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Biden, Yang feud over former VP’s absence from candidate forum

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Former Vice President Joe Biden and fellow Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang continued to trade barbs Tuesday in a feud that began with Yang blasting Biden for skipping a major Democratic event in Iowa on Sunday.

It was at that event, the Iowa Democratic Party’s Hall of Fame dinner in Cedar Rapids, where Yang criticized Biden for failing to be in attendance. Biden said he skipped the gathering to attend his granddaughter’s high school graduation.

“When I saw the program for today, I thought the same thing you all did, which is this: Joe Biden must really not like to travel,” Yang said.

Almost 20 Democratic candidates were at the event, and Biden has come under some criticism early in the cycle for having a lighter campaign schedule than some of his Democratic rivals. In response to Yang’s remark, Biden said his family was more important than a brief speaking engagement.

“One of my competitors criticized me for not going to Iowa to talk for five minutes,” Biden said Monday, not mentioning Yang’s name. “My granddaughter was graduating. It was my daughter’s birthday. I would skip inauguration for that.”

Biden continued the back-and-forth Tuesday during his own Iowa event.

“To me, I have to admit to you, this particular person said he would’ve been there,” Biden said. “Well I have different values than him. It’s family, family, family. I make no apologies for not showing up and speaking for five minutes. Especially when I have almost eight months to come and talk to you all. But I would not miss my granddaughter’s graduation. I think all those of you of Iowa values, you wouldn’t all either.”

Yang responded on Twitter soon after, saying that missing family obligations is “what happens when you run for President.”

Biden is the early Democratic front-runner, while Yang is polling at around 1 percent in most surveys. However, Yang, a businessman who has never held public office, has run a surprising upstart campaign. He qualified for the initial debate by hitting both fundraising and polling requirements, faring better in the primary’s early months than some of his more notable competitors.

Marianna Sotomayor contributed.



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House investigating whether Trump lied to Mueller, lawyer tells court

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WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives’ top lawyer told a federal appeals court Monday that the House is investigating whether President Donald Trump lied to special counsel Robert Mueller, and the attorney urged the judges to order the release of still-secret material from Mueller’s investigation.

Two of the three judges who heard arguments at the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit — Judith Rogers, a Clinton appointee, and Thomas Griffith, an appointee of George W. Bush — seemed prepared to order at least some of the material sought by the House to be turned over.

House General Counsel Douglas Letter told the judges that the need for the still-secret material redacted from the Mueller report is “immense” because it will help House members answer the question, “Did the president lie? Was the president not truthful in his responses to the Mueller investigation?” in his written responses to the probe.

The House Judiciary Committee is seeking grand jury testimony and other details redacted from the public version of Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

Last month a judge ordered the Justice Department to turn over the redacted material, but the Trump administration appealed. Whatever the appeals panel decides, the case is likely headed to the Supreme Court.

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Griffith suggested that the House had a particular need for the material since the Mueller report ultimately left it to Congress to decide whether Trump had obstructed the Mueller probe.

But a third judge, Trump appointee Neomi Rao, seemed more sympathetic to the Justice Department’s arguments against releasing the information. She questioned whether the courts should get involved in any way in a dispute over impeachment between the legislative and executive branches.

Justice Department lawyers say they are barred from releasing the redacted material, in part because an impeachment inquiry does not qualify as a “judicial proceeding” under the federal law governing release of grand jury materials. Trump has called the impeachment inquiry “a witch hunt.”

Griffith, in his questioning, raised the possibility of releasing less material than what U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell called for in her Oct. 25 order. Griffith asked whether it made more sense for a judge to hold a hearing and go through each redaction in the Mueller report and hear arguments on whether Congress could articulate a particularized need for that information.

He also asked whether the information could perhaps be released on a limited basis to House staff and lawyers while the courts continue to hear arguments on the broader question of what can be fully provided to Congress.

Democrats believe the redacted information could shed light on key episodes of the investigation, including discussions Trump is reported to have had with associates about the release of stolen emails during the campaign and conversations about a 2016 Trump Tower meeting at which Trump’s eldest son expected to receive damaging information about Hillary Clinton.

In court papers, House lawyers cited one redaction that “appears to relate to grand jury evidence indicating that President Trump sought or obtained advance knowledge of WikiLeaks’s plans during the campaign” to release damaging emails related to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. In his written testimony, Trump said he had no recollection of any particular conversations about the hacked emails.

The questions about whether Trump lied in his written testimony to Mueller come as Trump tweeted Monday he might be willing to offer written testimony as part of the House impeachment inquiry.

Other redactions cited in the court papers relate to contacts members of the Trump campaign met with Ukrainian officials “and therefore may be relevant to the House’s examination of whether the President committed impeachable offenses by soliciting Ukrainian interference in the 2020 Presidential election.”

In public proceedings last week in front of the House Intelligence Committee, the impeachment inquiry focused on whether the president withheld aid from Ukraine to pressure the government there to launch a public investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

At the court hearing Monday, Griffith asked Letter whether the material sought was still relevant, given the apparent recent focus on Ukraine as opposed to the Mueller report.

“Don’t believe everything you’ve read in the press,” Letter responded.

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Israeli settlements don’t violate international law, U.S. says in major policy reversal

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The United States on Monday reversed its decadeslong position that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal, in the latest step by the Trump administration to solidify Israeli control over areas claimed by Palestinians for a future independent state.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a press conference that declaring the settlements were in violation of international law had not worked in bringing about Israeli-Palestinian peace, calling the shift in position a recognition of “the reality on the ground.” He said from now on, the U.S. would take no position on the legality of any individual Israeli settlement, instead leaving that decision up to Israeli courts.

“After carefully studying all sides of the legal debate, this administration agrees with President [Ronald] Reagan: the establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not, per se, inconsistent with international law,” Pompeo said.

The historic shift is the latest blow to Palestinian aspirations for statehood under the Trump administration, which also shuttered the de facto Palestinian embassy in Washington and moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem for the capital of a future state.

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The reversal comes as the Trump administration maintains that it still intends to release a long-delayed Mideast peace plan drafted by President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner along with a few top aides. The Palestinians have rejected any potential proposal and said the Trump administration has disqualified itself as a broker for Mideast peace by granting countless concessions to Israel.

Still, Pompeo said the U.S. was “not addressing or prejudging the ultimate status of the West Bank,” arguing it was something Israelis and Palestinians must negotiate between themselves.

Hundreds of thousands of Jewish Israelis live in settlements constructed in the West Bank, which Israel seized along with east Jerusalem in 1967. Israel quickly annexed east Jerusalem, but not the West Bank. All serious peace proposals for decades have assumed that a future Palestinian state would be established in the West Bank, possibly with “land swaps” to allow some major settlements already built in the West Bank to remain under Israeli control.

The United Nations and most of the international community considers Israeli settlements in the West Bank to be illegal. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to annex Jewish settlements as he struggles to salvage his hold on political power in Israel.

Netanyahu’s rival, Benny Gantz, who is currently tasked with trying to form a governing coalition in Israel, praised the decision in a statement saying the fate of West Bank settlements and their residents “should be determined by agreements that meet security requirements and that can promote peace.”

“I applaud the U.S. government for its important statement, once again demonstrating its firm stance with Israel and its commitment to the security and future of the entire Middle East,” Gantz said.

But Martin Indyk, the former U.S. special envoy for Middle East Peace under the Obama administration, on Twitter denounced the decision as “totally gratuitous.”

The decision, first reported by The Associated Press, rejects a 1978 legal opinion by the State Department legal adviser at the time, Herbert J. Hansell. Since 1978 and until the Trump administration, the U.S. has been consistent in maintaining that settlement construction violated international law, although different presidents have been more or less vociferous in pushing back on continued Israeli construction in the West Bank.

U.S. policy under the Trump administration has been tacitly, if not explicitly, supportive of Israel’s expanded civilian settlements into the occupied West Bank, an about-face from the previous administration. In the final days of his administration, then-President Barack Obama infuriated Israel’s government by allowing the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution demanding Israel “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including east Jerusalem,” and declaring that Israeli settlements have “no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law.”

Paul Goldman contributed.



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Trump admin readies rule to send asylum-seekers back to dangerous countries they passed through

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WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is preparing to publish a rule that would send migrants who pass through Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras before seeking asylum in the United States back to those dangerous Central American countries to claim asylum there instead.

A copy of the rule, which was made visible online for “public inspection” Monday, would give asylum officers the authority to determine if one of the three agreements the U.S. has recently signed with those countries applies to the immigrants they vet.

If so, the asylum-seekers could be fast-tracked for deportation back to Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras to claim asylum there. Previously, it was unclear how the agreements would be implemented.

Immigration advocates have sharply criticized the agreements with the three countries, claiming that they do not have the capabilities to process asylum-seekers and should not be deemed “safe third countries.”

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“The administration has bullied the governments of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras into signing agreements that will be deadly for people seeking asylum and is now carrying out their fatal application,” said Charanya Krishnaswami, advocacy director for the Americas at Amnesty International USA.

The new rule comes on the heels of two other tough asylum policies implemented over the past six months. One, known as “Remain in Mexico” or MPP, sends asylum-seekers back into Mexico until they are allowed to return for their court date before a U.S. immigration judge. The other makes immigrants ineligible for asylum— and on the fast track for deportation — if they failed to claim asylum in any of the countries they passed through on their way to the U.S.-Mexico border.

An official from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the part of the Department of Homeland Security responsible for providing benefits to those seeking asylum, said many inside the agency are quietly incredulous that the U.S. will be removing asylum-seekers to countries like Guatemala.

“Just as with MPP, there will be people who will die as a result of these policies,” the official said, due to the conditions vulnerable asylum-seekers will face in these countries. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the opinion contradicted the administration’s message.

The DHS and the Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment.

In the rule, the administration says processing asylum claims from Central America “consumes a tremendous amount of resources with the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security.” The DHS must detain many asylum-seekers until their cases are adjudicated and, for the Justice Department, more than 476,000 asylum cases remain pending in immigration court.

The agreements between the U.S. and Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras were negotiated this summer by the former acting Homeland Security secretary, Kevin McAleenan. In return, the countries received assistance to increase law enforcement and regional security, according to DHS statements following McAleenan’s trips to the countries.

McAleenan also met with representatives in the region from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which would play a critical part in helping asylum-seekers who have been deported to a country that is not their own and most likely does not have the infrastructure to review large numbers of asylum claims.

The new rule, which is expected to be officially published in the federal register Tuesday, can be found here. It is not clear when the rule will go into effect after publication.

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