Charlottesville White Supremacist Protest Recalled One Year Later

Sunday marks the one year anniversary of the violent “Unite The Right” protests in Charlottesville, Virginia. Last year’s protest, organized by white supremacists upset over the removal of a statue of a Confederate hero, left one person dead and 19 injured. White nationalists are planning a protest to mark the occasion in Washington. Meanwhile, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and the city of Charlottesville declared a state of emergency ahead of the anniversary. Anush Avetisyan reports.

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Wildlife Official Who Stirred Fears on Species Law Will Leave Post

The head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is stepping down after a 14-month tenure in which the agency proposed broad changes to rules governing protections for thousands of species and pushed for more hunting and fishing on federal lands, officials said Thursday.

Greg Sheehan will leave the agency next week to return to his family and home in Utah, spokesman Gavin Shire said. He has led the wildlife service since last June as the senior political official appointed under President Donald Trump in a newly created deputy director position.

Under his tenure, the wildlife service moved recently to end a long-standing practice that automatically gave the same protections to threatened species as it gives more critically endangered species. The proposal also limits habitat safeguards meant to shield recovering species from harm and would require consideration of the economic impacts of protecting a species.

That’s alarmed wildlife advocates who fear a weakening of the Endangered Species Act, which has been used to save species as diverse as the bald eagle and the American alligator. The proposed changes were cheered by Republican lawmakers and others who say the endangered species law has been abused to block economic development and needs reform.

A request to interview Sheehan was declined.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had sought to make Sheehan acting director of the 9,000-employee wildlife service, which would have given him certain legal authorities. However, Sheehan was barred from that role because he did not have the science degree required for the position under federal law, Shire said.

Vacancies at Interior

His departure comes amid a spate of vacancies at the Interior Department more than a year and a half after Trump took office. Those include the heads of the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and the assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks.

Before coming to the federal government, Sheehan worked for 25 years in Utah’s Division of Wildlife Resources, including five years as its director.

National Wildlife Federation President Collin O’Mara — who considers Sheehan a friend — said during his watch the service had done good work collaborating with state officials and conservation groups. But O’Mara said there needed to be less emphasis on removing regulations and more on making sure wildlife issues are considered, such as during decisions on energy development.

“Given the magnitude of the wildlife crisis, there’s always more that can be done,” O’Mara said.

Another conservation group, the Center for Biological Diversity, had a more critical response, saying Sheehan’s departure was “welcome news for America’s wildlife.”

“In just one year in office, he inflicted incredible harm on imperiled animals by consistently putting special interests ahead of science and the environment,” said Brett Hartl, the group’s government affairs director.

The Interior Department issued a statement saying Sheehan was “an incredible asset to the Interior team and was tremendous in helping Secretary Zinke expand access for hunting and fishing on over a quarter-million acres of public lands across the country.”

Deputy Operations Director Jim Kurth will lead the agency pending another appointment, Shire said.

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Wildlife Official Who Stirred Fears on Species Law Will Leave Post

The head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is stepping down after a 14-month tenure in which the agency proposed broad changes to rules governing protections for thousands of species and pushed for more hunting and fishing on federal lands, officials said Thursday.

Greg Sheehan will leave the agency next week to return to his family and home in Utah, spokesman Gavin Shire said. He has led the wildlife service since last June as the senior political official appointed under President Donald Trump in a newly created deputy director position.

Under his tenure, the wildlife service moved recently to end a long-standing practice that automatically gave the same protections to threatened species as it gives more critically endangered species. The proposal also limits habitat safeguards meant to shield recovering species from harm and would require consideration of the economic impacts of protecting a species.

That’s alarmed wildlife advocates who fear a weakening of the Endangered Species Act, which has been used to save species as diverse as the bald eagle and the American alligator. The proposed changes were cheered by Republican lawmakers and others who say the endangered species law has been abused to block economic development and needs reform.

A request to interview Sheehan was declined.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had sought to make Sheehan acting director of the 9,000-employee wildlife service, which would have given him certain legal authorities. However, Sheehan was barred from that role because he did not have the science degree required for the position under federal law, Shire said.

Vacancies at Interior

His departure comes amid a spate of vacancies at the Interior Department more than a year and a half after Trump took office. Those include the heads of the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and the assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks.

Before coming to the federal government, Sheehan worked for 25 years in Utah’s Division of Wildlife Resources, including five years as its director.

National Wildlife Federation President Collin O’Mara — who considers Sheehan a friend — said during his watch the service had done good work collaborating with state officials and conservation groups. But O’Mara said there needed to be less emphasis on removing regulations and more on making sure wildlife issues are considered, such as during decisions on energy development.

“Given the magnitude of the wildlife crisis, there’s always more that can be done,” O’Mara said.

Another conservation group, the Center for Biological Diversity, had a more critical response, saying Sheehan’s departure was “welcome news for America’s wildlife.”

“In just one year in office, he inflicted incredible harm on imperiled animals by consistently putting special interests ahead of science and the environment,” said Brett Hartl, the group’s government affairs director.

The Interior Department issued a statement saying Sheehan was “an incredible asset to the Interior team and was tremendous in helping Secretary Zinke expand access for hunting and fishing on over a quarter-million acres of public lands across the country.”

Deputy Operations Director Jim Kurth will lead the agency pending another appointment, Shire said.

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Trump Meets with Governors to Address Prison Reform, Recidivism   

President Donald Trump discussed prison reform with governors and state attorneys general at his New Jersey golf club Thursday, part of an effort to increase education, vocational training and other opportunities to make it less likely that inmates will commit new offenses. 

The United States has the largest prison population and the highest per-capita incarceration rate in the world. The majority of inmates are held in state facilities, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. 

White House officals said the group represents states that have implemented reforms similar to those backed by Trump. The mostly Republican group included governors from Kentucky, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and North Dakota, as well as attorneys general from Florida and Texas. 

Trump is pushing a bill that has passed the House of Representatives that would provide $250 million over five years to fund education, vocational training and rehabilitation programs within the federal prison system. Participating inmates get credits toward early release or serving the rest of their sentences in halfway houses or home confinement. 

The prison reform bill, “Formerly Incarcerated Re-enter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act,” is also known by its acronym the First Step Act. 

Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, has been working with congressional allies to move the First Step program forward. 

First Step Act

Ryan Streeter, director of domestic policy studies with the American Enterprise Institute, said First Step uses “evidence-based interventions to help people get the kind of training they need, the attachment to the community they need, and the things that we’ve seen actually work in a research-based environment.”

He says there is growing congressional consensus on the need for sentencing reform, but initiatives have faced roadblocks. Streeter sees the legislation as an effort to ensure that when inmates reach the end of their sentences, they don’t end up back behind bars within five years, which is what happens with more than 75 percent of the prison population. 

The First Step Act is a “back end” type of prison reform, meaning it focuses on cutting prison time once people are incarcerated. A “front end” initiative focuses on reducing the amount of people sent to prison and the amount of time they spend there by making changes in the process of arrest, prosecution and sentencing.

The bill focuses solely on the federal prison system, which is only a small part of the overall U.S. prison system. Critics say the bill does not address the main causes of mass incarceration: prison sentences that are too long, and too many incarcerated people. For example, the bill would not reduce or limit mandatory minimum sentences for minor drugs offenses. 

A separate piece of legislation — a broader criminal justice reform bill co-written by senators Chuck Grassley and Richard J. Durbin — is also moving though the Senate and has received bipartisan support.

​The Washington Post is reporting that administration officials are pushing for a deal that would combine the Senate bill and the First Step Act, including provisions that would allow judges to issue sentences shorter than mandatory minimums for low-level crimes. 

The deal may face opposition from within Trump’s own administration, particularly from Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has come out in strong opposition to any measures that would change mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. 

Support from minorities

Racial disparity is a huge problem in the U.S. criminal justice system. African-Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites.

 According to the Sentencing Project, 1 in every 10 black men in his 30s is in prison or jail on any given day.

Last week at the White House, Trump met with a group of urban pastors to discuss prison reform. Attendees said the president essentially came out in support of broad-based reforms to the criminal justice system.

Criminal justice reform

A number of polls, including one by the American Civil Liberties Union Campaign for Smart Justice, have shown that the majority of Americans support criminal justice reforms and believe the country’s criminal justice system needs significant improvements. 

The U.S. makes up about 5 percent of the world’s population but has 21 percent of the world’s prisoners.  According to the World Prison Brief, an online database providing information on prison systems around the world, 655 people were incarcerated in the U.S. per 100,000 population in 2016.

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Both Trump and Democrats See Positives in Ohio Election Results

In U.S. politics, President Donald Trump and Republicans are claiming victory in a special congressional election in Ohio seen as a possible bellwether for the November midterm elections. While the race officially remains too close to call, both major political parties see encouraging signs in the results, as we hear from VOA National correspondent Jim Malone in Washington.

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Both Trump and Democrats See Positives in Ohio Election Results

In U.S. politics, President Donald Trump and Republicans are claiming victory in a special congressional election in Ohio seen as a possible bellwether for the November midterm elections. While the race officially remains too close to call, both major political parties see encouraging signs in the results, as we hear from VOA National correspondent Jim Malone in Washington.

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Both Trump, Democrats See Positives in Ohio Election Results

President Donald Trump and his Republican supporters are claiming victory in a special congressional election in Ohio, even though officially the race remains too close to call. The race was seen by many as a possible bellwether for the midterm congressional elections in November.

Republican Troy Balderson leads Democrat Danny O’Connor by about 1,700 votes, but a few thousand provisional ballots remain to be counted.

Even if the Republican eventually emerges victorious in the Ohio race, opposition Democrats also see plenty to be optimistic about as they look ahead to the November midterms, when all 435 House seats will be at stake along with 35 of the 100 U.S. Senate seats.

​Tipping by Trump

President Trump held a rally in Ohio a few days before the voting on behalf of Balderson, and many analysts believe that may have tipped the election in Balderson’s favor.

Trump was quick to take credit on Twitter Wednesday, claiming that Balderson’s fortunes took “a big turn for the better” after his speech Saturday night. In a second tweet, the president boasted that “As long as I campaign and/or support Senate and House candidates (within reason), they will win!”

Trump also promised to campaign on behalf of Republican candidates in the midterm elections and predicted, “We will have a giant Red Wave!”

In remarks to his supporters Tuesday night, Balderson was quick to pay tribute to the president for his last-minute help.

“I’d like to thank President Trump,” Balderson said to cheers. “America is on the right path and we are going to keep it going that way.”

​Democratic surge

Balderson benefited from large campaign contributions from the Republican Party’s campaign arm to offset heavy Democratic spending in the race on behalf of Danny O’Connor.

For the most part, O’Connor tried to stay focused on economic issues and health care and was less interested in making Trump the central issue in the race.

“I heard over and over again that the people of central Ohio are sick and tired of the same old Washington politics,” O’Connor told supporters Tuesday night. “Folks want new leadership.”

O’Connor’s strong showing came in a district that Republicans have held for more than three decades and which Trump carried in the 2016 election by more than 11 points.

In his rally Saturday on behalf of Balderson, Trump laid out a template for future campaign attacks as he strove to take the focus off of him and aim squarely at opposition Democrats.

“If the Democrats get in, they are going to raise your taxes, you are going to have crime all over the place and you are going to have people pouring across the border,” Trump told supporters. “So why would that be a blue wave? I think it could be a red wave, really I think it should be a red wave.”

Warning signs

The fact that Democrat O’Connor ran a close race in a strongly Republican district, however, strikes experts as yet another warning sign for Republicans in November.

“It is more evidence that in race after race throughout this year, Republicans have been underperforming the levels that they were at in 2016, which has to spell trouble for them moving forward,” said Brookings Institution analyst John Hudak.

Balderson also received help from Ohio Governor John Kasich. On Sunday on ABC’s This Week, Kasich predicted a narrow Republican victory in the election, but he also warned that Trump remains a polarizing figure for the broader electorate.

“The chaos that seems to surround Donald Trump has unnerved a lot of people. So suburban women in particular here are the ones who are really turned off,” Kasich told ABC.

Double-edged weapon

So on one hand, the Ohio results suggest the president can tip a close race into the Republican column. 

“Oh, I believe the president does think that his ability to weigh in and endorse a candidate can have an effect,” said analyst Hudak.

But Hudak also argued that in addition to motivating his own base, Trump also is proving to be a turnout motivator for Democrats who want to show their displeasure with him.

“While his intervention or maybe Governor Kasich’s intervention or someone else’s intervention may well have made the difference in this 1,700-vote margin in Ohio, the president has probably also played a significant role in the shift from Republicans toward Democrats in a race like this.”

No matter who is declared the eventual winner of Tuesday’s special election, Balderson and O’Connor are expected to face off again in November when it is likely that Trump will once again be the pivotal issue for voters in midterm elections where the control of Congress is at stake.

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Both Trump, Democrats See Positives in Ohio Election Results

President Donald Trump and his Republican supporters are claiming victory in a special congressional election in Ohio, even though officially the race remains too close to call. The race was seen by many as a possible bellwether for the midterm congressional elections in November.

Republican Troy Balderson leads Democrat Danny O’Connor by about 1,700 votes, but a few thousand provisional ballots remain to be counted.

Even if the Republican eventually emerges victorious in the Ohio race, opposition Democrats also see plenty to be optimistic about as they look ahead to the November midterms, when all 435 House seats will be at stake along with 35 of the 100 U.S. Senate seats.

​Tipping by Trump

President Trump held a rally in Ohio a few days before the voting on behalf of Balderson, and many analysts believe that may have tipped the election in Balderson’s favor.

Trump was quick to take credit on Twitter Wednesday, claiming that Balderson’s fortunes took “a big turn for the better” after his speech Saturday night. In a second tweet, the president boasted that “As long as I campaign and/or support Senate and House candidates (within reason), they will win!”

Trump also promised to campaign on behalf of Republican candidates in the midterm elections and predicted, “We will have a giant Red Wave!”

In remarks to his supporters Tuesday night, Balderson was quick to pay tribute to the president for his last-minute help.

“I’d like to thank President Trump,” Balderson said to cheers. “America is on the right path and we are going to keep it going that way.”

​Democratic surge

Balderson benefited from large campaign contributions from the Republican Party’s campaign arm to offset heavy Democratic spending in the race on behalf of Danny O’Connor.

For the most part, O’Connor tried to stay focused on economic issues and health care and was less interested in making Trump the central issue in the race.

“I heard over and over again that the people of central Ohio are sick and tired of the same old Washington politics,” O’Connor told supporters Tuesday night. “Folks want new leadership.”

O’Connor’s strong showing came in a district that Republicans have held for more than three decades and which Trump carried in the 2016 election by more than 11 points.

In his rally Saturday on behalf of Balderson, Trump laid out a template for future campaign attacks as he strove to take the focus off of him and aim squarely at opposition Democrats.

“If the Democrats get in, they are going to raise your taxes, you are going to have crime all over the place and you are going to have people pouring across the border,” Trump told supporters. “So why would that be a blue wave? I think it could be a red wave, really I think it should be a red wave.”

Warning signs

The fact that Democrat O’Connor ran a close race in a strongly Republican district, however, strikes experts as yet another warning sign for Republicans in November.

“It is more evidence that in race after race throughout this year, Republicans have been underperforming the levels that they were at in 2016, which has to spell trouble for them moving forward,” said Brookings Institution analyst John Hudak.

Balderson also received help from Ohio Governor John Kasich. On Sunday on ABC’s This Week, Kasich predicted a narrow Republican victory in the election, but he also warned that Trump remains a polarizing figure for the broader electorate.

“The chaos that seems to surround Donald Trump has unnerved a lot of people. So suburban women in particular here are the ones who are really turned off,” Kasich told ABC.

Double-edged weapon

So on one hand, the Ohio results suggest the president can tip a close race into the Republican column. 

“Oh, I believe the president does think that his ability to weigh in and endorse a candidate can have an effect,” said analyst Hudak.

But Hudak also argued that in addition to motivating his own base, Trump also is proving to be a turnout motivator for Democrats who want to show their displeasure with him.

“While his intervention or maybe Governor Kasich’s intervention or someone else’s intervention may well have made the difference in this 1,700-vote margin in Ohio, the president has probably also played a significant role in the shift from Republicans toward Democrats in a race like this.”

No matter who is declared the eventual winner of Tuesday’s special election, Balderson and O’Connor are expected to face off again in November when it is likely that Trump will once again be the pivotal issue for voters in midterm elections where the control of Congress is at stake.

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Army Suspends Discharges of Immigrant Recruits

The U.S. Army has stopped discharging immigrant recruits who enlisted seeking a path to citizenship, at least temporarily.

A memo shared with The Associated Press Wednesday and dated July 20 spells out orders to high-ranking Army officials to stop processing discharges of men and women who enlisted in the special immigrant program, effective immediately.

It was not clear how many recruits were affected by the action, and the Pentagon did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the memo.

“Effective immediately, you will suspend processing of all involuntary separation actions,” read the memo signed by Acting Assistant Secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs Marshall Williams.

Dozens of discharges 

The disclosure comes one month after the AP reported that dozens of immigrant enlistees were being discharged or their contracts were canceled. Some said they were given no reason for their discharge. Others said the Army informed them they’d been labeled as security risks because they have relatives abroad or because the Defense Department had not completed background checks on them.

Early last month, the Pentagon said there had been no specific policy change and that background checks were ongoing. And in mid-July, the Army reversed one discharge, for Brazilian reservist Lucas Calixto, 28, who had sued. Nonetheless, discharges of other immigrant enlistees continued. Attorneys sought to bring a class action lawsuit last week to offer protections to a broader group of reservists and recruits in the program, demanding that prior discharges be revoked and that further separations be halted.

A judge’s order references the July 20 memo, and asks the Army to clarify how it impacts the discharge status of Calixto and other plaintiffs. As part of the memo, Williams also instructed Army officials to recommend whether the military should issue further guidance related to the program.

Margaret Stock, an Alaska-based immigration attorney and a retired Army Reserve lieutenant colonel who helped create the immigrant recruitment program, said Wednesday the memo proves there was a policy.

“It’s an admission by the Army that they’ve improperly discharged hundreds of soldiers,” she said. “The next step should be go back and rescind the people who were improperly discharged.”

Discharged recruits and reservists reached Wednesday said their discharges were still in place as far as they knew.

One Pakistani man caught by surprise by his discharge said he was filing for asylum. He asked that his name be withheld because he fears he might be forced to return to Pakistan, where he could face danger as a former U.S. Army enlistee.

Security requirements

The reversal comes as the Defense Department has attempted to strengthen security requirements for the program, through which historically immigrants vowed to risk their lives for the promise of U.S. citizenship.

President George W. Bush ordered “expedited naturalization” for immigrant soldiers after 9/11 in an effort to swell military ranks. Seven years later the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program, known as MAVNI, became an official recruiting program.

It came under fire from conservatives when President Barack Obama added DACA recipients — young immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children — to the list of eligible enlistees. In response, the military layered on additional security clearances for recruits to pass before heading to boot camp.

The Trump administration added even more hurdles, creating a backlog within the Defense Department. Last fall, hundreds of recruits still in the enlistment process saw their contracts canceled.

Government attorneys called the recruitment program an “elevated security risk” in another case involving 17 foreign-born military recruits who enlisted through the program but have not been able to clear additional security requirements. Some recruits had falsified their background records and were connected to state-sponsored intelligence agencies, the court filing said.

Eligible recruits are required to have legal status in the U.S., such as a student visa, before enlisting. More than 5,000 immigrants were recruited into the program in 2016, and an estimated 10,000 are currently serving. Nearly 110,000 members of the Armed Forces have gained citizenship by serving in the U.S. military since Sept. 11, 2001, according to the Defense Department.

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