May 11, 2017

If the scene seemed awkward for President Trump — hosting the Russian foreign minister for an Oval Office meeting that only Russian media was allowed to attend, just hours after he fired an FBI director in the midst of ramping up a federal investigation into the Trump campaign's potential election-meddling collusion with Russia — don't worry, it gets worse. First, the White House was reportedly shocked to see photos like this — Trump laughing with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak — released publicly:

No U.S. reporters or photographers were allowed at the meeting — which Trump had agreed to at the personal insistence of Russian Vladimir Putin, Politico says — and a senior Trump administration official "said the White House had been misled about the role of the Russian photographer," The Washington Post reports. "Russian officials had described the individual as Lavrov's official photographer without disclosing that he also worked for Tass," the Russian state-owned news agency. "We were not informed by the Russians that their official photographer was dual-hatted and would be releasing the photographs on the state news agency," the official told the Post. Russia seemed pretty eager for people to see the photos.

Former U.S. intelligence officials were also alarmed that the White House allowed Russian state photographers into the Oval Office, given the Russians' skill at installing listening devices and other surveillance equipment. The senior White House official downplayed those concerns, telling The Washington Post that the Russians "had to go through the same screening as a member of the U.S. press going through the main gate to the [White House] briefing room." That did not, in fact, allay concerns, with one former intelligence official noting that standard screening for White House visitors might not catch sophisticated eavesdropping devices.

The meeting itself, and especially "the images of Trump putting his arm genially on Lavrov's back — and a later White House official readout of the meeting that said Trump 'emphasized his desire to build a better relationship between the United States and Russia,'" were already a win for Lavrov and Putin, says Politico's Susan Glasser. "Lavrov was right where he has always wanted to be Wednesday: mocking the United States while being welcomed in the Oval Office by the president himself." Peter Weber

3:19 p.m.

Four former Census Bureau directors say it's a big mistake to cut counting efforts short.

The Census Bureau said last week it would stop its in-person count on Sept. 30, a month earlier than its scheduled end date of Oct. 31. The move left census workers concerned a "massive undercount" is imminent. The former directors, who worked under nine past presidents, reflected that fear in a Tuesday statement, and called for the count's data delivery date to be extended to April 30, 2021, to avoid "seriously incomplete enumerations in many areas across our country."

In-person census interviews are used to count people who didn't respond to a paper or online census, and are essential for counting underrepresented and hard-to-reach populations. The four former directors acknowledged the in-person count was supposed to happen from May 15 through July 31, but was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. This rescheduling led the Census Bureau to determine it needed four more months beyond the end of 2020 to tabulate congressional redistricting and apportionment stemming from the count, and the former directors agreed.

"Our expert opinion is that failing to extend the deadlines to April 30, 2021, will result in seriously incomplete enumerations in many areas across our country," the former leaders said, calling on Congress to make those necessary legal extension. In addition, they asked Congress "to require the Census Bureau to continue data collection operations through Oct. 30, 2020." Kathryn Krawczyk

3:04 p.m.

The antiviral drug remdesivir's effectiveness at combating the coronavirus has been one of the biggest breakthroughs since the pandemic began. The catch is that the Gilead treatment is expensive and in short supply. So, a bipartisan group of state attorneys general are looking to the federal government to step in and change that.

In a letter to the heads of the Department of Health and Human Services, the National Institutes of Health, and the Food and Drug Administration, 31 attorneys general asked the agencies to exercise march-in rights granted to them by the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act to increase the supply of the drug and lower the price so it becomes more accessible to Americans.

The bill allows federal agencies to retain patent rights for drugs developed from federal funds, which Gilead received to boost remdesivir during the pandemic, if the manufacturer fails to achieve a reasonable price or "alleviate health or safety needs" of consumers. In this case, the letter argues, "it is clear that Gilead" has not done either of those things. Read the full letter here and more on the issue at USA Today. Tim O'Donnell

2:37 p.m.

Ryan Reynolds has some major regrets about his and Blake Lively's controversial wedding venue.

The actor spoke to Fast Company this week and opened up about criticism he and his wife, Lively, have received for having their 2012 wedding at a former plantation in South Carolina, offering an apology for doing so.

"It's something we'll always be deeply and unreservedly sorry for," Reynolds said. "It's impossible to reconcile. What we saw at the time was a wedding venue on Pinterest. What we saw after was a place built upon devastating tragedy."

Reynolds went on to describe this as a "giant f---ing mistake," which "can either cause you to shut down or it can reframe things and move you into action," also saying that "years ago we got married again at home."

The two actors faced renewed criticism over their wedding earlier this year in light of the nationwide protests over the police killing of George Floyd. In May, they announced they had donated $200,000 to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, at the time saying, "We're ashamed that in the past we've allowed ourselves to be uninformed about how deeply rooted systemic racism is." Brendan Morrow

1:56 p.m.

Ah, Florida, land of sunshine, beaches, and notoriously competent elections.

That's the picture President Trump painted Tuesday in a tweet where he finally acknowledged absentee voting and voting by mail are the same thing. "Whether you call it vote by mail or absentee voting, in Florida the election system is safe and secure, tried and true," Trump tweeted, despite falsely claiming the two terms were different and also wracked with fraud several times in the past. "Florida's election system has been cleaned up," Trump went on to claim, in an apparent attempt to overlook the hanging chads of past presidential elections.

Trump has explicitly and falsely claimed in the past that absentee voting and voting by mail are different, and that the latter is ripe for fraud; neither of these things are true. His attacks have ramped up as it becomes clear absentee voting will dominate the November election and make it safe for more people to vote during the COVID-19 pandemic. But it's unclear just what sets Florida's election system apart in Trump's mind — perhaps it's because Florida is a swing state that Trump will need a high turnout from elderly voters to win, or the fact that Trump has voted there by mail several times in the past. Kathryn Krawczyk

1:01 p.m.

A massive explosion has just rocked Beirut, as captured in a number of shocking videos from the scene.

The capital of Lebanon on Tuesday was hit by a huge explosion that caused damage for miles and left an unknown number of people injured, The Associated Press reports. Numerous staggering videos quickly emerged on social media showing the blast.

The explosion in central Beirut damaged buildings in "several neighborhoods," and "many roads were blocked by the debris, forcing people wounded in the blast to walk through the smoke to hospitals," The New York Times reports.

Further details about the explosion and the extent of the damage weren't immediately available, but Lebanon Health Minister Hamad Hasan reportedly said there were a "very high number of injuries," per Reuters, and according to CNN, the state-run National News Agency is reporting that the source of the explosion was "believed to be a major fire at a warehouse for firecrackers near the port in Beirut." Brendan Morrow

Opinion
12:44 p.m.

August is known in the book industry as the "dead zone," when agents and editors take their vacations ahead of one of the busiest months of the publishing calendar, September. But there are no summer doldrums this year: with movies and new television on pause due to the coronavirus pandemic, books have remained one of the few forms of entertainment able to proceed relatively unaffected — and they're successfully filling the void.

On Tuesday alone, a number of notable releases hit the (virtual) shelves, including Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Pulitzer Prize-winner Isabel Wilkerson. "It's an extraordinary document, one that strikes me as an instant American classic and almost certainly the keynote nonfiction book of the American century thus far," raved The New York Times. Oprah Winfrey, in announcing Tuesday that Caste is her new book club selection, told CBS This Morning that "all of humanity needs to read this" and that it might be "the most important book" she's ever picked.

On the fiction front, also out Tuesday is Luster, the debut by Raven Leilani, described by BuzzFeed News as "the next great millennial novel." The book has been gaining buzz for weeks — "doesn't it feel like everyone is raving about this debut?" The Millions wrote — but Luster stands out for "the quality of the writing itself." Having read an early copy, I can attest: It deserves all the hype, and more.

Other late summer books have also earned raves — the memoir Wandering in Strange Lands by Morgan Jerkins, Laura van den Berg's short fiction collection I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, the novel Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy, the memoir Memorial Drive by poet Natasha Trethewey — which makes it tempting to correlate the extraordinary summer publishing is having with the pandemic. That might be a stretch though: while some release dates have been moved up, most August releases were set pre-pandemic.

More likely, the lack of noise coming from the other usual spheres of entertainment means the major releases in publishing especially stand out. As Stephanie Meyer, the author of Midnight Sun, a new Twilight novel out Tuesday, offered to the probing New York Times about why this book, why now: "Because I finished it." Plus, "I am really excited when I have a book to read right now, because there's not much else that's exciting." Jeva Lange

11:57 a.m.

President Trump apparently didn't watch much Looney Tunes as a kid. Otherwise, thanks to Yosemite Sam, he'd probably know how to pronounce the name of one the United States' more famous national parks.

While signing the bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act — a conservation bill aimed at repairing national park infrastructure, permanently funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and creating thousands of jobs — on Tuesday, the president waxed poetic about the "towering sequoias" in California's Yosemite National Park. Unfortunately, he flubbed the pronunciation (twice), which wound up overshadowing the majestic image he was trying to conjure. Tim O'Donnell

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