Second Trump-Kim Yong Un summit announced, North Korea “will become a great economic powerhouse”

After the location for a second summit between Donald Trump and Kim Yong Un was announced (It will take place in Hanoi, Vietnam, on February 27 and 28) Trump tweeted that “North Korea, under the leadership of Kim Yong Un, will become a great economic powerhouse”.

NY Times: Trump says North Korea talks productive, summit will be in Hanoi

President Donald Trump said on Friday that U.S. diplomats had a “very productive meeting” with North Korean officials, and he announced his summit later this month with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un would be held in Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi.

“My representatives have just left North Korea after a very productive meeting and an agreed upon time and date for the second Summit with Kim Jong Un. It will take place in Hanoi, Vietnam, on February 27 & 28,” Trump said on Twitter.

“I look forward to seeing Chairman Kim & advancing the cause of peace!” he said.

Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, held three days of talks in Pyongyang to prepare for the summit, the State Department said on Friday.

In their talks in Pyongyang, from Wednesday to Friday, Biegun and Kim Hyok Chol “discussed advancing President Trump and Chairman Kim’s Singapore summit commitments of complete denuclearization, transforming U.S.-DPRK relations, and building a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula,” the State Department said.Its statement, which referred to North Korea by the acronym for its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, gave no indication of any progress in the talks.

While in the U.S. view North Korea has yet to take concrete steps to give up its nuclear weapons, it complains that Washington has done little to reciprocate for its freezing of nuclear and missile testing and dismantling of some facilities.

North Korea has repeatedly urged a lifting of punishing U.S.-led sanctions, a formal end to the war, and security guarantees.

Trump, eager for a foreign policy win to distract from domestic troubles, has been keen for a second summit despite a lack of significant moves by North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program. He and Biegun have stressed the economic benefits to North Korea if it does so.

One can only wonder what thoughts are behind this tweet.

Russia suspends nuclear arms treaty after US threatens the same

In response to the US threatening to withdraw from the long standing Nuclear Forces Treaty if Russia didn’t comply with it, Russia has responded by withdrawing from the treaty.

I don’t know if this signals the reigniting of another nuclear arms race, or if Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump are just playing some sort of brinkmanship.

Whatever it is, it looks like a sign of deteriorating relations between the US and Russia.

Reuters:  Russia suspends nuclear arms treaty after U.S. says to pull out

Russia has suspended the Cold War-era Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, President Vladimir Putin said on Saturday, after the United States said it would withdraw from the arms control pact, accusing Moscow of violations.

The United States announced on Friday it will withdraw from the INF treaty in six months unless Moscow ends what it says are violations of the 1987 pact.

It would reconsider its withdrawal if Russia came into compliance with the agreement, which bans both nations from stationing short- and intermediate-range land-based missiles in Europe. Russia denies violating the treaty.

“The American partners have declared that they suspend their participation in the deal, we suspend it as well,” Putin said during a televised meeting with foreign and defense ministers.

Putin said Russia will start work on creating new missiles, including hypersonic ones, and told ministers not to initiate disarmament talks with Washington, accusing the United States of being slow to respond to such moves.

“We have repeatedly, during a number of years, and constantly raised a question about substantiative talks on the disarmament issue,” Putin said. “We see that in the past few years the partners have not supported our initiatives.”

During the meeting with Putin, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the United States of violating the INF and other arms deals, including the non-proliferation treaty.

Back to cold war style blaming each other for what they want to do themselves.

Trump seems to have had a night off Twitter so no response from him yet.

 

US Senate challenges Trump’s plans to withdraw from Syria

Donald Trump’s announcement and follow up statements about withdrawing US troops from Syria and Afghanistan were typically controversial, vague and contradictory. He surprised and alarmed people in the US, to the extent that his Defence Secretary James Mattis resigned immediately over Trump’s withdrawal proclamation last month.

The criticism continues.

Time: Trump’s Own Intelligence Chief Contradicted Him Several Times

The nation’s intelligence chief contradicted President Trump’s statements on North Korea, Syria and Russia while addressing the Senate on Tuesday, arguing that ISIS continues to pose a threat to the United States despite the Administration’s claims that it has been defeated.

Director of U.S. National Intelligence Dan Coats released the results of the Worldwide Threat Assessment, which describes the biggest international dangers facing the United States, and told lawmakers during the Senate hearing that the U.S. must “keep our eyes on” ISIS.

“While ISIS is nearing territorial defeat in Iraq and Syria, the group has returned to its guerrilla warfare roots while continuing to plot attacks and direct its supporters worldwide. ISIS is intent on resurging and still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria,” Coats said.

As usual Trump thinks he knows best.

Does Trump know that Iran is closely linked to Syria? A US withdrawal from Syria would help Iranian interests there.

These tweets have been criticised – Bloomberg:  Trump Blasts U.S. Spy Agencies as Passive, ‘Weak’ on Iran Threat

Responding to Trump’s criticism, Democratic Representative Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a tweet that “it is a credit to our intelligence agencies that they continue to provide rigorous and realistic analyses of the threats we face. It’s deeply dangerous that the White House isn’t listening.”

Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on Senate Intelligence, said in a tweet that “the President has a dangerous habit of undermining the intelligence community to fit his alternate reality. People risk their lives for the intelligence he just tosses aside on Twitter.”

Now the US Senate, led by a Republican majority, are pushing back against Trump’s plans (if you can call them plans, they are more like random proclamations).

CNN:  In rebuke to Trump, Mitch McConnell unveils proposal urging troops stay in Syria, Afghanistan

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is pushing an amendment to a Middle East policy bill that would acknowledge “al Qaeda, ISIS and their affiliates in Syria and Afghanistan continue to pose a serious threat to us here at home,” a move seen as a sharp rebuke to President Donald Trump’s push to withdraw US troops from Syria.

“It would recognize the dangers of a precipitous withdrawal from either conflict and highlight the need for diplomatic engagement and political solutions to the underlying conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan,” McConnell said Tuesday from the Senate floor, announcing the amendment to the bill, which is currently being debated.

McConnell added that, “while it is tempting to retreat to the comfort and security of our own shores, there is still a great deal of work to be done…..we’re not the world’s policemen, but we are the leaders of the free world.”

The leader of ‘the leaders of the free world’ (that’s increasingly debatable under Trump’s isolationism) might have to do a lot more firing to get his Intelligence agencies onside with his way of thinking, but one president can’t vote out 100 senators.

The US risks becoming the joke of the free world, but given the international situations the lead joker is thrashing around in it is not really a laughing matter.

Is the US-Mexican border problem a crisis?

Rhetoric and exaggeration are common in politics. There is currently a war of words in the United States over their immigration problem on the Mexican border. There is certainly a major problem there.

Is it a crisis? Possibly, depending on how you define ‘crisis’ – but if so, it may have been an ongoing crisis over decades. And Trump has been talking up crisis to justify his border wall since the presidential election in 2016.

It may be a long-term crisis, but the real crisis may be in a dysfunctional Government and political system.

New York Times: In Texas Visit, Trump Presses His Argument That There’s a Border ‘Crisis’

President Trump arrived in this city on the Mexican border on Thursday to dramatize his desire for a border wall, a hardened position that has caused the partial shutdown of the federal government.

He surrounded himself with border agents, victims of horrible crimes, a display of methamphetamine and heroin, an AK-47 and an AR-15 rifle, and a trash bag stuffed with $362,062 in cash that had been confiscated by law enforcement officials.

In his view, it all added up to a single word, “crisis,” with a lone solution, building a wall.

He also criticized Democrats who have accused him of trying to manufacture a crisis to justify his $5.7 billion border barrier demand. “What’s manufactured is the word manufactured,” the president said.

Democrats have insisted that the administration faces a large-scale humanitarian problem that is a direct result of Mr. Trump’s policy, but argue that a border wall is not the right solution and that Mr. Trump has failed to make the case that there is a true security crisis.

Frida Ghitis (CNN): Trump is creating a ‘crisis’ to distract from the real crisis of a flailing president

Something has changed. President Donald Trump’s headline-hungry governing style has never lacked for drama, but there’s a new sense of aimlessness lately in Trump’s frenetic search for a crisis, his efforts to control the headlines, distract from other events, and keep his base satisfied that he is the muscular fighter who will stop at nothing to achieve his goals.

In reality, the Trump administration is a vortex of incoherence.

In the final weeks of 2018, Trump suddenly revived his promise to build a wall with all the concentrated determination of a man fleeing a posse.

The promise was never quite dead (the second stanza of the “Build the Wall” campaign chant, the part about Mexico paying, has faded, drowned by the debunking of nonsensical claims) but two years into the Trump administration, the urgency of building a wall exploded onto the scene only after tangible threats to Trump looked imminent.

Trump’s claim that there’s an immigration crisis at the border is refuted by experts. His demonization of immigrants treads a well-worn path of demagogues seeking to invent enemies to build support. And even people who live along the border are skeptical of his claim that a wall is a solution. And yet he has brought part of the government to a standstill over it.

Investor’s Business Daily: Yes, There Is A Crisis At The Border — The Numbers Show It

Illegal Immigration: Democrats and the mainstream press accuse President Donald Trump of manufacturing a crisis at the border. The numbers tell another story.

As soon as the words “growing humanitarian and security crisis at our Southern border” left Trump’s lips in his Oval Office address this week, Democrats and media “fact-checkers” were trying to dispel it as a deliberate lie.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Trump “must stop manufacturing a crisis, and must reopen the government.”

Border Crossings Climbing

NPR’s “fact check” — like countless others — dismissed Trump’s claim as false because “illegal border crossings in the most recent fiscal year (ending in September 2018) were actually lower than in either 2016 or 2014.”

What they aren’t telling you is border patrol agents apprehended more than 100,000 people trying to enter the country illegally in just October and November of last year. Or that that number is way up from the same two months the year before.

Nor do they mention that last year, the border patrol apprehended more than half a million people trying to get into the country illegally. And that number, too, is up from the year before.

That’s huge numbers.

The Department of Homeland Security claims that about 20% of illegal border crossers make it into the country. Other studies, however, say border agents fail to apprehend as much as 50% of illegal crossers.

Even at the lower percentage, that means that 104,000 illegals made it into the country in 2018 alone.

Is that not a crisis at the border?

It is a big problem to deal with, but is it “a time of intense difficulty or danger”? Or “a time when a difficult or important decision must be made”? Important decisions have to be made all the time by Governments. But Trump made his decision about building a wall years ago.

Pelosi and company also don’t bother to mention the fact that there are already between 12 million and 22 million illegals — depending on which study you use — in the country today.

An analysis by the nonpartisan ProCon.org found that in 2010 almost 4% of the U.S. population was in the country illegally. The average for 13 other countries it analyzed was just 1.3%.

Large scale illegal immigration has been happening for a long time.

Isn’t having millions in the country illegally, with thousands joining them every day, not a crisis at the border?

Past Presidents Promised To Fix This

Here’s another problem with claims that we don’t have a crisis at the border.

Past presidents all treated it like one.

In 1982, for example, President Ronald Reagan said that “The ongoing migration of persons to the United States in violation of our laws is a serious national problem detrimental to the interests of the United States.”

President Bill Clinton said in his 1995 State of the Union address that “All Americans … are rightly disturbed by the large numbers of illegal aliens entering our country.” That’s why, he said, “our administration has moved aggressively to secure our borders.”

President George Bush, in a prime-time Oval Office speech in 2006, declared that securing the U.S. border is a basic responsibility of a sovereign nation. It is also an urgent requirement of our national security.”

President Barack Obama in 2005 declared that “we simply cannot allow people to pour into the United States undetected, undocumented, unchecked.” And in 2014 even he admitted there was a crisis on the border — one that he did virtually nothing to fix. (Apprehensions at the border last year were almost the same as in 2014.)

None of those past presidents are quoted as saying it was a ‘crisis’, but it was obviously a large problem of concern. One of the concerns about it was the impact on the US economy a major purge of illegal immigrants would have – illegals had become an essential part of the economy.

Perhaps the US has had an ongoing immigration crisis since the 1980s. One problem is that mass deportation would likely create a labour shortage crisis, and could create an economic crisis. And it would almost certainly create crises elsewhere, wherever the large number of deportees went to.

And perhaps here is a more recent crisis – a crisis in US government. Now that the Democrats have taken control of Congress, and they are refusing to fund Trump’s wall, there could be a developing political crisis. A dysfunctional democracy may have reached crisis point.

Building a wall on the Mexican border is nor going to fix their massive immigration problems, but the funding issue has created a clash of crises – immigration and a dysfunctional Government.

It’s hard to see any quick or easy solutions to either, with politicians from the President down seemingly hell bent on putting their own political interests a priority over trying to find solutions to their entrenched immigration problem.

New York Times:  What Trump Could Learn From His Shutdown

You know the system has broken down when the clearest way out of a government shutdown may be for the president to declare a fake national emergency.

This was the direction President Trump appeared to be leaning on Thursday, as he flew to McAllen, Tex., to promote his border wall — a P.R. stunt that he didn’t want to perform and that he said in advance was unlikely to bear fruit. “It’s not going to change a damn thing,” he was reported to have said, “but I’m still doing it.”

Bottom line: Mr. Trump loves to boast that he leads with his “gut.” He really can’t be bothered with all the humdrum details of governing, remaining proudly ignorant of how anything works in Washington — the presidency, the Congress, the Constitution. That’s left him in a standoff for which he was wholly unprepared.

For the sake of the millions being hurt, let’s hope he manages to blunder himself back out of this mess soon.

It’s alarming to see that “a stupid or careless mistake” is suggested as the sole way out of a clash of crises.

 

Apple earnings warning a casualty of trade war

The Apple (APPL) share price dropped nearly 9% on the sharemarket after they issued earnings warning that they will earn much less than they have previously advised/expected. The drop in earnings is said to be primarily due to the US trade war with China. The share price has recovered a little on Friday US time, by midway through the day bouncing back 3.4%.

9to5mac: Apple’s shock earnings warning sees AAPL stock plunge 9% in pre-market trading

Apple’s shock earnings warning – the first time it has issued one since 2002 – has sent the stock price crashing in pre-market trading. At the time of writing, AAPL is almost 9% down on yesterday’s close.

It follows a letter from Tim Cook warning investors that Apple expects to miss the low end of its fiscal Q1 guidance by $5B, and the high end by $9B.

Cook said that almost all of the missing revenue was in China, thanks to a combination of low economic growth in the country and tensions created by the Trump administration’s trade war with China.

It wasn’t just AAPL stock hit by the news: Business Insider reports that shares in major Apple suppliers are also taking a hammering. AMS, which makes Face ID sensors for Apple, took the brunt of the impact, losing 17% of its market cap overnight – but it wasn’t the only casualty.

Apple’s last earnings warning was in 2002.

Like any wars there can be casualties on all sides in trade wars.

 

Recession imminent? Economic indicators to watch this year

The world is overdue a recession, or worse. US sharemarkets ended the year dropping a lot from earlier record highs and then recovering a bit, but still well off the highs. So what is likely to happen this year?

Reuters: Breakingviews – Three key indicators to watch like a hawk in 2019

Want to know whether there’s going to be a U.S. recession, a flare-up in the trade war, or a spate of corporate implosions?

…just stay focused on these three proxy indicators.

Soybeans. American farmers have been early victims of the escalating response to President Donald Trump’s import levies. When crops from other countries like Brazil are relatively more valuable, it suggests traders are more worried tariff barriers will persist.

U.S. yield curve. Different experts pick different comparisons, but in the past when the yield on 10-year Treasury bonds has dipped below the return on two-year government paper, a recession has followed. As 2018 draws to a close, the gap is once again very thin.

Corporate health. One hint at sentiment comes from indexes that track how many stocks in given markets are in bear territory, meaning they have fallen 20 percent or more in value from their peak prices in the last 12 months. About half are in that zone in developed markets and more in emerging economies. That might mean shares are cheap. Or it might signify negative sentiment and an accelerating slide in 2019.

This is very US-centric, but the health of the US economy has a major effect on the rest of the world, including us.

It is difficult to predict when recessions will occur, but one near certainty is that they will keep occurring. The world is overdue from an economic setback.

The New Zealand economy is in good shape, but can be easily impacted by overseas markets.

Fortunately Minister of Finance Grant Robertson took a prudent approach to his first budget in 2018. However there is pressure on the Government to deliver on it’s social promises – or at least on expectations on what a kinder more progressive government should be doing.

The best time for significant tax and social reform is when there is money available to do it, like now when our books are in surplus.

If major measures are not put in place before the next recession it will get a lot harder.

And back to the US – tax changes there have substantially increased US debt, so they are not in a good position to weather a recession. This could make an economic hiccup worse.

Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement has started to take effect

The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (now CPTPP) came into effect yesterday, 30 December 2018.

This ended many years of negotiations, the addition of a number of countries that totalled twelve when the agreement was first signed, but shrunk slightly to eleven when Donald Trump pulled the US out of it (the way he conducts international relations and trashes trade agreements and uses them as threats it is probably better the US is not trying to mess things up).

RNZ: CPTPP takes effect: Exporters first to benefit, govt says

The government is predicting New Zealand exporters will be the first to benefit from the re-jigged TPP deal, which takes effect at midnight.

The Minister for Trade and Export Growth, David Parker, said tariffs in three significant economies – Japan, Canada and Mexico – start reducing immediately.

The new deal, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), also comes into force for Australia and Singapore at midnight.

Mexico and Canada will cut tariffs further in a second round of adjustments on New Year’s Day, while Vietnam will make a double tariff cut when it joins the trade deal on 14 January, and Japan’s second round will be three months later on 1 April.

Mr Parker said the agreement will give a further boost to the competitiveness of New Zealand products in those markets.

“The CPTPP has the potential to deliver an estimated $222 million of tariff savings to New Zealand exporters annually once it is fully in force, with almost half of that – or $105 million – now available in the first 12 months,” he said.

One export to benefit is fish and fish products, which currently face tariffs of 20 percent into Mexico and up to 10 percent in Japan, Mr Parker said.

“The CPTPP will see all tariffs eliminated on fisheries exports, with the majority of savings from today.”

He said Marlborough wine producers will gain immediate duty free access to Canada.

In the South Island, Mid Canterbury seed farmers who produce 50 percent of the world’s radish seeds, will benefit from the elimination of tariffs on horticultural exports within 15 years under CPTPP.

And in the Otago region he said summer fruits would see big benefits.

“CPTPP will see total tariff elimination on summer fruits, including cherries, for which the tariffs into Japan will be eliminated within six years.”

Tokyo’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper reports that from today Japan will axe tariffs on kiwifruit, grapes and melons, and cut tariffs on imported beef from the current 38.5 percent to 27.5.

So it isn’t totally ‘free trade’, but it is a useful move in that direction.

Despite the benefits, National MP Todd McClay said the government needs to do everything it possibly can to bring the US back into the trade agreement.

“The government now needs to turn its attention to the US market, it’s the world’s largest consumer market, we haven’t got a trade deal with them, they need [the New Zealand government] to do everything they can to entice them back to the TPP and get better access for Kiwis for the US market”.

I don’t think it is worth the risk trying to get the US back into the CPTPP while Trump is President. He can’t be trusted to stick with trade agreements. He seems to think he can use agreements to threaten, and to renegotiate, at whim – as he has done with NAFTA. See “Either we build (finish) the Wall or we close the Border……”

Trump changes Syrian war, Kurds feel betrayed

Donald Trump surprised many people and countries with his sudden decision to withdraw US troops from Syria. In protest US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Brett McGurk, a senior official coordinating the fight against Islamic State, resigned.

Trump’s decision has forced a sudden chaange of approach in the war by Turket, and Syrian Kurds, used by the US in the war but regarded as terrorists by Turkey, feel betrayed.

Reuters – Syrian surprise: How Trump’s phone call changed the war

President Donald Trump’s declaration in a phone call with Tayyip Erdogan that he was pulling U.S. troops from Syria has stunned Turkey and left it scrambling to respond to the changing battlefield on its southern border.

In the phone call two weeks ago, Trump had been expected to deliver a standard warning to the Turkish president over his plan to launch a crossborder attack targeting U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in northeast Syria, U.S. officials say.

Instead, in the course of the conversation Trump reshaped U.S. policy in the Middle East, abandoning a quarter of Syrian territory and handing Ankara the job of finishing off Islamic State in Syria.

“Trump asked: ‘If we withdraw our soldiers, can you clean up ISIS?’”, a Turkish official told Reuters. He said Erdogan replied that Turkish forces were up to the task.

“Then you do it,” Trump told him abruptly. To his national security adviser John Bolton, also on the call, Trump said: “Start work for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria.”

“I have to say it was an unexpected decision. The word ‘surprise’ is too weak to describe the situation,” said the official, one of five Turkish sources who spoke to Reuters about the Dec. 14 call between the two leaders.

Trump’s decision was also a shock in Washington, where senior administration officials, including Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, tried for days to change the president’s mind, U.S. officials said. When Trump made clear he would not back down, Mattis and a senior official coordinating the fight against Islamic State, Brett McGurk, both resigned.

For Turkey, Trump’s decision offers opportunity and risk.

Ankara has complained bitterly for years that the United States, a NATO ally, had chosen the Kurdish YPG militia as its main partner on the ground in Syria against Islamic State.

Turkey says the YPG is a terrorist group, inseparable from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has waged an insurgency in southeast Turkey in which 40,000 people have been killed.

The U.S. withdrawal potentially frees Turkey’s military to push the YPG back from 500 km of border without risking a confrontation with American forces. It also removes a main cause of this year’s diplomatic crisis between the two countries.

But it also opens up an area of Syria far larger than anything Turkey had expected to fill, potentially pitting it against not just Kurdish forces but also the Damascus government – which is committed to regaining control of all of Syria – and its Russian and Iranian backers.

The YPG on Friday asked the Syrian government to take over the town of Manbij, which the Kurdish militia currently controls with U.S. support, to protect it from Turkish attack.

And if Turkish forces are to take on Islamic State in its last pocket of Syrian territory near the Iraqi border, they would first have to cross 250 km of territory controlled by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces.

“Erdogan got more than he bargained for,” said Soner Cagaptay, Director of the Turkish Program at the Washington Institute. “He had asked the U.S. to drop the YPG, but not withdraw from Syria”.

Alliances between groups fighting in Syria and countries involved in the war are complicated. Trump’s decision will force other countries to rethink their involvement, and will no doubt change the power struggles within and over Syria.

New York Times:  Syria’s Kurds, Feeling Betrayed by the U.S., Ask Assad Government for Protection

Feeling betrayed by the United States, its Kurdish allies in Syria asked the Syrian government on Friday to protect them from possible attack by Turkey.

The request surprised some American officials and could help open the way for the forces of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, backed by Russia and Iran, to start retaking the Kurdish-held part of the country near Turkey’s border.

That would be a big step toward Mr. Assad’s goal of reclaiming all of Syria, upended by almost eight years of war.

It was also the first sign that President Trump’s abrupt announcement last week that he was withdrawing American troops from Syria was not only shifting alliances in the conflict but directly benefiting Mr. Assad — a brutal autocrat once described by Mr. Trump as an “animal” responsible for chemical attacks and other atrocities.

American-backed Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or Y.P.G., said the Syrian government should send troops to the city of Manbij, near the Turkish border.

The request amounted to a United States ally calling on an enemy of the United States to protect it from another American ally, Turkey.

The Kurdish militias are regarded by Turkey as dangerous, autonomy-minded insurgents. The United States regards them as valuable partners in helping rout Islamic State extremists from Syria — the original purpose of the American military deployment four years ago.

Although the American troops in Syria number only about 2,000, they have been a deterrent to an assault on the Kurdish militias by the Turks. The American presence also discouraged Mr. Assad’s forces from sweeping into the area even as they retook major areas elsewhere from anti-government fighters, often with the support of Russia and Iran.

Mr. Trump’s surprise announcement that he would pull American troops had raised fears of a scramble by competing forces to exploit the resulting vacuum.

It’s hard to know whether trump understands the implications of his sudden decision or not.

Groups controlling land in Syria:

 

The areas run by the Kurds in Syria have long stood apart in the conflict. They had hoped, with their American friends, to pioneer an alternative model for Syria’s future.

While none of the other powers fighting in Syria liked the situation, they mostly avoided attacking the area for fear of provoking the United States. Now, with that deterrent set to end, the future of the northeast is up in the air.

Those most likely to gain, analysts say, are the Syrian government and its allies, who want to bring the northeast back under the control of Damascus, both for the good of Mr. Assad and for their own interests.

It’s anyone’s guess what will happen in Syria now.

Victim-in-chief has some worthwhile achievements

President Donald Trump is claiming to be the victim in advance of the Democrats taking control of the US Congress.

President Donald Trump said Tuesday that Democratic attempts at oversight in the coming Congress could amount to “presidential harassment.”

Speaking from the Oval Office, Trump again denied any collusion between his team and Russia when he was questioned about the investigative powers Democrats will assume come January.

“It’s probably presidential harassment and we know how to handle that. I know how to handle that better than anybody,” Trump said.

“You’re talking about millions and millions and millions of dollars of wasted money,” Trump said. “There’s been absolutely no collusion. But there has been a lot of collusion by the Democrats, with Russia and a lot of other people that maybe they shouldn’t have been dealing with, including very dishonest people.”

He has a record of blaming others for what he has done.

It’s a bit ironic Trump accusing others of harassment – or in this case possible harassment in the future. This could be seen as him harassing the Democrats to try to avoid being held to account.

“It’s a disgrace, what’s happening in our country,” Trump fumed, seated behind the Resolute Desk. “But other than that, I wish everybody a very merry Christmas.”

I just can’t help laughing at that. Time and again he comes across as a fool out of his depth.

But there has been some achievements in the two years he has been President (Barack Obama achieved some things too, al presidents do).

CNN: Five things even Trump critics can give him credit for this Christmas

President Donald Trump ends his second year in office isolated and under siege. A self-inflicted government shutdown is happening over Christmas, the stock market is suffering its worst month in a decade (compounded by his talk of sacking the Fed chair) and the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis is sending shudders through America’s military and allies.

But these criticisms are for another day — pretty much any other day.

Today is Christmas. And in a spirit of finding the best in people, I promised myself I’d look for a few areas of agreement with a President with whom I disagree quite a lot.

After all, if you view politics through a historical lens, you’ll see that even our worst Presidents have some redeeming qualities. And if those can’t be found personally, they can be found in policy.

Criminal justice reform

President Trump got it done after decades of talk. He cobbled together a bipartisan coalition to pass the First Step Act and used his bully pulpit to push past a reluctant Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who had pronounced the legislation “divisive” just weeks before. As a measure of that alleged divisiveness, the legislation passed by an overwhelming 87-12 margin.

The law blends common sense and compassion, redeeming reformed lives while saving money in the process. It promises to lessen the sentences of nonviolent criminals and reduce frankly racist sentencing disparities. And it’s the kind of bill that could only command Republican support if it were backed by a law-and-order candidate, which itself speaks to the stupid partisanship that usually outweighs policy.

Getting tough on China

…he’s been clear-eyed and mostly consistent when it comes to standing up to China’s exploitation of international systems to fuel its expansion while creating a technological surveillance state.

Team Trump has realized that time is running out to have any leverage on China in the effort to get it to act like a responsible global power. And while I don’t support Trump’s trade war tactics — mostly because they have lumped in allies like Canada with China — the President has been right to call out abuse of trade treaties by China that have created an unequal playing field on issues from manufacturing to intellectual property to massive state sponsored cyber theft.

Economic opportunity zones

The tax cut bill most often trumpeted as the prime achievement of the Trump era was actually a disaster. It stimulated an economy that was already overheated, promises to exacerbate the growing gap between the rich and poor (as well as the super-rich and middle class) and its failure to close corporate loopholes is already exploding our deficit and debt, reducing tax receipts in a booming economy.

That said, there is an excellent and overdue provision in the otherwise lousy tax bill — economic opportunity zones. Consider this the belated love child of Jack Kemp’s dwindling influence in the Republican Party, incentivizing investment in poverty-stricken neighborhoods through tax breaks on capital gains. It’s exactly the sort of smart, targeted government action that may finally spur development in our atrophied regional economies.

‘Right-to-try’ legislation

This is a comparatively small step, but it radiates common sense and actually shows a rare libertarian streak. The “right-to-try” legislation had been embraced by a number of states, but the federal government had been opposed until Trump pushed the bill into enactment.

Basically, it allows terminally ill patients to have access to experimental drugs. The logic is simple: what do they have to lose? Why not give patients and their families access to whatever experimental drug they want if it might be able to save or prolong their life?

The Music Modernization Act

… Orrin Hatch sponsored, and Trump signed, a worthwhile and overdue piece of legislation that stops musicians from getting screwed by streaming services and cuts down on the power of predatory middle men.

There will always be positives if you look for them. The hope has to be that they are not overwhelmed by negatives – and that the President is not overly distracted or even overwhelmed by negatives.

Oversight of the president, especially this president, is as important as ever, no matter how much Trump complains about it.

 

 

 

Russian influence in 2016 US election a social media facilitated democratic and social war

Foreign interference in a country’s election is a serious matter. A US Senate Intelligence Committee report details Russian efforts to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election using social media.

NY Times: Russian 2016 Influence Operation Targeted African-Americans on Social Media

The Russian influence campaign on social media in the 2016 election made an extraordinary effort to target African-Americans, used an array of tactics to try to suppress turnout among Democratic voters and unleashed a blizzard of activity on Instagram that rivaled or exceeded its posts on Facebook, according to a report produced for the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The report adds new details to the portrait that has emerged over the last two years of the energy and imagination of the Russian effort to sway American opinion and divide the country, which the authors said continues to this day.

“Active and ongoing interference operations remain on several platforms,” says the report, produced by New Knowledge, a cybersecurity company based in Austin, Texas, along with researchers at Columbia University and Canfield Research LLC. One continuing Russian campaign, for instance, seeks to influence opinion on Syria by promoting Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president and a Russian ally in the brutal conflict there.

The New Knowledge report, which was obtained by The New York Times in advance of its scheduled release on Monday, is one of two commissioned by the Senate committee on a bipartisan basis. They are based largely on data about the Russian operations provided to the Senate by Facebook, Twitter and the other companies whose platforms were used.

The second report was written by the Computational Propaganda Project at Oxford University along with Graphika, a company that specializes in analyzing social media. The Washington Post first reported on the Oxford report on Sunday.

The Russian influence campaign in 2016 was run by a St. Petersburg company called the Internet Research Agency, owned by a businessman, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, who is a close ally of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. Mr. Prigozhin and a dozen of the company’s employees were indicted last February as part of the investigation of Russian interference by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel.

So it would seem that Mueller has been doing some important and successful investigations.

Both reports stress that the Internet Research Agency created social media accounts under fake names on virtually every available platform. A major goal was to support Donald Trump, first against his Republican rivals in the presidential race, then in the general election, and as president since his inauguration.

This wasn’t an anti-Democrat pro-Republican campaign of interference in the election, but also a pro-trump anti-Republican opponent campaign. So it started with interference in democratic selection processes of the Republican Party, and once that was successful it became an anti-Hillary Clinton and Anti-Democrat campaign.

US democracy was already in a poor state, dominated by monied interests, but it has now been trashed further by a foreign government.

And because some people got the election outcome the wanted they make excuses and ignore the serious nature of this interference.

The Russian campaign was the subject of Senate hearings last year and has been widely scrutinized by academic experts. The new reports largely confirm earlier findings: that the campaign was designed to attack Hillary Clinton, boost Mr. Trump and exacerbate existing divisions in American society.

The interference aims also included trying to divide and trash US society.

Questions still need to be answered about why Trump was aided in the candidate selection process and the presidential election. There are claims and indications that the Trump side saw financial and power rewards.

Did the Russians see a potential puppet whose strings they could pull to get US policies that favoured Russia? Or did they see an opportunity to diminish the power of the US by dividing their society? Possibly both.

The threats of nuclear war and the standoff of the Cold War are now history. Russia versus the United States has become a social media facilitated democratic and social war.

But Trump is president and that’s all that matters, the end justifies the means?

The problem with this is that the end is nigh, not done and dusted.