The hidden risks of Trump’s EPA cuts: Birth defects, bad air

Bloomberg reports: President Donald Trump pledged during the 2016 campaign that he would only “leave a little bit” of federal rules that protect human health and the environment. Now about 50 former officials of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are firing back in a lengthy analysis that details, program by program, what amounts to a starvation diet for the EPA.

Calling themselves the Environmental Protection Network, they worked through both Republican and Democratic administrations. The group’s members are putting aside their differences over policies and programs to stop what they say “appears to be nothing less than a full-throttle attack on the principle underlying all U.S. environmental laws—that protecting the health and environment of all Americans is a national priority.”

Even before formally registering as a nonprofit organization, the network has put together a 50-page analysis of the president’s proposed EPA budget, based partly on the White House’s fiscal 2018 budget blueprint. The blueprint, released on March 16, sketched out top-line cuts of 31 percent of the agency’s budget and 21 percent of its staff. The new administration’s targeting of the agency requires an independent, expert assessment of what’s happening there, the group says. [Continue reading…]

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Devin Nunes vanished the night before he made Trump surveillance claims

The Daily Beast reports: Hours before the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee announced his shocking claims about surveillance of the Trump transition team on Wednesday morning, he practically disappeared.

Rep. Devin Nunes was traveling with a senior committee staffer in an Uber on Tuesday evening when he received a communication on his phone, three committee officials and a former national security official with ties to the committee told The Daily Beast. After the message, Nunes left the car abruptly, leaving his own staffer in the dark about his whereabouts.

By the next morning, Nunes hastily announced a press conference. His own aides, up to the most senior level, did not know what their boss planned to say next. Nunes’ choice to keep senior staff out of the loop was highly unusual. [Continue reading…]

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Flynn, Turkish officials talked about secret abduction of Erdogan foe from U.S., says former CIA chief

Fox News reports: Retired Army Lt. Mike Flynn, President Trump’s former national security adviser, met last summer with top Turkish officials to discuss removing the cleric Turkey blamed for last year’s failed coup and delivering him to Ankara, a former Central Intelligence Agency director told The Wall Street Journal.

James Woolsey said the meeting occurred in September inside the Essex House hotel in New York. Woolsey told the paper that he arrived in the middle of the conversation, but said the basic idea was a “covert step in the dead of night to whisk this guy away.” The group as reportedly refering to Fethullah Gulen.

Woolsey told the paper he found the conversation startling and possibly illegal. But he did not say anything because there were no specifics. Woolsey said he notified Vice President Biden through a mutual friend. [Continue reading…]

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Putin picks Le Pen to rule France

The Daily Beast reports: Russian interference in the American elections last year was downright subtle compared to what we’ve seen this week in the run-up to French presidential elections.

The two-round vote on April 23 and May 7 could change politics, defense, and the economy in Europe more radically—and more in Russia’s favor—even than the chaos spawned by Donald Trump’s iffy triumph in the United States.

And on Friday, Putin endorsed his candidate: far-right-wing, anti-European-Union, anti-NATO, anti-immigrant, anti-American, pro-Trump candidate Marine Le Pen.

Of course, Putin said, “We don’t want to influence in any way the events going on [in France],” but his government received Le Pen as if she already were settled in as the head of state in Paris.

Olga Bychkova, deputy chief editor of the independent radio station Echo of Moscow, said that the reception accorded Le Pen in Russia was impressive. “She first had meetings with the leaders of the Duma [Russia’s parliament], then she was taken to an exhibit devoted to France at the Kremlin, then she met with Putin. That is a kind of program Moscow organizes for state leaders,” Bychkova said. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. investigating Mosul strikes said to have killed up to 200 civilians

The New York Times reports: The American-led military coalition in Iraq said Friday that it was investigating reports that scores of civilians — perhaps as many as 200, residents said — had been killed in recent American airstrikes in Mosul, the northern Iraqi city at the center of an offensive to drive out the Islamic State.

If confirmed, the series of airstrikes would rank among the highest civilian death tolls in an American air mission since the United States went to war in Iraq in 2003. And the reports of civilian deaths in Mosul came immediately after two recent incidents in Syria, where the coalition is also battling the Islamic State from the air, in which activists and local residents said dozens of civilians had been killed.

Taken together, the surge of reported civilian deaths raised questions about whether once-strict rules of engagement meant to minimize civilian casualties were being relaxed under the Trump administration, which has vowed to fight the Islamic State more aggressively.

American military officials insisted on Friday that the rules of engagement had not changed. They acknowledged, however, that American airstrikes in Syria and Iraq had been heavier in an effort to press the Islamic State on multiple fronts. [Continue reading…]

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Why Obamacare defeated Trumpcare

Jonathan Chait writes: With the collapse of the House health-care bill, the cause of repealing Obamacare, a right-wing obsession for seven years and a day, has died. The flame will never be fully extinguished in the hearts of the true believers — after all, in right-wing think tanks and other places far removed from electoral politics, anti-government zealots still dream of phasing out Social Security or Medicare. But the political project dedicated to restoring the pre-Obamacare status quo, in which people too sick or poor to afford their own insurance without the subsidies and regulations of the Affordable Care Act could be safely ignored, is gone forever. And it is dead for the best possible reason, the reason that undergirds all social progress: because a good idea defeated a bad one.

Conservatives have already collapsed into mutual recriminations for their failure. Reporters have blamed Trump’s deal-making skills. Trump’s loyalists are loudly blaming Paul Ryan. “I think Paul Ryan did a major disservice to President Trump, I think the president was extremely courageous in taking on health care and trusted others to come through with a program he could sign off on,” Chris Ruddy, CEO of the right-wing site Newsmax and a longtime friend of Trump’s, tells Bloomberg. “The president had confidence Paul Ryan would come up with a good plan and to me, it is disappointing.” David Brooks blames both Trump and Congress. “The core Republican problem is this,” he writes. “The Republicans can’t run policy-making from the White House because they have a marketing guy in charge of the factory. But they can’t run policy from Capitol Hill because it’s visionless and internally divided.”

The American Health Care Act is a truly horrendous piece of legislation. But it did not become the vehicle for the Obamacare repeal effort because Trump, or Ryan, or anybody insisted on it over some other option. It became the repeal bill because nobody in the Republican Party had a better idea. [Continue reading…]

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Following the Russian money

Tim Weiner writes: Counterintelligence is long, hard work. Investigators need time to string along suspects — seeking the who, what, when, where and why of the case. The Federal Bureau of Investigation tries to build 3-D chronologies of who did what to whom. Agents usually follow the money, the best evidence. That’s how the feds got Al Capone: for tax evasion.

The F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, is running the most explosive counterintelligence case since Soviet spies stole the secrets of the atom bomb more than 70 years ago. Some of those atomic spies didn’t speak Russian: They were Americans. We now know that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia attacked American democracy by meddling in the 2016 election. Did he enlist American mercenaries?

A tantalizing clue came at the House Intelligence Committee hearing on Monday.

First, Democrats named names: the former Trump campaign director, Paul Manafort, dismissed shortly after the F.B.I.’s investigation started in late July; then the former Trump national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, who lost his job last month. Both appear to have had pecuniary ties to Mr. Putin’s allies — in Mr. Manafort’s case, a politician and an oligarch; in Mr. Flynn’s case, RT, the news and propaganda network.

Then Mr. Comey was asked to explain the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

“Sure,” the director said.

The act, known as FARA, is intended to prevent espionage or illicit foreign influence on American public opinion, policy and laws. It requires Americans acting as agents of a foreign government to register with the Justice Department. A willful failure to register can be a crime. [Continue reading…]

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U.S., in reversal, issues permit for Keystone oil pipeline

The New York Times reports: During his presidential campaign, Donald J. Trump repeatedly hailed the Keystone XL pipeline as a vital jobs program and one that sharply contrasted his vision for the economy with that of Hillary Clinton.

“Today we begin to make things right,” President Trump said Friday morning shortly after the State Department granted the pipeline giant TransCanada a permit for Keystone construction, a reversal of Obama administration policy.

The pipeline would link oil producers in Canada and North Dakota with refiners and export terminals on the Gulf Coast. It has long been an object of contention, with environmentalists saying it would contribute to climate change and the project’s proponents — Republicans, some labor unions and the oil industry — contending that it would help guarantee national energy security for decades to come.

When President Barack Obama rejected the project in late 2015, he said it would undermine American leadership in curbing reliance on carbon fuels. [Continue reading…]

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Syrian defector to Trump: Stop Assad’s machinery of death

CNN reports: The Syrian defector who smuggled out tens of thousands of photos of people allegedly tortured to death in Assad regime jails has spoken out in his first TV interview.

In an exclusive interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, the defector, code-named “Caesar,” urged US President Donald Trump to stop what he calls the “criminality” taking place in Syria’s government-run prisons.

“We have shown the killing and torture of so many of the Syrian people,” he said, “and you cannot give back the lives to those that have lost it. But we ask you, out of your humanity, to stop the machinery of death.”

“We are asking to all the officials, to all the policy makers, to President Trump’s White House, which we are hoping will do the right thing, we beg you to stop the machinery of death in Syria.” [Continue reading…]

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Rex Tillerson’s ‘new approach’ to North Korea sounds a lot like the old approach

Jeffrey Lewis writes: When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson showed up in Asia this month, he announced that the United States would take a “new approach” to North Korea. Tillerson avoided any specifics of how he planned to get a different result, but he was well armed with platitudes — he spoke of decades of failed “diplomatic and other efforts,” joined the Japanese foreign minister in calling Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs “totally unacceptable,” and urged the North’s leaders “to change your path.” Shortly after Tillerson departed, North Korea attempted yet another missile launch.

Poor Tillerson. Someone forgot to tell him that a new administration promising a new approach it can’t quite articulate is, in fact, the old approach. Previous administrations even used the same words, calling North Korea’s actions “unacceptable” and pointing to a different “path.” And yet, even though President Barack Obama pledged to “break that pattern” of North Korea getting away with belligerent behavior, and President George W. Bush compared the country’s dictatorship to a toddler who throws food on the floor, the sad truth is that promising to break the pattern is part of the pattern, and we always pick up the food. We, too, could choose a different path. But we don’t. [Continue reading…]

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Schiff: New evidence shows possible Trump-Russia collusion

CNN reports: The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee is claiming that he has been presented with new information on collusion between associates of President Donald Trump and Russia that would merit a grand jury investigation.

Rep. Adam Schiff told CNN Thursday that he had seen additional evidence, but would not specify what it was.

“We continue to get new information that, I think, paints a more complete picture of at least what we know at the outset of our investigation,” Schiff said.

Asked to explain his comments earlier in the week when he said there was more than just “circumstantial evidence of collusion,” Schiff said, “I do think that it’s appropriate to say that it’s the kind of evidence that you would submit to a grand jury at the beginning of an investigation.

“It’s not the kind of evidence that you take to a trial jury when you’re trying to prove something beyond a reasonable doubt. But we’re at the beginning of an investigation, and given the gravity of the subject matter, I think that the evidence certainly warrants us doing a thorough investigation.”

The California Democrat said it was “baffling” that his Republican counterpart on the committee, Rep. Devin Nunes, would not rule out that the information he disclosed Wednesday — the California Republican said communications of Trump and his associates may have been collected by intelligence agencies — came from the White House. [Continue reading…]

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Ukraine accuses Russia of ‘state terrorism’ after former MP shot

Reuters reports: Ukraine accused Russia of “state terrorism” after a former Russian lawmaker and key witness in a treason case against former leader Viktor Yanukovich was shot dead in broad daylight outside a hotel in central Kiev on Thursday.

Russia called the allegation “absurd”.

Former parliamentarian Denis Voronenkov was killed by an assailant who was armed with a pistol and later died in hospital after being shot in the chest and head by Voronenkov’s bodyguard, police said. The assailant’s identity was not disclosed.

Voronenkov fled to Ukraine last year and was helping the Ukrainian authorities build a treason case against Yanukovich, Ukraine’s pro-Russia former president.

Voronenkov had also spoken out against Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, although he voted for the move at the time.

Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko said the killing “is an act of state terrorism on the part of Russia, which (Voronenkov) was forced to leave for political reasons.”

“Voronenkov was one of the main witnesses of Russian aggression against Ukraine and, in particular, the role of Yanukovich regarding the deployment of Russian troops to Ukraine.” [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: In the plush, crimson-decked lobby bar of Kiev’s five-star Premier Palace Hotel, Denis Voronenkov, a Russian lawmaker who defected to Ukraine, knew he was in danger.

“For our personal safety, we can’t let them know where we are,” he said Monday evening as he sat with his wife for an interview with The Washington Post.

Less than 72 hours later, he was dead, shot twice in the head in broad daylight outside the same lobby bar. It was a particularly brazen assassination that recalled the post-Soviet gangland violence of the 1990s. His wife, dressed in black, sobbed as she stooped down to identify Voronenkov’s body, which lay beneath a black tarp in a pool of blood. [Continue reading…]

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Russian lawyer thrown from window was a witness for the U.S. government

Michael Weiss writes: Two common causes of death for contemporary Russians are heart attacks and falling to one’s end from great heights. In some cases, these fatal tendencies even have something to do with high cholesterol or tragic mishaps.

In 2008, a clothing salesman called Semyon Korobeinikov lost his footing on a balcony somehow and tumbled to his demise.

A year later, Korobeinikov was named as the purchaser of Universal Savings Bank, a dubious financial institution that had been fingered by investigators as a way-station for stolen Russian money. Only he didn’t buy the bank. It was part of a government ruse to exonerate the true owner, an ex-convict called Dmitry Klyuev, a reputed mob boss implicated in a series of massive tax frauds that cost Russian citizens $1 billion.

Korobeinikov might have therefore borne witness against Klyuev, if he wasn’t conveniently already 6 feet under.

In 2009, in a related case, Russian tax attorney Sergei Magnitsky was beaten to death by eight prison guards, according to a report published by then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s own human rights commission. The Kremlin claimed he died of a coronary. Then it put him on trial posthumously for tax evasion.

The case prompted U.S. anti-corruption and human rights legislation, known as the Magnitsky Law, which put the Russian government under Vladimir Putin on notice that it could not always get away with such abuses.

Magnitsky was killed by a hybridized state-mafia organization for unearthing a $230 million tax fraud perpetrated against the Russian people. The mob had colluded with the same cops supposed to investigate the crime, tax officials who processed it, and a host of compromised judges in various jurisdictions tasked with covering it up. They were all members of the Klyuev Group, and many are now sanctioned under the Magnitsky Law.

In 2012, Alexander Perepilichny, a former member of the Klyuev Group, dropped dead while jogging in his adoptive home of Surrey, England. There was no cause of death stated, but the assumption by the British coroner’s initial finding was that nothing looked suspicious, even though Perepilichny was a healthy 44-year-old with no known chronic or debilitating ailments.

Then Monique Simmonds, a researcher at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, hired by the coroner at the behest of Perepilichny’s life insurance company, uncovered traces of a rare and toxic plant, gelsemium, in the victim’s stomach.

Gelsemium, as it turns out, does not grow in the verdant climes of Surrey. It is only found in China, where it is a favored poison of assassins. Russian hitmen, too, have been known to access the flower’s quiet, lethal capability. [Continue reading…]

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Can Trump handle the truth?

Michael Scherer writes: Generations of American children have learned the apocryphal tale of young George Washington, bravely admitting to his father that he chopped down the cherry tree. The story sprang from a culture that wanted even its fables to serve the ideal of truth. By that standard, the House Intelligence Committee hearing on March 20 should have been a massive humiliation for the President, who followed Washington 228 years later. It is rare for such hearings to be unclassified–and thus televised–but FBI Director James Comey found the largest possible audience for his rebuke of the sitting President.

He had given Donald Trump nearly three weeks to walk back his incendiary tweets accusing President Obama of “wire tapping” Trump Tower during the campaign. If such surveillance had been done through legal channels, the FBI would have known; if done illegally, it was a scandal of historic proportions and the FBI should be digging into it. Either way, Trump’s accusation implicated the integrity of Comey’s bureau, which is why the former prosecutor felt compelled to push back as the cameras rolled. “I have no information that supports those tweets,” Comey said. “We have looked carefully inside the FBI. The Department of Justice has asked me to share with you that the answer is the same.”

The statement was concise, direct and damning. The President of the United States had been marked as a fabulist by one of the top officials in government charged with finding the truth. And yet, for the man being called out, the rebuke was nothing of the sort. [Continue reading…]

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Trump wants to kill an agency that is accomplishing one of his biggest goals

Ana Swanson writes: Candidate Trump promised to boost American exports. But President Trump’s budget proposes to eliminate a small agency that does just that.

The U.S. Trade and Development Agency, which links U.S. exporters with development projects in emerging economies, was one of 19 agencies that the White House proposed eliminating entirely in the budget it released last week. The budget blueprint, which would have to be approved by Congress before it becomes law, did not provide reasoning behind the cuts.

In a federal government made up of giant agencies — like the 40,000-employee Commerce Department — the U.S. Trade and Development Agency (USTDA) looks like a gnat. It has just 50 or so full-time employees and a current annual budget of $60 million — about as much as the Secret Service reportedly asked for to cover protection and travel costs for the new administration next year.

But the agency claims a hefty return on its investment. It says it generates $85 in exports for every $1 spent on its programming, and directly boosted U.S. exports by $3 billion last year.

“Any private sector business person would appreciate that as a phenomenal return of investment. I’m baffled, and I have to believe [the administration] just doesn’t understand what it is the agency does,” said Lee Zak, the director of USTDA under Obama who left her post Jan. 20.

“Everything about the agency is consistent with the administration’s priorities and as a matter of fact it should be scaled up, not eliminated,” she said. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. embassies ordered to identify population groups for tougher visa screening

Reuters reports: U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has directed U.S. diplomatic missions to identify “populations warranting increased scrutiny” and toughen screening for visa applicants in those groups, according to diplomatic cables seen by Reuters.

He has also ordered a “mandatory social media check” for all applicants who have ever been present in territory controlled by the Islamic State, in what two former U.S. officials said would be a broad, labor-intensive expansion of such screening. Social media screening is now done fairly rarely by consular officials, one of the former officials said.

Four cables, or memos, issued by Tillerson over the last two weeks provide insight into how the U.S. government is implementing what President Donald Trump has called “extreme vetting” of foreigners entering the United States, a major campaign promise. The cables also demonstrate the administrative and logistical hurdles the White House faces in executing its vision.

The memos, which have not been previously reported, provided instructions for implementing Trump’s March 6 revised executive order temporarily barring visitors from six Muslim-majority countries and all refugees, as well as a simultaneous memorandum mandating enhanced visa screening. [Continue reading…]

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