Fake News

Cartoon by Jeff Stahler

Trump spent the weekend tweeting about Russia. He lied, a lot.

Vox: Even by his standards, President Trump has been on a Twitter rampage since special counsel Robert Mueller started indicting Russians for election interference last Friday. Trump has sent 16 tweets on the topic in the three days following the indictment, amounting to roughly two-thirds of all of the tweets he sent in that time period.

The Russia tweets had one big thing in common: They were full of lies.

Friday’s indictments focused on Russian social media activity — creating pro-Trump Facebook groups and anti-Hillary Twitter bots — rather than hacks targeting the Clinton campaign or US election infrastructure. Trump’s tweets describe this as vindication; as proof that “there is no collusion” between his campaign and Russia and that the whole scandal was ginned up by Democrats and “the fake news media.”

This is not true — the absence of indictments related to collusion on Friday does not mean that such indictments won’t be coming in the future. But in order to make it sound true, Trump’s tweets ended up twisting the facts in ways that range from factually dubious (the notion that allegations of Trump-Russia collusion are a “hoax”) to the downright offensive (claiming the FBI would have caught the Parkland, Florida, shooter if it hadn’t been so busy investigating his ties to Russia).

Sometimes, though, he strayed into the territory of outright, easily debunkable lies. What follows are the three clearest examples.

The main thrust of Trump’s tweets was, for whatever reason, the idea that election hacking didn’t affect the outcome of the 2016 election. Trump attributes this claim to the FBI indictments, citing a New York Post article arguing that they prove “[Clinton] lost the old-fashioned way, by being a terrible candidate. Case closed.”

It would indeed be striking if Mueller weighed in on this question; you don’t typically see polling analysis in criminal indictments. Yet it’s not there. Nowhere does the indictment say that Russian social media efforts were irrelevant to the election. If anything, it seems to imply the opposite — listing off a series of large-scale efforts by Russia’s Internet Research Agency (the name its hackers used) to shape the outcome of the election:

Defendant ORGANIZATION had a strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Defendants posted derogatory information about a number of candidates, and by early to mid-2016, Defendants’ operations included supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump (“Trump Campaign”) and disparaging Hillary Clinton.

Defendants made various expenditures to carry out those activities, including buying political advertisements on social media in the names of U.S. persons and entities. Defendants also staged political rallies inside the United States, and while posing as U.S. grassroots entities and U.S. persons, and without revealing their Russian identities and ORGANIZATION affiliation, solicited and compensated real U.S. persons to promote or disparage candidates. Some Defendants, posing as U.S. persons and without revealing their Russian association, communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign and with other political activists to seek to coordinate political activities.

Now, the report doesn’t outright say that these activities were decisive in helping Trump win. But it also doesn’t say that they had no impact on the election. It’s agnostic on the question, as is appropriate in a federal indictment.

Trump’s assertion that Russian social media campaigns didn’t sway the election may be true; the data on that question is really hard to parse. But it’s an outright lie to say, as Trump did, that Friday’s indictments have settled the question. Trump is misstating the Mueller team’s conclusions to make him seem like a more legitimate president >>>

Flying coffins


Netanyahu's battles

Cartoon by Yaakov Kirschen

Netanyahu Confidants Arrested in Telecom Giant Graft Case

Haaretz: Police on Sunday arrested two of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's confidants and several senior officials at Bezeq, the Israeli telecommmunication's giant, as part of the ongoing corruption investigation, dubbed 'Case 4000' involving the company and its possible relationship with the prime minister.

Netanyahu is expected to be questioned in connection to the case.

Following new evidence that indicates that alleged criminal activity in the case is more extensive than had been suspected, the police released a statement Sunday saying its Lahav 433 unit has officially opened a joint investigation with the Israel Securities Authority. Also on Sunday, Haaretz reported that three unnamed associates of Netanyahyu acted to benefit businessman Shaul Elovitch, Bezeq's controlling shareholder. Bezeq shares were trading down 1.15 percent in mid-mornning trading on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange Sunday. 

Case 4000, revolves around the alleged quid-pro-quo relations between Netanyahu and Elovitch, whose Bezeq firm also owns the Israeli news website Walla. This is the second case involving allegations that Netanyahu tried to gain favorable news coverage by purportedly benefitting a media baron.

The first is an investigation of conversations betweeen the prime minister and the publisher of the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, Arnon Mozes, in which Netanyahu purportedly promised to enact policies benefitting Yediot in exchange for favorable coverage of the prime minister. Police have recommened that Netanyahu be criminally charged in that case and another corruption probe.

Last week, sources told Haaretz that evidence in the Bezeq case had become stronger and includes copious testimony and correspondence between people involved in the affair, including someone close to Netanyahu. In the Bezeq case, Netanyahu and the then-director general of the Communications Ministry, Shlomo Filber, allegedly helped Bezeq to the tune of hundreds of millions of shekels. In return, Walla gave consistently favorable coverage to Netanyahu, especially to his wife Sara, sources say.

A key witness in the Bezeq case is expected to be Ilan Yeshua, Walla’s chief executive. On Yeshua’s orders, critical stories on the website about the Netanyahus were censored, while fawning stories on Sara Netanyahu that came from the prime minister’s aides were published, sources say. Headlines were allegedly toned down and critical news items were pushed to the website’s margins or removed entirely.                                                     

Last week, a former editor in chief of Walla, Yinon Magal, admitted that he was pressured to give favorable coverage to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara. He said he has not been summoned by police to provide his version, but added that “if I am summoned to testify by the police, I will definitely say what happened there.”

A few weeks ago, after the Israel Securities Authority announced that its investigation into Bezeq had been completed, Haaretz reported that the probe had uncovered evidence bolstering suspicions of a quid-pro-quo relationship between Netanyahu and Elovitch. At the time, the sources said the suspicions had not yet been investigated thoroughly enough, a situation that appears to have changed.

Several months ago, the state told the High Court of Justice that the Bezeq case, also known as Case 4000, had been returned to the securities authority for further investigation. At a meeting last week with journalists, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit said there had been new  developments in the investigation, but he declined to elaborate.

Case 4000 initially focused on three main issues. The first was Bezeq's acquisition of satellite television service provider Yes and the corporate governance that led to approval of the billion-shekel purchase ($283 million at current rates). The second was the acquisition by Yes of satellite services from Space-Communications as part of a long-term transaction extending through 2028. The third was the professional relationship between the Communications Ministry and Bezeq, including alleged leaks of working papers by Filber to Bezeq and allegations that Filber concealed the leaks from the professional staff at his ministry.

Mohsen Vera

Obama portrait revealed

Everything's Okay!

Middle East chess game

Cartoon by Gary Barker

The Post-Islamic State Marshall Plan That Never Was

Foreign Policy: For the final session of the international Iraq reconstruction conference held here this week, two sets of speeches were drawn up for Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and the United Nations secretary-general to deliver — one in the event that funding targets were met, and another in case they weren’t.

Iraq needs billions of dollars to rebuild after the military defeat of the Islamic State, but the nations expected to step up and shoulder the financial burden of reconstruction have sent a mixed message of support, leaving the final outcome in doubt.

In the weeks leading up to the conference, the threshold for making a public announcement at the conclusion of the event was also rolled back. The original goal of $20 billion dropped to $10 billion, and finally to $5 billion. Even then, it was unclear which speech would be given, according to a source familiar with the preparations.

The World Bank estimates that Iraq needs nearly $88 billion to reconstitute damaged infrastructure, housing, and vital services — much of which is supposed to come from Iraqi government oil revenue. In the end, additional support pledged at the conference in Kuwait raised roughly $30 billion in a complex combination of loans, investment guarantees, and direct investment — short of the goal, but better than expected.

That result was reflected in Secretary General António Guterres’ speech. “The response to this conference and to this appeal is an extraordinary proof of confidence in the government and in the people of Iraq,” he told the audience.

An Iraqi official confirmed the $30 billion estimate but noted that the government had still not received official documentation of the pledges.

Though this final number is considerably higher than originally anticipated, questions remain over whether cash-strapped Gulf states will make good on their promises, and whether private sector companies will begin to ramp up investments necessary to jump-start the country’s economy after years of war.

Iraqi national elections are also scheduled for May, and the government must still shoulder much of the reconstruction burden itself, a proposition heavily reliant on high and stable oil prices.

Already, the International Finance Corporation has estimated that Iraq alone would need to bear at least $50 billion of the expected price tag. That number, said Christian Josz, IMF deputy division chief for the Middle East, would be realistic only if oil prices stayed relatively steady. “The financing gap increases significantly if oil prices drop even a little,” he said during talks on Tuesday.

Still, the conference’s outcome beat many originally dim predictions. “This is an important signal to Iraq and to Abadi going into elections,” said Elizabeth Dickinson, a Gulf researcher at the International Crisis Group. “This gives him something tangible to take back to Baghdad and show voters that he can deliver on reconstruction.”

Several foreign officials at the conference, however, noted that contributions were originally expected to be considerably lower. As early as December, said some, it was apparent that the Iraqi government’s original benchmark of raising $20 billion from international donors might be difficult to reach >>>

A requiem for sanity

Cartoon by Gustavo Rodriguez

A Florida high school massacre and guns: A requiem for sanity

Rex Huppke, Chicago Tribune

Seventeen dead in a high school. South Florida.

A former student, 19. Armed to the teeth. A semi-automatic AR-15 rifle. Made to kill.

Police officers running to the school, machine guns drawn. A mother texting her son to turn off his phone's ringer so the killer with the rifle won’t hear it and find him.

A slaughter.

Seventeen dead. At a high school. In America.

It has happened before, it happened Wednesday and it will happen again.

Why? Because nothing. We do nothing.

School shooting. Nothing.

School shooting. Nothing.

School shooting. Nothing.

Thoughts and prayers. Don’t talk about guns. Don’t politicize deaths.

Too soon, too soon, too soon.

Thoughts and prayers and thoughts and prayers and thoughts and prayers.

A tweet from the president. Nothing more. It gets a tweet. No spoken words.

Seventeen dead.

Don’t talk about guns.

It’s mental health. Mental health, right? Got to fix mental health. Never do, but keep saying it.

Seventeen dead Wednesday. What’s changed since the last one? Nothing. When was the last one? Can’t remember. It’s a blur.

Mass shootings in America — in schools, at concerts, in movie theaters — are a blur.

Read that again: Mass shootings in America are a blur. A blur.

What do we do?

Don’t talk about guns. Evil can’t be stopped. Guns aren’t to blame. Weapons of mass killing have nothing to do with mass killings. Nope.

Listen to the National Rifle Association. The world is scary. You need guns. More. More. More.

Listen to the politicians who get the money from the NRA which gets the money from the people who make the guns and the bullets and the bulletproof vests we ought to send kids to school wearing so they don’t die when bullets fly from a gun in the hands of a maniac who fell through the cracks and could only have been caught, could only have been stopped, if we had better mental health care or if we had teachers carrying guns or no more gun-free zones or something, anything, that isn’t tougher gun laws.

What do we do? >>>

Mother Earth: #MeToo

Cartoon by Tom Curry

Trump's infrastructure plan aims to sweep away 'inefficient' environmental reviews 

The Guardian: The Trump administration is attempting to speed up or even sweep away various environmental reviews in its plan to fix America’s crumbling infrastructure and construct a wall along the border with Mexico.

The White House’s infrastructure plan targets what it calls “inefficiencies” in the approval of roads, bridges, airports and other projects. It proposes a 21-month limit for environmental reviews of projects that potentially threaten endangered species or fragile habitats, along with curbs on federal agencies’ ability to raise objections to new construction.

In a meeting with state and local officials on Monday, Trump said “we’re going to get your permits very quickly.” The president, who mentioned he was able to push through the building of an ice rink in New York’s Central Park within a few months, said he will “speed the permit approval process from 10 years to two years, and maybe even to one year.”

The campaign to fast-track development over concerns has been picked up by Trump’s lieutenants. Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, has attempted to quicken the pace even further, telling the same group that the EPA will “process every permit, up or down, within six months” by the end of 2018.

The administration has sought to completely cast aside environmental considerations when it comes to its controversial border wall. It recently acquired a waiver for the third time in order to speed construction of 20 miles of the wall in New Mexico, and Trump has rescinded an Obama-era rule that demanded officials consider sea level rise and other climate change factors in federally-funded projects.

Environmentalists have warned that Trump’s agenda will place extra pressure on endangered species and risk exacerbating hazards, such as flooding, by failing to factor climate change.

A recent report by the Center for Biological Diversity found that the border wall risks the habitat of dozens of species, including the arroyo toad, the Peninsular bighorn sheep and the jaguar, which was once driven out of the south-western US but has been spotted again in recent years due to the northward migration from a group located around 100 miles south of the border in Sonora, Mexico.

A coalition of conservation groups said Americans are “overwhelmingly opposed” to any sidestepping of the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act or National Environmental Policy Act >>>

Huge increase in military spending

Cartoon by Tom Curry

Trump proposes huge increase in military spending

Los Angeles Times: The Trump administration on Monday proposed a defense budget of $716 billion for fiscal 2019, part of an ambitious effort to substantially boost Pentagon spending after years of tight budget limits and refocus the military on countering Russia and China.

The budget blueprint, combined with a defense boost that Congress approved last week, would increase Pentagon accounts for weapons, troops, training and for nuclear arms programs run by the Energy Department by more than $74 billion, a 10% increase over current spending levels.

The budget "is what we need to bring us back to a position of primacy," Defense Secretary James N. Mattis told reporters on a flight to Rome late Sunday, citing plans to buy more F-18 fighters, train more Air Force mechanics, and create new cyberwarfare units as examples of how the money will be spent.

Trump's budget plan was released weeks after the Pentagon issued a national security strategy that called for a shift away from battling terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda and Islamic State, and retooling the military to deter and, if necessary, fight nuclear-armed adversaries such as Russia, China or North Korea.

Though President Trump has frequently called for improving relations with Moscow and enlisting Beijing to put diplomatic pressure on North Korea, Pentagon officials are far more explicit about what they claim is a growing threat from Russia and China to U.S. allies in Europe and Asia.

"It is increasingly apparent that China and Russia want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian values," Undersecretary of Defense David L. Norquist said Monday at a Pentagon news briefing. "We recognize that, if unaddressed, our eroding U.S. military advantage versus China and Russia could undermine our ability to deter aggression and coercion in key strategic regions."

The call for a substantial increase in defense spending also comes months after two Navy guided-missile destroyers collided with civilian cargo ships in the western Pacific, killing 17 sailors. The accidents galvanized concerns by lawmakers and at the top levels of the Pentagon that congressional-mandated spending caps since 2011 had harmed readiness and training in the armed services.

Pentagon officials long have complained that the spending caps had left some combat units unprepared to fight and had delayed maintenance on crucial equipment while the military was still engaged in conflicts around the globe.

With the spending caps lifted at least for the next two years, most major Pentagon accounts would receive budget increases. The money would go for more training, more interceptors for ballistic missile defense, new missile-carrying submarines, a planned new bomber, and modernization of aging nuclear warheads.

The increase in defense spending that lawmakers approved last week went beyond what the White House had initially sought — $603 billion for the base Pentagon budget, with another $65 billion for war-related costs.

"It's a big jump for fiscal 2018 and fiscal 2019 compared to where we are,'" said Todd Harrison, a defense budget specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan think tank.

In broad terms, the new budget proposal recommends $617 billion for the base Pentagon budget and $69 billion more for the wars in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and other ongoing military operations.

Another $30 billion would go to the National Nuclear Security Administration, the Energy Department agency that oversees nuclear weapons research. That's an increase of $1.69 billion for weapons activities, including upgrading and building new nuclear warheads.

Trump's proposal now goes to Congress, which is likely to adjust some specifics. The overall spending levels were worked out, however, in an ambitious two-year budget deal reached last Friday with congressional leaders from both parties.

Among the most expensive proposals would increase the size of the active-duty armed forces by 25,900 by next year and by 56,600 by 2023.

The active-duty Army would expand the most, going from a 2018 authorized level of 476,000 to 495,500 over the next six years. By 2023, the Navy would increase by 16,900, the Marine Corps by 1,400, and the Air Force by 13,700, increasing the active-duty military to 1,365,500.

The number of Air Force combat squadrons would increase from 55 to 58 by 2023 >>>