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A secretary of State walks into a bar: Mixed reviews after Blinken rocks out in Kyiv

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A secretary of State walks into a bar: Mixed reviews after Blinken rocks out in Kyiv

Was it guitar-hero time? Or a tone-deaf attempt at wartime solidarity?

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken garnered some mixed reviews in the Ukrainian capital on Wednesday after busting out his ’80s-rock chops at a bedraggled but beloved Kyiv bar.

Some Ukrainians cheered Tuesday night’s packed-house performance as a show of warmth and support at a gloomy and frightening moment in Ukraine’s war against invading Russian forces.

For others, though, the top U.S. diplomat’s basement-bar gig with the local band 19.99 — who delivered a heartfelt but not-always-tuneful cover of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” — struck a discordant note.

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Blinken’s drop-in appearance at the cellar-level Barman Diktat nightspot — impromptu-seeming but carefully planned, with watchful security in attendance — came at what military analysts are describing as a particularly perilous point in the more than two-year-old war.

Russian troops have staged a major cross-border assault in the country’s northeast corner, and the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, is under greater threat than since the start of the war. Thousands of Ukrainians have fled the latest fighting, and even far from the front lines, dread and anxiety are running high.

Much of the social-media commentary reacting to Blinken’s rhythm-guitar riff was lighthearted in tone, centering on jokes and memes. But it also generated some expressions of dismay.

The appearance “can be described in one word: inappropriateness,” Svitlana Matvienko, the executive director of an NGO called the Agency for Legislative Initiatives, wrote on Facebook.

Matvienko said she was thankful for U.S. and allied military aid, but that she was “offended by this performance, as a Ukrainian citizen whose loved ones are giving up everything so that we can resist.”

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Others, though, saw a nod to a culture of wartime defiance that finds an outlet in the capital’s club scene, a Europe-wide magnet before the Russian invasion — which now serves as a pressure valve in dark times.

“I thought it was kind of like, he’s a big politician and he plays rock music in a bar — cool, why not?” said Mariia Lobyntseva, 27, an artist in Kyiv. “Young people can’t stop going out and letting off steam at bars. It’s necessary for us.”

The bar in question, located in an alley off Kyiv’s main drag, has been a popular venue for many years, although the name has changed a few times.

On most nights, there’s a live band on the small stage in the far side of the cavernous room. Musical offerings can vary widely: a string quartet from the National Philharmonic of Ukraine one night, a jazz ensemble on another.

Kyiv still maintains a wartime curfew of midnight, but it’s not unusual for the bar to be packed until last call — just in time for the bar crew to clean up and hurry home, with nights often punctured by air alerts.

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Not a few commentators pointed out that the lyrics of singer-songwriter Young’s 1989 hit “Rockin’ in the Free World,” actually constitute a biting commentary on the poverty and despair that plagues wealthy Western societies.

Blinken, though, made clear he was leaning into the song’s famous chorus as a means of conveying encouragement to a war-pummeled populace.

“I know this is a really, really difficult time,” the secretary of State told the crowd at the start of the musical interlude, citing suffering in the country’s northeast and elsewhere. But he said of Ukraine’s fight: “The free world is with you.”

Some Ukrainians who were bemused by the episode nonetheless perceived it as a display of goodwill — even if a slightly clumsy one.

“Many of my colleagues were sharing different emotions about the event, whether the timing or the lyrics were right,” said Margo Gontar, a 35-year-old blogger.

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But if band members wanted Blinken up there on stage with them, she said, “then definitely I consider this to be a sign of support.”

Reacting to negative commentary, some Ukrainians said indignation over Blinken’s performance was misplaced.

“Yeah, maybe his attempt to demonstrate informality and soft power by playing a song at our favorite bar in central Kyiv took place at a bad time,” journalist and author Illia Ponomarenko wrote on X. But Blinken, he said, was “the last person we need to focus our bitterness and anger on.”

Without U.S. aid, Ponomarenko wrote, “half of us would have been rotting in a pit with a bullet in our heads and with our hands behind our backs; the other half would have been seeking refuge elsewhere in the world and reading sad news about a ‘Ukrainian National Government in Exile.’”

Special correspondent Ayres reported from Kyiv and Times staff writer King from Washington.

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Hunter Biden attends pre-trial hearing in Delaware court on federal gun charges

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Hunter Biden attends pre-trial hearing in Delaware court on federal gun charges

Hunter Biden arrived at a Delaware court just before noon Friday for a pre-trial hearing on federal gun charges, after multiple failed attempts by the first son to have charges brought against him dismissed. 

Hunter Biden pleaded not guilty to federal gun charges in the U.S. District Court for Delaware, after Special Counsel David Weiss charged him with making a false statement in the purchase of a firearm; making a false statement related to information required to be kept by a licensed firearm dealer; and one count of possession of a firearm by a person who is an unlawful user of or addicted to a controlled substance. 

Judge Maryellen Noreika will preside over the trial, which is set to begin on June 3. 

HUNTER BIDEN PLEADS NOT GUILTY TO FEDERAL GUN CHARGES OUT OF SPECIAL COUNSEL DAVID WEISS’ PROBE

With all counts combined, the total maximum prison time for the charges could be up to 25 years. Each count carries a maximum fine of $250,000, and three years of supervised release. 

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According to the indictment, Hunter Biden bought a Coldt Cobra revolver on Oct. 12, 2018, and “knowingly made a false and fictitious written statement, intended and likely to deceive that dealer with respect to a fact material to the lawfulness of the sale of the firearm… certifying he was not an unlawful user of, and addicted to, any stimulant, narcotic drug, and any other controlled substance, when in fact, as he knew, that statement was false and fictitious.” 

Hunter Biden departs a House Oversight Committee meeting at Capitol Hill on January 10. On Friday, a judge denied a motion to throw out a federal gun case against him.  (Kent Nishimura/Getty Images)

HOUSE GOP CLAIMS HUNTER BIDEN LIED UNDER OATH MULTIPLE TIMES DURING CONGRESSIONAL DEPOSITION

The indictment also charges Hunter Biden for possessing that firearm — which was “shipped and transported in interstate commerce” — for nearly a week despite being addicted to narcotics.

Fox News first reported in 2021 that police had responded to an incident in 2018, when a gun owned by Hunter was thrown into a trash can outside a market in Delaware.

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A source with knowledge of the Oct. 23, 2018, police report told Fox News that it indicated that Hallie Biden, who is the widow of President Biden’s late son, Beau, and who was in a relationship with Hunter at the time, threw a gun owned by Hunter in a dumpster behind a market near a school.

HUNTER BIDEN TAX TRIAL POSTPONED TO SEPTEMBER

Hallie Biden may be required to testify during Hunter Biden’s trial. 

A firearm transaction report reviewed by Fox News indicated that Hunter purchased a gun earlier that month.

On the firearm transaction report, Hunter answered in the negative when asked if he was “an unlawful user of, or addicted to, marijuana or any depressant, stimulant, narcotic drug, or any other controlled substance.”

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Hunter was discharged from the Navy in 2014 after testing positive for cocaine.

Meanwhile, Weiss also brought federal tax charges against Hunter Biden in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. 

IRS WHISTLEBLOWER SHAPLEY SAID HE ‘COULD NO LONGER PURSUE’ HUNTER BIDEN SUGAR BROTHER KEVIN MORRIS DUE TO CIA

Biden pleaded not guilty to those charges — specifically, three felonies and six misdemeanors concerning $1.4 million in owed taxes that have since been paid. Weiss alleged a “four-year scheme” when the president’s son did not pay his federal income taxes from January 2017 to October 2020 while also filing false tax reports. 

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On Wednesday, Judge Mark Scarsi heard arguments during a pre-trial hearing in California. That criminal trial was scheduled for June 20, but Hunter Biden’s attorneys requested to delay the trial. 

Scarsi sided with Hunter Biden’s attorneys, and moved the tax trial from June 20 to September 5, when jury selection will begin. 

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Granderson: Bring on the cannabis cafes, California. Our nation needs them

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Granderson: Bring on the cannabis cafes, California. Our nation needs them

More Americans now consume marijuana on a daily basis than drink alcohol every day, according to a recent study.

That’s welcome news for an industry that has been unfairly demonized by opportunistic politicians since the days of Nixon. The findings — based on data gathered between 1979 and 2022— are consistent with the wave of decriminalization under state laws, notably with California’s Proposition 215 back in 1996.

Opinion Columnist

LZ Granderson

LZ Granderson writes about culture, politics, sports and navigating life in America.

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After the election that year, a law professor at Loyola was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying “this may be the baby boomers taking control.”

It wasn’t the boomers prevailing, but pragmatism.

About 1.3 million people in the U.S. are in state prisons. The most common reason for incarceration? Drug-related crimes. Given how much the country with the highest prison population loves pot, it makes sense to stop throwing people in jail for doing weed.

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Today the only states where cannabis is totally illegal are Idaho, Kansas, South Carolina and Wyoming. Earlier this month President Biden announced plans to reclassify pot as a less dangerous drug.

In short: “Just say no” is dead. Long live “pass the dutchie ’pon the left-hand side.”

The next important step in having policy actually reflect society would be for Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign the “munchie bill” that’s likely to be headed his way soon.

Last year Assembly Bill 374 — which would make it legal for dispensaries to become cafes and offer food as well as host live events — passed the Assembly 66-9 and the Senate 33-3.

Surprisingly, Newsom vetoed the bipartisan bill in October, citing concerns about providing a smoke-free work environment for employees. That seems nonsensical, considering that it is already legal to consume marijuana in California dispensaries. AB 374 would have just made it possible to buy a bag of chips while you do it.

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Marijuana cafes have existed in Amsterdam since the 1970s. Last summer I spent a few hours listening to music and eating homemade desserts at the first marijuana cafe in North America. Fittingly called New Amsterdam Cafe, the popular hangout opened in Vancouver in 1998 and is as chill as Issa Rae’s Hilltop Coffee.

However, vibes are not the only reasons Assemblymember Matt Haney (D-San Francisco) introduced AB 374. For him it’s also a matter of fairness and trying to level the playing field.

“Small businesses have to follow every rule, and yet you’re telling them they can’t adapt and innovate and offer something people want,” he said. “The ones who follow the rules should be able to offer an experience. People pay a lot to sit in a winery. We have cigar lounges. This is really no different.”

Despite law enforcement’s best efforts, illegal pot is estimated to have pulled in more than $8 billion in 2020 compared with $4 billion for legal. However, it’s the small-business owners who also have the burden of taxes, regulations and fines. All of which eats away at profits and businesses’ ability to grow. Haney said his proposal not only would allow small business owners to diversify their income stream, but also would encourage people to come out of their post-pandemic cocoons and socialize again.

California began liberating cannabis culture in 1996. It’s only right the state continues to correct a narrative that was born not from science but from President Nixon’s prejudice. It’s because of that cloud hanging over cannabis that advocates of decriminalization had to sweeten the deal for voters by promising a financial windfall for the state, which of course is why legal pot is ridiculously overtaxed.

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Haney said he knows the cafes won’t solve all of the problems that dispensary owners face because of competition from the black market, but it would at least provide owners with more ways to make money. Haney said he worked with both Newsom’s office and the Department of Cannabis Control before reintroducing the bill. He said the new version, AB 1775, addresses the governor’s concern for the work environment, and it also has union support. It recently passed the Assembly 49-4 and is headed to the Senate.

My hope is that the munchie bill meets Newsom’s approval. With proper ventilation for employees and customers alike, marijuana cafes could provide local artists with new venues and add another branch of tourism.

“I’m one of the younger legislators, and I see how excited my friends are,” 42-year-old Haney told me. “I have a couple of colleagues who represent suburban districts and one came to me and said, ‘All the suburban moms are excited about your cannabis cafe bill.’ Post-pandemic, it’s been hard to get people to get out, and I think this just makes sense.”

It really does.

@LZGranderson

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Trump’s Pattern of Sowing Election Doubt Intensifies in 2024

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Trump’s Pattern of Sowing Election Doubt Intensifies in 2024

Former President Donald J. Trump has baselessly and publicly cast doubt about the fairness of the 2024 election about once a day, on average, since he announced his candidacy for president, according to an analysis by The New York Times.

Though the tactic is familiar — Mr. Trump raised the specter of a “rigged” election in the 2016 and 2020 cycles, too — his attempts to undermine the 2024 contest are a significant escalation.

A line chart shows the number of times Donald J. Trump cast doubt on the fairness or integrity of the election during the 2016, 2020, and 2024 election cycles. The line for 2024 shows that Trump started casting doubt months earlier during this election cycle and has made hundreds more statements than in past elections. Three videos on the chart show early instances of Trump casting doubt, in 2016, 2019 and 2022.

Mr. Trump first raised questions about the 2016 election in August of that year, about 100 days before the election.

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He did so earlier — and more frequently — before the 2020 election.

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But in the 2024 cycle, the falsehoods have been baked in since Mr. Trump announced his candidacy, almost two years before Election Day. They show no signs of subsiding.

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Mr. Trump’s refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election had historic consequences. The so-called “Big Lie” — Mr. Trump’s false claim that the election was stolen from him — led to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the United States Capitol and two of four criminal indictments against Mr. Trump, as well as his second impeachment.

But Mr. Trump had planted seeds of doubt among his followers long before Election Day, essentially setting up a no-lose future for himself: Either he would prevail, or the election would be rigged.

He has never given up that framing, which no evidence supports, even well after the end of his presidency. And as he seeks to return to the White House, the same claim has become the backbone of his campaign.

Long before announcing his candidacy, Mr. Trump and his supporters had been falsely claiming that President Biden was “weaponizing” the Justice Department to target him. But it took until March of last year for Mr. Trump to settle on a new accusation: that the multiple legal challenges related to Mr. Trump’s business and political activities constituted a “new way of cheating” in order to “interfere” in the 2024 election. He has made versions of that accusation more than 350 times.

“This is a rigged deal, just as the 2020 election was rigged, and we can’t let them get away with it,” Mr. Trump said on Nov. 18, 2022, three days after announcing his 2024 candidacy. His comments were in response to Attorney General Merrick B. Garland’s appointment of a special counsel to supervise the Justice Department’s criminal investigations related to the events leading up to the Jan. 6 riot and Mr. Trump’s decision to keep classified documents at his Florida resort.

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By last summer, Mr. Trump had honed the language and made it a staple of his stump speech: “They rigged the presidential election of 2020, and we’re not going to allow them to rig the presidential election of 2024.”

The Times has documented more than 500 campaign events, social media posts and interviews during the 2024 cycle in which Mr. Trump falsely accused Democrats or others of trying to “rig,” “cheat,” “steal” or otherwise “influence” the next election — or of having done so in 2020.

‘Election interference’ is Trump’s choice accusation in 2024 cycle

Mr. Trump has adapted the specifics of his accusations with each of the three election cycles. But in each case, his pattern of discourse has followed the same contours. He sows doubt about the legitimacy of the election, and then begins to capitalize on that doubt by alluding to not necessarily accepting the election results — unless, of course, he wins.

This rhetorical strategy — heads, I win; tails, you cheated — is a beloved one for Mr. Trump that predates even his time as a presidential candidate. He called the Emmy Awards “a con game” after his television show “The Apprentice” failed to win in 2004 and 2005. And before he officially became the Republican presidential nominee in 2016, he began to float the possibility that the primary contest was, as he said, “rigged and boss controlled.”

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By May of that year, Mr. Trump spoke plainly about why he had stashed the argument away. “You’ve been hearing me say it’s a rigged system,” he said, “but now I don’t say it anymore because I won.”

Late that summer, with his sights set on the November general election, Mr. Trump tested out a new line, contending that “the media” was “rigging” the election in favor of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee. His assertions intensified in October after a recording surfaced of him speaking in vulgar terms about women.

“I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election — if I win,” Mr. Trump said at a rally in 2016, three weeks before Election Day. And though he would end up winning the Electoral College and the presidency, his failure to secure the popular vote led him to form a Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity to “prove” that rampant voter fraud was to blame.

In December 2019, well into Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign, the Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives impeached him, saying he used the levers of government to solicit election assistance from Ukraine in the form of investigations to discredit Mr. Biden. Mr. Trump subsequently said that Democrats were using the “impeachment hoax” to “interfere” in the election.

The Covid-19 pandemic gave him a new rallying cry, centered on election integrity: Mail-in ballots were “dangerous,” “fraught with fraud” and were being used to “steal” and “rig” the election, he said.

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About six weeks before Election Day in 2020, Mr. Trump refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power. “We want to make sure that the election is honest, and I’m not sure that it can be,” Mr. Trump said.

This time, it was half a year before Election Day 2024 — and after more than a year of pushing the “election interference” line about the criminal charges against him and repeatedly warning that Democrats are “cheating” — that Mr. Trump again placed conditions on his acceptance of election results.

“If everything’s honest, I’ll gladly accept the results,” he said in a May 1 interview with The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “If it’s not, you have to fight for the right of the country.”

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