Saturday, September 14, 2019

The Saudis And The Houthis

The four-year conflict between Saudi Arabia and Yemen was already awful, but things just got entirely serious with a successful Yemeni Houthi attack on the heart of the Kingdom's oil fields.

Saudi Arabia’s oil production was cut by half after a swarm of explosive drones struck at the heart of the kingdom’s oil industry and set the world’s biggest crude-processing plant ablaze.

Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, who have launched several drone attacks on Saudi targets, claimed responsibility.

Saudi Aramco had to cut production by as much as 5 million barrels a day as a precautionary measure after the attack on the Abqaiq plant, according to a person familiar with the matter. Most output will be restored within 48 hours, they said, asking not to be identified before an official announcement.

The biggest attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure since Iraq’s Saddam Hussein fired Scud missiles into the kingdom during the first Gulf war, the drone strike highlights the vulnerability of the network of fields, pipeline and ports that supply 10% of the world’s crude oil. A prolonged outage at Abqaiq, where crude from several of the country’s largest oil fields is processed before being shipped to export terminals, would jolt global energy markets.

“Abqaiq is the heart of the system and they just had a heart attack,” said Roger Diwan, a veteran OPEC watcher at consultant IHS Markit. “We just don’t know the severity.”

Facilities at Abqaiq and the nearby Khurais oil field were attacked at 4 a.m. local time, state-run Saudi Press Agency reported, citing an unidentified interior ministry spokesman. It didn’t give further details and no further updates have been released.

“For the oil market if not global economy, Abqaiq is the single most valuable piece of real estate on planet earth,” Bob McNally, head of Rapid Energy Group in Washington.

Aramco, which pumped about 9.8 million barrels a day in August, will be able to keep customers supplied for several weeks by drawing on a global storage network. The Saudis hold millions of barrels in tanks in the kingdom itself, plus three strategic locations around the world: Rotterdam in the Netherlands, Okinawa in Japan, and Sidi Kerir on the Mediterranean coast of Egypt.

The International Energy Agency, responsible for managing the oil reserves of the world’s industrialized economies, said they were monitoring the situation, but the world was well-supplied with commercial stockpiles.

A satellite picture from a NASA near real-time imaging system published early on Saturday showed a huge smoke plume extending more than 50 miles over Abqaiq. Four additional plumes to the south-west appear close to the Ghawar oilfield, the world’s largest. While that field wasn’t attacked, its crude is sent to Abqaiq and the smoke could indicate flaring. When a facility stops suddenly, excess oil and natural gas is safely burned in large flaring stacks.​

For the Yemeni Houthis to hit the Saudis this hard is a major, major problem.  It guarantees that Riyadh will now go all out to wipe them off the face of the Earth.  That means going to the Trump regime to get more weapons, which we'll gladly sell to them.

On the other hand, raising the price of oil is exactly what the upcoming stock IPO of Saudi Aramco would need, and this attack is more than capable of putting oil over $100 a barrel for an extended period of time, especially if Aramco has difficulties getting production back on line.

Oh, and American consumers get screwed again.  We'll see where oil goes on Sunday and Monday.

Orange J. Looney, Will You Please Leave Now!

I've seen a lot of people ask questions along the line of "What if Trump isn't kidding about this dynasty/third term thing" and the general idea of Trump refusing to leave office if defeated.  I remember people bringing it up during the Bush years as a possibility, but not even Dubya or the Nameless One were willing to ever go that far.  

Donald Trump on the other hand, well, he keeps floating these trial balloons to his cult followers, and they don't seem to be worried at all.  If anything, they all seem to think that the only way Trump could ever lose is "massive voter fraud" anyway, in which case, they'd still believe he's the legitimate leader of the country.  Slate's legal correspondent Dahlia Lithwick follows up on this theory with Georgetown Law professor Josh Geltzer, and the scenarios are pretty gruesome.

In February, Georgetown Law professor Josh Geltzer began to ponder aloud what would happen if President Donald Trump refused to leave office were he to be defeated in 2020. It sounded far-fetched, but Geltzer isn’t a conspiracy theorist. Actually, he served as senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council and, prior to that, as deputy legal adviser to the NSC and counsel to the assistant attorney general for national security. When he wrote his essay suggesting that perhaps it was time to start preparing for if Trump, who has repeatedly shown a willingness to overstep his constitutional authority, simply refused to leave the Oval Office, he was met with silence. When Michael Cohen warned in his March testimony before Congress, “given my experience working for Mr. Trump, I fear that if he loses the election in 2020 there will never be a peaceful transition of power,” he too was met with awkward silence. But the anxieties gradually began to grow. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi fretted about this possibility in a May interview in the New York Times. When Politico probed the question this summer, it noted: “Constitutional experts and top Republican lawmakers dismiss the fears as nonsense, noting there are too many forces working against a sitting president simply clinging to power—including history, law and political pressure.” But commentators now seem less confident in those forces.

On Thursday, Edward Luce at the Financial Times noted how often Trump jokes about having a third term, observing that, because of Trump’s belief that he could face prosecution after he leaves office, “no other US president has faced the prospect of being re-elected or going to jail.” He added that for Trump, losing the 2020 election is an existential threat, and he has openly invited foreign interference, while Mitch McConnell refuses to even consider legislation to secure the vote. And even if Trump is truly joking when he tweets that he deserves to be credited two extra years in his existing term, years he believes were lost to the Mueller probe, or riffs on staying on the job long after he’d been term-limited out, the tweets send a dangerous message to his loyalists.

Lithwick and Geltzer have a pretty good conversation about where America is on this, and it's clear nobody's taking it seriously.  It's easy to dismiss this all as theater to feed Trump's endless ego and the unquenchable bloodlust of his base, but there's more to that.  I don't think Geltzer is a crank, either.  There's legitimate questions about Trump openly, consistently, and repeatedly seeing what he can get away with.

There's no check or balance on his power right now, according to Trump.  The mechanisms supposedly in place to stop Trump aren't being used.

It's far past time to think about the unthinkable.

It's All About Revenge Now, Con't

The mystery of the grand jury tasked with returning an indictment against former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe continues.  We know the grand jury met Thursday and didn't return an indictment.  There's no record that the grand jury met again Friday, either.  I speculated that something was causing a delay, but I couldn't guess what it was.  The much more experienced crew at Lawfare takes a look at what's going on and offers up their own explanation.

The possibility of a criminal case against McCabe has smelled bad for a while. As one of us has spelled out in detail, this is not the kind of case that normally ends up as a criminal matter. While the Justice Department inspector general report that led to McCabe’s dismissal from the bureau is sharply critical of his conduct, indictments for false statements in internal Justice Department investigations, without some exacerbating factor, are exceedingly rare. This sort of misconduct is normally handled in internal disciplinary proceedings—and McCabe was already fired. Indeed, there’s nothing about the inspector general’s findings about McCabe that seem to make his case a likely candidate for a criminal disposition. What makes McCabe’s situation distinctive, rather, is the public campaign against him by the president of the United States, who has tweeted and spoken repeatedly about McCabe and publicly called for his prosecution.

Without saying a word in defense of McCabe’s conduct—which, if accurately described by the inspector general, is condemnable—there are good reasons to be anxious about a case that both seems far from the sort normally prosecuted and involves someone the president has singled out for persecution. There have also long been reasons to doubt the strength of the case, not the least of which is that two of the prosecutors who supervised it have dropped off the matter.

All of this is the background to whatever happened yesterday, when the grand jury met after McCabe’s lawyers had been informed that an indictment would be sought—and yet no indictment emerged.

It is hard to express what an incredibly rare occurrence a grand jury refusal to return what is called a “true bill” would be, if that is indeed what took place. It may not be quite accurate that, as the saying goes, a prosecutor can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich, but the sentiment gets at something real. The Bureau of Justice Statistics indicates that between October 2013 and September 2014—the last year these data were publicly available—the department investigated almost 200,000 cases and declined to prosecute roughly 31,500. Of the latter category, just five of those cases were declined because a grand jury returned no true bill—a percentage so small that the Bureau of Justice Statistics declines to actually write it out. Between October 2010 and September 2011, and October 2011 and September 2012, the proportion of declined cases explained by grand juries returning no true bills is a momentous 0.1 percent.

Again, we don’t know yet if that is what happened in McCabe’s case. There are possibilities other than the grand jury balking. It’s conceivable, for example, that prosecutors for some reason simply did not ask the grand jury to return an indictment on Thursday. This would be unusual: According to the Post, the grand jury panel originally investigating McCabe was reconvened on Thursday after an absence of months. One possibility is that this detail in the Post’s reporting may be incorrect and that the grand jury convened is a new one, not the one that already heard all the evidence—and that it thus needs to be read the transcripts of the earlier grand jury testimony. That could take time, and it would mean that the new grand jury might not be ready to reach a decision right away. But we have no reason to doubt the Post’s reporting on this point and can think of no obvious reason why, if the grand jury was recalled, the question of an indictment would not have been put to it.

The other possibility is that the grand jury did return an indictment but did so under seal. This would explain why McCabe’s defense team is not aware of any charges. But this possibility seems unlikely for a different reason: It’s far from clear why the government would want to keep the indictment off the public record, or why the court would permit it. Law enforcement typically may keep an indictment sealed only if it has a legitimate prosecutorial interest in doing so. It’s hard to imagine what legitimate prosecutorial interest could justify sealing an indictment of McCabe once major news organizations have already reported that charges against him are on the way and the Justice Department has informed his counsel that it is proceeding against him. McCabe is hardly likely to skip town.

Then there is a third possibility: that the grand jury actually declined to indict McCabe, instead returning no true bill.

This would be a very big deal—a huge rebuke to the Justice Department’s conduct of this case. Grand juries do not need to be unanimous. They need to have a quorum of their 23 members, and they require only a majority to return an indictment. They also don’t proceed by proof beyond a reasonable doubt, the standard at trial. Instead, an indictment issues on the lower standard of probable cause. In other words, if this is really what happened, it would mean that the Justice Department couldn’t even persuade a majority of people who have heard from all of the witnesses that there is even probable cause to proceed against McCabe.

Somebody knows, but whatever the result, it hasn't been leaked to the press.  We'll find out sooner or later.
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