Church of Scientology Launches TV Channel

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The Church of Scientology launched its own TV channel with a vow that it will be candid about every aspect of the church and its operations but isn’t seeking to preach or convert. “There’s a lot of talk about us. And we get it,“ church leader David Miscavige said in introducing the first night of programming Monday. “People are curious. Well, we want to answer your questions. Because, frankly, whatever you have heard, if you haven’t heard it from us, I can assure you we’re not what you expect.“ Scientology is an “expanding and dynamic religion and we’re going to be showing you all of it,“ he said, from the “spiritual headquarters” in which he was standing—a Florida-based, corporate-looking building. Viewers will also get a look at its churches around the world and a behind-the-scenes look at its management.

The channel also will explore the life and philosophy of founder L. Ron Hubbard, whom Miscavige called “a true-to-life genius.“ With all that the channel intends to present, he said, “let’s be clear: We’re not here to preach to you, to convince you or to convert you. No. We simply want to show you.“ Miscavige didn’t directly address critics, but Scientology doesn’t lack for them, the AP reports. Several high-profile projects have investigated the church’s alleged abuses of former members, including actress Leah Remini’s A&E docuseries Scientology and the Aftermath and Alex Gibney’s Emmy-winning documentary, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.

Bids to curb health care costs offer little more than talk

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It started as a bipartisan attempt to curb soaring health care premiums.

But Congress’ effort to stabilize the nation’s insurance markets is faltering amid escalating demands by each party and erratic positions by President Donald Trump. Democrats want bigger federal subsidies for consumers under President Barack Obama’s health care law while Republicans, still fighting that statute, aim to relax its coverage requirements and win abortion restrictions.

The bickering could collapse the whole effort, with each side blaming the other when next year’s expected higher insurance rates are announced — just weeks before Election Day, on Nov. 6.

Last week, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, a lead Democratic negotiator, called GOP demands on abortion limitations “a complete nonstarter.” A spokeswoman for Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Pa., sponsor of the House GOP package, said if Democrats want to oppose the effort “by playing abortion politics, then shame on them.”

Some Democrats think they’d reap political gains if the talks collapse since polls show the health care statute is widely popular and the public would largely fault Republicans if consumer costs spiral skyward.

“Either Republicans help stabilize the market or they own these premium and deductible increases,” said Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore. “And I’d be glad to help crucify them if they don’t want to do something very reasonable.”

The effort forces Republicans to choose between trying to avert bad news about premiums shortly before elections or standing by their opposition to anything that could be viewed as propping up “Obamacare.”

Trump hasn’t clarified things for his party. In a single day last October, he bounced from praising one bipartisan plan as “a very good solution” to labeling it “bailouts to insurance companies.”

Signs indicate insurance prices will likely continue upward. Without federal action, premiums are expected to rise in every state by up to 32 percent next year and by a cumulative 90 percent or more through 2021, according to a report released last week by Covered California, the state agency overseeing California’s health care exchange.

Ominously for the GOP, the study found that 14 of the 17 states that risk potentially “catastrophic” three-year rate increases of 90 percent or more backed Trump in the 2016 elections.

To try containing those increases, lawmakers crafted two bipartisan bills last year.

One by Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Bill Nelson, D-Fla., would provide billions to states for reinsurance. The funds would help insurers afford covering some of the sickest, costliest customers.

Another by Murray and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., would revive federal payments to carriers to subsidize discounts they give lower-earning consumers for costs like deductibles and copayments. Trump halted the subsidies in October as part of his effort to upend Obama’s law after federal courts said Congress hadn’t properly approved the money.

Obama’s statute requires insurers to provide those cost reductions, which last year cost the government $7 billion to help around 6 million people. Insurers boosted premiums to make up the difference.

Complicating what Congress might do, Trump’s halt of those subsidies to insurers has had an unanticipated, positive impact for low-income consumers.

Because of how most state regulators let carriers raise premiums, federal tax credits that help lower-income customers buy coverage grew so robustly that many were better off than before. Reviving the subsidies could actually increase out-of-pocket costs for at least 1.6 million people, the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says.

In other changes since last fall, the new GOP tax law has erased the tax penalties enforcing the “Obamacare” individual mandate, which requires most people to buy coverage. Trump has also proposed making it easier for insurers to sell policies that last less than a year and have fewer consumer protections than Obama’s statute imposes, like required coverage for people with pre-existing conditions.

Citing those blows to Obama’s law, Democrats say the tax credits that help millions pay premiums need to be more generous and cover more people. They want to restore spending that’s used to encourage people to buy coverage and block Trump from allowing the sale of low-cost, low-coverage plans.

Republicans have their own demands.

A White House memo says any effort to strengthen markets must have language that “ensures all federal dollars are life-protected” — a reference to restrictions on using the programs to finance abortions.

AshLee Strong, spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said last week that the effort to stabilize insurance markets must heed the GOP’s long-imposed legal bar against using federal funds for nearly all abortions.

“That is not negotiable for House Republicans,” Strong said.

The White House memo also demanded that insurers be allowed to charge older customers higher premiums than Obama’s law permits and get more leeway to renew short-term, low-coverage policies.

An agreement would likely be included in a government-wide spending bill Congress wants to finish by March 23. It’s probably the year’s last must-pass measure, so proposals left behind will face difficulties becoming law.

‘Fake news’ smear takes hold among politicians at all levels

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An Idaho state lawmaker urges her constituents to submit entries for her “fake news awards.” The Kentucky governor tweets #FAKENEWS to dismiss questions about his purchase of a home from a supporter. An aide to the Texas land commissioner uses the phrase to downplay the significance of his boss receiving donations from employees of a company that landed a multimillion-dollar contract.

President Donald Trump’s campaign to discredit the news media has spread to officials at all levels of government, who are echoing his use of the term “fake news” as a weapon against unflattering stories.

It’s become ubiquitous as a signal to a politician’s supporters to ignore legitimate reporting and hard questions, as a smear of the beleaguered and dwindling local press corps, and as a way for conservatives to push back against what they call biased stories.

“When Trump announced he was going to do his fake news awards, a group of us conservative legislators said, ’We need to do that, too,’” said Idaho state Rep. Priscilla Giddings, who has urged supporters to send examples of “biased, misleading and fake news” and plans to announce her awards March 18. “We need people to wake up to the fact that just because it’s on the front page of the Boise newspaper doesn’t mean it’s 100 percent true.”

The winners of the contest, it turns out, will be announced at the end of Sunshine Week, an annual focus by the nation’s news media on government transparency and the importance of a free press.

Rhonda Prast, editor of the Idaho Statesman in Boise, said it was ridiculous for anyone to assert that it would publish a story it knew contained falsehoods.

“The Statesman has a longstanding reputation as a reliable paper of record — going back 154 years — and our standards for accuracy and fairness have never changed,” she said in a statement. “The allegations of ‘fake news’ are unjust attacks on a free press.”

Giddings used the term herself last year to dismiss a report from another newspaper suggesting she may have been unqualified to run for office because she was claiming a homeowner’s exemption outside of her district. She said she’s submitting paperwork to prove the break was legitimate.

Experts on the press and democracy say the cries of “fake news” could do long-term damage by sowing confusion and contempt for journalists and by undermining the media’s role as a watchdog on government and politicians. They say it’s already exacerbated the lack of trust in media by conservatives and contributed to hostility that sometimes turns violent.

In the last year, at least three political figures have been implicated in physical assaults on reporters asking questions, while journalists have been attacked in dozens of other incidents by protesters, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

“I worry about the ongoing attack on the legitimacy of the media by President Trump and some of his supporters. The press is hardly perfect, of course, but it is also an important mechanism of accountability for people in power,” said Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College. “This kind of rhetoric is potentially corrosive to trust in the media and to people’s willingness to accept information that is critical of politicians they support.”

Nyhan was among the authors of a recent study for the Poynter Institute that found partisan divisions in the public’s attitudes toward the press. More Democrats now have more faith in the press, while Republicans have far more negative views and are “more likely to endorse extreme claims about media fabrication, to describe journalists as an enemy of the people, and to support restrictions on press freedom,” the study found.

The routine labeling of factual reporting as “fake news” comes as actual fake news proliferates on the internet.

Media researcher Craig Silverman helped popularize the term in 2014 as a label for completely fabricated stories written and spread by individuals seeking profit. Now the news media editor at BuzzFeed, he wrote recently that he cringes when he hears anyone use the term, which he said became a partisan weapon after Trump’s election in 2016.

Silverman wrote that political figures are manipulating social media to “literally brand real things as fake” and manufacture reality for their followers.

The governor of Maine, the vice chairman of Trump’s now-disbanded voter fraud commission, a New Mexico congressional candidate and the Georgia secretary of state are among the many politicians who have used the term in recent months in response to news reporting. A California school board president repeatedly used the term to attack a journalist investigating the area’s high rate of teenage pregnancy and its sex education policies.

The cries of “fake news” create a quandary for reporters, who want to defend their stories while also not giving credence to the charge.

“Our members, many of whom work for small news outlets, are bearing the brunt of these unwarranted attacks, and it’s completely unfair. These are people who are serving the community,” said Rebecca Baker, president of the Society of Professional Journalists. “Some are just ignoring it, and some are fighting back.”

Baker suggests that journalists respond to the attacks by showing their work as much as possible — by sharing the audio, video and documents that back up their stories. She wonders whether the term is starting to lose its clout from overuse, but also worries that whichever party controls the White House, Congress and state governments in the future will continue to use the tactic.

“This is part and parcel of the polarization of our politics right now,” she said.

Debate stirs over ‘America’s Harvest Box,’ food benefit plan

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Hawaii’s food stamp administrator says he was stunned when he first heard that the U.S. Agriculture Department wanted to replace some cash benefits with a pre-assembled package of shelf-stable goods. That changed quickly to frustration, befuddlement and serious concern.

“This will wreak havoc on the states,” said Pankaj Bhanot, who serves as director of Hawaii’s Department of Human Services and is in charge of administering the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, to roughly 165,000 residents scattered across a series of islands.

SNAP administrators across the country shared Bhanot’s reservations about “America’s Harvest Box,” pitched by USDA officials as a way to cut costs and improve efficiency. Administrators say their programs already are efficient, allowing recipients to purchase whatever foods they want directly from retailers, which benefits families, retailers and local economies.

The proposal, unveiled last month in the Trump administration’s 2019 budget, is part of an effort to reduce the cost of the SNAP program by roughly $213 billion over a 10-year period.

Brandon Lipps, administrator of the Food and Nutrition Service at USDA, said the idea was partially inspired by rapidly changing models for how people get their groceries. The USDA last year launched a pilot program that allows SNAP recipients to order provisions online using their EBT, or Electronic Benefit Transfer, cards, which function like debit cards but can only be used to purchase groceries.

He said in an interview that it was designed to streamline the process of getting healthy food into the hands of those who need it most. State administrators, he said, would be responsible for figuring out how to package and distribute the boxes themselves.

But SNAP administrators say the proposal is riddled with holes.

Bhanot had a broad list of questions, ranging from delivery of the boxes, especially during hurricanes, to ensuring that recipients were getting the right type of nutrition. “We’d have to ramp up staff. Where will the money come from?” he asked.

In Minnesota, Chuck Johnson, acting commissioner of the Department of Human Services, called the proposal “a significant step backward in our nation’s effort to ensure all Americans have access to nutritious food.” He said it would be a major burden on states, which would have to figure out how to deliver the food boxes.

Tom Hedderman, director of food and nutrition policy at the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, said there are about 1.25 million SNAP recipients in his state who get more than $90 in benefits each month — the threshold that would trigger a food box. He criticized the proposal for its lack of detail and direction.

“It’s clear in the proposal that they would dump the problem of logistics and cost back on to the states,” he said.

Babs Roberts, who directs the community services division of the Washington Department of Social and Health Services, said a uniform system for distributing boxes simply wouldn’t work in her state, where there are roughly 900,000 SNAP recipients. The cities are too dense for a delivery system to work, she said, while residents living in rural communities would likely have trouble traveling to a centralized location to pick up their box.

“I think it’s going to be administratively burdensome,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s any better than what we’re doing now.”

Sammy Guillory, deputy assistant secretary for the division of family support for the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services, said he worries that if the proposal were approved, it would take years to iron out the kinks. In particular, Guillory said he is concerned that making such a drastic change from the current SNAP system would force employees to spend significant time and energy adjusting.

“Somehow our staff that determines eligibility would have to learn all these rules, our system would have to be reprogrammed. And that’s not even taking into consideration the logistics of getting these boxes to families,” he said, adding that more than 400,000 households receive SNAP, or about a quarter of Louisiana’s population.

Rus Sykes, director of the American Public Human Services Association, an umbrella organization that includes the American Association of SNAP Directors, said administrators across the country were shocked by the proposal and are concerned that if it moves forward states will be forced into an impossible situation.

“They will not have the ability to administer this program this way,” Sykes said, “and the states will be on the line for everything that goes wrong.”

FACT CHECK: Trump on trade, guns, White House morale

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Despite grappling with unparalleled staff departures, President Donald Trump painted a rosy picture of a smoothly functioning administration getting things done, pushing along gun restrictions and bringing jobs to the United States. It made for another series of grandiose claims this past week.

Speaking at Cabinet meeting, Trump falsely proclaimed background checks were moving through Congress in response to the Florida school shooting and wrongly insisted that NATO countries were “delinquent” by not paying their fair share in a military alliance with the U.S.

All of that helped cap a week in which he misrepresented his effort to create jobs for American workers as part of an announcement on new trade penalties and deflected blame onto former President Barack Obama for Russian activities in the U.S. election.

A look at the rhetoric:

TRUMP: “Background checks are moving along in Congress, and, I think, moving along pretty well.” — Cabinet meeting Thursday.

THE FACTS: There’s been plenty of talk of gun restrictions, but legislation is far from moving along “pretty well.” Action on background checks is stalled due in part to Trump’s shifting positions. After the school shooting, Trump called for stricter gun laws and hinted at support for a more sweeping background check bill backed by Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. But after Trump met with the National Rifle Association, the White House said Trump backs narrower background checks.

Trump’s changing views have left Republicans divided in the Senate, where the party maintains a 51-49 majority. Without a clear path forward, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has shelved the gun debate for now. He had been preparing to push ahead with the narrower measure proposed by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., to strengthen the existing background check system. That bill has stalled amid objections from some Republicans who view it as an infringement on gun owners’ rights and Democrats, led by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, who say the bill does not go far enough.


TRUMP, on NATO countries: “Some owe billions and billions of dollars of money. They owe billions and billions from past years. Never paid it, and that’s not fair. They want us to protect, and they want us to be a good partner. And then they’re delinquent on payment or they haven’t made payments. Or they haven’t made payments which are fair.” — Cabinet meeting Thursday.

THE FACTS: Most of that is flat wrong. NATO countries do not owe anything to the alliance. They’re not delinquent on payments. There’s no dispute about “payments.”

The issue is how much NATO countries spend on their own armed forces. Trump wants them to increase their military budgets to relieve some of the burden of collective defense borne by the U.S., which spends more on its armed forces than other NATO members combined. So a case can be made that those countries have not contributed a “fair” share.

Although he takes credit for persuading NATO partners to spend more, the results are not yet clear.

They agreed in 2014, well before he became president, to stop cutting military spending, and have honored that. They also agreed then to a goal of moving “toward” spending 2 percent of their gross domestic product on their own defense by 2024. Most are short of that and the target is not ironclad.


TRUMP: “You know, I read where, ‘Oh, gee, maybe people don’t want to work for Trump.’ And believe me, everybody wants to work in the White House. They all want a piece of that Oval Office; they want a piece of the West Wing. And not only in terms of it looks great on their resume; it’s just a great place to work. ...I have a choice of anybody.” — remarks Tuesday in news conference with Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven.

THE FACTS: No, not compared with previous presidents. In Trump’s first year, the turnover rate among his administration’s upper-level officials was 34 percent. That’s higher than any other president in the past 40 years, according to an analysis by Kathryn Dunn-Tenpas of the Brookings Institution. The turnover rate in the first year for the top staff of Presidents Bill Clinton and Obama, for instance, were three times lower than Trump’s, at 11 percent and 9 percent, respectively.

Trump’s turnover rate for top staff has since gone up from his one-year mark because of recent departures. It’s 43 percent as of Wednesday, according to Brookings. Among the latest departures: economic adviser Gary Cohn, deputy communications director Josh Raffel and communications director Hope Hicks, the third person to hold that post in the Trump administration.


TRUMP: “You see it — the other day, Chrysler announced they’re leaving Mexico, they’re coming back into Michigan with a big plant. You haven’t seen that in a long time, folks.” — remarks Thursday announcing steep new tariffs on steel and aluminum imports to U.S. 

THE FACTS: This oft-repeated claim by Trump to suggest he is bringing jobs back to the U.S. is not entirely true. Chrysler did announce it will move production of heavy-duty pickup trucks from Mexico to Michigan, but the plant is not closing in Mexico. That plant will start producing other commercial vehicles for global sales and no change in its workforce is anticipated.


TRUMP: “From Bush 1 to present, our Country has lost more than 55,000 factories, 6,000,000 manufacturing jobs and accumulated Trade Deficits of more than 12 Trillion Dollars. Last year we had a Trade Deficit of almost 800 Billion Dollars. Bad Policies & Leadership. Must WIN again!” — tweet Wednesday.

THE FACTS: Trump persistently misrepresents the trade balance. The U.S. trade deficit last year was $566 billion, not almost $800 billion. He cites only the deficit in goods, ignoring the surplus in services.

The U.S. in 2017 bought $810 billion more in foreign goods than other countries bought from the U.S., says the Census Bureau. That deficit in goods was offset by a $244 billion trade surplus in services such as transportation, computer and financial services, royalties and military and government contracts.

As for manufacturing, Trump leaves out what is widely regarded as the main reason for the decline in factory jobs — automation and other efficiencies. Trade is certainly a factor as well.

He’s in the ballpark when referring to how many factory jobs have been lost since January 1989, when George H.W. Bush became president: 5.5 million, according to the Labor Department. What he doesn’t say is that despite the loss of those 5.5 million factory jobs, the U.S. economy overall has added a net total of about 40.6 million jobs in that time.


TRUMP: “If the E.U. wants to further increase their already massive tariffs and barriers on U.S. companies doing business there, we will simply apply a Tax on their Cars which freely pour into the U.S. They make it impossible for our cars (and more) to sell there. Big trade imbalance!” — tweet March 3.

THE FACTS: He’s wrong that automakers can’t sell U.S.-made cars in Europe while European cars come into the U.S. “freely.” He’s right about a big imbalance, but exaggerating. The EU applies a 10 percent duty on cars made in the U.S. The U.S. applies a 2.5 percent duty on cars made in Europe. The U.S. Census Bureau shows $13.8 billion in U.S. auto and parts exports last year to four leading markets in Europe while the U.S. imported $51.3 billion in vehicles and from five countries in Europe.


TRUMP: “Why did the Obama Administration start an investigation into the Trump Campaign (with zero proof of wrongdoing) long before the Election in November? Wanted to discredit so Crooked H would win. Unprecedented. Bigger than Watergate!” — tweet Monday.

THE FACTS: Despite his conspiratorial tone, it’s not unusual for investigations to start without proof. They tend to start with suspicions.

Criminal charges brought in the past six months suggest that by July 2016, when the FBI opened its counterintelligence investigation into Russia and the Trump campaign, there were indeed reasons for law enforcement to be concerned.

By that point, for instance, a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, George Papadopoulos, had learned that the Russians believed they had “dirt” on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in the form of thousands of emails. Papadopoulos has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with people who claimed a relationship with Russian officials.

No evidence has emerged that Obama used this matter to try to help Clinton in the election. Obama has actually been faulted — by some Democrats and by Trump himself in this same tweet — for not doing enough about the level of Russian interference he was being briefed about.

For example, the FBI did not disclose the Russia-Trump campaign investigation before the election. If it had, that might have played to the advantage of Clinton, while exposing Obama to accusations of manipulation. Trump is accusing him of that anyway.


TRUMP: “Plus, Obama did NOTHING about Russian meddling.” — same tweet, Monday.

THE FACTS: Not so. Obama appears to have done more about Russian meddling than Trump has done.

Before the election, Obama made public the discovery that emails of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta had been hacked by Russian-linked players and he warned about the risk of compromised balloting in the November election.

After the election, Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats suspected of being intelligence officers and seized two Russian country estates, in Maryland and New York, that the State Department said were used for intelligence activities.

The Trump administration has not yet penalized any Russian officials for interfering in the 2016 election. Trump has only fitfully acknowledged Russian meddling. Mike Rogers, director of the National Security Agency and the U.S. Cyber Command, recently told lawmakers that he had yet to be given authority to strike at Moscow’s cyber operations as this year’s U.S. midterm elections approach.

NOT REAL NEWS: A look at what didn’t happen this week

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A roundup of some of the most popular but completely untrue headlines of the week. None of these stories is legit, even though they were shared widely on social media. The Associated Press checked these out; here are the real facts:


NOT REAL: Meddling globalist George Soros named as the puppet master behind student gun control push

THE FACTS: Billionaire liberal philanthropist George Soros isn’t bankrolling student survivors pushing for gun control after the Feb. 14 Florida school shooting. False stories claimed Soros, a frequent target of conspiracy theories, is directing student activists as part of a “National Gun Control Movement” and is connected to a group organizing March 14 school walkouts against gun violence. His spokeswoman, Laura Silber, said he is not providing any funding to the students and that his foundation doesn’t currently fund organizations working to prevent gun violence.


NOT REAL: FDA Announced That Vaccines Are Causing Autism!

THE FACTS: Some websites misrepresented an old vaccine label to claim the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had announced vaccines cause autism. Researchers have debunked claims that vaccines can lead to autism and the FDA has made no such announcement. Autism was listed as an “adverse event” on a 2005 label for Sanofi Pasteur’s Tripedia childhood vaccine for diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis. At the time, consumers generated the “adverse event” reports, which were automatically added to the label even if there was no plausible connection to the product. The vaccine in question hasn’t been on the market in years.


NOT REAL: Cadbury Confirms It Has Stopped Making Chocolate

THE FACTS: Water supply problems affected a Cadbury plant after freezing weather in England, but the company never stopped making candy. A false story made that claim after bitter weather followed by a thaw led to burst pipes in the Birmingham area. That’s where Cadbury’s flagship Bournville factory produces Dairy Milk chocolate bars, Easter creme eggs and other treats. Cadbury says there was a limited supply of water for a brief period, but sweets production never came to a halt.


NOT REAL: Ireland’s Prime Minister to Bring in One-Million Migrants. Farewell Ireland.

THE FACTS: The new Ireland 2040 government plan to address population growth isn’t an outline for “nation-destruction” that will bring in 1 million immigrants from Muslim countries. Several websites incorrectly tied the entire projected increase to immigrants, and said they would be “likely Muslims” from Afghanistan, Africa, the Middle East and Pakistan. Ireland never specified where immigrants would come from in the plan, and the largest group moving to the country in recent years is that of people returning to their native Ireland.


NOT REAL: Legendary actor Kirk Douglas dead, 4 days before his 101st Birthday

THE FACTS: Douglas celebrated his 101st birthday on Dec. 9, and appeared to a standing ovation at the Golden Globes in January for a tribute. The YourAction News3 site, which said he died of natural causes, has reported death hoaxes before. The “Lust for Life” and “Spartacus” star is the father of actor Michael Douglas and one of the last living legends of Hollywood’s golden age.

Best U.S. City to Live In Isn’t on Either Coast

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The website Niche is out with its ranking of the best US cities in which to live, and the winner is not on either coast: Instead, Ann Arbor, Michigan, takes the top honor. The city of 118,000 comes out on top of more than 200 other locales when factoring in a variety of metrics including crime rate, schools, employment, and nightlife. The top 10 follow:

  1. Ann Arbor, Michigan
  2. Naperville, Illinois
  3. Berkeley, California
  4. Plano, Texas
  5. Arlington, Virginia
  6. Cambridge, Massachusetts
  7. The Woodlands, Texas
  8. Overland Park, Kansas
  9. Richardson, Texas
  10. Irvine, California
Click for the full rankings.

Puerto Ricans still stranded in hotels 6 months after storm

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From the lobby of a hotel on the outskirts of Boston, Jesenia Flores fills out an online job application, hoping to find work that will get her small family back to normal for the first time since Hurricane Maria flooded their home in Puerto Rico.

The hotel along the interstate has been a refuge for her and other Puerto Rican families, but it’s frustrating “to be cooped up here without knowing what will happen to us,” the 19-year-old mother said as her 15-month-old son squirmed and cried in her lap.

Danaliz Pujol is staying in a hotel, too, near Orlando, Florida. She and her husband are trying to find an affordable apartment to replace the one in Puerto Rico that was damaged in the storm and then rented to someone else after they fled to the mainland. She looks every day, “but there’s nothing,” she said.

And then there is Carmen Acosta, who longs to go home from the hotel where she has been living in Puerto Rico with 40 families displaced by the storm. She received $4,000 from the federal government to repair her nearby house, but the work has been slow because it includes removing black mold that quickly spread in the tropical heat.

Nearly six months after the storm, almost 10,000 Puerto Ricans scattered across 37 states and the U.S. territory still receive temporary housing assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That help has been renewed repeatedly, but it’s now scheduled to end for everyone March 20. Without financial support, they will have nowhere to go, many storm victims say.

“I could end up on the street just as I’m trying to get back on my feet,” said Pujol, 23, who earns money by cleaning hotel rooms. Her husband is disabled and cannot work.

Dozens of Puerto Ricans interviewed by The Associated Press expressed similar fears as the deadline loomed. Many are poor, living on fixed incomes or getting by in low-wage jobs. They have no relatives who can help or savings to fall back on, and they did not own their homes.

Some like Flores struggle to find work because they don’t speak English well. Others have children with special medical or educational needs.

“To start all over again is really hard,” said Ivette Ramirez, whose home in the Puerto Rican city of Bayamon was flooded by the worst storm to strike the island in decades. The restaurant where she and her husband worked was destroyed. She is now staying in a hotel in Dedham, Massachusetts, with aid from FEMA.

So far, FEMA has provided $113 million in rental assistance to 129,000 people who were in Maria’s path across the island. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello has asked for the deadline to be extended to May 14, and the government says it is reviewing the request.

Nonprofit groups, churches and state and local governments have also provided temporary housing help and other forms of support to the tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans who fled to the mainland in the aftermath of the Sept. 20 storm.

Several Massachusetts groups helped Maria Reyes when her FEMA hotel assistance ended after two months. She was able to move from one hotel near Boston to another while caring for her 7-year-old grandson.

Her former home in San Juan public housing has been deemed habitable, but she wants to stay on the mainland to get better medical care. She doesn’t know how long she will be able to stay in this hotel, or where she will go next.

“I can’t live like this with a little kid,” the 55-year-old said. “I need more time. I need God to hear me.”

Noe Casiano came to Florida with his wife and three children, including one born with severe birth defects a day before the storm swept across the island and flooded their apartment in a public housing complex near San Juan.

Their FEMA benefits ended when their home was approved for habitation, but their newborn was getting emergency treatment in St. Petersburg. For a week, they slept all together in the hospital, but they have since moved to a nearby shelter. They still don’t want to go back to Puerto Rico, where the family believes their daughter won’t get the treatment she needs because medical specialists are scarce on the island following a 10-year economic crisis.

“I have nothing in Puerto Rico. It would be like going to an empty shoebox,” the 29-year-old father said, his voice breaking.

For the most part, evacuees try to make themselves at home. At several hotels, they share meals and keep each other company. Some have added personal touches, like a portrait of Jesus that Acosta leans against a cardboard box at the hotel in Boqueron in southwestern Puerto Rico.

Ivan Ferreira, a 55-year-old retiree at the same hotel, said he’s grateful for the lodging but points out that he could have fixed part of his house for what FEMA has paid for the room.

Back in the Boston area, Flores’ hotel initially offered a welcome break from the chaos after the storm. But now it’s become tedious.

“The only entertainment I have is my son,” she said.

Her husband managed to find work as a cook but she has had no luck. It doesn’t help that she doesn’t have a car and her hours will have to be limited because she has to care for her baby.

“I’ve applied for everything I see, but I don’t hear anything,” she said.

McDonald’s Phases In Switch to Fresh Beef

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McDonald’s conversion to fresh beef in its Quarter Pounders is speeding up. The company said the switch is now in effect at 3,500 restaurants in cities including Miami, Orlando, Atlanta, and Nashville, reports Reuters. By May, the change will be in effect in most of its 14,000 US restaurants, per the AP. The chain’s “Signature Crafted” burgers also will use fresh beef, though Big Macs and other burgers will continue to use frozen patties. The move is part of McDonald’s attempt to shed its junk-food reputation and to counter competitors such as Wendy’s, Chick-fil-A, and Shake Shack.

Trump Signs Off on Steel, Aluminum Tariffs

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As expected, President Trump signed off on steel and aluminum tariffs Thursday at the White House, CNBC reports. Trump says a 25% tax will apply to steel imports, and 10% will be added to aluminum brought into the US, the AP reports. Trump says the excess of imported steel and aluminum is a “travesty” and hurts American workers and industry and that the US industry has been “ravaged by aggressive foreign trade practices. ... It’s really an assault on our country.“ The tariffs will take effect in 14 days, with Canada and Mexico indefinitely exempted. Trump, who announced the tariffs while surrounded by steelworkers, says he is fulfilling a key campaign promise. American steel and aluminum workers have been betrayed, he said, but “that betrayal is now over.“

Best State for Women: the ‘North Star’ State

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Amid the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, WalletHub did some digging to see which US states proved best for women (and which didn’t fare so well). The site looked at all 50 states and the District of Columbia across two main metrics: women’s economic and social well-being—which includes everything from earnings and job security to how many women graduated high school and own businesses—and women’s health care and safety, which looks at obesity rates, prevalence of depression and suicide, and availability of preventive health care. Where women may fare best: Minnesota. Here, the top 10 states for women and their score out of 100:

  Best U.S. states for women

  1. Minnesota; 78.2 (No. 1 for women’s economic and social well-being)
  2. Massachusetts; 75.7
  3. Vermont; 72.1
  4. North Dakota; 72
  5. Wisconsin; 71.5
  6. Maine; 71.3
  7. Hawaii; 71.1 (No. 1 for women’s health and safety)
  8. Connecticut; 69.8
  9. Iowa; 69.1
  10. New Hampshire; 69.1

Worst U.S. states for women

  1. Louisiana; 36.3
  2. Arkansas; 39.8
  3. Mississippi; 40.7
  4. Oklahoma; 41.1
  5. Alabama; 41.8
  6. South Carolina; 42.1
  7. West Virginia; 44.1
  8. Nevada; 44.2
  9. Georgia; 47
  10. Texas; 47.4
See where your state falls HERE.

Fears of ‘brain drain’ hit West Wing amid Trump staff exits

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Donald Trump once presided over a reality show in which a key cast member exited each week. The same thing seems to be happening in his White House.

Trump’s West Wing has descended into a period of unparalleled tumult amid a wave of staff departures, yet the president insists it’s a place of “no Chaos, only great Energy!” The latest to announce his exit is Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser, who had clashed with the boss over trade policy.

Cohn’s departure has sparked internal fears of an even larger exodus, raising concerns in Washington of a coming “brain drain” around the president that will only make it more difficult for Trump to advance his already languishing policy agenda.

Multiple White House officials said the president has been pushing anxious aides to stay on the job.

“Everyone wants to work in the White House,” Trump said during a news conference Tuesday. “They all want a piece of the Oval Office.”

The reality is far different.

Vacancies abound in the West Wing and the broader Trump administration, with some jobs never filled and others subject to repeat openings. The position of White House communications director is soon to be empty again after the departure of its fourth occupant, Hope Hicks.

“They are left with vacancies atop of vacancies,” said Kathryn Dunn-Tenpas of the Brookings Institution who tracks senior-level staff turnover. Her analysis shows the Trump departure rate has reached 40 percent in just over a year.

“That kind of turnover creates a lot of disruption,” she said, noting the loss of institutional knowledge and relationships with agencies and Congress. “You can’t really leave those behind to your successor.”

Turnover after a year in office is nothing new, but this administration has churned through staff at a dizzying pace, and allies are worried the situation could descend into a free-fall.

One White House official said there is concern about a potential “death spiral” in the West Wing, with each departure heightening the sense of frenzy and expediting the next.

Multiple aides who are considering departing, all speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters, said they didn’t have a clue about whom the administration could find to fill their roles. They said their desire to be team players has kept them on the job longer than planned. Some said they were nearing a breaking point.

“You have situations where people are stretched to take on more than one job,” said Martha Joynt Kumar, director of the White House Transition Project.

She cited the example of Johnny DeStefano, who oversees the White House offices of personnel, public liaison, political affairs and intergovernmental affairs. “Those are four positions that in most administrations are each headed by an assistant to the president or a deputy assistant,” Kumar said.

The overlap between those qualified to work in the White House and those willing to take a job there has been shrinking too, according to White House officials and outside Trump allies concerned about the slow pace of hires.

Trump’s mercurial decision-making practices, fears of being drawn into special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation and a stalled legislative agenda are keeping top-flight talent on the outside.

“Most of all, President Trump hasn’t demonstrated a scrap of loyalty to current and former staff, and everyone knows it,” said Michael Steel, a former aide to onetime Gov. Jeb Bush, R-Fla., and ex-House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

Trump acknowledged that he is a tough boss, saying he enjoys watching his closest aides fight over policy.

“I like conflict,” he said Tuesday.

Since his days on the campaign, Trump has frequently and loudly complained about the quality of his staff, eager to fault his aides for any mishaps rather than shouldering responsibility. His attacks on his staff have sharpened in recent weeks, and he has suggested to confidants that he has few people at his side he can count on, according to two people familiar with his thinking who were not authorized to discuss private conversations publicly.

Hicks’ departure will leave a gaping hole in the president’s inner circle. She served as both media gatekeeper and confidante.

A number of other aides have expressed worry about the legal implications — and steep bills — they could face if ensnared in Mueller’s probe. It has had a chilling effect on an already sluggish White House hiring process, according to officials, and there is wide concern that working for Trump could negatively affect career prospects.

Meanwhile, hopes for significant governing achievements in the coming years, along the lines of the tax cuts passed in December, are growing fleeting, as Republicans face a daunting electoral environment this fall.

Morale has plunged among West Wing aides in recent weeks. Some point to the departure of staff secretary Rob Porter in mid-February as beginning the tailspin.

Porter was a popular figure, but his departure undid some of the progress made on streamlining the White House’s chaotic policy process. Allegations of domestic violence against him stunned co-workers. A permanent replacement has yet to be named.

Moreover, chief of staff John Kelly’s shifting explanations for how he handled the Porter matter — including, in the eyes of some, outright lies — damaged his reputation among staffers who had seen Kelly as a stabilizing force in a turbulent West Wing.

The administration has been understaffed from the onset, in part due to the president’s refusal to consider hiring even the most qualified Republicans if they opposed him during the campaign, according to a White House official not authorized to speak publicly about personnel matters.

But some aides insisted that Trump would not have trouble finding qualified replacements.

“At the end of the day, I liken what goes on here to a football team like the New England Patriots, rights?” Peter Navarro, the director of the White House’s Trade and Manufacturing Policy office, said on Bloomberg TV. “Like every year, the Patriots win the division, but they do it with different players. What doesn’t change is the coach and the quarterback, and that’s what we have in Donald Trump.”

The White House did not immediately announce a replacement for Cohn, whose deputy, Jeremy Katz, left in January. Among those under consideration for Cohn’s job are CNBC commentator Larry Kudlow and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, according to a person familiar with the discussions.

In a riff Saturday at the Gridiron Dinner, an annual white-tie affair featuring journalists and officials, Trump engaged in a rare bout of self-deprecating humor, comparing the Oval Office job with his past career as the host of the reality-television show “The Apprentice.”

“In one job I had to manage a cutthroat cast of characters, desperate for TV time, totally unprepared for their roles and their jobs and each week afraid of having their asses fired, and the other job I was the host of a smash television hit.”

Several White House aides in the audience laughed in their tailcoats and ball gowns. But the joke, they knew, was on them.

Woman says found tooth with blood on it while eating cashews

The Free Press WV

An Ohio woman says she found a tooth with dried blood on it while eating cashews.

WKYC reports Nickolette Botsford said she felt something hard while eating the nuts and vomited when she saw it looked like a tooth.

The Ravenna woman said a hospital confirmed it as a human tooth spotted with dried blood. Her hospital report says she was treated for exposure to blood or bodily fluids.

It’s unclear what product Botsford was eating and where it was purchased.

Botsford called Planters’ parent company, which recently picked up the tooth for testing.

Kraft Heinz Co., based in Pittsburgh and Chicago, confirmed the item was a “foreign object” and said it’s investigating its manufacturing process and suppliers.

The company’s email Tuesday night says it hasn’t received any related complaints.

Watchdog: Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway violated Hatch Act

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A federal watchdog says White House counselor Kellyanne Conway violated the federal law prohibiting government officials from using their positions to influence political campaigns.

The Office of Special Counsel, which is unrelated to Robert Mueller’s office, says Conway violated the Hatch Act twice last year when she spoke out in support of Republican Roy Moore and against his Democratic rival, Sen. Doug Jones, in the Alabama Senate race.

“Ms. Conway, in her official capacity, attempted to influence the Alabama special election by advocating for the success and failure of candidates in that race,” the report stated. Her comments came in separate interviews with Fox News and CNN.

Special Counsel Henry Kerner sent his office’s findings to President Donald Trump on Tuesday “for appropriate disciplinary action.” Because she is a presidential appointee, it is up to Trump to decide what — if any — punishment she will receive.

The White House disputed the independent agency’s findings.

“Kellyanne Conway did not advocate for or against the election of any particular candidate,” deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley said in a statement. “She simply expressed the President’s obvious position that he have people in the House and Senate who support his agenda.”

“In fact, Kellyanne’s statements actually show her intention and desire to comply with the Hatch Act - as she twice declined to respond to the host’s specific invitation to encourage Alabamans to vote for the Republican,” Gidley added.

Career government officials found to have violated the Hatch Act can be fired, suspended or demoted, and fined up to $1,000.

Conway came under fire for violating a different ethics provision last year, when she pushed Trump supporters to purchase products sold under the Ivanka Trump brand. The White house told the Office of Government Ethics she was “highly unlikely” to do so again and that it was providing her with additional ethics training.

The report said Conway did not respond to multiple requests from the Office of Special Counsel to explain her comments.

In its response to the special counsel’s office, the White House argued that Conway’s job includes the role of providing “commentary” on Trump’s thinking, and that the unique circumstances of the Moore race need to be considered. Moore faced multiple allegations of sexual assault against teenagers, prompting Trump and the Republican National Committee to withdraw support, only to re-endorse Moore amid a contentious Senate debate on the GOP tax bill.

The Office of Special Counsel found that the White House reasoning “lacks merit,” adding that Conway’s comments went beyond commentary.

Walter Shaub, the former director of the Office of Government Ethics who is the senior director of the Campaign Legal Center, the nonpartisan group which filed the OSC complaints against Conway, called on Trump to take disciplinary action against her.

“The White House cannot continue to have one standard for the federal workforce generally and a lower standard for appointees who are close to this President,” Shaub said in a statement.

This State Has the Best Quality of Life

The Free Press WV

When it comes to quality of life, studies have shown that a feeling of social connectedness is one of the most important factors. “The number one indicator of success in life and having a fulfilling, satisfying life is the quality of your relationships,“ says one sociology professor. “We are social animals, and we don’t do well when we don’t have community connections.“ Those connections are one factor US News & World Report used to rank US states by quality of life; the other factor is how healthy the environment is. All of the top 10 states in the resulting ranking have large rural populations and not as many people per capita as more urban states, which could explain why their environments are less polluted as well as why residents feel more socially connected in their tight-knit small towns. Read on for the states at the top and bottom of the list.

Best quality of life:

  1. North Dakota
  2. Minnesota
  3. Wisconsin
  4. New Hampshire
  5. South Dakota
Worst quality of life, starting with the state ranked dead last:
  1. California
  2. New Jersey
  3. Indiana
  4. Illinois
  5. Texas
See where your state falls HERE.
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