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“The Cursed Platoon”

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One of the many horrific acts of Donald Trump was to pardon a convicted war criminal. The way the US no longer heeds the rule of law is another sign of decline. Greg Jaffe has a feature report in the Washington Post:

Only a few hours had passed since President Trump pardoned 1st Lt. Clint Lorance and the men of 1st Platoon were still trying to make sense of how it was even possible.

How could a man they blamed for ruining their lives, an officer the Army convicted of second-degree murder and other charges, be forgiven so easily? How could their president allow him to just walk free?

“I feel like I’m in a nightmare,” Lucas Gray, a former specialist from the unit, texted his old squad leader, who was out of the Army and living in Fayetteville, N.C.

“I haven’t been handling it well either,” replied Mike McGuinness on Nov. 15, the day Lorance was pardoned.

“There’s literally no point in anything we did or said,” Gray continued. “Now he gets to be the hero . . .”

“And we’re left to deal with it,” McGuinness concluded.

Lorance had been in command of 1st Platoon for only three days in Afghanistan but in that short span of time had averaged a war crime a day, a military jury found. On his last day before he was dismissed, he ordered his troops to open fire on three Afghan men standing by a motorcycle on the side of the road who he said posed a threat. His actions led to a 19-year prison sentence.

He had served six years when Trump, spurred to action by relentless Fox News coverage and Lorance’s insistence that he had made a split-second decision to protect his men, set him free.

The president’s opponents described the pardon as another instance of Trump subverting the rule of law to reward allies and reap political benefits. Military officials worried that the decision to overturn a case that had already been adjudicated in the military courts sent a signal that war crimes were not worthy of severe punishment.

For the men of 1st platoon, part of the 82nd Airborne Division, the costs of the war and the fallout from the case have been profound and sometimes deadly.

Traumatized by battle, they have also been brutalized by the politicization of their service and made to feel as if the truth of what they lived in Afghanistan — already a violent and harrowing tour before Lorance assumed command — had been so demeaned that it no longer existed.

Since returning home in 2013, five of the platoon’s three dozen soldiers have died. At least four others have been hospitalized following suicide attempts or struggles with drugs or alcohol.

The last fatality came a few weeks before Lorance was pardoned when James O. Twist, 27, a Michigan state trooper and father of three, died of suicide. As the White House was preparing the official order for Trump’s signature, the men of 1st Platoon gathered in Grand Rapids, Mich., for the funeral, where they remembered Twist as a good soldier who had bravely rushed through smoke and fire to pull a friend from a bomb crater and place a tourniquet on his right leg where it had been sheared off by the blast.

They thought of the calls and texts from him that they didn’t answer because they were too busy with their own lives — and Twist, who had a caring wife, a good job and a nice house — seemed like he was doing far better than most. They didn’t know that behind closed doors he was at times verbally abusive, ashamed of his inner torment and, like so many of them, unable to articulate his pain.

By November 2019, Twist, a man the soldiers of 1st Platoon loved, was gone and Lorance was free from prison and headed for New York City, a new life and a star turn on Fox News.

This story is based on a transcript of Lorance’s 2013 court-martial at Fort Bragg, N.C., and on-the-record interviews with 15 members of 1st Platoon, as well as family members of the soldiers, including Twist’s father and wife. The soldiers also shared texts and emails they exchanged over the past several years. Twist’s family provided his journal entries from his time in the Army. Lorance declined to be interviewed.

In New York, Sean Hannity, Lorance’s biggest champion and the man most responsible for persuading Trump to pardon him, asked Lorance about the shooting and soldiers under his command.

Lorance had traded in his Army uniform for a blazer and red tie. He leaned in to the microphone. “I don’t know any of these guys. None of them know me,” Lorance said of his former troops. “To be honest with you, I can’t even remember most of their names.”

The 1st Platoon soldiers came to the Army and the war from all over the country: Maryland, California, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Indiana and Texas to name just a few. They joined for all the usual reasons: “To keep my parents off my a–,” said one soldier.

“I just needed a change,” said another.

A few had tried college but quit because they were bored or failing their classes. “I didn’t know how to handle it,” Gray said of college. “I was really immature.”

Others joined right out of high school propelled by romantic notions, inherited from veteran fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers, of service and duty. Twist’s father served in Vietnam as a clerk in an air-conditioned office before coming back to Michigan and opening a garage. In his spare time Twist Sr. was a military history buff, a passion that rubbed off on his son, who visited World War II battle sites in Europe with his dad. Twist was just 16 when he started badgering his parents to sign his enlistment papers and barely 18 when he left for basic training. His mother had died of cancer only a few months earlier.

“I got pictures of him the day we dropped him off, and he didn’t even wave goodbye,” his father recalled. “He was in pig heaven.”

Several of the 1st Platoon soldiers enlisted in search of a steady paycheck and the promise of health insurance and a middle-class life. “I needed to get out of northeast Ohio,” McGuinness said. “There wasn’t anything there.”

In 1999, he was set to pay his first union dues and go to work alongside his steelworker grandfather when the plant closed. So he became a paratrooper instead, eventually deploying three times to Afghanistan.

McGuinness didn’t look much like a paratrooper with his thick, squat body. But he liked being a soldier, jumping out of planes, firing weapons and drinking with his Army buddies. After a while the war didn’t make much sense, but he took pride in knowing that his soldiers trusted him and that he was good at his job.

Nine months before 1st Platoon landed in rural southern Afghanistan, a team of Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden.

Samuel Walley, the badly wounded soldier Twist pulled from the blast crater, wondered if they might be spared combat. “Wasn’t that the goal to kill bin Laden?” he recalled thinking. “Isn’t that checkmate?”

Around the same time, Twist was trying to make sense of what was to come. “I feel like the Army was a good decision, but also in my mind is a lot of dark thoughts,” he wrote in a spiral notebook. “I could die. I could come back with PTSD. I could be massively injured.”

“Maybe,” he hoped, “it will start winding down soon.”

But the decade-long war continued, driven by new, largely unattainable goals. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more and many photos.

I wonder when President Trump will take notice of the fact that Russia has placed (and has paid) a bounty for the killing of US soldiers in Afghanistan. Trump doesn’t seem to care.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 July 2020 at 9:54 am

Heather Cox Richardson on June 30, 2020

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Richardson writes:

Today’s big story was the increasing spread of the coronavirus across America. Yesterday, Anne Schuchat, director of the Centers for Disease Control (the CDC) said in an interview that the virus is spreading too fast and too far for the United States to bring it under control.

Today, when Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testified to a Senate committee on the coronavirus and the reopening of schools, he said he was “very concerned.” “We’re going in the wrong direction if you look at the curves of the new cases,” he said, “so we really have got to do something about that and we need to do it quickly.”

The country is now seeing more than 40,000 new infections a day while the European Union, which has more people, is seeing fewer than 6,000. About half the new cases are coming from California, Texas, Florida, and Arizona. Florida’s cases increased by 277 percent in the past two weeks; Texas’s by 184 percent, and Arizona’s by 145 percent. As our national confirmed deaths are approaching 130,000 people, Arizona recently released a new triage scoring system to help healthcare providers decide how to allocate resources if they must make choices about which patients to treat.

Nonetheless, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) did not want to hear Fauci’s evaluation of the crisis. “It’s important to realize that if society meekly submits to an expert and that expert is wrong, a great deal of harm may occur,” he lectured Fauci, who turned away Paul’s jabs with good humor. Paul told Dr. Fauci, “We need more optimism.”

I expected serious pushback today from the White House about the Russia bounty scandal, but their reaction was weirdly subdued. White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany first suggested that the president hadn’t been “briefed” on the story, apparently using the word “briefed” to suggest it only means an oral report, rather than a written one. Multiple sources have confirmed that the information was indeed, in the President’s Daily Brief– the PDB– the written document of security issues he receives every morning.

Sources today also confirmed that it was a large money transfer from a bank controlled by Russia’s military intelligence agency to an account associated with the Taliban that alerted intelligence agencies that something was up, and that Trump was briefed on the information. This afternoon, in a press briefing, McEnany changed course, saying that “The president does read and he also consumes intelligence verbally. This president, I’ll tell you, is the most informed person on Planet Earth when it comes to the threats that we face.”

The White House tonight assured us that Trump has now been briefed on the bounty scandal, but while this story has consumed headlines since Friday—four full days ago—he has done and said nothing to condemn Russia’s actions. In a New York Times op-ed today, President Barack Obama’s National Security Adviser Susan Rice points out that instead, Trump has dismissed the evidence as “possibly another fabricated Russia hoax, maybe by the Fake News” that is “wanting to make Republicans look bad!!!” Rice notes that if, indeed, Trump’s senior advisors thought there was no reason to inform Trump of the Russia bounty story, they “are not worthy of service.”

As a former National Security Adviser, she outlined what she would have done in their place after immediately giving the president the information. “If later the president decided, as Mr. Trump did, that he wanted to talk with President Vladimir Putin of Russia at least six times over the next several weeks and invite him to join the Group of 7 summit over the objections of our allies, I would have thrown a red flag: ‘Mr. President, I want to remind you that we believe the Russians are killing American soldiers. This is not the time to hand Putin an olive branch. It’s the time to punish him.’”

Rice called out the elephant in the room: Trump’s “perilous pattern” of deference to Russia.

He urged Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails in 2016, then praised Wikileaks for publishing them. He denied Russian interference in the 2016 election, undercut Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of that interference, and accepted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s word over that of our intelligence community when Putin denied Russian interference at a conference in Helsinki.

Trump “recklessly” pulled U.S. troops out of northeastern Syria, allowing Russian forces to take over our bases in the region. He has recently invited Putin to rejoin the international organization called the G7—from which Russia was excluded after it invaded Ukraine in 2014—and has suddenly announced that the U.S. will withdraw nearly a third of its troops from Germany, harming NATO and benefitting Russia. And now we know that Trump looked the other way as Russia paid for the slaughter of U.S. troops.

What does all this mean?

Rice doesn’t pull any punches: “At best, our commander in chief is utterly derelict in his duties, presiding over a dangerously dysfunctional national security process that is putting our country and those who wear its uniform at great risk. At worst, the White House is being run by liars and wimps catering to a tyrannical president who is actively advancing our arch adversary’s nefarious interests.”

The president’s weakness toward Russia was on the table today in another way, too, as Republicans stripped from a forthcoming defense bill a requirement that campaigns must notify federal authorities if they receive any offer of help from foreign countries. Accepting foreign money or help in any way is already illegal, as Federal Elections Commissioner Ellen Weintraub continually points out. The provision in this bill was a rebuke to the president, who told ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos a year ago he would be willing to take such help, and then set out to get it from Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky. It also put on notice Attorney General William Barr, who in his confirmation hearing hedged his answer to whether he believes a campaign should alert authorities to foreign interference, finally saying he only considers help from foreign governments to be problematic.

For his part, the president continued to . . .

Continue reading. She includes all relevant links following her column.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 July 2020 at 9:44 am

Has the IRS Hit Bottom?

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Paul Kiel reports in ProPublica:

It’s been almost 10 years since Republicans, riding the Tea Party wave, took control of the House of Representatives and started hacking at the IRS’ enforcement budget. Down it went, some years the cuts were steep, some not, as Republican lawmakers laughed off dire warnings about the consequences of letting tax cheats run free.

For the past couple years, ProPublica has been cataloging the descent of the IRS. We’ve watched as audits of the rich and the largest corporations have plummeted and become less aggressive, while audits of poor taxpayers have remained comparatively high.

This week, the IRS released its annual disclosure of enforcement statistics. Every year, it’s an opportunity to measure how effectively the U.S. government has sabotaged its own ability to enforce its tax laws. This year’s report, along with other data ProPublica has collected on the state of the IRS, is full of evidence that the IRS has hit a passel of historic lows.

Overall, 2019 brought the lowest audit rate in generations. ProPublica searched back to the 1950s and could not find a lower audit rate of individual returns. The story is similar for corporate audits. The largest corporations, those with assets over $20 billion, used to be audited every year. Last year, only about half were audited.

Fewer audits has meant less revenue, particularly from big businesses that pay the biggest tax bills. In 2010, the IRS collected around $28 billion from audits (adjusting for inflation). In 2019, it collected $11 billion. That’s a drop of 61%.

And then there are collections — in which the issue isn’t auditing taxpayers, but collecting what they’ve agreed to pay. One clear measure is how often the IRS simply lets tax debts evaporate because it doesn’t have the personnel to pursue them before the 10-year statute of limitations runs out. This used to happen only rarely, according to internal agency reports. But in 2019, the IRS let $6.7 billion in tax debt expire, an increase of over 1,000% from 2010. (This was actually an improvement from the peak of 2017.)

In this year’s release, the IRS has decided to muck up one measure of its performance that has drawn the most heat from lawmakers. In past years, members of Congress have pointed to our coverage and pressured IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig to increase audits of the rich. One of Rettig’s responses (other than that auditing the poor was simply much easier) has been to argue that the traditional way of measuring audit rates didn’t adequately capture all the IRS’ activities.

This week, the IRS announced that it had reformed the way it reports audit rates. The reason, it explained in a note online, is that the metrics the IRS traditionally used don’t apply anymore. In the past, the IRS was able to audit tax returns the year after they’re filed. But now, with an enforcement staff that has been slashed by 36% since 2010, it’s no longer able to do so. Things have, to say the least, slowed down.

So, while last year we were able to tell you just how far the audit rate for taxpayers with incomes above $10 million had fallen, this year, we can’t. The IRS no longer reports how many audits closed each year for that income bracket and several others. The IRS now says it takes at least three years to render any sort of verdict on just how few among the ultrarich were audited. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, including some clear charts that show how the US is failing.

Obviously, if the government is inadequately funded, it will do an inadequate job, and that’s the GOP goal: poor government, which results in more power to corporations and the wealthy.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 June 2020 at 3:59 pm

The US and its new “Can’t Do” spirit, expressed in a graph

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From this article:

Written by LeisureGuy

30 June 2020 at 12:53 pm

Read this, and think about the future of the US

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Heather Cox Richardson:

If you feel overwhelmed, there is good reason. We are currently in the midst of a number of storylines, any one of which would define any other administration. And the news comes so fast you can barely figure out who the players are before there’s another twist.

Friday’s news that Russia offered—and paid—bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing American soldiers, and that Trump chose to make friendly overtures to Russia President Vladimir Putin rather than retaliating, is huge. People trying to downplay it are saying that of course other countries want to kill American soldiers, and yes, that seems rather a given. But in this case, the president was informed of a direct plot on the part of a country not officially involved in a hostile situation to pay militants to kill our soldiers, and rather than retaliate for that engagement, the president has extended friendly overtures to that country. This behavior is both unprecedented and unfathomable.

After the story broke, the White House stayed quiet for almost 24 hours, then White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said that the president and Vice President Mike Pence had not been briefed on the issue. First thing Sunday morning, Trump tweeted: “Nobody briefed or told me, [Vice President] Pence, or Chief of Staff [Mark Meadows] about the so-called attacks on our troops in Afghanistan by Russians, as reported through an ‘anonymous source’ by the Fake News [New York Times]….”

But news broke yesterday that US intelligence officers had, in fact, notified their superiors back in January about the Russian plot, which they believed resulted in at least one U.S. death. Two intelligence officials told reporters that the information had been delivered to the president and that last week, American officials shared the information with the British government. Today, it was confirmed that the president had gotten a written briefing on the issue in February.

Today, Trump and White House officials tried to argue that the intelligence was not credible, and the newly confirmed Director of National Intelligence, John Ratcliffe, warned that any leaks about the issue are a crime.

But in response to congressional outcry, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, DNI Ratcliffe, and National Security Advisor Robert C. O’Brien briefed seven House Republicans from the Armed Service and Foreign Affairs committee: Liz Cheney (R-WY), “Mac” Thornberry (R-TX), Michael McCaul (R-TX), Jim Banks (R-IN), Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), and Elise Stefanik (R-NY). Also present was Andy Biggs (R-AZ), who is chair of the far-right Freedom Caucus.

A few Democrats will be briefed tomorrow, and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) has demanded a briefing for the whole House. This procedure is irregular: there is a process for informing Congress of military threats that involves leaders of both parties equally, not by party in different groups.

More news broke at 11:30 tonight, when the Associated Press published a story saying that “top officials in the White House were aware in early 2019 of classified intelligence indicating Russia was secretly offering bounties to the Taliban for the deaths of Americans, a full year earlier than has been previously reported, according to U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the intelligence.”

That story alone should define a presidency, but the upcoming election is also huge. Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that Trump’s advisors are worried about his falling poll numbers and have urged him to try to appeal to a wider group of voters than the base to which he continues to cater.

But the story appeared shortly after the president retweeted a video of a man in the Florida retirement community The Villages shouting “white power” at protesters. Trump wrote: “Thank you to the great people of The Villages. The Radical Left Do Nothing Democrats will Fall in the Fall. Corrupt Joe is shot. See you soon!!!”

White House aides immediately recognized they had a problem, but it took them three hours to delete the tweet, and even then, no one in the White House denounced it. White House Deputy Press Secretary Judd Deere simply said that the president did not hear the “white power” slogan on the video. Today, McEnany said that Trump had retweeted the video “to stand with his supporters, who are oftentimes demonized.”

As Trump focuses on his base, he is losing important support.

At the Supreme Court today, Chief Justice Roberts joined the majority to strike down a Louisiana law that put restrictions on abortion providers disproportionate to those put on other procedures with similar risks. The Supreme Court decided a Texas case much like this one four years ago, and while Roberts wrote that he thought the previous case was wrongly decided, he deferred to that legal precedent, sending a strong signal that he wants his court to defend the rule of law.

Republican leaders are also changing their tune on the pandemic, as we now have more than 2.5 million confirmed cases, and southern and western states have severe new spikes. Many have refused to wear masks as they tried to downplay the virus and urge people to jump start the economy. But today, Pence urged Americans to wear masks and keep distance from each other, and on the Senate floor, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said “We must have no stigma — none — about wearing masks when we leave our homes and come near other people. Wearing simple face coverings is not about protecting ourselves. It is about protecting everyone we encounter.”

Finally, Carl Bernstein tonight published a deeply researched piece in CNN about Trump’s phone calls with world leaders. Trump is unprepared, boastful, and deferential to Putin and Turkey’s autocratic ruler Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with whom he talks frequently. When he picks up the phone, he is unable to distinguish between his own interests in revenge and reelection and the interests of the nation. According to Bernstein, U.S. withdrawal from northeastern Syria and abandonment of our Kurdish allies to a Turkish invasion last fall was at Erdogan’s urging.

Trump caves to autocrats but bullies allies, including Germany’s Angela Merkel and former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Theresa May. He also denigrates former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush to foreign leaders.

According to the piece, Trump’s senior officials, “including his former secretaries of state and defense, two national security advisers and his longest-serving chief of staff,” have concluded “that the President himself” is “a danger to the national security of the United States.”

Aside from the content in this piece, this level of leaking suggests that Trump has lost his grip on the White House. Bernstein’s sources told him—and through him, Congress—that almost all of Trump’s phone chats with foreign leaders were caught on dictation programs, supplemented by extensive note taking.

They suggested that a reexamination of Russia expert Fiona Hill’s testimony might provide a road map to the calls, and that if revealed, the contents of the calls would “be devastating to the President’s standing” with members of both parties as well as with the public. Recognizing that Trump would try to stop investigations with claims of executive privilege, some former officials suggested they would be willing to testify to what they had heard.

Tomorrow will likely be wild….

——

Notes: . . .

Continue reading. Click for links to substantiation.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 June 2020 at 11:01 pm

Donald Trump, President of the United States, provides words to Sarah Cooper

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Some you’ve seen, some are new, all are Donald Trump.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 June 2020 at 6:40 pm

The 3 Weeks That Changed Everything; or, Botched Opportunities

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James Fallows writes in the Atlantic:

Coping with a pandemic is one of the most complex challenges a society can face. To minimize death and damage, leaders and citizens must orchestrate a huge array of different resources and tools. Scientists must explore the most advanced frontiers of research while citizens attend to the least glamorous tasks of personal hygiene. Physical supplies matter—test kits, protective gear—but so do intangibles, such as “flattening the curve” and public trust in official statements. The response must be global, because the virus can spread anywhere, but an effective response also depends heavily on national policies, plus implementation at the state and community level. Businesses must work with governments, and epidemiologists with economists and educators. Saving lives demands minute-by-minute attention from health-care workers and emergency crews, but it also depends on advance preparation for threats that might not reveal themselves for many years. I have heard military and intelligence officials describe some threats as requiring a “whole of nation” response, rather than being manageable with any one element of “hard” or “soft” power or even a “whole of government” approach. Saving lives during a pandemic is a challenge of this nature and magnitude.

It is a challenge that the United States did not meet. During the past two months, I have had lengthy conversations with some 30 scientists, health experts, and past and current government officials—all of them people with firsthand knowledge of what our response to the coronavirus pandemic should have been, could have been, and actually was. The government officials had served or are still serving in the uniformed military, on the White House staff, or in other executive departments, and in various intelligence agencies. Some spoke on condition of anonymity, given their official roles. As I continued these conversations, the people I talked with had noticeably different moods. First, in March and April, they were astonished and puzzled about what had happened. Eventually, in May and June, they were enraged. “The president kept a cruise ship from landing in California, because he didn’t want ‘his numbers’ to go up,” a former senior government official told me. He was referring to Donald Trump’s comment, in early March, that he didn’t want infected passengers on the cruise ship Grand Princess to come ashore, because “I like the numbers being where they are.” Trump didn’t try to write this comment off as a “joke,” his go-to defense when his remarks cause outrage, including his June 20 comment in Tulsa that he’d told medical officials to “slow the testing down, please” in order to keep the reported-case level low. But the evidence shows that he has been deadly earnest about denying the threat of COVID-19, and delaying action against it.

“Look at what the numbers are now,” this same official said, in late April, at a moment when the U.S. death toll had just climbed above 60,000, exceeding the number of Americans killed in the Vietnam War. By late June, the total would surpass 120,000—more than all American military deaths during World War I. “If he had just been paying attention, he would have asked, ‘What do I do first?’ We wouldn’t have passed the threshold of casualties in previous wars. It is a catastrophic failure.”

As an amateur pilot, I can’t help associating the words catastrophic failure with an accident report. The fact is, confronting a pandemic has surprising parallels with the careful coordination and organization that has saved large numbers of lives in air travel. Aviation is safe in large part because it learns from its disasters. Investigators from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board go immediately to accident sites to begin assessing evidence. After months or even years of research, their detailed reports try to lay out the “accident chain” and explain what went wrong. In deciding whether to fly if I’m tired or if the weather is marginal, I rely on a tie-breaking question: How would this look in an NTSB report?

Controlling the risks of flight may not be as complex as fighting a pandemic, but it’s in the ballpark. Aviation is fundamentally a very dangerous activity. People are moving at high altitudes, at high speed, and in high volume, with a guarantee of mass casualties if things go wrong. Managing the aviation system involves hardware—airframes, engines, flight control systems—and “software,” in the form of training, routing, and coordinated protocols. It requires recognition of hazards that are certain—bad weather, inevitable mechanical breakdowns—and those that cannot be specifically foreseen, from terrorist episodes to obscure but consequential computer bugs. It involves businesses and also governments; it is nation-specific and also worldwide; it demands second-by-second attention and also awareness of trends that will take years to develop.

The modern aviation system works. From the dawn of commercial aviation through the 1990s, 1,000 to 2,000 people would typically die each year in airline crashes. Today, the worldwide total is usually about one-10th that level. Last year, before the pandemic began, more than 25,000 commercial-airline flights took off each day from airports in the United States. Every one of them landed safely.

In these two fundamentally similar undertakings—managing the skies, containing disease outbreaks—the United States has set a global example of success in one and of failure in the other. It has among the fewest aviation-related fatalities in the world, despite having the largest number of flights. But with respect to the coronavirus pandemic, it has suffered by far the largest number of fatalities, about one-quarter of the global total, despite having less than one-20th of the world’s population.

Consider a thought experiment: What if the NTSB were brought in to look at the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic? What would its investigation conclude? I’ll jump to the answer before laying out the background: This was a journey straight into a mountainside, with countless missed opportunities to turn away. A system was in place to save lives and contain disaster. The people in charge of the system could not be bothered to avoid the doomed course.

The organization below differs from that of a standard NTSB report, but it covers the key points. Timelines of aviation disasters typically start long before the passengers or even the flight crew knew anything was wrong, with problems in the design of the airplane, the procedures of the maintenance crew, the route, or the conditions into which the captain decided to fly. In the worst cases, those decisions doomed the flight even before it took off. My focus here is similarly on conditions and decisions that may have doomed the country even before the first COVID-19 death had been recorded on U.S. soil.

What happened once the disease began spreading in this country was a federal disaster in its own right: Katrina on a national scale, Chernobyl minus the radiation. It involved the failure to test; the failure to trace; the shortage of equipment; the dismissal of masks; the silencing or sidelining of professional scientists; the stream of conflicting, misleading, callous, and recklessly ignorant statements by those who did speak on the national government’s behalf. As late as February 26, Donald Trump notoriously said of the infection rate, “You have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down close to zero.” What happened after that—when those 15 cases became 15,000, and then more than 2 million, en route to a total no one can foretell—will be a central part of the history of our times.

But what happened in the two months before Trump’s statement, when the United States still had a chance of containing the disease where it started or at least buffering its effects, is if anything worse.

1. The Flight Plan

The first thing an airplane crew needs to know is what it will be flying through. Thunderstorms? Turbulence? Dangerous or restricted airspace? The path of another airplane? And because takeoffs are optional but landings are mandatory, what can it expect at the end of the flight? Wind shear? An icy runway? The biggest single reason flying is so much safer now than it was even a quarter century ago is that flight crews, air traffic controllers, and the airline “dispatchers” who coordinate with pilots have so many precise tools with which to anticipate conditions and hazards, hours or days in advance.

And for the pandemic? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 June 2020 at 6:13 pm

Sharp disconnect between President Trump’s words and actions

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Heather Cox Richardson points out some things that Trump supporters must ignore or edit out of their consciousness:

The Trump administration did not respond until almost 5:00 this evening to last night’s astonishing news that Russian operatives had offered bounties on US soldiers during the Afghanistan peace talks, and that the administration had been briefed on this development back in March and had chosen not to respond. The story was broken last night by the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and confirmed today by the Washington Post.

Trump himself did not engage the story at all, although he had plenty to say today on Twitter. Late in the afternoon, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany finally said in a statement that Trump and Vice President Pence had not been briefed on the “alleged Russian bounty intelligence.” Trump’s acting Director of National Intelligence at the time, Richard Grenell, who had no expertise in intelligence before taking the post, today denied knowing anything about the story.

Is it possible that intelligence officials knew that Russia was paying militants to target US and allied troops and they chose not to tell the president, vice president, or acting Director of National Intelligence? According to Ned Price, a national security expert who worked at the CIA for eleven years and who left rather than work for Trump, the answer is no. “That’s virtually inconceivable,” he wrote on Twitter. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham seemed to agree. “Imperative Congress get to the bottom of recent media reports that Russian GRU units have offered to pay the Taliban to kill American soldiers with the goal of pushing America out of the region,” he tweeted.

That was not the only story the administration denied today. Trump also pushed back on the story that the Department of Justice is asking the Supreme Court to kill the Affordable Care Act. “Now that the very expensive, unpopular and unfair Individual Mandate provision has been terminated by us,” he tweeted, “many States & the U.S. are asking the Supreme Court that Obamacare itself be terminate so that it can be replaced with a FAR BETTER AND MUCH LESS EXPENSIVE ALTERNATIVE…. Obamacare is a joke! Deductible is far too high and the overall cost is ridiculous. My Administration has gone out of its way to manage OC much better than previous, but it is still no good. I will ALWAYS PROTECT PEOPLE WITH PRE-EXISTING CONDITIONS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS.”

But the administration is in court right now trying to destroy the Affordable Care Act, along with its protection for people with pre-existing conditions. And while Trump ran for president in 2016 on the idea that he would replace the Affordable Care Act with something better, the Republican Party has never offered a replacement bill.

There was a lesser story, too, where what the administration said did not square with what actually happened. Yesterday, Trump tweeted “I was going to go to Bedminster, New Jersey, this weekend, but wanted to stay in Washington, D.C to make sure LAW & ORDER is enforced. The arsonists, anarchists, looters and agitators have been largely stopped….”

Today, Trump spent the day at his golf course in Sterling, Virginia.

And then there was a huge story where reality crashed into ideology. Today, the U.S. set another record for coronavirus cases, with 44,782 new infections. This is the fifth daily record in a row. Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Nevada all set new daily highs. Trump has consistently downplayed the severity of the pandemic, urging governors to reopen their states and restart their economies. Governors in Florida and Texas, who had been aggressive about reopening their states, have backtracked to slow the spread of the virus. “If I could go back and redo anything,” Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) said, “it probably would have been to slow down the opening of bars….”

Meanwhile, New York, which had been the epicenter of the virus, has dropped its new infections from almost 10,000 a day to just 673 cases statewide, and is about to enter a new phase of its reopening plan.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told CNN’s Chris Cillizza that Democrats like him had a fact-based theory about how to beat coronavirus infections: keep the state closed until metrics showed the virus was receding. Republicans, in contrast, thought: “We can reopen quickly and we can handle the virus because it will go away, or we will have a vaccine.”

Cuomo pointed out that the coronavirus highlighted the difference between reality and a narrative based in ideology. “A virus has a rate of increase and a number of deaths either goes up or goes down,” he said. “The number of people going to hospitals goes up or goes down. It’s not subject to debate because the hospital bed is either empty or it’s full, we either bury people or we don’t.”

“We tested both theories,” Cuomo told Cillizza. “We have the evidence. It’s numbers. It’s irrefutable. Why don’t we pause and recognize the undeniable reality of the situation?” “There are no Democratic facts and Republican facts,” he said. “There are just facts.”

—-

Notes: . . .

Continue reading. The notes are links to supporting documentation.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 June 2020 at 7:43 am

Russia Secretly Offered Afghan Militants Bounties to Kill U.S. Troops, Intelligence Says

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And I just started (re)reading Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon. Wonder what Trump thinks of his good buddy Putin now? Charlie SavageEric Schmitt, and report in the NY Times:

American intelligence officials have concluded that a Russian military intelligence unit secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing coalition forces in Afghanistan — including targeting American troops — amid the peace talks to end the long-running war there, according to officials briefed on the matter.

The United States concluded months ago that the Russian unit, which has been linked to assassination attempts and other covert operations in Europe intended to destabilize the West or take revenge on turncoats, had covertly offered rewards for successful attacks last year.

Islamist militants, or armed criminal elements closely associated with them, are believed to have collected some bounty money, the officials said. Twenty Americans were killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2019, but it was not clear which killings were under suspicion.

The intelligence finding was briefed to President Trump, and the White House’s National Security Council discussed the problem at an interagency meeting in late March, the officials said. Officials developed a menu of potential options — starting with making a diplomatic complaint to Moscow and a demand that it stop, along with an escalating series of sanctions and other possible responses, but the White House has yet to authorize any step, the officials said.

An operation to incentivize the killing of American and other NATO troops would be a significant and provocative escalation of what American and Afghan officials have said is Russian support for the Taliban, and it would be the first time the Russian spy unit was known to have orchestrated attacks on Western troops.

Any involvement with the Taliban that resulted in the deaths of American troops would also be a huge escalation of Russia’s so-called hybrid war against the United States, a strategy of destabilizing adversaries through a combination of such tactics as cyberattacks, the spread of fake news and covert and deniable military operations.

The Kremlin had not been made aware of the accusations, said Dmitry Peskov, the press secretary for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. “If someone makes them, we’ll respond,” Mr. Peskov said. A Taliban spokesman did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Spokespeople at the National Security Council, the Pentagon, the State Department and the C.I.A. declined to comment.

The officials familiar with the intelligence did not explain the White House delay in deciding how to respond to the intelligence about Russia.

While some of his closest advisers, like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have counseled more hawkish policies toward Russia, Mr. Trump has adopted an accommodating stance toward Moscow.

At a summit in Helsinki in 2018, Mr. Trump strongly suggested that he believed Mr. Putin’s denial that the Kremlin interfered in the 2016 presidential election, despite broad agreement within the American intelligence establishment that it did. Mr. Trump criticized a bill imposing sanctions on Russia when he signed it into law after Congress passed it by veto-proof majorities. And he has repeatedly made statements that undermined the NATO alliance as a bulwark against Russian aggression in Europe.

The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the delicate intelligence and internal deliberations. They said the intelligence has been treated as a closely held secret, but the administration expanded briefings about it this week — including sharing information about it with the British government, whose forces are among those said to have been targeted. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 June 2020 at 1:09 pm

And the flood gates open: US Covid-19 deaths jump — UPDATE: False alarm.

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Apparently it doesn’t work to simply deny that Covid-19 is a problem. The denial does allow the US not to address the problem, particularly in states that still believe President Trump and his minions like Mike Pence, but that denial has a price:

Kevin Drum updated the chart to remove the jump. He notes:

UPDATE: I originally showed a sharp uptick in deaths, but it turns out this was because New Jersey reported a whole bunch of “probable” deaths all at once on June 25, which caused the spike. I’ve now corrected for that and the chart shows roughly the same plateau that we’ve had for the past few days.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 June 2020 at 9:57 am

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

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

What Fiona Hill Learned in the White House

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An interesting profile and summary of experience of Fiona Hill, by Adam Entous in the New Yorker:

The Brookings Institution is one of many think tanks in Washington, D.C., where scholars and bureaucrats sit in quiet offices and wait by the phone. They write op-eds and books, give talks and convene seminars, hoping that, when reputations falter or Administrations shift, they will be rescued from the life of opining and contemplation and return to the adrenaline rush and consequence of government. Nearly always, the yearning is to be inside. Strobe Talbott, who became the president of Brookings in 2002, served in Bill Clinton’s Administration as his leading Russia expert, and he was rumored to be on the shortlist for Hillary Clinton’s Secretary of State. Others, too, may have expected a call. But, after Donald Trump was elected, only one prominent Brookings stalwart was summoned, and her story became emblematic of all those in Washington who entered the Administration full of trepidation but hoping to be a “normalizing” influence on a distinctly abnormal President.

Fiona Hill, a leading expert on Russia and its modern leadership, had a reputation as a blunt speaker and an independent thinker and analyst. The daughter of a miner and a midwife, she grew up in Bishop Auckland, in northern England, and has a strong northern accent. She described herself to me as “politically engaged but antipartisan.” She has a distaste for the kind of ideological standoff that she observed in the eighties between Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the president of the National Union of Mineworkers, Arthur Scargill, which was, as she put it, “a clash of titans with regular people smashed in between.”

Hill, who was born in 1965, is a senior fellow at Brookings, and a denizen of the Eurasia Foundation, the Council on Foreign Relations, and Harvard University, where she got her doctorate in history. She was a national intelligence officer in the Administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. In 2013, she and Clifford Gaddy, an economic specialist at Brookings, published “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin,” which traces Vladimir Putin’s path from his hardscrabble upbringing in Leningrad to his years in the government. She was wary of Obama’s efforts to downplay Russia’s importance in the world—he called the country a “regional power”—convinced that doing so only provoked Putin to assert himself more forcefully. In an updated edition of the book, published in 2015, Hill and Gaddy described Putin as “arguably the most powerful individual in the world.” Hill’s friend Nina Khrushcheva, the granddaughter of the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, said that Putin was “secretly flattered” by the portrayal.

In June, 2016, it emerged that Russia’s military intelligence agency, the G.R.U., had penetrated the Democratic National Committee’s computer servers and begun spreading derogatory information about Hillary Clinton and the Democrats. Many of Hill’s colleagues were disturbed that Trump had praised Putin as a “strong leader” and took seriously the growing speculation that the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians to sway the election. Hill was skeptical of this theory, thinking it more likely that the campaign and Russia were working in parallel to discredit Clinton. She was less certain than her colleagues that Clinton would win the election, especially after the outcome of the Brexit referendum, that same month. Several of her family members had voted to leave the E.U., and in Bishop Auckland sixty-one per cent were in favor. She saw why Trump appealed to voters who felt that their concerns had long been ignored.

After Trump’s victory, the mood at Brookings was funereal. But, as Hill told K. T. McFarland, a former speechwriter in the Reagan Administration, on her FoxNews.com show, on November 15th, the President-elect’s overtures to Putin presented an opportunity: “Trump has certainly laid the ground for saying, ‘O.K., I’m going to give you a chance to explain yourself.’ ” After the interview, Hill joked that Trump might appoint McFarland to be his national-security adviser. Two days later, Trump named Michael Flynn to that post, and, the following week, chose McFarland to be his deputy.

In one of more than two dozen conversations that I had with Hill this spring, she told me that she had not been seeking a position in the new Administration, but that she was “open to advising whoever came along and offering my two cents’ worth.” McFarland called Hill on the afternoon of December 29, 2016, asking what she thought about the sanctions that the Obama Administration had just imposed on Russia in retaliation for Putin’s election interference. Hill urged McFarland to avoid thinking about them as a “political issue”; they were, she said, simply “the appropriate action.”

Earlier that month, Trump had rejected the C.I.A.’s assessment that Russia had sought to help his campaign. “They have no idea if it’s Russia or China or somebody,” he told Fox News. “It could be somebody sitting in bed someplace. I mean, they have no idea.” Hill respected the analysts who evaluated Russia’s activities, and she was alarmed by Trump’s denigration of their work. She was also troubled when, in January, 2017, she learned about a dossier, compiled by the former British spy Christopher Steele, that was circulating among journalists and experts in D.C. Hill had known Steele since 2006, when she was an intelligence officer and he worked for M.I.6, Britain’s foreign-intelligence service. Steele had been hired by Fusion G.P.S., a small American investigative firm that initially worked on behalf of a conservative client and later the Clinton campaign, to gather reports about Trump’s ties to Russia. One of Steele’s more salacious findings alleged that the Russians had a sex tape that would compromise Trump. The level of detail made Hill suspect that Steele’s sources had slipped him bits of misinformation to discredit the rest of his research. The dossier, she felt, would “pour gasoline on a raging fire.” BuzzFeed published the documents, and Trump denounced them as a fabrication by “sick people.”

Hill told McFarland about her relationship with Steele, and conveyed her doubts about the dossier. On January 25th, David Cattler, the deputy assistant to the President for regional affairs, called Hill to tell her that Flynn was offering her the position of senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council. Unsure whether to take the job, she sought Strobe Talbott’s advice. Talbott was a tough Trump critic, but he told her she should do it—she would be “one of the adults in the room.” Graham Allison, Hill’s mentor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, also approved. “You’ve spent your whole life on this, and if things go very badly with the U.S.-Russia relationship, it could be catastrophic for everybody,” he said. The next day, she accepted the job offer, telling Cattler, with whom she had worked on the National Intelligence Council, in the two-thousands, that she felt “more comfortable” knowing that he would be at the White House.

Two weeks later, Trump dismissed Flynn, after it was reported that, in January, he had lied to Mike Pence, the incoming Vice-President, about a phone call he’d had with the Russian Ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak. Obama Administration officials believed that the call had undermined their efforts to hold Russia accountable and to deter future election meddling, but McFarland assured Hill that nothing improper had occurred. (Transcripts of several calls between Flynn and Kislyak that were released in May made it clear that Hill’s advice to show a united front with Obama’s Administration had been ignored.)

In February, 2017, Hill attended a dinner hosted by Eliot Cohen, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University and an early leader of the conservative “Never Trump” movement. On January 29th, Cohen had published a piece in The Atlantic warning “friends still thinking of serving as political appointees in this administration” that, as he put it, “when you sell your soul to the Devil, he prefers to collect his purchase on the installment plan.” Working for a xenophobic and divisive government, he argued, gave that government legitimacy. At the dinner, he told Hill that she was putting her reputation in jeopardy by working for Trump. Hill had read Cohen’s article, and she told me that she considered it a “powerful warning.” Still, she said, “because of strange quirks of fate, I was the one they asked to step into the fray. What was I going to do? Walk away?”

There were early signs that it might have been wise to do so. On February 28th, Cattler called Hill to tell her that his job had been eliminated. Hill said he warned her, “ ‘Look, you could come in and do the job as you see fit, and succeed. You could come in and be miserable but still feel like you’re making a difference. But you could also come in and be fired. You could be fired capriciously.’ ”

Old acquaintances also pressured Hill to change her mind. On March 8th, before Hill was scheduled to meet with her staff for the first time, she had breakfast with  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more. Insider accounts are always interesting.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 June 2020 at 11:31 am

Another wrinkle in Barr’s effort to derail investigations

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Parm Martens and Russ Martens report in Wall Street on Parade:

Shortly after 9 p.m. last evening, the U.S. Attorney General, William Barr, stunned prosecutors in the Southern District of New York with the announcement that their boss, Geoffrey Berman, was stepping down as U.S. Attorney in that District and would be replaced with the sitting Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Jay Clayton, who lacks even a shred of criminal prosecution experience. What Clayton does have is a lot of experience representing Wall Street’s largest banks, like Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase, both of whom are currently under intense criminal investigations by the Justice Department. Clayton was a former partner at Wall Street’s go-to law firm, Sullivan & Cromwell, which is currently representing Goldman in the criminal case and representing JPMorgan in various matters.

The breaking news last night went downhill from there. Several hours after Barr’s announcement, Berman announced that he had not resigned from his job and had no intention of leaving his post until his replacement had been confirmed by the U.S. Senate – which could take months. There is also no assurance that Clayton would actually be confirmed, since some Republicans and Democrats believe that Clayton has been a lapdog for Wall Street in his current post.

Even more problematic, Clayton’s family has ties to an opaque company called WMB Holdings, described by David Dayen in The Nation magazine like this:

“This company and its affiliated partners (Delaware Trust Co and CSC) are conduits for creating shell corporations and other sketchy vehicles used in tax evasion and money laundering. Public Citizen found apparent links between these companies and Mossack Fonseca, the notorious Panamanian law firm at the center of the Panama Papers scandal.”

The timing of the attempted ouster of Berman is suspicious on multiple fronts. Goldman Sachs is under criminal investigation over a multi-billion-dollar money laundering and embezzlement scheme involving the Malaysian sovereign wealth fund known as 1MDB. Goldman Sachs has been fighting the Justice Department’s demand that it plead guilty in order to settle the case, according to media reports.

According to the Sullivan & Cromwell website,  . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 June 2020 at 11:55 am

A Friday-night dump for the history books

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Heather Cox Richardson writes:

Tonight saw a Friday night news dump that will go into the history books.

Trump tried to fire the US Attorney from the Southern District of New York, Geoffrey S. Berman, who has managed a series of cases against Trump and his allies, including Trump fixer Michael Cohen, Trump lawyer Rudolph Giuliani, and Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who were indicted for funneling Russian money to Republican candidates for office. Berman is reported to be investigating Trump’s finances, among many other things.

It happened like this: Attorney General William Barr issued a statement announcing that Berman would be stepping down and that Trump would nominate Jay Clayton to replace him. Clayton has never been a prosecutor. He is currently the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, but before he took that position he was a lawyer who, among other things, represented Deutsche Bank. Deutsche Bank is the only bank that would work with Trump after his bankruptcies. It might have given him loans he did not repay, and the Russian money-laundering that landed the bank in legal trouble might have helped Trump.

Legal analyst and Congressional staffer Daniel Goldman noted that this whole scenario was unusual. Normally, when a US Attorney leaves, that person’s deputy takes over. Bringing in a replacement from elsewhere meant that “Trump/Barr did not want anyone at SDNY running the office—likely because there was a serious disagreement.”

But then things got crazier. Berman issued his own statement, saying “I learned in a press release from the Attorney General tonight that I was ‘stepping down’ as United States Attorney. I have not resigned, and have no intention of resigning, my position to which I was appointed by the Judges of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. I will step down when a presidentially appointed nominee is confirmed by the Senate. Until then, our investigations will move forward without delay or interruption. I cherish every day that I work with the men and women of this Office to pursue justice without fear or favor—and intend to ensure that this Office’s important cases continue unimpeded.”

What’s Berman saying? Well, it might be that Trump’s preference for “acting,” rather than Senate-confirmed, officials has come back to bite him. Berman was not Senate-confirmed; he is an interim U.S. Attorney. By law, the Attorney General can appoint an interim U.S. Attorney for 120 days. At the end of that time, the court can appoint that person indefinitely.

Berman was one of those interim appointees, put in place by Trump’s first Attorney General, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions.

Berman’s appointment raised an outcry because he was handpicked by Trump. The U.S. Attorney for the SDNY oversees Manhattan and thus the president’s businesses and at least nine Trump properties. Trump went out of his way to take the unusual step of personally interviewing Berman, who donated $2,700 to the Trump campaign, served on the presidential transition team, and was a partner at the law firm where Trump’s lawyer Rudolph Giuliani is a member. Democrats vowed to block Berman’s nomination, but never got the chance because Sessions used the workaround so Berman would not come before the Senate.

Now, this means that because Berman was appointed by the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, not the president, he apparently cannot be removed except by the court, or, possibly, by the president… but not by Barr. Lawyers are fighting over who, exactly, can remove Berman, but that itself says that any challenge he files will land in the courts for months… likely until after the election.

And that’s another notable thing about Berman’s statement. He suggests he is being fired because the administration wants to delay or interrupt an investigation, and his language suggests that both he and the administration know exactly what that investigation is. There are a number of reasons the SDNY might be examining the finances of the president or his family, but former National Security Advisor John Bolton suggested another reason in his forthcoming book: he apparently claims Trump assured Turkey’s autocratic leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan he would fill the SDNY with his own loyalists, which would enable him to do Erdogan a political favor.

As Berman’s predecessor in the job, Preet Bharara tweeted, “Why does a president get rid of his own hand-picked US Attorney in SDNY on a Friday night, less than 5 months before the election?” President of the Center for American Progress Neera Tanden noted: “To attempt a Friday night massacre 5 months before an election means there’s a pretty big investigation they are trying to kill.”

It seems worth noting that the Supreme Court is about to hand down a decision on whether Deutsche Bank and Trump’s accountants have to hand Trump’s financial records over to Congress and to the Manhattan district attorney, which might well spark legal trouble for the president in New York.

Law professor Stephen Vladeck also asked us to keep in mind that Barr “out-and-out * lied * in a written statement—and in a context in which there could have been little question to him that Berman would publicly call him out for doing so… And he did it anyway.” “Something * really * stinks,” Vladeck concluded.

Something else stinks about this crisis, too, and that is the Tulsa rally the president originally scheduled for tonight. Widespread objection to holding a Trump rally on Juneteenth—the historic celebration of Black freedom– in Tulsa, where a race massacre destroyed the Black community of Greenwood in 1921, forced him to reschedule for tomorrow. But had the rally been held, with media focus on disturbances at it and on the spread of coronavirus there, it seems likely that Berman’s firing would not have gotten much attention.

Indeed, it has seemed all day as if Trump was deliberately stoking trouble in Tulsa. He began today by tweeting a threat: “Any protesters, anarchists, agitators, looters or lowlifes who are going to Oklahoma please understand, you will not be treated like you have been in New York, Seattle, or Minneapolis. It will be a much different scene!” (Americans have a constitutional right to protest.)

Then he made sure his supporters would be in the streets. In consultation with the Secret Service, the Tulsa police chief had asked Tulsa’s mayor to declare a curfew around the BOK Center where the rally will be held. He did so. But Trump pressured the mayor to rescind the curfew, which the mayor did. Trump tweeted “I just spoke to the highly respected Mayor of Tulsa, G.T. Bynum, who informed me there will be no curfew tonight or tomorrow for our many supporters attending the # MAGA Rally…. Enjoy yourselves – thank you to Mayor Bynum!”

This crisis feels big. Trump and Barr know an investigation is out there barreling toward the president, and they are willing to take extraordinary steps, steps that undermine our democracy and threaten our citizenry, to stop it.

—-

Notes:

https://www.politico.com/news/2020/06/19/trump-nominate-sec-chair-clayton-us-attorney-southern-district-330039

Goldman: . . .

Continue reading. At the link are footnotes with links to the news reports and other sources.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 June 2020 at 9:42 am

Trump administration paid millions for test tubes, got unusable mini soda bottles

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Incompetence wastes money.  J. David McSwane and Ryan Gabrielson report in ProPublica:

Since May, the Trump administration has paid a fledgling Texas company $7.3 million for test tubes needed in tracking the spread of the coronavirus nationwide. But, instead of the standard vials, Fillakit LLC has supplied plastic tubes made for bottling soda, which state health officials say are unusable.

The state officials say that these “preforms,” which are designed to be expanded with heat and pressure into 2-liter soda bottles, don’t fit the racks used in laboratory analysis of test samples. Even if the bottles were the right size, experts say, the company’s process likely contaminated the tubes and could yield false test results. Fillakit employees, some not wearing masks, gathered the miniature soda bottles with snow shovels and dumped them into plastic bins before squirting saline into them, all in the open air, according to former employees and ProPublica’s observation of the company’s operations.

“It wasn’t even clean, let alone sterile,” said Teresa Green, a retired science teacher who worked at Fillakit’s makeshift warehouse outside of Houston for two weeks before leaving out of frustration.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency signed its first deal with Fillakit on May 7, just six days after the company was formed by an ex-telemarketer repeatedly accused of fraudulent practices over the past two decades. Fillakit has supplied a total of more than 3 million tubes, which FEMA then approved and sent to all 50 states. If the company fulfills its contractual obligation to provide 4 million tubes, it will receive a total of $10.16 million.

Officials in New York, New Jersey, Texas and New Mexico confirmed they can’t use the Fillakit tubes. Three other states told ProPublica that they received Fillakit supplies and have not distributed them to testing sites. FEMA has asked health officials in several states to find an alternative use for the unfinished soda bottles.

“We are still trying to identify an alternative use,” said Janelle Fleming, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Health.

Fillakit owner Paul Wexler acknowledged that the tubes are normally used for soda bottles but otherwise declined to comment.

It’s my first day

The Fillakit deal shows the perils of the Trump administration’s frantic hiring of first-time federal contractors with little scrutiny during the pandemic. The federal government has awarded more than $2 billion to first-time contractors for work related to the coronavirus, a ProPublica analysis of purchasing data shows. Many of those companies, like Fillakit, had no experience with medical supplies.

The U.S. has lagged behind many European countries in its rate of testing people for the coronavirus, partly because of supply shortages or inadequacies. Epidemiologists say testing is vital to tracking the virus and slowing transmission. In at least one state, the shipment of unusable Fillakit tubes contributed to delays in rolling out widespread testing.

“They’re the most unusable tubes I’ve ever seen,” said a top public health scientist in that state, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his job. “They’re going to sit in a warehouse and no one can use them. We won’t be able to do our full plan.”

In a written response to questions, FEMA said it inspects testing products “to ensure packaging is intact to maintain sterility; that the packing slip matches the requested product ordered, and that the vials are not leaking.” It said that “product validation” that medical supplies are effective “is reinforced at the state laboratories.”

The agency did not answer questions about the size and lack of sterilization of Fillakit’s tubes or about why it sought an alternative use for them.

Fillakit is one of more than 300 new federal contractors providing supplies related to COVID-19. A ProPublica analysis last month found about 13% of total federal government spending on pandemic-related contracts went to first-time vendors. FEMA said last month that it only pays for products once they have been delivered, minimizing the risk of wasting taxpayer dollars.

“FEMA does not enter into contracts unless it has reason to believe they will be successfully executed,” it said.

How do preforms perform?

Preforms, the small tubes also known in the plastics industry as “baby soda bottles” or “blanks,” have a following among elementary school science teachers and amateur scientists, but they don’t meet rigorous laboratory standards. They’re much cheaper than glass vials and can be sealed off with a soda bottle cap. When inflated with high-pressure air, the soft plastic expands to the size of a 2-liter soda bottle.

The preforms arrive at Fillakit’s warehouse in a huge shipping container. The tubes are then shoveled into smaller bins. Workers add the saline solution and screw on caps. The tubes are then loosely piled in bags and sent to FEMA, which forwards them to the states. Typically, test tubes are individually packaged to guard against contamination.

Washington state, an epicenter of the first outbreak of the virus, got more than 76,000 Fillakit vials from FEMA. None can be used.

“They were packaged unusually,” said Frank Ameduri, a spokesman for the state Health Department. “Not in a way we’re used to seeing, and they were not labeled. Some of them have been sent to our lab for quality control. None of the vials will be used until we’ve identified what’s in them and that they are safe for use.”

About 140,000 Fillakit tubes are also shelved in Texas, where officials were slow to roll out testing. The number of confirmed cases in Texas has increased by more than one-third in the past two weeks, according to data gathered by The COVID Tracking Project.

“There were issues with the labeling, and they use saline rather than viral transport medium, so we have not used them for our testing efforts,” said Chris Van Deusen, a spokesman for the Texas health department.

The only solution

The US Food and Drug Administration has only validated one solution, known as viral transport medium, as reliable in preserving the coronavirus RNA from decay or destruction by substances in the container. However, because that medium is in short supply, the FDA has also granted an emergency authorization for other products it believes can keep the virus intact for up to three days.

Fillakit has been squirting one of the alternatives into its tubes, phosphate buffered saline, which the FDA says should be placed into “a sterile glass or plastic vial.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 June 2020 at 9:04 am

Facebook removes Trump ads with symbol once used by Nazis to designate political prisoners

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Trump and his supporters are showing their true colors and bedrock beliefs. Isaac Stanley Becker reports in the Washington Post:

In its online salvo against antifa and “far-left mobs,” President Trump’s reelection campaign displayed a marking the Nazis once used to designate political prisoners in concentration camps.

A red inverted triangle was first used in the 1930s to identify Communists, and was applied as well to Social Democrats, liberals, Freemasons and other members of opposition parties. The badge forced on Jewish political prisoners, by contrast, featured a yellow triangle overlaid by a red triangle.

In response to queries from The Washington Post, Facebook on Thursday afternoon deactivated ads that included the inverted red triangle.

The red symbol appeared in paid posts sponsored by Trump and Vice President Pence, as well as by the “Team Trump” campaign page. It was featured alongside text warning of “Dangerous MOBS of far-left groups” and asking users to sign a petition about antifa, a loose collection of anti-fascist activists whom the Trump administration has sought to link to recent violence, despite arrest records that show their involvement is trivial.

“We removed these posts and ads for violating our policy against organized hate,” said Andy Stone, a Facebook spokesman. “Our policy prohibits using a banned hate group’s symbol to identify political prisoners without the context that condemns or discusses the symbol.”

But the ads on the president’s page alone, which began running on Wednesday, gained as many as 950,000 impressions by Thursday morning. Identical ads on Pence’s page gained as many as 500,000 impressions. . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Facebook is increasingly a problem, an infectious site in a democracy.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 June 2020 at 11:14 am

The $500 billion black box

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Judd Legum describes one of the biggest heists ever. He begins:

The COVID-19 pandemic has been an acute threat to millions of small businesses. Congress created the Paycheck Protection Program as a lifeline. The program provided loans — equivalent to about two-and-a-half months of payroll — to businesses with 500 employees or less. As long as most of the money was spent on payroll, the loans are forgiven by the government. Thus far, the program has allocated over $500 billion in taxpayer dollars.

But who got the money? The Trump administration won’t say.

Initially, the Small Business Administration (SBA), which oversees the program, said it was focused on getting the money out as quickly as possible but would disclose the recipients once the loans were dispersed. The SBA “intend[s] to post individual loan data in accordance with the information presently on the SBA.gov website after the loan process has been completed,” an SBA spokesman told the Washington Post on April 16.

Now that most of the money has been distributed, however, the Trump administration has changed its tune. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said in a hearing earlier this month that the administration will not release the “names and amounts of specific PPP loans” because it is “proprietary information” and “confidential.”

The PPP, however, is modeled after a longstanding federal loan program, known as 7(a). For years, that program has facilitated loans to small businesses backed by SBA guarantees. The SBA routinely discloses the recipients of 7(a) loans. You can review them here.

While the PPP program has undoubtedly helped many workers, it is also subject to abuse. A small number of loans were disclosed because they were obtained by publicly traded companies that are required to report the loans to the Securities and Exchange Commission. As Popular Information reported, many of these loans went to companies that paid their CEOs in excess of $1 million or had other sources of capital. After these loans were subjected to public scrutiny, dozens of corporations returned the money.  . .

Read the whole thing. The brazenness is breathtaking.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 June 2020 at 9:23 pm

Trump administration won’t say who got $511 billion in taxpayer-backed coronavirus loans

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There’s a glaringly obvious reason for the refusal to disclose, and indeed the determination to keep secret the recipients of the half-billion in taxpayer money strikes me as a guarantee that the money was siphoned off by the wealthy and well-connected.

Aaron Gregg writes in the Washington Post:

Federal officials responsible for spending $660 billion in taxpayer-backed small-business assistance said Wednesday that they will not disclose amounts or recipients of subsidized loans, backtracking on an earlier commitment to release individual loan data.

The Small Business Administration has previously released detailed loan information dating to 1991 for the federal 7(a) program, a long-standing small-business loan program on which the larger Paycheck Protection Program is based.

The SBA initially intended to publish similar information for the new coronavirus-related loans. An SBA spokesman told The Washington Post in an April 16 email that the agency “intend[s] to post individual loan data in accordance with the information presently on the SBA.gov website after the loan process has been completed,” and it made a similar commitment in response to an April 17 open records request.

But the administration appeared to change course at a hearing Wednesday before the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and SBA Administrator Jovita Carranza declined to discuss specific borrowers.

“As it relates to the names and amounts of specific PPP loans, we believe that that’s proprietary information, and in many cases for sole proprietors and small businesses, it is confidential information,” Mnuchin said in the hearing. “The reason why we’re not disclosing the names and amounts, unlike in the 7(a) program, is because of that issue.”

The Post is among 11 news organizations suing the SBA for access to records on loan recipients, amounts of loans and other basic information the agency has previously released. In response to questions from The Post on Wednesday, a Treasury Department spokesman said that disclosing “loan-level data” would risk the confidential business information of loan recipients.

“The notion that the administration is hiding something is categorically false,” Brian Morgenstern, a Treasury Department spokesman, said in an email. “The secretary’s point is that loan level data with identifying information would risk disclosing proprietary data of millions of small businesses and the salaries of independent contractors. We are fully committed to transparency while protecting sensitive information,” Morgenstern wrote.

The Post’s Freedom of Information Act request does not seek information about salaries.

The apparent decision to withhold loan records is the latest of several actions by the Trump administration that could shield the federal coronavirus response from public scrutiny.

An unrelated provision in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (Cares) Act allows the Federal Reserve chairman, Jerome H. Powell, to request confidentiality for information related to trillions of dollars going to businesses under the auspices of the Federal Reserve. And the Trump administration has taken steps to undermine the independence of executive oversight bodies, declaring that the special inspector general overseeing Cares Act funding cannot submit reports to Congress without “presidential supervision.”

Who’s getting these hundreds of billions in government aid? For now, the public may be in the dark.

Throughout the Paycheck Protection Program rollout, the SBA has been repeatedly criticized by members of Congress and government watchdog groups for an alleged lack of transparency.

“The very first line of defense for the public to make sure the money is being awarded to the businesses that are supposed to be getting it is through transparency,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist with the advocacy group Public Citizen. “It’s a problem with PPP, but it also goes far beyond that. . . . The entire pandemic response has been defined by a lack of transparency.”

The Paycheck Protection Program is a cornerstone of the $2 trillion Cares Act economic stimulus package and the federal government’s broader response to the coronavirus pandemic. The program offers small-business owners low-interest loans that can later be forgiven, with the amount of forgiveness contingent on maintaining employment levels. The loans are processed by private banks and regulated by the Small Business Administration and the Treasury Department.

Despite early growing pains, the program scaled up quickly following . . .

Continue reading.

They feel comfortable in hiding that information (and doubtless plundering the Treasury) because they believe that the public is powerless. However, there’s an election coming in November, and the public might be moved to show its power. We’ll see. God knows the GOP has pulled out all the stops to keep people from being able to vote (cf. Georgia).

Written by LeisureGuy

14 June 2020 at 11:09 am

A Facebook account copied Trump’s words. Facebook censored the account for inciting violence.

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And yet Facebook will take no steps against powerful/wealthy people. Mark Zuckerberg is a despicable person — and does not embrace American values of equal treatment. David Gilbert reports in Vice:

UPDATE Thursday, June 11, 2020 6:56 p.m.: After the original story was published, the account holder confirmed that the post had been restored without warning. Facebook told VICE News the post had been deleted in error, but when asked how that error happened, Facebook failed to respond.

An account that copies word-for-word what the U.S. president posts on Facebook has been told to delete a controversial comment even though President Trump’s post was left untouched.

The SuspendThePres account was set up as an experiment to show how social media platforms treat high-profile public figures — specifically Trump — differently from ordinary users.

Last week a Twitter version of the account was temporarily suspended for posting the same message.

On Thursday it reported that Facebook had followed Twitter’s lead in forcing it to delete the controversial post, which includes the inflammatory phrase “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” which has racist origins.

The account was warned that a repeat would trigger an automatic 24-hour suspension.

The reason Facebook gave the account holder, who has remained anonymous, was that the post “goes against Community standards on violence and incitement.” . . .

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

Written by LeisureGuy

11 June 2020 at 8:56 pm

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