Signs of the Times (12/10/16)

Trump Slams CIA Over Report that Russia Helped Him Win the Election

President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team slammed the CIA Friday, following reports the agency has concluded that Russia intervened in the election to help him win. In response to widening claims of a Russian espionage operation targeting the presidential race, Trump’s camp risked an early feud with the Intelligence community on which he will rely for top secret assessments of the greatest threats facing the United States. “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” the transition team said in a terse, unsigned statement. The CIA concluded in a secret assessment that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump win the presidency, according to the Washington Post. Intelligence agencies identified individuals with connections to the Russian government who provided WikiLeaks with thousands of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and others, including Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, according to U.S. officials.

Government Shutdown Averted, Budget Approved

The Senate late Friday cleared a bill to fund the government through the end of April, narrowly averting a shutdown. The 63-36 vote came just before a midnight deadline when the government could have run out of money. The vote took nearly an hour and was tense and uncertain to the end as senators weighed political and parochial interests in deciding which way to vote, CNN reported. Party leaders and whips, trying to save the must-pass bill, worked their members furiously. President Barack Obama signed the measure into law early Saturday. The late-night action came after a day of back-channel negotiations aimed at alleviating concerns from coal-state Democrats who wanted a longer extension of expiring health benefits for retired coal miners. Democrats failed to secure enough votes to pass that extension.

Michigan Recount Halted

A federal judge has ordered Michigan’s Board of Elections to stop the state’s electoral recount. U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith issued the order late Wednesday — dissolving a previous temporary restraining order against the Board of Elections that allowed the recount to continue. Goldsmith’s latest opinion effectively denies Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein’s request to block the Board of Elections from halting the recount. Stein on Thursday morning called the decision “disheartening.” Goldsmith agreed that the issues Stein raised — fraud and mistakes — were “serious,” but said there was no evidence of such violations.

Trump Picks EPA Foe as Head of Agency

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt is President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for Environmental Protection Agency administrator. The move elevates a fierce EPA critic — Pruitt had sued the agency over its regulations of power plants — to the position of EPA administrator. In a statement Thursday morning from the Trump transition team making the nomination official, Pruitt was quoted as saying, “The American people are tired of seeing billions of dollars drained from our economy due to unnecessary EPA regulations, and I intend to run this agency in a way that fosters both responsible protection of the environment and freedom for American businesses.”

Trump’s SBA nominee Gave $7M to His Election Campaign

President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to run the Small Business Administration gave millions to support his presidential campaign — including a newly disclosed $1 million donation just weeks before the election. Linda McMahon, the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, made the $1 million donation to a super PAC funded by the Ricketts family and casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson in early October, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission late Thursday. The super PAC, Future 45, was revitalized as a pro-Trump committee in early fall by the Ricketts, who earlier in the election support anti-Trump efforts, and by Adelson, who sat out the Republican primary. One of the Ricketts siblings, Cubs co-owner Todd Ricketts, has been named by Trump as deputy commerce secretary. McMahon’s most recent donation brings her total contributions to pro-Trump super PACs this election to $7 million, making her one of the largest contributors in support of Trump. She had previously given $6 million in August and September to Rebuilding America Now, another super PAC that supported Trump’s campaign.

Trump Picks Fast-Food Executive as Labor Secretary

President-elect Donald J. Trump on Thursday chose Andrew F. Puzder, chief executive of the company that franchises the fast-food outlets Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. and an outspoken critic of the worker protections enacted by the Obama administration, to be secretary of labor. “Andy Puzder has created and boosted the careers of thousands of Americans, and his extensive record fighting for workers makes him the ideal candidate to lead the Department of Labor,” Mr. Trump said in a statement. Mr. Puzder, 66, fits the profile of some of Mr. Trump’s other domestic cabinet appointments. He is a wealthy businessman and political donor and has a long record of promoting a conservative agenda that takes aim at President Obama’s legacy. And more than the other appointments, he resembles Mr. Trump in style, notes the New York Times

U.S. Life Expectancy Declines for the First Time since 1993

For the first time in more than two decades, life expectancy for Americans declined last year — a troubling development linked to a panoply of worsening health problems in the United States, reports the Washington Post. Rising fatalities from heart disease and stroke, diabetes, drug overdoses, accidents and other conditions caused the lower life expectancy revealed in the report released Thursday by the National Center for Health Statistics. Overall, life expectancy fell by one-tenth of a year, from 78.9 in 2014 to 78.8 in 2015, according to the latest data. The last time U.S. life expectancy at birth declined was in 1993, when it dropped from 75.6 to 75.4, according to World Bank data. Over the past five years, improvements in death rates were among the smallest of the past four decades. “I think we should be very concerned,” said Princeton economist Anne Case, who called for thorough research on the increase in deaths from heart disease, the No. 1 killer in the United States.

  • Obesity has been on the rise over the same time-span. Might this be the primary cause of the decline?

Opioid Epidemic Getting Worse, Says CDC

More than 50,000 Americans died from drug overdoses last year, the most ever. The number of deaths from overdoses of illicit opioids rose sharply again in 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Thursday. Overdose deaths (9,580) from synthetic opioids, most of them fentanyl related, skyrocketed by 73%. Deaths that involved prescription opioids (17,536) rose just 4%. Deaths attributed to heroin (12,990) went up 23%. A total of 33,091 Americans died from opioid overdose last year. Some of the deaths involved a combination of drugs, officials noted. “The epidemic of deaths involving opioids continues to worsen,” said CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden said. “Prescription opioid misuse and use of heroin and illicitly manufactured fentanyl are intertwined and deeply troubling problems.”

Immigration Update

The Islamic State has sent at least 1,500 jihadi terrorists back to Europe from Middle East warzones with instructions to “carry out attacks”, according to a new European Union report delivered Friday. While 1 in 5 have been killed between 30 and 35 per cent have been ordered to return to Europe to carry out “specific missions.”

The illegal immigrant wanted for allegedly killing two people in a hit-and-run case in Kentucky had been deported eight times, the Department of Justice confirmed. Miguel Angel Villasenor-Saucedo, 40, is wanted for the Oct. 22 drunken car crash that killed two women in Louisville. He was most recently deported in 2013. The statement said the DOJ learned soon after the accident that Villasenor-Saucedo was an illegal immigrant from Mexico. Federal court records show four instances when he was caught by border patrol agents in Texas. In June and September 2011, he told border agents he had crossed the Rio Grande near Brownsville, and also rafted across the river near Hidalgo. In November, 2012 he was twice stopped by border agents and told them he crossed the river near Hidalgo two times within six days, according to the Courier-Journal.

Economic News

The explosive post-election rally continues. The Dow, S&P 500 and Nasdaq all hit record highs again Thursday. Nearly three-quarters of the stocks in the S&P 500 are up since November 8. What’s more, about half of those winners have gained at least 10%. Financial stocks in particular have been on fire. All of the big banking stocks have been skyrocketing. Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase are up about 20% since Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton. Morgan Stanley has gained more than 25%. So has troubled Wells Fargo, despite the lingering fallout from its fake account scandal. Bank of America is up more than 30%. And so is Goldman Sachs — the former employer of both Treasury Secretary nominee Steven Mnuchin and Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon of Breitbart fame. A CNBC article pointed out that the cyclically-adjusted price to earnings ratio has only been higher than it is today at three points in our history. “The cyclically adjusted P/E, a valuation measure created by economist Robert Shiller, now stands over 27 and has been exceeded only in the 1929 mania, the 2000 tech mania and the 2007 housing and stock bubble.”

  • Is the bubble about to burst? Some analysts think so and see the banks pocketing money beforehand.

Walmart’s subsidiary announced Wednesday night it’s going to add 10,000 jobs in Mexico over the next three years. The subsidiary, Walmart de Mexico, said it would invest $1.3 billion in Mexico, adding that the investment stems from profits made in the country. They note that Walmart is not moving jobs to Mexico from America. Its subsidiary is adding jobs. Some Spanish media saw the Walmart announcement as a snub toward Trump. He has threatened to slap a 35% tariff on any U.S. company that sends jobs to Mexico — even though current U.S. trade laws don’t allow that.

Europe’s economy is not strong enough to be taken off life support. That’s the view of the European Central Bank, which announced Thursday that it will extend its bond buying program until at least December 2017. But the pace of purchases — currently at €80 billion ($86 billion) a month — will slow to €60 billion ($64 billion) a month starting in April. The ECB’s stimulus expansion comes just before next week’s key meeting of the U.S. Federal Reserve. The Fed is widely expected to raise its key interest rate, a sign that the central bank thinks the U.S. economy is improving.

Wealthy Russians are looking to spend big on U.S. real estate in the wake of Donald Trump’s election victory. The number of Russians who have expressed interest in buying luxury properties in the U.S. has spiked by 35% over the previous year following the billionaire’s win, according to global real estate consultancy Knight Frank. Russians are interested in vacation homes as well as investment properties. Nearly all are looking to spend between $500,000 and $5 million on a residential property, while 10% are hoping to buy commercial real estate. The two most popular destinations are New York City and Miami.

Terrorism Update

Two bombs killed six police officers and a civilian on Friday, according to Egyptian state media. One bomb went off in Giza’s Haram district on the street leading to the pyramids, killing the officers and wounding three others. A second bomb in Kafr El-Sheikh killed one civilian motorist and wounded three police officers. That bomb apparently targeted a police vehicle. Egypt has seen escalating attacks by Islamist militants, though most of those attacks have taken place in the Sinai Peninsula.

Twin bombings killed at least 31 people at a market in Madagali, Nigeria, on Friday in an apparent suicide attack carried out by two females, a military spokesman said. The “female bombers detonated an IED (improvised explosive device) inside a local market,” according to a tweet from the National Emergency Management Agency in Nigeria. Madagali is located on the border with Borno state, the birthplace of the militant group Boko Haram, and has incurred many attacks and abductions since the military retook the area from the militants in 2015.

Israel

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman made a startling announcement Thursday morning, telling the Knesset Affairs and Defense Committee that reports of Israel launching military strikes on the Mezzeh military air field near Damascus the previous day were true. He added that the strike had been carried out to prevent chemical weapons from being transferred to the Lebanese Shi’ite terror militia Hezbollah. “Israel has no interest in intervening in the civil war in Syria, our policies and our positions are very clear and are based on three red lines: we will not allow any harm to come to Israeli citizens, we will not allow any harm to the sovereignty of the State of Israel and we will not allow the smuggling of sophisticated weapons or chemical weapons from Syria to Lebanon for Hezbollah,” Liberman said.

Islamic State

As many as 50,000 ISIS fighters have been killed since the war against the terror group began, a senior US military official told CNN. The official called that figure a conservative estimate. ISIS recruitment also has fallen off. It recruited only several hundred foreign fighters this year, compared with a couple thousand a month last year. In addition, the official also revealed Thursday that in May 2015, US special operations forces came “tantalizingly close” to capturing or killing ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in Raqqa, but failed to do so because classified information was leaked to the news media. The official noted that after the May 2015 raid in Syria that killed ISIS operative Abu Sayyaf and led to the capture of his wife, the US got valuable information on Baghdadi from the wife after two days of interrogation. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said Saturday the US would send up to 200 additional US troops to Syria to help train and assist US-backed local forces that are driving towards ISIS’ self-declared capital in Raqqa, Syria.

Syria

As the Syrian army continues to fight its way through the old city of Aleppo, the tide of those fleeing for their lives has become a raging flood. Rebel forces controlled the Agheour area for at least 3½ years before it was retaken by Syrian government forces Tuesday. The number of people coming out of eastern Aleppo has gone up exponentially. On Wednesday, a Syrian commander told CNN that more than 2,000 people had passed through the Maysaloon crossing point since Tuesday night. More and more people are continuing to make their way over the difficult crossing, some dragging their belongings, others holding small children. Many of them are feeling weak and frail. There are some who look wounded. One man who was brought out said he had been shot. Everyone looked traumatized reported a CNN crew on site. The U.N. voiced fears for the fate of some 100,000 civilians still trapped in the east.

One Assyrian Christian bishop is being praised as a hero for his role in saving over 200 Assyrian Christians from the Islamic State. Bishop Mar Afram Athneil took it upon himself to raise enough money for the ransom of over 200 Assyrian Christians who had been captured by the terrorist group. ChristianToday.com reports that the 226 Christians were taken hostage after the Islamic State attacked their village in the Khabur River valley on February 23, 2015. After kidnapping the Christians, the Islamic State sent a ransom note to Bishop Athneil. The message demanded the Assyrian community to pay nearly $11 million for the release of the Christians. Athneil decided he needed to do whatever it took to save the captives, so he began a campaign to raise the funds. Athneil appealed to Christians around the world to help, and they responded.

Iran

President Hassan Rouhani of Iran is racing to sign as many oil deals with Western companies as he can before hard-liners at home and President-elect Donald J. Trump have a chance to return the Mideast country to cultural and economic isolation, reports the New York Times. At the same time, Iran is in a battle with Saudi Arabia and other OPEC producers to reclaim its position as one of the world’s leading oil exporters, a spot it lost during the years of international sanctions over Tehran’s nuclear program. Iran’s oil industry, the lifeblood of its economy, was devastated by the cumulative impact of the nuclear sanctions, which halved petroleum exports and left the country ostracized economically. . But Mr. Trump has warned that he may dismantle the deal, a threat that has injected new urgency into Iran’s push to build up its oil industry before Mr. Trump takes power next month.

Japan

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe won parliamentary approval Friday for ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, despite U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s plan to withdraw from the 12-nation trade pact. Ratification of needed regulatory revisions by the Cabinet is expected soon. The measures required by the trade pact requiring more open markets are seen as a way for Abe to push through difficult reforms in the agricultural and health sectors. So far, Abe has made scant progress on a slew of changes he has proposed to help improve Japan’s lagging productivity and competitiveness. A U.S. withdrawal would kill the trade pact unless its terms are revised. The agreement between the dozen members requires both the U.S. and Japan to join to attain the required 85 percent of the group’s total GDP since the U.S. economy accounts for 60 percent of that total, and Japan less than 20 percent.

India

India’s decision to ban most of its cash is a disaster that has shattered people’s trust in the government. That’s the view of former prime minister, Manmohan Singh, a fierce political opponent of his successor Narendra Modi, who announced the shock move to scrap all 500 and 1,000 rupee notes early last month. Modi says the cash ban was supposed to deal a blow to India’s widespread corruption and tax evasion, while removing counterfeit money from the system. With desperate Indians still lining up in their thousands to deposit old notes a month later, the disruption to daily life has left many wondering whether it has all been worth it. Singh, who led the country from 2004 to 2014, said over 90% of Indians’ earnings are paid in cash, and the ban has turned the lives of hundreds of millions of poor people upside down. He claimed that only a tiny fraction of untaxed income is held in cash.

South Korea

Lawmakers in South Korea’s National Assembly voted overwhelmingly Friday to impeach President Park Geun-hye over a corruption scandal. The vote was 234-56, with six abstentions. Under the South Korean Constitution, impeachment requires a two-thirds majority of the 300-member legislature to pass. The country’s Constitutional Court will now deliberate the impeachment motion, a process that could take up to 180 days. Park apologized on national TV following the vote, saying she was careless and had caused a “big national chaos” — an apparent reference to her sharing classified information with a confidante lacking security clearance. Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn will be acting President for the duration of the court’s deliberation. He vowed to “run state affairs in a correct and transparent manner.”

Russia

More than 1,000 Russian athletes across 30 sports benefited from state-sponsored doping, according to the latest findings of a report commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency. The report alleges “an institutional conspiracy” among officials within the Russian Ministry of Sport. “Systematic and centralized cover up” was found in the run up to the London 2012 Summer Olympics which continued until 2015 when first discovered. The report says that the London 2012 games corrupted “on an unprecedented scale.” The WADA investigation was spurred by claims made by former Russian anti-doping laboratory director Grigory Rodchenkov last year to the New York Times that he was ordered to cover up the drug use of at least 15 Sochi 2014 medal winners.

Netherlands

A Dutch court convicted populist lawmaker Geert Wilders — who is running to be prime minister — of hate speech Friday, at the end of a trial he branded a politically motivated “charade” that endangered freedom of speech. Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis said the court would not impose a sentence because the conviction was punishment enough for a democratically elected lawmaker. Prosecutors say that Wilders, who in 2011 was acquitted at another hate speech trial for his outspoken criticism of Islam, overstepped the limits of free speech by specifically targeting Moroccans. In a tweet, Wilders called the verdicts “madness” and said that he had been convicted by three judges who hated his Party for Freedom. Wilders’ party is currently narrowly leading a nationwide poll of polls and has risen in popularity during the trial.

Environment

The giraffe, the tallest land animal, is now at risk of extinction, biologists say. Because the giraffe population has shrunk nearly 40 percent in just 30 years, scientists put it on the official watch list of threatened and endangered species worldwide, calling it “vulnerable.” In 1985, there were between 151,000 and 163,000 giraffes but in 2015 the number was down to 97,562, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). While everyone worries about elephants, the earth has four times as many pachyderms as giraffes. Shrinking living space is the main culprit in the declining giraffe population, worsened by poaching and disease. People are moving into giraffe areas especially in central and eastern Africa. At a biodiversity meeting Wednesday in Mexico, the IUCN increased the threat level for 35 species and lowered the threat level for seven species on its “Red List” of threatened species, considered by scientists the official list of what animals and plants are in danger of disappearing.

Earthquakes

A strong, 6.5-magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of northern California Thursday morning local time. There were no reports of damage, and no tsunami warning was issued. The U.S. Geological Survey said that the quake hit about 100 miles off the coast of Eureka, California, more than 250 miles north of San Francisco, at around 6:50 a.m. local time. Northern California coastal communities like Eureka and Ferndale reported shaking, the agency said. Some people said they felt the quake as far south as San Francisco. The region is a historical hotbed for earthquakes. A few lower magnitude earthquakes struck in the same region off the coast in the last two days.

A 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the Solomon Islands Friday morning local time, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The Solomon Islands is an archipelago that consists of hundreds of islands in the South Pacific. The nation has a population of about 560,000. The epicenter was located about 42 miles west-southwest of Kirakira, and some 120 miles southeast of Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands. The temblor didn’t cause any major damage or injuries, the Associated Press reported. Some power outages were reported in the Solomon Islands. This earthquake ties three other 7.8 magnitude tremors as the strongest reported on Earth in 2016.

Rescuers continue to comb through the rubble for survivors after an earthquake Wednesday morning in Indonesia’s Aceh province. At least 102 people were killed, including young children, and 136 seriously injured, according to Indonesia’s Disaster Management and Mitigation Agency. The shallow 6.5-magnitude quake damaged homes, shops and mosques in the district of Pidie Jaya, completely destroying hundreds of structures. Indonesian President Joko Widodo ordered immediate assistance to be sent to Aceh in the wake of the earthquake.

Wildfires

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation announced in a press conference Wednesday that two juveniles have been charged with starting the deadly wildfires in and around Gatlinburg. Due to the age of the juveniles, officials have released little more information regarding the investigation, but they were charged with aggravated arson. Wednesday was the first day that residents were allowed to return to their homes full-time after the massive wildfire left the town deserted for more than a week. Authorities identified several of the fire’s victims on Monday, bringing the death toll to 14. There were at least 134 injuries and more than 1,700 structures damaged or destroyed as a result of the fire. Several other residents are still listed as missing.

Weather

Bitter cold is taking hold of the US weather pattern for the next week. Over the next seven days, 80% of the country will at some point see temperatures below freezing. More than half the continental United States will have below-average temperatures Friday. Temperatures will be 20 to 30 degrees below average in locations stretching from the Montana to South Texas. Dangerous wind chills could yield temperatures as low as 40 degrees below zero in the Northern Plains on Friday. Winter Storm Caly kicked into gear in the Pacific Northwest Thursday, and is beginning to lay down a 2,600-mile swath of snow through the Rockies, Plains, Midwest and Northeast that will last into early next week.  While Caly won’t be a crippling snow event, moderate to locally heavy snow totals over 6 inches are possible.

Earlier, snow contributed to a 30-car pileup on Interstate 96 in Fowlerville, Michigan, on Thursday. Police reported two deaths. Heavy lake-effect snowfall also made travel dangerous along Interstate 90 near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border Thursday, causing a pair of pileups 50 miles apart that left more than a dozen injured. Lake-effect snow will continue to hammer the Great Lakes region through Saturday due to an arctic air mass that has invaded the Lower-48 states. Some areas will see total accumulations of a foot or more, with snowfall rates exceeding an inch per hour at times.

Recent showers and storms across much of the South have eased the severe drought in the region, but experts say it wasn’t enough to make up for months of dry conditions before the rain finally fell. The rain has helped in the short term, though, and it also helped firefighters to rein in some the large wildfires burning in several southern states. Abnormally dry conditions began showing up in March in parts of the South, and became more severe later in the spring, all through the summer and fall.

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