Signs of the Times (3/7/17)

New Travel Ban Issued by Trump Administration

President Trump signed an executive order on Monday blocking citizens of six predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States, the most significant hardening of immigration policy in generations, even with changes intended to blunt legal and political opposition, reports the New York Times. The order was revised to circumvent blockage of Trump’s first immigration directive on Jan. 27 by a federal appeals court. The new order continued to impose a 90-day ban on travelers, but it removed Iraq, a redaction requested by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who feared it would hamper coordination to defeat the Islamic State, according to administration officials. It also exempts permanent residents and current visa holders, and drops language offering preferential status to persecuted religious minorities, a provision widely interpreted as favoring other religious groups over Muslims. In addition, it reversed an indefinite ban on refugees from Syria, replacing it with a 120-day freeze that requires review and renewal. But the heart of the sweeping executive action is still intact, reflecting Mr. Trump’s “America first” pledge to safeguard against what he has portrayed as a hidden influx of terrorists and criminals until an “extreme vetting” process can be established. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly said that apart from the six countries listed on Monday’s travel ban, there are “13 or 14” other countries that also have questionable vetting procedures, but acknowledged that he doesn’t expect the list of countries subject to the travel ban will grow.

House Republicans Release ObamaCare Replacement Bill

House Republicans on Monday evening released the text of their long-awaited ObamaCare replacement bill, proposing to eliminate the various taxes and penalties tied to the original legislation while still preserving certain patient protections.   It also would repeal the Affordable Care Act’s subsidies, replacing them with tax credits for consumers. The system of tax credits is aimed at enticing Americans to purchase insurance on the open market. The bill would continue Obama’s expansion of Medicaid to additional low-earning Americans until 2020. After that, states adding Medicaid recipients would no longer receive the additional federal funds the statute has provided. More significantly, Republicans would overhaul the federal-state Medicaid program, changing its open-ended federal financing to a limit based on enrollment and costs in each state. Asked about some conservatives’ concerns that GOP leaders are merely pushing ‘ObamaCare Lite,’ House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas, countered, “It is ObamaCare gone.” Republicans want to restore power to the states and control costs in Medicaid and elsewhere. The White House signaled its approval of the plan. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said the proposal “would cut and cap Medicaid, defund Planned Parenthood, and force Americans, particularly older Americans, to pay more out of pocket for their medical care all so insurance companies can pad their bottom line.”

Supreme Court Sends Transgender Case Back to Lower Court

The Supreme Court on Monday sent a dispute over a Virginia transgender student’s bathroom access back to a lower court, without reaching a decision. The court vacated the current dispute after the Trump administration withdrew support for an Obama administration order supporting transgender students. The case had been scheduled for argument in late March. Instead, the lower court in Virginia must now evaluate the federal law known as Title IX and the extent to which it applies to transgender students. The law bars sex discrimination in schools. The case came from a federal appeals court and was brought by Virginia’s Gloucester County school board, which wanted to prevent a transgender girl from using the boys’ bathrooms. The school board adopted a policy requiring students to use either the restroom that corresponds with their biological gender or a private, single-stall restroom.

  • With Scalia’s seat still empty, the Supreme Court has been avoiding controversial cases until the Court has a full complement once again.

WikiLeaks Releases Trove of CIA Programs & Documents

WikiLeaks on Tuesday released what it said is the full hacking capacity of the CIA in a stunning 8,000-plus page disclosure the anti-secrecy website contends is “the largest ever publication of confidential documents on the agency.” The 8,761 documents and files — released as “Vault 7 Part 1” and titled “Year Zero” — were obtained from an “isolated, high-security network” at the CIA’s Center for Cyber Intelligence in Langley, Va., a press release from the website said. The trove had been “circulated among former U.S. government hackers and contractors,” one of whom “recently” gave the archive to WikiLeaks. The collection of purported intelligence documents includes information on CIA-developed malware — bearing names such as “Assassin” and “Medusa” — intended to target iPhones, Android phones, smart TVs and Microsoft, Mac and Linux operating systems, among others. An entire unit in the CIA is devoted to inventing programs to hack data from Apple products, according to WikiLeaks. Some of the remote hacking programs can allegedly turn numerous electronic devices into recording and transmitting stations to spy on their targets, with the information then sent back to secret CIA servers. “We do not comment on the authenticity or content of purported intelligence documents,” a CIA spokesperson told Fox News.

Trump Calls for Congressional Probe of Wiretapping His Campaign

The White House on Sunday called for congressional investigations into its claims the Obama administration meddled in the 2016 election cycle in an attempt to gather information on then-Republican nominee Donald Trump. “Reports concerning potentially politically motivated investigations immediately ahead of the 2016 election are very troubling,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said in the statement. “President Donald J. Trump is requesting that as part of their investigation into Russian activity, the congressional intelligence committees exercise their oversight authority to determine whether executive branch investigative powers were abused in 2016.” The statement follows an explosive allegation Saturday by Trump that former President Barack Obama ordered phones wiretapped at Trump Tower. The former director of national intelligence in the Obama administration denies there was a secret court order for surveillance at Trump Tower. He also said he hasn’t seen any evidence suggesting President Donald Trump colluded with the Russians to get elected.

Trump Puts Russia Deal on Hold, Citing Recent Provocations

President Trump is reportedly telling advisers he might temporarily shelve a plan to pursue a deal with Russia on how to handle the Islamic State as well as other national security matters. Administration officials and Western diplomats told the Associated Press on Saturday that Trump and his aides have ascribed the new thinking to Moscow’s recent provocations, including deploying a cruise-missile which violates a Cold War-era arms control treaty. Trump has been pressured by members of his Cabinet, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and new national security adviser H.R. McMaster, and European allies to not give concessions to Russia. In his first meeting with the National Security Council staff, McMaster described Russia – as well as China – as a country that wants to upend the current world order, an administration official told AP.

Missile Defense System Stokes U.S. Tensions with Beijing, Moscow

The U.S. decision to send equipment needed to set up a controversial missile defense system in South Korea is likely to add to tensions with Beijing and Moscow, countries that have spoken out in the past about deploying the system. China said Tuesday it would take measures against the U.S. missile system deployed in South Korea, and that the U.S. and Seoul would bear the consequences. Washington and Seoul says the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD, is not meant to be a threat to China or Russia. The U.S. military said in a statement that THAAD can intercept and destroy short and medium range ballistic missiles during the last part of their flights. But China and Russia see the system’s powerful radars as a security threat.

Trump Makes Proposal to Planned Parenthood

President Trump has offered to maintain federal funding for Planned Parenthood if the group stops providing abortions. Its president has spurned the proposal and noted that federal money already is not allowed to be used for abortion. Trump confirmed to The New York Times about the ‘informal proposal’. In a statement to the newspaper, Trump says “there is an opportunity for organizations to continue the important work they do in support of women’s health, while not providing abortion services.” White House officials mentioned that there could even be an increase in federal funds if Planned Parenthood stopped work related to abortions. In a response to the report of the proposal, Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards says the group “will always stand for women’s ability to make decisions about their health and lives, without interference from politicians.”

Alzheimer’s Could Bankrupt Medicare, Experts Say

Every 66 seconds this year, an American will develop Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association annual report, released Tuesday. By the year 2050, that number is expected to double to one every 33 seconds. That means, says the report, that by the middle of the century, over half of all Americans 65 and older will have Alzheimer’s. Those startling statistics are mirrored worldwide. In 2016, the World Alzheimer’s Report estimated that 47 million people around the globe had dementia — more than the current population of Spain. The global number of people diagnosed is expected to triple by 2050. Nine of 10 people with dementia in low- and middle-income countries and half of those in high-income countries are not diagnosed. “What is driving these numbers is that there is no disease modifying treatment, no prevention and no cure,” said Ruth Drew, director of family and information services for the Alzheimer’s Association. “And while U.S. deaths from Alzheimer’s have doubled in the last 15 years, deaths from other major diseases have been declining.” The issue is mainly funding, agreed Rudy Tanzi, a Harvard professor of neurology who also heads up MassGeneral’s Genetics and Aging Research Unit. “We are a knowledge-rich yet budget-constrained field. We have many clues about how to stop Alzheimer’s, especially from recent genetic studies, but insufficient funds to explore how.”

Economic News

About one-third of malls in the U.S. will shut their doors in the coming years, retail analyst Jan Kniffen told CNBC Thursday. Macy’s and its fellow retailers in American malls are challenged by an oversupply of retail space as customers migrate toward online shopping, as well as fast fashion retailers like H&M and off-price stores such as T.J. Maxx. As a result, about 400 of the country’s 1,100 enclosed malls will fail in the upcoming years. Of those that remain, he predicts that about 250 will thrive and the rest will continue to struggle.

February continued the recent downturn in gun sales following Trump replacing Obama as President. The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) ran 2,234,817 checks in February, according to FBI documents. That’s a retreat of nearly 400,000 checks from last February. The slowing but still historically high sales levels come on the heels of the highest year in history for gun sales. The FBI processed more than 27.5 million NICS checks in 2016. That’s millions more than the previous record set in 2015.

General Motors has reached a deal to sell its money-losing European operations to the French maker of Peugeot and Citroen cars. The agreement announced early Monday will create a new European automobile giant, bringing the Opel and Vauxhall brands under the control of France’s PSA. GM is also selling its European financial arm to PSA and French bank BNP Paribas. The combined value of the deals is about $2.3 billion. The agreement removes a financial headache for GM — Germany’s Opel and Britain’s Vauxhall have lost $22.4 billion over the past 17 years. It will also make PSA Europe’s second biggest carmaker after Volkswagen.

Brazil, Latin America’s largest country is still crawling through its worst recession in its history. Brazil’s economy shrank 3.6% in 2016. That’s just a slight improvement from 2015, when it contracted 3.8%, but still far from good. It’s the country’s longest recession with eight consecutive quarters of contraction. Unemployment hit 12.6% in January. A year ago, it was 9.5%. By comparison, at the height of the U.S. recession in 2009, unemployment peaked at 10%. Nearly 13 million Brazilians are out of work. An investigation into a massive government bribery ring helped spark the downturn as Brazil prepared to host the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. These days, Olympic facilities like Rio’s iconic Maracana Stadium have become “ghost stadiums” with stolen seats, parched soccer fields and vandalized equipment.

Migrant Update

Migration is the “Trojan wooden horse” of terrorism and the current lull in the migrant flow is only temporary, Hungary’s prime minister said Tuesday. Prime Minister Viktor Orban, an early supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump, has ordered the reinforcement of fences on Hungary’s southern borders to keep out migrants. Orban says the migrants, many of whom are Muslims. Orban said the migration issue would remain as long as its causes in the countries of origin were not dealt with and its potential risks were not recognized. “The people that come to us don’t want to live according to our culture and customs but according to their own — at European standards of living. We are still, at this moment, under siege,” Orban said.

Islamic State

Iraqi troops encountered the “heaviest” clashes yet with Islamic State group fighters Sunday in western Mosul since the start of the new push more than two weeks ago. ISIS militants dispatched at least six suicide car bombs, which were all destroyed before reaching the troops. The militants, he said, are moving from house to house and deploying snipers. ISIS fighters have “some mortar (teams) and snipers positioned inside homes,” said Iraqi special forces Maj. Ali Talib, explaining that U.S.-led coalition airstrikes have helped destroy some of the IS defenses, but clashes are still ongoing.

A Pentagon plan for the coming assault on Raqqa, the Islamic State capital in Syria, calls for significant U.S. military participation, including increased Special Operations forces, attack helicopters and artillery, and arms supplies to the main Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighting force on the ground, reports the Washington Post. This is the military’s favored option among several variations currently under White House review. The proposal would ease a number of restrictions on U.S. activities imposed during the Obama administration. Officials involved in the planning have proposed lifting a cap on the size of the U.S. military contingent in Syria, currently numbering about 500 Special Operations trainers and advisers to the combined Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. While the Americans would not be directly involved in ground combat, the proposal would allow them to work closer to the front line and would delegate more decision-making authority down the military line from Washington.

Syria

Ignoring a United Nations report that decried the use in Syria of chemical weapons, targeted air attacks on civilians and forced deportations, Russian and Assad regime air forces are steadily continuing the same illegal tactics while U.N.-sponsored peace talks founder in Geneva, reports Fox News. The regime forces also seem to be refining new forms of their illegal chemical weapons. Syria researchers in London have pointed to the strong possibility that pro-regime forces have put warheads containing chlorine gas on short-range, ground-to-ground rockets as a supplement to poison-filled gas canisters and bombs dropped out of helicopters and other aircraft.

Iran

Continuing a pattern of provocative actions, Iran last weekend test-fired a pair of ballistic missiles and sent fast-attack vessels close to a U.S. Navy ship in the Strait of Hormuz, U.S. officials confirmed to Fox News. One of Iran’s ballistic missile tests were successful, destroying a floating barge approximately 155 miles away, two U.S. officials with knowledge of the launch said. The launches of the Fateh-110 short-range ballistic missiles were the first tests of the missile in two years, one official said. It was not immediately clear if this was the first successful test at sea — raising concerns for the U.S. Navy, which operates warships in the area, one of which had an “unsafe and unprofessional” interaction with Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. boats on Saturday. The IRGC boats approached to within 600 yard of the tracking ship USNS Invincible and then stopped, officials confirmed. The Invincible was accompanied by three ships from the British Royal Navy and all four ships were forced to change course, Reuters reported.

North Korea

North Korea fired four banned ballistic missiles that flew 620 miles into the ocean off its eastern coast, South Korean officials said Monday, in an apparent reaction to huge military drills by Washington and Seoul that Pyongyang insists are an invasion rehearsal. It was not immediately clear the exact type of missile fired; Pyongyang has staged a series of missile test-launches of various ranges in recent months, including a new intermediate-range missile in February. The ramped-up tests come as leader Kim Jong Un pushes for a nuclear and missile program that can deter what he calls U.S. and South Korean hostility toward the North. Japanese officials said three of the four missiles landed in the 200-nautical-mile offshore area where Tokyo has sovereign rights for exploring and exploiting resources.

American cyberwarriors are trying to sabotage North Korea’s missile program — but analysts argue over whether the effort has had real results, a New York Times investigation found. Soon after ex-President Obama ordered the secret program three years ago, North Korean missiles began exploding, veering off course or crashing into the sea, the newspaper reported Saturday. By most accounts, the North Korean missile failures were possibly caused by US sabotage, the Times says. But it’s also likely many of the missile failures resulted from North Korean incompetence. Obama reportedly ordered the cyber sabotage in early 2014 after deciding that 60 years of U.S. efforts to figure out how to shoot down incoming missiles had not yielded a system that would reliably defend against a missile attack.

Somalia

Over the course of 48 hours, 110 people have died from hunger in Somalia, the country’s prime minister announced Saturday. About 363,000 acutely malnourished children in Somalia “need urgent treatment and nutrition support, including 71,000 who are severely malnourished,” the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network has warned. Somalia was just one of four regions singled out by the U.N. secretary-general last month in a $4.4 billion aid appeal to avert catastrophic hunger and famine, along with northeast Nigeria, South Sudan and Yemen. All are connected by a thread of violent conflict, the U.N. chief said Thousands have been streaming into Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, in search of food aid, overwhelming local and international aid agencies. Over 7,000 internally displaced people checked into one feeding center recently.

Yemen

A former Guantanamo Bay detainee was among those killed in recent U.S. airstrikes on terror targets in Yemen, the Pentagon said Monday. Yasir al-Silmi, who was held at Guantanamo Bay from 2002-2009, was killed in airstrikes on March 2nd. The Pentagon confirmed that al-Silmi was counted among those who had returned to terrorism. As the Obama administration wound down, officials stepped up efforts to shrink the prison population at Guantanamo Bay, though Obama was never able to realize his campaign pledge of closing the U.S. detention facility. While Obama assured the U.S. in December that only “low-level” terrorist operatives had been released from Guantanamo Bay, the emergence of former detainees taking on high-level roles in terror groups has undermined that message. One of them, Ibrahim al Qosi, became the face of Al Qaeda in Yemen.

Wildfires

A brush fire in Miami-Dade County, Florida, erupted to 670 acres and emitted smoke and ashes that shut down a roadway Sunday. Crews shut down Southwest Eighth Street between 137th Avenue and Krome Avenue due to the fire Sunday. The Trail Fire began near a canal and a heavily wooded area. The fire reportedly jumped Krome Avenue and threatened structures. Winds were gusting over 30 mph frequently in the Miami area Sunday morning into early afternoon, fanning the blaze. Flammable shrubs and trees known as Melaleuca are fueling the fire.

Weather

Almost five dozen tornadoes and just over 1,000 total reports of severe weather tore through parts of the Midwest, South and East from February 28 through March 1, 2017, in what was the largest severe weather outbreak since the late spring 2011. National Weather Service surveys have confirmed at least 59 tornadoes occurred in 11 states from Kansas and Iowa to Michigan to Tennessee during the outbreak. One EF4 tornado tore a roughly 50-mile path through southeast Missouri and southern Illinois, the first violent (EF4 or stronger) tornado of 2017. Peak winds were estimated by an NWS-Paducah damage survey of 180 mph.

  • End-time weather will continue to grow more severe (Daniel 9:26b, Ezekiel 38:22, Revelation 8:7, 11:19, 16:8,11)

More than a dozen people were injured and dozens of homes damaged Monday night, March 6, after at least two tornadoes reportedly touched down in Missouri. According to the National Weather Service, there were 29 reports of unconfirmed tornadoes in four states: Missouri, Iowa, Illinois and Kansas. A tornado damaged about 20 homes in Oak Grove, east of Kansas City. A reported 10 to 15 people suffered non-life-threatening injuries. North of Kansas City, in Smithville, 20 to 25 homes were damaged. The Kansas City Star also reports damage to planes and hangars at the Johnson County Executive Airport in Olathe, Kansas. About 40,000 customers in the Kansas City area remained without power early Tuesday, down from more than 100,000 Monday night.

Floods in Zimbabwe have killed 246 people, injured 128 and left nearly 2,000 homeless since December, according to government officials. Those who have survived the floods say they have lost their possessions. Many survivors are now housed at a camp where they are crammed in tents and plastic shelters and survive on charity. For weeks, heavy rains have been pouring in Zimbabwe, especially southern parts of the country, ending a years’ long drought. This southern African country last week appealed to international donors for $100 million to help those affected by the floods, which have washed away bridges and roads and cut off some communities.

Over the course of 48 hours, 110 people have died from hunger in Somalia, the country’s prime minister announced Saturday. About 363,000 acutely malnourished children in Somalia “need urgent treatment and nutrition support, including 71,000 who are severely malnourished,” the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network has warned. Somalia was just one of four regions singled out by the U.N. secretary-general last month in a $4.4 billion aid appeal to avert catastrophic hunger and famine, along with northeast Nigeria, South Sudan and Yemen. All are connected by a thread of violent conflict, the U.N. chief said Thousands have been streaming into Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, in search of food aid, overwhelming local and international aid agencies. Over 7,000 internally displaced people checked into one feeding center recently.

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