Weekly news stories


Russian Officials Overheard Discussing Trump Associates Before Campaign Began

It isn’t clear whether Mr. Trump’s associates had any connection to his presidential aspirations

By Shane Harris

The Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON—Investigators are re-examining conversations detected by U.S. intelligence agencies in spring 2015 that captured Russian government officials discussing associates of Donald Trump, according to current and former U.S. officials, a move prompted by revelations that the president’s eldest son met with a Russian lawyer last year.

In some cases, the Russians in the overheard conversations talked about meetings held outside the U.S. involving Russian government officials and Trump business associates or advisers, these people said.

Russian officials are routinely monitored by U.S. intelligence agencies, and it wouldn’t be unusual for them to discuss people who have business interests in Russia.

Mr. Trump held the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow, was a globally recognized celebrity and sold properties to Russians. The intelligence gathering wasn’t aimed at Mr. Trump or people in his circle, and it isn’t clear which Trump advisers or associates the Russians referred to, or whether they had any connection to his presidential aspirations.

The 2015 conversations were detected several months before Mr. Trump declared his candidacy for the White House. The conversations have been in investigators’ possession for some time, but officials said the Donald Trump Jr. news this week prompted them to look at them again.

In 2015, intelligence agencies weren’t sure what to make of the surveillance reports, which they viewed as vague and inconclusive, the current and former officials said. But the volume of the mentions of Trump associates by the Russians did have officials asking each other, “What’s going on?” one former official said.

A lawyer for Mr. Trump didn’t respond to a request for comment on the 2015 conversations.

Now, in light of the release of emails by the president’s eldest son, describing a 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer, investigators are going back to those early reports. They are seeking new leads as they probe whether the Trump campaign colluded in what several U.S. intelligence agencies say was a Russian government-sponsored effort to meddle in the election to benefit Mr. Trump.

Mr. Trump has denied any collusion and called the probes a “witch hunt.”

The meeting Donald Jr. arranged in June 2016—as his father was on the verge of clinching the Republican nomination—involved a Kremlin-connected lawyer to discuss allegedly incriminating information about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton obtained by the Russian government.

Donald Jr. and the Russian lawyer said no information about Mrs. Clinton was disclosed in the meeting. But the emails offer the first clear public evidence that senior officials in Mr. Trump’s camp were open to offers of assistance from Russia in his quest for the presidency.

In the spring of 2016, U.S. intelligence officials’ suspicions about Russian meddling in the election grew after their counterparts in Europe warned that Russian money might be flowing into the presidential election, according to officials with knowledge of the warning. It remains unknown if or whether those funds were funneled to a particular campaign or to others to spend it on behalf of candidates.

In June 2016, officials at the Democratic National Committee revealed that their computer networks had been penetrated by hackers, whom the FBI and intelligence agencies later determined worked for the Russian intelligence services. Emails taken in those incursions subsequently were published by WikiLeaks, and in October, the site released emails that had been stolen from Mrs. Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta.

At that point, intelligence officials had little doubt that the Russian government was attempting to interfere in the election. By the end of 2016, they concluded publicly that the Russian hacking campaign was meant to undermine Mrs. Clinton and help Mr. Trump.

Now, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and several congressional committees are probing Mr. Trump’s ties to Russia over the years, as is special counsel Robert Mueller.

Write to Shane Harris at shane.harris@wsj.com

Appeared in the July 13, 2017, print edition as ‘Surveillance From 2015 Revisited.’

The New York Times:

Trump Gave Putin Exactly What He Wanted

Masha Gessen JULY 8, 2017

While American news media offered differing interpretations of the meeting between President Trump and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, debating whether Mr. Trump had shown resolve or had fallen into a trap set by Mr. Putin, the Russian press disagreed on only one thing: the proper translation of the word “tremendous,” which Mr. Trump used to describe the meeting. Headlines in state-owned media, state-dominated media, and the lone independent Web-based TV channel offered translations that hewed closer to “grand,” “outstanding,” or “amazing.” Those distinctions aside, all agreed: The meeting was a triumph.

Mr. Putin has for years — 17 years, to be exact, for this is how long he has been in power — been clear about what he wanted from his relationship with the United States president: He wants to be treated as an equal partner on the world stage and not to be questioned about or pressed on the Russian government’s actions inside Russia or in what he considers his sphere of influence. Despite the friendly tenor of Mr. Putin’s relationship with George W. Bush and the offer of a “reset” made by Barack Obama’s administration, Mr. Putin never achieved his objective — until now. His fourth American president has given him exactly what he wanted: respect, camaraderie and freedom from criticism.

The one accomplishment of the meeting — a limited cease-fire in Syria — is exactly what Mr. Putin wanted. Not the cease-fire, that is: He wanted an acknowledgment that the United States and Russia are equal negotiating parties in the Syrian conflict. He spent years cajoling and then blackmailing the Obama administration into accepting Russia’s decisive role in the Middle East. Now, Mr. Trump has handed him much more than that. He has demonstrated that Russia and the United States can negotiate Syrian life and death without involving any Syrians.

But what was really important was what was apparently missing from the meeting: any criticism of Russia’s war in Ukraine, including its occupation of Crimea, and of the crackdown on political dissent inside Russia itself. In his accounting of the meeting, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson mentioned Ukraine only to say that a new United States representative on the matter would be appointed. He then managed to avoid answering the one question from a journalist about Ukraine and sanctions imposed in response to the Russian war there. Nor did the correspondents at the briefing appear concerned with getting answers on Ukraine. They were much more interested in the details of the two presidents’ discussion of Russian meddling in the American election. This is a topic that Mr. Putin clearly enjoys: It testifies to his political power, apparently unbounded by international borders.

What was entirely absent from the briefing, the reporters’ questions, and, it is probably safe to assume, the two-hour-and-15-minute meeting itself, was any discussion or even acknowledgment of any of the following:

■ Russia has intensified its crackdown on dissidents. Last month, more than 1,700 people were arrested for peaceful protest — the largest number of arrests in a single day in decades.

■ Aleksei Navalny, the anti-corruption activist who plans to challenge Mr. Putin in the 2018 presidential election, has been attacked physically and is facing a slew of trumped-up charges. The night before the summit, his Moscow headquarters were raided and one of the staff members was beaten by police. The day after, as Mr. Navalny’s supporters campaigned around the country, dozens of them were arrested — more than 30 people in Moscow alone.

■ More than a hundred gay men have been targeted by purges in Chechnya. Three deaths have been confirmed. Several men are still missing, and dozens more are in hiding elsewhere in Russia. In response to earlier international pressure, the government in Moscow has promised to investigate the matter, but nothing is known about the progress of this investigation.

■ A Moscow court has reached a guilty verdict in the case of five men accused of killing opposition politician Boris Nemtsov in 2015. The court failed to interrogate their motives, however; nothing is known about who ordered the hit.

■ The number of political prisoners in Russia is growing. They include people arrested for peaceful protest and even for statements made on social media. They also include Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov, who is serving a 20-year sentence on trumped-up charges of terrorism.

■ Most recently, law enforcement targeted a Moscow contemporary theater called Gogol Center. Former managing director Aleksei Malobrodsky is in jail. He is accused of embezzling state funds earmarked for a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which the prosecution falsely claims was never staged.

Since at least the 1970s, Russian leaders and Soviet leaders before them had to face questions about political freedoms and human rights whenever they met with their American counterparts. The Trump administration has ended that tradition. In May, Mr. Tillerson, in a rare public statement on policy, said that American economic and strategic interests had to take precedence over human rights advancement. When he traveled to Moscow in April, he declined to meet with human rights activists, breaking with decades of tradition. It is no surprise that Mr. Trump broached none of these issues. No wonder Mr. Putin and his news media view the meeting as a triumph.

Masha Gessen is the author of “The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.”

July 8, 2017 / 11:12 AM / 16 days ago

Putin says Trump was ‘satisfied’ with his election meddling denials

Denis Dyomkin

HAMBURG (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin said he thought his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump had been satisfied with his assertions that Russia had not meddled in the U.S. presidential election.

Speaking at the end of a G20 summit in Germany where the two leaders met face-to-face for the first time, Putin said he believed he had been able to establish a personal relationship with Trump, and that the initial groundwork had been laid for an improvement in U.S.-Russian ties.

Their meeting, on the sidelines of the Hamburg summit, was subject to intense scrutiny, following allegations that Moscow had tried to help Trump win the White House, and a Washington investigation into the Russia ties of Trump associates.

Putin was pressed by reporters at a news conference to share details of the discussion he had with Trump about alleged Russian election interference. Russia has denied trying to influence the U.S. election.

“(Trump) asked a lot of questions on this subject. I, in as much as I was able, answered these questions. It seems to me that he took these (answers) on board and agreed with them, but in actual fact, it’s best to ask him how he views this,” Putin told one reporter.

Pressed again later in the same news conference by reporters about what precisely Trump had told him, Putin said: “He started to ask pointed questions, he was really interested in particular details. I, as much as I could, answered him in a fairly detailed way.

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the their bilateral meeting at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany July 7, 2017.Carlos Barria

“I believe it would not be entirely appropriate on my part to disclose details of my discussion with Mr Trump. He asked, I answered him. He asked pointed questions, I answered them. It seemed to me that he was satisfied with those answers,” Putin said.

Putin also spoke warmly of Trump’s personal qualities. The two men have spoken by telephone since Trump won the U.S. presidential election last year, but had not met until the G20 summit in Hamburg.

“I believe that we have established personal relations already,” Putin told a news conference.

“The TV Trump is very different from the person in reality. He is absolutely precise, he reacts as you would expect to his interlocutor, he analyses fairly quickly, answers questions that are put to him.

“It seems to me that if we build our relations the way that our conversation went yesterday, then we all have grounds to believe that we can, at least in part, restore the level of cooperation that we need,” Putin said.

He said in particular that the Trump administration was taking a more pragmatic stance on the conflict on Syria. A ceasefire deal for southern Syria that was announced during the summit was the result of that new approach, Putin said, and represented a “breakthrough.”

Additional reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Andrew Osborn

July 26, 2017 / 3:07 AM / 2 hours ago

Moscow warns new U.S. sanctions take ties into uncharted waters

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia warned that new U.S. sanctions against Moscow approved by the House of Representatives take already battered ties into uncharted waters and said it was close to taking retaliatory measures of its own.

Russia was responding after the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted to impose new sanctions on Moscow and to force President Donald Trump to obtain lawmakers’ permission before easing any sanctions on Russia.

Moscow had initially hoped that Trump would work to repair a relationship which has slumped to a post-Cold War low, but has watched with frustration as allegations that Moscow interfered with last year’s U.S. presidential election and concerns over Trump associates’ Russia ties have killed off hopes of detente.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the Interfax news agency the latest U.S. sanctions move left no room to improve ties between Moscow and Washington in the near future and took the relationship into uncharted waters.

“This is already having an extremely negative impact on the process of normalizing our relations,” Ryabkov told Interfax.

U.S.-Russia relations were entering “uncharted territory in a political and diplomatic sense,” he added.

Russia has repeatedly warned the United States it will retaliate against what it sees as hostile moves and Ryabkov made clear Moscow was growing tired of showing restraint.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said earlier this month that too many American spies operated in Russia under diplomatic cover and that it might expel some of them to retaliate over Washington’s expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats last year.

That warning reflected rising frustration in Moscow over the Trump administration’s refusal to hand back two Russian diplomatic compounds which were seized at the same time as the diplomats were sent home.

Many Russian politicians believe Trump’s political opponents and Congress have successfully reduced the U.S. president’s room for maneuver on Russia to almost nil.

Ryabkov told Interfax the new sanctions bill was the “brainchild” of U.S. Congressmen who hated Russia and wanted to box in Trump.

Konstantin Kosachyov, who heads the foreign relations committee in Russia’s upper house of parliament, called on Moscow to devise a “painful” response to the U.S. move.

Reporting by Katya Golubkova and Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Andrew Osborn

A clinical psychologist explains how Ayn Rand seduced young minds and helped turn the US into a selfish nation

Bruce E. Levine, AlterNet

The ‘Atlas Shrugged’ author made selfishness heroic and caring about others weakness.

Ayn Rand’s “philosophy” is nearly perfect in its immorality, which makes the size of her audience all the more ominous and symptomatic as we enter a curious new phase in our society….To justify and extol human greed and egotism is to my mind not only immoral, but evil.— Gore Vidal, 1961

Only rarely in U.S. history do writers transform us to become a more caring or less caring nation. In the 1850s, Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) was a strong force in making the United States a more humane nation, one that would abolish slavery of African Americans. A century later, Ayn Rand (1905-1982) helped make the United States into one of the most uncaring nations in the industrialized world, a neo-Dickensian society where healthcare is only for those who can afford it, and where young people are coerced into huge student-loan debt that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.

Rand’s impact has been widespread and deep. At the iceberg’s visible tip is the influence she’s had over major political figures who have shaped American society. In the 1950s, Ayn Rand read aloud drafts of what was later to become Atlas Shrugged to her “Collective,” Rand’s ironic nickname for her inner circle of young individualists, which included Alan Greenspan, who would serve as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board from 1987 to 2006.

In 1966, Ronald Reagan wrote in a personal letter, “Am an admirer of Ayn Rand.” Today, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) credits Rand for inspiring him to go into politics, and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) calls Atlas Shrugged his “foundation book.” Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) says Ayn Rand had a major influence on him, and his son Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is an even bigger fan. A short list of other Rand fans includes Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas; Christopher Cox, chairman of the Security and Exchange Commission in George W. Bush’s second administration; and former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford.

But Rand’s impact on U.S. society and culture goes even deeper.

The Seduction of Nathan Blumenthal

Ayn Rand’s books such as The Virtue of Selfishness and her philosophy that celebrates self-interest and disdains altruism may well be, as Vidal assessed, “nearly perfect in its immorality.” But is Vidal right about evil? Charles Manson, who himself did not kill anyone, is the personification of evil for many of us because of his psychological success at exploiting the vulnerabilities of young people and seducing them to murder. What should we call Ayn Rand’s psychological ability to exploit the vulnerabilities of millions of young people so as to influence them not to care about anyone besides themselves?

While Greenspan (tagged “A.G.” by Rand) was the most famous name that would emerge from Rand’s Collective, the second most well-known name to emerge from the Collective was Nathaniel Branden, psychotherapist, author and “self-esteem” advocate. Before he was Nathaniel Branden, he was Nathan Blumenthal, a 14-year-old who read Rand’s The Fountainhead again and again. He later would say, “I felt hypnotized.” He describes how Rand gave him a sense that he could be powerful, that he could be a hero. He wrote one letter to his idol Rand, then a second. To his amazement, she telephoned him, and at age 20, Nathan received an invitation to Ayn Rand’s home. Shortly after, Nathan Blumenthal announced to the world that he was incorporating Rand in his new name: Nathaniel Branden. And in 1955, with Rand approaching her 50th birthday and Branden his 25th, and both in dissatisfying marriages, Ayn bedded Nathaniel.

What followed sounds straight out of Hollywood, but Rand was straight out of Hollywood, having worked for Cecil B. DeMille. Rand convened a meeting with Nathaniel, his wife Barbara (also a Collective member), and Rand’s own husband Frank. To Branden’s astonishment, Rand convinced both spouses that a time-structured affair—she and Branden were to have one afternoon and one evening a week together—was “reasonable.” Within the Collective, Rand is purported to have never lost an argument. On his trysts at Rand’s New York City apartment, Branden would sometimes shake hands with Frank before he exited. Later, all discovered that Rand’s sweet but passive husband would leave for a bar, where he began his self-destructive affair with alcohol.

By 1964, the 34-year-old Nathaniel Branden had grown tired of the now 59-year-old Ayn Rand. Still sexually dissatisfied in his marriage to Barbara and afraid to end his affair with Rand, Branden began sleeping with a married 24-year-old model, Patrecia Scott. Rand, now “the woman scorned,” called Branden to appear before the Collective, whose nickname had by now lost its irony for both Barbara and Branden. Rand’s justice was swift. She humiliated Branden and then put a curse on him: “If you have one ounce of morality left in you, an ounce of psychological health—you’ll be impotent for the next 20 years! And if you achieve potency sooner, you’ll know it’s a sign of still worse moral degradation!”

Rand completed the evening with two welt-producing slaps across Branden’s face. Finally, in a move that Stalin and Hitler would have admired, Rand also expelled poor Barbara from the Collective, declaring her treasonous because Barbara, preoccupied by her own extramarital affair, had neglected to fill Rand in soon enough on Branden’s extra-extra-marital betrayal. (If anyone doubts Alan Greenspan’s political savvy, keep in mind that he somehow stayed in Rand’s good graces even though he, fixed up by Branden with Patrecia’s twin sister, had double-dated with the outlaws.)

After being banished by Rand, Nathaniel Branden was worried that he might be assassinated by other members of the Collective, so he moved from New York to Los Angeles, where Rand fans were less fanatical. Branden established a lucrative psychotherapy practice and authored approximately 20 books, 10 of them with either “Self” or “Self-Esteem” in the title. Rand and Branden never reconciled, but he remained an admirer of her philosophy of self-interest until his recent death in December 2014.

Ayn Rand’s personal life was consistent with her philosophy of not caring about anybody but herself. Rand was an ardent two-pack-a-day smoker, and when questioned about the dangers of smoking, she loved to light up with a defiant flourish and then scold her young questioners on the “unscientific and irrational nature of the statistical evidence.” After an x-ray showed that she had lung cancer, Rand quit smoking and had surgery for her cancer. Collective members explained to her that many people still smoked because they respected her and her assessment of the evidence; and that since she no longer smoked, she ought to tell them. They told her that she needn’t mention her lung cancer, that she could simply say she had reconsidered the evidence. Rand refused.

How Rand’s Philosophy Seduced Young Minds

When I was a kid, my reading included comic books and Rand’s The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. There wasn’t much difference between the comic books and Rand’s novels in terms of the simplicity of the heroes. What was different was that unlike Superman or Batman, Rand made selfishness heroic, and she made caring about others weakness.

Rand said, “Capitalism and altruism are incompatible….The choice is clear-cut: either a new morality of rational self-interest, with its consequences of freedom, justice, progress and man’s happiness on earth—or the primordial morality of altruism, with its consequences of slavery, brute force, stagnant terror and sacrificial furnaces.” For many young people, hearing that it is “moral” to care only about oneself can be intoxicating, and some get addicted to this idea for life.

I have known several people, professionally and socially, whose lives have been changed by those close to them who became infatuated with Ayn Rand. A common theme is something like this: “My ex-husband wasn’t a bad guy until he started reading Ayn Rand. Then he became a completely selfish jerk who destroyed our family, and our children no longer even talk to him.”

To wow her young admirers, Rand would often tell a story of how a book salesman had once challenged her to explain her philosophy while standing on one leg. She replied: “Metaphysics—objective reality. Epistemology—reason. Ethics—self-interest. Politics—capitalism.” How did that philosophy capture young minds?

Metaphysics—objective reality. Rand offered a narcotic for confused young people: complete certainty and a relief from their anxiety. Rand believed that an “objective reality” existed, and she knew exactly what that objective reality was. It included skyscrapers, industries, railroads, and ideas—at least her ideas. Rand’s objective reality did not include anxiety or sadness. Nor did it include much humor, at least the kind where one pokes fun at oneself. Rand assured her Collective that objective reality did not include Beethoven’s, Rembrandt’s, and Shakespeare’s realities—they were too gloomy and too tragic, basically buzz-killers. Rand preferred Mickey Spillane and, towards the end of her life, “Charlie’s Angels.”

Epistemology—reason. Rand’s kind of reason was a “cool-tool” to control the universe. Rand demonized Plato, and her youthful Collective members were taught to despise him. If Rand really believed that the Socratic Method described by Plato of discovering accurate definitions and clear thinking did not qualify as “reason,” why then did she regularly attempt it with her Collective? Also oddly, while Rand mocked dark moods and despair, her “reasoning” directed that Collective members should admire Dostoyevsky, whose novels are filled with dark moods and despair. A demagogue, in addition to hypnotic glibness, must also be intellectually inconsistent, sometimes boldly so. This eliminates challenges to authority by weeding out clear-thinking young people from the flock.

Ethics—self-interest. For Rand, all altruists were manipulators. What could be more seductive to kids who discerned the motives of martyr parents, Christian missionaries and U.S. foreign aide? Her champions, Nathaniel Branden still among them, feel that Rand’s view of “self-interest” has been horribly misrepresented. For them, self-interest is her hero architect Howard Roark turning down a commission because he couldn’t do it exactly his way. Some of Rand’s novel heroes did have integrity, however, for Rand there is no struggle to discover the distinction between true integrity and childish vanity. Rand’s integrity was her vanity, and it consisted of getting as much money and control as possible, copulating with whomever she wanted regardless of who would get hurt, and her always being right. To equate one’s selfishness, vanity, and egotism with one’s integrity liberates young people from the struggle to distinguish integrity from selfishness, vanity, and egotism.

Politics—capitalism. While Rand often disparaged Soviet totalitarian collectivism, she had little to say about corporate totalitarian collectivism, as she conveniently neglected the reality that giant U.S. corporations, like the Soviet Union, do not exactly celebrate individualism, freedom, or courage. Rand was clever and hypocritical enough to know that you don’t get rich in the United States talking about compliance and conformity within corporate America. Rather, Rand gave lectures titled: “America’s Persecuted Minority: Big Business.” So, young careerist corporatists could embrace Rand’s self-styled “radical capitalism” and feel radical — radical without risk.

Rand’s Legacy

In recent years, we have entered a phase where it is apparently okay for major political figures to publicly embrace Rand despite her contempt for Christianity. In contrast, during Ayn Rand’s life, her philosophy that celebrated self-interest was a private pleasure for the 1 percent but she was a public embarrassment for them. They used her books to congratulate themselves on the morality of their selfishness, but they publicly steered clear of Rand because of her views on religion and God. Rand, for example, had stated on national television, “I am against God. I don’t approve of religion. It is a sign of a psychological weakness. I regard it as an evil.”

Actually, again inconsistent, Rand did have a God. It was herself. She said:

I am done with the monster of “we,” the word of serfdom, of plunder, of misery, falsehood and shame. And now I see the face of god, and I raise this god over the earth, this god whom men have sought since men came into being, this god who will grant them joy and peace and pride. This god, this one word: “I.”

While Harriet Beecher Stowe shamed Americans about the United States’ dehumanization of African Americans and slavery, Ayn Rand removed Americans’ guilt for being selfish and uncaring about anyone except themselves. Not only did Rand make it “moral” for the wealthy not to pay their fair share of taxes, she “liberated” millions of other Americans from caring about the suffering of others, even the suffering of their own children.

The good news is that I’ve seen ex-Rand fans grasp the damage that Rand’s philosophy has done to their lives and to then exorcise it from their psyche. Can the United States as a nation do the same thing?

Bruce E. Levine is a practicing clinical psychologist. His latest book is Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite.

Raw Story

Six ways Trump is ‘dismantling’ the US after six months in office

By Dominic Rushe, Oliver Milman, Molly Redden, Jamiles Lartey, David Smith and Oliver LaughlanB

The Guardian

Trump has been paralyzed on healthcare and tax reform, but his administration has been active in eroding safeguards and protections elsewhere

Given all that Donald Trump promised the business world during his bombastic campaign, it’s tempting to dismiss the president’s first six months with a “meh”. It would also be myopic.

While protesters are worried about the future, the president has so far failed to pass his tax reforms, which business wanted. But at the same time fears that his China rhetoric, threats of trade wars and tweets about penalties for US businesses who ship jobs overseas, have not amounted to much.

The economic trends started under Obama have continued: stock markets have continued their giddy ride to uncharted highs, unemployment has continued to drift down and interest rates have remained low.

Trump’s overture may seem a little weak, but the president has already made significant moves and still more may be happening in the wings.

Trump has ordered a review of Dodd-Frank, the regulations brought in to tame US financial institutions after they triggered the worst recession in living memory. He has appointed a sworn enemy of net neutrality over at the Federal Communications Commission, who is now working to dismantle Obama-era open internet protections. He has freed up energy firms to start polluting rivers again and scrapped a rule that barred companies from receiving federal contracts if they had a history of violating wage, labour or safety laws.

After years of gains for consumer, environmental and worker rights groups, the pendulum is being swung the other way – but most often those changes are happening behind closed doors.

In March, Trump pledged to “remove every job-killing regulation we can find” and deregulation teams have been set up to comb through the statutes looking for rules to cull. A recent ProPublica and New York Times investigation found Trump’s deregulation teams were being conducted in the dark in large part by appointees with deep industry ties and potential conflicts of interest.

It’s hardly surprising given that the Trump administration has literally removed the White House visitors book, so we may never know who has been whispering in the president’s ear. Six months in, it is hard to tell what is being cut and by whom. We may never know the consequences of Trump’s regulation death squads until it’s too late.

In the past week, both Emmanuel Macron and Sir Richard Branson have claimed that Donald Trump has been gripped by regret over his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris climate agreement. But hopes that the US president will reverse this decision sit uneasily with the consistency of his administration’s environmental rollbacks.

In Scott Pruitt, Trump has an Environmental Protection Agency chief who understands how the agency works and how to hobble it. Pruitt, who has dismissed the mainstream scientific understanding of climate change, has spearheaded a concerted effort to excise or delay dozens of environmental rules.

Emissions standards for cars and trucks, the clean power plan, water pollution restrictions, a proposed ban on a pesticide linked to developmental problems in children, regulations that stop power plants dumping toxins such as mercury into their surrounds – all have been targeted with efficacious zeal by Pruitt.

The EPA administrator was also a fierce proponent of a US exit from the Paris accord, ensuring that Trump wasn’t swayed by doubts raised by Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, and Ivanka Trump, his daughter and adviser. The US won’t be able to officially pull out until 2020, but the decision has dealt a hefty blow to the effort to slow dangerous global warming and provided a tangible victory for the nationalist, climate change denying elements that now roam the White House.

Elsewhere, public land has been thrown open to coal mining – and oil and gas drilling is being ushered into America’s Arctic and Atlantic waters. Two dozen national monuments are under review, several may be shrunk or even eliminated.

Trump is delivering on his crusade to transport the environmental and industrial outlook of the late 19th century to the modern day.

In less than six months, Trump has begun to tear up almost all of the key planks of Barack Obama’s environmental agenda. This blitzkrieg is likely to slow now that it faces a thicket of legal action launched by enraged environmental groups and some states, such as New York. But to Trump’s supporters, the president, who pledged during the campaign to reduce the EPA to “tidbits”, is delivering on his crusade to transport the environmental and industrial outlook of the late 19th century to the modern day.

Donald Trump’s bluster over his harsh immigration reform – namely the implementation of a diluted Muslim-targeted travel ban and a crackdown on undocumented immigrants – belies the cost these self-proclaimed victories have had on both the fundamental institutions of democracy and the most vulnerable communities in the United States.

Take the travel ban, which targets refugees and visa applicants from six Muslim majority countries. The president’s first failed order, haphazardly issued in January, provoked scenes of chaos at airports around the country – temporarily separating families, cancelling legitimately issued visas and propelling the country toward a constitutional crisis, before a series of federal courts intervened to block it.

After his second attempt in March was blocked again in the lower courts, the president, seemingly without care for due process or respect for the co-equal branches of government, threatened to simply abolish the federal appeals court he incorrectly identified as responsible for the decision.

Trump’s bullish perseverance on the ban, which has left many in Muslim and refugee communities around the US living in fear, has resulted in a temporary ruling in the supreme court that allows a much diluted version of the order to come into effect. Although the president heralded the decision a victory, the ultimate test comes in autumn when the country’s highest court will ultimately rule on the ban’s constitutionality.

The president has also moved quickly to supercharge efforts to round up and deport undocumented immigrants. By empowering Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice), the federal agency responsible deportations, to target essentially anyone in the country without legal paperwork, the number of immigration arrests has soared. Although the administration has celebrated this uptick, it has actually been able to deport people at a much slower rate due to the crippling backlog inside America’s immigration courts.

Trump’s attempt at a solution to this has been to create a network of new courts, attached to remote detention centers and far from the reach of immigration attorneys. The strategy, plagued with due process concerns, has enjoyed mixed success. But, once again, it is those most vulnerable – many of whom have lived in America without paperwork for decades and have no criminal history – who have paid the highest price.

First, the good news. Donald Trump has not started a war. He has therefore, so far, avoided the worst-case scenario that some predicted for his presidency. One-eighth of the way through his term, he does not yet have a stain on his record like George W Bush has with Iraq. Instead his Twitter spats with cable TV hosts and their indulgence by the media are a luxury of peacetime.

But in other, important ways, the US president has set about diminishing America’s global leadership role and diplomatic standing. He has emphasized the defense of America and western civilization and downplayed democracy and human rights. He has warmed to authoritarian leaders in China, the Philippines, Russia and Saudi Arabia while going cold on Britain (still no visit), the European Union and Australia. His attacks on the press send an alarming message to dictators everywhere.

The world has noticed. A major survey of 37 countries by Pew Research last month found that just 22% of respondents had some or a great deal of confidence in Trump to do the right thing when it comes to international affairs. After his performance at NATO and G7 meetings, German chancellor Angela Merkel said pointedly: “The times in which we could completely depend on others are, to a certain extent, over. I’ve experienced that in the last few days. We Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands.” At the G20, he cut a lonely, isolated figure.

This damage could be undone relatively quickly but the “America first” president’s proposed 30% cut to the state department, where many top staff have left and not been replaced, threatens to be a lasting legacy. Max Bergmann, a former official, wrote in Politico: “The deconstruction of the state department is well underway … This is how diplomacy dies. Not with a bang, but with a whimper. With empty offices on a midweek afternoon.”

The outlier in Trump’s foreign policy came on 6 April, when the US launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at an airfield in Syria in retaliation for the regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. It was a move welcomed by hawks and loathed by “anti-globalists” in Trump’s support base. But the most urgent issue, enough to test any US president, is North Korea. There is little evidence so far to suggest he will succeed where others have failed.

Trump’s White House has wasted little time erasing many of the changes that advocates for trans rights, reproductive rights and survivors of sexual assault achieved under the Obama administration.

The Trump team is in the middle of sharply reversing how the federal government enforces laws against gender bias. In February, the administration withdrew the Obama-era guidelines requiring schools to give transgender students unfettered access to bathrooms and locker rooms matching their gender identity. And Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, may restrict the federal government’s ability to intervene when colleges and universities do a questionable job of handling students’ complaints of sexual assault.

Trump is also attempting to dismantle the nation’s public safety net for family planning, with an assist from his party in Congress. The president has signed legislation encouraging states to withhold federal family planning dollars from Planned Parenthood. The latest version of Republican’s attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act would eliminate the birth control mandate – which is also under fire from Trump’s health department – not to mention maternity coverage requirements.

Every repeal attempt has contained a measure to block women on Medicaid from using their insurance at Planned Parenthood – measures that would shutter scores of Planned Parenthood clinics across the country. And the administration is poised to give the green light to states, like Texas, that axe Planned Parenthood from their Medicaid programs.

The White House also has aims to zero out funding for the government-funded Legal Services Corporation, which is the main source of legal assistance for women attempting to escape domestic violence, when Congress passes a budget this fall.

Finally, there’s US supreme court justice Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s pick to replace the late Antonin Scalia, who observers say “has all the makings of an extreme anti-abortion justice”. Trump named Gorsuch eleven days into his presidency, fulfilling a longtime campaign promise to nominate justices who will vote to overturn Roe v Wade.

Much of what the federal government can do on criminal justice is left to Congress, since most criminal justice happens at state and local, rather than federal levels. However, Trump’s administration hasn’t spared much time doing what it can to reverse a roughly decades long retreat from the peak of tough-on-crime, mass-incarceration dogma.

So far, efforts on criminal justice have been much more sizzle than steak, but the prospect of dramatic policy change looms just around the corner. Stuffed in a suite of executive orders signed in February, Trump commissioned a task-force to make recommendations on combating “the menace of rising crime”, which has been an enduring theme of the administration despite being debunked by experts. That task-force, which reportedly, and curiously, does not include police chiefs or criminologists is scheduled to make its recommendations on 27 July.

“If you’re going to see anything from the Trump administration proposing new [or longer] mandatory minimums and a general return to the tough on crime tactics, I think you’ll see those recommendations made by the task force,” said Ames Grawert, a criminal justice researcher with the Brennan Center for Justice.

It remains unclear how much support there might be in Congress for taking up such recommendations. As recently as December there was real momentum behind a bipartisan bill to make sentencing less punitive, not more.

In the interim, attorney general Jeff Sessions has instructed federal prosecutors to seek the highest possible penalty in every case, and has championed initiatives to push state cases for federal prosecutors to obtain harsher sentencing.

In another reversal from the Obama era, Sessions has also signaled that the DOJ will not use its authority to investigate or reform local police departments, even in cases where gross negligence, or rampant civil rights violations may be occurring. Sessions tried, and failed, to pause a consent decree negotiated in Baltimore after the Freddie Gray unrest, and his department has so far flaked-out of a similar effort that was slated for Chicago under the previous administration.

“We will not sign consent decrees for political expediency that will cost more lives by handcuffing the police instead of the criminals,” Sessions wrote in an 18 April op-ed in USA Today.

The Guardian

Russia demands US return diplomat compounds before talks

By AFP | 17 July 2017 | 12:39 pm

The Guardian

The Kremlin said Washington must unconditionally restore its access to diplomatic compounds in the United States ahead of high-level talks on the issue.

Russia is angry that Washington is still barring its diplomats from using two compounds in the states of New York and Maryland after then president Barack Obama in December ordered the ban on access in response to suspected Russian meddling in the US election.

“We consider it absolutely unacceptable to place conditions on the return of diplomatic property, we consider that it must be returned without any conditions and talking,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists.

He spoke as Thomas Shannon, the US State Department’s third-in-command, was set to host Russia’s deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov in Washington later Monday.

Diplomats quoted by Russian news agencies said the issue of the residential complexes would be on their agenda.

The talks between Shannon and Ryabkov were earlier scheduled for June but Russia cancelled them, citing new US sanctions linked to the conflict in Ukraine.

When President Vladimir Putin and US counterpart Donald Trump met for the first time at the G20 summit in Hamburg this month, the Kremlin strongman raised the question “quite unambiguously,” Peskov said.

He added that “we still hope our American colleagues will show political wisdom and political will.”

Obama announced the US was shutting down residential complexes in December at the same time as he expelled 35 Russian diplomats for spying.

He said the measures were in response to US intelligence reports of Russian hacking and an alleged influence campaign to sway the US presidential election in Trump’s favor, describing the compounds as used by Moscow for “intelligence-related purposes.”

At the time Putin held off from retaliating, saying he would wait to see how Trump reacted after he came into the White House.

But hope that Trump will soon follow up on campaign pledges to boost relations have fizzled as any ties to Moscow have become toxic for the White House amid a maelstrom of US investigations into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.

Now Russia has decided to ratchet up threats that it could belatedly take revenge by blocking a country house and a storage facility used by the US Embassy in Moscow.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last week: “If Washington decides not to solve this issue, we will have to take counter actions.”

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova complained last week that the US was also refusing to issue visas for Russian diplomats to replace those expelled.

The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America

A Q&A with author Nancy MacLean about the elusive James McGill Buchanan.

By Kristin Miller | July 13, 2017

BillMoyers.com

Author Nancy MacLean has unearthed a stealth ideologue of the American right. Her book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, tells the story of one James McGill Buchanan, a Southern political scientist and father of “public choice economics.” MacLean details how this little-known figure has had a massive impact on the ideology of the far right. None other than Charles Koch looked to Buchanan’s theories for inspiration. They are libertarian — but with a twist: bluntly, it “entails restrictions on the freedom of the great majority in order to protect property rights and the prerogatives of the most well off.” MacLean shows how this idea can be traced down through the last 60 years of right-wing politics, starting with Brown v. The Board of Education and continuing with the Koch brothers’ empire. And she demonstrates that those followers and those in thrall to the Koch billions are pumping up their fight under the new administration.

Kristin Miller talked with Nancy MacLean about her books and the influence of James McGill Buchanan on our politics both overt and covert. Read an excerpt of Democracy in Chains.

Kristin Miller: Did you know anything about Buchanan before you started your research?

Nancy MacLean: I did not. I had actually never heard of him, probably like most people in the country. I found him in the course of researching something else and I kept finding him in the archives on different important matters that shocked me, and so I began to make him the focus of the research.

KM: Just what is his theory of “public choice economics”?

NM: Buchanan was trained at the University of Chicago and was part of the same milieu as Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek and others whose names are more well known. What he did that was different from them is take the tools that he learned at the University of Chicago and apply them to public life. So he looked at public actors, including elected officials, as self-interested, as people who were not really seeking the common good, not really trying to advance the public interest, but really serving their own interests.

His theory of the motives of public actors was so cynical as to be utterly corrosive of the norms of a democratic society, as people pointed out along the way, but he would not listen.

— Nancy MacLean

So in the case of elected officials, he said that their real interest, their main interest was being re-elected. He was in public finance, so his contribution there was to say that because they were interested in being elected and because they weren’t paying for the things that they were doing from their own pockets, they didn’t care about running up deficits. They would promise one thing to environmentalists, say, and one thing to retirees and another thing to public schools and not care about raising adequate revenue to cover those things. He was not entirely wrong about that. But his theory of the motives of public actors was so cynical as to be utterly corrosive of the norms of a democratic society, as people pointed out along the way, but he would not listen.

KM: How does that theory flow into the idea that it is democracy versus liberty?

NM: He was setting to work in Virginia in the late 1950s. Virginia had the most oligarch elite of the entire South. And he understood the system in Virginia as a kind of outpost of liberty and he posed as his own mission to preserve liberty, the liberty advocated by the leaders of Virginia, like Sen. Harry Byrd. That liberty was very compatible with restrictions on the freedom of the great majority. So labor unions did not have free ability to operate in Virginia. Civil rights activists certainly did not. There was very poor transparency in the state in terms of reporting about the things that were going on. His version of liberty entails restrictions on the freedom of the great majority in order to protect property rights and the prerogatives of the most well-off systems.

KM: How does this differ say from libertarianism as preached by Ron Paul and that sort of wing of the Republican or libertarian parties?

NM: I was really entering a whole new world here. I mean, not just Buchanan’s public choice school of economics, but I had actually not paid much attention to libertarianism before either. But it turns out that most of them do draw from these common sources and one of the key figures in that — a guy named Murray Rothbard, who Charles Koch sustained for a while — he traced the core libertarian idea to John C. Calhoun, the pro-slavery theorist of the 19th century, who had his own version of liberty and basically looked at taxes as exploitative. So here was a man who made his living and his wealth by enslaving men, women and children said that that was not exploitation but what was exploitation was when less-wealthy citizens went to government for things like public education, good roads, canals and all those kinds of things. So he actually posed it as what we would call today makers and takers. So Calhoun saw himself as a maker and saw other citizens, white citizens at the time, who were the ones voting for these things, as takers, and that idea flowed into modern libertarianism — this notion that there isn’t exploitation in the economic realm, the exploitation comes from the political realm, where majorities gang up on minorities of propertied individuals.

So actually, Ron Paul is connected to that whole set of ideas. It’s kind of like the revolutionaries of the left, the Bolsheviks and all the groups they wrought. So there are various differences among them, but for the people who are the core ideologues of libertarianism and the core architects in building this movement, there are certain common views and what I’m describing is one of them, the notion that property rights are the crucial human right and that they are central to liberty and that liberty includes the ability of individuals to veto what a democracy comes up with.

For the people who are the core ideologues of libertarianism…there are certain common views and (one is) the notion that property rights are the crucial human right and that they are central to liberty and that liberty includes the ability of individuals to veto what a democracy comes up with.

— Nancy MacLean

KM: You referred to a movement as a fifth column. Is it still a stealth movement, do you feel, or is it more in the open these days?

NM: I think it’s both, and that’s its strength. It’s not actually a conspiracy in the legal definition, because a conspiracy involves illegal behavior, and this cause is so rich, so wealthy, that they can hire the best legal talent to make sure that they’re operating within the law — with the possible exception of nonprofit law. But at the same time, it is so vast and so well-funded — the amount of money being circulated through these operations is larger than the major political parties. There are literally dozens — not just dozens, but hundreds of organizations, if you count the state level ones and the international ones, that are ostensibly separate but really working together on this. So I don’t think “fifth column” is necessarily the best term, but it identifies that element of their thought, which is really so far on the radical right that they have such a hostile attitude toward our democracy; it’s almost as if they’re outsiders bent on what one of them called a hostile takeover.

KM: Who are the people now that we should be watching, and what kind of tactics should we be looking out for?

NM: Well, the first thing I’d say is stop paying such attention to Trump’s tweets. They’re a total distraction. I think we should instead be carefully watching the actions of groups like Freedom Partners, Chamber of Commerce, the Koch’s big donor operation. The Club for Growth is another part of this, and Americans for Prosperity on the ground.

I think you could also watch for their language. This is a cause that has opposed social security from its creation. These people are totally hostile to the principle of social insurance. They think we should all be individually responsible for our needs, ultimately. But they also know that that’s a terribly unpopular thing to say. Huge majorities of American people support Social Security, support Medicare, want to make them better and stronger. Buchanan advised in great detail about Social Security at the beginning of the early 1980s. What they need to do is fear monger and create a sense of crisis that these programs are unsustainable, they’ll never be solvent. So they use an Orwellian language of reform when really what they want to do is undermine the program. I think the first thing to do would be ask them fundamental questions, like do you support the principle of Social Security, do you support the principle of Medicare?

I think people should also resist any further effort to privatize anything until we get to the bottom of this. They are using privatization not because it was more efficient, as they would say publicly, but as they talked about among themselves, privatization radically alters power relations in our society by weakening groups like public employees and public school teachers.

There is really a calculated effort going on to undermine all of our collective institutions and some of the great social reforms of the 20th century — such as labor unions, the AARP, civil rights groups.

— Nancy MacLean

There is really a calculated effort going on to undermine all of our collective institutions and some of the great social reforms of the 20th century — such as labor unions, the AARP, civil rights groups. We’ve seen the attacks, beginning in Wisconsin, on the right of workers to collective bargaining. We’ve seen passage of right to work legislation in many states and efforts even to put right to work legislation into the constitutions of states so that it cannot be changed by future generations.

So I think if we understand what the strategy is and what the endgame is, we’ll be in a better position to stop it and get the country back on a course that most of us would want of fairness, of sustainability, of one person, one vote.

KM: And I mean, Trump himself said he was not one of these people, but do you see things that he’s done in his administration that are right out of their playbook already?

NM: Yes. I don’t think there’s as much light between Donald Trump and the Kochs as they would all like us to believe. I’m a historian, not a journalist. That will be for future journalists to cover. But I will say that Trump certainly shares much of this ideology. When he speaks of the swamp, he’s using a language and a code that’s different from what most liberals think. So people keep saying, “You’re not fulfilling your promises of draining the swamp in your conduct in office,” but his view of the swamp is a Buchananite view of the swamp, so it refers to all of those who make claims on government for things they cannot get alone in the market. So he has actually acted to destroy basically our system of environmental regulations, to undermine workers’ power, to stop civil rights enforcement. All of those things flow from the Buchanan-Koch playbook. And Donald Trump is surrounded by people who are veterans of this Koch apparatus. So, I saw by one report, 70 percent of his top senior appointees are coming from that network, and that includes of course his vice president, Mike Pence. It also includes the White House liaison to Congress, Mark Short. It includes Scott Pruitt at the EPA.

KM: How do we make the Koch organization more visible, if it’s not for work like yours and Jane Mayer’s?

NM: The crucial thing for people to realize that this cause is doing what it is because it knows it is a permanent minority cause. And if the vast majority of people ever understood what it is really about or what it is trying to do to our society and our politics, they would rally against it. You see it again and again where they realize, “Oh my gosh, people will never support us” you know, “if we tell the truth,” from Barry Goldwater’s campaign forward. Frankly, our legislators in Washington are going to need to be reinvigorated by the grass-roots understanding of these things.

The crucial thing for people to realize that this cause is doing what it is because it knows it is a permanent minority cause. And if the vast majority of people ever understood what it is really about or what it is trying to do to our society and our politics, they would rally against it.

— Nancy MacLean

We’re trying to expose this and to help people to understand that what they’re telling even the voters they’re relying on is not the truth. And that to me is especially chilling. There are a couple of great social scientists, Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, who wrote a book about the tea party in which they went out to talk to as many tea party groups in the country as they could. They met with just hundreds and hundreds, I think, of rank-and-file tea party members, and they could not find a single rank-and-file tea party member who wanted the privatization of Social Security and Medicare, and yet that’s what the Koch operation is doing in putting itself at the head of these tea party groups. It’s using them as a kind of battering ram to get this billionaire donor agenda.

Most Americans believe in fairness; we believe that people should work hard but there should be a safety net. We believe in saving the quality of our air and water for our children. Most Americans want action on climate change. You can just go through the list. Most Americans believe in progressive taxation. The people are not as divided as this operation has made us with its endless agitation of kind of culture war issues.

And one more thing I think I should add on that front is we also need to pay attention to the state level, because this cause has very strategically gone after power over state governments. We saw, after 2010, the most radical gerrymander in history, and with that gerrymandered power, they’ve pushed through very unpopular agendas in numerous states. What you’re seeing at the state level, what you’re seeing at the federal level, what you’re seeing in pulling out of the Paris climate talks — all of these things come together and are being driven by this huge apparatus. I think just having that clarity to see the connections and realize that it’s not our fellow citizens who are doing this to us so much as that class of radical-right donors. I think that will be hugely empowering to people.

KM: And you believe that they have that messianic strain to them?

NM: I think the left and liberals have grossly underestimated Charles Koch. I think he’s an absolutely brilliant man. The guy has three engineering degrees from MIT. He refuses to take his company public because he doesn’t want to answer to stockholders who will want to think about the next quarter when he’d like to be thinking about 30 years from now. I think he is a very deep and strategic thinker and I think he is also — yes, has a messianic vision. He’s compared himself to Martin Luther — saying that he wants to unleash the kind of force that propelled Columbus to his discovery.

Now, he’s also though enough of a good manager to think about the self-interest of others. What he’s done is beautifully exploit the self-interest of varied people who can get him what he wants. Maybe they believe in these things, maybe they don’t, but they share an interest in moving the ball down the field.

Similarly, he’s exploiting the religious right. I mean, this is a man who, from everything I’ve read, is not very religious himself, and libertarianism as a cause has always had lots of committed atheists who sneer at people who believe in God. You certainly think of Ayn Rand, right? But they are activating the religious right to provide a source of votes that otherwise they would lack.

I do not believe he’s acting from crude self-interest, venal self-interest, as many people have implied. I think this is his mission, to change the world and to enshrine his version of liberty. But he’s a shrewd enough actor to bring all these other people into the fold.

I think another really interesting approach would be for voters around the country to start holding their elected officials accountable, and I hope that would include moderate Republican voters too. Are you willing to stand on principle even if they primary you and drive you from office?

The Senate health care bill’s support is under 20 percent around the country. In not a single state is there majority support for this bill, and yet most of the Republican candidates in the Senate are lining up to support this bill. Why is that? That’s because they’re afraid of the Koch donor network. We have to just really help people to understand the deep spine of this — to X-ray what’s happening and understand where the real forces of power are moving and be able to focus on those.

Kristin Miller is a senior producer for Billmoyers.com. She has worked on Now with Bill Moyers, Bill Moyers on Faith & Reason, Moyers on America and Bill Moyers Journal. She’s also been a producer for TED, Sesame Street and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

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Staff Reports