August 15, 2014

Max Ehrenfreund has a big investigative piece about multilevel marketing companies, which recruit salespeople with the promise that you can make a tidy profit selling chocolate, or protein drinks, or other products. But it doesn't always work out:

Enrique Martinez didn't like chocolate, but he was eating as many as 10 pieces a day, drinking chocolate protein shakes and rubbing a chocolate-based skin cream on his face. It was expensive chocolate, too. Martinez and his wife, Michelle, were going through $2,000 in chocolate a month.

The debt they accumulated this way — more than $100,000 over five years — is now with a consolidation company. Their credit is ruined. There is a crack in the driveway at their home in Albuquerque from a 14-wheeler that once delivered 12,000 cans of chocolate energy drinks to their garage. [Washington Post]

These companies are often compared to pyramid schemes, but there is a key difference. A pyramid scheme is an outright fraud where new investors are used to pay existing ones, so if the supply of new recruits ever dries up, or the reality of the situation leaks out, it collapses immediately. These companies, by contrast, are structured around selling actual products, so they are often perfectly legal — and they make the recruits complicit in perpetuating the business, because otherwise they'll have no chance of making good on their investment.

But sadly, according to a legal expert interviewed by Ehrenfreund, up to 99 percent of multilevel marketing recruits will end up taking a loss. The whole story of Martinez and his wife is really worth reading in full. Ryan Cooper

7:58 a.m. ET
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In what is being called "one of the biggest upsets" in Australian Open history, Novak Djokovic, 29, was defeated in the second round by Denis Istomin, 30, a wild card player from Uzbekistan who is ranked 117th in the world. Last June, Djokovic held all four Grand Slam singles titles at the same time; he has won the Australian Open six times, and not suffered such an early defeat in a Grand Slam tournament in almost nine years.

Istomin won 7-6 (10-8), 5-7, 2-6, 7-6 (7-5), 6-4, with the five sets taking four hours and 48 minutes to complete. "First of all, I feel sorry for Novak; I was playing so good today," Istomin. "I surprised myself as well."

With Djokovic out of the tournament, world No. 1 Andy Murray is the clear favorite to win the Australian Open title. "Many things came together for [Istomin] today and he's a well-deserved winner," Djokovic said after the match. "There's not much I could do." Jeva Lange

7:33 a.m. ET
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Friday will be a day full of monumental rites of passage: The president's swearing-in ceremony, the parade, the inaugural luncheon, the balls. But one tradition looms large, especially for critics concerned about President-elect Donald Trump's restraint: The briefing where the new president learns how to quickly launch a nuclear attack.

"The briefer is very, very military. It's a military briefing," George W. Bush's chief of staff, Andrew Card, told Politico. "It's not a briefing of the conscience. It's by-the-book, it's rote … It's kind of like how to use your remote control for the TV."

Trump's access to the nuclear arsenal and his ability to quickly attack another nation using a nuclear bomb without having to go through Congress, his cabinet, or, theoretically, anyone else, has been a subject of aggressive criticism from his detractors. In October, 10 former nuclear launch officers said in a letter that the pressures of possessing the nuclear launch codes are "staggering and require enormous composure, judgment, restraint, and diplomatic skill" and that "Donald Trump does not have these leadership qualities. On the contrary, he has shown himself time and again to be easily baited and quick to lash out, dismissive of expert consultation and ill-informed of even basic military and international affairs — including, most especially, nuclear weapons."

There is some comfort for critics, at least. In the past, aides have noted a visible difference when the president has emerged from their nuclear briefing. George H.W. Bush reportedly "slipped out of Blair House and into the street with tears reddening the rims of his eyes."

Officials in both the government and the Trump campaign would not confirm to Politico where or when Trump will get the codes, which will be carried by a military aide in a briefcase near the president from the moment he is inaugurated. If history is any indication, Trump will likely be pulled aside shortly after taking his oath. Jeva Lange

6:57 a.m. ET

Senate Republicans are pressing Democrats to confirm at least seven of President-elect Donald Trump's Cabinet nominees on Friday, in the hours after Trump is sworn in, while Democrats say they are probably open to confirming a handful, including Trump's picks for defense (former Gen. James Mattis), homeland security (former Gen. John Kelly), and CIA director (Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas). With 48 votes, Democrats can't stop any nominations, but if they don't agree to a voice vote, they can delay the confirmations.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), echoing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), argued that seven nominees is only fair. "In 2009 when President Obama was sworn into office, there were seven Cabinet members confirmed on his first day in office — seven," he said. "That's a demonstration of the good faith and the civility that ordinarily extends in the peaceful transition of power." That's also not the whole story.

First, the Senate only confirmed six Obama nominees on Inauguration Day 2009 — the secretaries of agriculture, education, energy, homeland security, interior, and veterans affairs. The seventh, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, was already in office, a holdover from the George W. Bush administration. Democrats also had a much larger 58-41 majority.

The biggest difference, though, is that Obama's nominees had been vetted — and in fact, three of his nominees withdrew their names before a vote: commerce secretary nominees Gov. Bill Richardson (who said a federal pay-to-play inquiry would cause an "untenable delay" in his confirmation) and Sen. Judd Gregg (a Republican who decided under partisan pressure that he had "irresolvable" ideological differences with Obama), and HHS secretary pick Tom Daschle (a former Senate majority leader who admitted failing to pay $128,000 in taxes on unreported income and use of a chauffeured car).

On Wednesday, CNN's Jake Tapper, who covered the Daschle story, explained how the Obama and Trump nominations are different. "The Senate committee was vetting Tom Daschle, they had issues and questions," he said. "I don't see that same sort of diligence going on in the committees. They seem to be rushing through a lot of these nominations."

Historically, "Cabinet nominations tend only to fail when dragged down by scandal or impropriety," not "policy disagreement or extreme political views," says Nathaniel Rakich at FiveThirtyEight. "Only a scandal big enough to force the famously unapologetic Trump to reverse himself and withdraw a nomination is likely to bring down any of his appointees." Peter Weber

5:36 a.m. ET

The 17-story Plasco building in central Tehran collapsed in flames on Thursday. Iran's state-run Press TV said 30 firefighters battling the blaze were killed and 75 others injured in the disaster. The fire broke out at about 8 a.m. local time, and everybody was evacuated before the building crumbled. Reports of deaths and injuries weren't uniform — a local TV station said 30 people were injured with the state-run INRA news agency put the number of those injured at 45. But the collapse was clearly sudden and swift, as captured live during an interview on state TV:

"It was like a horror movie," a grocery story owner told Reuters by phone. "The building collapsed in front of me."

The Plasco building, just south of Tehran's bazaar, was built in the early 1960s by an Iranian Jew, Habib Elghanian, who named it after his plastics business. It was the city's tallest building when it was completed. Elghanian was executed soon after the 1979 Islamic Revolution after been tried on charges including espionage, The Associated Press reports, prompting an exodus of Iran's Jewish community. Peter Weber

4:52 a.m. ET

At his final presidential press conference on Wednesday, President Obama "talked about the complexities of peace in the Middle East, universal health care, job creation — pretty boring stuff," Stephen Colbert said on Wednesday's Late Show. "And man, I'm gonna miss being bored." Obama "ended the press conference with a message of hope," he added, paraphrasing: "'Good luck! See ya — wouldn't want to be ya'!"

"Meanwhile, everyone is getting ready for Trump's inauguration," Colbert said, "including — and this really surprised me — Donald Trump." He showed the picture Trump tweeted out purporting to show him writing his inaugural address at Mar-a-Lago. Colbert said it looked more like Saddam Hussein's bathroom (rather than, say, the Mar-a-Lago receptionist's desk).

In an interview on Fox & Friends Wednesday morning, Trump again said he plans to start work on Monday — and Colbert again reminded him he's president as of noon on Friday, and presidents don't get the weekend off. Trump also told Fox's Ainsley Earhardt that he doesn't really like using Twitter but feels he has to because he gets "really dishonest press." "Yes, the media is so dishonest," Colbert agreed. "Very dishonest press — they lie all the time. For instance, just this morning on Fox, I saw some orange guy say that Trump doesn't like tweeting. That is fake news!"

Finally, Colbert threw his hands up at Trump already unveiling his 2020 re-election campaign theme. "So let me get this straight," Colbert said. "Your last slogan was 'Make America Great Again,' and your new slogan is 'Keep America Great'? Aren't you skipping over a pretty important middle step there? The one where you make America great?" In case things don't work out as planned, Trump has already trademarked some "backup slogans," too, Colbert said, and he read a few, ending with the sardonic-but-simple "Make America Again." Watch below. Peter Weber

4:01 a.m. ET

On Wednesday evening, an avalanche likely triggered by earthquakes buried the Hotel Rigopiano in the central Italian town of Farindola, in the Gran Sasso mountains in Abruzzo. There were at least 20 guests and seven staff members in the hotel, according to rescuers and local officials, and Antonio Crocetta, the head of a mountain rescue team, told Italian media "there are many deaths," though no deaths have yet been confirmed. Because of days of snow that blanketed Abruzzo, Lazio, and Le Marche, rescue crews on skis did not reach the hotel until about 4 a.m. Thursday. Helicopters arrived with more personnel after dawn.

Earthquakes in the same region or Italy last August killed 298 people. (This article has been updated throughout.) Peter Weber

3:29 a.m. ET

Before America elected Donald Trump, Samantha Bee interviewed Russian author and dissident Masha Gessen about a potential Trump presidency. She interviewed Gessen again for Wednesday's Full Frontal, and Gessen's thoughts on Trump's America were not reassuring. "What is the recipe for successfully resisting an autocracy?" Bee asked Gessen, in a subterranean bunker inside a SoulCycle gym. "I get asked that a lot," Gessen said. "You know, I had to flee my country. Most efforts to successfully resist I know of failed."

Things got darker when Bee asked for Gessen's biggest concerns about President Trump, based on her experience with Russian President Vladimir Putin. "Oh, my biggest worry is a nuclear holocaust," she said. "If miraculously we avoid that, then, you know, he's certain to do irreparable damage to the environment that will make survival of the human species impossible." Bee took out pen and paper and tried to get Gessen to map out how things will go down, and she plotted out a downward course from Trump lifting Russian sanctions to getting Americans to inform on each other — and that wasn't the low point. "So there's a Russian joke," Gessen said. "We thought we had hit rock bottom, and then someone knocked from below." Bee said maybe some part of the humor was lost in translation.

Like Putin, Trump "uses language to assert his power over reality," Gessen said. "What he's saying is: 'I claim the right to say whatever the hell I please, and what are you gonna do about it?'" Bee said she couldn't believe Trump had that level of "cunning," and Gessen made a plausible analogy between Trump's instinctual verbiage and a playground bully. Bee asked for advice. "The thing, I think, to do — and this is my recipe," Gessen said calmly, "is to actually continue panicking." Watch below — it is mildly NSFW in some place, and funnier than it sounds. Peter Weber

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