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Gay Talese screwed up.

His upcoming book The Voyeur’s Motel has been controversial since The New Yorker published an excerpt earlier this year. It traces Talese’s decades-long correspondence with Gerald Foos, a voyeur who owned a motel that he modified so he could watch people from the ceiling and record what he saw (mostly people doing it). Foos was bad with ethical issues, obviously. He tells Talese he witnessed a murder but delayed contacting the police. He also has a strange habit of throwing out drug dealers’ stashes, inviting violence. And Talese was implicated as well: He signed a confidentiality agreement with Foos, and joined him on at least one peeping session.

But the book apparently suffers from more than just ethical issues. The Washington Post reports that Foos did not even own the titular motel between 1980 and 1988, which means that much of the information in Foos’s journals was possibly made-up. When presented with this information, Talese renounced the book, saying, “I should not have believed a word he said. ...I’m not going to promote this book. ... How dare I promote it when its credibility is down the toilet?”

But with or without Talese, Grove Atlantic will still put out the book on July 13. Grove’s publisher, Morgan Entrekin, told the Post that most of the events in the book took place before 1980, though he also said later printings may include an author’s note. Whether there will even be subsequent printings, now that the book’s credibility has been tarnished, is another question, however.

November 16, 2018

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Report: Trump is starting to ask questions about Mike Pence’s loyalty.

Last Wednesday President Donald Trump affirmed his desire to keep Vice President Mike Pence on the ticket for the 2020 election in the most public way possible, by asking “Mike, will you be my running mate?” at a press conference. But, as The New York Times reports, the surface bonhomie of the Trump/Pence relationship hides an undercurrent of distrust.

“In recent weeks, with his electoral prospects two years from now much on his mind, Mr. Trump has focused on the person who has most publicly tethered his fortunes to him,” the newspaper notes. “In one conversation after another he has asked aides and advisers a pointed question: Is Mike Pence loyal?”

The Times adds that “Mr. Trump has repeated the question so many times that he has alarmed some of his advisers. The president has not openly suggested dropping Mr. Pence from the ticket and picking another running mate, but the advisers say those kinds of questions usually indicate that he has grown irritated with someone.”

These reasons behind these questions are unclear. Aside from a brief expression of disapproval in October 2016 when the Access Hollywood tape was released, Pence has been as loyal a soldier as the president could want. Pence has helped secure Trump’s support among evangelical Christians, a key part of the Republican coalition. But since Times has now established his own popularity with those voters, Pence might be superfluous. Trump has shown a propensity for liking to keep his underlings uncertain of their status, so they struggle harder to please him. Mike Pence would be foolish to think his position is secure.

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The Mueller probe is going beyond Russian interference and looking at Saudi Arabia and other countries.

Writing in The Daily Beast, Erin Banco and Betsy Woodruff are reporting that special counsel Robert Mueller has been interviewing former Dick Cheney aid John Hannah, a sign that the investigation is expanding beyond its original purview and now looking at possible foreign interference in the 2016 election by other nations. Hannah, a stalwart figure in Republican foreign policy circles, has extensive ties to the governments such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel.

According to Banco and Woodruff, “Mueller’s team has been looking into the communications and political dealings of John Hannah, the former Cheney adviser who later worked on Trump’s State Department transition team. This includes interactions with Lebanese-American businessman and fixer George Nader, who brokered meetings between foreign dignitaries and Team Trump, and Joel Zamel, a self-proclaimed social-media guru with deep ties to Israeli intelligence.”

In 2016, Zamel’s company Psy Group attempted to sell its services as a social media influencer to the Trump campaign. According to the Daily Beast, Zamel was “trying to sell the Trump campaign on an online influence strategy and was communicating with several Trump officials, including Rick Gates, who has since pleaded guilty to conspiracy and lying to the FBI.”

A plan was presented to Donald Trump Jr., but there are conflicting accounts as to whether the services of Psy Group were used or not. In early 2017, the trio of Hannah, Zamel and Nader were instrumental in arranging a meeting between a Saudi general and members of Trump’s transition team, including Michael Flynn, who later became Trump’s first National Security advisor. The topic of discussion was overthrowing the Iranian regime.

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Four decades later, Khmer Rouge leaders convicted of genocide—which doesn’t fully encompass their acts.

Two of the leading members of the Khmer Rouge regime which terrorized Cambodia from 1975 to 1978 have been found guilty of genocide. The two men are Nuon Chea (the deputy of the late Khmer Rouge dictator Pol Pot) and Khieu Samphan (thehead of state in Pot’s regime). They were charged with acts of genocide aimed at two Cambodian minority groups: ethnic Vietnamese and Cham Muslim. The convictions, which come after a long and arduous trial that was much delayed for political reasons, bring a measure of justice.

But the trial also illustrates the limits of genocide as a category in international law. The extermination of the Vietnamese and Cham Muslims should be seen as genocide and also part of the larger crimes against humanity committed by the Khmer Rouge.

The term genocide was coined in 1944 and codified as a part of international law in 1948 as a response to the crimes of Nazi Germany, notably the extermination of Jews and Roma. As such, it has an uneasy fit for the Khmer Rouge regime, which both targeted ethnic minorities but also had a broader list of class enemies that included intellectuals, the wealthy, city dwellers, and government officials. It’s estimated that between 1.7 and 2.5 million Cambodians died because of Khmer Rouge policies between 1975 and 1979, either through execution or starvation. This was out of a population of roughly 8 million and constitutes one of the greatest crimes against humanity in recorded history. While the term “auto-genocide” is sometimes used to describe Khmer Rouge policy, it has no standing in international law.

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Court filings accidentally reveal that Julian Assange has been charged.

The Washington Post reports that a court filing that failed to properly redact the name of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange makes clear that Wikileaks founder has a sealed charge against him. The revelation came in a filing in the Eastern District of Virginia in an unrelated case involving Seitu Sulayman Kokayi, who was detained because of an alleged interest in terrorism and charged with sexual crimes involving a minor.

The filing, written by Assistant U.S. Attorney Kellen S. Dwyer, who is also assigned to the Wikileaks case, urges that Kokayi’s case be kept under seal: “due to the sophistication of the defendant and the publicity surrounding the case, no other procedure is likely to keep confidential the fact that Assange has been charged.”

Since 2012, Assange has been living in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, originally to avoid arrest for sexual assault charges in Sweden, in a case now closed. He has stayed in the embassy in order to avoid possible arrest and extradition to the United States, a fear validated by the current news.

Wikileaks has a long history of publishing government secrets. Writing in The Intercept, journalist Glenn Greenwald argues that charging Assange would be a threat to press freedom.

“From the Pentagon Papers to the Panama Papers to the Snowden disclosures to publication of Trump’s tax returns to the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, some of the most important journalism over the last several decades has occurred because it is legal and constitutional to publish secret documents even if the sources of those documents obtained them through illicit or even illegal means,” Greenwald notes.

He added:

The Obama DOJ – despite launching notoriously aggressive attacks on press freedoms – recognized this critical principle when it came to WikiLeaks. It spent years exploring whether it could criminally charge Assange and WikiLeaks for publishing classified information. It ultimately decided it would not do so, and could not do so, consistent with the press freedom guarantee of the First Amendment. After all, the Obama DOJ concluded, such a prosecution would pose a severe threat to press freedom because there would be no way to prosecute Assange for publishing classified documents without also prosecuting the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian and others for doing exactly the same thing.

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The new foreign minister of Brazil asserts climate change is a Marxist hoax.

Ernesto Araújo, newly named to be Brazil’s next foreign minister by incoming president Jair Bolsonaro, believes that climate change is a false idea invented by “cultural Marxists.” As The Guardian reports, a month ago Araújo wrote in a blog post that, “This dogma has been used to justify increasing the regulatory power of states over the economy and the power of international institutions on the nation states and their populations, as well as to stifle economic growth in democratic capitalist countries and to promote the growth of China.” (Conspiracy theories about “cultural Marxism” are a staple of the alt-right and are rooted in anti-Semitism).

The appointment of Araújo is in keeping with Bolsonaro’s own extreme anti-environmentalist rhetoric. But it’s uncertain to what degree the new government will carry out its agenda. Under international pressure, Bolsonaro is already backtracking on a promise to pull out of the Paris climate accord.

Carlos Rittl of the Brazilian Climate Observatory believes that Brazil is vulnerable to international campaigns. “Bolsonaro is not Trump,” Rittl told The Guardian. “Brazil is not the United States. We don’t have the same cards. If Brazil becomes a pariah on the global climate agenda, it would be extremely bad for our business, especially agribusiness. When they go to Europe to negotiate a deal, climate safeguards will be on the table. ”

November 15, 2018

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Even Donald Trump is sick of Sean Hannity’s fawning.

Sean Hannity has good claim to be Donald Trump’s number one fan in the media, but the love isn’t always reciprocated. On his Fox News program, Hannity has strained even the lax standards of his network by being an open cheerleader of the president, going so far as to appear in campaign videos. The two men repeatedly share a phone call most weeknights, after Hannity’s show ends. But, a new Daily Beast report indicates that Trump doesn’t fully respect Hannity’s ardent praise.

According to the news site:

Trump has repeatedly—and sometimes for a sustained period of time—made fun of Hannity’s interviewing skills, usually zeroing in on the low-quality laziness of the host’s questions, the three people with direct knowledge tell The Daily Beast.

“It’s like he’s not even trying,” Trump has said, one source recalled, right before the president launched into a rough imitation of Hannity’s voice and mannerisms to complain that the questions about how “great I am” give him nothing to work or have fun with.

Another source told The Daily Beast that Trump described Hannity’s soft-ball questions as “dumb.” 

The problem might be that Hannity is trying too hard to please Trump, which has rendered his praise worthless. A New York investigation into the Hannity/Trump relationship once noted, “More than most politicians, Trump abides by the Groucho Marx law of fraternization. He inherently distrusts anyone who chooses to work for him, seeking outside affirmation as often as possible from as vast and varied a group as he can muster—but Hannity is at the center.” 

But Hannity is no longer an outsider affirmer. He’s firmly a part of Trump’s circle of cronies. Which is another way of saying he’s a ripe target for Trump’s abuse.  

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Trump effectively admits he chose Matthew Whitaker to undermine Mueller.

The president has a habit of saying whatever’s on his mind. To his supporters, it’s endearing, but it can also lead to awkward and potentially damaging confessions. The Daily Caller prompted one such moment on Wednesday when it asked Trump about acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker and the future leadership of the Justice Department.

Matthew Whitaker is a very respected man,” Trump answered. “He’s—and he’s, very importantly, he’s respected within DOJ. I heard he got a very good decision, I haven’t seen it.” He was referring to a 20-page opinion by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel that concluded that Whitaker’s appointment is legal. But then Trump, without any prompting, vented about special counsel Robert Mueller and the Russia investigation.

Well, I heard it was a very strong opinion. Uh, which is good. But [Whitaker] is just somebody that’s very respected.

I knew him only as he pertained, you know, as he was with Jeff Sessions. And, you know, look, as far as I’m concerned this is an investigation that should have never been brought. It should have never been had.

It’s something that should have never been brought. It’s an illegal investigation. And you know, it’s very interesting because when you talk about not Senate confirmed, well, Mueller’s not Senate confirmed.

It’s not exactly a secret that Trump wants to interfere in the Russia investigation. He made a similar admission to NBC’s Lester Holt after he fired FBI Director James Comey last year, and it’s well known that the president’s falling-out with Sessions could be traced back to his recusal from the inquiry. Placing Whitaker, a frequent critic of the investigation, atop the Justice Department wasn’t subtle, either.

Trump isn’t really trying to hide what he’s doing. Through either brazen self-confidence or the absence of self-discipline (or both), the president keeps admitting that he’s trying to hamstring an investigation into his own alleged misconduct. Trump isn’t the first president to obstruct justice, of course. But he might be the first one who doesn’t care than anybody knows it.

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President Trump and the lame duck GOP Congress are backing Saudi Arabia to the hilt.

On Wednesday, Republicans in the House of Representatives blocked a Democratic measure to bring congressional oversight to American participation in the Yemen war. The United States is part of a Saudi-led coalition fighting against Houthi rebels in a conflict that is taking an increasingly severe toll on Yemen’s civilian population. As Axios reports, “Republicans voted to strip the bill, which would have withdrew support of the Saudis’ presence, of privilege, meaning that Republicans can essentially ignore the bill until Democrats take control of the House in January.”

Democratic congressman Ro Khanna, who spearheaded the resolution, tweeted: “It’s unfortunate that the Republicans broke precedent and blocked our resolution to end U.S. involvement in the war in Yemen. They are abdicating congressional oversight duties on their way out of power.”

The matter is unlikely to end here. Democrats have promised greater congressional scrutiny of foreign policy. Both the Yemen War and the alliance with Saudi Arabia are becoming less popular with political leaders from both parties, especially after agents of the Saudi government murdered the American-Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. As

As Axios argues, “The presumptive leaders of the incoming Democratic majority in the House have indicated they intend to expand foreign policy oversight, including over U.S. involvement in the Yemeni conflict. This will increase pressure on the Trump administration, which has supported Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy objectives and cultivated a close relationship with Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman.”

Symptomatic of the closeness of the Trump administration to the Saudi autocrat is extraordinary efforts made to help cover up Bin Salman’s possible role in the Khashoggi killing. NBC News is reporting that “the White House is looking for ways to remove an enemy of Turkish President Recep Erdogan from the U.S. in order to placate Turkey over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.” The Turkish government has long wanted to extradite the cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in the United States. The Trump administration seems to have hoped that if they could accommodate this request, the Turkish government would go easier on Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi’s killing.

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Theresa May is pushing forward with Brexit even as her government crumbles.

Less than 24 hours after getting her cabinet to sign on a Brexit agreement, the British Prime Minister is facing a mutiny within her own party and renewed attacks from the opposition. On Wednesday after a tense five-hour cabinet meeting, May got her cabinet to sign on with a Brexit plan that would see the United Kingdom enter into a de facto custom union with the European Union, with Northern Ireland (which shares a border with the EU via Ireland) being subject to more EU regulations than the rest of the country.

This attempt to find a middle ground between a complete exit from the EU and continued membership has upset all sides, with opponents of the EU membership saying it isn’t really Brexit and supporters of the EU saying it goes too far in the direction of Brexit. This has resulted in a spate of resignations in the past twenty-four hours, including Dominic Raab, the Brexit secretary, and Esther McVey, the work and pensions secretary. (Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary widely believed to have his eye on May’s job, resigned in July, following the exits of Brexit secretary David Davis and Department for Exiting the EU minister Steve Baker.)

The quick loss of two cabinet members could be the start of a wider insurrection. The hardline Brexit faction has enough votes in Parliament to force a vote of no confidence. The open question is whether they’d be joined by enough other factions within Parliament to topple the government.

As The New York Times observes, the problem May faces is that her Brexit plan is uniting different factions of the political spectrum in opposition. “Worryingly for Mrs. May, many of her enemies, on both the right and the left, are converging around the view that the compromise she has carefully forged is the worst of both worlds, leaving Britain without a voice in the European Union but still subject to many of its trade rules,” the newspaper notes. “Several leading Brexit supporters have characterized the draft deal as worse than membership in the bloc they find so objectionable.”

Politico offers a similar analysis, pointing out that, “only a handful of Conservative MPs spoke up in support, and May was met with fierce opposition from the Labour party, from Brexiteer MPs within her own party and from her Northern Irish backers, the Democratic Unionist Party.”

November 14, 2018

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Facebook accused critics of anti-Semitism while promoting George Soros conspiracy theories.

In a blockbuster expose, The New York Times documents the hypocrisy of the social media giant as it tried to deflect political criticism for an array of offences ranging from violating the privacy of users to facilitating Russian election interference.

Facebook went after a group called Freedom from Facebook which, according to the Times,  carried in Congress “aloft signs depicting Ms. Sandberg and Ms. Zuckerberg, who are both Jewish, as two heads of an octopus stretching around the globe.” As the newspaper adds, “Facebook official quickly called the Anti-Defamation League, a leading Jewish civil rights organization, to flag the sign.”

Almost immediately after doing this, Facebook worked with a Republican opposition research firm too “take on bigger opponents, such as [George] Soros, a longtime boogeyman to mainstream conservatives and the target of intense anti-Semitic smears on the far right. A research document circulated by Definers to reporters this summer, just a month after the House hearing, cast Mr. Soros as the unacknowledged force behind what appeared to be a broad anti-Facebook movement.”

The article also illuminates the way Facebook was able to lobby powerful politicians such as New York Senator Chuck Schumer:

Mr. Schumer also has a personal connection to Facebook: His daughter Alison joined the firm out of college and is now a marketing manager in Facebook’s New York office, according to her LinkedIn profile.

In July, as Facebook’s troubles threatened to cost the company billions of dollars in market value, Mr. Schumer confronted Mr. Warner, by then Facebook’s most insistent inquisitor in Congress.

Back off, he told Mr. Warner, according to a Facebook employee briefed on Mr. Schumer’s intervention. Mr. Warner should be looking for ways to work with Facebook, Mr. Schumer advised, not harm it.