Doubting the intelligence, Trump pursues Putin and leaves a Russian threat unchecked

The Washington Post reports: In the final days before Donald Trump was sworn in as president, members of his inner circle pleaded with him to acknowledge publicly what U.S. intelligence agencies had already concluded — that Russia’s interference in the 2016 election was real.

Holding impromptu interventions in Trump’s 26th-floor corner office at Trump Tower, advisers — including Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and designated chief of staff, Reince Priebus — prodded the president-elect to accept the findings that the nation’s spy chiefs had personally presented to him on Jan. 6.

They sought to convince Trump that he could affirm the validity of the intelligence without diminishing his electoral win, according to three officials involved in the sessions. More important, they said that doing so was the only way to put the matter behind him politically and free him to pursue his goal of closer ties with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin.

“This was part of the normalization process,” one participant said. “There was a big effort to get him to be a standard president.”

But as aides persisted, Trump became agitated. He railed that the intelligence couldn’t be trusted and scoffed at the suggestion that his candidacy had been propelled by forces other than his own strategy, message and charisma.

Told that members of his incoming Cabinet had already publicly backed the intelligence report on Russia, Trump shot back, “So what?” Admitting that the Kremlin had hacked Democratic Party emails, he said, was a “trap.”

As Trump addressed journalists on Jan. 11 in the lobby of Trump Tower, he came as close as he ever would to grudging acceptance. “As far as hacking, I think it was Russia,” he said, adding that “we also get hacked by other countries and other people.”

As hedged as those words were, Trump regretted them almost immediately. “It’s not me,” he said to aides afterward. “It wasn’t right.”

Nearly a year into his presidency, Trump continues to reject the evidence that Russia waged an assault on a pillar of American democracy and supported his run for the White House.

The result is without obvious parallel in U.S. history, a situation in which the personal insecurities of the president — and his refusal to accept what even many in his administration regard as objective reality — have impaired the government’s response to a national security threat. The repercussions radiate across the government. [Continue reading…]

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Roy Moore turns refusal to concede into religious crusade: ‘Immorality sweeps over the land’

The Washington Post reports: A day after losing the Senate race in Alabama to Democrat Doug Jones, Roy Moore has issued a new statement refusing to concede the election until completion of the final count. But it wasn’t your typical post-election statement.

It was a four-minute fire-and-brimstone video about abortion, same-sex marriage, school prayer, sodomy and “the right of a man to claim to be a woman and vice versa.”

“We are indeed in a struggle to preserve our republic, our civilization and our religion and to set free a suffering humanity,” Moore said. “Today, we no longer recognize the universal truth that God is the author of our life and liberty. Abortion, sodomy and materialism have taken the place of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

In the video issued by the campaign Wednesday evening, Moore said his campaign is still waiting for the official vote count from Alabama officials. He did not say he would necessarily seek a recount, for which his campaign would have to pay unless the margin turned out to be within half a percentage point. Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill has called it “highly unlikely” that Jones would not be certified as the winner. [Continue reading…]

I’m not a Christian, but somehow this line from Timothy appears relevant: “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.”

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‘Nikki Haley stuck a knife in his back’: Roger Stone is already writing the story of Trump’s downfall

Gabriel Sherman writes: In the closing days of the Alabama Senate election, Steve Bannon told people that Donald Trump’s political survival depended on Trump supporting Roy Moore. Bannon’s argument, according to those who spoke with him, was that establishment Republicans and Democrats would use Moore’s defeat as a political weapon to force Trump to face the sexual harassment allegations that have dogged him since the 2016 election. Bannon called Alabama Trump’s “firebreak.”

Last night, the flames leapt into the West Wing. Moore’s dramatic loss to Democrat Doug Jones in a state Trump carried by 62 percent is sowing panic among some of Trump’s kitchen Cabinet. “This shows the public is taking the sexual harassment issue seriously. The president has a big problem,” a Republican close to the White House told me. Even before the election, Democrats renewed calls for Trump to resign for his alleged treatment of women. This week, three of Trump’s accusers launched a media tour to elevate the issue. Even a member of Trump’s administration weighed in. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said on Face the Nation that Trump’s accusers should be “heard” and “dealt with.”

One Trump ally is making plans to commercialize Trump’s downfall. Longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone told me he is working on a book titled The Unmaking of the President as part of a multi-book deal with Skyhorse Publishing. (Last fall, Skyhorse published Stone’s campaign account, The Making of the President 2016.) “I’ve been writing it as we go along,” he told me. [Continue reading…]

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Harvey Weinstein is my monster too

Salma Hayek writes: In the 14 years that I stumbled from schoolgirl to Mexican soap star to an extra in a few American films to catching a couple of lucky breaks in “Desperado” and “Fools Rush In,” Harvey Weinstein had become the wizard of a new wave of cinema that took original content into the mainstream. At the same time, it was unimaginable for a Mexican actress to aspire to a place in Hollywood. And even though I had proven them wrong, I was still a nobody.

One of the forces that gave me the determination to pursue my career was the story of Frida Kahlo, who in the golden age of the Mexican muralists would do small intimate paintings that everybody looked down on. She had the courage to express herself while disregarding skepticism. My greatest ambition was to tell her story. It became my mission to portray the life of this extraordinary artist and to show my native Mexico in a way that combated stereotypes.

The Weinstein empire, which was then Miramax, had become synonymous with quality, sophistication and risk taking — a haven for artists who were complex and defiant. It was everything that Frida was to me and everything I aspired to be.

I had started a journey to produce the film with a different company, but I fought to get it back to take it to Harvey.

I knew him a little bit through my relationship with the director Robert Rodriguez and the producer Elizabeth Avellan, who was then his wife, with whom I had done several films and who had taken me under their wing. All I knew of Harvey at the time was that he had a remarkable intellect, he was a loyal friend and a family man.

Knowing what I know now, I wonder if it wasn’t my friendship with them — and Quentin Tarantino and George Clooney — that saved me from being raped. [Continue reading…]

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Rex Tillerson, in meeting with U.S. diplomats, says Russia ‘interfered’ in election

The Daily Beast reports: Beleaguered Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged in a closed-door meeting with U.S. diplomats on Tuesday that Russia “interfered in democratic processes here,” something President Trump still describes as “fake news” intended to delegitimize his presidency.

It’s a precarious position for Tillerson to take, even privately. Tillerson’s job is on thin ice, as rumors swirl that he will be swapped out for CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Within the department, Tillerson’s support is wafer-thin, as diplomats have come to see his purpose as hollowing out U.S. diplomacy.

Publicly, Tillerson has been a bit more circumspect about the Kremlin question. In April, Tillerson called the “question of Russian interference” in the election something that was “fairly well-established.” In August, Tillerson told his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, that the election meddling engendered “serious mistrust between our two countries.” [Continue reading…]

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U.S. ready for talks with North Korea ‘without preconditions’, Tillerson says

The Guardian reports: Rex Tillerson has said that the US is ready to begin exploratory talks with North Korea “without preconditions”, but only after a “period of quiet” without new nuclear or missile tests.

The secretary of state’s remarks appeared to mark a shift in state department policy, which had previously required Pyongyang to show it was “serious” about giving up its nuclear arsenal before contacts could start. And the language was a long way from repeated comments by Donald Trump that such contacts are a “waste of time”.

Tillerson also revealed that the US had been talking to China about what each country would do in the event of a conflict or regime collapse in North Korea, saying that the Trump administration had given Beijing assurances that US troops would pull back to the 38th parallel, which divides North and South Korea, and that the only US concern would be to secure the regime’s nuclear weapons.

Earlier this week it emerged that China is building a network of refugee camps along its 880-mile (1,416km) border with North Korea, in preparation for a potential exodus that could be unleashed by conflict or the collapse of Kim Jong-un’s regime. [Continue reading…]

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UN envoy: North Korea would not commit to peace talks but ‘door ajar’

Reuters reports: United Nations political affairs chief Jeffrey Feltman said on Tuesday that senior North Korean officials did not offer any type of commitment to talks during his visit to Pyongyang last week, but he believes he left “the door ajar.”

Feltman, the highest-level U.N. official to visit North Korea since 2011, met with Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho and Vice Minister Pak Myong Guk during a four-day visit that he described as “the most important mission I have ever undertaken.”

“Time will tell what was the impact of our discussions, but I think we have left the door ajar and I fervently hope that the door to a negotiated solution will now be opened wide,” Feltman told reporters after briefing the U.N. Security Council behind closed doors on his visit.

“They need time to digest and consider how they will respond to our message,” he said, adding that he believed Ri would brief North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on their discussions. [Continue reading…]

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Afghan president under fire as critics chafe at overdue vote

The New York Times reports: Over the past year, as Afghanistan’s strained power-sharing government struggled in the face of intense criticism, Western officials repeatedly stepped in to urge patience.

American and European diplomats shuttled to the blast-wall-protected villas of the country’s political elite, asking them to give President Ashraf Ghani some space to keep pursuing the reforms that had rankled so many. In return, Mr. Ghani would finally deliver parliamentary elections (already delayed by two years) before the next presidential vote.

But the year is closing with little progress toward the elections, still scheduled for next July, although now almost certain not to occur then. Mr. Ghani’s critics — and there are more than ever — are losing patience, turning to public demonstrations, issuing ultimatums or threats, and joining in calls for a nationwide, traditional referendum on his authority.

The Afghan president, in return, has reacted in ways that many Western officials see as panicked. He has ordered sudden corruption investigations against critics, barred government employees from joining demonstrations and been accused of grounding the flight of a powerful northern governor to keep him from joining an opposition meeting.

One fear is that the rising factional animosity could lead to open mutiny — in the middle of a raging war against the Taliban and Islamic State loyalists — against a government that Western officials have gone all out to hold together. [Continue reading…]

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Trump suffers ‘big black eye’ in Alabama

Politico reports: Doug Jones didn’t just defeat Roy Moore in Alabama’s Senate race on Tuesday night — he administered the most crushing and embarrassing political blow of President Donald Trump’s young presidency.

Jones’ win meant that Trump, who had endorsed Luther Strange in the Republican primary before backing Moore in the general election, threw his weight behind the losing candidate not once, but twice, in the Alabama race.

It was an extraordinary outcome in a state that Trump carried by 28 points in last year’s presidential election. Jones’ victory, the first by a Democrat in Alabama in 25 years, exposed the limits of the president’s power in a party that is now frequently referred to as “the party of Trump.” Indeed, though rank-and-file Republicans have resisted, fought, and feared Trump’s influence over GOP voters, Tuesday’s election results suggested that, whatever the president’s power, he is incapable of boosting other anti-establishment candidates to office.

In addition to supporting both losing candidates in the Alabama race, Trump also endorsed Ed Gillespie, who lost the Virginia governor’s race last month. [Continue reading…]

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Alabama election result seen as ‘miracle’ in a Europe horrified by Trump

The Washington Post reports: Roy Moore’s defeat on Tuesday evening may have come as a relief to liberal Americans, but in Europe it was taken as a sign that the United States has not totally lost its moral compass.

Last year’s election victory of President Trump, who is deeply unpopular across Western Europe, appears to have severely damaged the United States’ status as a role model in Europe. The defeat of Moore was interpreted by many as a reversal for Trump and a sign that all is not lost across the Atlantic.

Relief over the Alabama election result in Europe was far from being limited to liberal media outlets, and was widely seen as a “notable setback for President Donald Trump,” as France’s liberal Liberation newspaper wrote. Its center-left competitor Le Monde declared the Tuesday result a “referendum about Trump’s political agenda” and Britain’s Financial Times agreed that that it was “a big blow for Mr Trump.

That sentiment was perhaps most pronounced in Germany, where confidence in Trump has been even lower than in neighboring France and Britain. Center-left German weekly Die Zeit framed the defeat as “the miracle of Alabama.” [Continue reading…]

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Trump attacks Gillibrand in tweet critics say is sexually suggestive and demeaning

The Washington Post reports: President Trump attacked Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) in a sexually suggestive tweet Tuesday morning that implied Gillibrand would do just about anything for money, prompting a swift and immediate backlash.

“Lightweight Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a total flunky for Charles E. Schumer and someone who would come to my office ‘begging’ for campaign contributions not so long ago (and would do anything for them), is now in the ring fighting against Trump,” the president wrote. “Very disloyal to Bill & Crooked-USED!”


The tweet came as Trump is already facing negative publicity from renewed allegations from three women who had previously accused him of sexual harassment, which are coming amid the #MeToo movement that is roiling the nation and forcing powerful men accused of sexual misbehavior from their posts. [Continue reading…]

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As Russia probes progress, one name is missing: Bannon’s

Politico reports: As special Russia counsel Robert Mueller wraps up interviews with senior current and former White House staff, one name has been conspicuously absent from public chatter surrounding the probe: Steve Bannon.

President Donald Trump’s former White House chief strategist and campaign chief executive played critical roles in episodes that have become central to Mueller’s probe as well as to multiple Hill investigations.

Bannon was a key bystander when Trump decided to fire national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty earlier this month to lying to federal investigators about his contacts with foreign officials. He was among those Trump consulted before firing FBI Director James Comey, whose dismissal prompted Mueller’s appointment — a decision Bannon subsequently described to “60 Minutes” as the biggest mistake “in modern political history.”

And during the campaign, Bannon was the one who offered the introduction to data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica, whose CEO has since acknowledged trying to coordinate with WikiLeaks on the release of emails from Hillary Clinton’s time as secretary of state.

Yet Bannon hasn’t faced anywhere near the degree of public scrutiny in connection to the probe as others in Trump’s inner circle, including son-in-law and White House adviser Jared Kushner — who was recently interviewed by Mueller’s team — or Donald Trump Jr., who was interviewed on Capitol Hill last week about his own Russian connections. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. military chiefs respond to Trump’s decisions with respectful disobedience

Phillip Carter writes: In a dizzying series of tweets and news stories on Monday, the Pentagon appeared to simultaneously embrace transgender recruits while the Trump administration was losing its bid in court to deny their entry into the service. Once the dust settled, it became clear that, for now, the slow policy change on transgender service that began under President Obama will continue under President Trump. Transgender people who want to serve their country in uniform may enlist starting on Jan. 1; those now serving can continue, with appropriate support from the military’s medical and personnel systems. Far from being a military coup, this was merely a case of the Pentagon following existing law while the courts haggle over what exactly the law is.

That fact may itself be startling at a time when senior administration officials seem more willing to unlawfully promote their boss—or misuse their offices—than follow the law. The Pentagon chiefs’ response to the transgender litigation illustrates how they differ from other senior officials, for better or worse. In response to Trump, the military’s leadership has improvised a new norm of civil-military relations: something in between a yes and a no that doesn’t amount to insubordination but does help modulate Trump’s excesses.

Although civilian Cabinet officials, generals, and admirals are all “Officers of the United States” under the Constitution, appointed by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate, they have very different traditions of service. Over more than 240 years, but especially since World War II, the military has evolved into a profession that puts a premium on apolitical service to presidents of both parties. Senior military officers serve tours in key positions that are staggered so that they transcend administration boundaries. Senior officers and junior troops alike are bound by military justice provisions and regulations that sharply curtail their political activity. By rule, custom, and inclination, today’s military leaders shun direct involvement in partisan politics, such as standing on stage during rallies, even at the request of their commander in chief. Those officers who do politick for the boss—like Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster writing a controversial op-ed supporting Trump’s “America First” policy—stand out as conspicuous exceptions to the rule. [Continue reading…]

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Putin in Syria: Victory and desolation

In an editorial, The Guardian says: Vladimir Putin went on a victory lap of Syria and the Middle East this week, intent on showcasing his ability to secure the upper hand against the US in the region. On a surprise visit to a Russian airbase on the Syrian coast, he demonstratively embraced the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, whose hold on power Russia’s military intervention has all but saved. “Friends, the motherland is waiting for you,” Mr Putin told a detachment of Russian soldiers. “You are coming back home with victory.”

Meanwhile, in eastern Ghouta, a rebel-held suburb of Damascus where Russia had announced earlier this year that a ceasefire would take hold, children living under siege are starving. Despite the “de-escalation” deal, Syrian government forces continue to pound the area, backed by Iranian and Russian allies in an attempt to score a decisive victory. These two scenes spoke volumes about Russia’s calculus, and about the realities it has helped create on the ground. That the Russian president has now announced a substantial troop withdrawal must be taken with a barrel of salt. Similar pledges have been made before and remain unfulfilled. On Tuesday a Kremlin spokesperson said Russia would retain a sizable force in Syria to fight “terrorists”. Russia’s definition of “terrorism” in Syria is like that of the Assad regime, which equates it to political opposition.

Mr Putin is keen to speak of victory. In Moscow he has announced that he will run for re-election next year. Bringing back some of the Russian forces – who are reportedly deployed alongside thousands of Kremlin-connected private contractors – can only be good for his political prospects. Russian casualties in Syria are a closely guarded secret, as are the financial costs of the operation. In geopolitical terms Mr Putin’s war in Syria has been a profitable investment for the Kremlin. He has capitalised on western strategic disarray and America’s reluctance to get drawn deeper into the conflict, an instinct that predated the volatile Donald Trump. After Syria, Mr Putin travelled on to Cairo, where he met Egypt’s president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, demonstrating Russia’s new clout in a country that since the 1970s has had privileged ties with the US. There is now talk of Russian military aircraft being able to use Egyptian bases.

It is no small irony that Mr Putin has claimed victory over Islamic State: the bluster does little to hide the fact that his forces focused much more on targeting the anti-Assad opposition than they did the jihadi insurgency. The retaking of Raqqa was not a Russian accomplishment, but the result of a Kurdish-Arab ground offensive, supported by US-led coalition airstrikes. [Continue reading…]

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Bombed into famine: How Saudi air campaign targets Yemen’s food supplies

Iona Craig reports: At 11.30pm, 10 nautical miles off Yemen’s western Red Sea coast, seven fishermen were near the end of the four hours it had taken to haul their nets bulging with the day’s catch into their fibreglass boat. Suddenly, away from the illumination of the vessel’s large spotlight, one of the men spotted a black silhouette coming towards them.

Moments later a helicopter began circling overhead. The fishermen were well within the 30 nautical mile boundary they had been warned not to cross by leaflets airdropped on land by the Saudi-led coalition. But, without warning, gunfire erupted from the helicopter.

Osam Mouafa grabbed his friend, Abdullah, dragging him into a corner, curling himself into a protective ball as bullets flew through the boat. Shot in both knees, with a third bullet having grazed his thigh, Osam began to feel water rising around him. “The boat became like a sieve,” he said, sitting next to the wooden stick he now needs to walk.

By the time the onslaught stopped, the captain – a father of eight – and Abdullah were dead. Another crew member, Hamdi, was deafened and paralysed down one side after being hit in the head by shrapnel. All bleeding heavily, the five survivors frantically began bailing water out of the sinking boat.

The partially submerged vessel, with the fishermen’s clothes plugging the holes, drifted at sea for 15 hours until another boat rescued them, towing them ashore.

Since Saudi Arabia launched its military intervention in Yemen in March 2015, more than 10,000 civilians have died. More than 250 fishing boats have been damaged or destroyed and 152 fishermen have been killed by coalition warships and helicopters in the Red Sea, according to Mohammed Hassani, the head of the fishermen’s union in Yemen’s western port of Hodeidah.

“They have declared war on fishermen,” said Hassani. More than 100 miles further south in the port of Mocha, fishermen have been barred from going out to sea since the Houthi-Saleh forces, who the Saudi-led coalition have been fighting for more than two and half years, were pushed out by Yemeni fighters backed by a coalition partner, the United Arab Emirates, in February. [Continue reading…]

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Warming of the Arctic is ‘unprecedented over the last 1,500 years,’ scientists say

The Washington Post reports: The Trump administration’s mixed views on climate change notwithstanding, a group of federal scientists on Tuesday released a stark report on the warming at the top of the planet, suggesting that it is unparalleled in more than a millennium.

“The Arctic is going through the most unprecedented transition in human history, and we need better observations to understand and predict how these changes will affect everyone, not just the people of the north,” Jeremy Mathis said in a presentation at the 2017 meeting of the American Geophysical Union in New Orleans. Mathis is director of the Arctic Research Program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Mathis was unveiling the 2017 Arctic Report Card, an annual NOAA report that documents the changing conditions for floating sea ice, the glaciers of Greenland, the thawing permafrost of the high latitudes, and more. [Continue reading…]

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When climate change becomes a credit problem

Jeff Nesbit writes: Climate change is now a credit issue for city and state governments vulnerable to extreme weather events and natural disasters made worse by global warming. And that will make a complicated problem a lot easier for people to understand, because it could hit them where they feel it: in their wallets.

In a welcome but long overdue development, one of the world’s leading credit-rating agencies, Moody’s Investors Service, announced recently that it would give more weight to climate change risks in evaluating the creditworthiness of state and local governments.

Coming in the aftermath of hurricanes that severely damaged parts of Houston and much of the United States Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico this year, the message from Moody’s was clear. Governments must prepare for heat waves, droughts, flooding and coastal storm surges or face credit downgrades that will make it more expensive for them to borrow money for public services and for improvements in roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

That could mean higher taxes for the people who live in those communities. Even for governments that act to reduce their exposure to climate risks, the costs of doing so “could also become an ongoing credit challenge,” Michael Wertz, a Moody’s vice president, said.

And there are many communities in harm’s way: Just in terms of coastal flooding, for instance, Moody’s reports that 43 percent of coastal homes in Georgia lie in floodplains vulnerable to inundation; in Florida and Mississippi, the number is 38 percent; in Louisiana, 34 percent and in Texas, 26 percent. [Continue reading…]

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Ticks preserved in amber were likely sucking dinosaur blood

The New York Times reports: Paleontologists have found entombed in amber a 99-million-year-old tick grasping the feather of a dinosaur, providing the first direct evidence that the tiny pests drank dinosaur blood.

Immortalized in the golden gemstone, the bloodsucker’s last supper is remarkable because it is rare to find parasites with their hosts in the fossil record. The finding, which was published Tuesday, gives researchers tantalizing insight into the prehistoric diet of one of today’s most prevalent pests.

“This study provides the most compelling evidence to date for ticks feeding on feathered animals in the Cretaceous,” said Ryan C. McKellar, a paleontologist at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Canada who was not involved in the study. “It demonstrates just how much detail can be obtained from a few pieces of amber in the hands of the right researchers.”

David Grimaldi, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History and an author of the paper published in the journal Nature Communications, was inspecting a private collection of amber from northern Myanmar when he and his colleagues spotted the eight-legged stowaway.

“Holy moly this is cool,” he recounted thinking at the time. “This is the first time we’ve been able to find ticks directly associated with the dinosaur feathers.”

Upon further inspection, he and his colleagues concluded that the tick was a nymph, similar in size to a deer tick nymph, and that its host was most likely some sort of fledgling dinosaur no bigger than a hummingbird, which Dr. Grimaldi referred to as a “nanoraptor.” The parasites were most likely unwanted roommates living in the dinosaurs’ nests and sucking their blood. [Continue reading…]

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