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May 26 2015 3:58 PM

How the Koch Bros. Can Bring Order to the Chaotic GOP Primary

The Koch Primary may not be a winner-take-all contest after all—that is, unless you count the Koch brothers.

During an appearance on the Larry Kudlow Show over the long holiday weekend, David Koch suggested that the dark-money machine he and his brother run may end up “supporting several” Republican presidential hopefuls during the GOP primary. “If we’re happy with the policies that these individuals are supporting, we’ll finance their campaigns,” Koch said on the syndicated radio program, adding that he and his brother could start spending the roughly $900 million they hope to raise from their deep-pocketed friends as soon as this winter.

Koch’s comments appear to be the first time that he or his brother, Charles, have said publicly that they plan to spread their cash around, rather than just focus it on one candidate. Until now, the brothers’ apparent game plan was to use the simple promise of their eventual spending to ensure that any legitimate Republican contender toed a policy line they and their wealthy friends favored, particularly when it comes to cutting taxes and rolling back government regulations that affect their business interests. But on those issues, the Kochs no longer have any reason to worry: The policies they want are already being touted by all of the GOP frontrunners. Since the billionaire brothers have already achieved that first goal, they’re now free to leverage their cash to achieve a second one. And, as Paul Waldman notes in the Washington Post, David’s latest remarks suggest that their new priority will be imposing order on what is promising to be a chaotic nominating contest.

Backing a handful of candidates as opposed to just a single one may not sound like the most obvious way to short-circuit a prolonged primary fight—but doing so may actually be the most cost-effective option. As opposed to spending the massive sums it would take to clear the entire field, the Kochs can spend relatively smaller ones to weed out the dark horses and long shots with the least to lose in a drawn-out nominating battle. That will leave the Kochs with plenty of cash to pour into what will be a historically expensive general election.

Right now, the cost of entry into the GOP race is remarkably low, which is why the field could balloon to 20 or so by this summer. But if the Koch brothers write some big-dollar checks in support of several leading candidates—Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz are believed to be on the short-list—the price to stay in the race gets that much higher for everyone else. And those candidates who miss out on the Kochs’ cash will have a hard time finding a different conservative patron since other potential donors would know that the Kochs’ coffers won’t run dry. Someone like Sheldon Adelson could always decide to keep throwing good money after bad to back the 2016 version of Newt Gingrich, but Adelson will always know that the Kochs could cancel out his investment if they feel they need to.

The Kochs aren’t the only ones hoping to narrow a crowded GOP field. Last week, Fox News announced that they’ll cap the number of Republicans on stage at the first GOP debate at ten—effectively halving the potential GOP field six months before the first nominating contest. If the natural winnowing process is slow to take hold from there, though, the Kochs appear willing to step in and clear out any GOP presidential pretenders that remain. If they succeed, they’ll be free to start spending their massive war chest on the battle they really care about—the general election—that much sooner. 

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May 26 2015 3:21 PM

Texas Was In a Horrible Drought Last Year. Now It’s Flooded. What Gives?

A torrential, hurricane-like series of rainstorms hit Texas over the weekend, stranding hundreds, and producing a flood that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said hit with “tsunami-type power.” According to the Washington Post, at least five people have died and a dozen are missing—with the impact of the overnight rains in Houston still uncertain. Abbott has declared a state of emergency and called 37 counties disaster areas.

The National Weather Service in Houston called the storm a ‘flash flood emergency’—a rare warning. The rains made for commuting chaos on Tuesday morning with freeways underwater and countless cars washed away:

During the rain’s peak Monday night, Houston received nearly an inch of rainfall in just five minutes, and racked up nearly a foot in less than a day. The flooding in Houston was comparable to a landfalling tropical storm or hurricane. Water levels along Buffalo Bayou, which runs through downtown, eclipsed the level seen during Hurricane Ike in 2008, and was just shy of flooding during Tropical Storm Allison—the worst flood in Houston history—which dawdled over the city for six days in 2001 and inundated 70,000 houses.

And it’s not just Houston. At one point on Saturday, an astonishing 95 percent of Texas was under a flash flood watch as a huge swath of heavy rain slowly advanced eastward. One heartbreaking and widely circulated story recounted a frantic phone call from a mother in Wimberly, Texas, who told her sister “we are floating in a house that is now floating down the river.” The family is still listed among the missing. Water levels in Wimberly rose nearly 40 feet in a matter of hours, one of the worst flash floods in many meteorologists’ memories.

Weeks of wet weather across the southern plains only made the Texas floods worse. May 2015 has been the rainiest month in Oklahoma City’s history—same goes for several other nearby places, including Fort Smith, Arkansas, and Wichita Falls, Texas. That’s helped all but eliminate one of the worst droughts on record, which peaked in 2011 and resurged again last year.

Over the longer term, this kind of weather isn’t totally unexpected—extreme swings in precipitation are becoming the new normal. This month’s heavy rains are directly linked to a building El Niño in the tropical Pacific Ocean, which is forecast to strengthen throughout the summer, meaning heavy rains could return to the southern plains at regular intervals.

A steadily escalating whipsaw between drought and flood is one of the most confident predictions of an atmosphere with enhanced evaporation rates—meaning, global warming. Since 1958, there’s been a 16 percent increase in the amount of rain falling in the heaviest rainstorms on the Plains, even as long-term projections point toward an increased risk of megadrought. Both of these can happen at the same time.

Texas’s quick transition from drought hellscape to underwater theme park was egged on by both El Niño and climate change. A quick check of the latest seasonal forecast shows there’s a lot more rain to come this summer.

May 26 2015 1:46 PM

Lindsey Graham Did Not Say “Iranians Are Liars”

A number of liberal-leaning news outlets are reporting this morning that South Carolina senator and presumptive presidential candidate Lindsey Graham said that "Iranians are liars" during a video address to the the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Oklahoma City. The National Iranian American Council has asked Graham to apologize for the remark, which is sourced to a BBC writeup:

Senator Lindsey Graham, the first speaker Friday morning, appearing from Washington via video, spoke of losing his parents as a teenager, working in a pool hall and having to help raise his younger sister - and how it relates to his leadership style.
"Everything I learned about Iranians I learned working in the pool room," he said. "I met a lot of liars, and I know Iranians are liars."

That sounds bad, and Lindsey Graham has a recent history of bellicose Middle East-related overstatements. But it's not what he said. Watch the video:

"I met a lot of liars, and I know the Iranians are lying." The last word is definitely not liars—you can tell by comparing it with when he actually does say liars earlier in the sentence. Moreover, Iranians is actually preceded by the both times he says the word, which makes a big difference given that referring to "the [name of national population]" is typical diplomatic shorthand for a particular country's government. See President Obama referring to "the Iranians" here, for example. 

Graham's statement may or may not be correct. But in the context of current events, and with a more accurate transcription, it doesn't seem to be the attack on an entire nationality that it's being made out as.

May 26 2015 12:55 PM

The Iranian Trial of a Washington Post Reporter Is About the Nuclear Deal, Not Justice   

Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian went on trial today in Iran, nearly 10 months after his arrest. Rezaian, his wife, freelance journalist Yeganeh Salehi, and a female photojournalist whose name has not been released are being tried before one of Iran’s special “Revolutionary Courts,” usually reserved for sensitive national security cases, and the trial will be held behind closed doors. According to the BBC, the judge has been nicknamed the “judge of death” for the harsh sentences, including death penalties, he has handed down to activists and journalists.

The decision to hold the trial in private, denounced as “shameful” by Post editor Martin Baron today, is in keeping with the Kafkaesque nightmare these journalists have lived in since they were arrested without charges last July. The unnamed photojournalist and Salehi, who is an Iranian citizen, were released on bail last year. But Rezaian, a joint U.S.-Iranian citizen and the Post’s Tehran bureau chief, has been held in the notorious Evin prison and, according to the Post, denied needed medical care. His brother says he has lost 40 pounds since being arrested. He was held in jail for nine months before he was allowed to meet with an attorney and he had only one 90-minute meeting with her before trial. It was only after this meeting, in April, that the charges against Rezaian and his co-defendants were made public: They include espionage, “collaborating with hostile governments,” and “propaganda against the establishment.” The charges could carry a sentence of 10 to 20 years in prison.

From what’s been made public, it certainly seems as if Rezaian is being charged with committing journalism: Collecting sensitive information and meeting with anti-government sources is part of the job description. According to his attorney, a letter written to President Obama is being cited as an example of his contact with a “hostile government”—i.e., the government of the country where he was born and raised. The defense plans to claim that the U.S. and Iran are not, in fact, “hostile” nations, despite ongoing tensions, which gets to the real reason Rezaian is being imprisoned.

Rezaian’s trial is most likely a ploy by political hardliners in Iran to undermine President Hassan Rouhani and his efforts to improve relations with Western governments, particularly the nuclear deal currently under negotiation. Some of these hardliners have dropped hints that Rouhani’s nephew, who works in the Iranian president’s public relations office, gave Rezaian access to sensitive information, though Rezaian’s family denies he was in contact with any of Rouhani’s relatives. As Middle East expert Haleh Esfandiari pointed out last summer, there’s a history of foreign spy plots suddenly being uncovered at times when relations between Iran and the West seem on the verge of improving.

In trying to scuttle the nuclear deal, Tehran’s hardliners are in a tacit alliance with their counterparts in Washington. A number of GOP senators have called for the release of Americans being held in Iran to be a condition of any final deal. (In addition to Rezaian, a number of other Americans are being held, including Saeed Abedini, a Christian pastor from Idaho, Amir Hekmati, a U.S. Marine veteran charged with espionage, and Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who went missing on Iran’s Kish Island in 2007.) The White House has repeatedly spoken out about Rezaian’s case and demanded his release but has resisted linking the two issues.

While there are legitimate reasons for concern over whether an opening on the nuclear issue will—at least in the short term—lead to more human rights crackdowns in Iran, including an ultimatum as part of the nuclear deal is more likely to scuttle the deal than to actually win Rezaian’s release. For those against the deal in both nations, that may very well be the whole point.

May 26 2015 10:31 AM

Repressive Regimes Donated to Clinton Foundation, Got Federal Approval for Arms Deals

Repressive regimes in Algeria, Kuwait, and Qatar donated to the Clinton Foundation while Hillary Clinton was secretary of state and also "gained State Department clearance to buy caches of American-made weapons" during that time, an International Business Times investigation reports.

The IBT piece reviews all known donations to the Clinton Foundation by countries and defense contractors involved in arms deals that were approved by the State Department during Hillary Clinton's tenure. During a broader increase in military exports under the Obama administration, more than $300 billion worth of weapons shipments were approved to 20 countries that were or have since become Clinton Foundation donors. Some of these recipients were longtime United States allies, such as Australia and Germany, with relatively upstanding recent records on human rights. Others weren't:

The State Department formally approved ... arms sales even as many of the deals enhanced the military power of countries ruled by authoritarian regimes whose human rights abuses had been criticized by the department. Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Qatar all donated to the Clinton Foundation and also gained State Department clearance to buy caches of American-made weapons even as the department singled them out for a range of alleged ills, from corruption to restrictions on civil liberties to violent crackdowns against political opponents. 

Among those countries, Algeria, Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait are known to have given money to the Clinton Foundation specifically during Hillary Clinton's tenure at State.

As the piece explains, foreign donations to government officials' private nonprofits aren't illegal—but that's something of a loophole:

Under federal law, foreign governments seeking State Department clearance to buy American-made arms are barred from making campaign contributions -- a prohibition aimed at preventing foreign interests from using cash to influence national security policy. But nothing prevents them from contributing to a philanthropic foundation controlled by policymakers.

The IBT also found that Boeing, Lockheed, and Goldman Sachs paid Bill Clinton personal speaking fees at around the same time that arms deals in which they had a financial interest were approved by Hillary Clinton's State Department.

In the end, the IBT piece doesn't reveal any smoking-gun evidence of a corrupt quid-pro-quo transaction. But it does document again that a presidential candidate who's already taking a lot of heat for her cavalier attitude towards questions of money, ethics, and secrecy has often been willing to tolerate high-stakes conflicts of interest.

May 25 2015 2:48 PM

Charter Is Reportedly Almost Ready to Seal Deal to Buy Time Warner Cable

Looks like Time Warner is finally going to be sold. Charter Communications is just about ready to seal its long-discussed acquisition of Time Warner Cable in a $55 billion deal that could be announced as early as Tuesday. Bloomberg was first to report the news but Reuters, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal all quickly reported the same information from their own sources. Charter will also go through with its planned purchase of Bright House, the sixth-largest U.S. cable operator, for $10.4 billion.

The cash-and-stocks deal that the two companies appear to have agreed to would value Time Warner Cable at $195 per share, of which Charter would pay $100 in cash and the rest in stock. The move would come a month after Time Warner Cable went back on the market after a planned merger with Comcast fell through due to opposition from Washington regulators. While everyone is presenting this as pretty much a done deal, the New York Times’ sources “cautioned that talks were continuing and might still fall apart.”

Combining the second and third largest U.S. cable operators would automatically create a powerful new rival to compete with companies in the sector, including Comcast and DirecTV. Assuming it would go through as expected, the deal would mean a big victory for billionaire John Malone, the main Charter shareholder who has long sought to push the company toward growth.

May 25 2015 1:59 PM

Twister Kills 10 in Mexico Border City as Flooding Wreaks Havoc on Texas, Oklahoma

A powerful tornado ravaged a city on the U.S.–Mexico border on Monday, “destroying homes, flinging cars like matchsticks and ripping an infant from its mother’s arms,” reports the Associated Press.

Across the border, the governor of Texas declared states of disaster in 24 counties due to the flash flooding that has killed at least three people, while at least 12 remain missing. One of the dead was a firefighter in Oklahoma who was swept into a storm drain while he was trying to evacuate a 5-year-old’s birthday party, according to Fox News. “He’s our hero. That’s for sure,” the 5-year-old’s grandfather Steven Darnell told Fox 23.

In Hays County near Austin, as many as 400 homes were washed away by the flooding, reports CNN. “We do have whole streets that have maybe one or two houses left on them, and the rest are just slabs,” said Kharley Smith, emergency management coordinator.

Although the storms in the U.S. appeared to be calming down on Monday, the National Weather Service warned in the morning that severe thunderstorms would continue to strike the region. Officials warn the number of missing could still rise in Texas, notes the Austin-American Statesman.

May 25 2015 1:11 PM

Malaysia Finds 139 Graves in Horrifying Human Trafficking Camps

The migrant crisis of Southeast Asia was already horrifying enough. Now it turns out the depth of terror and inhuman action that smugglers are imparting on their victims may actually be worse than many predicted. Malaysia said on Monday it had found 139 graves, and signs of torture, in a cluster of around 28 abandoned camps in the jungle. “It is a very sad scene,” National police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said, according to the Associated Press. “I am shocked. We never expected this kind of cruelty.”

The camps had barbed-wire cages in which it seems migrants were kept, and although authorities said there were signs that torture had been used, they did not elaborate on that point. The find comes weeks after police in Thailand found a similar set of camps and 36 bodies, notes the BBC. Thailand proceeded to increase security around the trafficking routes, which led the gangs to begin trying to move migrants by sea, which is how thousands have become stranded in what some have described as “floating coffins.”

Ever since Thailand began pursuing the smugglers, many starving migrants have been found aimlessly wandering Thai forests. “It’s people who are skeletal, they have no fat on their body they’re just bones. They can no longer support their weight,” an International Organization for Migration (IOM) official tells the BBC. Malaysia had long denied the existence of graves within its borders but now security forces will be under the spotlight. The graves “are within a security zone and call into question the role of Malaysia’s army and police forces in migrant trafficking,” notes the Australian.

May 25 2015 10:02 AM

Anne Meara, Actress and Ben Stiller’s Mother, Dies at 85

Comedy legend Anne Meara, an actress first known for her stand-up routine alongside husband Jerry Stiller, has died at 85. Stiller and son Ben Stiller said in a statement that Meara died Saturday but did not release any details on the cause of death. The statement issued to the Associated Press described Jerry Stiller as Meara’s “husband and partner in life.” “The two were married for 61 years and worked together almost as long,” the statement said.

The Brooklyn-born Meara met Stiller in 1953 at an agent’s office. The two were married in 1954, and Meara converted to Judaism, according to the Hollywood Reporter. They later mastered their improv skills at Chicago’s the Compass Players, whose members went on to form Second City. It wasn’t long before they were performing as Stiller & Meara, and a gig on Merv Griffin’s talent showcase led to their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, where they performed a total of 36 times, according to Reuters. Their act often played off their differences, and they created the “uber-Jewish guy” Hershey Horowitz and “uber-Irish girl” Mary Elizabeth Doyle, which they later described as caricatures of themselves, notes CNN. Meara and Stiller also took the time to pursue purely commercial endeavors and they “made a handsome living endorsing everything from banks to disposable lighters to moving companies—and wine,” notes the Hollywood Reporter.

The pair broke up their act in 1970, saying it was a necessary step if they hoped to save their marriage.  “I love Anne, but if I had depended on her in my professional life, I would have lost her as a wife. We felt like two guys,” Stiller told People in 1977. Meara agreed: “I didn't know where the act ended and our marriage began.” Meara went on to appear in many TV shows, including Rhoda, The Love Boat, ALF, and, more recently, Sex and the City and King of Queens, to name a few. She also acted in several movies, including The Out of Towners, Fame, Reality Bites, and Night at the Museum.

Ben Stiller took to Twitter on Monday to thank fans for their support.

May 24 2015 2:37 PM

Watch a Police Officer Taser, Pepper-Spray a Man Who is Suffering a “Massive Stroke”

Recently released video from police body cameras shows how an officer in Fredericksburg, Virginia used a Taser and pepper-sprayed a man who was suffering from a medical emergency on May 4. Fredericksburg police officer Shaun Jergens resigned on May 14 although he insists he did nothing wrong. Jergens was one of three officers who responded to calls of a hit and run driver going the wrong way down a street. David Washington, 34, was driving a Hyundai that hit a jeep before stopping in the middle of an intersection, reports WTOP. When the officers arrive they demand Washington put his hands up but the driver is nearly motionless and does not say anything. “Get out of the car or I’m going to fucking smoke you,” Jurgens says at one point. Jurgens then draws his Taser before using a huge amount of pepper spray on Washington’s face.

The way in which Washington barely reacted to such a large amount of pepper spray should have maybe been a hint that something was wrong. But another officer proceeds to yank Washington to the pavement and at that point he can be heard moaning. “I can’t breathe,” he says before telling the officers he has been sick for days and doesn’t know what’s wrong. He was later taken to the hospital and sources tell the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star that Washington “had a massive stroke and was treated in the intensive care unit.” Charges have been filed against Washington for hit and run, reckless driving and driving on a revoked license.

In a statement, Jurgens insists he acted out of concern for public safety. But the police department determined the amount of force used in the incident was “not appropriate.” Fredericksburg Police rules say officers cannot use a Taser on someone who is behind the wheel of a car or anyone who is “passively resisting,” according to WTVR.  “The use of force demonstrated in the incident involving Mr. Washington was not in compliance with department policy or training,” Capt. Rick Pennock said. “We take matters such as these very seriously and require that officers at all times exercise appropriate restraint and good judgment.”