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May 24 2017 12:47 AM

Hannity Says He Will Stop—But Also Never Stop—Pushing the Seth Rich Conspiracy

Sean Hannity doesn’t like to let the truth get in the way of whatever he happens to be saying. This week, that tendency took the form of the Fox News host cajoling a debunked conspiracy theory surrounding the unsolved 2016 murder of Seth Rich from the shadows of the internet and plunking it down on cable news. The story of Rich, a 27-year-old DNC staffer who was killed last year, has titillated the loons online—and now on Fox—with conspiratorial possibility. I’m not going to get into the full extent of the lunacy (you can read more about it from Slate’s Will Oremus here), but the conspiratorial gist is that the Clintons had Rich murdered because he “knew too much” and had been in contact with WikiLeaks, and you can see where this is going.

How flimsy is Hannity’s “investigation” into the PizzaGate-like conspiracy theory surrounding Rich’s death? On Tuesday, Fox News retracted a story on its website touting itself as an “investigation” because “[t]he article was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting.” And the degree of editorial scrutiny at Fox News isn't all that high to start with.

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Things had gotten out of control enough, thanks to Hannity’s boost, that the Rich family began making personal appeals to the network and Hannity himself to let them grieve in peace. On Tuesday night, after a day full of promoting that what he was up to was so hot that he was about to be fired, complete with a #SaveHannity hashtag, Hannity went on air and said, at the behest of the Rich family, he would lay off the debunked story. For now. Sort of.

Here's Hannity on Tuesday's program:

The unsolved murder of former DNC staffer Seth Rich continues to get attention. I totally and completely understand how upset and how hard this is on this family, especially over the recent coverage of Seth's death. I've been communicating with them. I got a very heartfelt note. I also sent them a heartfelt note back. I reached out personally today to his brother, Aaron. I expressed my condolences over how hard and how difficult this has been for him and his family. As I told Aaron, my heart and soul and prayers—everything goes out to them in this very difficult time.
...As a father, when I saw the video of the parents online saying they want answers—I know the brother Aaron started a go fund me page, it truly pained me. However, out of respect from the family's wishes for now—I am not discussing this matter at this time. Let me explain this. There are so many issues here. Not the least of which is the democratic push of their Russian narrative, collusion, Trump-Russia narrative. The destroy-Trump-media and Democrats, they have been pushing that tinfoil hat conspiracy with zero evidence...

See what Hannity did there? While the Rich family was imploring him to stop rooting around in their personal tragedy, Hannity made it seem as if he was working on behalf of the family to bring them closure. Hannity then launched into a false equivalency about the Russia investigation, which has been the real reason he continued to push the Rich story. Hannity is trying to conflate conspiracy with investigation in the hopes that everything will look the same. Hannity closed with this:

I want to say this to you, my loyal audience, please do not interpret what I am saying tonight to mean anything—don't read into this. I promise you, I am not going to stop doing my job. To the extent of my ability, I'm not going to stop trying to find the truth. That's what we do here every single day. That effort. That's not stopping in any way, shape, matter or form. I'm continuing the work that I promise to do every day for you and at the proper time, we shall continue and talk a lot more. As for my job here at the Fox News channel, there is an effort to silence me. Media is attacking my advertising base. That's what we have called liberal fascism. Attack, boycott, all in an effort to silence conservatives. I serve at the pleasure of the Fox News channel. I'm here to do my job every night. I'm under contract as long as they seem to want me.

That was big of you, Sean?

Or maybe not.

May 23 2017 10:57 PM

Donald Trump Doesn’t Share America’s Values. The Transcript of His Call to the Philippine President Proves It.

Let’s set aside the pomp and baggage of Donald Trump and let’s look at the things he does and says and, apparently, thinks. When you do that, without prejudice or Fox News blaring in the background or the tinted glasses of the Republican leadership, it’s clear what’s wrong with Donald Trump and his young, upheaval of a presidency: Donald Trump does not believe in American values. I mean that literally. He doesn’t even really pay lip service to even the foggiest conception of American values. Donald Trump does not believe in fairness; he does not believe in due process; he does not believe in democracy; he does not believe in human rights; and on and on.

The latest example of Donald Trump’s aversion to principles most Americans hold dear came via the Washington Post Tuesday, which followed up on reporting several weeks ago on President Trump’s call to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. We already knew Trump invited Duterte—who has waged a deadly extrajudicial war against “drugs” in his country since being elected last year—to the White House for a visit. We already knew Trump expressed admiration for Duterte’s bloody domestic battle that has killed thousands in the streets, some drug dealers, but many drug addicts and bystanders with little regard for which are which.

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Trump’s embrace of Duterte and his drug policy that has been condemned from all corners was astounding when relayed through spokespeople and second hand diplomatic sources last month. But the Post got a copy of the actual transcript of the call between the two and Trump’s outright fawning over Duterte and his murderous drug war, right off the bat and totally unprompted, is staggering.

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Leaked transcript of the call between President Trump and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

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“I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem. Many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that.”

Then Trump blamed Obama, naturally, for not supporting the Philippine government wantonly killing people in the street.

May 23 2017 7:29 PM

Today in Conservative Media: Whatever Happened to Russian Collusion?

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A daily roundup of the biggest stories in right-wing media.

On Tuesday, Fox News retracted a story posted last week suggesting that DNC staffer Seth Rich had been in contact with WikiLeaks before his death last year. The claim has been heavily pushed by Sean Hannity even though the story’s key source, private investigator and Fox News contributor Rod Wheeler, has admitted he has no evidence to support it. On his radio show on Tuesday, Hannity defended himself. “This issue is so big now that the entire Russia collusion narrative is hanging by a thread,” he said. “And all you in the liberal media, I am not Fox.com or FoxNews.com. I retracted nothing.”

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Breitbart’s Joel Pollak found different ammunition against the Russia collusion narrative: former CIA director John Brennan’s testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, during which he said he did not know whether Russians colluded with the Trump campaign. “[D]emocrats are thrilled by his testimony, because he said there were contacts between Russian officials and some ‘U.S. persons involved in the Trump campaign, and hence an FBI investigation was warranted,’” Pollak wrote. “It is not unreasonable to wonder whether Brennan followed the liberal media down a Russian rabbit-hole, where the absence of evidence would not end his suspicions.”

The Washington Examiner’s Byron York noted that since the firing of James Comey, Trump’s Russia troubles have largely shifted from questions about collusion to questions about a potential cover up. “Focusing on alleged obstruction, the president's enemies no longer have to find an underlying crime on his part to attempt to remove him from office,” he wrote. “Certainly, Trump has good arguments to make in his defense, beginning with what legally constitutes obstruction. But after the last two weeks, his supporters can no longer assume that his detractors will have to find an underlying crime to make big trouble for the president.” National Review editor Rich Lowry concurred. “This evolution removes the pressure from Democrats to produce any evidence of collusion with the Russians, which was supposed to be the scandal at the beginning,” he wrote. “If Democrats take the House next year with any margin for error, I would expect them to impeach Trump even in the absence of a smoking gun.”

In other news:

National Review ran an editorial on the Trump budget, which earned praise for its cuts to Medicaid, Social Security and SNAP—and criticism for its paid family leave program:

Less sensible is the Trump administration’s plan to create an extraordinarily expensive — $25 billion a year — new federal entitlement program: paid family leave. This is a pet project of the president’s daughter Ivanka, and congressional Republicans should reject it out-of-hand. A one-size-fits-all leave program imposed by Washington on every business sector is a plan for disaster, an exercise in sentimentality that almost certainly would prove more expensive than its already large cost estimate. We need to see less of Washington’s heavy hand in the boardroom, not more of it.

Lifezette’s Jim Stinson focused on reaction to the budget in the media. “With Trump in Europe on his first foreign trip, the press let loose their tirades,” he wrote. “The New York Times could barely hide its contempt for the document.”

At Heat Street, Ian Miles Cheong scolded liberals on Twitter over reactions to the Manchester bombing on Monday night. David Leavitt, an “unemployable clown” and a “proud male feminist ally with a BA in Humanities and Social Sciences from University of Massachusetts Dartmouth” had, for example, tweeted jokes about Ariana Grande in the immediate aftermath of the attack. “Clearly reveling in the attention, he doubled down with even worse tweets until his former employers at CBS Local and AXS issued statements distancing their companies from him.” At Red State, Amelia Hamilton singled out a tweet by game developer and Democratic House candidate Brianna Wu that argued sexism played a role in the attack. “[T]here is one grain of truth in her tweet, which one can only assume was accidental,” Hamilton wrote. “According to her Twitter bio, Wu is also 'ready for a bolder Democratic party.' Maybe this version of the Democratic party will be ready to admit that Radical Islam has a misogyny problem.”

May 23 2017 6:29 PM

Today's Impeach-O-Meter: "Donald Trump United the Entire Muslim World" Edition

In the tradition of the Clintonometer and the Trump Apocalypse Watch, the Impeach-O-Meter is a wildly subjective and speculative daily estimate of the likelihood that Donald Trump leaves office before his term ends, whether by being impeached (and convicted) or by resigning under threat of same.

Fresh off stints in Saudi Arabia and Israel that consisted mostly of weird or bungled photo-op appearances, the Trump administration is somehow feeling very good about itself. Here is an actual quote from a "senior administration official" who did a briefing aboard Air Force One on Tuesday:

I think this trip was a big success because it was unexpected. It went in the heart of one of the, I always say that the president is always at his best when he’s doing big things that are unexpected. … He was able to really go into Saudi Arabia, the custodian of the holy mosques, and then Donald Trump united the entire Muslim world in a way that it really hasn’t been in many years.
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Presumably, this is a reference to Trump's speech in Saudi Arabia, which my colleague Fred Kaplan described as a signal to oppressive Sunni governments that they can keep on oppressing their people and demonizing Shiites, particularly those in Iran. So, in addition to being obviously ludicrous in the bigger scheme of things, this administration official's claim falls apart even if you read it extremely generously to mean that all Muslim governments liked Trump's speech. (Iran is also a Muslim country.)

All this aside, Trump himself seems to have made it through the day today without committing any horrific, crippling gaffes, which counts as a triumph at this point. We'll lower our likelihood accordingly.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Win McNamee/Getty Images, Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images, Drew Angerer/Getty Images, and Peter Parks-Pool/Getty Images.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Win McNamee/Getty Images, Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images, Drew Angerer/Getty Images, and Peter Parks-Pool/Getty Images.

May 23 2017 4:13 PM

Trump Called Terrorists "Losers." Is That OK?

Speaking in the West Bank today about the ISIS-claimed bombing in Manchester, England that killed 22 people, Donald Trump called the perpetrators of the terror attack "losers":

So many young, beautiful innocent people living and enjoying their lives, murdered by evil losers in life. I won’t call them monsters because they would like that term. They would think that’s a great name. I will call them, from now on, losers, because that’s what they are. They’re losers. And we’ll have more of them. But they’re losers. Just remember that.
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Some observers condemned Trump's words as crass and superficial, questioning the appropriateness of using the same epithet to describe an ISIS killer that he's previously used to describe Rosie O'Donnell and Ted Cruz:

While Trump is indeed well-known for using loser as a generic and more or less meaningless insult, there is actually some logic to deploying it in this instance, as he explained. ISIS has successfully recruited young men across the world by convincing them via social media that by joining the group they will become powerful, important contributors to a glorious collective mission. Using loser to create the impression that the Islamic "State" is in fact a rapidly deteriorating refuge of bottom-feeding criminals is, in addition to being close to the actual truth, of a piece with wider American/European efforts to prevent ISIS attacks by preventing ISIS terrorists from being recruited online in the first place.

The problem is not that Trump calls terrorists losers, but that he weakens a potentially useful word by throwing it around it carelessly elsewhere. In his own life, Trump behaves as if anyone who has not achieved his materialistic definition of success—anyone who isn't rich enough to install gold faucets in the bathroom of their private plane, basically—is a loser. He insists that anyone who has ever lost, at anything, should feel ashamed—a petulant, childish attitude that requires him to go to ridiculous lengths of illogic in arguing that, for example, he didn't really lose the popular vote. And while the Islamic State is certainly a spiritual and practical failure, our response to it doesn't need to involve endorsing Donald Trump's own weird personal definition of the word loser.

There's a definition of the term, though, that avoids this downside, a definition that I would argue is in fact the common one among decent human beings: of the loser not merely as someone who has ever lost, but as someone who reacts poorly to losing—who cheats and blames his or her way through life's inevitable unfairnesses and personal failures. In this understanding, a person who reacts to feeling, or being disenfranchised by killing children and teenagers*—rather than by, say, engaging in political organizing or some other form of non-murderous activism—is, indeed, a loser. Of course, so is someone who reacts to the richly self-induced failures of his presidential administration by making absurd accusations about Barack Obama wiretapping his apartment. So maybe Trump's speech Tuesday morning is a case of getting the right message from the wrong messenger.

*Update, May 23, 5 p.m.: This sentence originally stated that 22 teenagers and children were killed. We don’t yet know the ages of all of those who died.

May 23 2017 3:12 PM

Maine Voted for a Better Way to Vote. The Courts Just Shot It Down.

Back in November, residents of Maine voted for a better way to vote—and now they may never enjoy the privilege. In a unanimous decision, the Maine Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that the state’s ranked-choice voting system, chosen by voters at the ballot box in November, violates the state’s constitution.

Maine voters were the first in the nation to adopt the reform, in which voters rank candidates from 1 to 5, for elections for state and federal office. Also known as “instant runoff” voting, the system makes third-party candidates more viable by eliminating the spoiler effect. Voters who picked the candidate with the fewest first-place votes have their votes instantly reallocated until one candidate has a majority.

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Thanks to the popularity of independent candidates and the state's plurality system, no Maine governor has been elected by a majority in nearly 20 years.

Back in November, I wrote that the referendum was a rare victory for centrist candidates and independents, and a blow to party politics. Ranked-choice voting is popular around the world and has been used in some American cities. But Maine’s approval seemed to be a watershed moment.

Not anymore. The problem, the court said, is that the state constitution stipulates candidates should be elected “by a plurality of all votes.” “According to the terms of the Constitution, a candidate who receives a plurality of the votes would be declared the winner in that election,” the justices wrote. "The Act, in contrast, would not declare the plurality candidate the winner of the election, but would require continued tabulation until a majority is achieved or all votes are exhausted.”

Those plurality requirements date from the mid-19th century, after a spate of elections in which no candidates managed a majority, prompting repeat elections (for representatives), outcomes decided by sitting legislators (for senator and governor), general displeasure, and the threat of violence. In other words, the language was devised to avoid mandating majorities, but its broader aim was to restore voting choice to voters.

Supporters of Maine’s new system, which was supposed to take effect for elections next year, argued that ranked-choice voting does not consist of multiple rounds, but factors in all rankings at once. There is no sense in ascertaining a “plurality” until all votes have been allocated between two candidates, at which point plurality and majority are synonymous.

The path forward is difficult: Amending Maine’s constitution requires a two-thirds approval in both chambers of the statehouse, and another plebiscite. Maine State Sen. Cathy Green, a Democrat, said on Tuesday she will propose the referendum as a constitutional amendment.

The state’s Republicans have generally been opposed to the change, the Bangor Daily News writes, but they may be under pressure now to draft a constitutional change to comply with voters’ wishes.

May 23 2017 2:02 PM

Showing Screaming Teens After a Terror Attack May Be Compelling TV. But Is It Bad Journalism?

As news broke Monday night of the deadly blasts at a concert in Manchester, England, you could flip to any major news network and see similar visuals: shaky cellphone videos of people on the scene—many of them teenage girls—screaming and running for their lives. CNN and Fox News, in particular, seemed to play the same videos again and again, etching the haunting details into the memory of anyone watching for an extended period of time.

This element of the broadcasts was hardly novel: Scenes of chaos and panic are a staple of cable news coverage of terror attacks, from September 11 to Paris to Orlando. Periodically, media critics will point out that this sort of treatment—which emphasizes the drama, the human suffering, the terror itself—tends to serve the goals of the perpetrators. It helps to elevate a local tragedy to a global one, and to magnify the public’s fear and anger exponentially. In the long run, it may help to perpetuate a cycle of violence, of nonstate terror and state retribution.

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That critique seemed to pick up momentum Monday night on Twitter. The professor and technology critic Zeynep Tufekci advanced it, as she has in the past.

This time, more than usual it seemed, mainstream ears pricked up, as even the center-right MSNBC host Joe Scarborough retweeted and amplified her message.

On a night when the pain ran deep but scapegoats were hard to come by—ISIS hadn’t yet claimed responsibility for the attack—cable news producers seemed to run a close second to that guy who tweeted the bad joke as the villains of the night.

But was the backlash warranted?

In the grand scheme, the critics are no doubt right that graphic TV coverage of terror attacks plays into terrorists’ hands. And in this specific instance, the persistent replaying of shaky footage of screaming teenagers carried an extra whiff of unseemly sensationalism on the networks’ part. On the margins, there was room for the coverage to be more discrete and respectful of the victims.

But there’s also a ring of naiveté to suggestions that the answer is for cable news to simply stop playing such footage. TV producers aren’t the ones who made the attacks scary or dramatic. That’s the nature of the act, and to try to strip that dimension from the news coverage would verge on the dishonest and unjournalistic.

Likewise, in 2017 cable news isn’t driving the intense public interest in coverage of terror attacks. It’s responding to it. If CNN or Fox News didn’t air frightening footage, it would surely go viral on YouTube and any number of other social media outlets. That’s not to say major media outlets bear no responsibility for their decisions. But even if we stipulated that suppressing or downplaying public interest in footage of terror attacks were within their purview, it simply is not within their power. Terror attacks are news, and the terror they cause is part of the story.

In particular, the notion that the problem lies in playing these videos “on loop” misconstrues the nature of the medium. Cable news networks don’t play the clips again and again in order to bludgeon viewers who’ve already seen them five times. They do it, at least in part, because new viewers are constantly tuning in to see them.

I’m sympathetic to the view that the media, and cable news in particular, could do a better job covering terror attacks in proportion to the damage they inflict. The challenge of how to fill 24 hours of screen time each day leads to all sorts of knotty editorial decisions, and the endless rehashing of terror attacks that killed a few people, or even a few dozen, is among them. Contrast it with the coverage of, say, the March floods in Peru—which killed more than 100, destroyed some 14,000 homes, and left 150,000 people homeless, according to the New York Times—and it’s easy see the discrepancy. If you found yourself wondering, what March floods in Peru?, then Q.E.D. The problem here isn’t just the coverage’s tone or substance, but its extent. And it isn’t limited to cable news.

But on Monday night, for once, at least two of the major networks actually didn’t seem to drastically overplay the Manchester attacks. CNN and MSNBC interspersed their breaking news coverage with plenty of political coverage, including the ongoing sagas of Trump’s overseas trip and Russia ties. And by Tuesday morning, political coverage had already regained center stage. Granted, this would likely have been different had the attack been in the United States, or perhaps even a global capital such as Paris. And the balance probably had more to do with the urgency of the ongoing Trump story than with any great act of conscience on CNN or MSNBC’s part.

Only Fox News so far has really labored to ensure that Manchester dominates the agenda, and that can hardly come as a surprise. The network has been so loath to focus on Trump’s scandals that in recent days it had resorted to outrageous conspiracy-mongering as a diversionary tactic. The Manchester attack at last provided Fox News’ Trump loyalists with a plausible alternative, and they seized it.

May 23 2017 12:54 PM

The Obstruction of Justice Case Against the Trump White House Just Got a Lot Stronger

The Washington Post delivered yet another bombshell about the Russia investigation on Monday night, with Adam Entous and Ellen Nakashima reporting that at some point before the May 9 firing of James Comey,  senior White House officials “sounded out top intelligence officials about the possibility of intervening directly with Comey to encourage the FBI to drop its probe of Michael Flynn.” One official told the Post that the line of questioning from the White House amounted to, “Can we ask him to shut down the investigation? Are you able to assist in this matter?”

This is a significant scoop for at least two reasons. First, it adds to what we already know about a possible pattern of justice obstruction aimed at interfering with the FBI’s Russia investigation. Second, it suggests that Trump—who pressured Comey to go easy on Flynn in a private meeting at the White House—wasn’t the only member of his administration who took concrete steps to try and quash the Flynn probe.

May 23 2017 11:26 AM

Could the Manchester Attack Tilt Britain’s Coming Election?

Britain’s political parties halted campaigning after Monday’s bombing in Manchester, but all of them will have to grapple with the horrifying event in the  remaining weeks before a closely watched election on June 8. Prime Minister Theresa May called for the snap election in April, hoping to capitalize on her own popularity and the disarray of the opposition Labour Party to build her majority in Parliament and strengthen her hand in negotiations over Britain’s exit from the European Union.

While May’s Conservatives are still expected to win, the election is still a gamble, and recent polls had been tightening. The conventional wisdom is that terrorist attacks immediately preceding elections benefit the right and candidates with more hawkish national security policies, and that’s likely to be the case here. Conservatives had already argued that a victory by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn—a dovish leftist who has said positive things about Hamas and Hezbollah—would increase the risk of a terrorist attack. While Corbyn is personally pretty unpopular with voters, Labour’s new populist economic message, which includes scrapping tuition fees and renationalizing energy companies, has gotten some traction. We still don’t know much about the perpetrator and motives behind the attack (ISIS has claimed responsibility), but an event that puts the focus back on issues like terrorism, radicalization, and—perhaps—immigration will likely benefit the Conservatives, who sell themselves as the defenders of Britain’s border security, national sovereignty, and cultural identity.

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But the impact is also likely to be limited. For one thing, responding to terrorism has not been May’s strong suit. A proposed bill on countering extremism that she’s been pushing since she was home secretary in 2015 is reportedly close to being shelved amid concerns that it’s too vague in defining terms like extremism and British values.

The national mood over terrorism seems not to be dominated by fear. Such concerns certainly played a role in the successful Leave campaign in last year’s Brexit referendum, but it wasn’t the most salient issue for voters. Fifty percent said leaving the EU would make no difference in the risk of future terrorist attacks in Britain, and only 6 percent cited national security as the main reason for their leave votes.

To some extent, the British public may have already accepted the risk of a major terrorist attack. A poll last summer found that 84 percent of Britons believed another attack on one of the country’s cities was likely, but only 43 percent believed the government should do more to combat extremism; 32 percent thought it was doing as much as could be expected. Obviously, a recent attack as horrifying as the one in Manchester is likely to increase those numbers, but unfortunately, tragedies like these are no longer unexpected

May 23 2017 10:10 AM

Suspected Manchester Bomber Was 22-Year-Old Native of City

Here's what we know about last night's terror attack in Manchester, England:

  • What appears to have been a device detonated by suicide bomber exploded at 10:30 p.m. local time after an Ariana Grande concert in the 21,000-seat Manchester Arena.
  • At least 22 people have died as a result of the blast. The youngest known victim was eight years old.
  • ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attack, which is believed to have been perpetrated on site by a 22-year-old man named Salman Abedi who was born in Manchester to Libyan parents.
  • A 23-year-old man who is believed to have a connection to the incident was arrested in Manchester on Tuesday morning.
  • Donald Trump, speaking in the West Bank, called the perpetrators of the attack "evil losers."
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The incident is the U.K.'s deadliest terror attack since the 2005 London transit bombings in which 52 were killed. It follows a number of other recent high-casualty attacks in Europe, including the January 15 Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris; the November 2015 Bataclan attacks in Paris; the March 2016 bombings in Brussels; the July 2016 truck attack in Nice, France; and the December 2016 truck attack in Berlin.

This post has been updated.

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