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Some older working Americans bristle at calls for Biden to step aside

NEW YORK — A swath of Americans watching U.S. President Joe Biden is seeing something beyond debate-stage stumbles and prime-time miscues: themselves.

Debate about the 81-year-old Democrat’s fitness for another term is especially resonating with other older Americans who, like him, want to stay on the job.

“People were telling me I should retire, too,” says 89-year-old D’yan Forest, a New York comedian. “But you’ve got to keep working, no matter what.”

Forest has stumbled on an occasional joke and finds it more difficult to memorize her lines. But she’s busier than ever, drawing audiences and getting big laughs with bawdy jokes and ukulele-strummed songs. She dismisses Biden’s debate performance as a “blip” and grows angry that a single night would cause people to look past all the benefits age brings.

People 75 and older are the fastest-growing age group in the U.S. workforce. All told, about 1 in 5 Americans age 65 and older are employed, according to the Census Bureau.

Many older adults are wary of seeing a peer shoved aside because of his age and, like Forest, insist it should be up to each individual when they decide to exit the workplace.

“He has the experience,” she says. “He has judgment. He’s seen it all.”

Even among that growing population of older workers, though, some want Biden to give up.

“Forget it! The party’s over!” says Betty Ann Talomie, an 81-year-old from Seneca Falls, New York, who was born just a few weeks after the president. “Some people can’t face that it’s time.”

Talomie worked her last shift as a waitress in January. She still treasured regular customers, loved her co-workers and relished having something to occupy boring winter days. But she started feeling more tired at the end of her shift and knew the time had come.

“It’s like anything at this age: It’s twice as hard to do anything,” says Talomie.

She plans to vote for Donald Trump, as she did in 2020, but says he’s ready for retirement too.

“I think they should both sit in lounge chairs,” she says.

Biden insists he’s not stepping aside. Trump, 78, has escaped similar questioning about his age. If he is elected and serves a full term, he would eventually supplant Biden as the oldest president in U.S. history.

Eli Trujillo, an 87-year-old barber in Cheyenne, Wyoming, sees age taking its toll on Biden, but he knows he doesn’t cut hair as fast as he used to or log as many hours either.

Who is he to judge when it comes to the president’s decision?

“If he feels he could still do it,” Trujillo says, “I don’t hold it against him.”

Older employees see rampant age discrimination in their workplaces, and for those who remain on the job, being asked about retirement plans is a constant aggravation.

“They look at me and say, ‘Why don’t you retire? You can take it easy,’” says Paul Durietz, a 76-year-old teacher in Gurnee, Illinois. “I just like teaching,” he tells them.

Durietz, who teaches seventh-grade social studies, may come home a little more tired than he used to, but he says working into later life is no longer a big deal.

Polls have shown older Americans are more likely than younger people to have a favorable view of Biden and are less likely to say he should withdraw to allow another candidate. But even among older people, Biden faces steep skepticism.

Six in 10 people over 70 favored Biden’s withdrawal from the race in a survey released Wednesday by the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Harriet Newman Cohen is one of them. Although she will vote for Biden if he remains, she finds his appearances painful to watch and fears he has lost all sense of self awareness.

“What’s happening now,” the 91-year-old attorney says, “is giving older age such a bad rap.”

Cohen says she hasn’t slowed at all and finds old age has brought her “more acuity, more keenness, more energy.” Even as she bristles at the idea of anyone suggesting she retire from the work she loves, she believes the time has come for Biden to step aside.

“I’ve just been so lucky,” Cohen says. “But the president has not been so lucky.”

Although many younger people can’t imagine working longer than they have to, older workers often say they can’t imagine themselves not remaining on the job.

Some who work into their 70s, 80s and beyond do so because their finances force them to, but many others do so out of preference. Polls consistently show job satisfaction grows with age and for those who love their work, deciding to quit is a tough decision.

Jim Oppegard, a 94-year-old school bus driver in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, is wrestling with whether to return to work next month as a new school year begins.

He loves the children and having extra cash to donate, and he continues to pass annual exams to make sure he’s up to the job. The Guinness World Records certified him earlier this year as the world’s oldest bus driver, an honor that made him reflect on his future.

He’s considered retiring before but has always gone back. This time might be different.

“There’s something to be said,” Oppegard says, “for going out on top.”

Leader of Belarus marks 30 years in power after crushing dissent

TALLINN, Estonia — For three decades, European leaders have come and gone by the dozens, but Alexander Lukashenko remains in absolute control of Belarus.

His longevity is due to a mixture of harshly silencing all dissent, reverting to Soviet-style economic controls and methods and cozying up to Russia, even as he sometimes flirted with the West.

Lukashenko, 69, was dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” early in his tenure, and he has lived up to that nickname.

On Saturday, he marks 30 years in power — one of the world’s longest-serving and most ruthless leaders.

As head of the country sandwiched between Russia, Ukraine and NATO members Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, Lukashenko was elected to his sixth term in office in 2020 in balloting widely seen at home and abroad as rigged.

Months of mass protests that followed were harshly suppressed in a violent crackdown that sent tens of thousands to jail amid allegations of beatings and torture. Many political opponents remain imprisoned or have fled the nation of 9.5 million.

But the strongman shrugged off Western sanctions and isolation that followed, and now he says he will run for a seventh five-year term next year.

Lukashenko owes his political longevity to a mixture of guile, brutality and staunch political and economic support from his main ally, Russia.

Most recently, in 2022 he allowed Moscow to use Belarusian territory to invade Ukraine and later agreed to host some of Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons.

“Lukashenko has turned Belarus into a fragment of the USSR, dangerous not only for its own citizens but also threatening its Western neighbors with nuclear weapons,” said independent political analyst Valery Karbalevich.

He described the Belarusian leader as “one of the most experienced post-Soviet politicians, who has learned to play both on the Kremlin’s mood and the fears of his own people.” 

In power since 1994

When the former state farm director was first elected in July 1994 just 2½ years after Belarus gained independence following the USSR’s collapse, he pledged to fight corruption and boost living standards that had plunged amid chaotic free-market reforms.

An admirer of the Soviet Union, Lukashenko pushed soon after his election for a referendum that abandoned the country’s new red-and-white national flag in favor of one similar to what Belarus had used as a Soviet republic.

He also quickly bolstered ties with Russia and pushed for forming a new union state in the apparent hope of becoming its head after a full merger — an ambition dashed by the 2000 election of Vladimir Putin to succeed the ailing Boris Yeltsin as Russian president.

Under Lukashenko, Belarus’ top security agency retained its fearsome Soviet-era name of the KGB. It also has been the only country in Europe to keep capital punishment, with executions carried out with a shot to the back of the head.

In 1999 and 2000, four prominent Lukashenko critics disappeared, and an investigation by the Council of Europe concluded they were kidnapped and killed by death squads linked to senior Belarusian officials. Belarusian authorities stonewalled European demands to track down and prosecute the suspected culprits.

“Lukashenko never bothered with his reputation,” said Anatoly Lebedko, leader of the now-outlawed United Civil Party of Belarus. “He relished in calling himself a dictator and bragged about being a pariah even when he was publicly accused of political killings and other crimes.”

Lukashenko initiated constitutional changes that put parliament under his control, removed term limits and extended his power in elections that the West didn’t recognize as free or fair. Protests following the votes were quickly broken up by police and organizers were jailed.

His Soviet-style centralized economy depended heavily on Russian subsidies.

“Instead of helping Belarus, cheap Russian oil and gas have become its curse, allowing Lukashenko to receive windfall profits from exporting oil products to Europe and freeze the situation in Belarus,” said Alexander Milinkevich, who challenged him in a 2006 election. “Opposition calls for reforms and movement toward the European Union literally drowned in the flood of Russian money.”

But even while relying on Moscow, Lukashenko repeatedly clashed with the Kremlin, accusing it of trying to strong-arm Belarus into surrendering control of its most prized economic assets and eventually abandoning its independence.

While maneuvering for more subsidies from Russia, he often tried to appease the West by occasionally easing repressions. Before the 2020 election, the U.S. and EU lifted some sanctions as Belarus freed political prisoners.

Turning point

The balancing act ended after the vote that sparked the largest protests ever seen in Belarus. In the subsequent crackdown, over 35,000 people were arrested, thousands were beaten in police custody, and hundreds of independent media outlets and nongovernmental organizations were closed and outlawed.

While Putin had been annoyed by Lukashenko’s past maneuvers, he saw the protests as a major threat to Moscow’s influence over its ally and moved quickly to shore up the Belarusian leader, who came under Western sanctions.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who challenged Lukashenko in that election and then fled the country to lead the opposition from exile, said the vote marked a watershed as it became clear that he had “lost support of the majority of the Belarusians.”

“Lukashenko has survived primarily thanks to Russia, which offered him information, financial and even military support at the peak of the protests,” she told The Associated Press. “The Kremlin’s intervention prevented a split in the Belarusian elites. Now Lukashenko is paying back that support with the country’s sovereignty.”

Belarus’ leading human rights group, Viasna, counts about 1,400 political prisoners in the country, including group founder and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski, who has been held incommunicado like other opposition figures.

“Lukashenko has created a harsh personalist political regime in the center of Europe with thousands of political prisoners where civic institutions don’t function and time has turned back,” said Bialiatski’s wife, Natalia Pinchuk. “Torturous conditions in which Ales has been held are emblematic for thousands of Belarusian prisoners and Lukashenko’s path in politics.”

In one of the most vivid episodes of the crackdown, a commercial jet carrying a dissident journalist from Greece to Lithuania was forced to land in Minsk in May 2021 when it briefly crossed into Belarusian airspace in what the West condemned as air piracy. The journalist, Raman Pratasevich, was convicted of organizing protests and sentenced to eight years in prison. He later was pardoned and became a Lukashenko supporter.

The future for Lukashenko

The Belarusian leader is sometimes blustery and mercurial. He once praised Adolf Hitler for “raising Germany from ruins.”

Lukashenko shrugged off the COVID-19 pandemic as “psychosis” and advised people to “kill the virus with vodka,” go to saunas and work in the fields because “tractors will cure everybody!”

Amid the 2020 crackdown, Lukashenko declared that “sometimes we shouldn’t care about the laws and just take tough steps to stop some scum.”

He kept his youngest son, 19-year-old Nikolai, at his side at official events, fueling speculation that he could be nurturing him as a successor.

Lukashenko maintained a tough-guy image by playing hockey, skiing and doing other sports. After contracting COVID-19, he said he recovered quickly, thanks to physical activity.

But he’s become visibly less energetic in recent years amid rumors of health problems that he denied with his usual bravado.

“I’m not going to die,” he said last year. “You will have to tolerate me for quite a long time to go.”

France’s divided National Assembly keeps centrist speaker 

PARIS — France’s divided National Assembly on Thursday kept a centrist member of President Emmanuel Macron’s party as speaker after a chaotic early election produced a hung legislature. 

Speaker Yael Braun-Pivet, 53, has been at the head of the National Assembly since 2022 and she retained her post Thursday after three rounds of voting in the lower house of parliament. 

She received the support of Macron’s centrist allies and of some conservative lawmakers seeking to prevent her leftist contender from getting the job. Braun-Pivet won 220 votes, while communist lawmaker Andre Chassaigne got 207. 

The parliamentary election earlier this month resulted in a split among three major political blocs: the New Popular Front leftist coalition, Macron’s centrist allies and the far-right National Rally party. None won an outright majority. 

“We need to get along with each other, to cooperate. We need to be able to seek compromises,” Braun-Pivet told lawmakers in a speech following her election as speaker. “You will always find me by your side to do this, to dialogue with you, to innovate with you, to find that new path that the National Assembly must take.” 

Thursday’s opening session of the lower house of parliament came two days after Macron accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Gabriel Attal and other ministers but asked them to handle affairs in a caretaker capacity until a new government is appointed, as France prepares to host the Paris Olympics at the end of the month. 

Leaders of the New Popular Front on Thursday evening again urged Macron to turn to them to form the new government, insisting they won the most seats in the National Assembly. 

Yet the members of the coalition, which includes the hard-left France Unbowed, the Socialists, the Greens and the Communists, are still feuding among themselves over whom to choose as their prime ministerial candidate. 

Chassaigne, who was the joint candidate of the New Popular Front, criticized the job of speaker going to Macron’s centrists as a vote “stolen by an unnatural alliance.” 

It “gives us even more strength,” he added. 

Chassaigne blamed conservative members of the Republicans party for participating in “tactics that led to not changing anything,” describing the move as “giving nausea.” 

Speaking from Woodstock, England, where he was attending a summit of leaders from Europe, Macron declined to comment on the French political situation and refused to say when he intends to name a new prime minister. 

“I will not answer that question,” he said. 

Politicians from the three main blocs and smaller parties had waged a battle for the job of speaker, with each camp seeking to make a show of force in the hope that it would influence Macron’s decision. 

Unions and left-wing activists staged protests Thursday across the country to “put pressure” on Macron to choose a prime minister who comes from the New Popular Front. 

There is no firm timeline for when the president must name a new prime minister.

Threat to Europe, US will not end with Ukraine, officials warn

washington — Ending the war in Ukraine will likely not be enough to end the threat to Europe or even the United States, in the view of several top European diplomats and the top U.S. general in Europe.

The officials, speaking Thursday at the annual Aspen Security Forum in Aspen, Colorado, described the war and their nations’ support for Ukraine as existential, but said a Ukrainian victory against invading Russian forces would be just the start.

“The outcome on the ground is terribly, terribly important,” said U.S. General Christopher Cavoli, who heads U.S. European Command and serves as the supreme allied commander for NATO.

“But we can’t be under any illusions,” Cavoli said. “At the end of a conflict in Ukraine, however it concludes, we are going to have a very, very big Russia problem. … 

“We are going to have a situation where Russia is reconstituting its force, is located on the borders of NATO, is led by largely the same people as it is right now, is convinced that we’re the adversary, and is very, very angry.”

Germany’s foreign and security adviser was equally blunt.

“By the choice of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, we are entering a phase of a long, drawn-out conflict with Russia,” Jens Plötner told the audience in Aspen.

“Its bloodiest manifestation, at the moment, is the war in Ukraine. But obviously it’s not the only one,” Plötner said. “We have seen hybrid activity across Europe. We have seen hybrid activity in the United States. We have seen Russia reaching out to Africa. We have seen Russia rekindling ties with Tehran or, even worse, Pyongyang.

“So, I think all of this is part of the bigger picture, which we need to acknowledge.”

Plötner declined to comment directly on a Russian plot, first reported by CNN earlier this month, to kill the chief executive of Rheinmetall, one of Germany’s leading defense companies. But he said arrests have been made and that Germany’s security agencies are on high alert.

“We know that the ones [plots] we have been able to thwart were not the last ones,” he said.

Russia has denied any involvement in the plot to kill the Rheinmetall executive, dismissing the news reports as fake.

“Such reports cannot be taken seriously,” said Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov.

Germany and other European countries have increasingly raised concerns about Russian-linked networks working to erode support for Ukraine.

In April, German authorities arrested two Russian-German men on espionage charges, alleging one of them had agreed to carry out attacks on U.S. military facilities to sabotage the delivery of military aid to Ukraine.

Earlier this month, U.S. intelligence officials alleged Russia was again seeking to interfere in the upcoming U.S. presidential election in an effort to boost candidates perceived as favorable to Moscow, especially with respect to the war in Ukraine.

Jonatan Vseviov, secretary-general at Estonia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, warned Thursday that now, especially, the West must be wary of Putin’s mind games of “fear and false hope.”

“His foreign minister, I think yesterday, talked about peace. This is him laying a trap,” Vseviov said in Aspen. “And it would be enormously foolish for us to fall into this. [Putin’s] not interested in peace. He’s interested in derailing our policy.”

Vseviov also warned against allowing Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling to paralyze Western decision-making and support for Ukraine.

The comments by Vseviov, Plötner and Cavoli came against the backdrop of the Republican National Convention, where supporters of Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump briefly distributed signs reading “Trump will end the Ukraine war.”

Trump’s choice for vice president, Ohio Senator J.D. Vance, has argued in favor of a negotiated peace between Russia and Ukraine.

Some Europeans accuse Vance of downplaying the threat posed by Putin. And at a security conference in Munich earlier this year, Vance said, “The best way to help Ukraine, I think, from a European perspective, is for Europe to become more self-sufficient.”

Some European officials have pushed back against criticism that Europe is not doing enough for its self-defense, pointing to an initiative to develop a European deep-strike precision missile capability to counter Russia’s own missile buildup.

The top U.S. general in Europe, Cavoli, also rejected the Republican criticism.

“This is a different Europe than the Europe we complained about for years,” he said. “This is a Europe that recognizes what the burden is and that it’s got to be shared. And it’s got organizations that are preparing the sharing.

“This is exactly the partner we’ve been looking for for three decades. It’s exactly the time when U.S. contribution will produce the most value,” he said.

Actor Bob Newhart, famous for deadpan humor, dies at 94

LOS ANGELES — Bob Newhart, who fled the tedium of an accounting job to become a master of stammering, deadpan humor as a standup comedian and later as a U.S. television sitcom star, died on Thursday at the age of 94, his publicist said.

Newhart died at his home in Los Angeles after a series of short illnesses, said his longtime publicist, Jerry Digney.

Newhart had two hit shows — first playing a psychologist on “The Bob Newhart Show” from 1972 to 1978, and then portraying a Vermont innkeeper on “Newhart” from 1982 through 1990. In both shows he relied on a bland, cardigan-clad everyman character who is confounded by the oddball people around him.

Newhart was nominated for Emmy Awards nine times, beginning in 1962 for writing on his short-lived variety show, but he did not win until 2013 when he was given the award for a guest appearance on “The Big Bang Theory.”

Newhart’s career began in the late 1950s, with a comedy routine in which he played straight man to an unheard voice on the other end of a telephone call. Tommy Smothers of the Smothers Brothers duo called Newhart “a one-man comedy team” because of his dialogues with invisible partners.

His 1960 live album, “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart,” was a big hit that was also highly influential. It became the first comedy album to top the charts and earned him three Grammy awards.

Newhart’s characters had a trademark stammer, which he said was not an act but the way he really talked. He said a TV producer once asked him to cut down on the stammer because it was making the shows run too long.

“‘No,’ I told him. ‘That stammer bought me a house in Beverly Hills,'” Newhart wrote in his memoir, “I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This!”

He ended his “Newhart” show in 1990 with an episode regarded as one of the most unique in the annals of U.S. television. In the last scene of the series, he awakens in bed with his wife from the first series after “dreaming” his life in the second series.

Newhart sprung from an era of angry, edgy standup comics such as Lenny Bruce, Shelley Berman and Mort Sahl, but his act was subtly subversive, without the profanity or shock used by his contemporaries.

He exploited his hesitant, bashful ordinariness to skewer society in his own fashion — including sketches about how a publicity agent would “handle” Abraham Lincoln or one featuring an inept official on the phone with a frantic man trying to defuse a bomb.

In the late 1950s, Newhart had a boring accounting job — in which he claimed that his credo was “that’s close enough” — and began writing comedy sketches with a colleague as a diversion.

Those led to radio performances and eventually a record deal with Warner Bros.

“Probably the best advice I ever got in my life was from the head of the accounting department, Mr. Hutchinson, I believe, at the Glidden Company in Chicago, and he told me, ‘You really aren’t cut out for accounting,'” Newhart told an interviewer.

Before winning an Emmy in 2013, Newhart had been nominated three times for his acting on “Newhart,” once for writing on his 1961 variety show and twice for appearances on other shows. He also was a frequent guest on variety shows and talk shows.

He appeared in several movies, including “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” “Catch-22” and “Elf.”

In 2002, he was awarded the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. Asked by the New York Times in 2019 whether he felt 90 years old, Newhart said, “My mind doesn’t. I can’t turn it off.”

Newhart was introduced by comedian Buddy Hackett to his future wife, Virginia, whom he married in 1964. The Newharts had four children.

New US sanctions target Houthi financial network

WASHINGTON — The United States issued Yemen-related counterterrorism sanctions on Thursday targeting individuals and entities linked to Houthi financial facilitator Sa’id al-Jamal.

The Treasury Department said the actions affected a dozen people and vessels, including Indonesia-based Malaysian and Singaporean national Mohammad Roslan Bin Ahmad and China-based Chinese national Zhuang Liang, “who have facilitated illicit shipments and engaged in money laundering for the network.”

US Army honors Nisei combat unit that helped liberate Tuscany in WWII

ROME — The U.S. military is celebrating a little-known part of World War II history, honoring the Japanese-American U.S. Army unit that was key to liberating parts of Italy and France even while the troops’ relatives were interned at home as enemies of the state following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. 

Descendants of the second-generation “Nisei” soldiers traveled to Italy from around the United States – California, Hawaii and Colorado – to tour the sites where their relatives fought and attend a commemoration at the U.S. military base in Camp Darby ahead of the 80th anniversary Friday of the liberation of nearby Livorno, in Tuscany. 

Among those taking part were cousins Yoko and Leslie Sakato, whose fathers each served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which went onto become the most decorated unit in the history of the U.S. military for its size and length of service. 

“We wanted to kind of follow his footsteps, find out where he fought, where he was, maybe see the territories that he never ever talked about,” said Yoko Sakato, whose father Staff Sgt. Henry Sakato was in the 100th Battalion, Company B that helped liberate Tuscany from Nazi-Fascist rule. 

The 442nd Infantry Regiment, including the 100th Infantry Battalion, was composed almost entirely of second-generation American soldiers of Japanese ancestry, who fought in Italy and southern France. Known for its motto “Go For Broke,” 21 of its members were awarded the Medal of Honor. 

The regiment was organized in 1943, in response to the War Department’s call for volunteers to form a segregated Japanese American army combat unit. Thousands of Nisei — second-generation Japanese Americans — answered the call. 

Some of them fought as their relatives were interned at home in camps that were established in 1942, after Pearl Harbor, to house Japanese Americans who were considered to pose a “public danger” to the United States. In all, some 112,000 people, 70,000 of them American citizens, were held in these “relocation centers” through the end of the war. 

The Nisei commemoration at Camp Darby was held one week before the 80th anniversary of the liberation of Livorno, or Leghorn, on July 19, 1944. Local residents were also commemorating the anniversary this week. 

In front of family members, military officials and civilians, Yoko Sakato placed flowers at the monument in memory of Pvt. Masato Nakae, one of the 21 Nisei members awarded the Medal of Honor. 

“I was feeling close to my father, I was feeling close to the other men that I knew growing up, the other veterans, because they had served, and I felt really like a kinship with the military who are here,” she said. 

Sakato recalled her father naming some of the areas and towns in Tuscany where he had fought as a soldier, but always in a very “naive” way, as he was talking to kids. 

“They were young, it must have been scary, but they never talked about it, neither him nor his friends,” Sakato said of her father, who died in 1999. 

Her cousin Leslie Sakato’s father fought in France and won a Medal of Honor for his service. “It was like coming home,” she said of the commemoration.

Trump vice presidential nominee takes center stage at Republican Party convention

Republican Vice Presidential candidate J.D. Vance took center stage at the third night of the Republican National Convention Wednesday. Donald Trump’s running mate embraced an “America First” approach to foreign policy and security. VOA’s Congressional Correspondent Katherine Gypson has more from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

JD Vance will introduce himself to the nation at the RNC as Trump’s running mate

MILWAUKEE — Introducing himself to the nation after being tapped as Donald Trump’s running mate, JD Vance is planning to use his Wednesday night address to the Republican National Convention to share the story of his hardscrabble upbringing and make the case that his party best understands the challenges facing struggling Americans.

The 39-year-old Ohio senator is a relative political unknown. In his first primetime speech since becoming the nominee for vice president, Vance is expected to talk about growing up poor in Kentucky and Ohio, his mother addicted to drugs and his father absent, and how he later went on to the highest levels of U.S. politics.

Vance, who rapidly morphed in recent years from a bitter critic of the former president to an aggressive defender, is positioned to become the future leader of the party and the torch-bearer of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” political movement, which has reshaped the Republican Party and broken longtime political norms. The first millennial to join the top of a major party ticket, he enters the race as questions about the age of the men at the top — 78-year-old Trump and 81-year-old Biden — have been high on the list of voters’ concerns.

Speaking earlier Wednesday, at his first fundraiser as Trump’s running mate, Vance said he will use the speech to highlight the contrast between Trump and Biden.

“The guy who actually connects with working people in this country is not Fake Scranton Joe, it’s Real President Donald Trump,” he said.

Vance was introduced at the fundraiser by Indiana Rep. Jim Banks, who said Trump’s decision to choose Vance wasn’t about picking a running mate or the next vice president.

“Donald Trump’s decision this week in picking JD Vance was about the future,” he said. “Donald Trump picked a man in JD Vance that is the future of the country, the future of the Republican Party, the future of the America First movement.”

Along with his relative youth, Vance is new to some of the hallmarks of Republican presidential politics: This year’s gathering is the first RNC that Vance has attended, according to a Trump campaign official who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Trump, who entered the arena to a version of the song “It’s a Man’s World” by James Brown and Luciano Pavarotti, will be watching from his family box.

Convention organizers had stressed a theme of unity, even before Trump survived an attempted assassination at a rally in Pennsylvania Saturday. Trump’s refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election and the subsequent attack on the U.S. Capitol, officials said, would be absent from the stage.

But that changed with former White House official Peter Navarro, who was greeted with enthusiastic cheers and a standing ovation hours after he was released from a Miami prison where he served four months for defying a subpoena from the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by a mob of the former president’s supporter.

“If they can come for me, if they can come for Donald Trump, be careful. They will come for you,” he said in a fiery speech. He compared his legal troubles to those faced by Trump, who earlier this year was convicted on 34 felony charges in his criminal hush money trial. Trump is also facing two indictments for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

“They did not break me,” Navarro said, “and they will never break Donald Trump.”

Also spotted on the floor of the convention: Paul Manafort, Trump’s 2016 campaign chair, who was convicted as part of the investigation into Russia’s meddling in that election.

Vance is an Ivy League graduate and former businessman, but gained prominence following the publication of his bestselling 2016 memoir “Hillbilly Elegy,” which tells the story of his blue-collar roots. The book became a must-read for those seeking to understand the cultural forces that propelled Trump to the White House that year.

Still, most Americans — and Republicans — don’t know much about Vance. According to a new poll from the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, which was conducted before Trump selected the freshman senator as his choice, 6 in 10 Americans don’t know enough about him to have formed an opinion.

About 2 in 10 U.S. adults have a favorable view of him, and 22% view him negatively. Among Republicans, 61% don’t know enough to have an opinion of Vance. About one-quarter have a positive view of him, and roughly 1 in 10 have a negative one.

Vance will be introduced Wednesday night by his wife, Usha Chilukuri Vance. Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., who is a close friend of Vance, will also speak.

Beyond Vance’s prime-time speech, the Republican Party focused Wednesday on a theme of American global strength. Speakers were to include family members of service members killed during the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and someone taken hostage during the Oct. 7 attack in Israel, according to a person familiar with the program.

Republicans contend that the country has become a “global laughingstock” under Biden’s watch. The party that was once home to defense hawks and neoconservatives has fully embraced Trump’s “America First” foreign policy that redefined relationships with allies and adversaries.

Democrats have sharply criticized Trump — and Vance — for their positions, including their questioning of U.S. support for Ukraine in its defense against Russia’s invasion.

In a video released Wednesday by Biden’s reelection campaign, Vice President Kamala Harris dismissed Vance as someone Trump “knew would be a rubber stamp for his extreme agenda.”

“Make no mistake: JD Vance will be loyal only to Trump, not to our country,” Harris says in a video.

US arrests Syrian who oversaw prison where alleged abuse took place

LOS ANGELES — A former Syrian military official who oversaw a prison where human rights officials say torture and abuse routinely took place has been arrested, authorities said Wednesday.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security agents took Samir Ousman al-Sheikh into custody last week at Los Angeles International Airport, said agency spokesperson Greg Hoegner.

The 72-year-old has been charged with immigration fraud, specifically that he denied on his U.S. visa and citizenship applications that he had ever persecuted anyone in Syria, according to a criminal complaint filed on July 9 and reviewed by The Associated Press. Investigators are considering additional charges against al-Sheikh, the complaint shows.

He was in charge of Syria’s infamous Adra Prison from 2005 to 2008 under President Bashar Assad. Human rights groups and United Nations officials have accused the Syrian government of widespread abuses in its detention facilities, including torture and arbitrary detention of thousands of people, in many cases without informing their families about their fate. Many remain missing and are presumed to have died or been executed.

“This is the highest-level Assad regime official arrested anywhere in the world. … This is a really big deal,” said Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a U.S.-based opposition organization.

Moustafa said Wednesday that one of his staff members, a former Syrian detainee, was first tipped off in 2022 by a refugee that there was “potentially a war criminal” in the United States. His organization alerted several federal agencies and began working with them to build a case against al-Sheikh.

Al-Sheikh’s attorney, Peter Hardin, called it a “simple misunderstanding of immigration forms” that has been politicized and said al-Sheikh “finds himself being made a pawn caught up in a larger international struggle.”

“He vigorously denies these abhorrent accusations,” Hardin said.

Investigators interviewed five former inmates at the Syrian prison, who described being hanged by their arms from the ceiling, severely beaten with electrical cables, and witnessing other prisoners being branded by hot rods, according to court documents. One inmate described how guards broke his back.

According to the complaint, al-Sheikh, a resident of Los Angeles since 2020, stated in his citizenship application that he had “never persecuted (either directly or indirectly) any person because of race, religion, national origin, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion” and “never been involved in killing or trying to kill someone.” This was false, as al-Sheikh persecuted political dissidents and ordered the execution of prisoners while he was head of Adra, the complaint states.

He began his career working police command posts before transferring to Syria’s domestic intelligence agency, which focused on countering political dissent, the complaint says. He later became head of Adra Prison and brigadier general in 2005. He also served for one year as the governor of Deir Ez-Zour, a region northeast of the Syrian capital of Damascus, where there were violent crackdowns against protesters.

He had purchased a one-way plane ticket to depart LAX on July 10, en route to Beirut, Lebanon, which shares a border with Syria, according to the complaint. After his arrest, al-Sheikh made his first appearance in Los Angeles federal court last Friday. He has family in the United States, including a daughter living in the Los Angeles area, according to the Syrian Emergency Task Force.

Syria’s civil war, which has left nearly half a million people dead and displaced half the country’s prewar population of 23 million, began as peaceful protests against Assad’s government in March 2011.

Other players in the war, now in its 14th year, have also been accused of abuse of detainees, including insurgent groups and the U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which guard suspected and convicted Islamic State members imprisoned in northeastern Syria.

In May, a French court sentenced three high-ranking Syrian officials in absentia to life in prison for complicity in war crimes in a landmark case against Assad’s regime and the first such case in Europe.

The court proceedings came as Assad had begun to shed his longtime status as a pariah because of the violence unleashed on his opponents. Human rights groups involved in the case hoped it would refocus attention on alleged atrocities.

Russia, China taking space into dangerous territory, US says

Washington — Russia and China are edging ever closer to unleashing space-based weapons, a decision that could have far-reaching implications for America’s ability to defend itself, U.S. military and intelligence agencies warn.

Adding to the concern, they say, is what appears to be a growing willingness by both countries to set aside long-running suspicions and animosity in order to gain an edge over the United States.

“I would highlight … the increasing amount in intent to use counterspace capabilities,” said Lieutenant General Jeff Kruse, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

“Both Russia and China view the use of space early on, even ahead of conflict, as important capabilities to deter or to compel behaviors,” Kruse told the annual Aspen Security Forum on Wednesday. “We just need to be ready.”

Concerns about the safety of space surged earlier this year when House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Turner called for the declassification of “all information” related to what was described as a new Russian anti-satellite capability involving nuclear weapons.

More recently, Turner has warned that the U.S. is “sleepwalking” into a disaster, saying that Russia is on the verge of being able to detonate a nuclear weapon in space, which would impose high costs on the U.S. military and economy.

The White House has responded repeatedly that U.S. officials have been aware of the Russian plans, and that Moscow has not yet deployed a space-based nuclear capability.

It is a stance that Kruse reaffirmed Wednesday, with added caution.

“We have been tracking for almost a decade Russia’s intent to design the ability to put a nuclear weapon in space,” he said. “They have progressed down to a point where we think they’re getting close.”

The Russians “don’t intend to slow down, and until there’s repercussions, will not slow down,” he said.

Russian and Chinese officials have yet to respond to VOA’s requests for reaction to the latest U.S. accusations, but both countries have repeatedly denied U.S. criticisms of their space policies.

In May, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov dismissed U.S. concerns about Moscow trying to put nuclear weapons in space as “fake news.”

But the Chinese Embassy in Washington, while admitting there are some “difficulties” when it comes to China-U.S. relations in space, rejected any suggestion Beijing is acting belligerently in space.

“China always advocates the peaceful use of outer space, opposes weaponizing space or an arms race in space and works actively toward the vision of building a community with a shared future for mankind in space,” spokesperson Liu Pengyu told VOA in an email.

“The U.S. has been weaving a narrative about the so-called threat posed by China in outer space in an attempt to justify its own military buildup to seek space hegemony,” Liu said. “It is just another illustration of how the U.S. clings on to the Cold War mentality and deflects responsibility.”

Despite Beijing’s public posture, the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Kruse suggested Wednesday that China’s rapid expansion into the space domain is just as worrisome.

“They’re in multiple orbits that they did not used to be before,” he told the audience in Aspen, Colorado, warning that Beijing has already invested heavily in directed energy weapons, electronic warfare capabilities and anti-satellite technology.

“China is the one country that more so even than the United States has a space doctrine, a space strategy, and they train and exercise the use of space and counterspace capabilities in a way that we just don’t see elsewhere,” he said.

The general in charge of U.S. Space Command described the Chinese threat in even starker terms.

“China is building a kill web, if you will, in space,” said General Stephen Whiting, speaking alongside Kruse at the Aspen conference. 

“In the last six years, they’ve tripled the number of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance satellites they have on orbit — hundreds and hundreds of satellites, again, purpose built and designed to find, fix, track target and, yes, potentially engage U.S. and allied forces across the Indo-Pacific,” he said.

Whiting also raised concerns about the lack of clear military communication with China about space.

“We want to have a way to talk to them about space safety as they put more satellites on orbit,” he said, “so that we can operate effectively and don’t have any miscommunication or unintended actions that cause a misunderstanding.”

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