Also trending on your Thursday: Amazon rainforest is burning at a record rate, Trump offers himself as 'the chosen one,' and student loan debt owed by disabled veterans will be erased.
Trump signs student debt forgiveness for disabled veterans
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Hundreds of millions of dollars in federal student loan debt owed by tens of thousands of disabled military veterans will be erased under a directive President Donald Trump signed Wednesday.
Trump ordered the Education Department to "eliminate every penny of federal student loan debt" owed by American veterans who are completely and permanently disabled.
Trump said they won't have to pay federal income tax on the forgiven debt and called on states to waive their taxes on the loans, too.
America, he said, owes its heroes "a supreme debt of gratitude."
Trump's announcement at the AMVETS national convention in Louisville elicited a loud round of applause from the crowd of more than 2,500 veterans. He signed the directive after addressing the gathering.
Only about half of the roughly 50,000 disabled veterans who qualify to have their federal student loan debt forgiven have received the benefit, and the administration blames a "burdensome" application process.
The document directs the government to develop an expedited process so veterans can have the debt discharged "with minimal burdens."
The action will wipe out an average of $30,000 in debt owed by more than 25,000 eligible veterans, Trump said, calling them "incredible people" who have made "the ultimate sacrifice, in many ways, for our nation."
"It's gone forever," Trump said.
Trump also used his appearance to highlight steps the administration has taken to bolster the military, including increased spending and new equipment. He also discussed the administration's commitment to veterans, including helping them access health care, reducing opioid addiction and minimizing suicide among those no longer in uniform.
Trump said the administration is "determined to do everything in our power" to end suicide among veterans. About 20 veterans end their lives every day.
Brazil's Amazon rainforest is burning at a record rate, research center says
(CNN) -- Fires are raging at a record rate in Brazil's Amazon rainforest, and scientists warn that it could strike a devastating blow to the fight against climate change.
The fires are burning at the highest rate since the country's space research center, the National Institute for Space Research (known by the abbreviation INPE), began tracking them in 2013, the center said Tuesday.
There have been 72,843 fires in Brazil this year, with more than half in the Amazon region, INPE said. That's more than an 80% increase compared with the same period last year.
The Amazon is often referred to as the planet's lungs, producing 20% of the oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere.
It is considered vital in slowing global warming, and it is home to uncountable species of fauna and flora. Roughly half the size of the United States, it is the largest rainforest on the planet.
Dramatic images and videos on social media show giant plumes of smoke rising from the greenery and lines of fire leaving blackened waste in their wake.
The smoke has reached all the way to Sao Paulo, more than 1,700 miles away. Images from the city show the sky pitch-black in the middle of the afternoon, the sun blanketed by smoke and ash.
🌎Just a little alert to the world: the sky randomly turned dark today in São Paulo, and meteorologists believe it’s smoke from the fires burning *thousands* of kilometers away, in Rondônia or Paraguay. Imagine how much has to be burning to create that much smoke(!). SOS🌎 pic.twitter.com/P1DrCzQO6x— Shannon Sims (@shannongsims) August 20, 2019
The European Union's satellite program, Copernicus, released a map showing smoke from the fires spreading all along Brazil to the east Atlantic coast. The smoke has covered nearly half of the country and is even spilling over into neighboring Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay.
The Amazon River stretches across several of these South American countries, but the majority -- more than two-thirds -- of the rainforest lies in Brazil.
According to INPE, more than 1½ soccer fields of Amazon rainforest are being destroyed every minute of every day.
People worldwide are sharing their horror on social media. Fans of the K-Pop band BTS, who call themselves the Army, are even rallying on Twitter to spread word of the fires, with tens of thousands of people tweeting the hashtag #ArmyHelpThePlanet.
Environmental groups have long been campaigning to save the Amazon, blaming Brazil's far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, for the endangerment of the vital rainforest. They accuse him of relaxing environmental controls in the country and encouraging deforestation.
Bolsonaro's environmental policies have been controversial from the start. A former army captain, he made campaign promises to restore the economy by exploring the Amazon's economic potential.
Bolsonaro's pro-business stance may have emboldened loggers, farmers and miners to seize control of a growing area of Amazon land, Carlos Rittl, executive secretary of the environmental nonprofit organization Observatorio do Clima (Climate Observatory), told CNN en Español last month.
On Wednesday, Bolsonaro said that the recent wave of fires in the Amazon may have been caused by nongovernmental organizations in order to draw international criticism to his government.
"Crime exists, and we need to make sure that this type of crime does not increase. We took money away from the NGOs," he said.
"They are now feeling the pinch from the lack of funding. So, maybe the NGO types are conducting these criminal acts in order to generate negative attention against me and against the Brazilian government. This is the war we are facing."
Environmental activists and organizations like the World Wildlife Fund warn that if the Amazon reaches a point of no return, the rainforest could become a dry savannah, no longer habitable for much of its wildlife. If this happens, instead of being a source of oxygen, it could start emitting carbon -- the major driver of climate change.
Marriott hotel cook with arsenal allegedly threatened mass shooting
LONG BEACH, Calif. (AP) — A cook at a Los Angeles-area hotel was arrested after he allegedly threatened a mass shooting and stockpiled guns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition at his home, police said Wednesday.
Rodolfo Montoya, 37, was taken into custody Tuesday at his Huntington Beach home, police said.
Montoya was upset over a work-related human resources issue when he told a co-worker at the Long Beach Marriott on Monday that "he was going to shoot up fellow employees and people coming into the hotel," Police Chief Robert Luna said.
The employee told the hotel's general manager, who contacted police.
A search of Montoya's Huntington Beach home turned up assault-style rifles and other weapons, dozens of high-capacity magazines and hundreds of bullets, police said.
Montoya "had clear plans, intent and the means to carry out an act of violence that may have resulted in a mass casualty incident," Luna said.
At the news conference, Luna thanked Imran Ahmed, the hotel's general manager, for calling authorities.
"Sir, you saved many lives, not only of your employees but any customers that may have been at the Marriott when this guy decided to show up and carry out his threat," Luna said.
The chief said Montoya didn't appear to have any criminal history that would have prevented him from legally buying guns, although some of the weapons and high-capacity magazines at his home may be illegal.
Montoya was held on suspicion of making, possessing and distributing assault weapons and making criminal threats. He was held on $500,000 bail. It wasn't immediately clear whether he has an attorney.
Sean Spicer to join 'Dancing with the Stars'
(CNN) -- Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer is hitting the dance floor and joining the cast of ABC's "Dancing with the Stars."
Spicer was announced Wednesday alongside the rest of the cast on ABC's "Good Morning America."
"The nice thing is Sean will be in charge of assessing audience size," "Dancing with the Stars" host Tom Bergeron joked on "Good Morning America."
Bergeron later tweeted that he had hoped the show "would be a joyful respite from our exhausting political climate and free of inevitably divisive bookings from ANY party affiliations" but that the producers decided to "'go in a different direction.'"
When asked about his strategy to win, Spicer told GMA with a laugh, "Work really, really, really hard every day."
Other stars joining the show for its 28th season include former "Bachelorette" Hannah Brown, actor James Van Der Beek, cast member of Netflix's "Queer Eye" Karamo Brown, country singer Lauren Alaina and former NFL player Ray Lewis.
President Trump offers himself as 'the chosen one'
WASHINGTON (AP) — On Wednesday, Trump thanked conservative radio host and supporter Wayne Allyn Root for his praise. In a tweet, Trump quoted Root calling the president "the best president for Israel in the history of the world" and claiming Jewish people in Israel love Trump "like he's the King of Israel. They love him like he's the second coming of God."
“Thank you to Wayne Allyn Root for the very nice words. “President Trump is the greatest President for Jews and for Israel in the history of the world, not just America, he is the best President for Israel in the history of the world...and the Jewish people in Israel love him....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 21, 2019
Later in the day, as the president was defending his trade war with China, he cast himself as a reluctant warrior. Somebody had to do it and he was the one, he told reporters.
"I am the chosen one," he said, turning and looking up to the sky. "Somebody had to do it."
Is it a bird or is it a bunny? Optical illusion of World Bird Sanctuary animal confuses the internet
(CNN) -- It's a bird! It's a rabbit!
No, it's definitely a bird. But hey, you be the judge.
A video of a black animal getting a nice scratch is spreading quickly around the internet as people take sides in yet another great debate.
Daniel Quintana, a scientist at the University of Oslo in Norway, is responsible for all this -- he found the video on an image-sharing website on Sunday and tweeted it, saying, "Rabbits love getting stroked on their nose."
You see it, right?
Since then, it's blown up -- all because Quintana played on a famous optical illusion wherein a rabbit looks like a bird, and a bird looks like a rabbit. His video alone has been viewed millions of times.
But here's the thing: CNN has in fact verified that not only does the video show a bird, it's specifically an African White-necked Raven named Mischief.
He belongs to the World Bird Sanctuary in Valley Park, Missouri, and is 18 years old. Look -- here he is saying, "Hi."
View this post on Instagram
Mischief says, “Hi!” Corvids are excellent mimickers, and this is one of Mischief’s favorite vocalizations. Contrary to popular belief, a corvid does not have to have its tongue split to be able to mimic like this. It is a natural behavior. #worldbirdsanctuary #whiteneckedraven #mischieftheraven
The video Quintana posted was taken, at some point, from Paige Davis, Curator of Bird Training at the sanctuary.
Davis told CNN that Mischief is actually already quite famous, especially for his talking. "He has gone viral several times with millions of views," she said.
Mischief flies, talks, paints, and much more, she explained, calling him "a very talented bird."
When he's not getting his head scratched, Mischief works as an educational ambassador for his species, Davis explained, where he teaches people all about ravens, conservation, and the ways we all can help animals.
"He even recycles cans and bottles, showing that recycling is so easy, a bird can do it," she said. "His talents are endless."
Those talents, thankfully, do not include shape shifting across species.