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In reversal, Trump administration won’t ban import of African elephant trophies

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it will now consider all permits for importing trophies of animals from African nations on a “case-by-case” basis, months after the president called elephant hunting “a horror show” and suggested he would keep the ban in place.

In a formal memo, quietly issued late last week and later disclosed in a court filing Friday, the agency said it will withdraw earlier agency rulings related to importing trophies of dead elephants from South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia, as well as those related to importing trophies of dead lions and bonteboks from South Africa.

The agency said in the memo it was revoking numerous nationwide “enhancement findings,” which placed certain restrictions on the practice, because those findings were “no longer effective” for making individual permit decisions for trophy imports of dead animals on the endangered species list. However, it also noted that it could still consider the information cited in those findings when reviewing applications in the future.

The Fish and Wildlife Service initially announced in November it had lifted the ban implemented under the Obama administration on importing trophies of dead elephants from Zimbabwe and Zambia into the U.S. But Trump quickly stepped in and suspended the decision after it was assailed by conservation and animal rights groups. The president, whose two older sons hunt, later called the practice “terrible” and a “horror show.”

The Trump administration acted after an appeals court ruled in December that the Obama administration did not follow proper procedures in issuing the original ban.

Jimmiel Mandima, who works for the African Wildlife Foundation, a nonprofit conservation organization, told NBC News that he does not see this new process as lifting the ban entirely, but rather taking into account the differences among African nations regarding trophy hunting.

“My assumption is the recognition of the different circumstances under which the hunting would take place,” he said.

However, he said the agency has not been transparent and there are still lingering questions from the conservation community.

“The confusion is not helpful,” he said. “We need more information about the criteria that’s going to be used, we don’t know that yet. … It has not been shared, which is, therefore, confusing to us.”

An agency spokesperson declined to give specifics about the next steps, citing ongoing litigation, but did say, “The president has been very clear in the direction that his administration will go.”



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U.S. recovers millions from pipeline ransom because of hackers’ mistake

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The U.S. has recovered much of the ransom payment that the Russian hacker group DarkSide extorted from Colonial Pipeline earlier this year, the Justice Department said Monday.

The announcement details a rare disruption of the cryptocurrency payment systems favored by hackers, which have enabled ransomware efforts around the world.

The FBI was able to seize control of DarkSide’s proceeds by gaining access to a central bitcoin account holding about 63.7 bitcoin, worth around $2.3 million, FBI Deputy Director Paul Abbate said. A court document detailed that then seizure took place in Northern California, putting it within reach of U.S. law. It was unclear why the hackers didn’t immediately move their funds to make them more difficult for the U.S. government to seize, as most cybercriminals do.

DarkSide hacked into Colonial in April as part of a months-long crime spree, leading the company to shut down operations. The group demanded a $4.4 million ransom, which the company quickly paid.

The pipeline’s systems came back online five days after the initial hack.

“Today we turned the tables on DarkSide,” Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said in a press conference.

“Ransomware attacks are always unacceptable, but when they target critical infrastructure we will spare no effort in our response,” she saiid.

Ransomware gangs are responsible for more than 1,000 hacks worldwide this year, mostly in the U.S., according to figures prepared for NBC News by Allan Liska, an analyst at the cybersecurity company Recorded Future.

Most attacks are on smaller targets, but the Colonial hack was the first to have direct effect on everyday American life. The threat of a major pipeline shutdown led to the U.S. issuing an emergency order for truckers to work overtime delivering fuel, and some gas stations reported shortages as drivers rushed to the pumps.

Jen Ellis, a coauthor of a landmark Ransomware Task Force report studying how to slow the pace of ransomware attacks, praised the DOJ’s announcement as “fantastic news.”

“This kind of collaboration between victims and law enforcement is exactly what we need to see,” Ellis said.

“Hopefully if we see actions like this continue, it will encourage other victims to disclose attacks to law enforcement, and also make it harder for ransomware attackers to realize a pay day,” she said.

The recovered payment that the Justice Department announced Monday is still a small fraction of what DarkSide has been able to steal since the gang became active around October 2020, said Tom Robinson, CEO of Elliptic, a British company that tracks bitcoin payments. The gang had been paid at least $90 million since it became active, Robinson said in an email.

Ken Dilanian contributed.



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Democrats ding own party for failing to persuade minorities, explain party’s values in 2020

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WASHINGTON — Democrats failed to appeal to voters of color and need to do a better job defining themselves and explain what they support, according to a critical analysis of the 2020 election released Monday by several prominent Democratic groups.

Democrats won the White House and Senate last year, but those wins were narrower than expected and obscured major losses further down the ballot, leading many in the party to warn of a needed course correction before the 2022 midterms.

“While we may have saved our democracy in 2020, we didn’t do as well as we should have,” said Quentin James, the founder and president of Collective PAC, a Democratic group that focuses on black voters and co-sponsored the new analysis. “Democrats must seriously address this problem while we still have time.”

The report found that Republican attempts to tie moderate Democrats to the left’s most extreme and unpopular elements, such as calls to defund the police, worked. The problem was part their own making because Democrats failed to explain where they actually stood on police funding and many other issues, other than opposing former President Donald Trump.

“Win or lose, self-described progressive or moderate, Democrats consistently raised a lack of a strong Democratic Party brand as a significant concern in 2020,” the report’s authors wrote. “In the absence of strong party branding, the opposition latched on to G.O.P. talking points, suggesting our candidates would ‘burn down your house and take away the police.’”

Up until the eve of the election last year, Democrats expected to expand their House majority, but instead lost nearly all of the most competitive congressional races in the country and held on to control of the chamber by razor-thin margins. Democrats took control of the Senate, thanks to two January run off elections in Georgia.

Democrats failed to gain any new governorships or flip a single state legislative chamber, the impacts of which will be felt for a decade as states take up redistricting this year.

Third Way, the centrist Democratic think tank, Collective PAC and Latino Victory teamed up to conduct a review of the election, frequently referred to as a postmortem, commissioning veteran Democratic strategists Marlon Marshall and Lynda Tran to conduct over 150 interviews with operatives, analysts and candidates and to dive into the data.

In addition to faulting polling that fueled Democrats’ overly rosy expectations and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, their 73-page report found that a drop off in support from some minorities likely cost the party some key races in places like California, Texas and Florida.

“Our approach to voters of color significantly hurt our outcome,” the report concluded. “The Party treated voters of color as a monolith — especially Latino voters.”

Campaigns typically separate potential voters in two buckets, with different strategies for each: Swing voters and base voters. Swing voters are targeted early with messages designed to persuade them. And base voters who are thought to already agree with the campaign are usually targeted later in an effort to simply motivated them to show up.

But the report argues that minority voters need to be persuaded too, both to vote for Democrats and to vote at all, since many often feel their vote won’t matter. Activists like Stacey Abrams have been pushing Democrats to stop viewing Black voters as simply needing to be motivated to show up.

“We need to stop telling Latinos to vote. We need to give them a reason to vote — something to vote for — in order to earn their votes,” said Nathalie Rayes, the head of Latino Victory.

Much of the drop-off in support from Latino and Asian-American voters can be attributed to specific subgroups, but Democrats too often used one-size-fits-all messages that define those voters by their ethnicity while ignoring factors like education, gender and geography that are almost always considered with white voters, the report found.

For instance, working-class and non-college educated Hispanics saw a drop in support for Democrats, mirroring the trend among whites. Voters of Filipino and Vietnamese descent in Southern California trended Republican at higher rates than other Asian-Americans.

“Latinos are not a monolithic community — we are multi-faceted and approach different issues in different ways,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., who chair the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ PAC. “Campaigns need to treat Latino voters with the same nuance and thoughtfulness they give to other communities.”

In the weeks following the November election, a long-simmering feud spilled into the public when moderate Democrats blamed progressive for the party’s disappointments, while progressives shot back by saying they were being scapegoated for others’ losses. Third Way, one of the reports’ sponsors, is firmly in the moderate camp.

The report argues the “defund the police” attacks were toxic because Republicans was able convince some voters that Democrats cared more about kowtowing to a narrow band of activists or going after Trump than helping average voters solve kitchen-table issue.

“Some campaign teams we spoke with felt that the Party didn’t have a message beyond ‘Donald Trump sucks,’ and this void led to split-ticket voting for Biden at the top of the ticket and Republicans down ballot,” the report found.

Party’s typically conduct after-action analyses, often dubbed autopsies or postmortems, after losses, not wins. This year, Democrats have conducted several postmortems, while Republicans have largely refrained from reflecting on their 2020 loss, at least publicly, since former Trump has refused to acknowledge that he was defeated.

Democrats face a tough midterm next year when they will have to defend razor-thin majorities in both chambers of Congress in an election year that history says should break against them, since presidents’ parties nearly always lose.

Several vulnerable Democratic members of Congress have already announced plans to retire or leave to run for other office, which will make the party’s task of holding the House even more difficulty and suggests a lack of confidence that Democrats will be in the majority again from some rank-and-file members.

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DOJ to defend law barring benefits to Puerto Rico, which Biden calls ‘inconsistent’ with his values

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President Joe Biden on Monday announced the Department of Justice will continue to defend a law that bars residents of Puerto Rico from obtaining federal benefits for low income disabled people even though he believes the “provision is inconsistent with my Administration’s policies and values.”

The president issued the statement ahead of a brief that lawyers for the DOJ planned to file with the U.S. Supreme Court defending a provision in the Social Security Act that stops Puerto Rico residents from collecting Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, benefits. The provision is being challenged in the case of the United States v. Jose Luis Vaello-Madero.

“As I have stated, I believe that Puerto Rico residents should be able to receive SSI benefits, just like their fellow Americans in all 50 states and Washington D.C.,” Biden said in a statement.

“However, the Department of Justice has a longstanding practice of defending the constitutionality of federal statutes, regardless of policy preferences. This practice is critical to the Department’s mission of preserving the rule of law. Consistent with this important practice, the Department is defending the constitutionality of the Social Security Act provision in this case,” he added.

The president urged Congress to amend the Social Security Act to make the benefits available in Puerto Rico, and also called for legislators to eliminate Medicaid funding caps for the U.S. territory.

“As I’ve said before, there can be no second-class citizens in the United States of America. My Administration will work with members of Congress to make these legislative fixes a reality,” Biden said.

Hermann Ferré, a lawyer for Vaello-Madero, told NBC News that, “While we are gratified the president has called attention to the importance of the case, we don’t see how it’s possible to defend a statutory scheme that, as the president rightly acknowledges, treats Puerto Rico residents as ‘second-class citizens.’ Such treatment is, by definition, unconstitutional under equal protection principles.”

Ferré’s client is a U.S. citizen with health problems who started receiving SSI benefits when he was living in New York in 2012, but lost his eligibility when he moved to Puerto Rico a year later. The government sued to get the payments back after it discovered he’d moved, court filings show.

Vaello-Madero’s lawyers contended that the provision violated the equal-protection component of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, and two courts have agreed, leading the then-Trump administration to appeal to the Supreme Court.

In its court filings, the government has argued that the provision is constitutional and that Congress already “provides federal assistance to needy aged, blind, and disabled individuals in Puerto Rico through a different program — Aid to the Aged, Blind, and Disabled (AABD).” It said “AABD provides more local control but less federal funding than SSI.”

The high court agreed in March to hear the case.

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