Strange Bedfellows?
July 8, 2014
CC by: Senate Democrats

A very strange set of false accusations against Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), which emerged late in his 2012 re-election campaign, have now taken an even stranger turn.

The Washington Post reports that Mendendez's attorney asked the Justice Department this past April to investigate evidence, obtained by U.S. intelligence, that the Castro regime in Cuba was responsible for planting a story that the senator had consorted with young or even underage prostitutes in the Dominican Republic.

Menendez, the son of Cuban immigrants, is a staunch opponent of efforts to normalize trade or other relations with Cuba. At the time of the 2012 election, he was in line to assume the chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which he has since done.

Several days before the election, the conservative news site The Daily Caller published an article containing allegations of prostitution by two women who appeared to be of legal age, which briefly caused a huge stir among right-leaning media outlets. Menendez easily won re-election, with 59 percent of the vote.

In the months to come, though, a total of three Dominican women then recanted their statements, saying that they had in fact been paid by someone else to make the claims.

The Daily Caller's editor-in-chief Tucker Carlson was surprised at the possibility that his reporters might have unwittingly been the funnel for a Cuban propaganda operation. "I really can't assess it without more information," Carlson told The Post. "It's bizarre on its face, but also fascinating." Eric Kleefeld

wildfires
9:00 a.m. ET
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In what is likely to be Alaska's worst wildfire season on record, an estimated 1.88 million acres have already been scorched by 617 different fires this year. The fires have been so frequent and so widespread that smoke has made its way all the way down to the Midwest and parts of the South, and could be clearly seen crossing over the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of South Carolina on Wednesday. In fact, the smoke wafting across the landlocked U.S. states has been so thick it has even affected temperatures, lowering daytime highs in some states by a few degrees.

Alaska's record year of wildfires was likely sparked by the state's warmer than average temperatures, as the often snowy state had a relatively snowless winter and a fairly mild spring. Becca Stanek

the donald
8:50 a.m. ET
Scott Halleran / Getty Images

Donald Trump just can't seem to help himself. The former reality television show star and current 2016 GOP presidential candidate, who has already been abandoned by NBC, Univision, and Macy's over his disparaging comments about Mexicans, has now irked the country's top professional golf organizations.

In a recently released interview with Fortune, The Donald said, "I feel golf should be an aspirational game, something people aspire to." When asked whether that viewpoint was elitist, Trump said that "perhaps that's what golf needs. Let golf be elitist."

While Trump, who owns several golf courses, was confident that the golf world would meet his comments with "tremendous support," his shot ended up out of bounds. On the same day that Trump's Fortune interview was published, the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, USGA, and PGA released a joint statement saying that Trump's comments — and his presumption of their support — were way off. "While the LPGA, PGA of America, PGA Tour and USGA do not usually comment on presidential politics," the statement read, "Mr. Trump's comments are inconsistent with our strong commitment to an inclusive and welcoming environment in the game of golf." Sadly for Trump, there are no mulligans in national politics. Becca Stanek

This just in
8:32 a.m. ET
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The Bureau of Labor Statistics' latest report shows that the U.S. economy added 223,000 jobs in June, dropping the unemployment rate to 5.3 percent.

Unfortunately, job gains in April were revised down, from 221,000 to 187,000. May was revised down as well, from 280,000 to 254,000. That brings the average gain over the past three months to 221,000. But the 2008 collapse blew a very big hole in the economy; to close it by the summer of 2017 the economy needs to be averaging 246,000 jobs added a month.

Labor force participation also fell slightly, by 0.3 percent. That probably accounts for much of the drop in the unemployment rate, since it compares the number of people with a job to the number of people in the labor force (i.e. actively looking for work).

Average hourly earnings rose just 2 percent, dropping back from a 2.3 percent gain last month. So the trend in wage growth is still effectively flat. Jeff Spross

This just in
8:25 a.m. ET
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

U.S. Park Police and the Metropolitan Police Department are responding to reports of gunmen at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., WUSA9 reports. The buildings are on lockdown, and there are no known casualties. The U.S. Navy in a tweet confirmed the lockdown, but said, "No incident can be confirmed as of yet." WUSA9 adds that Navy Security is reporting two shooters, one white and one black male.

In 2013, gunman Aaron Alexis killed 12 at the Navy Yard. Across the nation, security has already been heightened ahead of potential threats during the July 4th weekend.

This is a breaking story. Check back for updates. Jeva Lange

Fire Starter
8:13 a.m. ET
Brad Barket/Getty Images

Never one to underachieve, Billy Joel played his 65th show at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night, surpassing Elton John's record for the most concerts performed in the 20,000-person venue.

"I didn't know I'd be here 65 times," Joel modestly told the crowd.

During Joel's record-breaking performance a banner boasting his achievement was raised in the stadium. Joel already had a banner in MSG for most consecutive shows — 19.

But there was no ill will toward John, whose 64 shows were being topped. Joel tipped his hat to his friend by playing John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" in tribute, in addition to his own hits — including "Only the Good Die Young," "We Didn't Start the Fire," "Uptown Girl," and "It's Still Rock 'n' Roll to Me."

A Bronx-native, Joel played his first show at MSG in 1978; last year he began a residency at the Garden, announcing he'd play a show a month for "as long as there is demand." Tickets to his August through December shows are available on Ticketmaster, but best be quick: all five are almost sold out. Jeva Lange

Stars and Bars
8:13 a.m. ET
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

There's been a tectonic shift in the politics of the Confederate battle flag since the murder of nine black worshippers at Charleston's Emanuel AME Church on June 17. But there hasn't been much of a shift in how Americans view the flag, according to a June 26-28 CNN/ORC poll released Thursday. Overall, 57 percent of Americans say the Confederate flag is more a symbol or Southern pride than racism — about the same as in 2000 — but that number hides some sharp racial divides.

Among white respondents, 66 percent picked Southern pride, versus 17 percent of blacks. On the other hand, 72 percent of black respondents saw more racism than pride in the flag, as did 25 percent of whites. In the South, the split was starker: 75 percent white and 11 percent black favoring Southern pride, 75 percent black and 18 percent black calling it a symbol of racism. Among all whites, those with college educations were more likely to see racism than whites without a college education, the poll found.

When it comes to what actually happened in the South after the shooting, majorities of all respondents approve: Removing the Confederate flag from (non-museum) government property wins 55 percent to 43 percent, and 50 percent backs the decisions of private companies to stop selling or manufacturing the flag, versus 47 who oppose the decision. You can find more numbers at CNN. Peter Weber

Train Trouble
7:29 a.m. ET
iStock

Over 5,000 residents in Maryville, Tennessee, have been evacuated after a freight train carrying "highly flammable and toxic gas" ran off the tracks and caught fire, NBC reports. The evacuation zone, which has been established just outside of Knoxville, has a radius of over two miles and could be in place for up to 48 hours, the fire department said.

The train was carrying acrylonitrile, which is used to manufacture acrylic fibers. When inhaled, the gas can cause membrane and kidney irritation, headaches, and nausea. Three train cars burst into flames after the derailment; seven officers were hospitalized after breathing the fumes. Jeva Lange

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