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The George W. Bush Administration Lives on in Donald Trump

Two years ago, as Serbia’s (increasingly authoritarian) “reformed” ultranationalist president gave warm praise to the war criminal who once led the country to disaster, I warned:

The history of countries like Serbia is actually instructive for countries like the US. They show the danger of rehabilitating extreme and criminal elements of national leadership, of whitewashing their legacies, and of re-elevating them to positions of prominence. Unfortunately, they’re lessons Western media doesn’t seem to believe apply to their own countries.

Two years on, this has only become more true. Because the more the chaos of Trump’s presidency intensifies, the more clear it is that it’s far from the aberration his fiercest critics insist it is. Instead, its pandemonium churns not just in the shadow of war criminal George W. Bush’s eight years in office, but directly because of them.

This has been most obvious in the harrowing scenes coming out of Portland these past weeks, where the world has watched armed and armored forces drawn from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) attack and even kidnap nonviolent activists protesting police brutality. The scenes have drawn widespread comparison to fascist governments of the 1930s, with many bewailing that Trump was using the DHS as something like his own private army.

Of course, Trump would never have had the opportunity to do such a thing were it not for the sprawling, opaque, and largely unaccountable DHS itself, created by Bush and his acolytes. While members of the national security establishment will tell you “the real problem” is Trump and only Trump, the reality is abuse was endemic to the DHS from its very beginning, when it was weaponized for the purposes of a partisan fistfight and quickly turned its crosshairs on law-abiding Americans. It was inevitable it would someday be abused in the way we’re seeing now, ever since the DHS under Bush broadened its definition of terrorism to include the vague charge of trying to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population, to influence the policy of a government by intimidation.”

If only this were all. This terrible year started with Trump very nearly starting a disastrous war with Iran, another case where Trump’s bumbling aggression was directly enabled by the imperial presidency that Bush pioneered and Barack Obama then escalated. The drone program Trump recklessly used to assassinate Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, after all, was first implemented, at least in a lethal way, under Bush.

It’s a similar story with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency whose overreach more than any other has come to symbolize Trump’s protofascist rule, and which had its first birthday midway through Bush’s presidency. It was under Bush, with his creation of the DHS and reorganization of the federal government to fight terrorism, that immigration was officially reenvisioned as a national security threat instead of a law enforcement issue, and that a “100 percent rate of removal for all removable aliens” became a goal.

Indeed, as Quartz’s Heather Timmons pointed out, even the right-wing Heritage Foundation argued that ICE was created as a separate agency “without a compelling reason,” something the DHS’s own inspector general noted in 2005 would lead to its unnecessary bloating. One “senior official” told the inspector general that ICE wasn’t made “with a focus on supporting a particular mission but rather on building an institutional foundation large enough to justify a new organization.”

While Trump’s reign has brought us new monsters like Stephen Miller, the Bush brain trust has hovered in the wings throughout. John Yoo, the legal architect of Bush’s torture regime, has now begun quietly advising Trump and other White House officials, pitching them a new, expansive theory of presidential power based on “under-enforc[ing] the law.” Trump’s unhinged former national security adviser for a year and a half, John Bolton, came straight out of the Bush administration, both in his physical person and his ultranationalist mindset. In his brief time at the White House, Bolton succeeded in both pushing Trump to be more aggressive and in derailing his attempts at diplomacy and military withdrawal, one of the few actually good things Trump ever tried to do.

In fact, on a host of issues — from foreign policy and the courts to environmental policy and the unilateral use of power — Trump has merely been following Bush’s lead, albeit beating him at his own game. A large number of the Obama-era executive orders on labor issues that Trump has reversed were themselves reversals of measures put in place by Bush, for instance. And even the odious Miller has a Bush connection: his mentor was David Horowitz, a Bush fan whom the former Texas governor courted and was influenced by.

The shadow of Bush has worked its influence on Trump from without, as well as within. It is Bush appointees and allies — people like John Brennan, James Clapper, James Comey, and Bill Kristol — who pushed the ultimately disproven conspiracy theory that Trump was secretly doing the Kremlin’s bidding, manufacturing a political scandal aimed at pushing Trump away from what he hinted would be a friendlier relationship with the country. It worked: to lift the pressure, Trump has, from the start, led the most aggressively anti-Russia presidency in recent memory, a policy direction that three decades’ worth of bipartisan foreign policy officials now warn has brought the countries to a “dangerous dead end” and risks nuclear war, and must be reversed with all haste.

Using their newly prominent and rehabilitated public standing, the allies and alumni of Bush’s administration have extended their influence over their political adversaries on the liberal side, too. Conservative former Bush officials like MSNBC’s Nicole Wallace, Rick Wilson, Steve Schmidt, and David Frum used their newfound pull with the liberal press to join the media onslaught against Bernie Sanders’s candidacy in the Democratic primary, making an explicit pitch to liberal voters that was pivotal to swinging frightened older Democratic voters away from him.

Having neutralized a left challenge to their favored foreign policy, these Bush-aligned figures are now attempting to ingratiate themselves with, and therefore influence, a future Joe Biden administration through groups like “43 Alumni For Biden,” viewing the former vice president’s hawkish worldview as more simpatico with theirs than Sanders’s or even Trump’s. They may find success: Biden is, after all, himself a Bush-era throwback, one of Bush’s most crucial allies in launching the Iraq War.

Of course, the Trump administration has deeper continuity with mainstream Republican politics than just Bush. Many of the scarily authoritarian and unprecedented measures that supposedly make Trump a unique, fascistic threat — politicization of the Justice Department, extending surveillance powers, the militarized repression of protesters — have been driven by William Barr, former attorney general to George H. W. Bush, who closed out that administration in a similarly outrageous fashion. Former Ronald Reagan administration ghoul Elliott Abrams, another war criminal Barr pushed the elder Bush to pardon, is today point man for Trump’s clumsy regime change efforts in Venezuela and, it seems from now on, Iran.

The state of play in the United States is therefore very similar to that of countries like Serbia, which failed to excise the hard-right war criminals and their enablers from government and public life, and even rehabilitated them. After a period of lying dormant, those officials, having changed nothing meaningful about their political beliefs or goals, gradually reentered the political arena to wield power and influence in government and media under a different leader.

Democrats and establishment media have successfully put all focus on Trump as a freak anomaly, instead of stating the truth: that he’s a typically extreme and authoritarian Republican leader who inherited a set of dangerous powers from his predecessors. So despite Biden’s empty sloganeering about “restoring the soul of America,” there is no actual appetite in his Democratic Party to take aim at the root causes of the country’s authoritarianism.

While the 2008 Democratic platform vainly promised to “restore our constitutional traditions, and recover our nation’s founding commitment to liberty under law” after Bush’s eight-year assault on civil liberties — a promise that Obama, that year’s winner, barely pretended to follow up on once in the White House — this year’s platform doesn’t even pay lip service to this goal, even though these problems have only gotten worse. It is thus more than likely the authoritarian structures that Trump has used and abused to frightening effect over his term will not only stay in place the next time a scary Republican takes office, but will have actually expanded.

Republicans set the (hard-right) agenda, and Democrats legitimize it: that’s the pattern that has prevailed over the course of the neoliberal era since the 1980s. With the momentum now slowly building for left politics, there will come a day where that’s reversed. It just probably won’t be in November 2020.

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Democrats Slam Trump’s Executive Actions, Critiquing Both Substance And Legality : NPR

President Trump signs executive actions regarding coronavirus economic relief during a news conference in Bedminster, N.J., on Saturday. A number of lawmakers are criticizing the measures’ substance and constitutionality.

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President Trump signs executive actions regarding coronavirus economic relief during a news conference in Bedminster, N.J., on Saturday. A number of lawmakers are criticizing the measures’ substance and constitutionality.

Jim Watson /AFP via Getty Images

Democrats on Sunday slammed President Trump’s executive actions aimed at providing economic relief during the coronavirus pandemic, saying the measures are both ineffective and unconstitutional.

Trump signed three memoranda and one executive order at his Bedminster, N.J., golf resort on Saturday amid stalled negotiations with Congress over a new COVID-19 relief package.

The measures would extend some federal unemployment benefits, continue the suspension of student loan repayment, defer payroll tax collection for many workers, and task federal officials with reviewing “resources that may be used to prevent evictions and foreclosures.”

Some lawmakers and experts are voicing concerns about the president’s moves to control federal spending, which is a power reserved for Congress.

Andrew Rudalevige, chair of the Department of Government and Legal Studies at Bowdoin College, told NPR on Saturday that the unemployment benefits measure is particularly controversial because it is “really using appropriated funds by Congress in ways that Congress might not have intended.”

Trump calls for using billions of unused dollars from the Department of Homeland Security’s Disaster Relief Fund for the unemployment payments.

Rudalevige added that he expects legal challenges to move “fairly rapidly,” citing the specific measures regarding unemployment appropriations and the payroll tax, which funds Social Security and Medicare.

“The president can defer the payroll tax, but he can’t forgive it,” Rudalevige said. “He talked about terminating the tax [if he wins reelection], but that would certainly require a law to do that. So I think you will see pushback here.”

Pushback from lawmakers was swift, and mounted over the weekend. Mostly it came from Democrats, but from some conservatives too.

“Our Constitution doesn’t authorize the president to act as king whenever Congress doesn’t legislate,” said Libertarian-leaning Michigan Congressman Justin Amash, who left the Republican Party last year to become an independent.

Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska wrote in a statement that Trump does not have the power to “unilaterally rewrite the payroll tax law.”

“The pen-and-phone theory of executive lawmaking is unconstitutional slop,” he said.

But several members of the Trump administration defended the president’s actions on Sunday.

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow responded to Sasse’s comments about the payroll tax deferral on ABC’s This Week. “I appreciate those things, maybe we’re going to go to court on them,” Kudlow said. “We’re going to go ahead with our actions anyway. Our counsel’s office, the Treasury Department believes it has the authority to temporarily suspend tax collections, so we’re banking on that.”

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said all of the actions cleared the administration’s Office of Legal Counsel. He warned against potential challengers.

“If Democrats want to challenge us in court and hold up unemployment benefits to those hard-working Americans that are out of a job because of COVID, they’re going to have a lot of explaining to do,” Mnuchin said on Fox News Sunday.

Rudalevige told NPR that it is “conceivable” that Congress itself could have standing to sue over the question of unemployment appropriations, and noted that the House sued then-President Barack Obama over spending on the Affordable Care Act.

In an appearance on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called Trump’s executive actions unconstitutional but sidestepped a question about whether she would sue to block them.

“My constitutional advisers tell me they’re absurdly unconstitutional, and that’s a parallel thing,” Pelosi said. “Right now the focus, the priority, has to be on … meeting the needs of the American people.”

In response to a question about whether a future stimulus package would make the executive actions null and void, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro told NBC’s Meet the Press that there would be no need for the president to act if Congress could come to an agreement.

“The Lord and the Founding Fathers created executive orders because of partisan bickering and divided government,” he said.

Several GOP lawmakers, including Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, praised the president for taking action but said they would prefer a congressional agreement, with Alexander calling on Democrats to “stop blocking commonsense proposals.”

Democratic leaders also called for a return to negotiations, saying the president’s measures fall short.

In a joint statement issued Saturday evening, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called the executive actions “unworkable, weak and narrow.”

They said the measures will cut families’ unemployment benefits from the recently expired $600-a-week benefits, exacerbate states’ budget crises, and endanger seniors’ Social Security and Medicare. And they said Trump’s actions ignore important issues like increasing testing, reopening schools and safeguarding elections.

The leaders urged Republicans to “return to the table, meet us halfway and work together to deliver immediate relief to the American people.”

Talks on Capitol Hill to reach a new COVID-19 relief bill have stalled, with Republicans and Democrats still trillions of dollars apart after weeks of negotiations.

Schumer said on ABC’s This Week that Democrats had been willing to compromise on their $3.4 trillion bill, with Pelosi suggesting to White House negotiators that Democrats go down $1 trillion and Republicans go up $1 trillion.

“They said absolutely not,” Schumer said. “I said to them, ‘This means it’s your way or the highway?’ And they basically said yes. That is not the way to create a deal.”

Both Schumer and Pelosi reiterated on Sunday that they hope talks will resume.

Mnuchin told Fox that Democrats refuse to negotiate on state and local aid and enhanced unemployment benefits, but that on almost every other issue “we’ve come to an agreement.”

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Administration Officials Defend Executive Action on Pandemic Relief

WASHINGTON — Facing sharp criticism, administration officials on Sunday struggled to explain the executive actions President Trump used to circumvent Congress in the absence of an agreement on a coronavirus aid package, even as they defended him and insisted that Americans would receive the relief he promised.

The president’s decision on Saturday to sign a series of measures intended to revive unemployment benefits, address an eviction ban, provide relief for student borrowers and suspend collection of payroll taxes came after crucial benefits lapsed and two weeks of talks between congressional Democrats and administration officials failed to produce an agreement on a broader relief package.

But the patchwork of moves was less significant than what Mr. Trump described in his news conference, and the plan appeared unlikely to have immediate, meaningful impact on the sputtering economy, leaving questions about how it would affect the continuing face-off with Democrats, whose votes are needed for a congressional deal.

Democrats swiftly criticized Mr. Trump’s actions as an example of executive overreach, saying the measures offered thin support for struggling Americans and warning that the nation’s social safety net could be jeopardized while the coronavirus pandemic continued to spread. After two weeks of huddling with Mr. Trump’s top advisers on Capitol Hill in an effort to hammer out a deal, Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, called for talks to resume.

“The president’s meager, weak and unconstitutional actions further demand that we have an agreement,” Ms. Pelosi said on “Fox News Sunday.” She rejected the suggestion that she had erred by holding out for Democratic priorities, telling the program’s anchor, Chris Wallace, that “clearly you don’t have an understanding of what is happening here.”

Mr. Schumer, speaking on ABC’s “This Week,” declared that “the president’s executive orders, described in one word, could be paltry, in three words, unworkable, weak and far too narrow.”

Mr. Trump’s top economic advisers were on the defensive on the Sunday talk shows as they tried to justify the president’s authority to bypass Congress, which retains the constitutional power of the purse, to redirect billions of dollars. They argued that Democrats, who first approved a $3.4 trillion stimulus package in May, were unwilling to compromise, particularly on sending additional aid to state and local governments.

Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, called on Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Schumer to consider a more narrow package that addressed the issues where there was agreement, saying that negotiators had resolved most provisions except for reviving unemployment benefits and distributing money to state and local governments. (Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Ms. Pelosi, disputed that characterization.)

“We don’t have to get everything done at once,” Mr. Mnuchin said on “Fox News Sunday.” “What we should do is get things done for the American public now, come back for another bill afterward.”

He insisted that White House lawyers approved the moves as legal and dared Democrats to take the White House to court to stop money from being released to jobless Americans.

“If the Democrats want to challenge us in court and hold up unemployment benefits to those hardworking Americans that are out of a job because of Covid, they’re going to have a lot of explaining to do,” Mr. Mnuchin said.

But there was some acknowledgment that the measures could face legal challenges and were not as potent as congressional action.

A number of critical provisions are also left unaddressed without a broader deal, including a lapsed federal program for small businesses, another round of stimulus checks, aid to schools confronting the beginning of the academic year and funds for state and local governments reeling from the toll of the pandemic.

“The downside of executive orders is you can’t address some of the small business incidents that are there,” Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, said in a pretaped interview that aired Sunday on Gray Television. “You can’t necessarily get direct payments, because it has to do with appropriations. That’s something that the president doesn’t have the ability to do. So you miss on those two key areas. You miss on money for schools. You miss on any funding for state and local revenue needs that may be out there.”

Among the most complicated measures is the president’s intention to revive lapsed weekly federal unemployment payments of $600 through the repurposing of other federal funds, including from a pot of disaster relief aid, to create a $400-a-week bonus payment. That payment, however, is contingent on states providing $100 per week and establishing an entirely new program — called a “lost wages assistance program” — to distribute the aid.

But states are also facing plunging revenues because of the pandemic. They have already struggled to allocate the original $600 payment because of overwhelmed and often antiquated systems, and some experts warn that the revised benefit could last for only five weeks.

Mr. Trump went golfing on Saturday with Sen. Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who had tried to nudge the president toward higher weekly subsidies to supplant lost income. Mr. Trump joked that they would simply have to run the printing presses faster to make up the additional amount it would cost, a person familiar with the discussion said.

Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council, argued that states would be able to support the demand for $100 a week given that billions of dollars allocated in the $2.2 trillion stimulus law in March had not yet been spent. But when pressed during an interview on CNN, he acknowledged that it remained unclear how much states would be able to provide toward the unemployment benefit and when those benefits would be distributed.

“We’ll probably find that out today and tomorrow,” Mr. Kudlow said, repeatedly offering conflicting amounts about how much relief would be made available to the average American. And while Mr. Mnuchin said on Sunday that states could waive the $100 fee and payments could start “immediately,” Mr. Kudlow said the payments could take a few weeks.

On CNN’s “State of the Union,” Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio, a Republican, said he was studying whether his state government could afford to pay an extra $100 a week for unemployment insurance as required by Mr. Trump’s latest order.

“The answer is, ‘I don’t know,’” Mr. DeWine said.

The governor said he thanked the president for the order, but he urged Congress to reach a deal that would provide a much bolder relief package, saying that “they really need to do it. They need to pull together.”

The effect the moves will have on the economy appears to be meager compared with the broader package that was under discussion, and it comes as job growth is already showing signs of slowing. The need for additional fiscal support from the government is clear, economists say, despite the fact that Democrats and Republicans are divided on how much money is needed and where to deploy it.

Charles Evans, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, said that it was crucial for the government to provide additional support to help workers and businesses make it through the pandemic-spurred economic slump.

“Fiscal policy has been unbelievably important in supporting the economy during the downturn that we’ve been experiencing,” Mr. Evans said on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” noting that the virus was not under control. “Another support package is really incredibly important.”

He suggested that it could be especially bad for the economy if lawmakers did not help state and local governments, many of which have balanced budget requirements and will otherwise be forced to cut workers.

Mr. Trump’s move to curb evictions also remains murky, given that his directive does not outright ban them but instead would require agency leaders to review the necessity of such a moratorium and examine whether additional federal funds were available to provide rental assistance.

It also remains unclear whether Mr. Trump’s decision to suspend the payroll tax through December, deferring payments, would have any immediate effect. His push to suspend the tax has faced significant objections from both parties, with Senate Republicans ultimately leaving out the proposal altogether in the $1 trillion legislation they unveiled late last month.

Many companies are likely to decline to stop withholding money for payroll taxes since it is uncertain that they will ever be waived. But Mr. Mnuchin rejected suggestions from Democrats that deferring payroll taxes would lead to cuts in Social Security or Medicare benefits. The money that supports those programs would be backstopped by a transfer from the Treasury general fund, he said.

Still, he acknowledged that the payroll taxes would eventually have to be repaid unless Mr. Trump could reach a deal on legislation that would allow them to be waived or forgiven — an unlikely scenario — and that the deficit would continue to swell.

“We’ll deal with the budget deficit when we get the economy back to where it was before,” Mr. Mnuchin said.

Democrats have charged that Mr. Trump’s plans to cut or forgive delayed payments of the payroll tax, which funds Social Security and Medicare, could endanger the long-term health of those programs. By depriving the government of payroll tax funds, the move could mean Mr. Trump’s order contradicts his repeated pledge to leave Social Security untouched — which prompted harsh criticism from former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the presumptive Democratic nominee.

“Unable to deliver for the American people in a time of crisis, Donald Trump offered a series of half-baked measures today,” Mr. Biden said in a statement on Saturday. “He is putting Social Security at grave risk at a time when seniors are suffering the overwhelming impact of a pandemic he has failed to get under control. And make no mistake: Donald Trump said today that if he is re-elected, he will defund Social Security.”

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a research organization, estimated that Mr. Trump’s orders would provide about $225 billion of near-term funds with a net cost of $10 billion to $15 billion without additional policy changes.

The president’s top aides also strained to defend his sweeping use of executive authority, which Mr. Trump derided when used by his predecessor, President Barack Obama.

Peter Navarro, Mr. Trump’s trade adviser, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Congress left the president with no choice but to resort to executive orders and memorandum. He assailed Ms. Pelosi for demonizing Republicans during the negotiations and said the president was right to use his executive authority.

“The Lord and the Founding Fathers created executive orders because of partisan bickering and divided government,” Mr. Navarro said.

Maggie Haberman and Jeanna Smialek contributed reporting.

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Trump’s payroll tax deferral is executive overreach

The payroll tax deferral by President Donald Trump puts some anti-tax advocates in a tough spot. The tax needs elimination as it hurts millions of workers across the country by taking money out of their pockets. Letting them keep it means workers either put the cash into the economy or stick it in their bank accounts as savings for the future.

For some, that’s enough to support Saturday’s executive action.

“As recently as the past week, critics of the President thought that a payroll tax cut was done for,” FreedomWorks President Adam Brandon said yesterday in a statement best summarized as the ends justify the means. “President Trump has shown them wrong. This payroll tax cut will provide hard working Americans and businesses with the financial relief they deserve. In particular, this payroll tax cut will benefit frontline workers who have worked tirelessly throughout this pandemic. It is unfortunate that Congress could not take the reins and come to an agreement to deliver relief, but this executive order is a step in the right direction towards getting the American economy back on track.”

Tax cuts can be awesome, specifically when they’re followed by spending cuts meant to make up for the loss of tax revenue. The government, alas, fails to remember the spending cut part on a regular basis.

Others cringe at the notion of tax cut via executive fiat. They, rightly, see the execution problematic due to worries regarding the separation of powers and the role of Congress. The president is not a king or even the CEO of a company with unilateral authority to control the financial books. Congress is not a group of elected advisers occasionally getting their say in the law-making process. They control tax and spending policy, not the president. This same group raised plenty of hell during the Obama Administration when the now-former president uttered his famous “pen and phone” comment regarding his plans.

My fear focuses on the rise of illiberalness within both Republican and Democratic parties and their acceptance of executive overreach as long as “their guy/gal” is the one doing it. Kentucky Republican Senator Mitch McConnell blasted former President Barack Obama for his executive action saying in 2014, “this is not how democracy is supposed to work.” Yesterday, McConnell said, “Republicans will actually look out for [laid off workers].” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Trump’s action, “unconstitutional slop,” (repeating GOP Senator Ben Sasse) on Fox News Sunday. Her comments on executive action from 2009 to 2017 were quite different, praising former President Barack Obama’s orders as, “clear constitutional and legal authority of his office,” and “an important step,” in 2014. Perhaps she will repeat former House Speaker John Boehner by going to court as a way to “prove her belief” in checks and balances. Her past actions and works show otherwise.

Anne Applebaum wrote in Twilight of Democracy the founders knew people were flawed, but the form of government they put together might encourage better behavior in people. “Neither then nor later did their lofty words always reflect reality. Neither then nor later did their institutions always function as intended…When the institutions failed, as they sometimes did, the words were recited and repeated in order to persuade people to try again.”

This raises the question of whether the major party candidates up for election in November are the ones who deserve the chance to be those who “try again.” Joe Biden is already promising presidential action and Trump will likely press on with his own “pen and phone” (or maybe “pen and tweet”) to enact policy regardless of the consequences. Can both parties be reformed to move back towards respect of the Constitution or is it time to look at third parties as options? Is the allure of power too much to stave off and corrupts everyone who comes into contact with it?

Either way, Trump’s action on the payroll tax cut is unconstitutional – despite my own support of eliminating the tax entirely. There are rules government and those in power need to follow. Those who claim fealty to the Constitution cannot forget it.

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A Guide to Global Binge-Watching : Goats and Soda : NPR

Top to bottom: must-watch TV shows that people are binge-watching around the world: The Bad Kids in China, Pasión de Gavilanes in Colombia, and Tehran in Israel.

Youtube/ Screenshots by NPR


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What TV are you bingeing these days?

It’s a question you’ve probably been asked a lot — and asked others — five months into the pandemic. Movies are shut. Theater is on hold. So there’s not much else to do. I myself can’t stop watching Korean dramas (just finished Crash Landing On You) and reruns of Gossip Girl on Netflix.

Our blog covers the globe, so we were curious — what shows are people in other countries obsessed about in this pandemic? We asked reporters in nine countries to find out. — Malaka Gharib

Argentina: Time travel and missing kids in a German drama

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In Argentina, people are pondering existential questions. What is the meaning of life? What is time? And it’s not just because of the pandemic. Can it be because nearly everyone is watching the Netflix series Dark?

The suspenseful show from Germany, set in the town of Winden in the present day, explores time travel and the philosophical issues related to it. Members of four families try to discover the reason why children have mysteriously disappeared by heading to the past and future.

“I could have a lot of debates [around these existential topics] thanks to this show,” says Maria Pirsch, a 30-year-old Dark fan and producer and photographer. She studied physics for a time and is interested in the idea of time travel.

Launched in 2017, Dark is now in its third season. The latest installment was released on June 27 in Argentina — and some fans were so excited they watched it at 4 a.m. when it premiered. “I do not need sleep, I need answers,” wrote someone on Twitter.

Julia Pujol, a technician in a pathology laboratory, confesses that when Season 3 came out she watched two episodes and, after sleeping a little, watched the remaining six in a row. And like many fans stuck home in the pandemic, she found the quarantine to be a good excuse to watch the first two seasons over again.

Dark is available in the U.S. on Netflix.

Anita Pouchard Serra is a photojournalist based in Argentina.

India: An iconic ’80s show with a demon king and a kidnapped wife

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Ramayan, a series based on Hindu mythology, tells the story of Lord Ram as he goes into exile, fights the demon king Ravan who kidnapped his wife — then finally returns to his hometown Ayodhya to be crowned king.

That’s the plot of an iconic show that first aired in 1987 — when TV sets weren’t common in India and neighbors would make a pilgrimage to the nearest home with TV to watch.

During the pandemic, fans demanded its return and state-run TV channel Doordarshan National (DD National) obliged.

DD National began re-telecasting Ramayan on March 28. That week, the channel’s viewership jumped to 545 million from about 9 million in January.

Social media is now full of nostalgic posts from people reliving their childhood memories — many with their own kids this time. Ramayan is now streaming on Disney-owned Hotstar.

Sushmita Pathak is a producer for NPR in Mumbai.

Colombia: A telenovela about 3 brothers out for revenge

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In Colombia, telenovela addicts are binge-watching an old favorite, Pasión de Gavilanes, which has made a comeback 17 years after it originally aired.

The TV network Caracol says it is re-running the Colombian telenovela — the second-most watched show in its history — during lockdown at its audience’s request, given that recordings of current shows are on pause due to the pandemic.

Over 188 episodes, Pasión de Gavilanes tells the story of three brothers looking to avenge the suicide of their sister, Libia Reyes. She was in a relationship with a wealthy married man named Bernardo Elizondo and got pregnant. Then he died. She went to his family to tell them that she was having his baby. And after Elizondo’s wife humiliated her, she threw herself off a bridge.

The Reyes brothers descend upon the Elizondo household posing as bricklayers. Their plan is to seduce Elizondo’s three daughters as payback for their sister’s death.

María Fernanda Martínez, 24, says she is re-watching the novela with her mother during lockdown out of “pure and simple nostalgia.”

Hilda Cárdenas Vergara, 57, who watched the novela in its heyday, enjoys reliving the experience with her family during lockdown. “There’s not one boring episode,” she told NPR.

But not everyone feels the same. Some Twitter users say the storyline is classist, as Gabriela, the wife of late Elizondo, punishes her wealthy daughters for falling in love with working class men. Others say it glorifies physical and verbal violence against women.

Pasión de Gavilanes is currently leading national TV ratings and is the most-watched show on Colombian Netflix. It’s also available for streaming in Spanish on U.S. Netflix.

Sophie Foggin is a journalist based in Medellin, Colombia, covering politics, human rights, history and justice in Latin America.

Kenya: Rich man falls for poor woman — but he has another lover

YouTube

One of the most-watched TV shows in Kenya during the pandemic is Maria, a 30-minute Kenyan drama that revolves around the life of Luwi, the youngest son of a wealthy family. Luwi falls in love with gorgeous — and poor — Maria. Only he has another lover, and when she finds out, things get complicated.

Even before COVID-19 came along, the Swahili-language drama was one of the most popular TV shows in the country, according to the GeoPoll Audience Measurement Report, which measures viewership. In fact, when the actor Brian Ogana, who plays Luwi, visited a primary school in Kibera in March, hooting and hollering young fans could barely contain their excitement.

And people love Yasmin Said, the actress who plays Maria. “You have bewitched my family! As from 6 p.m., people in this family run up and down to prepare so as not to miss you in action. Congratulations,” wrote one person on Twitter.

New episodes continue to air throughout the pandemic. The half-hour show is broadcast from Monday to Friday at 7:30 p.m., with reruns on Saturday from 4-6 p.m. There are about 150 episodes to date.

The show has been one of Julia Anyango’s favorite ways to pass time since the pandemic began. A teacher by profession, living in the Korogocho slums in Nairobi, she’s had to stop work due to school closures.

Her favorite character is Maria: “She gives the rich family problems because she is coming from a ghetto life,” Anyango says.

Some of the episodes can be found on YouTube.

Thomas Bwire is a co-founder and editor at Habari Kibra, a news hub that focuses on reporting stories from the Kibera community.

Israel: Spies, lovers and Iran’s nuclear reactor are part of the plot

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The hot new binge-watch in Israel is Tehran, an Israeli spy thriller about Israel’s covert war with its archenemy Iran. A young Mossad agent goes on her first mission to her home city of Tehran to help Israel take out an Iranian nuclear reactor, but the mission goes awry and she ends up falling in love with an Iranian activist who opposes the regime.

The show is based on real-life tensions between the Jewish state and the Islamic republic’s rulers. It appears to be the first popular Israeli TV series to focus on contemporary Iran. Israel and Iran have hostile relations and Iran bans Israelis from visiting. So there’s a lot of curiosity.

The main Iranian character is portrayed by Iranian-born actor Shervin Alenabi. Based in London, he says his participation in the show is controversial in Iran — and it means he may not be able to travel back to the country and see his family because Iran strictly forbids interaction with Israel.

The 8-episode show, with each episode about 45 minutes long, premiered on June 22 on Israel’s public TV broadcaster Kan. The show is in Hebrew, Farsi and English with Hebrew subtitles.

Daniel Estrin is NPR’s international correspondent in Jerusalem.

China: Kids solve a double homicide

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China is enthralled by The Bad Kids, a Chinese thriller TV drama that tells the tale of three young children who decide to take justice into their own hands after they accidentally capture on camera a cliffside double homicide. In their pursuit of the truth, the kids are caught up in revenge and blackmail.

It’s filled with thrilling twists and turns: it obfuscates ethical boundaries for its characters and tests its viewers’ moral compass.

The 12-episode series premiered on the Chinese streaming platform iQIYI on June 16. And it’s won over China’s demanding viewers — it received a 8.9/10 rating on the notoriously hard-to-please review site Douban. Even The People’s Daily, the official Communist Party paper, published an article praising the show for being “an exemplar of high-quality short series.”

Chinese drama shows tend to favor interminable plot lines (The Story of Yanxi Palace, another wildly popular TV series from two summers ago, required serious commitment to finish all 75 episodes.) But most important, the show is seen as the herald of a new age in Chinese television, one that expands beyond traditional genres like period pieces, family drama and the Sino-Japanese War.

Amy Cheng is a producer for NPR in Beijing.

Senegal: Love affairs — and lots of controversy

YouTube

Senegal’s TV series Infidéles — or “unfaithful” in French — is dripping with drama. Within the first few minutes of the first episode, audiences were introduced to half a dozen characters and a few different entanglements. A wife and husband dispute over social media posts, but quickly make up; one woman confides to her male friend that her boyfriend — their mutual friend — is physically abusing her; and two friends pressure a third friend who prefers to wear the hijab to dress more provocatively and study less.

The series, which premiered on July 18 on YouTube and Senegalese TV channel SenTV, airs every Wednesday and Friday. And it has both fans and detractors.

In the country of 16 million, the YouTube videos get well over 1.5 million views, but most people prefer to watch it on TV to watch it as it airs, says Senegalese cultural critic Aboubacar Demba Cissokho. “People are watching it on TV so that afterward on Facebook or WhatsApp they can engage in the reactions that are happening,” he says.

The show has also created controversy. After a character with the same name as the mother of a historic Muslim leader in the country – Mame Diarra — was portrayed in a scene that discussed same-sex relations (which are outlawed in Senegal), a leader of a local conservative nonprofit organization, Jaamra, publicly denounced the name choice.

On the other hand, says Cissokho, the episode’s controversy highlights the contentious LGBT issues in the country. “People are already talking about these issues, but the debate becomes a public debate, and it takes on another dimension when it’s portrayed on television.”

Ricci Shryock is a freelance photographer and journalist based in Dakar, Senegal. Follow her on Instagram at @ricci_s.

Pakistan: They call it ‘The Muslim Game Of Thrones’

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In Pakistan, the must-watch show is a wildly popular Turkish drama that local media call “The Muslim Game of Thrones.”

Resurrection: Ertugrul dramatizes the story of the man it’s named for — the father of the founder of the Ottoman Empire. It was the last sweeping Muslim empire, ruling swathes of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa for more than 600 years, falling apart in the aftermath of World War I.

The 5-season series, which first premiered on the Turkish channel TRT 1 in 2014, has drama, heroes and heroines and chaste romance with Muslim characters at its center. That’s key to its popularity in Pakistan, a Muslim-majority country of more than 200 million people, where it’s seen as gripping, wholesome family fare. And it lets Pakistanis indulge in nostalgia for the glories of the Muslim past.

“What has affected me most about [Etrugrul] the way he united the entire tribe and formed the Ottoman Empire,” says Muhammad Shahzad Cheema to local newspaper Dawn. He is such a fan that he arranged for a statue of the character of Ertugrul from the show to be erected in his Lahore housing community in June.

Prime Minister Imran Khan, a playboy-turned-conservative, is also a fan. He recommended Pakistanis watch the show to connect to their Muslim roots.

The show isn’t without its critics. In an op-ed for Dawn, liberal writer Pervez Hoodbhoy, described it as “frankly propagandistic” and said the violence inflicted by the Muslim heroes “suggests the way forward is through the sword.”

Diaa Hadid is NPR’s international correspondent in Islamabad.

South Africa: Kidnapped At Birth, Found 17 Years Later

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When a newborn named Zephany Nurse was kidnapped from beside her mother’s bed in a Cape Town hospital in 1997, the case gripped South Africa. And then the trail went cold. That is, until 17 years later, when the Nurses’ younger daughter spotted a girl who bore an uncanny resemblance to her at her new high school, and a DNA test proved they were sisters.

Zephany Nurse’s stranger-than-fiction story is now the basis of a popular South African Netflix series, Blood & Water. The series turns up the glamor on the Nurses’ story by giving it the Gossip Girl treatment, with the fictional retelling set against the backdrop of an ivy-covered Cape Town prep school whose students come home to waterfront mansions and spend their weekends drinking cocktails at beachside hotels.

For South Africans, the show is an escapist fantasy, but for a country used to wincing through Western retellings of their stories (think Morgan Freeman’s strangely American-accented Nelson Mandela in Invictus) it’s also a reversal of roles. “I’ve seen a lot of excitement… in the States, to see young Black kids be represented,” Ama Qamata, the show’s lead, told Elle.

Blood & Water, only the second Netflix original series from Africa, has been streaming globally on the platform since May and was renewed for a second season.

Ryan Brown is a reporter based in Johannesburg for The Christian Science Monitor.

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What The Coronavirus Teaches, And What Trump Won’t Learn, About A Free-Market Economy

Republicans continue to block legislation to provide relief to tens of millions of Americans as well as the state and local governments that provide services and employment to them. Their hand-wringing, it seems, is rooted in the worry that providing relief, such as extending enhanced unemployment benefits, will eliminate any incentive, or coercion, for people to seek employment and return to work.

Yet, we know that for every job opening, there are roughly five people enduring unemployment.

So why do Republicans cling to their strange reasoning in the face of reality?

It’s hard to know exactly. But if it’s more than pure callousness and maliciousness toward the American people, we might do worse than suggest their stubbornness about passing a relief package rests in their hallmark antipathy to government-run anything and their bedrock commitment to the belief that a free market can solve and address all problems, that private industry, guided by the pursuit of private interests and the profit motive, leads to the most efficient and effective economy to meet human need.

Trump’s recent announcement of his intention to end the payroll tax, which funds Social Security and Medicare, is in line with this school thought, advocated by such free-market zealots as Milton Friedman and his predecessor F.A. Hayek, who viewed virtually any government intervention or socialization of the economy as leading us, to use the title of his famous book, on The Road to Serfdom.

The coronavirus, however, seems to provide a powerful counter-argument to this school of thought.

The free market seems in this situation to achieve outcomes hostile to the public good and to the needs and interests of Americans.  If the free market is supposed to offer the most effective and disinterested means of allocating resources effectively to meet need, it is failing abysmally.

First, let’s just consider how private industry worked cooperatively with the government with regard to CARES Act funding. They had no intention of addressing the needs of the people but only with lining their own pockets.

For example, from these relief funds millions, nay billions, of dollars are being distributed to the wealthiest among us who are doing just fine. Nicholas Kristoff reported in The New York Times that last relief package provided $135 billion dollars in “relief” for real estate developers, offering retroactive tax breaks for periods that preceded the coronavirus outbreak.  As Jason Easley has reported for PoliticusUsa.com, businesses connected to the families of Donald Trump and Jared Kushner have also received millions, as have businesses of families connected to Mitch McConnell.

It’s not at all clear how these companies pursuing their greedy private interests really helps us solve a public health crisis or meet the most urgent and desperate needs besetting Americans now.

We have to call bull where we see it.

A for-profit economy, rooted in the belief that the pursuit of private interests, free of government intervention, will inevitably serve the public good most efficiently, just isn’t borne out by what we are seeing.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has been a powerful spokesman for the virus’s position against this worship of a free-market economy. Consider how he spelled out the problem of the lack of hospital capacity to address the pandemic:

“You only have 53,000 hospital beds. You only have 3,000 ICU beds. Why? Because our health care system is basically a private system. They don’t build capacity that they don’t need. They don’t build extra ICU beds just in case. An intensive care bed is very expensive. They don’t build a wing of ICU beds that sit vacant for 10 years on the off-chance that there’s going to be a public health emergency and you’ll need the beds… so we don’t have them. We have the capacity that people use day-in and day-out. And that’s not just New York. That’s every state in the United States. You now have this influx, you can’t handle it.

You will have people on gurneys in hallways,” Cuomo told reporters. “That is what is going to happen now if we do nothing. That is what is going to happen now if we do nothing. And that, my friends, will be a tragedy.”

He diagnoses the problem as precisely one of the privatization of public health services, which means these services organize their operations from the economic standpoint of business, not the economic standpoint of meeting human need.

And what has he called for in a letter he wrote to President Trump? He called for Trump to send in the Army Corps of Engineers to build temporary medical facilities to meet the surge in patients needing treatment for the coronavirus.

He called for government intervention, for a public sector response, precisely because the private sector has failed abysmally; its so-called best business practices, in fact, forecast, inherently entail, the private sector’s failure to meet human need.

When it comes to food production in the U.S., we also see that in fact the operations of private industry greatly depend on the effectiveness of the government public sector.

 

Kansas Governor Laura Kelly’s plea to the White House early last April highlights this point.

According to reporting from The New York Times, “About a week after the first report of a Covid-19 case at a meatpacking plant in southwest Kansas in early April . . . Kelly, issued a pointed warning to President Trump: Without test kits to separate the well from the sick, a fast-moving outbreak could idle facilities that produce roughly one-quarter of the nation’s meat supply.”

Providing test kits really required a national coordinated effort, meaning one led by the federal government.

But as The New York Times reported:

“On top of all that, the administration has resisted a full-scale national mobilization, instead intervening to allocate scarce equipment on an ad hoc basis and leaving production bottlenecks and shortages largely to market forces. Governors, public health officials and hospital executives say they are still operating in a kind of Wild West economy that has left them scrambling — and competing with one another — to procure the equipment and other materials they need.”

This quote from Governor Kelly sums it up:

“You are using a free-market model in a public health emergency, and I’m not sure those two go together particularly well.”

As we see tens of millions out of work and unable to meet food, housing, and other basic needs, we have to question this free-market model.  Leaving people in desperate straits, the free-market model seems more clearly to be the road to serfdom.

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Declassified document shows FBI misled Senate about Steele dossier

A top Senate Republican said a newly declassified FBI document on the bureau’s 2018 briefing of the Senate Intelligence Committee shows the FBI misled Congress about the reliability of British ex-spy Christopher Steele’s anti-Trump dossier.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, revealed that the document had been declassified during an interview with Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo on Fox News’s Sunday Morning Futures, arguing that “somebody needs to go to jail” for the FBI misleading the Senate Intelligence Committee about the dossier a year after Steele’s primary subsource, recently revealed to be Igor Danchenko, met with the FBI and disputed the reliability of the research. Danchenko, a 42-year-old Russian-trained lawyer, was identified as Steele’s primary subsource after Graham released declassified documents in July related to a three-day interview with Danchenko in January 2017 where he contradicted claims made in the dossier and undercut the FBI’s case against onetime Trump campaign associate Carter Page.

The FBI’s newly declassified briefing document, dated Feb. 14, 2018, and briefed to senators shortly thereafter, claimed that the primary subsource said that “several reports appeared to be derived from multiple sources, to include the information he provided to Steele as well as information that he had not collected” and that “he did not cite any significant concerns with the way his reporting was characterized in the dossier to the extent he could identify it.”

The bureau also told the senators that “at minimum, our discussions with [the primary subsource] confirm the dossier was not fabricated by Steele.” The bureau further said Danchenko “maintains trusted relationships with individuals who are capable of reporting on the material he collected for Steele.”

But FBI notes on an interview conducted with Steele’s primary subsource, released last month, seem to tell a different story. Danchenko told the bureau that he didn’t know where some of the claims attributed to him came from and that his own Russian sources never mentioned some of the allegations that ended up in Steele’s dossier. Danchenko was also multiple steps separated from some of the claims he passed along to Steele.

Danchenko told bureau agents that he “did not know the origins” of some claims and “did not recall” other information that was in the dossier. Steele’s primary subsource told the FBI that Steele had mischaracterized at least one of his own Russian source contacts too. Steele’s primary subsource also noted that much of what he passed along to Steele was “word of mouth and hearsay” and that some stemmed from a “conversation that [he] had with friends over beers,” while the most salacious Trump allegations may have been claims made in “jest.”

“This document clearly shows that the FBI was continuing to mislead regarding the reliability of the Steele dossier. The FBI did to the Senate Intelligence Committee what the Department of Justice and FBI had previously done to the FISA court: mischaracterize, mislead, and lie. The characterizations regarding the dossier were completely out of touch with reality in terms of what the Russian subsource actually said to the FBI,” Graham said Sunday. “What does this mean? That Congress, as well as the FISA court, was lied to about the reliability of the Russian subsource. I will be asking FBI Director Wray to provide me all the details possible about how the briefing was arranged and who provided it.”

Danchenko told the FBI that Steele contracted him to look into four or five Trump associates, but was only able to name former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, onetime Trump campaign adviser Page, and former Trump fixer Michael Cohen specifically for the bureau. Danchenko said he then reached out to his own source network, which was more of a loose social network compromising a number of shady individuals and old friends from Russia, for information on them. He also contradicted some of the claims in Steele’s dossier.

DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz said FBI interviews with Steele’s primary subsource “raised significant questions about the reliability of the Steele election reporting” and cast doubt on some of its biggest claims. Horowitz also concluded that the FBI’s interviews of Steele and the primary subsource, along with other investigative activity, “revealed potentially serious problems with Steele’s descriptions of information in his reports.” The DOJ watchdog noted that the primary subsource “made statements during his/her January 2017 FBI interview that were inconsistent with multiple sections of the Steele reports, including some that were relied upon in the FISA applications” and that “among other things, regarding the allegations attributed to Person 1, the Primary Subsource’s account of these communications, if true, was not consistent with and, in fact, contradicted the allegations of a ‘well-developed conspiracy’” in Steele’s dossier that were “attributed to Person 1.”

Horowitz said the FISA renewals “continued to rely on the Steele information, without any revisions or notice to the court that the Primary Subsource contradicted the Steele election reporting on key issues described in the renewal applications” and that “we found no evidence that the Crossfire Hurricane team ever considered whether any of the inconsistencies warranted reconsideration of the FBI’s previous assessment of the reliability of the Steele election reports.”

Horowitz’s report also noted that Steele “was not the originating source of any of the factual information in his reporting” but instead “relied on a primary subsource for information, and this Primary Subsource used a network of subsources to gather the information that was relayed to Steele.” Horowitz said that “neither Steele nor the Primary Subsource had direct access to the information being reported.”

The FBI’s briefing document to the Senate also claimed that “our discussions with the primary subsource confirmed that he operates within high level academic and government circles, maintains trusted relationships with individuals who are capable of reporting on the material he collected for Steele, and that Steele and utilized reasonably sound intelligence tradecraft.”

Horowitz’s lengthy December report criticized the Justice Department and the FBI for at least 17 “significant errors and omissions” related to the FISA warrants against Page and for the bureau’s reliance on Steele’s unverified dossier. Steele put his research together at the behest of the opposition research firm Fusion GPS, funded by Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee through the Perkins Coie law firm. Declassified footnotes now show that the FBI was aware that Steele’s dossier might have been compromised by Russian disinformation.

Steele’s dossier claims to have a source described as a “close associate of Trump” and attributes to this person some of the more salacious allegations about the president, including the claim about President Trump and prostitutes at a hotel during the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow.

Newly released FBI notes cast doubt on these allegations, noting that Danchenko said, “For this story, Christopher Steele was given the names of the management at the Ritz Carlton.” They also note that Danchenko “said that he reported Trump’s unorthodox sexual activity at the Ritz as ‘rumor and speculation’ and that he had not been able to confirm the story.” Danchenko said that “the ability to blackmail Trump was ‘logical conclusion’ rather than reporting.” Danchenko told the FBI that he had “no idea where the [Steele dossier’s] mention of ‘Department K of the FSB’ is from” and did not recall hearing that or mentioning it to Steele.

No evidence to support these claims in Steele’s dossier has ever emerged publicly.

Horowitz’s report noted the second and third surveillance application renewals targeting Page, who has denied any wrongdoing and was never charged with a crime, advised the FISA court that after the interview with Danchenko “the FBI found the Russian-based subsource to be truthful and cooperative.” But despite a few trips to Russia and Moscow in 2016, Danchenko was not “Russian-based” by any means, since he had lived in the United States for many years — yet another flaw in the FISA filings against Page.

Developments from U.S. Attorney John Durham’s investigation of the Trump-Russia investigators are expected by the end of the summer.

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Coronavirus: Trump signs relief order after talks at Congress collapse

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Reuters

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The president spoke to reporters on Saturday from his golf club in New Jersey

US President Donald Trump has taken executive action to provide economic aid to millions of Americans hit by the pandemic, saying he was forced to do so after talks at Congress broke down.

The directives include measures to support the unemployed, suspend payroll tax and extend student loans.

Some of them are likely to face legal challenges given that Congress controls federal spending, not the president.

Democratic rival Joe Biden said they were “a series of half-baked measures”.

It is not known whether the move will mean the end of talks between senior government officials and top Democrats for a stimulus package. Negotiations broke down on Friday after two weeks.

Mr Trump said the measures would provide up to $400 (£306) per week in supplemental unemployment benefits to tens of millions of jobless Americans. This is less than the $600 people had been receiving until 31 July, when the benefit expired.

The president also said states would cover 25% of the new payments – the previous benefit was fully funded by the federal government. He is seeking to divert money from a previously approved disaster aid to states.

Mr Trump said it would be up to the states, which already face huge budget shortfalls due to the pandemic, to determine how much to be used from that fund to pay for the benefit. This means that the extra payment may end up amounting only to $300 a week.

“This is the money they need, this is the money they want, this gives them an incentive to go back to work,” President Trump said of the lower payments during a news conference on Saturday from his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey.

The measures also included a suspension of the collection of payroll taxes – which pay for Social Security and other federal programmes – through to the end of this year, a suspension of federal student loan payments, and efforts to minimise evictions but not a moratorium.

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Media captionDespite the economy shrinking, US stocks have rallied

The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives had approved a $3.5 trillion package which was rejected by the Republican-held Senate.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the most powerful elected Democrat, said they lowered the figure in talks to $2tn but Republicans had proposed a $1tn plan.

Mrs Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer dismissed the president’s actions as “meagre”, saying they were “unworkable, weak and narrow policy announcements” in the face of the economic and health crises.

Mr Biden, President Trump’s rival in the November election, accused him of putting Social Security “at grave risk” by delaying the collection of payroll taxes, and called the measures “another cynical ploy designed to deflect responsibility”.

But Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he supported the president “exploring his options to get unemployment benefits and other relief to the people who need them the most.”

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Getty Images

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Millions of unemployed Americans were benefited by the extra benefits

The US unemployment rate continued to fall in July, but it was a much lower decrease than in May and June, denting hopes of an economic revival.

The country’s death toll from the coronavirus pandemic has surpassed 160,000. The US has far more Covid-19 cases by volume than any other country – nearly five million – and its rate of infection has risen steadily throughout the summer.

Congress has already allocated some $3tn for pandemic relief so far. Some Republicans in Congress do not wish to spend any more, and nearly half of Republican senators say they would oppose any new relief bill at all.

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Almost 4 Million Chinese Displaced Or Evacuated From Flooding : NPR

An aerial photo shows the extent of flooding in Guzhen Town of Lu’an City in eastern China’s Anhui province on July 20.

Tang Yang/Xinhua via AP


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An aerial photo shows the extent of flooding in Guzhen Town of Lu’an City in eastern China’s Anhui province on July 20.

Tang Yang/Xinhua via AP

First China was hit by the novel coronavirus. Now it is dealing with the worst flooding in more than 20 years across vast swaths, from its southwestern interior to its east coast.

Zeng Hailin is one of an estimated 3.7 million people displaced or evacuated because of floods in China largely since June.

He lost his job in a uniform factory in Zhejiang province because of the coronavirus pandemic, so he returned to his hometown a few hours away, in Anhui province. His troubles didn’t end there. In July, weeks of torrential rain led the small river near his house to overflow.

One night, he woke up in a panic.

“The water was suddenly up to my chest,” he remembers. “I could not lift my mother out of bed. I could barely walk because the ground turned to slippery mud.”

Zeng Hailin stands in front of his dilapidated home. During flash flooding in his Anhui village last month, he evacuated his 80-year-old mother by floating her out in a plastic washbasin.

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Zeng Hailin stands in front of his dilapidated home. During flash flooding in his Anhui village last month, he evacuated his 80-year-old mother by floating her out in a plastic washbasin.

Emily Feng/NPR

Zeng eventually put his bedridden 81-year-old mother in a large plastic wash basin to float her to a rescue boat.

He now lives in a classroom in the local public school while waiting for new housing. His mother is staying with other relatives.

The Ministry of Emergency Management estimates that nearly 55 million people from 27 provinces have suffered from record-setting floods. More than 40,000 houses collapsed; at least 158 people are dead or missing.

The country’s Water Resources Ministry says at the worst point in mid-July, 433 rivers rose to dangerous levels. Some broke through dams or overflowed their banks, flooding nearby villages like Hekou in Anhui province.

Tang, a life-long resident of Hekou village, said flooding that reached above her ankles only started occurring in the last decade.

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Tang, a life-long resident of Hekou village, said flooding that reached above her ankles only started occurring in the last decade.

Amy Cheng/NPR

“The road in front of our house became a river. We were stuck in our house for days with only some bread, water and instant noodles,” said Tang Anfeng, a resident of Hekou village just outside the city of Hefei.

Like almost all the others in her village, Tang’s home is now surrounded by submerged fields and damp furniture, a layer of scummy water covering her lost vegetable harvests.

She points to a dark swath of mildew growing on her wall that nearly reaches the ceiling — a reminder of how high the water rose on three separate occasions in July.

Tang, in her 60s, says this part of Anhui has seasonal flooding every year, but only in the last decade has the water risen above her ankles. “Whenever it rains too much, they release the water from the dams. But the water floods our village and we suffer,” she says.

Tang Anfeng, a Hekou native, explains how the local government releases excessive rainwater behind dams to relieve pressure. “The water floods our village, and we suffer,” she said.

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Tang Anfeng, a Hekou native, explains how the local government releases excessive rainwater behind dams to relieve pressure. “The water floods our village, and we suffer,” she said.

Amy Cheng/NPR

In 1958, authorities began building the first of nine dams and diversion barriers near Hekou to regulate seasonal flooding by collecting runoff into reservoirs. Today, the dams provide hydropower and drinking water to nearby cities as well. But during extreme rains, authorities are forced to suddenly release the water.

“There’s a decision of basically not how much the rivers will flood, but where the rivers will flood,” says Brian Eyler, who studies China’s river management at the Stimson Center, a think tank.

China as well as other countries with significant waterways, including the United States, will face greater flood risks and engineers will increasingly have to make a calculus about where to release water or risk a dam collapse.

Chao Lake, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the country, sits squarely in Hefei, the capital city of Anhui province. Brigades of local workers and volunteers fortified the rim of the lake with sand bags last month and put up warning signs on the perimeter because of this season’s dangerously high water levels.

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Chao Lake, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the country, sits squarely in Hefei, the capital city of Anhui province. Brigades of local workers and volunteers fortified the rim of the lake with sand bags last month and put up warning signs on the perimeter because of this season’s dangerously high water levels.

Amy Cheng/NPR

“Climate change predictions all around suggest that storms are going to be more intense into the coming years,” says Eyler. “We are living in places where the rivers have been engineered to allow us to live there. But the engineering is not able to cope with nature, and so nature is getting the best of us.”

Heavier seasonal rain is also causing a rethink of water management policies in China’s water-adjacent cities, some of which also flooded this summer because of record rainfall. Experts like Yu Kongjian, a prominent landscape architect and professor at Peking University, say an overreliance on “gray infrastructure,” or nonabsorbent materials like concrete and man-made systems like sewage pipes, to rapidly urbanize fails to be resilient when confronted with floods.

In 2014, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development released national guidance for cities to maximize natural drainage techniques, including constructing rooftop gardens and using permeable building materials — a project nicknamed building “sponge cities.” The country wants to bring 20% of land in 658 cities up to “sponge city” drainage standards by the end of this year, at an estimated annual cost of 400 billion yuan ($57.5 billion).

Hekou villagers enjoying a moment of reprieve from farm work right before a thunderstorm.

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Hekou villagers enjoying a moment of reprieve from farm work right before a thunderstorm.

Amy Cheng/NPR

“The whole idea of ‘sponge city’ is to retain water, clean water, and recharge the aquifers. It’s about using nature to regulate water and treat stormwater as resources instead of dumping it into the ocean,” Yu said. “It’s not just a way to deal with floods, but a holistic idea of how to create an ecological infrastructure so that water will be the main factor.”

The initiative is still in its early stages. Nineteen of the 30 pilot sponge cities still reported overwhelmed sewers and canals in 2017. “People who don’t work in urban planning or hydrology may have the wrong perception of the sponge city project. They may think sponge cities are a Superman [solution] that could deal with everything,” says Faith Chan, an urban planning expert.

Still, Yu remains an optimist. “It will take time, but ‘sponge city’ is the main way that any levels of government [in China] should try as an alternative to the gray infrastructure.”

Heavier rainfall means a precarious existence for the 450 million Chinese residents who live along the mighty Yangtze River or its many tributaries.

Those living downstream in Anhui, mostly in sparse, rural communities, know this hard truth: “If the dams don’t release water and flood us, even more people will be doomed,” explains Li Huanian, a resident of Hekou village.

Farmer Ma Youxi herds his water buffaloes into the water. During the flooding last month, Ma says the dry land on which he stood was completely submerged.

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Farmer Ma Youxi herds his water buffaloes into the water. During the flooding last month, Ma says the dry land on which he stood was completely submerged.

Emily Feng/NPR

Farmer Ma Youxi recounts the sudden flood in July that enveloped his home in Hekou village as he takes his water buffaloes out for a swim. “We only know when the dams release water when the water enters our homes. There is no heads up,” he complains.

Ma barely rescued his sheep. He points to his herd of water buffalo — luckily, they float naturally.

Amy Cheng contributed research from Anhui.

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Op-Ed: Now, as in the 1970s, it’s men, not women, who will defeat the Equal Rights Amendment

In February, the House voted to remove the deadline on ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, just weeks after Virginia took a long-delayed vote and pushed the ERA over the 38-state-ratification threshold required by the Constitution. Now, if the Senate seconds the House, the 28th Amendment could become part of the supreme law of the land: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

The Trump administration and other opponents insist the ERA expired irrevocably when it failed by three states to meet a ratification deadline first set at 1979, seven years from passage in Congress, and then extended to 1982. In addition, five ratifying states by then had voted to rescind their support. Nonetheless, there are cogent legal arguments that say Congress has it in its power to resolve those issues and resurrect the ERA ratification process from the legislative graveyard.

Just in time for the debate on a revivified ERA, FX unveiled its miniseries “Mrs. America” about conservative icon Phyllis Schlafly and her grass-roots attack on equal rights in the 1970s. In it, Schlafly, played by Cate Blanchett (who just received an Emmy nomination for the role), pits mothers and homemakers against feminists in a campaign built on misinformation and fear. Women fighting women, we gather from “Mrs. America,” wiped out the ERA for a generation.

In reality, the amendment’s success or failure was then and is now primarily in the hands of men. Fifty years ago, the ERA’s chances were poisoned by the choices of a few powerful male leaders in Washington and in state legislatures. Now similar forces are poised to do it all over again.

In 1970, there were only 10 women in the House of Representatives and one in the Senate. For more than a decade, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Emanuel Celler had blocked the ERA from reaching the floor for a debate or a vote. Finally, Rep. Martha Griffiths (D-Mich.) used a discharge petition to wrench it out of committee. Given the chance to vote on it, the House supported the amendment — with no ratification deadline — 352 to 15, a 96% majority.

But when the ERA proceeded to the Senate, the maneuvers of its opponents prevailed. It was Southern conservative Sam Ervin (D-N.C.) who proposed limiting the time states would have to ratify the amendment; he also demanded the addition of a provision exempting women from the draft. Others tacked a right to school prayer onto it. With the session ending, the ERA’s enemies made full use of the Senate rule allowing unlimited debate: It died without a vote.

Griffiths began again in 1971, this time adding Ervin’s proposed seven-year ratification deadline to the amendment, in a bid to quiet critics and gain supporters. But the men who insisted on the deadline — Celler and Ervin — voted against the ERA anyway.

Nonetheless, in March 1972 both houses of Congress voted to adopt the Equal Rights Amendment in numbers that suggest it could have reached the necessary two-thirds vote even without a ratification deadline.

Schlafly began her campaign when the battle moved to state legislatures. Equal rights, her newsletter said, would end women’s “privileges.” It would eliminate alimony, require unisex bathrooms and, in an echo of Ervin’s floor speeches, send mothers to war.

Never mind that simply requiring gender neutral laws in no way foretold such consequences. Schlafly’s distortions ignored what the ERA’s female framers had shaped: A level playing field to help “wife, abandoned wife, and widow” in “supporting her family” by opening up opportunities from which she was excluded.

The ERA “would not downgrade the roles of mother and housewife,” but “give [them] new dignity,” argued Rep. Florence Dwyer (R-N.J.). Reps. Patsy Mink (D-Hawaii) and Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.), the first women of color to be elected to Congress, argued that the ERA wouldn’t so much force women into the draft as end it entirely. (The U.S., already moving in that direction, switched to a volunteer army in 1973.)

In a well-functioning constitutional democracy, proposed amendments deserve reasoned debate and a vote by lawmakers responsive to the will of the people. But the ERA’s opponents did all they could to prevent that in key state legislatures.

In Virginia, for example, the most senior men in the House of Delegates and in the Senate kept the ERA in committee by any means necessary. As the ratification clock was ticking, these delay tactics prevented the debate needed to inform Virginians about what the ERA would do, just as it shielded politicians from publicly siding for or against women’s rights. It allowed a few men to let the ERA die without taking full political responsibility for killing it.

This history reflects the fact that women have never had the numbers to make the Constitution change without getting men to back them up. Even today, with women in both houses of Congress at an all-time high, they represent just 23.2% of the House and 26% of the Senate. Congressmen can adopt an amendment while ignoring the will of every single female member.

Likewise, in every state except Nevada, men hold a majority of the seats in the legislature. There too men can ratify a constitutional amendment without even trying to persuade a single female colleague.

Polls show that three-fourths of Americans support the Equal Rights Amendment. If the Senate chose to follow the House and lift the ERA’s ratification deadline, the door would be opened to giving women their due in the Constitution. However, like Emanuel Celler and Sam Ervin before him, today’s ERA gatekeeper, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he’s “personally not a supporter.”

Instead of blaming women for the failure to ratify the ERA, we should challenge the process of constitutional change and the men who exert power over it.

Julie C. Suk, a professor of sociology and political science at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, is the author of “We the Women: The Unstoppable Mothers of the Equal Rights Amendment.”