Partisan Finger-pointing Threatens Russia Probes on Capitol Hill

Finger-pointing and acrimony surrounding probes of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election intensified Thursday, with the Trump White House and Democratic lawmakers trading accusations of undermining and manipulating investigations that require bipartisan buy-in to succeed.

“There’s been a lot of comments about obstruction of justice, and frankly the only people we’ve seen trying to influence the investigation are former [FBI] director [James] Comey and Democrats in Congress, and that would include Senator Feinstein,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at a briefing.

Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California caused an uproar earlier this week by releasing the transcript of private conversations between congressional investigators and a political researcher who, on behalf of Democrats, hired a former British spy in 2016 to document any ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.

In the transcript, Fusion GPS co-founder Glen Simpson said Christopher Steele uncovered “alarming” evidence of collusion between the Kremlin and Trump’s team and informed the FBI of his findings.

Trump weighed in on Twitter, blasting “Sneaky Dianne Feinstein” for releasing the transcript “in such an underhanded and possibly illegal way, totally without authorization” — an act he called “a disgrace.

The president also called the Russia probe the “greatest single Witch Hunt in American history” and urged congressional Republicans to “finally take control” of the investigation.

Democrats pushed back, defending Feinstein and saying she was forced to act in the face of mounting Republican efforts to thwart and cut short multiple Russia probes on Capitol Hill.

“Their [Republicans’] goal, it seems, is to discredit the investigation so that, ultimately, they can discredit any findings that are detrimental to their party or their president,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat. “President Trump makes this strategy manifest clear as day almost every day on his Twitter feed.”

Schumer continued, “Here is the president of the United States imploring his party to take control of the investigation. You never thought you’d hear a president saying something like this. And, frankly, you never thought you’d hear such silence from the other side of the aisle [Republicans]. All of us must choose country over party.”

While Special Counsel Robert Mueller is investigating ties between Russia and Trump’s inner circle on behalf of the Justice Department, House and Senate investigations were launched with the hope that Republicans and Democrats would set party interests aside and join forces in search of the truth.

“It [bipartisanship] has largely been broken,” said political analyst Norman Ornstein of the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute. “This has gotten more than acrimonious.”

Ornstein compared the Russia probes to Congress’ investigation of the Watergate scandal that caused former President Richard Nixon to resign in 1974.

“What we saw with Watergate was the model of a committee where the ranking Republican set the tone by saying the key here is what did the president know and when did he know it? — and followed through with an investigation with integrity,” he said.

Ornstein added, however, that even if congressional Russia’s probes falter on partisan lines, “The real test comes with whether the integrity of the Mueller investigation is protected and a bipartisan group of members [of Congress] make it clear that the president can’t fire [Mueller] or close off the investigation.”

Trump Reportedly Calls Haiti, Africa ‘S—hole Countries’

President Donald Trump stunned lawmakers in a White House meeting on immigration Thursday when he reportedly referred to Haiti and African nations as “s—hole countries.”

“Why are we having all these people from s—hole countries come here,” the president asked as was first reported by media including The Washington Post, The New York Times and CNN. The crude term means dirty and impoverished.

Trump said the United States should let in more people from places such as Norway, whose prime minister met with him in the White House Wednesday.

White House response

After being asked by media, including VOA, to respond, White House spokesperson Raj Shah issued a statement saying the president will only accept an immigration deal that “adequately addresses the visa lottery system and chain migration — two programs that hurt our economy and allow terrorists into our country.” Chain migration is a term used by immigration critics to refer to the system that allows relatives to sponsor family members to come to the United States.

Shah’s statement did not deny reports that the president used crude language when talking about Haiti and Africa.

It also said Trump will always reject “temporary, weak and dangerous stopgap measures that … undercut immigrants who seek a better life in the United States through a legal pathway.”

VOA also reached out to the offices of U.S. lawmakers who were reportedly present at the meeting. Aides to lawmakers who attended the meeting declined to provide comment on Trump’s remarks, according to the Associated Press.

Trump reportedly made the remark as Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, was explaining the outlines of an agreement reached by six bipartisan senators that would protect nearly 800,000 young immigrants from deportation as well as bolster border security, according to the Post.

Bipartisan comments

By late Thursday, lawmakers were reacting to the reported comments.

Minnesota state Rep. Ilhan Omar, who in 2016 became the first Somali-American elected to a state legislative office in the United States, released a statement, saying, “I am not ashamed of the country where I was born. I am not ashamed to call myself an American now. I am a proud immigrant, refugee, Minnesotan and a proud State Legislator.

“But make no mistake, I am ashamed, disturbed, and outraged that the leader of the United States can’t see beyond his own embarrassing privilege to embrace the diversity that has made this country great for generations,” added Omar, a member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.

Republican Rep. Mia Love, whose family came from Haiti, said the president’s comments are “unkind, divisive, elitist, and fly in the face of our nation’s values. This behavior is unacceptable from the leader of our nation.”

Love, of Utah, called on Trump to apologize to the people of Haiti.

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, also a Republican, said he wanted more details “regarding the president’s comments.”

“Part of what makes America so special is that we welcome the best and brightest in the world, regardless of their country of origin,” Hatch added.

Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican, tweeted late Thursday, “My ancestors came from countries not nearly as prosperous as the one we live in today. I’m glad that they were welcomed here.”

Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida tweeted Trump’s “calling #Haiti a ‘shithole country’ ignores the contributions thousands of Haitians have made to our #SoFla community and nation. Language like that shouldn’t be heard in locker rooms and it shouldn’t be heard in the White House.”

California Sen. Kamala Harris, a Democrat, said in a tweet, “Immigrants from countries across the globe — including and especially those from Haiti and all parts of Africa — have helped build this country. They should be welcomed and celebrated, not demeaned and insulted.’’

Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said, “President Trump’s comments are yet another confirmation of his racially insensitive and ignorant views. It also reinforces the concerns that we hear every day, that the President’s slogan Make America Great Again is really code for Make America White Again.”

New Mexico Rep. Michelle Lujan Gisham, chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, responded in a statement, “The President’s statement is shameful, abhorrent, unpresidential, and deserves our strongest condemnation. We must use our voices to ensure that our nation never returns to the days when ignorance, prejudice, and racism dictated our decision making.

“Our nation’s strength and the American Dream stem from our immigrant roots and diversity,” she added.

Brian Concannon, executive director of the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, told VOA he is “outraged” at what he regards as an insult to the Haitian people. He said Trump’s apparent description of Haiti as a “s—hole” is “not an accurate description of Haiti.”

The NCAAP said in a statement, “The United States’ position as a moral leader throughout the world has been thoroughly damaged by the continuous lowbrow, callous and unfiltered racism repeatedly espoused by President Trump. His decision to use profanity to describe African, Central American and Caribbean countries is not only a low mark for this president, it is a low point for our nation.’’

The White House statement released Thursday:

“Certain Washington politicians choose to fight for foreign countries, but President Trump will always fight for the American people. The President will only accept an immigration deal that adequately addresses the visa lottery system and chain migrationtwo programs that hurt our economy and allow terrorists into our country. Like other nations that have merit-based immigration, President Trump is fighting for permanent solutions that make our country stronger by welcoming those who can contribute to our society, grow our economy and assimilate into our great nation. He will always reject temporary, weak and dangerous stopgap measures that threaten the lives of hardworking Americans, and undercut immigrants who seek a better life in the United States through a legal pathway.”

VOA correspondents Steve Herman and Michael Bowman contributed to this report.

Amid Deportation Protests, ICE Detains Immigrant-rights Leader in NYC

Police and immigrant-rights protesters clashed Thursday outside 26 Federal Plaza, New York City’s immigration court, after word spread that Ravi Ragbir, a well-known activist known to protect immigrant families from deportation, had himself been detained by immigration authorities inside the building.

City leaders said Ragbir passed out while in detention, which occurred during a routine check-in with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Some supporters, who were already gathered outside the building for a scheduled prayer march and “vigil against deportation,” confronted a departing ambulance, resulting in multiple arrests, including those of two city councilmen. 

Others joined hands and prayed, led by the Reverend Donna Schaper, senior minister of Judson Memorial Church and co-founder of the New Sanctuary Coalition of NYC.

“When ICE does things that are just beyond understanding, when they had other choices, they only make us stronger,” Schaper told VOA. “They need to understand that.”

Ragbir, an immigrant from Trinidad, has faced the threat of deportation since he was convicted of wire fraud 16 years ago. Following removal proceedings in 2006, he spent nearly two years in immigration detention before his release in February 2008, a period during which he became a rising voice for the country’s immigrant community. He is now executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition.

Until his detention, Ragbir had an administrative stay of removal in place, which suspends an order of removal. His attorneys said they had already filed a lawsuit.

“We came into the check-in with the hope that they would allow him to continue checking in as he has for many years, complying with all the rules that have been required of him,” said Alina Das, one of Ragbir’s attorneys who was present with him in the meeting, along with Ragbir’s wife.

“Obviously we are incredibly disappointed and, frankly, outraged by this decision,” Das told VOA. “We continue to pursue our options — the legal challenges — to see that he will hopefully be freed soon and back with his wife and with the community that loves him.”

At the time this report was published, ICE had not responded to VOA’s request for comment regarding Ragbir’s arrest.

‘Crippling’ for the immigrant community

Ragbir’s arrest followed that of Jean Montrevil, an immigrant activist from Haiti who was taken into custody last week near his Far Rockaway, New York, home, and just one day after The Associated Press reported a wave of ICE raids at convenience stores across the country.

Barbara Young, a Barbadian-American immigrant and organizer with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, was present for Thursday’s vigil in lower Manhattan. As she spoke of Ragbir and the nationwide workplace raids, tears rolled down beneath her sunglasses.

“It is crippling for the immigrant community,” Young said. “If you are here in the country and you decide to go find a job, and they’re targeting your workplace, you’re not a criminal.”

Following a group prayer, Schaper, who works closely with Ragbir, remained resilient, asserting the strength of her surrounding community.

“We have so many leaders, in addition to Ravi, whom Ravi has built up over these many, many years,” she said. “We’re not even one bit afraid.”

More protests were scheduled for Thursday evening in front of the detention center where Ragbir was being held.

US Lawmakers Facing Deadlines for Budget, Immigration Deals

U.S. lawmakers are running short on time to agree on a plan to fund the government and achieve a bipartisan immigration deal.

The budget battle could lead to a government shutdown next week, and Democrats in Congress want any funding agreement to include a legislative fix for the more than 800,000 young undocumented immigrants who have been protected from deportation by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

On Wednesday, a group of House Republicans introduced a bill that would institute a much more wide-ranging immigration reform that includes a three-year renewable status for those covered under DACA, but offer no path for any kind of permanent residency.

The bill led by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte would also restrict relatives of immigrants from coming to the United States, mandate that companies use an electronic system to verify the immigration status of employees, reduce overall immigration, and boost the number of green cards for skilled workers.

“The bill we’re proposing is strong but it’s also a fair bill – it’s strong because it gets serious about enforcing our immigration laws and making it tougher for people to enter our country illegally and stay here,” said Rep. Raul Labrador, one of the Republican co-sponsors. 

A White House statement said President Donald Trump is “grateful” for the introduction of the bill and that it would accomplish his “core priorities for the American people.” The measure would also authorize construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, something Trump told reporters Wednesday is a necessary part of any immigration plan.

But the legislation seems unlikely to make it to Trump’s desk. It would need some Democratic support in the Senate and the party has focused much of its immigration energy on finding a solution for the immigrants who came to the United States illegally when they were children.

Trump in September rescinded the DACA program and gave Congress until March to figure out how to address those immigrants, sometimes referred to as “Dreamers.”

“The president agreed we ought to do it in two phases because we have an emergency,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer. “We can’t wait until March. We need to make sure they’re protected and included and welcomed now.”

A group of 100 chief executive officers sent a letter Wednesday to Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress calling on them to immediately pass a permanent, bipartisan legislative solution to allow the young undocumented immigrants to continue living and working in the United States.

“While delay or inaction will cause significant negative impact to businesses, hundreds of thousands of deserving young people across the country are counting on you to work in a bipartisan way to pass permanent legislative protection for Dreamers without further delay,” the letter said.

Those signing it include the CEOs of Facebook, General Motors, Apple, Target, Amazon, Google and the National Association of Manufacturers.

A federal judge in California issued a ruling Tuesday temporarily blocking the Trump administration from ending DACA, saying the program should remain in place until legal challenges against Trump’s decision are resolved.

Tuesday’s order specifies that the terms of the DACA program are to be maintained for anyone who was already covered by the program before Trump’s September action, and that those people are allowed to renew their enrollments. 

But the government does not have to process any new applications for people trying to enroll under DACA for the first time, and remains free to deport anyone it determines to be a national security or public safety risk.

Trump rejected the court ruling Wednesday, saying the judicial system is “broken and unfair.”

North Korea: Book’s Popularity Predicts Trump’s End

North Korea has found good material to attack U.S. President Donald Trump: Michael Wolff’s bombshell new book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.

The book paints Trump as a leader who doesn’t understand the weight of his office and whose competence is questioned by aides. Trump and other White House aides have blasted it as inaccurate trash. But it was the top-selling book in the U.S. last week, and its numbers are likely to grow far higher.

On Thursday, the North’s main Rodong Sinmun newspaper, run by its ruling Workers’ Party, carried an article about the book’s subject matter, how Trump reacted and why it is selling so well.

Traded threats

Its sales reflect “rapidly surging anti-Trump sentiments in the international community,” the article said. “The anti-Trump book is sweeping all over the world so Trump is being massively humiliated worldwide.”

The book’s popularity “foretells Trump’s political demise,” the article said.

Last summer, Trump threatened North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” in an exchange of taunts with the North, which claimed it was examining plans to launch missiles toward the American territory of Guam.

Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have since traded threats of war and crude insults, as the North conducted nuclear and long-range missile tests.

Trump called Kim “Rocket Man” on a “suicide mission.” Kim called the 71-year-old American president “the mentally deranged U.S. dotard.” In his New Year’s address last week, Kim said he has a “nuclear button” that could fire weapons anywhere in the United States, and Trump responded that he has a much bigger and more powerful “nuclear button.”

Ties with the South

Recently, North Korea has taken steps toward improving ties with rival South Korea in what critics call a tactic to divide Seoul and Washington and weaken U.S.-led international pressure and sanctions on the country. On Tuesday, it had its first formal talks with South Korea in about two years and agreed to send a delegation to next month’s Winter Olympics in the South and hold military talks aimed at easing front-line animosity.

But North Korea hasn’t stopped its rhetoric against Trump. Last week, the North’s state media called Trump a “war maniac” and “madman.”

After Tuesday’s inter-Korean talks, Trump said during a phone conversation with South Korean President Moon Jae-in that the United States was open to talks with North Korea “at the appropriate time, under the right circumstances,” according to a White House statement.

Fire and Fury was released last Friday and sold 29,000 copies through Saturday, NPD BookScan told The Associated Press. Digital sales already top 250,000 and audio sales exceed 100,000, according to John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan, the parent company of the book’s publisher, Henry Holt and Co. It has raised an initial announced printing of 150,000 to more than 1 million.

US Congress Racing Against Time to Fund Government, Save DACA Recipients

The U.S. Congress has five working days left to negotiate a deal funding the government past a Jan. 19 deadline. Democrats are pushing an agreement that includes a legislative fix for the fate of more than 800,000 undocumented young people brought to the U.S. as children. VOA’s congressional reporter Katherine Gypson has more on the immigration fixes Republicans want in return as time runs out.

Trump: Russia Probes ‘Single Greatest Witch Hunt in American History’

U.S. President Donald Trump renewed his attacks Wednesday on the investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, saying they are “the single greatest Witch Hunt in American history.”

In Twitter comments, Trump reiterated his contention that there “was no collusion” between his campaign and Russia, saying “everybody,” including opposition Democrats, “knows there was no collusion, & yet on and on it goes. Russia & the world is laughing at the stupidity they are witnessing.”

He said Republican lawmakers “should finally take control” of the probes, which include several in Congress and a months-long criminal investigation being conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, a former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the country’s top law enforcement agency. None of the investigations has been completed or reached conclusions.

Trump also assailed California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, calling her “sneaky” because on Tuesday, she released a transcript of an August interview with the head of a firm that produced a dossier containing allegations about Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia. Feinstein is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which received the documents from Glenn Simpson, the co-founder of research group Fusion GPS. Simpson said he gave the dossier about Trump to the FBI because he was “very concerned” about a potential national security matter.

“The fact that Sneaky Dianne Feinstein, who has on numerous occasions stated that collusion between Trump/Russia has not been found, would release testimony in such an underhanded and possibly illegal way, totally without authorization, is a disgrace,” Trump said. He called for a “tough primary” election against her, although she is a Democrat and the Republican Trump holds no sway over Democratic political affairs.

Feinstein unilaterally released a lengthy transcript of Simpson’s testimony without telling the majority Republican bloc on the Judiciary Committee.

‘Illegal conspiracy?’

Simpson’s firm hired Christopher Steele, a former British spy, to produce the dossier, and that research was paid for by Democrats, including the campaign of Trump’s election opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton.

A conservative website had earlier sought information about Trump but stopped its investigation of the then-Republican candidate once it became apparent that he would be his party’s nominee. Later, a lawyer for Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee hired Fusion GPS to investigate Trump’s past.

“From my perspective there was a law enforcement issue about whether there was an illegal conspiracy to violate the campaign laws,” Simpson said.

Trump has dismissed the dossier and repeatedly denied that his campaign colluded with Russia. Trump has contended that the investigations are an excuse by Democrats to explain his upset win over Clinton, a former secretary of state.

Simpson said Steele also told him the FBI believed information in the dossier “might be credible” because they had a source inside the Trump organization who “indicated the same thing.”

“It was someone like us who decided to pick up the phone and report something,” Simpson said.

Setting the record straight

Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said Simpson requested the transcript of his testimony be released to the public and that the American people deserved the chance to see his words and judge for themselves.

“The innuendo and misinformation circulating about the transcript are part of a deeply troubling effort to undermine the investigation into potential collusion and obstruction of justice. The only way to set the record straight is to make the transcript public,” Feinstein said in a statement.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, objected to Feinstein’s release of the testimony. A Grassley spokesman, Taylor Foy, called Feinstein’s actions “confounding” and said she had undermined the committee’s “ability to secure candid voluntary testimony relating to the independent recollections of future witnesses.”

The committee is conducting one of several investigations into Russian influence on the 2016 presidential election and possible connections with the Trump campaign.

U.S. intelligence agencies assessed last year that Russia had conducted a campaign targeting the election with the goal of hurting Clinton’s chances of winning while boosting Trump. In addition, Mueller is investigating whether Trump obstructed justice by firing former FBI chief James Comey when Comey was heading the agency’s Russia probe before Mueller was appointed to take over the investigation.

‘Unquestionably real news’

The website BuzzFeed published the entire dossier last year amid criticism that it contained unverified information. Ben Smith, the site’s editor in chief, wrote Tuesday in a New York Times op-ed that he stands behind that decision and that his organization believed it was in the public interest to release information that BuzzFeed and other outlets were citing in stories.

“A year of government inquiries and blockbuster journalism has made clear that the dossier is unquestionably real news. That’s a fact that has been tacitly acknowledged even by those who opposed our decision to publish,” Smith said.

One item in the dossier is a claim that Trump lawyer Michael Cohen traveled to Prague to meet with Russian officials.

Cohen denies he made such a trip, and on Tuesday sued BuzzFeed in a New York state court, saying the website defamed him and harmed him financially. In a separate defamation lawsuit in federal court, Cohen sued Fusion GPS.

 

Trump to South Korea: US Open to Talks with North at ‘Appropriate Time’

U.S. President Donald Trump says he is open to talks with North Korea “at the appropriate time”.

In telephone conversation with South Korean President Moon Jae-in Wednesday, Trump “expressed his openness to holding talks between the United States and North Korea at the appropriate time under the right circumstances,” according to a readout of the call issued by the White House.

 

“The two leaders underscored the importance of continuing the maximum pressure campaign against North Korea,” the statement said.

 

President Moon’s office first reported the conversation, which came a day after North and South Korea held their first talks in more than two years. The South Korean readout said Trump had agreed that there would be no military action while any talks were in progress.

Speaking at a cabinet meeting after the phone call, Trump said Moon had expressed appreciation for his role in bringing the North back to the negotiating table. “He’s very thankful for what we’ve done,” Trump said. “It’s been reported today that we were the ones…without our attitude that would’ve never happened.”

Trump expressed hope for a positive outcome. “Who knows where it leads? Hopefully it will lead to success for the world. Not just for our country but for the world,” he said.

At a news conference in Seoul earlier Wednesday, Moon credited Trump with helping facilitate the inter-Korean talks by increasing pressure through sanctions on the North Korean leadership.

But the South Korean leader said his approach, which entails reducing tensions through dialogue and engagement, differs from Trump’s emphasis on pressuring the Kim Jong Un government with sanctions and the threat of military force.  

 

South Korea, Moon said, wants to pursue denuclearization without risking a devastating war with North Korea that would put at risk millions of Koreans on both sides of the border.

 

“How can we de-escalate these issues and prevent a possible armed conflict, and while doing so bring North Korea to a dialogue?  That is our current dilemma, and that requires a prudent approach,” Moon said.

Inter-Korean talks

Moon described agreements reached during Tuesday’s inter-Korean talks as a positive first step that could create a pause in provocations and give momentum to diplomacy.

After high-level delegations met for 11 hours, the two delegations agreed to restore an emergency communication hotline between their countries, and to hold military talks to resolve disputes and avert accidental conflict at a time when tensions are high over North Korea’s efforts to develop nuclear missiles capable of hitting the United States.

The White House also confirmed Wednesday that Vice President Mike Pence would lead a high-level U.S. delegation attending the Winter Olympics next month in South Korea.

Credit to Trump

At his news conference, Moon credited Trump with helping facilitate the inter-Korean talks by increasing pressure through sanctions on the North Korean leadership.

But the South Korean leader said his approach, which entails reducing tensions through dialogue and engagement, differs from Trump’s emphasis on pressuring the Kim Jong Un government with sanctions and the threat of military force.

South Korea, Moon said, wants to pursue denuclearization without risking a devastating war with North Korea that would put at risk millions of Koreans on both sides of the border.

“How can we de-escalate these issues and prevent a possible armed conflict, and while doing so bring North Korea to a dialogue? That is our current dilemma, and that requires a prudent approach,” Moon said.

While the South Korean leader said his outreach to the North would not violate U.N. sanctions, critics say his engagement approach could reduce international pressure on the Kim government and weaken the U.S.-South Korean military alliance.

Trump had earlier been critical of the prospect of negotiating with a North Korean leadership that has broken past agreements to end its nuclear program in exchange for economic assistance and security guarantees. But this week, Trump called the inter-Korean talks “a good thing” that had come as a result of his “firm, strong” stance.

Brian Padden in Seoul and Steve Herman at the White House contributed to this report.

Republican Congressman Issa Won’t Seek Reelection

U.S. Republican congressman Darrell Issa announced Wednesday he will not run for another term in office this year, providing Democrats another opportunity to capture a seat in this year’s midterm elections.

In a post on Twitter, Issa expressed gratitude for the opportunity to represent the residents of California’s 49th congressional district.

“Serving #CA49 has been the privilege of a lifetime. From the bottom of my heart — thank you — to everyone for your support and the honor of serving you all these years.”

Issa narrowly won reelection in 2016 as the political environment changed rapidly in recent years in his Southern California district, a traditionally Republican stronghold that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won by seven points.

The 17-year veteran’s decision not to run creates a new opening for Democrats to win the 24 seats they need to regain majority status in the House this year.

Republican Ed Royce, House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, announced Monday he would not seek reelection. He also represents a Southern California district that Clinton won last year.

 

 

 

Democrats Vow to Force Vote on Net Neutrality, Make It a Campaign Issue

U.S. Senate Democrats said on Tuesday they will force a vote later this year on the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s reversal of landmark Obama administration net neutrality rules and will try to make it a key issue in the 2018 congressional elections.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said the issue will be a major motivating factor for young voters the party is courting.

“We’re going to let everyone know where we stand and they stand,” Schumer said at a Capitol Hill news conference in Washington.

The FCC voted in December along party lines to reverse rules introduced in 2015 that barred internet service providers from blocking or throttling traffic, or offering paid fast lanes. A group of state attorneys general immediately vowed to sue.

A trade group representing major tech companies including Facebook, Alphabet and Amazon.com said last week it will back legal challenges to the reversal.

The vote in December marked a victory for AT&T, Comcast and Verizon Communications and hands them power over what content consumers can access over the internet. It marked the biggest win for FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in his sweeping effort to undo many telecommunications regulations.

Senate Democrats on Tuesday called the FCC decision “un-American” and an “all-out assault on consumers.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, backs the FCC repeal. A reversal of the FCC vote would need the approval of the Senate, U.S. House and President Donald Trump.

Trump also backed the FCC action, the White House said last month.

The FCC order grants internet providers sweeping new powers to block, throttle or discriminate among internet content, but requires public disclosure of those practices. Internet providers have vowed not to change how consumers get online content.

Democrats say net neutrality is essential to protect consumers, while Republicans say the rules hindered investment by providers and were not needed.

Democratic Senator Ed Markey said on Tuesday he had 39 co-sponsors to force a vote, but it is not clear when the vote will occur since the new rules will not take effect for at least another three months. “There will be a political price to pay for those who are on the wrong side of history,” Markey said.

Republicans control the Senate with 51 votes out of the 100-member body.

Senator Brian Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat, said the issue was resonating with teenagers and college students.

“People are mobilizing across the country to save the free and open internet,” Schatz said.

Bannon to Exit Breitbart News Network After Break With Trump

Former White House strategist Steve Bannon stepped down as executive chairman of Breitbart News Network on Tuesday, the conservative news outlet announced Tuesday.

The move comes amid a furor over incendiary remarks he reportedly made about U.S. President Donald Trump and his family to author Michael Wolff in a book, “Fire and Fury,” published just last week.

Wolff wrote in the book that Bannon called a meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner’s 2016 meeting with Russian nationals, “treasonous” and “unpatriotic.”

Bannon also predicted in the book that Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, would “crack” Trump Jr. “like an egg on national TV.”

The U.S. Senate, House of Representatives and a special counsel are all investigating alleged Russian interference in the presidential election, allegations denied by both the Kremlin and Trump.

The president and his staff have lashed out at Bannon, calling him disloyal and disgraceful.  The president said last week that Bannon “lost his mind” when he was pushed out of the White House last August.

After days of keeping silent amid the uproar, Bannon tried to make amends. He issued a statement Sunday praising the president’s eldest son but he stopped short of apologizing for his criticism of the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump and Kushner.

The fallout from the book also saw Bannon losing his largest benefactor, Rebekah Mercer. Mercer and her father, hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer, own part of Breitbart News Network and are influential voices in its operation.  Last week, Mercer distanced herself from Bannon, saying in a statement, “I support President Trump and the platform upon which he was elected.”

Bannon joined Breitbart in 2012 and helped raise the profile of the news site, which he once called the platform for the so-called alt-right, a loose confederation of neo-Nazis, white supremacists and anti-Semites.

 

A report on the Breitbart website quotes Bannon saying, “I’m proud of what the Breitbart team has accomplished in so short a period of time in building out a world-class news platform.”

The White House did not immediately respond to the news of Bannon’s ouster, but press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders last week called on the conservative website to “look at and consider” parting ways with Bannon.

Foreign Leaders Wary of Being Burned by ‘Fire and Fury’

Only five months ago, world leaders reacted with public disapproval of U.S. President Donald Trump’s promise to respond to any North Korean aggression with “fire and fury.” Now a new “fire and fury” is occupying their thoughts — Michael Wolff’s controversial tell-all book, in which the author claims White House insiders think Trump is mentally unfit to be president.

White House officials have dismissed the book as “complete fantasy” and “tabloid gossip,” while several errors in Wolff’s account were quickly identified. Nevertheless, the book rocketed to the top of the Amazon best-seller list and Wolff’s accusations became fodder for endless discussion on U.S. and world news programs.

​When it came to North Korea, leaders warned that Trump’s rhetoric would likely escalate confrontation rather than resolve it. With Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, which was published Friday, they have preferred to keep mouths shut — partly from fear of damaging relations between their countries and the Trump administration.

“There’s no benefit for us to comment on the claims made in Wolff’s book,” a senior German official told VOA, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “But for us, the book with its apparent leaks from inside the White House — and more importantly the political fallout in Washington — portrays an alarming picture of an America in dangerous upheaval. That adds to our worries about America’s reliability as an ally — something that Trump has given us cause to question already,” he added.

Surprising frankness

In March, the normally reticent German Chancellor Angela Merkel underlined her doubts about the dependability of the United States with surprising frankness in a speech in Berlin, after Trump lambasted major NATO allies over their military contributions and refused to endorse a global climate change accord during awkward back-to-back summits with the Europeans. 

“Recent days have shown me that the times when we could rely completely on others are over to a certain extent,” Merkel, an Atlanticist, said.  

Shockwaves have gone back and forth across the Atlantic ever since. 

There is as yet no evidence that the furor over the Wolff book is damaging America’s relations with its allies or emboldening its enemies, but it comes in the wake of disagreements over immigration, climate change, trade, and recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital that have made Trump and his “America First” agenda highly unpopular with the European public.

Some of Trump’s mercurial tweets have caused deep offense, notably in November when British lawmakers reacted furiously to President Trump’s retweeting of anti-Muslim videos initially posted by a far-right British activist who had been convicted of hate speech. That earned a public rebuke from Prime Minister Theresa May — the third time she has done so.

‘Difficult to judge’

Australia’s former prime minister, Julia Gillard, has been one of the few senior politicians in a U.S.-allied country to broach the subject of Trump’s mental fitness publicly, although she waited to do so until after leaving office. While cautioning in July against insulting Trump with charges of mental illness, she said that some individuals were genuinely concerned. 

“From the outside I think it is very difficult to judge someone else’s mental health … so I think there’s some need for caution here,” Gillard told an Australian television outlet. “But I do think if President Trump continues with some of the tweeting, et cetera that we’ve seen, that this will be in the dialogue.”

The media in Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have been less wary than officials and quickly focused on the claims in Wolff’s book about Trump’s mental fitness. “Is Trump still sane?” was the main headline last week in Germany’s conservative newspaper, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Voices of caution

Britain’s The Times splashed across its front page in large type: “Trump’s mental health questioned by top aide.” And in the story below it noted that Steve Bannon, a major source for Wolff’s book and onetime key Trump adviser, “openly questioned his fitness to serve and predicted that he would resign to avoid being removed by his own cabinet.”

While the European media has feasted on Wolff’s book, there have been other voices cautioning against accepting Wolff’s portrayal of Trump at face value. Some commentators have pointed out that Wolff has a history of sensationalizing and they note the sourcing for the book is often vague. 

Others have argued there is a failure on the part of foreign commentators to appreciate that a lot of what Trump says and does is geared to appeal to his supporters and his voting base. 

Writing in Le Figaro, a French conservative newspaper, Maxime Tandonnet, an essayist and former top French bureaucrat who served as a counselor in the cabinet of Nicolas Sarkozy, cast the book as “a compilation of stories, gossip and testimonies against Trump’s person, personal life and family intimacy.” And the press reception of the book he characterized as “a sort of apotheosis of media lynching, very fashionable for the times.”

AP Interview: Tillerson Says No Diplomats Return to Cuba Yet

The United States would be “putting people intentionally in harm’s way” if it sent diplomats back to Cuba, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says in an Associated Press interview , even as a new FBI report casts doubt on the initial theory that Americans there have been hit by “sonic attacks.”

 

Following months of investigation and four FBI trips to Havana, an interim report from the bureau’s Operational Technology Division says the probe has uncovered no evidence that sound waves could have damaged the Americans’ health, the AP has learned. The report, dated Jan. 4, doesn’t address other theories and says the FBI will keep investigating until it can show there’s been no intentional harm.

 

Tillerson said he’s not convinced that what he calls the “deliberate attacks” are over. He defended his September decision to order most U.S. personnel and their relatives to leave Cuba and said he won’t reverse course until Cuba’s government assures they’ll be safe.

 

“I’d be intentionally putting them back in harm’s way. Why in the world would I do that when I have no means whatsoever to protect them?” Tillerson told the AP on Jan. 5. “I will push back on anybody who wants to force me to do that.”

 

“I still believe that the Cuban government, someone within the Cuban government can bring this to an end,” Tillerson added. Washington has never claimed Cuba perpetrated the attacks but has insisted the island’s communist-run government must know who did. Cuba adamantly denies both involvement and knowledge of any attacks.

 

Tensions over the issue are apparent in Congress, with critics of the Cuban government at odds with supporters of closer U.S. ties. And within the Trump administration, the CIA, whose spies were affected while working under diplomatic cover, has chafed at the lack of FBI progress, several officials have told the AP in recent months, while a few lawmakers briefed on the probe have questioned whether the FBI even agrees with the State Department that anyone was attacked.

 

The State Department has said previously the most recent “medically confirmed” case of an American being affected occurred Aug. 21. Tillerson didn’t cite any more recent incidents, but pointedly stressed he was “not sure they’ve ended.”

 

The AP has learned at least one additional embassy worker who reported similar symptoms since that date has been sent for medical testing. The symptoms were determined to be unrelated.

 

Tillerson’s comments and the FBI report illustrate how befuddled the U.S. still seems about the mystery in Havana, more than a year after embassy workers started reporting illnesses including hearing loss, vision problems and memory issues. Symptoms often followed unexplained sounds in diplomats’ homes that led investigators to suspect a futuristic sonic weapon. The U.S. has said 24 government workers were harmed. Canada has reported some of its diplomats were affected, too.

 

The FBI report, which hasn’t been released publicly, is the clearest sign to date of the U.S. ruling out the sonic weapon theory. The report says the FBI tested the hypothesis that air pressure waves via audible sound, infrasound or ultrasound could be used to clandestinely hurt Americans in Cuba, and found no evidence. Infrasound waves are below the range of human hearing. Ultrasound is above.

 

The FBI declined to comment Monday.

 

In October, the AP published a recording of the high-pitched chirping sound some diplomats heard. Officials cautioned then they weren’t sure whether the sound itself harmed Americans, or was perhaps the byproduct of something else that did. Last month, the AP reported doctors discovered brain abnormalities in patients who were being treated after returning from Cuba. But since the patients hadn’t been tested before working in Cuba, outside experts raised questions.

 

For Cuba and its U.S. supporters, frustration is growing about Washington’s aggressive response and lack of answers. In addition to pulling out all but “essential personnel,” the Trump administration last year expelled 15 Cuban diplomats and warned Americans to avoid the island. Havana sees those steps as harming U.S.-Cuba relations and damaging its critical tourism industry, all without any proof anyone was attacked.

 

By law, Tillerson must form an “accountability review board” after any serious injury to diplomats overseas. One highly publicized example was after four Americans were killed in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012.

 

Tillerson has signed off on the new review board, U.S. officials said. The State Department wouldn’t comment, saying it would announce any decision after Congress is notified.

 

That could come as early as Tuesday, when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing about the “attacks on U.S. diplomats in Cuba.” Top officials from the State Department’s medical unit, Diplomatic Security and Western Hemisphere division will testify.

 

Over the weekend, Sen. Jeff Flake, a longtime proponent of closer U.S. ties to Cuba, said high-ranking Cuban officials told him that the FBI has found no evidence of attacks and that classified U.S. briefings left him with no reason to doubt Cuba’s account.

 

But Sen. Marco Rubio, a vocal critic of Cuba’s government, declared on Twitter it was a “documented FACT” that U.S. personnel were “victims of some sort of sophisticated attack” and U.S. officials briefed on the matter know that “full well.”

 

Yet other lawmakers briefed by Tillerson say they were discouraged the Trump administration couldn’t or wouldn’t answer basic questions on the investigation.

 

The FBI, which leads broader law enforcement cooperation with Cuba, insists it’s doing everything possible in a place where it has little or delayed access to suspected crime scenes.

 

Tillerson, in the AP interview, said he was satisfied with the U.S. response.

 

“I’ve met with the victims, I’ve met with their families,” Tillerson said. “I’m concerned about their health and wellbeing, and that trumps everything in my book.”

Pelosi Optimistic About Agreement on US Budget, Immigration

Top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi said Monday that she remains optimistic about potential agreements with Washington Republicans on the budget and immigration, though she is skeptical that an upcoming White House meeting on immigration will produce a breakthrough.

 

The California lawmaker told reporters in her Capitol office that “we just have to come together and we will” on a long-delayed budget pact to boost funding for both the Pentagon and domestic agencies, which face a severe budget crunch otherwise.

 

She also said that there’s room for compromise on immigration, including protections for young immigrants who were brought into the country illegally, border security and stricter rules sought by Republicans regarding preferential treatment for the relatives of legal immigrants who are seeking to join them in the U.S.

 

Pelosi spoke just 11 days before a government shutdown deadline and gave a surprisingly optimistic appraisal. Since a White House meeting last week, there has been no obvious progress, and the administration unveiled an $18 billion request for President Donald Trump’s long-promised border wall.

 

She was optimistic about efforts to protect younger immigrants known as “Dreamers,” who face deportation in the wake of Trump’s decision in September to cut off protections given by former President Barack Obama.

 

“I think we will” get an agreement on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Pelosi said. Asked why, she said, “because we don’t want to shut down government and I don’t think they want to shut down government.”

 

But Pelosi was wholly dismissive of the chances of progress at a White House meeting on Tuesday, saying it was more of a show than a real negotiation.

“They’re not really inviting the people who have the most skin in the game, who know the issue. Surprising as it may seem to you, the more you know about the issue, the more you can compromise.”

 

“I don’t need to go to that kind of a meeting,” Pelosi said. “The Republicans in Congress will by and large vote for anything the president supports. So that’s where the negotiations are taking place.”

 

In the Senate, some Republicans suggested Trump would have to accept compromise on some of his demands.

 

“I don’t know how much the market will bear. I do want us to get to a solution,” No. 2 GOP leader John Cornyn of Texas told reporters. And Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said he favored a broad immigration measure but said, “We can’t do that by March 5. This is a narrower fix.”

 

Trump has given Congress until March 5 to craft a bill protecting the Dreamers, though he could extend that deadline.

 

Two junior House members, Reps. Will Hurd, R-Texas, and Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., said Monday they’d agreed to a plan that Hurd said could serve as a “foundation” for bipartisan bargainers seeking an immigration compromise. Congressional aides said party leaders had been kept informed of their work, but the proposals’ impact on ongoing talks was unclear.

 

Their measure would let certain Dreamers ultimately get permanent or conditional residence, and some could eventually qualify for citizenship. It also directs the government to deploy technology to control the border by 2020 and submit a plan to Congress detailing physical barriers and other steps that could be used.

 

On other topics, Pelosi sought to steer clear of any boomlet for a presidential campaign for media mogul Oprah Winfrey, who electrified a Hollywood audience at Sunday night’s Golden Globes awards, though she used the question to take a shot at Trump: “I will say this: Oprah has read books.”

 

Likewise, she steered away from questions raised about Trump’s mental health and fitness as president in the wake of a scathing assessment by author Michael Wolff, who claims Trump aides do not feel he is up to the job of president. Trump himself has called the book “phony” and said it was “full of lies.”

 

“I’m not going down that path” Pelosi said. “This is a strange situation. People have known it for a while. Now there’s a book.”

Trump Takes Victory Lap on Taxes with Rural Americans

Connecting with rural Americans, President Donald Trump on Monday hailed his tax overhaul as a victory for family farmers and pitched his vision to expand access to broadband internet, a cornerstone of economic development in the nation’s heartland.

“Those towers are going to go up and you’re going to have great, great broadband,” Trump told the annual convention of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

“Farm country is God’s country,” he declared.

Trump became the first president in a quarter-century to address the federation’s convention, using the trip to Nashville as a backdrop for a White House report that included proposals to stimulate a segment of the national economy that has lagged behind others. His Southern swing also included a stop in Atlanta for the national college football championship game.

Joined by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and a group of Tennessee lawmakers, Trump said most of the benefits of the tax legislation are “going to working families, small businesses, and who – the family farmer.”

The package Trump signed into law last month provides generous tax cuts for corporations and the wealthiest Americans, and more modest reductions for middle- and low-income individuals and families. 

The president vastly inflated the value of the package in his speech, citing “a total of $5.5 trillion in tax cuts, with most of those benefits going to working families, small businesses and who? The family farmer.” The estimated value of the tax cuts is actually $1.5 trillion for families and businesses because of cuts in deductions and the use of other steps to generate offsetting tax revenue.

Tax reports

The president warned against voting for Democrats in this November’s midterm elections, saying they would undo the tax bill. “If the Democrats ever had the chance, the first thing they would do is get rid of it and raise up your taxes,” Trump said.

Trump also highlighted the doubling of the threshold for the estate tax – earning a standing ovation from the audience – and the ability for companies to immediately write off the full cost of new equipment. He said that “in every decision we make, we are honoring America’s proud farming legacy.”

Central to the report is the assessment that the “provider for an equalization among rural America is connectivity; that high-speed internet should remain a high priority for the administration,” said Ray Starling, the special assistant to the president for agriculture, trade and food assistance. The report calls for expediting federal permitting to allow for broadband internet expansion in rural areas and for making it easier for providers to place cell towers on federal lands.

Trump signed an executive order following his speech on rural broadband, aimed at easing the process to put private broadband infrastructure on federal property. The White House described the move, along with a memorandum directing the Interior Department to work on a plan to increase access to their facilities for broadband deployment, as “incremental,” but the start of an effort to make progress on the issue.

White House officials said all work was in the early stages and did not offer an overall timeline. Officials noted the price tag for rural broadband expansion has been estimated at $80 billion, but said the administration had not determined a cost.

The president also took credit for working to roll back the Obama administration’s interpretation of the Clean Water Act, which had greatly expanded the list of bodies of water subject to federal regulation. The Farm Bureau ran a public relations campaign against the rule and called it “dangerous and unlawful.”

The Agriculture and Rural Prosperity Task Force report highlights the importance of addressing the opioid crisis, which has disproportionately affected rural communities.

Trump also called on Congress to renew the farm bill this year, adding he supports providing for federal crop insurance. The massive federal legislation funds federal agriculture and food policy, and it offers assistance to rural communities.

Trump visits Atlanta

From Nashville, Trump was traveling to Atlanta to watch Alabama’s Crimson Tide and Georgia’s Bulldogs face off Monday night in the College Football Playoff National Championship. The game is set for Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the new $1.5 billion home field of the Atlanta Falcons.

Before departing for the game, Trump referenced his ongoing defense of the American flag and the national anthem, saying there was enough space for people to express their views. “We love our flag and we love our anthem and we want to keep it that way,” he said.

ESPN, which is televising the game, said Sunday that it appeared unlikely Trump would be interviewed during the game. Stephanie Druley, ESPN senior vice president for events and studio programs, said the network had been in contact with the White House and she did not “get the sense” that an interview would be arranged.

Trump criticized ESPN in October in response to “SportsCenter” host Jemelle Hill tweeting that the president was a “white supremacist.”

A network often seeks an interview with the president when he attends a game it’s televising.

Trump, Aides Scorn Book Depicting Chaotic White House

U.S. President Donald Trump and aides on Sunday heaped scorn on a new book detailing his chaotic first year in the White House and suggestions that he is not mentally fit to be the U.S. leader.

Trump, in a Twitter comment, said, “I’ve had to put up with the Fake News from the first day I announced that I would be running for President. Now I have to put up with a Fake Book, written by a totally discredited author.”

Trump’s ire was aimed at journalist Michael Wolff, who, based on 200 interviews with Trump and numerous of his aides, described a dysfunctional White House in his book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, released Friday.

Trump said that three decades ago, another Republican president, Ronald Reagan, was also faced with stories questioning his mental acuity “and handled it well. So will I!”

Stephen Miller, Trump’s top policy adviser, assailed Trump’s former chief strategist Stephen Bannon for comments in the book alleging that Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., son-in-law Jared Kushner, now a key White House adviser, and then-campaign manager Paul Manafort were “treasonous” and “unpatriotic” for meeting in the midst of the 2016 presidential campaign with Russians claming to have incriminating information about Trump’s challenger, Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Miller on CNN described Bannon as an “angry, vindictive person” whose “grotesque comments are so out of touch with reality.” Miller said the “whole White House staff is deeply disappointed in his comments” in the book.

Miller said the Wolff book “is best understood as a work of poorly written fiction. The author is a garbage author of a garbage book. …The betrayal of the president in this book is so contrary to the reality of those who work with him.”

CNN anchor Jake Tapper abruptly ended the interview with Miller, calling him “obsequious” and concerned only about pleasing “one viewer,” Trump.

A short time later, Trump tweeted, “Jake Tapper of Fake News CNN just got destroyed in his interview with Stephen Miller of the Trump Administration. Watch the hatred and unfairness of this CNN flunky!”

Two other Trump administration officials, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and Central Intelligence Agency director Mike Pompeo also expressed support for Trump’s performance on Sunday news talk shows, a day after the U.S. leader described himself as “a very stable genius.”

Haley told ABC News that based on her once-a-week visits to the White House, “No one disrespects the president.” Pompeo told Fox News, “I have watched him take the information that the intelligence community delivers and translate that into policies that are of enormous benefit to America.”

Bannon has not disputed quotes Wolff attributed to him in the book but on Sunday voiced some regret over his role.

He told the Axios news site: “Donald Trump Jr. is both a patriot and a good man. He has been relentless in his advocacy for his father and the agenda that has helped turn our country around.”

Bannon, who returned to Breitbart News, an alt-right website with nationalist views, after leaving the White House, also avowed his continuing support for Trump.

“My support is also unwavering for the president and his agenda,” Bannon said, “as I have shown daily in my national radio broadcasts, on the pages of Breitbart News and in speeches and appearances from Tokyo and Hong Kong to Arizona and Alabama.

“I regret that my delay,” he added, “in responding to the inaccurate reporting regarding Don Jr. has diverted attention from the president’s historical accomplishments in the first year of his presidency.”

Trump has claimed that he “authorized Zero Access” to Wolff at the White House to do his research for the book.

But Wolff told NBC that the president, personally, if reluctantly, allowed him to roam the corridors of the White House and conduct interviews with his aides, at one point saying, “Who cares about a book?”

But by Sunday, two days after its release, Fire and Fury was the top-selling book on the Amazon online retail site.

 

 

 

 

 

Trump Washes His Hands of Insurgency Against GOP Incumbents

President Donald Trump says he’s done campaigning for insurgents challenging incumbent Republican members of Congress.

Trump told reporters after meeting GOP House and Senate leaders at Camp David on Saturday that he’s planning a robust schedule of campaigning for the 2018 midterm elections and that includes involvement in the Republican primaries. He’ll campaign for incumbents, he said, and “anybody else that has my kind of thinking.”

 

But after a stinging loss in Alabama, Trump said he’s done supporting challengers, declaring: “I don’t see that happening.” Trump had supported Roy Moore after he won the GOP primary. Moore’s defeat in the subsequent special election handed Democrats another seat in the Senate.

 

Trump spent much of Friday and Saturday morning hashing out his 2018 agenda with GOP House and Senate leaders, top White House aides and select Cabinet members at the presidential retreat at Camp David. He described the sessions as perhaps transformative in certain ways.

 

A long list of high-stakes topics were on the agenda, from national security and infrastructure to the budget and 2018 midterm election strategy. Though Democrats were not included in the discussions, the leaders — some dressed casually in jeans, khakis and sweaters — said they were optimistic that more Democrats would be working with Republicans.

 

“We hope that 2018’ll be a year of more bipartisan cooperation,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters, predicting a “significant number of Democrats” would be interested in supporting Trump’s agenda.

 

It’s a reflection of reality: Republicans hold a razor-thin majority in the Senate and will need Democrats’ support to push through most legislation. It’s unclear, however, the extent to which Trump is willing to work with Democrats to achieve that goal.

 

Trump, for instance, declared Saturday that he will not sign legislation protecting hundreds of thousands of young people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children unless Congress agrees to fund his promised border wall as well as overhaul the legal immigration system. Trump last year ended the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which shielded more than 700,000 people from deportation and gave then the right to work legally in the country, and gave Congress until March to find a fix.

 

Trump said any deal must stop immigrants from being able to sponsor their extended family members and must end the diversity visa lottery, which draws immigrants from under-represented parts of a world. That’s in addition to funding for the southern border wall, a deeply unpopular idea among Democrats.

 

The administration on Friday unveiled a 10-year, $18 billion request for the wall that roiled the immigration talks and infuriated Democrats who’ve spent months in negotiations, increasing the prospect of a government shutdown.

 

But Trump appeared oblivious to the anger on Saturday. “We hope that we’re going to be able to work out an arrangement with the Democrats,” he said. “It’s something, certainly, that I’d like to see happen.”

 

Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, the House majority whip, also expressed guarded optimism when he returned to his state after the retreat. “For a few weeks now it seems like there’s the ability to get an agreement reached but none has been finalized yet,” he said of the effort to protect the young immigrants who came under Obama’s program. “I think the framework is there and the president is fully engaged.”

 

Trump also appeared Saturday to back away from efforts to overhaul the welfare system, which just weeks ago had been identified as one of the White House’s top two legislative priorities, along with a massive infrastructure investment plan.

 

McConnell had argued that welfare reform was a no-go given Democratic opposition. And Trump appeared to have come around.

 

“It’s a subject that’s very dear to our heart,” Trump said. “We’ll try and do something in a bipartisan way. Otherwise, we’ll be holding it for a little bit later.”

 

Republicans are eager to build on the victory achieved late last year with the overhaul of the nation’s tax code. But before moving on to infrastructure and other items, Trump and his GOP allies first must navigate a tricky landscape of leftover legislation from last year that promises to test party unity in the coming weeks.

 

The need to work with Democrats on a spending package, for instance, is sure to whip up opposition from many conservatives to a hoped-for catchall spending bill slated for next month.

 

The Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains provides a woodsy respite from Washington. It’s a place where presidents and lawmakers can bond over meals, hikes and movie nights.

 

“There’s a feeling here that you don’t have in very many places. There was a bonding,” Trump said of the visit.

 

Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, told reporters Saturday that lawmakers and top White House officials had enjoyed “a couple of glasses of wine together last night” and gathered with Trump to watch the new movie “The Greatest Showman,” starring Hugh Jackman. (He described it as “very, very entertaining.”)

 

Politics, too, were on the agenda, with talks about the midterm elections. Republicans are at risk of losing the majority they’ve held in the House since 2011, and could also lose seats in the Senate, though many more Democratic incumbents are up for re-election this year.

 

Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, became a self-styled leader of an insurgency against Republican incumbents, arguing that Trump’s agenda could only be passed with an influx of outsiders. But Bannon is on the outs with Trump and the president’s comments Saturday suggested he’s washing his hands of any such uprising. Trump said he needs more Republicans in Congress.

 

 

 

 

Iran Parliament to Discuss Anti-government Protests

Iran’s parliament is set to hold a special session as soon as Sunday to discuss the anti-government protests that began Dec. 28 and continued through this week.

Iran’s ISNA news agency reported that Iran’s interior minister, head of intelligence and security council chief are all expected to attend. On the agenda are discussions of the root cause of the protests, as well as legal help for protesters jailed during the demonstrations.

The session was called by a group of reformist lawmakers, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. In a letter, those lawmakers called for legal assistance for the detained and condemned any outside “interference” in the protests, calling out the United States in particular.

U.S. President Donald Trump is set to decide next week whether to continue waiving sanctions on Iran that were suspended under the 2015 international deal on Iran’s nuclear program. The waiver must be renewed every 120 days, according to U.S. law. Trump could decide not to renew, putting U.S. trade sanctions back into effect.

In Europe, supporters of the anti-government protesters in Iran have been gathering to show their support in The Hague, Berlin, Hamburg, Stockholm, London and Paris.

At least 22 people have died in the protests, and more than 1,000 have been arrested. Hard-line cleric Ahmad Khatami told worshippers in a sermon Friday that those arrested should be treated as enemies of Islam, particularly those who have burned the flag. 

“There should be no mercy for them,” he said.

Government official Mansour Gholami has told reporters that about a quarter of those arrested have been released, but he did not provide exact numbers.

UN Security Council

The United Nations Security Council held an emergency meeting Friday at the urging of the United States.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley called the protests “a powerful exhibition of brave people who have become so fed up with their oppressive government that they are willing to risk their lives in protests.” She also addressed the Iranian government, saying, “the U.S. is watching what you do.”

In response, the Iranian ambassador, Gholamali Khoshroo, said it is a “discredit” to the Security Council to hold such a meeting on Iran in the face of the conflicts taking place in Yemen and elsewhere in the Middle East. He, along with a number of Security Council members, said the United States is meddling in Iran’s domestic affairs.

After the meeting, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted, “The UNSC rebuffed the U.S.’s naked attempt to hijack its mandate. … Another FP (foreign policy) blunder for the Trump administration.”

Still, U.S. intelligence officials warn Tehran is at a crossroads, noting the protests are the biggest outpouring of public discontent since Iranians took to the streets in 2009 following a disputed presidential election.

“The protests are symptomatic of long-standing grievances that have been left to fester,” an intelligence official told VOA on condition of anonymity. “Will it address the legitimate concerns of its people or suppress the voices of its own populace?”

“What is clear is that these concerns are not going away,” the official said.

Critics of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani say he has abandoned the poor, pointing to rising prices for key commodities like fuel, bread and eggs.

Trump Says No to Immigration Protection Bill Unless it Includes Border Wall Funds

U.S. President Donald Trump reiterated Saturday that he would not support legislation to protect hundreds of thousands of immigrants from deportation unless it included funding for a border wall and eliminates the visa lottery program and extended-family-based immigration.

“We all want DACA to happen, but we also want great security for our country,” Trump said of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which expires in March.

Trump spoke as he met with Republican lawmakers and members of his Cabinet to establish the administration’s 2018 legislative priorities and to devise a strategy for midterm elections in November. They were gathered at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland.

“We went into DACA and how we’re going to do it, and we hope that we’re going be able to work out an arrangement with the Democrats. I think it’s something that they’d like to see happen,” Trump told reporters.

In September, Trump rescinded DACA, which was instituted by former President Barack Obama. It protected nearly 800,000 immigrants from deportation, allowing them to legally live and work in the United States.

Trump gave Congress until March 5 to agree on legislation that would allow equivalent protections to those offered under DACA, provided the measure included funding for a wall along the border with Mexico, ended the visa lottery program, and ended extended-family-based immigration, in which immigrants from a particular area follow others from that area to specific U.S. cities or neighborhoods.

Trump also said the drug crisis in America had reached unprecedented levels and vowed his administration would make a “big dent” in resolving the problem this year.

“One of the things we are discussing very powerfully is drugs pouring into this country and how to stop it, because it’s at a point over the last number of years … it’s never been like this,” he said.

Trump said the drug problem is less difficult to deal with in countries that “take it very seriously, and they’re very harsh” — an apparent signal the U.S. is preparing to take a much tougher approach. 

“We are going to be working on that very, very hard this year, and I think we’re going make a big dent into the drug problem,” he said.

Trump said the Republican leaders also discussed the nation’s infrastructure needs and a variety of military issues.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who was among those in attendance, did not elaborate on priorities for the the new year. But he told reporters 2017 would be “a tough year to top” and added, “If you are like those of us here at the podium, you’d like to see America be a right-of-center country.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan said rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure and bolstering the military would be priorities this year, as well as ensuring “that everyone enjoys the economic growth that’s to come.”

Republican legislative priorities also will include the budget, welfare reform and the midterm elections. Additionally, Republicans have been eager to cut benefit programs like welfare and food stamps.

Congress must work quickly, however, to approve a funding plan by January 19 to avoid a government shutdown.

Republican priorities could be stopped in their tracks if the Democrats are successful during the midterm elections.

Trump has been facing increasing criticism about his presidential style. He begins the new year with the release of a bombshell book, Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff, that describes the president as being like a child and in need of psychiatric help.

It remains to be seen how the book and other accounts of Trump’s mental status will affect the upcoming elections.

All 435 members of the House and one-third of the 100 members of the Senate will be up for re-election in 2018. 

Nearly 200,000 Salvadorans Anxiously Await Decision on TPS Future

Nearly 200,000 Salvadoran beneficiaries of Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, anxiously wait as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security weighs a decision whether to end the designated security program. Given precedent with beneficiaries from Haiti, Nicaragua and Sudan, TPS holders from El Salvador worry they may be next on Trump’s chopping block, despite a 16-year history of integration across multigeneration households. VOA spoke with one mixed-status family at their home in Virginia.

‘Fire and Fury’ Author Defends Book’s Accuracy Against White House Pushback

‘Fire and Fury,’ a new tell-all book about intrigue in the Trump White House, is the talk of political Washington. VOA White House correspondent Peter Heinlein reports that President Donald Trump is said to be furious with former adviser Steve Bannon, who is quoted as making some damning comments about the president and his family.

As Trump Administration Expresses Support for Iran Protests, Nuclear Deal Deadline Looms

The Trump administration this week has not shied away from expressing support for the thousands of Iranians who have taken to the streets to protest government corruption and economic hardship. And while U.S. officials have threatened targeted sanctions against those who crack down on demonstrators, President Donald Trump is facing a Jan. 13 deadline on whether to reimpose economic sanctions against Iran that were suspended under the 2015 nuclear deal. VOA’s Aru Pande has more from Washington.

US Suspends Security Aid to Pakistan

The United States says it is suspending security aid assistance to Pakistan until the country takes action against terrorist organizations, including the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network, a move that was criticized by Islamabad. VOA State Department Correspondent Nike Ching reports.

Report: Trump Tried to Keep Sessions at Helm of Russian Inquiry

President Donald Trump directed his White House counsel to tell Attorney General Jeff Sessions to not recuse himself from the Justice Department’s investigation into potential ties between Russia and the Trump campaign, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The conversation between Don McGahn, the president’s White House counsel, and Sessions took place on the president’s orders and occurred just before the attorney general announced that he would step aside from the ongoing inquiry into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, according to a person with knowledge of the interaction. Two other people confirmed details of the conversation between McGahn and Sessions.

All three people spoke on condition of anonymity to The Associated Press to avoid publicly discussing an ongoing investigation.

​Mueller aware of conversation

The episode is known to special counsel Robert Mueller and his team of prosecutors and is likely of interest to them as they look into whether Trump’s actions as president, including the May firing of FBI Director James Comey, amount to improper efforts to obstruct the Russia investigation. Investigators recently concluded a round of interviews with current and former White House officials, including McGahn.

The New York Times first reported that Trump had McGahn lobby Sessions against a recusal.

Sessions announced on March 2 that he would recuse himself from that probe. He said at the time that he should not oversee an investigation into a campaign for which he was an active and vocal supporter. The recusal also followed the revelation that he had had two previously undisclosed interactions during the 2016 campaign with the Russian ambassador to the United States.

​McGahn speaks with Sessions 

But soon before the announcement, McGahn spoke to Sessions by phone and urged him against recusing himself from the investigation.

During the conversation, according to people familiar with the matter, McGahn argued to Sessions that there was no reason or basis at that time for him to recuse. One person said McGahn also told him that recusal would do nothing to resolve concerns over whether Sessions had given a misleading answer at his confirmation hearing weeks earlier when he said he had not had any contacts with Russians.

Sessions ultimately declined the urging, and McGahn accepted the conclusion of officials who believed that Sessions should recuse.