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South Korea’s Constitutional Court removed President Park Geun-hye from office Friday over charges of graft and corruption. The unanimous ruling strips Park of immunity from prosecution, clearing the way for her to face criminal charges. Park’s power had been sharply reduced since December, when South Korea’s parliament voted overwhelmingly to impeach her. Outside the courthouse in the capital Seoul on Friday, thousands of Park’s supporters tried to break through police barricades. At least two of them were killed in the violence. South Korea’s prime minister and acting president, Hwang Kyo-ahn, appealed for calm.
Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn: “In order to stop internal conflicts from intensifying, we should manage the social order and keep a stable government, so that national anxiety and the international society’s concern can be settled.”
A new election will be held in 60 days. Park’s conservative party appears headed to defeat, and its fall from power could mean South Korea’s next leader will take a more conciliatory approach toward North Korea. The upheaval comes days after North Korea test-fired several ballistic missiles and as the Trump administration began deploying a missile defense system to South Korea. Chinese officials warn the U.S. is escalating a regional arms race.
In Washington, D.C., House lawmakers advanced legislation Thursday to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. The Energy and Commerce Committee cleared the measure on a 31-23 vote along party lines, capping a hearing that lasted over 27 hours. It followed a similar marathon session in the Ways and Means Committee, which also voted along party lines. This is Texas Republican and committee chair Kevin Brady.
Rep. Kevin Brady: “This is Obamacare gone. This is the first and most important step to giving relief to Americans from this terrible law and to begin the replacement principles of restoring state control and restoring the free market that conservatives, moderates, all Republicans have built consensus around.”
House Republicans are moving rapidly to pass their healthcare legislation, with committee markups coming less than two days after the bill was made public.
Democrats objected to the pace of the Republican push, noting it took months of debate to craft the Affordable Care Act in 2009. They say the GOP is ramming through the legislation ahead of a Congressional Budget Office report expected Monday that will assess the cost and impact of the bill. This is Georgia Democratic Congressmember John Lewis.
Rep. John Lewis: “Mr. Chairman, the bill we have been considering today is fundamentally flawed. Tax cuts for the rich, wealthy, and corporations are the priority. The sick, the elderly, the middle class and working Americans are left out and left behind.”
The legislation would end the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid by 2020. Under pressure from conservative Republicans, the White House on Thursday pressed lawmakers to sunset Medicaid expansion even sooner. The move could put medical treatment, nursing care and other benefits out of reach for millions of poor and disabled Americans. Meanwhile, several Republican senators questioned whether the House bill has the support to pass the Senate. Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton tweeted, “House health-care bill can’t pass Senate without major changes. To my friends in House: pause, start over. Get it right, don’t get it fast.”
In climate news, the newly confirmed head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, said Thursday that carbon dioxide emissions are not a major contributor to global warming. Pruitt made the comment during an interview with CNBC host Joe Kernen.
Joe Kernen: “Do you believe that it’s been proven that CO2 is the primary control knob for climate? Do you believe that?”
Scott Pruitt: “No, I––No, I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do, and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact. So, no, I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.”
Joe Kernen: “OK. All right––”
Scott Pruitt: “But we don’t know that yet, as far as—we need to continue debate and continue the review and the analysis.”
Scott Pruitt’s comment defies scientific consensus about the laws of physics and could put him at odds with U.S. law. Federal courts have ruled the EPA is obligated to regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act. The EPA’s own website even features a fact sheet declaring, “Greenhouse gases act like a blanket around the Earth, trapping energy in the atmosphere and causing it to warm.”
Meanwhile, a top official at the EPA has resigned in protest of a Trump administration proposal to entirely defund his office. Mustafa Ali helped found the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice in 1992 and served under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Ali told InsideClimate News, “My values and priorities seem to be different than our current leadership and because of that I feel that it’s best if I take my talents elsewhere.”
In more climate news, the Trump administration asked a federal judge this week to halt a landmark trial brought by 21 young people who say the federal government is denying their constitutional rights by promoting fossil fuel extraction and greenhouse gas emissions.
On Capitol Hill, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 12 to 9 Thursday to advance the nomination of David Friedman for U.S. ambassador to Israel. Friedman has no diplomatic experience and worked as a bankruptcy lawyer for Donald Trump over the last 15 years. He’s a longtime supporter of illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank who has called President Barack Obama an anti-Semite. Friedman has also compared liberal American Jews to Nazi collaborators. New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez joined every committee Republican in support of Friedman, sending his confirmation to a vote by the full Senate.
The top commander of U.S. forces deployed in war zones told Congress Thursday he wants to send more troops to Afghanistan to break a stalemate with the Taliban. Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, was speaking to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Gen. Joseph Votel: “I do believe it will involve additional forces to ensure that we can make the advise and assist mission more effective.”
The U.S. currently has 8,400 troops deployed in Afghanistan, alongside roughly three times as many contractors. General Votel said he believes “a few thousand” more troops were needed, but did not commit to an exact number. The testimony came as the Pentagon began deploying 400 additional marines to Syria.
Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn worked as a “foreign agent” for the Turkish government last fall, even as he served as a top adviser to Donald Trump’s campaign—and failed to disclose his lobbying efforts as required by law. The revelation came in a retroactive filing by Flynn with the Justice Department on Tuesday. It reveals he was paid more than a half-million dollars to lobby on behalf of a firm linked to the Turkish government. By failing to register with the federal government, Flynn violated the Foreign Agent Registration Act. On Election Day, Flynn authored an op-ed in the newspaper The Hill calling for the extradition to Turkey of a prominent opponent of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who’s lived in Pennsylvania since 1999. At the White House, Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked if Donald Trump knew of Flynn’s work as a foreign agent.
Press Secretary Sean Spicer: “I don’t believe that that was known. I would refer you to General Flynn and to the Department of Justice in terms of the filings that have been made.”
John Roberts: “Had the president have known that, would he have appointed him?”
Press Secretary Sean Spicer: “I don’t know, John. That’s a hypothetical that I’m not prepared to ask. I don’t—I don’t—I don’t know what he discussed prior to—prior to being appointed, in terms of his background, his résumé, his client base. I don’t know any of that.”
Last month, the White House fired Michael Flynn as national security adviser, following revelations he discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with the Russian ambassador before Donald Trump’s inauguration.
FBI Director James Comey met top senators on Capitol Hill Thursday, amid mounting calls for an investigation into ties between the Trump administration and Russia. Comey held separate meetings with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and senior members of the Senate Intelligence Committee. It’s not clear what was discussed, but the talks followed President Trump’s unsubstantiated claims last weekend that President Obama wiretapped Trump Tower.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said Thursday he will help high-tech companies protect customers against CIA spying. The offer came two days after WikiLeaks published thousands of documents describing CIA programs to hack into both Apple and Android cellphones, smart TVs and even cars and trucks. Assange spoke in an online news conference from the Ecuadorean Embassy in London.
Julian Assange: “The Central Intelligence Agency lost control of its entire cyberweapons arsenal. … Now, this is a historic act of devastating incompetence to have created such an arsenal and stored it all in one place and not secured it.”
After headlines, we’ll speak with Cindy Cohn of the Electronic Frontier Foundation about the largest leak of classified material in CIA history.
In Washington, D.C., the owners of a local restaurant filed suit Thursday against President Donald Trump, alleging they’re losing business due to unfair competition from the Trump International Hotel. The owners of Cork Wine Bar say they’ve lost patrons who seek to curry favor with the president. This is Steven Schooner, lawyer for the plaintiffs.
Steven Schooner: “Today, whether you are a foreign government, a lobbyist or a special interest group, there is no easier way to funnel money directly to the president of the United States, with no transparency whatsoever, than by spending money in the president’s hotel or his restaurants or through an event hosted in that facility.”
At the White House, Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked about the lawsuit.
Press Secretary Sean Spicer: “The president has made very clear in that December press conference at Trump Tower he doesn’t have conflicts, and he’s done everything in accordance with—with the guidance that he was given, and gone well beyond what he ever needed to do.”
As president, Trump has rejected advice from ethics experts to divest his vast business holdings or create a completely blind trust, and instead handed over management of the Trump Organization to his sons. The head of the Office of Government Ethics slammed that decision as “wholly inadequate.”
A former contributor to Fox News has reportedly settled a lawsuit charging she was sexually assaulted by an executive at the network. Tamara Holder says the vice president for Fox News Latino, Francisco Cortes, tried for force her to perform oral sex when the two were alone in his office in February 2015. The New York Times reports Holder won a settlement of more than $2.5 million. The settlement follows the resignation of Fox News Chair Roger Ailes last July, who stepped down amid multiple accusations that he sexually harassed women at the network.
Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer will share this year’s Izzy Award with Seth Freed Wessler of The Nation Institute, after the two worked independently to reveal major abuses at for-profit U.S. prisons. The annual Izzy Award is presented by the Park Center for Independent Media and named for legendary dissident journalist I.F. Stone. Other winners include Nation writer Ari Berman, who exposed Republican efforts to suppress the vote. Collecting a “special documentary honor” prize is ”America Divided,” a series covering inequality in education, housing, healthcare, criminal justice and the political system. To see interviews with all of this year’s Izzy Award winners, go to democracynow.org.