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October 18, 2018

The Llano River in central Texas receded on Wednesday, after hitting near-record levels on Tuesday after days of heavy rains. The Llano River, which rose to 30 feet above flood stage, feeds into the Colorado River, and the deluge caused flooding all the way from Llano to Austin. One woman's body was found at a low-water crossing on Wednesday after floodwaters receded, and another person was found dead on the banks of Lake LBJ on Tuesday. At least one bridge, on RM 2900, was washed out completely by the swollen Llano River.

The break in the rains and opened floodgates on dams controlled by the Lower Colorado River Authority helped reduce river levels to just above flood stage on Wednesday, but more rains are expected over the weekend, and with the ground already saturated, the National Weather Service has issued a flash flood watch for several counties in central Texas. "We really are not sure if this disaster has fully unfolded," said Llano County emergency management coordinator Ron Anderson. "We could see another rise of the Llano River. Whether or not it will be of historic value or not, we do not know yet."

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) issued a disaster declaration for 18 counties affected by the flooding on Wednesday. The Austin American Statesman has more photos and numbers in the video below. Peter Weber

9:06a.m.

Fracturing three ribs in a fall only ended up keeping Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg away from work for a few days.

The 85-year-old judge on Tuesday afternoon returned to work at her Supreme Court office, The Associated Press reports. She wasn't on the bench when the court met earlier that morning but had returned to her office by the afternoon. Ginsburg had previously been working from home and didn't miss any oral arguments, as the court only met for some routine business Tuesday. This means Ginsburg has still never missed a day of oral arguments in her 25 years on the bench, per NPR.

Ginsburg fell in her office last week and fractured three ribs; she went home afterward but then was hospitalized the next morning. A spokesperson said Tuesday that her condition was continuing to improve and that she had recuperated at home over Veterans Day weekend. Now, it appears she's ready to get right back into her routine, and her trainer even says she'll be back in the gym next week, reports Vox. This is Ginsburg's second time bouncing back from fracturing her ribs in a fall; she has also survived cancer twice and had heart surgery at the age of 81. Brendan Morrow

8:35a.m.

The United States hasn't had an ambassador to Saudi Arabia for 22 months, but President Trump has finally nominated a new one.

Trump on Tuesday announced his intention to nominate retired Army Gen. John Abizaid to the position, NPR reports. Abizaid served in the Army for 34 years and was the head of the United States Central Command from 2003 to 2007, per CNN.

The United States has not actually had an ambassador to Saudi Arabia since January 2017. That posed a bit of a problem when the U.S. faced a diplomatic crisis with Saudi Arabia in recent months after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Turkey believes Saudi officials murdered Khashoggi on the orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, although Saudi Arabia maintains that the killing was carried out without the crown prince's knowledge.

In October, while insisting that the Trump administration was taking the crisis seriously, a State Department spokesperson tiptoed around the issue of the empty ambassadorship; when a reporter asked for the name of the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the spokesperson responded: "I see what you're getting at." Brendan Morrow

7:07a.m.

On Wednesday, the National Defense Strategy Commission released a report warning that the U.S. military has lost its edge to a potentially dangerous degree after years of insufficient resources, innovation, and leadership. The 12-person commission, created by Congress and filled with former top Republican and Democratic officials, evaluated President Trump's 2018 National Defense Strategy. The commissioners did not disagree with the strategy's aim of revamping the military to better compete against China and Russia, but they said the effort was too slow and insufficiently funded, The Washington Post reports.

"The U.S. military could suffer unacceptably high casualties and loss of major capital assets in its next conflict. It might struggle to win, or perhaps lose, a war against China or Russia," the report found. "The United States is particularly at risk of being overwhelmed should its military be forced to fight on two or more fronts simultaneously."

The U.S. military budget jumped to $716 billion this year, more than four times China's military budget and more than 10 times Russia's, the Post notes. But the commission still said "available resources are clearly insufficient to fulfill the strategy's ambitious goals," suggesting Congress lift budget caps on the military while also examining other ways to tame the soaring federal deficit.

"There is a strong fear of complacency, that people have become so used to the United States achieving what it wants in the world, to include militarily, that it isn't heeding the warning signs," said commissioner Kathleen H. Hicks, a former top Pentagon official during the Obama administration. "It's the flashing red that we are trying to relay." You can read more about the commission's recommendations at The Washington Post. Peter Weber

6:08a.m.

On Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence diplomatically rebuked Myanmar's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi on her country's "violence and persecution" of its Rohingya Muslim minority and its jailing a year ago of two Reuters reporters covering the massacre of 10 Muslim Rohingya men.

"The violence and persecution by military and vigilantes that resulted in driving 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh is without excuse," Pence told Suu Kyi before a bilateral meeting she had requested on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Singapore. "I am anxious to hear the progress that you are making holding those accountable who are responsible for the violence that displaced so many hundreds of thousands, created such suffering." Pence also mentioned the "premium" America places "on a free and independent press," adding, "The arrest and jailing of two journalists last fall was deeply troubling to millions of Americans."

Suu Kyi quietly rebuffed Pence, saying it is always good to exchange views, but "we understand our country better than any other country does. ... So we are in a better position to explain to you what is happening, how we see things panning out."

A longtime political prisoner herself, Suu Kyi's powers are limited under a constitution written by the former military junta, but she has faced criticism for not condemning what the United Nations calls Myanmar's Rohingya "genocide." This week, Amnesty International became the latest organization to revoke an award it gave Suu Kyi, citing her "shameful betrayal of the values she once stood for." ASEAN elder statesman Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia's prime minister, also chastised Suu Kyi on Tuesday, telling a reporter she's "trying to defend what is indefensible." He dialed back his criticism a bit on Wednesday.

Pence is attending the ASEAN summit and subsequent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Papua New Guinea on behalf of President Trump.

5:16a.m.

"The midterms — just like a trip to Ikea, they're lasting much longer than expected," Trevor Noah said on Tuesday's Daily Show. Arizona just decided its Senate race on Monday and Georgia is still trying to figure out its next governor, "but the real post–Election Day drama is happening, as always, in Florida, the Florida of states. Both the Senate and the governor's races are too close to call, and the Republicans there aren't handling the stress well."

If President Trump is shouting fraud in "an election that he's not a part of, imagine if he loses in 2020 — like, he's gonna be holed up in the Oval Office like Scarface," Noah said. "The truth is that Trump and [Republican Gov. Rick] Scott are lying — nobody's stealing the election. But that doesn't mean that Florida doesn't have big issues with its voting. All over Florida, the elections have been a cluster--k, and everyone is contributing to it," starting with Broward County's Brenda Snipes, a Democrat, but also Republican officials.

"Okay, now look, I sympathize with people who were displace by the hurricane, but that doesn't mean one guy can just make up new ways to vote," Noah said. "Basically in Florida right now, there are no rules — everything is just chaos. And it's not just the election commissioners, because much like the people of Florida, it turns out the recount machines are old and falling apart." He had an easy Florida-specific fix America might want to consider implementing.

On Jimmy Kimmel Live, Kimmel checked in with Opa Locka County voting supervisor Gene Moran (Fred Willard), and he was really behind in the count.

And back at The Daily Show, Michael Kosta had a succinct, probably NSFW explanation for what's going on in Florida. Or something. Watch below. Peter Weber

4:14a.m.

If President Trump was trying to neuter Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into his campaign and Russia when he appointed Matthew Whitaker acting attorney general, he may have been "too clever by half," conservative law professor John Yoo writes at The Atlantic. Whitaker "cannot legally hold the office," thanks to the Constitution's Appointments Clause, and it's very unlikely this Supreme Court will uphold the White House's legal argument that his appointment is valid.

Yoo expressed a famously expansive view of presidential powers in his defunct "torture memo." But even Yoo has argued that Trump occassionally exceeds his presidential powers, and the Whitaker appointment is one of those times. Whitaker can try to shut down the Mueller investigation, an idea he's publicly advocated, but it won't stick, Yoo explains:

The White House may have thought it had cleverly figured out a way to curtail the investigation by appointing Whitaker, but it has instead virtually assured that Mueller will complete his job in his own good time. With questions surrounding the ethics and now the legality of his appointment, Whitaker will have little political capital to expend in defending any limits on Mueller. And even if Whitaker displays terrible judgment and makes the fateful choice to cut off the probe, Mueller now has the grounds to refuse to obey the orders of an unconstitutional attorney general. Trump's clever maneuvering has provided Mueller all the space he needs to finish his investigation and even hand over his files and concluding report to a Congress eager to launch impeachment proceedings. [John Yoo, The Atlantic]

"Trump critics should not find joy in such a result," Yoo cautioned, because "every action of the Justice Department might fall before challenges to Whitaker's appointment," including the prosecution of criminals. You can read Yoo's conservative legal case that Whitaker is an invalid attorney general, and his helpful suggestions for what Trump can and should do, at The Atlantic. Peter Weber

2:52a.m.

In one week, President Trump has transformed from a nonstop campaign-rally machine to a nearly invisible figure communicating mostly by tweet. Trump returned late Sunday from a 43-hour trip to Paris, where he sat out some big events and clashed with allies, and on Monday he ended his public day at 10:03 a.m., skipping the Veterans Day trip to Arlington National Cemetery every president since at least John F. Kennedy has made to lay a ceremonial wreath. On Tuesday, Trump's only public appearance was a brief showing at a Diwali ceremony, and he had Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meet with visiting King Abdullah II of Jordan.

Trump sent Vice President Mike Pence to the Asia Pacific Economic Conference (APEC) summit typically attended by presidents, potentially offending Asian leaders; canceled a trip to Colombia; and opted not to visit the U.S. troops he sent to the U.S.-Mexico border to protect a "caravan" he seems to have forgotten about. Maybe Trump is just tired, but White House officials and Trump allies say he's in a particularly sour mood amid a string of late Democratic victories in areas where he campaigned, looming investigations by House Democrats, expected indictments from Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and bad press from his France trip.

"Trump has retreated into a cocoon of bitterness and resentment," the Los Angeles Times reports, citing multiple administration sources. "Behind the scenes, they say, the president has lashed out at several aides," sketching "a picture of a brooding president 'trying to decide who to blame' for Republicans' election losses, even as he publicly and implausibly continues to claim victory."

"It's like an episode of Maury," one former Trump aide told Politico. "The only thing that's missing is a paternity test." You can read more about Trump's "five days of fury" at The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, and Politico has more on the mood in the White House. Peter Weber

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