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Pence Carving a Role as Presidential Envoy

U.S. vice presidents historically have held widely varying influence in the White House, depending on their relationship with the president. As Donald Trump’s administration prepares for its second year, Vice President Mike Pence’s role appears likely to broaden.

On overseas trips to Latin America and the Asia-Pacific region, and a recent holiday visit to U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Pence has embraced the role of presidential envoy.

WATCH: Mike O’Sullivan’s Video Report

His work on international and domestic policy is more than merely symbolic, says Joel Goldstein of Saint Louis University School of Law, who has written two books on the changing vice presidency.

“Vice President Pence seems to be included and involved in decision making in the White House,” Goldstein notes. “And the vice president,” he adds, “has been laudatory, at time adulatory towards the president in his public comments.”

​‘Biggest cheerleader’

Some of Pence’s critics say he has taken on that role excessively, notes Sherry Bebitch Jeffe of the Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California.

She calls Pence “the president’s biggest cheerleader,” but argues that Pence serves as more than a publicist.

“He also has influence within the West Wing of the White House,” she says.

​Other VPs

That was not the case with vice presidents through much of U.S. history.

John Nance Garner, vice president under Franklin Roosevelt, famously said the job “is not worth a bucket of warm spit.” Nelson Rockefeller, Gerald Ford’s VP, called the job “standby equipment,” notes Jeffe, yet some recent vice presidents have become important players in their administrations.

Joe Biden and Al Gore, and even Dan Quayle were not afraid to confront their bosses when they disagreed with them and were rewarded with expanded duties, Goldstein says.

But Pence has taken on a unique role under a president who often makes controversial statements — when Trump questioned, for example, “the commitment to the joint defense provisions of NATO,” Goldstein says, or said he had not ruled out military action in restoring democracy to Venezuela to stop what the administration calls the nation’s slide to dictatorship.

The vice president has “cleaned up those statements,” Goldstein explains, reaffirming the U.S. commitment to the North Atlantic alliance and its commitment to diplomacy and economic sanctions in dealing with Venezuela.

Pence played a similar role, said Jeffe, after Trump appeared to equate the white nationalists behind violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, with the counter-protesters who rejected their racist message. Pence said the Trump administration condemns white supremacist fringe groups “in the strongest possible terms.”

Support not guaranteed

Pence has at times distanced himself from the president, however.

When Trump supported Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore, who was defeated in December following allegations that he had once made sexual overtures to young teenagers, Pence remained silent on the endorsement but said he found the allegations against Moore disturbing.

Pence is an evangelical Christian and social conservative, and Goldstein says that while it’s impossible to know what is said behind closed doors, Pence may have had a hand in White House moves that have pleased conservatives, such as loosening environmental regulations on American businesses and appointing conservatives to judicial posts.

Pence, unlike Trump, is an experienced politician, having served as a longtime congressman and Indiana’s governor.

“Pence knows the players on Capitol Hill,” Jeffe says, and “Pence is trusted by the Republican players at least on Capitol Hill.” In his role as president of the Senate, which is assigned to the vice president under the U.S. constitution, Pence has cast six tie-breaking votes for passage of bills backed by the administration.

Goldstein adds that “members of the leadership in Congress who have some misgivings about the president see Vice President Pence as somebody who comes from their political world and as somebody they are comfortable dealing with.”

As a presidential envoy, whether comforting victims of a Texas hurricane or representing the United States in Argentina or Australia, Pence is carving out his role.

“And he’s trying to walk a fine line between being supportive of the president,” Goldstein says, “trying to placate his constituency of one, and yet at the same time not entirely embrace some of the controversial tweets and other statements that the president makes from time to time.”

It’s not easy task in an age of populism when policy debates take place through social media and the political rules are changing, analyst Jeffe says.

She says Pence, whose roots are in the old politics, has a political future tied to the success of a president who is breaking all the rules. So far, these analysts say, Pence has been walking the fine line as vice president successfully.

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Report: Australian Diplomat’s Tip a Factor in FBI’s Russia Probe

An Australian diplomat’s tip appears to have helped persuade the FBI to investigate Russian meddling in the U.S. election and possible coordination with the Trump campaign, The New York Times reported Saturday.

Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos told the diplomat, Alexander Downer, during a meeting in London in May 2016 that Russia had thousands of emails that would embarrass Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, the report said. Downer, a former foreign minister, is Australia’s top diplomat in Britain.

Australia passed the information on to the FBI after the Democratic emails were leaked, according to the Times, which cited four current and former U.S. and foreign officials with direct knowledge of the Australians’ role.

“The hacking and the revelation that a member of the Trump campaign may have had inside information about it were driving factors that led the FBI to open an investigation in July 2016,” the newspaper said.

White House lawyer Ty Cobb declined to comment, saying in a statement that the administration was continuing to cooperate with the investigation now led by special counsel Robert Mueller “to help complete their inquiry expeditiously.”

Papadopoulos has pleaded guilty of lying to the FBI and is a cooperating witness. Court documents unsealed two months ago show he met in April 2016 with Joseph Mifsud, a professor in London who told him about Russia’s cache of emails. This was before the Democratic National Committee became aware of the scope of the intrusion into its email systems by hackers later linked to the Russian government.

The Times said Papadopoulos shared this information with Downer, but it was unclear whether he also shared it with anyone in the Trump campaign.

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How US Attorney General Jeff Sessions Has Rolled Back Obama-era Policies

Every attorney general leaves his imprint on the U.S. Justice Department. Jeff Sessions is no exception.

Since being sworn in as the nation’s 84th attorney general in February, the former Republican senator and federal prosecutor has moved to radically overhaul the Justice Department and its approach to law enforcement.

From scrapping civil rights protections for transgender people to ending leniency in sentencing criminal defendants, Sessions has rolled back a host of policies his two immediate predecessors — Loretta Lynch and Eric Holder, both chosen by former President Barack Obama — enacted to promote civil rights and social justice.

The policy reversals have not been without their critics.

While Sessions and his supporters say the attorney general is restoring the rule of law and ending Obama-era policies that amounted to executive overreach, critics say he’s returning to criminal justice policies that led to mass incarceration and undermined civil rights.

​Blistering criticism

Sessions’ singular success in remolding the Justice Department is widely acknowledged. The irony is that it has come in the face of sometimes blistering personal criticism of the attorney general by his boss, President Donald Trump.

An early and ardent supporter of Trump’s 2016 presidential bid, Sessions was rewarded with one of the most coveted positions in the administration.

But his relationship with Trump soured after Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation in March, following revelations that Sessions had not disclosed meetings with Russia’s former ambassador to Washington during the presidential campaign.

Trump is said to have become so frustrated with his attorney general over the summer that he said he would not have picked Sessions for the job, had he known Sessions would have recused himself from the Russia probe.

But the attorney general largely shrugged off the criticism, saying at a news conference in July that he was “confident that we can continue to run this office in an effective way,” and later traveling around the country to sell Trump’s tough on crime and immigration policies.

Here is a look at seven major Obama-era policies Sessions has rolled back, or attempted to, since taking office:

​Keeping private prisons

In his first act as attorney general in February, Sessions scrapped an Obama administration plan to phase out the use of private prisons for federal inmates. The 2016 direction to the Bureau of Prisons was sent after a harshly critical report about private prisons by the Justice Department’s inspector general. But Sessions said the Obama policy “impaired the bureau’s ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system.”

Dropping transgender protections

Also in February, Sessions directed the Justice Department to withdraw a guidance issued in 2016, requiring public schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms corresponding to their gender identity.

In October, Sessions rescinded another policy memo issued by the Obama administration that said the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s employment discrimination prohibitions applied to transgender people. Rights group Human Rights Campaign called the move “discriminatory” against the transgender community and a “dangerous change of course.”

​Targeting sanctuary cities

With the Trump administration vowing to crack down on illegal immigration, it has fallen to Sessions to enforce one of the administration’s most controversial policies: cutting off federal funding to so-called sanctuary jurisdictions, cities and counties that limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

In April, Sessions sent letters to nine sanctuary jurisdictions requiring proof of compliance. In July, he announced that sanctuary cities would not be eligible for millions of dollars in funds for policing.

Chicago and Philadelphia later sued Sessions and the Justice Department over the sanctuary plan. In November, a federal judge permanently blocked Trump’s executive order on sanctuary cities.

Reviewing consent decrees

In April, Sessions ordered a review of Obama-era reform agreements between the Justice Department and police agencies, saying, “It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.”

Known as “consent decrees,” a dozen such court-enforced agreements were struck between the Obama Justice Department and local police departments. Sessions has said the agreements have demoralized police departments, but civil rights advocates say they have helped produce necessary reforms.

Charging and sentencing policy

In a departure from the Obama administration’s policy of leniency in sentencing low-level, nonviolent offenders, Sessions directed federal prosecutors in May to “pursue the most serious, readily provable offense” with the lengthiest sentences in all criminal cases.

The guideline rescinded a 2013 memo by then-Attorney General Eric Holder directing prosecutors to avoid triggering mandatory-minimum sentences for certain nonviolent, low-level drug offenders.

Sessions said the new charging policy “affirms our responsibility to enforce the law, is moral and just, and produces consistency.” But critics, such as former Obama-appointed U.S. Attorney Joyce Vance, have slammed it as a failed “one-size-fits-all” policy that has swelled America’s prison population.

​Affirmative action

In October, the Department of Justice announced it had reopened an investigation into Harvard University’s use of race in its admissions policy, raising fears the administration will target affirmative action policies widely practiced by American universities and colleges.

The Justice Department probe was triggered by a 2015 complaint against Harvard filed by a coalition of 64 Asian-American groups. The Justice Department said the investigation is limited to the complaint against Harvard, but civil rights activists fear the probe is part of a broader effort to undermine affirmative action policies that date back decades and that supporters say have leveled the playing field for otherwise disadvantaged students.

Return to debtors’ prison?

On Dec. 21, Sessions rescinded a 2016 Justice Department letter advising local courts against hitting indigent defendants with stiff fines and fees.

The 2016 letter said the changes were “needed to guarantee equal justice under law to everyone, regardless of their financial circumstances.”

Sessions said he was rescinding the letter and 25 other so-called “guidance documents” because they were “unnecessary, inconsistent with existing law or otherwise improper.” The move provoked a firestorm, leading critics to decry it as a “criminalization of poverty” and a “return to debtors’ prisons.”

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White House, Congress Prepare for Talks on Spending, Immigration

The White House said on Friday it was set to kick off talks next week with Republican and Democratic congressional leaders on immigration policy, government spending and other issues that need to be wrapped up early in the new year.

The expected flurry of legislative activity comes as Republicans and Democrats begin to set the stage for midterm congressional elections in November. President Donald Trump’s Republican Party is eager to maintain control of Congress while Democrats look for openings to wrest seats away in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

On Wednesday, Trump’s budget chief Mick Mulvaney and legislative affairs director Marc Short will meet with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan — both Republicans — and their Democratic counterparts, Senator Chuck Schumer and Representative Nancy Pelosi, the White House said.

That will be followed up with a weekend of strategy sessions for Trump, McConnell and Ryan on Jan. 6 and 7 at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland, according to the White House.

The Senate returns to work on Jan. 3 and the House on Jan. 8. Congress passed a short-term government funding bill last week before taking its Christmas break, but needs to come to an agreement on defense spending and various domestic programs by Jan. 19, or the government will shut down.

Also on the agenda for lawmakers is disaster aid for people hit by hurricanes in Puerto Rico, Texas and Florida, and by wildfires in California. The House passed an $81 billion package in December, which the Senate did not take up. The White House has asked for a smaller figure, $44 billion.


Deadlines also loom for soon-to-expire protections for young adult immigrants who entered the country illegally as children, known as “Dreamers.”

In September, Trump ended Democratic former President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protected Dreamers from deportation and provided work permits, effective in March, giving Congress until then to devise a long-term solution.

Democrats, some Republicans and a number of large companies have pushed for DACA protections to continue. Trump and other Republicans have said that will not happen without Congress approving broader immigration policy changes and tougher border security. Democrats oppose funding for a wall promised by Trump along the U.S.-Mexican border.

“The Democrats have been told, and fully understand, that there can be no DACA without the desperately needed WALL at the Southern Border and an END to the horrible Chain Migration & ridiculous Lottery System of Immigration etc,” Trump said in a Twitter post Friday.

Trump wants to overhaul immigration rules for extended families and others seeking to live in the United States.

Republican U.S. Senator Jeff Flake, a frequent critic of the president, said he would work with Trump to protect Dreamers.

“We can fix DACA in a way that beefs up border security, stops chain migration for the DREAMers, and addresses the unfairness of the diversity lottery. If POTUS [Trump] wants to protect these kids, we want to help him keep that promise,” Flake wrote on Twitter.

Debt ceiling

Congress in early 2018 also must raise the U.S. debt ceiling to avoid a government default. The U.S. Treasury would exhaust all of its borrowing options and run dry of cash to pay its bills by late March or early April if Congress does not raise the debt ceiling before then, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

Trump, who won his first major legislative victory with the passage of a major tax overhaul this month, has also promised a major infrastructure plan.

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Trump Dismisses Last of His HIV/AIDS Advisory Council

The Trump administration has fired the remaining members of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, also known as PACHA.

Council members received a letter this week saying that their appointments to the panel were terminated, “effective immediately,” according to a report in The Washington Post.

PACHA was established in 1995, during the Clinton administration, to advise the White House on HIV strategies and policies.

Six of the members of the council, upset by White House actions on health policy, resigned in June. Scott Schoettes, a lawyer with Lambda Legal, a LGBT rights organization, was one of them.

He wrote in Newsweek at the time that U.S. President Donald Trump “simply does not care” about people living with HIV. Schoettes said the Trump administration “pushes legislation that will harm people living with HIV and halt or reverse important gains made in the fight against this disease.”

He told The Washington Post Friday, “The tipping point for me was the president’s approach to the Affordable Care Act,” which he said “is of great importance for people living with HIV like myself.”

Schoettes said in Newsweek that much of the public is unaware that “only about 40 percent of people living with HIV in the United States are able to access the life-saving medications that have been available for more than 20 years. It is not acceptable for the U.S. president to be unaware of these realities, to setup a government that deprioritizes fighting the epidemic and its causes or to implement policies and support legislation that will reverse the gains made in recent years.”

B. Kaye Hayes, PACHA’s executive director, said in a statement that the dismissals were part of the White House’s effort to “bring in new voices.”

Dr. David Kilmnick, CEO of the New York LGBT Network, saw the move differently. The firing of the council members “is another outlandish and despicable move by the Trump administration in his year-long effort to erase the LGBT community and the issues that disproportionately affect us,” he said in a statement Friday.

“From ending protections against bullying for trans youth in our schools to his attempt to ban the transgender community from the military to no mention of Gay Pride month during June to leaving out the LGBT community on World AIDS Day to banning words such as transgender, diversity and other, this president has been nothing but a complete train wreck that is a danger to the safety and lives of all Americans,” Kilmnick continued.

A notice on the Federal Register says the Department of Health and Human Services is seeking nominations for new council members. Nominations must be submitted by Tuesday.

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Trump Foreign Policy Unconventional, Others Agree With What They Call a New Doctrine

Since taking office, President Donald Trump has broken with previous foreign policy by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, refusing to certify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal and taking a more aggressive stance toward North Korea. Views about these departures are mixed — with some welcoming the forceful projection of American power on the world stage, while others criticizing what they see as a dangerous course for the United States. More from VOA Correspondent Mariama Diallo.

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Trump’s Vacation Tweets, Golf Draw Attention

Golf and tweets. Golf and tweets. Repeat.

President Donald Trump has been largely out of sight the last two weeks of the year, ensconced at his Florida golf resort where he has played his favorite game almost daily, out of sight of the cameras (mostly).

But he’s not out of mind.

With a regular but limited series of tweets, and an impromptu interview with The New York Times, Trump has kept himself the center of attention, affecting stock prices, triggering a defensive response in Beijing, and touting strong economic figures and a new poll suggesting his approval ratings are improving.

Russia probe

Speaking to a Times reporter at his West Palm Beach resort, Trump said he thought he would be treated fairly by special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russia’s role in the last presidential election.

The newspaper reported Friday that Trump stated 16 times in the 30-minute interview that Mueller’s probe had turned up no evidence of collusion between his campaign and Russian operatives trying to influence the outcome of the vote.

On China, hours after tweeting an accusation that Beijing is secretly shipping oil to North Korea, Trump hinted at the possibility of aggressive trade actions against the country.

“If they don’t help us with North Korea, then I can do what I’ve always said I want to do,” he told the Times.

Trump’s tweet prompted an immediate denial from a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, who said his country would never allow Chinese citizens and enterprises to engage in activities that violate U.N. Security Council resolutions.

“China is already complaining this morning,” said veteran Asia watcher Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest in Washington.

With Twitter, Kazianis said, Trump is conducting foreign policy from the comfort of his golf club.

“It’s old-school strategic signaling. Except this is the 21st-century version and we do it on Twitter rather than putting bombers on paths or opening ICBM doors,” Kazianis told VOA. “It makes news every single time Trump sends a tweet.”

The power of a Trump tweet was on display Friday when Amazon stock plummeted in early trading after the president suggested that the U.S. Postal Service should charge the online retail giant more for package delivery.

Bloomberg reported that the Postal Service had posted a net loss of $2.1 billion in the third quarter of 2017, and had $15 billion in outstanding debt.

Polling numbers

Trump’s holiday Twitter feed also touted a new poll suggesting his approval rating was improving.

The Rasmussen Poll, which is seen as an outlier that regularly shows the president’s numbers higher than others, showed him at 46 percent approval among Americans. That would be a significant jump from other polls that show an approval rating in the mid-30s, which is the lowest of any president since polling began.

On the golf course

But what has captivated the press corps following Trump in Florida is not so much what he’s tweeting about, but the truth about what he’s doing at his golf club.

Wondering how the president is occupying his time has become something of a diversion among bored reporters waiting while Trump is obviously playing golf, even as his staff refuse to confirm his activity.

CNN obtained what it said was “exclusive footage” of Trump on the course with a golf club in his hand, but later reported that its photographic enterprise had been stymied by a large white truck that blocked its vantage point across the street from the club.

Trump did invite reporters onto the golf course Friday to photograph him with Coast Guard members who protect the oceanfront around his Mar-a-Lago resort, which he has dubbed his winter White House, while he vacations there.

Trump’s golfing habits have come under scrutiny in light of his complaints about former President Barack Obama playing the sport while serving as commander-in-chief.

According to Politifact’s Trump Golf Tracker, Trump’s round of golf on Friday was the 85th of his presidency. That compares with 26 for Obama during the same period.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Trump had visited one of his company’s properties on nearly one-third of the days since he took office on Jan. 20, 2017.

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Trump Targets Amazon in Call for Postal Service to Hike Prices

President Donald Trump returned to a favorite target Friday, saying that the U.S. Postal Service should charge more money to ship the millions of packages it sends around the world each year.


 Amazon has been a consistent recipient of Trump’s ire. He has accused the company of failing to pay “internet taxes,” though it’s never been made clear by the White House what the president means by that.


In a tweet Friday, Trump said Amazon should be charged “MUCH MORE” by the post office because it’s “losing many billions of dollars a year” while it makes “Amazon richer.”

Amazon lives and dies by shipping, and increasing rates that it negotiated with the post office, as well as shippers like UPS and FedEx, could certainly do some damage.


In the seconds after the tweet, shares of Amazon, which had been trading higher before the opening bell, began to fade and went into negative territory. The stock remained down almost 1 percent in midday trading Friday.

Amazon was founded by Jeff Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post. The Post, as well as other major media, has been labeled as “fake news” by Trump after reporting unfavorable developments during his campaign and presidency.


He has labeled Bezos’ Post the, “AmazonWashingtonPost.”

The Seattle company did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday. A spokeswoman for the Postal Service said, “We’re looking into it.”


Between July and September, Amazon paid $5.4 billion in worldwide shipping costs, a 39 percent increase from the same period in the previous year. That amounts to nearly 11 percent of the $43.7 billion in total revenue it reported in that same period.


In 2014, Amazon reached a deal with the Postal Service to offer delivery on Sundays.


Trump has also attacked U.S. corporations not affiliated in any way with the news media.


Just over a year ago, he tweeted “Boeing is building a brand new 747 Air Force One for future presidents, but costs are out of control, more than $4 billion. Cancel order!”


Shares of Boeing Co. gave up almost 1 percent when trading opened that day, but recovered.


Several days later, and again on Twitter, he said that Lockheed-Martin, which is building the F-35 fighter jet, was “out of control.”  Its shares tumbled more than 5 percent, but they too recovered.  


The Postal Service has lost money for 11 straight years, mostly because of pension and health care costs. While online shopping has led to growth in its package-delivery business, that hasn’t offset declines in first-class mail. Federal regulators moved recently to allow bigger jumps to stamp prices beyond the rate of inflation, which could eventually increase shipping rates for all companies.


Amazon has taken some steps toward becoming more self-reliant in shipping. Earlier this year it announced that it would build a worldwide air cargo hub in Kentucky, about 13 miles southwest of Cincinnati.


Shares of Inc. slipped less than 1 percent Friday morning to $1,178.69. The Seattle company’s stock is up more than 57 percent this year and surpassed $1,000 each for the first time in April.

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Oregon Baker Refused to Make Wedding Cake; Court Rejects Religious Argument 

An Oregon state appeals court Thursday let stand $135,000 in damages levied against the owners of a Portland-area bakery for discrimination after they refused on religious grounds to prepare a wedding cake for a local lesbian couple.

A three-judge panel of the Oregon Court of Appeals rejected a petition by Melissa and Aaron Klein, former owners of Sweet Cakes by Melissa, to overturn the ruling by the state’s labor commissioner as a violation of their rights under the U.S. Constitution to freedom of religion and expression.

An attorney for the Kleins, who closed their bakery not long after being ordered to pay the heavy fine, could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday.

“Today’s ruling sends a strong signal that Oregon remains open to all,” Brad Avakian, the state’s labor commissioner, said in a written statement.

“Within Oregon’s public accommodations law is the basic principle of human decency that every person, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, has the freedom to fully participate in society,” Avakian said.

The case stems from Aaron Klein’s refusal to bake a wedding cake for Rachel Bowman-Cryer in January 2013 because she was planning a same-sex wedding with her partner Laurel, which he said violated his religious convictions.

Rachel and Laurel Bowman-Cryer filed a formal complaint with the state labor bureau, which found the bakery had violated anti-discrimination laws and awarded the damages.

The Bowman-Cryers were married in 2014 after a federal judge struck down Oregon’s same-sex marriage ban.

The bakery case is one of many disputes nationwide since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June 2015 to legalize same-sex marriage in all 50 states.

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