Pushing the Envelope | Syrian Family Feud | Pricey Space Toilets
August 14, 2020
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“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
Trump Pushes the Envelope
There it is — the real reason President Trump doesn’t want the US Postal Service to get any much-needed funding: because it could be used to facilitate mail-in voting this November.
Trump has been slamming mail-in voting for months, claiming without evidence that it would be “fraudulent.” The president himself votes by mail, which he characterizes as fair because he cannot be in his home state of Florida to vote in person. But he excludes the threat to public health as a reason anyone else should be able to vote by mail.
A new attempt to restart economic relief negotiations between the White House and Democrats quickly ended Wednesday after Trump said a deal is “not going to happen.” Included in the Democrats’ stimulus package is an additional $25 billion funding request for the beleaguered USPS, which Trump criticizes. During a briefing at the White House, Trump blamed Democrats for sabotaging a new relief bill, saying: “The bill’s not going to happen because they don’t even want to talk about it, because we can’t give them the kind of ridiculous things that they want that have nothing to do with the China virus.”
On Wednesday evening, Trump told a Fox News host that if the Post Office doesn’t receive the additional $25 billion, it won’t be able to handle the influx of mail-in ballots in the upcoming election. “They want three and a half billion dollars for something that’ll turn out to be fraudulent … three and a half billion dollars for the mail-in votes … they need that money in order to make the Post Office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots. But if they don’t get [the money] that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting because you [sic] they’re not equipped to have it.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi responded to Trump’s claims during an MSNBC interview, explaining that it was the agency’s “bipartisan Board of Governors, 100 percent appointed by Donald Trump” who had recommended the additional $25 billion, not Democrats.
The pandemic has led to record-shattering levels of voting-by-mail, but Trump has been clear in the past about his efforts to restrict the voting method because he thinks it will hurt Republicans and his reelection. Directly linking USPS funding to mail-in voting should remove any lingering doubt that Trump is dead set on manipulating the postal system for political gain.
- In a surprise statement by the White House on Thursday, President Trump announced that Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have agreed to establish “full normalization of relations,” in exchange for which Israel will forgo “declaring sovereignty” over disputed West Bank territory for now.
- The president was joined in the Oval Office by a large delegation of aides and officials who heaped praise on him, including his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, who has been spearheading Middle East peace efforts over three years. The extent of Trump’s involvement wasn’t clear, but he took credit for brokering the deal that he said would lead to Israel and the UAE signing a string of bilateral agreements on investment, tourism, security, technology, energy, and other areas. Additionally, the move allows for direct flights between their countries and the establishment of reciprocal embassies.
- The agreement makes the UAE the third Arab country to establish normal diplomatic relations with Israel, following Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. It could potentially unwind the long stalemate in the region between Israel and its neighbors and lead other Arab nations to follow suit. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s explosive annexation plan would be off the table, at least temporarily.
- On the other hand, it could generate a backlash among Israeli settlers and their political allies who’ve been anxiously awaiting Israel to establish sovereignty over West Bank territory. It could also upset Palestinians who, even without the immediate threat of annexation, now feel abandoned by an Arab ally and left to remain locked in an untenable status quo. (NYT)
Syrian Family Feud
- Blood may be thicker than water, but when a ruler needs money, all bets are off. Syrian tycoon Rami Makhlouf is a cousin and long-time ally of President Bashar al-Assad. Assad’s mother, Anisa, is Rami’s aunt. In 1970, Assad’s father, Hafez, seized power in a military coup. He turned to Makhlouf’s father, Mohamed, to manage the money from state-controlled industries and contract commissions that would shore up his rule.
- The relationship worked well and Makhlouf Sr. continued managing Assad’s money, growing wealthy himself in the process. Assad’s son Bashar, and Makhlouf’s son Rami grew up together and were very close. When Bashar became Syria’s president, Rami took over as money manager, and both grew wealthier.
- In 2008, the US Treasury imposed sanctions on the now-tycoon Rami, describing him as “one of the primary centres of corruption in Syria.” Protesters took to the streets calling for Assad’s overthrow in 2011; the popular uprising turned into a civil war and then a multifaceted conflict.
- During the war, Makhlouf helped Assad evade Western sanctions on fuel and other goods vital to his military campaign. He was part of the president’s inner circle, but behind Assad’s back, Makhlouf was keeping wealth hidden. Years of war and sanctions began crippling Syria’s economy and depleting Assad’s coffers.
- In May 2019, Assad instructed Syria’s intelligence chief to track down Makhlouf’s estimated billions of dollars stashed abroad. Assad was so desperate for cash that the central bank summoned Syrian tycoons to a meeting last fall and ordered them to hand over some of their fortunes. Makhlouf resisted, telling Assad to seek funds from other tycoons.
- In early 2020, Syrian security forces began arresting employees at Makhlouf’s businesses; the detentions were meant to send a message “that [Makhlouf] is in disgrace.” The rift between Assad and Makhlouf became public on April 30, when Makhlouf complained on social media. On May 19, Makhlouf and his family’s assets were frozen. Years of acting as Assad’s trusted money minder and family treasurer made Makhlouf feel like a partner; he’d tell his cousins the Assads, ‘we are partners.’ A former business associate said Makhlouf is shocked they are “now telling him, ‘no you are not, you are just serving us’.” (Reuters)
Additional World News
- As U.S.-China rift grows, Mexico tries to lure American businesses to move operations closer to home (WaPo, $)
- Jimmy Lai says swift arrest points to ‘great disorder’ between Hong Kong and China police (Guardian)
- Apple’s $44 Billion China Market Threatened by Trump WeChat Ban (Bloomberg). 95% of Chinese users would ditch the iPhone if it meant keeping WeChat software.
- US seizes digital currency accounts used by militant groups (AP)
- The hermit kingdom turned hackers: North Korean Hacking Group Attacks Israeli Defense Industry (NYT, $)
- Can a Protest Movement Topple Netanyahu? (Atlantic)
- Belarus election: Women form ‘solidarity chains’ to condemn crackdown (BBC)
- The price of peace: Trump Administration Mulls Releasing Taliban Drug Kingpin in Push for Afghan Peace Talks (Time)
- Europe isn’t going on vacation. That spells trouble for millions of workers (CNN)
- Last decade was Earth’s hottest on record as climate crisis accelerates (Guardian)
- The CDC issues a dire warning for the fall if coronavirus measures are not followed (CNN). Masks, social distancing, hand-washing, and crowd cognizance are the name of the game.
- Bill Gates On Covid Vaccine Timing, Hydroxychloroquine, and That 5G Conspiracy Theory (Bloomberg)
- Fauci’s guidance on pre-vaccine coronavirus treatments (Axios)
- Why the Covid-19 pandemic made drug overdoses worse (Vox). One epidemic compounds another.
- Trump’s Unprecedented Attacks on Our Public-Health System
- Saving face: Joe Biden calls for a nationwide mask mandate to combat coronavirus (CNBC)
- The Logic Around Contact Tracing Apps Is All Wrong (Wired)
- Schools stiff-arm their doctors: N.C.A.A. Doctors Say Football Is a Bad Idea. But They Aren’t Deciding. (NYT, $)
From Spotify to Spoiler
- As Kanye West works to get his name on the ballot in several states for the November presidential election, it appears Republicans are helping him. Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law, and White House adviser, met privately with West in Colorado last weekend. During a White House press briefing Thursday afternoon, Kushner noted that he’s been friends with the musician and fashion designer for about a decade.
- “We both happened to be in Colorado and so we got together and we had a great discussion about a lot of things,” Kushner said. “He has some great ideas for what he’d like to see happen in the country and that’s why he has the candidacy that he’s been doing. But again, there’s a lot of issues that the president’s championed that he admires and it was just great to have a friendly discussion.”
- Other reports have suggested that Republican-affiliated operatives are working to get West on the ballot in several states as part of a strategy to use West to siphon votes away from the major party candidates. Once an outspoken supporter of Trump, West now says he no longer backs the president; he also won’t “argue” that he seems to be running a spoiler campaign.
- The Trump campaign has denied any involvement with West, and the national press secretary for the Republican National Committee also denied any coordination. “Everything about Kanye is news to us, just like it is to you,” she said. (NPR)
DeVos Loosens the Reigns on Discrimination
- A federal judge in Washington DC refused a multi-state effort to strike down Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ new Title IX rule, clearing the path for the over 2,000-page policy change to take effect Friday even as legal challenges continue.
- In 2017, DeVos set about to overhaul the portion of the 1972 law known as Title IX that prohibits gender discrimination, including sexual assault, on college campuses as well as in primary and secondary schools. Under the Obama administration, the definition of sexual harassment was described as “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.” The Trump administration has narrowed the meaning, using the Supreme Court’s definition of harassment.
- Misconduct must now fall under certain categories, including unwelcome conduct that is “so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive” that it “denies a person equal access to the school’s education program or activity.” An action could also be considered harassment if “reasonable” people would agree.
- Alleged student perpetrators will have added protections, including the presumption that they are innocent throughout the disciplinary process and the right to be provided all evidence collected against them. Those students can also cross-examine their accusers and vice versa during live hearings, although it must be done through a lawyer or representative.
- The decision to revamp the regulations proved controversial, igniting a wave of online backlash from assault survivors and civil liberties groups. More than 124,000 individual comments were posted on the Federal Registrar’s website when it surfaced in January of 2019. (Politico, NBC News)
Additional USA Reads
- Kamala on the case: Would A Biden Justice Department Prosecute Trump? It’s Complicated (NPR)
- Who Would Replace Kamala Harris in the Senate for California? Let the Jockeying Begin. (NYT, $)
- About damn time: Black women in politics are no longer a ‘first.’ They are a force. (WaPo, $).
- Justice Dept. Accuses Yale of Discrimination Against White, Asian-American Applicants (NYT, $)
- Secret Service sought tactical aircraft to protect White House amid Floyd demonstrations (WaPo, $). Going ballistic from the bunker.
- It’s Illegal for Federal Officials to Campaign on the Job. Trump Staffers Keep Doing It Anyway. (ProPublica)
- Endorsement on lock: Private prison industry backs Trump, prepares if Biden wins (AP).
- How Military Schools Reopened Amid COVID-19 (NPR)
- U.S. hits fiscal cliff with jobs, economic recovery in the balance (Reuters)
Space Toilets 2.0
- When it comes to pooping in space, a number of technical questions arise. First, how? But perhaps more importantly, how much? For future residents of the International Space Station, both of these questions were answered when NASA unveiled their $23 million space toilet.
- The luxurious lavatory — properly named the Universal Waste Management System — took scientists six years to construct, making it the most technologically advanced toilet known to mankind. Its creators cite the invention as an integral step towards preparing for manned missions to both the moon and Mars, allowing bathroom-bound astronauts to finish their business without fear of any microgravity mistakes.
- A major upgrade from previous space toilets comes in the form of a more gender-neutral design that allows female astronauts to urinate and defecate simultaneously without any unnecessary complications. Additional renovations include a pretreatment process that redirects urine towards a machine that filters it back into reusable water.
- While powdering your nose in amongst the planets still isn’t as spacious as an empty handicap stall here on earth, this $23 million design is quite the upgrade from the days of Neil Armstrong. The Apollo 11 crew reported went #1 in sleeves that resembled condoms, while #2’s were just captured in loose bags.
- As humorous as talks of a space toilet may be, they play an important role in NASA’s holistic consideration of an astronaut’s health. As the human race prepares for long-term manned missions to Mars and beyond, every bodily function must be considered in order to keep our extraterrestrial explorers alive. (Wired)
- Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA writes new ice cream truck jingle to replace one with racist past (NBC)
- ISIS Allegedly Ran a Covid-19 PPE Scam Site (Wired)
- Researchers Say PDFs Are ‘Unfit for Human Consumption’ (Vice)
- The president pushes for more flow from the nation’s shower heads. (NYT, $)
- How to Spot a Fraudulent COVID Study (Lifehacker)
- Sweatpants Forever: How the Fashion Industry Collapsed (NYT, $)
- Scientists Found a 200,000-Year-Old Human Bed Made From Grass and Ash (Gizmodo)
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