US to Set Up Plan Allowing Prescription Drugs From Canada

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The Trump administration said Wednesday it will set up a system to allow Americans to legally import lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada, weakening a longstanding ban that had stood as a top priority for the politically powerful pharmaceutical industry.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar made the announcement Wednesday morning. Previous administrations had sided with the industry on importation, echoing its concerns that it could expose patients to risks from counterfeit or substandard medications.

Azar, a former drug industry executive, said U.S. patients will be able to import medications safely and effectively, with oversight from the Food and Drug Administration. The administration’s proposal would allow states, wholesalers and pharmacists to get FDA approval to import certain medications that are also available here.

It’s unclear how soon consumers will see results.

Most patients take affordable generic drugs to manage conditions such as high blood pressure or elevated blood sugars. But polls show concern about the prices of breakthrough medications for intractable illnesses like cancer or hepatitis C infection, whose costs can run to $100,000 or more. And long-available drugs like insulin have also seen price increases that have forced some people with diabetes to ration their own doses.

“For too long American patients have been paying exorbitantly high prices for prescription drugs that are made available to other countries at lower prices,” Azar said in a statement that credited President Donald Trump for pushing the idea.

The administration’s move comes as the industry is facing a crescendo of consumer complaints over prices, as well as legislation from both parties in Congress to rein in costs.

Trump is supporting a Senate bill to cap medication costs for Medicare recipients and require drugmakers to pay rebates to the program if price hikes exceed inflation. Democrats in the House are pressing for a vote on a bill allowing Medicare to directly negotiate prices on behalf of millions of seniors enrolled in its prescription drug plan. Separately, the Trump administration is pursuing a regulation that would tie what Medicare pays for drugs administered in doctors’ offices to lower international prices.

The importation idea won praise from a key lawmaker, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the panel that oversees Medicare. Grassley said on Twitter importation would lower prescription drug costs, and all drugs from abroad must be verified as safe by the FDA. He and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota have a bill to facilitate importation.

Eyeing his reelection campaign, Trump has made lowering prescription drug prices one of his top goals. As a candidate, he called for allowing Americans to import prescription drugs, and recently he’s backed a Florida law allowing state residents to gain access to medications from Canada

Drug prices are lower in other economically advanced countries because governments take a leading role in setting prices. But in the U.S., Medicare is not permitted to negotiate with drug companies.

Some experts have been skeptical of allowing imports from Canada, partly from concerns about whether Canadian suppliers have the capacity to meet the demands of the much larger U.S. market.

But consumer groups have strongly backed the idea, arguing that it will pressure U.S. drugmakers to reduce their prices. They also point out that the pharmaceutical industry is a global business and many of the ingredients in medications sold in the U.S. are manufactured abroad.

AARP had pushed hard for the Florida plan, saying it’s possible to safely import lower-priced, equally effective drugs and it would promote worldwide price competition.

The drug industry lobby, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, has successfully blocked past efforts in Washington to allow importation. It argues that patients would be at risk of receiving counterfeit or adulterated medications.

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Border Crossings: Ron Bultongez

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Singer-songwriter Ron Bultongez is living the American Dream from growing up in the Democratic Republic of Congo to being named the “Hometown Hero” of Plano, TX to becoming a Top 24 Finalist on American Idol 2018, where he left Lionel Richie, Katy Perry, and Luke Bryan in awe of his voice. Ron’s dreams have taken him far. His journey, depth, and spirit are evident in his smooth yet raspy vocals and his bluesy, soulful songwriting.

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Puerto Rico Governor Chooses Possible Successor

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Puerto Rico’s governor says he’s chosen former Congress representative Pedro Pierluisi as the U.S. territory’s secretary of state. That post would put Pierluisi in line to be governor when Rossello steps down this week – but he’s unlikely to be approved by legislators.

Ricardo Rossello made the announcement Wednesday via Twitter and said he would hold a special session on Thursday so legislators can vote on his nomination.

Rossello has said he’ll resign on Friday following massive protests in which Puerto Ricans demanded he step down.
Top legislators have already said they will reject Pierluisi’s nomination because he works for a law firm that represents the federal control board overseeing Puerto Rico’s finances and say that’s a conflict of interest.
Pierluisi represented Puerto Rico in Congress from 2009-2017.


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Turkish Security Council Mulls Syrian Operation, Despite Washington’s Warnings

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Turkey’s National Security Council met Tuesday to decide whether to launch a military offensive into Syria against the YPG Kurdish militia. 

With Washington backing the YPG and warning against any unilateral action, the two NATO allies could be on a collision course.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan chaired the meeting, which brought together his military and intelligence chiefs.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan chairs a meeting of the National Security Council in Ankara, Turkey, July 30, 2019.

Erdogan is warning that his patience has run out.

“We are determined to shatter the terror corridor east of the Euphrates [in Syria], no matter how the negotiations with the U.S. to establish a safe zone along the Syrian borders concludes,” he said Friday in a televised speech.

Ankara accuses the YPG of being affiliated with the Kurdish rebel group the PKK, which is waging a decades-long insurgency. With the YPG based along Turkey’s Syrian border east of the Euphrates River, the militia is considered by Turkey to be a security threat.

Reportedly over 80,000 Turkish soldiers backed by tanks and armor are massed on the Syrian border. Ankara wants to create a 40-kilometer-deep buffer zone into Syria. 

FILE – A Turkish flag flutters on a military vehicle on the border of Manbij city, Syria Nov. 1, 2018.

With the YPG a key ally in the U.S.-led war against Islamic State, Washington is warning Ankara against any unilateral action. Months of diplomatic talks between the NATO allies to seek a compromise remain deadlocked.

In a telephone call Monday, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar told U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper that Turkey was obliged to act if efforts to find common ground failed independently. Akar also raised the stakes, calling for Washington to end its military support of the YPG.

However, analysts warn any unilateral action by Turkey carries significant risks. U.S. special forces are deployed with the YPG, and American jets are enforcing a de-facto no-fly zone.

FILE – Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar speaks to a group of reporters in Ankara, Turkey, May 21, 2019.

“It [the military operation] would bring both the two NATO allies against each other, which both sides have sought to avoid from the beginning,” said former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen, who served both in Washington and in the region.

Washington is intensifying its efforts to avoid a confrontation. Last week, U.S. CENTCOM Commander Gen. Kenneth McKenzie held meetings in Syria with Kurdish and Arab groups.

“Americans can play a decisive role in resolving problems between us and Turkey,” said Mustafa Bali, SDF commander, in an interview with Kurdish VOA.

The SDF is a coalition of Arab and Kurdish forces of which the YPG makes up the main component.

‘Deep mistrust’

Last week, U.S. envoy to Syria James Jeffrey met with senior Turkish officials in Ankara. However, U.S. proposals for a more limited buffer zone of 5 to 10 kilometers in depth was rejected by Ankara.

“We have no patience left,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said at a news conference Wednesday after Jeffrey’s visit.

FILE – Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu attends a summit in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, June 1, 2019.

Analysts claim that Ankara suspects Washington is engaging in delaying tactics rather than seeking a solution. Turkish media are reporting during the months of talks that Washington is continuing to arm the YPG. YPG commanders claim to have large numbers of sophisticated anti-tank missiles.

“There is a deep mistrust and lack of confidence between the two militaries,” said former Turkish General Haldun Solmazturk.

Moscow, which is courting Ankara, appears to be seeking to deepen the rift between the NATO allies.

“The continued supply of arms and military equipment to the region by the United States is also of great concern,” Russian General Staff Spokesman Sergey Rudskoy told a news conference Monday in Moscow. “The United States is pumping up with weapons, both Kurdish and Arab groups, which then use them against each other. All this only aggravates the situation in the war-torn region.”

U.S. leverage

Washington retains substantial leverage over Ankara. U.S. President Donald Trump is facing pressure from Congress to enforce potentially crippling economic and financial sanctions against Turkey for the purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile system. The purchase violates the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanction Act (CAATSA), which prohibits major purchases of Russian military hardware.

FILE – First parts of a Russian S-400 missile defense system are unloaded from a Russian plane near Ankara, Turkey, July 12, 2019.

“I think the United States has found strong leverage in the form of the S-400 crisis to bring Turkey to accept U.S. policy in Syria,” said Solmazturk, who now heads the 21st Century Turkey Institute, an Ankara-based think tank. “I am afraid the Turkish government is at its weakest position domestically and internationally.”

Analysts suggest Washington appears to have little appetite to confront Ankara. Despite warnings of severe sanctions, Trump has only suspended Turkey’s procurement of its latest F-35 fighter jet.

Trump’s apparent reluctance to impose CAATSA sanctions on Turkey could embolden Ankara, analysts say.

“Ankara may be of the mind this is the time to act against Washington’s wishes, as they did not act strongly on the S-400,” said analyst Selcen. “Land operations into Syria may be launched, limited to the Arab majority areas, with Ankara thinking, ‘Let’s try our hand and see if the U.S. dares to attack us from the air.'”

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Boston Gang Database Made Up Mostly of Young Black, Latino Men

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Boston police are tracking nearly 5,000 people — almost all of them young black and Latino men — through a secretive gang database, newly released data from the department shows.

A summary provided by the department shows that 66% of those in its database are black, 24% are Latino and 2% are white. Black people comprise about 25% of all Boston residents, Latinos about 20% and white people more than 50%.

The racial disparity is “stark and troublesome,” said Adriana Lafaille, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which, along with other civil rights groups, sued the department in state court in November to shed light into who is listed on the database and how the information is used.

Central American youths are being wrongly listed as active gang members “based on nothing more than the clothing they are seen in and the classmates they are seen with,” and that’s led some to be deported, the organizations say in their lawsuit, citing the cases of three Central American youths facing deportation based largely on their status on the gang database.

”This has consequences,” Lafaille said. “People are being deported back to the countries that they fled, in many cases, to escape gangs.”

Boston police haven’t provided comment after multiple requests, but Commissioner William Gross has previously defended the database as a tool in combating MS-13 and other gangs.

One 24-year-old native of El Salvador nearly deported last year over his alleged gang involvement said he was a victim of harassment and bullying by Bloods members as a youth and was never an MS-13 member, as police claim.

The man spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because he fears retribution from gang members.

He said he never knew he’d made the list while in high school until he was picked up years later in a 2017 immigration sweep.

The gang database listed him as a “verified” member of MS-13 because he was seen associating with known MS-13 members, had feuded with members of the rival Bloods street gang, and was even charged with assault and battery following a fight at school, according to records provided by his lawyer, Alex Mooradian.

Mooradian said he noted in immigration court that the man, who was granted special immigrant juvenile status in 2014, reported at least one altercation with Bloods members to police and cooperated with the investigation. Witnesses also testified about the man’s good character and work ethic as a longtime dishwasher at a restaurant.

”Bottom line, this was a person by all metrics who was doing everything right,” said Mooradian. “He had legal status. He went to school. He worked full time. He called police when he was in trouble. And it still landed him in jail.”

Boston is merely the latest city to run into opposition with a gang database. An advocacy group filed a lawsuit this month in Providence, Rhode Island, arguing the city’s database violates constitutional rights. Portland, Oregon, discontinued its database in 2017 after it was revealed more than 80% of people listed on it were minorities.

In Chicago, police this year proposed changes after an audit found their database’s roughly 134,000 entries were riddled with outdated and unverified information. Mayor Lori Lightfoot also cut off U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement access ahead of planned immigration raids this month.

California’s Department of Justice has been issuing annual reports on the state’s database since a 2017 law began requiring it. And in New York City, records requests and lawsuits have prompted the department to disclose more information about its database.

In Boston, where Democratic Mayor Marty Walsh has proposed strengthening the city’s sanctuary policy, the ACLU suggests specifically banning police from contributing to any database to which ICE has access, or at least requiring police to provide annual reports on the database. Walsh’s office deferred questions about the gang database to police.

Like others, Boston’s gang database follows a points-based system. A person who accrues at least six points is classified as a “gang associate.” Ten or more points means they’re considered a full-fledged gang member.

The points range from having a known gang tattoo (eight points) to wearing gang paraphernalia (four points) or interacting with a known gang member or associate (two points per interaction).

The summary provided by Boston police provides a snapshot of the database as of January.

Of the 4,728 people listed at the time, a little more than half were considered “active” gang associates, meaning they had contact with or participated in some form of gang activity in the past five years. The rest were classified as “inactive,” the summary states.

Men account for more than 90% of the suspected gang members, and people between ages 25 and 40 comprise nearly 75% of the listing.

The department last week provided the summary along with the department’s policy for placing people on the database after the AP filed a records request in June.

The ACLU was also provided the same documents in response to its lawsuit as well as a trove of other related policy memos and heavily redacted reports for each of the 4,728 people listed on the database as of January, according to documents provided by the ACLU and first reported Friday by WBUR.

The ACLU has asked the city for less-redacted reports, Lafaille said. It’s also still waiting for information about how often ICE accesses the database and how police gather gang intelligence in schools.

”After all this time, we still don’t have an understanding about who can access this information and how it’s shared,” she said. “That’s something the public has a right to know.”

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California Governor Signs Bill on Presidential Tax Returns

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California’s Democratic governor signed a law Tuesday requiring presidential candidates to release their tax returns to appear on the state’s primary ballot, a move aimed squarely at Republican President Donald Trump.

But even if the law withstands a likely legal challenge, Trump could avoid the requirements by choosing not to compete in California’s primary. With no credible GOP challenger at this point, he likely won’t need California’s delegates to win the Republican nomination.

”As one of the largest economies in the world and home to one in nine Americans eligible to vote, California has a special responsibility to require this information of presidential and gubernatorial candidates,” Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom wrote in his veto message to the state Legislature. “These are extraordinary times and states have a legal and moral duty to do everything in their power to ensure leaders seeking the highest offices meet minimal standards, and to restore public confidence.”

New York has passed a law giving congressional committees access to Trump’s state tax returns. But efforts to pry loose his tax returns have floundered in other states. California’s first attempt to do so failed in 2017 when then-Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, vetoed the law, raising questions about its constitutionality and where it would lead next.

”Today we require tax returns, but what would be next?” he wrote in his veto message. “Five years of health records? A certified birth certificate? High school report cards? And will these requirements vary depending on which political party is in power?”

While the law is aimed at Trump, it would apply to all presidential contenders and candidates for governor.

The major Democratic 2020 contenders have already released tax returns for roughly the past decade. Trump has bucked decades of precedent by refusing to release his. Tax returns show income, charitable giving and business dealings, all of which Democratic state lawmakers say voters are entitled to know about.

Candidates will be required to submit tax returns for the most recent five years to California’s Secretary of State at least 98 days before the primary. They will then be posed online for the public to view, with certain personal information redacted.

California is holding next year’s primary on March 3, known as Super Tuesday because the high number of state’s with nominating contests that day.

Democratic Sen. Mike McGuire of Healdsburg said it would be “inconsistent” with past practice for Trump to forego the primary ballot and “ignore the most popular and vote-rich state in the nation.”

McGuire said his bill only applies to the primary election because the state Legislature does not control general election ballot access per the state Constitution.

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Puerto Ricans Anxious for New Leader Amid Political Crisis

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The unprecedented resignation of Puerto Rico’s governor after days of massive island-wide protests has thrown the U.S. territory into a full-blown political crisis.

Less than four days before Gov. Ricardo Rossello steps down, no one knows who will take his place. Justice Secretary Wanda Vazquez, his constitutional successor, said Sunday that she didn’t want the job. The next in line would be Education Secretary Eligio Hernandez, a largely unknown bureaucrat with little political experience.

Rossello’s party says it wants him to nominate a successor before he steps down, but Rossello has said nothing about his plans, time is running out and some on the island are even talking about the need for more federal control over a territory whose finances are already overseen from Washington.

FILE – Demonstrators march on Las Americas highway demanding the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rossello, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, July 22, 2019.

Rossello resigned following nearly two weeks of daily protests in which hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans took to the streets, mounted horses and jet skis, organized a twerkathon and came up with other creative ways to demand his ouster. On Monday, protesters were to gather once again, but this time to demand that Vazquez not assume the governorship. Under normal circumstances, Rossello’s successor would be the territory’s secretary of state, but veteran politician Luis Rivera Marin resigned from that post on July 13 as part of the scandal that toppled the governor.

Next in line

Vazquez, a 59-year-old prosecutor who worked as a district attorney and was later director of the Office for Women’s Rights, does not have widespread support among Puerto Ricans. Many have criticized her for not being aggressive enough in investigating cases involving members of the party that she and Rossello belong to, and of not prioritizing gender violence as justice secretary. She also has been accused of not pursuing the alleged mismanagement of supplies for victims of Hurricane Maria.

Facing a new wave of protests, Vazquez tweeted Sunday that she had no desire to succeed Rossello.

FILE – Puerto Rico Justice Secretary Wanda Vazquez answers reporters’ questions, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Jan. 16, 2018.

“I have no interest in the governor’s office,” she wrote. “I hope the governor nominates a secretary of state before Aug. 2.”

If a secretary of state is not nominated before Rossello resigns, Vazquez would automatically become the new governor. She would then have the power to nominate a secretary of state, or she could also reject being governor, in which case the constitution states the treasury secretary would be next in line. However, Treasury Secretary Francisco Pares is 31 years old, and the constitution dictates a governor has to be at least 35. In that case, the governorship would go to Hernandez, who replaced the former education secretary, Julia Keleher, who resigned in April and was arrested on July 10 on federal corruption charges. She has pleaded not guilty.

But Hernandez has not been clear on whether he would accept becoming governor.

“At this time, this public servant is focused solely and exclusively on the work of the Department of Education,” he told Radio Isla 1320 AM on Monday. A spokesman for Hernandez did not return a message seeking comment.

‘Uncertainties are dangerous’

Meanwhile, Puerto Ricans are growing anxious about what the lack of leadership could mean for the island’s political and economic future.

“It’s very important that the government have a certain degree of stability,” said Luis Rodriguez, a 36-year-old accountant, adding that all political parties should be paying attention to what’s happening. “We’re tired of the various political parties that always climb to power and have let us down a bit and have taken the island to the point where it finds itself right now.”

Hector Luis Acevedo, a university professor and former secretary of state, said both the governor’s party and the main opposition party that he supports, the Popular Democratic Party, have weakened in recent years. He added that new leadership needs to be found soon.

“These uncertainties are dangerous in a democracy because they tend to strengthen the extremes,” he said. “This vacuum is greatly harming the island.”

Puerto Ricans until recently had celebrated that Rossello and more than a dozen other officials had resigned in the wake of an obscenity-laced chat in which they mocked women and the victims of Hurricane Maria, among others, in 889 pages leaked on July 13. But now, many are concerned that the government is not moving quickly enough to restore order and leadership to an island mired in a 13-year recession as it struggles to recover from the Category 4 storm and tries to restructure a portion of its more than $70 billion public debt load.

FILE – A demonstrator bangs on a pot that has a cartoon drawing of Governor Ricardo Rossello and text the reads in Spanish “Quit Ricky” in San Juan, Puerto Rico, July 19, 2019.

Gabriel Rodriguez Aguilo, a member of Rossello’s New Progressive Party, which supports statehood, said in a telephone interview that legislators are waiting on Rossello to nominate a secretary of state, who would then become governor since Vazquez has said she is not interested in the position.

“I hope that whoever is nominated is someone who respects people, who can give the people of Puerto Rico hope and has the capacity to rule,” he said. “We cannot rush into this. There must be sanity and restraint in this process.”

‘Rethink the constitution’

Another option was recently raised by Jenniffer Gonzalez, Puerto Rico’s representative in Congress. Last week, she urged U.S. President Donald Trump to appoint a federal coordinator to oversee hurricane reconstruction and ensure the proper use of federal funds in the U.S. territory, a suggestion rejected by many on an island already under the direction of a federal control board overseeing its finances and debt restructuring process.

As legislators wait for Rossello to nominate a secretary of state, they have started debating whether to amend the constitution to allow for a vice president or lieutenant governor, among other things.

The constitution currently does not allow the government to hold early elections, noted Yanira Reyes Gil, a university professor and constitutional attorney.

“We have to rethink the constitution,” she said, adding that there are holes in the current one, including that people are not allowed to participate in choosing a new governor if the previous one resigns.

Reyes also said people are worried that the House and Senate might rush to approve a new secretary of state without sufficient vetting.

“Given the short amount of time, people have doubts that the person will undergo a strict evaluation,” she said. “We’re in a situation where the people have lost faith in the government agencies, they have lost faith in their leaders.”

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Syrian Kurds Concerned with Turkey Military Buildup near Border    

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For weeks, Turkey has been amassing its troops near its border with Syria for what appears to be an imminent attack against U.S.-backed Kurdish forces that Ankara views as terrorists.

In this border town in northern Syria, locals say such an attack could throw the already-volatile region into further instability.

While the situation may seem calm at the moment, residents in Amude say they have been living in constant fear since the Turkish military has recently increased its threats to carry out an offensive against this Kurdish enclave that is controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his ruling party members, in Ankara, Turkey, July 26, 2019.

“Terror corridor”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last week that his country is determined to destroy “to pieces” what he called a “terror corridor” in northern Syria.

Turkey views the SDF and its political wing, the PYD, as an extension of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is a U.S. and EU-designated terrorist organization.

Kurdish fighters affiliated with the SDF, however, have played an effective role in the ongoing U.S.-led fight against Islamic State militants in Syria.

FILE – In this April1 14, 2018, file photo, then-Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie speaks during a media availability at the Pentagon in Washington.

U.S. mediation

In a bid to avoid a confrontation between its NATO ally Turkey and its SDF partners, the U.S. has assumed a mediation role.

Last week, CENTCOM Commander General Kenneth McKenzie visited Syria for talks with Kurdish military officials, while at the same time U.S. envoy for Syria James Jeffrey was in Ankara for discussions with Turkish officials to help defuse Kurdish-Turkish tensions.

The “Americans can play a decisive role in resolving problems between us and Turkey,” said Mustafa Bali, an SDF commander and the group’s spokesperson who was at the meeting with McKenzie. “We have always said that we as Kurds are not a threat to anybody. We are open to dialogue. We are open to discuss a solution for this problem.”

“At the same time, we don’t accept threats. When our people come under danger, we have the right to fight and defend ourselves,” he told VOA.

Some Syrian Kurdish groups who oppose the SDF rule say that Turkey’s sensitivities must be taken into account.

“As a neighboring country, Turkey would never allow the PKK to be on its border. Turkey considers the PYD here as part of PKK. So these threats would continue until a permanent settlement is reached,” said Abdulillah Uje, an official with the Kurdish National Council.

“Nothing new”

For local residents, the Turkish threats have been part of their daily routines since the outbreak of Syria’s civil war in 2011.

“Turkish threats are nothing new,” said Sherin Ibrahim, a local radio journalist. “We’ve been living with those threats for years.”

“I think what Turkey really wants is to control parts of our region so that Kurds and Syrian Democratic Forces will have no access to the border. It’s all a political maneuver for more gains in the broader Syrian context,” she told VOA.

Others say that Turkey has no right to invade a neighboring country under false pretenses.

“Those excuses that Turkey keeps using about securing its borders aren’t valid. For almost nine years since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, not a single bullet or a bomb has been fired into Turkey from the Syrian side,” said Dilshad Abdo, a Kurdish political activist.

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Arid Ethiopia Plants 350 Million Trees in One Day

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Ethiopians planted more than 350 million trees in one day, officials say, in what they believe is a world record.

Ethiopia’s minister of innovation and technology, Getahun Mekuria, tweeted estimates of the number of trees being planted throughout the day Monday. By early evening, he said 353,633,660 tree seedlings were planted in 12 hours.

353,633,660 Tree Seedlings Planted in 12 Hours. This is in #Ethiopians

Regional Shares of Trees Planted

— Dr.-Ing. Getahun Mekuria (@DrGetahun) July 29, 2019

The massive effort is part of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Green Legacy Initiative, which aims to plant more than 4 billion trees between May and October, or 40 trees per person. 

The campaign aims to reverse the effects of deforestation and climate change in the drought-prone country. According to the United Nations, Ethiopia’s forest coverage was just 4% in the 2000s, down from 35% a century earlier.

Besides ordinary Ethiopians, various international organizations and the business community also joined the exercise, which aims to surpass India’s record planting of 66 million trees in 12 hours in 2017.

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Poverty in Philippines, High for Asia, Falls as Economy Strengthens

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Poverty in the Philippines, a chronic development issue that makes the country an outlier in Asia, is declining because of economic strength followed by job creation.

The archipelago’s official poverty rate dropped to 21% in the first half of last year from 27.6% in the first half of 2015, President Rodrigo Duterte said in his July 22 State of the Nation Address.

Economic growth of 6% plus since 2012 has helped to create jobs, especially in Philippine cities such as the capital Manila, economists who follow the country say.

“Twenty-seven percent is actually pretty high by kind of Asian standards, so I think that progress is attributable to the rapid economic growth that’s happened in the Philippines since 2012,” said Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist at the market research firm IHS Markit.

Asian outlier

Poverty around Asia had declined from 47.3% in 1990 to 16.1% in 2013, according to World Bank data. Factory jobs, often driven by domestic export manufacturing industries, have fueled much of the boom, especially in China.

Poverty lingered in the Philippines largely for lack of rural jobs, economists believe. Rudimentary farming and fishing anchor the way of life on many of the country’s 7,100 islands. Foreign manufacturers often bypass the Philippines because of its remote location, compared to continental Asia, and relative lack of infrastructure that factory operators need to ship goods.

But the country hit a fast-growth stride in 2012 with a pickup in manufacturing and services. After growing just 3.7% in 2011, the GDP that now stands at $331 billion has expanded at between 6.1% and 7.1% per year.

More jobs

Urban jobs are getting easier to find as multinationals locate call centers in the Philippines, taking advantage of cheap labor and English-language proficiency.

A $169 billion, 5-year program to renew public infrastructure is creating construction jobs while giving factory investors new reason to consider siting in the country. Most new jobs now are in construction, with some in manufacturing, said Christian de Guzman, vice president and senior credit officer with Moody’s Sovereign Risk Group in Singapore.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures during his 4th State of the Nation Address at the 18th Congress at the House of Representatives in Quezon city, metropolitan Manila, Philippines July 22, 2019. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

Underemployment, he added, has “improved quite a bit,” de Guzman said.

“Jobs are being created (and in) the jobs that do exist, I think there’s more work to do, so to speak,” de Guzman said. “I guess less underemployment if you will, and again this is one of the fastest growing economies in Asia.”

Philippine unemployment edged down just 0.1 percentage point to 5.2% in January 2019 compared to a year earlier, but underemployment fell from 18% to 15.6% over that period, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority.

Tax reform

Duterte is also advancing tax reforms that he expects to lower poverty to 14% of the 105 million population by 2022. 

Tax revenue collected under these reforms will allow the government to spend more on health, education and other social services aimed at making people more prosperous, the Department of Finance said in a statement last year.

The Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion Act (TRAIN), which Duterte signed into law in 2017, spells out changes in the tax code.

“Actually, one of the key elements there is the first tax laws that was passed, we call it the TRAIN one,” said Ramon Casiple, executive director or the advocacy group Institute for Political and Electoral Reform in Metro Manila.

Rural income

Longer-term poverty relief will come down to creation of rural jobs such as “specialized” or “advanced” agriculture, Biswas said. The 21% poverty rate is “still high,” he said. Government agencies and private firms over the past few years have already introduced hybrid seeds and new technology to make farming more self-sufficient, domestic news outlet BusinessWorld reported last year.

Natural disasters such as seasonal typhoons and a 50-year conflict between Muslims and the military in the south further hobble poverty relief, some analysts believe. Local government corruption also stops aid from reaching some of the poor, they suggest.

“Both growth and, in turn, poverty reduction seem to be hindered by several factors, including unequal wealth distribution both in terms of social groups and geographic distribution…corruption as well as natural disasters and ongoing conflicts, with the latter triggering a series of negative collateral effects,” said Enrico Cau, Southeast Asia-specialized associate researcher at the Taiwan Center for International Strategic Studies.

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PM Johnson Makes First Scotland Trip in Bid to Boost Union

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New British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will make his first official visit to Scotland on Monday in an attempt to bolster the union in the face of warnings over a no-deal Brexit. 

Johnson will visit a military base to announce new funding for local communities, saying that Britain is a “global brand and together we are safer, stronger and more prosperous”, according to a statement released by his Downing Street Office.

It will be the first stop on a tour of the countries that make up the United Kingdom, as he attempts to win support for his Brexit plans and head off talk of a break-up of the union.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said last week that Scotland, which voted to remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum, needed an “alternative option” to Johnson’s Brexit strategy.

He has promised that Britain will leave the EU on October 31, with or without a deal.

Sturgeon, who leads the separatist Scottish National Party (SNP), told Johnson that the devolved Scottish Parliament would consider legislation in the coming months for another vote on seceding from the United Kingdom.

Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar has also said that a no-deal Brexit would make more people in Northern Ireland “come to question the union” with Britain.

Johnson, who decided that he will take the symbolic title of Minister for the Union alongside that of prime minister, will announce £300 million (£370 million, 332 million euros) of new investment for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland during Monday’s visit.

“Important projects like the government’s growth deals… will open up opportunities across our union so people in every corner of the United Kingdom can realize their potential,” he was to say.

“As we prepare for our bright future after Brexit, it’s vital we renew the ties that bind our United Kingdom.

“I look forward to visiting Wales and Northern Ireland to ensure that every decision I make as prime minister promotes and strengthens our union,” he will add.

Johnson plans to visit local farmers in Wales and discuss the ongoing talks to restore the devolved government when he visits Northern Ireland.

The investment boost comes after the prime minister announced a £3.6 billion fund supporting 100 towns in England, raising suggestions that he is already in campaign mode for an election. 

Many MPs are opposed to leaving the EU without a deal, and could try and topple the government in an attempt to prevent it, potentially triggering a vote.

Johnson has made a busy start to his premiership as he attempts win over public opinion for his Brexit plans and put pressure on those who could bring him down.

But the EU has already said his demands to renegotiate the deal struck by his predecessor Theresa May, but which was three times rejected by parliament, are  “unacceptable.”

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US China Move Trade Talks to Shanghai Amid Deal Pessimism

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U.S. and Chinese trade negotiators shift to Shanghai this week for their first in-person talks since a G20 truce last month, a change of scenery for two sides struggling to resolve deep differences on how to end a year-long trade war.

Expectations for progress during the two-day Shanghai meeting are low, so officials and businesses are hoping Washington and Beijing can at least detail commitments for “goodwill” gestures and clear the path for future negotiations.

These include Chinese purchases of U.S. farm commodities and the United States allowing firms to resume some sales to China’s tech giant Huawei Technologies.

President Donald Trump said on Friday that he thinks China may not want to sign a trade deal until after the 2020 election in the hope that they could then negotiate more favorable terms with a different U.S. president.

“I think probably China will say “Let’s wait,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “Let’s wait and see if one of these people who gives the United States away, let’s see if one of them could get elected.”

For more than a year, the world’s two largest economies have slapped billions of dollars of tariffs on each other’s imports, disrupting global supply chains and shaking financial markets in their dispute over China’s “state capitalism” mode of doing business with the world. Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed at last month’s G20 summit in Osaka, Japan to restart trade talks that stalled in May, after Washington accused Beijing of reneging on major portions of a draft agreement — a collapse in the talks that prompted a steep U.S. tariff hike on $200 billion of Chinese goods.

Trump said after the Osaka meeting that he would not impose new tariffs on a final $300 billion of Chinese imports and would ease some U.S. restrictions on Huawei if China agreed to make purchases of U.S. agricultural products.

Chips and commodities

Since then, China has signaled that it would allow Chinese firms to make some tariff-free purchases of U.S. farm goods. Washington has encouraged companies to apply for waivers to a national security ban on sales to Huawei, and said it would respond to them in the next few weeks. 

But going into next week’s talks, neither side has implemented the measures that were intended to show their goodwill. That bodes ill for their chances of resolving core issues in the trade dispute, such as U.S. complaints about Chinese state subsidies, forced technology transfers and intellectual property violations.

U.S. officials have stressed that relief on U.S. sales to Huawei would apply only to products with no implications for national security, and industry watchers expect those waivers will only allow the Chinese technology giant to buy the most commoditized U.S. components.

Reuters reported last week that despite the carrot of a potential exemption from import tariffs, Chinese soybean crushers are unlikely to buy in bulk from the United States any time soon as they grapple with poor margins and longer-term doubts about Sino-U.S. trade relations. Soybeans are the largest U.S. agricultural export to China.

“They are doing this little dance with Huawei and Ag purchases,” said one source recently briefed by senior Chinese negotiators.

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow on Friday said he “wouldn’t expect any grand deal,” at the meeting and negotiators would try to “reset the stage” to bring the talks back to where they were before the May blow-up. “We anticipate, we strongly expect the Chinese to follow through (on) goodwill and just helping the trade balance with large-scale purchases of U.S. agriculture products and services.” Kudlow said on CNBC television.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer will meet with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He for two days of talks in Shanghai starting on Tuesday, both sides said.

“Less politics, more business,” Tu Xinquan, a trade expert at Beijing’s University of International Business and Economics, who closely follows the trade talks, said of the possible reason Shanghai was chosen as the site for talks. “Each side can take a small step first to build some trust, followed by more actions,” Tu said of the potential goodwill gestures.

‘Do the Deal’

A delegation of U.S. company executives traveled to Beijing last week to stress to Chinese officials the urgency of a trade deal, according to three sources who asked to not be named. They cautioned Chinese negotiators in meetings that if a deal is not reached in the coming months the political calendar in China and the impending U.S. presidential election will make reaching an agreement extremely difficult.

“Do the deal. It’s going to be a slog, but if this goes past Dec. 31, it’s not going to happen,” one American executive told Reuters, citing the U.S. 2020 election campaign. Others said the timeline was even shorter.

Two sources briefed by senior-level Chinese negotiators ahead of next week’s talks said China was still demanding that all U.S. tariffs be removed as one of the conditions for a deal. Beijing is opposed to a phased withdrawal of duties, while U.S. trade officials see tariff removal — and the threat of reinstating them — as leverage for enforcing any agreement. China also is adamant that any purchase agreement for U.S. goods be at a reasonable level, and that the deal is balanced and respects Chinese legal sovereignty.

U.S. negotiators have demanded that China make changes to its laws as assurances for safeguarding U.S. companies’ know-how, an insistence that Beijing has vehemently rejected. If U.S. negotiators want progress in this area, they might be satisfied with directives issued by China’s State Council instead, one of the sources said.

One U.S.-based industry source said expectations for any kind of breakthrough during the Shanghai talks were low, and that the main objective was for each side to get clarity on the “goodwill” measures associated with the Osaka summit.

There is little clarity on which negotiating text the two sides will rely on, with Washington wanting to adhere to the pre-May draft, and China wanting to start anew with the copy it sent back to U.S. officials with numerous edits and redactions, precipitating the collapse in talks in May.

Zhang Huanbo, senior researcher at the China Centre for International Economic Exchanges (CCIEE), said he could not verify U.S. officials’ complaints that 90 percent of the deal had been agreed before the May breakdown. “We can only say there may be an initial draft. There is only zero and 100% – deal or no deal,” Zhang said.

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Court Documents Reveal Racist Comments by Australian Judge

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A judge in Australia’s Northern Territory has been accused of racism towards Indigenous defendants.

Court transcripts published in the Australian media show Judge Greg Borchers accusing an Aboriginal woman of abandoning her children while drunk in that “great indigenous fashion.”

He also said that “anthropologists” might one day discover why indigenous parents desert their children on such a regular basis.

In another transcript, Judge Borchers told an indigenous defendant who had “dragged” his partner “though the house by her hair” that he was “just like a primitive person.”

The comments are now the subject of an official complaint, and have been condemned by the Australian Law Society.

Its president is Arthur Moses.

“These comments are racist because they are disparaging, discriminatory and offensive, insulting and humiliating to Indigenous Australians based solely on their race,” he said.

It is not the first time Judge Borchers’s comments in court have landed him in trouble. Two years ago, there was a complaint after he told a young teenager that he was “takin
advantage” of his mother’s murder.

The judge told investigators that there was “no excuse” for some of his remarks, but he said a heavy workload dealing with cases involving violence and child abuse with “no days off” or counseling” had taken its toll.

Judge Borchers has yet to publicly comment on the latest allegations.

Indigenous Australians make up about three percent of Australia’s population, but they account for more than a quarter of prison inmates. They also suffer higher rates of poverty and ill-health, and die, on average, ten years before non-Aboriginal Australians.


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Foreign Fighters Law Approved in Australia

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New terror legislation to stop foreign fighters from returning to Australia has been approved by lawmakers. The government says the new laws will prevent carnage in Australia.  But experts say the exclusion measures will apply mostly to women and children, and will increase the risk of radicalization.

Australia government officials say the new law will give intelligence agencies time to “manage the flow of foreign fighters” back to Australia. It will allow the government to exclude an Australian citizen for up to two years if they are considered to be a security risk.

It is estimated that 230 Australians traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight with militant groups. About 40 are thought to have returned home, raising fears they have brought home not only a dangerous ideology but combat skills. Government lawmaker Andrew Hastie said returning militants brought with them “hard hearts and a proven capacity for violence and bloodshed.”

Australia says the new measures are similar to those in Britain.

Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton, said the laws will make Australia safer.

“The government now is asking for the support of this parliament to introduce legislation to temporarily exclude those people who we believe would come to our country to cause death and carnage in Australia,” he said.

The new laws to ban foreign fighters from returning to Australia will mostly apply to women and children, many of whom are held in refugee camps.  That is according to Michele Grossman, an authority on violent extremism who works with the Australian Federal Police.  

She said forcing people to stay in poor conditions in camps puts them at greater risk of developing resentment against Australia and of greater radicalization.

The Law Council of Australia, the country’s leading advocacy group for lawyers, says the law could be unconstitutional.

It will take effect next month. Dutton has said repatriations would be decided case by case, particularly where young children were involved.


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2 American Teenagers Accused of killing Italian Policeman

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Two American teenagers have been charged with the alleged killing of an Italian police officer following a drug deal gone wrong. The northern Californians refused to answer questions from the judge who nonetheless decided to keep them in custody. Italy is under shock at the violent killing of the officer.

The two teenagers were staying in a central Rome hotel where police found what they believe is the murder weapon, a long knife that had been hidden in the room’s dropped ceiling along with bloody clothes believed to have been worn during the killing.

Nineteen-year-old Finnegan Lee Elder and 18-year-old Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth were high school classmates in the Bay Area of San Francisco and were at the end of their vacation in the Italian capital. Police allege that on Thursday night the two went to buy some drugs in the area of Trastevere in Rome but instead of cocaine they were given a different substance.

Furious that they were tricked by the alleged pusher, investigators say the teenagers went back and stole the drug dealer’s bag with cash and a cell phone. Witnesses said they appeared intoxicated with alcohol and drugs.

The man who suffered the theft reportedly called the police saying he had arranged a meeting with the young Americans to get his bag back. He said the Americans had demanded drugs and money to return the bag.

According to the authorities, two officers in plainclothes decided to go to the meeting set up with the young Californians instead of the alleged pusher.

Although the police officers identified themselves as Carabinieri, witnesses said a scuffle ensued with one of the teenagers punching one of the officers and the other drawing a long knife and stabbing the other officer eight times. According to an initial autopsy 35-year-old Vice Brigadier Mario Cerciello Rega died of massive loss of blood when he arrived at the hospital.

A woman leaves flowers in front of the Carabinieri station where Mario Cerciello Rega was based, in Rome, Italy, July 27, 2019.

Investigators say Finnegan Lee Elder, the youngster who allegedly stabbed the policeman, confessed to the killing when he was taken to the police station after their arrest. But both teenagers have refused to answer questions from the preliminary investigations judge who has nonetheless decided they will remain in custody at the Regina Coeli prison in Rome.

They are charged with murder and attempted extortion and the investigation continues.

The body of the killed police officer will lie in repose in a chapel in central Rome Sunday. The funeral will be held Monday in Somma Vesuviana, near Naples.

The town’s mayor, Salvatore DI Sarno asked that the “judges be uncompromising because they killed a man like animals.”

Others in his hometown are shocked by what happened. The officer, who was known by many, was described as a kind man, an exceptional person who was always ready to help others and was involved in charity work with the homeless.

A man said there are no words to describe the person that he was and how he behaved and how he will always be remembered.

Italians across the country are in disbelief over the violent killing believed to have been carried out by these young men. Killings of Carabinieri police officers are a rare occurrence and authorities have vowed that justice will be done.

The family of Elder, the alleged stabber, issued a statement saying “We are shocked and dismayed at the events that have been reported, but we have very little independent information about these events.” They added that they had not had any communication with their son.


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Mueller’s Words Twisted by Trump and More

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President Donald Trump listened to Robert Mueller testify to Congress this past week, then misrepresented what the former special counsel said. Some partisans on both sides did much the same, whether to defend or condemn the president.

Trump seized on Mueller’s testimony to claim anew that he was exonerated by the Russia investigation, which the president wasn’t. He capped the week by wishing aloud that President Barack Obama had received some of the congressional scrutiny he’s endured, ignoring the boatload of investigations, subpoenas and insults visited on the Democrat and his team.

Highlights from a week in review:


TRUMP on Democrats: “All they want to do is impede, they want to investigate. They want to go fishing. … We want to find out what happened with the last Democrat president. Let’s look into Obama the way they’ve looked at me. Let’s subpoena all of the records having to do with Hillary Clinton and all of the nonsense that went on with Clinton and her foundation and everything else. Could do that all day long. Frankly, the Republicans were gentlemen and women when we had the majority in the House. They didn’t do subpoenas all day long. They didn’t do what these people are doing. What they’ve done is a disgrace.” — Oval Office remarks Friday.

THE FACTS: He’s distorting recent history. Republicans made aggressive use of their investigative powers when they controlled one chamber or the other during the Obama years. Moreover, matters involving Hillary Clinton, her use of email as secretary of state, her conduct of foreign policy and the Clinton Foundation were very much part of their scrutiny. And they weren’t notably polite about it.

Over a few months in 2016, House Republicans unleashed a barrage of subpoenas in what minority Democrats called a “desperate onslaught of frivolous attacks” against Clinton. In addition, Clinton was investigated by the FBI.

Earlier, a half-dozen GOP-led House committees conducted protracted investigations of the 2012 attacks on U.S. diplomats in Benghazi, Libya. Republican-led investigations of the 2009-2011 Operation Fast and Furious episode — a botched initiative against drug cartels that ended up putting guns in the hands of violent criminals — lasted into the Trump administration.

On the notion that Obama was treated with courtesy by GOP “gentlemen and women,” Trump ignored an episode at Obama’s 2013 speech to Congress that was shocking at the time.

“You lie!” Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina hollered at Obama. His outburst came when Obama attempted to assure lawmakers that his health care initiative would not provide coverage to people in the U.S. illegally.

Obama also faced persistent innuendo over the country of his birth. Trump himself was a leading voice raising baseless suspicions that Obama was born outside the U.S.


TRUMP: “We’re getting the remains back.” — Fox News interview Thursday.

THE FACTS: No remains of U.S. service members have been returned since last summer and the U.S. suspended efforts in May to get negotiations on the remains back on track in time to have more repatriated this year. It hopes more remains may be brought home next year.

The Pentagon’s Defense POW-MIA Accounting Agency, which is responsible for recovering U.S. war remains and returning them to families, “has not received any new information from (North Korean) officials regarding the turn over or recovery of remains,” spokesman Charles Prichard said this month.

He said his agency is “still working to communicate” with the North Korean army “as it is our intent to find common ground on resuming recovery missions” in 2020.

Last summer, in line with the first summit between Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un that June, the North turned over 55 boxes of what it said were the remains of an undetermined number of U.S. service members killed in the North during the 1950-53 war. So far, six Americans have been identified from the 55 boxes.

U.S. officials have said the North has suggested in recent years that it holds perhaps 200 sets of American war remains. Thousands more are unrecovered from battlefields and former POW camps.

The Pentagon estimates that 5,300 Americans were lost in North Korea.


TRUMP to his critics, in a fundraising letter from his 2020 campaign: “How many times do I have to be exonerated before they stop?” — during Mueller’s testimony Wednesday.

THE FACTS: Trump has not been exonerated by Mueller at all. “No,” Mueller said when asked during his Capitol Hill questioning whether he had cleared the president of criminal wrongdoing in the investigation that looked into the 2016 Trump campaign’s relations with Russians and Russia’s interference in the U.S. election.

In his report, Mueller said his team declined to make a prosecutorial judgment on whether to charge Trump, partly because of a Justice Department legal opinion that said sitting presidents shouldn’t be indicted.

As a result, his detailed report factually laid out instances in which Trump might have obstructed justice, leaving it up to Congress to take up the matter.

As well, Mueller looked into a potential criminal conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign and said the investigation did not collect sufficient evidence to establish criminal charges on that front.

Following Mueller’s testimony, Trump abruptly took a different stance on the special counsel’s report. After months of claiming exoneration, and only hours after stating as much in the fundraising letter while the hearing unfolded, Trump incongruously flipped, saying “He didn’t have the right to exonerate.”

TRUMP, on why Mueller did not recommend charges: “He made his decision based on the facts, not based on some rule.” — remarks to reporters Wednesday after the hearings.

THE FACTS: Mueller did not say that.

The special counsel said his team never reached a determination on charging Trump. At no point has he suggested that he made that decision because the facts themselves did not support charges.

The rule Trump refers to is the Justice Department legal opinion that says sitting presidents are immune from indictment — and that guidance did restrain the investigators, though it was not the only factor in play.

JOE BIDEN, Democratic presidential contender: “Mueller said there was enough evidence to bring charges against the president after he is president of the United States, when he is a private citizen … that’s a pretty compelling thing.” — speaking to reporters in Dearborn, Michigan.

THE FACTS: Mueller did not say that, either. He deliberately drew no conclusions about whether he collected sufficient evidence to charge Trump with a crime.

Mueller said that if prosecutors want to charge Trump once he is out of office, they would have that ability because obstacles to indicting a sitting president would be gone.

Even that came with a caveat, though. Mueller did not answer whether the statute of limitations might put Trump off limits to an indictment should he win re-election.

Biden spoke after being briefed on the hearings and prefaced his remark with a request to “correct me if I’m wrong.”

Rep. JOHN RATCLIFFE, R-Texas, to Mueller: “You didn’t follow the special counsel regulations. It clearly says, write a confidential report about decisions reached. Nowhere in here does it say write a report about decisions that weren’t reached. You wrote 180 pages — 180 pages — about decisions that weren’t reached, about potential crimes that weren’t charged or decided. …This report was not authorized under the law to be written.” — hearing Wednesday.

THE FACTS: Mueller’s report is lawful. Nothing in Justice Department regulations governing special counsels prevents Mueller from saying what he did in the report.

It is true that the regulations provide for the special counsel to submit a “confidential report” to the attorney general explaining his decisions to recommend for or against a prosecution. But it was Attorney General William Barr who made the decision to make the report public, which is his right.

Special counsels have wide latitude, and are not directed to avoid writing about “potential crimes that weren’t charged or decided,” as Ratcliffe put it.

Mueller felt constrained from bringing charges because of the apparent restriction on indicting sitting presidents. But his report left open the possibility that Congress could use the information in an impeachment proceeding or that Trump could be charged after he leaves office.

The factual investigation was conducted “in order to preserve the evidence when memories were fresh and documentary materials were available,” the report said.

In a tweet, Neal Katyal, who drafted the Justice Department regulations, wrote: “Ratcliffe dead wrong about the Special Counsel regs. I drafted them in 1999. They absolutely don’t forbid the Mueller Report. And they recognize the need for a Report ‘both for historical purposes and to enhance accountability.’”

Rep. MIKE JOHNSON, R-La., addressing Mueller: “Millions of Americans today maintain genuine concerns about your work in large part because of the infamous and widely publicized bias of your investigating team members, which we now know included 14 Democrats and zero Republicans.” — hearing Wednesday.

THE FACTS: Johnson echoes a widely repeated false claim by Trump that the Mueller probe was biased because the investigators were all a bunch of “angry Democrats.” In fact, Mueller himself is a Republican.

Some have given money to Democratic candidates over the years. But Mueller could not have barred them from serving on that basis because regulations prohibit the consideration of political affiliation for personnel actions involving career attorneys. Mueller reported to Barr, and before him, then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who were both Trump appointees.


TRUMP, on Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York: “She called our country and our people garbage. She said garbage. That’s worse than deplorable. Remember deplorable?” — remarks Tuesday at gathering of conservative youth.

THE FACTS: Ocasio-Cortez did not label people “garbage.” She did use that term, somewhat indirectly, to describe the state of the country.

Arguing for a liberal agenda at a South by Southwest event in March, she said the U.S. shouldn’t settle for centrist policies because they would produce only marginal improvement — “10% better” than the “garbage” of where the country is now.

Trump has been assailing Ocasio-Cortez and three other liberal Democratic women of color in the House for more than a week, ever since he posted tweets saying they should “go back” to their countries, though all are U.S. citizens and all but one was born in the U.S.


TRUMP: “And when they’re saying all of this stuff, and then those illegals get out and vote — because they vote anyway. Don’t kid yourself, those numbers in California and numerous other states, they’re rigged. You got people voting that shouldn’t be voting. They vote many times, not just twice, not just three times. They vote — it’s like a circle. They come back, they put a new hat on. They come back, they put a new shirt. And in many cases, they don’t even do that. You know what’s going on. It’s a rigged deal.” — remarks Tuesday.

THE FACTS: Trump has produced no evidence of widespread voting fraud by people in the country illegally or by any group of people.

He tried, but the commission he appointed on voting fraud collapsed from infighting and from the refusal of states to cooperate when tapped for reams of personal voter data, like names, partial Social Security numbers and voting histories. Studies have found only isolated cases of voter fraud in recent U.S. elections and no evidence that election results were affected. Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt found 31 cases of impersonation fraud, for example, in about 1 billion votes cast in elections from 2000 to 2014.

Trump has falsely claimed that 1 million fraudulent votes were cast in California and cited a Texas state government report that suggested 58,000 people in the country illegally may have cast a ballot at least once since 1996. But state elections officials subsequently acknowledged serious problems with the report, as tens of thousands on the list were actually U.S. citizens.


TRUMP: “We have the best stock market numbers we’ve ever had … Blue-collar workers went up proportionately more than anybody.” — Fox News interview Thursday.

THE FACTS: Wealthier Americans have largely benefited from the stock market gains, not blue-collar workers.

The problem with Trump claiming the stock market has helped working-class Americans is that the richest 10% of the country controls 84% of stock market value, according to a Federal Reserve survey. Because they hold more stocks, wealthier Americans have inherently benefited more from the 19% gain in the Standard & Poor’s index of 500 stocks so far this year. Only about half of U.S. families hold stocks, so plenty of people are getting little to no benefit from the stock market gains.

What Trump may be claiming with regard to the stock market is that working Americans are disproportionately benefiting in their 401(k) retirement savings.

Trump has said that 401(k) plans are up more than 50%. His data source is vague. But 401(k) balances have increased in large part due to routine contributions by workers and employers, not just stock market gains.

The Employee Benefit Research Institute shows that only one group of Americans has gotten an average annual 401(k) gain in excess of 50% during Trump’s presidency. These are workers age 25 to 34 who have fewer than five years at their current employer. At that age, the gains largely came from the regular contributions instead of the stock market. And the percentage gains look large because the account levels are relatively small.

TRUMP: “We have the best economy we’ve ever had.” — Fox News interview Thursday.

TRUMP: “We have the best economy in history.” — remarks Tuesday.

THE FACTS: No matter how often he repeats this claim, which is a lot, the economy is nowhere near the best in the country’s history.

In fact, in the late 1990s, growth topped 4% for four straight years, a level it has not reached on an annual basis under Trump. Growth reached 7.2% in 1984. The economy grew 2.9% in 2018 — the same pace it reached in 2015 under Obama — and simply hasn’t hit historically high growth rates.

The economy is now in its 121st month of growth, making it the longest expansion in history. Most of that took place under Obama.

TRUMP: “Most people working within U.S. ever!” — tweet Thursday.

TRUMP: “The most people working, almost 160 million, in the history of our country.” — remarks Tuesday.

THE FACTS: Yes, but that’s only because of population growth.

A more relevant measure is the proportion of Americans with jobs, and that is still far below record highs.

According to Labor Department data, 60.6% of people in the United States 16 years and older were working in June. That’s below the all-time high of 64.7% in April 2000, though higher than the 59.9% when Trump was inaugurated in January 2017.

TRUMP: “The best employment numbers in history.” — remarks Tuesday.

THE FACTS: They are not the best ever.

The 3.7% unemployment rate in the latest report is not a record low. It’s the lowest in 50 years. The rate was 3.5% in 1969 and 3.4% in 1968.

The U.S. also had lower rates than now in the early 1950s. And during three years of World War II, the annual rate was under 2%.


TRUMP, on his efforts to help veterans: “I got Choice.” — remarks Tuesday.

THE FACTS: He is not the president who “got” the Veterans Choice program, which gives veterans the option to see private doctors outside the Department of Veterans Affairs medical system at government expense.

Obama got it. Congress approved the program in 2014, and Obama signed it into law. Trump expanded it.


TRUMP: “We’re paying close to 100% on NATO.” — remarks Tuesday.

THE FACTS: The U.S. isn’t “paying close to 100%” of the price of protecting Europe.

NATO has a shared budget to which each member makes contributions based on the size of its economy. The United States, with the biggest economy, pays the biggest share, about 22%.

Four European members — Germany, France, Britain and Italy — combined pay nearly 44% of the total. The money, about $3 billion, runs NATO’s headquarters and covers certain other civilian and military costs.

Defending Europe involves far more than that fund. The primary cost of doing so would come from each member country’s military budget, as the alliance operates under a mutual defense treaty.

The U.S. is the largest military spender, but others in the alliance have armed forces, too. The notion that almost all costs would fall to the U.S. is false. In fact, NATO’s Article 5, calling for allies to act if one is attacked, has only been invoked once, and it was on behalf of the U.S., after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

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Trump’s ‘Maximum Pressure’ Campaign on Iran Faces Key Test

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President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran is at a crossroads.

His administration is trying to decide whether to risk stoking international tensions even more by ending one of the last remaining components of the 2015 nuclear deal. The U.S. faces a Thursday deadline to decide whether to extend or cancel sanctions waivers to foreign companies working on Iran’s civilian nuclear program as permitted under the deal.

Ending the waivers would be the next logical step in the campaign and it’s a move favored by Trump’s allies in Congress who endorse a tough approach to Iran. But it also would escalate tensions with Iran and with some European allies, and two officials say a divided administration is likely to keep the waivers afloat with temporary extensions. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

The mere fact that the administration is divided on the issue — it’s already postponed an announcement twice, according to the officials — is the latest in a series of confusing signals that Trump has sent over Iran, causing confusion among supporters and critics of the president about just what he hopes to achieve in the standoff with the Islamic Republic.

Some fear the mixed messages could trigger open conflict amid a buildup of U.S. military forces in the Persian Gulf region.

“It’s always a problem when you don’t have a coherent policy because you are vulnerable to manipulation and the mixed messages have created the environment for dangerous miscalculation,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Trump has simultaneously provoked an escalatory cycle with Iran while also making clear to Iran that he is averse to conflict.”

The public face of the pressure campaign is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and he rejects suggestions the strategy is less than clear cut.

“America has a strategy which we are convinced will work,” he said this past week. “We will deny Iran the wealth to foment terror around the world and build out their nuclear program.”

Yet the administration’s recent actions — which included an unusual mediation effort by Kentucky’s anti-interventionist Sen. Rand Paul — have frustrated some of Trump’s closest allies on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. Those actions also have led to unease in Europe and Asia, where the administration’s attempt to rally support for a coalition to protect ships transiting the Gulf has drawn only lukewarm responses.

Trump withdrew last year from the 2015 deal that Iran signed with the U.S., France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China. The agreement lifted punishing economic sanctions in exchange for limits on the Iranian nuclear program. Critics in the United States believed it didn’t do enough to thwart Iranian efforts to develop nuclear weapons and enabled Iran to rebuild its economy and continue funding militants throughout the Middle East.

Trump, who called it “the worst deal in history,” began reinstating sanctions, and they have hobbled an already weak Iranian economy.

Iran responded by blowing through limits on its low-enriched uranium stockpiles and announcing plans to enrich uranium beyond levels permitted under the deal. Iran has taken increasingly provocative actions against ships in the Gulf, including the seizure of a British vessel, and the downing of a U.S. drone.

Sometime before Thursday, the administration will have to either cancel or extend waivers that allow European, Russian and Chinese companies to work in Iran’s civilian nuclear facilities. The officials familiar with the “civil nuclear cooperation waivers” say a decision in principle has been made to let them expire but that they are likely to be extended for 90 more days to allow companies time to wind down their operations.

At the same time, Trump gave his blessing to Paul to meet last week with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who was in New York to attend a U.N. meeting. Officials familiar with the development said Paul raised the idea with Trump at a golf outing and the president nodded his assent.

Deal critics, including Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, say the waivers should be revoked because they give Iran access to technology that could be used for weapons. In particular, they have targeted a waiver that allows conversion work at the once-secret Fordow site. The other facilities are the Bushehr nuclear power station, the Arak heavy water plant and the Tehran Research Reactor.

Deal supporters say the waivers give international experts a valuable window into Iran’s atomic program that might otherwise not exist. They also say some of the work, particularly on nuclear isotopes that can be used in medicine at the Tehran reactor, is humanitarian in nature.

Trump has been coy about his plans. He said this past week that “it could go either way very easily. Very easily. And I’m OK either way it goes.”

That vacillation has left administration hawks such as Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton in a quandary.

Bolton has long advocated military action against Iran with the goal of changing the Tehran government and, while Pompeo may agree, he is more sensitive to Trump’s reluctance to military intervention, according to the officials.

“Pompeo is trying to reconcile contradictory impulses by focusing on the means rather than ends, which is sanctions,” said Sadjadpour. “But rather than bringing clarity, Trump has brought further confusion by promoting the idea of Rand Paul as an envoy.”

This has given Iran an opening that it is trying to exploit, he said.

“For years, the U.S. has tried to create fissures between hard-liners and moderates in Tehran and now Iran is trying to do the exact same thing in Washington.”

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