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New Year, New Start? Not in President Trump’s Washington

So much for a new year, new start.

For Donald Trump, that energy-sapping 2017 cocktail of blistering presidential tweets, salacious White House infighting and jaw-dropping feuds with foreign adversaries has given way to, well, more of the same.

“We are off and running,” said Josh Holmes, a longtime adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “It’s amazing that the pace that we set in 2017 has continued with equal vigor.”

Indeed, the first three days of 2018 – yes, just three days – brought a new array of targets for the president and the return of some familiar foes. As part of a 17-tweet barrage on Tuesday, Trump picked a fight with the “deep state” within his own government that he believes is trying to undermine his presidency, and he raised the specter of war with North Korea by asserting that his “Nuclear Button” was bigger than that of Pyongyang’s leader Kim Jong Un.

By Wednesday, Trump had turned on his former top adviser Steve Bannon, accusing him of having “lost his mind.” The scathing attack, issued with the formality of an official White House statement, followed the publication of excerpts from an unflattering book in which Bannon accuses the president’s namesake son of holding a “treasonous” meeting with a Russian lawyer during the campaign.

Across Washington, holiday cheer was suddenly a distant memory.

“I feel exhausted,” said Rick Tyler, a Republican strategist who advised Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in his campaign against Trump in the 2016 GOP presidential primary. “I feel like the year has got to be over by now.”

Trump rattled Washington in his first year in office by blowing past the guardrails that have traditionally governed what a president does and doesn’t say and by frequently picking fights that seem far less consequential than the weighty issues that land on a commander in chief’s desk. He needled friendly foreign leaders like Britain’s Theresa May, accused former President Barack Obama of wiretapping his New York skyscraper and spread rumors about media personalities he deemed overly critical.

To be sure, no one in Washington expected Trump to be a different man when he returned from Christmas vacation at his estate in Palm Beach, Florida. By now, Washington has largely come to grips with the reality of a president who often starts and ends his day with tweets on topics that are a mystery to even his closest aides until they pop up on their smartphones. And while some Trump advisers have grown beleaguered by the president’s seemingly insatiable appetite for a feud, few expect that to change or put much effort into trying to hold him back.

Yet there was still a hope, both in the White House and on Capitol Hill, that the president might return to Washington eager to build on the passage of a sweeping Republican overhaul of the tax code in the waning days of December. The bill passed with only Republican votes, and polling shows the complicated legislation is deeply unpopular with Americans, leaving the president and his party with a tall task if they hope to ride the tax overhaul to electoral victories in the midterm elections.

Trump has tweeted a handful of messages in 2018 about the tax bill. But he generated far more attention with his missives taking aim at the media and his unfounded claim of credit for the fact that no commercial airlines crashed in 2017.

Some Republicans cringed. Tyler said that in the early days of 2018, the White House had already “lost the communications war over what tax policy is designed to do.” And he put the blame squarely on Trump, saying the president “cannot be trusted with his own message.”

On Capitol Hill, where the Senate returned to work, most GOP lawmakers girded themselves for another year of what has become their familiar ritual: carefully critiquing Trump’s most sensational comments without criticizing the president himself. Asked about Trump’s North Korea button bluster, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican, said simply: “It’s probably better not to tweet about such things.”

Just 361 days to go until the calendar flips again.

Trump to Push Immigration Plan in Meeting With Republican Senators

Immigration is the focus for President Donald Trump’s meeting with some Republican senators as he pushes his overhaul plan.

Trump wants to shift from a family-based immigration system to one based on merit, as part of any deal to extend legal status for young immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

Trump ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program last year. He set a March deadline for Congress to act.

A White House spokesman, Hogan Gidley, says an updated approach to immigration should “serve the needs of American workers, families and taxpayers.”

The senators expected at Thursday’s meeting are John Cornyn of Texas, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, James Lankford of Oklahoma and Thom Tillis of North Carolina.

 

US, South Korea Delay Military Drills Until After Winter Olympics

The United States and South Korea have decided to delay joint military exercises until after the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics next month, according to officials from both countries.

South Korea’s Blue House (executive office) said the decision came during a phone call between U.S. President Donald Trump and President Moon Jae-in earlier on Thursday.

A White House statement said both leaders “agreed to de-conflict the Olympics and our military exercises so that [the] United States and Republic of Korea forces can focus on ensuring the security of the games.”

Earlier on Thursday, Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Robert Manning said, “The Department of Defense supports the president’s decision and what is in the best interest of the ROK (Republic of Korea) — U.S. Alliance.”

The annual joint military exercises known as Foal Eagle are usually held between February and April and are one of the world’s largest such drills.

The exercises combine ground, air, naval and special operations to increase readiness to defend South Korea and the region. North Korea routinely objects to the exercises.

During Thursday’s phone call, the White House said President Trump and President Moon “agreed to continue the campaign of maximum pressure against North Korea and to not repeat mistakes of the past.”

Earlier, Trump tweeted his “firm” and “strong” leadership was the impetus for a scheduled resumption of talks between North and South Korea.

On Wednesday, North and South Korea reopened a cross-border hotline that had been shut down since 2016 after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un offered to send a team to the Winter Olympic Games hosted by the South next month. After the reopening, South Korea confirmed that officials from both countries talked for 20 minutes, according to the Associated Press.

Seoul also responded to Kim’s overture by proposing high-level talks next Tuesday to discuss matters of mutual interest, including the North’s possible participation in the Winter Olympic Games the South is hosting in February.

North Korea has drawn increased scrutiny from the international community in recent months because of a number of missile launches and its sixth and most powerful nuclear test.

Pyongyang has dismissed new sanctions and tough talk from the Trump administration as it continues to develop its weapons program, which North Korea has said is being developed to defend against U.S. aggression.

Trump Dissolves Election Fraud Commission

President Donald Trump has dissolved a government commission tasked with investigating what he says was massive voter fraud.

A Trump spokesperson said Wednesday that “despite substantial evidence” of fraud, states have not cooperated with the commission’s demands for voter lists.

“Rather than engage in endless legal battles at taxpayer expense, today I signed an executive order to dissolve the commission,” Trump said through his spokesperson.

Trump said he would have the Department of Homeland Security “review these issues and determine the next course of action.”

Trump won the White House in 2016 by winning the Electoral College, but he got 3 million fewer popular votes than Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

Trump reacted by forming the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. He insisted Clinton won the popular vote because she got the support of millions of people who were either unregistered to vote or who voted multiple times.

Trump has yet to present any evidence to back up his charges of voter fraud.

Only a handful of states turned over voter rolls to the commission to use in its investigation.

Sharp Reactions in Congress to Trump Tweet on North Korea

U.S. President Donald Trump’s tweet warning North Korea’s leader that he has a “Nuclear Button” that is “much bigger & more powerful” than Kim Jong Un’s set off a series of sharp reactions Wednesday on Capitol Hill as the Senate gaveled in for its first day of business in 2018.

 

“It’s embarrassing, it’s counterproductive and it’s dangerous,” said Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, the Foreign Relations Committee’s top Democrat.

 

“It puts the president of the United States in the position of being a fool or deadly serious [about ordering a nuclear strike],” Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island told VOA. “We don’t need that.”

 

But Republican Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming had a different view about the wisdom of the provocative presidential tweet, saying: “We finally have a president who is actually dealing with the problem at hand, instead of what we’ve seen previously, which was ignoring the problem.”

 

Vice President Mike Pence echoed that view in an exclusive interview with VOA on Wednesday.

 

“President Trump has provided a kind of clear leadership on the world stage that has made immeasurable progress particularly with regard to North Korea,” Pence said. “President Trump made it clear [that] America will not be bullied, America will not be threatened.”

 

On Tuesday, Trump tweeted: “North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the ‘Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.’ Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

No such button

Nuclear experts have pointed out that, in fact, no such physical button exists. Rather, U.S. presidents have access at all times to communications equipment for ordering a nuclear launch.

 

The system allows America to respond promptly to a nuclear attack from abroad. A growing number of Democrats have insisted that a preemptive U.S. nuclear strike against North Korea or any other adversary would require authorization from Congress as an act of war.

 

“He [Trump] doesn’t have a [nuclear] button he can use without us. No wars without Congress, period,” Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia told VOA. “We [lawmakers] better make sure we hold him accountable for that and give him a little Constitutional education.”

 

Late last year, Democrats introduced a bill that would prohibit a U.S. president “from using the Armed Forces to conduct a first-use nuclear strike unless such strike is conducted pursuant to a congressional declaration of war expressly authorizing such strike.”

 

At a recent Senate hearing examining presidential nuclear authority, Republicans cautioned against creating any doubts on the world stage about America’s nuclear deterrent and its determination to respond to threats.

 

“Every single word that’s been uttered here this morning in this hearing is going to be analyzed in Pyongyang, and they are going to look very carefully at how we, the American people, view this,” declared Senator James Risch of Idaho.

 

“One of the things that voters think about when they elect someone to the office of president of the United States is whether or not they want to entrust them with this [nuclear] capability,” said Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.

Odd timing

Trump’s tweet came amid tentative steps to reestablish and broaden communications between North Korea and South Korea.

 

North Korea reopened a cross-border communications channel with South Korea on Wednesday, the first significant sign the bitter rivals are seeking to improve relations after years of rising tensions.

 

The sudden thaw in frosty ties between North and South Korea began Monday, when North Korean leader Kim Jong Un used his annual New Year’s Day address to call for direct talks with Seoul and to announce his willingness to send a negotiating team to South Korea to discuss his country’s possible participation next month in the upcoming Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

 

Seoul responded Tuesday by offering to hold talks with North Korean diplomats next week, January 9, in Panmunjom. The meeting would be the first high-level inter-Korean talks since December 2015.

 

Democrats accused Trump of sabotaging diplomacy at a critical moment.

 

“The president always undercuts diplomacy,” Kaine said. “If you undermine diplomacy, you raise the risk of unnecessary war.”

 

Pence, by contrast, argued that, under Trump’s leadership, an unprecedented amount of non-military pressure is being brought to bear on North Korea.

 

“After decades of North Korea stalling and ignoring the world community and continuing to develop nuclear and ballistic missiles, we’re now literally beginning to see movement among nations in the region. China is doing more than ever before,” the vice president said.

 

While some Republican lawmakers simply ignore Trump’s most provocative tweets, Democrats continue to blast the president’s social media messaging.

 

“I don’t let my 11-year-old have a Twitter account, and I would suggest that somebody in the White House might want to do a better job of controlling the president’s Twitter account,” New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich told VOA.

Fire Breaks Out on Clintons’ Property

Firefighters near New York City rushed to the home of Bill and Hillary Clinton on Wednesday after a fire broke out on their property.

A Clinton family spokesman said the blaze occurred in a building used by the Secret Service at the Chappaqua property, and not in the house where the former president and former secretary of state live.

The Clintons were not home at the time. The spokesman said, “All is OK.”

Chappaqua is about 64 kilometers (40 miles) northeast of New York City.

Top US Commander Wants More Aggressive Afghan Push This Year

The top American commander for the Middle East wants a more aggressive Afghan military pressuring Taliban and other insurgents over the normally quieter months of Afghanistan’s winter, and then quickly going on the offensive in the spring. It’s all part of a plan the United States hopes will change the course of a war now entering its 17th year.

Gen. Joseph Votel of U.S. Central Command said an influx of new American trainers can help escalate the fight. They’ll be operating with Afghan units, closer to the front lines and at greater risk, but Votel said U.S. commanders will ensure American and allied forces have adequate protection.

The goal is to get the Afghan military moving on its military campaign sooner, rather than later.

The United States wants the “focus on offensive operations and we’ll look for a major effort to gain the initiative very quickly as we enter into the fighting season,” Votel said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.

Afghan forces must “keep the pressure on all the time and work to gain the upper hand as quickly as we can. So that as we get into this next fighting season we can build on the initiative,” he said.

The Trump administration’s Afghanistan strategy gives the U.S. military greater authority to launch offensive attacks against a resilient Taliban and an emerging Islamic State affiliate. The plan, announced in August, was designed to reverse a stalemate in America’s longest war. It specifically eliminates the Obama administration’s scheduled plan to withdraw U.S. forces, but includes no dramatic changes in an approach that has failed to stabilize the country or snuff out extremist groups operating from Afghan territory.

As 2018 begins, Afghanistan appears to be high on President Donald Trump’s agenda. On New Year’s Day, he slammed Afghanistan’s neighbor Pakistan in a tweet for “lies & deceit,” accusing the country of playing U.S. leaders for “fools” by not crushing militants in its territory. A major focus of Trump’s Afghanistan strategy is to persuade Pakistan to eliminate havens for the Taliban and other fighters.

‘Double game’

Pakistan summoned the U.S. ambassador and Islamic groups held rallies in major Pakistani cities in response.

“Pakistan has played a double game for years,” Nikki Haley, Trump’s U.N. envoy, said Tuesday, explaining that Washington was withholding $255 million in aid to Islamabad. “They work with us at times and they also harbor the terrorists that attack our troops in Afghanistan. That game is not acceptable.”

Pakistan’s Ambassador to the U.N. Maleeha Lodhi responded, “We have contributed and sacrificed the most in fighting international terrorism and carried out the largest counterterrorism operation anywhere in the world.”

Lodhi said the U.S. “should not shift the blame for their own mistakes and failures onto others. We can review our cooperation if it is not appreciated.”

Afghan forces

On the Afghan side of the border, Washington is trying to build a tougher national military.

Votel said as the coalition builds up the Afghan Air Force and trains more security forces, the Afghans will become better fighters. “By the time they get to the next fight,” he said, “they will be able to really present a significant offensive capability.”

But it’s hardly the first time the American military has vowed to shape up the U.S.-backed army into a force that can defeat the Taliban, al-Qaida, IS and others. Nor does Trump’s approach represent the first time a frustrated president has pumped troops into the country to turn the situation around. There are now as many as 16,000 U.S. forces in the country — roughly double what Trump inherited — and a special training unit is scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan early this year.

When then-President Barack Obama took office in 2009, he authorized a surge of U.S. forces to Afghanistan that took the total there to about 100,000. The goal was to tamp down a resurgent Taliban and train and expand Afghan security forces. The plan centered on forcing the Taliban to the peace table and ending the war by the time Obama left office.

The plan never worked, despite the mission meeting several celebrated benchmarks: Obama ended combat operations in 2014, curtailed offensive strikes and set deadlines for a full U.S. troop withdrawal. And as the U.S. and NATO forces pulled back, the Taliban stepped up attacks and regained ground, while an IS faction carved out its own foothold. Obama ended his presidency leaving more than 8,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Beyond boosting troop numbers, Trump has granted his generals’ wishes for fewer combat restrictions, greater authority for commanders and no withdrawal deadline.

Peace efforts

Next year will be the first test of the policy. The Taliban currently controls as much as half of the country.

James Stavridis, a retired Navy admiral who served as the top U.S. commander for NATO from 2009 until 2013, said the ultimate goal in Afghanistan remains the same: Pushing the Taliban into seeking peace negotiations.

“There is a slightly better than even chance that there are some new factors which move us toward the possibility of a successful outcome,” said Stavridis, now dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Those changes, he said, include the elimination of troop withdrawal timelines and Taliban fatigue.

“I think they’re tired, too. This is also a 17-year war for them,” Stavridis said, but suggested any settlement will require compromise. “Is this going to be a sweeping victory? No. But I think the odds are much higher of getting them to the negotiating table.”

Votel, too, said he believes efforts are trending in the right direction, as Afghanistan’s military replaces older commanders with younger officers. Recruitment is being maintained at a rapid pace.

But as winter arrives, Votel said the Afghan army must stay on the offense and prepare for greater fighting when the weather improves.

“We frequently talk about these fighting seasons, but as you know the fighting never actually ends,” Votel said.

Senior US Refugee Official to Retire This Month

One of the top U.S. government officials working on refugee issues announced her impending retirement on Tuesday, and refugee advocates expressed concern about the fate of the country’s resettlement program which faces mounting pressure from the Trump administration.

Barbara Strack, a career official and chief of the Refugee Affairs Division at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, did not specify when she will leave her post, but USCIS spokesman R. Carter Langston said it would be in January.

“It’s something I’ve been planning towards for a long time, and it’s not driven by policy considerations,” Strack said. “I will deeply miss the colleagues and friendships that I’m leaving behind, and the important mission of refugee resettlement. It’s been a privilege to be part of this community for the last 12 years, working to make the U.S. refugee resettlement program robust and secure.”

Advocates expressed concern at the timing of Strack’s retirement, saying it could further hamper U.S. refugee admissions. It was unclear immediately who would replace her.

“USCIS is grateful to Barbara Strack for her 26 years of distinguished federal service,” Langston said.

The Refugee Affairs Division, which Strack oversees, includes dozens of officers charged with interviewing refugees abroad for resettlement in the United States.

The Trump administration has slashed the number of refugees allowed into the country and put in place new vetting and security requirements that have created an additional barrier.Last year, the administration said it planned to divert some refugee officers to instead interview asylum applicants already in the United States, in an effort to cut down on a burgeoning backlog of asylum cases.

Administration officials cited the asylum backlog as one reason it was necessary to cut this year’s refugee admissions cap to 45,000, the lowest level since the modern U.S. refugee program was established in 1980.

Advocates for resettlement and some U.S. officials have expressed alarm at what they see as a slowdown in trips abroad known as circuit rides, in which USCIS officers interview refugees.

“The number of circuit rides has gone down drastically with currently only a few planned,” said Hans Van de Weerd, chair of Refugee Council USA, a coalition of non-governmental groups working on refugee issues. “Many more will need to be scheduled soon to resettle 45,000 refugees and we don’t have any information about whether they will.”

Langston did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the concerns over circuit rides, or how many had been scheduled so far in the fiscal year. A U.S. official said on condition of anonymity in November that trips had been planned for Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Tanzania and Burundi for the first quarter of the fiscal year.

Opponents of refugee resettlement say it raises national security risks to the United States and is expensive. Advocates say refugees are vetted thoroughly and end up being a boon to their new communities.

US Sees Surge in Women Interested in Running for Office

Inside a classroom on the campus of a community college in Dallas, a group of about two dozen women took turns sharing their names, hometowns and what they hoped would be their future titles.

Congresswoman. County judge. State representative.

It was part of a training held by EMILY’s List, an organization dedicated to electing women at all levels of government who support abortion rights. One of the presentation’s PowerPoint slides flashed a mock advertisement on the projector screen: “Help Wanted: Progressive Women Candidates.”

A record number of women appear to be answering that call, fueled largely by frustration on the Democratic side over the election of President Donald Trump and energized by Democratic women winning races in Virginia in November. Experts say 2018 is on track to be a historic year, with more women saying they are running at this point than ever before.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY’s List. “Every day, dozens more women come to our website, come to our Facebook page and say, ‘I am mad as hell. I want to do something about it. What should I do now?’ ”

In the four weeks after the 2016 election, 1,000 women came to the group’s website to learn about running for office. That number has now surpassed 26,000. By comparison, the group was in contact with 960 women for the previous election cycle.

Whether all that enthusiasm will result in full-fledged campaigns and translate to gains in the number of women elected to office remains to be seen.

One-fifth of federal lawmakers

Although women are more than half the American population, they account for just a fifth of all U.S. representatives and senators, and one in four state lawmakers. They serve as governors of only six states and mayors in roughly 20 percent of the nation’s most populous cities.

For Sarah Riggs Amico, the executive chairwoman of a major auto hauling company, last year’s Women’s March in Atlanta ignited her interest in running for office.

“It was something that really lifted me up and made me want to demand better from my government,” said Amico, who recently announced plans to run for lieutenant governor in Georgia.

Sol Flores has been walking in marches with her mother in Chicago since she was a little girl, but never thought she would run for office. Now 44, Flores said she was enraged by policies put forward by the Trump administration and decided to jump into a crowded Democratic primary for Illinois’ 4th Congressional District.

Flores said her network of friends has been crucial to helping her navigate the realities of being a first-time candidate and the challenges of gathering signatures for qualifying and fundraising.

“Women are really good at this, saying, ‘Let’s sit down and figure this out. You raised your hand, and let’s win. Let’s go to Washington, D.C.,’ ” said Flores, the executive director of a nonprofit helping homeless families and at-risk youth.

The last time the U.S. saw a surge in women running for office was 1992, in the wake of Anita Hill’s testimony before an all-male U.S. Senate committee weighing the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court. It was called the “Year of the Woman” because women were elected to the U.S. House and Senate in record numbers.

The number of women in office has held steady in recent years, but experts say conditions are ripe for an increase in 2018 — especially if more politicians are forced to step down or retire amid the growing #MeToo movement that began with accusations of sexual misconduct against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

Open seats

One U.S. senator and four congressmen have so far announced plans to retire or not seek re-election following allegations against them, presenting a prime opportunity for women to compete for their open seats. For example, seven women have expressed interest in an April special election for an Arizona congressional seat.

The increase in women candidates is largely being seen in U.S. House and governor’s races next year and driven primarily by Democrats, said Debbie Walsh, who leads the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. In addition to the 50 Democratic and 10 Republican congresswomen expected to run for re-election, there are 183 Democratic women and 14 Republican women running in primaries to challenge their current U.S. representatives.

These can be uphill races, but many of the women running say they were encouraged by what happened in Virginia in November, when 30 percent of the women who challenged their state representatives won.

Katie Hill is among those seeking to oust her local congressman, Republican Representative Steve Knight, in California’s 25th Congressional District, a key Democratic target this year.

As an advocate for the homeless, Hill recalled the joy she felt on the night of the 2016 election when voters in Los Angeles passed a $1.2 billion bond measure for housing and services for homeless people and those at risk of becoming homeless. But she said that was quickly tempered by the outcome of the presidential election.

“November made us all realize that our country is not where we need to be,” Hill said. “And that’s the point when people start to stand up and say, ‘If no one else is going to fix, I’m going to.’ ”

It’s not just Democrats. First-time Republican and Libertarian women candidates are also jumping into the mix.

Republicans launched an effort in 2012 that is focused on electing women. Under the “Right Women, Right Now” program, 390 new GOP women have been elected since then.

“Twenty-five percent of state legislators are women, and that’s clearly insufficient,” said Matt Walter, head of the Republican State Leadership Committee. “That’s a Democratic and Republican number, and something we really felt strongly was something we needed to change.”

‘Exactly what we need’

Tiffany Shedd, a lawyer for small businesses who lives on a farm in Eloy, Arizona, said she was talking with her husband one evening this year about the importance of having someone representing them in Congress who will fight for rural communities. She said he challenged her to run.

“I said, ‘I can’t run. What’s a person from a little town in Arizona doing running for Congress?’ ” Shedd said. “And then I thought, ‘Wow — that is exactly what we need.’ ”

She will be running in the Republican primary in the hopes of challenging Democratic Representative Tom O’Halleran in November.

On the state level, 36 governor’s races will be contested in 2018. The Center for American Women and Politics says 49 Democratic women, including two incumbents, and 28 Republican women have indicated they will run for those seats. There have never been more than nine women serving as governors at the same time.

Even if all the women who have reached out to groups such as EMILY’s List do not end up running next year, they are expected to play key roles in supporting those who do.

“This is the next decade of candidates,” Schriock said.

California Lawmakers to Confront Sexual Misconduct Scandal

California lawmakers will grapple for the first time as a group with a growing sexual misconduct scandal when they return to Sacramento on Wednesday. 

The 2018 legislative year will bring debates over legislation to boost protections for victims and people who report sexual misconduct, as well as both chambers’ continued efforts to improve their own policies for handling misconduct. 

On the very first day back, the Senate must confront how to handle one of its members, Sen. Tony Mendoza, who has refused calls to step aside amid an investigation into his alleged inappropriate behavior toward young women who worked for him.

“This is certainly not something we thought we’d be working on,” Democratic Sen. Connie Leyva of Chino said. “We’re finally going to be able to get it right and make sure any injustices in the past we can correct and that moving forward, everyone who works in the Capitol can feel like they can come forward.”

That’s not all that’s on lawmakers’ plates. Within a week of their return, Gov. Jerry Brown will submit his final budget proposal, kicking off six months of negotiating on how California should raise and spend money. Proposals that stalled last year on bail reform, single-payer health care and expanding renewable energy also will be back for debate. 

​Still, sexual misconduct will be a dominant theme. A letter circulated in mid-October by lobbyists, lawmakers, legislative staffers and other political consultants cited a pervasive culture of harassment in California’s Capitol. Women eventually came forward with specific allegations that prompted Democratic Assemblymen Raul Bocanegra and Matt Dababneh, both of Los Angeles, to resign.

Mendoza, meanwhile, denies allegations against him and says an investigation will clear his name. But Republican Sen. Andy Vidak said he’ll move to expel Mendoza when the Senate reconvenes, setting up a potentially fraught showdown on the Senate floor. 

Legislatively, Republican Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez will bring forward for the fifth time a bill that would give whistleblower protections to legislative employees who report ethical violations, including sexual misconduct. The Senate has killed her bill four times. 

Dozens of women have said they do not report misbehavior by lawmakers or legislative staff because they are afraid of losing their jobs or facing other professional repercussions. Several former Mendoza staffers have accused the Senate of firing them because they reported his overtures to a young woman who worked for him, something the Senate and Mendoza deny. 

Melendez, of Lake Elsinore, has been tweeting the names of every lawmaker who has agreed to co-sponsor the measure as a means of ramping up pressure on the Senate. The bill has historically passed the Assembly with bipartisan support. 

Leyva, meanwhile, will introduce a bill that would ban nondisclosure agreements in sexual harassment settlements, both in the public and private sectors, which can stop the parties from speaking publicly about what led to the settlement. 

“Eliminating these secret settlements, the no-disclosure agreements, then the accused, the person who is doing the harassing, they have nowhere to hide,” Leyva said. “They have to stop their behavior.”

Two other planned Assembly bills would extend the period in which people can report sexual harassment claims at the state’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing and impose stricter rules for employers – including the Legislature – to track sexual harassment complaints. Democratic Assemblywoman Eloise Reyes of San Bernardino is backing both pieces of legislation. 

Reyes sits on the Assembly subcommittee tasked with rewriting the Legislature’s sexual harassment policies. She was sharply critical during a hearing last month on the Assembly’s policy of not tracking sexual harassment complaints, only investigations. She wants to mandate better tracking by the Legislature and other employers. 

“The only way that were going to know if there’s a pattern is if we keep track of this,” Reyes said.

Regarding the state budget, another top concern for lawmakers, the governor must submit his blueprint by Jan. 10. Lawmakers must send a final spending proposal to Brown, who is term-limited out of office, by mid-June. 

The Assembly has already staked out budget priorities, including providing health care for people living in the state illegally and expanding a tax credit for the working poor. The Senate hasn’t outlined its ideas. 

President Trump Criticizes Pakistan for "Lies and Deceit"

U.S. President Donald Trump is again accusing Pakistan of sheltering terrorists whom American forces are fighting in neighboring Afghanistan.

In his first Twitter message of 2018, Trump wrote, “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help.  No more!”

Washington has long accused Islamabad, particularly its security institutions, of turning a blind eye or covertly helping the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network to stage cross-border attacks against Afghan and U.S.-led forces.

It is not immediately clear whether Trump is threatening to cut financial assistance to Pakistan.   

The United States suggested in August it would hold up $255 million in military assistance until Pakistan cracks down on extremists.

The U.S. Congress has authorized up to $700 million in a Coalition Support Fund to reimburse Pakistan for activities carried out in support of U.S. operations in Afghanistan.  

Pakistani Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif told the local Geo News television station, “We have already told the U.S. that we will not do more, so Trump’s “no more” does not hold any importance.”

The government late Monday summoned U.S. ambassador David Hale to the foreign ministry to protest and seek an explanation for Trump’s remarks, reported local media.

“I can confirm the Ambassador was asked to come to the Foreign Office tonight. He did and met with officials there. I don’t have any comment on the substance of the meeting, ” a U.S. embassy spokesman told VOA.

Meanwhile, an emergency meeting of the National Security Committee has also been convened for Wednesday where the country’s top civilian and military leadership will discuss the situation in the aftermath Trump’s statement.

Islamabad denies allegations it is harboring Afghan insurgents and instead complains anti-state militants are using the neighboring country for terrorist attacks against Pakistan.

Trump unveiled his new South Asia policy last August, in which Pakistan was blamed for providing “safe haven” to terrorists.

American officials have also warned that if Islamabad does not take actions against terrorist havens on Pakistan soil, Washington will do so unilaterally.

The Pakistan military last week warned Washington against any unilateral military action on its soil, saying U.S. allegations of terrorist sanctuaries in the country are “unfounded” and “no more valid” because “indiscriminate” security operations have targeted all terrorist groups.

“We have paid a huge price both in blood and treasure.  We have done enough and we cannot do anymore for anyone,” said the chief military spokesman, Major-General Asif Ghafoor.

Pence Carving out a Role as Presidential Envoy

U.S. vice presidents historically have had widely varying influence in the White House, depending on their relationship with the president. As Donald Trump’s administration prepares for its second year, VOA’s Mike O’Sullivan reports on how Vice President Mike Pence’s role continues to broaden.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

Immigration

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 Amazon.com 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 Amazon.com 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.

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.

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.

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.