Morocco and Israel plan to normalize ties. Trump changed US policy to make it happen.

“President Donald Trump..announced a US-brokered deal between Morocco and Israel to normalize relations — the fourth such agreement between Israel and an Arab state since August.

To get the pact done, Trump overturned decades of US policy by recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, a large piece of sparsely populated territory in northwest Africa. Morocco claimed it in 1957, moved to annex all of it in 1979, and has been fighting for control of it against the territory’s Indigenous Sahrawi people ever since.

A 16-year insurgency ended in 1991 with a United Nations-brokered ceasefire, and the UN pledged to help organize an independence referendum in Western Sahara down the line. That referendum has still not happened, and the chance it ever will is even less likely now that the US has become the first Western nation to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over the territory.”

“Israel gets another Arab nation to openly engage with it, slowly ending its regional isolation (though Morocco and Israel have engaged in secret talks for decades). And Morocco, after many years of asking for it, has its long-desired territorial claim recognized by the United States.”

“The administration also announced it will be sending economic aid to both Morocco and Western Sahara as part of the agreement, and flights will go back and forth from Morocco to Israel.”

“While the Morocco-Western Sahara conflict is an issue of its own, Thursday’s deal really should be viewed as part of the administration’s larger diplomatic effort to get Arab nations to establish formal, public ties with Israel.

Indeed, the announcement follows Trump administration-brokered deals between Israel and the United Arab Emirates in August, Bahrain in September, and Sudan in October. Before those pacts, the last peace agreement Israel struck with an Arab country was with Jordan in 1994 (it had signed one with Egypt in 1979).

Even if Biden wanted to reverse those decisions — and for now there’s no evidence that he does — Trump’s announcements would make it harder for him to do so. Which means Trump will likely solidify his legacy as the president who broke the logjam on Israeli recognition, but it remains to be seen if it leads to any real, tangible gains in the Middle East.”

The Supreme Court hands down a loss for rogue law enforcement officers — and a win for the religious right

“The Supreme Court’s 8-0 decision in Tanzin v. Tanvir on Thursday is almost certainly correct as a matter of law. Justice Clarence Thomas’s majority opinion was unanimous (Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who joined the Court too late to hear this case, did not participate), and it relies on a fairly straightforward reading of a federal religious liberty law.

Tanzin holds that federal officials may be personally liable if they violate an individual’s religious rights — a ruling that could benefit many religious liberty plaintiffs with genuinely heartbreaking claims against government officials, including the plaintiffs in this case. But it also potentially hands a new weapon to conservative culture warriors who seek broad exemptions from federal law.”

“The plaintiffs are Muslims who claim that FBI agencies placed them on the no-fly list in retaliation for the plaintiffs’ refusal to act as informants against other members of their Muslim communities. One of these plaintiffs, Muhammad Tanvir, alleged that he was unable to see his ailing mother in Pakistan, and that he had to quit his job as a long-haul trucker because he could no longer fly home after a one-way delivery.

The Court’s decision in Tanzin means that these Muslim plaintiffs will be allowed to seek money damages from the FBI agents who allegedly violated their religious rights — although it is possible that the agents will escape liability because of a doctrine known as “qualified immunity.””

“In recent years, the Court’s conservative majority has also appeared very eager to expand the rights of religious conservatives to sue government officials, and some of the Court’s recent decisions suggest that such officials violate the law if they commit fairly minor slights against certain people of faith.

In Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (2018), for example, the Court scolded a state civil rights commissioner who made the objectively true statement that “freedom of religion and religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history.”

So one implication of Tanzin is that religious conservatives may now be able to seek money damages from federal officials for violations that, until recently, the courts would have viewed as entirely benign.

The policy implications of Tanzin, in other words, are likely to spark ambivalence among liberals and conservatives alike. Outside of the religious liberty context, conservative judges have generally been hostile to efforts to make law enforcement officers personally liable for their illegal actions. Liberals, meanwhile, will undoubtedly have sympathy for the Tanzin plaintiffs. But the Court’s decision is also likely to empower religious conservatives who seek exemptions from anti-discrimination laws and other policies favored by liberals.”

“The good news is that FBI agents and other law enforcement officers are likely to think twice before committing violations similar to the ones alleged by the Tanzin plaintiffs. But government officials may become more cautious about enforcing civil rights and other laws against religious objectors — because those officials could potentially pay a personal price if they do so.”

Myanmar and Russia show the limits of Biden’s pro-democracy agenda

“these two international crises highlight a major challenge Biden will face over the next four years, just as other presidents before him did: how to support democratic movements in places where the US doesn’t have actually much leverage, and where doing so could end up hurting the very movements the US wants to support.

In Myanmar, the US has few options to push the ruling generals to reverse course, especially since it provides almost no financial assistance to the government. As for Russia, any American effort to bolster democracy in and around it is viewed as a threat to be stamped out and delegitimized. Last October, shortly after the Kremlin poisoned and nearly killed Navalny, Putin’s regime claimed the dissident worked with the CIA.

American leaders with high hopes of ushering in a more democratic future inevitably run into the harsh reality of their limitations and the opposing forces working against them. “Every administration for the last 30 years has struggled with this,” said Erin Snider, an expert on US democracy promotion at Texas A&M University.

Myanmar and Russia, then, show the Biden administration is already in the thick of this dilemma.”

“Biden is also looking into the possibility of placing economic sanctions on Myanmar in the coming weeks. But while that would potentially give the US additional leverage over the military generals ruling the country, it could backfire.

That’s because some experts have warned that doing so could end up increasing authoritarian China’s already immense economic influence in Myanmar while pushing out democratic countries like South Korea and Japan, which have worked to develop economic and military ties to the country and break China’s “stranglehold” there.

And though China has had a complicated relationship with Myanmar’s military regime, it’s unlikely closer ties between the two countries will bode well for Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement — or for the Biden administration’s efforts to counter China’s growing influence in the region.”

“it’s not clear the US actually has many ways of successfully pushing Russia to change. The Kremlin rejects any efforts at democratization in Russia and its surroundings, while pro-democracy groups like Navalny’s get stamped out the second they become overly threatening. The best way to punish Russia would be to get European nations to curb ties with Moscow, but that’s always proven hard for any US administration to do.

No one expects Biden, or any US administration, to depose autocrats and usher in full-blown democracies over his four or even eight years. At most, the US can move the needle a little bit so that, over time, a country liberalizes so organic democracy movements can grow. But even incremental progress requires trade-offs, ones that require the president and his team to assess how much they value a foreign nation’s democratic leanings against everything else.”

Don’t Let Biden Sink Troops Back Into the Afghanistan Quagmire

“”There has been no cease-fire agreement and high levels of insurgent and extremist violence continued in Afghanistan this quarter despite repeated pleas from senior U.S. and international officials to reduce violence in an effort to advance the peace process,” John Sopko, the longtime special inspector general, wrote in the report’s introduction. “Nor is it evident, as SIGAR discusses in this report, that the Taliban has broken ties with the al-Qaeda terrorists who orchestrated the 9/11 attacks on the United States.””

“”Election fraud in Afghanistan is rampant and takes many forms: Political leaders exert influence over senior election officials and, through them, lower-level staff, and election commissioners and their senior staff sell their services for financial gain. Senior election officials thus play an ambiguous role, serving variously as protectors of the process, perpetrators of fraud, illicit collaborators with senior government officials, and victims of their abuses. Fraud is also perpetrated by local powerbrokers trying to curry favor with candidates in the anticipation of reward, in the form of government contracts, jobs, or payoffs. It is difficult to detect and prove fraud, and even harder to reduce it. Anti-fraud measures are often co-opted to perpetrate more fraud, and even successful fraud mitigation can end up suppressing legitimate votes, sometimes in ways that favor one group over another.””

Trump’s Lawyers Say He Can’t Be Impeached for Trying to Subvert the Election Because He Was Just Expressing an Opinion

“Some of the steps Trump took in the service of his election fantasy were by themselves clear abuses of power. The trial memorandum notes, for example, that he “tried to induce Michigan’s top Republican legislative officials to violate Michigan law by rejecting the popular vote and selecting a Trump slate of electors.” In a January 2 telephone conversation, Trump pressured Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” the votes necessary to overturn Biden’s victory in that state, warning that failing to do so would be “a criminal offense” and “a big risk for you.” Trump publicly and privately urged Vice President Mike Pence to block congressional affirmation of Biden’s victory. Since that is a power the vice president does not actually have, Trump was soliciting Pence to do something illegal.

Meanwhile, Trump continued to press his doomed, delusional cause with highly inflammatory rhetoric, castigating Republican officials who questioned his claims and warning that democracy would be destroyed if Biden were allowed to take office. He kept doing that even after it became clear that some of his followers were responding with death threats and violence. His campaign to overturn the election results culminated in his fiery January 6 speech to thousands of supporters who had gathered in Washington, D.C., to “stop the steal” at his behest.”

” Trump made the stakes clear. “We’re going to have somebody in there that should not be in there,” he said, “and our country will be destroyed. And we’re not going to stand for that.””

“After the protest turned violent, Trump compounded his irresponsibility by only belatedly urging his supporters to be “peaceful,” even while reinforcing the imaginary grievance on which the rioters were acting. “At 1:49 PM, after insurrectionists had overcome the Capitol perimeter—and after reports of pipe bombs had been confirmed—President Trump retweeted a video of his speech at the rally,” the trial memorandum notes. “Just over thirty minutes later, at 2:24 PM, while rioters were still attacking police and after Vice President Pence had been evacuated from the Senate floor, President Trump again tweeted to excoriate the Vice President for refusing to obstruct the Joint Session: ‘Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution.'”

The House managers add that Trump “did not take any action at all in response to the attack until 2:38 PM, when he issued his first tweet, and 3:13 PM, when he issued a second.” The first tweet said protesters should “remain peaceful,” while the second said there should be “no violence.”

During this time, the House managers say, “not only did President Trump fail to issue unequivocal statements ordering the insurrectionists to leave the Capitol; he also failed in his duties as Commander in Chief by not immediately taking action to protect Congress and the Capitol. This failure occurred despite multiple members of Congress, from both parties, including on national television, vehemently urging President Trump to take immediate action.”

Finally, more than three hours after the riot started, Trump released a video in which he urged “peace” and told his supporters to “go home now.” At the same time, he reiterated that the election was “stolen from us” after he won in “a landslide” and closed with this mixed message: “We love you, you’re very special.…I know how you feel. But go home and go home in peace.” That evening Trump tweeted: “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long. Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!”

Here is how Rep. Liz Cheney (R–Wyo.), the third-ranking Republican in the House and one of 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump, interpreted the events of that day: “The President of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack. Everything that followed was his doing. None of this would have happened without the President. The President could have immediately and forcefully intervened to stop the violence. He did not. There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.” Sen. Mitch McConnell (R–Ky.), then the Senate majority leader, agreed that “the mob was fed lies” and “provoked by the president.””

“freedom of speech “does not protect government officials from accountability for their own abuses in office,” the House managers say. “The Supreme Court has made clear that the First Amendment does not shield public officials who occupy sensitive policymaking positions from adverse actions when their speech undermines important government interests. Thus, just as a President may legitimately demand the resignation of a Cabinet Secretary who publicly disagrees with him on a matter of policy (which President Trump did repeatedly), the public’s elected representatives may disqualify the President from federal office when they recognize that his public statements constitute a violation of his oath of office and a high crime against the constitutional order.””

“The House managers also address the argument that Trump’s trial will only exacerbate the bitter political division between his supporters and his opponents. “Many have suggested that we should turn the page on the tragic events of January 6, 2021,” they say. “But to heal the wounds he inflicted on the Nation, we must hold President Trump accountable for his conduct and, in so doing, reaffirm our core principles. Failure to convict would embolden future leaders to attempt to retain power by any and all means—and would suggest that there is no line a President cannot cross. The Senate should make clear to the American people that it stands ready to protect them against a President who provokes violence to subvert our democracy.”

Since Trump’s acquittal seems to be a foregone conclusion, I’m not sure how clear a message the trial will send on that score. But there is value in laying out the details of this shameful and horrifying episode. Even if only a handful of Republicans favor conviction, a bipartisan vote will signal that Trump did much more, and much worse, than express an opinion.”

The Constitutionality of Trump’s Impeachment Trial Is Not ‘Crystal Clear’

“Preconstitutional practice in England and America included impeachment of former officials. Ten of the 12 state constitutions that were written before the U.S. Constitution was drafted addressed impeachment. In those state constitutions, Kalt notes, “late impeachment was either required, permitted, or not discussed, but was nowhere explicitly forbidden.”

Did the Framers mean to break from historical practice by limiting impeachment to current officials? If so, they never clearly expressed that intent.

The Constitution says “the President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” It gives the House the “sole Power of Impeachment” and the Senate “the sole Power to try all Impeachments,” while limiting the penalties to removal from office and disqualification from future federal office.

This “poor drafting,” as Kalt describes it, leaves unresolved the question of whether the optional penalty of disqualification is enough to justify a Senate trial when the mandatory penalty of removal from office is no longer possible. As Turley sees it, “a private citizen is being called to the Senate to be tried for removal from an office that he does not hold.”

Kalt and many other scholars argue that the aims of accountability and deterrence would be frustrated if a president could avoid impeachment or trial by committing “high crimes and misdemeanors” toward the end of his term (as Trump is accused of doing) or by resigning (as Belknap and Richard Nixon did) after his misconduct comes to light. They also argue that disqualification is an important remedy when a president guilty of serious misconduct might plausibly make a comeback.

The “good faith” to which Turley aspires is hard to perceive in the arguments offered by most of Trump’s critics and defenders. As Stanford law professor Michael McConnell (who thinks Trump’s trial is constitutional) notes, “much of the discussion…consists of motivated reasoning on both sides that no doubt would be the opposite if partisan roles were reversed.””

Unemployment Is Much Worse Than You Think — Here’s Why.

“Over the years, the rate of unemployment has become not just a gauge of the health of the labor market but the most common yardstick policymakers use to assess the health of the economy as a whole.

By this measure, despite the pandemic, things don’t look so bad right now. The headline unemployment rate for December stood at 6.7 percent. In recent years, there’s been some public recognition that that the headline rate is something of an undercount, since it only includes people actively looking for work; so-called discouraged workers who are unsure of how to go about a job search or who are too discouraged to try any more don’t show up in that top-line number. And, for decades now, the BLS has diligently supplemented the headline unemployment rate with additional information about these workers.

But it turns out that discouraged workers aren’t the only problem with the unemployment rate. In fact, these days the headline unemployment rate isn’t just an undercount, it actually paints an alternate reality that masks the degree to which low- and moderate-income people are hurting. As a result, policymakers believe these Americans are better off than they actually are.

There are two additional problems with the way we count people who are unemployed.

First, there’s no accounting for how many hours a part-time worker is working.”

“Our unemployment figures make it look like the person working a handful of hours because that’s the only work they can get is just as “employed” as a full-time CEO. In practice, this means that the unemployment rate actively obscures how many workers are living in poverty in part not because they don’t have a job, but because they can’t get enough hours.

Second, the data doesn’t indicate whether the job a worker is doing pays enough to keep them out of poverty.”

“Anyone who wants full-time work but can only find part-time work, and those working full-time but earning too little to climb above the poverty line, should be considered functionally unemployed. I’ve begun to calculate this, which I’ve dubbed the True Rate of Unemployment. And the TRU in December wasn’t 6.7 percent — it was an alarming 25.1 percent.”

“In February 2020, when the economy was supposedly “hot,” the official BLS release suggested that a mere 3.5 percent of Americans were unemployed, but the “TRU” number was 24 percent.”

Republicans Are Giving Rogue Presidents a Pass by Redefining Impeachment

“There’s plenty of debate among legal scholars about the validity of the Republicans’ latest argument that only sitting presidents can be subjected to an impeachment trial, even if the House issued impeachment articles while he was still president. Examples exist of federal officials who were impeached after leaving office. In 1876, President Ulysses S. Grant’s Secretary of War William Belknap was impeached, tried and acquitted after he left office. In 1862, a federal judge who had deserted for the Confederacy was impeached and disqualified from holding federal office, as well.

Whether these precedents would persuade the U.S. Supreme Court that Trump’s second impeachment trial is constitutional is likely unanswerable. The only way to get the question before the Court is if Trump were to challenge a conviction in the Senate. Even then, the Court could dismiss the case as a political question that only Congress can resolve. Congress answered that question in the affirmative this week — presidents can be tried after leaving office, at least so long as the impeachment occurred beforehand. Moreover, it’s hard to argue that the case is moot — or stale — because the Constitution offers a remedy that’s still meaningful for citizen Trump: “disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust or profit under the United States.”

In light of the events of Jan. 6, the Republican consensus that Trump’s impending trial is unconstitutional is chilling.

It would mean that first-term presidents who lose reelection can, with impunity, incite mob insurrectionists to attack the Capitol while Congress is counting the Electoral College votes. As Laurence Tribe tweeted, Rand Paul’s argument “would give all future presidents two weeks at the end of their term to go on a crime spree without ever having to face the consequences in a Senate disqualification trial.” By definition, there’s never enough time between Jan. 6 and inauguration day, Jan. 20, for Congress to present and vote on articles of impeachment, transfer the articles to the Senate, swear in senators, subpoena the president, exchange pre-trial briefs, hold a real trial with witnesses and documents (which Republicans blocked the first time), deliberate as Senator-jurors and vote on whether to convict.

So where does this absurdly narrow interpretation leave us? Apparently, if you want to impeach someone for attempting to overturn an election by force, the plot needs to be successful and you have to wait until the first part of his second term to do anything about it.

It’s hard to imagine this would have made sense to the Framers.”

Trump left behind a sanctions minefield for Biden

“The 2015 Iran deal came together after years of U.S. and international sanctions battered the Islamic Republic’s economy and internal political shifts made an agreement more viable. The deal, which seven countries negotiated, lifted nuclear-related sanctions on Iran in exchange for severe curbs on its nuclear program.

However, the nuclear deal left in place numerous other U.S. sanctions on Iran, such as those related to the Islamist regime’s support for terrorism, its ballistic missile program and its human rights abuses. Many of the U.S. sanctions are especially powerful because they apply to non-American entities who would otherwise want to do business with Iran.

Trump took office complaining that the nuclear agreement was too narrowly focused and that its provisions didn’t last long enough. He withdrew the U.S. from the deal in 2018 — then reimposed the nuclear-related sanctions while also piling on new sanctions on other fronts, such as ones targeting the Iranian regime’s corruption or its backing of terrorist activity. Overall, the sanctions have badly hit Iran’s economy, which also has been hurt by the coronavirus pandemic.

Since the U.S. departure, Iran, too, has taken steps that have put it out of compliance with the agreement, including enriching uranium to 20 percent purity. Iranian leaders say they’ll return to compliance with the deal once the United States lifts its sanctions — ideally returning to the 2016 status, they say. But Biden has indicated he wants Iran to return to compliance first before he’ll lift sanctions.”

“People who worked in the Trump administration say the new president shouldn’t lift any of the sanctions because the nuclear deal isn’t worth reviving. Rather, they argue that the Trump team handed Biden a gift by placing Iran’s Islamist regime under such intense pressure.

“Don’t let up,” said Len Khodorkovsky, a former senior State Department adviser on Iran policy. “The only way to get positive movement out of Iran is to increase pressure.”

The deal’s supporters, however, point out that Trump’s strategy failed to push Iran into talks for a more stringent agreement. Nor has Tehran stopped other behavior that has upset the U.S. and its allies, such as backing militias outside its borders; it’s also closer to being able to build a nuclear weapon today than it was when the U.S. was in the deal.”

“Former U.S. officials say it’s possible that Biden’s final decisions will result in a mixed picture: Non-nuclear sanctions with a solid legal basis will stay on, while other sanctions – such as some that appear intended to wreck the nuclear deal – will likely be removed.

The Biden team might also take an incremental approach: Offer some limited sanctions relief in exchange for initial actions on Iran’s part to roll back its recent nuclear advances as a first step toward a full return to the agreement by both countries.

There is pressure to move quickly. For one thing, Iran’s presidential election, set for June, could usher into power a hardline government opposed to the nuclear deal.

But when asked for comment, a State Department official indicated the process of returning to the agreement will take longer than many advocates might wish.

“Iran is a long way from returning to compliance, and there are many steps in the process we will need to evaluate,” the official said in a written statement. “Our first order of business will be consulting with Congress and our allies on the path forward.””

What the GameStop vigilantes get wrong about the 2008 financial crash

“In a 662-page report analyzing the ’08 crash, the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission identified a broad cast of villains that caused or contributed to the crisis. They include 5 investment banks that at the time fueled a surge of trading in “toxic” mortgage-backed securities, and derivatives of those securities: Bear Stearns, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch. AIG insured billions of dollars of overvalued securities without the reserves to cover losses. Horrible underwriting standards at mortgage issuers such as Countrywide and Wachovia produced millions of loans borrowers were doomed to default on.

Bond-rating agencies such as Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s failed to identify the risk and rated mortgage-backed securities destined to blow up as safe as US Treasuries. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government agencies that securitize mortgages, became insanely overleveraged and collapsed. Regulators such as the Federal Reserve and the Securities and Exchange Commission did nothing to intervene until it was far too late. Years of federal policy meant to encourage homeownership allowed some buyers to borrow far more than they could afford. And a 1999 law that eased bank regulations allowed banks to take risks that ultimately threatened the entire financial system.

Hedge funds had little to do with this. There were two hedge funds run inside investment bank Bear Stearns that bet heavily on mortgage-backed securities and collapsed in 2007. But those weren’t the types of hedge funds run by independent operators mostly working with wealthy individuals’ money. A 2012 Rand report found that hedge funds played little role in the housing bubble that caused the crash.”