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Democrats Block Anti-BDS Bill in Senate Amid Gov’t Shutdown as GOP Plows Forward

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As the partial government shutdown churns along with no end in sight, a controversial bill that would criminalize pro-Palestinian advocacy has stalled in the Senate as Democrats balk over considering any bill that fails to reopen the government.

On Tuesday night, Senate Democrats blocked the Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act (or S 1) by a 56-44 vote, throwing into question legislation that had previously enjoyed a broad consensus of bipartisan support in the last Congress.

In an attempt to underscore the Republican Party’s pro-Israeli bonafides, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) pushed to take another vote on the package Wednesday, drawing the ire of pro-Palestinian activists.

The act, sponsored by GOP Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), combines four bills that had previously failed to advance in spite of the overwhelmingly hawkish pro-Israeli mood on both sides of the aisle. Flagship Zionist lobby group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), has made ramming through the package its top priority.

Among the items included is one which would enshrine into law the $38-billion military aid package to Tel Aviv over 10 years which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-president Barack Obama had agreed to in the waning days of the Obama administration in 2016. The bill was blocked by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) last year.

Title 4 of the bill is Rubio’s Combating BDS Act, which has come under fire from civil libertarians and rights defenders for its attacks on the constitutional right to free speech, specifically those related to the pro-Palestinian movement to boycott, divest from and sanction the Israeli state. The act gives state and local governments the legal authority to halt business with companies or individual citizens contracting with state or local government who are involved in the boycott of goods originating in Israel or illegally-occupied Palestinian land.

Previous versions of the bill included possible jail time as punishment for U.S. companies participating in boycotts targeting Tel Aviv or illegal Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories when those boycotts were backed by international governmental organizations such as the United Nations. The same would apply to boycotts targeting any other country deemed “friendly” to Washington if the boycott was not sanctioned by the U.S. government.

Twenty-six states, including New York and Texas, have previously adopted laws that would punish companies that boycott Israel, while two federal courts have sided with free speech advocates. The Combating BDS Act would allow states to pursue their own legislation to crack down on pro-Palestinian BDS advocacy.

Last October, a federal judge in Arizona ruled that similar legislation enacted by the Arizona legislature was unconstitutional. The law, passed by the state’s legislature in 2016, required that all businesses contracting with the state submit written pledges that it is not involved in any boycott targeting the Israeli state.

In her opinion on Jordahl et al v. Brnovich et al., U.S. District Judge Diane Humetawa wrote:

A restriction of one’s ability to participate in collective calls to oppose Israel unquestionably burdens the protected expression of companies wishing to engage in such a boycott.

Now reaching day 19, the partial federal shutdown has seen thousands of government employees face either prolonged furlough or work with pay. Throughout the drama, there has been one notable exception to the shutdown – the over 500 members of Congress who are still receiving their pay.

In a statement, ACLU Senior Legislative Counsel Kathleen Ruane told The Intercept:

“In the midst of a partial government shutdown, Democratic and Republican senators have decided that one of their first orders of business next week should be to sneak through a bill that would weaken Americans’ First Amendment protections. The bill, Combatting BDS Act, encourages states to adopt the very same anti-boycott laws that two federal courts blocked on First Amendment grounds. The legislation, like the unconstitutional state anti-boycott laws it condones, sends a message to Americans that they will be penalized if they dare to disagree with their government. We therefore urge senators to vote no on the Combatting BDS Act next week.”

The Combating BDS Act has now become hostage to the dynamics of partisan contention within the U.S. Senate – a possible silver-lining to the ongoing drama surrounding the shutdown.

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Corruption

Chris Cuomo “indefinitely” gone from CNN after his deep role in brother’s sex scandal is revealed

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CNN anchor Chris Cuomo was suspended indefinitely by CNN on Tuesday after it was revealed by the New York Attorney General’s Office that the star anchor, the most popular on the news network, was deeply involved in assisting his scandal-embroiled brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, amid a flurry of sexual harassment allegations that ultimately led to him resigning.

While Chris Cuomo had apologized in the past for advising his brother’s senior aides – effectively shattering the wall typically standing between policymakers and journalists – the thousands of pages released by Attorney General Letitia James show that the anchor played a deeply intimate role in damage control efforts stemming from the accusations.

The network and its top leadership, including president Jeff Zucker, had backed their star anchor to the hilt in recent months despite accumulating info showing Cuomo’s breach of basic journalistic standards. The anchor also had apologized for advising the governor while simultaneously downplaying or omitting the extent of his direct involvement in the scandal.

Late Tuesday, the network released a statement acknowledging that “the documents, which we were not privy to before their public release, raise serious questions.”

“When Chris admitted to us that he had offered advice to his brother’s staff, he broke our rules and we acknowledged that publicly,” the statement explained. “However, these documents point to a greater level of involvement in his brother’s efforts than we previously knew. As a result, we have suspended Chris indefinitely, pending further evaluation.”

Text messages show that Chris Cuomo clamored to play an increasingly direct role in the scandal, ranging from offers to draft statements for his brother to demands that he play a commanding role in strategic matters. Cuomo also looked into potential angles for news reports and researched the women who accused his brother of sexual misconduct.

“Please let me help with the prep,” Cuomo wrote at to his brother’s top aides as evidence damning the governor mounted.

The move to indefinitely suspend the argumentative and charismatic anchor came as a shock to some anchors, who were aware that he was dear to CNN management. CNN president Zucker also declined to discipline him as reports poured in about his misconduct, reports New York Times.

Chris Cuomo had long admitted that for him, the matter was about “family first, job second.”

“I can be objective about just about any topic, but not about my family,” he said on May 20. He also played down his fervent role in the scandal, claiming that he had been haplessly “looped into calls” with the governor’s inner circle, which he claims was a “mistake” that spilled over onto his work life and placed his CNN colleagues in a “bad spot.”

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Corruption

Jeffrey Epstein’s pilot testifies: Clinton, Trump, Prince Andrew among “Lolita Express” passengers

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Jeffrey Epstein’s longtime pilot took the stand on Tuesday, the second day of Ghislaine Maxwell’s trial, and detailed the names of famous passengers who rode in the private jet of the disgraced financier who has been accused of a range of crimes, including sex trafficking minors.

Testifying at the trial of Maxwell, who was Epstein’s girlfriend and alleged co-conspirator, pilot Larry Visoski explained how he met a number of notable and powerful people. The names included Prince Andrew, Donald Trump (before he was president), former President Bill Clinton, Chris Tucker, Kevin Spacey, George Mitchell, violinist Itzhak Perlman, and astronaut John Glenn.

The pilot explained that he met the celebrities over the course of decades while flying Epstein’s Boeing 727 Gulfstream jet — often referred to in media as the “Lolita Express” — as well as helicopters.

“I certainly remember President Trump, but not many people associated with him,” the pilot said during cross-examination by Maxwell’s defense team, adding that the future head of state flew on the plane before he became president in 2016.

Clinton was mentioned as Visoski testified about a meeting with a female singer in the cockpit of the jet before flying off from an airport in Palm Beach, Florida. Visoski claims that he remembered the singer, identified as Jane Doe in the courtroom, by her “piercing blue eyes” and that she didn’t appear to be young at the time.

“You’ll forgive the question, Mr. Visoski, but I think you’ll remember that at the time you saw her, you also remembered she had large breasts. Isn’t that right?” asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Maureen Comey.

“Uh. She was a mature woman,” Visoski answered in response.

According to prosecutors, Jane was 14 years old when she was essentially “recruited” by Maxwell in 1994, not long before Visoski met her in the cockpit.

“I can’t visualize her sitting in the passenger compartment like I would, say, President Clinton. It was so long ago,” the pilot said.

“Jane Doe” also testified on Tuesday and explained how she was eating ice cream at a youth summer camp when Maxwell and Epstein approached her in a friendly manner.

Before long, however, Maxwell allegedly began training her on how to “massage” Epstein.

Eventually, she explained, she took part in orgies involving both Maxwell and Esptein at the late financier’s massive homes in Palm Beach, New York City, and New Mexico.

Prosecutors have depicted Maxwell as the mastermind of a sadistic sex trafficking gang that preyed on young women and underage girls. The U.S. government has alleged that over the span of at least 10 years, from 1994 to 2004, she “assisted, facilitated, and contributed to Jeffrey Epstein’s abuse of minor girls by, among other things, helping Epstein to recruit, groom, and ultimately abuse” the girls and young women.

The British media heiress has pleaded not guilty to the six felony counts.

Epstein, 66, died of apparent suicide during his incarceration at a federal prison in Manhattan while facing a likely prison sentence of up to 45 years on charges of pedophilia and sex trafficking.

According to Visoski, from 1991 until 2019, he regularly flew Epstein to his private island in the Caribbean, Little St. James – an island popularly referred to as “Pedophile Island.”

“Every week to every 10 days if we weren’t elsewhere in the world, but, you know, it was a regular destination,” Visoski said.

Visoski also noted that he remembered Maxwell, a one-time girlfriend of Epstein, as an employee of the late sex criminal – albeit one whose specific role was unclear.

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Ghislaine Maxwell trial begins as Epstein’s shadow looms large

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On Monday, opening arguments began in the widely anticipated federal trial of accused sex trafficker Ghislaine Maxwell, the notorious British socialite who allegedly helped disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein commit a dizzying array of abusive and exploitative acts toward multiple women and girls, including one as young as 14.

Epstein, 66, died of apparent suicide during his incarceration at a federal prison in New York City while facing a potential prison sentence of up to 45 years on charges of pedophilia and sex trafficking.

The Maxwell trial could be a last-ditch opportunity for the government to secure a conviction for the crimes of Epstein, in effect making this the trial that he prevented from ever occurring.

“The shadow of Epstein is going to loom large here,” former federal judge Moira Penza told the New York Times. “The case is obviously going to be about Maxwell, but he’s going to be right at the center of it as well.”

Early Monday, jury selection drew to a close.

The trial won’t be broadcast on television or online, while attendees will be prevented from broadcasting or photographing the trial, reports NPR.

Maxwell, 59, faces charges of grooming multiple minors to engage in illegal sex acts with Epstein, her ex-boyfriend, and sex-trafficking a minor. The indictment accuses the British media heiress of conspiracy, including recruiting one of her partner’s victims to help recruit other girls to be paid to undergo abuse at the hands of Epstein.

On Monday, prosecutors depicted Maxwell, who circulated in wealthy and powerful circles in the U.K. and U.S., as the mastermind of a sadistic sex trafficking gang that preyed on teenage girls. U.S. Attorneys have alleged that over the span of at least 10 years, from 1994 to 2004, she “assisted, facilitated, and contributed to Jeffrey Epstein’s abuse of minor girls by, among other things, helping Epstein to recruit, groom, and ultimately abuse” the girls and young women.

Maxwell has pleaded not guilty to the charges, while her multiple attempts to be released from the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York, have all been shot down.

Prosecutor Laura Pomerantz said Monday that Maxwell was a key component in Epstein’s “pyramid scheme of abuse” and criminal sex acts carried out under the color of respectability, reports BBC.

Pomerantz noted that one accuser befriended by the pair was promised bright opportunities in the future.

Prosecutors will call on witnesses including four alleged victims and experts on sexual abuse and those who can inform the jury about the credibility of the couple’s victims, including those who may not have been aware that they suffered abuse at the time.

Experts say that the prosecution will have their work cut out for them and must refrain from making the trial center too much on Epstein’s crimes rather than those of his alleged co-conspirator Maxwell.

Maxwell’s defense will also have to convince the 12-person jury that she was an unwitting player in Epstein’s game, likely by delving into the details of the deceased criminal’s dealings at the top levels of philanthropy, academia, politics, and high finance.

On Monday, the defense protested Maxwell being held liable for Epstein’s crimes and depicted her situation as being one where “memory, manipulation and money” play crucial roles.

However, federal attorneys have pushed back at the idea that she was a victim of Epstein, as opposed to a willing accomplice.

“The government’s yearslong investigation has not developed any evidence that the defendant was victimized in any way by Jeffrey Epstein,” read court papers that were recently filed by the government.

Prosecutors are expected to draw on Maxwell’s so-called “black book,” which meticulously recorded the friends and contacts of Epstein. The FBI gained possession of the book in 2019 when Epstein’s former butler tried to sell it. The government is confident that the book contains “compelling evidence of her guilt,” according to court filings.

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