Four more NATO members have cleared the alliance’s informal two percent of GDP defense spending target for 2018. Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania all joined Britain, Estonia, and Greece–who met the target in 2017 and again this year–and the United States, which annually spends approximately 473 percent of its GDP on defense (I might be rounding up slightly there). Back in 2014 the alliance set a non-binding goal for all members to hit the two percent target within 10 years, so this is progress. But it’s not fast enough for the Trump administration, which has talked about tying exemptions for its new steel and aluminum tariffs to the size of a NATO ally’s defense budget.
The US Treasury Department levied new sanctions on 19 Russian nationals and five Russian entities (including its two main intelligence agencies, the FSB and the GRU) on Thursday in connection with Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 US presidential election and its alleged responsibility for several cyberattacks.
Thousands of people demonstrated on Thursday in Vilnius over parliament’s failure to impeach a legislator, Mindaugas Bastys, who has been accused of working with Russian lobbyists against Lithuanian interests. Bastys voluntarily resigned anyway on Wednesday but that wasn’t enough to satisfy the protesters.
Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar suddenly resigned on Thursday after the country’s Supreme Court annulled the results of a referendum held last year to approve a major rail project. President Borut Pahor wants to hold new elections in May rather than trying to tap another politician as Cerar’s replacement.
Reuters has put together a report detailing how Hungary’s anti-European Union prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, is using EU aid money to enrich his inner circle:
In a corner of Lake Balaton, central Europe’s largest body of freshwater, the rocky shoreline leads to a leafy park at the city of Keszthely, a resort whose natural beauty contrasts with the dereliction of its hotels.
Keszthely used to be a magnet for Communist-era workers and apparatchiks before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Now, to the delight of many locals, the dilapidated waterfront is set for an investment bonanza. But the scheme is controversial. The reason: the people who stand to profit from it. In Keszthely, Reuters has found, those first in line to capitalize are Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s friends and family.
Orban has earmarked more than $3 billion in public funds for tourism ventures across Hungary up to 2030, including more than $1.4 billion for Balaton, according to government announcements since March 2014. Most of the cash will come from Hungarian taxpayers. About 40 percent of the money for Balaton will come from the European Union, which gives funds to members to help lagging regions grow.
Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico gave in to public demand on Thursday and resigned his post. The outcry for Fico’s resignation has been growing since the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak, who had been investigation corruption in and around Fico’s government. His resignation seems to have been enough to keep Slovakia’s governing coalition from breaking apart, as President Andrej Kiska has tapped Deputy Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini to form a new government. It remains to be seen if that will be enough to quell protests–many protesters have been calling for early elections.
Thousands of Czech citizens have been protesting in Prague over President Miloš Zeman’s constant criticisms of the country’s independent media. Imagine that. These protesters also seem to have rallied around the Kuciak murder as a symbol of the importance of journalistic freedom.
Angela Merkel was sworn in for her fourth term as German chancellor on Wednesday. She’s been severely weakened by the results of last September’s election and the extended negotiating process that was needed to form a new governing coalition–which, as it happens, is just a repeat of the coalition that got throttled by voters in the election.
League leader Matteo Salvini has opened the door quite explicitly to the idea of forming a coalition with the Five Star Movement. He told reporters on Wednesday that he’s open to any coalition partners apart from the humiliated center-left Democratic Party. Many obstacles would make this arrangement difficult. First, both Salvini and Five Star boss Luigi Di Maio think they should be prime minister, and you can’t have two prime ministers. Second, Salvini has said he would not abandon the League’s partners in its center-right alliance, but the other parties in that bloc seem to be opposed to aligning with Five Star. Third, Di Maio is trying to recast the iconoclastic Five Star as a more moderate, responsible party that shouldn’t be categorized as “extremist,” and aligning with the far-right League would be a step backward in that respect.
Another unexploded World War II bomb was found this week, this time in the Italian town of Fano on the country’s Adriatic coast. The town was evacuated on Wednesday, and the 500 pound explosive was successfully excavated and dropped into the sea.
The leaders of France, Germany, the US, and the UK have condemned Russia for its part in the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and called on it to declare its chemical weapons programme.
In a rare joint statement on Thursday afternoon, the four nations made clear they share the view that there is “no plausible alternative explanation” other than Russia having planned and executed the attack
On Wednesday, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats in the UK, all of whom she classified as “undeclared intelligence agents.” That’s a huge number, especially considering that it represents nearly 40 percent of the known Russian diplomats in the UK currently. May announced other punitive measures including suspension of high-level British-Russian contacts, instituting customs checks on private Russian flights into the UK (which is inconvenient for the oligarchs), and potentially freezing Russian state assets. Moscow has promised to retaliate.
Even Donald Trump on Thursday grudgingly acknowledged that “it looks like the Russians were behind” the attack. Assuming they were, this is a genuinely serious situation. Nobody seems to have been killed, but the nerve agent they allegedly used is so potent that potentially anyone in the vicinity of the attack could have been at risk. It’s difficult to envision another suspect at this point because Russia is the only country known to have this particular agent, Novichok. On the other hand, why attack Skripal now, when his service as a British double agent is long since over? Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has argued that May is making accusations without waiting for evidence to support them, a charge that’s not winning him any friends but isn’t without merit.
The Peruvian Congress on Thursday voted to reopen an impeachment case against President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski over his alleged connection with the Odebrecht corruption scandal. Kuczynski survived an impeachment proceeding in December but it seems like he may be in real trouble this time. His poll numbers are so low that legislators are under some pressure to remove him from office, and the number of votes in favor of reopening the impeachment case, 87, just so happens to be the same number of votes that would be needed to convict him.
Colombian authorities arrested a Cuban national on Thursday for allegedly planning to carry out an ISIS-inspired plan to attack US diplomats.
In case you haven’t gotten wind of this yet, Donald Trump is a goddamn moron:
President Trump boasted in a fundraising speech Wednesday that he made up information in a meeting with the leader of a top U.S. ally, saying he insisted to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that the United States runs a trade deficit with its neighbor to the north without knowing whether that was true.
“Trudeau came to see me. He’s a good guy, Justin. He said, ‘No, no, we have no trade deficit with you, we have none. Donald, please,’ ” Trump said, mimicking Trudeau, according to audio of the private event in Missouri obtained by The Washington Post. “Nice guy, good-looking guy, comes in — ‘Donald, we have no trade deficit.’ He’s very proud because everybody else, you know, we’re getting killed.
“… So, he’s proud. I said, ‘Wrong, Justin, you do.’ I didn’t even know. … I had no idea. I just said, ‘You’re wrong.’ You know why? Because we’re so stupid. … And I thought they were smart. I said, ‘You’re wrong, Justin.’ He said, ‘Nope, we have no trade deficit.’ I said, ‘Well, in that case, I feel differently,’ I said, ‘but I don’t believe it.’ I sent one of our guys out, his guy, my guy, they went out, I said, ‘Check, because I can’t believe it.’
‘Well, sir, you’re actually right. We have no deficit, but that doesn’t include energy and timber. … And when you do, we lose $17 billion a year.’ It’s incredible.”
The US has a $12.5 billion trade surplus with Canada, for the record.
Where to even begin. First of all, a correction. I’ve been writing and talking about CIA Director-designate Gina Haspel based on a 2017 ProPublica article that identified her as the chief of a CIA black site prison in Thailand who was responsible for the repeated, sadistic torture of Abu Zubaydah. That ProPublica piece was wrong and has been retracted. Haspel did run the prison and was responsible for torturing prisoners and did participate in an Agency effort to destroy evidence related to the torture program, but she was not responsible for the treatment of Abu Zubaydah nor was she the person who said the chilling things that are cited in the ProPublica article.
The fallout from the Rex Tillerson sacking is still sorting itself out. European allies are hopeful that likely new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will be better able to speak for Donald Trump and, frankly, it’s hard to imagine he could be any less able to speak for Trump than Tillerson was. At the same time, they’re worried that Tillerson’s removal reduces the checks on Trump’s worst impulses, a concern that I continue to discount if only because I don’t believe Tillerson was able to function as a check anymore anyway. Workers at the State Department say they’re hopeful that Pompeo will be a better manager than Tillerson–again, it’s hard to imagine he could be any worse–but are worried that Pompeo’s politics are more hawkish than Tillerson’s–which they are, so fair enough.
The Washington Post reported Thursday evening that Trump has finally made the decision to rid himself of National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, but he’s waiting to find a way to let McMaster leave the job with some dignity intact (I think the horse has already left the barn on that one, but whatever) and to line up a successor. The two leading candidates are:
Several candidates have emerged as possible McMaster replacements, including John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Keith Kellogg, the chief of staff of the National Security Council.
Kellogg travels with Trump on many domestic trips, in part because the president likes his company and thinks he is fun. Bolton has met with Trump several times and often agrees with the president’s instincts. Trump also thinks Bolton, who regularly praises the president on Fox News Channel, is good on television.
Kellogg would be marginally better than Bolton if only because Bolton is legitimately one of the worst human beings on the planet, but Kellogg is a Michael Flynn guy so he wouldn’t be good either. On the other hand, at least Kellogg is already there, so his promotion wouldn’t be that big a change. Adding John Bolton to this administration is the stuff of nightmares.
Finally, UN ambassador Nikki Haley, an oft-forgotten but still important figure in the dumpster fire that is the Trump foreign policy team, is proposing to implement one of Bolton’s long-held ideals, that the US should index its foreign aid based on whether would-be recipients vote for and against it at the UN. It’s hard to overstate just how awful these people really are. Every time you think you have a handle on it they just sink lower.
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