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Decoding Mueller’s Indictment

Tue, 2018-02-20 10:07
Ex-CIA Director Thinks US Hypocrisy About Election Meddling Is Hilarious (Trevin)

In a recent Fox News broadcast, host Laura Ingraham and her “old friend,” former CIA Director James Woolsey, had a big laugh over the idea that the US meddles in other countries’ elections “only for a very good cause, in the interests of democracy.”

US Blames Russia for Ukrainian Cyberattack (Dan)

On the surface, the White House and Kremlin are working together. Yet judging by actions from Trump, Republicans, and Democrats, Russia is still Public Enemy No. 1.

University of Wisconsin-Madison to Offer Free Tuition for Families Making Less Than $56K (Jimmy)

The author writes, “The program, called Bucky’s Tuition Promise, is the latest move by a major university to try and make higher education more accessible and affordable for students. In-state students at UW-Madison currently pay $10,533 a year in tuition and fees.”

Reporting Assault is Still Dangerous (Reader Steve)

Reporting sexual assault may out your perpetrator, but it could still mean losing your job. Or signing an agreement to never apply for the position again.

Dennis Kucinich Vows to End All Oil and Gas Drilling in Ohio If Elected Governor and Then Take the Industry to Court (Jimmy)

The author writes, “Kucinich called for a total end to oil and gas extraction in the state of Ohio. To accomplish this, he would deploy a battery of radical policies. He would, for instance, utilize eminent domain to seize control of oil and gas wells throughout the state and then shutter them. He would block all new drilling permits and order a total ban on injection wells. Kucinich would also deploy the Ohio State Highway Patrol to stop and turn away vehicles that possess fracking waste.

Brexit: Half in the EU, and Half Out (Dan)

Britain’s prime minister Theresa May made a further concession to the EU over the weekend at the Munich Security Conference. She not only pushed for military and police agreements between the two entities, something that is subject more to EU rules than UK rules, but also “respect” for the EU Court of Justice. This means one of the largest points of Brexit — returned sovereignty to UK courts — is effectively dead.

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Will Redistricting Vote Change History’s View of Justice Kennedy?

Tue, 2018-02-20 07:07

It has been 30 years since Anthony Kennedy was sworn into office on the Supreme Court. Kennedy was President Ronald Reagan’s third choice for the post. His first choice — D.C. Circuit Judge Robert Bork — was deemed too conservative by the Democratic Senate, and Reagan’s second, Judge Douglas Ginsburg, fell from grace after media reports about his marijuana use. Kennedy was a conservative whom both parties could accept.

Over the decades, in a court riven by partisan and ideological differences, Kennedy has been the key vote on a number of groundbreaking decisions.

He voted to uphold the constitutionality of abortion, but also approved some restrictions on abortion, provided they do not pose an “undue burden” on women.

He has consistently voted to support the rights of those in the LGBTQ community, including his opinion recognizing same-sex marriage.

But when it comes to Kennedy’s decisions on issues affecting democracy in this country, his legacy is more mixed. Now, with speculation that Kennedy is expected to announce his retirement from the bench as soon as this year, the justice has another chance to redeem that legacy in the eyes of groups working to ensure that every vote counts and that mega-donors do not have outsized influence on US politics and public policy.

That’s the Kennedy paradox, critics say: heedless and hasty on campaign finance laws, and too timid on partisan redistricting.

Nonpartisan groups advocating to reduce the limit of money in politics and for election reforms find Kennedy’s record somewhat problematic. But this year, Kennedy’s vote on a key partisan redistricting case, Gill v. Whitford, could win them over. The Supreme Court heard arguments in the suit in 2017.

The way Kennedy has looked at campaign finance and redistricting shows two sides of the jurist — and why he inspires both hope and frustration among some of those advocating for campaign finance reform and for fairer elections.

The US Supreme Court decided Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) in 2010. Photo credit: US Supreme Court / Wikimedia

Eight years ago, Kennedy wrote the majority decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC), allowing for-profit and nonprofit corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence the political process as long as the source of that money is disclosed and corporations do not coordinate their activities with candidates or political parties.

In his opinion, Kennedy observed: “Rapid changes in technology — and the creative dynamic inherent in the concept of free expression — counsel against upholding a law that restricts political speech in certain media or by certain speakers.”

He ruled that the government “may not suppress political speech based on the speaker’s corporate identity.”

The Kennedy Paradox .

The decision essentially consigned more than a century of campaign finance law “to the trash heap,” Daniel Weiner, senior counsel for the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, told WhoWhatWhy. The decision, combined with the failure of Congress to pass laws to curb campaign finance abuses, and the lax enforcement of the Federal Election Commission (FEC), has created a political landscape that “amplifies” the influence of mega-donors on federal elections and public policy, Weiner said.

But in 2004, when the court considered the problem of congressional district lines that are drawn by political parties to heighten their electoral prospects, Kennedy was far more cautious. He sided with conservatives in a decision not to intervene in a partisan redistricting case in Pennsylvania.

Nevertheless, he disagreed with the conservatives’ view that partisan redistricting should never be reviewed by the courts. Kennedy did foresee a role for the courts on the issue, Weiner said, adding, however, that Kennedy then “punted.” Since partisan gerrymandering was “an inevitable part of the political process,” Kennedy concluded that it would be difficult for the Supreme Court to determine how much partisan gerrymandering was “too much,” Weiner said. The court lacked a “manageable standard.”

That’s the Kennedy paradox, critics say: heedless and hasty on campaign finance laws, and too timid on partisan redistricting.

“He was cautious to the point of perhaps overly cautious and let serious problems fester that cried out for judicial intervention, whereas in other circumstances he seemed willing to just wade into the thicket and strike down long-standing rules left and right because he just personally didn’t think they made sense,” Weiner asserted. “Ultimately, when his legacy for our democracy is assessed, that might be a dominant theme.”

As a consequence, Weiner said, there’s been “this more than decade-long tortuous process of trying to get him comfortable with a rule that can be applied to guarantee the basic right of one person one vote.”

Anthony M. Kennedy, senior Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, applauds after swearing in Neil M. Gorsuch as the Supreme Court’s 113th justice. Photo credit: Shealah Craighead / The White House

The Citizens United decision ignored the likelihood that corporations would flout requirements about disclosing their donations and not having relationships with candidate campaigns, said Bob Biersack, a senior fellow with the Center for Responsive Politics and former FEC staffer.

“There is a whole big industry in Washington to evade, manipulate and finesse” restrictions, whether they are imposed by the FEC, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), or other federal agencies, Biersack said.

As a consequence, the decision spurred the creation of independent political action committees, or super PACs, which can accept unlimited contributions from unions, corporations, and individuals — provided that they do not directly coordinate with candidate or party campaigns and that they disclose their donations. But in reality, Weiner said, candidates largely have grown to depend on super PACs to virtually run their campaigns, since the coordination rules are routinely ignored.

Over the past eight years, the proportion of political spending by outside groups in federal elections has risen dramatically, Biersack said. Outside groups spent about 20 percent of the $6.5 billion influencing federal elections in 2016.

“In a lot of ways, the real impact of these outside groups and the money you don’t see very well may … be more focused on congressional races,” Biersack said. “The impact may be bigger for congressional races than it would ever be for a presidential campaign.”

Photo credit: Opensecrets.org (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US)

But while Donald Trump in 2016 did not rely on large donors for his victory, Weiner speculated that Trump is counting on these donors to fund his 2020 campaign. In both presidential and congressional races — and for both parties, he added — the priorities of large donors are reflected in the positions policymakers take.

“Tax reform was driven by the GOP donor base,” Weiner charged. “The GOP’s handful of top donors made clear to the Republican party that they would cut them loose if they didn’t pass it, and you have Republican congressmen and senators saying that openly.”


Democrats, too, reflect policy agendas that are dominated more by big donors than the party’s average supporters, Weiner contended. The result? Democrats that espouse “milquetoast Wall Street reform rather than something more radical. Obamacare rather than single-payer.”

And while many large givers are known to the public, Weiner added, it is unclear how much corporations are secretly spending on campaigns. Super PAC donors are disclosed, he conceded, but it is easy to create a shell company to hide the real source of the contributions.

Biersack suggested that Citizens United unleashed a more fundamental attack on democracy. When money so dominates electoral politics, and rules are flouted, “the process feels fixed,” he said. That erodes the public’s notion of “the rule of law.” When the public does not know who is bankrolling elections, that “plants a seed” that causes more distrust: “How can you want a system where you don’t know what’s going on?”

If Biersack is right, then Kennedy’s role in setting some restrictions on partisan redistricting may be all the more important. One thing is certain: Kennedy’s vote will be crucial in any redistricting case this year. Weiner is optimistic: “We’re hopeful that ultimately Justice Kennedy will do the right thing.”

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Anthony Kennedy (Supreme Court / Wikimedia), Anthony Kennedy (Supreme Court / Wikimedia), and Reagan and Kennedy (The White House / Wikimedia).

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February 19, 2018

Mon, 2018-02-19 23:07

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Facebook: Platform for Propaganda?

Mon, 2018-02-19 10:24
Amidst Election Security Worries, Suddenly Paper Ballots Are Making a Comeback (Jimmy)

The author writes, “America’s paper ballot states may seem antiquated to some, but our neighbors to the north have used paper ballots for federal elections for their entire history. Thanks to an army of officials at 25,000 election stations, the integrity of Canada’s elections is never in doubt.”

Lockheed Martin Got $35.2 billion from Taxpayers Last Year. That’s More Than Many Federal Agencies. (Jimmy)

The author writes, “Lockheed’s government sales are nearly what the Trump administration proposed for the State Department next year in its recently released spending plan. Or $15 billion more than all of NASA. Or about the gross domestic product of Bolivia. With a White House proposal to spend a massive amount on defense next year in what one consultant called an ‘eye-watering’ budget for the defense industry, Lockheed, the world’s largest defense contractor, could get even more.”

Austin Just Brought Paid Sick Leave to the South (Jimmy)

The author writes, “Early on Friday morning, by a nine to two margin, the City Council voted to make Austin the first municipality in the Southern United States to mandate that all businesses within its borders provide paid sick leave to their employees.”

Because ‘Nothing Has Changed Since Columbine,’ Students, Teachers Call for Nationwide School Walkouts (Reader Luke)

The author writes, “The day set for the actions is April 20, which will be the 19th anniversary of the massacre at Columbine High School.”

The post Facebook: Platform for Propaganda? appeared first on WhoWhatWhy.

Ignored Warnings in Florida Shooting Just the Latest FBI Screw-up

Mon, 2018-02-19 06:58

The FBI is one of the few institutions that, no matter how often it screws up in major ways, no matter that there is something deeply wrong with the place, never seems to be held accountable.

WhoWhatWhy often covers situations where the FBI knew something in advance before heinous crimes were committed — and then apparently did nothing.

Many of those are so extremely weird that no one knows what to make of the phenomenon, and, frankly, people just don’t want to contemplate whether we are looking at gross incompetence, misplaced priorities, or something worse.

It is with that as background that we contemplate the latest revelation: the FBI had been warned ahead of time that Nikolas Cruz, the alleged Miami-area high school mass murderer, was armed and dangerous and likely to take action.

On January 5, the FBI received a tip from someone close to Cruz. It provided information about his “gun ownership, desire to kill people, erratic behavior, and disturbing social media posts, as well as the potential of his conducting a school shooting.” But the FBI failed to follow up and investigate the claims.

That wasn’t the only red flag.

Back in September, a man reported a YouTube comment from a “nikolas cruz” that said “I’m going to be a professional school shooter.” The FBI looked into it, but reportedly were unable to determine the identity of the commenter.

Now, what about that pattern of screw-ups?

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from FBI building (Travel Aficionado / Flickr – CC BY-NC 2.0) and mug shot.

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Trump’s Affair With a Porn Star Shouldn’t Matter (Much)

Sun, 2018-02-18 06:54

If somebody were to compile a definitive list of do’s and don’ts in politics, “Don’t have it come out that you had an affair with a porn star while your third wife was at home with your newborn child” would probably feature fairly prominently.

It turns out, however, that if your name is Donald Trump and you have already successfully broken every other rule in the book, hardly anybody is going to bat an eye when it is reported that you had a tryst with one of the stars of Trailer Trash Nurses 6.

While the current president has rewritten the political rule book in a lot of negative ways, in this case it might be good that his reported affair with Stormy Daniels — or the dalliance that former playmate Karen McDougal said she had with Trump at about the same time — isn’t a huge deal. Because it shouldn’t be.

Sure, it seems to reflect poorly on Trump’s character and voters can, and maybe should, take that into account. However, while adultery may technically be against the law in some states, Trump won’t be prosecuted for his affair with a porn star. And paying her to keep quiet about it is not illegal. In addition, this happened years ago, long before Trump ran for office.

Perhaps most importantly, even if all of the details of the affair that Daniels described in an interview are true, the public will likely never know the full story. For example, maybe there is a “porn star exemption” in the pre-nup of the Trumps, or these affairs were somehow sanctioned by Melania.

We don’t know and, quite frankly, we don’t deserve to know. It’s certainly a story that the media should report but we shouldn’t obsess over it. Ultimately, this is a private issue and none of our business.

(It must be noted that this specifically applies to the legal behavior of candidates. Having consensual sex with porn stars is not against the law. Neither is bragging about sexual assault. Actually committing such an assault, as Trump has been accused of doing, would be a different story.)

In theory, a case can be made that a candidate’s character matters. Actually, it should matter. But most voters have shown that it doesn’t — at least not when the character of “their” candidate is in question, as we have pointed out before.

Ironically, the people who have figured this out are the Christian conservatives.

“Evangelicals and conservatives have fallen for guys who talk right about the issues — we’ve elected them time and again and we didn’t get anything out of it,” Frank Cannon, the president of the conservative American Principle Project, told The Hill. “[Trump] is a guy who comes from a crass political world. He doesn’t have the rhetoric or the biography so he knows he has to deliver for us to keep our support and he’s done that.”

As with so many things in politics, both sides are hypocrites when they point fingers and preach morality. Just as evangelical Christians are looking the other way now, Catholics did the same thing when “their” President, John F. Kennedy, was in office.

It’s simply political pragmatism.

“This is not a guy I want to be my pastor,” Cannon said. “But being a pastor isn’t the job.”

He is right, of course. And for the country, it’s great that the religious right does not just feel this way but is also not shy to talk about it. If Christian conservatives can admit that the values they preach are less important than getting results, that means, hopefully, we can pay less attention to what political candidates do on their own time as long as it is legal.

There is a lot of “Whataboutism” these days, the concept of justifying the bad behavior of one’s own candidate by comparing it to that of an opponent.

On the right, Trump’s behavior should kill “Whataboutism.” It’s perfectly acceptable that conservatives don’t want to criticize their own candidate for anything ranging from extramarital affairs to lying to saying racist things.

But then they can’t ever turn around and point a finger at their opponents for doing similar things.

On the left, anybody who defended what President Bill Clinton did to, and with, Monica Lewinsky is in no position to criticize Trump for the affair.

But those things also shouldn’t define their presidencies. Morality matters, but saints who run the country into the ground would make worse leaders than certain adulterers who make the US better for all of its people.

There are plenty of things to criticize Trump for, but the condemnation of his adultery should only be coming from the first lady. The voters should focus on his record.

The cartoon above was created by DonkeyHotey for WhoWhatWhy from these images: Stormy Daniels caricature (DonkeyHotey / Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0), Donald Trump caricature (DonkeyHotey / Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0), HR McMaster caricature (DonkeyHotey / Flickr – CC BY 2.0), and Oval Office (The White House).

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The AR-15: Weapon of Choice for Mass Shooters

Sat, 2018-02-17 06:42

When news broke Wednesday of yet another horrific mass shooting on school grounds, this time in the upscale community of Parkland, Florida, the all too familiar shock and sorrow were soon replaced by a sense of resignation that nothing would change.

Nikolas Cruz, an expelled student, opened fire in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and killed 17 people, three of whom were faculty members. Fourteen teenagers will never go to prom or attend college, but somehow this chapter feels like just another chapter in America’s tragic narrative about gun control instead of a turning point.

Three of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in modern US history have now occurred in the last five months. As with some other mass shootings, a trail of breadcrumbs led up to the Parkland massacre.

The FBI received a tip last September about an ominous YouTube comment from a user with the same full name as Cruz: “I’m going to be a professional school shooter.” After admitting that it couldn’t confidently identify the person behind the account, the bureau apologized Friday for failing to follow up on another tip it received in January from someone close to Cruz who was alarmed by his affinity for violence.

Cruz’s social media account was another clue. It featured images of firearms and a slaughtered toad. In fact, his erratic, often violent behavior so alarmed teachers that they prohibited him from wearing a backpack on campus.

Many an op-ed will be devoted to speculating about the shooter’s motives, which may once again be rooted in psychological dysfunction. But the social and political circumstances that enabled Cruz to execute his plan have remained relatively unchanged in the last six years.

Since the Sandy Hook tragedy in 2012, when 20 first graders were murdered, five of the six deadliest massacres have featured an AR-15, the most popular semi-automatic rifle in the US. The death toll cracked double-digits in every instance.

The popularity of the AR-15 can be largely attributed to its accessibility. Anyone without a criminal record or domestic abuse felony can buy a firearm in Florida. Because the legal age to purchase the AR-15 is 18, Cruz, who is 19, was old enough to buy an assault rifle.

Lax regulations combined with the weapon’s capacity for carnage make the AR-15 the dream weapon for mass shooters. Equipped with box magazines that hold 30 rounds each and can be replaced quickly, the gun can spit more than a hundred rounds in mere minutes.

Given the recent rise in mass shootings, it may not come as a surprise that a majority of Americans support stricter gun laws. But the National Rifle Association’s relentless lobbying and advertising, aimed primarily at the GOP, impedes efforts to enact comprehensive reform. Among the top 100 House beneficiaries of NRA donations, 95 are Republican.

Many of them, along with their colleagues in the Senate, are quick to shower victims with “thoughts and prayers.” What they have not done, however, is limit or ban the sale of semi-automatic weapons or require a mental health check to purchase a gun.

In the videos below, New York Times reporters discuss the AR-15, and ABC News reporter Pierre Thomas explains how the infamous Columbine massacre inspired a generation of copycat shooters.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from sidewalk (Fabrice Florin / Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0) and AR-15 (katesheets / Flickr – CC BY 2.0).

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February 16, 2018

Fri, 2018-02-16 16:04

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Census Bureau to Count Prisoners’ Home as…Prison

Fri, 2018-02-16 11:38
McCarthyism Inc: Counter-Terror ‘Experts’ Hyping Russian Threats and Undermining Our Civil Liberties (Trevin)

A look under the hood of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, the “go-to pundits for mainstream reporters seeking expert opinions on Russian online meddling.” ASD was cited by the New York Times as its source for the assertion that “the widely popular #taketheknee Twitter hashtag that promoted NFL protests against racial injustice was, in fact, a Russian influence campaign spawned by Kremlin operatives.”

Is Media Falling for White Supremacist Propaganda? (Dan)

White nationalist group “Republic of Florida” claimed that Parkland High School shooter Nikolas Cruz “may have been a member,” though the group’s leader later walked back that claim. Is the media falling for a propaganda campaign which gives free promotion to “Republic of Florida?”

How Australia Fought Mass Shootings (Reader Steve)

Australia reformed its gun laws after a mass shooting 20 years ago, drastically reducing gun violence. Could similar laws work in the US?

Admiral Warns US Must Prepare for Possibility of War With China (Jimmy)

The author writes, “The navy admiral nominated to be the next US ambassador to Australia has told Congress America must prepare for the possibility of war with China, and said it would rely on Australia to help uphold the international rules-based system in the Asia-Pacific.”

Merkel’s Slow and Silent Decline (Dan)

Many look at Germany as the lynchpin that holds the European Union together. This position of power, dependent on German domestic stability in the form of Angela Merkel, is on increasingly shaky ground.

The post Census Bureau to Count Prisoners’ Home as…Prison appeared first on WhoWhatWhy.

Plundering Iraq’s Oil Wealth

Fri, 2018-02-16 07:16

To understand the plundering of Iraq’s oil wealth, we have to look first at the original sin of the invasion itself. Blueprints showing how oil could help rebuild the country were drawn up post-Desert Storm in the 1990s and resurrected in 2003. It never happened.

Journalist Erin Banco explains why, as she talks to Jeff Schechtman in this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast. She laments the dashed hopes of the Kurds and the Iraqi people. She explains the hapless actions of the Bush and Obama administrations, the real role of big oil and the damage done by tribal rivalries in Iraq.

She tells the story of the Talibani and the Barzani families, and how they got rich — along with oil company executives, government staffers and political parties. Meanwhile, the Iraqi people, who knew very little about what was happening, ended up with virtually nothing.

Banco says that for years Iraqi journalists have been killed in Iraq for even trying to report this story. Today, with entirely different players, the corruption and mismanagement goes on, and may be the keys to the Iraq elections scheduled for May.

Erin Banco is the author of Pipe Dreams: The Plundering of Iraq’s Oil Wealth (Columbia Global Reports, January 2018).

Click HERE to Download Mp3

Related WhoWhatWhy Stories. Old, But Still Surprising, and Revealing:

Stories-You-Didn’t-Read Department

Bush, Rumsfeld and Iraq: Is the Real Reason for the Invasion Finally Emerging?

Sex, Oil, Chaos & Corruption at American U. Of Iraq

Iraq Invasion Revelations: Fueled Again: UK Style

Iraq Invasion Revelations, Part II: The Payoff

Media Manipulation: Are Conflicts Photos Staged?

The Cradle for Conflagration: the End (and Beginning) of the War for Iraq

Mind the Credibility Gap: Syria and the History of US War Disinformation

Manufacturing War: A Primer

Secret Email Leaked From Hillary’s Server: The Real Story of Bush, Blair and Big Oil’s Agenda

Iranians Don’t Trust Us — Outrageous!

Putting on Trial Those Responsible for US War Crimes

How Bribes to Politicians From Arms Dealers Keep Wars Going (And How the Wars Keep the Politicians Going)

Russ Baker Goes In-Depth on the ‘28 Pages’

Release of the ‘28 Pages’ Raises More Questions

The Calm Before the Iraqi Storm: 15th Anniversary

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from oil facility (Bureau of Land Management / Flickr), Iraqi flag (Iraqi government / Wikimedia), Kurdish flag (Unknown / Wikimedia), and Pipe Dream (Columbia Global Reports).

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February 15, 2018

Thu, 2018-02-15 23:21

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Bill Gates on Privacy vs. Security

Thu, 2018-02-15 09:50
The Future of Cryptocurrency: A Bit Extreme? (Chris)

David Golumbia, author of The Politics of Bitcoin (2016, University of Minnesota) recently spoke with Sam Seder about the the far-right implications of the ideas underlying cryptocurrency. In the interview, Golumbia (who also recently appeared on Against the Grain) “makes a case for a democratic economy, rather than one created by a shady hacker class.”

DC Police and the Feds Partner With Hard Right to Convict Trump Protesters (Trevin)

Collaborating with the “rabid anti-government” Oath Keepers and the far-right group Project Veritas is one thing. But “are Washington police breaking the law, as its city council has passed laws barring them from spying on protesters or protest groups?”

Pentagon Wants Bigger Budget to Counter Russia and China (Jimmy)

The authors write, “Citing increasing threats from China and Russia, the Pentagon is asking for a major boost in military spending for 2019, requesting Congress approve a budget of $686 billion — one of the largest in US history. … Touting the proposal on Monday, President Donald Trump said the US military would be the strongest it has ever been, including ‘increasing arsenals of virtually every weapon.’”

How Inflation Works — And Affects Your Grocery Bill (Dan)

How does a trucker moving paper goods from the Midwest to East Coast affect the price of your chicken? Read here.

Dutch Foreign Minister Resigns After Lying About Putin Meeting (Trevin)

Halbe Zijlstra admitted to a campaign lie about a meeting in 2006 where he overheard the Russian president discuss his imperialist ambitions. Zijlstra has conceded that he “wasn’t present at the meeting but heard the story from somebody who was,” and that he made up the story to protect his source.

Attack of Clinton’s Bot Army (Dan)

For those of us still reeling from the 2016 election, this article details that Trump’s mean-spirited #MAGA supporters on Twitter had a competitor: Hillary Clinton’s bot army.

The post Bill Gates on Privacy vs. Security appeared first on WhoWhatWhy.

Trump Lawyer Michael Cohen: Beyond Porn Star Payments, Russia Angle

Thu, 2018-02-15 06:50

This is an update to a story WhoWhatWhy published on August 30, 2017.

This week Donald Trump’s longtime and fiercely loyal attorney, Michael Cohen, told the New York Times that — shortly before the 2016 presidential election — he personally paid off a porn star who in 2011 claimed to have had an affair with a married Trump.

Cohen denied the assertion by the public interest organization Common Cause that the $130,000 payment was an in-kind donation to the Trump campaign, and says that he did it on his own without the campaign’s knowledge. Cohen declined to confirm whether Trump himself was aware of the transaction.

It would be, to say the least, unusual to shell out such sums for another person — who is, by all indications, far wealthier — out of the kindness of his heart. Even more so to do it without notifying Trump himself. Such a move ought naturally to raise eyebrows. And so should the larger story surrounding Cohen and how he came to be in the tycoon’s inner circle.

As WhoWhatWhy previously reported, Cohen and his family — who have extensive and deep business and personal connections to the former Soviet Union — have invested a great deal of money in Trump-related projects, beginning years before he came into Trump’s employ.

And, while others in Trump’s orbit have been scrutinized extensively, Cohen had managed to avoid a major share of the spotlight. Apart from our detailed article about him, relatively few media outlets had investigated Trump’s personal lawyer with the same level of rigor as others in Trump’s orbit have received. That’s about to change with the latest revelation — which would not surprise anyone who read the following story last year.

Jared Kushner, Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn … all members of President Donald Trump’s inner circle — past and present — have been scrutinized by the media, and their various Russia ties are being investigated by the press and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team. One figure, however, managed to fly largely under the radar until very recently: Michael Cohen, Trump’s former right-hand man and in-house attorney.

Cohen, who came out of nowhere to occupy a prominent spot in Trump’s orbit, has his own unique links to Russia and Ukraine. In fact, he might be one of the missing links that ties the president to shady figures and shady money from the former Soviet Union (familiarly known as FSU).

The following story, in documented detail, lays bare Cohen’s dealings, his ties to the FSU, and how he could trigger a world of trouble for the president if he ever decided to reveal what he knows about Trump’s business empire.

Among the points illustrated below:

  • Michael Cohen and Felix Sater, two key figures in Trump’s businesses in recent years, both have backgrounds tied to the FSU.
  • Both men knew each other; both began entering Trump’s orbit around the same time with money that may have come from FSU sources — and in a period when Trump came to increasingly depend on such monies.
  • Putin appears to have launched a full-court press on the United States in this time frame through surrogates, and eventually took an interest in Trump as someone who could help advance Russian interests
  • Both Cohen and Sater showed up recently as intermediaries to Trump on behalf of pro-Putin policy initiatives.
  • While Trump has a history of sticking with supporters, even controversial ones, his loyalty does not extend to Cohen, Sater, Manafort (who managed his campaign for a time) and Flynn, who briefly served as National Security Advisor. What do they all have in common? Ties to Russia. Ties that are part of the public record.

While Manafort and Flynn played only specific and short-lived roles with Trump, Cohen has served as confidant, spokesperson and liaison between his boss and powerful foreign agents over the past decade.

Of all the people Trump could have tapped to function as his main man, the lawyer who is always around him, his legal rottweiler, why Michael Cohen?

The story behind Cohen’s pre-Trump connections to an avalanche of dubiously sourced money from the FSU offers a possible explanation — and the tantalizing prospect of new insight into the president’s curious co-dependence with the Kremlin.

The “art of the deal” seems to be about knowing people who need to move money, and getting them to move it through you.

As WhoWhatWhy previously reported, the crux of Trump’s relationship with Moscow goes beyond the presidential campaign to prior dealings that were central to his business empire.

Those dealings concern investors and business partners from various parts of the FSU. Tied into this network of influence are Russian President Vladimir Putin, wealthy FSU businessmen (“oligarchs”), and allied members of organized crime. And, improbably, Cohen, Trump’s own attorney.

Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump at the 2017 G-20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany. Photo credit: President of Russia / Wikimedia (CC BY 4.0)

Enter Cohen, the Ultimate Groupie .

In 2007, the little-known Cohen suddenly became visible in the Trump camp. Positioned close to the throne, he became executive vice president of the Trump Organization and special counsel to Donald Trump.

Cohen told a reporter that he first got hooked on Trump after reading his book, The Art of the Deal, twice, cover to cover. If so, he is the ultimate groupie.

“Over the years I have been offered very lucrative employment opportunities, which I summarily dismissed,” he said. “To those of us who are close to Mr. Trump, he is more than our boss. He is our patriarch.”

Indeed, Cohen has a reputation for being a kind of Trump Mini-Me. In July 2015, he vowed to “mess up” the life of a Daily Beast reporter who brought up the decades-old allegation that Trump assaulted his first wife, Ivana. And he tweeted about his desire to “gut” then-Fox anchor Megyn Kelly when she challenged Trump. Cohen’s bravado has earned him comparisons — from Trump Organization colleagues — to Tom Hagen, Vito Corleone’s consigliere in the Godfather movies.

Trump values fiercely protective loyalists, and none has proven more loyal than Michael Cohen.

With the exception of a quixotic run for New York City Council as a Republican in 2003, Cohen had been a lifelong Democrat, voting for Obama in 2008. So it was a quite a change when he decided to formally join the GOP — after Trump’s inauguration.

But neither that switch nor years of devoted service to the Trump Organization could win Cohen a post in the president’s administration, though he had reportedly yearned for and expected to occupy one. And why was that?

Possibly because by the time Trump took office, Cohen’s name had surfaced in headline-grabbing, Russia-related stories — and that is the one kind of publicity from which Trump has tried to distance himself.

Cohen and the Dossier .

To begin with, the name “Michael Cohen” showed up in the controversial “dossier” put together last year by a former UK foreign intelligence officer doing private research on Russia connections for Trump opponents. The 35-page collection of memos, published in its entirety by Buzzfeed, comprises precise but unverified documentation of continuous contact between Trump associates and Russian operatives during the presidential campaign.

Cohen’s name appeared on page 18 of the dossier, which claimed that he met with Kremlin representatives in Prague last August to conduct damage control on a pair of “western media revelations”: Manafort’s “corrupt relationship” with Ukrainian President Yanukovych and campaign adviser Carter Page’s meeting with “senior regime figures” in Moscow a month earlier.

Cohen has forcefully rejected the notion that he was the man referenced in the dossier. To prove this, he made public his own passport stamps, which indicate he could not have been in the Czech Republic last August.

Shortly after the inauguration, Cohen’s name was in the news again, this time for meeting in late January with a Moscow-connected Ukrainian politician, and in this case his involvement is not in dispute. The Ukrainian had come bearing a “peace agreement” intended to lift punishing economic sanctions that had been imposed on Russia after Putin’s seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea region.

Cohen, Felix Sater, and the Russians .

Cohen purportedly attended the meeting at the urging of Felix Sater, a one-time mob-connected businessman who went on to work with Trump, and about whom WhoWhatWhy has written extensively.

According to The New York Times, as a result of that meeting, Cohen joined other Trump associates already under scrutiny in the FBI’s counterintelligence inquiry related to Russia.

Why was Cohen even in a meeting about US foreign policy at all? As Cohen himself noted, his role as “special counsel” with Trump was limited to representing Trump personally, not as president.

Since the January meeting, Cohen has become even more ghostlike, and his boss has remained conspicuously quiet as Cohen landed in the crosshairs of both the media and Mueller’s investigative unit — two entities Trump hasn’t been shy about lambasting. Though he retains his official title as the president’s personal advisor and attorney, Cohen appears to have been exiled from Trump’s inner circle. Neither the White House Press Office nor the Trump Organization responded to WhoWhatWhy’s inquiry about Cohen’s current role in the Trump orbit.

Trump is not one to banish someone just because he or she is run-of-the-mill controversial. Witness such highly polarizing, risky figures as Stephen Bannon, Sebastian Gorka and Stephen Miller who, though relative latecomers to the Trump camp, were kept on long after they were political liabilities, albeit popular with his ever-shrinking base. (And Miller is still on board.)

So why does Michael Cohen’s fate resemble that of Manafort and Flynn, who were ditched when their Russia-related activities drew unwelcome national attention?

In the Spotlight .

This spring, when it became apparent that members of Congress might wish to question him, the typically brash Cohen declared that he would only testify if he received a subpoena. Which is just what happened — he is now slated to testify before the House Intelligence Committee right after Labor Day.

Compared to some others in Trump’s entourage, he is largely unknown to the public. Notwithstanding those brief moments in the limelight, the media overall (with a few notable exceptions including Talking Points Memo and Buzzfeed) has devoted little attention to him.

But a new development thrust Cohen back into the limelight Monday, when the Washington Post reported that Cohen and Sater had worked together closely in the early months of Trump’s presidential campaign on a plan to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.

At Sater’s suggestion, Cohen had emailed Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s personal spokesperson, to solicit the Kremlin’s approval of the lucrative project while Trump, stumping on the campaign trail, was lavishing the Russian president with praise at debates and rallies. The real estate deal, Sater suggested in a string of emails to Cohen, would be a win-win: Trump would look like a great negotiator, and Putin would be boosting the prospects of the candidate he preferred.

“Buddy our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it,” Sater wrote to Cohen. “I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected.”

The tower never materialized, but their “boy,” of course, did ascend to the presidency. And the Trump Organization renewed ownership of the TrumpTowerMoscow.com domain this July — before the latest controversy, though it has since gone dark.

Cohen’s Own Ukrainian Connections .

The son of a Long Island physician, Michael Dean Cohen received his law degree from a low-ranked Michigan school, the Thomas M. Cooley Law School — a “diploma mill” according to some, which later rebranded as Western Michigan University. The school, which, like Trump, doesn’t hesitate to sue its critics, has highlighted Cohen as an illustrious alumnus.

Cohen was admitted to the New York Bar in 1992 and became a personal injury lawyer.

He soon began assembling a portfolio of businesses outside the legal profession, virtually all involving Ukrainian immigrants — many of whom were, or became, immensely wealthy.

Perhaps the earliest was a taxi business in partnership with the Ukraine-born Simon Garber, who was at one time involved with a Moscow cab company, and now has huge stakes in cab ownership in New York, Chicago and New Orleans.

By 2003, Cohen and Garber were running more than 200 taxis in New York, allowing Cohen to pull in $90,000 a month in 2011. The partnership imploded in 2012 after a nasty legal dispute, after which Cohen went his own way and entrusted his 15 medallion companies to Evgeny Friedman, a Russian immigrant who holds the single largest collection of medallions in New York.

In partnership with two other Ukrainian immigrants, Cohen went into the casino boat business. His partners, Leonid Tatarchuk and Arkady Vaygensberg, were associated with a man who allegedly had FSU mob ties, and with a lawyer indirectly connected to the late mob legend Meyer Lansky.

The gambling venture was besieged by lawsuits from unhappy workers and investors. Cohen has had other legal problems. He could not explain what had become of $350,000 held in a trust account he managed, according to court documents obtained by Buzzfeed News.

Victory Casino Cruises. Photo credit: Rusty Clark ~ 100K Photos / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In 1998 Michael Cohen incorporated two entities: Ukrainian Capital Partners LP and Ukrainian Capital Growth Fund Corp. The Growth Fund was dissolved in 2002, but, according to New York Department of State records, Capital Partners is still active.

Towering Trump Investments .

Shortly after the turn of the century, Cohen took a new direction. He began buying — as did his relatives — properties in buildings with the Trump name.

He obtained his first in 2001: a unit in Trump World Tower at 845 United Nations Plaza. And he kept on buying.

Some years later, the Trump-friendly New York Post profiled Cohen and his passion for Trump developments in a real-estate-porn article headlined “Upping the Ante.”

Once some buyers go Trump, they never go back. Take Michael Cohen, 40, an attorney and partner at Phillips Nizer. He purchased his first Trump apartment at Trump World Tower at 845 United Nations Plaza in 2001. He was so impressed he convinced his parents, his in-laws and a business partner to buy there, too. Cohen’s in-laws went on [to] purchase two more units there and one at Trump Grande in Sunny Isles, Fla.

Cohen then bought at Trump Palace at 200 E. 69th St., and Trump Park Avenue, where he currently resides. He’s currently in the process of purchasing a two-bedroom unit at Trump Place on Riverside Boulevard – so, naturally, Cohen’s next step is to purchase something at Trump Plaza Jersey City. He’s now in negotiations for a two-bedroom unit there.

“Trump properties are solid investments,” says Cohen, who’s also looking at the new Trump SoHo project.

By the time he entered Trump’s employ, Cohen, his relatives and his business partner had already purchased a combined 11 Trump properties.

Why did Cohen and company begin buying all those Trump properties? Where did the money come from? And did Cohen use this spending spree to gain an entrance into Trump’s inner circle?

The answers to these questions may lie in what at first appears to be a mere coincidence: Around the time Cohen began buying these properties — 2000-2001 — the aforementioned Felix Sater apparently first approached Trump.

It is interesting to learn that when Cohen was growing up, he had known and run in the same circles as Sater when both lived on Long Island.

Sater and Cohen would go on to play intriguingly interconnected roles in the saga linking Donald Trump to vast supplies of dubiously sourced money from the FSU.

Sater’s family immigrated to the US in the 1970s, landing in the Coney Island-Brighton Beach area, a part of Brooklyn heavily populated by Soviet emigres — and an area where the Trump family owned lots of buildings.

In addition to the Trump units, Cohen owns entire buildings around New York City. In 2015, while working for Trump, he bought a $58 million apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. According to the New York real estate news site The Real Deal, Cohen also holds multiple luxury apartment units and other buildings on the Lower East Side and in the Kips Bay section of Manhattan.

Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Rustycale / Wikipedia, Leandro Neumann Ciuffo / Flickr (CC BY 2.0), Americasroof (talk) / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0), Alex Proimos / Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0) and Stepanstas / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Cohen has a seemingly limitless appetite for real estate, and his younger brother Bryan, also a lawyer, entered the real estate trade and is now Chief Administrative Officer of DE Development Marketing, part of the prominent Douglas Elliman real estate brokerage.

More Businesses, More Ukrainians .

That Cohen buys luxury Trump apartments like others buy shoes — and that he has a seemingly inexhaustible budget — could conceivably be explained, at least in part, by his ties to people who, as noted earlier, became extremely wealthy after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

There are any number of perfectly legitimate ways for Cohen to amass the funds necessary to purchase entire buildings. Usually, however, the source of such wealth can be ascertained. In Cohen’s case, the source is unclear— and Cohen refused to discuss the origin of those funds with WhoWhatWhy.

It should be noted that Russians and others from the former Soviet Union seeking to move funds West are among the biggest buyers of New York real estate.

But Cohen’s Ukrainian ties run even deeper. His wife, Laura, is from the Ukraine. So is Bryan Cohen’s wife, Oxana.

From here we follow a trail through a somewhat complicated cast of characters. At the end, you will see how all of these people are connected to one another as well as to Trump — and to Russia.

The trail begins with Bryan Cohen’s father-in-law, Alex Oronov, born in Kharkiv, Ukraine, who emigrated with his family to the United States in 1978. He ran a Manhattan art gallery, and eventually, and surprisingly, managed to convince the old-school communist government to partner with him to sell lithographs based on the collection of the State Russian Museum. His influence or skills of persuasion were so good that he even persuaded Kremlin authorities to permit him to open a gift shop at the museum, a rarity in the USSR.

Following Ukrainian independence in 1994, Oronov spotted a far more lucrative opportunity: Ukraine’s privatized bounty of grain. Ukraine has some of Europe’s largest acreage of arable land — and it is highly fertile and productive, making it the “breadbasket of Europe.”

He founded an agribusiness firm, Harvest Moon (later rebranded as Grain Alliance); Bryan Cohen notes in his own online biography that he served as General Counsel and Executive Vice President for Grain Alliance, Americas. It’s not clear where the funding for the enterprise, which had more than 100,000 acres in production at one point, came from.

The firm seems to have benefited from the lack of strong central authorities in the Ukraine. According to a brochure from a Kiev-based law firm, “Foreign Investment in Ukrainian Agriculture,” prepared for a 2010 seminar on investment, “Grain Alliance… expanded rapidly over the last five years when Ukraine had no control from any government officials.”

In this and similar ventures Oronov, from a modest start, became wildly wealthy, working with a network of well-connected Ukrainian politicians and businessmen with alleged mob ties. One of his partners was Viktor Topolov, a wealthy Ukrainian closely associated with figures the FBI has identified as “well known” members of the Russian and Ukrainian underworld. A Ukrainian court document obtained by Buzzfeed reveals that Topolov ignored subpoenas and lied about his role in a money-laundering and fraud investigation in the late 1990s.

FBI Wanted Poster for Semion Mogilevich. Photo credit: FBI

To follow the Trump money trail further requires a brief dip into Ukraine’s recent history, which turns out to be crucial to Michael Cohen’s story.

Ukraine in Tug of War Between East and West .

Starting around 2000, Ukraine increasingly became the subject of a tug of war between the West and Russia. Ukraine was once one of the most valuable parts of the USSR. Since gaining independence in 1991, it has been drawn closer to the West, and has even toyed with the ultimate snub to Russia: joining NATO, the Western military alliance.

The struggle to control Ukraine, its political leaders and its resources, played a major role in Russia’s decision to enter Ukraine militarily in the summer of 2014. This led the West to impose sanctions that have severely harmed Russia’s economy. Putin has made no secret of his desire to get the sanctions lifted.

Also at stake for Russia in its relations with Ukraine is the future of the pipelines that pass through Ukraine, bringing Russian natural gas to Western Europe. Russia is not happy that its lucrative gas exports, the source of much of its foreign exchange, must be transported across the territory of its now-adversary.

Going head to head in the battles to control the future of this resource are sovereign nations, international corporations, shadowy public-private entities, and shady figures like the Ukrainian-born Semion Mogilevich. The reputed “boss of bosses” of organized crime in today’s Russia is believed to be the most powerful mobster in the world. His sub-boss, Vyacheslav Ivankov, was sent to America, and discovered by the FBI living in a luxury condo in Trump Tower, and later, having fled Manhattan, in a Trump casino in Atlantic City.

Mogilevich was identified as the secret majority owner of the Ukrainian stake in a mysterious intermediary company, half-owned by Russian energy giant Gazprom. Ivankov later stated that Mogilevich and Putin were close; soon after, the man was gunned down on a Moscow street.

One beneficiary of the Ukrainian pipeline situation was future Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who was paid millions of dollars by prominent players in the natural gas scramble.

While questions swirled about the international ramifications of the pipeline battle, Sater, then an FBI informant, traveled to Ukraine and Russia — ostensibly searching for properties to develop with the Trump Organization.

Alex Oronov. Photo credit: Facebook / TPM

In the past, Cohen has downplayed his connections to the FSU. In a January 2017 interview with Yahoo News, he averred that he had only been to Ukraine twice — “either 2003 or 2004.” The reason? His “brother’s father-in-law [i.e., Oronov] lives in Kiev.”

However, Cohen seemingly would not have to travel to see his relative. Oronov had homes in the US — including one on Long Island and one at the Trump Hollywood in Hollywood, Florida; he was even registered to vote in Florida.

The Cohens said that they knew nothing about Topolov when they pitched the project. But if they didn’t know the background of Bryan Cohen’s father-in-law’s famous longtime business partner, they’re unusually ill-informed, and certainly failed to do due diligence in a situation well-known to be rife with financial criminals.

Cohen and Sater and Trump….Together .

The Trumps themselves have stated that their company came to depend increasingly over the years on monies tied to the FSU. Thus, it would not be illogical to wonder whether Michael Cohen was brought into the Trump Organization because of his ability to help in that regard.

But there’s more here. As mentioned above, Cohen dovetails in interesting ways with another FSU-tied figure who entered Trump’s orbit in roughly the same period: Felix Sater, the one-time mob-connected businessman who worked with Trump in the past, and about whom, as noted earlier, WhoWhatWhy has written extensively. Both bring ostensible ties to people who themselves have links to organized crime, and to those whose interests coincide with those of Vladimir Putin and his oligarchic network.

Take Topolov, with whom Cohen and his brother have done business. Via a conglomerate of his, Topolov employed three executives the FBI have described as members of a violent Russian organized-crime network: one, a mob enforcer closely associated with Mogilevich, the powerful organized crime boss, was reportedly responsible for at least 20 murders.

We previously reported about Mogilevich’s associates’s ties to Trump Tower, dating back to the 1990s. We noted how, from its inception, Trump Tower was a popular place with people having organized crime connections. We noted the various people connected with the FSU, with FSU organized crime, and the ties between those organizations and the Putin regime.

We told the story of Sater, a USSR-born felon who had cut a deal to serve as a confidential source for the FBI in return for leniency after he was caught participating in a major financial fraud with a group of men including one with American organized crime ties.

We explained that tackling FSU influence in Wall Street had become one of the FBI’s highest priorities.

We described how, circa 2001, Sater joined Bayrock, a real estate development company run by FSU emigres in Trump Tower, and eventually began working directly with Donald Trump. Sater and Bayrock were supplying Trump with income during a period when his other investments had been suffering.

Trump Tower. Photo credit: baba_1967 / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The money spigot was apparent to all. In a 2008 deposition, Sater even testified that, upon Trump’s request, he accompanied Donald Jr. and Ivanka on business trips to the FSU. Donald Jr. would later declare that the region had become the family’s main source of investment.

While Sater was moving up in the Trump orbit, Cohen’s status as a mysterious Trump real estate mega-investor of uncertain wealth and an undistinguished legal practice changed, seemingly overnight.

In 2006, the year before he went to work fulltime for Trump, Cohen suddenly went big-time, becoming, briefly, a partner at a prominent New York firm, Phillips Nizer, where, according to a profile, “he counted [Trump] as one of his many high-profile wealthy clients.”

He was then offered a job by the developer. The reason? “I suspect,” Cohen said, “he was impressed with both my handling of matters as well as the results.”

According to cached images of the Phillips Nizer website found in the Internet Archive, he was first listed as partner in October 2006. By May 2007, about the time he was hired by Trump, Cohen’s title was changed from partner to counsel. He remained in the Phillips Nizer directory as counsel until some time in late 2008.

What exactly did this obscure former personal injury lawyer bring to the firm? It has become increasingly common for law firms to bring on board anyone who can bring business with them. Interestingly, Cohen’s practice there was described as including distressed debt — which certainly could have described Trump’s frequently unstable situation. Mark Landis, managing partner at the firm, declined to comment, saying it is policy not to discuss current or former colleagues.

But in an interview with WhoWhatWhy, Bryan Cohen said that both he and his brother came to Phillips Nizer as part of a merger between Nizer and their entity, the Cohen Law Firm. Asked why Nizer wanted to combine with the much smaller Cohen operation, Bryan Cohen declined to say, terming the question “irrelevant.”

Photo credit: baba_1967 / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Whatever one is to make of Cohen’s sudden affiliation with Phillips Nizer, just as abruptly as he appeared, he moved on. So did Bryan Cohen, who joined the real estate firm, Douglas Elliman.

Michael Cohen officially joined Trump’s organization in a top position — as Executive Vice President and Special Counsel.

With Sater already working with Trump, this meant that for much of 2007, two of Trump’s key people were decidedly unusual fellows with major ties to the FSU.

Thus we see a fascinating pattern in which two childhood acquaintances began entering the Trump orbit at the same time, circa 2000-2001 (with Cohen making his extraordinary string of Trump property purchases and Sater moving into business in Trump Tower) and, by 2007, both were working near each other inside the Trump empire itself.

In this period, we see a third figure who would later become highly controversial for his links into the FSU: Paul Manafort.

It was in 2006 that the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, long a close Putin associate, signed a whopping $10 million a year contract with Manafort based on what Manafort had presented as efforts inside the United States that would “greatly benefit the Putin government.” (As the Daily Beast reported, few have noted that Deripaska soon partnered with Manafort and the Ukrainian alleged gangster Dmytro Firtash in acquiring New York’s Drake Hotel.)

That same year, Manafort himself bought an apartment…. In Trump Tower.

A Whirlwind in the Former Soviet Union .

In September 2007, Trump, Sater and another partner posed for a photo at the opening of their Trump SoHo Hotel in New York.

The celebration would be brief. In December, the Times revealed that Sater had a criminal past.

Donald Trump, Tevfik Arif and Felix Sater attend the Trump Soho Launch Party on September 19, 2007 in New York. Photo credit: Mark Von Holden / WireImage

This potentially put Trump in a very difficult spot. If Trump were to admit that he knew Sater was a convicted felon but did business with him nonetheless, he, the Trump Organization, and anyone within the company who knew of it would be potentially liable for sky-high sums. This was especially true for the Trump-Bayrock projects (as noted, many of them financed by FSU figures), as so many of them ended terribly, with multiple lawsuits across many states.

Bayrock unraveled. Trump SoHo went into foreclosure in 2013, after just three years of operation, leaving a slew of unoccupied units in the hands of a new developer. It was the firm’s final deal. As is now well known,Trump, who would later claim to barely know Sater, kept him on in the building and, if anything, he and Sater grew even closer. Indeed, Sater was soon working directly for Trump himself, with an office, business cards, phone number and email address all provided by the Trump Organization. The cards identified him as a “Senior Advisor to Donald Trump.”

In this period, Trump Organization activities in the countries of the former Soviet Union appear to have accelerated.

In 2010 and 2012, while working for Trump, Cohen traveled to the former Soviet Republics of Kazakhstan and Georgia. It’s worth noting that Bayrock had earlier received large infusions of cash from the ultra-corrupt Kazakhstan, and other funds from Georgia, also awash in ill-gotten fortunes.

In 2013, leading up to the Russian-hosted winter Olympics in Sochi, a close Putin ally reached out to Trump.

Aras Agalarov, an Azerbaijani billionaire real estate developer with Russian citizenship who is known as the “Donald Trump of Russia,” paid Trump millions of dollars to bring Trump’s Miss Universe Pageant to Moscow.

One better — Pics of a private dinner in Las Vegas with Aras, Emin, Goldstone, and Trump sitting directly across / next to each other: pic.twitter.com/3g2Fj7MEEs

— MD (@mikeydoubled) July 12, 2017

An Instagram post by Agalarov’s son shows Cohen with Trump and Agalarov at the Trump Vegas around the time the deal was inked.

Right around this time, Putin awarded Agalarov a state medal for his entrepreneurial and philanthropic contributions to Russia.

The Third American Political Party: Russia .

As Trump’s relationship to the former Soviet Union intensified, so, seemingly, did Russian interest in the American political system and the presidency.

In 2014, we now know, US intelligence secretly identified what it determined was a Russian effort to sow doubt and chaos in the US elections system.

By then, Trump was widely recognized for his long-standing presidential ambitions — he ran for the office as a Reform Party candidate in 2000, garnering more than 15,000 votes in the California primary before abruptly dropping out. The Russians understood that he also had mass appeal, and a personality, temperament and history associated with provoking strong and divisive reactions.

Also, in a GOP primary field with a crowd of lackluster candidates, Trump was guaranteed to draw considerable public and media interest. At a time when Hillary Clinton, an antagonist of Putin, was viewed as virtually a shoo-in, Trump was a dark horse and a wild card, but one with plenty of outside potential to shake things up.

By February, 2015, Trump had already recruited staff in early voting states; a month later, he formed a presidential exploratory committee and delayed the production of “The Apprentice,” the still-running reality television show that established Trump as a pop culture icon in the mid-2000s. Trump officially announced his candidacy for president on June 16, 2015.

The date of the first campaign-related contacts between Trump’s people and the Russians is not clear, though as time passes, we are learning of earlier and earlier interactions.

Matters seem to have come to a head in June 2016, when, at the request of Russians, Donald Trump Jr. convened a meeting in his office.

Paul Manafort, Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner. Photo credit: Watch the video on C-SPAN, Gage Skidmore / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs / Flickr.

When the meeting was revealed in July 2017, a panicked Donald Trump Jr. sought to downplay it, claiming it was to discuss policy toward adoptions of Russian children. Further revelations forced him to gradually disclose bits of information that cumulatively make clear the meeting was in response to Russian offers to help Trump’s candidacy by providing intelligence on Clinton that could be used against her.

Among those attending were Manafort, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, and publicist Rob Goldstone — who works for the son of the previously mentioned Russian real estate mogul Aras Agalarov and who brokered the meeting. Also present was Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, a fervent opponent of the Magnitsky Act, which imposed sanctions on certain Russian officials following the imprisonment, and subsequent death, of a Russian tax accountant investigating fraud. Veselnitskaya claimed to hold incriminating information about Hillary Clinton.

Another participant was Rinat Akhmetshin, whose past activities and associations led some to wonder whether he was or is a spy. Sen. Judiciary Committee Chair Charles Grassley, a Republican, speculated that the meeting itself was a classic ploy of Russian intelligence, intended to draw the Trump people into a potentially incriminating relationship. That, perhaps paradoxically, would likely make Trump even more vulnerable and beholden to Putin.

And of course the meeting was arranged via Goldstone, who works for the Agalarovs — who performed such valuable services to Russia that, as noted, Putin gave Aras Agalarov a medal.

Cozier and Cozier .

To sum up, Trump’s financial fortunes seem — both by appearance and by statements from the Trumps themselves — to have been heavily dependent on money from the former Soviet Union. Besides the Cohen retinue buying at least 11 apartments in Trump buildings, the money that came in through Felix Sater was also from the FSU.

How much of the funds that kept Trump’s shaky financial empire afloat in those lean years had its origins in the part of the world dominated by the Kremlin? Well, how much did not? Even Donald Trump, Jr. declared in 2008 that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

As for Trump, he has repeatedly tweeted and declared that he has no loans “from Russia” and no “deals” in Russia. While that may be technically true, what’s more important is that money that originated in the FSU has played a crucial role in his business career. The “art of the deal” seems to be about knowing people who need to move money, and getting them to move it through you.

Felix Sater and Trump business card superimposed over FBI building. Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Cliff / Flickr (CC BY 2.0), 591J / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0) and Boing Boing (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0).

Sater appears to have been an FBI asset for many years, including at least some of the years when Cohen was working with Trump.

Sater denied to WhoWhatWhy that any of his reports to the FBI from Trump Tower concerned organized crime figures in Russia, and asserted that he had never even heard of Mogilevich, though his own father was said to be a Mogilevich underling.

In any case, the FBI agents running Sater were extremely focused on the FSU underworld. It is likely that they would take an interest in the partner of Cohen’s in-law, and all the partner’s ties to organized crime. And they would surely have been interested in how Donald Trump fit into this underworld web all around him.

The Ukraine “Peace Deal” .

Yet Cohen remained mostly out of the public eye, even as myriad Trump associates (including Manafort) ended up in the hot seat for their business dealings in the FSU.

That changed with the report of the January 27, 2017, meeting between Cohen, Sater and Ukrainian politician Andrii V. Artemenko at a luxury hotel in New York.

The three men discussed a proposed Russia-Ukraine peace agreement that would result in the lifting of economic sanctions against Russia. Artemenko told The New York Times that Cohen delivered the proposal to Michael Flynn, who was then Trump’s national security advisor. Cohen has told different stories about his role, but in one interview he confirmed that he delivered a bundle of documents containing the proposal to Flynn’s office while Flynn was still part of the Trump administration. Cohen has insisted he was not aware of any Kremlin involvement.

In bragging about his role in getting such material into the White House, Artemenko comes across as clumsy and artless, seemingly oblivious to how devastating the revelation could have been to Trump had the media and, say, influential congressmen made more of it. But was he naive? Or was this actually a House of Cards-type scenario, where the Russians were deliberately publicizing another bit of incriminating material on Trump in order to gain yet more leverage over him and control over his fate?

The Artemenko “peace plan” was — importantly — accompanied by documents that purported to reveal corruption on the part of Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, which could be used to weaken (and potentially topple) the Ukrainian regime led by an enemy of Putin.

This of course made the current Ukrainian authorities go ballistic. No more has emerged on the document bundle, or what, if anything, resulted from its arrival in the White House. But the intent was clearly to advance Russia’s interests, and that of a pro-Russian Ukrainian politico with historic ties to Manafort.

Andrii V. Artemenko superimposed photo of Michael Cohen. Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from IowaPolitics.com / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0) and A. V. Artemenko / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Although Felix Sater was present at the meeting as a supposed intermediary, he wouldn’t have been needed for that. Artemenko had known Cohen for years. Cohen’s brother’s father-in-law was, as mentioned earlier, tied to Artemenko through business. Artemenko was also closely tied to Topolov, the allegedly money-laundering Ukrainian politician in business with Oronov, Bryan Cohen’s father-in-law. (Oronov died March 2 after suffering from what Bryan Cohen described to WhoWhatWhy as an “incredibly aggressive” cancer diagnosed three months earlier.)

Artemenko said that his Russia-Ukraine sanctions proposal had been discussed with Cohen and Sater back during the primaries in early 2016, just as Trump was emerging as the frontrunner.

Western sanctions have delivered some crushing blows to Russia’s economy, slashing both its GDP and ruble value by 50 percent in three years, according to a 2017 Congressional Research Service report. Though the economy is expected to resume modest growth, getting out from under the stifling sanctions is for Putin still a national security concern of the highest possible priority. And the Trump camp had been all about lifting the sanctions.

During the 2016 Republican Convention, the party surprisingly removed from its platform a condemnation of Russia over its incursion into Ukraine. Initially, both Donald Trump and campaign manager Paul Manafort denied any knowledge of the platform change. Much later, though, we learned that Trump’s platform chairman, J. D. Gordon, had met with the Russian ambassador during the convention.

In an interview with CNN’s Jim Acosta, Gordon said he had promoted the softening of the language on Ukraine — a softening that Trump himself had advocated earlier in the year, in a meeting with Gordon. Later still, Gordon would attempt to walk back the admission in a parsing reminiscent of Bill Clinton: “I mean, what’s the definition of pushed for the amendment, right? It’s an issue of semantics.”

Semantics or no semantics, the platform was changed.

Trump himself has been very kind to Russia. As a candidate, he worked strenuously to avoid criticizing Russia. He wouldn’t even acknowledge that Russia had seized Crimea, or that it had military units in eastern Ukraine. Even after he was nominated, he told a reporter,

“Just so you understand: [Putin] is not going to go into Ukraine, all right?,” as if that had not already happened two years earlier.

This seeming quid pro quo with Russia suggests the extent to which Russia has compromised the Trump White House.

Having Cohen and Sater deliver the sanctions “peace proposal” to Flynn, a trusted figure with his own Russia connections, keeps Trump himself out of the loop, something Cohen would well understand — that’s one of the core things lawyers do understand, and a role they often play.

We also know that Artemenko’s role in the meetings with Cohen and Sater led Ukraine’s chief prosecutor to open a treason investigation.

Why would Cohen go to such a meeting? It seems crazy. But then the Trump team’s defining trait has been its reckless bravado, and a brash disregard for troubling appearances.

As for Artemenko’s seemingly bumbling admission about the meeting, it is reminiscent of the “indiscretion” of Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the US, who went to the Republican convention to meet with Manafort about softening the GOP’s stance toward Russia. Although Trump and Manafort vigorously denied it, Kislyak then went public with his own account of the meeting.

In the complex game being played by Putin, with Russia’s (and Putin’s) future at stake, Trump seems to have been cornered into a precarious dependence on Russian “good will.” As we noted months ago, the FBI has long known much of this. What former FBI director and Special Counsel Robert Mueller will do about it remains to be seen.

WhoWhatWhy sought an interview with Cohen, but he declined. When we offered to send him questions, he wrote back: “You can send questions but not committing to respond.” We did send questions. And he did not respond.

Research assistance: Claire Wang

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Michael Cohen (IowaPolitics.com / Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0), Stormy Daniels (ASACP RTA / Flickr – CC BY-NC 2.0), and seal (US Government / Wikimedia).

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Tillerson State Department Cuts

Wed, 2018-02-14 09:37
‘The Voice France’ Contestant Quits After Criticism for Pro-Palestine Stance (Trevin)

22-year-old Arab French singer Mennel Ibtissem left the show after coming under fire for old social media posts supporting Palestine, and criticizing the French government after the Nice and Paris attacks. In a video statement, she called her decision “the condition” of achieving her musical goals rather than the end of her career.

In Italy, Berlusconi Furthers Return (Reader Steve)

Slightly, anyway. Since his barring from office for a slew of charges, former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is using various tactics to influence Italy’s upcoming elections. And it appears to be working.

The Deadly Rule of the Oligarchs (Jimmy)

The author writes, “Oligarchs, though they speak of deconstructing the administrative state, actually increase deficits and the size and power of law enforcement and the military to protect their global business interests and ensure domestic social control. The parts of the state that serve the common good wither in the name of deregulation and austerity. The parts that promote the oligarchs’ power expand in the name of national security, economic growth, and law and order.”

Netanyahu’s Attorney General (Dan)

News broke yesterday that Israeli police are recommending arrest for the country’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, on fraud, bribery, and general corruption. Israel’s current attorney general, who will pursue the case against the prime minister, was promoted by Netanyahu from relative obscurity to this high post. Despite this connection, other actions by Israel’s AG show that Netanyahu might not have such an easy case.

Here’s a Health-Care Model for Bezos, Buffett and Dimon: Medicare (Jimmy)

The author writes, “It seems a pretty squirrely way of admitting that our current system, dominated by for-profit private insurance, does not represent the optimal means of delivering health care. The call to action also implies that the three executives have little faith that the magic of the market on its own will somehow manage to provide insurance so cheap that everyone will be able to afford it whatever their income and medical status.”

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Major Powers Mingle in Syria in an Explosive Mix

Wed, 2018-02-14 07:09

The US, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Israel are all on a collision course with each other in Syria as each maneuvers aggressively to get the most from the endgame of the brutal Syrian civil war, now approaching its seventh anniversary. The danger of a big-power conflict starting by accident rather than intention has not been so high in decades.

All five regional and global powers, except the US, have had an aircraft shot down inside (or from inside) Syria in the space of about a week. During the same period, US jets bombed a Syrian government force — whose patrons are Russia and Iran — and growing tensions between the US and NATO ally Turkey reached the point of military threats.

“As long as ISIS was still a powerful force in Syria, the US and Russia worked together to concentrate on defeating ISIS, and they agreed on deconfliction zones around Syria … but now that ISIS is destroyed, and it’s just a policing matter, there is a scramble for the endgame.”

Analysts say that the Turkish intervention in northern Syria, which started just over three weeks ago, foreshadows a new and dangerous phase of the Syrian civil war. Once mainly a battle between the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad and anti-government rebels, the conflict has morphed into a multi-sided war involving Syria, the US, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Israel and various groups affiliated with al-Qaeda and ISIS.

The (near complete) defeat of ISIS and a string of military victories of the Syrian regime against the rebels have cemented Assad’s rule over much of the country and carved out a Kurdish autonomous zone, aided by the US, in the north. These developments have pushed countries such as Turkey, a traditional enemy of the Kurds and an ally of the rebels against Assad, to act as spoilers. We have written about this extensively in the past.

“This is a scramble for position in Syria,” Joshua Landis, a prominent Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, told WhoWhatWhy. “As long as ISIS was still a powerful force in Syria, the US and Russia worked together to concentrate on defeating ISIS, and they agreed on deconfliction zones around Syria … but now that ISIS is destroyed, and it’s just a policing matter, there is a scramble for the endgame.”

Here is an overview of the main events from the past few weeks, all of which illustrate the great danger that this conflict will spread beyond Syria:

Israeli Warplane Shot Down on February 10 .

According to reports in the Israeli press, the F-16 downed inside Israel by Syrian anti-aircraft missiles, just after it had bombed the control vehicle of an advanced Iranian stealth drone that had crossed into Israel’s airspace earlier, is the first Israeli warplane to be shot down since 1982. In response, Israel claimed to have seriously damaged Syria’s air defenses while striking several Iranian targets. What is particularly interesting is that many in Israel appear to see Russia, rather than the US, as having the power and responsibility to prevent a larger war.

Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from LiveuaMap

US-Turkish Military Tensions .

Until recently, few believed that a military confrontation between NATO’s largest and second-largest armies was possible. But Turkey is now demanding that the US evacuate its forces from Manbij, a city just east of the Kurdish territory where the main action is currently happening. Turkey wants the US out so that its army and its Syrian allies can attack the Kurdish-led coalition which controls Manbij. The US has refused to abandon its allies, and the American commander of the anti-ISIS coalition had a stern message for the Turks on his visit to the front lines on February 7:

“You hit us, we will respond aggressively,” said Lt. Gen. Paul Funk, cited by the New York Times. “We will defend ourselves.”

Will Turkey risk attacking Manbij while US forces are engaged there? That question may be decided by domestic Turkish politics, according to Ege Seckin, a Turkey expert at the London-based analysis firm IHS.

“We are talking about a situation in which Turkey will probably be moving towards an early presidential election this year, I expect it somewhere between July and September, because [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan will really want to make sure he benefits from the momentum in popularity he is gaining from this operation,” Seckin said. “This operation has really consolidated Erdogan’s support, where previously we had been seeing major cracks emerging.”

US Airstrikes on Syrian Troops on February 7 .

After the Syrian government attempted to attack Kurdish forces allied with the US in southeastern Syria, the US launched airstrikes on Syrian government forces that reportedly killed over 100 Syrian soldiers. Persistent but as yet unverified reports claim that Russian military contractors were among the casualties (a recent Bloomberg report somewhat implausibly claimed that up to 200 Russian contractors may have been killed). Experts say it was a message to the Syrian government, Russia and Turkey that the US will stick with its allies.

#SRO – What happened in Kusham area is the first real and strong #US action to protect its interests, the #SDF and its military advisors… Be sure this will reinforce #SDF recuitment policy and popularity… (1)

— Syrian Rebellion Obs (@Syria_Rebel_Obs) February 8, 2018

The Kurds and the Syrian government have kept up an uneasy truce for years while fighting their common enemies — ISIS and other Sunni jihadists, including groups backed by Turkey. The recent attack, nevertheless, took place near lucrative resources: some of Syria’s largest (if still fairly small by international standards) oil fields, held by US allies. It may well have been an opportunistic attempt by the government forces, especially since the Kurdish-led forces had just reportedly withdrawn some of their fighters from the area in order to counter the Turkish invasion of Afrin in the opposite northwestern corner of the Syrian map, some 400 kilometers away by road.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if Syria wanted to probe and see what happens,” said Landis.

Russian Warplane Downed on February 3 .

Syrian rebels shot down a low-flying Russian military plane over the northern province of Idlib on February 3 and killed the pilot in ensuing clashes. Russia responded by launching airstrikes at rebel-held territory and closing Syria’s airspace for Turkish aircraft for a few days, hampering the Turkish operation in neighboring Afrin. On Thursday night, nevertheless, Turkish airstrikes on the Kurdish positions resumed, in what some speculated was a Russian response to the US strike in the southeast.

The plane was shot down just as Turkey was seeking to set up a military observation post in Idlib, and reportedly to block Syrian army advances against the rebels nearby. A Turkish soldier at the observation post died on February 6 in an artillery attack believed to have been carried out by pro-government forces. It was the second time in two weeks that the Turkish army came under attack while trying to set up positions in the area.

A Quagmire for Turkey? .

February 10 was the deadliest day so far for the Turkish army in its Afrin operation, dubiously named “Olive Branch.” At least one Turkish military helicopter was shot down by the Kurds (separate unconfirmed reports say two were downed) and no fewer than 11 Turkish troops were killed in clashes.

The fog of war is thick over Afrin and the accounts coming from the different sides differ spectacularly. Looking at the map, it seems fair to estimate that in about three weeks of fighting Turkey and its allies have captured about 10 percent of tiny Afrin. The Kurds are responding with guerrilla tactics: mountainous and rural areas change hands frequently and the invading force is suffering significant casualties. Once the mountains are conquered the pace of territorial conquests should speed up, Seckin said; but, the real trouble for Turkey would come once its forces reach densely-populated urban areas such as Afrin city.

“If they try to take those urban areas, I think we’d be looking at a completely different ball game,” he added.

Many analysts (including Seckin) expect a siege of Afrin to be more difficult than the Turkish-led storming of the nearby ISIS-held city of al-Bab a little more than a year ago. That operation took over three months.

Internationally, moreover, Ankara already appears to be losing the war of perception. Reports about Turkey recruiting former ISIS foot soldiers and other jihadists to fight against the Kurds, who played a key role in the defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, are just the latest fiasco for Ankara. Turkish bombardment has killed over 100 civilians, according to local reports. In videos circulated on social media, Turkish-backed forces have been shown torturing civilians, looting and mutilating the bodies of fallen Kurdish fighters. The Turkish armed forces have devastated world-heritage sites, schools and water facilities alike.

Domestically, while the war has rallied unprecedented support for Erdogan, it has also further damaged what’s left of Turkey’s democracy. In three weeks, the government has detained hundreds of its citizens, including 11 members of the Turkish Medical Association, for criticizing the military operation.

Turkey has so far detained 573 people for social media posts and protests criticizing its military offensive in Afrin, Syria pic.twitter.com/HREbnIZQMh

— Turkey Untold (@TurkeyUntold) February 5, 2018

ISIS Makes a Minor Resurgence .

Different reports, including one in the British newspaper The Independent, say that ISIS, after crushing defeats in Iraq and Syria, is trying to resurrect itself — with, at least indirect, Turkish help. On February 13, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also reportedly claimed that Turkey’s operation in Afrin is harming the fight against ISIS.


Stay tuned as we bring you further developments.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Recep Tayyip Erdogan (President of the Russia / Wikimedia – CC BY 4.0), Bashar al-Assad (Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr / Wikimedia), Donald Trump (DoD  / Wikimedia), Benjamin Netanyahu (TheCuriousGnome / Wikimedia), and Vladimir Putin (President of the Russia / Wikimedia – CC BY 4.0).

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February 13, 2018

Wed, 2018-02-14 01:45

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February 13, 2018

Tue, 2018-02-13 19:54

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Protester Banned for Outing Oil and Gas Donations

Tue, 2018-02-13 10:07
The Stock Market Swings Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Our Rigged Economy (Jimmy)

The author writes, “When analysts say that the Dow Jones industrial average went up or down for this or that reason, they are often just guessing. What specifically moves a body as complex as the stock market is in some ways unknowable, but it is useful to explore the cause being ascribed to last week’s crash — rising wages — apart from its implications for the market. What it says about the way our economy is structured is much more profound.”

Consumer Finance Protection Bureau Pulls Back (Reader Pat)

Created after the 2008 financial crisis, the CFPB, now under a new Trump-appointee, aims for more of a “free market” approach to regulating the finance industry.

Move Over Food Stamps, Here’s Your Government Food Box (Dan)

President Trump’s budget included a plan to eliminate food stamps and, instead, provide a food box with “100 percent US grown and produced food.” “America’s Harvest Box” would include items like “shelf-stable milk, peanut butter, canned fruits and meats, and cereal.” The details, such as what if someone has a peanut allergy, have not yet been elaborated.

Corporate Media Hires CIA, Pentagon Officials as Talking Heads — Who Push for More War (Jimmy)

The author writes, “This approach combines the worst of both worlds: while Americans are told that their media apparatus is free because it is not state owned, the news broadcasts on their televisions are replete with pugnacious talking heads who have spent most of their lives working for the government, and its notoriously violent military and intelligence agencies.”

Networks Take Sh*t for Repeating Trump’s Sh*thole Comment (Reader Luke)

Buzzfeed reports: “Now my nephew is running around calling everything a sh*thole,” complained one viewer from Fenton, Michigan. “NBC must be fined for this, there’s no excuse to use these words on broadcast television.”

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John Perry Barlow’s Last Words

Tue, 2018-02-13 07:05

Mother American Night: My Life in Crazy Times, by John Perry Barlow and Robert Greenfield (Crown Archetype, June 2018).

John Perry Barlow’s sudden death last week shined a spotlight on his high-profile life one last time. His last book, scheduled for June publication, was released for review the day he died. Barlow was a valued member of the WhoWhatWhy Advisory Board, and we review this extraordinary memoir with mixed feelings of sadness for his loss and gratitude for his efforts to keep the internet free.

It was a most uncomfortable feeling to receive and begin reading Mother American Night: My Life in Crazy Times the day John Perry Barlow died. The prologue, “Not Dead Enough,” describes how the book came about but didn’t make it any easier.

Barlow had been dead eight minutes when a young intern yanked him off the bed onto the floor and proceeded to knee him in the chest until his heart reactivated. This, after barely surviving the removal of a huge tumor on his spine, a growth discovered while he was being treated for a horrendous staph infection he got from brand-new cowboy boots. He decided it was time to focus on this book of memoirs.

It contains a chronological stack of stories spread over 47 lightning-quick chapters. Some are being told for the first time, like when he drove to Boston in the 1960s — out of his mind on chemicals — to become the first American suicide bomber. He intended to sit on the lap of a statue and blow himself up. The who’s who of Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he was student president, descended on the place he was crashing, brought him back and put him in a sanatorium to bring him down. It took two weeks — and he resumed classes as if nothing had happened.

Mother American Night: My Life in Crazy Times by John Perry Barlow. Photo credit: Crown Archetype

All through his life, Barlow (known as “johnperry” to anyone who mattered to him) caught breaks: getting through customs with a life-sized head sculpture filled with hash plus a page full of LSD tabs. Or hitting gravel on a motorcycle, wearing only cutoffs and not even shoes, and taking himself to the hospital. He couldn’t wear clothes while he healed, and showed up at a university board meeting just in shorts. Given the choice, Barlow always took the more dangerous path.

Aimlessly, he managed to be in absolutely the right place at the right time. He spent the Summer of Love (1967) in Haight-Ashbury in the home of the Grateful Dead. In the early 70s, he lived beside Needle Park on New York’s Upper West Side and dealt cocaine in Spanish Harlem. He got into computers in the mid-80s, and his links to the Dead got him entrée to computer high society, which was populated by deadheads.

Among the right places at the right time, Barlow:

  • Had his pick of top eastern universities (despite his school record) simply because he was from Wyoming, where few applications originated.
  • Forged three medical excuses from the draft, and though discovered (he used the same typewriter for all three) got away with it.
  • Worked with Dick Cheney to get him into Congress, but realized he was a “global sociopath” interested only in pure power. They argued fiercely, and went their separate ways.
  • Had John F. Kennedy Jr. as a 17 year-old summer intern on his ranch, taught him how to fly, and warned him about instrument flying, which, like Barlow, he could not master. Before Kennedy plunged his plane into the ocean, they danced together at a Prince concert in New York and got the whole Radio City audience up and dancing — and no one recognized them.
  • Became a close friend of Timothy Leary, after meeting him as an anonymous undergrad. It was Barlow whom Leary wanted at his side when he died, though that didn’t quite work out.
  • Got a $5,000 advance on a novel while an undergraduate, and instead of finishing it, took off to India with the money.
  • With no connections, sold several screenplays to Hollywood to raise money for the family ranch.
  • Wrote the lyrics for 30 Grateful Dead songs.
  • With no qualifications but his Dead connection, worked for Steve Jobs on a book idolizing the corporate culture of Apple, and later, the NeXT news magazine.
  • Co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation with Mitch Kapor, who diverted his private transcontinental flight to Wyoming to meet him. This was both a momentous development for the internet and a transformation for Barlow from deadhead druggie to respected diplomat.

It was a remarkable, varied, exciting, and high-profile life. But it’s not as if John Perry Barlow was anyone’s idol.

Left to right: John Gilmore, John Perry Barlow and Mitch Kapor, founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 2005. Photo credit: JD Lasica / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

He was an alcoholic, smoked three packs a day, took more than a thousand hits of LSD, dealt cocaine, cheated on women (a family tradition) with abandon, and tested his luck constantly. With homes in San Francisco, Wyoming and New York, he was an absentee father of three.

On the other hand, he consciously and deliberately tried to make things better, opening up copyright for art’s sake, helping Wikileaks in its time of need, and building an environmental startup to clean and recycle biomass. The book ends as it begins, when he was finally able to accept the love shown to him over a lifetime. His wish seemed to be that the rest of us not wait quite as long.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from John Perry Barlow (Joi Ito / Flickr – CC BY 2.0), Grateful Dead (Chris Stone / Wikimedia – CC BY-SA 2.0), Dick Cheney (The White House / Wikimedia), Timothy Leary (Philip H. Bailey / Wikimedia – CC BY-SA 2.5), Steve Jobs (Matthew Yohe / Wikimedia- CC BY 3.0), John F. Kennedy Jr. (NASA / Wikimedia), and Mitch Kapor (Jonathan Feinberg / Wikimedia – CC BY-NC 2.0).

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February 12, 2018

Tue, 2018-02-13 00:44

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