The attorney-general’s amnesia

The Economist magazine writes “Millions of Americans who watched or listened to Mr Sessions’s testimony, which was broadcast live on National Public Radio and all major cable-news channels, heard his version of the truth. But he did not provide much enlightenment for those who followed the saga of Russia’s alleged meddling in the election in 2016 closely. In response to numerous questions, the attorney-general said that he could not remember or was unable to reply. He insisted he would not discuss his conversations with Mr Trump even though the president had not invoked his executive privilege to prevent such testimony. “Consistent with longstanding Department of Justice practice, I cannot and will not violate my duty to protect confidential communications with the president,” he said.

Mr Sessions then specifically addressed an allegation that he had met with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, at an event at the Mayflower hotel in Washington in April 2016:

I did not have any private meetings nor do I recall any conversations with any Russian officials at the Mayflower Hotel. I did not attend any meetings at that event. Prior to the speech, I attended a reception with my staff that included at least two dozen people and President Trump. Though I do recall several conversations I had during that pre-speech reception, I do not have any recollection of meeting or talking to the Russian ambassador or any other Russian officials.

The attorney-general’s denial of a meeting with the Russian envoy matters because, during his confirmation hearing, Mr Sessions had testified under oath that he did not communicate with the Russians in 2016. It later emerged that he had had at least two encounters with Mr Kislyak. This created many negative headlines, which is why many assumed that Mr Sessions swiftly recused himself from the probe into Russia’s interference in the election. But in his testimony Mr Sessions claimed that he stepped aside not because of any wrongdoing on his part, but because a regulation of the Department of Justice mandated it. The regulation, 28 CFR 45.2, notes that an employee of the Department of Justice shall not participate in a criminal investigation or prosecution if he has a personal or political relationship with an elected official.

Mr Sessions’s refusal to talk about his discussions with Mr Trump meant that he was unable to answer some of the hearing’s most salient questions. He would not say whether he ever talked with the president about the FBI’s probe of Russian interference into the election. And he told Marco Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida who ran for president last year, that he could not comment on Mr Comey’s account that Mr Trump asked everyone to leave the Oval Office after a meeting on February 14th so he could lean on the former FBI director who was then in charge of the Russia probe.

Read the complete article on The Economist web site.

Trump’s state visit to Britain put on hold

Anti-Trump protests in London in January. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

How might President Trump react to a world leader who, afraid for his image, perhaps afraid for himself, refused to fulfil a promise to visit a loyal ally. He might fire off a tweet: “RAN from critics. A gift for crooked MSM. TOTAL pathetic loser!”

But he won’t, because the loser is him. He got to hold hands with Theresa May when she visited Washington, but alas, that may be the high point of his cuddle-fest with her, and with the UK – because Trump, it now appears, is not keen on making his proposed state visit to Britain any time soon.

Donald Trump has told Theresa May in a phone call he does not want to go ahead with a state visit to Britain until the British public supports him coming.

The US president said he did not want to come if there were large-scale protests and his remarks in effect put the visit on hold for some time.

The call was made in recent weeks, according to a Downing Street adviser who was in the room. The statement surprised May, according to those present.

The conversation in part explains why there has been little public discussion about a visit.

May invited Trump to Britain seven days after his inauguration when she became the first foreign leader to visit him in the White House. She told a joint press conference she had extended an invitation from the Queen to Trump and his wife Melania to make a state visit later in the year and was “delighted that the president has accepted that invitation”.

Many senior diplomats, including Lord Ricketts, the former national security adviser, said the invitation was premature, but impossible to rescind once made.

Trump has named Woody Johnson, a Republican donor and owner of the New York Jets, as the new ambassador to the UK but has yet to nominate him formally. A large number of US ambassadorial positions remain unfilled worldwide largely due to the Trump team failing to make any formal nominations.

The acting US ambassador to the UK, Lewis Lukens, a career diplomat, clashed with Trump last week by praising Sadiq Khan, the London mayor, for his strong leadership over the London Bridge and Borough Market terror attack.

A Downing Street spokeswoman said it would not comment. “We aren’t going to comment on speculation about the contents of private phone conversations. The Queen extended an invitation to President Trump to visit the UK and there is no change to those plans.”

The White House said in statement: “The President has tremendous respect for Prime Minister May. That subject never came up on the call.”

Jenna Johnson, a Washington Post reporter tweeted to say that the White House press secretary had told her the Guardian’s report was “false” but added that the White House “won’t say when Trump plans to go to the UK”.

Later, The New York Times, citing two unnamed administration officials, reported that Trump was considering scrapping or postponing the trip. The officials stressed that he might yet “warm to the idea” but that keeping it off the schedule was the best approach.

And what do we learn from this? Once again we see what it is to deal with someone who has such high office and such thin skin. Just the notion of turbulence that might be seen around the world seems to be enough to scare him off. If he can’t bomb it or tweet against it, the cupboard of responses seems bare.

But, for the more important message, look to ourselves. It is easy to question the efficacy of protest. Millions marched against the war in Iraq, but couldn’t stop it. Millions more marched against Brexit and cuts in the NHS. There is rarely such a direct link to be drawn between public action and response from those with power, but each public protest speaks to the strength and tenor of opinion. Every one sets out a position and raises the stakes. Here the stakes became too high for a brittle, image-conscious president in Washington. What do we want? Not Trump. When do we want him? Never.

The Guardian online newspaper source for this article here and here.

Trump Grows Discontented With Attorney General Jeff Sessions

President Trump with Attorney General Jeff Sessions at an event on Capitol Hill last month. Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times

Few Republicans were quicker to embrace President Trump’s campaign last year than Jeff Sessions, and his reward was one of the most prestigious jobs in America. But more than four months into his presidency, Mr. Trump has grown sour on Mr. Sessions, now his attorney general, blaming him for various troubles that have plagued the White House.

The discontent was on display on Monday in a series of stark early-morning postings on Twitter in which the president faulted his own Justice Department for its defense of his travel ban on visitors from certain predominantly Muslim countries. Mr. Trump accused Mr. Sessions’s department of devising a “politically correct” version of the ban — as if the president had nothing to do with it.

In private, the president’s exasperation has been even sharper. He has intermittently fumed for months over Mr. Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from the investigation into Russian meddling in last year’s election, according to people close to Mr. Trump who insisted on anonymity to describe internal conversations. In Mr. Trump’s view, they said, it was that recusal that eventually led to the appointment of a special counsel who took over the investigation.

Behind-the-scenes frustration would not be unprecedented in the Oval Office. Other presidents have become estranged from the Justice Department over time, notably President Bill Clinton, who bristled at Attorney General Janet Reno’s decisions to authorize investigations into him and his administration, among other things. But Mr. Trump’s tweets on Monday made his feelings evident for all to see and raised questions about how he is managing his own administration.

Read the complete article on The New York Times news site.

 

Russian agents hacked US voting system manufacturer before US election – report

The NSA is convinced that the Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate was responsible for interfering in the 2016 presidential election. Photograph: Larry W. Smith/EPA

Russian intelligence agents hacked a US voting systems manufacturer in the weeks leading up to last year’s presidential election, according to the Intercept, citing what it said was a highly classified National Security Agency (NSA) report.

The revelation coincided with the arrest of Reality Leigh Winner, 25, a federal contractor from Augusta, Georgia, who was charged with removing classified material from a government facility and mailing it to a news outlet.

The hacking of senior Democrats’ email accounts during the campaign has been well chronicled, but vote-counting was thought to have been unaffected, despite concerted Russian efforts to penetrate it.

Russian military intelligence carried out a cyber-attack on at least one US voting software supplier and sent spear-phishing emails to more than a hundred local election officials days before the poll, the Intercept reported on Monday.

The website, which specialises in national security issues, said the NSA document had been provided to it anonymously and independently authenticated. “The report, dated May 5, 2017, is the most detailed US government account of Russian interference in the election that has yet come to light,” it continued.

On Monday afternoon, the justice department said Winner had been arrested by the FBI at her home on Saturday and appeared in federal court in Augusta on Monday. She is a contractor with Pluribus International Corporation, assigned to a US government agency facility in Georgia, it added. She has been employed at the facility since on or about 13 February and held a top-secret clearance during that time.

Winner’s mother, Billie Winner-Davis, told the Guardian that her daughter was a former linguist in the US air force who spoke Farsi, Pashto and Dari.

“I never thought this would be something she would do,” said Winner-Davis. “She’s expressed to me that she’s not a fan of Trump, but she’s not someone that goes and riots and pickets or stuff.”

The NSA report makes clear that, despite recent denials by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, the NSA is convinced that the Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) was responsible for interfering in the 2016 presidential election.

The document reportedly states: “Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate actors … executed cyber espionage operations against a named U.S. company in August 2016, evidently to obtain information on elections-related software and hardware solutions. … The actors likely used data obtained from that operation to … launch a voter registration-themed spear-phishing campaign targeting U.S. local government organizations.”

The intelligence assessment acknowledges that there is still a great deal of uncertainty over how successful the Russian operatives were and does not reach a conclusion about whether it affected the outcome of the election, in which Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton hinged on three closely contested states.

But the suggestion that Russian hackers may gained at least a foothold in electronic voting systems is likely to add even more pressure to special counsel and congressional investigations. The Obama administration maintained that it took preventive measures to successfully guard against breaches of the systems in all 50 states.

The former FBI director James Comey is set to testify before the Senate intelligence committee on Thursday regarding Russian meddling in the election.

Read the complete article on The Guardian newspaper web site.

Activists investigating Ivanka Trump’s China shoe factory detained or missing

Workers at the Huajian shoe factory, where about 100,000 pairs of Ivanka Trump-branded shoes have been made over the years among other brands. Photograph: Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images

A labour activist working undercover investigating abuses at a Chinese factory that makes Ivanka Trump shoes has been detained by police and two others are missing, raising concerns the company’s ties to the US president’s family may have led to harsher treatment.

Hua Haifeng was being held by police on suspicion of illegal surveillance, his wife Deng Guilian said. Hua had worked for labour rights organisations for more than a decade and was investigating a factory in southern Guangdong province for New York-based rights group China Labor Watch.

Hua, 36, attempted to travel to Hong Kong last week but was stopped at the border. He was later questioned by police in Shenzhen, a city on the border with Hong Kong, and was released. He then traveled to Jiangxi province and disappeared, before his wife was notified by police.

“I was scared when the police called me, I was shaking with a mix of fear and anger,” Deng told the Guardian, adding she was worried she would be unable to support their two young children as well as three elderly relatives without his income.

The case highlights the political sensitivity of a brand associated with the family of Donald Trump, who repeatedly bashed China for taking American jobs on the campaign trail but has since cosied up to president Xi Jinping.

Trump himself has been granted dozens of trademarks in China since becoming president, and relatives of Jared Kushner, an advisor to the president, were recently caught trying to entice wealthy investors into luxury developments, with the prospect of receiving US green cards in return.

Two other men, Li Zhao and Su Heng, had investigated a factory in Jiangxi province that assembles Ivanka Trump shoes and were still missing on Wednesday, said Li Qiang, executive director of China Labor Watch. He believes they have been detained by police or are being held at the factory.

“I think they were detained because this factory makes products for Ivanka Trump, so now this situation has become political and very complicated,” said Li. “I appeal to President Trump, Ivanka Trump herself, and to her brand to advocate and press for the release our activists.”

The undercover activists were to allege a host of labour violations at the plant, Li said, including paying below China’s legal minimum wage, managers verbally abusing workers and “violations of women’s rights”.

Li said he contacted the Ivanka Trump brand on April 27 to inform them of the labour violations, and urged them to ensure their suppliers were complying with Chinese law, but no changes were made.

The Ivanka Trump brand declined to comment when contacted by the Guardian. A woman who answered the phone at the Ganzhou, Jiangxi public security bureau said only, “I’m busy now,” before hanging up.

Calls to Huajian Group, the owner of the factory, went unanswered and staff at the factory where the three activists had gone undercover said they were not aware of the case.

Huajian also manufactures products for Coach, Karl Lagerfeld and Kendall + Kylie at the factory where the activists went undercover.

Read the complete article on The Guardian newspaper website.

Will the Trump presidency survive?

The young presidency of Donald Trump is in serious trouble. Mr Trump’s sacking of James Comey, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), set in motion a terrible two weeks for the administration. The president has suggested that his decision was politically motivated. A special counsel has been appointed to investigate potential links between several of Mr Trump’s advisers and Russian government and intelligence officials, as well as the role played by Russia in the 2016 presidential election. Members of Congress are calling for Mr Trump to be impeached. The Economist Intelligence Unit believes that the risk of impeachment has risen from low to moderate. Should the special counsel uncover a major obstruction of justice or the Republicans lose the House of Representatives (the lower house) in the 2018 mid-term elections, Mr Trump would be in a perilous position.

There are reasons why no sitting president has ever been removed from office after being impeached. The process needs broad agreement within Congress and requires some members to vote against their party’s interests. There are multiple steps. It begins with the House Judiciary Committee, which must put forward a case for why the president has committed “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanours”. This wording is deliberately vague to account for the many potential transgressions of a president. If the House votes by a simple majority on any article, the case is then passed to the Senate (the upper house) for trial. The chief justice presides and a select group of House members act as prosecutors. The 100 members of the Senate comprise the jury. Two-thirds of senators need to support a guilty verdict to remove the president from office. In the short history of attempted impeachments, Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 before a vote could be held in the House, and the Senate acquitted both Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1999.

Three and a half more years

Our central forecast remains that Mr Trump will see out his presidential term. This is for three reasons. First, Mr Trump will continue to be useful to the Republican Party. Congressional Republicans are focused on advancing their policy agenda, especially on tax reform and healthcare. Given that the party has majorities in both chambers of Congress, 2017‑18 represents a huge opportunity to make major changes. Mr Trump will be acquiescent on these issues, and therefore keeping him in the presidency would benefit Republicans. Launching an impeachment process would divert attention away from the Republican agenda and, we believe, damage the party’s prospects at the 2020 elections. Impeachment would reflect badly on the party, as well as on the president.

Second, Congress is highly polarised. There are various measures to assess the ideological positions of Democrats and Republicans, but according to the DW‑Nominate estimate, produced by two academics, Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal, Democrats are drifting towards more liberal positions and Republicans, especially, towards more conservative ones. The two parties now sit further apart than at any point since the survey began in the 1870s. Polarisation matters because it means that the parties are less likely to co-operate on any given issue, including impeachment. In our view, this means that House Republicans are less likely to vote Mr Trump out. (It also means, we think, that Democrats are more likely to push for impeachment, but we do not believe that they will have this opportunity.)

This is because of our third reason: we expect Republicans to hold on to their House majority at the November 2018 mid-term elections. The party holds 238 seats, with 218 needed for control. This sounds like a relatively slim advantage, especially given that governing parties tend to lose seats at the mid-terms. But gerrymandering and redistricting mean that few House seats are genuine contests. According to the Cook Political Report, only 23 seats are considered “highly competitive”. Political polarisation also makes it more likely that seats will not shift from one party to the other, as the ideological change required would be greater. Unless there is a major, broad-based swing against the Republican Party over the next 18 months, the Republicans will be in a strong position to keep the House.

Dark deeds

But even though we are maintaining our central forecast that Mr Trump will remain in office, there are several major risks to this view. Taken together, they justify a rise in the likelihood of impeachment from low to moderate. The first, and most serious, is that Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed to investigate potential links between Mr Trump and Russia, uncovers evidence of wrongdoing sufficiently serious to turn Republican sentiment against Mr Trump. Were this to occur, senior Republicans, such as Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, would decide that the damage done to the Republican Party would be greater if it continued to support the president than if it decided to cut him loose.

At present, there is already some evidence of dubious behaviour on the part of Mr Trump, including his open admission that Mr Comey’s investigation into Russia prompted the president to fire him. Other building-blocks towards a case of “high crimes and misdemeanours” might include Mr Comey’s account of being put under pressure by Mr Trump to drop his investigation into Michael Flynn; Mr Trump’s failure to separate himself from his business empire; and his careless handling of classified information. So far, none of these behaviours has shifted Republican sentiment, but it is possible that Mr Mueller may uncover something that makes defending Mr Trump impossible.

Next, the Republicans might lose the House (and even the Senate, but this is highly unlikely) in 2018. So far, the government’s progress on its policy agenda has been lethargic. Healthcare remains a mess, with the House passing the buck to the Senate to sort this out. Tax reform amounts to a single-pager, with no costings or thresholds, nor any consensus on how a huge tax cut would be financed. The government has watered down rather than intensified its rhetoric on “unfair” international trade agreements. It is possible that legislative lethargy, combined with the chaos emanating from the White House, might prompt voters to shift allegiance at the mid-term elections and hand control of the lower house to the Democrats. This would vastly increase the chances of an impeachment vote in the chamber. (The likelihood of the Senate approving the impeachment would remain subject to a much broader range of factors.)

Source: The Economist Intelligence Unit.

Donald Trump’s budget ignores what is ailing American workers

Cuts to social programmes are unlikely to improve the health or employment prospects for struggling Americans

PRESIDENTIAL budget requests are worth exactly nothing. They carry no force of legislation. They land, heavy, bound and shrink-wrapped, so they can be immediately binned as Congress continues its now yearly stumble toward a “continuing resolution”—a supposedly temporary legislative act that in recent decades has almost entirely replaced the statutory budget process. The request from the President is the least consequential part of something that is completely broken. It functions like a bumper sticker on an old car. It only tells you about the person who’s driving.

Mick Mulvaney, a former congressman from South Carolina who won his seat in the Tea-Party wave of 2010, runs Donald Trump’s Office of Management and Budget. Mr Mulvaney has created the budget his wing of the Republican party always wanted: government as a service, paid for by its clients, the taxpayers. If you receive more than you pay, the system has failed, and must be fixed. The marketing copy that accompanied the budget calls this “respect for people who pay the bills”.

This respect consists, mostly, of cuts to social services. Mr Mulvaney finds most of his savings by reducing what the federal government spends on health insurance programmes for the poor by $616bn over the next ten years. He wants to cut subsidies for student loans, for a savings of $143bn. He wants to make cuts to a programme that supports poor families with children ($272bn), and another that provides an income for those sick or injured who can’t work ($72bn). His aim is to encourage people to get back to work.

To fix disability insurance, then, Mr Trump must pull off an impossible trick: he has to fix rural America. He has to provide better, cheaper health care, and public health programmes to prevent obesity and smoking. He has to provide jobs—to replace the poultry slaughterhouse and copper wire and fishing boat manufacturing plants that have left Van Buren County, for example. He could make it easier to move, or train for a job at a desk.