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February 11, 2019

The Internal Revenue Service says the average 2018 tax refund has been 8 percent smaller than last year and about 25 percent fewer people are receiving refunds. This is mostly due to the tax overhaul Republicans pushed through on party-line votes in late 2017, The Washington Post reports, plus subsequent changes the IRS made to withholding tables. (The IRS would prefer you neither owe taxes nor get a refund.)

An IRS spokesman cautioned that these numbers reflect only returns processed through Feb. 1 and will change as more taxpayers file and the IRS recovers from the five-week government shutdown, the Post reports, "but there's reason to believe frustrations could rise as more Americans complete their tax returns." A lot of Americans are already angry and sharing their outrage on social media, blaming President Trump and congressional Republicans. But the smaller refunds don't necessarily mean people are paying more in taxes. In fact, most people got modest tax cuts last year, even if they didn't notice it.

"People generally got a piece of their tax cut last year gradually in the form of lower withholding on their paychecks," Joseph Rosenberg at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center told the Post. "It's a mystery why taxpayers seem to be comfortable — and even happy — with getting refund checks." Nicole Kaeding at the conservative Tax Foundation agreed, arguing that "getting a tax refund means that you gave the government an interest-free loan because you overpaid your taxes." Personal finance experts generally agree with this argument.

Still, "many Americans appear to like getting a refund because they feel that if they received an extra $20 to $40 a week, they would spend it," the Post observes. "But when they get a one-time refund of $1,000 to $2,000, they put it toward paying off credit card debt, paying down a mortgage, or saving for retirement." You can read more about the GOP tax plan's shortfalls from The Week's Jeff Spross. Peter Weber

10:50 p.m.

After creating a replica of the Iron Throne from Game of Thrones, welding student Michael Hayes can tackle anything.

The Louisville, Kentucky, resident attends the Knight School of Welding. Ahead of his wedding, the Game of Thrones fan decided to make the ultimate gift for his soon-to-be wife: an Iron Throne. He enlisted some of his instructors to help him, and over the course of two months, they cut out 400 aluminum swords for the 200-pound throne.

It took nearly 110 hours to complete the throne, which became the centerpiece of Hayes' wedding. His new wife, Kacie, was impressed not only by the throne, but by how much work Hayes put into the project. "The show is one of the first things my wife and I bonded over," he told WLKY. "It's a really important thing for us." The Knight School of Welding funded the $7,000 project, and is now renting the throne out to fans holding watch parties and Game of Thrones-related events. They're sitting on something special: instructor Anthony Williams says the throne is even more authentic than the one used on the show, which is made of fiberglass. Catherine Garcia

10:08 p.m.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is planning on telling allies Japan, South Korea, and Turkey on Monday that the United States will begin sanctioning them if they keep importing Iranian oil, three U.S. officials told The Associated Press on Sunday.

After the Trump administration pulled the U.S. from its 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, eight countries who received oil from Iran were granted sanctions waivers, and told they needed to start looking for alternate energy sources. Greece, Taiwan, and Italy have all stopped importing oil from Iran, but Japan, South Korea, Turkey, China, and India have not, and the waivers expire on May 2. Turkey has been vocal about the fact that it needs Iranian oil to meet its energy needs, with senior officials urging the U.S. to reconsider, AP reports.

President Trump decided on Friday not to extend the waivers, as a way to pressure Iran, officials said. It's unclear if sanctions will start on May 3 if the countries do not immediately stop importing the oil. Catherine Garcia

9:16 p.m.

Comedian Volodymyr Zelensky plays the president on TV, and will soon take on the role in real life, too.

Exit polls show that Zelensky won Ukraine's presidential election on Sunday in a landslide, with 73 percent of the vote. Zelensky, 41, has no previous political experience. He handily beat incumbent Petro Poroshenko, who has conceded defeat.

On the show Servant of the People, Zelensky plays a teacher who accidentally becomes Ukraine's president. Ukraine is at war in its eastern Donbass region, and critics worry that because of his lack of experience, Zelensky, who has ties to billionaire oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi, won't be able to stand up to Russia or make peace with separatists. Catherine Garcia

1:12 p.m.

President Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani made the talk show rounds on Sunday to defend his client following the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report on 2016 Russian election interference and the Trump campaign's conduct surrounding the meddling. The former New York City mayor wasn't exactly cautious when responding to questions from Fox News' Chris Wallace, CNN's Jake Tapper, and NBC's Chuck Todd. Here are three of Giuliani's boldest opinions on the Mueller Report.

Info sharing is a-okay — Giuliani told Tapper on CNN's State of the Union that "there's nothing wrong with taking information from the Russians," saying that campaigns get information on their opponents from so many different sources.

On NBC's Meet the Press, Giuliani told Todd that using material stolen by foreign adversaries in a campaign isn't fundamentally a problem — it just depends on the material itself.

Interference didn't do much anyway — While speaking with Todd, Giuliani — who said that much of the Mueller report is questionable — argued that it's "hard to believe" Russian interference did much to sway the 2016 election. While there is no way of quantifying the interference's tangible influence on the vote count, even members of the Republican Party, such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), expressed serious concern over the amount of Russian interference the investigation uncovered.

Trump had reason to fire Mueller — Much of the analysis on the Mueller report points to aides such as former White House Counsel Don McGahn preventing Trump from "influencing" the investigation and, therefore, obstructing justice. But Giuliani told Wallace that even if Trump had fired the special counsel, it would not have been obstruction. Giuliani's point was that Trump had good reason to replace Mueller because he hired "very, very questionable" people to investigate Trump. Tim O'Donnell

12:11 p.m.

To impeach, or to not impeach? That is — always, it seems — the question.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, told NBC's Chuck Todd on Sunday's edition of Meet the Press that he is not ruling out beginning impeachment proceedings against President Trump following Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report on 2016 Russian election interference and the Trump campaign's conduct surrounding the meddling.

Nadler was anything but surefire on the matter, though. Per The Hill, he said Congress would first have to receive an unredacted version of Mueller's report — for which Democrats have issued a subpoena already — as well as hear testimony from both Mueller and Attorney General William Barr before determining whether to begin proceedings or not. That said, Nadler added that "if proven," some of the material from the Mueller report, particularly possible obstruction of justice, would be impeachable.

Nadler is not the first prominent Democrat to discuss beginning impeachment proceedings in recent days. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a presidential candidate, did so on Friday, while Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the House Intelligence Committee chair, said during Sunday's This Week that Democrats may undertake impeachment, even with the knowledge that the Senate would be unlikely to vote Trump out of office. Schiff called the Mueller investigation "more significant" than Watergate. Tim O'Donnell

11:20 a.m.

An internal Department of Homeland Security memo said that top military and Homeland Security officials are considering classifying fentanyl — a highly potent synthetic opioid — as a weapon of mass destruction, CNN reports. A DHS official confirmed the authenticity of the memo.

Fentanyl is one of the painkillers that has contributed significantly to the opioid epidemic plaguing the United States. It was behind 30,000 of the 72,000 overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2017. It has reportedly concerned national security officials for decades because of its potential widespread lethality in terror attacks. Andy Weber, the former assistant secretary of defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs, told CNN fentanyl would be "disturbingly easy" to weaponize through the air and water systems.

U.S. officials first noted the danger of a fentanyl attack when the Russian military utilized it in 2002 by pumping it into the ventilation system of a theater in Moscow that had been taken over by Chechen rebels, CNN reports. The action killed dozens inside the theater. Officials from DHS and the Pentagon have reportedly met in recent months to discuss designating the drug a WMD; such a designation would allegedly disrupt its availability on the black market. Tim O'Donnell

11:03 a.m.

Not everyone is mourning the damage done to Notre Dame.

The Yellow Vest movement, a sometimes-violent national protest based around the beliefs that ordinary French citizens have lost purchasing power and French President Emmanuel Macron's policies favor the rich, has expressed anger at the nearly $1 billion in pledges to reconstruct the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, which caught fire last week.

Nine-thousand protesters took to the streets for the 23rd consecutive weekend in Paris on Saturday and criticized what they believe is hypocrisy from the French elite. Those gathered decried the fact that money will be spent on the cathedral as opposed to addressing poverty in France.

The protests started out peacefully, but they eventually turned violent as the demonstrators clashed with police who used tear gas and stun grenades to subdue them.

Macron was scheduled to address the Yellow Vest movement directly in a speech on Monday when the fire struck Notre Dame, but the president postponed in order to deal with the fallout surrounding the blaze. Tim O'Donnell

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