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Trump’s praise of Kim Jong Un is nepotism solidarity.

Interviewed by Bret Baier of Fox News on Friday, the president brushed aside criticism of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s human rights record. ““Hey, he’s a tough guy,” Trump said. “When you take over a country — a tough country, tough people — and you take it over from your father, I don’t care who you are, what you are, how much of an advantage you have. If you can do that at 27 years old, I mean, that’s one in 10,000 that could do that. So he’s a very smart guy. He’s a great negotiator.”

Pressed on the crimes Kim has committed, Trump took a stance of moral relativism. “Yeah, but so have a lot of other people have done some really bad things,” he argued. “I mean, I could go through a lot of nations where a lot of bad things were done.”

Trump’s words, of course, follow a familiar pattern of the president openly praising authoritarian leaders for their strength and toughness. They echo his earlier comments on autocrats like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping.

But there is something more personal going on with Trump’s comments. Like Trump himself, Kim was handed his position in society. Kim’s grandfather was the first Supreme Leader of North Korea and his father the second Supreme Leader. Trump also, despite the self-made man mythology he sometimes alludes to, belongs to a family that has been prosperous for three generations.

Senator Marco Rubio slyly alluded to these similarities in a tweet:

The words Trump used to describe Kim are similar to Trump’s own account of himself: “You take it over from your father, I don’t care who you are, what you are, how much of an advantage you have.” In defending Kim from the accusation of having benefited from his family, Trump is also defending his own claim to have merit aside from inheritance. Trump and Kim are both examples of dynastic politics, which might explain why they can get along so well.

October 18, 2018

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White House shouting match belies Trump’s claim he runs a “well-oiled machine.”

Multiple news outlets are reporting that there was a shouting match outside the Oval Office on Thursday afternoon between White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and National Security Advisor John Bolton. Bloomberg described the melee as “a profanity-laced argument.” The report added that, “The shouting match was so intense that other White House aides worried one of the two men might immediately resign.”

CNN offered a parallel account:

The fight between Kelly and Bolton startled several aides throughout the West Wing on Thursday, a person who heard the shouting said, adding that the raised voices went well beyond the heated discussions of the Trump administration.After the blowup, aides whispered privately that one of the men might leave the White House given the deep disagreement over the border. The fact that the President sided with Bolton, which only added to Kelly’s fury.

Whatever the outcome, the incident reinforces the sense of a chaotic White House, an impression that was furthered by a bizarre visit from musician Kanye West last week.

On October 10, Olivia Nuzzi of New York magazine published a revealing account of an interview she had with Trump, where they discussed rumors that Kelly was about to leave the White House. In order to reassure her, Trump brought in Kelly himself, Vice President Mike Pence, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Their entrance into the Oval Office seemed to be done on cue, as if Trump wanted to present a show of solidarity. Trump described the White House as running like a “well-oiled machine.”

His underlings agreed:

“He’s a great president,” Kelly said. “Do we disagree sometimes? We do. My job is to make sure that that man has all of the information available from whatever source so that he makes the best decision, and then, when that decision is made, my job is to then implement that decision. There is, to the best of my knowledge, no chaos in this building. We’ve gotten rid of a few bad actors, but everyone works very, very well together. The biggest surprise when we bring new people in, like Bill Shine, it’s like, ‘I thought this place was gonna be full of backstabbers and chaos and, Chief, people all like each other.’ To the best of my knowledge …”

A smile spread across the president’s face. Cutting Kelly off, he said, “Bill was actually a little disappointed.” This prompted laughter around the room, but not from Kelly. “He thought it would be a lot more exciting,” Trump added.

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New documents show how Trump intervened in controversial FBI headquarters decision.

House Democrats have released emails which show that that President Donald Trump was more actively engaged in stopping a proposed move of FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., than previously realized. These new emails strengthen the narrative established by a report released by the Office of the Inspector General in August, which documented that the president participated in meetings where the fate of the FBI headquarters was discussed. Trump’s involvement is potentially scandalous because the FBI building is near a hotel the president owns, raising the possibility that the decision was made for personal reasons.

As The Huffington Post reports, “President Donald Trump personally intervened to stop the FBI from moving its headquarters in Washington, D.C., to the Maryland or Virginia suburbs.” The emails contain phrases such as “what was decided in the meeting with POTUS,” “the President’s instructions,” and “direction from WH.”

Maryland Congressman Elijah E. Cummings, one of the authors of a letter expressing concern on the matter, suggested that the possible private motives of the FBI building decision would be taken up by the Democrats if they became the majority party in the House of Representatives after the midterm elections.

“It is Congress’s duty under the Constitution to make sure President Trump is serving the interests of the American people rather than his own financial bottom line,” Mr. Cummings told The New York Times. “Republicans have failed to conduct basic, independent investigations of President Trump’s conflicts of interest, but this is exactly what the Constitution requires, and it is what Democrats will do if we are fortunate enough to be in the majority in November.”

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Conservative think tank starts a secretive program promoting doctrinaire law clerks.

The New York Times is reporting that the Heritage Foundation, one of America’s leading conservative think tanks, has started a “training academy” for conservative law clerks, who have to guarantee that they won’t share any information about what they’ve learned. According to the Times, the application material for the training academy speaks about “generous donors” who were providing “a significant financial investment in each and every attendee.”

Legal experts have expressed concern about this program. Groups like the Federalist Society have long worked to groom conservative law professors and judges, nurturing Supreme Court Justices like Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. But the covert nature of the program as well as the promise of lucrative funding from unnamed donors go far beyond earlier attempts to shape the law for private purposes.

Sanford University law professor Pamela S. Karlan was among those expressing alarm. “Law clerks are not supposed to be part of a cohort of secretly financed and trained partisans of an organization that describes itself on its own web page as ‘the bastion of the American conservative movement,’” she told the Times. “The idea that clerks will be trained to elevate the Heritage Foundation’s views, or the views of judges handpicked by the foundation, perverts the very idea of a clerkship.”

Heritage Foundation spokesperson Breanna Deutsch was reticent when questioned by the Times. “It’s a private program, and that’s the way we’d like to keep it,” Deutsch said. “Word did leak out a little bit about it, which is fine, but it’s going to remain a private program.”

Update: on Thursday afternoon, the Heritage Foundation announced it was reevaluating the controversial program.

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Anthea Bell, celebrated translator of Asterix and W.G. Sebald, is dead at age 82.

Bell, most widely known for her English-language versions of the Asterix comic series, was one of the most highly regarded of modern translators, translating both French and German with a range that extended from children’s books to the recondite literary fiction of Franz Kafka and W.G. Sebald.

Born in England 1936, Bell fell into translating by accident when her publisher friend Klaus Flugge wanted someone to bring Otfried Preussler’s The Little Water Sprite into English. She had a gift for translating what appeared untranslatable: The Asterix books, for example, are rife with quirky puns. Bell somehow found English equivalents for them. In a much-cited example, she turned the dog called Idéfix in French into Dogmatix in English.

She worked closely with Sebald to capture his sad wry tone and dense allusiveness in English. The novelist Will Self went so far as to say that, “it’s doubtful that the eminence of W.G. Sebald would be quite so great in the English reading world were it not for Anthea Bell’s magnificent translations of his works.”

Speaking to The Guardian, Self recounted discussions he had with Bell about translating Kafka. “Particularly inspiring was her analysis of his humor as a writer—incomprehensible to English readers until mediated by this very fine and very great mind,” Self noted. “In an era when Britain seems once more to be winding itself yet tighter into its immemorial and monoglot garb, we’d do well to remember the huge importance of literary translation as a vector for our understanding of—and empathy with—other peoples.”

At a conference in 2004, Bell said, “All my professional life, I have felt that translators are in the business of spinning an illusion: the illusion is that the reader is reading not a translation but the real thing.” Her philosophy, she said on another occasion, is that “a translation is successful if it’s invisible.”

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Trump is hoarding money while Romney sweats to help his party.

Vulnerable Republican congressmen are in a very difficult spot, with two-and-a-half weeks to go until the midterm elections. Democrats have out-raised them in every toss-up district, giving them a sizable advantage down the stretch. According to CNN, House Republicans have less than $40 million in ad reservations through the election, while Democrats have $60 million; third quarter fundraising data released earlier this week showed Democrats out-raising and outspending Republicans nationwide.

But one Republican has had little trouble raising money: Donald Trump. As Republicans were fretting about their financial woes earlier this week, the president was celebrating record fundraising. He has already raised $106 million for his 2020 reelection bid, much of it from small donors. But some Republicans are complaining that Trump is refusing to share the wealth with congressional candidates who badly need it. According to The New York Times, Trump’s haul has “prompted grumbling among some Republican strategists, who contend—mostly in private—that the cash would be better allocated to the party’s at-risk congressional candidates.”

Mitt Romney, who is expected to win the retiring Orrin Hatch’s Utah Senate seat in November, has entered the void, traveling across the country to raise money for Republicans in competitive races. In recent weeks, Romney has raised money for congressional candidates in Utah, Arizona Senate candidate Martha McSally, and vulnerable Virginia Congresswoman Barbara Comstock, as well as a number of other state and national politicians.

The disparity between Trump and Romney’s actions on behalf of fellow Republicans hints at an irony at the center of Republican politics. Romney, who famously gave a national address decrying Trump’s impact on the GOP, cares deeply about the party and its future, and is using his clout to protect its interests. Trump, as ever, only cares about promoting himself. And yet, Trump is much more beloved by the base, as his recent small donor figures show. It’s his party, even if he does little for it.

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Will Trump figure out how to shield Saudi prince from murder accusation?

The New York Times is reporting that American intelligence agencies believe that circumstantial evidence shows that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had a role to play in the presumed assassination of  journalist Jamal Khashoggi. “American intelligence officials are increasingly convinced that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia is culpable in the killing of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, an appraisal that poses challenges to a White House intent on maintaining a close relationship with the kingdom,” the Times reports. While the paper cautions that there is no direct link established yet, “intelligence agencies have growing circumstantial evidence of the prince’s involvement—including the presence of members of his security detail and intercepts of Saudi officials discussing a possible plan to detain Mr. Khashoggi, according to American officials.”

Whatever conclusions intelligence agencies come to, every indication suggests that Trump administration is prepared to do what it can to shield Prince Mohammed from the accusation of murder.

As The Washington Post reports, “The Trump administration and the Saudi royal family are searching for a mutually agreeable explanation for the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi—one that will avoid implicating Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is among the president’s closest foreign allies, according to analysts and officials in multiple countries.”

Rudy Giuliani, the president’s lawyer, has floated one possible solution. Giuliani says the administration concluded over a week ago that the Saudi government was guilty. “The only question is, was it directed from the crown prince or the king—or was it a group that was trying to please him?” Giuliani added.

In effect, Giuliani is offering the same defense of over-eager underlings that was used to exculpate the medieval monarch Henry II of England in 1170 CE for the murder of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Henry II reportedly said, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Zealous knights heard this question and acted on it, murdering Becket.

October 17, 2018

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Beto O’Rourke shows Democrats how to talk about climate change.

Global warming is an existential threat to human life, but most candidates aren’t talking about it. One of the few exceptions has been O’Rourke, the Democratic congressman from El Paso, who’s running a heavily covered campaign against incumbent Republican Senator Ted Cruz.

In the past, O’Rourke has focused on the potential for economic growth in fighting climate change. But in a televised debate against Cruz on Tuesday night, he tried out a new tactic: directly tying Cruz’s climate denial to negative consequences in voters’ lives. “I continue to wonder why Senator Cruz voted against more than $12 billion in FEMA preparedness knowing full well that we will see more Harveys going forward,” O’Rourke said, according to ThinkProgress. “Mind you, that was the third 500-year flood in just the last five years. We know that there will be more of these floods coming, and I want to make sure that the people of Texas, especially southeast Texas, are prepared for the next one.”

When Democrats do talk about climate change, they usually warn about the consequences in the future. O’Rourke’s attack is different. He’s framing climate change as a problem affecting voters right now. He’s also holding Cruz accountable for making the problem worse, since Texans would have been better prepared for Hurricane Harvey had Cruz and other climate-denying Republicans not ignored the scientific consensus. (Scientists found that Hurricane Harvey’s record-breaking flooding was made 50 percent worse by global warming.)

It’s true that, right now, voters don’t prioritize climate change as a political issue. But who could blame them when global warming is constantly framed as a problem for the next generation? If Democrats change that false framing, they just might convince more Americans to vote based on the most critical issue of our time.

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As Canadians get high, cannabis stocks go low.

On Wednesday Canada followed Uruguay, becoming the second country in the world to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes. Given the size of the Canadian market, there’s been a rush to invest in the burgeoning industry. As a mark of the new order, former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who led the Progressive Conservative Party, announced he was joining the board of Acreage Holdings, one of the largest cannabis firms in the United States. “Companies are clamoring to join in what some are calling a green rush,” The New York Times reported.

But giddy expectations of pot profit lessened on the first day as stock prices in other cannabis firms dropped. “Canopy Growth Corp shares slid to $65.55 as of 2:30 p.m., down 4.5 per cent from Tuesday,” the Financial Post reported. “Aurora Cannabis saw its shares fall 2.64 per cent to $13.61. Tilray Inc, a B.C.-based company that trades on the Nasdaq, saw the largest decline, after shares slid by 7.69 per cent to $146.20.” Only one firm in the marijuana sector, Aphria Inc, saw its stock price rise.

All these companies had previously seen growth in the months leading up to legalization, so the sudden skittishness of investors is striking. One major source of uncertainty, as writer Andrew Potter, who has co-edited a book on legalization, noted on Twitter, is the question of whether legal marijuana can compete against an already existing blackmarket which offers quality product at reasonable prices.

The danger, as Potter observed, is that the need to protect the legal market could ignite a new war on drugs.

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The Justice Department’s war on leaks strikes again.

Federal agents on Wednesday announced the arrest of a senior Treasury Department official for allegedly giving highly sensitive financial records related to the Russia investigation to reporters. In a criminal complaint, prosecutors say Natalie Edwards “unlawfully disclosed” what are known as Suspicious Activity Reports about key figures in the probe to BuzzFeed News, which published a series of articles purportedly drawing upon the reports over the past year.

Edwards allegedly gained access to the reports while working as a senior advisor for the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. The office, more commonly known as FinCEN, is one of the most prestigious federal law-enforcement divisions. American financial institutions are legally required to notify FinCEN about potentially illegal transactions or patterns of activity. Those Suspicious Activity Reports, or SARs, can contain a wealth of sensitive personal and financial details.

BuzzFeed News’s reports over the past year traced the cash flows surrounding Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, and other key figures in the Russia investigation with astounding detail. A similar series of articles by the same journalists shed light on transactions by alleged spy Maria Butina, former Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, and other Russian figures. The Justice Department alleges that Edwards sent pictures of the SARs to the journalists through encrypted messaging apps and stored a collection of them on a portable flash drive.

Under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Justice Department has gone to great lengths to squelch leaks about the Russia investigation. NSA contractor Reality Winner received a five-year prison sentence in August after she pleaded guilty to sending a classified report on Russian hacking to The Intercept, while former Senate Intelligence Committee staffer James Wolfe pleaded guilty on Monday to lying to the FBI about his contacts with reporters. President Donald Trump is an enthusiastic proponent of hunting down journalists’ sources and silencing whistleblowers, building on precedents set by his predecessor Barack Obama.

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Game of Thrones has a political message. Republicans probably won’t hear it.

In an interview posted Tuesday by The New York Times, novelist George R.R. Martin discussed the political allegories and echoes in his epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire (the basis for the HBO show Game of Thrones). In addition to saying he saw similarities between President Trump and the adolescent tyrant Joffrey, Martin also granted that the view that the series is an allegory for humanity’s failure to curb climate change is roughly accurate:

It’s kind of ironic because I started writing “Game of Thrones” all the way back in 1991, long before anybody was talking about climate change. But there is — in a very broad sense — there’s a certain parallel there. And the people in Westeros are fighting their individual battles over power and status and wealth. And those are so distracting them that they’re ignoring the threat of “winter is coming,” which has the potential to destroy all of them and to destroy their world. And there is a great parallel there to, I think, what I see this planet doing here, where we’re fighting our own battles.

Writing up the interview, Esquire noted that “Republicans might not like” the political message of Game of Thrones. But in truth, Republicans aren’t even watching the show in great numbers. A 2016 E-Score survey found that Game of Thrones was the most popular show among Democrats but didn’t even rank among the top-ten shows loved by Republicans. To the extent it has a liberal message, Game of Thrones is simply preaching to the converted.

The partisan divide isn’t surprising given the original intent of the series. In earlier interviews, Martin has often talked about how his series is meant as a reply to earlier classic fantasies, particularly J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. While Martin admires Tolkien, he also bristled at the conservative vision of Lord of the Rings, particularly the view of war as a clearcut battle between good and evil as well as the monarchism. “Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper,” Martin told Rolling Stone in 2014. “We look at real history and it’s not that simple.”