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Moore Defiant as GOP Sees Alabama Senate Seat at Risk

His party suddenly and bitingly divided, Alabama Republican Roy Moore emphatically rejected increasing pressure to abandon his Senate bid on Friday as fears grew among GOP leaders that a once-safe Senate seat was in jeopardy just a month before a special election.

Moore, an outspoken Christian conservative and former state Supreme Court judge, attacked a Washington Post report that he had sexual contact with a 14-year-old girl and pursued three other teenagers decades earlier as “completely false and misleading.”

 

In an interview with conservative radio host Sean Hannity, he did not wholly rule out dating teenage girls when he was in his early 30s.

Asked if that would have been usual for him, Moore said, “Not generally, no.” He added: “I don’t remember ever dating any girl without the permission of her mother.” As for the encounter with 14-year-old Leigh Corfman, as described by Corfman in Thursday’s Post article, he said, “It never happened.”

Supporters stand with Moore

The story has produced a wave of concern among anxious GOP officials in Washington but little more than a collective shrug from many Republicans in Alabama, which holds a special election on Dec. 12 to fill the seat previously held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

“Humphrey Bogart started dating Lauren Bacall when she was a teenager,” said state Auditor Jim Ziegler, referring to the then-19-year-old actress.

“I’ll always vote for him,” said 28-year-old Erica Richard, of Altoona, Alabama, adding that she wouldn’t change her mind even if the allegations of sexual misconduct are proven true. “He’s a good man. I love him and his family, and they are all good people.”

Paul Reynolds, Alabama’s Republican National Committeeman, called it “a firestorm designed to shipwreck a campaign in Alabama. I think it’s sinister.”

Despite such support, experienced Republican operatives believe the Alabama Senate seat, held by the GOP for the last 20 years, is now at risk.

They fear the controversy could exacerbate the party’s broader Trump-era challenge in appealing to college-educated suburban voters — the same group that fueled a big Democratic victory in the Virginia governor’s race this week.

Those familiar with recent polling of the Alabama race suggest it was always going to be close despite the state’s strong Republican leanings — largely because of Moore’s controversial past.

National GOP leaders want Moore out

In the immediate aftermath of the Post report Thursday, a wave of national Republican leaders called for Moore to drop out of the race if the allegations are true. They included the White House, the head of the House Freedom Caucus Mark Meadows, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

It got worse Friday.

The Senate GOP’s campaign arm formally ended its fundraising agreement with Moore.

The GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney condemned his colleagues’ caveat — only if the allegations are true.

“Innocent until proven guilty is for criminal convictions, not elections. I believe Leigh Corfman,” he said of the Alabama woman who said Moore molested her when she was 14. “Her account is too serious to ignore. Moore is unfit for office and should step aside.”

Facing a tough re-election, Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., likened Moore to Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, former Rep. Anthony Weiner and former Fox News executive Roger Ailes, all men accused of sexual misconduct.

“The defense from some of his supporters is beyond disgusting,” Comstock wrote. “Moore should not serve in the U.S. Senate.”

Yet there is no sign he is going away quietly. And the Alabama secretary of state’s office reported that it’s too late to remove his name from the ballot.

The Republican Party’s options, including the possibility of a write-in campaign, “are all being researched,” said Steven Law, who leads the pro-Republican Senate Leadership Fund.

Stands his ground

Those who think Moore should be replaced have little hope of that happening.

“I don’t think anyone expects Roy Moore to drop out of this race,” Law said. “I think he enjoys being an object of intense controversy. The fact that this has happened may make him even more committed.”

Moore was twice removed from his state Supreme Court position, once for disobeying a federal court order to remove a 5,200-pound granite Ten Commandments monument from the lobby of the state judicial building, and later for urging state probate judges to defy the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized gay marriage.

He also previously said homosexuality should be illegal, and last week he refused to back off comments that Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., should not be allowed to serve in Congress because he’s a Muslim.

Virtually the entire Republican establishment — including President Donald Trump — opposed Moore’s primary bid in September.

Democrats make their move … quietly

Democrats, meanwhile, were quietly stepping up their mobilization efforts in Alabama, though being careful not to publicly ignite partisan backlash by attempting to capitalize on the troubling allegations.

Democratic candidate Doug Jones stood to capitalize in places where Moore had shown weakness in past statewide elections. Some Republicans conceded that Moore would likely suffer in the state’s reliably, mainstream-Republican suburbs.

In Shelby and Baldwin counties — suburban Birmingham and Mobile — Moore ran more than a dozen percentage points behind Romney in his 2012 bid for the Alabama Supreme Court.

“It’s a bad situation,” said Henry Barbour, a Republican National Committeeman from neighboring Mississippi. “Do people find it believable? If they do, he will lose.”

 

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UN to Host Talks on Use of ‘Killer Robots’

The United Nations is set to host talks on the use of autonomous weapons, but those hoping for a ban on the machines dubbed “killer robots” will be disappointed, the ambassador leading the discussions said Friday.

More than 100 artificial intelligence entrepreneurs led by Tesla’s Elon Musk in August urged the U.N. to enforce a global ban on fully automated weapons, echoing calls from activists who have warned the machines will put civilians at enormous risk.

A U.N. disarmament grouping known as the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) will on Monday begin five days of talks on the issue in Geneva.

But anything resembling a ban, or even a treaty, remains far off, said the Indian ambassador on disarmament, Amandeep Gill, who is chairing the meeting.

“It would be very easy to just legislate a ban but I think … rushing ahead in a very complex subject is not wise,” he told reporters. “We are just at the starting line.”

He said the discussion, which will also include civil society and technology companies, will be partly focused on understanding the types of weapons in the pipeline.

Proponents of a ban, including the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots pressure group, insist that human beings must ultimately be responsible for the final decision to kill or destroy.

They argue that any weapons system that delegates the decision on an individual strike to an algorithm is by definition illegal, because computers cannot be held accountable under international humanitarian law.

Gill said there was agreement that “human beings have to remain responsible for decisions that involve life and death.”

But, he added, there are varying opinions on the mechanics through which “human control” must govern deadly weapons.

Machines ‘can’t apply the law’

The International Committee of the Red Cross, which is mandated to safeguard the laws of conflict, has not called for a ban, but has underscored the need to place limits on autonomous weapons.

“Our bottom line is that machines can’t apply the law and you can’t transfer responsibility for legal decisions to machines,” Neil Davison of the ICRC’s arms unit told AFP.

He highlighted the problematic nature of weapons that involve major variables in terms of the timing or location of an attack — for example, something that is deployed for multiple hours and programmed to strike whenever it detects an enemy target.

“Where you have a degree of unpredictability or uncertainty in what’s going to happen when you activate this weapons system, then you are going to start to have problems for legal compliance,” he said.

Flawed meeting?

Next week’s U.N. meeting will also feature wide-ranging talks on artificial intelligence, triggering criticism that the CCW was drowning itself in discussions about new technologies instead of zeroing in on the urgent issue.

“There is a risk in going too broad at this moment,” said Mary Wareham of Human Rights Watch, who is the coordinator of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

“The need is to focus on lethal autonomous weapons,” she told AFP.

The open letter co-signed by Musk as well as Mustafa Suleyman, co-founder of Google’s DeepMind, warned that killer robots could become “weapons that despots and terrorists use against innocent populations, and weapons hacked to behave in undesirable ways.”

“Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close,” they said.

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Trump Wishes Happy Birthday to US Marine Corps

United States President Donald Trump on Friday wished a happy birthday to the Marine Corps, honoring its 242nd year in existence.

“On behalf of an entire nation, Happy 242nd Birthday to the men and women of the United States Marines!” Trump wrote on Twitter, in a post accompanied by several pictures of him posing with Marines.

Saturday will mark the first Veterans Day of Trump’s administration, and he spent Friday in Danang, Vietnam, where he met with American veterans who served in the Vietnam War.

“Our veterans are a national treasure, and I thank them all for their service, sacrifice and patriotism,” Trump said, noting that he signed a proclamation to honor veterans of the war.

Trump said he had met a few of the veterans and called them “tough, smart cookies” before inviting them to speak. Several of them praised Trump, including Max Morgan, who thanked Trump for his support of the military.

“Mr. President, from my heart, thank you for your support of the military, and it’s an honor to be here as one of seven Vietnam veterans representing the 58,000 heroes who never made it home,” Morgan said.

Trump is in Vietnam as part of his 12-day trip through Asia. Later, he will attend an international economic summit.

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Tillerson: US Opposes Action Causing Instability in Lebanon

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Friday that the U.S. opposes action that would threaten the stability of Lebanon, and he warned other countries against using Lebanon “as a venue for proxy conflicts.”

In a statement, Tillerson said, “There is no legitimate place or role in Lebanon for any foreign forces, militias or armed elements other than the legitimate security forces of the Lebanese state.”

Tillerson also called Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri a “strong partner of the United States.”

“The United States urges all parties both within Lebanon and outside to respect the integrity and independence of Lebanon’s legitimate national institutions, including the government of Lebanon and the Lebanese armed forces,” he said.

Earlier Friday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah accused Saudi Arabia of detaining Hariri and asking Israel to launch strikes against Lebanon.

“The most dangerous thing is inciting Israel to strike Lebanon,” Nasrallah said. “I’m talking about information that Saudi Arabia has asked Israel to strike Lebanon.”

While he said he saw war with Israel as unlikely, Nasrallah said it was clear “Saudi Arabia and Saudi officials have declared war on Lebanon.”

Nasrallah said he was certain Hariri, who resigned last week in an address from Saudi Arabia, was “forced” to make the announcement and called the resignation unconstitutional because it was “made under duress.”

Tillerson said Friday that there was “no indication” Hariri had been detained by the Saudis against his will or that he resigned under duress.

Tillerson added Hariri “needs to go back to Lebanon” to make the resignation official “so that the government of Lebanon can function properly.”

Government officials in Beirut have said they believe Hariri is being held in Saudi Arabia, amid a deepening crisis pushing Lebanon onto the front lines of a power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Saudi Arabia supported Hariri and his allies during years of political conflict in Lebanon with Iran-backed Hezbollah.

In his resignation speech televised from Saudi Arabia, Hariri denounced Iran and Hezbollah for sowing friction in Arab states and said he feared assassination. His father, a former prime minister, was killed in a 2005 bombing.

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US Immigration Enforcement Agency Seeks to Double in Size by 2023

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is considering a hiring surge that would more than double the agency’s size in the coming six years to nearly 46,000 employees, surpassing previously published estimates, according to a government contracting-related document released this week.

In a “Request for Information” Wednesday seeking input from the private sector about staffing services to support such an increase, ICE stated it could hire as many as 25,700 staff members by 2023, beginning in early 2018. The agency currently employs about 20,000 people and has a well-documented struggle with finding and keeping new hires.

The higher figure surpasses the 10,000 new immigration enforcement agents and deportation officers President Donald Trump called for in a January executive order; it also goes above the “more than 6,500 technical and operational support staff” the agency anticipated requiring.

Asked about the potential hiring surge, an ICE spokesperson twice referred to the agency’s Frequently Asked Questions site, specifically a section stating that in addition to hiring the 10,000 agents and officers, the agency would add “additional operational and mission support and legal staff necessary to hire and support their activities.”

The agency declined further comment.

Hiring challenges ahead

A Request for Information (RFI) is an initial step in the government contracting process to gauge the capabilities, interest and estimates of possible vendors, who in this case would be providing human resources support in “recruiting, examining, selecting and placing employees” at ICE.

The document lays out an estimated pace, saying its current estimated hiring need is 2,500 beginning March 2018; 7,000 hires each year from 2019 to 2021; and 2,200 hires in 2022.

An RFI does not guarantee a proposal and bidding process will follow; the document is careful to state that staffing services “may be needed.”

But if ICE follows through with an aggressive hiring plan, it will likely need outside help in the hiring process.

A report by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general in July estimated that in order to add 10,000 immigration agents and deportation officers to the current level of around 6,000, the agency would need to vet about a half-million applicants.

​Vacancies

ICE has also had difficulties in keeping up with vacancies from losing 795 employees annually through attrition; DHS has the most understaffed human resource services among larger federal agencies, according to a July DHS Inspector General’s report.

ICE will need about 200 more people who work in human resources to keep up with the hiring process for so many new employees. 

Another report from the Inspector General, issued this month, said the agency, along with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, “face significant challenges in identifying, recruiting, hiring and fielding the number of law enforcement officers mandated in the January 2017 Executive Orders.” 

Trump mandated CBP hire an additional 5,000 border officers in the same executive order as the ICE increase. There is no Request for Information announced for a CBP hiring surge.

But in the November report, the Inspector General noted neither agency “could provide complete data to support the operational need or deployment strategies for the additional 15,000 agents and officers they were directed to hire,” calling into question the need for what Trump ordered.

The degree to which the hiring is carried out will depend on funding allocated by Congress, and also by presidential politics — Trump’s term ends in January 2021, in the middle of the anticipated increase to ICE’s ranks.

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Investigations Probe Russian Social Media Meddling in US Politics

Executives of Facebook, Google and Twitter last week met with Congress to answer questions about Russian efforts to use the platforms to spread disinformation during and after the 2016 US presidential election. VOA’s Bill Gallo looks at the extent of the Russian campaign, and what US lawmakers want to do about it.

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Fighting an Ocean of Plastic With a Plucky Pump

The results of three recent separate studies are staggering, the oceans are filled with about 5 trillion bits and bobs of plastic debris. Now, one English sailing team is doing its part, skimming plastic off the ocean’s surface, bucket by bucket. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.

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US Congress Weighs Tough Sanctions on Burmese Military for Rohingya Crisis

The U.S. Congress moved to pressure the Burmese military into ending the crisis facing the Rohingya, in a bipartisan effort that proposes a range of options aimed at ending the violence against the Muslim minority. The bill would impose new sanctions, cutting off U.S. cooperation with the military while funding economic assistance. VOA’s congressional reporter Katherine Gypson sat down with the co-sponsors of the bill to learn more.

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Trump’s China Stop Provides Feel Good Breather, but Challenges Remain

President Donald Trump’s two-day stop in China saw the signing of $250 billion in deals between the world’s two biggest economies and the two countries aligning themselves closer in resolute opposition to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

But analysts say little new ground was broken on trade or North Korea, an issue that will continue to top President Trump’s agenda as he travels to Vietnam and attends the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit.

And the true test of the feel-good foundation forged during the meetings, analysts said, is likely to come in the days, weeks and months ahead.

Big deal?

By design, the $250 billion sum of the deals was meant to provide a sharp contrast to the $300-500 billion deficit that exists between the United States and China, something Trump called “horrible” before departing for his 12-day trip to Asia.

Chinese state media have kicked into overdrive hailing the visit as a huge success. Media reports have highlighted the tone of the meetings, repeatedly noting the total amount of the deals.

An editorial in the official China Daily Friday said, “Although the differences that had been pestering bilateral ties have not instantly disappeared, the most important takeaway from their talks in Beijing has been the constructive approach to these issue the two leaders demonstrated.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping has called the meeting “historic.”

“We will definitely write a new chapter in the U.S.-Chinese relations. We will definitely make a new contribution to realize a beautiful future for U.S.-Chinese relations,” Xi said at a banquet Thursday evening.

Whether the “historic” nature of the meetings will hold, however, remains in question.

Liao Qun, chief economist at China CITIC Bank International, said that the size of the deal shows trade takes priority above all else.

“Though the U.S. and China do not see eye to eye, both still compete on many geo-political issues, trade still remains at the top of their agenda. With closer trade relations, the U.S.-China relation will still make headway,” Liao said.

​No guarantees

But not all agree with that assessment.

Some analysts said that despite Trump’s softer approach and “incredibly warm” feeling he expressed about his Chinese counterpart, the president is likely to be back to criticizing China again in a few months.

“The president likes deals, and he likes big numbers, but we’re not going to change something he doesn’t like, which is the big China trade deficit, without changing Chinese practices,” said Derek Scissors, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “China has to have a different approach to trade in the world than it does.”

Scissors said that more than the deficit, it is what is behind the numbers, such as the fact that Chinese state-owned enterprises never go out of business.

“Which means American goods and services can’t ever win in the China market,” he said.

WATCH: Trump Touts Excellent Progress in Beijing During Talks with Xi

Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy said we may have a case of misaligned assessments of how the visit has played out.

The Chinese leadership may think that they have done a lot to give President Trump face, with all of the pomp and business deals, and that that has put the relationship on solid footing, he said.

“But President Trump may go home to a domestic political environment where people are disappointed he hasn’t achieved more progress on the structural trade and economics issues (market access, more fair and reciprocal treatment for U.S. businesses, intellectual property rights, forced technology transfer, and Chinese unfair industrial policies) and North Korea,” Haenle said. “My concern is you may see a shift towards a much harder line coming from the U.S. administration. That will be a huge surprise to China and President Xi.”

​Pretty small

The huge deals reached could create jobs in America and provide a small boost to exports, but the meetings did little to advance market access.

“Open markets are better for both sides. It is also better for China to open up its market. But China is not interested in opening markets,” said Christopher Balding, associate professor of finance at Peking University’s HSBC Business.

In a briefing with reporters Thursday after the two leaders issued a joint statement, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that “in the grand scheme of a $300- to $500-billion trade deficit, the things that have been achieved thus far are pretty small.”

“I mean, they’re not small if you’re a company, maybe, that has seen some relief. But in terms of really getting at some of the fundamental elements behind why this imbalance exists, there’s still a lot more work to do,” he said.

China has repeatedly pledged to do more to open its markets, and the Communist Party recently approved amendments to its charter that called for letting “the market play a decisive role in the economy. But progress has been slow and contradictory.

Earlier this year, China announced it would be allowing U.S. credit card companies to operate fully owned units in the country after years of stalling. However, several sources recently told Reuters that authorities are still pressing foreign credit card companies to form joint ventures with Chinese companies.

On Friday, China announced that it will raise the ownership limits in joint venture firms involved in securities, futures and fund markets. China’s Vice Finance Minister Zhu Guangyao said that ownership limits would be raised from 49 to 51 percent, allowing foreign companies to hold a majority stake.

No time frame for implementing the measures was given, but according to Reuters Zhu did say that all restrictions on equity holdings for the sectors would be removed in three years.

Analysts note that while it is still hard to say what else was discussed behind closed doors, on trade and North Korea, the ball is clearly in China’s court.

“Trump has put the onus on President Xi to solve the North Korea problem. This is why he said that if Xi wants something to happen, it will happen,” Balding said.

VOA’s Joyce Huang and Saibal Dasgupta contributed to this report.

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