‘the president speaks for himself’
Hurricane Harvey has displaced more than 32,000 people in Texas, according to its governor, and left at least 32 dead, with more expected in the coming days, as the flood waters recede. Recovery is expected to take years and cost billions of dollars, and scientists are warning that storms and flooding will become increasingly common in the region, due to the effects of climate change and Houston’s development. As of Thursday, as the Associated Press reports, rescuers were searching block-by-block among thousands of Houston homes, “pounding on doors and shouting as they looked for anyone – alive or dead – who might have been left behind.”
After a chemical plant near Houston flooded, “at least 2 tons of highly unstable chemicals used in such products as plastics and paint exploded and burned…sending up a plume of acrid black smoke that stung the eyes and lungs.”
According to ABC News, the White House is preparing an initial $5.9 billion aid package request for Congress, which “promises to represent just a fraction of an eventual Harvey recovery package that could rival the $100-billion-plus in taxpayer-financed help for victims of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.” The plan is likely to be voted on in the House and Senate next week.
At Gizmodo, Maddie Stone explores whether (and if so, how much) climate change contributed to Hurricane Harvey.
North Korea – the world’s most dangerous game of chicken
North Korea fired three short-range missiles into the ocean on Saturday, as the US and South Korea continued their annual joint military exercise on the Korean peninsula. While the second missile appears to have exploded immediately, the first and third rockets “flew about 250 kilometers (155 miles),” according to the US Pacific Command. The rocket launches come a week after what some experts saw as an easing of tension, with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson even expressing cautious optimism last week, claiming that “perhaps, we are seeing our pathway to sometime in the near future, having some kind of dialogue.” Some experts, according to ABC News, see Saturday’s rocket launches as a continuation of this, asserting that “North Korea is now mainly focused on the bigger picture of testing its bargaining power against the United States.” However, as CNN reports, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) “told South Korean lawmakers at a closed door parliamentary session [on Monday] that it has detected signs of North Korea preparing for another nuclear test.”
On Sunday, Tillerson responded to North Korea’s “provocative act,” saying that “we’re going to continue our peaceful pressure campaign as I have described it, working with allies, working with China as well to see if we can bring the regime in Pyongyang to the negotiating table.”
On Monday, however, North Korea fired a missile directly over Japan, further ratcheting tensions and drawing international condemnation. Kim Jong-un called the launch a “meaningful prelude” to a possible attack on Guam, according to North Korea’s state-run media – it’s the second time North Korea has threatened Guam in a month.
President Trump responded directly the following day, saying the world had received North Korea’s message “loud and clear” and asserted that “all options are on the table.” Russia, too – which has, for the most part, kept clear of the North Korean situation – urged North Korea to “fully respect” the resolutions of the UN Security Council. The statement, issued by Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, was made jointly with United Arab Emirates foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The UN also issued a statement (drafted by US diplomats) on Tuesday condemning the “outrageous” firing and “demanding Pyongyang halt its weapons program.”
On Wednesday, Trump reiterated his position, asserting that “talking is not the answer!” despite Tillerson’s insistence on a ‘peaceful pressure campaign.’ As Reuters reports, however, “when asked just hours [after Trump’s statement] if the United States was out of diplomatic solutions…U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis replied: ‘No.’” Mattis’s contradiction of his boss is his second this week; as NPR reports, Mattis pressed pause on the implementation of Trump’s transgender military ban.
In a show of force that may further inflame tensions, the US on Thursday “flew some of its most advanced warplanes in bombing drills” on the Korean peninsula.
This week in Russia
Michael Cohen, a Trump Organization attorney, “has acknowledged sending an email to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s personal spokesman during the 2016 presidential campaign about a possible real estate project in Moscow,” according to NPR. In written testimony provided to congressional investigators, Cohen said he’d emailed Dmitry Peskov in January 2016 “to seek his help securing government approval for a proposed Trump Tower in the Russian capital.” The New York Times also reported this week that Felix Sater, described as a business associate of Trump’s, “wrote a series of emails to [Cohen] in which he boasted about his ties to Mr. Putin, most notably asserting that “Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it.” According to the same Times report, Cohen “wrote to a general inbox for press inquiries,” because he did not have Peskov’s direct email address.
On Tuesday, Russia tried to assuage Western fears over its plan to hold large-scale military exercises in Belarus in mid-September, claiming its Zapad-2017 war games “would rehearse a purely defensive scenario.” Belarus borders Ukraine, as well as Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania, all members of NATO, a military alliance which Russian president Vladimir Putin famously loathes. As Reuters reports, “Russia has used such exercises in the past as a precursor or as a cover to project force in other countries.”
Special counsel Robert Mueller “has reportedly subpoenaed Paul Manafort’s spokesman and his former attorney,” according to The Hill. The news comes a day after a report that Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) has proposed “an amendment to the government spending legislation” that would cut off funding for Mueller’s investigation after six months. Mueller also, according to POLITICO, “is working with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman” on his investigation into Manafort, a move that sharply intensifies the pressure on Manafort, since Trump does not have pardoning power over state crimes.
At Vox, Andrew Prokop explains why Mueller “appears to be zeroing in” on Manafort.
On Thursday, the Trump administration “ordered Moscow to close three of its consular offices in the United States” – a retaliation against a similar move made last month by Russia. The State Department made the announcement the same day Russia’s new ambassador to the US took up his post. As the Los Angeles Times reports, Russia will have to close “its consulate general in San Francisco, the chancery annex in Washington and the consular annex in New York.”
White House drama
When pressed by Fox News anchor Chris Wallace on Sunday to comment on the president’s ‘values’ in the wake of the events in Charlottesville earlier in August, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared to distance himself from Trump, claiming that “the president speaks for himself.” When asked more specifically by Wallace whether he was “separating yourself from that,” Tillerson responded that “I’ve spoken – I’ve made my own comments as to our values as well in a speech I gave to the State Department this past week.” Axios reports that Trump “has been growing increasingly frustrated” with Tillerson, with one source even recalling Trump saying, “Rex just doesn’t get it, he’s totally establishment in his thinking.” Despite the alleged precariousness of his position in the administration, Tillerson has continued to hollow out the State Department in order to cut the budget: on Monday, as Bloomberg reports, he “unveiled his plan to eliminate several special envoys, including those for climate change and the Iran nuclear deal…each elimination is accompanied by the amount of money the change will save.”
According to Axios, during Gen. John Kelly’s first week as the White House Chief of Staff, Trump referred to Gary Cohn, his top economic advisor and a leading candidate to replace Janet Yellen as the chair of the Federal Reserve, as a “globalist,” and demanded tariffs against China. The report came out just a few days after Cohn criticized Trump for his response to Charlottesville.
Following a “less-than-packed” rally in Phoenix, AZ last month, President Trump fired George Gigicos, the White House scheduling and advance director and man responsible for “organizing all of [Trump’s] post-election campaign events, according to the Washington Examiner. The City of Phoenix estimated that 10,000 people attended Trump’s rally.
Last Friday President Trump officially pardoned Joe Arpaio, “the former Arizona sheriff whose aggressive efforts to hunt down and detain undocumented immigrants made him a national symbol of the divisive politics of immigration and earned him a criminal contempt conviction.” Trump’s pardon was issued in the shadow of Hurricane Harvey’s approach – a decision that “was not accidental” as The New York Times reports. The pardon has received bipartisan condemnation.
The ACLU announced its intention to sue the Trump administration over its recent decision to ban transgender Americans from serving in the military. Its announcement came just a day before Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis decided to press pause on the ban with regard to transgender military currently serving. Mattis promised to “convene a panel from the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security,” to figure out the best way to implement Trump’s ban.
Ahead of a second round of talks to renegotiate NAFTA, Mexican economy minister Ildefonso Guajardo said his country is preparing a ‘Plan B,’ in case the talks fall apart and President Trump decides to withdraw from the trade agreement, as he’s threatened to do three times in the past week.
On Tuesday Iranian president Hassan Rouhani “dismissed US demands for the UN’s nuclear watchdog to inspect Iran’s military site.” Rouhani’s dismissal was a response to US ambassador the UN Nikki Haley’s demands that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) “inspect military as well as nonmilitary sites in Iran, to check the country’s compliance with a deal that curbs Iran’s nuclear weapons program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.”
In a speech at a manufacturing plant in Missouri, Trump pitched his tax reform plan, offering very few concrete details amid promises to “unleash the American economy and help ordinary people.” As The New York Times reports, Trump could not offer much in the way of detail because a tax reform bill “has yet to be drafted despite months of private negotiations among members of the Trump administration and Republicans on Capitol Hill.”
As part of an effort by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to promote transparency, the Pentagon announced on Wednesday the existence of thousands more troops in Afghanistan than had previously been reported. The total number of troops right now is 11,000, up from the 8,400 last reported. On Thursday, at an impromptu news conference, Mattis also announced he’d signed orders to send more troops to Afghanistan, although he refused to say how many.
On Wednesday the FDA announced “the first approval of a cell-based gene therapy in the United States,” calling it an “historic action.” Kymriah, which “involves using genetically modified immune cells from patients to attack their cancer,” was approved to treat children and young adults up to 25 years old suffering from leukemia. CAR-T therapy, as Kymriah is also known, had an 83 percent remission rate during testing, but it’s expensive: Novartis, which developed the treatment, is setting the price at $475,000.
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