President Obama is finally unveiling a plan to close Guantanamo.

When he was campaigning for president in 2008, Obama said that closing Guantanamo would be one of the top priorities if his first 100 days in office. Eight years later, after being thwarted by Congress and taken up with other priorities, he will submit a plan to close the detention center. 

The plan has been bandied about for months. Most of the detainees will be sent to foreign countries; those deemed too dangerous to be released will be sent to facilities in the United States. The White House is reported to be considering thirteen locations. 

Although Obama has been unable to close the facility—and it hasn’t always seemed like a priority for his administration to do so—he has reduced the number of inmates being held in it. Ninety-one prisoners are currently being held in Guantanamo, which held nearly 700 at its peak. 

Of course, this a Congress that has vowed not to approve any Supreme Court nominee sent to it by the administration. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has vowed to do what this Congress does best, obstruct: “What we will do, whenever he does one of these actions, is take the best way forward we can come up with to get the best result, which is to stop him from doing it.”

August 21, 2018

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Think tanks targeted by Russian intelligence are also in the shadow of the Mueller investigation.

The New York Times is reporting that “conservative American think tanks that have broken with President Trump” seem to be victims of hacking attacks by Russian military intelligence. According to the newspaper, “a report scheduled for release on Tuesday, Microsoft Corporation said that it detected and seized websites that were created in recent weeks by hackers linked to the Russian unit formerly known as the G.R.U. The sites appeared meant to trick people into thinking they were clicking through links managed by the Hudson Institute and the International Republican Institute, but were secretly redirected to web pages created by the hackers to steal passwords and other credentials.”

But aside from the fact that both the Hudson Institute and the International Republican Institute are critical of President Donald Trump’s push for friendlier ties to Russia, these two think tanks also have another significant commonality. Both have ties to individuals caught up in the Mueller investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

George Papadopoulos, the former Trump foreign policy advisor who pled guilty to lying to the FBI, worked for the Hudson Institute between 2011-2015. Konstantin Kilimnik, the Russian national who has been indicted Special Counsel Robert Mueller, once worked for the International Republican Institute while also serving as a fixer for Paul Manafort, the former Trump Campaign chairman who is currently on trial.

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GOP candidate Kris Kobach spreads white nationalist disinformation on his website.

Media Matters is reporting that Kobach, who is running for Governor of Kansas as a Republican, features on his website a column with the claim that “75 percent of those on the most wanted criminals lists in Los Angeles, Phoenix and Albuquerque are illegal aliens.” The problem here is twofold. The stated fact is wrong, and the source for the claim is Peter Gemma, a white nationalist agitator.

Gemma has extensive ties to racist movements. In 2005, he organized an event for David Irving, a notorious Holocaust denier. Gemma has in the past worked for the Council of Conservative Citizens, a group whose “Statement of Principles” affirms the belief that “the American people and government should remain European in their composition and character” and opposition to “all efforts to mix the races of mankind.”

In early August, The Topeka Capital-Journal reported that political consultants claimed that Kobach’s campaign hired three white nationalists to work on the campaign.

The Republican Party has been increasingly hospitable to open and avowed racists in the 2018 election cycle. “In at least five state and national races across the country, the Republican Party is dealing with an uncomfortable problem,” Vox noted in July. “Their party’s candidates are either a card-carrying Nazi, a Holocaust denier, a proud white supremacist, or all of the above.”

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Trump’s EPA admits the dire human impact of its own climate rule.

The proposed Affordable Clean Energy Rule—or “ACE rule”—is “a better alternative” to the Obama administration’s aggressive greenhouse gas regulation of the coal industry, Environmental Protection Agency acting administrator Andrew Wheeler said Tuesday on a press call. But it will also cause more hospitalizations, asthma attacks, and deaths, according to the EPA’s own numbers, as first reported by The New York Times.

It’s hard to know what exactly will happen under the new rule because it allows individual states to come up with their own carbon reduction plans and goals. But under the most likely scenario—weak regulation of the coal industry—the EPA admits the ACE rule would lead to up to 1,400 premature deaths annually, compared to Obama’s regulations, because of increases in air pollutants like particulate matter and ozone. The agency says that its proposed ACE rule could also cause the following to occur annually by 2030:

  • 120,000 new cases of exacerbated asthma
  • 48,000 new missed days of school
  • 48,000 missed work days
  • 760 non-fatal heart attacks
  • 690 emergency room visits for asthma
  • 300,000 “minor-restricted activity” days

The Trump administration argues that the rule change is necessary because the Obama administration was not legally allowed to impose such strong reductions in coal-plant emissions. “An important part of what we’re doing here is getting us back in our lane,” said Bill Wehrum, a former industry lawyer who currently leads the EPA’s clean air office, on the press call.

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Asia Argento denies sexually assaulting a 17-year-old actor.

On Sunday, The New York Times reported receiving evidence that Argento, an actress and director, had paid $380,00 to Jimmy Bennett, an actor and musician, in exchange for an agreement not to talk about her sexually assaulting him when he was 17 years old (which is a year short of the age of consent in California, where the incident allegedly took place).

On Tuesday, Argento issued a strong denial, saying the payment came from her boyfriend, the late Anthony Bourdain and that she did nothing wrong. In the original New York Times story, the newspaper claims they were sent a selfie showing Argento and Bennett in bed together.

“I am deeply shocked and hurt having read the news that is absolutely false,” Argento said in a statement. “I have never had any sexual relationship with Bennett.”

The allegations against Argento have sparked a wide-ranging debate about the scope of the #MeToo movement, which Argento became a public voice for after she became one of the many actresses who alleged that she was assaulted by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

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A new study links Facebook use to racial violence.

Violence against refugees in Germany correlates to increased Facebook use, according to a new study. The New York Times reported on Tuesday that researchers Karsten Müller and Carlo Schwarz of the University of Warwick studied 3,335 cases of anti-refugee violence and found one common link:

Their reams of data converged on a breathtaking statistic: Wherever per-person Facebook use rose to one standard deviation above the national average, attacks on refugees increased by about 50 percent.

And the solution isn’t quite as simple as a blanket ban on obvious hate speech. The researchers also found that Facebook’s algorithms reshape a user’s reality:

That algorithm is built around a core mission: promote content that will maximize user engagement. Posts that tap into negative, primal emotions like anger or fear, studies have found, perform best and so proliferate.

That is how anti-refugee sentiment — which combines fear of social change with us-versus-them rallying cries, two powerful forces on the algorithm — can seem unusually common on Facebook, even in a pro-refugee town like Altena.

The problem resembles another crisis, in Myanmar: Human rights researchers say that hate speech published on Facebook helped fuel bloody violence against the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority. Reuters reported on August 15 that though Facebook technically bans hate speech, it doesn’t employ anyone in Myanmar and only hired two Burmese speakers to monitor the problem in 2015.

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Trump tells Reuters he could “run” Mueller investigation if he wanted to.

Reuters is releasing excerpts from an interview with the president. One notable statement is Trump’s claim that he has the power to supervise the Mueller investigation. “I’ve decided to stay out,” Trump said. “Now, I don’t have to stay out, as you know. I can go in and I could... do whatever, I could run it if I want.”

It’s not clear what the president means by this, since the special counsel is supposed to be, by definition, independent of the president. It’s true that Trump could order Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to end the investigation. But so far, Trump has hesitated to take this radical step, which could spark a constitutional crisis.

The president also indicated he was afraid that special counsel Robert Mueller is preparing a “perjury trap” for him.

August 20, 2018

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Scott Pruitt enjoyed perhaps the most expensive phone calls in history.

The scandal-ridden cabinet member is gone from his post as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, but the costs of his tenure are still being tabulated. One of his most notorious expenditures was the $43,000 for a highly protected phone booth where he could enjoy secure telephone conversations. The Washington Post reports that Pruitt only made one outgoing call with the book, on June 20th, to discuss a lawsuit launched by the Sierra Club. It’s not clear how many incoming calls he took, but Pruitt himself says he used the booth “sparingly.”

Assuming only a handful of other calls, each one cost tax payers many thousands of dollars. The construction of the cone of silence was bedeviled with cost overruns. “While the original contract for the phone booth was slated to cost roughly $25,000, the agency ended up paying contractors an additional $18,000 to convert a closet space that could house it,” The Washington Post notes. “That work included removing closed-circuit television equipment, pouring 55 square feet of concrete, installing a drop ceiling and patching and painting the room.”

Andrew Wheeler, acting head of the EPA, doesn’t plan on using the phone booth but won’t dismantle it either. For now, the phone booth will continue in weird limbo between disuse and destruction, like the statue of deposed king, a monument to the folly of an earlier era. “It’s there,” Wheeler acknowledged. “It would be expensive to tear it apart. I don’t see any sense in tearing it apart. And in this day and age, I don’t know what the assessment was for the need of it.”

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Trump and Giuliani taunt John Brennan with bizarre tweets.

On Sunday, Brennan, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, indicated that he was considering taking legal action against the Trump administration to prevent other government officials from being stripped of their security clearance. On Monday both the president and his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, responded with tweets:

Giuliani’s tweet is strangely worded and hard to decipher. But what he is basically saying is that Brennan’s threatened lawsuit is hot air (like Obama’s threat to punish Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons). Giuliani is taunting Brennan, daring him to launch the lawsuit.

But even on those terms, Giuliani’s tweet is odd because if Brennan did sue, the case would not be taken up by Trump’s private lawyers (Giuliani and Jay Sekulow) but rather by the Justice Department. Also, mocking Brennan for threatening a lawsuit is an odd look for someone representing Donald Trump, who has on more than 40 occasions made legal threats that were not carried out.

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Measles cases surge in Europe.

The BBC reports that the number of people suffering from measles is hitting record highs in Europe. There have been 41,000 cases for the first six months of this year, as against 5,273 cases for all of 2016 and  23,927 cases for all of 2017.  Measles can lead to vulnerability to other ailments and is sometimes lethal. 37 people have died from measles in Europe this year. 

One doctor describes the situation as “large outbreaks in Europe.” These outbreaks are fuelled by the anti-vaccination movement, which took off in the late 1990s after a now discredited 1998 study linking vaccination to autism. Most of those catching measles now are teens and young adults, in other words those who weren’t vaccinated in the wake of the 1998 report. 

Despite the outbreak, anti-vaccination forces continue to gain a foothold in politics. In early August, the Italian Senate overturned the policy of mandatory vaccination for school children. Italy already has a much higher rate of measles than countries such as the United Kingdom or Russia. 

“With a vaccine preventable disease, one case is one too many, and the numbers of measles cases so far this year is astounding.”  Dr. Pauline Paterson of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine told the BBC.

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Brett Kavanaugh said Bill Clinton’s behavior ‘would make Nixon blush.’

The Washington Post today published an August 1998 memo the Supreme Court nominee wrote to independent counsel Ken Starr when he worked in Starr’s office, urging him to adopt a more hardline approach to questioning the president. Among Kavanaugh’s proposed slate of questions for Clinton: “If Monica Lewinsky says that you inserted a cigar into her vagina while you were in the Oval Office area, would she be lying?”

But the graphic descriptions of Clinton’s relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky won’t come as a surprise to anyone who read the Starr Report in 1998, which lays out the president’s actions in equally explicit detail. What’s more interesting is how Kavanaugh describes Clinton’s misdeeds and efforts to thwart investigations into them.

The president has disgraced his office, the legal system, and the American people by having sex with a 22-year-old intern and turning her life into a shambles—callous and disgusting behavior that has somehow gotten lost in the shuffle. He has committed perjury (at least) in the Jones case. He has turned the Secret Service upside down. He has required the urgent attention of the courts and the Supreme Court for frivolous privilege claims—all to cover up his oral sex from an intern. He has lied to his aides. He has lied to the American people. He has tried to disgrace you and this office with a sustained propaganda campaign that would make Nixon blush.

“He should be forced to account for that and to defend his actions,” Kavanaugh concluded, in bold text. It’s hard to read the exchange without thinking about President Donald Trump’s scorched-earth campaign against the Russia investigation. While the precise circumstances differ between the two inquiries, the pattern of attacks, denials, and fabrications is consistent. If Kavanaugh’s hostility toward presidential malfeasance also remains constant, he could yet surprise his critics if confirmed.