After Puerto Rico’s Debt Crisis, Worries Shift to Virgin Islands

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE NEW YORK TIMES)

Lindbergh Bay beach in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, on Memorial Day weekend.CreditMireya Acierto for The New York Times

CHARLOTTE AMALIE, V.I. — The United States Virgin Islands is best known for its powdery beaches and turquoise bays, a constant draw for the tourists who frequent this tiny American territory.

Yet away from the beaches the mood is ominous, as government officials scramble to stave off the same kind of fiscal collapse that has already engulfed its neighbor Puerto Rico.

The public debts of the Virgin Islands are much smaller than those of Puerto Rico, which effectively declared bankruptcy in May. But so is its population, and therefore its ability to pay. This tropical territory of roughly 100,000 people owes some $6.5 billion to pensioners and creditors.

Now, a combination of factors — insufficient tax revenue, a weak pension system, the loss of a major employer and a new reluctance in the markets to lend the Virgin Islands any more money — has made it almost impossible for the government to meet its obligations. In January, the Virgin Islands found itself unable to borrow and nearly out of funds for basic government operations.

The sudden cash crunch was a warning sign that the financial troubles that brought Puerto Rico to its knees could soon spread. All of America’s far-flung territories, among them American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, appear vulnerable.

“I don’t think you can say it’s a crisis, but they have challenges — high debt, weak economies and unfunded pensions,” said Jim Millstein, whose firm, Millstein & Company, advised Puerto Rico on its economic affairs and debt restructuring until this year and has reviewed the situation in Guam and the Virgin Islands. He called the combination of challenges in the territories “a recipe for trouble in the future.”

Gov. Kenneth Mapp, left, walking in the Memorial Day parade in St. Thomas. CreditMireya Acierto for The New York Times

For decades, these distant clusters of islands in the Caribbean and the Pacific have played critical roles as American listening posts, wartime staging grounds, practice bombing ranges and even re-entry points for astronauts splashing down in the Pacific.

The military presence buoyed their small economies, and a federal tax subsidy made it relatively easy for them to issue bonds. Over the years, they have collectively borrowed billions of dollars to build roads, run schools, treat drinking water and fund hospitals.

Congress has generally relied on the Government Accountability Office to monitor the financial health of the territories, but it did not intervene over the years when the auditors brought back reports of “formidable fiscal challenges” or “serious internal control weaknesses” on the islands. Not, at least, until Puerto Rico went over the edge.

Now the G.A.O. auditors are back, re-examining the debt and repayment ability of each territory, amid concerns that other crushing debt burdens may have escaped notice. An agency spokesman, Fuller O. Griffith, said it would report by the end of the year on “federal options to avert the future indebtedness of territories.” It is not clear what those options will be.

“Washington can’t appropriately manage its relationship with the states, much less the territories,” said Matt Fabian, a partner at Municipal Market Analytics.

Even the states are not immune, despite their legal status as sovereigns. Illinois, stuck in political gridlock, is just days from entering its new fiscal year without a balanced budget, in violation of its own constitution. The ratings agencies warn that Illinois’s bond rating is in peril of being downgraded to junk. Once that happens, as the territories show, hedge funds move in and economic management becomes a series of unpleasant choices.

American Samoa, one of the smallest territories, lost one of the biggest engines of its economy in December when a big tuna cannery closed after being required to pay the federal minimum wage. Moody’s Investors Service then put the territory’s debt under negative outlook, citing its fragile economy.

After a bond sale fell through this year, the Virgin Islands could not buy fuel for its power plants, like this one on St. Thomas. CreditMireya Acierto for The New York Times

In the Northern Mariana Islands, the depleted public pension fund was wreaking such fiscal havoc in 2012 that the territory declared it bankrupt, but the case was thrown out. The government then tried cutting all retirees’ pensions 25 percent, but the retirees have been fighting the cuts, and the fund is nearly exhausted anyway.

Even Guam, which enjoys the economic benefit of several large American military installations, has been having qualms about its debt after Puerto Rico’s default.

“Puerto Rico’s troubles provide a teachable moment for Guam,” said Benjamin Cruz, the speaker of the legislature, who recently helped defeat a proposal to borrow $75 million to pay tax refunds. “Spending borrowed money is too easy.”

But the debt dilemma is now most acute in the Virgin Islands — the three main islands are St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John — where the government has been struggling ever since a giant refinery closed in 2012, wiping out the territory’s biggest nongovernment employer and a mainstay of its tax base.

Its troubles began to snowball last July, when Puerto Rico defaulted on most of its debts.

Last August, Fitch downgraded the Virgin Islands’ debt to junk, citing the territory’s chronic budget deficits and habit of borrowing to plug the holes, like Puerto Rico.

More downgrades followed, and in December, Standard & Poor’s dealt the territory a rare “superdowngrade” — seven notches in one fell swoop — leaving it squarely in the junk-bond realm. That scared away investors and forced it to cancel a planned bond offering in January.

The failed bond deal meant there was not enough cash to pay for basic government operations in February or March. As a stopgap, the territory diverted its workers’ pension contributions.

Coreen Lloyd-Adams and Shenika Freeman, registered nurses, preparing a bed in the labor and delivery unit at the Schneider Regional Medical Center in St. Thomas. When federal money has fallen short, the Virgin Islands has had to borrow to keep its hospitals running. CreditMireya Acierto for The New York Times

The Virgin Islands’ governor, Kenneth E. Mapp, said he had no intention of defaulting on any bonds.

“I didn’t ask anybody for debt relief, so don’t put me in the debt-relief boat,” Mr. Mapp said in an interview at Government House, the ornate seat of the territorial government, perched on a hillside overlooking the lush palms and bougainvillea of the capital, Charlotte Amalie, located on St. Thomas.

Still, Mr. Mapp is contending with many of the same problems that proved too much for Puerto Rico, driving it in May to seek bankruptcylike protection under a new law for insolvent territories, known as Promesa. Puerto Rico is now embroiled in heated negotiations over how to reduce its roughly $123 billion in debts and unfunded pensions.

When Congress drafted the Promesa law last year, it made it possible for the other American territories to seek the same kind of help.

Now, even though the Virgin Islands maintains it has no intention of defaulting on its debts — and has even given creditors new protections — the mere prospect of bankruptcy has spooked the markets, putting borrowed money beyond the territory’s reach and greatly limiting its options.

In something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, by giving territories the option to declare bankruptcy, Congress seems to have made such an outcome more likely.

“That innocuous provision, when sent to the bond market, said, ‘Here’s an escape valve for your debt obligations,’” said Mr. Mapp. “That changed the whole paradigm.”

The territory’s pension system made loans to companies, like the inter-island airline Seaborne, that could not borrow elsewhere. CreditMireya Acierto for The New York Times

The problem is that in Puerto Rico, Promesa is turning out to shred the many legal mechanisms that governmental borrowers use to make their debts secure. These include liens and allowing creditors access to the courts.

“Under Promesa, all the security structures are dissolving,” Mr. Fabian said.

Investors who thought they were secured creditors before now find themselves holding moral obligation pledges, which are not enforceable.

After the Virgin Islands’ bond offer fell through in January, the fuel supplier to its electric authority stopped shipments, saying it had not been paid; the authority was already in court with its previous fuel supplier, which had not been paid either.

Then came the House of Representatives’ plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Mr. Mapp saw the federal money that the Virgin Islands relies on for its public hospitals going up in smoke.

Mr. Mapp scrambled. He reactivated a five-year economic plan that had been languishing and pushed higher taxes on alcohol, cigarettes and soft drinks through the legislature. He fought for a permanent electric rate increase. He got $18 million in new federal funds for health care. He struck a deal to tax Airbnb rentals.

He hired collection agents to go after delinquent property and income taxes. He scheduled auctions for delinquent properties. He hired a team to work on the pension system, which is in severe distress, with only about six years’ worth of assets left.

Until recently, the pension system was chasing high returns by investing in high-risk assets, like a $50 million placement in life viaticals — an insurance play that is, in effect, a bet that a selected group of elderly people will die soon. It also made loans to an insolvent inter-island airline, a resort that went bankrupt, and a major franchisee of KFC restaurants. The territory’s inspector general has declared the loans illegal.

The Government Employees Retirement System building in St. Thomas. The pension system does not have enough money to pay the $4.5 billion due to retirees. CreditMireya Acierto for The New York Times

Mr. Mapp said he hoped to start restructuring the pension system in the fall. Already, he said, the government had stopped diverting the workers’ pension contributions, as residents began filing their tax returns and payments in April. The tax payments eased the immediate liquidity crisis.

Recently, he met with the Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, to discuss possible incentives to attract tech business to the Virgin Islands. And he hopes to return to the capital markets.

“The fact that we didn’t complete the sale in January gives the impression that our market access is constrained,” said Valdamier O. Collens, the territorial finance commissioner.

Investors have nothing to worry about, said the governor. For decades, the Virgin Islands has used a lockbox arrangement that makes default all but impossible.

Merchants collect sales taxes and send the money to a trustee for the bondholders. Not a cent goes to the territorial government, including the pension fund, until the bond trustee gets enough to make all scheduled bond payments for the coming year.

“We have no access to the moneys before the bondholders are paid,” Mr. Mapp said. “These moneys are taken out of the pie before the pie is even in the oven. Our debt has never been in jeopardy.”

But in Puerto Rico, such lockbox arrangements have turned out to be one of the thorniest disputes of the bankruptcy proceedings. And Mr. Collens, the finance commissioner, is all too aware that the same dynamic could upend the Virgin Islands, too.

“We know that there has been a contagion effect with Puerto Rico,” Mr. Collens said. “The market saw that by the stroke of a pen, Congress could create a Promesa for the rest of the territories.”

The U.S. And Their ‘Alliance’ (Except For The Kurd’s) Need To Leave Syria Right Now!

 

Any time that a person or more so a military, are in or flying above another Nation without the permission of that Nations government then you are an illegal intruder and you have declared war on that Nation. Syria’s President Assad has made it very clear that he considers the U.S. and their Alliance partners to be in his Country illegally and that he does not want them there. Even though I am an American citizen I cannot condone our actions in this Syrian Civil War nor with Syria’s inner-border conflict with the terrorist group called ISIS. We were never invited to step into this conflict within Syria’s borders and we should never have gone into that country, we have no right to be there. I will try to keep this article as short as I can yet I will do my best to explain my thoughts/beliefs as to why I believe as I do, for your consideration.

 

As I have written a few times before on this site that history shows within the Islamic world that it appears that about the only way to not have total chaos is if a rather brutal dictator rules their country. I personally do not like anything to do with brutality or with dictators, I am merely expressing an observation. I know that Syria’s President Assad is both of these elements yet I believe that the people of Syria as a whole were far better off six years ago than they are today. In Islamic countries there has been a civil war raging for about 1,400 years now between their two main sects and this hatred of each other still shows no sign of ending, ever.

 

Just like in Afghanistan the U.S. is in an Islamic country with our military and we have no exit strategy, as is the case in Syria. In Afghanistan the American tax payers have spent well over a trillion dollars to help bring peace to this tribal war-torn land and we have spilled the blood of many of our soldiers, and for what? In the long game our government has been trying to get the Taliban and to sit down with the very weak Government in Kabul to form a ‘sharing’ government, so why are we there? Unless a person is totally ignorant of reality they must know that once there is a ‘sharing’ government and the U.S. pulls out of the country that the Taliban will simply murder the civilian government people and everything will go back to the Taliban like it was 15 years ago. So, all of that gold and all of that blood spilled, for what? With all of this money the American government has spent in this country it is estimated that 90% of the civilians there only have one set of clothing, our occupation time there could have been spent in more productive ways.

 

Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, all far away countries that in the long run where our blood and gold have really accomplished very little to nothing. There is always one ‘positive’ to these military campaigns and that is the jobs provided by the ‘war-machine’ industry and of course the billions of dollars that go to the corporations leaders and to the people who are able to afford stock in these companies. To many government leaders in to many different countries seem to believe that their infrastructure must have a very strong weapons export economic base. People in these ‘second and third’ world nations (economically) need safe housing, schools, clothing and food. They need an infrastructure, roads, bridges, hospitals and jobs. I am sure that you noticed that these items I mentioned are the same exact things that the people of the economic powers also want and need, in most respects all people need and wish for the same things. The ‘Western Powers’ have a long history of setting up ‘war lords’ to rule small countries, then sell them a lot of weapons whom they use against their own citizens and then we wonder why their people hate us so much.

 

Now, back to the main line of thought, the situation in Syria. The Syrian President Mr. Assad has many economic and security issues within his borders and hundreds of thousands of people have died because of this Civil War that has been raging for the past six years. Back in the first term of U.S. President Obama when he had Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State the so-called Arab Spring started. Mrs. Clinton pushed Mr. Obama into trying to ‘help’ fire up the civil war in Libya to over through their dictator, look at the total mess that Libya still is. Egypt came next where we helped to over through their dictator then we got the Muslim Brotherhood who had to be over thrown by the Egyptian Army before Egypt became another Libya. Then Hillary set her eyes on removing President Assad from power in Syria, now look at what a disaster Syria has become.

 

The U.S. encouraged the Syrian citizens to revolt against President Assad and we have spent several billion dollars on training and supplying weapons to ‘moderate Islamist’ whom Assad calls terrorist, if the situation were reversed would we not call them terrorist? As we all know when we decided to pull out of neighboring Iraq we opened up a vacuum along their western border which made a very weak Iraqi government even weaker. We should have stayed longer just doing border control help while the government soldiers and police tried to keep the peace in the cities and the country’s interior. Our governments failures helped open up the eastern part of Syria and the western part of Iraq (both Shiite Islamic nations) for a new Sunni military army to step in and form their own government in these two countries. ISIS is a result of our governments ignorance of reality in this part of the world. We say we are in Syria to fight against this group of mass murderers and that we are not at war with Syria itself but that is an obvious lie. If we are training and supplying groups like the ‘Free Syrian Army’ who are fighting to bring Assad’s government down then we are in an ‘undeclared’ war with the Syrian government.

 

The Syrian government has many allies to help them fight the different intruders trying to over through them. Russia of course is their most powerful ally but they do have several more including other Shiite countries like Iraq, Iran and basically Lebanon through their proxy Hezbollah. The ethnic people know as Kurd’s are also fighting against ISIS but their case is a bit different because several hundred thousand Kurdish people have lived within these borders for thousands of years so in a sense they are fighting against ISIS and to a degree against the Syrian government in an attempt to keep and to achieve their own Nation. The recent episodes where we have shot down a Syrian jet fighter and a couple of Iranian drones has brought the U.S. closer to direct war with Syria, Russia and Iran. These events would not be a reality if we simply weren’t there. Some will say that we have to be there to fight ISIS but this is not true. The American people have spent our own money and blood in a Nation who has not attacked us or declared war on us and whom does not want us there. If the U.S. and our ‘Alliance’ partners were not there then Syria’s allies would have and could have taken our place with their bombers and their soldiers. But the real question is why are we doing what we are doing there? My question is, is it because of the trillions of dollars in war materials our economy produces and of course the jobs this creates for our economy? Could the reason partly be because of the friends our politicians have on the Boards of these companies, or is it because of the stocks that our Senators, Congressmen and women and also this President own in these companies?

 

 

 

 

Yemen Now Faces ‘The Worst Cholera Outbreak In The World,’ U.N. Says

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF NPR)

Yemen Now Faces ‘The Worst Cholera Outbreak In The World,’ U.N. Says

A Yemeni child suspected of having cholera sits outside a makeshift hospital in the capital, Sanaa, earlier this month. World health authorities say that of the more than 1,300 people who have died of the disease, a quarter have been children.

Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images

Seized by violence and teetering on the edge of famine, Yemen is grappling with another danger that threatens to outpace them both: cholera.

“We are now facing the worst cholera outbreak in the world,” international health authorities said in a statement Saturday.

Anthony Lake, executive director of UNICEF, and Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, say that “more than 1,300 people have died — one quarter of them children — and the death toll is expected to rise.”

They suspect that is because Yemen now has upwards of 200,000 cases to grapple with, and that number is growing quickly — by a rate of roughly 5,000 cases a day.

“And geographically, it is expanding,” Mohamed El Montassir Hussein, Yemen director for the International Rescue Committee, told NPR’s Jason Beaubien earlier this month. “It’s not a small area. It’s almost the whole country.”

Hussein added:

“There is nowhere in the country you can say, ‘This place is better than another’,” says Hussein. “Every family is suffering from something whether it’s cholera or lack of food, having child soldiers in the family or having someone go join the rebels or the military. There’s been a whole collapse of the social life.”

After more than two years of civil war, Yemen’s health care system is at risk of “complete collapse,” a UNICEF spokesman told Jason.

The country has been roiled by violence since Houthi rebels seized power and ousted the president, who fled to neighboring Saudi Arabia. Since then, a Saudi-led coalition supported by the U.S. has waged a protracted campaign against the rebels — and some worry that support makes the U.S. complicit in Yemen’s deepening humanitarian crisis.

“There’s a U.S. imprint on every civilian death inside Yemen that’s caused by the Saudi bombing campaign,” Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut told NPR’s Michele Kelemen last month after the U.S. signed a new arms deal with Saudi Arabia.

“The Saudis simply could not operate this bombing campaign without us,” he continued. “Their planes can’t fly without U.S. refueling capacity. They are dropping munitions that we’ve sold them. We are standing side by side with them often when they are reviewing intelligence about targets.”

Saudi Arabia’s new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman — who, as NPR’s Deborah Amos reports, is said to have been “the prime mover in the kingdom’s decision to go to war in Yemen” — recently authorized a $66 million donation to support UNICEF and WHO’s anti-cholera efforts there.

“We look forward to discussing this contribution with the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre,” UNICEF responded in a statement Friday. “Such generosity will make a great difference to thousands of children at risk of contracting this rapidly spreading disease.”

Lake and Chan made clear in Saturday’s statement just how rapid it’s spreading — and, in turn, just how rapid the response needs to be.

“We are working around the clock to detect and track the spread of disease and to reach people with clean water, adequate sanitation and medical treatment. Rapid response teams are going house-to-house to reach families with information about how to protect themselves by cleaning and storing drinking water,” they said.

“We call on authorities in Yemen to strengthen their internal efforts to stop the outbreak from spreading further.”

Senior Obama Official On Handling Of Russia Hacks: ‘We Sort Of Choked’

 

WORLD

Senior Obama Official On Handling Of Russia Hacks: ‘We Sort Of Choked’

Photo of Saagar Enjeti

SAAGAR ENJETI
Reporter

Some senior Obama officials lament that they did not do enough to stop Russian attempts to influence the 2016 election, The Washington Post reported Friday.

Former President Barack Obama’s handling of the response to Russia’s attempts have come under intense scrutiny from Republicans and Democrats. The only public warning of the Russian governments’ efforts came in an Oct. 7 memo from the Director of National Intelligence ascribing Democratic National Committee hacks to Russia.

Obama and many of his senior advisers have publicly defended their handling of the investigation.

“There has been this theory we didn’t do anything, which I take issue with,” former White House senior advisor Lisa Monaco told Politico Magazine in April.

Another senior administration official, however, admitted to WaPo that the response to Russian actions in the election “is the hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend.”

“I feel like we sort of choked,” he declared.

“Everyone agreed you had to push back at the Russians and push back hard. But it didn’t happen,” a senior Department of State official lamented to The New York Times in December. Without any response from the White house, Russia continued its hacking campaign. Obama may have even held off on a more aggressive response to try and save one of his many failed ceasefire deals for the Syrian Civil War.

The strongest apparent response from the Obama administration came in a reported face to face meeting between Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Obama reportedly told Putin the U.S. “knew what he was doing and [he] better stop or else.”

“We weren’t able to put all of those pieces together in real time,” former White House  deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told WaPo. “In many ways that complete picture is still being filled in.” Rhodes declined to discuss any sensitive information,” he lamented.

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Detroit Judge Stops Deportation of More Than 100 Iraqi Christians

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF TIME.COM AND THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Detroit Judge Stops Deportation of More Than 100 Iraqi Christians

(TRUMP CAMPAIGNED WITH PROMISE TO SAVE THEM, HE IS DEPORTING THEM TO CERTAIN DEATH INSTEAD)(TRS)
8:12 PM ET
(DETROIT) — A judge has temporarily halted the deportation of more than 100 Iraqi Christians living in the Detroit area who fear torture and possible death if sent back to Iraq.

U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith Thursday halted their deportation for 14 days while he decides if his court has jurisdiction to hear their plight.

The Justice Department said the detainees must go to immigration court to try to remain in the U.S., not U.S. District Court.

Most of the 114 Iraqis are Chaldean Christians, but some are Shiite Muslims and converts to Christianity. They were arrested about June 11 and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said all have criminal convictions.

The American Civil Liberties Union says they fear torture or death in Iraq, which agreed to accept them.

Virginia man charged with espionage for giving top-secret documents to China

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF FOX NEWS)

Virginia man charged with espionage for giving top-secret documents to China

A Virginia man has been charged with espionage for transmitting top-secret documents to Chinese officials.

Kevin Patrick Mallory, 60, was arrested Thursday at his home in Leesburg, Virginia, and appeared in U.S. District Court in Alexandria.

Mallory, a self-employed consultant and Army veteran, was charged with gathering or delivering defense information to aid a foreign government and for making material false statements under the federal Espionage Act.

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Mallory, a fluent Mandarin speaker, traveled to Shanghai in April, and was caught with $16,500 in two carry-on bags upon his return to O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. He had failed to declare the cash.

Mallory was interviewed by the FBI in May, when he admitted he met with two people from a Chinese think tank, whom he suspected were Chinese intelligence agents. Mallory told the FBI the Chinese agents had given him a special communications device for transmitting documents.

He also told the FBI that the only documents he transferred were two unclassified blacked out security classification documents which he had written on U.S. policy matters, according to the affidavit.

Analysis of the transmitted materials revealed that two of the documents were classified as “secret,” while one of them was classified as “top secret.”

Analysis of the device through which the documents were transmitted revealed a handwritten index.

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Court records indicate that Mallory worked as a special agent for the Diplomatic Security Service at the State Department.

He could face life in prison and the charges, if certain conditions are met, could make Mallory eligible for the death penalty, according to prosecutor John Gibbs.

Fox News’ Jake Gibson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Shifting Dollars From Poor to Rich Is a Key Part of the Senate Health Bill

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE NEW YORK TIMES)

The Affordable Care Act gave health insurance to millions of Americans by shifting resources from the wealthy to the poor and by moving oversight from states to the federal government. The Senate bill introduced Thursday pushes back forcefully on both dimensions.

The bill is aligned with long-held Republican values, advancing states’ rights and paring back growing entitlement programs, while freeing individuals from requirements that they have insurance and emphasizing personal responsibility. Obamacare raised taxes on high earners and the health care industry, and essentially redistributed that income — in the form of health insurance or insurance subsidies — to many of the groups that have fared poorly over the last few decades.

The draft Senate bill, called the Better Care Reconciliation Act, would jettison those taxes while reducing federal funding for the care of low-income Americans. The bill’s largest benefits go to the wealthiest Americans, who have the most comfortable health care arrangements, and its biggest losses fall to poorer Americans who rely on government support. The bill preserves many of the structures of Obamacare, but rejects several of its central goals.

Like a House version of the legislation, the bill would fundamentally change the structure of Medicaid, which provides health insurance to 74 million disabled or poor Americans, including nearly 40 percent of all children. Instead of open-ended payments, the federal government would give states a maximum payment for nearly every individual enrolled in the program. The Senate version of the bill would increase that allotment every year by a formula that is expected to grow substantially more slowly than the average increase in medical costs.

Continue reading the main story

Avik Roy, the president of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, and a conservative health care analyst, cheered the bill on Twitter, saying, “If it passes, it’ll be the greatest policy achievement by a G.O.P. Congress in my lifetime.” The bill, he explained in an email, provides a mechanism for poor Americans to move from Medicaid coverage into the private market, a goal he has long championed as a way of equalizing insurance coverage across income groups.

States would continue to receive extra funding for Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid to more poor adults, but only temporarily. After several years, states wishing to cover that population would be expected to pay a much greater share of the bill, even as they adjust to leaner federal funding for other Medicaid beneficiaries — disabled children, nursing home residents — who are more vulnerable.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, in the Capitol on Thursday.CreditSaul Loeb/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

High-income earners would get substantial tax cuts on payroll and investment income. Subsidies for those low-income Americans who buy their own insurance would decline compared with current law. Low-income Americans who currently buy their own insurance would also lose federal help in paying their deductibles and co-payments.

The bill does offer insurance subsidies to poor Americans who live in states that don’t offer them Medicaid coverage, a group without good insurance options under Obamacare. But the high-deductible plans that would become the norm might continue to leave care out of their financial reach even if they do buy insurance.

The battle over resources played into the public debate. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, said the bill was needed to “bring help to the families who have been struggling with Obamacare.” In a Facebook post, President Barack Obama, without mentioning the taxes that made his program possible, condemned the Senate bill as “a massive transfer of wealth from middle-class and poor families to the richest people in America.”

In another expression of Republican principles, the bill would make it much easier for states to set their own rules for insurance regulation, a return to the norm before Obamacare.

Where Senators Stand on the Health Care Bill

Senate Republican leaders unveiled their health care bill on Thursday.

Under the bill, states would be able to apply for waivers that would let them eliminate consumer protection regulations, like rules that require all health plans to cover a basic package of benefits or that prevent insurance plans from limiting how much care they will cover in a given year.

States could get rid of the online marketplaces that help consumers compare similar health plans, and make a variety of other changes to the health insurance system. The standards for approval are quite permissive. Not every state would choose to eliminate such rules, of course. But several might.

“You can eliminate all those financial protections,” said Nicholas Bagley, a law professor at the University of Michigan. “That would be huge.”

Americans with pre-existing conditions would continue to enjoy protection from discrimination: In contrast with the House health bill, insurers would not be allowed to charge higher prices to customers with a history of illness, even in states that wish to loosen insurance regulations.

But patients with serious illnesses may still face skimpier, less useful coverage. States may waive benefit requirements and allow insurers to charge customers more. Someone seriously ill who buys a plan that does not cover prescription drugs, for example, may not find it very valuable.

Photo

A protester being removed from outside the office of Mitch McConnell on Thursday.CreditSaul Loeb/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

There are features that would tend to drive down the sticker price of insurance, a crucial concern of many Republican lawmakers, who have criticized high prices under Obamacare. Plans that cover fewer benefits and come with higher deductibles would cost less than more comprehensive coverage.

But because federal subsidies would also decline, only a fraction of people buying their own insurance would enjoy the benefits of lower prices. Many middle-income Americans would be expected to pay a larger share of their income to purchase health insurance that covers a smaller share of their care.

The bill also includes substantial funds to help protect insurers from losses caused by unusually expensive patients, a measure designed to lure into the market those insurance carriers that have grown skittish by losses in the early years of Obamacare. But it removes a policy dear to the insurance industry — if no one else. Without an individual mandate with penalties for Americans who remain uninsured, healthier customers may choose to opt out of the market until they need medical care, increasing costs for those who stay in.

The reforms are unlikely to drive down out-of-pocket spending, another perennial complaint of the bill’s authors, and a central critique by President Trump of the current system. He often likes to say that Obamacare plans come with deductibles so high that they are unusable. Subsidies under the bill would help middle-income consumers buy insurance that pays 58 percent of the average patient’s medical costs, down from 70 percent under Obamacare; it would also remove a different type of subsidy designed to lower deductibles further for Americans earning less than around $30,000 a year.

Out-of-pocket spending is the top concern of most voters. The insurance they would buy under the bill might seem cheap at first, but it wouldn’t be if they ended up paying more in deductibles.

Mr. McConnell was constrained by political considerations and the peculiar rules of the legislative mechanism that he chose to avoid a Democratic filibuster. Despite those limits, he managed to produce a bill that reflects some bedrock conservative values. But the bill also shows some jagged seams. It may not fix many of Obamacare’s problems — high premiums, high deductibles, declining competition — that he has railed against in promoting the new bill’s passage.

 Yellowstone’s Grizzly Bears Are No Longer Considered Threatened

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF TIME.COM)

Yellowstone’s Grizzly Bears Are No Longer Considered Threatened

2:41 PM ET  June 22nd 2017

(HELENA, Mont.) — Protections that have been in place for more than 40 years for grizzly bears in the Yellowstone National Park area will be lifted this summer after U.S. government officials ruled Thursday that the population is no longer threatened.

Grizzlies in all continental U.S. states except Alaska have been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1975, when just 136 bears roamed in and around Yellowstone. There are now an estimated 700 grizzlies in the area that includes northwestern Wyoming, southwestern Montana and eastern Idaho, leading the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to conclude that the population has recovered.

“This achievement stands as one of America’s great conservation successes,” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said in a statement.

Grizzly bears once numbered about 50,000 and ranged over much of North America. Their population plummeted starting in the 1850s because of widespread hunting and trapping, and the bears now occupy only 2 percent of their original territory.

The final ruling by the Fish and Wildlife Service to remove Yellowstone grizzlies from the list of endangered and threatened species will give jurisdiction over the bears to Montana, Idaho and Wyoming by late July.

That will allow those states to plan limited bear hunts outside the park’s boundaries as long as the overall bear population does not fall below 600 bears.

Hunting bears inside Yellowstone would still be banned. The bears roam both inside and outside the park, and their range has been expanding as their numbers have grown.

The Obama administration first proposed removing grizzlies as a threatened species by issuing an initial ruling in March 2016. The 15 months that have passed since then have been used to by federal officials to evaluate states’ grizzly management plans and respond to themes of concern generated by 650,000 comments from the public, including wildlife advocates and Native American tribal officials who are staunchly opposed to hunting grizzly bears.

Some 125 tribes have signed a treaty opposing trophy hunting grizzly bears, which Native Americans consider a sacred animal.

Thursday’s ruling is certain to be challenged in court by conservation groups that argue the Yellowstone bears still face threats to their continued existence from humans, climate change and other factors. Tim Preso, an attorney for environmental law firm Earthjustice, said his organization will look closely at the rule.

“We’re certainly prepared to take a stand to protect the grizzly, if necessary,” he said. “There’s only one Yellowstone. There’s only one place like this. We ought not to take an unjustified gamble with an iconic species of this region.”

Matt Hogan, the deputy regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service’s eight-state Mountain-Prairie Region, said he is confident that the science behind the decision and the management plans the states will follow will withstand any lawsuit.

“We feel like this species is more than adequately protected in the absence of (Endangered Species Act) protections,” Hogan said.

Endangered Species Act protections set strict rules meant to protect species from being killed or their habitat being harmed, as opposed to state management practices that can include hunting or trapping as a means to keep an animal’s population in check.

Wildlife officials in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming have been managing the bear population alongside federal government officials for decades. Those states have submitted management plans that have been approved, and will follow strict regulations to keep a viable population of above 600 bears, Hogan said.

Scientists also studied the effects of climate change on grizzly bears and their food sources, such as the nuts of whitebark pine trees, which are in decline.

“They found grizzly bears are extremely resilient, extremely flexible and adaptable,” Hogan said.

That adaptation has meant switching from nuts to a meat-based diet. That carries the risk of bringing the bears into greater conflict with ranchers protecting livestock and hunters searching for elk and deer, and grizzly deaths caused by human conflicts are on the rise, said Andrea Santarsiere, an attorney for the wildlife advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity.

“Added to those threats will be trophy hunting,” she said.

The federal agency will continue monitoring the grizzly population over the next five years, and certain factors would prompt a new federal review of the bears’ status, such as a high number of female deaths for three consecutive years.

The ruling does not directly affect other populations of grizzlies that are still classified as threatened but which wildlife officials consider recovered, such as the estimated 1,000 bears in the Northern Continental Divide area of Montana and Idaho.

Federal resources used to prepare the final rule on Yellowstone’s bear population will be shifted to planning for lifting protections for the bears living in the Northern Continental Divide, Hogan said.

U.S. On Collision Course With Syria, Russia And Iran Once De-Facto ISIS Capital Falls

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE WASHINGTON POST)

U.S. on collision course with Syria and Iran once de facto Islamic State capital falls

June 21 at 7:42 PM
Trump administration officials, anticipating the defeat of the Islamic State in its de facto Syrian capital of Raqqa, are planning for what they see as the next stage of the war, a complex fight that will bring them into direct conflict with Syrian government and Iranian forces contesting control of a vast desert stretch in the eastern part of the country.To some extent, that clash has already begun. Unprecedented recent U.S. strikes against regime and Iranian-backed militia forces have been intended as warnings to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Tehran that they will not be allowed to confront or impede the Americans and their local proxy forces.

As regime and militia forces have begun advancing eastward, senior White House officials have been pushing the Pentagon to establish outposts in the desert region. The goal would be to prevent a Syrian or Iranian military presence that would interfere with the U.S. military’s ability to break the Islamic State’s hold on the Euphrates River valley south of Raqqa and into Iraq — a sparsely populated area where the militants could regroup and continue to plan terrorist operations against the West.

Officials said Syrian government claims on the area would also undermine progress toward a political settlement in the long-separate rebel war against Assad, intended to stabilize the country by limiting his control and eventually driving him from power.

The wisdom and need for such a strategy — effectively inserting the United States in Syria’s civil war, after years of trying to stay out of it, and risking direct confrontation with Iran and Russia, Assad’s other main backer — has been a subject of intense debate between the White House and the Pentagon.

Some in the Pentagon have resisted the move, amid concern about distractions from the campaign against the Islamic State and whether U.S. troops put in isolated positions in Syria, or those in proximity to Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, could be protected. European allies in the anti-Islamic State coalition have also questioned whether U.S.-trained Syrians, now being recruited and trained to serve as a southern ground-force vanguard, are sufficient in number or capability to succeed.

One White House official, among several who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Syria planning, dismissed such concerns, saying: “If you’re worried that any incident anywhere could cause Iran to take advantage of vulnerable U.S. forces . . . if you don’t think America has real interests that are worth fighting for, then fine.”

The official said the expanded U.S. role would not require more troops, comparing it to “The Rat Patrol,” the 1960s television series about small, allied desert forces deployed against the Germans in northern Africa during World War II.

“With our ability with air power . . . you’re not talking about a lot of requirements to do that,” the official said. “. . . You don’t need a lot of forces to go out and actually have a presence.”

This official and others played down reports of tensions over Syria strategy. “No one disagrees about the strategy or the objectives,” said a second White House official. “The question is how best to operationalize it.”

The Pentagon, not the White House, made the decision to shoot down Iranian drones and a Syrian fighter jet in response to their approaches to or attacks against U.S. forces and their Syrian allies, this official said. “They shot down an enemy aircraft for the first time in more than a decade. That’s accepting a high level of risk,” the official said. “. . . We’ve done quite a lot since April that the previous administration said was impossible without the conflict spiraling.”

Ilan Goldenberg, a former senior Pentagon official now in charge of the Center for New American Security’s Middle East program, agreed that the Obama administration “over-agonized” about every decision in Syria.

But Goldenberg faulted the Trump administration with failing to articulate its strategy. “It has been the worst of all worlds,” he said. “A vagueness on strategy, but a willingness to deploy force. They are totally muddying the waters, and now you have significant risk of escalation.”

“I know the president is fond of secret plans,” Goldenberg said. “But this situation requires clarity about our objectives and what we will or won’t tolerate.”

Trump promised during his campaign to announce within his first month in office a new strategy for defeating the Islamic State. That strategy remains unrevealed, and for several months Trump appeared to be following Obama’s lead in avoiding Assad, Iran and Russia and continuing a punishing assault on Islamic State strongholds elsewhere in Syria, as well as in Iraq.

In April, Trump broke that mold with a cruise-missile attack on regime forces after their use of chemical weapons against civilians. Assad and his allies protested but did little else.

More recently, however, there have been direct clashes between the United States and the regime. Trump’s campaign calls to join forces with Russia against the Islamic State have largely disappeared amid increased estrangement between Washington and Moscow and investigations of Trump associate’s contacts with Russian officials.

Despite U.S. warnings, regime and militia forces have moved toward the Syrian town of At Tanf, near the Iraq border, where U.S. advisers are training Syrian proxies to head northeast toward Deir al-Zour, the region’s largest city, controlled by the regime and surrounded by the Islamic State. It is a prize that the regime also wants to claim.

At the end of May, Syrian and Iranian-backed forces pushed southward to the Iraq border, between At Tanf and Bukamal, where the Euphrates crosses into Iraq. In Iraq, Iranian-backed militias have, in small but concerning numbers, left the anti-Islamic State fight and headed closer to the border, near where regime forces were approaching.

On at least three occasions in May and June, U.S. forces have bombed Iranian-supported militia forces approaching the At Tanf garrison. Twice this month, they have shot down what they called “pro-regime” armed drones, including one on June 8 that fired on Syrian fighters and their American advisers.

On Sunday, two days before the most recent drone shoot-down near At Tanf, a U.S. F/A-18 shot down a Syrian air-force jet southwest of Raqqa.

In response, Russia said it would train its powerful antiaircraft defense system in western Syria on farther areas where U.S. aircraft are operating and shut down the communications line that the two militaries have used to avoid each other in the crowded Syrian airspace.

“The only actions we have taken against pro-regime forces in Syria . . . have been in self-defense,” Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said this week.

Dunford also made clear that victory against the Islamic State in Raqqa, and in Mosul, where the U.S.-led coalition and Iraqi forces are in the last stages of a months-long offensive, will not mark the end of the war.

“Raqqa is tactical. Mosul is tactical,” Dunford said. “We ought not to confuse success in Raqqa and Mosul as something that means it’s the end of the fight. I think we should all be braced for a long fight.”

In a report Wednesday, the Institute for the Study of War, referring to intelligence and expert sources, said that the Islamic State in Raqqa had already relocated “the majority of its leadership, media, chemical weapons, and external attack cells” south to the town of Mayadin in Deir al-Zour province.

Neither the U.S.-led coalition and its local allies nor what the institute called the “Russo-Iranian coalition” can “easily access this terrain — located deep along the Euphrates River Valley — with their current force posture,” it said.

At the White House, senior officials involved in Syria policy see what’s happening through a lens focused as much on Iran as on the Islamic State. The Iranian goal, said one, “seems to be focused on making that link-up with Iran-friendly forces on the other side of the border, to control lines of communication and try to block us from doing what our commanders and planners have judged all along is necessary to complete the ISIS campaign.” ISIS is another name for the Islamic State.

“If it impacts your political outcome, if it further enables Iran to solidify its position as the dominant force in Syria for the long haul,” the official said, “that threatens other things,” including “the defeat-ISIS strategy” and “the ability to get to political reconciliation efforts.”

“For us,” the official said, “that’s the biggest concern.”

Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed to this report.

The US Has No Long-Term Plan In Syria, And That’s Dangerous

 

A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), made up of an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, looks at smoke rising in the al-Meshleb neighbourhood of Raqa as they try to advance further into the Islamic State (IS) group's Syrian bastion, on June 7, 2017 two days after finally entering the northern city.

NEWS
The US Has No Long-Term Plan In Syria, And That’s Dangerous

on June 20, 2017

T&P ON FACEBOOK

 

On June 13, coalition warplanes from the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS rained 28 airstrikes down across eastern Syria. Along the Jordanian border, coalition forces moved a long-range artillery system into a recently declared “de-confliction zone,” the first time the weapon system has made an appearance in the country’s south. A few hours to the north, U.S. special operations forces embedded with the Syrian Democratic Forces pushed deeper into Raqqa, ISIS’s defacto capital.

That same day, nearly 6,000 miles away, Task & Purpose asked U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, a Republican from Oklahoma, about the U.S government’s plan for Syria once ISIS is defeated. Cole, who sits on the Defense Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee and has called for a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Syria, paused. “I don’t think a plan’s been fully formulated.”

As the United States and its allies slog toward their final goal of toppling the so-called caliphate of ISIS, decision-makers in Washington have no real plan for what comes next. The results could be disastrous.

We are now nearly three years into Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led military effort to defeat ISIS initiated under President Barack Obama. The campaign’s raw numbers are staggering: More than 22,600 airstrikes, nearly 9,650 of them in Syria; more than 84,000 bombs and missiles used against the group; tens of thousands of militants killed by coalition-backed local forces and torrents of precision munitions dropped above the battlefield.

Without question, the coalition is making progress. ISIS is significantly weakened, having lost nearly a fourth of its territory and several high-profile leaders in the last year. In Iraq, the jihadists are on the verge of losing their stronghold in Mosul, the site of a grueling nine-month battle led by the Iraqi security forces. With pressure mounting, influxes of foreign recruits have slowed dramatically and vital revenue streams have begun evaporating.

The real fight for Raqqa is now underway. The U.S. military has played an enormous role in the offensive to retake the city, training and arming the Syrian Democratic Forces and hammering strategic ISIS positions in the area with repeated air and mortar strikes. The group will almost certainly lose Raqqa and, in time, be chased to the far reaches of Syria by a disparate group of coalition forces, their Arab and Kurdish partners on the ground, and forces fighting for the government of Syrian President Bashar al Assad — all of whom will then have to deal with each other.

A day will come that marks the end of large-scale military operations against ISIS, but it may resemble other so-called victories in the Global War On Terror, a declaration similar to President George W. Bush’s often-derided ‘‘Mission Accomplished” speech or President Barack Obama’s premature announcement about withdrawing troops from Iraq. With no clearly defined strategy, the United States is at risk of being dragged into fighting yet another protracted insurgency, being pulled into a possible military confrontation with Iran or Russia, or some combination of all three — a scenario that will only perpetuate the ruin wrought by Syria’s civil war and provide fertile ground for ISIS to flourish once again.

The Trump administration’s position on Syria has always been murky, apart from his campaign promise to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS. In April, the White House went from tacitly accepting Assad’s rule — White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer called it “a political reality” — to launching a barrage of cruise missiles at a Syrian air base in just a few days. The scramble to clarify the U.S. position following the strikes was marked by no less than five policy changes in a matter of two weeks, as The Guardian pointed out at the time, leaving observers guessing about Assad’s fate and what, if anything, might prompt future U.S. intervention in the region.

As coalition forces gird themselves for the protracted “annihilation” campaign that Secretary of Defense James Mattis outlined in May, the scope of U.S. strategy will remain crucial in determining the United States’ future involvement in Syria. Will Washington opt for a short-term outlook, working to crush ISIS militarily and then, following some arbitrary “victory” point, immediately withdraw, leaving allied militias fighting to ensure the jihadists don’t return? Or will the Pentagon find itself drawn into a long-term engagement in the country, caught between mopping up ISIS and the deeper regional rivalries at play in the war?

According to the Department of Defense, the choice might be an elementary school favorite: all of the above. The Pentagon doesn’t “currently envision maintaining a ‘permanent’ military presence in Syria after ISIS’s defeat,” DoD spokesman Eric Pahon told Task & Purpose via email. But the U.S. military will, however, “provide support as necessary to ensure vetted local partners can provide security to prevent ISIS from re-establishing its networks.” In short: We’ll work with our local partners to make sure ISIS doesn’t regroup, but don’t look for some long-time commitment — the same “should I stay or should I go” logic that’s plagued the government’s fraught efforts to extricate itself from battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan. But given the complexity of Syria’s conflict, that roadmap could prove near impossible to follow.

While the collapse of the Assad regime once seemed plausible, it no longer seems likely any time soon. Crucial military support from Russia and Iran has rejuvenated the Assad war machine, and battlefield successes and sectarian population transfers have allowed the Syrian government to increase its holdings across the country. Emboldened, pro-regime forces have now turned their attention to Syria’s east, where they are steadily pushing into ISIS-held territory and openly clashed with the coalition-backed Syrian Democratic Forces on June 18.

This advance has serious implications for the future of ISIS and the coalition’s partners on the front lines.

A despot with a much higher death count than ISIS, Assad’s continued rule would virtually guarantee that the issues that fueled the group’s rise remain unaddressed. More than six years of brutal civil war have left the country deeply fractured along sectarian lines, and the number of people killed could now be approaching 500,000, according to the Syrian Center for Policy Research. The vast majority of rebels will never accept Assad — a man whose face has become synonymous with the barrel bombs that have showered down on schools and hospitals.

And what will become of our local partners, those U.S.-armed Kurdish and Arab fighters, once the ISIS fight is over? The DoD doesn’t really seem to know or care. Pahon told Task & Purpose that “U.S. interaction with these forces is focused on the lasting defeat of ISIS,” and while they may have a role in security operations, “questions about the long-term roles of these forces would be better directed to local provisional councils.” If Assad’s forces continue to advance, who’s to say how long these local councils will exist — and in what capacity they’ll be able to focus resources on keeping ISIS at bay?

OIR’s public campaign design isn’t much help. The plan is divided into four phases, with the final stage — “Support Stabilization” — calling for the coalition to provide “security, planning, and required support to the government of Iraq and appropriate authorities [emphasis added] in Syria.” Note the ambiguity here: We don’t even know who those authorities will be.

OIR spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon couldn’t provide any real answers about future plans either. “These are largely political questions outside of what it is that we have been directed to do: defeat ISIS,” Dillon told Task & Purpose via email. “[The] future presence of U.S. forces in Syria will be a political decision made by our leadership in Washington.”

The coalition deferring to decision-makers in Washington should be reassuring, given Trump’s recent, unusual move to place Mattis in charge of setting troop levels. But with top policy jobs temporarily occupied by Obama-era fill-ins — only five of the Pentagon’s most-senior 53 jobs have been filled — who is actually making those decisions? The Department of State, where only a handful of more than 100 appointments have been confirmed, never responded to multiple inquiries from Task & Purpose.

Rep. Cole’s comments provide a stark illustration of the uncertainty in Congress about what’s happening in Syria. Cole described the idea of a military escalation with Iran as “certainly possible” adding that “removing ISIS and replacing it with Iranian-backed militias is hardly a situation we want to end up at.” But this is exactly where we could be heading: Having invested deeply in Assad, Tehran is playing a long game in Syria, gambling that the money and material it pours into the country will allow it to secure a lasting foothold there.

As part of this effort, pro-regime militias have repeatedly violated the U.S. de-confliction zone near the strategically important Tanf garrison over the past month or so. The moves, which analysts have described to Task & Purpose as a way for Iran to test the U.S. position in Syria, have been met by three coalition airstrikes against pro-regime fighters in the last month; coalition planes have also shot two armed Iranian-made drones out of the sky. The last thing Iran wants is any kind of long-term U.S. presence in Syria. According to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, Washington feels the same way about Iran. If you’re not worrying about the possibility of a U.S.-Iran clash in Syria, now’s the time to start.

Escalating tensions with Russia could prove just as rocky. On June 18, a U.S. F/A-18 Super Hornet shot down a Syrian government plane that had dropped bombs close to fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces near Tabqa, a critical town located to Raqqa’s southwest. The incident, the first time a U.S. jet has downed an Assad pilot, caused Russia’s Defense Ministry to suspend air coordination with the coalition over Syria’s crowded skies. Russia also threatened to track any coalition jets or drones that stray west of the Euphrates river, significantly increasing the chances of a confrontation between coalition and pro-regime forces.

Considering the trajectory of the conflict, and the potential for escalation, you’d think Washington would have well-developed plan in place. But judging by all appearances, you’d be wrong. Speaking on June 13, days before the sudden spike in tensions across Syria, Cole said he’d “leave it to the administration to see if they’ve got an endgame,” adding that “nobody I’m aware of in Congress has a clear idea about what that endgame will be.” Given the stakes at hand, Americans should find this uncertainty deeply disturbing.

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