Syrian government forces have taken full control of the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta, in a major victory for President Bashar al-Assad. The capture of Eastern Ghouta followed a Russian-brokered deal that saw the last remaining rebel fighters granted safe passage to a rebel-held area in northern Syria. Human rights groups estimate some 1,700 civilians were killed in heavy fighting, after Syrian forces—backed by Russia—launched an offensive on Eastern Ghouta in February. The United Nations says at least 100,000 people in Douma remain low on food, water and medicine and are in desperate need of help.
Eastern Ghouta’s fall comes as the U.N. Security Council is set to meet in an emergency session today over the growing prospect of a war between Russia and the U.S., after President Trump threatened U.S. strikes in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma last Saturday. This is Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya speaking Thursday.
Vasily Nebenzya: “The immediate priority is to avert the danger of war.”
Reporter: “Sir, you just mentioned that you want to avert the danger of war. The danger of war between the U.S. and Russia?”
Vasily Nebenzya: “Look, we cannot exclude any possibilities, unfortunately, because we saw—we saw messages that are coming from Washington. They were very bellicose. They know we are there. I hope, I wish there was dialogue through appropriate channels on this to avert any dangerous—any dangerous developments.”
Those comments came as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia has evidence that Saturday’s alleged chemical attack in Douma was fabricated. French President Emmanuel Macron has said he has “proof” that Syria’s government carried out the attack. And NBC News cited two unnamed U.S. officials who said blood and urine samples taken from a victim and smuggled out of Douma show signs of poisoning from a nerve agent and chlorine gas. On Capitol Hill, Defense Secretary James Mattis said the U.S. was still investigating. This is Mattis being questioned by Hawaii Democratic Congressmember Tulsi Gabbard.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard: “What would the objective of an attack on Syria be? And how does that serve the interests of the American people?”
Defense Secretary James Mattis: “I don’t want to talk about a specific attack that is not yet in the offing, knowing that these are decisions—this would be predecisional. Again, the president has not made that decision.”
We’ll have more on the crisis in Syria after headlines with Yazan al-Saadi, Syrian-Canadian writer and researcher.
The Senate convened a confirmation hearing Thursday for CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as U.S. secretary of state. During five hours of testimony, Pompeo faced protests from CodePink demonstrators who objected to Pompeo’s long history of ties to Islamophobic organizations; his climate change denial; and his hawkish views on Syria, Iran and North Korea. Former U.S. Army colonel and retired State Department official Ann Wright briefly disrupted the hearings.
Ann Wright: “This man is no diplomat! This man is no diplomat! War—”
Sen. Bob Corker: “Please—please remove.”
New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker questioned Pompeo over his opposition to marriage equality—and his past comments that gay sex is a “perversion”.
Sen. Cory Booker: “Do you believe that gay sex is a perversion? Yes or no?
Mike Pompeo: “Senator, if I can—”
Sen. Cory Booker: “Yes or no, sir?”
Mike Pompeo: “If you can give me a moment—if you just give me a moment—”
Sen. Cory Booker: “Do you believe that gay sex is a perversion? Because that’s what you said here—”
Mike Pompeo: “Senator, my—”
Sen. Cory Booker: “—in one of your speeches. Yes or no? Do you believe gay sex is a perversion?”
Mike Pompeo: “Senator, I’m going to give you the same answer I just gave you previously.”
Sen. Cory Booker: “You’re going to be secretary of state of the United States at a time that we have an increase in hate speech and hate actions against Jewish Americans, Muslim Americans, Indian Americans. Hate acts are on the increase in our nation. You’re going to be representing this country and their values abroad, in nations where gay individuals are under untold persecution, untold violence. Your views do matter.”
President Trump unexpectedly reversed a signature campaign promise Thursday, telling a group of state lawmakers he wants the U.S. to rejoin a massive trade agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. As a candidate, Trump frequently railed against the TPP, calling it a “disaster” and a “horrible deal.” The trade agreement has faced years of global public resistance by activists who say free trade deals benefit corporations at the expense of health and environmental regulations. Later in the broadcast, we’ll speak with Public Citizen’s Lori Wallach about Trump’s reversal on the TPP.
Former FBI Director James Comey compares Donald Trump’s presidency to a “forest fire that can’t be contained,” in an explosive new book due out next Tuesday. In newly published excerpts of the book, “A Higher Loyalty,” Comey compares President Trump to Mafia bosses he once worked to send to prison, writing, “This president is unethical, and untethered to truth and institutional values. His leadership is transactional, ego driven and about personal loyalty.” Comey’s book arrives 11 months after Trump fired him, allegedly because Comey refused to quash an investigation into Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
ABC News reports President Trump has signed off on a presidential pardon for Scooter Libby, who served as chief of staff to former Vice President Dick Cheney. In 2007, Libby was convicted on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice after he lied to FBI agents and a federal grand jury over who blew the cover of CIA agent Valerie Plame, after Plame’s husband, Joseph Wilson, criticized the Iraq War. President George W. Bush immediately commuted Libby’s 30-month prison sentence for his role in the leak, but did not grant him a full pardon. Trump’s reported pardon of Libby raises the prospect of similar pardons for former Trump campaign officials, including Michael Flynn and Rick Gates, who’ve secured plea deals after lying to FBI agents carrying out special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
The Associated Press reports that the owner of the National Enquirer paid $30,000 in 2015 to Dino Sajudin, a former doorman at Trump Tower, to quash a story that Trump fathered a child out of wedlock in the late 1980s and that top executives of the Trump Organization knew about it. The AP reports the Enquirer bought exclusive rights to the story and then refused to publish it, in a process known as “catch and kill.” The Enquirer similarly quashed a story on the eve of the 2016 election about Trump’s alleged extramarital affair with former model Karen McDougal. The National Enquirer’s parent company’s chief executive, David Pecker, is a close personal friend of President Trump.
The Senate has approved a former coal industry lobbyist to become second-in-command at the Environmental Protection Agency. Andrew Wheeler, who’s worked for nearly a decade on behalf of fossil fuel companies, including the coal company Murray Energy, was approved in a 53-45 vote along party lines. Wheeler has also worked as a senior adviser to Republican Senator James Inhofe, a prominent climate change denier. Wheeler’s confirmation comes as President Trump is under pressure to fire EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt over a series of ethics scandals—meaning Wheeler could assume control over the EPA if Pruitt is ousted.
In the Gaza Strip, Israeli forces shot and killed a Palestinian man Thursday as he joined a mass protest near Israel’s heavily militarized border wall near the town of Khan Younis. He was at least the 34th Palestinian shot dead by Israel’s military since a wave of protests against Israel’s occupation began on March 30. Hundreds more have been injured by Israeli bullets. Earlier Thursday, another Palestinian was killed in an Israeli airstrike on Gaza. The latest violence came as a Palestinian stepped forward to say he was the unarmed man who was shot by Israeli sniper in a gunsight video recorded last December that went viral this week. The video captures the sound of a gunshot, the Palestinian man falling to the ground, and then a voice celebrating in Hebrew and cursing the sniper’s victim. Tamer Abu Daqqa says he was shot in the leg without warning as he stood about 200 meters from Israel’s fortified border. He told Al Jazeera he posed no threat to Israeli troops.
Tamer Abu Daqqa: “Some young people near the border were lying on the ground. They couldn’t get out. So I came to protect them and ask them to go back. Then the Israelis shot me. How am I a danger to the Israelis? We were on our land. We didn’t cross. I was in the buffer zone. I had no weapons in my hands. I had nothing.”
Israel’s military has criticized the soldiers who shot Abu Daqqa for cheering, but has defended the shooting itself, with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman saying the sniper “deserves a medal.” Meanwhile, employees of the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip say they have not received salaries this month, causing further misery in the already-impoverished territory. It’s the latest sign that a reconciliation agreement is fracturing between the West Bank-based Fatah movement and its Gaza-based rival Hamas.
In Colombia, human rights groups are denouncing the assassination of activist Álvaro Pérez in northern Colombia near the border with Venezuela last week. He’s among an estimated 300 activists and community organizers who have been murdered in Colombia since November 2016, when the historic peace deal was signed between the Colombian government and FARC rebels.
In France, police are trying to forcibly evict a group of anti-capitalist activists from their camp in Notre-Dame-des-Landes in western France, where they’ve been fighting for 10 years against a proposal to build an airport. Over the years, the activists have built homes, a bakery, a brewery, a pirate radio station and a weekly vegetable market on the land known as “the ZAD.” Although the French government says it has dropped its plans to build an airport there, the activists say they are resolved to defend the land and the community they’ve built there.
The Trump administration has removed Chad from its travel ban, after declaring that the Central African country’s government is sharing intelligence about people it’s labeled “suspected terrorists.” Chad’s removal leaves a travel ban in place for citizens from seven other countries, including Somalia, Libya, Iran, Syria, Yemen, North Korea and Venezuela. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a challenge to the travel ban this spring, with a decision expected in June.
Meanwhile, the former U.S. ambassador to Vietnam told Reuters that the Trump administration is seeking to deport thousands of Vietnamese immigrants, despite a bilateral agreement that should shield most of them. Ambassador Ted Osius says many of the immigrants being targeted were supporters of the U.S.-backed former government of South Vietnam, making them likely targets for persecution if they’re deported. Osius says a small number of deportations have already happened, and that Trump’s policy contributed to his decision to resign as U.S. ambassador to Vietnam last October.
Muslim activist, author and TV personality Yassmin Abdel-Magied has arrived back in London, after she was detained, had her smartphone seized, and was deported by Customs and Border Protection officials after landing in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on Wednesday. Abdel-Magied is a Sudanese-born Australian citizen who had been scheduled to speak at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York at a panel titled “The M Word: No Country for Young Muslim Women.” She says she previously traveled to the U.S. on the same visa that was denied this week. In a statement, PEN America wrote, “The barriers for international writers and artists visiting the U.S. are growing, impairing the ability of PEN America and other organizations to foster cross border dialogues that are so essential at this time.”
The incident came two days after journalist and activist Shaun King and members of his family were detained at JFK Airport in New York by a Customs and Border Patrol agent after returning from a vacation in Egypt. On Twitter, King said the agent asked about his support for the Black Lives Matter movement. He added, “Family was shook up a bit at first. Took us all to a secluded questioning room. What I know is that my Muslim friends deal with this ugliness every single day. Officer had clearly been reading my tweets and knew all about me.” Shaun King is a columnist at The Intercept who writes about civil rights, mass incarceration, racial justice and police brutality.
In Chicago, a new analysis of hundreds of drinking water samples finds toxic lead was found in the water of nearly 70 percent of homes across the city—with three in 10 samples exceeding the maximum level allowed by the Food and Drug Administration. The Chicago Tribune reports the contamination is due to lead service lines used throughout the city until Congress banned the practice in 1986. The office of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has said it’s up to individual homeowners—not the city—to replace lead pipes bringing water to their properties.
In sports news, the Seattle Seahawks have postponed a planned tryout for former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, after Kaepernick declined to promise to stop kneeling during the playing of the national anthem ahead of games next season. Although he’s considered one of the league’s premier quarterbacks, Kaepernick was not re-signed to the 49ers after the 2016 season, after he sparked a movement against racism and police brutality across the NFL.
And new research shows that two-thirds of the world’s wealth will be owned by the richest 1 percent of people by the year 2030. The report was produced by the British House of Commons Library.