Morning Read Monday January 7 2019


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Khamenei aide says U.S. approached him in Kabul seeking talks with IranA close aide to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Monday U.S. officials had approached him during a visit he made last month to Afghanistan to request talks with Tehran, Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency reported.

“During my visit to Kabul last month, the Americans… asked to hold talks,” the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, was quoted as saying, without specifying what the U.S. side wanted to discuss.

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‘Yellow vests’ storm French ministry as protests turn violent

Hundreds of women on Sunday marched in Paris to reclaim France’s “yellow vest” movement from violent activists, a day after protesters smashed their way into a government ministry. The women, wearing yellow vests, turned out after 50,000 people returned to the streets of France on Saturday amid violent clashes with police.

The women’s demonstrations came as Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire called for an end to the “yellow vest” unrest, saying “those who believe in democracy” should now say “that’s enough”, he told Europe 1 radio.

The latest opinion poll, published on Thursday by Odoxa Dentsu, indicated 55 percent support the protests — a figure which, although lower than the 75 percent back in November, is still important enough to suggest the anti-austerity movement retains political clout. [YAHOO]

Theresa May urges MPs to back Brexit deal ahead of perilous voteU.K. prime minister Theresa May used a television and print media blitz Sunday to reject calls for the second referendum on Britain’s EU membership. May urged members of parliament to back the Brexit deal she negotiated with the European Union and insisted the Parliament vote will happen as planned mid-January. She refused to rule out repeated votes on the same deal if she loses first time round.

“This deal delivers on the referendum, protects jobs and security and provides certainty for citizens and businesses,” Theresa May said in a television interview Sunday with the BBC’s Andrew Marr. “Don’t let the search for the perfect Brexit be the enemy of the good,” May said, a reference to the criticisms of hardline Brexiteers and EU supporters such as former European Commissioner Peter Mandelson, who argue the deal undermines British sovereignty and should be rejected.

May slammed MPs asking for a second referendum. “It would divide our country and we wouldn’t be able to organize a referendum before March 29,” she said, pointing out it would therefore require an extension of Article 50 (the treaty article allowing withdrawals from the EU). Brexit will take effect March 29. [POLITICOEU]

Bolton promises no troop withdrawal from Syria until ISIS contained, Kurds’ safety guaranteed

President Trump’s national security adviser sought to reassure allies Sunday that the United States would be methodical about withdrawing troops from Syria, promising that the pullout would not occur until the Islamic State was fully eradicated from the country and Turkey could guarantee the safety of Kurdish fighters.

National security adviser John Bolton’s comments, reported by the Associated Press, are the clearest statement yet from the administration about how officials plan to execute Trump’s abrupt December announcement that he would pull troops from Syria, surprising allies and advisers, sparking an outcry from lawmakers, and prompting the resignation of former defense secretary Jim Mattis.

“There are objectives that we want to accomplish that condition the withdrawal,” Bolton said while speaking to reporters in Jerusalem, on a trip intended to allay Israeli leaders’ concerns about Trump’s announcement. “The timetable flows from the policy decisions that we need to implement.” [WASHPOST]

US ambassador signals further delay in Trump Mideast peace planPresident Donald Trump’s long-awaited plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace is expected “within the next several months,” the US ambassador to Israel has said, signaling a further delay in its release.

“I would say within the next several months,” ambassador David Friedman told journalists travelling with US National Security Adviser John Bolton after they arrived in Israel on Saturday, according to a transcript released Sunday by the US embassy. “We want to release it in a way that gives it the best chance of getting a good reception.”

He said that Israeli elections “are a factor, but not the only factor,” adding that the plan is “pretty much completed” aside from some “wordsmithing and smoothing.” “The challenge to a peace plan is making the case for a much more sober assessment of the realities in this region,” he said. [FRANCE24]

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Millions could face severe cuts to food stamps due to government shutdown

The partial government shutdown glided into its third week Saturday with no end in sight. If the government is not reopened before February, millions of Americans who receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — the nation’s food stamp program — could have their assistance disrupted.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees SNAP at the federal level, is one of the agencies unfunded during the partial government shutdown. Although SNAP is automatically renewed, it has not been allocated funding from Congress beyond January. Congress has appropriated $3 billion in emergency funds for SNAP distribution, but that would not cover all of February’s obligations.

In September 2018, the last month for which data is available, $4.7 billion in SNAP benefits were disbursed throughout every state. If the shutdown continues through March, there will be no remaining funding for SNAP, endangering food security for millions of Americans. Americans who benefit from both SNAP and WIC would be particularly affected in February. [CBSNEWS]

Overheated e-cigarette battery causes small fire on flightAmerican Airlines says a passenger’s electronic cigarette caused a small fire on a flight from Las Vegas to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

American Airlines spokeswoman Leslie Scott says the e-cigarette’s battery overheated shortly after Flight 168 landed Friday night. Scott says flight attendants stamped out the fire. No one was injured. The 138 passengers and crew of six taxied to a gate.

The U.S. Transportation Department has banned e-cigarettes from checked bags because of the potential for them to catch fire. Passengers may put then in carry-on bags, but cannot use them aboard planes.

Scott says the incident was reported to the Federal Aviation Administration, which tracks such events. [AP]

Nevada inmate whose execution called off found dead in cellA twice-convicted murderer who declared he wanted to die and who Nevada officials said tried several times to kill himself after two scheduled lethal injections were postponed has been found dead from an apparent hanging, officials said Saturday.

Scott Raymond Dozier, 48, was found unresponsive in his solo death-row cell at the state’s maximum-security prison in Ely, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Brooke Santina told The Associated Press.

Dozier had said repeatedly he wanted to die rather than live the rest of his life in prison. “I’ve been very clear about my desire to be executed … even if suffering is inevitable,” Dozier said in a handwritten note to a state court judge who postponed his execution in November 2017 over concerns the untried drug regimen could leave him suffocating, conscious and unable to move.

But his bid to become the first Nevada inmate put to death since 2006 was called off twice amid court fights over a three-drug combination that had never been used in the U.S.: the sedative midazolam, the powerful opioid fentanyl and a muscle-paralyzing agent called cisatracurium. [AP]

Fake bomb with ‘anti-Jewish writings’ on its package left at UC BerkeleyA resident of Berkeley, California brought a fake bomb with “anti-Jewish writings” on the package into the University of California Berkeley Police Department.

Michael Fleming, 48, was charged last week with sending a false bomb, designed to cause fear for ones’ safety. He was not charged with a hate crime despite the words on the bomb’s outside packaging, and despite making “racial slurs towards the Jewish Culture” and yelled anti-Jewish statements “consistent” with the wording on the package during his arrest, Berkleyside reported, citing police. A Nazi symbol also was drawn on the box, which included anti-Semitic statements and noted “bomb inside.”

A bomb technician x-rayed the box and discovered that there was no bomb inside, according to reports.

Fleming was captured on security videotape leaving the package in the lobby of the campus police. A plea hearing in the case is scheduled for Friday, Jan. 11. [JTA]

Explosives to Be Used in the Demolition of a Tappan Zee Bridge SpanIt will sound like fireworks and take less than 30 seconds for a 6,500-ton portion of the old Tappan Zee Bridge to reach the Hudson River.

Once the smoke clears, the once-three-mile bridge that carried 140,000 cars over the Hudson River each day at its peak and connected Westchester and Rockland Counties will be one step closer to being a memory.

The 672-foot east span of the former bridge, which is closest to the Westchester side, will be demolished using explosives at 9:30 a.m. on Jan. 12.

The original plan was to dismantle the whole bridge piece by piece rather than to use explosives, which officials worried might adversely affect Hudson River fish and wildlife. But in September, workers dismantling the east span heard a loud popping sound and soon discovered that the structure was unstable. Taking that part of the bridge apart piece by piece could lead to collapse, Tappan Zee Constructors, the company responsible for the demolition, determined.

After the demolition, only a portion of the west span, nearer Rockland County, will remain; it will continue to be dismantled piece by piece, according to Tappan Zee Constructors. [NYT]

FCC: New York is siphoning millions meant for emergency communicationsNew York’s 911 communication services are in a state of emergency themselves as Albany siphons off hundreds of millions of dollars in much-needed funds to state coffers, an FCC commissioner says.

Under a federal statute, states are allowed to collect taxes on cellphones but must use all the money for emergency communications services. However, New York “diverts” some of the money to other things, a federal regulator says in a new report.

The Federal Communication Commission’s Michael O’Rielly complains that New York is now one of only three states that continue the practice. New York uses these 911 funds “for either non-public safety or unspecified uses,” according to the annual FCC report, titled “On State Collection and Distribution of 911 and Enhanced 911 Fees and Charges.” [NYP]

Palm Tree becomes first official ultra-Orthodox town in AmericaOrange County gained its 21st town and New York got its first new town in 38 years last week, when the Town of Palm Tree quietly came into existence on Jan. 1 to split off the Village of Kiryas Joel from the Town of Monroe.

The new town is the result of a referendum of Monroe voters in 2017 and, before that, a legal deal reached by Kiryas Joel officials and leaders of the United Monroe citizens group to resolve a pitched battle over Kiryas Joel annexing land from Monroe. That deal supported the formation of a town that would include 164 acres Kiryas Joel already had annexed and 56 additional acres.

The future Palm Tree residents in November elected their Town Board, led by longtime Kiryas Joel Mayor Abe Wieder, who is now Palm Tree supervisor as well. The new board is expected to adopt a budget by Jan. 20, enabling the county to mail 2019 tax bills to Palm Tree property owners on Feb. 1. [RECORDONLINE]

City’s top cop worries about kids smoking weed, grow house firesThe NYPD knows that legal weed is coming, but it’s top enforcer has fears about underage smoking and dangerous marijuana grow houses.

“We have to make sure that we’re able to address people that are under 21 that are using marijuana to make sure there are sanctions for that and also to keep young people safe,” NYPD commissioner James O’Neill said Sunday on radio host John Catsimatidis’ AM 970 show, The Cats Roundtable.

“I’m concerned about the gray and the black markets for marijuana,” O’Neill said. “We sent people from the NYPD out to Colorado and Washington and [California] to take a look at what’s happening out there.” He added the city is working with Albany to work some concerns into pot legalization legislation.

“There’s a proposal out there that people are going to be able to grow their own marijuana in their houses,” he said. “We really really have to get this right.” [NYP]

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As shutdown drags on, Trump officials make new offer, seek novel ways to cope with its impactsTrump administration officials began taking extraordinary steps to contain the fallout from the partial federal government shutdown Sunday, as the budget impasse between the president and congressional Democrats showed no signs of nearing a breakthrough.

As agencies sought to deal with cascading problems across the federal bureaucracy, acting White House budget director Russell T. Vought sent congressional leaders a letter detailing the administration’s latest offer to end the shutdown. It demanded $5.7 billion “for construction of a steel barrier for the Southwest border” but also proposed “an additional $800 million to address urgent humanitarian needs” and unaccompanied migrant children arriving at the border.

The administration has also signaled it would be willing to restore some version of an Obama-era program that allowed children in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to apply for refugee resettlement in the United States, according to an official with knowledge of the proposal. But a border wall is “central to any strategy,” Vought wrote, and Democrats — who have said the wall should not be tied to an agreement to reopen the government — remained skeptical of any overtures by the president, suggesting that there is no end in sight to the shutdown, which has entered its third week.

A Democratic official familiar with the meeting said no progress was made over the weekend, in large part because the White House hasn’t been forthcoming about how the money would be used or why the request is for so much more than the administration sought only a few months ago. [WASHPOST]

Trump Eyes Radical Move to Escape Impasse Over Wall and Shutdown Donald Trump edged closer toward a radical move to fund his border wall after the prospect of a deal with the Democrats to re-open government dimmed and the president’s political leverage appeared to dissipate.

Trump on Sunday renewed his threat to bypass negotiations with Democratic lawmakers and instead declare a national emergency on the southern border with Mexico. While the possible move was revealed just days ago, White House lawyers and key budget staff have been looking into it for weeks, a person familiar with the matter said on condition of anonymity.

Some advisers close to Trump are recommending that he declare a national emergency, despite wide recognition that it would be immediately challenged in court — Democratic lawmakers said so last week after Trump floated the idea publicly. “I may declare a national emergency dependent on what’s going to happen over the next few days,” Trump told reporters on Sunday, adding that constructing the wall was “a very important battle to win.” [BLOOMBERG]

Biden Sees Himself as Democrats’ Best Hope in 2020, Allies Say Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. is in the final stages of deciding whether to run for president and has told allies he is skeptical the other Democrats eyeing the White House can defeat President Trump, an assessment that foreshadows a clash between the veteran Washington insider and the more liberal and fresh-faced contenders for the party’s 2020 nomination.

Many Democratic voters, and nearly all major Democratic donors, are keenly interested in Mr. Biden’s plans because of their consuming focus on finding a candidate who can beat a president they believe represents a threat to American democracy. But there is also a rising demand in the party for a more progressive standard-bearer who reflects the increasingly diverse Democratic coalition.

The 76-year-old former vice president, who leads the field in initial national and Iowa polls, has not yet told his allies that he has decided to run. And they emphasize that Mr. Biden’s decision will not be final until he says it for himself, noting that family considerations are central. Mr. Biden sought the presidency twice before but he has also considered it at least as many times before bowing out. But Mr. Biden has indicated that he is leaning toward running and will most likely make a decision within the next two weeks, according to Democrats within and beyond his inner circle who have spoken to him recently.

The former vice president told a senior Democratic official last week that he is both likely to run and that his aides have told him he must move quickly in this primary. [NYT]

Iowa Democrats fill events to the rafters with 13 months left before the 2020 caucusesPeople stood in parking lots, jostled into front yards and packed into the rafters to witness Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s inaugural appearances here in the first presidential caucus state.

It was part of a trend: In December, the liberal group Progress Iowa doubled the size of its annual meeting from four years ago, with 300 activists eager to participate. In October, Iowa Democrats sold out their 1,500-seat dinner in Des Moines, which featured another potential contender, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey.

The Iowa caucuses remain 13 months away, but a pent-up demand for change in the White House is tangible among Democrats eager for the 2020 campaign to start in earnest. The throngs of voters bombarding events in Iowa are testament to something fearful for Republicans: The huge tide of Democratic voters who powered the party’s 2018 gains have not lost interest as attention turns to the 2020 presidential race.

Iowans cited a slew of reasons for their eagerness to begin the lengthy nomination process to settle on a leader to go up against President Trump. There were the tax cuts that one voter called “a waste of time and money;” the trade war with China depressing demand for exports and hurting farmers; the hostility toward immigrants, a labor pool heavily used on Iowa farms; the rolling back of environmental regulations that impact Iowa’s rivers; a foreign-policy approach changing the country’s status in the world; and the general chaos and lack of civility in the White House. [WASHPOST]

Israel to Seek $250 Billion for Jewish Assets Lost in Mideast

Israel is expected to seek an estimated $250 billion in compensation for assets abandoned by Jews who fled Middle Eastern countries, Hahadashot Television reported.

Israel hired an unidentified international accounting firm to estimate damages it should seek under an expected U.S. peace plan, the report said. Israel will seek $50 billion for Jewish property in Tunisia and Libya, and claims for assets left in Morocco, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Iran and Yemen are expected to reach $200 billion, Hahadashot added.

The Palestinians said a decade ago they would demand more than $100 billion in compensation from Israel for property abandoned in 1948, when the country came into being, the report said. [BLOOMBERG]

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Powell tells markets Fed is flexible and aware of risks

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell on Friday sought to ease market concerns that the U.S. central bank was ignoring signs of an economic slowdown, saying he was aware of the risks and would be patient and flexible in policy decisions this year.

Speaking after months of volatility in world bond and stock markets, Powell avoided some of the communication missteps that in the past have roiled rather than calmed investors. He also pledged to stay in his job even if asked to quit by President Donald Trump, who has been critical of him.

Echoing a more sympathetic tone recently espoused by some of his colleagues, Powell said the Fed was “listening” to markets and would balance the steady flow of strong economic data against the array of risks – from slowing global growth to worries about the U.S.-China trade war – that have spooked investors. [REUTERS]

Airports seeing rise in security screeners calling off workThe federal agency tasked with guaranteeing U.S. airport security acknowledged an increase in the number of its employees calling off work during the partial government shutdown. Employees of the Transportation Security Administration are expected to work without pay during the shutdown because their jobs are considered essential.

The TSA said in a statement Friday that call outs that began over the holiday period have increased. The agency did not say how many of its employees have called out, but it said the call outs have had “minimal impact given that there are 51,739 employees supporting the screening process.” The statement said wait times “may be affected” but so far “remain well within TSA standards.”

“TSA is closely monitoring the situation,” the agency statement said. “Security effectiveness will not be compromised.”

The Department of Homeland Security and President Donald Trump pushed back Saturday on suggestions that the call outs represented a “sickout” that was having significant consequences on U.S. air travel. [AP]

Marriott Says Hackers Swiped Millions of Passport Numbers

Marriott International said fewer customers were affected in a massive data breach than initially feared but confirmed that hackers had compromised the passport numbers of millions of people in what security analysts have described as a potential foreign-intelligence gold mine.

Marriott, the world’s largest hotel company, disclosed in November that a hack in the reservation database for its Starwood properties may have exposed the personal information of up to 500 million guests. The incident marked one of the largest data breaches in history, rivaled only by a hack of Yahoo Inc. in 2013 and 2014.

The company said early Friday in a release that the number of guests involved in the data breach is lower than the original 500 million, but it didn’t specify a number. Marriott said a total of about 383 million records was “the upper limit” for the number potentially compromised in the incident. That figure includes passport numbers, email addresses and payment-card data of some guests, the company said.

Marriott said that in many instances, there appear to be multiple records for the same guest, meaning that it is unlikely 383 million people were affected. [WSJ]

U.S. enjoys best manufacturing jobs growth of the last 30 yearsThe U.S. had as many people working in the manufacturing sector in December as it did 69 years ago.

The 32,000 positions added in December took the total number of positions in manufacturing to 12.84 million. In November 1949, there were 12.88 million manufacturing workers, at the end of a sharp recession.

The economy in 1949 was unlike that of the U.S. in 2019 in another way. Then, some 30% of American civilian workers outside the farm sector were in manufacturing; now, that percentage stands at just 8.5%, about as low as it’s ever been. The hollowing out of America’s industrial base, and the loss of the highly paid jobs for the high-school educated that went along with them, goes some way to reflect the tectonic shifts in U.S. politics that set the stage for the election of President Donald Trump and his brand of populism.

Last year, 264,000 new manufacturing jobs were added, representing the highest number of new workers since 1988. As a percent of the total workforce, manufacturing rose for the first time since 1984. [MARKETWATCH]

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