U.S. troops and contractors in Afghanistan by year - Axios
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U.S. troops and contractors in Afghanistan by year

President Trump will address the nation regarding his strategy in Afghanistan tonight. Here's how many U.S. troops and contractors were in the country through as of late-2016, and the 8 years prior, according to an April report from the Congressional Research Service.

Data: Congressional Research Service; Chart: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

Some takeaways from the report:

  • The latest available figures from Q4 of FY2016 show 9,800 troops in Afghanistan, down from about 100,000 in 2011.
  • Contractors have frequently made up over half of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan — in Q4 of FY2016, 72 percent of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan consisted of contractors.
  • About 3 percent of these contractors were armed private security contractors.
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Walmart won't hire extra holiday workers in 2017

A shopper looks at Walmart merchandise in Salem, N.H. Photo: Elise Amendola / AP

Walmart isn't hiring seasonal workers this holiday season, and will instead increase existing employees' hours, a decision that underscores the American consumer's strengthening preference for online rather than in-store shopping.

Why it matters: According to retail consultant Challenger, Gray, and Christmas, seasonal retail employment grew last holiday season at the smallest rate since 2009. Seasonal jobs in warehousing and transportation of goods sold online are partly making up for the loss of in-store employment, but those jobs tend to be less evenly distributed geographically than traditional retail gigs.

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Spicer: I didn’t “knowingly” lie

Sean Spicer told ABC News' Paula Faris that he knows he "made mistakes" while serving under the Trump administration, but said some people have gone too far in criticizing him for them, such as by "questioning his integrity" and calling him a liar.

More quotes from the interview:

  • On his infamous statement on inauguration crowd size: "I could've probably had more facts at hand and been more articulate in describing... the entirety of what that day was about."
  • On the Russia probe: "There's an issue of executive privilege. And as long as that's not invoked, I will do everything to further... to do my part to further... this investigation coming to a swift conclusion."
  • Trump was "very supportive" of his Emmy's performance: "He thought I did a great job... It was very reassuring."
  • Media crticism: "I know that there are some folks that, no matter what we say or do... some folks in the media that wanted... [to] think that, you know, everything that we did was wrong and want some blanket apology — that's not happening."

Go deeper:

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Pence: "We have options" on North Korea

From Pence's interview:

  • Pence: "There was some talk two, three weeks ago by some commentators that the most powerful military on Earth doesn't have the ability to take action to defend our people. That's wrong."
  • CBS host: "I think it was Steve Bannon who ... was quoted saying that."
  • Pence: "We have options... The president desires a peaceful resolution ... It all begins when the Kim regime announces their willingness to abandon their nuclear and ballistics program."
Flashback: In an August interview, Bannon told the American Prospect, "There's no military solution [to North Korea's nuclear threats], forget it ... there's no military solution here, they got us."
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71% support Trump's debt limit deal with Chuck & Nancy

Trump cuts a deal with Democratic leaders. Photo Evan Vucci / AP

A new NBC News/WSJ poll finds that 71% of Americans support President Trump's deal with Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, which tied Hurricane Harvey relief to raising the debt ceiling for three months, instead of Republican leaders' preferred 18 months.

Why it matters: Republicans on the Hill were floored by Trump's decision to side with Democrats, but his voters seem to approve of the president's bipartisan negotiation.

The poll says...

  • Trump's job approval rating is 43%
  • His performance approval has ticked up among Republicans, Democrats and Independents since August: 83% of Republicans approve (up from 80%), 41% of Independents (up from 32%), 10% of Democrats (up from 8%)
  • Fewer than 30% of Americans support Trump's Twitter use and how the president has handled health care legislation and race relations after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia
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"Devastating" Hurricane Maria intensifies

Power lines lay toppled on the road after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico Wednesday. Photo: Carlos Giusti / AP

Hurricane Maria continued to dump torrential rain on Puerto Rico Thursday morning as it regained strength and marched toward the Dominican Republic. The Category 3 storm, with winds up to 115 mph, is expected to strengthen further as it travels over warm waters today toward Turks and Caicos and the southeastern Bahamas.

In Puerto Rico, electricity has been knocked out across the entire island, said Gov. Ricardo Rosselló's press secretary, Yennifer Álvarez Jaimes. Rosselló has also declared a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew from Wednesday to Saturday. "The damage is very extensive," he told CNN Wednesday. "It is nothing short of a major disaster."

Live updates:

  • Forecasters say Puerto Rico will see roughly two feet of rain by Friday. Meanwhile, storm surges are expected to raise water levels as much as six feet in the Dominican Republic, per the NYT.
  • Gov. Rosselló said Maria is the "most devastating storm to hit the island this century, if not in modern history," and warned that restoring power to everyone may take months.
  • A spokesman for the government of Dominica, Charles Jong, said Thursday that 14 people have died on the island.
  • Late Wednesday night, President Trump tweeted: "Governor @RicardoRossello- We are with you and the people of Puerto Rico. Stay safe! #PRStrong."
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Kimmel targets Graham-Cassidy for 2nd night in a row

Kimmel's big quote: "This morning, the senators sat for an interview with Chris Cuomo, CNN, and pulled the 'all comedians are dummies' card... Oh, I get it, I don't understand because I'm a talk show host, right? Well, then help me out. Which part don't I understand? The part where you cut $243 billion from federal health-care assistance?... Or could it be, Sen. Cassidy, the problem is that I do understand and you got caught with your G-O-Penis out? Is that possible? Because it feels like it is."

More quotes:

  • "When Sen. Cassidy was on my show in May, he told me that he believed that every American family, regardless of income, should be able to get quality health care. And I believed he was sincere. Sadly, the bill he unveiled last week with Sen. Lindsey Graham indicates that he was not sincere. It is, by many accounts, the worst health care bill yet."
  • On 'Fox & Friends' host Brian Kilmeade calling Kimmel a "Hollywood elite" who keeps "pushing his politics on the rest of the country: "[T]he reason I'm talking about this is because my son had an open heart surgery... I don't get anything out of this, Brian, you phony little creep. Oh, I'll pound you when I see you."
  • Sen. Graham told reporters that what I said last night was garbage... But I'm not going to attack Lindsey Graham for two reasons. Number one, he's one of the few Republicans who stands up to Donald Trump. And number two, Lindsey Graham happens to look a lot like my Grandma Jane who is now deceased."
  • "[T]here's no way President Trump read this bill that he says is great... Can you imagine Donald Trump actually sitting down to read a health-care bill? It's like trying to imagine a dog doing your taxes."
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The 2016 primaries gave Zuckerberg a political awakening

Photo illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios

"Facebook has 2 billion users, record profits, vast influence, and big problems in Washington," write Max Chafkin and Sarah Frier in Bloomberg Businessweek's forthcoming cover story:

Why it matters: "Zuckerberg has become a big, enticing target for both liberal Democrats, who see him as a media-devouring monopolist, and for nationalist Republicans, who see an opportunity to rail against the company that embodies globalization more than any other."

  • "Zuckerberg's political awakening began a little more than a year ago. 'I guess it was while the primaries were going on,' he says. Trump was on the ascent, thanks to a nationalist message Zuckerberg saw as an attack on the global connectivity Facebook has long promoted… 'I mean, for most of the existence of the company, this idea of connecting the world has not been a controversial thing .. Something changed.'"
  • "In surveys of users, only 100 million people told Facebook they use the site to connect with groups they find 'meaningful.'"
  • "Zuckerberg finds the figure disappointing and has told employees they should seek to increase the level tenfold. 'It'll take years,' he says, 'but if we can get to a billion more people in meaningful groups online, that will reverse the decline in community membership and start strengthening the social fabric again.'"
  • "Throughout the interview, he seems irritated that his actions could be viewed as anything other than expansive benevolence."
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What Graham-Cassidy means for pre-existing conditions

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

Jimmy Kimmel's takedown of Sen. Bill Cassidy, and Cassidy's response, ripped open the question of whether the GOP's latest health reform bill protects people with pre-existing conditions. Cassidy and co-sponsor Sen. Lindsey Graham insist it does — as did President Trump in a tweet last night — but experts say that's not really the case.

The bottom line: The bill's funding cuts could pressure states — even blue states — to waive protections for sick people, as a way to keep premium increases in check. Older, sicker people in every state could end up paying more as states try to make up for a funding shortfall.

What the bill does: The bill wouldn't repeal the Affordable Care Act's rules about pre-existing conditions. But they might end up only existing on paper, the Kaiser Family Foundation's Larry Levitt said.

Graham-Cassidy doesn't let states waive the part of the Affordable Care Act that says insurers have to cover sick people. But it does allow states to opt out of several other ACA rules that can cause people with pre-existing conditions to pay more for their health care. Those provisions include:

  • The ban on charging sick people higher premiums than healthy people.
  • The requirement that insurers cover "essential health benefits," including prescription drugs. People who need expensive drugs might not have access to a plan that covers those drugs, requiring them to pay out of pocket.
    • Services that aren't "essential" benefits aren't subject to the ACA's ban on annual and lifetime limits.
  • The bill also would also loosen rules about how much insurers can raise their premiums because of a customer's age. (Older people are more likely to have pre-existing conditions.)

What supporters will argue: The bill requires states to say how their waivers would provide affordable and accessible coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. But there's no definition of what that means, and there's also no enforcement mechanism.

  • "The bottom line is these protections are much more at risk under this bill than they are now," said Cori Uccello, a senior health fellow with the American Academy of Actuaries.

Another level: At least theoretically, because the bill gives states so much control, a more liberal state like California might choose to preserve more of the ACA's regulations than, say, Alabama. But this bill would radically redistribute federal health care funding — generally away from blue and purple states and toward red states. Those cuts could back blue states into seeking more expansive waivers.

  • Caroline Pearson of Avalere told me: "if you have less money, you either cover fewer people, or you cover the same amount of people with less generous coverage. People with pre existing conditions are very reliant on having access to affordable insurance and need insurance that is comprehensive. So if a bill reduces the availability of comprehensive insurance, people with chronic conditions are going to be disproportionately harmed."
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The seasons when people freak out about health issues

Dehydration is a hot topic in the summer, common cold in the winter. Gabriel Gianordoli / Google News Labs

When people do Google searches about health problems, they're most likely to be looking up pain, cancer, or diabetes. That's one of the big takeaways from a new Google Trends study of the millions of searches related to health issues: which health problems people worry about most, how the seasons affect searches, and how epidemics spread.

Why it matters: This is the first project of its kind, and gives new insight into the seasonality of the public's health concerns, as searches related to maladies make up about 5% of all Google searches. The Google News Lab gave Axios an exclusive first look at the data.

Keep in mind: These charts can only describe seasonal trends of health searches. It can't explain them. While searches about a disease may partially be influenced by the number of people who have symptoms of that illness, they're not necessarily or directly correlated. More research would be needed to document the reasons behind the searches.

Highlights:

  • Most searched: Since 2004, around the world, the most common searches for health issues were pain, then cancer, with diabetes most commonly coming in third. It was occasionally replaced by acne and in 2004, HIV/AIDS.
  • Seasonal trends: Searches related to the flu, bronchitis and the cold are significantly more common during the winter, while dehydration, skin rashes and Candidiasis — likely caused by wet bathing suits — peak in the summer. And during the spring, allergy-related searches are most common — as well as chicken pox, since the spring is the peak season for the disease.

Searches for colds and bronchitis peak in the winter months.Gabriel Gianordoli / Google News Lab

  • Campaigns: Advocacy initiatives like Breast Cancer Awareness month cause the number of searches related to breast cancer and cancer in general to skyrocket in October. And for ALS, there was a significant spike in searches related to the disease in the summer of 2014, when the ice bucket challenge became popular.

The spike in searches for breast cancer coincides with Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October.Gabriel Gianordoli / Google News Lab

  • Holidays: After New Year's Day, searches for chest pain are the most popular, plausibly due to increased food and alcohol consumption related to the holidays, which could cause heart problems.
  • Epidemics: The project also maps out how epidemics like Ebola, Zika and yellow fever spread all over the world. Watch their interactive map, here.

Go deeper: See Gabriel Gianordoli's visuals for yourself and search for other health trends on your own, here.

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Amazon's approach to smart glasses sounds pretty smart

Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder of Amazon, at the introduction of the new Amazon Kindle Fire HD in 2012. Reed Saxon / AP

We can all envision what augmented reality glasses might eventually look like: as thin and light as regular glasses, have all-day battery life and don't make you look like a complete cyborg dork. The problem is, those aren't technically feasible today, as Google Glass and others have proved.

What's new: That's what makes Amazon's reported approach so interesting. Rather than try to cram in all the tech that will go in the glasses of the future, it appears Amazon is focused on the technology that smart glasses can deliver today while still being light, working all day and not prohibitively expansive. And that means putting a big focus on its Alexa voice assistant as the star attraction.

According to the Financial Times, Amazon is pairing Alexa with an interesting technology: transmitting audio via bone conduction, which also lets consumers skip another dorky element — having to wear headphones. It's worth noting that the newspaper report says nothing about augmented reality. If Amazon goes for an audio-only approach it won't have some of the cool features AR makes possible, but also will eliminate the screen and other components that account for much of the bulk, cost and battery drain of other smart glasses.

Why this matters to Amazon: The two other big personal assistants — Siri and Google Assistant — already have a way into consumers mobile lives via the smartphone. Though Alexa is popular, she's mostly housebound and tied to Amazon Echo and other in-home gadgets. Amazon tried and failed at doing its own smartphone, but integrating Alexa into a wearable gives Amazon a way in without having to displace Android or iOS. Amazon, by the way, wants Alexa everywhere and is talking to carmakers, appliance makers, etc.