Sunday, January 13, 2019

Last Call Fof The Drums Of War

The WSJ's Dion Nissenbaum reporting today that John Bolton's Mustache indeed plans to go to war with Iran, and military strike options were drawn up in September of last year to throw us into direct conflict with Tehran.

President Trump’s National Security Council asked the Pentagon to provide the White House with military options to strike Iran last year, generating concern at the Pentagon and State Department
, current and former U.S. officials said.

The request, which hasn’t been previously reported, came after militants fired three mortars into Baghdad’s sprawling diplomatic quarter, home to the U.S. Embassy, on a warm night in early September. The shells—launched by a group aligned with Iran—landed in an open lot and harmed no one.

But they triggered unusual alarm in Washington, where Mr. Trump’s national security team led by John Bolton conducted a series of meetings to discuss a forceful American response, including what many saw as the unusual request for options to strike Iran.

“It definitely rattled people,” a former senior U.S. administration official said of the request. “People were shocked. It was mind-boggling how cavalier they were about hitting Iran.”

The Pentagon complied with the National Security Council’s request to develop options for striking Iran, the officials said. But it isn’t clear if the proposals were provided to the White House, whether Mr. Trump knew of the request or whether serious plans for a U.S. strike against Iran took shape at that time.

Garrett Marquis, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said the body “coordinates policy and provides the president with options to anticipate and respond to a variety of threats.”

“We continue to review the status of our personnel following attempted attacks on our embassy in Baghdad and our Basra consulate, and we will consider a full range of options to preserve their safety and our interests,” he said.

Mr. Bolton’s request reflects the administration’s more confrontational approach toward Tehran, one that he has pushed since taking up the post last April.

As national security adviser, Mr. Bolton is charged with providing a range of diplomatic, military and economic advice to the president.

Former U.S. officials said it was unnerving that the National Security Council asked for far-reaching military options to strike Iran in response to attacks that caused little damage and no injuries

Trump hasn't authorized military strikes against Iran so far, but it's easy to imagine such a move would be made in order to distract the country from Mueller and his report.  It would most likely be successful, too, because we'd immediately have much larger problems on our hands than Trump's perfidy with a possible nuclear conflict in the Middle East.

No doubt Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, facing a massive bribery scandal and possible indictment himself, would welcome such a development. Ironically it's Putin's control of Trump that has probably prevented such a strike from going forward so far.

We'll see.

A Hat Lands In The Ring, Con't

It's good to finally see someone from my generational cohort (younger Gen Xers) running for President, and Julian Castro has a pretty good track record as he enters the 2020 contest.

Julián Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio and housing secretary in the Obama administration, on Saturday joined the increasingly crowded field of candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

As Castro, 44, stood in the working-class neighborhood where he grew up, he promised to expand prekindergarten programs, make the first two years of college more affordable, expand Medicare to all Americans, overhaul the criminal justice system and immigration laws, increase the minimum wage and make housing more affordable. If elected, he would be the nation’s first Latino president.

“I’m running for president because it’s time for new leadership. Because it’s time for new energy. And it’s time for a new commitment to make sure that the opportunities that I’ve had are available for every American,” Castro told hundreds of supporters packed into San Antonio’s Plaza Guada­lupe.

The announcement was intended to introduce Castro to an audience beyond San Antonio. He arrived at the plaza on the No. 68 city bus, the same one he and his twin brother, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.), rode to school as children. He pointedly noted that “no front-runners” are born in the neighborhood. He told the crowd about the most influential women in his life: his single mother, Rosie Castro, a political activist, and his grandmother, Victoria Castro, who as a 7-year-old orphan immigrated to the United States from Mexico in 1922. He announced his decision in both English and Spanish.

Before Castro took the stage, a mariachi band played and a diverse body of supporters endorsed him. Castro’s announcement was not a surprise. He launched an exploratory committee on Dec. 12 and, the next night, Joaquin Castro confirmed his brother would run for president. Before taking the stage Saturday, Castro tweeted with the hashtag #Julian2020.

Castro grew up on the west side of San Antonio, studied at Stanford University and Harvard Law School, and was elected to the San Antonio City Council when he was just 26. He ran for mayor of San Antonio twice, losing the first time in 2005 and then winning in 2009.

During his announcement speech, Castro spoke at length about how he expanded prekindergarten programs in the city as mayor — an initiative financed by an increase in the sales tax. If elected president, Castro said, he would like to expand access to free prekindergarten to “all children whose parents want it.”

The Brothers Castro, Julian and Joaquin, have been into Texas politics for a while now.  Both of them are whip-smart and have great voting records.  Expanding Medicare to everyone should be the plan for every Democrat, and I'm glad to see Castro's platform is solid.

When he was Obama's HUD Secretary and a contender for Hillary's Veep, Castro made the right moves in 2016.

Targeted by progressive activists hoping to kill his chances of being Hillary Clinton’s running mate, Julián Castro is set this week to announce changes to a hot-button Housing and Urban Development program to sell bad mortgages on its books. 
The changes, which HUD officials will brief stakeholders and activists on during a conference call on Monday, could be made public as early as Tuesday — depending on when department lawyers give the green light to publishing them in the Federal Register.

But they won’t take effect before the next auction of HUD mortgages, scheduled for May 18. 
Castro’s actions could potentially defuse an issue that activists have been using to question his progressive credentials — and he’ll be doing it at the moment the running mate search has begun to get serious at Clinton campaign headquarters. 
Among the changes, according to people with knowledge of what’s coming: The Federal Housing Authority will put out a new plan requiring investors to offer principal reduction for all occupied loans, start a new requirement that all loan modifications be fixed for at least five years and limit any subsequent increase to 1 percent per year, and create a “walk-away prohibition” to block any purchaser of single-family mortgages from abandoning lower-value properties in the hopes of preventing neighborhood blight. 

And of course, all of those positive changes to prevent banks from profiting off of HUD properties were wrecked by Ben Carson and Trump a year later.  I said then we'd be seeing more of Castro in the future, and the future is now.

I'm glad to see him in the race.  For all the shouting about Beto in Texas, it's Julian Castro who has the credentials.  I feel a lot more excited about him than say, Tulsi Gabbard.

Sunday Long Read: The Truck Stops Here

Elwood, Illinois is a town of 2,200 people just southwest of Joliet, near the intersections of several rail lines and Interstates 55 and 80 and Interstates 90, 94, 57, 88, 65 and 39 are all within 30 or 40 miles because of Chicago being nearby.  

Some 17 years ago, the tiny town became the home to one of the largest land ports in America, and the number of shipping, warehousing, logistics and fulfillment centers in the area have only grown exponentially since.  The problem of course is that the people of Elwood have only seen misery over the last decade and change, and now the town is finally fighting back.

In Elwood, geography is destiny. For homesteaders and farmers heading west in the 19th century, the flat terrain and quality soil made the region a major draw. “This area is kind of like a fertile crescent,” said Baum-Coldwater, whose 540-acre farm has been worked by her family for 160 years and counting. The Coldwaters are one of many multi-generational farming families in the area, producing soybean seeds, primarily, as well as corn and oats. From the front porch, they can still see the original residence Julie’s husband’s great-great-grandfather built in 1858, as well as the houses his grandmother and grandfather each grew up in, before they married.

Even the most thorough tour of Elwood doesn’t last long. The town’s nucleus sits on the west side of a highway, where a small strip mall, home to Silver Dollar restaurant and the Dollar Tree, leads to a handful of municipal buildings and a few blocks of housing. That denser development quickly gives way to a broad campestral swath, with the occasional farmhouse identifiable only because the area is so flat.

But it wasn’t topsoil that caught the eye of industry—it was Elwood’s serendipitous proximity to the country’s major infrastructure. Six class-1 railroads and four interstate highways pass through the region, which is situated a day’s drive from a full 60 percent of the country. Chicago is some 40 miles northeast as the crow flies.

For much of the 20th century, Elwood sat in the shadow of the Joliet Arsenal, an Army facility built in 1940 that churned out bombs and TNT to feed the American war machine from World War II through the Cold War. But once the Vietnam War ended, its utility subsided. In 1976, the facility was shuttered.

What to do with 23,500 idle acres became the subject of great debate. Mining and asphalt plants were suggested; a coal-fired power plant was proposed; so, too, was a new landfill. The passage of the Illinois Land Conservation Act in 1996 enshrined a solution. Nineteen thousand acres were converted into protected prairie land, where 73 head of bison currently roam. The Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery, the country’s second-largest military cemetery, was also established. That left 2,000-odd remaining acres, officially a Superfund site, too spoiled to farm. This remaining tract was zoned for light industry. For Jerry and Connie Heinrich, who headed up the effort to preserve the region’s prairies, it was the best of all possible outcomes, considering the alternatives. “The Greens were excited,” Jerry told me.

Soon after, CenterPoint came through with its proposal for the Intermodal. The deal sounded good. CenterPoint, which is now owned by CalPers, the California public sector pension group, bought the land for an undisclosed amount. In addition to the tax abatement, Elwood, then shy of 1,700 people in total, agreed to build out a big-league water and sewer system for the facility, and extend municipal fire and police protection. In anticipation of the population and economic growth to come, they even built a new town hall, a tan, multi-story structure complete with a backyard pond and a fountain, referred to playfully as the Taj Ma-hall.

When the facility opened in 2002, it was centered around the Burlington North Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad, which subsequently bought the loading zone. Warehouses were constructed nearby. The plan proved to be an immediate success: An ambitious forecast claimed that within eight to ten years the facility would see 500,000 containers annually; that threshold was surpassed in four.

That was enough to attract the eye of a notable investor: Warren Buffett, who made a pilgrimage to little Elwood in the late 2000s to survey the facility. According to one version of local legend, Buffett took in the scene of BNSF trains unloading containers onto trucks, and the trucks casting off into all corners of the United States, and declared, “This is the future of logistics.” On November 3, 2009, Buffett bought BNSF in its entirety—and with it, the Intermodal.

After that, it was on. The success of the BNSF Intermodal, no doubt aided by the star power of Buffett, inspired railroad rival Union Pacific to set up a smaller, copycat facility across the street. The country’s richest families moved in, at least in name. In addition to two Wal-Mart warehouses, each between 1.6 million and 1.8 million square feet, Elwood got a Walton Drive, named after the Walton dynasty that owns the big-box chain.

For Delilah Legrett, a lifelong resident of the area and mother of four, the drawbacks came quickly—starting with all the trucks. Property values were supposed to skyrocket, but Legrett didn’t even feel comfortable letting her children play in front of their house with the semis hurtling through the town, sometimes as fast as 40 or 50 miles per hour. With toddlers, the persistent diesel exhaust was concerning. “We had problems with our baby monitor because it would pick up frequencies” from passing truck radios and warehouse dispatchers, she told me.

According to the Will County Center for Economic Development, at least 25,000 tractor trailers a day come through the Intermodals. That amounts to three million containers annually, carrying $65 billion worth of goods. A staggering $623 billion worth of freight traversed Will County infrastructure in 2015 alone, roughly equivalent to 3.5 percent of the U.S.’s total GDP.

And yet the town of Elwood has almost gone bankrupt because of all the tax abatements and sweetheart deals these giant companies have gotten.  They pay virtually nothing to be in Elwood, and the constant flow of trucks makes the city dangerous to drive around.   Nearly all the jobs created in the 21st century have been temp jobs or contractor jobs, and nowhere in America is that more apparent than the fact that almost two-thirds of Elwood's workers are temps with no benefits.

This is American labor today: no unions, no corporate tax base, and a race to the bottom to exploit as many workers as possible...and this was all happening before Trump gave corporations a $1.5 trillion tax cut a year ago.

We're all just one paycheck away from hell.  Elwood just went there together.

Russian To Judgment, Con't

Not to be outdone by the NY Times this weekend with their story on the FBI's investigation into Donald Trump as a Russian asset, the Bezos Post brings us Greg Miller's story on Trump's insanely suspicious acts of trying to completely avoid his own people when it comes to what he's discussed with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

President Trump has gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal details of his conversations with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin, including on at least one occasion taking possession of the notes of his own interpreter and instructing the linguist not to discuss what had transpired with other administration officials, current and former U.S. officials said.

Trump did so after a meeting with Putin in 2017 in Hamburg that was also attended by then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. U.S. officials learned of Trump’s actions when a White House adviser and a senior State Department official sought information from the interpreter beyond a readout shared by Tillerson.

The constraints that Trump imposed are part of a broader pattern by the president of shielding his communications with Putin from public scrutiny and preventing even high-ranking officials in his own administration from fully knowing what he has told one of the United States’ main adversaries.

As a result, U.S. officials said there is no detailed record, even in classified files, of Trump’s face-to-face interactions with the Russian leader at five locations over the past two years. Such a gap would be unusual in any presidency, let alone one that Russia sought to install through what U.S. intelligence agencies have described as an unprecedented campaign of election interference.

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is thought to be in the final stages of an investigation that has focused largely on whether Trump or his associates conspired with Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign. The new details about Trump’s continued secrecy underscore the extent to which little is known about his communications with Putin since becoming president. 
Former U.S. officials said that Trump’s behavior is at odds with the known practices of previous presidents, who have relied on senior aides to witness meetings and take comprehensive notes then shared with other officials and departments.

Trump’s secrecy surrounding Putin “is not only unusual by historical standards, it is outrageous,” said Strobe Talbott, a former deputy secretary of state now at the Brookings Institution, who participated in more than a dozen meetings between President Bill Clinton and then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s. “It handicaps the U.S. government — the experts and advisers and Cabinet officers who are there to serve [the president] — and it certainly gives Putin much more scope to manipulate Trump.”

A White House spokesman disputed that characterization and said that the Trump administration has sought to “improve the relationship with Russia” after the Obama administration “pursued a flawed ‘reset’ policy that sought engagement for the sake of engagement.”

So not one, but two red alert level stories this weekend on Trump very possibly being a Russian asset makes me believe very very much that Mueller's report includes evidence that Donald Trump is being manipulated by Russians if not by Putin himself, and that Moscow has direct leverage over a compromised leader of the US.

Remember that yesterday, we found out that NY Times story on the FBI investigation, as Charles Pierce points out, deliberately uses the word "publicly" to describe the evidence so far against Trump.  That's a brutal caveat.

This is not a word chosen idly, not in a piece as judiciously written as this one. Clearly, the Times printed pretty much all it was given by its sources, but the implication of that "publicly" is that investigators likely know far more than what appeared in the newspaper.

Otherwise, "publicly" is empty verbiage. To have written simply that, "No evidence has emerged that Mr. Trump was secretly in contact with or took direction from Russian government official," would have sufficed for the purposes of journalistic balance. But by dropping that fatal "publicly" in there, the Times and its sources likely are giving us a preview of coming attractions. (Judging by his manic episode on the electric Twitter machine on Saturday morning, the president* knows this, too.) And the one thing about which we can all be sure is that is whole megillah is nowhere near as weird as it's going to get.

If that's really where Mueller's report is going, then things are going to get very serious, and very soon.  The groundwork is being laid at this point, and I honestly think Trump is so terrified of being exposed as a Russian asset that he's completely invested now in this shutdown as a way to seed as much chaos as possible in the workings of government bureaucracy, as well as serving as a warning to everyone detailing just how much damage he can do to the country and its people.

Maybe Trump will go down.  But the country will burn along with him.  If he can't remain the man in the Oval Office, then maybe there won't be a country to be leader of.  Either way, both pieces taken together plus the recent behavior of Trump himself, indicate to me that something catastrophic for the Trump regime is coming and with a quickness.

Here there be dragons.
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