Signs of the Times (4/10/17)

Senate Confirms Gorsuch to Supreme Court

Judge Neil M. Gorsuch was confirmed by the Senate on Friday to become the 113th justice of the Supreme Court, capping a political brawl that lasted for more than a year and tested constitutional norms inside the Capitol’s fraying upper chamber. The development was a major triumph for President Trump, whose campaign last year rested in large part on his pledge to appoint another committed conservative to succeed Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February 2016. However rocky the first months of his administration may have been, Mr. Trump now has a lasting legacy: Judge Gorsuch, 49, could serve on the court for 30 years or more, notes the New York Times. He was sworn into office Monday morning.

U.S. Strikes Syrian Airbase Where Chemical Attacks Originated

President Trump ordered a cruise missile strike against Syria Thursday, saying “no child of God should ever suffer” the horror of the chemical weapons attack Syria launched on its own people. Trump ordered the strike against Syria early Friday local time in retaliation for the chemical weapons attack that killed 86 people on Tuesday, including many women and children. The attack, the first conventional assault on another country ordered by Trump, comes a day after he declared that the chemical weapons assault had “crossed many, many lines,” including causing the deaths of 27 children. From his resort in Palm Beach, Fla., Trump said Syrian President Bashar Assad “launched a horrible chemical attack on innocent civilians using a deadly nerve agent. Years of previous attempts to change Assad’s behavior had failed, Trump said. The 59 missiles, fired from the destroyers USS Porter and Ross in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, struck the airfield where Syria based the warplanes used in the chemical attack, according to the Pentagon. The Syrian airfield targeted by United States airstrikes early Friday was “almost completely destroyed,” a human rights group in the country said, damaging over a dozen hangars, a fuel depot and an air defense base with 20 jets destroyed.

U.S. Allies Praise Trump’s Strikes on Syrian Airbase

The Saudi Foreign Ministry praised Trump’s “courageous decision” and blamed the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad for the chemical weapons attack. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also expressed his support for the strike. “In words and actions, President Trump sent a strong and clear response: The use of chemical weapons is unacceptable. Israel fully and unequivocally supports the president’s decision. Great Britain said that it “fully supports the U.S. action, which we believe was an appropriate response to the barbaric chemical weapons attack. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande said in a joint statement: “President Assad alone bears responsibility for this development.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada “fully supports” the United States’ “limited and focused action.” Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council of EU leaders, said, “U.S. strikes show needed resolve against barbaric chemical attacks. EU will work with the US to end brutality in Syria.” President Donald Trump’s decision to launch airstrikes against Syria garnered 57 percent approval from Americans, but they don’t want any further unilateral action taken, according to a new CBS News poll released Monday.

Syria Condemns Attack that Killed Nine

Syria condemned U.S. missile strikes on a Syrian air base, describing them Friday as a “blatant act of aggression.” The official Syrian Arab News Agency reported that nine civilians were killed, including four children, when the projectiles hit the base and nearby villages. It said several others were injured. Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said six Syrian jets were destroyed but the air base’s runway was intact. He said, “the combat efficiency of the U.S. strike was very low” and that 23 of the 59 missiles fired by the U.S. reached the base. The Syrian army said the strikes made the U.S. a “partner” of the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra and other terrorist organizations. President Bashar Assad’s allies Russia and Iran also condemned the U.S. strikes, saying they violated international law. “It is an act of aggression under a completely far-fetched pretext,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Friday. “This is reminiscent of the situation in 2003, when the U.S. and the U.K., along with some of their allies, invaded Iraq without the consent of the U.N. Security Council and in violation of international law,” he said. However, many Syrians praised the attack. “I am so happy. People are happy. They have hope the U.S. can end this war by stopping the regime aircraft from more bombs,” 27-year-old aid worker in Idlib, Ali Essa, told Fox News.

Iran Issues Threat over U.S. Strikes in Syria

Iran “won’t be quiet” after the U.S. missile attack that hit a number of military targets in central Syria, Iran’s parliament news agency, ICANA.ir, said Friday. Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of parliamentary committee on national security and foreign policy, declared “Russia and Iran won’t be quiet against such acts which violate interests of the region,” according to the report. Boroujerdi warned serious consequences would follow the U.S. action. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the allegation that the Syrian military used chemical weapons as “bogus.” Iran Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said Friday the U.S missile strike was “dangerous, destructive and violates the principles of international law,”

Civil War in Syria has Displaced Millions

As Syria’s six-year-long civil war appears to continue without end, the country’s conditions are insufferable for civilians. About 4.9 million Syrians have fled the country since the start of the conflict, out of a total population of around 23 million people. Another 6.3 million have been internally displaced, but remain in the country, according to U.N. refugee agency statistics. The number of Syrians killed in the war is estimated at 470,000, with 13.5 million requiring humanitarian assistance. Over the six years, nearly 3 million children have been born, growing up knowing nothing but war.

Swedish PM Calls Deadly Truck Ramming a ‘Terror Attack’

A large truck slammed into a department store in a busy Stockholm pedestrian mall Friday in what Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven calls an apparent “terror attack.” Swedish media says at least 4 people were killed. The incident occurred around 3 p.m. on Drottninggatan (Queen Street), one of the city’s main pedestrian streets. Swedish intelligence agency said that there were a large number of people injured in the incident. “The depravity of using cars and trucks as weapons of terror has become an all-too-familiar tactic, long encouraged and celebrated by groups like ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Hamas,” notes the Counter Extremism Project.

Arrests of Illegal Aliens Spikes, Entries Down

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers reportedly arrested 368 criminal illegal immigrants in seven states and Washington, D.C. in one week – a nearly 250 percent jump from the week earlier. The Washington Examiner reported the biggest busts were in Texas, where 158 were arrested. Raids were carried out as far north as Wyoming. In one five-day raid around Virginia and Washington late last month, 82 illegals from 26 countries were arrested. “ICE’s primary immigration enforcement efforts target convicted criminal aliens,” Daniel Bible, field office director for Enforcement and Removal Operations in San Antonio, Texas, told the Examiner. Arrests of illegal immigrants trying to sneak into the United States across the Mexican border plummeted in March to the lowest monthly figure in more than 17 years, the Department of Homeland Security reported last week. The first months of the new administration have seen a huge drop in the number of people being caught by agents on the U.S.-Mexico border, reports Newsmax.

Sanctuary Cities Have Higher Crime Rates

An August 2016 study of the relationship between “sanctuary city” policies and crime rates shows that cities refusing to cooperate with federal immigration authorities consistently have significantly higher violent crimes rates than do non-sanctuary cities with similar populations and demographics, WorldNetDaily has found. An analysis of data from a study published last fall by researchers from the University of California-Riverside and Highline College reveals that non-sanctuary cities comparable in population, size and demographics consistently experience and report lower percentages of violent crime as well as lower percentages of property crimes. The authors of the study, supporters of sanctuary cities, concluded that the difference was only “slightly higher,” but WND’s analysis showed differences between cities of comparable size was consistently in the 20% to 30% range.

Target CEO Regrets Transgender Bathroom Policy

A recent Wall Street Journal article shows that Target CEO Brian Cornell regrets his company’s policy announcement welcoming men to use women’s restrooms and fitting rooms. Cornell expressed frustration about how the bathroom policy was publicized without his permission or knowledge, and told colleagues he wouldn’t have approved the decision to flaunt it with a public statement that is still on Target’s website today. WSJ reported that Cornell told staff that “Target didn’t adequately assess the risk, and the ensuing backlash was self-inflicted.” The American Family Association launched the immensely successful #BoycottTarget initiative nearly a year ago. The 1.5 million-signature boycott sent the strong message to the retailer that its misguided and potentially dangerous bathroom policy is the reason millions of families are no longer shopping there.

More Insurers Bail Out of Obamacare

Aetna announced Thursday that this would be the last year it participates on the Obamacare exchange in Iowa, where it is the dominant insurer. The move comes days after Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield announced it was leaving the state’s market after this year. Both insurers also will stop selling individual market policies outside of the exchange in Iowa. Aetna and Wellmark are the latest carriers to exit Obamacare for 2018. They cited financial risk and uncertainty as the reasons behind their decisions. Humana announced in February that it was pulling the plug in the 11 states where it sells policies, leaving roughly 40,000 people in Tennessee without a choice of carrier next year. Obamacare has been plagued by insurer defections after finding their customers are sicker and costlier than expected.

Retail Apocalypse

A fresh round of distress signals sounded in the retail industry this week, as another big-name chain announced hundreds of new store closings and still others moved aggressively to recalibrate their businesses for the online shopping stampede. Payless ShoeSource filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and outlined plans to immediately close nearly 400 of its 4,400 stores globally. Ralph Lauren is shuttering its flagship Polo store, a foot-traffic magnet located on tony 5th Avenue in Manhattan, the latest step in a massive cost-cutting effort. Big-box office supplies stalwart Staples is reportedly considering putting itself up for sale. The Limited filed for bankruptcy and shuttered all 250 of its stores. Hudson’s Bay, the parent company of Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor, announced a $75 million annual cost-cutting effort. Banana Republic and Abercrombie & Fitch each named a new chief executive, leadership changes that were precipitated by ongoing struggles to connect with customers. The wave of store closures by Macy’s and Sears alone will empty 28 million square feet of retail real estate. The shake-out among retailers has been building for years, and it is now arriving in full force.

Economic News

The U.S. unemployment rate dropped to 4.5%, the lowest level since May 2007. However, hiring slowed substantially in March, President Trump’s second full month in office. America only added 98,000 jobs, according to the Labor Department. The U.S. added 219,000 jobs in February and averaged 187,000 new jobs a month last year, but economists are already calling it a one month “blip.” It’s common to see a weak month of hiring at some point during the winter. Most experts expect job growth to pick up again soon. Wages were 2.7% higher in March compared to a year ago. For much of the recovery, wages had only been growing about 2%.

The U.S. added 26,000 factory jobs in February and 11,000 in March. It’s a contrast to the Obama years when most of the job gains came in the service sector — tech, retail, business, health, etc. — not in manufacturing. But overall employment in manufacturing remains at 1940s levels. The glory days of manufacturing were the 1970s. Back then, over 19.5 million Americans earned their paycheck from factory work. It’s been a fairly steady decline ever since. Today only 12.4 million workers remain in the manufacturing industry.

On Friday, members of Congress left town for their two week “Easter vacation”, and they won’t resume work until April 25th.  What this means is that Congress will have precisely four days when they get back to pass a bill to fund government operations or there will be a government shutdown starting on April 29th. Up to this point, there has been very little urgency by either party to move a spending bill forward.

Persecution Watch

Government agents in Sudan are telling the Christians who belong to an estimated 25 churches that their buildings are on government land and they are going to be demolished. Apparently, even if they’re not on the wrong land. Reports of the escalation of the persecution of Christians in the Muslim-majority country come from the American Center for Law and Justice. More than a year ago, ACLJ reported when the Sudanese Air Force dropped four bombs on an Episcopal Church of Sudan complex, destroying the compound. Authorities also bulldozed a Lutheran Church of Sudan building without any warning when local authorities said the church was built on land allocated for business. And government agents destroyed a 600-worshipper Sudanese Church of Christ to take land for “low-cost housing,” says the ACLJ. Also, Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Services this week “arrested 12 administrators and teachers at a Christian school in Khartoum.

Israel

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova has rebuffed attempts by the U.N. cultural body to deny an historic Jewish connection to Jerusalem. “In the Torah, Jerusalem is the capital of King David, where Solomon built the Temple and placed the Ark of the Covenant,” Bokova said last week at the policy conference of the European Coalition for Israel, a grassroots Christian initiative. “To deny, conceal or erase any of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions undermines the integrity of the site, and runs counter to the reasons that justifies its inscription in the UNESCO World Heritage List,” she added. In October 2016, UNESCO passed two controversial resolutions condemning Israeli actions at Jerusalem’s holy sites as well as ignoring Jewish ties to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall.

Islamic terrorists launched rockets for Sinai, on the eve of Passover, two of which landed in southern Israel. ISIS has claimed responsibility. A greenhouse was damaged but there were no injuries when ISIS rockets slammed into southern Israel. In wake of Monday’s rocket-launching, Israeli authorities closed the Taba Crossing into Sinai, urging all citizens to return home. “Increased activity by the [Islamic State-affiliated] ‘Sinai Province’ in recent months has also found expression against Israel in its desire to commit terrorist attacks against tourists in Sinai, including Israelis, in the immediate term, Israel said. An apparent terrorist car-ramming attack Thursday morning near the West Bank settlement of Ofra, north of Jerusalem, killed 20-year-old IDF Sgt. Elchai Taharlev and wounded one of his comrades. The driver was taken into custody and identified by Palestinian media as a resident of a nearby village.

Russia

Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson is taking a hard line against Russia on the eve of his first diplomatic trip to Moscow, calling the country “incompetent” for allowing Syria to hold on to chemical weapons and accusing Russia of trying to influence elections in Europe using the same methods it employed in the United States. Tillerson said America’s relationship with Russia is already reverting to the norm: one of friction, distrust and mutual efforts to undermine each other’s reach. Yet as Mr. Tillerson arrived in Italy to meet with foreign ministers before going to Moscow, the administration was sending conflicting signals about its policy on Syria and the extent to which it would hold the country’s patron Russia responsible for continued violence, notes the New York Times.

Syria

Government warplanes returned Saturday to the devastated Syrian town hit by chemical weapons earlier this week, despite a U.S. missile strike on a Syrian air base that’s already back in business, in a show of defiance by President Bashar al-Assad. The new airstrikes killed one woman and wounded one other person in Khan Sheikhoun, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. That’s the same town where the gas attack took place earlier this week, killing 86 people, including dozens of children, prompting the U.S. missile launch. It’s not clear whether the new attack was launched from Shayrat, the base damaged by some of the 59 U.S. Tomahawk missiles the U.S. military launched. In a letter delivered to Congress on Saturday justifying the strike, President Trump said he wasn’t ruling out additional military action.

Egypt

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for bombings at two Coptic Christian churches in Egypt that killed at least 44 people during crowded Palm Sunday services. The blasts took place in the Nile Delta town of Tanta and the coastal city of Alexandria. The death toll in Tanta was 26, the Interior Ministry reported. Al-Ahram Arabic reported that security forces also dismantled two explosive devices at Sidi Abdel Rahim Mosque in Tanta, a city of more than 400,000 about 80 miles southeast of Alexandria. The mosque is considered among the most important mosques in city. The attacks came less than a week after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi visited President Donald Trump at the White House.

North Korea

North Korea vowed to bolster its defenses to protect itself against airstrikes similar to the ones President Donald Trump ordered on Friday against a Syrian airbase. North Korea called the strikes “absolutely unpardonable,” saying they prove its nuclear weapons are justified to protect the country against Washington’s “evermore reckless moves for a war.” Trump has said that if China doesn’t exert more pressure on North Korea, the United States will act alone. China understands how dangerous North Korea’s nuclear program has become and agrees action must be taken to stop it, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Sunday, as the US sent an aircraft carrier strike group toward the Korean Peninsula.

India

Millions of Indian farmers who borrowed from banks to finance their crops no longer have to pay their loans back. The country’s biggest state, Uttar Pradesh, has announced that it will forgive debts worth about $5.6 billion. More than 21 million small farmers who own less than 2 hectares (5 acres) of land will benefit from the relief. That includes 700,000 farmers whose loans were already listed as non-performing by their banks. The loan waiver was a key campaign promise by the Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and aims to provide respite to farmers struggling to make ends meet.

Wildfires

A large, fast-moving brush fire shut down Interstate 275 in St. Petersburg during Friday’s rush hour. It was one of two major brush fires to strike Florida on the day, as the National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for wildfire danger due to the dry conditions. The brush fire was caused by a commercial lawn mower overheating and lighting grass on fire. With no fire hydrants nearby, rescue personnel had to use trucks to shuttle in water. The fire quickly spread to between 40 and 50 acres due to gusty winds. I-275 reopened by 8 p.m.

Weather

The first three months of 2017 claimed the most billion-dollar weather disasters for the same stretch of any year on record, according to a report released Thursday by NOAA. Five separate disasters, ranging from tornado outbreaks and wind damage to late season freezes that wiped out crops in the South, racked up damage tolls over $1 billion. This frequency of billion-dollar events is the largest since records began in 1980 and more than doubles the average number of 2.4 such disasters over the last five years.

California’s northern Sierra Nevada is nearing its all-time wettest “water year” after the latest barrage of stormy weather to hit the mountain range late last week. The “water year” in California runs from October through September, and in peaks from November through March. Each spring, the melted snowpack from the Sierra supplies water to much of California. As of Sunday, the northern Sierra was less than 1 inch of water below the record of 88.5 inches, set during the 1982-83 water year. Last week’s storm brought 10 to 40 inches of snow to the Sierra, and more rain and mountain snow are expected Tuesday through Thursday in the week ahead.

Nearly three dozen tornadoes have been confirmed across the South late last week, and meteorologists expect that number to rise as the National Weather Service continues to survey areas damaged by this week’s severe weather outbreak. The severe weather moved up the east coast and damage some buildings in Washington, D.C., and a tornado reportedly touches down in Chesapeake, Virginia.

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