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- 03/02/17--15:45: _News Wrap: Trump to...
- 03/02/17--15:50: _Recusing himself, S...
- 03/02/17--17:22: _All the ambassadors...
- 03/02/17--20:04: _In a reversal, form...
- 03/03/17--06:10: _White House defends...
- 03/03/17--06:13: _Al-Qaida number two...
- 03/03/17--06:48: _Russian ambassador ...
- 03/03/17--07:53: _Arrest made in nati...
- 03/03/17--09:34: _Northwest scientist...
- 03/03/17--09:51: _Column: How Ben Car...
- 03/03/17--10:09: _Why this Brazilian ...
- 03/03/17--11:20: _SXSW’s immigration ...
- 03/03/17--13:06: _Why Elvis shot this...
- 03/03/17--13:07: _Patsy Cline was Nas...
- 03/03/17--13:54: _Column: Is the boom...
- 03/03/17--13:58: _Photo: A new women’...
- 03/03/17--14:57: _5 books that will m...
- 03/03/17--15:06: _Artificial sweetene...
- 03/03/17--15:45: _U.S. and Russia rel...
- 03/03/17--15:50: _News Wrap: Yellen s...
- 03/02/17--17:22: All the ambassadors Jeff Sessions met in 2016
- 03/03/17--06:10: White House defends Pence’s use of private email while governor
- 03/03/17--06:13: Al-Qaida number two killed by U.S. drone strike in Syria
- 03/03/17--06:48: Russian ambassador in eye of storm over Trump campaign ties
- 03/03/17--07:53: Arrest made in national threats to Jewish community centers
- 03/03/17--09:34: Northwest scientists scramble to keep deadly bat syndrome at bay
- 03/03/17--10:09: Why this Brazilian city uses tilapia fish skin to treat burn victims
- 03/03/17--11:20: SXSW’s immigration clauses are ‘not standard,’ lawyers say
- adversely affect the viability of Artist’s official SXSW showcase, the following actions are available to SXSW:
- Artist will be removed from their official SXSW showcase
- and, at SXSW’s sole option, replaced.
- Any hotels booked via SXSW Housing will be canceled.
- Artist’s credentials will be canceled.
- SXSW will notify the appropriate U.S. immigration
- authorities of the above actions.
- 03/03/17--13:54: Column: Is the boom of bitcoin a bubble that’s about to burst?
- 03/03/17--13:58: Photo: A new women’s world chess champion is crowned
- 03/03/17--14:57: 5 books that will make you think about what it means to be human
- 03/03/17--15:06: Artificial sweetener reveals how much pee is in the average pool
- 03/03/17--15:45: U.S. and Russia relations are very strained. Here’s what’s at stake
- 03/03/17--15:50: News Wrap: Yellen signals another Fed interest rate hike
HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Lisa Desjardins joining us from Capitol Hill, thanks so much.
In the day’s other news: The president carried his call for a major military buildup to a U.S. Navy audience. Mr. Trump spoke aboard the newly built aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford in Newport News, Virginia, and touted his plan for Naval expansion.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: After years of endless budget cuts, that have impaired our defenses, I am calling for one of the largest defense spending increases in history. Our military requires sustained, stable funding to meet the growing needs placed on our defense.
HARI SREENIVASAN: The president’s draft budget calls for boosting overall defense spending by $54 billion, or 10 percent.
The U.S. struck hard at al-Qaida militants today in Yemen, with more than 20 airstrikes. Local officials reported at least nine suspected militants were killed. The Pentagon says the strikes targeted fighters, weapons and equipment in a remote mountainous region. It follows a raid in January when a U.S. Navy SEAL died and a number of Yemeni civilians were killed.
Meanwhile, al-Qaida confirmed today that a U.S. drone strike killed its second-in command, Abu Al-Khayr Al-Masri, in Syria last Sunday.
A suspected U.S. drone strike killed two Taliban militants in Northwest Pakistan today. They were hit in a tribal region near the Afghan border. It is the first such strike ordered since President Trump took office.
In Syria, the government announced it has fully recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra from the Islamic State group again. Syrian army troops drove out the militants for the second time in a year. They were backed by Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon and Russian airstrikes. ISIS fighters have already destroyed many of Palmyra’s ancient Roman sites.
An international family planning conference raised nearly $200 million today for family planning initiatives. That’s after President Trump reinstated a U.S. ban — a ban on U.S. funding for organizations with any link to abortion, representatives from some 50 nations at a conference in Brussels dubbed She Decides.
ALEXANDER DE CROO, Belgian Deputy Premier: I think that the Trump administration decision is the wrong decision. And I have never seen any evidence that supports that decision, but we have a voice and we have a choice.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Conference organizers say the U.S. funding cutoff left a global shortfall of about $600 million for family planning efforts.
Back in this country, the Environmental Protection Agency dropped a requirement that oil and gas interests report information on methane emissions. The Obama administration issued that rule in November. In a statement, the new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, said withdrawing the rule will ease burdens on business, while he conducts a full review.
Two more Cabinet officers took their seats today. The Senate confirmed Ben Carson to be secretary of housing and urban development and Rick Perry to be energy secretary. They were sworn in this afternoon by Vice President Pence. Carson is a retired neurosurgeon who ran for president last year. Perry is a former governor of Texas.
The new interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, made a memorable entrance today for his first day on the job. The former Montana congressman rode a National Park Service horse several blocks to department headquarters. Once there, he dismounted to greet hundreds of staffers.
And on Wall Street, stocks gave back a big chunk of yesterday’s big gains, as investors took profits. The Dow Jones industrial average lost 112 points, but still managed to stay above 21000. The Nasdaq fell nearly 43 points, and the S&P 500 slipped 14. We will have more on the markets’ bull run later in the program.
The post News Wrap: Trump touts plan for naval expansion aboard aircraft carrier appeared first on PBS NewsHour.
HARI SREENIVASAN: The nation’s new attorney general has spent this day under growing fire. And now, Jeff Sessions says someone else will oversee any investigation of Russian meddling in the election and of contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russians.
Lisa Desjardins begins our coverage.
LISA DESJARDINS: The new attorney general, three weeks on the job, came to the Justice Department briefing room this afternoon to make his statement.
JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. Attorney General: My staff recommended recusal. They said that, since I had involvement with the campaign, I should not be involved in any campaign investigation.
I have studied the rules and considered their comments and evaluation. I believe those recommendations are right and just. Therefore, I have recused myself in the matters that deal with the Trump campaign.
LISA DESJARDINS: This after The Washington Post reported that, during the campaign, when Jeff Sessions was a senator and Trump campaign adviser, he met with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. twice.
Then-Senator Sessions had more than 25 conversations with foreign ambassadors last year. Two of those were with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian envoy.
At his news conference, Sessions took issue with any suggestion of impropriety.
JEFF SESSIONS: Let me be clear: I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign.
LISA DESJARDINS: He also defended answers he gave during his Senate confirmation.
Minnesota Democrat Al Franken cited U.S. intelligence documents.
SEN. AL FRANKEN, D- Minn.: These documents, also allegedly, say — quote — “There was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.”
JEFF SESSIONS: Senator Franken, I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I did not have communications with the Russians.
LISA DESJARDINS: This afternoon, Sessions said he never meant to be misleading.
JEFF SESSIONS: My reply to the question of Senator Franken was honest and correct as I understood it at the time.
I appreciate that some have taken the view that this was a false comment. That is not my intent. That is not correct.
LISA DESJARDINS: But Democrats in Congress weren’t buying it.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer:
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER, D-N.Y., Minority Leader: I don’t think that is the way most think people would interpret it. And that’s why we need to have a thorough investigation.
LISA DESJARDINS: Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi demanded that Sessions resign.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER: The standard for remaining attorney general and certainly for conducting investigations is not just, did you break the law? You have to be above reproach.
REP. NANCY PELOSI, D-Calif., House Minority Leader: He has proved that he is unqualified and unfit to serve in that position of trust.
LISA DESJARDINS: Seventeen Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee formally asked for a criminal investigation of Sessions for allegedly lying to Congress. Democrats are also pushing for a special prosecutor in the case. But there was also pressure from Republicans. Several called for Sessions to recuse himself from the Russia investigation before he eventually did so.
But Speaker of the House Paul Ryan played down such talk.
REP. PAUL RYAN, R-Wis., Speaker of the House: Asked him questions. But, honestly, we meet with ambassadors all the time. I mean, I did a reception about 100 yards that way with like 100 ambassadors last year.
LISA DESJARDINS: And this afternoon, Sessions’ boss weighed in, in Newport News, Virginia, aboard the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford.
QUESTION: Mr. President, do you still have confidence in the attorney general?
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Total.
LISA DESJARDINS: The president said he believes Sessions probably did speak truthfully to the Senate. He also said he didn’t think Sessions should recuse himself, but, 90 minutes later, the attorney general did just that.
The revelations come just two weeks after then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was forced out. He’d told Vice President Mike Pence that he didn’t meet discuss sanctions with a Russian official, when, in fact, he had.
And in a further development, The New York Times reported today officials in the Obama administration rushed to spread intelligence of any contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russians before leaving office. Their goal? To ensure a trail remained for investigators.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Lisa Desjardins joins me now.
Lisa, this happened late in the afternoon, about a 4:00 press conference. What was the reaction to this from the people on the Hill that you have spoken to?
LISA DESJARDINS: There’s a full spectrum of reaction on Capitol Hill, Hari.
There are some Republicans who say they do not believe that Attorney General Sessions should have recused himself. These are folks that are his colleagues. They see him as an honest man. And they were saying all day long that he shouldn’t do anything new.
But there are other Republicans who will tell you privately that they are relieved, that they saw this as a problem for their party, especially at a time when they’re trying to focus on other things, like, oh, the Affordable Care Act.
Those Republicans, one told me privately, are hoping that this means there will be a pause in the daily questions they have been receiving on Russia.
And that brings us to the third reaction up here, Democrats. They have a different plan. They do not plan on pausing these questions. And, in fact, House and Senate Minority Leaders Pelosi and Schumer instantly sent out responses saying that they are again demanding a special prosecutor. They say that Attorney General Sessions’ recusal just adds to the need for a special prosecutor.
And they are still calling for him to resign.
HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, so it sounds like some critics are doubling down.
What about some of the reports that we also had later this afternoon about more meetings between members of the Trump camp and Russians?
LISA DESJARDINS: These were new developments today as well. The New York Times reporting, quoting a White House official, Hope Hicks, as confirming that Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and a senior adviser, was at a meeting with the Russian ambassador, and Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser, at Trump Tower.
This gets confusing, because now we’re seeing more and more players here, but this is significant, because now we’re adding more members of the Trump team who were meeting with this Russian ambassador. At that point, it was Kushner, Flynn and the ambassador at Trump Tower in December.
That’s when the Obama administration was working on ramping up sanctions, a very critical timeline there. And I think overall it just adds to the map in this entire kind of Russia-Trump situation.
But I will say the White House says that Mr. Kushner met with many international dignitaries, and the Russian ambassador was just one.
HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Lisa Desjardins joining us from Capitol Hill, thanks so much.
The post Recusing himself, Sessions says he never meant to mislead on Russia meetings appeared first on PBS NewsHour.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself Thursday from federal probes into Russia, following reports he did not reveal two 2016 meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in sworn statements to Congress.
The fallout over his testimony, and whether the presidential election was discussed during his conversations with Kislyak, has raised questions about how often senators meet with ambassadors — and under what circumstances it’s appropriate.
House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a news conference Thursday he often meets with ambassadors and foreign leaders in his role as a senator. Foreign policy experts told Politifact it’s not abnormal for members of Congress to arrange these kinds of conversations, though they often don’t initiate and sometimes delegate them to an aide.
Democratic lawmakers have pointed to Sessions’ meetings as unusual because of their setting — one during a sideline event to the Republican National Committee and the other in private meeting in his Senate office — and also because of America’s tense relationship with Russia.
Sen. Claire McCaskill tweeted Thursday she had no call from or meeting with the Russian ambassador in her 10 years on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Her critics were quick to point to two interactions with Russian officials she had chronicled years ago on Twitter; McCaskill said they were part of group discussions and not one-on-one meetings like the one Sessions held in September.
The Washington Post reported that Sessions was the only member of the Senate Armed Services Committee to meet with Kislyak in 2016. The other 25 said they had no interaction with him.
A list of meetings provided to the NewsHour on Thursday by the Department of Justice shows Sessions had 30 meetings with ambassadors in 2016. One of them was with Kislyak. Here’s a list of all of those leaders he met in official meetings in his role as senator; it does not include phone calls or unofficial interactions, like the one Sessions had with Kislyak in July.
Ryan Holmes reported for this story.
The Trump campaign has repeatedly denied communication with Russian officials during the 2016 elections and its transition to the White House. In fact, USA Today has counted at least 20 denials since last summer.
In February, former Donald Trump campaign adviser Carter Page told Judy Woodruff on the PBS NewsHour that he had “no meetings” with Russian officials last year.
Video by PBS NewsHour
“I might have said hello to a few people as they were walking by me at my graduation — the graduation speech that I gave in July, but no meetings,” he added.
But on Thursday — the same day Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from federal probes into Russia after reports revealed he met twice with the Russian ambassador in 2016 — Page told Chris Hayes of MSNBC that “I do not deny” meeting with the ambassador last summer in Cleveland, in an apparent contradiction.
— All In w/Chris Hayes (@allinwithchris) March 3, 2017
“I will say I never met him anywhere outside of Cleveland. Let’s just say that much,” he added.
Why it matters
Shortly after Sessions announced his recusal Thursday from any investigations into Russian interference, USA Today reported that two additional advisers to Trump’s campaign also spoke with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak last year during the election season.
Former Trump campaign advisers Page and J.D. Gordon spoke with Russia’s ambassador during the Republican National Convention in July, the newspaper reported.
It’s not known what the two advisers specifically discussed with Kislyak. Page cited “confidentiality rules” when asked about the topics discussed with the ambassador.
Gordon also told USA Today that the meeting wasn’t unusual, saying it was “an informal conversation just like my interactions with dozens of other ambassadors and senior diplomats in Cleveland.”
Earlier in the evening, reacting to Sessions’ recusal, President Donald Trump said “this whole narrative is a way of saving face for Democrats losing an election that everyone thought they were supposed to win.”
Read more on how Washington is reacting to Sessions’ meetings with the Russian ambassador here.
The post In a reversal, former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page now says he did have contact with Russia appeared first on PBS NewsHour.
WASHINGTON — A White House spokeswoman said Friday that Vice President Mike Pence “did everything to the letter of the law” after public records revealed that he used a private email account to conduct public business as Indiana’s governor.
The Indianapolis Star reported that emails provided through a public records request show that Pence communicated with advisers through his personal AOL account on homeland security matters and security at the governor’s residence during his four years as governor.
The governor also faced email security issues. Pence’s AOL account was subjected to a phishing scheme last spring, before he was chosen by Donald Trump to join the GOP presidential ticket. Pence’s contacts were sent an email falsely claiming that the governor and his wife were stranded in the Philippines and needed money.
As Trump’s running mate, Pence frequently criticized rival Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as President Barack Obama’s secretary of state, accusing her of purposely keeping her emails out of public reach and shielding her from scrutiny.
Sarah Sanders, the White House spokeswoman, doubled down on that defense, stressed to reporters on Air Force One that state and federal laws are different and claiming that is efforts to turn over the messages to be archived are “why anybody even knows about the account.”
“He did everything to the letter of the law,” she said.
Pence spokesman Marc Lotter added that “the comparison is absurd” because Clinton had set up a private server in her home at the start of her tenure at the State Department and, unlike Clinton, Pence did not handle any classified material as Indiana’s governor.
The governor moved to a different AOL account with additional security measures, but has since stopped using the new personal account since he was sworn-in as vice president, said Lotter.
Lotter said Pence “maintained a state email account and a personal email account” like previous governors in the state. At the end of his term Pence directed outside counsel to review all of his communications to ensure that state-related emails were transferred and properly archived by the state, the spokesman said.
The newspaper reported that the office of Pence’s successor, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, released more than 30 pages from Pence’s AOL account, but declined to release an unspecified number of emails because they were considered confidential.
Public officials are not barred from using personal email accounts under Indiana law, but the law is interpreted to mean that any official business conducted on private email must be retained to comply with public record laws.
The state requires all records pertaining to state business to be retained and available for public information requests. Emails involving state email accounts are captured on the state’s servers, but any emails that Pence may have sent from his AOL account to another private account would need to be retained.
At the end of his term, Pence hired the Indianapolis law firm of Barnes & Thornburg to conduct a review of all of his communications and that review is still ongoing, Lotter said. Any correspondence between Pence’s AOL account and any aides using a state email account would have been automatically archived, he said.
Associated Press writers Darlene Superville in Orlando, Fla. and Jonathan Lemire in New York contributed to this report.
The post White House defends Pence’s use of private email while governor appeared first on PBS NewsHour.
Abdullah Muhammad Rajab Abd Al-Rahman, better known by his alias Abu Khayr al-Masri, a 59-year-old Egyptian and a longtime top member of al-Qaida, was killed in an American drone strike in Syria, the terrorist group confirmed in a statement on Thursday.
The al-Qaida statement said he died in a “treacherous” drone strike it described as a “new crime by America and the crusader coalition,” according to Reuters.
A Hellfire missile fired by a CIA drone struck the car carrying Abu Khayr al-Masri in Idlib, Syria, on Sunday, Reuters reported. The attack was also reported by CNN, The New York Times, and The Guardian.
Abu Khayr al-Masri had been designated as an al-Qaida operative by the U.S. Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control in 2005. The designation accused him of conspiring to commit terrorist acts and training and providing material support to al-Qaida, and coordinating al-Qaida’s work with the Taliban.
By that time, he was living in conditions akin to house arrest in Iran, along with a handful of other top al-Qaida leaders from the inner circle of the group’s founder, Osama bin Laden, who had fled Afghanistan into Iran in anticipation of the U.S. counter strike for the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on New York and Washington. Bin Laden fled to Pakistan, where he was killed in a U.S. Navy Seal raid in 2011.
Abu Khayr al-Masri was married to one of bin Laden’s daughters and was a longtime associate of bin Laden and his successor, Ayman al-Zwahiri, and was considered the group’s number two leader.
The security firm founded by former FBI agent Ali Soufan called Abu Khayr’s death “a major blow” for al-Qaida.
“Outside of Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Masri was one of the most important legacy leaders left from the core al-Qaeda group,” The Soufan Group said. “Al-Masri’s significance in terms of his direct connection to the core of al-Qaida and to some of its more infamous attacks is difficult to overstate.”
Abu Khayr’s guesthouse in Kabul, Afghanistan, is reputedly where Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, currently detained at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo, Cuba, briefed top al-Qaida leaders about the September 11 attack plans, according to TSG.
Testimony and evidence in the 2014 trial of al-Qaida spokesman Suleiman Abu Ghayth disclosed that Abu Khayr had been living in Iran, along with Abu Ghayth and another most wanted al-Qaida leader, Saif al-Adel, who remains at large and is under federal indictment for his role in the lethal 1998 al Qaida truck bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Abu Ghayth, a Kuwaiti imam who emerged as a key al-Qaida spokesman after September 11, was convicted of terrorism charges in Manhattan federal court and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Editor’s Note: This post has been updated to include more information about Saif Al-Adel.
The post Al-Qaida number two killed by U.S. drone strike in Syria appeared first on PBS NewsHour.
WASHINGTON — The Trump administration’s back-to-back controversies over its Russian ties now have at least one thing in common: Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Moscow’s top diplomat is a Washington fixture with a sprawling network, and he has emerged as the central figure in the investigations into Trump advisers’ connections with Russia. In a matter of weeks, contact with Kislyak led to the firing of a top adviser to the president and, on Thursday, prompted calls for the Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign.
Separately, a White House official confirmed that Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn met with Kislyak at Trump Tower in December for what the official called a brief courtesy meeting. Flynn was pushed out of the White House last month after officials said he misled Vice President Mike Pence about whether he and the ambassador had discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia in a phone call.
At issue Thursday were two meetings between Sessions and Kislyak — one in July and another in September, at the height of concern over Russia’s involvement in the hacking of Democratic officials’ emails accounts. Intelligence officials have since concluded that Moscow ordered the hacks to tilt the election toward Trump. During his confirmation hearing, the Alabama Republican denied having had contact with any Russian officials, neglecting to mention the meetings with Kislyak, which were first reported by The Washington Post.
The Russian Embassy did not respond to a request for comment.
Although the White House dismissed the revelation as part of a political witch hunt, Sessions’ former colleagues took the omission seriously. At the urging of some in his own party, Sessions recused himself from the Department of Justice’s investigation. Still, Democrats called on him to step down.
Observers note Kislyak is a somewhat unlikely figure to cause controversy. Over the course of a long diplomatic career, he’s led the life of a fairly typical global envoy, making himself a reliable presence on the circuit of receptions, teas and forums that make up the calendar of any ambassador.
Kislyak, who was appointed to his post in 2008, is regularly spotted walking around town, heading to and from meetings. Early in his tenure, he often opened the doors of the Russian Embassy, hosting dinners for foreign policy professionals, Pentagon officials, journalists and Capitol Hill staffers.
Those who have attended the events describe him as a gracious and amiable diplomat, although perhaps not as polished — or as confrontational — as his more famous boss, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
In 2015, when Kislyak invited a group of Washington-based journalists, including one from The Associated Press, to the Russian Embassy for tea, he used the meeting to push warmer relations between the two nations, despite the conflict over Russia’s seizure of Crimea and the crisis in Ukraine.
Kislyak framed U.S.-Russian relations as salvageable and said he hoped specifically to combat what he considered cartoonish, anti-Russian depictions of his government in the American news media.
Sessions, at a news conference where he recused himself from the investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties with Russia, said he discussed a number of things with Kislyak, including counterterrorism. He said the meeting became confrontational when the talk turned to Ukraine.
Kislyak, 66, has bounced between the United States and Russia for most of his long career.
His first foreign posting was to New York where he worked at the Soviet delegation at the United Nations in the early 1980s. He spent the following years as the first secretary and then councilor at the Soviet Embassy in Washington before returning to Moscow in 1989, where he took a succession of senior jobs at the Foreign Ministry.
He did a stint as Russian ambassador to Belgium and simultaneously served as Moscow’s envoy at NATO. He then returned to Moscow to serve as a deputy foreign minister, overseeing relations with the United States and arms control issues before being sent to Washington.
Kislyak’s contacts have sparked questions about his role or involvement in the hacking, questions that are difficult to answer.
The U.S. and Russia, along with many other countries, have made it a practice to separate their top diplomats from espionage activities, although it is not uncommon for an intelligence agent to operate under the cover of a senior-level diplomat job. Foreign diplomats to the United States likely expect that their activities will be monitored by U.S. authorities in the same manner that American diplomats are monitored in countries like Russia.
Russian ambassadors most likely are aware of the intelligence agents operating under diplomatic cover, but are not believed to part of the security services themselves.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on Thursday ridiculed the claims of Kislyak’s involvement in espionage as “total disinformation” and part of efforts to sway public opinion.
“I’ll open a military secret for you: It’s the diplomats’ jobs to have contacts in the country they are posted to,” she said, sarcastically. “It’s their obligation to meet with officials and members of the political establishment.”
Isachenkov reported from Moscow. Associated Press writers Bradley Klapper and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.
The post Russian ambassador in eye of storm over Trump campaign ties appeared first on PBS NewsHour.
NEW YORK — A jilted ex-boyfriend is behind at least eight of the scores of threats made against Jewish Community Centers nationwide, plus a bomb threat to New York’s Anti-Defamation League, in an effort to harass and vilify his former girlfriend, federal officials said Friday.
Juan Thompson was arrested in St. Louis and will appear in federal court in Missouri on Friday afternoon on a charge of cyberstalking, authorities said. There was no information on an attorney who could comment on his behalf.
According to a federal complaint, Thompson dated the woman until last summer, when they broke up. The following day, her boss received an email purporting to be from a national news organization saying that she’d been pulled over for drunken driving.
The harassment got worse from there, federal officials said. The Anti-Defamation League received an email on Feb. 21 that said she was behind the bomb threats to JCCs and there’d be more the next day. On Feb. 22, it received a phoned-in bomb threat.
He also claimed she was responsible for placing a bomb in a Jewish center in Dallas, and he also emailed a JCC in San Diego saying she wanted to “kill as many Jews asap.”
Federal officials have been investigating 122 bomb threats called into nearly 100 JCC schools, child care and other similar facilities in three dozen states.
Associated Press writer Jim Salter in St. Louis contributed to this report.
The post Arrest made in national threats to Jewish community centers appeared first on PBS NewsHour.
A tiny brown bat wriggles about John Huckabee’s gloved hands, voicing its displeasure with a high-pitched series of screeches and squawks.
The wildlife biologist expertly grasps one of the bat’s wings and unfolds it. Bending close, he searches for telltale signs of infection.
“There are a few small deep pigmented areas of scarring,” Huckabee said, turning the bat over in his hands. “But overall looks like he’s in very good shape.”
This silver-haired bat is one of the lucky ones. But not long ago hikers discovered a sick bat in the forests east of Seattle. It was taken to PAWS Wildlife Center in Lynnwood, Washington, where Huckabee was one of the first to see the patient.
“There were some lesions on the wing that were dry,” Huckabee said. “It had the appearance that it may have a fungal infection.”
Huckabee became suspicious. Could these be signs of the deadly bat disease, white-nose syndrome?
White-nose was first discovered in New York state in 2006 when large numbers of bats started turning up dead. At the time, no one had seen anything like it. Researchers soon discovered that a mysterious fungus was attacking the bats while they hibernated. The disease associated with the fungus became known as white-nose syndrome for the color that it turns bats’ muzzles.
“White-nose syndrome was really challenging when we first discovered it because it was not known to science,” said Jeremy Coleman, national white-nose syndrome coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “The fungus that causes white-nose was not even named at that time.”
Since it was discovered, the disease has raced across the country spreading all the way to Oklahoma and Nebraska in just a few years. But the disease had never been found west of the Rocky Mountains and the idea that it could have jumped more than 1,300 miles seemed far-fetched.
But when tests on Huckabee’s little brown bat came back positive for white-nose, it sent researchers scrambling for answers.
“It’s a big mystery as to how white-nose got to Washington state,” said Abby Tobin, white-nose syndrome coordinator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “There are just a lot of unknowns.”
For years, it wasn’t even known how the disease killed its victims. But research published in 2015 suggests that bats with white-nose wake up more often during hibernation, causing them to burn through the fat reserves needed to survive the winter. Starvation and death soon follow. The disease has killed 5.5 million bats and counting. Bat populations in the Northeastern United States may have declined by as much as 80 percent.
This sudden and widespread die-off is unprecedented in hibernating bats. Scientists consider it unlikely that bats affected by white-nose will rebound quickly because most are long-lived and have only a single pup per year.
The big question now is whether the disease will ravage West Coast bats as severely as it has their eastern cousins. Around the Northwest, bat researchers have mobilized and are trying to take stock of their populations before the disease takes hold.
In Oregon, a team of federal and state researchers took to the high desert last summer to learn what species are present in Oregon and how big the bat populations are.
“Bats hang out in the dark. They hang out in these big cliffs and crevices that we can’t access,” said Tom Rodhouse, an ecologist with the National Park Service. “So we’ve gone for decades without really understanding what’s happening with bats.”
Rodhouse and the team waited until sundown that evening to erect a series of nets that resemble those used for badminton, but with a much finer mesh. Bats navigate in the dark using echolocation, but they can’t easily detect the nets.
It wasn’t long before they began wheeling into the nets. The team of researchers descended to disentangle their tiny captives. Then they checked the health, sex and species of each bat before setting them free.
“The project’s really designed to have a very important finger on the pulse of what’s happening with bats,” said Pat Orsmbee, a retired bat specialist from the Bureau of Land Management. “We will have a better feel for what species we need to focus on and which ones are being hardest hit.”
“There’s really no way for us to ascertain what’s happening with our bat populations without this kind of a coordinated, large scale survey effort,” Rodhouse said.
In Washington, relatively little is known about the state’s bat populations. But fear of a white-nose outbreak has jump-started research. Abby Tobin and a team of state researchers have been using specialized microphones to listen for bats as they fly overhead. They’ve been trying to determine which species are present and where they’re congregating. Researchers are also taking environmental samples from the forests around Western Washington, looking for signs that the fungus is present.
“For us here in Washington, our best hope of protecting bats really is just to enhance bat habitat and preserve the foraging areas,” Tobin said. “That way we decrease other threats to bats to help them continue the population to grow.”
Since the first infected bat was discovered last year, the fungus has been found twice more in Washington, both near the original site in the forests east of Seattle. But nearly a year after white-nose was first discovered in Washington, no large-scale die-offs have been seen around the Northwest.
And there are reasons for optimism: eastern bats congregate in large numbers in caves and mines when they hibernate, sometimes by the thousands. The disease, which is spread primarily by bat-to-bat contact, can wreak havoc in these large colonies. Western bat species, however, behave differently.
“Our western bat species do not aggregate in these large numbers like they do in eastern North America during hibernation,” Tobin said. “We have a little more hope in Washington that our bats might not be infected as much as bats in eastern North America have been.”
These small differences in behavior may be what ultimately saves western bats. But it could be years before definitive answers emerge.
To report a suspected case of white-nose syndrome contact the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife or the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. You can also report the location of a bat colony you come across in Washington by clicking here.
This report first appeared on EarthFix’s website. EarthFix is a public media project of Oregon Public Broadcasting and Boise State Public Radio, Idaho Public Television, KCTS 9 Seattle, KUOW Puget Sound Public Radio, Northwest Public Radio and Television, Southern Oregon Public Television and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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Ben Carson was sworn in Thursday as the new secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. One way he can get off to a great start: helping communities use existing funds to promote homeownership, which will not only reduce poverty and material hardship but also use government resources more efficiently.
In 2009, when home prices collapsed while rents continued to rise, I argued that the HUD should encourage a shift from rental subsidies to homeownership subsidies and use stimulus money to create an additional 1 million homeownership vouchers. Such a change would have increased homeownership, reduced long-term government costs and lowered the housing cost burden on millions of families. By shifting subsidies from rental vouchers to homeownership vouchers, the government could have locked in sharply lower costs per subsidized household, paving the way to cover many more families.
Though home prices have increased since their 2009 lows, I’m making the same argument today. Cities could cover far more families at the same government costs by embracing the homeownership voucher strategy.
How it works
Nearly all Housing Choice Vouchers are used for rentals. Families pay about 30 percent of their household income toward rent, and the voucher covers the rest, up to a fair market rent price HUD estimates for each local area. HUD sets that fair market rent at the 40th percentile of rents in a community, a level higher than 40 percent of rents in the area. Government funding for vouchers can only cover a small share of eligible families, which results in long waiting lists.
According to a 2006 study, homeownership vouchers have shown positive results, with homeowners moving to lower poverty areas and experiencing low delinquency, default and foreclosures.While HUD allows housing authorities to use vouchers for homeownership, less than half of 1 percent are used for this purpose.
To determine how much money could be saved and reallocated by shifting from rental to homeownership vouchers, we must identify homes that are at least equal in quality to rental units at the 40th percentile. One conservative estimate is looking at homes with values at the 30th percentile. These homeowners have considerably higher incomes than those renting units at the 40th percentile, so the quality of their homes probably exceeds the quality of those rental units.
Next, we determine what homeowners pay every month compared with what renters pay. It might make sense for applicants to provide a modest down payment, but I assume the owner is financing the home’s full value with a 30-year mortgage at 3.75 percent. The carrying costs include interest, taxes, insurance and an $80 a month escrow for repairs. While current homeownership vouchers pay the loan’s monthly principal, owners should be responsible for some of that cost, because dollars going to principal represent the owner’s accumulated savings. For mortgage payments, banks would face little risk — if the homeowner loses his or her job and can’t pay, the government’s contribution would increase to the voucher’s full value.
Baltimore as a case study
Baltimore shows how homeownership vouchers can increase coverage and reduce housing cost burdens. The fair market rent for a two-bedroom Baltimore apartment is $1,376 a month. A family earning $1,000 a month would pay $300, and the voucher would cover the remaining $1,076 a month.
A Baltimore home valued at the 30th percentile is about $85,000. Assuming no down payment, the combination of interest, taxes, insurance and escrow for repairs amounts to about $460 a month. Again, the owner contributes $300 a month, but the government cost is only about $160 a month. Even when adding the principal repayment to the carrying costs, the net government cost would still be less than $300 a month.
Using this example, the homeownership voucher would cost the government $776 a month less than the rental voucher. Added administrative costs might eat some of the savings. But almost certainly, the government could finance two or even three families with homeownership vouchers for the cost of one rental voucher.
Most other U.S. communities would see similar savings and could use the proceeds to expand coverage, reduce government costs or both. The table below highlights some of the many cities where government savings are substantial enough to finance at least two homeownership vouchers for the cost of one rental voucher.
As under current regulations, eligible homeowners would have to attend and complete the housing authority’s homeownership and housing counseling program. To help homeowners maintain their properties, localities could designate a physical housing consultant and a team of local craftsmen to be on call for maintenance.
In addition to increasing access to housing subsidies, homeownership vouchers would lower the income threshold required to leave the program: Families with a voucher worth $500 a month would no longer require subsidies once they earn $20,000 a year. Also, unlike rental vouchers, which generally cost more as rents increase, homeownership vouchers would lock in the maximum monthly costs. Finally, the program would promote the stability and affordability of homeownership.
Let’s hope Secretary Carson takes advantage of the rare opportunity to help more low-income families without increasing government spending.
This column is reproduced with permission from the Urban Institute. It was first published on March 2, 2017. Find the original story here.
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Video by Nadia Sussman for STAT
FORTAZELA, Brazil — In this historic city by the sea in northeast Brazil, burn patients look as if they’ve emerged from the waves. They are covered in fish skin — specifically strips of sterilized tilapia.
Doctors here are testing the skin of the popular fish as a bandage for second- and third-degree burns. The innovation arose from an unmet need. Animal skin has long been used in the treatment of burns in developed countries. But Brazil lacks the human skin, pig skin, and artificial alternatives that are widely available in the US.
The three functional skin banks in Brazil can meet only 1 percent of the national demand, said Dr. Edmar Maciel, a plastic surgeon and burn specialist leading the clinical trials with tilapia skin.
As a result, public health patients in Brazil are normally bandaged with gauze and silver sulfadiazine cream.
“It’s a burn cream because there’s silver in it, so it prevents the burns from being infected,” said Dr. Jeanne Lee, interim burn director at the the regional burn center at the University of California at San Diego. “But it doesn’t help in terms of debriding a burn or necessarily helping it heal.”
The gauze-and-cream dressing must be changed every day, a painful process. In the burn unit at Fortaleza’s José Frota Institute, patients contort as their wounds are unwrapped and washed.
Enter the humble tilapia, a fish that’s widely farmed in Brazil and whose skin, until now, was considered trash. Unlike the gauze bandages, the sterilized tilapia skin goes on and stays on.
The first step in the research process was to analyze the fish skin.
“We got a great surprise when we saw that the amount of collagen proteins, types 1 and 3, which are very important for scarring, exist in large quantities in tilapia skin, even more than in human skin and other skins,” Maciel said. “Another factor we discovered is that the amount of tension, of resistance in tilapia skin is much greater than in human skin. Also the amount of moisture.”
In patients with superficial second-degree burns, the doctors apply the fish skin and leave it until the patient scars naturally. For deep second-degree burns, the tilapia bandages must be changed a few times over several weeks of treatment, but still far less often than the gauze with cream. The tilapia treatment also cuts down healing time by up to several days and reduces the use of pain medication, Maciel said.
Antônio dos Santos, a fisherman, was offered the tilapia treatment as part of a clinical trial after he sustained burns to his entire right arm when a gas canister on his boat exploded. He accepted.
“After they put on the tilapia skin, it really relieved the pain,” he said. “I thought it was really interesting that something like this could work.”
The initial batches of tilapia skin were studied and prepared by a team of researchers at the Federal University of Ceará. Lab technicians used various sterilizing agents, then sent the skins for radiation in São Paulo to kill viruses, before packaging and refrigerating the skins. Once cleaned and treated, they can last for up to two years.
In the US, animal-based skin substitutes require levels of scrutiny from the Food and Drug Administration and animal rights groups that can drive up costs, Lee said. Given the substantial supply of donated human skin, tilapia skin is unlikely to arrive at American hospitals anytime soon.
But it may be a boon in developing countries.
“I’m willing to use anything that might actually help a patient,” Lee said. “It may be a good option depending on what country you’re talking about. But I also think the problem is that you need to find places that have the resources to actually process the skin and sterilize it, and make sure it doesn’t have diseases.”
In Brazil, in addition to the clinical trials, researchers are currently conducting histological studies that compare the composition of human, tilapia, pig, and frog skins. They are also conducting studies on the comparative costs of tilapia skin and conventional burn treatments. If clinical trials show continued success, doctors hope a company will process the skins on an industrial scale and sell it to the public health system.
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Musicians are protesting the annual music, film and media festival South by Southwest after it was discovered that the festival reserved the right to alert U.S. immigration authorities about international artists if they violated their performance agreement.
Artist Felix Walworth of the band Told Slant, who first noticed the language in the agreement, posted a photo of the contract Thursday on Twitter, saying he was canceling the band’s performance at the festival. Later that day, more than 40 artists published an open letter saying they were “outraged,” especially “in light of the recent attacks on immigrant communities.” They also called on SXSW to immediately remove the language from the contract.
In a statement emailed to the PBS NewsHour, SXSW CEO and Co-Founder Roland Swenson said the clauses had been in the contract for years, and that the festival had never reported an international artists to immigration authorities. Swenson also said the language was meant to protect both SXSW and performing artists.
Entertainment and immigration lawyers, however, say that doesn’t hold up.
Brian Goldstein, a partner at entertainment law firm Goldstein & Guilliams, who has handled immigration law for artists for more than20 years, said the contract’s language seemed “more oblivious than nefarious.”
“It’s not common. It’s not standard. And it goes far beyond what is necessary,” he said.
The first clause in question reads that if an artist gives SXSW trouble, the festival may alert immigration authorities:
If SXSW determines, in its sole discretion, that Artist or its representatives have acted in ways that
Swenson defended the clause in his statement as being a “safeguard” for SXSW in case a band or artist “does something truly egregious, such as disobeying our rules about pyrotechnics on stage, starting a brawl in a club, or causing serious safety issues.”
But Goldstein said the notion that the festival would alert immigration authorities over a problematic act doesn’t make sense. “The most you will see is a contract that says artists should take care of all visa issues, and that they can cancel performances if you don’t. But this goes way beyond that,” he said.
New York-based entertainment lawyer Deborah Hrbek agrees with Goldstein. She said there was no legal obligation for an event or organizer to report misbehaving, or even law-breaking, musicians to immigration authorities. “That is far beyond what they as a citizen or company would be obliged to do,” she said.
Austin, Texas, where the annual festival takes place, is a sanctuary city, meaning the city generally does not hand over undocumented immigrants for deportation.
Last month, the state senate passed a bill that requires towns, cities and college campuses across the state to comply with requests from federal immigration officers. But the legislation must still pass the House, which means for now, Austin can keep its sanctuary city status.
While there’s plenty of opposition to the bill in Austin, it has strong support in the rest of the state — and much of the country. A recent Harvard-Harris poll showed 80 percent of voters thought towns and cities should be “reporting illegal immigrants they come into contact with to federal agents.”
Anastasia Tonello, a managing partner of immigration firm Laura Devine Attorneys, said it was normal for music organizations to require paid performers to have proper authorization, but even then, to alert authorities would be above and beyond standard practice. “I’m stretching my mind to find a parallel” to the SXSW contract’s language in contracts she’d seen, she said, and could not find one.
A second clause in the performer contract provides artists with information about the visas required to perform, and says a lack of proper paperwork could result in deportation:
1.4. Foreign Artists
entering the country through the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), B visa or any
non-work visa may not perform at any public or unofficial shows, DAY OR NIGHT,
in Austin from March 10-19, 2017. Accepting and performing at unofficial events
(including unofficial events aside from SXSW Music dates during their visit to
the United States) may result in immediate deportation, revoked passport and
denied entry by US Customs Border Patrol at US ports of entry. For more
information, please visit these pages:
1.4.1.(B Visa / ESTA) http://travel.state.gov/content/visas/en/business.html
1.4.2.(Work Visas) http://travel.state.gov/content/visas/en/employment/temporary.html
1.4.3.SXSW general visa
Swenson defended this clause in his statement as intended to inform artists “that the U.S. immigration authorities have mechanisms to create trouble for artists who ignore U.S. immigration laws.”
But Goldstein said this language, too, is highly unusual — and actually “legally incorrect and misleading.”
“They say they’re providing immigration information, but it’s only semi-accurate and they’re cherry picking issues … as if someone has read the statute and doesn’t understand what it is,” he said.
By contrast, Goldstein said top theaters sometimes provide international artists with a fact sheet containing immigration information, or direct them to the website Artists From Abroad. “But they don’t put [that information] in the contract,” he said. “That’s just weird.”
Both Goldstein and Hrbek said providing immigration information in another format might have been welcomed by artists. “In light of the heightened risk of deportation, warning people that that’s a risk, that they could be deported by ICE as a result of any public performances is fair and appropriate,” Hrbek said.
But she echoed the sentiment that the idea that the festival would alert immigration authorities was extremely uncommon.
SXSW had previously spoken out against President Donald Trump’s since-suspended executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. And in his statement, Swenson said the festival was also building “a coalition of attorneys to assist artists with issues at U.S. ports of entry during the event.” An event at SXSW, called “ContraBanned: #MusicUnites,” will also showcase performers from the seven nations affected by the ban.
But this did not seem to pacify the artist community. On Thursday, Liz Pelly, who does programming for the New York-based art incubation space The Silent Barn, tweeted: “Artists and labels really need to organize thoughtful + rigorous sxsw boycott next year. destroy exploitative systems” and “stop supporting venues with bad politics.”
SXSW senior public relations manager Elizabeth Derczo told the NewsHour by email that the festival would be “reviewing and revising the language” of the contract after 2017’s festival was over.
Below, read the tweets of musician Felix Walworth of the band Told Slant over boycotting the festival.
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Along with his baritone croon and swiveling hips, Elvis Presley apparently was known for his gunslinging. The story goes that as he watched singer Robert Goulet performing on television one night, he shot out the screen of his 25-inch RCA TV.
“There was nothing Elvis had against Robert Goulet. They were friends,” Kevin Kern, a spokesman for Presley’s home and museum Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee, told the Associated Press in 2006. “But Elvis just shot out things on a random basis.”
A TV with a bullet hole is one of the items on display in a new $45 million entertainment complex that opened Thursday across the street from the singer’s longtime home, Graceland. “You’re getting the full gamut of who Elvis Presley was,” said Priscilla Presley, wife of the late singer, at the grand opening.
The exhibit also displays some of his spangled outfits, guitars and car collection, including an MG convertible. “You’re getting to see and participate a bit in his life and what he enjoyed and what he loved to collect,” she said.
Explore more of The King’s new complex with these photos from Reuters.
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Patsy Cline’s powerful voice conquered the music world long ago. But if you ask her family, she still hasn’t won over her hometown.
“She’s really not accepted in town,” said cousin Patricia Patterson Brannon, 77, as she baked three cherry pies in her Winchester, Virginia home — not far from where Patsy grew up. “That’s the way she had it growing up.”
Cline’s tenacity and talent come through in the upcoming PBS documentary, “Patsy Cline: American Masters,” which debuts this month (check local listings for dates and times).
When Barbara Hall set out to direct and produce the documentary three years ago, she was drawn to Cline’s story more than her prowess as a singer. Cline was an outsider who made good. Hall worked to tease that out as she researched Cline’s life and the songs she made famous, including “Crazy,” “Walkin’ After Midnight” and “I Fall to Pieces.”
“This is a woman who barely had an eighth-grade education, came from a single-parent home, worked to make ends meet to help feed the family, and still figured out how to work the music business,” Hall told the NewsHour. “To me, that’s a story that needed to be told.”
Born Virginia Patterson Hensley on September 8, 1932, a week after her 16-year-old mother married her 42-year-old father in the heart of the Great Depression, Cline moved with her family 19 times by the time she turned 16, looking for paid work. Then, her parents separated. Cline and her two siblings moved with her mother, Hilda Hensley, into a tiny white farmhouse without electricity or running water. It sat next to the railroad tracks on South Kent Street, a blue-collar neighborhood in Winchester, Virginia.
She enrolled in nearby John Handley High School but never attended. The reason was simple. Cline and her mother, a seamstress and maid who stitched Cline’s iconic cowgirl dresses, both had to work to keep a roof over the family’s head, Brannon said.
Kent Street was “the wrong side of town. She got little or no help from the city,” Brannon said, who explained that because Cline and her working class family came from “the wrong side of town,” Winchester’s elite “didn’t want to associate with them.”
Cline’s life was set to the tune of a standard country ballad. She slit chicken throats in a poultry slaughterhouse, earning a paltry but steady paycheck until managers discovered she was underage. She cleaned buses at the Greyhound station and served chocolate uniques at Gaunt’s Drug Store in Winchester. But she lived for the nights when her mother drove her to sing in the honky tonks scattered from West Virginia to Washington, D.C.
On Saturday nights when she wasn’t singing for money, Brannon said Cline traveled to Brannon’s father’s farm 10 minutes outside of Winchester. There, neighbors strummed and plucked their instruments while they sang old country standards with Cline — even then her powerful voice could fill a room.
They took occasional breaks for homemade cookies and pie, but usually played until midnight, when Brannon’s mother reminded them all that church was in the morning. “‘You all can play one more song,” she’d warn. “But that’s it.’”
Country music was a way to pay the bills. But Cline got her big break at 24, with her 1957 performance of “Walkin’ After Midnight” on the Arthur Godfrey Show, the “American Idol” talent program of its time. She stole the show, along with everyone’s hearts, and made her way to Nashville. The music industry and a failed marriage changed her name to Patsy Cline, but to Brannon, she’ll always call her cousin Ginny.
If alive today, Cline would celebrate her 85th birthday this September. But history had a different story to tell. This Sunday marks the 54th anniversary of her death at age 30, after a plane crash in bad weather near Camden, Tennessee. She was on her way home to Nashville to see her husband, Charlie Dick — the “love of her life,” friends told Hall and filmmakers — and their two children.
In the years since her untimely death, Cline’s legacy lives on in the voices, songs and careers of generations of female musicians. Grammy Award-winning country music star LeAnn Rimes is one of them.
Rimes, born in Mississippi and raised in Texas, channeled Cline’s deep, soulful notes in her 1996 breakout song “Blue,” set to a lonesome rockabilly beat. She said she still remembers the first time her father played Cline’s records. “When I heard her voice, it was so emotional for me, almost spiritual,” Rimes told NewsHour.
Rimes said each time Clines performed, she bared her heart “like a best friend confiding in you.” Inspired by Cline, Rimes says whenever she sings, she listens to her gut.
“Sing the truth,” Rimes said.“[I] sing it from the depth of my soul and heart as best as I can.”
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The rapidly rising price of bitcoin is leading many to question if the digital currency’s boom is about to bust. Strategist Peter Schiff, for instance, recently warned “today’s bitcoin could be tomorrow’s beanie babies.” As of this writing, bitcoin is up almost 30 percent in the past month and over 100 percent in the past year. It has been hitting new highs on an almost daily basis and recently crossed the $1,200 mark. So is there a bitcoin bubble about to burst?
To try to answer this question, let’s apply the framework for spotting bubbles that I articulated in my 2011 book, “Boombustology: Spotting Financial Bubbles Before They Burst.” The approach is based on the application of five lenses and generates a probabilistic assessment of a forthcoming bust.
Most mainstream economic theories utilize a supply and demand driven price determination model that generally results in prices tending toward equilibrium. I say “tending” because most serious scholars admit that behavioral and informational issues can distort the price at any one point in time, but there exists an overarching belief that such distortions are rapidly ironed out. Markets are, according to this view, basically efficient. Higher prices dampen demand, and lower prices disincentivize supply.
But what if that’s not true? What if higher prices increase demand? Such a dynamic might arise for many reasons, but one eloquent explanation is the “Theory of Reflexivity,” as proposed by George Soros. Although it has many subtleties beyond the “self-fulfilling” logic that many ascribe to it, the underlying implication is that prices can and do tend away from equilibrium. The result: booms and busts.
So has the higher bitcoin price been accompanied by higher demand? It’s unclear. The evidence is mixed. On the one hand, it sure seems that as news about and interest in bitcoin rises, so does its price. It’s been seen as a safe-haven asset during times of elevated geopolitical, financial or regulatory risk and may even attract price-insensitive buyers at those times. But on the other hand, the volume of trading has not gone up as prices have. And while volume is at best a crude proxy for demand, it tells us about the general activity level. Lens one: half-check.
Another telltale sign of a bubble is the presence of significant leverage supporting lofty prices. And while it’s unclear if bitcoin prices are bubbly or not, I don’t see any evidence that leverage is fueling the potentially elevated prices. There are no futures contracts that enable large exposures with minimal collateral. There are no options that provide de facto leverage. Sure, some investors may be utilizing other collateral to secure credit that is in turn used to buy bitcoin, but this is impossible to track.
But more importantly, perhaps, we can look at the amount of debt that has been holding up many of the countries that back traditional fiat currencies. (Hint: it’s not a small number!) In addition, the fact that printing presses around the world continue to print more and more money implies that traditional currencies are being debased at an alarming rate. With a fixed algorithmic release of additional bitcoins into the market and a cap on the total number that will ultimately be issued, the cryptocurrency represents a non-printable currency (similar in this respect to gold). Lens two: blank.
Overconfidence and new-era thinking are the hallmarks of my third lens, psychology. Whenever individuals develop a devout belief that “it’s different this time,” buyers beware. It is rarely different, and asset prices have never risen indefinitely. Rather, they generally go up and down, and in this regard, bitcoin prices are no different.
It’s also clear that there is increasing agreement that cryptocurrencies are the “new new thing” and offer the promise of freedom from authoritarian manipulation of monetary instruments. Even investor Peter Thiel noted the promise of bitcoin by highlighting his own failure: “Paypal had these goals of starting a new currency. We failed at that, and we just created a new payment system. I think bitcoin has succeeded on the level of new currency.”
And like gold bugs, bitcoin believers tend to exhibit religious conviction in the cryptocurrency’s ability to store value. They often go further, suggesting the amazing upside potential they exhibit. Internet analyst Henry Blodget has even suggested bitcoins could be worth $1 million per coin. In fact, CNBC’s Brian Kelly described bitcoin as “not just digital gold … it is a once-in-a-generation investment opportunity, similar to the internet, growing just as fast, if not faster … it’s the internet of money.” Lens three: check.
My fourth lens is politics, broadly defined to include both regulations and moral hazards. As with any asset, regulations can distort prices by either artificially increasing or dampening supply or demand.
Just think of what happened when political motivations to increase home ownership in the United States nudged more and more people into houses. Without the political incentives, prices may not have risen as handsomely as they did during the housing bubble. Further, the moral hazard endemic in the use of government sponsored mortgage finance enabled lenders to play a game of “heads I win, tails you lose.” If loans worked out, the lender profited. If it didn’t, Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac bore the losses.
When it comes to bitcoin, are there any artificial government interventions that are supporting bitcoin prices? No. On the contrary, regulators are trying to discourage interest in bitcoin. Just look to China, where its major bitcoin exchanges were effectively shut down last month by government officials. But as noted by Elaine Ou in Bloomberg View, “even China can’t kill bitcoin.” Bitcoin prices briefly fell upon the news, but quickly recovered and marched higher. They’re up more than 25 percent in the three weeks since China tried to control trading.
And when it comes to moral hazard, there are no signs of it in bitcoin land. No one bailed out those who lost millions when bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox filed for bankruptcy. No regulator prevented or intervened to manage the governance disputes that arose on the bitcoin algorithm. Many bitcoin market participants are transacting with open eyes, fully aware of the risks of doing so. There is no FDIC protection, no Federal Reserve put. Lens four: blank.
An application of epidemic logic to the study of financial bubbles can help gauge the relative maturity of manias. If we analogize an investment hysteria to a fever or flu spreading through a population, the variables of concern to us would include the infection rate, the removal rate, and perhaps most importantly, the percentage of the population not (yet) affected. The last metric can be thought of as the fuel available to keep the fire burning. Once we run out of people to infect, so to say, the party’s over. New demand will disappear. Prices will fall.
When it comes to bitcoin, the number of potential buyers (that is, those still vulnerable to infection) is very large indeed. To begin, it’s not particularly easy to buy bitcoin, and that’s deterred institutional investors. Specialized exchanges, online wallets and the need to protect private keys create huge friction in transactions, keeping many potential bitcoin buyers away. There isn’t an ETF, at least not yet. Stay tuned, however, as an ETF is in the works. And if approved (we’ll know more later this month), the Wall Street Journal notes it might generate a buying frenzy with up to $300 million of inflows during the first week alone, a volume that dwarfs the currently traded daily value of any bitcoin exchange.
And with a current market capitalization of around $20 billion, the bitcoin market is miniscule relative to its potential. Consider that the value of privately held gold is in the trillions of dollars or that the global remittances (a potential use for cryptocurrencies like bitcoin) currently tally into the hundreds of billions of dollars. The bottom line is that bitcoin just isn’t as widely held or used as it could be. There is still an enormous population of potential buyers waiting on the sidelines. And in a recent Twitter poll conducted by investor Mark Hart, only 22 percent of respondents indicated that they were “Max Long” bitcoin, with 49 percent “Planning to buy/add” or “Curious.” Lens 5: blank.
So on my five-point scale, with five being a “virtually certain bubble likely to burst imminently,” bitcoin only registers one and half points. On the margin, this means that the stage may be set for it to become a bubble, but it doesn’t appear to be one yet. It may one day become a full-blown bubble with high bursting risk, but the evidence doesn’t suggest we’re there yet. Recall that government attempts to contain bitcoin have failed, anointing the cryptocurrency with a “forbidden fruit” status and driving new demand. Or that the possibility of an ETF or other investment instrument may emerge to ease the frictions of purchasing bitcoin.
And the promise of smart contracts inspires visions of unprecedented demand for digital currencies. In fact, just yesterday, a collection of large companies including Microsoft and JP Morgan announced they would be forming the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance. Ethereum is a distributed computing platform based on blockchain technologies that features the ability to design smart contracts. The cryptocurrency native to Ethereum is ether, and it’s been called “the hottest new thing in digital currency.” As the standard-bearer for cryptocurrencies, bitcoin will benefit from any attention ether generates.
While short-term price corrections are always possible, there are compelling reasons to believe the long-term outlook for blockchain-enabled currencies like bitcoin is bright. If you’re looking for beanie babies, you best look elsewhere.
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Anna Muzychuk (left) of Ukraine plays against Tan Zhongyi (right) of China during the final day of the Women’s World Chess Championship 2017 on March 3 at Espinas Palace Hotel in Tehran, Iran. Zhongyi defeated Muzychuk of Ukraine to win the championship.
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It’s been a rocky week, at home and abroad. Bomb threats were made against Jewish community centers and schools. More controversy over Russia’s role in the 2016 elections engulfed Congress and the White House. Russia and China vetoed new sanctions on Syria. Deadly tornadoes ripped across the Midwest. And the country’s opioid epidemic kept getting worse.
At the arts desk, we often turn to books for refuge, insight and perspective. Last month, after the new administration took office, we asked our local bookstore Politics & Prose for the best books to read on politics. This time, we went to independent book seller Boulder Book Store for their thoughts on what to read now. Here are five recommendations, in the words of the staff, that focus on books that explore joy, inclusivity and the human condition.
1. “We Should All Be Feminists” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Everyone should read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “We Should All Be Feminists.” In Sweden, every high school sophomore gets a free copy. This little book is deeply personal, yet searing in its universality, and paints a picture of a feminism that is inclusive and benefits all. Based on Adichie’s TEDx talk, it can be read in under an hour but will keep you thinking long after you finish. A really great read for everyone.
2. “Born on Third Base” by Chuck Collins
Written by a former member of the one percent, this book presents a nuanced analysis of America’s super rich. It does a thorough job of documenting what Collins describes as wealth defense systems: the myriad ways the super rich protect and grow their fortunes through political influence, tax dodges, manipulated charities and off-shore accounts. The book also shows the psychological toll that can come with isolating themselves from the larger commonwealth in gated estates. But he does not paint the super rich with a broad brush, and cites many who have used their riches for good. We liked that this book avoids the ‘us vs. them’ posturing usually used to characterize this economic divide. It is more a thoughtful invitation to the rich: rejoin American society and be happier for it.
3. “The Blue Hour” by Laura Pritchett
In this deeply emotional and sensual novel, Pritchett reminds us that we can go on in bleak times and that even in dark moments there are sparks of joy and renewal. The residents of Blue Moon Mountain are reeling after the beloved but troubled community veterinarian kills himself during a snowstorm. Each character gets their own chapter and together their stories form a tapestry of a community blessed with love, compassion and humanity. Some people come together in lustful trysts, others accept familial obligations and still more forge bonds that may see them to the end of their days. Pritchett’s book will help you forget the turmoil in the world around us, and luxuriate in the glory of what it means to be simply and beautifully human.
4. “George” by Alex Gino
George is transgender and wants the world to see her as she is: a girl. With the help of her best friend, Kelly, George is able to play Charlotte in the fourth-grade class performance of Charlotte’s Web. This play lets her feel whole and real, and share her true self with her friends and family. Inspiring and moving, “George” is a timely coming-of-age story.
5. “Earning the Rockies” by Robert D. Kaplan
Kaplan posits an intriguing theory, via a road trip across the U.S., on the profound impact our continent’s unique geography has on the American past, present, and future. A key element of his discussion focuses on several mid-twentieth century authors, most notably Bernard DeVoto and Wallace Stegner, whose works remain pertinent today. Kaplan’s journey across America sheds light on the diversity of our country, its geography, politics, prosperity and perspective.
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Approximately 20 gallons. That’s how much human urine courses through your average swimming pool, according to a chemical analysis published Wednesday in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters.
Environmental toxicologist Xing-Fang Li and her colleagues at the University of Alberta, Edmonton tallied the pee in commercial-sized swimming pools by relying on a seemingly unavoidable part of the modern human diet: artificial sweeteners. Sure, you’ve seen these “sugar alternatives” in tea and juice, but they’re also found in everything from ketchup to kettle corn to english muffins. Americans consume about 17 million metric tons of artificial sweeteners per year.
And these sweeteners remain everywhere even after leaving your body. The compounds are resistant to acid, relatively stable when exposed to heat and can survive some types of wastewater treatment. Hence why toxicologists now view the food additives as emerging pollutants.
Li and company used the pervasiveness of one artificial sweetener — acesulfame potassium or Ace-K — to measure the quantity of human excrement left behind by people at 10 pools and 5 hot tubs spread across hotels and recreational parks in two Canadian cities. Ace-K is a good surrogate for pee because its exclusively excreted by the urinary system.
Over the course of three weeks, they measured the equivalent of eight gallons of urine in a 110,000-gallon pool and 20 gallons of pee in a 220,000-gallon pool. Based on these numbers, science writer Erika Engelhaupt estimates your standard neighborhood pool contains about two gallons of piss.
The researchers also found that hot tubs, in general, carried more urine per gallon than swimming pools. One hotel had a hot tub with 20 times as much urine as its swimming pool.
Needless to say, these trends are worrisome for health reasons. Despite what you may have heard, urine is not sterile and carries a fair amount of microbial life. Also, as the researchers highlight, urine harbors lots of nitrogen compounds — urea, ammonia and amino acids — that can react with pool disinfectants like chlorine to form toxic compounds.
So if you’re at the pool and need to tinkle, maybe take the time to use a toilet.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: This week brought more reports of repeated contacts between Trump campaign aides and Russian officials.
Margaret Warner begins with the latest details.
MARGARET WARNER: Attorney General Jeff Sessions returned to work today, after recusing himself from any investigation into Moscow’s election meddling. His recusal came after conceding he’d met twice with the Russian ambassador during the campaign.
Earlier, he told a Senate committee he had not.
But, today, Vice President Mike Pence reaffirmed his faith in Sessions.
VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: The president and I have full confidence in the attorney general. He is a man of integrity.
MARGARET WARNER: Reports also emerged that campaign advisers J.D. Gordon and Carter Page met Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, as did Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and adviser.
That belied Page’s own words to the NewsHour last month.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Did you have any meetings last year with Russian officials in Russia, outside Russia, anywhere?
CARTER PAGE, Former Trump Campaign Foreign Policy Adviser: I had no meetings. No meetings.
MARGARET WARNER: In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed the ongoing furor.
SERGEI LAVROV, Russian Foreign Minister (through interpreter): I can only refer to a quote that was circulated today in the mass media. This strongly resembles a witch-hunt or the times of McCarthyism, which we thought were long over in the United States as a civilized country.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Trump also called it a witch-hunt. And, today, he tweeted a photo of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2003. Mr. Trump said: “We should start an immediate investigation into Senator Schumer and his ties to Russia and Putin. A total hypocrite.”
Schumer tweeted back that he’d happily talk about his contact with Putin, asking, “Would you and your team?”
Later, the president also demanded a probe of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for having said she never met with the Russian ambassador. Politico published a photo today showing he was part of a larger meeting with Pelosi in 2010.
The political storm has overshadowed any concrete steps toward improving ties with Russia, as Mr. Trump has advocated.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If we have a good relationship with Russia, believe me, that’s a good thing.
MARGARET WARNER: Relations turned icy at the end of Obama administration, over Russian aggression in Ukraine, and its military backing for Damascus in the Syrian civil war. Since Mr. Trump took office, diplomacy between the two sides, at least publicly, has been limited. The president spoke with Putin by phone after the inauguration.
And his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, met with Lavrov at a G20 summit in Germany. Meanwhile, uncertainty over Mr. Trump’s intentions toward Russia is rattling American allies in Europe. Vice President Pence and Defense Secretary James Mattis tried last month to reassure NATO partners of Washington’s alliance solidarity.
One NATO partner, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, now plans to visit Washington on March 14.
For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Margaret Warner.
JUDY WOODRUFF: A broader look now at the state of U.S.-Russia relations and what is at stake for these two countries.
We get two views.
Andrew Weiss worked for both Republican and Democratic administrations as a staffer on the National Security Council in the State and Defense Departments. He’s now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
And Paul Saunders, he focused on Russia at the State Department during the George W. Bush administration. He’s now the executive director of the Center for the National Interest. It’s a foreign policy think tank.
And we welcome both of you back to the program.
Andrew Weiss, to you first.
What is the sense of the state of U.S.-Russia relations right now?
ANDREW WEISS, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: The relationship between the United States and Russia is broken.
We are at a low point that goes back to the darkest days of the Cold War. President Trump has been promising that there’s going to be some kind of dramatic resurgence. He’s talked about doing a grand bargain with Vladimir Putin, presumably focused on the war in Syria, the fight against ISIS. He hopes to contain China and deal with more a meddlesome Iran by somehow breaking ground with Russians.
I think that’s setting expectations way too high. The reasons for the relationship being in the doghouse are profound and really go to the heart of who we are as a nation.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Paul Saunders, how do you see the state of relations right now?
PAUL SAUNDERS, Center for the National Interest: Well, I agree with Andrew that the relationship is really at its worst state today since probably the 1980s.
I think there is no question about that. Where I would differ with Andrew is, I think there are opportunities to improve the relationship. I do think there are some possibilities in Syria on some other issues, arms control perhaps, some other areas, too.
And, you know, the president seems determined to try that. If he does, I think Moscow would be receptive. I think it’s appropriate to keep our expectations in check. But I do believe there are some possibilities.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Why do you say they’re broken, Andrew Weiss?
ANDREW WEISS: Well, it comes back to the sort of core question of, how does the U.S. formulate its national security policy?
Our view is that there is a liberal international order out there. It’s been sort of the guiding structure of U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II to build alliances, institutions like NATO alliance, support for the E.U. and key alliances in East Asia.
The Russians, on the other hand, really want to see that international order chipped away at. They believe that that gives the U.S. too much authority in the world. And they have seen that at home the way to build the legitimacy of the Putin regime is on the back of this idea that there is an external threat, and to use the United States as a boogeyman that will mobilize the Russian people in support of the Kremlin.
JUDY WOODRUFF: If that’s the case, Paul Saunders, what gives you any belief that the Russians — you listed Syria, you list arms control as two areas that you felt the Russians would be receptive to some sort of overture from President Trump. What makes you believe that that’s the case?
PAUL SAUNDERS: Well, I think I would disagree, respectfully, with some of the things that Andrew said there.
First of all, I think Vladimir Putin’s legitimacy in Russia rests primarily actually on Russia’s economic success. Now, the Russian economy certainly has been stalled for the last several years. There have been some further slowdowns because of the sanctions, but most Russians are living far better than at any time in the history of that country.
Secondly, as we think about the international system, the real threat to the international system is an alignment between China and Russia. Russia, on its own, its economy is a 10th of ours. They’re not going to destabilize the international system.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So what about that, Andrew Weiss?
ANDREW WEISS: Well, I think what we have seen in the past couple of years is a lot of opportunism and risk-taking. That has now become the sort of bread and butter of Russian foreign policy.
So, you see spur-of-the-moment, improvised decisions to seize Crimea, to launch a covert war in Eastern Ukraine. You then see this dramatic military intervention in Syria. And then, most obviously, recently, we have seen this brazen interference in our domestic political life.
So this is a different, much more sort of nimble Russian foreign policy. It’s very destabilizing. It’s created a lot of apprehension, particularly among our European allies. And the idea that the Russians just want to kind of go back to normal, I think, is misplaced.
It is in their interest to see a destabilized U.S., to have our political system chaotic and sort of locked in an internal division. That to them is a success.
JUDY WOODRUFF: That is the picture many Americans are getting, Paul Saunders, isn’t it?
PAUL SAUNDERS: I think many Americans are getting that picture.
And, look, I mean, there are serious problems in Russia’s conduct, and there are serious reasons for Americans to be concerned. I think there are ways to deal with that. The president has talked about dealing with Russia from a position of strength. I think, if we take that approach, we can deal with many of these concerns.
JUDY WOODRUFF: What’s at risk here? What’s at stake, Andrew Weiss, if this relationship is in the condition that you describe? What stands to happen?
ANDREW WEISS: The worst thing, which I can see readily happening — we had an incident about two days ago in Syria — is some form of unintentional either accident or direct conflict between our military forces. So, just a couple …
JUDY WOODRUFF: Between Russian and U.S. forces?
ANDREW WEISS: Exactly.
The risk of that happening is uncomfortably high. The Russians in Syria are operating increasingly close to our forces. We had an incident a couple days where they were bombing Syrian opposition forces supported by the United States, and our special operators were just four or five kilometers away.
In the air over Syria, we have had a lot of near misses. You see brazen Russian efforts in the airspace over Europe to basically try to get as obnoxious and be in our face, and the idea is, we will put back, that we will be intimidated.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Paul Saunders, why isn’t that a worry?
PAUL SAUNDERS: I think it’s a very considerable worry.
I view that as a reason to try to engage with Moscow. I think there are a lot of other reasons to try to engage. If this relationship slips from adversarial to truly hostile, and we start to see Russia providing advanced weapons to China, providing more advanced weapons to Iran, there are a lot of other things that could happen that could be much worse for the United States.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Speaking of which, in less than a minute, nuclear weapons? These are the two countries with the largest nuclear arsenal in the world. Andrew Weiss, what about that?
ANDREW WEISS: That part of the agenda between the United States and Russia is deadlocked.
So, we’re unlikely — regardless of what Donald Trump’s policies are on defense spending, on changes to our nuclear arsenal, the reality is, we have fundamental disagreements with the Russians. They have violated a key arms control treaty, the INF Treaty, which Russia has now fielded new cruise missiles that violate that treaty.
And they’re very concerned about U.S. programs, our missile defenses in Europe, and these new conventional strategic systems which they believe will threaten their strategic deterrent.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, Paul Saunders, how do you see the risks there?
PAUL SAUNDERS: Well, I think the risks are considerable.
At the same time, our economy is 10 times the size of the Russian economy. They can’t afford — they can afford even less than the Soviet Union to get into a nuclear arms race with the United States. I think we hold the cards.
I think it’s an opportunity, again, from a position of strength, to try to pursue that agenda address the concerns we have about Russian conduct and try to lock in some stability in the relationship.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Paul Saunders, Andrew Weiss, deadly serious subject. Thank you both very much.
PAUL SAUNDERS: Thank you.
ANDREW WEISS: Thanks.
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