U.S. Politics

US official: Russia knew in advance that Syria would launch chemical-weapons attack

assad putin

Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin. AFP/Reuters/Amanda Macias/Business Insider


The US has concluded that Russia knew in advance about the chemical attack in Syria last week that killed dozens of civilians and is believed to have been carried out by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces, a senior US official told The Associated Press on Monday.

Both Moscow and Damascus have denied that Assad’s forces dropped the chemicals, claiming that the gas was released accidentally when a Syrian airstrike hit a “terrorist warehouse” containing “toxic substances.”

Experts quickly cast doubt on Russia’s explanation for Syria’s worst chemical attack since 2013, when Assad, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, is believed to have used sarin gas to kill as many as 1,400 people in the outskirts of Damascus, Syria’s capital. Assad still denies responsibility for that attack.

The US determined shortly after the attack last week that Syrian warplanes had dropped the chemicals, which caused injuries and deaths that the World Health Organization said were “consistent with exposure to organophosphorus chemicals, a category of chemicals that includes nerve agents.”

The Pentagon had been looking into whether Russia was complicit in the attack. A Russian drone was reportedly hovering above a hospital treating victims and then turned off just before the hospital was bombed. US officials believe the hospital was targeted in an attempt to hide evidence of the chemical attack.

Those officials have now concluded that the drone that was hovering above the hospital was operated by Russia, and the warplane that attacked the hospital was Russian-made. But they have not determined whether the plane was operated by a Russian or Syrian pilot.

“The official said the presence of the drone couldn’t have been a coincidence, and that Russia must have known the chemical weapons attack was coming and that victims were seeking treatment,” the AP reported.

The US retaliated against Syria for the gas attack on Thursday night, launching 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the airfield where Assad’s warplanes are believed to have taken off, loaded with the chemicals.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Thursday that Russia, which helped broker the deal in 2013 to destroy Assad’s chemical-weapons stockpile, had been “complicit” or “simply incompetent in its ability to deliver on its end of that agreement.”

It is unclear how the US will respond now that officials have concluded that Russia knew of the attack in advance. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Monday that the Assad regime would be “ill-advised” to use chemical weapons in the future, foreshadowing a potentially greater US response than last week’s strike.

U.S. Politics

Mitch McConnell Didn’t Just Steal A Supreme Court Seat

Mitch McConnell Didn’t Just Steal A Supreme Court Seat



When history gathers the men who made the presidency of Donald Trump possible, lingering in a corner behind the blinding glare of Julian Assange and the massive 6’8” frame of James Comey will be Mitch McConnell, his corners mouth shaped into a smile that resembles a twisted mustache.

McConnell will want you to believe that history owes him credit for his strategic brilliance. And it’s undeniable that his campaign of massive obstruction topped off by the historic robbery of a Supreme Court seat, helped unite a GOP that was fracturing like a fissured fibula and make Trump’s improbable rise to the White House possible.

The Senate Majority Leader calls not allowing the appointment of Merrick Garland, President Obama’s pick to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, a fair hearing “the most consequential decision I’ve ever been involved in.” And as usual, he’s being both self-congratulatory and deceptive.

Yes, Trump did better with evangelical voters than Mitt Romney, John McCain and even an actual evangelical George W. Bush, according to an analysis from Pew.

This is a result so unlikely that it’s almost unmistakable from satire.

Trump is a thrice married accumulator of failed casinos, stolen valor from other people’s charity and sexual harassment allegations. For him to even be nearly as competitive with the religious right as devout believers like Romney and Bush or even McCain, who the poster boy for the Reagan Revolution, is a monumental victory for both hypocrisy and tactical politics. Trump proved that the right’s feigned concerns for other people’s marriages was absolutely negotiable as long what it was offered in return was up to four revanchist Supreme Court Justices who will reshape and regress America for as long as half a century.

McConnell understands that since Brown v. Board of Education, the Court has been the defining issue for a conservative movement that fully comprehends our justice system’s power to remake or restore old biases. Holding a seat as a lure for the right was an opportunity Trump seized by putting out a list of Heritage Foundation-approved Justices and picking Mike Pence, a walking proof point for the argument that his agenda could be captured by the religious right.

It was a brilliant strategy from a man who has led a movement that recognizing the dusk of its demographic advantages decided to drop all pretenses of pomp and statesmanship for the pure embrace of power politics.

The Senate minority led by McConnell used the filibuster to block 79 of Obama’s nominees by 2013. That’s 79 in less than five five years, “compared with 68 in the entire previous history of the Republic,” Dana Milbank notes. When Senate Republicans refused to confirm anyone to the D.C. appeals court just after President Obama became the first president elected with 51 percent of the popular vote twice, Senate Democrats went nuclear and ended the filibuster for all appointments, except the Supreme Court. McConnell completed the nuclear fallout he made inevitable last week by denying the minority the right to block a young far right Justice selected by a man who lost the popular vote by 3 million usurping an older compromise pick from a genuinely popular president.

McConnell sees shredding of tradition as no vice in the pursuit of preserving privilege.

Nothing was going to stop him from taking Garland’s seat — not even the interference of a foreign government in our election.

This takes us to what Brian Beutler reveals as the real mostconsequential decision of McConnell’s career” and that’s the decision to shut down any attempt to make the public aware of Russia’s interference into our elections, which had been invited and embraced by Trump himself.

Beutler notes that “leaders of the U.S. intelligence community sought a united front ahead of the fall against Russian election interference—whatever its nature—and McConnell shot it down.” And not only shot it down, promised to impugn any effort to expose Putin’s efforts as false and partisan. This was threat that the Obama Administration calculated would harm both the Clinton campaign and the fabric of our democracy.

“The upshot is that McConnell drew a protective fence around Russian efforts to sabotage Clinton’s candidacy, by characterizing any effort to stop it as partisan politicization of intelligence at Trump’s expense,” Beutler wrote.

So as the FBI investigated a presidential campaign for possible collusion with foreign power, the public only learned of the possible existence, in the days just before the election, of some emails that may have validated the hazy, wild accusations being flung at Hillary Clinton by Donald Trump and his foreign allies.

Rather than broaden its message or revamp its failed policies, the GOP has declared war on democracy. And when history notes who made this strategy and unchecked madman it elected possible, much of the credit should go to Mitch McConnell.

That will be one thing he didn’t steal.

U.S. Politics

Why Trump keeps doing the opposite of what he said he’d do


US President Donald Trump speaks to the press on Air Force One on April 6, 2017 | JIM WATSON


When describing his vision on health care policy, Donald Trump, before the election and after, made a series of fairly explicit commitments. The Republican wouldn’t just repeal the Affordable Care Act, he said, he’d replace it with a system that brought insurance to all Americans, while also lowering premiums and deductibles.

‘Careening incompetence’ of Trump administration risks crisis

In practice, Trump abandoned every promise he made, embracing legislation that would’ve delivered the exact opposite results. The president radically changed direction without explanation, largely because House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told him the House Republican plan had merit, and Trump, indifferent towards policy details, accepted the assurances at face value.

Trump didn’t have any working understanding of the GOP legislation – by all appearances, he hadn’t even read it – but the president didn’t think it mattered. The Speaker told the White House it was the best available option, and Trump eagerly went along, promises to the public be damned.

To a very real extent, the president got played, and his ignorance made it easy. As Vox’s Ezra Klein put it a few weeks ago, “This is the problem with not knowing or caring much about the details of policy – it’s easy to get spun by people who do know and care.” It’s an often overlooked detail: Trump abandoned the course he promised voters he’d pursue because the president listened to allies who cared vastly more about the substance of the debate than he did.

If this dynamic sounds familiar, it’s because there’s ample reason to believe something similar happened last week – except, this time, Trump wasn’t ignoring his own promises and instincts on health care, he was ignoring his own promises and instincts on national security policy as applied in the Middle East.

For the three years leading up to Election Day, Trump was strikingly consistent: the United States needed to stay out of Syria. Missile strikes would be a costly and pointless mistake, he said. The risks associated with intervention against the Assad regime were enormous – Candidate Trump warned against “World War III” shortly before Election Day – and the benefits were few.

And yet, Trump was again spun by those who knew more and cared more. The New Republic’s Jeet Heer highlighted the Pentagon’s role.

As a candidate, Donald Trump swaggered about how he’d order the military to do what he wanted. “They won’t refuse,” he said during a Republican debate, defending his call for the military to “take out” terrorists’ families. “They’re not gonna refuse me. Believe me.” He also claimed to have unique expertise. “I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me,” he said at a rally in Iowa.

The U.S. missile strikes on a Syrian air base on Friday make clear a different reality: The Pentagon, not the White House, is playing the dominant role not just in military strategy, but in shaping foreign policy.

The New York Times’ Ross Douthat made a related case yesterday.
Most recent presidencies have been distinguished by tugs of war between different groups of foreign policy hands…. The Trump administration, though, doesn’t really have many normal foreign policy experts among its civilian officials. Rex Tillerson may have a realist streak and Nikki Haley a moralistic style, but neither one has been part of these debates before. Mike Pence has nothing like the experience of a Dick Cheney or a Joe Biden. If Bannon’s vision is getting sidelined, it’s not like Jared Kushner is ready with a deeply thought-out alternative.

What Trump has instead are generals – James Mattis and H. R. McMaster and the other military men in his cabinet, plus, of course, the actual professional military itself. And it’s this team of generals, not any of the usual foreign policy schools, that seems increasingly likely to steer his statecraft going forward.

It’d be overly simplistic, of course, to suggest that the brass are pulling Trump’s strings, shaping the entirety of the administration’s foreign policy. The broader dynamic is more complex: the president was reportedly affected by television coverage of Assad’s chemical attack and an apparent desire to do the opposite of whatever Barack Obama did.

But the real simplicity was Trump’s assumptions that an almost mindless commitment to “America First” principles could realistically become the basis for a functioning foreign policy. It was a placeholder vision, which the president would replace with whatever the people around him told him to do. Last week, that meant listening to his party’s orthodoxy and ignoring everything Trump has ever said, thought, or promised as it relates to U.S. policy in the Middle East.

On health care, it was Paul Ryan who effectively told Trump, “Never mind what your instincts tell you; my plan is the way to go.” On Syria, it was his national security team that did the same thing, effectively telling the president, “Never mind what your instincts tell you; this is an issue 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles can make better.”

It’s a safe bet Trump’s entire presidency will continue to unfold this way. It’s not that he’s determined to deliberately do the opposite of what he promised voters; it’s that he doesn’t seem to take any of those commitments especially seriously. Someone he knows and trusts – Paul Ryan, James Mattis, H.R. McMaster, et al – comes into the Oval Office, presents him with an idea, tells him it’s the smart thing to do, and Trump says, “Sounds good.”

He didn’t necessarily change his mind about his vision; Trump never really made up his mind in the first place.

U.S. Politics

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


Harry How/Getty Images


1. G-7 ministers meet to show a united front on Syria
Foreign ministers from the Group of Seven industrialized nations are gathering in Italy on Monday for a meeting expected to focus on the next steps to take on Syria, following last week’s U.S. missile strike against the Syrian air base believed to have launched a nerve gas attack that killed more than 80 civilians, including children, in a rebel-held town. G-7 leaders are expected to pressure Russia to stop supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano, the meeting’s host, said Europe’s broad support for the U.S. strikes had contributed to a “renewed harmony” between the U.S. and the European Union, which had appeared to be “moving apart” over the last 100 days. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is expected to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov after the G-7 meeting.

Source: The Associated Press, Fox News

2. Sergio Garcia claims his first major title, winning the Masters in a playoff
Sergio Garcia won the 81st Masters on Sunday, beating Justin Rose with a birdie on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff. Rose had a two-stroke lead going into the final five holes, but Garcia caught up to finish regulation play tied with Rose at 9 under par, missing a seven-foot birdie that would have won the tournament on the final hole. It was Garcia’s first major title in 74 starts despite finishing as runner-up four times, including a playoff loss in the 2007 British Open to Padraig Harrington. “Obviously, this is something I wanted to do for a long time,” Garcia said, “but, you know, it never felt like a horror movie. It felt like a little bit of a drama, but obviously with a happy ending.”

Source: CBS Sports, The New York Times

3. ISIS claims responsibility for Egypt church bombings
The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for suicide bombings that killed at least 44 people at two Coptic Christian churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday. ISIS said the bombers were Egyptian nationals, although Egyptian authorities did not immediately released details on the identity of the suspected attackers. ISIS warned that it planned more attacks, saying: “The Crusaders and their tails from the apostates must be aware that the bill between us and them is very large and they will be paying it like a river of blood from their sons, if God willing.” Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi declared a three-month state of emergency, calling the attacks “outrageous” and ordering security forces to “hunt down the perpetrators.”

Source: CNN

4. U.S. officials send mixed signals on Syria after strike
National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said Sunday that the U.S. might take further military action against the Syrian government, but that the U.S. would not try to remove President Bashar al-Assad on its own. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the Trump administration’s top priority in Syria was still defeating the Islamic State. After that is accomplished, he said, the U.S. would turn its focus to helping to broker ceasefire agreements between rebels and the government, although it would be up to the Syrian people to decide Assad’s fate. The remarks by McMaster and Tillerson appeared to contradict an earlier statement by United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who said defeating ISIS is the top priority but “we don’t see a peaceful Syria with Assad in there.”

Source: The Associated Press, The Washington Post

5. Another National Security Council member leaves
Deputy National Security Adviser K.T. McFarland, who was hired by ousted National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, is expected to step down from the National Security Council and take the job of U.S. ambassador to Singapore, Bloomberg News reported Sunday, citing an administration official. The report was the latest sign that National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who replaced Flynn, is consolidating his power further after getting President Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, removed from the powerful standing committee of the NSC. Flynn was pushed out in February for misleading Vice President Mike Pence about his communication with Russian officials before Trump’s inauguration.

Source: Bloomberg

6. Suicide bombing targeting army chief kills civilians in Somalia
A suicide bomber tried to ram a vehicle into the convoy of Somalia’s newly installed army commander, Gen. Ahmed Mohamed Jimale, outside the defense ministry in Mogadishu, but instead blew apart a minibus, killing 15 civilians. Jimale, who had just taken the oath of office, escaped unscathed. Authorities blamed the al-Shabab militant group, which acknowledged that it was behind the attack and claimed that several military officials were among the dead. The bombing came three days after the country’s new president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (also known as Farmajo), declared war on al-Shabab, and shook up the leadership of the army, police, and national intelligence service to go after the Islamist extremist organization.

Source: The New York Times

7. Authorities hunt for Wisconsin man who allegedly sent manifesto to Trump
Police increased security around churches in Janesville, Wisconsin, on Sunday as local, state, and federal law-enforcement agencies intensified the search for Joseph Jakubowski, who allegedly stole high-caliber weapons from a Janesville gun store and mailed an anti-government manifesto to President Trump. Authorities ordered the security presence at churches due to “anti-religion sentiment” in the 160-page manifesto, which investigators believe Jakubowski wrote. Jakubowski, described by a friend as “highly agitated” by recent national politics, allegedly stole 16 high-caliber rifles and pistols from the Armageddon Gun Shop in Janesville on Tuesday.

Source: NBC News, The Associated Press

8. North Korea defiant after U.S. show of strength
North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said Sunday that the isolated communist nation was “not frightened” by the U.S. Tomahawk missile strike against Syria, or by the Navy carrier strike group the U.S. has redirected toward the Korean Peninsula. “What happened in Syria once again taught a bitter lesson that … one can defend oneself from the imperialist aggression only when one has one’s strength,” the foreign ministry spokesman said according to state media. “Any aggression should be countered with force only and we were entirely just when we have bolstered our nuclear force remarkably.” Pentagon officials said it was necessary to redirect the Navy ships to the area due to rising tensions caused by North Korea’s recent tests of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.

Source: MarketWatch

9. Israel closes Egyptian border crossing after deadly church attacks
Israel has closed its Taba border crossing to Egypt’s Sinai peninsula following intelligence suggesting an “imminent” terrorist attack, Israeli Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz said Monday. Sinai is a popular vacation spot during the upcoming Passover break. Israel said the border crossing will be open for Israeli citizens coming home, following the deadly attacks on two Coptic Christian churches in Egypt during Palm Sunday services. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi declared a three-month state of emergency after the attacks, which killed at least 44 people, but Parliament needs to approve his declaration. ISIS has claimed responsibility for the blasts.

Source: The Associated Press, BBC News

10. 21st Century Fox investigates sexual harassment claim against Bill O’Reilly
Fox News’ parent company 21st Century Fox announced Sunday that it will have a law firm investigate the sexual harassment claims against Bill O’Reilly, host of The O’Reilly Factor. “This is not blowing over,” said civil rights attorney Lisa Bloom, who represents Wendy Walsh, a former contributor to O’Reilly’s show, who triggered the investigation by calling 21st Century Fox’s anonymous hotline last week to say that O’Reilly had promised to get her a job at the news channel but backed out after she rejected his romantic advances. She earlier gave the same account to The New York Times, which reported a week ago that O’Reilly and his employer had paid $13 million to five women who accused him of sexual harassment and other abuse. O’Reilly has denied the claims, saying accusers “target” him due to his fame. Sixty advertisers have dropped the show since the Times report.

Source: Variety, The New York Times

U.S. Politics

Opinion: U.N. Condemns Republican Bills Criminalizing Peaceful Protests

Opinion: U.N. Condemns Republican Bills Criminalizing Peaceful Protests


America has always touted itself as the bastion of democracy and particularly boasted the freedoms its citizens enjoy; freedoms enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. But as any casual political observer is aware, those freedoms, along with America’s democracy, are in jeopardy of being swept away by Republicans who cannot tolerate dissent from the people they are supposed to serve.

Now, as the entire world is stunned at the alarming turn of events in Trump’s authoritarian America, its preeminent organization, the United Nations, has taken the extraordinary step of warning Republicans that they are “threatening one of the United States constitutional pillars: free speech.”

The organization condemning the Republican assault on democratic values sent a letter to American authorities over 16 Republican state legislatures introducing unconstitutional bills banning peaceful protests and free speech. According to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly, Maina Kiai and David Kaye, Special Rappateur on the protection of the right to freedom of expression, the Republican legislation represents “an alarming trend” and an attack on democracy. The pair particularly noted that this trend has greatly intensified since Trump got to move into the White House.

The two “rappateurs” noted in their letter to U.S. authorities that more than 16 states have introduced authoritarian legislation specifically aimed at restricting the right to assembly. They wrote:

Since January 2017, a number of undemocratic bills have been proposed in state legislatures with the purpose or effect of criminalizing peaceful protests. The bills, if enacted into law, would severely infringe upon the exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly in ways that are incompatible with US obligations under international human rights law and with First Amendment protections. The trend also threatens to jeopardize one of the United States’ constitutional pillars: free speech.”

The U.N. specifically noted the pending bills are “currently in the legislative corridors of Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee and Washington.”  Messers Kiai and Kaye specifically cited that the bills’ purposes are quashing democracy and violating the 1st Amendment and “were mainly proposed at the beginning of 2017 and exclusively by Republican legislators.

In a direct attack on the Republicans’ authoritarian actions, the U.N democratic advocates took particular umbrage with the tyrannical characterization of peaceful protests being labeled as “unlawful” or “violent” in some of the Republican bills. Kiai and Kaye wrote what is obvious to anyone remotely knowledgeable or concerned about democracy. They said:

There can be no such thing in law as a violent protest. There are violent protesters, who should be dealt with individually and appropriately by law enforcement. One person’s decision to resort to violence does not strip other protesters of their right to freedom of peaceful assembly. This right is not a collective right; it is held by each of us individually. Peaceful assembly is a fundamental right, not a privilege, and the government has no business imposing a general requirement that people get permission before exercising that right.”

What especially alarmed the United Nations was the threat of violence toward peaceful protesters written into most of the authoritarian Republican legislation. For example, in Indiana’s Senate Bill 285 there is a provision that allows law enforcement officials to “use any means necessary to clear the roads of people unlawfully obstructing vehicular traffic.” The U.N experts were appalled at the “broad language” in the GOP bills because they “could lead to excessive use of force” written into the bills by design.

Besides warning that imposing “hefty fines and prison sentences” in most of the bills, the UN experts were particularly concerned over the wording in Florida, North Dakota and Tennessee bills that would exempt drivers from liability if they hit and even killed a pedestrian participating in a protest.

It is likely that the United Nations is well aware that all of this authoritarian legislation dismantling the “pillars of the Constitution” are the direct result of Trump’s election victory. They comprehend that Trump, with Republican collusion,  supports and encourages authoritarian action to quell dissent no matter that it is quelling democracy.

Trump embraces authoritarian leaders as “doing the right thing the right way” such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the Philippine President Manuel Duterte, and most recently Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi who Trump praises as “having done a fantastic job.” El-Sisi led a military coup to overthrow the legally-elected government and has summarily executed 812 protesters in a single day, and imprisoned over 40,000 people in a crackdown on political dissent.

This is not the first time the United Nations has harshly criticized America for human rights violations contrary to its commitments to democracy that it initiated in treaties and human rights’ agreements; agreements it once regularly used to condemn tyrannical dictators around the world. However, it is the first time the international organization specifically targeted Republican state legislatures for attacking their own citizens for simply exercising their constitutionally-protected freedoms and rights.

What is not surprising is the dearth of reporting in American media that the so-called “shining city on a hill,” the glaring example of how “democracy and freedom works,” was harshly criticized for criminalizing peaceable protests and freedom of expression. In fact, if not for the United Nations’ letter being covered and reported in Britain’s “The Independent,” Americans may have never learned that they live in a nation where one political party is bringing another level of shame because they wholly intend to criminalize “the pillar of democracy” enshrined in the nation’s founding document; a document the authoritarian Republican Party and its leader refuse to recognize is the law of the land and despise because it informs ‘the pillar of democracy.”

U.S. Politics

Reversal: Some Republicans now defending parts of ObamaCare



The House’s debate over repealing ObamaCare has had an unintended effect: Republicans are now defending key elements of President Obama’s health law.

Many House Republicans are now defending ObamaCare’s protections for people with pre-existing conditions, in the face of an effort by the conservative House Freedom Caucus to repeal them.

Some Republican lawmakers are also speaking out in favor of ObamaCare’s expansion of Medicaid and its mandates that insurance plans cover services such as mental health and prescription drugs.

Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), the GOP’s chief deputy whip, said Wednesday that the Freedom Caucus’s calls for states to be able to apply for waivers to repeal pre-existing condition protections are “a bridge too far for our members.”

Those ObamaCare protections include what is known as community rating, which prevents insurers from charging higher premiums to people with pre-existing conditions, and guaranteed issue, which prevents insurers from outright denying coverage to them.

McHenry spoke in personal terms about the importance of keeping in place those Affordable Care Act (ACA) provisions, contained in Title I of the law.

“If you look at the key provisions of Title I, it affects a cross section of our conference based off of their experience and the stories they know from their constituents and their understanding of policy,” McHenry said.

“My family history is really bad, and so my understanding of the impact of insurance regs are real, and I believe I’m a conservative, so I look at this, understand the impact of regulation, but also the impact of really bad practices in the insurance marketplace prior to the ACA passing,” he continued. “There are a lot of provisions that I’ve campaigned on for four election cycles that are part of the law now that I want to preserve.”

McHenry’s defense of those ObamaCare pre-existing condition protections is striking because just last year, House Republicans touted a healthcare plan, called A Better Way, that would have repealed the protections and replaced them with a different system.

Rather than ObamaCare’s protections, the Better Way plan would have protected people with pre-existing conditions only if they maintained “continuous coverage,” meaning they had no gaps in coverage. Unlike under ObamaCare, the plan would not extend the protections to people who were uninsured and trying to enroll in coverage. For those people, Republicans proposed subsidizing coverage through separate high-risk pools.

During a town hall at Georgetown University last year, Speaker Paul Ryan(R-Wis.) called for repealing ObamaCare’s community rating protection and allowing insurers to return to the days of “underwriting,” when they could charge people with pre-existing conditions more. Instead, sick people could get coverage subsidized through high-risk pools, he said.

“Open up underwriting, have more insurance companies, have more competition, and just pay for the person with the pre-existing condition to make sure that they can get affordable coverage when that moment happens and make it much more competitive for everybody else,” Ryan said then. “I think it’s a smarter way to do it economically and it gives people more freedom, more choices.”

Now, though, many House Republicans are defending the ObamaCare protections.

For example, in addition to McHenry’s comments, Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) this week called community rating a “very significant reform” made by ObamaCare.

Conservative groups are frustrated to see Republicans offering the defense. They say these Republicans are going back on their word to repeal ObamaCare.

Heritage Action this week sent out a fact sheet, citing the Better Way plan, titled “House Republicans Campaigned on Repealing Obamacare’s Community Rating Provision.”

The group’s CEO, Michael Needham, held a press call to blame moderate House Republicans in the Tuesday Group for blocking a deal.

“I think the Tuesday Group clearly wants to keep ObamaCare in place,” Needham said.

It’s not just the pre-existing condition protections that GOP lawmakers are defending.

Many Republicans from states that accepted ObamaCare’s expansion of Medicaid are supporting keeping it.

A group of Republican senators, including Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), the chairman of Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, last month objected to a draft of the House GOP repeal bill because it did not “provide stability and certainty for individuals and families in Medicaid expansion programs or the necessary flexibility for states.”

The House bill would effectively end the Medicaid expansion starting in 2020. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) warned that change “affects so many of our disabled individuals and families, and the working poor.”

Republicans had long derided ObamaCare’s “essential health benefits,” which mandate 10 health services that insurance plans must cover. They have said, for example, that men should not be forced to pay for plans that cover maternity care.

But now some Republicans are speaking up in favor of those requirements, including the chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.).

“In addition to the loss of Medicaid coverage for so many people in my Medicaid-dependent state, the denial of essential health benefits in the individual market raise serious coverage and cost issues,” Frelinghuysen wrote in a statement last month announcing he would oppose the House GOP repeal bill.

House Republicans even touted an amendment on Thursday that they said would bring down premiums by the government helping to pay for the costs of high-cost enrollees. That program is very similar to one that already existed in ObamaCare, called “reinsurance.”

McHenry, asked if his defense of the pre-existing condition protections was an acknowledgement that ObamaCare had done some good, said: “It is an awful bill on the main, but there are a few little kernels here that have had a good impact for eliminating the worst practices within the insurance marketplace.”

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the conservative Freedom Caucus, this week pushed back on the argument that his claims are a “bridge too far” for most of the conference, saying “anything less” than full repeal is not a bridge too far.

But he acknowledged that many of his colleagues don’t support full repeal of ObamaCare, long a central tenet of the party.

“Full repeal of ObamaCare may be a bridge too far,” he said, later adding: “We wouldn’t be having the problem we’re having if that weren’t the case.”


U.S. Politics

Homeland season 6 simply can’t compete with reality’s plot twists

Carrie tries to uncover a stateside conspiracy in Homeland | Showtime


The current season is the show’s most frustrating in years — but it’s largely not the show’s fault

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for April 2 through April 8 is “R Is for Romeo,” the 11th episode of the sixth season of Showtime’s Homeland.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

The president, angry, accuses a media personality of peddling fake news. For a second, it seems as if the charge might stick, but then, the media personality pushes back, suggesting the president is wrong to threaten the freedom of the press, even by implication.

But there really is a fake news conspiracy within the United States — or at least one that’s meant to spread extensive misinformation in order to turn people against powerful politicians. The whole of American power rests on a knife’s edge, and the transition from one presidential administration to another is caught up not only in the question of who’s peddling all the bullshit — but the question of how much that bullshit ultimately factored into the result of the election.

Oh, and have I mentioned that Russia remains an elaborate, omnipresent boogeyman, or that there are rumblings of the collapse of a nuclear deal with Iran, even though nobody’s sure the Iranians are reneging on the deal?

It’s all happening, only it’s happening on Homeland, and the way in which it’s happening reveals both how relevant and utterly insignificant the show remains. In its sixth season, the show feels, more and more, like it got a whole bunch right about how the world operates, how the security state tries to maintain its iron grip of power on America, and how dangerous the spread of deliberately false information can be.

Except Homeland can’t help that it’s been trumped — the pun is unintentional, I swear, but it might as well not be — by reality.

Homeland is afraid of the Deep State, even as it’s kind of in love with it

The sixth season of Homeland is the show’s first to be set stateside since its third, and it’s the first to be filmed in New York. It takes as its premise the transition from one presidential administration to the other.

The president-elect is an unexpected victor, with questions still swirling around the story surrounding her. She’s a New York senator. She’s also deeply embroiled in a war with the intelligence community, who see her as hopefully naive. (She thinks the intelligence community has hoarded enough power so as to effectively turn the US into a police state.)

In the broad outlines of this character — named Elizabeth Keane and played with great panache by Elizabeth Marvel — you can see how Homeland spent much of last year, when season six was being written, trying to have its cake and eat it too. On a very superficial level, President-elect Keane resembles Hillary Clinton. But on a deeper level, her outsider status and battle against the intelligence community resembles our current president.

HomelandPresident-elect Keane tries to handle a situation rapidly spiraling out of control | Showtime

Yet Homeland’s sympathies lie with the president-elect. She’s advised, after all, by Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), a deeply flawed character but one who genuinely seems to be trying to better herself, and Carrie increasingly believes the War on Terror has consumed America’s soul. The intelligence community, none too excited to have the incoming administration threatening to undercut it, works fervently to undercut everything the president-elect is up to.

What “R Is for Romeo” finally makes clear — thanks to a sudden realization by Saul (Mandy Patinkin, playing the one Homeland character who is Always Right) — is that the CIA itself (under the auspices of the treacherous Dar Adal) is not only dragging Keane’s name through the mud, but also following a playbook it’s used in nations from Chile to Iran to topple fledgling regimes the United States didn’t support. The vast fake news complex the season has slowly untangled isn’t a Russian or Iranian or Israeli ploy (all ideas the show floated). It’s homegrown, a CIA operation, through and through.

In and of itself, this is an interesting twist, even if it falls prey to one of Homeland’s most persistent problems, namely that Saul and Dar occasionally seem to be telepathic superhumans who can predict exactly what everybody they know will do in any given circumstance. Homeland is always at its best when it’s reflecting reality, but in an eerie, more unsettling way, not an exact one. And season six is certainly a funhouse version of America.

The season also openly invites those who are anti-Trump to grapple with themselves about how far they’re willing to go to see him pushed out of office. An FBI investigation? Sure. That body’s designed to investigate criminal activities, even if the president is carrying them out. But what if the effort extends beyond that? Is it worth removing a president you dislike — maybe even a dangerous president — if the process effectively entrenches the intelligence community as another branch of the government, beyond J. Edgar Hoover’s wildest dreams?

Homeland exists to play out these what-if scenarios — but reality doesn’t necessarily need help at the moment

Homeland, like many other series set in the world of Washington and its environs, has found itself racing to catch up to a reality that increasingly feels like an incredibly bizarre potboiler of a novel. Hell, even Quantico is attempting stories about what it means to live in an America where Donald Trump is president, and Quantico always seemed like a show that had only the most passing of familiarity with reality.

Homeland prides itself on telling stories that are tomorrow’s headlines, presented today, or an alternate spin on what’s really happening. As such, it becomes all the harder for the show to deal with a reality that seems like a video-game glitch. Why would viewers turn to Homeland for stories about how the CIA is trying to discredit (or maybe even assassinate!) the president when social media and blogs hum with conspiracy theories that try to make sense of our own reality?

Homeland used to construct these elegant little conspiracies that played out over 12 episodes, before Carrie and Saul closed the case. It was, in its own way, comforting — yeah, there were bad eggs in the CIA, but there were also folks like Carrie and Saul. These days, the immense amount of smoke surrounding whatever is happening with Trump’s ties to Russia has lots of people seeking out fire, and there’s simply no way fiction can compare to that.

HomelandDar and Max discover a plot seemingly designed to frame Quinn | Showtime

This would be okay if Homeland were at its peak. Just last season, it was telling a brutal, bruising story about the ways America had let itself down during the War on Terror, one that concluded with a lonely shootout in a Berlin subway tunnel, not with the kind of whiz-bang action the series sometimes goes in for. It was the show’s best season since its first, and it’s easy to see how a version of that story could nicely play off our current reality.

But too much about Homeland’s sixth season simply doesn’t make that much sense, and it’s hard to imagine the season finale explaining its leaps of logic in satisfactory fashion. For instance, even if we assume that Dar has assembled a gigantic media misinformation campaign, how long has he been running it? (The presence of an Alex Jones-style figure suggests it’s been a while.)

And if — as the end of “Romeo” suggests — Carrie’s friend Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend) is being set up to take the fall for some horrible act against the president-elect, how on Earth did Dar so perfectly predict every step he’d take all season? (Quinn, who suffered a stroke just last season, is more of a human punching bag than a character at this point, and that’s led to many of the show’s worst moments of late.)

When reality is riddled with plot holes you could drive a truck through, fiction, perhaps unfairly, has a higher bar to clear. Homeland exists, in some ways, to provide a safe space to explore what-if scenarios about the War on Terror and the American deep state in our treacherous present. But the show sometimes becomes overheated, seizing on a good idea — the CIA is trying to turn America against its president-elect — and delivering it in the dopiest way possible.

Season six began in a way that suggested Homeland and its characters were trying to atone for bad things they’d done in the past. Carrie, you might remember, started the season working to represent American Muslims who’d been unjustly accused of terrorism by the government, as big a mea culpa as Homeland could come up with. But the series can never escape its own gravity, its suggestion that the CIA is an all-powerful force that’s shaping the world in the shadows, and not a squalling, fractious body that’s just trying to keep the lights on.

Homeland airs Sundays at 9 pm Eastern on Showtime. All previous episodes are available on Showtime Anytime, and the first four seasons are available on Hulu.

Todd VanDerWerff

U.S. Politics

Mar-a-Lago helipad built for Marine One now sports a Trump-branded private helicopter instead


attribution: Getty Images


In today’s requisite wee little what the hell moment, we learn that after the completion of a new helicopter pad for Marine One at Mar-a-Lago to accommodate Donald Effing Trump’s weekend taxpayer-financed getaways to his own damn business, that helipad is not being used for Marine One after all, but as temporary parking spot for a Trump-branded private (corporate?) helicopter.

A Trump-branded private helicopter was spotted at President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate on Saturday, landing on a helipad that was built last month. […]The pad was built to allow the president to travel on Marine One from Palm Beach International Airport to his resort without blocking traffic — though the new travel plan will not change Secret Service-mandated closures surrounding Mar-a-Lago.

He wasn’t on it, there’s apparently no word that he’ll be using it, but it will apparently be “staged” on the pad for the duration of his stay. I HAVE SO MANY QUESTIONS ABOUT THIS.

• Will we, the taxpayers, be paying for this new super-necessary helipad at Donald Trump’s Florida golf club? We can’t have Marine One landing on a fairway, after all, but it seems highly unlikely that Donald Effing Trump, notorious tightwad, will be paying for it himself.

• Did the club pay for it? No, really—will this be considered a business expense by the Trump-owned company now touting access to a sitting president and his visiting world leaders as a perk of membership? Will they be writing helipad for our weekending boss off on the corporate taxes?

• The Town Council approved the construction of the helipad under the condition that it only be used “for presidential business.” Is this “presidential business”? Sez who?

• So what is a private helicopter doing on that presumably super-necessary, must-have helipad for Marine One? It wasn’t Trump that flew in on it, so who did? Is this the Kuchnermobile? The Ivankacopter? Pray tell, what non-Marine-One-related business so important as to require “staging” a private aircraft on the presidential-business-only helipad?

• So what happens if Marine One does need to land? Does our military need to first find whoever has the keys to the damn Trump chopper and politely ask them to move it so they can collect the sitting president? What if there was an emergency and the president needed to be whisked away? I guess he’ll just be taking the golf cart?

• But wait—is this the new Marine One? Perhaps we’re overthinking this; perhaps Trump is simply leasing his own private helicopter to the American government (at, of course, proper rates) to save wear and tear on our military version? Or perhaps he has had Marine One repainted; military green is such a drab color.

• Trump filed several lawsuits against Palm Beach in the past because noise from the airport was sullying his enjoyment of Mar-a-Lago. Supposing he really does at some point use the helipad himself, will he then sue his government for the deafening noise of landing him there?

The man never ceases to amaze. Still, though, I’m surprised Trump would even dare park his own helicopter at his golf course during one of his weekend getaways. I’ve seen the man’s swing. The odds of a golf ball going through the front glass on that thing have got to be 2 to 1, at least.


U.S. Politics

Assad Allies Say U.S. Attack On Syria Air Base Crosses ‘Red Lines’


A joint command center made up of the forces of Russia, Iran and militias supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Sunday said the U.S. strike on a Syrian air base on Friday crossed “red lines” and it would respond to any new aggression and increase its support for its ally.

The United States fired dozens of cruise missiles at a Syrian air base on Friday from which it said a deadly chemical weapons attack had been launched earlier in the week, escalating the U.S. role in Syria and drawing criticism from Assad’s allies including Russia and Iran.

“What America waged in an aggression on Syria is a crossing of red lines. From now on we will respond with force to any aggressor or any breach of red lines from whoever it is and America knows our ability to respond well,” said the statement published by the group on media outlet Ilam al Harbi (War Media).

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, meanwhile, blamed Russian inaction for helping fuel the chemical weapons attack it had reacted to, saying Moscow had failed to carry out a 2013 agreement to secure and destroy chemical weapons in Syria.

He said the United States expected Russia to take a tougher stance against Syria by rethinking its alliance with Assad because “every time one of these horrific attacks occurs, it draws Russia closer into some level of responsibility.”

Rebels and residents in northwestern Idlib province said jets believed to be Russian conducted eight raids on Sunday on the town of Khan Sheikhoun where the chemical attack took place but no casualties were reported.

Raids hit several other rebel-held towns including Saraqeb and Sarmin in the province, where the rebels and activists said incendiary bombs were dropped.

The death toll from an air strike on Saturday on the rebel-held town of Urum al-Joz in Idlib province rose to 19 people, including six children, activists and residents said.

In the southern city of Daraa, jets believed to be Russian escalated strikes on Free Syrian Army (FSA) and jihadist groups on Saturday and Sunday in an attempt to roll back their gains in the Manshiya district where battles have been raging for nearly two months.



Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani said in a phone call that aggressive U.S. actions against Syria were not permissible and violated international law, the Kremlin said on Sunday.

The two leaders also called for an objective investigation into an incident involving chemical weapons in Syria’s Idlib and said they were ready to deepen cooperation to fight terrorism, the Kremlin said in a statement on its website.

Syrian army forces had been losing ground across the country until Russia intervened militarily in September 2015, propping up Assad and protecting its own interests in the region.

Assad has also drawn heavily on foreign Shi’ite militias sponsored by Iran, led by Lebanon’s Hezbollah group, for his most important gains since the Russian intervention.

The joint command center also said the presence of U.S troops in northern Syria where Washington has hundreds of special forces helping the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to oust Islamic State was “illegal” and that Washington had a long-term plan to occupy the area.

The regional alliance said the U.S. cruise missile strikes on a Syrian base which Washington said was involved in a chemical attack that killed dozens of civilians would not deter their forces from “liberating” all of Syrian territory.

In Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the U.S. missile strike was a “a strategic error, and a repeat of the mistakes of the past,” the state news agency IRNA reported.

“The Islamic Republic has shown that … it does not back off and its people and officials … do not retreat in the face of threats,” said Khamenei.

Many Syrians opposed to Assad’s rule consider Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iranian-backed troops as occupiers seeking to drive out mainly Sunni Syrians from the areas they live in. They hold Iran and its allies responsible for the displacement of millions outside the country.

They also see Russia as a foreign occupier whose relentless aerial bombardment of rebel-held areas has led to thousands of civilian casualties. Some accuse Moscow of applying a “scorched-earth policy” that targets hospitals, schools and residential areas more than frontlines to break the resolve of the anti-Assad insurgency.

Suleiman Al-Khalidi