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Aug. 23 2017 1:04 PM

Wait, Does the Trump Administration Care About Human Rights Now?

There are a few things we thought we knew about the Trump administration’s Middle East policy: It is concerned first and foremost with counterterrorism, it wants to curb the influence of Iran and Islamist movements like the Muslim brotherhood, it is reflexively supportive of Israel, and it’s not particularly concerned with human rights or democracy.

So this week’s decision by the State Department to withhold $195 million in military aid to Egypt and take away $96 million in other aid, ostensibly over human rights concerns, is baffling. Egypt, unsurprisingly, has criticized the move and canceled a meeting scheduled for Wednesday between the country’s foreign minister and Jared Kushner. The State Department’s stated reason for the penalties is a recently passed Egyptian law severely restricting the activities of nongovernmental organizations. The law is terrible, and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is undeniably a rights-abusing autocratic strongman, but since when does Trump care?

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Trump has called Sisi a “fantastic guy” and at a meeting in May praised him for having “done a tremendous job under trying circumstance,” adding, “We are very much behind Egypt and the people of Egypt.”

By that point, Sisi, who took power in a military coup in 2013, had already jailed thousands of opponents and massacred hundreds of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. The autocratic character of the Egyptian regime was pretty clear two months ago, and it would be odd if the NGO law were the final straw.

Moreover, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said he doesn’t believe in conditioning U.S. cooperation on human rights standards and that doing so “creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests.” He’s even reportedly had any mention of democracy scrubbed from the department’s mission statement. To that end, the Trump administration has resumed military aid to countries like Bahrain, suspended by the Obama administration over human rights concerns. (Obama froze aid to Egypt after the 2013 coup, but then, despite continuing to criticize Sisi’s crackdown on the Brotherhood, restored it in 2015 amid concerns over ISIS.)

It also seems like a strange time for the U.S. to pick a fight with a government that’s tacitly pro-Israel and a rival of Iran’s. Yes, Egypt is alone among Arab governments in backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but the U.S. doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to oust him either, and the country’s recent forays into the war in Syria and Iraqi politics could be seen as a way to head off Iranian influence in those countries: Israel certainly sees it that way. Despite some tension last year, relations also seem to be improving again between Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

The New York Times suggests that the move may have less to do with Mideast politics than with North Korea. Egypt has had a friendly relationship with North Korea since the 1970s, and a recent U.N. report alleged that under-the-table trade in military equipment between the two countries is ongoing. The State Department hasn’t confirmed or denied that North Korea is part of its motivation, which is a little odd given that the Trump administration hasn’t exactly been shy about its other efforts to isolate Kim Jong-un.

Prior to this week’s move, it was clear that the Trump administration wanted more bang for the bucks it was sending Egypt. It has urged Egypt to do more to counter ISIS in the Sinai and wants Egypt to help form a Mideast security alliance—a sort of Arab NATO. The administration has also mused about replacing longstanding defense financing programs with loans—a major downgrade for long-standing allies like Egypt.

The latest move does seem like an effort to use some leverage in disputes with Egypt that may have little to do with the rights of NGOs in Egypt, though it’s not entirely clear what those disputes are. The Times notes that by “pausing the provision of $195 million in military funding, the Trump administration saved the money from expiring entirely on Sept. 30”—meaning that Egypt could still get the money if it changes its behavior.

There have been other recent signs that the administration is shifting away from its professed indifference to human rights. The Treasury Department sanctioned Venezuelan officials including President Nicolás Maduro after the recent disputed election and crackdown on the opposition there—possibly as a sop to members of Congress concerned about the country. And after skipping the unveiling of a global human rights report early in his tenure, Tillerson recently unveiled the agency’s annual religious freedom report which slammed allies like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and China—a move that will gratify Christian conservatives in the United States and, in China’s case, add a bit of leverage in ongoing disputes over trade and North Korea.

It would be a surprise to see Trump lean too hard on his favorite strongmen, as long as they cooperate. But the administration does seem to be learning to play the human rights card in circumstances where doing so is beneficial—one more way its foreign policy is turning out to be surprisingly conventional.

Aug. 23 2017 1:02 PM

Trump May Still Pardon Arpaio for Defying Court Order to Stop Harassing Latinos

Joe Arpaio was the sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, for more than two decades, during which he developed a national reputation for his hostility toward undocumented immigrants. In 2011, a federal judge told Arpaio's department that it could no longer stop and detain Latinos whom officers suspected of no crime besides being in the U.S. illegally—which in practice seems to have simply meant "stopping random Latinos." From a 2011 Justice Department report about the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, or MCSO:

Based upon our extensive investigation, we find reasonable cause to believe that MCSO engages in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional policing. Specifically, we find that MCSO, through the actions of its deputies, supervisory staff, and command staff, engages in racial profiling of Latinos; unlawfully stops, detains, and arrests Latinos; and unlawfully retaliates against individuals who complain about or criticize MCSO's policies or practices.
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Latino drivers in Maricopa County were "four to nine times more likely to be stopped than similarly situated non-Latino drivers," the DOJ found. In any case, Arpaio announced that his department would not modify its practices, and it didn't; in 2016 a federal judge found him guilty of misdemeanor criminal contempt of court, which is punishable by up to six months in jail.

On Tuesday night, Donald Trump held a 2020 campaign rally (seriously, that's what it technically was) in Phoenix. He strongly suggested that he would pardon Arpaio:

I'll make a prediction. I think he's going to be just fine, OK? But—but I won't do it tonight, because I don't want to cause any controversy. Is that OK? All right? But Sheriff Joe can feel good.

Indeed, a CNN correspondent now reports that the legal groundwork for a pardon is being laid.

Enforcing the Fourth Amendment: Not, apparently, a top Trump administration law-and-order priority.

Aug. 23 2017 12:10 PM

Here’s How Police Cleared the Last Protesters Outside Trump’s Phoenix Rally

President Trump's Phoenix rally drew thousands of demonstrators to the downtown area near the convention center. But most of the large demonstrations had ended around the same time that the rally did. Still, not everyone went home. The last couple hundred or so anti-Trump protesters on the north side of the convention center were gathered around the intersection of Second and Van Buren streets facing a barricade of police in riot gear, who were blocking off Second Street heading south to the convention center.

I was laying back around 100 feet from the line of police trying to catch a glimpse of how this would end. Though a police helicopter was circling overhead repeatedly telling protesters to go home or face arrest, it would take more than words to clear the area. Suddenly, at least from my vantage, all you could hear was the first pop and then several successive ones, as protesters ran north along Second Street and gas filled the area. I could not see directly what was happening as the police approached through the cloud of gas.

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But a protester I met, Art Corella, could, and captured it on video.

As the police move forward, they disperse what appears to be (and sure felt like!) tear gas. Around halfway through the video, they use pepper spray on a lone protester kneeling on the ground before them, and then on some of those who come trying to grab that protester. Some stragglers throw water bottles at the police as they’re retreating, others tried kicking the gas canisters back at the police.

Most of the mass protests went off without incident. But at the end, this is how the police cleared the last outposts of demonstration downtown.

Aug. 22 2017 11:35 PM

Trump Reads Aloud 15-Minute Edited Version of Previous Charlottesville Remarks and Calls It a Rally

Donald Trump somehow managed to upstage himself in ridiculousness Tuesday night in Phoenix. The president of the United States came out to what appeared to be a meager crowd at the Phoenix Convention Center amidst speculation and consternation about what he would say in his first large-scale public event since Charlottesville. A visibly agitated Trump trotted out a few of his dusty one-liners from the campaign, before moving on, inexplicably, to recounting nearly verbatim his remarks day by day in the aftermath of Charlottesville. "I don't want to bore you with this," Trump told the crowd before doing just that.

Trump moved off the teleprompter and took out a clump of papers with a selection of his old statements on Charlottesville and, literally started reading them. But first he condemned the media:

Just like they don't want to report that I spoke out forcefully against hatred, bigotry and violence and strongly condemned the neo-Nazis, the white supremacists, and the KKK. I openly called for unity, healing, and love and they know it because they were all there. So what I did—so what I did is I thought I'd take just a second and I'm really doing this more than anything else because you know where my heart is. OK? … So here is my first statement when I heard about Charlottesville. And I have a home in Charlottesville.
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For the next 15 full minutes, the president read selective passages from his remarks on Charlottesville, skipping the unflattering ones like “on many sides" to rewrite the history of the past two weeks in America. Every so often Trump would cut himself off from reading with asides like: “This is me speaking. Here's further. This is on Saturday. I did this three times.” Slowly the crowd behind him began to sit down because, more than anything, it was boring. “So I said based on event that took place over the last weekend in Charlottesville, I'd like to provide the nation with an update because that was right after the event, the first one, right?” Yes, right. It was only two weeks ago. We remember it.

It was as transparent attempt as any of Trump’s many gaslighting episodes. It’s tempting to say it’s more pathetic, but it’s not really. It was about par for the course. The only difference was the stakes creep ever higher as the president’s approval rating dips and his agitation rises. Trump went on to say other half-truths Tuesday night, but during his outrageous attempt to edit (recent) history, perhaps most importantly, Trump lost the crowd. As the energy in the auditorium wilted, Trump looked up at the press risers dutifully recording and transmitting his absurd and false statements around the country and the world and he recognized exactly what was happening. “That's so funny. Look back there,” Trump told the crowd. “The live red lights they're turning those suckers off fast, I'll tell you. They're turning those lights off fast. Like CNN. CNN does not want its falling viewership to watch what I'm saying tonight, I can tell you.” And for the first time all night, Trump stumbled upon on an absolute truth—he wasn’t worth watching anymore.

Aug. 22 2017 9:53 PM

New Poll Shows Most Arizona Voters Don’t Approve of Trump Presidency. There’s Trouble Ahead for GOP.

The national terrain Donald Trump is tiptoeing around on Tuesday night in Phoenix, during his first high-profile appearance since going on vacation and voicing support for white nationalists in Charlottesville, continues to be slippery at best for the president. He his, of course, historically unpopular with the American people overall, but more crucially his support continues to erode outside of his hardcore base and that includes slipping numbers within the Republican Party, where one-in-four now disapproves of the job Trump is doing. On Tuesday, the White House appears set to allow the president let his hair down and “let Trump be Trump” to a city and state that recent polling shows isn’t quite so sure it wants a Trumpier Trump.

A new HighGround poll out this week finds 55 percent of the traditionally red state disapproves of the job Trump is doing. This is not a good sign for Trump or the GOP considering the president underperformed in November, pulling in only 48 percent of the vote, beating Hillary Clinton by a slim 3 point margin. The ditch Trump has dug himself is particularly daunting considering that to claw back some of that support he’ll need to win over independent and unaffiliated voters in the state. Currently, Trump’s approval rating among independents in Arizona stands at a dismal 27 percent and 33 percent among unaffiliated voters.

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“If the President and the GOP fail to expand public support beyond the GOP base, the party may face historic electoral failures in 2018,” said Chuck Coughlin, President and CEO of HighGround Public Affairs said in a statement Monday. “While I am sure he will receive a hero’s welcome inside the Convention hall tomorrow, there should be little doubt given this research, which shows that he enjoys single digit support amongst Democrats and less than a third of Independent and unaffiliated voters, that this is not a sustainable general election coalition.”

The state’s senators have reflected this unease with Trump’s performance so far, with Sen. John McCain and Sen. Jeff Flake stoking the GOP’s often-insufficient outrage at the things that Trump thinks, and says, and does. Trump’s coattails have shrunk significantly enough that Arizona’s Republican governor Doug Ducey has chosen to skip the event altogether. During the 2016 campaign, while the Hillary Clinton campaign may have been a bit optimistic in its decision to contest Arizona, the state sufficiently wavered in its GOP support to make the state a battleground on the electoral map.

On Tuesday, we’ll see which Trump shows up, but time and again the president has shown himself incapable of changing political speeds. Charging full speed ahead plays well to Trump’s base and suits his disposition, but a Trumped up version of the president has so far turned off more voters in Arizona than it has appealed to. If that continues in a state that the GOP has long considered a gimme, for Republicans with an eye on 2018, that could spell serious trouble.

Aug. 22 2017 7:52 PM

Today in Conservative Media: Unpacking Trump’s Afghanistan Plan

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A daily roundup of the biggest stories in right-wing media.

On Tuesday, conservatives assessed both Trump’s Afghanistan speech and the wisdom of continuing the war there. At National Review, Quin Hillyer applauded Trump’s speech. “If Barack Obama had made the sorts of decisions about the war in Afghanistan, or the one in Iraq, that Donald Trump outlined tonight, we might already have achieved stability in both countries,” he wrote. “It sounds as if Trump is actually letting experienced military leaders use their good judgment to craft war-fighting strategies on both the macro and micro levels. Good for him. And good for him for listening to them even though he has been saying for at least six years that the United States should pull out completely from Afghanistan.”

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At the American Conservative, Daniel Larison condemned Trump for succumbing to war hawks:

Unless the U.S. intends to make Afghanistan its permanent ward and wishes to be at war there forever, there is no compelling reason for a continued American military presence. Nothing in Trump’s speech provided such a reason. He embraced the sunk cost fallacy (“our nation must seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made”), and ignored that throwing away more lives on a failed war is far worse than cutting our losses.
[...]Trump defined victory as “attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.” Based on this definition, victory is not possible at an acceptable cost. The preoccupation with “winning” an unwinnable war just dooms the U.S. to fight there for decades to come. If we can’t admit failure after sixteen years of it, when will we?

On Fox & Friends, LifeZette’s Laura Ingraham praised Trump’s speech while casting doubt on the prospects of a troop surge’s success.

“The question is, ‘What does victory ultimately look like?,” she said. “How do we continue to keep the American people supportive of this war effort that is now in its 17th year --17 years, 2,500 lives, almost a trillion dollars. It was the Soviet Union’s graveyard. I don’t think Americans want it to be our graveyard. But I think he gave a great speech.”

In other news:

Multiple outlets published posts on a list of demands for white people published by a member of Black Lives Matter Louisville named Chanelle Helm. “White people are asked, ‘Give up the home you own to a black or brown family,’ pass on any inherited property ‘to a black or brown family,’ or ‘re-budget your monthly so you can donate to black funds for land purchasing,’" Breitbart’s Jerome Hudson wrote. “She concludes, ‘Commit to two things: Fighting white supremacy where and how you can (this doesn’t mean taking up knitting, unless you’re making scarves for black and brown kids in need), and funding black and brown people and their work.’ ”

“Helm also references ‘lil’ dick-white men’ associated with the alt-right and tells other whites to, ‘Get they ass fired. Call the police even: they look suspicious,’ ” the Daily Caller’s Justin Caruso noted. “This list of requests may seem strange, but it fits an increasingly common thread among left-wing activists, many of whom insist that the only way to properly address historical racism is through reparations.”

Aug. 22 2017 6:01 PM

Today’s Impeach-O-Meter: Donald Trump Has Angered the Turtle

In the tradition of the Clintonometer and the Trump Apocalypse Watch, the Impeach-O-Meter is a wildly subjective and speculative daily estimate of the likelihood that Donald Trump leaves office before his term ends, whether by being impeached (and convicted) or by resigning under threat of same.

The New York Times has a fun if vague story about how Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (who looks like a turtle) thinks Donald Trump is a big dope:

In offhand remarks, Mr. McConnell has expressed a sense of bewilderment about where Mr. Trump’s presidency may be headed, and has mused about whether Mr. Trump will be in a position to lead the Republican Party into next year’s elections and beyond, according to people who have spoken to him directly.
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Part of this may have to do with Trump still failing to understand that his problems—namely putting his weight behind unpopular partisan health care reform measures he clearly didn't understand and shooting himself in the foot by firing James Comey—are not someone else's fault:

During the call, which Mr. Trump initiated on Aug. 9 from his New Jersey golf club, the president accused Mr. McConnell of bungling the health care issue. He was even more animated about what he intimated was the Senate leader’s refusal to protect him from investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to Republicans briefed on the conversation.

With this story and the recent exodus of CEOs from Trump's advisory councils, it's becoming increasingly clear that the GOP establishment would prefer a President Pence. On the other hand, Trump is still quite popular among self-identified Republican voters, i.e. the kinds of people who vote in Republican primaries, and he doesn't really need donor money to communicate to them given that he has his mouth, a Twitter account, and the existence of cable news. It's tough to kill the king when he has all the weapons!

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Win McNamee/Getty Images, Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images, Drew Angerer/Getty Images, and Peter Parks-Pool/Getty Images.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Win McNamee/Getty Images, Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images, Drew Angerer/Getty Images, and Peter Parks-Pool/Getty Images.

Aug. 22 2017 2:04 PM

Left, Right Both Hyping Dubious Craigslist Ads Purporting to Prove Other Side Is Recruiting Actors for Trump Rally

The idea that shadowy figures such as George Soros are paying protesters to show up at anti-Trump rallies—as if it's difficult to find people to protest an extremely unpopular president who is especially unpopular in the high-density urban areas where protests are usually held—is a commonly circulated one on the right. The expectation that a significant crowd of protesters will gather outside Tuesday night's Donald Trump speech in Phoenix has triggered the usual paranoia:

"Rent-a-Mob," as its name would indicate, does not appear to be a real company, and past accusations of actors being paid to support leftist causes elsewhere have been debunked. The left has countered this time, though, with its own paranoid-claim-based-on-a-fake-seeming-Craigslist-ad gambit:

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Screenshot/via HuffPo

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The ad has been taken down and the phone number associated with it doesn't appear to be connected to any sort of booking company, but the claim that Trump is hiring actors of color is still percolating online. (To be fair, the Federal Election Commission has confirmed that Trump really did hire actors to fill out the crowd at his Trump Tower campaign launch in 2015.)

Meanwhile, the individual who took video of protesters including Heather Heyer being run over in Charlottesville, Virginia, writes in Politico on Tuesday that he and his parents have been stalked and harassed by far-right extremists accusing him of being a "CIA operative" or left-wing plant who is "funded by (choose your own adventure) George Soros, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, the IMF/World Bank, and/or a global Jewish mafia to orchestrate the Charlottesville attack in order to turn the general public against the alt-right."

Good job all around on this one, America.

Aug. 22 2017 12:24 PM

Pakistan Is Quiet After Trump’s Speech. India Is Loving It.

President Trump had some harsh words for Pakistan in Monday night’s speech about the United States’ Afghanistan strategy, criticizing the country for giving “safe haven to agents of chaos, violence and terror.”

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly spoke with Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi before the speech and will meet soon with the country’s foreign minister. The public response to the speech from the Pakistani government, which has been in flux since former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was removed from office by court order last month, has been muted so far. One retired general told the Guardian that the U.S. was simply trying to shift blame for its own failures in Afghanistan onto Pakistan, and an anonymous intelligence official complained that Trump didn’t realize “Pakistan itself is the victim of terrorism.” Pakistan’s close ally China also came to its defense with foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying saying that Pakistan had made “great sacrifices" in fighting terrorism.

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While it’s unusual to hear this criticism in such a high-profile speech, the sentiment isn’t exactly new. While the U.S. designates Pakistan as a “major non-NATO ally,” the country’s support for militant groups, most notably the Taliban, also frustrated Trump’s two predecessors. Pakistani leaders have heard these sentiments before, and Trump didn’t lay out any consequences if Pakistan failed to, as he put it, “demonstrate its commitment to civilization, order, and to peace.”

Leaders in Islamabad may have been more perturbed by what Trump said about India. Trump praised India as “the world's largest democracy and a key security and economic partner of the United States” while noting merely that “in the past, Pakistan has been a valued partner.” Trump did say that India should invest more in Afghanistan in return for its favorable trade relationship with the United States, but Indian leaders can probably live with that. India’s External Affairs Ministry praised Trump for his “determination to enhance efforts to overcome the challenges faced by Afghanistan and in confronting issues of safe havens and other forms of cross-border support enjoyed by terrorists.” The statement didn’t explicitly mention Pakistan, but didn’t exactly need to.

Trump has been critical of Pakistan since as far back as 2012, tweeting, “Get it straight: Pakistan is not our friend. We’ve given them billions and billions of dollars, and what did we get? Betrayal and disrespect—and much worse.” As president-elect, though, he had an odd phone conversation with Sharif in which—at least according to the Pakistani government’s read-out—he praised the then–prime minister as a “terrific guy” and said that “Pakistanis are one of the most intelligent people.”

Aug. 21 2017 10:13 PM

Secret Service Says It’s On Course to Run Out of Funds to Protect Trump and Family in September

The Secret Service is facing a funding crunch and, as of September, will not be able to pay the required overtime for as many as 1,100 agents due to federal spending caps. The organization has faced similar financial challenges in the past, but the Trump administration—despite an increased number of agents—has stretched the agency’s resources even thinner in its first seven months. About one-third of the agents in the Secret Service will have burned through so much overtime by September that they will reach the government-mandated cap on their salaries. As the agency is currently headed, the Secret Service’s budgeted funding will only stretch through September, meaning its facing a 25 percent shortfall in what’s required to protect the Trump administration.

Last year, during a contentious campaign, the Secret Service ran into a similar staffing crunch as agents worked long hours and piled up overtime. The opening months of the Trump administration, however, have not allowed for any letup in Secret Service protection. Some of the strain is due to the Trump family and how the president has chosen to operate while in office. The number of people receiving Secret Service protection jumped from 31 during the Obama years to 42 during the Trump presidency, including 18 members of the Trump family. The fact that until recently none of Trump’s family lived in the White House meant that agents were required to individually provide cover to Melania Trump and their son Barron in Trump Tower in New York City, as well as his four adult children, particularly Donald Jr. and Eric Trump, who have crisscrossed the globe in their leadership roles at the Trump Organization.

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Some examples via USA Today:

Earlier this year, Eric Trump's business travel to Uruguay cost the Secret Service nearly $100,000 just for hotel rooms. Other trips included the United Kingdom and the Dominican Republic. In February, both sons and their security details traveled to Vancouver, British Columbia, for the opening of new Trump hotel there, and to Dubai to officially open a Trump International Golf Club...

On top of the increase in the sheer number of protectees, Trump has spent a great deal of time away from the White House during his first half-year in office. Trips to Mar-a-Lago for the weekend (seven times), as well as his club in New Jersey (five times) have meant more work for his security detail, as has the president’s preference for campaigning, rather than governing, which has meant campaign-style rallies across the country. The big, open-air events add to the Secret Service’s protection workload.

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