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March 15, 2017

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson departs Wednesday for a three-nation, four-day visit to Asia, starting in Japan, moving to South Korea, and finishing in China. The focus of all three stops is expected to be North Korea, which has ratcheted up tensions in the region by test-firing several medium-range ballistic missiles toward Japan.

In Tokyo, Tillerson will meet with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday, and will seek to reassure Japan that the Trump administration will stay engaged. He will carry similar assurances about North Korea to Seoul, which is in political upheaval after the impeachment and removal of President Park Geun-hye last week. Her successor after May 9 elections is expected to be a liberal candidate seeking a more conciliatory posture toward Pyongyang. In Beijing, Tillerson will lay the groundwork for President Xi Jinping's upcoming visit to Washington, and he's expected to urge China to do more to rein in North Korea's nuclear belligerence.

Breaking with 50 years of tradition, Tillerson isn't bringing the diplomatic press corps with him on his airplane, or even a few "pool" reporters, as he did on his first two official trips abroad. Originally, the State Department said that Tillerson, who has kept an unusually low profile, would travel with no reporters, citing his small plane and calling it a cost-saving measure — though reporters pay market price for their seats, costing taxpayers nothing. But now he is flying with one journalist, Erin McPike of the conservative Independent Journal Review. The State Department Correspondents' Association said Wednesday that it is "disappointed" Tillerson isn't bringing even a single pool reporter on his plane.

U.S. reporters will still cover Tillerson's three stops, flying commercially and meeting up with him in each capital. You can watch three of them, from CNN, offer a preview of Tillerson's Asia trip in the video below. Peter Weber

September 21, 2017

Jimmy Kimmel wants you to know that he did not pick this fight. But as long as Republicans keep bringing him up in the fight over the GOP's Graham-Cassidy health-care bill, he's going to come back swinging. Thursday night was Round 3 on Jimmy Kimmel Live, and he started with President Trump getting involved on Twitter Wednesday night. Trump probably didn't know that he was wrong, that Graham-Cassidy doesn't protect people with pre-existing conditions, Kimmel said. But at this point, "he'd sign copies of the Quran at the Barnes and Noble in Falllujah if it meant he could get rid of ObamaCare."

"A lot of people have been saying I'm not qualified to talk about this, and that is true: I'm not qualified to talk about this," Kimmel said. "But I think those people forget, Bill Cassidy named this test after me." Sen. Cassidy (R-La.), who is a doctor, went on TV again Thursday morning to say Kimmel doesn't understand the bill, but Kimmel noted that most experts on health-care oppose Graham-Cassidy, too. He put up a list of all the medical groups, full of doctors, opposing the bill to make a point. "We haven't seen this many people come forward to speak out against a bill since Cosby," he cracked.

People have been telling Kimmel he should give Cassidy the benefit of the doubt, he said, "and you know what? I do give him the benefit of the doubt. I doubt all the benefits he claims are part of the new health-care bill." Kimmel took some swings at other Republicans dismissing his concerns and joked that Trump's qualifications to be president is that "he fired Meat Loaf on television," then tackled the main GOP argument in favor of the bill, "that it's better to put these decisions in the hands of the states." Even if Graham-Cassidy didn't leave state governments with $200 billion less to work with, he said, "have you seen some of our states? If Florida could make their own decisions, it would be legal to bring an alligator into a strip club." (Paul Waldman presents a more serious counter-argument at The Week). Watch below. Peter Weber

September 21, 2017
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Former New England Patriots tight end and convicted murderer Aaron Hernandez, who committed suicide in his prison cell while serving a life sentence, has been posthumously diagnosed with the degenerative brain disease CTE. Hernandez's lawyer, Jose Baez, announced in a news conference Thursday that Hernandez's was "the most severe case they had ever seen in someone of Aaron's age." Hernandez was 27 when he died in April.

Baez has filed a lawsuit against the Patriots and the NFL on behalf of Hernandez's daughter. CTE is linked to repeated head trauma, and numerous football players have recently been diagnosed with the disease.

Hernandez's family released his brain to Boston University's Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center for a CTE study. Becca Stanek

September 21, 2017
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Facebook will give Congress copies of the more than 3,000 ads purchased through Russian accounts during the 2016 election, Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch announced Thursday in a blog post. "We believe the public deserves a full accounting of what happened in the 2016 election, and we've concluded that sharing the ads we've discovered, in a manner that is consistent with our obligations to protect user information, can help," Stretch wrote.

Though Facebook gave the ads to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the social networking site took back select ads shown to congressional investigators before they could be thoroughly examined, citing privacy concerns. The move sparked complaints from government officials and the public.

In a Facebook Live event after the announcement, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg vowed to "make sure that Facebook is a force for good ahead in democracy." Becca Stanek

September 21, 2017

If Tom Hanks had gotten his way last fall, the world would've been a very different place. Former Saturday Night Live castmember Bobby Moynihan has revealed that Hanks didn't really want to play the now iconic role of David S. Pumpkins, and tried to talk his way out of wearing the pumpkin suit. "He thought it was very bizarre and was like, 'Hey, I think Chris Hemsworth [the following week's host] would make a great David Pumpkins,'" Moynihan recalled.

Hanks, who obviously ended up playing the haunted house character flanked by dancing sidekick skeletons, has since come to his senses about how bizarrely good the sketch is. The official SNL YouTube video of the sketch has racked up more than 8.3 million views, and rumor has it Hanks might reprise his character again this fall.

Breathe a sigh of relief that Hanks didn't get his way as you watch the brilliant Halloween sketch below. Becca Stanek

September 21, 2017
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Republicans have just days left to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act with only 50 votes and no Democrats. With two no votes already — Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) — "undecided" Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) could cast the decisive vote against it. As a result, one Republican Senate aide told Independent Journal Review on Thursday that the bill's sponsors, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.), are potentially considering "buying" Murkowski's vote by letting her state more or less keep ObamaCare.

The draft is by no means final, nor is it certain that Murkowski would accept the revision. For her part, Murkowski has told reporters that when it comes to the Republican legislation, "what I'm trying to figure out is the impact on my state."

Independent Journal Review lists three provisions that could benefit Murkowski's state. "Alaska (along with Hawaii) will continue to receive ObamaCare's premium tax credits while they are repealed for all other states" and the draft "delays implementation of the Medicaid per capita caps for Alaska and Hawaii," IJR reports. Politico also reports of a potential "Medicaid delay" that would "apply to Alaska, Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Montana, based on their low-density populations."

For the rest of America, Graham-Cassidy would convert ObamaCare's subsidies and Medicaid payments to block grants to states, allowing each state ample leeway to decide coverage rules and patient protections, plus cut Medicaid sharply and change its structure. Read the full details at IJR. Jeva Lange

September 21, 2017
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A new study in the wake of the Flint, Michigan, water contamination crisis uncovered unsettling trends in fertility rates and fetal deaths during the time period the city was grappling with high levels of lead in its water supply. The working paper by West Virginia University's Daniel Grossman and University of Kansas' David Slusky concluded that "between 198 and 276 more children would have been born had Flint not enacted the switch in water."

Fetal deaths, when pregnancies last longer than 20 weeks but don't result in a live birth, rose 58 percent from April 2014 to 2016. Fertility rates dropped by 12 percent during that time period. "Either Flint residents were unable to conceive children, or women were having more miscarriages during this time," Slusky said.

The timing of these shifts is notable, as it was in 2014 when Flint's water was contaminated with dangerous levels of lead after the local government, under a state-appointed emergency manager, changed the city's water sources. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that lead "can damage a developing baby's nervous system, causing miscarriages and stillbirths, as well as infertility in both men and women," USA Today reported.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, however, concluded in July 2015 that there was no "evidence that indicates the water switch" affected fetal death rates. Becca Stanek

September 21, 2017

President Trump announced a new executive order on Thursday that will allow the Treasury Department to target companies and individuals that trade with North Korea, CNN reports. "It is unacceptable that others financially support this criminal rogue regime," Trump said during a press conference with the leaders of Japan and South Korea.

The order will allow Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin "discretion to target any foreign bank knowingly facilitating specific transactions tied to trade with North Korea," Trump said.

Trump also praised Chinese President Xi Jinping's decision to limit financial relations with North Korea through Chinese banks as being "very bold" and "unexpected," The Washington Post reports. "I must tell you this is a complete denuclearization of North Korea that we seek," Trump added.

Earlier in the week, Trump told the United Nations General Assembly that he might "totally destroy" North Korea if Pyongyang continues to menace the United States and its allies. Trump has also warned that "talking is not the answer" for dealing with the regime earlier this month. However, when asked at Thursday's press conference if a dialogue with North Korea is still possible, CNN reports that Trump answered: "Why not?"

Watch Trump's comments below. Jeva Lange

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