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National Govt & Politics

    As protests over the death of George Floyd grow in cities across the U.S., government officials have been warning of the “outsiders” -- groups of organized rioters they say are flooding into major cities not to call for justice but to cause destruction. But the state and federal officials have offered differing assessments of who the outsiders are. They’ve blamed left-wing extremists, far-right white nationalists and even suggested the involvement of drug cartels. These leaders have offered little evidence to back up those claims, and the chaos of the protests makes verifying identities and motives exceedingly difficult. Police officers across the country were gearing up Saturday for another night of potentially violent clashes in major cities. Some states had even called in the National Guard to aid overwhelmed police. The finger pointing on both sides of the political spectrum is likely to deepen the political divide in the U.S., allowing politicians to advance the theory that aligns with their political view and distract from the underlying frustrations that triggered the protests. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz on Saturday told reporters he’d heard unconfirmed reports that white supremacists were coming from elsewhere to stoke the violence and that even drug cartels “are trying to take advantage of the chaos.” John Harrington, the state’s commissioner of public safety, later said they had received intel reports on white supremacists. “But I cannot say that we have confirmed observations of local law enforcement to say that we’ve seen cells of white supremacists in the area,” he said Saturday. But federal officials later pointed to “far left extremist groups.' President Donald Trump alleged the violence was “being led by Antifa and other radical groups.” Antifa, short for anti-fascists, is an umbrella term for far-left-leaning militant groups that resist neo-Nazis and white supremacists at demonstrations. Attorney General William Barr later seemed to echo Trump's assertion, saying the violent incidents in Minneapolis were driven by groups using 'Antifa-like tactics.' Barr vowed that federal prosecutors across the country would use federal riots statutes to charge protesters who cross state lines to participate in violent rioting. A Justice Department spokesperson said the attorney general’s assertion was based on information provided from state and local law enforcement agencies, but did not detail what that information entailed. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf was even more vague, declining to point to any particular ideology in his assessment. His agency has heard that “a number of different groups are involved in these whether it’s Antifa or it’s others, frankly,' he said. The groups appeared to be organized and using tactics that wouldn’t normally happen in peaceful protest, he said, though he didn’t elaborate. While the motives behind the violence were unclear, there was firmer evidence that some of the protesters were coming to the demonstrations from outside the urban centers that have been the epicenter of the demonstrations. In New York City, federal officials were bringing charges against several suspects, including one of two sisters from upstate New York accused of throwing a Molotov cocktail through the back window of a police van in Brooklyn, a law enforcement official said. The initially peaceful demonstrations in New York City over Floyd’s death spiraled into chaos as night fell Friday. Protesters confronted police officers, destroying police vehicles and setting fires. In Detroit, 37 of the 60 people who were arrested in overnight protests did not live in the city — and many came from nearby suburbs, police Chief James Craig said Saturday. Although Detroit is about 80% black, many of those arrested were white. “We support the right to free speech. We support peaceful protests,” Craig told reporters. “If you want to disrupt, stay home and disrupt in your own community.” Initially, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said he’d been told all of those arrested in his city Friday were from outside the state. But a spokesman said Saturday night the mayor had later learned more than half are from Minnesota. In Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis, 47 of the 57 people arrested in protest incidents through Saturday morning had provided a Minnesota address to authorities, according to Jeremy Zoss, a spokesman for the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office. Carter expressed the opinion of many black activists in the Twin Cities who have expressed disbelief that local residents would destroy their own neighborhoods, burning down essential services and damaging small businesses. And while it was local protesters and groups that staged initial angry, but peaceful, demonstrations, it was agitators from elsewhere that strategically escalated the tension by causing damage and setting fires, they said. Their beliefs were reinforced by the large numbers of white people in the protests in Minneapolis. “I think about a third of the people are from out of town here to make the city burn,” said Justin Terrell, executive director of the Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage. “It is just putting black people in a crossfire not just between fascists and anarchists -- but putting us in a crossfire with the national guard.” It’s exceedingly difficult in the chaos and dark of the events to prove these claims. The challenge is made harder in the Minnesota protest, where very few arrests were made in the first two nights of unrest. St. Paul arrest records showed 18 people were arrested on charges related to civil unrest from Thursday to early Saturday morning. Of those, only four were from outside the state; two were listed as unknown. Still, some civil rights leaders had a clear message for anyone coming to protest, even those who show up to call for justice for Floyd. “The moment has passed. Go home, stay away from here. We are a vulnerable population. At the end of that day if black folks can’t rebuild then the only thing we’ve done is build more power for white folks,' said Terrell. 'You’re talking about years, decades of work undone by these groups -- and by the officer.” Trump vowed Saturday that the “radical left criminals, thugs and others” would “not be allowed to set communities ablaze.” “I will not allow angry mobs to dominate,” he said. “Won’t happen.” ___ Hennessey reported from Minneapolis. Associated Press writers Jill Colvin in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Michael R. Sisak in New York and Corey Williams in Detroit contributed to this report.
  • President Donald Trump said Saturday that he will postpone until the fall a meeting of Group of 7 nations he had planned to hold next month at the White House despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. And he said he plans to invite Russia, Australia, South Korea and India as he again advocated for the group's expansion. Trump told reporters on Air Force One as he returned to Washington from Florida that he feels the current makeup of the group is “very outdated' and doesn't properly represent 'what’s going on in the world.” He said he had not yet set a new date for the meeting, but thought the gathering could take place in September, around the time of the annual meeting of the United Nations in New York, or perhaps after the U.S. election in November. Alyssa Farah, White House director of strategic communications, said that Trump wanted to bring in some of the country's traditional allies and those impacted by the coronavirus to discuss the future of China. The surprise announcement came after German Chancellor Angela Merkel's office said Saturday that she would not attend the meeting unless the course of the coronavirus spread had changed by then. The leaders of the world’s major economies were slated to meet in June in the U.S. at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, but the coronavirus outbreak hobbled those plans. Trump announced in March he was canceling the summit because of the pandemic and that the leaders would confer by video conference instead. But Trump then switched course, saying a week ago that he was again planning to host an in-person meeting. “Now that our Country is ‘Transitioning back to Greatness’, I am considering rescheduling the G-7, on the same or similar date, in Washington, D.C., at the legendary Camp David,” Trump tweeted. “The other members are also beginning their COMEBACK. It would be a great sign to all - normalization!” The G7 members are Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States. The group’s presidency rotates annually among member countries. Trump has repeatedly advocated for expanding the group to include Russia, prompting opposition from some members, including Canada’s Justin Trudeau, who told reporters he had privately aired his objection to Russian readmittance. “Russia has yet to change the behavior that led to its expulsion in 2014, and therefore should not be allowed back into the G7,” he said at a news conference. The House also passed a bipartisan resolution in December 2019 that supports Russia’s previous expulsion from the annual gathering. Russia had been invited to attend the gathering of the world’s most advanced economies since 1997, but was suspended in 2014 following its invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. ___ Freking reported from Washington.
  • The FBI's top lawyer, Dana Boente, who has spent nearly 40 years with the Justice Department but has been targeted for criticism over the last year by some conservative commentators and supporters of President Donald Trump for his role in the Russia investigation, is leaving the bureau. Boente has most recently served as the FBI's general counsel but has held a variety of roles in his 38-year Justice Department career, including acting attorney general in the early days of the Trump administration, a United States attorney in Virginia and the acting head of the department's national security division. The FBI said that Boente had given notice on Friday that he intended to retire effective June 30, the bureau said. “Throughout his long and distinguished career as a public servant, Dana has demonstrated a selfless determination to ensure that justice is always served on behalf of our citizens,' FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a statement announcing Boente's departure. “We should all be grateful for his dedication to the Department of Justice, the FBI, and the American people.” Boente became acting attorney general in early 2017 after Sally Yates, a holdover from the Obama administration, was fired after refusing to defend the president's travel ban, and remained in that role until Jeff Sessions was installed. As a top Justice Department official, he approved one of three applications to renew secret surveillance warrants targeting former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. A Justice Department inspector general report from December said those applications to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court had significant errors and omissions that cut against the FBI's premise that Page, who was never charged with any wrongdoing, was an agent of a foreign power. The report said that Boente and other Justice Department officials “did not have accurate and complete information' from the FBI at the time they approved them. Even so, Boente has nonetheless been criticized by conservative figures for his involvement in the Russia probe. A Facebook post in February from the conservative group Judicial Watch announced that its president, Tom Fitton, would appear on Fox Business News with host Lou Dobbs to discuss topics including “the discovery that the FBI’s Chief Legal Counsel, Dana Boente, participated in fraudulent FISA warrants on Carter Page.” In April, Dobbs himself alleged that Boente and Wray were blocking the disclosure of “exculpatory” information about former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn. The FBI and Justice Department denied that that was the case. NBC News first reported Boente's departure and said he had been asked to resign by the Justice Department. Wray's statement made no mention of that. The Justice Department declined to comment Saturday.
  • Members of three House and Senate committees will interview former State Department Inspector General Steve Linick on Wednesday as part of an investigation by House Democrats into his abrupt firing by President Donald Trump. Linick will speak to members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the House Oversight and Reform Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, according to two congressional aides working on the investigation who requested anonymity to discuss the closed-door meeting. Democrats announced Friday that they are expanding their probe into Linick's firing earlier this month with a series of interviews. The investigation is part of a larger effort by Democrats and some Republicans to find out more about Trump’s recent moves to sideline several independent government watchdogs. The Democrats plan to interview multiple officials in the administration who may have more information about Linick’s dismissal on May 15, including whether Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recommended the firing for retaliatory reasons. Pompeo has denied Linick’s firing was retaliatory but has not given specific reasons for his dismissal. The investigation is being led by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., House Oversight and Reform Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Republicans on those panels will also be invited to question Linick and other witnesses. “If Secretary Pompeo pushed for Mr. Linick’s dismissal to cover up his own misconduct, that would constitute an egregious abuse of power and a clear attempt to avoid accountability,” the Democrats said in a joint statement Friday. The committees said they will release transcripts shortly after each interview. It’s unclear whether Linick will come to Capitol Hill in person or appear virtually for the transcribed interviews. The House will be out of session over the coming week as lawmakers work from home during the coronavirus pandemic. The committee has asked several other State Department officials to sit for interviews in the probe, including Undersecretary of State for Management Brian Bulatao, Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs Clarke Cooper, Pompeo’s executive secretary Lisa Kenna and acting State Department legal adviser Marik String, according to the congressional aides. Democrats and some Republicans have pushed the administration for more answers about the firings, but the White House has provided few, simply stating the dismissals were well within Trump’s authority. Pompeo said after the firing that he had been concerned about the inspector general’s work for some time and that he regretted not calling for his dismissal earlier. He said he recommended to Trump that Linick be terminated. Pompeo told reporters that he was unaware of any investigation into allegations that he may have mistreated staffers by instructing them to run personal errands for him and his wife such as walking his dog and picking up dry cleaning and takeout food. Thus, Pompeo said, the move could not have been retaliatory. Pompeo did acknowledge that he was aware of an investigation into his decision last year to bypass congressional objections to approve a multibillion-dollar arms sale to Saudi Arabia because he had answered written questions about it posed by Linick’s office. He maintained he did not know the scope or scale of the investigation. Engel and Menendez have been demanding answers and documents from the State Department and Pompeo personally for months on a variety of topics that goes far beyond Linick’s dismissal. After complaining for more than a year that Pompeo and his staff have either refused to respond or provided only perfunctory answers to questions posed on personnel and policy matters, the two Democrats and their Democratic committee colleagues have teamed up to try to force a complete explanation from Pompeo and the White House as to why Trump fired Linick. Engel and Menendez earlier demanded that administration officials preserve and turn over all records related to Linick’s dismissal. They said they have received no information so far. Linick is one of several inspectors general whom Trump has removed from office, sparking outrage among Democrats who say the administration is undermining government accountability. Linick was an Obama administration appointee whose office was critical of what it saw as political bias in the State Department’s current management but had also taken issue with Democratic appointees. He played a small role in Trump’s impeachment last year. In October, Linick turned over documents to House investigators that he had received from a close Pompeo associate that contained information from debunked conspiracy theories about Ukraine’s role in the 2016 U.S. election. Democrats were probing Trump’s pressure on Ukraine to investigate Democrats. Linick is the second inspector general to be fired who was involved with the impeachment process. Michael Atkinson, the former inspector general for the intelligence community, triggered the impeachment probe when he alerted Congress about a whistleblower complaint that described a call between Trump and Ukraine’s president last summer. Trump fired Atkinson in April, saying he had lost confidence in him. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has said the White House is legally required to provide more answers to Congress about the firings and gave Trump a deadline to give them. But in a letter to Grassley this week, the administration offered no new details about why they were let go. The response from White House counsel Pat Cipollone said that Trump has the authority to remove inspectors general, that he appropriately alerted Congress and that he selected qualified officials as replacements. The president also moved to replace the chief watchdog at the Department of Health and Human Services, Christi Grimm, who testified that her office was moving ahead with new reports and audits on the department’s response to the coronavirus pandemic despite Trump’s public criticism of her. In addition, Trump demoted acting Defense Department Inspector General Glenn Fine, effectively removing him as head of a special board to oversee auditing of the coronavirus economic relief package. Fine later resigned.
  • President Donald Trump celebrated on Saturday the first launch of American astronauts from U.S. soil in nearly a decade, marveling at the power of the rocket ship and the danger faced by its passengers as they soared into the stratosphere and provided a moment of triumph as the country raged and mourned. The successful launch provided the president a moment to relish during what has been a difficult week with protests breaking out in several American cities over the death of a black man, George Floyd, while he was in police custody, and the country’s death toll from the coronavirus surpassing 100,000. “That was a beautiful sight to see and I hope you all enjoyed it,” Trump said shortly after the rocket ship designed and built by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company lifted off for a trip to the International Space Station. Trump addressed the unrest during a speech celebrating the launch, saying Floyd's death was a “grave tragedy' that has filled the country with anger and grief. But he said his administration would stop mob violence, “and we'll stop it cold.' “I stand before you as a friend and ally to every American seeking justice and peace, and I stand before you in firm opposition to anyone exploiting this tragedy to loot, rob, attack and menace,' he said. “Healing, not hatred, justice, not chaos, are the missions at hand.” For Trump, the second time was the charm. He also flew to the Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday before the launch was postponed at the last minute because of bad weather. “When you hear that sound and you hear all of that roar, you can imagine how dangerous it is,” Trump said. “When you feel the shake — and we’re very far away — but when you feel the shake over here, it’s pretty amazing. Beautiful sight. A beautiful ship, too.” Asked why he felt it was important to be in Florida for the launch, given all that is going on in the country, Trump said the launch was a “great inspiration' for the country. “We suffered something that was terrible, it should have never happened. And that’s one of the reasons I wanted to be here today. I thought it was so important to be here today,' Trump said. “And I think any one of you would say, that was an inspiration to see what we just saw.” Trump visited the launch control center to congratulate those involved and spoke with Musk, who wore a shirt emblazoned with the launch’s logo. Under Trump, NASA has provided companies with research and development funds to help build their own spacecraft. Ultimately, NASA hopes to rely in part on its commercial partners as it works to send astronauts back to the moon in the next few years, and on to Mars in the 2030s. Vice President Mike Pence likened the circumstances surrounding Saturday's mission to what the nation experienced when astronauts on Apollo rockets launched during the tumult and clamor of the 1960s. He said the missions were a symbol of national strength and unity. “And today, as states across the nation take their first steps to reopen and recover from an unprecedented pandemic, and as our nation reels from the tragic death of George Floyd and violent protests of the past few days, I believe with all my heart that millions of Americans today will find the same inspiration and unity of purpose that we found in those days in the 1960s,” Pence said. ___ Associated Press writer Kevin Freking in Washington contributed to this report.
  • When the United States erupted in unrest following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, his hometown of Atlanta was one of the few major cities to maintain relative peace. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms invoked that history in a passionate and deeply personal plea for protesters to go home. “When Dr. King was assassinated, we didn't do this to our city,” Bottoms said Friday night. “If you care about this city, then go home.” The protests are quickly becoming a high-stakes leadership test for Bottoms just as her national profile is rising. She is under consideration to be presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s running mate — and even if she isn’t tapped for that role, many Democrats view Bottoms as a rising star within the party. Protests in Atlanta over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white officer in Minneapolis pressed a knee into his neck, turned violent before Bottoms spoke. Police cars were smashed and CNN’s headquarters was vandalized as protests shook a city that prides itself as the birthplace of the civil rights movement. Bottoms addressed the crowds both as a mayor and a mother. “I am a mother to four black children in America, one of whom is 18 years old,” Bottoms said. “When I saw the murder of George Floyd, I hurt like a mother.” When she heard of the potential of protests, Bottoms said she called her son to find out where he was. “I said, ’I cannot protect you and black boys shouldn’t be out today,'' she said. Her message to protesters: “You’re not going to out-concern me ... about where we are in America. I wear this each and every day.” Bottoms’ remarks were widely praised. TJ Ducklo, the Biden campaign's national press secretary, said the presumptive nominee “has been grateful for Mayor Bottoms’ support and counsel since the earliest days of our campaign.” 'Her passion, her empathy and her strong and steady leadership are shining through during this difficult moment, and the city of Atlanta is lucky to have her leading the way,” Ducklo said. Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, a conservative Republican ally of President Donald Trump, tweeted that the mayor had issued a “strong” statement. The 50-year-old Bottoms was elected mayor in 2017 and previously served on the City Council. During a recent interview with The Associated Press before the protest, she spoke of Atlanta as a 'special place where people of color are able to break traditional molds and change the landscape of who we are as a country.” Until now, her national profile among Democrats has been eclipsed by fellow Georgian Stacey Abrams, the voting-rights activist who narrowly lost her bid in 2018 to become America's first black female governor. But Bottoms has engaged in national issues during her time in City Hall. She was among the big-city mayors to blast Trump’s immigration policies, and she ended the city jail’s contract with federal immigration enforcement. She’s leading the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ efforts on the census and housing policy. Bottoms was one of Biden's earliest endorsers, providing backing that was helpful at a time when the Democratic field included dozens of candidates who spanned generations, genders and races. She was a precinct captain in overwhelmingly white Iowa, where Biden finished an embarrassing fourth, before going on to the Southern states that reversed his fortunes and helped him become the presumptive nominee. Biden has pledged to pick a woman as his running mate and is under growing pressure following Floyd's death to make sure that selection is a black woman. Beyond Bottoms, he's believed to be considering Abrams, California Sen. Kamala Harris and Florida Rep. Val Demings. Several white women are also contenders, including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The prospect of another white vice presidential hopeful, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, may fade given her time as a prosecutor in the county that includes Minneapolis. South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn told reporters on Friday that this is “very tough timing for her.” Clyburn, whose endorsement of Biden was crucial to his commanding victory in the South Carolina primary, has spoken positively of Bottoms. Asked during the AP interview what she'd bring to the ticket with Biden, Bottoms, a former judge and City Council member, noted that she’s served in each branch of government, with her executive tenure overlapping with a massive cyberattack on city government’s technology infrastructure and now the coronavirus pandemic. “You’ve got to have proven leadership that’s been tested in the midst of crisis,” she said. ___ Sloan reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Kate Brumback in Atlanta and Alexandra Jaffe in Washington contributed to this report.
  • First-term Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey appeared to be doing everything right. He worked with the city's booming business community and the City Council. He reached out to minority neighborhoods and advocated for affordable housing. He implemented stricter disciplinary measures against police who violated the city's body camera policy. When George Floyd, a handcuffed black man, died Monday after a white police officer pressed his knee into his neck for several minutes and ignored his “I can't breathe” pleas, Frey quickly expressed outrage and called for charges against the officer. Four officers were fired the next day, and on Friday, Officer Derek Chauvin was charged in Floyd's death. But Frey's leadership is being questioned after police failed to quell several nights of rioting, fires and ransacking of local businesses that followed Floyd's death. Frey, who pleaded for calm, also approved the decision to abandon the city's 3rd Precinct station on Thursday night, surrendering it to protesters who set fire to the building. The night the station burned, Frey appeared at an early-morning news conference after hours of criticism on social media for a police response that didn't confront the violence despite the activation of the National Guard. As he began talking, one reporter snapped, “What's the plan here?” Frey struggled to answer, and the next morning, Gov. Tim Walz — like Frey, a Democrat — criticized the “abject failure” of the city's response and said the state had taken control. President Donald Trump took to Twitter to call Frey a “very weak Radical Left Mayor” and threatened to get involved. By early Saturday morning, it was Walz who found himself struggling with the enormity of the challenge, conceding that he didn't have enough people to cope with the protests and moving to mobilize another 1,000 Guard members. Walz also took pains to praise Frey, who appeared alongside him after another night of unrest. Some wonder whether Frey's approach to the crisis might damage his chances for reelection next year. The 38-year-old former lawyer, community organizer and one-term City Council member took office in 2018 after defeating Betsy Hodges, whose time as mayor was marred by two high-profile police shootings. The 2015 shooting of 24-year-old black resident Jamar Clark after a scuffle with two white police officers set off weeks of protests; neither officer was charged. The 2017 shooting of unarmed Australia native Justine Ruszczyk Damond, who had called 911 to report a possible sexual assault behind her house, provoked an international outcry. The black officer in that case was convicted of third-degree murder and is serving a 12 1/2-year term. Frey campaigned partly on a promise to add police officers. But a City Council committee this spring voted against applying for a federal grant to hire 10 new officers for traffic enforcement, with one member saying he worried it would exacerbate racial disparities in vehicle stops. Community activist Mel Reeves, who said he has led rallies to protest Floyd's killing, refused to discuss the mayor's response except to say that Frey had been “put in a difficult position.” He said the black community doesn’t trust police and prosecutors to do the right thing. “The mayor is new, and he said all the right things,' Reeves said. “This is not about the mayor; it's about the police department.” The day after the 3rd Precinct fire, University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs said Frey was “out of his depth” and 'clearly unable to understand what he has to do to restore order while also creating the kind of healing that has to happen in Minneapolis.” He said abandoning the police station “sent a powerful message” that the city was not in control. “There needs to be another message: ‘Here is the line and order will be maintained,’” said Jacobs. 'You’ve got businesses that are just shocked without words to see property going up in flames, often with no police intervention at all. You have the black community (that has) heard his words but does not believe them. “He worked really hard at those relationships and they appear to be in tatters. And I think a lot of residents are unnerved by the violence and the chaos.” Jonathan Weinhagen, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber, said the mayor still has his support, and that many businesses damaged by the violent protests, including those owned by minorities and immigrants, want to rebuild. “There is a lot of fear right now. If your store has been hit, you feel violated,” said Weinhagen, adding that some businesses already were suffering because of the coronavirus restrictions. “They were just beginning to see some light and this hit.” But he believes the mayor is “leading with his values' and getting a lot of things right, including requesting the Guard assistance and implementing a curfew Friday and Saturday nights. Jacobs, the political scientist, said Frey has been energetic, upbeat and dynamic, effectively leading the fast-growing city. But his inexperience with crisis management has shown. “Until about a week ago, he looked to be on glide path to reelection, and within a week, his mayorship looks like it’s crumbled,' Jacobs said. ___ Webber reported from Fenton, Michigan.
  • A divided U.S. Supreme Court late Friday upheld Coronavirus restrictions placed on church gatherings by the state of California, as Chief Justice John Roberts joined with the four more liberal justices in backing the power of states to enforce measures for public health. 'Although California’s guidelines place restrictions on places of worship, those restrictions appear consistent with the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment,' the Chief Justice wrote in an unusual late night ruling. 'The notion that it is “indisputably clear” that the Government’s limitations are unconstitutional seems quite improbable,' Roberts added in a three page 5-4 opinion. The ruling came on a request from a California church to dispense with limits on church gatherings imposed by Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Golden State. The decision came just over a week after President Trump had very publicly pressured states to drop Coronavirus restrictions on houses of worship. The South Bay United Pentecostal Church in San Diego argued the health requirements put in place by the Governor were far too restrictive, and violated their constitutional rights. 'Although curbing the pandemic is a laudable goal, those orders arbitrarily discriminate against places of worship in violation of their right to the Free Exercise of Religion under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution,' lawyers for the church argued. That agreement resonated with the High Court's four more conservative justices. 'I would grant the Church’s requested temporary injunction because California’s latest safety guidelines discriminate against places of worship and in favor of comparable secular businesses,' wrote Justice Brett Kavanaugh in his dissent. 'Such discrimination violates the First Amendment.' The decision quickly struck a nerve with more conservative Republicans and supporters of the President, many of whom have long harbored doubts about Roberts, who was put on the Supreme Court by President George W. Bush. 'Chief Justice Roberts sides with the Left again,' said Fox News host Laura Ingraham, as the head of the Conservative Political Action Committee called for Roberts to be impeached. In Congress, there was anger as well. 'SHAMEFUL failure by SCOTUS to defend 1st & 5th amendments,' tweeted Rep. Warren Davidson (R-OH).
  • President Donald Trump has announced what he said are “significant actions” regarding U.S. relations with Hong Kong. But the measures are still just a warning, at least for now. He said he would direct his administration to begin eliminating the policies that give the semi-autonomous Chinese territory a distinct trade and legal relationship with the United States. But he didn't say when. He also mentioned there would be a “few exceptions” but he didn’t take any questions at his announcement Friday. So, while tensions are high, the status quo seems to hold. A look at where things stand: WHAT EXACTLY DID TRUMP ANNOUNCE? The president, in a brief Rose Garden appearance, announced a series of moves that included withdrawing U.S. financial support for the World Health Organization, in protest of its handling of the coronavirus outbreak, and the suspension of visas for some Chinese graduate students suspected of gathering research on behalf of their country's military. He said he would direct his administration to “begin the process of eliminating policy exemptions that give Hong Kong different and special treatment” in its relations with the U.S. Trump said this would “affect the full range of agreements” between the U.S. and Hong Kong. Trump specifically mentioned only the extradition treaty that dates to Hong Kong's days as a British colony, and technology export controls and said there would be “few exceptions.” ___ WHY IS THIS HAPPENING NOW? Trump came into office with a hostile view of China and an oft-stated desire to overhaul U.S. trade policies that he believes have hurt the American economy. Some of that eased in January when he signed a trade deal with China. But the outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan province and Trump's suspicion that the Chinese government hid the severity of the situation have added a degree of volatility to long-standing points of tension between the two countries over a number of issues, including human rights abuses and the status of Hong Kong. U.S. officials and members of Congress have expressed increasing alarm about Hong Kong, and there have been widespread protests there over a series of moves by China to exert greater control over the territory. Under the terms of a China-Britain agreement, Hong Kong was to have enjoyed significant autonomy from the communist government in Beijing for 50 years, starting in 1997. The Trump administration argues that agreement has been undermined by a new security law imposed by the Chinese government that eliminates some of the limited political freedoms people of Hong Kong had enjoyed. “Hong Kong is no longer sufficiently autonomous to warrant the special treatment that we have afforded the territory since the handover,' Trump said Friday. ___ WHAT ARE THE ECONOMIC STAKES IN HONG KONG? American law commits the United States to treat Hong Kong as separate from the rest of China in a variety of political and economic areas as long as Hong Kong is “sufficiently autonomous” from the rest of China. As a result, the U.S. has bilateral agreements on trade, investment, law enforcement with Hong Kong. Hong Kong is exempt from the tariffs applied to goods from the mainland, and the U.S. has a large trade surplus with the territory. Hundreds of American companies have offices there, and about 85,000 American citizens live in Hong Kong. Last year, Congress, where there is strong bipartisan support for penalizing China over human rights abuses, passed legislation directing the administration to impose penalties on Chinese officials involved in cracking down in Hong Kong. ___ WHAT HAPPENS NOW? It's unclear. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo notified Congress this ;past week that the administration no longer regards Hong Kong as autonomous from mainland China. That set the stage for the U.S. to withdraw its preferential trade and financial status in consultation with Congress. But it's likely to be a long process that serves to put China on notice that Hong Kong's perks are in jeopardy. Trump said he directed his administration to “begin” the process of eliminating the exemptions that benefit Hong Kong but he did not say when this would happen. Much will depend on those “few exceptions” that he referenced in his remarks Friday. He did say the administration would punish Chinese officials involved in the Hong Kong crackdown — something that Congress had already directed the administration to do — and that seems likely to be the next step.
  • As Minneapolis burns over the police killing of George Floyd and shock and disappointment in Africa grow, some U.S. embassies on the continent have taken the unusual step of issuing critical statements, saying no one is above the law. The statements came as the head of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, condemned the “murder” of Floyd and said Friday the continental body rejects the “continuing discriminatory practices against black citizens of the USA.” Floyd, a handcuffed black man, died after a police officer pressed his knee into his neck for several minutes even after he stopped moving and pleading for air. Africa has not seen the kind of protests over Floyd’s killing that have erupted across the United States, but many Africans have expressed disgust and dismay, openly wondering when the U.S. will ever get it right. “WTF? ‘When the looting starts the shooting starts’?” tweeted political cartoonist Patrick Gathara in Kenya, which has its own troubles with police brutality. He, like many, was aghast at the tweet by President Donald Trump, flagged by Twitter as violating rules against “glorifying violence,” that the president later said had been misconstrued. Mindful of America’s image on a continent where China’s influence has grown and where many have felt a distinct lack of interest from the Trump administration in Africa, some U.S. diplomats have tried to control the damage. The ambassador to Congo, Mike Hammer, highlighted a tweet from a local media entrepreneur who addressed him saying, “Dear ambassador, your country is shameful. Proud America, which went through everything from segregation to the election of Barack Obama, still hasn’t conquered the demons of racism. How many black people must be killed by white police officers before authorities react seriously?” The ambassador’s response, in French: “I am profoundly troubled by the tragic death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The Justice Department is conducting a full criminal investigation as a top priority. Security forces around the world should be held accountable. No one is above the law.” Similar statements were tweeted by the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Uganda, while the embassies in Tanzania and Kenya tweeted a joint statement from the Department of Justice office in Minnesota on the investigation. African officials also were publicly outspoken last month over racism in China, when Africans complained of being evicted and mistreated in the city of Guangzhou amid the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, the U.S. was quick to join in, with the embassy in Beijing issuing a critical security alert titled “Discrimination against African-Americans in Guangzhou' and noting actions against people thought to be African or have African contacts. Now the Africa-facing version of the state-run China Daily newspaper is tweeting footage from Minneapolis with the hashtags #GeorgeFloydWasMurdered and #BlackLivesMatter.