Later On

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Archive for June 24th, 2020

The Decline of the American World

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Tom McTague writes in the Atlantic:

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“He hated America very deeply,” John le Carré wrote of his fictional Soviet mole, Bill Haydon, in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Haydon had just been unmasked as a double agent at the heart of Britain’s secret service, one whose treachery was motivated by animus, not so much to England but to America. “It’s an aesthetic judgment as much as anything,” Haydon explained, before hastily adding: “Partly a moral one, of course.”

I thought of this as I watched the scenes of protest and violence over the killing of George Floyd spread across the United States and then here in Europe and beyond. The whole thing looked so ugly at first—so full of hate, and violence, and raw, undiluted prejudice against the protesters. The beauty of America seemed to have gone, the optimism and charm and easy informality that entrances so many of us from abroad.

At one level, the ugliness of the moment seems a trite observation to make. And yet it gets to the core of the complicated relationship the rest of the world has with America. In Tinker Tailor, Haydon at first attempts to justify his betrayal with a long political apologia, but, in the end, as he and le Carré’s hero, the master spy George Smiley, both know, the politics are just the shell. The real motivation lies underneath: the aesthetic, the instinct. Haydon—upper class, educated, cultured, European—just could not stand the sight of America. For Haydon and many others like him in the real world, this visceral loathing proved so great that it blinded them to the horrors of the Soviet Union, ones that went far beyond the aesthetic.

Le Carré’s reflection on the motivations of anti-Americanism—bound up, as they are, with his own ambivalent feelings about the United States—are as relevant today as they were in 1974, when the novel was first published. Where there was then Richard Nixon, there is now Donald Trump, a caricature of what the Haydons of this world already despise: brash, grasping, rich, and in charge. In the president and first lady, the burning cities and race divides, the police brutality and poverty, an image of America is beamed out, confirming the prejudices that much of the world already have—while also serving as a useful device to obscure its own injustices, hypocrisies, racism, and ugliness.

It is hard to escape the feeling that this is a uniquely humiliating moment for America. As citizens of the world the United States created, we are accustomed to listening to those who loathe America, admire America, and fear America (sometimes all at the same time). But feeling pity for America? That one is new, even if the schadenfreude is painfully myopic. If it’s the aesthetic that matters, the U.S. today simply doesn’t look like the country that the rest of us should aspire to, envy, or replicate.Even in previous moments of American vulnerability, Washington reigned supreme. Whatever moral or strategic challenge it faced, there was a sense that its political vibrancy matched its economic and military might, that its system and democratic culture were so deeply rooted that it could always regenerate itself. It was as if the very idea of America mattered, an engine driving it on whatever other glitches existed under the hood. Now, something appears to be changing. America seems mired, its very ability to rebound in question. A new power has emerged on the world stage to challenge American supremacy—China—with a weapon the Soviet Union never possessed: mutually assured economic destruction.

China, unlike the Soviet Union, is able to offer a measure of wealth, vibrancy, and technological advancement—albeit not yet to the same level as the United States—while protected by a silk curtain of Western cultural and linguistic incomprehension. In contrast, if America were a family, it would be the Kardashian clan, living its life in the open glare of a gawping, global public—its comings and goings, flaws and contradictions, there for all to see. Today, from the outside, it looks as if this strange, dysfunctional, but highly successful upstart of a family were suffering a sort of full-scale breakdown; what made that family great is apparently no longer enough to prevent its decline.

The U.S.—uniquely among nations—must suffer the agony of this existential struggle in the company of the rest of us. America’s drama quickly becomes our drama. Driving to meet a friend here in London as the protests first erupted in the States, I passed a teenager in a basketball jersey with jordan 23 emblazoned on the back; I noticed it because my wife and I had been watching The Last Dance on Netflix, a documentary about an American sports team, on an American streaming platform. The friend told me he’d spotted graffiti on his way over: i can’t breathe. In the weeks since, protesters have marched in London, Berlin, Paris, Auckland, and elsewhere in support of Black Lives Matter, reflecting the extraordinary cultural hold the United States continues to have over the rest of the Western world.

At one rally in London, the British heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua rapped the lyrics to Tupac’s “Changes” alongside other protesters. The words, so jarring, powerful, and American, are yet so easily translatable and seemingly universal—even though Britain’s police are largely unarmed and there are very few police shootings. Since the initial outpouring of support for George Floyd, the spotlight has turned inward here in Europe. A statue of an old slave trader was torn down in Bristol, while one of Winston Churchill was vandalized with the word racist in London. In Belgium, protesters targeted memorials to Leopold II, the Belgian king who made Congo his own genocidal private property. The spark may have been lit in America, but the global fires are being kept alive by the fuel of national grievances.

For the United States, this cultural dominance is both an enormous strength and a subtle weakness. It draws in talented outsiders to study, build businesses, and rejuvenate itself, molding and dragging the world with it as it does, influencing and distorting those unable to escape its pull. Yet this dominance comes with a cost: The world can see into America, but America cannot look back. And today, the ugliness that is on display is amplified, not calmed, by the American president.

To understand how this moment in U.S. history is being seen in the rest of the world, I spoke to more than a dozen senior diplomats, government officials, politicians, and academics from five major European countries, including advisers to two of its most powerful leaders, as well as to the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. From these conversations, most of which took place on the condition of anonymity to speak freely, a picture emerged in which America’s closest allies are looking on with a kind of stunned incomprehension, unsure of what will happen, what it means, and what they should do, largely bound together with angst and a shared sense, as one influential adviser told me, that America and the West are approaching something of a fin de siècle. “The moment is pregnant,” this adviser said. “We just don’t know what with.”

Today’s convulsions are not without precedent—many I spoke to cited previous protests and riots, or America’s diminished standing after the Iraq War in 2003 (a war, to be sure, supported by Britain and other European countries)—yet the confluence of recent events and modern forces has made the present challenge particularly dangerous. The . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 June 2020 at 9:59 pm

Facebook is basically run by scum

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Judd Legum reports at Popular Information:

Facebook is “aiding and abetting the spread of climate misinformation,” said Robert Brulle, an environmental sociologist at Drexel University. “They have become the vehicle for climate misinformation, and thus should be held partially responsible for a lack of action on climate change.”

Brulle was reacting to Facebook’s recent decision, made at the request of climate science deniers, to create a giant loophole in its fact-checking program. Last year, Facebook partnered with an organization, Science Feedback, that would bring in teams of Ph.D. climate scientists to evaluate the accuracy of viral content. It was an important expansion of the company’s third-party fact-checking program.

But now Facebook has reportedly decided to allow its staffers to overrule the climate scientists and make any climate disinformation ineligible for fact-checking by deeming it “opinion.”

The organization that requested the change, the CO2 Coalition, is celebrating, E&E news reported on Monday. The group, which has close ties to the fossil fuel industry, says its views on climate change are increasingly ignored by the mainstream media. Now it plans to use Facebook to aggressively push climate misinformation on the public — without having to worry about fact checks from climate scientists.

How it all started

A column published in the Washington Examiner in August 2019 claimed that “climate models” were a “failure” that predicted exponentially more warming of the earth than has occurred. The piece, co-authored by notorious climate science denier Pat Michaels, was quickly shared more than 2,000 times on Facebook.

There was just one issue: It wasn’t true.

This is exactly the kind of mess that Facebook’s network of independent fact-checkers is supposed to solve. In May 2019, Facebook partnered with Science Feedback, a site dedicated to explaining “why information is or is not consistent with the science.” Science Feedback’s process is extremely rigorous. Each piece has multiple . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 June 2020 at 6:33 pm

‘A chain of stupidity’: the Skripal case and the decline of Russia’s spy agencies

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Luke Harding reports in the Guardian:

In 2011 I was in Libya reporting on the civil war. Rebels backed by the US, the UK and France were advancing on the capital, Tripoli. The insurgents moved forward through bombed-out towns as Muammar Gaddafi’s forces retreated. Coastal cities in the west and east, oil refineries, Roman ruins and temples – all fell, one by one, as the regime lost ground.

These were dangerous times. In the town of Zawiyah I found locals celebrating victory in the main square. They were shooting in the air and doing wheelspins and skids in their cars and trucks. Gaddafi’s soldiers had left the previous night, fleeing down the road. I saw a small boy, maybe eight years old, stomping on a Gaddafi flag. “The city is ruined. No problem – we will rebuild it,” one local, Tariq Sadiq, told me.

The signs of battle were everywhere. The square’s four-star Zawiyah Jewel Hotel was a ruin. The lobby was filled with rubble. Mattresses where Gaddafi’s soldiers had slept lay strewn among crates containing mortar cases and empty plastic water bottles. The air crackled with jubilant gunfire.

The celebrations turned out to be premature. From their new positions, and without warning, Gaddafi’s army began shelling the square. I took shelter indoors. First one mortar, then six more. Each was a loud thunderclap, a sudden affirmative whomping, followed by puffs of black smoke.

At that moment, I wasn’t much interested in the types of munitions that were raining down. There was a simple urge: to escape. My role, as I saw it, was to tell the stories of those unwittingly caught up in conflict. I had brought to Libya the usual tools of a frontline correspondent: flak jacket, satellite phone and first-aid kit, carried in a rucksack.

A man named Eliot Higgins was following events in Libya, too – not from the front line, but from his home in the east Midlands. Specifically, from his sofa. It was a safer place to be – and, as it turned out, as good a perch as any from which to analyse the conflict, and to consider questions that, in the heat of battle, were interesting, but seemingly unanswerable. Questions such as: where did the rebels get their arms?


Higgins recalls growing up as a shy “nerd”. According to his brother Ross, Higgins was an obsessive gamer and early computer enthusiast. He liked Lego, played Pong on an antediluvian 1980s Atari and was a fan of Dungeons and Dragons. He spent hours immersed in the online roleplay game World of Warcraft, where participants pooled skills and collaborated across virtual borders. His instincts were completist: he wanted to finish and win the game. This would prove useful later on.

Higgins tried for a career in journalism and enrolled on a media studies course in Southampton. It didn’t work out, and he left without a degree. Next, he earned a living via a series of unlikely administrative jobs. One day Higgins logged on to the Guardian’s Middle East live blog. Libya was the centre of international attention. Higgins made his own contributions to the comment section of the Guardian blog, using the name Brown Moses – taken from a Frank Zappa song. The blog often featured videos uploaded by anti-regime fighters. There was fierce debate as to whether these images were authentic or bogus.

One such video showed a newly captured town. The rebels claimed it was Tiji, a sleepy settlement with a barracks that had been recently bombed by Nato jets, close to the border with Tunisia, and on the strategic main road leading to Tripoli. There was a mosque, a white road and a few little buildings with trees around them. The video showed a rebel-driven tank rolling noisily down a two-lane highway. There were utility poles.

Higgins used satellite images to see if he could identify the settlement and thereby win the discussion. The features were sufficiently distinctive for him to be able to prove he was correct: the town was Tiji. “I’m very argumentative,” he says. It was the first time he had used geolocation tools. He realised he could collect user-generated videos and later work out exactly where they had been filmed.

Shortly afterwards his first child was born. Higgins combined his new childcare duties with online research. Meanwhile, the uprisings in the Arab world spread. Soon Syria was at war, too.

What began as a way of scoring points over online adversaries evolved into something bigger. Smartphones with cameras, social media, Facebook, Twitter, Google Earth, Google street view, YouTube – the digital world was multiplying at an astonishing rate. This stuff was open-source: anyone could access it. By cross-checking video footage with existing photos and Google maps, it was possible to investigate what was going on in a faraway war zone.

These techniques offered interesting possibilities. Open-source journalism might be applied to the realm of justice and accountability. Sometimes soldiers filmed their own crimes – executions, for example, carried out on featureless terrain. If you could identify who and where, this could be evidence in a court of law. The shadow cast by a dead body was a strong indication of time of death.

At home, and surrounded by his daughter’s discarded toys, Higgins unearthed a number of scoops. He found weapons from Croatia in a video posted by a Syrian jihadist group. The weapons, it emerged, were from the Saudis. The New York Times picked up the story and put it on the front page – an indication of how armchair analysis could be as telling as dispatches from the ground.

Higgins documented the Syrian regime’s use of cluster bombs. He discovered that government soldiers were tossing DIY barrel bombs out of helicopters, and that rebels were fighting back around Aleppo with Chinese-made shoulder-launched missiles. His reputation spread. He launched a new investigative website: Bellingcat.

The idea was to consolidate pioneering online research techniques and to connect with a wider pool of international volunteers. In July 2014, three days after Bellingcat went live, a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane was blown out of the sky over Ukraine. Some 298 people – nearly 200 of them Dutch – died. The incident grew into Bellingcat’s first major investigation.

Higgins’s team discovered that the missile launcher had come from Russia’s 53rd anti-aircraft missile brigade, based in the city of Kursk. Video footage showed the launcher trundling across Russia as part of a military convoy. The system was filmed again by locals inside eastern Ukraine after MH17 was brought down, heading back to Russia with one of its missiles missing.

Bellingcat got bigger. One key figure was Christo Grozev, a fluent Russian-speaker and a Bulgarian from an anti-communist family. Grozev grew up in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second city; his father was fired from his job as a teacher for growing a hippie-style beard. Bellingcat joined forces with the Insider, an independent Russian news website run by Roman Dobrokhotov.

By summer 2018, the British police were confident they had identified the two Russian suspects who had tried to murder Sergei Skripal a few weeks earlier, in March. Skripal, a former officer with Russia’s GRU military spy agency, was poisoned in Salisbury, together with his daughter Yulia. The assassins’ names had not been made public. The hope was that they might travel to western countries where they could be arrested.

There were discussions inside the British government about what to do. One course was to demand their extradition – knowing Vladimir Putin would refuse, as he had with the killers of Alexander Litvinenko 11 years earlier. Another was to recognise that there was zero prospect of a criminal trial, and to publish concrete intelligence.

That September, prime minister Theresa May went with option two. She told the House of Commons that the two Russian assassins were Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov – adding that the police believed these names to be aliases. CCTV images from their trips to Salisbury were revealed. Also shown was the apparent murder weapon – a counterfeit perfume bottle containing the nerve agent novichok.

The new details were a boon for Bellingcat. During the next few weeks, its volunteers scurried all over the evidence. They would go on to inflict a series of humiliations on Russia’s GRU military intelligence spy agency that may have contributed to the fall of its chief, Igor Korobov.


In the 20th century, Soviet assassins were able to travel around Europe using fake passports. Their movements were seldom discovered. They may have been better, more professional spies – or lesser ones. It was an age before transparency.

The modern GRU was still using the old Soviet playbook when it came to covert operations such as the murder of enemies outside the country. These analogue plots now took place in a digital environment. GRU officers earned their spurs in the Soviet “near abroad” – in Tajikistan, Moldova or Ukraine, where there were few cameras to worry about, and not much of a CIA or other American presence.

Western Europe was different. Britain, in particular, was a counter-intelligence challenge. The UK had CCTV on every public corner – in railway stations, hotel lobbies and airports. Any passengers arriving on a flight from Moscow would be logged and filmed. A port-of-entry database was available to western security agencies.

Meanwhile, Russian markets sold CDs of mass official information: home addresses, car registrations, telephone directories and other bulk indexes. For £80 or so you could buy traffic police records. With the right contacts, and a modest cash payment, it was even possible to gain access to the national passport database.

Paradoxically, this low-level corruption made Russia one of the most open societies in the world. Corruption was the friend of investigative journalism, and the enemy of government–military secrets.

After the Metropolitan police published photos of Boshirov and Petrov, Bellingcat took up the hunt. It sought to unmask their real identities. The first step was to image search their photos via online search engines. This yielded nothing. They looked for telephone numbers associated with the two names. Nothing again.

And so the online investigators tried a deductive approach. They spoke to sources in Russia and asked where a GRU officer operating in western Europe was likely to have been trained. One answer was Siberia, and in particular the Far Eastern Military Command Academy in Khabarovsk, just across the Amur River from China. The men appeared to be in their late 30s or early 40s. This gave an approximate date of birth. . .

Continue reading. There’s more, and it’s interesting.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 June 2020 at 2:11 pm

Meißner Tremonia Lavender and another Prince

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This is a wonderful lavender shaving soap, and lavender is certainly a classical shaving soap fragrance. My Wet Shaving Products Prince — the other Prince — did a very good job. The two Princes are not quite the same, though both are excellent badger brushes. You can see the difference in this photo. The one on the left is a two-band knot, the one on the right three-band (as I understand it, the white top being one bad).

The razor today is Above the Tie’s excellent R1, here on a UFO handle. ATT has come out with a variety of new models, which I’ve not tried, but I certainly like the R1 and the S1.

Three passes (not four), and then a good splash of D.R. Harris’s excellent Old English Lavendder Water as the aftershave. I like this aftershave quite a bit.

I got out of step today and blogged a couple of posts before I remembered that I had not blogged the shave. So it goes.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 June 2020 at 1:16 pm

Posted in Shaving

Turns out that, contrary to claims, it wasn’t safe after all: Roundup Maker to Pay $10 Billion to Settle Cancer Suits

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Patricia Cohen reports in the NY Times:

Bayer, the world’s largest seed and pesticide maker, has agreed to pay more than $10 billion to settle tens of thousands of claims in the United States that its popular weedkiller Roundup causes cancer, the company said Wednesday.

The figure includes $1.25 billion to deal with potential future claims from people who used Roundup and may develop the form of cancer known as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the years to come.

“It’s rare that we see a consensual settlement with that many zeros on it,” said Nora Freeman Engstrom, a professor at Stanford University Law School.

Bayer, a German company, inherited the legal morass when it bought Roundup’s manufacturer, Monsanto, for $63 billion in June 2018. It has repeatedly maintained that Roundup is safe and will continue to sell the product without adding a warning on the label.

The settlement, which covers an estimated 95,000 cases, was extraordinarily complex because it includes separate agreements with 25 lead law firms whose clients will receive varying amounts.

Most of the lawsuits filed early on were brought by homeowners and groundskeepers, although they account for only a tiny portion of Roundup’s sales. Farmers are the biggest customers, and many agricultural associations contend glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup, is safe and effective.

Bayer still faces at least 25,000 claims from plaintiffs who have not agreed to be part of the settlement.

“This is nothing like the closure they’re trying to imply,” said Fletch Trammell, a Houston-based lawyer who said he represented 5,000 claimants not taking part in the settlement. “It’s like putting out part of a house fire.”

But Kenneth R. Feinberg, the Washington lawyer who oversaw the mediation process, said he expected most current plaintiffs to eventually join the settlement. . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Later in the article:

Part of the $1.25 billion will be used to establish an independent expert panel to resolve two critical questions about glyphosate: Does it cause cancer, and if so, what is the minimum dosage or exposure level that is dangerous?

If the panel concludes that glyphosate is a carcinogen, Bayer will not be able to argue otherwise in future cases — and if the experts reach the opposite conclusion, the class action’s lawyers will be similarly bound.

Pressure on Bayer for a settlement has been building over the past year after thousands of lawsuits piled up and investors grew more vocal about their discontent with the company’s legal approach.

Just weeks after the deal to purchase Monsanto was completed in 2018, a jury in a California state court awarded $289 million to Dewayne Johnson, a school groundskeeper, after concluding that glyphosate caused his cancer. Monsanto, jurors said, had failed to warn consumers of the risk.

In March 2019, a second trial, this time in federal court in California, produced a similar outcome for Edwin Hardeman, a homeowner who used Roundup on his property, and an $80 million verdict.

Two months later, a third jury delivered a staggering award of more than $2 billion to a couple, Alva and Alberta Pilliod, who argued that decades of using Roundup caused their non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“Plaintiffs have gone to the plate three times and hit it out of the park,” Ms. Engstrom at Stanford said. “When you see they’re batting a thousand, and thousands more cases are waiting in the wings, that spells a very bleak picture for Monsanto.”

All three monetary awards were later reduced by judges and Bayer appealed the verdicts, but the losses rattled investors and the stock price tumbled sharply. Those cases are unaffected by Wednesday’s settlement.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 June 2020 at 12:56 pm

The authoritarian iron fist crashes down: Two Brooklyn lawyers accused of throwing a Molotov cocktail

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Murtaza Hussein recounts in ProPublica a case that would not be out of place in any country run by a dictator:

THE KILLING OF George Floyd by Minneapolis police in late May ignited protests in cities and towns across the United States. These largely peaceful demonstrations have been punctuated by acts of violence, frequently committed by the police themselves. But other incidents of both violence and property destruction have also been reported. Among them was the case of two young Brooklyn lawyers accused of burning the dashboard of a New York Police Department cruiser — a case that has become a flashpoint in the Trump administration’s legal and public relations response to the protests.

Urooj Rahman, 31, and Colinford Mattis, 32, are accused by the government of tossing a Molotov cocktail through the broken window of an empty police cruiser in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. The alleged incident, said to have been caught on video, took place during the early hours of May 30, amid the wave of protests.

The government has not suggested that Rahman and Mattis harmed anyone or intended to do so. According to reports, the empty police cruiser had already been vandalized and damaged amid rioting in Brooklyn that night. The device, which failed to ignite properly, burned part of the driver’s console in the abandoned vehicle.

Yet the potential punishments they now face for tossing the incendiary are staggering. Following a raft of new charges announced by federal prosecutors last week, the two lawyers — neither of whom have previous criminal records — now face a mandatory minimum of nearly half a century in prison if convicted of the charges. The maximum penalty in the case is life imprisonment.

“If you consider what these individuals are accused of doing – throwing a Molotov cocktail into an already abandoned police vehicle and charring its dashboard — the potential punishments are clearly wildly disproportionate,” said Lara Bazelon, a professor and director of the Criminal Juvenile Justice and Racial Justice Clinical Programs at the University of San Francisco School of Law. “They are facing a mandatory minimum of 45 years in prison if convicted. A judge sentencing them would have no choice but to give them that amount of time.”

Rahman and Mattis’s cases have drawn attention in part due to the story’s sensational nature: two well-educated young lawyers who allegedly engaged in an act of symbolic revolution against a marker of police authority. But the case now seems to be transforming into something darker: a tool for the Trump administration to send a message to its political opponents. The government recently took the extraordinary step of appealing the accused’s bail conditions and sending them back into pretrial custody, a decision more common for prosecutions of violent organized crime and terrorism. The move prompted 56 former federal prosecutors to file an amicus brief in protest.

With the administration ominously vowing to “dominate the streets,” even relatively innocuous acts of rebellion like property damage now stand to be punished with the most draconian legal tools available to the federal government.

Thousands of people across the country have been detained amid the protests. But very few of these cases have come to public prominence the way that Rahman and Mattis’s have. In some respects, their backgrounds may seem atypical of many of those detained in recent weeks. Mattis is the son of a Jamaican immigrant who grew up in the impoverished Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York and went on to practice corporate law in Manhattan after graduating from Princeton and New York University. Rahman, the daughter of working-class Pakistani immigrants in Brooklyn, is a public interest lawyer in the Bronx. (A disclosure: I encountered Rahman at past social gatherings in New York City, though we have never spoken.)

A steady stream of provocative leaks to local tabloid news outlets following the arrests has helped make the pair widely known. An edited excerpt from a four-minute video interview Rahman gave to an independent news outlet on the night of the alleged incident was published by the New York Daily News, in which Rahman seemed to make threats of harm against police officers. The unedited version of the interview, which appeared on the YouTube page of the news site LoudLeaks, seemed to adjust the meaning of what she had said: Rather than harming officers, Rahman appeared to be referring to property damage against police department equipment as an inevitable consequence of unpunished police abuses. . .

Continue reading. There’s more, and this — together with the protection offered to Michael Flynn and the pardoning of the Navy SEAL convicted of war crimes — show the direction of the US government today.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 June 2020 at 12:15 pm

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