Posts Tagged ‘Ted Cruz’

Mueller Obstruction of justice bombshell will explode before midterms

August 4, 2018

Why is President Trump escalating his attacks against special counsel counsel Robert Mueller, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Department of Justice, the FBI and the free press to a fever pitch in recent days?

The reason is that the odds are very high that Mueller will offer a declarative public statement before the midterm elections, and very likely before Labor Day, that the president is guilty of obstruction of justice.

The Mueller declaration of obstruction of justice could be issued in the form of a letter to Congress and may or may not ultimately be issued in the form of an indictment if he believes that the Trump situation creates extraordinary circumstances that warrant his seeking approval for a formal indictment.

By Brent Budowsky
The Hill

Image may contain: 3 people, suit

It is impossible to know exactly what Mueller will do. We do not know the evidence he has that has not yet been made public. We do not know his private thinking on great matters of state and law that will govern his actions.

In April, there were public reports that Mueller would ultimately release his findings in two stages, the first being obstruction of justice, which could be released in whatever form it takes this summer.

When public reports indicated that Mueller is looking at Trump tweets, among other factors, in the obstruction investigation, some of his handful of legal defenders suggested that Trump tweets are not relevant evidence of obstruction. They are wrong, though the tweets are far from the most important evidence.

Consider the obstruction of justice provisions in the articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon that were passed by the House Judiciary Committee before Nixon resigned. Article 1, Section 8 of the articles of impeachment included this:

“making or causing to be made false or misleading public statements for the purpose of deceiving the people of the United States into believing that a thorough and complete investigation had been conducted with respect to allegations of misconduct on the part of personnel of the executive branch of the United States and personnel of the Committee for the Re-election of the President, and that there was no involvement of such personnel in such misconduct.”

In other words, repeatedly making false statements intended to deceive the public about matters under investigation constitute acts in furtherance of obstruction of justice in violation of American law.

Now consider this. Literally in real time, Trump is virtually at war over facts with leading members of his Cabinet about whether Russia has attacked American elections in the 2016 campaign and continues to attack American elections in the 2018 midterms.

On Thursday, leading members of his administration joined together in an extraordinary public session warning the nation about the continuing Russian attack against our elections. His national security adviser, director of National Intelligence, FBI director and secretary of Homeland Security stood united before the nation, warning of the continuing Russian attack in clear and powerful terms.

Trump could have joined them in person to offer his support. He did not. Instead, only hours later, he publicly claimed, again, that the Russia investigation was a hoax and that his recent meeting with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin was a huge success.

If charges that Trump obstructed justice by making false statements are considered in court or congressional hearings, it would be powerful testimony for his Cabinet members to be called to testify about whether Trump’s statements that the Russia investigations are a hoax are true or false.

Similarly, Trump’s fevered and escalating attacks against the free press, which even his daughter Ivanka had the good sense to rebut, provide more powerful and compelling evidence of intent to mislead the public about matters under intense investigation.

While Trump is in dramatic conflict with Cabinet members who warn about the Russian attack, which he falsely claims is a hoax, he attacks the free press for reporting about the Russian attack, which he falsely claims is fake news.

Mueller could argue that Trump is seeking to execute the first televised obstruction of justice, in plain view before the nation every day.

With a high probability that the obstruction issue reaches a crescendo before the midterm elections, there is now a growing likelihood that an anti-Trump wave will doom Republicans to a disastrous defeat in November.

In Texas, Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D) has surged to within a few points of defeating Sen. Ted Cruz (R). In Tennessee, former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen has a strong chance of winning the election to replace Sen. Bob Corker (R). Democratic Senate candidates have a strong chance to take Republican Senate seats in Arizona and Nevada.

It is now probable that Democrats regain control of the House of Representatives with a real possibility that Democrats win a larger than expected majority. For Republicans, it is the worst possible time for the coming obstruction of justice bombshell to explode.

It is political suicide for Republicans when the president escalates his attacks against the free press to such extreme levels that even his daughter distances herself from these attacks. His attacks against Mueller have reached such extreme levels that he puts the fear of God into Republicans running in 2018.

Brent Budowsky was an aide to former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Texas) and former Rep. Bill Alexander (D-Ark.), who was chief deputy majority whip of the U.S. House of Representatives. He holds an LLM in international financial law from the London School of Economics.


U.S. Defense Bill Seeks to Counter China

August 1, 2018

Beijing’s increased military activity in South China Sea, pursuit of U.S. technology among issues

Republican Rep. Robert Pittenger of North Carolina has helped lead an effort to tighten U.S. national-security reviews of Chinese business deals.
Republican Rep. Robert Pittenger of North Carolina has helped lead an effort to tighten U.S. national-security reviews of Chinese business deals. PHOTO: BILL CLARK/ZUMA PRESS

Congress is preparing to enact a defense-policy bill that some lawmakers say is tougher on China than any in history, as a bipartisan movement to confront Beijing gathers steam.

The measure, an annual policy bill that will authorize $716 billion in total defense spending for the coming fiscal year, seeks to counter a range of Chinese government policies, including increased military activity in the South China Sea, the pursuit of cutting-edge U.S. technology and the spread of Communist Party propaganda at American institutions.

The House of Representatives approved the legislation last week, and President Trump is expected to sign the bill into law after the Senate approves it as soon as Wednesday.

This year’s National Defense Authorization Act is a reflection of a growing bipartisan consensus in Congress and among national-security officials that the world is entering a new era of great power rivalries in which the U.S. must do more to compete with China and Russia.

“The central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition,” according to an unclassified summary of the U.S.’s 2018 National Defense Strategy. “China is leveraging military modernization, influence operations, and predatory economics to coerce neighboring countries to reorder the Indo-Pacific region to their advantage,” the document says.

The Chinese Embassy didn’t return a request for comment.

Some of the defense bill’s most notable provisions concern Chinese economic activity. The legislation seeks to both tighten U.S. national-security reviews of Chinese deals under the Committee on Foreign investment in the U.S. and to revamp export controls governing which U.S. technologies can be sent abroad.

Though the Cfius provisions, spearheaded by Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas) and Rep. Robert Pittenger (R., N.C.), and the export rules, led by Rep. Ed Royce (R., Ca.), are expected to affect a wide array of American businesses, many supported the measures because of a growing concern over Chinese policies.

“Three years ago if you talked about doing things against China, the business community would push back,” said James Lewis, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. “They don’t push back anymore.”

China has pledged to retaliate against U.S. tariffs in “equal scale and equal strength.” In addition to tariffs, here are three ways Beijing could hit back at Washington. Photo: Getty Images

“We have multiple nations out there that are threatening our national security from an economic-espionage perspective, and none of them equal China,” said Bill Evanina, Director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, at an event last week.

The defense bill also requires an annual report on China to include information on efforts by the Chinese government to influence U.S. “media, cultural institutions, business, and academic and policy communities” to fall in line with its security strategy.

Another provision limits Department of Defense funds for Chinese language programs at U.S. universities that host Confucius Institutes. These centers, funded by the Chinese government, have been criticized by Republicans—including Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Ted Cruz of Texas, as well as Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina—for peddling propaganda.

The bill also contains provisions to bolster defense ties with India and Taiwan, a self-ruled island that China claims as its own. And it bans China’s participation in Rim of the Pacific naval exercises—which involve 26 nations in a display of international military cooperation—until it stops militarizing islands in the South China Sea.

“It’s a signal to our allies and partners in the region—particularly Australia, Japan and Taiwan—that China’s activities in the South China Sea are not accepted as normal,” said Rachael Burton, deputy director at the Project 2049 Institute, a Virginia-based think tank.

One area in which a bipartisan group of lawmakers thought the defense bill fell short was with respect to Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE Corp. The Commerce Department in April banned U.S. companies from selling to ZTE for failing to honor an earlier U.S. agreement to resolve its sanctions-busting sales to North Korea and Iran. Because ZTE depends on U.S. suppliers, the ban was effectively a death knell.

But, in a surprise tweet on May 13, Mr. Trump said he and Chinese President Xi Jinping were “working together” to find a way to save ZTE.

The Commerce Department then struck a new deal with ZTE on June 7 that required the Chinese firm to put $400 million into an escrow account, pay a $1 billion fine, replace its board of directors and senior leadership, and fund a team of U.S. compliance officers to monitor the company for 10 years in exchange for being allowed to resume business with U.S. suppliers.

Dissatisfied with Mr. Trump’s deal, the Senate on June 18 voted to reinstate the initial Commerce penalty on ZTE by wrapping the measure into the defense bill. But Senate and House negotiators removed the language from the final text. The company didn’t return a request for comment.

Mr. Rubio has in recent tweets blasted the outcome as a “cave” by congressional negotiators.

“We got played by China again,” he said in a July 24 tweet. “This can’t continue.”

Write to Kate O’Keeffe at and Siobhan Hughes at

Senate moving ahead with border bill, despite Trump

June 21, 2018

Senate Republicans on Wednesday said legislation is still needed to address the overflow of detained immigrants at the border, but they are unlikely to pick up enough Democrats to get a bill to President Trump’s desk.

Republicans unveiled a bill that merged a variety of ideas put forth by Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (Texas) and Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) as they seek one package that can win the support of the entire GOP conference.

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A large group of senators, Democrats and Republicans, met Wednesday afternoon in centrist Sen. Susan Collins’s (R-Maine) office to find shared principles that could serve as the basis for a compromise bill.

“The idea is to make sure we are bringing people from both sides of the aisle together,” said Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who heads the Senate GOP campaign arm and attended the meeting. “Family separation, that’s what we want to stop. How do we come together as two parties to do that?”

Trump diffused the growing political crisis on Wednesday by signing an executive order that authorizes border agents to keep children with their detained parents indefinitely, which will likely end the spectacle of kids being forcibly removed from their families.

Regardless, GOP lawmakers say legislation must move forward.

“It would be helpful to codify some of that stuff. I think it eliminates the uncertainty and potential legal challenges,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (S.D.).

Cornyn, who met with Trump about a trade issue along with other members Wednesday, said the president approved of Congress moving forward with legislation during the White House meeting.

Republicans say a 1997 legal settlement known as the Flores settlement agreement, which does not allow children to be detained at the border beyond 20 days, must be reversed by an act of Congress.

“I think the Flores decision has to be dealt with legislatively,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio).

Without legislation, Republicans warned that Trump’s executive order could get bogged down or potentially overturned in court, prolonging a political fight that has plagued the administration’s actions on immigration.

“Ultimately it would be ideal if we could back that up by passing a law that does it so there wouldn’t be a court uncertainty,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). “You’re a court ruling away from being back to the same thing, potentially.”

Trump’s decision came after his “zero tolerance” policies that resulted in the separation of migrant families along the U.S.-Mexico border sparked intense, days-long backlash from GOP leadership and high-profile figures in the party.

But Republicans were caught flat-footed by Trump’s controversial policy, and the administration dispatched Attorney General Jeff Sessions to a closed-door GOP lunch to try to explain the administration’s thinking.

Trump’s executive order would keep families detained along the border “together where appropriate and consistent with law and available resources.”

The order could lessen the chances the Senate ultimately passes legislation, where immigration is a political lightning rod and lawmakers were already running into partisan headwinds as senators lined up behind competing bills.

Underscoring the political tensions, Cruz questioned if Democrats would block legislation so they could use the issue as a political football for November’s midterm elections.

“I’m hopeful Democrats will work with us to end family separation,” Cruz said. “The question is, do congressional Democrats want to actually solve the problem or do they want an issue to campaign on in November?”

Democrats are deeply skeptical about passing a bill that would codify Trump’s order, arguing that it would support his zero tolerance policy of prosecuting illegal border crossers instead of deporting them.

They argue that it’s inhumane to detain children along with their parents indefinitely.

“To the extent that families can stay together that’s a good thing, but indefinite family detention is not a solution to the problem,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.), a leading Democratic voice on immigration.

“It does not solve the problem,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said of Trump’s order. “Indefinite detainment of families is also inhumane. These children should be in school.”

Gillibrand, who is seen as a possible 2020 presidential candidate, said a narrow bill codifying Trump’s order is insufficient and Congress should instead pass comprehensive immigration reform.

But lawmakers in both parties have warned that broad immigration legislation would never be able to clear Congress. A February immigration fight in the Senate resulted in a stalemate, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has shut down holding another broad, freewheeling debate.

It remains to be seen if McConnell will want to tackle immigration again in the wake of Trump’s executive order. McConnell is co-sponsoring legislation introduced by Tillis and other Republicans on Wednesday. But if immigration fades from the headlines, McConnell could opt to move to other matters — such as voting on Trump’s pending nominees.

House Republicans, meanwhile, have struggled to get on the same page on immigration. Two immigration bills that call for major changes to immigration law — including allowing detained parents to be with their children — don’t appear to have the votes to pass the lower chamber.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has proposed a bill that has the backing of the entire Democratic caucus that would prohibit law enforcement from taking a child from a parent or legal guardian within 100 miles of the border. She said any Republican proposal to detain families together would be problematic.

Feinstein doesn’t think any sweeping immigration bill can pass Congress any time soon.

“That means to me that we have to gather certain very precise rallying principles,” she added.

A senior Democratic aide called Republican legislation to keep detained families together “a complete waste of time” and said it’s being used as a “shiny object” to detract attention from Trump’s unwillingness to reverse his zero tolerance policy.

Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) on Tuesday dismissed questions about Democrats backing a GOP bill to address the border crisis, arguing it’s the president’s responsibility.

Schumer didn’t address legislation in his immediate reaction to the executive order Wednesday afternoon, instead saying it was a “relief that the president has reversed himself.”

“I also hope this represents a turning point and that the president will stop blaming others for problems he creates and start fixing them himself,” Schumer said in a statement.

Some Republican senators think that Schumer is purposely dragging his feet because Trump is taking a beating in the media over the controversy.

“Schumer doesn’t want to cooperate because this is such a wonderful issue for them,” said one Republican senator. “I’m sure he’s loving the headlines every morning.”


Senators Tell Facebook CEO the Days of Self-Regulation May End — “Your user agreement sucks,” Senator John Kennedy says

April 11, 2018


By Todd Shields, Steven T. Dennis , and Sarah Frier

  • Data leak brings Facebook’s Zuckerberg before Senate panels
  • Democrats lean in toward regulation of online privacy
Watch the Highlights from Mark Zuckerberg’s Marathon Congressional Testimony


Senators grilling Facebook Inc.’s co-founder Mark Zuckerberg over a data leak signaled they may move to rein in the social media giant, which has thrived as part of an online industry that’s largely escaped regulation.

“Your user agreement sucks,” Senator John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, told the 33-year-old CEO on Tuesday. “I don’t want to vote to have to regulate Facebook, but by God I will. A lot of that depends on you.”

Mark Zuckerberg on April 10

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Zuckerberg spent hours as the sole witness before a joint hearing of two committees mustering almost half of the U.S. Senate members. The appearance followed the revelation that data from as many as 87 million users was siphoned to Cambridge Analytica, a British firm with ties to the 2016 campaign of President Donald Trump.

Facebook shares jumped to their highest level in more than two weeks, and closed up 4.5 percent Tuesday. The stock was down 0.40 percent Wednesday premarket.

Zuckerberg is to testify Wednesday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, rounding out a Capitol Hill tour that’s part apology and part defense of the company that’s grown to encompass 2 billion users worldwide since being founded in a Harvard University dorm room in 2004. On Tuesday, Zuckerberg said he was willing to consider new restrictions, and agreed to send suggestions to Congress.

“My position is not that there should be no regulation,” Zuckerberg said. “The real question, as the internet becomes more important in people’s lives, is what is the right regulation.”

Understanding the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica Story: QuickTake

Facebook, fending off the Cambridge Analytica furor, has promised steps to improve transparency, saying, for instance, that it would create a searchable archive for federal election ads. Some lawmakers said they didn’t view Facebook’s recent steps as enough. Senators said there will be more hearings. Some greeted Zuckerberg with thinly disguised belligerence.

‘Dark Side’

Senator Lindsey Graham, in a statement after questioning Zuckerberg, said there is ”a dark side to Facebook.”

“Facebook is a virtual monopoly and monopolies need to be regulated,” said Graham, a South Carolina Republican.

“The status quo no longer works,” said Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. “Congress must determine if and how we need to strengthen privacy standards.”

Republicans hold majorities in both houses of Congress, and the party has historically been averse to regulating industry, so their statements envisioning regulation carry significance. At Tuesday’s hearing GOP senators including Roger Wicker, of Mississippi, and Orrin Hatch, of Utah, cautioned against regulation.

Democrats are ready to lean in, casting the Cambridge Analytica scandal as a watershed.

“Oh sure, I think we’re going to have to do privacy legislation now,” Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, said in an interview during the hearing.

‘Day of Reckoning’

“The day of reckoning for American privacy has arrived,” said Senator Ed Markey, of Massachusetts. “Facebook now has to deal with how much people understand about how vulnerable all their information is and how few protections are on the books. So I do think this is a legislating moment.”

Markey said he introduced a privacy bill Tuesday, co-sponsored with Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal, a fellow Democrat, that offers a suite of new protections for consumers.

How Russia Meddling Became Social Media’s Problem: QuickTake Q&A

The leading legislative vehicle, the Honest Ads Act, introduced last year, would put online companies under disclosure rules like those in place for political ads on TV, where information is disclosed about who paid for the ad.

The bill picked up Zuckerberg’s endorsement last week as the Facebook leader began his contrition tour. The measure, sponsored by Democrats and one Republican — Senator John McCain, of Arizona — picked up more industry backing on Tuesday, as Twitter Inc. said the bill “provides an appropriate framework.” The company said it would work to “refine and advance” the proposal.

Silent Google

Klobuchar, a co-sponsor of the act, welcomed Twitter’s stance and called for Alphabet Inc.’s Google to support the bill. Google declined to comment.

“Whether it’s on Facebook, Twitter, Google, or another site, Americans have a right to know who is paying to influence public discourse regardless of where ads are sold — and a standard across platforms is crucial,” Klobuchar said in a statement.

Zuckerberg under questioning refused to offer a blanket endorsement of legislation to ensure that users’ information is shared only after they give specific permission — a regime known as “opt-in.” Now, Facebook users may have little knowledge of what applications are seeking their data. Zuckerberg said he would support requiring opt-in “as a principle” but when it comes to laws, “the details matter a lot.”

Senator Dan Sullivan, an Alaska Republican, observed that legislation could end up cementing a dominant power. “Do you think that’s a risk,” he asked Zuckerberg, who replied, “That certainly wouldn’t be our approach.”

Honest Ads

The Honest Ads proposal, centered on disclosure, is an important step but more needs to be done, said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy21, a Washington-based group that seeks to eliminate what it calls “the undue influence of big money in American politics.”

Congress should strengthen prohibitions against foreign spending on political ads, Wertheimer said. Current law didn’t anticipate circumstances like Russian groups pushing campaign-related ads online, he said.

Facebook has disclosed that posts from a Russian company known for pushing Kremlin propaganda had reached the news feeds of 126 million users.

How Russia Meddling Became Social Media’s Problem: QuickTake Q&A

Whether Washington acts or not, Facebook needs to step forward and “fix the problems,” Wertheimer said.

“They can’t humble their way out of this,” he added. “Apologies are fine but they don’t solve the problem.”

The Honest Ads Act “is dealing with the tip of an iceberg,” said Meredith McGehee, executive director at Issue One, a policy group that promotes transparency and disclosure. “There’s a lot of things that are on social media, that are on these platforms, that would not be captured by the Honest Ads Act.”

There’s a galaxy of manipulators that U.S. regulation doesn’t touch — “the fake personas, the bots,” that sow disinformation, McGehee said. She said hearings are needed to illuminate the issue.

In response to the Cambridge Analytica leak, the Federal Trade Commission has opened a probe that could result in millions of dollars of fines for Facebook. Separately, the Federal Election Commission is moving toward requiring online political ads to show details of sponsorship — a proposal that even commission members characterize as a narrow reform.

— With assistance by Bill Allison, and Arit John

Includes video:


  (Includes links to our Facebook archive)

The Zuckerberg Effigy

April 11, 2018

A Silicon Valley CEO sticks up for a culture of trying new things and learning by doing.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifying before a joint hearing of the Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees, April 10.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifying before a joint hearing of the Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees, April 10. PHOTO: LEAH MILLIS/REUTERS


“Senator, we run ads.”

So declared Mark Zuckerberg in answer to Orrin Hatch about how the company makes money if it doesn’t charge users of its service. And then he cracked his first smile of the day.

Tuesday’s was a good hearing for the Facebook founder, as demonstrated by Facebook’s stock price, which the business channels tracked during his testimony.

The famously casual CEO donned a suit, if not the white wig and black robes that probably still wouldn’t have satisfied those who criticize him for a lack of gravitas. (When the old criticize the young for looking young, a whole lot of baggage is on display.)

His friends may want to send a donation to Ted Cruz for showing up. The Texas Republican would make an aardvark look simpatico in comparison.

Mr. Zuckerberg ably swatted down the casual slur that his company “sells” consumer data. It doesn’t. It keeps control of user data and leverages it to help advertisers target potential customers.

Unrelated complaints were dragged in: Facebook is addicting. It’s a monopolist. The Russians use it. Liberals work there.

Apple CEO Tim Cook a few weeks ago snootily alluded to Facebook’s advertising-based business model (also a basis for the news and entertainment businesses for a couple of centuries). That theme was repeatedly summoned in quasi-pejorative fashion during the hearing. But notice that it wasn’t Facebook that recently had a problem with theft of private, intimate celebrity home videos. Apple did.

 Image may contain: 2 people, people sitting

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg listens to a question while testifying at a Joint Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committee hearing on Facebook, social media privacy, and the use and abuse of data, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI

And notice why: Facebook is for information that people want to broadcast about themselves. They sign up “friends” willy-nilly to increase the audience for their revelations.

Facebook never asks for my credit-card number, though plenty of websites do, and plenty have suffered data breaches of real consequence that make the Facebook “breach” look even more overblown. Facebook users don’t post their bank-account numbers. If they mention their incomes, it’s probably a lie. The result, if any, of the alleged Facebook breach was indistinguishable from the daily routine: Facebook users saw ads.

If you are worried about somebody turning your deepest secrets into advertising, that’s not Facebook—it’s the search engine Google. Mr. Zuckerberg conceded that probably all two billion users have had their data “scraped” from the site. No kidding. Google is the biggest scraper: Google is often how you find an acquaintance has a Facebook page in the first place. But this is information that Facebook posters wanted others to find.

Not that there isn’t a real privacy menace related to social media. To our pleasant surprise, it was alluded to briefly by Sen. John Thune in his opening comment.

It’s already been five years since researchers showed that a tiny sample of “anonymized” cellphone location data was sufficient to identify individual users with 95% accuracy by comparing it to publicly available social-media data.

You’d be surprised how much government data about you (tax, health care) is being distributed by the government to outsiders for research or commercial purposes, supposedly “de-identified.” Not to mention the information about you collected by businesses. To show your face in public these days is to create data. To drive your car is to create data. The concern has even been extended to blood and tissue samples compiled by hospitals, which have routinely been widely distributed for research purposes.

Now consider that you voluntarily fill the world with tweets, Facebook posts, web comments, etc. that a re-identification industry can use as a resource to tie your name to what was supposed to be anonymized statistical data.

We would have welcomed further discussion of this matter from this week’s Zuckerberg waterboarding, which instead was all about congressmen being seen barking at a Silicon Valley kingpin. Fortunately there’s also learning going on. New forms of social media are being invented every day. Users are already making increasingly subtle decisions about whether to communicate by voice, text, Facebook, a message app, a tweet or an email, depending on the nature of the message and intended audience.

Such learning is likely to be a better solution to social-media quandaries than any Congress might come up with.

This column has had doubts about Facebook’s business model from the beginning, which we won’t repeat here. But Mr. Zuckerberg’s rather healthy attitude of trying things and seeing what happens, then correcting course as he goes along, has innate appeal. This week, alas, it came up against people who prosper by being on all sides of every issue, for whom admitting a mistake is the final, desperate recourse only when a career is going down the tubes.

What is most sad is to see the ethos of Washington finally subsuming what, for a time at least, was Silicon Valley’s bright and cheerful sense of possibility. Mr. Zuckerberg’s performance Tuesday did not stop a steamroller that’s been building up momentum for months, but he ably represented what Silicon Valley has always had to offer.

Appeared in the April 11, 2018, print edition.


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How Facebook and Google threaten public health – and democracy

For many Americans, the Second Amendment is a defense against their own government

March 23, 2018


Published 4:27 p.m. ET March 22, 2018 | Updated 9:16 p.m. ET March 22, 2018

More than 1 million people are expected to attend the March for Our Lives in Washington D.C. hoping for changes to gun regulations and school safety. USA TODAY

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — The crowded room exploded in thunderous cheers and applause. A bill to make it a felony to possess gun magazines larger than 10 rounds had just been unexpectedly killed by its sponsor in the middle of debate before the Maryland House of Delegates Judiciary Committee after it was met with rancor by the audience and opposing delegates.

It was a powerful display of the continued influence of politically active gun owners mere weeks since new national calls for gun control were sparked by the killing of 17 people in Parkland, Fla.

America has seen a number of mass shootings in the past year: Las Vegas. Sutherland Springs. Stoneman Douglas. In those three instances, the shooter used AR-15 platform rifles.The shooters in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs used the high-capacity magazines the defeated Maryland bill sought to outlaw.

More: Why the AR-15 keeps appearing at America’s deadliest mass shootings

Most Americans who plan to march on Washington Saturday against gun violence don’t believe that private citizens should own high-capacity semi-automatic rifles. They don’t understand what many gun rights defenders see as the heart of the Second Amendment: The defense against a tyrannical government.

In recent debates, gun rights activists have offered a number of defenses of what gun control advocates call assault weapons, from the rifles not being more deadly than other firearms to illegalization leaving them only in the hands of criminals. The tyranny argument is often overlooked by people who assume this argument is limited to people on the extreme, militia-end of the gun rights spectrum. But it’s become common among gun owners and mainstream conservative figures.

Shannon Alford, the National Rifle Association’s Maryland liaison, was among the scores of people who came to the state House of Delegates on March 6 to offer feedback on a number of gun-related pieces of legislation being considered after the Parkland shooting.

“The Second Amendment is not about hunting,” Alford told USA TODAY. “It is not about competitive shooting. The Second Amendment is about self-defense. It’s about being able to stop people who would do you harm, whether that’s a criminal or the government.”

‘A 30-round magazine might be too small’

That NRA position has been repeated almost word for word by several well-known conservative figures in recent years.

“The 2nd Amendment to the Constitution isn’t for just protecting hunting rights, and it’s not only to safeguard your right to target practice,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said in a fundraising letter for his 2016 presidential campaign. “It is a Constitutional right to protect your children, your family, your home, our lives, and to serve as the ultimate check against governmental tyranny — for the protection of liberty.”

Conservative blogger Erick Erickson said the Second Amendment, “contrary to much of today’s conversation, has just as much to do with the people protecting themselves from tyranny as it does burglars.” And Erickson believes that is the main reason gun control advocates don’t understand the need for high-capacity semi-automatic firearms.

That is why there is so little common ground about assault rifles — even charitably ignoring the fact that there really is no such thing. If the 2nd Amendment is to protect the citizenry from even their own government, then the citizenry should be able to be armed …

You may think a 30 round magazine is too big. Under the real purpose of the second amendment, a 30 round magazine might be too small.

‘Insurrectionist’ goes mainstream

Adam Winkler, a constitutional law professor at UCLA, called the idea that a right to fight against government tyranny is enshrined in the Bill of Rights the “insurrectionist theory” of the Second Amendment. (So named because an insurrectionist is someone who takes part in an armed rebellion.)

“That insurrectionist theory used to be a fringe theory of the Second Amendment but it’s become much more mainstream,” said Winkler, the author of Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America.

Winkler attributed the surge in the theory’s popularity to the increasingly extreme language used by the National Rifle Association and “a desire to frame the Second Amendment in a way that will protect military-style assault rifles.”

More: Donald Trump delivers 100 days of 2nd Amendment victories: Chris Cox

If the insurrectionist theory is accepted, then efforts to ban semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 would be unconstitutional because those weapons would be exactly what Americans would “need to fight back against the government,” Winkler said.

While Winkler agrees the Second Amendment “has the happy impact of deterring tyranny because the citizenry is armed,” he does not believe the Founding Fathers intended to “give the people the right to rise up against the government.”

“The Framers understood the right to bear arms as an individual right, but it wasn’t a right to stage a revolution,” Winkler said. “The Constitution doesn’t provide the seeds for its own destruction.”

Calls to arms can backfire

In addition to a questionable legal foundation, the insurrectionist theory of the Second Amendment often doesn’t resonate well with the general public, particularly when politicians and public figures hint at it.

During her failed 2010 Senate campaign, Nevada Republican — and tea party favorite — Sharron Angle was widely derided for saying the Founding Fathers included the Second Amendment in the Constitution “for the people to protect themselves against a tyrannical government.”

Angle said people were “really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies” as a response to the then-Democratically controlled Congress, which many people interpreted as a suggestion that armed insurrection might be necessary.

More: Second Amendment law lessons: Look beyond the courts for freedom

During the 2016 campaign, President Trump took heat for suggesting that “Second Amendment people” might be able to do something about Hillary Clinton if she won the election.

And U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi, D-N.Y., was criticized for seeming to suggest during a March 12 town hall that armed insurrection could be necessary if Trump ignores the law.

“This is where the Second Amendment comes in quite frankly, because you know, what if the president was to ignore the courts? What would you do? What would we do?” Suozzi said.

More: Democratic congressman suggests Second Amendment solution for Trump

The four boxes

For most Americans, even those who believe in the right to insurrection, the notion of rising up against the government remains a very far-fetched scenario.

Jeff Hulbert, the founder of the Maryland gun rights group Patriot Picket, was one of the people who came to the Maryland House of Delegates to voice his concern about the proposed gun control legislation.

Hulbert believes that  gun ownership is a “checks and balances issue for anybody who reveres our democratic republic.” But he compares his right to take up arms in case of the government reaching what he calls an “intolerable” situation to a fire extinguisher kept in case of a possible emergency.

“It’s simply there,” Hulbert said. “It’s been written into the structure for a reason, but it doesn’t mean that it’s activated every election cycle.”

Hulbert said there are “four boxes” that can be employed to resist the government: the ballot box, the soap box, the jury box and, lastly, the ammo box.

“Nobody I know believes that we have reached the end of the line for the four boxes,” Hulbert said. “We’re at the level of fear-mongering when we talk about the tyrannical overthrow of a government because our election cycles have seemed to work pretty well.”

Hulbert’s fellow Patriot Picket member Jim McGuire agreed.

“If we were close to the tipping point, these people and us, we wouldn’t be here,” McGuire said. “We have the opportunity to speak our minds and have our voices heard and participate in the legislative process. It’s still working. If this place was empty, I’d be worried.”
Peace and Freedom Note: With all due respect to USA Today, what many gun owning Americans fear is a breakdown in law and order, a loss of proper police response, and the eventual necessity of self defense — not AGAINST the government but self defense BECAUSE  of government failure. American gun owners see themselves as defenders of the Constitution, not insurrectionists….
The Broward County Sheriff’s office is a current example of a failure of government…
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Scott Israel South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Trump Taking Republican Into European-Style Populism? — Critics say “Yes”

February 23, 2018


By Sahil Kapur

 Updated on 
  • Stars of U.K., French nationalist movements address CPAC
  • Annual gathering of conservatives often signals GOP direction
Image may contain: 1 person
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, U.S., on Friday, Feb. 23, 2018
CREDIT Chip Somodevilla

Trump Says NRA and Republicans Want a Deal on Gun Control

President Donald Trump has pushed the Republican Party toward a European-style populism that is amply evident in the line-up at an annual conference in Washington that long has reflected the pulse of the American right.

The list of speakers at the Conservative Political Action Conference that opened Thursday includes two European nativists, Marion Marechal-Le Pen and Nigel Farage, who are addressing the gathering between panels and events on the dangers of immigration, Sharia law and “lawless” government agencies.

Marion Marechal-Le Pen

Photographer: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

The presence of Marechal-Le Pen and Farage is an indicator of how Trump’s “America First” agenda parallels traditional European nationalism, said Benjamin Haddad, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute who studies European populism and transatlantic affairs.

“You do see a convergence with the Trump movement — when it comes to closed borders, protectionism, the nativism and anti-immigration discourse, the focus on Islam,” Haddad said. “It’s what we’ve seen in European movements for years.”

Over the three-day run of the conference, which often reflects the direction of the GOP, audiences will hear from Trump, who’s promised to appear every year he is president; Vice President Mike Pence, the kick-off speaker on Thursday; and a cross-section of Trump administration officials popular with conservatives.

Marechal-Le Pen, the far-right French politician and niece of National Front leader Marine Le Pen, said nationalist movements are part of the broader fight for freedom and independence.

“I’m not offended when I hear President Donald Trump say America first,” she said, drawing cheers from the crowd. “In fact, I want America first for the American people. I want Britain first for the British people. And I want France first for the French people.”

“All I want is the survival of my nation,” she said, prompting a shout of “Vive la France!” from an audience member.

Controversial Invitation

The decision by CPAC to invite Marechal-Le Pen to speak has generated blowback from some conservatives.

CPAC organizer Matt Schlapp addressed critics who said Marechal-Le Pen defies core precepts of American conservatism, writing on Twitter: “Part of @CPAC is hearing people out. Debate is good for democracy and we are honored to have her address our activists.”

Jamie Weinstein, a conservative commentator based in Washington, responded to Schlapp’s message with a tweet saying he’s all for a healthy debate, but “I’m afraid what @CPAC is doing w/ Le Pen is allowing her to steal mantle of conservatism for an ideology that is anything but, at least as defined in America.”

Political Dynasty

The 28-year-old Marechal-Le Pen is a scion of the nativist political dynasty that began with her grandfather Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the National Front in 1972. She has championed a harder line on immigration and national identity than her aunt, who was defeated by Emmanuel Macron for the French presidency last year. Shortly after the election, Marechal-Le Pen said she was retiring from political life, though she didn’t close the door on a return.

“She’s young, she’s a firebrand speaker, she’s clearly a good spokesperson for this,” Haddad said, adding that her philosophy is closer to her grandfather’s than that of her aunt, who tried to steer the party away from some of its most racially charged elements and toward populist economic issues like trade protectionism and minimum wage increases.

Farage, the British politician who was a force behind the successful Brexit referendum, will take the stage on Friday.

Trump Ally

The former U.K. Independence Party leader has aligned himself with Trump, who has returned the embrace. Shortly after the American presidential election, Trump suggested Farage should be Britain’s ambassador to the U.S. That was rejected by Prime Minister Theresa May, who has had a sometimes frosty relationship with the president.

Thomas Wright, the director of the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe, said Marechal-Le Pen and Farage are “birds of a feather” and “not friends of the U.S. and Europe.” He said the participation of Marechal-Le Pen in particular “raises questions” as to whether CPAC is “aware of the various anti-American things she’s said.”

“Everyone should be very clear-eyed about what it is they stand for, which is a very anti-American view and a pro-Russian view of politics, and of the United States role in Europe,” Wright said. “It’s a worrying gesture. It raises significant concerns.”

Trump on Tuesday praised Schlapp for organizing what he said would be an “exciting event.”


The presence of nativist sentiments isn’t new in American politics, but until recent years they’ve largely been relegated to the fringes. Previous Republican Party leaders have instead emphasized pluralism over identity, alongside free markets and limited government. The rise of Trump appears to be a reflection of the potency of populism in a country that has been dominated by European immigrants and now is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse.

“It does send a message that the Republican Party seems to be converging more with Trump,” Wright said.

There are some gaps between Trump’s rhetoric and his policies so far, such as on trade, Haddad said. He added that the president’s agenda of lower taxes and deregulation runs contrary to the more left-wing economic agenda of some populist European parties such as the National Front.

Numerous panels and other events are focused on the nuts and bolts of political activism, including using data and social media in campaigns, as well as issues that long have animated conservatives, such as the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and freeing markets from government interference.

But many sessions have a flavor of current debates about immigration, the inquiries into Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether conservative opinions are suppressed on college campuses. Several are centered on Trump’s policies.

Trump had appeared numerous times at CPAC since 2011 as he considered running for office. In 2016, when Trump canceled his appearance, the group criticized him and said his move “sends a clear message to conservatives.”

A rival for the Republican nomination, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, was the winner of that year’s CPAC straw poll, which had been won by Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Mitt Romney before their successful runs for the Republican nomination.

Some traditional conservatives feared then that Trump would push the Republican Party in a nativist direction. It was “one of the top concerns #NeverTrump-ers had about Trump,” Weinstein said.

States Worry You May Claim 529 Tax Exemption for K-12 School Tuition

February 16, 2018

Officials fear big hit to tax revenues by letting more parents use the savings plans for education costs

Congress expanded the accounts to cover up to $10,000 a year in expenses for kindergarten through 12th grade as part of a broad tax overhaul.
Congress expanded the accounts to cover up to $10,000 a year in expenses for kindergarten through 12th grade as part of a broad tax overhaul. PHOTO: JEFF ROBERSON/ASSOCIATED PRESS

State officials across the country are increasingly worried that a provision in the new tax law extending college savings accounts to K-12 expenses will blow an unexpected hole in their budgets.

At least 30 states provide their own tax breaks to people who put money into 529 savings plans, which allow families to save money for education tax-free and whose scope is defined by the federal government.

In December, as part of a broad tax overhaul, Congress expanded the accounts to cover up to $10,000 a year in expenses for kindergarten through 12th grade.

State budget officials are now concerned that a large number of parents will use 529 accounts to pay private-school tuition, giving them a new write-off for their state taxes.

That could result in potentially millions of dollars in lost tax revenue at a time when most states are struggling to close budget deficits.

“I’m worried that families could use these accounts to avoid paying state taxes,” said Illinois state treasurer Mike Frerichs, a Democrat. “This is only going to put a deeper hole in the budget.”

The dispute is in part between state and federal officials, but it also often breaks down along party lines. Many Republicans favor tax breaks for families who send children to private or religious schools, which they see as a way to help parents, while Democrats worry that such breaks subsidize wealthy people and exclusive schools.

Not Just for College AnymoreCongress in December expanded 529 savingsplans to pay for K-12 expenses, putting statesthat offer generous 529 tax benefits in a bind.States with largest income tax lost due tochange in federal tax law, estimatesSource: The American Enterprise Institute
N.Y.Ind.Pa.Ill.La.Mo.Mich.Ga.IowaVa.$0 million lost$50$100$150$200

The expansion of 529 savings accounts, added to the tax bill at the last moment through an amendment from Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas), was a victory for advocates of private-school choice, who have struggled to push through other priorities such as a national voucher program.

Fifty senators voted against Mr. Cruz’s amendment, including two Republicans, forcing Vice President Mike Pence to break the tie in favor of the measure. Opponents of the policy view the expansion as a backdoor way of creating a voucher system, as it directs public resources toward private, often religious schools.

The Cruz provision is projected to cost the federal government $500 million over nearly a decade, but it could cost the states much more, research suggests. Across the country, about 6.3 million children attended private elementary or secondary schools in 2017, compared with 52 million children enrolled in public schools.

Some critics say the GOP-led Congress is essentially imposing a social policy on the states—a criticism Republicans have frequently directed at Democrats.

“It’s not federalist at all,” said Nat Malkus, deputy director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a center-right think tank. “I don’t think that the federal government should be cavalierly making problems for states by messing with state taxes.”

Some proponents of expanding tax benefits to private schools, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, also say the Cruz approach isn’t the most efficient, since it will primarily benefit wealthier families who can already afford to send their children to private schools.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Mrs. DeVos told reporters in December. “But it doesn’t address the needs of parents who are from lower incomes, and does not empower them in significant ways.”

Some red states have embraced the change. In Missouri, state officials have launched a social-media campaign to tell residents they can use 529 accounts, and the state’s $8,000-a-person tax deduction, for primary and secondary school expenses.

“Anything we can do to make education more affordable and let people save more of their own money is a good thing in my book,” said Missouri’s state treasurer, Eric Schmitt, a Republican.

Under the new tax law approved by Congress, the standard deduction is going up and the personal exemption is going away. But these changes won’t be visible until your 2019 returns. WSJ’s Richard Rubin explains the recipe behind the changes that are coming to your tax bill.

Other states are expressing concern, some more publicly than others. In Indiana, where the state offers a $1,000 tax credit to anyone putting money in a 529 account, the state could lose $117 million a year, according to an estimate from Mr. Malkus. Pennsylvania could stand to lose $92 million.

New York is one of eight to specify that its education tax breaks go solely for college expenses. But pressure is growing on state officials from some parents and lawmakers to open up the state’s $10,000 tax deduction to private K-12 expenses.

Some state officials fear that they take that step, parents of the 465,000 New York children enrolled in private schools could simply deposit money intended for tuition into a 529 account and withdraw the money days later, rather than letting the money accrue over time to use for college expenses. The change could cost New York $120 million a year, according to Mr. Malkus’s estimate.

The New York State Division of the Budget didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Some states contend Mr. Malkus’s estimates of their potential tax losses are high, but he stands by his work.

In several other states that don’t automatically extend tax benefits in accordance with the new federal law, state lawmakers have proposed legislation to do so. So far this year, bills have been proposed in Wisconsin, Alabama, Illinois and Iowa, among others.

Iowa’s state treasurer, Mike Fitzgerald, a Democrat, said he has concerns about his state’s bill, but added that publicity around the federal changes is creating political pressure. “The press is telling everyone, ‘Look at this sweetheart deal you’ve got now,’ ” he said.

Poor Chuck Schumer

January 30, 2018

The Senate Minority Leader made it to the top, but at the worst possible moment.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Capitol Hill, Dec. 19, 2017.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Capitol Hill, Dec. 19, 2017. PHOTO: ALEX BRANDON/ASSOCIATED PRESS

In only one year as Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer has managed to pull off some large but dubious achievements.

The biggest came last week, when New York’s senior senator became the only Democrat in recent memory to lose a government shutdown fight. The way he lost was as distinctive as the loss itself. Having vowed on a Friday not to agree to a funding bill until Congress had a bipartisan agreement to protect the so-called Dreamers (immigrants who came to America illegally as children), by Monday he was crying uncle. By Tuesday angry protesters appeared outside his Brooklyn apartment building, shouting that Mr. Schumer had sold the Dreamers out.

In short, Mr. Schumer’s hard-line start and surrender finish produced the worst of all worlds. To begin with, he provoked more ridicule from a president who seems to enjoy taunting him, especially on Twitter . And Mr. Trump continues to do so, recently tweeting that a legislative solution for the Dreamers “has been made increasingly difficult by the fact that Cryin’ Chuck Schumer took such a beating over the shutdown that he is unable to act on immigration!”

Meanwhile, Mr. Trump also offered a framework for an immigration deal that contains genuine concessions, such as a path to citizenship for all 1.8 million people who qualified for DACA—not just the 800,000 who had enrolled. The president has also suggested, plausibly, that Mr. Schumer refuses to cut a deal because the Democrats prefer to exploit the plight of the Dreamers rather than reach a genuine bipartisan solution.

On the eve of Mr. Trump’s first State of the Union, it puts him in an interesting place. Here’s a what-if: What if Mr. Trump looked up at the gallery full of Dreamers during his address and said, “I have offered a good-faith compromise that would not only resolve your place in America but open to you the precious gift of American citizenship. All I ask is that Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi meet me halfway”?

Still, as trying as Mr. Trump must be, even worse for Mr. Schumer is the split in his own party. It might roughly be characterized as between those looking at 2018 and those looking to 2020.

In the 2018 midterms, Democrats will be defending 26 Senate seats—10 of them in states Mr. Trump carried. Most of these Democrats were irritated by how Mr. Schumer’s stand opened them up to accusations (and the inevitable attack ads) that they’re willing to shut down the government to protect illegal immigrants. So upset were these Democrats by Mr. Schumer’s uncompromising stand that before the weekend was out they had abandoned him for a deal with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to reopen the government.

In the opposite corner are the 2020 Senate Democrats, i.e., those eyeing a White House run. They sense, correctly, that their party’s base is in full resistance mode. It is no coincidence almost all these Democratic senators—including Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand —voted against ending the shutdown. Some are further embellishing their purist credentials by voting against almost every Trump nominee.

Indulging anti-Trump absolutism is not without its price. Notwithstanding the prevailing orthodoxy that Republicans will be overwhelmed by a blue wave in the 2018 midterms, vulnerable Democratic incumbents such as North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp and Indiana’s Joe Donnelly don’t seem so sure.

Republican leaders faced this same dynamic themselves, notably in 2013 when Texas Sen. Ted Cruz persuaded enough Republicans that if they would only shut down the government, they could force Mr. Obama to agree to defund his signature legislative achievement, ObamaCare. Republicans who opposed the shutdown found themselves traduced as RINOs—Republicans in name only. It too ended in humiliating retreat.

Of course, it’s one thing for an individual senator to push his caucus into a futile gesture. It’s quite another for a party leader to do so.

The irony is that by nature Mr. Schumer inclines more to deal-making than suicidal last stands. His problem is that Mr. Trump is an even more polarizing figure for Democrats than President Obama was for Republicans, and what these Democrats want now is to resist. But if Mr. Schumer allows the Democratic zeal for resistance to take the form of rejecting every Trump offer for compromise, Mr. Schumer may well pull off another miracle by making Donald Trump look like the reasonable one in Washington.

For years, Mr. Schumer has been climbing the greasy pole, finally reaching the top last year when he replaced retiring Sen. Harry Reid as leader of the Senate Democrats. Normally the priority of a minority leader would be to regain control of the chamber in which he serves. Alas for poor Mr. Schumer, his tragedy is to have reached the top at precisely the worst moment, caught between a Republican president who can’t stop demeaning him and a Democratic Party that seems determined to ensure he remains a minority leader.

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Appeared in the January 30, 2018, print edition.

Qatar Doubles Down on PR Campaign Appealing to U.S. Jews and D.C. Insiders

January 18, 2018

A visit to the emirate by Alan Dershowitz, meetings with Jewish organizations and promises of a new attitude toward Israel: Qatar is working hard to change its image as a Hamas-supporting state, but some in Washington remain unconvinced


Qatar Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, left, shaking hands with U.S. President Donald Trump in Riyadh, May 21, 2017.
Qatar Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, left, shaking hands with U.S. President Donald Trump in Riyadh, May 21, 2017.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

WASHINGTON – Qatar has recently expanded its public relations effort aimed at improving its image in the United States, including within the Jewish community.

The wealthy emirate, often criticized for having ties to Hamas, has invited influential American public figures – some of them with close ties to the Trump administration – to visit and meet with its senior leadership, which denies providing support to the Gaza Islamist group and other terror organizations.

Last week, prominent New York attorney Alan Dershowitz published an article on the Hill website, following his visit to Qatar at the invitation of the country’s powerful emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. Dershowitz wrote that he was surprised to hear the Qatari response to many of the accusations hurled at the Gulf state, and urged the Trump administration and Congress to reexamine the issue.

Also last week, Qatar hosted former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, a leading right-wing media commentator and father of White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Huckabee tweeted that he found Doha, Qatar, to be “surprisingly beautiful, modern, and hospitable.”

skip – Mike Huckabee tweet

Another recent visitor to the tiny emirate, whose wealth comes from its huge natural gas reserves, was conservative radio host John Batchelor. He took his popular audio show to Qatar last week at the behest of the country’s leadership, where he was joined by Thaddeus McCotter, a former Republican congressman from Michigan.

The emirate has also flown in representatives of various Washington think tanks on Qatar-funded trips.

Dershowitz, Huckabee and Batchelor all seem to be visiting as part of the Qatari leadership’s efforts to change its reputation among American politicians as a “problematic” nation associated with its support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar hosts some of Hamas’ senior leaders and funds the international media network Al Jazeera, whom neighboring Arab countries have accused of supporting Islamist movements and of destabilizing their regimes.

As part of the attempt to push back against these allegations, Qatar has hired the services of Nick Muzin, a public relations adviser who previously worked as a senior staffer to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.

skip – Nick Muzin tweet

An Orthodox Jew, Muzin has used his contacts within the Republican Party and the Jewish community to find an ear for Qatar’s arguments in Washington and New York – at a time when the emirate is facing a severe crisis because of attempts by Saudi Arabia to isolate it economically and diplomatically.

When Qatar’s hiring of Muzin’s Stonington Strategies firm was first revealed last summer – for a reported monthly fee of $50,000 – it raised eyebrows in Jewish and conservative circles because of Muzin’s professional background. Cruz, his former boss, has called for the Muslim Brotherhood to be designated a terrorist organization, yet Qatar is considered a major Brotherhood supporter in the Arab world.

Who are the good guys?

Muzin’s first attempts to organize meetings for the Qatari emir and crown prince with Jewish-American leaders ran into public opposition and became a source of debate in the Jewish press. Fast forward a few months, though, and it seems the Qatari public outreach effort is slowly beginning to change some minds in Washington and elsewhere.

Dershowitz’s article – titled “Why is Qatar being blockaded and isolated?” – is a good example, especially in light of the author’s reputation as a staunch supporter of Israel.

He wrote he had “just returned from a private visit to Qatar, at the invitation of and paid for by the Emir. I do not represent Qatar’s government and, to be honest, I was initially reluctant to accept his invitation because I had heard that Qatar was contributing to Hamas, which is a terrorist group, and that it was supporting Iran, which is the largest exporter of terrorism in the world. But then I did my own research and concluded that the Qatar issue was more complex and nuanced. So I wanted to see for myself.”

Alan Dershowitz, left, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2010.
Alan Dershowitz, left, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2010.עמוס בן גרשום / לע”

One of the first things that surprised him, Dershowitz wrote, was that as soon as he got to Doha, Qatar’s capital, “I was surprised to read that an Israeli tennis player had been welcomed by the Qatari government to participate in a tennis tournament.” Dershowitz compared this recent event to Saudi Arabia’s refusal last month to allow Israeli chess players to attend the world chess championship held in Riyadh. “Moreover,” he added, “Saudi officials criticized Qatar for allowing an Israeli tennis player to participate in its tournament, and for ordering ‘the Israeli flag to be raised.’”

“This episode,” he concluded, “made clear to me that the Saudis were not necessarily the good guys in their dispute with Qatar.”

After going over Qatar’s reaction to allegations that it supports Hamas and other terror organizations (allegations that Qatar’s leadership denies), Dershowitz wrote: “After hearing these different accounts, I observed that Qatar is quickly becoming the Israel of the Gulf States, surrounded by enemies, subject to boycotts and unrealistic demands, and struggling for its survival. I heard a lot of positive statements regarding Israel from Qatari leaders as well as hints of commercial relationships between these isolated nations.”

In a conversation with Haaretz on Tuesday, Dershowitz emphasized that he has “not come to any firm conclusions” about Qatar’s ties to Hamas, Iran and other problematic actors in the region. He did, however, leave the emirate with “somewhat more nuanced” views, as “there appear to be two sides to the story.”

A group of Palestinian women holding Qatar flags and banners during a demonstration in support of Qatar, in Khan Yunis, Gaza, June 14, 2017.
A group of Palestinian women holding Qatar flags and banners during a pro-Qatar demonstration in Khan Yunis, Gaza, June 14, 2017. The gulf state’s support of Hamas remains a big stumbling block.Ali Jadallah / Anadolu Agency

Dershowitz explained that he asked the emir and other senior Qatari officials to assist with the release of two Israeli citizens currently being held in Gaza, as well as the return of the bodies of two slain Israeli soldiers, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, killed in action during the 2014 Gaza war. “They told me they’re trying,” he said, stopping short of providing more details on the sensitive subject.

Coincidentally, on Monday – shortly after the publication of Dershowitz’s article and the culmination of Huckabee’s Qatar visit – U.S. President Donald Trump talked with the emir by phone. A White House readout of that conversation stated: “The President thanked the Emir for Qatari action to counter terrorism and extremism in all forms, including being one of the few countries to move forward on a bilateral memorandum of understanding.” It continued: “The leaders discussed areas in which the United States and Qatar can partner to bring more stability to the region, counter malign Iranian influence, and defeat terrorism.”

One person unmoved by Dershowitz’s article was Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of the D.C. think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He has written extensively in recent years about Qatar’s ties to Hamas and other terror organizations. “Stick to what you know,” Schanzer tweeted Dershowitz. “Happy to brief you sometime on Qatar. Doha is bad news.” And in a subsequent tweet, Schanzer added: “The man [Dershowitz] defends Israel until he’s blue in the face and then normalizes Hamas’s top patron.”

Dershowitz responded, “Happy to hear facts. Not conclusions. I make up my own mind based on facts.”

skip – Jonathan Schanzer tweet

skip – Alan Dershowitz tweet

Schanzer told Haaretz on Wednesday that “there is nothing wrong with analysts and intellectuals traveling to Qatar to learn about the situation there. The problem is that during those visits, they’re not hearing the other side of the story. They are getting the government line and then they go home. They need to hear also from Qatar’s critics. There is a lot of material they should become aware of about Qatar’s ties to Hamas, Al-Qaida, the Taliban, the Muslim Brotherhood and other problematic actors.”

Schanzer previously called to designate Qatar as a state sponsor of terrorism for its ties to these groups. “If you really want to see all sides of the story,” he told Haaretz, “you’re not going to get it in Doha.”

The problem with Qatar

Qatar is not only inviting opinion formers to Doha – it is also working to bring its arguments to Washington. Last week, the Qatari minister in charge of aid and assistance to Gaza, Mohammed al-Emadi, visited the U.S. capital, where he met with, among others, members of Congress and diplomats. Emadi came to Washington partly because he is the rare example of an Arab diplomat who, according to press reports, works on a regular basis with Israeli security officials as part of Qatar’s efforts to help reconstruct the Gaza Strip following the 2014 war. By presenting him to decision-makers and influencers in the U.S. capital, the emirate is hoping to convince them it has a positive impact in Gaza and is working with Israel to improve the situation there.

“The frustration with Qatar,” said an Israeli official who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, “is that they do some good things in Gaza. But at the same time, there are problems arising from their use of Al Jazeera and their ties with Hamas. It’s a complicated situation. They are one of the only countries in the world that truly cares about improving the situation in Gaza. They’re also one of the only countries that has ties to all the bad guys in the region – Hamas, Sunni Islamists and Iran.”

A Qatari woman walking in front of the city skyline in Doha, Qatar.
A Qatari woman walking in front of the city skyline in Doha, Qatar.Kamran Jebreili/AP

Zionist Organization of America President Morton Klein told Haaretz that he has discussed Qatar’s policies with Muzin, whom he has “known and worked closely with for a number of years – ever since he was an important staffer for Sen. Cruz.” Last September, Klein refused to meet with the Qatari leadership, accusing the regime of funding “Islamic terrorists who aim to murder Jews, Americans, Christians and even fellow Muslims.”

This week, though, Klein said that while he still has many doubts about Qatar’s role in the region, he is open to hearing the arguments being fleshed out by Dershowitz and others. “I think Dershowitz’s article was totally reasonable,” Klein said. “I think we should check out their claims. If they’re true, then there’s no reason not to go there and engage in dialogue with them. But if they’re lying, then we should have nothing to do with them.”

Klein added, though, that Qatar has to stop airing incitement on Al Jazeera if it ever wants to win the trust of the United States and Israel.

With regards to his conversations with Muzin, Klein said the PR maven “made it clear to me that he wouldn’t take on the job of working for Qatar unless he was assured by the leaders of Qatar that their goal is to make Qatar a more free and civilized society, and to do something about the problems with Al Jazeera.”

Qatar still faces significant criticism on Capitol Hill. Last October, two Republican members of Congress published an article titled “It’s Up to Congress to Hold Qatar Accountable.” Reps. Dan Donovan and Brian Fitzpatrick – both members of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa – wrote that “Qatar is the master of playing all sides. The same country that served as the U.S. Central Command headquarters during the invasion of Iraq and still hosts a critical American air base today also sponsors Hamas’s anti-Israel agenda, gives sanctuary to terrorist leaders and spreads its wealth to terrorist and extremist groups throughout the Middle East.”

In November, a Democratic consulting firm, Bluelight Strategies, which has also worked with Qatari opposition leaders opposing the country’s regime, circulated a political memo among Democrats in Congress urging them to attack Republicans and the Trump administration for turning a blind eye to Qatar’s ties with Hamas and other terror groups. The memo, titled “Emerging GOP Vulnerability on Terrorism, Iran and Israel,” highlighted the Trump administration’s confusing policy regarding the Gulf crisis, and urged Democrats to speak out on the issue: “The more the Trump administration and Congressional Republicans are called out for embracing Hamas state sponsorship of terrorism, the more the message will penetrate.”

This view of Qatar as a country that tries to have it both ways is still prevalent in Washington and, as of now, it remains the main challenge standing in the way of the emirate’s charm offensive.

A man walking past a branch of Qatar National Bank (QNB) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, June 5, 2017.
A man walking past a branch of Qatar National Bank (QNB) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, June 5, 2017. Qatar is looking to make friends in Washington after the Saudis triggered a diplomatic crisis.\ Faisal Nasser/REUTERS