February 14, 2018

Eight separate emergency alerts were sent to people in the region around the Olympic Park in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on Wednesday, bringing the total number of government phone notifications during the Winter Games to at least 14, The New York Times reports. The push notifications are routinely sent by local and regional governments in Korea with information about possible nearby dangers like air pollution, fires, or extreme weather.

But at this point, they are mostly just freaking out Olympic attendees and spectators who don't speak Korean:

Julie Morreali, an attendee from Illinois, explained: "It's all in Korean — as, you know, it should be. We got one in the middle of the night, and we didn't know what it was. You hope for the best." Norwegian curler Thomas Ulsrud said when he got an alert, his first thought was a potential North Korean attack. "It was a little bit like, 'What is this?'" he said. "We're in the same building as the North Koreans, so it was like, 'What is going on here now?'"

Warnings to Olympic-area cell phone users have included alerts about possible forest fires, smoke, and the severe cold, as well as notifications about the extreme wind, which has been scuttling event plans. "We were scared in the beginning," said long-track speedskater Francesca Bettrone, of Italy. "I still don't know what they say." Read more about what's getting lost in translation at The New York Times. Jeva Lange

January 25, 2018
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The Doomsday Clock ticked 30 seconds closer to the nuclear apocalypse on Thursday, and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is once again blaming President Trump, the Chicago Tribune reports. The metaphorical clock has been used to gauge the threat of humanity's annihilation since 1947, with midnight representing the end of the world. The apocalypse is now just two minutes from midnight, reported the scientists, who consult with a board that includes 15 Nobel Laureates.

In a statement that won't help anyone sleep better at night, the Bulletin said that "the world is not only more dangerous now than it was a year ago; it is as threatening as it has been since World War II." The scientists squarely blamed Trump as well as mounting tensions with North Korea, citing "the failure of President Trump and other world leaders to deal with looming threats of nuclear war and climate change."

The clock has been as far away from midnight as 17 minutes, although last year it advanced to as close to doomsday as it's been since the United States tested its first thermonuclear device and the Soviet Union tested a hydrogen bomb in 1953. "We have members of Congress, White House advisers, and even the president implying that they think war with a nuclear state is not only likely, but potentially desirable," said nuclear weapons expert Alex Wellerstein. "That's unusual and disturbing. The question I have is: How much forward can they go?" Jeva Lange

January 5, 2018

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are hosting presentations later this month on what federal, state, and local governments are doing to prepare for the public health crisis that would follow a nuclear strike, Politico reports. The notice warns that "while a nuclear detonation is unlikely, it would have devastating results and there would be limited time to take critical protection steps."

The briefing includes presentations with reassuring names like "Preparing for the Unthinkable" and "Roadmap to Radiation Preparedness." Other presentations at the CDC's "Grand Rounds" sessions discuss more usual topics like vaccinations and hepatitis C, Politico points out.

The CDC's briefing comes amid heightened tensions with North Korea, including President Trump's recent button-measuring competition with leader Kim Jong Un. Other agencies and organizations are also reassessing what measures are in place in case of a nuclear strike, including New York City, which is in the process of removing misleading fallout shelter signs citywide. Jeva Lange

January 4, 2018

Michael Wolff, author of a hotly anticipated tell-all book about the Trump administration out next week, penned a column for The Hollywood Reporter on Thursday that offered a first-person perspective of his experience "plunking [himself] down, day after day, on a West Wing couch." Wolff's book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, was published in part by The Guardian and New York on Wednesday, and the outrageous excerpts roiled Washington.

The excerpted portions portrayed the Trump White House as a pit of hapless chaos, with disillusioned — or worse, feuding — aides, and former chief strategist Stephen Bannon standing at the center of the whirlwind. As Wolff explains in his Thursday column, Trump's staff was constantly in combat, partly because of their unnatural combination: "There was Jared [Kushner] and Ivanka [Trump], Democrats; there was [former Chief of Staff Reince] Priebus, a mainstream Republican; and there was Bannon, whose reasonable claim to be the one person actually representing Trumpism so infuriated Trump that Bannon was hopelessly sidelined by April," Wolff writes.

All that intermingling created a crackling tension — which sometimes did explode. The staff became "focused on the more lethal battles within the White House itself," Wolff writes. "This included screaming fights in the halls and in front of a bemused Trump in the Oval Office (when he was not the one screaming himself), together with leaks about what Russians your opponents might have been talking to."

Read Wolff's full column at The Hollywood Reporter, or read more material from Fire and Fury at The Guardian or New York. Kimberly Alters

August 4, 2017

On the cover of this week's issue, The Economist imagines a catastrophic endpoint to President Trump's standoff with reclusive North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un:

Last week, North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile that experts say could be capable of striking Los Angeles. North Korea has conducted more than a dozen missile tests this year, including two ICBM tests, prompting Secretary of State Rex Tillerson earlier this week to say directly to Pyongyang, "We are not your enemy." Tillerson told the Hermit Kingdom that while the U.S. does "not seek regime change" or "an excuse to send our military north of the 38th parallel," it will not stand the "unacceptable threat" the nuclear missiles present.

Read The Economist's cover story, which seeks to explain how to avoid "blundering" into a nuclear war with North Korea, here. Kimberly Alters

July 31, 2017

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took the "time off" heard 'round the world last week, when America's chief diplomat unexpectedly went incognito amid rising turmoil in the White House. Tillerson's impromptu vacation sparked chatter of his imminent resignation, though a State Department spokeswoman said Tillerson remains committed to his duties.

A blistering report published Monday in Foreign Policy, however, refutes that claim, detailing what some U.S. diplomacy alums have deemed an "unprecedented assault on the State Department" under Tillerson. With Tillerson at the helm, "there is no vision," one State official said. Another official, who recently quit his post, said, "If you break the way the State Department actually functions, then you're going to have chaos. ... [Tillerson] broke the damn process."

One example of State's neutered powers is how millions of dollars earmarked for the fight against the Islamic State are languishing for reasons unknown:

One example officials pointed to was Tillerson's front office sitting on memos that would unlock $79 million for the department's Global Engagement Center to counter Islamic State messaging and narrative. Bureaucratic rules required that Tillerson simply write and sign two memos — one for $19 million from Congress and one for $60 million through the Defense Department — saying State needed the funds. But he hasn't, leaving some career officials at a loss.

"The memos have been written and rewritten ad nauseum, sometimes with conflicting guidance from the seventh floor," one official briefed on the program vented to FP, referring to the department floor Tillerson and his staff occupy. "And it just sits there." [Foreign Policy]

Meanwhile, foreign diplomats apparently are at a loss of whom to talk to at State to get their message to the American government, while State Department employees are asked to build "word clouds" to pass the time. Read more about the State Department's devolution at Foreign Policy. Kimberly Alters

March 13, 2017

For a donation of just $10, you could win a dinner with Donald Trump and one night's stay in his D.C. hotel. And no, this isn't a cereal box sweepstakes or a reward for a challenge on a reality TV show — it's a contest held by the National Republican Congressional Committee, offering GOP donors a chance at dinner with the president of the United States as well as a night in his hotel:

While President Trump has made moves to distance himself from possible conflicts of interest with his namesake hotel chain, the NRCC's incentive for donating to the Republican House re-election committee could easily reignite such conversations. "One never hopes for scandal but in this case the president is bringing it upon himself," suggested former President Barack Obama's special counsel for ethics, Norm Eisen, earlier this month. In January, Walter M. Shaub Jr., the director of the Office of Government Ethics, called Trump's refusal to sell his business holdings "suspicions of corruption."

The NRCC also allows people to enter the contest without a donation. Jeva Lange

January 26, 2017
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Six senior officials in charge of management at the State Department have departed their posts under the new administration of President Donald Trump, The Washington Post reports, citing four unnamed State officials. On Wednesday afternoon, nine-year State veteran Patrick Kennedy, the undersecretary for management, resigned suddenly, joined by Assistant Secretary of State for Administration Joyce Anne Barr, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Michele Bond, and Office of Foreign Missions Director Gentry O. Smith.

Additionally, Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security Gregory Starr and Bureau of Overseas Building Operations Director Lydia Muniz retired from their posts on Jan. 20, the day of Trump's inauguration. All five officials worked under Kennedy to manage department logistics as well as State posts overseas; the Post further notes that "several senior foreign service officers" in regional State outposts have either left or resigned their positions since the election.

"It's the single biggest simultaneous departure of institutional memory that anyone can remember," David Wade, the State Department's former chief of staff under John Kerry, told the Post. "That's incredibly difficult to replicate." Kennedy had reportedly planned to try to stay on in his job under incoming Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and his resignation Wednesday was apparently unexpected.

Reporters have noted that many of the senior officials had served under both Republican and Democratic presidents. "In the context of a president [Trump] who railed against the U.S. foreign policy establishment during his campaign and a secretary of state [Tillerson] with no government experience, the vacancies are ... concerning," the Post wrote. Read more about the mass departures from the State Department at The Washington Post. Kimberly Alters

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