Nothing happened. It happens all the time

It’s a strange line of argument but surprisingly commonplace: to first vigorously deny something has happened, but to then say that if it did happen it’s perfectly normal.

When it comes to the issue of Russian interference in American democracy — an issue that should be of real concern to every American citizen — the deniers are mostly in the same position as people who deny climate change.

Assuming a stance of assiduous skepticism they plead that insufficient evidence has been presented to prove the case. As often applies to climate deniers, this professed skepticism seems intended to obscure the fact that the skeptic has a deep investment in one side of the argument.

At the conclusion of his latest diatribe against the mainstream media, Glenn Greenwald writes:

Since it is so often distorted, permit me once again to underscore my own view on the broader Russia issue: Of course it is possible that Russia is responsible for these hacks, as this is perfectly consistent with (and far more mild than) what both Russia and the U.S. have done repeatedly for decades.

But given the stakes involved, along with the incentives for error and/or deceit, no rational person should be willing to embrace these accusations as Truth unless and until convincing evidence has been publicly presented for review, which most certainly has not yet happened.

“[W]hat both Russia and the U.S. have done repeatedly for decades” has a vagueness worthy of Donald Trump, but Greenwald’s drift is clear: if the DNC hackings were carried out by Russia, it’s par for the course — nothing unusual, so let’s just move on.

Yet he concedes there are “stakes involved.” Indeed there are, not only because interference by a foreign power played a role in Donald Trump becoming the next U.S. president, but because this puts Greenwald and his close associate and Moscow resident, Edward Snowden, in a very awkward position. Increasingly they look less like independent dissidents speaking truth to power, and more like de facto sympathizers with a hostile power.

During the Bush era, critics of the war in Iraq and of the neoconservative agenda broadly accepted the view that America’s destructive involvement in the Middle East could ultimately be reduced to a single issue: control of the global oil supply.

Strangely, many of those same critics while now witnessing the power of oil flexing its muscles more strongly than ever seen before, would rather focus their attention on the perennial bugaboos of Washington, the mainstream media, the intelligence agencies, and American power.

The DNC was hacked, Wikileaks fed the media with a steady stream of unstartling emails, Trump wildly distorted their contents, and now the most Russia-friendly president ever is about to take office, leading an administration loaded with individuals tied to the oil industry.

Russia, the world’s number-one oil producer, eagerly awaits improved relations with the U.S. not only in the form of sanctions relief but also as Washington predictably tries to slam the brakes on the transition to renewable energy.

Vladimir Putin, who nowadays sees himself as the most powerful man in the world, has reason to be smiling with glee, while the hacking skeptics apparently think he’s merely the beneficiary of a string of good luck and that broadly speaking this is all just business as usual.

You’ve got to be kidding!

The oil industry, Washington, and Moscow will soon be marching in lockstep, while Greenwald directs his audience to the occasional piece of sloppy journalism.

Those who once warned about their dangers are now themselves wielding the weapons of mass distraction.

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U.S.-Venezuela relations will probably deteriorate under Trump. Ask ExxonMobil why

Timothy M. Gill writes: President-elect Donald Trump recently nominated ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to be secretary of state. That company and Venezuela have been hostile toward each other over the past decade — which means Tillerson’s nomination suggests that the United States and Venezuela have a tense relationship ahead.

Venezuela is in a stunning economic crisis, with triple-digit inflation, scarce food and medicine, and a weakening currency. The Venezuelan government blames all this on “economic war” waged by the United States and the Venezuelan opposition.

Over the past two decades, the United States and Venezuela have had a difficult relationship. Since the 1998 election of Hugo Chávez as president, Venezuela has criticized U.S. foreign policy, including the “war on terror”; promoted socialist and left-wing governments throughout Latin America; and sought to create a multipolar world by embracing anti-U.S. leaders in Belarus, Cuba, Iran and Russia. [Continue reading…]

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The secret wealth of the royal family running ‘Al Saud Inc’

The New York Times reports from Tangiers: Behind a tall perimeter wall, studded with surveillance cameras and guarded by Moroccan soldiers, a sprawling new palace for King Salman of Saudi Arabia rose on the Atlantic coast here last summer.

Even as the Saudi government canceled a quarter of a trillion dollars’ worth of projects back home as part of a fiscal austerity program, workers hustled to finish bright blue landing pads for helicopters at the vacation compound and to erect a tent the size of a circus big-top where the king could feast and entertain his enormous retinue.

The royal family’s fortune derives from the reserves of petroleum discovered during the reign of Salman’s father, King Abdulaziz ibn Saud, more than 75 years ago. The sale of oil provides billions of dollars in annual allowances, public-sector sinecures and perks for royals, the wealthiest of whom own French chateaus and Saudi palaces, stash money in Swiss bank accounts, wear couture dresses under their abayas and frolic on some of the world’s biggest yachts out of sight of commoners.

King Salman serves as chairman of the family business unofficially known as “Al Saud Inc.” Sustained low oil prices have strained the economy and forced questions about whether the family — with thousands of members and still growing — can simultaneously maintain its lavish lifestyle and its unchallenged grip on the country. [Continue reading…]

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Putin’s oil and gas deals magnify military power in Middle East

Bloomberg reports: After reinventing itself as a major power in the Middle East by force in Syria, Russia is now using its other strong suit, energy, to expand its influence across the region.

A series of agreements is allowing Russia and the Gulf states to cooperate in areas where their interests meet, looking beyond Syria where they have backed opposing sides in a brutal proxy war. Over the past month alone, Russia brokered the first deal between the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and non-OPEC nations in 15 years to cut oil production, secured a $5 billion investment by Qatar in oil giant Rosneft PJSC, and then saw Rosneft agree to pay as much as $2.8 billion for a stake in an Egyptian gas field.

“Russia is really keen to increase leverage in the Middle East by every means,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.

It’s a reflection of how events in the region are combining in favor of Russian President Vladimir Putin as rarely before. A cooling of U.S. alliances in the Gulf in recent years, the havoc cheaper oil has wreaked in energy-dependent economies and a recognition that Russia can no longer be ignored on regional security issues mean Putin is pushing at an increasingly open door. [Continue reading…]

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Obama bans drilling in parts of the Atlantic and the Arctic

The New York Times reports: President Obama announced on Tuesday what he called a permanent ban on offshore oil and gas drilling along wide areas of the Arctic and the Atlantic Seaboard as he tried to nail down an environmental legacy that cannot quickly be reversed by Donald J. Trump.

Mr. Obama invoked an obscure provision of a 1953 law, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, which he said gives him the authority to act unilaterally. While some presidents have used that law to temporarily protect smaller portions of federal waters, Mr. Obama’s declaration of a permanent drilling ban from Virginia to Maine on the Atlantic and along much of Alaska’s coast is breaking new ground. The declaration’s fate will almost certainly be decided by the federal courts.

“It’s never been done before,” said Patrick Parenteau, a professor of environmental law at the University of Vermont. “There is no case law on this. It’s uncharted waters.”

The move — considered creative by supporters and abusive by opponents — is one of many efforts by Mr. Obama to protect the environmental policies he can from a successor who has vowed to roll them back. The president, in concert with United Nations leaders, rushed countries to ratify the Paris Agreement on climate change, putting the multinational accord into force in record time, before Mr. Trump’s inauguration.

Environmentalists are already drawing comparisons between Mr. Obama’s use of the 1953 law to ban new drilling to what critics and opponents called his novel and audacious efforts to craft new climate change regulations: He turned to an obscure, rarely used provision in the 1970 Clean Air Act to write sweeping regulations that would require states to shift their electricity systems from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. [Continue reading…]

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Leak reveals Rex Tillerson is director of Bahamas-based U.S.-Russian oil company

The Guardian reports: Rex Tillerson, the businessman nominated by Donald Trump to be the next US secretary of state, is the long-time director of a US-Russian oil firm based in the tax haven of the Bahamas, leaked documents show.

Tillerson – the chief executive of ExxonMobil – has been a director of the oil company’s Russian subsidiary, Exxon Neftegas, since 1998. His name – RW Tillerson – appears next to other officers who are based at Houston, Texas; Moscow; and Sakhalin, in Russia’s far east.

The leaked 2001 document comes from the corporate registry in the Bahamas. It was one of 1.3m files given to the Germany newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung by an anonymous source. The registry is public but details of individual directors are typically incomplete or missing entirely.

Though there is nothing untoward about this directorship, it has not been reported before and is likely to raise fresh questions over Tillerson’s relationship with Russia ahead of a potentially stormy confirmation hearing by the US senate foreign relations committee.

ExxonMobil’s use of offshore regimes – while legal – may also jar with Trump’s avowal to put “America first”.

Tillerson’s critics say he is too close to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and that his appointment could raise potential conflicts of interest. [Continue reading…]

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Michael Klare: Donald Trump’s energy nostalgia and the path to hell

The Trump administration-in-formation is a stew of generals, billionaires, and multimillionaires — and as in the case of retired Marine General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, the likely new secretary of defense, even the military men seem to have made more than a few bucks in these last years.  In retirement, Mattis, for instance, joined the board of military-industrial giant General Dynamics as one of 13 “independent directors,” reportedly amassing at least $900,000 in company stock and another $600,000 in cold cash.

Oh yes, and there’s one other requirement for admission to the Trump administration: your basic civilian appointee must be ready to demolish the system he or she is to head. Betsy DeVos, the president-elect’s pick for education secretary, wants to take apart public education; Tom Price, the future secretary of health and human services, is eager to dismantle Obamacare and Medicare; Scott Pruitt, the proposed new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, seems to want to tear that agency limb from limb; and the announced new “labor” secretary (and you really do have to put that in scare quotes), fast food CEO Andy Puzder, is against raising the minimum wage and thinks the automation of the workplace is a total plus, since machines can’t take vacations or arrive late.

Let’s face it, the most extreme government of our lifetime is going to be a demolition derby. Think of it as the Reagan administration of the 1980s on steroids — and keep in mind that Donald Trump will be the president of a far more fragile country than the one Ronald Reagan and his cronies presided over.  Things could begin to fall apart fast for ordinary Americans.  For instance, the new Republican Congress is expected to swiftly pass a promised “repeal and delay” version of the obliteration of Obamacare, officially wiping that program off the books and yet postponing its departure and the arrival of whatever is to replace it until after the 2018 elections.  In the interim, however, the result is likely to be a “zombie” health care marketplace from which insurance companies are expected to begin to jump ship, potentially leaving significant numbers of those 20 million Americans who got medical coverage for the first time via Obamacare with nothing.  And after EPA chief Pruitt has helped let Donald Trump’s “energy revolution” of extreme fossil fuel exploitation loose to do its damnedest and, as TomDispatch regular Michael Klare makes clear today, America’s skies are once again veritable smog-fests, there will be plenty more health needs on whatever’s left of the horizon.

Donald Trump, as Politico points out, is already at war with labor, and prospectively with those “failing government schools,” and the American safety net, and the environment, not to mention the planet and that’s before we even get to actual war, which will be overseen by a crew of Islamo– and Irano-phobes.  If, as Klare points out today, Trump himself has a serious case of nostalgia for the America of his youth (and mine), with its untrammeled growth and its fossil-fueled wonders, don’t think that nostalgia doesn’t reign in military affairs, too.  In that case, however, it wouldn’t be for the oily vistas of the mid-twentieth century, but perhaps for the age of the Crusades. Tom Engelhardt

Drowning the world in oil
Trump’s carbon-obsessed energy policy and the planetary nightmare to come
By Michael T. Klare

Scroll through Donald Trump’s campaign promises or listen to his speeches and you could easily conclude that his energy policy consists of little more than a wish list drawn up by the major fossil fuel companies: lift environmental restrictions on oil and natural gas extraction, build the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, open more federal lands to drilling, withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, kill Obama’s Clean Power Plan, revive the coal mining industry, and so on and so forth ad infinitum.  In fact, many of his proposals have simply been lifted straight from the talking points of top energy industry officials and their lavishly financed allies in Congress.

If, however, you take a closer look at this morass of pro-carbon proposals, an obvious, if as yet unnoted, contradiction quickly becomes apparent. Were all Trump’s policies to be enacted — and the appointment of the climate-change denier and industry-friendly attorney general of Oklahoma, Scott Pruitt, to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests the attempt will be made — not all segments of the energy industry will flourish.  Instead, many fossil fuel companies will be annihilated, thanks to the rock-bottom fuel prices produced by a colossal oversupply of oil, coal, and natural gas.

Indeed, stop thinking of Trump’s energy policy as primarily aimed at helping the fossil fuel companies (although some will surely benefit).  Think of it instead as a nostalgic compulsion aimed at restoring a long-vanished America in which coal plants, steel mills, and gas-guzzling automobiles were the designated indicators of progress, while concern over pollution — let alone climate change — was yet to be an issue.

[Read more…]

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‘Trump is creating a government of, by, and for the oil and gas industry’

Kate Sheppard writes: Rex Tillerson at the State Department. Scott Pruitt at the Environmental Protection Agency. Rick Perry at the Department of Energy. Jeff Sessions at the Department of Justice.

If environmentalists found themselves in some kind of paralyzing hypnagogia on Nov. 9, the day they realized that there was no waking up from this was Dec. 13.

Tillerson is the CEO of Exxon Mobil, a company that spent decades and millions of dollars supporting climate change denial and is currently under investigation for doing so. Tillerson has personally argued that climate change is no biggie because “we will adapt to this.” If he’s confirmed as secretary of state, he will be in the position of deciding whether the U.S. stays involved in the Paris climate agreement and whether to approve massive international oil pipelines like Keystone XL.

Pruitt is the attorney general of Oklahoma and has described himself as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.” He is currently suing the EPA ― the agency he could lead ― to stop the Obama administration’s regulatory effort to curb emissions from power plants, and he was caught letting oil industry lawyers draft letters to regulators on his behalf.

Perry, the former Republican governor of Texas, is expected to be nominated to lead a department whose name he once famously forgot while pledging to eliminate it. He has said that climate change is just a “theory that remains unproven” and that climate scientists have “manipulated data to keep the money rolling in.” A few years ago, Perry’s top environmental officials in Texas removed all mentions of climate change from a report on rising sea levels in Galveston Bay. There are already signs that the Trump team wants to undertake a climate purge at the Energy Department; transition officials sent a questionnaire to the department last week, asking for the names of employees who had worked on the issue. [Continue reading…]

Anders Åslund writes: President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of ExxonMobil’s CEO Rex Tillerson is profoundly disturbing. Tillerson will receive a “nest egg” of some $300 million from ExxonMobil when he retires. These future benefits will be paid over many years making Tillerson deeply dependent on the success of ExxonMobil, not least in Russia, which accounts for a significant share of its investment. This is a serious conflict of interest. Worse, it involves a hostile foreign power. Hopefully, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would consider such a conflict of interest disqualifying.

While ExxonMobil seems to have abided by the US sanctions against Russia, the company has persistently protested against these sanctions since they were introduced in July 2014. Thus, Tillerson stands out as one of the greatest opponents of the current US policy on Russia. Tillerson has also developed close personal relations with Vladimir Putin and Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin. While that might have benefitted the business of ExxonMobil, these are not people that are commonly considered decent. [Continue reading…]

Tillerson’s nomination has been warmly received by prominent Republicans with ties to ExxonMobil.

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Rex Tillerson’s company, Exxon, has billions at stake over sanctions on Russia

The New York Times reports: Now that President-elect Donald J. Trump has chosen Rex W. Tillerson, the chief executive of Exxon Mobil, to be the next secretary of state, the giant oil company stands to make some major gains as well: It has billions of dollars in deals that can go forward only if the United States lifts sanctions against Russia.

As head of America’s largest oil company, Mr. Tillerson has earned a friendship award from Russia and voiced skepticism about American sanctions that have halted some of Exxon Mobil’s biggest projects in the country.

But Mr. Tillerson’s stake in Russia’s energy industry could create a very blurry line between his interests as an oilman and his role as America’s leading diplomat.

“The chances that he will view Russia with Exxon Mobil DNA are close to 100 percent,” said Robert Weissman, the president of Public Citizen, a public interest group based in Washington. [Continue reading…]

Bloomberg reports: Rex Tillerson, the Exxon Mobil Corp. chief who is President-elect Donald Trump’s leading candidate for secretary of state, visited the White House repeatedly as sanctions were imposed on Russia in 2014 to make sure his company’s competitors didn’t gain an edge in the way they were enforced.

Tillerson made at least 20 visits to the White House during President Barack Obama’s two terms, visitor logs show, including five after Obama began authorizing the 2014 sanctions in response to Russian aggression toward Ukraine. [Continue reading…]

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Trump picks ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to be secretary of state

The Washington Post reports: President-elect Donald Trump has picked as his secretary of state Rex Tillerson, the chief executive of ExxonMobil, setting up a possible confrontation with members of his own party in the Senate, Trump’s transition team announced Tuesday.

Since Tillerson’s name emerged as a candidate for the post, leading Republicans have expressed reservations about his years of work in Russia and the Middle East on behalf of the multinational petroleum company.

GOP advisers have warned that a growing number of Republican senators may be unwilling to vote to confirm Tillerson because of his ties to Russia. While Senate Democrats cannot filibuster Trump’s Cabinet picks, Republicans have only 52 votes in the Senate, leaving them in potential jeopardy if Democrats unite in opposition to Tillerson. It will take at least 50 votes to confirm a nominee, plus Vice President-elect Mile Pence casting a tiebreaking vote. [Continue reading…]

The Daily Beast reports: Donald Trump’s long-time but informal adviser Roger Stone says the Secretary of State job was dangled in front of Mitt Romney in order to “torture” him for previously opposing the president-elect.

During a Sunday appearance on InfoWars with Alex Jones, a conspiratorial media outlet that has become a mouthpiece of the next president, Stone called Romney a “choker” and said that Trump was simply toying with him.

Donald Trump was interviewing Mitt Romney for Secretary of State in order to torture him,” Stone claimed on the program. “To toy with him. And given the history, that’s completely understandable. Mitt Romney crossed a line. He didn’t just oppose Trump, which is his democratic right, he called him a phony and a fraud. And a con man. And that’s not the kind of man you want as Secretary of State.” [Continue reading…]

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Rex Tillerson, from a corporate oil sovereign to the State Department

Steve Coll writes: The news that President-elect Donald Trump is expected to nominate Rex Tillerson, the chairman and chief executive of ExxonMobil, as his Secretary of State is astonishing on many levels. As an exercise of public diplomacy, it will certainly confirm the assumption of many people around the world that American power is best understood as a raw, neocolonial exercise in securing resources.

Tillerson figures prominently in “Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power,” a book I wrote about the corporation that came out in 2012. He declined my requests to interview him for that project, but I turned up at several public appearances he made and asked him a few questions from the reporters’ gallery. I also studied his public remarks, reviewed accounts of his activities reported in State Department cables obtained by Freedom of Information Act requests or released by WikiLeaks, and conducted interviews with other ExxonMobil executives, retirees, friends, competitors, civil-society activists and business partners from Asia to Africa to the Middle East.

Tillerson’s life has been shaped to a profound extent by two institutions: ExxonMobil and the Boy Scouts of America. He grew up in Texas, where his father was a modestly compensated administrator for the Scouts. Tillerson became an Eagle Scout. An engineering major at the University of Texas, in Austin, Tillerson joined ExxonMobil in 1975. He has never worked anywhere else. Of all the companies that were born out of the breakup of Standard Oil, Exxon is culturally the most direct descendant of John D. Rockefeller’s monopolistic giant, which was organized on principles of ruthless capitalism and Protestant faith. Exxon today is an unusually cloistered corporation that promotes virtually all of its top executives from within. Former executives I interviewed mentioned that as recently as the nineteen-seventies, it was not unusual to start company meetings with a prayer. When Tillerson finally won a competition for the top job, in 2004, he directed substantial time and charitable activity toward the Boy Scouts. In public appearances, he comes across as sophisticated, yet his life is rooted in environments that are fundamentally nostalgic for imagined midcentury virtues and for the days when burning fossil fuels did not threaten to trigger catastrophic climate change. Tillerson once listed his favorite book as “Atlas Shrugged,” Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel that has become a touchstone for libertarians and promoters of unbridled capitalism. Compared to the records of some of the other people around Trump, Tillerson’s is at least one of professional integrity; Exxon is a ruthless and unusually aggressive corporation, but it is also rule-bound, has built up a relatively strong safety record, and has avoided problems such as prosecutions under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, even though it operates in many countries that are rife with corruption. [Continue reading…]

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What it really means to be a ‘friend of Putin’

Julia Ioffe writes: In June 2008, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson attended the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, Russia’s answer to Davos, its way of showing itself to the world as the kind of economic powerhouse that can attract executives like Rex Tillerson to its banquets. It was a key and very shaky moment for Russia. Vladimir Putin was bowing out after his second term as president of Russia — the most the Russian constitution allows in a row, though he would figure out a way around it by 2012 — and his successor, the relatively liberal Dmitri Medvedev, was debuting at the Forum. Tensions were heating up with Russia’s southern neighbor, Georgia, and would soon spill into war. The Russian economy was already getting shaky, and within a few months it would crater, faring the worst out of all the G20 economies, sinking from eight percent GDP growth, to negative eight percent.

Even after eight years of Putin assiduously taking control of the Russian economy and trying to restore some modicum of Soviet geopolitical power, Russia was still a pretty weak player. It had been relegated to last place among the BRICs, that term coined by a Goldman Sachs banker to connote the emerging markets of Brazil, Russia, India, and China. And despite surging commodity prices — oil at the time was around $130 a barrel — Russia wasn’t making a good case for itself in the world. Gazprom, the Russian state gas monopoly, was rattling European nerves by shutting gas supplies on and off in an effort to control an increasingly independent Ukraine, thus leaving much of Central Europe without heat in the winters. It had only been five years since oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was thrown in jail for not bowing to Putin’s will, and two years since the Kremlin unceremoniously pushed Royal Dutch Shell out of a lucrative gas project in the far eastern island of Sakhalin. BP was on the obvious verge of meeting the same fate. The following month, BP chief Robert Dudley would flee Russia, complaining of “sustained harassment.”

When Tillerson mounted the stage in St. Petersburg that summer, he chastised the Russian government for the way it was operating. The Kremlin, he said, “must improve the functioning of its judicial system and its judiciary. There is no respect for the rule of law in Russia today.”

It’s hard to imagine Tillerson, now reportedly the frontrunner for Secretary of State under president-elect Donald Trump, saying something similar today, much less from a stage in Russia’s second capital, Vladimir Putin’s birthplace, and at a high-stakes, window-dressing government function. It’s not that Russia has suddenly acquired a taste for the rule of law—if anything, things have only gotten far, far worse, and Russia’s judiciary has become no more independent. And it’s not even because Tillerson is now ubiquitously identified in the press as being personally close to Putin. As the Wall Street Journal puts it, “Among those considered for the post, Mr. Tillerson has perhaps the closest ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin,” adding that, in 2012, Putin personally bestowed Russia’s Order of Friendship on Tillerson.

It’s hard to imagine Tillerson publicly chiding Putin today because he is now so very dependent on that friendship. [Continue reading…]

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