U.S. Politics

‘There’s a Smell of Treason in the Air’

FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers appear in front of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on Monday, March 20, 2017  (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

MOYERS & COMPANY

FBI and NSA chiefs verify a Russia probe and refute the president’s claims as Republicans scramble to pretend the “drip, drip, drip” hasn’t started.

Monday’s hearing of the House Intelligence Committee was proof positive of the absolute need for both a special prosecutor and an independent, bipartisan commission with subpoena power to conduct a full investigation of the Trump campaign’s connections with Russian intelligence — as well as Russia’s multi-pronged attack on our elections and Trump’s business connections with that country’s oligarchs.

(Note that there was agreement that leaks are illegal but no one mentioned that it’s the media’s complete and constitutionally guaranteed right to report on them. Nor was anyone asked how many times GOP members of the committee have done their own leaking.)

Trump did what he could to distract as well, firing a volley of five heated early-morning tweets just before testimony began, reiterating claims that disgruntled Democrats manufactured charges about Russia’s involvement in the election and contact with Trump aides. There were more during the hearing itself — from Trump or someone at the White House tweeting in his name — twisting the day’s testimony by Comey and National

Security Agency chief Mike Rogers. Bizarrely, the two men then were placed in the position of having to rebut Trump’s allegations while they still were in the witness seats, correcting and putting the president in his place — virtually in real time.

Not only did Comey verify that the FBI was actively investigating Trump and his associates, he also flatly denied on behalf of his agency and the Justice Department that prior to January’s inauguration now-former President Obama had ordered eavesdropping on Trump Tower. Under normal circumstances this would seem to neutralize yet another of Trump’s wacky tweet storms, this one from two weeks ago, but as we’ve learned so well, the truth has never been a barrier to the social media madness of King Donald I.

And yet, as presidential historian Douglas Brinkley told The Washington Post, “There’s a smell of treason in the air. Imagine if J. Edgar Hoover or any other FBI director would have testified against a sitting president? It would have been a mindboggling event.”

But here we are, adrift in a Cloud Cuckoo Land of prevarication and incompetence in which little seems capable of boggling or driving our minds agog these days and where the truth shall not set you free but subject you to ridicule from the rabid trolls of the right.

And still there is hope. Even though neither Comey nor Rogers would reveal much of what they are discovering — continually citing the confidentiality they said was necessary to an ongoing investigation — the questions asked, despite the “no comment” answers, suggested ongoing areas of inquiry not only for investigating committees but also for the press.

For it is the free and independent media that continue to provide our clearest window into the extent of the investigation and the possible interface among the Trump campaign, Russia and the right. Late Monday, for example, McClatchy News reported:

“Federal investigators are examining whether far-right news sites played any role last year in a Russian cyber operation that dramatically widened the reach of news stories — some fictional — that favored Donald Trump’s presidential bid, two people familiar with the inquiry say.

“Operatives for Russia appear to have strategically timed the computer commands, known as ‘bots,’ to blitz social media with links to the pro-Trump stories at times when the billionaire businessman was on the defensive in his race against Democrat Hillary Clinton, these sources said.”

McClatchy reports that most of the stories were linked from social media posts and many of them connected to stories at Breitbart and Alex Jones’ InfoWars, as well as Russia Today and Sputnik News:

“Investigators examining the bot attacks are exploring whether the far-right news operations took any actions to assist Russia’s operatives. Their participation, however, wasn’t necessary for the bots to amplify their news through Twitter and Facebook.”

The spin machines are twirling at cyclonic speeds as the White House and the Republican Party counterattack or try to act as if none of this is happening. Like the refugee couple in Casablanca, they pretend to hear very little and understand even less. At the end of Monday’s testimony, intelligence committee chair Nunes actually told David Corn of Mother Jones that he had never heard of Roger Stone or Carter Page, two of the Trump/Russia story’s most prominent and tawdry players. Ingenuous or ignorant? You be the judge.

“Is it possible that all of these events and reports are completely unrelated and nothing more than an entirely unhappy coincidence?” Adam Schiff asked at Monday’s hearing.

“Yes, it is possible. But it is also possible, maybe more than possible, that they are not coincidental, not disconnected and not unrelated, and that the Russians use the same techniques to corrupt US persons that they employed in Europe and elsewhere. We simply don’t know. Not yet. And we owe it to the country to find out.”

During Schiff’s questioning on Monday, Comey seemed to nod toward agreeing that Russia’s hacking of the Democratic National Committee was not unlike the 1972 physical break-in at the DNC. You know, the one that precipitated the revelations, resignations and prison convictions of Watergate. Drip, drip, drip…

MICHAEL WINSHIP

U.S. Politics

10 things you need to know today: March 23, 2017

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Daniel Sorabji/Getty Images

THE WEEK

1. Terror attack kills three in London
A man killed at least three people and injured 40 more in an attack with a vehicle and a knife at Britain’s Parliament on Wednesday, sending lawmakers and tourists dashing for safety. Two of the people killed were among pedestrians the attacker plowed through on Westminster Bridge near the Parliament building. The other was a police officer stabbed at the House of Commons. Police then fatally shot the alleged assailant. Investigators are treating the attack as terrorism, and believe the assailant acted alone but was inspired by international terrorists. The alleged attacker was British-born and had been investigated by British spies, but was not “part of the current intelligence picture,” according to Prime Minister Theresa May. Some of the wounded pedestrians had what were described as “catastrophic” injuries, and one woman was pulled, alive but badly hurt, from the River Thames. Police arrested seven people in connection with the attack in overnight raids.

Source: NBC News, The Associated Press

2. Report: FBI may have evidence of Russia-Trump team coordination
The FBI is reviewing information suggesting that people linked to President Trump’s campaign might have communicated with suspected Russian operatives about coordinating the release of information harmful to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign last year, U.S. officials told CNN on Wednesday. FBI Director James Comey on Monday confirmed to lawmakers that his agency was investigating alleged Russian efforts to influence the election, including possible cooperation between Trump associates and Moscow. The officials said the information included human intelligence, business and phone records, as well as accounts of face-to-face meetings, but that it was not considered to be conclusive.

Source: CNN

3. Conservative resistance threatens health bill
President Trump continued pressuring wavering Republican lawmakers to support the House leadership’s proposal to repeal and replace ObamaCare ahead of a planned Thursday vote. Conservatives are vowing to oppose the plan because they say it doesn’t go far enough in rolling back the Affordable Care Act’s provisions, and some moderates are balking because of expectations that millions more Americans will wind up uninsured. Mark Meadows, leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said his group has more than enough votes to defeat the bill. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said enough fence-sitters were getting behind the legislation to pass it. “The count keeps getting stronger for us,” Spicer said. “There is no Plan B. There is Plan A and Plan A. We’re going to get this done.”

Source: Reuters

4. House intelligence chair: Trump aides possibly intercepted in normal foreign surveillance
House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said Wednesday that it was possible that communications involving President Trump or members of his transition team were picked up inadvertently in normal surveillance of foreign nationals. “What I’ve read seems to me to be some level of surveillance activity, perhaps legal. I don’t know that it’s right,” Nunes said. “I don’t know that the American people would be comfortable with what I’ve read.” Nunes went to the White House to brief Trump on the reports, which were unrelated to Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that former President Barack Obama had him wiretapped. Trump said he felt “somewhat” vindicated by what Nunes told him. “I very much appreciated the fact that they found what they found,” he said.

Source: The Washington Post

5. Democrats step up Gorsuch questioning ahead of confirmation hearing’s final day
Democratic senators grew more aggressive in their questioning of President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, on Wednesday, the third day of his confirmation hearing. Gorsuch deflected questions from Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) about the Constitution’s “emoluments clause” prohibiting a president from accepting gifts from foreign agents, part of a grilling on Trump’s foreign business interests. Gorsuch said that due to “ongoing litigation” he had to be “very careful about expressing any views.” Some Democrats pressed a new strategy to delay Gorsuch’s confirmation, arguing that the vote shouldn’t take place until the FBI’s investigation into communication between the Trump campaign and Russia is completed. Republicans praised Gorsuch and expressed confidence that his confirmation was assured ahead of the final day of his hearing.

Source: The Washington Post, The Hill

6. 30 Syrian civilians reportedly killed in U.S.-led coalition airstrike
At least 30 Syrian civilians were killed this week in an airstrike by the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State, witnesses, activists, and Syrian state TV said Wednesday. The attack occurred Tuesday in Raqqa province, where the coalition is supporting forces advancing toward the city of Raqqa, ISIS’ de facto capital. The strike reportedly hit a school where civilians took shelter Tuesday night in the town of Mansoura. The U.S. military is investigating the report, which came after a strike by U.S. warplanes last week reportedly killed 49 people in western Aleppo province.

Source: The New York Times

7. Trump Jr. faces backlash over tweet following London attack
Britons harshly criticized Donald Trump Jr. for tweeting criticism of London’s mayor in the wake of yesterday’s attack. “You have to be kidding me?!” President Trump’s eldest son tweeted. “Terror attacks are part of living in big city, says London Mayor Sadiq Khan.” The comment referred to a September article in a British newspaper in which Khan reacted to a bombing in New York City, but Trump misrepresented the quote. Khan did not say that terror attacks were part of city life. He said that supporting police in terrorism preparedness was “part and parcel of living in a great global city.” Ciaran Jenkins, a correspondent for Britain’s Channel 4, asked Trump via Twitter whether he thought “goading” Khan was “helpful.” Trump declined to discuss the matter, saying, “I’m not going to comment on every tweet I send.”

Source: The Telegraph, The Washington Post

8. Acosta vows to avoid partisanship in Labor Department if confirmed
Alexander Acosta, President Trump’s second labor secretary nominee, said in his confirmation hearing Wednesday that he would not let partisanship influence his department. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said Acosta did not do enough as assistant attorney general to prevent an official under him from “inappropriately” hiring mostly conservative lawyers in DOJ’s civil rights division during the George W. Bush administration. Acosta said he would not allow partisan hiring at the Labor Department if confirmed. He also defended a controversial plea deal he struck with wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein. Acosta, now a law school dean, declined to say how he would handle Obama administration rules, such as one expanding the number of workers eligible for overtime pay.

Source: The New York Times, The Washington Post

9. Police say suspect in fatal Manhattan stabbing wanted to kill a black person
New York City police said Wednesday that a white suspect who turned himself in for the fatal Monday stabbing of a 66-year-old African-American man, Timothy Caughman, said he came to New York from Maryland because he want to kill a black person. The suspect, James Harris Jackson, surrendered to police at the Times Square substation after surveillance images showing him running down a street after the stabbing was widely publicized. “His intentions were to come here to harm male blacks,” NYPD Chief of Manhattan Detectives William Aubry said. “The reason why he picked New York is because it’s the media capital of the world, and he wanted to make a statement.”

Source: CBS News, The Associated Press

10. U.S. trounces Puerto Rico to win its first World Baseball Classic title
The U.S. beat Puerto Rico 8-0 on Wednesday to win its first World Baseball Classic title. Pitcher Marcus Stroman helped shut out the Puerto Rican team, which entered the finals unbeaten in two weeks of play, by throwing six no-hit innings. The U.S. offense was propelled by Ian Kinsler’s two-run home run, a single, and two runs scored in a rout before 51,565 people at Dodger Stadium. “We wanted to put USA on top of the baseball world, where it belongs,” Kansas City Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer said.

Source: Los Angeles Times, The New York Times

U.S. Politics

CNN reports FBI may have proof of collusion between Russia and Trump campaign

GettyImages-577706376attribution: GETTY IMAGES

DAILY KOS

And here’s why Republicans really spent the day in a high state of panic.

The FBI has information that indicates associates of President Donald Trump communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, US officials told CNN.

On Monday, many Republicans were behaving as if they expected FBI Director Comey to vindicate Donald Trump, if not on the wiretapping tweets, then at least on the idea that there was an active investigation of connections between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence. Instead Comey confirmed that there was such an investigation. Since then, we’ve learned that there may be multiple investigations that link into the Trump campaign, as well as criminal investigations of activity going on in Trump Tower.

And just two days later, we’re near the point of something absolutely massive.

The FBI is now reviewing that information, which includes human intelligence, travel, business and phone records and accounts of in-person meetings, according to those U.S. officials. The information is raising the suspicions of FBI counterintelligence investigators that the coordination may have taken place, though officials cautioned that the information was not conclusive and that the investigation is ongoing.

What’s in question here isn’t Trump’s ties to Russian oligarchs—we already know those are true. It’s not Paul Manafort’s schemes in Ukraine, or Michael Flynn chatting with the Russian ambassador over sanctions. This is the possibility of collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russian agencies working to subvert the US election. Treason is not too big a word.

One law enforcement official said the information in hand suggests “people connected to the campaign were in contact and it appeared they were giving the thumbs up to release information when it was ready.”
U.S. Politics

Top Republican runs to White House to share leaked intelligence; it’s time for a special prosecutor

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attribution: Getty Images

DAILY KOS

The state of the so-called House investigation into state-sponsored Russian attacks on the 2016 elections—and possible collusion from the Republican presidential campaign—just took a hell of a turn, as the House Republican who supposedly is leading that investigation just announced he was headed to the White House to brief the targets of that investigation on incendiary new details about the state of the investigation against them.

Members of the Donald Trump transition team, possibly including Trump himself, were under U.S. government surveillance following November’s presidential election, House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) told reporters Wednesday.

To sum up, Rep. Devin Nunes—who was himself an executive member of Trump’s transition team during the period in question—says he was tipped off that the U.S. counterintelligence investigation had resulted in “incidental” collection of conversations of Trump staffers during the transition, possibly including Trump himself. This was, Nunes himself asserted, apparently legal; under FISA rules, this would generally have occurred if those staffers were in communication, “incidental” or otherwise, with foreign targets of an investigation.

Nunes did not share this information with Democratic members of his committee, but instead announced that he will be heading to the White House to brief the administration directly on these new details about … the investigation against them.

He appears to believe that the news that U.S. investigations meant to gather information on foreign intelligence efforts have discovered links to multiple members of the campaign, possibly including Trump himself, is somehow good news for Trump. Or perhaps he’s just publicly announcing those details and briefing Trump’s team on them for other reasons.

__________________

Again, Rep. Nunes is allegedly the person leading the House investigation on Russian acts during the election and, as confirmed by FBI Director James Comey during a recent hearing, possible Republican campaign collusion with those acts. And immediately after being tipped off to new information about potential ties to foreign agents and the Trump campaign, he’s meeting at the White House to let them know the information leaked to him.

Simply calling for an independent, non-partisan investigation into the election at this point seems almost beside the point. Trump transition member Nunes continues to work to sabotage the work of the investigators; he may be at this point a target of the investigation himself.

TRUMP-NUNES
U.S. Politics

10 things you need to know today: March 22, 2017

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Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

THE WEEK

1. Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch weathers grilling by Democrats
President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, sought to put himself above politics and assert his independence as he faced sharply partisan questioning as his confirmation hearing continued on Tuesday. Democrats grilled Gorsuch on everything from abortion rights to President Trump’s travel ban. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) asked Gorsuch whether a president’s decisions on national security were reviewable by the courts, and Gorsuch replied, “Nobody is above the law in this country.” Gorsuch also said that Trump had not asked him to say whether he would vote to overturn the Roe v. Wade abortion rights decision. “I would have walked out the door,” Gorsuch said. “That’s not what judges do.” The hearing continues on Wednesday and Thursday.

Source: The Associated Press, The New York Times

2. Trump pressures Republicans to get behind ObamaCare replacement plan
President Trump on Tuesday warned Republicans to get behind the House GOP’s proposal to replace ObamaCare or face defeat in next year’s midterm elections. “I’m gonna come after you, but I know I won’t have to, because I know you’ll vote ‘yes,'” Trump said, according to several meeting participants in a closed-door meeting on Capitol Hill. “Honestly, a loss is not acceptable, folks.” The GOP bill would reduce future federal financing for Medicaid and replace income-based premium subsidies with age-based tax credits. It would also repeal ObamaCare tax hikes. Some conservatives oppose the plan because they say it doesn’t go far enough, leaving doubts about whether Republicans have the votes to pass the legislation. Democrats are fighting it because it is projected to leave millions more Americans without insurance.

Source: The Washington Post, The Associated Press

3. Labor nominee Alexander Acosta heads into confirmation hearing
Labor secretary nominee Alexander Acosta heads into his confirmation hearing on Wednesday with support from Big Labor, suggesting a relatively smooth path ahead. Acosta was President Trump’s second choice for the job, stepping in after fast-food CEO Andrew Puzder dropped out. Acosta is likely to face tough questions over a plea deal he approved as U.S. attorney for a billionaire in a child sex case, but Republican senators said his three previous confirmations for federal positions suggest he won’t face too much opposition. In prepared remarks, Acosta, who will be the first Hispanic member of Trump’s Cabinet if confirmed, vowed to work with Congress to help Americans get the training they need to get good, safe jobs.

Source: McClatchy, The Associated Press

4. New details emerge on ex-Trump campaign chief’s alleged Russia ties
A Ukrainian lawmaker on Tuesday released financial documents that he said showed that Paul Manafort, a former campaign manager for President Trump, laundered $750,000 in payments from the party of Ukraine’s pro-Russia former president, Viktor Yanukovych. The revelations came soon after FBI Director James Comey told the House Intelligence Committee that his agency was investigating allegations of Russian meddling in last year’s election, and possible coordination between Moscow and members of the Trump campaign. The Associated Press reported early Wednesday that Manafort also secretly worked for a Russian billionaire close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, promoting Putin’s interests and countering Kremlin opposition in former Soviet republics more than a decade ago.

Source: CNN, The Associated Press

5. North Korean missile test fails
A North Korean missile exploded just after launch on Wednesday, U.S. and South Korean military officials said. “It may have exploded right after it took off from a launch pad,” a South Korean military official said. The failure came in the latest in a series of weapons tests by the isolated, unpredictable communist nation that have escalated tensions in the region. Just last week Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said during a trip that took him to Japan, South Korea, and China that the U.S. was ending its policy of strategic patience with North Korea, and that all options, including military action, were on the table.

Source: Reuters

6. Trump to attend May NATO summit
The White House announced Tuesday that President Trump will attend a summit with leaders of NATO nations on May 25 in Brussels. Trump has chafed NATO allies by calling for them to increase their defense spending, and by proposing an alliance with Russia to fight the Islamic State. “The president looks forward to meeting with his NATO counterparts to reaffirm our strong commitment to NATO, and to discuss issues critical to the alliance, especially allied responsibility-sharing and NATO’s role in the fight against terrorism,” the White House said in a statement. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visits Washington, D.C., on April 12.

Source: Reuters

7. Retailer files unfairness lawsuit against Ivanka Trump’s brand
An upscale San Francisco clothing boutique, Modern Appealing Clothing, has lodged a class action suit against Ivanka Trump’s brand, accusing it of leveraging her father’s presidency to gain an unfair advantage over rivals. Modern Appealing Clothing filed the claim last week in California arguing that sales for Ivanka Trump’s clothing and accessories brand “have surged since the election” by exploiting “the power and prestige of the White House for personal gain.” The lawsuit comes as Ivanka Trump is seeking security clearance and getting an office in the West Wing, where she reportedly will offer President Trump “her candid advice.” Ivanka Trump’s company declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Source: The Washington Post

8. Judge sentences friend of Dylann Roof to 27 months
A federal judge on Tuesday sentenced Joseph C. Meek Jr., a friend of convicted murderer Dylann Roof, to 27 months in prison for misleading authorities who were investigating Roof’s racist massacre at a black church. Meek, 22, pleaded guilty last April to misleading FBI agents in interviews shortly after the 2015 shooting at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church that left nine churchgoers dead. In a night of drinking and drug use a week before the attack, Roof had told Meek of his plan to kill black people at a church to start a race war. Meek did not report the threat, although he considered it serious enough that he hid Roof’s handgun. A tearful Meek had asked for leniency and apologized to the victims’ families, saying he was “really sorry a lot of innocent lives were taken.”

Source: The New York Times

9. Gong Show host Chuck Barris dies at 87
Game-show creator Chuck Barris died Tuesday at his home in Palisades, New York. He was 87. Barris cranked out a string of iconic shows starting in 1966 with The Dating Game, hosted by Jim Lange. In that show, young people questioned three members of the opposite sex who were hidden from view to determine who would be the best date. Barris followed that up with The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show, an unpredictable talent show that Barris hosted.

Source: The Associated Press

10. Disney sued over Oscar-winning animated film Zootopia
Production company Esplanade Productions on Tuesday filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Walt Disney Pictures over its Oscar-winning animated film Zootopia. The suit alleges screenwriter and producer Gary Goldman, who has worked on projects including Total Recall and Minority Report, has twice pitched a similar concept to Disney on behalf of Esplanade Productions, and that Disney used Goldman’s ideas for Zootopia. Goldman said his vision was to “explore life in America through a civilized society of animals”; Disney’s film “explores prejudice through a bunny’s quest to become a respected police officer.” Disney said Goldman’s lawsuit is “riddled with patently false allegations” and vowed to “vigorously defend against it in court.”

Source: The Hollywood Reporter

U.S. Politics

Nixon’s Counsel During Watergate CALLS OUT Trump Administration: They’re ‘In Cover-Up Mode’

Nixon’s Counsel During Watergate CALLS OUT Trump Administration: They’re ‘In Cover-Up Mode’

Win McNamee/Getty Images

ADDICTING INFO

The man who served as White House Counsel to former President Richard Nixon during Watergate (and ended up facing charges for helping to it cover up) is weighing in on Donald Trump’s ongoing scandal with Russia. His opinion? Trump’s administration is “in cover-up mode.”

John Dean sat down for an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes on Monday night and his summation of Trump’s current situation was clear when Hayes asked about Trump’s shady ties to Russia and his bogus wiretapping claims.

“In fact [the White House] is in cover-up mode,” Dean replied.

On Monday, FBI Director James Comey testified before the House Intelligence Committee and he confirmed that the bureau is indeed investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. He also said that the FBI is investigating the possibility that Trump and his campaign colluded with Russia.

In addition, Comey said during the hearing that the Justice Department has absolutely no evidence to support Trump’s claim that former President Obama had the phones at Trump Tower tapped.

According to Dean, Trump’s desperate attempts to distance himself from Comey’s testimony is highly suggestive of a “cover- up.”

“There’s just never been any question in my mind about that. I’ve been inside a cover-up. I know how they look and feel. And every signal they’re sending is: ‘We’re covering this thing up,’” Dean said.

“Experienced investigators know this. They know how people react when they’re being pursued, and this White House is not showing their innocence, they’re showing how damn guilty they are, is what we’re seeing.”

During the Watergate scandal, Dean ended up charged with obstruction of justice. Trump, he said, is well on his way to committing the same crime.

“There’s also the question of whether this White House will obstruct, essentially, an investigation. You now have the head of the FBI with a target painted on its back, the front-line investigators with targets painted on their backs; you have a U.S. attorney the president said he was going to retain who has been summarily fired in Preet Bharara, and it strikes me that there is in some ways a kind of obstruction land mine … that the entirety of the White House now has to tip-toe through,” Dean said.

Trump had personally promised Bharara that he would be keeping his job, then last week he changed his mind and fired him without warning. Bharara just happened to be investigating Trump’s Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price (among other things), but of course, this had absolutely nothing to do with Trump suddenly deciding to give him the boot. (Insert sarcasm here.)

Trump’s Russia problem isn’t going away anytime soon. Like with Watergate, it is just a matter of time until the truth comes out and Trump’s dirty deeds blow up in his face.

April Hamlin

U.S. Politics

The US is imposing a “laptop ban” on flights from 10 airports in majority-Muslim countries

Between now and Friday, if you’re flying into the US from one of 10 airports in majority-Muslim countries, this is the only way you’re going to be able to bring your laptop: checked baggage.John Moore/Getty

VOX

Is forcing passengers to check their devices Islamophobia? Economic protectionism? Or just proactive security?

Early on Tuesday, the federal government notified airlines serving 10 airports in majority-Muslim countries that sometime before Friday, airlines will have to prevent passengers from carrying on laptops, tablets, or electronic cameras on flights from those airports to the US.

The “laptop ban” had been rumored throughout the day Monday, due in part to a since-deleted tweet from the Royal Jordanian airline. Initial reports made the new requirement seem sudden and hectic — and maybe, given the track record of the Trump administration with Muslim-majority countries, ideologically motivated.

But the official policy rollout was quickly endorsed by a key Democrat on a congressional intelligence committee. The United Kingdom followed up by announcing it would impose its own form of a laptop ban on certain flights, following the US’s lead.

There may very well be an intelligence case for the laptop ban — a specific threat that justifies requiring people to store their laptops in checked baggage rather than having them during flights. But it’s impossible to say for sure. Here’s what we know.

The “laptop ban” targets direct flights from 10 airports in Muslim-majority countries

Under the new policy, passengers on flights arriving in the US from 10 specific airports won’t be able to carry on any electronic device larger than a smartphone. Larger electronics — such as laptops, tablets/e-readers, and electronic cameras — will be allowed in checked luggage, but not as carry-ons.

The affected airports are all in majority-Muslim countries (many in the Middle East). However, the reach is broader than the countries affected by the Trump administration’s attempted ban on travel from several majority-Muslim countries; affluent Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, left out of the travel ban, do have airports affected by the laptop ban.

Here’s the list of airports whose US-bound flights will be affected:

  • Egypt: Cairo International Airport (CAI) in Cairo
  • Jordan: Queen Alia International Airport (AMM) in Amman
  • Kuwait: Kuwait International Airport (KWI) in Kuwait City
  • Morocco: Mohammed V Airport (CMN) in Casablanca
  • Qatar: Hamad International Airport (DOH) in Doha
  • Saudi Arabia: King Abdulaziz International Airport (JED) in Jeddah; King Khalid International Airport (RUH) in Riyadh
  • Turkey: Ataturk International Airport (IST) in Istanbul
  • United Arab Emirates: Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH) in Abu Dhabi; Dubai International Airport (DXB) in Dubai

In a companion policy, announced Tuesday, the British government plans to put similar restrictions on flights entering the UK from all airports in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and Turkey — a slightly different list than the one used by the US.

The laptop ban is going to get rolled out, airline by airline, over the next few days

The deadline for airlines to implement the ban is early Friday morning Eastern time.

Airlines were notified early Tuesday morning, and “each airline has 96 hours during which they need to implement the changes,” according to Department of Homeland Security spokesperson David Lapan.

Some airlines, if they’re ready, might implement the electronics ban earlier than the deadline: “Some may take two days, some may take three days,” Lapan said. Passengers will have to comply with the ban whenever the airline puts it into effect. But the rollout of the ban wasn’t quite as sudden or hectic as initial reporting implied.

DHS implies that the laptop ban won’t last forever — but it doesn’t provide a specific end date, either. It’s going to evolve “as threats evolve.”

The ban might be based on specific intelligence of an upcoming plot — but the government isn’t saying that

It’s not common for the US to overhaul airport security requirements, and it’s even less common to do so at particular airports. But it’s not unprecedented, either.

In July 2014, for example, the US stepped up security for US-bound flights at several airports — including requiring passengers to turn on any electronic devices in the presence of airline employees before boarding the plane, to prove they were real electronics and not electronics-shaped bombs. The US government didn’t explicitly name the affected airports in public, but an official told CNN at the time that “the changes would primarily focus on airports in Europe and the Middle East.” (Those standards continue to be in effect at several airports, according to DHS.)

Usually, big changes to airport security are reactive — in response to specific plots, either thwarted in advance (like a 2006 plot to use liquid explosives) or unsuccessful (as with attempted “shoe bomber” Richard Reid in 2001). Those cases prompted the ban on bringing in outside liquids in containers larger than 3 ounces, and the requirement to put shoes through TSA screeners, respectively.

In this case, it’s not clear there is a specific plot that DHS is trying to thwart or has thwarted. The fact sheet and FAQ on the DHS website says there’s new intelligence that warrants a new policy — but the specifics it offers are past plots on foreign planes:

We note that disseminated propaganda from various terrorist groups is encouraging attacks on aviation, to include tactics to circumvent aviation security. Terrorist propaganda has highlighted the attacks against aircraft in Egypt with a soda can packed with explosives in October 2015, and in Somalia using an explosives-laden laptop in February 2016.

That said, some security experts say the rollout of the policy is consistent with what the government would do in the face of a specific threat. “It just feels like there was an intel briefing that they had,” former TSA head Kip Hawley told Wired.

The fact that the UK is following the US’s lead in banning some devices on some flights buttresses the idea that there’s a specific threat in play. So does the fact that at least one prominent Democrat — California Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee — is backing up the Trump administration’s decision:

The irony of stepping up security is that it’s easier to justify a new policy by pointing to something that’s already happened — like the “shoe bomber,” for example. But by that point, you’re trying to prevent the last attack. Being proactive sometimes means banning laptops first and answering questions later.

It’s a very easy power for the government to abuse — especially one with the track record the Trump administration has of stirring up fear on issues like crime and unauthorized immigration, when the reality doesn’t justify being afraid. But the fact that other governments and key Democrats are stepping in to validate the administration’s decision is evidence that this time might be legitimate.

It’s harder to blow up a plane from the luggage hold — but it’s easier to start a fire

The key question about the laptop ban is whether it would actually prevent a terrorist attack. After all, it’s just as possible to blow up a device in the baggage hold as it is in the passenger cabin.

Lapan, the DHS spokesperson, declined to explain why the government thinks the passenger cabin is a bigger risk; “we’re not able to talk about the specific details of security requirements,” he told Vox. But Hawley told Wired that a bomb could do less damage in a cargo hold. A small bomb is likely to damage only other luggage, instead of people; a bigger one would have to contend with the fact that the cargo hold is heavily reinforced. “You really need a big bomb to knock a plane down underneath the floor,” he said.

The bigger risk with putting laptops in the baggage hold is battery fires. Some electronic devices have lithium-ion batteries that could catch fire in the air — and it’s a lot easier to spot and put out a fire in a cabin full of people than in a baggage hold. Lapan said that DHS has given advice to the airlines affected by the ban about how to “minimize safety risks associated with placing additional lithium battery–powered devices in checked baggage.”

Ideally, airport security employees catch any bombs before they get on the plane to begin with. At one of the airports affected by the ban — Abu Dhabi International Airport — US Customs and Border Protection officials “preclear” all luggage (as well as passengers) before boarding, allowing them to skip full screening once they arrive in the US. In other airports, it’s the responsibility of airport officers to screen baggage. But the hope is that they’ll be able to spot bombs hidden in laptops the same as they could spot any other bomb.

Is this a “Muslim laptop ban”?

It’s impossible not to notice that all the affected airports are in majority-Muslim countries — especially given that the Trump administration has a history of targeting majority-Muslim countries in the name of national security. (See: travel ban 1.0; travel ban 2.0.)

The targeting has inspired a lot of skepticism about how legitimate the threat really is. “This could be the latest in what looks set to be a long line of discriminatory measures deployed by the Trump administration against Muslims around the world,” said Naureen Shah of Amnesty International USA in a statement. “This administration has consistently used ‘national security’ as shorthand for discriminating against Muslims, and we fear this latest decision may be no different. Muslims are once again left in the dark as the U.S administration piles up bans and restrictions against them.”

It’s worth noting, for what it’s worth, that the ban doesn’t exempt particular passengers — even though it has the opportunity to do so. US citizens, people with preclearance through the TSA’s Global Entry program, and even US diplomats are subject to the laptop ban. On its own, this doesn’t prove that the ban doesn’t have malicious intent (just like the fact that the travel ban didn’t ban only Muslims wasn’t enough to persuade judges it wasn’t discriminatory), but it’s a good point to bear in mind. Security expert Brian Jenkins told Bloomberg News that the government might be concerned about conspiracies involving airport or airline employees, rather than passengers themselves.

Others (including George Washington University professor Henry Farrell) have speculated that the policy is a product of economic protectionism. Over the past several years, airlines such as Turkish Airlines and Emirates have increasingly marketed themselves to US travelers as international hubs — encouraging travelers to fly through Istanbul or Dubai to their ultimate destination for a cheaper or more luxurious experience. American and European competitors believe these airlines are able to offer cheaper fares because they’re getting government subsidies.

President Trump has a known affinity for protectionism, and recently met with the heads of several US-based airlines. It’s possible to imagine that he’s now throwing them a bone, by forcing American travelers — especially those in business class and first class — to choose between a cheaper fare on a foreign airline and the ability to get work done or keep children engaged on a long flight with a domestic one.

The fact that the UK appears to be following the US’s lead on banning laptops certainly makes this theory less likely — though some British Airlines flights will be affected by the UK’s ban (due to the different countries it covers), while no US airlines will be affected by the US version. The supportive statement from ranking House Intelligence Democrat Schiff also indicates that there’s more going on here than economic protectionism.

It’s possible the Department of Homeland Security is cooking up a nonexistent threat to justify a target on majority-Muslim countries or on foreign airlines. But it would have to have successfully hoodwinked both the intelligence services of US allies, and key Democrats — and both of those groups have good reason to be skeptical of the Trump administration right now. So it seems entirely plausible that the motive here is at least partly genuine. The question is how it will be used by the administration — and whether the ban will, in fact, go away if the potential threats recede.

CORRECTION: This article originally said that Customs and Border Protection “precleared” travelers to the US from Dubai International Airport; the airport in the UAE with preclearance is actually Abu Dhabi International Airport.

U.S. Politics

Insurance Executive Blasts GOP Health Care Proposal: ‘This Bill Is Terrible’

THE HUFFINGTON POST

Unlike his Aetna counterpart, he doesn’t think there’s a “death spiral” under Obamacare.

Most insurance industry executives have been circumspect about the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and its proposed replacement, the American Health Care Act. Mario Molina is an exception.

“I think this bill is terrible,” Molina, the CEO of Molina Healthcare,”}}”>Molina Healthcare, told The Huffington Post in a lengthy interview Friday.

The company covers more than 4 million people scattered across 13 states ― including California, where it’s headquartered, as well as Florida, Michigan, New York and Texas. That makes it the 10th-largest health insurance company in the U.S., according to a 2015 government survey.

Molina’s main argument against the bill is the same one critics have been making for months ― that the measure would expose millions of lower-income Americans to crippling medical bills, by taking away their Medicaid coverage or the federal tax credits that make it possible for them to buy private insurance.

These warnings are consistent with the findings of multiple independent analysts, including the Congressional Budget Office”}}”>Congressional Budget Office, which last week predicted that the Republican proposal would drive up the number of uninsured Americans by 14 million within a year and 24 million within a decade. Among those taking the hardest hits, the CBO said, would be poor Americans who now rely on Medicaid and older consumers whose premiums would skyrocket because the bill would allow insurers to charge them much more than they can today.

Even those who held onto coverage could expect that it would be less generous than it is today, the CBO noted, as the combination of looser regulations and redirected financial assistance shifted the market toward policies with higher out-of-pocket expenses.

You can’t say this is not my problem. … This is your problem. You just don’t know it yet.  Mario Molina, CEO of Molina Healthcare

Molina, a physician, has an up-close perspective on what this would mean, making his commentary more valuable, less reliable or both ― depending on your perspective.

Molina’s father, also a physician, established the company in 1980 to serve low-income people in Southern California. And it has never strayed far from its roots. Its business consists mostly of insuring people on Medicaid (states contract with Molina to provide coverage) or selling plans to people who buy on the Obamacare exchanges and, because of their low incomes, qualify for extensive subsidies.

The Republican bill would likely deal a significant blow to Molina Healthcare’s revenue and the skeptical take on its CEO’s perspective is that he’s simply trying to protect his company’s bottom line. But precisely because Molina Healthcare has a long history of working with lower-income consumers, it may understand the Obamacare private insurance markets better than many of the larger, nationwide carriers that make headlines in the national media.

Molina is accustomed to managing care aggressively, by nudging newly insured patients into the primary care system quickly ― something of particular importance when it comes to insuring people who have gone months or years without coverage, and without ongoing care for chronic conditions. Molina also has a history of tough negotiation with doctors and hospitals, and limiting networks to only those who will agree to lower reimbursement ― thereby allowing the company to keep premiums low.

As a general rule, the big companies with the names that everybody recognizes focus on other lines of insurance, such as administering employer plans or offering private Medicare Advantage plans, in which the market dynamics are very different. The people who buy those plans care a lot more about having big networks and aren’t as sensitive on prices.

Those companies have tended to struggle more trying to sell individual coverage ― in particular, they have struggled to attract enough young and healthy people, whose premiums insurers require to offset the cost of paying bills for people with serious medical problems. Critics of the law say the skewed risk pool represents a structural problem with the law, because the coverage insurers are selling just isn’t very attractive to consumers unless it comes with huge subsidies that discount it deeply for the near-poor.

This year the CEO of one of those big national companies, Aetna’s Mark Bertolini, declared that the program was actually in a “death spiral” ― the line that President Donald Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and other GOP leaders have cited over and over again as a rationale for repealing the law as quickly as possible.

But analysts at the CBO and the Brookings Institution, among others, have disputed that verdict, arguing that insurers simply under-priced premiums for the first two years and are finally catching up.

CONTINUE>>>

U.S. Politics

Trump’s Orgy of Unnecessary Cruelty

Image result for Trump's Orgy of Unnecessary Cruelty

(Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Drake)

ARCA MAX

By Robert B. Reich, Tribune Content Agency

The theme that unites Donald Trump’s major initiatives so far is their unnecessary cruelty.

His new budget, for example, comes down especially hard on the poor — imposing unprecedented cuts in low-income housing, job training, food assistance, legal services, help to distressed rural communities, nutrition for new mothers and their infants, funds to keep poor families warm, even Meals on Wheels.

These cuts come at a time when more American families are in poverty than ever before, including one in five children.

Why is Trump advocating this?

To pay for the biggest hike in military spending since the 1980s. Yet the U.S. already spends more on its military than the next seven biggest military budgets combined.

No new national emergency justifies additional military expenditures. In the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan similarly expanded the military, he said the Soviet Union was enlarging its military capacities and we had no choice but to catch up. But this is hardly the case now. No other nation is expanding its military might to this degree.

So Trump is determined to remove vital services upon which millions of poor Americans rely in order to pay for a military expansion we don’t need.

This is unnecessarily cruel.

Next comes the House Republican plan, which Trump enthusiastically supports, to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with a system that will cause 14 million Americans to lose their health insurance next year, and 24 million by 2026, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

How does Trump justify this human hardship?

The plan barely makes a dent in the national debt. It cuts the federal budget deficit by only $337 billion over the next 10 years — a small fraction of the national debt.

The only apparent reason for this plan is to give $600 billion in tax breaks over the next decade to wealthy Americans by repealing the taxes on the rich that had financed the Affordable Care Act.

But this hardly justifies imposing such a burden on poor and low-income Americans. It’s not as if wealthy Americans need a $600 billion windfall. They’ve already accumulated more wealth than have America’s rich at any time in the nation’s history.

The plan is unnecessarily cruel.

Or consider Trump’s ban on Syrian refugees, and his reduction by half in the total number of refugees admitted to the United States. It comes just when the world is experiencing the worst refugee crisis since World War II.

Why is Trump doing this? The ban does little or nothing to protect Americans from terrorism. Since 9/11, no one in the United States has been killed in a terrorist attack perpetrated by a Syrian, or by anyone from the six nations whose citizens are now banned from traveling to the United States. You have higher odds of being struck by lightning than dying from an immigrant terrorist attack.

The ban is unnecessarily cruel.

And finally, what about Trump’s dragnet roundup of undocumented immigrants? It’s helter-skelter — including people who have been productive members of our society for decades, and young people who have been here since they were toddlers.

Why has Trump unleashed immigration enforcement authorities this way?

There is no compelling justification. Undocumented immigrants aren’t taking jobs away from Americans. Unemployment is down to near record lows.

Undocumented immigrants aren’t committing a wave of crimes. In fact, contrary to what Trump has publicly alleged, they commit crimes at a lower rate than do people born in the United States. Besides, the overall rate of serious crime has been declining in the United States.

And it’s not because unauthorized immigrants have been flooding into the United States. In fact, we have a lower percentage of undocumented workers in the U.S. today than we did 10 years ago.

The roundup is unnecessarily cruel.

Actions that harm people may occasionally be necessary when a compelling national interest or emergency makes them morally justifiable. But there is no justification for any of Trump’s orgy of cruelty. To the contrary, these actions violate every ideal this nation has ever cherished.

We have a moral responsibility to stop them.

(Robert Reich, a former U.S. Secretary of Labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of “Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few,” now available in paperback. His new film, “Inequality for All,” is now out on Amazon, DVD and On Demand. His daily blog is at www.facebook.com/RBReich/.)