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Haley says she will vote for Trump in November despite their disputes

COLUMBIA, South Carolina — Nikki Haley said Wednesday that she will be voting for Donald Trump in November’s general election, a notable show of support given their intense and often personal rivalry during the Republican primary campaign.

But Haley also made it clear that she feels Trump has work to do to win over voters who supported her during the course of the primary campaign and continue to cast votes for her in ongoing primary contests.

“I will be voting for Trump,” Haley, Trump’s former U.N. ambassador, said during an event at the Hudson Institute in Washington.

“Having said that, I stand by what I said in my suspension speech,” Haley added. “Trump would be smart to reach out to the millions of people who voted for me and continue to support me and not assume that they’re just going to be with him. And I genuinely hope he does that.”

The comments in her first public speech since leaving the race are another signal of the Republican Party’s virtually complete consolidation of support behind Trump, even from those who have labeled him a threat in the past.

Haley shuttered her own bid for the Republican nomination two months ago but did not immediately endorse Trump, having accused him of causing chaos and disregarding the importance of U.S. alliances abroad as well as questioning whether Trump, 77, was too old to be president again.

Trump, in turn, repeatedly mocked her with the nickname “Birdbrain,” though he curtailed those attacks after securing enough delegates in March to become the presumptive Republican nominee.

Trump’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Haley’s announcement.

President Joe Biden’s campaign, meanwhile, has been working to win over her supporters, whom they view as true swing voters. Biden’s team is quietly organizing a Republicans for Biden group, which will eventually include dedicated staff and focus on the hundreds of thousands of Haley voters in each battleground state, according to people familiar with the plans but not authorized to discuss them publicly.

But Haley made several criticisms of Biden’s foreign policy and handling of the U.S.-Mexico border in her speech Wednesday at the Hudson Institute, a conservative Washington think tank she recently joined as she reemerges in the political realm.

US Justice Department sues to block Oklahoma immigration law

OKLAHOMA CITY, OKLAHOMA — The U.S. Department of Justice sued Oklahoma on Tuesday, seeking to block a law that aims to impose criminal penalties on those living in the state illegally.

The lawsuit in federal court in Oklahoma City challenges a law that makes it a state crime — punishable by up to two years in prison — to live in Oklahoma without legal immigration status. Similar laws passed in Texas and Iowa already are facing challenges from the Justice Department.

Oklahoma is among several Republican-led states jockeying to push deeper into immigration enforcement as Republicans and Democrats seize on the issue. Other bills targeting migrants have been passed this year in Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.

The Justice Department says the Oklahoma statute violates the U.S. Constitution and is asking the court to declare it invalid and bar the state from enforcing it.

“Oklahoma cannot disregard the U.S. Constitution and settled Supreme Court precedent,” U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brian Boynton, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division, said in a statement. “We have brought this action to ensure that Oklahoma adheres to the Constitution and the framework adopted by Congress for regulation of immigration.”

Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt called the bill necessary, saying the Biden administration is failing to secure the nation’s borders.

“Not only that, but they stand in the way of states trying to protect their citizens,” Stitt said in a statement.

The federal action was expected, as the Department of Justice warned Oklahoma officials last week the agency would sue unless the state agreed not to enforce the new law.

In response, Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond called the DOJ’s preemption argument “dubious at best” and said that while the federal government has broad authority over immigration, it does not have “exclusive power” on the subject.

“Oklahoma is exercising its concurrent and complementary power as a sovereign state to address an ongoing public crisis within its borders through appropriate legislation,” Drummond wrote in a letter to the DOJ. “Put more bluntly, Oklahoma is cleaning up the Biden Administration’s mess through entirely legal means in its own backyard — and will resolutely continue to do so by supplementing federal prohibitions with robust state penalties.”

Texas was allowed to enforce a law similar to Oklahoma’s for only a few confusing hours in March before it was put on hold by a federal appeals court’s three-judge panel. The panel heard arguments from supporters and opponents in April and will next issue a decision on the law’s constitutionality.

The Justice Department filed another lawsuit earlier this month seeking to block an Iowa law that would allow criminal charges to be brought against people who have outstanding deportation orders or who previously have been removed from or denied admission to the United States.

The law in Oklahoma has prompted several large protests at the state Capitol that included immigrants and their families voicing concern that their loved ones will be racially profiled by police.

“We feel attacked,” said Sam Wargin Grimaldo, an immigration attorney who attended a rally last month wearing a shirt that read, “Young, Latino and Proud.”

“People are afraid to step out of their houses if legislation like this is proposed and then passed,” he said.

The Oklahoma Association of Chiefs of Police and the Metro Law Enforcement Agency Leaders issued a joint statement earlier this month saying they weren’t involved in drafting the bill and raised concerns that it would put crime victims at risk because they might fear reporting to law enforcement.

“This law has the potential to destroy the connections and relationships we have built within our local immigrant communities and set us back for many years to come,” they said.

Yacht docked in US port symbolizes struggle to convert seizures into cash for Ukraine

Everett, Washington/Washington, DC — When a superyacht worth $230 million pulled into the port of Everett, Washington, for repairs last month, it made a big splash in the city of 110,000 residents. 

The 106-meter luxury behemoth known as the Amadea is currently in possession of the U.S. government, which alleges the yacht belongs to sanctioned Russian oligarch and politician Suleyman Kerimov, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Looking out over the port, Everett resident Bob Templeton wondered who was paying for the superyacht’s upkeep. “They ought to sell it to somebody and get a lot of money,” he told VOA with a laugh. 

Easier said than done. Templeton’s offhand remark cuts to the core of a dilemma faced by the United States as it attempts to use sanctions to rein in Russian aggression against Ukraine. 

The U.S. government has moved to take ownership of the Amadea through a legal procedure called civil forfeiture. The end goal is to sell the vessel and transfer the proceeds to Ukraine. 

But another Russian businessman, who is not under sanctions, has challenged that move, claiming that he is the Amadea’s true owner. 

As the courts try to sort out the yacht’s ownership, U.S. taxpayers are footing the bill: over half-a-million dollars a month for maintenance. 

And the complex legal battle could drag on for a long time, increasing the costs for the U.S. and delaying any benefit to Ukraine from the yacht’s seizure, according to Stefan Cassella, a former U.S. federal prosecutor and expert in civil forfeiture. 

“Nobody who is a sanctioned oligarch owns anything in his own name,” he said. “You have an entire zoo of third parties who claim they own the property.” 

Kerimov did not respond to a request for comment. The U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment. 

Kleptocapture win 

In May 2022, just months after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, law enforcement in Fiji seized the Amadea at the request of the U.S. government. 

That was a major victory for Task Force Kleptocapture, a unit of the U.S. Department of Justice created in the wake of the Russian invasion to enforce sanctions. 

But completing the job has proved more complicated. 

Since the 1980s, civil forfeiture has been the Department of Justice’s go-to tool for targeting drug dealers, the mafia and money laundering operations, according to David Smith, a former DOJ prosecutor who pioneered the practice. 

It allows law enforcement to seize assets without convicting their owner of a crime. All that prosecutors must prove is that the assets were used in a crime, profited from a crime or resulted from criminal activity. 

But when that crime is a sanctions violation, proving the asset is owned by a sanctioned person is critical. 

Lawyers representing the company that owns Amadea have claimed the yacht actually belongs to Eduard Khudainatov, a former CEO of the Russian state oil company Rosneft, who is not subject to sanctions. 

He and his legal team say the seizure is unlawful and based on a “misleading” FBI affidavit. 

“Eduard Khudainatov is, and always has been, the rightful owner of the Amadea. The Biden Administration’s unconstitutional seizure of the vessel was based on demonstrable falsehoods that we will establish in court,” his spokesperson said in a statement to VOA. “The government asserts factual and legal theories that are divorced from forfeiture sanctions and money laundering laws, and unsupported by the cases interpreting those laws. This boondoggle is nothing more than political theater that has cost American taxpayers more than $20 million to date.” 

The U.S. government disagrees, referring to Khudainatov as a “straw owner” of the Amadea. 

According to prosecutors, Khudainatov is “supposedly the beneficial owner of at least eight yachts or yacht projects” — a fleet valued at over $1 billion. They include a yacht that prosecutors state is actually owned by Igor Sechin, the sanctioned incumbent CEO of Rosneft and a Putin ally. 

Journalists have linked another one of the superyachts, the Scheherazade, to Putin himself. In May 2022, it was impounded in Italy. 

While Khudainatov’s lawyers were unable to prevent the Amadea’s transfer to the United States, they are currently fighting forfeiture in a New York court. 

The DOJ states that Kerimov purchased the yacht in 2021, three years after he was added to sanctions list. Prosecutors allege that the oligarch or his proxies routed dollar transactions through U.S. financial institutions to maintain the Amadea, which would constitute a sanctions violation. 

But proving Kerimov’s ownership — and disproving Khudainatov’s claim — is no simple task. 

Assets like superyachts are often owned through a series of proxy owners, offshore companies and trusts. These entities are often registered in jurisdictions chosen for their secrecy. 

Cassella, who has studied the case, says that Khudainatov’s legal team is dragging out proceedings, while the U.S. government is trying to compel him to answer questions and provide documentation that would prove he is not the Amadea’s owner. 

“This is civil forfeiture defense 101 for anybody who’s got an infinite amount of money to pay lawyers to oppose the forfeiture,” Cassella said. 

Expensive process 

While the legal battle goes forward, the U.S. government is paying to keep the Amadea running. 

According to court filings, upkeep of the yacht costs roughly $600,000 a month. Insurance costs another $144,000 monthly, and there are other periodic expenses. 

In a February filing, an official of the U.S. Marshals Service stated that the Amadea was also scheduled to undergo drydocking in March, which appears to have been delayed. 

That procedure, which involves removing a vessel from the water to conduct repair work, was estimated to cost $5.6 million — although the government negotiated not to pay the other monthly costs during that period, the official noted. 

In recent months, however, the U.S. government has taken steps to decrease the cost. 

In February, it petitioned the court to sell the Amadea, citing the excessive costs of maintaining the yacht. Such a sale would effectively convert the yacht into cash, but not settle the ownership question. 

In a filing opposing the sale, Khudainatov’s legal team stated that he had consistently offered to cover the cost of maintaining the Amadea. 

On May 17, the U.S. government also submitted a motion to reject Khudainatov’s ownership claim, stating that he lacks standing to contest forfeiture. 

If a judge agrees, that could allow the forfeiture to proceed. 

Controversial, challenging strategy 

While confiscating the assets of Russian oligarchs and top officials may not face fierce opposition from most Americans, civil forfeiture is controversial in the United States. 

Advocacy organizations, both liberal and conservative, have criticized the practice, arguing that it allows law enforcement to seize private property without convicting the owner of a crime. 

Smith, the former DOJ prosecutor, says the burden falls hardest on low-income Americans who struggle to pay for a lawyer. 

This was one of the reasons why eight members of the U.S. House of Representatives in April 2022 voted against a bill calling for the Biden administration to seize sanctioned Russians’ assets to fund Ukraine. 

Smith believes applying civil forfeiture to oligarchs is “arbitrary” and he is unsure whether the U.S. will be able to seize enough assets from oligarchs to make a meaningful difference for Ukraine. 

“I would rather spend the money [subsidizing forfeiture investigations and proceedings] on other things than trying to forfeit these yachts,” he said. “And who knows how many will ultimately be forfeited.” 

That concern is not unfounded. The Kleptocapture Task Force is working to forfeit or restrain around $700 million, but, so far, the United States has been able to transfer forfeited assets to Ukraine in only a handful of cases. 

In May 2023, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland authorized sending $5.4 million to Ukraine that the U.S. had seized from sanctioned Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeyev. It represented the first such transfer of forfeited funds to Ukraine. 

Later that year, the U.S. transferred over a million rounds of ammunition to Ukraine after seizing them en route from Iran to Yemen.

In February 2024, the U.S. government, after breaking up a scheme to illegally procure military-grade technology for Russia, transferred $500,000 in forfeited Russian funds to Estonia to provide aid to Ukraine. 

In April, the U.S. transferred another shipment of weapons seized from Iran to Ukraine.

Those transfers put funds and ammunition in the hands of the Ukrainian government, but they were also of a significantly lower value than the Amadea. 

Bigger cases involving oligarch assets may prove more difficult. 

“It wouldn’t surprise me if it took 10 years to resolve some of these cases,” said former prosecutor Cassella. 

Natasha Mozgovaya reported from Everett, Washington. Matthew Kupfer and Oleksii Kovalenko reported from Washington, D.C.

Biden to cancel student loans for 160,000 more borrowers

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is canceling student loans for 160,000 more borrowers through a combination of existing programs. 

The U.S. Education Department announced the latest round of cancellations on Wednesday, saying it will erase $7.7 billion in federal student loans. With the latest action, the administration said it has canceled $167 billion in student debt for nearly 5 million Americans through several programs. 

“From day one of my administration, I promised to fight to ensure higher education is a ticket to the middle class, not a barrier to opportunity,” President Joe Biden said in a statement. “I will never stop working to cancel student debt — no matter how many times Republican-elected officials try to stop us.” 

The latest relief will go to borrowers in three categories who hit certain milestones that make them eligible for cancellation. It will go to 54,000 borrowers who are enrolled in Biden’s new income-driven repayment plan, along with 39,000 enrolled in earlier income-driven plans, and about 67,000 who are eligible through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. 

Biden’s new payment plan, known as the SAVE Plan, offers a faster path to forgiveness than earlier versions. More people are now becoming eligible for loan cancellation as they hit 10 years of payments, a new finish line that’s a decade sooner than what borrowers faced in the past. 

The cancellation is moving forward even as Biden’s SAVE Plan faces legal challenges from Republican-led states. A group of 11 states led by Kansas sued to block the plan in March, followed by seven more led by Missouri in April. In two federal lawsuits, the states say Biden needed to go through Congress for his overhaul of federal repayment plans. 

A separate action by the Biden administration aimed to correct previous mistakes that delayed cancellation for some borrowers enrolled in other repayment plans and through Public Service Loan Forgiveness, which forgives loans for people who make 10 years of payments while working in public service jobs. 

The Biden administration has been announcing new batches of forgiveness each month as more people qualify under those three categories. 

According to the Education Department, one in 10 federal student loan borrowers has now been approved for some form of loan relief. 

“One out of every 10 federal student loan borrowers approved for debt relief means one out of every 10 borrowers now has financial breathing room and a burden lifted,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement. 

The Biden administration has continued canceling loans through existing avenues while it also pushes for a new, one-time cancellation that would provide relief to more than 30 million borrowers in five categories. 

Biden’s new plan aims to help borrowers with large sums of unpaid interest, those with older loans, those who attended low-value college programs, and those who face other hardships preventing them from repaying student loans. It would also cancel loans for people who are eligible through other programs but haven’t applied. 

The proposal is going through a lengthy rulemaking process, but the administration said it will accelerate certain provisions, with plans to start waiving unpaid interest for millions of borrowers starting this fall. 

Conservative opponents have threatened to challenge that plan, too, calling it an unfair bonus for wealthy college graduates at the expense of taxpayers who didn’t attend college or already repaid their loans. 

The Supreme Court rejected Biden’s earlier attempt at one-time cancellation, saying it overstepped the president’s authority. The new plan is being made with a different legal justification. 

Republican National Committee evacuates after receiving blood vials

WASHINGTON — The headquarters of the Republican National Committee in Washington was briefly evacuated Wednesday morning after a suspicious package containing two vials of blood was delivered to the building, the police said. 

The RNC, the parent organization of the Republican Party, is playing a major role in the campaign of former President Donald Trump, who will face Democratic incumbent Joe Biden in the November 5 presidential election.  

The authorities initially closed off one downtown block and directed staff and other personnel to avoid the area. By midmorning, employees were reentering the building and police were leaving the scene, according to a Reuters witness.  

“The source of the package and its contents will be further investigated,” the U.S. Capitol Police said in a statement. 

The RNC did not respond to a request for comment. 

White House chef duo has dished up culinary diplomacy at state dinners for nearly a decade 

Washington — A house-cured smoked salmon, red grapefruit, avocado and cucumber starter. Dry-aged rib eye beef in a sesame sabayon sauce. Salted caramel pistachio cake under a layer of matcha ganache.

While President Joe Biden and his guest of honor at a White House state dinner chew over foreign policy, the female chef duo of Cris Comerford and Susie Morrison take care of the culinary diplomacy. They pulled off the above menu for Japan’s leader in April, and they’ll have a new array of delicacies for Kenya’s president on Thursday night.

Comerford, the White House executive chef, and Morrison, the executive pastry chef, are the first women to hold those posts, forming a duo that has tantalized the taste buds of guests at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. with their culinary creations for nearly a decade. Comerford is also the first person of color to be executive chef.

“Both are just exceptional examples of success in their field,” said Bill Yosses, who was the executive pastry chef for seven years before his departure in 2014 cleared the way for Morrison to be promoted. “They excel at what they do.”

Comerford and Morrison get to do it again Thursday when Biden and his wife, first lady Jill Biden, host the administration’s sixth state dinner, for Kenyan President William Ruto and his wife, Rachel. It will be the first such honor for an African head of state since 2008 and the first for Kenya since 2003.

A lavish state dinner is a tool of U.S. diplomacy, a high honor reserved for America’s longstanding and closest allies. In the case of Kenya, Biden wants to elevate a relationship that he sees as critical to security in Africa and far beyond.

Jill Biden planned to preview the dinner setup for the news media on Wednesday afternoon.

State dinner planning is done by the first lady’s staff and the White House social office, and starts months in advance. Ideas are kicked around before the chefs propose a few different menus. The meals are prepared, plated as they would be served and tasted by the social secretary and the first lady, who makes the final call on what will be served.

The menus change, but the overarching goal has stayed the same.

“We’re trying to showcase American food, American regions, American farmers,” while incorporating small tributes to the guest of honor, Yosses said. “It would be rare that we would really try to imitate something from the guest’s country.”

Ingredients for April’s state dinner for Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his wife, Yuko, came from California, Maryland, Oregon and Ohio. The wines were from Oregon and Washington state.

At the media preview for that glitzy event, Comerford explained that the diets of the Bidens and the visiting dignitaries are factored into the preparations, along with those of other guests.

“When we formulate and we create the state dinner menu, we take into consideration all the principals and most of our guests,” she said. “We also take into consideration the season because this is the perfect time for some beautiful bounties right now, with the spring coming up, with all the morels and the mushrooms, and Susie’s cherries and all the stuff she has on her plate.”

The chefs contact their regular purveyors to find out what’s in season, and go from there.

The salmon appetizer served in April was inspired by the California roll, which Comerford said was invented by a Japanese chef.

Morrison’s dessert highlighted Japan’s gift of cherry trees to the United States, many of which are planted in Washington, and its matcha tea. She decorated the pistachio cake with sugary mini cherry blossoms.

“We wanted to bring a little bit of the cherry blossoms that are here on the Tidal Basin right here to our dessert in order for everyone to enjoy the cherry blossoms that we enjoy every year,” she said.

Serving dinner to hundreds of guests at once comes down to timing. Thursday’s event will be held in an expansive pavilion put up on the South Grounds of the White House.

Sam Kass, who was an assistant chef during President Barack Obama’s administration, said tradition holds that the president is the first one served and that plates are cleared away when he is finished eating.

“You have to have a service that is so efficient and quick to get those plates out so that the last table has a chance to eat,” he said.

Comerford, 61, sharpened her culinary skills while working at hotels in Chicago and restaurants in Washington before the White House brought her on in 1995 as an assistant chef. A naturalized U.S. citizen and Filipino native, she was named executive chef in 2005. Her responsibilities include designing and executing menus for state dinners, social events, holiday functions, receptions and official luncheons.

Morrison, 57, started at the executive mansion as a contract pastry employee in 1995 while she was working at a hotel in northern Virginia. She was named an assistant pastry chef in 2002 and became the executive pastry chef in November 2014 — just in time to sweat over the details of that year’s gingerbread White House for the holiday season.

The pair has worked together at the White House for nearly 30 years.

Yosses recalled at least one instance where the honoree’s wishes dictated the menu selections.

In 2015, China’s Xi Jinping wanted a very American menu, “which I think was a polite way for him to say that he didn’t think we could do Chinese food very well,” Yosses said.

The Chinese leader was served butter-poached Maine lobster and grilled Colorado lamb.

Pentagon says Russia launched space weapon in path of US satellite 

Washington — Russia has launched a likely space weapon and deployed it in the same orbit as a U.S. government satellite, the Pentagon said.

“Russia launched a satellite into low Earth orbit that we assess is likely a counter-space weapon presumably capable of attacking other satellites in low Earth orbit,” Pentagon spokesman Air Force Major General Pat Ryder told a press briefing late Tuesday.

The Russian “counter-space weapon” launched on May 16 was deployed “into the same orbit as a U.S. government satellite,” he said.

Ryder added that Washington would continue to monitor the situation and was ready to protect its interests.

“We have a responsibility to be ready to protect and defend the domain, the space domain, and ensure continuous and uninterrupted support to the Joint and Combined Force,” he said.

Earlier Tuesday, Moscow accused the United States of seeking to place weapons in space after Washington vetoed a Russian non-proliferation motion at the United Nations.

“They have once again demonstrated that their true priorities in the area of outer space are aimed not at keeping space free from weapons of any kind, but at placing weapons in space and turning it into an arena for military confrontation,” Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a statement.

The world powers have traded multiple accusations of seeking to weaponize space in recent months.

They have proposed rival non-proliferation motions at the United Nations as part of the spat.

Russia vetoed the U.S. initiative last month, while Moscow’s proposal was blocked by the United States, Britain and France in a vote on Monday.

U.S. envoy Robert Wood said Russia’s proposal, which called on all countries to “take urgent measures to prevent for all time the placement of weapons in outer space,” was a distraction and accused Moscow of “diplomatic gaslighting.”

He said that Russia’s “likely” counter-space weapon was “presumably capable of attacking other satellites in low Earth orbit.”

“Russia deployed this new counter-space weapon into the same orbit as a US government satellite,” he said in remarks ahead of Monday’s vote.

“Russia’s May 16 launch follows prior Russian satellite launches likely of counter-space systems to low Earth orbit in 2019 and 2022.”

In February, the White House said Russia was developing an anti-satellite weapon, the existence of which was confirmed after lawmakers warned of an unspecified but serious threat to national security.

Australian researchers unveil device that harvests water from the air

SYDNEY — A device that absorbs water from air to produce drinkable water was officially launched in Australia Wednesday.

Researchers say the so-called Hydro Harvester, capable of producing up to 1,000 liters of drinkable water a day, could be “lifesaving during drought or emergencies.”

The device absorbs water from the atmosphere. Solar energy or heat that is harnessed from, for example, industrial processes are used to generate hot, humid air. That is then allowed to cool, producing water for drinking or irrigation.

The Australian team said that unlike other commercially available atmospheric water generators, their invention works by heating air instead of cooling it.

Laureate Professor Behdad Moghtaderi, a chemical engineer and director of the University of Newcastle’s Centre for Innovative Energy Technologies, told VOA how the technology operates.  

“Hydro Harvester uses an absorbing material to absorb and dissolve moisture from air. So essentially, we use renewable energy, let’s say, for instance, solar energy or waste heat. We basically produce super saturated, hot, humid air out of the system,” Moghtaderi said. “When you condense water contained in that air you would have the drinking water at your disposal.”

The researchers say the device can produce enough drinking water each day to sustain a small rural town of up to 400 people. It could also help farmers keep livestock alive during droughts.

Moghtaderi says the technology could be used in parts of the world where water is scarce.

Researchers were motivated by the fact that Australia is an arid and dry country.

“More than 2 billion people around the world, they are in a similar situation where they do not have access to, sort of, high-quality water and they deal with water scarcity,” Moghtaderi said

Trials of the technology will be conducted in several remote Australian communities this year.

The World Economic Forum, an international research organization, says “water scarcity continues to be a pervasive global challenge.”

It believes that atmospheric water generation technology is a “promising emergency solution that can immediately generate drinkable water using moisture in the air.”

However, it cautions that generally the technology is not cheap, and estimates that one mid-sized commercial unit can cost between $30,000 and $50,000.

 

Habari! White House to welcome Kenyan president

The White House will roll out the red carpet for the first African leader to be hosted for a state visit since 2008. Kenyan President William Ruto will be honored with a state dinner, the White House says. Also on the table are Nairobi’s aims to leverage Washington’s largesse and influence after Kenya offered to send a peacekeeping force to Haiti. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from the White House. Larry Lazo contributed to the report.

Blinken: Gaza cease-fire still possible, but ICC move complicates efforts  

state department — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday that a cease-fire deal between Israel and Hamas militants in return for the release of hostages remains possible, but the International Criminal Court’s arrest warrants for Israeli leaders hindered ongoing efforts.  

“There’s been an extensive effort made in recent months to get that agreement. I think we came very, very close on a couple of occasions. Qatar, Egypt, others participating in the efforts to do this — we remain at it every single day. I think that there’s still a possibility,” Blinken told lawmakers during a hearing at the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.    

But Blinken said the “extremely wrongheaded decision” by the ICC prosecutor to seek arrest warrants for Israel’s prime minister, defense minister and three Hamas leaders in Gaza for war crimes and crimes against humanity in connection with the Israel-Hamas war complicated the prospects of reaching such a deal.    

On Monday, U.S. President Joe Biden denounced the ICC prosecutor’s decision to equate Hamas terror attacks and civilian abductions in southern Israel with Israel’s military practices in Gaza, calling the ICC prosecutor’s application for arrest warrants “outrageous.”  

Blinken said he will be happy to work with the Congress “on an appropriate response.”    

Some lawmakers are considering legislation to sanction ICC officials for prosecuting U.S. citizens or allies, including Israel.  

The top U.S. diplomat began two days of congressional testimonies, which were immediately interrupted by protesters holding signs that read “war criminal.” They were escorted out of the hearing room by Capitol Police.  

Military operation in Rafah   

In the nearly three-hour hearing, Blinken also said the Biden administration remains “very concerned” about a major military operation by Israel in Rafah.  

The U.S. has opposed a full-scale military assault by Israel in Rafah, situated in the southern part of Gaza. Such an operation would endanger the lives of 1.3 million civilians who evacuated from the northern and central areas of the territory to seek safety from Israel’s military response to Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel.  

Israel’s military campaign has killed more than 35,000 Palestinians and wounded nearly 80,000, most of them civilians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. The offensive was launched following a Hamas terror attack into Israel that killed 1,200 people.  

US-Saudi defense pact     

U.S. officials said the United States and Saudi Arabia are nearing a final agreement on a bilateral defense pact.   

Once complete, it will be part of a broader deal presented to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who must decide whether to make concessions to his opposition regarding the establishment of a Palestinian state to secure normalization with Saudi Arabia.  

On Tuesday, Blinken admitted that Israel might be reluctant to accept a normalization deal with Saudi Arabia if it requires them to agree to a Palestinian state.    

In his testimony before the U.S. Congress, Blinken told Democratic Senator Chris Murphy “the overall package could not go forward, absent other things that have to happen for normalization to proceed.”

“And in particular,” he said, “the Saudis have been very clear that would require calm in Gaza. And it would require a credible pathway to a Palestinian state. And it may well be, as you said, that in this moment, Israel is not able or willing to proceed down that pathway.”    

Blinken added that Israel must “decide whether it wants to proceed and take advantage of the opportunity” to achieve something that it has sought since its founding: normal relations with the countries in the region.  

Netanyahu has rejected the two-state solution and the return of the Palestinian Authority controlling Gaza, demands that are widely supported by the international community.  

The Saudis have demanded, as a prerequisite to normalizing ties with Israel, to see an Israeli commitment to the two-state solution. 

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