Britain’s relationship with the EU has not yet reached the point of no return

Helen Mountfield QC writes: As the storm clouds gather over Brexit, the EU withdrawal bill has been delayed a second time while the government tries to persuade backbench Tories to revoke their support for amendments that would allow MPs to block a “no deal” Brexit. The ever-sane Conservative MPs Dominic Grieve and Anna Soubry have put their names to an amendment that would provide that any final deal must be approved by a separate act of parliament. This is more than parliament parking its constitutional tanks on the government’s lawn: it means that if, as seems increasingly likely, the only option on offer is a disastrous, no-deal Brexit, MPs can require the government to think again.

These amendments prompt the question: haven’t we already bound ourselves to leave the EU, by triggering article 50? The answer is no, probably not. No one has ever tested exactly what article 50 means before, because no one has ever used it, so anything that a lawyer says about its reversibility is informed speculation. But most EU lawyers think that having given notification of intention to withdraw from the EU under article 50 doesn’t actually bind us to doing it.

Article 50 is a provision for withdrawal from the EU, not expulsion from it. We are the petitioners here. If parliament decides that having thought it through, we would be mad to leave and wants to call it off, then there is a short window in which the court of justice of the EU would probably rule that we can. That is, we can decide to stay unilaterally, without asking the European council, or the commission, or the EU27, for permission.

The frequently used divorce metaphor is helpful here. All we have done is tell the EU we are unhappy and plan to go. Our relationship has not yet reached the point of no return. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

The struggle to protect a tree at the heart of Hopi culture

By Stewart B. Koyiyumptewa and Chip Colwell

A rumbling, low boom unfurled over the land like a current of thunder. But it was a clear, cloudless day in northern Arizona. We realized the reverberation was the echo of an explosion—dynamite loosening the earth—and that the strip mine was finding its way toward a colossal seam of coal.

It was the fall of 2015, and the Kayenta Mine’s owners, Peabody Energy, the world’s largest coal company, had proposed to expand the mine into neighboring areas. If that were to happen, then the place we were standing on would one day be peeled open like a can of sardines to reveal the prize of shiny, midnight-black coal.

The Kayenta Mine has long been a source of controversy. Every year it ships millions of tons of coal by rail to the Navajo Generating Station northeast of the Grand Canyon. The power plant keeps air conditioners humming in Phoenix and Los Angeles, and lights shimmering in Las Vegas and beyond.

We were there as anthropologists with a team of researchers and Hopi elders to study the project’s potential impact on religious sites, archaeological remains, springs, and more. But at every stop, the elders talked about the juniper tree. The trees were so abundant—blanketing every hill that hasn’t been mined—that at first it seemed strange to be concerned about the potential loss of this plant. There were ancient Pueblo villages and graveyards to worry about. There were precious springs and rare songbirds.

But the elders kept returning to their fears for the junipers.

[Read more…]

Facebooktwittermail

Merkel moves left to disarm the right

Der Spiegel reports: Angela Merkel has been leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) for 17 years, six months and four days, but she still knows how to surprise her party. Last Saturday she dropped by the annual congress organized by its youth wing, the Junge Union. The younger generation has long seen itself in the vanguard of the CDU’s conservative faction, frequently rallying behind politicians who do not see eye to eye with Chancellor Merkel.

At the 2004 congress, Helmut Kohl was given a welcome that suggested he, rather than, Merkel was at the helm of the party (“Who is our idol? – Helmut Kohl”). A year later, the man of the hour was Friedrich Merz, her archrival at the time, who was hellbent on tax reform. This year, the standing ovations were in honor of Jens Spahn, the young state secretary at the Ministry of Finance and the man that many are hoping will spearhead a conservative U-turn within the CDU.

Not surprisingly, there was a rancorous atmosphere when Merkel took to the stage on Saturday morning to field questions from the audience. Was she willing to admit the party had suffered a bitter defeat in the election in late September? Was it not high time she began paying more attention to center-right voters?

Once again, Merkel demonstrated that she is nothing if not flexible when under pressure, and laid out her plan to woo back voters who defected to the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) on September 24. The trouble was, her plan was not even remotely what many members of her party want to hear.

In his speech the previous evening, Jens Spahn had spelled out what he sees as the reasons for the CDU’s election humiliation in no uncertain terms. The elephant in the room, the issue no one dares address, in his opinion, is refugee policy. “Does anyone here seriously believe that the reason we lost 12 percent to the AfD in Baden-Württemberg is because of old-age care policy?”

The one person who does seriously believe it is Angela Merkel. She talked about the badly paid care workers for the elderly, about families who can’t afford affordable housing in Germany’s cities. She talked about aging men and women who spent 45 years working only to find their pensions aren’t enough to live on.

“These are social issues we need to resolve,” she said. “The CDU is sometimes more inclined to focus on the economy and less inclined to consider what it actually means for the individual,” she added, in a small swipe at her own party. By the time Merkel left the Congress center in Dresden after about two hours, it had become eminently clear that her response to the rise of the right-wing populist AfD is to shift to the left. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

China is quietly reshaping the world

Anja Manuel writes: The Pakistani town of Gwadar was until recently filled with the dust-colored cinderblock houses of about 50,000 fishermen. Ringed by cliffs, desert, and the Arabian Sea, it was at the forgotten edge of the earth. Now it’s one centerpiece of China’s “Belt and Road” initiative, and the town has transformed as a result. Gwadar is experiencing a storm of construction: a brand-new container port, new hotels, and 1,800 miles of superhighway and high-speed railway to connect it to China’s landlocked western provinces. China and Pakistan aspire to turn Gwadar into a new Dubai, making it a city that will ultimately house 2 million people.

China is quickly growing into the world’s most extensive commercial empire. By way of comparison, after World War II, the Marshall Plan provided the equivalent of $800 billion in reconstruction funds to Europe (if calculated as a percentage of today’s GDP). In the decades after the war the United States was also the world’s largest trading nation, and its largest bilateral lender to others.

Now it’s China’s turn. The scale and scope of the Belt and Road initiative is staggering. Estimates vary, but over $300 billion have already been spent, and China plans to spend $1 trillion more in the next decade or so. According to the CIA, 92 countries counted China as their largest exports or imports partner in 2015, far more than the United States at 57. What’s most astounding is the speed with which China achieved this. While the country was the world’s largest recipient of World Bank and Asian Development Bank loans in the 1980s and 90s, in recent years, China alone loaned more to developing countries than did the World Bank.

Unlike the United States and Europe, China uses aid, trade, and foreign direct investment strategically to build goodwill, expand its political sway, and secure the natural resources it needs to grow. Belt and Road is the most impressive example of this. It is an umbrella initiative of current and future infrastructure projects. In the next decades, China plans to build a thick web of infrastructure around Asia and, through similar initiatives, around the world.

Most of its funding will come in the form of loans, not grants, and Chinese state-owned enterprises will also be encouraged to invest. This means, for example, that if Pakistan can’t pay back its loans, China could own many of its coal mines, oil pipelines, and power plants, and thus have enormous leverage over the Pakistani government. In the meantime, China has the rights to operate the Gwadar port for 40 years. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Kashgar, China: This is what a 21st-century police state really looks like

BuzzFeed reports: This is a city where growing a beard can get you reported to the police. So can inviting too many people to your wedding, or naming your child Muhammad or Medina.

Driving or taking a bus to a neighboring town, you’d hit checkpoints where armed police officers might search your phone for banned apps like Facebook or Twitter, and scroll through your text messages to see if you had used any religious language.

You would be particularly worried about making phone calls to friends and family abroad. Hours later, you might find police officers knocking at your door and asking questions that make you suspect they were listening in the whole time.

For millions of people in China’s remote far west, this dystopian future is already here. China, which has already deployed the world’s most sophisticated internet censorship system, is building a surveillance state in Xinjiang, a four-hour flight from Beijing, that uses both the newest technology and human policing to keep tabs on every aspect of citizens’ daily lives. The region is home to a Muslim ethnic minority called the Uighurs, who China has blamed for forming separatist groups and fueling terrorism. Since this spring, thousands of Uighurs and other ethnic minorities have disappeared into so-called political education centers, apparently for offenses from using Western social media apps to studying abroad in Muslim countries, according to relatives of those detained.

Over the past two months, I interviewed more than two dozen Uighurs, including recent exiles and those who are still in Xinjiang, about what it’s like to live there. The majority declined to be named because they were afraid that police would detain or arrest their families if their names appeared in the press.

Taken along with government and corporate records, their accounts paint a picture of a regime that at once recalls the paranoia of the Mao era and is also thoroughly modern, marrying heavy-handed human policing of any behavior outside the norm with high-tech tools like iris recognition and apps that eavesdrop on cell phones. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

China ascendant, U.S. floundering

Keith B. Richburg writes: Chinese President Xi Jinping could not have written a better script.

As China begins its 19th Communist Party Congress, with Xi set to be anointed to a second five-year term and cement his uncontested control, the Chinese leader is perfectly poised to look outward and exert global leadership.

He will be doing so precisely as the U.S. is turning inward, its politics appear increasingly dysfunctional, and a new administration, under its “America First” doctrine, is dramatically withdrawing from America’s traditional world leadership role.

Xi can largely thank Donald Trump for his good fortune. The American president began his presidency by withdrawing the U.S. from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. It was an accord largely of America’s making that was aimed at drawing the region closer to the U.S. economically, while potentially luring China to liberalize its economy as the price of entry. With the TPP now languishing, Beijing is pushing to conclude a rival trade pact, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, by the end of this year.

Like the TPP, the rival pact will also comprise about 40% of the world economy. But the RCEP is dominated by China and India, and does not include any of the TPP’s agreements on labor rights, environmental protections or intellectual property rights. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Neo-Nazi quits movement, opens up about Jewish heritage and comes out as gay

 

Facebooktwittermail

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…]

Facebooktwittermail

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…]

Facebooktwittermail

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…]

 

Facebooktwittermail

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…]

Facebooktwittermail

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…]

Facebooktwittermail

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…]

Facebooktwittermail

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…]

Facebooktwittermail

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.

Facebooktwittermail

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…]

Facebooktwittermail

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…]

Facebooktwittermail

Interview with a former troll at Russia’s Internet Research Agency

Meduza reports: One of the many remarkable things about 2017 is that American journalists no longer have the Irish Republican Army in mind when writing “IRA,” which is now used most often to mean Russia’s Internet Research Agency — the “troll factory” responsible for buying ads on social media and polluting American online news discussion in an apparent effort to destabilize U.S. democracy. On October 15, the Russian independent news network Dozhd published the latest development in this ongoing story: an interview with a man who allegedly worked for the IRA from 2014-2015. Meduza summarizes that interview here.

*

Dozhd calls him “Maxim,” but that’s not his real name. The TV network says Max’s employment records confirm that he spent 18 months at 55 Savushkina in St. Petersburg, working for the Internet Research Agency (IRA), Russia’s infamous “troll factory.” He quit in early 2015, before Donald Trump even announced his presidential candidacy, but not too soon to get a taste of the “factory’s” war on Hillary Clinton.

According to Max, the IRA’s “foreign desk” had open orders to “influence opinions” and change the direction of online discussions. He says this department within the agency considered itself above the “Russian desk,” which he claims is generally “bots and trolls.” The foreign desk was supposedly more sophisticated. “It’s not just writing ‘Obama is a monkey’ and ‘Putin is great.’ They’ll even fine you for that kind of [primitive] stuff,” Max told Dozhd. People in his department, he says, were even trained and educated to know the nuances of American social polemics on tax issues, LGBT rights, the gun debate, and more.

Max says that IRA staff were tasked with monitoring tens of thousands of comments on major U.S. media outlets, in order to grasp the general trends of American Internet users. Once employees got a sense of what Americans naturally discussed in comment forums and on social media, their job was to incite them further and try to “rock the boat.”

According to Max, the Internet Research Agency’s foreign desk was prohibited from promoting anything about Russia or Putin. One thing the staff learned quickly was that Americans don’t normally talk about Russia: “They don’t really care about it,” Max told Dozhd. “Our goal wasn’t to turn the Americans toward Russia,” he claims. “Our task was to set Americans against their own government: to provoke unrest and discontent, and to lower Obama’s support ratings.”

The trolls at the IRA were also careful about covering their tracks. Max says anyone working in the foreign desk was required to post comments using a VPN, to disguise their Russian origins. He says an employee once shared a photograph taken at the IRA’s office, which was especially forbidden, because photos can contain revealing metadata. This incident also revealed that the IRA employed staff to spy on its own trolls, Max says.

Even two years before Americans actually voted on their next president, St. Petersburg trolls were told to attack Hillary Clinton, reminding Internet users about her wealth, her husband’s legacy, and her various corruption scandals. The IRA even encouraged employees to watch Netflix’s “House of Cards,” supposedly as an education in U.S. politics. Staff would also monitor each other’s use of English, nitpicking over grammar and punctuation, in order to weed out ESL formulations. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

The time has come for Theresa May to tell Britain: Brexit can’t be done

Alastair Campbell writes: As she tries to move the Brexit negotiations forward, how much better would Theresa May and the country feel if the speech she made to her party went as follows.

“Leadership is about confronting the great challenges. But Brexit is the biggest challenge we have faced since the second world war. So I intend to devote my speech, in four parts, to this alone.

“First, I want to explain why I voted remain – because for all its faults, the European Union has been a force for good in Europe and in the UK. I believed that our future prosperity and security, and opportunities for our young people, would be enhanced by staying in. Second, I want to explain why, nonetheless, I was something of a reluctant remainer. The truth is, there is a lot wrong with the EU. So though I voted remain, I was not starry-eyed. I was determined that, had we won, we would also fight for reform.

“Third, I want to explain why I have been trying so hard to deliver the Brexit the people voted for. It was a close result. But leave won. I felt strongly that it was my duty to deliver the only Brexit that I believed could meet the demands of the majority of leavers – out of the single market and the customs union, out of the European court of justice.

“But precisely because I have a profound sense of duty, I want to tell you the absolute truth as I see it. It cannot be done. Yes, you can shout. You can storm out. But I have looked at it every which way. And, as your leader, I have concluded that it cannot be done without enormous damage to our economy, to your living standards, to our public services, to our standing in the world. This is damage I am not prepared to inflict. The cost is too high. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail