Will Obama’s Offshore Drilling Ban Be Trumped?

Will Obama’s Offshore Drilling Ban Be Trumped?

U.S. President Barack Obama holds a news conference at the conclusion of the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, China September 5, 2016 | REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst


President Obama gave environmental advocates a Christmas present when he announced in late December that he was banning oil and gas drilling in huge swaths of the Arctic and Atlantic oceans. This action “indefinitely” protects almost 120 million acres of ecologically important and highly sensitive marine environments from the risks of oil spills and other industrial impacts.

President Obama acted boldly to conserve important ecological resources and solidify his environmental legacy. But by making creative use of an obscure provision of a 1953 law, Obama ignited a legal and political firestorm.

Republicans and oil industry trade groups are threatening to challenge the ban in court or through legislation. They also contend that the Trump administration can act directly to reverse it. But a close reading of the law suggests that it could be difficult to undo Obama’s sweeping act.

The power to withdraw

Congress passed the law now known as the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act in 1953 to assert federal control over submerged lands that lie more then three miles offshore, beyond state coastal waters. Section 12(a) of the law authorizes the president to “withdraw from disposition any of the unleased lands of the outer Continental Shelf.”

Starting in 1960 with the Eisenhower administration, six presidents from both parties have used this power. Most withdrawals were time-limited, but some were long-term. For example, in 1990 President George H. W. Bush permanently banned oil and gas development in California’s Monterey Bay, which later became a national marine sanctuary.

Kelp forests in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary support many marine species. Chad King, NOAA/Flickr

President Obama used section 12(a) in 2014 to protect Alaska’s Bristol Bay, one of the most productive wild salmon fisheries in the world. In 2015 he took the same step for approximately 9.8 million acres in the biologically rich Chukchi and Beaufort seas.

Obama’s latest action bars energy production in 115 million more acres of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas – an area known as the “Arctic Ring of Life” because of its importance to Inupiat Peoples who have lived there for millennia. The order also withdraws 3.8 million acres off the Atlantic Coast from Norfolk, Virginia to Canada, including several unique and largely unexplored coral canyons.

Why Obama acted

In a Presidential Memorandum on the Arctic withdrawals, Obama provided three reasons for his action. First, he asserted, these areas have irreplaceable value for marine mammals, other wildlife, wildlife habitat, scientific research and Alaska Native subsistence use. Second, they are extremely vulnerable to oil spills. Finally, drilling for oil and responding to spills in Arctic waters poses unique logistical, operational, safety and scientific challenges.

In ordering the Atlantic withdrawals, Obama cited his responsibility to “ensure that the unique resources associated with these canyons remain available for future generations.”

Market forces support Obama’s action. Royal Dutch Shell stopped drilling in the Chukchi Sea in 2015 after spending US$7 billion and drilling in what proved to be a dry hole. Since 2008 the Interior Department has canceled or withdrawn a number of sales in Alaskan waters due to low demand. Shell, ConocoPhillips, Statoil, Chevron, BP and Exxon have all to some degree abandoned offshore Arctic drilling.

The Beaufort and Chukchi seas are zones of the Arctic Ocean off the coast of northern Alaska. Mohonu/Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

Low oil prices coupled with high drilling costs make business success in the region a risky prospect. Lloyd’s of London forecast this scenario in a 2012 report that called offshore drilling in the Arctic “a unique and hard-to-manage risk.”

What happens next?

Critics of President Obama’s action, including the state of Alaska and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, say they may challenge Obama’s order in court, in hopes that the Trump administration will opt not to defend it. But environmental groups, which hailed Obama’s action, will seek to intervene in any such lawsuit.

Moreover, to demonstrate that they have standing to sue, plaintiffs would have to show that they have suffered or face imminent injury; that this harm was caused by Obama’s action; and that it can be redressed by the court. Market conditions will make this very difficult.

The Energy Information Administration currently projects that crude oil prices, which averaged about $43 per barrel through 2016, will rise to only about $52 per barrel in 2017. Whether these areas will ever be commercially viable is an open question, especially since rapid changes are taking place in the electricity and transportation sectors, and other coastal areas are open for leasing in Alaska’s near-shore waters and the Gulf of Mexico.


The Royal Dutch Shell drilling rig Kulluk broke loose and ran aground near Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska as it was being towed to Seattle for winter maintenance in December 2012. This Coast Guard overflight video shows the harsh conditions along Alaska’s coast in winter.

Alternatively, Donald Trump could issue his own memorandum in office seeking to cancel Obama’s. However, section 12(a) does not provide any authority for presidents to revoke actions by their predecessors. It delegates authority to presidents to withdraw land unconditionally. Once they take this step, only Congress can undo it.

This issue has never been litigated. Opponents can be expected to argue that Obama’s use of section 12(a) in this manner is unconstitutional because it violates the so-called “nondelegation doctrine,” which basically holds that Congress cannot delegate legislative functions to the executive branch without articulating some “intelligible principles.”

However, one could argue that Obama’s action was based on an articulation of intelligible principles gleaned from the stated policies of the OCSLA, which recognizes that the “the outer Continental Shelf is a vital national resource reserve held by the Federal Government for the public.” The law expressly recognizes both the energy and environmental values of the OCS. Thus President Obama’s decision reflects a considered judgment that the national interest is best served by protecting the unique natural resources of these areas, while at the same time weaning the nation from its dangerous dependence on fossil fuels.

Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump’s choice for secretary of state, shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2012 after signing an agreement with Russian state-owned oil company Rosneft. The companies’ joint venture to develop energy resources in Russia’s Arctic waters has been blocked by U.S. sanctions on Russia since 2014. AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service

The section 12(a) authority is similar in some respects to the authority granted by the Antiquities Act, which authorizes the president to “reserve parcels of land as a part of [a] national monument.” Like the OCSLA, the Antiquities Act does not authorize subsequent presidents to undo the designations of their predecessors. Obama has also used this power extensively – most recently, last week when he designated two new national monuments in Utah and Nevada totaling 1.65 million acres.

Some laws do include language that allows such actions to be revoked. Examples include the Forest Service Organic Administration Act, under which most national forests were established, and the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which sets out policies for managing multiple-use public lands. The fact that Congress chose not to include revocation language in the OCSLA indicates that it did not intend to provide such power.

What can the new Congress do?

Under Article IV of the Constitution, Congress has plenary authority to dispose of federal property as it sees fit. This would include the authority to open these areas to leasing for energy development. Members of Alaska’s congressional delegation are considering introducing legislation to override Obama’s drilling ban. But Democrats could filibuster to block any such move, and Republicans – who will hold a 52-48 margin in the Senate – would need 60 votes to stop them.

On the other hand, Congress may be content to let President-elect Trump make the first move and see how it goes in court. If Trump attempts to reverse the withdrawal, environmental groups contesting his decision would face some of the same obstacles as an industry challenge to Obama’s action. It could be especially challenging for environmental groups to show that the claim is “ripe” for judicial review, at least until a post-Obama administration acts to actually open up these areas for leasing. That may not occur for some time, given the weak market for the oil in these regions.

In the meantime, this decision is a fitting capstone for a president who has done everything within his power to confront the existential threat of climate change and rationally move the nation and the world onto a safer and more sustainable path.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Will Obama regret not doing more for black Americans?

Will Obama regret not doing more for black Americans?

(Credit: Getty/Bill Pugliano)


Does Barack Obama owe African-Americans anything? My friends like to toss this question around. My answer is no. He’s a politician, and politicians do what politicians do: play that give-and-take game. And that can be taken in a good or bad way, like this: Obama appointed the first Latina to the U.S. Supreme Court, was the first president to endorse same-sex marriage and increased funding for the Violence Against Women Act. But he’s also is the same guy who set off more drones and prosecuted more whistleblowers than former president George W. Bush. Give and take.

As is the case with most things, your perception of him likely boils down to how his presidency has affected you, unless you are black — and that’s what will complicate the question.

Walk into a black family function, hug the aunts, peck the grandmas on the cheek, make yourself a plate of food and then yell, “Obama hasn’t done anything for black people!” Watch how quickly your plate is snatched. You’ll be attacked from all angles, called every name and probably thrown out face-first. The only person who will side with you is your Republican cousin who brought the white girl, and maybe that one veteran uncle who hates everything.

Black people have been the ultimate Obama apologists. The last eight years have been a constant string of excuses for what he hasn’t done: Obama can’t just do that! or Obama has to wait to do this! My barber even said, “Yo, did you ever Google his constitutional powers?” Some black people went really crazy. My cousin (not the Republican one) even said, “Obama can’t talk about reparations because we aren’t ready!” Like he wouldn’t take a check. Suddenly, the world is full experts on the president’s powers and masters of what he can and cannot say.

What’s funny is that I never heard Bill Clinton can’t say that! or George Bush doesn’t have the power to do that! while they were in office, even when George W. Bush ran into Iraq like they were giving away free oil and Clinton treated the Oval Office like the backseat of a used Honda.

And I get it; the double standard is real­­. As one of the few black professors at more than a few of the universities I’ve taught at in the past, I’ve received the Obama treatment. I’ve been put under a microscope, with people just waiting for me to mess up, and also praised too much when I accomplished simple things like using the coffeemaker without reading the instructions, and always — always — left alone during controversial moments.

But I’m not the president, so I don’t have to be as cool, which is great because I often lack the temperament needed for diplomacy. In arguments I can go from zero to Trump in under a minute. But even after acknowledging the tough position Obama has been in, I still think he could’ve spoken up more, especially on issues dealing with the people who defend him on a constant basis.

We all heard Obama say that he is the president of America, not just black America. I’d argue that he chose to be the president of black America when it was time to rally for Hillary Clinton and during that one Father’s Day speech. But you can’t be the black president only when it’s convenient. I acknowledge his speeches after Trayvon Martin’s death and his eulogy for the victims of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina.

I personally, however, would have also liked to have heard harsher critiques on the unfair hiring practices that still exist, the racist members of Congress who wouldn’t work with him and our nation’s police problem. We may be getting his insight on that soon. I just hope it’s not too late.

Obama recently sat down with Doris Goodwin for lengthy Vanity Fair interview in which he stated there are “things . . . that in some ways I suspect I’m able to do better out of this office.” He didn’t offer any language that alluded to addressing black people’s problems, but it seems like he’s going to take stronger positions in an effort to support us little people once he’s not president anymore. We needed that over the last eight years, too — or at least over the last four.

Obama’s post-presidency plans reminds me of those dudes from the neighborhood who would always pop up magically at the end of fights, yelling, “I woulda kick his ass! I woulda stomped him out! I woulda held him down!” At first you think they are your best allies, until the day that magic doesn’t work and they are presented with a confrontation. In EAst Baltimore when people fail to back up all the claims that they’ve made, we call them Woulda Guys because they never do anything other than talk about what they woulda done. I hope that Obama won’t become a Woulda Guy, talking about what he woulda done for black people after he leaves office.

Obama changed the world and I support him — not because of policy or ideology but because I’m black and my family would proudly disown me if I didn’t. All jokes aside, Barack Obama has been a great president and I even though I wish many things about his terms in office had gone differently, I respect what he has accomplished. I’m sure we are going to wish he was still in the Oval Office over the next four years.

D. Watkins

Trump Throws A Tantrum And Goes Total Birther After Obama Tells Him To Strop Whining

Trump Throws A Tantrum And Goes Total Birther After Obama Tells Him To Strop Whining


Donald Trump was so outraged by President Obama telling him to stop whining that he has invited Obama’s Kenyan half brother to be one of his guests at the final presidential debate.

Donald Trump was so outraged by President Obama telling him to stop whining that he has invited Obama’s Kenyan half brother to be one of his guests at the final presidential debate.

After President Obama had told the Republican nominee to stop whining about rigged elections,Trump decided to teach the President Of The United States a lesson by inviting Obama’s Kenyan half-brother to the third presidential debate.

Video of Obama telling Trump to stop whining:

Trump’s idea of revenge is to use a presidential debate to revive a birther conspiracy that he disavowed a little more than two months ago by saying that President Obama was born in the United States.

The invitation to Obama’s half-brother was the latest in a series of bad decisions that are driven by the petty and thin-skinned nature of the Republican nominee.

The Clinton campaign is clearly enjoying Trump’s latest meltdown:

Inviting Malik Obama to the debate doesn’t help Donald Trump or the Republican Party.

Trump has been thrown completely off his game, which is exactly what President Obama was trying to do.   (Emphasis are mine) KS


Barack Obama and Bill O’Reilly — after appearing in same “Late Show” episode — tell Donald Trump to “stop whining”

Barack Obama and Bill O'Reilly — after appearing in same

Screen capture


President Barack Obama in a press conference on Tuesday implored Donald Trump to “stop whining” about a “rigged” election.

“There’s no serious person out there who would suggest somehow that . . . you could even rig America’s election — in part because they’re so decentralized and the number of votes involved,” Obama said. “There’s no evidence that that has happened in the past or that there are instances in which that will happen this time. And so I’d advise Mr. Trump to stop whining and go try to make his case to get votes. And if he got the most votes, then it would be my expectation of Hillary Clinton to offer a gracious concession speech and pledge to work with him in order to make sure that the American people benefit from an effective government.”

The call for calm came after a Monday tweetstorm, in which the Republican presidential nominee baselessly bemoaned “large scale voter fraud”:

Obama is not the first political figure to criticize Trump for “whining” about make-believe voter fraud. Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, guesting on Stephen Colbert’s “Late Show” on Monday night, also suggested the real estate mogul “stop whining.”

Monday’s “Late Show” was noteworthy for another reason: President Obama made a guest appearance.

Conspiracy? You make the connections here.

In June, Infowars.com founder Alex Jones had a perfectly justifiable Super Male Vitality-induced on-air tantrum regarding “sniveler” Bill O’Reilly’s phony conservatism, through which he said the Fox News host “bullies” his audience into denouncing the Second Amendment.

So, for posterity sake, when the globalists drone-strike my survival shelter for exposing their secrets, I want written on my tombstone: “Alex Jones was right all along.”

Obama warns of ‘slippery slope’ of Trump’s rhetoric


President Barack Obama has explained that he does not want to legitimize terrorists by saying they speak for the billions of peaceful Muslims around the world. | AP Photo


President Barack Obama said there are “dangers” to Donald Trump’s rhetoric on Muslims on Wednesday, saying it represented a “slippery slope.”

Actually, Obama denied that he was referring specifically to Trump during a CNN town hall for service members at Fort Lee, Virginia. But he spoke about the risks involved when people “aspiring to become president get loose with this language.”

Those dangers, Obama said, “you can see in some of the language that we use — in talking about Muslim-Americans here and the notion that somehow we’d start having religious tests in who can come in the country and who’s investigated and whether the Bill of Rights applies to them in the same way.”

Trump has at times proposed banning all Muslims from entering the United States, a notion that Obama has frequently attacked as anathema to American values. More recently, Trump has said he would impose “extreme vetting” and an ideological test for people who want to enter the United States, as well as ban entry for people from certain states affected by terrorism.

When asked by CNN host Jake Tapper whether he was referring to Trump, Obama demurred.
“It’s not unique to the Republican nominee,” Obama said. “And, again, I’m trying to be careful. We’re on a military base. I don’t want to insert partisan politics into this.”

Obama continued, “I think that there have been a number of public figures where you start hearing commentary that is dangerous because what it starts doing is it starts dividing us up as Americans.”

The president then noted that at Arlington National Cemetery, graves of fallen soldiers have crosses, Stars of David and crescents. That reference was reminiscent of the Khan family, who spoke about their Muslim son while excoriating Trump at the Democratic National Convention in July. Trump responded by going after the Gold Star family.

Obama’s comments were something of a pivot away from the central question of another Gold Star mother at the town hall meeting. Her 19-year-old son died in Baghdad in 2007, and she asked Obama why he refused to use the term “Islamic terrorist.” It’s a criticism Trump and other Republicans have lobbed at the president as well.

Obama told her the issue is “sort of manufactured” because he has acknowleged that groups like Al Qaeda and ISIL have “perverted and distorted” Islam.

Obama has explained that he does not want to legitimize terrorists by saying they speak for the billions of peaceful Muslims around the world. However, he adopted a novel, more personal example to illustrate his point.

“If you had an organization that was going around killing and blowing people up and said we’re on the vanguard of Christianity,” Obama said, “as a Christian, I’m not going to let them claim my religion and say you’re killing for Christ. I would say that’s ridiculous. That’s not what my religion stands for. Call these folks what they are, which is killers and terrorists.”

President Obama nominates first-ever Muslim federal judge

President Obama nominates first-ever Muslim federal judge


On Tuesday, President Barack Obama nominated lawyer Abid Qureshi for t, who if confirmed, would serve as the first Muslim federal judge.

According to the National Law Journal, civil rights organization Muslim Advocates says Qureshi is also the first Muslim a president has ever nominated to the federal judiciary. Earlier this year, the Guardian noted Obama had not yet nominated a Muslim to the federal bench, despite leading an unprecedented push to diversify the pool of “785 federal judges, according to the Federal Judicial Center, with about 90 vacancies outstanding.”

“I am pleased to nominate Mr. Qureshi to serve on the United States District Court bench,” Obama said in a statement. “I am confident he will serve the American people with integrity and a steadfast commitment to justice.”

According to the National Law Journal, Qureshi is a “Latham & Watkins’ pro bono practice and a litigation partner.” While his nomination is historic — and flies in the face of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s contention earlier this year that Muslim judges might be biased —  it is also unlikely to result in Qureshi landing a federal judgeship anytime soon.

Republicans in the Senate have blocked more of Obama’s nominees for the federal judiciary than any president in the past 30 years, according to a May analysis from their Democratic counterparts published in the Washington Post

Merrick Garland, who Obama nominated to fill late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat back in March, is still waiting for Senate consideration. Dozens of other federal seats are likely to go unfilled through the remaining months of the president’s term, due largely to a long-running campaign of obstruction against Obama nominees.

Last year, the Huffington Post reported a shortage of federal judges had resulted in massive backlogs of cases for judges across the country, with many individual judges working overtime to address them.

Tom McKay

President Obama Slams Republicans For Toying With American Lives By Blocking Zika Funding (VIDEO)

President Obama Slams Republicans For Toying With American Lives By Blocking Zika Funding (VIDEO)

Featured image via video screen capture


President Obama used this week’s “Weekly Address” to discuss the Zika virus and slam the Republicans who have chosen to block the funding necessary to fight the spread of this mosquito-borne disease.

The president began by talking about a call he had gotten from a pregnant woman named Ashley who said she was “extremely concerned” about Zika and “what it might mean for other pregnant women like her.” He added that, as a father, he shared this mother’s worry. Conservatives in Congress on the other hand, not so much.

“Republicans in Congress did not share Ashley’s ‘extreme concern,’ nor that of other Americans expecting children. They said no. Instead, we were forced to use resources we need to keep fighting Ebola, cancer, and other diseases. We took that step because we have a responsibility to protect the American people” said Obama. “But that’s not a sustainable solution. And Congress has been on a seven-week recess without doing anything to protect Americans from the Zika virus.”

Obama said that his “Administration has done what we can on our own,” but that is not nearly enough to stop the spread of this disease. He explained the steps that citizens can take to try to protect themselves from the mosquitos who carry and spread the virus: use insect repellent, wear long sleeves and pants, get rid of standing water where mosquitos breed, etc.

And then, President Obama tore into the Republican lawmakers who have been dragging their feet when it comes to funding the measures that will stop the threat of this disease, which is known to cause serious birth defects when a pregnant woman is infected, including microcephaly.

“But every day that Republican leaders in Congress wait to do their job, every day our experts have to wait to get the resources they need – that has real-life consequences. Weaker mosquito-control efforts. Longer wait times to get accurate diagnostic results. Delayed vaccines. It puts more Americans at risk.”

“One Republican Senator has said that ‘There is no such thing as a Republican position on Zika or Democrat position on Zika because these mosquitoes bite everyone.’”

“I agree. We need more Republicans to act that way because this is more important than politics. It’s about young mothers like Ashley. Today, her new baby Savannah is healthy and happy. That’s priority number one. And that’s why Republicans in Congress should treat Zika like the threat that it is and make this their first order of business when they come back to Washington after Labor Day. That means working in a bipartisan way to fully fund our Zika response. A fraction of the funding won’t get the job done. You can’t solve a fraction of a disease. Our experts know what they’re doing. They just need the resources to do it.”

Watch President Obama’s Weekly Address:


By April Hamlin

Trump’s “Obama founded ISIS” comments are outrageous. They’re also deeply ignorant.

(Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

VOX World

During a Wednesday night rally in Florida, Donald Trump said something that sounded absurd even for him — that President Obama founded ISIS.

“In many respects, you know, they honor President Obama,” Trump declared. “He’s the founder of ISIS.”

This sure sounds like Trump is accusing Obama of secretly creating ISIS. But what Trump really meant by this, as he explained in a subsequent interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt, is that ISIS was the direct result of the US troop withdrawal from Iraq implemented under Obama.

“The way he got out of Iraq was that that was the founding of ISIS, okay?” Trump tells Hewitt. “With his bad policies, that’s why ISIS came about.”

All of these comments are wrong, however — in two distinct and equally damaging ways. First, Trump completely botches the history of ISIS: The group was founded in 1999 and really grew up after the US invasion of Iraq. If any US president could be blamed for ISIS’s “founding,” it would be George W. Bush, not Barack Obama.

Second, Trump’s “founding” phrasing is damaging even though he didn’t mean it literally. Trump is, intentionally or not, validating conspiracy theories about America’s relationship with ISIS. It’s a terribly irresponsible thing to say — and illustrates one of the many reasons Trump would make an awful president.

ISIS was “founded” more than 10 years ago — before Obama came along

(STR/AFP/Getty Images)Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, founder of ISIS.

To understand why Trump’s claim that Obama “founded” ISIS is so off base, you need to understand the group’s actual origins.

ISIS has its origins in a Jordanian group called Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (JTWJ), founded in 1999 by a militant named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi, himself from Jordan, was a kind of thuggish figure, known more for brutality than theological sophistication. Initially, his group was fairly marginal in the global jihadist movement, especially compared with al-Qaeda.

The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 changed everything. The American-led war, by destroying the Iraqi state, left much of the country in chaos. Foreign fighters and extremists began moving into Iraq, assisted by Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, which sought to bog down the United States. Zarqawi and his group were among those foreign fighters.

The Sunni extremists who arrived found a friendly audience among former Iraqi soldiers and officers: The US had disbanded Saddam Hussein’s overwhelmingly Sunni army, which was disbanded in 2003, creating a group of men who were unemployed, battle-trained, and scared of life in an Iraq dominated by its Shia majority.

Zarqawi’s group, as it fought in Iraq, grew to prominence, attracting al-Qaeda’s attention. In 2004, Zarqawi pledged loyalty to al-Qaeda, for which he would receive access to its funds and fighters. His group was renamed al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and it became the country’s leading Sunni insurgent group.

By 2006, Zarqawi’s group controlled a swath of territory in Iraq roughly similar to the areas ISIS has occupied more recently. It started calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq, or ISI for short.

Shortly thereafter, Zarqawi’s group met a fierce backlash. Sunni tribal leaders, who had always hated living under AQI’s harsh and often violent rule, became convinced that the Shias were starting to win Iraq’s sectarian civil war. To avoid being on the losing end of a bloody war, they up took arms against AQI in a movement called the Awakening.

Zarqawi was killed in 2006 by a US airstrike, and the US increased its troop presence in Iraq that year and the next. But it was, more than anything else, the Awakening that destroyed al-Qaeda in Iraq’s empire.

But while the group lost its territory, it survived in a much weakened form. A hard core of AQI loyalists, led by current ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, survived the group’s military defeat and continued operations as a small terrorist cell. This group would eventually become what we know as ISIS today.

In short: The group that would become ISIS was founded in Jordan in 1999, and became devoted to holding territory in Iraq after the US invasion in 2003. You can debate which of these constitutes ISIS’s “founding” in some metaphysical sense. But by any definition, the group was founded well before President Obama came into office. Trump is just flatly wrong on this.

The US withdrawal from Iraq under Obama wasn’t the reason ISIS grew

us withdrawal iraq(Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images) US troops leaving Iraq.

Okay, a Trump defender might say, but Trump’s real point isn’t that Obama “created” ISIS. It’s that Obama withdrew US troops from Iraq in 2011, creating a security vacuum that allowed ISIS to regain its strength.

This is a pretty standard conservative narrative, one not at all unique to Trump. It is, however, quite wrong. The real sources of ISIS’s recent growth were the Syrian civil war and political sectarianism in Iraq, neither of which was within the power of United States to prevent.

By 2010, “Iraq finally had relatively good security, a generous state budget, and positive relations among the country’s various ethnic and religious communities,” Zaid al-Ali, author of The Struggle for Iraq’s Future, wrote in Foreign Policy. But that strong position was squandered. Then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki stripped his political opponents of power, appointed his cronies to run the army, and killed peaceful protesters.

Most importantly, Maliki reconstructed the Iraqi state along sectarian lines, privileging the Shia majority over the Sunni minority. This exacerbated Iraq’s existing sectarian tensions: Sunni Iraqis, after all, had long and falsely believed themselves to be Iraqi’s majority (owing to Saddam-era propaganda). They saw Maliki as depriving them of their rightful control of the state — and his actions deepened their belief that the Iraqi state was fundamentally illegitimate.

Around this same time as this was happening, Syria erupted in Arab Spring protests and, eventually, descended into civil war. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the current leader of ISIS who was at the time in Iraq, saw the chaos as an opportunity, sending a contingent of fighters to Syria to set up shop there in late 2011.

These two developments — Iraq’s unraveling and Syria’s civil war — created a perfect incubator for ISIS.

Growing political sectarianism in Iraq helped the group rebuild its core Iraqi fighting force. The war in Syria allowed them to gain weapons, battlefield experience, funding, and a different avenue for recruiting. Its growth in Syria led it to start calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria — or ISIS, for short.

This is the key problem with Trump’s claim about Obama and ISIS. In order for his accusation to be true, he needs to be able to explain how leaving US troops in Iraq would have been able to stop either the Syrian civil war or avert the Maliki government’s sectarian turn. US troops could have killed ISIS fighters, sure, but that wouldn’t have solved the root causes of the group’s growth.

Remember, US troops couldn’t destroy ISIS during the post-2003 war on their own. The key cause of AQI’s defeat then was an Iraqi Sunni uprising, which wasn’t in the cards given the Iraqi government’s sectarian policies between 2009 and 2014. And that’s to say nothing of the idea that US troops in Iraq could somehow have stopped ISIS’s growth in Syria.

Moreover, it’s not obvious that American troops could even have stayed in Iraq given Iraqi politics. The 2011 withdrawal was the result of a status of forces agreement (SOFA) signed by the Bush administration in December 2008. The Obama administration actually attempted to renegotiate the SOFA and insert a provision that would leave between 5,000 and 10,000 troops in the country.

But the negotiations to keep US troops in Iraq were always doomed, largely due to Iraqi politics. The new deal would have needed to go through Iraq’s parliament. The overwhelming majority of both Sunni and Shia Iraqi voters, understandably still angry about the US invasion, wanted American troops gone. Iraqi MPs would not have risked their jobs in support of a US troop presence that many of them also resented.

“The Iraqis had a vote here, and made it very clear that they wanted a clear end date when US troops would leave the country,” Douglas Ollivant, the National Security Council director for Iraq from 2008 to 2009, said in a 2012 interview with Iraq expert Joel Wing. “From the Iraqi perspective, this agreement was always about our withdrawal, and our presence over the last three years was simply a temporary accommodation to allow us to do that in an orderly manner.”

Bottom line? US troops probably would not have stopped ISIS’s rise, and, even if they could have, there would have been very little Obama could have done to make sure they stayed in Iraq. Trump is simply wrong.

Why Trump’s comments are terrible in addition to being wrong

Donald Trump Addresses The National Association Of Home Builders Conference In Miami Beach(Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Trump’s comments go beyond merely being wrong on the facts. They actively encourage even worse thinking about America’s role in Iraq.

Trump has been insistent that his “founder of ISIS” phrasing is accurate, despite all the evidence to the contrary. In his radio interview, host Hewitt tries to get Trump to back off the “founder” phrasing, and make the argument about the US withdrawal creating ISIS without the incendiary framing. Trump refuses:

Hewitt: Last night, you said the President was the founder of ISIS. I know what you meant. You meant that he created the vacuum, he lost the peace.

Trump: No, I meant he’s the founder of ISIS. I do. He was the most valuable player. I give him the most valuable player award. I give her, too, by the way, Hillary Clinton.

Hewitt: But he’s not sympathetic to them. He hates them. He’s trying to kill them.

Trump: I don’t care. He was the founder. His, the way he got out of Iraq was that that was the founding of ISIS, okay?

The issue here is that this plays into actual conspiracy theories about the founding of ISIS. Many people within the Middle East believe the United States is secretly helping ISIS in order to weaken states in the region. Trump’s phrasing just puts more fuel on the fire.

“It’s a conspiracy theory that some in [the Middle East] region believe, and a US presidential candidate just affirmed it,” Matt Duss, the president of the Foundation for Middle East peace, wrote to me.

Nor is this just a conspiracy theory in the Middle East. “[Trump’s] line that Obama founded ISIS echoes exactly a myth propagated by Russian state-controlled media and bloggers,” Michael McFaul, a Stanford professor and former US ambassador to Russia, tweeted.

Trump’s insistence that his “founder” phrasing is appropriate, then, goes beyond merely being wrong about the causes of ISIS’s rise. It affirmatively amplifies ideas that damage America’s reputation abroad.

This is a major problem with Trump. When he makes mistakes, or says something indefensibly terrible, he almost never apologizes. When pressed, he doubles down, even when it sounds ridiculous and even racist. Think about his insistence that he saw Muslims in New Jersey celebrate 9/11 (never happened), or that Obama might not have been born in America.

Whether this is an intentional appeal to Islamophobes or simply a rhetorical tick whose consequences Trump doesn’t appreciate is more or less irrelevant. The “founder of ISIS” comments play into a demonstrated pattern of saying something damaging and then refusing to apologize and own up to its consequences.

That’s a very dangerous quality for someone who wants to become president. A poorly phrased statement by the most powerful person in the world doesn’t just help amplify bad ideas — it can actively cause an international crisis.

Watch: The rise of ISIS explained

The US did not pay a $400 million “ransom” to Iran. Here’s what actually happened.

President Obama announcing the Iran deal framework in April | Win McNamee/Getty Images

VOX World

This dumb controversy is everything wrong with our Iran debate.

On the morning of January 17, several wooden pallets arrived at Tehran’s Mehrabad airport. The unassuming pallets were stuffed with foreign cash — $400 million worth, to be exact. Their origin point? The United States.

That same day, four US citizens detained by Iran were released from Iranian custody.

These facts, uncovered in a recent Wall Street Journal piece, have set off a major firestorm inside the United States. Republicans and conservatives, including Paul Ryan and Donald Trump, have alleged that the payment was part of secret ransom deal the Obama administration made with Iran to free the prisoners.

“If true, this report confirms our longstanding suspicion that the administration paid a ransom in exchange for Americans unjustly detained in Iran,” Ryan’s outraged statement read. “It would also mark another chapter in the ongoing saga of misleading the American people to sell this dangerous nuclear deal.”

It’s easy to see how the timing is suspicious. But Ryan, Trump, and other critics have the facts wrong. The Wall Street Journal story is actually describing a payment thatPresident Obama announced back in January. What’s more, the payment was the result of a 35-year case in international court — and had nothing to do with any “hostage” payments.

Once you understand these facts, you will understand that this isn’t actually a story about the Obama administration paying a secret ransom to Iran. It’s a story about the way Washington’s debate over Iran is fundamentally broken.

What literally happened

iran revolution woman(Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images)

An pro-revolution Iranian woman in Tehran in 1979.

In very simple terms, this payment is the first installment of a refund for a weapons purchase America never delivered. It starts in 1979, the year of the Iranian Revolution.

In November 1979, a group loyal to the revolutionary regime took 52 Americans hostage at the US Embassy in Tehran. In response, the United States severed diplomatic relations with Iran and froze Iranian assets in America.

Crucially for the present issue, it also halted a delivery of fighter jets that Iran’s pre-revolution government had already paid $400 million for. Normally the US would return the money if it wasn’t going to deliver the planes — countries don’t just break formal agreements like that. But it had frozen Iranian assets in the US as punishment for the hostage-taking — and that included the $400 million.

The hostage crisis was eventually resolved in 1981, at a conference in Algiers. But the Algiers Accords didn’t resolve every outstanding issue — including the legal status of the $400 million.

Instead, it set up an international court, based in the Hague, to deal with any legal claims that the governments of Iran and the United States had against each other, or that individual citizens of the two countries had against the other country.

This court, called the IranUnited States Claims Tribunal, functioned as a kind of binding arbitration. In any case, the involved parties could either negotiate a settlement out of court or take it to a panel made up of three US-appointed judges, three Iranian-appointed judges, and three neutral judges. The panel would then hear the case and issue a binding ruling.

This process, as you might guess, was very, very slow. By the time Obama’s second term in office began, the tribunal still had not come to a ruling on the issue of the $400 million. Sometime afterward, the Associated Press’s Matt Lee reports, the US government apparently concluded that it was going to lose the case — and lose big: Iran was seeking $10 billion in today’s dollars.

“US officials had expected a ruling on the Iranian claim from the tribunal any time, and feared a ruling that would have made the interest payments much higher,” Lee writes.

So the Obama administration decided to settle out of court, opening up negotiations with Iran on the terms of the settlement. It did this at the same time it was negotiating the nuclear deal and the return of four US citizens who had been detained by Iran more recently. However, the people working on the nuclear deal and the prisoner release were different from the team working on the court case — some of whom had been involved with the claims tribunal for years.

By January 2016, the countries had struck a deal — the US would pay Iran $1.7 billion, which amounts to about $300 million in interest on top of the originally frozen assets (accounting for inflation).

The settlement was announced the same day in January as Iran received its first round of sanctions relief from the Iran deal.

The $400 million payment, delivered in foreign cash because US law prevents the government from giving Iran dollars, was the first installment toward the $1.7 billion total. Getting together large amounts of foreign cash is hard, apparently — hence the installment plan.

So there you have it. The payment, which sounds really shady out of context, was actually the end of a boring, decades-old international legal case totally unrelated to the hot-button nuclear and prisoner issues.

What’s the evidence that this was a hostage payment?

kerry zarif(Pool/Getty Images)

John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, diplomacin’.

Almost immediately after the $1.7 billion deal was announced, critics began suggesting that all was not as it seemed. The timing of the decades-old weapons payment settlement and the hostage release suggested that it wasn’t just a settlement on a legal issue — it was a ransom payment.

“A deal that sent $1.7 billion in U.S. funds to Iran, announced alongside the freeing of five Americans from Iranian jails, has emerged as a new flashpoint amid a claim in Tehran that the transaction amounted to a ransom payment,” the Wall Street Journal’s Jay Solomon, who also co-wrote the recent piece that broke the $400 million payment story, reported at the time.

But there was no direct evidence to back up this theory. The speculation about timing was just that — speculation.

Moreover, the basic logic of it didn’t make any sense. Iran was going to get that money back no matter what through the arbitration process — probably more, if the Obama administration was right. Why would it release potentially valuable hostages in exchange for money it would have gotten otherwise? Iran would have to be the world’s dumbest hostage taker.

The August Wall Street Journal piece, written by Solomon and Carol Lee, attempted to resolve these questions. It uncovered that the first $400 million payment, which was part of the $1.7 billion total settlement, happened on the same day as the hostage release — and that the Obama administration clearly chose not to include that particular fact in its announcement back in January.

That’s suggestive of a link between the hostage negotiations and the weapons settlement, but it’s hardly conclusive.

Beyond that, the WSJ report contained two real pieces of evidence suggesting that the arms deal payment was actually ransom.

First, Iranian negotiators involved in the prisoner exchange allegedly linked the two: “US officials also acknowledge that Iranian negotiators on the prisoner exchange said they wanted the cash to show they had gained something tangible,” Solomon and Lee report.

But the Iranian negotiators on the prisoner exchange were not the same negotiatorsinvolved in the weapons deal settlement. Therefore, they couldn’t make demands of the US team negotiating the weapons deal settlement, which means they couldn’t negotiate a quid pro quo of money for hostage release, the definition of a ransom.

So even if this report is true — and you should always be skeptical of anonymous unquoted references to “US officials” — the Iranians would have gotten the money no matter what.

The second piece of evidence for the payment being a ransom is that the Iranians spun it that way. “Iranian press reports have quoted senior Iranian defense officials describing the cash as a ransom payment,” write Solomon and Lee.

But of course Iranian officials would spin it as a hostage payment. This makes them look strong to their domestic audience and America look weak. We don’t take political spin from American officials at face value, so we shouldn’t take Iranian spin at face value either — especially when it’s contradicted by independent evidence.

One could make the argument, I suppose, that the timing was a form of ransom. By delivering the payment on the same day as the prisoner release, Iranian officials could claim that they got the money as part of a ransom deal.

But the truth is that the Iranians could have claimed that no matter when the cash was delivered. If the Obama administration had forked over $400 million six months later, those same Iranian defense officials could have lied and said it was part of the prisoner release deal rather than the weapons settlement.

The lie isn’t significantly more credible just because the cash was delivered on the same day. Nor should American media and politicians help validate the Iranian lie by treating Iranian propaganda as actual evidence.

The bottom line, then, is that the new Wall Street Journal piece uncovers no real evidence suggesting that the US agreed to give Iran money that it wouldn’t have gotten otherwiseas part of the hostage release deal. There’s smoke here, but no fire.

This shows how our Iran debate is broken

Vice President Biden Meets With Jewish Community Leaders In Davie, Florida(Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

An anti-Iran deal protest in Florida.

There’s a bigger problem here, one that goes well beyond a hyperbolic reaction to one Wall Street Journal story. Because this isn’t really about one cash payment to Iran — it’s about the fundamentally broken way we talk about Iran.

Every debate about Iran in Washington nowadays is really a debate about the Iran nuclear deal.

Basically, one camp says the US should welcome a settlement that defuses tensions with Iran on this one specific issue, while the other sees Iran as a fundamentally hostile actor that cannot — and should not — be compromised with.

That second camp sees the deal as a huge step toward the US accommodating Iran more broadly in the Middle East, which they believe would be a disaster of epic proportions. So they campaign, relentlessly, to undermine the nuclear deal — with the support of most of the Republican Party.

Indira Lakshmanan has a revealing story in Politico on the “plan to undo the Iranian nuclear deal” by preventing Iran from reentering the global economy, and the “constellation of pressure groups, analysts, lobbyists and lawmakers” who are hard at work trying to make it happen.

The problem, though, is that the nuclear deal is actually working pretty well.

When you talk to technical experts, they tell you that Iran is abiding by the deal’s terms. The Iranians have cut down on the number of centrifuges, limited their stockpile of enriched uranium, and done many other things that have made it much harder for them to build a nuclear bomb.

“I think it’s gone very well,” Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, told me last month. “The [International Atomic Energy Agency] has been regularly reporting on Iran’s compliance, and Iran is complying with the deal.”

This creates a major problem for team anti-deal. They need evidence that the deal isn’t working and should be undone, but the facts about the deal’s core provisions don’t support that. The result is an endless deluge of spin. Every new piece of information on Iran or the nuclear deal becomes evidence that Iran is evil or cannot be trusted.

Since the deal, there’s been a slew of bad-sounding stories being spun wildly to construct a narrative of a broken nuclear deal and an Obama administration kowtowing to Iran. A few examples:

  • An AP story that allegedly showed Iran would “self-inspect” Parchin, a military complex, turned out to be describing standard operating procedure when it came to nuclear inspections.
  • A report from German intelligence suggesting Iran was buying nuclear material was hyped as evidence that Iran can’t be trusted. Turns out the report only covered the year 2015 — before the nuclear deal came into effect.
  • Claims that Iran had broken the deal by stockpiling too much heavy water ignored the fact that there wasn’t an actual hard cap on heavy water in the Iran deal, and that Iran very quickly shipped out its excess heavy water.

These stories are all highly technical: In order to understand the truth, you need to know a fair amount about how nuclear inspections work or the terms of the nuclear deal. Without that knowledge, it’s easy to see a pattern of Iranian malfeasance and violation of the terms of the deal — which is exactly the story deal critics are trying to tell.

This most recent controversy over the alleged “hostage” payment fits this pattern perfectly. The truth of the situation is highly technical and boring; nobody cares about a 35-year-old international litigation process. And a surface-level look at the facts — the US delivered $400 million in secret cash on the same day Iran released US prisoners — confirms the narrative of the Obama administration making absurd concessions to Iran.

Yet when boring facts meet exciting spin, exciting spin often wins out. So you’ve gotMark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and one of the leaders of the effort to torpedo the deal, claiming that the entire $1.7 billion was a big ransom payment.

If you weren’t following this debate very closely, you wouldn’t know why he was wrong. You would conclude that the US has “once again” made embarrassing concessions to Iran — a point that Republicans, deal critics, and Obama opponents are only too happy to amplify.

I’m not trying to say the Iranians are innocent little lambs. Iran is most certainly a very, very bad actor — it is spreading sectarian violence in Iraq (and elsewhere), funding anti-Israel terrorist groups, and devoting tremendous military resources to propping up Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime in Syria. The nuclear deal hasn’t made Iran into a force for stability, as some deal proponents in the Obama administration hoped, and it probably won’t.

These are real, serious foreign policy problems for the United States. But when our Iran debate focuses on misleading nuclear inspection minutiae or whether the Obama administration is “kowtowing” to Iran with things like the alleged hostage payment, we aren’t having a serious conversation about how to address Iran’s actually bad policies.

Instead, we’re debating an endless drumbeat of misleading stories designed only to undermine the nuclear deal and faith in the Obama administration’s negotiating prowess. The ransom faux scandal is only the latest such story in this pattern.

This isn’t a helpful way of talking about America’s Iran policy, and it needs to stop.