'something should happen'
‘Steps are under way’: the US response to the ongoing conflict in Syria
Between 70 and 100 Syrians died during what appeared to be a chemical bombing by Syrian government forces early Tuesday morning. The attack, which took place in Idlib Province, a northern region held by rebel forces, was roundly condemned by Western leaders, including President Trump, who in an official White House statement called it “reprehensible.” The White House later criticized former president Obama for failing to follow through on his famous “red line” statement in 2012 (which in 2013, Trump argued against) – Press Secretary Sean Spicer blamed the attack on “the past administration’s weakness and irresolution.”
When asked by reporters to comment directly on the bombing, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said nothing, prompting a swift internet backlash. In an official statement released shortly after, Tillerson urged Syrian allies Russia and Iran to “exercise their influence over the Syrian regime and to guarantee that this sort of horrific attack never happens again.” On Thursday, Tillerson again changed his tone, asserting that “steps are under way” toward building an international coalition that would remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power.
Assad has denied that military forces carried out the attack, and a spokesman for Russia’s Defense Ministry has suggested a different explanation, as reported by the New York Times: that “Syrian warplanes had struck an insurgent storehouse containing toxic substances to be used in chemical weapons.”
On Wednesday the US called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council to determine the UN response to the bombing, during which US Ambassador Nikki Haley criticized Russia for “blocking a robust response” to the attack and hinted that the US might act alone, if the UN fails to do anything meaningful.
On Thursday, Trump ordered missile strikes on a Syrian airfield, despite Russian warnings of “negative consequences” should the US choose to use military force. The Kremlin responded to the strike with a statement denouncing "aggression against a sovereign state...on a made-up pretext."
You can read Trump's official statement on the missile strike here.
At The Atlantic, Amarnath Amarasingam details the horrifying effects of sarin, the nerve agent suspected to have been used in the attack, along with its history of use as a chemical weapon.
The ‘nuclear option’ clears the way for Gorsuch confirmation
Following a successful Democratic filibuster, Senate Republicans deployed the ‘nuclear option’ in clearing the path for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, voting to lower the threshold for a confirmation from a supermajority of 60 votes to a simple majority. As the New York Times reports, “Both parties have warned of sweeping effects on the court itself [following the rule change], predicting the elevation of more ideologically extreme judges now that only a majority is required for confirmation.” Senate Democrats first voted in 2013 to lower the confirmation threshold for presidential nominees to lower courts and government positions.
At the National Review, Charles Krauthammer argues that changing the rules on Supreme Court nominations is “on balance, a good thing.”
At the New Yorker, Amy Davidson agrees, claiming “the sixty-vote requirement led to gridlock, not to governance. Instead of pushing Senators to compromise, it protected them from the consequences of their rhetoric and their extremism.”
This week in Russia
House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes will temporarily step away from the ongoing investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election, after the House Ethics Committee opened an inquiry into whether he improperly disclosed classified information. Rep Mike Conaway (R-TX) will lead the Russia investigation until the ethics inquiry is completed.
According to The Washington Post, a week and a half before Trump officially took office, the United Arab Emirates “arranged a secret meeting in January between Blackwater founder Erik Prince and a Russian close to President Vladimir Putin as part of an apparent effort to establish a back-channel line of communication between Moscow and President-elect Donald Trump.” The story which, like most stories, is more complex than it seems, can be found here.
At a recent cyber forum, NSA Deputy Director Richard Ledgett described an attempt in 2014 by Russian hackers to access the unclassified State Department computer system as “hand-to-hand combat…a new level of interaction between a cyber attacker and a defender.”
14 people were killed and dozens more were injured when a bomb exploded on a subway train in St. Petersburg Monday. A second bomb was later found and deactivated at a second subway station. Russian authorities have confirmed the attack as a suicide bombing, naming Akbarzhon Dzhalilov, a 22-year-old native of Kyrgyzstan, as the bomber and arresting three people believed to be connected.
Recommended Listening: this Radio Times episode on the role of disinformation in the ongoing investigation into the links between Trump and Russia.
A Richmond Circuit Court judge has ruled against a claim that 11 Virginia districts were illegally gerrymandered…Chief White House Strategist Steve Bannon was removed from the National Security Council although, as Fox News reports, he “is still permitted to go to NSC meetings”…Trump donated approximately $78,000 of his presidential salary to the National Parks… US District judge approved $25 million settlement of Trump University lawsuit…Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “backed calls for a congressional investigation” of the claim that Susan Rice, “unmasked” members of Trump’s transitional team for political purposes…Trump met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Mar-el-Lago Thursday to discuss North Korea, trade…Twitter sued federal government after it demanded identity of owner of account critical of Trump’s immigration policies...Labor Department reported the slowest job growth in 10 months, as unemployment falls to just 4.5 percent.
above image: a.anis / flickr