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Trump feels no pressure to be President while Americans suffer at Christmas

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For Christmas this year, Washington is giving the country more pain.

Perhaps it is fitting that in the worst year in memory, the surprise prospect of a government shutdown and delayed economic relief hangs over holiday celebrations already made less merry by the pandemic.
Maybe nothing better could be expected in a year that saw denial and delusion, led by President Donald Trump, presage a wave of illness and death coupled with evictions, bankruptcies, hunger and ruined livelihoods.
But after enduring so much, Americans can hardly be blamed for feeling outrage at yet another indignity at the hand of their leaders.
The joint Covid relief package and government funding bill that Trump has lambasted arrived at Mar-a-Lago Friday after being flown down a day earlier. Yet Trump, who arrived at his namesake golf course just before 10 a.m. local time, has offered no clues as to whether he’ll sign it.
As Trump plays rounds of golf in Florida and pardons corrupt loyalists, and as congressional leaders line up for the first doses of a coronavirus vaccine, there is scant evidence the pressing needs of the country will be addressed in anything resembling a timely fashion.
House Republicans on Thursday rejected an attempt by Democrats to pass a bill that included $2,000 direct payments to Americans — precisely the figure Trump demanded in a random video he tweeted this week rejecting a bill with $600 payments that had passed overwhelmingly with the support of his administration.
In the Republican-controlled Senate, there does not appear to be enough support for a bill with $2,000 checks. Trump is engaged in open hostility with the chamber’s GOP leaders because they have acknowledged the reality that he lost the election, a dispute he acknowledged on Twitter after returning to Mar-a-Lago from his golf course on Christmas Eve Day.
“At a meeting in Florida today, everyone was asking why aren’t the Republicans up in arms & fighting over the fact that the Democrats stole the rigged presidential election?” he asked, using the term “meeting” somewhat freely. “Especially in the Senate, they said, where you helped 8 Senators win their races. How quickly they forget!”
The bill Trump demanded Congress change was flown to him in Florida on Thursday afternoon but he offered no more clarity on what he would do with it. Government funding will lapse on Monday unless Trump signs the package or Congress passes another stopgap measure; they have already passed four such fixes this month alone.
That no one seems to know what Trump wants — if he even knows himself — has only fueled in the impression the country is careering further into chaos at exactly the moment it is least welcome.
“I have no idea what he plans to do,” Sen. Roy Blunt, a Republican who is usually aligned with the President, said on Thursday.
In the past, when the government was about to shut down around Christmas, presidents and lawmakers stayed behind in Washington to figure it out. Even Trump skipped his Florida vacation two years ago as agencies shuttered.
So, too, have the country’s leaders typically attempted some form of in-the-trenches solidarity with their constituents when the going gets tough — like, for example, when health experts advise against holiday travel and gatherings with family.
But conventional practices have mostly disappeared in the four years Trump has been president. And no one really thinks twice anymore when Trump — despite claims by the White House that his schedule is packed with phone calls and meetings — pays another visit to one of his golf clubs while millions of Americans go hungry at Christmas.
Having already forced suffering Americans to wait months for more economic relief from the ravages of the coronavirus, it does not appear elected officials will figure out how to move forward anytime soon.
“We were assured that the President would sign the bill,” Blunt told reporters Thursday, casually suggesting the President may not understand what is in it — something of an understatement given the President’s conflation of the Covid stimulus and government funding packages, and his fury over spending figures he proposed himself in his budget this year.

Going hungry

As Republicans work on sorting out what Trump wants, more than 12 million laid-off Americans could lose their unemployment benefits after this weekend, back rent will be due January 1 for millions of tenants and states could lose any unspent funds from the $150 billion that Congress provided earlier this year to state and local governments to help them cover coronavirus-related expenses.
It has left millions of Americans facing deep uncertainty at the end of a difficult year.
“I think that people are scared,” said Karen Pozna, the communications director at the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, on CNN. “You know, they’re scared, there’s been so many people who have lost their jobs or had to take pay cuts. The need was great before the pandemic. It’s continuing now. And I see it continuing well into the new year.”
Trump has made virtually no mention of the pandemic’s toll for weeks; in a video he taped alongside the first lady for Christmas, he left the empathy to his wife while he declared the rollout of recently authorized vaccines “a Christmas miracle,” though the vast majority of Americans won’t have access to shots for months.
Lawmakers say they are feeling heat from their constituents to get something done, pressure Trump doesn’t appear to share.
“I did a town hall last night that had people crying, people terrified of what is going to happen,” Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Michigan, said on Thursday after Democrats’ measure failed.
“The President — when we finally thought that we’d be able to give people hope — that’s what people need, hope — and be able to begin to continue to work on this in January, he doesn’t give a damn about people,” she said. “He threw more fear — he threw kerosene on a terror fire.”
It wasn’t only Democrats who were frustrated.
“If he thinks going on Twitter and trashing the bill his team negotiated and we supported on his behalf is going to bring more people to his side in this election fiasco, I hope he’s wrong, though I guess we’ll see,” Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, R-Ohio, tweeted on Wednesday.

Watching everything burn

In the end, Trump himself may not know what his end goals are beyond throwing more gasoline into a system he appears intent on watching burn as he leaves office. Trump remains furious that Republicans — including those who helped negotiate the legislation he rejected — aren’t supporting him in his bid to overturn the election.
In Florida, Trump is often surrounded by more willing hangers-on who, in the past, have encouraged his destructive impulses. His personal attorney Rudy Giuliani flew with him to Florida aboard Air Force One on Wednesday.
CNN reported on Thursday that Trump’s latest fixation is the January 6 certification of the Electoral College count for Joe Biden, an occasion he hopes will provide an opening for his supporters to challenge the results.
As he was flying to Florida for his vacation, Trump retweeted a call from one of his supporters for Vice President Mike Pence to refuse to ratify the Electoral College results.
Trump has told people recently that Pence isn’t doing enough to fight for him as his presidency ends, and has recently taken an interest in Pence’s traditional role during the certification. As president of the Senate, Pence presides over the proceedings.
Sources say Trump in recent days has brought the matter up to the vice president and has been “confused” as to why Pence can’t overturn the results of the election on January 6. Pence and White House aides have tried to explain to him that his role his more of a formality and he cannot unilaterally reject the electoral college votes.
It’s far from clear the President has internalized the message.

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Jussie Smollett’s Lawyer Says Actor Is ‘A Real Victim’ Of Attack

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huffpost— Jussie Smollett “is a real victim” of a “real crime,” his attorney said in opening statements at the ex-“Empire” actor’s trial Monday, rejecting prosecutors’ allegation that he staged a homophobic and racist attack in Chicago after the television studio where he worked didn’t take hate mail he had received seriously.

Defense attorney Nenye Uche said two brothers attacked Smollett in January 2019 because they didn’t like him, and that a $3,500 check the actor paid the men was for training so he could prepare for an upcoming music video, not as payment for staging a hate crime, as prosecutors allege. Uche also suggested a third attacker was involved and told jurors there is not a “shred “ of physical and forensic evidence linking Smollett to the crime prosecutors allege.

“Jussie Smollett is a real victim,” Uche said.

Special prosecutor Dan Webb said the actor recruited the brothers to help him carry out a fake attack, then reported it to Chicago police, who classified it as a hate crime and spent 3,000 staff hours on the investigation. Smollett said he was attacked by supporters of then-President Donald Trump, a report that ignited political and ideological divisions around the country.

“When he reported the fake hate crime that was a real crime,” said Webb, who was named as special prosecutor after Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office dropped the original charges filed against Smollett. A new indictment was returned in 2020.

Smollett, who arrived at the courthouse in Chicago Monday with his mother and other family members, is charged with felony disorderly conduct. The class 4 felony carries a prison sentence of up to three years, but experts have said it is likely that if Smollett is convicted he would be placed on probation and perhaps ordered to perform community service.

Webb told jurors Smollett was unhappy about how the studio handled the letter he received. That letter included a drawing of a stick figure hanging from a tree and “MAGA,” a reference to Trump’s Make America Great Again campaign slogan, Webb said.

He said Smollett then concocted the fake attack and had a “dress rehearsal” with the two brothers — who worked on the “Empire” set with Smollett — including telling them to shout racial and homophobic slurs and “MAGA.” Smollett also told the brothers to buy ski masks, red hats and a rope, Webb told jurors.

“He told them to use a rope to make it look like a hate crime,” Webb said.

But Uche said Smollett had turned down extra security when the studio offered it. He also portrayed the brothers, Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, as unreliable, saying their story has changed while Smollett’s has not, and that when police searched their home they found heroin and guns.

Twelve jurors plus three alternates were sworn in late Monday for a trial that Judge James Linn said he expects to take about one week. Cameras are not allowed inside the courtroom and the proceedings are not being livestreamed, unlike in other recent high-profile trials.

Whether Smollett, who is Black and gay, will testify remains an open question. But the siblings will take the witness stand.

Jurors also may see surveillance video from more than four dozen cameras that police reviewed to trace the brothers’ movements before and after the reported attack, as well as a video showing the brothers purchasing supplies hours earlier.

Buried in nearly 500 pages of Chicago Police Department reports is a statement from an area resident who says she saw a white man with “reddish brown hair” who appeared to be waiting for someone that night. She told a detective that when the man turned away from her, she “could see hanging out from underneath his jacket what appeared to be a rope.”

Her comments could back up Smollett’s contention that his attackers draped a makeshift noose around his neck. Further, if she testified that the man was white, it would support Smollett’s statements — widely ridiculed because the brothers, who come from Nigeria, are Black — that he saw pale or white skin around the eyes of one of his masked attackers.

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The White House is tapping oil reserves to try to bring down high gas prices

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npr– The United States plans to draw 50 million barrels of oil from its emergency oil reserves in coming months, a widely anticipated step aimed at trying to take the edge off high gas prices that have been hurting consumers at the pump — and hurting President Biden in the polls.

Inflation has emerged as a top political concern with voters, who have seen prices for gasoline and other staples surge in recent months. U.S. gas prices are at their highest level since 2014.

Biden has been talking with other leaders about the problem, and other major consumers — China, India, Japan, South Korea and the United Kingdom — will take similar steps to release oil from their stockpiles, the White House said on Tuesday.

In a Tuesday news conference announcing the decision, Biden said, “We’re taking action.”

“The big part of the reason Americans are facing high gas prices is because oil-producing countries and large companies have not ramped up the supply of oil quickly enough to meet the demand. And the smaller supply means higher prices globally — globally — for oil,” he said.

Biden warned that actions by the U.S. and other nations wouldn’t fix problems at the pump “overnight,” but said Americans could soon expect relief.

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Myanmar election body charges Suu Kyi with electoral fraud

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independent– Myanmar’s state election commission announced it is prosecuting the country’s ousted leader, Aung San Suu Kyi and 15 other senior political figures for alleged fraud in last November’s general election.

The announcement was published Tuesday in the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper and other official media.

Allegations of widespread electoral fraud were the main reason cited by the military for its Feb. 1 seizure of power that toppled Suu Kyi’s government. Her National League for Democracy party was about to begin a second five-year term in office after its landslide victory in the polls. The army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party suffered unexpectedly heavy losses.

Independent observers, such as the Asian Network for Free Elections, found no evidence of substantive irregularities in the polls, though they criticized some aspects.

The action by the Union Election Commission could potentially result in Suu Kyi’s party being dissolved and unable to participate in a new election the military has promised will take place within two years of its takeover. However, the commission’s notice, dated Monday, did not specify which laws would be used to prosecute the accused.

In May, the military-appointed new head of the election commission said his agency would consider dissolving Suu Kyi’s former governing party for alleged involvement in electoral fraud and have its leaders charged with treason. Commission Chairman Thein Soe said an investigation had determined that the party had worked illegally with the government to give itself an advantage at the polls.

After taking power, the military dismissed the members of the election commission that had certified the results of last year’s poll and appointed new ones. It also detained members of the old commission, and, according to reports in independent Myanmar media, pressured them to state there had been election fraud.

The new commission declared last year’s election’s results invalid.

The new notice from the commission said Suu Kyi, former President Win Myint, other leading figures in her party and the commission’s former chairman were “involved in electoral processes, election fraud and lawless actions” related to the polls.

It accused 16 people of carrying out illegal actions, including compelling local election officials to obstruct military polling booths, threatening such officials in connection with advance voting for voters over 60 years old, forcing local officials to approve voting lists that included ineligible voters and interfering in campaigning to favor Suu Kyi’s party.

Suu Kyi is already on trial or charged in about a dozen criminal cases in which a conviction would almost certainly bar her from running for office again. Several of her top political allies also have been tried or are facing charges. Suu Kyi’s supporters as well as independent rights organizations contend that the cases are spurious and meant to discredit Suu Kyi and her party while legitimizing military rule.

Dissolving Suu Kyi’s party would follow a regional trend of dissolving popular political parties seen as a threat to governments in power.

Cambodia’s high court in 2017 dissolved the Cambodia National Rescue Party the sole credible opposition force, ahead of a 2018 general election.

Thailand’s Constitutional Court in 2020 dissolved the newly formed Future Forward Party, which had won the third highest number of seats in the lower house in the 2019 general election.

In both the Cambodian and Thai cases, the courts cited specific violations of the law for their rulings, but their actions were widely seen as reflecting political pressures.

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