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Here’s why Michael Cohen could be Trump’s “biggest vulnerability”

July 20, 2018 - 2:23pm

Michael Cohen once billed himself as the “fixer” who could make Donald Trump’s most vexing problems disappear. Now, he’s poised to become one of the president’s biggest problems.

On Friday, the world got a glimpse of the sort of trouble Cohen may pose for his former boss, when the New York Times revealed he secretly taped a conversation with Trump two months before the 2016 election. The recording captures the two men discussing a payment to a Playboy model who claims to have had an affair with Trump.

The existence of that tape, which could be one of many, suggests Cohen’s greatest value to investigators may not be what he knows about Russia, but what he knows about Trump’s business and financial dealings, legal experts and former prosecutors told VICE News.

“Based upon what we know publicly, the legal issues surrounding Michael Cohen represent one of the biggest threats to the Trump presidency,” Renato Mariatti, a former federal prosecutor in Chicago, told VICE News. “It’s never a good thing when you’re caught on tape talking to a suspected criminal about the matters he’s being investigated for.”

On the recording revealed Friday, Trump can reportedly be heard giving Cohen advice about how to handle a potential payment to the company that bought the rights to Playboy model’s story, according to The Washington Post. The detailed discussion indicates both the close working relationship the two men had — and that Trump may find it difficult to distance himself from the actions of his longtime deputy.

Read:Michael Cohen secretly recorded tapes of Trump discussing payments to a former Playboy model

“Of all the individuals on the planet that could potentially do significant harm to Mr. Trump, there’s little question that Michael Cohen is at, or very near, the top of that list,” Michael Avenatti, lawyer for Daniels, told VICE News. Stormy Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, claims she was paid by Cohen for her silence right before the election, a decade after her affair with Trump.

“The legal issues surrounding Michael Cohen represent one of the biggest threats to the Trump presidency.”

Now the question is: what exactly does Cohen know?

Cohen is now under investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York, but he hasn’t been charged with any crime.

Legal experts and former prosecutors gave VICE News a rundown of the subjects investigators will likely want to ask him about — if he ultimately decides to cooperate.

The Affairs

The Playboy model, Karen McDougal, has said she had an affair with Trump over a decade ago that lasted roughly a year.

She was paid $150,000 in August 2016 by AMI, the parent company of The National Enquirer, for the rights to her story. But the Enquirer, which is owned by a friend of Trump’s named David Pecker, never published anything — effectively burying the story.

In their September 2016 conversation, Cohen and Trump discuss a plan by Cohen to attempt to purchase those rights from AMI for roughly $150,000, The Washington Post reported Friday, citing an unnamed person familiar with the recording. On the call, Trump tells Cohen to make sure he properly documents the agreement, and urges him to use a check — rather than cash — to preserve a record of the transaction, the person told the Post.

In a statement, Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, confirmed the existence of the tape but told the Post that no payment was ever made. “Nothing in that conversation suggests that he had any knowledge of [the AMI payment] in advance,” Giuliani said. “In the big scheme of things, it’s powerful exculpatory evidence.”

“If Trump did know about it and directed Cohen, that could link Trump to campaign finance violations.”

But McDougal isn’t alone. Cohen has admitted to organizing a $130,000 payout and nondisclosure agreement for adult film actress Stormy Daniels, who has said she slept with Trump in 2006. Trump has said he didn’t know that Cohen made the payment at the time it happened.

Cohen reportedly raised the money to pay Stormy from a home equity line of credit, which might be fraud if he misled the bank about the purpose of the funds, according to Mariotti. If so, and Trump knew about it, that could mean legal trouble for Trump, too, Mariotti said.

Adult film actress Stephanie Clifford, also known as Stormy Daniels, speaks to media along with lawyer Michael Avenatti (R) outside federal court in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo

The payouts to women for their silence could constitute improper campaign contributions, and may mean trouble for Trump depending on the circumstances and how deeply he can be shown to have been involved, according to Mimi Rocah, a former prosecutor for the Southern District of New York.

“If Trump did know about it and directed Cohen, that could link Trump to campaign finance violations,” Rocah said, referring specifically to Cohen’s payment to Stormy Daniels. “But they’d have to show it was for the benefit of the campaign, and not just personal. It can’t just be, like, ‘I don’t want my wife know.’”

For an example, look no further than former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, who was indicted in 2011 on charges of using illegal campaign donations to conceal his mistress from voters.

Just days before the election, Cohen created a shell company called Essential Consultants LLC to pay Daniels.

After Trump entered the White House, Cohen used the same company to receive millions in payments from international corporations who wanted insight into the Trump administration, including AT&T and Swiss drugmaker Novartis.

Cohen also scored a $1 million consulting contract from a U.S. hedge fund closely linked to a Russian billionaire with longstanding Kremlin ties named Viktor Vekselberg, in a deal that’s already drawn the scrutiny of federal investigators.

Investigators will likely want to know whether Trump knew about these payments, and whether any of them involved any kind of explicit promises for favorable treatment in exchange for the payments, said Harry Sandick, a former prosecutor for the Southern District of New York.

“Did he enter into any of those consulting agreements with the president’s knowledge?” Sandick asked. “It would have to be more than just Cohen saying, ‘Hey, I’ll get your voice heard,’ because that would be legal. There would have to be some sort of a quid pro quo.”

The Organization

Cohen recently scrubbed his position as executive vice president and senior counsel at the Trump Organization from his LinkedIn page in a move received as creating distance between himself and Trump.

But pressing delete doesn’t scrub years of insights from inside the Trump Org. Cohen appears to have held a wide-ranging portfolio during his tenure under Trump, which included serving as the point man for potential projects in Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.

Cohen worked on setting up a Trump Tower project in Moscow right up until just weeks before the presidential primaries kicked off, and he was involved in scoping out projects in the former Soviet republic of Georgia and in Kazakhstan.

Prosecutors will likely want to ask whether all those far-flung business dealings were carried out by the book. And if they weren’t, investigators will want to ask whether Trump knew about it, Mariatti told VICE News.

Read: Taxi mogul who borrowed millions from Michael Cohen swears it wasn't for his weed business

Cohen’s expansive role as Trump’s all-purpose fixer suggests he might know about unorthodox — and, potentially, improper — modes of doing business at the Trump Organization, observers said.

To name just one potential pitfall, businessmen operating abroad are often cautioned not to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practice Act, which in essence forbids American citizens from paying bribes to foreign government officials to win business.

“If that happened, and if there were internal discussions of that happening, that would be a problem,” said Jens David Ohlin, vice dean at Cornell Law and an expert in international criminal law.

The Trump Organization has explored business opportunities in countries with low rankings on Transparency International’s global Corruption Perceptions IndexPanama and India, to name a few.

The Trump Tower meetings

Another crucial question for Cohen will be what he knew about the Trump campaign’s links to Russia during the campaign.

One event he might be able to shed light on: The Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 between the top brass of the Trump campaign and a lawyer from Russia who’d been billed as having dirt on the Clinton campaign.

“You’re either in or you're out — or else you’re really going to screw yourself.”

Cohen told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos in early July that taking the meeting was a bad idea. And he pointedly refused to say whether Trump might have known about it in advance.

“I believe it was a mistake by those from the Trump campaign who did participate,” he said. "It was simply an example of poor judgment.”

Cohen has repeatedly denied the claim that first emerged in the infamous Steele dossier, compiled by former U.K. intelligence officer Christopher Steele, that he personally traveled to Prague to coordinate Russia’s involvement in the presidential campaign.

On the heels of Friday’s bombshell, the stakes of Cohen potentially reaching a cooperation agreement with prosecutors seemed to ratchet up even higher.

And if he does accept a deal, prosecutors will expect him to divulge everything he knows, Rocah said.

“The worst thing you can do is halfway cooperate,” Rocah said. “You’re either in or you're out — or else you’re really going to screw yourself. Someone who pleads guilty to something, and then messes it up, is in a worse position than if they never pleaded guilty in the first place.”

Cover image: U.S. President Donald Trump's lawyer Michael Cohen leaves his hotel in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., June 15, 2018. REUTERS/Jeenah Moon

Kentucky Republicans are determined to kill Medicaid

July 20, 2018 - 1:58pm

BEVERLY, Kentucky — When a federal judge struck down Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin’s plan to force Medicaid enrollees to work for benefits in June, Bevin responded by abruptly cutting vision and dental coverage for nearly 500,000 low-income people, claiming the state had no way to pay for them.

The move threw Kentucky’s health system into disarray, and patients arrived at dental clinics unaware that they no longer had coverage.

“I had abscesses that ate into the bone,” said Susan Wells, a patient at the nonprofit Shawnee Christian Healthcare Center in West Louisville. “I'm getting dentures on the top, which is embarrassing to say in front of people, because [it] shows how poor you are when you don't have teeth.”

Democrats and healthcare advocates criticized the move as vindictive and petty.

“It was clear to us that that [the governor’s] decision was punitive, that it was in retaliation to the court case not going the way that he wanted to, and he chose to take that out on almost half a million Kentuckians who use that coverage to keep them healthy so that they can work,” said Angela Koch, the state outreach director for an advocacy group Kentucky Voices for Health.

But the Bevin administration insisted the cuts were an “unfortunate consequence” of the judge’s decision to reject the state’s plan to implement a work requirement for some people on Medicaid, a waiver that had been approved by the federal government back in January.


Gov. Bevin’s desire to shake up Medicaid reflects a growing movement by the Trump administration to shrink the federal government’s role in healthcare. Trump’s economic advisory council published a report this month extolling the benefits of implementing work requirements, and Kentucky has been seen as a test case by the administration to see its ideas about entitlements play out.

Susan Wells, of Louisville, was one of nearly 500,000 Kentuckians who had their dental and vision benefits cut by Gov. Bevin on July 1. The benefit cuts came after a judge ruled against Bevin's plans to put work requirements and premium increases on Medicaid enrollees. (Photo: Daniel Vergara/VICE News)

"Non-disabled working-age adults have become increasingly reliant on welfare and experienced stalled employment growth, in part because of the disincentives welfare programs impose on increasing one’s own income," the White House Council of Economic Advisers argues in the paper.

A longtime critic of the Affordable Care Act, Bevin — the state’s first Republican governor in nearly 40 years — made ending the ACA’s Medicaid expansion one of his signature campaign promises.

Since taking office in 2015, he developed Kentucky HEALTH (Helping to Engage and Achieve Long-Term Health), a waiver that would drastically change how many people can remain on the health insurance program he has called a “dead-end entitlement trap.”

At the heart of the Bevin administration’s waiver is a work requirement for able-bodied adults making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. If you’re between 19 and 49 years old in Kentucky, you would have to prove you’ve worked 80 hours a month to be entitled to medical care, and log those hours online.

The plan also puts in place additional barriers to dental and vision care. Currently, people on Medicaid are covered for basic services and annual check-ups. The new system asks that Medicaid expansion recipients earn virtual credits — through things like community service, getting a GED, or completing a wellness program — that convert into dollars that can then be used to cover those preventive health services.

Medicaid expansion recipients will also face higher premiums under the program, increasing to up to 4 percent of household income — the highest premiums ever permitted in the Medicaid program.

“It’s easy for a lay person to say a $9-a-month premium isn’t a big deal, but what people forget is we’re talking about incredibly impoverished citizens,” said Koch, who noted that patients who fail to pay those premiums will face lockout periods with no coverage for 6 months.

Seema Verma, the head of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), worked to help craft the Kentucky proposal, which has formed the model for similar proposals in at least 11 other states. Verma says she recused herself from approving the Kentucky proposal.

“Toxic charity”

By its own admission, Kentucky estimated that 95,000 people would fall off Medicaid as a result of the waiver. That fact was seized upon by D.C. District Court Judge James Boasberg in June when he struck down the waiver. Boasberg expressed concerns that the plan undermines the inherent purpose of Medicaid, when he sided with the 16 Kentucky residents who brought a class action lawsuit against CMS.

Among those residents is Sara Woods, 40, who earns around $10 an hour working odd housekeeping jobs for neighbors in Floyd County and had never had health insurance until the Affordable Care Act was enacted.

“Poor people have health problems like rich people, but I mean we just can’t pay for it like rich people”

“Everybody should be treated the same. Poor people have health problems like rich people, but I mean we just can’t pay for it like rich people,” she said.

When the Medicaid expansion kicked in, she was able to get suboxone treatment for a heroin addiction, and access basic preventive medical and health services as a result. “We work hard every day and don’t want handouts,” Woods added. “That’s how people were raised around here. To work for whatever, you know.”

It’s unclear at this stage if the judge’s ruling on Kentucky will have any impact on the four other states — including Arkansas, Indiana and New Hampshire — that have work requirement waivers already in play.

The debate at the heart of the battle over work requirements is a philosophical fight over what Medicaid is: For some, it’s a health insurance program where the more people you have insured, the better. For others, it’s a welfare trap, so it should have as few recipients as possible.

“I think that there is dignity in work,” said Rep. Addia Wuchner, a Republican congresswoman representing a district in Northern Kentucky. “And you know so often I say that sometimes our charity becomes toxic to people in our wanting to help them sometimes. We've hurt them. We've hurt them in a way that we didn't even realize.”

The “pull them up by their bootstraps” notion is outmoded, for many in the health advocacy space. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that at least six out of 10 Medicaid recipients are already working, and most people on Medicaid who aren’t in employment are looking for work, disabled, or caring for a child or family member.

“A lot of people felt insulted by that,” said Hasch, who has been fighting against the governor’s proposals, and rejects argument that providing health benefits to people is harmful. “The Medicaid expansion population by definition is already the working poor. That is why they couldn't qualify for standard Medicaid - because they're making too much.”

“We’ve got some of the same problems that Third World countries do”

There are serious doubts as to how these work requirement programs will be implemented and how the state will possibly be able to enforce the rules. Many of the people we talked to in rural Kentucky didn’t have access to the internet, or couldn’t afford internet plans as part of their cell phone services.

“We’ve got some of the same problems that Third World countries do. The geographic area just has a lot of barriers here, and some people don’t understand that,” said Dr. Bill Collins, former president of the Kentucky Dental Association and current clinic director of the Red Bird Mission in Eastern Kentucky. ”Many of the patients don’t have cell phones, they don’t have internet service. And many of them can’t afford it, so it’s really hard for them.”

The situation in one state where work requirements have come into play has already cast doubt on the efficacy of work requirements. Only 4 percent of Medicaid recipients in Arkansas who were expected to record their June work hours online did so, according to Arkansas Human Services.

Kentucky ranks near the bottom of the states for almost every health indicator — from smoking and obesity, to diabetes and heart disease. It recently came in 36th for dental health, and the American Dental Association report on Oral Health and Well-Being in Kentucky state found that 52 percent of patients avoid dentists due to cost and lack of insurance.

The state is already grappling with a highly publicized pension debt crisis - leading to teacher protests and verbal spats between unions and the Republican Legislature — and it has a significant $330 million shortfall in its Medicaid fund.

Kentucky’s Department of Health says the waiver will save around $331 million.

But critics of the governor’s plan say any savings the administration might achieve will be undermined by the multimillion-dollar cost of implementing the waiver, and the higher costs incurred when patients who’ve lost their coverage invariably return to the emergency room.

Kentucky announced on Thursday it is working with CMS to address the court’s concerns, indicating it hopes to get approval to roll out the changes to Medicaid by September 1.

Governor Bevin didn’t respond to repeated attempts for comment.

Cover image: Sara Woods never had health insurance until 2014 when the Affordable Care Act kicked in. Woods, pictured here with her 2-year-old granddaughter Layla, sued the federal government for approving Kentucky's plan to impose work requirements on Medicaid enrollees. (Photo: Daniel Vergara/VICE News)

Families separated by Trump's "zero tolerance" policy face an impossible choice

July 20, 2018 - 12:51pm

Hundreds of parents separated from their children at the border by the Trump administration have already been cleared for deportation, and now they’re facing an impossible choice: return together to the country they fled or leave the child to apply for asylum in the U.S. alone.

The ACLU asked the government Thursday to provide a list of the parents who have final removal orders so that attorneys can speak to them as soon as possible about their options. The government insists that all parents who have already been deported or who have final removal orders have agreed to be deported. But immigration attorneys worry that parents may have been so desperate to get their kids back that they agreed to be deported because they believed it was the fastest way to get them back. Some may not have known what they were agreeing to.

“These parents may only have a matter of days to make the momentous decision whether to leave their child behind in the United States,” the ACLU wrote in their request.

Nearly 30 percent of parents of kids over 5, 719 total, had been cleared for deportation as of Thursday.

Earlier this week, Southern California U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw blocked the government from deporting any separated parents for seven days after the ACLU raised concerns that the government was planning to deport parents with their kids immediately after reunification without a chance to review their legal options with an immigration attorney. Some parents may be able to reopen their cases with the help of a lawyer.

Read: The Trump administration keeps losing family separation lawsuits

Next week Judge Sabraw will decide whether to extend the halt on deportations.

After three months of systematically separating immigrant families as part of the zero tolerance immigration policy, the government is working to reunite them under a court-ordered deadline of July 26. By then, all 2,551 separated kids aged 5-17 must be reunited with their parents, but so far government officials have returned just 364 of those kids.

The government has complained reunification takes time. Before it can happen, the Department of Homeland Security, the agency holding the parents, and the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency holding the kids, must run background checks on each parent and confirm they are, in fact, parents. This process has been slow because when officials separated families at the border and put them in the custody of these two separate agencies, they didn’t track them together.

Read: Reunited immigrant families grapple with how to repair damage caused by separation

Some kids will not be reunited by the July 26 deadline because the parents have already been deported, have criminal histories, are incarcerated, or are not in fact the parents, all conditions that make them ineligible under Sabraw’s framework for expedited reunifications. The government has already determined 91 parents of kids over 5 have disqualifying criminal history.

Forty-seven of the 103 separated kids under 5 remain separated for these same reasons. The government missed the court-mandated July 10 deadline to reunite those “tender age” kids; 56 were reunited by July 12.

Sabraw will likely consider the cases of parents deemed ineligible for these deadlines individually after all eligible parents are reunited. Lawyers for the government and ACLU were due back in court Friday.

Cover image: Immigrant families leave a United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility after they were reunited, Wednesday, July 11, 2018, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

The Arctic is on fire, and you can see it from space

July 20, 2018 - 11:08am

Wildfires are ravaging parts of the Arctic Circle, and they’re big enough to see from space.

The wildfires started in early June, and more than 50 have now cropped up in parts of Sweden inside the Arctic Circle, according to the European Space Agency, which has kept tabs on the situation with satellites from space. Sweden doesn’t often have to deal with fires, but so far the blazes have swallowed up $70 million worth of land, according to Swedish news agency TT. The country has asked for help from Norway and Italy, which sent along helicopters and planes to help contain the flames, according to the New York Times.

To figure out the size of the fires and where they’re spreading, the European Space Agency put four of its Copernicus Sentinel satellites on the job. Without the satellite imagery they're providing, the agency would have a tough time measuring the fires or even seeing them at all in some of the sparsely populated areas.

The wildfires follow the longest sustained drought on record in Sweden and heat waves that have engulfed most of Europe. And to scientists, they look a lot like what you’d expect human-caused climate change to look like.

These photos show the west coast of Norway over to central Sweden, where the fires are raging below the clouds. And in a zoomed-in shot, not just the smoke is visible; the satellites caught images where you can see the actual flames.

(Gif courtesy of the European Space Agency)

The heatwave across Europe has shown other signs visible from space. Satellite photos from the UK’s Met Office show England turning brown over the course of two months.

In addition to the usual dangers of massive fires, the flames have started to encroach on a military station in Älvdalens, where ammo’s tested. The flames have cut off access to the base: Emergency workers can’t get within 800 meters and moving any closer would put them at risk should the ammo at the base blow up. Even dousing the flames over the base via helicopter is risky, because the ammo could blow and down a chopper, according to the local government in Älvdalens.

If the base does blow up, the fires could spread even more.

Since 2015, the Europeans have put satellites into orbit to monitor the Earth — and specifically to relay back information to provide info to help with natural disasters like the fires in Sweden. The missions are designed to the monitor problems like vegetation, land-surface temperatures, and the color of the ocean, all with the purpose collecting data on the state of the changing planet.

Michael Cohen secretly recorded tapes of Trump discussing payments to a former Playboy model

July 20, 2018 - 11:07am

Lordy, there are tapes.

The New York Times reported Friday that President Trump’s longtime personal fixer and attorney, Michael Cohen, secretly recorded a conversation with Trump about payments made two months before the 2016 presidential election to a Playboy model who said she had an affair with Trump in 2006.

Federal agents seized the tape earlier this year during raids on Cohen’s properties, the paper said, amid a Justice Department investigation into Cohen’s involvement with payments made to women to muffle potentially damaging stories in the midst of the campaign.

Trump’s new lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, confirmed the existence of the tapes to the Times but downplayed their significance, insisting: “Nothing in that conversation suggests that he had any knowledge of it in advance.”

The Times’ bombshell comes at a pivotal time for Cohen, who spent a decade at Trump’s side and once styled himself as Trump’s most doggedly loyal lieutenant. But Cohen has been sending signals lately, amid an investigation into his business affairs, that he may be prepared to share everything he knows with investigators, including potentially revealing information about Trump.

Read : The Mueller probe is hammering Trump's allies with insane legal bills

The model, Karen McDougal, has said she had an affair with Trump before selling the rights to her story to The National Enquirer for $150,000 during the waning months of the presidential campaign.

But the paper, which is run by longtime Trump friend David Pecker, never ran the story, effectively keeping it silent.

Confirmation of the tape’s existence follows months of swirling speculation over whether Cohen recorded his conversations with Trump and others.

Read: Taxi mogul who borrowed millions from Michael Cohen swears it wasn't for his weed business

Cover image: U.S. President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen arrives at his hotel in New York City, U.S., May 9, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

The “gay panic” defense for murder could be on its way out

July 20, 2018 - 9:19am

In all but three U.S. states, anyone charged with murder can claim in court that they should be held less accountable for their actions because of their victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity. It’s a defense known as the gay or trans “panic” defense.

But two Massachusetts Democrats think it’s about time to change that. While Congress can’t interfere with criminal state law, the lawmakers introduced a bill that would ban the panic defense in federal courts. They’re hoping the bill can serve as a catalyst for states to finally move to outlaw the defense as well. Since the bill's introduction, Pennsylvania has already introduced similar legislation in its state Senate.

“Our legislation would only make an effect on the federal level,” Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy told VICE News. He introduced the bill alongside Massachusetts Sen. Edward Markey. “A lot of these crimes are going to take place at the state level. So it’s critically important that other states update their policies.”

California, Illinois, and Rhode Island have already outlawed using the LGBT panic defense in courtrooms, but in all 47 other states, the defense allows perpetrators of violent crimes to blame the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity on “their loss of self-control and subsequent assault of an LGBT individual,” according to the National LGBT Bar Association, an organization of lawyers, judges, and other legal professionals that works to promote LGBT rights.

In 2008, for example, Brandon McInerney shot and killed his 15-year-old classmate, Larry King, who occasionally wore makeup and high heels, at their school in Oxnard, California. McInerney allegedly teased King for weeks and vowed “to get a gun and shoot him,” according to the LA Times.

So when his trial started, McInerney claimed that King’s behavior made him feel “threatened” and invoked the LGBTQ panic defense. As a result, he accepted a guilty plea in exchange for 21 years in prison. The case could have landed him behind bars for life, but instead, he'll get out when he’s 38 years old.

Even more recently, a man beat a transgender woman to death in 2016 and received just 12 years in prison for manslaughter after claiming the discovery that she was transgender launched him into a “blind fury.”

“Sexual orientation or gender identity cannot ever excuse violence, and our courtrooms should not be used as chambers of hate,” Markey said in a press release. In fact, the defense could be evidence of a hate crime, according to Kennedy.

These cases show a court system that places LGBT lives lower than their straight peers, says Anthony Michael Kreis, a law professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law. He helped write the Illinois law that bans the LGBT panic defense.

“This needs to be one point of conversation in a broader conversation about how LGBT people are treated in the criminal justice system more broadly,” Kreis told VICE News. “It's easy to say that these things don't happen all that often, but that's missing the point here.”

"Sexual orientation or gender identity cannot ever excuse violence, and our courtrooms should not be used as chambers of hate."

Not all politicians agree, though. In Rhode Island, two representatives voted against the bill that blocked use of the gay panic defense. During the House floor discussion in May, Republican State Rep. Justin Price said he was concerned about withholding from jurors “all the information as far as what happened during an altercation,” according to the Providence Journal. “I don’t think that they [can] make a sound decision.”

Regardless of whether states have banned the LGBT panic defense, it’s up to judges to admit evidence, according to D’Arcy Kemnitz, the executive director of the National LGBT Bar Association. The new bill just states that defendants wouldn’t be able to use someone’s gender or sexuality as an excuse to murder them.

“The problem is that when somebody has been attacked or even murdered by virtue of being LGBT or perceived to be LGBT, that does not in any way mitigate the damage that that perpetrator has or has not done,” Kemnitz told VICE News on Thursday. “But it works in the jury member's mind that, hey, maybe that person wasn't as valuable.”

Kennedy isn’t sure how much support the bill will get from his Republican peers. He said no Republicans have come out with any issues against the bill so far, but they haven’t come out in support either.

But if the California, Illinois and Rhode Island votes are at all indicative, they aren’t looking at a tough fight. Only nine state senators and 15 assemblyman voted against the California bill. Illinois passed it unanimously, and in Rhode Island in May, just two representatives voted against the bill.

Whether or not the bill gets the support it needs to pass through the House and Senate, activists see the bill as a success for even reaching this point.

“In any civil rights civil rights movement, or in any movement that is a social movement that is trying to enact legal change and a civil rights cultural change, you're always going to have different types of shifts in momentum,” Kreis told VICE News. “Then at some point you have a critical mass where the idea is no longer just emerging, but it's mainstream and it has currency. I think we're approaching that now.”

Cover image: Two men hold hands in Leeds, on Tuesday March 28, 2017. (Press Association via AP Images)

Germans are wearing yarmulkes to protest rising anti-Semitism in the country

July 20, 2018 - 8:05am

More than 1,000 demonstrators, many wearing yarmulkes, gathered in Bonn, Germany, Thursday to protest the latest attack on a Jewish man amid concerns of rising anti-Semitism in the country.

The rally came a week after a visiting academic, Yitzhak Melamed, was assaulted in broad daylight by a young German of Palestinian descent. Melamed’s assailant reportedly knocked his kippah from his head while yelling abuse at him, including the phrase “No Jews in Germany!”

Melamed, a 50-year-old philosophy professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, told Zeit Online that a pushback against rising anti-Semitism in Germany was overdue.

“The situation for Jews in Germany is concerning right now,” he said. “Many people are scared to go outside wearing a kippah. That's unacceptable and it can't be allowed to continue.”

The brazen assault was just the latest in a string of high-profile recent attacks on Jews in Germany, prompting high-level concern about the resurgence of anti-Semitism in the country responsible for the Holocaust. In April, similar rallies were held in cities across Germany after footage of a Syrian refugee attacking two men wearing yarmulkes on a Berlin street went viral. In the wake of that attack, the head of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, Josef Schuster, advised people visiting large German cities against wearing yarmulkes, for their own safety.

The attacks have fuelled a thorny national debate about what Chancellor Angela Merkel described in April as a “different type of anti-Semitism” brought by Arab and Muslim migrants into the country in recent years. But amid attempts by the far-right to hijack the issue to drum up hostility towards refugees, the political mainstream has pushed back, cautioning that anti-Semitism pre-existed the recent migrant influx and has deep roots across the spectrum of society.

That’s backed up by a study released Wednesday, that found anti-Semitic content on German social media had increased significantly in its prevalence and extremity in recent years.

The study, led by Monika Schwarz-Friesel of the Technical University of Berlin, examined 300,000 pieces of online content, mostly from social media sites. It found that anti-Semitic content thrived online, and came from all sectors of society, from liberals and the left as well as right-wing extremists and Muslims.

"We were shocked to see that prejudices against Jews had changed so little over the last hundred years," she told German news outlet DW.

Statistics suggest that the rise in hate speech is spilling over into real world aggression. According to data from Germany’s Anti-Semitism Research and Information Office, the number of anti-Semitic incidents in Berlin rose 60 percent from 2016 to 2017, with 947 cases recorded.

READ: The real reason Merkel’s coalition is in crisis is the rise of the far-right AfD

Speaking at Thursday’s rally, the head of Bonn’s Jewish community, Margaret Traub, said the recent attack was not an isolated incident. “It’s enough,” she told the crowd. “We won’t tolerate being treated with hostility for only one reason – that we’re Jewish.”

An anti-Semitism scandal in April prompted the organizers of Germany’s equivalent of the Grammys, called “Echo,” to announce that they are permanently scrapping the annual event.

The event suffered a backlash after this year’s best hip-hop/urban album was awarded to a rap duo who had anti-Semitic lyrics about the Holocaust, leading organizers to announce that they were planning to relaunch the awards under a different format, as the brand had been so badly damaged.

Cover image: After the anti-Semitic attack on a Jewish professor in Bonn, the city reacts with the 'Tag der Kippa' (Day of Kippa). The picture shows participants of the event with Kippa in Bonn city center. In the background the old City Hall. (Ulrich Baumgarten via Getty Images)

India is threatening to sue WhatsApp over mob lynchings linked to fake news

July 20, 2018 - 7:31am

WhatsApp has again updated how its messaging app works in India to prevent the spread of viral fake videos linked to mob lynchings. Yet despite the latest measures, the government in New Delhi is threatening to sue the tech company for allowing the “rampant circulation of irresponsible messages” on its platform.

WhatsApp Thursday published details of how it would limit the way viral videos and fake rumors spread on its network.

“Today, we're launching a test to limit forwarding that will apply to everyone using WhatsApp,” the company said in a blog post, but it has singled out its service in the subcontinent for even more special treatment.

“In India — where people forward more messages, photos, and videos than any other country in the world — we'll also test a lower limit of 5 chats at once and we'll remove the quick forward button next to media messages,” the company said.

The viral WhatsApp messages are typically spread by people simply forwarding them to family and friends and through large groups allowing the rumors to spread easily and quickly without knowing where the messages originated.

But WhatsApp’s efforts were not enough for the Indian government.

In a strongly-worded statement issued after the company announced its update, India's information technology ministry said:

“Rampant circulation of irresponsible messages in large volumes on [WhatsApp’s] platform has not been addressed adequately. When rumors and fake news get propagated by mischief-mongers, the medium used for such propagation cannot evade responsibility and accountability.”

The ministry went on to say that if WhatsApp “remain mute spectators” they could face legal action if it didn’t provide “traceability” of provocative messages.

However the end-to-end encryption that is a major selling point of WhatsApp means even the company itself cannot see the contents of chats between users.

WhatsApp did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the government’s threat.

Read: India’s fake news epidemic is killing people, and Modi’s government has no plan to stop it

In recent months, there have been dozens of mob lynchings related to fake rumors spread virally on social media, with at least 18 of those specifically linked to WhatsApp.

While the government has been quick to issue criticisms of WhatsApp, it has provided no coordinated response to the crisis, leaving police forces across the country to resort to the using unorthodox methods to try and combat the wave of fake news.

The government came under further pressure to act this week when the Supreme Court labeled the deaths as “horrendous acts of mobocracy” and urged Modi and the ruling BJP party to enact a new law to punish offenders.

But it appears the government has no immediate plans to coordinate a response, with Union minister of state for home affairs Hansraj Ahir saying this week that the “National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) does not maintain specific data with respect to lynching incidents in the country.”

Cover image: This photo illustration shows an Indian newspaper vendor reading a newspaper with a full back page advertisement from WhatsApp intended to counter fake information, in New Delhi on July 10, 2018. (PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images)

The father of two Parkland survivors was shot dead in a grocery store robbery

July 20, 2018 - 6:45am

The father of two Parkland school shooting survivors was shot dead in his own convenience store during an armed robbery earlier this week.

Ayub Ali, a father of four and a Bangladesh native, was killed shortly after noon Tuesday at Aunt Molly’s Food Store, the store he owned in Parkland, Florida.

According to the Broward County Sheriff’s Office, the suspect held up the store at around 12:45 p.m., took money from the cash register, and then left. He then returned, forced Ali, 61, into the office at the back of the store, and shot him.

The sheriff’s office released surveillance video Thursday showing a man they believe to be the suspect, whom they are still seeking, clad in a black vest, red shorts with a black and white stripe down the sides, reddish-orange slides and a skull cap with “Miami” stitched on the front.

Two of Ali’s children, a son and a daughter, are students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, and survived the Valentine’s Day massacre five months ago, which left 17 people dead and dozens injured. His daughter was in the classroom of the school’s 1200 building, where the shooting occurred, an NBC affiliate in Miami reported.

Students from Parkland are leading a nationwide movement against gun violence after the February shooting, with many of them now on a summer tour across the country.

Local news outlets described how residents of Parkland had put together a makeshift memorial outside Ali’s store, which reopened Thursday.

Cover image: Two rings of chairs encircle the words "NEVER AGAIN" in a silent protest on the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting outside Trinity High School in Manchester, N.H., Friday, April 20, 2018. The inner ring chairs have names of the Columbine victims, the outer ring chairs have names of the Parkland High School shooting victims. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Everything we know about the fatal Missouri duck boat tragedy

July 20, 2018 - 6:26am

At least 11 people, some of them children, are dead and six others are missing after an amphibious duck boat capsized during a severe thunderstorm on a Missouri lake Thursday.

Here’s what we know so far:

The “Ride the Ducks” boat was carrying 31 people when it capsized shortly after 7 p.m. local time on Table Rock Lake, a popular tourist attraction near the town of Branson, according to Stone County Sheriff Doug Rader.

He said 14 passengers were rescued, with six still unaccounted for. Diving teams scoured the lake Thursday night before suspending their search due to poor light, and will resume Friday morning.

Brandei Clifton, a spokeswoman for a local hospital, said four adults and three children were brought in shortly after the incident. Two of the adults were in critical condition, she said.

The capsized vessel, which authorities said had lifejackets on board, was one of two duck boats that hit problems as a heavy storm rolled in across the lake. Video footage showed the boats struggling to make it to shore through choppy waves, with one eventually reaching land while the other was swamped.

“It was having problems through the wind," Rader told reporters. "They were coming back toward land. There was actually two ducks. The first one made it out. The second one didn't."

Branson, located about 200 miles from Kansas City, had been issued with a severe thunderstorm warning shortly before 6:30 p.m. local time, half an hour before the incident, raising questions about why the vessels were still on the lake. Meteorologists said wind speeds topped 63 miles an hour in Branson around the time of the incident and were likely higher over the lake.

The storm was strong enough to cause other damage throughout the county, uprooting trees and causing structural damage.

Duck boats are amphibious trucks that were used during the Second World War to transport materials ashore in places without port facilities, and are now widely used in sightseeing tours. They’ve been involved in fatal accidents before, including a sinking on Arkansas’ Lake Hamilton in 1999 in which 13 people, including three children, were killed.

Cover image: A duck boat is seen at Table Rock Lake in Branson, Missouri, U.S., July 19, 2018, in this picture grab obtained from social media video. (Ron Folsom/via REUTERS)

Kim is shouting at factory bosses because sanctions are tanking North Korea's economy

July 20, 2018 - 6:12am

North Korea’s economy is suffering its worst decline in 20 years, according to figures released Friday — a result of the biting sanctions slapped on the regime in recent years for its nuclear and ballistic weapons tests.

In response, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been visiting factories, berating officials, and cozying up to China in the hope that Beijing can help ease sanctions.

The figures, released by the Bank Of Korea, shows in North Korea gross domestic product (GDP) fell 3.5 percent in 2017 compared to the previous year. This marks the sharpest decline since the regime suffered a 6.5 percent drop in 1997 as a result of a devastating famine.

The pain of western sanctions have been exacerbated by North Korea’s closest trading ally China more strictly enforcing economic measures against the regime in the second half of 2017 following pressure from the United Nations.

The worst hit sector was industrial production, which accounts for about a third of the nation’s total output. It dropped by 8.5 percent, according to the Bank of Korea, as factory production collapsed because Pyongyang was unable to secure enough oil, coal and gas.

Output from agriculture and construction industries also fell by 1.3 percent and 4.4 percent respectively.

It appears Kim was aware of his country’s economic decline before the release of the statistics.

The despot last week was seen visiting industrial facilities, power plants and tourist sites across the country — shifting focus from the regime’s nuclear arsenal to its economy.

According to the state-run KCNA news agency, Kim voiced his ”great anxiety” about poor standards and failing to meet targets, while dressing down ruling party officials for their lack of “revolutionary spirit.”

At the Chongjin Bag Factory, located in the same region as a nuclear test site, which the regime blew up in May, Kim ordered workers to sew twice as much sponge in the shoulder straps to prevent schoolchildren feeling any discomfort.

In Younjin, Kim visited a seaside hotel and asked why the facility remained unfinished six years after construction began. Even worse, at the Orangchon power station he berated officials for failing to complete construction a full 17 years after it began, saying it “doesn’t make sense.”

Wang Enbin, the deputy director of the department of commerce in China’s Liaoning province, which borders North Korea, said this week he was keen for the two countries to work together as soon as possible.

READ: Kim lied at their first summit — so Trump wants to give him a second summit

Kim’s focus on the economy is positive for the U.S., giving Washington leverage as it pushes to enforce the Singapore declaration in which North Korea promises to work towards denuclearization.

“It’s clear from KCNA and government statements, that Kim is serious about putting economic growth at the top of his agenda,” John Hemmings, Asia Director at the Henry Jackson Society, a British foreign policy think tank, told VICE News.

“This gives the U.S. some leverage in offering that in exchange for [denuclearisation], however Kim’s goal will be to try and get economic growth ahead of and separately from denuclearisation, so we can expect to see him weakening the international coalition against him and emphasising the humanitarian impact of sanctions.”

While sanctions are biting hard in North Korea, Kim’s efforts to cozy up to China may be a deliberate ploy to use the current unease between Beijing and Washington over trade to gain sanctions relief.

“Given its current trade war with the Trump administration, there’s a danger that Beijing will loosen sanctions on North Korea in order to leverage its fight with Washington on trade,” Hemmings said.

Cover image: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gives field guidance during his visit to the under construction Orangchon Power Station in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang July 17, 2018. (KCNA via REUTERS)

Trump invited Putin to Washington — and shocked his own director of national intelligence

July 19, 2018 - 4:08pm

President Donald Trump has apparently invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to Washington in the fall, to the surprise of many — including Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.

“Say that again,” Coats said Thursday when he was told about the invitation on stage during a security forum in Colorado. The audience laughed.

“Ok. That’s gonna be special,” he said.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed in a tweet that Trump had instructed national security adviser John Bolton to invite Putin to D.C., and that “discussions were already underway.”

Trump’s recent interactions with Putin have shocked politicians, the media, and experts. On Monday, Trump had a private meeting with Putin in Helsinki, Finland, that was only witnessed by two interpreters.

In a joint press conference following the meeting, Trump appeared to side with Putin over American intelligence agencies which say that Putin orchestrated an attempt to influence the 2016 U.S. election in Trump’s favor. Trump later backtracked those comments and said he misspoke.

He also said that allowing Russian investigators to question suspects as part of the Mueller probe sounded like a “great idea,” but the White House walked that back Thursday. “It is a proposal that was made in sincerity by President Putin, but President Trump disagrees with it,” Sanders said in a statement. The Senate voted 98-0 in a symbolic resolution to tell the president not to honor Putin’s request.

Putin himself has heralded the meeting with Trump as hugely successful and said that the media and other forces were attempting to create discord between the U.S. and Russia.

Cover image: U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Russia's President Vladimir Putin next to U.S. First Lady Melania Trump ahead a meeting in Helsinki, on July 16, 2018. (Photo by Alexey NIKOLSKY / Sputnik / AFP)

The Trump administration asked 70 babies who can't talk to make their case in immigration court

July 19, 2018 - 1:58pm

The Trump administration has asked at least 70 babies under the age of 1 to come to court in 2018 and personally make their case to an immigration judge about why they should be able to stay in the U.S.

Kids have long been forced to navigate the U.S. immigration system alone as thinly stretched pro bono legal aid organizations struggle to provide lawyers for every child. But new Justice Department data obtained by Kaiser Health News and the Texas Tribune show the number of babies under 1 summoned to immigration court recently increased almost 200 percent, from 24 in fiscal year 2017 to 70 so far in fiscal year 2018 (which ends Sept. 30).

“It sounds bizarre, it is bizarre, but this is what’s happening,” said Wendy Young, president of Kids In Need of Defense, an organization that provides free legal counsel to immigrant kids. “It’s obviously tragic but not surprising to us.”

Read: Trump administration separated a 3-year-old from his father who crossed the border legally

About one in three unaccompanied minors were represented in immigration court in fiscal year 2017, according to data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. Of the kids denied asylum in 2017, 91 percent were unrepresented. And of the kids granted relief, just 14 percent were unrepresented, according to the same data.

The Trump administration’s forced separation of thousands of kids from their parents at the border under the “zero tolerance” has added an extra layer of difficulty to KIND’s efforts to represent every child. While family units are considered for asylum together, once a child and a parent are separated into the custody of two separate agencies — the departments of Health and Human Services and Homeland Security, respectively — their cases are on two different tracks.

“The separated children are uncharted territory for us,” Young said. “We’ve never seen the government systematically separating kids and putting them in an entirely different legal track than the parents. Unaccompanied children asylum claims are handled differently than adults are.”

Read: The Trump administration keeps losing family separation lawsuits

Complicating things further, the agencies did not have a system in place to track which child belonged to which adult, so lawyers for kids are often unable to reach their parents to discuss the details of their life and their wishes for the child, which are key aspects in an asylum claim. Government officials are working to reunify kids with their parents by July 26 under a court-ordered deadline, but officials say they are currently unable to identify parents for 70 kids.

Young thinks it is unlikely that any of the 70 babies asked to appear in court this year are kids who the government separated from their parents under the policy. Instead, she thinks they probably migrated with family members such as siblings, aunts, uncles or grandparents, or they were smuggled.

Curiously, the 609 kids aged 1 to 5 who were summoned to appear in immigration court this year is nearly half the 1,128 who were summoned last year. Young said KIND has seen a shift downward in the average age of their clients, but did not know the reason for the profound disparity between the under 1 age group and the over 1 age group.

A spokesman for the Justice Department said officials provide kids with a list of pro bono legal services, and last year the department sent a guidance to judges on how to make children more comfortable in the courtroom. In addition, children may have a relative, sponsor or guardian in the U.S. attend their proceedings.

Faced with an increase of unaccompanied kids immigrating to the U.S. in 2014, the ACLU sued the Obama administration to try to guarantee the right to government funded counsel for kids in immigration court. An appeals court dismissed the lawsuit in 2016. Both the Senate and the House have introduced a bill called the “Fair Day in Court for Kids Act,” which would provide that same guarantee, but neither chamber has voted on the proposal yet.

Cover image: Activists, including childcare providers, parents and their children, protest against the Trump administrations recent family detention and separation policies for migrants along the southern border, near the New York offices of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), July 18, 2018 in New York City. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

Everything we know about Maria Butina, the gun-toting Russian spy accused of offering sex for power

July 19, 2018 - 1:18pm

The threads of Russian interference in the 2016 election keep getting weirder. And last weekend they unspooled to include 29-year-old Maria Butina, who is currently under arrest for being a Russian spy.

Butina says she’s originally from Siberia but moved to Moscow in 2010 to start a new business. She eventually made her way to Washington, D.C., where she earned a degree from American University, though she lied on her 2016 student visa application, prosecutors say. At the same time, the FBI says, she created her own Russian guns rights advocacy group called Right to Bear Arms, connected with high-profile members of the National Rifle Association, and was in constant contact with the FSB, a Russian intelligence agency that took the place of the KGB.

In a complaint unsealed on Sunday, prosecutors claimed that she traded sex for political influence, dated and lived with a political operative she apparently didn’t even like very much, made inroads into the Republican Party through the NRA to push forward Russian interests, set up a trip to Moscow for NRA members, and arranged meetings for Russian political insiders in New York and D.C.

Here’s what else we know so far:

She pleaded not guilty to her charges

Butina has pleaded not guilty to two felony charges: conspiracy and acting as an agent of a foreign government without informing the attorney general.

“The defendant's covert influence campaign involved substantial planning, international coordination and preparation,” prosecutors wrote. “The plan for Butina also required, and she demonstrated, a willingness to use deceit in a visa application to move to the United States and bring the plan to fruition.”

Prosecutors argued that Butina was an “extreme flight risk,” and she has been jailed without bond.

She says she loves the Second Amendment

Butina founded a Russian gun rights activist group the Right to Bear Arms and became an active activist with the NRA. In 2013, John Bolton recorded a video message on gun rights for her group, and the following year, TownHall ran an interview with her titled: “Meet the woman working with the NRA and fighting for gun rights in Russia.

She allegedly used the connections she made in both of these groups to push forward a Russian agenda in the U.S.

She was compared to the Russian spy Anna Chapman

“Good morning! How are you faring there in the rays of the new fame? Are your admirers asking for your autographs yet? You have upstaged Anna Chapman,” an unnamed "Russian official," believed to be Russian central bank deputy Alexander Torshin, texted her, according to court documents.

Prosecutors believe she was preparing to flee

According to the New York Times, Butina was arrested after agents observed her moving money out of the country and packing up her home, the lease on which she had recently terminated.

She allegedly used her love for guns to connect with the GOP

Butina is accused of utilizing her connections with the NRA to make inroads into the Republican Party and advance Russian interests. She reportedly met Donald Trump Jr. with Alexander Torshin — who isn’t named in court filings was reportedly the “Russian official” who gave her orders, according to The New York Times — at an NRA dinner, and even bragged about connected the Trump campaign with Russia.

She allegedly offered sex for power

Butina was in a relationship with an older man she allegedly slept with and lived with, but didn't appear to like all that much. The man, referred to in the filing as “US Person 1,” has been identified as longtime Republican political operative Paul Erickson.

According to the filing, Butina expressed “disdain” for having to live with the operative, even offering another unnamed man “sex in exchange for a position in a special interest organization,” despite her ongoing relationship with Erickson.

According to the New York Times, however, she did get something out of it for herself — she allegedly had him do her homework for her classes at American University, where she maintained a 4.0 GPA.

You can read the full filing below:

Cover image: Mariia Butina, leader of a pro-gun organization, speaks on October 8, 2013 during a press conference in Moscow. STR/AFP/Getty Images.

Raqqa residents blame the U.S. for neglecting the city's recovery

July 19, 2018 - 12:45pm

The U.S.-backed campaign to retake the Syrian city of Raqqa from the Islamic State last summer devastated the city. Almost nine months later, the self-described capital of the Islamic State is still revealing its dead, and returning civilians are blaming the U.S. for neglecting the recovery effort.

To liberate the city from entrenched ISIS fighters, the U.S.-led coalition was forced to destroy it, pummeling the regional capital with more than 4,000 airstrikes and 30,000 artillery strikes over three months, and creating a scene of almost unimaginable devastation, even by the standards of the Syrian Civil War.

Now, the city's democratic governing council, composed of local Raqqawi Arabs, is complaining that the international commitment to the city's recovery is woefully inadequate. And the U.S.-backed local administration is warning that American negligence is causing widespread discontent among the civilians who have returned, boding ill for the future.

The city has no electricity or running water, thousands of bodies lie unburied in the ruins, and every day returning civilians are killed or injured by unexploded munitions.

This segment originally aired July 12, 2018, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.

Russian journalist who faked his own death fires back at critics: “Whatever, guys”

July 19, 2018 - 12:11pm

In late May, Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko was reportedly found dead in his apartment in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, in what authorities said was the Kremlin’s latest assassination of a dissident reporter.

Less than 24 hours later, the 41-year-old walked into the police press conference about his own assassination, alive and well.

His “murder,” he explained to the stunned room who might as well have just seen a ghost, had been part of an elaborate sting operation by Ukraine’s secret service, the SBU, to catch Russian hitmen who were really out to kill him and as many as 29 others, according to Ukrainian intelligence.

The stunt grabbed headlines around the world — and soon triggered a wave of condemnation from fellow journalists. Now, they argued, any time a reporter actually was killed by Russia or any other repressive government, critics would dismiss the reports as “fake news.”

Despite the blowback, Babchenko has remained unrepentant, telling VICE News that the plot to murder him left him with little choice but to cooperate with the SBU’s plan.

“There was no question about whether this was hard or easy. The question was: Your life has changed, buddy.”

“There are some who think that I broke some ethics of journalism, worked with the secret service,” he said.

“Whatever, guys. When they come to you and tell you the KGB wants to kill you, just try and keep your morals and say, ‘No, I cannot work with the secret service. It violates my journalistic ethics.”

Read: The insane story of how a Russian journalist faked his own death is more serious than you think

Babchenko, a former soldier and war correspondent who fled Russia in 2017, fearing for his safety over his repeated criticism of the Kremlin, said once he was made aware of the plot to kill him, he became powerless against the larger forces at play. “I didn’t determine my destiny from that moment, you know.”

About a month before his staged assassination, he said, SBU operatives revealed to him that a contract had been taken out on his life.

“They showed me the hit that was out for me, the transcripts of conversations between the supposed organizer and the supposed killer. They showed me the money that had already been paid,” he said.

“There was no question about whether this was hard or easy. The question was: Your life has changed, buddy. There are new circumstances, and you need to exist in them.”

While some journalists argued that Babchenko’s participation in the sting undermined, even imperilled journalists, others said they sympathized with his decision.

“If the Ukrainian security services convinced me there was a plot to assassinate me, yes, I’d agree to take part in a counter-operation, even if I had to stage my own alleged murder in order to catch the bastards,” Yevgeny Kiselov, a prominent Russian journalist who has also left his homeland for Ukraine, told VICE News last month. “I would not hesitate.”

Read: We spoke to a journalist in Ukraine who is reportedly on Russia’s kill list

Ukrainian intelligence officials have said the faked murder was intended to disrupt a Kremlin scheme to kill Russian dissidents living abroad.

Authorities there have detained Borys Herman, the man suspected of overseeing the alleged plot, and prosecutors said they have evidence that paid someone $15,000 to kill Babchenko.

“We are now hiding with my family from hired assassins.”

Herman has said that while he had been contacted by someone close to the Kremlin about plans to kill Babchenko, he claims he passed on this information to Ukrainian officials and worked with them to foil the plot.

Meanwhile, Russia has denied any plot to kill Babchenko, calling the allegations an “anti-Russian provocation.”

Whatever the facts in this murky case, the situation has changed Babchenko’s life forever. As one of 18 journalists under the protection of the SBU, he said, he — and his family — now lead a highly restricted life, with round-the-clock supervision.

“We are now hiding with my family from hired assassins,” he said. “This is my life now, you know.”

Watch Babchenko's full interview on VICE News Tonight on HBO, which airs at 7:30 p.m. ET.

Cover image: Russian dissident journalist Arkady Babchenko (R) takes his portrait from deputy chief of the Crimean Tatar channel ATR Aider Muzhdabaiev as he visits the office of the channel in Kiev, Ukraine May 31, 2018. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

Homeland Security chief Kirstjen Nielsen blames both sides for violence in Charlottesville

July 19, 2018 - 11:47am

Homeland Security chief Kirstjen Nielsen repeated President Trump’s position that “both sides” were to blame for the violence during the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last August that left dozens of counter-protesters injured and one dead.

“It’s not that one side is right and one side is wrong,” Nielsen told Peter Alexander from NBC News at a national security conference in Colorado on Thursday. “Anybody that is advocating violence, we need to work to mitigate.”

Alexander had asked Nielsen whether the moral equivalency Trump drew between the white supremacists in Charlottesville and those protesting, which included antifa, made her job harder.

Nielsen was also asked about whether Homeland Security had prioritized the threat of far-right extremism since Charlottesville, and what it had been doing to address it.

“DHS has made a priority to focus on all forms of violence,” Nielsen replied. “We obviously have what we had been traditionally looking at, out of radical Islam. We have the homegrown extremists, whatever camp they fall in. We also have white supremacists or other groups who self-profess that their purpose or motive is violence.”

Nielsen said that, to address extremism across the board, DHS was looking at “counter-messaging” and “off-ramping,” which is the term she uses to get someone off the path of radicalization.

In the year since the Charlottesville rally, some of the white supremacists who carried out violent acts there have been charged and are now facing jail time. Most recently, the Justice Department filed 29 federal hate crime charges against James Alex Fields, the young neo-Nazi accused of ramming his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, leaving one dead and injuring dozens.

Fields is also facing state murder charges for the death of Heather Heyer, a protester. Other participants in the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville may also be looking at jail time for their actions. Two white supremacists were convicted earlier this year on charges linked to the violent beating of DeAndre Harris, a black man, and two more have charges pending.

Cover image: Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen speaks at a news conference attended by Attorney General Jeff Sessions on immigration and efforts to contain violent gangs like MS-13 that have spread from Latin America on December 12, 2017 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

EPA's deregulation of coal could poison the cleanest drinking water in the U.S.

July 19, 2018 - 11:45am

The EPA rolled back Obama-era rules on how to handle and store toxic waste residues from burning coal on Tuesday. And now, drinking water across the country could be at risk of being contaminated by the byproduct of burning coal for power: toxic coal ash.

The rollback gives authority back to state and industry officials to oversee how coal ash is stored and allows states in some cases to stop monitoring groundwater. But the groundwater contamination in Memphis shows why doing that may be a bad idea.

Home to what some consider the best drinking water in the country, Memphis is also home to a retired coal power plant and a new gas plant. Next to the coal plant sits a coal ash pit, where waste is stored. All three are overseen by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). People long suspected that all this industrial activity could be contaminating the city’s water, but there was no way to know for certain.

In 2017 the TVA was forced to comply with the Obama administration’s coal ash rule, which required companies to monitor the groundwater around their coal ash pits — and the results helped avoid a potential drinking water disaster for the city.

Using a cityscape scene of Memphis etched onto plexiglas, VICE News illuminates the story as it unfolded and shows what could be at stake for roughly 600 more coal plants in the USA.

This segment originally aired July 16, 2018 on VICE News Tonight on HBO.

“Stop fingering me, bro”: black man sues DC cop for invasive search

July 19, 2018 - 11:18am

A 39-year-old black resident of Washington D.C. is suing a Metropolitan Police officer for subjecting him to an intrusive anal probe as part of routine stop-and-frisk activity.

M.B. Cottingham, a father of three who has worked as an ice cream vendor for the last nine years, was relaxing with friends on some lawn chairs on a Wednesday afternoon last September, contemplating how he should celebrate his birthday later that evening, according to the complaint filed by American Civil Liberties Union.

Then two cop cars pulled up, and officers jumped out. They asked Cottingham and his friends, all of whom are black, if they had weapons, per the complaint. They said that they didn’t. The officers noticed an open container of alcohol; Cottingham says he offered to pour it out.

Then Officer Sean Lojacono asked what was in Cottingham’s sock. Cottingham, according to the complaint, pulled out “a small, clear bag containing less than an eighth of an ounce of marijuana – a quantity that a person may legally possess under District law – and placed it on the hood of a nearby car.”

READ: NYPD gives feds ultimatum on Eric Garner: charge the officer who choked him to death or we will

Cottingham then consented to a pat-down, and turned away, raised his arms and spread his legs.

“Officer Lojacono reached immediately between Mr. Cottingham’s legs, grabbed his scrotum, felt around with his hand, and stuck his thumb in Mr. Cottingham’s anus,” the complaint states. One of Cottingham’s friends recorded the search on his cellphone.

“Stop fingering me, bro,” Cottingham is heard saying.

“I’ve never been so humiliated in my life,” said Cottingham in a statement. “It’s bad enough that members of my community are stopped and frisked by the police all the time. I’ve been frisked many times and even beaten by police. But this officer treated me like I’m not even a human being.”

Lojacono contended in an incident report that he was looking for drugs.

This incident and recent others that were caught on video, such as an officer walking into someone’s fenced back-yard and carrying out a search, have drawn intense public scrutiny to the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department’s ongoing use of stop-and-frisk.

An investigation by WUSA9, a local CBS affiliate, analyzed D.C. Department data, and found that officers carried out more than 22,887 stop and frisk interactions between 2010 and 2018. Eight out of 10 people who were stopped and frisked by DC police were black, despite comprising of just 47 percent of the city’s population.

READ: Georgia cop fired for deliberately hitting a suspect with his car

Last week, D.C. City Council’s Public Safety Committee held two public hearings to discuss the police department’s tactics, which critics say disproportionately targets black residents. Council members questioned D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham over his department’s policy. He said that he had seen the video showing Cottingham being searched.

“It looked like it was an inappropriate touching by the officer,” Newsham said. “[The officer] has been removed from that particular unit and he has been disciplined for that matter.”

The Metropolitan Police Department declined to comment.

Cover image: YouTube

Trump’s face is the first Google image search result for “idiot”

July 19, 2018 - 11:12am

Google the word “idiot.”

The first image that pops up is a picture of President Donald Trump. So is the second. And the third. And the fourth. Even as users continue to scroll down the page, Trump’s face appears with unusual regularity.

The phenomenon started naturally when British protestors pushed Green Day’s hit song “American Idiot” to the top of U.K. charts during the week of Trump’s visit. But then, Reddit users started purposefully trying to manipulate Google’s algorithm by posting articles that contain pictures of Trump and the word “idiot.”

It’s a tactic called “Google bombing” that builds a false relationship in the search engine database.

Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but the search results could fuel Republicans accusations of bias against their party from Google and Silicon Valley as a whole.

At the end of May, Google listed “Nazism” as part of the ideology of the Republican party — less than a week before the state’s primary elections — because of Wikipedia vandalism the search engine failed to catch. And during several Congressional hearings about the effect of Big Tech, especially Facebook, on the 2016 election, Republicans have relentlessly questioned executives about silencing the voices of the right through their algorithms and policies.

Although little hard evidence exists that the companies do, in fact, discriminate against conservatives, tech executives appeared before Congress just two days ago to apologize to Diamond & Silk, the Trump-supporting sisters who’ve become a symbol of the perceived bias. After months of declining engagement online, Facebook send the duo a message calling them “unsafe for the community” in error.

As for Trump, he’s not the first president to fall victim to Internet users’ cheeky behavior. In 2003, a search for “miserable failure” highlighted pictures of George W. Bush, Wired reported.

Cover image: President Donald Trump speaks before signing the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)