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

  • Cuba: Obama to move on his own
  • Cuba: GOP plots to stop Obama
  • Cuba: Pols let rip
  • Sony: DC mulls response / Hollywood reels
  • Sony: Lots of losers
  • Clooney: Don’t give in to North Korea
  • Sony: Senator wants fundraiser at Interview
  • Secret Service: Panel finds deep problems
  • U.S. backed ISIS talks over American hostage
  • Dempsey: Strikes killed 3 top ISIS leaders in Iraq
  • IRS: Temporary shutdown?
  • U.S. ready to veto UN resolution on Israel
  • Don Siegelman denied bail from prison


Cuba: Obama to Move on His Own
• President Obama will move as soon as next month to defang the 54-year old American trade embargo against Cuba, admin officials said Thursday, using broad executive power to defy critics in Congress and lift restrictions on travel, commerce and financial activities (NYT, me)
• The Treasury Dept will issue a series of regs to ease agricultural exports and establish banking regs, admin officials said, and the Commerce Dept will move to allow U.S. companies to export construction and telecommunications equipment, among other things, for sale in Cuba
• The State Dept is also starting a review that could lead to Cuba’s removal from a list of state sponsors of terrorism, clearing away a major impediment to Havana’s ability to trade and access banking services around the world (cue GOP – and some Dem – rage)
• WH officials said they had spent months determining how far Obama could go to unilaterally loosen restrictions on trade and financial transactions with Cuba, and concluded he had broad authority to do so without violating the embargo’s scope. Officials said the WH had not “eviscerated the embargo.” (errrr)
• A State Dept recommendation that Cuba should removed from the terror list would need to be approved by Obama. It would also go to Congress, which couldn’t block the move except by separate legislation that would have to be signed by the president (who isn’t going to sign it)
Cuba: GOP Plots to Stop Obama
• Republicans have begun informally kicking around ideas to stop President Obama’s reforms. On the list: deny Obama funds to reopen an embassy in Havana, stall the nomination of a potential ambassador, vote down a bill to open up travel more widely and ignore requests from the WH to lift a decades-old embargo (busy busy) (Politico, me)
• When Republicans control the Senate next year, the party would be in a good position to get some of their plans done. But even if they can’t fully stop Obama, who has some authority to act without Congress (and a veto), the dispute will provide another opportunity to continue to question his use of executive actions
• Wednesday, Obama said he would direct SecState John Kerry to review Cuba’s place on a list of state sponsors of terrorism, reestablish an embassy in Havana and ease travel restrictions. Obama also said the U.S. would increase remittance levels, expand commercial sales and exports
• Republicans will control the Senate starting in January, meaning they will have the power to block presidential nominations. Obama also called on Congress to peruse legislation that would lift the 50-year embargo against goods and travel to Cuba
• But Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said, “Relations with the Castro regime should not be revisited, let alone normalized, until the Cuban people enjoy freedom – and not one second sooner. There is no ‘new course’ here, only another in a long line of mindless concessions to a dictatorship that brutalizes its people and schemes with our enemies.”
Vid: Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro, says U.S. leaders “must be dreaming” if they think any changes in diplomatic relations will result in a return to capitalism (AP)
Cuba: Pols Let Rip
• “Just as with countries like China, President Obama continues to demonstrate a pattern of indifference to, and gross enabling of, human rights abuses,” Rep Chris Smith (R-NJ) said in a statement. “The Castro brothers should be tried at The Hague for their brutal crimes against humanity – including mass murder, torture and unjust incarceration.”
• Sen Rand Paul (R-KY) broke with other likely 2016ers Thursday. “The 50-year embargo just hasn’t worked,” Paul said on a WV radio station. “If the goal is regime change, it sure doesn’t seem to be working and probably it punishes the people more than the regime because the regime can blame the embargo for the hardship.” (Hill, Politico, me)
• Former President Jimmy Carter said on MSNBC, “These are the kinds of things that have been long overdue, and I’m very proud and grateful that President Obama has shown such good wisdom – and also I’d say political courage – in taking this long overdue step.”
• Retiring Senate Armed Services Committee chair Carl Levin (D-MI) late Wednesday said there is a “determination” in the GOP to be “critical of anything that President Obama does.” “I think when Senator
[Marco] Rubio says we got nothing, he should talk to the family of Alan Gross.”
• The bodies of eight children have been found at a home in Cairns in far north Queensland, Australia. They had all been stabbed. They were apparently found by their brother, 20. The mother of seven of the children is being treated for stab wounds and is “assisting police with their inquiries” (Guardian, BBC)
Sony: DC Mulls Response / Hollywood Reels
• Thursday, a day after the U.S. officially identified North Korea as the hand behind the offensive against Sony’s now-canceled comedy “The Interview,” the WH said it was considering “a range of actions” in response to the “sophisticated actor.” WH spox Josh Earnest called the hacking a “national security issue.” (NYT, TRNS, me)
• Meanwhile, Hollywood is reeling.The disclosure of racially tinged emails from Amy Pascal, the co-chairwoman of the studio, led her to meet in person on Thursday with black leaders including the Rev Al Sharpton, who had condemned the exchange between her and producer Scott Rudin as “offensive, insulting” when it first became public (fly on wall)
• Financiers are unsure whether to proceed with planned deals to back Sony films, as some talent agents – worried about management stability at Sony and long-term chaos – consider funneling scripts elsewhere
• Even Sony’s relations with news outlets have been dealt a lasting blow, with the studio upset about the willingness of some reporters to dig through stolen documents and media contacts given an unusually candid glimpse into how executives try to manipulate coverage
• For the moment, the studio is reluctant to consider the option of charging for “The Interview” online, on the assumption that few consumers would share credit cards with a company under attack by hackers

• Investigators say the hackers stole a Sony system administrator’s computer credentials
Sony: Lots of Losers
• Several Sony vendors mentioned in the stolen data trove have begun receiving threatening correspondence from the attackers. Security experts said that “anxiety levels were high” and many vendors complained Thursday that Sony’s decision to halt the release of the film might only embolden attackers
• A significant loser in the hacking may be Seth Rogen, the writer-director-star. And an email has been published in which he reprimanded Pascal for pressing for minor changes in the assassination scene. “This is now a story of Americans changing their movie to make North Koreans happy. It’s a very damning story,” he wrote
• The Motion Pictures Assn of America and its chief exec, former Rep Christopher Dodd (D-CT), have remained quiet throughout the three-week media onslaught on Sony. People associated with Dodd privately said he failed to get competing studio chiefs to mobilize in support of Sony in part because they feared drawing attn to themselves, also because it wouldn’t work
• Another set of broken or bruised relationships involved black stars and filmmakers, a group with whom Sony formerly had very sturdy ties. More than a few black moviemakers – notably Kevin Hart, Will Packer, Ice Cube and Will Smith – have flourished at Sony under Pascal and Clint Culpepper
• But Pascal and Culpepper both got burned in the email dump, which included messages in which she traded racial jokes with Rudin about President Obama’s supposed taste in black movies, while Culpepper was discovered calling Hart “a whore” in reference to growing salary demands

• Vid: The Kim Jong-un assassination scene is out – make up your own mind – I don’t think it’s funny

Clooney: Don’t Give In to Kim Jong-un
• Actor and activist George Clooney told Deadline that the most powerful people in Hollywood were so fearful to place themselves in the cross hairs of hackers that they all refused to sign a simple petition of support for Sony that Clooney and his agent, CAA’s Bryan Lourd, circulated to the top people in film, TV, records and other areas. No one would sign
• Clooney: Nobody wanted to be the first to sign on … But what happened here is part of a much larger deal. A huge deal. And people are still talking about dumb emails. Understand what is going on right now, because the world just changed on your watch, and you weren’t even paying attention
• Clooney: After the Obama joke, no one was going to get on the side of Amy [Pascal], and so suddenly everyone ran for the hills. … They know what they themselves have written in their emails and they’re afraid
• Clooney: This was a dumb comedy that was about to come out. With the First Amendment, you’re never protecting Jefferson; it’s usually protecting some guy who’s burning a flag or doing something stupid. This is a silly comedy, but the truth is, what it now says about us is a whole lot. We have a responsibility to stand up against this
• Clooney: The problem is that what happened was, while all of that was going on, there was a huge news story that no one was really tracking. They were just enjoying all the salacious sh*t instead of saying, “Wait a minute, is this really North Korea? And if it is, are we really going to bow to that?”

• Vid: Ooops – Sony has released a 30-second trailer for “The Interview” on YouTube. Looks like Someone forgot to unschedule it

Senator Wants Fundraiser at Screening of “The Interview”
• Sen Mark Kirk (R-IL) said Thursday on WBEZ radio that he was “pretty disappointed” in Sony Pictures decision to pull the film. “I would say that I’m gonna be trying to hold the first big Kirk for Senate fundraiser at a screening of “The Interview” so that everybody shows the North Koreans that you cannot edit what we want to see and do in the U.S., under the First Amendment.”
• Sen John McCain (R-AZ) said in a statement Thursday, “From Iranian and Russian attacks on American banks to China’s orchestrated campaign to steal military secrets from our defense contractors, the admin’s failure to deter our adversaries has emboldened, and will continue to embolden, those seeking to harm, the U.S. through cyberspace.”
• Rep Michael McCaul (R-TX) said on CNN, “Any time you give into them, you empower them, and I’m concerned that we are going to see more types of threats.” “I think it’s important that the admin responds under the military doctrine of proportional response.” (Buzzfeed, Hill, TRNS, me)
• The Nebraska Supreme Court could rule as early as today on whether the governor had authority to approve a route for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline through the state (Hill)
Secret Service: Panel Finds Deep Problems
• The Secret Service needs more training, staff and a leader from outside its ranks to run an organization that has been stretched beyond its limits and become too insular, according to a panel of outside experts appointed to examine the agency. Much of the report is classified – exec summary isn’t (WSJ, WaPo, TRNS, me)
• The panel recommends the 7 1/2-foot fence around the WH be immediately raised. An extra 4 or 5 feet, plus outward curves on top, would make a big difference, the panel wrote. (they needed a panel?) The panel was reacting to a 19 Sept incident in which a man scaled the fence and ran far into the executive mansion through an unlocked front door
• The panel recommended a new Secret Service director come from outside the agency, training of agents be improved and the service be allowed to hire an additional 85 agents and 200 Uniformed Division officers
• “The problems exposed by recent events go deeper than a new fence can fix,” said the exec summary.” Also, a culture change inside the service is necessary, the panel found. Change “can be difficult for an organization with such a storied history. Some in the Secret Service will resist and may need to move on.”
• The panel noted that some of its physical security recommendations dated all the way back to suggestions made by the Warren Commission that investigated the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, (seriously?) along with more recent reviews of the service
• Transgender employees will be protected from workplace discrimination in the public sector, the DoJ announced Thursday. Public sector workers who are gay are already protected against discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation (Hill)
U.S. Backed Talks With ISIS Over American Hostage
• U.S. counter-terrorism officials backed negotiations with two prominent jihadi clerics in a failed attempt to save the life of an American hostage who was later beheaded by ISIS militants, the Guardian reported today. U.S. officials weren’t immediately available to comment on the report (Guardian, Reuters, me)
• Citing emails, the Guardian said talks with the spiritual leaders of ISIS aimed at releasing hostage Abdul Rahman (Peter) Kassig began in mid-October and ran for several weeks with the knowledge of the FBI. ISIS militants beheaded Kassig, 26, in November
• The Guardian said the unsuccessful initiative to save Kassig, an aid worker, was the work of a New York lawyer, Stanley Cohen, who has represented Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law and members of Hamas in U.S. courts. Cohen will shortly be serving a prison sentence for failure to file tax returns
• Cohen persuaded senior clerics aligned with al Qaeda to intervene with ISIS on behalf of Kassig. FBI staff confirmed that senior officials at its headquarters were kept abreast of Cohen’s actions, the Guardian said
• The bureau confirmed it would pay $24,000 of expenses incurred by Cohen. An FBI spox said the bureau’s top priority was the safe return of U.S. citizens and that it rarely discussed the details of its efforts in public. The Guardian said it provided the Kassig family with details of the negotiation before publication but the family had declined to respond

• Vid: Merry Christmas in rhyme from John Boehner – he and his monkey are super-psyched about the 114th Congress BTW

Dempsey: Strikes Killed 3 Top ISIS Leaders in Iraq
• Gen Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told WSJ that U.S. airstrikes have killed three key ISIS military leaders in Iraq in recent weeks during operations that are part of an expanding coalition effort ahead of a planned offensive next year (WSJ, Hill, TRNS, me)
• “It is disruptive to their planning and command and control,” Dempsey said. “These are high-value targets, senior leadership.” Other defense officials said that the U.S. has also killed a number of senior and midlevel ISIS commanders
• Dempsey shed light on the U.S. view of ISIS: “It is in the context of how to fight a network. It is not a country. They have claimed it, but they are not. They are a network, so they have finances, they have logistics, and they have leaders.”
• The operations against top leaders come as the U.S. is working to open a corridor between Dahuk, in Kurdish-controlled Iraq, and Mosul, the largest city controlled by ISIS. U.S. officials would not say precisely when the Iraqis intend to begin operations being planned for retaking Mosul
• At a presser at the Pentagon on Thursday, Lt Gen James Terry, the commander of the U. S. mission in Iraq and Syria, said that while significant progress has been made in halting ISIS’s offensive, “I think you’re at least talking a minimum of three years” for Iraqi security forces to fully establish their capabilities (in the meantime?)
• The FCC on Thursday dismissed a petition filed by a professor claiming the Washington Redskins name is indecent. The status of similar petitions filed by three Native Americans against TV stations are still active (Politico)
IRS: Temporary Shutdown?
• The IRS is considering its own temporary shutdown due to recent budget cuts enacted by Congress. “People call it furloughs; I view it as: Are we going to have to shut the place down?” IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said to reporters Thursday. “Again, I would stress that would be the last option.” (Hill, AP, me)
• The news comes a day after Koskinen in an email warned IRS employees that overtime would be suspended and a hiring freeze enacted. He also said more tough news would likely follow as IRS leadership negotiates with the National Treasury Employees Union
• In the recent budget deal, Congress cut the IRS budget by $346 million to $10.9 billion – $1.5 billion less than the admin asked for. The IRS’ budget has been reduced about $1 billion since 2010
• Also, about half the people who call the IRS for assistance this filing season won’t be able to get through to a person, Koskinen said. Once tax returns are filed, there will be fewer agents to audit them
• “People have gotten very used to being able to file their return and quickly getting a refund,” Koskinen said. “This year we may not have the resources, the people to provide refunds as quickly as we have in the past.”


• FANTASTIC interactive: The Year of Outrage. Slate tracked what everyone was outraged about every day in 2014. Click on any date and relive the real or faux outrage du jour

U.S. Ready to Veto UN Resolution on Israel

• The U.S. is prepared to veto a UN Security Council proposal that calls for an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands in 2017. State Dept spox Jen Psaki said the resolution, offered by Jordan and pushed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, is unlikely to face an immediate vote (AP, me)

• Israel has described the Arab-backed proposal as counterproductive, and its approval would all but certainly upend hope for a peace settlement

• SecState John Kerry spoke Thursday with diplomats from the Mideast and Security Council nations to craft an agreement likely aimed at restarting peace talks

• Sens Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) urged State to veto any measure that imposes a peace agreement without direct negotiations between Israel and Palestinians

• Vid: Michele Bachmann tells far-right outlet World Net Daily in a Thursday interview that she used “evidence-based arguments” against liberals who are only able to argue from “emotionalism.” The (neutral) AP’s chief fact checker has said his job required a self-imposed “Michele Bachmann quota” because she made so many false claims…

Former AL Gov Don Siegelman Denied Bail From Prison

• A federal judge on Thursday refused to release Don Siegelman, the former governor of Alabama, from prison as he continues to appeal a prosecution that Republicans say exposed pervasive corruption in state govt but Democrats regard as a case for political retribution (NYT, TRNS, me)

• Siegelman was convicted in 2006 of accepting a $500,000 bribe in exchange for a gubernatorial appt to a regulatory board. He was sentenced to more than seven years in prison; later reduced on appeal to 78 months. He’s currently scheduled for release in August 2017

• Although Siegelman and his lawyers argued that the money, which went toward the governor’s effort to create a state lottery, was a contribution that’s common in the highest levels of American politics, federal prosecutors persuaded a jury to convict Siegelman of charges that included bribery and honest services mail fraud

• Siegelman claimed it was a political prosecution, and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to hear his case again in Jan. Siegelman’s latest appeal focuses in part on claims of misconduct by Leura Canary, who was President George W. Bush’s nominee for U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Alabama
• Canary, whose husband is active in Republican politics, ultimately recused herself from the prosecution, but Sigelman’s lawyers have said her actions were incompatible with those of a prosecutor who had officially stepped aside. Monday, a DoJ lawyer told the federal judge that Canary had acted appropriately

• Vid: Rocking into the weekend with: “We’ll Meet Again” from the final episode of the Colbert Report, featuring just about EVERYBODY

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Victoria Jones

TRNS’ Nicholas Salazar, James Cullum and Washington Desk contributed to this report


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