Notes and Comment Blog

Live above the rest

Nov 27th, 2016 5:50 pm | By

New details on the conflicts of interest.

On Thanksgiving Day, a Philippine developer named Jose E. B. Antonio hosted a company anniversary bash at one of Manila’s poshest hotels. He had much to be thankful for.

In October, he had quietly been named a special envoy to the United States by the Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte. Mr. Antonio was nearly finished building a $150 million tower in Manila’s financial district — a 57-story symbol of affluence and capitalism, which bluntly promotes itself with the slogan “Live Above the Rest.” And now his partner on the project, Donald J. Trump, had just been elected president of the United States.

After the election, Mr. Antonio flew to New York for a private meeting at Trump Tower with the president-elect’s children, who have been involved in the Manila project from the beginning, as have Mr. Antonio’s children. The Trumps and Antonios have other ventures in the works, including Trump-branded resorts in the Philippines, Mr. Antonio’s son Robbie Antonio said.

Isn’t that just cozy. Antonio is a special envoy to the US, and Trump is the next president of the US. How pleasant for both of them and their children.

Mr. Antonio’s combination of jobs — he is a business partner with Mr. Trump, while also representing the Philippines in its relationship with the United States and the president-elect — is hardly inconsequential, given some of the weighty issues on the diplomatic table.

Among them, Mr. Duterte has urged “a separation” from the United Statesand has called for American troops to exit the country in two years’ time. His antidrug crusade has resulted in the summary killings of thousands of suspected criminals without trial, prompting criticism from the Obama administration.

Situations like these are already leading some former government officials from both parties to ask if America’s reaction to events around the world could potentially be shaded, if only slightly, by the Trump family’s financial ties with foreign players. They worry, too, that in some countries those connections could compromise American efforts to criticize the corrupt intermingling of state power with vast business enterprises controlled by the political elite.

“It is uncharted territory, really in the history of the republic, as we have never had a president with such an empire both in the United States and overseas,” said Michael J. Green, who served on the National Security Council in the administration of George W. Bush, and before that at the Defense Department.

Or such a corrupt, self-serving, defiant president. The combination is going to be lethal.

a review by The Times of these business dealings identified a menu of the kinds of complications that could create a running source of controversy for Mr. Trump, as well as tensions between his priorities as president and the needs and objectives of his companies.

In Brazil, for example, the beachfront Trump Hotel Rio de Janeiro — one of Mr. Trump’s many branding deals, in which he does not have an equity stake — is part of a broad investigation by a federal prosecutor who is examining whether illicit commissions and bribes resulted in apparent favoritism by two pension funds that invested in the project.

Several of Mr. Trump’s real estate ventures in India — where he has more projects underway than in any location outside North America — are being built through companies with family ties to India’s most important political party. This makes it more likely that Indian government officials will do special favors benefiting Mr. Trump’s projects, including pressuring state-owned banks to extend favorable loans.

There’s Turkey. Will Trump look the other way while Erdogan keeps arresting dissidents and academics in exchange for favors to Trump’s business interests there?

What is clear is that there has been very little division, in the weeks since the election, between Mr. Trump’s business interests and his transition effort, with the president-elect or his family greeting real estate partners from India and the Philippines in his office and Mr. Trump raising concerns about his golf course in Scotland with a prominent British politician. Mr. Trump’s daughter Ivanka, who is in charge of planning and development of the Trump Organization’s global network of hotels, has joined in conversations with at least three world leaders — of Turkey, Argentina and Japan — having access that could help her expand the brand worldwide.

What is that? Why was she even allowed to do that? Why is any of this being allowed?

Then there’s that hotel in Rio, and the investigation by a federal prosecutor into why two pension funds invested so heavily in the hotel when it’s not even finished and is a risky investment?

And a lot more.

With no evidence

Nov 27th, 2016 5:27 pm | By

The Times basically says that Trump is lying.

President-elect Donald J. Trump said on Sunday that he had fallen short in the popular vote in the general election only because millions of people had voted illegally, leveling his claim — despite the absence of any such evidence — as part of a daylong storm of Twitter posts voicing anger about a three-state recount push.

That’s a cautious way of putting it, of course, but their meaning is pretty clear.

The series of posts came one day after Hillary Clinton’s campaign said it would participate in a recount effort being undertaken in Wisconsin, and potentially in similar pushes in Michigan and Pennsylvania, by Jill Stein, who was the Green Party candidate. Mr. Trump’s statements revived claims he made during the campaign, as polls suggested he was losing to Mrs. Clinton, about a rigged and corrupt system.

The Twitter outburst also came as Mr. Trump is laboring to fill crucial positions in his cabinet, with his advisers enmeshed in a rift over whom he should select as secretary of state. On Sunday morning, Kellyanne Conway, a top adviser, extended a public campaign to undermine one contender, Mitt Romney — a remarkable display by a member of a president-elect’s team. She accused Mr. Romney of having gone “out of his way to hurt” Mr. Trump during the Republican primary contests.

Professionalism in action.

More Twitter lies from Trump

Nov 27th, 2016 4:33 pm | By

Trump has lit up social media again.

In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.

I offered him my quick thought on the subject:

What if we add the millions of people whose votes were suppressed in defiance of the Voting Rights Act? You lying bastard.

Ezra Klein points out that he can’t keep track of his own arguments.

Trump has lost the thread of his own argument. The point of Trump’s tweets was to dismiss those questioning the legitimacy of the vote.

Yes but that’s true only if you regard his tweets as an argument. I consider them blurts, instead; it saves a lot of time.

This perhaps goes without saying, but it’s unnerving that the president-elect can’t restrain himself from making a bad situation worse on Twitter, or even hold himself to the logic of the argument he intended to make and the outcome he wanted to achieve.

Yes. Yes it is. It’s very unnerving that he is that stupid, and undisciplined, and narcissistic, and impulsive. It’s shocking that someone like that can get elected to such a powerful office. I’m unnerved by it multiple times every day. It’s hard to say enough about how terrible it is.

This tweet is an example of Trump’s most dangerous quality: his tendency to mobilize against a threatening, sometimes imaginary Other whenever he himself is under siege.

Most dangerous and possibly most disgusting. His constant lashing out is a revolting thing to see in a head of state.

This tweet is an example of one of Trump’s other dangerous qualities: his tendency to believe what he wants to believe about the world, facts be damned.

To believe it and to try to force it on everyone else. Another bad quality in a head of state.

It has been weeks since Donald Trump won the presidential election, and here is what we can say: he is still just himself. He is governing like he promised. He is appointing the loyalists, lackeys, and extremists he surrounded himself with during the campaign. He is tweeting the same strange, crazed missives, pursuing the same odd and counterproductive vendettas. His conflicts of interest have proven, if anything, worse than expected, and he has shown no shame, restraint, or interest in addressing them.

He will always be just himself. That’s painfully clear. Nothing can shift him.

Springtime for Putin and Rusheeyaaa

Nov 27th, 2016 1:13 pm | By

And speaking of those zany Russians…there’s the Holocaust-themed ice dance.

The wife of Vladimir Putin’s powerful spokesman has provoked outrage by performing a Holocaust-themed ice skating routine on Russian TV reality show.

Tatiana Navka, the wife of Dmitry Peskov, appeared on Russian reality show Ice Age and performed in the striped uniform of concentration camp victims complete with the yellow Star of David which Jewish people were forced to wear by the Nazis.

She and her ice skating partner, actor Andrei Burkovsky, smiled at the audience during the performance and appeared to mime shooting each other in one sequence.

View image on Twitter

Trump is an honorary Cossack

Nov 27th, 2016 12:55 pm | By

Jeff Sharlet on Facebook:

Since Trump’s been made an honorary Cossack — by the St. Petersburg-area Irbis group — I thought I’d re-share my own encounter with a St. Petersburg Cossack — and his whip, and his gun.

This was in November 2013, at a secret meeting of Russian fascists to organize anti-LGBT violence to which I’d been invited by accident. I was reporting for GQ.

The Cossack will begin, he says, with history. “God sends Cossack souls through our blood,” he says. A voice that seems cultivated for menace. A barrel of dread. God sends Cossacks, yes, he says. They are his warriors.

Do not be frightened, he says. Cossacks are just. For instance: We will not rape Muslim women, for it would be unjust to the half-Cossack child born damned by Muslim blood. And we are creative. “We are famous for our humor,” he says. For instance: By rights homosexuals should be slaughtered. This is tradition. He recounts some of the ways Cossacks murder homosexuals. “Of course,” he explains, “I cannot say this officially.” He cracks his first smile. But there is something he can speak of. Shit—the medium of Cossack humor. “They like to put their cocks in the ass, so we put the shit on their cocks for them. We smear them.” He chortles, waits for me to laugh, glares. Do I not think this is funny?

I try to change the subject. “Tell me about your outfit,” I say brightly. He shows me his whip, weighted with a sharp lead block. He puts its thick wooden grip in my hand. “Feel,” he says. He unsheathes a wide black blade as long as my forearm. He says nothing about the handgun at his side.

“What kind of gun is that?” I ask.

“A good one,” he says. He releases the clip, to show me it’s loaded. He pushes the clip back in. He points the gun at me. Very casual. Just in my direction. Cossack humor. Do I not think this is funny? I lift my notebook off the table. He reaches across to thump it down. “Pishi,” he says. “Write.”

We live in bully-world now.


Nov 27th, 2016 10:12 am | By

Trump gets angry at the news media when they publish unbecoming photos of him. In general I think people should not be attacked on the basis of how they look, but the thing about Trump is that he’s so very often making horrible faces in aid of making some horrible point. I don’t think the news media are stooping or being cruel when they publish photos of that kind.

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In the kitchen

Nov 27th, 2016 9:12 am | By

Terry Sanderson on Facebook from the Sunday Times, a story by Andrew Gilligan and Sian Griffiths:

The ringleaders of the “Trojan Horse” plot to impose conservative Islamic values on state schools in Birmingham are back in teaching, despite being banned from the classroom, an investigation by The Sunday Times has established.

Tahir Alam and Razwan Faraz are running informal classes — Faraz in a different city and under a false name.

An official report found Alam and Faraz were at the centre of “co-ordinated, deliberate and sustained action” to introduce an “intolerant and aggressive Islamic ethos” into schools in the city, with girls and boys separated, “un-Islamic subjects” such as evolution reduced or removed, and secular head teachers bullied from their jobs.

Faraz, deputy head of one of the Trojan Horse schools and the brother of a convicted terrorist, was a key figure in the “Park View brotherhood” of teachers, a group on the messaging tool WhatsApp who expressed grossly bigoted and extremist views. Faraz described gay people as “satanic” and “animals”, and said women’s place was “in the kitchen . . . a perpetual role serving men”.


Behind him

Nov 26th, 2016 4:52 pm | By

Abigail Rockwell, granddaughter of the illustrator Norman Rockwell, points out the presence and positioning of a painting by the latter in the meeting between Obama and Donnie from Queens.

It’s the arm and torch of the Statue of Liberty.

A painting by Norman Rockwell was moved in the Oval Office for the first meeting between President Obama and Mr. Trump so it would hang over Mr. Trump’s shoulder. In the painting the torch of the Statue of Liberty is being repaired by five men, one of whom is an African-American. All of them are precariously roped to her flame.

Who moved the painting and why? It is clearly too small for that space; a larger landscape painting had hung there previously. Originally the Rockwell painting was displayed to the right of President Obama’s desk and the expansive window, over a Frederick Remington sculpture, The Bronco Buster.

What is the meaning of this gesture? Most of my grandfather Norman Rockwell’s paintings are about tolerance, unity and the inherent goodness and resilience of the human spirit. The reflection of that vision and the profound presence of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the bust below, by African-American sculptor Charles Alston, speak volumes without saying a word. Perhaps they are able to say what Obama could not in these circumstances of necessary protocol.

Whoever moved it must have done it with Obama’s knowledge and permission, if not on his instructions. I doubt people can just go in there and switch stuff around without his say-so.

Rockwell “snuck” in the man in the bright red shirt (which draws attention to him) with noticeably darker skin. My grandfather occasionally did this to skirt The Saturday Evening Post’s policy of only painting people of ethnicity in subservient roles to whites.

Its what? I have to say, I froze in surprise when I read that. How incredibly creepy and awful.

And here they are working together to repair our Lady’s torch. My grandfather left out the rest of liberty to focus on her strong arm outstretched to the sky, proclaiming the light of freedom to everyone, especially immigrants. The ornate protective fence around the flame is the painting’s most delicate detail.

Nicely done.

Faster than the models

Nov 26th, 2016 3:53 pm | By

It’s alarmingly warm in the Arctic this year. I suppose Donald Trump and his friends think that’s nice, the polar bears and caribou can get in some sunbathing, but everyone else realizes it could mean disaster a lot sooner than expected.

The Arctic is experiencing extraordinarily hot sea surface and air temperatures, which are stopping ice forming and could lead to record lows of sea ice at the north pole next year, according to scientists.

Danish and US researchers monitoring satellites and Arctic weather stations are surprised and alarmed by air temperatures peaking at what they say is an unheard-of 20C higher than normal for the time of year. In addition, sea temperatures averaging nearly 4C higher than usual in October and November.

Sea ice, which forms and melts each year, has declined more than 30% in the past 25 years. This week it has been at the lowest extent ever recorded for late November. According to the US government’s National Snow and Ice Data Centre, (NSIDC), around 2m square kilometres less ice has formed since September than average. The level is far below the same period in 2012, when sea ice went on to record its lowest ever annual level.

And it’s not just some random thing; it’s a loop.

Rasmus Tonboe, a sea ice remote sensing expert at the Danish Meteorological Institute in Copenhagen, said: “Sea surface temperatures in the Kara and Barents seas are much warmer than usual. That makes it very difficult for sea ice to freeze.

“When we have large areas of open water, it also raises air temperatures, and it has been up to 10/15C warmer. Six months ago the sea ice was breaking up unusually early. This made more open water and allowed the sunlight to be absorbed, which is why the Arctic is warmer this year,” he said.

“What we are seeing is both surprising and alarming. This is faster than the models. It is alarming because it has consequences.”

And the things it’s doing will make it all worse next year, and that will have consequences. It could trigger tipping points.

Arctic scientists have warned that the increasingly rapid melting of the ice cap risks triggering 19 “tipping points” in the region that could have catastrophic consequences around the globe.

The Arctic Resilience Report found that the effects of Arctic warming could be felt as far away as the Indian Ocean, in a stark warning that changes in the region could cause uncontrollable climate change at a global level.

Temperatures in the Arctic are currently about 20C above what would be expected for the time of year, which scientists describe as “off the charts”. Sea ice is at the lowest extent ever recorded for the time of year.

“The warning signals are getting louder,” said Marcus Carson of the Stockholm Environment Institute and one of the lead authors of the report. “[These developments] also make the potential for triggering [tipping points] and feedback loops much larger.”

It’s pretty terrifying.

In the Arctic, the tipping points identified in the new report, published on Friday, include: growth in vegetation on tundra, which replaces reflective snow and ice with darker vegetation, thus absorbing more heat; higher releases of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from the tundra as it warms; shifts in snow distribution that warm the ocean, resulting in altered climate patterns as far away as Asia, where the monsoon could be effected; and the collapse of some key Arctic fisheries, with knock-on effects on ocean ecosystems around the globe.

The globe with seven billion people who don’t know how to deal with a hotting up planet.

Aides to the US president-elect, Donald Trump, this week unveiled plans to remove the budget for climate change science currently used by Nasa and other US federal agencies for projects such as examining Arctic changes, and to spend it instead on space exploration.

“That would be a huge mistake,” said Carson, noting that much more research needs to be done on polar tipping points before we can understand the true dangers, let alone hope to tackle them. “It would be like ripping out the aeroplane’s cockpit instruments while you are in mid-flight.”

He added: “These are very serious problems, very serious changes are happening, but they are still poorly understood. We need more research to understand them. A lot of the major science is done by the US.”

Which is only fair since the US also does a lot of the major carbon emitting. But now that the ignoramus in chief is planning to axe a lot of that major science…I guess we’ll just watch in silence while it all goes to hell.

Scientists have speculated for some years that so-called feedback mechanisms – by which the warming of one area or type of landscape has knock-on effects for whole ecosystems – could suddenly take hold and change the dynamics of Arctic ice melting from a relatively slow to a fast-moving phenomenon with unpredictable and potentially irreversible consequences for global warming. For instance, when sea ice shrinks it leaves areas of dark ocean that absorb more heat than the reflective ice, which in turn causes further shrinkage, and so on in a spiral.

We’re breaking it.

Too much traction

Nov 26th, 2016 3:15 pm | By

It’s the age of hate speech.

More than 50,000 abusive and offensive tweets were sent celebrating Labour MP Jo Cox’s murder and lauding her killer, Thomas Mair, as a “hero” or “patriot” in the month following her death, prompting calls for the government to do more to tackle hate speech online.

According to researchers on the social media site, the tweets were sent from at least 25,000 individuals and have been interpreted by hate crime campaigners as a sign of an emboldened extreme rightwing support base.

And that was before the election of Trump and his elevation of Stephen Bannon and Breitbart.

Academics examined more than 53,000 tweets sent over the month after the MP’s murder and found that among the top 20 words used to describe Mair and Jo Cox were the terms “hero”, “patriot”, “white power”, “rapists” and “traitor”.

The findings come ahead of a government report into integration that claims the concept has broadly failed in the UK and that extremists from both the far right and Islamists have been allowed to gain too much traction.

There’s that confusion again – the idea that Islamists are separate from the far right. Islamists are very far right. Theocracy is about as far right as it’s possible to get.

The report into cyber hate speech linked to the murder of Cox, authored by Imran Awan of Birmingham City University, and Irene Zempi of Nottingham Trent University, to be published on Monday, uncovered several key themes.

According to the report’s authors, online hate speech and offences committed on the street were linked with online perpetrators emboldened by “trigger” events like the EU referendum.

People who spend hours every day working themselves into a froth of hatred are going to end up likely to do more than type words on Twitter and Facebook.


What means this word “women”?

Nov 26th, 2016 11:40 am | By

The National Network of Abortion Funds has joined the hot new trend to refuse ever to mention the set of people formerly known as “women.” This seems perverse in an organization whose issue is abortion.

From their About page:





NNAF recognizes the connections between systems of oppression. A comprehensive vision of justice for our communities must involve working towards economic, racial, gender, and reproductive justice.

Every person has the non-negotiable human right to determine whether, when, and how to create family. People deserve unrestricted access to the rights, information, and resources to care for themselves and their families.

Collective Power
NNAF is determined to build a base of shared power from the ground while standing alongside other movements in solidarity. People who are most directly and disproportionately impacted by structural barriers are the best architects of solutions that center their voices, experiences, and leadership.

NNAF advocates for a reduction of shame and an increase in compassion for people as they navigate life. Reproductive coercion, burdens, and barriers to reproductive healthcare are all forms of violence.

I have yet to find a single appearance of the word “women.”

This is not ok. No other oppressed group would stand for this, or be expected to stand for it. It’s only women who are expected to put up with being dropped from discussions and groups even on their own issues. It’s so unbelievably insulting and yet people who yap about “intersectionality” and “centering” go ahead and erase women.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia

Nov 26th, 2016 10:06 am | By

The one in Turkey. There is a Trump Towers Istanbul.

Donald Trump’s company has been paid up to $10 million by the tower’s developers since 2014 to affix the Trump name atop the luxury complex, whose owner, one of Turkey’s biggest oil and media conglomerates, has become an influential megaphone for the country’s increasingly repressive regime.

That, ethics advisers said, forces the Trump complex into an unprecedented nexus: as both a potential channel for dealmakers seeking to curry favor with the Trump White House and a potential target for attacks or security risks overseas.

The president-elect’s Turkey deal marks a harrowing vulnerability that even Trump has deemed “a little conflict of interest”: a private moneymaker that could open him to foreign influence and tilt his decision-making as America’s executive in chief.

But we should just trust him, right? He’s always shown himself to be an honorable, fair-minded, impartial, idealistic man, right? We’ve always known him to be motivated by the public good rather than his own bank account, right?


But the ethics experts eyeing Trump’s empire are now warning of many others, found among a vast assortment of foreign business interests never before seen in past presidencies. At least 111 Trump companies have done business in 18 countries and territories across South America, Asia and the Middle East, a Washington Post analysis of Trump financial filings shows.

So, really, from the point of view of conflicts of interest, we could hardly have chosen anyone worse.

Also from the point of view of character and motivation…we could hardly have chosen worse. Trump is driven by greed – for money, for status, for dominance, for power, for sex – and not much else. He’s a giant Appetite, with no apparent altruism or empathy or public interest of any kind.

The business interests range from sprawling, ultraluxury real estate complexes to one-man holding companies and branding deals in Azerbaijan, Indonesia, Panama and other countries, including some where the United States maintains sensitive diplomatic ties.

Some companies reflect long-established deals while others were launched as recently as Trump’s campaign, including eight that appear tied to a potential hotel project in Saudi Arabia, the oil-rich Arab kingdom that Trump has said he “would want to protect.”

I guess we should be thankful that Bangladesh is not oil-rich.

“There are so many diplomatic, political, even national security risks in having the president own a whole bunch of properties all over the world,” said Richard Painter, chief White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush.

“If we’ve got to talk to a foreign government about their behavior, or negotiate a treaty, or some country asks us to send our troops in to defend someone else, we’ve got to make a decision. And the question becomes: Are we going in out of our national interest or because there’s a Trump casino around?” Painter added.

Oh well maybe by that time the national interest and the Trump interest will have become one and the same.

Phone calls

Nov 26th, 2016 9:50 am | By

The Argentina deal.

Three days after the phone call between Trump and Macri on Nov.14, Trump’s associates at Buenos Aires firm YY Development Group announced that the construction project would go ahead, in an interview with La Nación (link in Spanish). The tower’s construction had reportedly been held up for years, for various reasons, with YY Development actively restarting construction permit requests when pro-business Macri took over from statist former president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in Jan. 2016.

There’s nothing substantive to confirm that the phone call and construction announcement are linked, but local news media have reported that the call itself was arranged in very unusual fashion. Macri, who is son of one of Latin America’s richest men and has reportedly known Trump since beating him at golf in the 1980s, had backed the wrong horse at the election, openly supporting Hillary Clinton. Accordingly, a crisis meeting was called to work out how to put relations on the right track (Spanish language) with Trump’s administration.

La Nación reports that foreign minister Susana Malcorra eventually made contact with Trump’s son Eric, with the assistance of close Trump business associate Felipe Yaryura. A Buenos Aires-based businessman and a co-owner of YY Development, Yaryura was with the Trump team and family at the post-election celebrations in the Hilton hotel in New York. Malcorra and Eric Trump reportedly had a “nice and cordial” conversation, with Eric telling Malcorra that his father would talk with Macri when his timetable allows. He then put her in touch with Trump’s foreign affairs team.

This is the “populist” “drain the swamp” “outsider” president-elect.

Under normal circumstances, the State department would be in charge of arranging contact between the president-elect and foreign leaders, rather than having the president-elect’s family speak to senior foreign officials. But Trump’s team has so far eschewed using the government’s services for this, and a State department spokeswoman refused to comment on the phone call, referring us to Trump’s transition team. Trump representatives have not responded to emailed requests for comment. We will update with their comments if they do.

Whether or not the convoluted web of phone calls is related to the sudden spurt in developments surrounding the Trump Tower Buenos Aires, the case underlines anti-corruption campaigners’ arguments that Trump needs to put his assets in a real blind trust, not one run by his family, and fully disclose his business interests. Otherwise, as Transparency International vice-president Shruti Shah says, all his actions can be derailed even by the very perception of corruption.

That’s not what worries me; what worries me is that all his actions will be corrupt.


Nov 26th, 2016 9:42 am | By

There’s a petition urging Congressional investigation of Trump’s massive conflicts of interest. It includes a useful list:

Here are the examples of potential corruption that have emerged just since Nov. 8:7,8,9

  • Trump’s children have a role in the presidential transition, despite claims that they will take over the Trump business from their father.
  • Ivanka Trump attended a meeting with the Japanese prime minister and reportedly joined a phone call between her father and the president of Argentina.
  • A long-stalled Trump project in Argentina mysteriously got the green light to move forward days after that phone call.
  • Trump reportedly used his meeting with British politicians to push them to block offshore wind farms that he believes will sully the view from his Scotland golf courses.
  • Indian real estate developers bragged about meeting with Trump post-election and expanding their work with him now that he has the power of the presidency.
  • Trump paid $25 million to settle charges that he defrauded students of Trump University.
  • News broke that immediately before the election Trump launched eight mysterious companies to build luxury real estate projects in Saudi Arabia.
  • Foreign diplomats told The Washington Post that they would deliberately book rooms at Trump’s Washington, D.C. hotel in order to curry favor with the president
  • Government ethics experts who served under Republican and Democratic presidents have agreed that Trump’s potential conflicts of interest might be unconstitutional
  • The U.S. Secret Service might pay millions of dollars to rent two floors in Trump Tower to protect him and his family, with Trump pocketing the proceeds.
  • Trump praised his Turkish business partner, who had butted heads with Turkey’s government, in a phone call with autocratic Turkish President Erdogan.

I didn’t know the Argentina project had been given the green light. I didn’t know about the eight companies to build luxury projects in Saudi Arabia.

Time to sharpen the Google and begin work.

They decided to cut him some slack

Nov 25th, 2016 5:33 pm | By

John Cassidy at the New Yorker on the elephant in the room: Trump’s conflicts of interest and his cheery refusal to do anything about them.

Last week, a spokesperson for the Trump Organization said the family was “in the process of vetting various structures,” and insisted that whatever arrangement they settled on would “comply with all applicable rules and regulations.” But this was yet another empty statement. For historical reasons, Presidents are exempted from many of the conflict-of-interest laws that apply to other federal officeholders, such as Cabinet members.

This exemption dates back to the earliest days of the Republic, when Presidents tended to be wealthy plantation owners with large holdings of land and slaves. The Founding Fathers were well aware that men of this ilk would see their fortunes affected by some of the policies that the federal government would pursue, such as those relating to agriculture and tariffs. Rather than forcing a President to recuse himself from dealing with these issues, or to sell off his holdings, they decided to cut him some slack.

Ah, did they. I see. That makes so much sense – they saw that presidents were going to have huge conflicts of interest, so they decided to do nothing about them. Brilliant.

And of course those conflicts of interest to due with owning slaves did indeed help to warp government policy for many decades, spoiling the lives of millions of people and entrenching racism in the fabric of the country. So it all worked out well then.

“Because the president of the United States is the single most consequential decision maker on the planet, Congress has decided his hands shouldn’t be tied on any issue because of conflicts of interest over any potential financial or personal gain,” Norman Eisen, a former ethics counsel to the Obama Administration, who is now a fellow at the Brookings Institution, told the Wall Street Journal earlier this year.

Again, the reasoning seems perverse. The president’s decisions are consequential, therefore it’s fine if they’re shaped by the president’s personal financial interests. Wtf?

Once you grasp the geographical spread of Trump’s interests, it is hard to see how the potential conflicts of interest could ever be resolved. Take the Middle East, a region of the world that every modern American President has had to focus on. According to the Post, in addition to the Trump-branded real-estate development in Turkey, Trump has business ties to Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, two oil-rich countries that have funded radical Islamic movements. And, just last year, Trump registered eight companies named after Jeddah, the second-largest city in Saudi Arabia.

It’s not just that Trump won’t be seen as an honest broker in the Middle East. He wouldn’t be seen as broker of any kind but as a principal and business partner of some of the region’s repressive governments and their cronies. Even if, for the duration of his Presidency, Trump were to put his businesses into a properly independent trust, run by business executives not connected to him, the Trump-owned and Trump-branded companies would still be generating income for the President and his family. He and his advisers would know that. The governments of the countries where the companies are located would know that. And so would the rest of us.

Yes but he’s the populist choice, so none of that matters! Right? He’s filthy rich and he always acts in his own interests, but hey, he’s sexist and racist so that’s all cool.

Trump is clearly not going to do anything about it, so we can rail but it won’t make any difference. Thanks, “Founding Fathers.”

Questioning Islam on social media oh my

Nov 25th, 2016 4:34 pm | By

From Atheist & Agnostic Alliance Pakistan on Facebook:

Two men, Riffat Aziz and Hameed Kamran, have recently been arrested by the Rawalakot Police in Poonch district of Azad Kashmir, and accused of spreading religious antipathy and disrupting social order by questioning Islam on social media.

Ali Camus has more:

Two men, Riffat Aziz and Hameed Kamran, have recently been arrested by the Rawalakot Police in Poonch district of Azad Kashmir, and accused of spreading religious antipathy and disrupting social order by questioning Islam on social media.

Kamran has been accused of commenting controversial stuff on social media on religion [source]. Riffat Aziz has been accused of distributing pamphlets to mosques filled with questions towards Muslims [source]. Muslims should ask themselves, should it be illegal to ask questions that can put you out of your comfort zone?

Especially questions about a demanding, all-pervasive religion that tells you what to do in all aspects of your life?

A rally has been conducted by the students of the University of Poonch, in Azad Kashmir. Asking government to silence anyone who questions or critic religion.

Theocrats on parade.

Mohamed Cheikh Ould M’kheitir

Nov 25th, 2016 3:45 pm | By

The IHEU posted on Facebook:

Mohamed Cheikh Ould M’kheitir is awaiting a Supreme Court ruling on whether he should be putting to death for writing a single online article – about how religion is used to justify slavery in his home country, Mauritania. The death sentence has already been upheld by the appeals court on the basis that he was an “apostate”. We are one of the few organizations campaigning on this case (we’re quoted several times in the article at the link). We’re trying to get other organizations involved and to put civil society pressure on the government. Please if you can, support our work here.

Mauritanian Blogger

The International Business Times has the story:

Mauritania’s authorities face increasing calls for a young blogger, Mohamed Cheikh Ould M’khaitir, to be executed following his death sentence for “apostasy”. With just a month to go before the court seals his fate, can international pressure help to save his life?

In a case that has shaken the nation, the young Mauritanian blogger and engineer was sentenced to death for apostasy in December 2014 over the publication a year earlier of an article entitled “Religion, Religiosity and Craftsmen” on the Aqlam Horra news website. Islamic organisations in mainly Muslim Mauritania said that the article constituted an “insult” to Islam and the Prophet Mohammad.

Imams, scholars, political parties and members of the public called for his execution. However, human rights groups now believe that the country’s growing religious right is using M’khaitir’s case as a political tool as militancy grows in the nation of 3.6 million people.

I do so desperately wish human beings would stop thinking that putative insults to religions and “prophets” matter more than harms to people. It doesn’t matter if someone “insults” a religion or a “prophet.” If religions are true they can take care of themselves, and it they’re not they deserve to be insulted. What matters is how we treat actual people here and now.

According to Bob Churchill, spokesman for the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), the likeliest explanation for the delay is that the court was wary about the security situation outside of the courtroom.

The campaigner believes that the authorities, which have portrayed themselves as a committed ally in the fight against the regional jihadi threat, face increasing pressure from Mauritania’s growing religious right, which is calling for the blogger’s execution.

“If they [the court] were going to accept his repentance, and ultimately release him, delaying an answer may have posed security threats if the news had gone through the crowd, which would have been very angry if the court had agreed to accept the repentance,” he said.

He added: “This isn’t like a spontaneous mob. These are organised radical Islamist groups trying to create trouble and trying to show their power. The majority have not read M’khaitir’s piece – it is a very political gesture. He is scapegoated.”

The scapegoating and the organizing wouldn’t work if there weren’t all this nonsense talked about insulting religions and prophets.

Campaigners have highlighted the similar case of Bangladesh where, amid growing tension between Bangladeshi secularists and Islamist radicals since 2013, the religious right started making excessive demands and was blamed for attacks on bloggers and atheist writers. At the time, IHEU urged the Bangladeshi government to avoid giving into these demands.

“Now we see radical groups murdering people with impunity. It may seem to the government that in the short-term it’s in their best interests to give in to people’s ‘religious’ demands [that M’khaitir is convicted]. But if they do, the fundamentalists will only be emboldened and the demands escalate. And that is true regardless of the international community,” Churchill explained.

Thin end of the wedge. Camel’s nose under the tent. Give an inch and they’ll take a mile. All that.

In a joint open letter to the Mauritanian president on 11 November 2015, campaigners Freedom Now, PEN America, Reporters Without Borders and Committee to Protect Journalists said this:

“Regardless of the court’s ruling, we ask you to instruct your government to ensure his physical safety inside and outside prison. Since his imprisonment two years ago, preachers have called for his death, according to press reports. Those who have spoken out on his behalf have themselves been labelled as infidels and received violent threats, according to news accounts.

In April 2014 you told reporters that you did not believe Mohamed was aware of the seriousness of what he had written. In this spirit, we ask you to acknowledge his repentance and ensure his safe release from prison.”

Please do.

First world malnutrition

Nov 25th, 2016 2:18 pm | By

The rate of hospitalization for malnutrition has tripled in the UK over the past decade, the Guardian reports.

Official figures reveal that people with malnutrition accounted for 184,528 hospital bed days last year, a huge rise on 65,048 in 2006-07. The sharp increase is adding to the pressures on hospitals, which are already struggling with record levels of overcrowding.

Critics have said the upward trend is a result of rising poverty, deep cutbacks in recent years to meals on wheels services for the elderly, and inadequate social care support, especially for older people.

Also known as Tory governments.

Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, unearthed the figures in a response to a recent parliamentary question submitted to the health minister Nicola Blackwood.

“These figures paint a grim picture of Britain under the Conservatives,” he said. “Real poverty is causing vulnerable people, particularly the elderly, to go hungry and undernourished so much so that they end up in hospital.”

Their own fault for being old and poor? Is that the Conservatives’ view?

Freedom of information requests submitted to local councils in England early last year by the then shadow care minister Liz Kendall found that 220,000 fewer people were receiving meals on wheels in late 2014 than in 2010, a fall of 63%.

Research by the National Association of Care Catering found that only 48% of local councils still provided meals on wheels, compared to 66% in 2014. Only 17% of councils in the north-west of England still do so, and 91% of providers expect the provision to fall further in the next year.

Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.


Nov 25th, 2016 11:27 am | By

More on the Russian meddling, from a couple of days before the election.

A range of activities speaks to a Russian connection: the theft of emails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign officials, hacks surrounding voter rolls and possibly election machines, Putin’s overt praise for Trump, and the curious Kremlin connections of Trump campaign operatives Paul Manafort and Carter Page.

But most observers are missing the point. Russia is helping Trump’s campaign, yes, but it is not doing so solely or even necessarily with the goal of placing him in the Oval Office. Rather, these efforts seek to produce a divided electorate and a president with no clear mandate to govern. The ultimate objective is to diminish and tarnish American democracy. Unfortunately, that effort is going very well indeed.

Yep. That happened.

The United States and its European allies have always placed state-to-state relations at the forefront of their international strategies. The Soviet system’s effort to undermine those relations during the Cold War, updated now by modern Russia, were known as “active measures.”

A June 1992 U.S. Information Agency report on the strategy explained:

It was often very difficult for Westerners to comprehend this fundamentally different Soviet approach to international relations and, as a result, the centrality to the Soviets (now Russians) of active measures operations was gravely underappreciated.

Active measures employ a three-pronged approach that attempts to shape foreign policy by directing influence in the following ways: state-to-people, people-to-people, and state-to-state. More often than not, active measures sidestep traditional diplomacy and normal state-to-state relationships. The Russian government today employs the state-to-people and people-to-people approaches on social media and the internet, directly engaging U.S. and European audiences ripe for an anti-American message, including the alt-right and more traditional right-wing and fascist parties. It also targets left-wing audiences, but currently at a lower tempo.

So for all we know, we’ve all been helping them.

Until recently, Western governments focused on state-to-state negotiations with Putin’s regime largely missed Russian state-to-people social media approaches. Russia’s social media campaigns seek five complementary objectives to strengthen Russia’s position over Western democracies:

  • Undermine citizen confidence in democratic governance;
  • Foment and exacerbate divisive political fractures;
  • Erode trust between citizens and elected officials and democratic institutions;
  • Popularize Russian policy agendas within foreign populations;
  • Create general distrust or confusion over information sources by blurring the lines between fact and fiction

In sum, these influence efforts weaken Russia’s enemies without the use of force.

It all sounds a little bit Hollywood, a little bit tinfoil hat…but it also sounds somewhat plausible. That version of social media sounds painfully familiar.

Are we all just pieces in someone else’s game?

It’s worse than we thought

Nov 25th, 2016 9:20 am | By

The Washington Post says Russian psy-ops helped Trump win. That’s a cheery thought.

You know, if we’re this easily pushed over by in idiot-strongman, we’re basically a failed state. We might as well be Somalia. Liars, cheats, frauds and bullies can team up and trick enough of us into voting for Their Guy so that he wins, and puts the whole damn world in danger. It’s ludicrous and disgusting, and there’s no coming back from it. The US is a disgrace and a global threat.

The flood of “fake news” this election season got support from a sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign that created and spread misleading articles online with the goal of punishing Democrat Hillary Clinton, helping Republican Donald Trump and undermining faith in American democracy, say independent researchers who tracked the operation.

Russia’s increasingly sophisticated propaganda machinery — including thousands of botnets, teams of paid human “trolls,” and networks of websites and social-media accounts — echoed and amplified right-wing sites across the Internet as they portrayed Clinton as a criminal hiding potentially fatal health problems and preparing to hand control of the nation to a shadowy cabal of global financiers. The effort also sought to heighten the appearance of international tensions and promote fear of looming hostilities with nuclear-armed Russia.

I wonder how many of the leering bullies we’ve all been fighting on Twitter for years are working for Russia.

There is no way to know whether the Russian campaign proved decisive in electing Trump, but researchers portray it as part of a broadly effective strategy of sowing distrust in U.S. democracy and its leaders. The tactics included penetrating the computers of election officials in several states and releasing troves of hacked emails that embarrassed Clinton in the final months of her campaign.

“They want to essentially erode faith in the U.S. government or U.S. government interests,” said Clint Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who along with two other researchers has tracked Russian propaganda since 2014. “This was their standard mode during the Cold War. The problem is that this was hard to do before social media.”

Well by god they’ve certainly eroded mine! Or rather they’ve obliterated it. A country that can elect a Trump should be a pariah state.

The researchers used Internet analytics tools to trace the origins of particular tweets and mapped the connections among social-media accounts that consistently delivered synchronized messages. Identifying website codes sometimes revealed common ownership. In other cases, exact phrases or sentences were echoed by sites and social-media accounts in rapid succession, signaling membership in connected networks controlled by a single entity.

PropOrNot’s monitoring report, which was provided to The Washington Post in advance of its public release, identifies more than 200 websites as routine peddlers of Russian propaganda during the election season, with combined audiences of at least 15 million Americans. On Facebook, PropOrNot estimates that stories planted or promoted by the disinformation campaign were viewed more than 213 million times.

Some were in on it, others were the useful idiots. Together, they’re Team Destroy Everything!

It’s not even clear to me what’s in it for Russia. It weakens the rival power, ok, but at the price of unleashing a nuclear-armed imbecile on the world, and accelerating global warming. It seems a tad overkill.

The speed and coordination of these efforts allowed Russian-backed phony news to outcompete traditional news organizations for audience. Some of the first and most alarming tweets after Clinton fell ill at a Sept. 11 memorial event in New York, for example, came from Russian botnets and trolls, researchers found. (She was treated for pneumonia and returned to the campaign trail a few days later.)

This followed a spate of other misleading stories in August about Clinton’s supposedly troubled health. The Daily Beast debunked a particularly widely read piece in an article that reached 1,700 Facebook accounts and was read online more than 30,000 times. But the PropOrNot researchers found that the version supported by Russian propaganda reached 90,000 Facebook accounts and was read more than 8 million times. The researchers said the true Daily Beast story was like “shouting into a hurricane” of false stories supported by the Russians.

Brilliant. Just fucking brilliant.

The final weeks of the campaign featured a heavy dose of stories about supposed election irregularities, allegations of vote-rigging and the potential for Election Day violence should Clinton win, researchers said.

“The way that this propaganda apparatus supported Trump was equivalent to some massive amount of a media buy,” said the executive director of PropOrNot, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid being targeted by Russia’s legions of skilled hackers. “It was like Russia was running a super PAC for Trump’s campaign. . . . It worked.”

And it worked because people who trend the other way are less likely to be taken in by that kind of bullshit. Is that ironic enough for you? It’s way too ironic for me.

A former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael A. McFaul, said he was struck by the overt support that RT and Sputnik expressed for Trump during the campaign, even using the #CrookedHillary hashtag pushed by the candidate.

McFaul said Russian propaganda typically is aimed at weakening opponents and critics. Trump’s victory, though reportedly celebrated by Putin and his allies in Moscow, may have been an unexpected benefit of an operation that already had fueled division in the United States. “They don’t try to win the argument,” said McFaul, now director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. “It’s to make everything seem relative. It’s kind of an appeal to cynicism.”

Well congratufuckinglations, Russia, the kingdom of ultimate cynicism is here.

The findings about the mechanics of Russian propaganda operations largely track previous research by the Rand Corp. and George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

“They use our technologies and values against us to sow doubt,” said Robert Orttung, a GWU professor who studies Russia. “It’s starting to undermine our democratic system.”


The Rand report — which dubbed Russian propaganda efforts a “firehose of falsehood” because of their speed, power and relentlessness — traced the country’s current generation of online propaganda work to the 2008 incursion into neighboring Georgia, when Russia sought to blunt international criticism of its aggression by pushing alternative explanations online.

The same tactics, researchers said, helped Russia shape international opinions about its 2014 annexation of Crimea and its military intervention in Syria, which started last year. Russian propaganda operations also worked to promote the “Brexit” departure of Britain from the European Union.

So we’re living in Russia’s world now. I don’t like it.

Another crucial moment, several researchers say, came in 2011 when the party of Russian President Vladimir Putin was accused of rigging elections, sparking protests that Putin blamed the Obama administration — and then-Secretary of State Clinton — for instigating.

Putin, a former KGB officer, announced his desire to “break the Anglo-Saxon monopoly on the global information streams” during a 2013 visit to the broadcast center for RT, formerly known as Russia Today.

“For them, it’s actually a real war, an ideological war, this clash between two systems,” said Sufian Zhemukhov, a former Russian journalist conducting research at GWU. “In their minds, they’re just trying to do what the West does to Russia.”

It’s an extension of the Cold War except that Russia now represents the extreme right as opposed to any kind of left.

Though widely seen as a propaganda organ, the Russian site has gained credibility with some American conservatives. Trump sat for an interview with RT in September. His nominee for national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, traveled to Russia last year for a gala sponsored by the network. He later compared it to CNN.

The content from Russian sites has offered ready fodder for U.S.-based websites pushing far-right conservative messages. A former contractor for one, the Next News Network, said he was instructed by the site’s founder, Gary S. Franchi Jr., to weave together reports from traditional sources such as the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times with ones from RT, Sputnik and others that provided articles that often spread explosively online.

It’s the boot stamping on the human face forever. We’ve arrived.