Students Wary, Hopeful, Proud as Florida School Reopens

The walkway leading onto the campus of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is lined with flowers and photographs, memorials to the 17 students and teachers killed in a Valentine’s Day massacre that forever altered their lives and thrust them into the center of the nation’s gun debate.

Alexis Grogan, a 15-year-old sophomore, planned to wear a Stoneman Douglas color — maroon — on the first day back to class Wednesday, plus sneakers that say “MSD Strong, be positive, be passionate, be proud to be an eagle” and “2/14/18” in honor of those who died.

She feels nervous, like it might be too soon to go on as usual without slain friends like Luke Hoyer, who sat two seats behind her in Spanish. Still, the support from her fellow students, and their fight to strengthen gun control laws have buoyed her spirits.

“I am so proud of how the kids at my school have been fighting because we all want change to happen and, as we see the progression, it really shows us that people do care and they do hear what we have to say,” Grogan said in a text message.

​Keeping the pressure on

The Douglas students return to school after a whirlwind of political activism that has reignited the nation’s gun and school-safety debate. Douglas sophomore Charlotte Dixon said some of her friends are having a hard time returning to classes. But like Grogan, they are encouraged by the attention to gun laws their actions have brought.

“I’m so glad that people are stepping forward and talking about it keeping it relevant … because it shouldn’t happen to anyone ever again,” Dixon said.

On Tuesday, relatives of the Stoneman Douglas victims kept up the pressure in Florida’s capital with emotional testimony during a legislative hearing to discuss passing a bill that would, among other things, raise the age limit to buy long guns from 18 to 21. The bill also would create a program that allows teachers who receive law-enforcement training and are deputized by the local sheriff’s office to carry concealed weapons in the classroom, if also approved by the school district. The school’s superintendent has spoken out firmly against that measure.

The House Appropriations Committee’s 23-6 vote in favor of the bill Tuesday followed more than four hours of emotional discussion with the parents of some of the 17 killed, and nearly two weeks of activism by students on social media and in televised debates.

Gov. Rick Scott, who met with officials in Miami-Dade County on Tuesday, said at a news conference that he hopes a gun and school-safety bill is passed before Florida’s annual legislative session ends March 9. He had proposed measures that overlap with the Legislature’s plan but did not include arming teachers. However, he declined to say Tuesday whether he would veto the sweeping package if it included that provision.

The Senate’s version of the school-safety bill was approved by a second committee on a 13-7 vote Tuesday evening. Sen. Bill Galvano, who is designated to become the next Senate president and is ushering through the bill, said the earliest it will be considered by the full Senate is Friday.

Marion Hammer, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association and Unified Sportsmen of Florida, told the House Appropriations Committee that she supports tightening school security and keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, but not the House bill’s gun-ownership restrictions, which she later said would not have stopped the Parkland shooting.

“Part of what we need to do is make people understand that guns are not the problem,” she said after the hearing. “So passing more laws dealing with guns as a solution to a problem that exists within the enforcement of laws is just kind of silly.”

Max Schachter, father of 14-year-old victim Alex Schachter, said the bill the House committee eventually approved doesn’t go far enough, but could have saved his son.

“If we would have had these measures in place, I would not have had to bury my son next to his mother a week and a half ago. … I’m pleading for your help. I’m willing to compromise. Are you?” he asked.

​Personal memorials

Outside the school on Tuesday, people tied poems to the chain-link fence surrounding the school, and dropped off red, heart-shaped balloons. The building where the shooting occurred was cordoned off, and people signed photographs of the fallen.

Junior Sidney Fischer, 17, was in a Holocaust history class when the shooter aimed his gun at the window and shot into the room. Two students in his classroom died. He’s planning to wear swim goggles on his first day back Wednesday to honor his friend Nicholas Dworet, who was an accomplished swimmer.

“Obviously our school will never be the same, but I think once we get back into our normal routine people will shift back into a comfortable state,” Fischer said.

He’s planning to ride to school with a friend — just like they did before the shooting.

“I’m actually not too scared of going back tomorrow,” he said. “There is this sort of looming thought that someone will try to perform another shooting but I’m sure our school will be riddled with security.”

Students Wary, Hopeful, Proud as Florida School Reopens

The walkway leading onto the campus of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is lined with flowers and photographs, memorials to the 17 students and teachers killed in a Valentine’s Day massacre that forever altered their lives and thrust them into the center of the nation’s gun debate.

Alexis Grogan, a 15-year-old sophomore, planned to wear a Stoneman Douglas color — maroon — on the first day back to class Wednesday, plus sneakers that say “MSD Strong, be positive, be passionate, be proud to be an eagle” and “2/14/18” in honor of those who died.

She feels nervous, like it might be too soon to go on as usual without slain friends like Luke Hoyer, who sat two seats behind her in Spanish. Still, the support from her fellow students, and their fight to strengthen gun control laws have buoyed her spirits.

“I am so proud of how the kids at my school have been fighting because we all want change to happen and, as we see the progression, it really shows us that people do care and they do hear what we have to say,” Grogan said in a text message.

​Keeping the pressure on

The Douglas students return to school after a whirlwind of political activism that has reignited the nation’s gun and school-safety debate. Douglas sophomore Charlotte Dixon said some of her friends are having a hard time returning to classes. But like Grogan, they are encouraged by the attention to gun laws their actions have brought.

“I’m so glad that people are stepping forward and talking about it keeping it relevant … because it shouldn’t happen to anyone ever again,” Dixon said.

On Tuesday, relatives of the Stoneman Douglas victims kept up the pressure in Florida’s capital with emotional testimony during a legislative hearing to discuss passing a bill that would, among other things, raise the age limit to buy long guns from 18 to 21. The bill also would create a program that allows teachers who receive law-enforcement training and are deputized by the local sheriff’s office to carry concealed weapons in the classroom, if also approved by the school district. The school’s superintendent has spoken out firmly against that measure.

The House Appropriations Committee’s 23-6 vote in favor of the bill Tuesday followed more than four hours of emotional discussion with the parents of some of the 17 killed, and nearly two weeks of activism by students on social media and in televised debates.

Gov. Rick Scott, who met with officials in Miami-Dade County on Tuesday, said at a news conference that he hopes a gun and school-safety bill is passed before Florida’s annual legislative session ends March 9. He had proposed measures that overlap with the Legislature’s plan but did not include arming teachers. However, he declined to say Tuesday whether he would veto the sweeping package if it included that provision.

The Senate’s version of the school-safety bill was approved by a second committee on a 13-7 vote Tuesday evening. Sen. Bill Galvano, who is designated to become the next Senate president and is ushering through the bill, said the earliest it will be considered by the full Senate is Friday.

Marion Hammer, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association and Unified Sportsmen of Florida, told the House Appropriations Committee that she supports tightening school security and keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, but not the House bill’s gun-ownership restrictions, which she later said would not have stopped the Parkland shooting.

“Part of what we need to do is make people understand that guns are not the problem,” she said after the hearing. “So passing more laws dealing with guns as a solution to a problem that exists within the enforcement of laws is just kind of silly.”

Max Schachter, father of 14-year-old victim Alex Schachter, said the bill the House committee eventually approved doesn’t go far enough, but could have saved his son.

“If we would have had these measures in place, I would not have had to bury my son next to his mother a week and a half ago. … I’m pleading for your help. I’m willing to compromise. Are you?” he asked.

​Personal memorials

Outside the school on Tuesday, people tied poems to the chain-link fence surrounding the school, and dropped off red, heart-shaped balloons. The building where the shooting occurred was cordoned off, and people signed photographs of the fallen.

Junior Sidney Fischer, 17, was in a Holocaust history class when the shooter aimed his gun at the window and shot into the room. Two students in his classroom died. He’s planning to wear swim goggles on his first day back Wednesday to honor his friend Nicholas Dworet, who was an accomplished swimmer.

“Obviously our school will never be the same, but I think once we get back into our normal routine people will shift back into a comfortable state,” Fischer said.

He’s planning to ride to school with a friend — just like they did before the shooting.

“I’m actually not too scared of going back tomorrow,” he said. “There is this sort of looming thought that someone will try to perform another shooting but I’m sure our school will be riddled with security.”

U.S. Attorney General Announces New Task Force to Combat Opioid Epidemic

Joined by several state attorneys general and the acting DEA administrator, U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions announced a new task force to crack down on opioid manufacturers and distributors. He also announced the hiring of a federal prosecutor to lead anti-opioid efforts at the Department of Justice. From Washington, VOA’s Jill Craig has more.

U.S. Attorney General Announces New Task Force to Combat Opioid Epidemic

Joined by several state attorneys general and the acting DEA administrator, U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions announced a new task force to crack down on opioid manufacturers and distributors. He also announced the hiring of a federal prosecutor to lead anti-opioid efforts at the Department of Justice. From Washington, VOA’s Jill Craig has more.

White House Aide Hope Hicks Faces Lawmakers’ Questions

White House communications director Hope Hicks, one of President Donald Trump’s longest-running aides, appeared Tuesday before a congressional panel probing his campaign’s links to Russia, but it is not clear how many questions she was willing to answer.

The House Intelligence Committee is meeting behind closed doors with Hicks, who first worked for the Trump family as a public relations spokeswoman for Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, to promote her clothing business before later joining Trump’s campaign on his successful 2016 run for the White House.

The congressional panel has sparred in recent weeks with former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon over the scope of questions he would answer about the weeks after Trump won the election before taking office and then events that occurred after Trump assumed power 13 months ago.

The White House did not invoke executive privilege against his testimony, but worked to limit the scope of questions he would answer to a prepared list of queries.

It has not been disclosed what line of questions the 29-year-old Hicks will face. Her earlier appearance in January before the same committee was scuttled in a dispute over what questions she would answer.

One point of Tuesday’s inquiry is likely to focus on her role in helping draft a misleading statement on Air Force One last year about a June 2016 meeting that Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and then-campaign manager Paul Manafort held with a Russian lawyer in Trump Tower in the midst of the campaign. The younger Trump set up the meeting believing he would get incriminating information about Democrat Hillary Clinton, Trump’s opponent, but the mid-2017 statement about the gathering said it was about Americans’ adoptions of Russian children.

Congressman Michael Conaway, a Texas Republican who who is running the panel’s Russia investigation, said Monday that he “would not be surprised” if Hicks refuses to answer certain questions on grounds that Trump may eventually want to invoke executive privilege to keep secret conversations he had with her.

Trump almost daily attacks the investigations into Russia’s meddling in the election that was aimed at helping him defeat Clinton, a former U.S. secretary of state.

On Tuesday, hours before Hicks was set for questioning, Trump said on Twitter, “WITCH HUNT,” in all capital letters. He quoted several analysts who say they see no evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia or that he obstructed justice in trying to curb the FBI’s Russia investigation by firing former FBI director James Comey, who at the time was leading the agency’s Russia probe.

Trump’s ouster of Comey last May led to the appointment of another former FBI director, Robert Mueller, as the special counsel to continue the Russia investigation.

Mueller has secured guilty pleas from Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and former foreign affairs adviser George Papadopoulos for lying to investigators about their Russia contacts. One-time Trump campaign aide Rick Gates pleaded guilty last week to financial fraud and lying to investigators in connection with his lobbying efforts for the Moscow-backed government in Ukraine that predated his role in the U.S. political race. 

Trump Names Campaign Manager for Re-Election Bid

U.S. President Donald Trump has named Republican digital strategist Brad Parscale to be the campaign manager of his 2020 re-election bid.

An official statement referred to Parscale as an “amazing talent, selected based on record of success.” Over the past year, the 42-year-old Parscale has been helping run a pro-Trump outside group called America First Action.

While Trump offers his views on issues large and small on Twitter, Parscale used the social media outlet Facebook to target rural voters during Trump’s successful 2016 campaign for the White House.

Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a top White House adviser, said Parscale “was essential in bringing a disciplined technology and data-driven approach to how the 2016 campaign was run.”

Trump, within hours of being inaugurated 13 months ago, said he would run for re-election for a second four-year term.

The U.S. leader has maintained a campaign office in Trump Tower, the New York skyscraper where he has a home and served as his 2016 campaign headquarters. He has been raising millions of dollars in a joint effort for his re-election campaign and the Republican National Committee.

Numerous Democrats have been eyeing the possibility of running against Trump, but most have held back on making any announcements of their intentions until after next November’s congressional elections.

A third of the Senate seats and the entire 435-member House of Representatives are up for election, with the results giving Washington politicians a reading on voter sentiment two years ahead of the next presidential contest in November 2020.

 

US Top Court to Mull Rules on What Voters Can Wear to Polls

Political activist Andy Cilek arrived at his local polling site in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, on Election Day in 2010 wearing a T-shirt touting the conservative Tea Party movement with the words “Don’t Tread on Me” as well as a button stating, “Please I.D. Me.”

His attire was enough to get him stopped in his tracks by a poll worker because Minnesota law forbids voters from donning political badges, buttons or other insignia inside polling places during elections. Cilek eventually was permitted to vote, but the confrontation became a key part of a legal challenge that reaches the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday.

The nine justices will hear arguments over whether the state law violates the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment guarantee of free speech. Cilek is being represented by a prominent conservative legal advocacy group, but also has the backing of the American Civil Liberties Union.

At least nine other states – Delaware, Kansas, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont and South Carolina – have similar restrictions on political apparel at polling places, according to the plaintiffs. Minnesota defends its law as necessary to keep order at polling places at a time of intense U.S. political polarization.

Political messages on apparel “could give rise to verbal disputes or even physical altercations,” a court filing by Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon and other officials said, citing fights at polling locations in Florida and Michigan on Election Day 2016.

“Tensions may well be running high, particularly when the election has been a contentious one,” they added.

The Minnesota Voters Alliance, a St. Paul-based conservative group headed by Cilek that brought the case with the support of the Pacific Legal Foundation, is appealing a lower court ruling that upheld the state law. The challengers said merely wearing something political at a polling station is a peaceful act.

In Minnesota, election officials have interpreted the law as barring campaign literature and material from groups with political views such as the Tea Party movement or the liberal MoveOn.org. Violators are asked to cover up or remove offending items. If they do not, the may still vote, but their names are to be taken down for possible prosecution. The state said it has no record of prosecutions under the law.

Third time’s a charm

Cilek said he was twice turned away from his polling site on Election Day 2010 because the head election judge disapproved of his attire, including the button that alluded to voter-identification laws backed by many Republicans.

On his third try, Cilek said, he was allowed to vote. “I was just thinking that they’re hell bent on not letting me vote,” Cilek said in an interview. “I was just kind of shocked by the whole deal.”

Cilek, a 54-year-old former U.S. marine, said the genesis of the lawsuit was a perception that election officials were targeting groups they did not like.

“It’s an absurd policy that you’re going to allow election judges to be the arbiters of free speech,” Cilek said.

In a brief filed supporting Cilek’s group, the ACLU warned against allowing poll workers discretion to decide what is impermissibly political.

“A phrase that one person may consider to be innocuous or nonpolitical – like ‘#MeToo’ – may appear to another to be an overtly political statement,” the ACLU said, referring to a movement encouraging women to share their experiences of abuse.

Minnesota said the law is applied neutrally and helps prevent confusion or intimidation during voting. The law is similar to one in Tennessee that the Supreme Court upheld in 1992 barring vote solicitation and the display or distribution of campaign materials within 100 feet (30 meters) of a polling place, the state said.

In rulings in 2013 and 2017, the St. Louis-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Minnesota restrictions, suggesting the law helps maintain “peace, order and decorum” at polling sites.

“On the one hand, the Supreme Court has recognized that areas immediately around polling places can be zones free of politics,” said Richard Hasen, a University of California, Irvine, professor specializing in election law. “On other hand, Minnesota’s law appears quite broad.”

Michael Dimino, a constitutional and election law professor at Widener University Commonwealth Law School in Pennsylvania, said Minnesota is going to have to show that the ban is the least restrictive means of solving the problem it is meant to address.

“Speculative arguments based on what could happen are the kinds of arguments that governments have used for decades to justify overly broad crackdowns on speech,” Dimino said.

 

Americans Say Congress Listening to All the Wrong People

Looking for common ground with your neighbor these days? Try switching subjects from the weather to Congress. Chances are, you both agree it’s terrible.

 

In red, blue or purple states, in middle America or on the coasts, most Americans loathe the nation’s legislature. One big reason: Most think lawmakers are listening to all the wrong people, suggests a new study by researchers at Stanford University and the University of California-Santa Barbara with the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

 

“We have the best Congress you can buy and pay for,” said Chester Trahan, 78, of Palm Coast, Florida. “Congress, they’re subject to the special interest groups and that’s really who’s running the show.”

 

Hating Congress has become a lasting feature of American politics, regardless of which party is in power or whether the 435 House members and 100 senators pass lots of legislation — or don’t do much of anything at all.

 

A new poll from the AP-NORC Center found that 85 percent of Americans, including 89 percent of Democrats and 82 percent of Republicans, disapprove of the job Congress is doing. That might matter in this midterm election year, as Republicans defend their majorities in the House and Senate.

 

In the study by Stanford, UC-Santa Barbara and the AP-NORC Center, which was conducted in 2015 and again in 2017, only about 2 in 10 said they think Congress pays much attention to their own constituents or Americans as a whole, or even give much consideration to the best interests of those people.

 

Instead, most said Congress does listen to lobbyists, donors and the wealthy.

 

That’s exactly the opposite of the way people think Congress should function, the study found. The highest levels of disapproval came from Americans who felt the largest sense of disconnect between whom they think Congress should listen to and whom they believe Congress actually listens to.

 

That disconnect played out in the public square last week as the nation reeled from yet another mass shooting — this time, the Valentine’s Day killing of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Many raged over what they see as the National Rifle Association’s power to stifle efforts to tighten gun laws, including a ban on assault rifles.

 

“Can you tell me right now that you will not accept a single donation from the NRA?” student Cameron Kasky demanded of Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who appeared on CNN’s “Stand Up” town hall.

 

Rubio, one of the gun rights groups’ top beneficiaries over his political career, would not make that pledge. Nor have other congressional Republicans, who are overwhelmingly favored by gun rights supporters when it comes to campaign contributions.

 

The disillusionment is not just about guns, and it’s not new. Democrats and Republicans alike see members of Congress as mostly listening to elites and donors rather than the ordinary people they represent.

 

Congress has rarely been especially popular in polls conducted over the past several decades, but approval of the House and Senate’s performance has been particularly low over the past several years. In polling by Gallup, Congress’ approval rating has been below 20 percent for eight straight years.

 

Americans are more likely to approve of their own member of Congress than of Congress generally, but even that rating is less than stellar. In the latest AP-NORC poll, 44 percent of Americans — 41 percent of Democrats and 50 percent of Republicans — approve of the person representing their district.

 

American apathy toward their lawmakers has become an area of scholarly study, with some researchers contending that when Congress doesn’t act, it’s often representing a divided electorate that can’t resolve disagreements, either.

 

That certainly describes the United States now, which is deeply divided over such uncomfortable matters as immigration, gun control and President Donald Trump. Even with Republicans in control of the presidency and the House and Senate, Congress passed just one significant piece of legislation during Trump’s first year in office — a $1.5 trillion overhaul of U.S. tax laws that Republicans hope will begin to boost American paychecks this year.

 

“It is not crumbs,” Trump said earlier this month in a brushback to Democratic efforts to campaign against the tax cuts.

 

In November, voters cast ballots for every House seat and 34 in the Senate. And it’s fair to say plenty of members of Congress have had enough of Congress, too — including more than 50 House members who have opted to leave rather than seek re-election.

 

Among the other reasons for all the Congress hate, fewer than 2 in 10 Americans in the new study said they think Congress passes mostly good laws. The remainder considers congressional output to be at best neutral, with over a third seeing it as mostly bad. At the same time, Americans who felt Congress should be passing either more laws or fewer of them were far more likely to disapprove of Congress than those who felt the number of laws passed by Congress is about right.

 

“Most of them have got it wrong,” said David Peterson, 67, a Republican-leaning Vietnam veteran from Torrance, California. “The fact that Congress can’t seem to come to grips with health care, can’t seem to come to grips with immigration, can’t seem to come to grips with legislating firearms. It makes me less optimistic.”

 

The study was conducted in 2015 and 2017 using samples drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. Funding was provided by the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University and by NORC.

 

The most recent AP-NORC poll of 1,337 adults was conducted Feb. 15-19 using a sample drawn from NORC’s AmeriSpeak Panel, and has a margin of sampling error for all respondents of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.

Trump Org. Donates Foreign Profits, But Won’t Say How Much

The Trump Organization said Monday it has made good on the president’s promise to donate profits from foreign government spending at its hotels to the U.S. Treasury, but neither the company nor the government disclosed the amount or how it was calculated.

 

Watchdog groups seized on the lack of detail as another example of the secrecy surrounding President Donald Trump’s pledges to separate his administration from his business empire.

 

“There is no independent oversight or accountability. We’re being asked to take their word for it,” said Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “Most importantly, even if they had given every dime they made from foreign governments to the Treasury, the taking of those payments would still be a problem under the Constitution.”

 

Trump Organization Executive Vice President and Chief Compliance Counsel George Sorial said in a statement to The Associated Press that the donation was made on Feb. 22 and includes profits from Jan. 20 through Dec. 31, 2017. The company declined to provide a sum or breakdown of the amounts by country.

 

Sorial said the profits were calculated using “our policy and the Uniform System of Accounts for the Lodging Industry” but did not elaborate. The U.S. Treasury did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

 

Watchdog group Public Citizen questioned the spirit of the pledge in a letter to the Trump Organization earlier this month since the methodology used for donations would seemingly not require any donation from unprofitable properties receiving foreign government revenue.

 

Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, said that the lack of disclosure was unsurprising given that the Trump’s family businesses have “a penchant for secrecy and a readiness to violate their promises.”

 

“Did they pay with Monopoly money? If the Trump Organization won’t say how much they paid, let alone how they calculated it at each property, why in the world should we believe they actually have delivered on their promise?” Weissman said.

 

Ethics experts had already found problems with the pledge Trump made at a news conference held days before his inauguration because it didn’t include all his properties, such as his resorts, and left it up to Trump to define “profit.” The pledge was supposedly made to ameliorate the worry that Trump was violating the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which bans the president’s acceptance of foreign gifts and money without Congress’ permission.

 

Several lawsuits have challenged Trump’s ties to his business ventures and his refusal to divest from them. The suits allege that foreign governments’ use of Trump’s hotels and other properties violates the emoluments clause.

 

Trump’s attorneys have challenged the premise that a hotel room is an “emolument” but announced the pledge to “do more than what the Constitution requires” by donating foreign profits at the news conference. Later, questions emerged about exactly what this would entail.

 

An eight-page pamphlet provided by the Trump Organization to the House Oversight Committee in May said that the company planned to send the Treasury only profits obviously tied to foreign governments, and not ask guests questions about the source of their money because that would “impede upon personal privacy and diminish the guest experience of our brand.”

 

“It’s bad that Trump won’t divest himself and establish a truly blind trust, and it’s worse that he won’t be transparent,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, ranking member on the House Oversight Committee. He called the Republicans refusal to do oversight, such as subpoena documents, that would shed light on Trump’s conflicts of interest “unconscionable.”

US on China’s Proposal to Scrap Term Limits: ‘That’s a Decision for China’

The White House says China’s proposal to abolish presidential term limits — a move that could make Xi Jinping president for life — is an internal matter for Beijing.

“I believe that’s a decision for China to make about what’s best for their country,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at a Monday press briefing.

Term limits, Sanders said, are something Trump “supports here in the United States, but that’s a decision that would be up to China.”

The Chinese Communist Party proposed removing the presidential two-term limit from China’s constitution, state media reported Sunday.

The move would be a further consolidation of power for Xi, who is already seen as one of China’s most powerful leaders in decades.

On Monday, U.S. President Donald Trump praised Xi, saying he has a “very good relationship” and “great respect” for the Chinese leader.

“I think that President Xi is unique. He’s helping us with North Korea,” Trump said during a White House meeting with U.S. governors.

Trump has not specifically addressed the issue of China removing term limits.

To some, Sanders’ comments are the latest evidence of a break in the long-standing U.S. tradition of encouraging democracy in China, and reflect an unwillingness to criticize undemocratic regimes.

“In effect, she is saying that the U.S. is OK with Xi Jinping simply asserting that he will remain in power indefinitely,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Does she realize China isn’t a democracy?”

During the presidential campaign, Trump regularly slammed China and its trade policies. But since becoming president, Trump has toned down the criticism.

Instead, Trump has prioritized working with China to address North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

However, several reports suggest the White House could soon announce trade decisions, such as tariffs on Chinese imports, that could strain the U.S.-China relationship.

Congress Returns With Gun Violence an Unexpected Issue

After a 10-day break, members of Congress are returning to work under hefty pressure to respond to the outcry over gun violence. But no plan appears ready to take off despite a long list of proposals, including many from President Donald Trump.

Republican leaders have kept quiet for days as Trump tossed out ideas, including raising the minimum age to purchase assault-style weapons and arming teachers, though on Saturday the president tweeted that the latter was “Up to states.”

Their silence has left little indication whether they are ready to rally their ranks behind any one of the president’s ideas, dust off another proposal or do nothing. The most likely legislative option is bolstering the federal background check system for gun purchases, but it’s bogged down after being linked with a less popular measure to expand gun rights.

The halting start reflects firm GOP opposition to any bill that would curb access to guns and risk antagonizing gun advocates in their party. Before the Feb. 14 shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people, Republicans had no intention of reviving the polarizing and politically risky gun debate during an already difficult election year that could endanger their congressional majority.

“There’s no magic bill that’s going to stop the next thing from happening when so many laws are already on the books that weren’t being enforced, that were broken,” said Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., the third-ranking House GOP leader, when asked about solutions. “The breakdowns that happen, this is what drives people nuts,” said Scalise, who suffered life-threatening injuries when a gunman opened fire on lawmakers’ baseball team practice last year.

Under tough public questioning from shooting survivors, Trump has set high expectations for action.

“I think we’re going to have a great bill put forward very soon having to do with background checks, having to do with getting rid of certain things and keeping other things, and perhaps we’ll do something on age,” Trump said in a Fox News Channel interview Saturday night. He added: “We are drawing up strong legislation right now having to do with background checks, mental illness. I think you will have tremendous support. It’s time. It’s time.”

Trump’s early ideas were met with mixed reactions from his party. His talk of allowing teachers to carry concealed weapons into classrooms was rejected by at least one Republican, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., both spoke to Trump on Friday. Their offices declined comment on the conversations or legislative strategy.

Some Republicans backed up Trump’s apparent endorsement of raising the age minimum for buying some weapons.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said he would support raising the age limit to buy a semi-automatic weapon like the one used in Florida. Rubio also supports lifting the age for rifle purchases. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., a longtime NRA member, wrote in The New York Times that he now supports an assault-weapons ban.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., said he expects to talk soon with Trump, who has said he wants tougher background checks, as Toomey revives the bill he proposed earlier with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., to expand presale checks for firearms purchases online and at gun shows.

First introduced after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 in Connecticut, the measure has twice been rejected by the Senate. Some Democrats in GOP-leaning states joined with Republicans to defeat the measure. Toomey’s office said he is seeking to build bipartisan support after the latest shooting.

“Our president can play a huge and, in fact, probably decisive role in this. So I intend to give this another shot,” Toomey said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

The Senate more likely will turn to a bipartisan bill from Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., to strengthen FBI background checks — a response to a shooting last November in which a gunman killed more than two dozen people at a Texas church.

That bill would penalize federal agencies that don’t properly report required records and reward states that comply by providing them with federal grant preferences. It was drafted after the Air Force acknowledged that it failed to report the Texas gunman’s domestic violence conviction to the National Criminal Information Center database.

The House passed it last year, but only after GOP leaders added an unrelated measure pushed by the National Rifle Association. That measure expands gun rights by making it easier for gun owners to carry concealed weapons across state lines.

The package also included a provision directing the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to review “bump-stock” devices like the one used during the shooting at a Las Vegas music festival that left 58 people dead and hundreds injured.

Murphy told The Associated Press he was invited to discuss gun issues with the White House and he was interested in hearing the president’s ideas. He said he did not expect the Florida shooting to lead to a major breakthrough in Congress for those who’ve long pushed for tighter gun laws.

“There’s not going to be a turning point politically,” he said. Rather, it’s about “slowly and methodically” building a political movement.

Senate Democrats say any attempt to combine the background checks and concealed-carry measures is doomed to fail.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said he was skeptical Trump would follow through on proposals such as comprehensive background checks that the NRA opposes.

“The real test of President Trump and the Republican Congress is not words and empathy, but action,” Schumer said in a statement. He noted that Trump has a tendency to change his mind on this and other issues, reminding that the president has called for tougher gun laws only to back away when confronted by resistance from gun owners. The NRA’s independent expenditure arm poured tens of millions into Trump’s 2016 campaign.

“Will President Trump and the Republicans finally buck the NRA and get something done?” Schumer asked. “I hope this time will be different.”

Congress Returns With Gun Violence an Unexpected Issue

After a 10-day break, members of Congress are returning to work under hefty pressure to respond to the outcry over gun violence. But no plan appears ready to take off despite a long list of proposals, including many from President Donald Trump.

Republican leaders have kept quiet for days as Trump tossed out ideas, including raising the minimum age to purchase assault-style weapons and arming teachers, though on Saturday the president tweeted that the latter was “Up to states.”

Their silence has left little indication whether they are ready to rally their ranks behind any one of the president’s ideas, dust off another proposal or do nothing. The most likely legislative option is bolstering the federal background check system for gun purchases, but it’s bogged down after being linked with a less popular measure to expand gun rights.

The halting start reflects firm GOP opposition to any bill that would curb access to guns and risk antagonizing gun advocates in their party. Before the Feb. 14 shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people, Republicans had no intention of reviving the polarizing and politically risky gun debate during an already difficult election year that could endanger their congressional majority.

“There’s no magic bill that’s going to stop the next thing from happening when so many laws are already on the books that weren’t being enforced, that were broken,” said Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., the third-ranking House GOP leader, when asked about solutions. “The breakdowns that happen, this is what drives people nuts,” said Scalise, who suffered life-threatening injuries when a gunman opened fire on lawmakers’ baseball team practice last year.

Under tough public questioning from shooting survivors, Trump has set high expectations for action.

“I think we’re going to have a great bill put forward very soon having to do with background checks, having to do with getting rid of certain things and keeping other things, and perhaps we’ll do something on age,” Trump said in a Fox News Channel interview Saturday night. He added: “We are drawing up strong legislation right now having to do with background checks, mental illness. I think you will have tremendous support. It’s time. It’s time.”

Trump’s early ideas were met with mixed reactions from his party. His talk of allowing teachers to carry concealed weapons into classrooms was rejected by at least one Republican, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., both spoke to Trump on Friday. Their offices declined comment on the conversations or legislative strategy.

Some Republicans backed up Trump’s apparent endorsement of raising the age minimum for buying some weapons.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said he would support raising the age limit to buy a semi-automatic weapon like the one used in Florida. Rubio also supports lifting the age for rifle purchases. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., a longtime NRA member, wrote in The New York Times that he now supports an assault-weapons ban.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., said he expects to talk soon with Trump, who has said he wants tougher background checks, as Toomey revives the bill he proposed earlier with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., to expand presale checks for firearms purchases online and at gun shows.

First introduced after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 in Connecticut, the measure has twice been rejected by the Senate. Some Democrats in GOP-leaning states joined with Republicans to defeat the measure. Toomey’s office said he is seeking to build bipartisan support after the latest shooting.

“Our president can play a huge and, in fact, probably decisive role in this. So I intend to give this another shot,” Toomey said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

The Senate more likely will turn to a bipartisan bill from Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., to strengthen FBI background checks — a response to a shooting last November in which a gunman killed more than two dozen people at a Texas church.

That bill would penalize federal agencies that don’t properly report required records and reward states that comply by providing them with federal grant preferences. It was drafted after the Air Force acknowledged that it failed to report the Texas gunman’s domestic violence conviction to the National Criminal Information Center database.

The House passed it last year, but only after GOP leaders added an unrelated measure pushed by the National Rifle Association. That measure expands gun rights by making it easier for gun owners to carry concealed weapons across state lines.

The package also included a provision directing the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to review “bump-stock” devices like the one used during the shooting at a Las Vegas music festival that left 58 people dead and hundreds injured.

Murphy told The Associated Press he was invited to discuss gun issues with the White House and he was interested in hearing the president’s ideas. He said he did not expect the Florida shooting to lead to a major breakthrough in Congress for those who’ve long pushed for tighter gun laws.

“There’s not going to be a turning point politically,” he said. Rather, it’s about “slowly and methodically” building a political movement.

Senate Democrats say any attempt to combine the background checks and concealed-carry measures is doomed to fail.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said he was skeptical Trump would follow through on proposals such as comprehensive background checks that the NRA opposes.

“The real test of President Trump and the Republican Congress is not words and empathy, but action,” Schumer said in a statement. He noted that Trump has a tendency to change his mind on this and other issues, reminding that the president has called for tougher gun laws only to back away when confronted by resistance from gun owners. The NRA’s independent expenditure arm poured tens of millions into Trump’s 2016 campaign.

“Will President Trump and the Republicans finally buck the NRA and get something done?” Schumer asked. “I hope this time will be different.”

Trump to Discuss Florida School Shooting With Governors

President Donald Trump says this month’s mass shooting at a Florida high school will be a key focus Monday as governors from across the country meet in Washington.

“I think we’ll make that first on our list, because we have to end our country of what’s happening with respect to that subject,” he said during a welcome event Sunday night.

Individual states have varying gun laws, and could take yet different approaches in deciding whether and how to enact any new gun controls. The federal government could take its own action, and lawmakers in the House and Senate return to work Monday after a week-long holiday recess back in their home districts.

The U.S. debate over the proper response to try to thwart future school shootings is intensifying, but whether the killings will move Congress to act is open to question. In a country where the U.S. Constitution enshrines gun ownership, lawmakers have been loathe to impose tougher gun controls, even in the face of previous mass shootings in recent years.

Watch: US Lawmakers Face Pressure to Stem Gun Violence

President Trump has suggested arming some gun-adept teachers and paying them a bonus to keep a concealed weapon at the ready to confront a shooter.

A small number of local school districts in the U.S. have already instituted such a system of classroom protection, but numerous national educators are opposed to the idea. Trump also has said he favors increasing the legal age for all gun purchases from 18 to 21, an idea adamantly opposed by the country’s powerful gun lobby, the National Rifle Association.

Trump said he would leave it up to individual states to decide whether to arm teachers. But Rick Scott, the governor of Florida where the shooting occurred and a supporter of Trump, said he opposes the idea.

“I disagree with arming teachers. My focus is on bringing in law enforcement,” Scott said. “Let law enforcement keep us safe, and let teachers focus on teaching.”

NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch told ABC News, “If parents and teachers voluntarily choose to be armed, I think that’s something schools will have to come up with and determine for themselves.”

CNN said its latest national poll shows growing support for more expansive gun controls, with 70 percent favoring new restrictions, compared to 52 percent in an October poll not long after a mass shooting in Las Vegas killed 58 people.

Students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School returned to the campus for the first time Sunday since a gunman killed 17 people on February 14.

Classes are scheduled to resume Wednesday, but students were allowed to come back and retrieve what they left behind as they fled the shooting.

“It’s not like you’re going back just to see your friends. You’re going back to see people that are traumatized for the rest of their lives,” said student Navid Rafiee.

The sheriff of the county where the shooting took place vowed Sunday to investigate every aspect of his department’s response as the attack unfolded as well as numerous missed signals it received about the suspected gunman’s volatility in the weeks beforehand.

Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel told CNN, “We will investigate every action of our deputies.”

But he heaped scorn on one of them, Scot Peterson, the veteran lawman who stayed outside the Parkland, Fla., high school two weeks ago rather than charging inside to confront the shooter.

“It makes me sick to my stomach that he didn’t go in,” Israel said of Peterson, calling his actions “dereliction of duty.” Israel said that when he saw the video of Peterson outside the school during the shooting, he suspended him without pay last week. Peterson has resigned.

Israel said Broward internal investigators are looking at reports that at least three other deputies also arrived on the scene without entering the school while the attack was unfolding. In addition, he said investigators are reviewing 18 calls to the Broward sheriff’s office about 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz in the weeks before the shooting, in which callers said they believed he was amassing an arsenal and was a threat to carry out an attack on a school.

“One deputy was remiss. Everything else is fluid,” Israel said. “We understand everything wasn’t done perfectly.”

One Florida lawmaker called for Israel’s resignation, but the sheriff said he would not quit. Israel said he has given “amazing leadership” to his agency.

Crackdown Sparks Fear in Immigrant Communities

Stricter enforcement of U.S. immigration law has created uncertainty for migrants who have been living in the United States for many years, despite having entered the country illegally. Mike O’Sullivan reports from Los Angeles that a widespread crackdown and recent workplace raids have prompted some to seek legal advice.

Crackdown Sparks Fear in Immigrant Communities

Stricter enforcement of U.S. immigration law has created uncertainty for migrants who have been living in the United States for many years, despite having entered the country illegally. Mike O’Sullivan reports from Los Angeles that a widespread crackdown and recent workplace raids have prompted some to seek legal advice.

Interior Secretary Alters His Overhaul Plans After Governors Push Back

U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke revamped a plan for a sweeping overhaul of his department Friday with a new organizational map that more closely follows state lines instead of the natural boundaries he initially proposed.

The changes follow complaints from a bipartisan group of Western state governors that Zinke did not consult them before unveiling his original plan last month. The agency oversees vast public lands, primarily in the U.S. West, ranging from protected national parks and wildlife refuges to areas where coal mining and energy exploration dominate the landscape.

Zinke said in an interview with The Associated Press that his goal remains unchanged: decentralizing the Interior Department’s bureaucracy and creating 13 regional headquarters.

Regional map redrawn

The redrawn map, obtained by AP, shows that states such as Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming would fall within a single region instead of being split among multiple regions. Other states remain divided, including California, Nevada, Montana and Oregon.

Aspects of the original map remain, with some regions labeled according to river systems, such as the Upper Colorado Basin and the Missouri Basin. But the new lines tend to cut across geographic features and follow state lines, not boundaries of rivers and ecosystems.

The new proposal resulted from discussions with governors, members of Congress and senior leaders at the agency, Interior officials said.

Many department changes

Zinke, a former Republican congressman from Montana, has imposed major changes at the 70,000-employee Interior Department. He has rolled back regulations considered burdensome to the oil and gas industry and reassigned dozens of senior officials who were holdovers from President Barack Obama’s administration.

The vision of retooling the department’s bureaucracy plays into longstanding calls from politicians in the American West to shift more decisions about nearly 700,000 square miles (more than 1.8 million square kilometers) of public lands under Interior oversight to officials in the region.

Some Democrats have speculated that Zinke’s true motivation for the overhaul is to gut the department, noting that more than 90 percent of its employees work outside Washington, D.C.

Zinke contends that he’s trying to streamline Interior’s management of public lands by requiring all of the agencies within the department to use common regional boundaries, including the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service.

Congress has the final word on the proposal.

Interior Secretary Alters His Overhaul Plans After Governors Push Back

U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke revamped a plan for a sweeping overhaul of his department Friday with a new organizational map that more closely follows state lines instead of the natural boundaries he initially proposed.

The changes follow complaints from a bipartisan group of Western state governors that Zinke did not consult them before unveiling his original plan last month. The agency oversees vast public lands, primarily in the U.S. West, ranging from protected national parks and wildlife refuges to areas where coal mining and energy exploration dominate the landscape.

Zinke said in an interview with The Associated Press that his goal remains unchanged: decentralizing the Interior Department’s bureaucracy and creating 13 regional headquarters.

Regional map redrawn

The redrawn map, obtained by AP, shows that states such as Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming would fall within a single region instead of being split among multiple regions. Other states remain divided, including California, Nevada, Montana and Oregon.

Aspects of the original map remain, with some regions labeled according to river systems, such as the Upper Colorado Basin and the Missouri Basin. But the new lines tend to cut across geographic features and follow state lines, not boundaries of rivers and ecosystems.

The new proposal resulted from discussions with governors, members of Congress and senior leaders at the agency, Interior officials said.

Many department changes

Zinke, a former Republican congressman from Montana, has imposed major changes at the 70,000-employee Interior Department. He has rolled back regulations considered burdensome to the oil and gas industry and reassigned dozens of senior officials who were holdovers from President Barack Obama’s administration.

The vision of retooling the department’s bureaucracy plays into longstanding calls from politicians in the American West to shift more decisions about nearly 700,000 square miles (more than 1.8 million square kilometers) of public lands under Interior oversight to officials in the region.

Some Democrats have speculated that Zinke’s true motivation for the overhaul is to gut the department, noting that more than 90 percent of its employees work outside Washington, D.C.

Zinke contends that he’s trying to streamline Interior’s management of public lands by requiring all of the agencies within the department to use common regional boundaries, including the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service.

Congress has the final word on the proposal.

US Governors, VIPs Meet to Discuss Trade, Innovation, Key Issues

U.S. governors kicked off their winter meeting Saturday in Washington, an agenda focusing on trade and innovation. International cooperation was highlighted, with Australia’s prime minister delivering opening remarks and Ghana’s president scheduled to give the keynote address Sunday. From Washington, VOA’s Jill Craig has more.

More US Companies End Marketing Programs With National Rifle Association

Three more companies say they have ended marketing programs with the National Rifle Association (NRA), as gun control advocates stepped up pressure on firms to cut ties to the gun industry following last week’s school shooting in Florida.

Activists have posted petitions online, identifying businesses that offer discounts to NRA members, in a push to pressure the companies to cut ties to the gun rights organization.

Corporations that ended their discount programs with NRA members on Friday included insurance company MetLife, car rental company Hertz, and Symantec Corp., the software company that makes Norton Antivirus technology.

The move comes after several other companies cut their ties to the NRA earlier this week, including car rental company Enterprise, First National Bank of Omaha, Wyndham Hotels and Best Western hotels.

The NRA is one of the country’s most powerful lobbying groups for gun rights and claims 5 million members.

Florida shooting renews debate

Last week’s shooting at a Florida high school that left 17 people dead has renewed the national debate about gun control.

Gun control activists have been mounting a campaign on Twitter, including using the hashtag #BoycottNRA as well as using social media to pressure streaming platforms, including Amazon, to drop the online video channel NRATV, which features gun-friendly programming produced by the NRA.

On Thursday, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre told the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that those advocating for stricter gun control are exploiting the Florida shooting.

Receiving a rousing reception, LaPierre said, “There is no greater personal individual freedom than the right to keep and bear arms, the right to protect yourself and the right to survive.”

Arming teachers

On Friday, President Donald Trump reiterated to CPAC for the third time this week the need to arm teachers with concealed weapons to prevent more shootings in U.S. schools.

“It’s time to make our schools a much harder target for attackers. We don’t want them in our schools,” Trump said.

Trump has also proposed raising the age to buy assault-style rifles from 18 to 21, which is opposed by the NRA.

In his speech to CPAC, Trump indicated he does not intend to battle the powerful organization.

“They’re friends of mine,” Trump said of the NRA, which gave more than $11 million to his presidential campaign in 2016 and spent nearly $20 million attacking his Democratic Party general election challenger, Hillary Clinton.

The mass shooting in Florida on Feb. 14 has sparked a wave of rallies in Florida, Washington and in other areas of the United States in an attempt to force local and national leaders to take action to prevent such attacks.

 

Trump Pushes to Arm Some Teachers in Wake of Florida School Shooting

U.S. President Donald Trump repeated his call to arm some teachers in the wake of the high school shooting in Florida. Trump spoke before a conservative group near Washington. He is the latest in a series of U.S. presidents forced to deal with the impact of a mass school shooting and with the question of what can be done to prevent them. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone reports that presidents have often been frustrated when trying to bridge the great divide over guns in the United States.

At Trump’s Home Military Base, Airmen Share Stories of Diversity

President Donald Trump’s first year in office has at times been racially charged, from his push to temporarily ban citizens from certain countries to his comments after a race riot in Charlottesville, Virginia, when some said he didn’t swiftly condemn white supremacists. But no matter the controversy, he remains the U.S military’s commander-in-chief. At the president’s home base, Joint Base Andrews, just outside of Washington, airmen from all backgrounds are celebrating their diversity and sharing their stories of race relations with our Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb.