• ZipDialog Roundup for Thursday, April 27

    Topics and articles chosen with care. Linked articles in bold purple

     Trump goes BIG with proposed tax cuts

    New York Times: “Trump Proposes Sharply Cutting Tax Rates for Individuals”

    The plan is still broad strokes, rather than details, but the strokes are bold.  The point men are Steven Mnuchin at Treasury and Gary Cohn at the National Economic Council.

    The proposal envisions slashing the tax rate paid by businesses large and small to 15 percent. The number of individual income tax brackets would shrink from seven to three — 10, 25 and 35 percent — easing the tax burden on most Americans, including the president, although aides did not offer the income ranges for each bracket.

    Individual tax rates currently have a ceiling of 39.6 percent and a floor of 10 percent. Most Americans pay taxes somewhere between the two.

    The president would eliminate the estate tax and alternative minimum tax, a parallel system that primarily hits wealthier people by effectively limiting the deductions and other benefits available to them. –New York Times

    The Times also has a perceptive story: Trump’s Tax Plan Is a Reckoning for Republican Deficit Hawks

    The White House insists that economic growth will cover the cost, which could be as high as $7 trillion over a decade. But the question will dog Republicans and could fracture their party as they face the prospect of endorsing a plan that many economists and budget analysts warn will increase the deficit. –New York Times

    Comment: The main story on tax cuts is riddled with editorial attacks on Trump and often personal ones. The opening line of the lead story is that the tax cuts benefit the rich. And all the stories emphasize the NYT’s speculation–and that is all it is–that the cuts will benefit Trump personally. The implications are that he is self-dealing and that this plan is just another “favor-the-rich, Republican plutocrat” idea. They also love to follow the “benefit the rich” with the words “like Donald Trump.” They have given up all pretense of distinguishing their hard-news reporting from their editorial stance. The difference is the first thing student journalists learn.

     US THAAD anti-missile system, sent to South Korea, to be active within days  (CNN)

    Comment: The US has also sent major naval assets to the area, while China and Russia have deployed significant land forces, possibly fearing an influx of refugees if the Kim regime collapse. But also a signal to Kim Jong Un that he is facing pressure on multiple fronts. 

     Obamacare repeal: House GOP factions making progress, Senate Republicans still an obstacle.  Politico reports: GOP senators not so keen on House’s Obamacare repeal

    The House may finally be on its way to scrapping Obamacare, but don’t expect the Senate to go along: Any plan sent over will undergo major surgery — and survival is far from assured.

    The hurdles in the upper chamber were on vivid display Wednesday as House Republicans celebrated their breakthrough on the stalled repeal effort. The compromise cut with House Freedom Caucus members won over the right flank, but the changes will almost surely make it harder to pick up votes in the more moderate-minded Senate. –Politico

    Comment: The pressure to get this done will be enormous. The GOP knows that they face electoral disaster if they don’t pass their biggest promise of the past seven years.

     How good is the economy in Austin, Texas? “Employers struggling to find workers who will take less than $15 an hour” (KXAN)

    The story also notes, oddly, that unemployment there has crept up slightly in the past few months.

    Comment: When I was in Austin this winter, I asked some workers at a fast-food chain what the starting wage was. “$12 an hour.” I often ask that question when I travel since the starting wage at a McDonald’s or Dairy Queen is the effective minimum wage in the area. 

    I draw two lessons from the Austin story.

    First, the only lasting way to raise the minimum wage is to strengthen business demand for workers, which means making it easier for them to do business and prosper. That’s the Texas story, in a nutshell.

    Second, if unemployment is creeping up (though still very low in Austin) but businesses cannot find workers, then something is wrong. Either people don’t have the right skills or there are disincentives to work. Either way, those are problems that need solutions.

     First settlers came to America 130,000 years ago, long before previous estimates, according to a new study.  (Science News)

    An unidentified Homo species used stone tools to crack apart mastodon bones, teeth and tusks approximately 130,700 years ago at a site near what’s now San Diego. This unsettling claim upending the scientific debate over the settling of the Americas comes from a team led by archaeologist Steven Holen of the Center for American Paleolithic Research in Hot Springs, South Dakota, and paleontologist Thomas Deméré of the San Diego Natural History Museum. If true, it means the Cerutti Mastodon site contains the oldest known evidence, by more than 100,000 years, of human or humanlike colonists in the New World, the researchers report online April 26 in Nature. –Science News

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    zd-hat-tip-facing-inward-100px-w-margin♥ Hat Tip for helpful suggestions:
    ◆ Michael Lipson
     for the Austin, Texas, story

     

  • ZipDialog Roundup for Monday, April 24

    Topics and articles chosen with care. Linked articles in bold purple

     French elections: For the first time in modern history, both main parties were defeated in first round; Centrist Emmanuel Macron faces right-wing nationalist Marine Le Pen in the May 7 final ballot.  

    This from France 24:

    French centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen have qualified for the second round in the French presidential election with 23.7 percent and 21.7 percent of the vote respectively.

    • Centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen have qualified for the second round of the French presidential election, according to early results.
    • French President François Hollande has called Macron to congratulate him.
    • Conservative leader François Fillon conceded defeat and called on supporters to vote Macron
    • Socialist Party candidate Benoît Hamon, who got just 6.2% of the vote, said he took full responsibility for the election drubbing. –France 24

    The Associated Press says:

    French voters shut out the country’s political mainstream from the presidency for the first time in the country’s modern history, and on Monday found themselves being courted across the spectrum for the runoff election.

    The May 7 runoff will be between the populist Marine Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron, and French politicians on the moderate left and right immediately urged voters to block Le Pen’s path to power. . . .

    Both center-right and center-left fell in behind Macron, whose optimistic vision of a tolerant France and a united Europe with open borders is a stark contrast to Le Pen’s darker, inward-looking “French-first” platform that calls for closed borders, tougher security, less immigration and dropping the shared euro currency to return to the French franc.

    European stock markets surged on the open as investors welcomed the first-round results, with Macron favored to win. German Chancellor Angela Merkel wished Macron “all the best for the next two weeks.”–AP

    Big week coming in Washington: Looming deadline to avoid government shutdown, Trump promises to roll out tax-reform plan this week, and the negotiations on health care continue.  Fox News report here.

    The Hill reports that “Top Trump officials push border wall as government shutdown looms” Democrats say that is a deal-breaker for them.

    Comment: I don’t see a Republicans willing to risk a shutdown for it, either. At least a significant number in both the House and Senate will think it’s the wrong fight right now.

     Krauthammer on US leverage in the North Korea crisis  (National Review Online)

    His main arguments:

    • It is not a fake crisis.
      • He argues (as I did here last week) that North Korea is headed for a nuclear breakout that would be irreversible.
      • He fears that deterrence might not work because we cannot be sure the Kim Regime is rational.
    • The US has strong cards to play, short of war, by pressuring China. As Krauthammer puts it:
    • Chinese interests are being significantly damaged by the erection of regional missile defenses to counteract North Korea’s nukes. South Korea is racing to install a THAAD anti-missile system. Japan may follow. THAAD’s mission is to track and shoot down incoming rockets from North Korea but, like any missile shield, it necessarily reduces the power and penetration of the Chinese nuclear arsenal.
    • For China to do nothing risks the return of the American tactical nukes in South Korea, which were withdrawn in 1991.
    • If the crisis deepens, the possibility arises of South Korea and, most important, Japan going nuclear themselves. The latter is the ultimate Chinese nightmare. These are major cards America can play.

    Our objective should be clear: At a minimum, a testing freeze. At the maximum, regime change. –Charles Krauthammer at National Review Online

     Venezuela meltdown, on edge of civil war

    The NYT headline is “Armed Civilian Bands in Venezuela Prop Up Unpopular President

    Comment: The word “leftist” appears for the first time in paragraph 5. The word “socialist” first appears in paragraph 19, referring to Hugo Chávez “vision of a Socialist revolution to transform Venezuela’s poor neighborhoods.”

    No word yet from political analysts Sean Penn or Danny Glover.

     “Union chief asks public to withhold judgment on American Airlines flight attendant”  (Fort Worth Star-Telegram)

    The attendant is

    accused of “violently” snatching away a baby stroller from a mother, inadvertently hitting her with the stroller and narrowly missing her small child on a Dallas-bound flight from San Francisco on Friday. –Fort Worth Star-Telegram

    Comment: “We know you have a choice of airlines to smash your head in. We’re glad you chose ours.” 

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  • ZipDialog Roundup for Saturday, April 22

    Topics and articles chosen with care. Linked articles in bold purple

     There are four big, dangerous big international stories:

    1. Reports that China is squeezing North Korean gasoline supplies
      • If true, Beijing is sending an unmistakable signal
    2. Reports that Iran has a secret new facility to develop nuclear triggers for its future bombs
      • The report comes from a dissident group that has been accurate in the past (story here)
    3. French elections Sunday that could undermine the European integration project
      • Two of the four major candidates in Sunday’s election will go into the runoff
      • Three candidates have Russian backing
      • Two of those could undermine the European integration project and pull France out of its (partial) NATO membership
      • The implications of those withdrawals would be grave and would transform European and world politics . . . for the worse
    4. Turkey’s Erdogan using a fraudulent vote count to seize all power in his country

      • Ataturk’s project, begun a century ago, was to create a secular state
      • It never became a full democracy, but it was not a full dictatorship, either
      • Erdogan, who is fundamentally reversing Ataturk’s project, has “coup-proofed” his military, taken control of the judiciary, and a diminished role for the legislature
      • To complete this consolidation of power, he will have to repress a restive population and hold together a country on the verge of splitting apart

    These are obviously not “one-day stories,” and ZipDialog will stay with them and highlight what’s most important about them as they unfold.

     Pyongyang, North Korea: Gas stations sharply restrict purchases, suggesting China is reducing supplies  (Fox News)

    China would not confirm or deny.

    It is the main source of North Korea’s energy.

    Comment: For China, the difficult task is to get a stubborn Pyongyang to change policies without breaking the regime, which is not in China’s interest. Doing too little risks deeper American involvement, which is not in China’s interest either.

     Michigan doctor, wife arrested for (allegedly) conspiring to perform female genital mutilation  (Fox News)

    According to the criminal complaint, some of Attar’s victims, ranging from ages 6 to 8, are believed to have traveled interstate to have the procedure performed.

    Female genital mutilation is prevalent in some majority Muslim countries and is sometimes called “cleansing” by its practitioners. It involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, often performed without anesthesia. It is designed to ensure females remain virgins until marriage.

    According to a 2013 census by the Population Reference Bureau, approximately 500,000 women and girls in the United States have undergone the procedure or are at risk of the procedure–Fox News

    The Los Angeles Times reports:

    International health authorities say female genital mutilation has been performed on more than 200 million girls, primarily in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. –LA Times

     The inside story from lawyers who brought down Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes before him  (Washington Post)

    The accuser was wavering. She wanted to go public . . . but Perquita Burgess was afraid, her attorney Lisa Bloom said.

    The attorney worked hard to convince Burgess to go public, asking her explicitly to do what Rosa Parks had done. Then, according to the WaPo

    [Bloom] also explained to her client in stark terms what she hoped to accomplish: “The mission was to bring down Bill O’Reilly.” –Washington Post

     American Airlines: Video of flight attendant who “whacks a mother with a stroller while she holds her twin babies and reduces her to tear” (Daily Mail)

    Comment: This is why market competition is so great. First, United Airlines drags a passenger off the plane. Well, in a cutthroat market, you cannot expect American Airlines to stand still. It’s great to see them step up their game and start smacking around their customers, too. They must be poaching some of the ace customer-service folks from United.

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  • “Can You Hear Me Now?” Trump Team Voices Credible Threat of Force Against North Korea

    My op-ed at The Hill discusses the challenges of coercive diplomacy.

    The central question of the piece:

    Why has the United States has fundamentally changed its strategy toward the North Korea, given the risks of the new strategy?

    My answer:

    The short answer is that the Trump Administration has concluded that time is on North Korea’s side, not ours. Temporizing, they think, will only magnify the dangers as Pyongyang steadily develops its intercontinental missiles and miniaturizes the nuclear weapons that sit atop them.

    Washington’s new strategy is to direct military threats at Pyongyang via Beijing, which dreads a war on the peninsula.

    The hard part is to resolve the issue without actually using force, which could lead to vast casualties.

    In making these threats, Trump has already achieved a huge advantage over Pres. Obama.

    The advantage? Trump’s threats to use force are credible. For the first time in years, the Chinese and North Koreans–and America’s friends in the region–have to take that seriously. So should Americans as this knife-edge drama unfolds.

  • ZipDialog Roundup for Tuesday, April 18

    Topics and articles chosen with care. Linked articles in bold purple

     The big news continues to be tension in Korea, where Vice President Pence is visiting and told the North Koreans not to mistake the president’s resolve

    Comment: This is a crisis of choice, in a sense. Trump, like Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, could have kicked it down the road. All those presidents tried and failed to resolve the issue.

    Delay is not always a bad solution, but it’s not always a good one, either. You have to figure out whether time is on your side or your adversary’s.

    The problem here is that North Korea is making steady progress on two deadly fronts, and it is no longer willing to delay them for small bribes, like those paid by previous administrations.

    North Korea is getting better at building nuclear bombs. It is trying hard to make them smaller, so they can fit on a missile, and it is trying to build a hydrogen bomb. Second, it is making steady progress building medium-range missiles and is seeking to build an ICBM. The combination of small nukes and long-range missiles would put the US within range of nuclear attack by a hyper-dangerous regime whose leader does not appear to be calm, steady, and rational.

    The US has long said a North Korean nuclear threat to the US was unacceptable. Saying it, as several presidents have, is a far cry from making it an effective policy. That is what none have been able to do, and not for lack of trying. Trump seems to be doing something. We don’t know exactly what and we don’t know how effective he and his team will be. We do know it is risky to try; the Trump team has calculated that it is far more dangerous in the long run to sit and wait.

    Over the longer horizon, then, it is Pyongyang’s policies and erratic, bellicose pronouncements that created the crisis.

    Over the short term, though, the crisis was initiated by the US.

    My interpretation: Trump, Mattis, Tillerson, and McMaster (and probably Coats and Pompeo) looked that North Korea’s military program and asked themselves a fundamental question: Is time on our side or theirs? If it is on ours, then delay. If it is on their’s, then force the issue. We can see first-hand what their strategic assessment is.

    The hard part now is to force the issue with threats and not the actual use of force, which could lead to vast casualties. 

    In using threats, Trump has a huge advantage over Obama. Trump’s threats to use force are credible. The Chinese and North Koreans–and America’s friends in the region–have to take that seriously for the first time in years.

     “Calexit” supporters drop their secession bid . . . for now (Washington Post)

    Comment: Ken Burns is particularly disappointed.  His proposed PBS series began with a letter,

    My dearest Tiffany–
    If we should lose tomorrow’s battle, if I should die far from the gnarly waves of Newport Beach, I want you to know . . . .

     New York Times runs op-ed by “a leader and parliamentarian.”  That’s what the NYT calls him–and that’s all they say.

    The paper overlooked his day job: he’s a convicted terrorist who murdered five Israelis.

    Comment: You really can’t blame the Times if a writer omits a detail from their résumé.  

    Of course, the writer is the most prominent Palestinian terrorist in jail. The NYT deliberately hid the crucial information about his murders from readers.

    To compound this nasty piece of work, the Times ran it to gin up American public support for a hunger strike by jailed Palestinians.

    The Daily Caller excoriates the paper, rightly.

    And Elliott Abrams, writing for the Council on Foreign Relations blog, rips the Times a new one. Well worth reading. His conclusion nails a crucial point: the readers deserve the information.

     Shocking News: The US economy keeps growing but electricity use is flat. That’s what Bloomberg says. Per capita, it has fallen for six straight years.

     Lawsuit of the Day:

    • Professor comes into Wal-Mart to get fishing license
    • Get license but finds his employment listed as “toilet cleaner”
    • Humorless fisherman files suit

    The AP story is here.

    Comment: According to the lawsuit, the professor feared mockery every time he yelled “I caught another big one.”

     A serious story on the sexual-harrassment allegations against Bill O’Reilly  (Washington Post)

    A key part of the story is the allegation by a Los Angeles author and radio personality, Wendy Walsh, who is not seeking money, which then led to an independent investigation by the prominent NYC law firm. It was the law firm’s negative findings on Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes that led to his departure.

    As the Washington Post puts it:

    A similar fate [to Ailes] could await O’Reilly; a negative finding by the law firm could force the hands of Fox News Chairman Rupert Murdoch and his sons, James and Lachlan, who run Fox’s parent company.–Washington Post

     Here is tomorrow’s Washington Post opinion page. Notice a pattern?

    The list continues beyond this screenshot. It is, as the mathematicians say, “finite but large.”

    ♦♦♦♦♦♦♦

    zd-hat-tip-facing-inward-100px-w-margin♥ Hat Tip for helpful suggestions:
    ◆ Robert Lieber and Ed Lasky
    for different reports on the New York Times‘ hiding the background of a Palestinian terrorist.

     

  • North Korea’s Nuclear Threat: What Steps Should the US Take?

    Guest Author: Richard Friedman

    Richard Friedman was chair of the National Strategy Forum/Chicago. He has served as a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and Counselor to the American Bar Association Committee on National Security.

    [Editor’s note: ZipDialog is delighted to include this post. The opinions are those of the guest author. For the visuals, blame Charles Lipson.  

    Readers are invited to respond. At ZipDialog, we take dialog seriously.]

    ◆ North Korea’s Nuclear Threat

    There are six components to the potential US/North Korea nuclear confrontation:

    1. North Korea rational
    2. North Korea irrational
    3. US rational
    4. US irrational
    5. China, and
    6. South Korea

    China is the best bet for the US because they have urged US and North Korea restraint and calm.

    South Korea is undergoing a government leadership crisis. They also urge calm because they would be the battleground in the event that North Korea would be provoked by the US or would be self-provoked.

    China is proactive. In addition to urging calm, they have restricted their coal exports to North Korea and they have canceled their air carrier flights to Pyongyang. China’s most important leverage is its substantial food exports to North Korea.

    A future North Korean Nuclear Test is Likely

    It is likely that North Korea will conduct its sixth nuclear test in the near future. The appropriate US response is to do nothing, certainly no retaliation. The US should keep the Vinson First Strike Carrier Group on station within striking distance of North Korea as a show of force, with weapons muzzled for a few more weeks awaiting mutual calm, and then depart for Australia as planned. The US has proved in Syria its tactical military capability to obliterate North Korea’s nuclear weapon sites and degrade its delivery system. There is no US need to engage in media military posturing.

    An indicia for calm is North Korea’s recent intermediate missile launch that failed. Speculation is that the US used its cyber Stuxnet capability to scramble the North Korea missile test code, resulting in failure.

    The US frame for its North Korea objective should be: no preemptive, kinetic first strike; and reliance on its counter-incoming missile capability that can intercept and destroy 60-80 percent of North Korea’s incoming missiles to the US west coast (solace is somewhat lacking for Hawaii, California, Oregon, and Washington).

    Etymology is part of the military force consideration array. The word “provoke” is hugely imprecise because it has different meanings for both sides. For the US, it would be North Korea’s active launch preparation of its nuclear-tipped ICBM. For North Korea, “US provocation” would be any discernible military force attack on North Korea’s targets, or their perception that a US strike is imminent.

    Notwithstanding the recent perceived crisis, North Korea remains relatively stable. This could change because of the variables that are involved: removal of Kim, either by a targeted US strike followed by a North Korean military attack on South Korea.

    Contemporary US history suggests that broad US domestic support for major US military action is essential – political unity and public and media support. The US administration must make a clear and persuasive argument that justifies a US military attack on North Korea. Failure to do so would portray the US as trigger-happy.

    The Trump administration primary objective was to focus on domestic issues such as health care, middle class employment, tax reform, and enhancing and protecting the US critical infrastructure. Surprise! The global issues are the US priority: North Korea, Russia, Iran, Syria, and ISIS.

    The potential US strategy:

    America First, with the condition that addressing and partially resolving international matters is the predicate for focusing on domestic issues.

    The US has recaptured global perception of its international leadership role and responsibility: fear the US, respect us, and love us, maybe.
    Recent international developments suggest that the US is in the process of developing a comprehensive domestic and international strategy to be followed by tactical implementation.

    The US can enhance the efficacy of its strategy by adopting a “complementary strategy” approach, wherein the US consults with other states to determine their strategic objectives, if any, and incorporate item, if possible, into overall US strategy. An example of US transformative strategy is the US/China burgeoning favorable relationship.

    Overall, the current North Korea crisis is not a crisis, rather it is part of a prolonged, oscillating adversarial relationship. In this context, the North Korean threat is not its nuclear capability, rather, it is how the US manages the current North Korea non-crisis.

    The opinions in this post are those of Richard Friedman. He and ZipDialog welcome your response, either here or on Facebook, where it is also posted.

  • ZipDialog Roundup for Saturday, April 15

    Topics and articles chosen with care. Linked articles in bold purple

     North Korea displays new missiles but holds off another nuclear test (Washington Post)

    Comment: The situation is incredibly dangerous. North Korea’s leader is not only bellicose. He may well be mentally unstable. No one is sure.

    South Korea’s capital and largest city, Seoul, is very close to the DMZ, and very vulnerable to attack–including a nuclear attack by Pyongyang.

    China could put the squeeze on North Korea, but that does not mean it has control over the Kim regime’s actions. Beijing knows that China’s population is also threatened by North Korean weapons and that the two countries have a complicated, sometimes fraught history.

    My hunch is that Beijing would prefer to engineer a change of leadership that is friendly to China, less bellicose, and willing to pursue a Chinese-style market opening. But trying to achieve that is very risky.

     Good news on free speech at one college, Wichita State They tried hard to do the wrong thing, but they eventually got it right.

    An embattled student group at Wichita State University is finally free to engage in on-campus activism as a registered student organization. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court of the Wichita State University Student Government overturned the Student Government Association’s unconstitutional decision to deny recognition to Young Americans for Liberty, a libertarian student group, because of the group’s belief in First Amendment principles. –FIRE, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education

    Comment: If you support free speech and don’t already know about FIRE, you’ll be happy to learn about it. It is truly even-handed, defending right and left alike.

     Related Story: Meanwhile, at Wellesley, a very selective liberal arts college, the student newspaper writes:

    Wellesley is certainly not a place for racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia or any other type of discriminatory speech. Shutting down rhetoric that undermines the existence and rights of others is not a violation of free speech; it is hate speech. (The Wellesley News via HotAir)

    These students actually say that the “Founding Fathers” (a phrase that must stick in their craw) “put free speech in the Constitution as a way to protect the disenfranchised . . . [and] suppressed, not to protect a free-for-all where anything is acceptable, no matter how hateful and damaging.”

    Comment: The First Amendment does not mean “anything is acceptable.” As everyone knows, you cannot yell fire falsely in a crowded theater. Nor can you take a bullhorn and wake up the whole neighborhood at 3 am with your rendition of “I did it my way.” There are, in other words, some legal restrictions on the time, place, and conditions for speech. There are legal remedies for “damaging” speech, if it is false and defamatory (and perhaps known to be false when uttered).

    But for Wellesley students to actually defend their speech suppression as being true to the First Amendment is either disingenuous or historically clueless. Either way, it is wrong. 

     Two data-driven opinion pieces on wealth disparities between blacks and whites with college degrees

    Comment: The disparity is troubling and thoughtful, open-minded discussion is valuable.

    Going back to the previous two stories: this kind of discussion is much harder to have on campuses where everyone walks on eggshells, fearing a wrong word might offend.

     How deep is the Clinton camp’s denial?

    Well, Hillary’s communications director, Jennifer Palmieri, told a Yale audience “Ukraine and the horrible ISIS beheadings” were “sort of manufactured press stories” (Daily Caller)

    There were the obvious crazy things happening like the website melting down, Ukraine, and the horrible ISIS beheadings; these sort of manufactured press stories that hopefully you all have forgotten about. –Daily Caller

    Comment: Those manufactured stories were nothing compared to that fake moon landing.

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    Many thanks to Christopher Buckley for the Wellesley story

     

  • ZipDialog Roundup for Thursday, April 6

    Topics and articles chosen with care. Linked articles in bold purple

     A word of caution on two evolving scandals: Russia-Trump and Susan Rice

    • If there is evidence of serious crimes, each of these could become truly major events.
    • But so far we have few hard facts, shrouded in extremely sharp partisan attacks, mimicked and exacerbated by the news media.

    Russia’s role in the US election:

    • The mainstream media continues to say that Russian interference in the US election (a fact) also involved direct collusion with senior Trump officials (a conjecture). So far, top intel officials not associated with Trump have said there is zero evidence of collusion.
    • There is an FBI counter-intelligence investigation of these issues. If it finds some self-dealing from Trump officials, using their positions to make money, that’s bad news for them and certainly newsworthy, but it is not a catastrophic national scandal. If if finds significant collusion between Russians and top Trump officials, that is a truly enormous crime against our democracy.

    Susan Rice:

    • We know Rice lied publicly when she told PBS two weeks ago that she knew nothing about the unmasking of names.
    • Her story has changed. Now, she simply says she did nothing improper.
    • That may be correct. It seems to be very unusual to ask for as many unmasked names as Rice requested, but she will undoubtedly say she needed to know them to understand US intelligence. Whether that is true or false will depend on the scale of her requests and especially on the type of information contained in the intercepted conversations. If they were entirely related to US national security, she’s in the clear, or at least she can plausibly argue that she had good reasons for doing what she did. If the conversations are far removed from US national security issues, she’s in trouble–and so is the country for having a National Security Adviser who used US intelligence resources for domestic political purposes.
    • At this point, we simply do not know enough to discriminate between those two interpretations, one benign and one malign.

     News you haven’t seen about Susan Rice, the Obama Administration, and spying on US Citizens: 

    Lee Smith, writing in The Tablet, says Rice “may have been rifling through classified transcripts for over a year” with info about Trump and associates. 

    Smith focuses on the Iranian Nuclear Deal and says the US spied extensively on Israeli officials (who opposed the deal). No problem there; that is completely within the purview of the intel agencies. Since Israeli officials worked closely with US citizens, including lawmakers, who opposed the deal, their conversations were picked up, too. The question is whether the Obama White House, in possession of this information, restricted its use to national security or went beyond that, abusing the foreign intelligence system.

    Smith reaches a devastating conclusion:

    I believe the spying was real and that it was done not in an effort to keep the country safe from threats—but in order to help the White House fight their domestic political opponents.

    “At some point, the administration weaponized the NSA’s legitimate monitoring of communications of foreign officials to stay one step ahead of domestic political opponents,” says a pro-Israel political operative who was deeply involved in the day-to-day fight over the Iran Deal. “The NSA’s collections of foreigners became a means of gathering real-time intelligence on Americans engaged in perfectly legitimate political activism—activism, due to the nature of the issue, that naturally involved conversations with foreigners. We began to notice the White House was responding immediately, sometimes within 24 hours, to specific conversations we were having. At first, we thought it was a coincidence being amplified by our own paranoia. After a while, it simply became our working assumption that we were being spied on.”

    This is what systematic abuse of foreign-intelligence collection for domestic political purposes looks like: Intelligence collected on Americans, lawmakers, and figures in the pro-Israel community was fed back to the Obama White House as part of its political operations. –Lee Smith in The Tablet

     Pres. Trump harshly condemns Syria after deadly sarin gas attack, calling it “horrendous” and saying it crossed “several” red lines, deliberately invoking Obama’s language

    Comment: The shift in US policy was abrupt. Only a few days earlier the US had resigned itself to Assad’s continued rule. The change is clearly the result of the chemical attack. Pres. Trump’s language, especially his use of Obama’s term, signals some kind of military strike.

    I would be shocked if the US put troops into this no-win situation. The US can certainly damage the Assad regime from the air, but, even there, a strike runs the risk of conflict with Russia, which (along with Iran) is the main foreign support for Assad’s regime. 

    The larger strategic problem for the US is that there is no way to stand up a pro-western regime there without enormous costs and high risks.

    Two big Thursday events: Chinese leader Xi meets Trump in Florida, US Senate moves to end debate and vote on Gorsuch for Supreme Court

    Comment: More on them tomorrow when we have real news.

     McMaster asserts his control over the National Security Council

    • All news outlets are reporting Steve Bannon is out (he should never have been in);
    • What many are not noticing is that McMaster is filling out his organization with skilled professionals.

    Good report at Politico.

     

     

     

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