Welcome to another edition of What Fresh Hell?, Raw Story’s roundup of news items that might have become controversies under another regime, but got buried – or were at least under-appreciated – due to the daily firehose of political pratfalls, unhinged tweet storms and other sundry embarrassments coming out of the current White House.
This week was… different. We usually keep tabs on minor outrages that didn’t get the attention they deserve because everyone was focused on the reality TV show that is the Trump regime, but this week, the tumult came at us so fast that major stories – stories that might ordinarily have become become high-profile scandals – were shoved off of the front pages by other reports of equal or perhaps even greater import.
The top story this week was Trump’s rapid-fire purge of a number of regime officials who had been described at various points as the “only adults in the room” – National Security Advisor HR McMaster, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, economic advisor Gary Cohn and Trump attorney John Dowd. It’s not that these were great people – Tillerson’s been a monumental disaster at State – what's frightening is that they're all being replaced with belligerent right-wing sycophants (or “psychophants”) Trump saw on cable TV, and they will encourage Trump’s worst proclivities. It's not hyperbolic to suggest that with Mike Pompeo heading the CIA and John Bolton steering defense policy in the White House, the likelihood of us getting into a disastrous shooting war as a distraction from Trump’s domestic scandals has increased significantly.
Meanwhile, one could argue that the most significant story this week was a series of reports suggesting that while we were all wondering what the Kremlin may have on Trump to make him so compliant, it appears that the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the UAE are also bending the regime to their will. It turns out that a seemingly inexplicable reversal on a long-standing US position in the Middle East was likely either an act of revenge against a longstanding ally for refusing to bail out the Kushner family’s deeply indebted real estate company or a result of a flood of money to Trump world coming in from deep-pocketed autocratic leaders in the Persian Gulf.
The short-version: Qatar is a key ally, and home to Al Udeid Air Base, where our Central Command and thousands of US military personnel are headquartered. It’s an important base for our endless campaigns in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Last year, a diplomatic clash resulted in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Sunni-led countries to enact a blockade of Qatar, which the US vehemently opposed until Trump suddenly decided that we’ve always been at war with Eastasia, condemned Qatar as a sponsor of terrorism and threw his regime's support behind the blockade. That left observers scratching their heads.
But then The Washington Post reported that Jared Kushner’s father, Charles, confirmed earlier reports that he had sought funding from the Qataris shortly before Trump’s about face on the blockade. He had anticipated that a deal would be finalized to provide desperately needed financing to his company and was reportedly “crushed” when he learned that the Qataris wouldn’t bail out the Kushner family company. Then, “after the financing effort failed, Jared Kushner took a sharp turn against Qatar diplomatically, supporting a crushing economic blockade against the country,” reported The Intercept.
Then The New York Times revealed that George Nader, a key witness in the Mueller probe, “worked for more than a year to turn a top Trump fundraiser into an instrument of influence at the White House for the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.” Those efforts included funneling tens of millions of dollars in lucrative contracts to said top Trump (and RNC) fundraiser.
In either scenario, the most powerful country in the world turned on a crucially important ally for the regime’s personal enrichment or as an act of revenge for not getting a sweetheart deal. Either way, it spells corruption.
The Intercept also reported that Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi’s de facto ruler, told UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed that he had Jared Kushner “in his pocket.” (What would the MAGA crowd think of their "America first" hero selling out to a bunch of oil-rich Mooslims? It’s probably good for their mental health they don’t believe anything that isn’t reported by Fox.)
The longer version, if you have some time, is really worth exploring in this Rachel Maddow segment. It's a devastating indictment.
And with that, let’s move on to some smaller indignities you may have missed this week…
Speaking of foreign emoluments, Anjali Kamat wrote a must-read exposé for The Investigative Fund and The New Republic about “how Trump's business partnerships in India are creating conflicts of interest in the White House and corrupting the presidency."
And Annie Gowan reported for The Washington Post that one of Trump’s business Indian partners cited in Kamat’s piece “has been accused of defrauding its foreign investors of at least $147 million."
Here’s a frightening example of politicizing the bureaucracy: The State Department has a “dissent channel,” where career foreign service officers can register disagreement with department policy. But Alice Ollstein reports for TPM that “two State Department officials involved in an effort to sideline a civil servant suspected of disloyalty to the President” monitor the supposedly protected communications. This “gives them access to the names of U.S. diplomats and other agency employees who openly disagree with administration policy — information that independent watchdogs and members of Congress fear could be used in the effort to marginalize those deemed insufficiently loyal.”
Tangentially related, CNN reports that “whistleblowers have come forward to allege a plot to remove the current CEO of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the agency which controls US-funded media abroad, and push the agency's journalism toward a viewpoint more favorable with the Trump administration.”
Secretary of Why We Need Education Betsy DeVos is in hot water for allegedly withholding key details of a sweeping agency “reform” plan that, according to Erica Green at The New York Times, includes “the consolidation of a number of administrative offices, cutting the number of regional offices in the Office for Civil Rights and acquiring several programs run by the Department of Labor.”
DeVos is also trying to impose what her staff calls an “illegal collective bargaining agreement.” “Union leaders believe the contract gutted all protections that would allow its members to defend themselves in the department’s overhaul,” writes Green.
We all know that red states tend to have higher teen pregnancy rates than blue states, and that’s largely due to their opposition to comprehensive sex ed -- the idea being that if you don’t teach teens about sex, they certainly won’t figure it out on their own. Hormones? Never heard of them.
Now NBC reports that “the Trump administration’s abrupt cancellation of a federal program to prevent teen pregnancy last year was directed by political appointees over the objections of career experts in the Department of Health and Human Services.”
[Emails obtained by NBC show that] three appointees with strict pro-abstinence beliefs — including Valerie Huber, the then-chief of staff for the department's Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health — guided the process to end a program many medical professionals credit with helping to bring the nation’s teen pregnancy rate to an all-time low.
We should note that 42 percent of unwanted pregnancies end in abortion, but whatever.
Relatedly, “an official appointed by President Donald Trump said during a closed-door United Nations meeting that the 'US is a pro-life country,' despite the fact both the law and public opinion support a woman’s right to access legal and safe abortion.” More at The Independent.
The Huffington Post found that two Trump political appointees – one a high-ranking official at Housing and Urban Development – joined the regime from Cambridge Analytica, the firm at the center of the Facebook data theft scandal. One is under investigation for “collecting private data from Facebook,” and the other omitted any reference to the company in his official bio. An innocent oversight, no doubt.
Tying some prominent headlines together, The New York Times reported that “the political action committee founded by John R. Bolton, President Trump’s incoming national security adviser, was one of the earliest customers of Cambridge Analytica, which it hired specifically to develop psychological profiles of voters with data harvested from tens of millions of Facebook profiles.”
And Lee Fang reports for The Intercept that our incoming head of the NSC “has a long association with a group infamous for its role in publishing ‘fake news’ and spreading hate about Muslims.”
[John] Bolton wears many hats… one role that has received relatively little scrutiny is his work as chair of the Gatestone Institute, a nonprofit that focuses largely on publishing original commentary and news related to the supposed threat that Islam poses to Western society. He has served in that role since 2013. (Bolton did not respond to an email seeking comment.)
A steady drum beat of vitriol is visible on the Gatestone website on almost any given day.
The least surprising news last week was the House Intelligence Committee releasing its final report on Kremlingate. Its conclusion could be accurately summarized as NO PUPPET! YOU’RE THE PUPPET!
But NBC reported this week that a study by the Center for American Progress’s Moscow Project found that “the House committee charged with investigating Russian involvement in the 2016 election obtained either no or incomplete information about 81 percent of the known contacts between Trump officials and Russians, or groups and individuals with strong Russia ties like Wikileaks.”
Finally, following up on a couple of stories we’ve discussed in the past, Politico reported that “Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and his wife took a security detail on their vacation to Greece and Turkey last year;... one watchdog group said could be a 'questionable' use of taxpayer resources.” And according to The Daily Beast, Re. Claudia Tenney, a Republican from New York, explained to a radio show host why Ben Carson shouldn’t bee held responsible for ordering that $31,000 dining set: “Somebody in the Deep State, it was not one of his people apparently, ordered a table, like a conference room table or whatever it was for a room…And that’s what the cost was.”
Poor Ben Carson – just another victim of the perfidious Derp State.