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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Trump Loses Syria, America Wins

The Daily Escape:

Lake of the Clouds, Michigan – October 2019 photo by kawl

The accepted view in DC is that Trump’s decision to green light Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring against the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria benefits US adversaries, including Iran, Russia and Syria.

There are collateral effects. The withdrawal of US forces and its behavior with the Kurds after many years of battles against ISIS helps to confirm Russia’s credibility and commitment towards its Middle East allies. By comparison, Trump’s actions paint the US as an untrustworthy partner.

The US foreign policy establishment and the mainstream American media keep making these arguments. American Neocons are openly complaining. They will blame Trump for “losing Syria.”

Are they correct, and does it matter?

When Trump announced over the weekend that all US troops are pulling out of northern Syria, it immediately led to the Kurds (the group we just abandoned) making a deal with Syria. Various outlets are reporting that the Kurds have made an agreement with Syria, and that Russia will be the guarantor.

This means that the Kurds will become part of the Syrian security forces. The Syrian Army has agreed to take control of all ISIS prisoners, families and those on the run.

According to free-lance Syrian analyst Danny Makki ‏ (@Dannymakkisyria) in a Twitter thread, here are the main points of agreement between the Kurds (SDF) and the Syrian government: (brackets by Wrongo)

1/ The abolishment of the SDF…with all the current Kurdish forces and military groups joining the 5th Corps (Assault Legion) under Russian control 3:12 AM – 14 Oct 2019
2/ A solid guarantee of full Kurdish rights in the new Syrian constitution with autonomy which will be agreed upon by Kurdish leadership & Syrian state.
3/ Joint coordinated effort by Syrian/Kurdish forces to remove Turkish presence in northern Syria including Afrin…
4/ Manbij & Kobani were agreed upon for SAA [Syrian Arab Army] to enter quickly, whilst Hasakeh has seen a wide scale deployment of Syrian troops, this will continue in Qamishli and other joint areas
5/ With Syrian forces now on the border area with Turkey it’s clear that this starts a new phase in the 8-year-long war where some sort of endgame is now taking shape – all border areas and administrational centers will be taken over by the Syrian government
6/ Within one month Kurdish leadership with start to take up some official roles within the current Syrian government to ease the transition period of N. #Syria until an new constitution/government is formed in the future

/snip/

12/ The agreement thus far is effectively a military one, based on self-defense and mutual interest with a number of set aims. The governance/land delegation/ISIS prisoners part will follow later
13/ Syrian forces will deployed on the entirety of the border with Turkey, this is the first time in 6 years that the Syrian army will have a serious presence in N. East Syria
14/ Although Manbij is one of the cities that the Syrian army would take according to the agreement, the situation there is still tense and it is unclear exactly who will control it.

Russia has been working hard to reach a comprehensive agreement with Turkey and Syria to halt the military operations including for Manbij, as soon as possible.

Syria is now on the way to regaining control over all of its territory, thanks to Russia and to a lesser extent, to Donald Trump. There’s no other way to put it. It appears that all that was needed was an announcement of the US withdrawal to fast track an end of the war in Syria.

It seems like every party is getting what it needed: Trump gets US forces out of Syria. Turkey feared a well-armed and powerful YPG, which was previously supplied and protected by the US. Now that the US is pulling out, Syria won’t allow any YPG attack against Turkey from northeast Syria.

Russia sees the end to their hot war in Syria, and a huge boost in their credibility and reputation in the Middle East. The Kurds won’t get their semi-autonomous Rojava territory, but they will be alive, living in their ancestral lands, and under Damascus’ governance.

But take it from Wrongo, (who has absolutely no respect for him), Trump did the right thing. Maybe its a Republican thing: Reagan got out of Lebanon. Nixon went to China.

Trump’s seeming willingness to work with Putin will ultimately make Syria a better place. Most Syrian refugees could wind up repatriated to a peaceful country.

Putin could not have orchestrated this without Trump’s willingness to buck the US foreign policy elites, the military, and our politicians.

Trump may have done the right thing for the wrong reasons, or he may not have even been aware of this predictable outcome. But we should chalk it up as a victory for the American people.

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Monday Wake Up Call – Giuliani Edition, October 14, 2019

The Daily Escape:

Autumn in the Yukon, view of Tombstone Territorial Park, Canada – September 2019 photo by tmsvdw

Wrongo has resisted any assertion that there is a Grand Theory that ties together all of Trump’s self-dealing. Mueller’s investigation was able to make several connections, but so far, Trump has skated on all but Mueller’s allegations of obstruction.

We’re again hip-deep in possible Trump malfeasance, this time about Ukraine, and how the Donald and Rudy Giuliani attempted to influence the Ukraine government, and to induce an investigation into the Bidens.

Michelle Goldberg, in Sunday’s NYT lays out Rudy’s involvement over several years in an effort to keep like-minded and friendly bureaucrats in power in Ukraine. Those efforts ultimately led to 2019’s broad inquiry into Trump, Rudy and a series of shadowy “associates” who are linked both to Ukraine and to Russian power brokers.

Goldberg focuses on a Ukrainian legislator, Serhiy Leshchenko, who was elected to Parliament in 2014. He was also Ukraine’s most famous investigative journalist, focusing on government corruption. This year, after Volodymyr Zelensky won the presidency, Leshchenko advised him during the transition. From Goldberg: (brackets by Wrongo)

“In 2016, Leshchenko had helped expose the “black ledger,” an accounting book of hundreds of pages found in [former Ukraine president] Yanukovych’s former party headquarters. Among its many entries, it showed $12.7 million in secret payments to Paul Manafort. At the time, Manafort was running Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, but before that, he was one of Yanukovych’s most important advisers.”

After the election, Giuliani began attacking Leshchenko. On May 10th, Giuliani described the ledger as a “falsely created book” and Leshchenko as part of a group of “enemies of the president, in some cases enemies of the US.” And in an interview on CNN, Rudy accused Ukraine’s leading anti-corruption organization, the Anti-Corruption Action Center of developing:

“…all of the dirty information that ended up being a false document that was created in order to incriminate Manafort.”

Why would Trump’s personal lawyer be defending Paul Manafort? More from Goldberg:

“In Giuliani’s fevered alternative reality, Ukraine’s most stalwart foes of corruption are actually corruption’s embodiment. Deeply compromised figures with vendettas against the activists — particularly the ex-prosecutors Viktor Shokin and Yuriy Lutsenko — are transformed into heroes.”

It gets worse. Marcy Wheeler (who all should be following) dissects John Dowd, former Trump lawyer who now represents the two Rudy “associates”, Parnas and Fruman. Marcy talks about John Dowd’s October 3 letter to the House Intelligence Committee, in which he describes that there is no way he and his clients can comply with an October 7 document request, since much of it would be covered by some kind of legal privilege: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“Be advised that Messrs. Parnas and Fruman assisted Mr. Giuliani in connection with his representation of President Trump. Mr. Parnas and Mr. Fruman have also been represented by Mr. Giuliani in connection with their personal and business affairs. They also assisted Joseph DiGenova and Victoria Toensing in their law practice. Thus, certain information you seek…is protected by the attorney-client, attorney work product and other privileges.”

Marcy concludes: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“Parnas and Fruman do work for Rudy Giuliani in the service of the President of the United States covered by privilege, Rudy does work for them covered by privilege, and they also do work for Joseph DiGenova and Victoria Toensing about this matter that is covered by privilege.”

This is reminiscent of the Joint Defense Agreement (JDA) that Dowd orchestrated between 37 Trump-affiliated individuals investigated by Mueller, when Dowd was Trump’s lawyer. Now, Dowd represents the Ukrainian grifters.

But there’s more. By the time Dowd sent the letter, DiGenova and Toensing, married lawyers who are always on FOX, were on record as representing Dmitry Firtash, a Ukrainian oligarch who was named in some early Mueller warrants targeting Paul Manafort. And in March, Giuliani said that Firtash was “one of the close associates of Semion Mogilevich, who is the head of Russian organized crime, who is Putin’s best friend.” More from Marcy: (emphasis and brackets by Wrongo)

“Yesterday, Reuters closed the circle, making it clear that Parnas and Fruman work for Firtash, [and] the former [worked] as a translator for DiGenova and Toensing’s representation of Firtash.

DiGenova and Toensing, who work with Rudy seeking opposition research on Joe Biden, also represent Firtash! Marcy closes with this:

“In other words, the President’s former lawyer asserted to Congress that the President and his current lawyer are in some kind of JDA… [that includes some connected with] the Russian mob, almost certainly along with the President’s former campaign manager [Manafort]….”

Wake up America! We’re seeing that Giuliani was running what is essentially a mob operation, apparently with the concurrence of Trump. The long term damage of such corruption is incalculable.

If we’re lucky, we can end this soon.

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Saturday Soother – October 12, 2019

The Daily Escape:

Crawford Notch, White Mountains NP, NH – October 2019 photo by mattmacphersonphoto

Wrongo wants to get away from US politics. Lately, it’s nearly impossible to judge what is real, and what’s not. A few things to consider:

First, regarding Turkey’s move into Syria: At the UN on Thursday, a resolution was offered in the Security Council condemning Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria. The resolution’s principal sponsor was the EU. But, the resolution was blocked by the US and Russia. Think about it: America just joined with Russia to veto a UN resolution that would have condemned the slaughter of the Kurds who helped the West defeat ISIS in Syria.

How often do you think that the US and Russia have been on the same side in UN vetoes?

Second, on Friday night, Trump went to Minneapolis to another of his campaign rallies. He spoke for 102 minutes. Among other things, he repeated a debunked right–wing blogger’s claim that Rep. Ilhan Omar married her brother to enter the US. Trump then widened his attack to target Somali refugees in Minnesota:

“As you know, for many years, leaders in Washington brought large numbers of refugees to your state from Somalia without considering the impact on schools and communities and taxpayers….You should be able to decide what is best for your own cities and for your own neighborhoods, and that’s what you have the right to do right now, and believe me, no other president would be doing that.”

In September, the Trump administration issued an executive order giving state and local governments more freedom to reject refugees.

Trump removed any doubt, that this is going to be the worst, most racist presidential campaign we’ve ever seen. Is America ready for this?

Trump went on to say that Joe Biden only got to be vice president because he knew how to “kiss Barack Obama’s ass.” Don’t you wonder if Mike Pence feels the heat from Biden? This causes Wrongo to ask the question: “What’s the difference between an ass-kisser and a brown noser?”

Answer: “Depth perception”.

Third, the Ukraine story has many more levels than we have imagined. We learned on Wednesday that two of Rudy Giuliani’s “associates” were arrested for funneling foreign money to Republican politicians. It seems that both had also been helping Giuliani investigate Joe Biden. Despite the Trump administration’s contention that the two “associates”had nothing to do with the White House, the WaPo reported: (brackets by Wrongo)

“John Dowd, a lawyer for [both men and former Trump lawyer] told Congress in a statement earlier this week that they had been assisting Giuliani in his work on behalf of the president. The two also claimed in interviews and social media posts to have attended an eight-person session with Trump in Washington in May 2018 to discuss the upcoming midterm elections.”

According to the indictment, they funneled money from an unnamed Russian businessman to various US political candidates.

Is everything we are hearing about Ukraine connected? Giuliani’s fingers seem to be all over the US/Ukraine relationship. Think Paul Manafort. We know that Rudy Giuliani was consulting with Manafort as he pursued his schemes. And Manafort’s lawyer Kevin Downing, who was coordinating with Rudy, represented the two “associates” in their court appearance yesterday.

It’s beginning to look like we’re headed for a Constitutional crisis.

Anyway, it’s the weekend, and we’ve got to rest and recuperate so that we can face whatever Trump has in store for us next week. It’s time for a Saturday Soother.

Let’s start by brewing up a mug of Sumatra single source coffee ($9.99/12 oz.) from Topsham, Maine’s coffee roaster Wicked Joe. The roaster says its full bodied and earthy, with notes of dense chocolate and spices.

Now, settle into a comfy chair and listen to “A Small Measure Of Peace” from the soundtrack from the 2003 film, The Last Samurai, composed by Hans Zimmer:

The film closes with: “As for the American Captain, no one knows what became of him. Some say that he died of his wounds. Others that he returned to his own country. But I like to think he may have at last found some small measure of peace, that we all seek, and few of us ever find… “

A small measure of peace is Wrongo’s wish for all of us.

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Trump’s “Great and Unmatched Wisdom”

The Daily Escape:

Bear Lake, from the Superior trail, MN – October 2019 photo by lifesazoo

Maybe you saw this announcement from the White House on Sunday night saying the US was pulling back from where it was patrolling in northeast Syria, allowing the Turks to move deeper into Syrian territory:

Then, the AP reported on Monday that US troops had already begun pulling out of positions in northern Syria. Here’s what the situation on the ground looks like:

In agreeing with Turkey’s desire to further intervene in Syria, Trump overrode the objections of the Pentagon and State Department, which wanted to maintain a small American troop presence in northeastern Syria. Our presence provides a buffer between the Kurds and Turkey, which considers the Kurds to be terrorists.

Trump’s decision came after a telephone call with Turkey’s President Erdogan. The Kurdish forces in the area have been the most reliable American ally against ISIS for years, but Turkey has continually lobbied the US to stop supporting them.

Trump wanted to leave Syria in 2017, at the beginning of his term, but was talked out of it. Had he carried through on that, the Kurds would have had an incentive to make peace with Syria. It would have left Russia, Iran and Syria in a better position to fight the remaining jihadis, while holding the Turks at bay.

The Kurds should have seen this coming. America has not been the Kurds best friend, despite their assisting us since before the Iraq war. Remember that we had no response when Saddam used chemical weapons against them in the 1980s.

Trump plans on keeping the troops in Syria, just out of the reach of the coming Turkish invasion. It’s the worst of all worlds for everyone, except Erdogan.

The move didn’t go over well with Republicans. Many have castigated Trump, and some are promising to try to sanction Turkey if it follows through with its plans. In a kind of retreat, Trump backed down a little with this tweet:

Any non-Republican reading this tweet will have the same thought as Wrongo, that Trump’s account was hijacked, or that this was satire. No, it was really Trump, and he wasn’t joking. His “great and unmatched wisdom” stands between us and “obliterating” a NATO partner.

And he says he’s done it before. Does he mean the Iranian economy? China’s?

Wrongo hears echoes of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Unlike in “The Wizard of Oz”, the booming, threatening voice of grandiose delusion now comes from a Twitter account. And this story won’t end with Dorothy waking from a dream.

So far, the GOP in DC has not reacted to the tweet, they’re still focused on what they think is a bad decision: walking away from the Kurds. They think Trump is rewarding another dictator in Erdogan. He has defied the US by purchasing Russia’s S-400 air-defense system and by ignoring US sanctions against Iran.

But Trump seems ok with all that, so long as Erdogan takes 2,500 foreign fighters off our hands.

So far, the Republicans are pissed about Trump doing something that is within his right to do as president. But, when he broke the law by asking foreign countries to interfere in our election, they have stayed silent.

So, Trump jeopardizing their Defense Industry PAC contributions is a grave national concern, but law-breaking is OK by them.

Who sets their priorities?

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Saturday Soother – October 5, 2019

The Daily Escape:

Fall colors, Adirondacks, NY – October, 2019 photo by nikhilnagane

You can be forgiven for not focusing this week on the UAW’s strike against GM, which is now in its 19th day. Shares of GM have plunged by double digits since the strike began, mostly because the automobile sector has reported weak sales figures. Wolf Richter reports that:

“New-vehicle deliveries in the US…were…flat, at 4.32 million vehicles in the third quarter. For the nine months, deliveries were down 1.6%. This puts new vehicle sales on track for about 17 million…in 2019, the worst level since 2014, and below 2000….”

So, automobile unit sales are at the same level that they were 20 years ago in 1999-2000. With the strike, GM vehicle production has ceased at nearly all of its North American plants. This hasn’t really hurt GM yet, because they had around 90 days’ sales worth of vehicles in inventory as the strike started. They typically have more like 60 days on hand. So shutting the plants helps work down their inventory bulge.

Back to the strike: Julianne Malveaux reports in the WaPo about how GM betrayed the UAW after the union made sacrifices when GM nearly folded in 2008:  

“General Motors was on its knees in 2008. Amid a global financial crisis, the company was so financially challenged that it had no choice but to accept a federal government bailout. In 2009, the United Auto Workers joined the feds in saving GM, making concessions on wages and benefits to rescue the beleaguered company.”

The partnership paid off for GM. The company has earned $35 billion in profits in the last three years, partly as a result of the concessions the workers made over a decade ago.

But, does GM owe the UAW anything in return? The protracted strike shows that GM feels it doesn’t owe them much. Darrell Kennedy, a UAW striking worker said in a video:

“We gave up a cost-of-living increase, a dollar-an-hour wage increase we were due, tuition assistance and more…”

The union wants to include non-union workers who are part of GM’s three-tiered wage system. Those hired before 2007 (the union members) are Tier One workers who earn roughly $31 per hour, plus guaranteed pensions. Those hired after 2007 are Tier Two workers, earning about $17 an hour and have the opportunity for 401 (k) participation. The third tier are temporary workers who earn less than Tier Two workers and have no benefits.

The union wants better pay for Tier Two workers, and a path to job security for Tier Three employees. But since GM plans to move toward electric vehicles which use less labor that gas-powered cars, they are uninterested in commitments that reduce their flexibility in the future.

In business, Wrongo learned the hard way that making concessions, and expecting it to create good will that helps a future negotiating position, is usually a bad idea.

But, in this case, it’s difficult to work up enthusiasm for either side.

For example, GM spent $10.6 billion since 2015 buying back its own shares, some of which went to the UAW, who originally owned about 17.5% of GM after the bailout. The UAW has now sold over half its GM stock. Since the 1960s, GM has consistently demonstrated poor management. Their share of the automobile market has decreased from about 50% to about 17%. If it wasn’t for the government bailout, GM wouldn’t be here.

The UAW is rightly trying to grow its membership by advocating for GM’s Tier Two and Three employees. OTOH, in 2009, the union didn’t agree to cooperate with GM out of any sense of benevolence. They were saving their jobs. Finally, since the bailout, GM’s UAW workers have a profit-sharing deal. In 2018, the 46,500 UAW hourly employees earned up to $10,750 each.

Wrongo is very pro-labor, and often pro-union. In this case, it’s difficult to get behind the UAW’s strike.

Time to move past which State Dept. official in the Ukraine texted what about the Bidens, or how much more blatant Trump’s overtures to foreign governments will get. Let’s enjoy a Saturday Soother!

Start by thinking about the leaves piling up outside. Friday night brought frost to Mansion of Wrong, so our fall clean-up is in full swing. If it’s warmer where you live, enjoy the last of the warm weather.

No coffee today, get outside and do something physical. But before you go out, let’s remember the great Jessye Norman who died last Monday. She was a gifted singer with one of the greatest and most beautiful voices ever. She had all the qualities to make a performance both convincing, and memorable. Here she is singing “Ave Maria” by Schubert:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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The Supreme Court Goes Back to Work

The Daily Escape:

Pyramids viewed from Cairo Street, Egypt – photo by Hossam Abbas

The Supreme Court’s new term begins next Monday, and much of America’s culture wars will move in front of the bench for adjudication. Some of the issues being litigated include abortion, gay rights and gun control. It’s no secret that conservatives control the court, and its liberal wing is in retreat. This could be a momentous year in shaping the country’s socio-cultural future.

On Monday, October 7th, the justices will hear arguments in the case Kahler v. Kansas, regarding whether the 8th and 14th Amendments allow a state to abolish the insanity defense. Four states, Kansas, Utah, Idaho and Montana have abolished the insanity defense. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Kansas says yes, and so does the Trump administration.

Also on Monday, they will hear Ramos v. Louisiana, regarding whether the 6th Amendment guarantee of a unanimous jury verdict to convict someone applies to the states. Currently, Louisiana and Oregon permit non-unanimous juries.

On Tuesday, the court hears a case concerning whether gay and transgender people are protected by federal civil rights laws that bar employment discrimination. Three workplace discrimination cases will be heard. Two of the three cases ask whether “because of sex” in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prevents an employer from disadvantaging employees on the basis of their gender identity or sexual orientation. Fewer than half the states have laws against firing workers because they are gay or transgender. Now the Supremes will decide if the federal civil-rights laws protect the 8.1 million LGBT workers in America.

It may not surprise you that the Trump administration says Title VII doesn’t apply to gay and transgender workers, contrary to the view of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

On November 12th, they will visit Trump’s effort to end DACA, the Obama program that protects mostly Hispanic young adults from deportation. The case is Department of Homeland Security v. Regents, University of California, where three cases were consolidated for argument in which lower courts decided that the Trump action violated the federal Administrative Procedures Act.

Also scheduled for Nov. 12 is a case in which a US border patrol officer shot and killed an unarmed Mexican teenager who was not on US soil, but hiding in a culvert between the US and Mexico. The question is whether federal courts can award damages to the family for the agent’s actions.

On December 2nd, they are scheduled to hear a major gun rights case. The case is NY State Rifle and Pistol Assn. v. City of New York. The challenge is to the city’s ban on the transport of licensed and unloaded guns outside the city limits. But the city amended the law, and is arguing that the case is now moot, since it has given the challengers what they sought. The case may be dismissed.

Among possible cases that have not yet been scheduled are two appeals regarding Republican-backed abortion restrictions enacted in Louisiana and Indiana. If the court were to take either or both of those cases, it would raise the possibility of a ruling that further curbs abortion rights.

The Louisiana case concerns a challenge by an abortion clinic to state requirements that doctors who perform the procedure must have “admitting privileges” with local hospitals. It is similar to a Texas law that the Supreme Court struck down in 2016, when Justice Anthony Kennedy sided with the court’s liberals. But last year, Kennedy retired and was replaced by Bret Kavanaugh.

It would be extraordinary if they take up this case and then overrule a precedent set just three years ago. The only thing that’s different is the composition of the court.

Looking further ahead, we may see contentious arguments on the limitations of presidential power. Likely subjects include the president’s push for the power to remove the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; executive privilege in battles over Trump’s tax returns; and use of a national emergency designation to use money appropriated elsewhere to fund the border wall.

And finally, there’s impeachment. In April, Trump tweeted that if “the partisan Dems ever tried to impeach”, he would “first head to the US Supreme Court”. There is little doubt that the Supremes would move quickly to hear such a case.

It wouldn’t be smart for Trump to expect them to come to his rescue during impending impeachment proceedings. In 1993 Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote for a unanimous court that impeachment authority “is reposed” in Congress, “and nowhere else”.

Then, if the House of Representatives actually impeached Trump, Chief Justice John Roberts will find himself playing a constitutionally required role: presiding over the president’s removal trial in the Senate.

All in, a pivotal term for the Supremes and for America.

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Is The Trump/Ukraine Story A Trap for Dems?

The Daily Escape:

Hopkinton NH — September 2019 photo by Karen Randall

Wrongo has been skeptical of the House Democrats’ ability to investigate an administration that has zero interest in playing by the old rules.

He was skeptical of the effort to make Russian interference in the 2016 elections a means of impeachment of Trump. He was skeptical of Robert Mueller as the potential savior of the Democratic Party in 2018.

Now, we’ve stepped back into the waters of impeachment because of the Ukraine president’s convo with Trump. Are Democrats once again placing false hope in impeachment? Trump is corrupt in a completely ham-fisted way that makes his efforts at self-dealing blatantly obvious. Here’s Trump, talking to the Ukraine’s president Zelensky:

“There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great….Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it … It sounds horrible to me.”

That fired up Democrats, since it appears that Trump was trying to pressure Zelensky by withholding US military aid unless Zelensky agreed to investigate both Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.

Here’s Wrongo’s take. For the past few months, Americans were finally concentrating on subjects like healthcare and college debt forgiveness. These ideas were getting both air time and traction, via the debates. The battalion of Democratic candidates were telling us their positions on these ideas, and others, like a wealth tax.

But the Democrats have now introduced impeachment 2.0, focused on the Trump/Ukraine story. By doing that, they have also rehabilitated a debunked Biden/Ukraine story, something that has been high on the GOP’s radar for years.

What’s the Hunter Biden/Joe Biden/Ukraine story? It begins with the 2014 appointment of Hunter Biden to the board of Burisma Holdings, a small Ukrainian energy company. In late 2015, VP Joe Biden traveled to Ukraine, in part to send a message to the Ukrainian government that it needed to crack down on corruption.

That message was somewhat undermined by Hunter’s work with Burisma Holdings, and with its owner, Mykola Zlochevsky. Zlochevsky had been Ukraine’s ecology minister under former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

Hunter had joined the board of Burisma the same month that Britain’s Serious Fraud Office, an independent government agency, was conducting a money-laundering investigation into Zlochevsky and Burisma. But the British investigation ended after Ukrainian prosecutors refused to cooperate. They wouldn’t turn over documents needed in the British investigation, and without that evidence, a British court ordered the assets unfrozen.

According to an Intercept piece on May 10th, Biden, during a visit to Kiev in late 2015, did threaten to withhold $1 billion in US loan guarantees unless the then- prosecutor was dismissed. But the Intercept argues that Biden did Ukraine a favor by hastening the prosecutor’s departure, because he had failed to properly investigate corrupt officials, including Zlochevsky.

By getting the prosecutor fired, Joe Biden made it more, rather than less likely, that Mykola Zlochevsky, the oligarch who Hunter worked for, would be subject to prosecution for corruption. Yet, it never happened.

There is no evidence that Joe Biden did anything to shield Hunter or Burisma Holdings from scrutiny, as claimed by Trump and Giuliani. But it is true that Hunter continued to work to repair Burisma’s reputation. That isn’t a praiseworthy activity for a presidential wanna-be’s son.

And Hunter’s no saint. In 2014, he was discharged from the Navy Reserve after testing positive for cocaine. Later, he was involved in a hedge fund with his uncle, James Biden, Joe Biden’s brother, that went belly up.

This story isn’t going to die. As long as the impeachment inquiry against Trump lasts, the Biden story will be linked to it for many Americans. Even if impeachment happens, the Republicans will use this against Joe Biden if he’s the nominee. Joe has said that he never discussed Hunter’s business interests in Ukraine with him, but maybe he should have.

A question that Democrats should be asking is whether this is the hill that they are prepared to die on: Is Trump’s Ukraine effort sufficient for an impeachment? Is it anything more than a “he said, she said” debate?

Are the Dems prepared for another investigative loss, much like in Russiagate and the Mueller Report?

Presidents know that they have few constraints on their activities. GW Bush (or perhaps Cheney) realized that, and went on to exploit presidential power in ways that radically changed America. And when the Dems came into power, Obama and Pelosi ruled out pursuing Bush and Cheney.

Trump is on a much more dangerous path than Bush and Cheney.

Would taking Trump down restore the balance of power in our politics?

Is that worth the downside risk to the Democrats?

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Monday Wake Up Call – Immigration Judges Edition, September 30, 2019

The Daily Escape:

Monsoon season, AZ – September 2019 photo by FHatcher

The immigration crisis has many threads, but one that hasn’t gotten the focus that it needs is the ongoing problem with the immigration courts. From the NYRB: (brackets by Wrongo)

“Trump’s attempts to close possible paths to immigration have meant ramping up activity in [Immigration] court. Some immigration judges operate out of courthouses, others work out of detention centers, and some have been transferred—both in person and virtually—to courts along the border. Over the course of a week in the Rio Grande Valley….It was common to see people be forced to leave the US after hearings lasting minutes.”

According to the AP, the Trump administration has hired nearly 200 new judges and plans to add at least 100 more. Nearly half of currently sitting immigration judges were appointed by Trump, and about half of these new judges had previously been attorneys for ICE.

Immigration judges are employed by the Justice Department, not the judiciary. They make the decisions about who gets to stay in the US, and who has to return to their home countries.

We’ve all heard about the immigration court backlog. It’s becoming so large that the government may have to suspend asylum hearings until it can be brought under control.  The Hill reports about the backlog:

“It was 542,411 cases in January 2017, when President Donald Trump took office, and it increased to 1,007,155 cases by the end of August 2019, with an average wait for a hearing of 696 days. In addition, there are 322,535 pending cases that have not been placed on the active caseload rolls yet. When they are added, the backlog will be more than 1.3 million cases.”

The three largest immigration courts are so under-resourced that hearing dates were being scheduled as far out as August 2023 in New York City, October 2022 in Los Angeles, and April 2022 in San Francisco.

One result is that judges have been taking a harder line under Trump than in the Obama administration, denying 65% of asylum cases during the 2018 fiscal year, compared with 55% two years earlier.

Trump’s transformation of immigration law started under former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Now, under William Barr, the DOJ has taken legislation passed over the years and used it to drive large-scale changes to immigrant rights.

Unlike the judges in federal or state courts, immigration judges can be fired or reassigned by the AG, and they face sanctions if they don’t process cases rapidly.

Currently, the AG can override decisions issued by immigration judges once they are appealed to Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR). An interim rule, issued by the DOJ that took effect Monday, delegates that responsibility to the EOIR director. The director, who is not confirmed by the Senate, can now decide cases pending before the appeals board.

The new rule has caused an uproar among career employees who said their independence has been usurped by a political appointee. In fact, the NYT reports that the union representing the nation’s immigration judges filed two labor complaints against the Justice Department last week. The National Association of Immigration Judges, representing the 420 judges, filed one of the complaints after the Justice Department moved to decertify the union.

DOJ claims that the judges were management officials and therefore ineligible for collective bargaining, an argument they pursued unsuccessfully in 2000. The judges and the Trump administration have frequently clashed, and the union has for years pushed for independence from the Justice Department altogether.

The simple fact is that as more and more cases are placed on a single judge’s docket, immigrants assigned to that judge are inevitably required to wait longer and longer before an available time slot opens up for their hearing. And the asylum seeker isn’t represented by a lawyer, and the case is usually decided in less than five minutes.

The entire immigration problem needs to be addressed, and Democrats must go further than just talking about the humanitarian crisis at the border. Taking a hard look at the immigration judges’ backlog, and funding at least on a temporary basis, many more can partially alleviate the humanitarian problems.

We have to act to prevent a catastrophic collapse of our immigration court system, a collapse that could force America to stop accepting asylum applications until the backlog can be brought under control.

Wake up America! That just may be what Barr and Trump are angling for.

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Saturday Soother – September 28, 2019

The Daily Escape:

Salt Marsh, East Galveston Bay, Texas – 2019 photo by patrickbyrd

We can’t let the week end without talking about the Trump/Ukraine phone calls. Wrongo’s hot take is that it seems that Trump may have stepped on a rake, and he’s hoping that the bruise on his face won’t leave a permanent mark.

It is also possible that instead, it’s the Democrats who found a new rake to step on. Democrats are lazy. They want Trump out of the White House, but they don’t want to do the hard work of beating him in 2020.

And just when it was clear that the Mueller investigation couldn’t deliver for them, we have the Ukraine “favor to ask” story to move the impeachment ball toward the goal. Is it possible that Trump has baited the Dems into this? He’s been amazingly forthcoming.

Despite all the smoke, the investigation must answer three questions:

  • Did the President do something that rises to the “high crimes and misdemeanors” standard?
  • Was there also a cover up?
  • Who managed the cover up?

It remains to be seen what the answers are. Let’s hope the truth comes out. That is extremely important, regardless of the final outcome for Trump, or the Democrats.

This week was also the 50th anniversary of the Beatles “Abbey Road”. Were you around to hear it in 1969? Wrongo sure was. He remembers hearing their “Meet The Beatles” in 1964. The debates about which is their best album endures, but Wrongo lists “Abbey Road” and “Rubber Soul” as his faves.

Opinions may differ, but “Rubber Soul” (1965), “Revolver” (1966), and “Sergeant Pepper” (1967) was one heck of a three-album streak. Later, like all streaks, the Beatles lost their mojo, and broke up in 1970.

To many, the Beatles albums are music for Boomers. And some think the generation got stuck there. They believe any music that played after they turned 30 isn’t worth listening to. This says a lot about them. Just look closely at our current politics and politicians if you require an example.

But it’s a combined problem: Around 1980, rock radio stations stopped playing new music and put Boomer classics into a heavy rotation. Even Springsteen didn’t get much airtime until “Born in the USA” in 1984. If you weren’t listening to alternative radio you thought that nothing had changed.

Truthfully, many in each generation appear to be convinced that the world’s best music was recorded sometime between their 13th and 25th birthdays. Most people kind of turn into their parents along the way, criticizing whatever flavor of new music comes along. Meanwhile, after watching PBS’s Ken Burns’ “Country Music”, Wrongo is more convinced than ever that American pop music is a mostly unbroken chain of evolving and branching genres.

Fall has begun in earnest on the fields of Wrong. Tomatoes are done, the only thing still growing in our little garden is parsley. Today, around 7:00 am, we had a large, healthy coyote trot through the back 40. We’ve been hearing them howling nearby at night for years, but see them infrequently.

Sadly, we have to start our fall cleanup in earnest this weekend. But before we do, it’s time to begin our Saturday soothing ritual. Start by going online and buying a few pounds of Panama Elida Estate Catuai Natural ASD coffee ($32/16 oz.) from Branford, CT’s own Willoughby’s Coffee & Tea. The roaster says it has flavors of guava, red grape, pineapple, lychee, mango, ripe berries and red wine.

Since there can be no way to stop thinking about what’s going on in DC this weekend, let’s gear up for it by listening to something that isn’t on your Spotify or Pandora play lists, or on any of the middle-of-the-road stations you listen to, its Gary Clark Jr.’s song “This Land”.

From the LA Times:

“Protest and social justice haven’t previously been the central focus of Clark’s songs, with a few notable exceptions on his first two studio releases for Warner Records. He’s been celebrated mainly as a next-generation master of molten blues guitar and a new hope for old ways in the digital era, but his latest album, “This Land,” begins with a title song of genuine anger and deep, raging funk.”

The song is about being angrily profiled in his own home in rural California by a white neighbor, in front of his son and daughter. The neighbor asked Clark to take him to meet the real owner, or he’d call the police.

The song is about what was said to him, how he was treated, and how he felt after being treated that way. Clark didn’t join a hate group. He didn’t say death to all white people. He wrote a protest song about his experience:

The video is a must watch, and the music is a blend of blues rock, reggae, and hip-hop all in one. Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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More Thoughts on Climate Change

The Daily Escape:

Frenchman Bay, viewed from Cadillac Mountain, Acadia NP, ME – 2019 photo by pmek99. Note the cruise ships lining up to visit Bar Harbor.

Following up on our post about climate change, many responded by attacking the premise that climate change is happening or, that it is due to human causes.

There have always been deniers. For example, a survey conducted by the YouGov-Cambridge Global Project in partnership with the Guardian, found that 13% of Americans believe that humans are not at all responsible for climate change. Another 5% of Americans don’t even believe the climate is changing. So, 18% think we shouldn’t worry about climate change.

Then again, 20% believe that extraterrestrials live amongst us.

Wrongo isn’t sure that we are focused correctly when we talk about climate change. It’s not the planet that’s in trouble, its humans. Humans thrive within a specific range of availability of water, air, and food, as do all animals. If one of the critical inputs is compromised, humans will fail to thrive, our habitable locations will shrink, and the human population will also shrink. The planet will survive.

For much of human history, humans have lived in hotter, dryer locations. They also survived in colder places, and in both, were able to live hard, but reasonably happy lives. Do we want to regress to that?

Peak human experience requires surpluses of food and livable space if the population is to grow. How can that happen on an overpopulated, resource-constrained planet?

Focus on this: Global population is projected to reach approximately 10.9 billion by 2100. If that is true, we will require 10X today’s electricity output by 2100. When you think about it, even if today, we had already reached the (unrealistic) level of 50% of power sourced from renewables, that would equal only 5% of the power we will need 100 years from now.

So, where will all that energy come from? Can Silicon Valley invent a different form of electric power generation? Will the world go fully into nuclear power?

The same is true for water. Where will the increased water resources come from? Desalination?

Suppose there is no climate change. We are still facing peak oil and peak other resources. We live on a finite Earth. Think about energy: We’re in a world of expanding energy demand. This will mean substantial shortages in the medium-term, which means immense and unavoidable energy price increases.

Politically, the higher prices should be used to defray the energy costs of the majority of the population that isn’t rich enough to pay them. Doing that will take a different economic system than we have today.

Can deniers also wish these problems away?

  • We live in a world where the big polluters, corporations, are dedicated to maximizing short term returns for a relatively few wealthy beneficiaries.
  • We still live in a Neoliberal world where government works for the few, where government largess continually transfers income to the wealthy, while our infrastructure is allowed to decay.
  • We still live in a world where economic growth cannot be sustained forever without collapse.

It will take a global mobilization that is massive, disruptive and smart to deal with the resources constraint, even if there wasn’t any climate change. What we really lack is the SOCIAL technology to mobilize corporations and politicians to bring about change.

Concern about the twin problems of finite resources and climate change hasn’t brought about any particular political, social or spiritual commitment on the part of the power elites in finance, corporations or politics.

For all of our superiority at the apex of the animal kingdom, we seem unwilling to solve what surely lies ahead. That’s why we see Greta Thunberg, a 16 year old scolding world leaders, with 4 million kids standing behind her. To adapt, we will require a Manhattan Project-level of effort, but we’ll have to do all that work in the face of depleted resources, an unstable climate, and a contracting economy.

We have choices. We can continue as we are, or we can stop now, take a moment to reassess, and then put ourselves on an alternative path, as the younger generation says we must.

Thunberg challenges us to stop being selfish, to care about the future, to care about living things and recognize that we are all part of the natural world, and that our commitment to continuing economic growth is killing the planet.

We should listen, organize, and act.

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