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After Theresa May’s self-own and UKIP’s humiliation, is the global right in retreat?

Thursday’s UK elections were momentous for the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn and an immense self-own for Theresa May. But it was also disastrous for Britain’s far-right pro-Brexit party, UKIP, which holds no seats and received less than 2 percent of the vote, down from the 12.6 percent it received under Nigel Farage’s leadership in 2015. Paul Nuttall, the party’s current leader, resigned immediately, having himself embarrassingly finished third in the seat he was running for, receiving only 3,300 votes. As a party, UKIP is now essentially non-existent. Interestingly, UKIP voters, who many cast as disaffected tories, were expected to mainly return to the Conservative Party. But the vote was actually more fragmented—in some seats, both Labour and Tories benefited equally from former UKIP voters.

Only last month, in France’s elections, the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen was squarely defeated by centrist Emmanuel Macron. To date, Donald Trump winning the U.S. presidency is by far the most successful the far-right has been in cementing electoral victory in the West. After the UK election, we have more evidence that the far-right “populist” surge is ebbing.

There is, of course, the danger of reading too much into the tea leaves. Le Pen still won a record of nearly 11 million votes and the National Front still remains a force in France, despite the fact that the party seems to be on the downslide. Theresa May has announced that she will continue to try to move forward with Brexit by forming a coalition with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party. Nigel Farage is now threatening a return to politics if Brexit is imperiled. For now, it seems, Trump has the distinction of having captured the most power of any far-right candidate across the world. But his victory increasingly looks like a cautionary tale for the rest of the world.

August 22, 2018

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In a subdued rally, Trump says very little about conviction of former associates.

The president is still capable of surprises. After a roller coaster day which saw his former campaign chairman convicted on eight counts of financial crimes and his former lawyer pleading guilty to eight counts including campaign finance violations that implicate Trump himself, the president was widely expected to go off the rail at a rally in West Virginia.

Instead, Trump only made glancing reference to the day’s legal news and gave a subdued but lengthy performance where he hit many of his familiar talking points.

Trump praised coal. He mocked Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and Maxine Waters. He demonized “illegal aliens.” He falsely claimed the Mexican border wall was being constructed. He praised ICE. He derided NATO allies. He led chants of “lock her up” and “drain the swamp.” He described West Virginia Governor Jim Justice as “the largest, most beautiful man” and “6-foot-11.” (Justice is 6-foot-7). He teased Justin Trudeau. In short, a medley of Trump’s greatest hits, a mixture of lies, blarney and bravado.

At one point he did sneer at “the fake news” media for concentrating on Russian collusion. “Where is the collusion?” He asked. “You know, they’re still looking for collusion! Find some collusion!”

But as Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale noted, this was actually less reference to the Mueller investigation than is the norm for Trump. The names Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen went unmentioned.

The Mueller investigation may or may not be on Trump’s mind, but it’s not on Trump’s lips, at least when he talks to his supporters.

August 21, 2018

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Manafort’s guilty conviction doesn’t change Trump’s ‘witch hunt’ tune.

Reacting to news Tuesday evening that his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort had been convicted on eight counts of financial crimes, the president reiterated familiar talking points.

“Paul Manafort is a good man,” Trump said. “He was with Ronald Reagan. He was with a lot of different people over the years. I feel very sad about that. It doesn’t involve me but I still feel, you know, it’s a very sad thing that has happened. This has nothing to do with Russian collusion. This started as Russian collusion. This has absolutely nothing to do. This is a witch hunt and it’s a disgrace. This has nothing to do with what they started out, looking for Russians involved in our campaign. There were none.” The president also added,  “we continue the witch hunt.” 

Asked about his former lawyer Michael Cohen pleading guilty to eight charges, including those involving paying hush money on Trump’s behalf and at his request, the president turned away from reporters and didn’t answer. 

The business headquarters of Christopher Steele, Leon Neal/Getty

Judge dismisses defamation suit over the salacious 2016 Trump dossier.

On Tuesday, DC Superior Court Judge Anthony C. Epstein dismissed a suit brought against former British spy Christopher Steele over claims made in his controversial 2016 dossier on Russian connections to President Donald Trump. The suit had been brought by three Russian billionaires: Mikhail Fridman, Petr Aven, and German Khan. All three own a stake in the Alfa bank. The Russian businessmen disputed the claim that they were in any way involved with Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Judge Epstein’s dismissal was based that the businessmen were public figures, which means the suit had to meet the high threshold of proving that Steele made false claims with malicious intent, rather than just negligently (the threshold for ordinary citizens). The ruling has a wider political significance because while the judge by no means affirmed the factuality of the Steele Dossier he did acknowledge its public interest value. “The Steele dossier generated so much interest and attention in the US precisely because its contents relate to active public debates here,” Judge Epstein noted. This decision will make it harder for others to pursue legal cases against Steele in the United State. At least one libel case against Steele is pending London, England, where libel laws are stricter and make fewer allowances for public interest.

Lawyers for the Russian billionaires said they would pursue an appeal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A new study links Facebook use to racial violence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 20, 2018

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

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

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

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