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Yet another police shooting of a black civilian will go unpunished.

On Wednesday, District Attorney of North Carolina Andrew Murray announced that Officer Brentley Vinson “acted lawfully” in the shooting of 43-year-old Keith Scott in September. During a press conference, Murray presented videos and audio clips meant to corroborate that Scott was in possession of an illegal weapon.

The decision comes as no surprise to those familiar with the nature of police shootings against unarmed black citizens. Scott’s death in September sparked nearly a week of protests in Charlotte. But what is interesting is the cursory introduction of Scott’s medical history, which the family’s lawyer speculates could explain his failure to respond to repeated officer commands. According to The New York Times, Scott was recovering from a traumatic brain injury as a result of a motorcycle accident last year.

Murray insisted that it was a “justified shooting based on the totality of the circumstances.” When asked about the recent North Carolina law that disqualifies police video from the public record, Murray staunchly supported the law. “Just one video does not do justice,” he said.

September 21, 2018

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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 be 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.

September 20, 2018

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Trump is going easy on Kavanaugh’s accuser, but the GOP is not.

The president is getting credit in some circles, especially among his own staff, for the supposed restraint he’s shown toward Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her in the early 1980s. As CNN reports, “White House aides who steeled themselves for what President Donald Trump would say when he finally addressed the sexual assault allegation against his Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh were quietly stunned when Trump said the process should be followed and the accuser should be heard.”

Trump has cleared a very low bar by not insulting Dr. Blasey, but the fact is, he has repeatedly expressed sympathy for Kavanaugh and not even pro forma concern for Dr. Blasey. Further, Republicans have more than filled the void. On Thursday, Republican Congressman Ralph Norman joked in poor taste by asking, “Did y’all hear the latest late-breaking news on the Kavanaugh hearings? Ruth Bader Ginsburg came out that she was groped by Abraham Lincoln.”

“This has been a drive-by shooting when it comes to Kavanaugh,” South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham complained. “I’ll listen to the lady, but we’re going to bring this to a close.” Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, who will be questioning Dr. Blasey if she testifies, has clearly already made up his mind, saying that he believes Kavanaugh and suggesting that Dr. Blasey is “mistaken.” Hatch added that “clearly somebody’s mixed up.” Senate Republicans also have worked diligently to block Ford’s request for the FBI to investigate her allegations.

As The Nation notes, there has been a broader push on the right to impugn Dr. Blasey: “The White House has dismissed her as a liar; conservative commentator Tomi Lahren implied that she was an opportunist; and a Wall Street Journal editorial not only impugns her but suggests that going to therapy can result in invented memories.” It’s yet another reminder that Trump is not an anomaly within the Republican Party; he has plenty of allies to do his dirty work for him.

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Mike Pompeo ignores his own staff and doubles down on supporting Saudi Arabia’s Yemen war.

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the secretary of state has sidelined humanitarian objections to America’s backing of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in their proxy war in Yemen against Iranian-supported Houthi fighters. The war has been going on for three years, creating millions of refugees and arguably the world’s worst current humanitarian crisis. Saudi Arabia’s conduct of the war has come under increasing criticism in the United States, particularly after an August airstrike hit a bus, killing dozens of civilians, most of whom were children. A majority of the more than 16,700 civilians killed or injured in the war have been victims of the Saudi campaign. A bipartisan group of lawmakers has pushed for the Trump administration to cut support for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in this war.

Documents how that State Department officials agree with this congressional push but have been vetoed by Pompeo. As the Journal notes, “Pompeo overruled concerns from most of the State Department specialists involved in the debate who were worried about the rising civilian death toll in Yemen. Those who objected included specialists in the region and in military affairs. He sided with his legislative affairs team after they argued that suspending support could undercut plans to sell more than 120,000 precision-guided missiles to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, according to a classified State Department memo and people familiar with the debate.”

Aside from valuing Gulf allies as markets for weapons, the Trump administration is likely motivated by more general strategic concerns. Supporting Saudi Arabia in its regional conflict with Iran has become a pillar of Trump’s foreign policy. The administration is also eager to get Saudi Arabia and other OPEC countries to increase their oil production, which might be easier to achieve if the United States continues to support its regional allies in Yemen.

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Ben Carson’s HUD is a quiet scandal.

The Washington Post reported on Thursday that the Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded large salaries to staffers with little experience and few academic credentials:

The raises, documented in a Washington Post analysis of HUD political hires, resulted in annual salaries between $98,000 and $155,000 for the five appointees, all of whom had worked on Donald Trump’s or Ben Carson’s presidential campaigns. Three of them did not list bachelor’s degrees on their résumés.

As the Post notes, HUD Secretary Ben Carson has no relevant experience himself. He’s a retired neurosurgeon, with no specialized skill or expertise in housing or welfare policy. In a statement, HUD assured the Post that it does have an experienced senior team, adding, “HUD employees represent a broad array of backgrounds and experiences, as different roles have unique responsibilities and require diverse skill sets.”

But under Carson’s tenure, HUD has steadily devolved into a do-nothing department. As Alec MacGillis reported for ProPublica in August, HUD is directly responsible for the housing needs of millions of low-income America. Its mission is welfare, and that makes it a target for small-government conservatives. With Carson at the helm, HUD gradually slowed or ceased many existing initiatives, especially if those initiatives pertained to protecting the rights of LGBT people. “Virtually all the top political jobs below Carson remained vacant. Carson himself was barely to be seen—he never made the walk-through of the building customary of past new secretaries,” MacGillis wrote.

HUD has also rolled back efforts to enforce fair housing policy, and in May, Carson put forward a housing proposal that would triple rents for the poorest residents in public housing.

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The NRA could be facing a financial crisis as membership plunges.

OpenSecrets, a non-profit research organization, has conducted an audit of the  National Rifle Association and found that the powerful lobbying group might be facing a budgetary squeeze as higher outlays are coming in conflict with shrinking revenue. Ironically, the organization’s problems are an byproduct of its most successful year ever, 2016. During that presidential election year, the NRA functioned as a key dark money group, funneling more than $30 million to Donald Trump’s successful bid for the presidency. 

As OpenSecrets notes, “The NRA’s massive 2016 push was part of what ultimately became a $100 million spike in the group’s outlays between 2015 and 2016. But that spending wasn’t matched with similar growth in revenue, leaving the NRA with a deficit of more than $14.8 million.”

After Trump’s election, the NRA found itself in a budgetary trap because membership started to go down, a natural result of the fact that gun owners have less to worry about with Republicans controlling all three branches of government. Revenue from members shrank to $128 million in 2017, a plunge from around $163 million in 2016. There are signs the NRA is scaling back its spending in the 2018 midterms. They’ve only spent $2.7 million this year, a sharp reduction from the $10.7 million they spent at the same point in the last midterms in 2014.

“Their current business model cannot be sustained the way it is going,” Ohio State University accounting professor Brian Mittendorf told OpenSecrets.

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The Trump administration is diverting funds from medical programs to jail more migrant children.

The burgeoning population of detained migrant children in America is causing a shift in funding away from medical programs, Yahoo News reports. There are currently 13,312 children, a record number already substantially higher than the 12,800 reported last week. Most of these detained children crossed the border without their family. Normally, these children would be reunited with American relatives as quickly as possible. But stricter rules for allowing this reunification imposed by the Trump administration and a more pervasive atmosphere of fear have created a bottleneck that is slowing down family reconnection.

These ballooning numbers are straining the shelter system to capacity and leading the administration to construct tent cities in Texas. A letter from Health and Human Services Alex Azar to Washington State Senator Patty Murray, explains that a significant chunk of funds will come from slashing other services, including treatment for AIDS patients and cancer research. Other funds will be taken from the Office of Refugee Resettlement or ORR (in keeping with the administration’s policy of radically reducing the number of refugees America accepts).

As Yahoo News recounts:

Nearly $80 million of that money will come from other refugee support programs within ORR, which have seen their needs significantly diminished as the Trump administration makes drastic cuts to the annual refugee numbers. The rest is being taken from other programs, including $16.7 million from Head Start, $5.7 million from the Ryan White HIV/AIDS program and $13.3 million from the National Cancer Institute. Money is also being diverted from programs dedicated to mental and maternal health, women’s shelters and substance abuse.

Aside from the costs, the underlying policy shift is keeping children detained longer and also, when they are released, putting them in the care of distant American relatives who are documented as against closer relatives who might be undocumented. Abigail Trillin of Legal Services for Children notes, “We’re starting to see undocumented folks not going to come forward, therefore children either stay in detention or go to more distant people who might happen to be documented.” She adds that this “situation that is at best challenging and at worst dangerous for children.”

September 19, 2018

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Putin encouraged Trump to distrust his own government.

The Washington Post has published an excerpt of a forthcoming book written by their reporter Greg Miller titled, The Apprentice: Trump, Russia and the Subversion of American Democracy.

The excerpt is filled with remarkable new reporting, including this story that Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin tried to bond with President Donald Trump by telling the American leader that his own government was working against him:

A trained intelligence operative, Putin understood the power of playing to someone’s insecurities and ego. On cue, he reciprocated with frequent praise for the president he had sought to install in the White House.

In phone conversations with Trump, Putin would whisper conspiratorially, telling the U.S. president that it wasn’t their fault that they could not consummate the relationship that each had sought. Instead, Putin sought to reinforce Trump’s belief that he was being undermined by a secret government cabal, a bureaucratic “deep state.”

“It’s not us. We get it,” Putin would tell Trump, according to White House aides. “It’s the subordinates fighting against our friendship.”

The book also reveals that Trump was not satisfied with British Prime Minister Theresa May’s claim of 95 percent certainty of Russian involvement in the nerve agent attack on Sergei and Iulia Skripal that took place on English soil. “Maybe we should get to 98 percent,” the president said.

Finally, after Trump spoke at Memorial Wall in CIA headquarters in January 2017, shortly after his inauguration, some agency employees initiated a mourning ritual:

That week, something occurred that officials had seen only in the aftermath of a CIA tragedy. Flowers began to accumulate at the foot of the Memorial Wall on Monday, as the agency returned to work. By week’s end there was a small mound of bouquets placed by employees who passed by the stars in silence.

New York Review of Books

Ian Buruma exits The New York Review of Books after publishing misleading #MeToo article.

The New York Review of Books has confirmed that Ian Buruma, who has been editing the venerable journal since fall of 2017, has left his position. It’s not clear whether he quit or was fired. His departure comes in the wake of the magazine’s controversial decision to publish an essay by disgraced Canadian broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi, who recounted his experience being accused of repeated sexual assaults. The essay was criticized by several outlets, including The New Republic, for multiple factual inaccuracies and whitewashing the allegations against Ghomeshi. (The Ghomeshi article is online. The hardcopy issue of the magazine carrying the article has yet to reach subscribers).

When queried about these criticisms by Isaac Chotiner of Slate, Buruma gave off a slightly cavalier air regarding both the factual inaccuracies and the ethical issues of editing the article. “The exact nature of his behavior—how much consent was involved—I have no idea, nor is it really my concern,” Buruma told Chotiner. Buruma also acknowledged that there was dissension in the staff about the decision to publish. In an earlier interview, he promised to edit the magazine in a “democratic” fashion.

The New York Review of Books was founded in 1963 by Robert B. Silvers and Barbara Epstein. After Epstein’s death in 2006, Silvers took sole command of the journal. When Silvers himself died in 2017, Buruma became the first non-founder to take over the magazine. He seemed a plausible candidate. A contributor the magazine since 1985, he had been personally close to both Epstein and Silvers. As a polymath and much celebrated writer, fluent in Dutch and well-travelled in Asia, Buruma seemed to bring to the journal the cosmopolitan pedigree it valued. However, there were concerns from the start about his lack of editing background.

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Senate Republicans rule out an FBI investigation into Brett Kavanaugh.

Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, told Christine Blasey Ford’s lawyers in a letter on Wednesday that it is “not the FBI’s role to investigate a matter such as this.” He also repeated his invitation for her to testify in an open or closed session scheduled for Monday, with an implicit deadline of 10 a.m. on Friday for her to accept or decline.

In a letter sent on Tuesday night, Blasey’s lawyers did not explicitly reject the invitation to Monday’s scheduled hearing, but insisted that the FBI first investigate her claims that the Supreme Court nominee sexually assaulted her in high school in the early 1980s. Senate Democrats have largely backed her request, noting that the bureau questioned witnesses about Anita Hill’s sexual-harassment allegation against Clarence Thomas in 1991. That inquiry took place before the background-check process had ended and before the allegation became public knowledge.

Grassley struck a conciliatory tone while firmly rejecting the substance of Blasey’s request in his reply. “We have no power to commandeer an executive branch agency into conducting our due diligence,” he wrote. “The job of assessing and investigating a nominee’s qualifications in order to decide whether to consent to the nomination is ours and ours alone.” Under FBI rules, President Donald Trump would have to order the bureau to reopen the background-check process.

Kavanaugh has denied any wrongdoing and issued a statement over the weekend affirming his willingness to testify before the committee on the matter. It’s unclear whether Republicans would cancel that opportunity on Monday if Blasey declines to participate. Some GOP senators have indicated that they would vote immediately on his confirmation to the Supreme Court if she does not testify.

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Dinesh D’Souza has been a right-wing troll since college.

In a deeply reported and nuanced profile in The Weekly Standard, Alice B. Lloyd asks how Dinesh D’Souza went from being “one of the cleverest polemical journalists on the right” to his current status as a clownish provocateur whose antics often embarrass serious conservatives.

In answering this question, Lloyd hits the highlights of D’Souza’s colorful career: his student days at Dartmouth College where he pioneered a form of right-wing tom foolery, his bid to be a serious journalist writing about political correctness in his book Illiberal Education (1991), his overt hostility towards African-Americans displayed in his book The End of Racism (1995), his move towards a more popular audience in demagogic documentaries and polemics such as The Roots of Obama’s Rage (2010), his scandal-plagued tenure as president of King’s College, the extramarital affair which ended his first marriage and also entangled him in an campaign finance violation which led to becoming a convicted felon in 2014, his dubious redemption by a politically motivated pardon from President Donald Trump, and his current status as one of Trump’s foremost advocates.

It’s been a wild ride for D’Souza. Lloyd convincingly argues that in this case the boy was the father to the man: The nature of the mature D’Souza was already evident in his formative years as a Dartmouth undergraduate.

As Lloyd writes:

D’Souza’s rhetorical tactics may be perfectly suited to the Age of Trump, but he learned them long ago: at Dartmouth College in the early 1980s, where he led the Dartmouth Review, the country’s best-known conservative campus paper. “American politics has caught up with Dartmouth,” he tells me. The Review’s undergraduate antics—outing the officers of the Gay-Straight Alliance, printing an affirmative action op-ed in Ebonics, hosting a lavish luncheon alongside a fast for world hunger—readied him for Trump: “For 20 years, I wasn’t doing it. Because for 20 years, American politics wasn’t like this.” D’Souza, 57, sees himself as a pioneer of the puerilizing of political discourse.

This is a highly persuasive argument. Not just D’Souza but an entire cohort of young right-wingers were formed by the campus wars of the 1980s, a milieu that rewarded prankish provocateurs. This was the environment that produced not just D’Souza but also Laura Ingraham (a fellow Dartmouth student) and Ann Coulter (who carried on in the same fashion as D’Souza and Ingraham at Cornell).

One could quibble with Lloyd about whether even in his best days D’Souza was all that rigorous. While it’s true Illiberal Education was praised by some centrists, Louis Menand’s New Yorker review found the book to be unconvincing and glib. But it’s fair enough to say that in the late 1980s and early 1990s, D’Souza made a greater effort to be a serious writer. The general message of the profile, however, is that for most of his life the Dartmouth D’Souza has been the dominant one. D’Souza has remained a permanent sophomore.