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Takeaways from Attorney General Sessions’ Senate testimony

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WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave more than two hours of sometimes heated testimony Tuesday, with Democrats demanding details of matters including conversations with President Donald Trump, interactions with the Russian ambassador and the firing of FBI Director James Comey. The appearance before the Senate intelligence committee gave Sessions a chance to defend himself, but offered little new insight.

Some takeaways from Sessions’ appearance before the committee:

COLLUSION

Sessions, a close Trump adviser during the battle for the presidency, said in his opening statement that it was a “detestable and appalling lie” to suggest he was aware of or participated in any collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. He said he never met with, or had conversations with, Russians about election interference.

Sessions recused himself from the Russia probe in March after it was revealed he twice met with the Russian ambassador during the campaign but failed to say so at his confirmation hearing. Sessions reiterated Tuesday those meetings were in his capacity as a lawmaker and not about the campaign.

RUSSIAN AMBASSADOR

Sessions was adamant he never had a third meeting with the Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. He did allow for the possibility the men could have had a brief interaction “in passing” at a well-attended reception at the Mayflower Hotel before an April 2016 foreign policy speech by then-candidate Trump. But Sessions said he had no recollection of that.

He’s been hounded by speculation over the possibility of a third meeting, with Democratic senators calling for an investigation. But he angrily denounced such claims as “secret innuendo,” a likely reference to media accounts of a closed-door briefing lawmakers had last week with Comey that suggested the FBI had been looking into whether another meeting had taken place.

RECUSAL

Sessions insisted he stepped aside from the Russia investigation because he was a principal adviser to the Trump campaign, not because he did something wrong or was a subject of the probe. Comey testified publicly last week the FBI was aware of reasons it would be problematic for Sessions to remain involved in the probe before he recused himself.

Sessions was sworn in Feb. 9 but did not actually step away from the investigation until March 2, the day after The Washington Post reported on his two previously undisclosed Kislyak meetings. But he said Tuesday he anticipated the conflict of interest and effectively recused himself on his first day on the job, and was never briefed on the Russia investigation.

He disputed that his involvement in Comey’s firing violated the recusal. He said he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had long discussed their concerns with Comey’s job performance. Namely, they were upset with his very public handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe, which Sessions said was a “usurpation” of Justice Department authority.

Sessions said it would be “absurd” to suggest that a recusal from a single investigation would render him unable to manage the leadership of the FBI.

EXECUTIVE PRIVILEGE

Sessions repeatedly refused to discuss private conversations with Trump on a wide variety of topics. He did not say he was using executive privilege, but rather adhering to longstanding tradition of Justice Department leaders not revealing private conversations with the president. That position was similar to the one taken at a separate hearing last week by the country’s intelligence chiefs.

His refusals to comment, including about conversations with Trump on Comey’s firing, repeatedly irked Democrats. But time and again, Sessions returned to lines such as “I am not able to discuss with you or confirm or deny the nature of private conversations that I may have had with the president on this subject or others.”

The Justice Department subsequently released decades-old memos from its Office of Legal Counsel that it said supported Sessions’ position.

COMEY

Sessions contradicted Comey, who last week told the intelligence committee that after an encounter with Trump in which he said Trump pressured him to back off an investigation into the former national security adviser, Comey “implored” Sessions to make sure he was never left alone with the president again — but that Sessions didn’t respond.

“He didn’t recall this, but I responded to his comment by agreeing that the FBI and Department of Justice needed to be careful to follow department policy regarding appropriate contacts with the White House,” Sessions told the panel.

He also said Comey should have shared his concerns about the Trump conversation with another Justice Department official, Dana Boente, who was then acting deputy attorney general, and would have been Comey’s direct supervisor.

If Comey had information that Sessions would need to recuse himself, he said, that would have been “double reason” to talk to Boente.

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Explained: Why Colorado, Arizona teachers are walking off the job

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Tens of thousands of schoolteachers plan to walk off the job in Arizona and Colorado on Thursday, shuttering classrooms in pursuit of better pay and school funding.

But there are key differences between the protests in the two states, which share below-average spending on public schools. The actions build on a movement that spread from West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky.

Here’s a look at what’s happening in Arizona and Colorado:

WHAT ARE TEACHERS PLANNING AND WHAT WILL HAPPEN?

Teachers will walk off the job to hold rallies and other demonstrations at their respective state Capitols.

In Arizona, the first-ever statewide strike starts Thursday after educators voted overwhelmingly in favor of the action. There’s no end date scheduled, so it’s not clear how long classes might be interrupted.

Educators who are planning to participate could face consequences in the right-to-work state, where unions do not collectively bargain with school districts and representation is not mandatory.

The Arizona Education Association, the largest teacher membership group, has warned its 20,000 members about a 1971 Arizona attorney general opinion saying a statewide strike would be illegal under common law and participants could lose their teaching credentials.

But no school district has said they would fire educators who strike or revoke teaching certificates.

In Colorado, teachers in four suburban school districts, including two of the largest in the state, will hold protests Thursday. But the bulk of the widespread walkouts will happen as a single-day demonstration Friday.

No laws in Colorado prohibit strikes. In response to recent national protests, a Republican lawmaker proposed a measure docking teacher pay and threatening fines and jail time for striking. Democrats oppose it, and it’s not expected to pass the politically divided Legislature.

WHAT ARE THE DEMANDS?

Arizona teachers have a long list, including a 20 percent raise for teachers, who earn $47,403 annually compared with a national average of $59,660, according to 2017 data from the National Education Association. They also want yearly raises until their salaries reach the national average and competitive wages for classified staffers.

They are seeking a return to pre-Great Recession spending levels, which would be a roughly $1 billion increase annually, plus additional funding increases until Arizona reaches the national average in per-pupil spending.

In Colorado, teachers secured a $150 million annual boost to schools in this year’s budget negotiations but want to wipe out an annual school funding shortfall within the next four years. After next year’s boost, Colorado will underfund its schools by $672 million a year versus what’s required by the state Constitution.

Colorado teachers don’t have specific demands regarding salaries, because they are set at the local level. But the hope is that more state funding will trickle down in the form of better pay. The average Colorado teacher earned $51,808 in 2017, according to the national teacher salary data.

Complicating matters, lawmakers are negotiating sweeping changes to the state and school pension fund, which will likely cut teacher retirement benefits and could decrease their take-home pay. Educators say they hope their protests highlight that any changes to the pension fund could further erode their compensation.

HOW ARE STATE LEADERS RESPONDING?

Republican Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona has offered teachers a 20 percent raise by 2020 and pledged to see his proposal through despite concerns on how to fund it.

Ducey’s plan relies on higher-than-expected state revenue. Republican legislative leaders have questioned where the money might come from and are negotiating the plan this week.

Colorado lawmakers have secured a bipartisan deal to boost school funding but are negotiating on the pension changes. Republicans want public employees, including teachers, to put more of their own pay into the system to close a $32 billion funding gap. Democrats have countered with a plan to contribute $225 million in annual state funding to shore up the fund.

WHAT DOES THE WALKOUT MEAN FOR SCHOOLS, TEACHERS AND PARENTS?

In both states, school districts have been weighing whether to stay open or cancel classes.

Many in Arizona, including the state’s largest district in suburban Phoenix, will be closed at least Thursday and Friday. Some have said they will try to stay open if they have enough staff.

Many parents are scrambling to make child care plans. Community groups are organizing day camps, churches are opening for free care and some stay-at-home parents are volunteering to watch others’ children.

Colorado’s largest district, Denver Public Schools, will be closed Friday, along with more than a dozen others. Four others, including large suburban districts in Jefferson and Douglas counties, will be shuttered Thursday but are expected to reopen Friday.

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More than just pie, the Pecan industry sets sights on snacks

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The humble pecan is being rebranded as more than just pie.

Pecan growers and suppliers are hoping to sell U.S. consumers on the virtues of North America’s only native nut as a hedge against a potential trade war with China, the pecan’s largest export market.

The pecan industry is also trying to crack the fast-growing snack-food industry.

The retail value for packaged nuts, seeds and trail mix in the U.S. alone was $5.7 billion in 2012, and is forecast to rise to $7.5 billion by 2022, according to market researcher Euromonitor.

The Fort Worth, Texas-based American Pecan Council, formed in the wake of a new federal marketing order that allows the industry to band together and assess fees for research and promotion, is a half-century in the making, said Jim Anthony, 80, the owner of a 14,000-acre pecan farm near Granbury, Texas.

Anthony said that regional rivalries and turf wars across the 15-state pecan belt — stretching from the Carolinas to California — made such a union impossible until recently, when demand for pecans exploded in Asian markets.

Until 2007, most U.S. pecans were consumed domestically, according to Daniel Zedan, president of Nature’s Finest Foods, a marketing group. By 2009, China was buying about a third of the U.S. crop.

The pecan is the only tree nut indigenous to North America, growers say. Sixteenth-century Spanish explore Cabeza de Vaca wrote about tasting the nut during his encounters with Native American tribes in South Texas. The name is French explorers’ phonetic spelling of the native word “pakan,” meaning hard-shelled nut.

Facing growing competition from pecan producers in South Africa, Mexico and Australia, U.S. producers are also riding the wave of the Trump Administration’s policies to promote American-made goods.

Most American kids grow up with peanut butter but peanuts probably originated in South America. Almonds are native to Asia and pistachios to the Middle East. The pecan council is funding academic research to show that their nuts are just as nutritious.

The council on Wednesday will debut a new logo: “American Pecans: The Original Supernut.”

Rodney Myers, who manages operations at Anthony’s pecan farm, credits the pecan’s growing cachet in China and elsewhere in Asia with its association to rustic Americana — “the oilfield, cowboys, the Wild West — they associate all these things with the North American nut,” he said.

China earlier this month released a list of American products that could face tariffs in retaliation for proposed U.S. tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese goods. Fresh and dried nuts — including the pecan — could be slapped with a 15-percent tariff, according to the list. To counter that risk, the pecan council is using some of the $8 million in production-based assessments it’s collected since the marketing order was passed to promote the versatility of the tree nut beyond pecan pie at Thanksgiving.

While Chinese demand pushed up prices it also drove away American consumers. By January 2013, prices had dropped 50 percent from their peak in 2011, according to Zedan.

U.S. growers and processers were finally able in 2016 to pass a marketing order to better control pecan production and prices.

Authorized by the Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act of 1937, federal marketing orders help producers and handlers standardize packaging, impose quality control and fund research, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees 28 other fruit, vegetable and specialty marketing orders, in addition to the pecan order.

Critics charge that the orders interfere with the price signals of a free, unfettered private market.

“What you’ve created instead is a government-sanctioned cartel,” said Daren Bakst, an agricultural policy researcher at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Before the almond industry passed its own federal marketing order in 1950, fewer almonds than pecans were sold, according to pecan council chair Mike Adams, who cultivates 600 acres of pecan trees near Caldwell, Texas. Now, while almonds appear in everything from cereal to milk substitutes, Adams calls the pecan “the forgotten nut.”

“We’re so excited to have an identity, to break out of the pie shell,” said Molly Willis, a member of the council who owns an 80-acre pecan farm in Albany, Georgia, a supplement to her husband’s family’s peanut-processing business.

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Navajo Nation marks 150th anniversary of return to homeland

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A long-lost original copy of a historic treaty signed in 1868 by leaders of one of the nation’s largest American Indian tribes and the U.S. government will go on display later this year as the Navajo Nation commemorates a dark, but significant chapter of history.

Navajo Vice President Jonathan Nez and other tribal officials gathered Tuesday in Albuquerque to detail some of the events that will mark the signing of the treaty 150 years ago.

That treaty is what cleared the way for tribal members to return to their homeland in the heart of the American Southwest after being rounded up years earlier by the U.S. cavalry and forced to make an arduous and deadly trek hundreds of miles to a camp in eastern New Mexico.

Nez recounted the hardships of what came to be known as the Long Walk, saying many Navajos died along the route to Bosque Redondo. He also talked about those who stayed behind and hid in canyons and on mesa tops, often foregoing the warmth of a fire to avoid capture.

“We want our younger generation to know about our history,” Nez told a room packed with tribal officials and reporters.

He also talked about problems facing tribal communities, from suicide to alcoholism, drug addiction and violence. He said he wants to tap into the resilience of those Navajo ancestors who endured the hardships of the 1800s.

“What this will do is inspire, encourage our people out there that they can’t give up, to jump back up, dust themselves off and to fight even harder than ever before for what they believe in,” Nez said.

Navajo President Russell Begaye has said this year’s commemoration is also about telling the story of the Long Walk, the signing of the treaty and the return home from the perspective of Native Americans. He and other tribal officials say one goal is to address what they called a “legacy of misrepresentation” that has stemmed from that era.

Before research and planning began for this year’s events, there were only two known copies of the historic treaty. The whereabouts of one is now a mystery and the other has been kept by the National Archives and Records Administration.

The third copy turned up only recently when the relatives of a peace commissioner who was involved in the negotiation and signing of the treaty in 1868 found the document in a trunk in the family attic.

It was rolled up and bound with the original but faded ribbon. It was in pristine condition along with notes and other documents that historians hope might fill in some of the blanks from that time.

Pages of that copy will be on display starting in June at the Bosque Redondo Memorial near Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

The National Archives is partnering with the Navajo Nation to display the other original copy at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Arizona, for the month of June.

It took more than two years of planning to make the exhibition possible as this marks only the second time an original treaty has gone back to a homeland.

Museum director Manny Wheeler said the treaty is more than just a document to the Navajo people.

“When I saw the document and I saw the marks of all of our leaders on that paper, it is a powerful thing and it is very much so opening up dialogue among all Navajos about who we are, where we’ve come from and where we’re going,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler suggested that as much as the document was key to the Navajos’ past, it also has the power to change the future by awaking tribal members to the importance of preserving their culture and language.

The leaders of the Navajo Nation’s three branches of government signed a proclamation earlier this year declaring 2018 as the year of the treaty, and the tribe launched a website .

The commemoration also includes a day of prayer across the Navajo Nation, cultural nights, tours of the tribal council chambers and a run that will span more than 400 miles (644 kilometers) from Fort Sumner to the Navajo capital.

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