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TikTok Refuses to Testify at Hearing About Chinese Influence Amid National Security Investigation

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  • TikTok denied requests by Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) to testify under oath during a Tuesday Congressional hearing concerning fears that the Chinese-owned social media platform is sharing U.S. user data with the Chinese government.
  • According to reports, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S opened a national security investigation into TikTok’s $1 billion purchase of Musical.ly in 2017.
  • For its part, TikTok has repeatedly said that its servers are all outside of China, and therefore, outside of Chinese law. Because of this, it also says it does not censor content.

Sen. Hawley Invites TikTok to Testify

Executives for the social media platform TikTok refused to testify at a Congressional hearing on Tuesday amid ongoing fears that it may pose a national security risk regarding Chinese counter-intelligence.

On Friday, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States reportedly opened an investigation into TikTok, which was created as an international version of the app Douyin and is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance. According to anonymous sources, the investigation involves TikTok’s 2017 $1 billion acquisition of Musical.ly.

Both the hearing and the investigation are the latest in a series of concerns that TikTok is sharing American data with China’s Communist Party, particularly that is sharing the data it collects on users’ locations and censoring content.

Tuesday’s hearing organized by Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) focused on two main concerns. The first was business deals between American tech companies and the Chinese government and the second was rapidly growing Chinese companies in America and how they collect U.S. user data.

“[As] these Big Tech companies try to get into the Chinese market, the compromises that they have to make with the Communist Chinese Party — who, let’s not forget, partner with or control every industry of any size in China — what does that do to American security?” Hawley told Axios ahead of the hearing. 

Also prior to the hearing, Hawley blasted TikTok’s decision to decline appearing in a series of tweets. 

Hawley has also been a vocal critic surrounding China’s influence over Hong Kong, having visited the city last month and co-sponsoring the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.

Is TikTok Sending Americans’ Data to the Chinese Government?

Last month, Senator Marco Rubio actually asked the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to open an investigation into TikTok because of concerns that the platform was censoring content. 

A couple of weeks later, Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Tom Cotton (R-AR) then echoed those concerns by asking U.S. Intelligence officials to open a national security review of the platform.

“With over 110 million downloads in the U.S. alone, TikTok is a potential counterintelligence threat we cannot ignore,” both Schumer and Cotton said in a joint statement. “Given these concerns, we ask that the Intelligence Community conduct an assessment of the national security risks posed by TikTok and other China-based content platforms operating in the U.S. and brief Congress on these findings.”

TikTok representatives responded in a blog post the next day saying, “We store all TikTok US user data in the United States, with backup redundancy in Singapore. Our data centers are located entirely outside of China, and none of our data is subject to Chinese law.

“Let us be very clear: TikTok does not remove content based on sensitivities related to China,” the statement read. “We have never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content and we would not do so if asked. Period.”

Despite TikTok’s assurance that China does not intercept its data, Schumer and Cotton said they fear that TikTok “is still required to adhere to the laws of China” and that could “compel Chinese companies to support and cooperate with intelligence work controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.”

U.S. Opens Investigation into TikTok

Following reports that the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States had opened a national security investigation, TikTok declined to speak on the confidential matter, but it did issue a statement. 

“While we cannot comment on ongoing regulatory processes,” the statement reads, “TikTok has made clear that we have no higher priority than earning the trust of users and regulators in the U.S. Part of that effort includes working with Congress and we are committed to doing so.”

Schumer then praised the news of the probe, saying it was “validation of our concern that apps like TikTok…may pose serious risks to millions of Americans and deserve greater scrutiny.”

Similar Concerns Over Apple

TikTok isn’t the only social media platform under fire. Hawley also invited Apple to Tuesday’s hearing, but like TikTok, it denied the request.

Regarding Apple, Hawley is particularly interested in the tech giant’s business deals with China and where it stores encryption keys for iCloud data.

“My question is, are they storing encryption keys in China? “ Hawley asked ahead of the hearing. “The answer to that is yes. Then what kind of data are they storing in China? Whose data? Any American data? What about people who have Chinese relatives or business partners or other ventures, so they’re communicating with people in China? Does that expose American users to potential surveillance by the Chinese state?”

Although Apple did not directly respond to Hawley’s question, in the past, it has said that it retains its encryption keys, not its Chinese partner.

See what others are saying: (Axios) (Washington Post) (BBC)

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Highlights From the Nevada Democratic Debate

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  • Six 2020 presidential candidates took the stage at the Democratic Debate in Nevada ahead of the state’s highly anticipated caucus this Saturday.
  • Here are some highlights from Wednesday’s debate.

Candidates Target Bloomberg

Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg made his first debate appearance, and the other candidates used it as an opportunity to target the controversial political figure right out of the gate.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) all went after Bloomberg in their opening statements.

Sanders and Biden criticized the mayor for expanding New York City’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy, which gave police the authority to stop and search anyone they suspected of committing a crime and disproportionately targeted people of color.

Warren, for her part, had some of the sharpest rebukes of the former mayor.

“I’d like to talk about who we’re running against, a billionaire who calls women ‘fat broads’ and ‘horse-faced lesbians.’ And, no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg,” she said.

“Democrats are not going to win if we have a nominee who has a history of hiding his tax returns, of harassing women, and of supporting racist policies like redlining and stop-and-frisk,” she continued. “Look, I’ll support whoever the Democratic nominee is. But understand this: Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another.”

Bloomberg’s Nondisclosure Agreements

Warren also questioned Bloomberg’s record with sexual harassment after a moderator asked him about “sexually suggestive remarks” he had made when confronted about the fact that several former employees of his company had described the workplace as hostile for women.

“The mayor has to stand on his record. And what we need to know is exactly what’s lurking out there. He has gotten some number of women, dozens, who knows, to sign nondisclosure agreements both for sexual harassment and for gender discrimination in the workplace,” she said. 

“So, Mr. Mayor, are you willing to release all of those women from those nondisclosure agreements, so we can hear their side of the story?” she asked.

“We have a very few nondisclosure agreements,” he responded. 

“None of them accuse me of doing anything, other than maybe they didn’t like a joke I told,” he continued. “There’s agreements between two parties that wanted to keep it quiet and that’s up to them. They signed those agreements, and we’ll live with it.”

Warren continued to push Bloomberg to release the individuals from their nondisclosures, a demand that was eventually echoed by Biden. 

 Klobuchar and Buttigieg Spar

Warren was not the only person who sparred with the other candidates.

Another notable moment from the night came from a tense interaction between Klobuchar and Buttigieg, after one of the moderators asked Klobuchar about an interview from last week where she was unable to remember the name of the president of Mexico and had trouble discussing his policies.

Klobuchar said that a moment of forgetfulness did not reflect what she knows about Mexico. 

“I said that I made an error,” she added. “I think having a president that maybe is humble and is able to admit that here and there maybe wouldn’t be a bad thing.” 

Buttigieg, however, saw it as an opportunity to pounce.

“But you’re staking your candidacy on your Washington experience. You’re on the committee that oversees border security. You’re on the committee that does trade,” he said. “You’re literally in part of the committee that’s overseeing these things and were not able to speak to literally the first thing about the politics of the country to our south.”

“Are you trying to say that I’m dumb? Or are you mocking me here, Pete?” Klobuchar responded. 

“I have passed over 100 bills as the lead Democrat since being in the U.S. Senate. I am the one, not you, that has won statewide in congressional district after congressional district,” she continued. “And I will say, when you tried in Indiana, Pete, to run, what happened to you? You lost by over 20 points.”

Buttigieg Goes After Sanders’ Supporters 

Buttigieg, who is competing with Sanders for the title of frontrunner after the elections New Hampshire, also used his time on stage to attack Sanders and his supporters.

Sanders supporters, also known as “Bernie Bros,” have come under fire recently for their response to a flyer made by Nevada’s Culinary Workers Union that said Sanders would “end Culinary Healthcare” under his Medicare-for-all policy.

After posting the flyer on Twitter, the union accused Sanders’ supporters of “viciously” attacking members of the group, and the organization’s top leaders told reporters they received threatening phone calls, emails, and tweets and that their personal information was doxxed.

“We have over 10.6 million people on Twitter, and 99.9 percent of them are decent human beings, are working people, are people who believe in justice, compassion, and love,” Sander’s said of his supporters. “And if there are a few people who make ugly remarks, who attack trade union leaders, I disown those people. They are not part of our movement.” 

“Senator, when you say that you disown these attacks and you didn’t personally direct them, I believe you,” Buttigieg said. “But at a certain point, you got to ask yourself, why did this pattern arise? Why is it especially the case among your supporters that this happens?”

“I think you have to accept some responsibility and ask yourself what it is about your campaign in particular that seems to be motivating this behavior more than others,” he continued. 

See what others are saying: (TIME) (NPR) (Vox)

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Court Rules Florida Can’t Bar Felons From Voting Over Unpaid Fines and Fees

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  • On Wednesday, a federal appeals court in Florida upheld an injunction on a law that bans felons from voting if they haven’t paid their legal fees. 
  • In 2018, Florida voters passed Amendment 4, which granted ex-felons the right to vote once they’ve completed all terms of their sentence. 
  • Then, in 2019, Florida’s legislature and Rep. Gov. Ron DeSantis passed a law mandating former felons to pay all court costs before getting access to voting polls.
  • With the help of voting rights groups, 17 felons sued DeSantis and other state officials in an effort to overturn this law.
  • The latest ruling only applies to the 17 felons in the lawsuit, but it is still seen as a victory for all Florida felons who wish to vote.

Injunction Upheld

A federal appeals court in Florida said on Wednesday that for now, felons can no longer be barred from voting if they haven’t paid fines or fees from their cases. 

A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a preliminary injunction of a state law that requires convicted felons to settle all legal fines and fees before they are able to get reinstated to vote. The panel agreed to suspend the law until there’s a final ruling on it. 

The decision of the appeals court only applies to the 17 felons who sued Rep. Gov. Ron DeSantis and other state officials in an effort to overturn the law. The plaintiffs and the voting rights groups that represent them argued that the legislation equates to an unfair poll tax.

The appeals court judges agreed, and said that the legal financial obligations (LFOs) law “punishes those who cannot pay more harshly than those who can—and does so by continuing to deny them access to the ballot box.”

While Wednesday’s ruling only applies to the 17 felons in the lawsuit, it is still seen as a victory for all Florida felons. A trial for the plaintiffs is still pending but slated to begin in April, and that’s when the overall constitutionality of the LFO law will be decided.

“This is a tremendous win for our clients and for our democracy,” Sean Morales-Doyle, a senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice, told NBC.

Background on Felon Voting Restrictions

Until recently, Florida automatically prohibited all felons from the right to vote ever again. This changed in late 2018 when an overwhelming majority of Florida voters passed Amendment 4, which granted ex-felons the right to vote once they’ve completed all terms of their sentence. Those with murder or felony sex convictions were exempt from this change. 

The passing of Amendment 4 restored voting rights to an estimated 1.4 million people. 

Last year, the Republican-led legislature and Gov. DeSantis passed the law that mandated that former felons pay all court costs before getting access to voting polls.

Supporters of the LFO law argued that Amendment 4 was not meant to restore voting rights for all felons, but only those who have “paid their debt to society,” including monetary fees.  

Helen Aguirre Ferré, the Communications Director for DeSantis, responded to the Wednesday decision in a tweet.

“We disagree and will appeal en banc,” Ferré said. 

Looking Ahead to 2020 Election

The recent ruling is especially significant as the 2020 presidential election approaches. Wednesday’s decision means that the 17 plaintiffs in the lawsuit are eligible to vote in Florida’s presidential primary next month, though other felons with outstanding legal fines or fees are still not.

However, it is possible that by the end of the upcoming April trial, the legal financial requirement law will be deemed unconstitutional, which will allow all Florida felons to vote whether or not they’ve paid the fines and fees from their cases. But if that’s the case, DeSantis and the defendants are still likely to appeal that ruling as well to a higher court.

It is unclear how this is all going to end. Some believe that the courts will move quickly to get it settled before the 2020 election, but the timeline is not fully set. Many expect that this particular case could be taken all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and ultimately be decided on there. 

See what others are saying: (Washington Post) (NBC) (Wall Street Journal)

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Attorney General Barr’s Credibility Questioned Over Roger Stone Case

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  • Attorney General William Barr is facing backlash over his decision to overrule the sentence recommendation for Roger Stone, a close ally of President Trump, after Trump tweeted that the suggested sentence was “unfair.” 
  • Both Barr and Trump have said the decision was made independently and before Trump’s tweet, but accusations that Barr intervened in Trump’s favor have continued.
  • A group of 2,000 DOJ officials signed a letter condemning Barr and calling for him to resign.
  • Barr defended his decision in an interview with ABC, but he said Trump’s tweets made it “impossible” for him to do his job. 

Barr Overrules Prosecutors in Stone Case

Challenges to Attorney General William Barr’s credibility have escalated over the last week following his decision to overrule a sentence recommendation for Roger Stone, a longtime advisor and friend of President Donald Trump.

The sentence recommendation, announced by Justice Department prosecutors Wednesday, suggested that Stone serve seven to nine years in jail for the seven charges of witness tampering and lying to Congress that he was found guilty of in November.

The indictments stemmed from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Following the announcement, Trump responded to the charges in a tweet, calling them “horrible and very unfair” before adding, “Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!”

Shortly after that, the Justice Department announced that it was changing the sentence recommendation. An anonymous DOJ official told the Washington Post that the recommendation was “not what had been briefed to the department.”

“The department finds the recommendation extreme and excessive and disproportionate to Stone’s offenses,” the official added.

Following the announcement, four prosecutors withdrew from the Stone case. One of the four prosecutors quit his job at the DOJ altogether. 

The department’s highly unusual decision to overrule career lawyers was criticized by many, including former DOJ officials under both Democrat and Republican administrations, who accused Barr of intervening in Trump’s favor to lighten the sentence recommendation for an ally of the president.

The Justice Department, for its part, defended the move.

A spokeswoman for the department told reporters that DOJ officials did not discuss the stone case with the White House and that the decision to overrule the recommendation was made before Trump’s tweet.

Trump also denied the claims that he directed the DOJ to change its recommendation, though he later congratulated Barr on Twitter, prompting more allegations of political interference. 

Barr’s ABC Interview

Barr defended his actions regarding the Stone case in an interview with ABC on Thursday. The Attorney General reiterated that his staff made the decision before Trump’s tweets and denied that Trump played a role in it.

However, in an unusual rebuke of the president, Barr also said that Trump’s tweet complicated the situation and that the incident “illustrates how disruptive these tweets can be.” 

“The president has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case,” Barr said. “However, to have public statements and tweets made about the department, about people in the department, our men and women here, about cases pending in the department and about judges before whom we have cases make it impossible for me to do my job.”

“I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me,” he added.

Trump, however, did not seem to be deterred by the attorney general’s remarks.

“The President wasn’t bothered by the comments at all and he has the right, just like any American citizen, to publicly offer his opinions,” White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said in a statement.

Trump, for his part, has continued to tweet about the case, going on the offensive Tuesday morning and threatening to sue “everyone” involved in the special counsel’s inquiry.

“Everything having to do with this fraudulent investigation is badly tainted and, in my opinion, should be thrown out,” he said. “The whole deal was a total SCAM. If I wasn’t President, I’d be suing everyone all over the place… BUT MAYBE I STILL WILL. WITCH HUNT!”

Trump also tweeted comments made by Fox News commentator Andrew Napolitano, who said that Stone’s defense team asked for a second trial because a member of the jury was biased against Trump. Because of that, Napolitano said, “almost any judge in the country would order a new trial.”

Letter From Former DOJ Officials.

Barr has still continued to face mounting criticisms and incredulity regarding his credibility.

Since Sunday, a bipartisan group of more than 2,000 former DOJ officials have signed a letter condemning both Trump and Barr and calling on Barr to resign.

“Mr. Barr’s actions in doing the President’s personal bidding unfortunately speak louder than his words,” the letter states. “Those actions, and the damage they have done to the Department of Justice’s reputation for integrity and the rule of law, require Mr. Barr to resign.”

Such behavior is a grave threat to the fair administration of justice,” the officials continue. “In this nation, we are all equal before the law. A person should not be given special treatment in a criminal prosecution because they are a close political ally of the President.” 

“Governments that use the enormous power of law enforcement to punish their enemies and reward their allies are not constitutional republics; they are autocracies.”

See what others are saying: (CNN) (The Washington Post) (Fox News)

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