Friday, February 24, 2017

White House Power Player Jared Kushner Is Keeping Parts of His Real Estate Empire

Given Kushner’s vast portfolio as an adviser to the president, it’s not clear how he’s going to avoid issues that could affect his bank account. The Trump administration has declined to give details.

Go to Original
by Justin Elliott and Al Shaw

Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and the heir to a family real estate empire, has emerged as perhaps Donald Trump’s closest adviser. A near-constant presence by Trump’s side, his portfolio includes businesstaxpolitical, and foreign policy matters.
Last month his lawyers outlined a plan under which they said Kushner would avoid any possibility that his White House work would overlap with his business interests.
The plan didn’t have much detail. But newly releaseddocuments and statements from the White House are making the picture clearer: Kushner is keeping parts of his family business.
Kushner retains some real estate holdings associated with Kushner Companies, a White House spokesperson said in an email.
Kushner has divested ownership of a number of Kushner Companies businesses and one large Manhattan office building, the White House spokesperson said. But the White House and a Kushner Companies spokesman declined to say what Kushner is keeping and what he has given up.
Kushner’s decision to keep some of his business, ethics lawyers say, raises questions about how he will recuse himself from government matters that could affect his own bank account.
“What mechanism will the White House use to ensure that Kushner will not participate in matters that affect his retained financial interests?” asked Kathleen Clark, an ethics law expert and professor at Washington University School of Law. “We, the public, should have information about what types of matters Kushner is going to have to recuse from.”
Given the sprawling and complicated nature of the Kushner family business, the issue is not academic.
The New York Times recently explored Kushner Companies’ dealings with a Chinese firm that has ties to that country’s government. Kushner Companies has also had relationships with a number of large financial firms such as Goldman Sachs that will likely be affected by Trump administration policies.
Kushner Companies’ real estate holdings are intertwined with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage finance giants that may face an overhaul during the Trump administration, as Bloomberg recently reported.
Asked about Kushner’s plan to avoid conflicts, White House spokeswoman Hope Hicks did not offer any specific areas that he will recuse himself from. She said in an email:
“Like other government employees, Mr. Kushner will recuse from particular matters that would have a direct and predictable effect on his financial interests and will comply with financial disclosure requirements.”

Here’s why recusals are needed and how they work

Kushner was hired as an executive branch employee, so he must comply with the law that makes it a crime for an official to work on a government matter that will affect his financial interests. (As president, Donald Trump is, famously, exempt from that law.)
People entering the government have two primary ways of resolving conflicts: selling off the assets that may pose a conflict, or keeping ownership and recusing themselves from government matters that could affect the holdings.
For officials like Kushner who hold onto assets, there is usually a memo outlining areas of recusal, ethics lawyers say. Sometimes there is a screening process so the official isn’t invited to, say, a meeting on a matter that would affect their holdings.
“There would likely be some written documentation of at least the overall understanding of the kinds of matters in which an individual White House official would not participate,” said ethics specialist Robert Walker of law firm Wiley Rein, speaking of the general practice, not about Kushner specifically.
For Kushner, the White House Counsel’s Office will be in charge of monitoring compliance with the conflict of interest law and, in case of any violations, making a criminal referral. High-profile prosecutions under the law are rare but not unheard of. A Bush-era Food and Drug Administration commissioner pleaded guilty in 2006 to charges stemming from his ownership of stocks in companies regulated by the agency.
Trump’s White House Counsel is Don McGahn, an attorney best known for his deregulatory fervor during his stint as Federal Election Commissioner. “The multiple ethics problems swirling around the White House are squarely McGahn’s responsibility,” wrote Harvard Law professor and former Bush Administration official Jack Goldsmith in a blog post last week.

Here’s what we now know about the state of Kushner’s business holdings

While the White House would only say that Kushner retains some real estate holdings, Kushner does have to file a financial disclosure form that will give more details about what he owns. The filing should be made public in the coming weeks or months. That filing may also shed light on what assets Kushner divested in the preceding year.
Kushner Companies is privately held so the full extent of the business is not clear. The company says it owns or manages 20,000 apartments and 13 million square feet of office and retail space in six states.
Among its best-known holdings are 666 Fifth Avenue, a Manhattan office tower purchased for $1.8 billion in 2007; the former Jehovah’s Witness Watchtower headquarters on the Brooklyn waterfront; and the building in midtown Manhattan that used to house The New York Times.
Kushner has divested from 666 Fifth Avenue, according to both the White House and Kushner Companies spokesman James Yolles.
“He has also divested from numerous Kushner Companies businesses and has no role in the management or operations of Kushner Companies,” Yolles said in an email. 
Neither Yolles nor the White House would provide more details.
Kushner has also stepped down as chief executive of the family company.
The new documents, from the Office of Government Ethics, show that Kushner has sold his interest in seven entities, some of which are associated with Thrive Capital, a venture capital firm run by his brother, Joshua. (Thrive has investments in Oscar, the health insurance company.)
Last month, Kushner’s attorneys told reporters that he would divest from 35 investments. It’s not clear whether all of those divestitures have been made or what the remaining investments are.
Kushner’s attorneys said that some of those assets would be sold to Kushner’s brother and a trust controlled by his mother. That arrangement raised the eyebrows of some ethics experts, with one describing it as a “shell game.”
Under the conflict of interest law, government employees must also avoid conflicts that could arise from their spouse’s assets. Kushner’s attorneys previously said that his wife, Ivanka Trump, would divest some assets. But again the details are unclear.
Government ethics office documentsshow Ivanka Trump divested shares in a handful of securities. But it’s not clear if Ivanka Trump has sold other holdings, such as her stake in the Trump Organization’s hotel at the Old Post Office building in Washington, D.C. That hotel is run under a lease with the federal government, which could create another conflict for Kushner.
The Office of Government Ethics warned Kushner’s attorneys about the unpredictability of ethics issues, according to heavily redacted email exchanges, which were first reported by MSNBC.
“Ethics issues arise unexpectedly, and they don’t come with the label ‘Caution! I’m an ethics issue,’” wrote agency director Walter Shaub, continuing:
“White House appointees are at the mercy of the attention span of a White House Counsel’s office with a thousand other things to do. As things are currently shaping up, it’s not clear that this new White House will have a fully functioning ethics office of its own on the first day. For that reason, caution is advisable. The further you can put [Kushner] back from the line, the better you will protect him.”

The Breakthrough: How Reporters Really Use Unnamed Sources

Go to Original
by Jessica Huseman

The Trump administration has been the focus of remarkable reporting recently — much of it relying on unnamed sources.
The New York Times revealed that members of President Donald Trump’s campaign had been in repeated contact with members of Russian intelligence. The story, which was based on four unnamed sources, landed days after The Washington Post confirmed through nine unnamed sources that National Security Advisor Mike Flynn had discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador before Inauguration Day. Flynn had previously denied that, and he resigned days later.
Trump has repeatedly slammed the press, labeling traditional outlets like The New York Times “fake news.” Much of the public sympathizes, and may question the veracity of claims made by sources who aren’t named.
An underground crossing in Moscow, Russia (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images)
This week on The Breakthrough, we spoke to The New York Times’ Michael Schmidt and Mark Mazzetti, who — along with their colleague Matt Apuzzo — detailed the contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence. They talked to us about how they find anonymous sources, what they do to confirm the information, and whether reporting under these circumstances is really different under the Trump administration.
Listen to this podcast on iTunesSoundCloud or Stitcher.

Marijuana Industry Angered by White House Reversal

Renewed federal enforcement will kill jobs and damage a $6 billion business in states where recreational use is legal, proponents say.

Go to Original
by Jennifer Kaplan  and Polly Mosendz

The cannabis industry was rattled after White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said he expects the Department of Justice to increase enforcement of federal laws prohibiting recreational pot, even in states where it’s already legal.

CIA Cables Detail Its New Deputy Director’s Role in Torture

Gina Haspel, President Trump’s choice for the CIA’s number two position, was more deeply involved in the torture of Abu Zubaydah than has been publicly understood, according to newly available records and accounts by participants.

Go to Original
by Raymond Bonner

In August of 2002, interrogators at a secret CIA-run prison in Thailand set out to break a Palestinian man they believed was one of al-Qaida’s top leaders.
As the CIA’s video cameras rolled, security guards shackled Abu Zubaydah to a gurney and interrogators poured water over his mouth and nose until he began to suffocate. They slammed him against a wall, confined him for hours in a coffin-like box, and deprived him of sleep.
The 31-year-old Zubaydah begged for mercy, saying that he knew nothing about the terror group’s future plans. The CIA official in charge, known in agency lingo as the “chief of base,” mocked his complaints, accusing Zubaydah of faking symptoms of psychological breakdown. The torture continued.
When questions began to swirl about the Bush administration’s use of the “black sites,” and program of “enhanced interrogation,” the chief of base began pushing to have the tapes destroyed. She accomplished her mission years later when she rose to a senior position at CIA headquarters and drafted an order to destroy the evidence, which was still locked in a CIA safe at the American embassy in Thailand. Her boss, the head of the agency’s counterterrorism center, signed the order to feed the 92 tapes into a giant shredder.
By then, it was clear that CIA analysts were wrong when they had identified Zubaydah as the number three or four in al-Qaida after Osama bin Laden. The waterboarding failed to elicit valuable intelligence not because he was holding back, but because he was not a member of al-Qaida, and had no knowledge of any plots against the United States.
The chief of base’s role in this tale of pointless brutality and evidence destruction was a footnote to history — until earlier this month, when President Trump named her deputy director of the CIA.
The choice of Gina Haspel for the second-highest position in the agency has been praised by colleagues but sharply criticized by two senators who have seen the still-classified records of her time in Thailand.
“Her background makes her unsuitable for the position,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., wrote in a letter to Trump. “We are sending a classified letter explaining our position and urge that the information be immediately declassified.”
That’s not likely to happen. ProPublica has combed through recently declassified documents, including CIA cables and Zubaydah’s own account of what he endured, and books by officials involved in the CIA’s interrogation program to assemble the fullest public account of Haspel’s role in the questioning of Zubaydah. The material we reviewed shows she played a far more direct role than has been understood.
Asked to respond to the specific allegations about Haspel, a CIA spokesperson said only that, “Nearly every piece of the reporting that you are seeking comment on is incorrect in whole or in part.” We reminded the spokesperson that many of the specifics came from books written by former CIA officials and cleared before publication by the agency. He declined to say which aspects of the reporting, or those books, were incorrect but did provide a long list of testimonials to Haspel’s skills from present and former intelligence officials.
Critics of Haspel’s appointment argue that her past is particularly relevant in light of Trump’s shifting statements on the value of torturing terror suspects. During the campaign, former director of Central Intelligence Michael Hayden said in response to Trump’s endorsement of torture that “if any future president wants (the) CIA to waterboard anybody, he’d better bring his own bucket.” After he won the election, Trump said he was persuaded by his secretary of defense, James Mattis, that torture is not effective. The Trump administration recently drafted and then withdrew a draft executive order asking American intelligence agencies to consider resuming “enhanced interrogation” of terror suspects.
Much of the material we reviewed for this story referred to Haspel only by her title, chief of base, or “COB.” Three former government officials, however, said the person described by that title in books and declassified documents was Haspel. As chief of base, these officials said, Haspel signed many of the cables sent from Thailand to CIA headquarters recounting Zubaydah’s questioning. The declassified versions of those documents redact the name of the official who sent them.
One declassified cable, among scores obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union in a lawsuit against the architects of the “enhanced interrogation” techniques, says that chief of base and another senior counterterrorism official on scene had the sole authority power to halt the questioning.
She never did so, records show, watching as Zubaydah vomited, passed out and urinated on himself while shackled. During one waterboarding session, Zubaydah lost consciousness and bubbles began gurgling from his mouth. Medical personnel on the scene had to revive him. Haspel allowed the most brutal interrogations by the CIA to continue for nearly three weeks even though, as the cables sent from Thailand to the agency’s headquarters repeatedly stated, “subject has not provided any new threat information or elaborated on any old threat information.”
At one point, Haspel spoke directly with Zubaydah, accusing him of faking symptoms of physical distress and psychological breakdown. In a scene described in a book written by one of the interrogators, the chief of base came to his cell and “congratulated him on the fine quality of his acting.” According to the book, the chief of base, who was identified only by title, said: “Good job! I like the way you’re drooling; it adds realism. I’m almost buying it. You wouldn’t think a grown man would do that.”
Haspel was sent by the chief of the CIA’s counterterrorism section, Jose Rodriquez, the “handpicked warden of the first secret prison the CIA created to handle al-Qaida detainees,” according to a little-noticed recent article in Reader Supported News by John Kiriakou, a former CIA counterterrorism officer. In his memoir, “Hard Measures,” Rodriquez refers to a “female chief of base” in Thailand but does not name her.
Kirakou provided more details about her central role. “It was Haspel who oversaw the staff,” at the Thai prison, including James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, the two psychologists who “designed the torture techniques and who actually carried out torture on the prisoners,” he wrote.
Kiriakou pleaded guilty in 2012 to releasing classified information about waterboarding and the torture of detainees, and served 23 months in prison.
The CIA officials in Thailand understood that the methods they were using could kill Zubaydah and said that should that happen, they would cremate his body. If he survived questioning, Haspel sought assurances that “the subject will remain in isolation and incommunicado for the remainder of his life.”
So far, that promise has been kept. Zubaydah is currently incarcerated at Guantanamo. His lawyers filed a court action in 2008 seeking his release, but the federal judges overseeing the case have failed to issue any substantive rulings.
Zubaydah was seized in a raid in Pakistan in late March 2002, during which he suffered life-threatening bullet wounds in his leg and groin. The CIA had long been hunting for Zubaydah, who had worked as what one former government official described as “administrator” at a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan. The camp was started by the CIA during the Soviet occupation, was not under the control of al-Qaida or Osama bin Laden, the official said, but Zubaydah had on occasion supplied false passports and money to al-Qaida operatives.
American doctors saved Zubaydah’s life, and after he was stable enough he was drugged, gagged, trussed and blindfolded, and put on a CIA charter flight. In order to avoid being traced, the plane flew around the world, stopping in several places, including Morocco and Brazil, before landing in Thailand.
While still hospitalized, Zubaydah was interrogated by the FBI, led by Ali Soufan, an Arabic speaker. According to Soufan, Zubaydah, who was generally cooperative, provided the FBI interrogators with valuable intelligence on the overall structure of al-Qaida.
His information also confirmed what the CIA already believed, that Khalid Sheik Mohammed was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. A talkative sort who expressed a willingness to cooperate, Zubaydah gave the FBI information that led to the arrest of Jose Padilla for plotting to detonate bombs in the United States. Zubaydah, who was born in Palestine, said that while he believed in jihad, the 9/11 attacks were not justified because they killed innocent civilians.
CIA officials were convinced that he knew about plots in America, and with the horror of 9/11 still fresh, the agency was determined to prevent another attack. A month after Zubaydah was captured, Haspel drafted a cable titled “Turning Up the Heat in AZ Interrogations.”
Soon after, he was put into isolation for 45 days, kept awake with loud music and doused with cold water. During this time, the ALEC team at CIA headquarters, which was assigned to find Osama bin Laden, sent questions to Thailand for the team to ask Zubaydah; they went unasked, and unanswered, because he was in isolation.
The FBI and CIA clashed over whether or not Zubaydah was fully cooperating on the subject of possible future attacks. The agency’s view prevailed, and counterterrorism officials sought permission for harsher measures.
In late July, the CIA team conducted a “dress rehearsal … which choreographed moving Abu Zubaydah (Subject) in and out of the large and small confinement boxes, as well as use of the water board,” Haspel notified Washington.
A few days later, she wrote, “Team is ready to move to the next phase of interrogations immediately upon receipt of approvals/authorization from ALEC/Headquarters. It is our understanding that DOJ/Attorney General approvals for all portions of the next phase, including the water board, have been secured, but that final approval is in the hands of the policy makers.”
By this time, the source on whom the CIA had based its assessment that Zubaydah was number three or four in the al-Qaida organization had recanted his testimony, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture released in 2014. The agency would ultimately conclude that Zubaydah was not even a member of al-Qaida.
“So it begins,” a medical officer on Haspel’s team wrote on the morning of Aug. 4, 2002.
Later that year, when journalists began asking the CIA and the White House about a “black site,” in Thailand, the CIA rushed to close it. Zubaydah was again drugged, trussed, blindfolded, and put on another secret CIA flight to another black site, this time in Poland.
Haspel moved to cover up the agency’s operations at the Thai base. The chief of base told the security officer “to burn everything that he could in preparation for sanitizing the black site,” Mitchell wrote in his book, “Enhanced Interrogation: Inside the Minds and Motives of the Islamic Terrorists Trying to Destroy America,” which was published late last year.
According to Mitchell’s account, the security officer asked the chief of base whether he should include the tapes; he was told to hold off until “she” could check with Washington.
She was told to retain them. A few years later when she was back in Washington and chief of staff to the director of operations for counterterrorism, Jose Rodriquez, the man who had sent her to Thailand, she continued to lobby for destruction of the tapes.
“My chief of staff drafted a cable approving the action we had been trying to accomplish for so long,” Rodriquez writes in his memoir. “The cable left nothing to chance. It even told them how to get rid of the tapes. They were to use an industrial-strength shredder to do the deed.”
Without approval from the White House or Justice Department, Rodriquez gave the order.
In a twist of fate, destroying the tapes drew more outside scrutiny of the program. Disclosure of the shredding prompted the Senate Intelligence Committee to begin its long-running examination of the torture program. The result was a 7,000-page report that drew on thousands of highly classified cables relating to the Bush administration’s rendition and detention program and concluded torture was not effective.

What We Learned From Scott Pruitt's Emails to the Fossil Fuel Industry

Go to Original
By Mike Ludwig

Scott Pruitt's office in Oklahoma City handed over 7,000 pages of internal emails to watchdogs under a court order yesterday, providing new details of his close relationship with the fossil fuel industry just days after he was confirmed to run the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The emails, along with a batch of documents previously released to The New York Times, place Oklahoma's former attorney general in the middle of a multi-state collaboration between Republicans and industry lobbyists to derail President Obama's regulatory efforts and fight back against litigation from environmental groups. They also offer a vivid glimpse of the direction in which the EPA is heading, now that Pruitt is running it.
Just days ago, Senate Republicans and two Democrats from fossil-fuel producing states confirmed Pruitt as EPA administrator despite protests from liberal Democrats, who warned that their colleagues would regret confirming Pruitt before the emails were released.
"Every senator who voted for Pruitt should be prepared to answer to constituents when the next Flint, Michigan crisis happens in their districts," said Greenpeace researcher Jesse Coleman in a statement to Truthout.
Unfortunately for environmentalists, Pruitt's supporters are not showing any immediate signs of regret, even after the release of the emails. After a Truthout review of the documents, we can confirm that the emails provide clear evidence that Pruitt worked with fracking companies and electric utilities to build cases against federal pollution regulation. However, these efforts are not likely to shock lawmakers into belated opposition. Pruitt's actions appear to be in step with a broader Republican agenda to protect the fossil fuel industry from the added costs of enhancing pollution prevention and cleanup.
The emails verify that Pruitt worked hand in hand with the industry his state was supposed to regulate. In 2013, a coal lobbyist suggested Pruitt's office "cut and paste" talking points from an industry white paper when encouraging other states to file comments opposing new EPA air pollution requirements for states. The lobbyist, Rod Hastie, even met with Pruitt personally to discuss a white paper covering Pruitt's work on energy issues. Pruitt's office also discussed regulations with Devon Energy, major oil and gas producer, as well as various industry attorneys and lobbyists.
Pruitt has not been shy about his support for the same industries over which he will, theoretically, serve as a federal watchdog. In fact, that's exactly how he thinks government should work. Addressing hundreds of skeptical career EPA employees on Monday, Pruitt said the "regulators exist to give certainty over those they regulate."
Jason Kowalski, the policy director at the climate group 350.org, said the email dump confirms what environmentalists already knew: Pruitt is a "professional" climate change denier, and that's exactly why he was chosen to run the EPA.
"These emails show that there is a vast network of fossil fuel companies and people they hire who have been supporting this kind of behavior in public servants for a long time," Kowalski told Truthout. "People like Scott Pruitt are unfortunately not rare in our society."
For the fossil fuel industry and its allies in government, Pruitt's ascent to the head of the EPA is a coup d'├ętat. Stacks of letters and reports from industry lobbyists, oil and gas companies and a major electric utility in Oklahoma provided to Pruitt's office reveal intense hand-wringing about environmentalist litigation and new rules put forth by Obama's EPA, along with talking points and legal strategies to combat them.
A 2014 report from Oklahoma Gas and Electric submitted to Pruitt's office includes a long list of EPA rules designed to reduce toxic air and water pollutants, combat smog and address global warming, and describes just how these rules would add costs and create headaches for the company's power plants.
The utility said it was preparing to spend millions of dollars on pollution control equipment and even start burning natural gas instead of coal at one facility. Of course, Obama-era regulations were designed to force polluters to invest in cleaner technology and move away from coal power, the nation's largest source of climate-warming greenhouse gas.
However, Oklahoma Gas and Electric complained that many new EPA regulations and enforcement actions were caught up in litigation, with environmental groups like the Sierra Club often intervening, creating financial uncertainty for a company that provides energy to millions of Oklahomans.
Pruitt and others chalked up the Obama-era regulations to federal overreach into state matters that would drive up energy costs. He soon emerged as a vocal critic of "sue and settle," the environmentalist tactic of forcing the EPA to act through litigation. Ironically, his solution was more litigation: Pruitt joined the oil, gas and coal industries in 14 lawsuits against the EPA designed to block nearly all of the Obama administration's major environmental initiatives.
"Those that we regulate ought to know what we expect of them, so that they can plan and allocate resources to comply," Pruitt told his new employees yesterday. "That's really the job of the regulator, and the process we engage in."
Pruitt's statement echoes years of talking points emanating from conservatives, the industry and, most recently, President Trump. Republicans and pro-industry Democrats from fossil fuel-producing states say they want to work with the industry, not against it, so it's no surprise that Pruitt has risen through the ranks of the GOP after doing just that as a state attorney general.
Still, Pruitt is not quite the embodiment of transparency. During the confirmation process, he dodged questions from Senate Democrats, and his office appeared reluctant to release his emails to the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), the watchdog group that requested them under Oklahoma's public records law back in 2015.
Pruitt's office said it responds to requests in the order they are received, but last week, a judge ruled that Pruitt was in violation of Oklahoma's sunshine law, which requires the government to provide "prompt and reasonable" access to documents. The judge ordered that Pruitt turn over the emails on Tuesday, and his office complied shortly before the deadline.
"There is no valid legal justification for the emails we received last night not being released prior to Pruitt's confirmation vote other than to evade public scrutiny," said Arn Pearson, general counsel for CMD, in a statement.
Pearson said senators should have been able to review the documents before the confirmation vote. Now that Pruitt is firmly planted at the EPA's helm, it's unclear what impact they will have besides offering a lurid preview of the agency's future under the Trump administration.

Grave Dangers: Richard Falk and Lawrence Davidson on Trump's Middle East Policies

Go to Original
By Dan Falcone

Now that Donald Trump has signaled that the US no longer sees the creation of a Palestinian state as a crucial component of an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, the future of US diplomacy in the Middle East is in turmoil. According to international law and international relations scholar Richard Falk, "Trump's casual public comments exhibited no substantive grasp of the situation, and thus when he indicated his abandonment of a two-state consensus, it is best interpreted as reflecting Israel's preferred outcome."
Meanwhile, in a February 15 meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump also continued to disparage Barack Obama's nuclear agreement with Iran, raising questions, referring to it as a "danger."
In this interview, Richard Falk and historian Lawrence Davidson, whose research has focused on the history of US foreign relations with the Middle East, discuss the ramifications of the Trump presidency in regards to Middle East affairs, the Palestinian people and the American embassy in Israel, as well as the meaning of the coming of Trump foreign policies across the world in regards to Iran, Russia and potential NATO expansion.
Daniel Falcone: What does the election of Trump mean for the Palestinians? Do you see a spike in aggression and settlement expansion?
Richard Falk: Trump's election is generally bad news.... In international policy, one can imagine that if Trump were foolish enough to go ahead with his pledge to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, it would be widely experienced throughout the Islamic world as a provocation. Among its unintended consequences might be a new surge of Palestinian resistance, a renewal of active Arab support for Palestinian self-determination, further de-legitimation of Israeli settlement expansion and its various efforts to transform Jerusalem into a Jewish city, a more militant [boycott, divestment and sanctions] BDS campaign around the world, and added pressure at the UN to censure its expansionist defiance of international law, and even to consider the imposition of sanctions.
Lawrence Davidson: Trump's election means that you have a US government that will no longer do one thing and say another. With the exception of Obama's belated lame-duck behavior, the US has always, in practice, supported Israel unquestionably. At the same time, you had a diplomatic position taken that Israeli expansion was counterproductive because it got in the way of a "peace process" that had, in truth, long been meaningless.
[Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, in his rather undiplomatic way, demanded that Washington bring words and actions together into a coherent, 100 percent pro-Israeli policy. Obama, apparently still having faith in a "two-state solution," refused to do this.
Trump, on the other hand, has very little understanding of the historical nuances of the conflict. Also, he has no sympathy with underdogs. They, including the Palestinians, are just "losers." So he will bring words and action together as Netanyahu wishes. Under Trump, the US will give its blessing to Israeli imperialism and racism.
President Trump stated numerous times over the course of his campaign that the Iran nuclear deal framework of 2015 was "the worst deal in history." Conjecture without content became common in regards to the intense criticism of all things President Obama. What do you suppose is the potential impact on the deal with the present administration?
Falk: There are reports that Israeli intelligence officials have communicated to the Trump transition team that they hope that the Iran Nuclear Agreement will not be undermined because of its probable detrimental impact on Israeli security. If Trump were to go ahead with a renewed policy of hostility toward Iran, it would immediately raise tensions, and could quickly escalate in the direction of war, with grave dangers of producing another Syrian tragedy of massive displacement and prolonged strife that could cause turmoil and disruptions throughout the entire region, and give rise to a new cycle of extremism.
It could also ruin any prospects for a collaborative approach to the region that joined the United States with Russia and Turkey in peacekeeping efforts, initially to achieve a sustained cease-fire in Syria, followed by an agreed political process. I can only hope that Trump comes to realize the grave dangers of adopting a policy of confrontation toward Iran. Among these dangers is the likelihood that hardliners would again gain the upper hand in the governing process in Tehran, and the moderates who have sought to end national and regional tensions would be marginalized, or worse.
Davidson: Trump often acts in delusional ways. I think he is a man who has always made his own rules and gotten away with it. Enough money will do that for you. However, he has also gotten away with it because he has operated in limited contexts -- mostly in the realm of business. Well, "he isn't in Kansas anymore" (the allusion is to the Wizard of Oz). He is in a much rougher neighborhood, and consequences of acting in his usual egocentric, "I make the rules," way can be quite dangerous for all of us.
Specifically in reference to Iran, he will not be able to renegotiate the nuclear arms pact. His attempt to do so will alienate all the European powers involved and will cost a number of US companies some very lucrative contracts. It is a losing proposition for him and for the US. Much more so than for Iran, who will turn more and more to Russia and China as trading partners. The question is: Will Trump's ego allow him to reconsider any negative moves that he now might have in mind? Such reconsideration is really out of character for him. And, of course, the Israelis will be right there whispering in his ear, urging him to go jump off of this particular cliff.
For the Democratic elite and US government elected officials like Charles Schumer, how fragile is the nuclear deal, considering its skepticism is bipartisan? For instance, if lobbyists pressure politicians regardless of party, based on contributions, is it likely to be reversed?
Falk: It is difficult to assess how much of the skepticism about the Iran nuclear deal was rhetoric, and how much represents real policy goals. There is little doubt that if Netanyahu strongly signals a demand for scrapping the agreement, and confronting Iran and resuming a policy of threatening attack, Trump, with the support of most Democrats, will feel strong pressure to deliver on his earlier denunciation of the agreement, and be faced with many adverse consequences almost certain to follow. The whole diplomatic context is extremely fragile. It should be appreciated that if the arrangement on Iran's nuclear program collapses after being so patiently negotiated, and successfully implemented since 2014 despite the intense opposition of Netanyahu's Israel and its American loyalists in Congress, it would be widely perceived around the world as a huge setback in the search for regional stability and the struggle to prevent any further spread of nuclear weapons.
It should also be remembered that this agreement was a multilateral arrangement between Iran and the P5 +1. That is, the agreement was a joint effort of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, and not merely a bilateral arrangement between the US and Iran. If the US government irresponsibly undermines the agreement, it will badly damage relations with both its European allies and its main geopolitical rivals, as well as undermine confidence in diplomatic alternatives to war in the Middle East.
Davidson: Trump might well choose to renege on US obligations (so much for the sanctity of contracts!) and no doubt he would have the agreement of Zionist politicians like Schumer. But the consequences will be the increased isolation of the US -- particularly from Europe, whose businesses will just move into Iran while US companies will lose out.
There is a dangerous aspect to all of this, however. Trump's tendency is to rub shoulders with dictators. We have seen this with his attitude toward Russia and also toward the present dictatorship in Egypt. He might start to cozy up to the Gulf dictators as a way of trying to scare the Iranians. This could lead to a naval confrontation in the Persian Gulf.
President Trump also seems very anxious to forge a heightened relationship with Israel and tolerant of the extreme rhetoric of Benjamin Netanyahu and his reactionary statesmanship. If this eventually leads to undermining Iran, will that pose problems for Trump, who is trying to appear pro-Russian and pro-Putin? Would it lead to inevitable North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion?
Falk: Yes, Trump will have to take up juggling if he goes ahead and scraps the agreement with Iran and at the same time, seeks to avoid alienating Russia, and quite possibly France and Germany. These European countries are already nervous about what the Trump presidency means with respect to the future of the post-World War II international order that has essentially kept the peace on the continent since 1945. This order is far from perfect, of course, and under pressure from other sources, especially due to the rise of chauvinism and European Trumpism. Nevertheless, Europe has survived decades of Cold War tensions without experiencing yet another major war, this one quite possibly fought with nuclear weapons.
In light of Trump's irresponsible behavior, even Putin may decide that it was time to recalculate Russian interests. This could happen quite quickly if Trump goes ahead and wrecks one of the few potentially stabilizing developments in the Middle East during the last several years. Similarly, if Israel joins NATO, this might be more than Putin is willing to swallow.
Davidson: I think Trump's affinity for Netanyahu is part of the fact that he is most comfortable with fellow bullies. He is setting up a worldwide club of ruling bullies.
If Trump takes an aggressive anti-Iranian stand, I suspect it will complicate his relations with Russia; how much so, depends on what else Trump does, particularly about participation in NATO. If he shows signs of backing out of Europe, the Russians might be willing to stay out of his confrontation with Iran. If he follows Obama's program in Europe, things might be different.
My guess is that Trump will begin withdrawing troops from Europe at a slow pace. He will demand a renovation of the Iran Accord and get nowhere with this. There might be more US sanctions on Iran. However, as I mentioned, the Iranians will not compromise with Trump, and barring a naval confrontation in the Persian Gulf, it will be US businesses that will suffer and Trump's frustration level that will go up.
It was reported that David Friedman, Trump's appointed ambassador to Israel, will work from Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv, even before the embassy switches locations. Can you comment on the symbolism and pending dangers of such a hostile, crude and flagrant act?
Falk: Moving the embassy will be dangerously provocative to the Palestinians and to the region generally. It would confirm the worst impressions that America under Trump has become a rogue state posing catastrophic risks not only in the Middle East, but elsewhere as well.
I am quite confident that there are numerous discussions going in various "deep states" throughout the world about how to contain Trump's America geopolitically and economically, given the early indications that his policies will intensify conflict in many parts of the world. It is possible that these worries are overblown and misdirected -- that, in fact, Trump's call for "America First" (despite evoking unpleasant recollections that such a phrase was the invention of those in the 1930s harboring fascist sympathies) and a positive relationship with Russia, might lead [to] a more relaxed global setting. We should not rule out the possibility that Trump's diplomacy could deescalate Middle East strife and international tensions, give the US a lower global profile and enable a more balanced world order to emerge, doing most of its damage here at home, through moves to implement his vision of nativist nationalism.
My own sense is that if David Friedman chooses to live in Jerusalem, and quietly conduct diplomatic business from the now existing US consulate in the city, it will not be noticed very much. It will not be treated as a rupture with the past unless it is accompanied by other American encouragements of Israeli extremism undertaken with the clear backing of the White House.
In this regard, any move by Israel to end the conflict with the Palestinians by unilateral moves -- such as annexing the West Bank, delinking Gaza and declaring that there be no further diplomatic process -- will lead to strong regional and global reactions, as well as intensify efforts at the UN and in civil society to brand Israel as an outlaw state dangerous to regional and world peace and guilty of criminal behavior. Already there exists a growing international concern that Israel has become "an apartheid state" pursuing policies manifesting a "settler colonial" mentality. Such perceptions pose a challenge to postcolonial international society that will not be indefinitely ignored, especially if Palestinians achieve greater unity and tactical focus.
Davidson: Friedman owns property in Israel, including an apartment in Jerusalem. According to reports, that is where he will live and work.
There are also reports that the embassy move is on a relatively slow track. The Zionists aren't pushing for it strongly because there are other bilateral issues that have higher priority, in particular, a green light for the annexation of settlements. Such a green light would be the backdrop justification for Trump to carry through with the embassy move.
If the Americans do move the embassy to Jerusalem, and eventually the rest of the world follows suit, it will mark the end of Palestinian hopes for a two-state solution. 
Lastly, can you comment on the February 15 Netanyahu and Trump meeting at the White House? What was the significance of this meeting?
Falk: The significance of this meeting was mainly a matter of style and tone, an exhibition of the US enlarged deference to the wishes of Israel when it comes to the fate of the Palestinians. Trump's casual public comments exhibited no substantive grasp of the situation, and thus when he indicated his abandonment of a two-state consensus, it is best interpreted as reflecting Israel's preferred outcome. [He added] that as long as the parties agreed it didn't matter to him whether it was one state or two states so long as it ended the conflict.
Since Israel would rather re-experience Masada [last stand in the First Jewish Revolt against Rome] than renounce the core Zionist objective of establishing a Jewish state, the only one-state "solution" on the horizon of realistic possibilities is an Israeli "one state" that fulfills the messianic nationalist ideal embraced by deep Zionism, likely consisting of completing the expansionist process of recent years by incorporating all or most of the West Bank (already spoken of inside Israel by the biblical names of Judea and Samaria), casting Gaza adrift, consolidating control over Jerusalem, and transferring as many West Bank Palestinians as possible to Jordan.