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Iran uses proxies to punch above its weight in the Middle East, experts say

37 0 24 May 2019

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May 24, 2019, 11:29 AM UTC

By Dan De Luce and Robert Windrem

As the United States and Iran trade threats and risk a potential collision, the Trump administration is struggling to counter Tehran’s network of proxies across the Middle East. The sprawling network is armed not only with missiles and mines, but also with political influence.

Earlier this month, U.S. officials said intelligence indicated Tehran had given a green light to its proxies in the region to go after U.S. targets. That prompted the White House to issue stern warnings to Iran, beef up U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, and order a partial evacuation of American diplomatic missions in Iraq.

A still unexplained attack on four ships in the Persian Gulf, along with a drone attack on a pipeline in Saudi Arabia claimed by Houthi rebels, has fueled tensions and underscored the dilemma Washington faces in confronting a regime that can strike back through its partners without leaving clear fingerprints. Iran has denied any role in the attacks.

If the war of words erupts into a full-blown conflict, the U.S. military would have to contend with Iran’s network of armed militias in the region. Despite its relatively modest military might, Iran has long employed proxies to fend off adversaries and extend its power and political influence.

“The U.S. can destroy the Iranian navy in a day, but it will find it is attacked in six countries by proxy networks,” said Michael Knights, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute think tank.

At relatively low cost and low risk, local Shiite allies armed and trained by Iran have over decades inflicted serious casualties and strategic headaches on its enemies, including Israel and the United States.

The administration of President Donald Trump has warned that it will retaliate directly against Iran if its surrogates target U.S. troops or civilians.

But Iran denies it is seeking a war with the U.S. and has accused the Trump administration of intentionally stoking tensions.

For Tehran, proxies from the Mediterranean Sea to the Gulf of Oman provide an extended defense far beyond its borders, making adversaries think twice before launching an attack on Iran.

Since the 1980s, Tehran has gambled successfully that its rivals will not directly target its territory, and instead hit back only at the local forces it arms and trains.

Last week, Saudi Arabia blamed Iran and its Houthi allies in Yemen for a drone attack on an oil pipeline pumping station. But Riyadh responded by targeting Houthi forces in Yemen, not by carrying out strikes on Iran itself.

Houthi forces launched another drone attack on Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, going after hangars at Najran airport, the rebels’ television network reported.

Attacks carried out by Iran’s local allies complicate Washington’s decision-making calculus. Would Trump be prepared to go to war with Iran over an incident in which a proxy was suspected? What if the intelligence was circumstantial and left open the possibility Iran did not order the attack by the proxy force?

The value of proxies

While it has armed and trained militias that have carried out large-scale violence, Tehran’s approach to local partners has a nuanced political element as well, experts said. In Lebanon and Iraq, the regime’s proxies have steadily amassed political weight, pushing those countries into Iran’s orbit.

Iran’s playbook starts with arming mostly Shiite groups that evolve “into political movements that acquire political legitimacy, seats in national parliaments and cabinets, and, over time, major roles as national decision makers,” according to a recent report by the Soufan Group, a global security firm that tracks developments in the Middle East.

“Iran essentially seeks to nurture its allies and proxies to the point where they, and by extension Iran, can take over state power from within.”

In 1983, a group linked to the Iranian-backed Shiite militia Hezbollah claimed responsibility for lethal bombings of the U.S. embassy in Beirut and a U.S. Marine barracks. Months later, President Ronald Reagan pulled American troops out of Lebanon.

During the U.S. war in Iraq, Iranian-linked Shiite militia hit American forces with especially lethal roadside bombs that could penetrate armored vehicles. The Pentagon says those attacks killed hundreds of U.S. troops between 2003-2010. Sixteen years since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, those militia groups wield significant influence in the country.

In Syria’s civil war, tens of thousands of Hezbollah fighters and Iranian-trained Shiite militia — backed by Russian air power — shored up the regime of Bashar al-Assad, pushing back fighters backed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Arab governments.

In the civil war in Yemen, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have launched missiles and rockets into Saudi Arabia and fought a coalition led by Riyadh to a stalemate on the battlefield since 2015.

Iran first discovered the value of proxies in its eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s, when Iraqi Shiite fighters proved effective against Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Supporters of the Houthi movement shout slogans as they attend a rally to mark the 4th anniversary of the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen’s war, in Sanaa, Yemen on March 26, 2019.Khaled Abdullah / Reuters

An arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Quds Forces, runs the training efforts for various proxies, and Hezbollah in Lebanon has grown into that country’s most powerful political and military force.

By operating covertly through partners who don’t wear Iranian military uniforms, Tehran can deny its involvement, experts said.

“When Iran’s proxies carry out attacks, it’s highly implausible that they don’t coordinate with Tehran, but it’s usually not provable,” said Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, Iran has exploited the chaos of civil wars, enabling it to promote its interests and keep its rivals off-balance.

“It is relatively cheap to equip militias, some of whom already believe in the cause and are willing to fight and die,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, which supports a tough line on Iran.

“The strategy is low cost but with a high return on investment.”

Iran’s tactics, however, have antagonized Gulf Arab powers, particularly Saudi Arabia. The Shiite-ruled regime in Tehran has aspired to be the leader of the Islamic world, but its efforts to rally Sunni Muslims have had mixed success.

Expanding forces

Trump administration officials say a wave of punishing U.S. economic sanctions will deprive Iran of funds for its Shiite militias and force the regime to scale back its role in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. The sanctions, which have drastically slashed Iran’s oil revenue, reportedly have forced Hezbollah to adopt austerity measures, furloughing fighters and cutting staff at its television station.

But so far, ramped up U.S. economic pressure has yet to cause Iran to pull back on its proxy activity across the region, according to Seth Jones of the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.

Iran’s proxy forces have expanded since 2011, according to a recent report by Jones. The number of fighters in Iran’s proxy network has increased from roughly between 110,000 and 130,000 in 2011 to between 140,000 and 180,000 in 2018, the report estimated.

Iran’s partners also are using increasingly advanced weapons, including long-range rockets, armed drones, explosive-laden speed boats and Iranian-made Burkan 2-H medium-range ballistic missiles, according to Jones and United Nations experts.

Some regional analysts and former intelligence officials say Iran’s proxy war with the U.S. could already be underway.

Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for a drone attack last week on Saudi Arabia’s East-West pipeline, which takes Saudi crude from the Persian Gulf across the country to the Red Sea in the west.

Days earlier, four ships — including two Saudi tankers — came under attack off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, near the oil export port of Fujairah. It remains unclear who was behind the assault. U.S. officials say Iran and its proxies are the prime suspects — though they have yet to provide proof.

Iran has denied any role in the attacks on the ships or on the oil pipeline.

The attacks, which caused no fatalities and did not directly target the U.S., could be an attempt by Iran to send a warning to Washington that it has the ability to send oil prices soaring and disrupt oil shipping lanes not only in the Strait of Hormuz, but outside of the strategic waterway, Knights of the Washington Institute said. Both incidents took place at key hubs for oil routes bypassing the narrow strait.

Knights said the attacks sent a clear message: “You already know we can touch Hormuz. Here’s the other two things that you are counting on for getting your oil out. We can touch them too.”

States pushing abortion bans have higher infant mortality rates

25 0 24 May 2019

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May 24, 2019, 10:10 AM UTC

By Erika Edwards

Georgia, Ohio, Missouri, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi have in recent weeks passed some of the most restrictive abortion policies in the nation. But they have other things in common, too.

Four of those states have also declined to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, leaving a large number of pregnant women without health care.

The most startling similarity shared by all six states, however, is this: They all tend to have the highest rates of infant mortality in the nation.

“If the mother isn’t healthy, it’s unlikely the baby will be healthy,” said Dr. Laura Riley, chair of obstetrics and gynecology at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian.

Georgia, Ohio and Mississippi have passed so-called “heartbeat” laws prohibiting abortions after about six weeks gestation, before many women know they’re pregnant. In Missouri, a new restriction would ban ending a pregnancy after about eight weeks gestation. A similar bill is making its way through the Louisiana legislature, and that state’s governor has indicated he will sign it into law. Alabama recently passed the most stringent law, banning nearly all abortions at any time of gestation, except when a mother’s life is in jeopardy.

The intent for many anti-abortion efforts in these states is to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

“We’re seeing these bans in states where already there are harsh barriers to reproductive health care, and where we know they have negative health care outcomes,” said Jacqueline Ayers, vice president of government relations and public policy at the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

In fact, babies carried to term are dying in those states more frequently than in many others.

The average national infant mortality rate in 2017 was 5.8 per 1,000 live births, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Missouri’s was higher at 6.2 infant deaths per 1,000 live births. Louisiana’s was at 7.1 infant deaths per 1,000 live births. Georgia and Ohio’s rates were at 7.2 deaths per 1,000 live births, and Alabama’s reached 7.4 deaths per 1,000 births.

But Mississippi had the highest infant mortality rate in the nation — at 8.6 deaths per 1,000 live births.

In addition, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Missouri did not expand Medicaid under the ACA, creating gaps in health care coverage for women of childbearing age, according to a new study from Georgetown that examined links between Medicaid expansion and insurance.

“If states would expand Medicaid coverage, they would improve the health of mothers and babies and save lives.”

“The uninsured rate for women of childbearing age is nearly twice as high in states that have not expanded Medicaid,” said Adam Searing, a research professor at Georgetown University Center for Children and Families. “That means a lot more women who don’t have health coverage before they get pregnant or after they have their children,” said Searing. “If states would expand Medicaid coverage, they would improve the health of mothers and babies and save lives.”

Dr. Sarah Horvath of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists agrees.

“Comprehensive medical care gives women an awareness of healthy lifestyles before pregnancy,” Horvath told NBC News.

The connection between high infant mortality and severe restrictions on abortion are correlational, meaning a ban on abortions can’t be proven to cause maternal or infant mortality or other negative health problems. But the leading causes of newborn death — which include preterm birth, birth defects and other pregnancy complications — are closely connected to access to a pregnant woman’s prenatal health care.

In fact, the March of Dimes gave Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama all failing grades in its 2018 Premature Birth Report Cards. Georgia received a “D.”

High maternal mortality rates

The same states also have high rates of mothers dying during labor and after childbirth. About 700 women die from pregnancy-related causes every year and more than half of those deaths are preventable, according to a recent CDC report on maternal mortality.

Particularly striking is the rate of pregnant women and new mothers dying in Georgia. That state ranked 48th out of 50 in a measure of maternal mortality in the 2018 America’s Health Rankings from the United Health Foundation, with 46.2 deaths per 100,000 live births. Mississippi and Alabama’s rankings were better: at 32nd and 7th, respectively.

But Missouri and Louisiana joined Georgia near the bottom. Missouri ranked 42nd out of 50, and Louisiana was just above Georgia in the Health Rankings for maternal mortality, at 47th out of 50, with 44.8 deaths per 100,000 live births.

“You see areas of the country where access to a broad range of health care is either lacking or where great disparities exist,” said Megan Donovan, a senior policy manager at the Guttmacher Institute, a group that studies reproductive rights.

The March of Dimes report found that in Mississippi, the preterm birth rate among African American women is 44 percent higher than the rate of all other women. In Georgia, the rate is 46 percent higher than women of other races.

And in both Alabama and Louisiana, the preterm birth rate among black women is 51 percent higher.

The reasons for the disparities are complex.

“It may be that years of racism and classism adversely affects one’s health and one’s ability to accept healthcare.”

“There appears to be an influence of unconscious bias and racism. It may be that years of racism and classism adversely affects one’s health and one’s ability to accept healthcare,” said Riley.

A 2017 report from the Center for Reproductive Rights and Ibis Reproductive Health found that the more abortion constraints a state passed — like mandatory waiting periods, counseling, gestation age limits and restrictions on abortion healthcare coverage — the fewer evidence-based supportive policies it had for women and children.

According to the report, that includes expanding Medicaid, family and medical leave, as well as mandatory sex education.

On the other side, states actively passing protections for abortion and women’s reproductive rights also have some of the lowest rates of infant mortality in the country, Donovan said.

Lawmakers in Vermont recently passed a measure that would ban that state’s government from interfering in reproductive and abortion rights. And it looks as if it will become law. Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, said he had ruled out vetoing the bill.

Vermont’s infant mortality rate is low, at 4.8 deaths per 1,000 live births, according to the CDC.

The data show New York’s infant mortality rate is even lower, at 4.6 deaths per 1,000 live births. That state passed the Reproductive Health Act earlier this year, which includes a provision permitting late-term abortions when a woman’s health is in danger.

In Massachusetts, the infant mortality rate is 3.7 per 1,000 live births. That state’s legislature is considering a bill that would expand abortion access by removing the requirement for minors to get parental consent, and allow abortions later in a pregnancy under certain conditions.

“It remains to be seen what will be successful where, but there are advocates and policymakers and states in a position to do positive things to expand and protect access,” said Donovan. “This will be all the more important as other states go in the opposite direction.”

Assange indictment: Free press advocates see peril for journalism

39 0 24 May 2019

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May 24, 2019, 3:22 AM UTC

By Alex Johnson

The indictment charging Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange with obtaining and publishing classified material represents a grave threat to all Americans’ First Amendment rights, advocates across the political spectrum said Thursday.

The superseding indictment adds 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act of 1917 to a single previous count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion that was revealed last month. Specifically, it accuses Assange, 47, of having illegally induced Army Pfc. Chelsea Manning to send him classified documents, some of which he published without redacting the names of confidential sources who provided information to U.S. diplomats.

Advocates and legal scholars said the indictment seeks to criminalize activity engaged in by journalists every day — publishing news of vital interest that they receive from someone who shouldn’t have given it to them.

“For the first time in the history of our country, the government has brought criminal charges against a publisher for the publication of truthful information,” said Ben Wizner, director of the Speech, Privacy and Technology Project of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“This is an extraordinary escalation of the Trump administration’s attacks on journalism, and a direct assault on the First Amendment,” Wizner said in a statement.

Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University in New York, said the new charges weren’t unexpected, noting that the Espionage Act was cited in Assange’s original hacking charge last month.

But the added charges break frightening new ground, Jaffer said, because all previous cases under the Espionage Act targeted the government officials doing the leaking — not the publishers of their leaks.

“This is really what free speech and free press advocates have been worrying about,” Jaffer said in an interview on MSNBC’s “All In With Chris Hayes.”

“It really does cross a new frontier,” he said.

“You had the Bush administration begin prosecuting leakers as spies, and then you had the Obama administration prosecute more Espionage Act cases than all previous administrations combined,” he said. “But none of those prosecutions involved a publisher. Now we have a publisher.”

Regardless of whether Assange is ever tried, “the indictment itself is going to send a very chilling message,” he said.

In an analysis of the indictment on Thursday, the nonprofit Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press argued that “the parallels between what a member of the news media does on a daily basis ought to be obvious.”

“Reporters and sources regularly use encrypted communications applications to ‘conspire’ and to pass information back and forth (as well they should),” it said.

John Demers, the assistant attorney general for national security, told reporters on Thursday that the Justice Department “takes seriously the role of journalists in our democracy” but that department officials didn’t consider Assange to be a journalist.

“No responsible actor, journalist or otherwise, would purposefully publish the names of individuals he or she knew to be confidential human sources in a war zone, exposing them to the gravest of dangers,” Demers said.

But Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said in a statement: “Any government use of the Espionage Act to criminalize the receipt and publication of classified information poses a dire threat to journalists seeking to publish such information in the public interest, irrespective of the Justice Department’s assertion that Assange is not a journalist.”

(Andrea Mitchell, NBC News’ chief foreign affairs correspondent, is a member of the organization’s steering committee.)

Criticism of the indictment crossed political lines, as several prominent conservative and libertarian commentators sounded similar warnings.

Julian Sanchez, a senior fellow at the nonprofit Cato Institute, a libertarian advocacy group, said the debate about whether Assange was a journalist was both “tedious” and irrelevant. (The answer, he agreed on Twitter, was “no” — Assange isn’t a journalist.)

The whole point of the First Amendment, he said, “is, in significant part, to avoid making particularized governmental determinations about who is a ‘real journalist.'”

Meanwhile, Scott Horton, director of the nonprofit Libertarian Institute, bluntly called the indictment “garbage.”

“It begins by citing public requests by Wikileaks for classified documents from a number of governments,” Horton wrote Thursday on the institute’s blog, “as though this is different from what any investigative reporter might do.”

Similarly, Eli Lake, a neoconservative columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, said the indictment “represents a profound danger to any reporter who has published state secrets.”

While it can be debated whether Assange is a journalist and whether Wikileaks is a news organization, “this debate is irrelevant,” Lake, who has long denounced the leaking of information from counterintelligence investigations, wrote Thursday.

“Assange is under no obligation to keep the U.S. government’s secrets,” he wrote. “If Assange can be charged with receiving classified information, then what is to stop the government from bringing similar charges against the New York Times or Bloomberg News?”

Advocates’ criticism found support among current and former government officials, as well.

David A. Kaye, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the protection of freedom of opinion and expression, said on Twitter that “regardless of what you think about Wikileaks or Julian Assange, an Espionage Act prosecution can only turn out badly for press freedom in this country.”

And Matthew Miller, a justice analyst for MSNBC, pointed out that the Justice Department declined to charge Assange for just that reason during the administration of former President Barack Obama, when he was its chief spokesman.

“This is nonsense,” Miller said on Twitter, arguing that there was a “pretty clear difference between charging government employees who have sworn to protect classified info and people outside government who publish it.”

“As I’ve been saying for several years, there are very good reasons we didn’t charge this theory,” he said. “And it’s not like we had a record reporters loved on these issues.”

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange indicted on new charges under Espionage Act

30 0 23 May 2019

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May 23, 2019, 8:41 PM UTC / Updated May 23, 2019, 8:58 PM UTC

By Ken Dilanian and Doha Madani

The Department of Justice on Thursday indicted Wikileaks founder Julian Assange on 18 charges, including violations of the Espionage Act and a case that could pose challenges to First Amendment protections.

Assange, who was charged last month with computer hacking, is accused of aiding former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to gain a password that gave her access to secret government documents that WikiLeaks later published in 2010.

Thursday’s indictment alleges that Assange actively solicited classified information in 2009 and that he conspired with Manning to unlawfully access secret-level documents. The government claims that those documents’ dissemination actively endangered national security, according to the Justice Department.

If convicted on the new counts, Assange faces a maximum of 10 years in federal prison per count.

“This is madness. It is the end of national security journalism and the first amendment,” WikiLeaks tweeted shortly after the new charges were announced.

Edward Snowden tweeted that the “Department of Justice just declared war” on journalism. “This is no longer about Julian Assange: This case will decide the future of media.”

John Demers, the assistant attorney general for national security, said Thursday that the department was not attacking the role of journalists and that it “takes seriously the role of journalists in our democracy.”

The U.S. government has never successfully prosecuted anyone other than a government employee for disseminating unlawfully leaked classified information, according to University of Chicago Law Prof. Geoffrey Stone, even though the Espionage Act has long been on the books.

The government rarely if ever brings those cases because journalists publish classified material regularly.

Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno withdrew asylum protections for Assange last month, saying that Assange repeatedly violated international conventions.

Assange was subsequently kicked out of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London where he had spent the last seven years seeking refuge. Shortly after he was escorted out, Assange was arrested for skipping bail in 2012, when he was under investigation in Sweden on charges of sexual assault and rape.

A British judge sentenced Assange to 50 weeks in prison earlier this month and he faces possible extradition to the United States.

Trump lashes out at Rex Tillerson for saying Putin out-prepared him

25 0 23 May 2019

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May 23, 2019, 1:52 PM UTC

By Allan Smith

President Donald Trump lashed out at Rex Tillerson on Thursday morning after his former secretary of state reportedly told a House committee that the president was ill-prepared for a 2017 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Rex Tillerson, a man who is ‘dumb as a rock’ and totally ill prepared and ill equipped to be Secretary of State, made up a story (he got fired) that I was out-prepared by Vladimir Putin at a meeting in Hamburg, Germany,” Trump tweeted. “I don’t think Putin would agree. Look how the U.S. is doing!”

The tweet followed a Washington Post report that Tillerson told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that Putin out-prepared Trump for the meeting at the 2017 G-20 summit. Tillerson said Putin’s higher level of preparation put Trump at a disadvantage during the meeting.

The U.S. had anticipated a shorter meeting between the two leaders, but it instead turned into a two-hour plus discussion of geopolitical issues, committee aides told the Post. Tillerson spoke before the committee for seven hours in a closed-door session on Tuesday.

“We spent a lot of time in the conversation talking about how Putin seized every opportunity to push what he wanted,” a committee aide told the Post. “There was a discrepancy in preparation, and it created an unequal footing.”

Tillerson spoke with a bipartisan group of lawmakers and staff at the request of the panel’s chairman, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the newspaper reported. Unlike Trump’s solo meeting with Putin in Helsinki last summer, advisers — including Tillerson — were present alongside him at the meeting with the Russian president in Germany.

Tillerson and Trump had sparred for months before the president fired him in March of last year. The former secretary of state nearly resigned in the summer of 2017 amid mounting policy disputes and clashes with the White House, NBC News reported, citing senior administration officials. As tensions came to a head, Tillerson called Trump a “moron” following a meeting at the Pentagon with Cabinet officials and members of Trump’s national security team, three officials familiar with the incident said.

In December, Tillerson told CBS News that Trump was “undisciplined,” didn’t read much and tried to do things that would violate the law. In response, Trump said Tillerson “didn’t have the mental capacity needed” to be secretary of state.

“He was dumb as a rock and I couldn’t get rid of him fast enough,” Trump tweeted. “He was lazy as hell.”

In hiring Tillerson to run the State Department, Trump pointed to the former Exxon Mobil executive’s “vast experience at dealing successfully with all types of foreign governments” and called him “a world class player and dealmaker.”

“He will be a star,” Trump tweeted after Tillerson was sworn in.

Senate strikes deal on $19 billion disaster relief bill that excludes border funding

32 0 23 May 2019

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May 23, 2019, 6:37 PM UTC / Updated May 23, 2019, 7:22 PM UTC

By Rebecca Shabad and Frank Thorp V

WASHINGTON — Senators reached a bipartisan deal Thursday that would provide more than $19 billion in disaster aid funding to parts of the United States hit by hurricanes, flooding, earthquakes and wildfires, following months of negotiation.

Leaving a closed-door Senate Republican lunch, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., told reporters that an agreement had been reached.

The two said that they had spoken to President Donald Trump on Thursday afternoon about the parameters of the deal, which excludes the $4.5 billion in border funding that the White House and the Republicans kept demanding. Trump signed off, according to Shelby.

The Senate is expected to vote on the measure Thursday afternoon before leaving Washington for a weeklong Memorial Day recess. This comes after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., warned earlier in the day that the upper chamber would remain in session this week until they passed a disaster aid bill.

According to a breakdown of the bill from Shelby’s office, it would provide about $900 million to Puerto Rico, which was ravaged by Hurricane Maria in 2017. That money would go toward nutrition assistance and a community development block grant, both of which were key Democratic priorities.

The bill also includes a provision that would require the Trump administration to make almost $9 billion in previously withheld aid available to Puerto Rico, according to a summary of the bill provided by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., ranking member on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Funding for Puerto Rico had long been a sticking point in negotiations because Trump was opposed to giving the territory more aid. In April, he false claimed on Twitter that “Puerto Rico got 91 billion dollars for the hurricane” when the federal government had only allocated $40 billion for the island’s recovery and most of it hasn’t reached it yet.

“Puerto Rico got far more money than Texas & Florida combined, yet their government can’t do anything right, the place is a mess — nothing works,” Trump also tweeted in April.

The House would have to vote on the bill before it’s sent to Trump’s desk. House lawmakers have already left for their recess but they could pass it quickly through unanimous consent.

“Ever since the House’s first vote on disaster relief on January 16, congressional Democrats have worked to negotiate a disaster relief package that provides assistance for all Americans, including in Puerto Rico,” said Evan Hollander, communications director for House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y. “…If the Senate passes the legislation today, House Democrats support clearing it through the House as soon as possible.”

Records in Jussie Smollett case to be unsealed, judge rules

27 0 23 May 2019

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May 23, 2019, 5:38 PM UTC

By Elisha Fieldstadt and Samira Puskar

An Illinois judge Thursday ordered Jussie Smollett’s criminal case file be unsealed.

Smollett was accused of filing a false police report claiming he was the victim of a hate crime attack carried out by two men on a city street in January, but less than three weeks after being indicted on 16 felony counts, Chicago prosecutors dropped all charges against the actor.

On the same day the charges were dismissed in late March, Smollett’s defense team requested that the evidence and records in the case be immediately sealed, and the state did not object, according to court documents.

Lawyers for media outlets argued that the sealing of the records “violates the public’s right of access to court records and proceedings” and “the matter has been widely publicized and the defendant and his attorneys have appeared on national television discussing the case,” Thursday’s decision document said.

Meanwhile, Smollett’s lawyers countered that the actor has “the right to be left alone,” and noted that the media had ample time to access the records regarding the case before they were sealed, the document said.

“To be sure, it is easily conceivable that a defendant whose case was dismissed would wish to maintain his sense of privacy, even if, perhaps especially if, the media covered the case,” Judge Steven G. Watkins wrote in the decision. “However, that isn’t that case.”

“While the court appreciates that the defendant was in the public eye before the events that precipitated this case, it was not necessary for him to address this so publicly and to such an extent. By doing so, the court cannot credit his privacy interest as good cause to keep the case records sealed,” the decision said.

On Jan. 29, Smollett filed a report with the Chicago Police Department saying two masked men hurled racist and homophobic slurs at him before beating him, putting a noose around his neck and pouring what he thought was bleach on him. The actor, who was a star of the show “Empire” at the time, is black and gay, and police began investigating the incident as a hate crime.

When a lack of video evidence and Smollett’s initial refusal to turn over his phone records caused some people to doubt his version of events, he appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America” to defend his story. “I want that video found so badly,” he said. “I want them to stop being able to say ‘alleged attack.'”

On Feb. 20, police said Smollett’s report was false, and he was charged with felony disorderly conduct. He was indicted on 16 felony counts of disorderly conduct for making a false report March 8, and those charges were abruptly dropped March 26.

It’s unclear when the case records will be unsealed. Smollett’s lawyers had no comment Thursday.

Pelosi tells colleagues Trump is villainous — and he wants to be impeached

32 0 23 May 2019

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May 23, 2019, 3:21 PM UTC / Updated May 23, 2019, 4:13 PM UTC

By Peter Alexander, Alex Moe and Rebecca Shabad

WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told her Democratic colleagues Thursday that President Donald Trump “wants to be impeached” so that he can be vindicated by the Senate.

Pelosi made the comments at a closed-door morning meeting, two Democratic aides told NBC News, who also said that Pelosi called Trump’s actions “villainous.”

The aide said that Pelosi was implying that she will stick to her current plan to keep investigating the president and his administration without jumping to impeachment, though she didn’t explicitly address strategy in her remarks.

“Let me be very clear: the president’s behavior, as far as his obstruction of justice, the things that he is doing, it’s in plain sight, it cannot be denied — ignoring subpoenas, obstruction of justice,” Pelosi told reporters at her weekly press conference Thursday following the closed-door meeting.

But she continued to stress a focus on process. “I do think that impeachment is a very divisive place to go in our country,” she said. “Get the facts to the American people in our investigation…it may take us to a place that is unavoidable in terms of impeachment, but we’re not at that place.”

Thirty-two members of the House Democratic caucus have so far voiced supported for opening an impeachment inquiry against Trump, many of whom came out in support of such a strategy just this week.

The House speaker’s message comes a day after she and Trump tangled over her claim that he had engaged in a “cover-up,” as vocal support for impeachment surged in the Democratic caucus.

“We do believe that it’s important to follow the facts. We believe that no one is above the law, including the president of the United States. And we believe that the president of the United States is engaged in a cover-up,” Pelosi told reporters in the morning, following a closed-door caucus meeting with Democratic lawmakers focused on impeachment.

The president later cut short a previously scheduled White House visit with Democratic leaders including Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., that had been planned to discuss infrastructure policy.

Pelosi said Thursday that the president pulled a “stunt” at the White House Wednesday and “stormed out” of the room, throwing “another temper tantrum again.”

“I pray for the president of the United States,” she told reporters. “I wish that his family or his administration or his staff would have an intervention for the good of the country.”

Asked what she meant when she referenced a presidential “intervention,” Pelosi appeared to joke about the 25th Amendment, which allows for a process that could lead to the removal of the president through the vice president and Cabinet.

“Statutory intervention? That would be good. Article 25. That’s a good idea. I’ll take it up with my caucus, not that they haven’t been thinking about it.”

Following his brief White House meeting with Democratic leaders, Trump held an impromptu Rose Garden event blasting her statement, and the mounting congressional probes into his conduct and finances.

“I don’t do cover-ups,” he said, adding that legislative cooperation would be on hold until Hill investigations ended.

Pelosi said Thursday that the president was clearly unsettled by the string of legal setbacks, an apparent reference to court decisions this week that would require the release of previously withheld financial documents.

“What really got to him was these court cases and the fact that a House Democratic caucus is not on a path to impeachment, and that’s where he wants us to be,” she said. “When he saw that that was not happening that — again with the cover-up, which he understands is true — just really struck a chord.”

Atlanta officer fired after punching, using Taser on woman in front of 4-year-old daughter

32 0 23 May 2019

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May 23, 2019, 1:29 PM UTC

By Elisha Fieldstadt

An Atlanta police officer has been fired for using unnecessary force after he punched, tackled and used a Taser on a woman — whom he believed had an outstanding warrant for a speeding ticket — in front of her 4-year-old daughter.

Sgt. James Hines was fired on May 17 after the Atlanta Police Department investigated the May 1 arrest of Maggie Thomas, according to a statement from the department. “The Office of Professional Standards determined that the force used during the arrest was unnecessary and inconsistent with Atlanta Police Department training,” the statement said.

Video of the incident posted by Thomas’ lawyer, Gerald A. Griggs, on Twitter shows Hines forcibly remove Thomas from her car and throw her to the ground. As Thomas screams, her daughter looks on, crying “Are you going to jail?”

The person filming the incident, who appears to be on the phone with authorities, says, “I’m recording this. He slammed her on the ground. He’s tased her like three times. This is crazy. … He slammed her on the car.”

Sergeant James HinesAtlanta Police Dept.

According to an incident report by Hines, he “saw a black female sitting in a silver Infiniti” and “had gotten an earlier lookout on a silver Infiniti.”

When Hines approached Thomas in her car she “became agitated and asked why I was looking at her car and what was I doing back behind her apartments,” Hines wrote. “She said something about there shouldn’t be a white officer harassing her.”

Hines left Thomas but then “began to wonder why she became so agitated” so he looked up her records, he wrote. He saw she had a warrant for her arrest due to a speeding ticket, called for backup and went “back to the parking lot to make sure Ms. Thomas did not get away.”

When Hines approached Thomas again, she refused to hand over her license or get out of the car so he handcuffed one of her hands and she held her daughter with the other, he wrote.

Thomas started honking her horn with her head, at which point people came out of the apartments, and one of them took the little girl from the car.

“I then took Ms. Thomas to the ground and she still refused to give me her right hand. I took out my Taser and drive-stunned her to her back,” Hines wrote.

Hines handcuffed Thomas’ other hand, at which point she bit him on his hand, the officer wrote.

“I immediately punched her in the face and she fell to the ground,” Hines wrote. Another officer put her in Hines’ police car as Hines tried to verify the arrest warrant.

“The warrant for her arrest was unable to be confirmed due to the computers being down for the City of Atlanta,” Hines said. He arrested her anyway for disorderly conduct, but not before medics treated her for a swollen eye and determined there were no marks on Hines’ hand “from being bitten,” he wrote.

The Atlanta Police Department has recommended that the disorderly conduct charge against Hines be dropped.

Wells Fargo, TD Bank have already given Trump-related financial documents to Congress

31 0 23 May 2019

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May 22, 2019, 11:00 PM UTC / Updated May 23, 2019, 1:39 PM UTC

By Leigh Ann Caldwell and Alex Moe

WASHINGTON — A key congressional committee has already gained access to President Donald Trump’s dealings with two major financial institutions, two sources familiar with the House probe tell NBC News, as a court ruling Wednesday promised to open the door for even more records to be handed over.

Wells Fargo and TD Bank are the two of nine institutions that have so far complied with subpoenas issued by the House Financial Services Committee demanding information about their dealings with the Trump Organization, according to the sources. The disclosures by these two banks haven’t been previously reported. Both TD Bank and Wells Fargo declined to comment for this story.

Wells Fargo provided the committee with a few thousand documents and TD Bank handed the committee a handful of documents, according to a source who has seen them. The committee, led by Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., is especially interested in the president’s business relationship with Russia and other foreign entities.

Appearing on MSNBC’s “Hardball” Wednesday, Waters said “we don’t have information to share with you at this time about what we’ve learned from the documents.”

A federal judge ruled Wednesday that two other banks — Deutsche Bank and Capital One — can hand over financial documents related to their dealings Trump and his businesses to Congress. The Trump family had sued to prevent those two banks from complying with the congressional subpoena and the ruling paves the way for the committee to now have access to years of financial records from at least four financial institutions.

The documents that have been provided so far are a fraction of those requested by Waters, whose committee has also sent subpoenas to Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, Royal Bank of Canada, Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase. The Royal Bank of Canada is in the process of complying with the subpoena, according to a source. The other banks have missed the subpoena deadline of May 6.

The development comes as House Democrats are internally debating whether to move forward with launching an impeachment inquiry of the president or not.

Deutsche Bank has been the Trump Organization’s biggest lender, financing more than $2 billion in loans to the president during his business career, and he still owes the bank at least $130 million, according to Trump’s latest financial disclosures.

The subpoenas, details of which have not been released to the public, are predicated on the notion that Congress has access to the information under the Bank Secrecy Act, which allows Congress access to financial information to search for money laundering, according to a person who has seen them.

“The potential use of the U.S. financial system for illicit purposes is a very serious concern,” Waters said in April when she issued the subpoenas. “The Financial Services Committee is exploring these matters, including as they may involve the President and his associates, as thoroughly as possible pursuant to its oversight authority, and will follow the facts wherever they may lead us.”

The office of the committee’s ranking member, Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., did not respond to requests for comment.

The Waters probe is just one of numerous confrontations between House Democrats and the president over his financial information.

The receipt of documents suggests progress for House Democrats who have often been frustrated in their efforts to, in some cases, conduct oversight but they have had progress in recent days. U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta this week said that Congress has the legal authority to request information from the president’s personal accounting firm Mazars USA.

An NBC News analysis finds that at least 14 different Democratic-led House committees are investigating various aspects of Trump and his presidency, with 50 different inquiries that are seeking documents from the executive branch or outside entities.

Much of the focus for House Democrats has been on efforts across multiple committees to gain access to an unredacted version of the Mueller report, which the Justice Department recently moved to block after Trump asserted executive privilege.

While lawmakers have been stymied in obtaining additional documentation that could be central to an obstruction of justice case against the president or members of his administration, accessing bank records could provide new momentum for an investigation centered around questions of whether foreign individuals or governments hold financial leverage over the president, his family or his businesses.

CORRECTION (May 23, 2019, 9:35 a.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated the list of financial institutions that have received a subpoena from the House Financial Services Committee. Bank of America should have been included on that list.

CORRECTION (May 23, 2019, 10 a.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misspelled the first name of a federal judge. He is Amit Mehta, not Ahmit. It also misspelled the name of one of the banks mentioned. It is Capital One, not Capitol One.

Mike Memoli contributed.