Trump says Flynn’s actions during presidential transition were lawful

From today’s Reuter’s News Service:

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Saturday that actions by his disgraced former national security adviser Michael Flynn during the presidential transition were lawful and said that there was no collusion between his 2016 White House campaign and Russia.

Flynn was the first member of Trump’s administration to plead guilty to a crime uncovered by special counsel Robert Mueller’s wide-ranging investigation into Russian attempts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election and possible collusion by Trump aides.

Flynn, a former Defense Intelligence Agency director, held his position as Trump’s national security adviser only for 24 days. He was forced to resign after he was found to have misled Vice President Mike Pence about his discussions with Russia’s then-ambassador to the United States Sergei Kislyak..

“What has been shown is no collusion, no collusion,“ Trump told reporters as he departed the White House for the New York trip. ”There’s been absolutely no collusion, so we’re very happy.”

As part of his plea on Friday, Flynn agreed to cooperate with the investigation.

The retired U.S. Army lieutenant general admitted in a Washington court that he lied to FBI investigators about his discussions last December with Kislyak.

In what appeared to be moves undermining the policies of outgoing President Barack Obama, the pair discussed U.S. sanctions on Russia, and Flynn asked Kislyak to help delay a United Nations vote seen as damaging to Israel, according to prosecutors.

Flynn was also told by a “very senior member” of Trump’s transition team to contact Russia and other foreign governments to try to influence them ahead of the vote, the prosecutors said.

Sources told Reuters the “very senior” transition official was Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor. Kushner’s lawyer did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Watch the video here.

We’re With Stupid: On Fake News and the Literacy of America’s Electorate

From New York Times by Timothy Egan (Nov. 17, 2017):

It would be much easier to sleep at night if you could believe that we’re in such a mess of misinformation simply because Russian agents disseminated inflammatory posts that reached 126 million people on Facebook.

The Russians also uploaded a thousand videos to YouTube and published more than 130,000 messages on Twitter about last year’s election. As recent congressional hearings showed, the arteries of our democracy were clogged with toxins from a hostile foreign power.

But the problem is not the Russians — it’s us. We’re getting played because too many Americans are ill equipped to perform the basic functions of citizenship. If the point of the Russian campaign, aided domestically by right-wing media, was to get people to think there is no such thing as knowable truth, the bad guys have won.

As we crossed the 300-day mark of Donald Trump’s presidency on Thursday, fact-checkers noted that he has made more than 1,600 false or misleading claims. Good God. At least five times a day, on average, this president says something that isn’t true.

We have a White House of lies because a huge percentage of the population can’t tell fact from fiction. But a huge percentage is also clueless about the basic laws of the land. In a democracy, we the people are supposed to understand our role in this power-sharing thing.

Nearly one in three Americans cannot name a single branch of government. When NPR tweeted out sections of the Declaration of Independence last year, many people were outraged. They mistook Thomas Jefferson’s fighting words for anti-Trump propaganda.

Fake news is a real thing produced by active disseminators of falsehoods. Trump uses the term to describe anything he doesn’t like, a habit now picked up by political liars everywhere.

But Trump is a symptom; the breakdown in this democracy goes beyond the liar in chief. For that you have to blame all of us: we have allowed the educational system to become negligent in teaching the owner’s manual of citizenship.

Read the entire article here.

Federal Judge Blocks Texas Effort to Suppress Minority Voters with ID Law

Yesterday a federal judge in Houston blocked the state of Texas from enacting a revised version of its “Voter ID Law.” Known as Senate Bill 5, the legislation was revised from previous attempts by the state legislature to implement a strict Voter ID requirement for voters to participate in elections. The previous version was, in part, struck down because it violated certain parts of the Voting Rights Act that prohibit voting rules and regulations that fall disproportionately on racial minorities.

In the decision, Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas ruled that the revised law still barred voters from showing state or federal employee ID cards, and since those who lack the accepted forms of identification were “subjected to separate voting obstacles and procedures,” she wrote, “S.B. 5’s methodology remains discriminatory because it imposes burdens disproportionately on blacks and Latinos.”

With a growing Latino and Hispanic population set to eclipse the white conservative majority of Texas voters, the Republican party in that state has long sought to disenfranchise racial minorities from improving their participation rates in elections. The recent return to Jim Crow-style voting requirement laws in southern states is a clear effort to suppress minority voters in an effort to prop up the political power of white conservatives.

“Jim Crow-era tactics have kept Texas Republicans in power,” Gilberto Hinojosa, the chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, said in a statement.

In addition to Voter ID laws the anti-democratic policy of “gerrymandering” remains a significant obstacle to reforming elections in states across the country. The Republican party has taken steps to ensure the preservation of white conservative governorships and state legislatures by redrawing voting districts to favor their constituents, but such efforts are also under scrutiny. The U.S. Supreme Court plans to hear a case in Gill v. Whitford this fall reviewing recent changes by the Republican legislature in the state of Wisconsin to redraw its political map in an effort to marginalize racial and political minorities.

In MT Special Election, Voters Must Reject GOP candidate Greg Gianforte

Not only is freedom of the press under assault from the rise of “fake news” and the lack of critical thinking in this country, it is also under physical threat from politicians who are treating reporters like punching bags.

Today Montana is holding a special congressional election for its “at-large” House seat to replace Ryan Zinke who Trump appointed to be Secretary of the Interior earlier this year. The contest is between Democratic candidate Rob Quist, a popular musician and rancher, and Republican candidate Greg Gianforte, a New Jersey millionaire who was rejected by the state’s citizens in November in his race to become governor against the popular Democratic incumbent Steve Bullock.

The special election is turning out to be referendum: not only about Trumps’ presidency and GOP policies, because many citizens of the state are deeply unhappy with proposed legislation to overturn the Affordable Care Act, but also about the lack of civility and decency in American politics.

On the night before the election, Gianforte assaulted Ben Jones, a reporter for The Guardian at a campaign event, right before he was scheduled to give a televised interview with a Fox News correspondent and her crew. Here is how Fox News reporter Alicia Acuna described the incident:

At that point, Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him. Faith, Keith and I watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the reporter. As Gianforte moved on top of Jacobs, he began yelling something to the effect of, “I’m sick and tired of this!” 

This assault by a Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives on a reporter reflects the “zero sum” politics of elections in recent years, and it has to stop. The rise of social media and its outsize influence on electoral politics has come at a cost: the decline of civility and decency among and between citizens and their elected officials.

There is also another cost: with very little consequence for saying whatever people believe, the rise of “fake news” and outright lies have become part and parcel of this political in-fighting. This trend is disturbingly self-evident in the press release provided by the Gianforte campaign after the incident.

Shane Scanlon, who is Gianforte’s spokesperson, should not just be ashamed for lying about the incident in an effort to cover it up; he should also be charged with obstruction of justice for lying to law enforcement officials during the course of their investigation. What Scanlon describes in this press release is falsified by three eye-witnesses who confirmed the details supplied by the reporter to Gallatin County sheriff’s detectives that Gianforte assaulted him.

Unfortunately, over 200,000 Montana voters have already cast mail-in ballots before the campaign was over. If voters do not reject Gianforte at the ballot box today, he should withdraw from consideration. And if he fails to do that, and he is welcomed with open arms to Congress, it will be dark day for Montana history and American democracy.

How Tech Companies are Waging “Psyops” Warfare on American and British Democracies

From yesterday’s Guardian by Carole Cadwalladr:

In June 2013, a young American postgraduate called Sophie was passing through London when she called up the boss of a firm where she’d previously interned. The company, SCL Elections, went on to be bought by Robert Mercer, a secretive hedge fund billionaire, renamed Cambridge Analytica, and achieved a certain notoriety as the data analytics firm that played a role in both Trump and Brexit campaigns. But all of this was still to come. London in 2013 was still basking in the afterglow of the Olympics. Britain had not yet Brexited. The world had not yet turned.

“That was before we became this dark, dystopian data company that gave the world Trump,” a former Cambridge Analytica employee who I’ll call Paul tells me. “It was back when we were still just a psychological warfare firm.”

Was that really what you called it, I ask him. Psychological warfare? “Totally. That’s what it is. Psyops. Psychological operations – the same methods the military use to effect mass sentiment change. It’s what they mean by winning ‘hearts and minds’. We were just doing it to win elections in the kind of developing countries that don’t have many rules.”

Why would anyone want to intern with a psychological warfare firm, I ask him. And he looks at me like I am mad. “It was like working for MI6. Only it’s MI6 for hire. It was very posh, very English, run by an old Etonian and you got to do some really cool things. Fly all over the world. You were working with the president of Kenya or Ghana or wherever. It’s not like election campaigns in the west. You got to do all sorts of crazy shit.”

On that day in June 2013, Sophie met up with SCL’s chief executive, Alexander Nix, and gave him the germ of an idea. “She said, ‘You really need to get into data.’ She really drummed it home to Alexander. And she suggested he meet this firm that belonged to someone she knew about through her father.”

Who’s her father?

“Eric Schmidt.”

Eric Schmidt – the chairman of Google?

“Yes. And she suggested Alexander should meet this company called Palantir.”

I had been speaking to former employees of Cambridge Analytica for months and heard dozens of hair-raising stories, but it was still a gobsmacking moment. To anyone concerned about surveillance, Palantir is practically now a trigger word. The data-mining firm has contracts with governments all over the world – including GCHQ and the NSA. It’s owned by Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of eBay and PayPal, who became Silicon Valley’s first vocal supporter of Trump.

In some ways, Eric Schmidt’s daughter showing up to make an introduction to Palantir is just another weird detail in the weirdest story I have ever researched.

A weird but telling detail. Because it goes to the heart of why the story of Cambridge Analytica is one of the most profoundly unsettling of our time. Sophie Schmidt now works for another Silicon Valley megafirm: Uber. And what’s clear is that the power and dominance of the Silicon Valley – Google and Facebook and a small handful of others – are at the centre of the global tectonic shift we are currently witnessing.

Read the entire story here.

How Democrats Can Win in the West

From yesterday’s New York Times Opinion Section by Gov. Steve Bullock (D-MT):

HELENA, MONT. — I AM no fan of Neil Gorsuch or his legal theories, but his appointment to the Supreme Court raises a question that Democrats must answer. Justice Gorsuch is the first person from the Mountain States named to the court since Ronald Reagan chose Sandra Day O’Connor from Arizona in 1981. Since then, Democratic presidents have appointed four justices, all more or less drawn from the Washington-New York-Harvard-Yale corridor. Why was it left to President Trump to finally take a person from the American West or, for that matter, anywhere from the interior of the country?

I ask this because a related question has been put to me lately. On the night that Hillary Clinton got 36 percent of the vote in Montana, I won re-election comfortably, running on progressive ideas and against an extremely wealthy Republican opponent. Ever since, national reporters have asked me whether Montana Democrats have some secret recipe, given that we’ve won the last four elections for governor, that might be used in national campaigns. I tell them yes, we do.

But it’s not really a secret, or all that hard to figure out. Above all, spend time in places where people disagree with you. Reach out. Show up and make your argument. People will appreciate it, even if they are not inclined to vote for you. As a Democrat in a red state, I often spend days among crowds where there are almost no Democratic voters in sight. I listen to them, work with them and try to persuade them.

Democrats as a national party have ceased doing this. This has to change. They should take a more expansive view of the America that exists beyond the confines of the Eastern Seaboard. To use a local analogy, Democrats should try casting the fly line a little farther out into the river.

The party has plenty of room for improvement here, in both politics and government. Only one person from the interior West has ever served as the party’s chairman. The last five came from up and down the I-95 corridor. The last vice-presidential pick from west of the Mississippi River was 29 years ago, and as concerns Montana specifically, it was not until last month, after 129 years of statehood, that a person from our state was named to a president’s cabinet.

If you’re not geographically diverse, it’s hard to even speak a language that makes sense to folks in faraway places. That’s especially a problem in the West, where voters have always mistrusted the federal government. Lately we watch cable news broadcasts coming from New York, featuring creatures of Washington and a dialogue full of lifeless talking points that either defend or assail some federal policy or proposal. That’s the native tongue of Washington, and it’s a language the Democrats’ last three losing presidential candidates spoke fluently but that almost always misses the reality of what Americans, especially those far from the nation’s capital, think and feel.

On health care, for example, Montanans aren’t in love with Obamacare — but they don’t want to see it eliminated, either. Our state voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Trump, yes, but voters of all stripes here want a system where everyone is covered, and they supported me when I expanded Medicaid to cover 70,000 low-income Montanans. And yet many of us were puzzled by the Democrats’ resistance to make any changes at all to the Affordable Care Act, given the often outrageously high premiums and deductibles.

And there are some progressive battles that Western Democrats have been left entirely to ourselves to wage. It wasn’t long ago that the Citizens United decision focused the nation on the corrupting influence of money in politics. Washington has apparently moved on, but in Montana we kept fighting; in the past few years we eliminated all of the anonymous corporate campaign expenditures that used to plague our state elections, often millions of dollars a year. This dark money is now illegal in Montana, and we are bringing, and winning, legal actions against the bad actors.

In the past decade Democrats in the West have battled a bizarre but powerful right-wing movement to allow wealthy individuals to take ownership of public lands and close them off, an issue on which even some of the most conservative voters here side with Democrats. These are our forests and parks and rivers, great equalizers where all citizens can escape to hunt, fish and hike, activities central to our heritage. But it barely moves the needle in Washington, because it seems like such a faraway issue to people inside the Beltway bubble.

I remember a humorous episode from Bill Clinton’s presidency in which his advisers prevailed upon him, one summer before his re-election campaign, to spend his vacation in Montana and Wyoming instead of the usual Martha’s Vineyard. The theory was that he’d benefit from hanging out someplace a little more down to earth. He took the advice, and won re-election. It’s a lesson Democrats should take to heart.

Storm wreckage to disrupt election

Election Day is just two days away. The cost of Hurricane Sandy to the region is estimated to be around $60 billion. While the clean up crawls forward, tensions in the Northeast are running at an all time high. Many officials are now stating publicly that this untimely storm has had and will have adverse and unexpected consequences for the outcome of the presidential race.

In New Jersey, Connecticut, and parts of New York, voters will find it more difficult than usual to cast a ballot. Widespread damage from the storm and a lack of basic services is creating an organizational nightmare for election officials who must find adequate polling stations and resources to accommodate voters. In New Jersey, which absorbed the storm surge along its coast, state officials are finding other, novel means for voters to cast their ballots. Gov. Chris Christie announced yesterday that displaced citizens, and those living in areas hardest hit by the storm, may be able to vote this year by email ballot, an extreme measure for what many see as extreme circumstances.

Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno of New Jersey said voters may find polling stations at military trucks dispersed across the state with “a well-situated national guardsman and a big sign saying, ‘Vote Here.’”

The disruption of mail services across the Northeastern states will also slow the election process. In addition to absentee and mail-in ballots that are either delayed or gone missing, election officials are bracing for a larger influx of paper ballots that must be counted. All of these post-storm consequences are likely to delay the counting of votes and the certification of elections.

Even thought the states most affected by the storm sit firmly in President Obama’s column, some pundits are predicting that lower than average voter turnout in this region, increasing the likelihood of splitting the electoral college and popular vote. That scenario has been a popular one touted in policy and media circles the last few weeks as the race between Obama and Romney closed to a dead heat.

The President has pulled head slightly in some of the important swing states, but close polls show that America is still a nation more divided than ever by partisan lines—even during a time of national crisis.

Sandy douses Northeast, disrupts markets, campaigns and polling

Last year, Hurricane Irene was promoted by meteorologists and media-hype as the “storm of the century” but failed to develop the promised punch. This year, Sandy did not fail to deliver. The Category I hurricane slammed into New Jersey and New York, causing heavy damage and widespread flooding. There were also power disruptions across several states, leaving millions without electricity. Public officials estimate it will take days, possibly weeks, to restore the power grid.

Parts of lower Manhattan remain underwater today, as the tidal surge from Sandy deluged the coasts of New York and New Jersey.

Meanwhile, financial markets faced an unscheduled interruption on Monday and Tuesday as Wall Street shut down to brace for Sandy’s onslaught. The emergency conditions also disrupted the election as President Obama left the campaign trail to return to Washington Sunday night. In the early hours of Monday morning he declared New Jersey and New York and other parts of the Northeast federal disaster areas, and issued executive orders to ensure FEMA acted quickly to provide states with much needed resources. Governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and Andrew Cuomo of New York praised the quick actions of President Obama and federal relief agencies.

The specter of Hurricane Katrina lurked in the background. The Bush Administration’s failure in 2005 to handle that crisis speedily and competently led to widespread criticism of both President Bush and FEMA. Former Gov. Mitt Romney is on the record stating that responsibility for large natural disasters should devolve on states and private actors, but that untenable position is viewed with skepticism and hostility in the face of large, regional disasters affecting multiple states.

Today, President Obama toured the heavily damaged region of New Jersey’s shoreline with Gov. Christie, leaving the campaigning to former President Clinton and others who have stepped up their efforts in the last week to get out the vote in key swing states such as Ohio and Florida. In addition to disrupting campaign events, the lasting damage of the hurricane will make polling impossible in some places before the election. Many pundits and pollsters alike are bemoaning this event, but the disruption of both financial markets and polling can also be viewed as a timely reminder that Americans can be bipartisan, especially during times of national crises.

It remains to be seen whether adequate power is restored and weather conditions permit voters to get to the polls on election day next Tuesday, raising concerns that the storm might tilt the election in favor of one candidate or another in some important states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Blame it on Obama? Don’t forget Republicans to blame for this mess

Tonight is the third and final presidential debate before the election next month. The primary focus of this debate in Boca Raton, FL will be foreign policy, but most commentators agree that the economy remains the number one concern on voters’ minds.

Former Gov. Mitt Romney will try to do two things in tonight’s debate:  capitalize on irrational anti-Obama discontent over the economy, and then displace it on the President’s record on foreign policy. Most experts agree that the Obama Administration has been deft and pragmatic on the international stage in a time of tumultuous change in the Middle East and a contracting global economy. Nevertheless, his detractors-cum-international-relations-experts grasp at straws. For example, they blame the President for the actions of Libyan terrorists in the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens. They also claim he is at fault for the widespread discontent in the Muslim world over the same things they are angry about, including diminished economic opportunities and a growing sense that the “system” is out of control. That is a lot of responsibility for someone with so little control over the ways of the world.

Such misplaced blame is a little like blaming God for bad luck. Why do bad things happen to good people? Their reaction is much like the first wave of Job’s reaction to his own suffering:  blame God.  Yet, the answer is more simple if not difficult to acknowledge openly. Instead of being honest about their responsibility for facilitating the present economic mess, or even being realistic about its scope and the time it will take to clean it up, Republicans such as Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan prefer instead to be guided by their anger, even their xenophobic and irrational fears that Barack Hussein Obama is not an authentic American. They place everything that is wrong both home and abroad squarely on his shoulders, rather than seeing the situation for what it is—the harvest reaped by their own policies of economic deregulation, expensive pre-emptive wars, and stupid tax cuts that the country could not afford in the first place. Job, too, was blind before he could see.

The cultivation of these irrational impulses by Fox News, the Republican establishment, and wealthy billionaires who are spending record amounts of their personal money to influence elections through Super PACs and commercial lies is revealing. Times are tough, so blame it on Obama.

If you have lost your job because Wall Street traders, investment bankers, and business executives over the last decade made bad decisions on unacceptably risky calculations with no accountability for their actions, blame it on Obama.

If you cannot find a job because American corporations no longer make real products requiring good paying jobs, while sitting on record mountains of cash that inflate their bottom lines to prop up the short-term, short-sighted expectations of greedy investors, blame it on Obama.

If you think the rising cost of health care is crippling small businesses, but prefer to do nothing about it rather than risk taking any steps along the road to reform, blame Obama.

Never mind that to blame Obama for pursuing health care reform, you have to ignore that former Gov. Romney is the original architect of “Obamacare” in Massachusetts. The truth of the Affordable Care Act is that it uses market principles to ensure that competition among private insurers brings down the cost of insuring all individuals who otherwise could not afford it and whose health care costs would be absorbed by those of us who can afford it—through higher premiums and spiraling emergency room costs. In short, you have to believe falsely in the rhetoric that the ACA is a government takeover of health care, and ignore the fact that it simply incentivizes private insurance and requires all individuals to be responsible for their own health care.

Gov. Romney has done nothing but run a competitive campaign in an easy political climate. It’s an easy thing to blame one man on the world’s problems. That pretty much sums up the Republican policy for turning American around:  get rid of the sitting Democratic president at all cost. But let’s not forget how we got into this mess in the first place. Let’s not forget that America is in a time of crisis because policy choices were made in the past, and they were poor choices. Reversing the consequences of those choices is not something that can be done overnight, let alone in four years. Blaming the President won’t change the past, even if we try to forget that it is the past that is prologue.

If “some” Americans think we cannot afford four more years of Obama, they should consider that the reason America cannot afford much of anything right now is due primarily to those poor policy choices. Demanding that we return power to the party that not only made those choices but want to make them all over again, is not a solution to America’s problems—it is a suicide pact we “other” Americans are wisely unwilling to go along with.

Romney picks Ryan for running mate

At a campaign rally in Virginia this morning Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney announced he is choosing Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) to be his Vice Presidential choice. This choice proves once and for all that Romney’s economic policy will favor the rich and powerful, while fooling millions of hard-working Americans into believing he stands for their best interests.

Ryan is a controversial figure who is not worthy of presidential reach.

Ryan is a controversial seven-time Congressman from Janesville, WI who is also the Chairman of the House Budget Committee. He has been a long-time Washington insider promoting the interests of the wealthy and powerful by advocating to make the Bush-era tax cuts permanents, even though this policy has helped bring the country to the brink of economic disaster. By extending these tax cuts, which primarily benefit America’s wealthiest tax payers, and pave the way for middle-calls taxpayers to shoulder more of the burden for generating revenue, America’s cities, counties, and states run the risk of bankruptcy as revenue streams dry up. Americans who vote for this ticket can look forward to less basic services, a crumbling infrastructure, and more out-of-pocket expenses. Ryan is no candidate worthy of presidential reach.

The meme above sums up Ryan’s economic philosophical nicely. During the eight years of Bush the Younger’s reign in Washington America saw income inequality increase as the rich got richer and the middle-class got more into debt, record numbers of corporate bankruptcies and fraud such as the mighty collapse of Enron, a war in Iraq we could not afford and did not need, and the erosion of respect for the rule of law and government. In the last three years the Republican’s have continually laid the blame for America’s malaise squarely at the feet of President Obama, but history and the facts show otherwise.

Jim Messina, director for President Obama’s reelection campaign, summed up Ryan’s foolish economic views nicely in a statement released immediately after Romney’s announcement:

“In naming Congressman Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney has chosen a leader of the House Republicans who shares his commitment to the flawed theory that new budget-busting tax cuts for the wealthy, while placing greater burdens on the middle class and seniors, will somehow deliver a stronger economy. The architect of the radical Republican House budget, Ryan, like Romney, proposed an additional $250,000 tax cut for millionaires, and deep cuts in education from Head Start to college aid. His plan also would end Medicare as we know it by turning it into a voucher system, shifting thousands of dollars in health care costs to seniors. As a member of Congress, Ryan rubber-stamped the reckless Bush economic policies that exploded our deficit and crashed our economy. Now the Romney-Ryan ticket would take us back by repeating the same, catastrophic mistakes.”

A vote for the Romney-Ryan ticket by any middle-class American, indeed anyone making less than $250,000 is a vote for cutting off one’s own nose to spite one’s face. America is at another crossroads, and the Republican route is one we have been down before and cannot afford to go down again.