Thursday

How difficult would it be to repeal the Second Amendment?



Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens called for the repeal of the Second Amendment on Tuesday, wading into the charged political debate over gun control that was reignited by several mass shootings in recent months.

It’s a familiar appeal from the 97-year old jurist, who was named to the bench by President Gerald Ford in 1975 and retired in 2010. But Stevens renewed his plea in an op-ed in the New York Times, three days after activists staged massive gun control demonstrations in Washington, D.C., and in other cities around the country and world over the weekend. Stevens praised the protesters for demanding reforms to current gun laws, but said they should go further.

“The demonstrators should seek more effective and more lasting reform. They should demand a repeal of the Second Amendment,” Stevens wrote.

Repealing the amendment, Stevens said, would effectively overturn the controversial 2008 Supreme Court ruling D.C. v. Heller, which found that the Second Amendment protected “an individual right to possess a firearm” for the purpose of self-defense.

In his op-ed, Stevens, who dissented in the 5-4 decision, wrote that the ruling gave the National Rifle Association “a propaganda weapon of immense power.”

He added: “Overturning that decision via a constitutional amendment to get rid of the Second Amendment would be simple and would do more to weaken the NRA’s ability to stymie legislative debate and block constructive gun control legislation than any other available option.”

So, what would the process of repealing the Second Amendment actually look like?

For starters, it would require the ratification of another amendment. This isn’t an easy step, but it’s been done before: After the U.S. prohibited alcohol sales in the 18th Amendment, the country later repealed the controversial amendment about a decade and a half later, with the 21st amendment.

There are two pathways for proposing another amendment. In the first scenario, Congress proposes an amendment with a two-thirds majority vote in the House and Senate.

The other option is for two-thirds of state legislatures — that’s 34 states — to call a constitutional convention. In both scenarios, three-fourths of the states — 38 states — would have to give their stamp of approval to ratify the proposed amendment.

So far, however, none of the 27 amendments to the Constitution have come out of the constitutional convention process. And remember in its 223-year lifespan, the Constitution has been amended only 27 times. The last amendment, concerning U.S. legislators’ salaries, was ratified in 1992.

What’s next?

The social media reaction to Stevens’ suggestion was swift.

Some scholars noted that Stevens’ op-ed could be counterproductive to legislative efforts to regulate guns, which would have broader public support than repealing the Second Amendment. While only about a fifth of Americans support repealing the Second Amendment, according to a February Economist/YouGov poll, about 60 percent of those polled said they favored stricter gun laws.

“To frame it as we can only have gun regulations if we repeal the #2Amendment” is not only wrong as a matter of constitutional text & history but also sets the movement up for failure,” the legal expert Elizabeth Wydra tweeted.
 
Josh Chafetz, a professor at Cornell Law School, said that Democrats could focus their energy instead on winning back the White House and Senate. Then, they could “appoint judges who share Stevens’s views and who will therefore narrow and eventually overturn Heller,” Chafetz wrote in a tweet. .

In a statement Tuesday, NRA Executive Director Chris Cox called Stevens’ proposal a “radical idea.”

Stevens’ arguments is evidence that “the gun-control lobby is no longer distancing themselves from the radical idea of repealing the Second Amendment and banning all firearms,” Cox said.

Wednesday

Jimmy Carter calls Donald Trump’s decision to appoint John Bolton his ‘worst mistake’



Former President Jimmy Carter criticized President Donald Trump’s decision to appoint John Bolton as his national security adviser, telling the PBS NewsHour in an interview Monday that it was Mr. Trump’s “worst mistake” since taking office.

Bolton, who served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush, “has been very eager to go to war with different people including North Korea and Iran,” Mr. Carter told NewsHour anchor and managing editor Judy Woodruff.

Trump announced last week that Bolton would take over for national security adviser H.R. McMaster in April. The shakeup followed Trump’s decision earlier this month to oust Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and replace him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo.

Pompeo must be confirmed by the Senate to lead the State Department; Bolton’s appointment does not require Senate confirmation. Trump’s nomination to replace Pompeo, Gina Haspel, will also requires Senate confirmation. The deputy CIA director, a 30-year veteran of the agency, will likely be questioned during her hearings for her role in enhanced interrogation techniques and destroying tapes of those tactics.

Democrats have warned that Bolton and Pompeo’s ascension marks a sharp turn to the right in U.S. foreign policy. Carter joined the chorus of critics, saying that he was skeptical the U.S. could convince North Korea to give up its nuclear program with Bolton in a top White House post. “I just have very little confidence in him,” Carter said of Bolton.

Carter said he believed the U.S. was on a path to “nuclear confrontation” with North Korea, and warned that Trump “doesn’t realize the threat that he faces” if the two nations go to war. Carter added that “the North Korean issue may be the most difficult we face at this point.”

Trump agreed earlier this month to meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un sometime in May, though a date has not officially been set. Carter said he offered to help Trump resolve the issue, including flying to North Korea to help broker an agreement. The former president said he has been briefed on North Korea by Trump administration officials but didn’t say if his offer had been accepted.

Carter, who is now 93, has remained active on the world stage and met with foreign leaders since leaving the White House in 1981. He visited North Korea in 2011 as part of an effort to calm tensions between North and South Korea. The former president also visited in 1994 and 2010.

Tuesday

Three thoughts about the meaning of John Bolton

It's all on the foreign policy hawks now.






The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts did not have a positive initial reaction to the news that President Trump would name John Bolton to replace H.R. McMaster as national security adviser.
One of the advantages of having a couple of days to mull over the news is to read the takes of other, really smart people on Bolton’s new job.
Now that I have digested the news, I have three thoughts:
1) Bolton will be the most powerful national security adviser Trump has had. There are conflicting accounts of how Bolton will run the National Security Council. The Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe reports that Bolton sees himself more in the Henry Kissinger imperialist mode of running the NSC. On the other hand, Axios’s Jonathan Swan suggests that Bolton will play a more restrained honest broker role: “Bolton has always admired the way Brent Scowcroft handled the interagency process during the Bush 41 Administration.”
As I’ll suggest below, this is a distinction without a difference. What really matters is that Bolton will have tremendous power over Trump’s foreign policy for three reasons. First, Trump does not know a lot about foreign policy. He’s a year into the job, and he hasn’t budged an inch down the learning curve. As Elizabeth Saunders has noted, unprepared presidents automatically give greater latitude to their subordinates.

Second, Bolton knows far more about the policymaking process than either Michael T. Flynn or McMaster. As someone who possesses genuine foreign affairs experience and has a reputation for being a bureaucratic street fighter, Bolton will be a better bureaucratic player than either of his predecessors.

Third, by the standards of the traditional NSC-State rivalry, the State Department is severely weakened. Foggy Bottom is hemorrhaging senior staff and in leadership limbo until Mike Pompeo is confirmed. Unless Bolton burns to the ground the staff he inherits (an admitted possibility) he has a serious home-field advantage.

2) It’s all on the hawks now. The idea that Bolton will act as an honest broker implies that there will be divergent points of view within the national security team. The White House turnover of the past month has homogenized its foreign policy perspectives, however. Gary Cohn is gone, and his replacement is a non-factor on foreign policy questions. Mike Pompeo is much more of a hawk than Rex Tillerson. Bolton is way more hawkish than McMaster. Jim Mattis is the most dovish member of this foreign policy team, and this is a guy who was sidelined by the Obama administration for being too hawkish on Iran.

For foreign policy hawks, this will be the best of times and the worst of times. It will be the best of times because they are running the entire foreign policy show now. There is no bureaucratic constraint, no countervailing faction, no informed president to block their moves. They have no more impediments. For decades, they have fantasized about the right ways to take out Iran, defang North Korea and checkmate China. Trump has given them the keys to the kingdom.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that none of these problems is easy. If the hawks worsen the situation, they will have no one to blame but themselves. Of course, they will blame their predecessors anyway, but you get my meaning.

3) Maybe, just maybe, Trump has found a way to signal resolve. To put it bluntly, Trump has developed a reputation for being a man of hollow words and feeble actions. This month, he blustered a ton about applying steel and aluminum tariffs widely, and then backed down and exempted an awful lot of countries with no evidence of any real concessions on their part. This past Friday, Trump threatened to veto the omnibus spending bill and shut down the government and then did no such thing. No one should take anything this White House says at face value.

If Trump’s words don’t matter, that’s a problem for his foreign policy. How can he communicate resolve on the global stage? One way is to hire new people with known brands, and the one thing Bolton has is a brand. It’s a somewhat toxic brand that renders him Senate-unconfirmable. It’s possible that he’ll run into security clearance issues. But while he’s around, he sends a clearer signal than Trump’s chicken-hawk rhetoric. As Matt Fay notes, “After this appointment, anyone who thought Donald Trump was the ‘dove’ in the 2016 election should have his or her pundit and/or analyst card revoked.”

I am under no illusions that Trump intended to do this as a way of signaling resolve. He does not possess that forethought. But that does not mean the signal hasn’t been sent. I am pessimistic that this will lead to better coercive bargaining in the near future. But at least we will all see whether this is true. Because — remember — it’s all on the hawks now.

I fear that my initial reaction will be proved correct. But I hope that I am wrong.

Friday

Who is John Bolton, Trump's new national security adviser?

The former UN ambassador under George W Bush and a notorious hawk, Bolton has called for bombing Iran and North Kore.
 The Guardian

John Bolton, the incoming national security adviser, will have the ear of Donald Trump at a perilously fraught moment in world affairs.

A notorious hawk who advocates the unilateral wielding of US might, Bolton is dismissive of international diplomacy, and has called for the bombing of both Iran and North Korea.

The departure of HR McMaster, who was credited by some as being a moderating force on the president, and his replacement by one of the most aggressive thinkers in the world of US foreign policy, will spread fear in diplomatic circles that the Trump administration could be poised to take a dramatic hawkish turn.

The shuffle comes as Washington is already bracing itself for the potential of imminent face-to-face talks between Trump and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un over the regime’s development of nuclear weapons.

Bolton, who will leave his post as a senior fellow at the rightwing American Enterprise Institute to join the White House on 9 April, has made clear his preference for how to deal with North Korea – bomb it. Last month he wrote an opinion column for the Wall Street Journal in which he made a legal case for a pre-emptive strike.

“It is perfectly legitimate for the United States to respond to the current ‘necessity’ posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons by striking first,” he wrote.

The former ambassador, whose basic approach to diplomacy is summed up in the title of his book Surrender is Not an Option, has made a similarly combative case for Iran. He was scathing of Barack Obama’s attempt to deal with Tehran’s nuclear program through negotiation, writing in the New York Times in 2015 that only bombing by the US and Israel would take out Iran’s uranium-enrichment installations and prevent disaster.

The mustachioed Bolton has had a long, frequently controversial career in government. He held senior positions in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and the elder George Bush, where he led successful US opposition to joining the international criminal court and made a strident attempt to block the introduction of stronger global controls on biological weapons.

He came to prominence as a household name under George W Bush who appointed him to be the US ambassador to the UN in 2005, when the Iraq war was still blazing. To put Bolton at the heart of the US relationship with the community of nations was contentious, to say the least, as he made little attempt to disguise his deep-seated contempt for the world body.

He once noted if that if the 38-floor UN building in New York “lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference”. His other legendary remark was that “there is no United Nations. There is an international community that occasionally can be led by the only real power left in the world, and that’s the United States, when it suits our interests.”

Bolton’s arrival in the inner sanctum of the Trump presidency has been a long time coming. Michael Wolff revealed in his inside account of the White House, Fire and Fury, that Trump’s former senior counselor Steve Bannon had urged the president to hire Bolton.

So too did the late Fox News executive, Roger Ailes. “He’s a bomb thrower,” Ailes said last year, according to Wolff. “And a strange little fucker. But you need him.”
Trump seems now to have come round to that way of thinking.

Trump’s Business of Corruption

What secrets will Mueller find when he investigates the President’s foreign deals?


President Donald Trump’s attorney Jay Sekulow recently told me that the investigation being led by Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed by the Justice Department, should focus on one question: whether there was “coördination between the Russian government and people on the Trump campaign.” Sekulow went on, “I want to be really specific. A real-estate deal would be outside the scope of legitimate inquiry.” If he senses “drift” in Mueller’s investigation, he said, he will warn the special counsel’s office that it is exceeding its mandate. The issue will first be raised “informally,” he noted. But if Mueller and his team persist, Sekulow said, he might lodge a formal objection with the Deputy Attorney General, Rod Rosenstein, who has the power to dismiss Mueller and end the inquiry. President Trump has been more blunt, hinting to the Times that he might fire Mueller if the investigation looks too closely at his business dealings.

Several news accounts have confirmed that Mueller has indeed begun to examine Trump’s real-estate deals and other business dealings, including some that have no obvious link to Russia. But this is hardly wayward. It would be impossible to gain a full understanding of the various points of contact between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign without scrutinizing many of the deals that Trump has made in the past decade. Trump-branded buildings in Toronto and the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan were developed in association with people who have connections to the Kremlin. Other real-estate partners of the Trump Organization—in Brazil, India, Indonesia, and elsewhere—are now caught up in corruption probes, and, collectively, they suggest that the company had a pattern of working with partners who exploited their proximity to political power.

One foreign deal, a stalled 2011 plan to build a Trump Tower in Batumi, a city on the Black Sea in the Republic of Georgia, has not received much journalistic attention. But the deal, for which Trump was reportedly paid a million dollars, involved unorthodox financial practices that several experts described to me as “red flags” for bank fraud and money laundering; moreover, it intertwined his company with a Kazakh oligarch who has direct links to Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin. As a result, Putin and his security services have access to information that could put them in a position to blackmail Trump. (Sekulow said that “the Georgia real-estate deal is something we would consider out of scope,” adding, “Georgia is not Russia.”)

The waterfront lot where the Trump Tower Batumi was supposed to be built remains empty. A groundbreaking ceremony was held five years ago, but no foundation has been dug. Trump removed his name from the project shortly before assuming the Presidency; the Trump Organization called this “normal housekeeping.” When the tower was announced, in March, 2011, it was the centerpiece of a bold plan to transform Batumi from a seedy port into a glamorous city. But the planned high-rise—forty-seven stories containing lavish residences, a casino, and expensive shops—was oddly ambitious for a town that had almost no luxury housing.

Trump did very little to develop the Batumi property. The project was a licensing deal from which he made a quick profit. In exchange for the million-dollar payment, he granted the right to use his name, and he agreed to visit Georgia for an elaborate publicity campaign, which was designed to promote Georgia’s President at the time, Mikheil Saakashvili, as a business-oriented reformer who could attract Western financiers. The campaign was misleading: the Trump Tower Batumi was going to be funded not by Trump but by businesses with ties to Kazakh oligarchs, including Timur Kulibayev, the son-in-law of Kazakhstan’s autocratic ruler, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and a close ally of Putin.

Kazakhstan has the largest economy in Central Asia, based on its vast reserves of oil and metals, among other natural resources. Kazakhstan is notoriously corrupt, and much of its wealth is in the hands of Nazarbayev’s extended family and his favored associates.

Trump visited Georgia in April, 2012, at a politically vulnerable time for Saakashvili. Nine years earlier, Saakashvili had led the Rose Revolution, which overturned the country’s autocratic post-Soviet leadership. After assuming power, he initially cracked down on widespread petty corruption and cleaned up the civil service, which had functioned largely on bribes. Then, in 2008, he led a disastrous war against Russia over control of the breakaway region of South Ossetia. By then, his fight against corruption had largely ceased, and Transparency International and other N.G.O.s were reporting that élite corruption—in which wealthy, politically connected people receive better treatment from courts, prosecutors, and government administrators—was rampant in Georgia. Under these conditions, few Western investors or brands were willing to put money into the country. Saakashvili himself was increasingly unpopular, and the Trump deal was meant to help salvage his reputation.

Saakashvili showed Trump around Tbilisi, the capital, and Batumi. Georgian television covered the events fawningly, promising viewers that Trump would soon build a second tower, in Tbilisi. One broadcaster proclaimed that Trump was the world’s top developer. At the groundbreaking ceremony in Batumi, Saakashvili said that the tower was “a big deal . . . that changes everything around here.” At another event, beneath a banner that proclaimed “trump invests in georgia,” he thanked Trump for being part of the project—which, he said, had a budget of two hundred and fifty million dollars. He also awarded Trump the Georgian Order of Brilliance. Trump, in turn, praised Saakashvili.

“Everybody in the world, they speak of Georgia and the great miracle that’s taking place,” he said.
Upon returning home, Trump appeared on “Fox and Friends.” Gretchen Carlson, the host at the time, asked him, “What are you going to be investing in?” He responded, “I’m doing a big development there—and it’s been amazing.” He said of Saakashvili, “He’s one of the great leaders of the world.”

Virtually none of the things that Saakashvili and Trump said about the deal were true. The budget of the Trump Tower Batumi was not two hundred and fifty million dollars but a hundred and ten. Trump, meanwhile, could hardly have invested such a sum himself. He professed to be a billionaire, but a few months earlier an appeals court in New Jersey had shut down Trump’s legal campaign against Timothy O’Brien, the author of “TrumpNation,” which argued that Trump had wildly inflated his fortune, and was actually worth less than a quarter of a billion dollars. Julie George, a political scientist at Queens College who studies Georgia, told me that, by 2012, Saakashvili’s tenure could in no way be considered a “great miracle.” The country’s economy was floundering, and shortly after Trump’s visit it was revealed that the government had been torturing political opponents. (Saakashvili did not respond to requests for comment.)

The announcement of the Batumi tower was handled with cynical opportunism by both Trump and Saakashvili, but that was not the deal’s biggest problem. The developer that had paid Trump and invited him to Georgia—a holding company known as the Silk Road Group—had been funded by a bank that was enmeshed in a giant money-laundering scandal. And Trump, it seemed, had not asked many questions before taking the money.

Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1991, Batumi had been a popular resort town, but by the early aughts it had fallen into disrepair. Its beachfront hotels housed refugees from the nearby Abkhazia region, which had broken away from Georgia in 1992. Batumi was the capital of the semiautonomous Adjara region, which was itself on the verge of declaring independence. Saakashvili saw the redevelopment of Batumi as critical for maintaining Georgian sovereignty there. Batumi residents promised to turn the city into the Monaco of the Black Sea.

But nobody seemed willing to put money into Batumi. Levan Varshalomidze, the governor of Adjara at the time, told me that Saakashvili and other Georgian officials sought financial backers, but they could not get anyone to invest in a run-down Georgian port.

Then, in 2005, something remarkable happened. Saakashvili and President Nazarbayev, of neighboring Kazakhstan, announced that B.T.A. Bank—the largest bank in Kazakhstan—was giving several hundred million dollars in loans to help develop Georgia. The loans would pay for the construction of hotels in Batumi, the expansion of the Georgian telecommunications industry, and the growth of a Georgian bank. Curiously, all the loans went to subsidiaries of one company: the Silk Road Group, which specialized not in real-estate development but in shipping crude- and refined-oil products, by rail, from Kazakhstan to other countries. Its senior executives had very little experience in telecommunications, banking, or hospitality. The Silk Road Group, which had annual revenues of roughly two hundred million dollars, was planning, in an instant, to venture into several new industries. Compounding the risk, this expansion involved taking on a debt one and a half times its annual revenue.

That wasn’t the only puzzling thing about the loans. At the time that B.T.A. was lending all this money to the Silk Road Group, the bank’s deputy chairman, Yerkin Tatishev, was apparently crossing an ethical line—positioning himself to exert improper influence over some of the very Silk Road Group subsidiaries that were benefitting from the loans. B.T.A. Bank had representatives on the boards of those subsidiaries, but one representative serving on two boards, Talgat Turumbayev, was simultaneously working for Tatishev’s company, the Kusto Group, supervising mergers and acquisitions. (Turumbayev told me that serving on the boards wasn’t a conflict of interest, because it didn’t take “a lot of time.”)

I spoke with people who had knowledge about the subsidiaries. They told me that the subsidiaries were co-owned by the Silk Road Group and secret partners. The source at one subsidiary told me he suspected that Tatishev—who repeatedly participated in company meetings—was a hidden owner.

Tatishev, who is estimated by Forbes to be worth half a billion dollars, left B.T.A. Bank in 2009. He insisted to me that, while he was there, he had no personal financial involvement in the Silk Road Group. But he acknowledged that he “developed a strong friendship” with George Ramishvili, the company’s C.E.O., and “offered to advise him.” He added, “It was the right thing to do, and this is my definition of friendship.” But is it true that Tatishev merely advised the Silk Road Group? The Web site of Tatishev’s company, the Kusto Group, declares that it has been “an outstanding partner for the Silk Road Group” since 2006, noting, “Together we have successfully invested in various sectors of the Georgian economy.” Whenever I pointed out such contradictions to Tatishev, he came up with new answers. In an e-mail, he said that the joint investments were simply “charity/heritage projects.” After he told me that he never served on the committee of B.T.A. Bank that oversees lending, I checked, and confirmed that this was false. He then insisted that he “did not recall” participating.

If, as the Web site suggests, Tatishev financially involved himself in businesses funded by the B.T.A. Bank loans, then he and the Silk Road Group may well have committed bank fraud. When bank executives have a personal financial stake in projects that their own bank is financing, it is known as “self-dealing,” and it is a crime in nearly every country, including Kazakhstan. I recently spoke with Sergei Gretsky, a professor at the Catholic University of America, who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the Kazakh banking sector. When I asked him if it would be illegal for the deputy chairman of a Kazakh bank to have personal investments in a project that his bank was funding and withhold that information from investors, he laughed and said, “Yes, of course.”

Richard Gordon, the director of the financial-integrity unit at Case Western Reserve University School of Law, explained that self-dealing represented a central cause of the 1997 global financial crisis. Banks in Indonesia, South Korea, Brazil, Russia, Pakistan, and Taiwan failed, in part, because bank executives and board members kept lending money to themselves and to their cronies. “This leads to defaults, bank bankruptcies, or government bailouts,” he said. Since then, nearly every nation has made efforts to prevent self-dealing. Gordon said that, at most banks today, the board members and senior staff don’t even have a credit card associated with the bank, in order to eliminate any appearance of a conflict of interest.

Lending to companies in which a senior bank executive has a personal stake is a crime because it violates the central trust that makes banking possible. The fundamental business of banking is to borrow money from one group and lend it to another. B.T.A., which had been heralded internationally as a fast-growing bank in a troubled part of the world, had raised money by selling bonds through J. P. Morgan, Credit Suisse, and many other top Western banks. If these Western banks had known that a senior B.T.A. official was heavily involved in the operations of a company that was receiving huge loans from B.T.A., they might have balked.
In the years before the Trump Tower Batumi deal, B.T.A. Bank became entangled in a spectacular crime. Mukhtar Ablyazov, the bank’s chairman, was a prominent figure in Kazakhstan, and not just because he was a billionaire. He was one of the leading sponsors of a political party opposed to President Nazarbayev. In 2009, when Nazarbayev signalled a desire to seize control of B.T.A. Bank, Ablyazov fled the country for London—taking billions of dollars in bank funds with him. He accomplished this with a diffuse scheme: dozens of offshore companies under his control received loans from B.T.A., and none of the loans were paid back.

In 2010, when a Trump Organization executive, Michael Cohen, began negotiating with the Silk Road Group about licensing Trump’s name for the Batumi tower, Ablyazov was facing eleven lawsuits in the U.K. The Kazakh government, which had indeed seized control of B.T.A. Bank, had sued him to reclaim ten billion dollars that he had allegedly siphoned out of the country. The Financial Times covered the case extensively, as did the Times, which described “a scheme by B.T.A.’s former chairman, Mukhtar Ablyazov, to direct between $8 billion and $12 billion worth of B.T.A. loans—about half of the bank’s loan book—to companies that he secretly controlled.” The article noted that Ablyazov was renting “a 15,000-square-foot mansion” in London.

It would have taken only a Google search for the Trump Organization to discover that the Silk Road Group had received much of its funding from B.T.A. Bank, which, at the time of the Batumi deal, was mired in one of the largest fraud cases in recent history. The Silk Road Group had even been business partners with the central figure in the scandal: Ablyazov and the Silk Road Group were two of the owners of a bank in Georgia. I asked Cohen, who visited Georgia with Trump, if he had been concerned about the Silk Road Group’s connection to B.T.A. Bank. “I didn’t even know that B.T.A.

was involved in this entire scenario up until the moment you told me,” he said. He added that he was not aware of any information about how the tower would be funded—or even “if there was going to be any funding at all.” He went on, “We had not gotten to that stage of the process. Remember, this was a licensing deal. The financing of the project was the responsibility of the licensee”—the Silk Road Group.

I recently spoke with John Madinger, a retired U.S. Treasury official and I.R.S. special agent, who used to investigate financial crimes. He is the author of “Money Laundering: A Guide for Criminal Investigators.” When I told him what Cohen had said to me, he responded, “No, no, no! You’ve got to do your due diligence. You shouldn’t do a financial transaction with funds that appear to stem from unlawful activity. That’s like saying, ‘I don’t care if Pablo Escobar is my secret business partner.’ You have to care—otherwise, you’re at risk of violating laws against money laundering.”

A judge in the U.K. ruled repeatedly against Ablyazov, starting in 2009, and ordered him to hand over more than four billion dollars to B.T.A. (The Kazakh government insisted that six billion dollars more remained missing.) The judge, Sir Nigel John Martin Teare, said that Ablyazov’s use of offshore holding companies had facilitated “fraud on an epic scale.” Teare ruled that “there can be only one explanation for the fact that the very large sums of money which were advanced were immediately transferred to companies owned or controlled by Mr. Ablyazov, namely, that the original loans were part of a dishonest scheme whereby Mr. Ablyazov sought to misappropriate monies which belonged to the bank.” Ablyazov was eventually sentenced to twenty-two months in a U.K. prison, for contempt of court, because he had refused to reveal disputed assets. In February, 2012, when Trump was planning his trip to Georgia, Ablyazov fled to France. He is currently fighting extradition.

The Silk Road Group, which was established in Georgia shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, does not have a conventional corporate structure. It is a holding company that controls dozens of corporate entities registered around the world. In total, B.T.A. loaned the Silk Road Group three hundred million dollars, and these funds were dispersed among its many subsidiaries, making the money trail hard to follow. For example, an eight-million-dollar loan was granted to Batumi Riviera Holding, B.V., which was registered in Holland. Batumi Riviera Holding has reported having a sole asset: a company called Vento, L.L.C., which is registered in Georgia. That registration indicates that its creditor is B.T.A., which made loans valued at seventy-five per cent of the initial investment in the company. Batumi Riviera Holding, in turn, is owned by Tbilisi Central Plaza, a company registered in Malta. Tbilisi Central Plaza is owned by Susalike Holding GmbH, which is registered, in Germany, to a Silk Road Group subsidiary.

Giorgi Rtskhiladze co-owns the Silk Road Transatlantic Alliance, a subsidiary that focusses on business deals involving the U.S. He brokered the Trump relationship. The Silk Road Group’s leadership in Georgia asked him to represent the company in interviews for this article. I recently met him at the St. Regis hotel in New York. When I asked why the Silk Road Group had such a bewildering structure, Rtskhiladze said, “There are tax reasons, and there are other reasons. To reduce liabilities, if we were sued or have to sue, certain courts are more efficient.” He pointed out that many companies legitimately use offshore jurisdictions to register their firms.

“That’s true,” Richard Gordon, the financial-integrity expert at Case Western, said. However, he added, “it is difficult to conceive of legitimate reasons for one shell company in an offshore jurisdiction to own a chain of companies established in a series of other offshore jurisdictions.” Such byzantine arrangements add expense, complexity, and uncertainty—the opposite of what businesses normally want—without providing any clear benefit, other than obfuscation. Moreover, by registering in so many different jurisdictions, the Silk Road Group has actually increased its legal risk, because a potential claimant can sue the company in all those jurisdictions. Gordon, who helped write the Republic of Georgia’s tax law, told me that he could think of no reason that this structure would help a Georgian company lawfully pay fewer taxes.

When I described to John Madinger, the retired Treasury official, the various entities and transactions involved in the funding of the Trump Tower Batumi, he said, “That is what you would expect to see in a money-laundering operation: multiple shell companies in multiple countries. It’s designed to make life hard for people trying to follow the transaction.”

It was difficult to pierce the veil of ownership, but I made some headway by collaborating on a reporting project with an investigations team at the Columbia University School of Journalism. Manuela Andreoni and Inti Pacheco, two recent graduates who are now investigative fellows, have spent months researching the Silk Road Group, Mukhtar Ablyazov, Yerkin Tatishev, and B.T.A. Bank. They have looked closely at relevant lawsuits, and they have obtained and translated property records and corporate registries from around the world.

Although Tatishev had repeatedly assured me that he was not involved in making decisions about Silk Road Group projects that had been funded by B.T.A. loans, I continued to accrue contradictory evidence. I recently received a cache of internal Silk Road Group e-mails, dating back to 2014, and they make clear that Tatishev has exerted detailed operational control over the company’s activities, including real-estate businesses that were funded by the B.T.A. loans. The e-mail cache shows that David Borger, a German financier who is a top executive at the company, regularly informed Tatishev about delicate internal financial matters and asked him for approval on a wide variety of decisions pertaining to Silk Road Group hotels, casinos, telecommunications infrastructure, and hydroelectric plants. Many of these projects had been initially funded by loans made while Tatishev was a senior official at B.T.A. Bank.

In one e-mail exchange, from earlier this year, Tatishev weighed in on a decision about which investment bank the Silk Road Group should use for a transaction. “We are cool guys,” Tatishev wrote. “And should always work with cool guys.” Borger responded, “Dear Yerkin, in this case can you please help us to get a cool deal with them?” He then asked Tatishev to describe how he wanted the deal to be structured.

In another recent e-mail discussion, which touched on crucial questions about the ownership and the financing of a major Silk Road Group project, Borger told Tatishev, “I need your ok.” In a subsequent e-mail, George Ramishvili, the C.E.O. of the Silk Road Group, added that Tatishev needed to give his approval. Tatishev did so. In a 2014 e-mail, a Silk Road Group consultant sent Tatishev and Ramishvili a summary of a plan they had devised to settle the outstanding debt owed to B.T.A. Bank.

Video from Trump’s visit to Georgia provides further evidence that Tatishev was a key part of the Silk Road Group—and suggests that Trump recognized his importance. During a speech that Trump gave in Tbilisi, Tatishev can be seen sitting in the audience next to Ramishvili. Trump says, “We have two great partners.” He points toward the seats where Tatishev and Ramishvili are sitting. “And they’re going to do a fantastic job.” (Giorgi Rtskhiladze, the Silk Road Transatlantic Alliance executive who met me in Manhattan, told me that Trump must have thought it was him, not Tatishev, sitting next to Ramishvili. But Rtskhiladze and Tatishev look nothing alike: Rtskhiladze is clean-shaven, with light-colored hair; Tatishev is nearly bald, with dark facial hair.) Tatishev accompanied Trump to meet Saakashvili at the Presidential Palace, in Tbilisi. When Michael Cohen, the Trump Organization executive, went to Georgia in 2010 to discuss building a tower with the Silk Road Group, he also met with Tatishev. A representative of the Silk Road Group said that Tatishev is a friend of Ramishvili and simply wanted to say hello to a big American tycoon. Inviting friends to important business meetings, the representative said, is common practice in the Caucasus region.

With minimal due diligence, Trump Organization executives would have noticed that the Silk Road Group exhibited many warning signs of financial fraud: its layered and often hidden ownership, its ornate use of shell companies, its close relationship with a bank that was embroiled in a financial scandal. Trump’s visit to Georgia occurred while his company was making a series of similar foreign deals. Until then, the Trump Organization had ventured abroad only occasionally: in 1999, a set of Korean buildings licensed the Trump name; in 2006, Trump bought a golf course in Scotland; the following year, construction began on a Trump-branded tower in Turkey.

 But by 2012 Trump was struggling in the U.S. market. His biggest investment, in American casinos, had proved ruinous, and he was now a minority owner of a near-bankrupt business. Trump had defaulted on loans multiple times, and nearly every bank in the U.S. refused to finance deals bearing his name. And so Trump turned to people in other countries who did not share this reluctance to give him money. In 2012 alone, the Trump Organization negotiated or finalized deals in Azerbaijan, Brazil, Canada, Georgia, India, the Philippines, the United Arab Emirates, and Uruguay.

At the time, the Trump Organization had only a handful of staff members involved in dealmaking. His children Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump, Jr., assumed a management role in many of these foreign projects. According to Rtskhiladze, Trump, Jr., helped oversee the Batumi deal. At one point, Rtskhiladze and Cohen held two days of meetings in New York to discuss the project. Trump, Jr., dropped by several times. According to former executives at the Trump Organization, the company lacked rigorous procedures for assessing foreign partners.

A month after Trump visited Georgia, he agreed to license his name to, and provide oversight of, a luxury hotel in Baku, Azerbaijan, a deal that I examined in an article in The New Yorker earlier this year. Trump received several million dollars from the brother and the son of an Azerbaijani billionaire who was then the Minister of Transportation—a man who, U.S. officials believe, may have been simultaneously laundering money for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. In 2013, Trump met with the Azerbaijani-Russian billionaire Aras Agalarov and his son, Emin; that November, they partnered with Trump on the Miss Universe contest, in Moscow, and discussed building a Trump Tower in the Russian capital. In June, 2016, at Emin Agalarov’s request, Trump, Jr., met with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a lawyer who has represented Russian intelligence. Trump, Jr., was promised damaging information about Hillary Clinton. Veselnitskaya came to the meeting accompanied by business associates who have extensive ties to Georgia and Azerbaijan.

In December, 2012, not long after Trump signed the Batumi licensing deal, a company called Riviera, L.L.C., bought the fifteen-acre parcel of land on which the Trump Tower Batumi would supposedly be built. The price was twelve million dollars, and the seller was Vento, L.L.C., which was owned by a company that was owned by a company that was owned by a company that was owned by the Silk Road Group. Riviera, L.L.C., was also partly owned by the Silk Road Group. In other words, the Silk Road Group was selling property to itself.
The Financial Action Task Force, headquartered in Paris, is led by representatives from thirty-seven nations. In 2007, the task force issued a report about the use of real-estate projects for money laundering. The report makes note of several red flags. It warns of “complex loans” in which businesses “lend themselves money, creating the appearance that the funds are legitimate.” It also warns of the use of offshore shell companies and tangled corporate legal structures, especially those in which third parties are hired to administer a company and conceal its true ownership. These intertwined companies can then trade property among themselves, in order to create inflated valuations: “An often-used structure is, for example, the setting up of shell companies to buy real estate. Shortly after acquiring the properties, the companies are voluntarily wound up, and the criminals then repurchase the property at a price considerably above the original purchase price. This enables them to insert a sum of money into the financial system equal to the original purchase price plus the capital gain, thereby allowing them to conceal the origin of their funds.”

The report states that money launderers often find that “buying a hotel, a restaurant or other similar investment offers further advantages, as it brings with it a business activity in which there is extensive use of cash.” Casinos—like the one planned for the Trump Tower Batumi—are especially useful in this regard. The casino was to be owned by the Silk Road Group and its partners.

Alan Garten, the chief legal officer for the Trump Organization, declined to describe the due diligence behind the Batumi tower. When the deal was signed, the general counsel for the Trump Organization was Jason Greenblatt, who is now President Trump’s envoy to negotiate Middle East peace. (The White House declined to comment for this story, referring me instead to Sekulow, Trump’s lawyer, who also declined to discuss the specifics of the Batumi deal.)

A representative of the Silk Road Group told me that the company had been eager to assuage any ethical concerns the Trump Organization or other potential partners may have had, and so it had conducted due diligence—on itself. In May, 2012, the Silk Road Group commissioned K2 Intelligence, a firm founded by the investigator Jules Kroll, to produce a report. (This was fourteen months after the Trump Organization signed the Batumi deal.) I recently obtained a summary of the report, which explained that K2 was “asked to probe the background and integrity of S.R.G.’s principal shareholder, George Ramishvili, more deeply than a standard investigative or compliance report might.” However, the report seems to have addressed only one issue: a rumor, circulating in the Georgian media, that Ramishvili had once been a member of the Mkhedrioni, a right-wing militia.

K2 concluded that the rumor was false. The summary did not address the Silk Road Group’s funding sources, its complex legal structure, or its relationship to the B.T.A. Bank scandal, which was unfolding in London courts at the time. Other due diligence may have been performed, but the Silk Road Group, K2, and the Trump Organization declined to share specific information.

Ross Delston, a prominent anti-money-laundering attorney in Washington, D.C., told me that, if one of his clients approached him with the possibility of entering a licensing relationship with the people involved in the Batumi deal, he “would tell him not to walk away but to run away—to run like hell.” He explained, “There are too many aspects of the deal that don’t make sense, and there’s no way, as an outsider, that you could conduct sufficient due diligence to figure out if it is criminal.”

So many partners of the Trump Organization have been fined, sued, or criminally investigated for financial crimes that it is hard to ascribe the pattern to coincidence, or even to shoddy due diligence. In criminal law, there is a crucial concept called “willful blindness”: a person can be convicted of a crime even if he was unaware of certain aspects of the crime in which he was engaged. In U.S. courts, judges routinely explain to juries that “no one can avoid responsibility for a crime by deliberately ignoring what is obvious.” (When the Trump Organization cancelled the Batumi deal, it noted that it held the Silk Road Group “in the highest regard.”)

John Madinger, the former Treasury official, said that, in any deal that might involve money laundering, there is one critical question: “Does the financial transaction make economic or business sense?” In recent years, a lot of residential housing has been built in Batumi, but most of it has consisted of what Colliers, the market-analysis firm, calls “low-segment”—down-market—apartments. The Trump Organization, with its extensive experience in the luxury real-estate market, could surely sense that it would not be easy to enlist hundreds of wealthy people to buy multimillion-dollar condominiums in Batumi. I asked several New York real-estate developers to assess the proposed tower. One laughed and said that the Batumi deal reminded him of “The Producers,” the Mel Brooks movie about two charlatans who create a horrible musical designed to fail. Another New York developer, who spent years making deals in the former Soviet Union, told me, “A forty-seven-story tower of luxury condominiums in Batumi is an insane idea. I wouldn’t have gone near a project like this.”

Giorgi Rtskhiladze, the Silk Road Transatlantic Alliance executive, confirmed that the luxury-housing market in Batumi was nonexistent in 2012, when he invited Donald Trump to visit Georgia, but said that the tower’s investors were nonetheless confident that a Trump-branded skyscraper would attract buyers. He insisted that the Silk Road Group had not taken part in anything illicit, and said that B.T.A. Bank’s 2005 decision to lend the Silk Road Group several hundred million dollars was hardly suspicious. The company had been working in Kazakhstan for years, transporting oil products, and had become close with the Tatishev family. When the bank that Tatishev helped run, B.T.A., decided to invest in redeveloping Batumi, the obvious partner was the Silk Road Group. “We were the partner they knew,” Rtskhiladze said. “We’re active in the region.”

Rtskhiladze acknowledged that it was quite a big loan for such a poor country. “Unbelievable,” he called it. And it was true that the Silk Road Group had little experience in hotels or construction or telecommunications when it suddenly entered those industries. But, he pointed out, Georgia was still emerging from the torpid days of the Soviet Union. “You’re talking about a country that had no experience,” he said. “Nobody else had experience.” In any case, he suggested, “real-estate development wasn’t that complicated. You hire third parties, who do feasibility studies. You look at the numbers. It wasn’t that difficult.” He added, “We like to do clean, transparent business.”

I asked Rtskhiladze why he had invited Trump, who has generally avoided travelling abroad, to Georgia. He told me a story from 1989, when he was a young soldier in the Soviet Army. “They told me, for target practice, to shoot Ronald Reagan’s face,” he recalled. “I refused.” The Army jailed him for several days. Soon after he was released, he said, he saw a magazine with Trump on the cover. He told himself, “One day, I will go to New York and meet this man.”

He argued that the fact that “there was no luxury in Batumi” was precisely why the idea of a Trump Tower was so smart. The skyscraper, with its “pool and gyms and conference rooms,” would single-handedly create “an entire universe of very New York-style luxury in a seaside town.” The luxury condominiums, he added, were “for international buyers—Saudis, Turks, Russians.” In his “strong opinion,” the Trump brand was “the only brand for them.” (David Borger, the Silk Road Group executive, told me that a study by a well-regarded Turkish firm had concluded that the tower was a good business idea, but he declined to share the name of the firm or the study.)

Melanie A. Bonvicino, who handles communications for the Silk Road Group, told me that the Trump Tower Batumi deal demonstrated an openhearted vision. “With the Batumi project, Trump was once again able to demonstrate his keen business sense,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Donald Trump in his role as futurist and visionary ordained the region as the next big thing. Mr. Trump had an immediate grasp over the geopolitical significance of the Republic of Georgia and its Black Sea region, acknowledging its vast potential by jointly transforming this hidden gem into the next Riviera. In the élite realm of global residential and commercial real-estate developers, the Trump moniker was and remains synonymous with Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Michael Jackson.”

In 2009, when Ablyazov fled to London, the Kazakh government seized control of B.T.A. Bank. (Tatishev moved to Singapore in 2013.) A lawyer representing the bank, Roman Marchenko, informed the Silk Road Group that he had reason to believe that it had participated in Ablyazov’s loan scheme. The Silk Road Group denied any wrongdoing. A settlement was reached, for fifty million dollars—a bargain price, considering that the loans had totalled three hundred million. Marchenko believes that the Silk Road Group was deeply entwined with Ablyazov, but Kazakh government officials decided to stop investigating. They were pursuing Ablyazov’s stolen assets all over the world, and there was more money in other countries.

The Kazakh government placed B.T.A. Bank’s assets under the authority of its sovereign-wealth fund. Soon after, Timur Kulibayev—the powerful son-in-law of the country’s dictator, Nursultan Nazarbayev—became the director of the fund. Kulibayev and his staff had access to all the bank’s internal documents. Recently, Kulibayev became the majority owner of the bank, giving him total control over B.T.A.’s archives, as well as ownership of its assets. Kulibayev was surely familiar with the players involved in the Trump Tower Batumi project. In 2011, Giorgi Rtskhiladze and Michael Cohen, the Trump Organization executive, began promoting the idea of a Trump Tower in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. They visited Astana and met with Karim Masimov, the Prime Minister. Masimov is now the head of Kazakhstan’s national-security apparatus.

Keith Darden is a political scientist at American University who has written extensively on the use of compromising information—kompromat—by former Soviet regimes against people they want to control. He told me that Kazakh intelligence is believed to collect dossiers on every significant business transaction involving the country. This would be especially true if a famous American developer was part of the deal, even if it would not have occurred to them that he might one day become the U.S. President. “There is no question—they know everything about this deal,” Darden said.

Darden explained that Kazakh intelligence agents work closely with their Russian counterparts. Kulibayev himself has direct ties to Russia’s leadership. In 2011, he was named to the board of Gazprom, the Russian gas behemoth, which is widely considered to be a pillar of Putin’s fortune. In “The Return: Russia’s Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev,” Daniel Treisman, a political scientist at U.C.L.A. who specializes in Russia, wrote, “For Putin, Gazprom was a personal obsession. He memorized the details of the company’s accounts, its pricing rules and pipeline routes. He personally approved all appointments down to the deputy level, sometimes forgetting to tell the company’s actual C.E.O., Aleksey Miller.” Kulibayev could not possibly be serving on Gazprom’s board without Putin’s assent.

Robert Mueller has assembled a team of sixteen lawyers. One of them is fluent in Russian, and five have extensive experience investigating and prosecuting cases of money laundering, foreign corruption, and complex financial conspiracies. The path from Trump to Putin, if one exists, might be found in one of his foreign real-estate deals.

When Mueller was appointed special counsel, his official writ was to investigate not just “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump” but also “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.” Much hinges on the word “directly.” Sekulow, Trump’s lawyer, insists that Mueller’s mandate essentially stops at the Russian border. Pawneet Abramowski, a former F.B.I. intelligence analyst, told me that Sekulow’s assertion is nonsensical. “You must follow the clues,” she said. When investigating a businessperson like Trump, “you have to follow the money and go wherever it leads—you must follow the clues all the way to the end.”

Noam Chomsky: Bernie Sanders Isn't Radical, He's Popular! The Public Agrees With Him on Healthcare & Taxes


Transcript:
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, Bernie Sanders is an extremely interesting phenomenon. He’s a decent, honest person. That’s pretty unusual in the political system. Maybe there are two of them in the world, you know. But he’s considered radical and extremist, which is a pretty interesting characterization, because he’s basically a mainstream New Deal Democrat.

His positions would not have surprised President Eisenhower, who said, in fact, that anyone who does not accept New Deal programs doesn’t belong in the American political system. That’s now considered very radical. The other interesting aspect of Sanders’s positions is that they’re quite strongly supported by the general public, and have been for a long time. That’s true on taxes. It’s true on healthcare. So, take, say, healthcare. His proposal for a national healthcare system, meaning the kind of system that just about every other developed country has, at half the per capita cost of the United States and comparable or better outcomes, that’s considered very radical. But it’s been the position of the majority of the American population for a long time. So, you go back, say, to the Reagan—right now, for example, latest polls, about 60 percent of the population favor it. When Obama put through the Affordable Care Act, there was, you recall, a public option. But that was dropped. It was dropped even though it was supported by about almost two-thirds of the population.

You go back earlier, say, to the Reagan years, about 70 percent of the population thought that national healthcare should be in the Constitution, because it’s such an obvious right. And, in fact, about 40 percent of the population thought it was in the Constitution, again, because it’s such an obvious right. The same is true on tax policy and others. So we have this phenomenon where someone is taking positions that would have been considered pretty mainstream during the Eisenhower years, that are supported by a large part, often a considerable majority, of the population, but he’s dismissed as radical and extremist. That’s an indication of how the spectrum has shifted to the right during the neoliberal period, so far to the right that the contemporary Democrats are pretty much what used to be called moderate Republicans. And the Republicans are just off the spectrum. They’re not a legitimate parliamentary party anymore. And Sanders has—the significant part of—he has pressed the mainstream Democrats a little bit towards the progressive side. You see that in Clinton’s statements. But he has mobilized a large number of young people, these young people who are saying, "Look, we’re not going to consent anymore." And if that turns into a continuing, organized, mobilized—mobilized force, that could change the country—maybe not for this election, but in the longer term.

Tuesday

As Students Demand Gun Control, Arms Manufacturers Continue Targeting “Next Generation of Shooters”



JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In Parkland, Florida, students returned to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Sunday afternoon. It was their first time inside their school since February 14, when a 19-year-old former student, Nikolas Cruz, walked into the school and opened fire with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, killing 17 people. The students’ return is part of what school officials are calling a phased reopening of the school.

This comes as lawmakers return to Capitol Hill today after a vacation. Congress is facing massive pressure to pass gun control measures amidst the rise of an unprecedented youth movement, led by Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students who survived the mass shooting.

Meanwhile, President Trump has reiterated his calls to arm teachers with concealed weapons. This is Trump speaking at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, on Friday.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The beauty is, it’s concealed. Nobody would ever see it, unless they needed it. It’s concealed! So this crazy man who walked in wouldn’t even know who it is that has it. That’s good. That’s not bad, that’s good. And a teacher would have shot the hell out of him before he knew what happened. They love their students. They love those students, folks. Remember that.

AMY GOODMAN: According to the Gun Violence Archive, at least 69 kids under the age of 18 have been shot, and 26 of them were killed, since the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School less than two weeks ago.

Well, to speak more about firearms, gun manufacturers and the unprecedented youth movement for gun control, we’re joined now by The Intercept’s investigative reporter Lee Fang, his new piece headlined “Even as a Student Movement Rises, Gun Manufacturers Are Targeting Young People.”
Lee, welcome back to Democracy Now! How are gun manufacturers targeting young people?

LEE FANG: Hi, Amy. Thanks for having me.
You know, we took a look at investor reports from gun manufacturers and other gun industry companies, and there’s a number of reasons why, but gun executives say they’re making a new push to target younger generations, teenagers, millennials, mainly because gun sales have been plummeting over the last year. That’s partially because, with a Republican president and Republicans in power in Congress, there has been little fear of gun control. And what the gun industry has done historically is that they’ve used the potential for gun control to spur panic buying, often using third parties like the NRA to kind of whip up hysteria. And without that kind of fear of gun control, there’s been less gun sales, so they’re attempting to grow their market.

Also, there’s new analysis from the gun industry showing that young people are not buying guns like older generations for hunting. They’re mostly kind of emulating video game culture. You know, they’re going to gun stores, buying targets of vampires and zombies, and going to the gun range and buying really sophisticated weapons, lots of ammunition. This is really, as one gun industry executive said, the Xbox generation that they’re trying to target. So, even as there’s a new youth-led student movement calling for gun control, this is coming at a time when the gun industry is hoping to grow their market share by selling more guns to young people.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Lee, could you also talk about the Koch brothers and guns and the network that the Koch brothers have built up to fund campaigns, both advocacy campaigns and political campaigns?

LEE FANG: Well, you know, the interesting thing here with the Koch brothers and guns is that I don’t believe that the Koch brothers have a strong interest in gun control or no gun control. But they do understand that this is an issue that whips up the conservative base, that Republican voters are very likely to vote on gun issues. So, you know, historically, we’ve seen the Koch brothers use their undisclosed money organizations to fund the NRA. That’s because the NRA will go out and engage in election efforts to activate Republican base voters to get them to the polls. So, you know, when you see television advertisements from the NRA, that money does come from NRA members, from gun companies, but it also can come from groups like the Koch brothers, that are hoping to use them as kind of an identity group to activate their base voters.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk a little about American Outdoor Brands? It used to be known as Smith & Wesson, right?

LEE FANG: That’s right. This is a company that sells a number of different rifles, formally known as Smith & Wesson. They manufactured the AR-15 that was used in the Parkland massacre. And this is a company that has donated millions of dollars to the NRA. They’ve engaged in kind of marketing practices with the NRA, saying that, you know, if you buy a certain number of weapons, if you buy guns from us, a portion of the sales will go to the NRA. They’ve gone out and provided big checks to the NRA, as well, kind of celebrating their partnership. And it’s a major company that sells weapons in retail stores all around the country.

AMY GOODMAN: And tell us about James Debney, the CEO of American Outdoor, talking further.

LEE FANG: Right. James Debney has been the longtime chief executive. And as he kind of explained in investor presentations throughout the year last year, he talked about the need to grow their market share among young people, that the company is doing more marketing towards younger generations and targeting millennials. Again, if you look at just the stock price of the major gun companies, of American Outdoor Brands, but also Sturm Ruger, Vista Outdoor—these are the largest gun and ammunition companies—they’ve really tanked over the last. So these companies are hurting. They’re hoping to bring in new consumers, and they’re noticing that young people are very particular types of consumers. They’re buying guns to try to emulate first-person shooters. And the gun companies are very conscious of this and trying to market their weapons to them.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what do you make of the decision by some of the major corporations in America now to sort of cut their ties with the NRA, get rid of credit cards, NRA credit cards, by some of the financial Institutions? What’s your sense of what that represents?

LEE FANG: You know, I think it’s an interesting development. But the NRA is organized through multiple 501(c) tax entities. We don’t really understand their financials, because they don’t disclose their donors. How much of a hit this constitutes, we don’t know. It’s certainly not a positive development for the NRA to see so many major corporations, from airlines to car rental companies, cutting their financial ties with the group. But at the same time, you know, the NRA is a big-money organization. They can fundraise, not just from their members, but from gun companies and other Republican donors. I think it’s too early to be seen what this financial impact is. I think the NRA is going to spend a lot of money this year, especially if states or Congress picks up gun control. They will use those political developments to kind of activate their base and likely receive even more donations.

AMY GOODMAN: Lee, as you write about the efforts by gun manufacturers to market to young people, through magazines like Junior Shooters, we’re showing some of the magazine—the covers of the magazine, for our viewers, which show young people holding rifles and handguns, with cover lines like “Glocks Are for Girls” and “Meet Spud: Fast Draw at Age 11.” Other companies, including gun manufacturer Hogue, Inc., sell things like green glow-in-the-dark handguns and shotguns and accessories, marketed to kids so they can, quote, “hunt zombies in style,” what you referred to earlier. Explain the whole push to go to younger and younger people.

LEE FANG: Right. And this is not something that’s particularly new. The gun companies have been doing this for a while. We’re just seeing kind of an increased effort. But, you know, just like any other major consumer industry, the gun company knows that they will have more loyal and more active consumers if they target people who are very young, to kind of lock them in as buyers who will repeatedly go out and buy weapons and accessories and ammunition.

So we see these marketing efforts targeted explicitly to children, you know, with guns that kind of look like they’re from a video game, or they’re pink and very friendly-looking weapons. There’s been partnerships even with video game companies. Electronic Arts, several years ago, had a partnership with several gun companies, where, you know, for a first-person shooter, players could play the game and then go be directly connected to a marketplace where they could buy weapons from the game directly from the manufacturers. So there’s a multitude of marketing efforts that are geared towards young people. And, you know, I think if Congress is looking towards enacting gun control, the marketing efforts might be a part of that larger national conversation.

Monday

Democracy is decaying worldwide. America isn’t immune.



A few weeks ago, the Economist Intelligence Unit published the 10th edition of its Democracy Index, a comprehensive ranking of nations that looks at 60 measures in five categories, ranging from electoral process to civil liberties. For the second consecutive year, the United States failed to make the top bracket of “full democracy” and was grouped in the second one, “flawed democracy.” 

It would be easy to focus on the state of American democracy under President Trump, but the more worrying aspect is that the United States’ slide is part of a global trend. In this year’s report, scores dropped for more than half the world’s countries. What Stanford University professor Larry Diamond described 10 years ago as a “democratic recession” shows no sign of ending. The nature of this recession is perhaps best seen by looking at the state of the free press worldwide.

Take Kenya, until very recently considered a hopeful story of democratic progress. Last month, President Uhuru Kenyatta instructed the country’s main television stations not to cover an opposition event, and when they refused, he took them off the air. The government then ignored a court order that the stations be allowed to resume broadcasting.

Kenya’s violations of press freedom are trivial compared with those of Turkey, which is now the world’s foremost jailer of journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Let me underscore that fact. The government that has imprisoned more journalists than any other country is democratically elected. It used to target the media in ways that at least had the veneer of the rule of law, such as issuing a massive tax fine against a critical organization. But that changed after the unsuccessful coup attempt in 2016. One year later, a United Nations report found that at least 177 news outlets had simply been shut down.

It might be possible to brush these stories aside as the inevitable backtracking of developing societies. But what then to make of the turn of events in Hungary and Poland, two countries that wholeheartedly embraced democracy after the fall of the Soviet Union? In Hungary, Viktor Orban’s administration has used a series of clever tactics to muzzle the free press. The government has effectively taken over public broadcasting, exerting pressure on outlets and installing party loyalists in key positions. It has showered friendly media with advertising money and drastically cut advertising spending in critical platforms. After Orban’s government starves, harasses and intimidates independent media, friendly oligarchs buy out the media companies, thus ensuring favorable coverage. Many of these same tactics are now being employed in Poland, which has been a poster child for its stellar political and economic reforms since the fall of communism.

Even in long-established democracies such as Israel and India, we are witnessing systematic efforts to shrink the space and power of independent media that is critical of the government. In Israel, the criminal allegations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which he denies, include his dealings with press barons to ensure favorable coverage. In addition, Netanyahu’s efforts to keep public broadcasting weak have earned him condemnation even from right-wing politicians. In India, Narendra Modi’s government has launched a highly questionable fraud and money laundering case against NDTV, a powerful and persistent critic of some of its policies. Recently, a journalist who exposed an embarrassing vulnerability in a government database was referred to the police rather than hailed as a whistleblower.

More than 20 years ago, in an essay in Foreign Affairs, I warned that the distinctive problem facing the world was “illiberal democracy” — elected governments that systematically abused their power and restricted freedoms. I subsequently worried that America could head down this path. Most people dismissed the danger because American democracy, they said, was robust, with strong institutions that could weather any storm. Press freedom, after all, is guaranteed under the First Amendment. But consider Poland and Hungary, which not only have strong institutions of their own but also exist within the embrace of rule-based European Union institutions that have explicit constitutional protections for freedom of the press.

In just one year in office, Trump has already done damage. Besides denigrating critical media outlets and lauding friendly ones, he has threatened to strengthen libel laws, strip network licenses and tax the owner of a particular newspaper. His administration has blocked the merger of a news organization he considers biased, while facilitating the merger of an organization with more favorable coverage.

“An institution,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “is the lengthened shadow of one man.” Institutions are collections of rules and norms agreed upon by human beings. If leaders attack, denigrate and abuse them, they will be weakened, and this, in turn, will weaken the character and quality of democracy. The American system is stronger than most, but it is not immune to these forces of democratic decay.

This column is adapted from Fareed Zakaria’s Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Friday

How US gun culture compares with the world in five charts


(CNN)The United States. Home to liberty, the pursuit of happiness and the most mass shootings in the world.
America's unique relationship to gun ownership -- enshrined as a right in its constitution -- is also in the middle of an emotional and divisive debate about the meaning of the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution. Twenty-seven words that give its citizens the right to own guns and also, in the views of many critics, helped usher in a culture that sees more of its own people killed by fellow citizens armed with guns than in any other high-income nation in the world.
Gun-related deaths unfold in tragic circumstances across the country daily, with more than 1,800 people killed by guns this year alone, according to Gun Violence Archive, a not-for-profit group. But it is often mass shootings that reignite the debate over gun control in the US and that shine the spotlight on its position as a global outlier.

The number of firearms available to American civilians is estimated at around 310 million, according to a 2009 National Institute of Justice (NIJ) report.
India is home to the second-largest civilian firearm stockpile, estimated at 46 million.
The most updated estimates -- now more than a decade old -- place the worldwide civilian gun cache at around 650 million. According to Switzerland-based Small Arms Survey, the number of civilian guns has most likely risen since 2007. Firearm production continues to proliferate worldwide, outweighing the effects that gun destruction might have.
According to the Small Arms Survey, the exact number of civilian-owned firearms is impossible to pinpoint because of a variety of factors including arms that go unregistered, the illegal trade and global conflict.
Americans own the most guns per person in the world, about four in 10 saying they either own a gun or live in a home with guns, according to a 2017 Pew Center study. Forty-eight percent of Americans said they grew up in a house with guns.
According to the survey, a majority (66%) of US gun owners own multiple firearms, with nearly three-quarters of gun owners saying they couldn't imagine not owning one.
Yemen, home to the world's second-largest gun-owning population per capita (and a country in the throes of a three-year-old civil conflict) trails significantly behind the US in terms of ownership.
When it comes to gun massacres, the US is an anomaly.
There are more public mass shootings in America than in any other country in the world.
On Wednesday, Nikolas Cruz, 19, arrived at the halls of his former school in Parkland, Florida. Armed with a rifle, he allegedly carried out a massacre that left 17 people dead.
In October 2017, 64-year-old gunman Stephen Paddock fired into crowds gathered at the Harvest Music Festival in Las Vegas. Fifty-eight people were killed and more than 500 people were injured. It was the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history.
In 2016, an attack at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando left 49 people dead. In 2012, Adam Lanza went on a shooting spree in Newtown, Connecticut, killing his mother before murdering 26 students and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School; in 2007, 32 people were killed in the Virginia Tech massacre.
Such massacres have prompted debates about gun control, but they also increase demand for guns. And regulations covering the sale of firearms are looser now that they were a year ago.
In February 2017, US President Donald Trump signed a measure that scrapped an Obama-era regulation aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of some severely mentally ill people.
The original rule was part of a series of moves taken by the Obama administration to try and curb gun violence after other efforts failed to advance in Congress.
Globally, restrictive gun laws have proven to make a difference in curbing massacres.
In Australia, for example, four mass shootings occurred between 1987 and 1996. After those incidents, public opinion turned against gun ownership and Parliament passed stricter gun laws. Australia hasn't had a mass shooting since.
The US has one of the highest rates of death by firearm in the developed world, according to World Health Organization data.
Our calculations based on OECD data from 2010 show that Americans are 51 times more likely to be killed by gunfire than people in the United Kingdom.
Most American gun owners (two-thirds) say a major reason they own a gun is for their personal protection, according to the Pew study. However, the majority of America's firearm-related deaths are attributed to self-harm.
Gun-related suicides are eight times higher in the US than in other high-income nations.

Globally, the US sees fewer gun-related murders than many of its southern neighbors.
According to the Small Arms Survey, El Salvador is currently home to the most gun-related murders in the world (excluding active war-zones) with guns killing more than 90 people for every 100,000 of population.
From 2010-2015, Honduras saw the highest averages of gun-related homicides, with guns killing 67 out of every 100,000 people there.
Venezuela and El Salvador are close behind over the same five-year period, with 52 and 49 gun-related deaths, respectively, for every 100,000 of population.
The US rate over that period is 4.5 gun-related homicides per 100,000 people. US law enforcement agencies are not required to report on gun killings by police. Often, such incidents are recorded as "justifiable homicides," and may or may not be included in official homicide statistics, according to the Small Arms Survey.