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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Trump aide says London attack by UK-born man justifies travel ban

The Guardian reports: A Trump administration official seized on the Westminster terror attack to justify the president’s blocked travel ban, which targets refugees and immigrants from six Muslim-majority countries, despite confirmation that the attacker was neither an immigrant nor a refugee.

Sebastian Gorka, a national security aide to the president and a former editor for the far-right news site Breitbart, told Fox News’s conservative talk show host Sean Hannity on Wednesday evening that the attack in Westminster, that left three people and the attacker dead, “should be a surprise to nobody”.

“The war is real and that’s why executive orders like president Trump’s travel moratorium are so important,” Gorka said.

Despite the official’s remarks it is almost certain that the British-born attacker, 52 year-old Khalid Masood, would not have been affected by Trump’s ban, which targets immigrants and refugees from a handful of countries. Further, the US would have already been entitled to block Masood from the country, given his extensive criminal record. [Continue reading…]

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No surprise that London attacker Khalid Masood was born in UK

Jason Burke writes: The news that the London attacker was born in Britain and inspired by extremist Islamist ideology was entirely predictable, as was his criminal record.

The standout detail from the sketchy profile we have of Khalid Masood is his age: 52, nearly twice that of most contemporary attackers.

The attack was claimed on Thursday by Islamic State. The group has been selective with such statements, which are credible, and careful in its vocabulary.

Significantly, Isis described a “soldier” who responded to its “call”, indicating the group probably did not have prior contact with Masood before the killings.

The same terminology has been used to describe people such as Omar Mateen, who opened fire in a nightclub in Florida in June and claimed allegiance to Isis during the attack, and Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, who drove a truck into a parade in Nice in July. [Continue reading…]

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Jewish center bomb threats suspect is arrested in Israel

The New York Times reports: A monthslong wave of bomb threats against Jewish institutions in the United States that prompted evacuations, heightened security and fears of rising anti-Semitism gave way to an unexpected twist on Thursday: the person responsible for many of the threats, law enforcement officials said, was half a world away — a Jewish teenager in Israel.

An intensive investigation spanning multiple countries culminated on Thursday in the arrest of the 18-year-old suspect, who holds dual Israeli and American citizenship, and his father. The teenager’s lawyer said he suffered from a brain tumor that could affect his behavior.

The surge in threats over the past few months — well over 100 sent to Jewish community centers, schools and museums since the start of the year — coincided with an increase in hate crimes against a number of groups, from scrawled swastikas to homicides, feeding worries about a new era of bigotry. American and Israeli officials refused to say how many of the threats the Israeli suspect was accused of making. And some recent anti-Semitic acts were apparently committed by others, like threats against Jewish centers for which a Missouri man was charged, and the vandalizing of Jewish cemeteries.

But officials made it clear that they considered the teenager as the primary source of the threats, though they did not offer a motive. “This is the guy we are talking about,” an Israeli police spokesman, Micky Rosenfeld, said.

The suspect made threats to sites in Australia and New Zealand, as well as the United States, and to at least one commercial airline flight, prompting an emergency landing, Mr. Rosenfeld said. [Continue reading…]

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Could Trump be convicted of treason?

Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza writes: On Monday, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey confirmed that the FBI is investigating the possibility of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Following Comey’s testimony, historian Douglas Brinkley declared, “There’s a smell of treason in the air.”

Between revelations about “longtime [President Donald] Trump confidant” Roger Stone and the controversies surrounding former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort, it’s clear that key Trump campaign staff were in contact with Russia. Stone has admitted to being in contact with Guccifer 2.0, likely a front for the Russian government, and repeatedly gave advance notice of disclosures from WikiLeaks, which has been acting suspiciously like an agent of the Russian government. Stone is now on the hook with the Senate Intelligence Committee. And at Monday’s White House briefing, Press Secretary Sean Spicer conceded that Stone worked on the campaign, and that he and the president “had a long relationship going back years where [Stone] would provide counsel.”

Media outlets and social media are filled with accusations of collusion, calls for a special counsel, and queries about treason. Representative Maxine Waters tweeted simply, “Get ready for impeachment.”

If Trump participated in, facilitated, or encouraged a Russian cyber attack intended to overthrow the United States government by changing the outcome of the 2016 election — and then promoted Russia’s interests after assuming office — Waters may get her wish. Those acts could amount to an impeachable offense. They could even be treason. [Continue reading…]

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New research identifies a ‘sea of despair’ among white, working-class Americans

The Washington Post reports: Sickness and early death in the white working class could be rooted in poor job prospects for less-educated young people as they first enter the labor market, a situation that compounds over time through family dysfunction, social isolation, addiction, obesity and other pathologies, according to a study published Thursday by two prominent economists.

Anne Case and Angus Deaton garnered national headlines in 2015 when they reported that the death rate of midlife non-Hispanic white Americans had risen steadily since 1999 in contrast with the death rates of blacks, Hispanics and Europeans. Their new study extends the data by two years and shows that whatever is driving the mortality spike is not easing up.

The two Princeton professors say the trend affects whites of both sexes and is happening nearly everywhere in the country. Education level is significant: People with a college degree report better health and happiness than those with only some college, who in turn are doing much better than those who never went.

Offering what they call a tentative but “plausible” explanation, they write that less-educated white Americans who struggle in the job market in early adulthood are likely to experience a “cumulative disadvantage” over time, with health and personal problems that often lead to drug overdoses, alcohol-related liver disease and suicide. [Continue reading…]

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North Korea said to be target of inquiry over $81 million cyberheist

The New York Times reports: Federal prosecutors are investigating North Korea’s possible role in the theft of $81 million from the central bank of Bangladesh in what security officials fear could be a new front in cyberwarfare.

The United States attorney’s office in Los Angeles has been examining the extent to which the North Korea government aided and abetted the bold heist in February 2016, according to a person briefed on the investigation who was not authorized to speak publicly.

In the theft, the attackers, using a global payment messaging system known as Swift, were able to persuade the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to move money from the Bangladesh bank to accounts in the Philippines. The Swift system is used by some 11,000 banks and companies to transfer money from one country to another.

In the months that followed the Bangladesh heist, it was disclosed that cyberthieves had also attacked banks in Vietnam and Ecuador using Swift. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. officials: Info suggests Trump associates may have coordinated with Russians

CNN reports: The FBI has information that indicates associates of President Donald Trump communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, US officials told CNN.

This is partly what FBI Director James Comey was referring to when he made a bombshell announcement Monday before Congress that the FBI is investigating the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, according to one source.

The FBI is now reviewing that information, which includes human intelligence, travel, business and phone records and accounts of in-person meetings, according to those U.S. officials. The information is raising the suspicions of FBI counterintelligence investigators that the coordination may have taken place, though officials cautioned that the information was not conclusive and that the investigation is ongoing. [Continue reading…]

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Schiff: Trump-Russia evidence ‘more than circumstantial’

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Nunes tries to give Trump some cover on wiretap claim

Bloomberg reports: Almost two weeks after President Donald Trump’s tweets accusing his predecessor of wiretapping Trump Tower, the Republican head of the House Intelligence Committee tried to offer some support by saying that the president’s team was caught up in a U.S. surveillance net.

Representative Devin Nunes said Wednesday that the intelligence community collected multiple conversations involving members of Trump’s transition team during legal surveillance of foreign targets after he won election last year. Trump told reporters at the White House, “I somewhat do” feel vindicated by the latest development.

The intercepted communications weren’t captured through wiretaps — the president’s spokesmen had already abandoned that assertion — or through surveillance directed at Trump or his aides, Nunes told reporters at the Capitol before heading to the White House to brief Trump on his findings.

But Nunes said he was “alarmed” that the identities of Trump aides were revealed in intelligence community documents. “Details with little or no apparent foreign intelligence value were widely disseminated in an intelligence community report,” he said, adding that he didn’t know if Trump’s “own communications were intercepted.”

Then Nunes headed to the White House to brief the president on what he had learned. “I very much appreciate the fact that they found what they found,” Trump said. [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: “The chairman would not answer the question of whether anyone associated with the White House was the source of the new information.”

Nunes says the information he has seen was “widely disseminated in intelligence community reporting.”

In spite of Donald Trump’s lack of interest in receiving intelligence briefings, it seems likely that the White House was already well aware of what Nunes today “revealed.”

Indeed, it’s hard not to wonder whether this is a charade in which Trump leaked information to Nunes so that the Republican Congressman could then theatrically “brief” the president while glossing over the fact that none of this changes the fact that Trump was not the target of a wiretap.

I also wonder whether as events now unfold, the FBI may be gathering growing evidence of a Trump-led effort to subvert a criminal investigation.

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Bravery and simple humanity have shown Westminster at its best

Jonathan Freedland writes: There are certain places that cease to be places in the public imagination. They become shorthand for a loathed political establishment or distant, overmighty government. In America, that place is “Washington, DC”. For Eurosceptics, it’s “Brussels”. And in Britain, that reviled, imperial citadel is “Westminster”.

Yet today, as the airwaves and social media timelines filled with dreadful, violent news, “Westminster” began to lose those quotation marks. As the afternoon passed, it became seen not as the widely despised bastion of the political class, but a real place inhabited by office workers, tourists, security guards and groups of visiting schoolchildren.

On any other day, Tobias Ellwood might be seen as just another Tory MP. But then came word that he had given CPR and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a policeman who lay wounded – and with it a reminder that the MP, a former army officer, had lost a brother in the Bali bombings of 2002.

Or there were those photos of MPs locked in the chamber of the Commons for their own safety, many of them on their phones, searching for news just like the rest of us but with an extra edge: they were worrying about friends, colleagues or their own employees. Everyone had the same thought: what if someone they knew or loved was among those hurt?

As it happens, I was in Westminster (though not in parliament) when the attacker struck, wrapping up a lunch meeting with an MP who was alerted to the news by a text from his wife, checking that he was safe. On television, he’ll look like just another politician. But if people saw him today, they’d have seen a human being.

And yet, when it comes to those involved in politics – the people who keep our democratic machinery functioning – it seems to take violent tragedy to remind us that those we elect to represent us don’t stop being people the moment we vote for them. Last year it was the murder of Jo Cox that reminded people an MP could also be a living, breathing, loving person. At that moment, many felt chastened about the way we speak about politics – so often using violent language to describe political argument. We held back for a while. But we soon fell back into the old habits. [Continue reading…]

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GOP takes up Russia-aligned attack on Soros

Politico reports: A group of congressional Republicans is teaming up with Russia-backed politicians in Eastern Europe with the shared goal of stopping a common enemy: billionaire financier George Soros.

Led by Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, the conservative lawmakers have signed on to a volley of letters accusing Soros of using his philanthropic spending to project his liberal sensibilities onto European politics. As Lee and other senators put it in a March 14 letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Soros’ Open Society Foundations are trying “to push a progressive agenda and invigorate the political left.”

It’s an accusation that’s being fomented and championed by Moscow.

Soros, who survived the Nazi occupation of his native Hungary and fled after World War II when it was under Soviet control, has been long a bête noire of the Kremlin, which sees his funding for civil society groups in former Soviet satellite states as part of a plot to install pro-Western governments.

For years, those complaints had generally fallen on deaf ears in Washington.

While Republicans have long regarded Soros as a mortal enemy when it comes to domestic politics (where he has spent tens of millions of dollars backing Democratic candidates and liberal causes), their politics were more aligned on the international stage. Soros’ efforts to boost democracy and root out corruption in former Eastern Bloc countries dovetailed with traditional Republican foreign policy objectives.

But things may have started changing after Donald Trump’s stunning victory in a presidential campaign during which he emphasized nationalist themes. Politicians with nationalist constituencies in several former Eastern Bloc states have become increasingly aggressive in seeking international support for their crusade against Soros, and they seem to have found at least some takers in the GOP. [Continue reading…]

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Spicer denies Trump knew about Manafort’s Russian sugar daddy

The Daily Beast reports: The White House on Wednesday insisted that the president had no idea his former campaign chairman had worked to advance the interests of the Russian government when he was hired last year.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer dismissed “insane” suggestions that Trump might have known about Paul Manafort’s past work for a Kremlin-linked Russian oligarch—noting that his work in Russia was public record.

And it would have been, if Manafort filled out the proper forms. But he didn’t, and he’s now facing allegations of a federal crime as a result.

Spicer’s comments followed an Associated Press report revealing that Manafort worked for Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska. Under his $10 million annual contract, Manafort pursued policies to “greatly benefit” Putin’s government, according to the AP report.

Spicer insisted that the news has no bearing on an ongoing FBI investigation into collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government to influence the 2016 election.

His comments came a day after he sought to downplay Manafort’s involvement with the 2016 campaign. On Tuesday, Spicer said the former campaign chairman “played a very limited role” on the campaign.

Spicer brushed aside questions on Wednesday about whether Trump should have known about Manafort’s past dealings with an adversarial foreign government, even as he described that work, and Manafort’s representation of other governments, as readily available information. [Continue reading…]

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North Korea has no fear of U.S. sanctions move, will pursue nuclear arms, says envoy

Reuters reports: North Korea has nothing to fear from any U.S. move to broaden sanctions aimed at cutting it off from the global financial system and will pursue “acceleration” of its nuclear and missile programs, a North Korean envoy told Reuters on Tuesday.

This includes developing a “pre-emptive first strike capability” and an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM), said Choe Myong Nam, deputy ambassador at the North Korean mission to the United Nations in Geneva.

Reuters, quoting a senior U.S. official in Washington, reported on Monday that the Trump administration is considering sweeping sanctions as part of a broad review of measures to counter North Korea’s nuclear and missile threat.

“I think this is stemming from the visit by the Secretary of State (Rex Tillerson) to Japan, South Korea and China…We of course are not afraid of any act like that,” Choe told Reuters.

“Even prohibition of the international transactions system, the global financial system, this kind of thing is part of their system that will not frighten us or make any difference.” [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: A North Korean missile fired Wednesday morning exploded within seconds of launch, the South Korean and American militaries said, a reassuring sign for allies worried about the speed at which the country’s weapons program has been progressing.

The attempted missile launch comes at a time of heightened tensions in the region, with the United States and South Korea conducting joint military exercises aimed at countering the North Korean threat and the Trump administration clearly signaling it is prepared to use force to stop the Kim regime. [Continue reading…]

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Iran steps up support for Houthis in Yemen’s war

Reuters reports: Iran is sending advanced weapons and military advisers to Yemen’s rebel Houthi movement, stepping up support for its Shi’ite ally in a civil war whose outcome could sway the balance of power in the Middle East, regional and Western sources say.

Iran’s enemy Saudi Arabia is leading a Sunni Arab coalition fighting the Houthis in the impoverished state on the tip of the Arabian peninsula – part of the same regional power struggle that is fuelling the war in Syria.

Sources with knowledge of the military movements, who declined to be identified, say that in recent months Iran has taken a greater role in the two-year-old conflict by stepping up arms supplies and other support. This mirrors the strategy it has used to support its Lebanese ally Hezbollah in Syria.

A senior Iranian official said Major General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Qods Force – the external arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – met top IRGC officials in Tehran last month to look at ways to “empower” the Houthis. [Continue reading…]

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