Things that make you go hmmmm
February 3, 2020

After the State Department revoked the press credentials of NPR's Michele Keleman for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's trip to Europe and Central Asia, in apparent retaliation for questions Pompeo didn't like from NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly, there were concerns about what kind of message Pompeo sent to the world about America's commitment to press freedoms. On Sunday, when Pompeo was in Kazakhstan — which has a dismal zero press-freedoms rating from Reporters Without Borders — Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reporter Aigerim Toleukhan asked Pompeo. He said the episode sends "a perfect message about press freedoms."

Pompeo can be heard telling Kelly in their interview that he only wanted to discuss Iran, not Ukraine and whether he stood up for America's former ambassador to Kyiv when President Trump and his allies smeared her. Kelly said after the interview, Pompeo took her into a separate room and berated her at length, using profanities.

Pompeo told Toleukhan he didn't have a "confrontational interview" with Kelly and insisted that reporters "get to ask me any questions, all questions." As for barring Keleman from his trip, Pompeo said he always brings "a big press contingent, but we ask for certain sets of behaviors, and that's simply telling the truth and being honest. And when they'll do that, they get to participate, and if they don't, it's just not appropriate" or even "fair to the rest of the journalists who are participating alongside them." That's when Toleukhan asked about what message that sends to the world, and Pompeo said "a perfect message."

After Kelly told NPR listeners about Pompeo berating her, Pompeo accused her of lying twice, once while "setting up our interview" and again by not honoring her agreement keep their "post-interview conversation" private. Kelly said she never agreed to go off-the-record — it's unclear why she would — and she released emails showing she told Pompeo's staff she intended to ask him about both Iran and Ukraine. Peter Weber

January 21, 2020

Michael Avenatti, the lawyer most famous for representing porn actress Stormy Daniels in her case against President Trump, was arrested in California last week and transferred over the weekend to New York's federal Manhattan Correctional Center to face charges of extortion and embezzlement, his lawyers told a federal court on Monday. In fact, lawyer Scott Srebnick wrote, Avenatti is being housed, for reasons that are unclear, in the MCC's "Special Housing Unit on the notorious 10-South," the "most secure secure floor in the entire facility," in "a cell reportedly once occupied by El Chapo, on a floor that houses individuals charged with terrorism offenses."

Not only is Avenatti being held in the freezing cell that once housed notorious Mexican drug trafficker and escape artist Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, Srebnick said, but he's on 24-hour solitary confinement with a guard and two cameras keeping watch on him from outside his cell 24 hours a day. MCC appears to have learned from the suicide of another recent inmate, Jeffrey Epstein, as Srebnick alludes to in his filing.

Srebnick asked for the court's help in finding out why Avenatti is under such strict lockdown and in getting him moved to regular incarceration amid the general population of MCC, saying the current conditions are hindering Avenatti's participation in his defense case. Peter Weber

November 15, 2019

President Trump's departure for a political rally in Louisiana was delayed by about 45 minutes on Thursday evening because he was having an "animated" conversation with Attorney General William Barr in the Oval Office, according to the White House press corps, which could view but not hear the conversation. Also in the Oval Office were White House Counsel Pat Cippollone and White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham.

When asked about the meeting on Fox News, White House Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley said he "sadly" couldn't say what Trump and Barr discussed, but he told Martha MacCallum "that all the gentlemen had Diet Cokes in the room — that's very serious." When MacCallum asked if they were discussing Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz's imminent report on the origins of the FBI's investigation of Russia and Trump's campaign, Gidley insisted Trump is "trying to stay out of all things that Attorney General Barr is doing as it relates to investigating the investigators."

But the Horowitz report did come up in their conversation, two sources told CNN. Barr got a draft of the report last month, and Lawfare's Susan Hennessey wryly suggested that the nominally independent attorney general discussing the nominally independent DOJ inspector general's nominally apolitical report with Trump may not be totally above-board.

Witnesses have been given two weeks to review the parts of the report they feature in before it is released publicly. They have to sign nondisclosure agreements and can't request revisions in writing, The Washington Post reported Thursday, raising concerns about the report's integrity. But Horowitz's office told the Post late Thursday night that witnesses can submit written feedback "consistent with rules to protect classified information." Peter Weber

October 30, 2019

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey's announcement Wednesday that Twitter will stop accepting political advertising starting Nov. 22 was not greeted warmly by President Trump's campaign, which apparently believes banning all political ads will "silence Trump and conservatives."

The Democratic presidential candidates vying to unseat Trump, on the other hand, largely praised the decision — even though, as National Republican Senatorial Committee senior adviser Matt Whitlock noted (on Twitter, naturally), Democrats "do significantly more advertising on Twitter than we do." The Democrats said Facebook should follow suit.

U.S. political campaigns expressing interest in a major social media platform's political advertising policy makes sense. Less clear is why Russian state media cares.

"Why on earth would RT, Russia's propaganda outlet (which has been designated as a foreign agent by our own DOJ), find Twitter's ban on political ads in the U.S. to be 'URGENT'?" asked Asha Rangappa, a former FBI agent and CNN analyst.

Maybe it's Dorsey's inclusion of the phrase "democratic infrastructure"? Peter Weber

July 3, 2019

President Trump's comments about homelessness to Fox News host Tucker Carlson befuddled a lot of people, but they weren't the only puzzling thing Trump told Carlson in an interview that aired Monday night. For instance, he claimed Twitter, Google, and Facebook "were totally against me" in 2016 and he's "heard" that "they're fighting me hard right now." He dwelled on Twitter:

If you look at Twitter, I have millions and millions of people on Twitter and it's, you know, it's a very good arm for me. It's great social media. But they don't treat me right. And I know for a fact, I mean, a lot of people try and follow me and it's very hard. I have so many people coming up that they say, "Sir, it's so hard. They make it hard to follow." What they're doing is wrong and possibly illegal. And a lot of things are being looked at right now. [Trump to Fox News]

This isn't the first time Trump has said Twitter somehow makes it hard for people to follow him. In fact, he even reportedly complained about it to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey in the Oval Office.

"There's no way to know what the president is exactly talking about as far as, you know, Twitter making it hard for him to follow, because of course Fox News rarely presses him for details or proof of any claims," Anderson Cooper said on CNN Tuesday night. But "the head of Twitter recently had to explain to the president that numbers of followers sometimes drop when spam and bot accounts are deleted from his favorite source of virtual applause."

If you would prefer an attempt at fact-checking Trump's claims without the snark and Melissa McCarthy clips, Daniel Dale does his best in the video below, along with a reminder that whenever Trump starts a story with "Sir," take it with an unhealthy heaping of salt. Peter Weber

June 6, 2019

Sean Hannity noted on his Fox News show Thursday night that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reportedly told top House Democrats on Tuesday night that she doesn't favor impeaching President Trump because "I don't want to see him impeached, I want to see him in prison." And the nation's highest Democrat calling for a political opponent to be locked up, despite any proven crimes, was beyond the pale for Hannity, one of Trump's biggest boosters.

If a political leader was encouraging or engaging in such behavior — maybe by cheering on chants to that effect at a political rally or major party nominating convention or baselessly accusing law enforcement leaders of the capital crime of treason — it would be "beyond despicable behavior," and "they would literally turn, in many ways, the U.S.A. into a country we would no longer recognize," Hannity said. "That happens in banana republics."

Irony: 1502-June 6, 2019. Requiescat in pace. Peter Weber

May 3, 2019

Rep. Steve Cohen's (D-Tenn.) chicken-themed antics at Attorney General William Barr's no-show House testimony on Thursday was so over-the-top that Stephen Colbert's Late Show kicked off Thursday night's show by poking fun at him.

Friday morning's Fox & Friends hosts mocked Cohen a little harder, focusing on his KFC breakfast — Barr was "chicken" for not showing up to face Democrats' questions — but when they asked contributors Diamond & Silk for their reaction, things got a little ... strange.

Cohen and Barr are both white, and making eating fried chicken about race seems a little ... racially insensitive? Peter Weber

March 20, 2019

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held a Monday afternoon phone briefing on his trip to the Middle East and "international religious freedom." But the one member of the State Department press corps invited to participate in the call was "un-invited after RSVPing," told the call was for "faith-based media only," CNN reports. The State Department said it won't release a transcript of the call or a list of participating outlets, and "officials would not answer questions about whether a range of faiths was included."

On Tuesday, Religion News Service listed some of the participants in the call: Jewish Telegraphic Agency (Jewish), Algemeiner (Jewish), World Magazine (evangelical Christian), America Magazine (Catholic), The Leaven (Catholic — Kansas City archdiocese), and Religion News Service ("a secular news service that covers religion, spirituality, and ethics").

A participant in the call shared a transcript with reporters on Tuesday evening, showing that "Pompeo faced questions about the Israeli election, terrorism, and the omission of the word 'occupied' when describing the Golan Heights and the West Bank," CNN reports. In a subsequent briefing with the traveling press corps, CNN says, Pompeo "was asked similar questions and provided similar responses."

Former State Department spokesman Jack Kirby told CNN it's "inappropriate and irresponsible" not to release the transcript of "any on-the-record interview in which a Cabinet official participates," and excluding "beat reporters from something as universally relevant as religious freedom in the Middle East strikes me as not only self-defeating but incredibly small-minded."

The Trump administration is expected to unveil its long-awaited Israeli-Palestinian peace plan after Israel's election, and earlier this month the White House hosted a group of evangelical Christian leaders "to reassure them about the plan," Axios reported. Pompeo declined to comment on the White House's outreach in Monday's call, RNS reports, but he said a "broad base of people" will be briefed, and "as an evangelical Christian myself, I've always understood the centrality of that place." Peter Weber

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