Signs of the Times (3/28/17)

Republicans Split in Aftermath of Failed ObamaCare Replacement

The Republican division that doomed the party’s ObamaCare replacement bill appears as equally wide in the aftermath, with leaders in disagreement about the next step. House Speaker Paul Ryan on Friday cancelled the final vote for the ObamaCare replacement bill, upon concluding he didn’t have enough votes despite the chamber’s GOP majority. Trump’s new strategy appears to be to allow ObamaCare to continue –with the expectation that the 2010 health care law will implode amid increasing costs and few options for Americans. The Republican president also argues that ObamaCare will become so problematic that Democrats eventually ask the GOP-controlled Congress to work together on improvement. The Trump administration will have to decide whether 20 million people who gained coverage under the sweeping 2010 health reform law will remain insured.

Trump’s Approval Rating Drops Some More

President Trump’s approval rating dipped to a new low after the Obamacare repeal debacle. The Gallup poll found that as of Sunday, 36% of Americans approve of how the president is doing his job, while 57% disapprove. The most recent numbers, which are tracked daily, came a couple days after a vote was canceled on a GOP proposal to replace the Affordable Care Act. The president’s approval rating was at its highest at 46% in the days after his inauguration.

Trump’s Executive Order Will Undo Obama’s Clean Power Plan

President Trump signed an executive order Tuesday to roll back the Clean Power Plan rule, keeping a campaign vow to undo the Obama administration’s aggressive attempts to reduce carbon emissions. The Supreme Court has blocked the rule’s implementation since last year while legal challenges are heard. Trump told crowds in coal-producing states that lifting carbon restrictions would not only keep energy costs affordable but also help revitalize the coal industry and the communities economically ravaged by environmental regulations. The budget outline that the White House issued earlier this month called for defunding the Clean Power Plan that Obama announced in 2015, which some two dozen states are suing to overturn. Under Trump’s America First Energy Plan, the budget “reorients EPA’s air program to protect the air we breathe without unduly burdening the American economy.” States are suing because they contend Washington does not have the authority to enact such a sweeping measure which they say would lead to higher electricity costs and reduced reliability of the nation’s power grid.

Sheriffs Dispute Federal Claim of Deportation Non-Cooperation

An executive order that President Trump signed in January prompted the government to document jurisdictions not cooperating with federal efforts to find and deport immigrants in the country illegally. The top five counties nationwide for Jan. 28 to Feb. 3: Clark County, Nev., which has Las Vegas as its largest city, 51; Nassau County, N.Y., on Long Island just east of Queens, 38; Cook County, Ill., which has Chicago as its largest city, 13; Montgomery County, Iowa, population 10,000, about 45 miles southeast of Omaha, Neb., 12; Snohomish County, Wash., just north of Seattle, 12. Also in the top 10 was Franklin County, Iowa. However, Montgomery County Sheriff Joe Sampson and Franklin County Sheriff Linn Larson, both Republicans, said their departments did not receive any detainer requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement during that period.

AG Sessions Says He’ll Punish Sanctuary Cities for Not Deporting Criminal Aliens

Attorney General Jeff Sessions officially put sanctuary cities on notice Monday that they are violating federal laws and could lose access to billions of dollars in Justice Department grants if they continue to thwart efforts to deport illegal immigrants. That would mean Chicago, Philadelphia and other prominent sanctuaries would not only lose money going forward, but might have to pay back tens of millions of dollars from their treasuries. “Countless Americans would be alive today — and countless loved ones would not be grieving today — if the policies of these sanctuary jurisdictions were ended,” Mr. Sessions said from the White House, saying the time is ripe to take action. Immigrant rights groups, however, blasted Mr. Sessions, calling him a “bully” and blaming him for poisoning relationships between immigrants and local police.

Trump Administration Approves Keystone XL Pipeline

The Trump administration has issued a presidential permit to pipeline builder TransCanada to build the Keystone XL pipeline. The State Department determined that building Keystone serves the U.S. national interest. That’s the opposite conclusion to the one the State Department reached during the Obama administration. The State Department says it considered foreign policy and energy security in making the determination. The permit was signed by Tom Shannon, a career diplomat serving as undersecretary of state for political affairs. That’s because Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recused himself due to his previous work running Exxon Mobil. Keystone will carry tar sands oil from Canada to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast.

Trump Asks for $1 Billion for 62 Miles of Border Wall

The Trump administration wants the first $1 billion installment of border wall funding to cover 62 miles — including replacing some existing fencing along the southern border. The $999 million requested by the White House in its budget supplement for defense and border security spending would cover just 48 miles of new wall, with 14 miles of fencing to be replaced. The money will fund 14 miles of new border wall in San Diego, 28 miles of new levee wall barriers and six miles of new border wall in the Rio Grande Valley region and 14 miles of replacement fencing in San Diego. Estimates for a full wall along the Southern border have ranged from $12 billion to more than $20 billion.

U.S. Leads Boycott of UN Talks to Ban Nuclear Weapons

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, announced Monday that the United States and almost 40 other nations would not participate in the first-ever talks on an international treaty to ban nuclear weapons. Flanked by ambassadors from about 20 nations, including nuclear powers United Kingdom and France, Haley said, “there is nothing I want more for my family than a world with no nuclear weapons,” the former South Carolina governor said. “But we have to be realistic.” “Is there anyone that believes that North Korea would agree to a ban on nuclear weapons?” Haley asked. President Barack Obama’s administration also opposed the talks, which the General Assembly voted to approve in December. Nuclear powers Russia and China also are not taking part.

U.S. Accused of Killing Civilians in Iraqi Airstrike

The U.S-led coalition in Iraq said Saturday that one of its airstrikes struck fighters and equipment of the ISIS terror group in West Mosul on March 17 at the location where there were reports of more than 100 civilian casualties. The airstrike was carried out at the request of Iraqi forces, the coalition said in a statement. Reports have indicated that the airstrike may have killed more than 100 civilians in western Mosul where U.S.-backed government troops are battling ISIS extremists in fierce fighting. The coalition said that it takes all allegations of civilian casualties seriously and a formal Civilian Casualty Credibility Assessment has been opened “to determine the facts surrounding this strike and the validity of the allegation of civilian casualties.” The Iraqi military aid 61 bodies have been pulled from the rubble of a home in Mosul after allegations surfaced that around 200 civilians had been killed in airstrikes in the city.

Trump Administration Orders Tougher Screening of Visa Applicants

The Trump administration is making it tougher for millions of visitors to enter the United States by demanding new security checks before giving visas to tourists, business travelers and relatives of American residents. Diplomatic cables sent last week from Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson to all American embassies instructed consular officials to broadly increase scrutiny. It was the first evidence of the “extreme vetting” Mr. Trump promised during the presidential campaign. The new rules generally do not apply to citizens of 38 countries — including most of Europe and longstanding allies like Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea — who can be speedily admitted into the United States under the visa waiver program. That program does not cover citizens from any country in the Middle East or Africa. stricter security checks for people from six predominantly Muslim nations remain on hold because federal courts have temporarily blocked President Trump’s travel ban.

Most Western Converts to Islamic Terrorism are Young

As terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda continue to search for new followers capable of being radicalized to violence, the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) released a new report that explores the diverse backgrounds of 131 American, Canadian, European, and Australian converts to Islam who have attempted or succeeded in becoming foreign fighters, propagandists or recruiters, and domestic terrorists. CEP’s report found that at least 60 percent converted at age 25 or younger; 28 percent pledged allegiance to or acted on behalf of ISIS; 18 percent allied themselves with al-Qaeda or its affiliates; and 18 percent were influenced by radical preacher and terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki. Jamal Ahjjaj, an imam at As-Soennah Mosque in The Hague, once observed that converts to Islam are “the most vulnerable because they do not yet fully understand Islam,” noting that “sometimes there are people – the wrong people – waiting outside the mosque to greet them.”

Social Media Firms Must Do More to Stop Terror

David Ibsen, the executive ­director of the Counter Extremism ­Project, a New York think tank which combats online extremism, warned that the battle against jihadi groups would increasingly be fought on the ­internet. He told The Sunday Telegraph: ‘Online channels are key to jihadi ­movements. The growth of Isil was ­accompanied by directing attacks through modern communications channels, or inspiring attacks by ­modern communications channels.’ He said extremist groups used ­programs like WordPress to build sites to publicize their cause and ­achievements, while using encrypted communications channels like ­Telegram either to plan attacks, or to coordinate publicity for attacks after the fact.”

Concern Over NSA Surveillance that Unmasked Names

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes went public last week with charges the Obama administration collected and spread information from surveillance of President Trump’s transition team. On Friday, he said that the documents he’s been shown concerned him. “It appears that this was all legal as far as I can tell… but you have to ask why names were unmasked.” By law, Americans caught incidentally during surveillance of foreign targets must be protected by having their names “masked.” Nunes said more than one American – and possibly Trump – had their names “unmasked” and their names and information was widely distributed within the intelligence community. However, Democrats are asking Nunes to recuse himself from the investigation into the Trump administration’s contacts with Russia after it was disclosed he was at the White House the day before he went public with his concerns.

More Americans Failing Employer Drug Tests

The percentage of American workers testing positive for illegal drugs has climbed steadily over the last three years to its highest level in a decade, according to Quest Diagnostics, which performed more than 10 million employment drug screenings last year. The increase has been fueled in part by rural America’s heroin epidemic and the legalization of recreational marijuana in states like Colorado. More than 9% of employees tested positive for one or more drugs in oral fluid screenings in 2015, the most recent year for which data was available. Because of the increase in positive drug tests, refugees who have reached America in recent years are finding a more welcoming hiring climate, at least for menial manufacturing jobs.

Transgenders Turning Female Sports Upside Down

Biological males who have become transgender females are joining many women’s sports teams, smashing records and dominating in sports such as weightlifting, softball, cycling, track, wrestling, football, volleyball, dodgeball, handball, cricket, golf, basketball and mixed martial arts. Physiologically speaking, there’s a gender gap between men and women that cannot be erased. As the 2015 edition of Runner’s World explained, “At every distance up to the marathon, the gap between men’s and women’s world record times is nine to 10 percent – and it’s a similar or even higher percentage among recreational runners.” Since these physical and physiological factors give most men a clear competitive edge in sports, critics ask, ‘is it fair or even safe for biological males – with larger muscle mass, hearts and lungs and greater strength, acceleration and speed – to compete against girls and women?”

Economic News

Consumer confidence surged to a new 16-year high in March, fueled by strong job and wage growth, lofty stock prices and cheap gasoline. The Conference Board said Tuesday that its confidence index jumped to 125.6 – highest since December 2000 — from an upwardly revised 116.1 in February. Americans’ perceptions of both current conditions and their outlook over the next six months improved substantially. The share saying business conditions are “good” increased to 32.2% from 28.3% in February. And 31.7% said jobs are “plentiful,” up from 26.9%. Just 19.5% said jobs are “hard to get.” Meanwhile, 27.1% of those surveyed expect business conditions to improve the next six months, up from 23.9%. Just 8.4% expect them to worsen.

Wall Street no longer believes President Trump’s agenda is a slam dunk. The Dow Industrial Average slumped more than 45 points Monday as Trump’s failure to repeal and replace Obamacare spooked investors. It’s the eighth-straight down day for the Dow. That hasn’t happened since 2011. The market retreat is a reflection of rising fears on Wall Street that Trump’s bold promises of sweeping tax reform, regulatory relief and infrastructure spending is in doubt. However, the market was up early Tuesday after the consumer confidence report.

Islamic State

Two companies from the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division are being deployed to the Middle East to bolster security in Iraq and Syria at the request of the top American commander in Baghdad fighting ISIS. Some of the additional forces from the 82nd Airborne Division will head to the Qayyarah Airfield West, or “Q-West” as the soldiers call it, an official said. U.S. forces have occupied the former Iraqi military base since the summer. Currently, Apache gunships and GPS-guided rocket systems called HIMARS are based there roughly 40 miles south of Mosul to support the ongoing battle for Iraq’s second largest city.

Russia

The Kremlin’s ambitions in the Middle East reach far beyond Syria, according to US officials. From Afghanistan to Libya, Pentagon officials are increasingly concerned by mounting Russian military and diplomatic activity they believe is aimed at undermining the US and NATO. Some of the actions Moscow is accused of participating in include sending operatives to support an armed faction in Libya and providing political legitimacy — and maybe even supplies — to the Taliban in Afghanistan. These moves come on top of their overt dispatching of warplanes and ships to target the political opponents of its ally in Syria. “It is my view that they are trying to increase their influence in this critical part of the globe,” said Gen. Joseph Votel, who oversees US forces in the region.

Thousands of people crowded into Moscow’s Pushkin Square on Sunday for an unsanctioned protest against corruption in the Russian government, part of a wave of demonstrations taking place throughout the country. Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption campaigner who is leading the opposition to President Vladimir Putin, was arrested while walking from a nearby subway station to the demonstration. Navalny and his Foundation for Fighting Corruption had called for the protests, which attracted crowds of hundreds to thousands in most sizeable Russian cities, from the Far East port of Vladivostok to the European heartland. The protests were the largest coordinated outpourings of dissatisfaction in Russia since the massive 2011-12 demonstrations that followed a fraud-tainted parliamentary election. Scuffles with police erupted sporadically and some demonstrators were arrested.

Iran

The United States has imposed sanctions on 30 foreign companies or individuals for transferring sensitive technology to Iran for its missile program or for violating export controls on Iran, North Korea and Syria, the State Department said on Friday. Eleven companies or individuals from China, North Korea or the United Arab Emirates were sanctioned for technology transfers that could boost Tehran’s ballistic missile program, the State Department said in a statement. Nineteen entities or individuals were sanctioned for other violations under the Iran, North Korea and Syria Nonproliferation Act. They are believed to have transferred or acquired sensitive technology that could contribute to development of weapons of mass destruction.

Afghanistan

The U.S. Department of Defense has confirmed that a U.S. counter-terrorism airstrike conducted March 19 in Paktika Province, Afghanistan, resulted in the death of Qari Yasin, a well-known Al Qaeda terrorist leader responsible for the deaths of dozens of innocent victims, including two American service members. Yasin, a senior terrorist figure from Balochistan, Pakistan, had ties to Tehrik-e Taliban and had plotted multiple Al Qaeda terror attacks, including the Sept. 20, 2008, bombing on the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad that killed dozens of innocent people, among them the two U.S. service members. Yasin was also responsible for the 2009 attack on a bus carrying the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. Six Pakistani policemen and two civilians were killed and six members of the team were injured.

Bangladesh

At least six people, including two policemen, have died in explosions in eastern Bangladesh as troops battle suspected militants holed up with an ammunitions cache, police said Sunday. The explosions Saturday on a road near an Islamic religious school in Sylhet city also wounded at least 25 people. Paramilitary troops have been trying since Friday to flush out Islamist radicals who have holed up in a building with a large cache of ammunition. Several explosions have occurred, including a large blast Sunday afternoon. Police have barred civilians including journalists from the area. The gun battle with suspected militants comes after a man killed himself by detonating explosives near a police post on a busy road near the airport in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital.

Philippines

Officials say a man lobbed a grenade at a store in the southern Philippines, killing four people and wounding 23 in an attack that appears to be unrelated to terrorism. The attacker was arrested following the late Saturday grenade blast in Busbus village near the airport in Sulu province’s Jolo town. The attacker, who was identified by police as Sedimar Rabbah, returned to the area to retaliate after being beaten by a group of men who accused him of stealing a cellphone. Along with kidnappings for ransom and killings by Abu Sayyaf extremists, predominantly Muslim Sulu has long been troubled by a large number of illegal guns and other weapons.

Uganda

Uganda is celebrated around the world for its generosity toward those desperately fleeing violence. Unlike other East African nations like Kenya, where refugees are restricted to camps, Uganda in the past gave refugees land to farm and build a home, plus free health care and education. But a three-year civil war has sent 700,000 South Sudanese refugees fleeing, many to their southern neighbor. Refugees also are escaping violence in nearby countries such as Burundi. That is putting pressure on camps in Uganda, which can’t provide enough shelter, food, water and medical care, leaving the most vulnerable struggling to survive. A year ago, only a few huts dotted the northern Ugandan town of Bidi Bidi. Today, more than 200,000 South Sudanese refugees live there, according to the United Nations. The camp — now one of the largest refugee settlements in the world — opened last summer after a new round of clashes erupted in South Sudan.

Wildfires

Wildfires fueled by gusting winds, hot, dry weather, and desiccated plant life have burned nearly 900,000 acres of Oklahoma so far this year, a record, as well as parts of Kansas and Texas. The blazes have destroyed dozens of buildings and killed seven people as well as hundreds of cattle. While this time of year is typically the main wildfire season for Oklahoma and surrounding areas, this season has seen a record-breaking amount of land scorched by 133 large wildfires (over 100 acres) were ignited in the Panhandle and eastern Oklahoma, with conditions exacerbated by a perfect storm of ideal fire weather and a deepening drought.

Weather

A system packing a round of severe thunderstorms sprouted possible tornadoes in Tennessee and Mississippi and downed trees and power lines in Nashville, Tennessee, Monday. Severe storms brought high winds and dropped hail the size of softballs on parts of Texas and Oklahoma Sunday, causing widespread damage. The hail was reported in the areas of Denton County and Justin in north Texas, while an unconfirmed tornado was spotted southwest of Justin. Several homes and businesses in the Denton area were damaged by the large hail. On Monday, officials with the Little Elm Independent School District southeast of Denton announced that many school buses were damaged were out of commission due to hail damage. The severe storms came just two days after an EF2 tornado ripped through Cato, Arkansas, destroying four mobile homes and injuring at least six Friday.

Residents of northeastern Australia are cleaning up and recovering Tuesday (which is Wednesday there) from powerful Cyclone Debbie, which slammed into the coast with winds estimated at up to 120 mph. Gusts as high as 163 mph reported at Hamilton Island. Debbie was the equivalent of a Category 3 (major) hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale. One death was blamed on the cyclone when a tourist was killed amid stormy weather on Monday. Thousands are without power. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says the state of Queensland has been hit by nine tropical cyclones of Category 3 or higher strength since 1989. Four of these storms have hit since 2011, the Weather Underground said.

The South African city of Cape Town is facing a “real crisis” with only 100 days left before it runs out of water, officials say. During the past two years, the tourism mecca of the nation and home to 3.7 million people has had the least amount of rainfall on record. With average water levels below 30 percent and the remaining water becoming unusable at the city’s six main dams, the city scrambled to avoid water outages with water pressure reductions and other restrictions. Authorities hope the coming rainy season, which begins in May or June, will replenish the water supply, but until that time, fears are mounting that outages will occur. Many residents have reported gastrointestinal problems after drinking the remaining tap water.

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