White House ethics experts argue Trump’s business conflicts are so big it should affect how the Electoral College votes

 

Politico reports: Norm Eisen has become an unlikely media darling. Since Donald Trump’s victory on Nov. 8 opened a debate about how the president-elect would keep his vast business interests separate from his new public obligations, Eisen has emerged as one of the two most prominent government ethicists calling for Trump to take drastic action to avoid scandal or worse. Eisen, the former top Obama White House ethics lawyer, has been cited more than 1,000 times in news stories, explaining the intricacies of the “emoluments clause” to journalists many of whom hadn’t heard the words a month ago. With Richard Painter, who held the same job under President George W. Bush, Eisen has taken control of a leading government watchdog group that’s staffing up to hound Trump’s administration for conflicts of interest they say are unprecedented for the occupant of the Oval Office. A video produced by the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org of Eisen and Painter talking about a potentially obscure constitutional violation notched more than 2.5 million views in its first week.

“It’s unreal. It’s like a full-employment plan for government ethicists, for White House ethicists,” Eisen told me Monday as he dashed between interviews with U.S. and international journalists lining up to ask him about Trump’s complicated financial arrangements. “Fortunately, there’s basically only a handful of us. There’s really only two.”

That might be an exaggeration, but Eisen and Painter happen to be the two ethicists who are actively working to shape the outcome of an election that most voters think has already been decided. For the #stillnevertrump faction, Eisen and Painter represent the last hope of persuading wobbly members of the Electoral College to vote against the president-elect when they convene on Dec. 19. Failing that, the two men are laying the groundwork for a case that Trump’s sprawling financial arrangements—real estate investments, hotels, golf courses and product licenses spread across the U.S. and at least 20 other countries—will inevitably lead him into scandal or worse once he takes office. Trump is set to hold a news conference Dec. 15 in New York to provide more detail on his future financial plans, but the two men have no expectation that Trump will take their advice and sell off his entire business enterprise and put the proceeds into a “blind trust” with no control or knowledge over where the money goes. [Continue reading…]

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Trump, McConnell, Putin, and the triumph of the will to power

Jonathan Chait writes: Of the many things that resulted in Donald Trump’s election, from Hillary Clinton’s own errors to James Comey’s extraordinary insinuations against her in the contest’s final stages, Russian hacking played a meaningful enough role to tilt a razor-tight contest. Russia successfully riled up Bernie Sanders die-hards against the Democratic Party by leaking minor intrigue that fueled their suspicions, aggravating a Clinton liability with young voters that never healed. They also dribbled out enough emails in the succeeding months to keep stories using the word “emails” in the lead of Hillary Clinton news, adding more smoke to the haze of scandal that permeated coverage of her campaign.

We now know with near-certainty that Russia did this with the goal of electing Trump president. During the campaign, this reality was not quite certain enough to be reported as fact. Trump, of course, insisted there was no evidence Russia even had a hand in the attacks, let alone with the goal of helping him. (It “could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”) Elements of the left decried suspicions of Russia’s role as “neo-McCarthyism.” The Nation editorialized, “ liberal-media elites have joined with the Clinton campaign in promoting the narrative of a devious Russian cyber-attack.” Others on the left insisted that the substance of the stolen emails command far more importance than their provenance, which in any case was disputed and unknowable. On October 31, the New York Times reported that the attack was probably “aimed at disrupting the presidential election rather than electing Mr. Trump.”

Friday, the Washington Post reported that the CIA had concluded well before November that Russia specifically sought to elect Trump. The CIA’s analysis is obviously not infallible, but it fits with a wide array of other evidence. Russia had a clear motive: chilly relations with the Democratic administration that had orchestrated sanctions against it, close ties with Donald Trump and several of his advisers, and a series of pro-Russian positions from Trump on such issues as Crimea, NATO, and Vladimir Putin’s human rights abuses. Russia also hacked the Republican National Committee but declined to release any of the contents. The disruption was intentionally one-sided. The CIA’s conclusion merely lends incrementally more confidence to a deduction that was already fairly obvious.

What is more interesting in the Post story is the response of various officials to the revelations. The Obama administration declined to publicize, wary of being seen as intervening on Clinton’s behalf. Instead, it devised a fallback plan. Concerned that Russia might attempt to hack into electronic voting machines, it gathered a bipartisan group of lawmakers to hear the CIA’s report, in the hopes that they would present a united front warning Russia not to disrupt the election. According to the Post, Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “raised doubts about the underlying intelligence and made clear to the administration that he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics.” Other Republicans refused to join the effort for reasons that can only be understood as a desire to protect the Republican ticket from any insinuation, however well-founded, that Russia was helping it.

Even the most cynical observer of McConnell — a cynical man to his bones — would have been shocked at his raw partisanship. Presented with an attack on the sanctity of his own country’s democracy by a hostile foreign power, his overriding concern was party over country. Obama’s fear of seeming partisan held him back from making a unilateral statement without partisan cover. No such fear restrained McConnell. This imbalance in will to power extended to the security agencies. The CIA could have leaked its conclusion before November, but held off. The FBI should have held off on leaking its October surprise, but plunged ahead. [Continue reading…]

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The Senate torture report must be saved

Senators Carl Levin and Jay Rockefeller write: In President Obama’s final national security speech on Tuesday, he spoke about the importance of staying true to our values, of not returning to torture, and of transparency. Now, in his remaining time in office, he has an opportunity to take action to advance these goals and to do something of great importance for the public’s understanding of our history. He has the ability to protect the Senate Intelligence Committee’s full 6,700-page report on torture from being lost, perhaps forever.

Given President-elect Donald J. Trump’s unconscionable campaign pledge to “bring back waterboarding” and “a hell of a lot worse” — acts that would be illegal if carried out — President Obama’s leadership on this issue has never been more important.

Drawing on our decades of work in the Senate and our chairmanships of the Armed Services and Intelligence Committees, we are calling on President Obama to preserve the full torture report as a matter of profound public interest. We are not asking him to necessarily agree with all of the report’s findings, though we certainly hope he does, but we are asking him to protect it as an important piece of history.

The president could do this simply by allowing departments and agencies that already possess the document to enter it as a federal record, making it much more difficult for a future administration to erase. [Continue reading…]

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Russia hacked Republican National Committee but kept data, U.S. concludes

The New York Times reports: American intelligence agencies have concluded with “high confidence” that Russia acted covertly in the latter stages of the presidential campaign to harm Hillary Clinton’s chances and promote Donald J. Trump, according to senior administration officials.

They based that conclusion, in part, on another finding — which they say was also reached with high confidence — that the Russians hacked the Republican National Committee’s computer systems in addition to their attacks on Democratic organizations, but did not release whatever information they gleaned from the Republican networks.

In the months before the election, it was largely documents from Democratic Party systems that were leaked to the public. Intelligence agencies have concluded that the Russians gave the Democrats’ documents to WikiLeaks.

Republicans have a different explanation for why no documents from their networks were ever released. Over the past several months, officials from the Republican committee have consistently said that their networks were not compromised, asserting that only the accounts of individual Republicans were attacked. On Friday, a senior committee official said he had no comment. [Continue reading…]

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Russia intervened in election to help Donald Trump win, CIA has concluded

The Washington Post reports: The CIA has concluded in a secret assessment that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump win the presidency, rather than just to undermine confidence in the U.S. electoral system, according to officials briefed on the matter.

Intelligence agencies have identified individuals with connections to the Russian government who provided WikiLeaks with thousands of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and others, including Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, according to U.S. officials. Those officials described the individuals as actors known to the intelligence community and part of a wider Russian operation to boost Trump and hurt Clinton’s chances.

“It is the assessment of the intelligence community that Russia’s goal here was to favor one candidate over the other, to help Trump get elected,” said a senior U.S. official briefed on an intelligence presentation made to U.S. senators. “That’s the consensus view.”

The Obama administration has been debating for months how to respond to the alleged Russian intrusions, with White House officials concerned about escalating tensions with Moscow and being accused of trying to boost Clinton’s campaign. [Continue reading…]

Aaron Blake writes: The report highlights and exacerbates the increasingly fraught situation in which congressional Republicans find themselves with regard to Russia and Trump. By acknowledging and digging into the increasing evidence that Russia helped — or at least attempted to help — tip the scales in Trump’s favor, they risk raising questions about whether Trump would have won without Russian intervention.

Trump, after all, won by a margin of about 80,000 votes cast across three states, winning each of the decisive states by less than one percentage point. So even a slight influence could have plausibly made the difference, though we’ll never be able to prove it one way or another.

While saying that Russia clearly tried to help Trump doesn’t inherently call into question the legitimacy of Trump’s win —earlier Friday, the White House made sure to emphasize that it’s not making that case — it’s not hard to connect the dots. And Trump and his party know it. [Continue reading…]

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Republicans ready to launch wide-ranging probe of Russia, despite Trump’s stance; Obama orders intel review

The Washington Post reports: Leading Senate Republicans are preparing to launch a coordinated and wide-ranging probe into Russia’s alleged meddling in the U.S. elections and its potential cyberthreats to the military, digging deep into what they view as corrosive interference in the nation’s institutions.

Such an aggressive approach puts them on a direct collision course with President-elect Donald Trump, who downplays the possibility Russia had any role in the November elections — arguing that a hack of the Democratic National Committee emails may have been perpetrated by “some guy in his home in New Jersey.” The fracture could become more prominent after Trump is inaugurated and begins setting foreign policy. He has already indicated that the country should “get along” with Russia since the two nations have many common strategic goals.

But some of Trump’s would-be Republican allies on Capitol Hill disagree. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (Ariz.) is readying a probe of possible Russian cyber-incursions into U.S. weapons systems, and he said he has been discussing the issue with Senate Select Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (N.C.), with whom he will be “working closely” to investigate Russia’s suspected interference in the U.S. elections and cyberthreats to the military and other institutions. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been apprised of the discussions. Burr did not respond to requests for comment.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) also said he intends to hold hearings next year into alleged Russian hacking. Corker is on Trump’s shortlist for secretary of state, according to the Trump transition team.

Trump transition officials could not be reached for comment.

The loudest GOP calls for a Russia probe are coming from McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). Both have taken a hard line on Russia and have been highly critical of Trump, particularly his praise of President Vladimir Putin. [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: President Obama has ordered a “full review” of Russian hacking during the November election, as pressure from Congress has grown for greater public understanding of exactly what Moscow did to interfere in the electoral process.

“We may have crossed into a new threshold, and it is incumbent upon us to take stock of that, to review, to conduct some after-action, to understand what has happened and to impart some lessons learned,” Obama’s counterterrorism and homeland-security adviser, Lisa Monaco, told reporters at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.

Obama wants the report before he leaves office on Jan. 20, Monaco said. [Continue reading…]

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This is what will happen when Aleppo falls

David Hearst writes: Whether by habit, or tradition, the US presidential transition is the ideal time to deal with unfinished business. The handover from one administration to its successor offers tempting opportunities to create new facts on the ground in the Middle East.

Israel used the transition between George Bush and Barack Obama to launch Operation Cast Lead on Gaza which stopped two days before Obama’s inauguration on 20 January 2009. Russia is now using the transition from Obama to Trump to do the same in Aleppo.

Both sides in the Syrian civil war understand the significance of timing. The rebels foolishly depended on Hillary Clinton’s assurances to hang on until she came into power. They had no plan B for a Clinton defeat.

Conversely, the Russians understand that they have to finish off east Aleppo by the time Donald Trump is inaugurated. With the Old City fallen, the task is almost complete.

Vladimir Putin does not simply think he has just won back Aleppo. He also thinks he has won the argument with America. This much was clear from the tenor of Sergei Lavrov’s speech last week in Rome. He thinks the incoming administration has finally got the message that “terrorists” – however Russia happens to define them – pose a greater threat to US national security than Assad does.

His argument is one that few would now disagree: from Afghanistan to Libya, America used Salafi jihadis as levers for regime change only to find these weapons turned on them. Russia, Lavrov continued, was not married to Assad. But it was wedded to the Syrian state.

Russia’s actions, as opposed to Lavrov’s words, tell a different story. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, just over 10,000 people in Syria were killed by Russian airstrikes between 30 September 2015 and 30 October this year, of whom 2,861 were members of the Islamic State (IS) group, 3,079 fighters from rebel and Islamic factions, 2,565 males over the age of 18,1,013 children under the age of eighteen and 584 women.

From these figures alone, and there are others, it is clear that Russia has waged total war on an unprotected population in rebel-held areas. War on its people, its hospitals, and its markets, just like it did in Grozny 16 years ago. Its actions differ little from those of the Syrian army. Like all colonial powers, the Russian Federation has arrogated on itself the choice of deciding which Syrians live and which die. And if they are in rebel-held areas, they all die together. [Continue reading…]

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Obama under mounting pressure to disclose Russia’s role in U.S. election

The Guardian reports: Barack Obama is facing growing pressure from congressional Democrats in both houses demanding further disclosures regarding Russia’s role in the 2016 US elections.

The White House has not responded to a week-old letter signed by every Democrat and aligned member of the Senate intelligence committee seeking declassification of “additional information concerning the Russian government and the US election”.

Now a group of senior House Democrats has also written to the president, seeking a classified briefing for colleagues on “Russian entities’ hacking of American political organizations; hacking and strategic release of emails from campaign officials; the WikiLeaks disclosures; fake news stories produced and distributed with the intent to mislead American voters; and any other Russian or Russian-related interference or involvement in our recent election.”

The letter was signed by Democratic whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, as well as the top Democrats on the House judiciary, intelligence, armed services, foreign affairs and oversight committees. [Continue reading…]

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Will the victory at Standing Rock outlast Obama?

Rozina Ali writes: Late Sunday afternoon, protesters at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, in North Dakota, received unexpected and welcome news. Jo-Ellen Darcy, the U.S. Army’s assistant secretary for civil works, had announced that her department would not be approving the easement required for construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline to continue. The pipeline, which has been the cause of a months-long standoff involving the Standing Rock Sioux, their allies, the state government, and Energy Transfer Partners, Dakota Access’s parent company, was slated to carry crude oil beneath Lake Oahe, the reservation’s main source of drinking water. Instead, according to Darcy, the Army Corps of Engineers will now conduct a thorough environmental assessment and work with E.T.P. to “explore alternate routes for the pipeline crossing.” The decision came just in time: after weeks of confrontation between law enforcement and protesters, tensions had been expected to rise on Monday, when two thousand military veterans were to join the demonstrations, and when a mandatory evacuation order, issued by Governor Jack Dalrymple, was to take effect. When I spoke with Dave Archambault II, the tribe’s chairman, on Tuesday morning, the previous day’s revelry had given way to relief. “We told congressmen, senators, the company, everybody, that it infringes on our rights, but it seemed like no one heard us,” he said, referring to the pipeline. “I never believed the easement would be stopped.”

Yet the protesters’ celebrations have been tempered by concern over whether the decision will outlast President Obama’s tenure in office. Soon after the Army’s announcement, House Speaker Paul Ryan tweeted, “This is big-government decision-making at its worst. I look forward to putting this anti-energy presidency behind us.” Last month, Kelcy Warren, E.T.P.’s chief executive and a personal donor to Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign, told NBC News that he was “a hundred per cent sure that the pipeline will be approved by a Trump Administration,” and that “we will have a government in place that believes in energy infrastructure.” (E.T.P. declined to speak to me for this story.) Jan Hasselman, an attorney for the environmental-law nonprofit Earthjustice, which represents the Sioux, told me that the Army’s move “could be of limited durability in light of Trump’s unabashed embrace of fossil fuels.” Until recently, the President-elect also had a financial stake in the pipeline. Trump has not yet made any statements about the latest Dakota Access development — his transition team did not respond to my requests for comment — but last week a spokesman indicated Trump’s support for the original pipeline route, and specified that it “has nothing to do with his personal investments and everything to do with promoting policies that benefit all Americans.”

But who decides what policies benefit Native Americans? For the Standing Rock Sioux, that issue — not energy infrastructure but the flawed process of consultation between the tribe, the Army Corps of Engineers, and E.T.P. that caused the impasse in the first place — was at the crux of their protest. [Continue reading…]

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Turkey hosts new round of peace talks between Russia and Syrian rebels — it looks like the U.S. wasn’t invited

Business Insider reports: The US was shut out of a new round of negotiations between Russia and Syrian rebel factions hosted by Turkish officials in Ankara, a source within the Syrian opposition told Business Insider on Monday.

The opposition source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the negotiations, said American officials were not invited to take part in the talks because of recent tensions between Turkey and the US.

“The US is totally out of these talks,” this person said. “And they’re pretty angry about it.” [Continue reading…]

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New forms of fascism are rising east and west as a result of our collective failure in Syria

While addressing the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade in the Irish Parliament, Robin Yassin-Kassab said: Liberated Aleppo is falling. The suburbs of Damascus are falling, or have already fallen, and been cleansed of their recalcitrant population. The families of foreign militiamen are moving in. Silence is returning to a devastated and demographically-changed Syria. This presentation is therefore more a lament for the defeated Syrian revolution, and for our failure to help it, than a policy recommendation.

From spring 2011, in the context of the Arab Spring, millions from all backgrounds protested peacefully against torture, crony capitalism, corruption and poverty, and for freedom, dignity, and social justice. They called for the unity of all sects and ethnicities.

The Assad regime responded with extreme repression, shooting protestors dead, torturing many, including children, to death, and prosecuting a mass rape campaign. By summer 2012 it had provoked an armed uprising of military defectors and civilian volunteers grouped under the umbrella term ‘Free Syrian Army’.

The regime deliberately started a war because it knew a serious reform process would end in its demise. It calculated (correctly) that in a war situation it could count on strong foreign allies – unlike its opponents. And it was following the blueprint laid out by Bashaar al-Assad’s father Hafez. In the late 70s he had met a widely-based challenge with severe repression. This provoked a desperate armed uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama in 1982. The regime responded by razing the city centre, killing tens of thousands. The memory of this destruction kept Syrians silent for the next three decades. [Continue reading…]

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Top senators call on Obama to release classified information concerning Russia and U.S. election

The Atlantic reports: A group of top senators is asking President Obama to release more information about Russia’s involvement in the election, hinting that important details are being kept secret.

In a letter sent Tuesday and made public Wednesday, seven Democratic senators — six members of the Senate Intelligence Committee and one member of the Senate Armed Services Committee — wrote a two-sentence letter to the White House. It read, in its entirety:

We believe there is additional information concerning the Russian Government and the U.S. election that should be declassified and released to the public. We are conveying specifics through classified channels.

The letter was led by Ron Wyden, an outspoken Democratic senator from Oregon who has long been active on technology issues. [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports: A spokesman for Wyden, Keith Chu, said the senator believed the intelligence needed to be declassified “immediately”, as it was in the “national interest that the American public should see it”.

It is understood this is the first declassification request by seven senators in twelve years.

On 7 October, the US director of national intelligence and the secretary of homeland security took the rare step of directly accusing Russia’s “senior-most” officials of ordering the breach of the Democratic National Committee’s digital networks. Director James Clapper and Secretary Jeh Johnson accused the Russians of attempting to “interfere” in the US election, something the Obama administration had previously suggested but did not allege publicly. [Continue reading…]

BuzzFeed reports: US intelligence officials believe Russia helped disseminate fake and propagandized news as part of a broader effort to influence and undermine the presidential election, two US intelligence sources told BuzzFeed News.

“They’re doing this continuously, that’s a known fact,” one US intelligence official said, requesting anonymity to discuss the sensitive national security issue.

“This is beyond propaganda, that’s my understanding,” the second US intelligence official said. The official said they believed those efforts likely included the dissemination of completely fake news stories. [Continue reading…]

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