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Trump’s biggest problem might be the competency question

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Pruitt sits in the hot seat

NBC’s Leigh Ann Caldwell, Hallie Jackson and Alex Moe: “Supporters of embattled Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt are starting to raise questions about his alleged ethical lapses, a shift in tone that could spell trouble as he appears before Congress Thursday.”

“After a string of stinging revelations detailing excessive expenditures on security, travel and raises for staff, Pruitt can expect to be grilled and called to answer for his decisions. But while he will be answering questions from two separate House committees, the person whose opinion will matter most is President Donald Trump.”

Macron warns of the consequences of Trump pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal

In a briefing with reporters Wednesday, French President Macron said he ultimately doesn’t know what Trump will do about the Iran nuclear deal on May 12, but he warned that killing the deal “would open Pandora’s box,” NBC’s Andrea Mitchell reports. Macron added, “Do you want to make war with Iran? I don’t think your president wants to make war with Iran.”

Macron suggested Trump’s experience with North Korea is influencing him, now that he realizes there is the possibility of a deal with North Korea, per Mitchell. “His experience with North Korea is that when you are very tough, you make the other side move and you can try to go to a good deal or a better deal… That’s a strategy of increasing tension” he said, “It could be useful.”

Calling it a “paradox,” Macron said Trump could get out of the Iran deal on May 12 for domestic political reasons because it was such an important campaign promise. “When people say President Trump is not predictable, I think the opposite, he is very predictable. Look at his campaign commitments.”

Macron delivers rebuke to Trumpism in speech to Congress

Meanwhile, about that bro-mance between Macron and Trump — CNBC’s John Harwood writes that Macron’s earlier speech to Congress was a rebuke to Trumpism, without mentioning Trump by name. “‘We can choose isolationism, withdrawal and nationalism,’ Macron said in the well of the House of Representatives. ‘It can be tempting to us as a temporary remedy to our fears.’”

More: “The French president warned that trade wars, rather than trade deals, ‘destroy jobs’ and raise prices for the middle class. He appealed to the U.S. to rejoin the Paris climate accord and create a ‘low-carbon economy’ because ‘there is no Planet B.’ He said remaining with America’s allies in the Iran nuclear deal, at least until some replacement is negotiated, is the best path for fighting terrorism, preserving peace and avoiding nuclear proliferation.”

The parties spent at least $48.5 million on the special elections of 2017-2018, with the GOP dropping a total of $37 million

“Major national Republican and Democratic party groups have spent at least $48.5 million on seven special elections since last April,” one of us writes. “The lion’s share of that spending — which includes independent and coordinated expenditures for each of the races — came from Republicans, with a total of $37 million spent in total by the Republican National Committee, the NRCC, the NRSC and the two major super PACs affiliated with the House and Senate GOP (the Congressional Leadership Fund and the Senate Leadership Fund).”

More: “Democratic Party groups — including the Democratic National Committee, the DCCC, the DSCC and the House Majority PAC — spent only about $11.5 million on independent expenditures and coordinated campaign expenditures in the same seven races.”

GOP’s winning margin in AZ-8 shrinks to 4 points after new votes are counted

By the way, we noted yesterday that Republican Debbie Lesko beat Democrat Hiral Tipirneni by 6 points, 53 percent to 47 percent (when you round up their numbers). But the GOP’s winning margin decreased after new votes were counted in the AZ-8 contest: Lesko 52.4 percent, Tipirneni 47.6 percent.

Rundown on the 2018 midterms

In case you missed them, here are some of the recent midterm developments that we’ve chronicled on our “Rundown” blog: Another poll shows a tight race in the Tennessee Senate contest: Democrat Phil Bredesen 46 percent, Republican Marsha Blackburn 43 percent… Heidi Heitkamp is up with her first TV ad… And Texas Gov. Greg Abbott wants Blake Farenthold to pay for the special election to replace him, per NBC’s Vaughn Hillyard.

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Biden picks Rohit Chopra to lead consumer protection agency

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WASHINGTON — President-elect Joe Biden has chosen Rohit Chopra to be the next director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, two sources told NBC News.

Chopra, a member of the Federal Trade Commission, helped launch the agency in 2011 and previously served as its assistant director.

He is an ally of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who proposed and built the consumer-focused agency. He is also backed by progressive groups. Bloomberg first reported Chopra’s selection.

Among those who applauded the move Sunday were Randi Weingarten, leader of the American Federation of Teachers, and the consumer advocacy organization Public Citizen, which called him a “fantastic pick who will return the agency to its days of actually fighting for consumers.”

At the CFPB, Chopra worked on student loan issues and helped secure funding for people unlawfully targeted by debt collectors, for-profit colleges and others, according to his agency biography.

At the FTC, he “pushed for aggressive remedies against lawbreaking companies, especially repeat offenders, and has worked to reverse the FTC’s reliance on no-money, no-fault settlements,” his biography says.

Geoff Bennett reported from Washington and Tim Stelloh from California.



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'Bring it on!' Britons back Boris to make UK the 'Singapore of Europe' with new freedom

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BORIS JOHNSON has been urged to make Britain the “Singapore of Europe” with its new-found freedom after Brexit, according to the results of an Express.co.uk poll.

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Iran jails U.S. businessman, possibly jeopardizing Biden’s plans for diplomacy with Tehran

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WASHINGTON — Only weeks after the U.S, election, and three days after an Iranian nuclear scientist was assassinated, Iranian authorities convicted an American businessman on spying charges, a family friend told NBC News.

The case threatens to complicate plans by the next administration to pursue diplomacy with Iran, as President-elect Joe Biden has said he would be open to easing sanctions on Tehran if the regime returned to compliance with a 2015 nuclear agreement.

Iranian-American Emad Shargi, 56, was summoned to a Tehran court on Nov. 30 and told he had been convicted of espionage without a trial and sentenced to 10 years, a family friend told NBC News.

Shargi’s family has not heard from him for more than six weeks, the family said in a statement.

Only a year earlier, in December 2019, an Iranian court had cleared Shargi of any wrongdoing, but the regime withheld his Iranian and U.S. passports.

The about-face by the Iranian authorities took place only weeks after Biden won the U.S. presidential election and three days after the killing of a leading nuclear scientist and senior defense official, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, east of Tehran. Iran blamed Israel for the assassination, but Israel has declined to comment on the incident.

Iranian media and Farsi-language outlets had earlier reported Shargi’s conviction but did not mention his American citizenship. After his sentencing, Shargi was not taken into custody but Iranian media reported Shargi was arrested on Dec. 6 in the West Azerbaijan province of Iran, near the northern border with Iraq.

Shargi has been held incommunicado since then, according to his family.

“Emad is the heart and soul of our family,” Shargi’s family said in a statement obtained by NBC News.

“We just pray for his health and safety. It’s been more than six weeks since he was taken and we have no idea where he is or who has him. Out of caution for his well-being, we’ve never spoken publicly about his case and don’t wish to now. Please pray for Emad and for his safe return home.”

Iran’s U.N. mission did not respond to a request for comment.

The White House National Security Council and the Biden transition team did not respond to requests for comment.

Apart from Shargi, there are three other Iranian-Americans under detention in Iran: Siamak Namazi, who has been behind bars since 2015, his elderly father, Baquer, who is on medical furlough, and Morad Tahbaz, an Iranian-American environmental activist, who also holds British citizenship.

Iranian-American consultant Siamak Namazi in San Francisco in 2006.Ahmad Kiarostami / via Reuters file

The timing of Shargi’s conviction and imprisonment could put at risk planned efforts by the incoming Biden administration to pursue diplomacy with Iran to revive a 2015 nuclear agreement and reduce tensions between the two countries.

President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the multinational JCPOA nuclear deal two years ago and reimposed punishing economic sanctions on Iran. Tehran in turn has gradually violated the terms of the accord that had placed limits on its nuclear work. Biden has said he would be ready to ease the sanctions if Iran returned to compliance with the agreement, which was backed by European powers, Russia and China.

Hardline elements in Iran have remained skeptical of diplomatic overtures to Washington and in the past have backed provocative actions, including the imprisonment of foreign nationals, as a way of undermining any rapprochement with the West, according to regional analysts, human rights groups and former senior U.S. officials.

Shargi was born in Iran and educated in the U.S., earning an undergraduate degree from the University of Maryland and a master’s degree from George Washington University. He and his wife had moved back to Iran in 2016 to reacquaint themselves with the country, the family friend said.

He had worked in the plastics materials industry while in the U.S., for an aviation brokerage firm in Abu Dhabi and, at the time of his arrest, he was working for an investment company called Sarava Holding focused on the tech industry. The family friend said an Iranian media report that suggested he was the number two-ranking executive at the firm was inaccurate and that he was not a major shareholder. He had only been working for the company for a number of months when he was imprisoned in 2018.

Iranian Judge Abolqasem Salavati attends a hearing for Iranian opposition detainees in Tehran on Aug. 8, 2009.Ali Rafiei / AFP via Getty Images file

The family friend described Shargi as a gentle, caring man who was devoted to his family and had no history or interest in political activity.

Shargi was first arrested in April 2018 and held at Evin Prison in Tehran until December 2018, when he was released on bail. While he was behind bars, he was subjected to repeated interrogations, and was blindfolded and placed in the corner of the room facing the wall, the family friend said.

During the first 44 days of his detention, Shargi had no contact with or access to the outside world, including his family, the family friend said.

Shargi’s conviction and sentencing in November 2020 was handled by Judge Abolqasem Salavati of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Court, the family friend said. The judge is known for meting out harsh punishments and has been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department. Salavati has “sentenced more than 100 political prisoners, human rights activists, media workers and others seeking to exercise freedom of assembly,” according to the Treasury Department.

Human rights groups have accused Iran of arbitrarily imprisoning foreign nationals, violating their rights to due process and using the cases as potential bargaining chips with other governments.

Iran denies the allegations and has rejected accounts that inmates are subject to inhuman treatment or abuse.

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