The Iranian “hostage” situation is already over. But don’t worry, we still got some hot takes.

Ten U.S. sailors were released from Iranian custody on Wednesday, resolving a diplomatic incident a day after their vessels strayed into Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf. Their quick release—in contrast to the days-long, public humiliation of British service members captured by Iran in similar situations in 2004 and 2007—precluded a serious crisis, and even suggested the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran may have facilitated a friendlier era in U.S.-Iranian relations.

But the U.S. should have done it all differently anyway, according to certain critics.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, meanwhile, sounded a different note:

October 22, 2018

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Here’s the hard truth about the air pollution report Trump tweeted.

On Monday afternoon, the president tweeted out a map from a United Nations report that was photoshopped to falsely claim that the United States has the cleanest air in the world.

The image in Trump’s tweet states that it is a “Global map of annual average ambient fine particulate matter,” updated in April 2018, and cites its source as the World Health Organization (WHO), a U.N. agency focused on international public health. The original source appears to be the similar-looking map below, from the summary of a April 2018 WHO report titled “Exposure to ambient air from particulate matter for 2016.The map is based on 2016 data from WHO’s Global Urban Ambient Air Pollution Database.

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This map does show that the U.S., on average and as a whole, has acceptable levels of particulate matter pollution every year. (Particulate matter is just one kind of air pollution, and refers to small dust particles that can infiltrate the lungs and circulatory system.) It does not, however, prove that the U.S. has the cleanest air “by far.” The map clearly shows Canada, Australia, and some European countries in the same light color as the U.S., meaning they too have acceptable levels of pollution.

Determining which country actually has the cleanest air requires a closer read of the WHO database. And based on my own analysis, Sweden has the lowest average concentration of smog pollution in the world, clocking in at about 6 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter of air. Second place goes to Finland, followed by Canada, Estonia, and Australia. The U.S. comes in eleventh place, with an average of 8.3 micrograms. This is still pretty good, since the WHO recommends no more than 10 micrograms. But it’s not the cleanest air “by far,” as Trump claimed.

Also, America’s air is not healthy everywhere. Contrary to Trump’s claim that “none in [the] U.S.” are affected by air pollution, 38 of the 372 U.S. cities and towns in the WHO database were shown to have particulate matter concentrations above the agency’s recommended level of 10 micrograms—including Fresco, California; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and Chicago, Illinois.

Trump’s photoshopped U.N. map does correctly note one thing: 91 percent of the world’s population suffers from unhealthy air. The fact that the U.S. as a whole doesn’t suffer this fate is something to be celebrated. But Trump isn’t exaggerating America’s status as a clean-air king because he wants to be the best. It’s because he wants to justify his agenda of loosening the air pollution regulations that gave the country its relatively clean air in the first place.

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Bible museum acknowledges some of its prize holdings are forgeries.

When the Museum of the Bible opened in Washington, D.C. last November, it gave pride of place to fragments that were purportedly part of the Dead Sea Scrolls, documents that date back to the early Christian era. But even before the opening, some scholars advised caution. Most authentic Dead Sea Scroll fragments are held by the Israeli Antiquities Authority. Since 2002, a new cache of alleged ancient fragments started appearing in the international antiquities market but most of those have turned out to be fake. Most notoriously, an alleged 2nd-century fragment seeming to suggest that Jesus was married received global attention in 2012. Although vouched for by a Harvard scholar, it was ultimately ruled a fraud.

Now CNN is reporting that the Museum of the Bible, after submitting the fragments to testing by German scholars at the Bundesanstalt für Materialforschung und-prüfung, admits at least five of their Dead Sea Scrolls are frauds. According to CNN, the German scholars, the fragments “show characteristics inconsistent with ancient origin and therefore will no longer be displayed at the museum.”

The Museum of the Bible was financed by the Green family, evangelical Christians who own the the Hobby Lobby chain. The Greens spent a fortune on both the fragments and the museum (which cost half a billion dollars to build).

Modern forgers are quite sophisticated. Discussing the married Jesus forgery, Ariel Sabar wrote in The Atlantic that, “A determined forger could obtain a blank scrap of centuries-old papyrus (perhaps even on eBay, where old papyri are routinely auctioned), mix ink from ancient recipes, and fashion passable Coptic script, particularly if he or she had some scholarly training.” You’d have to imagine a fair amount of work went into the Bible museum’s fragments.

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By pulling out of the INF Treaty, Trump might be handing Putin another win.

On Saturday, President Donald Trump announced the United States would be pulling out of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, citing alleged Russian cheating since 2014 as the rationale. The Kremlin has responded by saying the move could ignite a new arms race.

“This is a question of strategic security. Such measures can make the world more dangerous,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Monday. “It means that the United States is not disguising, but is openly starting to develop these systems in the future, and if these systems are being developed, then actions are necessary from other countries, in this case Russia, to restore balance in this sphere.”

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who signed the treaty with the late American President Ronald Reagan in 1987, described Trump’s decision as “not the work of a great mind” and “very strange.”

Withdrawing from the treaty satisfies the long-held agenda of National Security Advisor John Bolton, who opposes arms control on principle. The move is also in keeping with the foreign policy instincts of President Trump, who distrusts international agreements and has previously withdrawn from the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal.

Although framed as a punishment of Russia, being unshackled from the INF treaty might also serve the agenda of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Writing in Slate, the journalist Fred Kaplan argues that “withdrawing would give the Russians exactly what they want. When George W. Bush was president, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov implored Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld several times to make a deal allowing both sides to get out of this treaty, which Russian officers had never liked. Rumsfeld ignored the request, knowing that there was no appetite in the U.S. or NATO for bringing back the ground-launched cruise missile or the Pershing II. In other words, a joint pullout would help only the Russians—and do nothing for the U.S. or the West. Trump is now about to commit the mistake that Rumsfeld avoided.”

If America is going to pursue an arms race in Europe to counter Russian medium-range missiles, it would need buy-in from European allies. But in point of fact, the very act of pulling out of the INF treaty is adding further stress to the already tense relations America and those allies. This morning the German Foreign Office tweeted:

Trump has torn up the treaty to punish Russia but there’s no evidence that the United States has a strategy to deal with a post-treaty world.

JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty

Trump’s tweet linking migrants to “unknown Middle Easterners” is a reprise of old GOP rhetoric.

On Monday morning, the president tweeted:

The likely inspiration for this tweet was a segment of Fox & Friends, one of the president’s favorite shows, that aired earlier in the day where a guest linked the migrants  to ISIS and the Taliban. ABC News, which has a team in Mexico, found no “Middle Easterners” among the migrants. 

Leaving aside the factual question, the linkage of Latin American immigration with terrorism is an old Republic trope, one that goes back to at least the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and has been constantly revived since. In 2014, Tom Cotton, then running for Senator of Arkansas, exploited this alleged threat. “Groups like the Islamic State collaborate with drug cartels in Mexico who have clearly shown they’re willing to expand outside the drug trade into human trafficking and potentially even terrorism,” he told a town-hall.  They could infiltrate our defenseless border and attack us right here in places like Arkansas.” Cotton would go on to win the election.

As New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik notes, Trump himself indulged in this sort of scare-mongering in 2014. 

Xenophobic conspiracy mongering paid off big for the Republican Party in the 2014 midterms. Facing a more difficult electoral terrain in 2018, they are hoping it’ll work again.

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty

Trump wildly exaggerates benefits of selling arms to Saudi Arabia.

On Saturday, Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale noted on Twitter that between March and last week, President Donald Trump stretched the number of jobs created by selling arms to Saudi Arabia from 40,000 to a million, a forty-fold increase:

On Sunday, Axios fleshed out Dale’s observation by providing more details showing the evolution of the president’s claim:

On March 20, during the Crown Prince’s visit, Trump claimed the Saudi purchases of U.S. weapons he arranged would generate “over 40,000 jobs in the United States.”

Last Saturday, Oct. 13, when Trump was asked if he’s considering punishing Saudi Arabia for murdering Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, Trump mentioned the same arms deal as the reason he was reluctant to stop the arms sales. That time, he said the deal created 450,000 jobs.

On Wednesday, Oct. 17, during a Fox Business interview, Trump inflated the statistic to 500,000 jobs.

On Friday, at lunchtime during a water rights memorandum signing, Trump increased the jobs number to 600,000.

A few hours later, on Friday evening at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, Trump said the deal was worth 600,000 jobs for the military but “over a million jobs” in total.

Trump is, of course, a notorious prevaricator. Still, even by Trumpian standards, his disregard for truth or consistency on this matter is remarkable. Trump also also repeatedly misstated the size of Saudi arms deals he has negotiated, often throwing around the figure of $100 billion, when the actual sum to date is $3.4 billion.

Trump’s dissembling about the benefits of selling arms to Saudi Arabia likely comes from the oil-rich kingdom’s genuine importance to the president’s foreign policy. Trump’s has made Saudi Arabia a linchpin for his Middle Eastern policy, the key force behind the anti-Iran coalition that the president hopes to create. Given that agenda, Trump needs to hold tight to the Saudi alliance. To that end, apparently, he’s not afraid of juicing the numbers a bit.

October 19, 2018

A South Carolina foster care agency wants permission to discriminate against non-Protestants.

The Intercept is reporting that the state government of South Carolina is lobbying to allow a foster care agency to deny children to parents who are not Protestant. The move comes at the request of Miracle Hill Ministries, which dominates the foster care service in the state and refuses to send children to Jewish families.

Beth Lesser, who belongs to the family being denied, told The Intercept, “Understand, in the upstate of South Carolina, if you want to be a foster parent or a mentor, there’s [Department of Social Service], which is the government. And there’s Miracle Hill. There really isn’t anybody else.” She added, “What Miracle Hill does, is they scoop up these kids from foster care, and they have these group homes. And then once they get the kids in there, their whole objective is to indoctrinate them into their brand of Christianity.”

The state’s DSS has said they would not renew Miracle Hill’s license unless it stops discriminating. However, the foster care agency has powerful friends in the state’s legislature who are lobbying the Trump administration to grant an exception.

An order granting the exception has been prepared. According to The Intercept, “It’s awaiting final signature on the desk of Secretary Alex Azar at the Department of Health and Human Services. If granted, Miracle Hill will be allowed to continue denying qualified families from adopting kids based on religious views.”

KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

Russia is still interfering in American elections, the Justice Department says.

Federal prosecutors charged Elena Khusyaynova, a Russian national, with conspiracy to defraud the United States on Friday for her role in a Russian influence campaign aimed at inflaming American political tensions ahead of the 2018 midterms. Khusyaynova is the first foreign national charged with interfering in the upcoming November elections.

In court filings, the Justice Department identifies Khusyaynova as the chief accountant for “Project Lakhta,” an influence campaign funded by Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin through two firms he owns. The project’s conspirators used accounts on Facebook and Twitter to post inflammatory content related to immigration, civil rights, gun control, and other divisive issues in American politics.

Russian conspirators were forthright about their goals, which sought to create “political intensity” by boosting “radical groups” and “oppositional social movements,” according to messages quoted by prosecutors. Another conspirator said their goal was to “effectively aggravate the conflict between minorities and the rest of the population.” As with previous Russian influence campaign, the conspirators impersonated Americans on both ends of the ideological spectrum.

The charges were brought by federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia, which often handles national-security cases. The investigation appears to be independent of special counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry into Russian interference during the 2016 elections. Friday’s charges follow the Justice Department’s announcement in July that it would notify the public when it uncovered foreign influence campaigns targeting the American democratic process.

Khusyaynova, who resides in St. Petersburg, is not in U.S. custody. The absence of an extradition treaty between Moscow and Washington makes it unlikely that she will ever face trial for the charges. But the indictment means she could be arrested if she travels to a third country that would be willing to hand her over to U.S. authorities.

Jessica McGowan/Getty

The voter suppression in Georgia is even worse than previously thought.

APM Reports has posted an in-depth analysis of the purging of voter rolls in Georgia under Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is running for governor. The scope of the purge strengthens the claims of Kemp’s Democratic rival Stacey Abrams that the GOP is using voter suppression to win a tight race. In an appearance on The Daily Show in August, Stacey said, “I have an opponent who is a remarkable architect of voter suppression.”

According to APM Reports, in July 2017 more than half a million names, making up roughly 8 percent of registered voters, were taken off the rolls. “For an estimated 107,000 of those people, their removal from the voter rolls was triggered not because they moved or died or went to prison, but rather because they had decided not to vote in prior elections, according to an APM Reports analysis,” the outlet notes. “Many of those previously registered voters may not even realize they’ve been dropped from the rolls. If they show up at the polls on Nov. 6 to vote in the heated Georgia governor’s race, they won’t be allowed to cast a ballot.”

The new reporting complements other accounts of Kemp’s voter suppression efforts. As Mother Jones reports, one tactic is a law requiring an exact match between registration and other information in government databases. “Kemp has implemented a stringent voter verification process that flags and suspends registration applications if the information on them does not exactly match information in existing databases, down to each letter and hyphen,” Pema Levy notes. “Last week, the Associated Press reported that 53,000 people who attempted to register to vote have not been added to the rolls due to this process. Though Georgia is 32 percent African American, 70 percent of those flagged by Kemp’s protocols are black.”

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New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s bid for progressive power was a sad farce.

Politico has posted a devastating autopsy of the “Progressive Agenda” campaign that de Blasio launched in 2015 in a failed attempt to become a liberal kingmaker in American politics. Based on thousands of pages of e-mails, the Politico report paints a picture of an overextended mayor who tried to moonlight as a national figure while also performing his official duties, a conflict which led to repeated mishaps. De Blasio’s vehicle for his national ambitions was a non-profit group called Progressive Agenda, which flourished briefly in 2015 and managed to spend $860,000 to little avail.

One incident illustrates the pattern: In September of 2015, Progressive Agenda wanted the mayor to participate in the screening of a film with the winning title, “Hedge Fund Billionaires vs. Kindergarten Teachers: Whose Side Are You On?”

Unfortunately, the organization for the event was terrible. “A nebulous plan to have Cynthia Nixon moderate a panel before the film screening fell through,” Politico reports. “The organizers couldn’t find a prekindergarten teacher to appear as part of an accompanying panel. A week before the film’s screening, aides discovered the film had misspelled the word ‘kindergarten.’” Progressive Agenda had trouble finding anyone who even wanted to attend the screening and had to beg for de Blasio staffers to do so.

More importantly, the film was at cross purposes with de Blasio’s own politics, since it targeted business leaders who supported the mayor.

“Sorry that actual government (as opposed to the freedom of campaigns) involves having to get the whole team in the discussion, but that’s reality,” de Blasio wrote to an outside advisor named John Del Cecato. “I didn’t focus on this in time. But brother, you’re smart enough to know that attacking a Wall Street firm comes with ramifications.”

But it was Del Cecato who had the best analysis of the root problem. As Politco notes, he told the mayor that “however much he might protest, de Blasio simply didn’t have the time to simultaneously micromanage a national political campaign and govern as mayor.”

Politico also reports the fallout from a story they reported in 2015 about de Blasio’s failed attempt to host a candidates’ forum. Paul Walzak, then a spokesperson for the mayor, apparently emailed his colleagues when the report dropped: “So fucking annoying...dunno what you want to do here but we are prolly fucked.really goddamn wish this hadn’t leaked out yest...fiasco.”

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Republican congressman mocked women who complained of sexual harassment.

CNN is reporting that audio recordings show that Minnesota Republican Congressman Jason Lewis repeatedly minimized and trivialized concerns about sexual harassment on a radio show he hosted from 2009 to 2014. Some of these comments came in 2012, when Lewis spoke about allegations of unwanted touching made against then Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain.

“I don’t want to be callous here, but how traumatizing was it?” Lewis told radio listeners. “How many women at some point in their life have a man come on to them, place their hand on their shoulder or maybe even their thigh, kiss them, and they would rather not have it happen, but is that really something that’s going to be seared in your memory that you’ll need therapy for?”

According to CNN, Lewis used “a voice mocking an emotionally distraught woman” and asked, “You’ll never get over? It was the most traumatizing experience? Come on! She wasn’t raped.

CNN also said Lewis “viewed sexual harassment law as an assault on First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, calling it ‘unconstitutional.’ Lewis said he did not think off-color comments, jokes and offensive remarks about or to women rose to the level of needing government enforcement.”

Lewis did not respond to CNN’s request for comments but an attorney representing the radio network that produced the show sent a “cease and desist” letter to prevent the network from posting the recording. CNN has ignored the letter, arguing that the recording falls under the category of fair use.

Lewis is running for re-election in a race that is considered a toss-up.