Keeping up with the news is hard. So hard, in fact, that we’ve decided to save you the hassle by rounding up the most significant, unusual, or just plain old mind-blowing stories each week.
If you’re a total politics dork (welcome to the club!), Tuesday, August 21, 2018, was like all your geeky Christmases come at once. Not one, not two, but three major political stories splashed within minutes of one another . . . and that was just in America!
Fear not, though, those of you who come here hoping for some nonpolitical stories. There was plenty else happening, too. But first, let’s go swimming in the filthy, intoxicating waters of news from Capitol Hill.
It was Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s first conviction. On Tuesday, former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was found guilty of eight counts of fraud, including tax fraud, bank fraud, and hiding foreign bank accounts. Although 10 other charges were dismissed, the former political consultant potentially faces decades in prison.
As we’ve explained before, Manafort’s conviction doesn’t have anything to do with the Russia inquiry or any question of collusion in the 2016 US presidential election. Rather, it relates to wrongdoing in Ukraine long before Manafort met President Trump.
Mueller uncovered Manafort’s crimes during his investigation and was empowered to prosecute. Manafort still faces a separate trial in Washington, DC, next month for more serious charges of conspiracy, money laundering, and obstruction of justice. (Usually, they would have been tried together, but Manafort invoked his right to ask for separate trials.)
The outcome is exceptionally bad news for Manafort. While it’s been suggested that he’s holding out hope for a presidential pardon, his tax fraud conviction means that he can now be charged with state-level crimes which the president does not have the power to forgive.
On the same day that Manafort was looking down the barrel of a long prison sentence, Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter from California was also getting hit with both barrels from the news shotgun. Alongside his wife, Margaret E. Hunter, he was indicted for misuse of campaign funds and filing false campaign finance records.
In the normal course of things, this would have been the biggest political story of the week. The Hunters stand accused of using over $250,000 of campaign funds to buy everything from Italy vacations to fast food, video games, movie tickets, and dental work. Most egregiously, they allegedly claimed that some of the items they bought for themselves were gifts for wounded veterans.
If this is vaguely reminding you of the indictment of Republican Congressman Chris Collins of New York for insider trading not two weeks ago, you’re not alone. Collins and Hunter were the first two members of Congress to endorse Trump for president, leading some to accuse the Department of Justice of carrying out a witch hunt.
The Hunters have pleaded not guilty to all charges. We’ll see what the courts decide.
Leaping off the politics bandwagon for just a moment, this week saw a rather remarkable development in science. For the first time, we confirmed that there is water ice on the surface of the Moon. There are hopes that its existence could make a human colony on the Moon a viable prospect.
The discovery didn’t completely come out of nowhere. We’ve known for a few years now that there is water ice beneath the lunar surface, and it had been long suspected that some ice would be on the surface.
But this is the first time we can say for absolute certain that it’s there. The ice is scattered around the poles of our satellite at the bottom of craters that are permanently in shadow. However, while it is somewhat abundant at the south pole, there are just scattered fragments at the north.
The Moon isn’t the only place to have surface water ice. Mars, Mercury, and dwarf planet Ceres all boast more ice than the Moon. Still, it’s a big step toward maybe one day establishing a lunar base.
Bad news, fans of Michael Jackson. The King of Pop’s Thriller is no longer the biggest-selling album of all time. Until this week, the 33x platinum Thriller was light-years ahead of any other album in US history. Then on Monday, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) recalculated sales for the Eagles’s Their Greatest Hits 1971–75 for the first time since 2006. Back then, it had been 29x platinum. Now, it’s 38x.
Just like that, MJ was knocked off the top spot.
Recertification is something that the RIAA does periodically to update against new trends. Thriller’s sales were recalculated just last year, for example.
The 12-year gap between tallies for Their Greatest Hits is probably what accounts for the album’s sudden upswing. It likely overtook Thriller several years ago. Remarkably, the Eagles also hold the new No. 3 spot. The album Hotel California was recertified as 26x platinum.
The recalculation was not without controversy. The RIAA’s new rules mean 10 downloads or streams of an album are now counted as one sale—meaning the lunatics who stream Hotel California 10 times a day, every day, are adding hundreds of nonexistent “sales” to the tally.
In the grim depths of World War II, Jakiw Palij stood guard at the Trawniki death camp where some 12,000 Jews are thought to have lost their lives. When the Nazi regime fell apart, he fled to America. Like other collaborators, he falsified his story, earning the right to enter the US as a refugee and become an American citizen.
In 2003, his willing role at Trawniki was uncovered, and two years later, a federal judge stripped him of his citizenship. There was only one problem. Palij had nowhere to go.
Although an ethnic Ukrainian, Palij had been born in an area that was part of Poland between the two world wars. As a result, both Ukraine and Poland refused to take him. Germany likewise refused, saying that Palij had never been a citizen of theirs.
This week, Angela Merkel’s new SPD-heavy coalition government finally backtracked. Palij was sent by plane to Dusseldorf to await trial. He is 95.
Palij’s deportation marks the removal of the last known Nazi collaborator living in the US. President Trump had made kicking him out a priority. He finally got his way.
Over the past few years, the story of Venezuela has been one of government incompetence turning a problem into a catastrophe. Approximately 2.3 million people have fled the country since 2014, hyperinflation has crested at 83,000 percent, and absolutely basic necessities like toilet paper have run out.
As Caracas burns, the government of President Nicolas Maduro hasn’t even had the good grace to make like Nero and simply fiddle. They have exacerbated things, defaulting on debt, suspending civil rights, and blaming all their woes on the US and Colombia.
This week, the government finally introduced the so-called “magic bullet” they claimed would fix all of Venezuela’s problems. The old currency, the “strong bolivar,” was retired and replaced with the “sovereign bolivar.” In practice, this meant the old currency was sharply devalued, new notes were printed, and its value was pegged to Venezuela’s cryptocurrency, the petro. Needless to say, it didn’t help.
The sovereign bolivar doesn’t address any of the problems facing Venezuela. All it did on launch was plunge the country into confusion as employees refused to work for the new money and supply chains were disrupted. It feels like something surely has to give in Venezuela soon. But what?
You could use the blood on Andrew Wakefield’s hands to repaint the entire Sistine Chapel. In the 1990s, the now heavily discredited researcher published a paper linking the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) jab to autism. Needless to say, it was absolute bunkum. But sadly, people believed it. Now we’re paying the price.
This week, it was announced that measles cases in Europe had reached over 41,000 in the first six months of 2018 alone. To put that in context, in the whole of 2017, there were barely half that. In the whole of 2016, there were a mere 5,273 cases.
Measles is one of the most contagious diseases known to man. While most recover, it can kill. The World Health Organization estimates that the vaccine globally saves 1.3 million lives a year.
So, what’s causing this huge outbreak?
A lack of vaccination combined with more international travel. In Ukraine, Romania, and Italy, vaccine coverage is patchy at best. Italy’s new government has even promoted conspiracy theories about vaccines, contributing to a low immunity rate. Those who travel to Italy from other European states now risk bringing the disease back with them.
By the time you read this, Australia may have a new prime minister. As political grenades were detonating in Washington, DC, on Tuesday, Canberra was struggling with its own whirlwind of news. PM Malcolm Turnbull narrowly won an unexpected leadership challenge from within his own party, winning against Peter Dutton by 48 votes to 35. Instead of strengthening Turnbull’s position, it seriously undermined it.
On Wednesday, most of Turnbull’s cabinet tried to resign. By Thursday, he’d lost the support of most of the party. By the time this article was being written (very late evening, Canberra time), a new leadership contest was underway, with Turnbull desperately clinging on as Julie Bishop and Peter Dutton (again) both tried to unseat him.
For Australians, this is a depressingly familiar experience. The last PM to serve more than three years was John Howard, from 1996–2007. Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, and Tony Abbott were all defenestrated by their own parties. Now it looks like Turnbull will probably join them.
Six months ago, Jacob Zuma was president of South Africa. He finally stepped down after a sprawling corruption scandal ensnared him on 783 different charges. On Monday, South Africa finally opened an inquiry into its disgraced ex-president. We may now learn more about Zuma’s endless parade of crimes and misdemeanors.
Zuma is being investigated alongside the wealthy Gupta family—who last appeared in this column when it was revealed they’d been trying to whip up racial violence in South Africa to distract from their own scandals.
It’s alleged that the Guptas and Zuma participated in “state capture,” meaning Zuma used his power to turn the entire functioning of the South African state toward enriching the Guptas. State contracts were decided on how much money the family could net, and government ministers were hired and fired according to how friendly they were toward the Guptas.
Despite these accusations, Zuma retains strong support. An anti-apartheid fighter turned ANC bigwig, Zuma has a base that still considers him a living legend. It’s already been said that police are having difficulty finding eyewitnesses among a public that still worships this crook.
Let’s finally return to the political demolition derby that was Tuesday. Amid all the stories thrashing around, one stood out above all others. Michael Cohen, a former lawyer to President Trump, was indicted on multiple counts of fraud. In court, he also directly accused the president of breaking federal campaign finance laws.
The campaign finance accusations relate to hush money Cohen paid to adult film actress Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal, both of whom allegedly had sex with Trump after he married Melania. Cohen has already admitted paying Daniels $130,000 in the last days of the 2016 campaign to keep her story quiet.
Previously, he had claimed to have paid her out of his own pocket under his own initiative. In court Tuesday, he told the judge that he’d been personally directed by Donald Trump to make the payment.
There’s a lot to unpack here. US campaign finance laws are murky at best—even for lawyers and judges. And this was not a decision in a trial. It was a plea deal. Just because Cohen made statements about the president doesn’t necessarily mean that Trump is guilty of a federal crime. But it gets even crazier.
Some people interpret the statutes as saying that any expenditure that could conceivably be related to a candidate’s standing with voters must be declared, even if it does not come from campaign funds. In their view, if Cohen was directed by the president to pay off Daniels quietly so that her story wouldn’t damage Trump’s campaign, then both men would have committed a federal crime.
However, it is absolutely not against the law for a private citizen to pay hush money. If Trump could prove that he made the payment to protect Melania and his kids from knowledge of the affair—and that it was not just related to his campaign—then no crime would have been committed. Given the timing (Daniels was paid off days before the election), this could be difficult to prove.
Other lawyers, such as Alan Dershowitz, believe that campaign finance laws allow Trump to contribute an unlimited amount of money to his own campaign, even if “hush money” can be characterized as a campaign contribution. Usually, the campaign is fined for not properly reporting a contribution, which has happened to many campaigns before this.
Dershowitz appears to believe that Cohen pleaded guilty to a crime that doesn’t really exist. Why? Allegedly, to get a vastly reduced jail term for fraud charges unrelated to the presidential election while satisfying overzealous prosecutors looking to get something—anything—on Trump.
The president has since said that he paid the money personally, that no crime was committed, and that Cohen is lying to save his own skin.