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.
After growing up in a family that never lied, I spent decades being off-puttingly truthful.
When I was a child, my dad invented a game that I loved. Wherever we went, he’d predict what strangers were about to say or do. We’d walk into a store and he’d point at the salesman and say something like, “Watch this. When I tell him how much I’m willing to spend, he’ll immediately show me something more expensive.” The salesman did exactly as Dad had prophesized. When Dad took me to my first concert, he told me the musician would ask the audience how they were feeling tonight and, when everyone cheered wildly, would respond, “I can’t hear you!” It wasn’t long before the musician spoke those exact words.
It felt like magic, like Dad was telling the future or reading minds, so I asked how he did it. Most people follow a script, he said. I asked him why and I remember him replying, “Because they’re afraid that if they say what they really feel, people won’t like them. And they’d rather be liked than be honest.” I knew then that I wanted to be honest, regardless of the consequences. I stuck to that for the next 25 years. And there were consequences.
A devastating incident in Afghanistan shows the perils of relying on Special Operations alone to fight the nation’s battles.
Both the Trump and Obama administrations relied heavily on highly trained Special Forces units to keep Afghanistan from collapse. The strategy has kept recent episodes of the 21-year Afghan War out of the public eye, but it is failing to stabilize the country and is straining the United States military’s elite troops, who serve back-to-back combat tours without an end in sight and disproportionately give their lives in service of a war the public knows almost nothing about.
When Kunduz, a major city in northern Afghanistan, fell to the Taliban in 2015, U.S. Special Forces were dispatched on a secret mission to help Afghan commandos recapture it. Under-resourced and unprepared, the soldiers found themselves in the midst of a pitched battle with conflicting orders. The story of how it led to one of the U.S. military’s worst disasters in Afghanistan shows the perils of relying on Special Operations alone to fight the nation’s wars.
Israel has vaccinated six times more of its population than the United States. Can others learn from its success?
One nation has already provided more than a quarter of its people with at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, outpacing every other country in the world and more than sextupling the percentage in the United States. During one recent three-day period, in fact, it administered a dose of the vaccine to a higher percentage of its population than the U.S. has altogether. Nearly three-fourths of those over age 60 have gotten their first shot. And most of the population could be vaccinated by the end of March, which would be earlier than any nation except, perhaps, tiny Palau and the Vatican. The government is now preparing “passports” for the twice-jabbed that will exempt them from quarantines.
It’s the kind of standout success one would expect from the now-familiar stars of the global response to COVID-19—Taiwan, South Korea, or New Zealand. But it’s actually been achieved by Israel, in several respects a surprising country to be the world’s front-runner on vaccine distribution. A 2019 Johns Hopkins study ranked Israel an unspectacular 54th among 195 countries in terms of preparedness for a pandemic. After initially appearing to vanquish the coronavirus, Israel has since suffered some of the world’s worst outbreaks—something that remains true as it celebrates its vaccine advances. And during a pandemic in which public trust in government has emerged as arguably the most consistent ingredient across countries for success in combatting the virus, public confidence in Israel’s political leaders is dismally low. The Israeli government currently has the distinction of being one of the most unstable in the democratic world.
A new study proves that half of people are correct. The other is also correct.
This is a time of much division. Families and communities are splintered by polarizing narratives. Outrage surrounds geopolitical discourse—so much so that anxiety often becomes a sort of white noise, making it increasingly difficult to trigger intense, acute anger. The effect can be desensitizing, like driving 60 miles per hour and losing hold of the reality that a minor error could result in instant death.
One thing that apparently still has the power to infuriate people, though, is how many spaces should be used after a period at the end of an English sentence.
The war is alive again of late because a study that came out this month from Skidmore College. The study is, somehow, the first to look specifically at this question. It is titled: “Are Two Spaces Better Than One? The Effect of Spacing Following Periods and Commas During Reading.”
The uncertain meaning behind a half-black, half-white, two-headed toy: An Object Lesson
The doll is two-headed and two-bodied—one black body and one white, conjoined at the lower waist where the hips and legs would ordinarily be. The lining of one's dress is the outside of the other’s, so that the skirt flips over to conceal one body when the other is upright. Two dolls in one, yet only one can be played with at a time.
The topsy-turvy doll, as it’s known, most likely originated in American plantation nurseries of the early 19th century. By the mid-20th century, they’d grown so popular that they were mass-manufactured and widely available in department stores across the country, but today, they’re found mostly in museums, privatecollections, and contemporaryart. In recent years, the dolls have seen a renewed interest from collectors and scholars alike, largely motivated by the ongoing question that surrounds their use: What were they supposed to symbolize?
Quarantine is turning you into a stiff, hunched-over, itchy, sore, headachy husk.
The first time my hips locked up, the reason was at least a little bit glamorous. It was 2018, and I was returning from vacation in Sicily, which was the fanciest thing I’d ever done by several orders of magnitude. As I went through the motions—and, perhaps more important, the lack of motion—of international flight, my gait began to stiffen, and my stride contracted to a fraction of its former self. My body, settling into its mid-30s, rebelled against the hours spent in airplane seats, the nights in unfamiliar beds, the constant, awkward physicality of travel.
The same thing happened a few more times over the next year and a half, always after long-haul flights. I began to think of it as “airplane hip,” and the condition was annoying but temporary; I don’t spend much time on planes, and a yoga move called “pigeon pose” would stretch my stiff waddle back into a walk in a day or two. Usually, the discomfort was worth it—a small musculoskeletal price to pay for the occasional privilege of seeing parts of the world still new to me.
“You can understand the predator wanting to be near the prey, but not really the other way around.”
To watch a bald eagle raid a nesting colony of great blue herons is a gut-churning experience. “The herons have a progression of alarms,” explains Ross Vennesland, a researcher with Environment and Climate Change Canada. “They start with a chortle, and quickly move to really hideous screaming as the eagle swoops in and lands on the nest.” The adult herons are usually forced to flee, while the eagle cracks open an egg or flies away with a chick. “It’s a pretty horrible scene to witness,” he says.
You’d think the herons would want to build their nests as far away from bald eagles as possible. But you’d be dead wrong. Research on the southwest coast of British Columbia shows that herons are deliberately seeking out nesting pairs of eagles—and building right next to them.
The handover of power was a solemn affair. There was no mistaking the new administration for the old one.
At dawn this morning, workers loaded couches and tables into a moving truck parked outside the West Wing. Men wearing white coveralls and carrying roller brushes and paint cans walked across the north driveway. Inside the White House, pictures of the 45th president had been removed from the walls. Only the hooks remained, ready for a new set of portraits of the 46th.
A lone Donald Trump press deputy, Judd Deere, sat in his small office, writing a note on a piece of stationery to whoever would be taking over his desk in a few hours. Deere was attempting to describe what it’s like to work in the building. When I looked in at noon, after the Trump presidency had officially ended, he was gone, his desk cleared. Even the magazine racks hanging on the wall had been emptied.
History suggests that Joe Biden and the Democrats are going to have a tough two years and a disaster in the midterms. Here’s their plan to avoid that.
Joe Biden’s team is planning a party. His inauguration on Wednesday, held under threat from the coronavirus and pro-Trump extremists, wasn’t much of a celebration. But the Biden administration hopes that January 20, 2022—a year from now—will mark what some aides are describing as a “renewing of the vows,” an anniversary that could be a genuinely happy moment.
By then, Biden hopes, he will have made Americans feel like they’ve put the horrors of 2020 behind them. More than anything, that depends on whether he can dig the country out from the COVID-19 crisis. Vaccine distribution and economic recovery will be key.
Basic competence of government could go a long way: Imagine the political boost Biden could earn when people start going to the movies again, or children start seeing their grandparents. Biden is already planning to push ahead on an additional $1,400 in relief checks (a disappointment to those who wanted another $2,000) and a $15-an-hour minimum wage—both part of a $2 trillion relief package. He’s also planning an infrastructure bill that would create new green jobs, and include other measures to help fight climate change.
The best shows of the 45th presidency captured the essence of an unprecedented leader by seeing past his act.
Late last year, at the end of my parental leave, I finally caught up with The Comey Rule, Showtime’s stolid adaptation of former FBI Director James Comey’s memoir about—among other things—being fired by Donald Trump. A cluster of TV stars play the civil servants elevated by the MAGA internet into almost mythological characters: Jeff Daniels as Comey, Holly Hunter as Sally Yates, Steven Pasquale and Oona Chaplin as the text-crossed lovers Peter Strzok and Lisa Page. But the real draw is Brendan Gleeson playing Trump. The Irish actor gives a fantastic performance that dances between impersonation and interpretation: Physically, Gleeson has the lunatic bronzer, the grimace, the sagging tie. More crucially, he captures the former president’s pettiness and malice in a way that communicates how dangerous those qualities can be, in tandem and totally unchecked. Gleeson’s Trump seethes and crawls around the White House like a swamp creature in a Brioni suit. It’s one of the most striking TV performances of the past four years. And I watched it and felt nothing at all.