Sunday, March 18, 2018

Sunday Long Read: A Pipeline To The Lord

The Koch Brothers have been funding "bait-and-switch" propaganda rallies in black neighborhoods for years, where they use black churches and their congregations to tell residents that new pipelines going through their back yards will help them instead of destroy black communities.

In December 2016, gospel music stars descended on a local community center in Richmond’s East Highland Park neighborhood. Hundreds of residents from throughout the area had answered the call to attend a concert marketed as an opportunity for enlightenment, both spiritual and environmental.

As a sea of hands waved through the air as eyes closed in prayer, what many in the crowd didn’t know was that they were the target of a massive propaganda campaign. One of the event’s sponsors was a fossil-fuel advocacy group called Fueling U.S. Forward, an outfit supported by Koch Industries, the petrochemicals, paper, and wood product conglomerate founded by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch.

The gospel program was designed to highlight the benefits of oil and natural gas production and its essential role in the American way of life. During a break in the music, a panel discussion unfolded about skyrocketing utility costs. The lobbyists and businesspeople on the panel presented a greater reliance on fossil fuels — billed as cheap, reliable energy sources — as the fix. Later, a surprise giveaway netted four lucky attendees the opportunity to have their power bills paid for them.

The event was one big bait and switch, according to environmental experts and local activists. Come for the gospel music, then listen to us praise the everlasting goodness of oil and gas. Supporting this sort of pro-oil-and-gas agenda sprinkled over the songs of praise, they say, would only worsen the pollution and coastal flooding that come with climate change, hazards that usually hit Virginia’s black residents the hardest.

“The tactic was tasteless and racist, plain and simple,” says Kendyl Crawford, the Sierra Club of Richmond’s conservation program coordinator. “It’s exploiting the ignorance many communities have about climate change.”

Rev. Wilson likens that gospel concert to the Biblical story of Judas accepting 30 pieces of silver to betray Jesus. Like many African Americans in Virginia, he initially didn’t connect environmental policy with what he calls the “institutional racism” — think racial profiling, lack of economic opportunity, etc. — that can plague black communities nationwide. Now he considers “the sea level rising or the air quality in the cities” another existential threat.

So in response to the Koch Brothers’ attempt to sway their flocks, Wilson and others affiliated with black churches in Virginia have channeled their outrage into a new calling: climate advocacy. For Wilson, environmentalism has become a biblical mission.

“The climate is changing,” he says. “And it’s black folk in Virginia who will lose the most.”

If there's anything about climate change that you should know, it's that the first people to lose everything in the increasing magnitude of environmental disasters in America will be black and brown people.  You have to look no further than Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Harvey, or the double hurricanes in Puerto Rico where residents still don't have power after six months and nobody running our government seems to give a good god damn.

Disasters tend to lower prices of land quite a bit, and there's still plenty of it that black and brown people live on that American corporations still want to take. New Orleans lost tens of thousands of residents and it changed the political landscape of Louisiana.

The same thing is happening in Texas: if you think a blue wave is going to help Beto O' Rourke beat Ted Cruz in November, you're not factoring in the hundreds of thousands of displaced Houston residents from the city who are no longer in the state, or won't be able to prove they have the right to vote because their homes, IDs, and documents were washed away. It'll be mostly Democratic voters of color in America's fourth-largest city who won't be able to vote.

No rush to remedy that problem.  I figure Harvey will push back the bluing of Texas by a another decade or so, and Republicans who run the state will be just fine with that.

It's good to see black pastors figure out that they're the product being bought and sold, and that they are fighting back, but it's far too late.  Disaster capitalism in the Trump era is only going to get worse.

Russian To Judgment, Con't

Yesterday I pointed out how Steve Bannon's data analytics firm, Cambridge Analytica, stole 50 million voter Facebook profiles in 2014 to use in 2016.

The election may not have been stolen, but it was manipulated with a precision that would have impressed even the most jaded sci-fi writers and futurists.  Now, combine Cambridge Analytica's voter data trove with Russia's Internet Research Agency, indicted by Robert Mueller for election meddling, and you start to see exactly how Trump's 2016 victory went down.

Cambridge had the data but didn't have the propaganda resources. IRA had the propaganda experience and the social media bot army but needed the voter data to seed their operation and pick their target groups for maximum effectiveness.

This, folks, was the most likely collusion.  It worked well enough to put Trump in the White house despite losing by more than 3 million votes.  And in my view, it's a question of when, not if, Robert Mueller can show a link between Cambridge and Steve Bannon and the Russian IRA operation.

It didn't even take 24 hours for the NY Times to find that link.

When the Russia question came up during a hearing at the British Parliament last month, Alexander Nix did not hesitate.

“We’ve never worked in Russia,” said Mr. Nix, head of a data consulting firm that advised the Trump campaign on targeting voters.

“As far as I’m aware, we’ve never worked for a Russian company,” Mr. Nix added. “We’ve never worked with a Russian organization in Russia or any other country, and we don’t have any relationship with Russia or Russian individuals.”

But Mr. Nix’s business did have some dealings with Russian interests, according to company documents and interviews.

Mr. Nix is a director of SCL Group, a British political and defense contractor, and chief executive of its American offshoot, Cambridge Analytica, which advised the Trump campaign. The firms’ employees, who often overlap, had contact in 2014 and 2015 with executives from Lukoil, the Russian oil giant.

Lukoil was interested in how data was used to target American voters, according to two former company insiders who said there were at least three meetings with Lukoil executives in London and Turkey. SCL and Lukoil denied that the talks were political in nature, and SCL also said there were no meetings in London.

The contacts took place as Cambridge Analytica was building a roster of Republican political clients in the United States — and harvesting the Facebook profiles of over 50 million users to develop tools it said could analyze voters’ behavior.

Cambridge Analytica also included extensive questions about Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, in surveys it was carrying out in American focus groups in 2014. It is not clear what — or which client — prompted the line of questioning, which asked for views on topics ranging from Mr. Putin’s popularity to Russian expansionism.

On two promotional documents obtained by The New York Times, SCL said it did business in Russia. In both documents, the country is highlighted on world maps that specify the location of SCL clients, with one of the maps noting that the clients were for the firm’s elections division. In a statement, SCL said an employee had done “commercial work” about 25 years ago “for a private company in Russia.”

Lukoil is run by Vagit Alekperov, a former oil minister under Putin.  Putin knows the guy pretty well, as both men have gotten very, very wealthy off of Russian oil.  Lukoil has done business in the US for a long time, if you remember that picture of Chuck Schumer and Putin eating Krispy Kreme in 2003, it was at Lukoil's grand opening of its first gas station in Manhattan.

And now Putin owns our government.

By the way, there's a 100% chance that Putin will win today's Russian elections and rule the country for another six years.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

It's Mueller Time, Con't

Republicans are now well into making their move against Robert Mueller this week.  I talked a few days ago about House Republicans shutting down their investigation of Trump/Russia, and predicted it would be the political cover the GOP needed to move against Muller.  It wasn't a particularly bold prediction to make, Trump's lawyers tipped their hand last Saturday in saying they wanted to cut a ridiculous deal where Muller agreed to end his investigation if Trump granted Mueller an interview.

We know what events triggered the move too: the grand jury testimony of former Trump campaign consultant Sam Nunberg combined with news that Mueller had subpoenaed financial documents from the Trump Organization itself earlier this year.  All sides know Mueller is closing in, which brings us to the present.  First, Senate Republicans are now on board with the House GOP on a new special counsel to go after the FBI and the basis of Mueller's investigation.

Four Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday sought the appointment of a second special counsel to aid the Department of Justice inspector general in probing the FBI's use of the so-called Steele dossier in its surveillance of a former Trump campaign aide.

The Judiciary panel's chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), was joined by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) in requesting that DOJ name a special prosecutor to zero in on possible mishandling of the FBI's Russia investigation prior to the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller. Specifically, the quartet raised concerns about the FBI's relationship with Christopher Steele, who compiled a dossier of verified and unverified intelligence alleging a Russian effort to compromise now-President Donald Trump.

Grassley and Graham, who previously requested that the DOJ open a criminal probe of Steele's conduct, on Feb. 28 asked DOJ inspector general Michael Horowitz to probe the department's handling of investigations into Trump transition or campaign officials, as well as the Trump administration before Mueller's appointment. Horowitz has been investigating possible DOJ misconduct related to the Hillary Clinton email investigation since early 2017.

The Republican senators noted in their Thursday letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein that under current law, "the Inspector General does not have the tools that a prosecutor would to gather all the facts, such as the ability to obtain testimony from essential witnesses who are not current DOJ employees."

"Thus, we believe that a special counsel is needed to work with the Inspector General to independently gather the facts and make prosecutorial decisions, if any are merited," the Republicans continued. "The Justice Department cannot credibly investigate itself without these enhanced measures of independence to ensure that the public can have confidence in the outcome."

And if that's not enough, now we get to the heart of the matter: the Trump regime today is openly suggesting that it's time for Jeff Sessions to fire Robert Mueller.

President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, John Dowd, told The Daily Beast on Saturday morning that he hopes Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein will shut down the Mueller probe.

Reached for comment by email about the firing of former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, sent The Daily Beast the text of Trump’s most recent tweet on the subject, which applauded the firing. Then he wrote that Rosenstein should follow Sessions' lead.

“I pray that Acting Attorney General Rosenstein will follow the brilliant and courageous example of the FBI Office of Professional Responsibility and Attorney General Jeff Sessions and bring an end to alleged Russia Collusion investigation manufactured by McCabe’s boss James Comey based upon a fraudulent and corrupt Dossier,” Dowd then wrote.

He told The Daily Beast he was speaking on behalf of the president, in his capacity as the president’s attorney

Dowd also emailed the text below, which is an annotated version of a line from a well-known 20th century play:

“What's that smell in this room[Bureau}? Didn't you notice it, Brick [Jim]? Didn't you notice a powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity in this room[Bureau}?... There ain't nothin' more powerful than the odor of mendacity[corruption]... You can smell it. It smells like death.” Tennessee Williams — ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’

Rosenstein is overseeing the probe because Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from matters related to the 2016 campaign.

Dowd is now saying that he wasn't officially speaking in capacity as the lawyer to the office of president, but this is as close as you're going to get to  "Will no one rid me of this troublesome Mueller?" as it gets until it happens.

Here's my theory:  Tillerson being fired while on the crapper was done for two reasons: Trump wants a war to distract the American public, and he wanted to put pressure on Jeff Sessions.  Note Trump and the GOP have now asked Sessions to do three things, fire McCabe and deny him his full retirement benefits, appoint a special counsel to investigate the FBI and the Mueller probe, and fire Mueller.

Sessions has done one of the three now.

The question now becomes how long before he does the other two?  And when he does, what will the American people do when the GOP shrugs and goes along with it?

Russian To Judgment, Con't

The Andrew McCabe firing almost covered up a much bigger story from yesterday: Facebook has suspended Steve Bannon's voter data analytics firm, Cambridge Analytica, from access to its platform after admitting the company stole data on 50 million user profiles in 2014.

As the upstart voter-profiling company Cambridge Analytica prepared to wade into the 2014 American midterm elections, it had a problem.

The firm had secured a $15 million investment from Robert Mercer, the wealthy Republican donor, and wooed his political adviser, Stephen K. Bannon, with the promise of tools that could identify the personalities of American voters and influence their behavior. But it did not have the data to make its new products work.

So the firm harvested private information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users without their permission, according to former Cambridge employees, associates and documents, making it one of the largest data leaks in the social network’s history. The breach allowed the company to exploit the private social media activity of a huge swath of the American electorate, developing techniques that underpinned its work on President Trump’s campaign in 2016.

An examination by The New York Times and The Observer of London reveals how Cambridge Analytica’s drive to bring to market a potentially powerful new weapon put the firm — and wealthy conservative investors seeking to reshape politics — under scrutiny from investigators and lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic.
Christopher Wylie, who helped found Cambridge and worked there until late 2014, said of its leaders: “Rules don’t matter for them. For them, this is a war, and it’s all fair.”

They want to fight a culture war in America,” he added. “Cambridge Analytica was supposed to be the arsenal of weapons to fight that culture war.”

And they won that war in 2016.  If you want to know how Donald Trump lost the popular vote but won the electoral one, eking out precise victories in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, the voter data his campaign needed was already in hand.  Without those three states, Hillary Clinton would have won, a difference of a few hundred thousand votes in a contest where 125 million votes were cast, a fraction of a percentage point.

They knew precisely who to go after.  And it worked so well, they struck a second time in Britain with the Brexit vote.

Details of Cambridge’s acquisition and use of Facebook data have surfaced in several accounts since the business began working on the 2016 campaign, setting off a furious debate about the merits of the firm’s so-called psychographic modeling techniques.

But the full scale of the data leak involving Americans has not been previously disclosed — and Facebook, until now, has not acknowledged it. Interviews with a half-dozen former employees and contractors, and a review of the firm’s emails and documents, have revealed that Cambridge not only relied on the private Facebook data but still possesses most or all of the trove.

Cambridge paid to acquire the personal information through an outside researcher who, Facebook says, claimed to be collecting it for academic purposes.

During a week of inquiries from The Times, Facebook downplayed the scope of the leak and questioned whether any of the data still remained out of its control. But on Friday, the company posted a statement expressing alarm and promising to take action.

“This was a scam — and a fraud,” Paul Grewal, a vice president and deputy general counsel at the social network, said in a statement to The Times earlier on Friday. He added that the company was suspending Cambridge Analytica, Mr. Wylie and the researcher, Aleksandr Kogan, a Russian-American academic, from Facebook. “We will take whatever steps are required to see that the data in question is deleted once and for all — and take action against all offending parties,” Mr. Grewal said.

Alexander Nix, the chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, and other officials had repeatedly denied obtaining or using Facebook data, most recently during a parliamentary hearing last month. But in a statement to The Times, the company acknowledged that it had acquired the data, though it blamed Mr. Kogan for violating Facebook’s rules and said it had deleted the information as soon as it learned of the problem two years ago.

In Britain, Cambridge Analytica is facing intertwined investigations by Parliament and government regulators, who are scrutinizing possible data privacy violations and allegations that it performed illegal work on the “Brexit” campaign. In the United States, Mr. Mercer’s daughter, Rebekah, a board member, Mr. Bannon and Mr. Nix received warnings from their lawyer that it was illegal to employ foreigners in political campaigns, according to company documents and former employees.

The election may not have been stolen, but it was manipulated with a precision that would have impressed even the most jaded sci-fi writers and futurists.  Now, combine Cambridge Analytica's voter data trove with Russia's Internet Research Agency, indicted by Robert Mueller for election meddling, and you start to see exactly how Trump's 2016 victory went down.

Cambridge had the data but didn't have the propaganda resources. IRA had the propaganda experience and the social media bot army but needed the voter data to seed their operation and pick their target groups for maximum effectiveness.

This, folks, was the most likely collusion.  It worked well enough to put Trump in the White house despite losing by more than 3 million votes.  And in my view, it's a question of when, not if, Robert Mueller can show a link between Cambridge and Steve Bannon and the Russian IRA operation.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Last Call For A Late Deadline

The Trump regime has made its Friday Night News Dump™ and it's a major development: two days before his scheduled retirement with full benefits, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has fired former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions late Friday night fired former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, a little more than 24 hours before McCabe was set to retire.

Sessions announced the decision in a statement just before 10 p.m., noting that both the Justice Department Inspector General and the FBI office that handles discipline had found “that Mr. McCabe had made an unauthorized disclosure to the news media and lacked candor — including under oath — on multiple occasions.”

He said based on those findings and the recommendation of the department’s senior career official, “I have terminated the employment of Andrew McCabe effective immediately.”

The move will likely cost McCabe a significant portion of his retirement benefits, though it is possible he could bring a legal challenge. McCabe has been fighting vigorously to keep his job, and on Thursday, he spent nearly four hours inside the Justice Department pleading his case.

Michael R. Bromwich, McCabe’s attorney, said in a lengthy statement responding to the allegations that he had “never before seen the type of rush to judgment — and rush to summary punishment — that we have witnessed in this case.” He cited in particular President Trump’s attacks on McCabe on Twitter and the White House press secretary’s comments about him on Thursday — which he said were “quite clearly designed to put inappropriate pressure on the Attorney General to act accordingly.”

Let's not forget the real reason McCabe was fired: obstruction of justice of Robert Mueller's investigation against Donald Trump.  Trump's multiple tweets taunting McCabe and White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders calling McCabe a "bad actor" yesterday while openly admitting McCabe's termination before his retirement eligibility was now something Trump wanted to happen all but gives the game away here, but then somebody spotted a Fox News draft story announcing the move published several hours before McCabe was actually fired.

Surprise, it was real, just that it was published hours before it happened.  What a coincidence.

For his part, McCabe is firing back hard.

The dismissal from his decades-long home at the department marks an ignominious end to a once-storied career for McCabe, who stepped aside as FBI deputy director in January. That departure came ahead of an inspector general’s inquiry that’s expected to criticize his handling of an October 2016 media report on his wife’s failed run for the Virginia State Senate and his handling of investigations into Hillary Clinton.

But McCabe sees bigger forces at work in the Justice Department inspector general’s inquiry — which he views as part of a broader campaign to impugn him for his role in handling the FBI’s Russia investigation and his ties to special counsel Robert Mueller.

“Look, it’s personally devastating. It’s so tough on my family,” he told POLITICO during a wide-ranging interview conducted earlier this month, before his firing.

“But at some point, this has to be seen in the larger context,” said McCabe, 49, who says he has voted for every Republican presidential nominee until he sat out the 2016 contest entirely. “And I firmly believe that this is an ongoing effort to undermine my credibility because of the work that I did on the Russia case, because of the investigations that I oversaw and impacted that target this administration.”

“They have every reason to believe that I could end up being a significant witness in whatever the special counsel comes up with, and so they are trying to create this counter-narrative that I am not someone who can be believed or trusted
,” McCabe added. “And as someone who has been believed and trusted by really good people for 21 years, it’s just infuriating to me.”

What McCabe is describing there is obstruction of justice.  Period.

Russian To Judgment

Donald Trump may look the other way on Russian interference in US elections, while grudgingly admitting that having Putin's people bump off spies in broad daylight on British soil might be problematic, but it looks like not even Trump is willing to give Moscow a pass on the latest Russian cyberattack operation: hacking the US power grid so that Putin could shut off the lights at will.

The Trump administration accused Russia on Thursday of engineering a series of cyberattacks that targeted American and European nuclear power plants and water and electric systems, and could have sabotaged or shut power plants off at will.

United States officials and private security firms saw the attacks as a signal by Moscow that it could disrupt the West’s critical facilities in the event of a conflict.

They said the strikes accelerated in late 2015, at the same time the Russian interference in the American election was underway. The attackers had compromised some operators in North America and Europe by spring 2017, after President Trump was inaugurated.

In the following months, according to a Department of Homeland Security report issued on Thursday, Russian hackers made their way to machines with access to critical control systems at power plants that were not identified. The hackers never went so far as to sabotage or shut down the computer systems that guide the operations of the plants.

Still, new computer screenshots released by the Department of Homeland Security on Thursday made clear that Russian state hackers had the foothold they would have needed to manipulate or shut down power plants.

“We now have evidence they’re sitting on the machines, connected to industrial control infrastructure, that allow them to effectively turn the power off or effect sabotage,” said Eric Chien, a security technology director at Symantec, a digital security firm.

“From what we can see, they were there. They have the ability to shut the power off. All that’s missing is some political motivation,” Mr. Chien said.

American intelligence agencies were aware of the attacks for the past year and a half, and the Department of Homeland Security and the F.B.I. first issued urgent warnings to utility companies in June. On Thursday, both agencies offered new details as the Trump administration imposed sanctions against Russian individuals and organizations it accused of election meddling and “malicious cyberattacks.”

It was the first time the administration officially named Russia as the perpetrator of the assaults. And it marked the third time in recent months that the White House, departing from its usual reluctance to publicly reveal intelligence, blamed foreign government forces for attacks on infrastructure in the United States.

We're now seeing the fruits of Russia's two biggest counterintelligence coups: Edward Snowden's defection to Moscow with hundreds of thousands of classified NSA documents in 2013, and Thomas Martin, the NSA contractor who was arrested in October 2016 for what was an even larger mole operation.

You can bet your sweet bippy that the info Moscow gained from these treasure troves directly led to to our power and water systems being compromised by our good friends at the Kremlin over the last year or so.  US Cyber security firms have been warning that our power and water infrastructure have been compromised for months now, but only now is the Trump regime saying anything, pointing the deadly obvious finger at Putin's merry band of assholes.

The Russians gained the keys to the kingdom, and they've been raiding the pantry ever since.  Not even Trump can ignore Russia if they take over a nuclear plant or three.  The US sanctions in return are barely better than nothing, Putin doesn't care unless the US goes after his billions personally (which Trump won't do as Putin would use whatever leverage he had to end him politically) but at least we now know where the line is that actually gets Trump to take token action against Russia.

But it remains token action at best.  This week we've seen both the Secretary of State and now most likely the National Security Adviser fired, both men wanted real sanctions against Russia and Putin. Both men are now gone and odds are several more on the way out.  They will be replaced by folks who definitely want war with other nations, and who definitely will not do a thing about Russia's continued attacks on the country.

We're deep in the heart of darkness guys, and it's going to get a lot worse and soon.

Trump Cards, Con't

It looks like the firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was only the beginning as Trump, increasingly cornered and with investigations now closing in on his businesses, has now decided that everyone else in the White House and Cabinet has failed him and is now ruthlessly culling those around him.

President Trump has decided to remove H.R. McMaster as his national security adviser and is actively discussing potential replacements, according to five people with knowledge of the plans, preparing to deliver yet another jolt to the senior ranks of his administration.

Trump is now comfortable with ousting McMaster, with whom he never personally gelled, but is willing to take time executing the move because he wants to ensure both that the three-star Army general is not humiliated and that there is a strong successor lined up, these people said.

The turbulence is part of a broader potential shake-up under consideration by Trump that is likely to include senior officials at the White House, where staffers are gripped by fear and un­certainty as they await the next move from an impulsive president who enjoys stoking conflict.

For all of the evident disorder, Trump feels emboldened, advisers said — buoyed by what he views as triumphant decisions last week to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum and to agree to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The president is enjoying the process of assessing his team and making changes, tightening his inner circle to those he considers survivors and who respect his unconventional style, one senior White House official said.

And yes, Trump is considering replacing McMaster with John Bolton's Mustache, which would be a dead solid indicator of war coming with somebody before Mueller can complete his work.  Mueller might not get to finish though if Trump goes full Saturday Night Massacre.

McMaster is not the only senior official on thin ice with the president. Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin has attracted Trump’s ire for his spending decisions as well as for general disorder in the senior leadership of his agency.

Others considered at risk for being fired or reprimanded include Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, who has generated bad headlines for ordering a $31,000 dining room set for his office; Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, who has been under fire for his first-class travel at taxpayer expense; and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, whose agency spent $139,000 to renovate his office doors.

Meanwhile, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos drew attention this week when she stumbled through a pair of high-profile television interviews. Kelly watched DeVos’s sit-down with Lesley Stahl of CBS’s “60 Minutes” with frustration and complained about the secretary’s apparent lack of preparation, officials said. Other Trump advisers mocked DeVos’s shaky appearance with Savannah Guthrie on NBC’s “Today” show.

Kelly’s own ouster has been widely speculated for weeks. But two top officials said Trump on Thursday morning expressed disbelief to Vice President Pence, senior advisers and Kelly himself that Kelly’s name was surfacing on media watch lists because his job is secure. Trump and Kelly then laughed about it, the officials said.

The widespread uncertainty has created power vacuums that could play to the advantage of some administration aides.

Pompeo, who carefully cultivated a personal relationship with the president, had positioned himself as the heir apparent to Tillerson, whom Trump had long disliked.

Similarly, Pruitt has made no secret inside the West Wing of his ambition to become attorney general should Trump decide to fire Jeff Sessions, who he frequently derides for his decision to recuse himself from the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

White House officials have grown agitated that Pruitt and his allies are privately pushing for the EPA chief to replace Sessions, a job Pruitt has told people he wants. On Wednesday night, Kelly called Pruitt and told him the president was happy with his performance at EPA and that he did not need to worry about the Justice Department, according to two people familiar with the conversation.

At this point Trump does whatever he wants, advisers and Cabinet be damned, and everyone's going to pay the price.  And I bet if Sessions won't fire Mueller, Scott Pruitt would in a heartbeat. 


Thursday, March 15, 2018

Last Call For It's Mueller Time, Con't

It's been a bit since the last major move by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, now that we know he has plenty of cooperating witnesses and impressive amounts of testimony, it looks like this legal eagle has made his intentions clear. Mueller is no longer skirting around the Trump organization, he's going straight after it, sword drawn.

The special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, has subpoenaed the Trump Organization to turn over documents, including some related to Russia, according to two people briefed on the matter
. The order is the first known time that the special counsel demanded documents directly related to President Trump’s businesses, bringing the investigation closer to the president. 
The breadth of the subpoena was not clear, nor was it clear why Mr. Mueller issued it instead of simply asking for the documents from the company, an umbrella organization that oversees Mr. Trump’s business ventures. In the subpoena, delivered in recent weeks, Mr. Mueller ordered the Trump Organization to hand over all documents related to Russia and other topics he is investigating, the people said. 
The subpoena is the latest indication that the investigation, which Mr. Trump’s lawyers once regularly assured him would be completed by now, will drag on for at least several more months. Word of the subpoena comes as Mr. Mueller appears to be broadening his investigation to examine the role foreign money may have played in funding Mr. Trump’s political activities. In recent weeks, Mr. Mueller’s investigators have questioned witnesses, including an adviser to the United Arab Emirates, about the flow of Emirati money into the United States. 
Neither White House officials nor Alan S. Futerfas, a lawyer representing the Trump Organization, immediately responded to requests for comment. The Trump Organization has typically complied with requests from congressional investigators for documents for their own inquiries into Russian election interference, and there was no indication the company planned to fight Mr. Mueller about it.

The Trump Organization has said that it never had real estate holdings in Russia, but witnesses recently interviewed by Mr. Mueller have been asked about a possible real estate deal in Moscow. In 2015, a longtime business associate of Mr. Trump’s emailed Mr. Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, at his Trump Organization account claiming he had ties to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and said that building a Trump Tower in Moscow would help Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign.

Mueller is going for the kill shot here.  Now we know why Trump has been so belligerent for the last several weeks, why the chaos in White House staffing has left a trail of scorched earth, where Trump's bunker mentality has come from, why Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump are on the outs with dear old dad and most importantly, why House Republicans shut down their investigation of Trump this week.

It was all meant to get out ahead of this leak before it hit.

Mueller is going after the Trump organization and its ties to Russia, money laundering, and the obstruction of justice cover-up.  It's at the core of this corruption, and Mueller is wading in.

I said a while ago that as soon as Mueller reached the point in his investigation that it touched Trump's personal finances, the red line that Donald Trump drew so long ago last year, that the real game would begin.

The man in the Oval Office is officially under investigation.  They can't deny it any more.

Here we go.

Dems Can't Win For Losing

Me, your humble blog host and amateur pundit: "Conor Lamb winning in PA-18 in a district that went for Trump by 20 points just 16 months ago in a open race shows how absolutely weak the Trump GOP is right now.  There are now dozens of House races that must be considered in play, and Republicans are facing losses that could actually top that of the Democrats in 2010.  Democrats can win nationally in red suburban districts with a pro-union, pro-choice, pro-equality message."

Mike Allen, Axios co-founder and professional political prognosticator: "How can Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats possibly recover from the devastating and historic loss that Conor Lamb handed them this week?"

Top Democrats tell me that if they take back the House in November, a restoration of Speaker Nancy Pelosi is no longer guaranteed. In fact, some well-wired House Democrats predict she will be forced aside after the election and replaced by a younger, less divisive Dem. 
The big picture: Conor Lamb, 33, won his U.S. House race in Pennsylvania this week after saying he wouldn't vote for her for leader — a new template for moderates. Pelosi has hung in through the minority, and remains the party's most consistent fundraiser. As for whether she'll return as Speaker, she has just said that it's up to the members. (Her allies note that she has never lost a leadership vote.)

But others have their eye on the gavel, and many members want a younger, newer face. Her No. 2 and longtime rival, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, 78, covets the job but is three months older than she is. 
Pelosi is more likely to be the bridge to a younger generation. A possible successor, who works the caucus behind the scenes, is Rep. Joe Crowley of Queens, N.Y., who turns 56 tomorrow. 
Another possible candidate who's getting buzz: Rep. Adam Schiff, a fellow Californian who has a sky-high profile as the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, investigating Russia's role in 2016. 
One Democratic source told me that Pelosi hears footsteps: “She used to be retributional. Now she’s more inclusive.” 
Pelosi allies see some of the criticism as sexist, and say she has always been inclusive of all parts of the caucus' diversity, including newer members. 
Pelosi told the Congressional Progressive Caucus at a retreat in Baltimore last week: "Every morning, I don a suit of armor, eat nails for breakfast, and go fight inequality." 
President Trump plans to invoke her frequently in midterm speeches, and Republicans already use her image to raise funds. And in campaigns this fall, many Dems challengers will be put on the spot about whether they'd vote for her as Speaker.

Pelosi is doomed!  Pelosi is finished!  Pelosi is an albatross and she'll destroy the Dems!

You know, because it's not like Trump is a major problem for the universe or anything.


Trump Cards, Con't

The pay-to-play klep-Trump-cracy that is America in 2018 continues unabated as lobbyist groups are now openly staying at Trump hotels in order to curry favor with the White House.

The oil industry's top lobby group is holding a two-day board meeting at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., before its executive committee goes to the White House to voice concerns about President Donald Trump’s proposed steel tariffs, sources familiar with the meetings told POLITICO.

The American Petroleum Institute’s annual board meeting that started Wednesday could involve up to 200 people representing various oil and gas companies — including the top executives of major oil companies — paying to stay at Trump’s hotel. It’s not known how much API is paying to the hotel, which is controlled by the Trump Organization, the family-owned business headed by the president’s son Donald Jr.

“This kind of thing was a fear a lot of people had when the president did not divest from his business,” said Jordan Libowitz, spokesman for governance watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “What’s stopping the API from going to the president and saying, ‘Hey we just dropped a lot of money at your hotel. Just wanted you to know that before we started this meeting’?”

Government conflict-of-interest rules do not apply to the president, but Libowitz said patronizing his business could be viewed as a way to try to influence Trump.

The Trump hotel has also hosted several foreign officials, including the Kuwaiti Embassy's National Day celebration and Bahrain's National Day party, drawing criticisms that the business violates the Constitution's foreign “Emoluments Clause,“ which prohibits officials from accepting gifts from foreign powers.

At the White House, the API executive committee is planning to air its concerns about Trump's steel tariffs and his warnings that the U.S. could walk away from NAFTA negotiations. Trump’s 25 percent tariff on imported steel and criticisms of the current NAFTA agreement have frustrated the industry, which is heavily dependent on foreign metal and international trade.

“The two issue are tariffs and NAFTA,” said a source who requested anonymity because the person was not authorized to talk to the press.

A Trump Hotel receptionist confirmed the API was holding a two-day event there. An API spokesman confirmed a two-day board meeting was currently taking place but did not offer further details.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke are scheduled to attend the board meeting at the Trump Hotel on Wednesday night, two sources told POLITICO. Press representatives for the Energy Department and Interior Department did not immediately respond to questions.

How is this not patently illegal?  Well, Republicans in Congress certainly don't care, and it's not like the executive branch is going to lift a finger.  But this is where America is now, a rapidly-failing banana republic where businessmen who want favorable treatment stay at the regime leader's hotel in the capital and make sure his deputies know it.  Can't hurt your odds of winning over the mercurial Trump, right?

It's a good thing we didn't elect that corrupt Clinton though, she might have had serious conflict of interest problems or something.


Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Last Call For Getting Tough With Vlad

Oh, we're not getting tough with Putin at all, as our government is chock-full of Russian sycophants and useful idiots in Moscow's orbit, but at least our closest and oldest ally isn't putting up with his crap anymore.

British Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday ordered the immediate expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats believed to be involved in espionage, in the first reprisals against Moscow for a chemical attack on a former double agent
May, speaking to Parliament, said the response would include a halt to high-level meetings with Russian officials and the cancellation of a planned visit to Britain by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. 
She also said the royal family and government ministers would boycott this summer’s World Cup soccer tournament in Moscow. More countermeasures — some clandestine — are under consideration. 
The prime minister repeated the conclusion of British investigators that Russia had either deployed or lost control of a dangerous nerve agent used in the attack targeting former spy Sergei Skripal, 66, and his 33-year-old daughter, Yulia.

May said Russia’s dismissive response to her demand for explanation has “demonstrated complete disdain for the gravity of these events.” 
“Instead, they have treated the use of a military-grade nerve agent in Europe with sarcasm, contempt and defiance,” she told lawmakers.

The British leader gave no further details on the Russian diplomats ordered out of the country but said they were deemed “undeclared intelligence officers.” She called it the largest expulsion of Russian diplomats from Britain since Cold War-era retributions in the 1970s

We're in a new Cold War folks, we've been in one for years, and we're losing it.  Badly.

Expect swift Russian retaliation on both the diplomatic and economic fronts.  Moscow can make things rather uncomfortable for Europe if they want to, not that Vladimir gives a damn about what May thinks. 

This is a fight Putin has wanted for a long time, and now that he's taken the US off the board with Trump and company, and cracked the EU open with Brexit while picking up a few things in the Ukraine, he can make his next move.  The Germans are on the ropes with Merkel barely hanging on, the French have bigger problems to worry about right now with Marine Le Pen's merry crew of racists, and the rest of the EU is trying to keep the nationalist cancer in Poland from spreading.

The Brits are standing up to him on this for now, but I expect that will change sooner rather than later, and Vlad knows how to play the long game.  He's not going anywhere anytime soon.

The Problem With Pompeo

Joe Romm at Think Progress gives us the file on Trump's pick for Secretary of State to replace the humiliated Rex Tillerson, current CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who as a Kansas GOP congressman was one of the most odious people in politics today and the Republican party's number one climate denier.

In just four election cycles, 2010 through 2016, Pompeo received: $335,000 from Koch Industries employees (including $92,000 just from the Koch family); $69,000 from the Koch Industries PAC; $417,175 from Americans for Prosperity (which is the right-wing advocacy group founded by the Koch brothers); plus another $87,532 from “Other outside groups heavily funded by the Kochs.” 
That’s over $900,000 to buy one Congressman. No surprise, then, that Pompeo, who was a Tea Party member, is also a major denier of climate science. Pompeo described President Obama’s effort to cut carbon pollution at home (through the Clean Power Plan) and abroad (through the Paris climate deal) as a “perverse fixation on achieving his economically harmful environmental agenda” and as “worshiping a radical environmental agenda.” 
He called the Paris Climate Accord a “costly burden” in 2015, adding that “Congress must also do all in our power to fight against this damaging climate change proposal and pursue policies that support American energy, create new jobs, and power our economy.”
In reality, the Paris Climate Accord is hardly radical given that 200 nations unanimously agreed it is vital for preserving a livable climate. Indeed, it remains an incredible deal for America, since it would avert numerous catastrophic climate impacts on this country, while requiring us to merely continue reducing carbon dioxide emissions at the pace we have been in recent years. 
During his confirmation hearings for CIA director, Pompeo dodged all questionsabout climate change, saying “Frankly, as the director of CIA, I would prefer today not to get into the details of the climate debate and science.”
But the State Department plays a direct and key role in climate change — not just in international climate negotiations, but also in international aid and development, including choices about which energy sources developing countries should choose — so, such non-answers given as by Pompeo previously should not fly this time around.

You'd think so, and I'm sure Senate Dems will have some appropriately tough questions.  But keep in mind he's already been confirmed as CIA head, so there's nothing to make me think he'll be blocked for SecState.

Also, Pompeo is a screaming anti-LGBTQ bigot who will almost certainly rescind Obama-era passport gender indication guidelines for transgender Americans, so Senate Dems could in fact do something to stop him if they can stand together and convince some Republicans to do the same.

We'll see.

The Blue Wave Rises, Con't

This morning we don't know who yet is the winner in PA-18, Democrat Conor Lamb has a lead of six hundred and change, but over a thousand absentee ballots and thousands of provisional ballots have to be counted still, and Republican Rick Saccone is talking about filing for a recount.  But even if Saccone does end up coming from behind to win, the damage to the GOP last night is done.  There's no way the race should be this close in a district that Trump won by 19 points in November 2016 and Republicans now know they are in mortal peril come this November. Vox's Dylan Scott:

When you take a step back and look at the 2018 race for the House, you realize: There are more than 110 Republican-held House districts that Trump won by less than he won in the district where the Republican House candidate just effectively tied with the Democrat.

Strategists and election analysts on Twitter couldn’t quite agree on exactly how many districts — 114? 118? 119? — but the number is, by all accounts, greater than 110. A few months ago, you wouldn’t have heard Democratic operatives, even at their most optimistic, describe the 2018 battleground as that big. (As of last month, Democrats had just expanded their battleground map to 101 seats.)

There are the districts Hillary Clinton won, of course, but there are also the suburban, classically Republican districts where Trump has soured the electorate, and those white working-class districts with Obama-Trump voters.

This comes with plenty of caveats. This was a special election. Republican incumbents are going to be stronger than Republicans in an open seat like the Pennsylvania 18th. Conor Lamb was a particularly strong Democratic candidate, and Rick Saccone might have been an unusually weak Republican nominee.

But still: Democrats need 24 seats to reclaim the House majority. If Tuesday night is any guide, it looks like they will have a lot of opportunities to get them.

Think about what this means. In an average year maybe 5-10% of House seats are even in play, 95%+ of incumbents keep the seat in their own party every two years.  That usually means 20-40 seats are in play, and maybe half of those are toss-ups at most.  Districts are drawn that way for a reason.  Republicans have had the gerrymandering advantage recently nationally, but Democrats have done it too in some of the states they control.  They're designed to keep 90% of incumbents in power (and in the Senate, holding elections every six years accomplishes the same result).

But this time around even given the GOP's massive gerrymandering advantage in dozens of states, more than 110 GOP districts now have to be considered on the board for Democratic pickups.  That's more than 25% of the entire House in play and all of it red-to-blue.  Yes, there are districts where I expect Republicans to win a blue seat here or there (there are a couple of open Democratic seats in Minnesota and Nevada in rural Trump areas and New Hampshire's seat always seems to switch every couple of years) but Dems could pick up dozens in November.  Dozens.

By the way, Trump's visit to the district over the weekend just ended up reminding people what he did to their health care.

Public Policy Polling conducted a telephone exit poll election survey of voters who cast ballots in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District special election yesterday. Voters who voted in the contest were asked about the role of health care in their decision. 
The exit poll shows that health care was a top priority issue to voters in this district and that voters believed Democrat Conor Lamb’s views were more in step with theirs. 
In 2016, voters in this district backed Donald Trump by 20 points, but last night they backed a Democrat for Congress in a referendum on the health care plans of the Republican Congress: 
-Health care was a top issue to voters. Health care was ranked as a top issue for 52% of voters (15% saying it was the most important issue and another 37% saying it was very important). Only 19% said it was not that important or not important at all. 
- Conor Lamb won big especially among voters for whom health care was a top priority. Among voters who said health care was the most important issue for them, Lamb beat Rick Saccone 64-36 and among the broader group of voters who said it was either the most important or a very important issue Lamb beat Saccone 62-38
- On health care, voters said Lamb better reflected their views by 7 points (45% to 38%) over Saccone. With independents, that gap widened to 16 points with 50% saying Lamb’s health care views were more in line with theirs to only 34% for Saccone. 
- Voters were less likely to support Saccone because of the Republican health care agenda. Saccone’s support of the Republican health care agenda made 41% of voters less likely to vote for him and only 28% more likely to support him. 
-Voters in this heavily Republican district disapproved of the Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act by 14 points (53% to 39%).

It's 2010 only in reverse, and the loss of Obamacare is going to decapitate Republicans in November. The GOP knows it.  Look for more Republicans to head for the exits this month.

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