Saturday, May 27, 2017

LATE NEWS FLASH: Kusher tried to set up secret communication line with Kremlin

Washington Post reporters have learned that the Russian ambassador told officials in Moscow that Jared Kushner had asked him to help the Trump transition team set up a secret, backdoor line of communication with the Kremlin using Russian diplomatic channels so that it could not be detected by official US surveillance agencies.  Michael Flynn was also in the meeting, which occurred on Dec 1st or 2nd of 2016 at Trump Tower.    Ambassador Kislyak and the Kremlin supposedly denied Kushner's request, realizing that it would pose security risks for them.   On the other hand, if it had been set up, would we know . . . ?

This is blockbusting:   The Trump team wanted to speak with the Kremlin -- a foreign adversary -- in such a way that could not be detected by our own security forces, i.e. the FBI, the CIA, National Security.    Some are urging caution, suggesting that Kushner may have been acting out of naivete.   But Gen. Flynn was not naive, having been head of the intelligence arm of the Pentagon.

Is there any doubt that Trump was in on this?  Stay tuned.

Republican assailant still won, but margin was 14 points less than Trump's win

Despite the Montana Republican candidate's physical assault against a Guardian newspaper reporter, Greg Gianforte wound up winning anyway by 50% to 44%.  Compare that 6% difference with Trump's winning margin of 20% last November.

An estimated two-thirds of voters had already cast their ballots in early voting before the incident occurred.  There are anecdotal accounts of people calling in to ask if they could change their vote.    The answer was no.

Breakdown of votes in Yellowstone County (the city of Billings):  Gianforte won the early vote by 20 points and the same day vote by 10 points.  And 90% of the total votes in that county were early votes.    Trying to predict how that might extrapolate statewide is only speculative, especially since we have no data to compare demographics of early voters and same-day voters.  But it strongly suggests a robust effect of news of the assault, which polls showed most voters had heard about, perhaps enough to have flipped the results if there had not been early voting.

This extraordinary rage attack by a Republican candidate against a member of the media is being widely discussed.   Opinions range, from supporters saying the reporter "had it coming," to others who take a wider view of the "coarsening" of political discourse in the Trump era.

Rep. Mark Sanford, a South Carolina Republican, said:
“Respectfully, I’d submit that the president has unearthed some demons. . . .  I’ve talked to a number of people about it back home. They say, ‘Well, look, if the president can say whatever, why can’t I say whatever?’ He’s given them license. . . .  People feel like, if the president of the United States can say anything to anybody at any time, then I guess I can too. And that is a very dangerous phenomenon.”
Several people have noted that Gianforte is known for having a thin skin and for easily lashing back.  But let's give him credit for a genuine apology, unlike the "if anyone was offended" kind of non-apology from so many politicians.   Here's what Gianforte said, as reported by The Hill:
"Last night, I made a mistake and I took an action that I can't take back - and I'm not proud of what happened. . . .  I should not have responded in the way that I did and for that I'm sorry. I should not have treated that reporter that way and for that, I am sorry, Mr. Ben Jacobs."
I don't know whether this was only a press release or whether he actually spoke with Ben Jacobs and apologized personally.   Of course, I would rather he had acknowledged his problem with anger management and dropped out of the race.

He'll have plenty of opportunities in Washington to be besieged by reporters.   Now the whole world will be watching him.    And he will have to meet the voters again to ask for a full term in the 2018 election.


Montana margin = a "win" for Democrats

This is not just spin.   First, Montana is considered a red state in recent political cycles.  They have sometimes elected Democrats, especially to the U.S. Senate.

Democrat Jon Tester has been one of their senators since 2007;   and Max Baucus began his senate career in 1978 and served until his retirement in 2014.   His seat is currently held by a Republican, but Montana has had other distinguished Democrats.  Sen. Mike Mansfield, from 1953 to 1977, was Senate Majority Leader for the last 16 years.

So, Montana has had its notable streaks of blue among the red.    However, the relevant number in this current analysis is that Donald Trump carried the state easily last November with a 20% margin.

Thus, Greg Gianforte's 6% margin of victory (assault aside) follows what we saw in Kansas and adds to the sense of an important "win" for Democrats.   And sets the stage for an actual victory in GA-06 that will send Demoract Jon Ossoff to take Tom Price's congressional seat in Washington.   Ossoff was leading in the most recent poll, 51% to 44%.

Journalist Matthew Yglesias, writing for Vox News, said that it "fundamentally represents bad news for the GOP."   He quotes from the Cook Political Report to explain that "the GOP underperformed badly in Montana, after a similar underperformance in the special election for Kansas's Fourth Congressional District."

Yglesias continues:  "If Republicans are winning in places like Montana by just 7 percentage points, [the final count was actually 6%] then they are in extreme peril of losing their House majority in 2018."

GA-06 is a much more winnable district for Democrats.   Trump won it by only 1%, while he won Montana by 20%.    So let's have a good win here and set it up to flip the House in 2018.


Friday, May 26, 2017

Another defeat for Trump's travel ban

By a 10 to 3 decision, the full 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia refused the Trump administration's appeal to reinstate his travel ban, as revised after the first one was rejected by the courts.    The majority was "unconvinced" that it had more to do with national security than that it was a de facto Muslim ban.

In arriving at this decision, it seemed evident from the oral arguments that the court was taking seriously the extra-judicial statements made by Trump and his associates as indication of the real motives.

Civics 101, Mr. President.

Update: Jared Kushner's "Russia problem"

Crowded out by more pressing news was an article on Vox news site more than a week ago by Dara Lind that analyzed Jared Kushner's Russia problem.

The youthful scion of a large real estate empire in New Jersey, who married the daughter of the New York real estate phenomenon Donald Trump, Jared Kushner's youthful, quiet good looks seems to go along with the image created by his observant, Orthodox Jewish practice:   a nice, devoted, young man.

We're learning that there's a lot more to Jared than that image.   One factor is his habit of shunning the spotlight.   I am a pretty close observer of political news, and I have never heard Jared speak.   I don't only mean "give a speech."   I have never heard the sound of his voice.   He apparently does not engage at all with TV reporters.    So let's see what we can learn from Dara Lind's article.

Jared and Ivanka moved to Washington, along with their children, into a house in a nearby neighborhood to where the Obamas now live.   So they're putting down roots.   And both of them now have official positions in the Trump administration, albeit unpaid advisers.   At first, I thought this was probably a good idea, based on my assumption that, if anyone could put some limits on Donald Trump, it would be these two, especially Ivanka.

But, as Lind points out:   "What if . . . Jared is not a panacea for the chaotic White House, but one of its biggest problems? . . .  Kushner hasn't been the 'adult in the room' urging caution and scrupulousness.   To the contrary, he's been urging aggression and retaliation."

Contrary to expectations that he would have warned Trump not to fire FBI Director Comey, the New York Times has reported that he was supportive of, perhaps even encouraged, that decision.   But, now that Robert Mueller has been appointed as special counselor to take over the FBI investigation, Jared is said to be the one urging counter-attack, with others taking the role of the calming influence.

The fact that one of Mueller's law firm colleagues has represented Jared in other cases seems to be a major concern of Jared's, who pushed for evoking the ethics rule that would prohibit a special counsel whose law firm has represented a person being investigated.   The Justice Department has dispensed with that by granting a waiver to Mueller, given that he had no participation in Jared's case that was handled by other lawyers at his firm.

So what is Kushner so worried about?   Lind points out that both Jared and Ivanka have been especially close to Michael Flynn;   they were his champions in getting the appointment as National Security Adviser, saying that the family "owed" it to him to reward his loyalty during the campaign.   That, in itself, is a little suspicious.   National Security Adviser is perhaps the most sensitive post in a modern presidency.   It is not a gold watch to be handed out as a reward for faithful service.

Jared was involved, along with Flynn, in at least one meeting with the Russian ambassador, as well as subsequent meetings with Russian officials on his own, including the head of a Russian bank that is personally controlled by Putin, who chose as the man to head it a former Russian spy.   That's who Jared had the meeting with.

Kushner did not disclose any of those meetings when he applied for -- and got -- security clearance.   That lack of disclosure put him on the radar of the Senate Intelligence Committee.   Steve Bannon reportedly is deeply concerned about this, calling it "a disaster waiting to happen."   Lind's reporting suggests that this might be one of the causes of the notorious conflict between Kushner and Bannon that was unsettling the inner circle of the Trump administration.

Dara Lind concludes with this:
"The idea that Kushner was some sort of moderating influence on Donald Trump was always more than a little overblown -- there was never much evidence that Trump was being moderated. . . .  If Kushner has, or is, a Russia problem, that means that the current investigations go to the beating heart of the Trump White House.   That could set up a very, very nasty fight indeed."
Here's my own suspicion:   With at least half a dozen people close to Trump clearly linked to the Russians in an unsavory way -- how can we ignore the very likely possibility that Trump himself is also directly under the influence of Russia?

Another leak has just revealed a conversation among Russian officials last summer about how to influence a president Trump through his advisers, and they seemed most interested in Flynn and Manafort at that time.   This doesn't prove that they followed through on it;  but it does show that they were thinking about it.

We also know now, from the testimony of former CIA Director John Brennan, the pattern in which Russians cultivate "assets" who then become conduits for them, sometimes wittingly through coercion, and sometimes unwittingly.   According to some guest on MSNBC Wednesday night, whose name escapes me, "it always comes down to need or greed" on the part of the prospective asset.   In Trump's case, it could have been both.   He needed money;   he has always been greedy for MORE of anything material.    They could easily have satisfied his need by arranging for him to get money from their nefarious sources.

Why are we ignoring the distinct possibility that Donald Trump may be co-opted by the Russians?   Here's how it could be.   After his bankruptcies and a downturn in the real estate market, Donald Trump was in dire need of money.   But he had ruined his credit standing in New York by not paying his loans.   He turned instead to borrow huge amounts from Deutschebank, which is currently having to pay large fines for involvement in money-laundering.   Real estate development is one of the two most used places to clean up money through "investing" and reselling.   Trump could have participated with them in this -- and then he could be being blackmailed at this very moment.

There is also the Russian, state-controlled bank, whose president Jared Kushner had an unreported meeting with in New York.   This is the same president that was hand-picked to run the bank by Putin, who uses this bank essentially as his slush fund for financing things like the Ukraine operation and the take-over of Crimea.   Jared could have had his own business reasons for the meeting, or he could have been on a mission from Trump.

There are not very many dots to have to connect here to see how Donald Trump himself could be under pressure directly from Putin.   I am confident that Mueller will not ignore this.   He may already be ten steps ahead of my analysis and speculation.


PS:   Thursday afternoon, it was revealed that Jared Kushner is now "under FBI scrutiny."  The source also said that they are interested in some information he may have, not that he is himself the subject of investigation.   Nevertheless, this brings the scrutiny not only right into the very center of the White House inner circle, it also brings it into the immediacy of the Trump family itself.

Kushner has previously said that he would voluntarily talk with any of the investigative bodies and tell them anything they want to k now.  It's also noteworthy that, when an investigation begins looking into your life about one thing, they may be led to something else that you are vulnerable on -- like business financial dealings were a sanctioned bank, for example.   The Russian bank whose CEO Jared met with is under US sanctions.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The downside to vote-by-mail: Montana.

We won't know for maybe another 12 hours (as I'm writing this) who wins the special election in Montana to fill the congressional seat vacated when Ryan Zinke was tapped by President Trump to be Interior Secretary.

Prior to last night, the race was considered a toss-up, but one that the Republican would have been expected to win in ordinary circumstances.   But the unpopularity of Donald Trump and the Republican Congress make it less certain.

Then last night, Republican candidate Greg Gianforte was charged with misdemeanor assault on a newspaper reporter who was just trying to ask him a question about the newly released CBO scoring of the Republican health care bill.   Gianforte began yelling at him to "'Get the hell out of here!"   Then, according to eyewitnesses, a FoxNews TV crew in the room, Gianforte grabbed the reporter with both hands around his neck, threw him to the floor, and began punching him.

The sheriff said that, because the reporter's injuries were not severe enough to meet criteria for a felony charge, it had to be "misdemeanor assault."

The charge is less important than the political effect on today's election.   Several newspapers and other organizations have rescinded their previous endorsements of Gianforte.    Ordinarily, we would expect that this would mean the loss of the election for him.

However, Montanans use mail-in-balloting more than most states do.  It's estimated that as many as two-thirds may have already voted before this incident took place.   Democrats have launched an emergency appeal for a get-out-the-vote campaign, even soliciting people as far away as me, sitting here in Atlanta, to help make phone calls.

This is the perfect example of the down side of all forms of early voting.   It's that sudden news, after you've voted, that would change your vote.  On the other hand, as the Jon Ossoff campaign, which is vigorously promoting early voting, has pointed out:   Once the campaign knows you have voted, they can stop utilizing time and resources on trying to get you to vote.   If half voters do it early, they have only half as many to focus on on election day.


CBO scores Republican health care bill

The Congressional Budget Office has released its scoring analysis of the revised  American Health Care Bill passed by the Republican House on May 4th.

As reported by Reuters, 23 million people would lose health coverage by 2026, which is only one million fewer than in the first version that was so bad that the House leadership didn't even bring to the floor for a vote.

It is also estimated that the bill would reduce the deficit by $119 billion over the same period.   In order to achieve that, while also eliminating Obamacare taxes on the wealthy that cover the subsidies, the Republican bill rolls back the Medicaid health plan, allows insurance companies to charge older people as much as five times as much as younger people, allows pre-existing conditions to be a barrier in some situations, and allows states to opt out of some "essential health benefits" required in Obamacare.

The Senate has a group working on a plan of their own, but Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Reuters that he does not know how Republicans will get the necessary votes.   Don't trust him.  Word is that a secret Senate version is being crafted that will be pushed through without public hearings, with little debate, and hoping to sneak it through like the House did its version.

The big question, with the Russia-Trump investigation roaring onto the scene, is whether Republicans have enough political capital to get anything done.


Proxy elections for the anti-Trump vote -- then GOP candidate in Montana physically assaults reporter on election eve.

Polls are notoriously unreliable in special elections and even moreso in runoffs of those special elections.   Yet the special elections to fill empty congressional seats in Montana (today) and the runoff in Georgia's 6th district (June 20) are widely seen as proxy readings on how much electoral trouble the Republican party is in -- and a bellwether for what may happen in the 2018 midterms.

In GA-06 (my home district and the Democratic candidate is a friend of my grandson), the previous poll I saw had Jon Ossoff (D) leading Karen Handel (R) by 47% to 45%, well within the margin of error.

Yesterday, tv station 11Alive released the results of a poll done for them by Survey USA, which showed this:
     Ossoff       51%
     Handel     44%

It's risky to compare but, for what it's worth it, this is good news for the Democrat Ossoff.   The margin of error is 4.3%, so this 7% lead clearly exceeds that.   And the movement since the last poll is all in Ossoff's direction:   up from 47% to 51% while Handel lost a point:   45% and 44%.   The undecided vote is 6% -- even if it all went to Handel, Ossoff would still win.

Now that obviously is putting too much faith in one poll and it really means not very much.  In runoffs, it comes down to voter turn-out.  But it's good to be on the "increasing the lead" side rather than otherwise.

Another encouraging factor is that Trump and the hapless Republicans in Congress are not likely to give voters anything much to cheer about in the next few weeks.   Besides, the despicable, negative smear ads they're running against Jon don't seem to be working.


PS:  Two days ago saw two state legislative seats flip from red to blue.  One was in New Hampshire, where a Democrat won 52% to 48%;  and one in New York, with a Democratic win by 52% to 44%.   Trump won both districts in November.   The needles moved to the left by 11 points in NH and by 39 points in NY.  And today, Thursday, May 25th, we have the Montana congressional race, which is difficult to predict.   If it flips, that will signal that Republicans are in serious trouble with the electorate.

PPS:   BREAKING  NEWS:  I wrote the above just a few hours ago, and then I turned on the TV and began to hear the story out of Montana.   The Republican candidate (Greg Gianforte) physically assaulted a reporter, Ben Jacobs of The Guardian, who had simply asked him a question about the CBO scoring of the health care bill.    I heard the audio recording of the incident.   Within seconds after Jacobs asked the question, and a couple of verbal back and forths, Gianforte begins yelling "Get the hell out of here!!!"   And then immediately you hear sounds of a scuffle.

A witness who was part of a Fox News TV crew in the room said the reporter was not being aggressive (as Gianforte's campaign claimed in trying to blame it all on him), and she described Gianforte's attack as "vicious," as he grabbed Jacobs around the neck with both hands, threw him to the floor, and began punching him.

An investigation by the sheriff's office is ongoing.  Voting begins at 7 AM Thursday, Montana time.    Unfortunately, a lot of voters have already cast their ballots in early voting, which is exactly why I have mixed feelings about that whole practice of early voting.


Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Another day, another shoe drops in the Trump-Russia scandal

Former CIA Director John Brennan, testifying yesterday for the House Intelligence Committee hearing, said that Russia "brazenly interfered" in the 2016 presidential election in an effort to help Trump win.

He also testified that there had been "active contact" between Russian government officials and members of the Trump campaign as far back as last summer.   He said that he did not know whether the contacts were related to the Russians' attempt to influence the election, but they were worrisome enough for him to refer the matter to the FBI for investigation.

Brennan was careful to avoid charging that the Trump team colluded, and he acknowledged that they may not have known that the Russians were spies.   But it does seem likely, from what he said, that at least the Russians were attempting to use the Trump associates in their efforts to interfere with the election.

Here's the quote that will be long-remembered:  "Frequently, people who go along a treasonous path do not know they are on a treasonous path until it is a bit too late," Brennan said.

He was speaking generally and hypothetically, not accusing anyone of treason.   But his testimony revealed that concerns in our government about possible cooperation between Russia and the Trump campaign had been deeper than previously known and involved multiple contacts.

This is startling, even in light of what we've heard before.  Add up all we know -- and then realize that people like Brennan still know even more than they're telling us in open testimony.    Somebody knows what those FISA-warrant tapes on Carter Page show.   And Flynn's talks with the Russian ambassador.   And Kushner, the presumptive "person of interest currently in the White House."  No wonder Trump wants to shut down the investigation.   But it's too late for that now.


Bombing suspect was born in England -- and what that means.

Manchester, England police identified as the suspect in the post-concert arena bombing 22 year old Salman Abedi.   He was born in England to parents who came from Libya. in 1994.   Abedi, who also died in the suicide bombing, was known to British authorities, but was apparently not under active surveillance.

It's important to keep in mind that he was a native-born English citizen when anti-immigrant propagandists try to use this bombing to bolster their arguments for closing borders and banning refugees.

There is a severe problem with the radicalization of disillusioned young men, and increasingly young women, who then ally with terrorists groups.    Sometimes this includes formally joining them abroad;  but more often it is an informal solidarity, performing individual acts of terror without ever leaving their homelands in the West.

The problem is not immigration.   More often it seems to be the second generation, the children of those who immigrated to live in the West.   We should wonder about the meaning of that pattern.

It is a much more complex socio-economic problem which a radical ideology appeals to with "solutions" that include violence. Our counter efforts should address those socio-economic issues, which includes the status of Muslims in world culture.  When our leaders were saying in 2001 that we have to take action against Afghanistan for the 9/11 attack -- my thought was:   instead of dropping bombs on them, we should drop food, medical supplies, building materials, and books.

The problem is now 16 years worse.   But, still, the long range answer is not killing but addressing underlying causes.   I believe it's not religious ideology as much as it is socio-economic.   Not so much good vs evil but have vs have-not.

To see this, look no further than Israel and Palestine, a constant reminder throughout the Islamic world of the superior powers they are up against.   Terrorism is the weapon of those who lack power and opportunity.

No, I am not condoning violence.  And I am not denying that some Islamists emphasize teachings by some of their religious leaders to justify "slaying infidels" and opposing modern, Western values and customs.    But I hope to understand why some resort to violence  and not just reduce it all  to "Evil vs Good."


Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Tuesday breaking news

Four big stories broke in the news yesterday that are unrelated to anything happening during the trip of the US chief executive who is travelling in the Middle East and Europe this week.

1.  Gen. Michael Flynn has told the Senate Intelligence Committee that he will be taking the 5th amendment in any testimony required by them, and thus he will also not be releasing the documents they requested.    [More in the blog post just below this one].

2.  Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, has evidence that Gen. Michael Flynn lied, during his 2016 security clearance renewal process, about his payment for going to Russia to give a speech at a celebratory dinner for RT, the Russian propaganda TV station.   Pictures of Flynn sitting next to Putin at the dinner have been widely circulated.   Flynn has claimed that he was paid by US companies;  but it is clear now that the money originated from the Russian government.   Lying to federal investigators carries a sentence of up to five years in prison.  In addition, Flynn violated regulations that require a retired general to get permission for such travel in advance.

3.  The U.S. Supreme Court gave its decision in the North Carolina voting rights case.   They found that the state violated the rights of African-American voters in redrawing district lines that packed them into certain districts to dilute their political power.  In other words, North Carolina is guilty of gerrymandering.

4. Notes made contemporaneously say that back in March the president asked two of our highest intelligence officials, Daniel Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, and Adm. Michael Rogers, Director of the National Security Agency -- both appointed by Trump and new to their jobs -- to push back against the FBI's investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

Information obtained by the Washington Post quotes a source in the DNI office as saying that the president asked, "Can we ask him (Comey) to shut down the investigation?  Are you able to assist in this matter?"  Coats and Rogers refused to comply with the request, which they both considered inappropriate, according to this memo.   The WaPo article concludes that:  "The new revelations add to a growing body of evidence that the White House sought to co-opt and then undermine Comey before he fired him."

It's all beginning to add up to a cover-up and obstruction of justice, folks.   Is there any other possible explanation other than to hide something?


Senate IntelCom: Flynn takes the 5th. Manafort cooperates.

The Senate Intelligence Committee, investigating the Russian influence in our 2016 election, has requested related documents from Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Carter Page, and Roger Stone.   So far, here's they've got.

Paul Manafort has sent them a bunch of documents, which he says are the ones related to the subject they asked about.   The Committee has not yet had time to go through them to form its own opinion.

Michael Flynn responded by saying that he plans to take the 5th amendment against self-incrimination, in the event he is called to testify before the committee.  The reason he gave is that the "public frenzy" surrounding this investigation is such that he feels Democrats are putting pressure on the committee to call him to testify.   Because of this, he will not supply documents which might also come under his right to refuse due to self-incrimination.

As expected, Carter Page's response was amusing.  What is it with this guy?   He's always smirking and acting as if the whole thing is a joke.    His reply to the committee was essentially "Go f--k yourself."    Not in those words, of course.   What he said was this (I'm paraphrasing it):   Look, you guys got a FISA warrant and wire-tapped me;  so you obviously know everything about me already.  I have nothing further to give you.

Then there is Roger Stone.   If there is anyone more of a spotlight chaser than The-One-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, it's Roger.   A long-time Republican operative who works behind the scenes, Stone was loosely associated with the TOWSNBN's campaign early on, but never in an official way. He's sort of a hanger-on, but sometimes useful because he knows all the dirty political tricks.

He predicted the hacking of the email of Hillary Clinton's campaign chair John Podesta before it happened, which raised the question of what he knew and what connections he had.    Long answer to finally say:   Roger Stone has not only given the committee some documents but voluntarily and enthusiastically declared his readiness to testify -- and the more TV cameras the better (again, I'm paraphrasing);  but that's the impression Roger Stone evokes.

So that's where we are on documents.    There was a late news release (always the 5:00 pm news drop that Rachel Maddow talks about) that's related to this subject.   The Associated Press says that "a top House Democrat" has said that there is now evidence that Mike Flynn lied to US security clearance investigators about his payments from foreign sources.

Flynn will likely face a lot of charges.   Probably the Senate Intelligence Committee is the least of his worries right now.     They could, of course, try to hold him in contempt for refusing to turn over documents, but with all the other investigations of him in the works, including the FBI, my guess is that they won't -- at least not right now.


Monday, May 22, 2017

Today's blog is not about Donald Trump -- a blessed respite during his absence.

Believe it or not, other things than Trump are happening in the world.   Trump sucks up all the oxygen and the attention, but occasionally some other story peeps through.  Yesterday, we looked at the presidential election in Iran.  Today, here are a few more varied news stories.

1.  FoxNews creator and disgraced CEO Roger Ailes died at age 77 following a fall in his home and a resulting brain injury.   As the New York Times' newest columnist and resident conservative Bret Stephens put it:  ". . . nobody did more than Ailes to broaden the reach of conservative ideas . . . .  Except in this respect:  If Ailes broadened, he also debased.   The man, who did so much to engineer the ascendancy of conservative media, paved the way to its moral and intellectual decline -- much as his own accumulation of vast corporate power created openings for his abuse of it."

2.  North Korea fired yet another ballistic missile into the waters off its east coast.   South Korea says this interferes with hopes for peace under its new president.

3.  About one-third (82) of the Nigerian school girls that were kidnapped by Boko Haram terrorists in 2014 have been reunited with their families.   The government
is providing a rehabilitation program for the girls, who are now 18 to 21 years old.

4.  The dire economic situation in Venezuela continues;  many people lack even basic subsistence food.  Street protests are continuous and growing in urgency and violence.

5.  Sweden has dismissed the rape charges against Julian Assange, the Wikileaks guy who has spent the last five years in the Ecuardorian embassy in London, where he sought asylum to avoid those very charges, which he claims are made up.   Sweden is not conceding, just accepting the stalemate.   Assange still faces other charges if he leaves the embassy:  from England, for failing to appear in court;  and then he would face extradition to the US, where he is under investigation regarding the classified documents released on Wikileaks.

6.  The girls'  soccer team AEM Lleida in Spain has won the league championship in an otherwise all-male, junior division.   Yeah!    You go, girls.

7.  Anti-LGBTQ Republican legislators in Texas are stealthily introducing amendments to must-pass legislation, in the late days of the session, that would allow doctors, nurses, and pharmacists to discriminate in providing services that are contrary to their own personal religious beliefs.   In contrast, Oregon has passed a provision for a third option for sex on drivers licenses and other state issued ID's.  One can opt for "male," "female," or "non-binary."   The only objection from any legislators was over the cost of reprogramming, not the idea itself.

8.  Hillary Clinton's long-time aide, Huma Abedin, has filed for divorce from disgraced husband Anthony Weiner, who has recently pleaded guilty to transferring obscene material to a minor.   His sentence, which could include years in jail, will be decided in September.

9.  Nearly 150 students and family members walked out when Vice President Mike Pence began his commencement address at Notre Dame University.   One wore a rainbow-colored cape, others had on rainbow colors -- in protest of the former Indiana governor's anti-gay policies and his infamous signing of the "religious freedom" (aka anti-gay discrimination) bill that was quickly modified when cancellations began to flood in from scheduled NCAA and concert events and from corporate and tourist sectors.

10.  Pippa Middleton, sister to Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and sister-in-law to Prince William, was married on Sunday to hedge fund manager James Matthews.  Pippa's niece Princess Charlotte and nephew Prince George were in the wedding party.  Prince Harry and some other royal family members also attended.   It wasn't quite a royal wedding, but plenty of royal relatives in attendance made it seem so.   Pippa had made quite a hit with the media when she was the very photogenic younger sister at the Royal Wedding of William and Kate.

Check out the photo below of  the future Queen Catherine performing bridesmaid duties for her sister.  Shortly before, she had been shepherding Princess Charlotte and Prince George into their places as flower girl and pageboy.

                                   photo by Samir Hussein, via Getty Images
See, there's lots of news, even when Himself is away.


Sunday, May 21, 2017

Moderate Iranian president re-elected

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani

photo:  FARS News Agency

Following Brexit and the rising rightward tilt in European politics, and then the election of Donald Trump, the world seemed to be spinning away from democratic ideals.   Then came France's unexpectedly large majority for Emmanuel Macron's election as president over the hard right Marine Le Pen.  Perhaps the rightward tide has reversed, or at least stalled.

Iran held it's presidential election this week and the moderate, reformist President Hassan Rouhani easily won re-election with 57% to of the vote to 38% for the hard-line, conservative cleric.  This is being read as support for internal reform, as well as for fruitful exchange with the outside world.  It also represents a setback for the powerful Iranian Royal Guards.

According to CNN's report, Rouhani's first term "was marked by an emergent international outreach."  He was a "key architect" of the 2015 nuclear deal, as he skillfully balanced the multi-national agreement negotiations despite the public opposition of the Iranian Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Of course, in Iran's theocracy, the Supreme Leader still has ultimate control;  and that limits how much Rouhani can accomplish.  But the fact that he has survived one full term, and got an impressive majority in his re-election bid, suggests that his political skills and delicate management of the relationship with the clerics may let him and his supporters continue to make progressive changes.

This does not change the geopolitical balances, however.   Iran still sides with Russia in supporting Assad in Syria, and they are still assumed to be responsible for terrorist activities in the region.   It's not clear how much control Rouhani has over any of that -- or whether that's part of his trade-off with the right-wing that allow him to achieve domestic progress.

Drawing a circle around all that and looking just at who is in the US's best interest to be president of Iran, no doubt it's Rouhani.   Let's hope that Donald Trump lets up on his criticism of the nuclear deal and doesn't mess that up.   He seems bent on building up the Saudis as opponents of Iran, his bug-a-boo enemy in the Middle East.  And demonizing Iran, rather than welcoming the moderating influence of leaders like Rouhani.

Trump is currently in Saudi Arabia, in a game of mutual courtship and business deals with his kind of people -- billionaires, who don't let human rights interfere with their exercise of power.   He's just signed a $110 billion deal to sell them military hardware, plus the possibility of up to another $200 billion in "other investments."   

Trump is hailing all this as "jobs, jobs, jobs" for Americans.   And, on top of that, the King ceremoniously gave him a medal, after honoring him by welcoming him at the foot of the stairs of Air Force One.   There are billboard sized portraits of Trump all over Riyadh, and he's being treated like a king.   It must be a bit of balm for his wounded ego.

He'd better soak it all up.   Trouble will be waiting for him when he gets home.