Release of Mueller Report Raises New Questions About Trump Obstruction

After 22 months of investigation, the public and Congress Thursday got to see the report of special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. The report found no evidence of a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, but Mueller and his team could not make a judgment on whether the president had sought to obstruct justice. Opposition Democrats are pushing for further investigation in Congress. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.

Three Climbers Presumed Dead in Banff Avalanche

Three renowned mountain climbers are presumed dead after an avalanche in Alberta’s Banff National Park, Canadian officials said Thursday.

Outdoor apparel company The North Face said that American Jess Roskelley and Austrians David Lama and Hansjorg Auer disappeared while attempting to climb the east face of Howse Peak on the Icefields Parkway. They were reported overdue Wednesday.

“They are missing, and local search and rescue has assumed the worst,” North Face said in a statement.

Roskelley climbed Mount Everest in 2003 at age 20. At the time he was the youngest American to climb the world’s highest peak.

The North Face says it is doing what it can to support the climbers’ families and friends.

Parks Canada said the three men were attempting to climb the east face of Howse Peak on the Icefields Parkway Wednesday.

Officials say recovery efforts are on hold because of a continued risk of avalanches.

Parks Canada says safety specialists immediately responded by air and observed signs of multiple avalanches and debris containing climbing equipment.

“Parks Canada extends its sincerest condolences to the families, friends and loved ones of the mountaineers,” Parks Canada said in a statement.

Roskelley’s father, John Roskelley, was himself a world-renowned climber who had many notable ascents in Nepal and Pakistan, mostly in the 1970s. John Roskelley joined his son on the successful Everest expedition in 2003.

Jess Roskelley grew up in Spokane, Washington, where his father was a county commissioner. John Roskelley told The Spokesman-Review the route his son and the other climbers were attempting was first done in 2000.

“It’s just one of those routes where you have to have the right conditions or it turns into a nightmare. This is one of those trips where it turned into a nightmare,” John Roskelley said.

John Roskelley had climbed the 10,810-foot Howse Peak, via a different route, in the 1970s and knows the area well. On Thursday he was preparing to go to Canada to gather Jess Roskelley’s belongings and see if he could get into the area.

“It’s in an area above a basin,” he said. “There must have been a lot of snow that came down and got them off the face.”

The elder Roskelley said: “When you’re climbing mountains, danger is not too far away. … It’s terrible for my wife and I. But it’s even worse for his wife.”

7 Black S. Carolina Lawmakers Endorse Sanders

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders Thursday announced endorsements from seven black lawmakers in the critical early voting state of South Carolina, a show of force in the first place where African American voters feature prominently in next year’s primary elections.

Sanders’ 2020 campaign made the announcement just ahead of a Spartanburg town hall meeting with members of the state’s Legislative Black Caucus. The backing represents the biggest number of black lawmakers to back a 2020 hopeful to date in this state, which holds the first primary in the South.

The support is part of Sanders’ attempt to turn things around in South Carolina, where his 47-point loss to Hillary Clinton in 2016 blunted the momentum generated in opening primary contests and exposed his weakness with black voters. Sensing the coming defeat, Sanders left South Carolina in the days leading up to the state’s 2016 vote, campaigning instead in Midwestern states where he hoped to perform better.

​Different approach

Sanders, a senator from Vermont, has taken a different approach this time, working to deepen ties with the black voters who comprise most of the Democratic primary electorate in the state and pledging to visit South Carolina much more frequently. Our Revolution, the organizing offshoot of Sanders’ 2016 campaign, has an active branch in the state, holding regular meetings and conferences throughout the state. Sanders addressed the group last year.

The campaign recently hired a state director and, according to adviser Jeff Weaver, is putting together a “much stronger team on the ground, much earlier in the process.”

Last month, Sanders made his first official 2020 campaign stop in this state, holding a rally at a black church in North Charleston. Attracting a mostly white crowd of more than 1,500 that night, Sanders recounted many of the efforts of his previous presidential campaign, noting that some of his ideas had since been adopted by the Democratic Party and supported by other candidates vying for the party’s nomination.

Diverse crowd

On Thursday, the pews of Mount Moriah Baptist Church were filled with a diverse crowd of several hundred as Sanders took to a lectern and addressed his ideas for criminal justice reform, issues that he said disproportionately affect the African American community.

“We understand that we are just denting the surface,” Sanders said, going on to discuss racial discrepancies in arrests for traffic violations and marijuana possession. “I think a new day is coming.”

Applauding Sanders’ attention to the needs of the black community, Spartanburg Councilman Michael Brown reminded the crowd of Sanders’ participation in the civil rights movement in the 1960s and encouraged him to stay the course in terms of his efforts to reach out to the black voters here.

“Thank you, sir. Keep the conversation going,” Brown said. “Remain unapologetic in what you have to say because your message is resonating in our community and throughout this land.”

The South Carolina lawmakers endorsing Sanders are state Reps. Wendell Gilliard, Cezar McKnight, Krystle Simmons, Ivory Thigpen and Shedron Williams. He’s also being backed by state Reps. Terry Alexander and Justin Bamberg, both of whom backed Sanders in 2016 and served as national surrogates for his campaign.

Food Stamps, Online Grocery Shopping Are About to Mix 

Amazon and Walmart on Thursday kicked off a two-year government pilot program allowing low-income shoppers on government food assistance in New York to shop and pay for their groceries online for the first time. 

 

ShopRite will join the two retailers on the program early next week, said the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. 

 

The USDA has long required customers using electronic benefits transfer, or EBT, to pay for their purchases at the actual time and place of sale. So the move marks the first time SNAP customers can pay for their groceries online.

ShopRite and Amazon are providing the service to the New York City area, and Walmart is providing the service online in upstate New York locations. The agency said the pilot will eventually expand to other areas of New York as well as Alabama, Iowa, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington.

Purchase food, but not delivery

The pilot program will test both online ordering and payment. SNAP participants will be able to use their benefits to purchase eligible food items but will not be able to use SNAP to pay for service or delivery charges, the agency said. 

 

“People who receive SNAP benefits should have the opportunity to shop for food the same way more and more Americans shop for food — by ordering and paying for groceries online,” said USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue. “As technology advances, it is important for SNAP to advance, too, so we can ensure the same shopping options are available for both non-SNAP and SNAP recipients.” 

 

Perdue said he will be monitoring how the pilot program increases food access and customer service, specifically for those who have trouble visiting physical stores.  

Roughly 38 million individuals receive food stamps in the U.S., according to the USDA. Nearly $52 billion, or 82% of all food stamp dollars, were spent at big box stores and grocery chains in 2017, according to the most recent USDA data. 

 

The 2014 Farm Bill authorized the USDA to conduct and evaluate a pilot program for online purchasing prior to national implementation. The USDA says the move was intended to ensure online transactions are processed safely and securely. 

 

Seattle-based Amazon said those who qualify don’t need to be Prime members to buy groceries with their benefits. They’ll get free access to its AmazonFresh service, which delivers meat, dairy and fresh produce to shoppers’ doorsteps. And they’ll also be able to use Prime Pantry, which delivers packaged goods like cereal and canned food.

Qualifying amounts

However, they’ll need to spend over a certain amount to qualify for free shipping: $50 at AmazonFresh and $25 at Amazon.com. The online shopping giant launched a website, amazon.com/snap, where people can check if they qualify. Amazon said it’s working with the USDA to expand service to other parts of New York state. 

 

Amazon.com Inc. was on the initial list for the government pilot program, and Bentonville, Ark.-based Walmart Inc. made the list later. The world’s largest retailer, however, in late 2017 had started allowing customers in limited locations to order items through its online grocery pickup service and then pay for it in person at the stores. 

 

“Access to convenience and to quality, fresh groceries shouldn’t be dictated by how you pay,” Walmart said. “This pilot program is a great step forward, and we are eager to expand this to customers in other states where we already have a great online grocery.” 

 

Walmart said that nearly 300 locations with grocery pickup in the states will be part of the USDA government program. 

Russian Ambassador in Caracas Rejects Monroe Doctrine Revival

As Venezuela’s reliance on Russia grows amid the country’s unfolding crisis, Vladimir Putin’s point man in Caracas is pushing back on the U.S. revival of a doctrine used for generations to justify military interventions in the region.

In a rare interview, Russian Ambassador Vladimir Zaemskiy rejected an assertion this week by U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton that the 1823 Monroe Doctrine is “alive and well.”

The policy, originally aimed at opposing any European meddling in the hemisphere, was used to justify U.S. military interventions in countries including Cuba, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Grenada, but had been left for dead by recent U.S. administrations trying to turn the page on a dark past.

“It’s hard to believe that the U.S. administration have invented a time machine that not only allows them to turn back the clock but also the direction of the universe,” the 66-year-old diplomat told The Associated Press this week.

​Comparison to 9/11

In an example of how the Cold Warlike rhetoric on all sides of Venezuela’s crisis has quickly escalated, the ambassador compared hostile comments by Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio to those of the al-Qaida leaders behind the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“Their obsession in imposing their will, in this case on Venezuela’s internal affairs, reminds me of the declarations of the leaders of al-Qaida, who in carrying out the attack on the Twin Towers also tried to position themselves as the only bearers of the truth,” said Zaemskiy, who was senior counselor at Russia’s mission to the United Nations on 9/11. “The history of humanity has shown that none of us are.”

Those specific, written remarks were prepared ahead of the interview.

​Steadfast to Maduro 

While the Trump administration led a chorus of some 50 nations that in January recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s rightful leader, Putin has steadfastly stood by Nicolas Maduro, sending planeloads of military personnel and blocking condemnation of his government at the U.N. Security Council.

In a speech this week commemorating the anniversary of the disastrous CIA-organized invasion of Cuba in 1961 by exiles opposed to Fidel Castro’s revolution, Bolton warned Russia against deploying military assets to “prop up” Maduro, considering such actions a violation of the Monroe Doctrine.

What the U.S. considers Russia’s destabilizing support for Maduro hit a high point in December when two Russian bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons touched down in Caracas. Then, last month, dozens of uniformed personnel arrived to service Sukhoi fighter jets and an S-300 missile system.

Zaemskiy said such military cooperation is perfectly legal and has been taking place for years, ever since the U.S. in 2006 banned all arms sales to the South American country. But he said the alliance has taken on added importance as the Trump administration repeatedly insists that a “military option” to remove Maduro remains on the table.

He was unwilling to say how far Russia would go to thwart an eventual U.S. attack, saying that as a diplomat he’s an optimist.

“I firmly believe that in the end reason will prevail and no tragedy will take place,” he said.

History with Latin America

The soft-spoken, bookish Zaemskiy has specialized in Latin America since his days working for the Soviet Union and was posted to Washington for the first of two U.S. tours when the Cold War ended.

Because of his strong Spanish and English, he was a note-taker at the U.N. in September 2000 when Maduro’s mentor and predecessor Hugo Chavez met Putin for the first time. He said he recalls Chavez complaining to the newly elected Putin about the need to raise oil prices, then near three-decade low. The two petroleum powers gradually cemented a political, military and economic alliance over the next few years as oil prices surged to an all-time high, bringing riches to both.

Western diplomats describe Zaemskiy as an astute and affable interlocutor who even U.S. diplomats and leaders of the opposition are known to consult. He’s also the dean of foreign diplomats in Caracas’ dwindling diplomatic community, having presented his credentials in September 2009, a few weeks before another staunch government ally, Cuban Ambassador Rogelio Polanco.

​‘Very difficult’ economy

He acknowledged that with hyperinflation raging and many goods in short supply, Venezuela is in a “very difficult” situation. Echoing Maduro, he blamed U.S. sanctions, as well as the stifling of private investment.

“It’s perfectly clear to me that the economic situation of the country has deteriorated a great deal,” he said. “The way forward is to open more opportunities for the private sector, which still has a big role to play in the country and should be allowed to demonstrate that” — seemingly a veiled criticism of Maduro’s constant squeeze on private businesses.

To break the current stalemate, he urged something the government’s foes have so far rejected: burying the past and starting negotiations, perhaps with the mediation of the Vatican or U.N.

The U.S. and opposition insist that past attempts at dialogue have only served to give Maduro badly needed political oxygen while producing no progress.

Depth of Russia support

Despite such outward care for Maduro, some have questioned the depth of Russia’s support.

Russia is major investor in Venezuela’s oil industry, but those interests have been jeopardized since the Trump administration in January imposed sanctions on state-run oil giant PDVSA and even went after a Moscow-based bank for facilitating its transactions. At the same time PDVSA last month moved its European headquarters to Moscow from Lisbon, Gazprombank said it was pulling out of a joint venture with the company, Russian state media reported.

US Will Support Transition in Sudan Led by Civilians

The United States supports a democratic and peaceful transition in Sudan led by civilians who represent all Sudanese, the State Department said on Thursday, as protesters in Khartoum kept up demands that the country’s military hand over power to civilians.

State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said Sudan remained labeled by the U.S. as a state sponsor of terrorism, and emphasized that Washington’s policies toward Sudan would be based on “our assessment of events on the ground and the actions of transitional authorities.”

She said the U.S. was “encouraged” by the release of political prisoners and the cancellation by the transitional military council of a curfew.

US Senate Leader Calls for Raising Minimum Age to Buy Tobacco Products to 21

U.S. Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell said on Thursday he plans to introduce legislation to raise the minimum age for buying tobacco products, including vaping devices, to 21 from 18 to curb their “epidemic” use among teens.

McConnell said the bill would be introduced in May.

Shares of Marlboro maker Altria Group Inc, which owns a 35 percent stake in e-cigarette maker Juul, fell 3 percent on the news. Philip Morris International and U.S-listed shares of British American Tobacco were also trading lower.

“For some time, I’ve been hearing from the parents who are seeing an unprecedented spike in vaping among their teenage children…. Unfortunately, it’s reaching epidemic levels around the country,” the Republican senator from Kentucky said in a statement.

McConnell’s proposal comes as states and cities across the United States have moved to raise the legal age for purchasing tobacco in an effort to prevent addiction at young ages. A 2015 study from the National Academy of Medicine found that among adults who became daily smokers, about 90 percent started using cigarettes before they were 19.

The study found that raising the minimum legal age to 21 would prevent 223,000 premature deaths.

So far 12 states have enacted laws to raise the minimum age to 21, including New Jersey and California. Lawmakers in New York state and Maryland have also approved legislation.

In a statement, Altria Group Chief Executive Howard Willard said the company “strongly supports” McConnell’s move, calling it “the most effective action to reverse rising underage e-vapor usage rates.” A representative for British American Tobacco did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

E-cigarette makers are already under pressure from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which laid out plans in March to clamp down on the use of the popular nicotine devices among teens.

Altria made a big bet on e-cigarettes in December with its $12.8 billion purchase of a 35 percent stake in Juul Labs Inc, which makes a sleek line of devices that became popular among teenagers, prompting an FDA crackdown.

Altria Group has been a major contributor to McConnell’s campaigns, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics. McConnell’s campaign received $31,900 from Altria employees or political action committees in the most recent election cycle, making him one of the top four recipients of campaign cash in Congress, according to the data.

 

Authoritarian Leaders Fuel Hatred Toward Journalists Worldwide, Study Finds

A report released Thursday concludes disdain for journalists throughout the world has increased during the past year, due primarily to the behavior of authoritarian leaders.

The 2019 World Press Freedom Index report, conducted by Reporters Without Borders, said “authoritarian regimes continue to tighten their grip on the media,” resulting in a “hatred of journalists” that has “degenerated into violence, contributing to an increase in fear.”

The United States’ ranking in the annual index of press freedom declined for the third time in three years, a result of U.S. President Donald Trump’s regular threats to reporters and his inflammatory remarks about the media, the report said.

The U.S. ranked 48th among the 180 nations and territories that were surveyed, maintaining a descent that started in 2016.  For the first time since the report started in 2002, the United States was included in a category of countries where the treatment of journalists is described as “problematic.”

The report said while a deterioration of the press freedom climate in the U.S. predated Trump’s presidency, the first year of his time in office “has fostered further decline in journalists’ right to report.”  The report cited Trump’s repeated declarations of the news media as an “enemy of the American people,” attempts to deny White House access to “multiple media outlets,” regular use of the term “fake news” in retaliation to critical reporting, and calls to revoke the broadcasting licenses of “certain media outlets.”

It noted that hatred toward reporters prompted a gunman to murder four journalists and another employee last June at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland just east of Washington.  The gunman had mental health issues and was angry with the newspaper for reporting about his pleading guilty to criminal harassment in 2011.   “Amid one of the American journalism community’s darkest moments, President Trump continued to spout his notorious anti-press rhetoric, disparaging and attacking the media at a national level,” the report said.

European countries once again occupied most of the spots at the top of the index.  Norway topped the list for the third consecutive year, followed by Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark.  The United Kingdom ranked 33rd, rising seven spots since last year.  But the report said the U.K. “remained one of the worst-performing countries in Western Europe,” noting its more favorable ranking was due to the sharp deterioration of press freedom in other countries.

The countries at the bottom of the list were dominated by Asian countries.  Turkmenistan ranked 180, topped by North Korea, Eritrea, China and Vietnam in ascending order.

The Americas experienced the most pronounced regional deterioration worldwide, primarily due to the decline of the U.S., Brazil, Mexico, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

The European Union and the Balkans registered the second largest regional deterioration, followed by the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe and Central Asia and the Asia-Pacific.

The findings are based on responses to an 87-question survey that assesses pluralism, media independence and censorship in each country. Government policy was not evaluated. Responses were provided by media representatives, sociologists and attorneys around the world.  Their feedback was integrated into a database of reported abuses and violent acts against journalists.

To access the report in its entirety, visit https://rsf.org/en/ranking_table.

 

 

Evangelical Group Says Laos Has Deported 3 American Missionaries

A U.S.-based Christian evangelical organization says three of its American volunteers who were detained in Laos more than a week ago for proselytizing have been freed and deported.

The operations manager for Vision Beyond Borders, Eric Blievernicht, said in an e-mail that the three crossed into Thailand on Thursday night.

“Our prayers for their release and that they might be home for Easter are being answered,” Blievernicht wrote. He gave no other details.

The missionaries, identified by the Casper, Wyoming-based group only as Wayne, Autumn and Joseph, were detained by Laotian police on April 8 while visiting villages in the northwestern province of Luang Namtha to distribute Gospel tracts and other Christian material.

The website of U.S.-government funded Radio Free Asia, citing an unidentified district policeman, reported Tuesday that the three were detained for handing out religious materials without receiving official permission.

Christians in Laos, especially those carrying out proselytizing work, face pressure from two quarters. The country’s rigid old-style communist government is suspicious of outsiders and seeks to regulate all religions. The mostly Buddhist country’s animist community, usually found in rural areas, also is often hostile.

The U.S. State Department’s 2017 International Religious Freedom Report said about Laos that “Reports continued of authorities, especially in isolated villages, arresting, detaining, and exiling followers of minority religions, particularly Christians.”

Vision Beyond Borders is one of a number of missionary groups that do semi-covert work in countries whose governments are often hostile to Christianity, and are best known for actions like smuggling Bibles into places such as China.

The group says it also helps support poor and orphaned children, provides safe houses for women who have escaped sex trafficking, and has sent refugee relief supplies to the Middle East.

Mueller Report Lays Bare Deep US Partisan Divide

Democratic and Republican lawmakers had sharply differing reactions to Thursday’s release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s redacted Russia report. 

Investigators determined no one on Trump’s campaign knowingly conspired with Russians in Moscow’s 2016 election interference, however they declined to exonerate the president on charges that his actions obstructed justice.

In a statement, Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe described Mueller’s report as “a lot of nothing: no collusion, no obstruction” and accused Democrats of “an effort to smear the president.”

 

Democrats, by contrast, highlighted portions of the Mueller report documenting contacts between Trump’s inner circle and foreign operatives bent on damaging the president’s 2016 Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, by hacking and releasing sensitive emails from her campaign.

They also noted the report’s documentation of instances where Trump sought to thwart the Russia probe.

“The detailed description of wrongdoing in this report, what’s demonstrated in powerful and compelling detail in this report, is nothing less than a national scandal,” Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said. “This report is far from the end of the inquiry that this country needs and deserves.”

“Mueller shows collusion, but perhaps not criminal collusion,” California Democratic Rep. Brad Sherman tweeted. “Collusion in dissemination [of emails], but not in the hacking. And Mueller show lots of criminal obstruction.”

Democratic Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania tweeted that a thorough examination of the Mueller report “will not change what we already know: Russia attacked our election in 2016, [and] President Trump and his closest aides and allies welcomed that attack.”

Republicans, meanwhile, focused on the special counsel’s bottom line: no recommendation of charges against Trump.

“Nothing we saw today changes the underlying results of the 22-month-long Mueller investigation that ultimately found no collusion,” House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy said in a statement. “Democrats want to keep searching for imaginary evidence that supports their claims, but it is simply not there.”

That view was echoed by the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.

“The special counsel’s 22-month investigation found no Americans conspired with Russia to interfere in our elections and Democrats’ accusations of criminal obstruction are unfounded.,” Georgia Rep. Doug Collins said in a statement.

Some lawmakers urged the American people to weigh in, as well.

“I’m reading it [the Mueller report]. More importantly, the American people should read the report for themselves and draw their own conclusions,” Maryland Democratic Senator Ben Cardin tweeted.

Cardin noted that the report contains alarming information about Russian efforts to undermine American democracy.

“We have an obligation to protect our country from Russia and others who would want to do us harm, including trying to twist our system for their own purposes,” he said.

Inhofe echoed the concern.

“[T]he Mueller report did remind us of Russia’s clear and persistent efforts to disrupt our democratic process,” the Republican senator said, accusing Moscow of a continuing “effort to sow discord and distrust” within the American electorate.