Archives for July 2017

Trump dictated son’s misleading statement on meeting with Russian lawyer

The Washington Post reports: On the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Germany this month, President Trump’s advisers discussed how to respond to a new revelation that Trump’s oldest son had met with a Russian lawyer during the 2016 campaign — a disclosure the advisers knew carried political and potentially legal peril.

The strategy, the advisers agreed, should be for Donald Trump Jr. to release a statement to get ahead of the story. They wanted to be truthful, so their account couldn’t be repudiated later if the full details emerged.

But within hours, at the president’s direction, the plan changed.

Flying home from Germany on July 8 aboard Air Force One, Trump personally dictated a statement in which Trump Jr. said he and the Russian lawyer had “primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children” when they met in June 2016, according to multiple people with knowledge of the deliberations. The statement, issued to the New York Times as it prepared a story, emphasized that the subject of the meeting was “not a campaign issue at the time.”

The claims were later shown to be misleading.

Over the next three days, multiple accounts of the meeting were provided to the media as public pressure mounted, with Trump Jr. ultimately acknowledging that he had accepted the meeting after receiving an email promising damaging information about Hillary Clinton as part of a Russian government effort to help his father’s campaign.

The extent of the president’s personal intervention in his son’s response, the details of which have not previously been reported, adds to a series of actions that Trump has taken that some advisers fear could place him and some members of his inner circle in legal jeopardy. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s handling of Comey firing led Kelly to consider resigning

CNN reports: New White House chief of staff John Kelly was so upset with how President Donald Trump handled the firing of FBI Director James Comey that Kelly called Comey afterward and said he was considering resigning, according to two sources familiar with a conversation between Kelly and Comey.

Both sources cautioned that it was unclear how serious Kelly, then the secretary of homeland security, was about resigning himself.

“John was angry and hurt by what he saw and the way (Comey) was treated,” one of the sources said.

Comey learned of his dismissal on May 9 from televisions tuned to the news as he was addressing the workforce at the FBI office in Los Angeles, law enforcement sources said at the time. Comey made a joke about it to lighten the mood and called his office to get confirmation.

Comey, who took Kelly’s call while traveling back from Los Angeles to Washington, responded to Kelly by telling him not to resign, one of the sources said. [Continue reading…]

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Vladimir Putin to America: You’ve let me down

Julia Ioffe writes: Sunday night, Vladimir Putin went on national television and explained his decision to slice American diplomatic staff in Russia by two-thirds. He was retaliating for Barack Obama’s December expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats, as well as newly passed congressional sanctions, by kicking out 755 American diplomatic staff—a response over 20 times stronger than Obama’s original retaliation for Russian election meddling. But Putin sounded calm and humble, like a disappointed parent who has no choice left but to send a recalcitrant child to military school. “We were waiting for a long time, thinking that maybe something will change for the better; we kept hope alive that the situation will change,” Putin said. “But judging by everything that’s happened, if something’s going to change, it won’t be soon.”

This is Putin’s way of dressing up a bad situation: try to sound like the sole adult in the room, even as you actively make the situation worse. It’s what Putin did, for example, in Syria, financing and arming the Assad regime while calling for peace talks, then stalling and dragging them out as long as possible, all while taking the same resigned yet exasperated tone of the peacemaker stymied by unruly children.

Because the fact is, the situation is bad, for Moscow and for Washington, and it’s been exacerbated by both sides. [Continue reading…]

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The spectacular self-destruction of Anthony Scaramucci

David Graham writes: Anthony Scaramucci’s reign as White House communications director—a reign of terror and vulgarity, marked by two outlandish interviews and the departures of two top West Wing officials—has ended, just 10 days after it began.

The New York Times broke the news Monday afternoon, just hours after Trump tweeted that there was “No W[hite] H[ouse] chaos!” It was not clear whether Scaramucci would take another post in the administration or exit altogether. His firing reportedly came at the behest of John Kelly, who was installed as chief of staff on Monday, three days after Scaramucci forced out Kelly’s predecessor.

Even in an administration that has set records for quick departures—National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, and Press Secretary Sean Spicer are all among the shortest-serving figures in their respective jobs—Scaramucci’s flameout was fast and phenomenal. [Continue reading…]

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The hacking wars are going to get much worse

Adam Segal writes: Reports this month that the United Arab Emirates orchestrated the hacking of a Qatari news agency, helping to incite a crisis in the Middle East, are as unsurprising as they are unwelcome. For years, countries — in particular Russia — have used cyberattacks and the dissemination of disinformation through social media and news outlets to provoke protests, sway elections and undermine trust in institutions. It was only a matter of time before smaller states tried their hand at these tactics.

With few accepted rules of behavior in cyberspace, countries as big as China or as small as Bahrain can be expected to use these kinds of attacks. And they may eventually spill over into real-world military conflicts.

The hacking attacks in the Gulf seem to follow a typical pattern of going after the media and the email accounts of prominent individuals. According to American intelligence officials, in late May, hackers supported by the United Arab Emirates infiltrated Qatari government news and social media sites. The attackers planted quotations falsely attributed to Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Qatar’s leader, praising Iran, Hamas and Israel. [Continue reading…]

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The next war in Gaza is brewing. Here’s how to stop it

Nathan Thrall and Robert Blecher write: When violence erupts in Jerusalem and the West Bank, it is usually not long before the Gaza Strip follows. At Gaza’s border with Israel on Friday, a Palestinian teenager was killed while protesting in solidarity with Palestinians in Jerusalem. Several days earlier, two rockets were fired at Israel from Gaza, and the next day Israeli tanks destroyed a Hamas position.

It’s an all-too-familiar echo of the events that preceded the Gaza conflict of 2014: widespread Palestinian protests in Jerusalem, Israelis murdered in the occupied territories, a sharp rise in Palestinians killed by Israeli forces, mass arrests of Hamas officials in the West Bank, and a steadily tightening noose around Gaza.

In February, Israel’s state comptroller released a report that strongly criticized the government’s failure to prevent the 2014 conflict. The report highlighted a statement made by Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon days after the war began: “If Hamas’s distress had been addressed a few months ago, Hamas might have avoided the current escalation.”

The population of Gaza is now suffering far more than it was before the 2014 eruption. Once again, the three parties responsible for the blockade causing that distress — Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority — are bringing the next war closer. [Continue reading…]

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Gaza: The curse of Mohammed Dahlan

Ramzy Baroud writes: “We have made mutual efforts with our brothers in Hamas to restore hope for Gaza’s heroic people,” Mohammed Dahlan told Palestinian legislators gathering in Gaza on Thursday, July 27. He spoke via satellite from his current exile in the United Arab Emirates.

The audience clapped. True, Gaza has been pushed to the brink of humiliation so that its truly heroic people may lose hope. But the fact that it was Dahlan that uttered these words appeared odd. More bizarre is the fact that his audience included top members of Hamas.

Dahlan, who had once been praised by George W Bush and was chosen by neoconservatives to lead a coup against the elected Hamas government in Gaza in 2007, seems to have finally managed to sneak his way back to Palestinian politics. Outrageously, however, Dahlan’s ominous return is facilitated by no other group than his archenemy, Hamas. [Continue reading…]

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The manipulative tricks tech companies use to capture your attention

 

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Music: Alicyn Yaffee — ‘Older’

 

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Putin’s bet on a Trump presidency backfires spectacularly

The New York Times reports: A little more than a year after the Russian effort to interfere in the American presidential election came to light, the diplomatic fallout — an unraveling of the relationship between Moscow and Washington on a scale not seen in decades — is taking its toll.

President Vladimir V. Putin bet that Donald J. Trump, who had spoken fondly of Russia and its authoritarian leader for years, would treat his nation as Mr. Putin has longed to have it treated by the West. That is, as the superpower it once was, or at least a major force to be reckoned with, from Syria to Europe, and boasting a military revived after two decades of neglect.

That bet has now backfired, spectacularly. If the sanctions overwhelmingly passed by Congress last week sent any message to Moscow, it was that Mr. Trump’s hands are now tied in dealing with Moscow, probably for years to come.

Just weeks after the two leaders spent hours in seemingly friendly conversation in Hamburg, Germany, the prospect of the kinds of deals Mr. Trump once mused about in interviews seems more distant than ever. Congress is not ready to forgive the annexation of Crimea, nor allow extensive reinvestment in Russian energy. The new sanctions were passed by a coalition of Democrats who blame Mr. Putin for contributing to Hillary Clinton’s defeat and Republicans fearful that their president misunderstands who he is dealing with in Moscow.

So with his decision to order that hundreds of American diplomats and Russians working for the American Embassy leave their posts, Mr. Putin, known as a great tactician but not a great strategist, has changed course again. For now, American officials and outside experts said on Sunday, he seems to believe his greater leverage lies in escalating the dispute, Cold War-style, rather than subtly trying to manipulate events with a mix of subterfuge, cyberattacks and information warfare.

But it is unclear how much the announcement will affect day-to-day relations. While the Russian news media said 755 diplomats would be barred from working, and presumably expelled, there do not appear to be anything close to 755 American diplomats working in Russia.

That figure almost certainly includes Russian nationals working at the embassy, usually in nonsensitive jobs. [Continue reading…]

Given that the last time Trump spoke to Putin face to face, Trump saw no need for his own translator or any aides, and given that the State Department is already under assault from this administration, maybe this paring down of diplomatic ties will be of little concern inside the White House.

Who knows? Maybe Trump even gave Putin his personal cell number because he’s confident he can handle U.S.-Russia relations on his own in the Oval Office or while playing golf.

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Secret donations are helping to boost Trump’s agenda, fights with investigators

USA Today reports: Groups spending millions in anonymous donations are leading the outside efforts to either defend President Trump or sell his agenda with voters and Congress, despite the president’s repeated calls to “drain the swamp” in Washington of special-interest money.

The political empire affiliated with billionaire Charles Koch has spent $2 million to date to advance Trump’s tax-cut blueprint and will hold events this week in Washington to kick off the next phase of its multimillion-dollar campaign to drive congressional support for a comprehensive tax plan to slice corporate tax rates and enact broader tax cuts.

Americans for Prosperity, the Koch network’s grass-roots arm, already has 50 events scheduled in August and September to help promote the tax plan.

The pro-Trump Great America Alliance is spending $450,000 on a TV and digital ad that casts special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into possible collusion between Russia and Trump’s campaign as a “rigged game.”

The group already has pumped more than $3 million in advertising to advance Trump’s policies and has committed to spending $5 million more, said Eric Beach, a Republican strategist who helps run the group.

The Judicial Crisis Network, which spent $7 million to push Trump’s top judicial nominee, Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, is “prepared to spend whatever we need to spend to help President Trump fulfill his promise of restoring balance to our federal courts,” policy director Carrie Severino said in a statement.

Trump has more than 100 judicial vacancies to fill.

Another pro-Trump group, America First Policies, has spent $5 million push his agenda and to help a Trump-supported congressional candidate in Georgia.

All operate as nonprofits, can accept unlimited funds from virtually any source but are not required to disclose their donors publicly. [Continue reading…]

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Inside Iran’s mission to dominate the Middle East

Borzou Daragahi reports: Iran has built up a multinational network of tens of thousands of young men from across the Middle East, turning them into a well-drilled fighting machine that is outgunning the US on the battlefield, as Tehran outsmarts the White House in the corridors of power.

These men can be found leading the defense of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, recapturing land from ISIS in Iraq, and fighting for control of the Yemeni capital of Sanaa. The transnational militia of Shiite men — which has no official title — is now the dominant force in the region, enabling Iran to take full advantage in the absence of a coherent strategy from the Trump White House.

Over six months, BuzzFeed News spoke to researchers, officials, and militia fighters who described what they knew about the Iranian program, overseen by the secretive Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and its infamous commander Qassem Suleimani — who often shows up on front lines in Iraq and Syria. Accounts by the fighters reveal the scale and structure of the program, and although many of the details could not be independently verified, BuzzFeed News was able to confirm all the fighters’ memberships in various armed groups. Their stories, collected independently, match one another — as well as accounts gathered by US military and intelligence officials.

Mustafa al-Freidawi is one of those men.

Freidawi, a compact man with a neatly trimmed black beard, fondly recalls his early days as a member of Iran’s militia. “It was a new adventure,” he said. “We were happy.” Speaking in a noisy restaurant in northern Baghdad earlier this year, Freidawi outlined how he was recruited, trained, and deployed to be part of a fighting force that aims to cement Iran’s influence in the Middle East, and beyond. [Continue reading…]

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Trump is determined to blow up the Iran deal

John Glaser writes: What many observers have been nervously suspecting for months is now clear: President Donald Trump is intent on eviscerating the Iran nuclear deal, irrespective of the overwhelming evidence that it is successfully staving off Iranian nuclear weapons development.

According to an Associated Press report this week, the administration’s new tactic is to use the deal’s “snap inspections” provision, which allows inspectors to demand access to any undeclared sites in Iran reasonably suspected of engaging in off-the-books enrichment activity, to make Iran appear noncompliant. The problem is there is no clear evidence Iran is doing any illicit enrichment or development. So, Iran quite reasonably can be expected to refuse access, at which point the Trump administration can try to falsely depict Iran as violating the deal.

As Daryl Kimball, director of the Arms Control Association tweeted, the Iran deal’s “special access provisions were designed to detect & deter cheating not to enable false pretext for unraveling the agreement.” The administration is simply “seeking trumped up reasons to sink [the] Iran deal.” [Continue reading…]

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Without Priebus, Trump is a man without a party

Tim Alberta writes: By firing [Reince Priebus], Trump has severed a critical connection to his own party—not simply to major donors and GOP congressional leaders, but to the unruly, broader constellation of conservative-affiliated organizations and individuals that Priebus had spent five years corralling. He was effortlessly tagged as an “establishment” figure—inevitably, given his title atop the party—but Priebus was a specialist at coalition-building. He convened regular meetings as RNC chairman with influential players in the conservative movement, picking their brains and taking their temperatures on various issues. That continued as chief of staff: Priebus spoke by phone with prominent activists, such as the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins, at least once a week. There is a meeting scheduled at the White House this Wednesday of the Conservative Action Project—an umbrella group that brings together leaders from across the right—and Priebus was planning to attend. It was this kind of systematic outreach that made Priebus, whatever his flaws as a West Wing manager, an essential lieutenant for Trump.

There is no question, however, that Priebus’ absence will echo loudest on Capitol Hill—particularly in the speaker’s office. Ryan’s team had heard whispers for months of Priebus’ possible departure, but the news was nonetheless a dagger, especially on the heels of a health care defeat and at the dawn of tax-reform season. Ryan and Priebus, both Green Bay Packers fans and local beer loyalists, have been friends for decades; Ryan’s former chief of staff, Andy Speth, was Priebus’ college roommate at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Priebus was the first call Ryan made when things got hairy this year, and vice versa. Working with a West Wing that contains few other true allies—and with a volatile president who has viewed him suspiciously ever since the speaker accused him of making “the textbook definition of a racist comment” about a Hispanic-American judge—Ryan saw Priebus as his staunchest ally and bunker mate. And now he’s gone.

In his place is John Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general and respected disciplinarian whose mandate is to succeed where Priebus failed: imposing order and organization on a chaotic White House. Kelly, however, is not a political figure; he did not support (or oppose) Trump’s campaign, and is not known to hold strong political or ideological inclinations. Looking around Trump’s inner circle, there is communications director Anthony Scaramucci, a political novice who in the past donated to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton; chief strategist Steve Bannon, who used Breitbart to try and burn the Republican Party to the ground; National Economic Council director Gary Cohn, a lifelong Democrat; director of strategic communication Hope Hicks, who has zero history with GOP politics; and Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, a pair of self-professed Manhattan progressives. Of Trump’s closest advisers, only Mike Pence has any association with the Republican Party.

This no longer seems accidental. Trump has, since taking office, consistently referred to Republicans as though he is not one himself—it’s invariably “they” or “them.” Unlike past presidents of his party, Trump entered the White House with few personal relationships with prominent Republicans: donors, lobbyists, party activists, politicians. This liberated him to say whatever he pleased as a candidate, and, by firing Priebus, Trump might feel similarly liberated. The fear now, among Republicans in his administration and on Capitol Hill, is that Trump will turn against the party, waging rhetorical warfare against a straw-man GOP whom he blames for the legislative failures and swamp-stained inertia that has bedeviled his young presidency. It would represent a new, harsher type of triangulation, turning his base against the politicians of his own party that they elected. [Continue reading…]

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Our non-unitary executive

Jack Goldsmith writes: The Trump Presidency is a strange combination of menacing and impotent. It is also fractured internally like no presidency in American history.

The menacing element is plain. Trump sets everyone on edge with incessant verbal attacks and relentlessly indecorous behavior. The maelstrom that is his presidency seems like it could at any moment push the country off the rails—massive pardons to kill the Russia investigation, a Justice Department meltdown as a result of firings and resignations, a North Korean miscalculation, or who-knows-what-other-crazy-thing. Many people worry how the impulsive Trump will handle his first crisis.

As for impotence, Trump has accomplished nothing beyond conservative judicial appointments. His administration is otherwise a comedy of errors in the exercise of executive power. What is most remarkable is the extent to which his senior officials act as if Trump were not the chief executive. Never has a president been so regularly ignored or contradicted by his own officials. I’m not talking about so-called “deep state” bureaucrats. I’m talking about senior officials in the Justice Department and the military and intelligence and foreign affairs agencies. And they are not just ignoring or contradicting him in private. They are doing so in public for all the world to see. [Continue reading…]

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Putin, responding to sanctions, orders U.S. to cut diplomatic staff by 755

The New York Times reports: President Vladimir V. Putin announced on Sunday that the American diplomatic mission in Russia would have to cut its staff by 755 employees, a response to the new American sanctions that escalated the tensions between Washington and Moscow.

“Over 1,000 employees — diplomats and technical workers — worked and continue to work today in Russia; 755 will have to stop this activity,” he said, according to both a clip shown on state-run Rossiya 1 television and a transcript provided by the Interfax news agency.

Although the reduction in American diplomatic staff had been announced on Friday, in response to a law passed in Congress last week expanding sanctions against Russia, the president’s statement was the first to confirm the large number of embassy personnel involved.

Speaking in a television interview on the Rossiya 1 network, Mr. Putin said that Russia had run out of patience waiting for relations with the United States to improve.

In announcing the response on Friday, Russia said that it wanted to reduce the American diplomatic presence in Russia to 455 people, mirroring the number of Russian diplomats accredited to the United States. In addition to the main embassy in Moscow, the United States also runs consulates in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok. [Continue reading…]

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Putin signs controversial law tightening internet restrictions

RFE/RL reports: Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed controversial legislation prohibiting the use of Internet proxy services — including virtual private networks, or VPNs — and cracking down on the anonymous use of instant messaging services.

The law on proxy services, signed by Putin on July 29 and published by the government on July 30, was promoted by lawmakers who said it is needed to prevent the spread of extremist materials and ideas.

Critics say Putin’s government often uses that justification to suppress political dissent.

Almost all of the changes under the law are set to take effect on November 1, months ahead of a March 2018 presidential election in which Putin is widely expected to seek and win a new six-year term.

Under the law, Internet providers will be ordered to block websites that offer VPNs and other proxy services. Russians frequently use such websites to access blocked content by routing connections through servers abroad.

A second law also signed by Putin on July 29 — and published July 30 — will require operators of instant messaging services, such as messenger apps, to establish the identity of those using the services by their phone numbers. [Continue reading…]

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The evisceration of the State Department

Roger Cohen writes: On the first Friday in May, Foreign Affairs Day, the staff gathers in the flag-bedecked C Street lobby of the State Department beside the memorial plaques for the 248 members of foreign affairs agencies who have lost their lives in the line of duty. A moment of silence is observed. As president of the American Foreign Service Association, Barbara Stephenson helps organize the annual event. This year, she was set to enter a delegates’ lounge to brief Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on its choreography before appearing alongside him. Instead, she told me, she was shoved out of the room.

Stephenson, a former ambassador to Panama, is not used to being manhandled at the State Department she has served with distinction for more than three decades. She had been inclined to give Tillerson the benefit of the doubt. Transitions between administrations are seldom smooth, and Tillerson is a Washington neophyte, unversed in diplomacy, an oilman trying to build a relationship with an erratic boss, President Trump.

Still, that shove captured the rudeness and remoteness that have undermined trust at Foggy Bottom. Stephenson began to understand the many distressed people coming to her “asking if their service is still valued.” The lack of communication between the secretary and the rest of the building has been deeply disturbing.

An exodus is underway. Those who have departed include Nancy McEldowney, the director of the Foreign Service Institute until she retired last month, who described to me “a toxic, troubled environment and organization”; Dana Shell Smith, the former ambassador to Qatar, who said what was most striking was the “complete and utter disdain for our expertise”; and Jake Walles, a former ambassador to Tunisia with some 35 years of experience. “There’s just a slow unraveling of the institution,” he told me.

The 8,000 Foreign Service officers are not sure how to defend American values under a president who has entertained the idea of torture, shown contempt for the Constitution, and never met an autocrat who failed to elicit his sympathy. Trump seems determined to hollow out the State Department in a strange act of national self-amputation. [Continue reading…]

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