All posts by MPolitics

2 Former Presidents Break With Tradition to Denounce Trump

Former presidents are shedding a traditional reluctance to criticize their successors, unleashing pointed attacks on the Trump White House and the commander in chief – but without mentioning him by name.

Remarks on the same day by former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama raise the prospect that more dissenters will follow in defiance of President Donald Trump and his policies.

In separate speeches, Bush and Obama both rejected cruelty and bigotry.

Bush drew his biggest applause when he said, “The only way to pass along civic values is to first live up to them.”

Obama used a similar approach to denounce Trump’s brand of politics.

Presidential spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Friday the White House does not believe the former presidents’ remarks were aimed at Trump personally.

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US Shutters Special Representative for Afghanistan-Pakistan Office

With the Trump administration’s revised South Asia strategy still in its infancy, the curtain has silently fallen on the office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP), ending months of speculations that the State Department planned to eliminate the unit.

The office of the special envoy was tasked with heralding reconciliation efforts with the Taliban and other political factions in Afghanistan.

State Department officials, who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the matter, told VOA the core SRAP team focused on Afghan reconciliation was dissolved on Sept. 29. The unit will be integrated into the broader South and Central Asia Bureau.

Most of the office’s employees, according to officials, were temporary civil servants who lost their jobs because their contracts were not renewed.

Remaining staff

A State Department spokesperson told VOA that former SRAP staff remain at the department and are reporting to Alice Wells, who serves as the acting special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and as the acting assistant secretary for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs.  

 

“She [Wells] will also work to integrate SCA Bureau and SRAP operations. State Department employees arrive and depart from positions regularly, and we have well-established mechanisms to transfer their expertise and contacts to successors,” the spokesperson told VOA.

Current and former U.S. diplomats say the SRAP office focused on three specific areas.

First, the unit took the lead in pursuing Afghan reconciliation, specifically talks with the Taliban. Second, the office was tasked with building support for its efforts within the international community, including at EU and NATO summits. And lastly, the SRAP office took steps to facilitate the success of Afghanistan’s national unity government, including putting together the Ashraf Ghani-Abdullah Abdullah political deal in Afghanistan.

State Department officials say Wells is tasked with heading efforts to integrate SRAP operations within the broader South and Central Asia Bureau.

The consolidation began in June, with the departure of then-acting SRAP Laurel Miller.

Integration

A State Department spokesperson told VOA, “We are at the beginning of a process to determine the bureaucratic and management steps required to integrate the SCA bureau and SRAP operations. But no decisions have yet been made with respect to the timeline and process of this integration.”

This lack of clarity has added to the apparent sense of uncertainty within the State Department, which is already dealing with proposed budget cuts and a number of unfilled positions.

Some former senior U.S. diplomats are skeptical about the timing of the decision to roll back SRAP, saying disbanding the policy team and losing crucial expertise increases risk at a time when the United States is renewing its commitment to stabilizing Afghanistan and promoting reconciliation.

“Unfortunately, I think with the closure of SRAP office or really a departure of temporary employees, we have lost a great deal of expertise and institutional knowledge — deep domain expertise about the Taliban and how to attempt to negotiate with the Taliban,” said former Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Olson.

Olson, who also served as the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, noted, “There continues to be a need for some kind of special envoy, special representative — whatever you want to call it — someone who is focused full time on Afghan reconciliation that is pursuing political settlement.”

 

He added if the U.S. is going to get a diplomatic initiative going, “you can’t wait till you have the initiative to build the team.”

Olson, however, acknowledged that the integration of SRAP’s duties into a broader bureau may add some clarity to South Asia strategy.

“The disadvantage to SRAP was putting India and Pakistan in separate bureaucratic domains, which tended to reduce the coherence of U.S. policy toward South Asia,” he said.

Now a lost relic of former President Barack Obama’s administration, the SRAP post was created in the wake of a troop surge in the Afghan war, with Richard Holbrooke appointed to lead U.S. policy in the volatile Afghan-Pakistan war zone.

Nike Ching at the State Department contributed to this report.

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US Defense Secretary Meets with McCain Over Niger Attack

U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis went to Capitol Hill Friday to meet with Senator John McCain after the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee threatened to issue a subpoena for information about the deaths of four U.S. soldiers killed in Niger.

After meeting privately with McCain in his office Friday, Mattis promised to keep better lines of communication with Congress.

“We could be better at communication, we can always improve at communication and that’s exactly what we’ll do,” he said.

McCain said the meeting helped to clear up the information channels. 

“I felt we were not getting a sufficient amount of information and we are clearing a lot of that up now,” he said.

Earlier this week, McCain threatened to use a subpoena to compel information from the Pentagon and Trump administration officials about the Niger attack. He complained that it was easier to get information about military operations under former President Barack Obama.

The U.S. military has blamed Islamic State militants for the deaths of the four Special Forces soldiers in southwestern Niger and has said it is conducting an investigation into the Oct. 4 attack.

U.S. Army Special Forces, also known as Green Berets, had just completed a meeting with local leaders in Niger and were walking back to their vehicles when they were attacked, according to a U.S. official, who spoke to VOA on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.

The soldiers said the meeting ran late, and some suspected that the villagers were intentionally delaying their departure, the official said.

Initially, the Pentagon announced that three soldiers had been killed in the ambush. The body of a fourth soldier, Sergeant La David Johnson, was recovered more than a day later and questions have been raised about why it took as long as it did.

CNN reported Friday that Johnson’s body was found nearly a mile away from the site of the ambush. It said military officials are still looking at the exact circumstance of how and when Johnson became separated from the rest of his team, but officials emphasized that the search for Johnson began immediately.

Pentagon officials said there are about 800 U.S. troops in Niger in an operation underway for five years against the Boko Haram militant group and other terrorist organizations.

White House phone calls

President Donald Trump’s calls to the families of the fallen soldiers has sparked a public argument between Trump and a Florida lawmaker, who accused Trump of telling one soldier’s widow that her husband “knew what he signed up for.”

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Friday criticized Frederica Wilson, a Democratic congresswoman who clashed with the president over his condolence call.

Sanders told reporters at the White House: “As we say in the South: All hat, no cattle.”

Wilson represents the home district of Sergeant La David Johnson, one of the four soldiers killed in Niger.

Wilson said she was listening in on the call Trump made to Johnson’s widow, Myeshia, while family members were in a limousine en route to an airport to meet the soldier’s body

Speaking to MSNBC on Wednesday, Wilson said Trump “was almost like joking,” during the conversation, which was on a speaker in the car. “He said, ‘Well, I guess you know, something to the effect that he knew what he was getting into when he signed up, but I guess it hurts anyway,’ ” Wilson explained to MSNBC.

Trump responded to Wilson’s allegations Wednesday, tweeting that she had “totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof). Sad!”

In a separate interview with CNN, Wilson said, “I have proof, too. This man is a sick man.”

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Trump’s Border Wall Models Take Shape in San Diego

The last two of eight prototypes for President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall took shape Thursday at a construction site in San Diego.

The prototypes form a tightly packed row of imposing concrete and metal panels, including one with sharp metal edges on top. Another has a surface resembling an expensive brick driveway.

Companies have until Oct. 26 to finish the models but Border Patrol spokesman Theron Francisco said the last two came into profile, with crews installing a corrugated metal surface on the eighth model on a dirt lot just a few steps from homes in Tijuana, Mexico.

As the crews worked, three men and two women, one carrying a large red purse, jumped a short rusted fence from Tijuana into the construction site and were immediately stopped by agents on horseback.

Francisco said there have been four or five other illegal crossing attempts at the site since work began Sept. 26.

The models, which cost the government up to $500,000 each, were spaced 30 feet (9.1 meters) apart. Slopes, thickness and curves vary. One has two shades of blue with white trim. The others are gray, tan or brown – in sync with the desert.

Bidding guidelines call for the prototypes to stand between 18 and 30 feet (5.5 and 9.1 meters) high and be able to withstand at least an hour of punishment from a sledgehammer, pickaxe, torch, chisel or battery-operated tools.

Features also should prevent the use of climbing aids such as grappling hooks, and the segments must be “aesthetically pleasing” when viewed from the U.S. side.

The administration hasn’t said how many winners it will pick or whether Trump will weigh in himself.

There is currently 654 miles (1,052 kilometers) of single-layer fence on the 1,954-mile (3,143-kilometer) border, plus 51 miles (82 kilometers) of double- and triple-layer fence.

“I’m sure they will engage in a lot of tests against these structures to see how they function with different challenges,” U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said Tuesday after touring the construction site.

Trump has asked Congress for $1.6 billion to replace 14 miles of wall (22.4 kilometers) in San Diego and build 60 miles (96 kilometers) in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, the busiest corridor for illegal crossings.

Here’s a rundown of companies building prototypes, their headquarters and value of their contract. Two are making one concrete prototype and another using other materials.

CADELL CONSTRUCTION CO., Montgomery, Alabama. ($344,000 for concrete wall, $320,000 for other wall)

Its tan concrete wall is thick at the bottom and narrows considerably toward the pointed top. The other, also tan, has metal poles on the bottom, a metal plate in the middle, and concrete block on top.

The general construction company founded in 1983 says its projects include U.S. embassies in Beijing and Kabul, Afghanistan, terminals at Houston’s George Bush International Airport and renovations to the Denver Mint.

W.G. YATES & SONS CONSTRUCTION CO., Philadelphia, Mississippi. ($453,548 for concrete wall, $458,103 for other wall)

Its models are a darker brown than other prototypes and topped by round beams. Its concrete panel has a plain face; its metal one has a corrugated surface.

The 53-year-old company has worked in a wide range of projects, including a Toyota plant in Blue Springs, Mississippi, a county jail in Olmito, Texas, a marine terminal in Jacksonville, Florida, and a power plant near Panama City, Florida.

Two companies are building concrete walls.

FISHER SAND & GRAVEL CO., Tempe, Arizona. ($365,000 contract)

It’s the only prototype to be built entirely on site – as opposed to being hauled in. Its tan surface gradually narrows toward the top, like a long triangle.

Part of conglomerate Fisher Industries, the company produces sand, gravel and other products for roads, dams and large public works projects. The company is active is 12 western states.

TEXAS STERLING CONSTRUCTION CO., Houston. ($470,000 contract)

The gray surface of the U.S. side is stamped with patterns of different-sized bricks, like a driveway or sidewalk at an upscale home. There is a steel plate on top with prongs that feature at three metal spikes, resembling an agave plant.

Parent company Sterling Construction Co., founded in 1991, specializes in water and transportation projects, including highways, bridges, ports, light rail, wastewater and storm drainage systems. It is active in Utah, Texas, Nevada, Colorado, Arizona, California and Hawaii.

Two companies were selected to build walls made of materials other than concrete.

KWR CONSTRUCTION INC., Sierra Vista, Arizona. ($486,411 contract)

Its gray metal columns are topped with a large metal plate. The small, Hispanic-owned company counts the Homeland Security, Defense and Interior departments among its largest customers.

ELTA NORTH AMERICA INC., Annapolis Junction, Maryland. ($406,319 contract)

Its solid metal wall features six light blue squares with white trim on the bottom third, topped by dark blue beams and metal plates.

ELTA is a large Israeli defense contractor owned by state-run Israel Aerospace Industries. The company, which makes radar and other gear, opened its new U.S. headquarters in Maryland in May.

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AP FACT CHECK: Trump Is off the Mark About Maria

When it comes to grading hurricanes, President Donald Trump is off the mark about Maria.

First, he won’t let go of the false claim that Puerto Rico was hit by a Category 5 hurricane. He also errs in citing high grades from a Clinton-era official for the way he’s responded to the island’s plight.

TRUMP: “They got hit dead center — if you look at those maps — by a Category 5. Nobody’s ever heard of a 5 hitting land. Usually by that time it’s dissipated. It hit right through — and kept to a 5 — it hit right through the middle of the island, right through the middle of Puerto Rico. There’s never been anything like that.” — comments Thursday after a White House meeting with Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello

THE FACTS: That account is wrong. Maria made landfall on Puerto as a Category 4 storm at 6:35 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 20, with winds of 155 mph (249 kph), just short of the 157 mph (253 kph) of a 5. Nor did it rake across the island as a Category 5. It weakened, and left the island some seven hours later as barely a Category 3.

The fact Maria fell just short of a 5 is of no comfort to people on the devastated island, but Trump is distorting the historical record with his persistent mischaracterization.

Past hurricanes, such as Andrew in 1992, have sometimes been upgraded from Category 4 to 5 after further review of damage on the ground, but as of now, the National Hurricane Center lists Maria as an upper limit Category 4.

TRUMP: “We keep being given credit. You know, it’s very nice that the gentleman who worked for Bill Clinton, when he was president, gave us an A-plus. And that included Puerto Rico. Gave us an A-plus. And I thought that was really very nice. And I think — I really believe he’s correct. We have done a really great job.” — comments after Rossello meeting

THE FACTS: James Lee Witt, the Clinton administration emergency chief cited by Trump, says he never gave Trump an A-plus for his Puerto Rico efforts because it is too early to judge them. Trump might be forgiven for thinking he got that praise from Witt, because published reports suggested he did.

But Witt said in an AP interview and in a statement that his praise regarded hurricanes Harvey and Irma only. He thought the Trump administration responded effectively to them.

But Maria? “Even today it is yet to be determined whether the ultimate response to that hurricane will get an A, C or F or something else,” he said. “As time goes by that will become apparent.”

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Obama, Bush Deplore Country’s Political Divisiveness

During a speech Thursday in New York, George W. Bush said, “Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry, and compromises the moral education of our children. The only way to pass along civic values is to first live up to them.” He spoke at the Bush Institute’s National Forum on Freedom, Free Markets and Security.

Bush deplored the country’s political divisiveness, saying that “at times it can seem like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together,” he said.

“We’ve seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty,” Bush said. “Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates into dehumanization.”

“Bigotry seems emboldened,” he added. “Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.”

Obama campaigns

Barack Obama took on the issue in Richmond while speaking at a campaign rally for Virginia gubernatorial candidate Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam. 

“Instead of our politics reflecting our values, we’ve got politics infecting our communities,” he said. “Instead of looking for ways to work together and get things done in a practical way, we got folks who are deliberately trying to make folks angry. To demonize people who have different ideas.”

​No names

Neither of the former leaders mentioned U.S. President Donald Trump by name, but their messages seemed aimed at him.

“Our identity as a nation, unlike other nations, is not determined by geography or ethnicity, by soil or blood, …” Bush said in New York. “This means that people from every race, religion, ethnicity can be full and equally American. It means that bigotry and white supremacy, in any form, is blasphemy against the American creed.”

“Too often,” he added, “we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions, forgetting the image of God we should see in each other. We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism, and forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America.”

“If you have to win a campaign by dividing people,” Obama said at the Virginia rally, “you’re not going to be able to govern them. You won’t be able to unite them later. We are at our best not when we are trying to put people down, but when we are trying to lift everybody up.”

Both former presidents have made infrequent public policy statements, in keeping with presidential tradition.

Last year, Bush supported the unsuccessful presidential campaign of his brother, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, one of a large field of Republican contenders Trump defeated for the party’s presidential nomination before winning the November election. Obama campaigned for Democratic presidential candidate, former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

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Senator Mccain Says Subpoena May Be Required to Get Answers on Niger Ambush

Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on Thursday that he may consider issuing a subpoena because the White House has not been forthcoming with details of an ambush in Niger in which four U.S. soldiers were killed.

The attack earlier this month, which U.S. officials suspect was carried out by a local Islamic State affiliate, has thrown a spotlight on the U.S. counter terrorism mission in the West African country, which has about 800 U.S. troops.

The U.S. military is investigating the incident to find out what went wrong and what, if any, changes need to be made.

“It may require a subpoena,” McCain said when asked what steps his committee might need to take to determine what happened to the four troops.

Asked what information the committee still needed, McCain said “everything.” When questioned if the White House had been forthcoming with the information needed by the committee, he added, “of course not”

He said he had a good conversation with President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, and hoped the White House would eventually provide the information needed by the committee.

From initial accounts, the 40-member patrol, which included a dozen U.S. troops, came under swift attack by militants riding in a dozen vehicles and on about 20 motorcycles.

The mission had been seen as a relatively lower-risk endeavor for America’s elite commandos and there was no armed air cover at the time that could carry out airstrikes if necessary.

Under heavy fire, U.S. troops called in French fighter jets for air support, but the firefight was at such close quarters that the planes could not engage and were instead left circling overhead.

U.S. officials have said French aircraft were overhead within 30 minutes.

The U.S. military’s Africa Command said the soldiers were in the area to establish relations with local leaders and deemed it unlikely that they would meet resistance.

A diplomat with knowledge of the incident said French officials were frustrated by the U.S. troops’ actions, because they had acted on only limited intelligence and without contingency plans in place.

U.S. forces do not have a direct combat mission in Niger, and instead provide assistance to its army that includes intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in their efforts to target violent extremist organizations.

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Trump Nearly Certain Senate Republicans Have Enough Votes to Pass Budget Bill

U.S. President Donald Trump said Thursday he is nearly certain Senate Republican leaders have secured enough support to pass a budget bill that would help them approve tax legislation.

“Republicans are going for the big Budget approval today, first step toward massive tax cuts. I think we have the votes, but who knows?,” Trump tweeted.

Later Thursday, Trump told reporters at the White House, “I think we have the votes for the budget, which will be phase one of our massive tax cuts and reform.”

The Senate is scheduled to vote Thursday on a resolution to establish a federal budget framework for fiscal year 2018. The measure contains a legislative tool that would enable the 100-seat Senate, which Republicans control by a 52 to 48 margin, to approve a tax bill with a simple majority vote instead of the generally required 60 votes.

Unless there are Republican defections, the measure could be approved without Democratic support.

After failing to pass a Trump-supported effort to dismantle the nation’s health care law, commonly known as Obamacare, Senate Republicans are under pressure to approve the tax cut bill that is under consideration. The tax bill would clear the path for tax legislation that could add up to $1.5 trillion to the federal deficit over the next decade to pay for tax cuts.

The Senate and the House of Representatives must agree on a budget resolution for the next fiscal year in order for Republicans reach their goal of enacting a tax bill that would be submitted to Trump for his signature by the end of this year.

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Twitter, Facebook Lawyers to Testify Before Congress on Russia Election Meddling

Lawyers for the social media companies Twitter and Facebook will testify next month at hearings before congressional committees investigating what, if any, effect Russian trolls may have had on the 2016 election.

Google also will send a representative to the hearings, though it has not yet said who would represent the company. Facebook and Twitter will send their general counsels, Colin Stretch and Sean Edgett, respectively.

The lawyers will testify before the Senate and House intelligence committees — two of the congressional panels searching for evidence that Russia sought to interfere in the U.S. election or potentially colluded with the Donald Trump campaign.

Trump has repeatedly denied any collusion with the Russians, and to date, no evidence has emerged to suggest there was collusion. U.S. officials also have said Russia’s alleged meddling didn’t go so far as to change any votes in the election.

Facebook revealed last month that a group with alleged ties to the Russian government ran $100,000 worth of ads on the platform promoting “divisive” causes like Black Lives Matter. U.S. media reports also indicate Russians purchased similar ads on Google.

Facebook has turned the alleged Russian ads over to Congress, and last week, the company’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said she “absolutely” supports the public release of the advertisements.

In releasing the ads to Congress, Sandberg said, “It’s important that [the investigators] get the whole picture and explain that to the American people.”

In response to the Russian ad buys, Sandberg said Facebook is hiring 4,000 new employees to oversee ads and content. She said the company also is using “machine learning and automation” to target fake accounts that spread fake news.

In addition, Twitter has taken action against suspected Russian troll accounts, suspending 22 accounts that corresponded with fake accounts used on Facebook.

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