Exxon sues U.S. over fine levied for Russia deal under Tillerson

Reuters reports: Exxon Mobil Corp sued the U.S. government on Thursday, blasting as “unlawful” and “capricious” a $2 million fine levied against it for a three-year-old oil joint venture with Russia’s Rosneft.

The U.S. Treasury Department on Thursday morning slapped the world’s largest publicly traded oil producer with the fine for “reckless disregard” of U.S. sanctions in dealings with Russia in 2014 when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was Exxon’s chief executive.

The lawsuit and the Treasury’s unusually detailed statement on Exxon’s conduct represented an extraordinary confrontation between a major American company and the U.S. government, made all the more striking because Exxon’s former CEO is now in President Donald Trump’s Cabinet.

Exxon took the government to court despite the fact that the fine, the maximum allowed, would have a minor impact on the company, which made $7.84 billion in profit last year.

The fine came after a U.S. review of deals Exxon signed with Rosneft, Russia’s largest oil producer, weeks after Washington imposed sanctions on Moscow for annexing Ukraine’s Crimea region. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Is the nuclear deal with Iran slipping away?

Robin Wright writes: On Monday, the White House hastily organized a press teleconference on the Iranian nuclear deal. The accord—brokered by the world’s six major powers two years ago—is to President Trump’s foreign policy what Obamacare is to his domestic policy: he is determined to destroy it, without a coherent or viable strategy, so far, to replace it. It’s also not clear that Trump fully understands its details, complex diplomatic process, or long-term stakes any more than he does health care.

During the White House briefing, I asked the three senior Administration officials whether, after months of inflammatory declarations about the “bad deal” and the “bad” government in Tehran, the Trump Administration is moving toward a policy of regime change. It often sounds like it. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told Congress in June that U.S. policy includes “support of those elements inside Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government.” Last month, the Defense Secretary, James Mattis, described Iran as “a country that is acting more like a revolutionary cause, not to the best interests of their own people,” and added, “until the Iranian people can get rid of this theocracy.” Shortly after Trump’s Inauguration, a memo circulated by hawks within the Administration suggested that Iran was susceptible to “coerced democratization,” a euphemism for regime change. Authored by Mark Dubowitz, of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the memo argued that “the very structure of the regime invites instability, crisis and possibly collapse,” and urged the White House to work against the reëlection this year of President Hassan Rouhani, the chief sponsor of the nuclear deal on the Iranian side. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

The U.S. is not ready to clean up an arctic oil spill, warns Coast Guard

ClimateWire reports: The United States is not ready to clean up an oil spill in the Arctic, the head of the Coast Guard said yesterday.

The warning comes as Congress prepares to open up more drilling in a region quickly being transformed by climate change.

Adm. Paul Zukunft said that the challenges of cleaning up the BP PLC Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico—where the conditions were much more favorable—show the extreme difficulty of Arctic oil spill recovery.

“We saw during Deepwater Horizon, whenever the seas are over 4 feet, our ability to mechanically remove oil was virtually impossible,” he said at a Washington symposium yesterday hosted by the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. “Four-foot seas up there [in the Arctic] would probably be a pretty darned good day, so certainly environmental conditions weigh heavily in addition to just the remoteness.” [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Plastics: The immense, eternal footprint humanity leaves on Earth

The New York Times reports: If human civilization were to be destroyed and its cities wiped off the map, there would be an easy way for future intelligent life-forms to know when the mid-20th century began: plastic.

From the 1950s to today, 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced, with around half of it made since 2004. And since plastic does not naturally degrade, the billions of tons sitting in landfills, floating in the oceans or piling up on city streets will provide a marker if later civilizations ever want to classify our era. Perhaps they will call this time on Earth the Plastocene Epoch.

A new study in Science Advances published Wednesday offered the first analysis of all mass-produced plastics ever manufactured: how much has been made, what kind and what happens to the material once it has outlived its use.

Roland Geyer, the lead author of the study, said, “My mantra is that you can’t manage what you don’t measure, and without good numbers, you don’t know if we have a real problem.” [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

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…]

Facebooktwittermail

Music: Takuya Kuroda — ‘Half & Half’

 

Facebooktwittermail

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…]

Facebooktwittermail

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…]

Facebooktwittermail

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…]

Facebooktwittermail

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…]

Facebooktwittermail

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…]

Facebooktwittermail

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…]

Facebooktwittermail

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

 

Facebooktwittermail

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…]

Facebooktwittermail

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…]

Facebooktwittermail

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…]

Facebooktwittermail

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…]

Facebooktwittermail