12.21.2023

Facts, without motives.
 

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Good morning. It's Thursday, Dec. 21, and we're covering the extradition of a notorious international fugitive, tensions in the East China Sea, and much more. First time reading? Sign up here.

 

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Need To Know
 

Fat Leonard Returns

A Malaysian national at the center of one of the largest US Navy corruption scandals in modern history will be returned to face sentencing after Venezuela agreed to his extradition as part of a prisoner exchange.

 

"Fat Leonard" Francis pleaded guilty in 2015 to running a yearslong bribery scheme, using his port services company to swindle the US Navy out of at least $35M (see overview). Francis provided kickbacks—including cash, travel, sex workers, and more—to Navy officials in exchange for classified information to boost his chance of securing US government contracts. After years of cooperation with prosecutors, Francis escaped house arrest last year and fled to Venezuela just weeks before sentencing. 

 

Ten detained Americans will be released, along with at least 20 Venezuelan political prisoners. In exchange, the US will release a Colombian businessman accused of laundering money for Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

 

While under house arrest, Francis worked with a journalist to secretly tell his side of the story. Listen to the resulting nine-part podcast here.

 

Cross-Strait Relations 

Chinese President Xi Jinping told US President Joe Biden last month that Beijing will seek to reunify with Taiwan while noting the timing is unclear, and China prefers to assume control of Taiwan peacefully, according to reports yesterday. Xi's comments came during a summit in San Francisco—meant to reduce tensions between the US and China (see overview)—and mark the first time he directly conveyed China's stance on Taiwan to Biden.

 

China and Taiwan have had strained relations since 1949; Beijing views Taiwan as part of China, while the self-governing island maintains it is a sovereign nation. The US has long adopted a neutral stance on Taiwan's sovereignty while being committed to ensuring Taiwan has resources to defend itself (the US, for the first time, approved $80M in military aid to Taiwan in August). 

 

US military officials have predicted China may attempt to take Taiwan as soon as 2025, and analysts appear uncertain about Taiwan's military readiness for a potential invasion. China has increased military exercises around Taiwan this year, with a record daily number of warplanes circling the island.  

 

EU Migrant Deal

The European Union’s member states and its high-level institutions agreed to major migration reforms yesterday, the conclusion of a three-year debate finalized amid the continent’s highest migration levels since 2016. The New Pact on Migration and Asylum, which awaits formal ratification, comes six months before the next parliamentary elections (see how the EU works).

 

The pact reportedly streamlines deportation protocols and permits the use of detention centers at EU borders for migrants awaiting evaluation—key demands from some member states facing domestic calls to clamp down on migration. It also creates incentives for nonborder countries to receive an allocation of migrants to relieve border countries receiving the bulk of irregular entries. Many refugee rights groups condemned the reform, claiming it will exacerbate the dangers refugees face in seeking asylum.

 

The news comes after US border officials closed several major trade crossings in Texas and Arizona this week amid a surge in migrants. See a deep dive into global migration trends here

In partnership with The Ascent

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In The Know
 

Sports, Entertainment, & Culture

> Warner Bros. Discovery and Paramount in talks for potential global merger; the combined valuation of the two media giants is over $38B (More) | Media mogul Byron Allen offers to buy BET Media from Paramount for $3.5B (More)

> Georgia, Alabama, and Ohio State highlight top 2024 recruiting classes for college football's national signing day (More)

> Former NBA player Chance Comanche admits to Dec. 6 murder of woman in Las Vegas just hours after finishing an NBA G League game (More)

 

Science & Technology

> Study finds all major AI models were trained on datasets containing some amount of explicit images of children; advocates push for safeguards to prevent its use in image generation (More)

> Scientists discover new class of drugs effective against antibiotic-resistant staph infection, responsible for 10,000 US deaths annually (More)

> First direct evidence linking marine weather—dynamics in the ocean like waves and turbulence—with global climate observed by researchers (More)

 

Business & Markets

> US stock markets close lower (S&P 500 -1.5%, Dow -1.3%, Nasdaq -1.5%); S&P 500 marks worst day since Sept. 26, with FedEx shares falling 12% after cutting its full-year revenue forecast (More) | US consumer confidence index rises in December to five-month high (More)

> Electric scooter company Bird files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, will sell some of its assets to existing lenders; Bird, founded in 2017, went public in 2021 via special purpose acquisition company merger (More)

> Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick to step down Dec. 29; leadership change expected as part of Microsoft's acquisition of the video game company (More)

 

Politics & World Affairs

In partnership with Tangle

> Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh meets with Egyptian officials over cease-fire talks (More) | Death toll in Gaza surpasses 20,000 people, according to Hamas-run Health Ministry, while death toll in Israel stands near 1,400; see war updates (More

> Former President Donald Trump asks US Supreme Court to delay considering whether he is immune from federal prosecution in an election interference case while a federal appeals court weighs the issue (More) | Judge allows removal of Confederate memorial in Arlington National Cemetery to resume (More)

> Atmospheric river event prompts Southern California to prepare for flood threat, heaviest rainfall since August's Hurricane Hilary ahead of holiday weekend (More

From our partners: Tired of biased, one-sided political news? We have a fresh solution. Tangle is an independent, non-partisan politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from the right, left, and center on one big debate every day. In the last week, they've covered the Texas abortion case, the impeachment inquiry into Joe Biden, and the climate change conference in Dubai. You read, then you get to make up your own mind. Sign up for free to get a 360-degree political read.

 

In-Depth

> The Road to Rejuvenation 

UCSF Magazine | Christina Hernandez Sherwood. Stem cells, brain-boosting hormones, and more—researchers are zeroing in on potential ways to extend our healthy life spans. (Read)

 

> Here Comes Mickey

Duke Law | Jennifer Jenkins. On Jan. 1, 2024, Walt Disney's earliest depictions of Mickey Mouse will enter the public domain. Here's what you can (and can't) do with the revered cartoon character. (Read)

In partnership with The Ascent

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Etcetera
 

Welcome to the official beginning of winter.

 

... and photos of what winter used to look like

 

Geese replace dogs as prison guards in Brazil.

 

A collection of stories drawn on the back of coffee receipts.

 

Capturing the beauty of eggnog cartons

 

... and the history behind Italy's eggnog war.

 

What it's like to live in a Hallmark Christmas movie town

 

Why reindeer have blue eyes in the winter.

 

Clickbait: The most adorable elf this side of the North Pole

 

Historybook: "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" premieres (1937); F. Scott Fitzgerald dies (1940); Track and field star Florence Griffith Joyner born (1959); French President Emmanuel Macron born (1977); Bomb explodes on Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 (1988).

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- F. Scott Fitzgerald, from "The Offshore Pilot"

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