Today’s read: 8 minutes.
Former Trump admin officials turn on him, a question about the Kurds, and a frightening piece on face recognition technology.
Gage Skidmore / WikiCommons
Another Democratic debate will take place tonight at 8pm EST. You can follow me on Twitter for live commentary and I’ll have coverage in tomorrow’s Tangle.
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What D.C. is talking about.
John Bolton. Yesterday, President Trump’s former national security adviser came up during closed-door testimony. Fiona Hill, the White House’s former top Russia adviser, testified to impeachment investigators that the president’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani was running a “shadow foreign policy” campaign with Ukraine that circumvented top U.S. officials. According to reporting from The New York Times, Hill told investigators that Bolton was disgusted by the campaign and had a heated exchange with Gordon Sondlond, a Trump donor turned ambassador to the European Union, who was working with Giuliani. “I am not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up,” Bolton, who is a lawyer, “told Hill to tell White House lawyers.” Hill says Bolton instructed her to notify the chief lawyer for the National Security Council of Giuliani, Sondland and Trump’s efforts. Previously, Bolton had also told Hill that “Giuliani’s a hand grenade who’s going to blow everybody up.”
What Republicans are saying.
Early yesterday, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz emerged from the Fiona Hill testimony to tell reporters that he had been “kicked out” by Rep. Adam Schiff. Gaetz used the moment to decry the “secretive” impeachment investigations and claim that Democrats were trying to cover up what was happening inside (Gaetz is not on the Intel, Oversight or Foreign Affairs Committees involved in the impeachment proceedings, and a non-partisan Parliamentarian ruled he had to leave). Nonetheless, Gaetz used the moment to go on Fox News and say it was proof that Democrats “absolutely cannot run a fair impeachment inquiry because they’re stacking the deck.” He said they are stacking the deck and not allowing Republicans access to witnesses. Rep. Jim Jordan echoed those sentiments, claiming that “nothing Fiona Hill said today in her deposition was classified. None of it should have been hidden from the American people.” Democrats have mostly blocked Republicans out of records requests and witness interviews during the impeachment inquiry. The constitution is vague on how impeachment should be handled, and in this hyper-partisan time Republicans are accusing Democrats of running a sham process by not allowing them to be more involved.
What Democrats are saying.
The picture is getting clearer. What we’re now hearing from former officials in the Trump administration is that Rudy Giuliani was basically sidestepping U.S. foreign policy in order to get straight to Ukrainian officials. He used his position as Trump’s personal lawyer to encourage the firing of a top U.S. diplomat who he thought was impeding on his friend’s ability to make money in Ukraine. He got Trump on the phone call with Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, after laying the groundwork to have Zelensky tell Trump he’d look into right-wing conspiracy theories and investigate Joe Biden. Reporting today suggests that Giuliani, who has been accusing Biden and his son of political corruption, was paid $500,000 for work he did on behalf of the Ukrainian-American businessmen who were arrested last week on campaign finance charges. Democrats are saying that Giuliani is guilty of all the things he was accusing Biden of, and John Bolton — no ally to Democrats and certainly not a liberal — knew something was amiss and wanted Hill to keep him informed.
There’s a joke in some corners of the media world that the best way to predict Trump’s next insult or accusation is to look at whatever he’s been accused of. Ever since Trump was on the debate stage with Hillary Clinton and incredulously accused her of being Putin’s “puppet” after she said he was Putin’s puppet, Trump and those around him have made a habit of lobbing back any accusation they receive. If a politician says Trump is racist, he’ll call the politician racist. If a pundit says Trump is unhinged, he’ll call the Democrats unhinged.
Impossibly, it looks like the very thing Rudy Giuliani has decided to accuse Joe Biden and his son Hunter of is actually something he may be guilty of. As I’ve said before, the nepotism that allows someone like Hunter Biden to make millions in a foreign country is a gross problem we have to deal with. But he didn’t break any laws. America’s former Mayor Rudy Giuliani has spent the better part of a month doing cable television hits accusing Biden and his son of corruption in Ukraine — essentially arguing that Biden forced out a prosecutor there because that prosecutor was looking into the company Hunter Biden sat on the board of. What we’ve learned since then:
- The prosecutor in Ukraine was widely loathed by international bodies because he was not looking into corruption, and Biden was far from alone in wanting him gone.
- The case where he was allegedly looking into Hunter Biden had been dormant for some time.
- Giuliani was circumventing U.S. diplomats in order to pressure Ukrainian officials to dig up dirt on Biden.
- Giuliani was taking money from Ukrainian businessmen who were just arrested on campaign finance law violations while trying to flee the United States.
- The President used contacts with a foreign government’s leader to ask him to look into what are largely unfounded claims of corruption about his political opponent.
I’m not really sure how you shake this out and don’t come away concerned. Republicans spent yesterday making a lot of noise about Gaetz being “kicked out” of the testimony. That charge alone is absurd — Congress has clear lines about who goes to what hearings and Gaetz simply wasn’t invited. That he showed up and got removed was purely a political stunt, one that was successful after the conservative media ecosystem gave it oxygen. Very few Republicans have commented on the content of the hearings, which tells me all I need to know. They know it’s bad. And there’s a good chance — with more former officials lined up to testify — it’s only going to get worse.
Yesterday, #DeleteFacebook began trending on Twitter after news broke that Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg was having “secret meetings” with Republicans like Tucker Carlson and Lindsey Graham. The news of the meetings comes as Facebook is under increased scrutiny for its role in elections and politics. Conservatives accuse “Big Tech” of being overwhelmingly liberal and censoring people with right-wing beliefs while liberals argue that conservative pundits — and the president — thrive on Facebook where they can share misinformation and propaganda. People on the right reacted with scorn to the hashtag, saying it was a sign that liberals are the truly intolerant ones. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Warren ran a fake ad on Facebook to demonstrate how absurd it was that the platform is allowing political candidates to spread objectively false information.
Your questions, answered.
Reminder: If there’s anything you want to know about politics, all you have to do is write in and ask. Simply reply to this email with your question and I’ll try to get to it in an upcoming newsletter.
Q: I hear a lot of people say that Kurds are U.S. allies, but I also see Turkey’s president say they are terrorists. Can you explain the difference in perspective? How can one group think they’re terrorists and the other think they are U.S. allies?
- Allison, San Diego, CA.
Today’s question is going to be answered by Ben Van Heuvelen, the Editor in Chief of the Iraq Oil Report. Ben is a dear friend and coaches my ultimate Frisbee team — and now he’s the second-ever guest respondent in Tangle. He’s also one of the foremost experts on Iraq and the Middle East, and his website is a gold mine of information for what’s happening in the region. I sent Ben your question, his response is below…
Ben Van Heuvelen, on behalf of Tangle: There is no way to answer this question without giving a lot of context, so I apologize in advance for a long and winding reply.
First, it's helpful to define "the Kurds": an ethnic group numbering about 40 million people who live mainly in northwestern Iran, northern Iraq, southeastern Turkey, and northern Syria. Kurdish people are a minority group in every country where they live. Many Kurds nonetheless think of the contiguous Kurdish areas in Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria as "Kurdistan" -- a stateless, Kurdish nation. For more than a century, various political groupings of Kurds have fought and struggled to establish their own state.
One of these groups is the PKK (an acronym that, translated from Turkish, stands for "the Kurdistan Workers' Party"). The PKK has been fighting a guerrilla war against Turkey since the 1980s. Their goal is to establish an independent Kurdistan, including by carving out a section of southeastern Turkey. Pitted against a far superior power -- the Turkish military -- the PKK has used asymmetric warfare to level the playing field, including tactics that any reasonable person would define as terrorism. Turkey calls them terrorists, and the U.S. government officially lists them as a terrorist organization as well. The PKK is also pretty cultish: they have a Marxist-inspired ideology that is often romanticized by Western reporters, but they are fanatical about that ideology. For example, once you join the PKK you can't leave. (Or, if you do leave, you should be concerned that they might try to kill you.)
The PKK started in Turkey, but it has affiliate groups throughout Kurdistan. In the mountains of northern Iraq, they also call themselves PKK. In Iran, the call themselves PJAK. In northern Syria, it's PYD and/or YPG. A big alphabet soup of acronyms. But the key thing to understand is they all hero-worship Abullah Ocalan, the founder of PKK, who is currently in a Turkish prison.
The U.S. has been allied with the Syrian affiliates of the PKK. Why?
To answer that question, we have to go back to the early-ish days of the Syrian civil war. All of that chaos enabled ISIS to flourish, and the U.S. was looking for allies on the ground, so that America wouldn't have to send tens of thousands of its own troops to fight ISIS. In my view, this is one area of foreign policy that President Obama really screwed up. For a short time, there was a Free Syrian Army that could have become a pretty good, largely secular ally -- against both ISIS and Assad -- if the U.S. had committed lots of weapons and air support. But Obama was reluctant to get the U.S. involved in another foreign war. And because Obama dithered, the FSA, as a matter of survival, had to cultivate other alliances against Assad and ISIS. Those allies included Muslim Brotherhood types as well as Nusra Front, which was the Syrian affiliate of al-Qaida. As soon as Nusra was involved with the FSA, the U.S. couldn't help out because they'd essentially be arming al-Qaida.
So the Obama administration decided the new least-worst option was to strike up an alliance with the Syrian Kurds. By far the most powerful fighting force was the PYD/YPG -- that is, the Syrian branch of the PKK. On one level, this made a lot of sense: if you have to choose between a group of overzealous freedom fighters and an apocalyptic terror army hell-bent on destroying Western civilization, you choose the freedom fighters. Nonetheless, this put Obama in an awkward spot, because Turkey is a NATO ally, which means there's a mutual defense treaty. How could the U.S. partner with a group the U.S. officially acknowledges is propagating a terroristic war against Turkey? The solution was distinctly American: branding! The U.S. government started pretending that YPG/PYD was a different entity from the PKK, and they also started calling them the "Syrian Defense Forces." By any honest reckoning, though, the brunt of the SDF's fighting has been done by Syrian Kurds who follow Ocalan. So, on one level, Turkey had a very valid complaint.
With all of that being said, we should also be skeptical of Turkey's position. President Erdogan talks passionately of Turkey's right to defend itself against a separatist, terrorist organization, but what he always neglects to mention is that the PKK has shown real willingness to engage in a peace process. There was a formal ceasefire between 2013 and 2015. Erdogan essentially blew up that peace process because of a political calculation: at the time, he was trying to rewrite the Constitution and move Turkey toward a more authoritarian structure, and he needed the support of the country's far-right, ultra-nationalist (and strongly anti-Kurdish) party. In essence, he prioritized his personal quest for power over a process that would have given Turkey's Kurds a meaningful political voice and greatly reduced the impetus behind the PKK's armed struggle. Now he has imprisoned the most popular Kurdish political leaders, even though they have no apparent affiliation with the PKK. So, yes, the PKK and its Syrian affiliates do pose a violent threat to Turkey -- but that's a problem largely of Erdogan's own making. He has removed all avenues for Turkish Kurds to pursue their goals through politics.
A story that matters.
Police databases now feature the faces of nearly half of all Americans. Claire Garvey, who researchers the use of face recognition technology by law enforcement technology, spoke to The New York Times about how face recognition technology is being used and why you should be very, very concerned. She demands the U.S. government stops using it and says it “violates citizens’ constitutional rights and is subject to an alarming level of manipulation and bias.” You can watch the stunning Times video about the technology here.
- 76. Percentage of college students who support an impeachment inquiry into Trump, according to an Axios poll.
- 8:30 am. That’s the earliest high schools in California will be able to start classes after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a new law to push class start times back this week.
- 223. The number of golf trips President Trump has had while in office.
- 389. The number of days President Trump has been on a Trump property while in office.
- 998. The number of days President Trump has been in office.
- $200,000. The bail paid by Aaron Dean, the police officer accused of shooting and killing Atatiana Jefferson in her own home, who is now free on bond.
Have a nice day.
A trial vaccine has wiped out breast cancer in the first-ever human patient. In March, a Florida woman was diagnosed with early-stage form of breast cancer. When she went to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville to get treated, her doctor asked if she wanted to volunteer for a trial to kill cancer with a vaccine. Lee Mercker says she accepted, and the shots worked. "We saw some evidence of elimination of the tumor, as well as some evidence of the immune system crowding in,” Dr. Keith Knutson, from the Mayo Clinic Jacksonville, told a local news outlet. Meyer still got a masectomy as a precautionary measure, but it was the first time the vaccine had been used on a human test subject — and doctors were thrilled to see it succeed. You can read more here.