Interior Dept. ordered Glacier park chief, other climate expert pulled from Zuckerberg tour

The Washington Post reports: Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg flew to Glacier National Park on Saturday to tour the melting ice fields that have become the poster child for climate change’s effects on Montana’s northern Rockies.

But days before the tech tycoon’s visit, the Trump administration abruptly removed two of the park’s top climate experts from a delegation scheduled to show him around, telling a research ecologist and the park superintendent that they were no longer going to participate in the tour.

The decision to micromanage Zuckerberg’s stop in Montana from 2,232 miles east in Washington, made by top officials at the Interior Department, the National Park Service’s parent agency, was highly unusual — even for a celebrity visit.

It capped days of internal discussions — including conference calls and multiple emails — among top Interior Department and Park Service officials about how much the park should roll out the welcome mat for Zuckerberg, who with the broader tech community in Silicon Valley has positioned himself as a vocal critic of President Trump, particularly of his withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. [Continue reading…]

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Manafort was in debt to pro-Russia interests, Cyprus records show

The New York Times reports: Financial records filed last year in the secretive tax haven of Cyprus, where Paul J. Manafort kept bank accounts during his years working in Ukraine and investing with a Russian oligarch, indicate that he had been in debt to pro-Russia interests by as much as $17 million before he joined Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign in March 2016.

The money appears to have been owed by shell companies connected to Mr. Manafort’s business activities in Ukraine when he worked as a consultant to the pro-Russia Party of Regions. The Cyprus documents obtained by The New York Times include audited financial statements for the companies, which were part of a complex web of more than a dozen entities that transferred millions of dollars among them in the form of loans, payments and fees.

The records, which include details for numerous loans, were certified as accurate by an accounting firm as of December 2015, several months before Mr. Manafort joined the Trump campaign, and were filed with Cyprus government authorities in 2016. The notion of indebtedness on the part of Mr. Manafort also aligns with assertions made in a court complaint filed in Virginia in 2015 by the Russian oligarch, Oleg V. Deripaska, who claimed Mr. Manafort and his partners owed him $19 million related to a failed investment in a Ukrainian cable television business.

After The Times shared some of the documents with representatives of Mr. Manafort, a spokesman, Jason Maloni, did not address whether the debts might have existed at one time. But he maintained that the Cyprus records were “stale and do not purport to reflect any current financial arrangements.”

“Manafort is not indebted to Mr. Deripaska or the Party of Regions, nor was he at the time he began working for the Trump campaign,” Mr. Maloni said. “The broader point, which Mr. Manafort has maintained from the beginning, is that he did not collude with the Russian government to influence the 2016 election.” (Mr. Manafort resigned as campaign manager last August amid questions about his past work in Ukraine.)

Still, the Cyprus documents offer the most detailed view yet into the murky financial world inhabited by Mr. Manafort in the years before he joined the Trump campaign. [Continue reading…]

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Deutsche Bank, key to Trump’s finances, faces new scrutiny

The New York Times reports: During the presidential campaign, Donald J. Trump pointed to his relationship with Deutsche Bank to counter reports that big banks were skeptical of doing business with him.

After a string of bankruptcies in his casino and hotel businesses in the 1990s, Mr. Trump became somewhat of an outsider on Wall Street, leaving the giant German bank among the few major financial institutions willing to lend him money.

Now that two-decades-long relationship is coming under scrutiny.

Banking regulators are reviewing hundreds of millions of dollars in loans made to Mr. Trump’s businesses through Deutsche Bank’s private wealth management unit, which caters to an ultrarich clientele, according to three people briefed on the review who were not authorized to speak publicly. The regulators want to know if the loans might expose the bank to heightened risks.

Separately, Deutsche Bank has been in contact with federal investigators about the Trump accounts, according to two people briefed on the matter. And the bank is expecting to eventually have to provide information to Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel overseeing the federal investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.

It was not clear what information the bank might ultimately provide. Generally, the bank is seen as central to understanding Mr. Trump’s finances since it is the only major financial institution that continues to conduct sizable business with him. Deutsche Bank has also lent money to Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, and to his family real estate business.

Although Deutsche Bank recently landed in legal trouble for laundering money for Russian entities — paying more than $600 million in penalties to New York and British regulators — there is no indication of a Russian connection to Mr. Trump’s loans or accounts at Deutsche Bank, people briefed on the matter said. The bank, which declined to comment, scrutinizes its accounts for problematic ties as part of so-called “know your customer” banking rules and other requirements.

And with one of its most famous clients headed to the White House, the bank designed a plan for overseeing the accounts of Mr. Trump and Mr. Kushner and presented it to regulators at the New York State Department of Financial Services early this year. The plan essentially called for monitoring the accounts for red flags such as exceptionally favorable loan terms or unusual partners. [Continue reading…]

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Trump nominates right-wing talk radio host for leading scientific position at USDA

Gizmodo reports: President Donald Trump managed to sneak a few minutes from his busy schedule of threatening federal investigators to make official his nominee for the United States Department of Agriculture’s top scientific position on Wednesday. Given the tough choice between filling the role with scientist or someone who is not a scientist, the president boldly decided to go the latter route.

Enter Sam Clovis, who Trump first installed at the USDA as a senior White House adviser earlier this year, and if confirmed will serve as the agency’s undersecretary for research, education and economics. That’s an important scientific job previously held by top scientists in biochemistry, medicine, food nutrition and ecosystem ecology. The person in that job is charged with directing the USDA’s extensive scientific mission, which includes everything from preparing U.S. agriculture to deal with climate change to advising on nutrition and food-borne pathogen outbreaks.

Clovis, as ProPublica noted back in May, has a resume which includes working as co-chair and policy adviser on Trump’s campaign, but very little that could be called science. His doctorate is in public administration, and his record of published academic work includes a handful of journal articles mostly on national security and terrorism.

ProPublica could not find any evidence he had scientific credentials or even took graduate-level courses in “food safety, agriculture or nutrition,” while he told E&E News in 2016 Trump’s USDA would primarily focus on slashing regulation

In his native Iowa, Clovis is mostly known for hosting a right-wing talk show. While running for the U.S. Senate in 2014, he told Iowa Public Radio he was “extremely skeptical” of the 97% consensus among climate scientists that mankind is responsible for global warming, adding, “I have looked at the science and I have enough of a science background to know when I’m being boofed. And a lot of the science is junk science.” [Continue reading…]

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Trump snubs NAACP convention again

The Associated Press reports: The White House said Wednesday that President Donald Trump has declined an invitation to speak at the NAACP’s annual convention next week in Baltimore, leading the nation’s oldest civil rights organization to question the president’s commitment to his African American constituents.

“During his campaign, President Trump asked us ‘what do you have to lose?'” NAACP Board Chairman Leon Russell said. “We get the message loud and clear. The president’s decision today underscores the harsh fact: we have lost – we’ve lost the will of the current administration to listen to issues facing the black community.”

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders made the announcement to reporters that the president declined the NAACP’s invitation to speak at its 108th annual convention. Trump also did not speak to the NAACP convention last year, citing scheduling conflicts with the Republican National Convention.

The NAACP found out from reporters that Sanders had announced that Trump would not attend. [Continue reading…]

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Citing recusal, Trump says he wouldn’t have hired Sessions

The New York Times reports: President Trump said on Wednesday that he never would have appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions had he known Mr. Sessions would recuse himself from overseeing the Russia investigation that has dogged his presidency, calling the decision “very unfair to the president.”

In a remarkable public break with one of his earliest political supporters, Mr. Trump complained that Mr. Sessions’s decision ultimately led to the appointment of a special counsel that should not have happened. “Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job and I would have picked somebody else,” Mr. Trump said.

In a wide-ranging interview with The New York Times, the president also accused James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director he fired in May, of trying to leverage a dossier of compromising material to keep his job. Mr. Trump criticized both the acting F.B.I. director who has been filling in since Mr. Comey’s dismissal and the deputy attorney general who recommended it. And he took on Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel now leading the investigation into Russian meddling in last year’s election. [Continue reading…]

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I’m a scientist. I’m blowing the whistle on the Trump administration

Joel Clement writes: I am not a member of the deep state. I am not big government.

I am a scientist, a policy expert, a civil servant and a worried citizen. Reluctantly, as of today, I am also a whistleblower on an administration that chooses silence over science.

Nearly seven years ago, I came to work for the Interior Department, where, among other things, I’ve helped endangered communities in Alaska prepare for and adapt to a changing climate. But on June 15, I was one of about 50 senior department employees who received letters informing us of involuntary reassignments. Citing a need to “improve talent development, mission delivery and collaboration,” the letter informed me that I was reassigned to an unrelated job in the accounting office that collects royalty checks from fossil fuel companies.

I am not an accountant — but you don’t have to be one to see that the administration’s excuse for a reassignment such as mine doesn’t add up. A few days after my reassignment, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke testified before Congress that the department would use reassignments as part of its effort to eliminate employees; the only reasonable inference from that testimony is that he expects people to quit in response to undesirable transfers. Some of my colleagues are being relocated across the country, at taxpayer expense, to serve in equally ill-fitting jobs.

I believe I was retaliated against for speaking out publicly about the dangers that climate change poses to Alaska Native communities. During the months preceding my reassignment, I raised the issue with White House officials, senior Interior officials and the international community, most recently at a U.N. conference in June. It is clear to me that the administration was so uncomfortable with this work, and my disclosures, that I was reassigned with the intent to coerce me into leaving the federal government. [Continue reading…]

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Bill Browder on past dealings with Russian lawyer in Trump Jr. meeting

 

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Trump’s war against ISIS in Syria: Why Putin, Assad, and Iran are winning

Robin Yassin-Kassab writes: In his inaugural address, U.S. President Donald Trump promised to “unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.”

To be fair, he’s had only about six months, but already the project is proving a little more complicated than he hoped. First, ISIS has been putting up a surprisingly hard fight against its myriad enemies (some of whom are also radical Islamic terrorists). The battle for Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city, has concluded, but at enormous cost to Mosul’s civilians and the Iraqi army. Second, and more importantly, there is no agreement as to what will follow ISIS, particularly in eastern Syria. There, a new great game for post-ISIS control is taking place with increasing violence between the United States and Iran. Russia and a Kurdish-led militia are also key players. If Iran and Russia win out (and at this point they are far more committed than the U.S.), President Bashar al-Assad, whose repression and scorched earth paved the way for the ISIS takeover in the first place, may be handed back the territories he lost, now burnt and depopulated. The Syrian people, who rose in democratic revolution six years ago, are not being consulted.

The battle to drive ISIS from Raqqa—its Syrian stronghold—is underway. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by American advisers, are leading the fight. Civilians are paying the price. United Nations investigators lament a “staggering loss of life” caused by U.S.-led airstrikes on the city.

Though it’s a multiethnic force, the SDF is dominated by the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, whose parent organization is the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. The PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States (but of the leftist-nationalist rather than Islamist variety) and is currently at war with Turkey, America’s NATO ally. The United States has nevertheless made the SDF its preferred local partner, supplying weapons and providing air cover, much to the chagrin of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Now add another layer of complexity. Russia also provides air cover to the SDF, not to fight ISIS, but when the mainly Kurdish force is seizing Arab-majority towns from the non-jihadi anti-Assad opposition. The SDF capture of Tel Rifaat and other opposition-held towns in 2016 helped Russia and the Assad regime to impose the final siege on Aleppo.

Eighty percent of Assad’s ground troops encircling Aleppo last December were not Syrian, but Shiite militiamen from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, all armed, funded and trained by Iran. That put the American-backed SDF and Iran in undeclared alliance.

But those who are allies one year may be enemies the next. Emboldened by a series of Russian-granted victories in the west of the country, Iran and Assad are racing east, seeking to dominate the post-ISIS order on the Syrian-Iraqi border. Iran has almost achieved its aim of projecting its influence regionally and globally through a land corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean via Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. In this new context, Assad and his backers are turning on the SDF. On June 18, pro-Assad forces attacked the SDF near Tabqa, west of Raqqa. When a regime warplane joined the attack, American forces shot it down. [Continue reading…]

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Trump ends covert CIA program to arm anti-Assad rebels in Syria, a move sought by Moscow

The Washington Post reports: President Trump has decided to end the CIA’s covert program to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels battling the government of Bashar al-Assad, a move long sought by Russia, according to U.S. officials.

The program was a central plank of a policy begun by the Obama administration in 2013 to put pressure on Assad to step aside, but even its backers have questioned its efficacy since Russia deployed forces in Syria two years later.

Officials said the phasing out of the secret program reflects Trump’s interest in finding ways to work with Russia, which saw the anti-Assad program as an assault on its interests. The shuttering of the program is also an acknowledgment of Washington’s limited leverage and desire to remove Assad from power.

Just three months ago, after the United States accused Assad of using chemical weapons, Trump launched retaliatory airstrikes against a Syrian air base. At the time, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, said that “in no way do we see peace in that area with Assad at the head of the Syrian government.”

Officials said Trump made the decision to scrap the CIA program nearly a month ago, after an Oval Office meeting with CIA Director Mike Pompeo and national security adviser H.R. McMaster ahead of a July 7 meeting in Germany with Russian President Vladimir Putin. [Continue reading…]

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ACLU urges senators to oppose bill targeting Israel boycotts

JTA reports: The American Civil Liberties Union called on U.S. senators to oppose a measure targeting boycotts of Israel and its settlements.

The Israel Anti-Boycott Act, introduced in March by Sens. Ben Cardin, D-Md., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, would expand 1970s-era laws that make illegal compliance with boycotts of Israel sponsored by governments — laws inspired at the time by the Arab League boycott of Israel — to include boycotts backed by international organizations. Those adhering to boycotts would be the subject of fines.

While the measure is aimed at the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, it also targets efforts by the United Nations and the European Union to distinguish products manufactured in Israel from those manufactured in West Bank settlements.

In a letter Monday, the ACLU urged senators not to co-sponsor the measure and to oppose its passage.

“We take no position for or against the effort to boycott Israel or any foreign country, for that matter,” wrote Faiz Shakir, ACLU’s national political director. “However, we do assert that the government cannot, consistent with the First Amendment, punish U.S. persons based solely on their expressed political beliefs.”

Shakir added that “the bill would punish businesses and individuals based solely on their point of view. Such a penalty is in direct violation of the First Amendment.” [Continue reading…]

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Saudi King’s son plotted effort to oust his rival

The New York Times reports: As next in line to be king of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Nayef was unaccustomed to being told what to do. Then, one night in June, he was summoned to a palace in Mecca, held against his will and pressured for hours to give up his claim to the throne.

By dawn, he had given in, and Saudi Arabia woke to the news that it had a new crown prince: the king’s 31-year-old son, Mohammed bin Salman.

The young prince’s supporters have lauded his elevation as the seamless empowerment of an ambitious leader. But since he was promoted on June 21, indications have emerged that Mohammed bin Salman plotted the ouster and that the transition was rockier than has been publicly portrayed, according to current and former United States officials and associates of the royal family.

To strengthen support for the sudden change in the line of succession, some senior princes were told that Mohammed bin Nayef was unfit to be king because of a drug problem, according to an associate of the royal family.

The decision to oust Mohammed bin Nayef and some of his closest colleagues has spread concern among counterterrorism officials in the United States who saw their most trusted Saudi contacts disappear and have struggled to build new relationships.

And the collection of so much power by one young royal, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has unsettled a royal family long guided by consensus and deference to elders. [Continue reading…]

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Ian Bremmer talks about Trump’s second, previously undisclosed, meeting with Putin at G-20

 

The New York Times reports: The evening after his two meetings with Mr. Putin — the first lasting 135 minutes and the second an hour — Mr. Trump returned to Washington. On the Air Force One flight back, his top advisers helped draft a statement about a meeting his son Donald Trump Jr. attended last year with a Kremlin-connected lawyer who promised damaging information about Hillary Clinton.

“We have the worst relationship as a country right now with Russia that we have in decades, and yet we have these two leaders that, for reasons that do not make sense and have not been explained to anyone’s satisfaction, are hellbent on adoring each other,” Mr. Bremmer said. “You can take everything that’s been given to us, and it doesn’t add up.”

On Tuesday, the Kremlin intensified its demands that the Trump administration return two compounds in the United States that the Obama administration seized from Russia last fall in retaliation for the election meddling. After meeting with Thomas A. Shannon Jr., the under secretary of state for political affairs, Sergei A. Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, said he had warned the Americans that there must be an “unconditional return” of the property or Moscow would retaliate. [Continue reading…]

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Trump Tower rental space leased to White House military office for $2.39 million, far above market value

The Wall Street Journal reports: The U.S. government is paying more than $130,000 a month to lease space in Trump Tower for the military office that supports the White House, even though Donald Trump hasn’t spent a night at the New York skyscraper since becoming president.

The government signed a $2.39 million lease to rent a 3,475 sq. ft. space in the building for the military from Apr. 11, 2017 to Sept. 30, 2018, nearly 18 months in total, according to lease documents that The Wall Street Journal obtained through a freedom of information request.

The government agreed to pay $180,000 for the last 20 days of April 2017 and $130,000 a month thereafter, according to the contract released by the General Services Administration, the agency that negotiates office space agreements for the government.

The GSA redacted large portions of the lease, including the name of the person who owns the Trump Tower space the government is renting. A Pentagon official wrote in a letter seen by the Journal that the space is owned privately by someone unaffiliated with the Trump Organization and that the department sees no way in which Mr. Trump can benefit from the rent money.

The military’s lease in Trump Tower puts the space far above market rate for similarly sized apartments in the luxury high rise market and makes it one of the most expensive residential rentals in Manhattan. [Continue reading…]

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Trump had undisclosed hour-long meeting with Putin at G-20 summit

The Washington Post reports: After his much-publicized, two-and a quarter-hour meeting early this month with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin at the Group of 20 summit in Germany, President Trump met informally with the Russian leader for an additional hour later the same day.

The second meeting, unreported at the time, took place at a dinner for G-20 leaders, a senior administration official said. Halfway through the meal, Trump left his own seat to occupy a chair next to Putin. Trump was alone, and Putin was attended only by his official interpreter.

The encounter underscores the extent to which Trump was eager throughout the summit to cultivate a friendship with Putin. During last year’s campaign, Trump spoke admiringly of Putin and at times seemed captivated by him.

Meeting each other face-to-face for the first time in Hamburg, the two presidents seemed to have a chemistry in their more formal bilateral session, evidenced by the fact that it dragged on for more than two hours.

But Trump’s newly-disclosed conversation with Putin at the G-20 dinner is likely to stoke further criticism, including perhaps from some fellow Republicans in Congress, that he is too cozy with the leader of a major U.S. adversary.

The only version of the conversation provided to White House aides was that given by Trump himself, the official said. Reporters traveling with the White House were not informed, and there was no formal readout of the chat.

The administration official spoke on condition of anonymity to confirm the session, first reported Monday by Ian Bremmer, president of the New York-based Eurasia Group, in a newsletter to group clients. Bremmer said in a telephone interview that he was told by two participants who witnessed it at the dinner, which was attended only by leaders attending the summit and some of their spouses.

Leaders who reported the meeting to him, Bremmer said, were “bemused, non-plussed , befuddled” by the animated conversation, held in full view — but not listening distance — of others present.

Putin’s aide provided the only Russian-English interpretation, the official said, because Trump’s designated dinner companion for the evening was Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and the president had brought only a Japanese-English interpreter. [Continue reading…]

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Former Trump campaign adviser helped secure the Russian presidency for Vladimir Putin

HuffPost reports: A former campaign adviser for President Donald Trump ― who also happens to have years of experience shilling for the Russian government ― is defending the Kremlin’s efforts to meddle in the 2016 presidential election.

Michael R. Caputo, a public relations strategist who helped secure Russian President Vladimir Putin’s election victory in 2000, accused the U.S. of also interfering in foreign elections.

The Republican operative claimed Russia’s meddling wasn’t a big deal, alleging that former President Barack Obama had attempted to influence an Israeli election. [Continue reading…]

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Eighth person in Trump Tower meeting is identified

The Washington Post reports: An American-based employee of a Russian real estate company took part in a June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between a Russian lawyer and Donald Trump Jr., bringing to eight the number of known participants at the session that has emerged as a key focus of the investigation of the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russians.

Ike Kaveladze’s presence was confirmed by Scott Balber, an attorney for Emin and Aras Agalarov, the Russian developers who hosted the Trump-owned Miss Universe pageant in 2013. Balber said Kaveladze works for the Agalarovs’ company and attended as their representative.

Balber said Tuesday that he received a phone call from a representative of Special Counsel Robert Mueller over the weekend asking if Kaveladze would agree to be interviewed. Balber said his client would cooperate. The request is the first public indication that Mueller’s team is investigating the meeting.

In 2000, Kaveladze’s actions as the head of a Delaware company called International Business Creations were the subject of a government investigation into how Russians and other foreigners were able to launder large amounts of money through U.S. banks.

The GAO report, which had been requested by Congress, concluded that it was “relatively easy” for these foreigners to use shell companies to open U.S. banks accounts and route hidden money through the American financial system.

The report described the activities of IBC’s president, who Balber confirmed was Kaveladze.

Balber said Kaveladze was not charged with any crime as a result of the inquiry, which he said was largely focused on the internal procedures of U.S. banks.

“There has never been any indication that he did anything wrong,” Balber said. “From his perspective, it was a big nothing.”

According to the GAO, Kaveladze opened 236 bank accounts in the U.S. for corporations formed in Delaware on behalf of mostly Russian brokers. Kaveladze told officers of two U.S. banks that he had conducted investigations of the Russian companies for which he opened accounts. However, he told GAO investigators that was not truthful.

“He admitted to us that he made such representations to the banks but that he in fact had not investigated the companies,” the report said.

All told, the report traced the movement of $1.4 billion in wire transfer transactions deposited in to 236 accounts opened at the two banks, Citibank and Commercial Bank. [Continue reading…]

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