Thanksgiving Holiday Travel Rush Gets Off to a Good Start
Favorable weather is helping get the Thanksgiving travel rush off to a smooth start.
By midday Tuesday, just a few dozen flights had been canceled around the U.S. That’s fewer cancelations than many regular travel days.
The AAA auto club predicts that 54.3 million Americans will travel at least 50 miles from home between Wednesday and Sunday, the highest number since 2005 and about a 5 percent increase over last year. AA says 48 million will drive and 4.7 million will fly.
Looking at a longer, 12-day period, the airline industry trade group Airlines for America predicts that a record 30.6 million people will fly on U.S. carriers, up from 29 million last year. That’s more than 2.5 million per day.
Scientists Work to Save Wild Puerto Rican Parrot After Maria
Biologists are trying to save the last of the endangered Puerto Rican parrots after more than half the population of the bright green birds with turquoise-tipped wings disappeared when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico and destroyed their habitat and food sources.
In the tropical forest of El Yunque, only two of the 56 wild birds that once lived there survived the Category 4 storm that pummeled the U.S. territory in September 2017. Meanwhile, only 4 of 31 wild birds in a forest in the western town of Maricao survived, along with 75 out of 134 wild parrots living in the Rio Abajo forest in the central mountains of Puerto Rico, scientists said.
And while several dozen new parrots have been born in captivity and in the wild since Maria, the species is still in danger, according to scientists.
“We have a lot of work to do,” said Gustavo Olivieri, parrot recovery program coordinator for Puerto Rico’s Department of Natural Resources.
Federal and local scientists will meet next month to debate how best to revive a species that numbered more than 1 million in the 1800s but dwindled to 13 birds during the 1970s after decades of forest clearing.
The U.S. and Puerto Rican governments launched a program in 1972 that eventually led to the creation of three breeding centers. Just weeks before Maria hit, scientists reported 56 wild birds at El Yunque, the highest since the program was launched.
But the population decline is now especially worrisome because the parrots that vanished from El Yunque were some of the last remaining wild ones, said Marisel Lopez, who oversees the parrot recovery program at El Yunque for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
“It was devastating. After so many years of having worked on this project…,” she stopped talking and sighed.
The Puerto Rican Amazon is Puerto Rico’s only remaining native parrot and is one of roughly 30 species of Amazon parrots found in the Americas. The red-foreheaded birds grow to nearly a foot in length, are known for their secrecy and usually mate for life, reproducing once a year.
More than 460 birds remain captive at the breeding centers in El Yunque and Rio Abajo forests, but scientists have not released any of them since Hurricane Maria. A third breeding center in a forest in the western rural town of Maricao has not operated since the storm. Scientists are now trying to determine the best way to prepare the parrots for release since there are such few birds in the wild they can interact with, and whether Puerto Rico’s damaged forests can sustain them.
One proposal scientists will consider is whether to capture some of the remaining wild parrots in the Rio Abajo forest and place them in the same cage as birds that will be released to the wild, so they can learn to emulate their social behavior to ensure their survival, said Jafet Velez, a wildlife biologist with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Scientists are tentatively planning to release 20 birds next year in Rio Abajo.
Another proposal is to release more parrots in Maricao, which was not as heavily damaged by Maria.
“Our priority now is not reproduction. … it’s to start releasing them,” Lopez said, adding that breeding centers can hold only so many parrots.
But first, scientists need to make sure the forests can offer food and safe shelter.
Jessica Ilse, a forest biologist at el Yunque for the U.S. Forest Service, said scientists are collecting data about the amount of fruit falling from trees and the number of leaves shed. She said the canopy still has not grown back since Maria and warned that invasive species have taken root since more sunlight now shines through. Ilse said that many of the large trees where parrots used to nest are now gone and noted that it took 14 months for El Yunque’s canopy to close after Hurricane Hugo hit Puerto Rico in 1989 as a Category 3 storm.
Scientists also are now collecting new data on the number of predators at El Yunque, including el guaraguao, a red-tailed hawk that hunts Puerto Rico parrots. Without a canopy and proper camouflage, wild parrots have become an easy target.
Ilse said local and federal scientists plan to help the forest recover through planting. By the end of November, they expect to have a map detailing the most damaged areas in El Yunque and a list of tree species they can plant that are more resistant to hurricanes.
“People keep asking us, ‘How long is it going to take?'” Ilse said.
But scientists don’t know, she added.
“The damage is more extensive than [hurricanes] Hugo and Georges. … It’s been a complete change to the ecosystem.”
Top Senate Democrat Wants Probe of Whitaker’s White House Contacts
The top Democrat in the U.S. Senate, Chuck Schumer, called Tuesday for the Justice Department’s internal investigator to review communications between acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker and the White House.
Senate Minority Leader Schumer said he wants the Justice Department’s inspector general to look into Whitaker’s interactions with the White House since last year when he was named chief of staff to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
President Donald Trump picked Whitaker earlier this month to become the country’s top law enforcement official after ousting Sessions, whom he had long assailed for removing himself from oversight of special counsel Robert Mueller’s long-running investigation of alleged 2016 Trump campaign links with Russia.
Whitaker, before joining the Justice Department, had been critical of Mueller’s probe, saying a replacement attorney general, such as he is now, could cut funding to the probe so that it “grinds almost to a halt.”
Schumer said he wants the Justice Department’s inspector general to look into whether Whitaker, in the top echelon of the agency before Trump appointed him as head of it for as long as 210 days, had access to confidential grand jury information obtained in Mueller’s investigation and whether he shared any of it with Trump or other White House officials.
“I am also concerned that Mr. Whitaker, who has thus far declined to recuse himself from the Special Counsel investigation, may intend to interfere in or obstruct the investigation in other ways,” Schumer wrote.
Several Democratic lawmakers, along with some Republicans, have said that Whitaker, because of his attacks on the Mueller investigation as a television analyst, should, like Sessions, remove himself from oversight.
Sessions had delegated authority over the probe to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, but Whitaker now has assumed control.
Whitaker has taken no public action against the investigation, but also has not commented publicly about how he views it.
Schumer’s call for a Justice Department inspector general’s investigation, came a day after three other Democratic senators sued to block Trump’s appointment of Whitaker, claiming he was named to undermine Mueller’s investigation.
Going to court
Senators Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii filed the lawsuit in a federal court in Washington, the fourth suit contesting Whitaker’s appointment. The lawmakers and other critics of the investigation have contended that the nomination of Whitaker, as head of a Cabinet-level agency, was subject to Senate confirmation.
“President Trump is denying senators our constitutional obligation and opportunity to do our job: scrutinizing the nomination of our nation’s top law enforcement official,” Blumenthal said in a statement. “The reason is simple: Whitaker would never pass the advice and consent test. In selecting a so-called ‘constitutional nobody’ and thwarting every senator’s constitutional duty, Trump leaves us no choice but to seek recourse through the courts.”
Senator Whitehouse said, “The stakes are too high to allow the president to install an unconfirmed lackey to lead the Department of Justice – a lackey whose stated purpose, apparently, is undermining a major investigation into the president. Unless the courts intercede, this troubling move creates a plain road map for persistent and deliberate evasion by the executive branch of the Senate’s constitutionally mandated advice and consent. Indeed, this appointment appears planned to accomplish that goal.”
The Justice Department has defended Whitaker’s appointment as legal.
“There are over 160 instances in American history in which non-Senate confirmed persons performed, on a temporary basis, the duties of a Senate-confirmed position,” a Justice Department spokeswoman said. “To suggest otherwise is to ignore centuries of practice and precedent.”
In an interview with Fox News that aired Sunday, Trump said he was unaware of Whitaker’s CNN commentary opposing the Mueller investigation before naming him to head the Justice Department, bypassing Rosenstein.
Trump dismissed concerns about how Whitaker will deal with the Mueller investigation, but said that he, as president, would not intervene.
“It’s going to be up to him,” Trump said. “I think he’s very well aware politically. I think he’s astute politically. He’s a very smart person. A very respected person. He’s going to do what’s right. I really believe he’s going to do what’s right.”
Asked by Fox News anchor Chris Wallace whether he would overrule Whitaker if he decides to curtail the Mueller investigation, Trump replied, “I would not get involved.”
White House Journalists Invite Historian, Not Comic, to Headline Dinner
Months after comic Michelle Wolf angered Trump administration officials with her blistering routine at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, the group said on Monday it would feature a historian, not a comedian, at next year’s event.
The WHCA said Ron Chernow, who has written biographies of presidents George Washington and Ulysses Grant and founding father Alexander Hamilton, has been asked to speak on freedom of the press at next year’s black-tie affair in April.
“Freedom of the press is always a timely subject and this seems like the perfect moment to go back to the basics,” Chernow said in a statement released by the WHCA. President Donald Trump has repeatedly derided some media organizations as “fake news” and the “enemy of the people.”
The decision breaks with the association’s long-standing tradition of having a comic roast the president and the press at the dinner, and it drew a sharp response from Wolf.
“The @whca are cowards. The media is complicit. And I couldn’t be prouder,” she said on Twitter.
Presidents traditionally have been given the floor to make their own humorous remarks before the comic speaks. But President Donald Trump, who frequently found himself the target of jokes when he attended before he ran for office, including by then-President Obama, has refused to attend the dinner his first two years in office.
Wolf angered Trump administration officials last April with jokes that many felt were caustic and overly personal, saying of presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway “all she does is lie” and ridiculing press secretary Sarah Sanders’ eye makeup.
It was not the first time comics at the dinner have riled their targets. Stephen Colbert, Wanda Sykes and Seth Meyers have spoken at the dinner and also had their detractors.
But Wolf’s jabs at Trump administration officials prompted the New York Times to question in a headline last April: “Did Michelle Wolf kill the White House Correspondents’ Dinner?”
Although the dinner has become a high-profile event on Washington’s social calendar, it is primarily a fund-raiser to earn money for college journalism scholarships, journalism awards and to pay for other programs sponsored by the WHCA, which represents journalists covering the White House.
“While I have never been mistaken for a stand-up comedian,” Chernow said, “I promise that my history lesson won’t be dry.”
Two Killed, Including Gunman, in Shooting at Chicago Hospital
Two people were killed and two others critically wounded in a shooting at a Chicago hospital on Monday. Among the dead was the gunman, who started shooting in the parking lot and then burst into the medical facility and opened fire, according to local media.
A police officer was among those wounded in the shooting on Chicago’s South Side at Mercy Hospital, officials said.
Police cars and ambulances swarmed the hospital after the shooting.
ABC7 Chicago and CBS Chicago, citing sources, reported that two people died in the shooting, including the gunman, and that two other people were wounded.
Police searched the hospital, said Anthony Guglielmi, a Chicago Police Department spokesman. The hospital said on Twitter the shooting was over and patients were safe.
Eyewitnesses told reporters the shooting began in the parking lot before moving into a clinic area inside the hospital.
Police have not commented on a possible motive for the shooting.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and police Superintendent Eddie Johnson were on their way to University of Chicago hospital, where the wounded police officer was being treated, according to local media.
Sue Jimenez, the manager of Kozy’s Cyclery bike shop near the hospital, said she heard multiple gunshots separated by pauses. At one point, she heard five shots in quick succession, she said, but the shooting stopped after police arrived.
New Assessment: ‘Little Clear Progress’ in Afghanistan War
The U.S. and Afghan governments have made “little clear progress” recently in compelling the Taliban to negotiate a peace deal, according to a new U.S. assessment Monday that said military and political signs point toward continued stalemate.
“Progress toward peace remains elusive,” Glenn A. Fine, the acting Pentagon inspector general, wrote in an introduction to a comprehensive review of military, political and humanitarian conditions in Afghanistan during the July-September period. These were the final three months of the 17th year of a war that began in October 2001.
The report offered little support for the Trump administration’s assertions that its revised war strategy, announced in August 2017, is bringing the Afghan government and the Taliban insurgency closer to peace and reconciliation. When he visited Kabul in July, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the strategy “is indeed working.”
In the three months following Pompeo’s visit, the Taliban demonstrated their resilience even as the U.S. military continued its focus on training and advising the Afghan army and police while helping develop an Afghan air force.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Saturday that efforts to draw the Taliban into peace talks are being made “below the surface.” But he indicated that progress is insufficient. “We’re a long way from where we could say that we’re on the right path,” Dunford said at the Halifax International Security Forum, referring to effectively combining military, political and social pressure on the Taliban.
Noting that U.S. officials as recently as a year ago called the war a stalemate, Dunford said, “it hasn’t changed much” since.
Pulling the Taliban into peace negotiations has been the central feature of the Trump administration’s Afghanistan strategy, with little result so far. The effort has intensified since Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Kabul, was appointed a special U.S. envoy to Afghanistan in September. The Associated Press reported on Sunday that Khalilzad held three days of talks with the Taliban in the Gulf state of Qatar.
Without referring explicitly to the talks in Qatar, Khalilzad told a news conference Sunday in Kabul, “I am talking to all interested parties, all Afghan groups… and I think there is an opportunity for reconciliation and peace.”
“The Afghan government wants peace,” he said. “The Taliban are saying they do not believe they can succeed militarily, that they would like to see the problems that remain, resolved by peaceful means, by political negotiations.”
Monday’s report, which was a combined assessment by inspectors general of the Pentagon, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, said available measures of security in Afghanistan showed little change in the July-September quarter. Progress toward reconciliation with the Taliban also as scant.
“Despite continued efforts and activities, there was little clear progress toward reconciliation during the quarter,” the report said, adding that Afghan security force casualties are rising and humanitarian needs are growing as the conflict drags on.
The U.S. military does not publicly report the number of casualties among Afghan security forces, saying it is forbidden by the Afghan government. However, just last week Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said during a visit to Washington that 28,529 Afghan forces have been killed in the past four years, compared to 58 Americans in the same period.
The U.S. has about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan.
California Governor Optimistic About Federal Help as Wildfire Toll Rises
Authorities in the western U.S. state of California were able to determine Sunday that nearly 300 more people are safe after the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history swept through their town.
But more than a week after the Camp Fire began in Paradise, nearly 1,000 people are still unaccounted for as search crews go through the remains of burned buildings and others try to contact those reported missing by friends and family.
The official death toll rose to 77 people Sunday. The Butte County Sheriff’s Office said that so far authorities have identified 67 of the dead.
The fire itself is still burning, 65 percent contained as thousands of firefighters work to bring it under control.
Fire officials said crews made progress Sunday in creating and reinforcing the containment lines they hope will eventually halt the fire’s advance.
They are due to get some help this week with several days of rain in the forecast for northern California.
But while the shift in weather from the dry, hot conditions that allowed the blaze to spread so rapidly will help firefighters, it will also make the work of those searching for remains among ash more difficult. And with the fire leaving behind terrain stripped of vegetation, there is also a heightened risk of floods and mudslides.
California’s governor expressed optimism Sunday that U.S. President Donald Trump would support the state.
Following Trump’s visit to California the day before, Democratic governor Jerry Brown said in an interview with CBS’ “Face the Nation” that the president has “got our back” and has pledged to continue to help.
”The president not only has signed a presidential declaration giving California substantial funding, but he said and pledged very specifically to continue to help us, that he’s got our back,” Brown said. “And I thought that was a very positive thing.”
Brown also suggested in Sunday’s interview that California’s wildfires will make the most ardent of climate change skeptics believers in the coming years.
Trump visited California Saturday to get a close-up look at the widespread damage that raging wildfires have inflicted on the state.
“Nobody would have ever thought this could have happened,” he said to reporters after walking through burned-out ruins in Paradise. “It’s like total devastation.”
At least 10,000 homes have been destroyed.
“I think people have to see this really to understand it.” Trump said.
Trump was accompanied on his visit by Paradise Mayor Jody Jones, California Governor Brown, Governor-elect Gavin Newsom, and Federal Emergency Management Agency head Brock Long.
He pledged to the California officials the support of the federal government, saying, “We’re all going to work together.” He vowed also to work with environmental groups on better forest management and added, “Hopefully this is going to be the last of these because this was a really, really bad one.”
But when asked if the fire had changed his mind on climate change, Trump said, “No, no.” He said he believes a lot of factors are to blame.
The president also visited a local command center in Chico, California, and praised the firefighters and other first responders. “You folks have been incredible,” he said, adding that those battling the flames are “fighting like hell.”
Late Saturday afternoon, Trump landed in Southern California, where the Woolsey Fire has burned nearly 390 square kilometers. Fire officials say the blaze had been about 60 percent contained by Friday. Evacuated residents are returning to the area.
En route from Northern to Southern California, Trump told reporters he had not discussed climate change with Governor Brown and Governor-elect Newsom, both of whom accompanied him on the flight.
“We have different views,” Trump said. “But maybe not as different as people think.”
On the same issue, Brown told reporters, “We’ll let science determine this over a longer period of time. Right now we’re collaborating on the most immediate response and that’s very important.”
Bloomberg Donates ‘Unprecedented’ $1.8B to Johns Hopkins
Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg announced Sunday he’s donating $1.8 billion to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, to boost financial aid for low- and middle-income students.
The Baltimore university said the contribution – the largest ever to any education institution in the U.S. – will allow Johns Hopkins to eliminate student loans in financial aid packages starting next fall. The university will instead offer scholarships that don’t have to be repaid.
University President Ronald Daniels said Bloomberg’s contribution will also let the institution permanently commit to “need-blind admissions,” or the principle of admitting the highest-achieving students, regardless of their ability to pay for their education.
“Hopkins has received a gift that is unprecedented and transformative,” he said in a statement, noting the prestigious school was founded in 1876 by a $7 million gift from Baltimore merchant Johns Hopkins that was, similarly, the largest gift of its kind at the time.
By way of comparison, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launched the Gates Millennium Scholars program in 1999 with a $1 billion commitment over 20 years. The Chronicle of Higher Education listed it as the largest private donation to a higher-education institution in the U.S. earlier this month.
Bloomberg said he expects the money will allow Hopkins to offer more generous scholarships and ease the debt burden for graduates.
“America is at its best when we reward people based on the quality of their work, not the size of their pocketbook,” he said in a statement. “Denying students entry to a college based on their ability to pay undermines equal opportunity.”
The 76-year-old founder of the global finances services and media company, Bloomberg L.P., is among the world’s richest people. He graduated from Hopkins in 1964, served as New York mayor from 2002 to 2013 and has for years weighed running for president, including in 2020.