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Supreme Court Keeps Lower Profile, but for How Long? 

The Supreme Court began its term with the tumultuous confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, followed by a studied avoidance of drama on the high court bench — especially anything that would divide the five conservatives and four liberals. 

The justices have been unusually solicitous of each other in the courtroom since Kavanaugh’s confirmation, and several have voiced concern that the public perceives the court as merely a political institution. Chief Justice John Roberts seems determined to lead the one Washington institution that stays above the political fray. Even Roberts’ rebuke of President Donald Trump, after the president criticized a federal judge, was in defense of an independent, apolitical judiciary.

The next few weeks will test whether the calm can last. 

When they gather in private Jan. 4 to consider new cases for arguments in April and into next term, the justices will confront a raft of high-profile appeals.

Abortion restrictions, workplace discrimination against LGBT people and partisan gerrymandering are on the agenda. Close behind are appeals from the Trump administration seeking to have the court allow it to end an Obama-era program that shields young immigrants from deportation and to put in place restrictive rules for transgender troops.

Conservatives ready

There already are signs that the conservative justices, apart from Roberts, are willing to take on controversial cases that are likely to produce the ideological and partisan divisions that their colleagues seem eager to avoid.  

In recent weeks, three conservative justices accused the court of ducking its job of deciding important cases, especially when lower courts have disagreed on the outcome. Their criticism, written by Justice Clarence Thomas and joined by Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, came after a recent decision to avoid a case involving funding for Planned Parenthood.

Then, on the Friday before Christmas, the court divided 5-4 in refusing to allow the Trump administration to enforce new restrictions on asylum seekers. Roberts joined the four liberals. The three conservatives who were displeased by the Planned Parenthood case outcome again noted their disagreement, this time joined by Kavanaugh.

The two votes can’t be used to draw any firm conclusions about what may be happening behind closed doors at the court, as the cases arrived in different circumstances. In the Planned Parenthood case, the justices were considering whether to grant full review, a process that takes only four votes. The asylum case was an emergency appeal from the administration. At least five of the nine justices would have had to vote in the administration’s favor.

Reasons for caution

But Lawrence Solum, a professor of constitutional law at Georgetown University’s law school, said Roberts seems to have two reasons to limit the court’s involvement in hot-button cases: his preference for taking small steps in the law and his concern for the court’s reputation.

“It’s clear that 5-4 decisions will be perceived by many, many lawyers, many politicians and large numbers of the public at large as ideological decisions,” Solum said. “So given Roberts’ desire to preserve the legitimacy of the court, he could be highly motivated to avoid decisions like that in the next immediate period in the history of the court. Whether that’s one year, or two years or five years, who knows?”

The court arrived at this point after an unusual chain of events that began with the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016. Senate Republicans refused to act on President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland, allowing Trump to put Gorsuch on the court in 2017. To this day, Democrats say the seat was stolen from them.

Then, over the summer, Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement meant that Trump would also get to replace the court’s swing vote with a more reliable conservative. Kavanaugh’s track record as an appellate judge suggested he was that man, but his confirmation was nearly derailed by allegations of sexual assault, which Kavanaugh denied.

The accusations against Kavanaugh turned the confirmation process into a national spectacle that culminated in a hearing with Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who accused him of assaulting her when they were in high school. Republicans said the allegation was unproven and confirmed Kavanaugh in a rare Saturday session. Spotlighting how emotional the debate had become, a crowd of demonstrators gathered at the Supreme Court building after the Kavanaugh vote, with some climbing the stone statues that line the steps.

Legitimacy of court

One result of the Kavanaugh turmoil has been the most serious discussion in decades of limiting the court’s powers, including possibly increasing the number of justices, Solum said. “It suggests that the legitimacy of the court is at issue now in perhaps a way it hasn’t been until recently.”

Roberts is not only the chief justice, but he has essentially taken Kennedy’s place as the swing vote — the conservative justice nearest the court’s center. The Supreme Court will go only as far as Roberts is willing in either direction.

He can try to keep the court entirely out of some cases, though that requires him to be able to persuade at least one other conservative justice to go along. That’s what happened in the Planned Parenthood case, when Kavanaugh voted to deny review. “The difficult confirmation battle may lead to a bit of caution,” said John McGinnis, a Northwestern University law school professor.

When the justices do plunge into controversy, Roberts will be able “to write or insist that decisions be narrowly drawn,” McGinnis said.

Roberts has been chief justice for more than 13 years, but he is only 63 and could lead the court for an additional two decades or more. That allows Roberts, who began his legal career as a lawyer in the Reagan administration, to take a long view, McGinnis said, and await a time when political tensions and concerns about the court’s reputation subside.

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Trump Puts His Stamp on ‘America First’ Foreign Policy in 2018

President Donald Trump fleshed out his “America First” political doctrine in 2018 with policies aimed at shaking up institutions of the post-World War II world order. VOA’s diplomatic correspondent Cindy Saine takes a look on how U.S. foreign policy is shifting under Trump.

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US Agency Offers Advice to Cash-Strapped Workers

As the partial shutdown of the U.S. federal government stretched into its sixth day with no end in sight, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is offering advice on how to deal with an interrupted cash flow.

Nearly 800,000 federal employees have either been furloughed or will be working without pay and facing potential problems paying bills and meeting other expenses.

“Feds, here are sample letters you may use as a guide when working with your creditors during this furlough,” the agency said in a tweet Thursday, directing the reader to its website. 

OPM suggested workers call their landlord, mortgage company, or creditor to speak with them about their situation. It said the call should then be followed up with a letter and offered samples of how it should be worded.

“I am a Federal employee who has recently been furloughed due to a lack of funding of my agency. Because of this, my income has been severely cut and I am unable to pay the entire cost of my monthly payments, along with my other expenses,” reads one sample letter that OPM released.

The website made it clear that if furloughed workers need legal help, they are on their own. “If you need legal advice to assist you in any response to creditors, landlords or the like, consult with your personal attorney or contact your state or county bar association, many of which maintain lawyer referral services,” it said.

With most lawmakers away from Washington for the holidays, the shutdown will likely stretch into the new year.

President Donald Trump has vowed to keep the government closed until he gets $5 billion to fund his border wall.

According to the American Federation of Government Employees, a union that represents federal employees, about 420,000 federal employees are working without pay, while 380,000 others have been told to stay home.

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Partial Federal Shutdown Unlikely to End This Year

The U.S. government is all but assured to remain partially closed into the new year as neither house of Congress plans to conduct any business for the remainder of 2018.

With a lapse in federal funding nearing the one-week mark, a standoff remains between President Donald Trump, who is demanding Congress approve billions of dollars for wall construction along the U.S.-Mexico border, and Democratic lawmakers, who back a modest increase in overall border security funding but resolutely oppose a wall.

On Thursday, the House and Senate gaveled in for sessions lasting only minutes, with no mention of the work stoppage or any possible resolution. Both are scheduled to hold pro forma sessions with no business conducted Dec. 31.

Tweeting earlier in the day, Trump asserted that “Border Patrol Agents want the wall” and touted a “Need to stop Drugs, Human Trafficking, Gang Members & Criminals from coming into our country.”

When asked Wednesday how long he thinks the shutdown will last, Trump told reporters, “Whatever it takes.”

He declined to comment on whether he might back away from the $5 billion wall funding demand.

‘Chaos’

Democrats, meanwhile, blamed Trump for “plunging the country into chaos” and noted that, weeks ago, Trump said he would be “proud” to “own” a shutdown over border wall funding.

In a joint statement, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and presumed incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said, “The president wanted the shutdown, but seems not to know how to get himself out of it.”

Any formula to fully fund the U.S. government will have to be approved by both houses of Congress and signed by Trump. Many lawmakers went home this week for the Christmas holiday and have no plans to return before early January.

Last week, the Senate unanimously approved a spending bill with no funds set aside to build a wall. The House declined to vote on it, instead passing its own spending bill with the wall funding Trump seeks. That bill is a non-starter for Senate Democrats, who can block such legislation.

Shift in House

Republicans currently control both houses of Congress and the White House, but in one week, Democrats will take over in the House while Republicans will add two seats to their current Senate advantage.

Once sworn in next week, the new House Democratic majority will be able to pass any spending bill it chooses. It remains to be seen, however, how Senate Republicans will react to a House bill that lacks wall funding.

The shutdown is affecting about 800,000 federal workers. About half of them are still going to work while the rest are furloughed. None will be paid until the shutdown is over.

In his morning prayer, Senate Chaplain Barry Black appeared to reference the funding standoff and request divine intervention.

“Stay close to our lawmakers,” the chaplain said.  “Deliver them from the mire of division and despair as you lead them to your desired destination.”

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Feinstein Seeks Hearing to Probe Migrant Children’s Deaths 

Sen. Dianne Feinstein called Thursday for the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold a hearing early next year regarding the deaths of two children in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody. 

 

In a letter to Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Feinstein, D-Calif., requested a hearing “on the care and treatment of children in the custody of Customs and Border Protection.” Graham is set to chair the committee in the new year.  

Feinstein, the highest-ranking member of her party on the committee, called the deaths of the two children “heartbreaking incidents” and said the Judiciary Committee was “uniquely situated to examine these issues.” 

Earlier this month, the Department of Homeland Security reported that Jakelin Caal Maquin, 7, from Guatemala had died hours after being taken into Border Patrol protection. This week, the agency said that a Guatemalan boy, Felipe Alonzo-Gomez, 8, had died late Christmas Eve in CPB custody. 

In the letter, Feinstein called on CBP to ensure that children are released from detention within 72 hours as required by law. She also demanded the agency account for the need to communicate with detainees in their native languages and develop standards of care in consultation with pediatricians and child welfare experts. 

 

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on Wednesday said all children in Border Patrol custody had received medical screenings and that she had directed additional actions to care for those who enter U.S. custody. 

 

On Thursday, DHS announced that Nielsen would travel Friday to El Paso, Texas, and Saturday to Yuma, Ariz. 

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Trump Returns After Visiting Troops in Iraq

President Donald Trump returned to the White House on Thursday after making an unannounced trip to Iraq to visit U.S. troops stationed there.

“Just returned from visiting our troops in Iraq and Germany,” Trump tweeted about an hour after arriving home.  “One thing is certain, we have incredible people representing our Country – people that know how to win!”

It was his first visit to a conflict zone as president, and the trip was undertaken in near secrecy.

While speaking to the troops in Iraq, Trump defended his decision to withdraw from Syria, saying that Islamic State (IS) is “very nearly defeated” and the caliphate is gone.

“I made it clear from the beginning that our mission in Syria was to strip ISIS of its military strongholds,” Trump said, using an acronym for the militant group.

“Eight years ago, we went there for three months and we never left,” he said, adding the U.S presence in Syria was never meant to be “open-ended.”

The president and first lady greeted troops in Iraq in a dining hall, taking photos and signing autographs as part of the visit.  They left three hours later.

On the return to Washington, Air Force One stopped briefly at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, where Trump met with several U.S. Air Force leaders, and he and the first lady took photos with U.S. service members there.

Trump did not meet with any Iraqi officials during his short visit to the country, but he did speak on the phone with Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi. 

Trump’s visit to Iraq came a day after he held a video conference from the Oval Office with military members around the globe. After the call, he was criticized by some media outlets that reported he is first president since 2002 to not visit U.S. troops at Christmastime.

Visiting U.S. troops in conflict zones is a tradition embraced by U.S. presidents, as it is seen as a morale-booster for troops.

President George W. Bush visited U.S. troops stationed overseas eight times during his presidency, including serving a Thanksgiving meal to soldiers in Baghdad in 2003. President Barack Obama visited troops in Baghdad in April 2009, four months after he took office. He also visited troops in Afghanistan and South Korea.

The Pentagon said there are approximately 5,200 U.S. forces in Iraq.

Last week, Trump made the controversial move of announcing plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. He also is considering withdrawing roughly half of the more than 14,000 American troops stationed in Afghanistan, beginning next month.

Trump’s senior advisers and military officials have warned the move will plunge the region further into chaos.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter IS, Brett McGurk, have both resigned, at least in part, due to disagreement over policy in Syria and Afghanistan.

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Analysts Look Ahead at Uncertain North Korean Talks

North Korea announced last week it would not pursue denuclearization unless the United States removes what it calls its “nuclear threat.”

The Institute for North Korean Studies’ Yongwook Ryu was not surprised by North Korea’s declaration.

“Most people suspected that North Korea and the United States, also including South Korea, has a different understanding of denuclearization,” he said. “Analysts and pundits knew that by denuclearization, North Korea meant the removal of U.S. forces from the Korean Peninsula, as well as U.S. nuclear threat.”

However, the Asan Institute’s Seong Whun Cheon goes further, saying, “North Korea hijacked the terminology denuclearization from South Korea and the United States.

“Denuclearization was coined by Washington,” Cheon said, referring to a process whereby “South Korea and North Korea give up all forms of nuclear position, including uranium enrichment and reprocessing facilities that can be devoted to military purposes.”

Cheon said that was the ultimate goal of the 1991 joint North and South Korean declaration, but Pyongyang ignored the statement and continued to develop its programs, all the while telling Seoul and Washington they were abandoning them.

Timing of North Korea’s statement

North Korea’s statement defining “denuclearization” came as Pyongyang and Washington are trying to negotiate a second summit between its two heads of state, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump.

But in its statement Pyongyang said, “The United States must now recognize the accurate meaning of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and especially, must study geography.

“When we talk about the Korean Peninsula, it includes the territory of our republic and also the entire region of (South Korea) where the United States has placed its invasive force, including nuclear weapons. When we talk about the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, it means the removal of all sources of nuclear threat, not only from the South and North but also from areas neighboring the Korean Peninsula,” the statement read.

Ryu indicates that North Korea may be signaling that it is not interested in initiating dialogue with the United States at this time.

“This does not necessarily mean they do not want to have talks with [the United States], but it’s telling the American side that it’s not intending to begin negotiations at this moment in time,” he said, noting Washington should respond to the statement in some way.

“The most recent statement from North Korea is just a repetition of their view,” Cheon said. “The problem is we have ignored, or we simply were fooled by North Korea’s propaganda.”

He says the timing of the statement may be in response to the Trump administration’s pressure on Pyongyang to implement the terms of the Singapore Summit, as the United States interpreted them.

​Prospects for a second Trump-Kim summit

“We still are working through the execution of Chairman Kim’s commitment to denuclearize,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Kansas-based KNSS Radio last week. The U.S., he added, is “hopeful that in the new year President Trump and Chairman Kim will get together not too long after the first of the year and make even further progress on taking this threat to the United States away from us.”

Cheon is slightly less optimistic than Pompeo, predicting the likelihood of a second summit at 50 percent and the deciding factor is what President Trump’s position will be on North Korea, “in the wake of General Mattis’ departure from the Defense Department.”

“I think the swing of America’s North Korea policy is so wide,” he said, that engagement policies could hit two extremes.

“On one hand, President Trump may compromise with North Korea [and] be satisfied with eliminating North Korea’s ICBMs and [some of their] nuclear warheads,” but Cheon said that if the president believes he was “fooled by North Korea … he may take more radical, hotter and aggressive action toward North Korea.”

While the United States has been discussing the timing of a second summit early in 2019, Ryu says that while such a meeting may still happen, it may happen later than that.

In Kim Jong Un’s forthcoming New Year’s Day address, Ryu said there is a possibility that the North Korean leader “will not emphasize North Korea being a nuclear sate as a gesture to the USA and South Korea [and] that it is still interested in holding talks and advancing negotiations with the hope of removing sanctions on Pyongyang.”

Meanwhile, Seoul has unveiled its national defense strategy that continues to pursue peace on the peninsula in the wake of stalled talks and an uncertain future.

Lee Ju-hyun contributed to this report.

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Partial US Government Shutdown Unlikely to End Thursday

Thursday is the sixth day of a partial U.S. government shutdown, and it is unlikely to be the day that brings a resolution in the standoff between President Donald Trump and Congress.

Trump has insisted on getting $5 billion in funding for a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, while Democrats have objected and instead said they would agree to $1.3 billion in other border security spending.

When asked Wednesday how long he thinks the shutdown will last, Trump told reporters, “Whatever it takes.”

“I mean, we’re going to have a wall. We’re going to have safety.”

He declined to comment about the prospect of backing away from his demand for $5 billion in wall funding and instead accepting the lower figure for border security.

Democratic leaders in Congress have blamed Trump for “plunging the country into chaos.”

“The president wanted the shutdown, but seems not to know how to get himself out of it,” Senator Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and incoming House speaker Nancy Pelosi wrote in a joint statement.”

Whatever the solution the two sides eventually find to fund about one-quarter of the government it will have to be approved by both houses of Congress and signed by Trump.

​No votes Thursday

Republican leaders in the House of Representatives told members not to expect any votes Thursday, and that they would be given 24 hours’ notice before any votes take place. Many lawmakers went home this week for the Christmas holiday.

In the Senate, the chamber’s calendar says it will reconvene Thursday for discussion of the spending issue, but how many members will be present remains to be seen.

Perhaps further complicating the ongoing discussions is that currently Republicans hold majorities in both the House and Senate, but in one week Democrats will take over in the House while Republicans will add a few seats to their Senate advantage.

​800,000 workers affected

The shutdown is affecting about 800,000 federal workers. About half of them are going to work but will not be paid until the shutdown is over. The rest are at home waiting to find out if Congress will follow what it has done in the past and approve pay for them as well.

Trump said Monday he has the backing of federal workers and that they want him to stick to his demand for the wall funding.

The American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union of U.S. federal workers, rejected that statement Wednesday.

“They are eager to get back to work. They unequivocally oppose using shutdowns as a means of resolving policy disputes,” AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr. said. “This is not about a wall, this is about 800,000 real people with real families and real bills to pay.”

AFGE membership includes some Voice of America employees.

White House Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Kevin Hassett said the shutdown is merely a temporary problem for affected federal employees.

“They might miss a pay period because the government shut down,” Hassett told reporters Wednesday. “But in the end, even if they aren’t working, then Congress has decided to pay people for the whole time. So in the end, it’s really just a sort of short-term problem not a long-term problem for government workers.”

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Trump Visits US Troops in Iraq on Unannounced Trip

President Donald Trump made an unannounced visit to Iraq on Wednesday to talk with U.S. troops stationed there.

Trump and first lady Melania Trump landed at Al Asad Airbase in western Iraq at 7:16 p.m. local time.

They left Washington late Christmas night, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a tweet Wednesday afternoon.

The trip, Trump’s first visit to a conflict zone as president, was undertaken in near secrecy. It came with a quarter of the U.S. government shut down as a result of Congress’ inability to agree on funding for Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.

Trump’s visit to Iraq, where in all about 5,200 members of the U.S. military are stationed, also came a day after he held a video conference from the Oval Office with military members around the globe. After the call, he was criticized by some media outlets that said he was the first president since 2002 to not visit U.S. troops at Christmastime. 

In Iraq, the president and first lady greeted troops in a dining hall, posing for photos and signing autographs as part of the visit.

The president last week made the controversial move of announcing plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. In his remarks to the troops in Iraq, he defended that decision, saying that the Islamic State group had been “very nearly defeated” and that the caliphate was gone. 

“I made it clear from the beginning that our mission in Syria was to strip ISIS of its military strongholds,” Trump said, using an acronym for the militant group.

“Eight years ago, we went there for three months, and we never left,” he said, adding the U.S presence in Syria was never meant to be “open-ended.”

Trump said Turkey had agreed to eliminate any IS “remnants” in the region.

“The nations of the region must step up and take more responsibility for their future,” Trump said, adding there would be an “orderly withdrawal” of the roughly 2,000 U.S. forces in Syria.

In addition to the Syrian pullout, Trump is also considering withdrawing roughly half of the more than 14,000 American troops stationed in Afghanistan, beginning next month.

Trump’s senior advisers and military officials have warned that the moves will cause further chaos in the region. 

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Brett McGurk, special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIS, both resigned, at least in part, because of disagreement over the Syria and Afghanistan policies. ​

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US Government Shutdown Enters Day 5

The partial shutdown of the U.S. government entered its fifth day Wednesday, with no public indication a resolution is imminent.

President Donald Trump spoke about the shutdown Tuesday, asserting that it will continue until his demand for funds to construct a U.S.-Mexico border wall are met.

“I can’t tell you when the government is going to be open. I can tell you it’s not going to be open until we have a wall, a fence, whatever they’d like to call it,” Trump said in the Oval Office after a video conference with U.S. troops, who are stationed overseas.

Trump claimed the hundreds of thousands of federal workers who are furloughed due to the shutdown also want the wall, despite a lack of evidence supporting the contention.

On Monday, Trump asserted Democrats “must end” the standoff while Democratic leaders in Congress blamed Trump for “plunging the country into chaos.”

“The president wanted the shutdown, but seems not to know how to get himself out of it,” Senator Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and incoming House speaker Nancy Pelosi wrote in a joint statement. ”

While government agencies dealing with national security and public safety remain open, other offices are closed and 800,000 federal workers are on furlough. Those who are considered to be essential employees are reporting for duty, but will not get a paycheck for that work until the shutdown is over.

White House Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Keven Hassett said the shutown is merely a temporary problem for affected federal employees.

“They might miss a pay period because the government shut down,” Hassett told reporters Wednesday. “But in the end, even if they aren’t working, then Congress has decided to pay people for the whole time. So in the end, it’s really just a sort of short-term problem not a long-term problem for government workers.”

Lawmakers are not expected to act before both houses of Congress reconvene on Thursday. The shutdown could last at least until January 3, when Democrat Nancy Pelosi is expected to reclaim the House Speakership.

Trump has demanded $5 billion for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Democrats have offered $1.3 billion for other border security measures.

The president canceled his Christmas vacation to his Florida resort because of the impasse with Congress.

“I am all alone (poor me) in the White House waiting for the Democrats to come back and make a deal on desperately needed Border Security,” he tweeted Monday. “At some point, the Democrats not wanting to make a deal will cost our Country more than the Border Wall we are all talking about. Crazy.”

 

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