The flag flies triumphantly above the building, gently fluttering in the wind, alerting people far and wide that a person of great honor and distinction is inside. No, it's not the Queen of England at Buckingham Palace — it's Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who has a staffer climb up to the roof of his department's Washington headquarters and hoist up a special secretarial flag to signal that he's shown up to work for the day.
When Zinke leaves the office or travels, another employee makes the trek up to the roof to take down the flag, which features the agency's bison seal. If Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt is in while Zinke is gone, he has his own special banner that goes up. Asked by The Washington Post what the point was of all this exactly, spokeswoman Heather Swift said it was "a major sign of transparency," adding that Zinke is "restoring honor and tradition to the department, whether it's flying the flag when he is in garrison or restoring traditional access to public lands."
While Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has a personal flag flying next to the U.S. flag at State Department headquarters at all times, following in the footsteps of his predecessors, Zinke is the first interior secretary to do it, the Post reports, and not even the White House flies the presidential flag when President Trump is inside. Zinke might be a trailblazer, and others in the administration could soon emulate him — be on the lookout for EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's banner, emblazoned with smoke stacks and oil-covered birds. Catherine Garcia
In 2012, the government of Dallas struck a deal with the National Rifle Association (NRA): If the organization would host its 2018 annual convention at the city-owned Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, it could rent the space for free. City Hall would offer a $22,840 discount, and the city's tourism bureau would cover the rest, about $387,000. In exchange, Dallas expects city businesses to rake in some $42 million from around 75,000 convention attendees.
But after a series of high-profile mass shootings, most recently the school shooting in Florida last week, Dallas leaders are less enthused about the arrangement. Dwaine Caraway, a city council member who is also mayor pro tem, on Monday urged the NRA not to come to Dallas. Should the convention proceed, he predicted, there will be "marches and demonstrations" and "we, Dallas, will be the ones who have to bear the costs, the responsibility, and to protect the citizens."
The city council did not have an opportunity to vote on the NRA convention subsidy. In 2016, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said he is not personally thrilled about the NRA coming to town, but would prioritize "what makes good business sense."
Mueller charges Ukrainian government lawyer for lying about his interactions with Trump campaign official Rick Gates
Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team has filed charges against lawyer Alex Van der Zwaan, who is expected to plead guilty Tuesday to lying about an interaction with former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates, the longtime associate of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, CNN reports. Van der Zwaan is also accused of willfully failing to turn over an email communication that was requested by the special counsel's office.
Little has been previously reported about van der Zwaan, who is apparently "a London-based, Russian-speaking son-in-law of Russian oligarch German Khan," writes Washington Post legal reporter Spencer Hsu. BuzzFeed News reports that "according to the criminal information filed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller's office ... investigators asked van der Zwaan in November about his work in 2012 for the Ukraine Ministry of Justice preparing a report on the trial on Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Ukrainian prime minister."
Van der Zwaan is reportedly a London-based, Russian-speaking son-in-law of Russian oligarch German Khan. Was named in November reports about money allegedly stolen by former Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych, that allegedly was used to pay a US law firm Skadden Arps for fees. https://t.co/7uaBHUlYpm
— Spencer Hsu (@hsu_spencer) February 20, 2018
Van der Zwaan claimed incorrectly to Mueller's team that his last communication with Gates was an "innocuous text message," the charges say. In fact, van der Zwaan spoke "with both Gates and Person A" in September 2016 about a report on the trial of Tymoshenko.
In November, KyivPost reported that "prosecutors on the case want to question members of the Skadden team who came to Ukraine to work on" the report, which sought to justify the imprisonment of Tymoshenko by former President Viktor Yanukovych. Members of the team cited by KyivPost included "Obama Administration officials Gregory Craig and Clifford Sloan, as well as [Alex Van der Zwaan] … who prosecutors say acted as an intermediary for the team on much of the trip." Jeva Lange
In the wake of the Florida high school shooting, which left 17 students and teachers dead last week, President Trump has called for tackling "the difficult issue of mental health." His focus has received sharp criticism from experts, including The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik, who writes that Trump's calls say "nothing" because "every country contains mentally ill and potentially violent people. Only America arms them."
The focus on mental health, as it turns out, has far more to do with the public's perception of the gun violence crisis than the reality of the situation. In 2016, people with diagnosed mental illnesses committed less than one percent of all firearm homicides, NBC reports. "There's not really a correlation," explained criminologist Dr. James Alan Fox. "We like to think that these people are different from the rest of us. We want a simple explanation and if we just say they're mentally ill, case closed. Because of how fearful, dangerous, and deadly their actions are, we really want to distance ourselves from it and relegate it to illness."
Americans nevertheless overwhelmingly believe that mental health issues are at the heart of the issue, a new Washington Post/ABC News poll has found. Fifty-seven percent of Americans believe mass shootings in the United States are more of a reflection of "problems identifying and treating people with mental health problems" than "inadequate gun control laws," the poll found. Twenty-eight percent of people said gun control was the central issue, while nine percent said it was both mental health and gun legislation, and two percent said it was neither.
Additionally, over three-quarters of Americans said the Parkland shooting could have been prevented "by more effective mental health screening and treatment." The poll reached 808 adults between Feb. 15 and 18 and has a margin of error of plus or minus four points. Jeva Lange
It's a familiar story by this point — a powerful lawmaker is accused of groping aides and making sexually inappropriate comments, denies the allegations, faces more corroborated accusations — but this time there's a little twist: She's a fairly prominent voice in the #MeToo movement, featured in Time's "The Silence Breakers" spread. After the second batch of allegations surfaced last week, California Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia (D) took voluntary unpaid leave while the state legislature investigates the sexual harassment allegations.
A California state lawmaker at the forefront of the "Me Too" movement faces a growing number of sexual misconduct allegations. Four former employees filed a formal complaint against Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia. https://t.co/izP1UJ5TJX pic.twitter.com/zh0eqvXQoR
— CBS News (@CBSNews) February 20, 2018
The first public allegation against Garcia was from Daniel Fierro, a former staffer for Assemblyman Ian Calderon (D), who told Politico that a visibly intoxicated Garcia groped his butt and reached for his crotch after an Assembly softball game in 2014, when he was 25. Then, last Wednesday, four anonymous former staffers accused Garcia of talking graphically about her sex life at work (including with other lawmakers), drinking in the office, pressuring staff to drink with her, and constantly reminding them they were "replaceable."
One of those staffers, David John Kernick, a former field representative for Garcia, came forward Saturday with a complaint alleging that Garcia had fired him "after he questioned the appropriateness of her suggestion that after a fundraiser at a whiskey bar" in 2014 they "sit on the floor of her hotel room and play spin the bottle." Tim Reardon, who was Garcia's chief of staff in 2014, called the allegations a "complete falsehood," saying Kernick was fired for poor work.
Garcia was among the hundreds of women in Sacramento to sign a letter protesting harassment at the California Capitol, telling The New York Times that "multiple people have grabbed my butt and grabbed my breasts. ... We're talking about senior lobbyists and lawmakers." On Monday, Garcia celebrated a new California law that penalizes lawmakers who retaliate against staffers for making a "good faith allegation," including of sexual misconduct. Peter Weber
The majority of Americans at the prime age to serve in the armed forces are actually ineligible due to obesity, health concerns, education, or criminal records, Politico reports. In total, almost three-quarters of Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 are not fit to serve, putting a damper on the Trump administration's plans to beef up the armed forces.
"The U.S. military is already having a hard time attracting enough qualified volunteers," a new Heritage Foundation paper on the concerns concludes. "Of the four services, the Army has the greatest annual need. The Army anticipates problems with meeting its 2018 goal to enlist 80,000 qualified volunteers, even with increased bonuses and incentives."
Easing recruiting standards has been in consideration, although many are opposed. "We lowered the standards [in 2009], we signed more waivers for people who had acts of criminality than we usually did," said retired Army Lt. Gen. Tom Spoehr. "We paid the price … The last place that we would go is to mess with the standards."
Still, even Spoehr notes that "obesity and the percentage of people overweight in the country has just skyrocketed in the last 10 to 15 years. Asthma is going up. High school graduation rates are still just barely acceptable and in some big cities they are miserable. Criminality is also not going away. We have to face the reality that these things in some cases are getting worse, not better."
That is to say nothing of the waning interest in joining the military. "Many of today's youth are not inclined to want to leave their family and friends," said United States Army Recruitment Command Sgt. Maj. Anthony Bowers, as reported by Army Times. "Family and friends, they oppose them joining the military service." Jeva Lange
Russian bots took advantage of America's divisions over gun control and the Second Amendment within an hour of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, last week, The New York Times reports.
After initial reports of the attack, hundreds of posts from Twitter accounts linked to Russia ignited rumors that the suspected gunman, Nikolas Cruz, had Googled Arabic phrases before the attack. The accounts also jumped on hashtags like #Parklandshooting, #AR15, and #NRA while other bots pushed for #guncontrolnow and #gunreformnow. "This is pretty typical for them, to hop on breaking news like this," explained New Knowledge's Jonathon Morgan, who works to track disinformation campaigns. "The bots focus on anything that is divisive for Americans. Almost systematically."
The bots used similar tactics during the presidential election, pushing support for Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders and stoking Islamophobia and debates over immigration. The strategy appears to involve nudging ideas that would otherwise remain on the fringes "slightly more mainstream," Morgan added.
The Russia-linked accounts that jumped on the Parkland shooting have since moved on to the hashtag #falseflag, pushing a conspiracy theory that the shooting never took place. The bots are "going to find any contentious issue, and instead of making it an opportunity for compromise and negotiation, they turn it into an unsolvable issue bubbling with frustration," explained media professor Karen North. "It just heightens that frustration and anger." Jeva Lange
Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir won ice-dancing gold, and Leslie Jones and Adam Rippon can't handle it
There were a lot of stories wrapped into the ice dancing finals on Tuesday at the Winter Olympics in South Korea: French couple Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron scored a record-high 123.35 in their free dance, winning the silver medal despite Papadakis' live wardrobe malfunction during Monday's short program; American siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani took the bronze, beating U.S. national champs Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue while the third U.S. pair, Madison Chock and Evan Bates, dropped to ninth place after a fall in Tuesday's long program; and Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir had a stunning performance to hang on for the gold, adding their second gold medal this year and third ever (they also won two silvers in the 2014 Sochi Games).
Virtue and Moir's ice dance elicited microphone-distorting shrieks from Olympics super-fan and NBC Olympics analyst Leslie Jones. She was joined by on-again, off-again NBC commentator Adam Rippon, who won a bronze in team figure skating earlier this Olympics, and Scott Hamilton, and they all seemed to be having a fine time with their color commentary.
"Are they getting in trouble for how sexy they are?"@lesdoggg and @adaripp commentating on @tessavirtue and @scottmoir's short dance is everything we could have ever wanted. AND MORE. #WinterOlympics https://t.co/fmMl0C4Amf pic.twitter.com/ykkNvv7L5p
— NBC Olympics (@NBCOlympics) February 20, 2018
"Every outfit she's put on, I want to wear to the club," Jones said of Virtue. "Steamy," said Rippon, and Jones concurred: "Are they getting in trouble for how sexy they are?" And to answer Jones' question, which is apparently a pretty common one, no, Virtue and Moir don't appear to be dating. Peter Weber