By Arwa Damon, CNN
Aug 22, 2019
(CNN) – Two years ago, a chemical strike by the Syrian regime in Khan Sheikhoun killed dozens and resulted in the Trump administration carrying out airstrikes mostly targeting against Syrian airfields, a warning from the most powerful nation in the world, that was more of a slap on the wrist.
Local residents recall the attack with horror. “I saw the wounded, they were lying out there naked, they looked yellow.” Umm Ahmed told CNN by telephone. “I cant forget the images — children, a woman, and a man, a family …” her voice trails off.
The US airstrikes failed to deter President Bashar al-Assad from continuing his campaign of brutality of course. And now, for the first time in five years, the Syrian army has entered the northwestern town, strategically located on a highway connecting the capital Damascus to Aleppo, as Assad bombs with impunity in an attempt to end the brutal eight-year civil war.
“The Syrian military are inside the city of Khan Sheikhoun,” one media activist told CNN on Thursday adding that “opposition fighters tried to repel the Syrian military but came under heavy fire last night and fled the city.”
The move comes after yet another cease-fire between government forces and rebels crumbled. Russian and regime fighter jets then pulverized remaining rebel positions to force a withdrawal, sending a wave of fear through civilians trapped in the province.
“I was thinking to myself, we don’t have anywhere to go,” added Umm Ahmed, who fled Khan Sheikhoun seven months ago after an airstrike shattered the windows of her home. Her voice is steady but filled with the pain of the past eight years. “Death is death. It’s coming. There is no choice. What sort of hell are we going to see?”
‘Playing with fire’
Khan Sheikhoun is located in the southern part of Idlib province, to the north of a demilitarized zone established a year ago following negotiations between Turkey and Russia. To advance on the city, ground forces arched around, surrounding a Turkish military observation post. Last week there was a regime strike close to a Turkish resupply convoy.
“We have no intention of moving it and it will continue to serve out its purpose,” Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said. “The regime should stop playing with fire.”
These latest moves are perhaps an indication of dangerously shifting dynamics in Syria’s sickening war, the start of what everyone CNN has spoken to in Idlib is terrified of: the ground assault.
But when it comes to Syria and its powerful ally Russia, there are no rules of engagement, no red lines and no real ramifications. And it remains unclear what Turkey can do to prevent the ground push that would constitute a blatant disregard to the demilitarized zone.
Khan Sheikhoun is Syria’s last remaining rebel stronghold, home to some 3.5 million civilians — one-third of them children. This is the province that people fled to as Aleppo, Hama, Homs, Douma and other areas fell back into Syrian government control. Most of those here have been displaced multiples times, trying to stay ahead of the bombings; but where do you run when there is no where left to go?
Turkey’s border is now closed, the camps along it are bursting and new arrivals set up makeshift tents under olive trees, even giving birth there. Hospitals are constantly and regularly targeted, along with agricultural fields.
Syria’s Foreign Ministry said it’s opening “a humanitarian corridor” for civilians to leave the region, state-run SANA news reported Thursday. SANA said the Syrian army will provide protection “in order to enable citizens willing to exit the areas controlled by terrorists in the northern countryside of Hama and southern countryside of Idlib to leave.”
But for those residents it’s an impossible choice. Stay in Idlib and risk death or leave into regime-held territory and risk death or detention.
CNN visited Idlib early last month. The roar of fighter jets was a terrifying constant, mothers sat shell-shocked by their wounded children in one of the few remaining hospitals, and people we spoke to begged just for a blanket.
Umm Ahmed is staying with relatives along with her husband and remaining children. She fears death is coming.
“I have nothing left. I live hour by hour, minute by minute, what can I say about hope?”
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A federal appeals court ruled late Tuesday that presidential electors who cast the actual ballots for president and vice president are free to vote as they wish and cannot be required to follow the results of the popular vote in their states.
The decision could give a single elector the power to decide the outcome of a presidential election — if the popular vote results in an apparent Electoral College tie.
“This issue could be a ticking time bomb in our divided politics. It’s not hard to imagine how a single faithless elector, voting differently than his or her state did, could swing a close presidential election,” said Mark Murray, NBC News senior political editor.
It hasn’t been much of an issue in American political history because when an elector refuses to follow the results of a state’s popular vote, the state simply throws the ballot away. But Tuesday’s ruling says states cannot do that.
The decision, from a three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, is a victory for Micheal Baca, a Colorado Democratic elector in 2016. Under state law, he was required to cast his ballot for Hillary Clinton, who won the state’s popular vote. Instead, he crossed out her name and wrote in John Kasich, a Republican and then the governor of Ohio.
The secretary of state removed Baca as an elector, discarded his vote and brought in another elector who voted for Clinton. In a 2-1 decision, the appeals court said the nullification of Baca’s vote was unconstitutional.
When voters go to the polls in presidential races, they actually cast their votes for a slate of electors chosen by the political parties of the nominees. States are free to choose their electors however they want, Tuesday’s ruling said, and can even require electors to pledge their loyalty to their political parties.
© Mark Wilson Staffers organize states ballots during the counting of the electoral votes from the 2016 presidential election during a joint session of Congress, on Jan. 6, 2017. But once the electors are chosen and report in December to cast their votes as members of the Electoral College, they are fulfilling a federal function, and a state’s authority has ended. “The states’ power to appoint electors does not include the power to remove them or nullify their votes,” the court said.
Because the Constitution contains no requirement for electors to follow the wishes of a political party, “the electors, once appointed, are free to vote as they choose,” assuming that they cast their vote for a legally qualified candidate.
A total of 30 states have laws that bind electors, requiring them to cast their votes for whichever candidate won that state’s popular vote. But the laws are weak, providing only nominal penalties for what are known as “faithless electors” who fail to conform to the popular vote.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1952 that states do not violate the Constitution when they require electors to pledge that they will abide by the popular vote. But the justices have never said whether it is constitutional to enforce those pledges.
Legal scholars said Tuesday’s ruling was the first from a federal appeals court on the issue of faithless electors. It applies immediately to the six states of the 10th Circuit: Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Kanas, Oklahoma and New Mexico.
“This court decision takes power from Colorado voters and sets a dangerous precedent,” said Jena Griswold, Colorado’s secretary of state. “Our nation stands on the principle of one person, one vote. We are reviewing this decision with our attorneys, and will vigorously protect Colorado voters.”
The federal court ruling conflicts with a decision from Washington state’s Supreme Court in May, which said electors must follow the results of the popular vote. “The power of electors to vote comes from the state, and the elector has no personal right to that role,” the court said.
Lawyers from the nonprofit Equal Citizens, which represented the Washington state electors and Baca in Colorado, said they will appeal the Washington ruling to the Supreme Court.
“We know Electoral College contests are going to be closer in the future than they have been in the past. And as they get closer and closer, even a small number of electors could change the results of an election,” said Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard law professor who founded Equal Citizens and is part of its legal team. “Whether you think that’s a good system or not, we believe it is critical to resolve it before it would decide an election.”
If the Supreme Court chooses to take up the dispute, it would have time to rule on the issue before the Electoral College meets in December 2020 to cast the formal vote for president
The United States has accused China of preventing Southeast Asian countries from accessing trillions of dollars worth of untapped oil and gas reserves in the South China Sea as the Pentagon planned to hold its first exercise with regional powers near the strategic region.In a press statement, State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said Thursday that the “United States is deeply concerned that China is continuing its interference with Vietnam’s longstanding oil and gas activities in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) claim” following recent incursions there by Chinese survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 and an armed escort. Beijing has laid vast claims to the South China Sea and does not recognize boundaries established there by a number of Southeast Asian nations who are supported by the U.S.
The most recent incident occurred last week near Vanguard Bank, a Vietnam-administered outpost in the contested Spratly Islands, and Ortagus attributed the move to China “pressuring Vietnam over its work with a Russian energy firm and other international partners.”
“China’s actions undermine regional peace and security, impose economic costs on Southeast Asian states by blocking their access to an estimated $2.5 trillion in unexploited hydrocarbon resources, and demonstrate China’s disregard for the rights of countries to undertake economic activities in their EEZs, under the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, which China ratified in 1996,” Ortagus said.
Washington has signed, but not ratified the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, though it justified sending warships through Beijing-claimed waters in the South China Sea by citing “freedom of navigation” operations outlined in the deal. China has responded by scrambling military ships and aircraft to intercept the U.S. vessels in the resource-rich region.
While China may have backed Vietnam’s communist revolutionaries in their victory over U.S. and allied local forces decades ago, Beijing and Hanoi quickly became rivals and engaged in deadly border clashes, including near the Spratly Island, lasting up until the 1990s. In 1995, Vietnam and the U.S. normalized their relations, putting pressure on China as the region’s geopolitical dynamics shifted.
As the U.S. began to increasingly assert its own presence in the South China Sea, it has sought to push back on China there, exploiting territorial tensions between Beijing and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a 10-nation grouping of which Vietnam was a part. Washington sided with Hanoi in 2014 when China moved its Hai Yang Shi You 981 oil rig near the disputed Paracel Islands and sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel amid a standoff there.
Last year, the U.S. sent a historic message to China by sending Nimitz-class supercarrier USS Carl Vinson to dock in Vietnam in March. In May, the U.S. disinvited China from the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise involving Vietnam and several other ASEAN states over Beijing’s increased militarization of the Spratly Islands.
The U.S. also began planning joint drills with ASEAN, but it was China that secured an exercise alongside the regional collective months later in October. That same month, then-Defense Secretary James Mattis confirmed that a U.S.-ASEAN exercise was still in the works and on both The Bangkok Post and Nikkei Asian Review reported Thursday that the maneuvers were set to begin early next month in Thailand.
Tensions in the South China Sea add to an array of issues already putting a major strain on ties between the world’s top two economies. President Donald Trump and Chinese Xi Jinping are embroiled in a multibillion-dollar trade war of tit-for-tat tariffs with Vietnam finding itself right in the middle of the feuding powerhouses.
Beijing has also repeatedly accused Washington of interfering in its internal affairs, both in the ongoing protests that U.S. officials and politicians have expressed support for in the semi-autonomous city of Hong Kong and in a recent $8 billion arms sale involving F-16V fighters jets to Taiwan, a self-ruling island nation also claimed by Beijing.
“The move has seriously undermined China-U.S. relations and blatantly damaged relations across the Taiwan Strait as well as the peace and stability across the strait,” Chinese State Council Taiwan Affairs Office spokesperson Ma Xiaoguang said Thursday, urging Washington to cancel the sale immediately as reported by the official Xinhua News Agency and shared by Ma’s office and the Chinese military.
Watch this congressman go off on the GOP for calling basic health care an 'entitlement'
Posted by NowThis Politics on Saturday, August 3, 2019
Committee Chairs Request Information from Consumer Bureau on Efforts to Protect Student Loan Borrowers
Chairs Also Request Documents from Education Department, Loan Servicers
Washington, DC, August 13, 2019
Today, Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-CA), Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott (D-VA), and Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-MD) sent a letter to Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Kathleen Kraninger requesting information and records concerning the CFPB’s efforts to protect consumers from unlawful student loan servicing practices.
In the letter, the Chairs raise concerns that “…the Consumer Bureau has taken actions that weaken its ability to fulfill its mission to protect student loan borrowers,” and that the agency is “…providing potentially harmful and conflicting advice to student loan borrowers.” The Chairs request records from the Consumer Bureau by no later than September 9, 2019.
Former Student Loan Ombudsman Seth Frotman asserted in his August 2018 resignation letter that CFPB leadership “has abandoned the very consumers it is tasked by Congress with protecting.” The position of Student Loan Ombudsman has been vacant since Frotman resigned in August 2018.
The Chairs also sent a letter to Betsy DeVos expressing deep concern over the Education Department’s failure to protect students and families from student loan companies. The letter addresses recent reports that the Department is shielding student loan servicing companies from state law enforcement and undermining the CFPB’s oversight of these companies. In March 2019, an independent watchdog found that the Department failed to establish policies to properly conduct oversight of student loan servicing companies.
“As Chairs of Committees with oversight responsibilities over the student loan industry, we are very concerned by reports that under your leadership, the Department of Education has failed to adequately oversee student loan servicers,” the Chairs wrote. “Reports indicate that improper practices by these servicers—including inaccurate determination of monthly payments, forbearance steering, and other practices—directly impact millions of Americans and have ripple effects on their families, communities, and the economy as a whole.”
In addition, the Chairs sent letters today to federally contracted loan servicers seeking information about their operations, including any strategies or policies that push students into more expensive repayment options.
How Many Attacks Will It Take Until the White-Supremacist Threat Is Taken Seriously?
FBI Director Christopher Wray said recently that the bureau doesn’t “investigate the ideology, no matter how repugnant. We investigate violence.”
AUG 4, 2019
A yellow-and-black police cordon is seen after a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas.
A police cordon is seen after a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, on August 3, 2019.JOSE LUIS GONZALEZ / REUTERS
Updated at 2:34 p.m. ET on August 4, 2019.
There was, it seems, no time to avert the massacre.
The anti-immigrant, white-nationalist manifesto heralding an imminent attack was uploaded to the online message board 8chan only minutes before a shooter killed at least 20 people out shopping on a late-summer Saturday in El Paso, Texas.
But in another sense, if U.S. authorities confirm that the document was written by the 21-year-old white male suspected of committing the atrocity, then there was plenty of time—numerous years in which violence by far-right, white-supremacist extremists has emerged as arguably the premier domestic-terrorist threat in the United States. The government may be working to prevent these violent acts, but it’s devoted less attention and fewer resources to the toxic ideology that knits them together.
The Anti-Defamation League recently reported that right-wing extremists were linked to more murders in the United States (at least 50) in 2018 than in any other year since 1995, when Timothy McVeigh bombed an Oklahoma City federal building. The organization also found that in the past decade, roughly 73 percent of extremist-related fatalities have been associated with domestic right-wing extremists, relative to about 23 percent attributed to Islamist extremists.
Such extremists have been tied to deadly rampages over the past year at synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway, California, and possibly to a mass shooting just last week at a garlic festival in California. The statement posted shortly before the El Paso shooting cited the live-streamed assault on two mosques in New Zealand earlier this year, along with that perpetrator’s sprawling white-nationalist manifesto, as inspiration. (The motive for a killing spree in Dayton, Ohio, mere hours after the El Paso shooting isn’t yet clear.)
Read: Ideology kills. How do you police it?
President Donald Trump, who has stoked fear of immigrants, inflamed racial divisions, and excused the activities of white nationalists, has cut funding for, and in some cases wholly eliminated, initiatives begun under Barack Obama to counter violent extremism (known as “CVE”), including of the white-supremacist variety. But the Obama administration’s efforts also tend to be exaggerated. Today the U.S. government’s CVE programs “largely continue as they have for the past decade: underfunded, understaffed, and focused on individuals influenced by the Islamic State and other jihadi groups more than right-wing extremists,” the extremism experts Seamus Hughes and Haroro Ingram wrote in March.
“The overwhelming majority of our domestic counterterrorism infrastructure is geared toward the threat of international [jihadist] terrorism,” the former Department of Homeland Security official George Selim told me.
The FBI has noted that most of its domestic-terrorism cases featuring a racial motive involve white supremacists. The bureau doesn’t “investigate the ideology, no matter how repugnant. We investigate violence,” FBI Director Christopher Wray explained in July, adding that the agency operates with broad categories of “racially motivated” violence in mind.
Yet domestic terrorism by white nationalists is too often treated as “isolated, unconnected incidents,” argues the terrorism expert Clint Watts. This violence looks different than the sophisticated international jihadist attacks that Americans have come to associate with “terrorism” over the decades. It is carried out by Americans using guns, and thus bound up in the divisive political debate about gun violence. And it is largely a leaderless movement, in contrast to groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS, which have identifiable leaders. (In this, it has more in common with homegrown jihadist terrorism.) These differences, however, are deceptive. Watts points out that in recent years, discernible patterns have developed in white-nationalist violence—the recurring targeting, for example, of minorities, and especially of black, Jewish, and Muslim places of worship.
Read: How white-supremacist violence echoes other forms of terrorism
Watts wants Congress to make domestic terrorism a federal crime (suspected domestic terrorists now typically face gun, conspiracy, or hate-crime charges) and to pass a law for designating domestic terrorism organizations and domestic terrorists (the State Department does this for international terrorists and terrorist groups). He’s also proposed that the FBI director launch a national domestic-terrorism case for “white-nationalist-inspired terrorism,” which would “help the FBI dedicate more resources and personnel to white-nationalist terrorism, may help them detect violent plots earlier, and increase the amount of information for sharing with state and local partners who may be better informed and positioned for thwarting extremist violence.”
Short of opening such an investigation or reacting to violent acts, Watts notes, it’s nearly impossible for federal investigators to prevent white-nationalist attacks, since would-be perpetrators’ speech is protected by the First Amendment and their access to arms assured by the Second Amendment.
All the government can currently do to combat the threat of white-supremacist domestic terrorism is “arrest, prosecute, and imprison” through investigations into possible violations of federal criminal law, explained Selim, who’s now with the Anti-Defamation League. We don’t yet have the full picture of the El Paso attack, he stressed, but considering what we know so far, the FBI had no basis for initiating an investigation or making an arrest prior to the shooting.
If the allegations and the alleged shooter’s connection to the manifesto are proved true, “then this is just another node of where the federal government, as well as state and local law enforcement, need to continue to expand the scope of their risk and threat detection into social-media channels like the ones allegedly used in this and other incidents of domestic terror,” Selim said.
“There’s an open and ongoing debate about whether the government has an appropriate role fighting ideologies at all, but if it’s going to fight one ideology, such as jihadism, it should take an even-handed approach and also confront white supremacist ideology,” J. M. Berger, an expert on extremist ideologies, told me by email. “The government was doing little programmatic work under the Obama administration in this respect, and it’s doing even less programmatic work now.”
“At this point,” he added, “it would be a win if the administration would just stop throwing red meat to white supremacists, but there seems to be little chance of that.”
Uri Friedman is a staff writer at The Atlantic, covering national security and global affairs.
TheAtlantic.com Copyright (c) 2019 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All Rights Reserved.
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May 27, 20194:17 PM ET
Heard on All Things Considered
A loaded combine harvester during a late corn harvest in Hamilton, Ohio.
Those are two words that are commonly used to stir up patriotic feelings. They are also words that can’t be taken for granted, because today nearly 30 million acres of U.S. farmland are held by foreign investors. That number has doubled in the past two decades, which is raising alarm bells in farming communities.
When the stock market tanked during the past recession, foreign investors began buying up big swaths of U.S. farmland. And because there are no federal restrictions on the amount of land that can be foreign owned, it’s been left up to individual states to decide on any limitations.
It’s likely that even more American land will end up in foreign hands, especially in states with no restrictions on ownership. With the median age of U.S. farmers at 55, many face retirement with no prospect of family members willing to take over. The National Young Farmers Coalition anticipates that two-thirds of the nation’s farmland will change hands in the next few decades.
“Texas is kind of a free-for-all, so they don’t have a limit on how much land can be owned,” say’s Ohio Farm Bureau’s Ty Higgins. “You look at Iowa and they restrict it — no land in Iowa is owned by a foreign entity.”
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Ohio, like Texas, also has no restrictions, and nearly half a million acres of prime farmland are held by foreign-owned entities. In the northwestern corner of the state, below Toledo, companies from the Netherlands alone have purchased 64,000 acres for wind farms.
There are two counties in this region with the highest concentration of foreign-owned farmland — more than 41,000 acres each. One of those is Paulding County, where three wind farms straddle the Ohio-Indiana line.
Once a foreign entity buys up however many acres they want, Americans might never be able to secure that land again. So, once we lose it, we may lose it for good.
Higgins says that this kind of consumption of farmland by foreign entities is starting to cause concern. “One of the main reasons that we’re watching this … is because once a foreign entity buys up however many acres they want, Americans might never be able to secure that land again. So, once we lose it, we may lose it for good.”
His other concern is that every acre of productive farmland that is converted over to something other than agriculture is an acre of land that no longer produces food. That loss is felt from the state level all the way down to rural communities, where one in six Ohioans has ties to agriculture.
Angela Huffman is a sixth-generation farmer in Wyandot County, which, along with Paulding County, has more than 41,000 acres of foreign-owned farmland. Her modest, two-story white farmhouse has been in her family for almost 200 years. Her grandfather was the last person to actively farm the land here. When he got out of farming due to declining markets, none of his five children wanted to take over, and the cropland is now leased.
But Huffman, a young millennial who lives here with her mother, wants to try to keep the farm going and revive her family heritage.
Walking out to the barn, a huge white Great Pyrenees dog watches over a small flock of sheep. Huffman says she’s worried about the effects of foreign land ownership on her rural community — which she describes as similar to Walmart pushing local businesses out of the market.
“Right out my back door here, Chinese-owned Smithfield Foods, the largest pork producer in the world, has recently bought out a couple grain elevators,” Huffman says, pointing across the field behind her house, “basically extracting the wealth out of the community.”
To be fair, U.S. farmers and corporations also invest in overseas agriculture, owning billions of dollars of farmland from Australia to Brazil, but the Smithfield Food buyout has really raised concerns with American farmers. As part of that 2013 sale, a Chinese company now owns 146,000 acres of prime U.S. farmland.
U.S. Prepares Tariffs On Additional $300B Of Imported Chinese Goods
U.S. Prepares Tariffs On Additional $300B Of Imported Chinese Goods
Back in the Huffman farmhouse, Joe Maxwell is typing on a laptop at the kitchen table. Maxwell is a fourth-generation farmer from Missouri. He and Huffman are part of the Organization for Competitive Markets, an advocacy group of farmers and ranchers across the nation.
Maxwell points to the Smithfield Foods elevators across the field: “The money that those elevators used to make stayed within the community. Today the money those elevators make will go into the pocket of someone thousands of thousands of miles away. This is going on across America.”
Maxwell is concerned that, as other states put restrictions on foreign purchases in place, Ohio in particular is being targeted. “So when they’re looking for investments in the U.S. and agriculture,” he says, “Ohio’s a great ag state, and you don’t have any restrictions like other states.”
Nationwide, Canadian investors own the most farmland. In Ohio, it’s Germany, with 71,000 acres.
On the southern central part of the state, John Trimmer manages 30,000 acres of corn and soybeans for German investors. He’s been working with German families that have wanted to get into U.S. agriculture since the 1980s. “They started to buy land in Iowa and Minnesota,” Trimmer explains, “but right when they started, [Iowa and Minnesota] passed state laws which restricted foreign ownership.”
“None of them have an interest in the farm.”
Instead, the Germans turned to Ohio.
But, Trimmer says, there is a misconception about foreign owners — that they aren’t good neighbors or good stewards of the land. What he sees is a growing divide between older family members who still live on the farm, and their children who have no interest in the family business and want to cash out the land.
“The last two farms we bought here, through an owner, her and her brothers and sisters inherited it from their mother, and none of them wanted to farm. None of them have an interest in the farm.” Trimmer explains that his German clients have established a reputation in the community for letting the tenants — often aging parents or grown children — continue to live in the houses on the farms they buy.
Sellers work directly with his German clients — instead of putting the property up on the market, the sale ensures that family members can live out their lives in the family homestead, while still getting cash value for the farmland.