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A Conspiracy of Dunces | RealClearPolitics

Just before Christmas, a story broke that seemed too strange — and too hypocritical — to be true. As Democratic Party elders were trying to stifle loutish impeachment threats by fanatical House freshmen, it was revealed that Democratic operatives had used cyber fraud to manipulate the 2017 Alabama Senate race.

It’s hard to know precisely who masterminded the plot because the perpetrators have lawyered up and are pointing fingers at one another. But according to the New York Times and subsequent reporting in The Washington Post, the culprits in the self-styled “Project Birmingham” used the same tactics employed by Russian disinformation specialists that lie at the heart of the 2016 U.S. presidential election controversy.

Those tactics included a phony Facebook page, “Alabama Conservative Politics,” intended to divert votes from GOP nominee Roy Moore to a Republican write-in candidate. It entailed a “false flag” effort suggesting that automated Russian bots were supporting Moore on Twitter. The tactics worked. Seven weeks before the election, the Montgomery Advertiser published a piece headlined “Russian invasion? Roy Moore sees spike in Twitter followers from land of Putin.” Other news outlets followed suit, further tarnishing a candidate reeling under sexual misconduct allegations. 

Did this effort cost Moore the election, which he narrowly lost to Doug Jones? Did dirty tricks deprive Republicans of a supposedly safe seat at a time when control the U.S. Senate was up for grabs? Some observers are skeptical. “Roy Moore is so well known in Alabama that people had very settled opinions about whether they wanted him as their senator before the race even started,” University of Alabama political scientist Joseph L. Smith told reporters.

That sounds right, but the same could be said of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Even Democrats who claim the 2016 election was stolen from them would concede that almost everyone had “settled opinions” about these two nominees before Russian troll farms began spewing their garbage during the 2016 general election. But the truly stunning hypocrisy is that Project Birmingham, which included a former Google engineer who worked on the 2012 Obama presidential campaign and for the Obama administration, faithfully emulated the tactics of the Russian troll farms dubbed “Fancy Bear” and “Cozy Bear,” which are under the auspices of Russia’s intelligence services and military.

In other words, Democrats who played games in Alabama did more than erode their party’s moral high ground. In consciously mimicking the enemy, they also put the spotlight on special prosecutor Robert Mueller and his investigation.

Last February, a grand jury impaneled to hear Mueller’s evidence indicted 13 Russians and three Russian companies for their 2016 activities. The special prosecutor followed this up with July indictments of 12 Russian military officers for hacking, a serious crime. But it’s the February 2018 indictments that are more problematic for Democrats.

Those 13 Russian trolls were indicted on conspiracy charges. But what laws did they conspire to break? Federal election statutes prohibiting campaign contributions, maybe? Abusing their travel visas, perhaps, as none of the Russians who visited the U.S. told U.S. Customs what they were up to? Those are misdemeanors, and it’s not what the government charged them with anyway. They were indicted for conspiring “to defraud the United States.”

It’s not a crime to post political comments under an online alias. It’s not a criminal offense in this country to spew inaccurate information on social media — or tell outright lies about candidates for public office If it were, the U.S. would need a hundred more prisons, at least one of them for politicians and campaign consultants.

Mueller’s theory of the case became clear on June 15, when Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben argued in court against a motion by Concord, one of the indicted Russian corporations, to dismiss the charges. The special counsel, Concord argued, targeted it “for a contrived crime not specifically defined in any statute, without notice and under a standard known only to the special counsel.”

“We do not need to prove a criminal violation of the underlying statute,” Dreeben told U.S. District Court Judge Dabney Friedrich in response.

If you find that standard alarmingly elastic, you’re not alone. “The federal government does lots of things, more and more every year, and many things private parties do can get in the government’s way,” former Justice Department lawyer Jack Townsend told Weekly Standard writer Eric Felten, one of the few journalists who explored the implications of Muller’s indictment. “It can’t be that each such action is automatically a felony.”

Yet, Dreeben was speaking the truth. “Conspiracy to defraud,” known as a “Klein conspiracy,” comes from a complex 1950s tax case in which the defendants and their accountants went to extraordinary lengths to hide income – they opened no fewer than 17 offshore companies, among other strategies – consistently thwarting the Internal Revenue Service until federal prosecutors secured a conviction on a single conspiracy count. As legal scholars Ben Wittes and Emma Kohse point out, the doctrine is even older than that. It comes from a 1910 Supreme Court ruling that USDA officials who falsified crop reports could be convicted of conspiracy “for impairing, obstructing, or defeating the lawful function of any department of government.”

Fourteen years later, in a decision written by Chief Justice William Howard Taft, the high court went further, ruling that conspiring to defraud the United States “also means to interfere with or obstruct one of its lawful governmental functions by deceit, craft or trickery, or at least by means that are dishonest.”

Such language gives Bob Mueller a lot of leeway. How did the Russians “defraud” the United States? Not merely by technical violations of campaign finance laws, but by running a big con on the American people — impersonating Americans and pitting us against each other. In one instance, Russian trolls pretending to be both anti-Islam and pro-Islam were told to demonstrate at the same Houston location at the same time, apparently in hopes of fomenting violence.

This certainly seems a fraud on the United States. But what are we to make of the real American, a registered Democrat, no less, who posted stories in 2016 from the “Denver Guardian,” with extravagant slanders against Hillary Clinton: She pocketed millions of dollars from the Afghanistan War; an FBI agent investigating her emails was found dead – that kind of thing. Vicious stuff, all of it invented. (There is no Denver Guardian, for starters.) The perpetrator apparently did it for money. Should he be prosecuted for conspiring to defraud the country? If so, then what about the utterly specious 2012 ads run by the Obama campaign blaming Mitt Romney for the death of a steelworker’s wife? 

That was a form of fraud. It was most definitely a conspiracy – mapped out by Obama’s top campaign aides. I’m not saying federal prosecutors should start parsing campaign rhetoric looking for criminal intent. That would be insane, not to mention unconstitutional. Nor do the Democratic Party computer nerds who fooled around in the Alabama sandbox want any attention from the special prosecutor. But here’s Mueller’s dilemma: If he indicts Russians who targeted Democrats while giving a pass to Americans who used the exact same fraudulent means to harm Republicans, then his investigation no longer looks like it’s about the sanctity of the U.S. election process. It looks like it’s about getting Donald Trump.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

Students seen mocking Native Americans could face expulsion

ADAM BEAM and BRIAN MELLEY

AP,

10:55 AM

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Students at a Kentucky Catholic school who were involved in a video showing them mocking Native Americans outside the Lincoln Memorial after a Washington rally could potentially face expulsion, according to the diocese.

In a joint statement , the Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School apologized and said they are investigating and will take “appropriate action, up to and including expulsion.”

The Indigenous Peoples March in Washington on Friday coincided with the March for Life, which drew thousands of anti-abortion protesters, including a group from Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Kentucky.

Videos circulating online show a youth staring at and standing extremely close to Nathan Phillips, a 64-year-old Native American man singing and playing a drum. Other students, some wearing Covington clothing and many wearing “Make America Great Again” hats and sweat shirts, surrounded them, chanting, laughing and jeering.

“We extend our deepest apologies to Mr. Phillips,” the diocese statement read. “This behavior is opposed to the Church’s teachings on the dignity and respect of the human person.”

According to the “Indian Country Today” website, Phillips is an Omaha elder and Vietnam veteran who holds an annual ceremony honoring Native American veterans at Arlington National Cemetery.

Marcus Frejo, a member of the Pawnee and Seminole tribes who is also known as Chief Quese Imc, said he had been a part of the march and was among a small group of people remaining after the rally when the boisterous students began chanting slogans such as “make America great” and then began doing the haka, a traditional Maori dance. In a phone interview, Frejo told The Associated Press he felt they were mocking the dance.

One 11-minute video of the confrontation shows the Haka dance and students loudly chanting before Phillips and Frejo approached them.

Frejo said he joined Phillips to defuse the situation, singing the anthem from the American Indian Movement with both men beating out the tempo on hand drums.

Although he feared a mob mentality that could turn ugly, Frejo said he was at peace singing despite the scorn. He briefly felt something special happen as they repeatedly sang the tune.

“They went from mocking us and laughing at us to singing with us. I heard it three times,” Frejo said. “That spirit moved through us, that drum, and it slowly started to move through some of those youths.”

Eventually a calm fell over the group of students and they broke up and walked away.

The videos prompted a torrent of outrage online. Actress and activist Alyssa Milano tweeted that the footage “brought me to tears,” while actor Chris Evans tweeted that the students’ actions were “appalling” and “shameful.”

As of Sunday morning, Covington Catholic High School’s Facebook page was not available and its Twitter feed was set to private.

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Travel industry fears damage from a long government shutdown

America’s busiest airport, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International, is a blur of activity on the best of days. But an extra layer of anxiety gripped the airport Friday, the eve of a three-day holiday weekend. The partial government shutdown — the longest ever — has thinned the ranks of federal workers who staff airport security lines. And some travelers had braced for the worst.

“I have a 3 o’clock flight, and I arrived at 10:15 a.m.,” Beth Lambert said while waiting to check in at a Delta Air Lines counter as her 5-year-old, Michael, rode around on his wheeled bag like a scooter. “We’re going to be hanging out for a while.”

The scene at most of the nation’s airports has so far been marked more by concerned passengers showing up early than by missed flights. Longer lines are evident at some airports. But delays resulting from a rise in federal security screeners calling in sick have been slight.

Yet concern is quickly growing. President Donald Trump and Democrats in Congress remain far apart over Trump’s insistence on funding for a wall along the Mexican border as the price of reopening the government. With the two sides trading taunts and avoiding talks, travel industry analysts and economists have been calculating the potential damage should the shutdown drag into February or beyond.

Airlines and hotels would suffer. So would parks and restaurants that cater to travelers. And, eventually, the broader U.S. economy, already absorbing a trade war with China and a global economic slowdown, would endure another blow.

The travel and tourism industries generate about $1.6 trillion in U.S. economic activity — one-twelfth of the economy — and one in 20 jobs, according to the Commerce Department. Macroeconomic Advisers says it now expects the economy to expand at just a 1.4 percent annual rate in the first three months of this year, down from its previous forecast of 1.6 percent, because of reduced government spending during the shutdown.

America’s air-travel system will face its sternest this weekend, which coincides with Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, a federal holiday.

On Friday, the Transportation Security Administration sent a small team of extra screeners to beef up checkpoints at the airport in Newark, New Jersey, which has had among the longest lines in the country this week.

The TSA predicts it will screen over 8 million passengers between Friday and Monday, up 10.8 percent from last year’s MLK weekend. And it will do so with fewer screeners. On Thursday, the TSA said 6.4 percent of screeners missed work — nearly double the 3.8 percent rate on the same day in 2018.

A TSA spokesman said the agency was offering overtime to screeners for this weekend, though those workers wouldn’t be paid — for their regular pay or for overtime— until the shutdown eventually ends.

On top of potentially longer airport security lines this weekend, a blast of winter weather could snarl travel this weekend in the Midwest and Northeast.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, home to Delta Air Lines, has likely been the hardest hit airport. Delta said this week that the shutdown will cost it $25 million in January because fewer federal employees and contractors will be flying. By contrast, United Airlines, which has a substantial presence around Washington, D.C., said it hasn’t felt much impact yet.

But the airlines fear that if the shutdown doesn’t end soon, more TSA agents will call in sick or quit. A shortage of screeners would cause security lines to swell. Air traffic controllers, who are also working without pay, say they, too, are short-staffed. If the controller shortage became severe enough, the government could restrict the number of flights, though some analysts think that’s unlikely.

“Luckily this is the low season — January is one of the weakest months of the year,” said Savanthi Syth, an airline analyst for Raymond James. “This spilling into February is a real concern. The risk is that the longer this drags out, it might cause some passengers to say, ‘I don’t want to deal with all the hassle, maybe I won’t take that trip.'”

Consumers are, in fact, taking a dimmer view of the economy, in part because of the shutdown. A measure of consumer confidence fell this month by the most in more than six years, according to the University of Michigan, which conducts the survey. If Americans were to cut back on travel and other discretionary spending, it would weaken consumer spending, the U.S. company’s primary fuel.

Laura Mandala, who runs a travel and tourism research firm, said the shutdown might discourage international travelers, too.

“These uncertainties will result in fewer conferences being booked,” Mandala said, leading to “convention and hotel staff layoffs, reduced schedules, resulting in less income for workers to spend in the local economy.”

Hotels are starting to feel the impact, particularly in the Washington, D.C., region but also in other cities with substantial federal workforces, such as San Diego, which has a large naval base.

In the Washington area, including its nearby suburbs in Maryland and Virginia, hotel revenue plunged 26 percent in the second week of January compared with the same period last year, according to STR, a travel research firm. That’s much steeper than the 8 percent decline that occurred nationwide.

Michael Bellisario, an analyst for investment bank R.W. Baird, suggested that other factors accounted for the most of the nationwide drop but said the shutdown almost certainly played a role.

“In no way is the government shutdown a positive for hotel demand and travel,” Bellisario said.

If the shutdown lingers and people see more reports of long TSA lines on television news, “they will say, ‘Oh wow, traveling is hard,’ and that impacts the hotel industry,” said Jan Freitag, a senior vice president at STR.

For now, though, the most visible impact has been at airports. One of the seven checkpoints at Houston’s main airport has been closed all week and will remain so indefinitely, a spokesman said. Miami closed one concourse during the afternoons and evenings last weekend. On the other hand, officials at airports in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami said they weren’t experiencing any problems.

The problems would emerge if the shutdown persists, and the damage would extend to the private companies that operate airport shops and restaurants.

Mike Boyd, an airport consultant in Colorado, noted that a pullback in travel would be felt most in airports that are heavily dependent on government employees such as Reagan National Airport outside Washington, Manhattan Regional Airport in Kansas, near the Army’s Fort Riley, and Watertown International Airport in upstate New York, near Fort Drum.

Federal employees going without pay — there are about 800,000 of them, including 420,000 who are still working — are already suffering, of course.

“We still have to make sure our kids eat, make sure to have a roof over their head,” said Shalique Caraballo, whose wife is a TSA worker in Atlanta. “We sweat in private and don’t let the kids see the struggle.”

Some in the airline industry and even in Congress have suggested that longer TSA security lines could exert enough pressure on politicians to break the stalemate that is keeping the government shuttered.

Others have all but lost hope.

“I would love to think that politicians understand that travel and tourism is an incredibly important gear in the economy,” said Ninan Chacko, CEO of Travel Leaders Group, which owns and manages travel agencies, “but I don’t think that is really the rational discussion that is taking place in Washington.”

———

Koenig reported from Dallas and Rugaber from Washington. AP staffers Sarah Blake Morgan and Ron Harris in Atlanta and Cathy Bussewitz in New York contributed to this report.

Senate GOP adds disaster aid, spending stopgap to Trump’s immigration offer


Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Saturday said the Senate will take up the package in the coming week. | Alex Wong/Getty Images

Senate Republicans plan to include $12.7 billion in disaster aid and government funding through the end of the fiscal year in their bill to advance President Donald Trump’s immigration proposal.

The president’s plan will test Democrats’ solidarity, pitting border security funding against protections for young immigrants and refugees. Now, it will also force Democrats to vote against bipartisan funding levels, aid for disaster-hit communities and an extension of the Violence Against Women Act, according to a summary of the Senate plan, obtained by POLITICO.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Saturday said the Senate will take up the package in the coming week.

The bill, which has yet to be released, would reopen the nine shuttered federal departments and dozens of agencies through Oct. 1 and will include the full $5.7 billion Trump requested for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. It would also provide a three-year extension of protections for young immigrants enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and an extension of Temporary Protected Status for refugees currently covered.

The Senate GOP proposal includes $70.4 billion in total discretionary spending for the Department of Homeland Security. That includes a $5.9 billion funding boost for Customs and Border Protection, to pay for an additional 750 Border Patrol agents and 375 new CBP officers.

It would provide $8.5 billion for Immigration and Customs Enforcement — a $1.4 billion boost above current levels — funding an average detention capacity of 52,000 immigrants a day and an additional 2,000 law enforcement personnel.

The bill will also include nearly $2.2 billion for the Secret Service, which will help fund hiring for Trump’s 2020 presidential bid.

But there is little hope on Capitol Hill that the package will end the shutdown, which entered its fifth week on Saturday. Democrats remain firm in refusing to negotiate an immigration deal until after the government is reopened.

“The president’s trade offer — temporary protections for some immigrants in exchange for a border wall boondoggle — is not acceptable,” House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) said in a statement following Trump’s televised immigration offer on Saturday.

House Democrats plan to take up their tenth bill to reopen the government in the coming week. Each previous bill has netted only a few Republican supporters, with McConnell saying the Senate won’t take up any spending bills the president won’t sign.

The House bill also reflects bipartisan conference agreements Republican and Democratic appropriators in both chambers negotiated last year.

John Bresnahan contributed to this report.

Trump says no amnesty for ‘Dreamers,’ signals support in broader deal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said on Sunday his proposed immigration deal to end a 30-day partial government shutdown would not lead to amnesty for “Dreamers,” but appeared to signal support for amnesty as part of a broader immigration agreement.

U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to deliver remarks on border security and the partial shutdown of the U.S. government in the Diplomatic Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., January 19, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

In a morning Twitter storm, Trump also said he would not seek the removal of millions of illegal aliens living in the United States, while bashing House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her fellow Democrats for turning down his offer on Saturday.

“No, Amnesty is not a part of my offer. It is a 3-year extension of DACA. Amnesty will be used only on a much bigger deal, whether on immigration or something else,” Trump said on Twitter.

“Likewise there will be no big push to remove the 11,000,000 plus people who are here illegally-but be careful Nancy!”

The Dreamers, which refers to undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, are protected from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

DACA was put in place under former President Barack Obama. The Trump administration said in September 2017 it would rescind DACA but it remains in effect under court order.

Trump did not make clear what he was referring to regarding the 11 million people mentioned in his tweet. About 12 million people are living in the United States illegally, according to U.S. Department of Homeland Security estimates.

Trump appeared to be responding to conservative critics who accused him of proposing amnesty and reneging on a campaign promise, which could alienate his right-wing base.

About one-quarter of the U.S. government shut down on Dec. 22 over Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion to fund a wall along the border with Mexico, which Democrats have refused to consider. Some 800,000 federal workers have been ordered to stay home or work without pay during the shutdown.

The shutdown has caused widespread disruptions.

About 70,000 Internal Revenue Service employees, or about 88 percent of the workforce, had been furloughed. The National Park Service, under the umbrella of the Interior Department, is operating with a skeleton staff.

The Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis and Census Bureau is not publishing a batch of closely watched economic data, including figures on gross domestic product and new home sales.

Funding for food aid for low-income Americans, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, will continue in February, but the outlook for March was uncertain if there was no end to the shutdown.

(FACTBOX-Impact on the U.S. government during shutdown:)

The Transportation Security Administration on Sunday reported an 8 percent national rate of unscheduled absences on Saturday, compared with 3 percent a year ago. More than 50,000 TSA officers are working without pay,

Some airports experienced longer wait times at security checkpoints, and Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport closed one of its checkpoints due to excessive absences.

‘STARTING POINT’

On Sunday, a day after Trump’s DACA proposal, there appeared to be signs of movement, even as Democrats insisted the government should reopen before proceeding with talks over border security.

“What the president proposed yesterday – increasing border security, looking at TPS, looking at the Dreamers – I’ll use that as a starting point. But you’ve got to start by reopening the government,” U.S. Senator Mark Warner said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Temporary Protected Status (TPS) refers to another class of immigrants – nationals from designated countries affected by armed conflict, natural disaster, or other strife.

Warner, a Virginia Democrat, said reopening the government ahead of border security negotiations was important for preventing future shutdowns.

Slideshow (4 Images)

“If the president can arbitrarily shut down the government now, he will do it time and again,” Warner said.

Warner also said Congress should approve pay for federal workers affected by the shutdown before they miss another paycheck this week.

“Let’s at least pay them on Thursday, so they don’t have to go through more angst,” Warner said.

Reporting by David Morgan in Washington; Additional reporting by Yasmeen Abutaleb in Washington; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe

GOP senators try to figure how out closely to run with Trump

Republican senators up for re-election in 2020 are trying to figure out how closely to align themselves with President Donald Trump.

Sen. Cory Gardner helped devise the GOP’s strategy of pushing Senate candidates closer to Trump in 2018. But heading into his own re-election bid in Colorado, he’s allowing more distance with the president.

Other Republicans, including Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Susan Collins of Maine and Martha McSally of Arizona, are doing their own balancing acts.

Still, some Republicans will probably align themselves closer to Trump as they see the political power he brings to their home states.

Strategists say it’s much too early to assess how the partial government shutdown may affect the races. Republicans now control the Senate with a 53-47 majority.

These are the best cheeses at Trader Joe’s

Having a good cheese board is essential to hosting any great party and the first step is having the best cheeses available. It’s time to make cheese boards grate again, people! Trader Joe’s is known for its extensive (and amazing) cheese selection, so we figured its the first place to stop before constructing a cheese board. But there is a lot to choose from.

To figure out the best cheese Trader Joe’s offers, we took on the incredibly taxing task of trying 14 of its most popular cheeses for the good of the public. With a variety of different palettes (and amateur cheese connoisseurs) in the room, we think we got a good handle of what the average cheese plate eater would enjoy.

Here is Reviewed’s (un)official list of best Trader Joe’s cheeses. You won’t brie-lieve which cheese won!

The winner: Unexpected Cheddar

Trader Joe's Unexpected Cheddar

Credit: Reviewed

Unexpected Cheddar is literally the best cheddar you can get at Trader Joe’s—or anywhere for that matter.

Overall score: 4.1 out of 5

Contrary to what the name suggests, we completely expected Unexpected Cheddar to be a top choice since it’s a TJs favorite and, I mean, it’s cheddar. With (spoiler alert!) hints of parmesan, this aged cheddar is a universal favorite. It has a nice, sharp flavor that tastes absolutely delicious on its own but also pairs nicely with a cracker or toast point. Show up to the next house party you’re invited to with this cheese and you will definitely be the best guest.

The runner up: Blueberry Vanilla Chevre Goat Cheese

Trader Joe's Blueberry Vanilla Chevre Goat Cheese

Credit: Reviewed

This dessert-like cheese was a favorite among our testers.

Overall score: 3.8 out of 5

Most of our testers already had a special place in their hearts for Trader Joe’s Cranberry Chevre, but this blueberry version received high marks for its sweet vanilla taste and the combination of texture and flavor. It’s more of a “dessert cheese,” but the creaminess pairs really well with a salty cracker. Most of our testers loved this sweet treat, but it was obviously not a big hit among those who already had an aversion to fruit-cheese blends.

Best soft cheese: Burrata

Trader Joe's Burrata

Credit: Reviewed

This burrata was hands-down our favorite of the soft cheeses we tried.

Overall score: 3.75 out of 5

Burrata is a beloved soft cheese with its neutral flavor and creamy center, so it’s no surprise that the Trader Joe’s brand came so close to the runner-up. Our testers loved that it tasted so fresh and we think it would go great with crackers or on a salad. One reviewer even claimed they would “sell their soul” for this cheese.

How we tested

Trader Joe's Cheese Testing

Credit: Reviewed

Our extensive testing of all of the Trader Joe’s cheeses.

We put eight Reviewed employees to the tough task of trying 14 different Trader Joe’s cheeses. We made sure to incorporate a variety of hard and soft cheeses, and chose popular cheeses from the vast selection at Trader Joe’s. Each cheese was randomly numbered for a blind taste test (though if you knew a thing or two about cheeses, you could probably guess the variety).

Testing was done in one day and reviewers had the option of eating the cheeses with crackers, but they were required to do so with all cheeses if they chose that route. Everyone ranked each cheese on a scale of 1 to 5 and provided tasting notes for their favorites and least favorites. We then averaged all the scores from all eight different palettes to determine the winners and losers. But at the end of the day, everyone who eats cheese (for testing or for pleasure) is a winner in our book.

Other cheese we tested

4. Cheddar & Gruyère Melange
Overall score: 3.6 out of 5

This mix of two popular kinds of cheese gives a nice mild flavor that most testers liked. There’s nothing particularly exciting about this hard cheese, but no one would be opposed to seeing on a cheese board. TL;DR: it’s a safe bet for all palettes.

5. Wisconsin Extra Sharp Cheddar
Overall score: 3.4 out of 5

This is a fine, run-of-the-mill white cheddar. Compared to the Unexpected Cheddar it was pretty basic, which is why it appeared lower on the list. It goes to show that even a less impressive cheddar still makes a good choice for any cheese board.

6. 1,000-Day Gouda
Overall score: 3.1 out of 5

This hard cheese gets its surprising nutty flavor by enduring a rough 1,000-day maturation, but it didn’t appeal to all of our testers. As a harder gouda, this cheese will definitely mix up your cheese board and wow some of the simple-minded cheese eaters in your life.

7. Cotswold Double Gloucester
Overall score: 2.9 out of 5

This cheese has some pizazz that may not appeal to every palette. With onions and chives, its more savory flavor goes better in sandwiches and eggs than on its own. Some testers were also put off by how moldy it looked, but it does add great texture and color to a more adventurous cheese board.

8. Iberico
Overall score: 2.75 out of 5

This Spanish cheese has quite a neutral taste and didn’t really wow any of our testers, but it also didn’t disappoint anyone. All and all, it’s a fine cheese.

9. Goat Milk Brie
Overall score: 2.5 out of 5

Brie is really hit or miss. Some testers loathe the soft cheese and hate the rind, which is why this cheese ranked lower on our list. Others liked its smooth, neutral taste. But it was the favorite of the two bries that we tried because it was a bit harder of a brie.

10. Cabra al Vino
Overall score: 2.3 out of 5

This is another neutral cheese. Most testers didn’t really mind its taste, but others said it had a funky aftertaste that ruined the experience for them.

11. Cambozola Triple Cream Soft Ripened Blue Cheese
Overall score: 2 out of 5

Blue cheese is tricky. Either you love it or you hate it. It turns out most of our testers fall into the latter category. One was so turned off by the taste that they spit it out.

12. Light Brie
Overall score: 1.9 out of 5

As the name suggests, this brie was too light, leaving it with not enough flavor. It also became far too soft during our tests, leaving it looking very unappetizing after about 30 minutes. Between that and the lack of flavor, it would not hold up on a cheese board meant to last through a cocktail party.

13. White Stilton with Apricots
Overall score: 1.8 out of 5

Now, we have nothing against white Stilton, but our testers did not like the addition of apricot chunks. The sharpness of the Stilton and the sweetness of the apricot were too contrasting for our liking.

14. Manchego Anejo
Overall score: 1.75 out of 5

Our testers really didn’t like this cheese. In our expert options, it does not have any real taste or flavor. Some even went as far to say it tasted like trash on the side of the road. Their words, not mine.

Mark Meadows, Trump whisperer – POLITICO


Rep. Mark Meadows

Rep. Mark Meadows, a three-term North Carolina congressman little known outside the Beltway, has earned an outsize influence on shaping the direction of the Trump administration. | Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo

Congress

The conservative lawmaker talks to Trump more than the president does with many senior aides, sometimes spending an hour-plus on the phone or speaking multiple times a day.

When Mark Meadows didn’t get President Donald Trump’s chief of staff gig, he wasn’t losing much.

Just 10 days later, the powerful conservative lawmaker managed to engineer what has since become the longest-running government shutdown — convincing Trump to pull the trigger right as the partial closure was on the brink of being avoided.

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Meadows picked up the phone to make his move just after Vice President Mike Pence had told lawmakers over lunch on Dec. 19 — two days before government funding would expire — that Trump was prepared to sign a clean spending bill to keep the government open through early February. The North Carolina Republican, who helped shutter the government in 2013 during a revolt against Obamacare, wasn’t prepared to back away from demanding funds for a border wall. And despite Pence’s clear-as-day comments, he assumed the president wasn’t either.

Meadows was right.

The following day, at Meadows’ urging, Trump said he would veto any short-term funding bill that didn’t include $5.7 billion to build a wall along the southern border, a campaign chant-turned top policy priority. Republican leaders quickly scuttled a press conference planned to announce their agreement to keep the government open. A day later, a quarter of the federal government shutdown. Nearly a month later, little has changed.

Meadows, a North Carolina Republican, was among several prominent conservatives — including Fox News hosts Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity, and radio personality Rush Limbaugh — who pressured Trump to stick to his border wall promise as congressional negotiations unfolded in December. But while right-wing pundits often make their cases through the airwaves, Meadows’ methods of persuasion are far more direct.

Four sources with knowledge of their relationship said Trump talks to Meadows more than he does with many of his senior aides. They sometimes spend an hour-plus on the phone together or speak more than once per day.

The result is that a three-term congressman little known outside the Beltway has earned an outsized influence on shaping the direction of the Trump administration — and the country. Meadows has the president’s ear on any number of topics, from immigration and border security to criminal justice and international affairs. And he’s used that access to push Trump toward stances aligned with the rapidly ascendant House Freedom Caucus, the hard-line conservative and libertarian caucus founded in 2015 that Meadows chairs.

In other words, Meadows — who many people, even those in D.C., probably couldn’t pick out of a lineup — might be one of the country’s most powerful lawmakers.

“He had as much exposure to Trump as [recently departed House Speaker] Paul Ryan did, maybe more,” said a former White House official, who described Meadows as the president’s “go-to guy.” A current administration official said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has found himself in a similar situation.

The shifting power dynamics on Capitol Hill is yet another way that Trump has upended Washington’s political class.

A former aide to President Barack Obama told POLITICO that Trump’s predecessor had “plenty of relationships with individual members of Congress, but what we always did was keep leadership in the loop and respect the chain of command.” The White House declined to participate for this story.

If Trump is unavailable or preoccupied, Meadows can turn to the president’s senior staff.

During Trump’s recent trip to McAllen, Texas, Meadows was summoned to the White House to huddle with aides on their latest shutdown strategy, according to a person familiar with the meeting. And when Trump was weighing whether to declare a national emergency at the border — an extraordinary move he at least temporarily backed away from — Meadows was privately urging the White House to consider other options. One idea he floated was increasing the $160 fee Mexican citizens currently pay for valid Border Crossing Cards and reappropriating the funds for Trump’s border wall.

Publicly, Meadows has also proposed reallocating “improper payments,” a large annual sum of federal dollars erroneously given out, toward a wall project.

“He always provides Trump with a range of alternative solutions,” said the former Trump White House official.

Inside the West Wing, Meadows omnipresence — one person close to Trump estimated that the president met with Meadows “every [three] days” during his first few months in office — is welcomed by some but grates on others.

“He’s a torchbearer for conservative policies and holds the administration’s feet to the fire,” said one former Trump aide, describing his input as a net-positive.

But Meadows has also irritated White House aides hoping to avoid political battles or let certain issues simply fade away.

Perhaps most notably, he and fellow Freedom Caucus member Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) urged Trump to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein last fall for slow-walking congressional requests for documents related to the ongoing investigation into Russian election interference. When Trump polled his inner circle on getting rid of Rosenstein, most advisers argued doing so would be politically catastrophic, according to two sources familiar with those discussions.

“There’s definitely a group in [the White House] that thinks he’s a fucking pain in the ass,” said one of the former White House officials, who claimed that several staffers in the legislative affairs office find Meadows “more disruptive than helpful.”

Still, Meadows is unlikely to fall out of favor with Trump.

The North Carolina lawmaker first ingratiated himself with the president’s family during the 2016 election, becoming the de facto chairman of Trump’s operation in North Carolina, a bellwether state that worried senior campaign officials even late into the evening on election night. Two of those officials, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, said they were even more grateful for the role Meadows’ wife Debbie played following the release of the now-infamous “Access Hollywood” tape. On the tape, Trump brags to TV host Billy Bush about sexually accosting women.

“Debbie was on a bus with Christian women on Billy Bush Saturday, which was basically the acid test for hardcore Trump supporters. She and Mark were at the barricades with us,” one ex-campaign official said, recalling that Meadows’ wife became a top surrogate for Trump when he needed female defenders the most.

After Trump won, Meadows became an early congressional defender, positioning himself as a loyal supporter amid a GOP caucus queasy over the president’s Twitter habits and interference in congressional matters. He also tepidly embraced Trump family pet projects — such as paid family leave — that fell outside conservative orthodoxy.

“In the past, I wouldn’t have given it a chance, but Ivanka’s advocacy for that particular issue at least makes it a question that has to be answered,” Meadows said days after Trump stumped for the policy in his first State of the Union address. He later worked to help Jared Kushner pass the bipartisan criminal justice reform bill — another measure that angered hawkish Republicans — and the two of them now talk often, according to a Kushner aide.

“We went to North Carolina to an event that Mark threw a year ago for his reelect. Jared spoke very positively of him there,” the aide said.

Now, it could fall on Meadows to help the president navigate the seemingly intractable government shutdown. As the shutdown enters its fifth week, the Democrats and Republicans remain at an impasse. Negotiations between party leaders have dried up and the prevailing sense is that no one sees a way out. Trump’s latest attempt to offer a deal on Saturday — an exchange of wall funding for extending legal status protections for some undocumented immigrants — was rejected by Democrats before the president even officially made the overture.

“There’s only way out: open up the government, Mr. President, and then Democrats and Republicans can have a civil discussion and come up with bipartisan solutions,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement Saturday.

But while other Republicans have started grumbling about Trump’s intransigence and the theatrics that have taken the place of face-to-face meetings, Meadows has resolutely stood by his side. He even cheered on the president when he canceled House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s overseas visit to troops in Afghanistan, a move that prompted eye-rolling from other GOP members.

“Bravo to POTUS,” he wrote.

MAGA Twitter quickly glommed on.

Tucker Carlson: When Did Democrats Become The Party Of Bill Kristol And Other Discredited Neocon Hacks? | Video

Tucker Carlson delivered a monologue Tuesday night on how no one is allowed to question NATO because the ruling class likes things the way they are and they don’t like being challenged.



CARL BERNSTEIN: The evidence suggests, indeed, Trump is, has been a pawn of the Russians.

Frightful stuff. We’ll have their full argument in just a bit. As we told you last night, the FBI has suspected this for some time. The bureau opened a criminal investigation into the president more than a year ago, on the grounds that no loyal American would fire a leader as impressive as FBI director James Comey. Putin must have ordered it. The Washington Post concurred. As one of the paper’s columnists noted, Trump has also quote, “endorsed populism.” That’s right, ladies and gentlemen. Populism. It has the stink of Russia all over it. Smells like vodka and day-old herring.

So people in Washington have had their suspicions for years. But now we know for sure. In a stunning New York Times piece today, current and former Administration officials, speaking of course from behind the protective veil of anonymity, because honestly you don’t know what the KGB or whatever it’s called these days is capable of doing, divulged that, on multiple occasions over the course of last year, President Trump privately floated the idea of pulling the United States out of NATO. Let that sink in. Leaving NATO.

This is a huge story. Or it would have been huge in 1983, when the Soviet Union still existed and it was still clear what the point of NATO was. NATO, you’ll remember, was created to keep the Soviets from invading Western Europe. NATO did a good job at that, all the way until the day the Soviet Union collapsed, in the summer of 1991. Almost 28 years ago. Vladimir Putin runs Russia now. He does not plan to invade Western Europe. He can’t. So why do we still have NATO? Nobody really knows. In Washington you’re definitely not allowed to ask. That’s a shame because it would be an interesting conversation. Remaining in NATO comes with significant obligations. In the 1990s, our leaders decided it would be a good idea to promise countries like Latvia and Estonia that we’d use nuclear weapons to protect them if they ever had a problem with Russia. Why did we do that? Who knows? The details are lost to history. The point is, we did. How do we feel about that now? Are you ready to launch a nuclear war over Latvia? What do you think of sending your kids to defend the territorial integrity of Estonia? Our foreign policy establishment thinks it’s well worth it. In fact, under the current rules of our membership in NATO, we would have no choice. You might not have known that. All of this might merit a national debate of some sort. At some point. When we’re ready. 28 years in.

But no. The left isn’t into national debates anymore. They’re into screaming, threats, criminal investigations, and other forms of coercion. They like the ways things are in this country. They’re benefitting hugely. They don’t like being challenged. They consider asking difficult questions a criminal act. Just this morning, Preet Bharara, the most famous former federal prosecutor in America, explained this on Twitter. Quote: “If true, Trump should immediately and publicly state his apparent wish to withdraw from NATO so he can be promptly impeached, convicted, and removed from office.” Unquote.

In other words, talking about leaving NATO isn’t simply unwise. It’s an impeachable offense. Lots of famous and powerful people in Washington think this. Watch:

SOT: JAMES CLAPPER: Withdrawing from NATO—even discussing withdrawing from NATO—would be disastrous for the security of the United States.

REP. JACKIE SPEIER (D), CALIFORNIA: I think that act would be so destructive to our country (edit) it would be a ground for some profound effort by our part, whether it’s impeachment or the 25th Amendment. He can’t do that to this country. And I don’t believe that he can do it without Senate ratification.

The 25th Amendment. According to a sitting member of Congress, rethinking NATO isn’t just treasonous and criminal, though it is. It’s prima facie evidence of insanity. You’re not fit to govern if you say that. You probably shouldn’t drive a car.

Amazing. Whatever happened to the Democratic Party? When did the anti-war people become florid neocons? When did it become the party of Bill Kristol and Max Boot and every other discredited hack still trying to replicate the Iraq disaster around the world? Who knows? But it is now. Ask Tulsi Gabbard. Gabbard is a Democratic member of Congress who’s running for President. On most questions she’s a conventional liberal. She represents Hawaii after all. But on the question of Syria she’s skeptical. Gabbard isn’t eager to overthrow the Assad government. She worries about what might come next, and what might happen to the Christians and other religious minorities who live there. For this position she’s being denounced by the left as a monster. This morning, the Daily Beast tried to link her to David Duke. Literally. The dumb people on tv are mad too. Watch:

KEILAR: She went, in 2017, Gloria — this is going to be another issue — to visit with Bashar al Assad in Syria. This trip has already come back to bite her. When she takes on President Trump over his coziness with dictators, people will say, hello, you went to Syria to meet with a dictator.

BORGER: And she was criticized by Democrats at the time.

KEILAR: She did apologize.

BORGER: She did, but how many apologies can you make for bad judgment? She was criticized. Democrats continue to criticize her. She didn’t do it with anybody’s permission. And I think meeting with a brutal dictator like Assad, particularly given current affairs right now, particularly given a president who, as you point out, has been criticized for cozying up to dictators. I think she will not only be criticized within the Democratic Party, but I think it makes her a less effective candidate. She can’t position herself against Trump about meeting with dictators when, in fact, she’s done it herself. So, you know, I think she has — she’s going to have some problems.

That’s the new standard in Washington, just so you know. You’re not allowed to meet with foreign dictators. It’s immoral. It might be treason. Unless it’s Xi Jinping of china. Yes, the Chinese murder their political opponents and put Muslims in concentration camps. But it’s not a huge deal. Former California governor Jerry Brown met with Xi two years ago, and praised him as a leader in the fight against global climate change, even though China is by far the world’s biggest polluter. But whatever. He may be a dictator, but he’s a progressive dictator. And the left is definitely for those. They’re role models actually.

One of the 4 Americans killed in Syria this week was a Bowdoin College grad

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — One of the four Americans killed in a suicide bomb attack in Syria this week was a Navy sailor and married mother of two whose father is a high-ranking officer in the New York State Police, officials said Friday.

The Pentagon identified three of the four Americans killed in Wednesday’s attack in the northern Syrian town of Manbij.

They are Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jonathan R. Farmer, 37, of Boynton Beach, Florida, who was based at Fort Campbell, Kentucky; Navy Chief Cryptologic Technician (Interpretive) Shannon M. Kent, 35, of Pine Plains, New York, and based at Fort Meade, Maryland; and a civilian, Scott A. Wirtz, from St. Louis.

The Pentagon hasn’t identified the fourth casualty, a civilian contractor.

Navy Chief Cryptologic Technician (Interpretive) Shannon M. Kent. —Handout / AFP / Getty Images

The attack, claimed by the Islamic State group, also wounded three U.S. troops and was the deadliest assault on U.S. troops in Syria since American forces went into the country in 2015.

The Pentagon’s statement said Kent was from upstate New York but didn’t give a hometown. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a statement Friday that she was from Pine Plains and was the daughter of state police field commander Col. Stephen Smith, the agency’s third-highest position.

“We owe her our eternal gratitude for her selfless dedication and sacrifice,” Cuomo said while ordering flags on state government buildings to be flown at half-staff in Kent’s honor.

Tara Grieb, principal of Stissing Mountain Junior-Senior High School in Pine Plains, said Kent grew up in the small, picturesque Hudson Valley town 90 miles (145 kilometers) north of New York City and graduated from the local high school in 2001.

Grieb said Kent moved away after enlisting in the Navy in 2003.

“She was an honor student and a fabulous person,” Grieb said. “We are proud of her and her service and we support her family 100 percent in their time of sorrow.”

Kent’s mother, Mary Smith, taught sixth grade in the district until retiring last year, Grieb said.

Kent, who lived in Maryland with her husband and two children, was assigned to the Cryptologic Warfare Activity 66 based at Fort George Meade.

Cryptologic technicians are part of the Navy’s intelligence-gathering apparatus, analyzing encrypted electronic communications and using computers and other technology to compile information on the nation’s enemies.

Cmdr. Joseph Harrison, the unit’s commanding officer, said in a statement that Kent “was a rockstar, an outstanding Chief Petty Officer, and leader to many in the Navy Information Warfare Community.”

Florida’s Palm Beach Post reported that Farmer’s parents loaded suitcases into a friend’s SUV on Friday morning before heading to Dover, Delaware, for the return of their son’s remains.

Duncan Farmer characterized his son as “a good man. Good son. Good father. Good husband.” Then he added, “A good friend.”

Duncan Farmer said they knew Jonathan, a Green Beret, was in Syria, but “we didn’t know exactly where.”

Jonathan Farmer was born in Boynton Beach, Florida, south of West Palm Beach. He grew up in Palm Beach Gardens, attending the Benjamin School before going to Bowdoin College in Maine.

His father said Jonathan Famer was in the military for 13 years and had been in dangerous places “many times,” including Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

He said services will be at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Palm Beach Gardens, but a date hasn’t been set. He said internment will be at Arlington National Cemetery.

In Missouri, Gov. Mike Parson asked Missourians to pray for the family of Wirtz, a former Navy SEAL who was working for the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency as an operations support specialist.

Wirtz “died bravely serving our nation in a dangerous part of the world, and for that we are grateful,” Parson said.

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