President Nana Akufo-Addo tweeted an unflinching defense of the African continent — and of Haiti and El Salvador, countries also mentioned during a meeting Thursday between Trump and a bipartisan group of senators at the White House.
The language of @realDonaldTrump that the African continent, Haiti and El Salvador are “shithole countries” is extremely unfortunate. We are certainly not a “shithole country”. We will not accept such insults, even from a leader of a friendly country, no matter how powerful.
The White House did not initially deny Trump made those remarks. But as the controversy grew — with some members of Congress slamming the remarks as racist — the president on Friday responded in a tweet that the “language used by me at the … meeting was tough, but this was not the language used.”
Meanwhile, the condemnation has been swift. In addition to Ghana, the government of Botswana said Trump’s language is “reprehensible and racist,” and said it has summoned the U.S. ambassador to clarify what he meant.
Senegal’s president, Macky Sall, said in a statement that it was “shocked” and that “Africa and the black race merit the respect and consideration of all.” His West African nation has long been lauded by the U.S. as an example of a stable democracy on the continent.
Is Donald Trump a racist? President faces backlash over vulgar comments 2:45
The African Union, which is made up of 55 member states, also took issue with Trump’s remarks.
“Given the historical reality of how many Africans arrived in the United States as slaves, this statement flies in the face of all accepted behavior and practice,” said spokeswoman Ebba Kalondo.
Paul Altidor, Haiti’s ambassador to the U.S., called Trump’s comments “regrettable” and based on “clichés and stereotypes rather than actual fact.” He also noted the insensitivity of its timing, coming the same week as the eighth anniversary of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, which killed more than 200,000 people.
El Salvador’s government on Friday sent a formal letter of protest to the United States over the “harsh terms detrimental to the dignity of El Salvador and other countries.”
Trump has previously felt backlash over disparaging remarks about immigrants, most notably on the campaign trail when he characterized Mexicans as “rapists” and “criminals.”
The New York Times first reported in December that Trump said Haitian immigrants “all have AIDS” during a summer 2017 meeting about immigration. At that same meeting, he also complained that Nigerian immigrants who come to the United States would never want to “go back to their huts.”
The White House denied Trump ever used the words “AIDS” or “huts.”
‘They’re rapists…all have AIDS’: Some of Trump’s comments on immigrants, minorities 3:50
Trump’s apparent struggle with racial insensitivity also surfaced last fall. At the time, he asked a career intelligence analyst where she was from, and after learning she was of Korean heritage, asked why the “pretty Korean lady” isn’t negotiating with North Korea on his administration’s behalf, two officials with direct knowledge of the exchange told NBC News on Friday.
Trump’s remarks have prompted two top House Democrats to announce the introduction next week of a censure resolution of Trump.
Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said in a joint statement Friday that they were “deeply disturbed and offended” by the language.
Organizing a formal reprimand of Trump would be difficult since it will require getting bipartisan support in a GOP-controlled House. The censuring of a president is also rare, and was only done once by the Senate against Andrew Jackson in 1834 for his failure to turn over certain documents.
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Amid Historically Low Turnout, Puerto Ricans Vote for Statehood
Amid historically low turnout, residents of Puerto Rico voted Sunday for statehood in a non-binding vote, but almost eight out of ten voters did not participate.
As of 5:30pET, the island’s election commission (CEE in Spanish) had reported that about 23 percent of the island’s eligible voters had cast ballots, about 500,000 votes. About 97 percent of the votes were for statehood.
The island’s’ governor, Ricardo Rosselló from the New Progressive Party (PNP in Spanish) and his government had been pushing for a “yes” for statehood as the best way to grapple with Puerto Rico’s crippling $73 billion debt.
But the island’s other two main political parties had pushed for a boycott of the plebiscite, and it showed in the numbers. About 1.3 percent voted for the current commonwealth status and about 1.5 percent voted for independence.
The president of the Popular Democratic Party, (PPD in Spanish), which favors the current commonwealth status, said after the vote that “statehooders shot themselves in the foot.”
“Eight out of ten voters went to the beach, went to the river, went to go eat, went to go hang out, went to church, but they sure didn’t go out to vote,” said PPD president Héctor Ferrer at a San Juan press conference. “Governor Rossello is now going to go to Washington and say this (statehood) is what people wanted. But we’re going too to say no, that’s not true and the numbers speak for themselves.”
Puerto Rico historically has had high turnout in most elections. This one was unusually low. In the last plebiscite held in 2012, more than 1.9 million voted, and 800,000 chose statehood. In 1993, nearly 2 million Puerto Ricans voted.
But following the results, Gov. Roselló said “An overwhelming majority voted for statehood. Today we are sending a strong and clear message for equal rights as American citizens. This was a democratic process and statehood got a historic 97 percent of the vote. The federal government cannot ignore the results of this plebiscite and the will of our people,” said the governor. “It would be quite ironic to demand democracy in other parts of the world but not in their own backyard. This is our home.”
As a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico does not elect members of Congress. But the island’s representative in Congress, Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González, is pro-statehood, and she said Sunday in San Juan that she is creating a “Friends of Puerto Rico Caucus” in Washington to advocate for statehood and push the process along once the results are certified.
“As Resident Commissioner I will take this to Congress and defend it,” said González. “I am taking it not just to Congress but to other forums, such as the Organization of American States,” she told reporters.
Ultimately, it is up to the U.S. Congress to decide whether to take up the issue of Puerto Rico’s status.
Emilio Martínez, a retiree and statehood supporter, told NBC Latino that he was glad that he was able to vote. “If you don’t vote, you don’t participate and you don’t have a say. There weren’t too many people voting when I went this morning, but I live in a town outside of San Juan controlled by one of the opposition parties and they had urged people to boycott the plebiscite, so many people stayed away. But that doesn’t matter to me. Voting is our right and I am exercising my right,” said Martínez.
“And this is just the beginning of a process to tell the United States how we feel and that we want to be a part of the States,” Martínez said. “We deserve to be treated equally like any other U.S. citizen. But nothing happens overnight. This is just the beginning.”
Federico de Jesús, with FDJ Solutions in Washington is a former Obama and Puerto Rico government official who says the plebiscite was unnecessary and costly.
“This vote was a waste or precious resources at a time of severe fiscal constraints. Congress laid out a process through a provision in a 2014 law that said that if Puerto Rico wanted the federal government to pay attention to another status referendum, it had to follow certain rules. The current government of the Island entered the process and when it took longer than they wanted they decided to ignore the U.S. Justice Department’s plea for more time to evaluate the validity of the ballot language – which had already been rejected once before by DOJ. This begs the question: why would Congress act upon the results of a referendum that ignored the rules it required in federal law to address this issue? Sadly, today’s vote will thus go down in history as yet another non-binding glorified poll with no real effect on resolving Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States.”
Demonstrations against Islamic law led to arrests, tense confrontations and physical fights in some U.S. cities Saturday amid several rallies sponsored by ACT for America, which the Southern Poverty Law Center designates as an anti-Muslim hate group.
The “March Against Sharia” was scheduled to take place in more than 20 cities, including New York, Dallas and Atlanta, and was projected to be ACT for America’s largest protest against Islam.
In some cities, the rallies were met by counter-demonstrators. Seven people were arrested during demonstrations at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, but no injuries were reported, state police said.
In Seattle, police said officers deployed pepper spray to “break up a large fight” and arrested three near Occidental Park following the protests downtown.
At the end of the rally, a group returned to the park where the melee erupted, according to a police statement. Officers used pepper spray to disperse the crowd and arrested one woman and two men for obstruction, it added.
NBC affiliate KING 5 reported that hundreds of demonstrators had marched in downtown to support Muslims and confront a few dozen people who took part in the ACT for America demonstration at City Hall.
“We are not anti-Muslim. We are anti-radical Islam,” said a March Against Sharia speaker outside City Hall, according to the station.
The other group, Seattle Stands with our Muslim Neighbors, began their demonstration in Occidental Square before making their way to City Hall.
“Muslims are welcomed here,” some chanted.
In New York City, about 100 protesters and more than 200 counter-protesters traded words in downtown Manhattan as police officers stood between the groups. While they were speaking, counter-protesters were trying to drown them out using bullhorns and noise makers.
ACT for America says that Sharia law — or Islamic law — is incompatible with Western democracy, and that the marches “are in support of basic human rights for all.”
The organization said this week it was canceling an event in Arkansas “when we became aware that the organizer is associated with white supremacist groups.”
“This is against all of our values,” ACT for America said in a statement Thursday. It said the Arkansas event may go forward anyway, but should not be considered sanctioned by the group.
The nationwide “March Against Sharia” first gained widespread attention when Ted Wheeler, the mayor of Portland, Oregon, moved to stop the local chapter from rallying. Wheeler’s decision came after two men were fatally stabbed as they tried to protect two women — one of whom was wearing a headscarf — from an anti-Muslim tirade.
The organizers of Portland parade eventually changed the venue to Seattle, citing “safety concerns” in Oregon’s largest city.
In front of the Trump building in downtown Chicago, about 30 protesters and President Donald Trump supporters shouted slogans and held signs reading “Ban Sharia” and “Sharia abuses women,” according to the Associated Press. About twice as many counter-protesters marshaled across the street.
At a rally on the steps of the Pennsylvania state capitol in Harrisburg, the atmosphere was tense, according to Reuters.
Barricades and a heavy police presence, including officers mounted on horses, separated about 60 anti-Sharia demonstrators from an equal number of counter-protesters, most of them in black masks and hoods, Reuters reported. Nearly a dozen men carrying sidearms belonging to the anti-government Oath Keepers were on hand, invited by ACT to provide security.
ACT for America, which has over 525,000 members and has boasted of its close ties to President Donald Trump, is organizing the marches. It has been considered a hate group by Southern Poverty Law Center for several years.
“ACT demonizes all Muslims as terrorists who want to subvert the political system in this country,” said Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. They disseminate lies and fallacies about Muslims to spread fear about the religion, she added.
The Islamaphobic organization has gained significant momentum since its founding in 2007 by Brigitte Gabriel, a Lebanese immigrant who has openly called Islam inconsistent with U.S law.
“A practicing Muslim who believes the word of the Quran to be the word of Allah … who goes to mosque and prays every Friday, who prays five times a day — this practicing Muslim, who believes in the teachings of the Koran, cannot be a loyal citizen of the United States,” said Gabriel during a course at the Department of Defense’s Joint Forces Staff College in 2007.
ACT for America did not return requests for comment from NBC News.
“These marches are concerning because of what they will mean to the Muslim community,” Beirich said. “When an organization propagandizes an entire community, it tends to embolden some people to commit hate crimes.”
FROM MAY 29: Portland Mayor Asks Alt-Right Group to Cancel Rallies 5:20
But ACT, which brands itself as “the NRA of national security,” protecting “America from terrorism,” said in a statement that the upcoming march is about “human rights” and protecting women and children from Sharia — or the religious principals forming part of the Islamic tradition — which they say is quietly taking a hold of U.S law.
ACT initiated the “Stop Shariah Now” campaign in 2008. The SPLC said the group’s website described its mission “to inform and educate the public about what Shariah is, how it is creeping into American society and compromising our constitutional freedom of speech, press, religion and equality what we can do to stop it.”
More than 13 states have introduced bills banning Sharia law as a result of the campaign, Beirich said.
“It is absolutely impossible for any religious law to take over U.S. law,” Beirich said. “The Constitution stops it, there is a separation of church and state,” she said.
Another staple of the group is the Thin Blue Line Project, which is a “Radicalization Map Locator” that lists the addresses of almost every Muslim Student Association (MSA) in the country, as well as a number of mosques and Islamic institutions. The project, accessible only to pre-registered law enforcement, describes itself as a “one-stop internet resource for information concerning the perceived threat of Muslim infiltration and terrorism in the country,” according to the SPLC.
The organization also forbids any interfaith dialogue with Muslims based on their suspicion that all members of the faith are connected to the Muslim Brotherhood, an established international political Islamist group founded in 1928.
“If you or someone you know is aware of a church or synagogue involved in or considering interfaith outreach, please warn them about organizations and individuals connected to the Muslim Brotherhood,” the organization said in a 2012 statement.
The group campaigned hard for Donald Trump, and after he won the election, they boasted of having a “direct line” to the president.
Gabriel even visited the White House and tweeted she was going there for a meeting.
In D.C, preparing for my meeting at the White House. What topics would you like me to address?
The White House did not return requests confirming a meeting with Gabriel.
Former national security adviser Michael Flynn and current Trump adviser Walid Phares are ACT board advisers, according to the organization. And CIA director Mike Pompeo is “steadfast ally,” said Gabriel in a letter to her base.
The nationwide march is one of the largest coordinated efforts by the ACT, despite a small expected turnout based on the event’s Facebook page.
As of Friday afternoon, only 50 individuals said they are going in Atlanta, 64 in Indianapolis, and 68 in Chicago, on the event’s social media page.
The largest number of people interested are in San Bernardino, with 231 slated to join.
“The protest being planned … by a designated hate group are only designed to fan the flames of hatred and promote xenophobia incidents like what happened in Portland across this country. This is not a rally FOR anything; it’s a rally AGAINST Muslims and American values,” said Rabiah Ahmed, a spokeswoman for the Muslim Public Affairs Council.
“We know that the views expressed by these hate groups do not reflect the vast majority of Americans,” she added, “and we know that groups like this are only blinded by their extreme hate and ignorance.”
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NBC’s Bill Neely Trump Trip Notebook: So Long, Saudi Arabia
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — President Donald Trump’s remarkable visit to Saudi Arabia ended as it began: with warm applause from Saudi leaders who displayed real pride in the fact that an American president chose the religious center of the Muslim world as the first stop on his first trip abroad.
Political leaders proclaimed a new era, Saudis gushed at the “elegantly respectful” look of first lady Melania Trump, analysts hailed the biggest arms deal in American history while Sunday newspapers praised the renewal of “this natural American-Muslim alliance” that in the 1980s had fought “successfully against atheism and communism.”
Highlights From Trump’s Address to the Muslim World
There is something remarkable too about the leader of the Western world speaking in the city where Osama bin Laden was born. A New Yorker, Trump, addressing Muslims in the country where 11 of the 19 terrorists of the September 11th attacks were born.
Yet here he was urging more than 40 Muslim leaders to unite to “drive out the terrorists and drive out the extremists … drive them out of this earth.”
This, he said, is a battle between good and evil and urged Muslim countries had to “fulfill their part of the burden” — not just wait for American intervention.
But there was none of the inflammatory language typical of domestic Trump. He did not use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” which he has specifically used several times before and which is considered offensive by many. In fact, he said he was “not here to lecture” the Muslim leaders, or to impose an American way of life.
At the final major event of his visit — a conference on social media and countering terrorism — the president’s schedule got squeezed and he had to leave the speaking to his daughter Ivanka.
“This young generation is a generation that can build a future of tolerance, of hope and of peace,” she said. “And that’s what this last day has been around: tolerance and hope and peace.”
Still, there is a definite security threat here and it’s clear it’s being taken seriously: Every major road in Riyadh is lined with troops and police.
But surrounded by huge photographs of himself in a city dripping in gold, while making deals worth hundreds of billions of dollars — Trump may have felt he was in a special but familiar place.
Everywhere you look in Central Riyadh there are giant images of Trump and the Saudi King side by side. “Together,” they proclaim, “we will prevail,” a slogan that boats of a renewed military and economic bond between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. An alliance against rivals in Iran and threats from ISIS.
Here, all is apparently forgiven. They have forgotten Candidate Trump, who railed against Muslims on the campaign trail, and even Early President Trump, who tried to push through a ban on Muslims entering America. Now they have Best Friend Trump, who sees in the Saudis an opportunity to make money and buy peace in the region.
Trump: ‘We Are Not Here to Lecture,’ But to Offer Partnership0:43
There are similarities between the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the United States. The rulers of the Desert Kingdom are a family, the al-Sauds — King Salman and his many Princes. They do business in the billions of dollars but often in a personal, traditionally Arab way.
That’s been Trump’s way too, and he’s done business here in the desert through his family. The arms deal the two countries have signed, worth at least 100 billion dollars, was done with the help of Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. He amazed a visiting Saudi delegation at the White House earlier this year by picking up the phone to the boss of Lockheed Martin and haggling over the price of weapons the Saudis found too expensive.
There’s even quiet talk here of his next stop, Israel, as well as the common enemy shared by Saudis, Gulf Arabs and Israelis: Iran.
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OKLAHOMA CITY — The Cherokee Nation sued distributors and retailers of opioid medications on Thursday, alleging the companies have contributed to “an epidemic of prescription opioid abuse” within the tribe and have not done enough to prevent tribal members from acquiring illegally prescribed opioid painkillers.
The lawsuit alleges that six distribution and pharmacy companies have created conditions in which “vast amounts of opioids have flowed freely from manufacturers to abusers and drug dealers” within the 14 northeastern Oklahoma counties that comprise the Cherokee Nation.
The tribe argues the companies regularly turn a “blind eye” to opioid prescriptions that would require further investigation before pills are dispensed. The lawsuit also alleges the companies have pursued profits instead of trying to reduce opioid-related addition that has taken the lives of hundreds of Cherokee citizens and cost the tribe hundreds of millions of dollars in health care costs.
“Defendants have created an environment in which drug diversion can flourish,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit, filed in the Cherokee Nation District Court, names as defendants distributors AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health Inc. and McKesson Corp., and pharmacies CVS Health, Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
AmerisourceBergen spokesman Gabriel Weissman released a statement saying the company stops the shipment of orders it believes are suspicious.
“The issue of opioid abuse is a complex one that spans the full health care spectrum, including manufacturers, wholesalers, insurers, prescribers, pharmacists and regulatory and enforcement agencies,” Weissman said.
Cardinal Health said in a statement that it will defend itself against the allegations and believes the lawsuit does not advance “the hard work needed to solve the opioid abuse crisis – an epidemic driven by addiction, demand and the diversion of medications for illegitimate use.”
CVS Health said it has stringent policies and procedures to determine whether a controlled substance prescription was issued for a legitimate medical purpose before a pharmacist fills it. Walgreens said it does not comment on pending legislation.
Wal-Mart and McKesson did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The lawsuit seeks to make the companies accountable for creating an oversupply of the drugs, said special counsel Richard Fields, an attorney for the tribe in Washington, D.C.
“We’re hoping that this case and others like it will put a focus on the supply is too great,” Fields said.
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TOKYO — China issued a stern warning Friday to both the United States and North Korea, urging them not to push their recriminations to a point of no return and allow war to break out on the Korean Peninsula.In comments carried by China’s official Xinhua news agency, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said “storm clouds” were gathering, an apparent reference to North Korean preparations to conduct a new nuclear test and the United States’ deployment of a naval strike force to the waters off the peninsula. In addition, the U.S. military has been conducting large-scale military exercises with South Korean forces, drills that the North considers provocative.
“The United States and South Korea and North Korea are engaging in tit for tat, with swords drawn and bows bent,” Wang said at a news conference after a meeting with visiting French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, Xinhua reported. “We urge all parties to refrain from inflammatory or threatening statements or deeds to prevent irreversible damage to the situation on the Korean Peninsula.”
If they allow war to break out on the peninsula, they must bear the historical responsibility and “pay the corresponding price,” Wang warned. In the event of war, “multiple parties will lose, and no one will win,” he said. “It is not the one who espouses hasher rhetoric or raises a bigger fist that will win.”
Wang also indicated that China is willing to broker a resumption of “dialogue,” whether it be “official or unofficial, through one channel or dual channels, bilateral or multilateral.”
President Trump spoke highly of Chinese President Xi during a press conference at the White House on April 12, but avoided commenting directly on the decision not to label China a currency manipulator. “We’re going to see,” he said when asked if a deal was struck. (White House)
Earlier Friday, North Korea accused President Trump of “making trouble” with his “aggressive” tweets, amid concerns that tensions between the two countries could escalate into military action.
And the North Korean army threatened to annihilate U.S. military bases in South Korea and the presidential palace in Seoul in response to what it called Trump’s “maniacal military provocations.”
Tensions have been steadily mounting in recent weeks, as North Korea prepares for what it is calling a “big” event to mark the anniversary of the founder’s birthday Saturday, while the Trump administration warns that all options are on the table.
Expectations for a nuclear test or missile launch in the lead-up to Saturday’s celebrations in Pyongyang have not come to pass. Instead, there are signs that the regime is getting ready to hold a huge parade this weekend, perhaps showing off new missiles — something that would qualify as the “big” event it had heralded.
The United States has sent an aircraft carrier strike group to the Korean Peninsula region, and Trump has repeatedly tweeted that if China will not use its leverage to rein in North Korea, the United States will act.
Vice President Pence arrives in Seoul on Sunday on the first leg of an Asia tour, and he will doubtless underscore Washington’s strong alliances with South Korea and Japan and their determination to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
From mass dances to going to the zoo, a glimpse inside the Hermit Kingdom.
But North Korea’s vice foreign minister said Trump was “becoming more vicious and more aggressive” than previous presidents, which was only making matters worse.
“Trump is always making provocations with his aggressive words,” Han Song Ryol told the Associated Press in an interview in Pyongyang. “So that’s why. It’s not the DPRK but the U.S. and Trump that makes trouble,” he said, using the abbreviation for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as North Korea is officially known.
Han also repeated the regime’s common refrain that North Korea is ready to act to defend itself.
“We’ve got a powerful nuclear deterrent already in our hands, and we certainly will not keep our arms crossed in the face of a U.S. preemptive strike,” Han told the AP.
As for when the next nuclear test would take place, “that is something that our headquarters decides,” he said.
His message chimed with a statement Friday from North Korea’s Institute for Disarmament and Peace that it was the United States pushing the Korean Peninsula, “the world’s biggest hotspot,” to the brink of war by bringing back a naval strike group.
“This has created a dangerous situation in which a thermonuclear war may break out any moment on the peninsula and pose a serious threat to the world’s peace and security,” the statement said.
North Korea has a habit of fueling tensions to increase the rewards it might extract from the outside world if it desists. Previously, North Korea has agreed to return to denuclearization talks in return for aid or the easing of sanctions.
Trump is tearing up that old playbook, analysts said.
“This approach to North Korea is relatively new,” said James Kim of the Asan Institute of Policy Studies in Seoul. “The approach in the past has been very calculated.”
That has gone out the window with talk about military options, he said. “We always knew all these options were there, but no one was bold enough to go down that path. It’s a new approach.”
Some in Beijing are noting the difference, too.
“It should be noted that there is a personality difference between Trump and Obama,” the Global Times newspaper wrote Friday. The paper does not speak for the Chinese government on policy but often reflects a strain of thinking within the Communist Party.
“Trump is also willing to show he is different. Bombing Syria helps him to show that,” it continued, while noting that he was far from “revolutionary” because he dispatched only missiles, not troops.
But North Korea could prove different if it calls Trump’s bluff and conducts another nuclear test, the paper said. “Trump just took the office; if he loses to Pyongyang, he would feel like he had lost some prestige.”
Right now, Trump has some cards to play, said Kim of the Asan Institute.
“He might say: ‘If you want one less battleship in the region, what are you going to give me?’” he said, in a reversal from the usual situation in which North Korea asks what it can get from its adversaries in return for changing its behavior.
Amid these tensions, reports of impending military action have been swirling.
NBC News, citing intelligence officials, reported Thursday that the United States was ready to launch a preemptive strike if North Korea appeared to be about to conduct a nuclear test.
But a defense official said this was “speculative,” and analysts said they highly doubted that Washington would take such action, describing a situation in which tougher sanctions and more rigorous implementation remained the best remedy.
Trump’s tweets and his conversations with Chinese President Xi Jinping seem designed to push Beijing to crack down on North Korea, and there have been some indications that China is getting tougher on its errant neighbor.
China banned coal imports from North Korea in mid-February — potentially cutting off an economic lifeline — and Chinese customs data released Thursday showed a 52 percent drop in imports in the first three months of this year, compared with the same period last year.
Meanwhile, the Japanese government is taking precautions of its own.
What’s most important from where the world meets Washington
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In the annals of wrongful convictions, there is nothing that comes close in size to the epic drug-lab scandal that is entering its dramatic final act in Massachusetts.
About 23,000 people convicted of low-level drug crimes are expected to have their cases wiped away next month en masse, the result of a five-year court fight over the work of a rogue chemist.
“It’s absolutely stunning. I have never seen anything like it,” said Suzanne Bell, a professor at West Virginia University who serves on the National Commission of Forensic Science. “It’s unbelievable to me that it could have even happened. And then when you look at the scope of the number of cases that may be dismissed or vacated, there are no words for it.”
The dismissals will come in the form of filings from seven district attorneys ordered by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to decide who among 24,000 people with questionable convictions they can realistically try to re-prosecute.
Their answer, due by April 18, is expected to be “in the hundreds,” a spokeswoman for Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan said this week. An exact number was not available because the prosecutors are still working through the list, the spokeswoman, Meghan Kelly, said in an email.
The prosecutors didn’t want the scandal to end like this. They fought for a way to preserve the convictions, and leave it to the defendants to challenge them.
Civil rights groups and defense lawyers argued for all the cases to be dropped, saying that was the only way to ensure justice.
The state’s high court chose its own solution, ruling in January that district attorneys should focus on a small subset of cases it wanted to retry, and drop the rest.
It has taken five years to get to this point, longer than it took to discover, prosecute and punish the chemist, Annie Dookhan. She worked at the William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute in Boston for nearly a decade before her misconduct was exposed in 2012. She admitted to tampering with evidence, forging test results and lying about it. She served three years in prison and was released last year.
By then, most of the people Dookhan helped convict — most of whom pleaded guilty to low-level drug offenses based on her now-discredited work — had finished their sentences.
Is not entirely clear why Dookhan, a Trinidadian immigrant mother, felt compelled to change test results on such a massive scale. She was by far the lab’s most prolific analyst, a record that impressed her supervisors but also worried her co-workers — a red flag that went overlooked for years. She seemed driven to stand out, even if it mean lying, former colleagues have said. She also maintained friendly relationships with prosecutors, even though her role was to remain objective.
Many likely did commit the offenses, but many did not, defense lawyers say. All of them are now burdened with dubious convictions that have made it difficult to find jobs and housing or to obtain student loans, the lawyers say. Some defendants were convicted of more serious crimes, and the drug convictions were used to stiffen their sentences. Non-citizens have been threatened with deportation.
Civil rights advocates say the case has exposed the folly of aggressive enforcement of low-rung drug offenders, many of whom are addicts in need of treatment.
“It’s a soup-to-nuts indictment of the war on drugs,” said Matthew Segal, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, whose lawsuit led to the supreme court’s ruling. “These scandals happen around the country because our war on drugs is based on cutting corners.”
The reliance on forensic science in the criminal justice system has improved policing and prosecutions, but the misuse of science has also fueled wrongful convictions, researchers say. Drug labs play a distinct role in that machinery.
Lab scandals have undermined thousands of convictions in eight states in the past decade, according to data maintained by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Critics say forensic chemists feel a duty to help prosecutors rather than remain neutral. And they point out that many labs — including Hinton when Dookhan worked there — lack professional accreditation or proper protocols to prevent and detect misconduct. Some of her superiors have lost their jobs for failing to notice or report her misdeeds.
“This drug lab scandal is another example of why the criminal justice system needs to reform its approach to forensic science,” said Dan Gelb, a Boston attorney who helped write an amicus brief on the Dookhan case for the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys. “Labs shouldn’t be an extension of law enforcement.”
Because of the system’s reliance on plea bargains to keep cases moving, defendants often don’t have a chance to challenge results from drug labs, Bell added.
That’s become a big point of discussion at the National Commission of Forensic Science, she said. But the commission, which was formed by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2013, is facing an uncertain future, with no clear message from the Trump administration if its work will continued to be funded, Bell said.
The Dookhan case awakened Massachusetts to the crisis, Bell said.
But the end of the Dookhan saga will not bring the end to Massachusetts’ problems.
That’s because it is dealing with a second scandal, at a second lab, this one the result of a chemist who admitted to doing drugs — including an array of substances submitted as evidence — while on the job.
Thousands of convictions in that case are now in doubt.
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American Citizens: U.S. Border Agents Can Search Your Cellphone
byCYNTHIA MCFADDEN, E.D. CAUCHI, WILLIAM M. ARKINandKEVIN MONAHAN
When Buffalo, New York couple Akram Shibly and Kelly McCormick returned to the U.S. from a trip to Toronto on Jan. 1, 2017, U.S. Customs & Border Protection officers held them for two hours, took their cellphones and demanded their passwords.
“It just felt like a gross violation of our rights,” said Shibly, a 23-year-old filmmaker born and raised in New York. But he and McCormick complied, and their phones were searched.
Three days later, they returned from another trip to Canada and were stopped again by CBP.
“One of the officers calls out to me and says, ‘Hey, give me your phone,'” recalled Shibly. “And I said, ‘No, because I already went through this.'”
The officer asked a second time.
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Within seconds, he was surrounded: one man held his legs, another squeezed his throat from behind. A third reached into his pocket, pulling out his phone. McCormick watched her boyfriend’s face turn red as the officer’s chokehold tightened.
Then they asked McCormick for her phone.
“I was not about to get tackled,” she said. She handed it over.
Shibly and McCormick’s experience is not unique. In 25 cases examined by NBC News, American citizens said that CBP officers at airports and border crossings demanded that they hand over their phones and their passwords, or unlock them.
The travelers came from across the nation, naturalized citizens and people born and raised on American soil. They traveled by plane and by car at different times through different states. Businessmen, couples, senior citizens, and families with young kids, questioned, searched, and detained for hours when they tried to enter or leave the U.S. None were on terror watchlists. One had a speeding ticket. Some were asked about their religion and their ethnic origins, and had the validity of their U.S. citizenship questioned
What most of them have in common — 23 of the 25 — is that they are Muslim, like Shibly, whose parents are from Syria.
Data provided by the Department of Homeland Security shows that searches of cellphones by border agents has exploded, growing fivefold in just one year, from fewer than 5,000 in 2015 to nearly 25,000 in 2016.
According to DHS officials, 2017 will be a blockbuster year. Five-thousand devices were searched in February alone, more than in all of 2015.
“That’s shocking,” said Mary Ellen Callahan, former chief privacy officer at the Department of Homeland Security. She wrote the rules and restrictions on how CBP should conduct electronic searches back in 2009. “That [increase] was clearly a conscious strategy, that’s not happenstance.”
“This really puts at risk both the security and liberty of the American people,” said Senator Ron Wyden, D-Oregon. “Law abiding Americans are being caught up in this digital dragnet.”
“This is just going to grow and grow and grow,” said Senator Wyden. “There’s tremendous potential for abuse here.”
What CBP agents call “detaining” cellphones didn’t start after Donald Trump’s election. The practice began a decade ago, late in the George W. Bush administration, but was highly focused on specific individuals.
The more aggressive tactics of the past two years, two senior intelligence officials told NBC News, were sparked by a string of domestic incidents in 2015 and 2016 in which the watch list system and the FBI failed to stop American citizens from conducting attacks. The searches also reflect new abilities to extract contact lists, travel patterns and other data from phones very quickly.
But the officials caution that rhetoric about a Muslim registry and ban during the presidential campaign also seems to have emboldened federal agents to act more forcefully.
“The shackles are off,” said Hugh Handeyside, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Security Project. “We see individual officers and perhaps supervisors as well pushing those limits, exceeding their authority and violating people’s rights.”
And multiple sources told NBC News that law enforcement and the Intelligence Community are exploiting a loophole to collect intelligence.
Under the Fourth Amendment, law enforcement needs at least reasonable suspicion if they want to search people or their possessions within the United States. But not at border crossings, and not at airport terminals.
“The Fourth Amendment, even for U.S. citizens, doesn’t apply at the border,” said Callahan. “That’s under case law that goes back 150 years.”
Customs and Border officers can search travelers without any level of suspicion. They have the legal authority to go through any object crossing the border within 100 miles, including smartphones and laptops. They have the right to take devices away from travelers for five days without providing justification. In the absence of probable cause, however, they have to give the devices back.
CBP also searches people on behalf of other federal law enforcement agencies, sending its findings back to partners in the DEA, FBI, Treasury and the National Counterterrorism Center, among others.
Callahan thinks that CBP’s spike in searches means it is exploiting the loophole “in order to get information they otherwise might hot have been able to.”
On January 31, an engineer from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory was pulled into additional screening upon his return to the U.S. after a two-week vacation in Chile. Despite being cleared by the Global Entry program, Sidd Bikkannavar received an “X” on his customs form. He is not Muslim, and he is not from any of the seven countries named in President Trump’s original “travel ban” executive order. Half his family comes from India but he was born and raised in California.
Bikkannavar was brought into a closed room and told to hand over his phone and passcode. He paid particular notice to the form CBP handed him which explained it had the right to copy the contents of the phone, and that the penalty for refusal was “detention.”
“I didn’t know if that meant detention of the phone or me and I didn’t want to find out,” said Bikkannavar. He tried to refuse but the officer repeatedly demanded the PIN. Eventually he acquiesced.
“Once they had that, they had everything,” Bikkannavar said. That access allowed CBP officers to review the backend of his social media accounts, work emails, call and text history, photos and other apps. He had expected security might physically search any travelers for potential weapons but accessing his digital data felt different. “Your whole digital life is on your phone.”
The officers disappeared with his phone and PIN. They returned 30 minutes later and let him go home.Sidd Bikkannavar poses for a portrait in 2014. Takashi Akaishi
CBP also regularly searches people leaving the country.
On February 9, Haisam Elsharkawi was stopped by security while trying to board his flight out of Los Angeles International Airport. He said that six Customs officers told him he was randomly selected. They demanded access to his phone and when he refused, Elsharkawi said they handcuffed him, locked him in the airport’s lower level and asked questions including how he became a citizen. Elsharkawi thought he knew his rights and demanded access to legal counsel.
“They said if I need a lawyer, then I must be guilty of something,” said Elsharkawi, and Egyptian-born Muslim and naturalized U.S. citizen. After four hours of questioning in detention, he unlocked his smartphone and, after a search, was eventually released. Elsharkawi said he intends to sue the Department of Homeland Security.
The current policy has not been updated since 2009. Jayson Ahern, who served in CBP under both Bush and Obama, signed off on the current policy. He said the electronic searches are supposed to be based on specific, articulable facts that raise security concerns. They are not meant to be random or routine or applied liberally to border crossers. “That’s reckless and that’s how you would lose the authority, never mind the policy.”
The Customs & Border Patrol policy manual says that electronic devices fall under the same extended search doctrine that allows them to scan bags in the typical security line.
“As the threat landscape changes, so does CBP,” a spokesperson told NBC News.
Since the policy was written in 2009, legal advocates argue, several court cases have set new precedents that could make some CBP electronic searches illegal.
Several former DHS officials pointed to a 2014 Supreme Court ruling in Riley v California that determined law enforcement needed a warrant to search electronic devices when a person is being arrested. The court ruled unanimously, and Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion.
“Modern cellphones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans ‘the privacies of life,'” wrote Roberts. “The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought.”
Because that case happened outside of the border context, however, CBP lawyers have repeatedly asserted in court that the ruling does not apply to border searches.
For now a Department of Justice internal bulletin has instructed that, unless border officers have a search warrant, they need to take protective measures to limit intrusions, and make sure their searches do not access travelers’ digital cloud data. The ‘cloud’ is all content not directly stored on a device, which includes anything requiring internet to access, like email and social media.
Former DHS officials who helped design and implement the search policy said they agreed with that guidance.
Wyden Pushes to Change the Policy
On February 20, Sen. Wyden wrote to DHS Secretary John Kelly demanding details on electronic search-practices used on U.S. citizens, and referred to the extent of electronic searches as government “overreach”. As of publication, he had yet to receive an answer.
Now Sen. Wyden says that as early as next week he plans to propose a bill that would require CBP to at least obtain a warrant to search electronics of U.S. citizens, and explicitly prevent officers from demanding passwords.
“The old rules … seem to be on the way to being tossed in the garbage can,” said Senator Wyden. “I think it is time to update the law.”
Asked about the Shibly case, a CBP spokesperson declined to comment, but said the Homeland Security Inspector General is investigating. The spokesperson said the agency can’t comment on open investigations or particular travelers, but that it “firmly denies any accusations of racially profiling travelers based on nationality, race, sex, religion, faith, or spiritual beliefs.”
Explaining the sharp increase in electronic searches, a department spokesperson told NBC News: “CBP has adapted and adjusted to align with current threat information, which is based on intelligence.” A spokesman also noted that searches of citizens leaving the U.S. protect against the theft of American industrial and national security secrets.
After repeated communications, the Department of Homeland Security never responded to NBC News’ requests for comments. Nonetheless, the Homeland Security Inspector General is currently auditing CBP’s electronic search practices.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) also has filed two dozen complaints against CBP this year for issues profiling Muslim Americans. CAIR and the Electronic Frontier Foundation are considering legal action against the government for what they consider to be unconstitutional searches at the border.
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Kansas Clerk Shot by Suspected Killer in Manhunt Recalls Ordeal
A 19-year-old store clerk in Kansas who was shot by a murder suspect on the run from authorities Wednesday said he’s lucky to be alive.
Alex Deaton, who police suspect in two murders and two other shootings, shot Riley Juel at point-blank range after taking his car keys hours before his alleged crime spree would come to an end.
“This can’t be real at all, and then, I mean it came back to me, this is real,” Juel told NBC affiliate KSNW in Wichita, a day after he was shot by suspect Alex Deaton in Pratt.
“I was just scared I was going to die,” Juel told the station.
Deaton, 28, fled in Juel’s Cadillac and was caught after a high-speed chase with the Kansas Highway Patrol that ended in a fiery crash, police said.
Deaton is suspected in the murder of his girlfriend, 30-year-old Heather Robinson, whose body was found at her Rankin County, Mississippi home on Friday. He is also suspected of being involved in the death of a woman found fatally shot at her Neshoba County church on Thursday.
Deaton had been chased by sheriff’s deputies earlier Wednesday morning, but the stolen car he was driving was disabled by stop sticks and he entered the Kwik Shop and demanded Juel’s keys, authorities said.
After Juel handed the keys over, he said Deaton shot him at point-blank range and fled. Juel called 911 and thanked the dispatcher and a police officer who arrived on the scene. “If it wasn’t for them, I probably would have been dead,” he told the station.
Juel is stable at a hospital. Jule’s sister, Brooke Juel, told the KSNW her brother’s call to police helped catch the suspect, and called him a hero.
Deaton also allegedly shot a jogger at random from his vehicle in Mississippi on Friday, and carjacked and briefly kidnapped a couple at a trailhead near Albuquerque on Tuesday.
During the carjacking and kidnapping, Deaton shot a man in the buttocks and a bullet grazed a woman as they escaped, the Rankin County, Mississippi, sheriff’s office said.
Also Friday, Deaton’s family said in a statement that they are “in a state of disbelief” and are fully cooperating with law enforcement.
“We are devastated and completely heartbroken for all that has happened. Our family is in a state of disbelief. We don’t understand why or how this could ever happen and are just thankful it has now come to an end,” the statement said. The family expressed condolences to the victims and their families.
Rankin County, Mississippi, Sheriff Bryan Bailey says investigators hoped to talk to Deaton Thursday afternoon. Authorities are expected to seek extradition to Mississippi.
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The boy was possibly controlled by ISIS, local media reports
A 12-year-old boy attempted to commit attacks on a Christmas market and near a town hall in Ludwigshafen, western Germany, in the space of just over a week, officials say.
Hubert Stroeber, a spokesman for the local prosecutor’s office, told Reuters that the boy, who is German but of Iraqi heritage, tried and failed to detonate a nail bomb at the Christmas market on Nov. 26 and then planted another self-made explosive device in a backpack near the town hall on Dec. 5. A passer-by drew the police’s attention to the abandoned backpack, and specialists destroyed it in a controlled explosion.
The boy was possibly controlled by ISIS, according to the German magazine FOCUS. The “religiously radicalized” boy was “instigated [by an] unknown member” of the terrorist organization and had been planning to flee to Syria last summer, it reports. Authorities also told television network ZDF that the boy had been radicalized via social media and the internet.
A spokesman at the Federal Public Prosecutor Office in Karlsruhe confirmed that officials were investigating the case but declined to comment on any possible Islamic State link, Reuters states.
As the child is 12 and Germany’s age of criminal responsibility is 14, the boy was not arrested but reportedly taken into foster care instead. Hubert Stroeber, a spokesman for the local prosecutor’s office, told NBC News that an investigation would be “turned down” because of the boy’s age.
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