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Japan’s finance ministry proposed cover story

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People gathering near the Japan Parliament hold placards against Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as Yasunori Kagoike, head of the Moritomo Gakuen group, gives sworn testimony in the Diet on March 23, 2017.

David Mareuil | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

People gathering near the Japan Parliament hold placards against Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as Yasunori Kagoike, head of the Moritomo Gakuen group, gives sworn testimony in the Diet on March 23, 2017.

Japan’s Finance Ministry proposed crafting a cover story with a school operator at the heart of a political scandal to justify a discount in the price of public land sold to the school, a ministry official said on Monday.

The admission is likely to increase pressure on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to resign over the scandal involving the sale of state-owned land to school operator Moritomo Gakuen, which had ties to Abe’s wife.

Abe has repeatedly said that neither he nor his wife were involved in the land sale and that he would resign if he were found to be involved.

Opposition lawmakers have called for Abe’s resignation.

“Last year on Feb. 20 a finance bureau employee contacted Moritomo Gakuen’s lawyer … and suggested saying a lot of money was spent on the removal of rubbish and thousands of trucks were used,” Mitsuru Ota, head of the Finance Ministry’s finance bureau, told parliament.

“Moritomo’s lawyer did not take any action on this phone call. It was wrong for us to ask Moritomo Gakuen to say something that was not true,” Ota said, adding that the attempt to cook up a story was “highly embarrassing”.

Ota’s comments confirmed a report by public broadcaster NHK last week and followed a March 12 admission by the ministry that it had altered documents relating to the land sale.

The plot of land in Osaka, western Japan, was appraised to be worth 956,000,000 yen ($8.95 million) but the ministry granted the school operator an 820,000,000 yen discount.

It originally said the sale was appropriate and was heavily discounted to offset the costs of removing a lot of rubbish buried on the plot.

Prosecutors in Osaka arrested the operator of Moritomo Gakuen and his wife in July last year on suspicion of illegally receiving government subsidies.

The National Board of Audit, which is independent of the cabinet and has the authority to investigate spending by government agencies, said in November there was not enough evidence to support the heavy discount.

That increased speculation that Moritomo Gakuen’s operator used his ties with the prime minister’s wife to secure the discount.

The scandal is eroding Abe’s public approval ratings.

A survey on Monday showed voters who disapproved of Abe’s cabinet outnumbered those who support his cabinet for the first time in six months.

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House opens probe into security failures in deadly U.S. Capitol attack

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House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) speaks to reporters next to U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) as House Democrats respond to a White House briefing on reports Russia paid the Taliban bounties to kill U.S. troops during a news conference following the briefing at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., June 30, 2020.

Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

The Democratic-led House of Representatives on Saturday sent a letter to FBI Director Chris Wray and other agency chiefs seeking information on the intelligence and security failures that led up to the breach of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 that forced lawmakers into hiding.

Four House committee chairs signed onto the letter, which called for documents and briefings from the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the National Counterterrorism Center and the Director of National Intelligence on what was known ahead of the attack.

“This still-emerging story is one of astounding bravery by some U.S. Capitol Police and other officers; of staggering treachery by violent criminals; and of apparent and high-level failures — in particular, with respect to intelligence and security preparedness,” the committees wrote.

The letter was signed by Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff, D-Calif., Homeland Security Committee Chair Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y. and Oversight Committee Chair Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. 

The probe comes as lawmakers — and Democrats in particular — are clamoring for more information on how a mob of President Donald Trump supporters was able to break into the so-called “People’s House,” which has its own police force, and delay the certification of President-elect Joe Biden‘s Electoral College victory by several hours.

The inspectors general of the Department of Justice, Defense, Homeland Security and Interior have launched reviews of their agency’s actions connected to the attack.

In the letter, lawmakers cited press reporting that the U.S. Capitol Police had been warned that Trump supporters would attempt to violently enter into the Capitol.

NBC News reported on Jan. 10 that the FBI and the New York Police Department passed information to the Capitol Police about threats of violence directed at the counting of the Electoral College votes.

The Washington Post reported on Jan. 12 that an FBI field office in Virginia had warned ahead of the attack that extremists headed to Washington were planning for “war.”

“Security and logistical preparations before January 6 were not consistent with the prospect of serious and widespread violence. Yet, according to media accounts that have surfaced in recent days, federal and other authorities earlier on possessed — and may have shared with some parties — intelligence and other information forecasting a dire security threat against the Congress’s meeting to certify the election results,” the committee chairs wrote.

“These latter reports, if acted upon, might have prompted more extensive planning for the event, and the infusion of far greater security and other resources,” they added.

Capitol Police officials have said they did not see FBI intelligence ahead of the attack.

The committee chairs lay out three broad lines of inquiry that they will pursue.

The first is what was known by the intelligence community and law enforcement ahead of, during and after the attack. The lawmakers also said they will be probing whether any foreign powers played a role in exploiting the crisis.

The second prong the committees are examining is whether any current or former holders of national security clearances participated in the insurrection.

The committees are also asking for information on government policy in response to the attack, including measures to prevent those implicated in crimes from traveling.

“The Committees expect and appreciate your full cooperation with this matter – while of course recognizing that resources appropriately and immediately must be allocated to efforts to counter any continuing threats to the transfer of power, including the presidential inauguration and related activities,” the committee chairs wrote.

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Armin Laschet picked as new leader of Germany’s ruling CDU party 

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Candidate for the chairmanship of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union party, Armin Laschet, gestures as he takes part in a discussion at the party’s headquarters in Berlin on Jan. 8, 2021.

CHRISTIAN MANG / POOL / AFP) (Photo by CHRISTIAN MANG/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

FRANKFURT, Germany — Germany’s ruling CDU party picked Armin Laschet to be its new chairman on Saturday, possibly paving the way for him to replace Angela Merkel as chancellor at elections later this year. 

Laschet is currently the prime minister of Germany’s North Rhine-Westphalia region, the most populous federal state in the country. He beat rival Friedrich Merz by 521 to 466 in a vote that was forced online due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Born in 1961, he was first elected to the Bundestag (German Parliament) in 1994 and his election is seen as a continuation of Merkel’s policies, as he has pledged to keep the CDU firmly in the “middle of society.” 

With him as chairman, the CDU will likely stay on message and focus on more climate change policies and environmental topics. He has a strong Catholic background which brings him support from Christian circles within the party. 

He is a trained lawyer and also worked as a journalist at the time of German reunification between 1986 and 1991. He is seen as being very liberal and is popular with the immigrant community in his home state.

If he becomes the CDU’s candidate for chancellor at September’s elections, he could be open to various coalitions — power sharing is somewhat of a recent tradition in German politics.

He has floated the idea of a government alongside the liberals, the FDP, in a bid to win over parts of the business camp inside the CDU. But he is also seen as a natural fit for a coalition with the Greens too, as he is on good speaking terms with the party and favors environmental issues.

But the CDU’s candidate for chancellor will only be determined in the spring. And it’s not certain that the newly-elected chairman will automatically move into Merkel’s role. Markus Söder, the very popular Bavarian prime minister, and also Jens Spahn, the current health minister, may also join the race to lead Europe’s largest economy.

Merkel stepped down as leader of the CDU in 2018, and her replacement Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer quit in February 2020 after a series of communication mishaps exposed her as being too weak to lead the chancellery.

This is a breaking news story, please check back later for more.

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Biden heads into inauguration with a stock market tailwind

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