Crowded Democratic Presidential Field Vies to Take on Trump

Senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts are the latest Democrats to formally join the 2020 race for the White House. So far, nine Democrats have either officially declared their candidacy or formed a presidential exploratory committee, and several more are expected to join the field in the weeks ahead. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.

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How Communist Vietnam Will Gain as Host of US-North Korea Summit

When Singapore played host in June to the first summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, businesspeople in the city-state made money from summit-themed merchandise and side events. About 2,500 journalists visited, and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was quoted saying the summit would bolster his country’s image abroad.

Now Vietnam, as host to a second Kim-Trump summit scheduled for February 27-28, should expect to get even more, country specialists say.

The summit in Hanoi, likely covering U.S. concerns about the buildup of North Korean weapons, will earn Vietnam new respect from both democratic and communist countries, good for its multi-country foreign policy and reputation as a go-to country for business including large international events.

“All the stakeholders, North Korea, the United States, China and South Korea, trust Vietnam to be a neutral host,” said Carl Thayer, emeritus professor with the University of New South Wales in Australia. China backs North Korea, which the U.S. government fears is developing nuclear weapons.

“Vietnam’s success will reaffirm the correctness of its foreign policy of ‘diversifying and mutilateralizing’ its external relations and being ‘a reliable friend to all,’” he said. “Vietnam benefits from the leverage it acquires as host for the second summit.”

Ties with world’s biggest economy

Once war-ravaged Vietnam’s quick economic growth since the late 1980s stands to get special attention at the summit from the United States.

Foreign direct investment drawn by cheap labor has driven the Southeast Asian country’s economic growth of 6-7 percent since 2012. Last month alone, registered investment from abroad grew 27.4% compared to the same month a year ago. Also last month Vietnam joined the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership, a free-trade deal encompassing about 13.5 percent of the world economy.

The U.S. government had placed Vietnam under a 19-year trade embargo through 1994.

American consumers now look to Vietnam for shoes, clothing and electronics as U.S. firms increasingly eye the Vietnamese middle class as a viable export market, said Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist at the market research firm IHS Markit. 

“Vietnam’s relationship with the U.S. will definitely be a key feature of this meeting,” Biswas said. “Although the meeting is obviously between the U.S. and North Korea, I think the backdrop of President Trump visiting Vietnam is also very positive for Vietnam. It offers the opportunity for bilateral dialogue.”

U.S.-Vietnam relations are “moving to a new higher level,” he said, and this summit “puts a spotlight” on that trend.

In 2017 Trump lauded Vietnam’s economic progress as a “great miracle” despite a trade gap favoring Hanoi. His comment tells North Korea that as a country with Communist rule like Vietnam’s it can improve too, said Frederick Burke, partner with the law firm Baker McKenzie in Ho Chi Minh City.

International events

The summit will add to Vietnam’s list of major international events, analysts add. Countries in Asia, Thayer said, “know that Vietnam is capable of providing security, excellent accommodation, and professional diplomatic experience to managing a high-level summit meeting.”

The 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders meeting took place in 2017 in Vietnam’s central coast city Da Nang. Next year Vietnam will chair the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a role that requires holding a series of large-scale events.

“I think that Vietnamese leaders have not really been confident in the international arena,” said Trung Nguyen, international relations dean at Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities. “This is a chance for them to be used to receiving a lot of attention in the world.”

Political prestige

Vietnam, already trusted by the summit parties, will go on record this month for supporting a regional peace effort if the two summit participants make progress on handling North Korea’s nuclear weapons, Burke said.

“It’s stature in terms of the international community, not just a responsible member but actually as a leader who steps up to the highest level of international relations and international problem solving,” Burke said. 

Vietnam, like other Southeast Asian governments, pursues a balanced foreign policy to get security and economic benefits from China as well as from Western powers.

At the summit in Singapore, Trump and Kim issued a broad joint statement covering U.S. security guarantees for North Korea and expressing support for a cut in nuclear weapons.

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Cardi B Deactivates Instagram Account After Grammy Criticism

Cardi B has deactivated her Instagram account following social media criticism of her winning a Grammy for best rap album.

Some people said the 26-year-old rapper didn’t deserve the Grammy over other nominees. The criticism was amplified by a now-deleted BET tweet that pitted Cardi B against her longtime rival Nicki Minaj.

Cardi B shared an expletive-laden video prior to deleting her account saying it’s not her style “for people to put other people down to uplift somebody else.” She then pointed out how people said she was snubbed when she didn’t win for her debut single “Bodak Yellow” last year despite two nominations.

The rapper said she worked hard and throughout her pregnancy on her first album “Invasion of Privacy.” Her Grammy win made her the first solo female artist to win the award for best rap album.

 

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BBC Wants Security Review After Cameraman Attacked at Trump Rally

The British Broadcasting Corporation asked the White House for a review of security arrangements on Tuesday after a BBC cameraman was assaulted at a Donald Trump rally.

BBC cameraman Ron Skeans was attacked by a Trump supporter yelling anti-media slogans during the U.S. president’s rally in El Paso, Texas, Monday night.

Skeans was unhurt and the man wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat was restrained and removed from the riser where the media had assembled.

Paul Danahar, the BBC’s Americas Bureau Editor, said in a tweet that he had asked White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders for a “full review of security arrangements after last night’s attack.”

“Access into the media area was unsupervised,” Danahar said. “No one in law enforcement intervened before, during or after the attack.”

BBC Washington correspondent Gary O’Donoghue, who was covering the El Paso event, said his cameraman was pushed and shoved by the unidentified assailant “after the president repeatedly goaded the crowd over supposed media bias.”

He said the man attempted to smash the BBC camera.

“Happily, Ron is fine,” O’Donoghue said.

Trump paused his remarks following the commotion in the crowd and — pointing at the media – asked “You alright? Everything OK?”

Trump repeatedly denounces the media as the “enemy of the people” and frequently condemns critical reports about his administration as “fake news.”

New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger urged Trump during an interview last month to tone down what he called his “potentially dangerous” rhetoric towards the press.

 

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Mexico’s ‘El Chapo’ Found Guilty in US Drug Trial

The world’s most infamous cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who rose from poverty in rural Mexico to run a global drug empire and amass billions of dollars, was found guilty in a U.S. court on Tuesday of operating a criminal enterprise.

Jurors in federal court in Brooklyn began delivering their verdict following an 11-week trial. Guzman, 61, now faces a possible sentence of life in prison.

Guzman, one of the major figures in Mexican drug wars that have roiled the country since 2006, was extradited to the United States for trial in 2017 after he was arrested in Mexico the year before.

Though other high-ranking cartel figures had been extradited previously, Guzman was the first to go to trial instead of pleading guilty.

The trial, which featured testimony from more than 50 witnesses, offered the public an unprecedented look at the inner workings of the Sinaloa Cartel, named for the state in northwestern Mexico where Guzman was born in a poor mountain village.

The legend of Guzman was burnished by two dramatic escapes he made from Mexican prisons and by a “Robin Hood” image he cultivated among Sinaloa’s poor.

U.S. prosecutors said he trafficked tons of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine into the United States over more than two decades, consolidating his power in Mexico through murders and wars with rival cartels.

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Political Impasse Turns from Border Wall to Beds in Immigration Debate

As congressional negotiators reconvened Monday on Capitol Hill to craft a bipartisan budget deal in hopes of avoiding a second government shutdown this year, officials from both parties scrambled to handle the latest immigration obstacle in Washington.

The focus in recent days shifted away from billions of dollars in wall funding sought by President Donald Trump and toward the number of detention beds Congress is willing to fund, a request by Democratic lawmakers looking to rein in the administration’s immigrant detention rate and overspending by immigration officials.

As of Sunday, the agency had 48,747 immigrants in custody on a variety of charges, from those who were charged or convicted in criminal courts to those whose offenses are civil immigration issues.

However, the agency is only funded for a daily average of 40,520 detainees.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is tasked with so-called “interior enforcement” — the apprehension and removal of immigrants, undocumented or otherwise, who are subject to deportation. That group accounts for part of the average number of detention beds needed every day. However, some of that population comes from transfers from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

The current impasse on Capitol Hill is over the former, which Democrats propose to fund at a rate of 16,500 adults per day until the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. A senior ICE official said Monday that somewhere from 20,000 to 22,000 detainees in ICE custody right now are being held as a result of an ICE arrest and are subject to mandatory detention.

Overall, including the ICE arrestees and transfers from CBP, Democrats are seeking an average daily population in ICE detention of 35,520 for the remainder of FY19 — 34,000 adult beds and 1,250 family beds. The party’s budget proposal issued at the end of January indicated this was on par with the daily average during the last three months of the Obama administration.

Detention alternatives

ICE has options for immigrants facing deportation who don’t require “mandatory detention.” For the last several years, the agency has asked for an increasing amount of money to boost its Alternatives to Detention program from 53,000 participants to 82,000. 

These alternatives apply for people who “may pose a flight risk, but who are not considered a threat to our communities,” in ICE’s description.

Options for “intensive supervision” include “home visits, office visits, alert response, court tracking, and electronic monitoring” (such as ankle bracelets), according to the agency.

Matt Albence, the deputy director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, spoke about the president’s request for 52,000 detention beds.

“Ankle monitors and alternatives to detention are woefully ineffective at effectuating removals from the United States,” Albence said Monday on a call with reporters. “Detention is the only proven effective method to ensure that the individual ordered removed is actually removed.”

Albence accused lawmakers of “trying to abolish ICE … through the fiduciary process” with the proposed cap.

Speaking in Congress on Monday, shortly before the conference committee reconvened to discuss the budget disagreements, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell similarly decried the Democrats’ cap, calling it a “get-out-of-jail-free card for criminals because the radical left doesn’t like U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”

ICE opposition

But Democrats aren’t the only ones trying to limit ICE spending. Under a Republican-led Senate last June, the Appropriations committee — which included McConnell — issued a report noting that it discouraged shifting funds from other areas to cover the agency’s overspending, “in light of the Committee’s persistent and growing concerns about ICE’s lack of fiscal discipline, whether real or manufactured, and its inability to manage detention resources within the appropriations.” 

On a call with reporters Monday, Mary Small, policy director for Detention Watch Network, which aims to end immigration detention, said ICE’s “massive detention expansion spree” in recent years — from roughly 34,000 people a day in custody to nearly 50,000 last week — is at the root of a problem that comes down to a “violation of basic good governance standards.”

“The reason that negotiators are pushing for a limitation on detention is precisely because of this three-year history of bad behavior,” Small said. “[E]ven after being repeatedly warned by appropriators … they’ve continued to overspend.”

Also on the call was Angel Padilla, a policy director for Indivisible, who said the detention issue under the Trump administration is about more than funding. According to its website, Indivisible is a group formed to “resist the Trump agenda.”

“What we’ve seen over the last two years is that Trump and his administration have basically just targeted and been at war with immigrants and people of color,” said Padilla, listing the travel bans, cuts to immigrant programs, and the administration’s family separation policy as examples of policies targeting minority groups.

“It is clear that what this administration wants is to jail and deport as many brown people as possible, and as many immigrants [as possible],” he added.

Federal lawmakers have until the end of Friday to reach an agreement — one that stands a chance of being approved by the president — or the country will witness a partial government shutdown again.

The most recent one lasted 35 days, during which hundreds of thousands of federal employees went without pay. It ended with a stopgap budget measure Jan. 25, but that deal expires at 12:01 a.m. Feb. 16.

VOA’s Michael Bowman contributed to this report.

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US Sees Growing Threats to ‘Freedom of Action’ in Space

Russia and China are racing to advance their space-based military capabilities and could soon prevent the United States and its allies from using outer space freely.

The warning, in a new report Monday from the Defense Intelligence Agency, builds on a series of warnings issued by the defense and intelligence communities over the past several years.

But unlike many previous assessments, which focused on Russian and Chinese efforts to match or counter U.S. capabilities, the new DIA report suggests both countries are pursuing a far more aggressive agenda.

“They are developing systems that pose a threat to freedom of action in space,” the report warned, citing current Russian and Chinese military doctrine that sees the ability to control outer space as “integral to winning modern wars.”

U.S. defense intelligence officials believe Russia and China have spent the past four years increasingly aligning their militaries around the importance of space operations.

Already, those efforts have resulted in what officials describe as “robust and capable” space services for both countries, with improvements constantly in the works.

Additionally, Russia and China now have “enhanced situational awareness, enabling them to monitor, track and target U.S. and allied forces,” the report said.

Both countries have also made gains in tracking U.S. space assets.

“Chinese and Russian space surveillance networks are capable of searching, tracking, and characterizing satellites in all Earth orbits,” the report added.

Such capabilities are critical in order for Russia and China to successfully use a variety of systems that could eliminate or incapacitate U.S. satellites, from directed energy weapons to anti-satellite missiles.

While the DIA report warns Russia and China pose the greatest threats to the U.S. in space, other countries are also taking aim at U.S. dominance in space, including Iran and North Korea.

Both Tehran and Pyongyang have shown the ability to jam space-based communications and “maintain independent space launch capabilities.”

In January, the U.S. issued a new National Intelligence Strategy, which warned of growing competition in space.

The strategy, by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said both Russia and China are pursuing “a full range of anti-satellite weapons, which could degrade U.S. intelligence gathering abilities.”

The U.S. Worldwide Threat Assessment issued late last month also said China already has an anti-satellite missile capable of hitting satellites in low-Earth orbits, while Russia has been field testing ground-based laser weapons.

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Taliban Calls for Recognition of Qatar Office Ahead of Fresh Talks With US

The Taliban says it hopes ongoing negotiations with the United States would bring a long-demanded formal recognition for the insurgent group’s “political office” in Qatar, insisting it would help accelerate consultations over the endgame in the Afghan war.

The Taliban has been informally running the office in Doha, the Qatari capital, since 2013, but the host country has not allowed it to use the facility for any public dealings under objections from the Afghan government.

U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, and his team in recent months have held several meetings with Taliban envoys mostly in Doha. The two sides are set to meet there again on Feb. 25 to build on “significant progress” they made in six days of marathon talks in January.

Suhail Shaheen, the spokesman for the Taliban’s political office, in an interview told VOA that all their meetings with U.S. interlocutors and other foreign delegations take place in different hotels, making it difficult for his group to timely share details or progress with media.

“We have raised this issue the U.S. delegation,” he said.

Shaheen noted that the Taliban last week held its first formal “intra-Afghan” dialogue in Moscow with a large group of prominent opposition leaders from Afghanistan, and a follow-up meeting of those consultations is scheduled for next month in Doha.  

“The delegation from Afghanistan, of course, would come to the office and we will have a meeting with them and exchange views about the current peace process and how the Afghan issue can be resolved,” he observed.

No government envoys attended the Moscow meeting because the Taliban refuses to talk to Afghan officials, declaring the Kabul administration an illegal entity or American “puppets.” The rigid insurgent stance has also forced the U.S. to exclude President Ashraf Ghani from the dialogue process.

Ghani slammed the gathering in the Russian capital as an unauthorized dialogue and an attempt by his political opponents to gain power.

On Monday, Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, while addressing a weekly meeting of cabinet ministers, blamed “stubbornness of the Taliban” for being the main and only reason behind the war. He criticized the insurgent group for indulging in “propaganda” instead of joining “real talks” with the government. He did not elaborate.

Abdullah’s remarks came a day after he offered the Taliban to open an office in Afghanistan for conducting talks with his government.

Shaheen dismissed the offer and criticism as an attempt to “harm and derail” the current peace process. “Afghanistan is our own country and we don’t need permission from anyone to open an office there. By making such offers at this stage, they [Ghani government] are trying to harm the peace efforts,” Shaheen said.

The Taliban controls or influences nearly half of Afghanistan, but its leaders and fighters remain under attack from U.S.-backed Afghan ground and air forces. The insurgent group is opposed to ceasing its battlefield attacks until all foreign forces withdraw from the country.

Khalilzad, while delivering a public talk in Washington last week, said that after many conversations, the U.S. has reached “an agreement in principle” with the Taliban on a framework that would provide guarantees that no terrorist group or individuals would be able to use Afghan soil for attacks against the U.S. and its allies.

“Similarly, we have agreed in principle on a framework for possible U.S. [troop] withdrawal as part of a package deal,” he noted.

Taliban spokesman Shaheen said that both sides also agreed to appoint two working groups to flesh out these undertakings and bring them to the table for the meeting scheduled for this month in Doha. He anticipated further progress in the upcoming round of talks and vowed to again raise with U.S. delegates the issue of granting formal recognition to the Taliban’s office, because his group is determined to carry forward Afghan peace talks in Doha.

There was no U.S. response available to the Taliban’s demand.

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Acting US Defense Chief Visits Afghanistan

Acting U.S. defense chief Pat Shanahan arrived in Afghanistan Monday to meet with Afghan leaders and U.S. commanders.

The visit comes as negotiators work toward a peace deal for the war that began in 2001.

Shanahan told reporters traveling with him that he wants to stress to Afghan officials the importance of their involvement in discussions about what happens in their country, and that it is up to people in Afghanistan to decide their own future.

Shanahan also said he has not been directed to reduce the number of U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan.

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Pompeo Heads to Central Europe, in US Re-Engagement

When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visits Hungary, Slovakia and Poland this week he wants to make up for a lack of U.S. engagement that opened the door to more Chinese and Russian influence in central Europe, administration officials say.

On a tour that includes a conference on the Middle East where Washington hopes to build a coalition against Iran, Pompeo begins on Monday in Budapest, the Hungarian capital that last saw a secretary of state in 2011 when Hillary Clinton visited.

On Tuesday he will be in Bratislava, Slovakia, for the first such high-level visit in 20 years.

“This is overdue and needed,” a senior U.S. administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Our message is we have to show up or expect to lose.

“Our efforts at diplomatic engagement are aimed at competing for positive influence and giving allies in the region an indication of U.S. support and interest in order to have alternatives to China and Russia.”

Washington is concerned about China’s growing presence, in particular the expansion of Huawei Technologies, the world’s biggest telecom gear maker, in Hungary and Poland.

The United States and its Western allies believe Huawei’s equipment could be used for espionage and see its expansion into central Europe as a way to gain a foothold in the EU market.

Huawei denies engaging in intelligence work for any government.

Pompeo will also voice concerns about energy ties with Moscow, and urge Hungary to not support the TurkStream pipeline, part of the Kremlin’s plans to bypass Ukraine, the main transit route for Russian gas to Europe.

Hungary gets most of its gas from Russia and its main domestic source of electricity is the Paks nuclear power plant where Russia’s Rosatom is involved in a 12.5 billion-euro ($14 billion) expansion. It is also one of the EU states that benefit most from Chinese investment.

Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said this month the United States could help Hungary diversify away from Russian energy by encouraging ExxonMobil to proceed with long-stalled plans to develop a gas field in the Black Sea.

The administration official said there had been progress toward sealing bilateral defense accords with Hungary and Slovakia, which is looking to buy F-16 fighter jets.

Missing out

Daniel Fried, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland, said U.S. engagement with the region fell after EU and NATO enlargement to central Europe, and as Washington’s attention moved to Asia and conflict in the Middle East.

“A lot of Americans thought our work in the region was done, and yet it was not so,” said Fried, now at the Atlantic Council think-tank in Washington. “There was a sense in the last administration that eastern and central Europe was a finished place.”

The bulk of Pompeo’s Poland visit will focus on a U.S. conference on the “Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East”. Vice President Mike Pence will also attend the two-day event that starts on Feb. 13.

Washington hopes to win support to increase pressure on Iran to end what the it says is its malign behavior in the Middle East and to end its nuclear and missile programs.

President Donald Trump withdrew from a 2015 deal on limiting Iran’s nuclear work last year but the European Union is determined to stick with it.

It is unclear what delegations European capitals will send to what Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has called a “desperate anti-Iran circus”.

“We think anybody who doesn’t participate is going to be missing out,” a second administration official said.

White House adviser Jared Kushner, Trump’s son in law, will discuss a U.S. plan for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, although he is not likely to give details.

 

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