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August 21, 2019

The Epoch Times, a news outlet closely aligned with a spiritual community banned in China, has spent $1.5 million over the last six months to run 11,000 pro-President Trump ads on Facebook, NBC News reports.

Only the Trump campaign has spent more money on ads in support of the president, data shows. Former staffers of the New York City-based Epoch Times told NBC News the ad blitz isn't surprising, due to the leanings of the Falun Gong movement. Ben Hurley, who helped launch The Epoch Times in Australia, said the outlet is "rabidly pro-Trump" because the most devout Falun Gong followers "believe that Trump was sent by heaven to destroy the Communist Party."

The Facebook ads feature people praising Trump and talking about fake news and Deep State and QAnon conspiracies, NBC News reports. Trump's Facebook page has posted Epoch Times content, and his daughter-in-law was recently interviewed by the outlet. Data shows that between Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, Epoch Media Group videos had about three billion views in April alone, making the company 11th among all video creators, NBC News reports.

The Epoch Times was founded in 2000 by a Falun Gong practitioner named John Tang, but not much is known about its ownership, with executives refusing to give NBC News any names. The founder of Falun Gong, Li Hongzhi, called Epoch Media Group "our media," and in 2009 he pushed for The Epoch Times to become mainstream. Li argues that feminism and homosexuality are wicked and that aliens can take over human minds and bodies, and former employees said they were told they couldn't write about gay people or popular music but needed to push conservative opinions and criticism of China. The Epoch Times' publisher, Stephen Gregory, said the company has "no political agenda." Read more about the secretive news outlet and what it was like to work there at NBC News. Catherine Garcia

4:43 a.m.

Ric Ocasek, frontman for The Cars, died at age 75 on Sunday. On Monday's Late Show, Stephen Colbert paid tribute to one of his favorite artists. "1978 — Ric Ocasek was already 34 years old when their first album came out," Colbert said. "He wrote everything for The Cars, and his music was the soundtrack of my high school." He said he "couldn't believe it when Ric Ocasek came on The Colbert Report — I got to meet one of my greatest musical heroes, and then he started doing bits on the show." He showed one from 2006.

Conan O'Brien posted a full video clip from 2005 in which Ocasek — who apparently pronounced his last name Ok-caw-sik — agreed to practice a Grammys presentation with Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. You can watch a true rock 'n' roll legend gamely shrug off insults from a dog puppet below. Peter Weber

4:00 a.m.

"Saudi Arabia is once again a radioactive political football in the U.S., and President Donald Trump can't resist grabbing it," Politico reports. Trump's implication Sunday that Saudi Arabia would dictate the U.S. military response to Saturday's aerial attack on a Saudi oil facility "prompted fury in Washington, where the Saudis have faced an increasingly hostile climate in recent years," in fact "almost as politically charged as in the years immediately following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when it was revealed that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis."

Trump administration officials have said Iran is behind the attack on the major oil facility, though Trump and Saudi Arabia are publicly less definitive on the culprit. In a telephone briefing Monday, Brian Hook, Trump's special representative to Iran, told congressional staffers that Saudi Arabia views the attack as "their 9/11," CNN and The Washington Post report, citing two people familiar with the call.

The comparison to the Saudi-linked terrorist attacks, less than a week after the 18th anniversary of 9/11, "rankled several staffers," the Post reports. People also felt the comment was inappropriate, CNN reports, "because there have been no reported deaths as a result of the Saudi oil field strikes yet nearly 3,000 Americans were killed in New York, Washington, and outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania, in the 9/11 attacks." An official used the same 9/11 comparison on Trump during a briefing on the Saudi oil explosions, a source tells The Daily Beast, and Trump appeared "unmoved."

"From an American perspective, it seems like a trivialization of the tragedy of 9/11, and perhaps offensively so," Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute, explains to The Daily Beast, "but from a Saudi point of view it is a way of explaining their shock to Americans." Peter Weber

2:57 a.m.

In a tweet Sunday, President Trump suggested the U.S. might go to war with Iran if Saudi Arabia thinks that's a good idea. There are those that consider this a smart gamble, but Monday's Late Show is not among them:

"On Saturday, a major oil processing facility in Saudi Arabia was knocked out by multiple drone strikes," Stephen Colbert explained in Monday's monologue. Houthi rebels immediately claimed responsibility. "Now, these Houthi rebels are in Yemen, so we're going to bomb Iran — or not!" he shrugged. The Trump administration blames the Houthi allies Iran, claiming 10 drones couldn't do that much damage. "Yes, drones are highly advance tech," Colbert said. "So they've narrowed down the suspect to Iran — or your dad, who just bought a quadcopter at Best Buy."

"Our top intelligence officials think Iran did it, and so does our top unintelligence official, Donald Trump," Colbert joked. And Trump seems to think Saudi Arabia should dictate any U.S. military response. "Oh, I keep forgetting that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman now tells the U.S. president who to attack and how," he said. "It's, of course, all part of Trump Hotels rewards program 'Rent 500 Rooms, Get a Free War!'" Trump tried to assuage fears about U.S. gas prices and the possibility of war with Iran, but Colbert had a few questions and a couple of jokes. Watch below. Peter Weber

2:16 a.m.

President Trump got no small amount of grief for suggesting Sunday that he would let Saudi Arabia decide what military action, if any, the "locked and loaded" U.S. should take against Iran if Tehran turns out to be behind an aerial attack on a major Saudi oil facility. But Trump's tweet has some strategic merit, argues Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma. Here's the kernel of Landis' argument:

Congress, of course, has the explicit constitutional authority to declare war, and Saudi Arabia obviously does not. And Landis isn't arguing that Iran wasn't behind the attack — in fact, Iran has a clear motive — but he notes that the Saudis have been more cautions in assigning blame to Iran than the Trump administration has, and Trump was more cautious than Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Trump also appears less than eager to get into another war in the Middle East — for good reason:

If Saudi Arabia is willing to gamble U.S. forces on an attack against Iran — calling Trump's bluff, in Landis' telling — Riyadh will foot the bill, Trump says. "The fact is that the Saudis are going to have a lot of involvement in this if we decide to do something," Trump said Monday. "They'll be very much involved, and that includes payment." Does that mean Trump has essentially turned the U.S. military into a Saudi mercenary force? Again, not necessarily, Landis says.

But you can't rule out the possibility. Peter Weber

1:40 a.m.

Sean Spicer is clearly comfortable in green, whether that involves hiding in bushes or wearing a lime ruffled frock while making his Dancing with the Stars debut.

On Monday night, Spicer, the former White House press secretary, and his partner, Lindsay Arnold, danced the salsa to the Spice Girls' "Spice Up Your Life." Thankfully, the spice puns ended there, before Spicer was forced to eat a chili pepper or start throwing turmeric at the audience.

The dance lasted approximately one minute and 10 seconds, and although the judges only gave him a score of 12 out of 30, things actually went pretty well for Spicer — he didn't fall, he didn't drop his partner, he showed off his ability to point at things, he wasn't replaced by Melissa McCarthy halfway through, and he didn't claim his appearance drew the largest audience ever to witness a Dancing with the Stars premiere, period, both in person and around the globe. Catherine Garcia

12:59 a.m.

The bond between pediatric nurse Claire Mills and her patient, Jackson, was instant.

Jackson was born five weeks early via emergency C-section, weighing just 3 pounds, 10 ounces. Mills, 25, works in the neonatal intensive care unit at a hospital in Texas, and she knew that Jackson's mother was struggling. Mills became a pediatric nurse because she was also a preemie, and she told Inside Edition she felt an "instant connection" with Jackson.

After several weeks, Jackson was discharged, and because it happened when Mills was off duty, she didn't have a chance to say goodbye. Mills called the social worker who had been assigned to work with Jackson's mom, and let her know that she was available to help the woman in any way possible. She soon heard back from Jackson's mom, who said she wouldn't be able to provide her son with the life he deserved, but Mills could.

Mills worried about raising him as a single mom, and talked to her own mother about it. Her mom encouraged her to follow her heart, and soon after, Mills started the adoption process. Jackson, now 4 months old, is all settled into his new home. He has gained weight and is in good health, and is "so happy," Mills said. Catherine Garcia

12:51 a.m.

"Last week was the third Democratic debate, where 10 Democratic hopefuls went head-to-head — you know, I was actually going to make a joke about this story, but I don't think it needs a joke," Jimmy Fallon said on Monday's Tonight Show. "I think it needs to be slow-jammed." One of the 10 candidates at the debate, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), also wanted to slow-jam the news. And so she did — the "news" here being her run for president, platform, and qualifications.

Harris had the relatively dry job of explaining her platform, with a few zingers thrown in; Fallon added the double entendres to spice it up a bit and some puns that might not exactly resonate with the all-college-audience — "last tango in Harris"? A Culture Club reference? — and Tariq Trotter, as per usual, had the best lines. If the other 20+ Democratic candidates want their turns to slow-jam the news, Fallon could easily keep this up until after the Iowa caucuses. Peter Weber

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