July 24, 2019

On Tuesday evening, Mark Esper was sworn in as defense secretary, hours after the Senate overwhelmingly confirmed him to fill the position following a record 204 days without a confirmed Pentagon chief. Esper, a 55-year-old West Point graduated and Army officer, brings decades of military experience to the job, along with stints as a professional staffer on two Senate committees, a position in George W. Bush's Pentagon, and a spell at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Esper was also, until he became Army secretary in 2017, a lobbyist for Raytheon, the No. 3 U.S. defense contractor. And heading up the department you used to lobby isn't too uncommon in the Trump administration, it turns out. As Rachel Maddow pointed out on MSNBC Tuesday night, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt is a former oil industry lobbyist, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler was a coal industry lobbyist, and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar was a pharmaceutical industry lobbyist and senior executive.

President Trump memorably vowed to "drain the swamp" in Washington, D.C., but he also boasted at his re-election kickoff last month that his administration has "stared down the unholy alliance of lobbyists and donors and special interests, who made a living bleeding our country dry. That's what we've done."

Soon after being sworn in as president, Trump signed an executive order requiring all political hires to sign a pledge that bars them from lobbying the agencies they worked at for five years and avoid lobbying White House officials or political appointees as long as Trump is president. "But loopholes, some of them sizable, abound," ProPublica's David Kravitz reported in February, and "at least 33 former Trump officials have found ways around the pledge," most prominently former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Of those 33, "at least 18 have recently registered as lobbyists," Kravitz added. "The rest work at firms in jobs that closely resemble federal lobbying. Almost all work on issues they oversaw or helped shape when they were in government." Peter Weber

10:47 a.m.

After the United Nations Security Council on Friday resoundingly defeated U.S. efforts to extend a global arms embargo on Iran, Tehran basked in the outcome, while U.S. lawmakers and analysts viewed the result as an indictment of the Trump administration's foreign policy.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Saturday that the U.S., which only garnered the support of only the Dominican Republic among the 15-member council (which includes allies like France, Germany, and the United Kingdom), suffered a "humiliation," and a spokesperson for Iran's foreign ministry called it a historic failure that has led to Washington's isolation.

Trump critics consider it the latest example of his administration's failures regarding Iran. Nicholas Burns, a professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, agreed with Tehran about the decision exemplifying Washington's increasing isolation on the international state, arguing Trump's own mistakes gave Iran "a victory it does not deserve" after his predecessors "unified the world against" the country. And Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a frequent Trump critic, said the defeat is a consequence of putting people without diplomatic experience in charge of diplomatic ventures.

The embargo is set to expire in October under the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Tim O'Donnell

10:14 a.m.

Belarus' embattled President Alexander Lukashenko on Saturday appealed to his long-time ally Russian President Vladimir Putin as protesters continue to call for his resignation following his recent disputed election victory, which the opposition alleges he rigged.

Lukashenko has been in power for 26 years, but the so-called "last dictator in Europe" is facing one of his strongest challenges yet, as tens of thousands of people remain in the streets, CEOs in the country's up-and-coming information technology sector threaten to leave, and even some riot police put down their shields and embrace demonstrators.

He said it is necessary to contact Putin because the protests are "not a threat to just Belarus anymore." The appeal comes at a rare point of uncertainty in the two countries' relationship, Reuters notes. Lukashenko has recently balked at deepening economic and political ties with Moscow, fearing a breach of Minsk's sovereignty. Russia, in turn, had scaled back subsidies propping up Lukashenko's government, but it seems Putin and Lukashenko are on the same page when it comes to the demonstrations.

Meanwhile, the opposition is re-emerging after Lukashenko cracked down on potential challengers, including Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who ran against him in last week's election. Tikhanovskaya left the country for Lithuania this week for safety reasons, but resurfaced on social media Friday and said she is ready to enter talks with Lukashenko, mediated by international partners. Read more at Reuters and NPR. Tim O'Donnell

8:04 a.m.

As the controversy over the state of the United States Postal Service grows, the agency on Friday night said it will stop removing letter collection boxes in at least several states after facing backlash from lawmakers.

Photos of the removal of collection boxes began circulating online Friday, prompting critics of the Trump administration to add the action to their list of examples, which include potential mailing delays and reduced post office operating hours, of why they believe the president may be trying to manipulate the 2020 election by making mail-in voting more difficult. Kim Frum, a spokeswoman for USPS, said the removals were routine and that the agency was moving "low-use boxes to high traffic areas."

Nevertheless, USPS spokesman Rod Spurgeon told CNN in a statement that the service would stop removing the boxes in 16 states — mostly in the West and Midwest — and in parts of two others until after the election. It wasn't clear if the moratorium would go into effect nationally, per CNN, although Spurgeon did tell NBC News that "we are not going to be removing any boxes." Read more at CNN. Tim O'Donnell

August 14, 2020

The Trump administration has found yet another way to reduce the number of immigrants who can claim asylum.

Even though federal asylum rules generally state that any migrant fearing harm or mistreatment in their home country can apply for asylum protections in the U.S. within one year of arriving, no matter how they entered the country, a new draft rule would block asylum-seekers from protections if they arrived via Mexico or Canada, BuzzFeed News reported Friday.

If implemented, any migrant who had been in Mexico or Canada in the last two weeks would be treated as a security threat. The draft rule is described as necessary to curb the number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S.; the Trump administration previously blocked some green cards and visas with the same explanation. The new rule would apply to both migrants who present themselves at ports of entry and those who enter the U.S. without authorization.

"The Trump administration is once again using COVID-19 as a pretext to accomplish their long-sought goal of destroying the United States' asylum system," American Immigration Council policy analyst Aaron Reichlin-Melnick told BuzzFeed.

The draft rule also strengthens previous restrictions, experts say. An ongoing policy cites public health and the pandemic to allow border agents to turn migrants away. If that policy is blocked by a federal court, the Mexico-and-Canada rule could allow the same rule to effectively continue. "By layering their policy change with multiple bureaucratic tools," said Migration Policy Institute analyst Sarah Pierce, "they are doing everything they can to insulate the asylum shutdown against legal challenges." Read more at BuzzFeed News. Summer Meza

August 14, 2020

The United States Postal Service is warning that delays could prevent voters' mail-in ballots from being counted this November in almost every state.

Reports emerged on Thursday that officials in Pennsylvania had been warned by the USPS that for voters who request their ballots close to the October deadline, there's a risk that the ballots will end up being delivered too late for them to count. But this is evidently a concern throughout almost all of the country, as The Washington Post on Friday reported that the USPS has "sent detailed letters to 46 states and D.C. warning that it cannot guarantee all ballots cast by mail for the November election will arrive in time to be counted."

Among the states that were warned that their deadlines are "incongruous" with how quickly the Postal Service can actually deliver the ballots to election officials were reportedly Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida, three crucial swing states that could decide the election.

"The Postal Service is asking election officials and voters to realistically consider how the mail works," a USPS spokesperson said.

These reports come as President Trump continues to claim without evidence that the use of mail-in ballots during the coronavirus pandemic will result in widespread voter fraud and after he suggested in an interview this week that he's blocking additional funding for the USPS due to his desire to prevent universal mail-in voting this November.

In Pennsylvania, officials are trying to move the deadline to allow for three extra days to count mail-in votes. Yet the Post writes that the "deadlines in many other states have not been or cannot be adjusted." Additionally, the Post reports that the "threat of ballot rejection because of missed delivery deadlines may be highest for voters in 40 states" with almost 160 million registered voters. Brendan Morrow

August 14, 2020

R. Kelly's manager has been charged after he allegedly threatened a theater to stop it from showing a documentary on the sexual abuse allegations against the disgraced R&B star.

Prosecutors in New York on Friday said they charged Donnell Russell, Kelly's manager, for making a "threatening phone call to a theater in Manhattan to prevent" a screening of Surviving R. Kelly in December 2018.

The Lifetime docuseries detailed the sexual abuse allegations against Kelly, who is in jail while awaiting trial on federal sex crime charges. Russell contacted a theater employee and claimed "that there was a person in the theater with a gun prepared to shoot up the screening," forcing the event to be canceled canceled, prosecutors said. Some of Kelly's alleged victims were in attendance.

"Threats of gun violence aimed at intimidating and silencing victims of sexual abuse are unlawful as well as unacceptable," Acting U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said. "We are committed to aggressively investigating and prosecuting such crimes.”

Earlier this week, prosecutors charged three men connected to Kelly for their alleged "efforts to illegally influence pending federal cases" by trying to silence his accusers. One of the men was Russell, who prosecutors said threatened to release sexually explicit photos of one of Kelly's alleged victims unless she withdrew a lawsuit against him. Brendan Morrow

August 14, 2020

A government watchdog has found that two top Department of Homeland Security officials are not eligible for their jobs — and Democrats want them to immediately "resign in disgrace."

The independent Government Accountability Office on Friday said that Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf and Kenneth Cuccinelli, his deputy, were appointed to their positions in violation of the Vacancies Reform Act, and the two top officials are "serving under an invalid order of succession," The Washington Post reports.

The watchdog explains that when former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen resigned in 2019, the official who became acting secretary, Kevin McAleenan, "had not been designated in the order of succession to serve," and since "the incorrect official assumed the title of acting secretary at that time, subsequent amendments to the order of succession made by that official were invalid."

House Homeland Security Committee Chair Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Committee on Oversight and Reform Chair Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) in a statement called for the officials to resign, while Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chair Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) also said Wolf and Cuccinelli "must resign in disgrace" or be removed from office.

"There are also major questions about the legality of their actions over the last 16 months that the DHS Office of the Inspector General must swiftly review," Castro added.

A spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security in a statement per the Post said "we wholeheartedly disagree with the GAO's baseless report and plan to issue a formal response to this shortly." Brendan Morrow

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