Originally Published: 5/12/2018
Essential Consultants: Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, created a shell company called Essential Consultants that he used to pay Stormy Daniels. Financial records show that Cohen used the company “for an array of business activities that went far beyond what was publicly known. Transactions adding up to at least $4.4 million flowed through Essential Consultants starting shortly before Mr. Trump was elected president and continuing to this January.” Where did the funds for the company came from? About $500,000 came from Columbus Nova, “an investment firm in New York whose biggest client is a company controlled by Victor Vekselberg, the Russian oligarch.” (NY Times) Incidentally, Columbus Nova recently scrubbed its website to obscure its connection to Vekselberg. (Think Progress) Money also came from AT&T, which was seeking approval for a merger. In fact, internal documents revealed that Cohen’s deal with AT&T specified that he would provide advice on the $85 billion merger. (Washington Post) Novartis and Korea Aerospace Industries haven’t said why they gave Cohen money. (Reuters) The Washington Post did a great job of laying out how the money flowed. This was another “pay to play” scheme. (TWW, Mick Mulvaney, 4/28/18) Cohen was selling access to Trump. You’ll notice that he paid himself more than $1 million from July to September 2017. But I don’t believe that Trump would allow Cohen to make this much money from the scheme without getting a cut of it.
NSA: The National Security Agency collected 534 million records of phone calls and text messages of Americans last year, “more than triple gathered in 2016.” 2017 was the second full year of a new surveillance system implemented by NSA after Congress passed a law in 2015 “that sought to limit its ability to collect such records in bulk.” I guess they either found a way around the law or developed a new, improved way of spying on us. (Reuters)
Costa Rica: Carlos Alvarado, the new Costa Rican president, announced a plan to ban fossil fuels and “become the first fully decarbonized country in the world.” (Independent)
Iran: Trump announced that he is withdrawing the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal, “isolating the United States from its Western allies and sowing uncertainty before a risky nuclear negotiation with North Korea.” (NY Times) Make no mistake. Trump didn’t “pull out” of the agreement; he breached it. And in so doing crapped on our allies, made the word of the U.S. worthless, and strengthened the hard-liners in Iran. He has long had this plan. Some of his aides even hired an Israeli private intelligence agency “to orchestrate a ‘dirty ops’ campaign against key individuals from the Obama administration who helped negotiate the deal.” (Guardian) (If you want more info on this The New Yorker has a great piece.) But it’s clear that the agreement is still in place, just with 1 less member. (Bloomberg) The Washington Post fact-checked Trump’s reasons, and found them wanting. The Associated Press reported that European leaders told Trump they would give him the terms he wanted, but he decided to violate the agreement anyway. Since Iran is the world’s 5th biggest oil producer, his decision will inevitable raise gasoline prices. (CNN) But this isn’t the worst outcome from his decision. Trump has just brought us closer to war. (Washington Post) Of course, this will delight the military-industrial complex, which has lost all those profits by the ending of the Iraq war. But how is the rest of the world responding? Think Progress has a summary of the concerns of the European Union, France, Germany, China, Russia, and Iran itself, as well as Israel, Turkey, Australia, and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies. So, what now? What does Trump plan to do? So far he’s not given us a clue, if he even has a plan.
Israel: Another 3 Palestinians were killed last week in the standoff at the Gaza border with Israelis (TWW, Israel, 4/28/18). (CNN) This week another Palestinian was killed but 146 were injured when Israeli troops fired live bullets and tear gas across the border into Gaza. (AP) And road signs went up directing people to the U.S. Embassy that opens in Jerusalem next week. (Reuters) And while the embassy will be officially open, the U.S. ambassador will work there only ocassionally. Most of the staff will remain in Tel Aviv. (NY Times) Also, Israel’s interior ministry has ordered Omar Shakir, a Human Rights Watch representative, to leave the country within 14 days, “accusing him of supporting a boycott against Israel.” Shakir, a U.S. citizen, has denied the allegation. “Israel last year initially denied Shakir a work permit, in a move criticized by the United States. It later granted him a 1-year work visa.” (Reuters)
Syria: Israel bombed “dozens” of so-called Iran-linked military facilities in Syria “as tensions between the 3 countries soared.” (Washington Post) “In terms of who has been responsible for both violence and the escalating sense of crisis, it is important to note that it is Israel for several years that has been conducting air and missile strikes with impunity against targets in Syria, perhaps several hundred in total, until an Iranian drone penetrated Israeli airspace earlier this year. . . In recent weeks Israel appears to have stepped up a notch in pursuing a deliberate policy of provoking Iran, including by targeting Iranian advisers in Syria leading to reported Iranian fatalities in strikes.” (Guardian)
UK: The United Kingdom is going to ban all single-use plastic, including plastic straws and cotton swabs, starting next year. (Forbes)
California: The California Energy Commission, by a unanimous vote of the 5-members, passed a new rule requiring all new homes to have solar power by 2020. “It will add thousands of dollars to the cost of homes when a shortage of affordable housing is one of California’s most pressing issues.” (NY Times) Of course, over time the savings on electric bills will make up for the additional cost.
Louisiana: St. James Parish Judge Alvin Turner Jr. ruled that the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) violated portions of state law that protects both the environment and residents. Turner wrote that DNR didn’t properly employ Louisiana’s Coastal Zone Management Act and failed to account for emergency evacuation measures. Of particular concern is the safety of a black community called “Cancer Alley,” a largely rural community which has become a big oil and chemical hub in recent years.
Ohio: This week Ohio voters approved - by 75% - a constitutional amendment that will force state lawmakers to come up with a scheme for redistricting in 2020 that doesn’t just benefit the party in control. (Washington Post)
Segregation: Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Ben Carson is being sued because he has postponed an Obama-era rule “requiring communities that get HUD funding to submit fair housing assessments - a step that requires recipients to study how inclusive their communities are and plan how to overcome historic segregation.” Plaintiffs claims that, without that rule, “billions of dollars in federal housing funds will be dispensed without any civil rights oversight.” (NPR)
Immigration: Trump announced a new policy wherein the U.S. will increase criminal prosecutions on parents entering the U.S. illegally. Their children will be treated as “unaccompanied minors” and placed in protective custody “as part of efforts to tighten immigration enforcement.” (Guardian) So families seeking asylum will be separated and the parents could be returned to their countries of origin while the children are detained here.
Campaign Cash: The Federal Election Commission (FEC) ruled that candidates can use their campaign contributions to pay for child care. (Roll Call)
Death Penalty: With lethal injection coming under criticism for botched executions and the growing difficulty in obtaining the drugs, states are looking for alternative ways to kill people. “High on the list for some is a method that has never been used before: inhaling nitrogen gas.” Oklahoma, Alabama, and Mississippi have authorized its use for executions and are developing protocols. However, “there is no scientific data on executing people with nitrogen, leading some experts to question whether states, in trying to solve old problems, may create new ones.” (NY Times)
Buying Universities: A group of student activists, Transparent GMU, at George Mason University sued the university and its fundraising foundation “after it was denied requests for documents that it suspected showed how deep-pocket donors were given undue influence over academic affairs.” The university just released those documents and, guess what. They reveal exactly what the students believed they would. “The documents reveal in surprising detail that for years, as George Mason grew from a little-known commuter school to a major public university and a center of libertarian scholarship, millions of dollars in donations from conservative-leaving donors like the Charles Koch Foundation had come with strings attached.” What kind of strings? Well, the Koch brothers were given a seat on a committee to pick candidates for a professorship that they funded. “Similar arrangements that continued through 2009 gave donors decision-making roles in selecting candidates for key economics appointments at the Mercatus Center, a Koch-funded think tank on campus that studies markets and regulation.” In 2016 the Federalist Society served as agents for a $20 million gift from an anonymous donor and “were given the right to terminate installments of the gift at their discretion.” Officials from the Federalist Society inserted themselves into hiring and admission discussions. In turn law school professors asked the Federalist Society for help finding clerkships for its students. This stuff goes on and on. Read it. (NY Times)
Solar Industry: According to a new report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), total global employment in renewable energy surpassed 10 million last year. But solar power is the world’s largest employer, with nearly 3.4 million jobs, up 9% from last year. Two-thirds of those jobs are in China, which saw a huge increase in solar employment of more than 200,000 in 2017. In the meantime, U.S. solar jobs dropped by 10,000 last year thanks in large part to the market uncertainty created by Trump’s decision to slap tariffs on imported solar panels. (TWW, Tariffs, 1/27/18)
Trees: U.S. cities are losing about 36 million trees a year, being replaced by concrete. (Science Direct)
Amphibian Apocalypse: Scientists have finally found the culprit behind a skin-eating fungus that is killing off hundreds of species of amphibians. “Since the 1970s, the aquatic fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis has triggered die-offs of hundreds of amphibian species such as the common midwife toad.” The fungus is an “ecological super-villain,” which has driven “more than 200 amphibian species to extinction or near-extinction - radically rewiring ecosystems all over the Earth.” The fungus has been tracked to originating on the Korean peninsula sometime during the 1950s. Human activity - like the Korean War - inadvertently spread it across the planet, “leading to amphibian die-offs across the Americas, Africa, Europe, and Australia.” (National Geographic)
Coal-Fired Plants: Allianz, Europe’s largest insurer, announced it would stop insuring coal-fired power plants and coal mines. (Business Insider)
North Pole Heat Wave: In 4 of the past 5 winters the North Pole has had dramatic temperature spikes, “which previously were rare.” Now, as we approach summer, “the temperature has again shot up to unusually high levels.” Scientists are warning that this could hasten the melting of the Arctic sea ice “which is already near record low levels.” Much of the entire Arctic “is abnormally warm.” (Washington Post)
Federal Employees: The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) sent a letter to Congress setting out its plans to slash retirement programs for federal employees by $143.5 billion over 10 years. This is in addition to the pay freeze that Trump called for in his budget. (Washington Post)