The celebration of the United States’ 243rd birthday looks different this year, as President Trump stages his own military-themed celebration, in addition to the now-traditional ceremony at the U.S. Capitol. VOA’s congressional correspondent Katherine Gypson reports on how the capital city, Washington, D.C., is preparing.
Editor’s note: A look at the veracity of claims by political figures
WASHINGTON — In his Fourth of July remarks, President Donald Trump will be celebrating the armed forces and showcasing what he’s done for them. But in recent days, he has falsified his record on military matters on several fronts.
He’s claimed, for example, that he came up with the “genius idea” of giving veterans private health care so they don’t have to wait for Veterans Affairs appointments, only to find out that others had thought of it but failed to get it done.
President Barack Obama signed the law getting it done in 2014.
Trump also made the flatly false statement that he won troops their first raise in a decade, suggested he’s made progress reducing veteran suicides that is not backed up by the numbers, and contradicted the record in claiming that North Korea is cooperating on the return of the remains of U.S. troops.
A look at his statements on military matters and personnel, some of which may be heard from the stage Thursday or in tweets:
Trump, addressing military members: “You also got very nice pay raises for the last couple of years. Congratulations. Oh, you care about that. They care about that. I didn’t think you noticed. Yeah, you were entitled. You know, it was close to 10 years before you had an increase. Ten years. And we said, ‘It’s time.’ And you got a couple of good ones, big ones, nice ones.” — remarks Sunday at Osan Air Base, South Korea.
The facts: He’s been spreading this falsehood for more than a year, soaking up cheers from crowds for something he didn’t do. In May 2018, for example, he declared to graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy: “We just got you a big pay raise. First time in 10 years.”
U.S. military members have received a pay raise every year for decades.
Trump also boasts about the size of the military pay raises under his administration, but there’s nothing extraordinary about them.
Several raises in the last decade have been larger than service members are getting under Trump — 2.6% this year, 2.4% last year, 2.1% in 2017.
Raises in 2008, 2009 and 2010, for example, were all 3.4% or more.
Pay increases shrank after that because of congressionally mandated budget caps. Trump and Congress did break a trend that began in 2011 of pay raises that hovered between 1% and 2%.
Trump: “On average, 20 veterans and members take their own lives every day. … We’re working very, very hard on that. In fact, the first time I heard the number was 23, and now it’s down somewhat. But it’s such an unacceptable number.” — call on June 25 with military veterans.
The facts: Trump incorrectly suggests that he helped reduce veterans’ suicide, noting that his administration was working “very, very hard” on the problem and that in fact the figure had come down. But no decline has been registered during his administration. There was a drop during the Obama administration, but that might be because of the way veterans’ suicides are counted.
The Veterans Affairs Department estimated in 2013 that 22 veterans were taking their lives each day on average (not 23, as Trump put it). The estimate was based on data submitted from fewer than half of the states. In 2016, VA released an estimate of 20 suicides per day, based on 2014 data from all 50 states as well as the Pentagon.
The estimated average has not budged since.
Trump has pledged additional money for suicide prevention and created in March a Cabinet-level task force that will seek to develop a national roadmap for suicide prevention, part of a campaign pledge to improve health care for veterans.
Still, a report by the Government Accountability Office in December found the VA had left millions of dollars unspent that were available for suicide prevention efforts. The report said VA had spent just $57,000 out of $6.2 million available for paid media, such as social-media postings, thanks in part to leadership turmoil at the agency.
Trump, on North Korea’s help in returning the remains of U.S. troops from the Korean War: “The remains are coming back as they get them, as they find them. The remains of our great heroes from the war. And we really appreciate that.” — remarks Sunday to Korean business leaders in Seoul.
Trump: “We’re very happy about the remains having come back. And they’re bringing back — in fact, we were notified they have additional remains of our great heroes from many years ago.” — remarks June 28 in Japan.
The facts: His account is at odds with developments.
No remains of U.S. service members have been returned since last summer and the U.S. suspended efforts in May to get negotiations on the remains back on track in time to have more repatriated this year. It hopes more remains may be brought home next year.
The Pentagon’s Defense POW-MIA Accounting Agency, which is the outfit responsible for recovering U.S. war remains and returning them to families, “has not received any new information from (North Korean) officials regarding the turn over or recovery of remains,” spokesman Charles Prichard said Wednesday.
Prichard said his agency is “still working to communicate” with the North Korean army “as it is our intent to find common ground on resuming recovery missions” in 2020.
Last summer, in line with the first summit between Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un that June, the North turned over 55 boxes of what it said were the remains of an undetermined number of U.S service members killed in the North during the 1950-53 war. So far, six Americans have been identified from the 55 boxes.
U.S. officials have said the North has suggested in recent years that it holds perhaps 200 sets of American war remains. Thousands more are unrecovered from battlefields and former POW camps.
The Pentagon estimates that 5,300 Americans were lost in North Korea.
Trump, on approving private-sector health care for veterans: “I actually came up with the idea. I said, ‘Why don’t we just have the veterans go out and see a private doctor and we’ll pay the cost of the doctor and that will solve the problem?’ Because some veterans were waiting for 2 weeks, 3 weeks, 4 weeks, they couldn’t get any service at all. I said, ‘We’ll just send them out.’ And I thought it was a genius idea, brilliant idea. And then I came back and met with the board and a lot of the people that handled the VA. … They said, ‘Actually, sir, we’ve been trying to get that passed for 40 years, and we haven’t been able to get it.’ … I’m good at getting things done. … It’s really cut down big on the waits.” — call on June 25 with military veterans.
Trump: “We passed VA Choice and VA Accountability to give our veterans the care that they deserve and they have been trying to pass these things for 45 years.” — Montoursville, Pennsylvania, rally May 20.
The facts: Trump did not invent the idea of giving veterans the option to see private doctors outside the Department of Veterans Affairs medical system at government expense. Nor is he the first president in 40 years to pass the program.
Congress approved the private-sector Veterans Choice health program in 2014 and Obama signed it into law. Trump expanded it.
Under the expansion, which took effect last month, veterans still may have to wait weeks to see a doctor. The program allows veterans to see a private doctor if their VA wait is 20 days (28 for specialty care) or their drive is only 30 minutes.
Indeed, the VA says it does not expect a major increase in veterans seeking care outside the VA under Trump’s expanded program, partly because waiting times in the private sector are typically longer than at VA.
“The care in the private sector, nine times out of 10, is probably not as good as care in VA,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie told Congress in March.
U.S. President Donald Trump contended Wednesday that the government will still try to ask a question about citizenship in the once-a-decade census in 2020, a day after top officials announced they had given up on including the citizenship question following a Supreme Court ruling on the matter last week.
“The News Reports about the Department of Commerce dropping its quest to put the Citizenship Question on the Census is incorrect or, to state it differently, FAKE!” Trump claimed on Twitter. “We are absolutely moving forward, as we must, because of the importance of the answer to this question.”
The News Reports about the Department of Commerce dropping its quest to put the Citizenship Question on the Census is incorrect or, to state it differently, FAKE! We are absolutely moving forward, as we must, because of the importance of the answer to this question.
But his comment sowed confusion about the inclusion of the question, coming after both the Department of Justice and the Commerce Department said they had abandoned the effort for the census that starts April 1. The government has said it already has started printing the questionnaires this week in order to have them all ready for use in nine months.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said, “I respect the Supreme Court but strongly disagree with its ruling regarding my decision to reinstate a citizenship question on the 2020 Census,” for the first time since 1950. “The Census Bureau has started the process of printing the decennial questionnaires without the question. My focus, and that of the Bureau and the entire Department, is to conduct a complete and accurate census.”
In a 5-4 decision, Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court’s four liberal justices in ruling that the reasoning the Trump administration offered for including the citizenship question — that the information was needed to protect minority voting rights — was “contrived” and did not meet the standards for a clear explanation of why it should be asked.
Government officials offered no explanation of why they were dropping their effort to include the question, but were confronting weeks and maybe months of new challenges to the question. The census is important because it determines how many seats in the House of Representatives each state is allotted and how $800 billion in federal aid is disbursed.
Trump’s Democratic opponents have claimed that including the question is a Republican ploy to scare immigrants in to not participating in the census out of fear that immigration officials might target them for deportation when they determine that they are in the country illegally. An undercount in Democrat-leaning areas with large immigrant and Latino populations could reduce congressional representation for such states and cut federal aid.
After the Supreme Court heard arguments on the citizenship question but before it ruled, documents emerged from the files of a deceased Republican election districting expert showing that the citizenship question was aimed at helping Republicans gain an electoral edge over Democrats.
Although the citizenship question has not been asked in 70 years, Trump tweeted that it was”A very sad time for America when the Supreme Court of the United States won’t allow a question of ‘Is this person a Citizen of the United States?’ to be asked on the #2020 Census!”
When the high court issued its ruling, Trump called it “totally ridiculous.”
The U.S. Justice Department’s watchdog will review the role of the FBI and Justice Department in a reversal of plans to move FBI headquarters to the Washington suburbs, Democratic congressional leaders said Wednesday.
The department’s inspector general informed House committee leaders of the review in a letter on Tuesday after two committees had pushed him to investigate the reversal.
The leaders of four House committees, including Oversight and Transportation, who are pursuing their own investigations into the shift of FBI headquarters plans, said in a statement they welcomed the watchdog’s examination.
Before he was elected, U.S. President Donald Trump had favored a government plan to move FBI headquarters from downtown Washington, where it is housed in a crumbling building adorned with safety nets to catch falling chunks of concrete. It is also too small for the bureau’s thousands of local employees.
Trump now favors replacing the building with a new structure in the same location.
Democrats have alleged that Trump, a real estate developer before becoming president, had expressed interest in the FBI’s move so he could buy the land where the current headquarters sits and redevelop it.
The Democrats say Trump, who owns a hotel down the street from the current FBI building, changed his position on the headquarters move after he became president and was disqualified from bidding for the land.
The watchdog for the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), which manages federal buildings, said last year that the revised plan would be more expensive than the original proposal to move the headquarters.
The GSA’s inspector general also found that the GSA administrator had not disclosed a meeting with the president on the subject.
The White House and the GSA did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Justice Department declined to comment.
Written in 1787, the U.S. Constitution is the world’s oldest written charter of government in use today.
Most Americans are familiar with its first three words – “We the People.” Yet they “don’t understand” the venerable document, says Kimberly Wehle, a professor of law at the University of Baltimore.
To get readers interested in the charter, Wehle recently published “How to Read the Constitution — and Why,” a back-to-the-basics, accessible primer on the U.S. charter of government written for a time when many on the left and some on the right think the Constitution is under assault.
The book’s launch coincides with the end of a consequential term for the Supreme Court, during which President Donald Trump’s second court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, joined the bench following a contentious confirmation hearing. It also coincides with the nation’s 243rd observance of Independence Day, July 4.
VOA spoke with Wehle about the Supreme Court and how and why to read the Constitution. The following excerpts have been edited for clarity and length.
The U.S. Constitution is the oldest surviving written constitution in use today. What makes it so enduring?
Kimberly Wehle: It’s enduring because of the structure of the first part of the Constitution. That is not the Bill of Rights. But the structure of the first part of the Constitution assumes that there is no person in elected office or appointed office that’s above the law. So each branch is checked by the other two branches and so far, that balance of power ensuring that the human desire to amass unlimited power is checked. I think that that is one of the most enduring elements.
The late Justice Antonin Scalia once said that the “real key to the distinctiveness of America” in the world, what makes America a free country, is not the rights guaranteed by the Constitution, such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press, but rather the structure of government enshrined in the Constitution. Do you agree?
Wehle: The framers, as Justice Scalia indicated, didn’t include express rights in the original Constitution, because they believed that the three-part structure would preserve rights. So there’s a direct connection between the checks and balances and the separation of powers (on the one hand) and individual rights (on the other), meaning the three-part system ensures that the government doesn’t arbitrarily bully individual people. If there’s bullying going on, one of the other two branches is situated to check that.
And yet every branch of government, it seems, over time has accumulated some degree of power at the expense of the other. For example, the Constitution gives the power to declare war to Congress, yet American presidents have waged war without clear congressional authorization. How did that happen?
Wehle: There’s a chicken-and-egg issue with the power to declare war and the commander-in-chief power. Scholars generally believe that Congress has to declare war. The president can use the military to respond to threats and attacks. As we saw during the George W. Bush administration, Congress authorized the president to preemptively start a war. But when people in office and in the judiciary don’t enforce parts of the Constitution, they cease to really have meaning.
So how do you read the Constitution? Do you examine the text to decipher its original meaning, as the so-called “originalists” do, or do you approach it as a “living document” open to interpretation, as the so-called “judicial” activists do.
Wehle: I disagree with that distinction. In the book, I compare the Constitution to reading a poem, for example, where, you know, there’s ambiguous language, and there are various ways of reading that ambiguity and deciding what it means. The Constitution is the same way. People bring different points of view to it. But the idea that it’s clear, most of the time is just not accurate.
In your book, you make an urgent plea to Americans to read their own Constitution, a text many are taught in grade school. Why read it?
Wehle: Because we’re overloaded in our society with information, online social media, 24-hour cable news and information, various political points of view, people feeding bottom lines to us. And of course, as we saw in the 2016 presidential elections, some of what we get is actually planted — and it’s deliberately false — by Russians, in this instance, that aren’t really interested in promoting American democracy. So in order to cut through this polarized conversation, my suggestion as an educator, which I tell my students, is start with the text. If you want to know what (special counsel) Robert Mueller indicted someone for, read the indictment. If you want to know what your Constitution says, start with the language itself. That’s what the Supreme Court does.
What benefit would citizens of other countries derive from reading the American Constitution?
Wehle: There are a lot of eyes on America for lots of reasons, including this reputation for having, freedoms, which, I think, (are) being challenged and tarnished internationally. So it benefits, given that the United States is a place that a lot of other countries watch. It is beneficial for everyone to understand how our Constitution works, and the dangers if it stops working.
The Supreme Court is the nation’s top appellate court as well as its top constitutional court. What role does it play in American life?
Wehle: It really functions like a mini legislature, and I say that with great care. Meaning when a case gets to the Supreme Court on an important issue, and the court issues a decision under the Constitution, that can’t even be amended by a statute. The Constitution is the boss of all bosses.
So if the court decides that there’s a constitutional question lurking in a statute passed by Congress and then it rules one way or the other under the Constitution, the only way to change that outcome is to amend the Constitution, or amend the configuration of the court such that they will reverse precedent. Both of those are extremely, extremely hard to do.
The Supreme Court is deeply ideologically divided. Many critics see the justices on the court as politicians in robes. Help our international audience understand how the judiciary in this country became so politicized?
Wehle: I don’t think they’re politicians in robes, because politicians tend to make decisions in America based on getting more money to win elections. So they will set aside principle, they’ll set aside policy outcomes, just for that objective.
That’s not the case at the Supreme Court. That being said, it’s unfortunate what happened with Justice Kavanaugh. It’s the most glaring example of how the Senate has allowed the confirmation process to become politicized.
But once justices are on the court, their decision on how to construe vague language will depend on their judicial philosophy. Some justices might believe Congress should have a lot more power over executive branch agencies. Some justices might believe the president has unlimited power in certain circumstances, like when it comes to the use of the military.
Other justices, the liberal wing, are more interested in making sure individual people retain as many rights versus the government. These are philosophical differences over how the government should work.
Looking to improve his standing with black voters, Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg pitched a plan Tuesday to tackle “systemic racism” he said exists in housing, health care, education, policing and other aspects of American life.
The 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, told a predominantly black audience at a Chicago meeting of Rainbow PUSH, the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s civil rights organization, that his plan includes providing more opportunity for minority businesses, strengthening voting rights and reforming the criminal justice system.
He said he would cut incarceration numbers in half by legalizing marijuana and eliminating prison time for simple drug possession. He wants to restore voting rights for some 6 million Americans with felony convictions and supports “bold and meaningful action” on reparations for the descendants of slaves.
Buttigieg’s speech followed the June 16 fatal shooting of a black man by a white South Bend police officer, which he said re-exposed a “racial chasm” between black and white residents in the racially diverse community of roughly 100,000 people. The shooting prompted Buttigieg to leave the campaign trail, and it has threatened to erode the already marginal backing he’s received from black voters for his 2020 bid so far.
“This is deeper than politics. This is not just a political problem, and it is not just a police problem, and it is not just my problem or my city’s problem,” he said Tuesday. “And it is certainly not just a black problem. This is an American problem. And it requires nationwide American solutions.”
Buttigieg is among the top tier of 2020 candidates, bringing in almost $25 million in the second quarter — an amount expected to exceed many of his rivals’ totals. But he’s struggled to gain support from black voters who are crucial to a Democratic victory.
He told reporters he needs to get to know more voters, and they need to “see me in action for a longer period of time” and learn more about the agenda he’s dubbed his “Douglass Plan,” after abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
“Look, when you’re new on the scene, and you’re not from a community of color, you’ve got to work much harder in order to earn that trust because trust is largely a function of quantity time,” he said. “I’m committed to doing that work. But I think the most important question is: Will our policy benefit black Americans and all Americans? And if that happens, and if I can show that, I think the politics will start to take care of themselves.”
In a stinging defeat for President Donald Trump, his administration has ended its effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 U.S. census, saying that it will begin printing forms that do not include the contentious query.
White House and Justice Department officials confirmed the decision, which came in the aftermath of a Supreme Court ruling on June 27 that faulted the Trump administration for its original attempt to add the question.
Although the court left open the possibility of the administration adding the question, there was little time left for the government to come up with a new rationale.
The government had said in court filings that it needed to finalize the details of the questionnaire by the end of June.
Trump had suggested delaying the census so that the question could be added.
Democratic presidential candidate Cory Booker would “virtually eliminate immigration detention” if elected, his campaign said on Tuesday, including ending the use of for-profit detention facilities and minimizing the time unaccompanied children spend in custody.
Booker, 50, is among some two dozen Democrats seeking to take on Republican U.S. President Donald Trump in next year’s election.
Trump has made clamping down on illegal immigration the centerpiece of his domestic policy agenda. He has railed against Central American migrants crossing into the United States from Mexico – many of whom are seeking refuge under U.S. asylum laws – and has sought to build a wall along vast portions of the U.S. southern border.
But U.S. agencies have struggled to keep up with a surge of mostly families arriving at the border, straining resources and overcrowding facilities. Last week, lawyers asked a federal judge to intervene after they detailed several instances in which children were being held in unsanitary, unsafe conditions.
“On day one of my presidency, I will take immediate steps to end this administration’s moral vandalism,” Booker said in a statement. “Our country must have an immigration system that reflects our values, not one that strips dignity away from people fleeing danger, threats, and violence.”
Booker’s plan would require border facilities operated by the U.S. Border Patrol, including those holding children, to comply with stringent health standards or face closure.
He would also phase out contracts with private prison operators such as GEO Group Inc and CoreCivic Inc , which operate a number of facilities for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to house adult migrants awaiting court proceedings.
In addition to targeting detention centers, Booker’s plan would reverse the Trump administration’s decision to end protections for “Dreamers,” undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review Trump’s decision next year. The program will remain in place until that case is resolved.
Booker also would do away with Trump administration rules intended to restrict asylum claims and refugees, including Trump’s entry ban for several Muslim-majority countries and a requirement that asylum seekers remain in Mexico until their U.S. court hearing.
The plan calls for providing legal counsel to all immigrants and making it easier for them to post bond in immigration court proceedings.
Several other Democratic contenders have released immigration plans, including former Secretary of Housing Julian Castro, U.S. senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris and former U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke.
Upon returning from the G-20 summit, U.S. President Trump claimed foreign policy victory, saying that “much was accomplished.” But what exactly was achieved during the three-day trip? White House Correspondent Patsy Widakuswara unpacks the president’s whirlwind trip to Osaka and Seoul.
The Department of Homeland Security is investigating a report that current and former U.S. Border Patrol agents are part of a Facebook group posting racist, sexist, and violent posts about migrants and Hispanic lawmakers.
The ProPublica investigative site says the posts include sexually explicit images and remarks mocking migrant deaths, including the highly publicized death of a Salvadoran man and his 2-year-old daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande river.
The Facebook group is called “I’m 10-15,” the Border Patrol’s code for “Aliens in Custody.”
ProPublica says the agents reacted to the death of a 16-year-old boy who died in Border Patrol custody by saying: “Oh, well. If he dies, he dies.”
They accused Democrats and liberals of possibly faking the photograph of the man and his daughter lying face down in the river, saying they have never seen “floaters” look so “clean.”
Other alleged remarks included plans to throw burritos at Hispanic members of Congress and describing female members in sexist profane language.
Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a favorite target of the group. One doctored photograph shows her performing a sexual act on U.S. President Donald Trump.
“How on Earth can CBP’s culture be trusted to care for refugees humanely?” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted.
Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren says the comments by the agents are “completely unacceptable” and is demanding answers.
Democratic Congressman Joe Kennedy says they are “disgusting” and says guilty agents should be fired.
Border Patrol chief Carla Provost says the Facebook posts are “completely inappropriate and contrary to the honor and integrity I see and expect from our agents day in and day out.”
She said any employees found to be a part of the group will be held accountable.
The union representing the agents has also condemned the posts and say they do a “great disservice” to the overwhelming majority of employees who do their jobs with honor.
According to the Customs and Border Protection agency, employees are forbidden from making “abusive, derisive, profane, or harassing statements, gestures” or displays of hatred based on a person’s race, color, religion, sex, or sexual orientation.
When asked about the report Monday, President Donald Trump said Border Patrol personnel are “patriots” and “great people.”
“I don’t know what they’re saying about members of Congress. I know that the Border Patrol is not happy with the Democrats in Congress,” he said. “I will say the Republicans do want border security.”
Ocasio-Cortez was part of a delegation of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus who visited two border patrol stations along the U.S.-Mexico border where migrants are being held in what lawyers have reported as squalid conditions.
She described what she saw as “horrifying.”
“It is hard to understate the enormity of the problem. We’re talking systemic cruelty w/ a dehumanizing culture that treats them like animals,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter.
Rep. Joaquin Castro said many of the migrants they spoke to reported not having bathed for 15 days, while some said they had been held for 50 days and some said they were separated from their children.
“They asked us to take down their names and let everyone know they need help. They also feared retribution,” Castro wrote on Twitter. “All Americans must help to change this system.”