Tragedy at sea
Santa Barbara, Calif.
Federal agents served search warrants this week at the offices of Truth Aquatics, the company operating a scuba-diving vessel that erupted in flames last week, killing all 33 passengers and one crew member. No criminal charges have been brought, yet an initial probe found serious safety issues on the 75-foot boat, where a fire started below deck in the early hours of Labor Day. The boat reportedly lacked a crew member tasked with staying awake to alert passengers in the event of a fire—and it’s unclear whether the crew was adequately trained or the passengers adequately briefed on safety. Five crew members who were above deck escaped, saying the fire was too intense to rescue anyone below. The Conception, anchored off the coast of Santa Cruz Island when it caught fire and sank, remains submerged in 62 feet of water.
A tighter squeeze
Efforts by President Trump and Mexico to deter migration to the U.S. border appear to be working, as Border Patrol arrests there fell to 51,000 last month, a 30 percent drop from July. After threats of steep tariffs from the Trump administration if it didn’t enhance immigration enforcement, Mexico deployed 25,000 National Guard troops to its borders. Asylum seekers who cross the U.S. border are now sent back to Mexico while their claims are processed, and Mexico has bused some of them 750 miles south. Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said, however, his country would not agree to a Trump administration request that Mexico accept designation as a “safe third country” for Central American asylum seekers. That would require migrants to apply for permanent asylum in Mexico rather than asking to be admitted to the U.S.
Three House committees opened a probe this week into allegations that President Trump is withholding military aid in order to pressure Ukraine into backing his re-election campaign. Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani want Ukraine to investigate whether Joe Biden, the current Democratic front-runner, used his influence as vice president to help a Ukrainian gas company linked to his son Hunter. Giuliani has also charged that Ukraine sought to damage Trump in 2016 by disclosing payments made by Ukraine’s onetime dictator to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. The White House has reportedly held up the $250 million package until Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky agrees to investigate the claims. House Democrats said that holding back the aid to force such an investigation would represent a “staggering abuse of power.”
Narrow GOP win
Dan Bishop, a Republican state senator, won a special House race this week by fewer than 5,000 votes, a 51-49 result that both parties claim bodes well for their chances in 2020. The election—among the most expensive House races ever, with nearly $20 million in spending—underscored Trump’s waning support in suburbs but loyal base in rural areas. Trump won the traditionally Republican district by 12 points in 2016. An elections board called for the redo race after absentee ballot tampering invalidated Republican Mark Harris’ 905-vote victory in November. Democrat Dan McCready, 36, a veteran and entrepreneur, ran again, this time against Bishop, 55, best known for sponsoring North Carolina’s bill restricting bathroom use for transgender people. Trump, who held a pre-election rally, took credit for the win. “Bishop was down 17 points 3 weeks ago,” he tweeted. “He then asked me for help.”
Jerry Falwell Jr. has allegedly exploited his presidency of Liberty University, the largest Christian college in the world, to help family and friends profit, Politico.com reported this week. “We’re not a school,” one employee said. “We’re a real estate hedge fund.” Past and present Liberty officials told Politico of a pattern of self-dealing, including the awarding of $130 million in contracts to a construction company owned by a friend of Falwell’s. Falwell also allegedly had the university buy a shopping center, then hire his son’s company to manage it. Officials also said Falwell bragged about his penis and his sexual exploits with his wife, Becki; he once hired Trump lawyer Michael Cohen to suppress racy photos. Falwell reportedly turned to another fixer to bury photos of him clubbing in Miami. Falwell says that his long-standing public support for President Trump has brought on an “attempted coup” by disgruntled employees, and has called for the FBI to investigate.
Challenger No. 3
Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford become the most prominent Republican this week to challenge President Trump for the 2020 nomination. Sanford, 59, rebuked Trump’s attacks on U.S. “norms and institutions,” saying that “moms and Millennials” believe that “this is not what we’re trying to teach our kids.” Sanford was governor from 2003 to 2011 before serving in the House until he lost a primary last year, after Trump tweeted support for his opponent on Election Day. This week, Trump mocked Sanford for his extramarital affair while governor with an Argentine dancer. The GOP has fought hard to block any primary challenges to the president: Sanford’s home state plus Kansas, Arizona, and Nevada canceled their primaries or caucuses and awarded all delegates to Trump. Another challenger, former Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh, called the move “what a political party does when it serves a king.”
Santa Barbara County Fire Dept./AP, Reuters, Newscom, AP ■