Jaroslaw Kaczynski is driving Poland away from European democracy

Der Spiegel reports: The nucleus of Poland’s political power lies not in the parliament in Warsaw, not in the presidential palace, but in a windowless, slightly strange looking building that most resembles a multistory car park. It’s not quite part of Warsaw’s city center, although downtown’s many new glass and steel skyscrapers are still just in sight.

Every day, an official car picks up Jaroslaw Kaczynski from his apartment in the Zoliborz neighborhood and brings him to this office block at 84-86 Nowogrodzka. The building houses a sushi restaurant, a copy shop and an insurance company — and the headquarters of Kaczynski’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party.

Its chairman uses a separate entrance. In the mornings, a team of young staff members supplies him with books, newspapers and printouts. All in Polish, because Kaczynski only reads Polish sources. At midday, a procession of black limos starts arriving, delivering ministers — and occasionally the president of the Polish National Bank — to the Nowogrodzka office to pick up directives and seek advice.

Despite holding no formal government office, Kaczynski is Warsaw’s undisputed leader. Together with his late twin brother, Lech, he founded the PiS party in 2001 and twice led it to victory. In 2015, he hand-picked its presidential candidate Andrzej Duda, at the time an unknown member of the European Parliament, who went on to win the vote. He also personally selected current Prime Minister Beata Szydlo. Both politicians are widely seen as Kaczynski’s willing stooges. [Continue reading…]

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Trump voters remain unwilling to admit they got fooled

 

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The untouchable Hope Hicks, a ‘souvenir from Trump Tower’

Politico reports: Hope Hicks was celebrating a family wedding at a Bermuda golf club the weekend after Donald Trump was elected president when she overheard members of another party expressing dismay about his victory.

The young press secretary was off duty, but she couldn’t help inserting herself into the conversation at the next table. “I promise, he’s a good person!” Hicks chimed in, begging them not to worry, according to multiple people who witnessed the exchange.

Hicks’ instinctual defense of the president is emblematic of how she views her role in the White House: as someone who deeply understands Trump, but also understands why, in her mind, people misunderstand him. The polite, soft-spoken 28-year-old newbie to Washington politics holds the lofty title of director of strategic communications, pulls down the top White House salary of $179,700 – the same as strategist Steve Bannon and chief of staff Reince Priebus – but operates outside of any organizational chart.

She is protected, in a world of rival power centers, by the deep bond she shares with the man at the top. He affectionately refers to her as “Hopester.” She still calls him “Mr. Trump.” And she views her job, ultimately, as someone who is installed where she is in order to help, but not change, the leader of the free world. [Continue reading…]

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Read Anthony Scaramucci’s old tweets. You’ll understand why he deleted them

The Washington Post reports: New White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci hasn’t always shared the political views of the administration he now serves.

In previous tweets, the Wall Street financier called Hillary Clinton “incredibly competent” and appeared to be at odds with his new boss on issues such as gun control, climate change, Islam and illegal immigration.

But on Saturday, the day after he became Trump’s communications director, he announced on Twitter that he’s deleting his old tweets, which he said are only a distraction. [Continue reading…]

As predictable as it is that social media now revels in Scaramucci’s old tweets, it’s worth asking this: Which is preferable? That the only people close at Trump’s side are true believers, or that he should also include those whose support appears disingenuous? I’d say that the more there are of dubious loyalties, the better.

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Trump claims he has ‘complete power’ to pardon

The New York Times reports: President Trump on Saturday asserted the “complete power to pardon” relatives, aides and possibly even himself in response to investigations into Russia’s meddling in last year’s election, as he came to the defense of Attorney General Jeff Sessions just days after expressing regret about appointing him.

Mr. Trump suggested in a series of early morning messages on Twitter that he had no need to use the pardon power at this point but left the option open. Presidents have the authority to pardon others for federal crimes, but legal scholars debate whether a president can pardon himself. Mr. Trump’s use of the word “complete” seemed to suggest he did not see a limit to that authority.

“While all agree the U.S. President has the complete power to pardon, why think of that when only crime so far is LEAKS against us,” he wrote on Twitter. “FAKE NEWS.”

The Washington Post reported in recent days that the president and his advisers had discussed pardons as a special counsel intensifies an investigation into whether associates of Mr. Trump and his campaign conspired with Russia to intervene in the 2016 presidential campaign. [Continue reading…]

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Can the president be indicted? A long-hidden legal memo says yes

The New York Times reports: A newfound memo from Kenneth W. Starr’s independent counsel investigation into President Bill Clinton sheds fresh light on a constitutional puzzle that is taking on mounting significance amid the Trump-Russia inquiry: Can a sitting president be indicted?

The 56-page memo, locked in the National Archives for nearly two decades and obtained by The New York Times under the Freedom of Information Act, amounts to the most thorough government-commissioned analysis rejecting a generally held view that presidents are immune from prosecution while in office.

“It is proper, constitutional, and legal for a federal grand jury to indict a sitting president for serious criminal acts that are not part of, and are contrary to, the president’s official duties,” the Starr office memo concludes. “In this country, no one, even President Clinton, is above the law.”

Mr. Starr assigned Ronald Rotunda, a prominent conservative professor of constitutional law and ethics whom Mr. Starr hired as a consultant on his legal team, to write the memo in spring 1998 after deputies advised him that they had gathered enough evidence to ask a grand jury to indict Mr. Clinton, the memo shows.

Other prosecutors working for Mr. Starr developed a draft indictment of Mr. Clinton, which The Times has also requested be made public. The National Archives has not processed that file to determine whether it is exempt from disclosure under grand-jury secrecy rules. [Continue reading…]

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Congress reaches deal on Russia sanctions, creating tough choice for Trump

The New York Times reports: Congressional leaders have reached an agreement on sweeping sanctions legislation to punish Russia for its election meddling and aggression toward its neighbors, they said Saturday, defying the White House’s argument that President Trump needs flexibility to adjust the sanctions to fit his diplomatic initiatives with Moscow.

The new legislation sharply limits the president’s ability to suspend or terminate the sanctions — a remarkable handcuffing by a Republican-led Congress six months into Mr. Trump’s tenure. It is also the latest Russia-tinged turn for a presidency consumed by investigations into the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russian officials last year.

Mr. Trump could soon face a decision: veto the bill — a move that would fuel accusations that he is doing the bidding of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia — or sign legislation imposing sanctions his administration abhors.

“A nearly united Congress is poised to send President Putin a clear message on behalf of the American people and our allies, and we need President Trump to help us deliver that message,” said Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The White House has not publicly spoken about the compromise legislation. But two senior administration officials said they could not imagine Mr. Trump vetoing the legislation in the current political atmosphere, even if he regards it as interfering with his executive authority to conduct foreign policy. But as ever, Mr. Trump retains the capacity to surprise, and this would be his first decision about whether to veto a significant bill. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. investigators seek to turn Manafort in Russia probe

Reuters reports: U.S. investigators examining money laundering accusations against President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort hope to push him to cooperate with their probe into possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia, two sources with direct knowledge of the investigation said.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team is examining Manafort’s financial and real estate records in New York as well as his involvement in Ukrainian politics, the officials said.

Between 2006 and 2013, Manafort bought three New York properties, including one in Trump Tower in Manhattan. He paid for them in full and later took out mortgages against them. A former senior U.S. law enforcement official said that tactic is often used as a means to hide the origin of funds gained illegally. Reuters has no independent evidence that Manafort did this.

The sources also did not say whether Mueller has uncovered any evidence to charge Manafort with money laundering, but they said doing so is seen by investigators as critical in getting his full cooperation in their investigation. [Continue reading…]

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Trump assigns White House team to target Iran nuclear deal, sidelining State Department

Foreign Policy reports: After a contentious meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this week, President Donald Trump instructed a group of trusted White House staffers to make the potential case for withholding certification of Iran at the next 90-day review of the nuclear deal. The goal was to give Trump what he felt the State Department had failed to do: the option to declare that Tehran was not in compliance with the contentious agreement.

“The president assigned White House staffers with the task of preparing for the possibility of decertification for the 90-day review period that ends in October — a task he had previously given to Secretary Tillerson and the State Department,” a source close to the White House told Foreign Policy.

The agreement, negotiated between Iran and world powers, placed strict limits on Tehran’s nuclear program in return for lifting an array of economic sanctions.

On Tuesday, Trump relayed this new assignment to a group of White House staffers now tasked with making sure there will not be a repeat at the next 90-day review. “This is the president telling the White House that he wants to be in a place to decertify 90 days from now and it’s their job to put him there,” the source said. [Continue reading…]

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Swedish Nazis trained in Russia before bombing a center for asylum seekers

BuzzFeed reports: By the time Anna Ahlberg arrived at the shelter, the only evidence that remained of the blast was a pool of blood that had melted through the snow in the parking lot.

The makeshift shelter was a rundown concrete motel on a lonely road off the highway running into Gothenburg, Sweden’s second-largest city. It housed people who had come to Sweden seeking asylum, but had been ordered to leave the country. Ahlberg, the director of the local migration agency, rushed to the scene about an hour after the explosion went off on the afternoon of January 5. By the time she arrived, the only person injured had been taken away in an ambulance. He was a janitor who’d been peppered with shrapnel and had both legs broken in the blast.

Ahlberg spent a long hour sitting in the back of a police car waiting for a bomb squad to clear the building before they’d allow her inside to reassure the roughly 60 asylum seekers on lockdown. She clung to the hope that the explosion was caused by a firework, or by a propane canister that one of the residents had been using to fuel a camp stove in their room.

“I didn’t want to think that it was meant to harm any person, that it was just an accident or bad luck,” Ahlberg told BuzzFeed News during an interview in Gothenburg in March.

But Ahlberg’s worst fears were confirmed a week later when investigators revealed that the people behind the blast were members of Sweden’s largest Nazi organization, the Nordic Resistance Movement.

They had found DNA samples on fragments of a bomb and the bicycle it had been strapped to that matched a 23-year-old named Viktor Melin. Melin was the leader of the group’s Gothenburg cell, and prosecutors ultimately brought charges against him and two other members, 20-year-old Anton Thulin and 50-year-old Jimmy Jonasson. The explosive matched devices used in two other attacks that winter: one that exploded in November outside the gathering spot of a left-wing organization without injuring anyone, and another that was discovered before it could go off at a residence for refugees in late January.

This was not the first time Ahlberg had seen one of her facilities vandalized. Two others in her jurisdiction had been damaged just before they were due to open in 2015. Scores of facilities were torched that year, part of the backlash that met the 160,000 asylum seekers who came to Sweden at the height of the EU refugee crisis. But the incident in the parking lot was the first time Ahlberg had heard of a bombing — and someone was nearly killed.

As the case headed to trial six months later, prosecutors dropped a bombshell. The perpetrators weren’t simply inspired by events at home, according to court filings reviewed by BuzzFeed News. Prosecutors presented evidence that two of the men had traveled to Russia, where they trained with paramilitaries who had fought alongside Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine.

The evidence prosecutors laid out to the judge could have far-reaching consequences throughout Europe. They showed how a largely forgotten war hundreds of miles away that has claimed thousands of lives had emboldened fringe nationalists deep inside the EU and built networks into Russia.

Security analysts worry that the Ukraine conflict fueled a transformation of right-wing extremist groups across the West. [Continue reading…]

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This is why Polish people are protesting to defend their democracy

BuzzFeed reports: Tens of thousands of Poles took to the streets on Thursday to protest a law that subordinates the country’s Supreme Court to Poland’s nationalist ruling party. An estimated 50,000 people came out to protest the law in the capital Warsaw alone, with tens of thousands more joining in other cities and smaller towns across the country.

Despite growing protests at home and warnings from the EU, the lower house of the Polish parliament passed a bill strengthening the grip of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) over the judiciary. Under the new law, all current judges on the Supreme Court will be dismissed and the justice minister will appoint new ones.

The bill still has to be passed by the upper house of the Polish parliament, the Senate, and signed into effect by Polish President Andrzej Duda.

In a last desperate attempt to block what they see as the end of democracy in the country, the opposition called on protesters to gather outside the presidential palace in Warsaw demanding that Duda veto the law. Poles also brought candles to local courthouses and chanted “Free Courts!” across the country. [Continue reading…]

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Anthony Scaramucci loved Hillary, gave to Obama, and deleted anti-Trump tweets

The Daily Beast reports: Anthony Scaramucci deleted tweets in which he previously criticized Donald Trump hours after accepting his new job as White House communications director on Friday.

Scaramucci also previously expressed support for his boss’s old rivals, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama—even donating money to their campaigns.

In December 2011, Scaramucci referred to the “Trump spectacle” in a tweet about Mitt Romney. Two months later, the new White House pick tweeted a National Journal article about Trump endorsing Newt Gingrich in the 2012 race: “Odd guy. So smart with no judgment.”

The deleted tweets were spotted by freelance journalist Josh Billinson, who Scaramucci briefly blocked.

“I’m just shocked he hadn’t deleted them earlier,” Billinson told The Daily Beast. “That he could’ve been in the running for communications director and not even thought to check what he had publicly said about Trump in the past is wild to me.” [Continue reading…]

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Sessions discussed Trump campaign-related matters with Russian ambassador, U.S. intelligence intercepts show

The Washington Post reports: Russia’s ambassador to Washington told his superiors in Moscow that he discussed campaign-related matters, including policy issues important to Moscow, with Jeff Sessions during the 2016 presidential race, contrary to public assertions by the embattled attorney general, according to current and former U.S. officials.

Ambassador Sergey Kislyak’s accounts of two conversations with Sessions — then a top foreign policy adviser to Republican candidate Donald Trump — were intercepted by U.S. spy agencies, which monitor the communications of senior Russian officials both in the United States and in Russia. Sessions initially failed to disclose his contacts with Kislyak and then said that the meetings were not about the Trump campaign.

One U.S. official said that Sessions — who testified that he has no recollection of an April encounter — has provided “misleading” statements that are “contradicted by other evidence.” A former official said that the intelligence indicates that Sessions and Kislyak had “substantive” discussions on matters including Trump’s positions on Russia-related issues and prospects for U.S.-Russia relations in a Trump administration.

Sessions has said repeatedly that he never discussed campaign-related issues with Russian officials and that it was only in his capacity as a U.S. senator that he met with Kislyak.

“I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign,” Sessions said in March when he announced that he would recuse himself from matters relating to the FBI probe of Russian interference in the election and any connections to the Trump campaign.

Current and former U.S. officials said that assertion is at odds with Kislyak’s accounts of conversations during two encounters over the course of the campaign, one in April ahead of Trump’s first major foreign policy speech and another in July on the sidelines of the Republican National Convention.

The apparent discrepancy could pose new problems for Sessions at a time when his position in the administration appears increasingly tenuous. [Continue reading…]

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Congress likely to tie Trump’s hands on Russia sanctions

Politico reports: A White House effort to secure changes to a Russia sanctions bill constraining President Donald Trump appears likely to fall short, in a major rebuff by the GOP-led Congress to the leader of its own party.

Senior Republican lawmakers and aides gave their clearest comments yet Thursday that the bill would ultimately move forward without changes sought by the White House, potentially undermining Trump’s ability to warm relations with Moscow.

The Senate already passed the bill on a 98-2 vote. And while it’s stalled in the House amid partisan finger-pointing, most Republicans are joining Democrats to support adding new sanctions while curbing Trump’s power to roll back the penalties against Russia.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has pushed back against the bill for not providing the administration with “flexibility” to deal with Vladimir Putin’s government, but his words don’t appear to be resonating. GOP lawmakers are loath to be seen as watering down efforts to punish Putin for meddling in the 2016 election, even if many brush off the growing controversy over the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.

Tillerson is “a good friend, and I really love my relationship with him, but that’s not likely to occur,” Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker said Thursday when asked about the White House’s request for changes to the sanctions bill.

Language empowering Congress to block Trump from any attempt to ease or end sanctions “is going to stay in this bill,” Corker told reporters. “And we’ve had very constructive meetings with the House — there’s no attempt whatsoever to move away from” that provision, the Tennessee Republican added. [Continue reading…]

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Sean Spicer resigns as White House press secretary

The New York Times reports: Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, resigned on Friday after denouncing chaos in the West Wing and telling President Trump he vehemently disagreed with the appointment of the New York financier Anthony Scaramucci as communications director.

After offering Mr. Scaramucci the communications job Friday morning, Mr. Trump asked Mr. Spicer to stay on as press secretary. But Mr. Spicer told Mr. Trump that he believed the appointment of Mr. Scaramucci was a major mistake and said he was resigning, according to a person with direct knowledge of the exchange.

In one of his first official acts, Mr. Scaramucci, who founded the global investment firm SkyBridge Capital and is a Fox News contributor, joined Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Mr. Spicer’s chief deputy, in the White House briefing room and announced that she would succeed Mr. Spicer as press secretary.

He said he had great respect for Mr. Spicer, adding, “I hope he goes on to make a tremendous amount of money.” But he acknowledged the awkwardness of Mr. Spicer’s resignation. “This is obviously a difficult situation to be in,” Mr. Scaramucci said. [Continue reading…]

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Steve Bannon’s disappearing act

Politico reports: Steve Bannon has largely disappeared from the White House’s most sensitive policy debates — a dramatic about-face for an operative once characterized as the most powerful man in Washington.

Bannon, chastened by internal rivalries and by President Donald Trump’s growing suspicion that he is looking out for his own interests, is in a self-imposed exile, having chosen to step back from Trump’s inner circle for the sake of self-preservation, according to several White House advisers who spoke to POLITICO on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering a colleague.

He was absent from Trump’s recent trips to Europe for the G-20 summit and from his visit with French President Emmanuel Macron. Bannon’s non-attendance is all the more noteworthy given his interest in European history and politics, particularly his antipathy to the European Union. [Continue reading…]

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Syrian rebels feel betrayed by U.S. decision to end CIA support: ‘It will weaken America’s influence.’

The Washington Post reports: Syrian rebel commanders said Thursday that they were disappointed in the Trump administration’s decision to end a covert CIA weapons and training program for opposition fighters, an initiative that began under President Barack Obama but fizzled out amid battlefield losses and concerns about extremism within rebel ranks.

“We definitely feel betrayed,” said Gen. Tlass al-Salameh of Osoud al-Sharqiya, a group affiliated with the Free Syrian Army. Salameh and his deputies say that they have received CIA support to rout the Islamic State from areas of eastern Syria but that they have also fought battles against pro-government ­forces.

“It feels like we are being abandoned at a very difficult moment,” Salameh said. “It feels like they only wanted to help when we were fighting [the Islamic State]. Now that we are also fighting the regime, the Americans want to withdraw.” [Continue reading…]

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