The Senate, in a bipartisan 66-32 vote on Monday evening, confirmed Mike Pompeo to be the next CIA director. Pompeo was in his fourth term in the House. The only Republican to vote against Pompeo was Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. The other 31 votes against Pompeo came from Democrats. As my colleague Russell Berman writes:
Pompeo’s harshest critic was Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, a privacy hawk who delivered a lengthy speech criticizing the Kansas Republican’s “enthusiasm” for broad surveillance programs and what he said were Pompeo’s shifting positions on torture and on Russia’s interference in the November election. Other Democrats had said they were satisfied with Pompeo’s assertion during his confirmation hearing that he would not restart the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques in violation of the law, even if Trump ordered him to do so.
Snapchat Filter Not Responsible for Distracted Driver Claim, Judge Rules
A lawsuit claiming Snapchat was to blame for a high-speed car crash was dismissed by a Georgia court Friday, citing the social media company’s immunity under the Communication’s Decency Act. The case was brought against Snapchat in April by Wentworth and Karen Maynard, who claimed the application’s “speed filter,” which shows how fast the phone is moving at the time the photo or video is taken, caused 18-year-old Christal McGee to crash into Wentworth Maynard’s car while driving at 107 miles per hour (171 kilometer per hour), leaving Maynard with severe brain damage. McGee, who was also sued by the Maynards, claimed she was “just trying to get the car to 100 miles per hour to post it on Snapchat.” In his ruling Friday, Spalding County State Court Judge Josh Thacker said the social media company was exempt from liability under the CDA’s immunity clause, which states that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Snapchat’s attorneys told the Associated Press Monday the ruling reaffirms the need for “responsible use of these technologies by the driver.”
The First Drone Strikes Under Trump Target Al-Qaeda in Yemen
The U.S. carried out several drone strikes in Yemen over the weekend targeting al-Qaeda leaders, marking the first drone strikes under the new Trump administration. The bombings hit the country’s southwestern Bayda province, and among the targets was Abu Anis al-Abi, a field commander with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. These strikes did not necessarily require Trump to sign off on them, because the Obama administration enabled the four-star commander of U.S. Central Command, General Joseph Votel, to oversee strikes. Drone strikes increased to unprecedented levels under Obama, much to the anger of human-rights groups, which decry their use because of the risk of collateral damage. On Thursday, U.S. intelligence officials released a report saying that under Obama as many as 117 civilians died in drone bombings. These numbers, however, are often viewed as extremely low by human rights groups.
Trump Signs Executive Order Withdrawing From the TPP
President Trump signed an executive order Monday to withdraw the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a longstanding campaign pledge. The TPP, a project initiated by the Obama administration, would have placed the U.S. and 11 Asia-Pacific countries in an unprecedented free-trade zone. Trump’s executive order pulls the U.S. out of that deal, an effort to refocus on putting “America first,” as the president repeated in his inauguration address Friday. The trade deal had been a tough sell for both major political parties, with former-President Obama struggling to convince even Democrats of its worth because it had been painted during the election campaign as detrimental to U.S. manufacturing. Until this election, trade deals had received mostly bipartisan support. Trump has also said he wants to renegotiation the NAFTA, which set up a free-trade zone from Mexico to Canada.
Trump Reinstates Mexico City Rule, Blocking U.S. Funding for Abortion Services Worldwide
President Trump, in one of his first acts since assuming office, reinstated Monday a policy blocking U.S. funding for health programs that provide abortions or related services overseas. Known commonly as the Mexico City policy or the “global gag rule,” the policy restricts foreign organizations receiving U.S. family-planning funding from conducting any abortion-related services, even if they are conducted with non-U.S. funds. Since it went into effect in 1984, the policy has routinely been enacted by Republican administrations and rescinded by Democratic ones. As my colleague Anna Diamond writes:
Now, the signing of the order is filled with symbolism. Always falling on or within days of the January 22nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, it’s become a way for the incoming president to signal to his party and supporters an initial commitment for or against abortion rights.
A Violent California Storm Destroys an Iconic Concrete Ship
A harsh storm hit the California coast this weekend and set surf records, with wave heights reaching nearly 35 feet in some places. They were particularly violent near Santa Cruz, about 80 miles south of San Francisco, where the storm wrecked a local icon, a historic World War I concrete ship called the S.S. Palo Alto. Then-President Woodrow Wilson ordered a fleet of concrete ships built in 1917, and while other ships had been made of this material, none had ever been made so large—420 feet long. The S.S. Palo Alto was one of 24 others built at the time, and it came to rest near Santa Cruz in 1930, where it connected to a pier and became a famous icon of the beach. The ship’s hull had been crumbling for some time, and over the decades it served as a home for the area’s wildlife, like sea lions, fish, and sea birds. In the mid-2000s, a leak in the ship’s tank spilled old oil into the waters and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife spent $1.7 million to clean up the fuel. This weekend’s storm sent waves crashing against the hull and split off the stern. It’s unclear what will be done with the crumbling remains.
What was once a solid structure, is now in 2 pieces. The S.S. Palo Alto's stern has taken enough beating and gave-in to Mother nature. pic.twitter.com/ljRytxwpf7
Syrian Government, Rebels Meet for Talks in Kazakhstan
Representatives of the Syrian government and rebel groups are meeting in Astana, the Kazakh capital, for the first time in more than a year for talks on ways to end the more than five-year-long civil war. Russian, Turkish, and Iranian officials are also attending; the three countries brokered a cease-fire between the fighting factions December 30. Bashar Ja’afari, Syria’s ambassador to the UN, and military officials are representing the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Mohammad Alloush of the Army of Islam is leading the rebel delegation. Talks are scheduled to continue until Tuesday.
The Trump Administration's War of Words With the Media
President Trump was inaugurated in Washington, D.C., Friday. A day later, a women’s march in the city, and others across the country and the world, vowed to oppose some of the Trump administration’s policies. Photographs from both events, coupled with crowd estimates, suggested more people turned out to the march in Washington than the inauguration. Trump and his aides apparently disagreed. At an appearance Saturday before the CIA, the president railed against the media, calling it “dishonest.” Later, Sean Spicer, the White House spokesman, repeated those claims, adding: “This was the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe”—a demonstrably false claim. On Sunday, Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s counselor, went on NBC’s Meet the Press, and countered the view Spicer was lying, adding “our press secretary gave alternative facts to that.” When Chuck Todd, the show’s host, asked Conway why Spicer had said something that was clearly not true, she replied: “If we're going to keep referring to the press secretary in those types of terms, I think we're going to have to rethink our relationship here.” Trump himself initially criticized Saturday’s protest march, saying on Twitter he “was under the impression that we just had an election! Why didn't these people vote?” He later tweeted out a more conciliatory message:
Peaceful protests are a hallmark of our democracy. Even if I don't always agree, I recognize the rights of people to express their views.
The Nest is a brilliantly cast thriller and one of the year’s best films.
In The Nest,a family moves into an English mansion in the countryside filled with opulent rooms, creaky staircases, and secret passages. The setup is familiar for a horror film: A happy couple buys a mysterious property and discovers, upon arrival, that something is terribly wrong with the house. The movie, directed by Sean Durkin, opens with appropriate portentousness, a discordant piano score clanging over the title card. But in this case, it’s not the house that’s the problem—it’s the family, and the greedy quest for status that first led them to this gargantuan manor.
The Nest is a long-awaited and brilliant follow-up from Durkin, who emerged in 2011 with his filmmaking debut, Martha Marcy May Marlene, but hadn’t directed a movie since. His first work also had the overtones of a horror film and the narrative meat of a serious family drama, exploring the fraught relationship between two sisters after one of them is freed from a Manson-family-like collective. Nothing in The Nest is quite as dramatic as a murderous cult, but the same sense of dread pervades the thriller, as Rory (played by Jude Law) and Allison O’Hara (Carrie Coon) see their relationship crumble under the financial burden of the colossal home they’ve bought.
This is why you can eat in a restaurant but can’t have Thanksgiving.
Two weeks ago, I staged a reluctant intervention via Instagram direct message. The subject was a longtime friend, Josh, who had been sharing photos of himself and his fiancé occasionally dining indoors at restaurants since New York City, where we both live, had reopened them in late September. At first, I hadn’t said anything. Preliminary research suggests that when people congregate indoors, an infected person is almost 20 times more likely to transmit the virus than if they were outside. But restaurants are open legally in New York, and I am not the COVID police. Josh and I had chatted several times in the early months of the pandemic about safety, and I felt sure that he was making an informed decision, even if it wasn’t the one I’d make.
These films, each unforgettable in its own way, are essential viewing.
The word unique has to be one of the most overused descriptors in show business; if every movie that got touted as one-of-a-kind by its marketing team actually was, there’d be no further complaints about Hollywood creativity. But every once in a while, I’ll have a cinematic experience that feels genuinely unprecedented, when a work plays with the medium and its modes of storytelling in ways I didn’t think possible. The 30 movies I’ve gathered below—all of which are available to watch online—are singular, whether they’re experimental documentaries, visionary works of animation, or labyrinthine epics. Each is unforgettable, and a reminder of cinema’s potential to flout narrative convention, subvert visual traditions, and find new ways to express timeless themes.
The question shouldn’t be whether the president can pardon himself but whether he can grant himself a pardon—and those are not the same thing.
As Donald Trump’s tenure in office comes in for its landing, a major question is whether the president—facing questions about liability for offenses including bank and tax fraud—can pardon himself.
This might seem like the right operational question, but it is imprecise as a constitutional one. Article II of the Constitution says that the president “shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.” Did you catch that? The president has the power not to pardon people, but “to grant … Pardons” (emphasis added). So the question is not whether Trump can pardon himself. It’s whether he can grant himself a pardon.
A historian believes he has discovered iron laws that predict the rise and fall of societies. He has bad news.
Peter Turchin, one of the world’s experts on pine beetles and possibly also on human beings, met me reluctantly this summer on the campus of the University of Connecticut at Storrs, where he teaches. Like many people during the pandemic, he preferred to limit his human contact. He also doubted whether human contact would have much value anyway, when his mathematical models could already tell me everything I needed to know.
But he had to leave his office sometime. (“One way you know I am Russian is that I cannot think sitting down,” he told me. “I have to go for a walk.”) Neither of us had seen much of anyone since the pandemic had closed the country several months before. The campus was quiet. “A week ago, it was even more like a neutron bomb hit,” Turchin said. Animals were timidly reclaiming the campus, he said: squirrels, woodchucks, deer, even an occasional red-tailed hawk. During our walk, groundskeepers and a few kids on skateboards were the only other representatives of the human population in sight.
Prenatal testing is changing who gets born and who doesn’t. This is just the beginning.
Photographs by Julia Sellmann
Every few weeks or so, Grete Fält-Hansen gets a call from a stranger asking a question for the first time: What is it like to raise a child with Down syndrome?
Sometimes the caller is a pregnant woman, deciding whether to have an abortion. Sometimes a husband and wife are on the line, the two of them in agonizing disagreement. Once, Fält-Hansen remembers, it was a couple who had waited for their prenatal screening to come back normal before announcing the pregnancy to friends and family. “We wanted to wait,” they’d told their loved ones, “because if it had Down syndrome, we would have had an abortion.” They called Fält-Hansen after their daughter was born—with slanted eyes, a flattened nose, and, most unmistakable, the extra copy of chromosome 21 that defines Down syndrome. They were afraid their friends and family would now think they didn’t love their daughter—so heavy are the moral judgments that accompany wanting or not wanting to bring a child with a disability into the world.
The minute we make any decision—I think COVID-19 is serious; no, I’m sure it is a hoax—we begin to justify the wisdom of our choice and find reasons to dismiss the alternative.
Members of Heaven’s Gate, a religious cult, believed that as the Hale-Bopp comet passed by Earth in 1997, a spaceship would be traveling in its wake—ready to take true believers aboard. Several members of the group bought an expensive, high-powered telescope so that they might get a clearer view of the comet. They quickly brought it back and asked for a refund. When the manager asked why, they complained that the telescope was defective, that it didn’t show the spaceship following the comet. A short time later, believing that they would be rescued once they had shed their “earthly containers” (their bodies), all 39 members killed themselves.
Heaven’s Gate followers had a tragically misguided conviction, but it is an example, albeit extreme, of cognitive dissonance, the motivational mechanism that underlies the reluctance to admit mistakes or accept scientific findings—even when those findings can save our lives. This dynamic is playing out during the pandemic among the many people who refuse to wear masks or practice social distancing. Human beings are deeply unwilling to change their minds. And when the facts clash with their preexisting convictions, some people would sooner jeopardize their health and everyone else’s than accept new information or admit to being wrong.
The ads are everywhere. You can learn to serve like Serena Williams or write like Margaret Atwood. But what MasterClass really delivers is something altogether different.
Image above, clockwise from top left: MasterClass instructors Serena Williams (who teaches tennis on the platform); Natalie Portman (acting); Gordon Ramsay (cooking); Malcolm Gladwell (writing)
Sometimes an advertisement is so perfectly tailored to a cultural moment that it casts that moment into stark relief, which is how I felt upon first seeing an ad for the mega-best-selling writer James Patterson’s course on MasterClass a few years ago. In the ad, Patterson is sitting at a table, reciting a twisty opening line in voice-over. Then an overhead shot of him gazing out a window, lost in thought like a character in a movie. A title card appears: “Imagine taking a writing class from a master.” It didn’t matter that I’d never read a book by Patterson before—I was hooked. What appealed to me was not whatever actionable thriller-writing tips I might glean, but rather the promise of his story, the story of how a writer becomes a mogul. Any hapless, hand-to-mouth mid-lister can provide instructions on outlining a novel. MasterClass dangled something else, a clear-cut path out of the precariat, the magic-bean shortcut to a fairy-tale ending—the secret to ever-elusive success.
More people than ever are hospitalized with COVID-19. Health-care workers can’t go on like this.
On Saturday morning, Megan Ranney was about to put on her scrubs when she heard that Joe Biden had won the presidential election. That day, she treated people with COVID-19 while street parties erupted around the country. She was still in the ER in the late evening when Biden and Vice President–elect Kamala Harris made their victory speeches. These days, her shifts at Rhode Island Hospital are long, and they “are not going to change in the next 73 days,” before Biden becomes president, she told me on Monday. Every time Ranney returns to the hospital, there are more COVID-19 patients.
The U.S. entered the coronavirus recession with a few structural advantages. Its success may not last for long.
Here is a remarkable, underappreciated fact: The U.S. economy has performed far better than that of many of the country’s peers during this horrible year. The International Monetary Fund expects the U.S. economy to contract by 4.4 percent in 2020, versus 5.3 percent in Japan, 6 percent in Germany, 7.1 percent in Canada, and nearly 10 percent in both the United Kingdom and France.
This fact is not a result of the United States managing its public-health response better than those countries, allowing it to reopen from lockdown sooner and for consumption to roar back. Indeed, many of those peer nations have had significantly better outcomes, as measured by COVID-19 caseloads, hospitalizations, and death rates. Nor is it a result of the U.S. preserving more jobs. The unemployment rate here is far higher here than it is in Japan, Germany, or the U.K.