Month: December 2017

The age of betrayal is back

The age of betrayal is back

The Washington Post
By E.J. Dionne Jr.

Dec. 20, 2017, will live on as a day of disgrace and dishonor.

It will be remembered as the day when a government of, by and for the people became a government of, by and for wealthy campaign donors — and of, by and for wealthy Republican politicians themselves.

We thought the corruption, self-dealing and social indifference of the Gilded Age were long behind us. But we underestimated the raw nerve of President Trump, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

This Triumvirate of Privilege has returned us to the “age of betrayal,” as writer Jack Beatty called the years of the robber barons. The goal has always been to roll back the social advances that the country has made since the Progressive Era. On Wednesday, the demolition crews in the House and Senate struck a devastating blow.

The tax law loots the federal treasury on behalf of major corporations and the richest people in America. It sharply shifts the nation’s tax burden onto wage and salary earners whom Trump, Ryan and McConnell treat as serfs expected to bow before the wielders of capital, including real estate titans such as the president himself. It also creates an utterly unstable tax code. So many new opportunities for evasion were stuffed into this monstrosity that not a single person who voted for it can fully know what its effects will be.

This lobbyists’ wish list was passed with unconscionably reckless haste because those who confected it didn’t want mere citizens to grasp what they were doing. In this, they failed. The polls make clear that citizens, including many Republicans and many Trump supporters, know exactly whom this bill will benefit, and whom it will hurt. No tax cut in recent memory has been so unpopular.

Trump will keep lying about the bill’s financial impact on him. Some of Trump’s die-hard supporters will keep cheering when he calls out kneeling NFL players. But so many who wanted to believe what he said about draining the swamp and standing for our country’s “forgotten men and women” understand that they have been kicked to the curb.

Eventually, even the most accomplished charlatans show us who they really are.

Trump just told the truth. He may wish he hadn’t.

Trump just told the truth. He may wish he hadn’t.

The Washington Post
By Dana Milbank

On Wednesday, the 335th day of his presidency, Donald J. Trump did something most extraordinary and uncharacteristic. He told the truth.

The president, celebrating his $1.5 trillion tax cut with fellow Republicans at the South Portico of the White House, was midway through his remarks when he veered sharply off message.

“I shouldn’t say this,” Trump said, “but we essentially repealed Obamacare.”

No, he probably shouldn’t have said it. But it’s true. Republicans, in rushing the tax bill to passage, kept fairly quiet about the fact that they were killing the “individual mandate” and thereby removing the engine that made the Affordable Care Act work. In doing so, they threw the health-care system into chaos without offering any remedy. And Trump just claimed paternity of the destruction.

Trump, in a Cabinet meeting earlier Wednesday, let his fleeting encounter with honesty get the better of him when he read aloud the stage directions that called for Republicans not to advertise that they were killing Obamacare. “Obamacare has been repealed in this bill. We didn’t want to bring it up,” he said. “I told people specifically, ‘Be quiet with the fake-news media because I don’t want them talking too much about it.’ Because I didn’t know how people would —.” Trump didn’t finish that thought, but he said he could admit what had been done “now that it’s approved.”

With those admissions now on tape, Trump has officially claimed full ownership of the health-care system for himself and fellow Republicans. Whatever it is now — or isn’t — is Trumpcare.

Welcome to The Trump Family Swamp

Welcome to The Trump Family Swamp

The Washington Post
By Eugene Robinson
Image courtesy of Jacquelyn Martin/AP

The presidency was never meant to be a profit center for a nepotistic, money-grubbing family. But that was before the Trumps moved in.

This scandal is lying in plain sight, overlooked because of the constant stream of missteps, outrages and distractions that come and go at an exhausting pace. While everyone watches his Twitter feed, President Trump is using the White House like a marketing agency for his family brand. This is not normal or acceptable — and it surely isn’t what laid-off factory workers and coal miners had in mind when they jumped on the “populist” Trump train.

Last week, Ivanka Trump opened a retail store inside Trump Tower, her father’s New York skyscraper, to sell her eponymous foreign-made handbags and other items. We can now finally dispense with the notion that she is an “unpaid” adviser to the president.

It’s not a very big store — more of a glorified kiosk, really — but the conflict of interest is obvious. She and her husband, Jared Kushner, are in positions where they can influence U.S. policy toward the countries where her products are made, such as China, Indonesia, Vietnam, India and Bangladesh. The store is located where it can siphon money from Trump-supporting tourists who make pilgrimages to Trump Tower while visiting the sights of Manhattan.

This is just the latest example of how the Trump family is seeking to monetize the presidency. We haven’t seen anything like it since 1977, when Jimmy Carter’s brother started hawking Billy Beer. (President Carter, at least, had the decency to be embarrassed.)

As is the case with other family members, including the president, Ivanka Trump has refused to divest herself of her business interests. Instead, the Trumps and Kushner have put them into trusts — but in a way that provides not even a fig leaf of probity.

The secret backstory of how Obama let Hezbollah off the hook

Politico
By Josh Meyer

In its determination to secure a nuclear deal with Iran, the Obama administration derailed an ambitious law enforcement campaign targeting drug trafficking by the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah, even as it was funneling cocaine into the United States, according to a POLITICO investigation.

The campaign, dubbed Project Cassandra, was launched in 2008 after the Drug Enforcement Administration amassed evidence that Hezbollah had transformed itself from a Middle East-focused military and political organization into an international crime syndicate that some investigators believed was collecting $1 billion a year from drug and weapons trafficking, money laundering and other criminal activities.

Over the next eight years, agents working out of a top-secret DEA facility in Chantilly, Virginia, used wiretaps, undercover operations and informants to map Hezbollah’s illicit networks, with the help of 30 U.S. and foreign security agencies.

They followed cocaine shipments, some from Latin America to West Africa and on to Europe and the Middle East, and others through Venezuela and Mexico to the United States. They tracked the river of dirty cash as it was laundered by, among other tactics, buying American used cars and shipping them to Africa. And with the help of some key cooperating witnesses, the agents traced the conspiracy, they believed, to the innermost circle of Hezbollah and its state sponsors in Iran.

But as Project Cassandra reached higher into the hierarchy of the conspiracy, Obama administration officials threw an increasingly insurmountable series of roadblocks in its way, according to interviews with dozens of participants who in many cases spoke for the first time about events shrouded in secrecy, and a review of government documents and court records. When Project Cassandra leaders sought approval for some significant investigations, prosecutions, arrests and financial sanctions, officials at the Justice and Treasury departments delayed, hindered or rejected their requests.

The Justice Department declined requests by Project Cassandra and other authorities to file criminal charges against major players such as Hezbollah’s high-profile envoy to Iran, a Lebanese bank that allegedly laundered billions in alleged drug profits, and a central player in a U.S.-based cell of the Iranian paramilitary Quds force. And the State Department rejected requests to lure high-value targets to countries where they could be arrested.

“This was a policy decision, it was a systematic decision,” said David Asher, who helped establish and oversee Project Cassandra as a Defense Department illicit finance analyst. “They serially ripped apart this entire effort that was very well supported and resourced, and it was done from the top down.”

Republicans keep on telling voter-fraud fairy tales

Republicans keep on telling voter-fraud fairy tales

The Washington Post
By Editorial Board
Image courtesy of Gabriella Demczuk

Shortly before Virginia’s elections last month, we asked the three Republicans on the statewide ballot — Ed Gillespie, the gubernatorial candidate; Jill Vogel, the lieutenant gubernatorial candidate; and John Adams, the attorney general candidate — if they believed voter fraud was rampant in the state. None gave a straightforward answer; all three mentioned the isolated case of an undergraduate at James Madison University who filed 18 falsified voter registration forms last year, none of which resulted in a fraudulent vote being cast.

The JMU case is the near-exception that proves the rule: Voting officials and scholars in Virginia, as in other states, say election fraud is rare across the United States; even more seldom does it result in falsified votes at the ballot box.

Nonetheless, the robotic responses by the three Virginia Republicans, who all lost by sizable margins, reflected the party’s intellectual corruption in an age of truthlessness. In the party of President Trump, who asserted, without a scintilla of evidence, that he lost the popular vote in the presidential election because up to 5 million people voted fraudulently, veracity has gone out of fashion. Consequently, many GOP candidates, including Mr. Gillespie, Mr. Adams and Ms. Vogel, lack the spine to utter what is plainly true — namely, that there is no evidence whatsoever that voter fraud is prevalent in the United States.

The Republican project is clear. Facing disadvantageous demographic trends — specifically, an increasingly diverse electorate — GOP lawmakers across the country are using the specter of fraudulent voting to justify rules, including tougher state voter ID legislation, tailor-made to deter minority and young voters, who lean Democratic.

The Pentagon’s mysterious U.F.O. program

The New York Times
By Helene Cooper, Ralph Blumenthal, and Leslie Kean

In the $600 billion annual Defense Department budgets, the $22 million spent on the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program was almost impossible to find.

Which was how the Pentagon wanted it.

For years, the program investigated reports of unidentified flying objects, according to Defense Department officials, interviews with program participants and records obtained by The New York Times. It was run by a military intelligence official, Luis Elizondo, on the fifth floor of the Pentagon’s C Ring, deep within the building’s maze.

The Defense Department has never before acknowledged the existence of the program, which it says it shut down in 2012. But its backers say that, while the Pentagon ended funding for the effort at that time, the program remains in existence. For the past five years, they say, officials with the program have continued to investigate episodes brought to them by service members, while also carrying out their other Defense Department duties.

The shadowy program — parts of it remain classified — began in 2007, and initially it was largely funded at the request of Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who was the Senate majority leader at the time and who has long had an interest in space phenomena. Most of the money went to an aerospace research company run by a billionaire entrepreneur and longtime friend of Mr. Reid’s, Robert Bigelow, who is currently working with NASA to produce expandable craft for humans to use in space.

On CBS’s “60 Minutes” in May, Mr. Bigelow said he was “absolutely convinced” that aliens exist and that U.F.O.s have visited Earth.

How to streamline the photos cluttering your phone

How to streamline the photos cluttering your phone

The Wall Street Journal
By Sara Clemence

Every photo shot during a typical Gen-Xer’s childhood could probably fit in one thick album—a real album, the kind with gold-leaf embossing, “magnetic pages” and misaligned rings.

Now those Gen-Xers are snapping thousands of photos of their (debatably) cute kids on smartphones each year. It’s instant, it’s easy, it’s cheap—no film to buy or develop, no need for space in dusty shoeboxes or drawers.

But the torrent of images flooding devices creates new challenges. How do we manage the data clutter? “It’s a universal problem,” sighed New York-based professional photographer John Dolan. “It’s the unbearable lightness of digital.”

Tech companies have made it simple, and often inexpensive, to shove pics onto cloud servers, turning us all into digital hoarders. But an endless scroll of shame still hides neatly in pockets and purses until we struggle with dwindling smartphone memory or have to flip through countless crummy shots to find the one where everyone is smiling. Wait, no, I was looking for another one. One sec.

Methodically organizing and editing your photo library is a tall task, but it means less scrolling, less used storage and more time enjoying images worthy of attention.