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TBR News January 11, 2018

Jan 11 2018

The Voice of the White House

Washington, D.C. January 11, 2018:”The Wolff book on the inner workings of the Trump administration is relatively light-weight but Washington contacts who know what is going on say it is reasonably accurate in depicting the utter chaos in the White House.

The book is becoming a best seller, thanks to Trump’s fury and his subsequent bluster and no doubt he will want the author immediately arrested and executed.

I have read the book and for ambience and understanding it is well worth reading.”


Table of Contents

  • California in revolt: how the progressive state plans to foil the Trump agenda
  • Vermont to become 1st state to legalize marijuana via legislature
  • Dems to Sessions: ‘You can pry legal pot from our warm, interesting-to-look- at hands’
  • Steve Bannon’s demise is not the end of Trumpism
  • Beyond the gossip, Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury reveals a president in crisis
  • Korea: Peace Breaks Out
  • Air Raids and Missile Attacks Show Israel Flexing Its Muscles in Syria
  • Armed Federal Agents Enter Warehouse in Puerto Rico to Seize Hoarded Electric Equipment


California in revolt: how the progressive state plans to foil the Trump agenda

From immigration to the environment and recreational cannabis, state leaders and activists are finding paths to circumvent the administration. Will it work?

January 11, 2018

by Sam Levin in San Francisco

The Guardian

California prides itself on being first with progressive laws on climate change, labor rights and marijuana. In 2018, the Golden State’s “firsts” are defensive – bold proposals and legal maneuvers to protect citizens from Donald Trump.

State leaders have pushed legislation and lawsuits to circumvent and undo Trump’s agenda on immigration, the environment, internet freedom and other liberal causes. One of the most consequential victories came Tuesday when a judge in San Francisco blocked the Trump administration’s plan to end a program that allows 800,000 undocumented people to study and work in the US.

At the same time, activists have also launched grassroots campaigns to shield residents from the White House’s attacks – and to pressure local Democrats to do more to mobilize the largest state against the president.


California lawmakers have adopted the most expansive “sanctuary state” law in the country, restricting police from questioning people about citizenship status and limiting cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice).

The state has also taken the Trump administration to court to challenge his travel ban on Muslim-majority countries and his decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca) program.

A US judge in San Francisco sided with California on Tuesday in the Daca battle, ruling that the Obama-era program that protects “Dreamers” – undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children – must remain in place.

But Trump – who has a reputation for being vindictive and has openly expressed disdain for California – is on track to retaliate. Ice already arrested hundreds in targeted raids in sanctuary cities last year, and the agency’s acting director has promised to ramp up deportations in the state this year, even suggesting California politicians should be prosecuted.

Across California, vast networks of attorneys and volunteer advocates have formed, leading the resistance to Ice on the ground, sometimes saving lives in the process.

Though Obama deported more immigrants than any other president, the need is even greater now with Ice indiscriminately picking up people in raids, according to Maria Sofia Corona-Alamillo, an attorney working with the Los Angeles County Rapid Response Network.

“The immediate goal is to provide a first line of defense for community members that are facing removal from the country and imprisonment in government-run detention centers, which we for many reasons find inhumane.”

Last year, she said the network mobilized after Ice agents showed up to an auto repair shop with guns drawn and, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, arrested a group of workers even though they had a warrant for only one individual. Ice declined to comment.

Jennifer Lee Koh, an attorney with a Sacramento network, said she represented a Mexican immigrant who was apprehended and threatened with deportation last year. Instead of the typical outcome of removal, the network helped the man, who has three young children, get temporary relief, and he is now on track to get a green card.

“We counter this climate of fear and terror that a lot of these enforcement actions bring to these communities,” said Hamid Yazdan Panah, attorney coordinator with the Northern California Rapid Response Network.

There’s more legislators could to proactively protect immigrants, activists argued. Koh urged California governor Jerry Brown to issue more pardons to immigrants threatened with deportation due to previous criminal convictions.

Some have argued that stricter enforcement of sanctuary rules is necessary considering that even in liberal jurisdictions like Los Angeles and Oakland, local police have been caught continuing to assist Ice.

Javier Hernandez, director of the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice, said California should provide “universal representation” – ensuring access to lawyers for all immigrants facing deportation: “Give everyone a fair chance to fight.”

Oil drilling

Trump unveiled a plan last week to open up US offshore territory to oil and gas drilling, including previously protected areas along the Pacific ocean.

The administration later reversed its position, saying it would not allow drilling off the Florida coast, following pressure from the state’s Republican governor. That further fueled claims that Trump was again targeting California, which has the world’s sixth largest economy and overwhelmingly voted against the president.

Brown condemned the decision, and lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom said the state was working to prevent new federal drilling leases.

“We have a beautiful pristine coastline. We are going to do everything in our power to make sure it remains that way,” said state senate leader Kevin de León.

Despite the defiant statements, environmentalists argued that Brown has a poor record on oil and gas, with not-for-profit Consumer Watchdog pointing to his administration’s approval of more than 200 new offshore wells between 2012 and 2016.

Brown should halt all offshore drilling in state waters, said Liza Tucker, the group’s energy project director: “That would be truly drawing a line in the sand.”

Brown’s spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.


Days after California launched what is expected to be the largest recreational cannabis market in the world, US attorney general Jeff Sessions announced he was repealing an Obama-era policy that had allowed states to legalize pot.

Amid bipartisan backlash, California lawmakers said they were preparing to resist a potential crackdown on weed through a new law that could establish a “sanctuary state” for cannabis.

Assemblyman Reginald Byron Jones-Sawyer said he knows seniors, veterans, relatives and others who depend on medical cannabis – motivating him to advance legislation that would block the state from assisting federal authorities in arrests, investigations or prosecution targeting legal operations.

“Jeff Sessions’ call for cannabis enforcement is not only ill-conceived, it’s still that federal war on drugs that hasn’t worked … which is really a war on African Americans and Latinos.”

Criminal justice reform advocates have also urged California leaders to decrease its prison and jail populations for drug crimes and help people with past convictions work in the legal market.

Sessions’ attacks have “only advanced our cause quicker and further”, added Erich Pearson, a cannabis CEO in San Francisco: “We’re in a much more organized time than we’ve ever been.”


Trump’s tax reform legislation, the most drastic change to the code in 30 years, is slated to hurt California by setting a $10,000 cap on the amount of property and income taxes that residents can deduct from federal taxes. The average California deduction was nearly $8,500 more than the new cap, according to one analysis, meaning many stand to suffer.

Lawmakers, however, are hoping to bypass Trump’s policy with the Protect California Taxpayers Act, which would allow state residents to make charitable donations to a fund and receive a tax credit in exchange.

“We won’t allow California residents to be the casualty of this disastrous tax scheme,” de León said in a statement.

If the bill is successful, other states could follow suit.

Net neutrality

In a state home to the world’s most powerful technology companies, the recent repeal of net neutrality rules, designed to protect an open internet, sparked significant protests. The win for Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chair Ajit Pai, a Trump appointee, dismantled regulations that ensured internet service providers (ISPs) treated all websites equally and couldn’t charge some more for delivering certain services.

While Democrats in Washington DC work to overturn the repeal, California lawmakers are working to reinstate net neutrality in the Golden State. The bill would empower California regulators and law enforcement to establish and enforce net neutrality requirements on ISPs operating in the state.


Vermont to become 1st state to legalize marijuana via legislature

January 11, 2018


Vermont is about to become the first state to legalize recreational marijuana without a voter ballot initiative. The bill comes as a US senator takes on US Attorney General Jeff Sessions for reversing federal enforcement policy.

On Wednesday, the Democratic-controlled Vermont Senate passed a bill to legalize recreational marijuana use, making it the first state in the nation to do so strictly through the legislative process, rather than via direct democracy in the form of a ballot initiative.

The bill, which is expected to be signed into law by Governor Phil Scott, a Republican, would permit those aged 21 and over to possess up to one ounce of marijuana, two adult plants and four immature plants beginning July 1. Retail sales of the drug will have to be approved by a commission that was created in 2017 to study how to tax and regulate cannabis.

The new law would put Vermont at odds with US Attorney General Sessions, who last week rescinded the Cole Memorandum rule set forth by President Barack Obama, which eased enforcement of federal marijuana laws in states that opted to regulate marijuana outside the confines of federal prohibition.

In retaliation for Sessions’ decision, US Senator Cory Gardner (R-Colorado) said he would hold up US Department of Justice nominations until Sessions reverts back to the Obama-era policy. Gardner met with Sessions on Wednesday to further discuss the controversial move.

“There was no breakthrough yet,” Gardner said of his meeting with Sessions, according to NPR. “But I hope there will be.”

Also on Wednesday, a study released by New Frontier Data, which analyses data on the cannabis industry, forecast if marijuana was fully legal in all 50 states, it would create at least $131.8 billion in combined federal tax revenue between 2017 and 2025.

The study also reveals that 782,000 additional jobs would be created nationwide if marijuana were legalized today.

“I have not changed my decision to hold these nominations until we have a commitment that lives up to what I believe was given to me prior to the confirmation.”


Dems to Sessions: ‘You can pry legal pot from our warm, interesting-to-look- at hands’

January 4, 2018


Colorado Democrats have issued a warning to Jeff Sessions following the US Attorney General’s order to undo regulations allowing the recreational use of marijuana.

Drawing from an infamous speech given by the actor and former NRA president Charlton Heston, Democrats from the state senate took to Twitter to give their response to the move.

Heston made the remarks during an NRA event prior to the US presidential election in 2000. Holding a rifle above his head, the ‘Ben-Hur’ star declared that Democratic candidate Al Gore could pry his Second Amendment rights from his “cold, dead hands.” It is seen as a seminal moment for conservative Americans – and such is the reaction to Colorado Senate Democrats tweet, the phrase could prove similarly profound for marijuana-loving Americans too.

The Democrats did not stop there, following up with a series of tweets in which they pointed out the amount of revenue generated arising out of the legalization of marijuana. They then called on Sessions to investigate corruption and white collar crime in Washington, DC. “If only there was some way we could mellow him out,” the tweet read.

Others were quick to point out that Sessions’ efforts would be better served tackling the opioid crisis ravaging the US.


Steve Bannon’s demise is not the end of Trumpism

Steve Bannon’s falling out with President Donald Trump followed by his exit from Breitbart News may tamp down the nationalist sentiment within the White House. But it doesn’t mean Trumpism is dead

by Michael Knigge

January 11, 2018


If there is one thing to keep in mind about what makes President Donald Trump tick, it is this: Ultimately everything is always about Donald Trump and his core family. This simple, but essential rule helps shed light on what to make of Steve Bannon’s nasty public banishment from Trump’s circle of friends, advisors and donors.

Applying this rule helps explain the split between Trump and Bannon. What hurt Bannon more than anything else were probably his vicious comments about Trump himself, and his children Ivanka and Donald Jr., not his political musings or the fact that he spilled the beans about the inner workings of the White House to the author of a brutal take-down book.

But applying this rule that when push comes to shove Trump ultimately only cares about himself and his family also helps explain why Bannon’s demise does not mean the end of Trumpism. Because Trumpism, to the extent it exists, was never about Steve Bannon, nationalism, isolationism, or for that matter about anything resembling something close to a coherent ideology or a mature worldview.

Core of Trumpism

Trumpism, understood correctly, at its core, could always be summed up as Donald Trump first. This, by the way, was true long before Trump became president or even before his candidacy. According to his biographers it has been always been this way. And that’s why Trumpism will remain with us even after Steve Bannon is gone, just as it did after the exit of previous highly praised people in Trump’s orbit such as former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, former White House spokesman Anthony Scaramucci and numerous others.

Having said that, it is of course true that Steve Bannon was arguably more influential in shaping the president’s broader political agenda and views than most other non-family members. But it is also true, as President Trump has said, that Bannon only became his presidential campaign manager after Trump had already defeated a large field of Republican candidates and clinched the party’s nomination.

Trump’s nefarious anti-immigration remarks in declaring his intention to run for president back in 2015, in which he accused Mexico of sending “rapists” to the US and vowed to build a “great, great wall” along the southern US border, were made without Bannon’s involvement. But while the now former head of right-wing website Breitbart News had no official role in the campaign at the time, he and Trump reportedly knew, liked and talked to each other even before latter’s candidacy. It is therefore likely that his ideas already resonated with Trump back then.

Odd couple

In a way, and for a time, the couple were a perfect match. Bannon, a former Goldman Sachs banker turned economic nationalist who boasted about making Breitbart into a platform for the alt-right and was yearning for a revolution in Washington, met Trump, a real estate mogul with the biggest aspirations for himself, but devoid of any sort of coherent political worldview beyond a vague winner-take-all mentality.

Trump, ready to say just about anything to win, became the perfect vehicle to advance Bannon’s crude ideological views to the highest office in the country. And Trump was eager and happy to have someone who supplied him with ideas that, most importantly, grabbed the public’s attention and kept him in the limelight on his way to an unexpected election victory.

But since Trump’s surprising election victory Bannon’s star was already beginning to shine too brightly for a president who craves the limelight . A Time Magazine cover featuring Bannon and the headline “the great manipulator” shortly after the inauguration reportedly irked Trump, who is rumored to keep track of how often he appears on the front of the publication.

GOP and Trump 

Things went slowly downhill from there for Bannon and seemingly culminated in his exit from the White House last summer. Back then, Trump still had friendly words to say about Bannon. Now, though, the president has blasted Bannon in a strongly worded press release and via Twitter. Rebekah Mercer, whose right-wing billionaire father was a major donor to the Trump campaign and had financed Breitbart, subsequently announced her family was cutting ties with Bannon.

Predictably, many establishment Republicans in Congress and elsewhere who had fought Bannon tooth and nail all along celebrated Trump’s public break with their nemesis, hoping to increase their sway over Trump now that Bannon is gone.

But they should not get their hopes up too high. Because as evidenced during the presidential campaign and since when he openly lambasted the party and its leaders, Trump is not beholden to the Republican establishment. Trump will work with the GOP when he believes it suits him personally and he won’t when he believes it does not. That’s because the core of Trumpism remains unchanged whether Steve Bannon is gone or not: Donald Trump first.

Beyond the gossip, Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury reveals a president in crisis

Donald Trump’s staff knew he shouldn’t be president. Now they have to deal with the fact that he is.

January 9, 2018,

by Ezra Klein


As the old saying goes, every cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and ends as a racket. Donald Trump’s political career has proceeded in reverse. It began as a racket, became a business, sparked a movement, and ended in a presidency. It is that bizarre, benighted progression, argues Michael Wolff in his book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, that explains much of the Trump administration’s irresolvable dysfunction.

Wolff’s tell-all has launched to enviable press, publicity, and controversy. President Trump dismissed it as “a Fake Book, written by a totally discredited author,” while also directing his lawyers to try to stop its publication. (They failed, though the effort shot the book up the best-seller lists).

At the same time, Trump has treated its revelations as gospel truth, launching a blood feud against Steve Bannon, his former chief strategist, based on Wolff’s recounting of Bannon’s comments. The media has delighted over the backbiting, sniping, leaking, and despair that Wolff got on the record — or, depending on whom you believe, did not get on the record but published anyway.

Fire and Fury has its limits. It’s heavily based on a few sources — Ben Domenech, in an allusion to Hillary Clinton’s post-election tome, calls it “Steve Bannon’s What Happened” — and riddled with typos and small but glaring factual errors (like that John Boehner left the House in 2011, rather than 2015).

At the same time, the book, read as a whole, contains real insight into the inner workings of the Trump administration. Though it presents itself as an insider account of Trump’s first months in office, it is too narrow in scope to serve that purpose: Wolff is clearly bored by questions of governance and policy, so there’s relatively little about what the Trump administration actually did, and why it did it.

Instead, Wolff has written an insider’s account of what it’s like to work for Donald Trump. This is a book about the collection of cronies, opportunists, misfits, functionaries, family members, and public servants who have tried to construct something that acts and operates like a presidency around a man who neither acts nor operates like a president, a man they all know shouldn’t be the president.

More importantly, it is a book about why they’re failing.

Trump wasn’t supposed to win

What you need to understand about Trump’s presidency, Wolff says, it that it was never meant to happen. And if it had never happened, perhaps it would have all worked out fine.

The beginning of Fire and Fury is about what Trump’s team, including the candidate, expected to do after he lost. Steve Bannon “would become the de facto head of the Tea Party movement,” Kellyanne Conway “would now be one of the leading conservative voices on cable news,” Reince Priebus and Katie Walsh “would get their Republican Party back,” Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump “would have transformed themselves from relatively obscure rich kids into international celebrities,” and Melania Trump “could return to inconspicuously lunching.”

As for Donald Trump? His plans were, well, yuge. He “would be the most famous man in the world.” Alongside Roger Ailes, he was thinking of launching his own television network — Trump TV, a network by him, about him, and for the millions and millions of people he had proven he understood better than the Republican Party, Fox News, or Paul Ryan.

“I don’t think about losing because it isn’t losing,” Trump reportedly told Ailes a week before the election, when he and everyone else thought he was going to lose. “We’ve totally won.”

The Trump campaign began as a nice racket. Get some money from the rich guy with the big ego and the checkbook to match. It took off, and it became a nice business — if you’d jumped aboard early, you rocketed to the forefront of conservative politics, bypassing the careerists and operatives who got the blue-chip political jobs you couldn’t, the bootlickers and Ivy Leaguers who had looked down on you for so long. To get a candidate that flawed to the nomination, to a respectable loss, that was miracle work, and you would be seen as a miracle worker.

Trump’s staff, Wolff says, knew that it wasn’t meant to go beyond that. “Almost everybody in the campaign, still an extremely small outfit, thought of themselves as a clear-eyed team, as realistic about their prospects as perhaps any in politics. The unspoken agreement among them: not only would Donald Trump not be president, he should probably not be. Conveniently, the former conviction meant nobody had to deal with the latter issue.”

Then they had to. Wolff frames the reckoning nicely:

The Trump campaign had, perhaps less than inadvertently, replicated the scheme from Mel Brooks’s The Producers. In that classic, Brooks’s larcenous and dopey heroes, Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom, set out to sell more than 100 percent of the ownership stakes in the Broadway show they are producing. Since they will be found out only if the show is a hit, everything about the show is premised on its being a flop. Accordingly, they create a show so outlandish that it actually succeeds, thus dooming our heroes.To Wolff, many of the Trump administration’s current problems lie in this cracked foundation. Why release your tax returns if you’re never going to win? What’s the harm in sucking up to Russia’s government if you’re likelier to build a hotel in Moscow than to occupy the White House? Who needs to build a real policy operation, or work through a process of educating the candidate on major policy issues, if he’s never going to govern? Why concern yourself with conflicts of interest or business entanglements if they’re never going to matter?

But all of this raises the question: What was so awful about Trump that even his own staff, his own family, believed he shouldn’t be president?

“The central issue of the Trump presidency”: Trump is not fit to be president

Wolff’s book is full of, um, candid assessments of Donald Trump’s intellectual capacity — although many of them, it should be said, appear to be second- or thirdhand, so believe the specific wording at your own risk.

“An idiot,” according to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and, separately, former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Wolff wrote.

“A fucking idiot,” according to Rupert Murdoch.

“A fucking moron,” according to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

“A child,” according to former Deputy Chief of Staff Katie Walsh.

“A dope,” according to National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.

“Dumb as shit,” according to National Economics Council Director Gary Cohn.

The value of Wolff’s book, though, isn’t in the judgments themselves, but in the more nuanced portrait of Trump’s deficiencies. For instance:

Here was, arguably, the central issue of the Trump presidency, informing every aspect of Trumpian policy and leadership: he didn’t process information in any conventional sense — or, in a way, he didn’t process it at all. Trump didn’t read. He didn’t really even skim. If it was print, it might as well not exist. Some believed that for all practical purposes he was no more than semiliterate.


For anything that smacked of a classroom or of being lectured to — “professor” was one of his bad words, and he was proud of never going to class, never buying a textbook, never taking a note — he got up and left the room. This was a problem in multiple respects — indeed, in almost all the prescribed functions of the presidency.


What was, to many of the people who knew Trump well, much more confounding was that he had managed to win this election, and arrive at this ultimate accomplishment, wholly lacking what in some obvious sense must be the main requirement of the job, what neuroscientists would call executive function. He had somehow won the race for president, but his brain seemed incapable of performing what would be essential tasks in his new job. He had no ability to plan and organize and pay attention and switch focus; he had never been able to tailor his behavior to what the goals at hand reasonably required. On the most basic level, he simply could not link cause and effect.


Here was another peculiar Trump attribute: an inability to see his actions the way most others saw them. Or to fully appreciate how people expected him to behave. The notion of the presidency as an institutional and political concept, with an emphasis on ritual and propriety and semiotic messaging — statesmanship — was quite beyond him.

Wolff also quotes an internal White House email, apparently representing Gary Cohn’s views:

It’s worse than you can imagine. An idiot surrounded by clowns. Trump won’t read anything — not one-page memos, not the brief policy papers; nothing. He gets up halfway through meetings with world leaders because he is bored.

The picture painted of Trump in Wolff’s book is the same picture painted of Trump by Trump’s own tweets, speeches, comments, and actions, as well as the constant on- and off-the-record statements of his staff. It is similar to what I, and many other reporters who have covered this White House, have heard from top staff. Trump is not cognitively up to the job of the presidency. He’s not just someone who doesn’t know much about policy or foreign affairs, he’s someone who doesn’t want to know much about policy or foreign affairs, who dislikes the methods by which you actually could learn about policy or foreign affairs.

In this telling, Trump’s ignorance isn’t an absence of knowledge; it’s closer to a personality trait, perhaps even an ideology.

And while there’s been some pushback to individual stories and quotes in Wolff’s account, there’s really not been pushback to these assessments. Axios’s Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei, who are deeply sourced in the Trump administration, write that while they believe parts of Wolff’s book “are wrong, sloppy, or betray off-the-record confidence,” the sections relating to “how Trump processes (and resists) information,” his preference for “instinct over expertise,” his “ill-preparedness,” and the “low regard” in which he’s held by key aides “ring unambiguously true.”

How do you build a functional presidency without a functional president?

So what happens when a man who isn’t fit to be president and a campaign that never expected to staff and manage a presidency unexpectedly wins the White House? Chaos.

Most of Wolff’s book recounts the dual-front challenge of the Trump administration’s first few months in office.

Challenge 1: How do you please, placate, manage, constrain, and inform a raging child-king? The answer, embarrassing but at this point known to Trump’s staff and to any foreign government that might want to curry America’s favor, is flattery and sycophancy.

Challenge 2: How do you harness the remarkable opportunity you’ve been given to actually build something of value?

The central struggle of Trump’s early months was between chief strategist Steve Bannon, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, and chief son-in-law Jared Kushner. All of them, in their proximity to power, saw the potential to build a presidency they could be proud of, or at least less disgraced by:

Each man saw the president as something of a blank page — or a scrambled one. And each, Walsh came to appreciate with increasing incredulity, had a radically different idea of how to fill or remake that page. Bannon was the alt-right militant. Kushner was the New York Democrat. And Priebus was the establishment Republican. “Steve wants to force a million people out of the country and repeal the nation’s health law and lay on a bunch of tariffs that will completely decimate how we trade, and Jared wants to deal with human trafficking and protecting Planned Parenthood.” And Priebus wanted Donald Trump to be another kind of Republican altogether …

As Walsh saw it, Steve Bannon was running the Steve Bannon White House, Jared Kushner was running the Michael Bloomberg White House, and Reince Priebus was running the Paul Ryan White House.

This struggle was hardly a genteel conflict of ideas. Wolff delightedly chronicles the three factions’ endless ratfucking — the leaks, the schemes, the backbiting, the outside heavies brought in to change Trump’s mind at the last minute.

The conflict was so immense precisely because the president was incapable of, and uninterested in, resolving it. Trump never gave a damn about Trumpism. He’s not interested enough in policy or ideology or ideas to direct the course of his own presidency. Absent that interest, the course will be directed by the most firmly established interests around the president — in this case, the congressional GOP and his family.

Wolff’s primary source for the book was clearly Bannon — many of the chapters proceed from his perspective, and the book ends when he leaves the White House — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Bannon was the only senior staffer trying to craft a unique ideology out of Trump’s campaign, even if that ideology was more properly understood as Bannonism. I found this passage borderline poignant:

Bannon, suffering in his internal exile, remained convinced that he represented what Donald Trump actually believed, or, more accurately, what the president felt. He knew Trump to be a fundamentally emotional man, and he was certain that the deepest part of him was angry and dark. However much the president wanted to support his daughter and her husband’s aspirations, their worldview was not his. As Walsh saw it, “Steve believes he is Darth Vader and that Trump is called to the dark side.”

Whether Bannon was right about Trump’s deepest impulses is immaterial. What Bannon didn’t understand was that for all his talk of “the swamp” and the power of entrenched interests and the pull of the “deep state,” if he was really going to pull off an ideological revolution in American politics, he would need a president committed to that project and the difficult work it entailed.

Donald Trump was not, and is not, that president. And that’s why his presidency has, for the most part, taken the path of least resistance: outsourcing domestic policy to the congressional GOP, foreign policy to the military, and the remainder to corrupt payoffs to himself, his friends, and his family.

The mystery of Trump

Wolff’s book contains a mystery that it never resolves.

“It was obvious to everyone that if [Trump] had a north star, it was just to be liked,” says Wolff. “He was ever uncomprehending about why everyone did not like him, or why it should be so difficult to get everyone to like him.”

Trump’s staffers confirm the characterization. “The president fundamentally wants to be liked,” Walsh says in the book. “He just fundamentally needs to be liked so badly.”

Yet it would be easy enough for Trump to run a presidency that left him better-liked. He could work with “Chuck and Nancy,” ease up on the culture war, give some gentler speeches. He’s had moments where he seemed near pivoting, where he appeared to bask in the media coverage that followed a few days of relative normalcy. There has never been a president for whom the bar is lower than Donald Trump. It would be so easy for him to clear it, and there are people around him, like Jared and Ivanka and Cohn and Powell and Mnuchin, who would happily act as guides and cheerleaders.

But he doesn’t do any of it, at least not for long. Why?

Wolff’s book doesn’t provide a satisfying answer. What it provides, instead, is a portrait of a man coming undone by the very forces he has unleashed.

Trump doesn’t care about policy or politics or ideology or coalitions. He cares about Trump. His dream was to put his name on buildings and in tabloids, and now he has put his name on the most important building on the planet and on the front page of most every newspaper in the world. Yet the coverage he gets, outside of a few conservative outlets, is horrible, the worst of any president in memory. He cannot perform his job well enough to be liked or respected, but he only wanted the job in the first place because it would force the whole world to like and respect him — and he is being driven to rage and paranoia by the resulting dissonance, disappointment, and hurt.

Imagine being Donald Trump. Imagine reading about yourself every day and knowing these awful things are being said by your friends, your aides, your allies, perhaps even your family. Imagine knowing you can’t trust anyone around you, suspecting they’re badmouthing you constantly, raising their social status by diminishing yours.

Imagine seeing your stability questioned, your patriotism impugned, your intellect dismissed. Imagine doing the impossible — winning the presidency! — only to be treated as a national embarrassment.

This isn’t what Trump wanted. And it’s not clear it’s something he can bear. A more capable, competent, and stable person would, by now, have either changed their behavior to receive more of the response they crave or given up on getting the response they crave. But Trump appears to exist in an unhappy middle ground, rage-tweeting through his mornings, retreating to his golf club on weekends, searching for the validation he craves in his Twitter feed and on Fox & Friends but never getting it from the elite tastemakers he’s always sought to impress.

The pressures of the presidency would be enough to break almost anyone, but Trump is less suited to the work, and to the backlash, than most. The strain is already showing — Trump’s workday, reportedly, has shrunk to a gentle 11 am to 6 pm. But the bulk of his first term remains, and it could include his financial secrets being revealed to the world, his family being indicted, a crisis he mishandles exploding into a catastrophe.

The question now — the question of Wolff’s book and of our future — is whether Trump’s staff can keep governing around him, whether a dysfunctional president can nevertheless have a semi-functional White House.


Korea: Peace Breaks Out

Despite McMaster

January 11, 2018

by Justin Raimondo


North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s speech did get some coverage here in the US, but mostly the part about how he boasted that he has a “nuclear button” on his desk and that his newly-created nuclear deterrent force is within range of the United States. This provoked the expected expressions of belligerent panic from all the usual suspects, including Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Beverly Hills), who seems to spend most of his time tweeting about how President Trump is about to blow up the world (or else hand it over to Vladimir Putin).

Lieu is convinced – or wants us to think he’s convinced – that Trump is about to attack North Korea, a conflict that would end with millions dead and Korea a smoking ruin. What nearly all accounts of the speech left out was Kim’s amazingly conciliatory proposal to send a delegation to the South during the upcoming Olympics: “We sincerely hope that the South will successfully host the Olympics,” Kim said:

“Above all, we must ease the acute military tensions between the North and the South. The North and the South should no longer do anything that would aggravate the situation, and must exert efforts to ease military tensions and create a peaceful environment.”

Even as Trump and Kim were exchanging escalating insults over the past few months, the lines of communication were opening up between North and South Korea – and reaching Washington. Around mid-December South Korean President Moon Jae-in requested that the regularly scheduled military provocations exercises by joint US-South Korean forces, designed to simulate an invasion of the North, be postponed until after the Olympics: Trump, for all his alleged testosterone-driven aggression (imagine all that “toxic masculinity”!), readily agreed. That led to the Panmunjun “peace village” meeting in the demilitarized zone and the start of talks where the North agreed to send athletes and an entire delegation to the Olympic games and to continue ongoing talks with the South on lessening tensions.

President Moon is a liberal who has long pushed for the renewal of the “Sunshine Policy” that opened relations with the North in the late 1990s up until 2008, until it was sabotaged by George W. Bush and his “axis of evil” crowd. He gives Trump “big credit” for Kim’s surprising concessions, and speculates that perhaps a few threats here and there, rather than just happy hippie talk, is an essential ingredient of any successful deal with Pyongyang.

North Korea today is depicted as practically an alien civilization peopled by soulless robots who move in unison according to the dictates of the Supreme Leader: that’s why it’s so easy for H.R. McMaster and his fellow demons to plot and scheme a “limited” military strike on North Korea because Kim is not to be permitted to possess nukes capable of hitting the US, even theoretically (they probably don’t have the aiming device perfected). But of course several countries already possess this capability, among them one of the most radical Islamic nations on earth: Pakistan. Why wouldn’t deterrence work with Kim, as it worked with Stalin and others? Indeed, we can see it working now even as Kim initiates peace talks.

It’s easier to murder people thousands of miles away whom you don’t know and don’t see, and this is how North Korea is going to overcome this obstacle to peace: by sending their two best skaters to the Winter Olympics.

Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik have already qualified to compete in the Olympics after training in Canada, but Pyongyang failed to register them in time: however, the International Olympic Committee has stated that some accommodation can be made.

In any event, the pair (see below) will personalize the stakes in the Korean standoff, which will be briefly interrupted to make way for the international games that have always stood for the potential for peace. Defying the international sanctions that have isolated the North, the South Korean government is paying their way, providing lodging, and granting them every amenity. As Ryom and Kim perform their complicated routines with unbounded skill, we in the West are going to look at them with a question on our minds: Do they really deserve to be vaporized because of a war that ended nearly 70 years ago?

This isn’t just about the Olympics: it’s the beginning of a new phase in North-South relations, and the start of the decoupling process that was begun, ironically, by this President when he brought up the US-South Korean trade imbalance and raised the possibility during the presidential campaign of withdrawing US troops and having the South take care of their own defense. This no doubt got the South Koreans – particularly then candidate Moon – to thinking that maybe it’s time to strike out on a more independent course … and start putting Korea first.

Old-style leftists typically characterize the US-South Korean relationship as a colonial one, with the US benefiting and the Seoul in a distinctly subordinate position. But this is highly inaccurate: indeed, one could argue precisely the opposite. For here’s the deal we made with Seoul after the non-conclusion of the Korean war: we get to occupy your territory, pay for your defense, and guard you against invasion from the North. You, on the other hand, get to ship your goods to the US mainland paying virtually nothing: no tariffs, no phony “standards,” no labor agreements – “free trade,” albeit on a one-way street.

The moment Trump questioned this arrangement the entire basis of the US-South Korean alliance was without any real foundation except the fear that the North might invade. And now that Kim has put this fear to rest, albeit temporarily, the road is open to better relations, growing links, and perhaps even eventual reunification – the stated goal of both Seoul and Pyongyang.

Yes, they said Donald Trump was going to start World War III on the Korean peninsula: they were certain of it! They were eagerly anticipating it, and, while it would surely be in poor taste for these worthies of #TheResistance to register their deep disappointment, nevertheless you can sense it as surely as one can feel their drooping spirits as the Russia-gate hoax fades into vaporware.



Air Raids and Missile Attacks Show Israel Flexing Its Muscles in Syria

January 9, 2018

Patrick Cockburn

The Unz Review

Israeli jets and ground-to-ground missile attacks on targets in the outskirts of Damascus are a mark of Israel’s heightened concern as President Bashar al-Assad comes close to winning the civil war in Syria. Israel’s security cabinet has held meetings several times in recent days to discuss how it should respond to the “day-after” the war as Syria returns to Mr Assad’s control and to Iran’s expanded influence in Syria according to Israeli television reports.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel’s policy was to stop Hezbollah moving “game-changing weapons” out of Syria into Lebanon. “We back it [the policy] up as necessary with action,” he added. Israel has carried out more than 100 air strikes against Syrian Army and Hezbollah arms depots and military facilities in the past six years.The strikes are a sign that Israel is trying to adjust to likely new developments in Syria in 2018: as the end of the civil war comes in sight, Hezbollah and the Syrian armed forces, both battle hardened by the war, will no longer be tied down by fighting and could be deployed to confront Israel.

The Syrian war is by no means over, but the success of the coalition that includes Iran, Syria, Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi Shia forces means that the balance of power in the region is swinging against Israel.

The Syrian Army is advancing swiftly without much resistance into the largest remaining rebel enclave in province of Idlib south west of Aleppo, in an offensive launched a week ago. Backed by artillery and air strikes, Syrian units are fighting Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), formerly known as the al Nusra Front and once the Syrian arm of al-Qaeda, which is dominant in the province. Other rebel groups complain that HTS is refusing to cooperate with them in holding back government forces.

The Syrian Army and air force are also battering Eastern Ghouta, the other large rebel enclave just east of Damascus, the capture of which would give Mr Assad full control of the capital and the area round it, something he has not enjoyed since 2011.

Although the long-term success of Syrian government forces looks inevitable, it will take them time to re-establish central control. The Syrian Kurds – who captured Isis’s de facto capital Raqqa in October backed by US-led air strikes – control a great swathe of territory east of the Euphrates. They need to keep US support, including several bases in Kurdish-held territory, as a guarantee against Turkish military intervention or an offensive by Syrian forces. At the same time, they look to a long-term agreement with Damascus which would guarantee their autonomy.

Israel is concerned about the return of the Syrian Army to parts of southern Syria close to Israel as it tries to reopen the road to Jordan. There is a US-Russian agreement arranged by President Vladimir Putin that Hezbollah and Iranian backed forces will not approach within 25 miles of the Israeli-Syrian front line in the Golan.

But Mr Assad is likely to be less reliant on the support, and more independent of the wishes, of his two main allies, Russia and Iran, as he gets close to victory.

The latest Israeli air strikes and the angry Syrian response show that both sides are muscle-flexing. But, while the Israelis have an interest in preventing Hezbollah acquiring a substantial arsenal of long-range missiles that could reach far into Israel, neither side has an interest in going to war which would cause a lot of destruction but produce no winner, as in 2006 when Israel fought Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Israel has received vociferous backing from President Trump and the US but the Israelis must wonder – along with the rest of the world – how much Mr Trump’s supportive tweets are really worth. Even his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is not an unalloyed gain for Israel since it changes nothing much on the ground, but it has put the Israeli-Palestinian issue back at the top of the political agenda in the Middle East to a degree not seen since 9/11 and the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Israeli air strikes are not necessarily a precursor to a wider military conflict, but they do show that Israel believes it can no longer stay on the margins of the Syrian war. As the conflict comes to an end that is bound to be messy, Israel wants to be a leading player in shaping its final outcome.



Armed Federal Agents Enter Warehouse in Puerto Rico to Seize Hoarded Electric Equipment

January 10 2018

by Kate Aronoff

The Intercept

On Saturday, a day after becoming aware of a massive store of rebuilding materials being held by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, the U.S. federal government — the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, along with their security detail — entered a Palo Seco warehouse owned by the public utility to claim and distribute the equipment, according to a spokesperson for the Corps.

Rumors of a tense standoff had been circulating on the island, but the encounter was confirmed to The Intercept in a statement from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Asked if the federal officers were armed when they entered the warehouse, USACE spokesperson Luciano Vera said they were indeed accompanied by security detail and quickly began distributing the material after seizing it. Vera declined to say whether there was a confrontation at the entrance, saying only that PREPA officials ultimately toured the warehouse along with the feds:

Leadership responsible for restoring the Puerto Rico power grid and their security detail toured the warehouse in cooperation with PREPA. USACE conducted a full inventory and immediately sent out critical materials to contractors at work sites. USACE will continue to distribute critical materials from the site to contractors. The hope is to strengthen the partnership between PREPA and its restoration partners, while increasing visibility of the inventory of all materials on the island. PREPA has invited FEMA and the Corps to visit its warehouses anytime and to distribute material as needed.

The federal government “began distributing [supplies] to contractors,” Vera said, including hard-to-find full-tension steel sleeves, critical to rebuilding. “We obtained several hundred of these sleeves on Saturday,” Vera added.

The armed encounter comes as around half of Puerto Ricans still remain without electricity well over 100 days after Hurricane Maria. As PREPA hoards crucial resources that could help remedy the island’s dire situation, the Puerto Rican government is attempting to annihilate the power provider’s only regulator.

“Warehouse 5” — the one which USACE and FEMA entered Saturday — “falls under the control of the [PREPA] transmission division and has lacked transparency in inventory and accountability,” the email from Vera continued. Carlos Torres, appointed by Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló to oversee power restoration, was on site as well.

“Due to the size of the warehouse,” Vera said, accounting for everything contained therein is still underway days later. Among the materials recovered so far are “2,875 pieces of critical material to contractors” along with the sleeves of full-tension steel, a component of Puerto Rican electrical infrastructure required to erect new power lines. PREPA did not respond to The Intercept’s request for comment, though in a statement to the Associated Press, it rejected allegations that it had failed to distribute the warehouse’s contents. The AP only reported that “officials over the weekend also discovered some needed materials in a previously overlooked warehouse owned by Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority.” How they discovered them and how they were obtained is a story that has not been fully told.

Together, FEMA and the USACE are the main federal agencies responsible for getting Puerto Rico’s grid up and running after it was leveled by Hurricane Maria. Under the Stafford Act, utilities can receive reimbursement from FEMA for reconstruction efforts in the wake of a major disaster. Another standard practice is for utilities to enter into mutual aid agreements with public and private utilities. For reasons that remain unclear, PREPA chose not to do so in Maria’s immediate aftermath, instead signing a series of controversial deals with private contractors. The most dubious of those — with the novice Montana-based firm Whitefish Energy — was withdrawn amid public outrage on the mainland and the island alike.

Still, the Whitefish contract was far from the only issue plaguing PREPA’s recovery efforts and keeping Puerto Ricans from getting their lights turned back on. Even now that PREPA is finally pursuing mutual aid agreements with mainland power companies, supply problems — the kind the unified command’s warehouse raid might help alleviate — have kept linemen on the island from being able to do their jobs.

A security contractor who recently returned from Puerto Rico told The Intercept that crews of linemen brought down from the U.S. were frustrated about the lack of rebuilding materials, which made it virtually impossible for them to fix downed infrastructure. Paraphrasing conversations with the electric crews he accompanied, the source said one worker told him that “we just sat in the truck and watched a movie because we have nothing to do today. … Around Christmas, a lot of the power workers were saying, ‘We’re going on vacation because we couldn’t do our job because PREPA was making it so difficult.’” The source’s job involved escorting contractors tasked with reconstructing downed power lines; he was deployed on the island for over a month by a subcontractor of Cobra Acquisitions LLC, which in the fall received a $200 million contract with PREPA to repair its grid.

“They didn’t have anything to do or to work on,” he said of many of the linemen he interacted with. “They had had a bunch of poles but no lines, or any of the stuff that goes on the poles. They were just setting bare poles, getting as far as they could go.”

“We were in a town for two weeks and barely got anything done because they didn’t have the supplies,” the source noted of one crew they accompanied on the island’s southeast. UTIER — the utility workers’ union — has leveled similar complaints against their employer.

Frustrated by the slow pace of recovery, a number of mayors around the island have begun taking matters into their own hands, reportedly buying grid restoration supplies out of municipal budgets. Javier Jiménez Pérez, mayor of San Sebastián, compiled a team of electricians, retired PREPA employees, and volunteers to form the Pepino Power Authority, referring to a longer version of the town’s name in Spanish. As of December 28, the makeshift recovery crew had restored power to 2,000 homes, with smaller teams splitting up to return electricity to different neighborhoods. Residents in some areas of San Sebastián told El Nuevo Dia they never saw PREPA post-Maria.

Mismanagement is not a new phenomenon for PREPA, which for decades has been Puerto Rico’s sole power provider. For most of that time, it had been self-regulated, with a board comprised largely of political appointees with little to no background in the electricity sector. The lack of oversight created conditions for corruption and disinvestment, with its generation and transmission capacity falling into severe disrepair over many years.

In 2014, Puerto Rico’s legislature undertook a reform effort. That involved moving the board selection process away from its reliance on political appointments, as well as the establishment of the Electric Commission, a three-member body tasked with regulating PREPA and setting rates.

Ramón Luis Nieves served in Puerto Rico’s State Senate from 2013 to 2016 and was part of the push to get PREPA’s house in order. During his tenure in the legislature, he chaired the Senate Energy Committee, responsible for creating the Energy Commission in 2014 through Act 57. “For the first time in seven decades of existence,” he told The Intercept of the board reforms, “PREPA had the benefit of having a governing board composed of non-partisan professionals.”

“When the current administration was in the opposition,” Nieves says of Rosselló’s New Progressive Party, “they opposed all the energy reform bills. Now that they are in power, they have been trying to eliminate the energy regulator and the reforms that were passed.”

When Rosselló moved into the governor’s mansion early last year, his administration quickly reverted back to the previous board selection process and replaced much of the utility’s leadership. Among those ousted in the process were the board’s three elected consumer advocates, who — as a former member told me in September — had to be removed via special legislation.

Since that time, the governor has been outspoken about his support for privatizing PREPA and other government services, a position he shared with the Washington-appointed Fiscal Oversight Board now overseeing the island’s finances.

On Wednesday, Rosselló is set to present a new fiscal plan to the board that may well move in that direction. Already, though, his office has unveiled a number of sweeping, board-friendly policies under the auspices of the New Government Law, approved by the legislature just before Christmas. On Monday, Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Public Affairs and Public Policy Ramón Rosario Cortés announced five proposals to dramatically reorganize the island’s government in pursuance with the new law — including what would amount to a liquidation of the Energy Commission.

The plan would consolidate five separate regulatory agencies into a single, three-member commission, eliminating the Telecommunications Regulatory Board, Public Service Commission, Energy Commission, Energy Administration, and the Independent Office for Consumer Protection as independent entities. In their place would stand the Public Service Regulatory Board, which officials argue would operate along the lines of state-level Public Utility Commissions in the U.S. It’s unclear which functions of the previous agencies would continue in the new body.

Rosselló’s proposal is billed as a cost-saving measure, although neither the Telecommunications Regulatory Board nor the Energy Commission, at least, receive funding from the state or federal governments. The former is funded via a fee on telecommunications’ customers monthly bills, and the latter by PREPA via its ratepayers, who furnish the independent commission with its annual $5 million budget.

While Nieves — like many — favors some level of private investment in PREPA, which is $9 billion in debt, he’s weary of attracting corporations to the utility without a competent regulator. “If you do away with an independent and strong regulator, you’ll have Whitefish all over again,” he said. “If they remove the Energy Commission, they should rename PREPA the Whitefish Energy Company of Puerto Rico.”

Since its establishment, the Energy Commission has taken a number of steps to help bring the island’s electricity sector into the 21st century, including an Integrated Resource Plan that laid out a path for transitioning the island off expensive imported oil and toward renewables. It helped defend ratepayers against the island’s bondholders, too; when the National Public Finance Guarantee Corporation pushed for a 4.2 cent per kilowatt hour rate hike in September, the commission denied the request.

The commission also just recently unveiled the country’s first-ever regulatory rulebook for microgrids, a form of decentralized power generation that allows small geographic areas — neighborhoods or hospitals, for instance — to generate power locally and bring electricity back online quickly after major natural disasters and outages. Included in the suite of regulations was a mandate that any microgrids developed on the island use renewable fuel sources, although the rule would not apply to microgrids developed by PREPA itself.

Those regulations were opened for public comment this week, yet the future of that and other Energy Commission-created rules will be up in the air if the governor’s proposal is eventually approved by the legislature and fiscal control board.

Another likely casualty of the reorganization proposal would be the Independent Office for Consumer Protection, which helps customers bring complaints against PREPA and seek remuneration for any utility wrongdoing. The agency’s 2014 establishment was heavily pushed for by the AARP, which received complaints from elderly Puerto Ricans about their electricity service. A survey conducted that same year by the group found that 82 percent of Puerto Ricans ages 25 and older “do not believe their interests are fairly represented and taken into consideration when electric rates are set by PREPA”; 86 percent supported the establishment of a consumer advocate office.

The push to upend popular regulation over PREPA, of course, comes after several decades of austerity, jumpstarted after the PROMESA bill — passed by Congress in 2016 — that tasks the Fiscal Oversight Board with getting the island’s fiscal house in order and handling its at least $74 billion in municipal debt. Other recently announced cost-cutting measures include the governor’s Voluntary Transition program aimed at incentivizing public employees to quit their jobs and seek work with non-profits or the private sector, and the privatization of the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics.

As American Statistical Association President Lisa LaVange pointed out in a recent letter, such a move would be darkly ironic considering the government’s gross miscounting of the number of deaths that have occurred since Maria. LaVange chided the governor for not allowing experts to help revise the death count and his proposal to disband PRIS. “Government statistics play a powerful role in any democracy. They empower the economy, serve the health and welfare of its citizens, improve governance, and inform decisions and policies in the public and private sector, among many other vital functions,” she wrote.

And though media attention has largely cycled away from Puerto Rico, conservative think tanks are continuing to outline plans for still more massive blows to the island’s public sphere. In a December statement before the Fiscal Oversight Board, American Enterprise Institute Resident Fellow Desmond Lachman argued that “what is desperately needed” in Puerto Rico “is a comprehensive IMF-style structural adjustment program,” including a deep cut to the island’s minimum wage. Oversight Board member Andrew Biggs has been a resident scholar at AEI since 2008.

The path to any economic recovery from Puerto Rico will ultimately run through its ability to rebuild a functional energy grid — a future all too unlikely amid austerity and deregulation. Combined with other kinds of storm damage, the loss of power has fueled a rapid uptick in emigration from the island, as people struggle to attain jobs and basic services; an estimated 300,000 people have moved to Florida alone, a scale of emigration that could further downsize the island’s already shrinking tax base. Nieves calls those who’ve left “energy refugees,” for whom “the lack of energy was the last straw.”

“Most of them,” he predicts, “will not return.”

Update: Jan. 10, 2018, 7 p.m.

Sen. Eduardo Bhatia, minority leader of the Senate of Puerto Rico, provided a statement to The Intercept on the hoarded electrical equipment:

The news that has come out today about the discovery made by armed federal agents of thousands of electrical spare parts hidden in an PREPA warehouse borders on a criminal act by its managers. It is time for people to stand up and demand answers. Hundreds of thousands of families have been in the dark for more than 125 days, people keep dying, and businesses continue to close due to the lack of energy while the necessary spare parts were in the possession of PREPA. Lying about not having the parts to cover the inefficiency of PREPA is outrageous and those responsible must be taken before state and federal authorities to be criminally processed immediately.













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