executive order. The ban on people from seven Muslim-majority countries is a domestic policy to play to his racist base. It has nothing to do with terrorism, but some of those who would support it would also enjoy seeing him all puffed up hanging out with the Queen. [Continue reading…]


Trump’s ban could kneecap the war on ISIS

Kimberly Dozier writes: Team Trump’s travel ban, or pause, or whatever reverse politically correct term you want to call it, has sparked simmering fury among America’s Muslim allies. The media splash meant to show that President Donald Trump means business about keeping America safe, and keeping his campaign promises, is ironically damaging the very campaign against terrorism he wants to put into overdrive.

Key allies in the fight against the so-called Islamic State are dumbfounded, but few are making official statements, unwilling to pick a fight with the pugnacious new White House.

Iraqi parliamentarians have called for similar bans against U.S. citizens, and Iranian-backed militia groups have called for American troops to be ejected from their country.

But the Iraqi government, managing a fragile and fractious multi-ethnic coalition against ISIS, is treading carefully. Government spokesman Saad al-Hadithi told the AP that Iraqis are hoping the “measures will be temporary and for regulatory reasons and not permanent at least for Iraq.”

Other allies? Not so diplomatic.

“This is an insult to us all,” said one Afghan official reached Sunday. “To treat all as terrorists is not what inspires support and confidence among friends.” [Continue reading…]


Steve Bannon is making sure there’s no White House paper trail, says intel source

Kate Brannen writes: If there was any question about who is largely in charge of national security behind the scenes at the White House, the answer is becoming increasingly clear: Steve Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News, a far-right media outlet, and now White House advisor.

Even before he was given a formal seat on the National Security Council’s “principals committee” this weekend by President Donald Trump, Bannon was calling the shots and doing so with little to no input from the National Security Council staff, according to an intelligence official who asked not to be named out of fear of retribution.

“He is running a cabal, almost like a shadow NSC,” the official said. He described a work environment where there is little appetite for dissenting opinions, shockingly no paper trail of what’s being discussed and agreed upon at meetings, and no guidance or encouragement so far from above about how the National Security Council staff should be organized.

The intelligence official, who said he was willing to give the Trump administration the benefit of the doubt when it took office, is now deeply troubled by how things are being run.

“They ran all of these executive orders outside of the normal construct,” he said, referring to last week’s flurry of draft executive orders on everything from immigration to the return of CIA “black sites.”

After the controversial draft orders were written, the Trump team was very selective in how they routed them through the internal White House review process, the official said.

Under previous administrations, if someone thought another person or directorate had a stake in the issue at hand or expertise in a subject area, he or she was free to share the papers as long as the recipient had proper clearance.

With that standard in mind, when some officials saw Trump’s draft executive orders, they felt they had broad impact and shared them more widely for staffing and comments.

That did not sit well with Bannon or his staff, according to the official. More stringent guidelines for handling and routing were then instituted, and the National Security Council staff was largely cut out of the process. [Continue reading…]


Obama supports protests: ‘American values are at stake’

Politico reports: Barack Obama spoke out Monday afternoon against his successor — and in support of the protests opposing President Donald Trump — with a spokesman saying the former president thinks they’re “citizens exercising their Constitutional right to assemble, organize and have their voices heard by their elected officials is exactly what we expect to see when American values are at stake.”

Obama, who left office vowing to uphold the presidential tradition of not criticizing his successor but also promising to speak out when he saw core values under threat by Trump, made it all of 10 days before releasing a statement following Friday’s executive order that temporarily halted the nation’s refugee program and severely restricted immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

Obama flew to California immediately after the inauguration and a farewell speech to staff at Andrews Air Force Base, where he called Trump’s presidency “not a period,” but “a comma in the continuing story of building America.” He later flew to the Caribbean. He has still not returned to Washington, where he is expected to live for at least the next year and a half.

When a reporter at the daily press briefing on Monday raised the existence of the statement without providing detail, White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s response was only “Okay, thank you.”

The statement from Obama’s office (notably not in his voice directly) is extraordinary compared to the usual deference between presidents, but reflects both the existential threat that Obama truly believes Trump poses to the country and a Democratic Party brimming with anti-Trump energy but lacking any clear leaders. [Continue reading…]


Acting Attorney General orders Justice Dept. not to defend refugee ban — then gets fired by Trump

The New York Times reports: Acting Attorney General Sally Q. Yates, a holdover from the Obama administration, ordered the Justice Department on Monday not to defend President Trump’s executive order on immigration in court.

“I am responsible for ensuring that the positions we take in court remain consistent with this institution’s solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what is right,” Ms. Yates wrote in a letter to Justice Department lawyers. “At present, I am not convinced that the defense of the executive order is consistent with these responsibilities nor am I convinced that the executive order is lawful.”

The decision is largely symbolic — Mr. Trump’s nominee to be attorney general, Senator Jeff Sessions, is likely to be confirmed soon — but it highlights the deep divide at the Justice Department and elsewhere in the government over Mr. Trump’s order.

Mr. Trump has the authority to fire Ms. Yates, but as the top Senate-confirmed official at the Justice Department, she is the only one authorized to sign foreign surveillance warrants, an essential function at the department.

“For as long as I am the acting attorney general, the Department of Justice will not present arguments in defense of the executive order, unless and until I become convinced that it is appropriate to do so,” she wrote.

In an interview on MSNBC, Stephen Miller, a senior adviser to the president, reacted to the decision by Ms. Yates.

“That is a further demonstration about how politicized our legal system has become,” Mr. Miller said to Greta Van Susteren. “It’s sad that our politics have become so politicized that you have people refusing to enforce our laws.”

Ms. Yates was expected to inform the White House of her decision early Monday evening. There was no immediate response from the White House. But Mr. Trump is certain to react strongly to the open defiance to his authority.

Ms. Yates’s letter transforms the confirmation of Mr. Sessions as attorney general into a referendum on the immigration order. Action in the Senate could come as early as Tuesday.

The decision by the acting attorney general is a remarkable rebuke by a government official to a sitting president that recalls the dramatic “Saturday Night Massacre” in 1973, when President Richard M. Nixon fired his attorney general and deputy attorney general for refusing to dismiss the special prosecutor in the Watergate case. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: President Trump fired his acting attorney general on Monday after she defiantly refused to defend his immigration executive order, accusing the Democratic holdover of trying to obstruct his agenda for political reasons.

Taking action in an escalating crisis for his 10-day-old administration, Mr. Trump declared that Sally Q. Yates had “betrayed” the administration, the White House said in a statement.

The president appointed Dana J. Boente, United States attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, to serve as acting attorney general until Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama is confirmed.

Ms. Yates’s decision confronted the president with a stinging challenge to his authority and laid bare a deep divide at the Justice Department, within the diplomatic corps and elsewhere in the government over the wisdom of his order. [Continue reading…]


Quebec City mosque attack suspect known for right-wing online posts and support of Trump

The Globe and Mail reports: The suspect in the deadly attack on a Quebec City mosque was known in the city’s activist circles as a right-wing troll who frequently took anti-foreigner and anti-feminist positions and stood up for U.S. President Donald Trump.

Alexandre Bissonnette, 27, a student at Laval University who lived on a quiet crescent in the Cap-Rouge suburb of Quebec City, faces six counts of first-degree murder for a shooting that killed six people and wounded 19 others. Police initially arrested a person they considered a second suspect but they later backtracked, saying he was a witness.

Mr. Bissonnette’s online profile and school friendships revealed little interest in extremist politics until last March when French nationalist leader Marine Le Pen visited Quebec City and inspired Mr. Bissonnette to vocal extreme online activism, according to people who clashed with him.

Vincent Boissoneault, a student in international relations at Laval University, grew up with Mr. Bissonnette and was friends with him on Facebook. He said they frequently clashed on politics when Mr. Bissonnette attacked refugees or expressed support for Ms. Le Pen or Mr. Trump. [Continue reading…]