Sunday, 27 Sep 2020

British Ambassador, Epstein, Merkel: Your Thursday Briefing

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Good morning.

We’re covering the confusing environment for diplomats in Washington, doubts about Jeffrey Epstein’s wealth and the oldest Homo sapiens fossil ever found in Europe.

Flap over leaked cables: ‘It could have been any of us’

Members of the Washington diplomatic corps agreed that the cables Sir Kim Darroch, the British ambassador who resigned yesterday, wrote to London describing the dysfunction and chaos of the Trump administration sounded a lot like their own.

“Yes, yes, everyone does,” Gérard Araud, who retired this spring as the French ambassador, said of his own missives. “It could have been any of us,” said another ambassador, who is still serving and therefore spoke on condition of anonymity.

Environment: Foreign diplomats say Trump-era Washington is something of a black hole, in which crucial American decisions affecting their nations’ trade or troops are delivered without notice.

What’s next: There will be a new British ambassador, presumably appointed after Parliament selects a new prime minister.

Audio suggests Russians planned to fund Salvini’s party

New evidence emerged that a close aide to Matteo Salvini met with Russian officials last year to discuss a plan to secretly finance Mr. Salvini’s hard-right League party with Russian money ahead of the European elections.

The Italian magazine l’Espresso broke the story in February. Mr. Salvini repeatedly denied it, but yesterday, Buzzfeed News published a recording that seemed to confirm it. The audio’s authenticity could not be independently confirmed.

Big picture: The recording does not seem to pose an immediate threat to Mr. Salvini’s hold on power. But it does raise new questions about Russia’s willingness to meddle in Europe, and the willingness of pro-Russian nationalists in the heart of Western Europe to accept that help.

Reminder: This isn’t the first incident of its kind. In May, the Austrian government fell after a video showed a right-wing politician discussing how public contracts could be awarded in exchange for Russian support. (That meeting was a setup.)

Are Jeffrey Epstein’s ‘billions’ a mirage?

Jeffrey Epstein, who is facing sex-trafficking charges in New York, is routinely described as a billionaire and a brilliant financier. He has rubbed elbows with the powerful, including former and future presidents.

But much of the splendor he has described over the decades appears to be an illusion: There is little evidence that Mr. Epstein is a billionaire. His wealth may have depended on the patronage of two men — Steven Hoffenberg, a notorious fraudster convicted of running a $460 million Ponzi scheme, and Leslie Wexner, the billionaire founder of retail chains including Victoria’s Secret.

Mr. Epstein lost large sums of money in the financial crisis. And friends and patrons — including Mr. Wexner — deserted him after he pleaded guilty to soliciting prostitution in 2008.

Deutsche Bank: He appears to have been doing business and trading currencies through Deutsche Bank until just a few months ago, according to two people familiar with his business activities. But as the possibility of federal charges loomed, the bank ended its client relationship with Mr. Epstein.

Context: Mr. Epstein, 66, is doubtless very rich: His real estate holdings alone are worth more than $200 million. And his investment firm reported having $88 million in capital from its shareholders in 2002.

French tax on tech giants may lead to U.S. tariffs

The Trump administration said it would investigate whether a French plan to impose a tax on big American technology companies — expected to pass the Senate today — amounts to an unfair trade practice that could be punished with tariffs.

France has proposed a 3 percent tax on the revenue some companies earn from providing digital services to French users, a measure that would include Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. The U.S. trade representative said the tax unfairly targeted American companies.

Context: To investigate the matter, the U.S. is using the same mechanism President Trump employed to ultimately impose sweeping tariffs on China.

Impact: The development threatens to further stoke tensions with the European Union, which Mr. Trump has already threatened with auto tariffs.

If you have some time, this is worth it

Are elephants really better off in zoos?

When elephants are relocated to zoos, it is often promoted as a rescue from a drought-stricken landscape with limited resources. But elephants’ high intelligence makes them vulnerable to the same ills that trouble imprisoned humans: depression, manic pacing and heightened aggression.

At a time when rising awareness of animals’ sentience has some people questioning the very existence of zoos, no creature’s captivity has caused more controversy than the elephant’s.

Here’s what else is happening

Persian Gulf: Five boats thought to belong to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps approached a British oil tanker in the Gulf on Wednesday and asked it to stop in Iranian waters, but withdrew after a warning from a British warship, U.S. officials said.

Angela Merkel: The German chancellor was seen shaking uncontrollably in public for the third time in less than a month. She attributed it to psychological trauma from the first episode, which her aides attributed to dehydration.

Iran nuclear deal: The U.S. accused Iran of “nuclear extortion” and threatened to impose more sanctions on the country, which has begun stockpiling and enriching uranium beyond the limits set in the 2015 accord that President Trump has abandoned.

Deutsche Bank: Federal prosecutors are investigating the bank’s role in a scheme that looted a Malaysian government fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB.

China: Twenty-two countries issued a statement urging China to stop the mass detention of ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims in its western Xinjiang region, the first concerted international challenge to a policy Beijing has vigorously defended at the United Nations.

Britain: Alexa, Amazon’s voice assistant service, now offers British users medical advice straight from the National Health Service. But the partnership has prompted questions about medical privacy. (Amazon said none of the information would be shared with third parties.)

Fossil discovery: A skull fragment found in southern Greece dates back more than 210,000 years and is the oldest fossil of Homo sapiens ever discovered in Europe, scientists reported. The finding may revise theories about the history of our species.

Snapshot: Above, the bright blue waters near Novosibirsk, Russia, provide a perfect backdrop for many Instagram influencers. But the lake is actually a man-made waste site for a power plant.

Wimbledon: Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal both won on Wednesday and will face each other in the semifinals on Friday, their first match at the tournament in 11 years. The other semifinal pits Novak Djokovic against Roberto Bautista Agut.

What we’re reading: This short piece in The Verge. Adam Pasick, our newsletter editorial director, recommends its look at Japan, “where on-demand car rentals are so cheap that people use them for naps, short-term luggage storage, lunch eating and even smartphone charging.”

Now, a break from the news

Cook: This one-pan shrimp scampi takes the garlicky, buttery pan sauce and uses it to cook orzo.

Listen: The latest curveball from the Spanish pop phenomenon Rosalía is “Money Man” (we left out the first word), an ambivalent romp and lament about the power of money. It’s two songs in a two-part video.

Watch: In “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” Peter Parker deals with teenage angst and lingering Stark Industries H.R. issues while trying to enjoy a trip to Europe.

Read: “Pan’s Labyrinth: The Labyrinth of the Faun,” by Guillermo del Toro and Cornelia Funke, is based on the 2006 film. It debuts on our young adult hardcover best-seller list.

Smarter Living: Strategic packing can streamline travel. The first rule is not to bring too much, so give yourself a hard limit, with a hard-sided suitcase. (If it’s no more than 22 inches tall, it can work as a carry-on.) Lay out what you think you’ll need, then edit ruthlessly.

And we look at why women might have prenatal and postpartum night sweats — and what to do about them.

And now for the Back Story on …

Weather records

Climate reports often say that a particular period was the warmest (or coldest) or wettest (or driest) “on record.” We asked Henry Fountain, a reporter on the Climate desk, to explain.

In this era of global warming, there’s always a record of one kind or another to write about, from record low sea ice in the Arctic to record rainfall in Houston.

Last week, a European weather forecasting agency reported that we had just had the hottest June on record. But what does that mean, exactly?

People have been measuring temperatures for centuries. But as science and technology boomed in the 19th century, weather station networks began proliferating in the U.S., then in Britain, the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe.

The arrival of the telegraph enabled data to be shared across long distances, and networks followed in many other places. That fueled the new science of forecasting, which enabled the shipping industry to navigate storms.

By the latter part of the 19th century, there were enough weather stations covering enough parts of the world to provide readings that could be reliably used to analyze worldwide temperature trends.

So most scientists say global temperature records “began” in 1880, the year of the establishment of an International Meteorological Organization.

That’s it for this briefing. See you next time.

— Melina

Thank you
William Lamb helped compile today’s briefing. Mark Josephson and Eleanor Stanford wrote the break from the news. You can reach the team at [email protected]

• We’re listening to “The Daily.” Our latest episode is on American Republicans’ efforts to elect women.
• Here’s today’s Mini Crossword puzzle, and a clue: Two-word denial (5 letters). You can find all our puzzles here.
• @NYT_first_said is a Twitter bot that, beginning in 2017, has logged the first appearance of words in The New York Times. It was created by Max Bittker, a 24-year-old Google software engineer.

Melina Delkic writes the Europe edition of the Morning Briefing. @MelinaDelkic

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