Freewheeling Trump Ambassador Undermines U.S. Diplomats

Paul Anka serenaded Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary

This year, the ambassador, David B. Cornstein, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a blowout gala for 800 guests. He flew in the singer Paul Anka from California. The guest of honor was Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, who has curtailed the very freedoms the event was meant to highlight.

For many in the room, it was a bewildering spectacle: an American ambassador lavishing praise on a far-right leader whose party has methodically eroded Hungarian democracy and pushed anti-Semitic tropes. But it was just another demonstration of Mr. Cornstein’s pattern of emboldening Mr. Orban.

Since becoming ambassador in June 2018, Mr. Cornstein has assiduously courted Mr. Orban, giving the Hungarian leader unexpected influence in the Trump administration. Mr. Cornstein used his decades-long friendship with President Trump to help broker a coveted Oval Office meeting for Mr. Orban last May — a meeting now under scrutiny by impeachment investigators in Washington.

As yet, Mr. Cornstein’s role in that meeting does not appear to be part of the impeachment inquiry. But his freewheeling diplomacy and courtship of Mr. Orban have alarmed career civil servants and contributed to broader criticism, even among Republicans, that some members of the president’s foreign policy team are dangerously unprepared for the job.

Mr. Trump seems pleased. Although the Obama administration sought to isolate Mr. Orban as punishment for his authoritarian tendencies, the Trump administration has engaged him uncritically, a strategy intended to keep the Hungarian leader from drifting toward China and Russia.

But Thomas Carothers, who studies democracies for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Mr. Cornstein’s public praise for Mr. Orban had gone too far. “The ambassador has crossed the line, both in openly endorsing bad things and mocking serious issues,” he said.

You may read the complete article here.

Trump’s 1,001st day of his tenure

After 1,000 days in office, Mr. Trump has redefined what it means to be presidential. On the 1,001st day of his tenure, which was Thursday, all pretense of normalcy went out the window. It was a day when he boasted of saving “millions of lives” by temporarily stopping a Middle East war that he effectively allowed to start in the first place, then compared the combatants to children who had to be allowed to slug each other to get it out of their system.

It was a day when he announced without any evident embarrassment that officials of the federal government that answers to him had scoured the country for a site for next year’s Group of 7 summit meeting and determined that the perfect location, the very best site in all the United States, just happened to be a property he owned in Florida.

It was a day when he sent out his top aide, an adviser who has served as “acting” White House chief of staff for nearly 10 months without ever being granted the respect of earning the title outright, to try to quell the whole impeachment furor, only to have him essentially admit the quid pro quo that the president had so adamantly denied.

It was a day that ended with a rally where one of the warm-up acts, the Texas lieutenant governor, declared that liberals “are not our opponents, they are our enemy,” and the president called the speaker of the House “crazy,” a rival candidate “very dumb,” a House committee chairman a “fraud” and the governor of another state a “crackpot.”

“We were a little bit unconventional,” Mr. Trump explained, offering his foreign policy doctrine in a setting that was itself a little bit unconventional, a Louis Vuitton workshop near Keene, Texas, where they make Parisian bags while cattle graze outside. The president had stopped by in between a Fort Worth fund-raiser and his Dallas rally to cut the ribbon on the new factory as a favor to Bernard Arnault, the luxury industry giant, bringing French sensibility to the Lone Star State.

“Louis Vuitton — a name I know very well,” Mr. Trump said to laughter, even as he mispronounced the name he knows well. “It cost me a lot of money over the years.”

By now, the notions of what is presidential and what is unconventional have taken on new meaning, long since divorced from anything that came before. On the 1,001st day of the Trump presidency, he charged forward, writing new rules for himself and the country.

Read the complete article in the New York Times here.

New blog: 2MuchCrap.com

2muchcrap.com

There is so much crap on the Internet I decided to start a blog titled 2muchcrap. It’s about digital crap in this digital world.

I’ve posted about “Meat the Family: a new reality TV show which challenges carnivores to eat their ‘pets’”. Also a post on “Jennifer Aniston’s Instagram debut” and more crap from Trump “Trump claims Kurds are ‘much safer’ as US troops leave Syria”.

Please stop by and leave a Comment if you wish, or Subscribe to receive updates of new posts.

2 Giuliani Associates Tied to Ukraine Scandal Arrested on Campaign Finance Charges

The two men, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, believed to be important witnesses in the House’s impeachment inquiry of Mr. Trump, were arrested on campaign finance charges. The arrests and charges were first reported by The Wall Street Journal. Two other men, David Correia and Andrey Kukushkin, were also indicted.

Mr. Parnas and Mr. Fruman aided Mr. Giuliani’s efforts to gin up investigations in Ukraine into former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his son Hunter Biden, among other potentially politically beneficial investigations for Mr. Trump. Mr. Parnas had been scheduled to participate in a deposition with House impeachment investigators on Capitol Hill on Thursday, and Mr. Fruman on Friday. Neither had been expected to show up voluntarily. House Democrats were preparing to issue subpoenas to force them to do so.

Read  the complete article on the New York Times here.

Health Insurance That Doesn’t Cover the Bills Has Flooded the Market Under Trump

Early one Friday morning two years ago, David Diaz woke up his wife, Marisia, and told her he didn’t feel right. He asked her to pray with him. Their son called 911, and within minutes, Marisia was tailing an ambulance down the dirt road away from the couple’s house on the outskirts of Phoenix to a hospital in the city. David had had a massive heart attack.

Before being wheeled into surgery, he whispered the PIN for his bank card to Marisia, just in case. But the double-bypass operation was successful, and two weeks later he was discharged.

On her way out, Marisia gave the billing clerk David’s health insurance card. It looked like any other, listing a copay of $30 for doctor visits and $50 for “wellness.” She’d bought the plan a year earlier from a company called Health Insurance Innovations Inc., with the understanding that it would be comprehensive. She hadn’t noticed a phrase near the top of the card, though: “Short-Term Medical Insurance.”

The Diazes’ plan was nothing like the ones consumers have come to expect under the 2010 Affordable Care Act, which bars insurers from capping coverage, canceling it retroactively, or turning away people with preexisting conditions. But the law includes an exemption for short-term plans that serve as a stopgap for people between jobs. The Trump administration, thwarted in its attempts to overturn the ACA, has widened that loophole by stretching the definition of “short-term” from three months to a year, with the option of renewing for as long as three years.

Fewer than 100,000 people had such plans at the end of last year, according to state insurance regulators, but the Trump administration says that number will jump by 600,000 in 2019 as a result of the changes. Some brokers are taking advantage, selling plans so skimpy that they offer no meaningful coverage. And Health Insurance Innovations is at the center of the market. In interviews, lawsuits, and complaints to regulators, dozens of its customers say they were tricked into buying plans they didn’t realize were substandard until they were stuck with surprise bills. The company denies responsibility for any such incidents, saying it’s a technology platform that helps people find affordable policies through reputable agents.

Six months after David’s surgery, the Diaz family got a particularly big surprise bill—an error, Marisia thought when she saw the invoice. But when she called her insurer, she was told she’d have to pay the full amount: $244,447.91.

The ACA was designed around a fundamental economic bargain: Insurance companies would no longer be allowed to deny coverage to people who were already sick, and policies would have to cover a broad set of benefits, including prescription drugs, maternity care, and hospitalization. In return insurers were guaranteed that consumers would buy coverage or face tax penalties, and that subsidies would be available for people who needed them. The approach spread the financial risk of getting sick and aimed to guarantee that no one with insurance would have to worry about being bankrupted by necessary care. Preserving the bargain was essential, though; too many exceptions, and the edifice would crumble.

When the Republican-controlled Senate failed in 2017 to pass Trump-backed legislation that would have gutted the ACA, the administration instead seized on the loophole allowing consumers to buy certain noncompliant plans. Trump used an executive order to extend the time limit for temporary plans, which he and other Republicans talked up as a potential solution for cash-strapped consumers. Healthy people, they argued, could save money by buying policies that didn’t cover perceived nonessentials. “These plans aren’t for everyone, but they can provide a much more affordable option for millions of the forgotten men and women left out by the current system,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said in August 2018.

By then, the ACA system was already wobbling. Aetna Inc. and some other big insurers had been dropping off the state exchanges created for consumers to buy compliant plans, leaving a void that “junk insurers,” as critics tagged them, rushed to fill. A recent study by Sabrina Corlette, a research professor at Georgetown University’s Health Policy Institute, showed that ads for such plans often appeared at the top of internet searches for the government-run marketplaces. Health insurance also became the most common product pitched in robocalls—responsible, according to call-blocking service YouMail, for 387 million calls this April alone.

One company that moved nimbly to capitalize on the uncertainty was Health Insurance Innovations, known by its stock ticker, HIIQ. Founded in Tampa in 2008 by Michael Kosloske, whose father and grandfather both ran health insurance brokerages, the company sought to provide a clearinghouse for brokers who sold cheap insurance to individuals. It worked with insurers to devise a menu of plans, designed software for the brokers, and ran a call center to handle customer service.

After the ACA passed in March 2010, HIIQ continued promoting short-term plans and other limited forms of insurance that didn’t have to comply with the new rules for comprehensive plans. In an interview with Fox News a few years later, Kosloske argued that these policies offered the same benefits at half the cost. “There’s challenges with the Affordable Care Act, and we think our products provide a solution,” he said.

Read the complete article on Bloomberg here.

Why Was Trumponomics a Flop?

On Wednesday, the Federal Reserve cut interest rates, even though the unemployment rate is low and overall economic growth remains decent, though not great. According to Jay Powell, the Fed’s chairman, the goal was to take out some insurance against worrying hints of a future slowdown — in particular, weakness in business investment, which fell in the most recent quarter, and manufacturing, which has been declining since the beginning of the year.

Obviously Powell couldn’t say in so many words that Trumponomics has been a big flop, but that was the subtext of his remarks. And Trump’s frantic efforts to bully the Fed into bigger cuts are an implicit admission of the same thing.

But why has Trumponomics failed to deliver much besides trillion-dollar budget deficits? The answer is that both the tax cuts and the trade war were based on false views about how the world works.

Republican faith in the magic of tax cuts — and, correspondingly, belief that tax increases will doom the economy — is the ultimate policy zombie, a view that should have been killed by evidence decades ago but keeps shambling along, eating G.O.P. brains.

The record is actually awesomely consistent. Bill Clinton’s tax hike didn’t cause a depression, George W. Bush’s tax cuts didn’t deliver a boom, Jerry Brown’s California tax increase wasn’t “economic suicide,” Sam Brownback’s Kansas tax-cut “experiment” (his term) was a failure.

What went wrong? Business investment depends on many factors, with tax rates way down the list. While a casual look at the facts might suggest that corporations invest a lot in countries with low taxes, like Ireland, this is mainly an illusion: Companies use accounting tricks to report huge profits and hence big investments in tax havens, but these don’t correspond to anything real.

There was never any reason to believe that cutting corporate taxes here would lead to a surge in capital spending and jobs, and sure enough, it didn’t.

Read the complete article by Paul Krugman on the New York Times here.

Trump’s racist Cummings attack

In its response to Donald Trump’s racist attack on congressman Elijah Cummings, the editorial board of the Baltimore Sun said it “would not sink to name-calling in the Trumpian manner”.

But it did enumerate some of the president’s failings in office and liken him to a creature he said “infested” Cummings’ congressional district: a rat.

“We,” the board wrote, “would tell the most dishonest man to ever occupy the Oval Office, the mocker of war heroes, the gleeful grabber of women’s private parts, the serial bankrupter of businesses, the useful idiot of Vladimir Putin and the guy who insisted there are ‘good people’ among murderous neo-Nazis that he’s still not fooling most Americans into believing he’s even slightly competent in his current post. Or that he possesses a scintilla of integrity.

“Better to have some vermin living in your neighborhood than to be one.”

The editorial was one of a number of powerful and widely shared responses to Trump’s attack on Cummings, including an emotional address to camera by Victor Blackwell, a weekend CNN anchor.

Trump attacked the House oversight chairman, a powerful political foe, early on Saturday morning. Without offering evidence, he accused him of neglecting his district, Maryland’s seventh, and of unspecified corruption which the president said should be investigated. He returned to the theme on Sunday, broadening the attack to House speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California representative but also a Maryland native.

The attack on Cummings, who is African American, struck a familiar note, coming two weeks after Trump told four non-white Democratic congresswomen to “go back” to the places they came from, regardless of the fact three were born in the US and all are American citizens.

Read the complete article on The Guardian newspaper here.

The US-China trading relationship will be fraught for years to come

China is happy to buy more American goods, including soyabeans and shale gas, in an effort to cut the bilateral trade deficit, a goal which is economically pointless but close to Mr Trump’s heart. It is willing to relax rules that prevent American firms from controlling their operations in China and to crack down on Chinese firms’ rampant theft of intellectual property. Any deal will also include promises to limit the government’s role in the economy.

The trouble is that it is unlikely—whatever the Oval Office claims—that a signed piece of paper will do much to shift China’s model away from state capitalism. Its vast subsidies for producers will survive. Promises that state-owned companies will be curbed should be taken with a pinch of salt. In any case the government will continue to allocate capital through a state-run banking system with $38trn of assets. Attempts to bind China by requiring it to enact market-friendly legislation are unlikely to work given that the Communist Party is above the law. Almost all companies, including the privately owned tech stars, will continue to have party cells that wield back-room influence. And as China Inc becomes even more technologically sophisticated and expands abroad, tensions over its motives will intensify.

At some point this year Mr Trump and Xi Jinping, his Chinese counterpart, could well proclaim a new era in superpower relations from the White House lawn. If so, don’t believe what you hear. The lesson of the past decade is that stable trade relations between countries require them to have much in common—including a shared sense of how commerce should work and a commitment to enforcing rules. The world now features two superpowers with opposing economic visions, growing geopolitical rivalry and deep mutual suspicion. Regardless of whether today’s trade war is settled, that is not about to change.

Source: The Economist Magazine.

Huawei CFO seeks halt to extradition after Trump comments

Meng Wanzhou, 47, who faces charges related to Iran sanctions violations, was appearing at a Vancouver courthouse on Wednesday to set a timetable for her upcoming extradition hearing.

“The criminal case against Miss Meng is based on allegations that are simply untrue,” her spokesman Benjamin Howes said outside, telling reporters she would apply for a stay of the proceedings.

He alleged that “political factors” were behind her arrest and said her rights had been violated.

Her lawyers claimed comments by Trump, who said the charges could be dropped if that would help China trade talks, showed the case was politically motivated.

Huawei said in a statement on Wednesday that the criminal case against Meng was “guided by political considerations and tactics, not by the rule of law”.

Read the complete article on The Guardian newspaper here.

Trump’s Advisors

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Trump’s Florida Resort Empire Trying to Eliminate Undocumented Work Force

Behind the clipped hedges of President Trump’s sumptuous private clubs in South Florida, including his Mar-a-Lago estate where he has spent many getaway weekends, there has long been a built-in contradiction to the policy the president has repeatedly described as “America First.”

Many of his employees have foreign passports.

Romanians serve dinner in lavish banquet halls. South Africans tend to guests at the spa. Britons bake elegant pastries. Most are young people hired as guest workers on special visas, living over the winter high season in a gated community with a sand volleyball pit and a movie theater. In the mornings, they dress in trim uniforms and are chauffeured by van over a bridge to the luxury compound six miles away in Palm Beach.

Alongside the foreign guest workers and the sizable American staff is another category of employees, mostly those who work on the pair of lush golf courses near Mar-a-Lago. Not offered apartments, they have been picked up by Trump contractors from groups of undocumented laborers at the side of the road; hired through staffing companies that assume responsibility for checking their immigration status; or brought onto the payroll with little apparent scrutiny of their Social Security cards and green cards, some of which are fake.

That second pool of immigrant labor is an embarrassing reality for a president who has railed against undocumented immigrants, one his company is scrambling to erase.

In March, seven veteran maintenance workers at Trump National Jupiter, the golf club 18 miles north of Mar-a-Lago that Mr. Trump purchased in 2012, were informed that the work force was being reorganized. Workers had until March 22 to provide proof that they were legally eligible to work in the United States, they were told.

One by one, the workers — from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico — began to depart. Only one of the seven was a legal resident.

Similar scenes have played out at a number of Trump Organization golf properties since The New York Times first reported that two undocumented housekeepers had for several years worked in proximity to Mr. Trump at his golf property in Bedminster, N.J. Additional laborers working without legal authorization came forward at other Trump golf properties, some of them deliberately kept off the lists of workers vetted by the Secret Service.

The undocumented workers raise questions not only about the Trump Organization’s hiring practices, but also about security at Mar-a-Lago and the luxurious golf properties that surround it — recently subject to scrutiny after a woman carrying two Chinese passports and a thumb drive containing malicious software was detained on March 30 at Mar-a-Lago.

In Palm Beach County, home to dozens of hotels, golf resorts and residential communities, there is a steady demand for menial labor, some of it performed by foreigners who come in on H-2B guest worker visas. The Trump Florida properties requested 148 of these immigrant workers for the 2018-19 season, an increase over most past years. This is one area of immigration that the Trump administration has pushed to expand.

Read the complete story in the New York Times here.

Trump administration pushes to completely gut Obamacare in dramatic escalation

The Trump administration now believes that the entire Affordable Care Act should be struck down, a major shift in the federal government’s position and one that could endanger health coverage for millions of Americans with pre-existing conditions.

In a letter on Monday night, the justice department said it is now backing a Texas judge’s controversial December ruling that the healthcare law known as Obamacare is unconstitutional.

Throwing out the law would end healthcare coverage for millions of people – getting rid of publicly subsidized health insurance plans sold on exchanges, the expansion of Medicaid, protections for people with pre-existing conditions, and rules letting children stay on their parents’ insurance until the age of 26.

“The Department of Justice has determined that the district court’s judgment should be affirmed,” wrote Joseph Hunt, the assistant attorney general, and other lawyers in the new court filing.

The supreme court ruled in 2012 that the landmark healthcare law is constitutional.

But Texas and other states sued, arguing that Congress’s decision to end a tax penalty for people who don’t have health insurance as part of the 2017 tax overhaul made all of Obamacare invalid. The judge agreed.

Read complete article on The Guardian here.

Trump’s golf course employed undocumented workers — and then fired them amid showdown over border wall

They had spent years on the staff of Donald Trump’s golf club, winning employee-of-the-month awards and receiving glowing letters of recommendation.

Some were trusted enough to hold the keys to Eric Trump’s weekend home. They were experienced enough to know that, when Donald Trump ordered chicken wings, they were to serve him two orders on one plate.

But on Jan. 18, about a dozen employees at Trump National Golf Club in Westchester County, N.Y., were summoned, one by one, to talk with a human resources executive from Trump headquarters.

“I started to cry,” said Gabriel Sedano, a former maintenance worker from Mexico who was among those fired. He had worked at the club since 2005. “I told them they needed to consider us. I had worked almost 15 years for them in this club, and I’d given the best of myself to this job.”

“I’d never done anything wrong, only work and work,” he added. “They said they didn’t have any comments to make.”

During the meetings, they were fired because they are undocumented immigrants, according to interviews with the workers and their attorney. The fired workers are from Latin America.

The sudden firings — which were previously unreported — follow last year’s revelations of undocumented labor at a Trump club in New Jersey, where employees were subsequently dismissed. The firings show Trump’s business was relying on undocumented workers even as the president demanded a border wall to keep out such immigrants.

Trump’s demand for border wall funding led to the government shutdown that ended Friday after nearly 35 days.

In Westchester County, workers were told Trump’s company had just audited their immigration documents — the same ones they had submitted years earlier — and found them to be fake.

“Unfortunately, this means the club must end its employment relationship with you today,” the Trump executive said, according to a recording that one worker made of her firing.

Eric Trump did not respond to specific questions about how many undocumented workers had been fired at other Trump properties and whether the company had, in the past, made similar audits of its employees’ immigration paperwork. He also did not answer whether executives had previously been aware that they employed undocumented workers.

The firings highlight a stark tension between Trump’s public stance on immigration and the private conduct of Trump’s business.

In public, Trump has argued that undocumented immigrants have harmed American workers by driving down wages. That was part of why Trump demanded a border wall and contemplated declaring a national emergency to get it.

But, in Westchester County, Trump seems to have benefited from the same dynamic he denounces. His undocumented workers said they provided Trump with cheap labor. In return, they got steady work and few questions.

“They said absolutely nothing. They never said, ‘Your Social Security number is bad’ or ‘Something is wrong,’ ” said Margarita Cruz, a housekeeping employee from Mexico who was fired after eight years at the club. “Nothing. Nothing. Until right now.”

To document the firings at the golf club, The Washington Post spoke with 16 current and former workers at the club — which sits among ritzy homes in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., 27 miles north of Manhattan. Post reporters met with former employees for hours of interviews in a cramped apartment in Ossining, N.Y., a hardscrabble town next door, whose chief landmark is the Sing Sing state prison.

Among those workers, six said they had been fired on Jan. 18. They and their attorney confirmed the other terminations.

Another worker said he was still employed at the club at the time of the purge despite the fact that his papers were fake. His reprieve did not last long, however. His attorney later said he was fired that night.

The workers brought pay stubs and employee awards and uniforms to back up their claims. They said they were going public because they felt discarded: After working so long for Trump’s company, they said they were fired with no warning and no severance.

Read the complete article here.

What if the Obstruction Was the Collusion? On the New York Times’s Latest Bombshell

LawFare has a very interesting article on the Russian investigation and Donald Trump. Here is a very brief portion of the article written by Benjamin Wittes, editor in chief of Lawfare and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of several books. The rest you may read at LawFare’s site here.

Shortly before the holidays, I received a call from New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt asking me to meet with him about some reporting he had done. Schmidt did not describe the subject until we met up, when he went over with me a portion of the congressional interview of former FBI General Counsel James Baker, who was then my Brookings colleague and remains my Lawfare colleague. When he shared what Baker had said, and when I thought about it over the next few days in conjunction with some other documents and statements, a question gelled in my mind. Observers of the Russia investigation have generally understood Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s work as focusing on at least two separate tracks: collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign, on the one hand, and potential obstruction of justice by the president, on the other. But what if the obstruction was the collusion—or at least a part of it?

Late last year, I wrote a memo for Schmidt outlining how I read all of this material, a memo from which this post is adapted.

Today, the New York Times is reporting that in the days following the firing of James Comey, the FBI opened an investigation of President Trump. It wasn’t simply the obstruction investigation that many of us have assumed. It was also a counterintelligence investigation predicated on the notion that the president’s own actions might constitute a national security threat:

In the days after President Trump fired James B. Comey as F.B.I. director, law enforcement officials became so concerned by the president’s behavior that they began investigating whether he had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests, according to former law enforcement officials and others familiar with the investigation.

The inquiry carried explosive implications. Counterintelligence investigators had to consider whether the president’s own actions constituted a possible threat to national security. Agents also sought to determine whether Mr. Trump was knowingly working for Russia or had unwittingly fallen under Moscow’s influence.

The investigation the F.B.I. opened into Mr. Trump also had a criminal aspect, which has long been publicly known: whether his firing of Mr. Comey constituted obstruction of justice.

The following is an adaption of the memo I sent Schmidt. I have updated it in important respects in light of the reporting in the Times’s actual story. The analysis remains, however, tentative; I want to be careful not to overread the threads of evidence I am pulling together here.

The analysis that follows is lengthy and takes a number of twists and turns before laying out what I think is the significance of the whole thing. Here’s the bottom line: I believe that between today’s New York Times story and some other earlier material I have been sifting through and thinking about, we might be in a position to revisit the relationship between the “collusion” and obstruction components of the Mueller investigation. Specifically, I now believe they are far more integrated with one another than I previously understood.

Read the complete article on LawFare.

The presidential library: 10 books Trump recommended this year

Donald Trump in the Oval Office on 27 August 2018. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

The president has endorsed at least a dozen books this year – despite claiming he ‘doesn’t have the time’ to read – and they all have one thing in common.

When it comes to reading books, Donald Trump has protested: “I don’t have the time.”

Nonetheless, the president has made at least a dozen personal recommendations on Twitter this year for a shelf full of books written by his supporters and polemicists of the right and far right that he has found to be “excellent”, “fantastic” or even “great”.

Here are 10 of the president’s picks, and all of them have a common theme.

The Faith of Donald J Trump: A Spiritual Biography by David Brody and Scott Lamb

This examination of the “spiritual journey” of the thrice-married, tax-evading billionaire takes 375 pages to build the hopeful argument that by surrounding himself with people of faith, Trump has become religious. Failing that, the authors write: “Clearly, God is using this man in ways millions of people could never imagine. But God knows and that’s good enough.”

The reviews:

“Holy crap!” Los Angeles Times

“A very interesting read. Enjoy!” Donald J Trump

Trumponomics: Inside the America First Plan to Revive Our Economy by Stephen Moore and Arthur B Laffer PhD

Huge tax cuts boost economic growth, claims Arthur Laffer, who memorably scribbled his Laffer curve on a napkin over cocktails with Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld in 1974. It didn’t work out well for Kansas when they tried it and some of the optimism for the US economy is looking premature.

The authors, Trump’s economic advisers in 2016 and both still members of his economic advisory council, write: “The NeverTrumpers were fantastically wrong … No, he hasn’t ‘destroyed the world’s economy’. No, the stock market hasn’t crashed. No, there is no recession.”

The reviews:

“Two very talented men have just completed an incredible book on my Economic Policies.” Donald J Trump

The Russia Hoax: The Illicit Scheme to Clear Hillary Clinton and Frame Donald Trump by Gregg Jarrett

Fox News legal analyst examines “Hillary Clinton’s deep state collaborators” who, he claims, include sacked FBI chief James Comey and special counsel Robert Mueller.

The reviews:

“In defending Trump, Jarrett makes a number of claims that raised our eyebrows.” Politifact

“It is indeed a HOAX and WITCH HUNT, illegally started by people who have already been disgraced. Great book!” Donald J Trump

Liars, Leakers and Liberals by Judge Jeanine Pirro

Another Fox News presenter offers another takedown of “a conspiracy by the powerful and connected to overturn the will of the American people”. Perpetrators, she writes, include but are not limited to the FBI, NSA, Pentagon, Hollywood, “fake news media”, Democratic party, Fisa courts and some Republicans (in name only).

The reviews:

“Our great Judge Jeanine Pirro is out with a new book … which is fantastic. Go get it!” Donald J Trump

Why We Fight by Sebastian Gorka

The far-right former White House adviser and Breitbart writer is not only concerned about people ganging up on Trump but the threats to Judaeo-Christian civilisation posed by jihadists, communists, China or “tomorrow’s unknown threat”.

The reviews:

“A very talented man who I got to know well while he was working at the White House, has just written an excellent book … much will be learned from this very good read!” Donald J Trump

Read the complete list on The Guardian newspaper here. Hint: Most reviews are by Donny himself.

Christmas cheer: Trump tells boy that believing in Santa at seven is ‘marginal’

Donald and Melania Trump participate in Santa Tracker phone calls in the East Room of the White House. Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump on Christmas Eve took calls from children anxious to find out where Santa was on his gift-giving journey.

In one conversation, Trump asked a 7-year-old named Coleman: “Are you still a believer in Santa?” He listened for a moment before adding: “Because at 7, it’s marginal, right?”

Trump listened again and chuckled before saying: “Well, you just enjoy yourself.”

Mrs Trump told a caller that Santa was in the Sahara. Several minutes later, she reported that Santa was far away in Morocco but would be at the caller’s home on Christmas morning.

Mrs Trump later tweeted that helping children track Santa “is becoming one of my favorite traditions!”

The NORAD Tracks Santa program became a Christmas Eve tradition after a child mistakenly called the forerunner to the North American Aerospace Defense Command in 1955 and asked to speak to Santa.

The program wasn’t affected by the government shutdown. It’s run by volunteers at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado using pre-approved funding.

The Trumps later travelled to Washington National Cathedral to attend the Solemn Holy Eucharist of Christmas Eve. The cathedral’s website said the program included readings from Holy Scripture, favorite congregational hymns and seasonal choral and instrumental music as well as Holy Communion. Passes were required.

Trump most likely would have been attending Christmas services at a church near his estate in Palm Beach, Florida.

But he scrapped plans to head to Florida for the holidays after parts of the government were forced to shut down indefinitely in a budget stalemate with Congress.

Source: The Guardian newspaper article here.

The White House rolls back a rule on polluting wetlands

AFTER WITNESSING near-biblical calamities, Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972. The Cuyahoga river in Ohio caught fire in 1969, the same year 26m fish died in Florida’s Lake Thonotosassa, the largest recorded fish kill, because of pollution from food-processing plants. “Dirty Water”, a song from that era about the repellent Charles river, remains an anthem of Boston sports teams to this day. Since the early 1970s the White House has interpreted the statute in different ways. President Donald Trump’s team, who released a draft rule on December 11th, apparently want to take water law back to the 1980s.

Despite the simple intentions of the Clean Water Act, its language was anything but. It sought to eliminate the discharge of toxic pollutants into “waters of the United States” (WOTUS). Without further guidance, that would seem to encompass everything from frog ponds to the Mississippi river. Sorting out exactly which waterways are subject to pollution safeguards has been the subject of endless redefinition and litigation since. The Supreme Court’s justices last considered the question in 2006, and even they failed to muster a majority opinion. Writing for four of the nine, Antonin Scalia argued that federal authority extended only to “relatively permanent” waters. Writing for himself, Anthony Kennedy said that the rule should apply to waters that bear a “significant nexus” to navigable waters. Controlling precedent lies somewhere in the middle of these two nebulisms.

Protecting wetlands has been a relatively bipartisan endeavour, at least at the federal level. Richard Nixon signed the original Clean Water Act. George H.W. Bush’s administration declared a goal of “no net loss” of wetlands. One-third of Americans get some of their drinking water from the streams being deregulated. “This would be the most significant weakening of Clean Water Act protections in its history,” says Jon Devine of the Natural Resources Defence Council, a lobby group.

For Mr Trump, the rollback completes a campaign pledge made to farmers, who objected vociferously to the Obama-era regulation. Organisations like the Farm Bureau, another lobby group, whipped up fears of government asserting authority over ditches and ponds. In truth both the regulation and the original law already contain generous carve-outs for farmers, says Caitlin McCoy, a fellow at Harvard Law School.

The EPA’s professed rationale for the change is to provide regularity clarity and certainty. A look at its other recent actions suggests that the real aim is to please regulated industries. The agency pushed for rules allowing coal-power plants to resume dumping wastewater contaminated with mercury, arsenic and lead into streams and rivers. It has relaxed rules governing the disposal of coal ash—the toxic by-product produced by combustion that can leach into streams. And it is doing all it can to rehabilitate the struggling coal industry, which retains a political heft out of proportion to its economic value.

But other groups also stand to benefit from diminished water protections: mining companies, factories and chemical processors are keen to see the Obama-era rule disappear. Property developers and golf-course owners often have their plans stymied by wetland protections (why Mr Trump might be sensitive to their plight remains a mystery). Fore!

Source: The Economist magazine.

 

 

The godfather of fake news

Christopher Blair takes a sip of his coffee.

Then he carefully focuses on one of the three screens in front of him.

He’s in his home office, 45 minutes outside Portland, Maine, on the US East Coast.

Stroking his thick beard, he looks at his bookmarks bar.

He takes another sip before his coffee goes cold, inhales long and hard, then logs into the back end of one of his many websites.

He begins by choosing a subject. Which “lucky” politician will be on the receiving end of his attention today?

Bill Clinton? Hillary Clinton? One of the Obamas?

Or maybe the subject of his story won’t be a person, but a policy. Gun control? Police brutality? Feminism? Anything that will push buttons.

Perhaps he’ll make up a controversial incident, a crime, a new law or a constitutional amendment.

“Changing” the US constitution is particularly fun – he’s already written more than 30 fake amendments. (There are only 27 genuine ones.)

Blair sits back in his chair and focuses intently on the screen. He leans forward, places his hands on the keyboard and starts the same way he does every time.

Caps lock. BREAKING. Colon…

BREAKING: Clinton Foundation Ship Seized at Port of Baltimore Carrying Drugs, Guns and Sex Slaves

The words flow from the thoughts in his head. Unconnected to reality, he needs no research, and no notes.

His fingers rhythmically tap the keys. Letters form into words, words into sentences and sentences into a blog of about 200 words.

It doesn’t take long to write.

Publish.

Blair sits back in his chair and watches the likes and shares roll in.

The Fact Checker.

More than 3,000 miles (5,000km) away in a small town an hour east of the Belgian capital, Brussels, there’s another office in another family home.

Outside, children play in the garden on a warm summer’s afternoon.

Maarten Schenk navigates the steep set of stairs to his basement office. There’s an L-shaped desk in one corner – in another, a cooler is filled with bottles of peach-flavoured iced tea.

His desk resembles Blair’s. On it, sit three computer monitors, with the machine hard drives tucked away neatly underneath.

On one of the screens, he suddenly notices a lot of activity. The US is waking up, and spiking numbers on one page catch Schenk’s attention.

He watches as one particular story is gathering momentum and is quickly being shared on Facebook and other social networks.

Schenk logs into his own website and starts to type.

His job is to tell the world that what he’s seeing online – the story that’s currently going viral about a Clinton Foundation ship, allegedly carrying drugs, guns and sex slaves – is a complete fabrication.

It’s fake news.

During the 2016 US presidential election, journalists began noticing a rash of viral made-up stories on Facebook.

Bizarrely, many of the pages appeared to be posted by people from the Balkans and, after BuzzFeed reported on an unusual cluster of pages, reporters flocked to a small town called Veles in Macedonia.

“The Americans loved our stories and we make money from them,” one faker told the BBC. “Who cares if they are true or false?”

The stories were, in the main, pitched to Donald Trump supporters. They included rumours about Hillary Clinton’s health problems and illegal dealings, stories about luminaries like Pope Francis lining up behind the Republican candidate, and other false news sure to either please or rile Trump’s supporters.

Satire – not news, not opinion, and not propaganda – is how Blair describes his work.

His aim is to trick conservative Americans into sharing false news, in the hope of showing what he calls their “stupidity”.

“We’ve gone out of our way to market it as satire, to make sure that everybody knows that this isn’t real,” he says, pointing out that some of his pages have more prominent disclaimers than the world-famous satire site The Onion.

Once his stories go viral, the Facebook comments burst forth. And that’s when Christopher Blair the fake news writer becomes Christopher Blair the crusading left-wing troll.

“The mission with the trolling first and foremost is we pull them into the comments [section underneath each fake article],” he says.

It’s then that he starts on the offensive. The faker becomes the exposer, weeding out and reporting the most extreme users among his fans.

“I can show you hundreds of profiles we’ve had taken down,” he says. He claims that he’s exposed Ku Klux Klan members and hardcore racists.

“We’ve had people fired from their jobs,” he says.

“We’ve exposed them to their families. Say what you want about me being a monster. I’m pretty proud.”

Read the complete article on the BBC web site here.

Feel the love, feel the hate in the cauldron of Trump’s wild rallies: Ed Pilkington

There is no understanding Donald Trump without understanding his rallies.

They are the crucible of the Trump revolution, the laboratory where he turns his alternative reality into a potion to be sold to his followers. It is at his rallies that his radical reimagining of the US constitution takes shape: not “We the people”, but “We my people”.

As America reels from a gunman killing 11 Jewish worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue; pipe bombs being sent to 14 of the US presidents’ leading opponents, and Trump declaring himself a nationalist and sending thousands of troops to the US border to assail unarmed asylum seekers; the most powerful person on earth continues to rely on his rallies as seething cauldrons of passion.

And that’s not all. Trump is using them as a test run for his 2020 bid for re-election.

Which is why I have crisscrossed the country, from Montana and Wisconsin in the north to Texas in the south, Arizona in the west to North Carolina in the east, to observe the president delivering his message to his people.

On the morning of the fourth rally, the outside world blasts its way into Trumpland. Shortly after 10am, as CNN anchors are telling their viewers about a series of pipe bombs mailed to the Clintons, the Obamas and to George Soros, they have to rush off air because the network has received its own explosive device.

At the same time, Jacob Spaeth and three of his buddies are lining up in a field in Mosinee, Wisconsin. They are all wearing the same distinctive red T-shirt. It bears a cartoon sketch of a smiling Trump urinating profusely over the CNN logo.

Spaeth never watches CNN – he occasionally sees clips of it on Facebook. He gets his information from Infowars, the website of Alex Jones. Jones, a conspiracy theorist, is on the record as saying 9/11 was a government set-up and that the 2012 Newtown school shooting in which 20 children were killed was fabricated. Within hours he will be broadcasting that this week’s pipe bombs are also a hoax.

Spaeth embodies one of the most puzzling aspects of my week in Trumpland. Throughout the five rallies, I talk to scores of people, all of whom, without exception, are welcoming and pleasant. Yet hours later, in the pressure-cooker of the rally, they will turn on me and my mainstream media colleagues and hurl insults at us.

Spaeth admits that when he went to a Trump rally in Minnesota last month he took part in the finger-jabbing and the chanting of “CNN sucks”. It made him feel happy to be able to express his feelings so openly among like-minded folk. “I don’t see it as bullying,” he says.

There’s only one explanation for this pattern of behavior: that Trump enables good, civil Americans to metamorphose into media baiters. “Those people, fake news,” the president says sneeringly at almost every rally, pointing to the caged pen where reporters are cooped up during his speeches.

Read the compete article in The Guardian newspaper here.

 

The kingdom and the cover-up

WHEN AMERICA’S secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, met Saudi officials in Riyadh on October 16th, they smiled, posed for photographs and talked about jet lag. They did not dwell on the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, allegedly carved up with a bone saw. Two weeks earlier Mr Khashoggi, who lived in self-imposed exile, walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and disappeared. After days of dissembling, the Saudis have dropped the pretence that he left the building that same afternoon. Few doubt that he is dead or that his fellow citizens killed him. The question is what the West ought to do about it.

To judge by Mr Pompeo’s jovial demeanour in Riyadh, both the American and Saudi governments want the issue to go away. He grinned through a meeting (pictured) with the crown prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Muhammad bin Salman, and praised the Saudis for their pledge to investigate. His boss, President Donald Trump, has repeated denials from both the king and crown prince. “Here we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent,” said Mr Trump.

Even if Saudi Arabia gets through this episode without a rupture, it has done incalculable damage to its reputation. Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress are furious. Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator and Trump ally, has long supported close ties with the kingdom. But on October 16th he went on “Fox and Friends” (Mr Trump’s favourite programme) and called Prince Muhammad “a wrecking ball”, adding: “He has got to go” and “I’m gonna sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia.” Lawmakers have already invoked the Magnitsky act, which could impose sanctions on anyone found culpable for Mr Khashoggi’s death.

America, especially under Mr Trump, has been willing to work with brutal autocrats. Unreliable autocrats may be a different matter. Prince Muhammad has a record of impulsive behaviour, from the blockade of Qatar to the abduction of Lebanon’s prime minister. His war in Yemen has turned into a lethal quagmire. The disappearance of Mr Khashoggi brings that record into sharper focus. Meanwhile, some in Washington believe that since the kingdom is no longer the world’s largest oil producer, thanks to American fracking, it need no longer be treated with kid gloves.

Read the complete article in The Economist here.