Not even Republicans can possibly believe Obama is the “founder” of ISIS. Right?

At a rally in Fort Lauderdale last night, Donald Trump unveiled a new point of attack on the president: “In fact, in many respects, you know they honor President Obama. ISIS is honoring President Obama. He is the founder of ISIS. He’s the founder of ISIS, okay? He’s the founder! He founded ISIS! And I would say the co-founder would be Crooked Hillary Clinton—co-founder, Crooked Hillary Clinton.” At that point, the audience began chanting, “Lock her up!”

And this morning on CNBC, he dug in even further, pinning it on Obama’s original pullout from Iraq: “He was the founder, absolutely the founder. In fact, he gets the—in sports they have awards. He gets the Most Valuable Player award—him and Hillary.” Trump even took issue with Obama referring to ISIS as “ISIL,” supposedly because the president “probably wants to bother people by using a different term.”

Also notable: Trump repeatedly stated his dishonest assertion that he had opposed the Iraq War from the start. But with so much flim-flam coming this rapidly, it’s hard for news anchors to keep up.

September 24, 2018

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Brett Kavanaugh denounces accusations against him as “smears.”

In a letter to Senators Chuck Grassley and Dianne Feinstein of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the embattled Supreme Court nominee took a stronger stance against the sexual assault allegations against him. As of last week, when the sole accuser was Christine Blasey Ford with an allegation that occurred when he was a high school student, Kavanaugh denied the claim but cast no aspersions on Ford. Indeed, Kavanaugh reportedly suggested that this was a case of mistaken identity, with Ford misremembering who molested her. On Sunday a second credible accuser emerged, Deborah Ramirez, who alleges an incident of sexual assault at a party when she was an undergraduate at Yale.

In response, Kavanaugh has taken a much more strident line against his accusers. “These are smears, pure and simple,” Kavanaugh wrote. “And they debase our public discourse.” He also added: “I will not be intimidated into withdrawing from this process. The coordinated effort to destroy my good name will not drive me out. The vile threats of violence against my family will not drive me out. The last-minute character assassination will not succeed.”

In speaking of a “coordinated effort” and “last-minute character assassination,” Kavanaugh is entering into the territory of conspiracy theories. There is absolutely no evidence that the two credible accusations are being coordinated. Indeed, New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer, who broke the Ramirez story along with her colleague Ronan Farrow, told CBS News, “We found classmates had been talking about this for weeks ... There’d been an email chain of Yale classmates of Kavanaugh talking about ‘will this thing come out’ long before Christine Blasey Ford came forward.” In other words, these stories are not emerging out of any coordinated effort but rather spontaneously coming from women who knew Kavanaugh.

Further, the charge that these are “last minute” is questionable. As David Graham of The Atlantic points out: Although Kavanaugh’s defenders have complained that these allegations are unfair because they emerged at the last minute, that’s in part because the process has been so fast. The White House has consistently failed to find weaknesses in candidates’ resumes, and a more deliberate vetting process might have allowed them to be prepared for allegations against Kavanaugh.”

Scott Olson/Getty

Contrary to reports, Rod Rosenstein is still the deputy attorney general.

Monday morning was a rollercoaster ride of conflicting news coverage about the status of Rosenstein within the Trump administration. Early in the day, there were reports that Rosenstein was heading to the White House with the expectation of being fired. Axios broke the story that Rosenstein had resigned as deputy attorney general. Soon thereafter, CNN offered another version, that Rosenstein had quit because he was expecting to be fired.

Rosenstein’s status is important because his position makes him one of the bulwarks protecting the Mueller investigation from presidential interference. It’s widely expected that were Rosenstein to be fired, President Donald Trump would have a path to end the special counsel’s inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The contradictory reporting caused much head scratching among those following the news:

Ultimately, it turned out that Rosenstein had neither been fired nor quit but still has job. He is reportedly going to talk to President Trump on Thursday.

All in all, it was a sorry day for the press:

The confusion of the morning appeared a byproduct of two interrelated factors: factionalism within the Trump White House (where different parties selectively leak to influence outcomes) and a scoop-hungry press that relies heavily on these leaks to understand White House court intrigue. One major problem with breathless coverage that is quickly retracted is that it feeds into Trump’s favorite argument that the media is serving up “fake news.”

By early afternoon, Vanity Fair was reporting that the entire affair might have been a “smoke bomb” to distract from Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation troubles: “According to a source briefed on Trump’s thinking, Trump decided that firing Rosenstein would knock Kavanaugh out of the news, potentially saving his nomination and Republicans’ chances for keeping the Senate.” Readers might be forgiven for distrusting anonymous sources at this point.

Drew Angerer/Getty

Trump stands by Brett Kavanaugh and says accusations are “totally political.”

Speaking to reporters this morning, the president strongly affirmed his support of his beleaguered Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

“There’s a chance that this could be one of the single most unfair, unjust things to happen to a candidate for anything,” Trump said. He added that, “And for people to come out of the woodwork from 36 years ago and 30 years ago and never mentioned it and all of a sudden it happens, in my opinion it’s totally political.”

In a recorded radio interview with Geraldo Rivera that aired this morning, Trump made the same point but without the implicit dismissal and disparagement of Kavanaugh’s accusers.

Win McNamee/Getty

Kavanaugh nomination rocked by more allegations of sexual assault.

The embattled nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court suffered another blow Sunday night with The New Yorker publishing a detailed account of an alleged sexual assault that occurred when Kavanaugh was an undergraduate at Yale. Deborah Ramirez, who had been a classmate of Kavanaugh, recounted to The New Yorker an incident where Kavanaugh allegedly “exposed himself at a drunken dormitory party, thrust his penis in her face, and caused her to touch it without her consent as she pushed him away.” There are aspects of Ramirez’s story that are murky or uncertain. Because she had been drinking that night, she acknowledges gaps in her memory. Still, it’s a credible allegation backed up by the fact that at least one fellow student heard a version of the story soon after it took place. Students Ramirez recalls as participating in the event dispute her account. Ramirez has called for an FBI investigation into her allegations.

Kavanaugh denies Ramirez’s account in the strongest terms and both the White House and Senate Republicans are sticking with the nominee.

While The New Yorker story was cautious, containing many provisos about the limits and uncertainty of the evidence, swashbuckling Michael Avenatti intervened in the controversy with typical gusto by tweeting he has evidence that Kavanaugh and and his high school friend Mark Judge “would participate in the targeting of women with alcohol/drugs in order to allow a ‘train’ of men to subsequently gang rape them.” Judge is also named as a participant and witness of the alleged sexual assault on Christine Blasey Ford by Kavanaugh. Judge denies this accusation.

Avenatti’s claim was presented without evidence, although the lawyer, best known for representing adult entertainer Stephanie Clifford, better known as Stormy Daniels, in her legal battles with the president, said he would provide proof soon.

September 21, 2018

RONEN ZILBERMAN/AFP/Getty

Science is helping identify soldiers lost in the Korean war.

The renewed negotiations with North Korea, as well as advances in forensic technology, mean that American soldiers who were killed in the Korean War in the early 1950s are finally being identified. On August 1st, North Korea returned what were believed to be the remains of 55 American soldiers. The military has announced that from those remains they’ve been able to confidently ascertain the relics of Army Master Sgt Charles H. McDaniel of Indiana and Army Pfc William H. Jones of North Carolina.

The task of identifying long-degraded bone and dental fragments with the names of soldiers unseen for more than half a century would be impossible without advances in technology. In a recent feature article, The Washington Post surveyed the work of the 92-member Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) team in Honolulu that is tasked with the job. One key recent development is the ability of isotope analysis to match bones with the geographical childhood homes of missing soldiers:

Bones take on the isotopic signature of the place where a person was raised. On digital maps of the United States, staff members plot the hometowns of missing service members based on the isotopic signatures shared by their early-childhood geography and their bones.

Ten years ago, this technology could differentiate the bones of a native-born soldier from those of an immigrant. Nowadays it can pinpoint a service member’s origin down to a specific area — a particular Hawaiian island, perhaps, or a corner of the Plains.

The military has files on roughly 81,000 missing soldiers going back to World War II. Astonishingly, DPAA estimates that 41 percent of these cases are solvable.

Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Trump might go berserk over The New York Times’ Rod Rosenstein story.

The newspaper reported on Friday that the deputy attorney general discussed invoking the 25th Amendment to remove the president from power and talked about wearing a wire during meetings with him in conversations last spring. A Justice Department spokesperson told the Times that Rosenstein was only joking about secretly recording Trump, while Rosenstein himself said that “inaccurate and factually incorrect” and that “there is no basis to invoke the 25th Amendment.”

It’s hard to imagine a news story that could more effectively arouse Trump’s ire than this one. He frequently lashes out against the Russia investigation as a “witch hunt” created by his political enemies to overturn the 2016 election. The Times’ account likely will heighten Trump’s hostility and paranoia, especially after an anonymous “senior administration official” raised similar concerns in a Times op-ed earlier this month.

The story comes at a conspicuous time for the administration. Brett Kavanaugh, the president’s Supreme Court nominee, is facing an allegation of sexual assault that may imperil his confirmation by the Senate. Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman, is now cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller in the Russia investigation despite Trump’s implicit offer of a pardon if he kept quiet. Michael Cohen, the president’s former lawyer, is also reportedly telling Mueller’s investigators what he knows about Russia-related matters. Democrats are increasingly set to retake the House of Representatives and perhaps even the Senate in the November midterm elections.

That raises questions about why Rosenstein’s comments are coming to light now. The Times attributes its account to contemporaneous memos written by Andrew McCabe, the former FBI deputy director fired in January, as well as people briefed on either Rosenstein’s conversations and the memos’ contents. It’s impossible to know whether those sources meant to give Trump a justification to oust the man who oversees the Russia investigation. But they may have done just that.

Drew Angerer/Getty

Trump forced to do an about-face on declassifying Russia investigation documents.

On Friday morning, the president tweeted out that his request to declassify documents related to the Russia probe was being handled by the office of the Inspector General, which would review them before release. This marks a shift from the announcement earlier in the week on Monday calling for the quick release of documents that including FISA warrant surveillance applications for former aide Carter Page and text messages from former FBI officials and employees such as James Comey, Andrew McCabe, Peter Strzok, and Lisa Page. There was widespread concern that this use of declassification as a political weapon would also compromise intelligence sources.

To judge by the president’s tweets, this concern was shared by “key allies” including Britain:

In an interview with The Hill earlier this week, the president claimed that his push for declassify Carter Page’s FISA application resulted from him being “asked by so many people that I respect” including “the great Lou Dobbs, the great Sean Hannity, the wonderful great Jeanie Pirro.”

Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Coal ash may have poisoned a source of drinking water for thousands of North Carolinians.

When Hurricane Florence was approaching the state, experts feared that excessive flooding could cause widespread spills of hog feces and coal ash into surrounding bodies of water. Those fears have now materialized.

On Friday, the Associated Press reported that a dam holding back coal ash—the heavy metal-laden byproduct from burning coal—had breached at a North Carolina plant due to flooding. Duke Energy, which owns the dam, said that the product might be flowing into the Cape Fear River, which provides drinking water to approximately 60,000 residents of Wilmington, North Carolina.

This is the third coal ash spill that’s been reported since Florence’s historic rainfall caused catastrophic flooding throughout the state. Duke Energy, the country’s largest electric company, has been fighting attempts to force clean-up of these ponds for years. President Donald Trump’s administration has also loosened several regulations on coal ash storage.

In addition to coal ash spills, at least 110 ponds of pig feces have either released their contents into the environment or are at “imminent risk of doing so,” The New York Times reported on Wednesday. Those spills are presenting health concerns, too. “You basically have a toxic soup for people who live in close proximity to those lagoons,” Sacoby Wilson, a professor of public health at the University of Maryland, told Vice News. “All of these contaminants that are in the hog lagoons, like salmonella, giardia, and E-coli, can get into the waterways and infect people trying to get out.”

Coal ash often contains high levels of arsenic, lead, mercury, and chromium, which can cause myriad health problems. North Carolinians risk coming into contact with these metals and pathogens through drinking water, but also through open wounds and mucous membranes if they wade through the ongoing floods.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

The GOP has chosen a villain more popular than Trump.

In 2018, as in every midterm since Nancy Pelosi became House Minority Leader in 2003, the Republicans plan to use the San Francisco congresswoman as their prime nemesis—a noxious public avatar of the Democratic Party that they can parade around to rally their base. Unfortunately for the GOP, Pelosi may not be as effective a bogeywoman this year: Internal Republican polls show that she’s more popular than President Donald Trump.

As Bloomberg News reports:

President Trump likes to mock Nancy Pelosi, but a private survey conducted for the Republican National Committee finds that she’s actually more popular—and beats the president when the midterm election is framed as a contest between the two.

The internal poll, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies and obtained by Bloomberg Businessweek, asks registered voters who they support “when the November election is framed by Trump and Pelosi.” Overall, respondents prefer Pelosi-aligned candidates over Trump-aligned candidates by 5 points, 50 percent to 45 percent. Among independents only, Pelosi still prevails by a 4-point margin.

The stereotype of Pelosi was set by the GOP as long ago as 2003, when The Los Angeles Times observed Republicans were “eager to attack Pelosi as a loopy San Francisco liberal and exploit her city’s reputation as the odd-sock drawer of America. Within days, her face—garish and twisted—showed up in an attack ad slamming the Democrat in a Louisiana House race. (He won anyway.) She surfaced as Miss America, complete with tiara, in a spoof on Rush Limbaugh’s Web site.”

The new polling shows that this image of Pelosi as an out-of-touch left-wing elitist only has traction among already committed Republicans. But for that reason, the GOP might still return to it, despite her relative popularity compared to Donald Trump. Republicans need to get their base out. Also, Pelosi still does worse than generic Democrats in polls (who lead over Republicans by 9 per cent, as against Pelosi’s lead of 5 per cent over Trump).

Nancy Pelosi isn’t really a convincing foil anymore, but she might be the best the GOP has.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty I

A bizarre doppelgänger theory testifies to the desperation of some Brett Kavanaugh supporters.

Amid negotiations on the rules for Senate hearings into the allegations of sexual assault leveled against the Supreme Court nominee by Christine Blasey Ford, some of his backers are starting to promote a truly strange scenario: Yes, Ford might have been the victim of an attempted rape when she was 15, but Kavanaugh wasn’t the guilty party. Rather, it was another teenage boy who looked like Kavanaugh, and, thanks to the haze of memory, has become conflated with the judge in her mind.

“Could there be a Kavanaugh doppelgänger?” Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker asked on Tuesday, noting that the possibility of a mix up or case of mistaken identity had been raised by both Utah Senator Orrin Hatch and The Wall Street Journal.

Doppelgänger theory reached its most elaborate flight in a Twitter thread posted Thursday night by Ed Whelan, a longtime Kavanaugh ally who is also president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. As summed up by Vox, Whelan’s Twitter essay “argued that based on Christine Blasey Ford’s statements of what happened that night back in 1982, the perpetrator was likely not Kavanaugh, but a classmate of Kavanaugh’s at Georgetown Prep who, in Whelan’s view, looked a lot like Kavanaugh.” The main basis of Whelan’s argument, such as it is, was maps taken from the real estate website Zillow and high school yearbook photos.

Near the end of his thread, Whelan writes, “It is regrettable that private citizens are being drawn into this.” That’s a audacious statement to make given that is exactly what he himself is doing. Whelan’s attempt to play internet Sherlock Holmes and use circumstantial evidence to smear a private citizen was, in the words of CNN’s Jake Tapper, “wildly irresponsible.”

Beyond irresponsible, doppelgänger theory is also hugely implausible in any form. As The Washington Post reports:

Ford dismissed Whelan’s theory in a statement late Thursday: “I knew them both, and socialized with” them, Ford said, adding that she had once visited the other classmate in the hospital. “There is zero chance that I would confuse them.”

Yet as unlikely as it is, doppelgänger theory makes sense when you realize it satisfies a particular political need: Ford’s accusation creates a hurdle to Kavanaugh’s confirmation, but Republicans are reluctant to attack her in the manner that they (and some Democrats) went after Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas nomination in 1991. Smearing a woman who makes a serious sexual assault allegation looks bad, politically, in the era of #MeToo.

According to Post, “Kavanaugh and his allies have been privately discussing a defense that would not question whether an incident involving Ford happened, but instead would raise doubts that the attacker was Kavanaugh, according to a person familiar with the discussions.” Doppelganger theory provides exactly the defense needed: Kavanaugh’s defenders don’t have to call Ford a liar, just a confused victim. They can acknowledge that she suffered sexual assault, but also that Kavanaugh himself was not responsible for it.

Update: On Friday morning, Whelan apologized for naming the Kavanaugh classmate whom he believes, without evidence, was Blasey’s actual attacker. But he did not recant his doppelgänger theory.