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Dec. 10 2016 3:28 PM

Harry Reid: FBI Chief Comey Covered Up Russian Hacking, Should Resign

Outgoing Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid came out guns blazing against FBI chief James Comey on Sunday, saying he should be ousted for covering up information regarding Russia’s efforts to meddle with the U.S. elections. Reid went as far as to call Comey the “new J. Edgar Hoover,” saying he had the information of Russian involvement in the election and kept it from the American public.  

In an interview with MSNBC, Reid said the FBI knew that the CIA had concluded with a high level of certainty that the Russian government was trying to get Donald Trump elected, as reported in an explosive story in the Washington Post. “This is not fake news. Intelligence officials are hiding connections to the Russian government. There is no question,” Reid said. “Comey knew and deliberately kept this info a secret.”

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Reid said he was “disappointed in Comey,” adding that the FBI chief “let the country down for partisan purposes.” Democrats were already angry at Comey for revealing less than two weeks before the election that the FBI had come across additional emails that could be related to Hillary Clinton’s private email server. Two days before the election he once again cleared Clinton of wrongdoing, but many in her campaign say that ended up hurting the Democratic candidate more than helping because it fed into the storyline that the election was rigged.  

Reid said Comey needs to be investigated on all fronts. “I think he should be investigated by the Senate. I think he should be investigated by other agencies in the government, including the security agencies,” Reid said, before adding, “If ever there was a matter of national security, it is this.”

Incoming Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said there should be a full, bipartisan investigation into the reports of Russian meddling in the presidential election. "Senate Democrats will join with our Republican colleagues next year to demand a congressional investigation and hearings to get to the bottom of this. It’s imperative that our intelligence community turns over any relevant information so that Congress can conduct a full investigation," Schumer said.

Others, however, sought to minimize the news. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, for example, wrote on Twitter that Russian hacking is "serious, but hardly news" because “it has been going on for years.”

Dec. 10 2016 1:32 PM

Exxon CEO, Who Has Close Ties to Russia, Is Frontrunner for Secretary of State

The reality show that will decide who will be the country’s top diplomat in Donald Trump’s administration continues and a new frontrunner seems to have emerged. Rex Tillerson, the powerful president and chief executive of Exxon Mobil, is now seen as the top contender for the job and could very well become the latest wealthy businessman to join the president-elect’s administration. Tillerson met with Trump on Tuesday and the two may talk again this weekend. Although it's still unclear when exactly Trump will announce his pick it seems the president-elect wants to make an announcement next week, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Tillerson’s name has emerged at the top of the pile as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani formally withdrew from the very public competition. Trump himself confirmed Giuliani’s withdrawal from consideration, writing on Twitter that the former mayor is “one of the finest people I know.”

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Naming the head of Exxon as the country’s top diplomat will undoubtedly be met with much controversy at least in part because of the executive's long ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin that date back almost two decades. During his time as head of the largest oil company in the United States, Tillerson has worked to strengthen relations with Russia, turning the country into “Exxon’s single biggest exploration theater,” reports Bloomberg. In 2011, he negotiated an energy partnership with Russia that could eventually be worth as much as $500 billion, according to Putin. Further confirmation of Tillerson's close relationship with Putin came in 2012, when Moscow awarded him the country’s Order of Friendship decoration.

It isn’t just with Russia though. Having Tillerson as head of the State Department could open up all sorts of conflicts of interest considering Exxon operates in more than 50 countries.

Mitt Romney is still reportedly in the running for the job but it seems his star is fading a bit amid the infighting that his possible nomination has sparked among Trump allies. Former Central Intelligence Agency director David Petraeus, former Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee and retired Navy Admiral James Stavridis are also reportedly still in the running for the key Cabinet post.

Update at 3:30 p.m.: Following reports that the president-elect had already made up his mind and would be choosing Tillerson, Trump spokesman Jason Miller said no official announcement is expected until "next week at the earliest."

Dec. 10 2016 11:27 AM

How Mitch McConnell Prevented Stronger Action Against Russian Election Meddling

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was apparently one of the Republican leaders who was most responsible for putting the brakes on a stronger White House pushback against Moscow’s efforts at trying to affect the outcome of the U.S. election. At the end of a bombshell Washington Post piece about how the CIA has concluded that Russia was trying to help Donald Trump win the White House, there is word of a secret meeting on Capitol Hill with a group of key lawmakers in September. It was at this meeting that McConnell reportedly expressed serious reservations about the intelligence and threatened to politicize the agency’s findings if they were made public.

The Post explains that the White House was so convinced by the evidence that Russia was trying to affect the outcome of the election that by mid-September, it decided that stronger action was needed. But White House officials were afraid that the effort would be seen as an attempt to affect the outcome of the election, so the administration wanted both parties to come together and criticize Russian interference as well as urge local governments to accept federal assistance in protecting the voting process.

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The Democratic lawmakers all agreed that the threat of Russian interference needed to be taken seriously but at least two Republicans, including McConnell, pushed back. The Post reports:

According to several officials, McConnell raised doubts about the underlying intelligence and made clear to the administration that he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics.

Trump has selected McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, to be his secretary of transportation, a position that requires congressional approval.

McConnell has refused to comment on the reports about the CIA conclusions on Russia’s meddling in the election. McConnell’s office told BuzzFeed News that it “would not violate federal law by providing classified information.”

Dec. 10 2016 9:30 AM

CIA Concludes Russia Interfered in U.S. Election to Help Trump Win

The Central Intelligence Agency has apparently reached the conclusion that Moscow wasn’t just rooting for a Donald Trump victory, but actively worked to try to make it happen. According to a secret bombshell assessment that was first reported by the Washington Post, it is the “consensus view” of the intelligence community that the hacks and other cyberattacks that marked the presidential campaign weren’t just an effort to undermine confidence in the U.S. electoral system but rather an active campaign to install the Kremlin’s favorite candidate in the White House.

The president-elect responded to the report with an astounding rebuke of the country’s intelligence services, essentially questioning the credibility of the key agency he will be leading in a little more than a month. “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” the statement released by Trump’s transition team says. “The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It’s now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again.’”

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At a meeting with several senators last week, the CIA said it was “quite clear” that Russia’s goal was to help Trump get elected. But that view was not a formal assessment by all of the country’s intelligence agencies as there were apparently some disagreements. Even though U.S. intelligence agents identified people with connections to the Kremlin who provided thousands of hacked emails to WikiLeaks there is no specific evidence showing Russian officials directing them. But those in the intelligence community say that not much should be read into that because Moscow is fond of using middlemen for sensitive operations.

At least part of the way the CIA reached its conclusion that Moscow wanted to get Trump elected was that Russian hackers were almost exclusively focused on Democratic targets at the tail end of the campaign. "That was a major clue to their intent," an official tells Reuters. "If all they wanted to do was discredit our political system, why publicize the failings of just one party, especially when you have a target like Trump?"

The New York Times takes that one step further, saying that the CIA has concluded with “high confidence” that Russian hackers did indeed get inside the Republican National Committee’s network but did not release any information from there. “We now have high confidence that they hacked the D.N.C. and the R.N.C., and conspicuously released no documents” from the Republicans, a senior administration official tells the Times. Republicans have long denied their network was hacked, saying only individual Republicans were affected by hacks. The FBI apparently agrees with the Republicans, saying the efforts to hack the Republican National Committee’s computers were not successful.

Some, however, are cautioning against reading too much into this, saying the Russians—like the rest of the world—really expected Hillary Clinton to win the election, which is why they focused their efforts on discrediting her. The leaked information, they say, could have later been used to delegitimize her presidency.

Trump has long rejected claims that Russia interfered in the election, saying the hacks could have been carried out by someone inside the United States. “I don't believe they interfered,” he told Time in a recent interview. “It could be Russia. And it could be China. And it could be some guy in his home in New Jersey.” He said that the speculation of Russian involvement during the campaign “became a laughing point, not a talking point, a laughing point.”

Reports of the CIA’s views came as the Whtie House said President Obama had called for a broad intelligence review of cyberattacks that took place during the campaign. The president has asked that the report be completed before he leaves office. "The president wanted this done under his watch because he takes it very seriously," White House spokesman Eric Schultz said. "We are committed to ensuring the integrity of our elections."

Dec. 9 2016 6:06 PM

Pharma Execs Arrested in Shockingly Organized Scheme to Overprescribe Notorious Opioid

 

On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data showing that overdose deaths caused by synthetic opioids such as fentanyl—the drug that killed Prince—rose by nearly 75 percent in 2015. On the same day, federal prosecutors in Massachusetts announced the arrest of six former employees, including a former CEO and two former vice presidents, of the Phoenix-based and NASDAQ-traded fentanyl producer Insys Therapeutics. The individuals are charged with bribing doctors and otherwise conspiring to induce the overprescription of a fentanyl product called Subsys.

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The indictment details a variety of brazenly dishonest methods by which doctors and insurance companies were allegedly convinced to issue and fund prescriptions of Subsys:

  • Insys paid doctors to give educational lectures about the use of Subsys. That's ostensibly legal, except that prosecutors allege that the company paid said doctors in direct proportion to the frequency with which they wrote Subsys prescriptions, with one Insys employee allegedly texting another that the doctors hired to give lectures "do not need to be good speakers" so long as they were high-volume Susbys prescribers. These "lectures," meanwhile were allegedly often nothing more than dinners at high-end restaurants attended only by the doctors getting paid, the Subsys employees paying them, and the doctor's friends. One Florida doctor is alleged to have made $275,000 in speaking fee bribes in three years.
  • Insys allegedly continued to work with some doctors who prescribed Subsys frequently even after becoming aware internally that those doctors were known for running dubiously legal Dr. Feelgood "pill mills." Wrote one Insys employee in an email about an Illinois doctor that the company would continue to work with and pay speaking fees to: "He is extremely moody, lazy and inattentive. He basically just shows up to sign his name on the prescription pad, if he shows up at all."
  • Insys allegedly hired support staff employees to mislead insurance companies into approving payments for Subsys prescriptions. These support staff employees allegedly misled insurers into believing they were interacting with representatives of doctor's offices rather than representatives of Insys—employees were allegedly instructed to hang up the phone when insurers "pursued the identity of their employer." These support staff employees are also accused of systematically falsifying specific diagnosis information—claiming patients had difficulty swallowing, for example—that they knew would make insurers more likely to authorize Subsys purchases.

In a statement, Insys says it is "committed to complying with laws and regulations that govern our products and business practices" and "continues to cooperate with all relevant authorities in ... ongoing investigations." (Several Insys employees and medical professionals affiliated with the company have also been arrested in recent years in cases that have led to at least two convictions.) An attorney for one of the arrested individuals—Alec Burlakoff—says his client is not guilty. The other individuals do not appear to have commented.

The surge in opioid deaths is one of the reasons that United States life expectancy declined in 2015 for the first time in 22 years. In that same year, Insys reported a profit of $58.5 million.

Dec. 9 2016 6:00 PM

Alabama May Have Tortured an Inmate to Death

On Thursday night, Alabama executed Ronald Bert Smith Jr., who was convicted of murdering a convenience store clerk in 1994. Shortly after the executioner administered midazolam—the first chemical in a three-drug cocktail—Smith struggled for breath, heaved, coughed, clenched his fist, raised his head, and opened his left eye. His lips also moved, but he could not speak, and he appeared to react to both “consciousness tests” that a prison guard performed. However, prison officials went ahead with the execution anyway, administering chemicals to paralyze Smith and stop his heart.

The Supreme Court permitted the use of midazolam in a 5-4 decision in 2015, though the drug appears to have caused multiple botched executions by failing to render an inmate truly unconscious. In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that the three-drug cocktail administered to Smith may be “the chemical equivalent of being burned alive.” Hours before his execution, Smith had asked the Supreme Court to halt his execution given the known problems with midazolam. The court refused. It seems quite likely that Smith was at least partly conscious when he was given the second and third chemicals of the cocktail. If so, he experienced a slow and brutally agonizing death, but could not express his pain because the second chemical had paralyzed him.

Dec. 9 2016 5:40 PM

Merry Christmas! Here’s a House Republican Plan to Cut Social Security.

Just as the House of Representatives was leaving town on Thursday, veteran Rep. Sam Johnson—chairman of the Ways and Means subcommittee overseeing Social Security—released the Social Security Reform Act of 2016. The timing of the release, on the last day of the current Congress, suggests this was more of an opening volley in the Social Security reform effort. Johnson tells the Washington Examiner that he intended this release as the “start of a fact-based conversation.”

I had been previously unaware, since Donald Trump promised not to cut Social Security and House Speaker Paul Ryan doesn’t touch it in his “A Better Way” agenda, that we (“we”) were starting a conversation on Social Security anytime soon. But such is life under a unified Republican government.

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The plan offers a model for what the GOP would do in a Social Security reform effort. The bill includes 15 specific changes, some of them more complex than others, and this letter from the chief auditor of Social Security analyzes each of them. Broadly: It would cut benefits without raising taxes. Some of the more recognizable changes include a gradual increase in the normal retirement age from 67 to 69 for those born in 1968 or later, and it would peg cost-of-living adjustments to chained CPI, a slower-growing inflation index. There are a lot of technical changes to the benefit formula, as well as additional "work incentives." (None of these changes would affect benefits for anyone currently at the normal retirement age, save for some of the highest earners.) Since implementing these cuts alone would make the law politically unpalatable, it would increase benefits for some of the lowest-income, longest-working earners, while the highest future earners would see the largest benefit cuts. But let’s be clear: most people would see cuts. Look for yourself, on Table B2!

I asked Johnson’s office on Friday afternoon if Social Security reform was something House Republicans would actually pursue in 2017, rather than just converse about abstractly. “Congressman Johnson is hopeful this will get the ball rolling on a much-needed conversation,” a spokesperson said. “Doing nothing or simply raising taxes won’t ensure that Social Security continues to be a program that our children and grandchildren can count on, just like seniors and individuals with disabilities do today.” So whether it’s starting a fact-based conversation, or getting the ball rolling on a much-needed conversation, the main point for the near-future seems to be: conversation. I will update if I hear back from Speaker Ryan’s office.

Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s office, however, released a statement Friday showing precisely how interested Democrats are in participating in this conversation with House Republicans:

“Apparently nothing upsets House Republicans like the idea of hard-working people getting to enjoy a secure and dignified retirement. While Speaker Ryan sharpens his knives for Medicare, Chairman Johnson’s bill is an alarming sign that Republicans are greedily eying devastating cuts to Americans’ Social Security benefits as well.
[…]
“Slashing Social Security and ending Medicare are absolutely not what the American people voted for in November.  Democrats will not stand by while Republicans dismantle the promise of a healthy and dignified retirement for working people in America.”

As with Medicare voucherization, Democrats would be terribly, terribly upset if the Republicans made such a politically buccaneering move as trying to cut Social Security.

Dec. 9 2016 3:19 PM

Obama, McCain Plan Further Russia Hack Investigations

 

One of the more vexing problems Democrats and other Trump critics face is the question of how to actually, like, actually do anything about anything at all given that Republicans who appear ready to roll over and let the president-elect get away with pretty much whatever he wants run both chambers of Congress. Per recent news, though, two of the formal governmental mechanisms that do remain outside Trump/Trump apologists' control will be used in coming months to investigate the ways in which Russian email hacking and other sabotage may have contributed to his victory.

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1. President Obama, one of his top security advisers said Friday, is ordering the American intelligence community to conduct a "full review" of Russian electoral interference to be completed before Trump's Jan. 20 inauguration. The adviser—Lisa Monaco—said that the review will culminate in "a report to a range of stakeholders, including Congress," though it's not clear how much of said report will be made public.

2. The Washington Post reports that Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham—who were both personally attacked by Trump during the presidential campaign—"are preparing to launch a coordinated and wide-ranging probe into Russia’s alleged meddling in the U.S. elections and its potential cyberthreats to the military." McCain says he will launch an investigation under the auspices of the Senate Armed Services Committee, of which he is chairman, and notes to the Post that he considers the disruption of the election "a national security issue." Graham, who is a member of that committee and the chairman on its subcommittee on crime and terrorism, told CNN that he will be "going after Russia in every way you can go after Russia."

Obama, obviously, leaves office in slightly more than a month. But individual senators like John McCain will still retain considerable authority to conduct investigations and hold hearings that might make the executive branch and even GOP party leaders uncomfortable.

Trump, for his part, told Time in a story published this week that he is still not convinced Russia was involved in 2016 email hacking. “It could be Russia. And it could be China," Trump told the magazine. "And it could be some guy in his home in New Jersey."

Dec. 9 2016 3:04 PM

After the Insane, Occult, Presidential Mind-Control Scandal, What’s Next for South Korea?

South Korean President Park Geun-hye was impeached Friday after a baffling political scandal that brought millions of protesters out onto the streets over the influence that Park’s longtime friend and spiritual adviser allegedly had over the government. Park’s rapid fall has thrown the country’s political system into chaos at a moment when it’s facing an increasingly aggressive nuclear armed North Korea and when the election of Donald Trump in the United States has threatened to upend the traditional balance of power in East Asia.

Park isn’t out of the picture quite yet. For now, she still formally has the title of president and will continue to live in the Blue House, South Korea’s executive residence, and receive her salary. But her governing responsibilities will be turned over to Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, who has been one of her staunchest defenders. Her case—which involved accusations that the president’s longtime friend Choi Soon-sil, the daughter of a “spiritual adviser” who reportedly helped Park commune with her dead mother, was abusing her connection to the presidency—will head to the Constitutional Court, which has up to six months to rule on it. The last impeached president, Roh Moo-hyun in 2004, had his powers restored by the court, but Park’s odds are considered slim. If six of the nine justices approve of her removal, a new presidential election will be held 60 days after that.

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So, if that happens, who’s likely to replace her? Hwang may try, but he may be too damaged by his association with Park, whose approval ratings had plunged to 4 percent in recent days. Another intriguing possibility is U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who steps down from his current position at the end of this year. It was thought that the onetime South Korean foreign minister was likely to run in the presidential elections that were previously scheduled for Dec. 20, 2017, for Park’s conservative Saenuri Party. Given the chaos that’s engulfed the party, he may now form his own faction—not unusual in South Korean politics. Reuters notes that Ban can’t start campaigning until the end of this month, so the sped-up timetable, especially if the court rules quickly, isn’t going to help him. But he’s still a popular figure untarnished by the recent ugliness in Seoul.

The other main front-runner is Moon Jae-in of the center-left Democratic Party, who lost to Park in 2012. There are also a host of longer shots including Lee Jae-myeong, the self-described “Bernie Sanders of South Korea,” who was one of the leaders of the anti-Park protests, and Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, a former human rights lawyer. All would likely favor a less confrontational approach to North Korea and are critical of Park’s controversial plan to deploy a U.S. missile defense system, though it’s unclear if they would reverse it. (After the impeachment, the country was put on alert in case of any provocation from the North, though there’s been nothing so far. North Korea’s KCNA news agency hasn’t written anything about the impeachment yet.)

Whoever takes over will obviously be tasked with responding to a new administration in the United States, South Korea’s most important ally. Trump has already suggested through his phone call with the president of Taiwan last week that he may be willing to dramatically shift U.S. strategy in Asia. During the campaign, he said allies like South Korea should pay more for U.S. security guarantees and even suggested—though it’s not clear to what degree he meant it—that South Korea might be better off getting nuclear weapons of its own. Alarmingly, a growing number of South Korean voters agree.

It’s hard to draw too many sweeping conclusions from Park’s downfall. She is something of an anomalous figure to begin with. As Suki Kim recently wrote for Slate, the country’s first female president owed her rapid rise in large part to older voters nostalgic for the days when her military dictator father was in charge. While the occultism and hints of mind control and sexual impropriety made her scandal undeniably juicy, the actual crimes she’s accused of—allowing an old friend without security clearance to edit her speeches and enrich herself—are a bit mild compared with what many politicians routinely get away with. Park doesn’t even seem to have benefited personally from the improprieties that turned virtually the entire nation against her.

South Korea is going to be picking up the pieces for a while.

Dec. 9 2016 1:58 PM

Is Trump Plotting to Purge the Federal Government of Anyone Who Accepts Climate Change? Maybe!

On Thursday, President-elect Donald Trump formally nominated Scott Pruitt to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a rather terrifying turn of events for anyone who accepts the scientific consensus on man-made climate change. Pruitt doesn’t just deny that science—he also has real-world legal experience trying to turn that denial into actual governmental policy.

Things on the climate front, however, may be even worse than they seem. Via the Washington Post:

The Trump transition team has issued a list of 74 questions for the Energy Department, asking officials there to identify which department employees and contractors have worked on forging an international climate pact as well as domestic efforts to cut the nation’s carbon output.
The questionnaire requests a list of those individuals who have taken part in international climate talks over the past five years and “which programs within DOE are essential to meeting the goals of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan.”
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While we obviously can’t know for sure why the Trump team is making that request, it raises the specter that they aren’t just looking to purge the federal government of political appointees who accept the realities of climate change, but also to do the same with the career civil servants who keep the departments running. “With some of these questions, it feels more like an inquisition than a question, in terms of going after career employees who have been here through Bush years to Clinton, and up to now,” one understandably concerned DOE employee told the Post. “All of a sudden you have questions that feel more like a congressional investigation than an actual probing of how the Department of Energy does its job.”

The questionnaire also hints at yet another way that the Trump administration may try to aid its friends in the fossil fuel industry. The transition team specifically requested details about how the Obama administration crafted its “social cost of carbon” metrics, which is what helps federal agencies weigh the costs to society of emitting CO2 into the atmosphere. If the Trump administration were to change how that cost is calculated—or simply refuse to calculate it at all—it would swing the cost-benefit analysis performed by federal regulators in favor of short-term economic gains at the expense of long-term environmental harm.

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