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House Democrats praise new North American trade deal amid impeachment

28 0 10 Dec 2019

WASHINGTON — Democratic leaders on Tuesday praised a new trade deal to replace the decades-old North American Free Trade Agreement, which President Donald Trump and Democrats had frequently criticized.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., appeared poised to move forward with the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA) less than an hour after Democratic leaders, including Pelosi, Neal, and House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., unveiled two articles of impeachment against the president accusing him of high crimes and misdemeanors.

“There is no question of course that this trade agreement is much better than NAFTA but in terms of our work here it is infinitely better than what was initially proposed by the administration,” Pelosi said. “It’s a victory for America’s workers, it’s one that we take great pride in advancing.”

Getting the deal approved by Congress has been a top legislative priority for Trump, who pushed Democrats to sign off on it before the end of the year. Successful passage would give Trump a win ahead of his 2020 re-election bid and allow him to declare victory on a signature campaign promise to repeal the trade deal he railed against.

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“It will be the best and most important trade deal ever made by the USA,” he tweeted before the Democrats’ news conference.

Democrats, who wanted tougher enforcement of labor rules included in the deal, could use the trade pact to show they can legislate even amid impeachment proceedings.

Pelosi and administration officials have been going back and forth for weeks over changes Democratic lawmakers wanted to the language reached by representatives from the three countries.

The AFL-CIO announced its support of the USMCA Tuesday, a key endorsement for Democrats.

“For the first time, there truly will be enforceable labor standards — including a process that allows for the inspections of factories and facilities that are not living up to their obligations,” the union’s president, Richard Trumka, said in a statement.

Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross complained Tuesday morning that Democrats have held up the process to appease Trumka.

“The remarkable thing is that it took so long to make such small changes insisted on by the Democrats,” he said on Fox Business Network on Tuesday.

Shannon Pettypiece reported from Washington, and Jane C. Timm reported from New York.

American couple on honeymoon in New Zealand severely burned in volcano eruption

23 0 10 Dec 2019

A man and woman from Virginia who were honeymooning in New Zealand are among those severely injured in a volcano eruption there on Monday.

Six people are confirmed dead and another eight who are missing are presumed dead following the eruption on Whakaari White Island that sent an ash plume thousands of feet in the air, authorities said.

Matthew and Lauren Urey, of Richmond, Virginia, were among 47 visitors believed to have been on the island at the time of the explosion, nine of them Americans.

Both the husband and wife, who married in October, were badly burned, Lauren’s father Rick Barham told NBC News.

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Lauren was taken to a hospital in Auckland, the country’s largest city, where she is undergoing treatment for severe burns on 25 percent of her body, Barham said. Matthew was taken to Christchurch, where he was in intensive care as of Monday afternoon with burns on 80 percent of his body.

“It’s been a total nightmare,” Barham told NBC News via Facebook Messenger, adding that he is trying to get a visa to fly to New Zealand.

Matthew and Lauren Urey, who were among one of the injured after the volcano erupted in White Island, New Zealand.

“We are being told it could take 10 minutes to 72 hours,” for travel papers to be processed, Barham said, adding that he feels largely in the dark about the couple’s condition. “We have gotten no help from anyone.”

Janet Urey, Matthew’s mother, told NBC News she learned of the her son and daughter-in-law’s injuries from a voicemail Matthew left her.

“I didn’t even listen to the full message … I quickly called him back,” Urey said. She said Matthew’s hands were severely burned, which made it difficult for him to use the phone.

Police have not released the identities of the victims of the explosion on the private island 30 miles off the northeast New Zealand coast. NBC News has confirmed that among the dead is tour guide Hayden Marshall-Inman, named by his brother on social media.

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Thirty patients are being treated at seven hospitals, and the country’s burn units were full to capacity, according to the country’s Ministry of Health.

“To those who have lost or missing family and friends, we share in your grief and sorrow and we are devastated,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said.

Articles of impeachment against Trump: Live updates and the latest news

22 0 10 Dec 2019

Nadler: ‘No one is above the law’

 

‘A disgusting partisan low’: Trump’s 2020 campaign spokeswoman

 

‘High crimes and misdemeanors’

Starting at 9:09 a.m. Chairman Nadler, describing them as “high crimes and misdemeanors,” announced that the House Judiciary Committee will be introducing two articles of impeachment charging President Trump with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. 

Read the full story here

The view from the White House

When asked how the White House plans to respond to today’s 9 a.m. press conference when House Democrats unveil articles of impeachment against President Trump, a senior administration official tells NBC News:

“White House officials will, of course, be monitoring the announcement scheduled for 9 a.m., and decide next steps. It’s safe to assume the president will give his own full-throated reaction at his rally tonight.”

The president has a rally in Hershey, Pennsylvania tonight. He departs the White House at 5 p.m. ET — but keep in mind the weather looks bleak in Washington, so he may not depart from the South Lawn (and thus won’t have the opportunity to answer questions.) 

The president is also meeting with the Russian Foreign Minister today before he departs, but that is closed press. 

Trump is already up and tweeting: “To Impeach a President who has proven through results, including producing perhaps the strongest economy in our country’s history, to have one of the most successful presidencies ever, and most importantly, who has done NOTHING wrong, is sheer Political Madness! #2020Election”

White House officials also tell NBC News, they are largely focused on preparing for a likely Senate trial, where they are already planning more participation and representation.

A second official says the White House — like the rest of the world — still doesn’t know if House Democrats will include information related to the Mueller investigation. They will be watching closely for that.

This second official acknowledges the “irony” that House Democrats will introduce articles of impeachment on the same day they — potentially — plan to hand the president a huge legislative victory by announcing a deal on USMCA.

This official said they are “pretty optimistic” USMCA will be announced this afternoon but also acknowledge it is not finalized until it is finalized.

Sources here indicate the will let House Speaker Nancy Pelosi take the lead in announcing any deal on USMCA.

Abuse of power and obstruction of Congress

Five people familiar with the discussions tell NBC News tonight that House Democrats have settled on bringing two articles of impeachment against President Trump: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

The intent to bring those two articles, they caution, is not final until an official announcement is made. 

These sources spoke after Democratic members of House judiciary met this evening. Speaker Pelosi also met this evening with Rep. Engel, per Alex Moe’s note moments ago.

Two sources familiar tell NBC News that judiciary Democrats will meet again tomorrow at 8 a.m. to continue discussions and will address the media at 9 a.m.

Read the full article here

Analysis: The GOP’s bottom-line impeachment defense: Get over it

WASHINGTON — The impeachment of President Donald Trump boiled down to a reality test Monday as the Judiciary Committee moved a step closer to drafting articles formally charging the president.

Trump’s fellow Republicans mounted a vigorous defense that held — all at once — he didn’t do it, nothing he did was wrong and that they will impeach his rival for doing the same thing (even if it’s not really the same thing) if the president eventually loses to that rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.

“We already we got the forms — all we have to do is eliminate Donald Trump’s name and put Joe Biden’s name,” Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, said during a raucous and unusual Judiciary hearing in which lawyers for that panel and the House Intelligence Committee testified as witnesses.

Democrats argued Trump presents a clear threat to American democracy because he is directing an ongoing campaign to force a foreign nation to help him destroy his leading rival in the upcoming 2020 elections.

The risk is so imminent, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., said, that Trump personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani’s recent trip to Ukraine is part of a “pattern of conduct” that “represents a continuing risk to the country.”

And yet, in a stirring moment toward the end of the hearing, it was Republican staff lawyer Steve Castor — a man who held firm for nine-plus hours as the president’s champion — who quietly acknowledged that, at best, Trump had been pursuing a “good faith” belief in what amounts to a Russian disinformation campaign to frame Ukraine for interfering in the 2016 election.

Ultimately, most Republicans said they saw no evil and heard no evil — except when it came to Biden, who has been the leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination since announcing his bid in April and who by dint of his status as a private citizen is not susceptible to impeachment.

For the full analysis click here

Articles of impeachment to be announced Tuesday morning

A senior Democratic aide confirms to NBC News that Democrats will announce articles of impeachment Tuesday morning.

House Foreign Affairs Chair Eliot Engel left a meeting earlier in Speaker Pelosi’s office and said there will be an announcement Tuesday morning on impeachment with the relevant committee chairs.

Asked if this announcement would be about articles of impeachment, Engel said, “Yeah, everything.”

Read the article here

In closing statements in Judiciary hearing, Nadler says ‘facts are clear,’ Collins laments ‘impeachment scam’

After a more than 9-hour hearing, which included fiery exchanges between witnesses and members, bickering between both sides over procedure and bathroom breaks, Democrats and Republicans made their closing arguments in the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. 

Chairman Nadler argued that Trump violated his oath of office when he pressured Ukraine to announce an investigation into former vice president Joe Biden and Democrats. Nadler, D-N.Y., argued Trump clearly put “his own interest before the country” and jeopardized national security and the integrity of American elections in the process by hinging a White House meeting and nearly $400 million in critical military aid on a vulnerable ally to open the investigations.

 

“The facts are clear, the danger to our democracy is clear and our duty is clear,” Nadler said. “President Trump violated his oath to the American people.”

Nadler also excoriated Republicans for their conduct during the hearing.

“I am struck by the fact that my Republican colleagues have offered no serious scrutiny of the evidence at hand,” he said. “They have talked about everything else, but they have offered not one substantive word in the president’s defense.”

Ranking member Collins summed up the Republican case against impeachment, shifting away from the president’s own conduct and arguing against the process and questioning their motives. He called it an “impeachment scam” and said that Democrats have eroded the institutional integrity of Congress by going forward with the inquiry.

“We have become a rubber stamp,” he said. 

 

He claims that the Democrats hamstrung the process and is conducting a “smear job” against the president, which is a long-standing vendetta stemming from Democrats losing the 2016 election. Collins also said Democrats are using the “same playbook” from the Russia investigation. 

“We’re seeing the problems with the Russia investigation play out again in front of our eyes,” he said. 

Castor falsely claims that administration has cooperated with oversight investigations

As part of an exchange with Berke, Castor was asked if it was true that he had previously said that the Trump administration has cooperated and facilitated oversight investigations by Congress.

“Absolutely,” he said. “The Trump administration has participated in oversight during the entire Congress until it got to the impeachment inquiry.” 

Before the impeachment inquiry, however, the administration has blocked numerous information requests by Democrats in Congress and has ordered current and former officials to defy congressional subpoenas that requested testimony or certain records. 

Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, for example, defied congressional subpoenas that related to the development of the citizenship question for the 2020 Census. Earlier, this year, the White House blocked Trump adviser Stephen Miller from testifying before a House committee on the administration’s immigration policies. 

The administration has blocked the House from obtaining his tax returns and now the case involving the president’s financial records from his accounting firm, sought by several House committees, has reached the Supreme Court. 

Republicans says Democrats ‘wrong’ to have witnesses ask questions

As Democratic counsel Barry Berke questioned Castor about whether Trump viewed Biden as his top political opponent in 2020, Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, expressed exasperation that Democrats were allowing Berke to ask questions after he had delivered an opening statement earlier in the hearing. 

“We’re going to ignore the rules and allow witnesses to ask the questions? Then how many other rules are you just gonna disregard?” Gohmert said. 

Gohmert said it’s “not appropriate” for Berke to question Castor after Berke himself appeared as a witness.

“It’s just wrong,” Gohmert said. “There is no rule nor precedent for anybody to be a witness and then getting to come up and question” other witnesses.

Gohmert and other GOP lawmakers attempted to raise a point of order, suggesting that Democrats were violating House rules. 

Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., said, “It’s unprecedented for a person to come” and sit as a witness “and then return to question.” 

Nadler, however, said that he had designated Berke to question the staff counsels of the House Intelligence Committee, which he said was in accordance with the rules of the House, specifically rule 660.

Kellyanne Conway elaborates on why Trump is skipping the impeachment hearings

Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Trump, said Monday that the decision by him and the White House not to participate in the House impeachment hearings has nothing to do with cooperating with Congress.

NBC News’ Kristin Welker asked Conway if there’s any chance the White House will cooperate or if it plans to stick to its position of rejecting Democrats’ invitation to get involved with the process. 

“It’s not about cooperation. It’s about colluding with an illegitimate process,” Conway said at a White House stakeout with reporters.

A reporter then pointed out that the White House has been defending Trump on social media and asked Conway why officials won’t do that in the hearing room. 

“Why would we legitimize this process that the American people can’t even follow, aren’t digesting? The polls are going in the opposite way, [and] it’s forced the Democrats to [hold] focus groups [on] terms and phrases.”

Conway added, “Does anybody here think it’s a bad idea to investigate Burisma? Really?”

This years Atlantic hurricane season was worse than normal, but it wasnt nearly as destructive as much of the last 10 years

26 0 10 Dec 2019

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Harvey, in particular, caused extensive flooding after the storm grew sluggish and stalled over southeast Texas, inundating Houston and the surrounding area with rain. Hurricane Dorian was also notable for how slow it moved, it averaged 1.3 mph over the Bahamas and was stationary for consecutive hours. The storm’s eyewall, where winds are fastest and weather most severe, battered the Grand Bahama island for 40 hours straight.

Francis said some evidence suggests slow-moving storms could become more common in the future, especially as the warming climate alters the atmospheric conditions that move storms around.

“The steering currents in the upper atmosphere are tending to move slower,” Francis said. “It’s related to the fact that the jet stream, which is really what steers storms, has been weakening, especially in the summer and fall.”

But David Nolan, a professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Miami, said slow-moving hurricanes are not altogether unusual, and when these storms stop and churn over a populated area — as was the case with Dorian — it can be just a matter of bad luck.

Nolan said he agreed that global warming is driving increased rainfall but added that it has been harder to draw links between hurricanes and other effects of climate change.

For instance, it has been suggested that global warming could strengthen storms by making the strongest hurricanes even more intense. But so far, Nolan said, there has been no evidence that such a trend exists.

“You can look at temperature records around the world and see that there’s global warming, or look at sea level records and see that they are definitely increasing, but we just haven’t seen that kind of signal yet in hurricanes,” he said.

The hurricane data problem

Part of the problem is that there isn’t enough data. Category 5 storms — the strongest types of hurricanes, with sustained wind speeds of at least 157 mph — are relatively rare. Only 36 storms have reached Category 5 strength in the Atlantic basin since record keeping began in 1851.

“It would be awesome if we had 500 years of good hurricane data, but unfortunately we don’t,” Klotzbach said.

In the past four years, at least one Category 5 hurricane has formed each season, including two in both 2017 and 2019, according to NOAA data. Still, it’s not known if global warming plays a role in intensifying these storms, Klotzbach said.

Records also indicate that climate change has not affected how many tropical cyclones form each season in the Atlantic Ocean. But, one area that has garnered significant interest is whether climate change drives some storms to grow in strength faster.

A 2019 paper published in the journal Nature Communications that used computer simulations and climate models to study the formation and evolution of tropical cyclones from 1982 to 2009 found that climate change likely plays a role in what’s known as rapid intensification, when a storm’s wind speed increases by at least 35 mph in 24 hours.

This can be attributed to warmer ocean temperatures, which is providing some of the fuel needed for tropical cyclones to develop, according to Kieren Bhatia, one of the authors of the 2019 paper, who conducted the research as a postdoctoral associate at Princeton University.

Over the decade that started in 2010, several hurricanes such as Dorian in 2019 and Harvey and Maria in 2017 underwent rapid intensification. Dorian in particular saw its peak winds increase from 150 mph to 185 mph in the span of only nine hours.

But one of the biggest challenges is knowing which ingredients are most crucial to supercharge hurricanes, and how climate change alters this complex interplay.

“It’s like a recipe,” Bhatia said. “You definitely need flour when you’re making a cake, but there’s also eggs and sugar and other ingredients, and a cake is not going to come out without those things. With hurricanes, just changing sea surface temperature is not enough.”

For all the unknowns, Klotzbach, the Colorado State University scientist, said there’s already plenty of cause for concern.

“Everyone wants to tie things to what’s really dramatic, but unfortunately with these topics, the links are more challenging to pin down,” he said. “But there are things we have confidence in. Even if a hurricane isn’t going to be stronger but it brings 20 percent more rainfall, that would be really bad. Even if hurricanes don’t change at all, but sea levels continue to get higher and higher, that will mean more water penetrating inland.

“And even if you think climate change is a hoax, hurricanes are going to do more damage because we’ve built up coastlines and so there are more people in harm’s way.”

Short storms in 2019

2019 set a record for the number of storms that lasted a day or less, Klotzbach said. In all, half of 2019’s storms lasted fewer than three days.

“For the continental U.S., the most damaging storm was a weak, short-lived tropical storm that caused a tremendous amount of damage,” Klotzbach said. “[Tropical Storm Imelda] was named 90 minutes before it made landfall, so it was right on the border of not having a name, and yet it still caused all that damage.”

Many of the storms in 2019 formed in the Gulf of Mexico. Storms that form there are more likely to make landfall and more likely to die fast, Bell, the NOAA meteorologist, said.

The IG report shows the way the FBI gets warrants to spy on Americans is a mess

19 0 10 Dec 2019

WASHINGTON — Given the unsupported claims President Trump has made for two years about the FBI’s Russia investigation — calling it a witch hunt cooked up by his political opponents — the conclusion by the Justice Department watchdog that the probe was justified was big news.

But the inspector general report’s other major findings — that there were serious problems with the way the FBI obtained a secret national security warrant to spy on a Trump campaign aide — were also noteworthy, if somewhat overshadowed by the bigger headlines.

For years, civil liberties activists have been warning that the process for obtaining secret warrants to spy on Americans under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was dangerously flawed, in part because it is one-sided. The government tells judges behind closed doors why the spying is justified, and there is nobody in the room representing the target to question that evidence.

Carter Page arrives at the courthouse on the same day as a hearing regarding Michael Cohen at the United States District Court Southern District of New York, April 16, 2018 in New York City.Drew Angerer / Getty Images file

In response, defenders of the process have said: That’s exactly why the FBI and Justice Department are extraordinarily careful and meticulous in how they present evidence to the FISA court, which is no rubber stamp.

The report by Inspector General Michael Horowitz severely undercuts that assertion, at least when it comes to the FBI’s applications for surveillance of Carter Page, a Trump foreign policy adviser who was never charged with a crime.

The report found an FBI process so badly managed, so rife with errors, that the FBI director immediately issued a statement saying he was already implementing reforms.

Some FBI personnel “did not comply with existing policies, neglected to exercise appropriate diligence, or otherwise failed to meet the standard of conduct that the FBI expects of its employees — and that our country expects of the FBI,” Director Christopher Wray said in a statement. “We are vested with significant authorities, and it is our obligation as public servants to ensure that these authorities are exercised with objectivity and integrity. Anything less falls short of the FBI’s duty to the American people.”

Because the criticism of the FBI was politically beneficial to Trump, Democrats who are normally quick to seize on abuses of national security power were notably muted. One group that was not was the non-partisan American Civil Liberties Union, whose national security director, Hina Shamsi, expressed alarm.

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“When the Justice Department’s Inspector General finds significant concerns regarding flawed surveillance applications concerning the president’s campaign advisers, it is clear that this regime lacks basic safeguards and is in need of serious reform,” she said in a statement. “While the report found that there wasn’t an improper purpose or initiation of the investigation, it also found significant problems that are alarming from a civil liberties perspective.”

The flawed process outlined in the report, she said, “demonstrates how the secrecy shrouding the government’s one-sided FISA approval process breeds abuse. The concerns the inspector general identifies apply to intrusive investigations of others, including especially Muslims, and far better safeguards against abuse are necessary.”

“The system requires fundamental reforms, and Congress can start by providing defendants subjected to FISA surveillance the opportunity to review the government’s secret submissions. The FBI must also adopt higher standards for investigations involving constitutionally protected sensitive activities, such as political campaigns.”

The IG report found 17 significant errors or omissions in four applications for surveillance on Page, which, in the end, was portrayed as yielding little relevant information.

“We concluded that the failures…represent serious performance failures by the supervisory and non-supervisory agents with responsibility over the FISA applications,” the report says. “These failures prevented (the Justice Department) from fully performing its gatekeeper function and deprived the decision makers the opportunity to make fully informed decisions. Although some of the factual misstatements and omissions we found in this review were arguably more significant than others, we believe that all of them taken together resulted in FISA applications that made it appear that the information supporting probable cause was stronger than was actually the case.”

In the most serious case, a low-level FBI lawyer altered an email to make it seem as if Page was not a CIA source, when in fact he was — something he confirmed to NBC News in an email Monday. That key fact might have cast his contacts with Russians in a different light, the IG found.

The IG report said the FBI relied heavily on a dossier compiled as part of a Democratic-funded opposition research campaign by a former British spy, Christopher Steele, while failing to inform the court that questions had arisen about Steele’s credibility.

For example, an FBI source validation review found that Steele, who had worked with the bureau in the past, provided information that was only “minimally corroborated.” But the FBI didn’t tell that to the FISA court, the report says.

The FBI interviewed one of the sources who made claims about Page in the Steele dossier. The source contradicted some of what Steele had written — but the FBI didn’t tell that to the court.

That same source said Steele overstated the level of certainty around the infamous story about Trump’s supposed sexual dalliance at the Ritz Carlton hotel in Moscow. The source called it unconfirmed rumor and speculation.

The report said responsibility for the failures extends high up the FBI’s management chain.

“That so many basic and fundamental errors were made by three separate, handpicked teams on one of the most sensitive FBI investigations that was briefed to the highest levels within the FBI, and that FBI officials expected would eventually be subjected to close scrutiny, raised significant questions regarding the FBI chain of command’s management and supervision of the FISA process.”

Wray said some FBI employees could be disciplined. He said the bureau is “making concrete changes to ensure that our FISA protocols, verifications, layers of review, record-keeping requirements, and audits are more stringent and less susceptible to mistake or inaccuracy,” adding, “These new processes will also ensure that the FISA Court and the Department of Justice (DOJ) are apprised of all information in the FBI’s holdings relevant to a determination of probable cause.”

Wray is also changing the rules on who has to approve sensitive investigations such as those into political campaigns, he said, and on how the bureau handles confidential sources.

The FBI director for much of the period in question, James Comey, focused his public comments mainly on the IG’s debunking of Trump conspiracy theories, some of which were aimed at him.

He said little about what the IG portrayed as a significant failure on his watch.

“The report found lots of mistakes — that’s really significant and really unfortunate,” Comey said on MSNBC. “But that’s why you do IG reports.”

U.K. heads into pivotal Brexit elections: Whos who and why does it matter?

20 0 10 Dec 2019

LONDON — The final hours of campaigning have begun ahead of Thursday’s election, which is being called the most fractious vote in the United Kingdom’s recent history with the outcome of Brexit still in the balance. This, the 19th general election of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, could turn out to be the most important.

Why does it matter?

While Labour, the main opposition party, and others have been keen to emphasize domestic issues such as public health service, school funding and poor transport links outside of London, this will still be remembered as the Brexit election. The split between leave and remain voters represents a cultural fault line in British society — with anger and dissatisfaction with politics expressed in the 2016 vote spilling over into this election.

“The Brexit referendum was a moment of real change in British politics but it didn’t come out of nowhere,” Simon Usherwood, a professor of politics at the University of Surrey, said.

“It’s about the difference between the people who feel the system has worked for them, who have benefited from economic modernization and globalization, and those people who haven’t,” he added. “We keep on using the term in the U.K. the ‘left behind’ — Brexit was an opportunity for them to voice their discontent, their disconnection from the system.”

There are fears that campaigns for Brexit, many of which drew on discontent with mass migration to the U.K., unleashed dangerous forces in the country. In fact, there was a 41 percent spike in hate crimes, according to government statistics, in the month following the Brexit vote.

Thursday’s election — the third in four years — was called by Parliament because Prime Minister Boris Johnson failed to get his Brexit deal through the House of Commons. Johnson secured the divorce deal with the remaining 27 European Union states in October, but U.K. lawmakers get the final say and a majority voted against it.

The U.K. has now missed three deadlines to leave the E.U. — missing its fourth Jan. 31, even with a solid win Thursday, could well spell the end of Johnson’s premiership.

Who’s in power?

Polls have consistently showed Boris Johnson’s ruling Conservative Party with a lead against left-wing Labour, which would allow him to form the next government and fulfil his main campaign promise to “get Brexit done.”

The Conservatives, known as the Tories, have been in power since 2010. Traditionally, the party represents the interests of business, favors a small welfare state and likes to offer tax cuts to aspiring middle-class voters. Under Johnson, the party has partly abandoning the stringent fiscal rules in an attempt to distance itself from the much-hated period of austerity of his predecessors.

Johnson, who campaigned for Brexit, is popular among Conservative voters, although he has been linked to a string of controversies in his personal life and faced some awkward encounters with voters.

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The U.K. Supreme Court ruled that he effectively misled the Queen on his reasons for suspending Parliament — Johnson claimed it was to push through a domestic policy program, but the court said it was an attempt to frustrate democracy and stop lawmakers from scrutinizing his Brexit plans.

He is nevertheless favorite to remain in 10 Downing Street.

What could happen after Dec. 12?

If recent polls are accurate, the most likely outcome is a Conservative majority.

But if that doesn’t happen, the government and voters could face what is known as a hung Parliament, which is when no party or existing coalition wins a majority of the 650 seats being contested.

“The Conservatives are ahead of Labour in the polls but this is really an election between the Conservatives and everybody else,” Rob Ford, professor of politics at Manchester University, said.

It’s also possible that if they fall short, the Conservatives could try to form a coalition, as they did with the Liberal Democrats in 2010. A far less likely outcome is a coalition led by Labour, perhaps propped up by the Scottish National Party.

Who are the players?

Boris Johnson, who went to the elite private school Eton and Oxford University — a well-worn path for the country’s ruling class — came to notoriety as a journalist and an occasional guest on satirical TV quiz shows.

He has faced many questions about his character and honesty, and was fired from the Times of London in 1987 for inventing a quote. Johnson was later fired as a senior Conservative spokesman in 2004 for lying about an affair.

Labour is led by Jeremy Corbyn, long an outlier in his party who rejected the center-left policies of recent leaders in favor of a socialist agenda. While popular with the party’s rank-and-file, he is very unpopular among many colleagues in Parliament who have tried and failed to oust him.

Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn during a rally in Bristol on MondayHannah McCay / Reuters

The party is promising a radical overhaul of the U.K. economy by taking energy and transport companies, post offices and parts of the main telecom provider into public ownership.

Under Corbyn, the party’s membership swelled to 485,000, compared to 180,000 Conservative members.

However, Corbyn has also been accused of mishandling accusations of anti-Semitism from some Labour activists, an issue that has overshadowed the campaign.

In September a poll found Corbyn was the least popular opposition party leader for 45 years, with just 16 percent of voters pleased with him and 76 percent unhappy. And while his poll ratings have grown throughout the campaign, in Labour heartland constituencies in the north of England, where many people voted to leave the E.U, voters are particularly disillusioned with the party.

The Liberal Democrat Party, which is standing on an anti-Brexit platform in the hope of capturing voters who want to remain in the E.U., started the campaign well but is now expected to win 11 percent of the total vote share, according to a poll Monday from Survation, and will hope to improve on its current 21 seats.

Its leader, Jo Swinson, 39, was the youngest member of Parliament in the House of Commons when first elected in 2005 and served as business minister in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition from 2012 to 2015.

Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage Phil Noble / Reuters

The Lib Dems, as they are universally known, managed to persuade several high-profile lawmakers from the Conservatives and Labour to defect and for a time it appeared that the party would win enough seats to play a role in the next government.

But the party has seen its poll rating fall throughout the campaign, partly due to its divisive policy of canceling Brexit for good if it came to power.

The Brexit Party, founded by former U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, a populist admirer and ally of President Donald Trump, started the election campaign with the hope of winning several seats.

Then, despite having heavily criticized Johnson’s Brexit deal, the party decided not to run candidates in hundreds of seats being contested by the Conservatives and told voters to back Johnson’s party instead.

The party is now only polling at around 4 percent of the total vote share.

Then, there is the Scottish National Party wants Scotland to be an independent nation separate to the U.K. Its leader, Nicola Sturgeon, is a passionate anti-Brexit campaigner, reflecting the views of the majority of Scots, who voted to remain in the E.U.

Sturgeon is the first minister of Scotland, meaning she leads the Scottish Parliament — the U.K. has a system in which Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland make some of their own laws.

The Scottish National Party’s Nicola Sturgeon Russell Cheyne / Reuters

New Zealand to open criminal investigation of deaths in volcano eruption

23 0 10 Dec 2019

The eight people still missing after the eruption of a volcano off New Zealand that killed five people are also presumed dead, and authorities are opening a criminal investigation, police said Tuesday.

At least one of the eight missing people was among nine Americans who were on the island at the time of the eruption, Prime MInister Jacinda Ardern said Tuesday.

Forty-seven people were on Whakaari White Island when its cone volcano erupted on Monday, John Tims, deputy commissioner of the national police, said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon. In addition to the five who were previously declared to have died, 31 others remain in hospitals and eight others are still unaccounted for, he said.

“Everyone that could be taken from the island yesterday were rescued at the time of the evacuation. A number of flights were carried out throughout the day, and no signs of life were seen,” Tims said, adding: “There are eight people missing and presumed deceased.”

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Authorities said 25 of the 31 injured people were in burn units and that it was possible that not all of them would survive.

In addition to the nine Americans, Tims said the others who were on the island were 24 Australians, five New Zealanders, four Germans, two Chinese, two Britons and a Malaysian.

Without providing details, Tims said police were launching a criminal investigation. Asked whether the investigation would focus on tour companies that took some of the people to the island, he said: “It’s early days yet, so we’re just going to have to work through the evidence, talk to people and conduct the investigation.”

New Zealand’s workplace safety regulator said it was also conducting a work and safety investigation.

Tourists from at least one tour cruise ship were on the island in the Bay of Plenty, about 30 miles off the northeast New Zealand coast, when the country’s most active cone volcano, erupted at 2:11 p.m. Monday (8:11 p.m. Sunday ET), according to GeoNet, the government earthquake agency. Authorities said there were two eruptions that occurred in quick succession.

Jonathon Fishman, a spokesman for Royal Caribbean Cruises, confirmed that multiple guests aboard its ship Ovation of the Seas were touring the island, which in quieter times is a tourist attraction popular with birdwatchers.

A woman places flowers at a fence on the waterfront in Whakatane, New Zealand, on Tuesday. Police said eight missing people are presumed dead and that some of the known injured could also die.Mark Baker / AP

Raymond Cas, an emeritus professor of geosciences at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, told Radio New Zealand that he believed tourists shouldn’t have been on the island.

“The fact that the island is uninhabited — it has no emergency services on the island, which is very remote — is the first major concern,” Cas said Tuesday night.

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Multiple vents in the crater emit sulfur, a noxious chemical that can cause asphyxiation, Cas said, and crater lakes filled with boiling water and mud can overflow, creating a mortal hazard.

“When there are so many hazards in such a confined, small crater — you’re actually in the crater of a major volcano — that is not a good place to have a lot of people,” he said.

Democrats to announce articles of impeachment against Trump on Tuesday

25 0 10 Dec 2019

Democrats plan to announce two articles of impeachment — abuse of power and obstruction of Congress — against President Donald Trump on Tuesday, multiple sources told NBC News on Monday night.

The House Judiciary Committee heard from lawyers for both parties for more than nine hours on findings from the Intelligence Committee’s impeachment inquiry over allegations that Trump withheld aid to pressure Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden.

Five sources familiar with the impeachment discussions disclosed the plans on condition of anonymity after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., met with leaders of committees involved in the impeachment inquiry, including Adam Schiff of California, chairman of the Intelligence Committee; Jerrold Nadler of New York, chairman of the Judiciary Committee; Eliot Engel of New York, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee; and Maxine Waters of California, chairwoman of the Financial Services Committee.

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The sources cautioned that the plans weren’t final until an official announcement is made. But asked whether the announcement on Tuesday would be about articles of impeachment, Engel said: “Yeah, everything.”

“I can make the case for two articles,” Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., who serves on the Judiciary Committee, said on MSNBC Monday night.

In closing statements during the marathon Judiciary Committee hearing, Doug Collins of Georgia, the committee’s ranking Republican, denounced what he called “an impeachment scam” and questioned Democrats’ motives.

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“We have become a rubber stamp,” he said, alleging that Democrats were acting out of spite over Trump’s election in 2016.

But Nadler argued that Trump violated his oath of office by pressuring Ukraine to announce an investigation into Biden and other Democrats, jeopardizing national security and the integrity of U.S. elections.

“I am struck by the fact that my Republican colleagues have offered no serious scrutiny of the evidence at hand,” he said. “They have talked about everything else, but they have offered not one substantive word in the president’s defense.”

Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee plan to meet early Tuesday to continue discussions.

Geoff Bennett and Leigh Ann Caldwell contributed.

The GOPs bottom-line Trump defense: Get over it

25 0 10 Dec 2019

WASHINGTON — The impeachment of President Donald Trump boiled down to a reality test Monday as the Judiciary Committee moved a step closer to drafting articles formally charging the president.

Trump’s fellow Republicans mounted a vigorous defense that held — all at once — he didn’t do it, nothing he did was wrong and that they will impeach his rival for doing the same thing (even if it’s not really the same thing) if the president eventually loses to that rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.

“We already we got the forms — all we have to do is eliminate Donald Trump’s name and put Joe Biden’s name,” Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, said during a raucous and unusual Judiciary hearing in which lawyers for that panel and the House Intelligence Committee testified as witnesses.

Democrats argued Trump presents a clear threat to American democracy because he is directing an ongoing campaign to force a foreign nation to help him destroy his leading rival in the upcoming 2020 elections.

The risk is so imminent, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., said, that Trump personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani’s recent trip to Ukraine is part of a “pattern of conduct” that “represents a continuing risk to the country.”

And yet, in a stirring moment toward the end of the hearing, it was Republican staff lawyer Steve Castor — a man who held firm for nine-plus hours as the president’s champion — who quietly acknowledged that, at best, Trump had been pursuing a “good faith” belief in what amounts to a Russian disinformation campaign to frame Ukraine for interfering in the 2016 election.

Ultimately, most Republicans said they saw no evil and heard no evil — except when it came to Biden, who has been the leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination since announcing his bid in April and who by dint of his status as a private citizen is not susceptible to impeachment.

And they said they saw no apparent irony in arguing that Trump was justified in withholding Ukrainian aid, in contravention of legally enacted appropriations, to investigate whether Biden acted improperly in threatening to suspend aid to Ukraine when he was vice president.

Trump has maintained that Biden, whose son Hunter sat on the board of a Ukrainian gas company, acted out of personal interest — even though his move was in accordance with U.S. and international policy goals at the time and even though a probe into the company, Burisma, had been dormant for some time.

Dan Goldman, one of the Democratic staff lawyers who testified Monday, said there is an easy explanation for why Biden’s move was proper and Trump’s is part of a chain of impeachable offenses.

“There is a distinction between doing an official act for an official purpose and doing an official act for a personal purpose,” Goldman said.

The Democratic lawyers detailed for the first time a full timeline of what they described as the president’s “scheme” to strong-arm a dependent Ukraine into doing his bidding — specifically announcing investigations into Biden, his son Hunter Biden and “Crowdstrike,” the Russian-originated disinformation campaign designed to frame Ukraine for Russia’s interference on behalf of Trump in the 2016 election.

“The scheme part is very important,” Goldman said.

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In their testimony, which reflected the evidence they gathered in their work for the Judiciary and Intelligence committees, they noted that Trump told Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and Special Representative to Ukraine Kurt Volker in a May 23 meeting in the Oval Office that they had to “talk to Rudy” on issues relating to Ukraine.

Giuliani had worked to remove the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, and to push for Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.

In mid-July, the Democratic lawyers said, Trump froze $391 million in aid for Ukraine that had been appropriated by Congress and approved by him. Less than two weeks later, just before a phone call between the two leaders, Sondland told Ukrainian officials after he had spoken with Trump that the money was dependent upon the opening of the investigations, Goldman said.

During the phone call, Zelenskiy thanked Trump for U.S. support and Trump asked for a “favor,” which Trump detailed as looking into the Bidens and “Crowdstrike.”

Castor disputed the interpretation that Trump had sought an investigation on the phone call.

“I don’t think the president was requesting an investigation into Joe Biden,” he said.

The next day, July 26, Sondland spoke to Trump by phone from Ukraine and Trump asked whether Zelenskiy would execute on the investigations. Sondland confirmed that Zelenskiy would, adding that the Ukrainian president “loves your ass” and will “do anything you want,” according to previous testimony before the Intelligence Committee.

Republicans repeatedly pointed out Monday that the money was released on Sept. 11, that Trump told Sondland in a phone call that there was “no quid pro quo” he wanted in exchange for the funding just a few days before that and that Zelenskiy never made the announcement.

Berke addressed the GOP’s defenses during testimony early in the day.

Trump, he said, released the money only “after he got caught.”

Trump didn’t let the funds go until after the White House was apprised of an intelligence community whistleblower report making its way through an inspector general’s office and the Department of Justice, the House Appropriations Committee began pressing the White House for answers about why the money had been held back and three House chairmen had announced an investigation into the matter.

Republicans argued that it was reasonable for Trump to be worried about corruption in Ukraine, a country that has struggled with it in the past, particularly Trump’s skepticism about foreign aid.

Furthermore, they said, it was perfectly justified to seek an investigation into Joe Biden, who boasted publicly about forcing Ukraine to fire a prosecutor under threat of withholding aid when his son sat on the board of a Ukrainian gas company — though that position was also held at the time by many U.S. allies, and several GOP senators.

Berke countered that Trump ignored the larger corruption issues aides had asked him to raise in phone calls with Zelenskiy and instead focused only on “these two things” — the Crowdstrike and Biden matters.

Trump has insisted publicly that there was never a “quid pro quo,” and both Sondland and Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., have said that he told them the same privately when they asked whether the funding was conditioned on anything.

Berke noted that Trump also told Sondland, according to Sondland’s testimony, “what he wanted” by saying that Zelenskiy should do the right thing in order to get the funding.

Moreover, Goldman said that witness testimony about the actions of various players made clear that, regardless of protestations to the contrary by Trump and by Zelenskiy in the interim, there was pressure applied by the United States to Ukraine to announce the investigations in exchange for freeing up the money.

“You need to look at the actions to understand what those words mean,” Goldman said. “All of the evidence points to the fact that there was a quid pro quo.” He added that Ukraine remains under pressure, knowing that Trump is willing to freeze aid in the future, not to upset him by deviating from his narrative.

There was one moment late in the hearing where the Republican wall wavered.

Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., asked Goldman and Castor whether the Ukrainian government had interfered in the 2016 election.

“The president had a good-faith belief there were some significant Ukrainian officials…” Castor began.

Neguse cut him off.

“There are no intelligence agencies in the United States that publicly stated that Ukraine attacked our elections, right? You’re not testifying that that’s the case?” Neguse asked.

“I’m not, right,” Castor conceded. “Correct.”

So, after nine hours of bitter partisanship, roll call votes on whether to take breaks, and descriptions of the president that swung from leader of a continuing criminal enterprise to international champion of the anti-corruption movement, the Republican staff lawyer’s testimony was that Trump acted on a “good faith” belief in what U.S. intelligence officials say is a Russian disinformation campaign — and that, if true, this mistaken belief was somehow exculpatory.

Democrats say reality is even less charitable than that.

That was last week, Peloton CEO says, dodging questions about exercise-bike ad

25 0 09 Dec 2019

In his first public comments since Peloton drew criticism for a commercial that was seen as sexist and classist, the company’s co-founder and CEO, John Foley, declined on Monday to address the company’s marketing crisis and precipitous stock drop.

“That was last week,” Foley told NBC News at an investor conference. “We don’t have to do much more in order to be one of the great consumer companies of the next couple of decades.”

Instead, he said the company has a bright future in the digital exercise industry, noting that the bankruptcy of stores such as Sears and Sports Authority was paving the way for a consumer shift.

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“If you’re thinking hard about getting a treadmill, I don’t know where you are going to go,” he said, adding that the vast majority of his customers buy Peloton products online. “Fitness equipment has been a dopey category with dopey products. It’s an albatross we are trying to shake as we build one of the most innovative companies of our day.”

Peloton, which sells treadmills and a stationary bike for $2,245 and monthly class membership fee for $39, saw as much as $1.6 billion wiped off its valuation last week after the holiday commercial went viral. The ad features a slender woman video-documenting her year with a Peloton bike gifted by her husband. Twitter users dragged the ad, calling it “creepy,” “disturbing,” and “cringeworthy.”

The ad fallout came amid news that Peloton was preparing to cut its digital-only subscription price, a move that some investors viewed as further signs that the company is prioritizing growth over profitability.

After a lackluster initial public offering in September, the company has had only modest success and is not yet profitable. Shares debuted at $29, which gave the company a valuation of $8.1 billion.

“The stock going backwards is a bit of a head-scratcher, I’ve got to be totally honest with you,” Foley told CNBC at the time.

Buzz about the Peloton ad took a new twist Friday after the actress in the commercial, Monica Ruiz, appeared in a spot for Aviation Gin, part owned by actor Ryan Reynolds. In the ad, the actress drinks cocktails with her friends, who tell her she is now “safe.”

Peloton shares were up almost five percent Monday.