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Poland’s war on democracy was aided by Trump

The right-wing government in Poland is on a collision course with the European Union.

Over the weekend, a bill overhauling the country’s judiciary passed both chambers of the parliament. If it gets adopted, the ruling Law and Justice Party will be able to fill Poland’s Supreme Court with its hand-picked allies. Critics warn it would be a profound step toward authoritarianism.

The measure has led to the biggest street protests since the populist conservative party came to power in 2015. Lech Walesa, the 73-year-old former president, joined demonstrators in the city of Gdansk, where he led landmark strikes in the 1980s that helped topple communism. He warned that the freedoms won by the anti-communist struggle are now under risk.

“Our generation managed, in the most improbable situation, to lead Poland to freedom,” he said to the crowd in the city’s Solidarity Square. “You cannot let anyone interrupt this victory, especially you young people … You must use all means to take back what we achieved for you.”

Lech Walesa speaks near the Monument of Fallen Shipyard Workers in Gdansk, Poland, on July 22. (Adam Warzawa/European Pressphoto Agency)

Lech Walesa speaks near the Monument of Fallen Shipyard Workers in Gdansk, Poland, on July 22. (Adam Warzawa/European Pressphoto Agency)

Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council and a former Polish prime minister, described the legislation as “a negation of European values and standards” that would “move us back in time and space — backward and to the East.” The “East” was less a geographic signifier than a marker for a different, darker era of Polish politics, when Warsaw was subject to the whims of Moscow and isolated from Europe’s liberal democracies.

A statement from the U.S. State Department urged the government to reconsider the bill, which it declared would “undermine judicial independence and weaken the rule of law in Poland.” Yet the White House seems to have sent a different message.

After all, it was in Warsaw earlier this month that President Trump championed his vision of the West to a crowd of supporters bused in by the ruling party. Trump said nothing then about the importance of rule of law or the preservation of democratic institutions. Instead, he delivered a paean to blood-and-soil nationalism, anchored in antipathy to Islam and airy appeals to Christian values and the sacrifices of “patriots.”

Michal Kobosko, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Warsaw Global Forum, told The Post that Trump’s rhetoric clearly “encouraged to move forward with their offensive against the courts.”

“In giving such a speech in such a place, Trump has confirmed Poland’s nationalist government in its isolationist and anti-democratic course,” wrote Post columnist Anne Applebaum.

That course has been charted by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the Law and Justice Party’s co-founder and boss and the de facto leader of Poland. Both the country’s prime minister and president are seen as loyal accomplices to Kaczynski’s agenda. Protesters were staking their hopes on the latter — President Andrzej Duda — to veto the widely unpopular legislation, but he is expected to sign it into law after a few amendments.

Its implications are staggering. “Here’s the crowning blow in ending judiciary independence in Poland,” wrote Monika Nalepa of the University of Chicago. “Since the Minister of Justice already simultaneously holds the position of Prosecutor General, the ruling majority may now choose both the prosecutor AND the judge in every single court case.”

People participate in a protest in front of the Senate building in Warsaw, July 20. (Bartlomiej Zborowski/European Pressphoto Agency)

People participate in a protest in front of the Senate building in Warsaw, July 20. (Bartlomiej Zborowski/European Pressphoto Agency)

For Kaczynski and his allies, though, the takeover is part of their project to “renationalize” Poland. Kaczynski sees the judiciary as infested with crypto-communists and liberals “subordinated to foreign forces.” He peddles various conspiracy theories, including his belief that Tusk and his liberal colleagues hatched a plot that led to a 2010 plane crash in which Kaczynski’s twin brother died.

When the incident came up during a parliamentary debate about the judicial reforms last week, Kaczynski exploded. “Don’t wipe your treacherous mugs with the name of my late brother,” he said to his liberal adversaries. “You destroyed him, you murdered him!” This sort of polarizing rhetoric has become the stock-in-trade of politicians in nearby Hungary or Turkey, where illiberal conservatives have also set about subverting and transforming democracies in their image.

Kaczynski’s populist platform — built on Catholic piety, anti-cosmopolitan nationalism and generous cash handouts — won his party the support of close to 40 percent of Polish voters, and he may seek to consolidate that position through elections later this year. The liberal opposition, meanwhile, is floundering, as Der Spiegel observed.

“The bedrock of [the liberal] political platform has always been the E.U.,” noted the German magazine. “Its vision is basically that so long as Poland is a reliable European partner, aid from Brussels will ensure prosperity for all. The trouble is that few people believe in this vision in the remote east of the country, in villages and small towns.”

The protests against the new judicial reforms may present a galvanizing moment for the opposition. Last year, the government was forced to back down from an abortion ban after mass protests hit the streets.

“We will show that we refuse to live without freedom,” said Radomir Szumelda, a 45-year-old liberal activist, to my colleague Isaac Stanley-Becker. “Young people who didn’t live under communism may not know what that was like, but they are also joining us, and together we are saying that we can’t go back.”

But they may not get much assistance from the European Union. Despite the scolding statements coming from various corners, real punitive measures can only be slapped on Warsaw by a unanimous vote within the bloc. Hungary’s illiberal prime minister, Viktor Orban, has already made clear that he would veto such censure.

And, looking further west, it’s unlikely the American president — another politician at war with liberalism and convinced of judicial plots against his rule — will lift a finger to prevent Warsaw’s slide away from Europe.

• Trump’s Warsaw speech is still yielding rounds of insightful commentary. The latest entry comes from Stephen Wertheim, a historian on the emergence of U.S. global leadership, in an op-ed in the New York Times. Trump’s embrace of a kind of civilizational war against “barbarism” was the blunt edge of a clear foreign policy that is emerging:

“To be precise, Mr. Trump appears to be evolving into a kind of neoconservative. Before becoming associated with George W. Bush’s ‘freedom agenda,’ many neoconservatives reviled Soviet Communism but were less than enamored with the goal of exporting democracy and human rights. Scorning the flabby norms of the liberal international order, they placed their trust in the muscular assertion of American power, deeming it the real guarantor of their country’s interests and the world’s civilized values alike.

“Like earlier neocons, Mr. Trump looks at the world and sees unceasing threats that experts understate. In the 1970s, prominent neoconservatives formed a ‘Team B’ to challenge the C.I.A.’s estimate of Soviet capabilities and reinvigorate the Cold War. Later, George W. Bush’s administration created an intelligence unit that hyped the Iraqi threat. Mr. Trump, too, mistrusts professionals in the State Department, whose funding he seeks to slash, and in the intelligence agencies, whose honesty and competence he has impugned. Like neoconservatives, he glorifies martial values and seeks to build up the military. Unsurprisingly, this foreign policy has received recent praise from neoconservatives like Elliott Abrams, an erstwhile critic and former Bush and Reagan foreign policy staffer. The commentator Charles Krauthammer, a frequent Trump critic, conferred the gold standard on the Warsaw speech: ‘Reaganesque.'”

• On Friday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer resignedending a tumultuous half-year as Trump’s main spokesman. The proverbial writing had been on the wall for some time. Spicer, whose close ally, White House chief of staff Reince Preibus, is also on thin ice, was never part of Trump’s inner circle and endured a torrid time in his post, struggling to clean up after Trump’s incessant tweets and persistent falsehoods. He was even frozen out of the president’s meeting at the Vatican, despite Trump knowing Spicer was a devout Catholic eager to meet the pope.

The move that finally prompted Spicer’s departure was Trump’s appointment of Anthony Scaramucci as the White House’s new communications director. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who had already assumed a number of Spicer’s duties, was installed as the new press secretary. On Sunday, Sanders and Scaramucci seemed to offer contradictory statements on the White House’s approach to new sanctions legislation on Russia.

Scaramucci, a Wall Street veteran who swam in the same circles of Manhattan high finance as Trump, cuts a very different figure than Spicer, a veteran GOP operative. He was a permanent fixture at the World Economic Forum’s annual confab in Davos — that bastion of “globalism” so reviled by Trump on the campaign trail — and espoused liberal positions on a range of issues, from immigration to gun control. (Scaramucci deleted a series of his old tweets articulating these positions hours after assuming a formal role in the Trump administration.)

Suave and charismatic, it’s easy to see why he is liked by Trump. Watching his first briefing, CNN’s Dana Bash observed that Scaramucci is “the guy that the President thinks that he sees in the mirror.”

• There’s an escalating crisis over access to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, one of the holiest sites in Islam. Israeli authorities installed metal detectors there in the wake of a shooting rampage earlier this month. That has triggered further upheaval, protests and clashes. The metal detectors are controversial because they are an assertion of Israeli sovereignty at a spot whose status remains at the heart of broader Palestinian-Israeli disputes.

Here’s a bit of explanation from the Guardian:

“Captured by Israel in 1967, the site — regarded by most of the international community as ‘occupied’ although claimed by Israel — is seen as a centre of Palestinian national identity that exists above both factional politics and disagreements over strategy.

“A unifying idea, its significance as a national symbol is embraced by secular and religious, making it one of the conflict’s most dangerous flashpoints. The location — as commentators on both sides have been quick to point out — triggered the Second Intifada in 2000 after a similar Israeli political misjudgment when then opposition leader Ariel Sharon visited the site.”

An Iraqi man walks outside the ruins of the University of Mosul&nbsp;on Jan.&nbsp;22, 2017, a week after Iraqi forces retook it from the Islamic State. (Dimitar Dilkoff/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)</p>

An Iraqi man walks outside the ruins of the University of Mosul on Jan. 22, 2017, a week after Iraqi forces retook it from the Islamic State. (Dimitar Dilkoff/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

The closest of calls

On the day the Islamic State overran the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2014, it laid claim to one of the greatest weapons bonanzas ever to fall to a terrorist group: a metropolis dotted with military bases and stocked with guns, bombs, rockets and even tanks.

But the most fearsome weapon in Mosul on that day was never used by the terrorists. Only now is it becoming clear what happened to it.

Locked away in a storage room on a college campus were two caches of cobalt-60, a metallic substance with lethally high levels of radiation. When encased in a radiotherapy machine, cobalt-60 is used to kill cancer cells. In terrorists’ hands, it is the core ingredient of a “dirty bomb,” a weapon that could be used to spread radiation and panic.

Western intelligence agencies were aware of the cobalt and watched anxiously for three years for signs that the militants might try to use it. Those concerns intensified in late 2014 when Islamic State officials boasted of obtaining radioactive material, and again early last year when the terrorists took over laboratories at the same Mosul campus.

In Washington, independent nuclear experts drafted papers and ran calculations about the potency of the cobalt and the extent of the damage it could do. The details were kept under wraps on the chance that Mosul’s occupiers might not be fully aware of what they had.

Iraqi military commanders were apprised of the potential threat as they battled Islamic State fighters in the sprawling complex where the cobalt was last seen. Finally, earlier this year, government officials entered the bullet-pocked building and peered into the room where the cobalt machines were kept.

They were still there, exactly as they were when the Islamic State seized the campus in 2014. The cobalt apparently had never been touched.

“They are not that smart”” a relieved health ministry official said.

U.S. officials and nuclear experts speculate that the terrorists may have been stymied by a practical concern: how to dismantle the machines’ thick cladding without killing themselves. A person standing three feet from the unshielded core would receive a fatal dose of radiation in less than three minutes.

More certain is the fact that the danger has not entirely passed: With dozens of Islamic State stragglers still loose in the city, U.S. officials requested that details about the cobalt’s current whereabouts not be revealed. — Joby Warrick and Loveday Morris

White House senior advisor Jared Kushner at the Royal Court in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on&nbsp;May 20. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)</p>

White House senior advisor Jared Kushner at the Royal Court in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on May 20. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The big question

The president’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner comes to Capitol Hill this week for a doubleheader of closed-door testimonybefore the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. It’s another big moment in the ever-expanding investigations into Russian election interference and President Trump’s possible ties to the country. Last week saw a slew of new revelations about the Trump team’s interactions with Russians, and fissures in the president’s political team are starting to show. So we asked Post national security reporter Karoun Demirjian: What’s so important about Kushner’s upcoming — and private — testimony?

“Kushner’s appearances are the first chance committee investigators will have to grill someone who participated in a June 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer who claimed to have information damaging to Hillary Clinton — and who they believed had Kremlin ties.

“Former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Donald Trump, Jr., were supposed to appear for a public hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, but they got a pass after agreeing to testify behind closed doors at a still-undetermined date.

But it isn’t all about that June 2016 meeting. These interviews are happening with the permission of special counsel Robert B. Mueller III, who is running a much wider probe into alleged ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government; they are also happening as new details are emerging of previously undisclosed interactions Kushner, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and others had with Russian officials during the campaign. The information lawmakers get from Kushner could provide additional grist for Mueller’s now-sprawling inquiries.

“Kushner has updated his security-clearance questionnaire to include more than 100 calls and meetings he previously neglected to list. The Washington Post also reported that U.S. intelligence intercepts showed Sessions did talk about campaign-related matters with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, something he had publicly denied before.

“It’s the second strike in only a week for Sessions, whose job security appeared shaky last week after the president told the New York Times he thought it was ‘very unfair‘ to him that Sessions had recused himself from the Russia probe. And with campaign surrogates and current administration members only coming under closer scrutiny, it’s hard to say how the White House will handle things as new revelations keep mounting.

If Poland’s new law stands, what comes next? Foreign Policy has some ways the E.U. could respond. And what comes next if President Trump in fact tries to pardon himself in the Russia investigation? Nothing good, says Politico, while national-security blog Just Security has ideas what should happen after that investigation, no matter the results. And The Post runs down the reasons why the White House shouldn’t give up on removing Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

It’s time to hit Poland in the pocketbook
It’s long past time for the EU to cut off the budding autocrats to the east.
By Remi Adekoya | Foreign Policy  •  Read more »
Yes, Trump could pardon himself. Then all hell would break loose.
It’s never been tried. Here’s how it could blow up his presidency, or blow up the system.
By Richard Primus | Politico  •  Read more »
When this part is over — America after the Russia investigation
As important as Mueller’s current work is, what follows will be even more so.
By Joseph Cassidy | Just Security  •  Read more »
The Trump administration should not give up on removing Assad in Syria
Why would the administration embrace a Syria policy that serves Russian and Iranian interests and harms American interests?
By Michael G. Vickers | The Washington Post  •  Read more »
The U.S has a problem: too much cheese. More than a billion pounds too much. Bloomberg tells the story of the government-sponsored “cheese Illuminati” tasked with solving this problem. Meanwhile, Frontline breaks down the surprising child marriage numbers across America, while High Country News details one teenaged Alaskan’s rite of passage that took a dark turn thanks to social media.

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By Anjali Tsui, Dan Nolan and Chris Amico | Frontline  •  Read more »
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Internet death threats hound a young Alaskan after a successful hunt.
By Julia O’Malley | High Country News  •  Read more »

The Islamic State may not have gotten their hands on dirty bomb material, but they did find plenty of supplies to fashion Mad Max-esque armored cars to launch suicide car bombs. The group deployed a steady stream of those bombs as the U.S.-led coalition began its campaign to push the militants out of Iraq and Syria. After taking Mosul, Iraqi forces captured many of the cars, which are now simply monuments to the deadly ingenuity of the jihadists. (Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters)

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