August 19, 2019

The U.S. has opened up secret communications with Venezuelan socialist boss Diosdado Cabello, an alleged drug kingpin and the second most powerful person in Venezuela, after President Nicolás Maduro, The Associated Press reported late Sunday, citing a senior U.S. administration official. Cabello, 56, met with a U.S.-backed envoy in Caracas last month, the official said, though it isn't clear if Cabello is acting on Maduro's behalf or, as the official suggested, negotiating safety guarantees if he helps topple Maduro.

AP isn't reporting who Cabello is meeting with, but Axios said Sunday that National Security Council official Mauricio Claver-Carone has been communicating with Cabello through emissaries, and U.S. officials tell both Axios and AP that Cabello is among a handful of top Maduro officials who have secretly reached out to the U.S. An unidentified Cabello aide disputes that, telling AP that the U.S. has been chasing Cabello, and Cabello would only meet with U.S. officials with Maduro's permission. Cabello did not take part in April's failed uprising.

Trump, meanwhile, is getting frustrated that Maduro is still in power, and he has suggested publicly and pushed "more vividly" in private for the U.S. to set up a naval blockade along Venezuela's coast, five current and former officials tell Axios. "They added that to their knowledge the Pentagon hasn't taken this extreme idea seriously, in part because senior officials believe it's impractical, has no legal basis, and would suck resources from a Navy that is already stretched to counter China and Iran."

Trump "literally just said we should get the ships out there and do a naval embargo," one source who's heard Trump's comments told Axios. "I'm assuming he's thinking of the Cuban missile crisis. ... But Cuba is an island and Venezuela is a massive coastline. ... It would need massive, massive amounts of resources; probably more than the U.S. Navy can provide." Former Defense Secretary James Mattis long stonewalled Trump's demands for a military option for Venezuela, Axios reports. Peter Weber

February 16, 2020

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred has faced quite a bit of criticism over his decision to not discipline any players over their role in what was mostly a player-orchestrated, technology-infused sign stealing scheme in 2017, the year they won the World Series. In a wide-ranging interview with ESPN's Karl Ravech about the cheating scandal published Sunday, he explained his reasoning behind that choice.

Manfred said he understands why opposing players and fans would like to see Astros other than former general manager Jeff Lunhow and former manager A.J. Hinch face consequences, but if players were suspended or disciplined in some way MLB would have had to deal with grievances from the Players' Association. Theoretically, in Manfred's view, the MLBPA would have argued Lunhow never fully articulated a 2017 MLB memo on the use of technology during games to the clubhouse.

"So we knew if we had disciplined the players in all likelihood we were going to have grievances and grievances that we were going to lose on the basis that we never properly informed them of the rules," he told Ravech.

Besides, he doesn't think it's fair to say the players were let off the hook because the scrutiny they're facing is harsh enough. "I think if you watch the players, watch their faces when they have to deal with this issue publicly, they have paid a price," he said. "To think they're skipping down the road into spring training, happy, that's just a mischaracterization of where we are." Read more at ESPN and watch Manfred's full 45-minute interview here. Tim O'Donnell

February 16, 2020

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway thinks Democrats should spend some time self-reflecting if they're really considering the possibility of backing billionaire and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg as the party's presidential nominee.

Fox News' Chris Wallace asked Conway on Sunday if it would be fair for President Trump to go after Bloomberg for sexist comments he's reportedly made in the workplace in the past. In Conway's mind that's absolutely fair game, and she's not sure why Democrats aren't already doing that themselves.

Wallace asked Conway how the Bloomberg revelations found in The Washington Post compared to Trump's infamous Access Hollywood tape. "It's far worse," Conway said. "Oh my goodness, it's far worse. And, by the way, that was fully litigated."

Bloomberg's Democratic competitor former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg also appeared on Fox News Sunday and Wallace asked him to comment on the allegations of sexism and racism being waged at Bloomberg. Buttigieg said Bloomberg will have to answer for that, and he thinks voters want a candidate without that kind of baggage, but did say there was no comparison to Trump's rhetoric. Tim O'Donnell

February 16, 2020

Sonic the Hedgehog just sped right past the bad buzz of its first trailer to an impressive box office debut.

The Paramount Pictures film based on the video game franchise grossed an estimated $57 million at the domestic box office through Sunday, and it's expected to take in $68 million during the four-day holiday weekend. The three-day haul sets a new record for the best domestic opening weekend for a movie based on a video game, beating the $54 million debut of 2019's Pokémon Detective Pikachu, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Sonic's domestic opening also came in above previous tracking that suggested it would take in between $40-45 million, Variety reports.

This was quite a comeback for a film that some thought was headed toward disaster when the first trailer dropped last year, revealing a Sonic whose design was widely panned. But in a move that's almost unheard of, the movie was delayed three months from its original November release so Sonic could be completely redesigned. That decision paid off, as when the tweaked version of the character was revealed in November, fans were largely satisfied.

Sonic the Hedgehog also ended up receiving surprisingly solid reviews from critics, as it currently holds a 63 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, joining a rare group of video game adaptations to be fairly well received, and its A CinemaScore indicates general audiences thought even more highly of the film. Now, when it comes to a sequel, Paramount likely can't go fast enough. Brendan Morrow

February 16, 2020

Yemen's Houthi rebels said air raids conducted by the Western-backed Saudi-UAE-led military coalition killed more than 30 civilians Saturday just one day after the rebels said they shot down a Saudi jet fighter with a surface-to-air missile. The United Nations confirmed Saturday's death toll.

The Houthis said women and children were among the dead, and the coalition acknowledged the "possibility of collateral damage" during their search-and-rescue mission for the downed plane.

The conflict began in 2015 after the Houthis, who are backed by Iran, forced out former Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, prompting Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to support loyalist forces. Since then, Lise Grande, the U.N.'s humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, said there's been little done to protect the Yemeni people.

"So many people are being killed in Yemen — it's a tragedy and it's unjustified," she said in light of the most recent attacks. "Under international humanitarian law parties which resort to force are obligated to protect civilians. Five years into this conflict and belligerents are still failing to uphold this responsibility. It's shocking." Read more at Al Jazeera and BBC. Tim O'Donnell

February 16, 2020

Former Vice President Joe Biden zeroed in this weekend on one of his top competitors, who many consider to have eclipsed him as the Democratic presidential frontrunner.

In an interview set to air on NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday, Biden waded into a controversy surrounding Sanders supporters who have been accused of threatening members of Nevada's Culinary Workers Union for not backing Sanders' Medicare-for-all proposal. Biden said Sanders isn't necessarily directly responsible for such behavior, but he's not sure he's done enough to put a stop to it, either.

Biden also criticized Sanders' policy proposals, arguing that while the senator has talked about Medicare-for-all for 35 years, he has nothing to show for it. Biden said people, like those in the Culinary Workers Union, have "broken their necks" to procure their current insurance, and he's not sure why Sanders wants to force them to give it up.

And on Saturday evening, the former vice president put Sanders' 2005 vote to exempt gun manufacturers from liability in shootings on blast. He didn't name Sanders outright, but he called out "some of the people running for office" who voted for the exemption. Sanders, for what it's worth, has since changed his position on the matter. Read more at The Associated Press. Tim O'Donnell

February 16, 2020

People are very upset about the NBA dunk contest.

The Miami Heat's Derrick Jones Jr. won the event Saturday during the NBA's All-Star Weekend, outlasting the Orlando Magic's Aaron Gordon, but the victory came with a lot of controversy.

After advancing to the final, Jones and Gordon each received perfect scores, and they did so again during the first dunk-off, setting up a second tie-breaker. Jones' dunk in that round garnered a score of 48 out of 50 from the judges, while Gordon's — in which he jumped over 7-foot-5 Boston Celtic center Tacko Fall — only notched a 47 even though two of the judges, hip hop artist Common and WNBA star Candace Parker, who gave Gordon a perfect 10 said the panel had previously agreed to end that round in a tie, as well.

Gordon, who felt he deserved to win, said he's done with the dunk contest after losing in the similarly controversial 2016 edition. "I feel like I should have two trophies," he said. "It's over for that."

The crowd was booing the judges all the night, and several of Gordon's NBA colleagues felt justice wasn't served.

Even Jones thought his 48 in the final was unfair, though he does believe the fact that Gordon clipped Fall's head on the way up validated his competitor's lack of a perfect score.

Anyway, check out the final two displays of athleticism below that spurred all the furor. Tim O'Donnell

February 16, 2020

Chinese state media published an internal speech delivered by President Xi Jinping on Saturday in which he describes taking action on the coronavirus outbreak as early as Jan. 7.

In the speech, which was given Feb. 3, Xi said he had "issued demands about the efforts to prevent and control" the virus during a meeting of the Communist Party's highest council, the Politburo Standing Committee, last month, and that he personally authorized the lockdown of the epicenter, Wuhan, beginning on Jan. 23. "I have at every moment monitored the spread of the epidemic and progress in efforts to curtail it," he said.

Publishing the speech is viewed as an attempt to show Xi has been involved from the start since he's been criticized for remaining in the shadows. "The overall tone of the speech of appears to be defensive," Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, told The New York Times. "He wants to change the narrative, which until this point has been very unfavorable to the top leadership."

But some analysts think it could backfire and lead to even more criticism about how the government kept the public in the dark for too long. "It seems like he's trying to indicate that 'we weren't asleep at the wheel,'" Jude Blanchette, the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the Times. "But it comes off like 'we knew this was a problem, but we weren't sounding the alarm.'" Read more at The New York Times. Tim O'Donnell

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