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Donald Trump is terrified of Sally Yates.

In Trump’s first two months in office, it seemed like there was a new Russia bombshell every other day. But things have gone (relatively) quiet on the Russian front over the past several weeks, as Republicans’ wheezing attempts at repealing and replacing Obamacare gobbled up headline space. Even when James Comey testified before Congress last week, Russia—the ostensible subject of the hearings—didn’t dominate news coverage. Instead, the story coming out of the hearings was Comey’s self-pitying defense of his unprecedented role in the 2016 election.

That should change when Sally Yates testifies before Congress today. Yates was the acting attorney general who notified the Trump administration about the nature of Michael Flynn’s contacts with the Russians, before she was fired for refusing to defend the administration’s travel ban. Yates is expected to testify that she gave a forceful warning to the White House that Flynn might be compromised by his dealings with the Russians—contradicting Sean Spicer’s claim that she wanted to give a less serious “heads up” about Flynn. Trump is unsurprisingly rattled—hours before she is scheduled to appear before Congress he tweeted this:

This is very troubling. Trump is intimidating Yates, who is about to testify before Congress, and suggesting that the federal government could retaliate by bringing charges against her for leaking classified information. It’s a crime to “harass someone in order to hinder, delay, prevent, or dissuade them from testifying before Congress.” This is only the latest in a series of troubling moves from the White House to try to prevent Yates from testifying.

Update: This post has been updated with a revised tweet from Trump. In the original, which has since been deleted, he spelled “counsel” wrong.

September 18, 2018

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Trump reduces the number of refugees America will admit to a record low.

In keeping with his larger agenda of reducing the number of immigrants, both legal and undocumented, that the United States will accept, the president has been systematically lowering the number of refugees allowed annually into the country.

In his final year in office, former President Barack Obama set the refugee cap at 110,000. Last year, there was an internal struggle in the Trump administration between nativists, led by White House aide Stephen Miller, and the Department of Defense and the State Department over what the limit should be. Miller wanted to shrink it to 15,000. State and Defense were arguing for a limit of 50,000. Ultimately, the administration settled on 45,000. This year, Miller was able to get Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on his side, which has led to a further reduction to 30,000.

Miller argued that U.S. resources were overstretched by asylum seekers (migrants who ask for asylum after entering the United States, versus refugees who are processed abroad) and that these resources should be spent clearing up these cases. Since asylum cases often end in deportation, a shift in resources in that direction also served Miller’s agenda of limiting the number of foreigners who gain permanent status in the United States.

The refugee cap is a ceiling, rather than a goal. By heightening the vetting process, it’s possible to further limit the number of refugees. This year, the U.S. has only accepted 20,918, well below the cap of 45,000 that could be admitted and even below next year’s cap of 30,000.

Nazanin Ash, the vice president for policy and advocacy at the International Rescue Committee, notes that setting asylum seekers and refugees against each other in a struggle for resources is a deliberate choice. “In justifying its policy intention, the administration has pitted those seeking asylum against refugees,” Ash told The New York Times. “The administration has the resources it needs to effectively administer both programs, as historic admissions levels prove.”

Historically, the United States has been the world’s most welcoming nations for refugees. As Vox notes, “between a third and a half of all refugees who’ve been permanently resettled since the end of World War II have come to America.” One of the most profound policy shifts of the Trump era is the rejection of this legacy.

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Trump is declassifying documents to punish his imagined enemies.

The White House announced on Monday night that it would declassify portions of a foreign-surveillance warrant application targeting former Trump aide Carter Page as well as FBI reports of interviews with Justice Department official Bruce Ohr. That FISA application relied partly on the Steele dossier, which contains damaging allegations about Trump, and Ohr had contacts with Christopher Steele before the election.

The White House also ordered the release of text messages related to the Russia investigation from government cell phones used by Ohr and four other ex-DOJ officials with various connections to the Russia investigation: former FBI Director James Comey, former deputy director Andrew McCabe, and former FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the materials were released “at the request of a number of committees of Congress, and for reasons of transparency.” A group of House Republicans led by Intelligence Committee chair Devin Nunes had previously requested the records from the White House as part of their longstanding effort to uncover purported surveillance abuses against the Trump campaign in 2016. Past efforts by Nunes and his associates to discredit the Russia investigation have not lived up to their hype.

The decision is a subtle but momentous step for Trump, effectively harnessing the presidency’s national-security powers for his own political advantage. It comes days after Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman, pleaded guilty to multiple federal charges and agreed to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller in the Russia investigation. Trump praised Manafort last month for not cooperating with federal prosecutors and floated the prospect of pardoning him after the investigation wraps up—with the implicit condition that he not assist it.

It’s unclear how and when the documents will be made public or whether the intelligence community will be able to redact personally identifying information from them. California Representative Adam Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee’s ranking Democratic member, wrote on Twitter that DOJ and FBI officials “have previously informed me that release of some of this information would cross a ‘red line.’”

September 17, 2018

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Orrin Hatch offers confusing defense of Brett Kavanaugh.

Utah Senator Orrin Hatch made comments Monday supporting Kavanaugh’s beleaguered Supreme Court nomination, but in ways that did nothing to settle the underlying challenge of a serious accusation of sexual assault. Speaking to reporters at the Capitol, Hatch related that he spoke to Kavanaugh who said, “he didn’t do that, and he wasn’t at the party.” It’s not clear which party Hatch and Kavanaugh are referring to since the accuser did not provide any details to identify it.

Hatch added, “So, you know, clearly, somebody’s mixed up.” Asked if the accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, was to be believed, Hatch indicated no. “I think she’s mistaken,” the Republican Senator said. “I think she’s … she’s mistaken something that I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know her.”

But in the same gaggle, Hatch also indicated that even if Ford were telling the truth, it wouldn’t matter. “If that was true, I think it would be hard for senators to not consider who the judge is today,” Hatch said. “That’s the issue. Is this judge a really good man? And he is. And by any measure he is.”

So Hatch’s position is: Ford is mistaken because Kavanaugh wasn’t at a party that Ford didn’t really describe but it wouldn’t matter if Ford were telling the truth because Kavanaugh is a good man. The philosopher Jacques Derrida described this type of thinking as “kettle logic”: the making of contradictory arguments with no regard for internal coherence. It’s only added to the atmosphere of highly charged chaos heading into the week.

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Elon Musk, duly warned, gets sued for calling a diver a “pedophile.”

The Tesla CEO, who has a history of ill-advised comments, is now facing a legal challenge after he referred, without evidence, to a British diver as a “pedophile.” The diver, Vernon Unsworth, came into conflict with Musk during the rescue operation of 12 Thai youths who were trapped in a cave with their soccer coach.

Musk had tried to intervene in the operation by offering the services of a mini-submarine. Unsworth, who was helping with the rescue, criticized Musk’s suggestion as a public relations stunt. In response, Musk tweeted out a challenge to Unsworth, referring to him on July 15 as “pedo guy.” Although Musk initially apologized, the billionaire inventor continued to taunt the diver. In an email interview with a BuzzFeed reporter, Musk described Unsworth as “an old, single white guy from England who’s been traveling or living in Thailand for 30 to 40 years.” Musk also claimed that Unsworth journeyed to Thailand “for a child bride who was about 12 years old at the time.” Usworth’s lawyer has repeatedly called these allegations “false,” and threatened a lawsuit. “I fucking hope he sues me,” Musk wrote to a Buzzfeed reporter earlier this month.

Unsworth’s lawsuit, now filed, lays out a factual critique to these and other claims. “Mr. Unsworth is not a pedophile. Mr. Unsworth has never engaged in an act of pedophilia. Mr. Unsworth is not a child rapist,” the lawsuit states.

Shareholders of Telsa are already reportedly unhappy with Musk’s loose cannon behavior, which has recently included tweeting a plan to re-privatize the company, and openly smoking marijuana on a podcast. The lawsuit is not likely to cheer them up.

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Kavanaugh accusations divide the right.

The bombshell news that Christine Blasey Ford, a research psychologist, has come forward to accuse Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge of sexually assaulting her when they were all teenagers presents a dilemma for those who support his nomination. Do they continue to fight on Kavanaugh’s behalf and risk looking like they are indifferent to serious allegations of sexual assault? Or do they push Kananaugh to resign, even amid ambiguous evidence, at the cost of due process?

Between these two stark choices lie a range of options. One of the most thoughtful responses was from Sarah Quinlan of RedState who argued that a thorough investigation of the allegations was needed to preserve the legitimacy of the courts. “It would hurt the legitimacy of the Supreme Court to force a confirmation through when there appears to be a serious and credible accusation without an attempt to investigate the claims,” she contended.  

An equally judicious approach was taken by David French of National Review, who judged the accusation as “serious” but not definitive. French also allowed that more evidence could come forward to change that assessment, so his position seems to be the same as Quinlan: Let the process shift through competing claims.

Some of French’s colleagues reacted differently. Jim Geraghty muddied the water by pointing to a lack of corroborating evidence: “As of this writing, there are no photographs of the two together, no letters between them, no physical evidence proving that the two met each other, much less that the events occurred as she described.” But it’s not surprising that such letters and photographs don’t exist. Ford is not claiming that she and Kavanaugh had a relationship. Rather, her account is of being assaulted by him at a small party. Asking for evidence that isn’t pertinent to the claims is clearly a tactic of obfuscation. 

In The Federalist, David Marcus claimed that the fact the allegations weren’t brought forward in the hearings is proof they were weak. “After a lifetime of good service, Kavanaugh is being thrown under the bus of a single vague accusation,” Marcus laments. “Feinstein could have raised this months ago, could have made it a point of questioning during the hearings. She didn’t. ... I think she knew it wasn’t a strong enough allegation.” Marcus’s narrative ignores Ford’s own account, however: Ford herself was deeply divided, wanting to share her story but unwilling to go public. That fact alone explains why the story came out the way it did, via leaks after after the hearings.

Many on the right have argued that the allegations should not be given much weight since Kavanaugh was 17 years old at the time. The polemicists making this claim—and one libertarian, Megan McArdle—went so far as to suggest that it would be no problem if Kavanaugh even committed murder or rape as a teen:

As against those who argue that the accusation is likely true but immaterial, others claim that Kavanaugh is the target of a smear. Candace Owens, the communications director of Turning Points USA, described it as a #MeTooWitchhunt:

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Confirming judges was Trump’s magic bullet until Brett Kavanaugh.

For the last 20 months, as the Trump administration has been beset by scandal after scandal, conservatives have held on to a simple mantra: judges. In June of this year, shortly after Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement, conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt said:

The president and the GOP-controlled Senate have already put one-eighth of the federal appeals bench in their seats. Each of those new appointees— all principled “originalists” in the mold of the late Justice Scalia—will have more than 400 participations in 2018 alone. Critics from the #NeverTrump crowd need to balance their criticism with this remarkable record of repair of the bench.

The confirmation of judges has, in many ways, been the inverse of the rule within the administration: disciplined and effective, with unimpeachable conservative credentials. Trump seems to understand this. While he shouts out his judicial record at rallies, he largely stays out of the way. He knows that, as long as conservative judges keep getting approved, both his base and the Republican establishment will be in his corner. Confirm enough judges and all sins are forgiven.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warned Trump against nominating Kavanaugh to replace Kennedy, reportedly citing his sizable and controversial paper trail from the Bush administration. But Trump apparently took a liking to Kavanaugh and nominated him anyway. What has followed has been a nightmare, with that paper trail playing only a small part. Kavanaugh may have lied under oath. Over the last few days, he has been accused of sexual assault as a teenager. Senate Republicans—and prominent conservatives—appear to be standing by him for now, but his nomination is in jeopardy. A scheduled committee vote on Thursday may be pushed back to allow his accuser to testify before Congress.

The fact that Trump himself has stayed silent on this issue so far is a testament to how important judicial nominees have been to his presidency. But Trump’s recklessness in nominating Kavanaugh has imperiled what would unquestionably be his most important achievement as president—ensuring a conservative majority on the Supreme Court for a generation—which can only imperil his support among conservatives.

Republicans face a tricky political question. Is there enough time to push through a (likely more conservative) nominee before the midterms? If not, is it better to abandon a damaged nominee, in the hopes of making the composition of the Supreme Court an election issue? Or would scuttling the nomination only demoralize their voters, who are growing weary of a scandal-prone president fond of shooting himself in the foot? There is, of course, a moral question about Kavanaugh’s nomination as well. But Republicans have shown a willingness to set those aside again and again over the past three years.

September 16, 2018

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Brett Kavanaugh’s accuser is ready for a fight.

The Washington Post is reporting that Christine Blasey Ford, a 51-year-old research psychologist from California, is accusing Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault when they were both teenagers. Until now, Ford’s story had only existed in the realm of hearsay, with her identity unknown, since she had shared the accusation only in a letter (and on the condition of confidentiality) with two lawmakers, congresswoman Anna G. Eshoo and Senator Dianne Feinstein.

While reports of the contents of the letter she wrote to Feinstein have been circulating over the last few days, the new report is the first detailed and credible account of Ford’s story. Ford has previously shared her story with her husband in 2002, when they first married, and again with him and a couples therapist in 2012.

According to The Washington Post:

Speaking publicly for the first time, Ford said that one summer in the early 1980s, Kavanaugh and a friend — both “stumbling drunk,” Ford alleges — corralled her into a bedroom during a gathering of teenagers at a house in Montgomery County.

While his friend watched, she said, Kavanaugh pinned her to a bed on her back and groped her over her clothes, grinding his body against hers and clumsily attempting to pull off her one-piece bathing suit and the clothing she wore over it. When she tried to scream, she said, he put his hand over her mouth.

Kavanaugh’s drunken friend named in the story is the writer Mark Judge. Both Judge and Kavanaugh have denied the allegation.

Adding to the credibility of the story is the existence of therapist notes from 2012 which has her telling the same story (without naming Kavanaugh) and the fact that Ford, according to The Washington Post, “took a polygraph test administered by a former FBI agent in early August.” She passed the test.

A key part of the story involves teenage drinking. Judge is the author of a memoir that talks about his teen-age alcoholism, which included blackout drinking.

Ford has been reluctant to come forward because she felt it would wreak havoc on her life. “Why suffer through the annihilation if it’s not going to matter?” she asked.

September 15, 2018


New York Review of Books editor struggles to defend controversial Ghomeshi piece.

Just a few hours after the New York Review posted an essay by the disgraced Canadian broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi, Isaac Chotiner of Slate interviewed Ian Buruma, the editor who commissioned the piece. Critics felt the New York Review gave Ghomeshi space to whitewash the accusations against him by more than 20 women of various forms of sexual misconduct, including acts of violence such as punching and choking. Buruma’s responses to Chotiner made the rounds on Twitter Friday evening:

You say it’s not your “concern,” but it is your concern. If you knew the allegations were true, I assume you would not have run the piece.

Well, it depends what the allegations are. What you were saying just now was rather vague.

Punching women against their will.

Those are the allegations, but as we both know, sexual behavior is a many-faceted business. Take something like biting. Biting can be an aggressive or even criminal act. It can also be construed differently in different circumstances. I am not a judge of exactly what he did. All I know is that he was acquitted and he is now subject to public opprobrium and is a sort of persona non grata in consequence. The interest in the article for me is what it feels like in that position and what we should think about.

In his piece, he writes, “In October 2014, I was fired from my job at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation after allegations circulated online that I’d been abusive with an ex-girlfriend during sex.” But it was not about online rumors. The Toronto Star, a famed and respected newspaper, was about to publish a big piece, and that is why he resigned, correct?

It’s a respected newspaper, yes.

But you don’t think that’s misleading in any way?

Not really, but again, I am not judging him for the exact rights and wrongs of what he did in the past.

I am asking you about what he wrote in your magazine.

No, I don’t think so.

He also writes, “In the aftermath of my firing, and amid a media storm, several more people accused me of sexual misconduct.” Is “several” sufficient for more than 20 women?

Well, in a literal sense, it is. It might have been better to mention the exact number, possibly so.

Many an eyebrow was raised by the interview:

September 14, 2018

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It pays to move your country’s embassy to Jerusalem.

With tacit U.S. support, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales recently announced plans to dismantle CICIG, a U.N.-backed anti-corruption body that has helped unearth major corruption scandals in Guatemala, including one that led to the resignation of former President Otto Perez Molina in 2015. The anti-corruption body has accused Morales of accepting illicit funds after failing to report nearly $1 million in campaign donations.

Conservative lawmakers in the U.S. have recently rallied against the CICIG in what Bloomberg columnist Mac Margolis has suggested could be part of a quid pro quo for Guatemalan loyalty to the Trump administration. After Donald Trump announced his decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, Guatemala became the first country to follow suit; Eric Olson, the deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program, labeled it a blatant move to “curry favor with the U.S.” The embassy was inaugurated in May, a few weeks after Senator Marco Rubio, who has largely controlled the direction of U.S. diplomacy in Latin America under Trump, suspended $6 million in State Department funding to the CICIG, pushing unsubstantiated claims that CICIG is under Russian influence.

The Morales administration has also resisted growing Chinese pressure to cut ties with Taiwan after neighbors El Salvador, Panama, and the Dominican Republic all announced they would earlier this year. (The U.S. has pulled diplomats from all three countries in retaliation.)

Since then, Republican lawmakers and conservative pundits have tried to delegitimize CICIG’s probes. Earlier this week, Senator Rand Paul tweeted that “every American should oppose U.S. funding of U.N. programs that infringe on sovereign nations’ rights,” while The Wall Street Journal’s Mary Anastasia O’Grady wrote, without evidence, that the “international left has cheered the murky influence and capriciousness of CICIG because it strong-arms and silences ideological opponents of socialism.”

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The New York Review of Books lets Jian Ghomeshi whitewash his past.

On Friday morning, the venerable literary journal posted an article by Ghomeshi, who had been fired in 2014 by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation amid allegations of sexual misconduct. Though guaranteed to generate backlash for its personal exculpation marinated in self-pity, the piece’s egotistical approach also obscures the facts of the case.

A key paragraph runs:

In October 2014, I was fired from my job at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation after allegations circulated online that I’d been abusive with an ex-girlfriend during sex. In the aftermath of my firing, and amid a media storm, several more people accused me of sexual misconduct. I faced criminal charges including hair-pulling, hitting during intimacy in one instance, and—the most serious allegation—nonconsensual choking while making out with a woman on a date in 2002. I pleaded not guilty. Several months later, after a very public trial, I was cleared on all counts. One of the charges was separated and later withdrawn with a peace bond—a pledge to be on good behavior for a year. There was no criminal trial.

When Ghomeshi says “allegations circulated online” it sounds like they appeared on Facebook or a blog post. In fact, the trigger for his firing was the pending publication of reported news story in The Toronto Star, one of Canada’s oldest and most respected newspapers. The phrase “several more people accused me of sexual misconduct” is, at best, vague. In fact, there are 24 separate allegations of sexual assault, many involving brutal behavior such as choking and punching. Later in the essay, he suggests that his misconduct was an outgrowth of becoming a celebrity. But in fact, some of the allegations against him date to his days as a university student.

Nor does Ghomeshi mention that the charge that was withdrawn was done so on the condition that he admit to wrongdoing. The statement made by the complainant Kathryn Borel after Ghomeshi acknowledged his misconduct is worth quoting because it is far more specific and detailed than the narcissistic reverie that the New York Review of Books published:

My name is Kathryn Borel. In December of 2014, I pressed sexual assault charges against Jian Ghomeshi. As you know Mr. Ghomeshi initially denied all the charges that were brought against him. But today, as you just heard, Jian Ghomeshi admitted wrongdoing and apologized to me. It’s unfortunate but maybe not surprising he chose not to say much about what exactly he was apologizing for. I’m going to provide those details for you now. Every day over the course of a three-year period, Mr. Ghomeshi made it clear to me that he could do what he wanted to me and my body. He made it clear that he could humiliate me repeatedly and walk away with impunity.

There are at least three documented incidents of physical touching. This includes the one charge he just apologized for, when he came up behind me while I was standing near my desk, put his hands on my hips and rammed his pelvis against my backside over and over, simulating sexual intercourse.

Throughout the time that I worked with him, he framed his actions with near-daily verbal assaults and emotional manipulations these inferences felt like threats or declarations like I deserved to have happening to me what was happening to me. It became very difficult for me to trust what I was feeling.

Ghomeshi presents his experiences of being accused as “a crash course in empathy.” But the essay he wrote shows very little empathy. Instead, he continues to minimize his misconduct and spends thousands of words trying to elicit pity for the figure he seems to see as the true victim of the story: himself.