Trump to ask for sharp increases in military spending, officials say

The New York Times reports: President Trump will instruct federal agencies on Monday to assemble a budget for the coming fiscal year that includes sharp increases in Defense Department spending and drastic enough cuts to domestic agencies that he can keep his promise to leave Social Security and Medicare alone, according to four senior administration officials.

The budget outline will be the first move in a campaign this week to reset the narrative of Mr. Trump’s turmoil-tossed White House.

A day before delivering a high-stakes address on Tuesday to a joint session of Congress, Mr. Trump will demand a budget with tens of billions of dollars in reductions to the Environmental Protection Agency and State Department, according to four senior administration officials with direct knowledge of the plan. Social safety net programs, aside from the big entitlement programs for retirees, would also be hit hard.

Preliminary budget outlines are usually little-noticed administrative exercises, the first step in negotiations between the White House and federal agencies that usually shave the sharpest edges off the initial request.

But this plan — a product of a collaboration between the Office of Management and Budget director, Mick Mulvaney; the National Economic Council director, Gary Cohn; and the White House chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon — is intended to make a big splash for a president eager to show that he is a man of action. [Continue reading…]

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Regent Mattis tries to contain King Trump’s madness

The New York Times reports: Inside the Pentagon, civilian and military officials appear to be relishing the fact that, so far, Mr. Mattis has protected them from many of the ups and downs coming out of the White House.

During a recent talk with policy officials at the Defense Department, Mr. Mattis told people to stay strong and keep going in the right direction — in many cases, largely the direction that they had already been going, according to a former senior military official who speaks frequently to his former colleagues. The former official said Mr. Mattis appeared to be pushing for greater expertise in the Pentagon and had asked officials not to change jobs so frequently that they are not able to become true experts.

An avid reader, Mr. Mattis also says he wants the Defense Department’s regional desks to be able to think the way people in their respective countries would think, officials said. He wants military officials to have read the literature of the country in which they specialize and to really understand the countries, not just the issues that affect bilateral relations with the United States. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: As commander of an armored cavalry troop, H. R. McMaster fought in the largest tank battle of the Persian Gulf war, earning a Silver Star in the process. Afterward, the young captain reflected on how different his experience had been from the accounts he had read about Vietnam.

So when he arrived at the University of North Carolina for graduate studies in fall 1992, questions swirled through his head: How had Vietnam become an American war? Why did American troops die without a clear idea of their mission? “I began to seek answers to those questions,” he later wrote.

The result was a dissertation that turned into a book that would become, for a whole generation of military officers, a must-read autopsy of a war gone wrong. Now, as a three-star general and President Trump’s national security adviser, General McMaster will have the opportunity to put the lessons of that book to the test inside the White House as he serves a mercurial commander in chief with neither political nor military experience.

The book, “Dereliction of Duty,” published in 1997, highlighted the consequences of the military not giving candid advice to a president. General McMaster concluded that during Vietnam, officers on the Joint Chiefs of Staff “failed to confront the president with their objections” to a strategy they thought would fail. Twenty years later, the book serves as a guidepost to how he views his role as the coordinator of the president’s foreign policy team.

“It’s a history, but he obviously draws conclusions about the need for what you might term brutally forthright assessments by military and indeed also by civilian leaders,” David H. Petraeus, the retired Army general and a patron of General McMaster, said in an interview. “That’s a hugely important takeaway. He has a record of being quite forthright.” [Continue reading…]

Steven Simon and Daniel Benjamin write: The new point man for the Trump administration’s counter-jihadist team is Sebastian Gorka, an itinerant instructor in the doctrine of irregular warfare and former national security editor at Breitbart. Stephen K. Bannon and Stephen Miller, the chief commissars of the Trump White House, have framed Islam as an enemy ideology and predicted a historic clash of civilizations. Mr. Gorka, who has been appointed deputy assistant to the president, is the expert they have empowered to translate their prediction into national strategy.

Mr. Gorka was born and raised in Britain, the son of Hungarian émigrés. As a political consultant in post-Communist Hungary, he acquired a doctorate and involved himself with ultranationalist politics. He later moved to the United States and became a citizen five years ago, while building a career moderating military seminars and establishing a reputation as an ill-informed Islamophobe. (He has responded to such claims by stating that he has read the Quran in translation.)

In 2015, he caught Donald Trump’s eye, perhaps appealing to someone who had no government experience by declaring everything done by the government to be idiotic. Most notably, Mr. Gorka derides the notion that Islamic militancy might reflect worldly grievances, like poor governance, repression, poverty and war. “This is the famous approach that says it is all so nuanced and complicated,” Mr. Gorka recently told The Washington Post. “This is what I completely jettison.” [Continue reading…]

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The contagion of hatred Trump is spreading across America

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports: Stacy Silver prayed as she drove with her husband to Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia’s Wissinoming section Sunday: Please don’t let my mother and great-grandmother be among the victims.

When Silver, 50, of Cherry Hill, N.J., heard about the vandalism at the Jewish cemetery that occurred overnight Saturday, she rushed to her loved ones’ graves.

What she saw when she arrived was worse than she imagined — tombstone after tombstone, story after story, was toppled to the ground — including those belonging to her mother and great-grandmother.

“Your stomach just drops,” Silver said. “I mean it’s just horrible.”

Detectives canvassing the cemetery Sunday afternoon estimated that 75 to 100 headstones had been knocked over.

“It’s criminal. This is beyond vandalism,” said Northeast Detectives Capt. Shawn Thrush, as he walked the cemetery grounds. “It’s beyond belief.”

The vandalism, coming a week after a similar incident in St. Louis, prompted the Anne Frank Center to call for President Trump to make a forceful denunciation of anti-Semitic hate crimes.

“Mr. President, it’s time for you to deliver a prime-time nationally televised speech, live from the Oval Office, on how you intend to combat not only #Antisemitism but also Islamophobia and other rising forms of hate,” the organization posted Sunday on Twitter. “Whether or not your intention, your Presidency has given the oxygen of incitement to some of the most viciously hateful elements of our society.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center recorded 1,372 bias incidents between Trump’s inauguration and Feb. 7, the watchdog group reported. Among those, the group highlighted 57 incidents in 24 states of anonymous bomb threats being called in to Jewish Community Centers. The organization has also recorded that the number of hate groups in the U.S. grew in 2016 for the second straight year, with a threefold increase in the number of anti-Muslim hate groups. [Continue reading…]

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White House leakers, leak details about meeting to clamp down on leaks

Politico reports: Press secretary Sean Spicer is cracking down on leaks coming out of the West Wing, with increased security measures that include random phone checks of White House staffers, overseen by White House attorneys.

The push to snuff out leaks to the press comes after a week in which President Donald Trump strongly criticized the media for using unnamed sources in stories and expressed growing frustration with the unauthorized sharing of information by individuals in his administration.

Last week, after Spicer became aware that information had leaked out of a planning meeting with about a dozen of his communications staffers, he reconvened the group in his office to express his frustration over the number of private conversations and meetings that were showing up in unflattering news stories, according to sources in the room.

Upon entering Spicer’s office for what one person briefed on the gathering described as “an emergency meeting,” staffers were told to dump their phones on a table for a “phone check,” to prove they had nothing to hide. [Continue reading…]

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Churches are readying homes and underground railroads to hide immigrants from deportation under Trump

BuzzFeed reports: Churches across the US are fighting back against the Trump administration’s mandate to ramp up deportations with new sanctuary practices of their own, using private homes in their congregations as shelter and potentially creating a modern-day underground railroad to ferry undocumented immigrants from house to house or into Canada.

Church leaders from California to Illinois and New York told BuzzFeed News they’re willing to take their sanctuary operations for undocumented immigrants underground should federal immigration authorities, emboldened by Trump’s recent directives to take a harder line on deportations, ignore precedent and raid their campuses.

“We’re willing to take that risk because it is our call to justice, and this is how we live our faith,” Rev. Justo Gonzalez II, pastor of Pilgrim St. Luke’s in Buffalo, told BuzzFeed News. He leads one of the churches that has reached out to an organization in Canada to possibly take in undocumented families.

Gonzalez knows they are stepping into legally murky territory, especially when it comes to possibly smuggling immigrants into Canada, but he said attorneys in his congregation have agreed to help them pro bono if they find themselves in hot water.

“I’m thrilled that we’re establishing a cross-border [link] into another country, so we could support people finding places they are welcome in because, frankly, this administration is not the place,” Gonzalez said. [Continue reading…]

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Whenever the press reports on Trump’s ties to Russia, Trump attacks the press

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Trump’s media war threatens journalists globally, protection group warns

The Guardian reports: The Trump administration should “act as a champion of press freedom”, a senior member of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said on Saturday, rather than prosecute a war with mainstream US media that could “send a signal to other countries that it is OK to verbally abuse journalists and undermine their credibility”.

Rob Mahoney, deputy executive director of the CPJ, a nonprofit that promotes press freedom worldwide, told the Guardian Trump’s attacks on the press do not “help our work trying to deal with countries like Turkey, Ethiopia or Venezuela, where you have governments who want to nothing more than to silence and intimidate the press.”

Mahoney also said attempts to favour conservative press outlets and declare the mainstream media the “enemy of the American people” looked like a deliberate effort by the White House to “inoculate itself from criticism”.

“Any time the press now uncovers an scandal or wrongdoing the administration can dismiss it as false,” he said. [Continue reading…]

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Biologists say half of all species could be extinct by end of century

The Observer reports: One in five species on Earth now faces extinction, and that will rise to 50% by the end of the century unless urgent action is taken. That is the stark view of the world’s leading biologists, ecologists and economists who will gather on Monday to determine the social and economic changes needed to save the planet’s biosphere.

“The living fabric of the world is slipping through our fingers without our showing much sign of caring,” say the organisers of the Biological Extinction conference held at the Vatican this week.

Threatened creatures such as the tiger or rhino may make occasional headlines, but little attention is paid to the eradication of most other life forms, they argue. But as the conference will hear, these animals and plants provide us with our food and medicine. They purify our water and air while also absorbing carbon emissions from our cars and factories, regenerating soil, and providing us with aesthetic inspiration.

“Rich western countries are now siphoning up the planet’s resources and destroying its ecosystems at an unprecedented rate,” said biologist Paul Ehrlich, of Stanford University in California. “We want to build highways across the Serengeti to get more rare earth minerals for our cellphones. We grab all the fish from the sea, wreck the coral reefs and put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We have triggered a major extinction event. The question is: how do we stop it?” [Continue reading…]

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Scott Pruitt vows to slash climate and water pollution regulations at CPAC

The Guardian reports: Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has vowed to roll back flagship regulations that tackle climate change and water pollution, telling a conservative audience in Maryland they would be “justified” in believing the environmental regulator should be completely disbanded.

The Trump appointee signalled that the president is set to start the work of dismantling climate and water rules as early as next week. Pruitt said the administration will “deal” with the Clean Power Plan, Barack Obama’s centrepiece policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and the Waters of the United States rule, which gives the EPA wider latitude to reduce pollution of waterways.

Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Pruitt said the EPA under Obama’s administration caused “regulatory uncertainty” for businesses and trampled on the rights of states and Congress. He promised to “restore federalism” by giving states more of a say in air and water protection and ensure that “regulations are reined in”. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. blocks Syrian rescue worker from attending the Oscars

The New York Times reports: Khaled Khatib, a Syrian rescue worker who served as a cinematographer on the Oscar-nominated documentary short “The White Helmets,” has been barred by American officials from traveling to Los Angeles for Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony, according to the Associated Press.

The AP reported that the Department of Homeland Security blocked Mr. Khatib after discovering “derogatory information” about him. Mr. Khatib had planned to fly from Istanbul to Los Angeles on Saturday. The AP said he had been detained earlier in the week by Turkish officials for undisclosed reasons, and that he needed a passport waiver to travel to the United States, which was denied. Raed Saleh, the leader of the White Helmets, was also to attend the Oscars; there was no indication that his plans were upended.

Mr. Khatib had planned to attend the ceremony after the Trump administration’s travel ban was lifted. The ban had halted or slowed travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Syria, but it was frozen by the courts.

A member of the White Helmets, a group that searches for survivors in the rubble of bombed-out buildings, Mr. Khatib also filmed the group’s rescue efforts for the 40-minute film, which was made for Netflix and directed by Orlando von Einsiedel. [Continue reading…]

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Kuwait could pay up to $60,000 for party at Trump Hotel in Washington

Reuters reports: The Kuwaiti government could pay up to $60,000 to President Donald Trump’s hotel in Washington for a party on Saturday that will be an early test of Trump’s promise to turn over profits from such events to the U.S. Treasury.

The Kuwait Embassy is hosting an event to mark their National Day. Similar National Day celebrations at the Trump International Hotel for a crowd of several hundred can run from $40,000 to $60,000, according to cost estimates from the hotel seen by Reuters. The hotel declined to comment on the figures.

One of Trump’s lawyers, Sheri Dillon, pledged at a Jan. 11 press conference to donate any Trump Hotel profits from foreign governments to the U.S. Treasury.

The White House and Alan Garten, the general counsel for the Trump Organization, did not return calls for comment on whether any profits from foreign government payments to the hotel have been donated. Dillon’s firm declined to comment. [Continue reading…]

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Rep. Darrell Issa: Trump-Russia probe requires a special prosecutor

Politico reports: A Republican congressman who aligned with President Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign called Friday for a special prosecutor to oversee the investigation into Trump associates’ contacts with Russia.

Rep. Darrell Issa said on HBO’s “Real Time” that Attorney General Jeff Sessions — who Trump appointed as the nation’s top law enforcement officer — should not handle the problem.

“You cannot have somebody, a friend of mine Jeff Sessions, who was on the campaign and who is an appointee,” the California Republican said in response to a question from host Bill Maher. “You’re going to need to use the special prosecutor’s statute and office to take — not just to recuse. You can’t just give it to your deputy. That’s another political appointee.”

Issa emphasized that “there may or may not be fault” with Trump’s associates but said Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutality toward political enemies highlighted the need for such a probe. [Continue reading…]

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Trump administration sought to enlist intelligence officials, key lawmakers to counter Russia stories

The Washington Post reports: The Trump administration has enlisted senior members of the intelligence community and Congress in efforts to counter news stories about Trump associates’ ties to Russia, a politically charged issue that has been under investigation by the FBI as well as lawmakers now defending the White House.

Acting at the behest of the White House, the officials made calls to news organizations last week in attempts to challenge stories about alleged contacts between members of President Trump’s campaign team and Russian intelligence operatives, U.S. officials said.

The calls were orchestrated by the White House after unsuccessful attempts by the administration to get senior FBI officials to speak with news organizations and dispute the accuracy of stories on the alleged contacts with Russia.

The White House on Friday acknowledged those interactions with the FBI but did not disclose that it then turned to other officials who agreed to do what the FBI would not — participate in White House-arranged calls with news organizations, including The Washington Post.

Two of those officials spoke on the condition of anonymity — a practice President Trump has condemned. [Continue reading…]

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The crook behind the Trump-Russia ‘peace’ plan

The Daily Beast reports: Felix Sater is an immigrant who did prison time for stabbing a man in the face with the broken stem of a margarita glass, and he would surely qualify for the label “bad hombre” were he from Mexico instead of Russia.

It was only by becoming a federal informant that Sater avoided an otherwise 20-year mandatory term for a $40 million fraud in which most of the victims were elderly, a number of them Holocaust survivors.

Sater’s father also became an informant after being convicted of joining a Mafia soldier shaking down small businesses in Brooklyn for nearly a decade.

None of that stopped Donald Trump from having extensive business dealings with Sater that included the high-rise Trump SoHo New York hotels and condos. Then, after Sater’s rap sheet was widely publicized, Trump said he hardly knew the man.

“If he were sitting in the room right now, I really wouldn’t know what he looked like,” Trump says in court papers from a 2013 law suit.

Yet, even as the Trump administration was preparing plans to ramp up deportations, the president’s longtime personal attorney sat down for coffee in a Manhattan hotel with this Russian immigrant.

According to The New York Times, Trump attorney Michael Cohen and Sater were party to some amateur diplomacy aimed at settling the Russian war on Ukraine with a plan to push Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko out of office.

Cohen insisted to The Daily Beast that the Times account was wrong and that he had not been involved in the peace plan. He declined to comment on whether he was troubled by Sater’s criminal background and organized crime ties. [Continue reading…]

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ICE agents feel unshackled as they fan across the U.S. in Trump’s war on undocumented immigrants

The New York Times reports: In Virginia, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents waited outside a church shelter where undocumented immigrants had gone to stay warm. In Texas and in Colorado, agents went into courthouses, looking for foreigners who had arrived for hearings on other matters.

At Kennedy International Airport in New York, passengers arriving after a five-hour flight from San Francisco were asked to show their documents before they were allowed to get off the plane.

The Trump administration’s far-reaching plan to arrest and deport vast numbers of undocumented immigrants has been introduced in dramatic fashion over the past month. And much of that task has fallen to thousands of ICE officers who are newly emboldened, newly empowered and already getting to work.

Gone are the Obama-era rules that required them to focus only on serious criminals. In Southern California, in one of the first major roundups during the Trump administration, officers detained 161 people with a wide range of felony and misdemeanor convictions, and 10 who had no criminal history at all.

“Before, we used to be told, ‘You can’t arrest those people,’ and we’d be disciplined for being insubordinate if we did,” said a 10-year veteran of the agency who took part in the operation. “Now those people are priorities again. And there are a lot of them here.”

Interviews with 17 agents and officials across the country, including in Florida, Alabama, Texas, Arizona, Washington and California, demonstrated how quickly a new atmosphere in the agency had taken hold. Since they are forbidden to talk to the press, they requested anonymity out of concern for losing their jobs.

The White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, said on Tuesday that the president wanted to “take the shackles off” of agents, an expression the officers themselves used time and again in interviews to describe their newfound freedom.

“Morale amongst our agents and officers has increased exponentially since the signing of the orders,” the unions representing ICE and Border Patrol agents said in a joint statement after President Trump issued the executive orders on immigration late last month. [Continue reading…]

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I cover hate. I didn’t expect it at my family’s Jewish cemetery

By Ariana Tobin, ProPublica, February 23, 2017

When it comes to death, my family honors all of the Ashkenazi Jewish traditions: We name our children after dead relatives, we sit shiva for a week, we gather around trays of fruit and lox and cream cheese, we cover the mirrors, we say the Kaddish prayer, we each toss three shovelfuls of dirt into the grave, and we wait a year to put a stone on top of it. When I got my driver’s license at 16, my mom asked me not to sign the organ donor card because Jews are supposed to be laid to rest in one piece. When I turned 18 and signed it anyway, I couldn’t stop imagining her face when she found out after I’d died in a car accident.

But traditions don’t protect you from death, or the life of anxiety in preparation for it. When I told my grandmother — her mother called her Malka, her sisters called her Mollie — that I had an opportunity to teach English abroad, I knew what to expect in response: “That’s nice, baby, but why don’t you find a teaching job around here where it’s safe?” That, and a $20 bill she couldn’t necessarily afford to give.

But when I added, “I’m going to a place in Belarus called Minsk; it’s a big city,” her reply took me by surprise. “Minsk!” she exclaimed. “That’s where my mother was from! I guess you could go. Maybe you’ll see where they lived?”

I did go. I didn’t see where they lived because that place does not exist anymore, thanks to World War II and the Soviets. To identify the symbols of Judaism left in a city that was about 37 percent Jewish in 1941, you have to squint at the stone facades of buildings and say, “Yes, I think that might be a Hebrew character.” You have to stare hard, and wonder, “Hmm, is that Yiddish?”

There are statues and plaques here and there. But look as one might, there are few relics of Jewish death. When you visit Khatyn, a memorial to the victims of “the Great War,” you learn about the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, but little to nothing about what religion they practiced. Nor are there signs marking entire villages of Belarussians, Jews and non-Jews, that became unmarked mass graves. When I would ask my students and co-workers and friends, “What happened to the Jews here?” all most of them would say was, “They left.”

[Read more…]

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