August 18, 2014

On Sunday, Ukraine's military entered the center of Luhansk, one of two rebel-held cities in Eastern Ukraine. Rebels reportedly still control parts of Luhansk, but Ukrainian forces posted photos of the Ukrainian flag flying at a city police station.

This is the latest setback for the pro-Russia separatists who declared autonomous "people's republics" in Luhansk and Donetsk, 90 miles away, in April but have been steadily losing ground over the past month. In besieged Donetsk, separatist fighters are reportedly starting to dress in civilian clothes and carousing drunkenly around at night; three senior leaders of the separatist enclaves, all Russian nationals, have resigned or left the country over the past week.

Western officials and analysts are nervous about Russia's response to the separatists' dwindling fortunes. If Russian President Vladimir Putin believes "the rebels are about to get routed, we do have a problem," Eurasia Group analyst Cliff Kupchan tells The New York Times. Moscow's purportedly humanitarian convoy of 280 trucks is still on the Russia side of the border, and Russia maintains that it is not arming the rebels.

The new separatist prime minister of Donetsk, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, said in a statement that Russia was sending him reinforcements, including 150 armored vehicles and 1,200 troops who'd spent the summer training in Russia, however. "They are joining at the most crucial moment," he added. And last Thursday night, reporters for Britain's The Telegraph said they witnessed "a column of armored vehicles and military trucks" crossing from Russian into a remote area near Donetsk; they call this "the first confirmed sighting of such an incident by Western journalists."

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian and Russian foreign ministers met Sunday in Berlin with their French and German counterparts for talks on ending the fighting and paving the way for the Russian aid to make its way into Ukraine. "It was a difficult discussion but I believe and I hope that we made progress on some points," said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Peter Weber

11:43 a.m. ET

A floating clump of garbage in the Pacific Ocean has grown to be more than twice the size of Texas, research published Thursday found. That's at least four times larger than previously thought, the researchers noted.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch lies between California and Hawaii and comprises at least 79,000 tons of plastic, the study found, spanning across 617,763 square miles. To track the patch's growth, researchers flew over the area and used 18 boats to survey its true size and density.

"Ocean plastic pollution within the GPGP is increasing exponentially," they concluded. Microplastics, which are tiny fragments of plastics, make up the bulk of the 1.8 trillion pieces of debris in the patch, though the number of fishing nets present has also alarmed scientists, reports The Washington Post. The nets account for at least 46 percent of the patch's mass — a concerning statistic given sea life often become entangled in them.

The size of the patch is not changing as rapidly as is the sheer amount of trash, the study noted. The patch is becoming more dense, as plastics travel from all over the world on ocean currents and settle in the Pacific.

The findings present a daunting challenge to organizations seeking to clean up the mass. The United Nations estimates that there will be more plastic waste in the world's oceans than fish by 2050 without a major reduction in single-use plastic consumption.

Read more about the research at The Guardian. Summer Meza

11:07 a.m. ET

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) delivered blistering opening remarks during Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson's hearing Thursday before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. "I voted to confirm you," Brown said at one point. "I'm not sure I made the right decision."

After citing a litany of controversies in the department, Brown told Carson: "Instead of taking responsibility, Mr. Secretary, you seem to want to blame others" — a reference to a Carson's numerous excuses for using the HUD budget to order a $31,000 dining table. "Your wife picked out the furniture without knowing the price," Brown counted off. "Your spokesman said something, but not you. You shouldn't be blamed for not listening to your ethics lawyers. The press is unfair — it goes on and on and on and on."

Brown then added bluntly: "I think you need to take responsibility and get things right."

He wasn't finished yet. The furniture came up again as Brown said: "There's no funding for capital spending, for public housing, despite a backlog of needed repairs of tens of billions of dollars. Under your leadership, Secretary Carson, HUD has decided a wobbly chair in a private D.C. dining room requires the urgent attention of no fewer than 16 staffers and thousands — thousands — of taxpayer dollars."

To further make his point, Brown said: "Unsafe and unsanitary conditions in public housing that put working families and children at risk? Not our problem, you say. Let them use vouchers. Sounds rather [18th century], doesn't it?" Watch the entire scolding here, via CSPAN. Jeva Lange

10:31 a.m. ET

Legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin sparred with Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz in a Wednesday night Anderson Cooper 360 appearance, expressing disappointment in his former professor's views on Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

President Trump recently extolled Dershowitz's views on Twitter, sharing a paraphrased quote from a recent op-ed by the professor that opposed the decision to appoint a special counsel to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Dershowitz defended his position Wednesday, arguing that the investigation should have been handled by a bipartisan "commission" or Justice Department officials.

Toobin appeared aghast at his former mentor's words — and immediately expressed as much. "I don't know what's going on with you," he said. When Dershowitz claimed that Mueller was obligated to "find crimes" rather than simply investigate the situation, the tension escalated.

"How has this come about that in every situation over the past year you have been carrying water for Donald Trump?" said Toobin. "This is not who you used to be. And you are doing this over and over again in situations that are just obviously ripe with conflict of interest. And it's just, like, what's happened to you?"

Dershowitz disagreed that his views were simply supportive of Trump. "I have attacked President Trump for many, many things," he said. "I'm not carrying his water. I'm saying exactly the same thing I've said for 50 years. And, Jeffrey, you ought to know that. You were my student. I have never deviated from this. I have never deviated from this point. The fact that it applies to Trump now, rather than applying to Bill Clinton, is why people like you have turned against me."

Watch the debate below, via CNN. Summer Meza

9:43 a.m. ET
Chris Hondros/Getty Images

It is almost physically impossible to read the entire 2,232 pages of Congress' $1.3 trillion spending package before the midnight deadline Friday, which means a certain "Save America's Pastime Act," on page 1,967, might go unnoticed, CBS Sports reports. If the bill passes, though, the act will deliver a decisive blow in the ongoing debate over what to pay Minor League Baseball players.

In order to "save America's pastime," the act would cement into law the exemption of Minor League players from federal labor laws, including minimum and overtime pay. That means players in the process of suing to make a living wage — some earn as little as $1,100 a month — will be out of luck.

Major League Baseball sets the salaries for Minor League players, and the argument to keep wages down, The New York Times writes, is because "baseball considers minor league players as seasonal apprentices, similar to musicians, artists, actors, and others in certain industries who accept low pay for a temporary period as they seek to break into the big time." As Daniel Halem, MLB's deputy commissioner of baseball administration, argued: "Minor League baseball is not a career. It is intended to be an avenue to the major leagues where you either make it, or you move on to something else."

Many baseball fans have argued in favor of paying Minor League players a higher wage, though. "Every year thousands of young men forego their education and other career opportunities to pursue their dream of playing baseball in the major leagues," argued the Detroit Tigers blog Bless You Boys last year. "The vast majority never will."

Major League players, by comparison, often earn six- to seven-figure salaries. Read more about one Minor League player's experience earning $12 an hour while trying to make the big leagues at Bleacher Report. Jeva Lange

8:16 a.m. ET
Scott Olson/Getty Images

As President Trump prepares to announce Thursday his plans to impose at least $30 billion in tariffs against China, countertariffs are being drafted overseas to specifically hurt states that helped buoy the president to his win in 2016, The Wall Street Journal reports. Focusing on the Farm Belt, China's tariffs could target American soybean, sorghum, and live hog exports, with Chinese companies preparing to turn to Brazil, Argentina, and Poland to meet their supply needs.

"The challenge for any president in tariffs is to ensure that ultimately you don't punish Americans for China's misbehavior," explained Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas).

Trump's tariff push comes in response to complaints by American companies that say Chinese companies force them into partnerships in order to obtain their technology, and that Chinese companies receive government money to steal tech secrets. The tariffs would additionally serve as retaliation for Chinese cyber attacks. CNN concluded: "The [Trump] administration's diagnosis is correct, economists say. The remedy is where people differ."

American farmers, for one, are sounding the alarm: "Bottom line, we're terrified," Zaner Group market strategist Brian Grossman, a former North Dakota farmer, told The Wall Street Journal. "It's not going to be good for the American farmer." Jeva Lange

7:48 a.m. ET

One of the biggest stories this week was the scandal rocking Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, the political data firm that harvested and allegedly weaponized the private information of 50 million Facebook users before being hired by President Trump's campaign — a campaign Cambridge Analytica top executives claim they won on Trump's behalf using their data and specially tested phrases like "Crooked Hillary." On Thursday morning, Trump was apparently feeling nostalgic and a bit braggadocious:

He's right — they're not saying that anymore. They're talking about Cambridge Analytica and the Trump campaign figuring out "how to manipulate you at all costs," as Trevor Noah explained on Wednesday night's Daily Show. What they did may sound like advertising, where "they try to get you to buy something by tugging at your emotions, but this is 10 levels above that," Noah said. "You see, using Cambridge Analytica's tools, Trump's campaign figured out a way to manipulate people — or as they called it, electronic brainwashing."

As an example, he pointed out that Cambridge Analytica discovered that the phrase "drain the swamp" would make people want to vote for Trump. "And I'm not making this up: Trump told us this himself," like a "Bond villain" revealing "his entire scheme," Noah said. "Trump didn't create new fears in people, he found a way to appeal to fears and desires that already existed. And they used Facebook, in the same way that Facebook will be, like, 'Hey, remember your friend Steve from high school?' Except this time it was like, 'Hey, remember how you're scared of brown people?'"

Just to be clear, that's what people are saying now. Peter Weber

7:21 a.m. ET

President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have been at each other's throats for the past year and a half, both claiming they could beat the other in a physical fight if they just got the chance. Biden, 75, escalated the threats Tuesday when he said he would have "beat the hell" out of Trump "if we were in high school."

Never one to forfeit the last word, Trump, 71, delivered the counterpunch on Twitter on Thursday:

Biden had initially ignited the adolescent feud in 2016 when he said he wished he could have taken Trump "behind the gym" back in the day, Business Insider reports. Trump responded in the subsequent weeks that he would "love" to fight Biden at "the back of the barn" and that the vice president would "fall over" with "just a little bit of a puff."

Earlier this month, Trump said he would "kick [Biden's] ass" if they were permitted to go at each other. Jeva Lange

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