The White House rolls back a rule on polluting wetlands

AFTER WITNESSING near-biblical calamities, Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972. The Cuyahoga river in Ohio caught fire in 1969, the same year 26m fish died in Florida’s Lake Thonotosassa, the largest recorded fish kill, because of pollution from food-processing plants. “Dirty Water”, a song from that era about the repellent Charles river, remains an anthem of Boston sports teams to this day. Since the early 1970s the White House has interpreted the statute in different ways. President Donald Trump’s team, who released a draft rule on December 11th, apparently want to take water law back to the 1980s.

Despite the simple intentions of the Clean Water Act, its language was anything but. It sought to eliminate the discharge of toxic pollutants into “waters of the United States” (WOTUS). Without further guidance, that would seem to encompass everything from frog ponds to the Mississippi river. Sorting out exactly which waterways are subject to pollution safeguards has been the subject of endless redefinition and litigation since. The Supreme Court’s justices last considered the question in 2006, and even they failed to muster a majority opinion. Writing for four of the nine, Antonin Scalia argued that federal authority extended only to “relatively permanent” waters. Writing for himself, Anthony Kennedy said that the rule should apply to waters that bear a “significant nexus” to navigable waters. Controlling precedent lies somewhere in the middle of these two nebulisms.

Protecting wetlands has been a relatively bipartisan endeavour, at least at the federal level. Richard Nixon signed the original Clean Water Act. George H.W. Bush’s administration declared a goal of “no net loss” of wetlands. One-third of Americans get some of their drinking water from the streams being deregulated. “This would be the most significant weakening of Clean Water Act protections in its history,” says Jon Devine of the Natural Resources Defence Council, a lobby group.

For Mr Trump, the rollback completes a campaign pledge made to farmers, who objected vociferously to the Obama-era regulation. Organisations like the Farm Bureau, another lobby group, whipped up fears of government asserting authority over ditches and ponds. In truth both the regulation and the original law already contain generous carve-outs for farmers, says Caitlin McCoy, a fellow at Harvard Law School.

The EPA’s professed rationale for the change is to provide regularity clarity and certainty. A look at its other recent actions suggests that the real aim is to please regulated industries. The agency pushed for rules allowing coal-power plants to resume dumping wastewater contaminated with mercury, arsenic and lead into streams and rivers. It has relaxed rules governing the disposal of coal ash—the toxic by-product produced by combustion that can leach into streams. And it is doing all it can to rehabilitate the struggling coal industry, which retains a political heft out of proportion to its economic value.

But other groups also stand to benefit from diminished water protections: mining companies, factories and chemical processors are keen to see the Obama-era rule disappear. Property developers and golf-course owners often have their plans stymied by wetland protections (why Mr Trump might be sensitive to their plight remains a mystery). Fore!

Source: The Economist magazine.

 

 

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The godfather of fake news

Christopher Blair takes a sip of his coffee.

Then he carefully focuses on one of the three screens in front of him.

He’s in his home office, 45 minutes outside Portland, Maine, on the US East Coast.

Stroking his thick beard, he looks at his bookmarks bar.

He takes another sip before his coffee goes cold, inhales long and hard, then logs into the back end of one of his many websites.

He begins by choosing a subject. Which “lucky” politician will be on the receiving end of his attention today?

Bill Clinton? Hillary Clinton? One of the Obamas?

Or maybe the subject of his story won’t be a person, but a policy. Gun control? Police brutality? Feminism? Anything that will push buttons.

Perhaps he’ll make up a controversial incident, a crime, a new law or a constitutional amendment.

“Changing” the US constitution is particularly fun – he’s already written more than 30 fake amendments. (There are only 27 genuine ones.)

Blair sits back in his chair and focuses intently on the screen. He leans forward, places his hands on the keyboard and starts the same way he does every time.

Caps lock. BREAKING. Colon…

BREAKING: Clinton Foundation Ship Seized at Port of Baltimore Carrying Drugs, Guns and Sex Slaves

The words flow from the thoughts in his head. Unconnected to reality, he needs no research, and no notes.

His fingers rhythmically tap the keys. Letters form into words, words into sentences and sentences into a blog of about 200 words.

It doesn’t take long to write.

Publish.

Blair sits back in his chair and watches the likes and shares roll in.

The Fact Checker.

More than 3,000 miles (5,000km) away in a small town an hour east of the Belgian capital, Brussels, there’s another office in another family home.

Outside, children play in the garden on a warm summer’s afternoon.

Maarten Schenk navigates the steep set of stairs to his basement office. There’s an L-shaped desk in one corner – in another, a cooler is filled with bottles of peach-flavoured iced tea.

His desk resembles Blair’s. On it, sit three computer monitors, with the machine hard drives tucked away neatly underneath.

On one of the screens, he suddenly notices a lot of activity. The US is waking up, and spiking numbers on one page catch Schenk’s attention.

He watches as one particular story is gathering momentum and is quickly being shared on Facebook and other social networks.

Schenk logs into his own website and starts to type.

His job is to tell the world that what he’s seeing online – the story that’s currently going viral about a Clinton Foundation ship, allegedly carrying drugs, guns and sex slaves – is a complete fabrication.

It’s fake news.

During the 2016 US presidential election, journalists began noticing a rash of viral made-up stories on Facebook.

Bizarrely, many of the pages appeared to be posted by people from the Balkans and, after BuzzFeed reported on an unusual cluster of pages, reporters flocked to a small town called Veles in Macedonia.

“The Americans loved our stories and we make money from them,” one faker told the BBC. “Who cares if they are true or false?”

The stories were, in the main, pitched to Donald Trump supporters. They included rumours about Hillary Clinton’s health problems and illegal dealings, stories about luminaries like Pope Francis lining up behind the Republican candidate, and other false news sure to either please or rile Trump’s supporters.

Satire – not news, not opinion, and not propaganda – is how Blair describes his work.

His aim is to trick conservative Americans into sharing false news, in the hope of showing what he calls their “stupidity”.

“We’ve gone out of our way to market it as satire, to make sure that everybody knows that this isn’t real,” he says, pointing out that some of his pages have more prominent disclaimers than the world-famous satire site The Onion.

Once his stories go viral, the Facebook comments burst forth. And that’s when Christopher Blair the fake news writer becomes Christopher Blair the crusading left-wing troll.

“The mission with the trolling first and foremost is we pull them into the comments [section underneath each fake article],” he says.

It’s then that he starts on the offensive. The faker becomes the exposer, weeding out and reporting the most extreme users among his fans.

“I can show you hundreds of profiles we’ve had taken down,” he says. He claims that he’s exposed Ku Klux Klan members and hardcore racists.

“We’ve had people fired from their jobs,” he says.

“We’ve exposed them to their families. Say what you want about me being a monster. I’m pretty proud.”

Read the complete article on the BBC web site here.

Feel the love, feel the hate in the cauldron of Trump’s wild rallies: Ed Pilkington

There is no understanding Donald Trump without understanding his rallies.

They are the crucible of the Trump revolution, the laboratory where he turns his alternative reality into a potion to be sold to his followers. It is at his rallies that his radical reimagining of the US constitution takes shape: not “We the people”, but “We my people”.

As America reels from a gunman killing 11 Jewish worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue; pipe bombs being sent to 14 of the US presidents’ leading opponents, and Trump declaring himself a nationalist and sending thousands of troops to the US border to assail unarmed asylum seekers; the most powerful person on earth continues to rely on his rallies as seething cauldrons of passion.

And that’s not all. Trump is using them as a test run for his 2020 bid for re-election.

Which is why I have crisscrossed the country, from Montana and Wisconsin in the north to Texas in the south, Arizona in the west to North Carolina in the east, to observe the president delivering his message to his people.

On the morning of the fourth rally, the outside world blasts its way into Trumpland. Shortly after 10am, as CNN anchors are telling their viewers about a series of pipe bombs mailed to the Clintons, the Obamas and to George Soros, they have to rush off air because the network has received its own explosive device.

At the same time, Jacob Spaeth and three of his buddies are lining up in a field in Mosinee, Wisconsin. They are all wearing the same distinctive red T-shirt. It bears a cartoon sketch of a smiling Trump urinating profusely over the CNN logo.

Spaeth never watches CNN – he occasionally sees clips of it on Facebook. He gets his information from Infowars, the website of Alex Jones. Jones, a conspiracy theorist, is on the record as saying 9/11 was a government set-up and that the 2012 Newtown school shooting in which 20 children were killed was fabricated. Within hours he will be broadcasting that this week’s pipe bombs are also a hoax.

Spaeth embodies one of the most puzzling aspects of my week in Trumpland. Throughout the five rallies, I talk to scores of people, all of whom, without exception, are welcoming and pleasant. Yet hours later, in the pressure-cooker of the rally, they will turn on me and my mainstream media colleagues and hurl insults at us.

Spaeth admits that when he went to a Trump rally in Minnesota last month he took part in the finger-jabbing and the chanting of “CNN sucks”. It made him feel happy to be able to express his feelings so openly among like-minded folk. “I don’t see it as bullying,” he says.

There’s only one explanation for this pattern of behavior: that Trump enables good, civil Americans to metamorphose into media baiters. “Those people, fake news,” the president says sneeringly at almost every rally, pointing to the caged pen where reporters are cooped up during his speeches.

Read the compete article in The Guardian newspaper here.

 

The kingdom and the cover-up

WHEN AMERICA’S secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, met Saudi officials in Riyadh on October 16th, they smiled, posed for photographs and talked about jet lag. They did not dwell on the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, allegedly carved up with a bone saw. Two weeks earlier Mr Khashoggi, who lived in self-imposed exile, walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and disappeared. After days of dissembling, the Saudis have dropped the pretence that he left the building that same afternoon. Few doubt that he is dead or that his fellow citizens killed him. The question is what the West ought to do about it.

To judge by Mr Pompeo’s jovial demeanour in Riyadh, both the American and Saudi governments want the issue to go away. He grinned through a meeting (pictured) with the crown prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Muhammad bin Salman, and praised the Saudis for their pledge to investigate. His boss, President Donald Trump, has repeated denials from both the king and crown prince. “Here we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent,” said Mr Trump.

Even if Saudi Arabia gets through this episode without a rupture, it has done incalculable damage to its reputation. Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress are furious. Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator and Trump ally, has long supported close ties with the kingdom. But on October 16th he went on “Fox and Friends” (Mr Trump’s favourite programme) and called Prince Muhammad “a wrecking ball”, adding: “He has got to go” and “I’m gonna sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia.” Lawmakers have already invoked the Magnitsky act, which could impose sanctions on anyone found culpable for Mr Khashoggi’s death.

America, especially under Mr Trump, has been willing to work with brutal autocrats. Unreliable autocrats may be a different matter. Prince Muhammad has a record of impulsive behaviour, from the blockade of Qatar to the abduction of Lebanon’s prime minister. His war in Yemen has turned into a lethal quagmire. The disappearance of Mr Khashoggi brings that record into sharper focus. Meanwhile, some in Washington believe that since the kingdom is no longer the world’s largest oil producer, thanks to American fracking, it need no longer be treated with kid gloves.

Read the complete article in The Economist here.

Trump mocks Christine Blasey Ford at Mississippi rally

As hundreds of supporters cheered, Trump delivered a crude imitation of Ford from her testimony, in which she vividly described a violent sexual assault by Kavanaugh in the early 1980s but admitted that details of the time and place were lost to memory.

Trump has been accused of sexual misconduct by at least 20 women, whose allegations he has denied and dismissed. But last week he called Ford a “very credible witness” and said: “I thought her testimony was very compelling and she looks like a very fine woman to me, very fine woman.”

At his rally, the president mocked Ford’s testimony with a question-and-answer patter that brought cheers from the crowd in Southaven, Mississippi.

Trumped-up Memo backfires on Donald Trump

The meaning of ‘trumped-up’ according to the Cambridge Dictionary is: “deliberately based on false information so that someone will be accused of doing something wrong and punished:
Example: She was imprisoned on trumped-up corruption charges.

The fact that the phrase ‘trumped-up’ contains the name Trump is most evident by the unbelievably high number of tweets and statements by Donald Trump which are ‘trumped-up’. Now there is the ‘Memo’ being touted by Trump.

The controversial GOP memo alleges that the warrant the FBI obtained in October 2016 to track Page relied on unvetted information provided by a former British spy working for the Democrats.

While Republicans presented the memo as evidence that the investigation was tainted, the document indicates that law enforcement officials had sufficient worries about the energy consultant that they felt it was necessary to continue to monitor him.

Page had been on the radar of the FBI at least as far back as 2013, when a bureau wiretap caught suspected Russian spies discussing their attempts to recruit him. Even after being interviewed by the investigators in that case, Page continued to have extensive contacts with Russians, including trips to Moscow in July and December 2016.

It is not clear what the FBI learned about Page’s late-2016 travel abroad, which occurred just weeks after Trump’s election. But five senior Justice Department and FBI officials signed off on three requests for extensions of the foreign intelligence surveillance warrant for Page; all the requests were approved by a federal judge, according to the Republican memo. (Full article)

For months, Carter Page, the former Trump campaign adviser who was under government surveillance as part of the Russia investigation, has been shunned by Republicans and dismissed by the White House, which portrayed his campaign stint as inconsequential.

But now Mr. Page is the linchpin in a conservative effort to discredit the F.B.I. and the special counsel inquiry. He is at the center of a divisive memo written by Republican committee staff members that was released on Friday and accuses law enforcement officials of abuses in obtaining a warrant to surveil Mr. Page in 2016.

The memo falls short of the case that some Republicans promised — that the document would show bias against Mr. Trump by investigators in opening the Russia inquiry and possibly undercut the investigation by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III.

But for the past year, Mr. Page himself has been pitching that narrative to journalists, politicians, investigators and almost anyone who will listen. Though Mr. Trump’s allies have repeatedly sought to dismiss him as a bit character in the 2016 campaign, Mr. Page’s role could now be political fodder in the president’s efforts to discredit Mr. Mueller’s inquiry.

In 2013, Mr. Page struck up a professional friendship with the operative, Victor Podobny, who was working undercover in New York City. Mr. Page — who at the time did not have any role in American government — gave documents to Mr. Podobny about the energy sector.

Mr. Podobny was picked up by the authorities on a wiretap calling Mr. Page an “idiot” to his Russian intelligence colleagues. He was charged by the Justice Department and spirited back to Moscow before he could be arrested. Mr. Page was questioned by law enforcement officials about his contacts but never charged in the case.

Mr. Page has openly acknowledged he is the unnamed male referred to in federal court documents about Mr. Podobny.

A dossier compiled by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence operative hired to investigate Mr. Trump’s links to Russia, claimed that Mr. Page maintained deep ties to the Kremlin, including with officials sanctioned by the United States.

Mr. Nunes’s memo claims that the dossier, whose research was funded in part by Democrats, was improperly used to justify surveilling Mr. Page after he had cut ties with Mr. Trump. But the memo left out that the research was initially funded by The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative website.

For months, Mr. Page showed up regularly, uninvited and unannounced, at the secure offices of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill, where he dropped off documents he had compiled himself. One was his own dossier in which he claimed he was the victim of a hate crime by the Hillary Clinton campaign because he was a Catholic and a man. ( Full Article )

All in all the memo confirms the legitimacy of government surveillance of Carter Page and his ties to Russia. In an attempt to discredit the FBI and others Donald Trump has exposes himself once again as a person who will go to any length to avoid public scrutiny of his ties to Russia and/or his involvement with Russian activities.

The Trump Presidency After One Year

Is it really this bad?

In “Fire and Fury”, Michael Wolff’s gossipy tale of the White House, the leader of the free world is portrayed as a monstrously selfish toddler-emperor seen by his own staff as unfit for office. America is caught up in a debate about the president’s sanity. Seemingly unable to contain himself, Mr Trump fans the flames by taking to Twitter to crow about his “very stable genius”

In office Mr Trump’s legislative accomplishments have been modest, and mixed. A tax reform that cut rates and simplified some of the rules was also regressive and unfunded. His antipathy to regulation has invigorated animal spirits, but at an unknown cost to the environment and human health. His proposed withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement and the fledgling Trans-Pacific Partnership was, in The Economist magazines’ view, foolish, but hardly beyond the pale of Republican thinking.

The danger of the Trump character obsession is that it distracts from deeper changes in America’s system of government. The bureaucracy is so understaffed that it is relying on industry hacks to draft policy. They have shaped deregulation and written clauses into the tax bill that pass costs from shareholders to society. Because Senate Republicans confirmed so few judges in Mr Obama’s last two years, Mr Trump is moving the judiciary dramatically to the right (see article). And non-stop outrage also drowns out Washington’s problem: the power of the swamp and its disconnection from ordinary voters.

Mr Trump has been a poor president in his first year. In his second he may cause America grave damage. But the presidential telenovela is a diversion. He and his administration need to be held properly to account for what they actually do.