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David Bowie’s response to his first American fan letter is a glimpse at the man behind the mask.

Before he wholly became the persona known as Bowie, himself a shape-shifter who inhabited a long line of different characters over the course of his career, he was David Jones, an aspiring rock star. In 1967, at the age of 20, following the release of his self-titled debut, he eagerly penned a response to 14-year-old Sandra Dodd of New Mexico, as detailed at the blog Letters of Note. At one point he writes:

In answer to your questions, my real name is David Jones and I don’t have to tell you why I changed it. “Nobody’s going to make a monkey out of you” said my manager. My birthday is January 8th and I guess I’m 5’10”. There is a Fan Club here in England, but if things go well in the States then we’ll have one there I suppose. It’s a little early to even think about it. 

The letter, however, is signed “David Bowie.” Read the whole thing at Letters of Note.

October 17, 2018

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The new Republican midterm strategy is to copy Democratic ideas.

Writing in The Washington Post, journalists Erica Werner and David Weigel point to a surprising new trend: Republicans trying to stave off midterm defeat by mimicking traditionally Democratic stances. “A growing number of Republican candidates are sounding a lot like Democrats as they face midterm elections, co-opting Democratic talking points on issues from health care to education funding to the #MeToo movement,” Werner and Weigel write.

Many Republican politicians now say they support making insurance companies take people with pre-existing conditions, despite the party’s push to repeal Obamacare. In practice, this is an unsustainable position, since protecting those with pre-existing conditions combined with repealing Obamacare would lead to skyrocketing costs for both consumers and the federal government.

“Health care is not the only issue where Republicans are offering proposals that are more typically heard from Democrats,” Werner and Weigel write. “After a national wave of teacher walkouts, a number of Republican governors and gubernatorial candidates are running on promises of maintaining or increasing education spending. These include Walker in Wisconsin, Gov. Doug Ducey in Arizona and Republican Attorney General Adam Laxalt in Nevada.”

Texas Senator Ted Cruz has jumped on both bandwagons, saying he favors protecting individuals with pre-existing conditions and also arguing that, “It’s time to give teachers and other public servants fair retirement pay.”

Some Republicans are also hoping to minimize the gender gap by borrowing from the language of #MeToo. As Werner and Weigel note, “And amid fallout from the Kavanaugh hearing, with surveys showing a growing gender gap that favors Democrats among women voters, Republicans in a number of races have portrayed Democrats as hypocrites on women’s rights by pointing to allegations that they have committed abuse or sexual assault—in each case, borrowing the language of the #MeToo movement.”

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Report: Audio exists of Khashoggi being murdered, contradicting Trump’s “rogue killers” theory.

Middle East Eye is reporting that they’ve spoken to a Turkish source who claims to have listened to the full audio recording of Jamal Khashoggi’s alleged murder. The source provided details which contradict the exculpatory “rogue killers” theory being floated by President Donald Trump and the Saudi government which posits an interrogation that went awry. 

According to the source, Khashoggi was in the consul-general’s office when he was yanked into an adjacent study, where he was placed on a table. “The consul himself was taken out of the room. There was no attempt to interrogate him. They had come to kill him,” the source said.

The source claims the killing was done by Salah Muhammad al-Tubaigy, a high official in the Saudi security forces. Tubaigy allegedly put on ear-phones while he dismembered Khashoggi (who was still alive while being cut up). The source claims that Tubaigy can be heard encouraging the others in the room to also wear headphones. 

Khashoggi was screaming while this took place and only went quiet after being injected with an unknown substance. The whole operation took seven minutes.

Khashoggi disappeared inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2nd and has not been seen since. His death is unconfirmed.  

Jamal Khashoggi. (MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty)

Trump complains that the Saudi crown prince is being treated like Brett Kavanaugh.

Even as the Turkish government continues to leak information connecting the government of Saudi Arabia to the disappearance and possible murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, President Donald Trump remains protective of the Saudi regime. “I think we have to find out what happened first,” Trump told The Associated Press in an interview. “Here we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent. I don’t like that. We just went through that with Justice Kavanaugh and he was innocent all the way as far as I’m concerned.”

Earlier in the day, Trump tweeted that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had denied any knowledge of harm done to Khashoggi:

Trump’s solicitude towards the Saudi government stands in contrast to the vocal condemnation being voiced by many other American politicians, including leading Republicans. Appearing on Fox and Friends, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham said that the crown prince is “toxic” and “has got to go.” Graham promised to “sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia.”

On Wednesday, The Washington Post, a newspaper that has a special interest in the matter because it had employed Khashoggi as a columnist, condemned the Trump administration for conducting a “diplomatic cleanup operation” on behalf of the Saudi government.

October 16, 2018

Will Trump really cut off aid to Honduras? Probably not.

On Tuesday morning, the president threatened to halt aid if Honduras did not stop a caravan of up to 3,000 Honduran migrants heading to the U.S.-Mexico border. The caravan had already entered Guatemala on Monday.

Trump tweeted:

If past caravans from Central America serve as an indicator, however, this is probably a bluff. In April, Trump made nearly identical threats to Honduras when a migrant caravan of at least 1,200 approached the border, but the funds continued to flow. Honduras remains a strategic security ally in Central America. The U.S. has stationed troops there since 1954, and spent nearly $100 million in 2017 on securing borders and fighting crime in the country.

The real humanitarian threat is the treatment of these migrants in the hands of U.S. Border Patrol agents. While hundreds of migrants in April were allowed to file asylum claims in the U.S., many more were turned away by Border Patrol agents in a gross violation of their legal right to request asylum. The caravan is currently facing a brutal response from the armed federal police forces of both Guatemala and Mexico.

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Trump-supported conservative student group seems to be chatting race-baiting memes.

The Miami New Times reports that chatroom discussion of the Florida International University chapter of Turning Points USA (TPUSA) show members of the group making racist and alt-right tinged comments. “Members joke about watching underage cartoon pornography, deporting Latina women, and, in the most repugnant case, share racist ‘Pepe the Frog’ memes showing Syrian men raping a white Swedish woman at gunpoint,” the New Times observes. In other chats, a senior TPUSA member advises peers to “avoid using the n word and don’t reference Richard Spencer too much and don’t Jew hate ... all the time.”

TPUSA is a non-profit whose mandate is to promote conservative ideas on campus. It has been closely affiliated with the Trump administration, particularly because of the friendship of TPUSA founder Charlie Kirk and Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son.

This is not the first time TPUSA has run into problems growing out of racist members. In December 2017, The New Yorker reported that Crystal Clanton, a national director at TPUSA, texted “I HATE BLACK PEOPLE. Like fuck them all . . . I hate blacks. End of story.” Clanton was fired in the wake of this text becoming known to The New Yorker. Gabrielle Fequiere, a former TPUSA employee, told The New Yorker that speakers at a event organized by the group “spoke badly about black women having all these babies out of wedlock. It was really offensive.”

Aside from the history of racism, TPUSA has been accused of conducting partisan political activities that violate its charitable status. According to The New Yorker’s 2017 story, internal documents and interviews “suggest that the group may have skirted campaign-finance laws that bar charitable organizations from participating in political activity. Former employees say that they were directed to work with prominent conservatives, including the wife of the Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, in aid of Republican Presidential candidates in 2016.”

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Report: The United Arab Emirates is using American mercenaries to assassinate political foes.

BuzzFeed reporter Aram Roston has published a blockbuster exposé on the growing use of mercenaries by a key American ally to carry out a murder spree in Yemen. According to the report, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is employing the services of the Spear Operations Group, a Delaware-incorporated firm which hires American special operation reservists and veterans to carry out targeted killings. The UAE is particularly interested in killing Yemeni leaders of the Islamist political party Al-Islah. The UAE considers Al-Islah to be a terrorist organization. As Roston notes, many experts say Al-Islah is “a legitimate political party that threatens the UAE not through violence but by speaking out against its ambitions in Yemen.”

The article details a botched assassination attempt on December 16, 2015 when mercenaries from the Spear Operations Group tried to bomb a Yemeni office in order to kill Anssaf Ali Mayo, a leading figure in Al-Islah. As it happened, Mayo wasn’t in the office at the time and so survived the assassination bid. But, as Roston notes, the bombing “marked a pivot point in the war in Yemen, a brutal conflict that has seen children starved, villages bombed, and epidemics of cholera roll through the civilian population. The bombing was the first salvo in a string of unsolved assassinations that killed more than two dozen of [Al-Islah’s] leaders.”

Mercenary assassinations are on the rise as a byproduct of the American-led war on terror. The administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama loosened the restraints on targeted killings, often done by drones. They also greatly expanded the size of special forces, creating an vast reservoir of highly trained soldiers who could ply their services to regimes like the United Arab Emirates.

“There was a targeted assassination program in Yemen,” Spear Operations Group founder Abraham Golan told BuzzFeed. “I was running it. We did it. It was sanctioned by the UAE within the coalition.”

Golan claims that he wants the issue of mercenary assassinations to be publicly debated.

“Maybe I’m a monster,” he says. “Maybe I should be in jail. Maybe I’m a bad guy. But I’m right.”

Tom Pennington/Getty

President of the United States calls his alleged former lover “horseface”—on Twitter.

On Tuesday morning, President Donald Trump tweeted:

According to New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, Trump has often in private used the expression “horseface” to denigrate Stormy Daniels but this is the first time he’s used the expression in public.

Even though the president has a long history of making misogynist remarks, these comments elicited widespread comment and condemnation:

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James Mattis refuses to take Trump’s bait and holds on tight to his job.

In the 60 Minutes interview that aired on Sunday, President Donald Trump made some statements that seemed designed to provoke his secretary of defense. Asked about Mattis’s view that alliances like NATO are needed to help prevent World War III, Trump huffily responded, “Frankly, I like General Mattis. I think I know more about it than he does.” When queried about whether Mattis would be staying on the job, Trump gave an answer that was far from reassuring: “I think he’s sort of a Democrat, if you wanna know the truth. But General Mattis is a good guy. We get along very well. He may leave. I mean, at some point, everybody leaves. Everybody. People leave. That’s Washington.”

Interviewed by reporters on Monday, Mattis tried to defuse the president’s words. Mattis claimed he was “proudly apolitical” since joining the Marine Corps at age 18. He indicated that he saw his job was to serve the elected commander in chief. “I’ve never registered for any political party,” Mattis said, adding that he and Trump “never talked about me leaving ... We just continue doing our job.”

Although Mattis’s words were meant to reassure those who see him as a pillar of sanity in a chaotic administration, the fact remains that he and Trump are not speaking from the same script. At some point, the discrepancy between Mattis’s view of himself as a loyal team player and Trump’s suspicion that the secretary of defense is “sort of a Democrat” is likely to lead to a real rift. Mattis might be intent on keeping a tight grip on his current job, but Trump’s remarks still foretell an eventual departure.

October 15, 2018

MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty

The Saudi-led coalition, with American aid, is driving Yemen toward a massive famine.

Humanitarian organizations monitoring the civil war in Yemen are warning the country could be engulfed in one of the largest human-created famines in history if fighting continues between a Saudi-led coalition and Houthi rebels (who are supported by Iran). The situation is dire because the conflict now centers on the port city of Hodeidah, an essential entry point for food shipments. Twelve million people could be at risk. With American support giving them command of the air, the Saudi-aligned coalition forces have wreaked havoc on Yemen’s infrastructure and shown little regard for civilian life.

“Civilians in Yemen are not starving, they are being starved. Let it be known that the worst famine on our watch is wholly man-made by Yemen’s local conflict parties and their international sponsors,” said Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, in a statement.
“Yemen has long been bombarded with air strikes and subjected to strangling tactics of war. Mass starvation is a deadly byproduct of actions taken by warring parties and the Western nations propping them up. The way the war is waged has systematically choked civilians by making less food available and affordable to millions of people.”

Lise Grande, the United Nation’s humanitarian coordinator in Yemen, echoed these concerns. “I think many of us felt as we went into the 21st century that it was unthinkable that we could see a famine like we saw in Ethiopia, that we saw in Bengal, that we saw in parts of the Soviet Union—that was just unacceptable,” she told the BBC. “Many of us had the confidence that would never happen again and yet the reality is that in Yemen that is precisely what we are looking at.”

Chris McGrath/Getty

Report: Saudi government is preparing to claim Jamal Khashoggi’s murder was a bungled kidnapping.

CNN is reporting that the Saudi government might be on the verge of a substantial admission in the case of missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who disappeared on October 2. Previously the Saudi government asserted that Khashoggi had left the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on that date. Now, the news network reports:

According to two sources, the Saudis are preparing a report that will acknowledge that Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s death was the result of an interrogation that went wrong, one that was intended to lead to his abduction from Turkey.

One source says the report will likely conclude that the operation was carried out without clearance and transparency and that those involved will be held responsible.

If accurately reported by CNN, the new Saudi government line makes no sense. After all, if they had kidnapped Khashoggi and brought him back to Saudi Arabia, what would they have done with him there? Would they really have been willing to eventually release a critic of the regime who would be able to present a horrific tale of abduction? And, in any case, kidnapping a critic of the regime seems only slightly better than outright assassination.

Last Friday, former Australian diplomat Anthony Bubalo in The New Republic explored the possibility that this was an abduction that went awry and noted that it still sent a message of intimidation to the Saudi diaspora:

Arresting a critic or forcibly returning them home sends a clear message to others, including any rivals in the royal family, that no dissent will be tolerated. Even exile will not keep you safe. This may have been the plan with Khashoggi, with something in the abduction going terribly wrong. But if the intent from the outset really was to kill Khashoggi then it would seem to go beyond just an effort to intimidate critics. It would seem to reflect such a thin-skinned vindictiveness and caprice as to send an entirely different—and from the crown prince’s perspective, not entirely helpful—message to the people around him: that no-one is safe while the crown prince’s power remains so untrammeled.