Conflict update: March 15 2017

SECOND VERSE, SAME AS THE FIRST

Well, that was fast. Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban 2.0, which is totally not about religion, you guys, just got blocked by a federal judge in Hawaii for being, you know, pretty much about religion. In his ruling, District Judge Derek Watson in particular rejected one of the administration’s favorite arguments as to why their Muslim ban couldn’t possibly be a Muslim ban:

While the administration maintains the latest order is not a ban on Muslims, since it removes reference to religion and targets only a fraction of the world’s Muslim population, Watson questioned that argument, potentially setting the stage for other ongoing legal challenges even as he puts a nationwide halt on the implementation. It is undisputed, the judge said, that the six countries are overwhelmingly Muslim by population.

“The illogic of the Government’s contentions is palpable,” he wrote. “The notion that one can demonstrate animus toward any group of people only by targeting all of them at once is fundamentally flawed.”

Well sure, when you put it that way, but have you considered that SCARY TERRORISTS BAD BOGEYMAN EVIL ATTACK DANGER AFRAID?

I thought not.

Watson cited Trump’s own statements about the ban, and those of his closest advisers, as proof that it was intended to target Muslims, which adds a hilarious cherry on top of this very nice sundae. There’s obviously much more to come on this, and the fact that it happened just a short time ago, plus my obvious lack of being anything resembling a lawyer, are working against me right now. Stay tuned, is what I’m saying.

NETHERLANDS

I was going to lead with this until the ban ban–er, the banning of the ban, uh, the ban banning, whatever you get the point–happened. As it turns out, the Dutch people are not as susceptible to xenophobic white populism as voters in a certain global superpower I could name:

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s liberal party is set to win the most seats in the Netherlands’ elections, maintaining its status as the country’s largest political party for the third consecutive election, according to exit polls published by Dutch broadcaster NOS.

Dutch voters took to the polls on Wednesday in overwhelming numbers — the turnout was projected to be above 80%, the highest in 30 years — to back a mix of pro-EU, liberal and progressive parties over the far-right, anti-EU and anti-Islam Party for Freedom (PVV) of Geert Wilders — known as the “Dutch Trump”.

Wilders, who had become the subject of intense international media attention in the weeks running up to the election, appeared to win a humbling 13% of the vote and 19 seats, an increase on the previous election but below the party’s 2010 tally.

This is quite a result, because it suggests that Geert Wilders brought a whole bunch of new voters to the polls–to vote against him. I guess you could call it reverse populism.

So instead of Wilders’ reactionary far-right Party for Freedom governing the Netherlands, the regular far-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, led by current Prime Minister Mark Rutte, will continue governing it. As always though it will have to do so in coalition, and the secondary result of this vote, apart from Wilders’ surprising and frankly a little embarrassing performance, is that it’s going to be quite a task just forming a new coalition. Rutte’s party appears to have lost about ten seats in the next parliament, but more to the point his previous coalition partner, the center-left Labor Party, paid for its collaborative good nature by losing somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 seats. So instead of two parties, the next coalition will be a multi-party affair, with Rutte having to accommodate the right-wing Christian Democrats, the liberal D66 party, probably Labor again, and maybe the day’s apparent big winner…the Greens. Led by the Dutch Justin Trudeau, Jesse Klaver, GreenLeft appears to have quadrupled its seats in the next parliament, from four to 16. Now that’s populism.

IRAQ

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Conflict update: March 7 2017

WIKILEAKS

WikiLeaks, the organization whose involvement in the Edward Snowden affair, the Chelsea Manning affair, and last summer’s DNC/Podesta hack launched the careers of a thousand self-declared national security experts, has released a whole new batch of classified information, this time from the CIA:

The new documents appear to be from the CIA’s 200-strong Center for Cyber Intelligence and show in detail how the agency’s digital specialists engage in hacking. Monday’s leak of about 9,000 secret files, which WikiLeaks said was only the first tranche of documents it had obtained, were all relatively recent, running from 2013 to 2016.

The revelations in the documents include:

  • CIA hackers targeted smartphones and computers.
  • The Center for Cyber Intelligence, based at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, has a second covert base in the US consulate in Frankfurt which covers Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
  • A programme called Weeping Angel describes how to attack a Samsung F8000 TV set so that it appears to be off but can still be used for monitoring.

Boy am I glad we bought an LG. Well, maybe I should wait for the next tranche of documents to hit before I say that. Weeping Angel seems problematic, but to me the most troubling revelation is that the US intelligence community has been compiling zero day exploits in mobile device operating systems and then sharing those exploits with foreign intelligence services.

As was the case with the Snowden leaks, I expect the fallout from this leak to reverberate for months (particularly if this is only the first batch of documents) and to impact everything from intelligence gathering to America’s relationships with its allies. It’ll be a huge diplomatic test for an administration that has shown almost zero capacity for diplomacy thus far and a president who goes to DEFCON 2 when somebody contradicts him on “Morning Joe” and really hasn’t faced an actual crisis–at least, not one that wasn’t of his own making–yet.

MUSLIM BAN TAKE TWO

Offered without comment, because it would only be superfluous, here’s Slate’s Joshua Keating: Continue reading

Conflict update: March 6 2017

DO OVER

Donald Trump launched the world premiere of Muslim Ban, Episode 2: Attack of the Clods today, and, well, it hasn’t been struck down by a court yet so I guess that’s something.

trump_flicker_face_yess

Damn, Jar Jar Binks looks like shit

The revised travel ban removes Iraq from the list of proscribed nations altogether, so at least one country in which we currently have soldiers engaged in active combat will no longer have to feel like Trump just kicked it in its collective nuts. It also explicitly exempts travelers who already have valid visas, so there won’t be people stranded at the airport under this version of the ban. It’s less punitive with respect to Syrian refugees than the last ban was, as well–where the last ban suspended all refugee resettlement for 120 days but permanently suspended Syrian refugee resettlement, now Syrians will simply face the same 120 day ban as everybody else. The overall number of refugees the US accepts in a single year will be cut from “LOL, you can’t be serious” to “holy shit, is this a fucking joke,” though, so Syrian refugees–all refugees, really–still mostly won’t be allowed in.

Additionally, the new ban removes preferences for refugees who are “religious minorities” (i.e., Christians) in order to support its new claim that the ban is “not motivated by animus toward any religion.” That’s bullshit, of course, but because our legal system thrives on bullshit it may be enough to allow this ban to survive the inevitable court challenges. Instead of an overt religious ban, the new order requires federal agencies to compile special lists of crimes perpetrated by immigrants, making selection bias official federal policy. I’m sure that will be fine.

IRAQ

After a weekend in which most Iraqi offensive operations were shut down due to bad weather that affected visibility and the ability to use air power, things picked back up today. Iraqi forces were able to take the western end of the second of Mosul’s five bridges, which put them in position to partially encircle the main government complex in Mosul’s old city and which, once the bridge is repaired, give the Iraqis another way to bring soldiers and materiel in from east Mosul directly to the front lines. The Iraqis were able to take several other neighborhoods, though the focus right now remains on the old city and the government buildings there.

Iraqi federal police have taken a page out of ISIS’s playbook and are weaponizing store-bought quadcopter drones with makeshift bombs. I am, and maybe you are as well, conditioned to get the chills when somebody talks about weaponized drones because of the US drone program and its total disregard for small niceties like due process, civilian casualties, and national sovereignty. But in a situation like this–i.e., an active war zone–they may not be so bad. I have to say this made some sense to me:

Bellingcat analyst Nick Waters, who has been following the use of drones by Islamic State closely, told Motherboard that the drones actually have the capability to be more ethical than a normal weapon system.

“You get to see exactly what you’re shooting at, they’re surprisingly accurate (likely reducing civilian casualties) and when you only have one or two bombs you want to make sure you hit the target first time,” he told Motherboard via Twitter direct message.

“They’re better than firing a bunch of 107mm rockets into an area and hoping you hit something with ‘ISIS’ written on it,” Waters added.

Better still would be not introducing explosives into a situation where you aren’t 100 percent sure you’re only going to kill ISIS fighters, but that standard will never get used. Given the choice between weaponized drones and an artillery barrage, I can see how the drone really might be the more ethical choice.

UPDATE: Just before I hit “post,” Reuters reported that Iraqi special forces have taken the main government building in west Mosul after an early Tuesday morning (damn time zones) assault.

SYRIA

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Conflict update: February 9 2017

Just by way of an update, there’s a pretty good chance this place will be quiet tomorrow. I’m traveling again and, well, I might just feel like crashing afterwards. That’s also why this is posting a few hours earlier than I usually post these updates.

#ThanksTrump

As the Trump administration decides how to proceed now that its Muslim immigration ban looks truly kaput, it’s also preparing to begin the mass deportations called for in its other big immigration EO (the one about the “wall”). The Intercept has some excellent reporting on what’s about to happen and the ramifications that it will entail.

In a phone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump reportedly referred to the 2010 New START nuclear arms control treaty as a “bad deal” for the US and refused Putin’s offer to extend it. OK, I mean, Trump is entitled to his opinion, but I have to say I’d feel better about this if sources who were involved in the call didn’t later report that, after Putin brought New START up, Trump had to “ask his aides in an aside what the treaty was.” Or, also, if Trump hadn’t made it abundantly clear during the 2016 campaign that he had no idea what New START was or what it did, despite his firm conviction that it was a terrible deal.

Eight countries–the Netherlands, Canada, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Luxembourg, Finland, and Cape Verde–have signed on to a joint effort to counter the Trump administration’s “gag rule” that prevents US-funded NGOs from providing women around the world with information on abortion.

Ted Malloch, the favorite to be named US Ambassador to the European Union, apparently doesn’t like the EU very much, which suggests he’ll do really well in that job, assuming he gets it. After all, former UN Ambassador John Bolton hated the UN, and he…oh, right. In Malloch’s case, one wonders how long Brussels is going to tolerate the Trump administration’s increasingly obvious desire to break the EU up.

Israel-Palestine

Benjamin Netanyahu’s government seems acutely aware that the recent passage of a bill legalizing the annexation of private Palestinian land by Israeli settlers is problematic, to say the least. That’s why they’ve drawn up some helpful talking points for settlement defenders, chock full of grade A bullshit about how the law was the only “fair” solution to the problem of these poor, benighted Israeli families, whose only crime was the literal theft of land belonging to somebody else (the dehumanization of actual Palestinians being a cornerstone of this particular bill). Defenders are also supposed to stress that the legal Palestinian owners of the land will be “fairly compensated,” which kind of elides the fact that many of them don’t want to be “compensated” at all, they just want their land. Here’s the interesting bit, though:

Israeli journalist and commentator Yossi Melman, who revealed the list Thursday in a column for Israeli newspaper Maariv, noted some peculiarities with the arguments, however.

For starters, he wrote, there is no mention of Netanyahu’s support for the law. Initially, the prime minister opposed the legislation, because he understood there would be immediate global criticism. Failing to mention Netanyahu, Melman said, “reinforces the assessment” that the prime minister and some of his ministers voted in favor of the law out of fear of upsetting right-wing voters.

The memo also suggests the government is “pinning its hopes on the Supreme Court to save Israel from the international isolation that the law is liable to cause.” The arguments allow diplomats to tell Israel’s critics not to get too frantic about the law because it will be knocked down in the court.

There is considerable evidence suggesting that Netanyahu wants the court to save him, not the least of which is that he was against the annexation bill before he was for it.

A Palestinian attacker wounded six Israelis in a market in the central Israeli town of Petah Tikva today. In Gaza, an Israeli (presumably, though they seem to be denying it) airstrike on part of the city’s tunnel network reportedly killed two civilians, and the al-Mezan Center for Human Rights is sounding alarm bells about the possibility of a new large-scale Israeli military offensive in Gaza.

Syria

The AP is beginning to wonder how there can be a ceasefire in Syria when fighting has continued mostly unabated in Idlib, Homs, Hama, areas around Damascus, al-Bab, Palmyra, areas around Raqqa, Deir Ezzor…well, you get the idea. It’s a good question, but I can assure you that there’s a perfectly understandable answer, which is that [trails off incoherently].

Turkish forces and their Free Syrian Army proxies reportedly continue to push in to al-Bab. I’ve seen scattered reports of minor fighting between the Turkish/FSA army and Syrian government/allied forces moving toward al-Bab from the south, but for the most part it seems that whatever Russia-brokered accommodation the two sides have reached is holding. Speaking of which, three Turkish soldiers were reportedly killed earlier today in an “accidental” Russian airstrike, which I suppose counts as “friendly fire” now because this war has gone through the looking glass about a dozen times since it began.

Hashem al-Shaykh, a leader of the new Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham rebel coalition, says that his organization is going to step up its attacks on Syrian government forces. Tahrir al-Sham was formed in the midst of the intra-rebel fighting that gripped Idlib a couple of weeks back, and includes Jabhat Fatah al-Sham as well as the forces that opted to take its side rather than merge with the remaining elements of Ahrar al-Sham. This announcement could be an attempt to signal that it’s going to try to move past its conflict with Ahrar al-Sham and get back to fighting the government.

Iraq

I want to reiterate that, in addition to these posts, you should be reading Joel Wing’s daily Mosul updates. He goes into considerably more detail than I’m able to do and draws on Iraqi Arabic media, which I could probably do if you were willing to get my February 9 update sometime in April. Today’s update covers what’s happening in Mosul so thoroughly that I’m just going to quote him:

A commander from the Golden Division told the press that IS had no presence in east Mosul, and yet sleeper cells continue to be found along with infiltrations and continuous shelling and drone strikes. General Saadi Maan stated that the insurgents were no longer in liberated sections of Mosul. He did acknowledge that there were infiltrators. Five IS fighters were killed trying to sneak into the Rashidiya neighborhood in the northern tip of the city. In nearby Darkazlia searches led to a firefight with 16 IS being killed, and 17 arrested including 2 suicide bombers. Several more insurgents were discovered trying to cross the Tigris into east Mosul and were wiped out. Drone attacks, mortar fire, and rockets on eleven neighborhoods left 45 dead and 21 wounded. There are gun battles with militants almost every day now in east Mosul. The government has warned about sleeper cells and IS fighters who disappeared into the general population. The Iraqi forces (ISF) are attempting to root them out with raids and searches throughout the city. At the same time, IS is shelling and launching drone strikes causing more and more casualties. This is leading to continued displacement from Mosul.

IS’s main activity in west Mosul was maintaining control. It burned ten people on charges of helping the Iraqi forces. It raided the New Mosul neighborhood looking for phones, and when they found them people were shot. Another five civilians were executed for trying to flee across the Tigris River. Their bodies were strung up to scare others.

The Iraqi ministry says that it’s extinguished all but five of the 25 oil well fires that ISIS set when it fled Qayyara in advance of the Iraqi offensive. The environmental damage caused by those fires will take substantially longer to dissipate.

Iran

The Washington Post is reporting that “senior defense and intelligence officials” are trying to talk the Trump administration down from its plan to designate the entire Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization. They’re concerned, as you might imagine, with the myriad consequences related to an action that would be akin to some other country declaring the entire US Marine Corps a terrorist force. The State Department’s FTO status was never supposed to be used this way and has never been applied to a state actor.

Egypt

Abdel Fatah el-Sisi’s government, the one with which the Trump administration seems so enamored, raided and shut down the offices of the Al-Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence in Cairo today. Ostensibly the center is under investigation for accepting illegal foreign funds. Practically, it was shut down because it works to counter the Sisi government’s often brutal and systematic human rights abuses.

Yemen

Military analyst James Spencer has an interesting analysis at LobeLog of that (alleged) Yemeni rebel suicide attack on a Saudi frigate on January 30. I say (alleged) because, while it’s clear that an attack occurred and it’s pretty likely that the rebels were behind it, Spencer makes a pretty compelling argument that it was a missile attack, not a suicide attack. We know the Yemeni rebels have used anti-ship missiles before, and the video of the attack suggests, at least to Spencer, that the explosion happened too far above the water line to have been caused by a bomber on a boat. He believes the Saudis manufactured the tale about a suicide bomber to cover for the fact that they weren’t employing standard anti-missile defenses despite sailing in waters known to be vulnerable to rebel anti-ship missiles.

Afghanistan

General John Nicholson, the US commander in Afghanistan, told Congress today that he needs “a few thousand” more troops to properly carry out his mission to train, advise, and assist the Afghan military. He suggested that NATO allies could provide some of those troops, but I’m not sure he made a convincing case that a few thousand more Western troops will be enough to change the course of a war that has clearly turned in the Taliban’s favor. The Russian Foreign Ministry, always trying to be helpful, said today that Moscow is ready to cooperate with NATO in Afghanistan.

India-Pakistan

Today the Pakistani government accused India of building a “nuclear city” where it will manufacture nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, and of organizing terrorist attacks in Pakistan. India, as you might guess, denies these accusations.

Myanmar

A Malaysian ship loaded with aid intended for the Rohingya arrived in Yangon today, where it was welcomed by a crowd of Buddhist protesters carrying signs reading “NO ROHINGYA.” Because there are no Rohingya. Don’t believe your lying eyes. Anyway, the burden is now on the Myanmar government to deliver the aid.

Philippines

The New People’s Army engaged in a number of small attacks today while criticizing President Rodrigo Duterte for ending his government’s peace talks with the Communist rebel group.

China

This is fine, everything is fine, nothing to worry about:

A U.S. Navy P-3 plane and a Chinese military aircraft came close to each other over the South China Sea in an incident the Navy believes was inadvertent, a U.S. official told Reuters on Thursday.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the aircraft came within 1,000 feet (305 meters) of each other on Wednesday in the vicinity of the Scarborough Shoal, between the Philippines and the Chinese mainland.

Libya

The so-called Libyan National Army of Khalifa Haftar attacked an air base near the central Libyan city of Jufra. Jufra is controlled by Misratan militias that are opposed to Haftar and the GNA and (at least nominally) aligned with the Government of National Accord. Speaking of which, the General National Congress appears to be forming some kind of armed guard force in Tripoli that could be used to “secure” (i.e., kick the GNA out of) government facilities.

The Gambia

The new Gambian government announced today that it will reverse Yahya Jammeh’s plan to withdraw from the International Criminal Court. This is an interesting development insofar as, only a few days ago, the African Union passed a non-binding resolution calling on all its member states to withdraw from the ICC. But it is potentially good news for the ICC, obviously.

Nigeria

Read this piece on life in the Niger Delta. Just read it.

Greece

Hey, Brexit, don’t get too comfortable. The original, uh, rexit (?) hasn’t gone anywhere. That’s right, I’m talking Grexit, baby. The short version is that Greece’s economy is still in the shit, and with the new state of the world being what it is (including that new American president who really seems to want to break the EU up), Germany’s hard line on austerity seems likely to only get harder. Of course, one of the other thing’s that’s changed since last time we visited with Grexit is that the refugee situation has gotten worse. Tossing Greece from the EU will make it substantially more difficult for the EU to cope with a problem it’s already not really coping with as it is.

Romania

As expected, Romanian Justice Minister (well, ex-Justice Minister) Florin Iordache resigned today over his role in the recent anti-anti-corruption decree that has caused so much public outcry. Almost as predictably, the government Iordache just left is trying to play the xenophobia card, defending itself by arguing that there are foreigners among the crowds of protesters. Sorin Grindeanu’s Social Democratic Party is center-left on economics but apparently has a strong if a bit incongruous nationalist streak that is now on ugly display.

Meanwhile, the Russian government said today that it considers Romania a “clear threat,” which is really just what the Romanian people need right now.

Russia

Russia’s RIA news agency quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Meshkov today saying that recent NATO deployments in Eastern Europe are seen by Moscow as a “threat.”

An analysis by the State Department’s top economist finds that targeted US sanctions have worked as intended, hurting the oligarchs surrounding Russian President Vladimir Putin while mostly leaving the rest of the Russian economy (which is weak nonetheless because of cheap oil) untouched. What the Trump administration will do with these findings, and the sanctions, is unclear.

Radio Free Europe and Voice of America are launching a new Russian language news outlet, Current Time, that looks like it will basically be the opposite of RT America.

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Conflict update: February 7 2017

OK, so…this could get long. Sorry. That’s what happens when I’m away for a few days.

#ThanksTrump

I almost feel like I should start each of these with a quick roundup of the miscellaneous ways Donald Trump is fucking up around the world. For example:

  • When President Trump makes a formal state visit to the UK later this year, there’s a good chance he will be denied the honor of speaking to parliament. House of Commons Speaker John Bercow says that he will block any Trump address to the body, something about Trump’s “racism” and “sexism,” which…well, he’s got a point there. Bercow can’t entirely block Trump from speaking to parliament, because the speaker of the House of Lords also gets a say, but his unendorsement (?) should carry a pretty heavy implication.
  • Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei “thanked” Trump, in a speech he delivered on Tuesday, for “showing the reality of American human rights” through his immigration ban. Which…well, he’s got a point there.
  • ISIS is also undoubtedly very happy about President Trump and his immigration ban. Anything that makes Muslims feel unwelcome in the United States, or pits America against Islam generally speaking, is good for ISIS, and this immigration order, coupled with Trump’s rhetoric, certainly does both. Which, and if I can I may write more about this tomorrow, is probably the Trump administration’s point. I think Steve Bannon and Michael Flynn welcome a War On Islam and will happily feed into ISIS propaganda because that will ultimately help fuel their propaganda.

Trump’s War on Islam

The New York Times is reporting that the Trump administration is considering two new foreign terrorist designations, and they’re both massive escalations of Trump’s War on Islam: the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Designation the Muslim Brotherhood as an FTO would allow the Trump administration to shut down large numbers of Islamic charities and mosques all over the United States, because so many Islamic organizations have ties to some variant of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is not a monolithic organization and most of its branches behave as peaceful political entities. Yes, it is an Islamist organization, and its historical record on violence is checkered, but for the most part since the 1970s it has been a political Islamist organization, and as such it has been an important outlet for conservative Muslims to find their political voice without resorting to violence. Designating it a terrorist organization would materially aid more extremist organizations, including ISIS and al-Qaeda (which, again, is probably part of Trump’s goal), and would greatly complicate relations with allies like Turkey (the Justice and Development Party is closely aligned with several Brotherhood chapters) and Qatar.

Designating the IRGC as an FTO could fundamentally undermine the Iran nuclear deal without technically touching it, which again is probably Trump’s goal. Anyone, American or otherwise, found to have dealings with an organization related to any FTO can be subject to civil and criminal penalties in the US. The IRGC has its tentacles woven throughout the Iranian economy, such that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for any foreign investor trying to do business in Iran to avoid dealing with the IRGC entirely. So any investors/businesses that value being able to operate in the US are going to have a hard time investing in Iran, which drastically cuts into the benefits Iran gets from sanctions relief.

Iraq

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Irredeemable

It’s challenging for me to write about things like Donald Trump’s immigration executive order, which has by now gone through so many clarifications and legal challenges that it’s hard to say exactly what it is beyond red meat to his terrified white nationalist base. My instinct is to talk about policy on the merits–in terms of its likely effects, chances of success, that sort of thing–in addition to or sometimes (I have to work on this) instead of talking about its moral ramifications. And the problem with policies like this immigration ban is that to talk about them on the merits is in some sense to legitimize them as rational and even defensibly moral policy choices. George Bush’s torture–er, enhanced interrogation, sorry–program presented a similar choice. Should opponents talk about the fact that torture doesn’t work, or does even allowing that such a discussion could take place cede too much moral ground?

So let’s be clear: there is no moral justification for this policy. Continue reading

Reaping the whirlwind

I’d be offended at Iowa audiences calling Bobby Jindal an “anchor baby” (he’s not) if the whole “anchor baby” phenomenon weren’t a product of the dankest parts of the right-wing conspiracy fever swamp that Jindal and his fellow Republicans have been cultivating for the past four decades plus. But as it is, I can’t feel too badly about Governor Jindal having to lie down in the bed he’s helped make.

"I'm not an anchor baby! Now, about those Muslim "no-go zones"...

“I am not an anchor baby! Now, about those Muslim “no-go zones“…

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