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.

TRNS News Notes will next publish on Friday 2 January 2015. Happy Holidays and see you in the New Year!

In the News

  • Economy grew 5% in third quarter
  • About-face: Sony will screen “The Interview”
  • New Yorkers mourn slain officers
  • Grimm pleads guilty: Won’t resign – but
  • Firing of AZ VA clinic upheld – but
  • NCIS investigating bin Laden “shooter”
  • Feds ease ban on blood donations from gay men  – but
  • Obamacare: 6.4m signed up – but
  • War on zombie Christmas


Economy Grew 5% in Third Quarter
• The American economy grew last quarter at its fastest rate in more than a decade, providing the strongest evidence to date that the recovery is finally gaining sustained power more than five years after it began. Wall Street liked the news. The Dow Jones Industrial average rose above 18,000 for the first time on Tuesday (NYT, TRNS, me)

• Bolstered by robust spending among consumers and businesses alike, economic output rose at an annual rate of 5% during the summer months, the Commerce Dept said Tuesday, a sharp revision from its earlier estimate of 3.9%. The advance followed a second quarter where growth reached a rate of 4.6% after a a decline last winter – wicked weather didn’t help

• The revision was led by an upswing in investment in businesses, a force for growth in most economic recoveries but one that has lagged in the latest rebound. Higher consumer spending and a healthier trade balance also helped. The gain makes the third quarter the strongest since the summer of 2003. Growth is expected to decelerate somewhat in fourth quarter

• Despite signs of faster growth, the Federal Reserve remains cautious about raising short-term interest rates from near zero, where they’ve been since the depths of the financial crisis in 2008

• The central bank is expected to raise rates in mid-2015, but signaled last week that it would remain patient in order to confirm that faster growth looks sustainable and will translate into increased hiring over the long term

• St Louis County police say a man who pulled a gun and pointed it at an officer has been killed in Berkeley MO at a gas station. A group of about 60 people later gathered at the scene. Berkeley is about two miles from Ferguson (AP, me)
About-Face: Sony Will Screen “The Interview”
• Raucous comedy “The Interview” will be released in a small number of independent smaller theaters on Christmas Day after all, Sony Pictures said Tuesday. Sony also left open the door to video-on-demand availability of the movie. “Freedom has prevailed! Sony didn’t give up!” Co-director, co-writer and co-star Seth Rogen tweeted (NYT, TRNS, me)

• The film’s a comedy about the assassination of North Korea’s ruler, Kim Jong un. Friday, hours after the FBI identified North Korea as “centrally involved” in a cyberattack of Sony and a subsequent terror threat, President Obama told reporters, “We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the U.S.”

• Following Obama’s rebuke, Sony stepped up its campaign to secure a release. Over the last day Sony reached out again to the big multiplex operators. But it appeared unlikely they’d come back on board – security concerns compounded by anger over Sony’s (weaselly and pathetic) handling of “The Interview.”

• The hacker group that digitally ransacked Sony’s files and threatened theaters with violence had warned that a digital assault would resume if new distribution plans were made

• Obama said the U.S. would take action in response to the Sony attack, leading North Korea, which has denied responsibility, to warn of “serious consequences” if the U.S. made any such move. North Korea’s internet went down for over nine hours Monday, but the U.S. hasn’t claimed responsibility
• Former President George H.W. Bush was taken to a Houston hospital Tuesday night after experiencing shortness of breath. Bush, 90, was to be held at least overnight as a precaution. He is expected to be fine, a police spox said (AP, NYT, WaPo, me)
New Yorkers Mourn Slain Officers
• Tuesday, at the site of the killing of two NYC police officers, a constant line of mourners gathered by the growing memorial, which was sheltered from a cold, steady drizzle by a black tarp. Some bowed their heads in prayer for Officers Wenjian Liu, 32, and Rafael Ramos, 40, of the 84th Precinct (NYT, NYDN, me)

• At 2.47 pm, the exact time the officers were shot Saturday by Ismaaiyl Brinsley, 28, many police officers, city workers and residents fell silent wherever they stood. In the 84th Precinct, dozens of their friends and colleagues wore green armbands and bowed their heads

• Hours later, at 9 pm, some of the city’s buildings and landmarks dimmed their lights at the request at Mayor Bill de Blasio. “Our city is in pain,” de Blasio said in a statement. “We ask all New Yorkers to turn their thoughts to our shared identity as New Yorkers and to honoring the memories of the two fine men we lost.”&&&

• Monday, the mayor had called on people to suspend demonstrations and political debate. But his words went unheeded by 200 protesters who marched north from Midtown Tuesday evening, carrying signs calling for the firing of Police Commissioner Willliam Bratton and an end to “racist terror.” The crowd paused at one point for a moment of silence

• Some of the outpourings of sympathy for the officers were substantial: Bowdoin College, where Ramos’s son Justin is a student, has offered full financial aid and has set up a fund to collect donations for the family. VP Joe Biden planned to attend the funeral of Ramos on Saturday

• At Evil Olive, a pizzeria across the street from the 90th Precinct station, officers haven’t paid for a slice since Saturday, Reggie Thomas, the manager, said. The pizzeria didn’t charge for officers’ meals on Saturday night and, since then, other customers quietly paid officers’ tabs along with their own
• The Supreme Court will decide as soon as 9 January whether to take up the issue of gay marriage. If they take a case, a decision could include declaring a nationwide constitutional right to same-sex marriage (Hill)
Grimm Pleads Guilty: Won’t Resign
• Rep Michael Grimm (R-NY) said he won’t step down, despite pleading guilty Tuesday to one of the 20 felony tax fraud charges he’s been battling since April – immediately raising questions about whether the Staten Island / Brooklyn pol will be forced to resign his seat in Congress (Roll Call, me)

• Tuesday, Grimm pleaded guilty to the fourth count, which implicated him in “willfully aid
[ing] and assist[ing] in and procure[ing], counsel[ing] and advise[ing] the preparation and presentation” of inaccurate tax returns to the IRS

• “While operating a restaurant we underestimated the gross receipts,” Grimm said in court, adding that some of the money was used to pay employees “off the books.” Therefore, the tax returns were false. Grimm later clarified that by “underestimated” he meant “under reported” (err big diff – noooo don’t throw me off the balcony)

• At the presser immediately following the hearing, Grimm said he wouldn’t step down if he had anything to do with it. “Absolutely not. It happened before I was in Congress, and for the past four years I’ve been a strong, effective member of Congress.”

• A spox for Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said Tuesday morning that the OH Republican wouldn’t weigh in publicly until he spoke to Grimm directly. At his presser, Grimm said he had spoken with GOP leadership, but wouldn’t provide details on that conversation (I’ll bet). Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) called on Boehner to force Grimm to resign

• Vid: Priceless – Grimm threatens NY1 reporter on the Capitol balcony: “Let me be clear to you. If you ever do that to me again I’ll throw you off this fu*king balcony.” (NYT)

• Grimm was already under federal scrutiny for alleged campaign finance fraud. In late April, NY U.S. attorney Loretta Lynch – now President Obama’s nominee for U.S. AG – handed down a federal indictment implicating Grimm in a host of illegal activities while running his Manhattan-based health food store “Healthalicious.”

• At a presser then, Lynch called Grimm’s efforts to cover up his activities “breathtaking,” especially considering he had, prior to 2006, worked as an undercover FBI agent sussing out white collar crime on Wall St. “Mr Grimm made the choice to go from upholding the law to breaking it,” she said

• In the event that Grimm doesn’t leave office voluntarily or after being compelled by party leaders, there are other punishment options. If Grimm’s plea agreement included two or more years in prison, a consequence would be that he “should” refrain from participating in committee business and from voting on the House floor

• The most severe consequence would be expulsion, which would require two thirds of members voting in favor. But expulsion has only been applied to members who committed crimes while they were in office – Grimm’s alleged transactions occurred before he was elected. There’s always censure or reprimand (and there’s always the balcony)
• Vid: Lemurs eat holiday treats at Brookfield Zoo, IL (AP)

NCIS Investigating Bin Laden “Shooter”
• The former Navy SEAL who ignited a controversy when he publicly claimed credit for killing Osama bin Laden is under investigation for possibly leaking official secrets, the Daily Beast reports

• NCIS has received an allegation that Robert O’Neill, who recounted his role in the 2011 raid on bin Laden’s compound to several journalists, may have revealed classified information to people who weren’t authorized to receive it, according to individuals familiar with the matter. NCIS is looking into it

• In previous interviews with the Beast, former special operations officials, as well as other sources who are familiar with the raid, accused O’Neill of misstating key facts and wrongly taking credit for killing the world’s then-most wanted man

• At issue is who fired the shot – or shots – that hit bin Laden in the head, splitting open his skull and almost certainly ending his life. O’Neill insists he was the shooter. Fellow SEAL Matt Bissonette also claims to have shot bin Laden. But others say a still-unidentified man likely fired the round that caused a lethal head wound&&&

• It wasn’t clear to whom specifically O’Neill is alleged to have disclosed classified info, or what that info was. O’Neill contends that the non-disclosure agreements he signed while in the military didn’t cover aspects of the raid that he discussed with journalists, according to people familiar with the matter

• Some members of the special operations community have strongly criticized Bissonette and O’Neill as attempting to profit off of the successful bin Laden raid, for which they say no one can claim sole credit

• In October, the head of Special Warfare Command reminded SEALs in a letter that they had signed non-disclosure agreements and pledged not to disclose properly classified info. But some special ops say Bissonette and O’Neill were only discussing details that had been leaked to journalists by WH and military officials, including just in the days after the raid

• The leaks were so voluminous, according to a book by NYT reporter David Sanger, that then-SecDef Robert Gates told the WH that officials should “shut the fu*k up” about the raid
Firing of AZ VA Clinic Chief Upheld – But…
• A federal admin judge has upheld the dismissal of the director of the VA health care system in Phoenix for accepting more than $13,000 in airline tickets and other gifts from a consultant for the health care industry, for failing to to disclose some of the gifts and for placing a high-level doctor on admin leave for providing Sen John McCain with info about patient suicides

• But Judge Stephen Mish concluded the VA Dept hadn’t provided sufficient evidence to justify firing Sharon Helman for the manipulation of patient waiting lists, which concealed delays in providing care to veterans. Also not proven that she failed to address bureaucratic problems and personnel shortages that contributed to the large backlog of veterans waiting for appts

• An investigation by the dept’s IG found that 1,700 patients in Phoenix hadn’t been placed on proper waiting lists and may never have received medical care. A top official in the IG’s office testified that delays for care had contributed to some patient deaths (NYT, me)

• Rep Jeff Miller (R-FL), chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said Tuesday that he was concerned by the ruling’s revelation that the dept’s IG had never interviewed Helman. The ruling pointed out, however, that Helman had exercised her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination

• The judge wrote about Helman’s Disneyland trip: “Sincerely forgetting about one of the plane rides purchased for her might be understandable in some circumstances, but the notion that she actually forgot them all strains credibility.” Mish added that Helman “has little rehabilitative potential.”

Feds Ease Ban on Blood Donations From Gay Men

• The FDA reversed a decades-old ban on gay men donating blood, concluding that modern scientific screening of blood makes the ban unnecessary. Instead, the agency concluded that it will allow donations from men if they haven’t had sex with men in more than a year (WSJ, NYT, Hill, me)

• The change won’t occur immediately. First, the agency will publish draft guidance in 2015, followed by a comment period. After that – perhaps in 2015 – the guidance will become final. A large group of advocates – including members of Congress, the LGBT community and medical assns – believe the change should go further

• Sen Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), a longtime advocate for a policy change, said, “The admin must continue to work towards implementing blood donation policies based on individual risk factors instead of singling out one group of people and turning away healthy, willing donors, even when we face serious blood shortages.”

• The policy has faced mounting criticism for more than four years. Groups including the American Red Cross and America’s Blood Centers have called the ban “medically and scientifically unwarranted.” The American Medical Assn voted to end the ban last summer

Obamacare: 6.4m Signed Up
• Nearly 6.4 million people were enrolled in the federal Obamacare marketplace one month into the 2015 signup season. “We still have a ways to go and a lot of work to do before Feb 15, but we do have an encouraging start,” Heath and Human Services Sec Sylvia Mathews Burwell said at a presser Tuesday (Politico, me)

• The pace puts HHS well on the way to its goal of having more than 9 million people covered in state and federal exchanges in 2015. The new figures don’t include sign-ups from the state based exchanges in 13 states and DC. HHS will release a more detailed state-by-state breakdown later

• However, a Republican-controlled Congress is intent on undermining the health care law in 2015 and a pivotal SCOTUS case, King v Burwell, will determine if people in 37 states using the federal exchange can get the law’s generous tax subsidies to buy coverage. The court will hear the case 4 March

• Burwell insisted several times that the admin isn’t doing contingency planning. “The idea that the Congress intended for the people of New York to receive these benefits for affordable care but not necessarily the people of Florida – we believe we have the right position,” she said

• Burwell said much of her focus is on expanding health coverage through state Medicaid expansion under the health law. She praised GOP governors in TN, WY and UT for seeking to expand their programs next year and said the dept will continue to work with other states, too

• “President Obama’s ‘a big fan of the Scrabble (or maybe it’s Words with Friends) app on his iPad. Whenever he’s taking a break, that’s usually his go-to,’ said another aide.” Also loves nachos. Thank you, Yahoo News!
War On Zombie Christmas
• Responding to two anonymous complaints (cowards), officials in Ohio’s Sycamore Township said Tuesday they have ordered Jasen Dixon to take down his 10′ x 10′ zombie-themed Nativity display by Friday because it violates local property maintenance codes. He faces a $1,000 fine (AP, me)

• Dixon said he made the models for the zombie Mary and three wise men and borrowed props to make the Joseph and Jesus zombie figures. The baby Jesus is pale with totally white eyes, while the other life-sized figures are partly skeletal (tasteful)

• Dixon said many people approve of the display, which is lit by red and green lights. He’s got 200 “likes” on a Facebook page. He said that at around 2 am on Tuesday, he discovered three women in his front yard taking selfies with the display in the pouring rain. “I never suspected it to be this big,” Dixon said

• Gene Bickford, the township administrator, said the size and location are the issues. “We’re complaint-driven,” he said, when asked if other displays had been cited this season. “If we were to drive up and down every single street and try to find violations, we’d never get off a street.”

• And for those who just can’t wait, is at it again this year

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______________Victoria Jones

TRNS’ Nicholas Salazar contributed to this report. Thank you to all the TRNS contributors throughout 2014


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