Puerto Rico Governor Resists Calls for Resignation

The governor of Puerto Rico is not backing down despite massive street protests in the capital, San Juan, demanding his resignation. Thousands of people have taken to the streets after Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism published nearly 900 pages of leaked text messages in which Gov. Ricardo Rossello used homophobic and misogynistic language.  VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports the governor said in a statement Thursday that his commitment to Puerto Rico is stronger than ever.

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Washington Consumed by Growing Political Divide Over Race, Ideology

This week, President Donald Trump came under fire for verbal attacks on four minority Democratic congresswomen. The House of Representatives condemned some of the president’s comments as racist. And Democrats remain divided over whether to try to impeach Trump or focus on defeating him in next year’s presidential election. The clash has plunged the country into an angry debate over race, immigration and political ideology, as we hear from VOA National correspondent Jim Malone in Washington.
 

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Observers See Ominous Turn in Political Divide Over Race, Ideology

The weather in Washington has been hot, sticky and relentless this week. So has the politics.

In a period of a few days, the president of the United States told four members of Congress they could leave the country if they were unhappy and go back to the countries they came from, sparking passage of a House resolution that condemned some of his verbal and Twitter attacks as racist.

In the same week, Democrats again broached the subject of impeachment, only to see the effort fail when many Democrats joined Republicans in voting to table, or put off, the issue.

In sum, it has been a trying week for American democracy that has plunged the country into an angry debate over race, immigration and political ideology.


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WATCH: Washington Consumed by Growing Political Divide Over Race, Ideology

‘Send her back!’

During a re-election rally in Greenville, North Carolina, on Wednesday, President Donald Trump left little doubt that his attacks on the freshmen Democratic congresswomen will be a staple of his campaign strategy for 2020.

“These left-wing ideologues see our nation as a force of evil. The way they speak so badly of our country. They want to demolish our Constitution, weaken our military and eliminate the values that built this magnificent country.”

When Trump specifically went after Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who emigrated years ago from Somalia, some in the crowd chanted, “Send her back!”

That moment seemed to trouble some Republicans on Thursday, and even Trump told reporters he “felt a little bit badly about it” and was “not happy” with the crowd chant.

Trump said he spoke quickly once the chant began, but video of the speech shows he paused for about 13 seconds as the chant grew from the crowd.

FILE – U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar participates in a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Feb. 7, 2019.

Omar told reporters Thursday she believes Trump is “fascist,” then added, “This is what this president and his supporters have turned the country into.”

The group of female lawmakers also includes House members Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts.

The president has been tweeting and criticizing them for days, and has urged them to leave the country if they are unhappy, even though all are U.S. citizens — three born in the United States.

President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at Williams Arena, Greenville, N.C., July 17, 2019.

Divided Democrats

Trump’s combative appearance at the North Carolina rally came on the same day the House voted to set aside an effort by some Democrats to initiate impeachment proceedings against him.

Earlier in the week, the House took the unusual step of condemning some of Trump’s attacks on the four lawmakers as racist.

All House Democrats supported the resolution, including civil rights icon John Lewis of Georgia.

“I know racism when I see it.  I know racism when I feel it.  And at the highest level of government, there is no room for racism,” Lewis said.

Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., arrives at the Capitol in Washington, Oct. 4, 2018.

Race and politics

Trump’s victory in 2016 was spurred by strong support from white working-class voters.

But many Democrats believe the president is now making a dangerous bid for support based on racial resentment.

“These words are not just words. They are like gasoline, like a spark to the gasoline of disturbed minds,” said New Jersey Democratic Congressman Tom Malinowski.

Trump has denied he is a racist but has slammed the congresswomen as socialists, a line of attack that other Republicans have seized on, including Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy.

“This not China. This is not North Korea. This is America. And if you hate our country, you are free to leave anytime you want to,” Kennedy told reporters at the Capitol.

Many political strategists believe that Trump wants to elevate the congresswomen as the face of the Democratic Party, something White House counselor Kellyanne Conway hinted at in a testy exchange with reporters earlier in the week.

“He is tired. A lot of us are sick and tired in this country of America coming last to people who swore an oath of office.”

Risky strategy

Many Trump critics, and even a few Republicans, see a more ominous turn in the latest attacks.

Democratic Congressman Dean Phillips is worried that the president’s raw focus on racial and ideological strains is tearing at the fabric of the country.

“And if racism ever becomes a partisan issue in this country, we have done a woeful disservice to our founders. We have done a woeful disservice to our Constitution, and a woeful disservice to every single person that calls America home.”

The president’s narrow victory in 2016 and his relatively low approval rating, currently around 43%, leaves him vulnerable for re-election, and makes his strategy a risky one, according to University of Virginia analyst Kyle Kondik.

“The approval rating is the troubling thing for the president because if his approval rating is under 45%, then he is going to need a significant share of people who don’t approve of him to vote for him. And that is when it becomes really difficult.”

This week’s rhetorical fireworks likely serve as a preview for what could be an ugly presidential campaign next year, the latest snapshot of a country deeply enmeshed in polarized and volatile political warfare.

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Trump Says He Isn’t Happy with ‘Send Her Back’ Chants From Rally Crowd

U.S. President Donald Trump is disavowing chants of “send her back” at his political rally which were heard when he questioned the loyalty of U.S. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, a war refugee from Somalia.

“I was not happy when I heard that chant,” Trump said to reporters in the Oval Office, adding he disagreed with it.

Asked why he did not try to stop the chant at the event on Wednesday evening in North Carolina, the president replied: “I think I did – I started speaking very quickly.”

Omar when asked about Trump on Thursday by reporters outside the Capitol, replied, “I believe he is fascist.”

She asked: “Because I criticized the president, I should be deported?”

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., a target of racist rhetoric from President Donald Trump, walks from the House to her office following votes, at the Capitol in Washington, July 18, 2019.

Omar is one of four new Democratic Party members of Congress who are women of color who have repeatedly been attacked by Trump since Sunday on social media and in public comments. The congresswoman posted a tweet late Wednesday featuring a picture of herself wearing a hijab and seated in the speaker’s chair in the U.S. House of Representatives chamber along with a message for Trump and his supporters, who have in recent days repeatedly suggested the U.S. citizen “go back” to Somalia.

“I am where I belong, at the people’s house and you’re just gonna have to deal!” Omar wrote.

👋🏽 I am where I belong, at the people’s house and you’re just gonna have to deal! pic.twitter.com/W0OvDXGxQX

— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) July 18, 2019

Also, Omar late Wednesday, quoted the late African American poet Maya Angelou, tweeting, “You may shoot me with your words, You may cut me with your eyes, You may kill me with your hatefulness, But still, like the air, I’ll arise.”

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

-Maya Angelou https://t.co/46jcXSXF0B

— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) July 18, 2019

“I think in some cases they hate America,” Trump, at the rally, said Wednesday evening of Congresswomen Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayana Pressley and Rashida Tlaib.

When Trump accused Omar of “anti-Semitic screeds,” the crowd in Greenville, North Carolina, responded with chants of “send her back.”

“These congresswomen, their comments are helping to fuel the rise of a militant hard left,” declared Trump at the event.

FILE – Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., speaks to the media, at the White House in Washington.

A Republican congressman, Adam Kinzinger, is warning the behavior exhibited at Trump’s rally the previous evening threatens to tear apart the country.

I deeply disagree with the extreme left & have been disgusted by their tone. I woke up today equally disgusted – chants like “send her back” are ugly, wrong, & would send chills down the spines of our Founding Fathers. This ugliness must end, or we risk our great union.

— Adam Kinzinger (@RepKinzinger) July 18, 2019

During his 90-minute rally on Wednesday, Trump several times thanked other Democrats in the House for voting down, hours earlier, an attempt to push articles of impeachment against him.

Trump called Congressman Al Green’s raising the impeachment issue in the House “a sneak attack.”

The 332-95 vote to kill the measure was the first action on the issue by the chamber since the Democrats took control of it in January.

FILE – Rep. Al Green, D-Texas on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Green defied party leadership, who contend formally raising the impeachment issue is premature as House committees, led by the Democrats who control the chamber, continue to investigate Trump and members of his Cabinet.

“We’re not having him set our agenda; we’re setting our own agenda,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday said of Trump.

On Tuesday night, four Republicans joined every Democrat in the House to approve a resolution condemning Trump’s “racist” remarks. At the center of the dispute was Trump’s Sunday tweet telling the four congresswomen to “go back” to their countries to fix them before attacking the United States, even though all four are U.S. citizens and only Omar was not born in the country.

The House resolution, which was passed 240-187, “strongly condemns” Trump’s “racist comments that have legitimized and increased fear and hatred of new Americans and people of color.”

 

 

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Documents on Trump ex-Lawyer’s Porn Star Hush Payment Released

Nearly 900 pages of documents regarding hush-money payments by Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen to a porn actress and a Playboy model who said they had sexual encounters with the president were made public on Thursday, providing new insight into an investigation that landed Cohen in prison.

U.S. District Judge William Pauley in Manhattan on Wednesday had ordered that the material, used by prosecutors to obtain a 2018 search warrant for Cohen’s home and office, be unsealed on Thursday morning. The judge found there was no reason to keep the documents secret after prosecutors told him that their investigation into the payments had ended.

Cohen, 52, pleaded guilty in August 2018 to violating campaign finance law by directing payments of $130,000 to adult film star Stormy Daniels and $150,000 to Playboy model Karen McDougal to avert a scandal shortly before the 2016 presidential

election. Both women have said they had sexual encounters with Trump more than a decade ago and that the money was meant to buy their silence. Trump has denied the encounters.

The search warrant application described a phone call on Oct. 8, 2016, about a month before the election, involving Trump, Cohen and Hope Hicks, then the press secretary for Trump’s presidential campaign, which prosecutors believed was to discuss paying to squash public reports of an affair between Trump and Daniels.

A few minutes after that call, Cohen called David Pecker, the president of American Media Inc who was close to Trump, and then received a call from another employee at AMI, which published the National Enquirer tabloid newspaper. A short time later, Cohen called Hicks back for about two minutes. Calls between the Trump campaign, AMI and Cohen continued through the evening.

Prosecutors said these calls were to discuss getting a payment to Keith Davidson, then an attorney for Daniels. On Oct. 17, Cohen was involved in calls and texts as he feared the attempted settlement agreement might fall apart, according to the warrant application.

Cohen, who was once Trump’s self-described “fixer,” began serving a three-year prison sentence in May for his campaign finance violations and other crimes, including making false statements to a bank and tax evasion.

Pauley had ordered many of the search warrant material about Cohen’s personal business dealings unsealed earlier this year, but allowed the hush-money documents to remain secret because an investigation involving the payments was still in progress.

Cohen pleaded guilty last November to separate charges brought by the office of former Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, who was investigating contacts between Trump’s 2016

presidential campaign and Russia. Cohen admitted he lied to Congress about the extent of contacts between Trump and Russians during the campaign.

 

 

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US Senator Schumer Asks FBI, FTC to Probe Russia’s FaceApp Over Security Concerns

U.S. Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer called on the FBI and the Federal Trade Commission to conduct a national security and privacy investigation into FaceApp, a face-editing photo app developed in Russia, in a letter sent on Wednesday.

The viral smartphone application, which has seen a new surge of popularity due to a filter that ages photos of users’ faces, requires “full and irrevocable access to their personal photos and data,” which could pose “national security and privacy risks for millions of U.S. citizens,” Schumer said in his letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray and FTC Chairman Joe Simons.

The Democratic National Committee also sent out an alert to the party’s 2020 presidential candidates on Wednesday warning them against using the app, pointing to its Russian provenance.

In the email, seen by Reuters and first reported by CNN, DNC security chief Bob Lord also urged Democratic presidential campaigns to delete the app immediately if they or their staff had already used it.

There is no evidence that FaceApp provides user data to the Russian government.

Democrats have invested heavily in bolstering party cyber defenses after U.S. intelligence agencies determined that Russia used hacking as part of an effort to boost support for President Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign. Russia has repeatedly denied those claims.

FaceApp, which was developed by Wireless Lab, a company based in St. Petersburg, says on its website that it has over 80 million active users. Its CEO, Yaroslav Goncharov, used to be an executive at Yandex, widely known as “Russia’s Google.”

The app, which was launched in 2017, made headlines in 2018 when it removed its ‘ethnicity filters’ after users condemned them as racist.

More recently, it has faced scrutiny from the public over issues such as not clearly communicating that the app uploads images to the cloud rather than processing them locally on a user’s device.

Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer of N.Y. (L) listens as Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., speaks at a news conference, July 11, 2019, Capitol Hill, Washington.

It is not clear how the artificial intelligence application retains the data of users or how users may ensure the deletion of their data after usage, Schumer said in the letter.

Schumer said the photo editing app’s location in Russia raises questions about how FaceApp lets third parties, including foreign governments, have access to the data of American citizens.

In a statement cited by media outlets, FaceApp has denied selling or sharing user data with third parties.

“99% of users don’t log in; therefore, we don’t have access to any data that could identify a person,” the company said in a statement cited by TechCrunch, adding that most images are deleted from its servers within 48 hours of the upload date.

While the company’s research and development team is located in Russia, the user data is not transferred to Russia, according to the statement.

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House Holds 2 Trump Officials in Contempt in Census Dispute

The Democratic-controlled House voted Wednesday to hold two top Trump administration officials in contempt of Congress for failing to comply with subpoenas related to a decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

The House voted 230-198 to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in criminal contempt. The vote, a political blow to the Trump administration, is largely symbolic because the Justice Department is unlikely to prosecute the two men.

The action marks an escalation of Democratic efforts to use their House majority to aggressively investigate the inner workings of the Trump administration.

President Donald Trump abandoned the citizenship question last week after the Supreme Court said the administration’s justification for the question “seems to have been contrived.” Trump directed agencies to try to compile the information using existing databases.

White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham, listens as President Donald Trump speaks with reporters on the South Lawn of the White House before departing, July 17, 2019, in Washington.

The White House called the vote “ridiculous” and “yet another lawless attempt to harass the president and his administration.”

The Justice and Commerce departments have produced more than 31,000 pages of documents to the House regarding the census issue, and senior officials from both agencies, including Ross, have spoken on the record about the matter, the White House said, adding that Democrats continue to demand documents that the White House contends are subject to executive privilege.  

“House Democrats know they have no legal right to these documents, but their shameful and cynical politics know no bounds,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement. 

House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., considers whether to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Sec. Wilbur Ross in contempt in Washington, June 12, 2019.

Democratic Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, said the contempt vote was an important step to assert Congress’ constitutional authority to serve as a check on executive power.

“Holding any secretary in criminal contempt of Congress is a serious and sober matter — one that I have done everything in my power to avoid,” Cummings said during House debate. “But in the case of the attorney general and Secretary Ross, they blatantly obstructed our ability to do congressional oversight into the real reason Secretary Ross was trying for the first time in 70 years to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.”

While Ross and other officials have claimed the sole reason they wanted to add the citizenship question was to enforce the Voting Rights Act, “we now know that claim was nothing but a pretext,” Cummings said. “The Supreme Court said that.”

At the direction of Barr and Ross, “the departments of Justice and Commerce have been engaged in a campaign to subvert our laws and the process Congress put in place to maintain the integrity of the census,” Cummings said.

The contempt resolution “is about protecting our democracy, protecting the integrity of this body. It’s bigger than the census,” he said.

Ross called the vote a public relations “stunt” that further demonstrates Democrats’ “unending quest to generate headlines instead of operating in good faith with our department.”

Democrats prefer to “play political games rather than help lead the country” and “have made every attempt to ascribe evil motivations to everyday functions of government,” Ross said.

Ross told the oversight committee that the March 2018 decision to add the question was based on a Justice Department request to help enforce the Voting Rights Act.

Democrats disputed that, citing documents unearthed last month suggesting that a push to draw legislative districts in overtly partisan and racist ways was the real reason the administration wanted to include the question.

Democrats feared that adding the question would reduce participation in immigrant-heavy communities and result in a severe undercount of minority voters. They have pressed for specific documents to determine Ross’ motivation and contend the administration has declined to provide the material despite repeated requests.

Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., speaks to the audience gathered at the 138th annual Fancy Farm Picnic, Aug. 4, 2018, in Fancy Farm, Ky.

“The real issue we should be debating” is why Democrats are afraid to ask how many citizens live in the United States, said Representative James Comer, a Kentucky Republican. Contrary to Democrats’ claims, Ross and other officials have cooperated with the oversight panel and provided thousands of documents, Comer said.

“If the Democrats can’t impeach President Trump, they will instead hold his Cabinet in contempt of Congress,” he said. “This is just another episode in political theater.”

In a letter late Wednesday to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Barr and Ross asked Democrats to postpone the vote, saying they have shown a “clear record of cooperation” with Congress. The contempt vote “is both unnecessarily undermining” relations between the two branches and “degrading” Congress’ “own institutional integrity,” they wrote.

Trump has pledged to “fight all the subpoenas” issued by Congress and says he won’t work on legislative priorities, such as infrastructure, until Congress halts investigations of his administration. 

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House Votes to Block Weapons Sale to Saudi Arabia

Congress is heading for a showdown with President Donald Trump after the House voted Wednesday to block his administration from selling billions of dollars in weapons and maintenance support to Saudi Arabia.

Trump, who has sought to forge closer ties with Riyadh, has pledged to veto the resolutions of disapproval that passed the Democratic-led House largely along party lines. Two of the resolutions passed with 238 votes, while a third was approved with 237. Each of the measures garnered just four Republican backers.

The Senate cleared the resolutions last month, but like the House, fell well short of a veto-proof majority. Overturning a president’s veto requires a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate.

Heightened Middle East tensions

Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, accused the Trump administration of circumventing Congress and the law to move ahead with the arms sale. He called the resolutions “extraordinary but necessary” to stop “a phony emergency to override the authority of Congress.”

The votes came against the backdrop of heightened tensions in the Middle East, with much of the focus on Iran. Tehran is pushing the limits on its nuclear program after Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States from the 2015 nuclear deal more than a year ago. Iran has inched its uranium production and enrichment over the limits of the accord, trying to put more pressure on Europe to offer it better terms and allow it to sell its crude oil abroad.

The White House has declared stopping the sale would send a signal that the United States doesn’t stand by its partners and allies, particularly at a time when threats against them are increasing.

But opposition among members of Congress to the Trump administration’s alliance with the Saudis has been building, fueled by the high civilian casualties in the Saudi-led war in Yemen — a military campaign the U.S. is assisting — and the killing of U.S.-based columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents.

Estimated $8 billion in arms

The arms package, worth an estimated $8 billion, includes thousands of precision-guided munitions, other bombs and ammunition, and aircraft maintenance support for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had cited Iranian aggression when declaring an emergency to approve the weapons sales in May. The Saudis have recently faced a number of attacks from Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

“Right now, as I speak, Iran is stretching its tentacles of terror across the Middle East,” said the Foreign Affairs Committee’s top Republican, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, who pushed for the resolutions to be rejected. “If we allow them to succeed, terrorism will flourish, instability will reign and the security of our allies like Israel will be threatened.”

Bypassing Congress

Critics of the sale also had denounced the White House for bypassing congressional review of the arms sales, which was done by invoking an emergency loophole in the Arms Export Control Act.

Pompeo had informed Congress that he had made the determination “that an emergency exists which requires the immediate sale” of the weapons “in order to deter further the malign influence of the government of Iran throughout the Middle East region.”

The law requires Congress to be notified of potential arms sales, giving the body the opportunity to block the sale. But the law also allows the president to waive that review process by declaring an emergency that requires the sale be made “in the national security interests of the United States.”

Engel said there was no emergency, arguing that two months after Pompeo’s notification not a single weapon has been shipped and many of them haven’t even been built.

“What kind of emergency requires weapons that will be built months and months down the road?” Engel said.

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