Vowing to Defend Democracy, Biden Hits Hard at Trump

U.S. President Joe Biden sharpened his attacks against Donald Trump on Thursday, delivering his most forceful assertion to date that the former president and Republican front-runner represents an existential threat to the country’s democratic values and institutions.

In a speech in the western state of Arizona, Biden charged that Trump holds the “dangerous notion” that he has unchecked power and is above the law.

“Trump says the Constitution gave him, quote, the right to do whatever he wants as president, end of quote. I’ve never heard a president say that even in jest,” Biden said. “Not guided by the Constitution or by common service and decency toward our fellow Americans, but by vengeance and vindictiveness.”

Trump in 2019 said he has such rights under Article II of the Constitution, which describes the powers of the president. In March, he told supporters, “I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.”

“There’s something dangerous happening in America right now,” Biden declared in Arizona, adding that American democracy is “still at risk.”

The speech is his fourth in a series of presidential addresses that lays out what he sees as the dangers of election denialism and political violence that have loomed over the country since thousands of Trump supporters attacked Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, 2021, seeking to overturn Biden’s electoral victory.

“There is an extremist movement that does not share the basic beliefs in our democracy — the MAGA movement,” the president said, referring to his predecessor’s slogan, “Make America Great Again.” He warned that their “extreme agenda, if carried out, would fundamentally alter the institutions of American democracy.”

“They’re not hiding their attacks,” Biden said. “They’re openly promoting them, attacking the free press as the enemy of the people. Attacking the rule of law as an impediment. Fomenting voter suppression and election subversion.”

Biden has until now avoiding painting mainstream Republicans with the same brush as Trump’s most ardent supporters, whom he describes as MAGA Republicans. But this time Biden suggested that they are complicit.

“Although I don’t believe even a majority of Republicans think that, the silence is deafening,” he said, pointing to Republican reaction to Trump’s recent suggestion that General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs who will soon step down from his post should be executed for allegedly betraying the former president.

Biden’s speech came the same day that House Republicans held their first hearing in a Biden impeachment inquiry, over allegations of corruption in relation to his son Hunter’s business dealings. The Republicans detailed foreign payments to members of the Biden family but did not provide evidence that the president had benefited from the funds.

The White House denies any wrongdoing and dismisses the investigation as politically motivated.

Harshest rhetoric

While Biden has long branded the MAGA movement as an existential threat to democracy, Thursday’s speech contained some of his harshest rhetoric against Trump, who is facing four criminal indictments with a total of 91 charges ranging from falsifying business records to seeking to subvert the 2020 presidential election.

Trump has denied wrongdoing in all charges.

For months, Biden had remained mostly silent about his predecessor, likely to avoid giving credence to Trump’s assertions that the charges against him are evidence that Biden is weaponizing the justice system against a political opponent. The White House denies the allegation.

Biden did not mention any of Trump’s legal troubles in his speech, a sound strategy according to some observers.

“There’s plenty about Trump’s behavior in office and statements of what he will do if he wins in 2024 that Biden can point toward without having to say, ‘Oh, and by the way, he’s facing jail time,'” said William Howell, a professor in American politics at the University of Chicago.

Warnings of a threat to democracy posed by Trump’s MAGA movement could resonate in Arizona, a former Republican stronghold that in recent years turned into a swing state and has seen its share of efforts by Trump supporters to discredit 2020 election results.

The White House selected the state as the speech venue precisely for those reasons, as well as to honor the late Arizona Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee who died in 2018, whom Biden referred to as a “brother.”

Biden announced federal funding to construct the McCain Library at Arizona State University, using the American Rescue Plan Act, the $1.9 trillion COVID relief package passed in 2021.

Speaking before Biden, former Ambassador Cindy McCain said Biden and her late husband maintained decades of friendship despite deep political differences.

Biden contrasted McCain’s legacy and the late senator’s principle to “put partisanship aside and put country first,” to those espousing political violence.

“Democracy means rejecting and repudiating political violence,” he said. “Regardless of party, such violence is never, never, never acceptable in America.”

Do Americans care?

As Biden gears up to fight for a second term, his campaign strategists believe that defending democratic institutions and values remains a resonant theme for voters — a reason that the video announcing the president’s reelection run opened with footage of the Jan. 6 attack.

However, polls show the economy is the issue that weighs most on voters’ mind. According to a recent Reuters/Ipsos survey, 49% of Americans say inflation or price increases are the most important issues facing the country; 9% cite unemployment, and 10% cite economic inequality.

Various polls show Biden’s public approval rating stagnating below 50% since August 2021, largely due to concerns over his handling of the economy.

Attacks on American democracy may not be the No. 1 concern among voters, Chicago University’s Howell told VOA, but it’s not trivial, either, so it’s no surprise that Biden is homing in on the issue.

“If you think about democracy as a kind of a catchall category, not just for concerns about rising authoritarianism but also just the ability for our country to govern itself, concerns about rising polarization, whether or not we’re going to have another government shutdown — these kinds of things … will resonate with some voters,” Howell said.

As Biden spoke, his White House blasted out messages counting down the hours until Oct. 1, the day of a potential partial government shutdown should Congress fail to approve funding for federal agencies. The administration blames the impasse on “extreme House Republicans’ chaos and inability to govern.”

Republican front-runner

Despite his legal woes, Trump remains the dominant force in his party. A recent Ipsos/Reuters poll shows the former president is supported by 47% of Republican primary voters, a group that amounts to roughly a third of the American electorate.

Trump’s position with Republican primary voters has only strengthened over the year as various indictments have rolled out, said Chris Jackson, a senior vice president at Ipsos.

“That’s happening at the same time that his position with the general public is not necessarily strengthening the same way,” Jackson told VOA.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll found that Biden and Trump are tied in a hypothetical November 2024 election, with both receiving 39% of the vote and one in five voters undecided.

US Senator Menendez Pleads Not Guilty to Corruption Charges

U.S. Senator Bob Menendez pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to charges of taking bribes from three New Jersey businessman, as calls for his resignation from his fellow Democrats escalated.

Federal prosecutors in Manhattan last week accused Menendez, 69, and his wife of accepting gold bars and hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash in exchange for the senator using his influence to aid Egypt’s government and interfere with law enforcement investigations of the businessmen.

Menendez entered the plea at a hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge Ona Wang in Manhattan.

His wife, Nadine Menendez, 56, and businessmen Jose Uribe, 56, and Fred Daibes, 66, also pleaded not guilty. A third businessman, Wael Hana, 40, pleaded not guilty on Tuesday.

Menendez, one of two senators representing New Jersey, stepped down from his role as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as required under his party’s rules. But on Monday he said he would stay in the Senate and fight the charges.

More than half of all U.S. Democratic senators — including Cory Booker, the junior senator from New Jersey — have called on Menendez, a powerful voice on foreign policy who has at times bucked his own party, to resign since the charges were unveiled on Friday.

Democrats narrowly control the Senate with 51 seats, including three independents who normally vote with them, to the Republicans’ 49. Democratic New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, who would appoint a temporary replacement should Menendez step aside, has also called for him to resign.

The indictment contained images of gold bars and cash that investigators seized from Menendez’s home. Prosecutors say Hana arranged meetings between the senator and Egyptian officials — who pressed him to sign off on military aid — and in return put his wife on the payroll of a company he controlled.

The probe marks the third time Menendez has been under investigation by federal prosecutors. He has never been convicted.

Republicans Appeal to Far-Right Conservatives to Avert US Government Shutdown

With just a week before Washington runs out of money to keep the federal government fully operating, warring factions within the Republican Party in the U.S. Congress on Sunday showed no signs of coming together to pass a stopgap funding bill.

Congress so far has failed to finish any of the 12 regular spending bills to fund federal agency programs in the fiscal year starting on Oct. 1.

House of Representatives Speaker Kevin McCarthy will push an ambitious plan this week to win approval of four large bills, including military and homeland security funding, that he hopes would demonstrate enough progress to far-right Republicans to win their support for a stop-gap spending bill, known as a continuing resolution, or CR, as well.

Republican Representative Michael McCaul, a 19-year veteran of Congress who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, urged the group of party “holdouts” to stop blocking Republican-backed spending bills while at the same time “saying don’t bring bipartisan bills to the floor.”

“Republicans need to vote for Republican bills” to avert a shutdown, McCaul said on ABC’s “This Week” broadcast.

But some of those “holdouts,” who want deep spending cuts that go beyond a deal passed earlier this year, showed no sign of relenting.

“Continuing resolutions don’t solve the problem. They just kick the can down the road,” Republican Representative Tony Gonzalez told CBS News’ “Face the Nation.”

In June, President Joe Biden signed into law an increase in U.S. borrowing authority that he brokered with McCarthy, which also came with around $1.5 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years.

Ultra-right House Republicans want to go further with around $120 billion in additional cuts just for the new fiscal year, which could hit programs ranging from education and environmental protection to Internal Revenue Service enforcement and medical research.

Similarly, Republican Representative Tim Burchett told CNN’s “State of the Union” that he has never voted for a temporary funding bill and won’t this time around.

He warned that if McCarthy allows legislation to pass the House with Democratic support, “I would look strongly at” a move to strip McCarthy of his speakership.

“This dysfunctional Washington cannot continue,” Burchett said, referring to the way Congress handles the federal budget, which is on a path to a $1.5 trillion deficit for the fiscal year that ends on Saturday.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg warned in an ABC interview that a government shutdown will require his agency to immediately suspend air traffic controller training courses at a time when air travel is “getting back to normal” following a high volume of flight delays and disruptions last year.

Aides to McCarthy were not immediately available for comment on whether negotiations over a CR were continuing on Sunday.

But he has been pushing for a 30-day bill to keep federal offices open, coupled with a strict border security plan that would basically suspend most immigration into the United States at a time of record numbers of people seeking asylum on the border with Mexico.

Even some of the Senate’s most conservative Republicans on Sunday appealed to House counterparts to stop blocking a stop-gap bill.

“We would like for the House to begin that process of sending us a CR to keep the government open and functioning,” Senator Marsha Blackburn told Fox Business News.

Appealing to those conservatives’ eagerness for conducting investigations into Biden and some other top administration officials, Blackburn added: “If you shut down the government you can’t continue that.”

Flamethrower, Comments About Book Burning Ignite Political Firestorm in US

A longshot candidate for governor in the U.S. state of Missouri and his supporters describe his use of a flamethrower at a recent “Freedom Fest” event outside St. Louis as no big deal. They said it was a fun moment for fellow Republicans who attended, and that no one talked about burning books as he torched a pile of cardboard boxes.

But after the video gained attention on social media, State Sen. Bill Eigel said he would burn books he found objectionable, and that he’d do it on the lawn outside the governor’s mansion. He later said it was all a metaphor for how he would attack the “woke liberal agenda.”

“From a dramatic sense, if the only thing in between the children in the state of Missouri and vulgar pornographic material like that getting in their hands is me burning, bulldozing or launching (books) into outer space, I’m going to do that,” Eigel said in an interview with The Associated Press. “However, I would I make the point that I don’t believe it’s going to come to that.”

Experts say Eigel’s use of the flamethrower is a sign that rhetoric and imagery previously considered extreme are now being treated as normal in American politics. While Eigel didn’t actually destroy books, his later statement about burning ones he deemed offensive ratcheted up fears that the video’s circulation and his words on social media could help take the U.S. to a darker place.

“The slippery slope is that everything is a joke — everything can be kind of waved away,” said Kurt Braddock, an assistant professor of public communications at American University in Washington. “Everything can be seen as just rhetoric until it can’t anymore and people start using it as an excuse to actually hurt people.”

The 30-second video that put Eigel at the center of a social media storm is from a Sept. 15 event for Republicans at a winery near tiny Defiance, Missouri, about 48 kilometers west of St. Louis. He and another state senator shot long streams of flame onto a pile of cardboard in front of an appreciative crowd.

The video posted on the X platform, formerly known as Twitter, caught the attention of Jonathan Riley, a liberal activist in Durham, North Carolina, who posted Sunday that it showed “Missouri Republicans at a literal book burning,” though he’d later walk that statement back to a “metaphorical” book burning.

“It fit a narrative that they wanted to put out there,” Freedom Fest organizer Debbie McFarland said about claims that Eigel burned books. “It just didn’t happen to be the truth.”

Some of Republicans’ skepticism over the online outrage stems from Eigel’s status as a dark horse candidate to replace term-limited Republican Gov. Mike Parson. The best known candidates for the August 2024 GOP primary are Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft and Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe.

The Ashcroft campaign declined to respond to the video, the uproar it caused or Eigel’s follow-up statement. Kehoe’s campaign had no official comment, but Gregg Keller, a Republican consultant working on Kehoe’s campaign, said Eigel’s promise to burn objectionable books is “typical electioneering hyperbole.”

He added, “I would challenge you to find me any non-psychotic Republican who has actually burned” a book deemed objectionable by conservatives.

Eigel posted on the X platform that his flamethrower stunt was meant to show what he would do to the “swamp” in the state capital of Jefferson City, but “let’s be clear, you bring those woke pornographic books to Missouri schools to try to brainwash our kids, and I’ll burn those too — on the front lawn of the governor’s mansion.”

Republicans across the U.S. are backing conservative efforts to purge schools and libraries of materials with LGBTQ+ themes or books with LGBTQ+ characters. The issue resonates with Republicans in Missouri. An AP VoteCast survey of Missouri voters in the 2022 midterm elections showed that more than 75% of those voting for GOP candidates thought the K-8 schools in their community were teaching too much about gender identity or sexual orientation.

The outcry also comes after Missouri’s Republican-supermajority Legislature banned gender-affirming health care for transgender minors and required K-12 and college students to play on sports teams that match their sex assigned at birth. Eigel has sponsored measures to ban schools from teaching about gender identity or gender-affirming care and to make it a crime to perform in drag in public.

Aggressive and even violent imagery have long been a part of American politics. It can sometimes backfire.

Large guns have been a popular prop for some Republicans. Last year, a Black candidate seeking the Republican nomination in an Arizona congressional district aired an ad in which he held an AR-15 rifle as people wearing Ku Klux Klan robes and hoods tried to storm a home. He finished last.

In Missouri in 2016, Republican candidate and ex-Navy SEAL Eric Greitens ran an ad featuring him firing 100 rounds from a machine gun on his way to winning the governor’s race. After a sex and invasion-of-privacy scandal in 2018 forced him to resign, he attempted a political comeback in the state’s 2022 U.S. Senate race, running an ad featuring him with a shotgun declaring he was going hunting for RINOs, or Republicans in Name Only. He finished third in the primary.

Flamethowers also have popped up previously. In 2020, a GOP congressional candidate in Alabama showed her support for then-President Donald Trump by torching a mockup of the first articles of impeachment against him. She finished third in the primary. And in South Dakota, Gov. Kristi Noem’s staff gave her a flamethrower last year as a Christmas gift.

Experts who study political extremism said images involving fire or bonfires have long been associated with extremist groups. Eigel’s critics quickly posted online images involving the Ku Klux Klan and Nazi book burnings before World War II.

Evan Perkoski, an associate political science professor at the University of Connecticut, said it’s been “traditional” for extremist groups to use images of fire to “simultaneously intimidate people and signal their intentions to destroy what exists and to rebuild or start over.”

“We’ve seen this time and time again from groups across countries where groups will burn effigies, crosses and other items, or even just film themselves around large conflagrations,” he said in a email to AP. “A large part of their motivation is the symbolic, frightening nature of fire.”

Experts continue to worry about how social media can spread extreme or violent images or words to potentially millions of people, increasing the chances of a single person seeing the material as a call to violence.

Javed Ali, a former senior FBI counterterrorism official who’s now an associate professor at the University of Michigan, said law enforcement agencies struggle with thwarting homegrown political violence. He said the sheer volume of social media postings means, “Sometimes, you almost have to get lucky in order to stop it.”

Braddock, the American University professor, said that after portraying a flamethrower as a weapon against “the woke agenda,” Eigel’s supporters don’t need “that big a leap of logic” to see it as a tool for settling actual political grievances. Talking about book burning enough can plant the idea in people’s minds so that “people think it’s actually a righteous thing to do.”

Ali added: “That’s a pretty dangerous game to play.”

Eigel said he’s not worried the video will inspire violence in “reasonable, everyday Missourians,” which he said is the majority of people. But he said he’s concerned about the number of threats he, his family and his staff have received as a result.

US Joins List of Top 50 Conflict-Ridden Countries

The United States is the only Western nation among the world’s 50 most conflict-ridden countries, according to new research that measures political violence around the globe.

The U.S. ranking is driven by rising levels of political violence and a proliferation of far-right groups in the country in recent years, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, or ACLED. 

ACLED, a data collection, analysis and crisis mapping nonprofit based in the U.S. state of Wisconsin, gathers data for more than 240 countries and territories around the world. In the 12 months to early September, it recorded more than 139,000 incidents of political violence worldwide, an increase of 27% over the prior year.

The ACLED Conflict Index ranks every country and territory according to four indicators — deadliness, danger to civilians, geographic diffusion and armed group fragmentation — using data collected for the past year.

While most countries saw at least one incident of political violence over the past year, 50 were ranked the highest in terms of their levels of conflict, receiving ratings of “extreme,” “high,” or “turbulent.”

Myanmar, with the highest number of armed groups in the world, topped the list with a rating of “extreme,” followed by Syria and Mexico.

The U.S. was rated as “turbulent,” along with 19 other countries, mostly in Africa and Asia, including Libya, Ghana and Chad.

Sam Jones, head of communications at ACLED, said the U.S. placement on the list shows that political violence is not confined to poor or nondemocratic countries.

“The U.S. is in the same turbulent index category as other countries that might be more traditionally understood as ‘conflict-affected’ like the Central African Republic … though, of course, it has a much lower overall ranking than such countries, which is important to note,” Jones said in an email to VOA.

Jones said a deterioration in two indicators — danger to civilians and armed group fragmentation — was largely responsible for the U.S. ranking.

“Danger to civilians” represents the number of violent incidents targeting civilians and includes acts of violence such as police shootings.

The “armed group fragmentation” indicator is equally important. It indicates the number of armed groups such as militias involved in political violence.

In the American context, it means that “non-state armed actors, such as far-right militia groups … have increasingly proliferated and splintered, which is correlated with higher risks of violence and creates additional obstacles for violence prevention efforts,” Jones said.

While the U.S. is the only Western nation in ACLED’s list of the top 50 conflict-ridden countries, it is not the only country in the West that has seen an increase in political violence and unrest.

France was wracked by violent anti-police riots this summer after police shot and killed a teenager in a Paris suburb.

Canada has seen a small but noticeable uptick in anti-LGBTQ demonstrations in recent years, a spillover from larger U.S. protests organized by far-right groups.

Thomas Zeitzoff, a political violence expert at the American University in Washington, noted that recent elections in both France and Canada have been marked by vitriolic rhetoric.

“It’s not the same level of violence [in France and Canada], but I think in general the U.S. is not isolated in that there is definitely … across the Western world … increased political contention,” Zeitzoff said.

Zeitzoff cautioned that the ACLED data might be subject to a “reporting bias” because the U.S. has a free press that reports on violence while many countries with high levels of violence have less press freedom.

“We have a pretty good idea when violence happens in the U.S., but we don’t have a very good idea about when violence happens in rural Mexico or in northern Nigeria or in rural parts of Afghanistan,” Zeitzoff said in an interview.

Asked about this criticism, Jones said data collection in countries which restrict media is a challenge ACLED has tried to mitigate by relying on verified “new media” and its network of more than 60 partner organizations around the world.

“There are no perfect solutions — and we certainly don’t purport to be perfect; our data represent estimates and we encourage users to take all of these caveats and methodological limitations into consideration when working with the data — but we are always trying to improve and account for any such challenges and potential biases as best we can,” Jones said.

ACLED has been tracking U.S. political violence since 2020, a year marked by a perfect storm of crises — a deadly pandemic, social justice protests and a divisive presidential election.

“Those three things made the U.S. really kind of explode in terms of demonstrations, but also political violence,” said ACLED President and CEO Clionadh Raleigh, who created ACLED as an academic project in 2005.

Whether the trend of rising conflict continues into the 2024 U.S. presidential election remains to be seen, Raleigh said during a Tuesday webinar on ACLED’s latest findings.

“But what we can say is that the U.S. has reached a level of demonstrations, including riots and potential mob violence, that it’s managing to sustain rather than decrease from even in nonelection years,” Raleigh said.

“And that is, I think, unsettling quite a number of people because it’s highly localized … and it has a lot [of] fuel to keep it going with the U.S. political system.”

Senate Confirms Chairman of Joint Chiefs

 The Senate on Wednesday confirmed Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, putting him in place to succeed Gen. Mark Milley when he retires at the end of the month.

Brown’s confirmation on an 83-11 vote, months after President Joe Biden nominated him for the post, comes as Democrats try to maneuver around holds placed on hundreds of nominations by Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville over the Pentagon’s abortion policy. The Senate is also expected to confirm Gen. Randy George to be Army Chief of Staff and Gen. Eric Smith as commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps this week.

Tuberville has been blocking the Senate from the routine process of approving military nominations in groups, frustrating Democrats who had said they would not go through the time-consuming process of bringing up individual nominations for a vote. More than 300 nominees are stalled amid Tuberville’s blockade and confirming them one-by-one would take months.

But Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, reversed course on Wednesday and moved to force votes on Brown, George and Smith.

“Senator Tuberville is forcing us to face his obstruction head on,” Schumer said. “I want to make clear to my Republican colleagues — this cannot continue.”

Tuberville did not object to the confirmation votes, saying he will maintain his holds but is fine with bringing up nominations individually for roll call votes.

White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said that Brown’s confirmation, along with expected votes on Smith and George, is positive news. But “we should have never been in this position,” he said.

“While good for these three officers, it doesn’t fix the problem or provide a path forward for the 316 other general and flag officers that are held up by this ridiculous hold,” Kirby told reporters.

Brown, a career fighter pilot, was the Air Force’s first Black commander of the Pacific Air Forces and most recently its first Black chief of staff, making him the first African American to lead any of the military branches. His confirmation will also mark the first time the Pentagon’s top two posts were held by African Americans, with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin as the top civilian leader.

Brown, 60, replaces Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Mark Milley, who is retiring after four decades in military service. Milley’s four-year term as chairman ends on Sept. 30.

Tuberville said on Wednesday that he will continue to hold up the other nominations unless the Pentagon ends its policy of paying for travel when a service member has to go out of state to get an abortion or other reproductive care. The Biden administration instituted the policy after the Supreme Court overturned the nationwide right to an abortion and some states have limited or banned the procedure.

“Let’s do one at a time or change the policy back,” Tuberville said after Schumer put the three nominations up for a vote. “Let’s vote on it.”

The votes come as a host of military officers have spoken out about the damage of the delays for service members. While Tuberville’s holds are focused on all general and flag officers, they carry career impacts on the military’s younger rising officers. Until each general or admiral is confirmed, it blocks an opportunity for a more junior officer to rise.

That affects pay, retirement, lifestyle and future assignments — and in some fields where the private sector will pay more, it becomes harder to convince those highly trained young leaders to stay.

The blockade has frustrated members on both sides of the aisle, and it is still unclear how the larger standoff will be resolved. Schumer did not say if he will put additional nominations on the floor.

Vietnam, US Upgrade Partnership; Activists Critique Silence on Human Rights

Hanoi and Washington have announced an upgrade in bilateral ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership, the top designation in Vietnam’s diplomatic hierarchy. A U.S. strategy of noninterference into Vietnam’s domestic politics has been crucial to Hanoi agreeing to the deal, experts say, but activists and rights groups are frustrated by the lack of focus on human rights as the crackdown on civil society worsens in the Southeast Asian country.

U.S. President Joe Biden arrived in Hanoi on Sunday to meet with General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong. That afternoon, Trong and Biden announced they had agreed to a comprehensive strategic partnership for peace, cooperation, and sustainable development. In a lengthy joint statement, a paragraph was dedicated to the “promotion and protection of human rights.”

Deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch Phil Robertson said human rights were treated as an “afterthought” during the visit.

“The White House statement afterwards was pathetic, flagging an ongoing U.S. – Vietnam human rights ‘dialogue’ that conveniently sequesters human rights issues to a symbolic, once a year meeting with mid-level officials who talk but don’t get anything concrete done,” Robertson wrote over email.

Singer and activist Do Nguyen Mai Khoi fled Vietnam for the United States in 2019 after being threatened with arrest. She is disappointed with Washington’s standpoint as she has seen authorities jail all of the country’s activists “who didn’t want to stay quiet or live in hiding” and the government has begun arresting environmentalists and NGO leaders, she told VOA.

There are currently 191 activists in prison in Vietnam, according to the U.S.-based human rights group The 88 Project.

“Human rights and activism in Vietnam has gotten worse and worse since I left,” Mai Khoi wrote over the messaging app Signal. “[The U.S.] thinks they already have done enough for human rights by announcing some statements every time a famous activist gets arrested or giving a prize to a famous political prisoner. I think the U.S. could do better than that.”


Persuading Hanoi that the United States will steer clear of domestic politics has been a yearslong project.

In the past, Vietnamese leaders have been wary that an upgraded partnership with the U.S. would come with the agenda of shifting the country’s communist political system, said Le Hong Hiep, senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. By putting democratic values to the side, he said, Washington was able to persuade Hanoi to upgrade ties.

“There’s a kind of commitment on the U.S. side not to interfere in Vietnam’s politics,” Hiep said. “In recent years they also have become less critical of Vietnam’s human rights record and that also helped to ease the concern of Vietnam’s leadership.”

To quell anti-American resistance, the Biden administration softened its language regarding promoting democracy and made a distinction between “good communists and bad communists” in their National Security Strategy, said Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“When you look at the National Security Strategy, the language that was included was not that authoritarian states are a danger to the United States. It says that the administration will focus on opposing authoritarian states who export their authoritarianism,” Poling stated. “What the Biden administration did was steadily soften that language not exclusively for Vietnam, but for Vietnam more than any other country.”

General Secretary Trong spoke to the importance of noninterference while announcing the upgraded partnership Sunday.

“We value America’s stance of supporting a strong, independent, and self-reliant Vietnam,” Trong stated, as reported in the Vietnamese daily newspaper, Thanh Nien. “We also want to emphasize that the understanding of noninterference in each other’s internal affairs are basic principles that are very important.”

Civil society

Duy Hoang, executive director of Viet Tan, an unsanctioned pro-democracy political party in Vietnam, said there’s been a wave of activist arrests since 2017 and authorities are now cracking down on NGOs and environmentalists.

While he sees the potential benefits the upgraded U.S. partnership could have, he’d like Washington to speak more publicly on human rights.

“It’s important for the people of Vietnam to know that the United States is a friend of the people of Vietnam, not just the government,” he told VOA. “I want to see the U.S. government to be a little bit stronger on human rights.”

Further, he is concerned about how stated aims of the partnership, including addressing climate change, will be addressed considering the active crackdown on civil society.

Five prominent environmentalists have been jailed on tax evasion charges in the last two years, a charge Hoang describes as “trumped up financial charges.” Most recently, Hoang Thi Minh Hong, the former CEO of the environment-focused NGO Change, was arrested for tax evasion and remains in pre-trial detention.

“How can we talk about environmental protection without environmental activists,” Hoang said.

Mai Khoi is still hopeful the U.S. partnership could help human rights conditions in Vietnam but said she’d be disappointed if the deal goes through without the release of leading climate activists, including Hong.

“I will be very disappointed if the climate activists … are still in jail and the upgrade to the partnership still happens,” Mai Khoi said, noting activists she’d liked to see released but who remain jailed.

US House’s Bipartisan Measures Target Iran Over Woman’s Death, Missile Program

The U.S. House overwhelmingly approved measures Tuesday targeting Iran for its human rights record and placing restrictions on the country’s ability to import or export its expanding arsenal of weapons.

The measures would impose a series of sanctions on Iran’s supreme leader, president and other individuals as Washington seeks to further punish the Islamic Republic ahead of the one-year anniversary of nationwide protests. The resolutions will now go to the Senate, where it is unclear if the Democratic-controlled chamber will take them up.

The first bill takes aim at Iran’s production and exports of missiles and drones by sanctioning individuals involved in the process, while the second imposes sanctions on high-ranking government officials for “human rights abuses and support for terrorism.” The third resolution specifically condemns the government’s persecution of the Baha’i minority.

The near-unanimous passage of all three represents a renewed condemnation by Congress against Iran’s government, which engaged in a brutal crackdown of its citizenry after the September 2022 death of Mahsa Amini in police custody.

Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana, the co-sponsor of the second bill, posted on social media that it was past time “to sanction those responsible for Mahsa’s murder and the repression of brave Iranian protestors.”

Amini had been detained for allegedly wearing her hijab too loosely in violation of strictures demanding women in public wear the Islamic headscarves. The 22-year-old died three days later in police custody. Authorities said she had a heart attack but hadn’t been harmed. Her family has disputed that, leading to the public outcry.

The protests that ensued represented one of the largest challenges to Iran’s theocracy since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. A security force crackdown that followed saw over 500 people killed and more than 22,000 people detained.

The unrest only further complicated any attempt by the Biden administration to restart negotiations between Washington and Tehran — after former President Donald Trump abruptly withdrew U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018.

And it has remained a point of contention for Republicans in Congress, who have sought to use the power of their majority in the House over the past several months to introduce or pass a series of binding and nonbinding resolutions related to the country’s abuse of human rights as well as its nuclear and missile programs.

The passage of the resolutions also comes a day after the Biden administration cleared the way for the release of five American citizens detained in Iran by issuing a blanket waiver for international banks to transfer $6 billion in frozen Iranian money without fear of U.S. sanctions.

In response, Rep, Michael McCaul, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said while he was relieved to see the hostages released, the deal sets a bad precedent.

“I remain deeply concerned that the administration’s decision to waive sanctions to facilitate the transfer of $6 billion in funds for Iran, the world’s top state sponsor of terrorism, creates a direct incentive for America’s adversaries to conduct future hostage-taking,” he said.

Can 14th Amendment Keep Trump From Seeking a Second Term?

A new lawsuit to bar former President Donald Trump from appearing on the 2024 Colorado primary ballot has revived a legal and political debate over an obscure provision of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, a progressive watchdog, filed the lawsuit on behalf of six Colorado voters on Wednesday. It claims that Trump is ineligible to run for the White House again because he supported an “insurrection” against the Constitution on Jan. 6, 2021, when a mob of his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol to disrupt the Congressional certification of Joe Biden’s victory.

The lawsuit cites Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, which was ratified in 1868 to prevent former Confederate officials and soldiers from regaining power after the 1861-65 American Civil War.

The provision, known as the “disqualification clause” and “insurrection clause,” says that no one who has taken an oath to support the Constitution and then “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” against the Constitution or “given aid or comfort” to its enemies can hold any federal or state office unless given a waiver by Congress.

“Because Trump took these actions after he swore an oath to support the Constitution, Section 3 of the 14th Amendment prohibits him from being president and from qualifying for the Colorado ballot for president in 2024,” the CREW lawsuit says.

The lawsuit raises several questions, including whether Trump’s actions in the lead-up to Jan. 6 constituted a rebellion or insurrection, whether Section 3 applies to the presidency, and whether state election officials have the power to enforce it without an act of Congress.

CREW is not the only group seeking Trump’s disqualification. Two other liberal groups — Free Speech for People, and Mia Familia Vota Education Fund — recently asked top election officials in more than 10 states to bar Trump and have vowed to take legal action.

On his Truth Social platform, Trump claimed this week that “almost all legal scholars” agree that the 14th Amendment doesn’t apply to the 2024 presidential election.  He called the effort “election interference” and “just another ‘trick’ being used by the Radical Left Communists, Marxists, and Fascists, to again steal an election.”

But it’s not just those on the left making the case. In recent weeks, a growing number of conservative legal scholars have joined the calls for Trump’s removal from the ballot.

Among them are J. Michael Luttig, a conservative former federal appellate judge, and Steven Calabresi, a co-founder of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal organization. They contend that Trump’s actions constitute an insurrection against the Constitution, and that disqualifies him from holding office again.

Here is what you need to know about the Section 3 of the 14th Amendment and the push to kick Trump off the 2024 presidential ballot:

What is Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, and what does it say?

The 14th Amendment is one of three amendments to the U.S. Constitution that were enacted after the Civil War to extend civil and legal rights to formerly enslaved Black people.

The amendment is best known for its Section 1, which grants citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States” and guarantees citizens the “equal protection of the laws.”

The amendment’s less-well-known Section 3 states that no one who took an “oath … to support the Constitution of the United States” and then “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” against the Constitution or gave “aid or comfort to [its] enemies” can serve as a senator, representative or presidential elector or hold any office — civil or military — unless approved by a supermajority vote of Congress.

How has the provision been used in the past?

In the years after the U.S. Civil War, a period known as the Reconstruction Era, the provision was used to prevent former Confederate officials from holding office.

But the measure remained largely dormant for more than 150 years until the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol.

Following that attack, liberal groups sought to use Section 3 to challenge the eligibility of several Congressional candidates who had opposed the 2020 election results. The effort failed to gain traction. The only successful application of Section 3 occurred last September, when a New Mexico judge removed from office a county commissioner who had been convicted in connection with Jan. 6.

Does the provision apply to the president?

Section 3 does not explicitly mention whether the president is subject to disqualification under the provision, leading some experts to argue that the presidency is exempt.

But that is a misreading of the text and history of the provision, said Gerard Magliocca, an Indiana University law professor who has written extensively about Section 3.

“This issue was raised in Congress when the proposal was under consideration,” Magliocca told VOA. “Someone said, does this apply to the presidency or the vice presidency? And the answer given was yes, it does.”

What is more, Magliocca said, the phrase “officer of the United States,” as used in Section 3, refers to the president, making him subject to the disqualification provision.

“Andrew Johnson, who was president at the time, repeatedly referred to himself as the chief executive officer of the United States in asserting his authority to pursue Reconstruction in the aftermath of the Civil War in 1865,” Magliocca said.

What are the legal arguments for and against applying Section 3 to Trump?

Though initially designed to punish rebellious Southerners, most legal scholars agree that Section 3 may apply to any act of rebellion or insurrection. The debate now is whether Jan. 6 qualifies as such an act.

Proponents of Trump’s disqualification say that it does and that the case against the former president is straightforward: Trump swore to uphold the Constitution as president but then broke that vow when he instigated the Jan. 6 “insurrection,” making him unfit for office under Section 3.

The provision doesn’t require a criminal conviction, said U.S. Representative Adam Schiff, a Democrat and a staunch Trump critic.

“It just requires that you engage in these [insurrection] acts,” Schiff said recently on MSNBC. “It’s a disqualification from holding office again. And it fits Donald Trump to a T.”

Opponents disagree that Jan. 6 rises to the level of an insurrection. They note Section 3 was added in response to a real rebellion.

“But it is notable that Trump has not been charged even with incitement, let alone rebellion or insurrection,” said Jonathan Turley, a conservative law professor at The George Washington University, Wednesday on Fox News.

Derek Muller, a law professor and election law expert at University of Notre Dame, said the dispute in part hinges on what acts count as insurrection.

“If you’re making a comparison to the Civil War, what happened on January 6th was certainly not at that level, but are there lesser acts that could fit this?” Muller said.

Another question concerns the role of Congress in disqualifying individuals. Some scholars have argued that Section 3 is not “self-executing,” meaning it needs an act of Congress to be implemented.  But others say no such action is needed.

“I don’t have strong thoughts on those questions, but I think they’re the things that people are wondering about, whether or not it applies in the context of what happened today,” Muller said.

The courts will decide

The legal challenges to Trump’s candidacy are just beginning to make their way through the courts and eventually may end up before the Supreme Court.

Secretaries of state from Democratic-leaning states such as Colorado and Michigan say they’ll await court guidance before taking action. But the courts may not weigh in soon.

“I think a lot of state courts will be very reluctant to hear these claims early,” Muller said.

This is not the first time a major presidential candidate has faced legal challenges over his eligibility.

Barack Obama in 2008 and Ted Cruz in 2016 faced lawsuits over questions regarding whether they were “natural born citizens,” a requirement for presidency.

Obama was born in Hawaii to a Kenyan father and American mother. Cruz was born in Canada to a Cuban father and American mother.

But the lawsuits didn’t reach the “merits” stage to address the key question — was the candidate a natural born citizen? — as they ground through procedural hurdles.

A similar fate may await the legal challenges to Trump’s candidacy, Muller said.

“Many of these cases will continue the same way, hitting all those barriers before they get to the heart of the question: Did you participate in an insurrection or rebellion?” Muller said. 

Prosecutors Seeking New Indictment for Hunter Biden

Federal prosecutors plan to seek a grand jury indictment of President Joe Biden’s son Hunter before the end of the month, according to court documents filed Wednesday.

The filing came in a gun possession case in which Hunter Biden was accused of having a firearm while being a drug user, though prosecutors did not name exactly which charges they will seek. He has also been under investigation by federal prosecutors for his business dealings.

Prosecutors under U.S. Attorney for Delaware David Weiss, newly named a special counsel in the case, said they expect an indictment before Sept. 29.

Hunter Biden’s lawyers, though, argued that prosecutors are barred from filing additional charges under an agreement the two sides previously reached in the gun case. It contains an immunity clause against federal prosecutions for some other potential crimes. Defense attorney Abbe Lowell said Hunter Biden has kept to the terms of the deal, including regular visits by the probation office.

“We expect a fair resolution of the sprawling, five-year investigation into Mr. Biden that was based on the evidence and the law, not outside political pressure, and we’ll do what is necessary on behalf of Mr. Biden to achieve that,” he said in a statement.

Prosecutors have said that the gun agreement is dead along with the rest of the plea agreement that called for Hunter Biden to plead guilty to misdemeanor tax offenses. It fell apart after U.S. District Judge Maryellen Noreika raised questions about it during a court appearance in July.

The Justice Department did not have immediate comment.

News of a possible new indictment comes as House Republicans are preparing for a likely impeachment inquiry of President Biden over unsubstantiated claims that he played a role in his son’s foreign business affairs during his time as vice president.

“If you look at all the information we have been able to gather so far, it is a natural step forward that you would have to go to an impeachment inquiry,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told Fox News recently.

The younger Biden has been the target of congressional investigations since Republicans gained control of the House in January, with lawmakers obtaining thousands of pages of financial records from various members of the Biden family through subpoenas to the Treasury Department and various financial institutions. Three powerful House committees are now pursuing several lines of inquiry related to the president and his son.

And while Republicans have sought to connect Hunter Biden’s financial affairs directly to his father, they have failed to produce evidence that the president directly participated in his son’s work, though he sometimes had dinner with Hunter Biden’s clients or said hello to them on calls.

In recent months, Republicans have also shifted their focus to delving into the Justice Department’s investigation of Hunter Biden after whistleblower testimony claimed he has received special treatment throughout the yearslong case.

Hunter Biden was charged in June with two misdemeanor crimes of failure to pay more than $100,000 in taxes from over $1.5 million in income in both 2017 and 2018. He had been expected to plead guilty in July, after he made an agreement with prosecutors, who were planning to recommend two years of probation. The case fell apart during the hearing after Noreika, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, raised multiple concerns about the specifics of the deal and her role in the proceedings.

If prosecutors file a new gun possession charge, it could run into court challenges. A federal appeals court in Louisiana ruled against the ban on gun possession by drug users last month, citing a 2022 gun ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court.

News of another indictment comes after U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland named Weiss a special counsel, giving him broad authority to investigate and report out his findings and intensifying the investigation into the president’s son ahead of the 2024 election.

The White House Counsel’s office referred questions to Hunter Biden’s personal attorneys. 

US Lawmakers Have 10 Working Days to Keep the Government Open

US lawmakers face a long list of priorities as they return to work this week after their monthlong August recess. With battles looming over U.S. aid to Ukraine and a possible impeachment of President Joe Biden, the top concern remains funding the U.S. government to keep it from shutting down on Oct. 1. VOA’s Congressional Correspondent Katherine Gypson has more.

Texas AG’s Impeachment Trial Rests With Fellow Republicans

Billionaires, burner phones, alleged bribes: The impeachment trial of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is going to test the will of Republicans senators to oust not only one of their own, but a firebrand who has helped drive the state’s hard turn to the right for years. 

The historic proceedings set to start in the state Senate Tuesday are the most serious threat yet to one of Texas’ most powerful figures after nine years engulfed by criminal charges, scandal and accusations of corruption. If convicted, Paxton — just the third official in Texas’ nearly 200-year history to be impeached — could be removed from office. 

Witnesses called to testify could include Paxton and a woman with whom he has acknowledged having an extramarital affair. Members of the public hoping to watch from the gallery will have to line up for passes. And conservative activists have already bought up TV airtime and billboards, pressuring senators to acquit one of former President Donald Trump’s biggest defenders. 

“It’s a very serious event but it’s a big-time show,” said Bill Miller, a longtime Austin lobbyist and a friend of Paxton. “Any way you cut it, it’s going to have the attention of anyone and everyone.” 

Deepens division in party

The build-up to the trial has widened divisions among Texas Republicans that reflect the wider fissures roiling the party nationally heading into the 2024 election. 

At the fore of recent Texas policies are hardline measures to stop migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, battles over what is taught in public schools, and restrictions on LGBTQ+ rights — many of which are championed loudest in the Senate, where Republicans hold a dominant 19-12 majority and have Paxton’s fate in their hands. 

The Senate has long been a welcoming place for Paxton. His wife, Angela, is a state senator, although she is barred from voting in the trial. Paxton also was a state senator before becoming attorney general in 2015 and still has entanglements in the chamber, including with Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who will preside over the trial and loaned $125,000 to Paxton’s reelection campaign. 

If all 12 Democrats vote to convict Paxton, they would still need at least nine Republicans on their side. Or the Senate could vote by a simple majority to dismiss the charges altogether. It was a GOP-dominated House that decided by an overwhelming majority that Paxton should be impeached. 

“You’re seeing a fracture within the party right now,” said Matt Langston, a Republican political consultant in Texas. “This is going to impact the leadership and the party for a long time.” 

The trial also appears to have heightened Paxton’s legal risks. The case against him largely centers on his relationship with Nate Paul, an Austin real estate developer who was indicted this summer after being accused of making false statements to banks to secure $170 million in loans. 

Last month, federal prosecutors in Washington kicked a long-running investigation of Paxton into a higher gear when they began using a grand jury in San Antonio to examine his dealings with Paul, according to two people with knowledge of the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of secrecy rules around grand jury proceedings. The grand jury’s role was first reported by the Austin American-Statesman. 

Chris Toth, the former executive director of the National Association of Attorneys General, said Paxton has for years weathered scandals unique among top state lawyers. He said the outcome of the trial will send a message about what is acceptable to elected officials across the country. 

Impeachment managers in the GOP-controlled Texas House filed nearly 4,000 pages of exhibits ahead of the trial, including accusations that Paxton hid the use of multiple cellphones and reveled in other perks of office. 

“There’s very much a vile and insidious level of influence that Ken Paxton exerts through continuing to get away with his conduct,” Toth said. 

Comparison to Trump

Part of Paxton’s political durability is his alignment with Trump, and this was never more apparent than when Paxton joined efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Like Trump, Paxton says he is a victim of politically motivated investigations. 

But James Dickey, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, said the base of the GOP sees Paxton’s impeachment as different from legal troubles facing Trump. 

“Exclusively, the actions against President Trump are from Democrat elected officials and so it can’t avoid having more of a partisan tone,” he said. “Therefore, Republican voters have more concern and frustration with it.” 

Patrick, in a rare television interview last month, was explicit in what the trial is and is not. 

“It’s not a criminal trial. It’s not a civil trial,” he told Houston television station KRIV. “It’s a political trial.” 

Politicians, Officials Reflect on Death of Bill Richardson

Politicians and officials are sharing memories and reflections on the life of Bill Richardson following news of his death on Saturday.

The two-term governor of the U.S. state of New Mexico, who served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and worked to free detained Americans, died in his sleep at his home in Chatham, Massachusetts. He was 75.

In a statement Saturday, U.S. President Joe Biden said Richardson wore many weighty titles during his life – member of Congress, governor, ambassador, Cabinet secretary.

“He seized every chance to serve and met every new challenge with joy, determined to do the most good for his country, his beloved New Mexico, and Americans around the world,” Biden said in the statement. “Few have served our nation in as many capacities or with as much relentlessness, creativity, and good cheer. He will be deeply missed.”

Richardson, the son of a Mexican mother and an American father, attempted to become the first Hispanic American U.S. president but dropped out of the 2008 race when it became clear that he did not have a chance of winning. He then endorsed Barack Obama.

“As a member of Congress, a Cabinet member, a Governor, and as an Ambassador, Bill Richardson was one of the most distinguished public servants of our time,” Obama posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.  “He was a tireless diplomat, the type of advocate who brought a glimmer of hope – and in many cases freedom – to those Americans detained abroad under the most trying circumstances.”

Richardson represented northern New Mexico in Congress for 14 years and served as the U.S. energy secretary under President Bill Clinton.

“He was a masterful and persistent negotiator who helped make our world more secure and won the release of many individuals held unjustly abroad,” Clinton said in a statement. “He was also a trailblazer whose career helped pave the path for other Latino Americans to serve at the highest levels of American government.”

In 2002, he was elected governor of New Mexico, a post he held for two terms, from 2003 to 2011.

During his congressional tenure and afterward, Richardson earned a reputation as a skilled negotiator, after gaining the release of a number of Americans after meeting at different times with foreign leaders that included Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro and officials in North Korea and Myanmar.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “Governor Richardson dedicated his life to public service and worked tirelessly to release Americans held hostage overseas.”

Biden Heads to Florida to Survey Storm Damage; No DeSantis Meeting Set

U.S. President Joe Biden heads to Florida on Saturday to survey damage caused by Hurricane Idalia and comfort people affected by the storm, but he will not be meeting Ron DeSantis, the state’s Republican governor and a potential presidential rival.

Biden, a Democrat, told reporters on Friday he would see the governor during the trip, but DeSantis’s spokesman Jeremy Redfern said later that no meeting was planned and that “the security preparations alone that would go into setting up such a meeting would shut down ongoing recovery efforts.”

DeSantis, 44, is running for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination to oust Biden from the White House but trails former President Donald Trump in polls. Biden, 80, is running for re-election.

Biden and DeSantis have spoken regularly through the week about the storm, which pummeled Florida’s Big Bend region with Category 3 winds of nearly 200 kph (125 mph). On Wednesday the president said politics had not crept into their conversations. “I think he trusts my judgment and my desire to help,” Biden said.

The White House said that Biden, who is traveling with his wife, Jill, informed DeSantis about the visit during a conversation on Thursday, and that the governor did not raise concerns then. 

“Their visit to Florida has been planned in close coordination with FEMA as well as state and local leaders to ensure there is no impact on response operations,” White House spokesperson Emilie Simons said, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

DeSantis has been a sharp critic of Biden, and the two have clashed over COVID-19 vaccines, abortion and LGBTQ rights. But they met last year when Biden went to Florida to assess the devastation from Hurricane Ian. Biden said at the time that they had worked together “hand-in-glove.”

DeSantis may not want to be photographed with Biden overlooking storm damage now as the Republican presidential primary race intensifies. Although he trails Trump, DeSantis leads the other Republican candidates in the race.

Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who is also running for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, drew criticism for his praise of President Barack Obama in 2012 when the Democrat visited his state in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy.

Biden visited Hawaii last week in the aftermath of deadly fires there and said on Wednesday that no one could deny the climate crisis in light of the extreme weather. He is slated to travel to his home state of Delaware for the weekend after concluding the Florida trip.

US Election Workers Getting Death Threats, Warnings They Will Be Lynched, Officials Say

More than a dozen people nationally have been charged with threatening election workers by a Justice Department unit trying to stem the tide of violent and graphic threats against people who count and secure the vote.

Government employees are being bombarded with threats even in normally quiet periods between elections, secretaries of state and experts warn. Some point to former President Donald Trump and his allies repeatedly and falsely claiming the 2020 election was stolen and spreading conspiracy theories about election workers. Experts fear the 2024 election could be worse and want the federal government to do more to protect election workers.

The Justice Department created the Election Threats Task Force in 2021 led by its public integrity section, which investigates election crimes. John Keller, the unit’s second in command, said in an interview with The Associated Press that the department hoped its prosecutions would deter others from threatening election workers.

“This isn’t going to be taken lightly. It’s not going to be trivialized,” he said. “Federal judges, the courts are taking misconduct seriously and the punishments are going to be commensurate with the seriousness of the conduct.”

Two more men pleaded guilty Thursday to threatening election workers in Arizona and Georgia in separate cases. Attorney General Merrick Garland said the Justice Department would keep up the investigations, adding, “A functioning democracy requires that the public servants who administer our elections are able to do their jobs without fearing for their lives.”

The unit has filed 14 cases and two have resulted in yearslong prison sentences, including a 2 1/2-year sentence Monday for Mark Rissi, an Iowa man charged with leaving a message threatening to “lynch” and “hang” an Arizona election official. He had been “inundated with misinformation” and now “feels horrible” about the messages he left, his lawyer Anthony Knowles said.

A Texas man was given 3 1/2 years earlier this month after suggesting a “mass shooting of poll workers and election officials” last year, charges stated. In one message, the Justice Department said, the man wrote: “Someone needs to get these people AND their children. The children are the most important message to send.” His lawyer did not return a message seeking comment.

One indictment unveiled in August was against a man accused of leaving an expletive-filled voicemail after the 2020 election for Tina Barton, a Republican who formerly was the clerk in Rochester Hills, Michigan, outside Detroit. According to the indictment, the person vowed that “a million plus patriots will surround you when you least expect it” and “we’ll … kill you.”

Barton said it was just one of many threats that left her feeling deeply anxious.

“I’m really hopeful the charges will send a strong message, and we won’t find ourselves in the same position after the next election,” she said.

Normally, the periods between elections are quiet for the workers who run voting systems around the U.S. But for many, that’s no longer true, said Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat who has pushed back against conspiracy theories surrounding elections.

“I anticipate it will get worse as we end this year and go into the presidential election next year,” Griswold said.

Griswold said the threats come in “waves,” usually following social media posts by prominent figures about false claims the 2020 election was stolen or blog posts on far-right websites. While the nation is more informed about the threats to election workers, she worries that there haven’t been enough prosecutions and states haven’t taken enough action to protect workers.

“Do we have the best tools to get through the next period of time? Absolutely not,” Griswold said.

Election officials note that there have been thousands of threats nationwide yet relatively few prosecutions. They say they understand the high bar to actually prosecute a case but that more could be done.

Liz Howard, a former Virginia election official now at the Brennan Center for Justice’s elections and government program, called on the Justice Department to hire a senior adviser with existing relationships with election officials to improve outreach.

About 1 in 5 election workers know someone who left their election job for safety reasons and 73% of local election officials said harassment has increased, according to a Brennan Center survey published in April.

The task force has reviewed more than 2,000 reports of threats and harassment across the country since its inception, though most of those cases haven’t brought charges from prosecutors who point to the high legal bar set by the Supreme Court for criminal prosecution. Communication must be considered a “true threat,” one that crosses a line to a serious intent to hurt someone, in order to be a potential crime rather than free speech, Keller said.

“We are not criminalizing or frankly discouraging free speech by actions that we’re taking from a law enforcement perspective,” he said.

The task force’s work is unfolding at a time when Trump and other Republicans have accused the Biden administration of using the Justice Department to target political opponents, although the task force itself hasn’t been targeted publicly by Republicans.

Many GOP leaders have sharply criticized the federal prosecutions of Trump and of rioters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and Trump himself faces a federal indictment in Washington, D.C., and a state indictment in Georgia over his efforts to overturn 2020 election results. He has denied wrongdoing and said he was acting within the law. A series of federal and state investigations and dozens of lawsuits have not uncovered any evidence the election was rigged.

Trump is the front-runner for the GOP nomination for president in 2024 and continues in his speeches and online posts to argue the 2020 election was rigged.

For many election workers, the threats have been a major driving factor to leave the job, hollowing out the ranks of experience ahead of 2024, said Dokhi Fassihian, the deputy chief of strategy and program at Issue One, a nonpartisan reform group representing election officials.

About 1 in 5 election officials in 2024 will have begun service after the 2020 election, the Brennan Center survey found.

“Many are deciding it’s just not worth it to stay,” Fassihian said. 

Proud Boy Convicted of Helping Spearhead Jan. 6 Attack Sentenced to 18 Years

A one-time leader in the Proud Boys far-right extremist group has been sentenced to 18 years in prison for his role in the January 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol, tying the record for the longest sentence in the attack.

Ethan Nordean was one of several members convicted of spearheading an attack on the U.S. Capitol to try to prevent the peaceful transfer of power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden after the 2020 presidential election.

Nordean was “the undisputed leader on the ground on January 6,” said prosecutor Jason McCullough. Prosecutors had asked the judge to sentence the Seattle-area chapter president to 27 years.

He was one of two Proud Boys sentenced Friday. Dominic Pezzola was convicted of smashing a window at the U.S. Capitol in the building’s first breach on January 6, 2021. As he walked out of the courtroom after being sentenced to 10 years in prison, Pezzola defiantly declared “Trump won!”

The highest ranking Proud Boy convicted after a monthslong trial earlier this year, Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio, is scheduled to be sentenced Tuesday.

Prosecutors said Nordean’s words and online postings grew increasingly violent leading up to January 6, 2021. On that day, he led a group of nearly 200 men toward the Capitol, then moved to the front of the mob and helped tear down a fence, allowing rioters to enter the grounds, according to court documents.

Defense attorneys have argued there was no plan to storm the Capitol that day and pushed back against the idea that Nordean tore down the fence or that his rhetoric was specifically about Jan. 6. Nordean, 33, of Auburn, Washington, says he now sees Jan. 6 as a “complete and utter tragedy.”

“There is no rally or political protest that should hold value over human life,” he said. “To anyone who I directly or even indirectly wronged, I’m sorry.”

The sentence was handed down by U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly, who also sentenced Pezzola earlier in the day.

Pezzola, 46, took a police officer’s riot shield and used it to smash the window, allowing rioters to make the first breach into the Capitol, and later filmed a “celebratory video” with a cigar inside the building, prosecutors said. He was a recent Proud Boys recruit, however, and a jury acquitted him of the most high-profile charge, seditious conspiracy, a rarely brought Civil War-era offense. He was convicted of other serious charges, and prosecutors had asked for 20 years in prison.

“He was an enthusiastic foot soldier,” prosecutor Erik Kenerson said.

Kelly noted that Pezzola, of Rochester, New York, was a newcomer to the group who didn’t write the kind of increasingly violent online messages that his co-defendants did leading up to the Jan. 6 attack. Still, he was in some ways a “tip of the spear” in allowing rioters to get into the Capitol, said the judge, who decided to apply a terrorism enhancement to the sentence.

“The reality is you smashed that window in and let people begin to stream into the Capitol building and threaten the lives of our lawmakers,” the judge told Pezzola. “It’s not something that I ever dreamed I would have seen in our country.”

‘Caught up in the craziness’

Defense attorneys had asked for five years for Pezzola, saying that he got “caught up in the craziness” that day.

Pezzola testified at trial that he originally grabbed the officer’s shield to protect himself from police riot control measures, and his lawyers argued that he broke only one pane of glass and that other rioters smashed out the rest of the window.

He told the judge that he wished he’d never crossed into a restricted area on January 6, and he apologized to the officer whose shield he took. “There is no place in my future for groups or politics whatsoever,” he said.

But later, as he left the courtroom, he raised a fist and said, “Trump won!”

Former President Donald Trump and his allies have repeatedly and falsely claimed the 2020 election was stolen. A series of federal and state investigations and dozens of lawsuits have not uncovered any evidence the election was rigged.

More than 600 convicted

Two other Proud Boys convicted at trial were sentenced Thursday. Joseph Biggs, an organizer from Ormond Beach, Florida, got 17 years, the second-longest sentence so far in the January 6 attack. Zachary Rehl, a leader of the Philadelphia chapter, got 15 years, the third longest. The sentencings come after the Proud Boys trial that laid bare far-right extremists’ embrace of lies by Trump, a Republican, that the 2020 election was stolen from him.

More than 1,100 people have been charged with Capitol riot-related federal crimes. More than 600 of them have been convicted and sentenced.

The longest January 6-related prison sentence so far is 18 years for Stewart Rhodes, founder of another far-right extremist group, the Oath Keepers. Six members of that anti-government group also were convicted of seditious conspiracy after a separate trial last year.