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February 11, 2019

The Internal Revenue Service says the average 2018 tax refund has been 8 percent smaller than last year and about 25 percent fewer people are receiving refunds. This is mostly due to the tax overhaul Republicans pushed through on party-line votes in late 2017, The Washington Post reports, plus subsequent changes the IRS made to withholding tables. (The IRS would prefer you neither owe taxes nor get a refund.)

An IRS spokesman cautioned that these numbers reflect only returns processed through Feb. 1 and will change as more taxpayers file and the IRS recovers from the five-week government shutdown, the Post reports, "but there's reason to believe frustrations could rise as more Americans complete their tax returns." A lot of Americans are already angry and sharing their outrage on social media, blaming President Trump and congressional Republicans. But the smaller refunds don't necessarily mean people are paying more in taxes. In fact, most people got modest tax cuts last year, even if they didn't notice it.

"People generally got a piece of their tax cut last year gradually in the form of lower withholding on their paychecks," Joseph Rosenberg at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center told the Post. "It's a mystery why taxpayers seem to be comfortable — and even happy — with getting refund checks." Nicole Kaeding at the conservative Tax Foundation agreed, arguing that "getting a tax refund means that you gave the government an interest-free loan because you overpaid your taxes." Personal finance experts generally agree with this argument.

Still, "many Americans appear to like getting a refund because they feel that if they received an extra $20 to $40 a week, they would spend it," the Post observes. "But when they get a one-time refund of $1,000 to $2,000, they put it toward paying off credit card debt, paying down a mortgage, or saving for retirement." You can read more about the GOP tax plan's shortfalls from The Week's Jeff Spross. Peter Weber

12:18 a.m.

Maybe they meant to type "(Crickets)"?

The White House has posted online the remarks made by Vice President Mike Pence last Friday at the Munich Security Conference, but there's a glaring error. In the beginning of his address, Pence said it was his "great honor" to speak "on behalf of a champion of freedom and a champion of a strong national defense, the 45th president of the United States, President Donald Trump." In the transcript, it says this was followed by "(Applause)." In reality, it was followed by (Silence).

As video from the event shows, Pence expected to be met with some sort of a reaction, as he paused, awkwardly, before moving on. The White House hasn't said why it inserted this fabrication, or why they didn't go with something more exciting, like (Audience starts chanting, "USA! USA! USA!" while twirling star-spangled rally towels) or (German Chancellor Angela Merkel dons a MAGA cap, initiates The Wave). Catherine Garcia

February 18, 2019

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said Monday night that a 45-year-old Mexican national had died in Border Patrol custody earlier in the day, after being apprehended by police in Roma, Texas, on Feb. 2. The cause of death remains unknown, CBP spokesman Andrew Meehan said, and the man's name is being withheld. The Department of Homeland Security instituted new health protocols and guidelines for reporting the deaths of immigrants in its custody after two children from Guatemala, ages 8 and 7, died in Border Patrol custody in New Mexico in December.

The immigrants requested medical attention after being arrested for crossing illegally into the U.S., "was cleared" by officials at the Mission Regional Medical Center, then handed over to Border Patrol, CBP said. The next day, the immigrant requested medical attention and was taken to the McAllen Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and congestive heart failure, CBP said. He died in the hospital Monday morning. Peter Weber

February 18, 2019

Roger Stone may have been ordered to keep quiet in front of the federal courthouse in Washington, but he's not staying silent on Instagram, posting a picture on Monday of the judge overseeing his criminal trial next to a crosshair symbol.

Stone, a longtime Republican operative and adviser to President Trump, wrote in the caption that Special Counsel Robert Mueller used "legal trickery" to ensure his trial for lying to Congress, witness tampering, and obstruction is before Judge Amy Berman Jackson. Stone, who has been hustling to raise money online to cover his legal bills, tagged his defense fund, and added the hashtag #fixisin.

BuzzFeed News contacted Stone, and he said it was a "random photo taken from the internet," and "any inference that this was meant to somehow threaten the judge or disrespect court is categorically false." He later deleted the image, and filed a notice of apology with the court, saying the photograph and comment were "improper" and he "recognizes the impropriety and had it removed." Catherine Garcia

February 18, 2019

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is expected to leave the Department of Justice in mid-March, a department official told Reuters on Monday.

It was anticipated that he would step down after a new attorney general was chosen; last week, William Barr was confirmed by the Senate and sworn in as attorney general. In May 2017, Rosenstein appointed Special Counsel Robert Mueller to investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 election and any ties between Russia and the Trump campaign. Catherine Garcia

February 18, 2019

A coalition of 16 states, including California, New York, Maryland, and Illinois, filed a federal lawsuit on Monday over President Trump's attempt to use emergency powers to build a wall along the souther border.

In the suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, the states argue that Trump cannot construct the wall without permission from Congress, and it is unconstitutional for him to divert money designated for other purposes. The suit also states that the "federal government's own data prove there is no national emergency at the southern border that warrants construction of a wall. Customs and Border Protection data show that unlawful entries are near 45-year lows."

The additional states involved in the suit are Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, and Virginia. All have Democratic governors, with the exception of Maryland. Catherine Garcia

February 18, 2019

While testifying in front of the North Carolina State Board of Elections on Monday, a woman admitted to falsifying absentee ballots in November, after being hired by a political operative working on behalf of Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris.

Due to allegations of fraud, the race in North Carolina's 9th district is still undecided, with Harris ahead of Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes. During her testimony, Lisa Britt said she was hired by her stepfather, McCrae Dowless, to collect absentee ballots, and when she came across one that was unsealed or not fully filled out, she checked off the Republican candidates.

Britt also admitted to signing absentee ballot as a witness, even when she did not see the person fill out their ballot. She testified that she does not think Harris knew what she was instructed to do.

The hearing is expected to last two or three days, and upon its conclusion, the board will decide to certify the election, or, if "irregularities" are found to have tainted the results of the election and "cast doubt on its fairness," a new one will be held. Catherine Garcia

February 18, 2019

While speaking in Miami on Monday, President Trump said the Venezuelan military "must not" follow President Nicolas Maduro's orders to block humanitarian aid from coming into the country, and they are "risking their future" by supporting him.

Venezuela is dealing with hyperinflation, and many people aren't getting enough food, medicine, and other basic necessities. Trump said the U.S. delivered aid two days ago, but it's stuck in Colombia because "Maduro has blocked this life-saving aid from entering the country. He would rather see his people starve than give them aid. Maduro is not a Venezuelan patriot, he is a Cuban puppet."

Trump wants the military to start backing opposition leader Juan Guaido, who says that last year's election was a sham and he is the interim president. "We seek a peaceful transition of power, but all options are open," Trump said. Catherine Garcia

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