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GOP Deny, Downplay Questions About Russian Bounty Scandal

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One of the few remaining areas of broad bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill has been a tough policy toward Russia— a topic that frequently creates a stark contrast to President Trump, who has maintained personally warm ties to its leader, Vladimir Putin, and has generally followed behind Congress on Russia counter-measures.But the cognitive dissonance between those things proved increasingly difficult to square on Tuesday for members of the GOP after reporting in the New York Times detailed that Trump was briefed on a Russian effort to place bounties on U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The report said that Trump was given response options in March but had not decided on one, instead appearing to let the issue fade.Senate Republicans, who have shown a willingness to break with the president on foreign policy and on Russia in particular, responded to the news on Tuesday with a range of responses—skepticism, brush-asides, diatribes against the media and leakers—but few seemed to treat the story as especially legitimate or worthy of all the fuss, or as a red flag regarding Trump’s posture toward Moscow. “I think it's fairly safe to say that a lot of the information in the New York Times article was completely false,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), a Trump ally who went to the White House on Tuesday morning for a briefing on the government’s intelligence surrounding the bounties. “Whether this should have been highlighted to the President, I certainly understand why it wasn’t. Listen, the president’s got a big job. He can't be made aware of every piece of unverified intelligence, okay?” Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) went a step further. “I think it's pretty well documented that the article in The New York Times was written in a way to try to embarrass the Republicans in Congress, and I think it's pretty well documented that The New York Times hates Republicans,” he told reporters. “And so I'd rather wait, and get all the facts.” On the other end of the GOP spectrum were other lawmakers who hadn’t yet seen the intelligence but acknowledged that, if the Russians actually were enticing Taliban soldiers to kill U.S. troops with bounties, it would in fact be a big deal. “If it happened, it’s very serious,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), who added that it would certainly be warranted for Congress to consider additional sanctions.A group of House Democrats arriving at the Capitol from a White House briefing on Tuesday might as well have come from another universe. “Nothing in the briefing we just received led me to believe it’s a hoax,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), the number two House Democrat, referring to Trump’s own assertion on the intel. “There may be different judgments as to the level of credibility… there was no assertion that the information we had was a hoax.”The discrepancy in those reactions figures to be a wrench in Congress’ ability to respond to what amounts to a shocking account of a Russian effort to target U.S. military personnel and one that would, in any other circumstance, likely prompt a severe and bipartisan response from Capitol Hill.While Democratic leaders push for additional briefings and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) vows to investigate the matter, some Republicans threw cold water on the idea of picking up the thread at all. “This is Democrats and the press. Again, the New York Times article, a lot of that is simply false—it’s a false leak, okay?” said Johnson, when asked by The Daily Beast if he wanted Congress to probe the intelligence further. “You're making a mountain out of a molehill here.”Indeed, some Senate Republicans, echoing language from White House officials, cast the real problem from the Times story as leaking from the administration. “I think the reporting was absolutely inaccurate,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA), who went to the White House on Tuesday morning. Asked if she wanted to see Congress investigate further, Ernst responded, “I think we need to know where the leaks are coming from.”The GOP-led Senate has voted to approve bipartisan sanctions on Russia on several occasions in Trump’s presidency, including as a direct response to its efforts to meddle in the 2016 U.S. election. In January 2019, 11 Senate Republicans broke with their party to vote with Democrats on a measure to block the Trump administration from easing sanctions on Russian companies linked to Oleg Deripaska, an oligarch and Putin ally. The measure didn’t reach the 60-vote threshold required to pass, but the message was sent.Democrats said on Tuesday that placing bounties on U.S. soldiers would almost certainly justify a similar, if not tougher, response. Schiff said that Russia, as a starter, should not be invited back into the G7 group of leading economies due to this news. “We should be considering what sanctions are appropriate to further deter Russia's malign activities,” said Schiff, “not further ingratiating Russia into the community of civilized nations.”On that score, the Senate GOP leader, Mitch McConnell (R-KY), agreed. Asked on Tuesday if Russia should be invited back into the G7, he responded “absolutely not.”Range of opinion aside, it seems Congress will probe the Russia bounty intelligence, and any possible consequences, behind closed doors, at least for now. Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, for example, are slated to receive a private briefing from intelligence officials on the Russia bounty issue in the coming days.Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who is the acting chair of the panel, declined to comment on the specifics of the Times report, but told reporters it’s a “well established fact” that U.S. troops face threats from forces acting as proxies for other adversaries. But, said Rubio, “I think almost every report on reported intelligence information is inaccurate, not because reporters are wrong, but because it misunderstands the purpose of intelligence products. There's a big difference between analysis and raw intelligence, and it's a point that I think is often missed.”However, the senator added, “you’ve never had to convince me to sanction Vladimir Putin… there's no shortage of reasons why we should study more sanctions and more measures to punish 2016 and all over the world to this day.”Read more at The Daily Beast.Get our top stories in your inbox every day. Sign up now!Daily Beast Membership: Beast Inside goes deeper on the stories that matter to you. Learn more.



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Turkey Torn on Whether Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia Should Be a Museum or a Mosque

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Seraffettin was at home under coronavirus ­lockdown on May 29 when a Muslim cleric recited Quranic verses atop a carpeted dais inside Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia museum. But the imam’s reading, to mark the 567th anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of the city, lingered in the simit bread vendor’s mind weeks after he returned to the courtyard outside Turkey’s most visited attraction.

“Hagia Sophia officially belongs to Turkey,” Seraffettin said on July 7, outside the 6th-century UNESCO world heritage site where he has sold the sesame-seed dotted snack for 15 years. “But we have to understand that people come to visit it from many different countries. We have to let them see and feel their history too.” Like other vendors, he declined to give his full name so that he could speak freely.

A principal seat of power for Orthodox Christians for almost 1000 years, the Hagia Sophia, known as Ayasofya in Turkish, became a mosque in 1453 after the Ottomans breached Constantinople’s walls. Its mosaics and frescoes were painted over, and for centuries it stood as a symbol of Christian–Islamic rivalry. In 1934, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who envisioned modern Turkey as a secular nation, ordered it turned into a museum. But later in July, a court is set to rule on whether the Ataturk-­era decree can be annulled, paving the way for the Hagia Sophia to again be a mosque.

Orthodox Christians in Greece and Russia were aghast. Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew said in a statement that the building’s reconversion would upset millions of Christians worldwide and could “fracture” relations between East and West. A senior Russian Orthodox Church official, meanwhile, lamented what he described as a “return to the Middle Ages.”

On July 1, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo weighed into the debate. In a tweet, he urged Turkey to keep the Hagia Sophia a museum to show it respected pluralism. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded that such reactions were “tantamount to a direct attack on our sovereignty.”

Domestically, the status of the Hagia Sophia strikes at the heart of the battle between Turkey’s past and a future embodied by Erdogan’s brand of religious nationalism. “Istanbul is a city of mosques and the politics that surrounds them,” says Soner Cagaptay, author of Erdogan’s Empire: Turkey and the Politics of the Middle East. Ataturk making Hagia Sophia a museum underscored his commitment to secularism, he says. Now, nearly a century later, Erdogan is attempting the opposite, “flooding Turkey’s public space with his own understanding of religion.”

Turkey’s 20th-century secular rulers often limited the freedom of religious expression, for decades banning the headscarf in state institutions, among other measures. It is difficult to argue that such limitations are still an issue, says Cagaptay, but Hagia Sofia’s continued closure to prayers allows Erdogan to assert that his “conservative base is being victimized, or could be victimized should he fall from power.”

Erdogan’s grip on power looks less assured than ever. In 2019, shortly after Turkey endured its first recession in a decade, his governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost the mayorship of Istanbul, which it had held for 25 years. Prominent defections—including that of the former economy minister Ali Babacan—risk splitting his base at a time when the global pandemic is heaping fresh pressure on Turkey’s economy.

Polls suggest slightly more Turkish people support the Hagia Sophia becoming a mosque than oppose it. But a majority also think the debate is being raised now primarily to serve the government’s agenda. More than 55% of respondents to a June survey conducted by Turkey’s Metropoll said its main purpose is either to distract from discussions of Turkey’s economic crisis or to create an argument the government can use to influence early elections.

“It’s a bluff, like poker,” says Mehmet, 60, who owns a shop selling carpets and silverware near Seraffettin’s simit trolley. For now, he says, there’s no need to convert the building. “Did we fill all the other mosques in Turkey?”

There are indications the court could rule in Erdogan’s favor. In a similar case last November, a Turkish court ruled that an Ataturk-era decree making the nearby Chora church a museum was unlawful. Like Hagia Sofia, it had been converted into a mosque during the Ottoman period. Per the court’s ruling, it “cannot be used except for its essential function,” Foreign Policy reports.

Before Hagia Sophia was a mosque, however, it was a cathedral. At least one Orthodox leader believes it might be time for a new approach completely. Armenian Orthodox Patriarch Sahak Mashalian has endorsed the idea of restoring Hagia Sophia as a place of worship for both Christians and Muslims, reports Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper — an announcement that has sparked controversy among Greek and Armenian communities.

But Hagia Sophia has long attracted visitors of every faith. Last year, its immense dome, ornate minarets, and medieval frescoes drew some 3.7 million tourists, making it Turkey’s most visited monument. Yet Sami Bozbey, a trilingual tour guide worried that changing its status would elongate queue times, and might mean covering up mosaic images of the human form, which are considered idolatrous in mosques. He fears that could dissuade foreigners from visiting and hurt an industry already reeling from the pandemic. “Look around,” he says, scanning the courtyard for tourists, “everybody’s struggling.”

With reporting by Engin Bas / Istanbul





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With prizes, food, housing and cash, Putin rigged Russia's most recent vote

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When Russians voted in early July on 200 constitutional amendments, officials rigged the election to create the illusion that President Vladimir Putin remains a popular and powerful leader after 20 years in office. In reality, he increasingly relies on manipulation and state repression to maintain his presidency. Most Russians know that, and the world is catching up.At the center of the changes were new rules to allow Putin to evade term limits and serve two additional terms, extending his tenure until 2036. According to official results, Putin’s regime secured an astounding victory, winning 78% support for the constitutional reform, with 64% turnout. The Kremlin hailed the national vote as confirmation of popular trust in Putin. The vote was purely symbolic. The law governing constitutional change does not require a popular vote. By March 2020, the national legislature, Constitutional Court and Russia’s 85 regional legislatures had voted to enact the proposed amendments. Yet, the president insisted on a show of popular support and national unity to endorse the legal process. The Kremlin’s goal was to make Putin’s 2024 reelection appear inevitable. Given the stakes, the outcome was never in doubt – but it did little to resolve uncertainty over Russia’s future. Declining social supportWhy hold a vote if a vote isn’t needed?As a scholar of Russian electoral competition, I see the constitutional vote as a first step in an effort to prolong Putin’s 20-year tenure as the national leader. The Kremlin’s success defined the legal path to reelection and the strategy for securing an electoral majority in the face of popular opposition.Its effect on societal attitudes is less clear. A recent poll by the independent polling organization the Levada Center showed that while 52% of respondents supported Putin’s reelection, 44% opposed. At the same time, 59% want to introduce a 70-year-old age cap for presidential candidates. This change would bar the 68-year-old president from running again. [Get facts about coronavirus and the latest research. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter.]The government’s disorganized and weak response to COVID-19 highlighted the inefficient and corrupt system and produced an unprecedented drop in Putin’s public approval ratings. Growing signs of popular discontent in Russia suggest this polling data underestimates demand for change. Local protest against pollution, trash incineration and state reforms continue to grow across the Federation. Focus group data reveals that ordinary Russians are concerned about state repression and civil rights violations. In the leadup to the constitutional vote, internet influencers read the public mood and refused payments for their endorsement, fearing a backlash from followers and advertisers. A new Putin majorityDeclining popular support highlights the difficulty of building a new voting coalition. Manufacturing a demonstration of national unity was the first step in reinventing Putin’s links to core supporters in the runup to the next national election cycle. By 2012, Putin’s first coalition, forged in the economic recovery of the early 2000s, was eroded by chronic economic stagnation punctuated by crisis. In the mid-2010s, Putin’s new majority was based on aggressive foreign policy actions. That coalition declined, as conflicts in Ukraine and Syria dragged on, and public support for expensive foreign policy adventures decreased.The constitutional vote marks Putin’s third attempt to reconstruct electoral support rooted in patriotism, conservative values and state paternalism that echoes the Soviet era. Fixing the voteThe constitutional reform campaign focused on state benefits rather than the Putin presidency. Putin offered something for everyone in the 200 amendments. As an antidote to unpopular pension reforms, a new provision guarantees pensioners annual adjustments linked to inflation. Other amendments codified existing policies guaranteeing housing and a minimum wage. New clauses codify Putin’s version of conservative values, with measures that add a reference to God, a prohibition against same-sex marriage and support for patriotic education. Other provisions take aim at corruption, by prohibiting state officials from holding offshore accounts.A massive PR campaign framed starkly different appeals to different voter groups. For those concerned with international security, ads depicted apocalyptic visions of Russia’s future after a NATO invasion. For younger voters, appeals depicted happy families voting to support a bright future. State television featured supportive cultural icons and artists, including Patriarch Kirill, who is the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. Putin himself argued that participation was a patriotic duty. No one mentioned the controversial loophole that would allow Putin to run again. The campaign foretold the outcome: The regime would stop at nothing to secure success. Officials coerced employees of government agencies and large businesses to turn out. Voters were offered prizes, food and chances to win new housing and cash for participating. Ostensibly in response to COVID-19, the Electoral Commission altered voting procedures to evade observation, developing a flawed online voting system and creating mobile polling stations in parks, airports and outside apartment blocks. There is overwhelming evidence that the Kremlin resorted to falsification to produce the desired outcome. Most Russians understand that the manufactured outcome does not accurately reflect attitudes about Putin’s reelection. Limits of disinformationThere is growing evidence that the public is no longer persuaded by disinformation and political theater such as the rigged constitutional vote. Trust in state media, the president and the government are declining precipitously.The realities of sustained economic stagnation and the Kremlin’s anemic response to COVID-19 stand in sharp contrast to its all-out approach to the symbolic national vote. It can rig a vote, but it can’t control a virus.The Kremlin’s pandemic response raises doubts about its ability to fulfill new constitutional mandates. Widely publicized efforts to reform the Soviet-era health care system still left hospitals unprepared to manage the pandemic. The state proved incapable of delivering bonuses to first responders and medical workers. The Kremlin refused to use its substantial emergency fund to support entrepreneurs, families with children and the unemployed. Given these realities, upcoming elections will test the illusion of a new pro-Putin majority defined by this rigged vote. And if the voters abandon Putin, the new Constitution provides a final path to remain in office: the unelected chairmanship of the powerful new State Council.This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts.Read more: * Russia’s cabinet resigns and it’s all part of Putin’s plan * Vladimir Putin’s lying gameRegina Smyth does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.



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China’s Top Diplomat Says U.S. Policy Is Driven by ‘McCarthy-Style Paranoia’

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China’s top diplomat blasted U.S. policy toward Beijing while also proposing a blueprint for getting spiraling relations between the world’s biggest economies back on track.

“Current U.S. policy toward China is based on strategic misjudgments that lack factual evidence, and is full of emotional catharsis and McCarthy-style paranoia,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said during a pre-recorded address for a China-U.S. think tank and media forum, which also featured a speech by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. He added that “artificially creating various ‘China threats’ may eventually lead to self-fulfilling prophecies.”

Wang said China is willing to resume dialogue mechanisms at all levels with the U.S. at any time and proposed the two countries group outstanding issues into three lists –cooperation, dialogue and differences — with think tanks taking the lead in researching the issues. He also called for cooperation on the coronavirus, saying that China is willing to communicate further on treatment, vaccine research and economic recovery.

“As long as both sides have the positive will to improve and grow this relationship, we will find ways to steer this relationship out of the difficulties and bring it back to the right track,” Wang said.

‘Unreasonable Suspicion’

Already strained ties have gotten worse after China imposed a national security law on Hong Kong, prompting the U.S. to revoke certain trade privileges and threaten sanctions against Chinese officials. The two countries are also sparring on everything from the South China Sea to technologies like 5G networks to access for academics and media organizations.

U.S. President Donald Trump said this week he is considering banning ByteDance Ltd.’s short video app TikTok as retaliation against China over its handling of the virus. The U.S. announced visa restrictions for officials over China’s actions in Tibet and Hong Kong, which sparked retaliation from China, and Trump’s national security adviser Robert O’Brien told reporters to expect “a significant roll-out of measures with respect to China over the coming days and weeks.”

“The U.S.’s unreasonable suspicion of China has reached the point where it mistakes the reflection of a bow for a snake and sees every bush and tree as an enemy soldier,” Wang said, adding that the two powers should not seek to transform each other. “It seems that every Chinese investment has a political purpose, every student studying abroad has a spy background, and every cooperative initiative has an ulterior motive.”

U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo on Wednesday continued to slam the Chinese government and President Xi Jinping, potentially further inflaming ties. He said the U.S. would start a dialogue soon with the European Union on ways to meet the challenge from China.

Xi’s impact “on the world is not good for free peoples and democracy loving peoples, and the world will come together to respond to that,” Pompeo told reporters at a news conference.

Pompeo held secretive talks last month with top Chinese diplomat and Politburo member Yang Jiechi in Hawaii that failed to stem the attacks on both sides. That meeting showed it will be difficult for the two sides to make progress mending ties and that Wang’s proposals to restart dialogue were ”too romantic and too idealistic,” according to Shi Yinhong, an adviser to China’s cabinet and a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing.

”It was already difficult enough for the two countries to sit down and come up with a list a few years ago when ties were much more friendly,” Shi said. “If it didn’t happen then, why would it be possible now?”





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