Hello, readers! Are you ready for another News Roundup?
Today is Daylight Saving Time for those in the U.S. That means I’m losing another hour to get this ready. There are so many interesting items I found this week, but I’ll start you off with a few international ones.
This post will be updated to include more items, including the Republican plan to replace the Affordable Care Act.
Table of Contents
Here are the stories I have curated for this week:
In International News …
Although the French election will be held late next month, I wanted to include an update on it and get it out of the way. But this week, I will start with delicate topics like Israel’s relationship with Russia and how the United States is weighing its options with North Korea.
Netanyahu and Putin Met in Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow on Thursday. The two exchanged pleasantries but the talk mainly surrounded Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah.
Putin wished Netanyahu a happy Purim. Purim is a traditional Jewish holiday which commemorates the salvation of the Jewish people who were living in the Persian Empire during the rule of Haman, who threatened to kill them all.
Netanyahu used that as a Segway to point to Iran. He said “today there is an attempt by Persia’s heir, Iran, to destroy the state of the Jews.” Then he said that Israel now has its own territory and the ability to defend it.
Putin then told the Israeli president to focus on the present day and to talk about present concerns.
Netanyahu then talked about the developments in Syria. He graduated Russia in having success in the fight against the Islamic State and Sunni Islamic terrorism. But Netanyahu stressed his concern over Iran and Hezbollah’s role in the region and what he called “Shiite terrorism.”
The Importance of the Meeting
As the BBC News’ Jonathan Marcus points out, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has included Russia in “the Jewish state’s strategic calculations.” The Israeli leader and Russian President Vladimir Putin have meet regularly since Russia’s direct intervention in Syria began in 2015.
During the latest meeting between the two leaders on Thursday, Netanyahu welcomed Russia’s efforts in fighting against Islamic State and other extremist groups. But he expressed a concern about the security of Golan Heights and Iran’s level of influence in the area.
The Israeli Air force currently has an understanding with the Russian Air Force over the airspace in Syria. Israel does periodic airstrikes to destroy sophisticated weapons systems being delivered to Hezbollah. Most of those systems are being supplied by Iran.
Golan Heights is being held by Israel and Israeli officials, including the president and members of the military, fear it could be infiltrated by militants and they could be supported by Syrian forces. The Yarmuk Martyrs Brigade presents such a risk as the local militia holds territory in southern Syria. The territory faces Israeli forces and it is near the border with Jordan.
Russia is a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.
Russia is also the largest backer of Syria. Russia intends to maintain a long-term presence in Syria. The air base is in heavy rotation and Russia will look to expand its naval base there.
Additionally, Russia was the first home of many Israelis how emigrated from the Soviet Union. Many Israelis have strong ties to Russia.
Netanyahu wants Russia to curb Iran’s growing influence in Syria. The ideal for Israel would be for Iranian forces to leave the country (or at least stay away from the border along Golan Heights) should any final peace deal be reached in Syria.
Trump Has to Find a Way to Deal with North Korea.
Outgoing President Barack Obama warned Donald Trump the North Korea would be the most pressing issue for the incoming president. The North Korea issue has befuddled past presidents, but the danger posed by that country has increased since Kim Jong Il died and he was replaced by one of his sons, Kim Jong Un.
On Feb. 12, North Korea tested a solid-fuel rocket. According to experts, such a rocket can be prepared for launch much sooner than other missiles tested by the country. At the same time the rocket was tested, Trump was meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. North Korea threatens the United States, as well as South Korea and Japan.
The impoverished nation has been making steady progress with its weapons. By the end of February, North Korea had three successful tests in eight months. On Mar. 6, the country tested four intermediate-range missiles. Experts in the United States and South Korea agree that the North is about four years away from having a miniature warhead that could be launched at long range.
The thing that makes dealing with North Korea so hard is not knowing what Kim Jong Un’s motivations are. Some have said that he wants to have nuclear capabilities in order to stay in power and assure his own bloodline. Others have said that he would do something like kill his own half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, even though the two likely never met, because Kim Jong Nam was a critic of North Korea’s dynastic leadership.
Many see Kim Jong Un as unstable. Since he assumed power in North Korea, there have been a number of high-profile assassinations, state-ordered killings, and purges. He also has tested short- and mid-range missiles, while threatening to test an intercontinental missile capable of reaching the United States.
The Options Before the United States
Trump has a number of options, and many of them are not good. He could enforce more sanctions on Chinese front companies that smuggle supplies and help North Korea launder money. He could try to get allies in the region to stop shipments to Pyongyang, but the country has had success evading sanctions.
While Obama was in office, he considered a number of options, including preemptively attacking North Korea. But one thing regularly deployed was the cyber-attack aimed at disrupting the path of North Korean missiles. Some experts say that was successful, but others say incompetence may be another factor in the failure of North Korean missiles.
Trump has said he would leave nothing off the table. That means the use of nuclear weapons and the storage of them in South Korea are options for him. Many Americans are vehemently opposed to that option and nuclear weapons were withdrawn from South Korea 25 years ago.
Mattis recently said that the U.S. would have “an overwhelming response” if one of its allies (Japan and South Korea) were attacked by the North. But what does that mean?
And it’s hard to say if China could effectively put pressure on North Korea. China, North Korea’s only ally, has momentarily blocked North Korean coal shipments but China has a large supply of coal already and it remains to be seen when the embargo will end.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi called for a summit between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping (who does not respect Kim Jong Un). That is something that needs to happen and Trump needs to see how China currently is about North Korea.
Park Was Officially Dismissed As President.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye, her country’s first female president, was formally removed from her position. In an 8-0 vote, the country’s Constitutional Court voted to make Park the first South Korean president to be dismissed after being impeached. Park would have otherwise left office in 2018.*
On December 8, 2016, South Korea’s parliament stripped Park of her executive powers in a 234-56 vote due to a scandal involving her friend, Choi Soon-sil. (Park and Choi were accused as colluding to get businesses to support Choi’s foundations.)
Since being impeached, Park was holed up in the Blue House (the South Korean presidential residence) and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn has served as the acting president. He has to announce an emergency election within 60 days to replace Park.
* South Korean presidents are only allowed to serve one 5-year term.
Here Is Your French Election News.
The French presidential election will be held on April 23, 2017. The candidate for the presidency must win an outright majority lest there be a runoff, which would then be held on May 7, 2017.
Francois Fillon, 62, is the president of the center-right Republicans. He beat out Nicolas Sarkozy and Alain Juppe to win his party’s nomination.
Fillon is running on a platform that calls for extreme cuts.
- He seeks to cut up to half a million government jobs to that end.
- He also wants to end the 35-hour work week and removed the wealth tax (ISF). These first two policies have brought comparisons of the reviled late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
- He wants to make parents who receive social benefits to agree to a “parental responsibility contract” and help cut down on truancy, absenteeism, and to curb behavior that is “disrespectful of the values of the [French] republic.”
- Fillon wants French jihadists who return to the country from Iraq or Syria to be stripped of their French citizenship.
On the Foreign relations front, Fillon wants to …
- Engage the Russian government. Lifting EU sanctions are seen as an option.
- Help Syrian President Bashar Al Assad to defeat Islamic State.
Fillon was an early favorite, but his campaign has been bogged down by allegations that he misappropriated taxpayer funds. Specifically, he is being accused of having paid his wife for working in his administration despite doing absolutely no work. Recently, a judge announced that there would be an investigation into the claims; Fillon has been summoned to appear on Mar. 15.
Fillon has refused to bow out of the race and allow another from his party to run in his place. He has denied the allegations and maintained that his Welsh wife, Penelope Clark, was instrumental in helping him prepare speeches and legislation.
Despite the scandal, polls suggest he still has a decent chance of winning election.
Benoit Hamon, 49, represents the left-wing Socialist Party. (President Francois Hollande, a Socialist, is unpopular; he is not seeking a second term.)
Hamon is a former Education Minister and has been likened to Bernie Sanders. He beat the early favorite Manuel Valls to win his party’s nomination.
- Hamon wants to institute a universal monthly payment of €750 a month for all French citizens, regardless of income. If election, he want to roll out his plan in three stages.
- He wants to legalize cannibus.
- He wants to tax the wealth created by robots.
Marine Le Pen
Marine Le Pen is from the far-right National Front (FN). She took over the leadership of the party from her father in Jan. 2011. The party has a toxic image and when it was tested nationally in late 2015, the two major parties and voters worked tactically to keep the FN out of national positions.
However, the party has made some gains since 2015. Le Pen is currently polling second and the FN has hundreds of regional council members across the country.
- The party want to slash immigration numbers from 200,000 to 10,000 entries per year.
- The FN wants to deport illegal immigrants.
- French citizens would be prioritized for jobs and housing.
- The FN wants to institute a referendum for exiting the EU and euro.
The party wants to increase police numbers and powers and to create 40,000 “new prison places.”
Emmanuel Macron, 38, is the youngest candidate in the race. He is a centrist who is representing the En Marche (Onwards) party. He was made economy minister in 2014 and he has never been elected to the parliament.
Macron is known for a law that is (unofficially) named after him. The “Macron Law” allowed shops to open on Sundays more often and deregulated some sectors of industry.
Since then, he is known as a pro-business candidate. But he is socially liberal.
Part of his platform:
- Ending the 35-hour work week for younger workers.
- Backing deregulation in certain French industries.
- Institution greater checks on politician’s powers.
Jean-Luc Melechon represents the Parti de Gauche (Left Party), which he founded in Nov. 2008 with Marc Dolez. In February, he received the backing of the French Communist Party to run. In 2009, he was elected to the European Parliament.
Policies Melechon wants to institute:
- Changing the means of production, trade, and consumption (to support his environmental concerns).
- Having France leave European treaties. He formally supported European federalism, but he has since changed his position.
In National News …
Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn is back in the news.
Hey, It’s Michael Flynn Again.
Michael Flynn has retroactively registered as a foreign agent. His consulting company, Flynn Intel Group, Inc. did lobbying work that “could be construed to have principally benefited the Republic of Turkey” from August-November 2016. Flynn Intel Group, Inc. received at least $535,000 for the work, which included lobbying to get Fethullah Gülen arrested and extradited to Turkey.
Flynn’s lawyer, Robert Kelner, filed the paperwork with the Justice Department on Tuesday, Mar. 7, 2017. The consultancy ended its work on Nov. 15, 2016, three days before Flynn was appointed as Trump’s national security adviser.
(Flynn was previously fired by President Barack Obama due to the mismanagement of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Flynn Intel Group, Inc. was founded shortly thereafter, in October 2014.)
Papers were filed with Congress to disclose the firm’s lobbying and its relationship with Inovo, but there was no disclosure of the connection with Turkey’s government; nor were papers filed with the Justice Department. If an American firm does work that primarily benefits a foreign government, that company needs to be registered with the Justice Department and do a full disclosure. The head of the company must then register as a foreign agent.
On Nov. 8, 2016, Flynn wrote an op-ed for the Hill in which he excoriated the Obama Administration for not being supportive enough of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and for allowing Fethullah Gülen to stay in the United States. Flynn accused Gülen of leading “a dangerous sleeper terror network.”
Gülen is a moderate Muslim cleric and intellectual who has been in Pennsylvania since 1999. Gülen is a Sunni Muslim but his message is one of inclusiveness and cooperation. He has millions of followers in Turkey and around the world.
In July 2016, there was a failed coup in Turkey. After he put down the coup, Erdoğan accused Gülen of being behind it and demanded the United States to arrest the cleric and extradite him. The U.S. had a rather muted response to the incident and Obama denied Erdoğan’s demand.
On Thursday, Mar. 9, the Hill op-ed piece was given an editorial note. Flynn did not disclose that he had reviewed the draft of the essay submitted to The Hill with Alptekin.
There is hypocrisy here as Flynn criticized Hillary Clinton for the Clinton Foundation’s donors and military critics for questioning Flynn’s involvement in politics.
Connecting the Dots
On Veterans Day 2016, The Daily Caller published an investigatory piece on Flynn in which it uncovered some linked between the Flynn Group and the Turkish government.
Inovo BV hired Flynn’s company in Aug. 2016 to lobby Congress on bills funding the Departments of Defense and State. Between Sep 9 and Nov. 15, 2016, Flynn’s firm was paid $535,000 by Inovo.
Inovo was founded by Ekim Alptekin, a businessman and Erdoğan ally who is on Turkey’s Foreign Economic Relations Board. Members of the board are chosen by Turkey’s general assembly and its minister of economy.
From the AP’s report:
According to the new paperwork, Flynn’s firm took on the Turkish-related lobbying work in August while he was a top Trump campaign surrogate. Flynn Intel disclosed in its filing that in mid-September, the company was invited by Alptekin to meet with Turkish officials in New York.
Turkey’s ministers of foreign affairs and energy were among the officials in the meeting. Turkey’s minister of foreign affairs is Mevlüt Cavosoglu. Turkey’s Energy Minister is Berat Albayrak, who is also Erdoğan’s son-in-law.
Alptekin also helped to coordinate the Turkish president’s 2016 visit to the U.S.
Both Flynn’s company and Alptekin denied ties to the Turkish government.
In Oct. 2016, Flynn’s firm met with someone from the House Homeland Security Committee to discuss technology developed by another of the firm’s clients. The discussion then turned to the subject of Fethullah Gülen. Flynn Intel Group was pressuring the House committee to investigate the cleric.
How Much Trump’s Transition Team Knew
On Friday, Mar. 10, White House officials acknowledged that Trump’s transition team knew that Michael Flynn might register as a foreign agent due to his firm’s work with Inovo BV. However White House press secretary Sean Spicer said that the transition team didn’t know about the full nature of Flynn’s work and did not press for more information. Don McGahn, a campaign lawyer who went on to become White House counsel, know about Flynn’s work as a lobbyist, but did not seek details.
The firm was aware that Ekim Alptekin “consulted with officials of the Republic of Turkey regarding potential work by Flynn Intel Group.”
Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, sent a letter to Pence in November. In the letter, Cummings warned Pence of the conflicts of interest presented by Flynn’s lobbying work. Pence said he did not know that Flynn’s work with Inovo benefited the Turkish government until this week.
Flynn signed a pledge to refrain from lobbying work for five years after working in Trump’s administration. The pledge also blocks Flynn from doing the same type of work as he did for Inovo again in his lifetime.
The Foreign Agents Registration Act requires U.S. citizens who lobby on behalf of foreign governments or political entities to disclose that work to the Justice Department. Willful noncompliance can result in a felony charge.
Flynn’s firm did research, produced information materials, and a video on Fethullah Gülen.
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