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Tillerson: Americans Should Be ‘Encouraged’ by US Diplomatic Efforts

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has touted the diplomatic accomplishments of President Donald Trump’s administration this year, saying “Americans should be encouraged” by its dealings with the U.S.’ “greatest security threat,” North Korea, along with China and Russia.

In an opinion piece published Thursday in The New York Times, Tillerson wrote that Trump “abandoned the failed policy of strategic patience” and adopted a “policy of pressure” toward North Korea “through diplomatic and economic sanctions.”

The United Nations Security Council imposed new sanctions on North Korea last Friday, slashing fuel supplies, tightening shipping restrictions and appealing for the expulsion of North Koreans working abroad — a significant source of revenue for Pyongyang.

Tillerson also said pressure from the U.S. and its allies “has cut off roughly 90 percent of North Korea’s export revenue,” much of which he said Pyongyang used to fund the development of illegal weapons.

“We hope that this international isolation will pressure the regime into serious negotiations on the abandonment of its nuclear and ballistic missile programs,” Tillerson wrote.

After overcoming technological obstacles this year to develop a modern nuclear weapons program, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un denounced the new sanctions on Christmas Day, saying that they represent “an act of war” and that relinquishing his country’s nuclear weapons was a “pipe dream.”

Tillerson said China has imposed some import bans and sanctions against North Korea, “but it could and should do more.” He said the U.S. would pursue talks with China on issues such as trade imbalances and China’s “troubling” military activities in the South China Sea. The U.S. will also “carefully consider” how to manage its long-term relationship with China, which Tillerson described as a rising “economic and military power.”

Tillerson praised the U.S. role in the recapture of Islamic State territory in Iraq and Syria and the administration’s new Afghanistan-focused South Asia strategy. Tilllerson said Afghanistan “cannot become a safe haven for terrorists” and called on Pakistan to fight terrorists “on its own soil.”

“We are prepared to partner with Pakistan to defeat terrorists organizations seeking safe havens, but Pakistan must demonstrate its desire to partner with us,” he wrote.

The top American diplomat acknowledged the U.S. has a poor relationship with a “resurgent Russia” that has invaded neighboring countries Georgia and Ukraine and “undermined the sovereignty of Western nations by meddling in our election and others.”

Shortly after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, who was leading the probe into Russia, former FBI Director Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel of an investigation into whether any members of Trump’s campaign conspired with Russian agents during the campaign.

Earlier this year, the U.S. intelligence community released a report concluding Russia had meddled in the 2016 presidential election, showing a preference for Trump over Hillary Clinton, his Democratic opponent. There are also several congressional probes into the matter. Russia denies meddling in the election, and Trump has denied any collusion with the Russians.

“While we are on guard against Russian aggression, we recognize the need to work with Russia where mutual interests intersect,” Tillerson wrote, citing the Syrian civil war where the two countries have supported opposing sides but pushed for peace negotiations.

Tillerson’s remarks about Iran were less conciliatory. He said the U.S. has abandoned the “flawed Iran nuclear deal” as the focus of its policy toward the Persian Gulf country, adding, “We are now confronting the totality of Iranian threats.”

The assessment of the administration’s diplomatic successes this year belies the tension that has existed between Tillerson and Trump. Senior administration officials said last month the White House has developed a plan to push Tillerson out of office. The two men have disagreed on a number of significant issues, including the confrontation with North Korea and the Iran nuclear deal.

Tilllerson reportedly called the president a “moron” and Trump publicly disparaged Tillerson for “wasting his time” by reaching out diplomatically to North Korea.

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Democrat Jones Certified Winner of US Senate Election in Alabama

Democrat Doug Jones has been certified as the winner of the U.S. Senate race in Alabama that was challenged by Republican Roy Moore, after a judge rejected Moore’s appeal to stop the certification of the election results.

Jones was officially declared the winner Thursday afternoon by a three-person panel consisting of Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey and state Attorney General Steve Marshall.

More than two weeks after losing a special election, Moore filed a last-minute court challenge to prevent Alabama election officials from certifying his Democratic opponent’s victory. 

Moore filed the complaint in a state courthouse late Wednesday afternoon, just hours before Jones was set to be officially declared the winner of the December 12 election, which Jones won by just over 20,000 votes. 

The complaint alleged Moore lost due to “systematic voter fraud,” citing higher than expected turnout in Jefferson County, the state’s most populous area, along with irregularities in 20 voting precincts in the county. 

Moore’s lawyers demanded an investigation into their claims, and for the state to hold a new election. Moore has rejected calls to concede the race to Jones.

Before he certified Jones the winner, Merrill said he had not uncovered any evidence of voter fraud.

“Will this [the complaint] affect anything?” Moore asked Thursday on CNN. “The short answer is no.”

Now that Jones has been certified the victor, Merrill said he will be sworn in next week to succeed Jeff Sessions, who became attorney general in President Donald Trump’s cabinet earlier this year.

Jones is the first Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate from the heavily Republican state in 25 years.

Moore is a former Alabama state supreme court judge known for his staunch religious views. His campaign was derailed when The Washington Post published allegations made by several women of sexual misconduct when they were teenagers, and Moore was in his 30s.

Included in the complaint was an affidavit from Moore stating he passed a polygraph test that confirmed the charges of misconduct “are completely false.”

“It’s appalling that the Democrat Senate Majority PAC and the Republican Senate Leadership Fund both spent millions to run false and malicious ads against me in this campaign,” Moore said.

Jones’ election narrows the Republican lead in the Senate to a 51-49 margin.

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Defeated US Senate Candidate Launches Legal Challenge Against Election Result

More than two weeks after losing a special election to the U.S. Senate, Alabama Republican Roy Moore has filed a last-minute court challenge to prevent state election officials from certifying his Democratic opponent’s victory.

Moore filed a complaint in a state courthouse late Wednesday afternoon, just hours before Doug Jones is set to be officially declared the winner of the December 12 election, which Jones won by just over 20,000 votes.

The complaint alleges Moore lost due to “systematic voter fraud,” citing higher than expected turnout in Jefferson County, the state’s most populous area, along with irregularities in 20 voting precincts in the county.

Moore’s lawyers are demanding an investigation into their claims, and for the state to hold a new election. Moore has rejected calls to concede the race to Jones.

John Merrill, Alabama’s secretary of state, says he has not uncovered any evidence of voter fraud. If Jones’s victory is certified Thursday, he will be sworn in sometime next week to succeed Jeff Sessions, who became attorney general in President Donald Trump’s cabinet earlier this year.

Jones is the first Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate from the heavily Republican state in 25 years.

Moore is a former Alabama state supreme court judge known for his staunch religious views. His campaign was derailed when The Washington Post published allegations made by several women of sexual misconduct when they were teenagers, and Jones was a grown man in his 30s.


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Russia Probe Dogs Trump’s First Year in Office

If there is a single word that has dogged and defined Donald Trump’s presidency, it is Russia. VOA White House correspondent Peter Heinlein has a look at how Trump’s relationship with Russia, and the Kremlin’s role in his election, has hung over every moment of his term in office.

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Trump, GOP Leaders to Meet at Camp David, Plot Agenda

Eager for more legislative achievements before Washington’s focus shifts to the midterm elections, President Donald Trump plans to start the new year by meeting with Republican congressional leaders to plot the 2018 legislative agenda, the White House said.

After returning to Washington from Florida, where he is spending the holidays, Trump will host House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky at the rustic Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland during the weekend of Jan. 6-7.

Spokesmen for Ryan and McConnell have confirmed they will attend.

The powwow will follow the recent enactment of legislation to cut taxes, beginning next year, for corporations and individuals at an estimated cost of $1.5 trillion added to the national debt over 10 years.

The bill marked the first big legislative achievement for Trump and congressional Republicans, who made cutting taxes a must-do this year after the Senate failed to close the deal on another top GOP promise: to repeal and replace the Obama health care law.

While the tax bill ends the requirement that all Americans buy health insurance or pay a fine, which is a key component of the Affordable Care Act, it leaves intact other features of the health care law. No Democrats voted for the tax bill, which Trump signed during a hastily arranged White House ceremony, without any lawmakers present, before he flew to Florida last Friday.

Lengthy agenda

Trump predicted in a tweet earlier this week that Democrats and Republicans will “eventually come together” to develop a new health care plan. The president is also forecasting unity between the parties on spending to upgrade aging roads, bridges and other transportation. The White House has said Trump will unveil his long-awaited infrastructure plan in January.

Ryan, meanwhile, has talked about overhauling Medicaid and Medicare and other welfare programs, but McConnell has signaled an unwillingness to go that route unless there’s Democratic support for any changes. Trump has also said he wants to pursue “welfare reform” next year because “people are taking advantage of the system.”

Backlog from 2017

Congress, meanwhile, will open the year facing a backlog from 2017.

The list includes agreeing by Jan. 19 on a government funding bill to avert a partial government shutdown and to boost Pentagon spending. Lawmakers also must agree on billions in additional aid to help hurricane victims, lifting the debt ceiling so the United States can pay its bills, extending a children’s health insurance program and drafting protections for immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

Trump tweeted earlier in the year that he was ending the program for the immigrants. He gave lawmakers until March 5 to come up with a legislative solution, or the individuals will begin to face the risk of being deported.

Much of the work will need to be done before Republicans shift their focus to retaining their House and Senate majorities in midterm elections taking place in November 2018. The GOP’s slim Senate majority will get even slimmer come January, when Democrat Doug Jones of Alabama is sworn in, leaving Republicans with a 51-49 edge in the chamber.

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Poll: Obama, Clinton Retain Status as World’s Most Admired Man, Woman

Former U.S. President Barack Obama and former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton remain the world’s most admired man and woman among Americans, according to a new Gallup poll.

The poll found Obama and Clinton have retained their most admired status as they have for the past 10 years, but by much narrower margins compared to past yearly surveys.

Seventeen percent of those questioned said Obama was the world’s most admired man, compared to 14 percent for President Donald Trump who came in second.

Clinton, also a former secretary of state, edged out former first lady Michelle Obama, 9 percent to 7 percent, respectively.

This is the 16th straight year the poll showed Clinton was the most admired woman.

It was the 22nd time Clinton was perceived as such, more than anyone else, with former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt coming in second with 13 wins.

Obama has earned the distinction as the most admired man 10 times, coming in second to 12-time winner former President Dwight Eisenhower.

Clinton’s and Obama’s latest standings, however, are not as robust as they were in previous years. Clinton’s 9 percent rating is the lowest she has received since 2002, when 7 percent of the respondents gave her another narrow first-place finish. Obama’s 17 percent showing is lower than last year’s 22 percent mark but more consistent with the support he received in several previous polls.

Rounding out the top five most admired men were Pope Francis, 3 percent; the Reverend Billy Graham, 2 percent, and Senator John McCain, 2 percent.

Oprah Winfrey came in third as the most admired woman with 4 percent, followed by Senator Elizabeth Warren, 3 percent, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with 2 percent.

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Obama Misses ‘Fascinating’ Work of Presidency, Warns of ‘Different Realities’ Online

U.S. President Barack Obama told Britain’s Prince Harry one danger of the internet is “that people can have entirely different realities” and surround themselves in information that “reinforces their current biases.”

Harry interviewed Obama in September for Wednesday’s broadcast on BBC Radio.

The former U.S. leader, who left office in January after serving eight years, said it is important that online communities move offline and allow people to get to know each other.

“On the internet everything is amplified, and when you meet people face-to-face it turns out they’re complicated,” Obama said. “You find areas of common ground because you see that things are not as simple as have been portrayed in whatever chat room you’ve been in.”

He added that in person it is more difficult to be “as obnoxious and cruel” as people can be online.

Obama said he missed the work of the president, “because it was fascinating,” but that he had a sense of “serenity” in leaving the office and now has the ability to focus his efforts on long-term problems in a way he could not while in the White House.

“It allows me to focus on how do I transmit whatever knowledge or experience that I’ve gained to others to help them become more effective and more powerful,” he said. “And I’m really obsessed now with training the next generation of leaders to be able to make their mark in the world.”

He pointed to the example of recent hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, saying as president his primary job would have been to make sure the people in those areas got help.

“Today those aren’t my direct responsibilities, but I can focus over the next 20 years on making sure we don’t have more hurricanes and natural disasters that are accelerated as a consequence of climate change,” Obama said.

He also spoke about the importance of empowering young people to make decisions and said there is an “energy and spirit” to the younger generation that cannot be matched by someone his age.

“There is a freshness to what young people perceive as possible,” he said.

Obama also talked about leadership, saying that he does not believe someone in a position of power can do their job well if they lack “the capacity to feel deeply about the people they are serving.”

“If you don’t understand that what you do every day has a profound impact on somebody else, then you shouldn’t be there.”

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US ‘Maximum Pressure’ N. Korea Policy Yielded Mixed Results in 2017

With a tweet in early January saying, “It won’t happen!” Donald Trump, who had not yet been inaugurated president of the United States, set upon a confrontational course to stop North Korea from developing a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S. 

During the presidential campaign, Trump unnerved allies in Asia with his “America First” threats to withdraw U.S. forces from South Korea and Japan unless they significantly increased defense-sharing payments, and his expressed willingness to negotiate with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over hamburgers.

But after taking office Trump made ending the North Korean nuclear threat a top national security priority, and he embraced a “maximum pressure” strategy of imposing crippling sanctions on the Kim government, backed by the credible threat of military force.

“He has raised all kinds of expectations about what he’s going to do about North Korea. And if he doesn’t do those things, then it seriously threatens his identity, it undermines him, it undercuts him,” said North Korea analyst John Delury with Yonsei University in Seoul. 

Japan’s support

Meeting with Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe, Trump found strong support for his hard-line North Korea policy from a key Asian ally.

In February, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis traveled to Tokyo and Seoul to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to maintaining a strong military presence in the region, while downplaying the president’s past criticisms of defense costs.

In April, on the same day Trump dined at his Florida Mar-a-Lago resort with Chinese President Xi Jinping, he ordered a unilateral missile strike on Syria for allegedly using chemical weapons against civilians.

Trump’s demonstration of military force, his supporters said, sent a message to Xi that if China did not act to curtail North Korean provocations, the U.S. would.

Both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Vice President Mike Pence also went to the region, warning that the U.S. would not rule out preemptive military action to eliminate the growing North Korean nuclear threat to the U.S. mainland.

However, South Korea, after the impeachment of conservative President Park Geun-hye, elected the liberal Moon Jae-in, who strongly opposes the use of offensive military force on the Korean Peninsula.

“President Moon has been quite clear that he believes that war on the Korean Peninsula should never be considered an option, unless the North Koreans start it first, of course,” said David Straub, a North Korea analyst with the Sejong Institute.

Moon, though, has also aligned closely with the U.S. on deterrence and sanctions as his efforts to reduce regional tensions through engagement and dialogue have been rejected by the North.

​Strategic confusion

Proponents of military intervention, like Republican U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, argue that it would be justifiable to use force to prevent a North Korean nuclear attack on the U.S. mainland. But even Mattis acknowledged a military conflict with North Korea would be “tragic on an unbelievable scale” and most likely trigger attacks against South Korea or Japan that could quickly escalate into widespread war.

During the year, Tillerson seemed to soften his hard-line position, moving to support unconditional talks with leaders in Pyongyang and dropping any demand that they first agree to give up their nuclear program.

“We have said, from the diplomatic side, we are ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk, and we are ready to have the first meeting without preconditions.” Tillerson said in December.

But Trump has repeatedly rebuked his top diplomat, publicly tweeting in October that Tillerson was “wasting his time” trying to restart talks with North Korea.

Tillerson later clarified that North Korea must earn its way to the negotiations table by suspending further missile and nuclear tests.

Trump’s critics have dubbed the mixed messages coming from the White House as a policy of “strategic confusion.”

Brutal nature

Undeterred by Washington’s threats and increasing economic sanctions, Pyongyang continued to test ballistic missiles throughout the year, steadily improving their range and technical capability.

In February, the brutal nature of the repressive regime was again exposed when alleged North Korean agents using poison were charged with assassinating Kim Jong Nam, the half brother of leader Kim Jong Un, at the Kuala Lumpur airport in Malaysia.

And in June, Americans reacted with outrage when North Korea released American student Otto Warmbier in comatose state. Warmbier was arrested in 2016 for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster from his hotel and soon fell into a coma from which he never awoke. He died soon after returning home.

In response, Congress passed a bill banning most U.S. travel to North Korea.

War of words

In August, tensions escalated to the brink of conflict when Trump warned that North Korea would face “fire and fury” if it threatened the U.S. Pyongyang responded by saying it was considering test-firing an ICBM into waters near the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam.

Pyongyang would back down from this threat, but soon launched two long-range missiles over Japan, and in September it conducted its sixth nuclear test.

The U.S. and its allies did not respond with military strikes, but did persuade China and Russia to support stronger international sanctions that banned the North’s lucrative coal and mineral exports and cut off one-third of oil imports.

Trump escalated a war of words with Kim during his address to the Untied Nations in September. The president referred to the North Korean leader as a “Rocket Man” on a suicide mission.

Kim responded in a statement calling Trump a “dotard” — an old person, especially one who might be weak or senile — and described his behavior as “mentally deranged.”

​Provocation pause

After conducting a successful test in November of a long-range Hwasong-15 missile that has the potential to reach the U.S. mainland, North Korea announced it had reached its goal of developing operational ICBM capability. Some U.S. and South Korean experts said the North was still a year or so away from having an “operational” ICBM armed with a miniaturized nuclear weapon.

Few expect diplomatic breakthroughs anytime soon, but with South Korea hosting the upcoming Winter Olympics, there may be a new opportunity to reduce the potential for conflict in the region. Seoul is encouraging North Korea to participate in the Olympics, and there is talk that the U.S. and South Korea may postpone joint military exercises until after the games. These developments could bring a needed pause to the provocations.

Youmi Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.

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America First? Trump Struggles to Implement Campaign Promises on US Military

Before becoming president, Donald Trump railed against US wars overseas, saying it was better to spend money at home than, in his words, “waste” it overseas. But as VOA’s Bill Gallo reports, Trump has at times struggled to carry out what he calls his “America First” approach to the world during his first year as president.

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