U.S. Politics

10 things you need to know today: April 5, 2017

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MSALLAM ABDALBASET/AFP/Getty Images

THE WEEK

1. Trump blames Syrian government for reported chemical weapons attack
President Trump on Tuesday blamed the Syrian government for what appeared to be one of the deadliest chemical weapon attacks in Syria’s civil war. Trump called the attack, which killed an estimated 72 people, “reprehensible,” but he reserved some of his harshest criticism for his predecessor, Barack Obama. “These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution,” Trump said. The U.S. said the toxin used may have been sarin, a deadly, banned nerve agent. On Wednesday, Russia’s defense ministry claimed the chemicals came from a Syrian airstrike targeting rebel workshops producing chemical weapons. The United Nations Security Council called a Wednesday emergency summit on the attack, which came days after America’s U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, said Washington’s “priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.”

Source: The Washington Post, USA Today

2. Rice refutes accusations of politically motivated bid to ‘unmask’ Trump allies
Susan Rice, who served as former President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, denied Tuesday that she ever improperly asked intelligence agencies to “unmask” associates of President Trump whose communications were caught in normal surveillance of foreign officials. “The allegation is that somehow the Obama administration officials utilized intelligence for political purposes,” Rice told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell. “That’s absolutely false.” Rice said sometimes it is necessary to request the identities of people not targeted in electronic eavesdropping, but that she “leaked nothing to nobody.” Conservative news outlets have suggested the story might back up Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that Obama had him “wiretapped.”

Source: NBC News

3. Senate starts debate on Gorsuch confirmation with filibuster clash looming
The Senate formally started its debate on the confirmation of Judge Neil Gorsuch, whom President Trump has nominated to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant more than a year ago by the death of leading conservative Justice Antonin Scalia. Democrats, angry that Republicans kept the spot open by refusing to even consider anybody nominated by former President Barack Obama, have enough votes to filibuster the nomination, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has vowed to hold a vote and confirm Gorsuch, even if it means resorting to the so-called nuclear option — changing Senate rules so that he can end debate on Gorsuch with a simple majority, instead of the 60 votes needed to beat a filibuster.

Source: The Washington Post

4. Russia seeks possible accomplices of subway suicide bomber
Russian police on Wednesday hunted for possible accomplices of the suicide bomber who attacked a subway train in St. Petersburg on Monday, killing 14 commuters and students in the worst terrorist attack in Russia’s second largest city since the Soviet Union collapsed. The alleged bomber, Akbarzhon Dzhalilov, was a 22-year-old native of the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan, whose social media posts showed interest in radical Islam and boxing. People who knew Dzhalilov described him as friendly. He had lived in St. Petersburg for several years doing work as a car mechanic and an employee in a sushi bar.

Source: The Associated Press

5. North Korea launches another missile
North Korea fired a ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan from the east coast city of Sinpo, the South Korean military said early Wednesday. U.S. Pacific Command said it detected and tracked “what we assess was a North Korean missile launch,” and kept watch on the medium-range ballistic missile until it came down about 9 minutes later, after traveling about 40 miles. Sinpo is the site of a submarine base. The launch was the latest in a series of missile and nuclear weapons tests that have drawn harsh condemnation from the U.S. and other world powers. Pyongyang has said it is developing technology that could threaten the U.S. President Trump is expected to press Chinese President Xi Jinping to increase pressure on North Korea when they meet in Florida on Thursday and Friday. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. “has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.”

Source: Reuters, Fox News

6. Court rules civil rights law protects gay workers from discrimination
A federal appeals court in Chicago ruled Tuesday that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects gay people from job discrimination, a potentially huge victory for gay rights advocates. Another appellate court, in Georgia, ruled last month that the law did not protect gay workers, and the opposing rulings increased the likelihood that the Supreme Court would have to resolve the issue. Tuesday’s 8-3 ruling by the full 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago came in the case of Indiana teacher Kimberly Hively, who sued a community college she said did not hire her full time because she is a lesbian. “This decision is game changer for lesbian and gay employees facing discrimination in the workplace and sends a clear message to employers,” said Greg Nevins, of Lambda Legal, which advocates for LGBT issues. “It is against the law to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.”

Source: The New York Times, The Associated Press

7. Quinnipiac poll: Most Americans embarrassed by Trump
A majority of American voters, 52 percent, are embarrassed that President Trump is the nation’s leader, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday. Eighty-five percent of Democrats said they were embarrassed by Trump. Only 27 percent of voters said they were proud to have Trump as president. The poll also found Trump losing ground with key segments of his supporter base, including men and white voters: Fifty-one percent of men disapproved of Trump, while 39 percent approved, and 48 percent of white voters disapproved with just 43 percent approving. Overall, Trump’s net approval rating is -22 percent, with 35 percent of voters approving of his job as president and 57 percent disapproving.

Source: Quinnipiac

8. Advertiser exodus from Bill O’Reilly’s show gets bigger
More advertisers left Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News show on Tuesday, following the lead of automakers Mercedes Benz and Hyundai. More than 20 major advertisers, including BMW, insurer Allstate, and financial firm T.Rowe Price, have joined the exodus, which began after The New York Times reported over the weekend that O’Reilly and his employer had paid five women $13 million to settle allegations of sexual harassment or other offensive behavior. O’Reilly has long dominated cable ratings and made a fortune as Fox News’ top money maker, earning the company $178 million in ad dollars in 2015, and $118.6 million in the first nine months of 2016, according to research firm Kantar Media.

Source: The Associated Press, Axios

9. ISIS calls Trump an ‘idiot’ in first official statement on him since inauguration
The Islamic State ended its silence on President Trump on Tuesday with a statement from the terrorist group’s spokesman calling Trump an “idiot who does not know what Syria or Iraq or Islam is.” In the first comment in official ISIS media on Trump since his January inauguration, the spokesman said in an audio recording, “America, you have drowned and there is no savior.” The spokesman also derided Trump for his statements against Muslims. Trump’s domestic critics have said his statements and policies, including his now-blocked order temporarily banning visas for people from some predominantly Muslim countries, could be used by ISIS in recruitment and propaganda.

Source: The New York Times

10. NCAA lifts North Carolina ban after state repeals ‘bathroom law’
The NCAA said Tuesday that it was “reluctantly” ending its boycott on holding championship events in North Carolina over the “bathroom bill” Republican lawmakers pushed through last year, but repealed last week. The six-month boycott started after state lawmakers voted to require transgender people to use public restrooms corresponding to the gender on their birth certificate, rather than the one with which they identify. The NCAA said the repeal, which also bars local government from enacting their own anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people until 2020, “minimally achieved a situation where we believe NCAA championships may be conducted in a nondiscriminatory environment.”

Source: The New York Times

U.S. Politics

ATROCITY Assad Apparently ‘Gasses’ Civilians Days After Tillerson Hints He Can Stay in Power

THE DAILY BEAST

Evidence of a sophisticated chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime suggests the dictator in Damascus thinks he’s now got Trump’s carte blanche to kill as he likes.

ISTANBUL, Turkey—Days ago, in Ankara, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signaled that the U.S. had no quarrel with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, a man Tillerson’s predecessor compared to Adolf Hitler after he slaughtered more than 1,000 people with poison gas in 2013.

The “longer-term status of President Assad,” Tillerson said, “will be decided by the Syrian people,” a euphemism used by Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran to indicate that he isn’t going anywhere.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer used almost identical language the next day, saying, “Well, I think with respect to Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept in terms of where we are right now.”

But the gas, it appears, is raining down once again on civilians.

In a video made Tuesday, Dr. Shajul Islam showed the camera a young man lying on a gurney with a catatonic expression on his face. His pupils were shrunk to the size of pinheads. “This is not chlorine,” he said. “We do not smell chlorine on this patient.” The industrial chemical has often been used as crude weapon on the Syrian battlefield.

Perhaps this time it was organic phosphate, another easily acquired chemical.

But other Syrians—and outside observers—say that it’s more likely the Assad regime dropped sarin gas on civilians—a much more sophisticated odorless and colorless nerve agent that Damascus was supposed to have gotten rid of as part of a U.S.-Russian-brokered deal in 2013.

“If it’s what it looks like, it’s clearly a war crime,” said a senior State Department official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity.

“It has the fingerprints of a regime attack,” added a U.S. intelligence official. “If the Assad regime was indeed responsible for perpetrating the attack, the reported casualties figures would make it the biggest incident like this since the Syrian regime’s August 2013 sarin attack against the Damascus suburbs.”

As ever in the six-year civil war, the death toll depends on whom you consult. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights puts it at 58. The White Helmets, on-the-ground first responders, at first said the figure was closer to 50. Other estimates are upward of 100 dead, with probably about 300 more injured.

The “poisonous gas,” as one Syrian activist put it, was dropped by helicopters in a series of airstrikes in the city of Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib province, one of the last enclaves of rebel control in the area, mainly administered by al Qaeda and other Islamist groups.

Dr. Firas Jundi, health minister for the opposition interim government, told The Daily Beast he had the names of 60 people killed in the gas attack. He said the death toll was bound to rise as there are 300 wounded, many in critical care hospitals and clinics throughout the province.

The number of victims was an indication that this is not chlorine gas, he added in a Whatsapp conversation from Idlib, where the interim government is located. “Usually chlorine doesn’t kill such big number.”

He said the signs of trauma suggested a nerve agent like sarin was used in the attack, but testing was needed to say for sure. He said local authorities have recovered parts of the rocket that carried the gas canisters and are ready to turn them over to international investigators.

“What I noticed about the victims was they had difficulty breathing, many had lost consciousness and the pupils of their eyes had narrowed,” he said.

“If there are pinpoint pupils and convulsions, it’s likely nerve gas. The number of deaths is too high for chlorine for an outdoor attack,” said Andy Weber, former assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs under the Obama administration.

Syria Attack

Shutterstock

CONTINUED>>>

U.S. Politics

Trump’s Wall Is Already Collapsing

Trump’s Wall Is Already Collapsing

attribution: none

THE NATIONAL MEMO

Reprinted with permission from Creators.

Donald Trump spent more than a year rousing crowds with a simple promise: “I’ll build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will have Mexico pay for that wall.” As the campaign wore on, it got so he could ask “Who’s gonna pay for the wall?” and the audience would roar, “Mexico!”

It was fun while it lasted. But now, in the cold light of day, some facts are coming into focus: It may not exactly be a wall. It won’t be paid for by Mexico. And it may not get built.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is one of the people backing off from this promise. Non-wall options, such as electronic sensors, will have to be considered in some places, he said. You see, “the border is complicated, as far as building a physical wall.”

Not only that but where would we locate it? “The Rio Grande, what side of the river are you going to put the wall?” Zinke asked. “We’re not going to put it on our side and cede the river to Mexico. And we’re probably not going to put it in the middle of the river.” The Mexicans won’t invite us to erect the structure on their side. So siting may be a problem.

That’s not all the Mexicans won’t do. President Enrique Pena Nieto has said repeatedly and unequivocally that his government will not bear the cost. Trump had the chance to out-negotiate Pena on the wall when he met with him in Mexico City last summer — but Trump chose not to even raise the payment issue.

The Mexican president was supposed to come to Washington for a White House meeting in January. But when Trump said it would be better to cancel the trip if Mexico was not willing to pay for the wall, Pena canceled the trip.

Trump said that rather than make Mexico pay for it upfront, “we’ll be reimbursed at a later date from whatever transaction we make from Mexico.” So we’ll send the invoice and they’ll mail a check? Well, not exactly. “There will be a payment,” he told ABC News. “It will be in a form, perhaps a complicated form.”

No one on Capitol Hill seems to share Trump’s confidence. When Politico’s Jake Sherman asked Mitch McConnell whether Mexico will pay for the wall, the Senate Republican leader couldn’t suppress his mirth at the very idea. “‘Uh, no,’ he shot back, chuckling,” Politico reported.

House Speaker Paul Ryan said with solemn vagueness, “We will be working with (Trump) to finance the construction of the physical barrier, including the wall, on the southern border.” Faced with the funding disagreement with Mexico, Trump included money for the wall in his budget outline, with the funds taken from other programs.

Republican enthusiasm is not abundant. Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said recently that “billions of dollars on a wall is not the right way to proceed.” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina agreed it is “probably not a smart investment.”

Democrats have promised to block any bill that includes money for the wall, which means they could force a government shutdown if Republicans attach it to the emergency spending measure that needs to be approved by April 28. Ryan said Thursday that the wall appropriation will be dropped to avert a shutdown.

But there may not be much interest in funding it afterward, either. The House Freedom Caucus is generally not fond of spending money, and Trump’s declaration of war on the group will not make its members more eager to indulge him.

Plenty of Senate Republicans are also skeptical. “If you’re going to spend that kind of money, you’re going to have to show me where you’re going to get that money,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said in February. “We can’t pay for it out of thin air,” said Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma.

There don’t seem to be many people in Washington who think the wall can be built as Trump claimed or that it would work very well. Not to mention that it sounded a lot better when Mexico was going to pay for it.

Trump fooled a lot of voters when he made that promise, and he may have even fooled himself. But at some point, you run out of fools.

By Steve Chapman (website at http://www.creators.com)

U.S. Politics

Russia Blames Syria Gassing On Leak From Rebels’ Chemical Cache

NBC NEWS

Russian officials on Wednesday blamed the poisonous gas contamination that activists say killed at least 83 people — including 25 children — on a leak from a chemical weapons cache that had been hit by Syrian government air strikes.

The U.S. has said the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was behind the incident, which relief agency UOSSM say injured at least 350. The gassing, documented in horrific photos and video that NBC News has not verified, would mark one of the worst of its kind in Syria’s six-year civil war.

“Yesterday, from 11:30 am to 12:30 p.m. local time, Syrian aviation made a strike on a large terrorist ammunition depot and a concentration of military hardware in the eastern outskirts of Khan Sheikhoun town,” Russian defense ministry spokesman Igor Konoshenkov said in a video statement, referring to the rebel-held town in northern Syria where the alleged attack was recorded on Tuesday morning.

VIDEO

“On the territory of the depot there were workshops which produced chemical warfare munitions,” Konoshenkov said.

Russia is a key supporter of Assad, who has been fighting rebels trying to unseat him for more than six years. Konoshenkov also claimed chemical munitions had been used by rebels in Aleppo last year.

Russian officials did not provide any evidence to support the allegations.

Related: Syrian Government Blamed for Third Chemical Attack: Report

The Syrian government has denied any involvement and said it was complying with the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans such instruments of war, according to SANA, the Syrian state-run news agency. Instead, the government blamed “armed terrorist organizations” for the attack.

“The Syrian Arab republic stresses that all those fabricated allegations will not prevent it from continuing its war on terrorism … and from working for a political solution to the crisis in Syria,” SANA reported.

Image: A Syrian child receives treatment after an alleged chemical attack
A Syrian child receives treatment after an alleged chemical attack. STRINGER / EPA

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which monitors the chemical weapons treaty, said it had set up a fact-finding mission to get to the bottom of Tuesday’s attack.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, said the attack clearly used banned chemical weapons.

Tillerson noted that the attack was the third time such weapons are alleged to have been used this month, charging: “It is clear that this is how Bashar al-Assad operates: with brutal, unabashed barbarism.

“Those who defend and support him, including Russia and Iran, should have no illusions about Assad or his intentions,” Tillerson said in a statement. “Anyone who uses chemical weapons to attack his own people shows a fundamental disregard for human decency and must be held accountable.”

and

U.S. Politics

Trumpcare is back from the dead and it is even worse

House speaks Paul Ryan of Wis.  March 30, 2017. CREDIT: AP/J. Scott Applewhite

THINK PROGRESS

House Republicans aren’t giving up on their failed health care bill.

Vice President Mike Pence, Budget Director Mike Mulvaney, and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus met with with House Freedom Caucus Republicans on Monday night to find out what changes would be acceptable to the caucus, Politico reported. The caucus chairman, Rep. Mike Meadows (R-NC) said GOP lawmakers would see the text of a new health care bill within 24 hours. The White House also met with a few House Republicans from the more moderate Tuesday Group on Monday to see what changes they would be comfortable with.

Republican leaders failed to gather the necessary votes on their original health care bill last month because it didn’t go far enough for far-right conservatives — removing things like the provision requiring insurers to cover preexisting conditions — and went too far for moderate Republicans, who weren’t as anxious to slash Medicaid.

Last week, Republicans recommitted to repealing and replacing Obamacare. After telling reporters that Obamacare would be the law of the land for the “foreseeable future” a few days earlier, Speaker Paul Ryan said Republicans would keep pushing for a repeal. The following night, President Donald Trump said making a deal on health care would be “such an easy one.”

Politico reported that sources familiar with the discussions say that groups such as Heritage Action and Americans for Prosperity, which fought against the original health care bill, were willing to work with the White House. When Republicans last pushed for a vote, Heritage Action CEO Michael A. Needham called it an “awful bill.” Many conservatives who opposed the bill called it “Obamacare-lite.”

Meadows said a tentative deal with the House Freedom Caucus would let states waive the essential health benefits requirement (EHB) and community rating regulations. The community rating provision requires that insurance companies charge the same price to people who are the same age.

Requirements to insure people with preexisting conditions would remain, but getting rid of these provisions would allow insurers to include less services on their plans and ultimately charge the sick more, making it far less usefuloverall. A person with a chronic illness would buy a plan, but it’s very likely that that person wouldn’t be able to afford the services they need if the EHB requirement were waived. If there were no community rating provision, health plans would also be able to charge a chronically ill person a lot more than they would today.

Far-right conservatives told Politico that they will accept a bill that retains the provision keeping children on their parents’ insurance until age 26 — a popular provision — if they can get rid of these other regulations.

Keeping two of the most popular Obamacare provisions may prevent moderates from leaving the talks entirely. Moderates have been pushing for adding more money to the high-risk pools, and the tentative deal explains in more detail how $115 billion in funding would be allocated to these pools, according to The Huffington Post. But getting rid of the community rating system may make it more difficult for moderates to sign on.

It’s unclear when Republican leaders would push for another vote on this legislation, but an administration source told Politico, “This is a level of urgency I haven’t seen out of them.” Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY) said he was optimistic that the bill could be brought up before the Easter recess.

Casey Quinlan

U.S. Politics

The Susan Rice controversy: the latest twist in the Trump wiretapping saga, explained

(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

VOX

Susan Rice, President Obama’s final national security adviser, has all of a sudden become public enemy No. 1 in Trumpworld.

A series of recent reports — published in Fox News, Bloomberg View, and elsewhere — have claimed that Rice asked the intelligence community to provide the names of Trump transition officials who had been caught speaking to foreigners who were under surveillance by US spies. Typically these names are redacted in transcripts, but high-level US officials can request them on occasion — a process called “unmasking.”

The intercepts in question were first revealed to the public by Rep. Devin Nunes in late March, in what’s now widely seen as an attempt to deflect blame away from President Trump’s baseless claim that the Obama administration wiretapped Trump Tower during the campaign. And indeed, many in the conservative media are treating the Rice reports as vindicating the president.

“She participated in the monitoring of the Trump campaign,” Fox News host Tucker Carlson said on his Monday night show. “Let’s drop the euphemisms: Monitoring the communications of your political opponents and then trampling measures designed to protect their identities [is] spying.”

This is incorrect: Revealing the name of transition officials who were caught up in legal wiretaps of foreigners is not the same thing as illegally spying on the Trump campaign. But that has not stopped the Susan Rice story from becoming the dominant story on the American right.

On Monday, Sen. Rand Paul called for Rice to testify under oath, speculating that Obama might have ordered her to unmask Trump officials for unspecified nefarious purposes. On Tuesday, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted that a story on the subject from men’s rights activist Mike Cernovich was worthy of a Pulitzer.

Rice herself, in a Tuesday afternoon appearance on MSNBC, admitted that she had asked for US citizens to be unmasked on several occasions throughout her tenure — though she was cagey about whether any of them were Trump transition team members. But she insisted she had done nothing wrong.

“The allegations that somehow Obama administration officials utilized intelligence for political purposes are absolutely false,” she said. “[Unmasking] is necessary to do my job. … Imagine if we saw something of grave significance about Russia, or China, or anybody else interfering with our political process.”

So who’s right? Well, the actual experts on intelligence and national security who have followed this story — regardless of their political affiliation — have nearly uniformly backed Rice. They believe there would have been nothing worrisome about Rice asking for the names of Trump officials to be unmasked while in her post as the administration’s top national security official.

“Nothing in this story indicates anything improper,” Susan Hennessey, a former attorney for the National Security Agency and current Brookings Institution fellow, tweeted. “What we’re seeing here is US officials doing jobs to respond to what had markers of a counterintelligence threat: the Trump campaign.”

The Rice flap, on close inspection, isn’t a story about the Obama administration purportedly spying on the Trump campaign. It’s a story about how far the conservative media and some congressional Republicans are willing to go to muddy the waters around Donald Trump’s wildest and least defensible ideas.

There is no reason to believe Rice did anything wrong

John Kerry, Susan Rice, Michael Flynn Attend 'Passing The Baton' Conference
Rice with her successor, Michael Flynn.
(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

There are two important things to note about this controversy. The first is that the revelations about Rice do not in any way support the president’s claim that team Obama “wire tapped” Trump Tower during the campaign. The timing is off — the intercepts Rice sought access to cover the transition, not the campaign — and getting the name of an American caught up in lawful US surveillance of foreign nationals is completely different from an illegal wiretap targeting the president’s chief political opponent.

The second is that there is no evidence whatsoever that Rice’s behavior was improper.

The closest thing to such evidence is an anonymously sourced report, from Bloomberg View’s Eli Lake, that the contents of the intercepted calls contained important information about the Trump people.

“One US official familiar with the reports said they contained valuable political information on the Trump transition such as whom the Trump team was meeting, the views of Trump associates on foreign policy matters and plans for the incoming administration,” Lake writes.

But Lake’s story contains a vital detail to understanding this. He notes that the intercepted conversations “were primarily between foreign officials discussing the Trump transition, but also in some cases direct contact between members of the Trump team and monitored foreign officials.”

This means that Rice wasn’t sifting through the Trump administration’s internal conversations to find their secrets. Either the Trump transition officials were sharing these vital secrets with foreign officials, on calls they should have known were being monitored, or the foreign officials had learned this information somewhere else and were discussing it among themselves.

Either way, potentially valuable information about the next US administration had gotten into the hands of foreign governments. It would be surprising if America’s national security adviser didn’t want the names of Trump officials who were involved in these calls in order to identify possible counterintelligence risks.

Business Insider’s Natasha Bertrand asked four separate intelligence experts, of varying ideological stripes, whether they thought the behavior described by Lake was improper. Their answer was unanimous: It wasn’t.

“We should be disturbed if whoever was in office was not keeping close tabs on that sort of thing,” Paul Pillar, a 28-year CIA veteran and current Georgetown University professor, told Bertrand. “This whole story strikes me as just more of the effort to divert attention from the issue of the relations that Trump and his associates have had with Russia, and as part of the diversion to try to suggest impropriety of some sort on the part of the Obama administration.”

Nada Bakos, another longtime CIA analyst and current senior fellow at the right-leaning Foreign Policy Research Institute, tweeted a similar assessment to Pillar’s.

“She was the National Security Advisor reading a report of foreign officials discussing US persons coming into [the White House],” Bakos tweeted. “This isn’t odd or wrong.”

What Rice actually did

To understand the Rice allegations, and why intelligence experts are so skeptical about any allegations of wrongdoing, you need to understand a little bit about how American spies actually work.

While government surveillance of US citizens is heavily constrained by statute and the US Constitution, spying on foreigners is relatively easy. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) allows secret courts to issue surveillance warrants for non-Americans, which they are very willing to grant. In 2015, the FBI and the NSA — the two agencies that handle most electronic surveillance — asked for a combined total of 1,457 FISA surveillance warrants. Not a single request was denied.

Oftentimes, targets of FISA warrants — like foreign diplomats — speak to or about Americans on the phone. The result is an American being accidentally surveilled, or an American’s personal information being collected, under a warrant that’s supposed to target foreigners only.

This is called “incidental collection” in intelligence jargon, and it creates a bit of a privacy rights dilemma. You don’t want to let the US intelligence community use FISA warrants as a backdoor way of spying on US citizens, and you also don’t want the names of Americans who have been surveilled incidentally to leak publicly.

The solution is a process called “minimization,” wherein the name of US citizens on the call or mentioned on the call is replaced with some kind of descriptor in the intelligence community’s write-ups. Let’s say the US government has a FISA warrant on my fiancée, who is Canadian, and intercepts some boring call we have about groceries. She would be identified by name in the transcript, but I would be referred to as something like “Journalist #1” or “Relative #2.”

On occasion, high-level officials — say, the national security adviser — can ask the intelligence community to reveal the names of Americans picked up in the surveillance. Theoretically, they’re only supposed to ask for someone to be “unmasked” when the report is unintelligible without the person’s identity OR when there’s a compelling national security reason to do so (like if a suspected foreign terrorist was talking to a US citizen about their joint plan to blow up a building).

Such requests make a lot of sense, and do happen with some frequency. But out of context, it sounds scary — the US government is trying to find out individual citizens’ names on warrants that are supposed to target foreigners!

This is what Nunes’s initial disclosures last month were all about. Nunes announced that US intelligence had incidentally collected information on Trump transition officials and, moreover, that the names of these Trump officials had been unmasked. This did raise some questions about privacy rights. But because Nunes was extremely vague about who was unmasked and why, the controversy didn’t initially focus on that aspect of things.

The Rice reports have refocused things significantly, linking the unmasking to a specific Trump administration official. This led, almost immediately, to speculation that Rice had asked for the unmasking for improper political reasons — building off Trump’s unsubstantiated allegation that Obama had spied on him during the campaign. By giving Republicans a specific target, rather than a vague one, they could make a lot more hay out of unmasking allegations — even though if you understand how surveillance actually works, you realize that what Rice was doing was fairly routine.

The fact that Susan Rice is the one at the center of the new flap, and not a different former Obama administration official, was the last ingredient necessary to turn this non-scandal into a conservative obsession.

How this became such a big deal

Republicans have gotten so incensed over the Rice reports that they’re already calling for investigations into it.

“I think every American should know whether or not the national security adviser to President Obama was involved in unmasking Trump transition figures for political purposes,” Sen. Lindsey Graham said in a Tuesday appearance on Fox News. “It should be easy to figure out, and we will.”

The first part of the answer is that much of America’s conservative establishment has been flailing to find ways to justify Trump’s initial tweet about alleged Obama wiretapping. Because nothing resembling evidence of surveillance of Trump Tower during the campaign has come to light, anything that looks like surveillance of Trump officials by the Obama administration has been trumpeted as proof that Trump was right.

In March, for example, former Obama aide Evelyn Farkas said in an MSNBC interview that team Obama attempted to preserve as much information on Trump-Russia ties as they could before leaving office, as they were worried Trump would delete them. Her phrasing was imprecise — “get as much intelligence as you can before President Obama leaves the administration” — and nodes in the pro-Trump media ecosystem, like Fox’s Sean Hannity, seized on it as evidence that Obama did wiretap Trump (“Surveillance Confirmed,” the banner on Hannity’s show read). Mark Levin, a right-wing radio host, called it a “smoking gun.”

The Rice reports sound even more troubling than the Farkas stuff — Obama officials manipulating classified information! — and have gotten even more attention. If you look at the home page of Breitbart on Tuesday afternoon, for example, every single story is Rice-related, all of them hyping it as evidence that Rice and the Obama administration were attempting to weaken Trump.

Breitbart homepage as of 2:35 pm EST on April 4.

Of course, not every wild claim on these sites leads to calls from senators for investigations, especially relative Trump-skeptics like Lindsey Graham. The reason the Rice stuff has gotten more lift than the Farkas comments is Rice herself.

Susan Rice, if you’ll recall, was at the center of the controversy after the 2012 Benghazi attack, back when she was Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations. Shortly after the attacks, Rice went on television to explain what had happened, arguing that the attack (which claimed the lives of four Americans, including the US ambassador to Libya) grew out of a “spontaneous protest” motivated by an extreme anti-Islam video released on YouTube.

This turned out to be wrong. While some of the attackers really were incensed by the film, closed-circuit footage from the diplomatic building showed that there was no protest.

Republicans accused the White House of making up the “spontaneous protest” claim in order to cover up their failure or downplay the role of terrorism. They also accused the administration of inappropriately manipulating the “talking points” the intelligence community provided to Rice in preparation for her TV appearances. Congressional Republicans spent countless hours looking into the talking points. Detailed dissections of the talking points, like this one from the Weekly Standard‘s Steven Hayes, appeared all over right-wing media.

Benghazi also became a catchphrase for Republicans attacking Hillary Clinton’s national security credentials during the last election. The problem is that there wasn’t much there there.

While the talking points Rice used were incorrect, several US government investigationshave shown this to be the result of an honest CIA error made in the first days after the incident, and not a deliberate White House cover-up. There is no evidence of inappropriate White House tampering, which we know because the Obama White House eventually released all the drafts of the talking points in question.

But the whole incident poisoned Republican views of Rice, who’s now seen as a malevolent political operator by virtually the entire GOP. When she was named as the person responsible for the unmasking, Republicans were primed to assume there was a scandal there — a point many openly admit.

“Susan Rice is the Typhoid Mary of the Obama administration foreign policy,” Sen. Tom Cotton said in a Tuesday interview on The Hugh Hewitt Show. “Every time something went wrong, she seemed to turn up in the middle of it, whether it was these allegations of improper unmasking, intentional or improper surveillance, whether it’s Benghazi or the other fiascos over the eight years of the Obama administration.”

What we’re seeing now, in short, is not a legitimate debate about the threat posed to civil liberties by improper unmasking. We are seeing a toxic combination of Trump’s penchant for wild speculation, a right-wing media echo chamber, and the legacy of the Benghazi controversy coming together to produce an absurd pile-on — one that seems to have brought the Republican Party together around their remaining hatred for Rice and the Obama administration.

U.S. Politics

President Trump Blames Barack Obama’s ‘Weakness’ for Chemical Attack in Syria

TIME

(BEIRUT) — President Donald Trump blamed former President Barack Obama on Tuesday for “weakness” that he said led to a reprehensible chemical weapons attack by Syria’s government, while his secretary of state said Russia and Iran bore moral responsible for the deaths.

In a series of strongly worded statements, Trump’s administration sought to convey a forceful response to the attack in Syria’s rebel-held northern Idlib. Trump said the attack against innocent people mustn’t be “ignored by the civilized world.”

“These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution,” Trump said, in a reference to Obama’s failure to strike in 2013 after saying a chemical attack by Assad would cross a U.S. red line.

Trump left it to his top diplomat, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, to assign at least some blame to Russia and Iran, Assad’s most powerful allies. Tillerson called on both countries to use their influence over Assad to prevent future chemical weapons attacks. He noted Russia’s and Iran’s roles in helping broker a ceasefire through diplomatic talks that have occurred in the Kazakh capital of Astana.

“As the self-proclaimed guarantors to the ceasefire negotiated in Astana, Russia and Iran also bear great moral responsibility for these deaths,” Tillerson said.

Both Trump and Tillerson referred in written statements to a chemical weapons attack, rather than a suspected attack, suggesting the U.S. has reached some degree of confidence about what took place in Idlib.

At the White House earlier Tuesday, spokesman Sean Spicer said the White House had received a number of phone calls from European allies questioning how it would address the problem, pressing Trump’s “America First” administration to take a bold position on this civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands and prompted the worst refugee crisis since World War II.

“I’m not ready to talk about our next step but we’ll talk about that soon,” he said.

The attack Tuesday, in Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province, is believed to have killed dozens of people, activists on the ground describing the attack as among the worst in the country’s six-year civil war.

Obama gave the Assad government an ultimatum that the use of chemical weapons in any circumstance would result in consequences. But those consequences never came — the landscape growing more complicated by the rise of radical groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, and later, the Islamic State group. And while government-backed forces are blamed for launching unrelenting attacks on civilians opposing his rule, many warn that removing Assad now would only create a vacuum for those groups to overrun the country.

Syrian opposition activists claimed that the attack was caused by an airstrike carried out either by the Syrian government or Russian warplanes. Russia’s Defense Ministry categorically rejected the claims.

Russia’s role in Syria was a matter of extreme contention between Moscow and Washington under the Obama administration. Then-Secretary of State John Kerry called for both Syria and Russia to be investigated for war crimes in connection with attacks on civilians.

In Turkey on Thursday, Tillerson was touting a new message: “The longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.”

Spicer on Tuesday rejected the notion that there is a “comfort level with Assad,” describing the administration’s position as a reflection of “a political reality.” He would not elaborate.

Vivian Salama and Josh Lederman / AP