Morning mail: Trump 'offered Assange pardon', toxic air, Sanders takes strong lead

Richard Parkin
Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

Good morning, this is Richard Parkin bringing you the main stories and must-reads on Thursday 20 February.

Top stories

Donald Trump offered Julian Assange a pardon if he denied Russian involvement in the leaking of Democratic party emails, a court in London has heard. The 2016 leaks, published by Wikileaks, were highly embarrassing to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and in 2018 a dozen Russian intelligence officers were charged for email hacking. Assange’s lawyer claimed in a statement that in 2017 former US Republican congressman Dana Rohrabacher visited Assange inside the Ecuadorian embassy offering a pardon deal if the Wikileaks founder “said Russia had nothing to do with the DNC leaks”. Assange is battling to prevent extradition to the US where he faces 18 charges over the publication of US military information, carrying a term of 175 years.

During the recent bushfire crisis Australians breathed air pollution at levels up to 26 times above that which is considered hazardous. In the latest episode of Guardian Australia’s series, The Frontline, experts admit the long-term health impacts are not necessarily known. “We’re all currently living in a big experiment,” said associate professor Donna Green. “We know it will be bad, we just don’t know how bad.”

Hannah Baxter, the 31-year-old woman involved in an “horrific” car fire in Brisbane, has died, succumbing to injuries sustained in the fire that claimed her three children and husband. Baxter died at the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital early on Wednesday evening. Her husband Rowan Baxter died alongside their children Laianah, Aaliyah and Trey on a suburban street in Brisbane’s east on Wednesday morning. Another man who tried to help at the scene was also taken to hospital with facial burns.

Australia

Tony Abbott addressing at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Sydney. Photograph: Bianca de Marchi/AAP

Tony Abbott was asked to consider registering as an agent of foreign influence, after he spoke at a conference organised by the Hungarian government in praise of the country’s far-right prime minister, Viktor Orbán. The registry is run by the attorney general’s office to trace foreign influence on Australian politics, with Abbott’s address at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an event affiliated with US conservative politics, also potentially requiring the former prime minister to register.

Liberal MP Lucy Wicks has denied a conflict of interests, after the leader of a wealthy Pentecostal church who had described her as a “dear friend” was awarded a $8,580 grant to soundproof its auditorium under the Stronger Communities scheme.

Child protection advocates have condemned Andrew Bolt’s use of the phrase “hit on” to describe the sexual grooming of a year 9 school boy by his athletics coach, saying the language was inappropriate and minimised the seriousness of the offence.

Software billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes and his wife Annie have promised up to $12m to install solar and battery systems in communities disconnected from the electricity grid by bushfire or flood.

The world

Iran has announced the death of two citizens from the coronavirus, while a leading economic forecaster has predicted the disease could cost the global economy more than $1tn in lost output if it turns into a pandemic.

Bernie Sanders has firmed strongly as the Democratic frontrunner in national opinion polls, with the Vermont senator soaring to 32% as Joe Biden tanked to 17%. Late runner Mike Bloomberg rose 6% to third with 14% ahead of Elizabeth Warren, who remained unchanged on 11% support.

Brussels has dispelled the UK’s hopes of a post-Brexit, Canada-style trade deal with the EU, with chief negotiator Michel Barnier warning that the UK’s “particular proximity” meant it could not hope for similar advantages as the North American nation.

Lingerie giant Victoria’s Secret has come under fire for excessive waste within the fashion industry, after hundreds of bras were found dumped in a bin, not far from one of its stores in Colorado.

Recommended reads

“Most people in the UK assume Australia is quite enlightened … so it’s shocking to read about what is happening on offshore detention centres”. That’s the discovery of British actor Dominic West, who stars alongside Cate Blanchett in the new series, Stateless, a star-laden six-episode deep dive into Australia’s controversial immigration policies, writes Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore.

Private sector wage growth is stagnant and the government’s predicted 3% growth figures seems increasingly far away, writes Greg Jericho. “Low wages have become the norm, and worryingly they appear to have peaked at a level that in the past would have been considered disastrous.” So, what hope is there for imminent wages growth? Well, unless unemployment drops dramatically, not a lot.

Hell is other people in confined spaces – if you question that, a long-haul flight in economy might remind you of the worst of humanity, writes Jo Tovey. But “cramming” frustration is happening everywhere. “We jostle and squabble in queues at underfunded public services. We grow irritated stuck on buses behind streams of slow cyclists.” But sometimes seeing each others’ humanity can be the key.

Listen

Throughout 2019, Donald Trump’s campaign spent nearly $20m on Facebook ads. So what makes Trump voters tick, and click? On this episode of Today in Focus, Rachel Humphreys speaks with Guardian US’s tech reporter Julia Carrie Wong.

Sport

Ange Postecoglou looks on during the AFC Champions League match between Yokohama F.Marinos and Sydney FC. Photograph: Matt Roberts/Getty Images

Former Socceroos coach Ange Postecoglou has handed A-League sides a dose of reality after his side Yokohama F. Marinos beat Sydney FC 4-0 in the ACL Champions League. But more bad news could be in store – as Australia’s ranking within Asia’s elite plummets dramatically.

Manchester City’s chief executive has hit out over the club’s two-year Champions League ban, claiming Uefa’s decision is “less about justice and more about politics”. The club were fined €30m, but as Jamie Jackson writes, maintain their innocence.

Media roundup

A suspected spy who tried to get a Chinese agent inside federal parliament was able to leave Australia after undergoing questioning, claims the Age, suggesting a significant gap in national security legislation. Chinese travel agents are marketing “14-day, 13-night” packages to third country transit destinations to help Chinese ­students get around the coronavirus ban, the Australian reports. And, Fremantle councillors will vote next week on whether a redeveloped Kings Square will be named after a Noongar warrior who resisted British occupation, writes the West Australian.

Coming up

The evacuees from the Diamond Princess cruise ship are expected to arrive in Darwin, where they will be taken into quarantine for another 14 days.

A decision is expected on whether the former Liberal party director Simon Frost will be referred to the high court for breaching electoral rules over the Chinese signs affair.

And if you’ve read this far …

A 77m cargo ship disabled near Bermuda and then hijacked in Guyana has washed ashore in Ireland – having floated in the Atlantic since 2018. MV Alta, a so-called “ghost ship” drifting without crew for nearly 18 months, is reportedly in pretty good nick, having run aground near the peaceful fishing village of Ballycotton.