TRNS News Notes is brought to you by Victoria Jones. Victoria Jones is the Chief White House correspondent and global analyst of the Washington DC based Talk Radio News Service, where her insight and analysis are made available to over 400 news talk radio stations around the country and internationally.

In the News

  • Obama: U.S. and Cuba: “New chapter”
  • Spies swapped for spies
  • Pols’ reax: Swift and strong
  • Biz groups support WH move
  • U.S. concludes North Korea hacked Sony
  • Sony Pictures cancels release of “The Interview”
  • Theater owners scramble
  • Putin: Russian economy will recover
  • IRS cuts on the way
  • SCOTUS: Young AZ immigrants can drive
  • Fed will be “patient” on interest rate timing

Obama: U.S. and Cuba “New Chapter”

• The U.S. will restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba and open an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than a half-century after the release of American contractor Alan Gross, who was held in prison for five years, President Obama announced on Wednesday (NYT, Politico, TRNS, AP, TRNS, Hill, Reuters, WaPo, CNN, me)

• In a deal negotiated during 18 months of secret talks hosted largely by Canada and encouraged by Pope Francis, who hosted a final meeting at the Vatican, Obama and President Raul Castro of Cuba agreed in a 45-minute telephone call Tuesday to put aside decades of hostility – the first direct contact between the leaders of the two countries in more than 50 yrs

• “We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries,” Obama said in a nationally televised statement from the WH. He vowed to “cut loose the shackles of the past.”

• Obama has long expressed hope of transforming relations with the island nation, an aspiration that remained untenable as long as Cuba held Gross, the American govt contractor arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in a Cuban prison

• In a statement, Sen Marco Rubio (R-FL) said that as incoming chair of a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee, he will “make every effort to block this dangerous and desperate attempt by the president to burnish his legacy at the Cuban people’s expense.”
Spies Swapped for Spies

• Gross traveled back to the U.S. Wednesday morning and the U.S. sent back three Cuban spies who had been in an American prison since 2001. Rolando Sarraf Trujillo, a Cuban nation who worked as a U.S. intelligence agent, returned to American soil on Wednesday as well

• American officials said the Cuban spies were swapped for a U.S. intelligence agent who had been in a Cuban prison for nearly 20 years, and said Gross was not technically part of the swap, but was released separately on “humanitarian grounds.” (note – this is not how the story’s being widely reported. It’s reported that Gross was swapped for the three)

• In addition, the U.S. will ease restrictions on remittances, travel and banking relations and Cuba will release 53 Cuban prisoners identified as political prisoners by the U.S. govt. Although the American embargo on Cuba will remain in place for now, Obama called for an “honest and serious debate about lifting it,” which would require an act of Congress (good luck)

• At a presser in Washington, Gross said he supports Obama’s move toward normalizing relations with Cuba. “Five and a half decades of history show us that such belligerence inhibits better judgment. Two wrongs never make a right. This is a game-changer, which I fully support.”

• While eating a corned beef sandwich on rye bread with mustard during the flight home, Gross received a call from Obama. He’s back where he belongs, in America with his family, home for Hanukkah,” Obama said later

• In Miami, there was astonishment over the seismic news, but agreement ended there. For some older Cuban-American traditionalists, astonishment quickly turned to acrimony. But younger Cubans and those who have come to the U.S. more recently welcomed the decision, calling it past due

• Gross’s health has been failing. He reportedly lost more than 100 pounds in prison and is losing vision in his right eye. He went on a nine-day hunger strike in April. After turning 65 in May, he told relatives that he might try to kill himself if not released soon

• Three members of Congress were on the plane that picked up Gross in Cuba and brought him back to the U.S.: Sen Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Sen Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Rep Chris Van Hollen (D-MD)

• Gross was in Cuba to deliver satellite telephone equipment that was capable of cloaking connections to the internet when he was arrested in 2009. The Cuban authorities initially said he was a spy, and a court convicted him of bringing in the devices without a permit as part of a subversive plot to “destroy the revolution.”

• The three Cuban agents were part of the Red Avispa, or the Wasp Network, in Florida along with two other Cuban agents. One of the three, Gerardo Hernandez, was convicted in 2001 of conspiracy to commit murder in connection with the shoot-down of two Brothers to the Rescue planes over Cuba in 1996

• Diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba were severed in January 1961 after the rise of Fidel Castro and his Communist govt. Obama has instructed SecState John Kerry to immediately initiate discussions with Cuba about re-establishing diplomatic relations and to begin the process of removing Cuba from the list of states that sponsor terrorism

Pols’ Reax: Swift and Strong

• Sen Marco Rubio (R-FL) – who is of Cuban descent – on Wednesday called President Obama’s foreign policy “naive” and said, “At a minimum, Barack Obama is the worst negotiator that we’ve had as president since at least Jimmy Carter, and maybe in the modern history of the country.” (Hill, TRNS, me)

• Former FL Gov Jeb Bush (R), a likely 2016er, said Wednesday, “I don’t think we should be negotiating with a repressive regime to make changes in our relationship

[until Cuba changes.]”

• “I’m overjoyed to welcome Alan Gross home after five long years in a Cuban prison,” Sen Dick Durbin (D-IL) said Wednesday. “Opening the door with Cuba for trade and the exchange of ideas will create a force for positive change in Cuba that more than 50 years of our current policy of exclusion could not achieve.”

• Sen Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement: “President Obama’s actions have vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban govt.” He said the swap “sets an extremely dangerous precedent.”

• Former SecState Hillary Hillary Clinton said, “As I have, the best way to bring change to Cuba is to expose its people to the values, information and material comforts of the outside world. The goal of increased engagement in the days and years ahead should be to encourage real and lasting reforms for the Cuban people.”
• American visitors to Cuba will now be able to buy up to $11 worth of Cuban cigars, bring them home and smoke ’em. Can’t sell them, though. “Personal consumption.” (Reuters, me)
Biz Groups Support WH Move

• U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue said Wednesday, “We deeply believe that an open dialogue and commercial exchange between the U.S. and Cuban private sectors will bring shared benefits.” (Hill, me)

• Donohue said that, during a trip to Cuba earlier this year, it was noticeable that Havana has moved to reduce the govt control over private sector businesses, allowing for growth on the island. “There is still work to do, on both sides of this relationship, but the changes outlined today are a substantive and positive step forward,” Donohue said

• Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC), called the decision “truly strategic.” “Restoring normal diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba will foster U.S. interests culturally, commercially and regionally. It is past time to bring down the walls.”

• Jake Colvin, NFTC’s VP for global trade issues, said the next steps are up to Congress. “It can either show that politics stops at the water’s edge, or insist that the walls of the Cold War still exist,” he said

• WH spox Josh Earnest said Wednesday the WH does believe Congress should take the “necessary action to remove those restrictions to facilitate the kind of openness and engagement that we believe will lead to greater progress in terms of advancing American national security priorities.”

U.S. Concludes North Korea Hacked Sony

• American officials have concluded that North Korea was “centrally involved” in the hacking of Sony Pictures computers, even as the studio canceled the release of a far-fetched farce about the assassination of the North’s leader that’s believed to have led to the cyberattack (NYT, WSJ, LAT, Variety, CNBC, me)

• Senior admin officials – anonymous – said the WH was debating whether to publicly accuse North Korea of what amounts to a cyberterrorism attack. Sony capitulated after the hackers threatened additional attacks, perhaps on theaters themselves, if “The Interview” was released

• Officials said it wasn’t clear how the WH would respond (make a decision). Some within the Obama admin argue that the govt of Kim Jong-un must be confronted directly. But that raises questions of what actions the admin could credibly threaten, or how much evidence to make public without revealing details of how it figured things out&&&

• Other admin officials said a direct confrontation with the North would provide North Korea with the kind of dispute it covets. Japan, where Sony is an iconic corporate name, has argued that a public accusation could interfere with delicate diplomatic negotiations for the return of Japanese citizens kidnapped years ago

• While admin officials have concluded the cyberattack was state-sponsored, there are still differences of opinion over whether North Korea was aided by Sony insiders with knowledge of the company’s computer systems, senior admin officials said. “This is of a different nature than past attacks,” one official said (fascinating)

• It’s rare for the U.S. to publicly accuse countries suspected of involvement in cyberintrusions. The North is under some of the heaviest sanctions ever applied. A large-scale American cyberattack would require a presidential order, and President Obama has been hesitant to use the country’s cyberarsenal for fear of retribution

Sony Pictures Cancels Release of “The Interview”

• Sony Pictures Entertainment on Wednesday (inevitably) dropped plans for its Christmas Day release of “The Interview,” a movie that depicts the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, after receiving a terror threat against theaters (NYT, LAT, WaPo, me)

• Before that, the four largest theater chains in the U.S. said they wouldn’t show the film, which has been at the center of a devastating hacking attack on Sony over the past several weeks, in which hackers raided the studio’s computers and published mounds of private corporate data online in declared retribution for the movie

• A Sony spox said the studio “has no further release plans” for the $44 million comedy. (including VOD and DVD – lame). The cancellation was a sharp defeat for the studio, which for months had stood behind the film and its plot as being within its creative rights. Mitt Romney Wednesday urged Sony to make “The Interview” available for free online

• Tuesday, a threat of terrorism against theaters that show “The Interview” was made in rambling emails sent to various news outlets. The threat read in part, “Remember the 11th of September 2001.” The emails aimed the threat “at the very times and places” at which “The Interview” was to play in its early showings

• Once the hackers threatened physical violence, the film’s cancellation became almost inevitable. Since the Aurora CO theater shootings in 2012, Cinemark had fought lawsuits with a defense that said the incident was not foreseeable – nearly impossible to argue with “The Interview.”

• U.S. officials gave their blessing for “The Interview,” after Sony Pictures showed them a rough cut. Sony hired attorney Bruce Bennett, a North Korean specialist, to advise about possible threats. Leaked emails show that he discussed the film with State Dept officials (Daily Beast)
Theater Owners Scrambled

• Some Sony employees and producers, many of whom have had personal info published for the world to see, bitterly complained that they had been jeopardized to protect the creative prerogatives of directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. Rogen, NYT says, “has pursued a career that makes a virtue of offensiveness.”

• The multiplex operators made their decision in the face of pressure from malls, which worried that a terror threat could affect the end of the holiday shopping season. And studios that compete with Sony were scrambling to protect releases that include the latest “Hobbit” extravaganza and the musical “Into the Woods”

• The National Assn of Theater Owners mobilized its own response to the crisis Tuesday. The assn convened its board for briefings by both Sony and by officials with the FBI and the Dept of Homeland Security, according to a person briefed on the sessions – anonymous

• That person said the officials spoke in terms far less assuring than those used publicly by Homeland Security, which had played down the threat. Instead, theater owners were told that govt agencies couldn’t gauge the ability of the hackers to go from digital to physical threats, leaving each exhibition company to decide individually how to proceed (so was threat real?)

• Some experts in security had harsh words. “The notion that Sony and the theaters are going to react by caving on this film – a comedy – is ridiculous,” said Frances Fragos Townsend, who was President George W. Bushs’s counterterrorism adviser. “This is a horrible precedent.”
Putin: Russian Economy Will Recover

• Breaking: The presser is taking place as I write. Russian President Vladimir Putin says the national economy will rebound and the ruble will stabilize. He said the current crisis could last two years, but the economy could recover faster if external factors change for the better

• He said low gas prices will encourage Russia to diversify its economy and ease its dependence on oil and gas exports. He said the govt and Central Bank are generally working correctly to deal with the current economic woes, albeit some of their action was belated

• Putin said problems with the economy are not “payback for Crimea, but payback for our natural desire to survive as a nation.” (really?) Putin said NATO’s eastward expansion is like building a Berlin Wall (AP, NBC News, Reuters, me)

• A Ukrainian journalist asked Putin how many soldiers he sent to Ukraine and what he tells the families of the dead ones. Putin said all people who “voluntarily” take part in the conflict in east Ukraine cannot be considered mercenaries because they don’t get paid
IRS Cuts On the Way

• IRS Commissioner John Koskinen on Wednesday told employees that the $346 million cut to the agency budget just passed by Congress is bound to reduce tax collections from potential tax cheats by at least $2 billion and hurt taxpayer services – email obtained by Politico

• “Our hiring – already limited at a ratio of one hire for every five people who leave – will be frozen with only a few mission-critical exceptions,” he wrote in an email to employees. “We will stop overtime except in critical situations.” IRS leadership is deciding what else to cut over the next nine months as a result of the 2015 budget

• Republicans have made it a priority to gut the IRS’s budget following the tea party targeting scandal – and they intend to continue doing so next year. The approved $10.9 billion budget is $1.5 billion below what the IRS requested and $900 million below 2010 levels

• The cuts come as the IRS portfolio expands to include implementing the Affordable Care Act and another new international reporting law that’s expected to confuse taxpayers. Koskinen has warned the cuts are crushing the IRS and that taxpayer services are suffering

• He said in the email that their budget is now akin to what it was in 1998, when Congress had to reorganize the agency because it was in such disarray. Koskinen also specifically mentioned pay raises in the email as an “additional” cost on the IRS, though he didn’t say anything about future cuts to pay
• “There’s no black male my age, who’s a professional, who hasn’t come out of a restaurant and is waiting for their car and somebody didn’t hand them their car keys,” President Obama told People magazine in a interview out Wednesday. That happened to him, he said
SCOTUS: Young AZ Immigrants Can Drive

• The Supreme Court Wednesday let stand a ruling requiring Arizona to issue driver’s licenses to young immigrants spared from deportation by President Obama – Dreamers. Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented. No reasons given by the court or dissenters

• The order didn’t concern Obama’s most recent executive action. Instead, the case arose from a 2012 initiative that deferred the deportation of young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children

• But AZ Gov Jan Brewer told the justices in an emergency application that the two programs were of a piece, with both stemming from “the executive branch’s continued expansion of deferred action and refusal to enforce federal immigration law.”&&&

• The underlying question in the case was whether Arizona was entitled to respond to the 2012 federal initiative by denying driver’s licenses to the young immigrants in the second group. In July, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit put the state’s new license policy on hold while the case proceeded – said it likely violated equal protection principles

• In response, Brewer said there were good reasons to treat the young immigrants differently from other noncitizens, including “the risk of potential liability to the state,” the possibility that the immigrants would improperly use the licenses to obtain public benefits and the burden of processing the licenses

• The challengers – five immigrants and a group promoting the interests of young immigrants – responded that the Ninth Circuit’s ruling was unexceptional, as 48 states grant driver’s licenses to people covered by the 2012 initiatives (Nebraska is the other). “Arizona is an outlier in its discrimination,” said the brief

Fed Will be “Patient” on Interest Rate Timing

• Janet Yellen, the Federal Reserve chairwoman, said Wednesday that the Fed still plans to start raising interest rates next year, but it will be patient and doesn’t expect to begin the process any earlier than April. “The committee considers it unlikely to begin the normalization process for at least the next couple of meetings,” Yellen said (NYT, WSJ, Bloomberg, me)

• Yellen’s remarks, and a statement issued by the Fed’s policy-making committee, both emphasized that the Fed’s intentions haven’t been shifted by recent economic events including stronger job growth and plummeting oil prices

• In response to a question, Yellen said that “a couple” meant the two scheduled meetings in January and March, meaning that the first possible move wouldn’t come until late April at the earliest

• Financial markets, which have been on a roller-coaster ride in recent days, were generally cheered by the Fed’s announcement, sending the major indexes up roughly 2% late in the trading day

• The Fed removed from the latest policy statement the phrase that it would wait a “considerable time” before starting to raise rates, widely interpreted as meaning at least six months, but it said it didn’t mean to signal a change in intentions• No. 2 trending on Twitter this morning is #WorstDatein5Words. I just posted (totally true): “He read me his manifesto.” Enough said…

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______________Victoria Jones

TRNS’ Justin Duckham and Nicholas Salazar contributed to this report


The Talk Radio News Service is the only information, news booking and host service dedicated to serving the talk radio community. TRNS maintains a Washington office that includes White House, Capitol Hill and Pentagon staffed bureaus, and a New York office with a United Nations staffed bureau. Talk Radio News Service has permanent access to every breaking newsevent in the Washington, D.C. area and beyond.