Posted on July 14, 2017 in Countdown

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Russia Scandal: The “Fake News” That Wasn’t

For many months, we’ve been trying to figure out if there was any attempt at collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign to undermine Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the presidency. There was plenty of shadiness for sure, but never proof. Until now. When the New York Times informed Donald Trump Jr. of their possession of an email correspondence he had during the campaign and their intent to publish it, Trump Jr. preempted their imminent release and published it himself in the name of “transparency” (what coincidental timing to start valuing transparency!). The email exchange was so blunt, it leaves no room for misinterpretation: Trump Jr. was explicitly told the Russian government wanted to offer Donald Trump incriminating information on Hillary Clinton to support his candidacy, and Trump Jr. responded that he loved it, and subsequently set up the meeting with a Russian government lawyer to get the information. To be clear, we still don’t know what really happened at the meeting (however implausible, it’s theoretically possible the collusion never happened), but what we know for a fact now from this email exchange is that people in the Trump campaign had the intent of colluding with Russia to get their hands on information undermining Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. Current congressman and former prosecutor Ted Lieu (D-CA) says this meeting itself, based on how we know it was set up and regardless of what ultimately happened in it, “more than completes the crime of conspiracy” and is a clear violation of federal law. We’re no longer wondering if there is really a scandal, we’re down to figuring out just how big it is. Oh, and did we mention Jared Kushner was at that meeting too?

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Teta Can Come After All

We complained on an earlier Countdown about the bizarre criteria assigned to exceptions from Donald Trump’s Muslim/refugee ban, which arbitrarily allowed some relatives of legal US residents to visit, but not others. People on Twitter started to use the hashtag #GrandmaBan to post pictures of their grandmothers to bring home the madness of pretending they were banned because of security concerns. Luckily, a federal judge in Hawaii also noticed how absurd the restrictions were, and cracked them to allow “grandparents, grandchildren, brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and cousins of persons in the United States” to come visit. Yay Grandma! And refugees who have already been approved by a resettlement agency to come to the US will be excluded from the ban as well, as the judge also noted “an assurance from a United States refugee resettlement agency…is a documented contract, it is binding, it triggers responsibilities and obligations.” The ban is still wrong, of course, and should be dropped altogether. But in the meantime, we’ll take the joy of families being able to see each other as a small victory to celebrate.

 

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The FBI After Comey

Appearing before his Senate confirmation hearing for FBI Director, Christopher Wray fielded questions about hate crimes, whistleblowers, and waterboarding, and his answers were largely mainstream and non-controversial, like vanilla pudding. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that “mainstream and non-controversial” is now seen as a breath of fresh air for American politics. Wray affirmed that the Russia investigation was not a witch-hunt and vowed to keep the FBI independent. That part of his hearing was covered.  What received much less attention was Wray’s potential role in Bush-era torture guidance and his record on some key civil liberties issues. Specifically, his extreme comfort with the highly problematic use of material support prosecutions was largely glazed over, though he gave one telling response, stating, “we'd far rather catch a terrorist with his hands on a check than his hands on a bomb.” While that makes for a good soundbite, it does not address the many problems of some of the government's cases in this area. His broader response to domestic terrorism simply continued the Washington trend of securitizing the relationship between law enforcement and American Muslims. But these are the sorts of concerns that fly under the radar when sexier scandals are constantly in the headlines. In the age of Trump, vanilla pudding is the best option on the menu. Christopher Wray will surely be confirmed as the next Director of the FBI, a 10-year term.
 
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A One-sided Hearing on Palestine-Israel, You don’t Say

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing to figure out how the US could stop inadvertently funding attacks on civilians in Israel and Palestine. Given that, according to Human Rights Watch, the Israeli military regularly shoots Palestinian civilians and bombs civilian areas indiscriminately, you’d be justified in thinking the hearing included an examination of US military aid to Israel. But moral consistency can’t always be counted on in the halls of Congress, so this hearing focused exclusively on Palestinian violence, and specifically US funding of the Palestinian Authority given the PA’s policy of paying compensation to the families of Palestinians who are killed or imprisoned by Israel. There is legitimate concern here: The policy of family compensation does not exclude those who commit acts of terrorism. But because the Israeli justice system is notoriously unfair to the Palestinians, engages in mass arrests of Palestinians who engage in legitimate resistance to occupation, and often extracts confessions of alleged crimes through torture, it may not always be clear who is really guilty of terrorism and who is simply a victim of Israeli occupation. So who are the Palestinian witnesses who were at this hearing about Palestinian policy and US aid to the Palestinians? You guessed it, there were none.  It was just the former US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, and neocon diplomat Elliott Abrams, who mischaracterized the PA’s policy as a conscious program of reward for terrorism. To be clear, we are all for ending US funding for terrorism, direct or otherwise. But it’s far more productive to engage the subject without excluding relevant perspectives or ignoring the violence inherent in decades of a brutal occupation.

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Kill “Every Last Muslim”

It sounds made up, but it isn’t. When public officials express border-line genocidal sentiments about Muslims, they tend to leave themselves some openings to claim they were only talking about radicals or something. But a Michigan village president shared a post on Facebook which literally calls for the death of “every last Muslim”. And unlike the moderated tones officials express once confronted with their hateful posts, Kalkaska village President Jeff Sieting insisted he owed no apology to anyone. Once the controversy became public, about a hundred and fifty of his defenders gathered at an ‘open carry’ event either to support his right to have posted the genocidal piece, or to echo its sentiment, with one resident saying “Everything he said on there is the frigging truth about these [Muslim] people, they’re not even people in my eyes anymore.” Good thing we have a national leadership in this country that speaks out against the vilification of entire communities to keep things from sliding into a more frightening direction. Oh wait...

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Hope in the Gulf?

With the US administration repeatedly contradicting itself on the Gulf-Qatar crisis, it was unclear what US policy towards the matter would look like when it came to action. But action is finally here, as the US has signed a memorandum of understanding with Qatar on combatting terrorism, which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he was “hopeful” could make “some progress” on resolving tensions with neighboring countries. While the agreement focuses on the disruption of terrorism financing, the UAE foreign minister continues to insist that Qatar must “double its efforts” in combating terrorism, saying if it wasn’t ready to do more to be a part of their alliance, “it’s time to  say goodbye.” Wait, did he say “goodbye”? Um, that’s vague, but kind of ominous. And now Tillerson has made an unexpected return to Qatar after further talks with Saudi officials. And now even the Qataris are “upbeat” about resolving the crisis. Can someone please call Tillerson and ask what made him “hopeful?” Because it’s hard to imagine which side capitulates on those far-reaching demands, and we hope there is more to that hope than hope (get your head around that one).