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Dec. 5 2016 3:02 PM

It’s Not Just Pizzagate. Son of Trump’s National Security Adviser Believes Other Vile Things Too.

On Sunday, Edgar Maddison Welch walked into a popular pizzeria in Washington, D.C., carrying an assault rifle and opened fire, according to police. His reason? Authorities say the 28-year-old man from North Carolina claims he was there to “self-investigate” a conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of the back of the neighborhood restaurant.

First thing’s first: There is absolutely no credible evidence—zero—that Clinton or anyone else is running a child sex ring out of Comet Ping Pong. The establishment’s owner, James Alefantis, is friends with a few prominent Democrats and was a Clinton supporter, but as the New York Times reported last month, “he has never met her, does not sell or abuse children, and is not being investigated by law enforcement for any of these claims.”

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That, however, hasn’t stopped the fact-free “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory from gaining purchase in the more extreme corners of the internet, and Alefantis and his employees have increasingly been the subject of harassment online and off in recent weeks, culminating in Sunday’s shooting. Thankfully, no one was physically injured during that incident, but the fact it happened at all would hopefully be enough to convince people to stop spreading the spurious story. Of course that’s not the world we live in these days.

Exhibit A: Michael G. Flynn, the son of retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, whom President-elect Donald Trump has tapped to be his national security adviser. Flynn Jr. sent this out after the attack:

Flynn subsequently retweeted a message from a Trump supporter suggesting that he was simply urging the news media to fully debunk the story, though he quickly abandoned any such pretense when he spent part of Sunday retweeting other Pizzagate peddlers. He also shared direct messages purportedly from CNN’s Jack Tapper, who appears to have admirably taken Flynn to task. Tapper, according to the shared screenshots, privately told Flynn “spreading this nonsense is dangerous”; Flynn responded publicly by claiming Tapper was “trolling” his family.

Junior is more than just his father’s son. He’s also served as his dad’s chief of staff, an employee at his consulting firm, and an editor of his books. This is the man who will advise the man who will advise Donald Trump on issues of national security. What he thinks—and, sadly, what he tweets—matters. It’s worth noting, then, that his foray into Pizzagate was hardly an isolated trip into the land of dangerous speculation and hate.

The younger Flynn’s social feeds are a hot bed of conspiracy theories along with homophobic and/or racially charged missives, as CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski and Nathan McDermott documented on Monday:

Flynn frequently shares unfounded conspiracy theories, like ones claiming Hillary Clinton and President Obama would be tried for treason if Trump is elected. He also posted a unfounded story claiming hackers would release a video of former President Bill Clinton raping a teenage girl. In one post, he called alt-right social commentator Mike Cernovich, who frequently shares unfounded news stories, "a source I trust."
In a Facebook post from October, Flynn shared a fake news story claiming Obama flaunted an erection to female reporters in 2008. Flynn tweeted multiple times unfounded claims about Sen. Marco Rubio's "coke house, gayish dance troupe, and foam parties." These tweets included a baseless article about Rubio being a homosexual who lived in a drug house and went to "foam parties" where "mutual masturbation is an occasional component, generally beneath the cover of foam."

None of that is grounded in anything resembling reality. But it’s stuff Flynn Jr. thinks the world, and presumably his father, should know about.

The younger Flynn often peppers his Twitter timeline and Facebook page with references and links to InfoWars, an online clearinghouse of conspiracy theories, and CNN captured screenshots of since-deleted tweets from him that were racially charged. One replied to a Vox story about whites-only dating sites with this rejoinder in January 2016: "soooo African Americans can have B.E.T. but whites can't have their own dating site? Hmmm.” The other, posted the day after the 2012 Election Day, claimed that “the only reason minorities voted for [Barack Obama] is the color of his skin and NOT for the issues.”

The elder Flynn will not need Senate confirmation to become Trump’s national security adviser. Flynn Jr., according to CNN, already has a presidential transition email address. It seems both will fit in just fine with their new boss.

Dec. 5 2016 1:18 PM

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory’s Defeat Is a Cautionary Tale for LGBTQ Opponents

North Carolina Republican Gov. Pat McCrory admitted defeat on Monday, conceding to his Democratic rival, current state attorney general Roy Cooper. In a video message, McCrory asserted that he has “continued questions” about possible voter fraud, but that “I personally believe that the majority of our citizens have spoken.” He noted that the election was “the closest North Carolina governor’s race in modern history.”

McCrory’s concession was not at all inevitable. Although he faced a deficit of more than 4,000 votes the morning after Election Day—a gap that has since grown to more than 10,000—he insisted that he might be the rightful winner. For weeks, McCrory alleged that rampant voter fraud swung the election to Cooper, launching a series of baseless challenges at county election boards in an effort to disqualify as many votes for Cooper as possible. Eventually, the Republican-controlled state election board ordered a recount in Democrat-heavy Durham County. By Monday morning, it was clear that the recount would not close McCrory’s deficit, likely spurring the governor to concede formally.

Lingering in the background of McCrory’s incessant voter fraud allegations was the possibility of a de facto legislative coup. North Carolina law allows the legislature to choose the winner of a governor’s race when “a contest arises” as to “the conduct or results of the election.” Its decision, according to the relevant statute, is “not reviewable” by the courts. Thus, McCrory could have declared that rampant fraud (for which there was no evidence) cast doubt on Cooper’s victory, and allowed the Republican-dominated legislature to declare McCrory to be the true winner. It would have marked an end to Democracy in the state. And it was completely within the realm of possibility.

Dec. 5 2016 12:40 PM

Trump’s Handling of the Taiwan Call Backlash Was Worse Than the Call Itself

One unexpected silver lining of having a president-elect as erratic and uninformed as Donald Trump is that it gives everyone an out when he makes a bad move. Following Friday’s unusual phone conversation between Trump and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, a possible upending of the “one China” policy the U.S. has maintained since 1979, Beijing filed a diplomatic complaint, but the Chinese foreign ministry also dismissed the call as "just a small trick by Taiwan"—seemingly implying that Trump had been duped into taking the call.

Meanwhile, Trump’s advisers and surrogates spent the weekend implying that the call was either a long-planned deliberate signal to Beijing or just a simple courtesy call that didn’t signal anything. Trump himself seemed halfway between those positions on Twitter, first emphasizing in all caps that Tsai “CALLED ME” to offer congratulations, then later (not entirely accurately) blasting various Chinese policies as self-justification for the call:

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The phone call was not, on its own, indefensible. As Trump accurately pointed out, the U.S. already sells a significant amount of military equipment to Taiwan. And the U.S. certainly shouldn’t always concede to Chinese sensitivities when figuring out how to interact with its allies. Like the use of U.S. naval warships last year to assert freedom of movement in the Chinese-claimed South China Sea, if intentional, the call could be a signal that the U.S. will back allies under pressure from Beijing’s territorial ambitions. If we give Trump and his team the benefit of the doubt, they may have assumed China’s backlash would be limited and that such a demonstration would be worth it. Under certain circumstances, it’s not impossible to imagine a President-elect Clinton doing something similar, though her team would hopefully have had a more clear and coherent explanation immediately available for what she had done and why. Trump’s previous suggestions that allies like Korea and Japan need to pay up more for U.S. security guarantees suggests that supporting U.S. pals in their disputes with China is not a major priority for him, but perhaps he had a change of heart.

What would be more worrying is if Trump, who is not taking normal State Department briefings before speaking with foreign leaders, is making changes to U.S. foreign policy on the fly, perhaps not even realizing that he’s doing it. It is hypocritical that the U.S. pretends to believe that Taiwan is just a province of China, while following policies that support its de facto independence, but that’s a hypocrisy that has allowed the U.S. to continue to tacitly back Taiwan while avoiding a confrontation with a nuclear-armed superpower. And, based on prior experience, any president should be aware of the risks of changing course and proceed with extreme caution.

During the 1995/1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, China staged missile tests around Taiwan after the U.S. allowed then President Lee Teng-hui to give a speech at his alma mater, Cornell. The U.S. responded by deploying aircraft carrier battle groups to the region as a show of force. The situation was resolved eventually, but China’s military is much more powerful now than it was in the ’90s and the risk of catastrophe due to a miscalculation or misunderstanding at a key moment has only increased. The fact that Trump’s first impulse after the uproar over the call was to lash out at critics and at China does not inspire confidence about his ability to defuse tension and get a possibly dangerous situation under control.

Whether the phone call was the result of a power play by China hawks on Trump’s team, Taiwan sensing an opportunity to enhance its standing, Trump’s business interests, or the president-elect not understanding the consequences of what he was doing, or some combination of all four, there’s enough ambiguity here that China will likely let this one slide. Chinese leaders don’t want a military confrontation with the United States. But they certainly aren’t immune from the pressures to save face and demonstrate strength that lead all governments to do dumb things.

I hope that Trump’s advisers really did think this through in advance, keeping in mind the possible consequences. It would be a lot more worrying if they are just retroactively turning an ad lib into a deeply held policy position, as happened numerous times during the campaign.

Dec. 5 2016 11:51 AM

Donald Trump Met With Al Gore, Maybe Discussed Climate Change

 

Update, 1:15 p.m.: Apparently Gore also met with Trump himself. Since his meeting with Ivanka was explicitly about climate change, that's presumably one of the subjects he discussed with Trump, though Gore didn't specifically say that.

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Original post, 11:51 a.m.: Donald Trump and his lieutenants are continuing to hold meetings in New York with potential Cabinet members and administration advisers, with figures such as John Bolton, Rob Portman, and Al Gore seen at Trump T—wait, what? Al Gore?

Yes:

It's not quite totally surprising that Ivanka Trump would meet with a climate change activist; her role in her father's campaign was to seem kind of reasonable about a few pet issues without actually influencing anything he said or did in a useful or humane way. (She apparently met recently with Leonardo DiCaprio to discuss global warming as well.) But on the other hand, it is totally surprising, because Donald Trump has written that "the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive" and has called the evidence of climate change a "hoax" on at least four occasions.

By the way, for our readers who come from the generation of people who didn't recognize Dan Quayle when he had his own Trump Tower meeting: Before he became a climate guy, Al Gore was the vice president of the United States. He ran for president in 2000 and was defeated after a controversial recount process, which is why many people now call him "the original Jill Stein."*

*No one calls him this.

Dec. 5 2016 9:47 AM

Why Oakland’s Nightclub Fire Was So Deadly

The New York Times published a piece on Sunday assessing the causes of the fire at Oakland’s the Ghost Ship warehouse that killed at least 36 people on Friday. The blaze was the consequence of a number of factors that have contributed to mass casualty fires since the late 19th and early 20th centuries including a lack of exits and an excess of flammable material:

The space in Oakland seems to have been especially vulnerable: it was a warehouse that had been converted into a makeshift nightclub and labyrinth of artist studios spread across two floors connected by a rickety staircase made of wooden pallets. The building had only two exits.
Theatre and nightclub fires, both today and in the past, tend to have a few things in common: overcrowding, combustible interior decorations, inadequate exits or stairwells, and heat sources like candles, stage lights, or pyrotechnics that can spark a blaze.

According to accounts by former residents of the Ghost Ship’s living spaces, the warehouse’s dangers were well-known to those familiar with the space but may not have been to those visiting it for a night out.

Dec. 5 2016 8:23 AM

Trump Nominates Neurosurgeon, Inspirational Speaker to Lead Department of Housing and Urban Development

When reports spread in November that Donald Trump was considering neurosurgeon/inspirational speaker–turned–incoherent right-wing oddball Ben Carson to become Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, we all had a good laugh. That "we" even included Ben Carson, whose longtime adviser admitted to the Hill that he was completely unqualified for the role:

“Dr. Carson feels he has no government experience, he’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”
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Well, it looks like it's cripplin' time, because Donald Trump announced early this morning that he's going to nominate Ben Carson to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

At least it's honest about the reality that having grown up in an "urban" area is Carson's only housing- or urban development–related life experience.

Or, well, actually—in November Carson said that his priority as hypothetical HUD secretary would be eliminating "corruption, graft, and shell games" in urban areas. As it happens, one of Carson's closest friends and business partners is a dentist who was convicted of felony insurance fraud in 2007. Carson has also long been associated with a sleazy multilevel vitamin-marketing company called Mannatech that's paid millions to settle charges that it engages in deceptive advertising practices. So he knows the corruption/graft/shell-game game pretty well too.

Dec. 4 2016 10:16 PM

Gunman Arrested in Pizzagate Incident Recently Ran Over a Teenager With His Car

The Washington, D.C., pizzeria Comet Ping Pong, according to a beyond-dunderheaded, WikiLeaks-fueled conspiracy theory, is the nexus of a child trafficking ring operated by the Democratic party. Two weeks ago, the New York Times reported that “one supporter of the Pizzagate theory shot a live video from within the restaurant during a busy dinner shift” before being told to leave the establishment by local police. On Sunday, the threats against the pizza place got a lot scarier, as a 28-year-old man named Edgar Maddison Welch was arrested after firing a shot inside the restaurant with what police termed an assault rifle.

Welch, a native of Salisbury, North Carolina, made the news in his home state last month after allegedly ramming his Buick LeSabre into a teenage pedestrian. According to the website of WBTV, the 13-year-old victim “suffered head, torso, and leg injuries,” and “Welch stayed at the scene of the crash and waited for police.” One witness, however, told WBTV that Welch hadn’t tried to swerve out of the way when he saw the group of teenagers walking down the road.

Dec. 4 2016 7:35 PM

Trump Slams China on Twitter Amid Debate Over Significance of Taiwan Call

Update: Amid debate over whether President-elect Donald Trump's call with Taiwan's president on Friday was meant to send a larger message to China, the soon-to-be leader of the free world took to Twitter to scoff at the idea that Beijing can have a say in U.S. foreign policy.

“Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency (making it hard for our companies to compete), heavily tax our products going into their country (the U.S. doesn’t tax them) or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don’t think so!” Trump tweeted.

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The tweets sent out by the president-elect suggest the call with Taiwan was more than diplomatic courtesy and was meant to send a clear message to Beijing about how he would operate once in the White House.

Original post at 4:55 p.m.: An interesting dynamic played out Sunday as President-elect Donald Trump’s team tried to dismiss concerns about broader implications of Friday's call with the Taiwanese leader, while experts said that it would be too simplistic to shrug off the conversation as nothing but a rookie mistake from a rookie president. On the Sunday talk shows the rule of the game was laughing off the press for getting overly excited about the first known contact between a Taiwanese leader and a U.S. president or president-elect since 1979.

One of those responsible for dismissing speculation about the conversation was Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who said the whole thing was nothing but a “courtesy call.” Pence said the reaction to the call amounted to a “tempest in a teapot” that shouldn’t be seen as a sign of a broader shift in strategy. "I think I would just say to our counterparts in China that this was a moment of courtesy. The president-elect talked to President Xi two weeks ago in the same manner. It was not a discussion about policy," Pence said on NBC's Meet the Press.

Kellyanne Conway also joined the downplaying game even as she seemed to recognize that everyone would read into it whatever they wanted. “It was just a phone call at this point,” Conway said on Fox News Sunday. “It signals the fact that he accepted a congratulatory call. I know that China has a perspective on it, I know the White House and State Department probably have a perspective on it, and certainly Taiwan has a perspective on it, but the president-elect’s perspective is that he accepted a congratulatory call.”

Experts, however, seem to be increasingly saying this could be a sign of broader shifts in foreign policy that can be expected from a president-elect who was fond of anti-China rhetoric on the campaign trail. Trump’s team is filled with people who are friendly toward Taiwan and have been highly critical of the way President Obama’s administration has allowed Beijing to call the shots when it comes to Taipei’s relationship with Washington.

The Washington Post notes that China experts have been particularly pointing to a Foreign Policy article that called Taiwan a “beacon of democracy in Asia” as a hint of what may be to come. In the piece, Alexander Gray and Peter Navarro write:

The Obama administration’s treatment of Taiwan has been equally egregious. This beacon of democracy in Asia is perhaps the most militarily vulnerable U.S. partner anywhere in the world. As far back as 2010, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency warned that the balance of power in the skies above the Taiwan Strait was shifting toward Beijing. Yet Taiwan has been repeatedly denied the type of comprehensive arms deal it needs to deter China’s covetous gaze, despite the fact that such assistance is guaranteed by the legally binding Taiwan Relations Act.

Another thing that those in the know are making clear is that even if Trump made it seem on Twitter like he just happened to be around when President Tsai Ing-wen placed a call, the whole thing was much more calculated. Julia Famularo, an expert on the region, wrote on Twitter that the call was “planned weeks in advance by staffers … who want to address, amend counterproductive ‘protocols’.” This goes in line with what a Taiwanese government spokesman said after the call was made public.

“Maybe it was calculated—and perhaps even useful,” writes the Wall Street Journal in an editorial that says the lesson from the event is that the media shouldn’t “overreact to every break with State Department protocol as if it’s the start of World War III.”

For now, experts largely agree that it’s too soon to tell whether the call signaled a wider policy shift or was nothing more than a “complicated accident,” as one expert tells the Associated Press. Regardless though, the one thing that seems clear is “we are entering into an era of shoot-from-the-lip foreign policy,” David Rothkopf, chief executive and editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy, tells the Financial Times. “All of these calls have demonstrated a combination of ignorance and some sort of nascent policy position.” (Slate's Joshua Keating wrote that it's time to take Trump's phone away or else he may very well spark a major international crisis before even being sworn into office.)

Dec. 4 2016 7:33 PM

Italy’s Prime Minister Renzi Resigning After Brutal Loss in Crucial Referendum

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is keeping his promise to step down after suffering what by all accounts looks to have been a stinging defeat in his plan to reform the country’s constitution. According to exit polls at least, the result wasn’t even close and Renzi may have lost by as much as 20 points.

“I have lost,” Renzi said in a televised statement. “We gave the Italians an opportunity to change, but we didn’t succeed.” The prime minister will present his resignation to President Sergio Mattarella on Monday after two-and-a-half years in office.

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The euro plunged to a 20-month low as Renzi announced his resignation and the 41-year-old became the second European leader this year to lose his job amid a wave of populist sentiment and anti-European backlash. The Guardian explains:

The results will be seen as a clear rejection by voters of establishment politics in favor of populist and anti-immigrant forces, much as the UK’s vote in June to leave the European Union and the election last month of Donald Trump in the US were.

The referendum was regarding a proposal that Renzi said would have made Italy much more efficient and cut down on bureaucracy that has made it impossible for the government to pass much-needed economic reforms. But more than one policy though, the vote was largely seen as a referendum on Renzi himself. And the region—and the world—were watching closely to figure out whether populist and Euroskeptic parties had a future in Italy. It seems they do.

Matteo Salvini, who leads an anti-immigrant party, said that if the exit polls are confirmed it would mark a "victory of the people against the strong powers of three-quarters of the world.” Right-wing leaders across Europe celebrated the Italy vote. "The Italians have disavowed the EU and Renzi. We must listen to this thirst for freedom of nations," wrote France’s Marine Le Pen.

The results in Italy brought joy to the European right-wing that had earlier in the day suffered a setback in Austria, where a former leader of the Green party, Alexander Van der Bellen, beat the far-right candidate Norbert Hofer in the presidential election. The results were largely greeted with a sigh of relief from centrists and liberals who feared Austria was going to be the latest country to hand a victory to an anti-immigrant, populist leader.

Dec. 4 2016 6:00 PM

Standing Rock Wins Big Victory: Army Corps Blocks Dakota Access Pipeline Route

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shocked thousands of protesters who were camped out in southern North Dakota when it announced on Sunday afternoon that it would not grant a permit to allow drilling under the Missouri River. In a statement, the Army Corps of Engineers said that it wouldn’t be granting the easement for the Dakota Access oil pipeline project to complete a segment underneath Lake Oahe, which is a water reservoir.

“Although we have had continuing discussion and exchanges of new information with the Standing Rock Sioux and Dakota Access, it’s clear that there’s more work to do,” Assistant Secretary for Civil Works Jo-Ellen Darcy said. “The best way to complete that work responsibly and expeditiously is to explore alternate routes for the pipeline crossing.”

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The members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and its supporters who had been protesting the planned pipeline for months erupted in jubilation as the news of the decision began to spread across the camp. “We wholeheartedly support the decision of the administration and commend with the utmost gratitude the courage it took on the part of President Obama, the Army Corps, the Department of Justice, and the Department of the Interior to take steps to correct the course of history and to do the right thing,” said Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II. “The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and all of Indian Country will be forever grateful to the Obama Administration for this historic decision.”

627702086-native-american-and-other-activists-celebrate-after
Activists celebrate after learning of the denied easement on the edge of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation on Sunday, outside Cannon Ball, North Dakota.

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The move also quickly received praise from U.S. Secretary for the Interior Sally Jewell, who noted that this latest decision “ensures that there will be an in-depth evaluation of alternative routes for the pipeline and a closer look at potential impacts.” Jewell also pointed out that the move “underscores that tribal rights reserved in treaties and federal law, as well as Nation-to-Nation consultation with tribal leaders, are essential components of the analysis to be undertaken in the environmental impact statement going forward.”

Although tribal members and activists were celebrating their hard-fought victory, lawyers warned it was far from definitive. After all, the Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners can sue to overturn the decision, as it has long said it didn’t want to reroute the project. The CEO of the company, Kelcy Warren, said in November he was “100 percent sure” that Donald Trump’s administration would approve the pipeline regardless of what happened with the Army Corps.

The decision to halt the project came a day before a deadline set by the federal government for protesters to leave the main camp site, which is on Army Corps land. But over the weekend, hundreds of military veterans arrived at the camp to express solidarity—and protect—the protest that has grown exponentially over the past few months.

The 1,172-mile Dakota Access oil pipeline that would carry 470,000 barrels per day was set to run within a half-mile of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, and opponents had long been saying it could pollute drinking water as well as disturb sacred tribal sites.

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Snow covers Oceti Sakowin Camp near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation on Nov. 30, outside Cannon Ball, North Dakota.

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