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Don McGahn is leaving the White House at a critical time for Trump.

President Donald Trump confirmed in a Wednesday morning tweet that the White House’s top lawyer would exit “in the fall.” As Axios reported earlier this morning, he will likely happen sometime after Brett Kavanaugh’s expected confirmation to the Supreme Court next month.

McGahn’s departure comes at a sensitive legal moment for the president. A potential Democratic takeover of the House this November would ratchet up congressional scrutiny of the White House and the counsel’s workload. Trump’s personal lawyers are also negotiating terms for an interview with special counsel Robert Mueller on the Russia investigation. McGahn, who likely witnessed Trump’s efforts to obstruct the inquiry, reportedly participated in more than 30 hours of interviews with Mueller’s team on the subject. Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, who worked closely with McGahn on judicial appointments, expressed dismay at the news.

The White House counsel’s office represents the office of the presidency and not the president himself, a distinction that Trump has reportedly struggled to appreciate. The New York Times reported in January that Trump ordered the dismissal of Mueller last June, only to back down when McGahn refused to carry out the order and threatened to resign. McGahn’s defiance may have prevented a latter-day repeat of the Saturday Night Massacre, Richard Nixon’s infamous purge of the Justice Department during the Watergate crisis.

According to Axios, the likely frontrunner to replace McGahn is Emmet Flood, a veteran Washington litigator who worked for presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Flood, who joined the president’s personal legal team earlier this year, reportedly enjoys the confidence of both the president and his West Wing staff for taking a more hardline approach toward Mueller’s inquiry. Keeping that confidence as legal pressures mount on the Trump White House will not be an easy task.

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.

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Trump sympathizes with Brett Kavanaugh but not Christine Blasey Ford.

In a press gaggle on Wednesday morning, President Donald Trump made his feelings about the the accusations against Kavanaugh abundantly clear. “I would let the senators take their course,” the president said. “They have already postponed a major hearing. And really they’re hurting somebody’s life very badly. It is very unfair. As you know, Justice Kavanaugh has been treated very, very tough. And his family, I think it is a very unfair thing what’s going on.”

In contrast to how he talked about Kavanaugh, Trump did not mention the accuser by name, but simply by an abstract pronoun. “I really want to see her,” he said. “I really would want to see what she has to say. But I want to give it all the time they need.”

Trump also added, ”If she shows up and makes a credible showing, that will be very interesting, and we’ll have to make a decision. But I can only say this. He is such an outstanding man. Very hard for me to imagine that anything happened.”

Trump continued to reject calls for an FBI investigation into the allegations.

In the same press conference, Trump also fielded questions about an interview with The Hill where he disparaged Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

“I don’t have an attorney general. It’s very sad,” Trump said in The Hill interview. He also expressed unhappiness at Sessions not just for recusing himself in the Russia investigation, a longstanding criticism, but also for his handling of border issues and conduct during his own nomination hearings.

“And then he went through the nominating process and he did very poorly,” the president told The Hill. “I mean, he was mixed up and confused, and people that worked with him for, you know, a long time in the Senate were not nice to him, but he was giving very confusing answers. Answers that should have been easily answered. And that was a rough time for him.”

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Kavanaugh’s accuser wants an FBI investigation but Senate Republicans are resisting.

Christine Blasey Ford, who has nearly capsized the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh by accusing him of sexually assaulting her when they were both teenagers, is locking horns with the Republicans in the Senate Judiciary Committee over how her claims should be evaluated. Via her lawyers, Dr. Blasey (to use her professional name) is insisting that the FBI investigate her story before she testifies at the Senate hearings. Senate Republicans, led by Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Judiciary Committee chairman, want a much more bare-bone approach: hearings where both Dr. Blasey and Judge Kavanaugh testify but no one else does.

“Dr. Ford’s testimony would reflect her personal knowledge and memory of events,” Grassley noted in a statement. “Nothing the F.B.I. or any other investigator does would have any bearing on what Dr. Ford tells the committee, so there is no reason for any further delay.”

In essence, the Republicans want to turn the hearings into a strict she-said-he-said affair, with nothing more on offer than competing claims from two parties. This is the best path the Republicans have for salvaging the nomination, since it would mean that many neutral individuals could conclude there is no way to know the truth of Dr. Blasey’s contested claims.

What is notable is that Dr. Blasey is trying to bring more evidence to the table. As William Saletan of Slate notes, this matter doesn’t have to be one of rival testimony since there are factors that can be examined by an outside investigator, such as witnesses (notably Kavanaugh’s high school friend Mark Judge and two other people Dr. Blasey says were at the party). Judge denies the allegations but hasn’t testified under oath about them.

The Republicans are hostile to an evidence-based investigation because it would both delay the nomination (which they hope to wrap up well before the mid-term elections) and it might turn up unpleasant surprises. But these are political objections which have little to do with giving Dr. Blasey a fair hearing. She has the superior argument in noting that a narrow hearing where only she and Judge Kavanaugh speak is not the best way to establish the truth of this matter.

September 18, 2018

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America is taking in far fewer refugees, but a greater percentage of Christians.

Axios is reporting that the policies of the Trump administration are changing the demographics of America’s refugee population. This year, 70.6 percent of the refugees taken into the United States were Christian, as against 14.5 percent who were Muslim. This stands in sharp contrast to the parity these two world religions had between 2012 and 2016, when the two religions had rough parity, when both hovered between 40 percent and 50 percent. The United States is taking in far fewer refugees from Myanmar and Somalia. As Axios reports, “For no known reasons, the White House expressed particular concern over allowing refugees from Somalia into the U.S., former chief of the refugee affairs division at USCIS Barbara Stack told Zoe Chace in the latest episode of This American Life.”

But looking at just the percentages, as against the absolute numbers, is deceptive. The fact is the United States is taking in far fewer refugees from all religious groups, with Christians being less disfavored than others but still getting rejected at a higher rate than before. Although President Donald Trump has vowed to help Christian refugees, in absolute terms his administration has taken in 40 percent fewer of them last year.

Mary Giovagnoli, director of Refugee Council USA, argues that administration policies to create more hurdles for Muslim refugees have also had the effect of hampering Christians seeking asylum in the United States. “Ironically, these policies, while clearly aimed at Muslim refugees, ensure that Christians and other religious minorities from many of the countries on Trump’s list of suspect travel ban nations are also kept out,” she notes. “It suggests that the president has no real interest in religious persecution or the tenets of religious freedom.”

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Trump says he feels “so badly” for Brett Kavanaugh.

Speaking at press conference on Tuesday with Polish President Andrzej Duda, President Donald Trump expressed support for his embattled Supreme Court nominee. “I feel so badly for him that he is going through this,” Trump said. “Honestly I feel terrible for him, for his wife ... and for his beautiful young daughters. I feel terribly for them.”

Trump expressed the desire to have both Kavanaugh and his accuser Christine Blasey Ford testify in Senate hearings. “Hopefully the woman will come forward, state her case,” the president remarked. “He will state his case before representatives of the United States Senate. And then they will vote, they will look at his career, they will look at what she had to say from 36 years ago, and we will see what happens.”

Trump has a long history of defending male associates accused of gender-based abuse or sexual misconduct (as well as defending himself from such charges). About his former White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter, who was accused of assaulting two of his ex-wives and a girlfriend, Trump said, “He said very strongly yesterday that he’s innocent but you’ll have to talk to him about that.”

About onetime Republican senatorial candidate Roy Moore, who was accused of molesting a teenager and trying to seek physical relations with more, Trump said, “He totally denies it. He says it didn’t happen.” Trump has made similar arguments on behalf of disgraced former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and the late disgraced former Fox News executive Roger Ailes.

At the time of accusations against Porter, Trump tweeted:

There is a revealing passage in Bob Woodward’s book Fear where he reports on advice Trump gives “to a friend who had acknowledged some bad behavior toward women.”

According to Woodward, Trump said, “You’ve got to deny, deny, deny and push back on these women. If you admit to anything and any culpability, then you’re dead. That was a big mistake you made. You didn’t come out guns blazing and just challenging them. You showed weakness. You’ve got to be strong. You’ve got to be aggressive. You’ve got to push back hard. You’ve got to deny anything that’s said about you. Never admit.”

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If Republican voters are complacent, Donald Trump can only blame himself.

In a recent interview, former White House advisor Steve Bannon expressed worry that Republican voters were too confident about the GOP keeping control of Congress, which might prevent them from being sufficiently motivated to vote in the upcoming midterm elections. Bannon has good reason for concern.

Polling strongly suggests Demcorats have a real chance at retaking the House of Representatives. Yet as Bloomberg reports, a private poll conducted by the Republican National Committee reveals that, “fully half of self-identified Republicans don’t believe Democrats are likely to win back the House. And within that group, 57 percent of people who describe themselves as strong Trump supporters don’t believe Democrats have a chance (37 percent believe they do).”

These “strong Trump supporters” probably believe this because they have been listening to the president himself. In speeches and on Twitter, Trump has constantly pooh-poohed the idea of a “blue wave” of Democrats winning and insisted offered up a counter-narrative of a “red wave” of Republican victories.

The compulsive boasting now may be backfiring.

As Trump tweeted on August 5:

The RNC report cited by Bloomberg argues that the GOP needs to put out the exact opposite message: “We need to make real the threat that Democrats have a good shot of winning control of Congress.” This will be a hard sell since admitting the possibility of defeat goes against Trump’s entire public persona.

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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.