State Department Battles Criticism of Tillerson’s Management

The State Department is hitting back at the growing bipartisan criticism of Rex Tillerson’s leadership and accusations he is presiding over a debilitating brain drain of the nation’s diplomatic corps.

 

In a letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Republican chairman, the department said Tillerson’s reorganization plans aren’t crippling the agency as reports have claimed. Top ranks aren’t being intentionally gutted through attrition, mass retirements and buyouts, it said, and a planned 8 percent reduction of its nearly 75,000 employees had been mandated by the Office of Management and Budget and is proceeding under that order.

 

In the letter sent to Sen. Bob Corker late Thursday, the department said there are only 108 fewer foreign service officers now than in 2016. The tally is still 2,000 more than there were in 2008, it said.

 

It said a widely cited figure that 60 percent of diplomats at the highest level had left the foreign service since January is a “distortion” because only six people held the rank known as “career ambassador.” Two remain, it said. Since 1980, only from one to seven career ambassadors have ever served at the same time.

 

Nevertheless, the letter seems unlikely to stem the criticism of Tillerson. Critics also point to departures of senior and mid-level foreign service officers and a hiring freeze of entry level diplomats that has been relaxed only to take on about 100 new employees in the current budget year. That’s about a third of recent yearly intakes.

 

Democratic and Republican lawmakers also oppose Tillerson’s proposal to cut the department’s budget by nearly 30 percent, suggesting there will be rancorous exchanges on staffing levels in coming months.

 

The letter follows an intense week of criticism of Tillerson.

 

Since taking office, the former ExxonMobil CEO has been targeted by frequent attacks from Democrats, former diplomats and pundits on the left and the right. In recent days, Corker and a fellow prominent Republican, Arizona Sen. John McCain, joined the chorus.

Corker on Tuesday echoed comments of his committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Ben Cardin, who spoke of “alarming” reports that America’s diplomatic corps is being decimated by the reorganization. Corker said the concerns were “bipartisan in nature” and lamented that a briefing about the reorganization with State Department officials had been “very unsatisfactory” and incomplete.

 

A day later, McCain, the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, wrote a letter with Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen criticizing the department for management decisions “that threaten to undermine the long-term health and effectiveness of American diplomacy.”

 

The entire minority membership of the House Foreign Affairs Committee followed, writing to Tillerson to say they’re “profoundly concerned about what appears to be the intentional hollowing-out of our senior diplomatic ranks and the entire State Department with no apparent goal.”

 

The criticism followed a highly critical missive from the American Foreign Service Association, the union representing U.S. diplomats.

 

Its president, Barbara Stephenson, likened senior staff reductions to a “decapitation” that would be met with public outcry if it had occurred in the military.

 

“The rapid loss of so many senior officers has a serious, immediate and tangible effect on the capacity of the United States to shape world events,” she said.

The State Department feels the criticism is unfair. In its letter to Corker, the agency said there are only 20 fewer senior foreign service officers now than there were a year ago (1,048 compared with 1,068). This year’s retirements are five fewer than in 2016, it said. Buyouts to induce early retirement of more than 600 diplomats are consistent with a directive to reduce the federal workforce.

 

It said reorganization is a work in progress, appealing for patience as officials make the department “more efficient and effective within a sustainable budget.”

 

“A project such as this demands careful execution and we are committed to doing just that and notifying Congress as required,” the State Department said.

US Senate Candidate Moore’s Wife Says ‘He Will Not Step Down’

The wife of Republican U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama said on Friday her husband would not end his campaign in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations, dismissing reports about his past behavior toward some women as political attacks.

“He will not step down,” Kayla Moore said at a news conference on the steps of the state capitol in Montgomery. “He will not stop fighting for the people of Alabama.”

The former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice’s campaign has been in turmoil since the Washington Post published a story last week detailing the accounts of three women who claim Moore pursued them while they were teenagers and he was in his 30s.

More women have since spoken out with allegations of their own.

Reuters has been unable to independently confirm any of the accusations.

Before the allegations came to light, Moore was heavily favored to defeat Democrat Doug Jones in the special election next month.

Two polls this week showed Moore now trailing Jones. Fox News released a poll on Thursday putting Jones ahead with 50 percent to 42 percent for Moore.

But Moore’s embattled candidacy also got a boost on Thursday, when the Alabama Republican Party said it would continue to support him, putting it at odds with Republican leaders in Washington who want him to withdraw.

Republican Alabama Governor Kay Ivey on Friday told reporters she would vote for Moore, emphasizing the importance of keeping Republican control of the U.S. Senate.

Asked whether she believed the women accusing Moore of sexual improprieties or unwanted romantic overtures, Ivey said, “the timing is a little curious but at the same time I have no reason to disbelieve them.”

The White House has said President Donald Trump finds the allegations troubling and believes Moore should step aside if they are true.

White House legislative director Marc Short on Friday said Trump previously backed Moore’s opponent, Luther Strange, in the primary contest and that Moore’s explanations “so far have not been satisfactory.”

“At this point, we believe it is up to the people of Alabama to make a decision,” Short told CNN. “The president chose a different candidate.”

During the 2016 presidential campaign, several women went public with accusations that Trump had in the past made unwanted sexual advances or inappropriate personal remarks about them.

Trump denied the accusations, accused rival Democrats and the media of a smear campaign, and went on to be elected president.

Kayla Moore noted that the Washington Post endorsed Hillary Clinton over Trump in last year’s election, accusing it of being part of a concerted effort to push back against anti-establishment conservative candidates.

“All of the very same people who were attacking President Trump are also attacking us,” she said.

The Post’s editorial board, which endorsed Clinton, works separately from the reporters and editors who work on news stories, as is common at most newspapers.

 

US Senator in Trouble After Being Accused of Sexual Harassment in 2006

A U.S. senator from Minnesota is the latest in a string of well-known personalities from entertainment and politics to be accused of sexual harassment. Democrat Al Franken is under fire after a radio newscaster said he kissed and groped her without consent during a tour to entertain U.S. troops in the Middle East in 2006. Meanwhile, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate from Alabama is battling charges of sexual abuse of underage girls. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports.

US Towns, Cities Fear Taxpayer Revolt if Republicans Kill Deduction

From Pataskala, Ohio, to Conroe, Texas, local government leaders worry that if Republican tax-overhaul plans moving through the U.S. Congress become law, it will be harder for them to pave streets, put out fires, fight crime and pay teachers.

A tax plan approved by the House of Representatives on Thursday would sharply curtail a federal deduction that millions of Americans can now claim for tax payments to state, county, city and town governments.

Ending that deduction, the local leaders say, could make their taxpayers, especially in high-tax communities, less likely to support future local tax increases or even tolerate local taxes at present levels.

The proposed repeal of the state and local tax (SALT) deduction is part of an “assault on local governments” by Republicans in Washington, said Elizabeth Kautz, the Republican mayor of Burnsville, Minnesota, near Minneapolis.

“My hope is that we look at being thoughtful about what we’re doing and not ram something through just to get something done before the year is out,” Kautz said of the plan being rushed through Congress by her own party.

In the United States, local governments run schools, operate police and fire departments, and maintain streets, parks and libraries, among other essential services. The federal government’s role at that level is limited.

Cities, towns, counties and states collect their own property, sales and income taxes. Under existing law, payments of those taxes can be deducted, or subtracted from federal taxable income, lowering the amount of federal tax due.

The House tax bill just approved would eliminate the deduction for individuals and families of state and local income and sales tax, while capping property tax deductions at $10,000.

A bill being debated in the Senate, with Republican President Donald Trump’s support, would kill the SALT deduction entirely for individuals and families, although businesses would keep it. The fate of that bill is uncertain.

Ending the SALT tax break is part of a package of changes to deductions that would help Republicans raise more than $1.2 trillion in new federal tax revenues over 10 years.

That increase would help offset the $1.4 trillion in revenue that would be lost from cutting the corporate tax rate, another part of both the Senate and House plans.

Police concerns

Chuck Canterbury, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents 325,000 law enforcement officers nationwide, wrote a letter to congressional leaders Tuesday.

“The FOP is very concerned that the partial or total elimination of SALT deductions will endanger the ability of our state and local government to fund these [law enforcement] agencies,” said the letter, distributed to reporters.

Emily Brock, a director at the Government Finance Officers Association, said if SALT deductions were killed by Congress, voters could revolt. “Can you blame an individual taxpayer?” she asked. “They try to minimize their individual tax liability.”

Those who want to curb the century-old SALT deduction argue it only motivates local governments to seek more tax increases and spend more money. “Maintaining the deduction encourages government overspending and taxation,” argues the American Legislative Exchange Council, a nonprofit group of conservative state legislators and private activists.

Various other groups are fighting on Capitol Hill to defend the SALT deduction, such as the National Association of Realtors and the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Brady’s district

Steve Williams, chief financial officer for Conroe, Texas, said its rapid growth demanded new fire stations, schools, roads and public safety services.

Conroe is near Houston and in the congressional district of Republican Representative Kevin Brady, chairman of the House tax committee and a champion of restricting the SALT deduction.

“Tax reform comes with picking winners and losers and I think in the final analysis, the people in [congressional] District 8 will be losers,” Williams said.

Conroe is part of Montgomery County, which voted 75 percent to 22.5 percent for Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.

In Pataskala, Ohio, near the state capital, Columbus, city finance director Jamie Nicholson said the local police department needed a new station. It now works out of an early 1900s building with no holding cell for suspects who are under arrest. “They get handcuffed to a chair,” he said.

Given the past difficulty Pataskala has had convincing taxpayers to approve new taxes, he said, eliminating or paring back the SALT deduction might trigger demands for chopping local taxes and blow a huge hole in his budget.

Greg Cox, a Republican member of the San Diego County, California, Board of Supervisors, echoed similar concerns about the impact on his community.

He said the Republican plan was unfair partly because it let businesses keep the SALT deduction, while taking it away from individuals and families.

McCain Warns Trump Over Staffing Pentagon With Industry Insiders

Senator John McCain warned President Donald Trump on Thursday against nominating any more defense industry insiders to top Pentagon posts, as his committee questioned an executive from Lockheed Martin about potential conflicts of interest.

Concern over the close relationship between the Pentagon and arms manufacturers has existed for decades but appears to have intensified under Trump. He has drawn scrutiny for filling posts throughout his government with high-ranking executives. The latest example was his naming this week of former pharmaceutical executive and lobbyist Alex Azar to become Health and Human Services secretary.

McCain, chairman of the Senate’s armed services committee, said he was troubled by the number of Defense Department nominees drawn from the defense industry. He said he would oppose any more such nominations after John Rood, Trump’s pick for the Pentagon’s No. 3 job, who appeared before the committee on Thursday.

“From this point forward, I will not support any further nominees with that background,” McCain said in a statement.

Rood ran into trouble during the hearing over his nomination to become undersecretary of defense for policy. As a Lockheed senior vice president, Rood’s job is to expand the company’s international business.

Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren pressed him to say if he would recuse himself from discussions with U.S. allies that could benefit Lockheed, the largest U.S. defense contractor with business in 70 countries.

Rood said he did not intend to participate in talks about the sale of Lockheed products but did not give the “yes or no” reply sought by Warren, triggering a charged exchange with the committee.

McCain joined Warren in demanding a direct answer and warned Rood that otherwise, he was “going to have trouble getting through this committee.”

’Ducking the answer’

McCain told Rood to submit his response in writing “because obviously you are ducking the answer here.”

The uproar came a day after the Senate confirmed Trump’s choice for Army secretary, Mark Esper, who was a top executive at Raytheon, another U.S. defense industry giant. He committed to recusing himself from matters tied to Raytheon.

Trump’s Pentagon also has officials who previously worked at Boeing and Textron Systems.

U.S. arms manufacturers like Raytheon, whose shares have risen more than 30 percent since December, are expected to benefit in the coming year from an increase in defense spending.

The Pentagon says it has 38 unfilled positions for civilian defense leadership roles that require Senate confirmation, and at least 23 nominees whose names have already been submitted to the Senate.

It was unclear from McCain’s remarks whether he would oppose any of the already-announced nominees, although he seemed to be warning about future Pentagon picks.

Trump Tack on China Likely to Shift from Sweet to Sour After Asia Trip

Fresh off his first visit to Asia, included a two-day stop in China that some argue was heavy on flattery and lacking in substance, analysts say President Donald Trump is now poised to do what he’s long promised: get tough on Beijing over its unfair trade practices.

While in China, Trump said he gives Beijing “great credit” for taking advantage of the United States, which left some perplexed.

Speaking at signing ceremony for deals that totaled some $250 billion he said: “I don’t blame China … who can blame a country for being able to take advantage of another country for the sake of its citizens?”

But that was only the first half of a key message of his trip.

The rest came in his speech at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation and was echoed again at the White House on Wednesday.

“We can no longer tolerate unfair trading practices that steal American jobs, wealth and intellectual property. The days of the United States being taken advantage of are over,” Trump said.

 

WATCH: Leaders of US and China Offer Asia Business Leaders Divergent Paths

​Sweet and sour

Douglas Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said he sees a domestic political strategy in the broader message that Trump conveyed during his trip.

By saying that China is not to blame and that it is doing what any country should do to protect its interests, Trump has given himself license to do for America what other leaders have not done.

Paal notes that early next month two key trade investigation reports are due and, unless something knocks them off course, they are going to lead to high tariffs on some products and maybe even outright bans.

And the Chinese will retaliate as they feel appropriate, he said.

“So we will go from the good feeling, high emotions of this state visit, which we’d call the sweet, to sour in December on trade. And that would be more suitable to the way Trump thinks about his political constituency and the debt he owes that constituency for his election,” Paal said.

Paal added the outcome of such an approach and impact on America is widely uncertain, but what is clear is that Trump will stick to his domestic political calculation until it proves to be wrong.

​Trade investigations

In addition to a section 301 investigation into China’s use of policies to force foreign companies to hand over intellectual property in exchange for market access, the Trump administration has also launched a section 232 investigation to determine whether cheap Chinese aluminum and steel imports threaten national security.

Both would allow the administration to levy tariffs on Chinese goods. Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974 was a popular trade tool that was used in the 1980s against Japan, and it allows the president to impose tariffs or other restrictions to counter unfair trade practices.

China has called the launch of the investigation “irresponsible” because it is based on a domestic U.S. law that could be applied outside of the framework of the World Trade Organization.

Some have warned that the use of such measures could trigger a trade war between the two countries. Others, however, argue that the trade war began a long time ago and that the difference is that previous administrations did not do enough about it.

“I think there are very few people who would say that the previous administrations, whether it was the Obama administration or the Bush administration, were overly aggressive in enforcing trade law. Many people would say that they were insufficiently aggressive in enforcing U.S. law when it comes to unfair trade practices of U.S. trading partners,” said Ross Feingold, senior adviser with the American political risk manager DC International Advisory.

Economic bullets

In addition to the investigations, there is a bipartisan push by lawmakers in both the Senate and House of Representatives to bolster the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS.

If the draft legislation is approved, it would not only broaden the scope of the interagency body’s review of foreign investments in the United States, but expand it to include joint venture investments overseas as well.

CFIUS evaluates investments in the United States for potential threats to national security. Some lawmakers have proposed expanding the review domestically and to include investments overseas as well. A proposal that is likely to not sit well with big American multinational corporations.

Ethan Cramer-Flood, associate director of The Conference Board’s China Center and Asia Programs, said that over the past year there has been an enormous amount of tactical preparation and economic bullets for eventual economic confrontation.

And while that is no guarantee that will happen, the trade investigations and proposed CFIUS legislation are all part of that effort.

“The Trump trade team and their allies in Congress are loading up the chamber,” Cramer-Flood said. “That doesn’t mean they are going to fire the bullets, but they are creating a sort of legal arsenal, so that rather than just rhetoric and yelling, there are things the U.S. side can do to cause real pain on the Chinese side.”

What the Trump administration is aiming to do, Cramer-Flood said, is accumulate leverage and create a legitimate concern from the Chinese perspective, in hopes of bringing about change.

Without that kind of pressure, China is unlikely to have any interest in changing the status quo, which has been working very well for it for the past 30 years, he added.

Joyce Huang contributed to this report.

Trump Renews Focus on Tax Reform Amid New Political Landscape

President Donald Trump has shifted his focus back to domestic issues after returning from a 12-day trip to Asia. Trump is urging congressional Republicans to pass a tax reform measure to follow through on one of his key campaign promises. But the president and his Republican allies in Congress face a new political landscape in the wake of last week’s election victories by Democrats in Virginia and New Jersey. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.

Trump Claims ‘Tremendous Success’ of Recent Trip to Asia

In his speech Wednesday, a day after returning from a 12-day Asia trip, U.S. President Donald Trump boasted of “tremendous success” in pushing America’s interests forward. During stops in Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines, Trump pursued his “America First” philosophy, calling for more favorable trade deals for the U.S. He also urged North Korea not to test the U.S. resolve to defend itself and its allies. VOA’S Zlatica Hoke reports.

Trump in Political Maelstrom Over Moore Senate Candidacy

U.S. President Donald Trump is facing a political maelstrom over Alabama Republican Senate nominee Roy Moore, whether to join prominent Republicans in trying to force him to end his candidacy in the wake of sexual misconduct accusations from four decades ago.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan and two former Republican presidential candidates, Mitt Romney and Senator John McCain, have all said that the 70-year-old Moore should drop out of the December 12 election in the southern state, but Trump, back in Washington after a five-nation Asian trip, has yet to weigh in.

Two women have accused Moore of unwanted sexual advances when they were teenagers and Moore was in his early 30s. Three other women said that at about the same time in the late 1970s, Moore pursued them for dates when he was a local prosecutor and they were in high school.

Moore has been defiant in refusing to quit the race against Democrat Doug Jones, a former federal prosecutor, to fill the remaining three years of a Senate seat once held by Jeff Sessions, who resigned to join Trump’s Cabinet as attorney general, the country’s top law enforcement position.

Moore has vehemently denied the sexual misconduct allegations, while not denying that he dated much younger women.

He has blamed the media for harassing his campaign and said he would sue The Washington Post, the newspaper that a week ago published the first wave of accusations from four women in on-the-record interviews. On Monday, a fifth accuser, Beverly Young Nelson, alleged that Moore assaulted her one night in the late 1970s after she finished work at a barbecue restaurant that Moore frequented in Gadsden, Alabama. Moore claimed to not know the woman, but in 1977 had wished her Merry Christmas in her high school yearbook.

“To a sweeter more beautiful girl I could not say ‘Merry Christmas’…Love, Roy Moore D.A.,” the inscription said, referring to his job as a district attorney.

Moore has attempted to rally his political supporters and focus his campaign on Christian virtues, saying Tuesday night, “If we don’t come back to God, we’re not going anywhere.” Political surveys show Moore and Jones in a close contest in the politically conservative state that voted overwhelmingly for Trump in last year’s presidential election.

Trump, while traveling overseas, deflected questions about Moore. “I have to get back into the country to see what’s happening,” he said.

Trump faces a political dilemma in dealing with Moore. The candidate could ignore any entreaty from the president to quit the race since Trump supported Moore’s opponent in a September Republican party primary election, appointed Senator Luther Strange. But after Moore won the primary, Trump voiced his support.

In addition, if Trump says, as other Republicans have, that he believes the women’s accusations against Moore, Trump critics are likely to question why the five women’s accounts are to be believed, but not those of 11 women who during the 2016 presidential election accused Trump of unwanted touching or kissing. Trump said they were liars and promised to sue them, but has not.

Now, Moore’s name would remain on the ballot even if he were to drop out, since the deadline to withdraw from the race has long passed.

McConnell and other Republican officials have floated the idea of mounting a write-in candidacy to try to defeat Moore. Some have suggested that Strange attempt to keep the Senate seat in Republican hands with a write-in bid, while others have suggested that Sessions resign as attorney general and attempt to reclaim the Senate seat he held for 20 years.

Other Republicans are saying that if Moore wins the election and is seated in the 100-member Senate, they would immediately try to expel him as morally unfit to be a U.S. senator.

Analysis: Sessions Seeks Balance in Pondering Clinton Probe

In asking senior federal prosecutors to examine a number of Republican grievances, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is trying to strike a balance.

He appears to be attempting to placate a boss who has repeatedly suggested that Sessions’ own job might be in jeopardy for failing to investigate his Democratic rivals. At the same time, Sessions is taking a step toward defending the Justice Department’s credibility by leaving the actual work to senior officials whose findings, while unlikely to please everyone, would have more credibility.

In a letter this week, the department directed senior federal prosecutors to “evaluate certain issues” raised by Republican lawmakers. Among them: whether a special counsel should be appointed to look into allegations that the Clinton Foundation benefited from an Obama-era uranium transaction involving a Russian state company, a deal President Donald Trump himself has continually urged the Justice Department to investigate.

Unlike other members of the president’s Cabinet, the attorney general is construed as mostly an independent operator, under longstanding policy, practice and executive protocol. The Justice Department is not supposed to be influenced by the White House in deciding which cases to prosecute and which to discard after a review. The department’s top staff is a mix of career officials and political appointees who juggle investigations behind closed doors while working more publicly to advance the administration’s law enforcement agenda.

Sessions may be trying to dig himself out of a bind with a move that allows him to say he handled the allegations properly by referring them to prosecutors, who could then credibly close the case without debasing the Justice Department. Neither the letter, signed by Stephen E. Boyd, an assistant attorney general, nor Sessions named the senior prosecutors who will be involved in the review sought by Republicans. But they will most likely be career officials accustomed to operating free from political sway.

While the term “senior prosecutor” could also refer to a politically appointed U.S. attorney, Sessions would face immediate backlash for putting the probe in the hands of a Trump-appointee.

Critics on both sides

But while this may offer Sessions a greater measure of job security for now, a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday showed he has so far satisfied very few of his critics.

Despite attempts to reassure Democrats to the contrary, the mere issuance of the letter immediately raised alarms that Justice was attempting to do the bidding of the president, who has publicly lamented that he has so little direct influence over the agency’s affairs.

And Republicans, who have long called for an investigation of Hillary Clinton, questioned why a probe hasn’t been under way by now.

“If you are now just considering it, what’s it going to take?” Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio asked Sessions during the five-hour oversight hearing where the issue consumed a great deal of the focus. Jordan said it looked like there was already enough evidence to appoint a special counsel.

“It would take a factual basis,” Sessions said, adding that “`looks like’ is not enough basis to appoint a special counsel.”

The committee’s top-ranking Democrat, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, questioned whether Sessions was being improperly influenced by Trump. Sessions said several times that any such review involving Hillary Clinton would be done without regard to political considerations.

“I have not been improperly influenced and would not be improperly influenced,” Sessions declared. “The president speaks his mind. He’s bold and direct about what he says, but people elected him. But we do our duty every day based on the law and the facts.”

Presidents for decades have taken care to avoid being seen as meddling in Justice Department affairs, though they on occasion have expressed personal opinions about specific investigations. President Barack Obama, for instance, once said that there was “not even a smidgen of corruption” at the Internal Revenue Service — even as the FBI was still investigating. And he also contended that Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server hadn’t harmed national security.

Trump, however, has shown little concern for the traditional boundary between the White House and the Justice Department, tweeting just last week: “People are angry. At some point the Justice Department, and the FBI, must do what is right and proper. The American public deserves it!”

Trump Asks if Released US Basketball Players Will Thank Him

President Donald Trump is asking whether three American college basketball players will thank him for helping secure their release from custody in China after being accused of shoplifting.

In a tweet Wednesday, Trump said the players “were headed for 10 years in jail!”

Trump asked his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping to personally intervene in the case when the two leaders met during his visit to Beijing last week.

The players, LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill, were questioned for allegedly stealing sunglasses from a Louis Vuitton store in Hangzhou. They were released on bail last week, but had been told to remain in Hangzhou until the legal process was completed.

The players returned home Tuesday.

 

 

US Commerce Chief: ‘Some Sort’ of NAFTA Deal Will Reach Trump

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said on Tuesday that he believes NAFTA negotiations will produce “some sort” of a deal for President Donald Trump to evaluate but repeated his warnings that the United States will walk away from the trade pact if key problems are unresolved.

Ross, speaking before the start of a fifth round of talks this week to modernize the North American Free Trade Agreement, said Mexico and Canada would suffer far more than the United States if the pact is dissolved.

“I would certainly prefer them to come to their senses and make a sensible deal,” Ross told a Wall Street Journal CEO forum.

“In any negotiation if you have one party that is not in fact prepared to walk away over whatever are the threshold issues, that party is going to lose,” Ross added.

Trump has relentlessly criticized NAFTA for draining U.S. manufacturing jobs to Mexico, calling it “the worst trade deal ever made” and threatening to scrap it unless it can be improved to reduce U.S. trade deficits with Mexico and Canada.

Ross said Trump’s “general point of view is that no deal is better than a terrible deal,” but added that he does not know how Trump will evaluate a deal resulting from negotiations.

“Some sort of a draft will land on his desk. So it will be a binary decision in that sense,” Ross said.

At negotiations resuming in Mexico City on Thursday, Mexico and Canada are expected to respond to tough demands from the United States such as a five-year sunset clause that would effectively trigger frequent renegotiations as well as a controversial U.S.-specific content rule for automotive products and far higher regional automotive content.

Ross gave no indication that U.S. negotiators would soften their stance on these topics, which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce counts among “poison pill” demands that could sink the talks.

Asked whether the content demands that 85 percent of a car’s value be produced within the region and 50 percent in the United States would simply drive auto and parts production to Asia, as industry executives have warned Ross said: “We don’t think so.

We believe there will be a different thing because of all the other changes that we’re making.”

He said Republican tax reform efforts including lower rates and immediate expensing of capital expenditure costs and regulatory changes would lower the cost of doing business and keep the United States attractive for automotive investment.

Trump has wanted a five-year sunset clause for trade agreements since he began campaigning for president Ross said, to ensure that they deliver promised benefits.

“The reason we want it is that the tragic truth is that forecasts that were made when trade agreements were entered into, never have been achieved, at least in the case of the U.S.”

Behind the Doors of Immigrant Detention

The first room in the former warehouse, now a detention center, is a waiting area where visitors check in and wait to see whether they will be allowed to visit a detainee.

Security screening is similar to that at an airport checkpoint. Visitors must show identification and leave belongings in a locker. No phones. No pictures. No recording of any kind.

“This one is actually nice. She is helpful,” a local volunteer who regularly visits detainees tells me about the security official standing behind the window. Above the window: “United We Stand.”

On a dead end road in Elizabeth, New Jersey, the Elizabeth Detention Center is an immigration jail that holds about 285 people. Privately owned, it is run by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the fifth-largest corrections company in the United States.

The center is in an industrial area surrounded by parking lots, a railroad, a freight station and the New Jersey Turnpike — a geographic location that works as an invisible wall.

Current U.S. policy is to detain those who ask for asylum once they reach a U.S. port of entry regardless of whether they have a valid visa. The Elizabeth Detention Center is a 15-minute drive from Newark Liberty International Airport, one of the busiest entry points to the U.S. for international arrivals.

A name and a number

It is late afternoon at the end of October; about 30 people are waiting to see friends or loved ones inside the Elizabeth facility. All the blue plastic chairs are taken, and there is a check-in line. Some wait outside. Church groups, mothers and children, and other people visiting loved ones wait their turn. Also, volunteers from local nonprofit groups visit detainees every week.

I have been given the name and alien number of a detainee by First Friends, an immigrant advocacy group. It’s all the information I need to be admitted as a volunteer visitor. The goal of the visitation program, according to First Friends organizers, is to give immigrants a moment of support and friendship.

I am asked to show identification. My Maryland driver’s license is met with a skeptical look by the officer. She double-checks front and back, but I get the green light to enter. Like all visitors, I must go through a metal detector, take my shoes and jacket off, and leave my pen and notebook behind. I then step inside a large metal jail door that closes with a clank before another slides open on the other side.

“I never get used to this sound,” another visitor tells me.

Once the gates of an immigration detention center close on asylum seekers, they may not open again for months. As of September, immigration officials say, there were more than 38,000 immigrants detained nationwide in 203 facilities. Detainees leave a detention center once their cases have been gone through the immigration process, which could mean authorization for them to live in the United States or deportation.

The visitation area is filled with round tables and chairs. Detainees must sit facing officers who are posted on the right side of the room. In the back, on a single row of chairs, immigrants wait for their visitors.

Under a Statue of Liberty mural, I sit at a round table and face Faras Khan from Pakistan, who is in the midst of deportation proceedings. His girlfriend is also visiting. As a corrections officer watches from the side of the room, Khan talks about his case, how he feels he is an American because he has not lived in Pakistan since he was a 1-year-old.

Visa overstayed

Khan’s father sought asylum after overstaying a nonimmigrant visa, claiming he had been persecuted in Pakistan. At the time, Khan, still a child, was listed as a derivative beneficiary. His father’s asylum was denied, and he was deported to Pakistan.

But Khan, now in his late 20s and diagnosed as bipolar, is fighting to stay. He was taken into custody after a meeting with immigration officials and has been detained for more than six months.

A 2016 Human Rights First report shows that clients held at New Jersey facilities, who were represented by Human Rights First pro bono attorneys, were detained for an average of eight months.

After detention

Edafe Okporo was held at Elizabeth for five months. He was taken there after his flight landed at Newark, and he requested asylum.

“I was told by immigration that they don’t have housing for immigrants, arriving alien, so I was told I was going to be taken to a jail,” Okporo said.

Okporo is from Nigeria, where he was working as an LGBTQ rights and public health activist in a country that does not recognize gay rights and criminalizes gay activity. In October 2016, he won an award from a New York human rights organization that published a photo of him and exposed his work.

“The community was calling for my execution, so I had to flee. I had a U.S. visa, and that was the only travel document I had to travel with,” Okporo said.

Okporo said his time in detention put him in a deep depression.

The rooms in Elizabeth, he said, are not private. Though there is a “privacy wall” inside showers and toilets, a person can still see what others are doing.

“I got alone. Lonely. … I’ve never been in that kind of isolation before. You are instructed on what to do and what not to do. And they are giving you food to eat, whether you like it or not, you just do it,” he said.

Anxiously waiting

Not knowing the outcome of his case also added to his anxiety.

“If I lose, I would be returning to my country. If I win, I would be released. Where I would be released? I was depressed because my family … I do not have communications because my family do not accept me because of my sexual orientation,” he said.

Okporo said that besides the volunteer visitation program, he found a way out in books and meditation.

“I love reading. I increased my passion for reading by always going to the library and picking up books to read,” he said. “Even [though] my body was incarcerated, my body was free because I was able to go through a day-to-day activity of how to meditate and get a grip of my mind.”

Okporo was granted asylum.

The American Friends Service Committee, which represents immigrants held in New Jersey detention facilities pro bono, reports that between February 2015 and September 2016 it represented 80 asylum seekers. Of those, 40 received asylum. All remained in detention while their claims were adjudicated.

Okporo will be eligible to apply for legal permanent resident status in one year. But he has already begun his new life in America. With First Friends’ help, he has gotten three jobs.

“I produced a cookbook,” he said proudly, “which featured 40 refugees from different countries around the world.”

Trump Approval Ratings at Around 30 Percent, President Says They’re Wrong

An array of surveys of voter approval ratings for U.S. President Donald Trump continue to be mired in the 30 percent range, but he contended Tuesday that an outlier poll with a higher mark proves the others are wrong.

The latest survey by Quinnipiac University showed American voters disapprove of Trump’s nearly 10-month White House tenure by a 58-to-35 percent margin, with 40 percent saying he is fit to serve as president and 57 percent he is not.

Other recent surveys showed similar results, with Gallup on Tuesday giving Trump a 57-38 disapproval rating. Last week, Reuters/Ipsos pegged his negative standing at 60-35, while The Washington Post-ABC News survey in early October showed a negative reading of 59-37, which it said was the lowest in seven decades at this point in the four-year terms of U.S. presidents.

However, Trump, in a Twitter comment, cited Monday’s result from the Republican-leaning Rasmussen Reports, which showed him at a 53-46 negative standing and attacked mainstream national news outlets for citing the polls with his approval ratings in the 30-percent range.

“One of the most accurate polls last time around,” Trump said of Rasmussen. “But #FakeNews likes to say we’re in the 30’s. They are wrong. Some people think numbers could be in the 50’s. Together, WE will MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”

By Tuesday, the Rasmussen polling edged down for Trump, with a 54-44 negative reading.

Quinnipiac pollster Tim Malloy said, “President Donald Trump returns from his big Asia trip to find numbers frozen in the negative. Ominously, there is creeping slippage in (Trump’s political) base.”

Quinnipiac said that American voters by a 58-to-37-percent margin think that Trump is not honest, by 59-38 that he does not have good leadership skills, by 59-39 that he does not care about average Americans, by 65-30 that he is not level-headed and by 62-34 that he does not share their values.

On the plus side, Quinnipiac said by a 58-39 margin, voters think Trump is a strong person and by 55-41 that he is intelligent.

Silicon Valley Blasts US Senate Proposal to Tax Startup Options

A proposal by the U.S. Senate to change the way shares in startup companies are taxed incited panic and dread in Silicon Valley on Monday, with startup founders and investors warning of nothing less than the demise of their industry should the proposal become law.

The provision in the Senate’s tax reform plan, which appeared to catch the industry by surprise, involves the treatment of employee stock options. These options give the holder the right to purchase shares in the future at a set price and can be very valuable if a company does well and the share price increases.

Options are often a major portion of the compensation for startup employees and founders, who take lower salaries in anticipation of a big payout if their startup takes off. Options typically vest over a four-year period.

Senate Republicans have now proposed taxing those stock options as they vest and before startup employees have the opportunity to cash them in, resulting in annual tax bills that could easily climb into the tens of thousands of dollars, say startup founders and venture capitalists.

“If there were a single piece of legislation to adversely affect startups, it would be this,” said Venky Ganesan, managing director at venture capital firm Menlo Ventures. “Everyone is freaked out.”

Justin Field, vice president of government affairs at the National Venture Capital Association, said that the Senate’s proposed tax change would be “crippling” to the startup industry.

How far the provision gets remains to be seen. The National Venture Capital Association was successful in getting a similar proposal removed from the House tax bill, although it “didn’t fully appreciate” the Senate’s intention to add the tax provision, Field said.

The association also helped to steer lawmakers away from a proposal discussed late last year to tax venture capitalists’ profits on investments at a higher rate.

Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, a member of the Senate Committee on Finance, has filed an amendment to repeal the provision in the tax bill, according to his spokesman.

A new proposal

Under current tax code, employees are taxed only when they exercise their options. Options are exercised when the price they were granted at–known as the strike price–is lower than the share price, and some shares can then be sold to pay the taxes.

But the Senate proposal would require startup employees to pay regular income tax on the value gain of their stock options even before they are exercised. These options are illiquid assets, and cannot be spent or saved.

“What this would mean is every month, when your equity compensation vests a little bit, you will owe taxes on it even though you can’t do anything with that equity compensation,” Fred Wilson, a venture capitalist with Union Square Ventures, wrote on his blog Monday.

For instance, if a startup employee receives stock options at a dollar per share, and the shares increase in value by $1 every year during the four-year vesting period, the employee would have to pay income tax on $1 per share after the first year, pay again on the $1 increase in value after the second year, and so on.

When that employee owns hundreds of thousands and even millions of shares, that is a hefty bill to pay. And there is always the risk the startup will eventually fail.

“This reform will force the average employee to pay taxes on that bet well before they even know if it’s a winning ticket,” said Amanda Kahlow, founder and executive chairman of marketing data startup 6sense.

For startup founders in particular, such a tax bill could be ruinous.

“It would mean that I would have to sell the company,” said Shoaib Makani, founder and chief executive of long-haul trucking startup KeepTruckin. “I have zero net worth aside from the common stock I hold in the company. It would be impossible. I would be in default.”

Some executives in the startup industry, however, have pushed for companies to move toward bigger salaries so employees are not so dependent on options to buy a house or pay for other large expenses. And when startups suffer valuation cuts, employees can end up with worthless options.

The Senate’s proposal came as a revenue-generating measure to help offset tax breaks in the bill. A spokesman for Senator Orrin Hatch, a Republican and chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance, did not respond to requests for comment and other Republicans on the committee were not immediately available.

A spokeswoman for Senator Ron Wyden, the committee’s ranking member and a Democrat, said he was aware of concerns that the provision would limit startups’ ability to attract talent.

New Russia Probe Details Likely to Dominate Sessions Hearing

Attorney General Jeff Sessions returns to Capitol Hill this week amid growing evidence of contacts between Russians and associates of President Donald Trump, bracing for an onslaught of lawmaker questions about how much he knew of that outreach during last year’s White House campaign.

The appearance before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday follows a guilty plea from one Trump campaign aide who served on a foreign policy council that Sessions chaired, as well as statements from another adviser who said he’d advised the then-GOP Alabama senator about an upcoming trip to Russia.

Those details complicate Sessions’ effort to downplay knowledge of the campaign’s foreign contacts, and Democratic lawmakers who already contended the attorney general had not been forthcoming with them have signaled that questions about the new revelations are likely to dominate what could otherwise have been a routine oversight hearing.

“These facts appear to contradict your sworn testimony on several occasions,” Democrats from the committee said in a letter to Sessions last week.

Republicans, for their part, are likely to press Sessions on their demands for investigations into the Clinton Foundation and an Obama-era purchase of American uranium mines by a Russian-backed company.

In a letter to the House Judiciary Committee, the Justice Department said Sessions had directed “senior federal prosecutors” to “evaluate certain issues” raised in letters sent by Republican lawmakers, and to determine whether investigations – or the possible appointment of a special counsel – were warranted. 

Sessions, an early Trump backer who led a foreign policy advisory council during the campaign, has been shadowed for months by questions about his own communications with Russians and by contacts of others in the Trump orbit. That issue has been at the forefront of each of his congressional hearings even as Sessions has labored to promote the Justice Department’s work and priorities, and Tuesday’s appearance is unlikely to be an exception.

Earlier in the year

At his January confirmation hearing, Sessions told Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., that “I did not have communications” with the Russians during the campaign and said he was “unaware” of contacts between others in the campaign and Russia. Yet he recused himself in March from overseeing the Justice Department’s investigation into potential coordination between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin after acknowledging two previously undisclosed encounters with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

He struck a similar note before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, when he denied knowledge of communications between Russians and Trump campaign officials.

“I did not and I’m not aware of anyone else that did, and I don’t believe it happened,” Sessions said under questioning, again from Franken.

But that narrative has been challenged by a pair of recent events, most notably a guilty plea from George Papadopoulos, who last month admitted in court to lying to the FBI about his own foreign contacts. He was part of a foreign policy council that Sessions chaired, and the two are among the men in a March 2016 photograph that Trump posted on social media. Charging documents in that case indicate that Papadopoulos told the council “that he had connections that could help arrange a meeting between then-candidate Trump” and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

One of the attendees at that meeting, J.D. Gordon, recalled that Sessions quickly “shut him down and said, ‘We’re not going to do that.”’

Gordon has also said that Papadopoulos went around him and Sessions and that they did not know he had continued to try to arrange such a meeting.

Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee advised Sessions in a letter last week that they intended to press him on what they said were “inconsistencies” between the attorney general’s past statements and the new revelations.

“If, as recent reports suggest, you rejected Mr. Papadopoulos’s suggestion that President Trump meet with Vladimir Putin at that March 31 meeting – a fact you appear to have remembered only after Mr. Papadopoulos’s account was made public – it seems likely that you were ‘aware’ of communications between the Russian government and surrogates of the Trump campaign,” the letter states.

Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores declined to comment Monday.

Adding to the questions for Sessions was the release by the House Intelligence Committee last week of a transcript of a private interview with Carter Page, a former foreign policy adviser to the campaign who acknowledged that he had contact with a high-level Russian official while on a trip to Russia last year.

Page told the panel he had informed some members of the Trump campaign about the trip, including Sessions. He said he mentioned in passing to Sessions that he was preparing to visit Russia and Sessions “had no reaction whatsoever.”

North Korea Says US Carrier Groups Raise Nuclear War Threat

North Korea warned Monday that the unprecedented deployment of three U.S. aircraft carrier groups “taking up a strike posture” around the Korean peninsula is making it impossible to predict when nuclear war will break out.

North Korea’s U.N. ambassador, Ja Song Nam, said in a letter to Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres that the joint military exercises with South Korea are creating “the worst ever situation prevailing in and around the Korean peninsula.”

Along with the three carrier groups, he said, the U.S. has reactivated round-the-clock sorties with nuclear-capable B-52 strategic bombers “which existed during the Cold War times.”

He also said the U.S. is maintaining “a surprise strike posture with frequent flights of B-1B and B-2 formations to the airspace of South Korea.”

“The large-scale nuclear war exercises and blackmails, which the U.S. staged for a whole year without a break in collaboration with its followers to stifle our republic, make one conclude that the option we have taken was the right one and we should go along the way to the last,” Ja said.

He didn’t elaborate on what “the last” might be, but North Korea has launched ballistic missiles that have the potential to strike the U.S. mainland, and it recently conducted its largest-ever underground nuclear explosion. It has also threatened to explode another nuclear bomb above the Pacific Ocean.

The four-day joint naval exercises by the U.S. and South Korea, which began Saturday in waters off the South’s eastern coast, were described by military officials as a clear warning to North Korea. They involve the carrier battle groups of the USS Ronald Reagan, Theodore Roosevelt and Nimitz, which include 11 U.S. Aegis ships that can track missiles, and seven South Korean naval vessels.

Seoul’s military said in a statement that the exercises aim to enhance the combined U.S. and South Korean operational and aerial strike capabilities and to display “strong will and firm military readiness to defeat any provocation by North Korea with dominant force in the event of crisis.”

According to the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet, it is the first time since a 2007 exercise near Guam that three U.S. carrier strike groups have operated together in the western Pacific.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis insisted on Monday that the carrier maneuvers are not extraordinary.

“There’s no big message” intended for North Korea or anyone else, he told reporters in an impromptu exchange in a Pentagon hallway. “This is what we normally do with allies.”

Reminded that it had been 10 years since the last three-carrier exercise, Mattis noted that the Navy has a limited number of carriers and can’t often put three in the same place.

“It’s just a normal operation,” he said.

The military drills come amid U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit to Asia, which has been dominated by discussions over the North Korean nuclear threat.

Ja accused the U.N. Security Council in Monday’s letter of repeatedly “turning a blind eye to the nuclear war exercises of the United States, who is hell bent on bringing a catastrophic disaster to humanity.” He said the exercises raise serious concern about “the double standard” of the U.N.’s most powerful body.

He also referenced Trump’s September speech to the U.N. General Assembly in which the president said that if the U.S. is “forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”

Trump tweeted soon after making the speech that Korea’s leadership “won’t be around much longer” if it continued its provocations, a declaration that led the North’s foreign minister to assert that Trump had “declared war on our country.”

Ja said Monday the U.S. “is now running amok for war exercises by introducing nuclear war equipment in and around the Korean peninsula, thereby proving that the U.S. itself is the major offender of the escalation of tension and undermining of the peace.”’

Ja asked Guterres to circulate the letter to the Security Council and the General Assembly, and also asked him to use his power under Article 99 of the U.N. Charter to bring to the Security Council’s attention “the danger being posed by the U.S. nuclear war exercises which are clearly threats to international peace and security.”

Biden Says he Wouldn’t Have Stepped in for Hillary Clinton

Former Vice President Joe Biden says he wouldn’t have agreed to replace Hillary Clinton as the Democratic presidential nominee under any circumstances.

Biden tells NBC’s “Today” show he had decided not to run last year, and says, “I would have never done that.”

He was asked about former Democratic National Committee chair Donna Brazile’s book, which says she considered replacing Clinton with Biden because of health concerns. Biden says, “I wouldn’t have taken” Clinton’s place as the party’s standard-bearer.

 

Biden says he was for Clinton, but that he worried about her prospects. He says not long before the election, “It hit me like a ton of bricks, there was no discussion of Issues” in her campaign.

 

Biden also said once again that he hasn’t decided about running in 2020.

 

 

 

Biden on 2020: ‘Not Sure It’s the Appropriate Thing’ to Do

Former Vice President Joe Biden said he is uncertain about a run for president in 2020, but indicated he’s looking for fresh blood to lead the Democratic Party back to the White House.

“I’ve done it a long time,” said Biden, who previously ran for president in 1988 and 2008, “and I’m just not sure it’s the appropriate thing for me to do.”

His comments came in an interview with Snapchat’s “Good Luck America” set to be released Tuesday morning, in one of Biden’s first on-camera interviews since leaving office in January. The Associated Press was provided with an exclusive preview of the interview.

Biden suggested that if “no one steps up,” he’d be open to giving it another try. 

“I’m not doing anything to run,” he said. “I’m not taking names, I’m not raising money, I’m not talking to anybody, but something’s got to happen.”

Democratic roster

Biden has launched a handful of outside political and policy organizations since leaving the Obama administration, including the Biden Foundation, formed to advocate for his domestic priorities.

The roster of Democrats considering a White House run has swelled well into the double-digits, with potential candidates emboldened by President Donald Trump’s historically low poll numbers.

Biden was interviewed alongside Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, at the University of Delaware last month.

“We’re both hoping that both our parties generate some real energetic people who have the depth and the capacity to do it,” Biden said of the pair.

Biden, 74, considered a run for the Oval Office in 2016, but decided against it, later citing the trauma of his son Beau’s death to cancer in May 2015 for keeping him from the race. The painful subject forms the story of his new memoir, Promise Me, Dad, set for release this week. Biden is launching a month-long tour to promote the book’s publication. He’s become a vocal critic of Trump’s administration in public appearances in recent months.

“We gotta turn this ship around,” Biden said of the country. “And I’d much prefer to be helping someone turn it around than being the guy trying to turn it around.”

Right decision in 2016

In an interview with Oprah Winfrey released Sunday, Biden said he regrets not being in the White House, but not his decision to stay on the sidelines last year. 

“I don’t regret the decision I made because it’s the right decision for my family,” he said.

Kasich, who has been an outspoken opponent of Trump’s since he challenged him for the Republican nomination in 2016, declined to address his own 2020 plans. “You hold the pen and the Lord will write the sentence,” he said.

Sexual Allegations Roil US Senate Race

Allegations of sexual misconduct against a Republican Senate candidate have thrown the party into chaos at a critical time – as Republicans make a major push to overhaul America’s tax code and as President Donald Trump concludes a marathon Asia trip. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, many Republican lawmakers are denouncing or distancing themselves from firebrand Christian conservative Roy Moore, who, until last week, had been heavily favored to win next month’s special election for a Senate seat in Republican-leaning Alabama.

Chairman: House Won’t Agree to Nix Property Tax Deduction

The chairman of the House’s tax-writing committee said Sunday that he’s confident that chamber won’t go along with the Senate’s proposal to eliminate the deduction for property taxes, setting up a major flashpoint as Republicans in the House and Senate aim to put a tax cut bill on President Donald Trump’s desk before Christmas.

 

The GOP is moving urgently to push forward on the first rewrite of the U.S. tax code in three decades, but key differences promise to complicate the effort.

 

Among the biggest differences in the two bills that have emerged: the House bill allows homeowners to deduct up to $10,000 in property taxes while the Senate proposal unveiled by GOP leaders last week eliminates the entire deduction.

 

The deduction is particularly important to residents in states with high property values or tax rates, such as New Jersey, Illinois, California and New York. Congressman Kevin Brady, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said he worked with lawmakers in those states to ensure the House bill “delivers this relief,” and he was committed to ensuring it stays in the final package.

 

“It’s important to make sure that people keep more of what they learn, even in these high-tax states,” Brady, R-Texas, said during an appearance on “Fox News Sunday.”

 

Both the House and Senate bill would eliminate deductions for state and local income taxes and sales taxes paid. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Republicans should fully restore what is referred to as the SALT deduction, or millions of middle-class families would end up paying higher federal income taxes, not less.

 

“The House’s so-called ‘compromise’ would be saying to the middle class we’ll only chop off four of your fingers instead of all five,” Schumer said in a statement.

 

 

In Florida, All Eyes on Puerto Rican Voters After Maria

The arrival of more than than 130,000 Puerto Ricans in Florida since Hurricane Maria has some officials anticipating a political shakeup in a battleground state dominated by the Republican party.

 

Both parties are actively courting new arrivals to Florida, which President Donald Trump won last year by 112,000 votes out of 9.6 million cast.

 

Many Puerto Ricans have expressed outrage over Trump’s handling of the storm but have applauded efforts by Republican Gov. Rick Scott to welcome them.

 

As U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans can vote in federal elections when they move to the mainland. Newcomers must register as voters by next July 30 to vote in primaries ahead of the 2018 general election of a new governor to replace term-limited Scott and choose Florida’s congressional delegation.

 

Javier Gonzalez has joined a human tide of more than 130,000 U.S. citizens arriving in Florida since Hurricane Maria wrecked Puerto Rico, grateful for a place to start over but resenting how their island has been treated since the disaster.

 

More than a million Puerto Ricans — about 5 percent of Florida’s population — already call the state home, and given the outrage many feel over President Donald Trump’s handling of the storm, political observers say this voting bloc could loosen the Republican Party’s hold on this battleground state.

 

Gonzalez, 38, saw the storm destroy the restaurant he opened with his father five years ago. Without power or reliable water, he became violently ill from food poisoning for three weeks. Finally, he packed his bags, determined to make his future in Miami instead.

 

“There is resentment, and we feel abandoned compared to Texas and Florida,” Gonzalez said. “We were desperate for help.”

 

Like any Puerto Rican, Gonzalez can vote in all elections now that he’s moved to the mainland. He doesn’t plan to register for any party, but he follows the news and understands their platforms. He’s aware of Trump’s tweets.

 

“It’s not right that we’ve fought from World War I, to Vietnam and Afghanistan and that the first thing the president says is: ‘You have a large debt, big problems and have cost us millions,'” Gonzalez added.

 

Puerto Ricans are not the gift to the Republican Party that the anti-Castro Cuban diaspora has been historically. They’ve tended to favor Democrats, given their support for public education and social services. Around 70 percent of Florida’s non-Cuban Latinos voted for Hillary Clinton.

 

Both parties are courting the new arrivals to Florida, which Trump won last year by just 112,000 votes out of 9.6 million cast.

 

“There is an intent to grab those who are coming,” said Rep. Robert Asencio, a Democrat of Puerto Rican descent who represents Miami in the Florida House and leads the Miami-Dade Committee for Hurricane Maria Relief.

 

“A lot of my colleagues say they are not politicizing this, but there is an effort to bring people either to the Democratic or the Republican side,” Asencio said.

 

Newcomers must register by next July 30 to vote in 2018 for a new governor to replace term-limited Republican Gov. Rick Scott and choose Florida’s congressional delegation, now 11 Democrats and 16 Republicans. Democratic U.S. Senator Bill Nelson also defends his seat next year, and Scott, who has been applauded for helping evacuees, is expected to challenge him in what could be a close race.

 

Scott set up three disaster relief centers to help arrivals with driver’s licenses, job searches, and disaster aid applications. Scott also asked education officials to waive public school enrollment rules for evacuated islanders, and to give college-bound evacuees the same tuition breaks state residents get.

 

Asencio calls Scott’s actions “damage control,” given the multimillionaire governor’s close relationship with Trump, who offended Puerto Ricans by tweeting they wanted “everything to be done for them” rather than taking responsibility for their own recovery. They also resent Trump’s rating of his own disaster response as a “10 out of 10,” blaming his administration for delays that exposed their families to illness and misery.

 

The island still faces a lengthy and painful recovery after the storm took down the entire electrical grid, leaving hospitals in the dark and closing schools for several weeks. Initial projections that 95 percent of the people will have power restored by year’s end now look optimistic.

 

Maria’s evacuees are following waves of people frustrated by Puerto Rico’s unemployment and debt crisis who settled in Central Florida, shifting from New York, the favored destination of previous generations. Of the more than 140,000 islanders estimated to have left since the storm, more than 130,000 went to Florida, where Puerto Ricans may soon displace Cubans as the largest Latino group.

 

State Rep. Rene Plasencia, a Republican from Orlando, predicts that Scott’s warm welcome will leave a bigger impression on the newcomers than any Trump tweets.

 

“For whatever people think of the president, you have to take into consideration the actions of Governor Scott,” said Plasencia, whose mother and wife are from Puerto Rico. “People aren’t making decisions out of a sequence of tweets… It makes good news, but it doesn’t make political shifts.”

 

Billionaires Charles and David Koch also are involved, funding the Libre Initiative, which welcomed hundreds of evacuees on the first cruise ship to arrive from San Juan.

 

Cesar Grajales, who lobbies for Libre, says they’re helping evacuees learn English and connect with community and business leaders.

 

Democrats hope Colombian-American Annette Taddeo’s recent underdog state Senate victory against a well-funded Republican in South Florida shows her anti-Trump message will keep resonating.

 

“It is a strong indication that voters are paying attention, and they are angry,” said Cristobal Alex, president of the Latino Victory Project. “We wouldn’t have the devastation and abandonment of Puerto Rico without Donald Trump. People will look at that.”

 

On the island, Puerto Rico’s lack of statehood means they can’t vote in general presidential elections, and can only send a non-voting representative to Congress. On the mainland, they’ll have more power.

 

“I know for a fact that we are well educated and we are going to come here to work,” Gonzalez said. “And yes, we are going to make a voice. We are going to make a bigger voice than before.”

 

 

Lawmakers: Did CIA Watchdog Nominee Mislead Congress?

Two former CIA employees are accusing the Trump administration’s choice for CIA chief watchdog of being less than candid when he told Congress he didn’t know about any active whistleblower complaints against him.

Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee asked Christopher Sharpley, the current acting inspector general who’s in line for the permanent job, about complaints that he and other managers participated in retaliation against CIA workers who alerted congressional committees and other authorities about alleged misconduct.

“I’m unaware of any open investigations on me, the details of any complaints about me,” Sharpley testified at his confirmation hearing last month.

He said he might not know because there is a process providing confidentiality to anyone who wants to file a complaint against government officials, who often are individually named in cases against management.

“No action or conclusions of wrongdoing have been made about my career or anything that I’ve done,” Sharpley added.

The committee is still considering Sharpley’s nomination.

​Senators skeptical

Sens. Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Ron Wyden say they find it hard to believe Sharpley didn’t know about the complaints when he testified. They said one of the open cases is being investigated by the Department of Homeland Security’s internal watchdog.

They say the inspector general’s office, which is looking into the CIA matter to avoid a conflict of interest, asked Sharpley in January for documents. The office asked to interview Sharpley on Oct. 12. Sharpley’s office said he wouldn’t be available until after Oct. 17, the day he testified to senators.

“How is it possible that he could have been unaware of any open investigations against him at the time he testified?” Grassley, R-Iowa, and Wyden, D-Ore., asked in a letter they wrote to Senate intelligence committee leaders.

​Committee vote delayed

GOP Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, had planned a vote on Sharpley’s nomination last month. It has been delayed while the committee holds discussions about the whistleblower cases, according to someone familiar with the matter. The person wasn’t authorized to discuss the issue and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

CIA spokesman Ryan Trapani defended Sharpley’s five-year tenure at the agency as deputy and then acting inspector general. He said Sharpley has 36 years of investigative and law enforcement experience and created two inspectors general offices from scratch within the federal government.

“Whether there are any complaints or investigations regarding Mr. Sharpley is not something we could confirm or comment on,” Trapani said. “What we can say is that Mr. Sharpley has had a sterling five-year career at CIA and there have never been any findings of wrongdoing or misconduct of any sort by Mr. Sharpley during his tenure here.”

Testimony challenged

Documents provided to the AP by attorneys representing two former CIA employees challenge Sharpley’s testimony.

They point to discord over several years within the CIA’s inspector general’s office, an independent unit created in 1989 to oversee the spy agency. It’s charged with stopping waste, fraud and mismanagement and promoting accountability through audits, inspections, investigations and reviews of CIA programs and operations — overt and covert.

John Tye, executive director of Whistleblower Aid, who is representing two of the complainants alleging retaliation by Sharpley and other senior managers, said some discord in the office stemmed from a case several years ago involving kickbacks from contractors.

The Justice Department announced in 2013 that three CIA contractors had agreed to pay the United States $3 million to settle allegations that they provided meals, entertainment, gifts and tickets to sporting events to CIA employees and outside consultants to help get business steered their way.

The criminal case fell apart after intelligence employees discovered that evidence in the case was being fabricated and witness statements were being altered. These employees secretly went around Sharpley and then CIA Inspector General David Buckley and contacted the U.S. attorney’s office. Tye said that after learning about the falsified evidence, a guilty plea in the case, which had been accepted by a judge, was voided at the request of the U.S. attorney.

Afterward, leaders at the CIA inspector’s office asked auditors across town at the Federal Housing Finance Agency to look into their in-house matter. It’s unclear why that agency — a place where Sharpley previously worked — was chosen to handle the matter. Results of that investigation haven’t been revealed.

In an Oct. 30 letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Tye said that during the FHFA probe, Sharpley improperly “interrupted witness interviews, walking in special designated conference rooms to learn the names of the whistleblowers within his staff” who reported evidence tampering to outside oversight bodies. Tye said no one within the CIA inspector general’s office was prosecuted or disciplined for evidence tampering.

“Sharpley successfully identified some, but not all, of the whistleblowers,” Tye said. He said retaliation involved forcing administrative leave, security clearance decisions and other harassment.

Complainants’ stories

One complainant is Jonathan Kaplan, 59, a former special agent and investigator in the CIA’s inspector general’s office who spent 33 years at the agency. He claims that before he went to talk to staff at the House Intelligence Committee about the contactors case, he queried a computer in his office to refresh his memory on the details.

He later received a formal letter of warning for searching the computer system. That ultimately prevented him from renewing his security clearance, effectively ending his government career. He contacted an inspector general overseeing all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies and received a letter earlier this year acknowledging that office was handling the case.

A second complainant is Andrew Bakaj, 35, who worked in the CIA inspector general’s office as a special agent from 2012 to 2015. He was instrumental indeveloping agency regulations governing whistleblower reprisal investigations.

When some of his colleagues came to him to allege misconduct in the office, he referred them to the same inspector general Kaplan went to. It was an office Bakaj and his colleagues had been told not to cooperate with.

He, too, searched on the office computer on a matter he was questioned about and had worked on as part of an investigation conducted by the inspector general that oversees all U.S. intelligence agencies. Two weeks later, superiors summoned him and put him on paid leave that lasted 15 months. He then resigned.

Massachusetts Mill Town Puts 2 Cambodian-Americans in City Posts

Lowell, a Massachusetts mill town whose minorities nearly makeup a majority of its residents, has a history of all-white governing bodies. But in a citywide election this week, driven by a debate over the high school’s fate, voters elected two Cambodian-Americans, putting one on the City Council and the other on the School Committee.

The two victories in the city, which has the second-largest Cambodian-American community in the U.S. after Long Beach, California, came as voters nationwide elected a diverse group of candidates that included refugees, immigrants and members of the LGBT community, as well as racial and ethnic minorities. 

The electoral wins also came during a time of rising xenophobia and white supremacy in the country.

In Lowell, residents also made history Tuesday by electing the first minority to the School Committee, as the school board is called. Cambodian-American Dominik Hok Lay came in fourth in the vote for six open seats.

Vesna Nuon, a Cambodian-born candidate, garnered the most votes — 6,518 out of 90,756 — cast for the nine open Lowell City Council seats. Nuon previously served on the council for one term, 2011-2012.

‘We are one city’

“I think it is a historical day in the city,” said Rodney Elliott, an incumbent who was re-elected. He credited his victory, in part, to allies in the Cambodian community. “We have a Cambodian city councilor and we have a Cambodian School Committee person. It is good for the city.

“I think it is a strong message that we are one city, and that we are starting to come together and understand and work together,” Elliott said.

About 49.2 percent of Lowell’s population, which totals a little more than 110,000, form the minority bloc, of which Asian-Americans are the largest group. Since 1999, only four minority candidates have been elected to the City Council.

Tuesday’s success is important for the city’s almost majority.

In May, several minority citizens filed a lawsuit alleging the city’s at-large, or “winner-take-all,” voting system dilutes the minority vote and discriminates against candidates from minority communities.

On Oct. 17, at the first public hearing on Huot v. City of Lowell in U.S. District Court, Judge William Young denied the city’s motion to dismiss. This means Lowell may find itself headed to trial against some of its minority residents, unless the council decides to opt for a change from within.

Nuon, 50, came to the U.S. in 1982 as a Cambodian refugee. He said the victory is for Lowell residents, especially the Cambodian community, who he says have trusted in his leadership vision in the city.

“This success is not just for me, but for Cambodian community and Lowell residents as a whole,” Nuon said. “Now it is time to work together for a better Lowell.”

A single-issue election?

Although this was an election when minorities were expected to obtain representation on the two city panels, the future of Lowell High School, whether to build a new school in a new location or renovate the current downtown school, emerged as the largest issue that drew voters to the polls.

The high school issue was pervasive in all races. Of the 18 City Council candidates, 10 supported the estimated $350 million renovation, while eight wanted to spend an estimated $334 million to build a new school nearer to the outlying playing fields.

In June, the City Council voted 5-4 to relocate the high school to Cawley Stadium in Belvidere, a predominantly white and well-to-do enclave. Sixty percent of those who voted in the election Tuesday, which included a measure on the high school, came from Belvidere, according to an analysis in the local newspaper the Lowell Sun.

Sokhary Chau, a Cambodian-born American candidate, lost his bid for the City Council.

A first-time candidate who favored relocating the high school, Chau said he was disappointed with the results, saying the election was dominated by Belvidere voters, although he was proud of the two Cambodian winners, Nuon and Lay.

“This is democracy,” said incumbent Elliott, who supported the campaign to relocate the high school. People were “organized and they voted. It is good to go out and vote. It is good to exercise freedom of speech. It is all good.”

Another incumbent who was re-elected on Tuesday agrees.

Councilor William Samaras, a former mayor, told the local newspaper that the ballot-box battle over the high school’s future “wasn’t a neighborhood issue. It was a citywide issue and the results show it.”

Or as Nuon put it, “The people have spoken.”