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  • Leaked Audio: Does Trump Want to Pressure Foreign Powers With Food Inspection?

    President Donald J. Trump's attitude toward food safety has so far been somewhat mysterious. Last year, during his campaign, he announced plans to rein in the "FDA food police"—but then the statement disappeared from the campaign website.

    The plot thickens: Today, Gizmodo published "what appears to be a leaked phone conversation between Trump and Wilbur Ross, his nominee for Commerce Secretary." In the recording, which metadata suggests was recorded at Ross' office on December 13, 2016, Trump pitches the idea of using the threat of increased food inspection as a tool to pressure foreign powers on trade deals:

    TRUMP: If you look at Japan, what they do with food—they say it’s not clean enough, and you have to send it back, and by the time it comes back it’s all gone.

    ROSS: Exactly. And we oughta let them know we're gonna start playing the same game.

    TRUMP: Well I think you let them know that we’re going to do that. Without saying that, you say, "We’re gonna inspect you so closely," bomp bomp.

    ROSS: Yeah. That’s the thing—not to say that it’s punitive, but in the interest of American safety.

    Gizmodo has more here.



  • These Folks Loved Trump. Until Their Friend Was Taken Away.

    In a Monday piece, The New York Times served up one of the conundrums of Trumpism on a platter, steaming like a just-seared mound of fajitas. On the one hand ....

    Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco — just Carlos to the people of West Frankfort — has been the manager of La Fiesta, a Mexican restaurant in this city of 8,000, for a decade. Yes, he always greeted people warmly at the cheerfully decorated restaurant, known for its beef and chicken fajitas. ... [O]ne night last fall, when the Fire Department was battling a two-alarm blaze, Mr. Hernandez suddenly appeared with meals for the firefighters. How he hosted a Law Enforcement Appreciation Day at the restaurant last summer as police officers were facing criticism around the country. How he took part in just about every community committee or charity effort — the Rotary Club, cancer fund-raisers, cleanup days, even scholarships for the Redbirds, the high school sports teams, which are the pride of this city.

    On the other:

    Ask residents of this coal-mining crossroads about President Trump's decision to crack down on undocumented immigrants and most offer no protest. Mr. Trump, who easily won this mostly white southern Illinois county, is doing what he promised, they say. As Terry Chambers, a barber on Main Street, put it, the president simply wants "to get rid of the bad eggs."

    Carlos, beloved pillar of the community, recently got picked up in an immigration raid. And now some of the upstanding citizens of West Frankfurt, Ill., are flummoxed.

    "I think people need to do things the right way, follow the rules and obey the laws, and I firmly believe in that," said Lori Barron, the owner of Lori's Hair A'Fairs, a beauty salon. "But in the case of Carlos, I think he may have done more for the people here than this place has ever given him. I think it's absolutely terrible that he could be taken away."

    I can't think of a more apt metaphor for Trump's immigration policy: demonize, hound, and when possible, and detain the very people who feed us. Before Trump is done, I'm guessing that a lot more Americans will be feeling the bewilderment now sweeping West Frankfurt.



  • Trump Just Sold a $15.8 Million Condo to a Consultant Who Peddles Access to Powerful People

    Last week, Donald Trump's company sealed its first big post-inaugural real estate transaction, selling a $15.8 million penthouse to a Chinese-American business executive who runs a company that touts its ability to exploit connections with powerful people to broker business deals in China.

    New York City property records show that Xiao Yan Chen, the founder and managing director of a business consulting firm called Global Alliance Associates, purchased the four-bedroom, six-bathroom condo in Trump's Park Avenue high-rise on February 21. Before taking office, Trump signed documents removing himself from the board of directors of Trump Park Avenue LLC, the entity that sold the unit, but he remains the LLC's owner.

    Chen, who also goes by Angela Chen, did not return multiple calls and emails requesting comment. Her company bills itself as a "boutique business relationship consultancy" for US firms seeking to do business in China. "For a select clientele," the firm says that it "facilitates the right strategic relationships with the most prominent public and private decision makers in China."

    "As counselors in consummating the right relationships—quite simply—we provide access," the company's website claims. "Establishing a network of credible and proprietary relationships, known by the Chinese as 'ghanxi,' is the single most important aspect of initiating and sustaining a successful business venture in China." A connection with Trump—even a fleeting one—could only help in the ghanxi department.

    According to Chen's bio on the Global Alliance website, she previously worked for Prudential Insurance, helping the company establish a private banking group in China, where she "developed and managed the Group's high net worth private client base." Before that, Chen's biography says she worked at Merrill Lynch, where she ran the China Futures Trading Desk and counted as clients numerous state-owned companies, such as Sinochem, Ocean Shipping Group, and China National Nonferrous Metals.

    Until Chen's purchase, none of Trump's major real estate properties had reported any major sales since he became president. The condo was never publicly listed for sale, although Chen lists her current address as a smaller apartment in the Trump Park Avenue building. (It's unclear whether she owns that unit, which was last purchased in 2004 by an entity called Lancer Trust.)

    According to Zillow.com, the penthouse unit Chen purchased last week has an estimated value of $14.3 million. Other penthouse units in the building have sold for comparable sums. One fetched $21 million.

    The sale agreement for Chen's penthouse was signed by Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization's chief financial officer, whom Trump tapped to serve along with his sons on the three-person panel that will run his company while he serves as president. Weisselberg and a lawyer for Chen did not respond to requests for comment.



  • Trump's Last Labor Secretary Nominee Went Down in Flames. Here's How His New One Stacks Up.

    Lawyer and law-school dean Alex Acosta, President Donald Trump's second choice to head the Department of Labor, doesn't carry the epic baggage of Andrew Puzder, the burger magnate who dropped out of consideration for the post amid allegations of spousal abuse. Unlike Puzder, Acosta has never publicly thundered against raising the minimum wage; nor does he run a fast-food chain with disaffected former workers willing to complain to Congress.

    Acosta has drawn fire for his stint during the George W. Bush's Justice Department as assistant attorney general at the Civil Rights Division from 2003 to 2005, when he presided over a scandal involving an underling who hired staffers ideologically hostile to the division's mission. My colleague Edwin Rios has the details.

    While that Civil Rights Division episode casts doubt on Acosta's ability to ensure an important federal agency fulfills its intended role, he also has experience directly relevant to the position he has been appointed to. For about eight months starting in December 2002, Acosta served as a Bush appointee to the National Labor Relations Board, the independent federal agency that exists to "safeguard employees' rights to organize" and "prevent and remedy unfair labor practices committed by private sector employers and unions."

    He took that post after working as an attorney for Kirkland & Ellis, a prominent law firm that represents employers in labor disputes, where he "specialized in employment and labor issues," his bio states. In other words, he was a labor lawyer who represented bosses, not workers. Before that, he clerked for Samuel A. Alito, Jr., then a judge on the US Court of Appeals, now a staunch conservative on the Supreme Court.

    One federal official who's familiar with Acosta's time at the NLRB is Tammy McCutchen, who now represents employers in wage disputes and who served as in Department of Labor's wage and hour division under George W. Bush. She recently told Bloomberg News that Acosta is "intense, hardworking, but I think in contrast to Puzder, he's going to get things done more quietly," adding that, "He will be quietly efficient. I don't think you’ll see a lot of difference in his policy positions from Puzder."

    McCutchen didn't respond to my requests for further comment. But I did talk to Wilma Liebman, whose long stint on the NLRB—she served from 1997 to 2011—overlapped with Acosta's short one. Liebman, a Democrat, has impeccable pro-labor credentials—she was chief counsel to two major unions before joining the NLRB, and serves on the board of the Economic Policy Institute, a think-tank founded to "include the needs of low- and middle-income workers in economic policy discussions."

    "I liked him—we worked well together, he was a very good colleague," she said. While they occasionally came down on opposite sides of cases, she added, Acosta was "independent—he sometimes voted with me and the other Democrat on the board at the time." She called him "very intelligent and open to listening to all sides." She predicted that if, as expected, he's approved as labor chief, Acosta will "make informed decisions," even if they're "not always to the liking of the labor movement." She added a caveat: "It remains to be seen how independent he'll actually be able to be from the White House."

    Her view jibes with that of the legal trade publication Law360, which recently wrote that during his time at the NLRB, Acosta "exhibited an independent and nonpartisan approach toward evaluating cases, voting alongside fellow Republicans in favor of employers in key cases while also not shying from occasionally siding with unions."

    The publication listed "6 Acosta NLRB Opinions Employers Need To See," and they are indeed a mixed bag. In one case, Law360 notes, Acosta and GOP colleagues beat back a Democratic dissent to side in Walmart's favor in dispute with the United Food and Commercial Workers International over claims Walmart had interfered in efforts to promote union membership.

    And in a case that might raise the eyebrow of his likely new boss, Acosta and colleagues ruled against a company "accused of illegally firing eight Somalian immigrants who walked off their assembly line to protest the company's decision to deny them a scheduled work break," Law360 reports.

    Meanwhile, the conservative legal blogger Paul Mirengoff denounced Trump's pick, declaring Acosta "unfortunately ... vastly more appealing to the left" than Puzder was. Mirengoff didn't have much to say on Acosta's NLRB stint; he focused his complaints on Acosta's past support of the very kind of immigration reform now being demonized by Trump; and Acosta's time at the Department of Justice, where, Mirengoff insists, Acosta indulged civil rights groups at the expense of GOP political interests.

    All in all, Acosta seems like much more of a plain-vanilla Republican than Trump's flamboyant first choice to shape US labor policy. 



  • John Oliver Mocks Republicans for Failing to Come Up with Obamacare Replacement

    As our own Kevin Drum previously predicted, Republicans who have long dreamed of dismantling the Affordable Care Act are quickly discovering that the process is far more difficult than they likely imagined it would be—even with a GOP-controlled Congress and President Donald Trump in the White House. Contentious town halls, in which thousands of constituents across the country have chastised their elected officials for repeal plans, are also making life hell for many Republicans.

    On Sunday, John Oliver examined the issues at stake, calling out Republicans for failing to come up with a sufficient alternative plan.

    "Every time you get near something resembling a Republican plan it seems to just recede into the distance."

    He also reminded the GOP that time is quickly running out for them to do so.

    Here's a further look at the numbers behind plans to destroy Obamacare.



  • Can Republicans Be Trusted to Investigate Trump's Russia Scandal?

    Last week, news broke that the Senate intelligence committee—as part of its recently launched investigation of both the Russian hacking of the 2016 campaign and contacts between Donald Trump associates and Russia—had sent letters to at least a dozen agencies, individuals, and organizations instructing them to preserve records and information related to the probe. This was one of the first public signs that the Senate committee or the House intelligence committee, which has initiated its own inquiry, had begun any real digging.

    But both investigations are proceeding behind a thick veil of secrecy, and there is no way to tell if the Republicans leading these efforts are mounting serious endeavors committed to unearthing facts that might be inconvenient, embarrassing, delegitimizing, or worse for Trump and his White House. So the question remains: Can these committees be trusted to get the job done?

    Congressional investigations are not easy tasks. Committees usually are burdened with a wide variety of responsibilities. In the case of the intelligence committees, they are already responsible for monitoring the full intelligence community, which includes 17 different agencies. Veteran members and staffers from these committees routinely say that it's tough for them to manage the normal oversight. (Watching over just the gigantic National Security Agency could keep a committee busy around the clock.)

    Now, these committees have to maintain their current overwhelming duties and also conduct a highly sensitive inquiry. One congressional source says that the House intelligence committee has slightly expanded its staff for the hacking/Trump-Russia investigation. But Jack Langer, the spokesman for Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the chairman of the committee, won't confirm that. And spokespeople for Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, did not even respond to a request for comment on the staffing issue.

    Langer and the Burr spokespeople also wouldn't say if the House and Senate intelligence committees are coordinating their efforts. Or if either committee has yet issued any subpoenas. Or if the committees will release public updates on the progress of each investigation. This is a red flag. Questions such as these do not involve classified or secret information. The committees could demonstrate their commitment to full accountability by informing the public about these organizational issues. The desire to shield such details does not bode well.

    Jeremy Bash, who was chief counsel for the House intelligence committee in 2007 and 2008 (when Democrats controlled Congress), notes that there are three key elements necessary to ensure the intelligence committees conduct an effective investigation: full-time staff with legal or investigative training devoted to the inquiry; access for members and staff to all relevant documents held by government agencies; and a vigorous effort to conduct a broad range of witness interviews. He points out that past intelligence committee investigations have been hindered when intelligence agencies have not allowed staffers easy access to materials. Indeed, the intelligence committees often get into tussles with the spy services they oversee. Three years ago, the Senate intelligence committee had an explosive fight with the CIA over documents when it was examining the agency's use of torture. This bitter clash threatened to blow up into a full-scale constitutional crisis.

    News reports about the Trump-Russia scandal indicate that US intelligence agencies have material—perhaps surveillance intercepts or reports from human assets—relating to contacts between Trump associates and Russians. The FBI reportedly has been investigating these contacts and presumably has collected information relevant to the committees' inquiries. Yet often intelligence agencies, looking to protect sources and methods or an ongoing investigation, are reluctant to share such information—even with the committees. (Democratic senators and representatives have repeatedly called on the FBI to release to the public information it has on Trump-Russia interactions.)

    Much depends on the chairmen of the two committees. How hard will they push if they encounter a roadblock at the FBI or elsewhere? And how far will they go? Will they devote sufficient resources? Will they issue subpoenas for witnesses not eager to accept a committee invitation? A chairman has much discretion in determining the course of an investigation. Imagine that a staffer has located a witness who might possess significant information but that this witness is now living in South Korea. Will the chairman send staff there to locate the witness and obtain a statement? Or might he say, We have to let this one go?

    The most crucial element is how committed the chairman is to uncovering the truth. "The real enemy to an investigation is the time that goes by," says Bash, who helped oversee an investigation of the NSA's warrantless wiretapping during his time with the house committee. "People lose interest. Other events intervene. The key thing is to get going fast. There are a hundred ways to slow down an investigation by people or agencies who don't want it."

    Neither Burr nor Nunes has demonstrated much public enthusiasm for investigating the Trump-Russia scandal. At first, Burr wanted his committee to focus solely on the Russia hacking, not ties between Trump associates and Russia. This was no surprise. Most congressional Republicans have either shied away from or downplayed this subject. And Burr did serve on the Trump campaign's national security advisory council. But after Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) pushed for a select committee investigation—which would be a more independent inquiry involving a greater number of senators—Burr agreed to widen the intelligence committee probe to cover the Trump-Russia angle. It was obvious that he did so in order not to lose control of the investigation.

    Nunes, who was an adviser to Trump's transition team, initially showed little eagerness for this assignment, as well His announcement in late January that he would proceed with the investigation came only after Burr's change of heart—and followed weeks of public pressure from Rep. Adam Schiff, (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee. Skepticism regarding the willingness of Burr or Nunes to lead robust, wherever-it-goes investigations is hardly unfounded.

    On Friday, the Washington Post reported—and the White House confirmed—that Burr and Nunes had been enlisted by the Trump administration to be part of its effort to counter news stories about Trump associates' ties to Russia. Their participation in this spin campaign has undermined their claims of independence. And on Saturday—in response to Rep. Darrell Issa's (R-Calif.) surprising call for a special prosecutor to investigate the Trump-Russia connections—Nunes dismissed Issa's demand, saying, "This is almost like McCarthyism revisited. We’re going to go on a witch hunt against, against innocent Americans?" He added, "At this point, there's nothing there." That's not the manner in which the head of an independent investigation should be talking about the inquiry. How does Nunes know who's innocent or not—or whether there's nothing there—at this point?

    In recent weeks, Democratic members of both committees told me that, at least for the time being, they were hoping for the best and taking Burr and Nunes at their word when they claim they are committed to conducting thorough investigations, holding public hearings, and releasing public findings. These recent actions of Burr and Nunes may change that perspective. Schiff has said he will release public updates on the progress of the House committee's inquiry, though he has not issued one yet.

    On the Senate side, Democrats say that the effectiveness of the investigation may depend on McCain. He is not a full member of the Senate intelligence committee, but as chair of the Senate armed services committee, he is an ex officio member of the intelligence committee. In that regard, he has the same access as a full member to the investigation's materials, and he can monitor the inquiry. Should he conclude the investigation is not proceeding vigorously, he will be in a position to publicly shame Burr and revive his demand for a select committee probe. Of course, Democrats on the Senate and House intelligence committees could do the same, but they won't have the same political standing to pull that sort of move.

    For weeks, Democrats on both sides of Capitol Hill have called for an independent bipartisan commission—similar to the well-regarded 9/11 commission—to investigate this affair. This inquiry would operate outside of the congressional committee system—meaning outside of GOP control. Naturally, the Republican congressional leadership has opposed the move and has declared that it's just fine to let the intelligence committees do their work. And McCain and Graham have yet to endorse the Democrats' proposal. But that is a card McCain could play if the Senate investigation does not meet his standards. Still, every time there is a development in the Trump-Russia story—such as last week when it was reported that the Trump White House asked the FBI to knock down the news stories saying that Trump associates had interacted with Russian intelligence—Democrats renew their call for an independent commission that would be distant from congressional politics.

    Even with the FBI investigating, the congressional investigations are crucial. The FBI inquiry is either a counterintelligence probe or a criminal investigation (or maybe both). Neither of those are designed or intended to provide a full accounting to the public. An FBI criminal inquiry (usually) only yields public information if someone ends up being charged with a crime and the case goes to trial. And in such instances, the only information that emerges is material necessary for the prosecution of the case. That could be a small slice of whatever the bureau obtained.

    A counterintelligence investigation aims to discover and possibly counter a foreign actor's effort to target the United States with espionage, covert action, or terrorism. These sort of probes tend to stay secret unless they result in a criminal case. (Perhaps a spy is discovered and arrested, or a would-be terrorist indicted.) In an unusual move, the intelligence community, at President Barack Obama's direction, did release some of its assessments regarding the Russia hacking. But whatever the FBI and other intelligence agencies may be investigating, their efforts are not likely to produces a comprehensive public accounting of this double scandal: Vladimir Putin's attack on the US election and the interactions between the president's crew and the foreign power that waged this political warfare.

    As of now, that's the job of the two congressional intelligence committees. Both are under the direction of Republicans who have supported Trump and participated in White House spin efforts. Both are moving forward cloaked by their customary secrecy. And both have yielded no indications yet that they will produce the investigations and public findings necessary to resolve these grave matters.

    UPDATE: At a press conference on Monday morning, Nunes said that his committee has only completed "the scoping of our investigation" and has not yet begun gathering evidence.



  • American Kids Are About to Get Even Dumber When It Comes to Climate Science

    This story was originally published by Fusion and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

    The debate surrounding science education in America is at least as old as the 1925 Scopes "monkey trial," in which a high school science teacher was criminally charged for teaching evolution in violation of Tennessee law. But bills percolating through state legislatures across the US are giving the education fight a new flavor, by encompassing climate change denial and serving it up as academic freedom.

    One prominent example, South Dakota's Senate Bill 55, was voted down Wednesday, but others are on the docket in three states, with possible others on the way. Advocates say the bills are designed to give teachers additional latitude to explain scientific theories. Opponents say they empower science denial, removing accountability from science education and eroding the foundation of public schools.

    In bills making their way through statehouses in Indiana, Oklahoma, and Texas, and a potential measure in Iowa, making common cause with climate change denial is a way for advocates to encourage skepticism of evolution, said Glenn Branch, deputy director for the National Center for Science Education, an advocacy group.

    "The rhetoric falls into predictable patterns, and the patterns are very similar for those two groups of science deniers," he said.

    Science defenders like the NCSE say science denial has three pillars: That the science is uncertain; that its acceptance would have bad moral and social consequences; and that it's only fair to present all sides. All three are at work in the latest efforts to attack state and federal education standards on science education, Branch said.

    According to a survey published last year, this strategy is already making headway. The survey, in the journal Science, found that three-fourths of science teachers spend time on climate change instruction. But of those teachers, 30% tell their students that it is "likely due to natural causes," while another 31% teach that the science is unsettled. Yet 97% of scientists who actively study Earth's climate say it is changing because of human activity.

    In South Dakota, state Rep. Chip Campbell, R-Rapid City, said the bill would have enabled broader discussions in the classroom, according to The Argus-Leader.

    "In science it is imperative that we show not only the strengths but also the weaknesses of theories," he said. "Weaknesses, not strengths, are the key to finding the truth."

    Many of these bills are being pushed in response to recently adopted federal standards for science education. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), developed by 26 states, were finalized in 2015. As of November 2016, 16 states had adopted them, and the guidelines are under consideration in several others.

    Efforts to undermine science education are often related to adoption of the new standards. In West Virginia in 2016, for example, lawmakers removed language in the standards that said human activity has increased carbon dioxide emissions and affected the climate. In Wyoming, lawmakers passed a statute banning public schools from teaching climate change is caused by humans, though that was later repealed. Also in 2016, Idaho lawmakers passed a bill permitting the use of the Bible in public schools as long as it was in connection with astronomy, biology, and geology. The bill passed in a modified form without referencing those scientific topics, but it was later vetoed.

    "The concerns of these anti-science officials aren't rooted in peer-vetted science. They are rooted in opposition to learning the truth about climate change," said Lisa Hoyos, the director of Climate Parents, an offshoot of the Sierra Club that supports climate education. "The purpose of these bills is to create space for peer-reviewed, evidence-based science to be challenged based on teachers' political opinions."

    It's part of a third wave of anti-science legislation at the state level, according to Branch.

    The first wave, specifically targeting evolution, dissipated after 1968, when the Supreme Court ruled in Epperson v. Arkansas that prohibiting the teaching of evolution was unconstitutional. The second wave focused on "intelligent design," a branch of creation theory that postulates a higher power guides and shapes the process of evolution. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, anti-evolutionists focused on bills that would require teachers to say evolution was controversial, while staying silent on possible alternatives, Branch said. Later Supreme Court cases also rejected these policies on various First Amendment grounds.

    The newest wave, which began around 2004, focuses on "academic freedom—teach the controversy, talk about theories' strengths and weaknesses," Branch said.

    "They all have the same effect, which is to free teachers from having to teach evolution as accepted science, and to prevent state and local officials from doing anything about it," he said.

    The bills initially targeted evolution, but later, advocates came up with a standard list: biological evolution, the origin of life, global warming, and human cloning are considered the controversial topics in science education, Branch said.

    He and Hoyos both noted that the bill would have protected teachers who wanted to teach anything at all, not just skepticism of climate change and evolution.

    "A teacher could, on the public dime, teach creationism, flat-Earthism, white supremacism, and there would be nothing that the taxpayers could do about it," Branch said. "It's not that science teachers shouldn't have some freedom to do what they do; but all of these states already have all various kinds of regulations, policies, and informal practices that give a reasonable degree of freedom."

    Similar active bills include Indiana's Senate Resolution 17, Oklahoma's Senate Bill 393, and Texas's House Bill 1485, Branch said. Because Indiana's is a resolution, it would have no legal effect other than to express the intent of lawmakers, which Branch said was an "interesting variant." In Iowa, lawmakers are discussing a measure that would make the next generation standards optional, he said.

    To date, South Dakota's was the only measure to have been passed by a chamber of the legislature; the state Senate passed it in January. It's also the first measure to die. It lingered in a House education committee before a hearing was scheduled for Wednesday, and it was defeated, 11-4. Its sponsor, Republican Sen. Jeff Monroe of Pierre, had introduced different versions of the bill for the past four years, but it never made it as far as it did in 2017, Hoyos said.

    "Perhaps that's because of the political climate we're in, with the president actively opposing climate science," she said. "From the president on down, there are some political forces in our society who think it is open season to attack climate science."



  • Russian Hackers May Now Be Mucking With European Elections

    When the US intelligence community released a report in early January laying out the evidence for Russian meddling in the US election, US officials warned that this wasn't a one-off attack, and that Russia could soon set its hacker corps loose to disrupt elections in other countries. "Moscow will apply lessons learned from its Putin-ordered campaign aimed at the US presidential election to future efforts worldwide," the report said, "including against US allies and their election processes."

    Putin didn't wait long to fulfill that prediction. On February 22, the Moscow Times reported that the Russian government had "created a new military unit to conduct 'information operations' against Russia's foes." Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said, when announcing the unit, that "propaganda should be smart, competent and effective." There's no concrete evidence yet, but it appears that Russia may be now attempting to weaken NATO and to divide Europe by destabilizing elections in France and Germany, two of the EU's strongest members.

    "This form of interference in French democratic life is unacceptable and I denounce it," Jean-Marc Ayrault, France's minister of foreign affairs, said on February 19 in an interview with Le Journal du Dimanche, a French newspaper. "The French will not accept that their choices are dictated to them," he said while discussing Russian actions in Europe and attempts to weaken non pro-Russian candidates ahead of the country's presidential election in May.

    Ayrault was responding to reports that the Russian government may have been targeting the campaign of Emmanuel Macron, a centrist "pro-liberal and pro-Europe" candidate who has a chance of defeating Marine Le Pen, a right-wing nationalist, in the hotly contested French presidential elections this May. Le Pen has promised to pull France out of the European Union, and, much like Donald Trump, has advocated a better relationship with the Russian government. Macron's campaign has said its computer systems have been attacked, and that "fake news"—that include allegations of a homosexual affair and attempts to connect Macron with American financial interests and Hillary Clinton—has been spread throughout France by Russian-owned media, such as Sputnik and RT.

    Daniel Treisman, a professor of political science at UCLA and an expert on Russian politics, says "it certainly seems plausible" that the Russian government would attempt to interfere in the European elections, as it's alleged to have done in the US.

    "[Putin] is quite skeptical about the possibility of building strong friendships or cooperation in the future with the elites of western Europe," Treisman tells Mother Jones. "He feels that they've taken a very anti-Russian line, so he's reaching out to other forces who are also opposed to the European elites." Among those so-called Western European elites, are German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte, and Macron in France. Part of Putin's plan could be to keep the west distracted "with its own problems" so it is "less able to cohesively oppose what he's done in Ukraine," Treisman says.

    The French government's top figures reportedly had internal discussions about cyber threats to its presidential election, and earlier this year the official in charge of security for the nation's ruling party told Politico that the country's leading politicians and political campaigns "have received no awareness training at all about espionage and hacking," and that "we are not at all up to the level of the potential threat." The Russian government has denied that it is working to meddle in the French elections, just as it denied meddling in the 2016 US presidential election.  

    "We didn't have, and do not have, any intention of interfering in the internal affairs of other countries," Kremlin spokesman Dmirtry Peskov told reporters on February 14. "That there is a hysterical anti-[President Vladimir] Putin campaign in certain countries abroad is an obvious fact."

    Worries aren't limited to the French elections, which will be held in April and May. The head of the German foreign intelligence service said in November that its next election cycle could be buffeted with the same sort of misinformation and cyber-attacks that plagued the US elections. "We have evidence that cyber-attacks are taking place that have no purpose other than to elicit political uncertainty," said Bruno Kahl, the president of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (the German foreign intelligence service), according to the Guardian. Angela Merkel said at the time that "such cyber-attacks, or hybrid conflicts as they are known in Russian doctrine, are now part of daily life and we must learn to cope with them." Merkel's hard line against Putin in the wake of the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and strong support of the European Union are among the reasons that she could be targeted by Russia before her reelection vote in September.

    And in the Netherlands, Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders told Politico on January 12 that he didn't have "concrete evidence" interference had taken place, but he wasn't "naive" to the fact that it could happen at some point ahead of that country's March 15 election, wherein Rutte is being challenged by Geert Wilders. Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that the Russian government, among other countries, had "tried hundreds of times in recent months to penetrate the computers of Dutch government agencies and businesses."

    Far-right MP Wilders—a vehement opponent of Islam and a strong contender to be the Netherlands next prime minister—has also called for leaving the EU, but he may not be as pro-Putin as Le Pen and Trump. Nevertheless, Dutch officials have said they will count all election ballots by hand due to worries about manipulation of electronic vote counting machines.

    Treisman says what happens next in terms of Russia and the European elections is "all up in the air, in part because we don't know what the US administration is going to end up doing" with regard to its policy toward Russia.

    Trump has repeatedly said that he's hoping for a good working relationship with Putin, but offered mixed and confusing signals during the campaign about what he thought about Putin's actions in the Ukraine and his annexing of Crimea in 2014. During her first full day on the job, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley condemned Russian violence in eastern Ukraine and called for "an immediate end to the Russian occupation of Crimea." Trump has rattled European allies by praising Brexit and calling NATO "obsolete," but members of his cabinet have reaffirmed the US commitment to a strong NATO, which is one of Putin's main points of contention with the west.

    While it makes sense to watch all of this and try to discern a pattern in Putin's strategy, Treisman says, "I don't think he has this clear over-arching agenda, that he's out to expand Russia's borders or achieve anything very concrete. I think he's just looking for ways to resist pressures he sees coming from the west and increase his influence, and his options, and his friends worldwide."



  • Donald Trump Can Deport People Without Even Giving Them a Hearing

    Last week, the Trump administration released its blueprint for implementing the president's executive orders on immigration. Not only did it lay out plans to vastly increase the number of undocumented people vulnerable to deportation, but it also revealed that the feds intend to deport many more people caught in their immigration crackdown immediately after their arrest.

    "Expedited removal" is the term the government uses to describe the swift deportation of undocumented immigrants without an appearance before an immigration judge—and, as pro-immigrant advocates point out, without due process protections. Previously, only undocumented immigrants who had been in the United States for less than 14 days and were apprehended within 100 miles of the US border were eligible for expedited removal. According to a new memo signed by Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, expedited removal can now be applied nationwide to those who cannot produce documentation that they have been in the country continuously for at least two years.

    Jennifer Chang Newell, a senior staff attorney on the ACLU's Immigrants Rights' Project, said expedited removal has long been marred by widespread, well-documented abuse and that it "violates due process absolutely." In 2014, the last year for which there are public statistics, 176,752 people were given expedited removal orders. That number, advocates point out, is now sure to go up.

    The expansion of expedited removal is part of the administration's attempt to bypass the bottleneck of immigrants already awaiting deportation in the immigration court system. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) estimates that it has the capacity to deport 400,000 people annually, but there is currently a backlog of more than 500,000 cases in the courts. Expedited removal allows the administration to skip the courts and summarily deport people without a lawyer, or even a phone call.

    Under the new plan, apprehended immigrants will be asked for proof (such as receipts, phone records, or identification) that they have been in the country over the past two years. If they can't produce the necessary documentation, they will be deported in as little as 24 hours. In effect, Newell said, "the police officer who arrests you and interrogates you also convicts you." While this obviously is a concern for the tens of thousands of immigrants estimated to have illegally crossed the border since 2015, Alyson Sincavage, a legislative associate at the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), argues that it could affect all undocumented immigrants who can't immediately make their case to immigration officials—even those who've been here for years. (ICE did not respond to a request for comment.)

    And then there's the question of how this might influence asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border. Since 2014, there has been a surge of Central American immigrants—many of them unaccompanied minors or women with children—crossing the southern border due to increased gang violence and instability in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Both Newell and Sincavage expressed concerns that this group, many of whom have valid asylum claims, could be wrongly slated for expedited removal in the general chaos of a large-scale immigration overhaul. A 2013 study by the ACLU found that some asylum seekers were quickly deported because Customs and Border Protection agents failed to adequately screen them in so-called credible-fear interviews, which immigrants must pass before getting a full hearing before an immigration judge. (The Trump administration has indicated that CBP agents should "elicit all relevant information from the alien as is necessary to make a legally sufficient determination" during credible-fear screenings; CBP did not respond to a request for comment.)

    Causing further concern, the administration has suggested that many immigrants apprehended at the border could be immediately sent back to Mexico, rather than to their home countries. Luis Angel Gallegos, a program coordinator at the Institute for Social and Cultural Practice and Research, a Mexico City-based nonprofit focused on migrant issues, wrote in Spanish that sending immigrants to northern Mexico would present an enormous logistical challenge and endanger already-vulnerable immigrants. "There is no infrastructure to host and receive them," he said. "Shelters that help immigrants are often full. Immigration detention centers are full." Gallegos argued that this could make immigrants targets for extortion, kidnapping, and other crimes by the criminal syndicates operating in the border region.

    Even if the Mexican government blocks this part of the plan—on Friday, the Associated Press reported that Mexico's interior secretary said the country had rejected it in meetings with American leaders—Newell and Sincavage stressed the cruelty of removing people so quickly without a phone call, let alone a day in court. Expedited removal leads to people being "ripped from their communities [and] whisked away and deported in a matter of hours, based on shoddy paperwork," Newell said. "This violates our most American notions of fairness."



  • Sallie Ford's Raucous Self-Help

    Sallie Ford
    Soul Sick
    Vanguard
     

    Courtesy of Vanguard

    The ingredients of Sallie Ford's stunning fourth album are easy to identify: '50s teen ballads, '60s reverb-heavy surf guitar, and plenty of timeless garage rock, among other familiar sounds. (Love those trashy organ riffs!) But that doesn't begin to hint at the passionate immediacy she brings to these vivid stories of mental health struggles and the attempt to rise above "that feeling when you feel like giving up." A deceptively powerful singer who splits the different between an earnest folkie and a fiery punk shouter, Ford reveals her darkest thoughts with fearless candor, daring to "imagine the worst that it could be/Fantasize, romanticize, my demise," in the raucous "Loneliness Is Power," and confessing, "It's the feeling of failing that's freeing," on the lovely "Failure." If she bends, Ford never breaks, concluding with the rousing, soul-inflected "Rapid Eyes," exclaiming, "I need professional help…Gotta try and fix what's inside." Soul Sick is a riveting self-help session that could buoy the spirits of others facing their own challenges—and it's great Rock 'n' Roll to boot.




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