News Roundup (Week of Feb. 26 – Mar. 4, 2017)

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Hello, readers!


Table of Contents

Here are the stories I have curated for this week:

International

National

Regional

Science & Technology

Entertainment

Want to Contribute?

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In International News …

I will start with some interesting stories connected to North Korea.

I also take a look at South Africa this week.

Here Are Three Developing Involving North Korea.

The investigation into Kim Jong Nam’s death continues amid reports of a purge North Korean leadership and a possible spy operation in Malaysia.

Assassination Investigation

According to Malaysian authorities, Kim Jong Nam was killed by the VX nerve agent. The chemical can kill people exposed to it in minutes and it is listed by the United Nations as a weapon of mass destruction. Kim died within 15-20 minutes of being exposed to the chemical at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

Two women smeared the chemical on Kim’s face. But while in custody, the women claimed they believed they had been part of a TV prank.

The amount of VX agent used in the assassination was relatively high and sped up Kim’s death. Ten milligrams of the agent constitute a lethal dose but Kim showed symptoms as early as five minutes after the attack. He did in the ambulance that was transporting him to a hospital.

South Korean politicians were briefed on the investigation into Kim Jong Nam’s associated by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS).

Suspects

Overall, there are eight North Korean suspects in this case. Lee Cheol-woo, a South Korean lawmaker who was briefed on the investigation, said four of the suspects are from the North Korean ministry of state security and two are from the DRPK’s foreign ministry. Another suspect is an embassy official named Hyon Kwang Song; he is believed to still be in Kuala Lumpur.

Kim Byung-kee, another lawmaker who has been briefed on the investigation, said that the North Koreans worked in three teams. The first two teams were responsible for hiring two women to carry out the murder. And the third team was there for “support.”

Two women, one Indonesian and the other Vietnamese, were arrested and charged in the assassination of Kim Jong Nam. The women were alleged to have been with four conspirators at the departure hall of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Siti Aishah, a 25-year old mother of one from Jakarta, and Doan Thi Huong, 28, from rural Vietnam, could be hanged if found guilty.

The two women will be in court next on April 13. Prosecutors are expected to ask for them to be tried jointly.

Ri Jong-chol, a North Korean man, was in police custody. He was eventually released on Friday due to a lack of evidence.

Also on Friday, an arrest warrant was issued for Kim Uk Il, a 37-year-old employee of the North Korean airline Air Koryo.

Four of the North Korean suspects in this case were known to have fled Malaysia.

Implications

What we do know is that Malaysia and North Korea were on friendly terms before the attack. Citizens of both countries could travel between the nations without visas.

However, that relationship might be strained now. Malaysian authorities will not release Kim Jong Nam’s body until for the time being.

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Purge

According to South Korean intelligence*, 5 North Korean security officials were executed by anti-aircraft guns. The five were deputy-minister-level officials who had worked under state security chief Kim Won Hong, who was fired in January and is now under house arrest.

Why were they security officials executed? They were accused of giving false reports toe North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Additionally, the North Korean dictator removed his father’s statue from the National Defense Ministry as punishment.

A U.S. Treasury statement claims that Kim Wong Hong directly managed activities at prison camps, including “beatings, forced starvation, sexual assault, forced abortions, and infanticide. He was also responsible for weeding out spies in the DPRK and overseeing espionage missions abroad.

Kim Jong Un has reportedly ordered the killing of 340 people since he came to power in 2011. According to a report entitled The Misgoverning of Kim Jong Un’s Five Years in Power (published by the Institute for National Security Strategy, a south Korean think tank), about 140 of those killed were senior officers.

* The reports should be taken with a grain of salt since the Associated Press says that the NIS has a mixed record of reporting on North Korean intelligence.

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Spy Agency in Malaysia

It appears that North Korea is running a spy agency in Kuala Lumpur’s “Little India” neighborhood. The agency is in a building that is fronting as a military equipment company named Glocom (which is short for Global Communications Co.).

Glocom sells battlefield radio equipment, which violates U.N. sanctions. The U.N. passed resolution 1874, which was adopted in 2009; it extended the arms embargo against the DPRK to include military equipment and “all related material.” The company offered about 30 radio systems on it Malaysian website, glocom.com.my.

According to the “WHOIS” database, Glocom.com.my was registered in 2009 by International Global System. The “Little India” address was listed in the profile.

The website was taken down in 2016. But it was replaced by glocom-corp.com in mid-December 2016. The new website last logged activity in Jan. 2017 and it lists no Malaysian contacts.

There is no Glocom listed in Malaysia, but it was registered by Malaysian companies controlled by DPRK shareholders and directors in 2009.

Gloco is controlled by the North Korean Reconnaissance General Bureau. The bureau is responsible for overseas operations and procuring weapons.

Now Glocom is said to be operated by the Pyongyang branch of Pan Systems. That company is based in Singapore, were Louis Low serves as its managing director. However, he said that Pan Systems used to have an office in Pyongyang in 1996 and officially ended relations with North Korea 14 years later.

All the information comes via a United Nations report that submitted to the U.N. Security Council.

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China’s Military Budget Growth Is the Smallest in Seven Years.

As discussed last week, China made the smallest increase in its military budget since 2010. The 7.6% increase in defense spending was the first single-digit increase in six years.

This year’s increase is expected to be much smaller at 6.5%. The defense budget will officially be announced today.

The increase will not please many watchers, who want China to keep up with the United States’ proposed military spending increases. However, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Trump will meet sometime soon and as Takashi Kawakami, professor at Japan’s Takushoku University posits, an increase by China might inflame tensions with the U.S.

Also, Xi plans to make cuts to the troop levels by the end of 2017. Currently, China has 300,000 military personnel.

Additionally, the United States far outpaces China and many other nations (combined). China’s budget for last year was 954.35 billion yuan ($138.4 billion); this year’s budget is expected by be 1.02 trillion yuan. That would be a quarter of the U.S. military budget, which could rise to $603 billion.

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Iraqi Forces Are Advancing in South Mosul While Twelve Are Treated for Chemical Attacks.

On Monday, Feb. 27, Iraqi forces have broken through Mosul’s southern areas and seized its southernmost bridge. The bridge’s repair could allow supplies to flow to the military from the eastern part of the city and link up the military’s forces on either side of the Tigris River.

The Iraqi army is being supported by the U.S. airstrikes and police forces, as well as Kurdish Peshmerga and Iranian-trained Shiite Muslim paramilitary groups. There are also U.S. personnel close to the front lines directing the airstrikes. The coalition is 100,000 strong.

There are 750,000 civilians in Mosul. Another 10,000 have already fled areas held by the Islamic State in order to seek food, water, and medical assistance.

Eastern Mosul was captured by the Iraqi military in January, after 100 days of fighting. In the week of Feb. 19-25, the military launched an offensive in the western part of Mosul.

What’s at stake?

If the Iraqi coalition defeats ISIS in Mosul, it will essentially crush the Iraqi win of a caliphate called for by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2014. Then the leader of ISIS, al-Baghadadi called for a caliphate the reached over parts of Iraq and Syria. Raqqa is currently the terrorist group’s Syrian stronghold.

The U.S. commander in Iraq said he believed U.S. backed forces could recapture both Mosul and Raqqa within six months.

So far, the Iraqi military reported that it has captured the southern and western bridges in Mosul. There are five bridges across the Tigris River and air strikes have damaged all of them. Some were damaged again by ISIS fighters.

Iraqi forces have pushed militants from the city’s airport, a military base, a power station, and three residential districts (al-Maamoun, al-Tayyaran, and al-Josag).

Several thousand militants are still fighting in Mosul. Among them are people from the West who have joined to help ISIS. They are using mortars, sniper, booby traps, and car bombs.

Twelve Have Been Treated for Exposure to Chemical Weapons.

Twelve people, including men, women, and children, were being treated for their possible exposure to a chemical agent in Eastern Mosul. The United Nations’ World Health Organization is working with partners and local health authorities to treat the patients in Erbil*, where the patients have been received since Mar. 1.

Four of the patients have exhibited “severe” signs associated with exposure to a blister agent. The chemicals used could cause blistering, redness in the eyes, irritation, vomiting, and coughing.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is one of the partners working in Iraq to treat the patients. On Friday, it reported that 5 children and 2 women were receiving children.

It is unclear which side used the chemical agents.

The offensive in eastern Mosul was launched by the Iraqi military on Feb. 19.

* Erbil is the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish Region.

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Here’s a Syria Update.

On Sunday, Feb. 26, fighters backed by Turkey clashed with Syrian military forces near the city of al-Bab. The first group fired upon the Syrian military’s movement near the city.

A source from the Syrian military said they had been fired upon while the force was in Tadef. Also on Sunday, Syrian forces announced they had captured Tadef, a town 4 km (2.5 miles) to the south of al-Bab.

According to reports, both sides are waging different battles in the area to combat Islamic State.

Russia acted as mediator in this clash and it served the same role in a similar clash. In February, Tadef was established as an acceptable dividing line between Syrian military forces and fighters backed by Turkey.

On Wednesday Syrian government forces were able to drive back militants in Palmyra, with Russian air support. Islamic State militants first held the city in 2015. Syrian forces recaptured the city about a year ago yet ceded it in December as they focused on capturing Aleppo.

Also on Wednesday, Army Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend said positions held by U.S. backed fighters were bombed by Russian and Syrian aircraft. According to Townsend, the United States supports a group he referred to as the Syrian Arab Coalition. He said the airstrikes occurred 15-20 km (10-12 milies) from Manbij city. Anyway, the situation was settled after American troops who were 4-5 km (2 ½ -3 miles) away used a line to contact Russian forces.

The Russian military disputes that the strikes even happened. The Russians said they were given coordinates to where the Syrian Arab Coalition would be and they abided by that information.

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This Might Be How Jammeh Ran off with the Money.

Former Gambian President Yahya Jammeh is accused of stealing millions of funds from his country over his 22-year rule. According to a report from Reuters, that money may have flowed to him through his foundation.

The former president of The Gambia founded the Jammeh Foundation for Peace. However, based on interviews and bank records, none of the foundation’s money even went to charitable projects.

On Monday, Feb. 20, Gambian Finance Minister Amadou Sanneh accused Jammeh of stealing tens of millions of dollars from his country through the use of bank accounts that did not bear Jammeh’s name. Right now, The Gambia only has three weeks left of import funds.

How Jammeh Might Have Done It

Between 2012 and 2013, over $8 million was transferred into an account at the Gambia’s Trust Bank. Over half that money was withdrawn. The 8 mil was deposited in 11 installments in the U.S. dollar account there in the foundation’s name.

Modou Lamin Manga was the foundation’s deputy CEO from 2010-2015. He was let go in 2015 due to layoffs. He said that he found out about Yahya’s Trust Bank account when the bank accidentally sent him statements for the dollar account in 2013. He was then told not to touch the funds.

Between 2012-2013, there were 15 cash withdrawals totalling $4.3 million. The withdrawals were as small as $75,000 and as large as $500,000. Another $1.5 was transferred to overseas accounts and the rest was drawn down in letters of credit, other withdrawals, and interest charges.

Jammeh was the foundation’s chief patron and some of the withdrawals were in reference to him.

In 2013, five payments totaling $2.55 million referenced the Euro African Group (EAGL). The EAGL was the exclusive fuel import partner of The Gambia from 2008-2013.

Jammeh’s wife was the foundation’s president and she was involved with running the charity. She had a personal account in the United States to which money was wired.

An anonymous source said he worked as Jammeh’s personal assistant from 2009-2012. In that capacity, the source she he withdrew hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash in 2011 and 2012 from a “National Security Account” at Trust Bank on Jammeh’s behalf.

Jammeh had a “fleet” of personalized Rolls Royce limousines and a house in Maryland. He took the limousines with him as he went into exile.

Jammeh is currently in Equatorial Guinea, where he fled into exile in January.

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Anti-Immigrant Violence Is Escalating in South Africa.

In South Africa, anti-immigrant violence has increased during a period of “near-record” unemployment. South African citizens have often turned their ire to immigrants, whom citizens blame for taking away their jobs. Ironically, citizens also blame immigrants for committing crimes.

All week long, at least 20 stores belonging to Nigerian and Pakistani immigrants were looted. In Marabastad, shops were shuttered. It lies in western Pretoria, where many immigrants have stores.

Nigerian protestors vandalized the head office of MTN in Abuja on Thursday in retaliation.

On Friday, There were marches against immigrants and by immigrants but they devolved into violence as stores were looted.

South African police were called and they dispersed the crowds with tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets. Police also formed a barrier between the rival crowds.

According to Acting National Police Commission Khomotso Phahlane, 156 people were arrested over a 24-hour period.

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Here’s Your Brexit Update.

British Prime Minister Theresa May has come up with another plan to deal with the Brits’ departure from the European Union. At the same time, we are learning more about Trump’s (loose) connection to the referendum vote.

Theresa May’s Plan

British Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to make a change within the United Kingdom regarding the freedom of movement rules under the European Union. She will announce a “cut-off date” of March 15 for EU residents to freely move to the U.K. and possibly be granted permanent residency. The change will trigger Article 50 of the EU constitution.

There are currently 3.6 million EU residents living in Great Britain. When May announces her plan, those residents and others who arrive before Mar. 15 will still be granted the right to become permanent residents.

The European Union will undoubtedly challenge that plan. It has said any cut-off date should be the same as the date the U.K. plans to formally leave the EU.

A Government source said this to the Telegraph in response to synchronizing the dates:

We have had some suggestion that the European Commission might attempt to force us to protect everyone who arrives up to the moment of departure.

We could end up with half of Romania and Bulgaria coming here if we wait that long.

The change could violate the EU treaty on the matters of freedom of movement. It could also cause problems for the 1.2 British citizens living in other EU countries and business owners who say that a “hard Brexit” could undermine their ability to find enough workers.

Trump Connection

Robert Mercer, who co-owns Bretibart and who worked on Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, apparently helped the Leave campaign during the Brexit referendum. Mercer also owns the data-analytics firm Cambridge Analytica, which used Britons’ Facebook data in order to reach them via targeted advertising.

According to Leave.eu communications director Andy Wigmore, Mercer offered his firm’s services for Ukip leader Nigel Farage free of charge. Wigmore said that Mercers and Farage were good friends and that the Trump campaign and Brexit vote had “massive parallels.”

What happened might be illegal, though. The electoral commission was not informed of Mercer’s involvement, which may have amounted to over £7,500 worth of services.

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Will There Be a Two-State Solution?

At a closed door meeting with Likud Knesset lawmakers, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told them that he and U.S. President Donald Trump had not come to an agreement over Israeli settlements. Many in the international community are applying pressure on Israel to support a two-state solution, but many in the Likud Party oppose it.

Several sources described a very heated meeting. Lawmakers were split between supporting the annexation of the West Bank and withdrawing from occupied territories with security arrangements.

Of the lawmakers, Miki Zohar took a hardline stance. He said that Palestinians were looking for economic prosperity and not a state. Zohar also said Trump’s election presented Bibi with a “historic opportunity” and that Bibi could push for a one-state solution if he wanted.

Netanyahu said that “we should know what the limits of this opportunity are.” However, he said that there were avenues he could still seek in order to get what he wanted.

Additionally, Netanyahu said wanted the Palestinians to “recognize Israel and renounce the right to return” to Israel. He added that the question was what kind of state the Palestinians wanted, one like Costa Rica or one like Iran.

It should be noted that Costa Rica has no standing military. So the only option Bibi would except is for the Palestinians to be stateless and powerless.

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In National News …

I had to catch up quite a bit, but here we are.

Corruption? What Corruption?

On Tuesday, Feb. 14, Trump used the Congressional Review ACT (CRA) in order to overturn the Cardin-Lugan regulations that were established under the Dodd-Frank Act. Representative Bill Huizenga was the repeal’s lead sponsor.

Under the Cardin-Lugan regulations, oil companies would have to disclose payments made to foreign governments in order to secure exclusive drilling rights in those countries. The rules were aimed at stemming corruption.

The Congressional Review Act allows a new president to overturn new federal regulations. This is the first time the CRA has been used since George W. Bush used it in 2001.

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Two Things Are Certain: Trump and Taxes.

Trump got an assist by House Republicans while rolling out his own tax plan last week.

His Tax Returns

On Monday, Feb. 27, Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-New Jersey), proposed a resolution aimed at getting Trump to release his tax returns. The Bill was immediately shut down on a party-line vote, 229-185. Two Republicans, Walter Jones (North Carolina) Mark Sanford (South Carolina; who previously called for Trump to release his returns), voted “present.”

If the measure had been approved, it would have directed Trump to release 10 years’ worth of his tax returns. The House Ways and Means Committee would review the returns in a closed session then vote to have a full review by the House of Representatives.

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Trump’s Tax Plan

Vox offered a look into two Republican tax plans: one from fake president dump and the other being spearheaded by House Speaker Paul Ryan (WI). Trump is touting his new plan as being one that is primarily geared to giving relief to the middle class, but that could be farther from the truth.

According to estimates from the Tax Policy Center, only 6.6% of the tax cuts offered in Trump’s plan will go to the middle fifth of taxpayers (those making $48,400-$84,300 a year). However, the top 1% of earners would receive 47.3% of the tax cuts, with 25% going to the top 0.1%. The top earners in the country earn more than $3.75 million a year. Even worse is that the bottom brackets could see a rate increase from 10% to 12%.

And on top of that, Trump wants to eliminate the head of household deduction for single parents. He wants to put in a deduction for child care, but that will mainly benefit the upper middle class.

Paul Ryan’s Better Way Plan will give the top 1% of earners 76.1% of the tax cuts in the first decade. That will increase to 99.6% of the tax cuts in the second decade. Also, the upper middle class will see a tax increase.

Either tax plan would increase the deficit if implemented but Trump’s would have a more drastic effect. The Tax Policy Center estimates that Ryan’s plan would cost $3.7 trillion over 10 years and Trump’s plan will reduce revenues by $6.15 trillion over the same period. Compare this to George W. Bush’s 2001 tax cuts, which reduced revenues by $1.76 trillion over 10 years.

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Trump Has Yuge Plans for the Military.

On Thursday, Trump said that he wanted to increase the military spending budget by $54 billion. The money would be used to bolster the Navy’s military fleet by increasing the number of its aircraft carriers from 10 to 12. If allowed, the increase would bring the military budget to $603 billion, and Trump would offset the cost by cutting foreign aid and other non-defense programs.

He said he wants the United States to “project American power in distant lands,” despite our lack of a true enemy and the fact that the United States military is already engaged in hostile action in around 9 other countries. We’re still in Afghanistan, BTW.

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Trump’s Team Is Busy Fighting Those Leaks.

Michael Flynn

A United States intelligence official said that there was no evidence of wrongdoing on Michael Flynn’s part from what is seen in the transcripts of his calls. However, Flynn could still face legal trouble if the FBI finds that he lied to agency.

Also, Michael Flynn may have broken the law if he even hinted that Trump will loosen the sanctions against Russia. Flynn could face criminal prosecution if he violated the Logan Act.

What Is the Logan Act?

The law in question is the Logan Act, which states:

Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.

As Domenico Montanaro points out, that basically means that private U.S. citizens are legally barred from conducting foreign relations — i.e., influence foreign policy — without the express permission of the United States government.

The law was named for George Logan, a Quaker and Democratic-Republican Party lawmaker from Pennsylvania. He traveled to France — which was dealing with its own revolution and had strained relations with the United States — in order to help procure the release of American sailors held captive in French prisons. Logan helped to negotiate a lifting of the embargo in the process. The problem was, he had no clearance from the John Adams Administration; this led Congress to pass the act to bar actions like that in the future.

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Pence

It should be noted (once again) that the deciding factor in Michael Flynn’s resignation was his dishonesty to Mike Pence. Flynn denied having discussed sanctions with Sergey Kislyak, but that wasn’t true. Pence was kept in the dark about Flynn’s dishonesty, but when Pence got wind of it, that changed things.

Pence has clout within the administration for a few important reasons. First, he was loyal to Trump from the very beginning. Second, he is not looking to grab attention like “more flamboyant personalities” like Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway. Third, he has formed relationships with members of Congress and people connected to Trump. And fourth, he has no known enemies.

Is There a Double Standard Here?

The Indianapolis Star reported on Thursday the Vice President Mike Pence used a personal email account while he was the governor of Indiana. He would sometimes discuss homeland security matters, like security gates and his state’s response to terrorism around the world. Pence used AOL and his account was hacked in the summer of 2016. The Indiana newspaper got access to the emails via a public records request.

Was Pence’s use of an email illegal? The state of Indiana does not prohibit the use of personal email accounts, but that policy might need to be revised.

Annalisa Merelli feels there the double standard at play with regards to Mike Pence’s use of a private email account during his time as Indiana governor. On Friday, Mar. 3, Hillary Clinton was on a plane with newspapers in front of her. Another passenger took a picture of her likely reading the headline, “Pence used personal email in office.”

Link to Tweet from @thelastwalt:

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Jeff Sessions

Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke twice with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak last year while advising Trump’s presidential campaign.

On one occasion in September 2016, Sessions met with Kislyak in Session’s office. At the time, accusations started to swirl about Russian interference in the U.S. election.

On another occasion, Sessions met Kislyak in July at a Heritage Foundation Event, held during the Republican National Convention. Fifty other ambassadors were in attendance.

This is important because Sessions denied any communications with Russians during his January confirmation hearing. When asked by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota) what he would do to investigate any communications between Russia and members of Trump’s campaign, Sessions failed to directly answer the question.

But he did say this: “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.”

This would seem to contradict the new information. But Sessions tried to clarify his statements and say he was only speaking in a context to distinguish between his roles as senator and an advisor to Trump’s campaign. He said, “I never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign. Sessions’ spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores made a statement to reinforce this message, adding that he met with other ambassadors and that was usual for a senator to do.

There have been calls for Sessions to recuse himself from any investigation into the possible role of Russians in the 2016 presidential election, as well as calls for him to resign. While House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California) didn’t necessarily say that Session should recuse himself, McCarthy said recusal would be good for public relations.

Trump’s Vote of Confidence … Uh-Oh?

On Thursday, Trump said that he retains confidence in Jeff Sessions. However, Trump said that he wasn’t aware of Sessions’ conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

The Justice Department confirmed the two meetings, but said Sessions talked to the ambassador in his capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Republican Representatives called for Sessions to recuse himself include: Jason Chaffetz (Utah) and Darrell Issa (California). Republican Senators doing the same include: Rob Portman, Susan Collins, and Lindsay Graham (R).

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said that Sessions broke the law by lying under oath during his Senate confirmation hearing.

Sessions also said that he didn’t have any communications with any part of the Russian government about the 2016 elections before, on, or after Election Day in a confirmation questionnaire given to him by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT).

Trump also said that officials from the Obama Administration were trying to undermine him with the Russia accusations.

Sessions’ Recusal

On Thursday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that he would recuse himself from investigations related to the 2016 presidential election; that includes any investigations into possible Russian interference. Sessions made the decision on the recommendation of ethics officials who reviewed possible cases where Sessions would have a conflict of interest.

It should be noted that Sessions was the only senator on the Armed Services Committee who met with Kislyak one-on-one in 2016. And in that capacity, Sessions would have been more likely to meet with foreign military leaders.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) said he met with Kislak in early 2016, but Corker is on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Student LGBT Rights

In the week of Feb. 5-11, Donald Trump signaled that he would keep the workplace protections for LGBT federal workers. However, the next week, newly-confirmed Attorney General Jeff Sessions refused to defend a law that would have offered similar protections for LGBT students. He pulled the government’s Feb. 14, 2017 oral argument from the schedule that would have opposed the lawsuit brought about by Republican-led states.

Marijuana

On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that the Trump Administration’s Justice Department would seek “greater enforcement” of the law against marijuana use. He tried to differentiate between medical marijuana use and recreational use and he connected the latter to opioid abuse.

Jeff Sessions, a vocal opponent of marijuana use, was expected to make a sharp departure from the Obama Administration policy regarding states’ decisions to enforce their own laws. Early on, then-attorney Eric Holder announced that the federal government would take a hands-off approach with regards to state marijuana laws and instead focus on other drugs.

But Jeff Sessions supposedly reassured Republican lawmakers that there would be no sweeping policy change on the issue of marijuana despite his calls for a review of the Obama-era policy on the matter.

Despite the reassurances, the fact of the matter is Sessions is stanchly opposed to the use of the drug. Earlier, he told reporters the following:

I’m definitely not a fan of expanded use of marijuana. States they can pass the laws they choose. I would just say it does remain a violation of federal law to distribute marijuana throughout any place in the United States, whether a state legalizes it or not.

Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Patty Murray (D-WA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Jeff Merkely (D-OR), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Ed Markey (D-MA), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Corey Booker (D-NJ), and Michael Bennet (D-CO), signed a letter urging Sessions to continue the policy. Dean Heller (R-NV) personally urged Sessions to continue the policy. In addition, Heller said he would uphold the will of Nevadans, who approved the legalization of recreational marijuana.

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Trump’s Team Skipped the Ethics Training.

According to a report by Politico, Trump’s transition team declined a $1 million ethics, leadership, and management course. The course, which was first instituted in 2000 and taken by members of George W. Bush and Barack Obama’s transition teams, would be available for White House staff and appointees. The things covered in the course would have included confirmation hearings, law and order compliance, handling media scrutiny, and collaboration with lawmakers and agencies.

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We Are Looking for the Leakers!

Ever since he took office, there have been consistent leaks coming from Trump’s camp. It has angered him and his press secretary, Sean Spicer.

Is It You?

After Trump voiced his displeasure over the amount of leaks coming from his administration, press secretary Sean Spicer held a meeting with White House attorneys present. He suspected that the leaks about the administration was coming from his staff.

Spicer checked communications staff members’ phones (White-Housed issued and personal ones). Then he warned the staff that the use of phone apps like Confide (which can encrypt messages and delete them as soon as they’ve been sent) and Signal (another encrypted service) were in violation of the Presidential Records Act. He also warned communications staff members about leaking the details of that meeting, but that warning ultimately went unheeded.

It’s not the first time that warnings about leaks have promptly leaked. The State Department’s legal office issued a four-page memo warning of the dangers of leaks, and that memo was immediately posted by The Washington Post.

According to sources, a number of staff members are working in a tense environment and they are worried about their job security. Some have claimed that he made communications director Jessica Ditto cry, a claim she denies. Other accounts say Spicer berates staff members after press conferences, accusing them of leaking vital information.

Michael Dubke — who is close with Republican strategist Karl Rove —has been tapped as the next communications director. But that news was leaked before the announcement could officially be made. Also, there have also been reports of how this move has infuriated Trump campaign aides who feel that someone who supported Trump early on should have been given the job.

Is It Obama?

Eventually, Donald Trump turned his suspicions toward former President Barack Obama. In part of an interview with FOX News’ Fox and Friends which was released Monday, the Republican president said that “Obama people” were behind the leaks coming from the White House about Trump’s dealing with Australia and Mexico. He also said Obama was behind the angry crowds facing Republicans at recent town hall meetings.

Trump said:

You never know what’s exactly happening behind the scenes. You know, you’re probably right or possible right, but you never know.

Trump later went on a Twitter storm in which he accused Obama of tapping the phones at Trump Tower in New York City. Trump said it must have occurred in October 2016, but he offered no proof.

To be fair, Organizing For Action, a group formed from Obama’s campaign organization, has been working with grassroots protesters to organize around the town hall meetings. OFA has 14 professional organizers who train protesters to vocalize opposition to GOP agenda items. But there are many other groups involved, including the SEIU, MoveOn.org, and the Center for American Progress.

Also, it is fair to ask how there’s a transcript of Michael Flynn’s conversation with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak …

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Is There a Deep State?

In a news conference that went anywhere and everywhere, Trump addressed numerous questions about Russia and his aide’s connection to that country.

Trump said that he did not direct his former national security advisor Michael Flynn to talk to Russia’s ambassador, but said he would have directed Flynn to do so. Trump still thinks Michael Flynn is “a fine man,” but “I fired him because of what he said to Mike Pence.” Trump himself only knew of Flynn’s contacts with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak since Jan. 26.

The president also said that he did not know of any other staff members were in contact with Russian officials during the 2016 presidential campaign.

The president said, “Russia is a ruse,” and he called the numerous reports “fake news” multiple times throughout the news conference.

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Is Russia a ‘Ruse’?

In February, former Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) went on Fox Business and talked about Michael Flynn’s resignation. Early in, Mr. Kucinich said that there was a contingent in the United States’ intelligence community which is seeking to “separate the United States from Russia,” undermine Trump, and “reignite a Cold War.” At 3:30, Kucinich starts to mention the term “deep state,” and says that the intelligence community ordered a military strike that effectively killed a peace deal that was being worked on between President Obama and Russia.

This notion was supported in a The Ring of Fire video.

In this video, Mike Papantonio speaks with former CIA officer John Kiriakou about the growing power of American spy agencies. Kiriakou, who worked in the CIA for 14-15 years, exposed the Bush Administration’s use of water boarding and served two years in jail for it. His wife also served in the CIA and they’re both concerned about the strategic leaks from the Trump camp.

Kiriakou holds that the CIA and the FBI have been politicized. And he agrees with Papantonio’s assertion that the CIA is against Trump while the FBI is mostly aligned with Trump. Kirikau says that someone who works in the FBI told him that former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani intervened with New York’s FBI field office to try to get the agency to push the Trump agenda and that’s what has happened.

Additionally, Papantonio and Kiriakou discuss the role of Congress in this. They concur that we need a Frank Church-style oversight of our intelligence agencies, a la 1975. Right now, the congressional oversight committees are nothing more that “cheerleaders” for our intelligence agencies and Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham may even be behind some of the leaks in an attempt to prompt the United States into a war with Russia.

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What Is the Deep State?

Glen Greenwald, the co-founder of The Intercept, sat down with Democracy Now’s Nermeen Shaikh and Amy Goodman. Part of their discussion covered the relationship with the United States intelligence community and Donald Trump’s administration.

It has been speculated — by sources as far right as Breitbart and from the left, including former Rep. Dennis Kucinich — that the deep state is looking to undermine Trump. Bill Kristol, a Republican analyst who has made his distaste of Trump no secret, would welcome it.

Glenn Greenwald, who was speaking from Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, explained what the deep state was.

The deep state, although there’s no precise or scientific definition, generally refers to the agencies in Washington that are permanent power factions. They stay and exercise power even as presidents who are elected come and go. They typically exercise their power in secret, in the dark, and so they’re barely subject to democratic accountability, if they’re subject to it at all. It’s agencies like the CIA, the NSA and the other intelligence agencies, that are essentially designed to disseminate disinformation and deceit and propaganda, and have a long history of doing not only that, but also have a long history of the world’s worst war crimes, atrocities and death squads.

In short, the deep state consists of permanent power structures, like intelligence agencies, which operate outside our democracy.

Greenwald stressed that the Trump administration is in fact dangerous and should be resisted. But he urged people against encouraging the deep state to undermine Trump since it would open up a Pandora’s Box of epic proportions.

Here’s More About the DNC.

Corporate Money

After the Democratic National Committee Chair vote, the party’s 442 voting eligible members voted on Resolution 33, which would have banned money from corporate political action committees and would have forbidden “registered, federal corporate lobbyists” for serving as “DNC chair-appointed, at-large members.” The measure, introduced by DNC Vice Chair Christine Pelosi, was soundly defeated.

The resolution will be evaluated by the DNC’s smaller executive committee.

Once he assumed office in 2009, President Barack Obama quickly banned PAC contributions to the DNC. That was quietly reinstated by Debbie Wasserman Schultz in 2016 ahead of the general election.

Opponents of the resolution included Bob Mulholland from Chico, California. He argued that turning down PAC money would put Democrats at a financial disadvantage to the Republicans (although Hillary Clinton outspent Trump 2-1 in the past election and we know how that turned out).

Stuart Appelbaum from New York was a co-sponsor of the resolution. He argued that voting for the corporate PAC ban would have showed (Democratic) voters that the party was accountable to them.

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Political Consultants

At the Phoenix debate for the DNC Chair candidates, New Hampshire Democratic Party leader Raymond Buckley angrily stated, that party members should be asking where the money the party has raised went.

For a while, many Democratic Leaders have blamed Obama’s fundraising arm, Obama for America, for competing with the DNC for funds and even siphoning funds from the party.

But a little-known secret is that much of the DNC’s funds are going to consulting firms. From 2015-2016, nearly $1 billion went to eight consulting firms.

Jennifer O’Malley Dillon is with one such consulting firm (Precision Strategies), she is a former OFA staffer, and her presence within the DNC presents a conflict of interest. She is going to serve as Co-Chair of the Unity Commission, which will set the DNC’s new rules. And she made calls in favor of Tom Perez’s run for DNC chair.

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In Regional News …

I am catching up on my regional news, but I really wanted these two items from California and Kansas.

Students Will Be Able to Attend Community College in San Francisco Free of Charge.

San Francisco is preparing to be the first city in the United States to offer free tuition to residents beginning in the fall.

According to the plan, 28,000 students who currently attend the City College of San Francisco may be eligible for free tuition. The offer also includes those who have been residents in San Francisco for at least a year. Most students will be on the hook for $17 fee per semester and the cost of books. Students who qualify for additional financial assistance will be given $500 toward the cost of books.

The tuition will be paid for by the real estate transfer tax: taxes on properties that sell for more than $5 million. The real estate transfer tax increase on residential and commercial properties was approved by voters in November.

For properties just over $5 million, the tax starts at 2.25%. It goes up to 3% for properties that are valued at $25 million or more. The tax is expected to generate $45 million a year and the revenues will go to the city’s general fund and they are meant to also be used for affordable housing and senior support services.

The city will monitor how this all works out, do a yearly assessment, and see if the program should continue.

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Kansas Governor Vetoes Tax Hike.

In February, the Kansas legislature approved a tax hike that would seek to reduce the state’s deficit by June 2019, but it was vetoed by Governor Sam Brownback. The tax increase, which passed with bipartisan support in a GOP-controlled legislature, would generate over $1 billion over two years. The projected state deficit is projected to be $1.1 billion by mid-2019.

The tax increases would hit target the top 1% of earners in the state, as well as businesses and farmers. The top 1% of earners would see a tax increase from 4.6% to 5.45%. The bill also sought to restore a third tax bracket Brownback successfully pushed to eliminate and rollback exemptions for over 330,000 farmers and business owners.

Brownback insists that tax increases would hurt middle-class families and small business owners and tax cuts lead to growth. But the slashes in income taxes from 2012-2013 have led to budget shortfalls. Also, Brownback wants to increase taxes on tobacco, liquor, and to increase annual filing fees for for-profit businesses; the first two would definitely hit middle-class and lower-class families.

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In Science & Technology News …

Here are two exciting developments in the world of science.

There Is a Hidden Continent in the Pacific.

In Mid-February, scientists at GNS Science (New Zealand’s geoscience agency) announced the discovery of the mostly-underwater continent called Zealandia. The continent is 94% submerged in underwater, it is separate from Australia and Antarctica, and it includes New Zealand and New Caledonia. (That would describe how recent earthquakes in New Zealand led to the island increasing in land mass.)

Zealandia covers a 3 million-square-mile region in the Pacific southwest. New Zealand and New Caledonia are connected by the submerged continental crust.

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Astronomers Have Found 7 Exoplanets.

On Feb. 22, scientists from NASA and a Belgian team announced they have discovered seven exoplanets (planets that exist outside our solar system) orbiting a dim star in the constellation Aquarius. The planets have each are a size that is similar to Earth and Venus or slightly smaller. Their orbits ranged from one to 20 days, meaning they could all fit within Mercury’s orbit.

The sun is being called Trappist-1, which stands for Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope. The planets do not yet have names, and are identified by the letters “b” through “h” (Trappist-1 is also symbolized by the letter “a”).

The planets might be able to support life. They have surface temperatures that range from 0 to 100°C. At least three are believed to have watery oceans. More research needs to be done to examine the atmospheres of the planets.

The planets and sun were discovered with NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, which was launched in 2003. The Hubble Space Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope (the second of which is still under construction) will be used to study the atmospheres.


In Entertainment News …

There’s some interesting news from Los Angeles and Darrelle Revis parts from the team that drafted him for the second time.

Here’s Your Lakers News.

Well, it looks like Magic Johnson got his wish earlier than expected. After only 19 days after rejoining the franchise he played for as a point guard, Johnson has been named the president of basketball operations. He will report directly to Jeanie Buss.

On Tuesday, Feb. 21, Jeanie Buss fired Mitch Kupchak as general manager of the Lakers and she relieved her brother Jim Buss as executive vice president of basketball operations.

Kupchak had been a part of the Lakers franchise in some capacity since August 1981. He joined the team as a player, moved to the front office 30 years ago and served as general manager for 17 years, taking the place of Lakers Great Jerry West.

Jim Buss worked in the team’s front office for 19 years. Twelve of those years, he worked alongside Kupchak.

One of Magic’s first moves after being named to his new position was finding a new general manager. He quickly tapped agent Rob Pelinka as the new GM. Pelinka, whose clients have include former Lakers point guard Kobe Bryant, plans to leave his job at Landmark Sports Agency.

For his part, Johnson has promised to leave his business obligations in order to focus more on the Lakers. He owns stakes in other LA franchises including the Dodgers.

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The Lakers’ Struggles

The Lakers are 16-time NBA champions, but they have fallen on hard times since the start of the 2013-2014 NBA season. This year will mark the fourth-straight losing season for the Lakers, a franchise that only had seven total losing seasons previously.

Jeanie Buss had had enough and this is what she said about her decisions:

The purple and gold standard really dictated that the status quo wasn’t acceptable to go from (27) wins to 21 wins to 17 wins — to watch it erode like that wasn’t Lakers basketball. It wasn’t wasn’t this organization stands for, so it was time for a change.

Heading into Sunday’s game with the New Orleans Pelicans, the Lakers were 19-43.

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Family Turmoil

It looks like Jeanie Buss’s older brothers, Jim and Johnny, are trying to take away their sister’s controlling interest. According to ESPN, the brothers sent a notice to shareholders to elect a new board of directors on Feb. 24. They included a list of four names for three family spots on the board of five directors; none of those names included Jeanie (the current Governor) or Joey Buss (who serves as alternate governor).

Under the structure that the late Jerry Buss set up, his six children share a 66% interest in the Lakers. However, the team has to vote every year to elect a new board of directors. Jeanie Buss was always meant to have controlling interest in the team. According to her father’s will, co-trustees are to “take whatever actions are reasonably available to have Jeanie Buss appointed as the new Controlling Owner.”

Jim Buss still owns his ownership stake in the team despite being fired from his post, but Jeanie was meant to have the final say in overall franchise matters.

It would seem that this is a coup and Jeanie responded by filing a temporary restraining order in the Los Angeles Superior Court on Friday, Mar. 3. The order was withdrawn when a judge set a May 15 trial date.

From what I’ve heard, the case hinges on whether a judge finds that either party (Jeanie Buss on one side, her older brothers on the other) misinterpreted the terms of the trust. If the judge finds the Jeanie Buss was in the wrong, Jim Buss could conceivably take over. He was known to take off days and he was a liability to the team since free agents and coaches did not want to talk to him.

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Here’s Your NFL News.

Darrelle Revis

On Thursday, Feb. 16, NFL cornerback Darrelle Revis was charged with aggravated assault, robbery, conspiracy and making terroristic threats after an altercation in Pittsburgh that occurred over the previous weekend.

Darrelle Revis, a native of Aliquippa, PA and former University of Pittsburgh football player, was in his home state to develop some properties, according to his lawyer Blaine Jones. On Sunday, Feb. 12, Revis was approached by a 22-year-old man who began recording the cornerback. Revis tried to grab the phone and delete the recording when he was approached by a 21-year-old-man.

There was a verbal argument, then another man came up to help Revis. All of a sudden, a physical altercation broke out. The men who opposed Revis claimed that they were left unconscious for 10 minutes.

Last Tuesday, it was announced that Darrelle Revis would be released by the Jets.

This was his second tenure with the team who drafted him in 2007. He had spent two seasons (2013 and 2014) with the Buccaneers and Patriots, respectively.

The decision comes after the 31-year-old was charged in a weekend altercation in Pittsburgh. He will become an unrestricted free agent on Mar. 9. Revis was set to make $15.3 million in 2017 if he remained with the New York Jets.

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Matt Elam

On Sunday, Feb. 26, Baltimore Ravens safety Matt Elam was arrested for drug position in Miami. He was pulled over early Sunday morning for reckless driving, but police soon found 126 grams of marijuana and 3 grams of oxycodone in his vehicle. He was charged for possession, possession with the intent to sell or deliver, and with reckless driving.

Elam will also be an unrestricted free agent on Mar. 9. The Ravens, who drafted him in the first round in 2013, opted not to pick up his fifth-year option last season.

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Danny Masterson Is Under Investigation for Sexual Assault.

Actor Danny Masterson is being investigated for sexual assault after three women came forward with claims dating back 14-16 years. One of the women was a former girlfriend who alleged the sexual assault occurred in the middle of the six-year relationship.

The 40-year-old Masterson was best known for his role as rebel Steven Hyde on That 70’s Show. He is currently appearing on the Netflix comedy The Ranch and he has been married to actress Bijou Philips since 2011.

Masterson’s representatives maintain that these are false allegations. But the investigation by the Los Angeles Police Department continues.

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