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Five months before I was born, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth. In 1969, as an 11-year-old, I watched the black-and-white images of American astronaut Neil Armstrong stepping onto the surface of the moon. That was a huge advancement in a remarkably short time.

Space exploration has continued to evolve with missions to Mars and Venus, placing space stations and telescopes in orbit, and dispatching probes to the far reaches of the solar system. There have been so many advances, in fact, that we sometimes take them for granted. We have lost our sense of awe. Which is too bad, because there have been a number of recent developments that deserve some appreciation.

For instance, China just became the first country to conquer the technical difficulties of landing a spacecraft on the far side of the moon — not the dark side, as Pink Floyd described it. The far side of the moon gets sunlight on a regular basis as it orbits the Earth while the Earth itself orbits the sun. So when the moon is full to our eyes, the far side is dark; when it’s a new moon — shadowed to our eyes — sunlight is striking the far side.

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  • Trump
  • Opinion
  • Border Wars
President Trump claimed again Wednesday that Mexico is paying for his wall through the renegotiated NAFTA agreement. It isn't.
President Trump claimed again Wednesday that Mexico is paying for his wall through the renegotiated NAFTA agreement. It isn't. (Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty)

President Trump claimed yet again Wednesday morning that Mexico is paying for a wall along the shared border through his renegotiated NAFTA trade deal (which he re-branded as USMCA) with Canada and Mexico.

No, it’s not.

Oh, and about that “much of the Wall has already been fully renovated or built” claim? Um, no. The relatively small amount of wall-and-fence work done since Trump took office has been primarily repairing or renovating existing structures.

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  • Trump
  • Opinion

It’s fitting that President Trump is finishing up 2018 with inaccurate statements launched at the nation via Twitter. And it’s also pathetic.

The government is partially shut down because the president insists, like an intemperate 4-year-old, that he must have his way and waste billions of dollars in tax money extending existing walls and fences along the U.S.-Mexico border, even though there is no evidence such a monstrosity would achieve what he thinks it will. He tweeted again Monday morning about the “open border,” which he described as an “ ‘Open Wound,’ where drugs, criminals (including human traffickers) and illegals would pour into our Country.”

In fact, the number of illegal border crossers has been steadily decreasing, and most drugs come across at ports of entry smuggled inside of motor vehicles, through tunnels beneath the existing walls and fences, and by boat. Not much impact from a wall there.

  • Trump
  • Opinion
"Make America Great Again" hats on the factory floor of Cali-Fame in Carson, Calif.
"Make America Great Again" hats on the factory floor of Cali-Fame in Carson, Calif. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

There’s a maxim in the law that goes “de minimis non curat lex.” A common translation from the Latin is “the law does not concern itself with trifles,” but a more colloquial equivalent is: “No big deal.”

 Lawyers and judges sometimes talk about “de minimis” violations of procedure or the Constitution.

Unlike some commentators, I think President Trump committed a de minimis violation of protocol when he autographed  “Make America Great Again” hats during his visits to U.S. service members  in Iraq and Germany this week.

  • Opinion
  • Rule of Law
  • Border Wars
Geo Group's Adelanto detention facility, one of the subjects of a lawsuit alleging migrants are unable to access legal help.
Geo Group's Adelanto detention facility, one of the subjects of a lawsuit alleging migrants are unable to access legal help. (Los Angeles Times)

Two court actions a continent apart are driving home — yet again — the point that the U.S. asylum system neither lives up to basic standards of human decency and due process nor, it seems, to the promises of the Constitution.

In New York on Thursday, a federal district court judge slammed the government for failing to even offer a bond hearing to a man it had detained for 34 months after he arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border and asked for asylum because of threats he’d received in his native Ivory Coast over his political affiliations.

Is that sufficient grounds for granting asylum? Good question, and we have both laws and a court system to guide the answer. Was it necessary for the government to detain Adou Kouadio, 43, while his application worked its way through the system?

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  • Opinion
  • Guns and Ammo
  • We're All Doomed
People huddle near a makeshift memorial for victims of the mass shooting at Thousand Oaks' Borderline Bar and Grill.
People huddle near a makeshift memorial for victims of the mass shooting at Thousand Oaks' Borderline Bar and Grill. (Los Angeles Times)

Less than two months ago, Ian Long walked into the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks and began firing two semiautomatic handguns, killing 11 people in the bar and wounding an arriving sheriff’s deputy (who tragically was killed when struck by a round fired by another arriving officer) before turning one of his guns on himself.

Raging wildfires that led 75% of Thousand Oaks’ residents to evacuate less than two weeks later overwhelmed the tragedy in the public’s mind, which is a tragedy of another sort. Yes, the fires were awful. Statewide they killed more than 100 people, 86 in the Camp fire alone, while damaging or destroying nearly 20,000 buildings worth at least $9 billion (in the areas hit by the Camp, Woolsey and Hill fires). About 1.8 million acres burned in total, a record.

Wildfires have always been a part of nature in California. One could argue that gun violence is part of California’s nature too, though the latter is something we could do more to control. But first we have to pay closer attention to the problem.

  • Trump
  • Opinion
  • Border Wars
President Trump again points the finger at Democrats for the partial shutdown of the federal government he sought.
President Trump again points the finger at Democrats for the partial shutdown of the federal government he sought. (Shawn Thew / EPA/Shutterstock)

The federal government remains in a partial shutdown as President Trump digs in his heels (good thing those bone spurs got better) over his silly wall, refusing to agree to a spending bill that doesn’t include $5.7 billion for what assuredly would be a waste of tax dollars. At some point, one of the few adults left at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue needs to explain to the president the difference between compromise and capitulation.

And yes, the Senate Democrats are holding firm, too, in their opposition to the wall. The difference, though, is the Democrats recognize the folly in Trump’s obsession, one that the president re-embraced Thursday afternoon in a public statement that makes a pretzel of the truth about the border and public safety.

“The president has made clear that any bill to fund the government must adequately fund border security to stop the flow of illegal drugs, criminals, MS-13 gang members, child smugglers and human traffickers into our communities — and protect the American people,” the White House said, adding: “The administration understands this crisis and made a reasonable, common-sense solution to Democrats five days ago — we've not received a single response.”

  • Opinion
  • Rule of Law
  • The Swamp
Justice Brett M. Kavanuagh will not be investigated on complaints that he violated judicial ethics.
Justice Brett M. Kavanuagh will not be investigated on complaints that he violated judicial ethics. (Saul Loeb / Associated Press)

There will be no investigation by the federal judiciary of allegations that Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh violated judicial ethics in testifying at his Senate confirmation hearings.

As a matter of rough justice, that might be a defensible outcome: Those complaints seemed like an outgrowth of the political opposition to Kavanaugh’s confirmation, rather than the typical allegations of judicial misconduct filed under the Judicial Conduct and Disability Act. For better or worse, the Senate decided that Kavanaugh was sufficiently credible to deserve confirmation.

Nevertheless, the reason why the complaints were dismissed by the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals — to which they were referred by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. — highlights a troubling loophole in judicial accountability: Not only Kavanaugh but his colleagues on the court are exempt from an ethics code that applies to other federal judges.

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  • Trump
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  • Rule of Law
  • Border Wars
Elvira Choc grieves as she attends a memorial service for her 7-year-old granddaughter, Jakelin Caal, in San Antonio Secortez, Guatemala.
Elvira Choc grieves as she attends a memorial service for her 7-year-old granddaughter, Jakelin Caal, in San Antonio Secortez, Guatemala. (Oliver de Ros / Associated Press)

The body of Jakelin Caal, the 7-year-old Guatemalan girl who died in U.S. immigration custody this month, arrived in her family’s impoverished farming village on Christmas Eve just hours, as it turns out, before Felipe Gomez Alonzo, an 8-year-old Guatemalan boy, died while being detained by federal border agents in New Mexico. The two deaths have drawn significant attention to the medical care available to migrants taken into custody by the U.S. government.

Wednesday afternoon Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen announced that she had ordered medical screenings of all detained migrant children, which raises the question of whether such screenings had been done routinely before. One would hope that people being sent to detention, children or adults, would be screened as a matter of health policy — both for the new arrivals and for the people they would be joining in the detention centers.

Advocates have argued for months that the administration’s detention policies increased the health risks to migrants, particularly children. But the government’s desire to incarcerate migrants to deter others from trying to enter the country apparently outweighed any sense of humanitarian responsibility.

  • Trump
  • Opinion
  • We're All Doomed
Chinese and U.S. flags hang on a fence at an international school in Beijing on Dec. 5.
Chinese and U.S. flags hang on a fence at an international school in Beijing on Dec. 5. (Fred Dufour / AFP/Getty Images)

The stock market rallied Wednesday morning, but the big losses in previous days have rattled observers who consider Wall Street something of a leading indicator of the U.S. economy — a sign that at least some financial industry professionals see something in the data about future business prospects that they don’t like. 

Of course, it’s risky to try to read the minds of investors or to draw quick conclusions about the swings of a volatile market. Plus, there’s this observation from the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday: “Behind the broad, swift market slide of 2018 is an underlying new reality: Roughly 85% of all trading is on autopilot — controlled by machines, models or passive investing formulas, creating an unprecedented trading herd that moves in unison and is blazingly fast.”

Nevertheless, there are headwinds building up to impede the progress of U.S. businesses in the coming years, and investors need to factor them into their thinking. One of these hurdles is significant, yet completely artificial: The trade war President Trump is fighting with much of the industrialized world.