Libya, Harry and Meghan, SpaceX: Your Monday Briefing

Libya, Harry and Meghan, SpaceX: Your Monday Briefing

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Good morning.

We’re covering halting steps toward peace in Libya, Harry and Meghan’s hard break from the British royal family and a facial recognition app that’s scraping photos from Facebook.

Credit…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

Gen. Khalifa Hifter, a rebel commander in Libya whose forces are laying siege to Tripoli, is due to meet in Moscow today with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, amid hopes that the general might embrace a permanent cease-fire agreement that he refused to sign last week.

The meeting comes a day after more than a dozen international powers with competing interests in Libya met in Berlin and called for a cease-fire, an arms embargo and “a Libyan-led and Libyan-owned political process” for ending a conflict that has festered for nearly nine years.

But expectations remain low: On Sunday, as General Hifter’s forces launched fresh attacks on Tripoli, he and the Libyan prime minister refused to even spend time in the same room together.

Related: As Russia and Turkey play a bigger role in trying to end the conflict, Europe is belatedly sensing the implications of “a new Great Game, this time in North Africa, that is rapidly destabilizing its backyard,” our Brussels-based correspondents write.

Russia: Our reporter in Moscow explains why Mr. Putin announced last week a surprise reorganization of the government four years before he is scheduled to step down. (Hint: An autocrat’s usual retirement package — death, jail or exile — is unappealing.)

When Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, made the bombshell announcement that they planned to “step back” from their royal duties, they said they hoped to carve out a “progressive new role” within the monarchy.

But under a severance deal announced over the weekend, the couple will lose most of the privileges and perks of royalty once they give up their full-time status and forsake Britain for an uncertain future in Canada and the United States. It’s a harsher deal than the soft exit they’d imagined.

“It brings me great sadness that it has come to this,” Harry said of the agreement, which codifies one of the most dramatic ruptures within the British royal family since King Edward VIII abdicated the throne in 1936 to marry an American, Wallis Simpson.

Details: Harry and Meghan will forgo public funding of their activities, abandon their royal designations and repay the more than $3 million they spent refurbishing their residence on the grounds of Windsor Castle. But for now, their website has retained references to “His Royal Highness” and “Her Royal Highness.”

Quotable: Penny Junor, a royal biographer, said the British royal family was “trying to prevent a half-in, half-out arrangement, which doesn’t work.”

President Trump’s high-powered legal team is expected to expand today on its earlier arguments that the case against the president is legally and constitutionally invalid, and driven by a desire to hurt him in the 2020 election.

Democrats argued in a competing legal brief on Saturday that Mr. Trump, through his pressure on Ukraine, had enlisted a foreign government to help him win re-election, then sought to conceal his actions from Congress. And with the president’s Senate impeachment trial set to open on Tuesday, Democrats are intensifying their demands for testimony and documents.

Another angle: Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, and his Ukrainian allies see people who are fighting corruption in the country as enemies. That could complicate President Volodymyr Zelensky’s battles with oligarchs and organized crime.

Related: The Times Magazine profiled Mr. Giuliani, a central player in Mr. Trump’s Ukraine pressure campaign.

From opinion: The Times’s editorial board endorsed both Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Italy’s anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which won the largest vote in national elections two years ago, was supposed to revolutionize the country’s politics. Now it looks to be on the verge of a slow-but-irreversible collapse.

Five Star had a messy breakup with Matteo Salvini’s hard-right League party over the summer, and its governing coalition with the center-left Democratic Party hasn’t worked out. The main problem, analysts say, is that Five Star has failed to transition from a vague protest movement into a governing party that is willing to take clear positions.

What’s next: At elections in the Emilia Romagna and Calabria regions later this month, the ascendant Mr. Salvini “is hoping to put a stake in the government’s heart,” our Rome bureau chief, Jason Horowitz, writes.

Closer look: Last month Jason profiled Luigi Di Maio, Five Star’s political leader and Italy’s foreign minister.

Isabel dos Santos, above center, Africa’s richest woman and the daughter of Angola’s former president, often took cuts of her country’s wealth through decrees signed by her father. Global banks, bound by strict rules about politically connected clients, largely declined to work with her family.

But consulting companies readily embraced her business, and even agreed to take money from offshore shell companies tied to her and her associates. As a result, they both facilitated and helped legitimize her efforts to profit off diamonds, oil and banks in a country hobbled by corruption.

Virus in China: The authorities reported a third death and more than 130 new cases linked to a mysterious respiratory virus over the weekend, bringing the total number of reported cases to about 200. As millions in China prepare to travel home for Lunar New Year, some experts worry that the outbreak could be more severe than the government admits.

Rocket blast: SpaceX intentionally blew up a spacecraft, with NASA’s blessing, after launching it from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, as a way to test an escape feature for astronauts. The test may set the stage for SpaceX and Boeing to launch their first crewed flights.

Controversial app: Hundreds of American law enforcement agencies are using Clearview, a facial recognition app that identifies people based on photos scraped from Facebook and other websites. Clearview has shrouded itself in secrecy.

Klimt, revealed: A prosecutor said a painting by Gustav Klimt that was found last month inside the walls of the same Italian museum from which it was stolen almost 23 years ago is authentic.

Snapshot: Above, a small clothing factory that was flooded by calls from widows seeking work in Aleppo, Syria. As the country’s civil war grinds on, more women in socially and religiously conservative areas are leaving home and working for the first time.

What we’re reading: This look back at Prohibition, 100 years later, from “It’s a perfectly mixed cocktail of history, politics and culture,” writes Gina Lamb, a Special Sections editor. “Don’t miss the video.”

Cook: Red curry lentils with sweet potato and spinach is an aromatic meal inspired by Indian dal.

Watch: With “Star Trek: Picard,” a spinoff following Patrick Stewart’s Starfleet officer, the franchise is trying to rediscover its place in a universe that it effectively invented.

Smarter Living: If you’re a night owl tired of not getting enough sleep, here’s how to become a morning person.

Facing the likelihood of incoming clouds of smoke from the bushfires scorching the country, tournament officials say they may have to close the retractable roofs on three stadiums and restrict play to the eight indoor courts. Play began today.

The retractable roof on what is now Rod Laver Arena was a big attraction when it was new, in 1988. According to its designers, the point was to allow the stadium to host concerts and sports in all seasons.

It also helped the Australian Open make the transition into one of the grander of tennis’s four Grand Slam events.

When the event began in the early 20th century, travel time for Americans and Europeans could be more than a month, so play was largely limited to Australians and New Zealanders.

Even after the advent of jet travel, low prize money and dates around the Christmas holidays kept many players away. Chris Evert played the Australian Open just six times; John McEnroe five; Bjorn Borg once.

Over time, prize money and ranking points increased. The tournament shifted to the third and fourth weeks of January and moved to Melbourne Park — which has since added two more retractable roofs. Those additions now seem prescient.

That’s it for this briefing. See you next time.

— Mike

Thank you
To Mark Josephson and Eleanor Stanford for the break from the news. Today’s Back Story is drawn from reporting by Ben Rothenberg, who covers the Australian Open for The Times. You can reach the team at

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