So much for a holiday truce. Presidential hopefuls gathered in Las Vegas last night for their fifth rhetorical showdown, tackling immigration, terror and the battle against ISIS. Jeb Bush stood firm against front-runner Donald Trump over his proposal to bar Muslims from entering the United States, while sparks flew between junior senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. The Texas politician held his ground, albeit with a little less fire than previous debates, while his Florida-based colleague flexed his foreign policy know-how — performances that should serve both well.
The Presidential Daily Brief
They’re sending everyone home. Buses were turned back and all 640,000 students in the nation’s second-largest school district were told to stay away after what the superintendent of schools described as a “credible” threat involving bombs and backpacks at several local campuses. He said he’s not taking any chances given recent events like the Paris terrorist attacks in November and the shooting of 14 people in San Bernardino, California, less than two weeks ago. Schools will reopen tomorrow after officials can systemically search hundreds of schools.
He’s seeking common ground. The American secretary of state is visiting the Russian capital and hoping to make progress toward a united approach to Syria’s conflict. While Putin supports Assad, the U.S., its allies and most of the Syrian rebels on the ground want him gone. Kerry meets today with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and later with Putin himself. Meanwhile, Obama told the Pentagon yesterday that the U.S. is intensifying efforts to quash ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and he sent a message to jihadi leaders: “You are next.”
They’re throwing the book at him. Gen. Robert Abrams has ordered that the former Taliban captive face a court-martial on desertion charges. Bergdahl abandoned his post in Afghanistan in 2009, prompting a military manhunt and resulting in the 29-year-old being held captive for five years by extremists. An earlier Army investigation had ruled that prison would be “inappropriate” for the former kidnapping victim, but Abrams’ decision means Bergdahl — whose case is being explored in the second season of the hugely popular podcast Serial — could face life behind bars.
She’s not taking power, but she’s not going to jail either. French far-right leader Marine Le Pen was charged with hate speech last year after a 2010 speech where she told a crowd of supporters that Muslims praying in the streets — a phenomenon many attribute to a lack of mosques — amounted to “an occupation.” Now she’s been acquitted — but the anti-immigration iconoclast must still grapple with her party’s defeat over the weekend in regional elections and looming charges of campaign finance fraud.
Is the third time the charm? The first two Affordable Care Act enrollments saw 17.6 million Americans register for health insurance, according to senior presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett. The third enrollment period opened Nov. 1, and the administration has been rallying 20 underinsured U.S. cities to compete to sign up the most new participants. So far, Milwaukee’s leading the pack, with health officials reporting “unprecedented demand.” Jarrett encourages folks to register today to ensure they’re covered as of New Year’s Day, but open enrollment officially ends on Jan. 31.
They’ve got ’em over a barrel. Oil hit a seven-year low yesterday in Asian markets thanks to a worldwide glut that has pushed prices south by 11 percent in a week. This is raising flags over oil and gas firms’ ability to repay debts, and banks that lend to now-stalled U.S. shale drillers are on alert. Meanwhile, investors are exercising caution in the run-up to tomorrow’s anticipated Federal Reserve rate hike, which many hope will woo folks away from emerging markets and back to the United States.
Comedian Bill Cosby countersues accusers of sexual misconduct. (NPR)
Federal Reserve begins highly anticipated rate hike meeting. (USA Today)
Controversial border control plans loom in EU. (BBC)
Typhoon Melor kills one, weakens as it crosses Philippines. (AP)
Officials: Maryland man provided material support to ISIS. (NBC)
French police arrest suspect connected to Nov. 13 attacks. (BBC)
Has the balance been restored? After astronomical hype, The Force Awakens premiered last night at the Chinese Theater, home of the original film’s debut in 1977. A hundred lucky fans who’d been camped out for days were rewarded with tickets, joining Hollywood luminaries (some in costume) including co-stars Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher. Reviews are embargoed until tomorrow, but hopes are high that it’ll restore the sci-fi saga to its pre-Phantom Menace glory and smash box office records when it goes into wide release tomorrow night.
He’d be the “healthiest individual ever elected.” So says the real estate mogul’s doctor in assessing the GOP candidate’s well-being. Providing few details and only one lab result, Dr. Harold Bornstein, who’s been Trump’s physician for 35 years, said the NYC native abstains from alcohol and tobacco, has lost 15 pounds in the past year and has an “excellent” cardiovascular status. If he wins, Trump would take office at age 70 as the oldest first-term president ever elected … and luckily with a doctor’s note already in hand.
This might hurt. New figures reveal that American use of narcotic painkillers has increased tenfold in the last 20 years, and that a whopping 2.1 million suffer from substance use disorders linked to prescribed pain meds. Primary care physicians pushed 28.1 million pill-popping prescriptions in 2013, with nurses and assistants ordering 7 million more. Stanford researchers say doctors and patients alike must learn not to use Vicodin as a band-aid, and the CDC is drafting non-binding guidelines on opioid prescriptions: They’re accepting public comments through Jan. 13.
He wants to be friends. Putin may be ramping up muted hostilities with the West over Syria, but he’s buddying up elsewhere. Moscow is expanding investments across Africa, boosting trade to the tune of $1.6 billion worth of African imports, and digging deep to harness mineral resources from places like Angola while searching for alternative energy sources. Russia’s work with Algeria’s state gas company could give it control of nearly 40 percent of Europe’s gas consumption — clearly signaling Putin’s intention of gaining greater global power.
He’s courting compassion. Bill Kennedy, an 18-year veteran referee, announced that he’s gay after being subjected to homophobic slurs from Sacramento’s Rajon Rondo during a Dec. 3 game. Kennedy, the first male NBA ref to come out, said he wanted to send a message to young people to not be ashamed of their sexuality. Rondo has been suspended for one game over the incident. The 29-year-old point guard tweeted yesterday that he didn’t mean any disrespect and that his remarks don’t reflect his feelings toward the LGBT community.