February 13, 2018

U.S. airstrikes last week reportedly killed "scores" of Russian mercenaries allied with the Syrian government. Bloomberg reported Tuesday that a significant number of Russian contract soldiers fighting for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were among the hundreds of soldiers who stormed an oil refinery held by U.S. and U.S.-allied soldiers last week in eastern Syria. The U.S. reacted with airstrikes, which the Syrian government has labeled an unnecessary act of "aggression," CNN says.

What is bizarre about this incident is that it apparently occurred against the wishes of the Russian government. Bloomberg described the attack on the refinery as a "rogue" strike, and the Russian government relayed to the U.S. that it had no hand in the operation. The U.S. has reportedly accepted this version of events. Where the U.S. and Russian stories diverge, however, is regarding the death count. Three Russian sources who spoke to Bloomberg say that upwards of 200 "mostly Russian" mercenaries were killed in the attack and subsequent airstrikes. The U.S. claims the death toll is closer to 100.

Even as the death count is disputed, Bloomberg says that either number would be "about five times more than Russia's official losses since it entered the [Syrian civil] war in 2015."

Read more at Bloomberg. Kelly O'Meara Morales

5:16 a.m.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky did not announce an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden or his son Hunter Biden before President Trump's administration belatedly released Ukrainian military aid on Sept. 11 — a point President Trump's Republican defenders frequently raise to dismiss the House impeachment inquiry. But Zelensky had been prepared to capitulate and announce the investigations in a Sept. 13 interview with CNN's Fareed Zakaria, The New York Times reported. On his show Sunday night, Zakaria recounted his "best understanding of what actually happened."

"Ever since Zelensky was elected president in April, my team and I have been interested in having him appear on the show," Zakaria began. "On Sept. 13, I met with Zelensky in Kyiv on the sidelines of a conference I was participating in. He came across as smart, energetic, and with a much sharper feel for politics than you might expect from a neophyte." In their "brief conservation," they discussed Ukraine's issues with Russia and the U.S. and also corruption, he said. Zelensky seemed "a bit distracted," but "it's a testament to Zelensky's skill that he did not let on in any way the immense pressure he was under" from Trump and his allies.

Zelensky apparently decided he would announce the Biden-linked investigation during an already schedule interview with Zakaria, "though neither he nor any of his team ever gave us any inkling of that," Zakaria said. The contours of the pressure campaign were starting to sharpen in early September, but "just imagine Zelensky's dilemma. By the time I met with him in Kyiv, he knew the aid had been released but the backstory had not yet broken into public view," and Zelensky's aides said at the time they were unsure why the aid was suddenly unfrozen," he said. When The Washington Post revealed the plot on Sept. 18, "the interview was called off — we are, of course, still trying to get it." Peter Weber

4:02 a.m.

John Oliver spent the bulk of Sunday's season finale of Last Week Tonight on something that will take place before he starts filming his next season: The decennial U.S. census. "The concept of the census is very simple," he said. "At the start of each decade, the government does a comprehensive count of every single person residing in the United States — not just citizens, not just voters, every single person. Because only by knowing how many people live where can communities effectively plan to provide things like roads, schools, and emergency services."

"However hard counting every single person seems, it's actually much harder," Oliver said. "Conducting the census is the largest and most complicated peacetime operation that the government undertakes, and the 2020 census is likely to be even more challenging than usual, for reasons ranging from budget shortfalls to active Republican meddling. So tonight, let's talk about it. And let's start with what questions are actually on the census, because a lot of people don't know what they are — and that very much includes the current president."

Oliver ran though the simple list of questions, listed some reasons people refuse to provide the government that basic information — there's a quick trip down a libertarian YouTube rabbit hole — and laid out why participation in the census is so important. He recapped the flap about the citizenship question President Trump wanted to add to the 2020 census, explained how it was revealed to be explicitly driven by a scheme to entrench Republicans in power, and lamented that the damage might already be done.

"All in all, there is a lot working against this census, and experts are worried an undercount next year is inevitable," possibly by millions of people, Oliver said. "So what can we do?" Fill out the census, mostly — and he gave some incentives, ending with how much your participation would "irritate" Trump. There's NSFW language. Watch below. Peter Weber

2:55 a.m.

A handful of Republicans went on the Sunday talk shows to defend President Trump after a rough first week of public impeachment hearings.

On Fox News, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) argued that Democrats shouldn't impeach Trump for a scheme to withhold military aid from Ukraine until its president publicly announced investigations into Joe and Hunter Biden and the Democratic National Committee, because "it didn't happen" and "Ukraine got the money." Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) told CNN that "it is not okay" for a U.S. president to even "raise his political opponent" in a phone call with a foreign leader, but it's also not "scandalous" because Trump acknowledged doing it when he released the partial transcript of his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky.

On NBC's Meet the Press, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) lamented the "damage that's being done to our entire country through this entire impeachment process" and argued that "it's going to be very difficult for future presidents to have a candid conversation with a world leader, because now we've set the precedent of leaking transcripts" — an apparent reference to the White House's own transcript release. The whistleblower who flagged concerns about that call, and the subsequent public revelation of the behind-the-scenes struggle over Ukraine military aid, "has exposed things that didn't need to be exposed," Johnson told host Chuck Todd.

"You seem to blame this on everybody but the president," Todd said. "I'm not blaming anybody, Chuck," Johnson replied. "Isn't the president's own behavior, which raised all of these yellow and red flags, isn't that why we're here?" Todd asked. Johnson said the whistleblower's lawyer has been advocating for impeachment since Trump's inauguration, Todd noted that Johnson suggested Hillary Clinton's impeachment before the election, and Johnson brought up former FBI agents Peter Strzok and Lisa Page. Johnson, protector of things that needn't be exposed, has released a year of Strzok and Page's private text messages. Peter Weber

12:56 a.m.

President Trump spent about two hours at Walter Reed Medical Center on Saturday for what he called "phase one of my yearly physical" in a tweet on Sunday. White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said Saturday afternoon that Trump, 73, was simply "taking advantage of a free weekend here in Washington, D.C., to begin portions of his routine annual physical exam."

Unlike Trump's previous two physicals, this one wasn't on his public schedule — or, CNN reported Sunday, his private calendar. Also, NBC News notes, the previous exams didn't involve "multiple 'phases.'" The medical staff at Walter Reed "did not get a staff-wide notice about a presidential" or "VIP" visit, as would normally happen, CNN says, "indicating the visit was a non-routine visit and scheduled last minute." One source told CNN that Trump's visit was "abnormal" but he'd appeared to be in good health late Friday.

On Saturday night, Grisham told NBC News that Trump "is fine — perfectly healthy," he had undergone "a routine checkup," and "speculation of this nature is irresponsible and dangerous for this country." On Sunday, she told CNN her previous statements "were truthful and accurate" and "actively trying to find and report conspiracy theories really needs to stop."

It's certainly possible everything Grisham said is "truthful and accurate," but it's also odd, according to White House veterans:

Like "thousands of other people who have worked" in the White House, "here is something I know first-hand," tweeted James Fallows, a Carter administration alumnus: "If a president needs routine tests, there's an amply staffed medical office right inside the White House. It's a one-minute walk." Whatever Trump was doing Saturday, he added, it was "100 percent not 'routine.'" Peter Weber

12:06 a.m.

In response to the youth vaping epidemic and growing concerns about lung disease, President Trump — at the urging of first lady Melania Trump and his daughter Ivanka Trump — announced he wanted to ban candy, fruit, and mint e-cigarettes. His outlook changed after White House and campaign officials warned him such a ban could cause him to lose the votes of people who own vape shops and those who use the products, The Washington Post and The New York Times report.

A Trump adviser told the Post on Sunday that on Nov. 4, Trump refused to sign a "decision memo" about the ban because he was worried about the repercussions. A news conference had been set for the next day, with officials prepared to say the flavored e-cigarettes would be off the market within 30 days, but Trump was reportedly spooked by what he heard from his campaign manager, Brad Parscale, who said a ban could hurt his chances in battleground states.

"He didn't know much about the issue and was just doing it for Melania and Ivanka," a senior administration official told the Post. It's unclear if he will come up with a new policy.

After Trump first mentioned the ban, angry vapers took to social media, tweeting their thoughts on the matter along with the hashtag #IVapeIVote. While the move may please pro-vaping advocacy groups, anti-tobacco activists aren't ready to give up just yet. "If the federal government doesn't take strong action, it's clear now the states will," Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, told the Post. "There's a crisis that needs to be addressed." Catherine Garcia

November 17, 2019

Ashleigh Bentz wants to make sure every child has a toy that looks just like them.

The Springfield, Missouri, resident was born without a fibula in her right leg, and was also missing bones in her foot and two toes. When she was 2, her leg was amputated and she was fitted with a prosthetic. "I played kickball, sometimes my leg would fall off during kickball, but that's just it," she told KY3.

Bentz is now a certified prosthetic assistant, and wants to make sure that kids who have had limbs amputated don't feel left out. She launched a fundraiser and used the $2,500 in donations to purchase 600 Barbie dolls that either have prosthetics or use a wheelchair. "For there to be a gift that a kid could potentially pick out that looks just like them, that's big," Bentz said.

The dolls have been given to Shriners Hospital for Children in St. Louis, and officials there said they have enough dolls to pass out for several years. Bentz hopes there will soon be a male doll, for full inclusion. Catherine Garcia

November 17, 2019

U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland kept several Trump administration officials in the loop regarding his attempts to get Ukraine to launch investigations that President Trump would later bring up with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, The Wall Street Journal reports.

During a July 25 call, Trump asked Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, as well as an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 presidential election. The Journal obtained emails Sondland sent to top officials, including acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, before that phone call, discussing his push for those investigations.

In a July 19 email, Sondland told Mulvaney, Perry, and others that he spoke to Zelensky and he was "prepared" for Trump's call. Zelensky "will assure him that he intends to run a fully transparent investigation and will 'turn over every stone,'" Sondland wrote. Text messages from the same time show that Sondland was passing along instructions to Zelensky from Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

Several officials have testified in the House impeachment inquiry about Giuliani pursuing a shadow Ukraine agenda, which they found disturbing. Others have said in sworn depositions that they overheard Sondland and Trump discussing investigations. Sondland will testify this week in an open hearing before lawmakers. Read more about Sondland's emails at The Wall Street Journal. Catherine Garcia

See More Speed Reads