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Grim Warnings for White House, Republicans Ahead of Election

The prognosis for President Donald Trump and his party was grim.

In a post-Labor Day briefing at the White House, a top Republican pollster told senior staff that the determining factor in the election wouldn’t be the improving economy or the steady increase in job creation. It would be how voters feel about Trump. And the majority of the electorate, including a sizeable percentage of Republican-leaning voters, doesn’t feel good about the president, according to a presentation from pollster Neil Newhouse that spanned dozens of pages.

Newhouse’s briefing came amid a darkening mood among Republican officials as the November election nears. Party leaders were already worried that a surge in enthusiasm among Democrats and disdain for Trump by moderate Republicans would put the House out of reach. But some Republicans now fear their Senate majority is also in peril — a scenario that was unthinkable a few months ago given the favorable Senate map for the GOP.

“For Republican candidates to win in swing states, they need all of the voters who support President Trump, plus a chunk of those who do not,” said Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster. “That is threading a very narrow strategic needle.”

Operatives in both parties say Republicans still have the edge in the fight for control of the Senate. But GOP officials are increasingly worried that nominees in conservative-leaning states like Missouri and Indiana are underperforming, while races in Tennessee and Texas that should be slam-dunks for Republicans are close.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell raised an alarm last week, warning that each of the competitive Senate races would be “like a knife fight in an alley.”

Some of the public fretting among Republicans appears to be strategic, as party officials try to motivate both voters and donors. Many moderate Republican voters “don’t believe there is anything at stake in this election,” according to the documents Newhouse presented to White House officials. He attributed that belief in part to a disregard for public polling, given that most surveys showed Democrat Hillary Clinton defeating Trump in the 2016 presidential election.

Newhouse and the White House would not comment on the early September meeting. The Associated Press obtained a copy of Newhouse’s presentation, and two Republicans with knowledge of the briefing discussed the details on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the matter publicly.

At the White House, anxiety over the midterms has been on the rise for months as polls increasingly show a challenging environment for the GOP and heightened Democratic enthusiasm. The sheer number of competitive races in both the House and Senate is stretching cash reserves and forcing tough calculations about where to deploy resources and surrogates. And there are growing fears that the coalition of voters that delivered Trump to the White House will not come out for midterms.

Even if those voters do show up in large numbers, Republicans could still come up short. The polling presented to White House officials, which was commissioned by the Republican National Committee, showed that Trump’s loyal supporters make up about one-quarter of the electorate. Another quarter is comprised of Republicans who like Trump’s policies but not the president himself and do not appear motivated to back GOP candidates. And roughly half of expected midterm voters are Democrats who are energized by their opposition to the president.

White House aides say Trump is getting regular briefings on the political landscape and is aware of the increasingly grim polling, even though he’s predicted a “red wave” for Republicans on Twitter and at campaign rallies. Aides say Trump’s sober briefings from GOP officials are sometimes offset by the frequent conversations he has with a cadre of outside advisers who paint a sunnier picture of the electoral landscape and remind the president of his upset victory in 2016.

The paradox for Republicans is that most Americans are largely satisfied with the economy, according to numerous surveys. But the party has struggled to keep the economy centered at the center of the election debate. Trump keeps thrusting other issues to the forefront, including his frustration with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and his intense anger with unflattering portrayals of his presidency in a book by journalist Bob Woodward and an anonymous editorial from a senior administration official that was published in the New York Times. He stunned some backers Thursday when he disputed the death toll in Puerto Rico from last year’s Hurricane Maria, just as another storm was barreling toward the East Coast.

Newhouse told White House officials that Trump could appeal to moderates and independents by emphasizing that a Democratic majority would be outside the mainstream on issues like abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and government-funded health care. Other Republican strategists have offered candidates similar advice.

Karl Rove, who served as chief political strategist to President George W. Bush, said that if Republicans cast their Democratic rivals as soft on immigration or in favor of high-dollar government spending on health care, “that’s a toxic mix to the soft Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.”

In his most recent campaign appearances, Trump soft-peddled his predictions for a Republican wave and warned supporters that a Democratic congressional majority would have consequences. But he focused less on the policy implications of Democrats regaining control of Congress and more on the impact on his presidency, including the prospect of impeachment.

“If it does happen, it’s your fault, because you didn’t go out to vote,” Trump said of the prospect of getting impeached. “You didn’t go out to vote — that’s the only way it could happen.”

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Trump Claims Russia Campaign Probe Illegal

U.S. President Donald Trump claimed Sunday, without evidence, that the ongoing criminal investigation into his 2016 campaign’s links to Russia is “not allowed under the law.”

In a Twitter comment, the U.S. leader called the probe by special counsel Robert Mueller “illegal” and said it “continues in search of a crime.” But Mueller was appointed by the Department of Justice and judges have ruled that his investigation is being conducted legally.

As he often does, Trump denied there was collusion with Russia, except by his opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He described Mueller’s legal team as “17 angry Democrats … looking at anything they can find. Very unfair and BAD for the country.”

But Trump did not comment on the latest development in Mueller’s 16-month investigation, Friday’s guilty plea by former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort to corruption charges and a declaration by prosecutors that Manafort is already cooperating with them about what he knows about the Trump campaign.

The 69-year-old Manafort, a longtime Washington lobbyist, has now been convicted in an August trial of eight tax and bank fraud charges in a Virginia court and pleaded guilty to two conspiracy charges in nearby Washington.

In the most recent case, prosecutors agreed to drop other charges stemming from his lobbying efforts for one-time Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych that predated his five-month tenure working for Trump’s campaign in mid-2016 in exchange for him answering “fully, truthfully, completely and forthrightly” questions about “any and all matters” Mueller’s team is investigating.

But what Manafort might have to offer Mueller about the Trump campaign is not publicly unknown, although prosecutors only dropped some charges against Manafort after hearing in advance what he had to say.

Manafort played a role in one key event Mueller is investigating, a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in New York, the then-candidate’s campaign headquarters. Manafort attended a meeting set up by Trump’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., with a lawyer said to be a Russian government attorney willing to provide incriminating information about Clinton. The younger Trump said no such information was provided and President Trump has said he was unaware of the meeting at the time it was scheduled.

After Manafort’s guilty plea, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani said in a first statement, “Once again an investigation has concluded with a plea having nothing to do with President Trump or the Trump campaign. The reason: The president did nothing wrong and Paul Manafort will tell the truth.”

But minutes later, Giuliani issued a revised statement omitting the assessment that “Paul Manafort will tell the truth.”

After Manafort was convicted in the August case, Trump said he had “such respect for a brave man: because “he refused to ‘break’ — make up stories in order to get a ‘deal.'”

“I feel very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family,” Trump said.



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Israel-Palestinian Peace Elusive Under Trump Administration

Twenty-five years after Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed the Oslo Peace Accords that raise hopes for a comprehensive settlement, experts say peace in the Middle East is as elusive as ever. And as VOA Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine reports, some of those experts caution that the Trump administration has lost the trust of Palestinians to be an honest broker in the conflict through several recent actions.

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Manafort Pleads Guilty, Agrees to Cooperate with Mueller Probe

President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges Friday in connection with his past lobbying efforts on behalf of Ukraine. As part of the plea deal, Manafort has also agreed to cooperate in the investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election led by special counsel Robert Mueller. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.

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Kavanaugh Denies Allegation of Sexual Misconduct in School

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh on Friday denied a sexual misconduct allegation from when he was in high school.

In a statement released by the White House, Kavanaugh said: “I categorically and unequivocally deny this allegation. I did not do this back in high school or at any time.”

Kavanaugh’s statement comes after Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said she has notified federal investigators about information she received about the nominee but won’t disclose publicly.

The New Yorker reported the alleged incident took place at a party when Kavanaugh, now 53, was attending Georgetown Preparatory School. The woman making the allegation attended a nearby school.

The magazine says the woman sent a letter about the allegation to Democrats. A Democratic aide and another person familiar with the letter confirmed Friday to The Associated Press that the allegation is sexual in nature. Two other people familiar with the matter confirmed to the AP that the alleged incident happened in high school. They were not authorized to speak publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The AP has not confirmed the details of the alleged incident in The New Yorker’s account.

Other women back Kavanaugh

Rallying to Kavanaugh’s defense, 65 women who knew him in high school issued a letter, released by Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, saying he has “always treated women with decency and respect.”

“We are women who have known Brett Kavanaugh for more than 35 years and knew him while he attended high school between 1979 and 1983,” wrote the women, who said most of them had attended all-girl high schools in the area. “For the entire time we have known Brett Kavanaugh, he has behaved honorably and treated women with respect.”

The Judiciary Committee, which has finished confirmation hearings for Kavanagh, is scheduled to vote next Thursday on whether to recommend that he be confirmed by the full Senate.

The White House called Feinstein’s move an “11th hour attempt to delay his confirmation.”

The California Democrat said in a statement Thursday that she “received information from an individual concerning the nomination.” She said the person “strongly requested confidentiality, declined to come forward or press the matter further, and I have honored that decision.”

The FBI confirmed that it received the information Wednesday evening and included it in Kavanaugh’s background file, which is maintained as part of his nomination. The agency said that is its standard process.

Feinstein’s statement that she has “referred the matter to federal investigative authorities” jolted Capitol Hill and threatened to disrupt what has been a steady path toward confirmation for Kavanaugh by Republicans eager to see the conservative judge on the court.

Lawmakers react

Feinstein has held the letter close. Democratic senators on the panel met privately Wednesday evening and discussed the information, according to Senate aides who were not authorized to discuss the situation publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Some senators, including the No. 2 Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois, learned about the information for the first time at the meeting, according to one of the aides.

A spokeswoman for Representative Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat, declined to confirm reports that the congresswoman had forwarded a letter containing the allegations to Feinstein. She said her office has a confidentiality policy regarding casework for constituents.

A White House spokeswoman, Kerri Kupec, said the FBI has vetted Kavanaugh “thoroughly and repeatedly” during his career in government and the judiciary.

She said Kavanaugh has had 65 meetings with senators — including with Feinstein — sat through over 30 hours of testimony and publicly addressed more than 2,000 questions. “Not until the eve of his confirmation has Senator Feinstein or anyone raised the specter of new ‘information’ about him,” she said.

Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Republican and a member of the committee, was also skeptical.

“Let me get this straight: this is (sic) statement about secret letter regarding a secret matter and an unidentified person. Right,” he tweeted.

Chairman Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, was unaware of the information until it was made public, according to a GOP committee aide. Kavanaugh has undergone six federal background checks over time in government, including one most recently for the nomination, the aide said.

The new information on Kavanaugh was included Thursday in his confidential background file at the committee and is now available for senators to review, the aide said.

Democrats don’t have the votes to block Kavanaugh’s nomination if Republicans are unified in favor of it.

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Trump Ex-Campaign Manager Pleads Guilty, Will Cooperate with Mueller

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort agreed Friday to cooperate with the special counsel’s Russia investigation as he pleaded guilty to federal charges and avoided a second trial that could have exposed him to even greater punishment.

The deal gives special counsel Robert Mueller a key cooperator who led the Trump election effort for a crucial stretch during the 2016 presidential campaign. The result also ensures the investigation will extend far beyond the November congressional elections despite entreaties from the president’s lawyers that Mueller bring his probe to a close.

It is unclear what information Manafort is prepared to provide to investigators about President Donald Trump or that could aid Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. But the plea nonetheless makes Manafort the latest associate of Trump, a president known to place a premium on loyalty among subordinates, to admit guilt and cooperate with investigators in hopes of leniency.

In the past year, Mueller has secured pleas from a former national security adviser who lied to the FBI about discussing sanctions with a Russian ambassador, a campaign aide who broached the idea of a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin; and another aide who was indicted alongside Manafort but ultimately turned on him. The president’s former personal lawyer has separately pleaded guilty in New York.

Friday’s deal, to charges tied to Ukrainian political consulting work but unrelated to the campaign, was struck just days before Manafort was to have stood trial for a second time. 

He was convicted last month of eight financial crimes in a separate trial in Virginia and faces seven to 10 years in prison in that case. The two conspiracy counts he pleaded guilty to on Friday carry up to five years in prison, though Manafort’s sentence will ultimately depend on his cooperation.

He smiled broadly as he entered the courtroom Friday but gave terse and barely audible answers during questioning from the judge.

“He wanted to make sure that his family was able to remain safe and live a good life. He’s accepted responsibility. This is for conduct that dates back many years and everybody should remember that,” said attorney Kevin Downing.

The cooperation deal requires Manafort to provide whatever information the government asks of him, though it does not specify what if anything prosecutors hope to receive about Trump.

Given his direct involvement in the Trump campaign, including episodes being scrutinized by Mueller, Manafort could be positioned to provide key insight for investigators working to establish whether the campaign coordinated with Russia.

Manafort was among the participants, for instance, in a June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russians and the president’s oldest son and son-in-law that was arranged so the campaign could receive derogatory information about Democrat Hillary Clinton. A grand jury used by Mueller has heard testimony about the meeting. 

He was also a close business associate of a man who U.S. intelligence believes has ties to Russian intelligence. And while he was working on the Trump campaign, emails show Manafort discussed providing private briefings for a wealthy Russian businessman close to Vladimir Putin. 

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders insisted that the Manafort case was unrelated to Trump.

“This had absolutely nothing to do with the president or his victorious 2016 presidential campaign. It is totally unrelated.”

Added Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani: “Once again an investigation has concluded with a plea having nothing to do with President Trump or the Trump campaign.”

Under the terms of the deal, Manafort was allowed to plead guilty to just two conspiracy counts, though the crimes he admitted cover the same conduct alleged in an indictment last year. Manafort’s homes in New York City, in the Hamptons and in Virginia, as well as money from his bank accounts and life insurance policies may be seized by the government as part of the deal.  

It’s unclear how the deal might affect any Manafort pursuit of a pardon from Trump. The president has signaled that he’s sympathetic to Manafort’s cause. In comments to Politico before the plea deal, Giuliani said a plea without a cooperation agreement wouldn’t foreclose the possibility of a pardon.

Manafort had aggressively fought the charges against him and taken shots at his co-defendant, Rick Gates, who cut a deal with prosecutors earlier this year that included a cooperation agreement.

At the time of Gates’ plea, Manafort issued a statement saying he “had hoped and expected my business colleague would have had the strength to continue the battle to prove our innocence.” And during his Virginia trial in August, Manafort’s lawyers spent considerable time painting Gates as a liar, embezzler, philanderer and turncoat who would say anything to get a lighter prison sentence.

Pleading guilty allows Manafort to avoid a trial that was expected to last at least three weeks and posed the potential of adding years to the time he is already facing under federal sentencing guidelines from his conviction in Virginia.

A jury in that earlier trial found Manafort guilty of eight counts of tax evasion, failing to report foreign bank accounts and bank fraud. Jurors deadlocked on 10 other counts.

In the current Washington case, prosecutors had been expected to lay out in detail Manafort’s political consulting and lobbying work on behalf of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and the pro-Russian Party of Regions.

Prosecutors say that Manafort directed a large scale lobbying operation in the U.S. for Ukrainian interests without registering with the Justice Department as required by the federal Foreign Agents Registration Act. Manafort was accused of concealing from the IRS tens of millions of dollars in proceeds from his Ukrainian patrons and conspiring to launder that money through offshore accounts in Cyprus and elsewhere.

Manafort had denied the allegations and pleaded not guilty. After his indictment last October, prosecutors say he continued to commit crimes by tampering with witnesses. 

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US Imposes New Sanctions Targeting North Korea

The U.S. sanctioned a China-based firm Thursday and its Russian subsidiary connected to North Korea, the latest in the Trump administration’s attempts to end Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Lawmakers applauded the move as they received an update from administration officials on U.S. sanctions countering Russian aggression and Chinese human rights violations. VOA’s congressional correspondent Katherine Gypson has more from Capitol Hill.

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Cuomo Defeats Nixon in NY Gubernatorial Primary

Gov. Andrew Cuomo overcame a primary challenge from activist and actress Cynthia Nixon on Thursday, thwarting her attempt to become the latest insurgent liberal to knock off an establishment Democrat.

Cuomo, who always led in the polls and outspent his rival more than 8 to 1, seldom mentioned Nixon by name during an often-nasty campaign, instead touting his experience, achievements in two terms as governor and his work to push back against President Donald Trump.

“You cannot be a progressive if you cannot deliver progress. And a New York progressive is not just a dreamer, but we are doers,” Cuomo said at a campaign rally the night before the vote. “We make things happen.”

With registered Democrats outnumbering Republicans more than 2 to 1 in New York, Cuomo becomes the automatic front-runner in November’s matchup against Republican Marc Molinaro and independent Mayor Stephanie Miner.

Nixon thanks supporters

Nixon, a longtime education activist and actress best known for her Emmy-winning role as lawyer Miranda Hobbes on HBO’s “Sex and the City,” was counting on a boost from liberals looking to oust establishment politicians. She called herself a democratic socialist and pointed to recent congressional primary victories by New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts’ Ayanna Pressley as evidence that underdog challengers can defy the odds.

Nixon thanked supporters Thursday in Brooklyn, saying that together they helped push Cuomo to the left and show that liberals have a shot at making big changes.


“Before we take our country back we have to take our party back,” she said. “This is an incredible moment for progressives but it’s not just a moment. It’s a movement.”

Attorney general

Elsewhere on the ballot, New York City Public Advocate Letitia James won a four-way Democratic primary for attorney general in a race that was a competition over who could best use the office to antagonize President Donald Trump.

James, 59, would become the first black woman to hold a statewide elected office in New York if she prevails in the general election, where she will be heavily favored. She defeated a deep field of fellow Democrats: U.S. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, Fordham law professor Zephyr Teachout and former Hillary Clinton adviser Leecia Eve.

The winner in November will inherit several pending lawsuits filed by the state that challenge Trump’s policies and accuse his charitable foundation of breaking the law.

James faces little-known Republican attorney Keith Wofford in the general election in November.

If she wins in November, James would also become the first woman elected attorney general, though not the first to hold the job. New York’s current attorney general, Democrat Barbara Underwood, was appointed to replace Schneiderman. She declined to run for election.

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Former US Officials Challenge Report Linking Terrorism, Immigration  

A group of former national security officials is urging the Trump administration to reconsider a controversial report on the connection between terrorism and immigration, saying the report falsely gives the impression that immigrants are responsible for the majority of terrorist attacks in the United States.

The officials, including former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former White House terrorism czar Richard A. Clarke made the call in a letter sent Thursday to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

“Overall, the report appears designed to give the misleading impression that immigrants — and even their citizen family members — are responsible for the vast majority of terrorist attacks that have occurred in the United States, whereas statistical studies and our experience have shown no identifiable correlation between ‘foreignness’ and terrorist activity in the past 15 years,” the 18 former officials who served in both Democratic and Republican administrations wrote.

Report linked to travel ban

At issue is a report released in January by the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security that said three in four individuals convicted of international terrorism-related charges since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were foreign born.

President Donald Trump ordered the report when he issued an executive order in March 2017 imposing a travel ban on citizens of six predominantly Muslim countries. Trump asked for the compilation of data on “foreign nationals” in the United States who have been charged with terror-related offenses in the United States.

The Jan. 16 report instead focused on “foreign born” terrorism defendants, a broader category that included naturalized U.S. citizens as well as foreign terror suspects extradited to the United States for prosecution on crimes committed overseas. It showed that 402 of 549 individuals convicted of terrorism charges in the United States between Sept. 11, 2001, and Dec. 31, 2016, were foreign born.

Critics: Threat exaggerated

Critics blasted the report for exaggerating the threat of terrorism posed by foreigners, saying had the report followed the president’s order, it would have shown that fewer than half of individuals convicted of terrorism were foreign nationals. They also criticized the report for leaving out domestic terrorism cases, which are responsible for the vast majority of acts of terror committed in the United States.

“What we’ve seen come out of the Department of Homeland Security has been patently false and misleading,” Matt Olsen, a former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told VOA.

“Not only is that wrong on its terms but it also undermines our counterterrorism and national security efforts because it provides a misleading picture of the people who are really responsible for terror,” said Olsen, who was among the officials who signed the letter. “The focus needs to be on people who are here who are being radicalized, not the country that they were born in.”

Information Quality Act

The report triggered formal complaints by three rights organizations. Muslim Advocates, Protect Democracy and the Brennan Center for Justice first petitioned the departments of Justice and Homeland Security to correct or retract the report and later sued the agencies for violating the Information Quality Act, a little-tested law that requires government reports to meet standards of “utility, objectivity, and integrity.”

“Responding to a request for information that purports to be about the terrorist threat that foreign national immigrants pose to the United States by disseminating information that includes naturalized citizens perpetuates the administration’s discriminatory view that only native-born individuals are actually American, and results in numbers that are artificially inflated,” Muslim Advocates said in its lawsuit. “As such, in substituting foreign-born for foreign national, Defendants disseminated information that does not have utility and is not objective.”

In letters sent to the two groups in July and August, Justice and Homeland Security officials stood by the report, denying the request for a correction or retraction and saying it had concluded that the report did not violate the Information Quality Act.

The rights’ groups appealed the agency decisions Thursday, drawing support from the former security officials. Calling the report “misleading,” the former officials urged DHS and DOJ “to reconsider their responses to the concerns” about the report.

A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the letter.

Homeland security spokeswoman Katie Waldman said via email: “We cannot view counterterrorism through a pre-9/11 lens. The Department of Homeland Security uses historical data to inform its approach, but if we only look at what terrorists have done in the past, we will never be able to prevent future attacks. That is why, in addition to analyzing past terrorism activity, DHS is focused on anticipating terrorist trends and movements and, more importantly, blocking all terrorist pathways into the United States — whether it’s online or on an airplane.”

Another rejection expected

Sirine Shebaya, a senior staff attorney for Muslim Advocates, said the agencies will likely reject their requests again.

“We hope that the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice will take another look at these reports and will correct or retract them,” Shebaya said. “What’s more likely to happen is that we’re going to wait for their response, their response is going to be unsatisfactory, and we’re going to go back to court to fight this out.”

VOA’​s Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.

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US Must Support Ethiopia’s ‘Fragile’ Reforms, Diplomat Says

The United States should strengthen its ties to Ethiopia following unprecedented reforms in the East African nation, a top U.S. diplomat said Wednesday.

Tibor Nagy, the newly appointed assistant secretary of the U.S. Bureau of African Affairs, told members of a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee in Washington that Ethiopia has earned praise for its historic changes.

“Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has initiated groundbreaking reforms across most every area of Ethiopian society,” Nagy said. “He deserves tremendous credit for his boldness in tackling issues previous governments have not addressed.”

But Nagy also outlined a number of unresolved concerns and urged the United States to continue to engage with Ethiopia, mobilize resources to provide aid and assistance, and maintain dialog with the country’s leadership in the wake of momentous reforms that, nonetheless, remain “quite fragile.”

Eritrea’s ‘re-emergence’

Representative Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican who is chairman of the Africa, global health, global human rights and international organizations subcommittee, outlined Abiy’s accomplishments: releasing thousands of political prisoners, lifting a state of emergency and securing peace with neighbor Eritrea.

Officials at Wednesday’s hearing celebrated the July peace deal that ended nearly 20 years of war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, but they expressed concerns about the internal dynamics in Eritrea, a country that has faced U.N. sanctions since 2009 for allegedly supporting the extremist group al-Shabab and a border dispute with its neighbor, Djibouti.

Smith said Eritrea could become a “critical U.S. strategic partner,” and Nagy welcomed “Eritrea’s re-emergence on the regional and global stage.”

But Nagy also expressed “significant concerns” about the countries’ bilateral relationship, citing the Eritrean detention of American citizens, possible arms deals with North Korea and human rights concerns.

“The United States has deliberately engaged with Eritrea in recent months with both these opportunities and concerns in full view,” Nagy said.

Peace with Ethiopia eliminates Eritrea’s reasons to militarize its population, particularly through the use of indefinite forced conscription, Nagy added. And, although the “atmosphere” between the United States and Eritrea has improved, he said, concrete actions will need to be taken to introduce internal reforms before sanctions can be lifted.

As a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, the United States has the power to veto any vote to remove sanctions.

Youth factor

In his remarks, Nagy underscored the importance of Ethiopia’s youth. Some 70 million people — about 70 percent of the population — are under age 30, Nagy said, and they have high expectations of their government.

As the country’s demographics shift, many additional people will enter the workforce, emphasizing the need for new jobs.

So far, Ethiopia has turned to China as a stalwart economic partner, Nagy said, but that may soon be changing, especially as the country’s economic concerns shift from building an infrastructure to supporting a workforce.

“Ethiopians understand that China isn’t the long-term solution to their problems,” Nagy said, adding that the U.S. government should reach out to American companies to forge new relationships with Ethiopia and engage in more trade.

Unresolved threats

Smith; California Democrat Karen Bass, the subcommittee’s ranking member; and Nagy outlined unaddressed concerns with Ethiopian governance and civil society, including ongoing reports of torture, a high incidence of human trafficking, and what Bass described as “hardliners within the EPRDF [Ethiopia’s ruling political coalition] that hope to stall his [Abiy’s] reform agenda.”

Smith emphasized the need to redress victims of torture, repeal laws that encourage gross human rights abuses and resolve a mass displacement that has resulted in 2.5 million people fleeing their homes.

Experts on the region identified other fault lines.

Yoseph Badwaza, a senior program officer at Freedom House, a nongovernmental research and advocacy group in Washington that focuses on democracy and human rights, said Ethiopia faces enormous challenges and is grappling with much-needed reforms to the justice system, the electoral system and other democratic institutions.

Emily Estelle, a senior analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research group in Washington, highlighted the volatile nature of fast-changing regional dynamics.

“The potential for Ethiopia to destabilize persists. It faces a rapid political transition and ethnic conflict across multiple regions,” Estelle said in prepared remarks. The United States must prepare for “worst-case scenarios,” Estelle added, by recognizing “the dangers of rapidly changing domestic and regional dynamics in the Horn of Africa.”

But changes this year indicate just how much can happen when leaders commit to peace, and both committee members and invited experts emphasized the region’s accomplishments in recent months.

Citing a series of rapprochements between Eritrea and its neighbors, Nagy said, “In my 40 years of following Africa, I’ve never seen this type of transition happen.”

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