Monthly Archives: August 2017

Jeff Flake talks a good game about Trump, but what is he doing?

Look, my problem with Sen. Jeff Flake’s harshly critical op-ed about President Donald Trump is not that Flake voted to gut Obamacare.

I get it: Flake, who represents Arizona, is a conservative, so we shouldn’t expect him to “resist Trump” by voting against legislative initiatives he’d have backed under any Republican president.

But if Flake is so concerned about Trump, what exactly is Flake doing to hold him accountable?

Even evaluating Flake by the standards laid out in his own op-ed, or against the substantial number of other Republicans in Congress who have done a fair bit to hold Trump in check, Flake is falling down on the job.

For example, Flake writes that Republicans need to resist Trump’s trade protectionism. But Flake voted to confirm Robert Lighthizer, Trump’s nominee to be the United States Trade Representative. Republican Sens. John McCain and Ben Sasse voted against Lighthizer and wrote a letter explaining that his insufficient support for NAFTA was the reason. Why didn’t Flake join them?

Flake also voted to confirm Wilbur Ross as commerce secretary, even though Ross has advocated for greater trade restrictions, especially with China.

Flake worries about Trump’s “seeming affection for strongmen and authoritarians,” and this is likely why he voted to restrict Trump’s ability to relax sanctions on Russia – joining every other Republican senator except Rand Paul. But what has he done about this affection that his colleagues – the ones he criticizes for being “in denial” – have failed to do?

At the very beginning of Trump’s term, Flake assented to Rex Tillerson’s appointment at the State Department, despite signs that Tillerson shared Trump’s intention to prioritize friendly relations with autocratic countries over the promotion of human rights. Flake sits on the Foreign Relations Committee but has not used that perch to push the president to choose personnel who will oppose autocrats.

There are Republicans in the Senate – Richard Burr and Chuck Grassley come to mind – who have been measured in their rhetoric but have taken substantial actions to hold Trump accountable for his lawlessness. Others, like Paul and Lisa Murkowski, have sought to block some of his policy initiatives.

Flake is taking a less impressive approach: Complaining loudly about Trump and doing very little about him.

Facebook bought an AI startup that could turn its middling virtual assistant into a Siri killer

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is betting big on AI.
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REUTERS/Shu Zhang

Facebook’s virtual assistant, which goes by the name of M, hasn’t quite delivered on the promise of a life-changing artificial intelligence product.

But Facebook isn’t giving up. On Monday, the company announced its acquisition of a small, AI startup that will be folded into Facebook’s messaging app. Ozlo, which was founded four years ago and is based in Palo Alto, California, describes itself as “an index of knowledge about the real world.”

In practice, that means a technology that lets users ask questions about everything from restaurants to movie schedules, which the AI-based system can quickly answer thanks to “a knowledge graph containing over 2 billion entities.”

A demo on an archived version of the Ozlo site (before Monday’s acquisition was announced) shows a user typing in a query about the cheapest way to stream a particular TV show, followed by Ozlo’s response, in natural language, proposing various viewing options.

This kind of virtual assistant feature, similar to Apple’s Siri and Google’s Assistant, is something Facebook has sought to do with its M assistant. Facebook has integrated some automated M capabilities into the Messenger app. But a the full-fledged M virtual assistant is still only available to a very limited set of test users, and Facebook has acknowledged many of its capabilities are handled by a team of human “trainers” rather than true AI.

The financial terms of the deal for Ozlo were not disclosed. But Facebook has made no secret of how big of a priority AI is. During the company’s quarterly earnings call last week, CEO Mark Zuckerberg touted the importance of artificial intelligence to Facebook’s 10-year plan.

“By joining a team that shares our values and our vision, we will be able to continue to work on building experiences powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning. There’s a lot more for us to explore ahead and we’re excited to bring our technology to the Messenger community,” Ozlo said in a message on its website announcing its acquisition by Facebook.

Facebook said in an emailed statement the the acquisition would further its goal of building “compelling experiences within Messenger that are powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning.”

Trump was behind the misleading original statement about Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer

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Donald Trump Jr. with his father, Donald Trump, on the night of the Iowa Caucus in Des Moines, Iowa, on February 1, 2016.
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Jim Bourg/Reuters

President Donald Trump was behind a misleading statement that incompletely described his son Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer in 2016, The Washington Post reported on Monday.

The statement, published in July after The New York Times first reported that the meeting took place, said that Trump Jr. and the lawyer “primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children” and that the subject of conversation was “not a campaign issue at the time.”

But that characterization evolved over the next few days, with Trump Jr. ultimately publishing his email correspondences with the British music publicist who organized the meeting. The email chain indicated that the pretext of the meeting was that the lawyer would provide the Trump campaign with damaging information about Hillary Clinton “as part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” to which Trump Jr. replied, “I love it.”

Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his campaign chairman at the time, Paul Manafort, also attended the meeting.

According to The Post, when news of the meeting broke, a group of Trump’s advisers agreed that the White House should release a truthful statement that could not be repudiated if more details surfaced later.

But Trump overruled the advisers and “personally dictated” the misleading statement that was eventually published, according to The Post’s report. The statement was crafted aboard Air Force One as Trump returned from the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, The Post said.

Trump has maintained that he learned of the meeting just days before The Times first reported on it, and previous reporting suggested he had merely signed off on the statement. But Monday’s report describing direct involvement by Trump in the response could attract more scrutiny to Trump amid investigations by Congress and the FBI into Russian election interference.

“This was … unnecessary,” one of Trump’s advisers told The Post. “Now someone can claim he’s the one who attempted to mislead. Somebody can argue the president is saying he doesn’t want you to say the whole truth.”

The meeting has caught the attention of Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Mueller sent a request to White House officials to preserve any documents relating to the 2016 meeting.

Trump has defended his son and has repeatedly dismissed the Russia investigation, tweeting on July 15: “You are witnessing the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history – led by some very bad and conflicted people!”

Read the Washington Post report here »