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Weekly News Bites #011 | Trump's indictment uncertain, TikTok embedded data trackers, and Xi & Putin are best friends
Trump's grand jury canceled on Wednesday, TikTok parent company Bytedance embedded trackers in state government websites, and Xi traveled to Moscow to meet Putin
It’s FRIDAY, Mar. 24! YAY
Some of the stories this week!
Former President Donald Trump's Manhattan grand jury hearing in connection with the Stormy Daniels "hush money" case was unexpectedly canceled on Wednesday.
House Oversight Committee releases memo detailing the Biden family’s illicit dealings.
A new report finds that TikTok parent company Bytedance embedded data trackers in state government websites.
The Federal Reserve announced Wednesday that it would raise interest rates by a quarter point, setting a range of 4.75%-5.0%.
Xi Xinping and Putin promise to strengthen political and economic ties during Xi’s first visit to Russia since the Ukrainian war.
Amanda Bynes was admitted to a psychiatric hospital after roaming around Los Angeles naked and alone.
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➖ Former President Donald Trump's Manhattan grand jury hearing in connection with the Stormy Daniels "hush money" case was unexpectedly canceled on Wednesday due to an unidentified witness being unable to appear. The witness is believed to rebut Monday's testimony from Trump ally Robert Costello. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg is reportedly concerned about the grand jury voting against him and is pressuring the "Trump obsessed" to prove the case. There is reportedly major dissension inside Bragg's office, with many assistant district attorneys questioning the evidence against Trump. Bragg is considering charges against Trump that include falsifying business records with the intent to violate federal campaign finance rules, making the offense a felony punishable by up to four years in state prison.
➖ The Senate voted on a bipartisan proposal to rescind the powers given to George W. Bush to use military force in Iraq. Still, it rejected an amendment to repeal the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force. The US Senate has voted 68-27, with 19 Republicans joining Democrats, to begin debate on a bill that would repeal the authorizations for the use of military force (AUMFs) passed in 1991 and 2002 that paved the way for the US to get involved in the Middle Eastern wars. The bill seeks to reduce the president's unilateral authority to deploy troops, marking an effort by lawmakers to reassert congressional authority over declarations of war.
However, the US Senate rejected an amendment Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky) proposed to repeal the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which was implemented to respond to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The measure failed in a 9-86 vote, with both libertarian Republicans and liberal Democrats among its supporters. Paul argued that the 2001 AUMF had been used by both Democratic and Republican administrations to justify wars in over 20 countries and had no geographic limits. The Senate bill to repeal the two Iraq-related AUMFs has divided Republicans, with the debate set to continue.
➖ House Oversight Committee releases memo detailing the Biden family’s illicit dealings. Hallie Biden, President Biden's daughter-in-law, is among the family members who received payouts following a Chinese energy company's $3 million wire payment to an associate of Hunter Biden, according to a memo from the House Oversight and Accountability Committee. The Biden family received over $1 million in payments three months after the wire transfer cleared. Several payments were also sent to companies associated with Hunter Biden’s brother James Biden and his son. An unknown account identified only as "Biden" also received transfers from Rob Walker's company after the wire cleared. The memo questions why Hallie Biden, a school counselor, received two payments totaling $35,000 from Mr. Walker’s company after he received the multimillion-dollar payment from State Energy HK Ltd.
The committee is investigating the Biden family's business deals worldwide, concerned about national security implications resulting from foreign nationals' money. Committee investigators subpoenaed over a decade of records about Hunter Biden's business dealings. Republicans have accused the Treasury Department of obstructing the committee's investigation into the Biden family by not handing over suspicious activity reports.
➖ House Republicans are set to vote on the Parents' Bill of Rights Act, which aims to give parents a greater say in what is taught in public schools. Critics view the proposal as burdensome and believe it would fuel a far-right movement that has resulted in book bans, rewrites of history curricula, and raucous school board meetings across the country. The bill's number, H.R. 5, is built on five pillars, including parents' right to examine curricula and school library books, meet with educators at least twice each school year, review school budgets and spending, be notified of violent events in their child's school, and have elementary and middle schools get their consent to change a child's gender designation, pronouns or name. While supporters describe the bill as common-sense legislation to encourage parents to have greater input into what their children learn in school, critics argue that it could threaten LGBTQ students and even force schools to out them to their families.
➖ The House of Representatives failed to overturn President Joe Biden's first veto, which protected a Department of Labor rule allowing for environmental, social, and governance (ESG)-based investing. ESG investing has come under scrutiny following the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB), which had heavily invested in climate-related causes. A group of Republican attorneys general warned against the Biden administration's use of federal regulation to push the climate agenda, stating that such efforts contributed to SVB's fall. The Senate previously passed an anti-ESG measure with bipartisan support, and the House Republicans aimed to peel off vulnerable Democrats to block Biden's regulatory agenda. However, the House failed to muster the two-thirds majority needed to override the veto. The Senate will not vote to override the veto, sparing vulnerable Democrats from having to buck the president again.
➖ Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tx) proposed a constitutional amendment to limit the number of Supreme Court justices to nine, thereby preventing Democrats from expanding the bench to dilute the current conservative majority. The idea of expanding the court has gained popularity among liberals after former President Trump appointed three justices, giving the court a 6-3 conservative majority. However, President Biden and other Democrats have not supported the idea. Proponents of the expansion argue that it will prevent effective minority rule by an activist conservative court, while critics suggest limited terms for justices to reduce the court's power. The Cruz bill has received support from 10 other Senate Republicans.
➖ As states begin determining who is eligible for Medicaid after the pandemic policy of guaranteed eligibility ends, health officials are concerned about the chaos that may ensue. Millions of vulnerable people may lose coverage without a safety net, and experts estimate that up to 15 million people could be at risk. While some states are moving quickly through the redetermination process, others will take up to a year. Many people are unaware of the impending change and may be surprised to find themselves without coverage. The Biden administration is working to minimize churn, but administrative barriers like lost or incomplete paperwork could cause up to 7 million people to lose coverage. The impact of the change will be felt differently depending on where a person lives, with non-expansion states like Tennessee and Texas having stricter eligibility requirements than expansion states like Virginia.
➖ New report finds that TikTok parent company Bytedance embedded data trackers in state government websites. The cybersecurity company Feroot Security has discovered that over two dozen state governments have included web-tracking code produced by TikTok's parent company ByteDance, on official websites. This includes sites where the app has been banned from state networks and devices. ByteDance's code on state websites means that the governments indirectly participate in data collection efforts for a foreign-owned company, raising concerns over US national security and Americans' privacy. The code is used to measure the effectiveness of advertising campaigns purchased on TikTok. It has been called a threat to privacy by security experts, who say the code can collect sensitive information entered on websites.
In light of security concerns, TikTok is facing a potential nationwide ban as both Democrats and Republicans agree that it poses a national security threat due to its Chinese parent company ByteDance's links to the Chinese Communist Party. TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified before Congress that the company had built a "firewall" between American user data and its Chinese parent company. However, critics argue that Chinese law mandates that ByteDance still has to answer to the Chinese government, regardless of being a private company. Several bills are pending for a TikTok ban if it doesn't split from ByteDance, but with 150 million American users, a sale seems unlikely. Additionally, the app has faced criticism for contributing to mental health problems for kids, especially teen girls.
➖ The General Services Administration (GSA), a federal agency that manages technology for other agencies, has admitted to misconduct it calls "serious" and "completely unacceptable." The GSA's Technology Transformation Service (TTS) sold software to federal agencies for nearly $200 million, claiming it met the highest security requirements, but failed to inform anyone that it did not use facial recognition software required on one million sensitive accounts because of "equity" concerns. The TTS also diverted half of its time to side projects, such as creating a social justice robot, and showed clear political bias, plotting to refuse work for the Trump administration. Despite being slammed four times by the inspector general, nothing seems to change.
➖ Thousands of Los Angeles school workers end three-day strikes to demand higher pay and more work hours for part-time employees. After a three-day strike by education workers in the second-largest school district in the United States, Los Angeles Unified School District will reopen on Friday for its 420,000 students. The work stoppage, which ended on Thursday, saw 30,000 workers, backed by 35,000 unionized teachers, walk off the job seeking an increase to what they call poverty wages averaging $25,000 per year. The union demanded a 30% salary increase plus an additional $2 per hour for the lowest-paid workers. Although the district had offered a 23% raise plus a 3% bonus, workers are willing to do more strike days if necessary.
➖ Stanford University Dean Tirien Steinbach has been suspended after supporting student protesters who shouted down Federal Judge Kyle Duncan, a Trump appointee, attempting to speak on campus. Around 100 students screamed at Duncan, calling him racist and anti-trans, and disrupted his speech to the point where he was forced to leave. Steinbach, the school's Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, supported the students' efforts and told Duncan they were protesting racist policies he had helped uphold. The Law School's dean later announced that all students at the law school would be required to undergo free speech and First Amendment training. Critics argue that protests against conservative speakers and students on campuses are hardly limited to Stanford.
➖ Idaho hospital stops offering labor and delivery care as the state experiences a significant physician shortage due to protests against the state’s abortion ban. Sandpoint, Idaho"‘s only hospital, Bonner General Health, has decided to stop providing obstetrical services due to the state government's stringent restrictions on reproductive care. The hospital cited the loss of pediatrician coverage, changing demographics, and Idaho's strict ban on abortion as reasons for the decision. The hospital plans to continue providing women's health services and coordinating care for OB patients scheduled to deliver in May and after. GOP-led states have moved to curtail abortion after the Supreme Court struck down the nearly 50-year-old Roe v. Wade decision last year. Bonner General Health delivered 265 babies in 2022.
➖ Treasury Sec. Yellen says regulators would step in to help other banks cover deposits to “prevent contagion” from the fall of SVB. Many accuse Yellen of offering a government bailout of large banks, fearing a repeat of the 2008 crash. In response to the recent closure of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen has praised the government's "decisive and forceful" actions in strengthening public confidence in the banking system and protecting the US economy. The government invoked "systemic risk exceptions" to guarantee billions of uninsured deposits. Yellen has emphasized the need to focus on smaller regional and community banks to prevent deposit flights. However, some banking groups have called for universal deposit guarantees, while conservative Republicans oppose expanding the FDIC's current $250,000 limit. It remains to be seen what further interventions may be necessary to prevent a deeper crisis.
➖ The Federal Reserve announced Wednesday that it would raise interest rates by a quarter point, setting a range of 4.75%-5.0%. The move was made to combat inflation, as consumer prices have been consistently rising at a rate of over 6% year-over-year since October 2021, exceeding the historical inflation target of 2%. This is the ninth rate hike in the past year and the highest rate since 2007. The decision was made amidst a series of bank failures, including Silicon Valley Bank, which faced a liquidity crunch due to the purchase of US government bonds trading at a discount as interest rates increased, leading to a bank run. The benchmark rate set by the Fed significantly impacts consumer borrowing costs, including purchases of cars and homes and the ability to start new businesses. Please refer to the attached link for a deeper understanding of how the federal funds rate affects the broader economy.
➖ A federal appeals court in Connecticut has agreed to reconsider a lawsuit challenging a policy that allows male-bodied “transgender” athletes to compete against women in high school sports. The lawsuit alleges that the policy discriminates against “cisgender” women and girls, denying them fair competition. A panel of three judges originally rejected the case in September, but the majority of judges in the 2nd U.S. Circuit of Appeals have now agreed to rehear the case. The lawsuit was brought by four female high school athletes who were denied opportunities due to the policy. The Alliance Defending Freedom represented the plaintiffs and called for the protection of women’s athletic opportunities.
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➖ Moderna to price its Covid vaccines at $130 per dose. Moderna's CEO, Stephane Bancel, defended the company's plan to increase the price of its COVID-19 vaccine at a U.S. Senate committee hearing, stating that the price hike was necessary because the shots will no longer be purchased by the government, leading to a loss of economies of scale. The company plans to sell the vaccines in single-dose vials or pre-filled syringes for the commercial market, which will cost more than the 10-dose vials sold to the government. Bancel also said that the company expected to make more doses than needed to ensure enough supply for the private market and had calculated the wasted shots into the price. Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders expressed his concern that the price hike could make the vaccine unaffordable for millions of Americans, given the government's contributions and assistance in developing the vaccine. Moderna has forecasted $5 billion in COVID vaccine sales this year, with decreasing demand leading to an $18.4 billion windfall in 2022.
➖ On Friday, President Emmanuel Macron announced his determination to move forward with his proposed reforms, despite a union leader's request to suspend a new pension law. This decision was made amidst a wave of street violence, which has been some of the most severe that France has experienced in recent years. In France, violent clashes have erupted between police and protesters over the government's pension reforms, which would raise the pension age by two years to 64. Despite calls from the head of the CFDT labor union to suspend the new law for six months and seek compromises, President Emmanuel Macron has said he will continue with the reforms and condemned the violence. The protests have led to 441 police officers injured, 475 arrests, and damage to property across the country. The situation has become the most serious challenge to Macron's authority since the "Yellow Vest" revolt four years ago. While some, like Paul, a Parisian retiree, condemn the violence, others, like 30-year-old Bastien Mrozovski, are more understanding, especially as polls show many are upset with Macron's leadership style.
➖ Xi Xinping and Putin promise to strengthen political and economic ties during Xi’s first visit to Russia since the Ukrainian war. On Tuesday, Chinese leader Xi Jinping arrived in Moscow for what Chinese officials claim is a mission to broker a peace deal between Russia and Ukraine, marking China’s most robust show of support for Russia since the country first invaded Ukraine over a year ago. Putin wants to send a message to the West that Russia has a powerful new ally. Just before Xi’s arrival, a CCP newspaper published an article from Putin blaming the West for “provoking” the conflict and “diligently fueling” it. China has framed Xi’s trip as a “mission of peace,” Xi has reportedly reached out to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. However, experts suggest that China is clinging to this “peacemaker” role to cover for its strengthening relations with Russia and that China may agree to provide arms to the Russian military during the talks.
➖ Secret schools for girls open across Afghanistan as a backlash against the Taliban’s ban on girls attending school continues to grow. The Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, revived the Taliban's signature policy from the 1990s and banned girls from attending secondary schools, causing him to come under intense pressure, even from within his own movement, to reverse the ban. Now, secret schools have sprung up across Afghanistan, and though some have been discovered and forced to close, many continue to operate despite the Taliban's tight grip on the country. Taliban ministers have repeatedly pressed their leader in private to relent on the ban on girls' education. The leader's orders haven't been entirely obeyed, and there have been some splits within the group. Some girls are using legal ways to learn, and Radio Begum, a station based in Kabul, broadcasts six hours of school classes a day.
➖ China says a U.S. warship illegally entered waters in the South China Sea. China's military claims that they drove away a US destroyer that illegally entered waters around the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, stating that it undermined peace and stability. However, the US Navy disagrees and says that the destroyer was conducting routine operations and was not expelled. As tension between the two nations continues to grow, the US has been trying to strengthen alliances in the Asia-Pacific region to counter China's assertiveness in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait.
➖ In the Netherlands, the BoerBurgerBeweging (BBB) or Farmer-Citizen Movement party has caused a political upset by winning the most Senate seats in provincial elections. The BBB rode a wave of protests against the government's environmental policies, particularly aimed at cutting nitrogen pollution on farms, an issue on which the party was founded in 2019. The government's aim to cut nitrogen emissions in half by 2030 has been met with opposition from the BBB, who believe the problem has been exaggerated and unfairly balanced against farmers. The BBB's surge in popularity reflects growing distrust of the government, with Prime Minister Mark Rutte's conservative VVD party dropping from 12 to 10 seats in the Senate.
➖ Amanda Bynes was admitted to a psychiatric hospital after roaming around Los Angeles naked and alone. Former child star Amanda Bynes was recently spotted walking with a fan in Hollywood just days before she was placed on a psychiatric hold. In a TikTok video, Bynes could be seen holding onto the TikToker's arm as they walked together. The TikToker explained that she had seen Bynes walking on St. Patrick's Day and wanted to say hello. The TikTok video received an outpouring of love and support for the actress, who was placed on a psychiatric hold for roaming the streets of Los Angeles naked just two days after the video was filmed.
➖ Country star Maren Morris, a Texas native, made headlines by daring Tennessee to arrest her after introducing her 2-year-old son to drag queens. This comes after Tennessee became the first state to ban drag shows on public property and near schools, a move that Morris and other celebrities, including RuPaul and Melissa McCarthy, have criticized. Morris also purposely wore a suit to demonstrate the subjectivity of gender expression. The singer was performing at the "Love Rising" benefit concert, which included other stars like Hayley Williams and Hozier.