Mueller Investigation Update

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Trump Maladministration

Mueller Is Now Looking Into Middle Eastern Influence as Part of the Trump Investigation

Special counsel Robert Mueller has expanded his investigation to look into the Trump White House’s ties to a Lebanese-American businessman who works closely with the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, the New York Times reports.

Saturday evening, the Times reported that Mueller has interviewed George Nader, a businessman with long standing ties to the Middle East. Mueller has also pressed other witnesses about what role Nader might have played in trying to influence the White House and possible attempts by the UAE to buy influence during the presidential campaign. Since his election, Trump has forged a close relationship with the UAE After feuding broke outlast year between Qatar, a close US ally in the Persian Gulf and the home of a large US air base, and other Arab states, including the UAE, the Trump administration loudly sided with Qatar’s opponents—even over the objections of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

So hard to keep up.

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“Surpassingly Stupid”: Trump’s Trade War

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Trump Maladministration

Bottom line, Trump’s tariffs and trade war lay bare his colossal ignorance of economics. For one thing, he misunderstands what a “trade deficit” is.

At Econolog, David Henderson takes this tweet apart.

When a country (USA) is losing many billions of dollars on trade with virtually every country it does business with.

Trump’s premise is false. You don’t lose billions of dollars on trade: you gain on trade. If people were to lose from trade, they wouldn’t trade. They trade to gain–and they do gain. Let’s say I buy a car from Japan or a toy from China–pardon me, since the Chinese government temporarily banned the use of the letter “n”–I buy a toy from Chia. I value that car or that toy at something greater than what I pay for it or I wouldn’t buy it. So I don’t lose; I gain.

Economists have been pointing out that Trump doesn’t “get” international trade, even before he was elected. See, for example, “What Donald Trump Doesn’t Understand About the Trade Deficit” by Neil Irwin in the New York Times, from July 2016. But Trump thinks in terms of winners and losers; if the U.S. has a trade deficit, it must be losing.

Paul Krugman wrote of Trump’s tweet:

Trump has always had a thing about trade, which he sees the way he sees everything: as a test of power and masculinity. It’s all about who sells more: if we run a trade surplus we win, if we run a trade deficit, we lose …

This is, of course, nonsense. Trade isn’t a zero-sum game: it raises the productivity and wealth of the world economy. To take a not at all random example, it makes a lot of sense to produce aluminum, a process that uses vast amounts of electricity, in countries like Canada, which have abundant hydropower. So the U.S. gains from importing Canadian aluminum, whether or not we run a trade deficit with Canada. (As it happens, we don’t, but that’s pretty much beside the point.)

Trump isn’t intelligent enough to grasp what stopping trade and starting trade wars with long-established trading partners would actually do to our economy. As Scott Sumner wrote at Econolog,  “How’d Smoot-Hawley work out?”

Part of the problem for working Americans is that the big, splashy trade agreements produced mixed results. Yes, they create more wealth, but some jobs are lost, and many wages are suppressed.  And it seems to most working folks that the big shots didn’t care about the parts of the economy that got left behind, and until that aspect of “free trade” is worked out, trade deals will be regarded with great suspicion. But that doesn’t mean throwing up a bunch of trade barriers to protect individual industries will necessarily help anybody, especially in the long run.

Even I can grasp that if Canada really is able to produce aluminum more efficiently than we do, it makes sense for American manufacturers to buy aluminum from Canada rather than make it ourselves. Otherwise, it becomes more difficult to make things with aluminum that are competitive with stuff made in other countries with aluminum. However, somebody’s got to think of what to do with out-of-work aluminum workers and the communities they live in.

But I digress. Steel is something Trump probably thinks he knows about, because buildings are made of steel. Back during the 2016 campaign, Kurt Eichenwald reported that for years Trump had been importing Chinese steel for his buildings. (Ironically, China is not a major steel exporter to the U.S. any more and won’t be much affected by the tariffs. The top steel importers to the U.S. are Canada, Brazil, South Korea, Mexico and Russia.) But Trump doesn’t really seem to know much of anything.

The bigger concern is that, according to many sources, nearly everybody advising Trump on trade told him not to do the tariff thing, and he did it anyway. It appears that he is kicking his perpetual tempter tantrum mode into even higher gear. Mike Allen and Jonathan Swan write at Axios that Trump is getting ready to blow off everybody:

His staff at times managed to talk him off the ledge. No more. Tired of the restraints, tired of his staff, Trump is reveling in ticking off just about every person who serves him.

Trump hates rigidity and rules. He has grown to especially hate Kelly’s rigid rules, so he purposely blew off Kelly’s process and announced planned tariffs in a haphazard way.

There are signs Trump has also had it with his National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who he complains is long-winded and inflexible. MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace reported Trump is ready to bounce him.

The tariffs call was also a big middle finger to economic adviser Gary Cohn, who has fought for more than one year to kill tariffs that would provoke a trade war or higher prices for consumers, a de facto tax increase. Cohn, who stuck around to fight tariffs, now seems more likely to leave.

Zack Beauchamp wrote at Vox:

Trump has decided to put the global economyat risk because he was in a pissy mood.

The evidence for this scary-sounding theory comes from a Friday afternoon report published by NBC News, tracing Trump’s recent decision to slap large tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum. These tariffs have already prompted threats of retaliation from America’s leading trade partners; European Union President Jean-Claude Juncker has discussed putting tariffs on blue jeans, bourbon, and Harley-Davidson motorcycles — three iconic American exports. Australian Trade Minister Steven Ciobo is openly warning that Trump’s actions may cause another recession.

So how did Trump come to such a monumental decision? According to NBC’s sources in the White House, it was because he got some bad press.

Here is what NBC said:

On Wednesday evening, the president became “unglued,” in the words of one official familiar with the president’s state of mind.

A trifecta of events had set him off in a way that two officials said they had not seen before: Hope Hicks’ testimony to lawmakers investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, conduct by his embattled attorney general and the treatment of his son-in-law by his chief of staff.

Trump, the two officials said, was angry and gunning for a fight, and he chose a trade war, spurred on by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Peter Navarro, the White House director for trade — and against longstanding advice from his economic chair Gary Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.

Back to Zack Beauchamp:

Dig deeper into the NBC story and the picture gets even more worrisome. Even after his initial outburst, Trump apparently didn’t bother to consult with his economic and diplomatic advisers on the best way to implement these tariffs. In fact, almost no one important was warned of Trump’s monumental decision before it was made, and the White House did virtually nothing to prepare for the all-too-predictable angry response from foreign leaders. …

…The reason this kind of thing hasn’t happened before, according to report after report from inside the White House, is that Trump’s advisers have been able to keep his impulses in check. …

…The problem is that Trump’s staff is disintegrating amid a series of mounting scandals. The Russia investigation, allegations of domestic violence by a top White House staffer, reports of outlandish spending by Cabinet officials, and just general frustration with Trump’s chaotic management style have led to a number of departures from the Trump White House. This has led to a weakening of the personnel wall between Trump and his more outlandish impulses.

This whole mess played out in the tariff case: A piece in Politico suggests that Rob Porter — the former White House staff secretary who resigned amid multiple allegations of domestic abuse — had been organizing meetings designed to block imposition of new tariffs. “Porter’s resignation removed a fierce opponent of the tariffs from the West Wing and revived the chaotic policy review process that defined the early weeks of Trump’s presidency,” Politico reports.

White House staff chaos is letting Trump be Trump.

I’ll give Paul Krugman the last word:

Never mind the net loss of jobs from a full-scale trade war, which would in the end probably be a relatively small number. The point instead is that the gross job losses would be huge, as millions of workers would be forced to change jobs, move to new places, and more. And many of them would suffer losses on the way that they would never get back.

Oh, and companies on the losing end would lose trillions in stock value.

So the idea that a trade war would be “good” and “easy to win” is surpassingly stupid. And the way Trump seems to be starting his war is also remarkably stupid: start by protecting goods that are inputs to industries that employ far more people than those being protected? Do so in the name of national security – a justification that is, for good reason, almost never invoked — when the biggest source of those inputs is that hostile foreign power Canada?

In themselves, these tariffs aren’t that big a deal. But if they’re a sign of what future policy is going to look like, they’re really, really bad.

For another last word, see David Atkins, Trump’s Ignorant, Infantile Game of Civilization.

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The Further Adventures of Jared

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Trump Maladministration

I’m trying to remember what it was I used to write about before Trump became president. Anyone?

Today The Intercept reported that it appears Jared Kushner arranged to punish Qatar for not giving him a loan.

THE REAL ESTATE firm tied to the family of presidential son-in-law and top White House adviser Jared Kushner made a direct pitch to Qatar’s minister of finance in April 2017 in an attempt to secure investment in a critically distressed asset in the company’s portfolio, according to two sources. At the previously unreported meeting, Jared Kushner’s father Charles, who runs Kushner Companies, and Qatari Finance Minister Ali Sharif Al Emadi discussed financing for the Kushners’ signature 666 Fifth Avenue property in New York City.

I’m starting to think the Book of Revelations really is about the Trump Administration. If you need background on the 666 Fifth Avenue property, see Kushner Money Blues. The bottom line is that Kushner needs a massive amount of financing for a white elephant property with massive mortgage coming due in less than a year, and if he doesn’t get the money, the family fortune is pretty much ruined.

The failure to broker the deal would be followed only a month later by a Middle Eastern diplomatic row in which Jared Kushner provided critical support to Qatar’s neighbors. Led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, a group of Middle Eastern countries, with Kushner’s backing, led a diplomatic assault that culminated in a blockade of Qatar. Kushner, according to reports at the time, subsequently undermined efforts by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to bring an end to the standoff.

That really doesn’t look good.

The Gulf crisis involving Qatar and its neighbors will likely be Kushner’s defining foreign policy legacy. The crisis followed a May visit to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, by Kushner and President Donald Trump, who subsequently took credit for Saudi Arabia and its allies’ efforts against Qatar. The fallout has reshaped geopolitical alliances in the region, splitting the Gulf Cooperation Council and pushing Qatar, home to the Middle East’s largest U.S. military base, closer to Turkey and Iran.

It was a totally boneheaded move that hurt U.S. interests in the region, in other words. Of course, it’s possible this was more about Trump and Kushner just being ignorant and scammed by the Saudis, not …. oh, wait ...

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team has asked witnesses about Kushner’s efforts to secure financing for his family’s real estate properties, focusing specifically on his discussions during the transition with individuals from Qatar and Turkey, as well as Russia, China and the United Arab Emirates, according to witnesses who have been interviewed as part of the investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign to sway the 2016 election.

As part of the scrutiny of Kushner’s discussions with Turks, federal investigators have reached out to Turkish nationals for information on Kushner through the FBI’s legal attache office in Ankara, according to two people familiar with the matter. Separately, Qatari government officials visiting the U.S. in late January and early February considered turning over to Mueller what they believe is evidence of efforts by their country’s Persian Gulf neighbors in coordination with Kushner to hurt their country, four people familiar with the matter said. The Qatari officials decided against cooperating with Mueller for now out of fear it would further strain the country’s relations with the White House, these people said.

Eric Levitz at New York magazines adds,

The office space that the Kushners retained is worth less than its $1.2 billion mortgage — which is due early in 2019. If their company can’t find some new scheme for refinancing and redeveloping the property by then, Kushner will have cost his family a fortune.

And Jared really doesn’t want that to happen. In the months between his father-in-law’s election and inauguration, Kushner divided his time between organizing the transition, and seeking capital from (suddenly quite interested) investors aligned with foreign governments: During that period, Kushner attempt to secure a $400 million loan from the Chinese insurance firm Anbang, and a $500 million one from former Qatari prime minister and billionaire investor Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, also known as “HBJ.” Anbang pulled out once the deal attracted critical media scrutiny, and HBJ jumped ship when the Kushners failed to find a second major source of capital.

In those same weeks, Kushner met with Sergey Gorkov, head of the Kremlin-affiliated Vnesheconombank. The senior White House adviser has insisted that this meeting was strictly political; Gorkov maintains it was strictly business.

And here’s the even more juicy bit …

All of these interactions are currently being scrutinized by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

They have also, apparently, been studied by top government officials in the United Arab Emirates, China, Israel, and Mexico — all of whom have privately discussed strategies for exploiting Jared Kushner’s business interests for geopolitical gain, according to a report from the Washington Post on Wednesday.

And if America’s allies and adversaries are looking for further (circumstantial) evidence that U.S. foreign policy might be for sale, the New York Times provided some this week, when it revealed that Kushner’s family company had won $500 million in financing last year from a pair of American firms right after their top executives had White House meetings with one Jared Kushner.

But, wait, there’s more. Yesterday I wrote about a big loan Kushner got from a company called Apollo Global Management. Today, the Associated Press has an update:

The Securities and Exchange Commission late last year dropped its inquiry into a financial company that a month earlier had given White House adviser Jared Kushner’s family real estate firm a $180 million loan.

While there’s no evidence that Kushner or any other Trump administration official had a role in the agency’s decision to drop the inquiry into Apollo Global Management, the timing has once again raised potential conflict-of-interest questions about Tru

“I suppose the best case for Kushner is that this looks absolutely terrible,” said Rob Weissman, president of Public Citizen. “Without presuming that there is any kind of quid pro quo … there are a lot of ways that the fact of Apollo’s engagement with Kushner and the Kushner businesses in a public and private context might cast a shadow over what the SEC is doing and influence consciously or unconsciously how the agency acted.”

Or, more likely, we’re looking at an old-fashioned quid pro quo.

It’s been said of the Trump White House that it has reminded everyone why there are rules. But one of the saddest and most pathetic things I’ve read this week is in this paragraph:

Privately, some aides have expressed frustration that Mr. Kushner and his wife, the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump, have remained at the White House, despite Mr. Trump at times saying they never should have come to the White House and should leave. Yet aides also noted that Mr. Trump has told the couple that they should keep serving in their roles, even as he has privately asked Mr. Kelly for his help in moving them out.

Trump doesn’t have the guts to tell his daughter and son-in-law that maybe it’s time for them to go, so he’s making John Kelly be the bad guy?

See also ‘Jared has faded’: Inside the 28 days of tumult that left Kushner badly diminished in the Washington Post.

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Did Jared Get Caught?

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Trump Maladministration

The New York Times is reporting an apparent conflict of interest between Jared Kushner and companies that met with him in the White House.

Early last year, a private equity billionaire started paying regular visits to the White House.

Joshua Harris, a founder of Apollo Global Management, was advising Trump administration officials on infrastructure policy. During that period, he met on multiple occasions with Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, said three people familiar with the meetings. Among other things, the two men discussed a possible White House job for Mr. Harris.

The job never materialized, but in November, Apollo lent $184 million to Mr. Kushner’s family real estate firm, Kushner Companies. The loan was to refinance the mortgage on a Chicago skyscraper.

Even by the standards of Apollo, one of the world’s largest private equity firms, the previously unreported transaction with the Kushners was a big deal:It was triple the size of the average property loan made by Apollo’s real estate lending arm, securities  filings show.

It was one of the largest loans Kushner Companies received last year. An even larger loan came from Citigroup, which lent the firm and one of its partners $325 million to help finance a group of office buildings in Brooklyn.

A number of White House spokespeople have released the usual bullshit about how this isn’t what it looks like.

Update: Here is a statement being sent by email from a group called the Patriotic Millionaires:

“We don’t want to accuse anyone of inappropriate conduct, but the timeline of Kushner’s meetings with the executives from Apollo and Citigroup is questionable at best. Looking at the large loans the Kushner Companies received and at the Trump Administration’s subsequent one-eighty on closing the carried interest loophole, there is little room for doubt that corruption and pay-to-play politics are to blame for the continued existence of this egregious loophole.”

Charles Pierce:

It has not been a good week for the Dauphin-in-Law. First, he gets his security clearance pulled, at least in part because oligarchs from foreign lands considered him the biggest sucker on the planet. Now, he’s at the center of a steaming pile of corruption so blatant that it would have embarrassed Ferdinand Marcos. If he’s at all smart, he’s spending hours in front of a mirror, repeating the phrase, “To the best of my recollection,” over and over until he can appear sincere.

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Bob Mueller Is Still Investigating

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Trump Maladministration

The latest:

Rick Gates done gone and flipped, folks. And he must have flipped good.

The lead Russia investigator asked a federal court in Alexandria, Virginia Tuesday to dismiss a series of criminal charges against Gates, including tax and bank fraud, in exchange for his guilty plea and testimony in the wider probe into the 2016 presidential election.  …

… The additional leniency comes after Gates agreed to a plea deal last Friday with Mueller that stipulates he must cooperate “in any and all matters” that the special counsel’s office decides are “relevant.”

Gates likely can help the government in its prosecution of his longtime business partner Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman who is fighting Mueller’s indictments for money laundering, failing to register as an agent of a foreign government, and bank and tax fraud.

Gates is also expected to provide a wider window for Mueller into the Trump campaign, where he worked as deputy chairman under Manafort and later as a liaison to the Republican National Committee.

But Manafort is still fighting. The Gates news was yesterday; today Manafort pleaded not guilty to some of the charges against him, including some brand new ones.

Manafort and Gates were originally indicted in Washington in October on charges of conspiracy and fraud stemming from their lucrative lobbying work in Ukraine — a case that arose out of Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign and possible ties to the Trump campaign.

second federal indictment charging the pair with new tax and bank fraudcharges related to real-estate loans was lodged against them in Virginia last week.

Soon after, prosecutors announced they had struck a cooperation agreement with Gates, who is a former Trump campaign aide. And hours later, Manafort was hit with new charges in Washington — including an accusation that he secretly recruited and funded a group of former European politicians to lobby in the United States on behalf of Ukraine.

Josh Marshall writes,

Let’s start with one key point: The main deliverable Vladimir Putin wanted from the Trump administration, whatever role he played in the latter’s election, was an end to the punitive sanctions imposed by the US and Europe after the Russian seizure of the Crimean Peninsula and incursions into eastern Ukraine in February 2014. There are many parts of the package Putin wanted and Trump seemed to want to provide, from things as limited as the late 2016 sanctions imposed by President Obama to as maximal and aspirational as the disruption of the NATO alliance. But the end of the 2014 sanctions and the acceptance of Russian sovereignty in Crimea was the core deliverable at the heart of a broader rapprochement or even global US-Russian partnership. That was the big thing Russia wanted and indeed still wants.

Manafort wasn’t simply at the heart of the 2016 election story, he was at the center of this origination point story as well. Manafort’s meal ticket and main client was Viktor Yanukovych, the Russia-aligned President of Ukraine. Yanukovych was driven from power by his inability to manage the cross-cutting fissures in Ukraine, the pulls of Russia and the EU, specifically his decision to reject a deeper association with the EU and swing around to a redoubled bond with Russia. It was Yanukovych’s fall from power and subsequent flight to Russia which at least triggered the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s shadow war in the east. In other words, the fall of Manafort’s client in Ukraine was the triggering event which led to the punitive sanctions the removal of which was the core thing Vladimir Putin was hoping to receive from Donald Trump. That Manafort, who’d been Yanukovych’s political advisor and fixer for a decade would end up running Trump’s campaign is, to put it mildly, remarkable. 

Do read all the juicy details in Josh Marshall’s piece. Note that we have to wait until September for Mueller’s trial. But we’re not done.

Reports are that people being interviewed by Mueller are being asked very pointed questions about what Trump might have known about stolen Democratic Party emails before they were released.

Witnesses who were involved with Trump’s campaign are being asked if the president knew that WikiLeaks was going to publish the stolen emails, according to NBC News. Particular attention has been paid to Trump’s infamous July 2016 public comments at a news conference shortly after WikiLeaks began publishing Democratic National Committee emails.

“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump told reporters at the time.

The investigators are also probing whether Trump had prior knowledge of WikiLeaks’ plans to publish the Democratic emails and why Trump has consistently taken pro-Russia policy positions that have seemingly conflicted with his otherwise hawkish foreign policy views. There have also been questions about the connections between Roger Stone and Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks and a man known to have been compromised by the Russian government. It had already been reported in The Atlantic that Stone exchanged direct messages with WikiLeaks, and in November it came out in The Atlantic that Assange had asked the Trump campaign to be made into Australia’s ambassador to the United States.

Even better, Mueller has taken an interest in Trump’s business dealings in Russia before he began campaigning for president:

Three people familiar with Mueller’s investigation have told CNN’s Kara Scannell, Pamela Brown, Gloria Borger, and Jim Sciutto that the special counsel has started questioning witnesses about Trump’s dealings in Russia — specifically the fate of a Trump Tower in Moscow — and when exactly Trump made the decision to run for president. Mueller may also be digging into whether there’s any compromising information on Trump that might connect the two, one source speculated to CNN. …

…Mueller’s team is trying to pinpoint when Trump became serious about a presidential run, and if it might coincide with any sketchy business dealings. A source told CNN that “a witness told Mueller’s team his impression was that Trump was serious about running back in 2014,” and that Mueller’s team also wanted to know if Russians had visited Trump Tower in New York before 2015. This unnamed witness reportedly said no.

Trump’s 2013 trip to Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant has attracted much attention in the Russia scandal — and the CNN report says that Muller also put it under scrutiny. Investigators are interested in who Trump met with during his time there.

That Russia visit has long been an odd bullet point in the Trump-Russia saga — one that has continued to pop up because the Russian financiers who helped bankroll the pageant helped arrange the infamous 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Don Jr. regarding promised dirt on Hillary Clinton.

The CNN report suggests that Mueller is also interested in the scrapped plans for a Trump Tower in Moscow — both the one in 2013 connected to the Miss Universe pageant and a renewed attempt led by Trump Organization lawyer Michael Cohen in 2015. (Cohen says he ended negotiations in January 2016.)

But wait, there’s more. Recently Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign announced that a fellow named Brad Parscale would be campaign manager. Who is Brad Parscale? The short answer is that he was the guy in charge of digital strategy in the 2016 campaign. “Digital strategy” in this case was mostly about getting word out on social media, especially Facebook. Here’s a December 2017 article by Sean Illing at Vox explaining why this is a big deal.

In June 2016, the Trump campaign hired Cambridge Analytica to take over its data operations.

We know from the reporting of Nicholas Confessore and Danny Hakim at the New York Times that Jared Kushner, who was charged with overseeing Trump’s digital operations, is the reason Cambridge Analytica joined the Trump campaign.

Kushner hired a man named Brad Parscale, a Texas-based digital expert who had worked previously for team Trump. According to Confessore and Hakim, Cambridge Analytica convinced Parscale (who has since agreed to be interviewed by the House Intelligence Committee) to “try out the firm.” The decision was reinforced by Trump’s campaign manager, Steve Bannon, who is also a former vice president of Cambridge Analytica.

It’s not clear to what extent Cambridge Analytica helped (Parscale denied that Cambridge was of any use in a recent 60 Minutes interview), but we do know that Trump’s digital operation was shockingly effective. Samuel Woolley, who heads the Computational Propaganda project at Oxford’s Internet Institute, found that a disproportionate amount of pro-Trump messaging was spread via automated bots and anti-Hillary propaganda. Trump’s bots, they reported at the time of the election, outnumbered Clinton’s five to one.

So there’s more detail about what all these bots were up to, and then …

In early July, Shane Harris of the Wall Street Journal released a series of reports that offered some of the most compelling evidence yet that Trump’s campaign colluded with Russian hackers.

Harris interviewed a man named Peter Smith, a pro-Trump GOP operative who sought to acquire the 30,000 deleted emails from Hillary Clinton’s private server. Of the several hacker groups Smith reached out to, at least two had connections to Russia — that’s according to Smith.

Smith told Harris that he was in regular contact with Gen. Michael Flynn, who at the time was one of Trump’s closest confidants — and of course later became Trump’s national security adviser.

Here’s a key passage from the Harris report, which my Vox colleague Andrew Prokop highlighted at the time:

“He [Smith] said, ‘I’m talking to Michael Flynn about this — if you find anything, can you let me know?’” said Eric York, a computer-security expert from Atlanta who searched hacker forums on Mr. Smith’s behalf for people who might have access to the emails. …

…In phone conversations, Mr. Smith told a computer expert he was in direct contact with Mr. Flynn and his son, according to this expert. … The expert said that based on his conversations with Mr. Smith, he understood the elder Mr. Flynn to be coordinating with Mr. Smith’s group in his capacity as a Trump campaign adviser.

Harris examined intelligence reports that described the efforts of Russian hackers to retrieve emails from Clinton’s server and pass them along to Flynn, who would then share them with the Trump campaign.

By itself, Harris’s reporting makes no connection to Cambridge Analytica. But in August the Associated Press published a report that helped connect the dots. In an amended public financial filing, Flynn was forced to disclose “a brief advisory role with a firm related to a controversial data analysis company that aided the Trump campaign.”

The “data analysis company” is none other than Cambridge Analytica. The precise amount of money Cambridge paid to Flynn is unknown, as are the details of Flynn’s role.

Of course, Jared also in the news for losing his temporary security clearance. He is now downgraded to seeing only “secret,” as opposed to “top secret,” material. That ought to remove him from any further dealings in foreign policy, but we’ll see. See also Charles Pierce.

Trump today is spinning his wheels over the Nunes memo and the phony issue that the FBI and Justice Department somehow stricked a judge into issuing a FISA warrant based on the Steel Dossier. I’ve already discussed this to death here.  Trump is furious at Jeff Sessions for not prosecuting somebody already.

Sessions has responded by saying, “We have initiated the appropriate process that will ensure complaints against this Department will be fully and fairly acted upon if necessary. As long as I am the Attorney General, I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honor, and this Department will continue to do its work in a fair and impartial manner according to the law and Constitution.” It occurs to me that working for Trump is its own punishment.

White House Communications Something Hope Hicks testified before the House Intelligence Committee yesterday, and today she announced she will be resigning. Make of that what you will. White House press official Josh Raffel, who mostly works for Kushner, is leaving also.

And that’s just the stuff that’s happened the past several hours.

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Your Tax Dollars Not at Work

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Trump Maladministration

A couple of stories that explain different parts of the same phenomenon: First, we read at the New York Times that companies are not spending the Trump tax cuts in ways that will help their employees, or the economy.

President Trump promised that his tax cut would encourage companies to invest in factories, workers and wages, setting off a spending spree that would reinvigorate the American economy.

Companies have announced plans for some of those investments. But so far, companies are using much of the money for something with a more narrow benefit: buying their own shares.

Those so-called buybacks are good for shareholders, including the senior executives who tend to be big owners of their companies’ stock. A company purchasing its own shares is a time-tested way to bolster its stock price.

But the purchases can come at the expense of investments in things like hiring, research and development and building new plants — the sort of investments that directly help the overall economy. The buybacks are also most likely to worsen economic inequality because the benefits of stocks purchases flow disproportionately to the richest Americans.

Like nobody saw that coming, huh? The other story, at the Los Angeles Times, is about how Trump’s “reforms” to the Affordable Care Act are costing us more in tax dollars while insuring fewer people. Michael Hiltzik writes,

Those fiscal geniuses in the White House and Republican-controlled Congress have managed to do the impossible: Their sabotage of the Affordable Care Act will lead to 6.4 million fewer Americans with health insurance, while the federal bill for coverage rises by some $33 billion per year.

Also, by the way, premiums in the individual market will rise by an average of more than 18%.

Heck of a job.

 I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again — to Republicans, the purpose of a health care system is to maintain a profitable health care industry. If the Free Market (blessed be It) can’t accomplish that alone, then government will prop it up so that industry CEOs can continue to make more money than God. If, along the way, some people actually receive health care, that’s considered acceptable if it doesn’t eat too much into profits. Perhaps they can write it off as public relations, or something.

One of the Trump “reforms” driving up cost are short-term policies.

 Expansion of short-term non-compliant policies: 2.5 million more Americans without minimum essential coverage. Short-term policies, which were limited under the Obama administration to three months maximum and no renewals, would be expanded under Trump to last up to a year. Under the law, short-term policies don’t count as real Obamacare insurance.

But that’s okay, because the individual mandate has been de-fanged. There’s no penalty for not having pliant insurance any more.

The mechanism by which the GOP policies will crater the individual insurance market isn’t hard to understand. Both major initiatives — eliminating the individual mandate and offering bare-bones policies — siphon younger, healthier consumers out of the individual market. …

…The economically rational response for the healthy in that segment would be to pay $100 or less a month in premiums and barely use any services over the course of the year. The danger, of course, is that anyone can get hit by a bus or find themselves holding an unexpected cancer diagnoses. Then they’re screwed.

Catherine Rampell writes more about this at WaPo:

…next year there will be about 9 million fewer Americans with real health insurance coverage than would have been the case had pre-Trump policies stayed in place, according to a report released Monday by the Urban Institute.

By “real health insurance,” I mean plans that actually cover things — as opposed to plans that just take your money and then, legally, pay few if any claims. (These are sometimes nicknamed “buffalo plans,” because they pay out pretty much only if you get run over by a herd of buffalo.) …

…They don’t, for example, have to be issued to people with preexisting conditions. There also are no federal requirements for what kinds of care they have to cover, or how much of it. If these plans want to take your premium money and then never pay out a dime on prescription drugs or cancer treatments, under federal law, they don’t have to.

And the data show they often don’t, which is why this is such a lucrative business to be in.

If, as expected, younger and healthier people drop “real health insurance” for these scam plans, that would leave a higher concentration of older and sicker people in the regular insurance pool, which of course is expected to drive up premiums a whole lot more. And when premiums go up, taxpayer subsidies have to go up as well. So, fewer people covered, higher government cost.

Of course, the next step will be to get rid of the subsidies. That’s right after they “privatize” Medicare.

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The Gun Problem Is Guns, Especially Semiautomatic Guns

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Trump Maladministration

Predictably, since Trump promised to really truly fix the Gun Problem he has pursued nothing but red herring solutions, namely arming teachers and doing something about “mental health.”

I’ve already written about the widespread but mistaken belief that school shooters are all “mentally ill.” Trump seems to think it would be easy to just round up the “mentally ill” people and lock them up in hospitals.  “We’re going to be talking about mental institutions. And when you have some person like this, you can bring them into a mental institution, and they can see what they can do. But we’ve got to get them out of our communities,” the president said during a meeting at the White House with state and local officials.

I don’t know who he thinks is going to pay for those mental hospitals, but never mind. It wouldn’t work, anyway.

In the 1960s, states across the country began to close or shrink mental hospitals after a series of court decisions that limited the powers of state and local officials to commit people. The decline continued for decades, in part because of cuts in both state and federal budgets for mental health care.

Those institutions housed people with severe mental disorders, like schizophrenia, who were deemed unable to care for themselves. And while spree killers may be angry and emotionally disordered, few have had the sorts of illnesses that would have landed them in hospital custody.

The latest school shooter, Nikolas Cruz, 19, was clearly troubled and making threats, and he was stockpiling weapons. But he had no mental diagnosis. He has been described as angry, possibly depressed, perhaps isolated — not so different from millions of other teenagers.

A full psychiatric evaluation, if he’d had one, might have resulted in a temporary commitment at best, but not full-time institutionalization, experts said.

The idea that more such institutions would prevent this kind of violence “is ridiculous, because you can’t put half the people in the country with a mental disturbance in mental hospitals,” said Dr. Michael Stone, a forensic psychiatrist at Columbia University who has studied mass killers.

It’s also the case that the law put up a lot of barriers to committing people to mental institutions against their will. It used to be too easy to commit people who were more inconvenient than disturbed. Although there’s no question we need much better mental health services in this country, it shouldn’t be the job of the health care system to warehouse people who might be potential criminals. That’s taking us into dystopian “Minority Report” territory.

The quoted article goes into an analysis of recent mass shooters and whether a “mental health” filter would have prevented them from shooting. Most had no known “mental health” issues that would have gotten them hospitalized even overnight. Even the Sandy Hook killer, Adam Lanza, who clearly was not all there, was not considered a candidate for hospitalization after a psychiatric evaluation at the Yale School of Medicine. Most others — including Dylan Klebold, Eric Harris, Elliot Rodger, Dylann Roof, and Stephen Paddock — were angry and anti-social to varying degrees but not suffering anything that would have gotten them hospitalized even overnight. Whether any of them were “mentally ill” and not just maladjusted depends on how you define “mental illness,” actually. The exceptions were Jared Loughner and James Holmes, who were psychotic and who *might* have qualified for commitment, had there been beds available. But you never know.

But let’s look at this from another angle. We are told incessantly that “if you see something, say something.” Apparently a lot of people were saying something about Nickolas Cruz. He was very angry and very anti-social, and had collected several weapons — including an AR-15 and an AK-47 — most of which had been purchased legally. The New York Times has a story about all the warnings about Cruz that people called in to authorities, and it’s chilling stuff. Some of the people warned authorities explicitly that he might shoot up a school. He had an out-of-control temple, was threatening and violent, and he was stockpiling weapons. The signs were crystal clear this guy was dangerous.

But, in the end, there was little law enforcement could do because they had no authority to confiscate his guns.

Yep, until you’ve actually committed a crime, you are officially a law-abiding citizen, and your legally purchased firearms may not be taken from you. It doesn’t matter how angry and threatening you are.

The Associated Press reported this week:

Only five states have laws enabling family members, guardians or police to ask judges to temporarily strip gun rights from people who show warning signs of violence. Supporters of these measures, deemed “red flag laws” or gun-violence restraining orders, say they can save lives by stopping some shootings and suicides.

Florida is not one of those states. The article says that California enacted such a law after Elliot Rodger went on a woman-hating shooting spree. The article identifies Rodger as “mentally ill,” but you can find plenty of mental health experts disputing that. However, it’s a fact that Rodger’s parents called authorities to do something about their son, who had made violent threats online, but when police actually went and talked to him they decided he was harmless. One wonders if the Elliott Rodger law would have stopped Elliot Rodger.

And Adam Lanza’s mother actually encouraged her son to shoot guns, because she thought of shooting as something fun they could do together. She was the first one he killed.

Even so, if the cops could have confiscated Nicholas Cruz’s firearms (assuming they would have, or that he didn’t have a few stashed out of sight) that might have stopped him. So that’s something.

The problems with putting all “mentally ill” people into some database so that they are blocked from purchasing firearms is that (a) this would stop very few mass shooters, and (b) this could discourage people from seeking psychiatric help for fear of ending up in a government database.

Some states are stripping gun rights from people who have been convicted of domestic violence or stalking, both of which are big red flag behaviors. This is a fairly obvious move that should have been done nationwide years ago, but of course the NRA objects.

The NRA’s solution for domestic violence is, of course, to arm women. The problem with this is that when women do eventually shoot and kill an abusive partner, most of the time she’ll get convicted for manslaughter. It’s also the case that in the real world, women are sometimes shot with their own guns. There’s all kinds of data showing than women who live with abusive men are much more likely to be murdered when there’s a gun in the house — no matter who owns it — than if there isn’t. Of course, the obvious solution is to not live with abusive men, but that’s a whole ‘nother issue.

And then there’s arming teachers. The only people who think that’s a good idea are those who learned everything they know about active gunfire situations by watching Fast and Furious movies. Those with real-world hostile gunfire experience — like war veterans and cops — think it’s a terrible idea.

“Shooting under stress is extremely difficult. Even for the most well-trained shooters,” Jay Kirell, an Afghanistan veteran who has written about difficulties veterans face in civilian life, tweeted. “A teacher is not going to be able to do this. Cops & soldiers literally get paid to do this & most of them can’t shoot accurately under stress.”

“Not because they suck, but because it’s nearly impossible to hit a target in one shot when pumped full of adrenaline,” Kirell added. “And if you’re in a school with a shooter and dozens of children, if you’re not shooting accurately you’re just creating crossfire.”

And let’s talk about the practicalities of keeping firearms in classrooms where they will be quickly available to the teacher in case of a shooter in school, but where the students can’t ever get it. Don’t make me laugh. And that’s assuming that the teacher doesn’t have a few screws loose and shouldn’t be trusted with a firearm. Or, what happens when the cops show up at an active shooting situation and see the armed math teacher, who happens to be a black man?

I realize part of the appeal of the “arming teachers” arguments comes from belief in the Magic Firearm that will dissuade shooters just be being there. There is no evidence that shooters choose targets just because they are allegedly “gun free zones.” Several mass shootings — Las Vegas comes to mind — have taken place where guns were completely welcome. And since most mass shooters kill themselves as the police close in, one assumes they aren’t afraid to die.

Let’s review what we’ve covered so far — the solution to the Gun Problem is to lock up “mentally ill” people wholesale whether they’ve been convicted of anything or not. The answer is to report scary people to authorities, who presumably will haul them away. The answer is to turn schools into armed fortresses. The answer is to put the names of mentally ill people into data bases so they can be singled out.

Does anyone else see the pattern here? We’re basically penalizing people wholesale so that a minority of Americans can own and carry any damn fool firearm they want. Why is that?

Now I’m hearing that the gun problem is not a gun problem, because more Americans used to own guns than they do now and there didn’t use to be all these mass shootings. Which is true. The percentage of Americans who own firearms has slowly declined over the years. And I can remember in the 1960s a lot of the boys in my high school owned guns, and no one worried about school shooting. But most of those guns were bolt-action .22 caliber (or not much larger) rifles, which were used mostly to shoot cans and squirrels. They weren’t AR-15s and AK-47s.

Semiautomatic firearms have been available for civilian purchase since the 1960s but were not widely owned until the 1980s, this article says. Ironically, it was a 1989 school shooting that opened the floodgate.

Civilians started to be able to buy the weapons shortly after they were developed for the military, but Chivers argues that doing so was still relatively uncommon. Many American gun-owners didn’t know or didn’t think about the option of owning a semiautomatic weapon.

That changed after a shooting at a Stockton, Calif., elementary school on Jan. 17, 1989, that left 5 dead and 29 wounded.

“Before Stockton, most people didn’t know you could buy those guns,” Chris Bartocci, a former employee of AR-15 manufacturer Colt and author of Black Rifle IItold CNN. He argues that people went out and bought the weapon after reading and hearing the news reports about the school shooting.

The Feb. 6, 1989, TIME cover story tried to make sense of how the gunman got a hold of a Chinese-made semiautomatic weapon in the first place. It reported that as trade increased following the normalization of relations, so did imports of Chinese copies of the AK-47, “which soared from a mere 4,000 a year as recently as 1985-86 to more than 40,000” in 1988. AR-15 sales went up too.

I couldn’t find current numbers on annual sales of semiautomatic weapons, but today semiautos, both long guns and hand guns, are the most popular in terms of sales. (For those of you who are new here and wonder why I’m not talking about automatic weapons, see Know Your Gunz.)

Now, if you listen to the gun, um, enthusiasts, you would think that America’s Freedom depended on nothing else but the ability of private citizens to purchase semiauto firearms. But if we’re waxing nostalgic about what’s changed, and why was it okay for boys to own guns years ago and not now, the difference is technology. It’s the relatively recent proliferation of semiautomatic firearms in private hands in the U.S. that puts us all in danger.

Yes, you can shoot people with bolt-action rifles, too. But not as many people as quickly. And I also think there’s something about the semiautos, especially the ones that look like bad-ass military weapons, that are compelling males with issues to pick them up and shoot them into other human beings. It’s the very act of sending all that metal into flesh that promises catharsis and resolution, somehow. Back in the day, if a young man needed to do something reckless to prove his masculinity and resolve his grievances, he’d harass and assault girls (which isn’t okay, either) or get into fistfights or drive cars too fast (ditto). Acting out Rambo fantasies by shooting up one’s schoolmates is relatively new, but one suspects the fantasy requires a semiauto weapon. A bolt-action .22 caliber rifle just won’t do.

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Today in Criminal Justice News

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Trump Maladministration

By now you’ve heard that yesterday Missouri Governor Eric Greitens was arrested and charged with felony invasion of privacy charges. The Springfield News-Leader says this is a class D felony, and no one expects he will face jail time if convicted. The charges are connected to his affair with his former hairdresser that I wrote about awhile back.

However, David Graham writes for The Atlantic that the FBI is investigating Greitens also, and  there have been hints and grumblings in the local newspapers about campaign finance violations surrounding Greitens. So he may yet get into more trouble.

He has sworn not to resign from office, but today he resigned his position on the executive committee of the Republican Governors Association. Lots of news stories today are referring to him as a one-time rising star of the Republican Party. He was planning to run for POTUS some day, apparently. I guess not.

In other news — Rick Gates just pleaded guilty to conspiracy against the United States. I was under the impression that Mueller had already flipped him, but apparently that wasn’t so; he was only just now flipped.

Dylan Matthews explains the indictment:

So let’s be clear: “Conspiracy against the United States” isn’t what it sounds like. It has nothing to do with foreign actors influencing an election. It certainly has nothing to do with treason, which would require the US and Russia to be actively at war with each other.

The statute, rather, is an extension of the ordinary crime of conspiracy. Basically, Gates has admitted to conspiring to commit offenses against, and to defraud the US government. The offenses involve false statements or misrepresentations of financial and lobbying activity. He is also pleading guilty to a single charge of false statements, but not to other offenses alleged as part of the initial indictment, which should reduce his potential prison sentence.

“The statute defines separate and additional offenses if two or more people enter into an illegal agreement with the intent to engage in criminal conduct, and commit an overt act in furtherance of that agreement,” Lisa Kern Griffin, a professor of law at Duke who specializes in criminal law and criminal procedure, told me last October.

The “two or more people” are, of course, Gates and Paul Manafort, and this all relates to indictments for money laundering efforts that Mueller brought against them for in October. However, I understand that the charges Gates pleaded guilty to were from new indictments, not the same ones from October.

Among other things, we learned today that the pair created a “paper” trail because Manafort didn’t know how to convert PDFs into Word documents. Manafort wanted to falsify company documents but couldn’t figure out how to make changes on a PDF. So he and Gates were emailing files back and forth as Gates did the file conversions and Manafort edited the files.

I guess what we learn from this is “Don’t do the crime if you can’t cough up the $2 a month for the Adobe package that allows you to convert PDF files to Word by yourself.” That may need some work.

See also Tierney Sneed at Talking Points Memo:

The filing by Mueller outlined two counts that prosecutors were bringing against Gates in a “superseding information.” An information typically precedes a plea agreement. Those charges are significantly less than what was in the earlier indictments filed against Gates, suggesting that it is a precursor to Gates pleading guilty in an agreement with Mueller.

The first count is conspiracy against the United States. The second count is for making a false statement. Remarkably the alleged false statement was made by Gates to the Special Counsel’s Office and the FBI on Feb. 1, months after the original indictment was issued, according to the information. That suggests Gates lied in the course of plea negotiations. His lawyers moved to withdraw from the case the same day.

Gates’ apparent decision to cooperate with Mueller followed an unexpected and dramatic path, including a drawn-out effort to switch up his legal team and a new set of charges filed by Mueller that were revealed Thursday evening.

This may tell us why Gates’s lawyers wanted off his case; they knew he was lying.

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Trump Is For and Against Arming Teachers

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Trump Maladministration

Over the past several hours Trump have gone through several cycles of recommending school teachers be armed and then denying that he said school teachers should be armed. But sometimes he has made both claims in the same interview, so the “two Trump” theory doesn’t explain this. Split personality?

For example, on CNN yesterday he said this:

“If you had a teacher who was adept with the firearm, they could end the attack very quickly,” he said, stating that schools could arm up to 20% of their teachers to stop “maniacs” who may try and attack them.
“This would be obviously only for people who were very adept at handling a gun, and it would be, it’s called concealed carry, where a teacher would have a concealed gun on them. They’d go for special training and they would be there and you would no longer have a gun-free zone,” Trump said. “Gun-free zone to a maniac — because they’re all cowards — a gun-free zone is ‘let’s go in and let’s attack because bullets aren’t coming back at us.’ “

Most mass shooters commit suicide as soon as police close in, so the idea that fear of being shot might deter them seems … illogical. But let’s go on. After headlines broke out saying that Trump advocated arming teachers, he threw a fit.

That tweet was followed by these:

So now there are headlines all over the place saying that Trump proposed giving teachers guns and also denies proposing giving teachers guns. Yes, this is not leadership.

The “let’s arm teachers” proposal has been Out There for several years, and so far 18 states have acted on it. Educators are solidly against it. Seems to me that keeping loaded firearms in classrooms poses a greater danger to students than school shooters. It’s also the case that if shooters presume the teacher might be armed, teacher would be shot first.

Education groups argue that schools should instead invest in more school resource officers — trained law enforcement officers who can more effectively respond in a crisis. They believe that having guns in a classroom makes that classroom less safe and that having teachers potentially carrying guns will only make a school shooting more confusing for police trying to stop it.

“There is not a schools person I know who would make this case in any credible manner,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “Anyone who suggests this has no real understanding of what goes on in schools, or worse doesn’t care, and is more focused on the needs of gun manufacturers and the NRA than of children.”

“You’re asking the teacher to have the presence of mind to not only do what her instincts compel her to do, but then find her loaded handgun and get in position … and be a good enough shot — in the middle of all of this — so that she can be the marksperson who then maims or kills the intruder with the rifle,” Weingarten said. “That may work on a movie, but in real life that is not a situation that most people will — even those who have been trained — will be able to do.”

Yep, pretty much.

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On the Right, the Only Good Shooting Victim Is a Dead Shooting Victim

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Trump Maladministration

The Parkland High School students who are organizing to do something about gun violence are now the victims of a right-wing smear campaign.

David Hogg, a student journalist who interviewed students on lockdown during the shooting, made several TV appearances demanding leaders take action. Another student, Emma Gonzalez, called out the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the legislators who do its bidding. Melissa Falkowski, a teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, went on CNN calling on Congress to do more to “to end gun violence, to keep our kids safe.” Lori Alhadeff, whose 14-year-old daughter was killed, screamed at President Trump on CNN to “do something.” Student survivors are organizing a march on Washington D.C..

And now, Parkland survivors are targets for fake news campaigns, conspiracy theories, harassment and doxxing. Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones has already suggested that the entire shooting is a false flag, which implies that all of the survivors are actors in an elaborate hoax. As survivors speak up, there are already attempts to attack and discredit them individually.

Survivor David Hogg has been the target of conspiracy theories since he began speaking out. The day after the shooting, one far-right account noted in a since-deleted tweet that Hogg was suspicious for speaking so eloquently.

Yes, in Trumpworld, being able to speak in complete sentences makes you a suspect. Do go to the link and scroll down to see the sick stuff being repeated about these students.

See also:

Former Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) has joined a growing far-right smear campaign against the students who survived last week’s massacre in a Parkland, Florida high school. …

…Kingston attacked the students as mere stooges for “left-wing groups who have an agenda” during an appearance on CNN Tuesday morning. Kingston added he believed George Soros was actually orchestrating the students’ activism.

Alex Leary, Tampa Bay Times, “Parkland students come under attack for their outspokenness: Critics begin to question their motives.”

This is just sick. But so usual.

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