Signs of the Times (12/14/16)

Ohio Governor Signs One Abortion Bill, But Vetoes Another

Ohio Gov. John Kasich vetoed a measure that would have outlawed abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected while approving a law that prevents them after 20 weeks of pregnancy. The vetoed proposal, commonly referred to as the “heartbeat bill,” would have been the nation’s strictest time-based legislation, banning abortions around six weeks. But abortion rights advocates said the 20-week ban is troubling while pro-life advocates welcomed the decision as a step closer to challenging Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal nationwide.

Senate Committee Refers Planned Parenthood to FBI for Criminal Investigation

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-IA, announced today he is referring several Planned Parenthood affiliates and companies involved in fetal tissue transfers, as well as the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, to the FBI and the Department of Justice for investigation and possible prosecution. The recommendation is one of the fruits of a massive report on human fetal tissue research the Senate Judiciary Committee just released, reports LifeSiteNews.com. The Senate Judiciary Committee’s investigation discovered Planned Parenthood’s and fetal tissue companies’ various violations of laws against selling human body parts. “I don’t take lightly making a criminal referral,” said Grassley. “But, the seeming disregard for the law by these entities has been fueled by decades of utter failure by the Justice Department to enforce it.”

Federal Judge Blocks Motion to Unbind Electoral Delegates’ Vote

A federal judge in Colorado Monday denied a motion filed by two electors seeking to remove the state law that requires them to vote for the presidential candidate who won the state’s popular vote. “It would undermine the electoral process,” Judge Wiley Daniel said during a hearing in U.S. District Court in Denver. “Part of me thinks this is really a political stunt to prevent Mr. Trump from being president.” The two Democrat electors, Polly Baca and Robert Nemanich, argued that it was unconstitutional for the state to require that they cast their votes for the candidate chosen by voters. Wiley recommended they should seek to change the state law if they are unhappy with the outcome.

Judge Denies Pennsylvania Recount

Green Party Presidential candidate Jill Stein’s request to recount paper ballots in Pennsylvania’s presidential election was rejected Monday morning by a federal judge. The rejection by U.S. District Judge Paul Diamond is the latest in a series of setbacks for Stein’s recount efforts in Pennsylvania and Michigan. Judge Diamond rejected the lawsuit in part because Stein presented no evidence of hacking in Pennsylvania’s election. Suspicion of a hacked Pennsylvania election “borders on the irrational,” Diamond said in his decision. Judge Diamond also ruled that Stein had no legal standing to sue for the recount. Green Party nominee Jill Stein spent nearly $1 million of the funds she raised for recount efforts in three battleground states on consultants, staff, and administrative costs, according to figures on the group’s website. Filing fees in the three states cost $4,488,939, the group says.

CIA Claims that Russian Hacking Gave the Election to Trump Refuted

The nation’s top intelligence office is not on the same page as the CIA regarding its assessment that Russia interfered in the U.S. elections in a bid to help Donald Trump, a U.S. government source confirmed to Fox News on Tuesday. Reuters reports that while the ODNI does not dispute the CIA’s general analysis on Russia hacking, the office is not convinced of the evidence that Moscow sought specifically to help Trump defeat Democratic opponent Clinton. One official also told Reuters that the CIA’s judgment was based on the fact that only Democratic information was leaked. The official called this a “thin reed upon which to base an analytical judgment.” The FBI, also isn’t buying the “fuzzy and ambiguous” assertions from the CIA that Russia “quite” clearly meddled in the U.S. elections on behalf of the Trump campaign. The FBI did not corroborate the CIA’s claim in a meeting with lawmakers last week. Apparently, the FBI “wants facts and tangible evidence to prove something” while the CIA is “more comfortable drawing inferences,” notes the Washington Post.

On Sunday, a former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, said he has met the person who gave the DNC emails and it was not the Russians. “I know who leaked them,” Murray told The Guardian. “I’ve met the person who leaked them, and they are certainly not Russian and it’s an insider. It’s a leak, not a hack; the two are different things. Murray, who is a close associate of Wikileaks head Julian Assange, explained it further on his website. “As Julian Assange has made crystal clear, the leaks did not come from the Russians… And it should be said again and again, that if Hillary Clinton had not connived with the DNC to fix the primary schedule to disadvantage Bernie, if she had not received advance notice of live debate questions to use against Bernie, if she had not accepted massive donations to the Clinton foundation and family members in return for foreign policy influence, if she had not failed to distance herself from some very weird and troubling people, then none of this would have happened.”

Nomination for Secretary of State Ignites a Firestorm

President-elect Trump won’t get Rex Tillerson as secretary of state without a fight. The President-elect is leaning towards entrusting the ExxonMobil tycoon with the stewardship of US diplomacy, a move that could ignite the first showdown between the pugilistic President-elect and senators in his own party. The nomination would be provocative, given Tillerson’s personal relationship with President Vladimir Putin amid an uproar over CIA assessments that Russia likely intervened in the presidential election to help Trump. The potential selection of another millionaire oil titan also offers insights into Trump’s vision of diplomacy as akin to the wheeler-dealer world of big business. A Tillerson nomination would also exacerbate concerns about the low level of formal foreign policy experience in Trump’s outsider administration. Trump’s critics say that populating an administration with people of enormous wealth and myriad financial interests is not “draining the swamp” as Trump had promised, but simply bringing in another species of reptile.

Trump Selects Former Texas Governor Rick Perry as Energy Secretary

President-elect Donald Trump has selected former Texas Gov. Rick Perry to be his nominee for energy secretary, which would make him head of an agency he once sought to eliminate. Perry, twice an aspirant for the White House, will inherit a department that has focused on promoting clean energy and reducing dependence on fossil fuels, but has also seen domestic production of oil explode. And his selection is a nod to the traditional GOP emphasis on energy sources like coal and oil. A hallmark of Obama’s Energy Department has been the grants and loans it issues for research. These loans have also been a source of controversy. In 2011, Obama administration had to defend its loan to Silicon Valley energy startup Solyndra when it filed for bankruptcy and taxpayers had to foot a $535 million bill.

Six Georgia Police Officers Shot in Six Days

The past week has not been a kind one to Georgia’s small-town police officers. Six days. Six officers shot. Two deaths. The shootings, which happened in three unrelated incidents, highlight a particularly brutal stretch in a year where at least 64 law enforcement officers have died across the United States, putting 2016 well ahead of last year’s 12-month total for police fatalities. The three incidents involved a domestic dispute, a drug raid gone wrong, and a stolen car that the police pulled over into a parking lot.

Economic News

The Federal Reserve is expected to raise its key interest rate on Wednesday. It would be only its second rate hike since 2006. The first was in December 2015. The Fed put rates at zero in December 2008 to revive the collapsed housing market during the Great Recession. Now, America is no longer in crisis mode and the economy appears able to bear higher rates.

Oil has soared above $54 a barrel to its highest level in nearly a year and a half. U.S. crude futures jumped more than 5% on Monday after Russia and a bunch of other big producers agreed over the weekend to join OPEC members in cutting their output next month. The group of non-OPEC nations — which includes Mexico, Kazakhstan and Oman — will aim to reduce their production by 558,000 barrels a day, according to a statement. That follows OPEC’s deal last month to cut its overall production by 1.2 million barrels a day. The production cut will reduce bloated inventories and help boost crude prices, which have now more than doubled from a low of near $26 per barrel in February.

China is set to nearly double its military spending this decade as an arms race heats up in Asia. China’s defense spending will balloon to $233 billion in 2020, up from $123 billion in 2010, according to a new report by IHS Jane’s. Regional power India is also on a spending spree. This year, $4 billion in additional defense funding pushed it ahead of Saudi Arabia and Russia to rank among the top five global defense spenders for the first time. Military spending across the Asia-Pacific region has boomed in recent years as regional economies have grown. Rising tensions around the South China Sea could be a catalyst to spend even more funds. “A key trend in [Asia-Pacific] is the shift from a traditional focus on territorial defense towards power projection,” said Craig Caffrey, a principal analyst at IHS Jane’s. “This is new for the region and is likely to increase military-to-military contact between states.”

Boeing has finalized its agreement to sell 80 airplanes to Iran Air, despite staunch opposition from many lawmakers, including President-elect Donald Trump. Iran Air will be getting 50 737 airplanes and 30 777s, the first of which will be delivered in 2018. The total value of the deal is $16.6 billion — by far the biggest between U.S. and Iranian businesses since the 1979 revolution, which shut off normalized relations between the countries. The sale was made possible by the Obama administration’s lifting of economic sanctions on Iran in September.

Islamic State

At least 75% of ISIS fighters have been killed during the campaign of U.S.-led airstrikes, according to U.S. officials. The campaign has winnowed ISIS’ ranks to between 12,000 and 15,000 “battle ready” fighters, a top US official said on Tuesday. The figures mean the US and its coalition partners have taken out vastly more ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria than currently remain on the battlefield, two years since the bombing campaign began. Speaking at the White House Tuesday, Brett McGurk, the U.S. special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, said the terror group is no longer able to replenish its ranks, predicting the number of fighters would continue to dwindle.

ISIS forces have retaken the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria, according to Syrian government media, the ISIS media wing and a human rights monitor. Syrian news agency SANA reported that over 4,000 militants swarmed the city from “various directions,” despite having suffered heavy losses from bombardments by the Syrian air force. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) confirmed that Palmyra had fallen to ISIS on Sunday after Syrian armed forces pulled out from the desert city. ISIS first seized control of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in May 2015. Syrian government forces recaptured it in March this year.

Syria

A ceasefire brokered by Turkey with Russia for eastern Aleppo has collapsed less than a day after it was implemented, as Turkey and activists on the ground accused the regime and other forces of heavy shelling and bombardment. Deaths were reported on both sides Wednesday, while some 50,000 civilians were believed to still be inside the small pocket of eastern Aleppo that remains under rebel control. The ceasefire was aimed at evacuating both rebels and civilians, but they have not taken place. The Syrian regime entered war-ravaged Aleppo on November 27 and in just over two weeks have seized control of most of it. Forces loyal to the Syrian regime have been entering homes in the last pockets of Aleppo held by rebels and shooting people on the spot, the United Nations has said. Eighty-two civilians, including women and children, were shot in their homes or on the streets on Monday. Around 100 children are trapped in a building under heavy attack, UNICEF says, citing a doctor there. The grim reports came as government forces continued their advance on the last of the rebel-held neighborhoods in Aleppo, once Syria’s commercial and cultural heart.

Iran

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he believes US President-elect Donald Trump will be a good friend to Israel, adding his hope that dismantling the Iran nuclear deal will be at the top of the agenda. Netanyahu’s remarks were in response to critics who have accused Trump of tolerating anti-Semitism among some of his supporters. While the two countries are close allies, relations were sometimes tense between Netanyahu and outgoing President Barack Obama because of their vastly different world views on the Iran deal, among other issues, reports United With Israel. The Israeli prime minister has been one of the fiercest critics of the nuclear deal. During the 2016 US election campaign, Trump also harshly condemned it. “Israel is committed to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. That has not changed and will not change,” Netanyahu said Sunday.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani on Tuesday ordered the country’s scientists to start work on nuclear-powered ships in response to the expected renewal of sanctions by the United States. In letters read out on state television, Rouhani criticized the US move as a breach of last year’s nuclear accord and told Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization to start work on “planning the design and production of nuclear fuel and reactors for maritime transport.”

Egypt

An explosion near a key Coptic cathedral in the Egyptian capital has left at least 25 people dead and 31 others injured. The blast occurred in Cairo’s Abbassyia district early Sunday morning. The explosion took place in the small church of St. Peter and St. Paul attached to the St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral. The attack targeted one of the most symbolic religious sites for Copts, an ethno-religious group centered in Egypt. Coptic Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 80 million residents President Abdel Fattah El Sisi condemned the attack and declared a three-day period of national mourning. Copts have faced persecution and discrimination that has spiked since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in 2011. Dozens have been killed in sectarian clashes. There is also little Christian representation in Egypt’s government. Sunday’s explosion came just two days after two bombs killed six police officers and a civilian in Giza’s Haram district, on the street leading to the city’s famed pyramids.

Pakistan

Thirty-eight people, mostly police officers, were killed and 155 wounded in Saturday’s twin bombings in Istanbul. The explosions, one large blast followed by a smaller one, occurred about 11 p.m. local time after a heavily attended football game at Besiktas Vodafone Arena. A remote control detonated a car bomb for the explosion. Shortly afterward, a suicide bomber caused a second explosion at Macka Park. The two locations are less than a mile apart. No group has claimed responsibility for the twin bombings but ISIS and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) have staged attacks in Turkey over the past year. Thirteen people have have been arrested in connection with the blasts.

Somalia

At least 20 people have died, while 15 have sustained injuries, after a car bomb exploded in Somalia on Sunday morning. An attacker rammed a vehicle filled with explosives into the main entrance of a port in Mogadishu, the nation’s largest city and capital. The attacker targeted police officers in the port’s customs and tax office. However, most of the victims ended up being port employees and pedestrians. Al Shabaab, a Somalia-based militant group with ties to al Qaeda, has claimed responsibility for the attack.

Nigeria

Metal girders and the roof of a crowded church collapsed onto worshippers in southern Nigeria, killing at least 160 people with the toll likely to rise, a hospital director said Sunday. The Reigners Bible Church International was still under construction and workers had been rushing to finish it in time for Saturday’s ceremony to ordain founder Akan Weeks as a bishop. Hundreds of people, including Akwa Ibom state Gov. Udom Emmanuel, were inside when metal girders crashed onto worshippers and the corrugated iron roof caved in. Emmanuel and Weeks, who preaches that God will make his followers rich, escaped unhurt.

Philippines

There have been 5,927 deaths linked to the “war on drugs” in the Philippines since July 1 according to statistics released by the national police on Monday. President Rodrigo Duterte was elected to office in May on a platform of cracking down on crime, particularly illegal drugs. Since taking office in early June, his police force has waged a bloody war on drug dealers and users, resulting in the deaths of thousands of suspects at the hands of police and vigilantes. Of the total, 2,086 were killed in police operations and 3,841 in extrajudicial or vigilante-style killings. More than 40,000 suspects have been arrested. President Duterte has admitted personally killing suspected criminals during his time as mayor of Davao City. Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo told Reuters Monday there were a growing number of opposition voices within government. She said that those in opposition weren’t against the war on drugs and agreed the problem had to be dealt with but they felt “doing it this way will only make the problem more complex.”

Venezuela

President Nicolas Maduro announced Monday night that he’s closing the country’s border with Colombia for 72 hours as Venezuelans rush to exchange bills before they become invalid later this week. He accused “mafias” of moving Venezuelan money into Colombia. It’s the latest twist in a crisis that symbolizes Venezuela’s severe economic depression, which is having a brutal impact on its citizens’ lives. Some Venezuelans are going to border towns in Colombia to exchange their currency, the bolivar, for U.S. dollars or to spend their money — while they still can — in Colombia where food, toiletries and other basics are plentiful. The biggest bill in Venezuela is the 100-bolivar note. On the official, government rate, it’s worth about 15 U.S. cents. On the more popular, unofficial exchange rate, the 100-bolivar bill is worth a mere 2 cents. Venezuelans have been weighing stacks of cash to pay for basic items instead of counting individual bills. Maduro’s administration announced it will withdraw all 100 bolivar notes and replace them with coins of the same face value. To make life a little easier, Maduro’s government also announced it will start printing six new bills worth between 500 and 20,000 bolivars. Still, the biggest bill on the unofficial rate is still only worth $5. On Sunday,

Environment

Seaborne radiation originating from the tsunami-damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Japan has now been detected on the west coast of the United States for the first time. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution reported that seawater samples taken from Tillamook Bay and Gold Beach in Oregon were found to be contaminated with cesium-134, which could have only come from Fukushima. While the water is contaminated, researchers don’t believe it will pose a direct human threat. Since the 2011 disaster, more than 800,000 tons of radioactive water have been pumped out, treated and stored in tanks that now occupy virtually every corner of the Fukushima plant.

Weather

Record-breaking wintry temperatures are gripping the eastern two-thirds of the country, signaling that this could be one of the coldest seasons in years. Across the United States, 76 locations have shattered their daily record cold high temperatures for December since the beginning of the month. Some locations saw their coldest December day ever. The bad news is that it’s going to get even colder for the rest of the week. This storm pattern is reminiscent of the 2014 Arctic outbreak that started a social media trend called the “polar vortex.” The polar vortex always exists near the north pole. An upper-level meteorology pattern called the polar jet stream locks in the cold air to the Arctic. Occasionally this northern jet stream meanders south and pushes in the polar air southward into the northern U.S.

Winter Storm Decima – pronounced DEH-si-mah – is poised to deliver another cross-country mess of snow, strong winds and some ice impacting a large swath of the nation into the upcoming weekend, forecasts weather.com. Decima follows on the heels of Winter Storm Caly, which blanketed the U.S. with wintry weather from coast-to-coast last Thursday into this Monday. Winter storm watches are already posted for a sizable swath of the West, from Oregon and California’s Sierra to parts of Montana and Wyoming. Winter Storm Caly left a path of travel headaches and one person dead as it marched across the northern United States on its way to the Northeast. On Sunday, about 1,400 flights were canceled at Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway airports as the deadly storm dumped heavy snow on the city. The lake-effect snow machine was in full blast in early December thanks to an arctic air mass that invaded the Lower-48. Some areas around the Great Lakes saw total accumulations of a foot or more, with snowfall rates exceeding an inch per hour at times. Some locations saw as much as three feet of snow

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