After a two-week holiday recess, U.S. lawmakers get back to work this week with a long to-do list and deadlines looming at the start of 2018. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports from Washington.
After a two-week holiday recess, U.S. lawmakers get back to work this week with a long to-do list and deadlines looming at the start of 2018. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports from Washington.
U.S. vice presidents historically have had widely varying influence in the White House, depending on their relationship with the president. As Donald Trump’s administration prepares for its second year, VOA’s Mike O’Sullivan reports on how Vice President Mike Pence’s role continues to broaden.
U.S. vice presidents historically have held widely varying influence in the White House, depending on their relationship with the president. As Donald Trump’s administration prepares for its second year, Vice President Mike Pence’s role appears likely to broaden.
On overseas trips to Latin America and the Asia-Pacific region, and a recent holiday visit to U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Pence has embraced the role of presidential envoy.
WATCH: Mike O’Sullivan’s Video Report
His work on international and domestic policy is more than merely symbolic, says Joel Goldstein of Saint Louis University School of Law, who has written two books on the changing vice presidency.
“Vice President Pence seems to be included and involved in decision making in the White House,” Goldstein notes. “And the vice president,” he adds, “has been laudatory, at time adulatory towards the president in his public comments.”
Some of Pence’s critics say he has taken on that role excessively, notes Sherry Bebitch Jeffe of the Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California.
She calls Pence “the president’s biggest cheerleader,” but argues that Pence serves as more than a publicist.
“He also has influence within the West Wing of the White House,” she says.
That was not the case with vice presidents through much of U.S. history.
John Nance Garner, vice president under Franklin Roosevelt, famously said the job “is not worth a bucket of warm spit.” Nelson Rockefeller, Gerald Ford’s VP, called the job “standby equipment,” notes Jeffe, yet some recent vice presidents have become important players in their administrations.
Joe Biden and Al Gore, and even Dan Quayle were not afraid to confront their bosses when they disagreed with them and were rewarded with expanded duties, Goldstein says.
But Pence has taken on a unique role under a president who often makes controversial statements — when Trump questioned, for example, “the commitment to the joint defense provisions of NATO,” Goldstein says, or said he had not ruled out military action in restoring democracy to Venezuela to stop what the administration calls the nation’s slide to dictatorship.
The vice president has “cleaned up those statements,” Goldstein explains, reaffirming the U.S. commitment to the North Atlantic alliance and its commitment to diplomacy and economic sanctions in dealing with Venezuela.
Pence played a similar role, said Jeffe, after Trump appeared to equate the white nationalists behind violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, with the counter-protesters who rejected their racist message. Pence said the Trump administration condemns white supremacist fringe groups “in the strongest possible terms.”
Support not guaranteed
Pence has at times distanced himself from the president, however.
When Trump supported Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore, who was defeated in December following allegations that he had once made sexual overtures to young teenagers, Pence remained silent on the endorsement but said he found the allegations against Moore disturbing.
Pence is an evangelical Christian and social conservative, and Goldstein says that while it’s impossible to know what is said behind closed doors, Pence may have had a hand in White House moves that have pleased conservatives, such as loosening environmental regulations on American businesses and appointing conservatives to judicial posts.
Pence, unlike Trump, is an experienced politician, having served as a longtime congressman and Indiana’s governor.
“Pence knows the players on Capitol Hill,” Jeffe says, and “Pence is trusted by the Republican players at least on Capitol Hill.” In his role as president of the Senate, which is assigned to the vice president under the U.S. constitution, Pence has cast six tie-breaking votes for passage of bills backed by the administration.
Goldstein adds that “members of the leadership in Congress who have some misgivings about the president see Vice President Pence as somebody who comes from their political world and as somebody they are comfortable dealing with.”
As a presidential envoy, whether comforting victims of a Texas hurricane or representing the United States in Argentina or Australia, Pence is carving out his role.
“And he’s trying to walk a fine line between being supportive of the president,” Goldstein says, “trying to placate his constituency of one, and yet at the same time not entirely embrace some of the controversial tweets and other statements that the president makes from time to time.”
It’s not easy task in an age of populism when policy debates take place through social media and the political rules are changing, analyst Jeffe says.
She says Pence, whose roots are in the old politics, has a political future tied to the success of a president who is breaking all the rules. So far, these analysts say, Pence has been walking the fine line as vice president successfully.
An Australian diplomat’s tip appears to have helped persuade the FBI to investigate Russian meddling in the U.S. election and possible coordination with the Trump campaign, The New York Times reported Saturday.
Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos told the diplomat, Alexander Downer, during a meeting in London in May 2016 that Russia had thousands of emails that would embarrass Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, the report said. Downer, a former foreign minister, is Australia’s top diplomat in Britain.
Australia passed the information on to the FBI after the Democratic emails were leaked, according to the Times, which cited four current and former U.S. and foreign officials with direct knowledge of the Australians’ role.
“The hacking and the revelation that a member of the Trump campaign may have had inside information about it were driving factors that led the FBI to open an investigation in July 2016,” the newspaper said.
White House lawyer Ty Cobb declined to comment, saying in a statement that the administration was continuing to cooperate with the investigation now led by special counsel Robert Mueller “to help complete their inquiry expeditiously.”
Papadopoulos has pleaded guilty of lying to the FBI and is a cooperating witness. Court documents unsealed two months ago show he met in April 2016 with Joseph Mifsud, a professor in London who told him about Russia’s cache of emails. This was before the Democratic National Committee became aware of the scope of the intrusion into its email systems by hackers later linked to the Russian government.
The Times said Papadopoulos shared this information with Downer, but it was unclear whether he also shared it with anyone in the Trump campaign.
North America couldn’t catch a break in 2017. Parts of the United States were on fire, underwater or lashed by hurricane winds. Mexico shook with back-to-back earthquakes. The Caribbean got hit with a string of hurricanes.
The rest of the world, however, fared better. Preliminary research shows there were fewer disasters and deaths this year than on average, but economic damages were much higher.
While overall disasters were down, they smacked big cities, which were more vulnerable because of increased development, said economist and geophysicist Chuck Watson of the consulting firm Enki Research.
In a year where U.S. and Caribbean hurricanes caused a record $215 billion worth of damage, according to insurance giant Munich Re, no one in the continental U.S. died from storm surge, which traditionally is the No. 1 killer during hurricanes. Forecasters gave residents plenty of advance warning during a season where storms set records for strength and duration.
“It’s certainly one of the worst hurricane seasons we’ve had,” National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini said.
The globe typically averages about 325 disasters a year, but this year’s total through November was fewer than 250, according to the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters at the University of Louvain in Belgium. They included flooding and monsoons in South Asia, landslides in Africa, a hurricane in Ireland, and cyclones in Australia and Central America. Colombia experienced two different bouts of floods and mudslides.
Disasters kill about 30,000 people and affect about 215 million people a year. This year’s estimated toll was lower — about 6,000 people killed and 75 million affected.
Was it a statistical quirk or the result of better preparedness? Experts aren’t certain, but say perhaps it’s a little bit of each.
“This has been a particularly quiet year,” said Debarati Guha-Sapir, who heads the disaster research center. “The thing is not to be … complacent about this.”
But quiet depends on where you live.
The U.S. had gone more than a decade without a Category 3 storm or larger making landfall on the mainland. The last few Septembers — normally peak hurricane month — had been particularly quiet, but this year, Harvey, Irma, Jose and later Maria popped up and grew to super strength in no time, said Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach.
“September was just bonkers. It was just one after the other. You couldn’t catch a break,” he said.
There were six major Atlantic hurricanes this year; the average is 2.7. A pair of recent studies found fingerprints of man-made global warming were all over the torrential rains from Harvey that flooded Houston.
Researchers at the University of South Carolina estimated that economic damage from this year’s disasters, adjusted for inflation, were more than 40 percent higher than normal, mostly because of Harvey, Irma and Maria. By many private measures, Harvey overtook Katrina as the costliest U.S. hurricane, but the weather service hasn’t finished its calculations yet.
Much of the hurricane-related damage and deaths in the Caribbean — from storm surge and other causes — is still unknown. The National Hurricane Center hasn’t finished tallying its data.
Uccellini of the weather service said warmer than normal waters and unusual steering currents made the hurricanes especially damaging, combined with booming development in disaster-prone areas.
“We are building in the wrong places. We are building in areas that are increasing in risks,” said Susan Cutter, director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina.
Wildfires blazed nearly year-round in the U.S., fanned by relentless winds and parched conditions. About 9.8 million acres of land have burned, mostly in the West, nearly 50 percent more than the average in the past decade. A wildfire that ignited in early December in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties northwest of Los Angeles grew to be the largest in California history.
Scientists connect drier weather after heavy rains — leading to buildup of fuel that can catch fire and burn easily — to a combination of man-made warming and a natural La Nina, the climate phenomenon that’s the flip side of El Nino, said Georgia Tech climate scientist Kim Cobb.
Worldwide, drought affected significantly less land and fewer people this year, and heat waves were less severe compared with those in the past.
Landslides were more frequent and deadlier this year, mostly because of the Sierra Leone landslide that killed 915 people, Guha-Sapir said.
Earthquakes worldwide were dramatically down. As of mid-December, there had been only seven earthquakes of magnitude 7 or larger compared with about 15 in a normal year. Two powerful quakes struck Mexico in September, including one that hit on the anniversary of the devastating 1985 Mexico City quake.
The back-to-back Mexico quakes were unrelated, said geophysicist Ross Stein of Temblor Inc., a company that provides information about seismic risk.
“We have to remember that coincidences really do happen,” he said.
Every attorney general leaves his imprint on the U.S. Justice Department. Jeff Sessions is no exception.
Since being sworn in as the nation’s 84th attorney general in February, the former Republican senator and federal prosecutor has moved to radically overhaul the Justice Department and its approach to law enforcement.
From scrapping civil rights protections for transgender people to ending leniency in sentencing criminal defendants, Sessions has rolled back a host of policies his two immediate predecessors — Loretta Lynch and Eric Holder, both chosen by former President Barack Obama — enacted to promote civil rights and social justice.
The policy reversals have not been without their critics.
While Sessions and his supporters say the attorney general is restoring the rule of law and ending Obama-era policies that amounted to executive overreach, critics say he’s returning to criminal justice policies that led to mass incarceration and undermined civil rights.
Sessions’ singular success in remolding the Justice Department is widely acknowledged. The irony is that it has come in the face of sometimes blistering personal criticism of the attorney general by his boss, President Donald Trump.
An early and ardent supporter of Trump’s 2016 presidential bid, Sessions was rewarded with one of the most coveted positions in the administration.
But his relationship with Trump soured after Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation in March, following revelations that Sessions had not disclosed meetings with Russia’s former ambassador to Washington during the presidential campaign.
Trump is said to have become so frustrated with his attorney general over the summer that he said he would not have picked Sessions for the job, had he known Sessions would have recused himself from the Russia probe.
But the attorney general largely shrugged off the criticism, saying at a news conference in July that he was “confident that we can continue to run this office in an effective way,” and later traveling around the country to sell Trump’s tough on crime and immigration policies.
Here is a look at seven major Obama-era policies Sessions has rolled back, or attempted to, since taking office:
Keeping private prisons
In his first act as attorney general in February, Sessions scrapped an Obama administration plan to phase out the use of private prisons for federal inmates. The 2016 direction to the Bureau of Prisons was sent after a harshly critical report about private prisons by the Justice Department’s inspector general. But Sessions said the Obama policy “impaired the bureau’s ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system.”
Dropping transgender protections
Also in February, Sessions directed the Justice Department to withdraw a guidance issued in 2016, requiring public schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms corresponding to their gender identity.
In October, Sessions rescinded another policy memo issued by the Obama administration that said the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s employment discrimination prohibitions applied to transgender people. Rights group Human Rights Campaign called the move “discriminatory” against the transgender community and a “dangerous change of course.”
Targeting sanctuary cities
With the Trump administration vowing to crack down on illegal immigration, it has fallen to Sessions to enforce one of the administration’s most controversial policies: cutting off federal funding to so-called sanctuary jurisdictions, cities and counties that limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities.
In April, Sessions sent letters to nine sanctuary jurisdictions requiring proof of compliance. In July, he announced that sanctuary cities would not be eligible for millions of dollars in funds for policing.
Chicago and Philadelphia later sued Sessions and the Justice Department over the sanctuary plan. In November, a federal judge permanently blocked Trump’s executive order on sanctuary cities.
Reviewing consent decrees
In April, Sessions ordered a review of Obama-era reform agreements between the Justice Department and police agencies, saying, “It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.”
Known as “consent decrees,” a dozen such court-enforced agreements were struck between the Obama Justice Department and local police departments. Sessions has said the agreements have demoralized police departments, but civil rights advocates say they have helped produce necessary reforms.
Charging and sentencing policy
In a departure from the Obama administration’s policy of leniency in sentencing low-level, nonviolent offenders, Sessions directed federal prosecutors in May to “pursue the most serious, readily provable offense” with the lengthiest sentences in all criminal cases.
The guideline rescinded a 2013 memo by then-Attorney General Eric Holder directing prosecutors to avoid triggering mandatory-minimum sentences for certain nonviolent, low-level drug offenders.
Sessions said the new charging policy “affirms our responsibility to enforce the law, is moral and just, and produces consistency.” But critics, such as former Obama-appointed U.S. Attorney Joyce Vance, have slammed it as a failed “one-size-fits-all” policy that has swelled America’s prison population.
In October, the Department of Justice announced it had reopened an investigation into Harvard University’s use of race in its admissions policy, raising fears the administration will target affirmative action policies widely practiced by American universities and colleges.
The Justice Department probe was triggered by a 2015 complaint against Harvard filed by a coalition of 64 Asian-American groups. The Justice Department said the investigation is limited to the complaint against Harvard, but civil rights activists fear the probe is part of a broader effort to undermine affirmative action policies that date back decades and that supporters say have leveled the playing field for otherwise disadvantaged students.
Return to debtors’ prison?
On Dec. 21, Sessions rescinded a 2016 Justice Department letter advising local courts against hitting indigent defendants with stiff fines and fees.
The 2016 letter said the changes were “needed to guarantee equal justice under law to everyone, regardless of their financial circumstances.”
Sessions said he was rescinding the letter and 25 other so-called “guidance documents” because they were “unnecessary, inconsistent with existing law or otherwise improper.” The move provoked a firestorm, leading critics to decry it as a “criminalization of poverty” and a “return to debtors’ prisons.”