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March 24, 2013

A Florida homeowners association has decided to ban all outdoor play to keep neighborhood children safe. No skateboards, roller blades, or bicycles are allowed on the complex's roads or common grounds. Even ball playing is prohibited. "They wanted to play when they were kids, didn't they?" said a local 9-year-old. "These people don't know what freedom is!" Samantha Rollins

2:09 p.m. ET

The search for extraterrestrial life has hit a new roadblock: congressional decorum.

Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) vented to reporters Wednesday that politicians on Capitol Hill act like middle schoolers. The immaturity is hindering our other-worldly ambitions, he joked: "That's why the aliens won't talk to us."

HuffPost's Igor Bobic noted that Kennedy also compared the state of American politics to The Jerry Springer Show — which The Guardian once wrote "has delivered more on-air fights, ranting white supremacists, adulterous strippers, and transphobia than anything else on television." Kelly O'Meara Morales

1:32 p.m. ET
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Michael Wolff, the author of Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, is not exactly well liked by President Trump these days. Wolff's book, which made public scandalous stories about the White House, has been blasted as "phony" and "fake" by Trump, who doesn't reserve kind words for Wolff either ("mentally deranged," "totally discredited").

One can't help but wonder, though, if Trump would have had the same reaction to the book if Wolff had used its original working title, The Great Transition: The First 100 Days of the Trump Administration. Whether or not Wolff really ever thought he would use that title, it nevertheless helped him slip into the White House without causing alarm. "In part due to that title, Wolff was able to exploit an inexperienced White House staff who mistakenly believed they could shape the book to the president's liking," Bloomberg Politics writes.

Wolff told Trump during [a phone call] that he wanted to write a book on the president's first 100 days in office. Many people want to write books about me, Trump replied — talk to my staff. Aides Kellyanne Conway and Hope Hicks listened to Wolff's pitch in a West Wing meeting the next day, but were noncommittal.

Several aides said Hicks later informally endorsed talking with Wolff as long as they made "positive" comments for the book, which they said Wolff told them would counter the media's unfair narrative. [Bloomberg Politics]

Well, here's how that has gone over. Regardless, the White House is reportedly cooperating with authors on at least two other books about its inner workings, including Ron Kessler and a joint project between Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. Jeva Lange

12:54 p.m. ET
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Stephen Bannon wrapped up more than 11 hours of testimony before the House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, where his refusal to answer questions repeatedly frustrated lawmakers. Bannon reportedly invoked executive privilege, telling the committee that he couldn't answer their questions about anything he was involved with after the election because he'd been advised not to by the White House.

As it turns out, Bannon and the White House were practically on a direct line. Bannon's lawyer, Bill Burck, advised his client on what questions he could or could not answer by speaking on the phone "in real time" with the White House counsel's office, The Associated Press reports, based on a conversation with someone who was not authorized to talk about the arrangement publicly. "We said to Bannon, 'Don't answer those questions because we haven't agreed to that scope under the process,'" a White House official told CNBC.

In a different version of events, a person close to Bannon told CBS News that "Bannon's lawyer related topics about the transition and administration to the White House, and they told him that he was not authorized to answer questions on those topics unless the committee reached an accommodation with the White House on the proper scope of questioning."

In addition to being slapped with a subpoena at the House Intelligence Committee hearing — which did not prevent Bannon from continuing to refuse to answer questions — The New York Times reports that Bannon was subpoenaed last week by Special Counsel Robert Mueller to testify before a grand jury. Bannon has since struck a deal with Mueller and "is expected to cooperate with the special counsel," people familiar with the arrangement told CNN. In doing so, Bannon is expected to avoid the grand jury in favor of an interview with prosecutors, although it isn't clear yet if the subpoena will be withdrawn. Jeva Lange

12:34 p.m. ET

Outgoing Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) took to the Senate floor Wednesday to decry President Trump's authoritarian tendencies.

Flake specifically referenced a February tweet from Trump, in which the president declared that the "FAKE NEWS media" is "the enemy of the American people." "It is a testament to the condition of our democracy that our president uses words infamously spoken by Joseph Stalin to describe his enemies," Flake said.

The Washington Post points out that Stalin used a phrase similar to Trump's tweet to justify the execution of his enemies. The words were denounced three years after Stalin's death by then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

Flake, a frequent Trump critic, was especially bothered by the way Trump "inspired dictators and authoritarians with his own language," noting how Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro have all invoked the phrase "fake news" to justify or lie about their actions.

Although Flake's speech aired on various news networks, The Washington Post's Erica Werner pointed out that the only audience on the Senate floor was Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and a smattering of reporters. Kelly O'Meara Morales

11:38 a.m. ET
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U.S. Border Patrol agents actively impair humanitarian efforts along the southern border, a report published Wednesday revealed. The report — commissioned by two humanitarian groups, No More Deaths and La Coalición de Derechos Humanos — claims that U.S. immigration enforcement officials intentionally destroy water containers left for immigrants crossing the scorching deserts, "condemning people to die of thirst in baking temperatures," The Guardian reports.

The study analyzed an 800-square-mile swath of desert near Tucson, Arizona, where people often leave water for border-crossers, The Guardian explains. Between March 2012 and December 2015, Border Patrol agents reportedly damaged 415 containers of water, sabotaging more than 3,500 gallons.

While the report notes that wild animals do occasionally account for the destruction, U.S. Border Patrol agents are the water saboteurs "in the majority of cases," the groups claim. One Border Patrol agent is quoted in the report describing the strategy, saying: "I remember people smashing and stepping on water bottles. I remember that being imparted onto us in one way or another."

The report asserts that destroying aid supplies is a "systemic feature of enforcement practices in the borderlands." Read more at The Guardian. Kelly O'Meara Morales

11:25 a.m. ET
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The team working with Special Counsel Robert Mueller to investigate Russia's influence over the 2016 election is reportedly inspecting "suspicious" transactions involving Russian diplomatic personnel, BuzzFeed News writes. Among the transactions flagged by the Russian embassy's bank and reported, as is legally required, to the U.S. Treasury's financial crimes unit is a payment of $120,000 to then-Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak just days after the presidential election and an attempt to withdraw $150,000 from the embassy's account less than a week after President Trump's inauguration.

In particular, Kislyak's payout raised eyebrows because it was marked as "payroll," although it didn't fit into his normal pay routine. Likewise, in the spring of 2014 some 30 checks to embassy employees totaling about $370,000 raised suspicions because "bank officials noted that the employees had not received similar payments in the past, and that the transactions surrounded the date of a critical referendum on whether parts of Crimea should secede from Ukraine and join Russia," BuzzFeed News writes.

Just because payments are flagged as suspicious, though, doesn't mean they are necessarily illegal. As people in the intelligence and diplomatic communities told BuzzFeed News, "there could be justifiable uses for the money, such as travel, bonuses, or pension payouts." That is now up to the Treasury Department, Senate Intelligence Committee, and Mueller to review and decide. Read more about the suspicious financial activity, including a small Washington, D.C., contractor who received some $320,000 from the Russian embassy, at BuzzFeed News. Jeva Lange

10:01 a.m. ET
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Americans have very little confidence in the major institutions of democracy, including the courts, political parties, presidency, and fourth estate, a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll has concluded. Of all the institutions, though, Americans had the least faith in Congress, with just 8 percent saying they have a "great deal" of trust in the lawmaking body.

The Republican Party followed closely, with only 29 percent of respondents saying they have a level of confidence in the political party that controls the House, Senate, and presidency. A not-much-better 36 percent of respondents said they have confidence in the Democratic Party. Sixty-eight percent of Americans have not much or no confidence in the GOP, while 62 percent said the same of the Democrats.

On the other hand, Americans have enormous faith in the military, with 87 percent of respondents reporting a degree of trust in the institution. In 1977, that number was 30 points lower, with just 57 percent of Americans having some or a great deal of confidence in the military. "There have been some big changes in the last 40 years," points out NPR, "including the draft being abolished and fewer and fewer Americans knowing someone serving in the military."

Other institutions that instill only limited confidence in Americans are organized labor (winning the confidence of 49 percent of adults), courts (winning the confidence of 51 percent of adults), and public schools (winning the confidence of 43 percent of adults). The media fared as poorly as the Republican Party, with an entire 68 percent of Americans having not much or no confidence in the press.

The poll reached 1,350 adults on Jan. 8-10 and has a margin of error of 2.7 percent. Read the full results here. Jeva Lange

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