Manchester bombing

Aftermath
Image Via Wikipedia.org

On the 22nd of May, a suicide bomber targeted the Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena, in Manchester England, in the second terrorist bombing the city has seen (The first being the 1996 IRA bombings). Of the 22,000 people at the concert, the bomb killed 23, including the 22 year old terrorist, and injured 116 more. Immediately afterwards, many tried to flee the arena, quickly leading to widespread panic across the city.

However, the immediate response from both citizens and emergency services was commendable. Concert goers where offered free rides, and lodging, over Twitter, or even just a place to charge phones so they could contact their parents. In particular, local Sikh communities and temples helped to respond; providing meals and safe places to stay.

Shortly after the bombing, police investigated a suspicious package near the arena. It turned out to be clothes, and was the last major cause for alarm that night. After the attack, the UK’s terror threat level was raised from Severe to Critical, though it has fallen back to Severe as of May 27th. As a further response, several members of the British Parliament proposed an automatic death penalty for suicide bombers.

The attacker was determined to be 22 year old Salman Abedi, a British Muslim of Libyan Descent. Well, at first, it was thought that Abedi had been supported (ISIS even claimed responsibility for the attack), but after a raid on his apartment, and further investigation, it was determined that he was largely acting alone. It is certainly possible that he sympathized with ISIS and their goals though.

Whatever the precise motives behind it, the bombing was a tragedy, and we hope it won’t be repeated.

GOP starts second push on healthcare

Ryancare
image via wnd.com

Despite the first version of the GOP health bill, meant to replace Obamacare (often dubbed either “Trumpcare” or “Ryancare,” after the president and the speaker of the house respectively), being pulled off the House floor before a vote, the Republicans are making another push at healthcare reform. This time around, the bill is much less controversial among Republicans, and thus passed through the House, promoting declarations of victory from both Republican leaders in congress and the Trump administration.

However, while getting such a high profile bill through the House might constitute the biggest legislative achievement yet for the Trump administration, it hardly constitutes a victory. In fact, at the very least, the existing bill has to make it through the Senate, and that is unlikely to happen; indeed, some Senate Republicans have already declared they are working on redrafting the bill. Even if the Senate version of the bill passes, it will then bounce back to the House, and potentially move between the two Houses of Congress for months.

And then, even if the Bill passes both Houses of Congress, and President Trump signs it into law, it still has one more hurdle – its staggering unpopularity. While Obamacare (for the first time in its lifetime) has a majority approval, the GOP replacement has had 40% at most, and perhaps as low as 30%. Furthermore, according to FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten, healthcare has been one of the most damaging issues to Trump’s approval ratings, and a move this unpopular could effectively extinguish what little political capital the administration has left.

Whatever the case, it will certainly be interesting to see how this situation develops, and what the end result is.

Trump’s first 100 days

Trump

Image Via Slate.com

Ever since the groundbreaking social welfare programs that Roosevelt rolled out during his first 100 days, this period has been one of the first points at which the public (mostly the media if we’re being honest) passes judgement on a new president. It is a mostly arbitrary number, but it’s round, and roughly corresponds to when the president’s honeymoon period ends. President Trump recently passed his 100 day mark (on April 28th), so despite the problems with just looking at the first 100 days, now seems as good of a time as any to review his progress so far.

As many have noted, Trump has hardly had the traditional honeymoon period that a president receives; in fact, according to Nate Silver, his popularity hovers around 40%, which is down from around 50% immediately after he was elected. For reference, after 100 days, Obama was at 65%, George W. Bush was at 62%, Bill Clinton was at 55%, and George H.W. Bush was at 54%. So, clearly, the public doesn’t think he’s doing a great job, but 40% is still 120 million people, so he does have some support.

In terms of actual achievements during his first 100 days, Trump again scores relatively low. While he passed 29 laws, more than Obama’s 14 in the same time period, this figure is somewhat misleading. Most of the laws he passed lacked substance, or where minor measures in the first place. As a result, only 133 pages were included in these laws, compared to Obama’s 1,602.

Executive orders have also been ineffective for Trump, with many being struck down by the courts, or amended until their original purpose wasn’t really fulfilled.

Arguably, the most successful, or at least most decisive, aspect of Trump’s presidency was his attack on a Syrian air base. This strike was ostensibly a response to Bashar Al-Assad’s continued use of chemical weapons against his own citizens. However, the PR disaster that surrounded it somewhat diminished the posturing.

Overall, it’s probably fair to say Trump isn’t a very effective president, but it’s also probably not fair to say he isn’t trying. He has pushed stuff forward, and as he catches on to Washington politics, may become more and more effective.

Gorsuch confirmed; Senate filibuster removed

Gorsuch

Gorsuch at his confirmation hearings image taken from CNN.com

Following a months long battle in the Senate, and possibly years if you count former president Obama’s attempt to nominate Merrick Garland, Mr. Gorsuch was finally confirmed as the 9th justice on the Supreme Court. The final vote count was 54-45 (Johnny Isakson (R-GA) abstained), making the vote substantially more narrow than previous votes.

The process was perhaps most notable for the so called “nuclear option” – removing the ability to filibuster the cloture vote on a Supreme Court Justice. Cloture is distinct from the actual vote in that it is a vote to stop debate – had the democrats been able to filibuster at that point, debate would never technically end, and it would thus be impossible to fill the seat.

This has huge implications for the Senate, especially concerning future Supreme Court nominations. Unless the Senate is tied 50-50 (it hasn’t been since 2000), no bipartisanship is required to confirm a justice.

The problem here is bipartisanship has historically been a necessary part of operation in the Senate. This has certainly taken a backseat in recent years, due to extremism and partisanship on both sides, but even ObamaCare need some GOP votes, if only to avoid filibuster.

Confirming a justice without the opportunity for the opposition to filibuster sets a bad precedent, one that could have potentially devastating consequences on bipartisanship in the Senate.

Vault 7

Spectacular Mountain

Vault 7 header
Imagie via wikileaks

In the midst of Paul Ryan’s failure to pass his healthcare bill, and other dramatic political news, a much more interesting story has probably been overlooked. This is of course the Vault 7 leaks, a series of around 8,000 documents that record some of the CIA’s methods of spying and tracking information. The person who leaked this information remains unknown, and the CIA refuses to comment, besides vague remarks.

The leaks first came to light on the website Wikileaks, the controversial platform run by Julian Assange, who has previously been accused of messing with the US elections. Along with the 8,000 documents, was a synopsis of the whole situation, along with a promise to release more similar documents in the future (none have yet arrived), and early access for reporters who did high quality reporting on the leaks.

Some of the more well known leaks do seem to be a major threat on privacy. For example, Weeping Angel, probably the most widely reported virus, allowed the CIA to access certain models of Samsung TVs, allowing them to be used as cameras and microphones to monitor the room the TV was in. This program does still appear to be in the relatively early stages (so far, it has only been delivered via flash drive, and can be removed by unplugging the TV), but is still probably one of the more scary programs that leaked.

In addition to Weeping Angel, there are a multitude of other programs, largely aimed at the Windows operating system and Apple iPhones (the first because of how common it is and the later because it is used by political elites the CIA wants to hack). Overall, the leaks are an astonishing look at the capabilities our intelligence agencies, or at least one of them.

Jeff Sessions causes more problems for the Trump administration

By Henry Kelly and Elliot Wall

Jeff Sessions
image via media.al.com

There is more trouble for the Trump administration as yet another member of his cabinet, this time his Attorney General Jeff Sessions, is caught up in the controversy that swirls around the new administration. This new controversy comes soon after General Michael Flynn resigned from the cabinet over allegations of contacting Russia, and the accusations currently being thrown at Sessions are arguably worse.

Specifically, the controversy revolves around Sessions’ meeting with with the Russian ambassador, that occurred while he was campaigning for Trump. The controversy arises from the Logan Act, a 18th century law that prevents unauthorized U.S. citizens from contacting foreign governments on their government’s behalf. In addition, some have linked it to claims that Russia tried to influence the U.S. elections, with some going as far to say Sessions had a hand in this alleged rigging.

Sessions’ defense against these claims is that these meetings were simply part of his duties as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Nancy Pelosi, Minority Leader in the House, and former member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, claims that Session didn’t have a reason to meet with the Russian ambassador, as neither did she when she served on the equivalent committee in the House. Her claims are somewhat deflated by the fact that she did indeed meet with the Russian ambassador during her tenure as Speaker of the House.

The controversy deepened however, after Sessions was accused of lying under oath about his Russian contacts (during his Senate confirmation hearing for Attorney General, he had stated that he had never had contact with Russia). Despite contesting that he hadn’t lied, due to the way the question was worded, Sessions eventually recused himself from all investigations regarding the relations between Russia and the Trump administration, agreeing that an unbiased observer was needed.

Combined with Michael Flynn’s resignation, this only furthered the widespread distrust in the Trump administration. While it’s difficult to say how the administration’s popularity was effected, Trump’s favorability rating didn’t drop significantly. Some suggest this is because only extremely dedicated Trump supporters are still supporting him. Others claim that this is because it really didn’t have an effect – it simply didn’t resonate enough. Either way, scandals particularly about Russian contact, will probably plague the Trump administration for the foreseeable future.

Puzder resigns: Acosta to take place

Puzder
image via CNN money
On February 15th, the Democrats finally scored a small victory against the Trump administration. This was the withdrawal of Andrew Puzder for his bid as secretary of labor; a bid that had garnered much controversy since the announcement. Ostensibly, the withdrawal was so he could “spend more time with his family,” but it was almost certainly because he and others in the administration felt he wouldn’t be confirmed by the Senate*.

Puzder, owner of the fast-food restaurants Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., was one of the most controversial nominees, along with Betsy DeVos and Rex Tillerson. For example, his opposition of the current, or indeed any, minimum wage practically incited riots on the left, and alienated many on the right. His opposition of rules that forced certain employees to be paid more for overtime also caused controversy, especially after it became widely known that his companies had been forced to pay 20 million dollars in lawsuits for violating these rules.

Despite the controversy surrounding his positions, he might have made it through – after all, Betsy DeVos and Rex Tillerson did, despite huge controversy surrounding them. However, the nail in his political coffin came when it came to light that he employed undocumented immigrants as maids in his house. Not only is this illegal, but it stands in contrast to much of the Republican platform, and because of this, it became impossible to get the votes needed for a confirmation. In addition, old accusations of spousal abuse hurt his image further, effectively sealing his fate.

Shortly after the withdrawal (during the same press conference where Trump thrice asserted he was not “ranting and raving”) the administration announced their new pick – Alexander Acosta, sitting Dean of Florida International University College of Law, and former Assistant Attorney General for Civil rights. So far, Acosta’s nomination has drawn far less criticism, and it looks like he should be confirmed with support from both sides.

*Puzder did later acknowledge that both accusations of spousal abuse and his employment of undocumented immigrants played a role in his withdrawal.

Tuesday’s Cruz-Sanders Obamacare debate

The Two Senators mid debate

image taken from: Masslive.com

Last Tuesday, February 7th, Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) faced off in a debate about the future of healthcare in America. More specifically, the pair sparred about the Affordable Care Act (often known as Obamacare) and whether or not it should be replaced by a new healthcare bill or not. Cruz took a pretty hardline stance against Obamacare, claiming that while healthcare was desirable, the ACA failed to provide it effectively. Meanwhile, Sanders took a more moderate stance, agreeing that the policy was flawed, but he wants to improve it rather than repeal it entirely.

The debate was a town hall style, meaning that instead of the moderators asking questions, they were delivered by the crowd. However, the questions were almost certainly pre-approved, so in practice there isn’t a very large difference.

In addition, a fair number of questions seemed like clear plants for one side or the other. For example, Sanders was told by a small business owner that Obamacare was limiting the expansion of her business, while Cruz faced questions from a woman who said her life was saved by the policy. Both handled the questions well, though Sanders often came off as somewhat patronizing towards the audience.

Because of Sander’s position on the issue, the two initially found themselves in some agreement. For example, they both thought that insurance companies were too powerful, but they had radically different solutions. Cruz wanted to increase competition by allowing insurance sales across state borders (in addition to other measures), while Sanders felt more government input was necessary. However, Sanders was less able to defend his position, and instead faltered under questions about the actual effectiveness of government input. Meanwhile, Cruz seemed to argue his case much better, and was able to come off as far more credible.

After the senator’s initial agreement, the debate went somewhat downhill. While the issues were definitely still discussed, the debate devolved a lot, to the point where the two debaters spent almost two minutes arguing about the relative merits of Vermont and Texas as states. To be fair, the moderators were able to keep the debate on track, (even connecting the state argument into the issues) and it was certainly more productive than any of the presidential debates. The last major point of the debate was Sanders talking about his own healthcare plan, something that Cruz demonstrated was financially unfeasible.

By the end of the debate, it seemed clear that Cruz had won pretty decisively. While no polling is currently available on who the voters think won the debate, Cruz was far more put together and well spoken, while Sanders was more discombobulated and often knocked off balance by Cruz. Both Senators still made reasonable and well thought out points, however, so it’s hard to say it was a complete route. Anyway, who won is more of a moot point, as neither candidate is up for election anytime soon. The more important thing is the discussion that was had.