R. Hurt/California Institute of Technology

Astronomer who killed Pluto says he’s discovered a new planet to make up for it.

Astronomer Michael Brown famously helped demote Pluto a decade ago. Now, together with his colleague Konstantin Batygin at the California Institute of Technology, he may rewrite science textbooks once again. In a paper published in the Astronomical Journal, the pair say they have found evidence of a new planet lurking far beyond Pluto. They’re calling it Planet Nine.”

The new planet, if it does exist, would be ten times as massive as Earth. Brown and Batygin have not observed it directly. Instead they inferred its existence from the motion of dwarf planets and other small objects that seem to have been influenced by the “massive perturber.”

“My daughter, she’s still kind of mad about Pluto being demoted, even though she was barely born at that time,” Brown told The Washington Post. “She suggested a few years ago that she’d forgive me if I found a new planet. So I guess I’ve been working on this for her.”

December 11, 2018


A bipartisan group of 44 former Senators publish a banal, poorly written statement.

The Washington Post has published a curious op-ed written by 44 former Senators who vaguely warn of an impending threat to American democracy. “As former members of the U.S. Senate, Democrats and Republicans, it is our shared view that we are entering a dangerous period, and we feel an obligation to speak up about serious challenges to the rule of law, the Constitution, our governing institutions and our national security,” the statement reads.

The signatories are bipartisan: 32 are Democrats, 10 are Republicans, and 2 are independents. The Republicans tend to skew towards the more moderate wing of the GOP, including figures known for working with Democrats such as Chuck Hagel and Richard Lugar.

The bipartisan authorship might explain why the statement is so anodyne, with no clarity about what exactly the former senators want. The Mueller investigation is mentioned but President Donald Trump goes unnamed.

The statement asks that the Senate defend democracy but that could mean anything. Supporters of Trump could view the defense of democracy to require protecting the president from what they see as Mueller’s witch hunt.

As Susan Hennessey of the Brookings Institution notes:

Because the statement amounts to a nothing more than a collection of patriotic bromides, it is also ineptly composed. Consider this sentence: “It is a time, like other critical junctures in our history, when our nation must engage at every level with strategic precision and the hand of both the president and the Senate.” It’s difficult to figure out what this might mean. Jello has more solidity and fog more clarity of shape.

Equally vacuous is this line: “We are at an inflection point in which the foundational principles of our democracy and our national security interests are at stake, and the rule of law and the ability of our institutions to function freely and independently must be upheld.”

It’s true that America is facing a constitutional crisis that will test its institutions. But that nature of the crisis can only be confronted if it is named: there is accumulating evidence that President Donald Trump has committed crimes that warrant impeachment.

The fact that many members of the political elite, including even former senators, can’t bring themselves to be blunt about this matter is itself part of the problem.


Trump’s cronies are raking in large sums lobbying for regimes that want sanction relief.

The New York Times is reporting that former Trump advisors and campaign officials are carving out a lucrative niche as lobbyists to governments that want to avoid sanctions. A key conduit for this activity is the Israeli security consulting firm Mer Security and Communication Systems, which was paid $8 million by the Democratic Republic of Congo to lobby against sanctions. Congo is facing sanctions because of the human rights abuses of the nation’s president, Joseph Kabila.

Mer dispersed large payments to many Trump cronies and associates. As The New York Times reports: 

Lobbying filings show $360,000 paid by Mer to Adnan Jalil, a former congressional liaison for Mr. Trump’s campaign; $250,000 to the firm of Nancye Miller, the wife of the Trump campaign adviser and former C.I.A. chief R. James Woolsey Jr.; $680,000 to the firm of former Representative Robert L. Livingston, an early Trump endorser; and $598,000 to the firm of Brian Glicklich, who has represented Trump allies such as Breitbart News and Rush Limbaugh.

One of Mer’s great successes was an event promoting Congo at the Hay-Adams hotel in July, which was attended by Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani. As the Times notes, “Mer also agreed to pay $1.25 million to the firm of Robert Stryk, who had worked with Trump campaign officials, to organize the Hay-Adams event and meetings around it for Mr. Kabila’s special envoy to the United States.” During the event, “Trump administration officials and allies, including the president’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, gathered with investors atop the Hay-Adams hotel overlooking the White House for a cocktail reception featuring a short presentation by the Democratic Republic of Congo’s special envoy to the United States.”

Giuliani denies he’s acted as a lobbyist for Congo but has also given conflicting accounted the Hay-Adams event. He first said he went there to impress a woman, because the hotel has a great view. Later, Giuliani said he thought there could be business opportunities at the event. “We’ve always wanted to see what’s Africa all about,” the former New York mayor claimed.

The New York Times notes that Giuliani’s business has been discussing providing security consulting to Congo “possibly through Mer.” Giuliani himself seems to think that security consulting is distinct from lobbying. In a text message to the newspaper, Giuliani said if he did business for Congo  “it would only be security consulting.” He added that, “Beyond that, I can’t say anything other than you can assume if we are working in a foreign country, we are doing security — physical and cyber, antiterrorism, emergency management.” 

December 10, 2018

Sean Gallup/Getty

Macron apologizes and offers French protestors grudging concessions.

Speaking on television, French President Emmanuel Macron made some concessions to the so-called Yellow Vest protestors whose rioting has disrupted his country for weeks. The Yellow Vests, he admitted, were people who “had not been listened to”—over the last four decades “malaise” has gripped  “villages and neighborhoods where public services have been diminishing, where living conditions had deteriorated.” Going further, he said “I feel in many ways that the anger of the Yellow Vests is right.” France, he acknowledged, is facing “a state of social and economic emergency.”

“I assume my share of the situation,” Macron said. “I may have given you the feeling I have other concerns and priorities. I know some of you have been hurt by my words.” Macron had been widely criticized in France for being aloof and for policies favoring the rich. 

In redress, he promised an increase of the minimum wage by 100 Euros a month (to be instituted in 2019). He also said a planned increase in taxation on pensioners would be canceled. Finally, he called on businesses to increase their bonuses to workers and to pay overtime. 

In comparison to his talk of “emergency,” these remedies seem minor, if welcome. It’s unlikely that they will be enough to satisfy protestors. 

pencer Platt/Getty

Wall Street is getting jittery after finally paying attention to the news.

Until a few months ago, the stock market seemed to respond to the tumultuous news of the Trump era with blissful equanimity. It didn’t matter what Trump tweeted, what investigations were underway, or which countries he threatened with trade war or even nuclear destruction. Stocks kept going up and down of their own accord. But this period of Wall Street being kept separate from politics seems to be ending.

As The New York Times reports, news that had previously been shrugged off by Wall Street (notably trade war, rising interest rates, and the slowdown of other large economies) is suddenly making investors nervous.

Last week, elements of all of those combined to drive the S&P 500-stock index down by 4.6 percent, its worst weekly drop since March and one marked by stomach-churning price swings. Stocks are now down 1.5 percent this year,” the newspaper notes. “More volatility could be in store, as investors assess the allegations by prosecutors that President Trump directed illegal payments to ward off a potential sex scandal, and the possibility that he sought to secretly do business in Russia during his 2016 campaign for the White House.”

The Washington Post also sees signs that the stock market is taking stock of a storm global landscape. “U.S. markets deepened their losses Monday as Britain’s political crisis around Brexit clouded investors’ outlook. British Prime Minister Theresa May put off a key parliamentary vote on her country’s exit from the European Union,” the Post notes. “Investors are also on edge about developments in the U.S.-China trade dispute.”

Investment strategist Julian Emanuel argues the sway of the news cycle on politics is out of the ordinary. “The fact is that politics is driving the economy to an extent that is very atypical,” he told The New York Times. “We would say probably to the greatest extent that we’ve seen in our investing lifetime.”

While the stock market is not the same as the economy as a whole, the current nervousness on Wall Street could presage a recession. If so, there is a real possibility of a feedback effect. President Donald Trump has taken comfort in the success of the stock market under his watch. But once that source of boasting is gone, Trump could become even more erratic. This would create a situation where the president and Wall Street are egging each other on in a downward spiral.


Theresa May admits she doesn’t have the votes for her Brexit deal.

On Monday, British Prime Minister Theresa May delayed the planned vote on the deal her government has negotiated for exiting the European Union, acknowledging that there wasn’t enough support in Parliament to push it through. The major stumbling block remains Northern Ireland, which wants its borders with Ireland (a member of the European Union) to remain open. The so-called “backstop” in Northern Ireland to ensure the open border is deeply unpopular with Brexit supporters. As Reuters notes, “May’s opponents say the backstop could leave Britain subject indefinitely to EU rules, long after it gives up say in drafting them.”

Addressing Parliament, May conceded that, “On one issue, the Northern Ireland backstop, there remains widespread and deep concern.”

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn responded to the news by saying that “the government has decided Theresa May’s Brexit deal is so disastrous that it has taken the desperate step of delaying its own vote at the eleventh hour.”

Corbyn is not alone in seeing the news as a sign of a government in shambles. Analyzing the situation, Reuters concludes that “the move thrusts the United Kingdom’s divorce from the European Union into chaos, with possible options including a disorderly Brexit with no deal, another referendum on EU membership, or a last minute renegotiation of May’s deal.”


Is the Supreme Court avoiding abortion cases?

That’s what three of the conservative justices suggested after the court announced on Monday that they wouldn’t hear Gee v. Planned Parenthood and Anderson v. Planned Parenthood. The two cases involve challenges to state efforts to cut off the organization from state Medicaid funds.

The court declines to hear thousands of cases each year without explanation. In a dissent, however, justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch put forward their own interpretation of the court’s inaction here. Because only four votes are needed to hear a case, their dissent signals that Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh voted against taking up the decision, alongside the court’s four liberals.

Both cases address whether Medicaid recipients have the legal standing to challenge a state’s decision to bar Planned Parenthood from receiving state Medicaid funds. There’s a divide among the lower counts on the question, Thomas noted, which is one of the most common circumstances in which the justices intervene. “So what explains the Court’s refusal to do its job here?” he wrote. “I suspect it has something to do with the fact that some respondents in these cases are named ‘Planned Parenthood.’”

Thomas is being somewhat coy; he, Alito, and Gorsuch are better positioned than anyone else to know why Roberts and Kavanaugh voted against hearing the cases. Their suggestion sends an interesting signal in the legal fight over abortion rights after Justice Kennedy’s retirement. Supporters and opponents alike assumed that Kavanaugh would provide conservatives with their long-awaited fifth vote to sharply curtail the practice or even overturn Roe v. Wade. Monday’s decision suggests that the damage inflicted on the court’s public image by Kavanaugh’s confirmation battle may have changed that calculus, and that a substantive move against abortion rights may be further away than many previously thought.


Nick Ayers, expected to be named White House Chief of Staff, turns down the job.

The White House is scrambling to find a replacement for outgoing Chief of Staff John Kelly, after the presumptive replacement rejected the job. As The New York Times reports, “Nick Ayers, the main focus of President Trump’s search to replace John F. Kelly as chief of staff in recent weeks, said on Sunday that he was leaving the administration at the end of the year.” Ayers had been in negotiations with the White House to take the position, but talks broke down over several issues, including how long Ayers was expected to stay on the job. Ayers wanted the job to be temporary while the president preferred a chief of staff willing to commit to at least two years.

Kelly’s tenure as chief of staff had been a tumultuous one, marked by repeated failures to impose the promised order that the former general was hired to bring to the White House. Any successor would face an even more difficulties, given the president’s mounting political troubles.

“The decision leaves Mr. Trump to contend with fresh uncertainty as he enters the 2020 campaign amid growing danger from the Russia investigation and from Democrats who have vowed tougher oversight, and could even pursue impeachment, after they take over the House next month,” The New York Times notes. “As the president hastily restarted the search process, speculation focused on a group that was led by Representative Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican who is the hard-edge chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, but also included the Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin; Mr. Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney; and the United States trade representative, Robert Lighthizer.”

By the end of Sunday night, even this shortlist seemed like a grasping at straws since some of the those on it were reportedly not interested in the job. As Politico reporter Nancy Cook tweeted:

December 07, 2018


Neo-Nazi declared guilty of murdering Charlottesville protestor.

The Associated Press is reporting that James Alex Fields Jr., age 21, has been convicted by a Virginia jury of first-degree murder for ramming his car into a group of protestors during the Unite the Right rally on August 12, 2017, killing one protester, Heather Heyer, and injuring 40 others.

As The New York Times notes, “Friday’s verdict provides some closure in a case that cast a national spotlight on Charlottesville, the scene chosen by racists and anti-Semites to rally for their cause, near a Confederate monument that some city leaders were trying to remove. The August 2017 Unite the Right rally was marked by violent clashes between counterprotesters and white nationalists, some of whom were convicted earlier this year.”

On the day of the murder, Fields’s mother had texted to him “be careful.” He responded “We’re not the one[s] who need to be careful.” That text was accompanied by a photo of Adolph Hitler.

Additional evidence showed that Fields’s act was an outgrowth of his neo-Nazi ideology. “Prosecutors also showed the jury a cartoon that Mr. Fields had shared months earlier on Instagram of a car ramming into a crowd, with the words, ‘You have the right to protest but I’m late for work.’” The New York Times observes. “Other evidence included recordings of conversations that Mr. Fields had with his mother after his arrest, in which he described the counterprotesters at the rally as a ‘violent gang of terrorists,’ and derided Ms. Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, as an ‘anti-white liberal’ who should be viewed as an enemy.”

Yana Paskova/Getty Images

Federal prosecutors recommend “substantial” jail time for Michael Cohen despite his cooperation with the Russia investigation.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan told a federal court on Friday that President Donald Trump’s former legal counsel should receive a “substantial term of imprisonment” after he pleaded guilty to charges related to tax evasion, fraud, and campaign-finance violations in August. But in a separate filing, special counsel Robert Mueller praised Cohen’s cooperation with his own office’s investigation and recommended leniency.

Cohen previously told the court that he cooperated with the investigations out of a sense of “personal resolve.” But federal prosecutors disputed that characterization, noting that Cohen only reached out to the special counsel’s office in August when he realized he was about to be indicted by the Manhattan office. “As such, any suggestion by Cohen that his meetings with law enforcement reflect a selfless and unprompted about-face are overstated,” the Manhattan office told the court. They recommended that he serve roughly three-and-a-half years in prison.

Two of the offenses to which Cohen pleaded guilty involved hush-money payments aimed at suppressing accounts of Trump’s extramarital affairs with two women. Those payments, prosecutors said, violated federal campaign-finance laws by exceeding donation limits. The Manhattan office directly linked those payments to the president in Friday’s filing, telling the court that Cohen “acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1,” the prosecutors’ pseudonym for Trump. (Cohen himself made a similar assertion during his plea hearing in August.)

The special counsel’s office, on the other hand, offered a more laudatory account of Cohen’s cooperation with the Russia investigation. Cohen pleaded guilty last month to lying to Congress about his role in negotiating Russian real-estate deals for the Trump Organization during the 2016 campaign. Mueller told the court on Friday that Cohen had taken “significant steps to mitigate his criminal conduct” and provided “credible and consistent information” to investigators over the course of seven meetings.

Mueller offered few clues about what the president’s former lawyer offered in the Russia investigation. Friday’s filing asserted that Cohen gave “useful information concerning certain discrete Russia-related matters core to its investigation that he obtained by virtue of his regular contact with Company executives during the campaign.” The special counsel’s office also said that Cohen “provided relevant and useful information concerning his contacts with persons connected to the White House during the 2017–2018 time period.”

Those vague descriptions may prompt a wave of unease among members of Trump’s inner circle, many of whom have already given their version of events to federal investigators and congressional committees. Among those under the most intense scrutiny is Donald Trump Jr., a high-ranking Trump organization executive. California Representative Jackie Speier, a Democratic member of the House Intelligence Committee, told reporters on Friday that she believed the president’s son may have lied to Congress twice about Russia-related matters. She did not specify what she believes he lied about.

Alex Wong/Getty

Secretary of Veterans Affairs once promulgated a neo-Confederate interpretation of Civil War.

CNN is reporting they’ve uncovered the transcripts of a 1995 speech in which Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie advocated a “Lost Cause” view of the Civil War in which the Confederates were tragic heroes. “Today marks the 187th anniversary of the birth of Jefferson Davis; planter, soldier, statesman, President of the Confederate States of America, martyr to ‘The Lost Cause,’ and finally the gray-clad phoenix,” Wilkie said at an event organized by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. “An exceptional man in an exceptional age.”

Wilkie linked the politics of Jefferson Davis with contemporary conservatism, saying, “America is searching for a better way. Walker Percy urged us to look South to recover community, stability, and sense of place in God’s order which we have regrettably lost. That is a tall proposition but it is certainly one Jefferson Davis would understand and certainly one for which he would fight.”

The event took place at the statue of Jefferson Davis, who Wilkie describes as having “contempt for the radical abolitionists of the Republican Party” because “they would violate any law and abridge any freedom to impose their idea of the just society on others.” Wilkie seemed to share those views since he characterized the radical abolitionists in Congress as being as “mendacious as the Jacobins of Revolutionary France.”

During his confirmation hearings Wilkie distanced himself from neo-Confederates, saying their events had become “part of the politics that divide us.” He added that he no longer attended them and his critics were focused on events that happened 25 years ago. Wilkie spoke to a division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans as recently as 2009.