22 October 2017

John Kelly Lied for Trump and No One Dared To Call It A Lie

You already know about Trump's racist remarks while calling the wife of a slain soldier.

He couldn't remember his name. He told her, well, he knew what he signed up for, and the following day she became the wife and the woman, still no names.

Moreover, he categorically denied the entire conversation and claimed that John Kelly was in the room and he could corroborate his account.

Enter John Kelly, a four star Marine Corps general and Trump's chief of staff.

He never denied what the conversation entailed, instead he attacked viciously the South Florida Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, who went public with the content of the call.

He first savaged her for eavesdropping on a private conversation. He said that she violated the sanctity of a private phone call. The problem is that, she was in the car and the call was on speakerphone.

And Kelly was also doing the same violating himself at the other end.

He then maintained that she was a self-aggrandizing empty barrel who took credit for the funding of an FBI building while she was in Congress. Here is what he actually said:
A congresswoman stood up, and in the long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise, stood up there and all of that and talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building, and how she took care of her constituents because she got the money, and she just called up President Obama, and on that phone call he gave the money—the twenty million dollars— to build the building. And she sat down, and we were stunned. Stunned that she had done it. Even for someone that is that empty a barrel, we were stunned. But, you know, none of us went to the press and criticized. None of us stood up and were appalled. We just said, “O.K., fine.”
It turns out she never said any of these things and she praised John Boehner and other colleagues for shepherding the legislation in record time. And she spend the bulk of her speech praising FBI agents.

You can see it for yourself.

This is a shorter version, here is a link to the full 9 minutes.

Not only did she not claim credit for the funding, the authorization took place in 2009 when she was not even in Congress.

Kelly also added that he was so shaken by Representative Wilson's remarks he had to stroll through Arlington Cemetery for an hour to get over his anger.

In other words, as one journalist put it "he metaphorically dug up every body in Arlington National Cemetery to use them as human shields for Trump."

In short, the four-star Marine Corps general lied through his teeth. Nothing he claimed in his brief address was true.

And you know the funny thing, nobody dared to call him a liar. The Intercept is the only media outlet that I could find to use the L word.

Rachel Maddow at MSNBC did use the word as well.

In the New Yorker, Ryan Lizza presented it as one of the moral dangers of working for Trump.

NBC stated that Wilson said Kelly lied. It was a case of she said, he said.

Sun Sentinel that uploaded the video used "Kelly got it wrong" as its headline.

CNN reported that "Kelly erroneously claimed congresswoman took credit for building funding, video shows."

New York Times: After Video Refutes Kelly’s Charges, Congresswoman Raises Issue of Race.

Washington Post: What John Kelly got wrong about Rep. Frederica Wilson and the Johnson family.

And the White House stood by his account, video clips be damned.

Moreover, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House Press Secretary made a veiled threat about the advisability of questioning a general.

When asked about Kelly's inaccurate claims she said:
“If you want to go after General Kelly, that’s up to you,” she said. “But I think that that—if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that’s something highly inappropriate.”
That's the kind of threat one used to hear in Turkey, Egypt, Iraq or South America.

Add this to the media's reluctance to call a lying general a liar and you see the level of militarization of civilian discourse in America.

19 October 2017

Has Trump's Insensitive Condolence Call Harmed His Popularity?

If you read mainstream media and leading blogs on the Internet you might get the impression that Trump is finally losing the support of Trumpistas.

The idea is that his base might not care about his legislative agenda but they wouldn't stand for him insulting a grieving widow.

I am referring, of course, to the infamous "he knew what he was signing up for, but I guess it hurts anyway" call to Myeshia Jackson, the widow of the slain Sargeant La David Jackson.

Trump also referred to Jackson as "your guy" throughout the conversation.

And the following day, when he denied this conversation, Myeshia became "the wife" and "the woman."
“I had a very nice conversation with the woman, with the wife who was — sounded like a lovely woman. Did not say what the congresswoman said, and most people aren’t too surprised to hear that.”
In other words, he did not acknowledge either the soldier or his wife by name.

That got the corporate media in a tizzy. There were speculations how this would be seen by Trump supporters. After all, he insulted a fallen soldier and they are a conservative bunch etc. They rehashed his pre-election insults to a Gold Star family and to John McCain.

All of this is utter rubbish.

Trump's base would not disapprove his insulting demeanor towards Sgt. Jackson's widow. On the contrary, they would appreciate it very much.

Are you a mind reader, you say.

Well, yes I am.

Trump waited 12 days before making any calls, which is very unusual. In fact, the whole thing happened because a journalist asked why he never called the families.

As you know, he first claimed that his predecessors never bothered calling anyone. Which was a boldface lie.

Then he proceeded to call them. His call to David Johnson's family you already heard about.

This is the reaction of the brother of one of the soldiers who died in Niger.
[T]he brother of one of the fallen soldiers, Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright, 29, said he and his family have not been bothered by Trump’s comments. 
William Wright said Tuesday afternoon in an interview that his parents were expecting a phone call from the president soon and that his family would consider it a “great honor” to speak with him. If Trump had called earlier, Wright said, the family would not have been ready for it.
This is Dustin Wright.

Trump earlier called Eddie Lee, the father of First Lt. Weston C. Lee who was killed in Iraq in the Spring.
“The president was just so nice and caring, you could hear it in his voice, you could tell what a caring family man he is,” said Mr. Lee, who volunteered, “I voted for Trump and I’d vote for him again.”
This is Weston Lee.

Did you notice the similarity between the two men?

Can you guess what Sgt La David Johnson might look like?

Yes, "that woman's" "guy" is black.

For Trump's base, his family didn't even deserve a call because they are African American.

And Trump's derisive and demeaning tone in dealing with them was exactly how "them people" should be treated.

As you saw, one of the families defended Trump's decision to call them almost two weeks after their brother died, claiming that an earlier call would not have been timely.

Next time you need to offer your condolences to a white American person remember to wait at least twelve days, as is the custom. And see how they will react to your thoughtful timing.

Incidentally, this is Trump's approval rating for this period. And it looks exactly like before. His rock solid 42 percent is with him.

Until the Democrats start to understand that Trump's racism is a feature not a bug they will not win any elections.

The man and his base are white supremacists and Democrats should stop trying to please them.

They will never get their votes.

14 October 2017

The Ironies Surrounding UNESCO's DG Election

Unless you are a news junkie like me, you are probably not aware that UNESCO, the Paris-based UN agency dealing with education and culture, elected its new Director General (DG) yesterday.

Normally, this is a humdrum affair to which no one really pays any attention, save perhaps the personnel of the organization. But this time it was interesting enough to lure journalist from all around the world.

I will not bore you with the details. But I thought that there were a couple of ironic twists that you might find interesting.

First funny bit was the French candidacy.

"She is a good girl" Criterion

There is an unwritten rule that stipulates that UN agency host countries do not field candidates.

UNCTAD, based in Geneva, never had a Swiss Secretary General or Officer in Charge. Or no Austrian ever helmed UNIDO, which is headquartered in Vienna.

True, a Frenchman named René Maheu had a stint as Director General of UNESCO in the early 60s but he more or less fell into the job after becoming Acting Director General in 1961.

Now, if brushing aside this unwritten rule was done on the basis of some outstanding merit I would be in favor of it. In fact, I believe no such tacit understandings should block deserving candidates.

But in this instance, it was just a whim of the departing President Francois Hollande. And the candidate had no discernable qualities other than being well connected.

You see, Arab states had claimed that it was their turn at the head of UNESCO as no one from the Arab Group had ever served as DG. And for the most part, Quai d'Orsay lent its support to that claim.

But things changed when Francois Hollande's then mistress (and current girlfriend), actress Julie Gayet told him about her good friend Audrey Azoulay who badly needed a job.

(You will remember Gayet from Hollande's picture on his bodyguard's scooter on his way to her appartment for an illicit rendezvous)

In 2014, Azoulay met François Hollande when he was on a presidential trip to Mexico. The then president was impressed by what he saw as Azoulay’s competence and energy. “She's a good girl – we’ve got to find a job for her,” Hollande said after meeting her, according to the French weekly L’Express.
I will leave it to you to discuss how demeaning this moniker is and how he managed to determine her "competence and energy" in one meeting.

Hollande first gave her a job at Elysees, then promoted her as his Minister of Culture. At that point, Azoulay had never been elected to any office and she had had a checkered career.

Before the presidential election last May, he tried to make her a candidate for Assemblée Nationale from the Paris region but apparently, Annie Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris said "non."

Possibly with more prodding pillow talk, the upcoming vacancy at the top of UNESCO looked like the perfect solution to Azoulay's unemployment problem.

He announced her candidacy three days before the deadline to the dismay of Quai d'Orsay diplomats and howling protests from the Arab world who accused France of last minute betrayal.

In short, Francois Hollande, unburdened by re-election worries, scrapped an unwritten rule of international diplomacy, just to please his mistress.

When you remember the depth and frequency of Western derision for nepotistic appointments in the developing world, the irony quotient here is quite extraordinary.

Initially, people assumed that French Foreign Ministry was not going to push her too hard and for a long time, she was not seen as a front runner. But in recent weeks, Jean-Yves Le Drian lobbied vigorously on her behalf.

But the bulk of the credit goes to the world's Wahhabi countries. And there are just two of them.

Wahhabis for Jews

(That subtitle is for Mel Brooks fans)

Of the seven initial candidates, the remaining three were Qatar's former Minister of Culture Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari, Egypt's former Minister of Population and Family Moushira Khattab and France's former Minister of Culture and all around "good girl" Audrey Azoulay.

Calling them lackluster is being charitable.

Al-Kawari's only credential to lead UNESCO was embedded in his campaign slogan: "I am not coming empty handed." I took it as a reminder of how Qatar bribed FIFA folks to get the 2022 World Cup to be played in 45 degree heat.

"Elect me and I'll get you more money that you need" was his promise to a badly cash-strapped organization.

Moushira Khattab, a respected human rights activist, was hampered by her association to former President Hosni Mubarak, under whom she served as a State Minister.

Moreover, her candidacy was bankrolled by Saudi Arabia and UAE, raising questions about her independence as UNESCO's future DG.

As for Azoulay, well, we already know she was a good friend of Julie Gayet. And as far as I am concerned, that's good enough for the job.

UNESCO's DG elections are fairly simple.

There is a body called Executive Board composed of 58 member states (out of a total of 195). They start voting on a Monday and continue to do so every day until Friday. Any time a candidate gets 30 votes s/he is elected. Otherwise, come Friday, the highest two vote-getters face off and whoever gets more than the other is elected.

On Thursday, al-Kawari received 22 votes and the next two candidates, Moushira Khattab and Audrey Azoulay both got 18 votes each.

That necessitated an extra round of voting on Friday morning to eliminate one of the two women candidates. Khattab lost that round.

Apparently, the rest of the day, the Egyptian, Saudi and UAE delegations went on an intensive campaign to get Azoulay elected.

There were reports of protesters marching outside UNESCO building with banners denouncing Qatar's support for terrorism.

I have seen similar protests in New York during the General Assembly in September and they are typically people who are paid by Saudi Arabia to make some noise for media outlets.

After Khattab was eliminated, the Saudi Ambassador to UNESCO told delegates that, if al-Kawari was elected, his country would withdraw from UNESCO adding to its financial woes.

In the end, the winner was Audrey Azoulay.

This all well and good you may say, but where is the irony?

Well, Audrey Azoulay is hailing from a Sephardic Jewish family.

In other words, Qatar and Saudi Arabia worked hard to get a Jewish woman elected. Knowing the deeply ingrained anti-Semitism in these countries and the Arab world in general, I relished the irony.

Indeed, while other media outlets avoided the Jewish qualifier, Israeli media highlighted it to emphasize that irony.

Times of Israel's headline was "French Jewish Candidate Defeats Qatari to Win UNESCO Leadership."

Ha'aretz intoned: "Jewish-French Candidate Defeats Qatari Runner-up in UNESCO Director-general Election."

We live in interesting times.

08 October 2017

How the Media Handled Clinton and Javanka Email Servers

My piece about why people hate Hillary Clinton was one of the most popular posts in this humble blog's history.

(The popular posts in the right margin is compiled by Blogger according to the number of hits)

I maintained that Hillary was vilified so often, so relentlessly and for so long that it was a miracle that she won the popular vote. The one story that cost her the election was the so-called emailgate.
As studies of the coverage of the campaign confirmed, the Clinton email story got more coverage than any issue — more than the economy, or health care, or immigration, or climate change or anything else. Throughout the general election, as Gallup found, the word Americans were most likely to mention when they were asked what they had heard about Clinton was “email.”
It was a no story but the media covered it like it was the crime of the century: 560,397 news items in a period of 18 months.

Compare that, as I did, with an actual email crime committed by Bush fils: During his presidency, White House officials purged millions of emails to cover up their search for a pretext for the Iraq War and the mass firing of Attorney Generals to replace them with wingnuts.

Moreover, 95 percent of senior Bush advisers' emails were stored on RNC mail servers in direct contravention of 1978 Presidential Record Act.

They were huge scandals involving real criminal behavior but the corporate media could not be bothered.

The pattern continues.

When it was revealed that Mike Pence had used a private email account, the same people who attacked Clinton viciously claimed that it wasn't the same thing since she had a server and he did not.

So no hypocrisy there, they said. If there was a server, yeah, maybe we might have looked into it.

The same thing happened when Politico reported that Boy Blunder had a private mail account and he had been conducting some White House business on that. The media that excoriated Clinton was fine with that. It was just an account, they said. Nothing more.

His lawyer, happy for the assist, concurred. There were less than 100 emails about the White House he said and Jared forwarded them all to his White House address to make sure he complied with the law.

So, no hypocrisy there either.

Then came the news that, most White House staffers, including Steve Bannon, Gary Cohn, Reince Priebus, Stephen Miller and Ivanka and Jared Kushner conducted official White House business using private email accounts. As I noted, in the case of White House (unlike the State Department) doing so and not preserving those emails is a crime.

Reaction: Nothing outside the narrow circle of news junkies.

Finally, it has just been disclosed that Ivana and Jared had an email server set up under the domain name ijkfamily.com.

And both Ivanka and Jared conducted official White House business on that server involving thousands of email messages.

Corporate media reaction?

Nary a peep.

The same setup that warranted hundreds of thousands of front page stories for Clinton, was mentioned by a few media outlets once or twice. And that was it.

Recently, Paul Waldman made a very astute observation. He argued that the whole Hillary emailgate was the product of a deliberate set of decisions by editors, reporters and producers to cover it obsessively.
Why did they make those decisions? I’d argue that they had long operated on the assumption that Bill and Hillary Clinton were deeply corrupt, and it was their responsibility to find evidence for that assumption and then disseminate it. If a particular allegation turned out to be baseless and didn’t actually support the assumption of corruption, they would say that it was still worth extended discussion, because it “raised questions.” In the end, the public is essentially unable to distinguish between a thousand stories about something that shows Hillary Clinton being corrupt and a thousand stories about something that “raises questions” about Clinton being corrupt but doesn’t actually demonstrate any corruption.
The amazing part is that they were doing this while she was running against the most corrupt politician in modern American history.
In hindsight, those editorial decisions look positively deranged. On one side, you had a candidate who had a long history as a con artist — just before assuming the presidency, he was forced to pay $25 million to the victims of one of his schemes — and a career full of shady deals, broken promises and associations with grifters, swindlers and mobsters. On the other side, you had a candidate who used the wrong email.
The contrast between how a different media narrative was created for each candidate was the key to Trump's success.
The problem wasn’t so much that the copious examples of Trump’s personal corruption weren’t covered individually. It was that most of the time, each scam, fleeced vendor or questionable real estate deal was covered briefly and then seldom revisited. It didn’t add up to a coherent, sustained media narrative about Trump in the same way that the press created a narrative about Clinton’s supposed corruption.
After the November elections, I blamed the corporate media for her defeat.

Not Russian hackers, not Facebook but the New York Times, the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and the rest of them.

Sure, Facebook is as guilty as any one of them but at least they can blame their algorithms or point the finger to clickbait trols in Eastern Europe.

But the hypocritical and biased reporting of mainstream media was what made President Donald J Trump possible.

And their lenient approach to Trump Administration's email setups proves this one more time.

IOKIYAR exists because of the corporate media.

01 October 2017

Spain Violently Suppressing Catalonia Referendum

When I ended my previous post with a prediction for momentous consequences for Spain (and the EU), some readers might have thought I was exaggerating.

After all, this is Spain, part of the civilized West, what could happen? Right?

It is indeed Spain. What we easily forget that Spain is a traumatized country by its recent history. The transition from the Franco regime and its decades long brutality was done quickly with no accountability for the perpetrators or closure for the victims.

Such elements in a society's history do not disappear that easily. Look at the rise of German nationalism. And that, despite utmost sensitivity shown to the issue and many decades of active intervention.

Today, it is being reported that the Guardia Civil injured hundreds of protesters in Barcelona. According to the BBC, thus far 337 people were injured.

Here is a clip of what they did in and around one polling station.

This is a link to BBC showing large crowds being attacked by baton wielding officers.

There are some graphic scenes of violence being broadcast to the world. Officers firing rubber bullets.

People bleeding from open head wounds.

People thrown to the ground forcibly pulled by their legs.

And people being beaten mercilessly.

Here is a longer clip, if you want to see the Guardia Civil in action.

I have no idea how this will end but I am sure it is not going to end well.

I am also curious how the EU's Commission will handle this show of illiberal democracy in the West.

In any event, mark 1 October in your calendars. You will hear about it in the coming months and years.

This is the beginning of tribal politics in Spain.

Trump's Tax Plan and How Corporate Media Reported It

If you wonder why the "basket of deplorables" will not abandon Donald Trump, one of the answers is lack of correct information.

Take the proposed tax reform.

It is a massive giveaway to the One Percenters.

According to Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan think tank these are the effects of the proposed reforms:
We find they would reduce federal revenue by $2.4 trillion over ten years and $3.2 trillion over the second decade (not including any dynamic feedback). In 2018, all income groups would see their average taxes fall, but some taxpayers in each group would face tax increases. Those with the very highest incomes would receive the biggest tax cuts.
In fact, 
Taxpayers in the top 1 percent, with incomes above $730,000 a year, would gain half of the overall benefits in 2018, with their average post-tax incomes jumping almost 9 percent. More than 97 percent of filers in the top 0.1 percent would see a tax cut due to the Trump plan—and a very large one, worth an average of $747,580—compared with about 70 percent of the poorest households.
All of this is to be expected. Reagan did it, Bush II did it. It is a classic Republican tactic. Make the deficit huge again by giving freebies to the richest and become a deficit-scold when there is a Democrat in the White House.

What irks me is the fact that the corporate media goes along with the Republican narrative every single time.

For this cycle, the GOP talking points focused on how their reform would benefit the middle classes. They claimed that the standard tax deductions would nearly double under their new plan and it was breathlessly repeated by the corporate media.

CNBCBBC , CNN, New York Times, Washington PostWall Street Journal, Forbes, Axios and many more reported that the standard deduction would double under Trump's plan, as it would go to $12,000 up from the current $6,350 (and 24,000 for married couple).

The problem is that this is not true at all. 
Here's how that math works. Let's say you are single with no dependents, and you have a moderate income. Currently, you get to take the standard deduction ($6,350) and one personal exemption ($4,050). If you are 65 or older, you also get to take an additional standard deduction ($1,250). That adds up to $10,400, or $11,650 if you're over 65.

The Republican plan would replace all these provisions with a single deduction of $12,000 ($24,000 for married couples.) That's a 15% increase — except for seniors, who get a 3% increase.
But that modest break will be swallowed almost entirely because the GOP plan calls for the lowest income bracket to be taxed at 12 percent instead of the current 10 percent.

What that means that everyone will pay 12 percent tax on the $9,325 part of their income, which works out to be $1,119.

At the other end, the top tax bracket (which currently stands at 39.6 percent) will be brought down to 35 percent.

In other words, Trump's plan is increasing taxes for the lower income folks and massively reducing taxes for the richest households in the US.

And this is sold as "doubling the standard deduction" to the basket of deplorables.

Sure some media outlets questioned the math behind it. But, for the most part, in the mainstream media, the language was so timid that you couldn't be sure whether it was a good thing or a boldface lie.

Instead of pushing Russia meddling in election stories, corporate media should look into how they report the news.

21 September 2017

Catalonia On My Mind

With a major earthquake in Mexico, a devastating hurricane in the Caribbean and, of course, "Rocket Man" at the UN, it is hard to pay attention to what is happening in Spain.

But trust me, something interesting is taking place.

Catalonia, the richest region in the country, has been clamoring for independence for some time now. A framework for more autonomy was worked out in 2006 and it was agreed upon by both Catalan and Spanish authorities.

That agreement was struck down by the Constitutional Court in 2010 fuelling independence calls.

Most observers believe that Catalans are not very serious about full independence. They just want to get a bigger share out of the national budget and/or some acknowledgement that they contribute disproportionately to the union.

The regional government decided to hold a second referendum (the first one in 2014 was non-binding) with the proviso that if pro-independent proposition passes, they would declare it within 48 hours.

It sounds ominous but in reality polls indicated that this was fairly unlikely.

Yet Spanish government reacted with very heavy-handed and brutal tactics.

They started with police raiding printing companies to confiscate ballots.
Armed police in Spain have raided several print works and newspaper offices in Catalonia in recent days in a hunt for voting papers, ballot boxes and leaflets to be used in an Oct. 1 independence referendum which Madrid vehemently opposes. 
They also passed measure to control the regional government's spending to block any referendum related expenditure.
And earlier this week Madrid summoned over 700 Catalan mayors for questioning over their support for the vote. 
Catalonia's president Carles Puigdemont is facing criminal charges.

On Friday, police confiscated 100,000 campaign leaflets in a raid in Catalonia, the Interior Ministry said, without saying where. Catalonia’s top court issued a warning on Friday to seven newspapers, many of them online, not to publish campaign notices for the referendum, a court spokesman said on Saturday.
The police conducted searched in various media outlets and confiscated documents and equipment. They seized up to 10 million ballots. And the Guardia Civil blocked the official referendum Web site (which you can see here if you are not in Spain)

When this was met with protests in Catalonia, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy massively escalated the crisis.
Spanish police have detained 14 Catalan officials and raided regional government ministries involved in organising an independence vote declared illegal by Spain's government. 
Tensions were already high before Josep Maria Jové, number two in the Catalan vice-presidency, and others were held.
The police (which included the beloved Mossos d‘Esquadra) raided forty ministries and offices and arrested important political figures.
Several ministries in Barcelona were raided on Wednesday, including the economy, foreign affairs, telecoms, social affairs and presidency buildings. Among those detained were officials from the economy ministry, run by Catalan Vice-President Oriol Junqueras, as well as figures from other departments.
So what happened after this crackdown?

Well, the 700+ mayors who were questioned by the police defied Madrid's orders:
The mayors met with Catalonia’s regional head Carles Puigdemont in a show of defiance, following Spanish prosecutors warning earlier this week that officials engaging in any preparations for the vote could be charged with civil disobedience, abuse of office and misuse of public funds.
Meeting in downtown Barcelona in front of hundreds of flag waving pro-independence protesters, the mayors gave speeches in which they promised continued support for the referendum amid chants of “we will vote” and “independence.” 
The soccer club Barcelona, one of the most important global brands in sports, threw its weight behind the Catalonian government and the referendum.
The centre of Barcelona soon became a sea of Catalan flags and the city's renowned football club threw its weight behind the protests, condemning any act that threatened freedom of speech and self-determination.

The puzzling question is this: Why did Rajoy hugely overreact to a referendum that was likely to come back with a No result?

Before the crackdown, there was strong evidence that most Catalans were happy with a regional autonomy arrangement. And the population was trending away from independence.
Just 2.2 million voters out of a potential 5.4 million turned out for the 2014 ballot. (...)
Then in 2015 a coalition of separatist parties won regional elections. Between them, Junts pel Si (Together for Yes), with the support of a radical left-wing party, the CUP, won 48% of the vote.
More worryingly for the secessionists, a public survey commissioned by the Catalan government in July suggested 49% of Catalans opposed independence, while 41% were in favour. 
Turnout at the annual Catalan national day event in Barcelona on 11 September was impressive - around a million people according to local police - but in 2014 it was estimated at 1.8 million. 
Now with Catalan officials under arrest and a brutal oppression reminiscent of the Franco era, a prolonged and violent confrontation is inevitable.

My guess is that Rajoy, the guy who shepherded unpopular austerity measures is doing it for personal political reasons.

He is aware that his party will never get much of the vote in Catalonia (they got 8.5 percent in 2015). So alienating Catalan electorate is not a big deal for him. On the other hand, cracking down on Catalan independence is likely to make him popular elsewhere in the country.

The political theatre is also taking away from the devastation his austerity measures brought to Spain.

In other words, this is what Erdogan or Duterte has been doing and what I predicted Trump will soon be doing.

The problem is that with this escalation he ensured that, next time a referendum is held, Catalans will vote for independence. And in between, there will be more protests, social unrest and violence.

He essentially reversed the current trend.

It is not a winning hand for Rajoy since, at some point, the EU will have to break its rather surprising silence and sanction the Spanish government. It is hard to criticize the illiberal democracies of the East without saying anything about similar tactics in Spain.

Then what?

My guess is that this will have momentous consequences for both Spain and the EU.

20 September 2017

The Soviet Officer Who Saved the World

The word hero is bandied around all the time.

It is the cheapest and most meaningless praise of our time.

And you realize that especially when you encounter a real hero.

This is a story I did not know and I thought it was really unfair that the world was largely uninformed about the actions of one remarkable man.

On 26 September 1983 Stanislav Petrov "was the duty officer at the command center for the Oko nuclear early-warning system when the system reported that a missile had been launched from the United States, followed by up to five more."

This was a little over three weeks after the Soviet Air Force shut down the Korean Airline Flight 007 killing all 269 passengers and crew on board.

The incident was met with global indignation and brouhaha and the relations between the US and Soviet Union were very tense. We are talking about the Reagan Administration with an actor fronting a bellicose military firmly in charge.

Petrov was dubious from the beginning. He thought it made no sense to launch a nuclear attack with only five ballistic missiles since the US knew that the Soviets would retaliate with massive force.

Fire and fury in The Orange Man's words.

But, as any military personnel will tell you, it was not up to him to decide whether the attack was real and what to do about it. He was obligated to report the incident right away.

However, Petrov realized that if he called it in, there was no way his superiors would demure and investigate the matter further. With only two minutes at their disposal, they would have pressed the proverbial button.

That, in turn, would have triggered an even bigger assault by combined Nato forces and life, as we know it, would have ceased to exist on our lovely Blue Planet.

Now, a hero is someone who acts selflessly in addressing such an extraordinary dilemma. If Petrov was wrong he would have caused immense casualties in his own country. If he called it in, he would have destroyed the planet.

The man assume the responsibility of doing nothing and risk everything, including his life and the life of his loved ones.

It turned out Petrov made the right call it was an equipment malfunction.

Almost anybody else, including, as I recently mentioned, the US officer who carries the nuclear football, would have made the opposite call and informed his superiors.

And the rest would have been history. With no one left to record it.

The Soviet army did not punish him, nor did they reward him. They appreciated what he did, but rewarding him would have made hem look bad as the idiots behind the shaky early warning system.

In the end, Petrov retired early as after the incident he suffered a major nervous breakdown.

As he later put it, this was the only time such an event occurred during the Cold War and it happened to him.

And we are all glad that it was him and not someone who mindlessly obeyed orders.

Remarkably, this  is how this real life hero saw what he did.
Petrov has said he does not know that he should regard himself as a hero for what he did that day. In an interview for the film The Man Who Saved the World, Petrov says, "All that happened didn't matter to me — it was my job. I was simply doing my job, and I was the right person at the right time, that's all. My late wife for 10 years knew nothing about it. 'So what did you do?' she asked me. 'Nothing. I did nothing.
He died quietly this last May.

No one in the West knew of his passing until this week.

Because we were too busy admiring our heros.

11 September 2017

Netanyahu's Corruption Cases: Is He On His Way Out?

As impeachment, obstruction of justice and conflict of interest are daily preoccupations in Trump Presidency, few people pay attention to what his happening to his old buddy Bibi Netanyahu.

The other walking conflict of interest.

Netanyahu is facing four separate corruption investigations and on top of all that, Israel's top prosecutor has just announced that he is thinking of charging his wife Sara Netanyahu with fraud and breach of trust.
Prosecutors say Sara Netanyahu and a senior official, Ezra Seidoff, claimed costs for food prepared externally and for hiring private chefs, between September 2010 and March 2013, whilst covering up the fact that the residence also employed a cook. State funding for both is not allowed. 
"In this way, hundreds of meals from restaurants and chefs were fraudulently received in the order of 359,000 shekels," a statement from the attorney general's office said.
359,000 shekels is about $100,000 but Haaretz puts the figure at 400,000 shekels or $111,850.

If Avichai Mandelblit, a Netanyahu appointee,  proceeds with the charges it will be a serious blow for Bibi. But far worse are the four dossiers about him.

Let's take a look.

Case 1000

For years, Israeli billionaire movie producer Arnon Milchan (the owner of New Regency Films) lavished Bibi and Sara Netanyahu with expensive gifts like cigars, champagne and even jewellry.
The estimated value of these gifts from a friend, as Netanyahu describes them—and which Milchan reportedly told police “made him feel sick”—amounted to a hundred and eighty thousand dollars.
Netanyahu always maintained that these were just friendly gestures and no quid pro quo was ever expected or provided.

Until recently, it looked like the only advantage these gifts got Milchan was this:
Netanyahu successfully lobbied Secretary of State John Kerry for the renewal of Milchan’s American visa, which allowed Milchan to avoid paying millions of dollars in Israeli taxes.
At the end of August, police uncovered a very significant Netanyahu intervention that benefitted Milchan immensely.
The police have prima facie evidence according to which Netanyahu used all his weight to convince British Jewish billionaire Len Blavatnik to acquire shares in Israeli Channel 10. A significant portion of those shares were held by Milchan in an investment gone bad, in which he stood to lose tens of millions of dollars. When Blavatnik acceded to Netanyahu’s request and acquired the channel, which he still controls, it redeemed Milchan's failed investment. The acquisition by Blavatnik was worth a fortune to Milchan.
That's definitely a major quo for a pile of expensive quid.

And Milchan is cooperating with the police.

Case 2000

This one involves Netanyahu negotiating with one media mogul for positive coverage for his government in exchange for limiting the circulation of another paper.
Image Flash 90
The police have tapes of Netanyahu negotiating with Yedioth publisher Arnon Mozes, in an apparent effort to skew the daily's coverage in favor of the prime minister. In exchange Netanyahu would supposedly help restore Yedioth’s status to the top of Israel's media industry by spearheading legislation that would hamstring Israel Hayom, the free newspaper owned by American casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson. 
Or, alternatively, perhaps the premier would convince his friend Adelson to restrict the freebie’s distribution.
Netanyahu even gave a list of Yedioth journalists he wanted sidelined.

But when the tapes became public, he claimed that he was not serious about his offer and he was just saying those thing to please Mozes. The problem with his denial is that:
According to a recent Channel Two report broadcast, Adelson told Israeli police investigators that Netanyahu had tried to persuade him to withdraw plans for weekend supplements at Israel Hayom. That would indicate that Netanyahu was indeed intent upon reaching a deal with Mozes.
As a result, Netanyahu has recently been named a suspect in the case.

Even worse for him, there is now a witness willing to point a finger at him.

You see, the conversation was accidentally uncovered when police seized his former chief of staff Ari Harow's telephone. Harow was the point man in the negotiations with Mozes.

He has now agreed to testify against his former boss to avoid jail time in another case.

Case 3000

This one is the most serious and consequential file as it involves bribery and corruption in the military procurement process.

Israel has a small fleet of Dolphin class submarines that are capable of firing cruise missiles with nuclear warheads. There are six of them. In 2015, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) recommended that one of them should be retired in 2019 and a new one should be purchased.

Later on, the head of the National Security Council discovered that Netanyahu ordered three more subs from Germany at a cost of one and a half billion dollars.

The then Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon conducted a review to ensure that the Prime Minister was not given misleading information, like IDF needing and requesting not one but four submarines. Nobody had produced such a memo.

A few months later, Ya'alon's office was informed that Netanyahu was going to sign the four-submarine deal during a state visit to Germany. Except no one knew that this deal was on the agenda.
“The issue was examined in the chief of staff’s office, in the Navy headquarters and in the Planning Directorate,” Yediot Ahronot’s Alex Fishman wrote, last November. “No one in each of these three offices had a clue about the new submarine deal.”
When Ya'alon confronted Netanyahu about no such request coming from the IDF, Bibi told him that it was only a Memorandum of Understanding that he was going to sign. The subtext being, there is nothing serious, no need to get worked up.

But within a couple of months, Netanyahu forced Ya'alon to resign as Minister of Defense, ostensibly on the basis of other disagreements, replacing him with extreme right winger Avigdor Lieberman.

At some point, the initial bidding process prepared by the Ministry of Defense was scrapped and the contract for four subs was awarded to ThyssenKrupp.

Photo: EPA, Yaron Brenner
ThyssenKrupp is represented in Israel by Miki Ganor and his commission for the deal was about $45 million.

Ganor's lawyer is Netanyahu's cousin, confidant and personal lawyer David Shimron. In fact, Jerusalem Post called him Netanyahu's right hand man.

And according to Ganor, Shimron was to receive 20 percent of Ganor's cut, which works out to $9 million. 

It turns out the decision for a no-bid procurement was made by Netanyahu with Shimron's pushing. Shimron left a paper trail.
Channel 10 reported that, in July of 2014, the Defense Ministry’s legal adviser had sent an e-mail to the Defense Ministry’s director-general saying that David Shimron, the lawyer representing the German firm’s agent, had called him. Shimron wanted to know, the e-mail said, if “we are halting the bidding process in order to negotiate with his client, as was requested of us by the Prime Minister.”
The problem for Shimron is that Miki Ganor decided to turn state's witness recently. He is providing the police with names of officers he bribed and of other people who pushed the contract through the administration.

As a result, David Shimron was placed under house arrest, though he was subsequently granted permission to go on a trip to the US.

The whole episode has proved to be very damaging for IDF's reputation.
The submarine affair now threatens the Israeli defense establishment and is lifting the veil over the Israeli defense acquisition process itself, which is worth tens of billions of dollars. Netanyahu's former chief of staff David Sharan was arrested Sept. 3 on suspicion of accepting bribes. (Sharan had also served as senior aide to Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz.) Others arrested were Brig. Gen. (res.) Shai Brosh, the former commander of Shayetet 13, Israel’s esteemed naval commando unit, and former minister Eliezer Sandberg, who is close to the Netanyahus.
Netanyahu says that he has no clue about his cousin and adviser Shimron's involvement in the case. Since the whole deal was handled at every turn by the Prime Minister's Office this is rather hard to believe.

Shimron’s law partner Isaac Molho, Netanyahu’s envoy on all sorts of secret diplomatic and other missions, may also be involved in Case 3000. One report says Molho represented the premier in talks with the Germans regarding a sensitive issue that may could have had something to do with the subs. If so, Molho represented the PM while his law partner represented the Germans’ agent. Under these circumstances, it is hard to buy Netanyahu’s claim that he didn’t know of Shimron’s involvement in the deal.
There is also this:
If Netanyahu did know about Shimron’s involvement with the submarines, he will face criminal charges in this affair as well. If he didn’t know, it could cause a lot of people to wonder if such as person is sufficiently competent to lead the country. The submarine and naval vessel deal is viewed as a strategic transaction involving Israeli national security, and as such, it was administered and led by the prime minister himself. Responsibility for the deal was placed on his shoulders alone. “I didn’t know” is an excuse that could extricate Netanyahu from criminal charges, but not from the public’s blame.
Case 4000

This is a fairly recent case and its relevance is in the fact that, as one scandal too many, it made defending Netanyahu very difficult.

The Bezeq affair, which is named after Israel's giant telco, erupted in July with State Comptroller Jospeh Shapira's report. He alleged that, Netanyahu, who was also Minister of Communication at some point, did not disclose that he was very good friends with Bezeq's owner Shaul Elovitch. As Minister he made many decisions that affected Bezeq and that's conflict of interest.

When Ha'aretz disclosed that Netanyahu was given positive coverage in Walla web portal which is owned by Bezeq, Netanyahu was prevented from handling matters concerning Bezeq.

The Director General of the Communications ministry was Avi Berger. Berger was trying to enact a broadband reform that would have negatively affect Bezeq's monopoly. So Netanyahu got rid of him and appointed Shlomo Filber as his replacement.
The [Shapira] report found that Shlomo Filber, director general of the Communications Ministry and a former top aide to Netanyahu, had been providing Bezeq with confidential documents and other information from which the company stood to benefit. 
Filber was sent to house arrest.

What Happens Now?

Avichai Mandelblit' recent announcement about Sara Netanyahu is a sign that the noose around the Prime Minister's neck is tightening.

Up to a few months ago, people thought that the Attorney General, a Netanyahu ally, would never go after him.
Avichai Mandelblit, the Attorney General, was appointed by Netanyahu. As Ruth Margalit noted last month, there is evidence that Mandelblit sat on compromising evidence for months. “When the thrust of the allegations is so powerful, they cannot ignore them,” Arad said. “But they can delay, control, and spin.”
Now he is actively investigating all these corruption cases.

The same aboutface is also true for the friendly media.
However, the real surprise comes from Israel Hayom, which for years has all but explicitly celebrated its strong ties with Netanyahu but now seems to concede as well that a metaphorical noose is tightening around Netanyahu’s neck.
Hayut Photo credit: Flash 90/ Channel 2 News
All of this came to fruition at a particularly bad time for Netanyahu.

His Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (HaBayit HaYehudi) lost her fight to stop the appointment of Esther Hayut as Supreme Court's Chief Justice.

Daughter of Holocaust survivors, Hayut is a fiercely independent and brilliant jurist who is hated by all religious and right wing parties in Israel.

Her handling of the appeal of these corruption cases could prove to be critical for Netanyahu.

In any event, whatever happens next, this point is worth remembering.
Netanyahu has no intention of vacating his seat willingly, however, and will fight for it with all the means at his disposal. One of his political rivals in the Likud told Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity, “Netanyahu won’t hesitate to burn down the house over its inhabitants. His personal [political] survival is more important to him than the public good.”
And, like his good buddy Donald Trump, this could involve a nice little war.

Perhaps an excursion into Syria? 

And why not?

All it takes is a permission from Putin. Trump's other buddy.

We live in scary times.

05 September 2017

How Mueller Is Cornering Trump

New York Times recently ran a piece indicating that Robert Mueller asked for and received an early draft of the James Comey firing letter.

At the time, the draft (penned by Stephen Miller, the ironic white supremacist) was blocked by White House Counsel who asked Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to produce a different text.

The insinuation was that the original draft could be used to show that Trump was guilty of obstruction of justice.

I disagree. I think Mueller's move is a classic misdirection.

As I mentioned before, obstruction of justice charges or impeachment are a logical impossibility with a Congress controlled by the GOP. They would never throw one of their own under the bus and they would never go against Trump's core constituency.

As the song goes, without them, they are nothing.

What Mueller is doing is to obscure his real target, which is money laundering for Russian oligarchs through real estate deals.

And he is moving carefully yet deliberately and he is blocking all potential exit points before Trump realizes he is cornered.

The look on his face in that recent photo tells you what you need to know about his intentions.

Let's start with his first move.

After putting together a team which specializes in financial fraud and criminal accounting, he ordered a pre-dawn raid to the home of Paul Manafort, Trump's former campaign manager to collect evidence.

What kind of evidence?

Squeezing the Perp

Well, Manafort is an interesting guy. He has all sorts of connections to Russian oligarchs. This is how Politico summarized them.

But let me remind you the highlights.

Manafort had to resign from Trump's campaign when the New York Times revealed that
Ukrainian investigators were looking into a “secret ledger” that listed $12.7 million in cash payments earmarked for Manafort by the party of the deposed former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
While the Ukrainian prosecutors subsequently found no evidence of foul play, such large sums on a secret ledger didn't leave a positive impression.

So, no one was surprised when it was reported that Manafort "owed as much as $17 million to companies controlled by a Russian oligarch and a Ukrainian businessman with political ties to Moscow."

And the debt was owed to well connected people.
Manafort—who retroactively registered as a foreign agent last month for his lobbying work—owed $7.8 million to a company connected to Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch with close ties to Vladimir Putin. Manafort also owed a separate sum of $9.9 million to a Cyprus company linked to Ivan Fursin, a Party of Regions member of the Ukrainian Parliament, through a Delaware-based LLC that he previously used to purchase real estate in New York City, the Times reports.
Manafort was also present in Donald Jr.'s infamous meeting with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer who promised to provide dirt on Hillary Clinton.

Also in attendance was "Irakly “Ike” Kaveladze, [who] had once been accused by congressional investigators of participating in a $1.4 billion money laundering scheme to funnel money from Eastern Europe through U.S. banks."

Given this background, if you were Mueller, you would expect some skeletons in Paul Manafort's closet. And he must have found some, as the search warrant for the raid was approved by a federal judge who agreed that there was probable cause.

Normally, as a prosecutor, you squeeze the perp (I am fully versed in Law and Order lingo) and they give you the higher ups.

Except in this case, Manafort knows (and Trump has already inquired to find out) that the President can pardon him no matter what. In essence, he is unsqueezable, if there is such a word.

To counter that, Mueller approached New York's Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to include him in the Manafort dossier, as there are some New York City real estate deals and lobbying done from the city.

This has two advantages.

One, Schneiderman hates Trump with a passion as the President attacked him on Twitter using derogatory terms like "hack" and "lightweight." He is the one who forced Trump to settle the Trump University case for $25 million. And he can do more.
The New York prosecutor’s office also is looking into some of Trump’s business transactions and could potentially share those records with Mueller’s team, one of these people said. 
But the real reason why Mueller got Schneiderman to investigate Manafort is this:
It also could potentially provide Mueller with additional leverage to get Manafort to cooperate in the larger investigation into Trump’s campaign, as Trump does not have pardon power over state crimes.
In order words, Manafort has now become eminently squeezable.
Former federal prosecutors tell The Daily Beast one of Manafort’s biggest legal liabilities could be to what’s called a “check the box” prosecution. Federal law requires that people who have money in foreign bank accounts check a box on their tax returns disclosing that. And there’s speculation that Manafort may have neglected to check that box, which would be a felony.
If you are looking into Manafort's tax returns for possible crimes, why wouldn't you look into his former bosses returns?

In fact, Mueller can do that using Manafort's case.

Enter the IRS.

IRS Criminal Investigations Unit

If there was any doubt that Mueller's focus was on financial shenanigans, his decision to get the IRS' Criminal Investigation unit (CI) involved should set things straight.
Special counsel Bob Mueller has teamed up with the IRS. According to sources familiar with his investigation into alleged Russian election interference, his probe has enlisted the help of agents from the IRS’ Criminal Investigations unit.
Now these are folks who take financial crime seriously and besides tax evasion, their specialty is money laundering.
This unit—known as CI—is one of the federal government’s most tight-knit, specialized, and secretive investigative entities. Its 2,500 agents focus exclusively on financial crime, including tax evasion and money laundering. 
Apparently they hold Mueller in high esteem and the feeling is reciprocal.
“They view them with the highest regard,” Sheil said. “IRS special agents are the very best in the business of conducting financial investigations. They will quickly tell you that it took an accountant to nab Al Capone, and it’s true.”
So now Mueller has Trump's tax returns and he has the CI unit working overtime to follow the money trail. Besides the enormous threat that represents, it also puts a significant financial burden on the targets of the investigation.
The Daily Beast previously reported that targets of Mueller’s probe—including Manafort—are facing financial strain because of the probe, and that Manafort recently parted ways with the law firm WilmerHale in part because of his financial troubles.
In other words, it does not look good for Trump.

But there is one other escape hatch for him.

Justice Department's Tax Division

 You see,
As special counsel, Mueller is subject to the same rules as U.S. Attorneys. That means that if he wants to bring charges against Trump associates related to violations of tax law, he will need approval from the Justice Department’s elite Tax Division.
If there was a guy, like Jeff Sessions, appointed by Trump with his interests at heart, he might have stopped Mueller or dilute his findings or do something, anything.

Except, like almost 80 percent of federal senior positions, Team Trump neglected to appoint anyone to that post. It is being helmed by career bureaucrats.

And it is too late to do anything about it as it requires Senate confirmation and it is a sure bet that the Democrats would block a pro-Trump candidate until after the conclusion of the Mueller investigation.

Is it kismet or irony?

You decide.

30 August 2017

Can Trump Start a Nuclear War?

My last post got mixed reviews.

It seems that people agreed with the bulk of my argument but I lost them at the conclusion. Trump starting a war to save his presidency was too far-fetched for many of my readers.

Their point was not that the "short-fingered vulgarian" would be incapable of incinerating millions of people: they all agreed that he would do so with glee.

But surely, they said, someone would stop him.

You know, the Secretary of Defense, one of the generals, Javanka, someone.

Instead of replying "don't call me Shirley," as I should have, I Googled the question "can anyone stop Trump if he starts a nuclear war?" and I got 4,600,000 hits.

I am sure not all of them are on this topic but I went three pages deep and discovered that, as early as 1 December 2016, Washington Post had a piece declaring that Trump could start a nuclear attack if he felt like it and no one could prevent it.

More significantly, after his Arizona speech last weekend (where he hinted Arpaio's pardon), former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper issued a warning about Trump's likelihood to launch a nuclear attack.
Clapper described a plausible scenario with North Korea. “In a fit of pique he decides to do something about Kim Jong-un, there’s actually very little to stop him,” Clapper warned, “The whole system is built to ensure rapid response if necessary. So there’s very little in the way of controls over exercising a nuclear option, which is pretty damn scary.”
Around the same time, dozens and I mean dozens of magazine articles were published on this very topic and they all suggested that Trump was a thin skinned bully who would think nothing of destroying countries and killing millions.

Clearly, I wasn't the only one who had this macabre thought.

The so-called nuclear football was designed to start the launch in four minutes, there is nothing that can be done once the attack is underway and the targets will be hit within 30 minutes.

Trump needs no second person (unlike the military personnel who actually launch the missiles) to sign off on his command and there is no other impediments once he issued the order and entered the code.

Okay, you might say, surely, there would be serious repercussions for him if he did that.

Unsurprisingly, I disagree with that premise. In fact, the point in my previous post was that starting a nuclear war with North Korea had absolutely no downside for a cornered Trump and many upsides.

In case you are under the mistaken impression that America's political leaders would find a nuclear war abhorrent, this is Lindsey Graham talking at the beginning of this month:
“If there’s going to be a war to stop [Kim Jong Un], it will be over there. If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die here. And [Trump’s] told me that to my face,” Graham said. “That may be provocative, but not really. When you’re president of the United States, where does your allegiance lie? To the people of the United States.”
Let me repeat the cold and callous phrase: "it will be over there."

See how easy it would be to defend such a decision?

Think about it, if Trump were to attack North Korea, other than a bunch of hippies, most Liberals would stand behind the president, as they did in the Iraq War.

Trump would suddenly become presidential, just like Dubya.

North Korea would try to retaliate but they can only reach Guam and chances are US anti-ballistic missiles would stop their rockets. And even if they can't, it's only Guam and brown people.

In such a scenario, experts believe that Kim Jong-un would punish South Korea by trying to kill as many of their people with conventional weapons before the radiation clouds get to them.

I firmly believe that, in the US, such a horrific scenario would not make people upset. Asians are killing each other, people would say, we have nothing to do with it.

Just like they had nothing to do with the tens of millions of people who died in the Middle East.

Stuff happens. Let's watch Entertainment Tonight honey!

Breitbart might even present the catastrophe as something beneficial for the US, like you know, Korea's manufacturing jobs might come back to America.  The ones they stole from us in the first place.

And Trump would use this as a talking point in one of his rallies to thunderous applause from Americans of all walks.

I made America great again!

The upside includes the potential damage to be done to China. As a neighbouring country they might get radiation poisoning. Serious pollution and agricultural problems.

Would that bother Trump? Or anyone else?

In short, if Trump is cornered, and he will be at some point, his most obvious move would be (besides first pardoning himself) to start a nice little nuclear war "over there."

Kim Jung-un is the perfect foil. And he will provide the unassailable pretext.

One final thought: What we learned from new leaders like Erdogan or Duterte or Trump is that they will go to places where no decent person would go and no politicians had gone previously.

They do so because there is no penalty for it.

In fact, they are rewarded by a tribal electorate who declared that there is nothing that would change their minds about their Dear Leader.

Surely, fire and fury then.

Yes and at that point you can call me Shirley.

Or Ishmael.