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His Dark Materials

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If you thought that the Trump administration’s goal is to dismantle the non-military functions of the federal government, Steve Bannon confirmed that yesterday. If were wondering if the Republican party is fully in step, Reince Priebus just confirmed that too.

At the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Bannon declared that the Trump administration is in a battle for the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” And White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, who supposedly represents the Republican establishment, was right next to him to say “amen.”

Of course, anyone who paid even slight attention to Trump’s cabinet choices wouldn’t have needed Bannon’s statement to understand this.  Virtually every cabinet nominee for the civil departments of the federal governments has been specifically selected to subvert the administrative and regulatory functions of the agency they are supposed to lead.

Consider Scott Pruitt at EPA, Betsy DeVos at Education, Puzder at Labor (at least that one got shot down, no replacement named yet), Mnuchin at Treasury, Mulvaney at OMB, Price at HHS, the list goes on and on. And then there’s Jeff Sessions at Justice to make sure that the government’s judicial machinery doesn’t interfere with the program.  Bannon actually said that nominees “were selected for a reason, and that is deconstruction.”

So if you like having clean air and water, support public schools, believe in paying workers a living wage, think Wall Street and Big Banking need to be regulated to avoid another crash, believe the government needs to have fiscal and monetary tools to mitigate the next recession, want more people to have access to affordable medical care, etc., you now have a government that wants all of these functions delivered into the hands of unconstrained corporate interests. What could possibly go wrong?

The message from Bannon and Priebus at CPAC–which the irrepressible Kellyanne Conway said should really be called “TPAC” (you know, Trump Political…)–is that there really is no daylight between the Trump/Bannon team and the Republican party. After all, even supposedly principled Republican senators like McCain and Graham voted for every last one of Trump’s cabinet nominees.

The best, and perhaps only effective, weapon against this program of destruction is massive, unrelenting, and loud resistance by ordinary Americans who are letting their elected representatives know what they think at town halls across the country, whether their representatives show up or not. This may actually be having some effect, because so far the only prominent Republican member of congress to show up at CPAC has been the reptilian Ted Cruz.

 

Crime Story: Making America Scared Again

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To hear Trump talk about it, you might think that the country is having an unprecedented crime wave. During the campaign, he vowed that his administration would “liberate our citizens from the crime and terrorism and lawlessness that threatens their communities” and that “the crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon, and I mean very soon, come to an end.” He has claimed that the national murder rate is at its highest in 45 or 47 years.  He has singled out Chicago (threatening to “send in the Feds”) as being the worst example of crime being out of control in America’s major cities, which he says are “facing a public safety crisis.” The trouble is that most of this narrative is false.

For complicated reasons, the US has long had much more crime that other developed countries, but national crime rates have dropped sharply since the early 90s and remain at levels not seen since the mid-1960s, despite an uptick since 2014.

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Chicago has a very serious crime problem and has suffered from increased gun violence in the last two years, but it isn’t even close to having the highest crime rate among the country’s major cities. In fact, St. Louis has the dubious distinction of having the highest murder rate among big cities in the US (more than twice that of Chicago, which ranked 8th in 2016). The other top ten cities in 2016 were (in descending order) Baltimore, Detroit, New Orleans, Cleveland, Newark, Memphis, Kansas City, and Atlanta. Moreover, San Antonio topped Chicago in percentage increase in the murder rate in 2016, followed closely by Memphis. A five-year average of murder rates 2015-2015 in major cities, shows Chicago ranked 18th, with about a third the rate of St. Louis, New Orleans, and Detroit. Many smaller cities throughout the country have much higher murder rates than these.

Take a look at this interactive graphic published by The Economist. Virtually all cities share the general trend of decline in murder rates since the early 90s, but if you look at them individually you see that there are spikes and dips that have no obvious correlation to the larger crime trends.  Indeed, criminologists have not been able to come up with any compelling explanation for the spike in violent crime in some cities–certainly not the one that Trump has been peddling which is that it’s because of violent gangs of illegal immigrants, something for which there is no evidence. In Chicago, the violent crime is concentrated in a few areas on the West- and Southside, and the rest of the city is as safe as any city in the country.

So why is Trump continuing to hold up Chicago as the poster town for violent crime? I think one fairly obvious reason is that Chicago is Obama’s adopted home town, and Trump likes nothing better than to denigrate anything associated with Obama. Then there’s the mayor, Rahm Emanuel, who was Obama’s chief of staff during his first term, which makes it a twofer. Emanuel, by the way, has met with Trump and other key members of his administration but has not received any pledges of increased federal assistance, despite Trump’s blustering about “sending in the feds.”

More generally, Trump has interwoven the false narrative of skyrocketing crime with the even greater false narrative of out-of-control illegal immigration. Hyping “inner city” (Whitespeak for “black”) crime plays to the racial fears and prejudices of his base of white suburban and rural supporters, convincing them–again falsely–that they’re in greater danger than ever of becoming a crime victim, and they better arm themselves.

Indeed, the most glaring omission in all this discussion is any mention of the proliferation of guns. The Economist points out that: “Crunching numbers on 280,000 murder records from 1980 to 2015 shows that among our 50 cities gun use has increased from 65% to 80% of all murders. But that number varies dramatically by city. Guns were responsible for 60% of murders in New York and 85% in Chicago between 2010 and 2015. Although both places have made progress in reducing non-gun-related homicides, Chicago’s gun murder rate is five times New York’s.”

Good luck these days having any conversation about reducing the number of guns.

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Trump: I’m not Racist, but…

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“I am the least racist person that you have ever met.” Donald Trump, interviewed by CNN’s Dan Lemon, 12/9/2015.   “Number one, I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life. Number two, racism, the least racist person.” Trump press conference, 2/16/2017

Usually when someone insists “I’m not a racist” it’s because he really is racist, or is about to do or say something racist.

The second quotation above, occurred after a Jewish journalist (wearing a yarmulke) asked Trump about the recent rise of anti-Semitic hate crimes in the US. Trump took umbrage at the question, and after rudely telling the reporter to sit down, said that it was “not a fair question” and “a very insulting question”, all the while failing to actually answer it.

Only a few minutes later, Trump recognized veteran African-American journalist April Ryan (saying “this is going to be a bad question”), who asked about his campaign pledge to help inner cities and an anticipated executive order on historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

Regarding the order, Trump said only that it would be coming out soon. [As of this writing, it has not been made public. Omarosa Manigault reportedly is involved in the project, and it may turn out to be a vehicle to cast Trump in a favorable light relative to Obama, who had a somewhat strained relationship with HBCUs.]

Trump then launched into an extended boast about how well he had done with black voters. [Factual note: He received an estimated 8 percent of the black vote versus Romney’s 6 percent in 2012 running against an incumbent African-American president.] And Latino voters. And women voters. This then segued into the familiar trope about what “hell” America’s inner cities are.  He said nothing about any plans except “great people” are “working very hard” on inner cities.

Ryan followed up by asking if Trump planned to involve the Congressional Black Caucus, at which point Trump turned strangely hostile and confrontational, asking her if she “wanted to set up the meeting” and if the CBC were friends of hers. When she pointed out that she was just a reporter, he challenged her to “set up the meeting” as if that were her role. He then claimed that Rep. Elijah Cummings had pulled out of a meeting, probably at the instigation of Senator Schumer “or some other lightweight”.  [Note: The transcript of this portion of the press conference is appended at the bottom of this post.]

Reportedly, no meeting had been officially scheduled, and Rep. Cummings stated that he had “no idea why President Trump would make up a story about me like he did today,” adding that “of course, Schumer never told me to skip a meeting with the president.”

All of this followed Trump’s excruciating February 1 remarks on Black History month. [Full transcript here.] Flanked by Omarosa and Ben Carson (maybe the only black people Trump actually knows?), he began his remarks by bragging about the election, and then said, “Well this is Black History Month, so this is our little breakfast, our little get-together.” In the midst of talking mostly about himself, he managed to mention a few iconic black historical figures (Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman) and then said, “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I noticed.” [Pause for embarrassed laughter.]  Perhaps someone had told him something about Douglass, but failed to mention that he has been deceased for over a century.

Several things stand out here. One is Trump’s disdain for “our little breakfast”, for which he clearly did utterly no preparation.  Obviously, his staffers didn’t bother to set him up for this either, which says a lot about the level of White House interest in black voters in general. Another is his failure to acknowledge anything about the outstanding achievements of African-Americans or the vital role of ordinary black citizens in contemporary society or the continuing discrimination that black people encounter in our country.  His only reference to present-day challenges was to harp again on the “terrible” state of the “inner city,” without any idea of what he might propose to address problems, except to have Carson “work very hard.”

Then there was  Trump’s pre-inauguration Twitter attack on civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis, after Lewis stated that he didn’t see Trump as “legitimate president” because of Russian meddling in the election.  Trump angrily tweeted: “Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results. All talk, talk, talk – no action or results. Sad! Congressman John Lewis should finally focus on the burning and crime infested inner-cities of the U.S. I can use all the help I can get!”

Aside from the sheer effrontery of saying that Lewis, who was savagely beaten by white segregationist Southerners during civil rights protests, was “all talk”, it turns out that Lewis’s district is actually doing quite well, thank you, and is far from the “burning and crime-infested” ghetto of Trump’s uninformed imagination.

All of this has occurred against the backdrop of the most blatantly racist campaign since George Wallace’s.  Here is what Shaun King, of the New York Daily News recently had to say about that:

You were given a resounding endorsement by the KKK. Current and former Klan leaders have sung your praises for years now. Neo-Nazis literally give the Nazi salute to you and your presidency. Bigots, be they young ones or old ones, commit hate crimes against Jews, immigrants, Muslims and people of color, and frequently say they are doing so in your name. In other instances, they chant your name and your name alone as a form of ethnic intimidation. When graffiti is left on buildings to intimidate people, right alongside racial slurs and swastikas, your name is tagged on buildings and playgrounds and cars across America. Have you ever wondered why white supremacists and neo-Nazis didn’t use George Bush’s name like this? Or Bill Clinton’s? Or Barack Obama’s? It’s because they were not seen as white supremacist superheroes and you are.

I don’t know if Trump is personally a racist or not–maybe he just feels entitled to act like an asshole to anyone.  But there is no doubt in my mind that many of his ideas are racist, and that he has consciously courted racists and white nationalists as supporters. The fact that his words and actions are denounced as racist probably just solidifies his base support.

He obviously finds it uncomfortable to be accused of racism, but in the final analysis, he just doesn’t really care.

[From the press conference]:

TRUMP: Yes, oh, this is going to be a bad question, but that’s OK.

QUESTION: It doesn’t(ph) have(ph) to be a bad question.

TRUMP: Good, because I enjoy watching you on television. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Well, thank you so much. Mr. President, I need to find out from you, you said something as it relates to inner cities. That was one of your platforms during your campaign. Now you’re —

TRUMP: Fix the inner cities.

QUESTION: — president. Fixing the inner cities.

TRUMP: Yep.

QUESTION: What will be that fix and your urban agenda as well as your HBCU Executive Order that’s coming out this afternoon? See, it wasn’t bad, was it?

TRUMP: That was very professional and very good.

QUESTION: I’m very professional.

TRUMP: We’ll be announcing the order in a little while and I’d rather let the order speak for itself. But it could be something that I think that will be very good for everybody concerned. But we’ll talk to you about that after we do the announcement. As far as the inner cities, as you know, I was very strong on the inner cities during the campaign.

I think it’s probably what got me a much higher percentage of the African American vote than a lot of people thought I was going to get. We did, you know, much higher than people thought I was going to get. And I was honored by that, including the Hispanic vote, which was also much higher.

And by the way, if I might add, including the women’s vote, which was much higher than people thought I was going to get. So, we are going to be working very hard on the inner cities, having to do with education, having to do with crime. We’re going to try and fix as quickly as possible — you know, it takes a long time.

It’s taken more a hundred years and more for some of these places to evolve and they evolved, many of them, very badly. But we’re going to be working very hard on health and healthcare, very, very hard on education, and also we’re going to be working in a stringent way, in a very good way, on crime.

You go to some of these inner city places and it’s so sad when you look at the crime. You have people — and I’ve seen this, and I’ve sort of witnessed it — in fact, in two cases I have actually witnessed it. They lock themselves into apartments, petrified to even leave, in the middle of the day.

They’re living in hell. We can’t let that happen. So, we’re going to be very, very strong. That’s a great question and — and it’s a — it’s a very difficult situation because it’s been many, many years. It’s been festering for many, many years. But we have places in this country that we have to fix.

We have to help African American people that, for the most part, are stuck there. Hispanic American people. We have Hispanic American people that are in the inner cities and their living in hell. I mean, you look at the numbers in Chicago. There are two Chicagos, as you know.

There’s one Chicago that’s incredible, luxurious and all — and safe. There’s another Chicago that’s worse than almost any of the places in the Middle East that we talk, and that you talk about, every night on the newscasts. So, we’re going to do a lot of work on the inner cities.

I have great people lined up to help with the inner cities. OK?

QUESTION: Are you going to include the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional —

TRUMP: Well, I would. I tell you what, do you want to set up the meeting?

QUESTION: — Hispanic Caucus —

TRUMP: Do you want to set up the meeting?

QUESTION: No — no — no. I’m not —

TRUMP: Are they friends of yours?

QUESTION: I’m just a reporter.

TRUMP: Well, then(ph) set up the meeting.

QUESTION: I know some of them, but I’m sure they’re watching right now.

TRUMP: Let’s go set up a meeting. I would love to meet with the Black Caucus. I think it’s great, the Congressional Black Caucus. I think it’s great. I actually thought I had a meeting with Congressman Cummings and he was all excited. And then he said, well, I can’t move, it might be bad for me politically. I can’t have that meeting.

I was all set to have the meeting. You know, we called him and called him. And he was all set. I spoke to him on the phone, very nice guy.

QUESTION: I hear he wanted that meeting with you as well.

TRUMP: He wanted it, but we called, called, called and can’t make a meeting with him. Every day I walk and say I would like to meet with him because I do want to solve the problem. But he probably was told by Schumer or somebody like that, some other lightweight. He was probably told — he was probably told “don’t meet with Trump. It’s bad politics.”

And that’s part of the problem in this country.

Republicans, You Now Own the Cover-up

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Let’s say it plainly: The Republican Party has decided to be complicit in covering up what may well be the greatest political scandal in American history.

As the New York Times stated today, the only way RussiaGate is going to get a genuine investigation is with an independent Special Prosecutor, which the congressional Republicans continue to block. The Republicans are simply too focused on implementing their legislative agenda now that there is nothing to stop them to allow a little thing like having a president compromised by ties to Russia get in the way.

Mitch McConnell, the most cynical and self-serving senate majority leader in recent memory, continues oppose even the appointment of a select congressional committee, and most Republican leaders are acting as if Flynn’s resignation has taken care of the problem. Paul Ryan makes occasional clucking sounds, but has been silent about the larger scandal and called Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador “entirely appropriate.”

As economist Paul Krugman points out, the Republican chairs of the relevant congressional committees are simply ignoring what is in front of their noses. Devin Nunes, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, dismissed calls for a select committee saying, “There is absolutely not going to be one.” Jason Chaffetz, chair of the House oversight committee — who hounded Hillary Clinton endlessly over Benghazi — declared that the “situation has taken care of itself.” (However, Chaffetz isn’t too busy to investigate a pre-school cartoon character on PBS!)  Rand Paul explained: “We’ll never even get started with doing the things we need to do, like repealing Obamacare, if we’re spending our whole time having Republicans investigate Republicans.”

Most tellingly, this week the House Ways and Means Committee, which has the power to demand individual tax returns, rejected a Democratic push to get the IRS to release Trump’s returns, on a straight party-line vote.

The handful of senate Republicans with any remaining vestiges of moral integrity continue to prevaricate. Curmudgeonly John McCain makes occasional harrumphing noises, but has backed off from calling for a select committee. Tinkerbell-like Lindsay Graham flits around making vaguely disapproving statements once in a while, but has not called for an independent investigation either. As they showed during the election campaign, when the chips are down, they will go with Trump.

Meanwhile, the Democrats simply don’t have the votes in Congress to force anything and will have to make what they can out of the Republican-controlled inquiries in the various committees, which are likely to focus on Flynn rather than aggressively go after the bigger scandal.

Trump’s appalling ability to dissemble, dodge, distract, and misdirect were on full display at yesterday’s mind-boggling press conference. His responses were completely incoherent even regarding Flynn, while he claimed incredibly to have absolutely no dealings with Russia.  There has to be a pony somewhere in this pile of horseshit.

At this point, the only hope really is that the press will uncover further evidence regarding RussiaGate and that the American public will forcefully demand a full and independent investigation.

Otherwise, it’s the end of the world as we know it, and the Republicans feel just fine.

 

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Slouching towards Jerusalem*

[*Apologies to W. B. Yeats]

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Israeli Security Barrier in Jerusalem’s Beit Hanina neighborhood, 2009.  Source: The Times of Israel

The Israeli news media was filled with speculation on Sunday that the Trump administration would immediately announce the [American] embassy move [to Jerusalem] — as a de facto recognition of Israel’s annexation of predominantly Arab East Jerusalem, which it captured from Jordan during the 1967 war.  The New York Times, 1/23/2017

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is meeting with Trump in the White House today. In the last couple of weeks, the Trump administration has seemed to ease off from the campaign pledge to move the embassy immediately, but has not disavowed this intention.

Why is it such a big deal to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem? The answer both simple and extremely complicated.

The simple answer is that no other country has its embassy located in Jerusalem because the UN and (at least until now, the US) considers the status of Jerusalem to be subject to negotiation as part of an overall peace settlement on the status of Israeli-occupied territories. If the US embassy were to move there, it would inflame anger against both the US and Israel in the Muslim world, because it would inevitably be seen as de facto recognition of Israel’s claim to Greater Jerusalem and, by implication, support for Israeli settlements in the West Bank and continued effective control over the West Bank. A violent reaction seems highly likely.

The complicated part is understanding how all this happened and what it means for the future of people who live in the West Bank and Israel itself. To begin to comprehend all of this requires a lesson in both geography and history of the place. The following is an extremely abridged version:

Start by realizing that we’re talking about a very small place. Israel is about the size of New Jersey, and the West Bank is about the size of Delaware. The city of Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean Sea is less than 10 miles from the official border between Israel and the West Bank.

When Israel was carved out of the former British mandate of Palestine in 1947, a war with neighboring Arab countries broke out which expanded the area inside Israel. The 1949 armistice  established a border–generally called “the Green Line”–between Israel and the area west of the Jordan River and Dead Sea (hence the name West Bank) still controlled by Jordan. But most important, the Old City of Jerusalem containing the sites sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims remained in what was then still Jordanian territory.

All this was changed by the 1967 war, which left Israel in control of the entire West Bank. . Almost immediately, Israel annexed about 100 square miles of territory including all of East Jerusalem–something which has never been recognized by the US or the UN.

Flash forward to 1993, when the Oslo accords established a Palestinian Authority (PA) and divided the West Bank into three areas. Area A, in which the PA had both civil and security control, contained most of the major towns in geographically separated pockets of land and comprised only 18% of the land in the West Bank.  Area B, where Israel has security control and the PA civil control comprises 21% of the land area. The remainder, Area C, is fully under the control of Israel and is 61% of the West Bank. To travel from one A or B area to another, residents must pass through Area C and are subject to rigorous security searches by the Israeli military.

Meanwhile, starting soon after the 1967 war, Jewish Israelis began building settlements in East Jerusalem and scattered throughout the West Bank on land acquired by means ranging from purchase to legal seizure to outright squatting. Some of the settlements are considered “illegal”, but most have been authorized and indeed subsidized by the Israeli government. The settlements are distributed widely and have further split up the physical integrity of the West Bank, and they have been a cause of anger and violence by Palestinians. The settlers tend to be very conservative politically and religiously, and many believe in their right to control Greater Israel based on a Biblical mandate. They receive significant financial and political support from private US donors, including Jewish and conservative Christian groups.  As of December 2015, there were 406,302 Israeli settlers on the West Bank (according to official figures) plus another 360,000 in the annexed area of East Jerusalem.

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Map of West Bank settlements and closures in January 2006: Yellow = Palestinian urban centers. Light pink = closed military areas or settlement boundary areas or areas isolated by the Israeli West Bank barrier; dark pink = settlements, outposts or military bases. The black line = route of the Barrier

The settlements, which have continued to proliferate to this day, have become a major impediment to the so-called “two-state solution”, which envisions an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel and has been the cornerstone of US policy for decades.  Their existence has established “facts on the ground” in the form of Israeli villages, towns, and small cities on the territory of what presumptively would be the Palestinian state, and they would be extremely difficult to remove. Moreover, their location effectively splits up the remainder of the  West Bank into non-contiguous chunks of land, which would seriously hinder the viability of a Palestinian state. This has led to charges that the settlements realize an official Israeli strategy of making any Palestinian state a kind of “Bantustan” like those set up by apartheid-era South Africa–nominally independent, but under the de facto control of Israel. Netanyahu has recently floated a “two-state-minus” idea, which is basically the Bantustan approach.

The situation has been further complicated by Israel’s construction of a 450 mile long “security barrier” (in response to the 2000-2005 infitada uprising) which is now largely complete.  The barrier, which consists of walls, fences, and electronic fences, mostly follows the Green Line (always on the Palestinian side), but in several areas makes major incursions into the West Bank to encompass many of the largest settlement blocs. In all, some 8.5% of the land area of the West Bank is now on the Israeli side of the barrier, resulting in a kind of de facto annexation and further reducing the territory that could conceivably become part of a Palestinian state. The wall now cuts off all of East Jerusalem from the West Bank, making it effectively impossible for Jerusalem to be capital of a future Palestinian state, which has been a basic demand of the PA from the outset. (See detailed map here.)

 

US policy has generally been disapproving of the Israeli settlements and became sharply more negative during the Obama administration.  Nevertheless, the US continues to give massive aid to Israel, much more than to any other country. For FY 2017, the US is providing $3.1 billion in security assistance to Israel, which is more than twice the amount of total assistance to the next largest recipient, Egypt. (Netanyahu actually asked for $4-5 billion!)

Trump’s nominee for US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, will be having confirmation hearings soon, possibly this week.  Most recent US ambassadors have been seasoned professional diplomats. Trump has nominated his bankruptcy lawyer, who is aligned with the extreme political right in Israel, has accused Obama of “blatant anti-Semitism”, and called liberal Jewish organizations worse than the kapos who collaborated with the Nazis during the Holocaust. Friedman is to the right of Netanyahu and the Likud party. He has insisted that as ambassador he would work out of the US consulate in Jerusalem (which is officially not accredited to Israel). What could possibly go wrong?

Now Netanyahu comes to Washington in the midst of a huge and growing domestic crisis for Trump. Both the new secretaries of State and Defense will be out of town. This probably means that Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner will be guiding the discussions that take place.

Most commentators think that there will be little substance to the visit. We can only hope so. The last thing anyone needs at this point is to do something aggressively stupid like moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and thereby setting off another crisis in the Middle East.

UPDATE:  At the White House today, Trump managed to cast doubt on his commitment to the “two-state solution.” His remarks were basically (I’m paraphrasing here): Two-state, one-state, whatever.  Unbelievable!

 

 

 

 

Has RussiaGate Reached the Tipping Point?

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Tonight the New York Times published a story providing details of contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence and government officials prior to the election, going considerably further than anything previously made public. Taken against the background of Michael Flynn’s stunning firing/resignation over his conversations with Russian officials, precipitated by the Washington Post’s reporting,  it suggests that we are on the verge of an avalanche of revelations that could potentially imperil the Trump presidency. Commentators and prominent present and former US officials are calling this perhaps bigger than Watergate.

Citing phone records and actual calls intercepted around the time that US intelligence and law enforcement agencies were discovering evidence that Russia was attempting to meddle in the US election against Hillary Clinton, the Times story says that “members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election.” Specifically mentioned is Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, whose ties within Russia and employment by a Russian-supported Ukrainian political figure had created controversy last summer.

The story notes that so far there has been no direct evidence of collusion. But the circumstantial evidence is certainly beginning to accumulate.

Democratic leaders are pushing hard for an independent investigatory commission, but until now, Republican congressional leaders have been dismissive about the revelations and resisting any comprehensive investigation. But maintaining that stance is quickly becoming untenable.

The Republicans are trying to keep the scandal confined to Flynn. Representative Jason Chaffetz, the Chair of the House Oversight Committee, has refused to initiate an investigation, saying that the Flynn scandal “had taken care of itself.” It is highly questionable how newly-confirmed Attorney General Jeff Sessions will play this, because he was at least a de facto member of the Trump campaign himself.

The Flynn scandal is just the sideshow, and the real question is whether the Trump campaign did more than passively benefit from Russian covert operations to fix the election in Trump’s favor.  Until tonight, mainstream media were exercising great caution in talking about this Über-scandal, but that no longer seems to be the case. There will be growing pressure from the public and the media to look into Trump’s business and personal ties with Russia that he has managed to keep concealed until now, and this developing story promises to overwhelm everything else.

I remember vividly being riveted as the Watergate hearings played out on television in the summer of 1973.  The scope of this scandal would seem to make Watergate look laughably quaint by comparison. Potentially, RussiaGate could involve nothing less than a hostile foreign power co-opting a candidate for president of the United States and then using covert means to put him in office.

If we have a Republican party that is so determined to seize and hold power that we can’t have a genuine and thorough investigation of this enormous scandal, then we are well and truly fucked.

Michael Flynn, RussiaGate’s First Layer?

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At RT dinner in Moscow, December 2015: Michael Flynn, Vladimir Putin, and Jill Stein [source: DailyKos]

Take a look at this photo, taken at a December 2015 gala dinner for the Russian state-funded news/propaganda organ, RT (formerly known as Russia Today).  There is Michael Flynn seated at Putin’s right hand, and bizarrely also at the table sits Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein (more about her later). Now hold that thought.

On February 9, the Washington Post published an extraordinary (and exceptionally well-sourced) story providing previously unknown details about contacts between Trump’s National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, and Russian officials–particularly Russia’s ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak.

Most of the commentary since the story appeared has focused on reported conversations between Flynn and Kislyak on December 28, after the Obama administration had imposed sanctions on Russia’s diplomatic mission in the US for Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump. Then on December 29, Putin surprisingly announced that Russia would not retaliate for the US sanctions–something they would normally do. This left many analysts wondering why.

Flynn and other senior Trump administration officials, including Mike Pence, had flatly denied that Flynn discussed the sanctions with the Russians. Then last week, Flynn backed off on his denials, saying he didn’t remember and couldn’t be sure.

According to the Post, Flynn did indeed talk with Kislyak about the sanctions. The story cites information from nine current and former officials, who were in senior positions at multiple intelligence and law enforcement agencies at the time of the calls, all of whom “said ­Flynn’s references to the election-related sanctions were explicit. Two of those officials went further, saying that Flynn urged Russia not to overreact to the penalties being imposed by President Barack Obama, making clear that the two sides would be in position to review the matter after Trump was sworn in as president.”

Obviously, the implication was that Moscow shouldn’t retaliate because Trump would fix all that after the inauguration. It also seems highly unlikely–even in the midst of Trump’s chaotic transition–that Flynn would tell the Russians this entirely on his own without authorization.

The other part of the Post story which has received less attention, but may be even more damaging, is that the “talks were part of a series of contacts between Flynn and Kislyak that began before the Nov. 8 election and continued during the transition.” In an interview this month, Kislyak said that he had been in contact with Flynn since before the election, but declined to answer questions about the subjects they discussed or to say anything about the origin of his relationship with Flynn.

All of this raises disturbing questions about whether the Trump team (of which Flynn was a key member) had any knowledge of the covert Russian campaign to tilt the election to Trump or might even have been colluding in it. And it should provide further incentive to investigate the nature of the Trump administration’s extensive ties with Russia and the reasons for Trump’s astounding admiration for and deference to Putin. This is only the outer layer of this rotten onion.

At a minimum, Flynn should be fired.  He had no business being on the National Security Council in the first place, much less being in charge of it. He now appears to have been caught lying about arguably colluding with a hostile major power. The extent of his Russian connections are unknown, but the intelligence and law enforcement agencies clearly don’t trust him or they wouldn’t be leaking such derogatory information. Now one of his top aides has reportedly been denied a security clearance by the CIA.  Flynn has lobbied for the Turkish government and has been paid to appear at an RT event. He has a record of erratic and irresponsible behavior, having been dumped as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014 reportedly for his chaotic leadership style. He is prone to conspiracy theories and reckless tweeting or retweeting, most famously one just before the election alleging links between Hillary Clinton’s emails and money laundering and sex crimes with children. At the Republican convention, he led chants of “Lock her up”. He shares Bannon’s believe that the West is in a war against Islam.

Flynn may now be seen as a liability even by Trump and his inner circle. But the Democrats can’t allow ditching Flynn to be the end of the inquiry into RussiaGate.  There is clearly much more to this than we yet know.

Now, about Jill Stein.  According to The Daily Beast, Stein has refused to answer questions about who paid for her 2015 Moscow trip and appearance on an RT panel in which she denounced “disastrous militarism” by the US. During her stay in Moscow, she also parroted Russian talking points on incursions into Ukraine and the shoot-down of a Malaysian airliner. RT even hosted the Green Party’s May 2016 presidential debate. (Russian environmental activists opposed to Putin in August 2016 posted an open letter blasting Stein’s support for him.) All of which leads one to wonder what else the Russians might have paid for.

Why, you might ask, would Russia bother with a bit player like Jill Stein? Of course, the Soviets had a long history of subsidizing starry-eyed leftist American naifs of her ilk. But actually in the 2016 election, Stein might not have had such a minor part after all. The votes Stein got in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin were more than Trump’s margin over Clinton in each of those crucial states. Had those votes gone to Clinton, she would have won the electoral college and therefore the presidency.

So it’s not at all inconceivable that helping Stein might have been a little part of the Russian effort to tilt the election to Donald Trump.