Thursday, April 27, 2017

Inside Russia’s Fake News Playbook

Clint Watts, The Daily Beast
04.27.17 1:30 PM ET

Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee. Thank you for inviting me today and for furthering the discussion of cyber-enabled influence. My remarks today will further expand on my previous testimony to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence where I detailed the research Andrew Weisburd, J.M. Berger, and I published regarding Russian attempts to harm our democracy via social media influence. I’ll add further to this discussion and will also provide my perspective having worked on cyber-enabled influence operations and supporting programs for the U.S. government dating back to 2005. Having served in these Western counterterrorism programs, I believe there are many lessons we should learn from and not repeat in future efforts to fight and win America’s information wars.

1) How does Russian nation state influence via social media differ from other influence efforts on social media?

As I discussed on March 30, 2017, Russia, over the past three years, has conducted the most successful influence campaign in history using the Internet and more importantly social media to access and manipulate foreign audiences. Russia and other nation states are not the only influencers in social media. Profiteers pushing false or salacious stories for ad revenue, political campaigns running advertisements and satirists looking for laughs also seek to influence audiences during elections, but their online behavior manifests differently from that of Russia. Russia’s hacking may be covert, but their employment of kompromat ultimately reveals their overt influence campaigns. Furthermore, Russian influence performs a full range of actions to achieve their objectives that distinguish them from other influence efforts.

Create, Push, Share, Discuss, Challenge (CPSDC) - Effective State Sponsors Do All Of These In The Influence Space, Others Do Only Some

(More here.)

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Why Is Chaffetz Resigning? It Will All Come Out in the Laundering

Apr 21, 2017 4:29pm CST by Mopshell, Daily Kos

Soon we hope to bid a gleeful farewell to Jason Chaffetz (R-Disgraced). To say that he’ll be leaving under a cloud would be to understate the case. He’s in trouble with both his religion and the Law which is quite an accomplishment for a mediocre House republican.

Let’s first take a quick look at the highlights dim bulbs of his adulterated career.

Jason Chaffetz was a member of Darrell Issa’s Oversight Committee investigating fundraising off the Benghazi tragedy. When Issa’s four years of failures were up, Chaffetz was chosen to take on the chairmanship. He’d learned well from Issa and proceeded to follow in his predecessor’s missteps.

That he’s more conceited than competent was immediately apparent but he failed to draw much attention to himself until the Comey letter broke the surface of already turbulent waters. Of course it’s protocol that communiqués from the Intelligence agencies are kept confidential but Chaffetz was oblivious to nitpicky details like guidelines or rules. He was far too intoxicated with a vision of the harm he could do to opposition candidate Hillary Clinton if he spun this the right(wing) way.

Thus, before any other members of the committee had seen the FBI email, Chaffetz went public and concocted a monstrous lie: he falsely declared that the FBI had reopened the Clinton email case. Comey did put the record straight but the media preferred the lie.

(More here.)

The Resurgent Threat of al Qaeda

After bin Laden’s death, it has become a vast and deadly network of groups spread from Syria to Yemen to Afghanistan

By Ali Soufan, WSJ
April 21, 2017 11:03 a.m. ET

In the nearly six years since Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan by U.S. Navy SEALs, the terrorist organization he founded has practically vanished from American news coverage. Al Qaeda has been eclipsed by the rise of the self-styled Islamic State—a group that began as al Qaeda’s Iraqi franchise but broke away in 2014.

It may appear that al Qaeda has simply declined, but that is very far from the truth. Since the death of its founder, it has transformed itself from a close-knit terrorist outfit with a handful of struggling affiliates into a vast network of insurgent groups spread from Southeast Asia to northwest Africa. Together, this network now commands an army of tens of thousands of Islamist militants. Years after bin Laden’s death, they stand united in their commitment to his ideology. We have killed the messenger, but the message lives on.

In its first two decades, al Qaeda (“the base” in Arabic) focused on fighting the U.S. and its allies head-on. But in early 2011, amid the upheaval of the Arab Spring, bin Laden ordered an about-face in the group’s aims. Instead of mainly pursuing the U.S. (“the far enemy”), he directed al Qaeda’s franchises to turn inward and join the popular battle to bring down impious local Arab regimes (“the near enemy”). He hoped that this would build up al Qaeda’s strength for an eventual showdown with the U.S. Bin Laden didn’t live to see the fruits of this approach, but they have been considerable.

(More here.)

Friday, April 21, 2017

Trump compromised by Russian ties

by Tom Maertens
April 20, 2017

Tom Maertens served as National Security Council director for nonproliferation and homeland defense under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and as deputy coordinator for counter-terrorism in the State Department during and after 9/11. 

The magazine Foreign Policy asked: “Is Trump Russia’s Useful Idiot, or Has He Been Irreparably Compromised?” There are currently three investigations underway to determine whether he conspired with Putin to tilt the U.S. election in his favor.

As a candidate, Trump denigrated NATO and the EU, and criticized allies such as Germany, while consistently praising Vladimir Putin. Clinton Watts, ex-FBI agent, detailed for the Senate Intelligence Committee how Trump and his campaign used Russian propaganda against his opponents, including the principal claim that the election was rigged.

Sen. Mark Warner of the Senate Intelligence Committee has revealed that Russia hired 1,000 people to create anti-Clinton ‘fake news’ during the election.

CBS News reports that the FBI is investigating whether the Trump campaign helped Russian intelligence carry out cyberattacks on the DNC as far back as March 2016. Sir Richard Dearlove, former chief of the British Secret Intelligence Service, and other U.S. sources have told the Guardian that FBI Director James Comey has “direct and incontrovertible evidence” that Donald Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia. Dearlove has also accused Donald Trump of secretly borrowing from Russia during the financial crisis to avoid bankruptcy — which his tax returns would reveal.

According to The New York Times and the Guardian, Britain, Holland, Germany, Estonia, Poland, Australia and possibly France provided information on secret meetings in Europe between Russian officials and the Trump campaign. “Separately, American intelligence agencies had intercepted communications of Russian officials, some of them within the Kremlin, discussing contacts with Trump associates” (NYT).

The Washington Post reported that the FBI obtained a FISA warrant last summer to monitor former Trump adviser Carter Page, indicating there was probable cause to believe he was a Russian agent.

Michael Flynn’s actions probably also warranted a FISA warrant. He met with several of Russia’s far-right allies in Europe; he also understated payments from the Russian government on his financial disclosure form, according to The Wall Street Journal.

BBC News reports that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort had at least 15 bank accounts in Cyprus, a center for Russian money laundering, and bought homes in New York with cash. Flynn, Page, Manafort, Sessions, Stone and other campaign officials had meetings with Russian officials and lied about them.

Others with suspicious links to Russia include Eric Prince, who met secretly with a Russian emissary in Mauritius, and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who met repeatedly with one of Putin’s puppet bankers and convicted spies, Evgeny Buryakov. Kushner failed to report it on his security questionnaire, a possible felony.

USA Today detailed some of the connections between Trump and wealthy former Soviet businessmen with alleged ties to criminal organizations. Dozens of wealthy Russians, including some with criminal convictions, have bought condos in Trump properties.

A former assistant U.S. attorney in New York said that the Trump SoHo project “was largely financed by illegally obtained cash from Russia …, including money provided by known international financial criminals and organized crime racketeers.”

As Steven Hall, a former CIA chief of Russian operations, told the Financial Times, “… behind every great Russian fortune there is a great friendship with the Kremlin.”

Karen Dawisha (Putin’s Kleptocracy) and William Browder (Red Notice), among others, have documented the ties between Putin, the FSB, and the Russian mafia.

In response, Trump, whom the Los Angeles Times said “… gives every indication that he is as much the gullible tool of liars as he is the liar in chief,” has attempted to divert and distract, claiming that Obama had wiretapped him, that Susan Rice had revealed classified information, and bombing Syria as diversions.

As Trump tweeted back in 2012, “Now that Obama’s poll numbers are in tailspin — watch for him to launch a strike in Libya or Iran. He is desperate.”

Tellingly, his (putative) secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, admits Donald Trump’s attack on Syria wasn’t intended to do any damage to Assad. In other words, it was a diversion; a president who has told us he believes military intervention happens when poll numbers are in a tailspin has just intervened while his poll numbers were in a tailspin.

As the L.A. Times editorial board wrote: “(Trump) has made himself the stooge, the mark, for every crazy blogger, political quack, racial theorist, foreign leader or nutcase peddling a story that he might repackage to his benefit as a tweet, an appointment, an executive order or a policy.”

There are too many Russia contacts to be coincidental; Trump the Kremlin’s useful fool had to have orchestrated them, and is now irreparably compromised.

Also published in the Mankato Free Press.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Mike Flynn’s Treason Tour: Global Russian Propaganda Coordinated With Trump

April 16, 2017 ~ patribotics

Sources linked to the intelligence community say that General Mike Flynn’s trips to Cambridge and across Europe will form a key part of Donald Trump’s impeachment and the prosecutions of dozens of his associates.

According to several sources within the intelligence community, Michael Flynn was co-ordinating, with and for Russian agents, the drafting of messages that Vladimir Putin was using to attack democracy in not only the United States, but across Europe. Furthermore, Flynn was doing this with the full knowledge of the Trump campaign, including Donald Trump himself.

This news directly relates to the data laundering performed by the Alfa Bank server on behalf of Donald Trump and Russia, where, as I reported, the Trump campaign colluded with the hacking of both the DNC and state voter databases.

The Alfa Bank server ‘washed’ that data together to tell Trump where to target it, sources say. But the messages and content with which targets were served was co-ordinated with Russia by General Flynn.

Furthermore, Flynn took the same hacking tools and artificial intelligence coded in Russia and helped far-right and Nazi parties across Europe use it in their own nations. Intelligence sources assert that multiple NATO partners have evidence of this and that it has been provided to the FBI.

(More here.)

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Pinocchio story of our age

100 days of Trump claims

From the Washington Post:

Throughout President Trump’s first 100 days, the Fact Checker team will be tracking false and misleading claims made by the president since Jan. 20.

Trump has been in office for 86 days. As of our latest update on day 84, we’ve counted 394 false or misleading claims.

(The list is here.)

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Evangelical Roots of Our Post-Truth Society

Molly Worthen APRIL 13, 2017, NYT

THE arrival of the “post-truth” political climate came as a shock to many Americans. But to the Christian writer Rachel Held Evans, charges of “fake news” are nothing new. “The deep distrust of the media, of scientific consensus — those were prevalent narratives growing up,” she told me.

Although Ms. Evans, 35, no longer calls herself an evangelical, she attended Bryan College, an evangelical school in Dayton, Tenn. She was taught to distrust information coming from the scientific or media elite because these sources did not hold a “biblical worldview.”

“It was presented as a cohesive worldview that you could maintain if you studied the Bible,” she told me. “Part of that was that climate change isn’t real, that evolution is a myth made up by scientists who hate God, and capitalism is God’s ideal for society.”

Conservative evangelicals are not the only ones who think that an authority trusted by the other side is probably lying. But they believe that their own authority — the inerrant Bible — is both supernatural and scientifically sound, and this conviction gives that natural human aversion to unwelcome facts a special power on the right. This religious tradition of fact denial long predates the rise of the culture wars, social media or President Trump, but it has provoked deep conflict among evangelicals themselves.

(More here.)

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Dems Wrong: Trump Supporters More Motivated by Racism Than Economic Issues

Mehdi Hasan
April 6 2017, 6:12 a.m., The Intercept

IT ISN’T ONLY Republicans, it seems, who traffic in alternative facts. Since Donald Trump’s shock election victory, leading Democrats have worked hard to convince themselves, and the rest of us, that his triumph had less to do with racism and much more to do with economic anxiety — despite almost all of the available evidence suggesting otherwise.

Consider Bernie Sanders, de facto leader of the #Resistance. “Some people think that the people who voted for Trump are racists and sexists and homophobes and deplorable folks,” he said at a rally in Boston on Friday, alongside fellow progressive senator Elizabeth Warren. “I don’t agree.” Writing in the New York Times three days after the election last November, the senator from Vermont claimed Trump voters were “expressing their fierce opposition to an economic and political system that puts wealthy and corporate interests over their own”.

Warren agrees with him. “There were millions of people across this country who voted for [Trump] not because of his bigotry, but in spite of that bigotry” because the system is “not working for them economically,” the Massachusetts senator told MSNBC last year.

Both Sanders and Warren seem much keener to lay the blame at the door of the dysfunctional Democratic Party and an ailing economy than at the feet of racist Republican voters. Their deflection isn’t surprising. Nor is their coddling of those who happily embraced an openly xenophobic candidate. Look, I get it. It’s difficult to accept that millions of your fellow citizens harbor what political scientists have identified as “racial resentment.” The reluctance to acknowledge that bigotry, and tolerance of bigotry, is still so widespread in society is understandable. From an electoral perspective too, why would senior members of the Democratic leadership want to alienate millions of voters by dismissing them as racist bigots?

(More here.)

Sunday, April 09, 2017

How Jeff Sessions wants to bring back the war on drugs

By Sari Horwitz April 8 at 8:32 PM, WashPost

When the Obama administration launched a sweeping policy to reduce harsh prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, rave reviews came from across the political spectrum. Civil rights groups and the Koch brothers praised Obama for his efforts, saying he was making the criminal justice system more humane.

But there was one person who watched these developments with some horror. Steven H. Cook, a former street cop who became a federal prosecutor based in Knoxville, Tenn., saw nothing wrong with how the system worked — not the life sentences for drug charges, not the huge growth of the prison population. And he went everywhere — Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox News, congressional hearings, public panels — to spread a different gospel.

“The federal criminal justice system simply is not broken. In fact, it’s working exactly as designed,” Cook said at a criminal justice panel at The Washington Post last year.

The Obama administration largely ignored Cook, who was then president of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys. But he won’t be overlooked anymore.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has brought Cook into his inner circle at the Justice Department, appointing him to be one of his top lieutenants to help undo the criminal justice policies of Obama and former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. As Sessions has traveled to different cities to preach his tough-on-crime philosophy, Cook has been at his side.

(More here.)

Conspiracy Theorist in Chief

By The Times Editorial Board, LA Times
April 6, 2017

It was bad enough back in 2011 when Donald Trump began peddling the crackpot conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama was not a native-born American. But at least Trump was just a private citizen then.

By the time he tweeted last month that Obama had sunk so low as to “tapp [sic] my phones during the very sacred election process,” Trump was a sitting president accusing a predecessor of what would have been an impeachable offense.

Trump went public with this absurd accusation without consulting the law enforcement and intelligence officials who would have disabused him of a conspiracy theory he apparently imbibed from right-wing media. After the FBI director debunked it, Trump held fast, claiming he hadn’t meant that he had been literally wiretapped.

Most people know by now that the new president of the United States trafficks in untruths and half-truths, and that his word cannot be taken at face value.

Even more troubling, though, is that much of his misinformation is of the creepiest kind. Implausible conspiracy theories from fly-by-night websites; unsubstantiated speculations from supermarket tabloids. Bigoted stories he may have simply made up; stuff he heard on TV talk shows.

(More here.)

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

For Donald Trump, the buck stops … with Barack Obama

Barack Obama and Donald Trump arrive for the inauguration ceremony in January. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP/Pool)

Trump keeps blaming Obama. Fresh polls show voters don’t buy it.

BY JAMES HOHMANN with Breanne Deppisch

As the western world processed stomach-churning images of dead children, apparently murdered by chemical weapons, the president couldn’t help but take a potshot at his predecessor. “These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution,” Trump said in a statement yesterday afternoon. “President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a 'red line' against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing. The United States stands with our allies across the globe to condemn this intolerable attack.”

As he ripped Obama, Trump mentioned neither Russia nor Iran. Both counties are actively propping up Assad’s regime.

The president also offered no path forward, except to say that the savagery, which observers on the ground say killed at least 58, “cannot be ignored.” Asked how the U.S. will respond, Sean Spicer replied: “We’ll talk about that soon.”

This White House is stuck in permanent campaign mode. Several officials involved in internal administration discussions told the AP that the National Security Council had been preparing a different statement, until the president’s closest advisers took over the process.

(More here.)

Trump’s War on Journalism

By The Times Editorial Board, LA Times
April 5, 2017

In Donald Trump’s America, the mere act of reporting news unflattering to the president is held up as evidence of bias. Journalists are slandered as “enemies of the people.”

Facts that contradict Trump’s version of reality are dismissed as “fake news.” Reporters and their news organizations are “pathetic,” “very dishonest,” “failing,” and even, in one memorable turn of phrase, "a pile of garbage.”

Trump is, of course, not the first American president to whine about the news media or try to influence coverage. President George W. Bush saw the press as elitist and “slick.” President Obama’s press operation tried to exclude Fox News reporters from interviews, blocked many officials from talking to journalists and, most troubling, prosecuted more national security whistle-blowers and leakers than all previous presidents combined.

But Trump being Trump, he has escalated the traditionally adversarial relationship in demagogic and potentially dangerous ways.

(More here.)

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Trump’s Authoritarian Vision

By The Times Editorial Board, LA Times
April 4, 2017

Standing before the cheering throngs at the Republican National Convention last summer, Donald Trump bemoaned how special interests had rigged the country’s politics and its economy, leaving Americans victimized by unfair trade deals, incompetent bureaucrats and spineless leaders.

He swooped into politics, he declared, to subvert the powerful and rescue those who cannot defend themselves. “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”

To Trump’s faithful, those words were a rallying cry. But his critics heard something far more menacing in them: a dangerously authoritarian vision of the presidency — one that would crop up time and again as he talked about overruling generals, disregarding international law, ordering soldiers to commit war crimes, jailing his opponent.

Trump has no experience in politics; he’s never previously run for office or held a government position. So perhaps he was unaware that one of the hallmarks of the American system of government is that the president’s power to “fix” things unilaterally is constrained by an array of strong institutions — including the courts, the media, the permanent federal bureaucracy and Congress. Combined, they provide an essential defense against an imperial presidency.

Yet in his first weeks at the White House, President Trump has already sought to undermine many of those institutions. Those that have displayed the temerity to throw some hurdle in the way of a Trump objective have quickly felt the heat.

(More here.)

Monday, April 03, 2017

Why Trump lies

By The Times Editorial Board, LA Times
April 3, 2017

Donald Trump did not invent the lie and is not even its master. Lies have oozed out of the White House for more than two centuries and out of politicians’ mouths — out of all people’s mouths — likely as long as there has been human speech.

But amid all those lies, told to ourselves and to one another in order to amass power, woo lovers, hurt enemies and shield ourselves against the often glaring discomfort of reality, humanity has always had an abiding respect for truth.

In the United States, born and periodically reborn out of the repeated recognition and rejection of the age-old lie that some people are meant to take dominion over others, truth is as vital a part of the civic, social and intellectual culture as justice and liberty. Our civilization is premised on the conviction that such a thing as truth exists, that it is knowable, that it is verifiable, that it exists independently of authority or popularity and that at some point — and preferably sooner rather than later — it will prevail.

Even American leaders who lie generally know the difference between their statements and the truth. Richard Nixon said “I am not a crook” but by that point must have seen that he was. Bill Clinton said “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” but knew that he did.

(More here.)

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Larry C. Johnson emerges as key figure in spying allegation controversy

Man behind Michelle Obama and John Kerry hoaxes emerges at centre of GCHQ row 

Kim Sengupta, The Independent

Saturday 18 March 2017 18:13 GMT

A former CIA officer responsible for previously peddling false allegations played a prime part in the fake claim that Barack Obama secretly asked GCHQ to wiretap Donald Trump, The Independent has learned.

Larry C Johnson, who made bogus charges that Michelle Obama made a racist speech against white people and that former Secretary of State John Kerry had raped women while serving in Vietnam, has emerged as one of the key figures behind what has become an international diplomatic confrontation between the US and UK.

On 6 March, the week after Mr Trump first accused Mr Obama of being responsible for the wiretap, Mr Johnson “revealed” in an interview with Russian state sponsored network Russia Today that there was a conspiracy between US intelligence and “Britain’s own GHCQ (sic)” to derail Donald Trump’s election campaign. He said he had repeated this to Andrew Napolitano, a retired judge, who made it a basis for his own accusation against Mr Obama and GCHQ on Fox News earlier this week. The falsehood was then given further exposure by Sean Spicer, Mr Trump’s spokesman, at a White House briefing, on Thursday.

The revelation about Mr Johnson’s role in the extraordinary affair came as the Trump administration dismissed an account by Theresa May’s official spokesperson that they had apologised and pledged not to repeat the GCHQ claim.

(More here.)

Coal jobs aren't coming back, but a "just transition" to a different future is possible

Coal is dying, and Trump can’t save it: There are much better alternatives for coal country and our economy.

PAUL ROSENBERG, Salon

Donald Trump is wrong again — it’s not government regulation that’s killing off the coal industry. It’s the marketplace. Even if that could be reversed, today’s coal mining is much less labor-intensive. It would never be a jobs bonanza. The idea that coal is suffering from some enviro-radical “war on coal” may still sell to the fake news crowd, but in the real world coal’s share in power-generation continues its long-term decline, supercharged by cheap natural gas as much as by government action.

As noted by Devashree Saha of the Brookings Institution in December:
In 2000, coal accounted for 51.7 percent of electricity generation, compared with just 15.8 percent for natural gas. By 2015, coal’s share had dropped to 33.2 percent, while natural gas rose to 32.7 percent of total generation.
Beyond that, there’s the dramatic development of renewables, the undisputed fuels of the future. As Bloomberg News explained last April:
Government subsidies have helped wind and solar get a foothold in global power markets, but economies of scale are the true driver of falling prices: The cost of solar power has fallen to 1/150th of its level in the 1970s, while the total amount of installed solar has soared 115,000-fold. [Chart.]
(Continued here.)

Our Dishonest President

By The Times Editorial Board, LA Times
April 2, 2017

It was no secret during the campaign that Donald Trump was a narcissist and a demagogue who used fear and dishonesty to appeal to the worst in American voters. The Times called him unprepared and unsuited for the job he was seeking, and said his election would be a “catastrophe.”

Still, nothing prepared us for the magnitude of this train wreck. Like millions of other Americans, we clung to a slim hope that the new president would turn out to be all noise and bluster, or that the people around him in the White House would act as a check on his worst instincts, or that he would be sobered and transformed by the awesome responsibilities of office.

Instead, seventy-some days in — and with about 1,400 to go before his term is completed — it is increasingly clear that those hopes were misplaced.

In a matter of weeks, President Trump has taken dozens of real-life steps that, if they are not reversed, will rip families apart, foul rivers and pollute the air, intensify the calamitous effects of climate change and profoundly weaken the system of American public education for all.

His attempt to de-insure millions of people who had finally received healthcare coverage and, along the way, enact a massive transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich has been put on hold for the moment. But he is proceeding with his efforts to defang the government’s regulatory agencies and bloat the Pentagon’s budget even as he supposedly retreats from the global stage.

(More here.)

Thursday, March 30, 2017

When the President Is Ignorant of His Own Ignorance

Thomas B. Edsall MARCH 30, 2017, NYT

How prepared is our president for the next great foreign, economic or terrorist crisis?

After a little more than two months in office, President Trump has raised doubts about his ability to deal with what the former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously described as the “known unknowns” and the “unknown unknowns.”

“President Trump seems to have no awareness whatsoever of what he does and does not know,” Steven Nadler, a professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wrote me. “He is ignorant of his own ignorance.”

During his first 63 days in office, Trump made 317 “false or misleading claims,” according to The Washington Post.

The FBI, the Treasury Department and two congressional committees are probing whether Trump’s campaign aides and advisers — including Paul Manafort, Carter Page, Roger Stone and Michael Flynnwere complicit in alleged Russian interference.

(More here.)

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Trump, Putin and Russian mobsters

WHY FBI CAN’T TELL ALL ON TRUMP, RUSSIA

Russ Baker, C. Collins and Jonathan Z. Larsen
March 27, 2017

Reporters: Jonathan Z. Larsen is the former editor of The Village Voice, whose reporting team included the late Wayne Barrett and Robert I. Friedman. These people and the paper produced many of the important early investigative reports on Donald Trump and on the mob. Larsen is now a senior editor and board member of WhoWhatWhy. Russ Baker, a former investigative reporter for The Village Voice, is Editor-in-Chief of WhoWhatWhy. C. Collins is a WhoWhatWhy reporter.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation cannot tell us what we need to know about Donald Trump’s contacts with Russia. Why? Because doing so would jeopardize a long-running, ultra-sensitive operation targeting mobsters tied to Russian President Vladimir Putin — and to Trump.

But the Feds’ stonewalling risks something far more dangerous: Failing to resolve a crisis of trust in America’s president. WhoWhatWhy provides the details of a two-month investigation in this 6,500-word exposé.

The FBI apparently knew, directly or indirectly, based upon available facts, that prior to Election Day, Trump and his campaign had personal and business dealings with certain individuals and entities linked to criminal elements — including reputed Russian gangsters — connected to Putin.

The same facts suggest that the FBI knew or should have known enough prior to the election to justify informing the public about its ongoing investigation of potentially compromising relationships between Trump, Putin, and Russian mobsters — even if it meant losing or exposing a valued informant.

(More here.)

Monday, March 27, 2017

Congress Gears Up for Fight Over Spending After Failure of Health-Care Bill

Republicans worry they will need more Democratic votes than previously expected to avert a government shutdown

By Kristina Peterson and Siobhan Hughes, WSJ
Updated March 27, 2017 9:18 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON—President Donald Trump and GOP leaders enter their next big battle facing stubborn opposition in both parties that increases Republicans’ worries that they will need more Democratic support than previously expected to avert a government shutdown by the end of April.

It is a sign of the new reality in Washington after Mr. Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan failed to persuade the House’s most conservative Republicans, as well as centrists, to back a bill to replace the Affordable Care Act. The failure derailed the GOP leadership and the new administration’s top legislative priority and has put unexpected questions before both parties about their paths forward.

For Republicans leaders, the main challenge is the House Freedom Caucus, an alliance of the most conservative Republicans who successfully defied the White House to sink the health bill.

For Democrats, unified opposition to the bill helped give the party a surprising legislative win and deprived Mr. Trump of an early victory. Their success in sticking together has left the party less incentive to compromise with Republicans, who will likely need them to supply votes for the fiscal measures, as they often did under Mr. Ryan’s predecessor, Speaker John Boehner.

(More here.)

The G.O.P.’s Existential Crisis

By COREY ROBIN, MARCH 24, 2017, NYT

Give Donald Trump this: His travel ban enraged only half the country. The House Republicans’ attempt to replace the Affordable Care Act, meanwhile, has alienated everyone, including members of the Republican Party itself.

The bill was supposed to go to a vote on Friday, but the leadership, facing a likely defeat, was forced to pull it when it became clear it didn’t have the necessary support. It was perhaps better off dead: Already a rushed, Rube Goldberg solution in search of a problem, by the time it neared the House floor it had so many compromises woven into it to win votes that, even if it passed, it would have probably gone down in defeat in the Senate.

It’s not simply that President Trump and the Republicans are incompetent and inexperienced, though they are: The overwhelming majority of the party’s congressional delegation wasn’t even in the House of Representatives when Barack Obama was first elected to the White House, and despite his reputation as a savvy pol, Paul Ryan, who became House speaker only in 2015, has almost no record of legislative achievement. (In his time in the House, which he joined in 1999, he’s managed to get signed into law only three of the bills he originally sponsored.)

Nor is it that their time in the opposition has left the Republicans ill equipped to govern: After years of wandering in the wilderness, neither the Reagan administration nor George W. Bush’s people were at a loss, when suddenly given the keys to the castle, about what to do. And as demonstrated by the travel ban and the Republican division over Mr. Trump’s budget (despite its fulfilling long-held conservative dreams), the meltdown over Obamacare repeal can’t be chalked up solely to the byzantine complexities of American health care.

(More here.)

How Right-Wing Media Saved Obamacare

Years of misleading coverage left viewers so misinformed that many were shocked when confronted with the actual costs of repeal.

Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic

As the Republican Party struggled and then failed to repeal and replace Obamacare, pulling a wildly unpopular bill from the House without even taking a vote, a flurry of insightful articles helped the public understand what exactly just happened. Robert Draper explained the roles that Stephen Bannon, Paul Ryan, and others played in deciding what agenda items President Trump would pursue in what order. Politico reported on how and why the House Freedom Caucus insisted that the health care bill repeal even relatively popular parts of Obamacare. Lest anyone pin blame for the GOP’s failure on that faction, Reihan Salam argued persuasively that responsibility rests with poor leadership by House Speaker Paul Ryan and a GOP coalition with “policy goals that simply can’t be achieved.”

But dogged, behind-the-scenes reporting and sharp analysis of fissures among policy elites do not capture another important contributor to last week’s failure—one Josh Barro came closest to unpacking in a column titled, “Republicans lied about healthcare for years, and they're about to get the punishment they deserve.”

(More here.)

Russia Uses Rigged Polls, Fake News to Sway Foreign Elections

Bulgarian officials say a former Russian spy advised pro-Moscow party on how to manipulate voters as part of Kremlin’s effort to regain influence in Eastern Europe; a 30-page dossier.

By Joe Parkinson and Georgi Kantchev, WSJ
March 23, 2017 11:19 a.m. ET

SOFIA, Bulgaria—In the run-up to presidential elections in Bulgaria last year, the country’s opposition Socialist Party received a secret strategy document proposing a road map to victory at the ballot box, according to five current or former Bulgarian officials.

Among its recommendations: plant fake news and promote exaggerated polling data.

The source of the roughly 30-page dossier, intercepted by Bulgaria’s security service, was a think tank connected to the Kremlin, according to the officials. It was delivered by a former Russian spy on a U.S. sanctions list, three of them said.

In November, the Socialists’ candidate, Rumen Radev, emerged victorious. Now, the party—which wants to end European Union sanctions against Russia and limit North Atlantic Treaty Organization operations around the Black Sea—is a front-runner in parliamentary elections t

“I’m very worried,” said Rosen Plevneliev, a Kremlin critic who was Mr. Radev’s predecessor as president. “Russian activity across Eastern Europe has gone to a new level.”

(More here.)

In Praise of a Nomadic Life

We’ve given up a lot for a life of working and living on the road—but we wouldn’t want it any other way

By Andrew Blackman, WSJ
March 26, 2017 10:33 p.m. ET

Christmas Day in Tangier encapsulated the best and worst of our new, nomadic way of life.

A couple of years ago, my wife, Genie, and I sold most of our possessions, stowed the rest in boxes in my parents’ attic in south London, bought a used Toyota, and headed for Italy. I was 38; Genie was 41. Our idea was to travel throughout Europe, but without an end date. We would live on the road, working as we traveled, making enough money to cover our costs so that we could continue moving for as long as we chose.

On Christmas Day, as our friends and family back home were exchanging gifts and sitting down to a traditional lunch of roast turkey with all the trimmings, we were strolling along a Moroccan waterfront in brilliant sunshine, surrounded by people for whom Dec. 25 was just another day.

(More here.)

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The planet burns while Donald Trump fiddles

Climate Change Pushes World Into ‘Uncharted Territory’

By Damian Carrington, The Guardian
Published: March 26th, 2017

The record-breaking heat that made 2016 the hottest year ever recorded has continued into 2017, pushing the world into “truly uncharted territory", according to the World Meteorological Organization.

The WMO’s assessment of the climate in 2016 reports unprecedented heat across the globe, exceptionally low ice at both poles and surging sea-level rise.

Global warming is largely being driven by emissions from human activities, but a strong El Niño — a natural climate cycle — added to the heat in 2016. The El Niño is now waning, but the extremes continue to be seen, with temperature records tumbling in the U.S. in February and polar heatwaves pushing ice cover to new lows.

(Continued here.)

Friday, March 24, 2017

Republican plan is Robin Hood in reverse

The GOP wants to take money from Medicare’s trust fund and give it to the rich

By Max Ehrenfreund March 23 at 9:55 AM, WashPost

The Republican plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, would draw on Medicare's financially distressed trust fund to put money back in the pockets of some of the country's richest people.

Republicans would repeal the Medicare tax, a 0.9 percent surcharge on annual salaries of at least $200,000 for individual taxpayers or $250,000 for married couples. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that over a decade, repealing the tax would forego $117 billion that those wealthy households are currently expected to pay into the trust fund, which is used to cover the costs of health care for elderly Americans.

Repealing the tax would put the fund into “crisis mode,” said Andrew Slavitt, a former acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under President Barack Obama. Slavitt said the fund could be exhausted as soon as 2024 because of the changes, when President Trump might still be in office.

Other Democratic experts joined in the criticism of the Republican plan.

“How could you possibly look out at America and decide that the problem is that rich people don’t have enough money and the Medicare trust fund is too flush?” asked Jared Bernstein, who was chief economist to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

(More here.)

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Gunman in Ukraine kills Putin foe in attack denounced as ‘state terrorism’

Forensic experts and police officers examine the scene following the killing of former Russian lawmaker Denis Voronenkov in Kiev, Ukraine, on March 23, 2017. (Sergei Chuzavkov/AP)
By Andrew Roth and Natalie Gryvnak March 23 at 11:22 AM, WashPost

KIEV — A former Russian member of parliament who defected to Ukraine and began sharply criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin was gunned down Thursday in downtown Kiev in an apparent contract killing.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the murder of Denis Voronenkov, a former member of Russia’s Communist Party who fled to Kiev in October 2016, an “act of state terrorism by Russia.”

A suspected assailant was arrested after Voronenkov was shot twice in the head, dying on the spot. The suspect’s identity or other details were not immediately made public. In Moscow, a Kremlin spokesman denied Russian involvement in the killing.

But Russia’s critics were likely to draw parallels between the slaying and the deaths of other Putin foes. It also will probably raise further alarm in Washington, where Russia has come under scrutiny for allegedly trying to influence the presidential election to aid Donald Trump.

In an interview with The Washington Post on Tuesday evening — less than 72 hours before his death — Voronenkov complained about anonymous threats against him and his wife, Maria Maksakova, a former member of the United Russia party founded by Putin, with whom he fled to Kiev last year.

(More here.)

An election by the Kremlin, for the Kremlin and of the Kremlin

The winner of the House Intelligence Committee hearing on Russia? Vladimir Putin

By Michael McFaul March 23 at 12:31 PM, WashPost

After the vote results came in last November, many Russians close to the Kremlin celebrated. “Our Trump” — or #TrumpNash, as they tweeted — had been elected president of the United States. Few in Moscow expected Donald Trump to win, but many Russians wanted him to win, including Vladimir Putin. The Russian president so passionately supported the Republican candidate and despised Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton that he brazenly tried to influence our presidential election. As FBI Director James B. Comey described on Monday, the Russians “were unusually loud in their intervention,” violating our sovereignty by meddling in one of our most sacred acts as a democracy and not seeming to care if they were exposed. The Russian theft and then publication of private data from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta produced a significant impact on our electoral process. The DNC chair was forced to resign and Democratic supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) became more enraged at Clinton, causing many of them to stay home on Election Day. Clinton’s image was damaged continuously by daily media coverage of these stolen emails. Of course, many factors combined to produce Trump’s victory, but Putin’s intervention most certainly played a contributing role.

(More here.)

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Greedy Old Plutocrats — G.O.P. — are still working their Long Con

Trump strategy dismantles protections, favors the wealthy

by Tom Maertens

Tom Maertens served as National Security Council director for nonproliferation and homeland defense under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and as deputy coordinator for counter-terrorism in the State Department during and after 9/11.

The Greedy Old Plutocrats — G.O.P. — are still working their Long Con.

Their long-standing program is to reward the wealthy who supply their campaign funds, using the debunked “trickle down” claim that cutting taxes for rich people produces an economic miracle, a free lunch.

They object to Obamacare principally because it is largely paid for with taxes on the wealthy, and in fact, Paul Ryan’s replacement plan would cut taxes for the wealthy by hundreds of billions of dollars. The top .01 percent already have as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent.

It is no surprise that Trump would embrace an economic swindle. Typically, he has promised “massive” tax relief for the middle class when the real beneficiaries of his plan are the fatcats; the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center estimates that Trump’s tax plan would save the top 1 percent $214,690 each, or 13.5 percent of after-tax income, while middle-income households would get an average tax cut of 1.8 percent or $1,010 each.

But Trump is a gifted huckster with a proven ability to dupe the ignorancia; his political career after all is built on a five-year lie about Obama’s birthplace.

The Tax Policy Center also found that Trump’s tax plan would reduce federal tax revenue by at least $6.1 trillion: half of that money would go directly to the richest 1 percent; combined with more defense spending, it would explode government debt.

Republi-Cons claim that Reagan’s tax cuts prove that trickle down works, but they fail to mention his eleven subsequent tax increases, and more important, his Pentagon buildup — a form of military Keynesianism that tripled the national debt; Reagan’s economy was built on both tax cuts and deficit spending. It produced fewer jobs than the economy did under Bill Clinton, who raised taxes and produced a surplus.

Even Obama created more jobs than Reagan. He also inherited a $1.4 trillion dollar annual deficit from George W. Bush’s failed economic policies. Obama eventually cut that by two-thirds, but in the interim, yearly deficits continued to pile up by the trillions, which Republicans blame on Obama instead of on the real causes — Bush’s supply-side scam and unfunded war.

Further evidence of the plutocrats’ real intentions is evidenced by their obsession with eliminating the inheritance tax, which affects a few thousand of the richest people in the country, but which the GOP misrepresents as a “death tax” that applies to all.

A second major goal of the GOP is to weaken or eliminate government regulations, which are an impediment to the plutocrats’ looting and polluting. Trump’s chief advisor, Steve Bannon, has listed “deconstruction of the administrative state” as a goal of the administration.

What will be destroyed under Trump/Bannon will be regulations governing clean air, clean water, fair labor practices, fair housing standards, anti-discrimination measures, financial regulations, and food and drug safety laws.

The Republican Congress is also committed to weakening the Dodd-Frank rules on Wall Street intended to prevent another economic crisis, and to eliminating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau created to redress abuses/fraud by financial institutions. They want a market without rules.

The greediest plutocrat of all is Trump, who can’t seem to get enough money or enough publicity. Not surprisingly, he appointed a ratpack of other predatory billionaires to his cabinet, such as Steven Mnuchin, whose claim to fame is that his firm foreclosed on 25,000 mortgages during the financial crisis.

The biggest obstacle to Trump’s destructive policies is an independent press which regularly exposes his lies and conflicts of interest.

The Washington Post Fact Checker found that Trump made 194 false or misleading claims in his first 48 days in office. Nobel laureate Paul Krugman has termed Trump “the most dishonest man ever to hold high office in America.”

So it is no surprise that Trump would try to discredit the mainstream press. What is astonishing is that he resorted to “enemy of the people,” a standby of demagogues and dictators, one which Stalin used to justify liquidating his opponents.

Trump has even compared the U.S. intelligence agencies to Nazi Germany and accused Obama of wiretapping him and organizing protests.

There is a likely explanation for Trump’s deranged outbursts: more than 26,000 psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals have signed a petition at Psychology Today declaring Trump has serious mental illness (narcissistic megalomania) — with symptoms obvious to everybody.

So we are faced with four years under a half-crazy con artist with the nuclear codes, and a destructive political party controlled by plutocrats.

What could go wrong?

Also published in the Mankato Free Press, March 18, 2017

Monday, March 13, 2017

Waging a war on energy and transportation innovation

Behind the Quiet State-by-State Fight Over Electric Vehicles

By HIROKO TABUCHI, MARCH 11, 2017
New York Times

When Georgia repealed its generous $5,000 tax credit on electric vehicles in July 2015, and instead slapped a $200 registration fee on electric cars, sales quickly tumbled.

In the month before the repeal, nearly 1,300 electric vehicles were sold in the state. By August, those sales had all but evaporated — to just 97 cars.

It was a hint of what would come.

Today, the economic incentives that have helped electric vehicles gain a toehold in America are under attack, state by state. In some states, there is a move to repeal tax credits for battery-powered vehicles or to let them expire. And in at least nine states, including liberal-leaning ones like Illinois and conservative-leaning ones like Indiana, lawmakers have introduced bills that would levy new fees on those who own electric cars.

The state actions could put the business of electric vehicles, already rocky, on even more precarious footing. That is particularly true as gas prices stay low, and as the Trump administration appears set to give the nascent market much less of a hand.

(More here.)