By La-Vaughnda A. Taylor
Below are last week's topics of interest broken down into Entertainment, Arts, Sports, Media, and General News
New Arena for #MeToo Cases: Defamation Suits
There are new cases stemming from the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault cases. Those accusers whose allegations are too old to litigate are now finding alternative ways to get into court. Ashley Judd, one of the first accusers, has now sued the producer for defamation after reading about a claim that Miramax had made, describing her as a "nightmare to work with." Jury selection in Weinstein's case started last week and is one of the few sexual assault cases with recent enough allegations to bring criminal charges. The plaintiffs are generally using defamation law not just to dissuade damaging speech about them but also to enlist the courts to endorse their version of the disputed events. Key verdicts are expected this year in the defamation cases involving President Trump, Roy Moore, and Johnny Depp. Depp is using the defamation suits to fend off allegations from women. These cases raise issues around limits of freedom of speech, social media, and statutes of limitation.
Weinstein Jury Chosen, and Prosecutors Say Defense Weeded out White Women
Bias, big data, and social media "likes" influenced the jury selection in Harvey Weinstein's trial. Weinstein's lawyer asked the court to consider "if a person could have sex for reasons other than love" and the judge warned that "this is not a referendum on the #MeToo movement". Damon Charonis asked the 18 potential jurors a series of delicate questions during the final stage of the disgraced film producer's jury selection. He raised the motivation for women having sex with Weinstein in what seemed to be a preview of their legal strategy. The Assistant District Attorney accused the defense of "systematically eliminating every young white female" from the jury, but was overruled.
Citing 'Carnival-Like' Trial, Weinstein's Team Renews Request for a New Venue
Weinstein's legal team is renewing its demand that his trial be moved out of New York City, citing "flash mob" protests in the streets and a crush of reporters and photographers, turning the case into a "media circus." The defense lost an earlier change of venue request. Some potential jurors have been posting on social media about their involvement in the case, which is a violation of court rules. More than 600 potential jurors have been summoned for the high-profile case. Weinstein's lawyers have also raised the issue of social media in court papers.
Hashtag Prods Talent Agencies into Raising Pay
Using the hashtag #PayUpHollywood, assistants working in the entertainment industry have been agitating in recent months for higher wages and more considerate treatment from their sometimes mercurial bosses. Assistants scored a small victory when Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of the Big Four talent agencies in L.A., announced that it was raising pay for its hourly workers, a group that includes assistants, mailroom clerks, receptionists, and agent trainees. Assistants will earn $18, up from $15. CAA is the latest Hollywood company to respond to the effort by assistants, who have argued that low pay often means that only people from privileged backgrounds can afford to take entry-level jobs, which has limited diversity in the industry.
Grammys Chief Benched Days Before Show
Recording Academy President and CEO Deborah Dugan was placed on leave just days before the Grammy Awards ceremony. Dugan was less than six months into her tenure, but was placed on administrative leave following a "formal allegation of misconduct by a senior female member of the Recording Academy." The statement also cited other "concerns raised" to its Board of Trustees, but did not provide details. Dugan's suspension arrives nearly a year after another bumpy period for the Grammys, including Ariana Grande pulling out from performing and several rappers turning down offers to perform, drawing attention to the Grammys' troubled relationship with hip-hop artists. Last year's ceremony highlighted the Grammys' similarly long-standing struggle with gender inequality. Dugan hired entertainment lawyer Bryan J. Freedman to represent her.
Apple's "The Banker" Release Reset After Abuse Claim
Apple resets "The Banker" for theatres after reviewing abuse allegations that prompted Apple TV+ to delay the theatrical release of the film starring Anthony Mackie and Samuel L. Jackson. The release has been rescheduled for theatres this March. The studio said in a statement that "after reviewing the information available, including documentation of the filmmakers' research, [they've] decided to make this important and enlightening film available to viewers." The allegations involved the main character of the film's son, which ultimately delayed the theatrical release. Apple has further said that the son, Bernard Garrett Jr., will not profit from the release of the film in any form and his credit as a co-producer has been removed.
Oprah, Apple and the Decision to Exit a #MeToo Documentary
Oprah Winfrey is disassociating herself with a new documentary about Russell Simmons and the #MeToo movement. In December, Winfrey announced she would serve as executive producer on a still-untitled film that centers on some of the 20 women who have publicly accused Simmons of sexual harassment and assault. The movie was to stream on Apple TV+ following its January 25th premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Oprah said in a statement that she "unequivocally believe[s] and support[s] the women," but "there is more work to be done on the film to illuminate the full scope of what the victims endured and it has become clear that the filmmakers and I are not aligned in that creative vision." The film will still debut at Sundance. Winfrey will continue her work with Time's Up to support those who have been sexually harassed.
Two States, Eight Textbooks, Two American Stories
Political divides are shaping what students learn about the nation's history. History textbooks are changed to meet the standards of different states. Even though textbooks have the same publishers and credit the same authors, they are customized for students in different states and their contents sometimes diverge in ways that reflect the nation's deepest partisan divides. Textbook publishers are caught in the middle of the divide over important and fundamental questions (re: capitalism, immigration, slavery, etc.) and the materials that are shaded by politics and helping to shape a generation of future voters. The differences between state editions can be traced back to several sources: state social studies standards, state laws, and feedback from panels of appointees that review drafts.
After Outcry, an Apology for Blurred Protest Photo
The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) apologizes for blurring Anti-Trump signs in protest photo from the 2017 Women's March. "We made a mistake," said the federal agency in a press release. NARA has promised to remove the photo from the agency's "Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote" exhibit where the photo was displayed at the entrance and replace it with the unaltered version. NARA has started a thorough review of its exhibit policies and procedures to prevent future similar issues. Prior to the apology, NARA said in a statement that "as a non-partisan, non-political federal agency, we blurred references to the President's name on some posters, so as not to engage in current political controversy and to be 'family-friendly.'"
Art Forces a Small Southern City to Rethink Its Image
Seventeen outsized portraits of local citizen of Newnan, GA were meant to be inclusive, upend stubborn preconceptions, and unravel the cocoons people had created within the community. They did, but reactions to the images also exposed how immigration and demographic change have recast the racial dynamics that once defined America, adding new layers of anxiety on the old tension that persist across the country and in small towns like Newnan. White people still make up more than half the population, but the newcomers are largely from other backgrounds. The sheer size of the town's growth has led some to bristle. The art installation, called "Seeing Newnan", was created by photographer Mary Beth Meehan after she heard about the town's race and class tensions and the "old Newnan" versus the "new Newnan". She knew that some of the portraits would be controversial, including the Shah sisters', which instigated a few residents to question whether they sisters were even American.
Afghan Artists Risk Everything to Reject Silence
Female artists reflect the everyday realities for women in Afghanistan who face sexual harassment and aggression everywhere, including at home, at work, and on the street. The female artists believe that they live in a culture of violation. Making art there is a hazardous pursuit. Contemporary art is not well regarded in Afghanistan, as it is seen as undermining religion, morality, and dignity of Afghan tradition. It is widely believed that anything that undermines such dignity is unacceptable and must be eradicated. During the decade or so that American-led coalition forces were in Afghanistan, the country experienced a "mini golden age." Western cultural centers, exhibitions and workshops proliferated, along with a new Center for Contemporary Art Afghanistan opening and admitting students of both sexes and later becoming a women-only institution. Despite perils, Afghan artists have consistently portrayed their country and its many facets. Although the warring factions in Afghanistan may be "busy destroying, but we are very peacefully writing this history."
Brazil's Culture Chief is Fired for Parroting Nazi Views
Brazilian culture secretary Roberto Alvim was fired from the government after he appeared to quote Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels in a video setting out his agenda for a conservative "rebirth" of the arts. Alvim, a theatre director, was appointed to lead Brazil's culture ministry in June and made the video to introduce a new art fund worth around $4.7 million. The video was even set to a piece of string music by Richard Wagner, a German composer who was a favorite of Adolf Hitler and known for his anti-Semitic views. Alvim said it was just a "rhetorical coincidence." Alvim has since issued a statement apologizing to the Jewish community. The controversy comes amid a deepening culture war in Brazil.
In Paris, Even the Ballet Dancers Are on Strike Over Pensions
National strikes in France over pension policy requirements led to more localized strikes starting in December. Currently, Paris Opera Ballet performers now retire at 42 with a full pension, but the French government wanted to tighten requirement rules. The ballet employees stood with transportation and health care workers and others to oppose a universal pension plan based on points instead of the current patchwork of 42 different retirement systems in France, tailored to individual professions. Officials have recently announced that the government would withdraw, at least temporarily, a plan that would have raised the full-benefit retirement age from 62 to 64 for all professions. Even a mandatory wait until age 62 would leave 20 years between a dancer's end of career and the ability to collect a full pension, although temporary unemployment and welfare are available.
League Puts 'A Big Bet on Women'
The Womens National Basketball Association (WNBA) and its players' union have agreed in principle on a new collective bargaining agreement that would nearly double the maximum salary and provide paid maternity leave. This signals a radical shift in how female athletes are to be compensated. Implications of the agreement stretch far beyond basketball at a time when women around the world are demanding increased pay and benefits. The proposed contract still needs to be approved by the WNBA's board of governors and union membership, but it would enable top players to earn more than $500,000, about triple last season's ceiling.
Cora Is Out as Manager of Red Sox Amid Scandal
Alex Cora is out as manager of the Rex Sox after playing a central figure in the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal. It first became clear that Cora's job was in danger when Major League Baseball (MLB) announced its punishment for the Houston Astros. MLB fined the team $5 million, stripped it of its first- and second-round draft picks in 2020 and 2021, and suspended general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch for one year for their roles in the scandal during its championship run in 2017. Cora was the bench coach of the Astros in 2017.
Wildfires Hamper Australian Open Qualifiers
Smoke and smog from the massive wildfires in Australia have raised alarms about player safety at the Australian Open tennis tournament slated to kick off this week. The Environment Protection Authority in Victoria has forecast the air quality in Melbourne to be "very poor and hazardous." The breathing conditions prompted Australian Open officials to suspend practice sessions, but qualifying matches went on as scheduled. One player was even forced to forfeit her match because of the conditions.
Antitrust Bill May Help Newspapers
The tough economics facing small newspapers has generated rare bipartisan agreement in Washington. There have been more and more calls for a new federal data privacy law and anger towards big technology companies. Lawmakers from both parties blame companies like Facebook and Google, which dominate the online ad industry, for the decimation of local news. There is a new proposal that would give news organizations an exemption from antitrust laws, allowing them to band together to negotiate with Google and Facebook over how their articles and photos are used online and what payments the newspapers get form the tech companies. This is an issue that is personal for the politicians.
U.S. and Iran Feud on Chinese Social Site
In recent days, tensions between the U.S. and Iran have been playing out on Weibo, a Twitter-like social media platform available to Chinese citizens. The U.S. embassy has been releasing posts claiming that General Soleimani was responsible for "exporting" terrorism and sectarian violence, "killing thousands." In parallel moves, the Iranian embassy released Weibo posts quoting Iranian officials on the tensions. The Iranian embassy has also been taking screenshots of tweets from its Foreign Minister and reposting them on Weibo with Chinese translations. Major Western online platforms, such as Google, Facebook ,and Twitter are blocked from the Chinese internet, however some users are able to get around this with the use of virtual private networks (VPNs). Content on Weibo is heavily censored and information deemed critical of the ruling Communist regime is removed, but it appears as though China's censors are letting Iran and the U.S. go at each other in full view of the Chinese internet, which is not mirrored on some U.S. social media sites, like Instagram.
Trump's Trial Opens as New Evidence Emerges
The U.S. Congress opened the impeachment trial of President Trump on Thursday with House Democrats reading the formal charges before the swearing-in of all 100 senators as jurors for only the third impeachment trial in U.S. history. Seven legislators prosecuting the charges, led by Reps. Adam Schiff and Jerrold Nadler, make the walk across the Capital for the second day, starting the ceremonial protocol that shifts the proceedings out of Speaker Nancy Pelosi's Democratic-run House to the Republican-majority Senate. The events will be a test of not only Trump's presidency but also of the nation's three branches of power and its system of checks and balances. The president is still calling the impeachment a "hoax," even as new information emerges about his actions towards Ukraine that led to the charges against him. There are new allegations from an indicted associate of Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
Key Figure in Effort to Pressure Ukraine Says Trump Knew 'Everything'
As details continue to come to light about the Ukraine scandal, the walls between Trump and the scandal appear to be crumbling. Lev Parnas, the indicted associate of Rudy Giuliani says that "President Trump knew exactly what was going on...I wouldn't do anything without the consent of Rudy Giuliani or the president." Parnas is currently facing campaign finance charges.
In a Reversal, Trump Urges Swift Dismissal of Impeachment Charges
President Trump says the Senate should simply dismiss the impeachment case against him. He believes that the Senate giving credence to a trial will only give the partisan Democrat Witch Hunt credibility. The idea of dismissing the charges against Trump are unusual and unlikely. Speaker Nancy Pelosi warned that senators will "pay a price" if they block new witness testimony with a trial that Americans perceive as a "cover-up" for Trump's actions. Voters are divided over impeachment.
Freeze in Military Aid to Kyiv Was Illegal, a Watchdog Says
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has ruled that the White House broke the law by withholding aid to Ukraine that had been approved by the U.S. Congress. This ruling comes as President Trump faces an impeachment trial in the Senate related to the withheld aid. The freeze was said to be illegal because "faithful executing of the law does not permit the President to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law. The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) "withheld funds for a policy reason, which is not permitted under the Impoundment Control Act (ICA)." The ICA also says that the White House must first alert Congress before it delays or blocks funds, which the Trump administration did not do. No penalties come with a violation of the ICA. Multiple presidents have been found by the GAO to have violated U.S. laws.
Robert's Role is Ceremonial and Perilous
The Chief Justice's responsibilities at the impeachment trial are fluid and ill-defined and will probably turn out to be largely ceremonial, but can ultimately be perilous for his reputation and that of the Court. The signs of partisanship could damage the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is also crowded with divisive issues involving President Trump. The Constitution offers no procedural guidelines to instruct Roberts how to preside over an impeachment trial. The Chief Justice will probably follow the example set by his predecessor, Justice Rehnquist, who presided over President Clinton's impeachment trial, and do as little as possible.
President Giving His Defense Team a Celebrity Cast
President Trump has asked former independent counsel Ken Starr and celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz to join his defense team for the Senate impeachment trial that gets underway in earnest this week. Starr's investigation into President Bill Clinton led to the latter's impeachment for perjury and obstruction of justice in 1998. Dershowitz, a Harvard Law School professor emeritus who became famous as a defense counsel for high-profile defendants like O.J. Simpson and Mike Tyson, will have a more limited role, presenting oral arguments at the Senate trial "to address the constitutional arguments against impeachment and removal." In choosing these prominent lawyers, the president has assembled what he regards as an all-star television legal team, enlisting some of his favorite defenders from Fox News. However, each of them brings his own baggage as well.
Trump Administration to Curb Lawsuits by Franchise Workers
The Trump administration has loosened the federal government's "joint employer" rule for businesses that contract out work. This loosening makes it harder for victims of wage theft at staffing agencies and subcontractors to sue companies where the violations take place. Therefore, it is harder for workers to sue large companies for wrongdoings. The new rule takes effect in March and replaces the more labor-friendly Obama-era approach that the Trump administration withdrew in 2017.
Esper Didn't See Evidence of Plot to Hit Embassies
President Trump has said that the airstrike that killed a senior Iranian general earlier this month was because of an Iranian plot to attack four embassies. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has told the media that he "didn't see" evidence of an Iranian attack, but that it was probable since embassies are the most prominent display of American presence in a country. Trump's assertion is at odds with intelligence assessments from senior administration officials. White House national security advisor Robert O'Brien has defended the strike. Top Democrats have pushed back on Esper's claim that the Gang of Eight congressional leaders were given information on the threat to attack the embassy in Baghdad.
Court to Decide Whether Employers Must Offer Birth Control
The U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether employers should be allowed to opt out of providing contraceptive coverage to their workers because of moral or religious objections. At issue are Trump administration regulations allowing employers to claim such exemptions to the contraceptive insurance coverage mandate in the Affordable Care Act ,which requires most employer-provided plans to include birth control coverage without a copay. Churches and other religious organizations can already opt out, but the administration has sought to expand that exemption to include a wider array of businesses and organizations. Pennsylvania and New Jersey have already challenged the Trump administration regulation and won a nationwide injunction temporarily blocking the rules. It's not the first time the Supreme Court has considered the issue, the first time was in the 2014 Burwell v Hobby Lobby Stores case.
Justices Take Case on 'Faithless Electors' in the Electoral College
The Supreme Court will decide ahead of the 2020 election whether presidential electors are bound to support the popular vote winner in their states or can opt for someone else. Advocates for the Court's intervention say that the issue needs urgent resolution in an era of intense political polarization and prospect of a razor-thin margin in a presidential election, although so-called faithless electors have been a footnote so far in American history. About 30 states require presidential electors to vote for the popular vote winner and electors almost always do so anyway. The case arises out of the 2016 presidential election. The Justices will hear arguments in April and should issue a decision by late June.
Justices Wary in Weighing 'Bridgegate' As a Crime
Most of the Justices on the U.S. Supreme Court expressed skepticism about the federal government's case in the infamous "Bridgegate" scandal. There are dense legal issues that surround the convictions of two former Gov. Christie allies. A number of Justices seem to find merit in the defendants' arguments that they did not defraud the government when they closed off two local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge. Even Justice Breyer doubted that the statues involved in the case were properly applied. Both liberal and conservative Justices seemed to struggle with the arguments made by the Justice Department. Some attorneys say the legal theory applied to the case "turns the integrity of every official action at every level of government into a potential federal fraud investigation."
Senate Passes New Deal on Trade with Neighbors
A new trade deal with Canada and Mexico was approved in the U.S. Senate on January 16th, marking a significant accomplishment for President Trump on his long-discussed desire to update the Clinton-era North American Free Trade Agreement. In an 89-10 Senate vote, prior to the chamber proceeding with the impeachment trial, the overwhelming support of the plan represented a rare show of bipartisanship on a policy proposal. The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) creates the first U.S. free trade agreement with a digital trade chapter, which will help the $1.3 trillion U.S. digital economy grow and import efforts to stop importers of counterfeit goods. It provides for copyright and patent protections to uphold trade secrets and to secure data rights. Trump has been a staunch critic of NAFTA.
U.S.-China Deal Nets Concessions for Tech Firms
The U.S. and China have reached a trade deal that eases tensions between the world's two largest economies, offers massive export opportunities for U.S. farms and factories, and promises to do more to protect American trade secrets. This new agreement would end China's long-standing practice of pressuring foreign companies to transfer technology to Chinese companies as a condition for obtaining market access. China has also agreed to combat patent theft and counterfeit products. This is intended to ease some of the U.S. economic sanctions on China in return for Beijing stepping up its purchases of American farm products and other goods. The agreement also makes it easier to bring criminal cases in China against those accused to stealing trade secrets.
Four in G.O.P. Defect on Legislation Limiting Trump's War Powers
At least four Senate Republications will break with the administration to support a resolution that would limit President Trump's ability to take military action against Iran, which would likely give Democrats enough votes to pass the measure soon. The bipartisan resolution directs Trump to end the use of military force against Iran unless such action is authorized by Congress. It does not prevent the U.S. from defending itself against an imminent attack. The Democratic-controlled House is expected to pass the legislation, which Trump could veto. Sens. Rand Paul, Mike Lee, Todd Young and Susan Collins have each said they would support the updated version of the legislation, giving it majority support if every Democrat votes for it. Other Senate Republications have said they are still considering the measure.
House Urges Intelligence Officials to Testify Publicly
Officials appear reluctant to attend an annual hearing after last year's testimony revealed splits with the White House on key issues and angered President Trump. Rep. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, issued invitations to intelligence agency leaders to testify publicly in an effort to head off an attempt to move their yearly hearings on global threats behind closed doors. The intelligence community has made plain that its leaders prefer the testimony to be classified and take place behind closed doors. Congressional Democrats have said that the intelligence officials must testify at least partly in public. Both sides are still discussing the timing and format of the hearings. The annual hearing is one of only a few opportunities to hear from intelligence officials.
House Opens Investigation into U.S. Policy on Asylum
House Democrats have launched a probe into the Trump administration's controversial policy of requiring tens of thousands of asylum seekers to wait in northern Mexico for their U.S. immigration court hearings. They have demanded troves of documents and data related to the implementation of the so-called "Remain in Mexico" program, which has been used to return more than 57,000 Latin American migrants to Mexican border cities. The committee has said that a "comprehensive review" of the policy is warranted because they believe that it is a dangerously flawed policy that threatens the health and safety of legitimate asylum seekers and should be abandoned.
Tech Giants 'Bullied' Us, Rivals Testify
The House antitrust subcommittee's sweeping investigation of possible anti-competitive conduct in the digital marketplace has zeroed in on the practices of tech companies like Amazon. Apple, Amazon, and Google wield their market dominance to bully smaller tech players with relative impunity, executives from smaller competitors testified on Friday at a congressional hearing. In a rare public rebuke of tech's most powerful companies, the executives detailed allegations of intellectual property theft, attempts to block them from platforms, and efforts to seemingly drive them out of business. Speaking out so publicly and forcefully against these giants could risk reprisals from the firms that control much of the global digital marketplace. Google, Apple, and Amazon largely deny the charges against them.
U.S. Request for Access to Gunman's Phone Data Puts Apple in Bind
Apple has rejected a Justice Department request to unlock two phones used by the Saudi gunman who killed three sailors at a naval base in Pensacola, Florida. The FBI wants Apple to unlock the Phones that belonged to the shooter, but Apple is resisting, leading to another standoff between the government and Apple over privacy.
U.S. Department of Agriculture Tries to Relax Rules on School Food
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) tries to relax nutrition guidelines for school meals in a proposed rule by the Agriculture Department. The new rule would give schools more latitude to decide how much fruit to offer during breakfast and what types of vegetables to include in meals, weakening Obama's school lunch rules. The current meal regulations were established under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which were spearheaded by Michelle Obama. The law set new standards for school meals for students in grades K-12 to ensure children that were receiving more vegetables, fruits, whole-grain rich foods, and fat-free milk. The USDA argues that the Obama-era rules are leading to high costs and rampant food waste.
Trump Tried to Scrap Anti-Bribery Law, New Book Says
President Trump tried squashing a decades-old law that bans companies operating in the U.S. from paying off foreigners and called it "so unfair" to business operations overseas, according to a new book by Washington Post reporters. Supposedly, Trump told then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at a 2017 White House briefing that he need to get rid of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The president was unsuccessful and the anti-bribery law remains heavily enforced.
Judge Halts Trump Policy Allowing States and Cities to Reject Refugees
A federal judge has ruled that state and local officials cannot block refugees from being resettled in their jurisdictions, finding that the Trump administration's new refugee policy is likely to be "unlawful" and "does not appear to serve the overall public interest." U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte of Maryland temporarily halted Trump's executive order requiring governors and local officials nationwide to agree in writing to welcome refugees before resettlements take place in their jurisdictions. Giving the states and local governments the power to consent flies in the face of clear Congressional intent.
14 States Sue to Block Plan to Cut Food Stamps
Fourteen states, Washington D.C., and New York City sued to block a Trump administration rule on Thursday that would push 700,000 people off food stamps in the latest standoff between Trump and the blue states. The states allege that the new guidelines will harm their residents' health, raise homelessness and healthcare costs, and contradict what the architects of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program intended. The suit is filed against the Department of Agriculture and Secretary Sonny Perdue and claims that the government failed to give the public enough time to comment on a final version of the plan, violating the federal rulemaking process.
Just Another Hurdle: In Symbolic Victory, Virginia Is 38th State to Pass the Equal Rights Amendment
In a symbolic victory for those generations that have been pushing for a constitutional guarantee of legal rights regardless of sex, Virginia has become the 38th state to approve the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Virginia's decision does not seal the amendment's addition to the U.S. constitution. A deadline for ¾ of the 50 states to approve the ERA expired in 1982, so the future of the measure is uncertain and the issue will likely be tied up in the courts and political sphere for years.
President Attaches Strict Restrictions to Puerto Rico's Long-Delayed Disaster Aid
The Trump administration is finally releasing its hold on billions of dollars of aid to Puerto Rico after a months-long delay. It is still unclear when those funds will reach the island. More than $8 billion is allocated through a Department of Housing and Urban Development disaster recovery fund that was supposed to be released months ago. So far $1.5 billion in HUD aid has been made available. The delay has riled politicians. The administration has repeatedly cited concerns of alleged mismanagement and corruption as justification for its hesitation to hand over the disaster funds.
Cancer Death Fell Sharply, Trump Took Credit
In a recent tweet, President Trump insinuated that his administration played a role in the U.S. cancer death rate hitting a record low in 2017. The American Cancer Society refutes that assertion. The rate of people dying from cancer in the U.S. has declined for the 26th year in a row. CEO of the American Cancer Society told CNN that the 2017 findings are not connected to the actions of the Trump administration. He went on to say that the mortality trends reflect prevention, early detection, and treatment advances that occurred in prior years.
Citing 'Bad Faith,' Flynn Asks to Take Back His Guilty Plea
Former national security adviser Michael Flynn wants to withdraw his two-year-old guilty plea, saying that federal prosecutors reneged on a promise to not ask for jail time at his upcoming sentencing. Flynn was only national security advisor for less than a month and the only Trump administration official to face criminal charges in connection with special counsel Robert Mueller's probe into Russian election meddling. The defense asked to delay Flynn's sentencing by 30 days and the government says it has no objection. The U.S. Attorney's Office, which took over the case, recommended earlier this month that Flynn receive "0 to 6 months of incarceration" because he had been less than cooperative in the investigation of his former partner.
Epstein Abused Girls on Island Until 2018, Suit Says
Prosecutors in the U.S. Virgin Islands have unveiled a new lawsuit against the estate of Jeffrey Epstein, alleging that he ran a conspiracy and transported young women and girls to his private Caribbean islands and subjected them to sexual abuse over two decades. Authorities claim the sexual predation occurred as recently as 2018 and involved children as young as 11 years old. The suit goes on to allege that it was all covered up by Epstein's associates through a complex web of corporations. The lawsuit, filed by Attorney General Denise George, seeks to confiscate all property used in the alleged criminal conspiracy and Epstein's victims would be the beneficiaries.
Inquiry in Leak May Put Focus Back on Comey
The Department of Justice is reportedly shifting its focus to former FBI director James Comey, another of President Trump's political foes, after reportedly coming up empty-handed in its investigation into Hillary Clinton. Federal prosecutors have opened an investigation into whether Comey leaked classified information to reporters. It's unclear whether any witnesses have yet been called or a grand jury has been convened. Federal prosecutors have previously investigated whether the former FBI head directed personal lawyer and friend Daniel C. Richman to turn over the contents of a memo detailing Comey's interactions with Trump to the New York Times.
Complaint of Sex Assault Starts Public Feud at Veterans Affairs
Top Veterans Affairs (VA) officials are criticizing a key congressional staffer for reporting an "unsubstantiated" sexual assault incident at a VA medical center, saying that the accusation could discourage public trust in the institution. Congressional leaders say VA leadership are the ones undermining faith in the institution by attacking a victim instead of working to make their facilities accountable and safe for female veterans. This comes amid increasing tensions between the House Veterans' Affairs Committee and department officials who have sparred publicly over a host of issues in the last few months.
'Help Us': Illegal Phones Expose Prisons' Squalor
Officials decry contraband, but inmates use mobile devices to show conditions. Inmates are using contraband phones to let outsiders know of the horrible conditions inside the prisons, from mold and rats to dilapidation and chaos. Inmates have used illegal cellphones to capture and transmit images that have come to define the crisis, many of which were texted to the New York Times. Officials say the pervasiveness of cellphones has threatened prison security. State corrections commissioners have said that "there is a lot of misinformation fanning the flames of fear in the community at large, especially on social media...and the phones have been instrumental in escalating the violence." State officials in Mississippi have resorted to a range of measures, including seeking court orders to get service providers to shut down specific devices. They have also used technology to interrupt cellular signals and regularly conduct shakedowns.
FBI Detains Members of Neo-Nazi Group Ahead of Rally
The FBI has arrested three alleged members of The Base, which authorities describe as a "racially motivated violent extremist group", on charges that range from illegal transport of a machine gun to harboring aliens. The three suspected members, a former Canadian military reservist and two Americans, had discussed going to a controversial pro-gun rally in Virginia. Canadian national Patrik Jordan Mathews entered the U.S. illegally last summer. The arrests come days before a pro-gun demonstration that is slated to take place in Richmond, VA, just after Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency and banned firearms on the Capitol grounds in Richmond in anticipation of the gun rights demonstration. The firearms ban was challenged in court, but a judge in Richmond upheld the order. Two of the three men have previous military experience.
Google Tops Market Cap of $1 Trillion
Alphabet, Google's parent company, just topped $1 trillion in market value, joining other tech giants. Alphabet's stock price closed at an all-time high of $1,450.16 on Thursday. The tech giant is the fourth U.S. company to hit the milestone after Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon. Facebook could join the club next, as its market value sits at roughly $630 billion. Alphabet's resurgence marks a turnaround for the company. The stock was among the worst-performing among its larger tech peers in 2019. Investors have grown more optimistic lately.
Putin Pushes Changes Likely to Extend His Rule
President Vladimir Putin has fast-tracked work on constitutional changes that could keep him in power well past the end of his term in 2024 while lawmakers quickly sealed his choice for new prime minister. Putin casts his proposals as a way to strengthen Parliament and to bolster democracy, while Kremlin critics described the proposed changes as an attempt by Putin to secure his rule for life. The Russian leader proposed sweeping amendments and then hours later Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev resigned, along with all of his ministers. The Kremlin-controlled lower house, the State Duma, quickly approved his successor in a unanimous vote. The constitutional reform indicated that Putin was working to carve out a new governing position for himself after his current term ends. Putin has been in power for more than 20 years, longer than any other Russian or Soviet leader since Stalin. Putin suggested amending the Constitution to allow lawmakers to name prime ministers and Cabinet members. The president currently has that authority.
A Crackdown, and Apology from Tehran
A top Iranian military commander made a rare public appeal for forgiveness on Sunday as security forces fired on protesters and outrage over the mistaken downing of a jetliner reignited opposition on the streets and stirred dissent within the government's conservative base. The military acknowledged that it had launched the missiles that brought down a Ukraine International Airlines jet near the Iranian capital, killing all 176 people on board. The disaster unfolded amid escalating tension with the U.S. over the killing of a revered Iranian commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani. For the first few days after the crash, Iran denied growing international accusations. Its ultimate admission of guilt limited the blowback from abroad, but stirred up the volatile situation at home with anti-government protests. As unrest spread beyond Tehran, security forces began crackdowns.