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US House Two Signatures Away From Immigration Votes

Two signatures. That’s all that’s needed to force a wide-ranging House debate — and votes — on border security and the immigration status of 700,000 undocumented young people brought to the U.S. as children.

Since moderate Republicans opposed House leadership two weeks ago with a rare discharge petition to force a so-called “queen of the hill” debate (House rule based on the most votes) on immigration, the measure has steadily accumulated support within their own party. The petition needs 218 signatures to start that debate and — with the assumption that all 193 House Democrats will sign on — Republicans need just two more signatures.

But that effort now goes on hold as Congress leaves town for an 11-day holiday recess, giving all sides breathing room to figure out what comes next. Many of the 23 Republican signers of the petition face tough re-election races in their districts this November.

The debate over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients has challenged lawmakers since last September, when U.S. President Donald Trump ended the program, calling on Congress to find a permanent legislative solution.

Lawmakers will return to Washington facing an immediate deadline. Representative Jeff Denham, a California Republican who is one of the leaders of the petition effort, told reporters that June 7 would be the absolute last moment to allow the petition to mature before lawmakers run up against a seven-week summer recess.

Denham said talks with House leadership and the House Freedom Caucus, a conservative voting bloc seeking significant security concessions in return for a citizenship path for DACA recipients, have been productive.

“We’ve had an agreement in principle,” Denham said of a deal that would provide a 12-year path to citizenship for DACA recipients, known colloquially as Dreamers. “Now it’s trying to put that information on paper. So, assuming we can continue to move forward, that is something we would bring to our conference on the 7th when we have our two-hour immigration meeting, but we’re prepared to move the votes if the talks break down.”

But it’s debatable whether a bill that makes it through the House “queen of the hill” process can survive the Senate to reach Trump’s desk to be signed into law. House Speaker Paul Ryan has repeatedly described the effort as “futile,” arguing that he wants to bring an immigration bill up for a vote that has a real chance of passage.

“There’s a real sense of trying to come together with a variety of opinions and find some bill that gets to 218 [votes],” Representative Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican who is chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, said outside a weekly Republican meeting Tuesday.

The Freedom Caucus supports legislation put forth by Representative Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican. It’s a conservative approach to DACA recipients that also features significant funding for border security and a sharp cutback in legal immigration.

All sides will have to make major concessions to gather enough support, since the Goodlatte bill would not get support from House Democrats.

“The details matter,” Representative Pete Aguilar, a California Democrat who is one of the co-sponsors of a bipartisan solution for DACA recipients, and a signer of the discharge petition that could bring a bill to the House floor, told reporters Thursday. “It seems right now that they just keep getting bogged up on whether Dreamers should have a path to citizenship. It seems like they’re never going to get to a bill in their conference that gets to 218.”

The discharge petition puts House Democrats in the unusual election-year position of supporting an effort that could help their Republican colleagues’ re-election bids. But after months of inaction, Aguilar told reporters policy,  not politics, is the concern right now.

“We’ve got to worry about helping those hundreds of thousands of young people in our communities who live with uncertainty and anxiety. They’re not worried about the political season coming up,” he said. “It’s our job to fix it for them.”

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Pompeo Blames North Korea for Scrapped Summit

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said North Korea stopped taking part in bilateral consultations that would have been necessary for a productive summit between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un.

Pompeo provided additional insight into Trump’s decision to cancel the historic encounter in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Moments after Presidents Trump’s letter to Kim Jong Un was made public, he placed blame for scrapping the summit squarely on Pyongyang.

“I regret the statements that the North Koreans have made over the past few days,” he said, “and the fact that we’ve not been able to conduct the preparation between our two teams that would be necessary to have a chance for a successful summit.”

Democratic Senator Bob Menendez said the administration should not have been surprised that North Korea is acting as North Korea often does in international negotiations, and that stumbling blocks were foreseeable.

“Many of us were deeply concerned that the lack of deep preparation that is necessary before such a summit is even agreed to was not taking place,” said Menendez. “And now we see the consequences of that. And I’m not sure that constantly quoting the Libya model is the diplomatic way to try to get to the results that we seek in North Korea, because that didn’t work out too well for [former Libyan leader Moammar] Gaddafi.”

By contrast, Republican Senator Cory Gardner spoke as though Kim, not Trump, had put the summit on hold.

“Kim Jong Un has walked away from a historic opportunity for peace and should be held accountable for his decision,” he said. “In the internal debate that must be taking place within Kim Jong Un’s mind — between Kim the propagandist and Kim the peacemaker — it’s clear that Kim the propagandist prevailed internally, and that peace lost out to that propaganda.”

Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen asked Pompeo what the administration will do next regarding North Korea. The secretary of state replied, “Situation normal,” implying the status quo remains. He added that the American-led pressure campaign on Pyongyang will continue.

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Pompeo: US Not Pushing for Regime Change in Iran

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the Trump administration is not pushing for a regime change in Iran, but to achieve global consensus on how to get Tehran to “behave like a normal nation.”

Pompeo told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday the administration is “well along” with plans to impose previous and new sanctions against Iran with a goal “to deny Iran the wealth to do bad stuff.”

Wednesday, the top U.S. diplomat told the House Foreign Affairs Committee the United States is looking to meet with allies, including European officials, in early to mid-June on the next steps in dealing with Iran’s nuclear weapons development.

Planning for the meeting began after President Donald Trump earlier this month withdrew the United States from the 2015 international accord that restrained Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting economic sanctions that had hobbled the Iranian economy.

The United States says it plans in the coming months to reimpose previous sanctions and impose new ones against Iran in hopes of pushing Tehran to the bargaining table for new negotiations over its ballistic missile tests and military advances in the Middle East. But the five other signatories to the international pact: Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia all have said they support the existing nuclear deal with Iran.

The signatories are trying to salvage the agreement, which Iran has threatened to abandon if it suffers from the reintroduction of U.S. economic sanctions.

The U.N. nuclear watchdog said in a report issued Thursday Iran is continuing to comply with the 2015 accord. The International Atomic Energy Agency urged Iran to go beyond its legal obligations to abide by the deal to increase global confidence in its commitment to the pact.

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In GOP Immigration Battle, Factions Split Over Citizenship

Divisions over whether to provide a conduit to citizenship for young “Dreamer” immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally loomed as the pivotal sticking point Wednesday as House Republicans searched for a solution to their campaign-season standoff over an issue that has split them for years.

GOP leaders, moderates and conservatives bargained anew, with some saying the talks were productive. But there was no evidence an agreement was at hand, while there were signals the party’s long-standing chasm over whether to help immigrants here illegally become citizens remained unresolved.

Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., a leader of moderates trying to force leaders to hold votes on the issue, told reporters that of all his immigration priorities, permanent status for Dreamers was “most important” and “essential.” But Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., leader of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, said that “no special pathway to citizenship” would be acceptable to conservatives.

“Why would we give blanket waivers to people who came here illegally?” Meadows said to reporters.

Middle ground

Curbelo and Meadows both said it was possible to find middle ground between their positions. But compromise has eluded party leaders for years, and it remained unclear how they would resolve the impasse by next month, when House leaders have promised showdown immigration votes.

Leaders set a pivotal closed-door meeting on immigration among House Republicans for June 7, days after lawmakers return from a weeklong recess. Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., said he and other moderates would see if that session could produce an accord among Republicans before pressing ahead on a petition drive that could force votes on the issue.

“If they come to a good agreement, great. If they don’t we’re going forward,” he said.

Bills backed by moderates would give hundreds of thousands of Dreamers a way to become permanent U.S. residents, a status that can later lead to citizenship. Dreamers were brought to the U.S. illegally as children and have been temporarily protected by an Obama-era program that President Donald Trump has terminated, though courts have kept alive for now.

Conservatives want legislation that would let those immigrants stay in the U.S. in renewable but temporary increments. They have opposed creating a new way for them to move toward citizenship and would instead limit them to existing pathways, such as marrying a U.S. citizen.

​Moderates push for votes

Curbelo and other moderates gained their 21st Republican signature Wednesday on a petition that would force a series of votes on immigration bills that House leaders are trying to avoid. With all 193 Democrats expected to sign, the moderates need just four more Republican names to reach 218, a House majority, and moderate leaders say they have enough commitments to reach 25.

The moderates want votes on four bills, including measures by conservatives and liberals.

Under that process, the measure likeliest to prevail would let Dreamers stay in the U.S. permanently and bolster border security, but not finance the border wall with Mexico that Trump wants. Since that bill would be backed by virtually all Democrats but just a smattering of Republicans, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has tried to derail the drive.

Instead, GOP leaders plan for the House to vote on immigration the third week in June, a week before the votes moderates want could be held. Republicans say the only measure leaders have committed to consider is a conservative package that would reduce legal immigration, help Trump build his wall and punish “sanctuary cities” that hinder federal authorities pursuing immigrants here illegally.

Under House rules, if the chamber votes on that measure first, it would force the moderates to begin their petition drive all over again, Republicans say.

That would be a blow to moderates because many face difficult re-election races in pro-immigration districts and want to show voters progress before November’s elections.

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California’s Feinstein No Longer Supports Death Penalty

California U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein says she no longer backs the death penalty, a reversal of decades-long support that comes during a primary campaign where her stiffest challenge is from a fellow Democrat who is trying to outflank her with the party’s base.

“It became crystal clear to me that the risk of unequal application is high and its effect on deterrence is low,” she said in a Wednesday statement, adding that the change came “several years ago.”

But she hasn’t publicly discussed it until now, just weeks before the June 5 primary in her bid for a fifth full term in Washington. Feinstein’s toughest challenger is Democratic state Sen. Kevin de Leon, who argues she is out of touch with California values.

Denied party endorsement

The two candidates with the highest number of votes in the primary advance to November regardless of party, and there are no prominent Republicans in the contest.

De Leon blocked Feinstein from receiving the California Democratic Party’s endorsement at its annual convention in February, a window into her troubles with some of the activist base. De Leon seized on her death penalty shift as further evidence that Feinstein is worried about her base of support.

“This latest flip on the death penalty is yet another appeal to California voters who have outgrown her centrist bent,” de Leon spokesman Jonathan Underland said.

​Still holds an edge

Still, Feinstein remains popular and has a significant edge on de Leon in name recognition and money, two critical elements for a successful statewide campaign. She’s run successful campaigns in the past by picking up Democrats as well as California’s independent voters, who now make up almost as large a share of the electorate as Republicans.

Her prior support for the death penalty is a prime example of her willingness to shun the party’s base in favor of capturing wider support.

Running for governor in 1990, she aggressively touted her support for capital punishment at the ire of Democratic activists, who booed her at the party’s annual convention.

She ran a television ad declaring that she was “the only Democrat for governor for the death penalty.”

She won the party’s nomination but lost the general election. She maintained the position in her successful 1992 campaign for U.S. Senate and in subsequent campaigns.

Shift on marijuana

California has since become a more heavily Democratic state.

Feinstein gave a nod to the state’s changes earlier this year when appearing to shift her stance slightly on marijuana. She vehemently opposed a state proposition to legalize recreational marijuana in 2016, but said in early May that she would consider legislation granting protection to states that have legalized the drug.

Her office did not offer a clear answer on whether she broadly supports legalized recreational marijuana.

De Leon similarly pointed to that change as evidence that Feinstein is out of touch with today’s voters.

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Trump Wants Aid Cut to Nations Not Helping US Stem Illegal Immigration

President Donald Trump called Wednesday for a “radical change” to the structure of U.S. aid to countries deemed not sufficiently assisting the United States in keeping violent illegal immigrants from heading here.

“We’re going to work out something where every time someone comes from a certain country, we’re going to deduct a rather large amount of money from what we give them in aid,” promised Trump. “We may not just give them aid at all, because despite the reports I hear, I don’t believe they’re helping us one bit.”

Trump did not specify any countries.

The president’s remarks came at an event, held inside a homeland security center in Bethpage on New York’s Long Island, which the White House said was intended to be “a call to action for legislative policy changes.”

Focus on MS-13

Much of the conversation among the president and others, including family members of victims of gang violence, at the round-table event focused on MS-13 — a criminal gang that originated in Los Angeles and has spread to much of North and Central America. It draws many of its members from El Salvador.

The Central American country, plagued with drug gang violence, is estimated to have the fifth-lowest per capita income in the Western Hemisphere.

Overall, according to authorities, MS-13 is blamed for 25 killings on New York’s Long Island in the last two years.

Long Island is home to some of the wealthiest communities in the United States. But other areas of the expansive and densely populated island are less affluent and ethnically diverse, with one out of every five residents considered to be Latino.

At the event, 60 kilometers (37 miles) east of the skyscrapers of Manhattan, Nassau County Police Chief Patrick Ryder said, “We know we have a president who has our back and supports us every day.” Ryder explained that his department had identified 250 active members of MS-13 and that last year, in his jurisdiction, “six kids” were slain by the gang.

Children ‘afraid to go out’

“It’s unthinkable. It’s almost like an occupied territory where your children are afraid to go out,” Trump said of Long Island, an area he said he knew well from growing up in nearby Jamaica Estates in the Queens borough of New York City.

It was Trump’s second visit to Long Island during his presidency to speak about immigration. 

Participants at Wednesday’s event defended Trump’s initial comment last week referring to MS-13 members as “animals.” 

“They are animals in how they kill, get these kids and torture them,” said Evelyn Rodriguez whose 16-year-old daughter and a 15-year-old friend were slain by MS-13 in 2016.

During the round-table, Trump again emphasized that the gang members are “not people, these are animals.”

The acting director of U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement, Thomas Homan, asserted that MS-13 followers are even worse than animals.

“Animals kill for survival,” he said. “MS-13 kills for sport.”

Many immigration rights activists interpret the invocation of such dehumanizing language as an attempt to degrade the majority of immigrants, legal or undocumented, who are not involved in crime.

Also of special focus during the round-table was the issue of children who are detained for being in the country illegally.

Hearing first

U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein explained that under the law, all unaccompanied alien minors, even if they are gang members, have to go before a federal judge and cannot be expeditiously extradited.

“Most of them, once they’re released, they’re here to stay,” because they don’t show up for subsequent legal hearings, according to Rosenstein.

Some of those children who do not have gang ties then end up developing them, he said.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen complained that “we still cannot bar known gang members from coming into our country.”

She vowed to “close those loopholes, and we will take our communities back under President Trump.”

A local Republican congressman, Lee Zeldin, told Trump that he favored revoking naturalization of those found to be involved in gang violence before becoming U.S. citizens. 

“We need those laws to change,” responded Trump. “The laws are horrible.”

The president has accused the leader of the opposition Democrats in the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, of defending MS-13.

“Finally, they’re starting to break up,” said Trump of Democratic lawmakers, who he contends have been unified in opposition to his immigration policies.

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Members of Congress Take to the Soccer Field in Annual Washington Charity Match

Members of the U.S. Congress and former professional athletes took to the soccer pitch Tuesday in Washington, as Republicans and Democrats fought for bragging rights during the annual Congressional Soccer Match. All to benefit charity. From Washington, VOA’s Jill Craig has more.

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US House Passes 1st Major Criminal Justice Reform Measure in 8 Years

The rate of incarceration in the U.S. is the world’s highest, leading to what many lawmakers and policy analysts say is a nationwide imprisonment epidemic. But the beginning of the end of that epidemic started Tuesday, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a Democrat from New York, told VOA.

A bipartisan prison reform bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives by a 360-59 vote “strikes an opening blow against the overcriminalization of the nation,” Jeffries, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said.

U.S. President Donald Trump said “the strong bipartisan vote paces the way for action by the Senate.” Last week, Trump endorsed the bill at a White House summit on prison reform, saying, “Our whole nation benefits if former inmates are able to reenter society as productive, law-abiding citizens.”

If the bill reaches the president’s desk for a signature, it would provide $50 million in funding for five years to provide job training, education and substance abuse treatment for prisoners as well as a number of quality-of-life measures aimed at reducing chronically high rates of recidivism among former inmates.

Contentious issue

But the contentious issue of criminal justice reform has split Democrats and Republicans within their own parties, possibly jeopardizing the bill’s chances of passage as it heads to the U.S. Senate.

In a letter to colleagues last week, Democratic Senators Kamala Harris, Dick Durbin and Cory Booker joined two House Democratic colleagues, Representatives John Lewis and Sheila Jackson Lee, in saying the bill could not be implemented effectively and could possibly lead to prison privatization.

Jeffries told VOA many of the arguments against the First Step Act “were anchored in falsehoods.”

He added the legislation passed today “is a first step towards eradicating the cancer of mass incarceration”  a move also welcomed by many House Republicans.

“Rather than allowing the cycle of crime to continue, this legislation takes a practical, intelligent approach to rehabilitation,” House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia, said, speaking of the bill’s reform measures on the House floor Tuesday.

The bill represents the first significant criminal justice reform effort since the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, a measure that reduced the disparity in the amount of crack cocaine and powder cocaine required to trigger mandatory sentences for drug offenders.

But the First Step Act faces tough odds in the Senate, where a bipartisan group of senators is pushing for more comprehensive criminal justice reform.

The rival Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, championed by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, a Republican, promises lower sentences for nonviolent, low-level offenders and gives judges greater discretion at sentencing, among other provisions.

Nearly two dozen senators have signed on to the bill, but the White House opposes the measure.   

“We need a more strategic approach to drug sentencing that focuses law enforcement resources on violent career criminals and drug kingpins instead of nonviolent, lower-level offenders,” Grassley wrote in a recent op-ed for Fox News.

Sentencing laws

Mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, instituted in the 1970s and 1980s, are widely blamed for a sharp rise in the number of U.S. prisoners in recent decades.

Though the number of U.S. prisoners has fallen in recent years, nearly half of the 184,000 inmates currently held in federal correction facilities are serving time for drug offenses, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

The divide in Congress over prison reform mirrors an unusual schism among longtime advocates of overhauling America’s criminal justice system.

At one end of the spectrum is a coalition of more than 100 advocacy groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who say the bill falls short of bringing about “meaningful” criminal justice reform.

In a letter on Monday, the group urged House members to vote down the bill, saying it fails to address “racial disparities, draconian mandatory sentences, persistent overcrowding, lack of rehabilitation, and the exorbitant costs of incarceration.”

At the other end of the divide is an unlikely grouping of more than 70 other organizations that support the legislation, ranging from Koch Industries, headed by the conservative billionaire Koch brothers, to Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that opposes mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

Kevin Ring, the group’s president, says the prospect of sentencing reform under the Trump administration is slim, leaving prison reform as the only viable alternative.

“What we don’t want to do is make the perfect the enemy of the good: kill a bill that has modest reforms that will help real people just because we’re waiting for something that’s not likely to happen in this administration,” Ring said.

Ring said he hopes negotiations in the Senate can lead to a compromise between the First Step Act and the bill advocated by Grassley.

At the White House summit last week, Trump urged lawmakers to “work out their differences” and send him a reform bill to sign.

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Trump Mum on Status of Deputy AG Rosenstein

President Donald Trump declined to say Tuesday whether he had confidence in Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, escalating pressure on the Justice Department as his White House negotiated rare access to classified documents for his congressional allies.

Asked before a private meeting with the president of South Korea if he had confidence in Rosenstein, who is overseeing the special counsel’s Russia investigation, he asked reporters to move on to another question.

“Excuse me, I have the president of South Korea here,” Trump said. “He doesn’t want to hear these questions, if you don’t mind.”

The comments came just before White House press secretary Sarah Sanders announced that a meeting to allow House Republicans to review highly classified information on the Russia probe would happen Thursday.

Sanders said FBI Director Christopher Wray, National Intelligence Director Dan Coats and Justice Department official Edward O’Callaghan would meet with House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes of California and House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Trey Gowdy of South Carolina. 

Push by Nunes

Nunes, an ardent Trump supporter, has been demanding information on an FBI source in the Russia investigation, according to the Justice Department. And Trump has taken up the cause as the White House tries to combat the threat posed by special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into potential ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.

Trump said Tuesday it would be a “disgrace” to the country if it’s shown that the FBI had spies in his campaign, and that would “make probably every political event ever look like small potatoes.”

In a tweet on Sunday, Trump demanded that the Justice Department investigate whether the FBI infiltrated his presidential campaign and “if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration!”

Trump’s demand alarmed some observers, who felt it not only violated presidential protocol but also could have a chilling effect on federal law enforcement or its use of informants.

Expansion of open probe

In response to Trump’s tweet, the Justice Department said it would expand an open, internal investigation into the ongoing Russia probe by examining whether there was any politically motivated surveillance. The White House then said Monday that Trump Chief of Staff John Kelly would organize the meeting to review the documents. But Sanders said no White House staffers — including Kelly — would be present at Thursday’s meeting.

With the demand, Trump entered into the realm of applying presidential pressure on the Justice Department regarding an investigation into his own campaign — a move few of his predecessors have made. He made it amid days of public venting about the special counsel investigation, which he has deemed a “witch hunt” that he says has yielded no evidence of collusion between his campaign and Russia.

In response, the Justice Department moved to defuse the confrontation by asking its watchdog to investigate whether there was inappropriate surveillance.

“If anyone did infiltrate or surveil participants in a presidential campaign for inappropriate purposes, we need to know about it and take appropriate action,” Rosenstein said in a statement announcing the move.

The Justice Department had originally rejected the request from Nunes, saying his request for information “regarding a specific individual” could have severe consequences, including potential loss of human life.

The department said then that the White House had signed off on its letter, but Nunes wasn’t satisfied, and continued to pressure DOJ officials.

FBI informant

The New York Times was the first to report that the FBI had an informant who met several times with Trump campaign officials who had suspicious contacts linked to Russia.

The Justice Department’s internal probe began in March at the request of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and congressional Republicans. Sessions and the lawmakers urged Inspector General Michael Horowitz to review whether FBI and Justice Department officials abused their surveillance powers by using information compiled by Christopher Steele, a former British spy, and partly paid for by Democrats to justify monitoring Carter Page, a former campaign adviser to Trump.

Horowitz said his office would look at those claims as well as communications between Steele and Justice and FBI officials.

Sunday was not the first time that Trump accused his predecessor of politically motivated activity against him.

Without substantiation, Trump tweeted in March 2017 that former President Barack Obama had conducted surveillance the previous October at Trump Tower, the New York skyscraper where Trump ran his campaign and transition and maintains a residence.

Former FBI Director James Comey later testified to Congress that internal reviews found no information to support the president’s tweets. Trump fired Comey over the FBI’s Russia investigation.

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Trump Steps Up Attacks on Russia Probe

The U.S. Department of Justice is expanding an internal probe into whether there was any political motivation when the FBI first began investigating Russian meddling in 2016 during the presidential election. President Donald Trump met with top Justice Department officials Monday following his claim via Twitter that the FBI used an informant to spy on his campaign. It was Trump’s latest in a series of escalating attacks on the Russia probe led by special counsel Robert Mueller. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.

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