Courts thwart administration’s effort to rescind Obama-era environmental regulations

The New York Times reports: The rapid-fire push by the Trump administration to wipe out significant chunks of the Obama environmental legacy is running into a not-so-minor complication: Judges keep ruling that the Trump team is violating federal law.

The latest such ruling came late Wednesday, when a federal magistrate judge in Northern California vacated a move by the Department of Interior to delay compliance with rules curbing so-called flaring, a technique oil and gas companies use to burn off leaking methane. Flaring is blamed for contributing to climate change as well as lost tax revenues because the drilling is being done on federal land.

It was the third time since July that the Environmental Protection Agency or the Interior Department has been found to have acted illegally in their rush to roll back environmental rules. And in three other environmental cases, the Trump administration reversed course on its own after lawsuits accusing it of illegal actions were filed by environmental groups and Democratic state attorneys general.

The legal reversals reflect how aggressively Mr. Trump’s critics are challenging the administration’s efforts to rescind regulations enacted during the Obama administration, not only related to the environment, but to immigration, to consumer protection and to other areas. [Continue reading…]

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Obama tried to give Zuckerberg a wake-up call over fake news on Facebook

The Washington Post reports: Nine days after Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg dismissed as “crazy” the idea that fake news on his company’s social network played a key role in the U.S. election, President Barack Obama pulled the youthful tech billionaire aside and delivered what he hoped would be a wake-up call.

For months leading up to the vote, Obama and his top aides quietly agonized over how to respond to Russia’s brazen intervention on behalf of the Donald Trump campaign without making matters worse. Weeks after Trump’s surprise victory, some of Obama’s aides looked back with regret and wished they had done more.

Now huddled in a private room on the sidelines of a meeting of world leaders in Lima, Peru, two months before Trump’s inauguration, Obama made a personal appeal to Zuckerberg to take the threat of fake news and political disinformation seriously. Unless Facebook and the government did more to address the threat, Obama warned, it would only get worse in the next presidential race.

Zuckerberg acknowledged the problem posed by fake news. But he told Obama that those messages weren’t widespread on Facebook and that there was no easy remedy, according to people briefed on the exchange, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share details of a private conversation. [Continue reading…]

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A potent fuel flows to North Korea. It may be too late to halt it

The New York Times reports: When North Korea launched long-range missiles this summer, and again on Friday, demonstrating its ability to strike Guam and perhaps the United States mainland, it powered the weapons with a rare, potent rocket fuel that American intelligence agencies believe initially came from China and Russia.

The United States government is scrambling to determine whether those two countries are still providing the ingredients for the highly volatile fuel and, if so, whether North Korea’s supply can be interrupted, either through sanctions or sabotage. Among those who study the issue, there is a growing belief that the United States should focus on the fuel, either to halt it, if possible, or to take advantage of its volatile properties to slow the North’s program.

But it may well be too late. Intelligence officials believe that the North’s program has advanced to the point where it is no longer as reliant on outside suppliers, and that it may itself be making the deadly fuel, known as UDMH. Despite a long record of intelligence warnings that the North was acquiring both forceful missile engines and the fuel to power them, there is no evidence that Washington has ever moved with urgency to cut off Pyongyang’s access to the rare propellant.

Classified memos from both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations laid out, with what turned out to be prescient clarity, how the North’s pursuit of the highly potent fuel would enable it to develop missiles that could strike almost anywhere in the continental United States.

In response to inquiries from The New York Times, Timothy Barrett, a spokesman for the director of national intelligence, said that “based on North Korea’s demonstrated science and technological capabilities — coupled with the priority Pyongyang places on missile programs — North Korea probably is capable of producing UDMH domestically.” UDMH is short for unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine. [Continue reading…]

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Rice told House investigators why she unmasked senior Trump officials

CNN reports: Former national security adviser Susan Rice privately told House investigators that she unmasked the identities of senior Trump officials to understand why the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates was in New York late last year, multiple sources told CNN.

The New York meeting preceded a separate effort by the UAE to facilitate a back-channel communication between Russia and the incoming Trump White House.

The crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, arrived in New York last December in the transition period before Trump was sworn into office for a meeting with several top Trump officials, including Michael Flynn, the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his top strategist Steve Bannon, sources said.

The Obama administration felt misled by the United Arab Emirates, which had failed to mention that Zayed was coming to the United States even though it’s customary for foreign dignitaries to notify the US government about their travels, according to several sources familiar with the matter. Rice, who served as then-President Obama’s national security adviser in his second term, told the House Intelligence Committee last week that she requested the names of the Americans mentioned in the classified report be revealed internally, a practice officials in both parties say is common.

Rice’s previously undisclosed revelation in a classified setting shines new light on a practice that had come under sharp criticism from the committee chairman, California Rep. Devin Nunes, and President Donald Trump, who previously accused Rice of committing a crime.

But her explanation appears to have satisfied some influential Republicans on the committee, undercutting both Nunes and Trump and raising new questions about whether any Trump associates tried to arrange back-channel discussions with the Russians. [Continue reading…]

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If Trump wants to unravel Obama’s legacy, he could start with Burma

Ishaan Tharoor writes: President Trump has made no secret of his desire to dismantle the achievements of President Barack Obama, be they domestic reforms on health care, an executive order governing the status of undocumented youth, a landmark international agreement on climate change or the deal inked between world powers and Iran over its nuclear program.

Many of Trump’s efforts to unravel Obama’s legacy, though, have stalled. More often than not, they have also proved widely unpopular among the public, according to a slate of opinion polls. But there’s one hot spot where Trump could probably walk back the effects of Obama’s foreign policy with little condemnation: Burma. [Continue reading…]

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Trump administration may make the Iran deal the Senate’s problem

J. Dana Stuster writes: The Trump administration continued laying the groundwork for decertifying Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) last week. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley gave a speech at the American Enterprise Institute on the nuclear agreement and broader U.S. policy toward Iran. Though she stressed that she was “not making the case for decertifying”—instead she said she was arguing that “should [Trump] decide to decertify, he has grounds to stand on”—it was hard to read Haley’s comments as any anything else.

Haley’s speech was mostly a rehash of criticisms leveled against the JCPOA at the time of its proposal in 2015. Like previous critics, Haley expressed frustration that the agreement deals with Iran’s nuclear weapons program in isolation from Iran’s other aggressive actions in the Middle East, raised concerns about inspectors’ ability to detect potential clandestine enrichment sites, and cited Iran’s record of sponsoring terrorism as a check against its credibility. None of this is new, and the counterarguments have been made well for years. But as President Barack Obama pointed out at the time, “You don’t make deals like this with your friends.” The agreement addressed the foremost U.S. security interest with regard to Iran: the rapid expansion of its uranium enrichment that could be used to make a nuclear weapon. Haley’s speech didn’t articulate an alternative for containing Iran’s nuclear program.

The JCPOA was an international agreement only made possible by the participation of a coalition that included Russia and China; that Washington, Moscow, and Beijing could all agree to the terms is still an incredible diplomatic achievement by itself. But those international partners to the agreement got short shrift in Haley’s speech, only coming up in the question and answer portion. “This is about U.S. national security. This is not about European security. This is not about anyone else,” she said, which the New York Times reports left “several European diplomats in the audience fuming.” [Continue reading…]

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Napolitano sues Trump to save DACA program she helped create

The New York Times reports: As secretary of homeland security in 2012, Janet Napolitano created DACA, the federal program that protected more than 800,000 young, undocumented immigrants from deportation and allowed them to work legally in the United States.

Now, as the president of the sprawling University of California system, she is suing President Trump to save it.

Lawyers for Ms. Napolitano and the school system she leads, which serves 238,000 students across 10 campuses, filed a lawsuit on Friday in federal court accusing Trump officials of violating administrative procedures and constitutional due process requirements by abruptly ending the program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

Having done so, she says in the lawsuit, Mr. Trump harmed the thousands of undocumented students whose attendance at her universities is made possible by the work permits that they receive through DACA. And she says that ending the program will negatively affect the university system, which stands to lose the academic and cultural benefits those students bring. [Continue reading…]

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How it feels to be a Dreamer

 

Aaron Blake writes: It’s often been said that President Trump is a man of no true political convictions (apart from “winning”). And as The Washington Post’s Philip Bump notes today, it often seems that Trump takes every position on an issue in hopes of never being fully pinned down — or blamed.

But Trump’s malleability is rarely as striking as it has been on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. His decision Tuesday to phase out the Obama-era executive action exempting the children of undocumented immigrants from deportation was pitched in all kinds of hugely inconsistent ways. Some of the justifications for the decision ran counter to Trump’s own past statements; others were contradicted by Trump himself within a matter of hours.

The biggest contradiction came in a tweet late Tuesday, in which Trump suggested — after a day of stating that Obama’s program was illegal and that Congress was required to act on it — that he might be able to revisit the issue himself. [Continue reading…]

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Obama calls Trump’s decision to end DACA ‘wrong,’ ‘self-defeating’ and ‘cruel’

The Washington Post reports: Former president Barack Obama said Tuesday that it is “wrong,” “self-defeating” and “cruel” for the Trump administration to end an Obama-era program that allowed younger undocumented immigrants to continue to live in the United States without fear of deportation.

“Let’s be clear: The action taken today isn’t required legally. It’s a political decision, and a moral question,” Obama said in a lengthy statement posted on his Facebook page on Tuesday afternoon, following an announcement earlier in the day that the Trump administration will unwind the program, pending action from Congress in the next six months. “Whatever concerns or complaints Americans may have about immigration in general, we shouldn’t threaten the future of this group of young people who are here through no fault of their own, who pose no threat, who are not taking away anything from the rest of us. … Kicking them out won’t lower the unemployment rate, or lighten anyone’s taxes, or raise anybody’s wages.” [Continue reading…]

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Obamaworld quietly buzzing with excitement about potential of Deval Patrick for 2020

The Hill reports: Democrats are expressing concern that advisers and aides to former President Obama have already begun signaling which candidate they might support for the White House in 2020.

Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama’s closest confidantes, and David Simas, the CEO of Obama’s foundation, have sent smoke signals urging former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) to enter the race.

Simas, who once served as a top aide to Patrick, is an ardent supporter of the former governor, sources tell The Hill, while Jarrett has privately told friends that she would do what it takes to support him.

And Politico reported last month that Jarrett believes a President Patrick is “what my heart desires.”
At the same time, friends of Jarrett’s say that while she would love for Patrick to run, she is also open to other candidates.

Others in Obamaworld have quietly been buzzing about the excitement behind a potential Patrick run. [Continue reading…]

 

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After Harvey, Trump administration reconsiders flood rules it just rolled back

The Washington Post reports: A couple of weeks ago President Trump scrapped Obama-era rules, intended to reduce the risks posed by flooding, that established new construction standards for roads, housing and other infrastructure projects that receive federal dollars.

Trump derided these restrictions, which were written in response to growing concerns over the impact of climate change, and other federal rules as useless red tape holding back the economy.

“This overregulated permitting process is a massive, self­inflicted wound on our country — it’s disgraceful — denying our people much-needed investments in their community,” he said in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York during an event to tout his infrastructure policies.

But now, in the wake of the massive flooding and destruction caused by Hurricane Harvey along the Gulf Coast, the Trump administration is considering whether to issue similar requirements to build higher in flood-prone areas as the government prepares to spend billions of dollars in response to the storm.

This potential policy shift underscores the extent to which the reality of this week’s storm has collided with Trump officials’ push to upend President Barack Obama’s policies and represents a striking acknowledgment by an administration skeptical of climate change that the government must factor changing weather into some of its major infrastructure policies. [Continue reading…]

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Trump reversed regulations to protect infrastructure against flooding just days before Hurricane Harvey

Business Insider reports: Just 10 days before Hurricane Harvey descended upon Texas on Friday, wreaking havoc and widespread flooding, President Donald Trump signed an executive order revoking a set of regulations that would have made federally-funded infrastructure less vulnerable to flooding.

The Obama-era rules, which had not yet gone into effect, would have required the federal government to take into account the risk of flooding and sea-level rise as a result of climate change when constructing new infrastructure and rebuilding after disasters.

Experts are predicting Harvey — the most powerful storm to hit the US since 2004 — will cost Texas between $30 billion and $100 billion in damage. [Continue reading…]

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Obama’s response to Charlottesville violence is the most liked tweet in Twitter’s history

The Washington Post reports: Unlike some former presidents, Barack Obama is showing no signs of completely abandoning public life.

Since leaving office, Obama has commented on major events or controversies, including the terrorist attack in Manchester, England, and Sen. John McCain’s brain cancer diagnosis. He did so again on Saturday, after the deadly violence in Charlottesville.

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion … People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love … For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite,” Obama said, quoting former South African president Nelson Mandela in tweets.


The first tweet, which shows a picture of Obama smiling at four children, has been retweeted more than 1.1 million times and liked 2.723 million times as of Tuesday evening. [Continue reading…]

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Bill Browder’s testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee

Bill Browder, the driving force behind the 2012 Magnitsky Act, writes: I had always thought Putin was a nationalist. It seemed inconceivable that he would approve of his officials stealing $230 million from the Russian state. Sergei [Magnitsky] and I were sure that this was a rogue operation and if we just brought it to the attention of the Russian authorities, the “good guys” would get the “bad guys” and that would be the end of the story.

We filed criminal complaints with every law enforcement agency in Russia, and Sergei gave sworn testimony to the Russian State Investigative Committee (Russia’s FBI) about the involvement of officials in this crime.

However, instead of arresting the people who committed the crime, Sergei was arrested. Who took him? The same officials he had testified against. On November 24, 2008, they came to his home, handcuffed him in front of his family, and threw him into pre-trial detention.

Sergei’s captors immediately started putting pressure on him to withdraw his testimony. They put him in cells with 14 inmates and eight beds, leaving the lights on 24 hours a day to impose sleep deprivation. They put him in cells with no heat and no windowpanes, and he nearly froze to death. They put him in cells with no toilet, just a hole in the floor and sewage bubbling up. They moved him from cell to cell in the middle of the night without any warning. During his 358 days in detention he was forcibly moved multiple times.

They did all of this because they wanted him to withdraw his testimony against the corrupt Interior Ministry officials, and to sign a false statement that he was the one who stole the $230 million—and that he had done so on my instruction.

Sergei refused. In spite of the grave pain they inflicted upon him, he would not perjure himself or bear false witness.

After six months of this mistreatment, Sergei’s health seriously deteriorated. He developed severe abdominal pains, he lost 40 pounds, and he was diagnosed with pancreatitis and gallstones and prescribed an operation for August 2009. However, the operation never occurred. A week before he was due to have surgery, he was moved to a maximum security prison called Butyrka, which is considered to be one of the harshest prisons in Russia. Most significantly for Sergei, there were no medical facilities there to treat his medical conditions.

At Butyrka, his health completely broke down. He was in agonizing pain. He and his lawyers wrote 20 desperate requests for medical attention, filing them with every branch of the Russian criminal justice system. All of those requests were either ignored or explicitly denied in writing.

After more than three months of untreated pancreatitis and gallstones, Sergei Magnitsky went into critical condition. The Butyrka authorities did not want to have responsibility for him, so they put him in an ambulance and sent him to another prison that had medical facilities. But when he arrived there, instead of putting him in the emergency room, they put him in an isolation cell, chained him to a bed, and eight riot guards came in and beat him with rubber batons.

That night he was found dead on the cell floor.

Sergei Magnitsky died on November 16, 2009, at the age of 37, leaving a wife and two children. [Continue reading…]

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Iran dominates in Iraq after U.S. ‘handed the country over’

The New York Times reports: Walk into almost any market in Iraq and the shelves are filled with goods from Iran — milk, yogurt, chicken. Turn on the television and channel after channel broadcasts programs sympathetic to Iran.

A new building goes up? It is likely that the cement and bricks came from Iran. And when bored young Iraqi men take pills to get high, the illicit drugs are likely to have been smuggled across the porous Iranian border.

And that’s not even the half of it.

Across the country, Iranian-sponsored militias are hard at work establishing a corridor to move men and guns to proxy forces in Syria and Lebanon. And in the halls of power in Baghdad, even the most senior Iraqi cabinet officials have been blessed, or bounced out, by Iran’s leadership.

When the United States invaded Iraq 14 years ago to topple Saddam Hussein, it saw Iraq as a potential cornerstone of a democratic and Western-facing Middle East, and vast amounts of blood and treasure — about 4,500 American lives lost, more than $1 trillion spent — were poured into the cause.

From Day 1, Iran saw something else: a chance to make a client state of Iraq, a former enemy against which it fought a war in the 1980s so brutal, with chemical weapons and trench warfare, that historians look to World War I for analogies. If it succeeded, Iraq would never again pose a threat, and it could serve as a jumping-off point to spread Iranian influence around the region.

In that contest, Iran won, and the United States lost. [Continue reading…]

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Does Trump have a point about Obama and Russia?

Susan Glasser writes: Did President Obama “choke,” as his successor has now taken to claiming, by failing to respond more aggressively to the Russian hacking of the 2016 election?

For President Trump to say so carries more than a whiff of hypocrisy given that even now he refuses to unreservedly accept that the Russians were responsible and in nearly six months in office has done nothing about it himself. But even top Democrats are now increasingly acknowledging that he may have a point about Obama.

Obama’s former national security adviser, Thomas Donilon, says as much in a new interview for The Global Politico, telling me there’s “no doubt about it” that Obama should have publicly pinned the blame on the Russians much sooner and taken more aggressive steps to retaliate.

Donilon, a Washington lawyer and longtime Democratic player going back to his days as a junior staffer in Jimmy Carter’s White House, advised Obama through many of the key moments of his early presidency and went on to help lead the national security transition for what he expected to be the Hillary Clinton administration. Normally cautious, careful and exacting, Donilon argues that Obama as early as last summer should have made “aggressive public attribution” that Russia was responsible, long before the president ultimately did so last October just a few weeks before the election.

“Given the fact that they were attacking a fundamental element of our democracy,” Donilon says in the interview, the Obama administration should have been “pushing back harder and publicly” rather than worrying so much about appearing to use the national security apparatus for partisan ends or assuming a Clinton victory would end the matter. That “would have been a better course of action, frankly.” [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s plan to work with Putin on cybersecurity makes no sense. Here’s why

Henry Farrell writes: During the Obama administration, the United States and China reached an agreement on how to deal with contentious issues in cybersecurity. Both the United States and China hack into each other’s systems on a regular basis. The agreement was not intended to stop this but to prevent it from getting out of control in ways that might damage bilateral arrangements. Thus, the agreement created a kind of hotline for communication and information sharing about potentially problematic behavior, as well as a continuing dialogue on cyber issues. It also ruled out efforts by state actors to steal intellectual property (the United States had persistently complained that Chinese state hackers stole U.S. companies’ secrets and passed them on to Chinese competitor firms). To the surprise of many in the United States, the agreement seems to have helped moderate Chinese efforts to steal commercial secrets, although there is disagreement over whether this was because China was shamed and wanted to preserve honor, or alternatively used the agreement to impose control over unruly hackers.

Either way, this deal worked — to the extent it did work — because both states had roughly convergent interests over a very limited set of issues. It did not involve the exchange of truly sensitive information — China does not trust the United States with details of its defenses against cyberattacks, and the United States does not trust China. Instead, the two sides have looked to manage their disagreement, rather than engage in deep and extensive cooperation.

That doesn’t appear to be what Trump wants

As Trump has described his discussions with Putin, both want something much more far-reaching than the deal that Obama reached with China. Instead of setting up dialogue, Trump wants to engage in true cooperation. He wants to set up a joint “unit” that would handle election security issues so as to prevent hacking. This unit would, furthermore, be “impenetrable.”

Critics in the United States have unsurprisingly interpreted this proposal as a transparent ploy by Trump to sideline accusations that Russian hackers helped him win the presidential election. However, even if Trump’s proposal is taken at face value, it doesn’t make much sense.

U.S. officials don’t trust the Russians

If the proposed cybersecurity unit were to work effectively, the United States would need to share extensive information with Russia on how U.S. officials defend elections against foreign tampering. The problem is, however, that information that is valuable for defending U.S. systems is, almost by definition, information that is valuable for attacking them, too. This is one reason U.S. officials have not previously proposed any far-reaching arrangement with Russia on cybersecurity. Providing such information would almost certainly give the Russians a map of vulnerabilities and insecurities in the system that they could then exploit for their own purposes.

It would not only provide the fox with a map of the henhouse, but give him the security code, the backdoor key, and a wheelbarrow to make off with the carcasses. [Continue reading…]

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Under Trump, favorable views of U.S. decline worldwide, except in Russia

The Washington Post reports: President Trump has alarmed citizens of the nation’s closest allies and others worldwide, diminishing the standing of the United States in their eyes, according to a wide-ranging international study released Monday.

But in the survey of 37 countries, Russia is a bright spot for Trump. As beleaguered as the president is at home, a majority of Russians say they have confidence in him. And Russians’ attitudes toward the United States have improved since Trump took office.

Elsewhere, though, and with remarkable speed, Trump’s presidency has taken a toll on the United States’ image abroad.

The international survey by the Pew Research Center found that favorable ratings of the United States have decreased from 64 percent of people across all countries surveyed at the end of Barack Obama’s presidency to 49 percent this spring. The new figures are similar to those toward the end of the George W. Bush administration.

The president himself has fared even worse: A median 22 percent are confident that Trump will do the right thing in global affairs, down from 64 percent who had confidence in Obama. [Continue reading…]

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