North Korea, Kavanaugh, all those Trump tweets and more in 2018

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In this file photo taken on June 11, 2018 US President Donald Trump (R) gestures as he meets with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un (L) at the start of their historic US-North Korea summit, at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore. (AFP)
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Supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, US, September 27, 2018. (REUTERS)
Updated 31 December 2018

North Korea, Kavanaugh, all those Trump tweets and more in 2018

  • Over the course of the year, Trump spoke at more than 40 campaign rallies, kept up his Twitter barrage (40,000 tweets since 2009 on his @realDonaldTrump account) and answered plenty of questions

WASHINGTON: The stranger-than-sitcom American presidency opened 2018 with a big tease about mutual nuclear destruction from two leaders who then found “love” not war. It seems President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un were just playing hard to get.
The presidency ends the year saturated in tumult, with the government in partial shutdown and Trump tweeting a video of himself warbling a parody of the theme song from “Green Acres,” a television sitcom from the 1960s, to mark his signing of a farm bill.
Throw in a beer-loving and very angry Supreme Court nominee, an unhappy departing defense secretary, Trump’s parallel universe of facts and his zillion tweets, and you can see that the president’s world this year was touched by the weird, the traumatic and the fantastical — also known as WTF.
There was no holding back the self-described “very stable genius” with the “very, very large brain.”
Some serious and relatively conventional things got done in 2018.
There was a midterm election. Many more Democrats are coming to Congress and not quite all of them plan to run for president. Divided government dawns in January when Democrats take control of the House; Republicans retain their grip on the Senate.
An overhaul of the criminal justice system was accomplished, and in an unusually bipartisan way, though it took a dash of reality TV’s Kim Kardashian West to move it along. Gun control actually was tightened a bit, with Trump’s unilateral banning of bump stocks.
Trump shocked allies and lost Defense Secretary Jim Mattis over a presidential decision to pull US troops out of Syria, quickly following up with indications that up to half the troops in Afghanistan might be withdrawn, too.
Self-described “Tariff Man” started one trade war, with China, and headed off a second by tweaking the North American Free Trade Agreement and giving it an unpronounceable acronym, USMCA. He withdrew the US from the Iran nuclear deal, putting action behind his Twitter shout: “WE ARE NO LONGER A COUNTRY THAT WILL STAND FOR YOUR DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH.”
Trump placed his second justice on the Supreme Court in two years after Brett Kavanaugh, accused of alcohol-fueled sexual assault in his youth, raged against the allegations at a congressional hearing and acknowledged only: “I liked beer, I still like beer,” but “I never sexually assaulted anyone.”
There were frustrations and fulminations aplenty for the president, particularly about the steaming-ahead Russia-Trump campaign investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller (“special councel” in some Trump tweets).
Nor did he make much progress on his promised border wall (“boarder wall“), which he renamed “artistically designed steel slats” in December in what he regarded as a concession to wall-despising, concrete-cursing Democrats. The concession did not work: large parts of the government closed Saturday over the wall-induced budget impasse.
He took heat for a zero-tolerance policy that forced migrant children from their parents until he backed off, inaccurately blaming Democrats for “Child Seperation.”
It was a very good year for jobs. It was a check-your-smartphone-right-now, pass-the-smelling-salts year for the stock market. Trump, who assailed the unemployment rate as a phony measure when he was a candidate, couldn’t speak of it enough as Obama-era job growth continued on his watch. He went mum about the market, a prime subject for his boasting before it took a sustained dive.
Trump’s approval rating in polls was one of the few constants on this swiftly tilting planet: 42 percent approval and 56 percent disapproval in The Associated Press-NORC’s latest and 38 percent-57 percent via Gallup, neither much different than in January.
Through it all, the mainstreaming of the bizarre proceeded apace and North Korea’s Kim set that tone right on Jan. 1 with his New Year cheer to Americans across the ocean: “It’s not a mere threat but a reality that I have a nuclear button on the desk in my office. All of the mainland United States is within the range of our nuclear strike.”
Trump responded the next day with a tweet about size and performance. “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!“
Once they got that out of their system, things quickly improved, helped along by Kim’s letters to Trump, which the US president called “beautiful.” There was no more talk about Trump being a “mentally deranged dotard” or Kim being a “maniac,” the musty insults of an earlier time. In June, they held history’s first meeting between a North Korean leader and a current US president. “We fell in love,” Trump later said at a West Virginia rally.
Kim had previously vowed to visit “fire and fury” on the US but the “Fire and Fury” that made Trump livid early this year was the book of the same name, Michael Wolff’s insider account of the Trump White House. That was a different sort of missile. The president took particular exception to observations in the book by his former chief strategist, tweeting about “Sloppy Steve Bannon, who cried when he got fired and begged for his job. Now Sloppy Steve has been dumped like a dog by almost everyone. Too bad!“
They are said to be on better terms now.
Over the course of the year, Trump spoke at more than 40 campaign rallies, kept up his Twitter barrage (40,000 tweets since 2009 on his @realDonaldTrump account) and answered plenty of questions in infrequent but lengthy news conferences and sit-down interviews.
So what stands out in this blizzardy whiteout of unconventionality?
How about this farewell to his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson? “He was dumb as a rock and I couldn’t get rid of him fast enough. He was lazy as hell.” (The president usually reserves “dumb as a rock” for journalists.)
Or his description of Stormy Daniels, paid to stay quiet about their alleged affair, as “horseface?“
Or this description of his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, as “scared stiff and Missing in Action,” before Sessions was finally out in November?
Will history long remember that in 2018 the president called Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff “little Adam Schitt” on Twitter and nations in Africa “shithole countries” in a private meeting?
Or that he (correctly) predicted Hurricane Florence would be “tremendously wet” or told the AP: “I have a natural instinct for science?“
In July, Trump appeared to side with Russian President Vladimir Putin when he stood by Putin’s side at a Helsinki summit news conference and gave weight to Putin’s denial that Russia meddled in the 2016 election, despite the firm conclusion of US intelligence agencies that it had. “I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia, Trump said.
But while it’s been hardly noticed in a capital consumed by the shutdown drama, Mattis, Syria, steel slats and market convulsions, 2018 draws to a close as it started — with warnings of a nuclear Armageddon, this time from Putin.
Putin’s prompt was Trump’s intention to walk away from one arms control treaty and his reluctance to extend another.
That, said Putin, “could lead to the destruction of civilization as a whole and maybe even our planet.”
Maybe he’s just playing hard to get.

US media questions Bezos hacking claims

Updated 25 January 2020

US media questions Bezos hacking claims

  • Experts said while hack “likely” occurred, investigation leaves too many “unanswered questions”
  • Specialists on Thursday said evidence was not strong enough to confirm

LONDON: An investigation into claims that the phone of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was hacked has been called into question by cybersecurity experts and several major US media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and the Associated Press (AP).

Specialists on Thursday said evidence from the privately commissioned probe by FTI Consulting is not strong enough for a definitive conclusion, nor does it confirm with certainty that his phone was actually compromised.

The Wall Street Journal reported, late on Friday: “Manhattan federal prosecutors have evidence indicating Jeff Bezos’ girlfriend provided text messages to her brother that he then sold to the National Enquirer for its article about the Inc. founder’s affair, according to people familiar with the matter.”

Experts said while a hack “likely” occurred, the investigation leaves too many “unanswered questions,” including how a hack happened or which spyware program was used, the Associated Press (AP) reported.

Steve Morgan, founder and editor-in-chief of New York-based Cybersecurity Ventures, said the probe makes “reasonable assumptions and speculations,” but does not claim 100 percent certainty or proof.

UK-based cybersecurity consultant Robert Pritchard said: “In some ways, the investigation is very incomplete … The conclusions they’ve drawn, I don’t think, are supported by the evidence. They veered off into conjecture.”

Alex Stamos, former chief security officer at Facebook, wrote that the FTI probe is filled with “circumstantial evidence but no smoking gun.”

Matt Suiche, a Dubai-based French entrepreneur and founder of cybersecurity firm Comae Technologies, told AP that the malicious file is presumably still on the hacked phone because the investigation shows a screenshot of it.

If the file had been deleted, he said the probe should have stated this or explained why it was not possible to retrieve it. “They’re not doing that. It shows poor quality of the investigation,” Suiche added.

Reports on Wednesday suggested that Saudi Arabia was involved in the phone of Bezos being hacked after he received a WhatsApp message sent from the personal account of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The Saudi Embassy in the US denied the allegations, describing them as “absurd.” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan called the accusations “purely conjecture” and “absolutely silly,” saying if there was real evidence the Kingdom looked forward to seeing it.

A Wall Street Journal report quoted forensics specialists as saying the FTI investigation’s claims that Saudi Arabia was behind any possible hacking of the phone “appeared to forgo investigatory steps.”

CNN reported that critics of the probe highlighted a “lack of sophistication” in it, quoting Sarah Edwards, an instructor at the SANS Institute, as saying: “It does seem like (FTI) gave it a good try, but it seems they’re just not as knowledgeable in the mobile forensics realm as they could have been.”

The New York Times said the probe tried to find links between the possible hacking of the phone and an article in the National Enquirer about the Amazon CEO’s extramarital affair with Lauren Sanchez, but any link remains “elusive.”

National Enquirer owner American Media said in a statement regarding the source of the leak on Sanchez’s involvement with Bezos: “The single source of our reporting has been well documented, in September 2018 Michael Sanchez began providing all materials and information to our reporters. Any suggestion that a third party was involved in or in any way influenced our reporting is false.”