Biden Clears Path for Tribal Nations to Access Federal Funds

U.S. President Joe Biden said Wednesday that his administration is committed to writing “a new and better chapter of history” for more than 570 native communities in the U.S. by — among other things — making it easier for them to access federal funding. A leader of one of the largest communities speaks to VOA about those efforts and how some of the themes of native history continue to play out halfway across the planet. VOA White House correspondent Anita Powell reports from the Department of the Interior.

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Biden Clears Path for Tribal Nations to Access Federal Funds

U.S. President Joe Biden said Wednesday that his administration is committed to writing “a new and better chapter of history” for its more than 570 native communities by, among other things, making it easier for them to access federal funding.

“It’s hard work to heal the wrongs of the past and change the course and move forward,” Biden said. “But the actions we’re taking today are key steps into that new era of tribal sovereignty and self-determination. A new era grounded in dignity and respect, that recognizes your fundamental rights to govern and grow on your own terms. That’s what this summit is all about.”

Biden, speaking at the U.S. Department of the Interior, which sits on the ancestral land of the Nacotchtank people, announced more than 190 agreements during a two-day summit of some 300 tribal leaders.

They include an executive order that will make it easier to access federal funding, plus efforts to clean up nuclear sites, support clean energy transitions and work toward the repatriation of native remains and sacred objects.

The administration will also release a progress report on its efforts to date.

Hope for more

The leader of one of the largest groups told VOA that the government’s efforts have been “very, very positive” and said he hoped to see more.

“The most important thing for the Cherokee Nation, I think — and all tribes — is the efficient deployment of resources, and then allowing tribes to decide how to use those resources,” said Chuck Hoskin Jr., principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.

But, he said, as his people know too well, land dispossession and conflict is not ancient history. Here’s his advice to Biden and Middle Eastern leaders as war rages in Gaza after the October 7 attack by Hamas militants:

“We have a history of being dispossessed from our land,” he said. “And so, I would just say, remind people that there’s a way to balance rights. I think we’re trying to do that in the United States in terms of Indian Country versus the rest of the country.

“We haven’t perfected it, but I think we’re making some progress,” Hoskin said. “So, all I would say is the respect and dignity that every human being deserves ought to be on display.”

Youth see potential

Younger tribal citizens say they have high expectations. Sareya Taylor, the inaugural Youth Poet Laureate of Phoenix, is a member of the White Mountain Apache and Navajo communities.

“I voted for Biden in 2020,” said Taylor, 21. “And I believe there’s so much more that can be done, especially in terms of climate and how we look at food sovereignty.”

But if she could ask the president for anything, she said, it would be for a cease-fire in Gaza.

“As an Indigenous person, I see my history, like, being like, livestreamed right now,” she said. “If that were happening to us, I’d like to believe that it would be stopped immediately. But you know, considering President Biden won’t even call for a cease-fire, I don’t know about that.”

Hoskin, who is nearly three decades older than Taylor, took a more measured view.

“Obviously, if these were easy issues, somebody would have solved them a long time ago,” he said.

But, he said, step by step, the U.S. government is working to right past wrongs on its own soil.

“Certainly, it would be accurate to say the United States has an appalling record towards Indigenous peoples,” he said. “Is it perfect now? No, it’s not. But we’re making progress.”

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Ukraine’s Zelenskyy Meets Virtually With G7 Leaders

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Wednesday met virtually with leaders from the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations, telling them that Moscow is counting on Western unity to “collapse” next year.

Attendees, including Kyiv’s key allies such as U.S. President Joe Biden and U.K. leader Rishi Sunak, said they remained committed to supporting Ukraine. Their comments came amid fears that Western support for Ukraine could wane as Kyiv makes limited progress on the battlefield.

“We are determined to support an independent, democratic Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders,” leaders of the G7 said in a statement after the meeting.

The leaders announced actions to be taken against Russia, including banning imports of nonindustrial diamonds from Russia by January, and Russian diamonds processed by third countries by March, in an effort to decrease Russian revenue.

The G7 announced additional measures, including increased enforcement of a price cap on Russian oil, and called on all third parties to immediately stop providing Russia with military materials or face a “severe cost.”

The leaders also committed to increasing humanitarian efforts for Ukraine as winter approaches, calling on Russia to end its aggression and pay for the damage it has already done.

As Zelenskyy met with G7 leaders, Russian President Vladimir Putin took a rare trip abroad — a one-day visit to the Middle East with stops in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia — to try to increase Russia’s standing in the region.

The UAE, host country of COP28, the U.N. climate summit, is a U.S. ally with close ties to Russia. UAE officials greeted Putin warmly in Abu Dhabi.

Putin also met with UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, discussing many topics, including what he called the “Ukrainian crisis,” before continuing on to talks with Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Those talks were also expected to include Ukraine.

Ukrainians in the UAE for COP28 condemned Putin’s visit to the region, citing environmental crimes Russia has committed in their country.

“It is extremely upsetting to see how the world treats war criminals, because that’s what he is, in my opinion,” said Marharyta Bohdanova, a worker at the Ukrainian pavilion at the COP28 climate summit. “Seeing how people let people like him in the big events … treating him like a dear guest, is just so hypocritical, in my opinion.”

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.

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As Gravity on US Immigration Shifts to the Right, Parties Seek Deal

It was a decade ago that Capitol Hill was consumed by an urgency to overhaul the nation’s immigration system, fueled in no small part by Republicans who felt a political imperative to make inroads with minority voters by embracing more generous policies.

But nothing ever became law, and in the time since, Washington’s center of gravity on immigration has shifted demonstrably to the right, with the debate now focused on measures meant to keep migrants out as Republicans sense they have the political upper hand.

Long gone are the chatter and horse-trading between parties over how to secure a pathway to citizenship for immigrants, or a modernized work permit system to encourage more legal migration. Instead, the fights of late have centered on how much to tighten asylum laws and restrain a president’s traditional powers to protect certain groups of migrants.

Now, Democrats and Republicans are again struggling to strike an immigration deal — and the consequences of failure stretch far beyond the southern border. Congressional Republicans are insisting on tougher border measures as their price for greenlighting billions in additional aid to Ukraine, and the stalemate is putting the future of U.S. military assistance to Kyiv at risk as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine nears the two-year mark.

Democrats have “ceded the ground to Republicans on immigration and the border,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy director at the American Immigration Council, a nonprofit that advocates for immigrant rights. “The administration seems to see no advantage in leading on this issue, but I think that they’re shooting themselves in the foot.”

The intractable nature of immigration debates is coming into sharp relief this week as a bipartisan group of senators tasked with finding a border deal is running out of time to reach an agreement. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, has promised to put up for a vote a nearly $106 billion emergency spending request from Biden to cover national security needs including Ukraine, Israel and the border. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, is an unwavering backer of Ukraine yet has stressed privately to President Joe Biden that the administration will need to bend on border policy to unlock that money.

In remarks at the White House on Wednesday, Biden made it clear that he was prepared to agree to at least some of the changes Republicans are seeking.

“I am willing to make significant compromises on the border,” he said. “We need to fix the broken border system. It is broken.”

Behind closed doors, Democrats have resisted demands from Republicans to scale back Biden’s executive powers to temporarily admit certain migrants into the country. Yet Democrats privately appear willing to concede to GOP negotiators in other areas, particularly on making it tougher for asylum-seekers to clear an initial bar before their legal proceedings can continue in the United States.

That’s a shift in favor of Republicans from even last year: There were similar agreements around asylum among Senate negotiators back then, but that would have been in exchange for a conditional pathway to citizenship for roughly 2 million “Dreamers” who came to the United States illegally as children.

Senator Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, a perennial negotiator on immigration, stressed that in “every Congress, the foundation for compromise changes.”

“The Democrats have to understand we lead one of the two chambers on Capitol Hill,” Tillis said. “They have to understand that we rightfully will get something more conservative than some of the deals that are negotiated in the last Congress.”

Throughout the Senate border negotiations, the White House has remained visibly hands off, largely trying to replicate its strategy on previously successful legislative talks like those that eventually led to tougher gun restrictions becoming law.

But it’s also no secret the border is one issue Biden would prefer to avoid.

Though Biden as vice president spearheaded the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts in Central America, the border specifically is one of the few issues that he did not manage during his 36 years in the Senate nor two terms as vice president.

As president, Biden’s aim has been to adopt a foreign policy approach to the border, framing the issue as a hemispheric challenge, not solely a U.S. problem. Biden almost immediately after taking office unraveled some of former President Donald Trump’s more hardline policies. And last year, he oversaw the end of Title 42, the pandemic-era health restrictions at the border that had made it easier to deny migrants entry into the U.S.

He has tried to broaden legal pathways while cracking down on illegal border crossings. But the number of migrants at the border, after an initial dip following the end of Title 42, has been climbing dramatically. Now, cities like Chicago, New York and Denver are struggling to manage the migrants who have been relocated to their cities, forcing Democrats in areas far north to confront similar challenges to those long faced by border states.

Inside the White House, deputy chief of staff Natalie Quillian — tapped initially to oversee implementation of Biden’s signature laws, like the massive infrastructure package that just turned two years old — is now coordinating the administration’s response to Democratic-led cities and states that have asked for help managing the influx of migrants.

“There is a fundamental shift in the Democratic Party on immigration” that has happened within the past six months, as the number of migrants in those cities has swelled, said Muzaffar Chishti, a senior fellow and director of the Migration Policy Institute office at New York University’s law school.

Before, Democrats would bristle at any potential discussion over the border, particularly following Trump. But Chishti added: “That’s no longer true. Their backs don’t go up when they see someone saying we want to make some changes in the policies at the border.”

Aides and allies to Biden have said the president is willing to accept new restrictions on asylum and potentially other Republican-led immigration policy changes, particularly as the numbers at the border continue to rise. His supplemental funding request, which seeks $14 billion for the border, would hire more asylum officers, increase detention capacity for migrant families and hire more immigration court judges.

There’s now a backlog of more than 1 million cases, and it’s only increasing. Some migrants are released into the U.S. and wait for years before they are told whether they qualify for asylum.

Arrests at the U.S.-Mexico border in August through October more than doubled over the previous three months as migrants and smugglers adjusted to new asylum regulations following the end of Title 42. Illegal border crossings were at 188,778 in October, down from 218,763 in September, which was the second-highest month on record.

The White House decision to lump additional funding for the border in with Ukraine assistance has given lawmakers, Republicans say, an implicit nod to negotiate policy changes that would otherwise make Democrats feel uncomfortable.

“The fact that they are trying to actually work and figure out what we can do to come up with border security tells me he understands the American people are getting fed up with their current posture,” Tillis said of Biden and the White House.

Bolstering the GOP posture even further is a new House Republican majority that is largely resistant to continued Ukraine assistance, making the price of additional aid for the White House that much higher.

And unlike gun talks last year — when Democrats wielded political advantage after mass shootings galvanized public calls for increased restrictions — immigration is largely seen as an issue that is being fought on Republicans’ turf.

But in the Democrats’ view, Trump and his hardline immigration policies, coupled with antipathy toward Ukraine aid, continue to loom large, rendering Republicans unable to close any deal that would involve irking portion of their base that remain staunchly opposed to Ukraine aid and anything less than the hardline policies they’ve already laid out.

Senator Michael Bennet, a Democrat from Colorado, one of the chief authors of the 2013 immigration bill that never became law, said the U.S. immigration system, writ large, still needs an overhaul.

But “we can’t do that right now in the context of this Ukraine bill,” he said. “It’s too complicated. It’s too far reaching. And frankly, there’s no reason to be attaching the border to Ukraine funding.”

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Former US House Speaker McCarthy Announces Resignation

Two months after his historic ouster as leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, Republican Kevin McCarthy of California announced Wednesday that he will resign from his congressional seat by the end of the year.

His announcement capped a stunning end for the one-time deli owner from Bakersfield, who ascended through state and national politics to become second in line to the presidency before a contingent of hard-right conservatives engineered his removal in October.

McCarthy is the only House speaker in history to be voted out of the job.

“No matter the odds, or personal cost, we did the right thing,” McCarthy wrote in The Wall Street Journal, announcing his decision.

“It is in this spirit that I have decided to depart the House at the end of this year to serve America in new ways,” he wrote.

An announcement on McCarthy’s future had been expected, with the filing deadline to seek reelection only days away. But his decision ricocheted across Capitol Hill, where his departure will leave the already paper-thin House GOP majority even tighter, with just a few seats to spare.

It comes during a wave of retirements in the House, which has been riven by Republican infighting and the rare expulsion last week of indicted Republican Representative George Santos of New York, dashing hopes for major accomplishments and leaving the majority straining to conduct the basic business of governing.

McCarthy had brought the Republicans into the majority but found it was much more difficult to lead the GOP’s hard-edged factions.

His toppling from the chamber’s top post was fueled by grievances from his party’s hard-right flank, including over his decision to work with Democrats to keep the federal government open rather than risk a shutdown.

McCarthy, 58, arrived in the House in January 2007 after a stint in the California Assembly, where he served as minority leader. In Congress, he maneuvered through his party’s hierarchy — serving as majority whip and Republican leader along the way — before being elected speaker in January 2023.

The dayslong floor fight that preceded his elevation to the House’s top job foreshadowed a stormy tenure, at a time when former President Donald Trump remained the de facto leader of the party and deep divisions within the GOP raised serious questions about the party’s ability to govern.

It took a record 15 votes over four days for McCarthy to line up the support he needed to win the post he had long coveted, finally prevailing on a 216-212 vote with Democrats backing leader Hakeem Jeffries and six Republican holdouts voting present. Not since the Civil War era has a speaker’s vote dragged through so many rounds of counting.

McCarthy emerged from the fight weakened, especially considering Republicans held only a fragile margin in the chamber after a predicted “red wave” failed to materialize in the 2022 elections.

Once installed as speaker, his well-known savvy for fundraising and political glad-handing appeared ill-suited for corralling his party’s disputatious hard-right faction. And deals he cut to become speaker — including a rules change that allowed any single lawmaker to file a motion to remove him — left him vulnerable.

When he became speaker, “he faced new challenges that required a different skill set,” said Claremont McKenna College political scientist Jack Pitney, a one-time domestic policy analyst for House Republicans. “The deals he made to become speaker made it almost impossible for him to succeed as speaker.”

McCarthy, the son of a firefighter and a homemaker, has long depicted himself as an unflagging battler. He is fond of quoting his father, who told him, “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”

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US Charges Russian-Affiliated Soldiers With War Crimes

The United States is charging four Russian-affiliated soldiers with war crimes for what American prosecutors describe as the heinous abuse of a U.S. citizen following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February of last year. 

The charges – the first ever filed by the U.S. under its nearly 30-year-old war crimes statute – include conspiracy to commit war crimes, unlawful confinement, torture, and inhumane treatment, following the takeover of the village of Mylove, in the Kherson oblast of southern Ukraine in April 2022. 

“As the world has witnessed the horrors of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, so has the United States Department of Justice,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said Wednesday.  

“The Justice Department and the American people have a long memory,” he added. “We will not forget the atrocities in Ukraine, and we will never stop working to bring those responsible to justice.” 

According to the nine-page indictment, the perpetrators include Suren Seiranovich Mkrtchyan and Dmitry Budnik, described as commanding officers with either the Russian Armed Forces or the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic. 

Two other soldiers named in the indictment – Valerii and Nazar – are identified only by their first names. 

Garland and other U.S. officials said Wednesday the victim was a non-combatant living with his Ukrainian wife in Mylove when the four Russians kidnapped him from his home. 

They allegedly then stripped him naked, tied his hands behind his back, put a gun to his head, and beat him, before taking him to an improvised Russian military compound. 

The indictment states the victim was then taken to an improvised jail where he was subject to multiple interrogations and “acts specifically intended to inflict severe and serious physical and mental pain and suffering.” 

Additionally, the indictment alleges at least one of the Russian soldiers sexually assaulted the victim, and that the Russians carried out a mock execution.

“They moved the gun just before pulling the trigger, and the bullet went just past his head,” Garland said. “After the mock execution, the victim was beaten and interrogated again.” 

The victim was also forced to perform manual labor, such as digging trenches for Russian forces, until he was finally released after a little over a week in detention.

U.S. officials said the charges against the four Russian-affiliated soldiers stem from an investigation that started in August 2022, when investigators with the Department of Justice, the FBI and the Department of Homeland security traveled to meet with the victim after he had been evacuated from Ukraine.

They said evidence was also collected in collaboration with Ukrainian officials.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Wednesday investigators also met with members of the victim’s family and with multiple witnesses who were able to confirm Russian forces occupied the village of Mylove and the surrounding areas during the time the alleged war crimes took place.

“We cannot allow such horrific crimes to be ignored. To do so would only increase the risk they will be repeated,” Mayorkas said.

“As today’s announcement makes clear, when an American citizen’s human rights are violated, their government will spare no effort and spare no resources to bring the perpetrators to justice,” he added. 

VOA contacted the Russian Embassy in Washington for comment about the charges. Embassy officials have yet to respond.

U.S. officials, meanwhile, indicated that while the war crimes charges announced on Wednesday are the first, they likely will not be the last.

“You should expect more,” Garland told reporters. “I can’t get into too many details.” 

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Suspect in Custody After 6 Dead, 3 Wounded in Series of Attacks in Texas

A daylong series of attacks in Austin has left four people dead and at least three wounded, and a man believed to be connected to them and the deaths of two other people near San Antonio was taken into custody, Texas authorities said.

Those who died were found in two homes in Austin and a residence east of San Antonio. The wounded, who were shot, included two police officers and a bicyclist, police said. None of the injuries were considered life-threatening.

The man, who is in his 30s, was charged with capital murder, Austin Interim Police Chief Robin Henderson said at a news conference Tuesday night. His name was not immediately released.

“We strongly believe one suspect is responsible for all of the incidents,” Henderson said of the Austin attacks. She said police “did not determine that these incidents were connected until the last incident occurred” Tuesday night.

Henderson and others provided a timeline, saying an Austin independent school district police officer was shot in the leg about 10:45 a.m. Tuesday in a parking lot at Northeast Early College High School. Then about noon, police who responded to a home after getting calls about gunshots found two people with signs of trauma. Police say one was dead and the other died at a hospital.

Another shooting happened shortly before 5 p.m., when a male cyclist suffered non-life-threatening injuries. Police responding around 7 p.m. to a call of a burglary in progress at another home later found two people dead there.

Henderson did not say how the four people died.

During the last call, an Austin police officer saw a man in the back yard. The man shot at the officer and the officer returned fire, Henderson said. The officer suffered multiple gunshot wounds and was taken to a hospital, where he was listed in stable condition.

Police said the man, who was not hit, drove away and police pursued him. He crashed at about 7:15 p.m. at a highway intersection and was taken into custody. The man had a gun, Henderson said.

She said the officer who was shot and the other officers were wearing body cameras and that the video would be released within 10 business days.

The relationship between the man and the victims, if any, was not immediately known, Henderson said.

In Bexar County, about 80 miles (129 kilometers) south, Sheriff Javier Salazar said his agency got a call from Austin police at about 7:45 p.m. about some shootings. They said the man they had in custody had links to a home east of San Antonio.

As two deputies approached that home, “I believe they saw water coming out of the residence, appearing as if something was leaking inside,” Salazar said. Two people were found dead in the house, but Salazar did not say how they died.

Salazar said it’s believed the deaths in the home happened before the attacks in Austin.

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Russian Artist Explores Migration Caused by War

The plight of fugitives and refugees has been part of the artist Dima Alekseevs’ work since he left Russia in 2016. He now lives in the U.S. Nina Vishneva visited the artist and has this report narrated by Anna Rice. (Camera: Vladimir Badikov, Elena Matusovsky; Produced by Elena Matusovsky, Anna Rice)  

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Biden Kicks Off Fundraising Blitz Amid Lack of Enthusiasm Among Key Voter Groups

President Joe Biden is in Boston, Massachusetts, Tuesday kicking off a series of three fundraising events, including a concert by singer-songwriter James Taylor. Biden will be appearing at several more fundraisers over the next week, raising money for his reelection bid in November 2024.

With less than a year before his potential matchup with Republican front-runner Donald Trump, Biden launched sharp attacks against the former president. He argued that the fate of American democracy is at stake, warning that Trump has made clear what he plans to do if he wins.

“Trump’s not even hiding the ball anymore. He’s telling us what he’s going to do. He’s making no bones about it,” Biden said at one of the events.

Biden cited Trump’s pledge to provide “retribution” for his supporters and to root out the “vermin” in the country. He warned of increased restrictions on abortion if Trump is reelected and reminded donors of the former president’s recent call to again repeal the Affordable Care Act, the increasingly popular expansion of public health insurance also known as Obamacare.

To win, said Democratic Party strategist Julie Roginsky, the president must again motivate the coalition that brought him to the White House in 2020, including youth and minority groups — voters that traditionally are a key part of the Democratic base.

That may be a bigger challenge in 2024. A New York Times/Siena Poll released in November found that 22% of Black voters and 42% of Hispanic voters in six key battleground states would choose Trump over Biden in 2024. Fifty-one percent of voters from other nonwhite racial backgrounds also favor Trump, compared with 39% for Biden.

Enthusiasm is also waning among young voters. According to a poll by the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School, only 49% of those ages 18-29 say they “definitely” plan on voting in the presidential election in 2024, down from 57% who said so in response to the question in 2019. The sharpest decline was among younger Black and Hispanic Americans.

Biden campaign confident

The Biden campaign has been investing in media outreach to make their case to Black and Latino voters, and they say they are confident.

“President Biden and Vice President [Kamala] Harris are proud to have received historically early and united support from across the diverse coalition that sent them to the White House in record numbers in 2020,” campaign spokesperson Seth Schuster said in a statement to VOA.

“We’re meeting voters where they are, engaging on key issues — lowering costs, protecting reproductive rights, combating climate change, and making schools safer from gun violence — and highlighting the enormous stakes of this election,” he said.

The administration has launched new initiatives to fund businesses and entrepreneurs in communities of color, and this week released its new student loan forgiveness plan — a popular initiative among young voters.

It’s Biden’s second attempt at mass loan forgiveness after the Supreme Court in June overturned his original plan, which would have relieved up to $20,000 for tens of millions of Americans.

The president has work to do to repair ties with American Muslims and Arab Americans. Angry over the president’s policies to support Israel in its war against Hamas and the toll on civilian lives in Gaza, the group has launched an “Abandon Biden” campaign in key swing states such as Michigan.

For voters overall, the economy remains a key concern.

Despite solid macroeconomic indicators including positive economic growth, a declining rate of inflation and continued low unemployment, only 32% of Americans approve of Biden’s handling of the economy, according to a Gallup poll released last week.

Roginsky said reality is a “lagging indicator” and hoped that voter sentiment will catch up with the economy next year. But it’s also a messaging issue. Bidenomics is “a cute catchphrase,” she told VOA, but Democrats “need to do a much better job of explaining tangibly to voters what that means.”

Bidenomics is often used as a catchall phrase to describe the administration’s economic policies. Biden describes it as “growing the economy from the middle out and the bottom up,” his counter to Republican “trickle-down economics” — the theory that tax breaks and benefits for corporations and the wealthy will eventually benefit everyone.


Biden, Trump tied

Biden and Trump are tied at 43% according to an early December poll by Morning Consult. This, despite the former president facing 91 felony charges in four jurisdictions. Trump maintains he is innocent, and so far, his legal troubles have not significantly hurt him among voters in battleground states.

One possible explanation on the head-to-head is that positive news on Biden is being drowned out by the negative news on Trump.

“Most of the A-level headlines in our politics now are coming from the Republican Party,” said William Howell, professor in American politics at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. “It’s about the primaries. It’s about what’s been going on in Congress. It’s about Trump.”

This is in part a strategic choice by Democrats, Howell told VOA. Democrats hope to bank electoral points by allowing the news to be driven by the tumult in the Republican-led House of Representatives or Trump’s courtroom antics. 

Allan Lichtman, distinguished professor of history at American University who correctly predicted all U.S. presidential election results since 1984, has not made a final prediction on the 2024 winner. However, he said that despite anxiety among Democrats about the president’s performance and concerns about his age, their only chance of victory is in keeping Biden as their nominee.

Lichtman told VOA that Democrats must support the incumbent to “avoid a disastrous internal battle.” He is waiting until next year to see which candidate gets points on the economy and foreign policy before making his prediction.

In the meantime, Biden will need to stop operating at the margins and communicate his achievements on a more prominent platform, Howell said. “He’s the president. He shouldn’t be in a position where he is elbowing for room.”

The president appears poised to do just that, starting with his donors. He will continue his fundraising blitz with a campaign event in Washington on Wednesday and another in Philadelphia on Monday.

On Friday, he heads to Los Angeles for a fundraiser featuring movie director Steven Spielberg, television producer and screenwriter Shonda Rhimes and other celebrities.


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FBI Director Warns Against Weakening US Surveillance Capabilities 

A top U.S. law enforcement official is warning lawmakers that a failure to renew key surveillance authorities would amount to “unilateral disarmament” in the face of growing threats from terrorism as well as countries like China and Iran. 

FBI Director Christopher Wray testified Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, urging the panel to renew the bureau’s ability to gather electronic data under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, before the law expires at the end of the year. 

Section 702, as it is commonly known, allows agencies such as the FBI and the National Security Agency to gather electronic data of non-Americans without first obtaining a warrant. But its use has stirred controversy because of repeated incidents in which officials have collected information on U.S. citizens. 

‘Reckless at best…irresponsible at worst’

Wray assured lawmakers that reforms have been put in place to protect U.S. citizens, cautioning that a failure to renew the authority, or to renew the authority with additional restrictions, would put the country in danger. 

“Blinding ourselves through either allowing 702 to lapse or amending it in a way that guts its effectiveness would be reckless at best and dangerous and irresponsible at worst,” he said.  

“The whole reason we have 702 focused on foreign threats from overseas is to protect America from those threats,” he said. “It’s not to admire foreign threats from afar and study them and think about them. It’s to know what they are and to make sure they don’t hurt Americans here.” 

Other U.S. officials have spent the past year briefing lawmakers about the much talked-about surveillance authority. 

In May, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told lawmakers information gathered through Section 702 “is utterly fundamental,” generating almost 60% of the information presented in the U.S. president’s daily intelligence briefing.  

Just months later, in July, the deputy director of the CIA, the top U.S. spy agency, told a conference outside of Washington that Section 702 has been instrumental in helping to identify Russian atrocities in Ukraine and in tracking precursor chemicals — often from China — that help fuel the production of fentanyl. 

But some lawmakers have been cautious, calling for additional reforms to prevent the FBI, in particular, from obtaining information on U.S. citizens without first receiving authorization from a court in the form of a warrant.

Wray told committee members on Thursday that using Section 702 as a so-called “end run” to gather information of Americans is “expressly prohibited” and that a series of reforms has been enacted to make sure it does not happen. 

He also argued that the time it would take to go through the court system to obtain a warrant could put lives in danger. 

“Even though our slice of 702 as a percentage is quite narrow, that narrow slice in some ways is the most important slice, because that’s what protects people here that all of us are sworn to protect,” Wray argued. 

“What if there were a terrorist attack that we had a shot to prevent, but couldn’t take it, because the FBI was deprived of the ability under 702 to look at key information already sitting in our holdings?” 

‘You have a lot of gall.’

Not all lawmakers agreed the danger was so dire. 

“You have the audacity to come here, and you told us adding a warrant requirement to 702 even for queries involving U.S. persons on U.S. soil, that would amount to some sort of unilateral disarmament. You have a lot of gall, sir,” Republican Senator Mike Lee told Wray. 

Lee also dismissed the FBI director’s assurances that sufficient protections have been built in. 

“We have absolutely no reason to trust you because you haven’t behaved in a manner that’s trustworthy,” he said. “You’re asking me to believe something that is not believable.” 

Some rights groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, also have balked at the renewal of Section 702 without major changes. 

“We have serious, serious concerns,” ACLU senior policy analyst Kia Hamadanchy told VOA last month. “Over the last 15 years, we’ve seen a whole host of abuses. … Our current position is that Section 702 should not be reauthorized absent fundamental reform.” 

Compromise possible

With time running short before the collection authority expires, there may be a chance for a compromise. 

Wray told lawmakers a bipartisan proposal from the chair and vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee “is a path that I think merits further exploration.” 

The bill, proposed by Democratic Senator Mark Warner and Republican Senator Marco Rubio last week, would require the FBI to get a court order to search intelligence collected from U.S. citizens for evidence of a crime but not when it is pursuing foreign intelligence. 

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Gaza War Divides American Opinion

With the resumption of fighting in Gaza, Americans are increasingly divided over who to blame and what they want the United States to do in a war that has claimed the lives of more than 1,300 Israelis and 16,000 Palestinians.

“Polling shows Americans feel slightly more sympathy toward Israel than Palestine,” explained Robert Collins, professor of Urban Studies and Public Policy at Dillard University in New Orleans. “But it’s not an overwhelming difference, and there are a lot of undecideds and people who are unsure.”

A poll conducted from November 25-27 by The Economist/YouGov shows 38% of Americans sympathizing with Israelis while 11% of respondents sided with Palestinians. Twenty-eight percent said they were equally sympathetic to both sides, while 23% said they weren’t sure. 

That indecision, Collins said, is rooted in the conflict’s complexity.

“Foreign wars are far more complicated to wrap one’s head around than domestic policy,” he told VOA. “Because of the fog of war, we’re limited in what information we can get, and even much of that turns out to be false a day or two later.”

Though more than half of survey respondents didn’t choose a side, many who did have strong feelings.

“Of course I’m on Israel’s side,” said Indiana lawyer Jeff Williams. “They’ve allowed the Palestinians and Hamas to live peacefully next door until being invaded and attacked, and having their residents raped and murdered. Israel has the right to respond in defense.”

Displaced in their own homeland

That same sureness is present in many of those who sympathize with Palestinians. Brooklyn Birdie is a Louisiana graduate student. 

“As the mother of a son who is part Palestinian, I feel morally obligated to speak up for those in Gaza who are being wrongfully murdered, beaten, kidnapped and arrested by Israel for simply existing,” she said. “How so many Americans support those perpetrating these horrors is beyond me.”

Rachel Lacombe manages a Pennsylvania affordable housing nonprofit. She says she grieves for the Israeli citizens killed in the October 7 attack by Hamas.

“But in my heart, my sympathy is for the Palestinian people who have had their homes stolen for seven decades, displaced and forced into refugee camps on their own land since 1948 when Israel was founded,” she told VOA. 

Lacombe says that is a difficult view to voice in America today. 

“It’s been terrifying,” she said, “watching hundreds accused of antisemitism, losing their jobs, doxed and blacklisted just for being critical of Israel’s policies. I have to be careful what I say.”

A battle for Israeli existence

“I think it’s selective to say this conflict began in 1948 because Jews have occupied the land that is now Israel for much of the thousands of years prior,” said Connecticut mother Rebecca Urrutia. “My prayers are with innocent Palestinians, too, but I sympathize with Israel first and foremost. They are defending their land and their people and have been the target of so many attacks in the past.”

One reason Americans may be more likely to side with Israel is decades of geopolitical alliance between the United States and Israel. Another reason may be that there are more Jewish Americans than there are Muslim-Americans.

According to the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University, Jewish Americans make up about 2.4% of the U.S. population while the Pew Research Center says Muslim Americans account for just over 1% of the total population.

Since October 7, a survey by the Jewish Electorate Institute says more American Jews report feeling emotionally attached to Israel.

“I think the Jewish community has been split since the Trump presidency, but the attacks of October 7 united us,” said Lisa Peicott, a cantor at a synagogue in Los Angeles. “Hundreds of thousands of us have come together for marches and demonstrations against antisemitism and for Israel.”

Complex and complicated

Although polls show Americans more likely to sympathize with Israel, a growing number of respondents to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll said Israel’s response was “too much.” While only 26% believed that was the case on October 11, 38% believed that four weeks later when the question was asked again.

“On one hand, I am so upset and in pain to see some Americans — including liberal activists and leaders I respected — now dismissing, celebrating or even denying the violence, rape and death of Jews,” said Sophie Teitelbaum, an educator in Los Angeles. “That’s ignorant and it’s antisemitic.”

On the other hand, Teitelbaum said she is herself critical of the Israeli government, its leadership and the military response in Gaza. 

“I understand the need to defend oneself, but I also think Israel’s response was inhumane, unethical and wrong,” she told VOA. “Both sides are hurting. Both sides have a historical claim to the land. Both sides are afraid and deserve to be able to live in peace. But just because I don’t choose one side puts me at risk of being ostracized by both.”

Minnesota musician Joanna Miller shares that fear.

“I have friends who feel so passionately on both sides, and I don’t want to upset any of them,” she said. “But even not saying anything can be a problem. I have some Jewish friends on social media who compare those of us who aren’t saying anything to Nazism.”

This push against silence is coming from both sides of the debate, and it’s forcing some Americans to voice opinions that they might feel more comfortable not sharing.

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Pakistan Official: US Did Not Oppose Deportation of Afghans in Country Illegally

Pakistani officials said Tuesday that the United States did not object to Islamabad’s deportation of Afghan nationals who are illegally residing in the country but requested the process be slowed down during winter.

The crackdown on undocumented foreigners, including 1.7 million Afghans, came under discussion at a meeting with a visiting U.S. delegation led by Julieta Valls Noyes, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.

A Pakistani official privy to the talks said that the U.S. side sought to prevent the deportation of around 25,000 “vulnerable” individuals who fled the Taliban’s August 2021 takeover in neighboring Afghanistan and could be eligible for relocation to or resettlement in the United States.

“The government of Pakistan doesn’t want to deport any vulnerable Afghan, irrespective of whether someone appears on the U.S. prospective resettlement list or any other country,” the official told VOA on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to share details of the talks publicly.

“Pakistan is concerned over the lengthy resettlement process the U.S. has adopted,” he said. “One thing is clear: The U.S. didn’t oppose Pakistan’s deportation policy. It, however, pleaded for going slow during the harsh winters,” the Pakistani official told VOA.

VOA reached out to the State Department to seek a response to Pakistani assertions that Washington is not opposed to the deportations of Afghans but did not get a response immediately.

Neither Pakistani nor U.S. officials formally released details of the meeting Noyes held with Asif Durrani, Pakistan’s special representative on Afghanistan.

“Good to visit Pakistani Foreign Ministry and see Special Representative for Afghanistan @AsifDurrani20 again today for discussion on Afghan refugees, protection, and resettlement,” Noyes said on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Durrani also shared a few details about his talks with the U.S. delegation on his X social media platform. “We discussed issues concerning Afghan refugees and their resettlement,” he said.

A pre-visit U.S. State Department statement said that during her four-day visit, Noyes would meet with government officials and nongovernmental and international organization partners to “discuss shared efforts to protect vulnerable individuals and accelerate safe, efficient relocation and resettlement of Afghan refugees in the U.S. immigration pipelines.”

Official data shows that Pakistan’s deportation drive has forced more than 400,000 people to return to Afghanistan since mid-September.

The United Nations and global human rights groups have criticized the crackdown and urged Islamabad to urgently halt it, noting that Afghanistan suffers from a dire humanitarian crisis stemming from years of war and natural disasters.

Pakistani authorities defend the deportation drive, linking a recent surge in deadly, nationwide terrorist attacks to the undocumented Afghan population.

In a separate statement on X, Noyes said she held an “important conversation” with representatives of the U.N. refugee agency in Islamabad and discussed “our shared commitment to support vulnerable Afghans in Pakistan.”

American and NATO troops withdrew from Afghanistan in August 2021 when the then-insurgent Taliban seized power from a Washington-backed government in Kabul. They also evacuated tens of thousands of Afghans who worked with the international military mission during its two-decades-long presence in the country, fearing they would face Taliban reprisals.

Pakistan’s otherwise close relations with the Taliban government have come under severe strain over the deportation drive.

De facto Afghan authorities have denounced the policy as unjust and inhumane, saying it has ended the goodwill the neighboring country earned for hosting millions of refugees from conflict-torn Afghanistan over the past four decades.

The Pakistani government says the country still hosts more than 2.2 million documented Afghans, including 1.4 million legal refugees. They are not the subjects of the ongoing crackdown.

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Huge Blast Razes Home Outside Washington After Hourslong Standoff

In the hourslong run-up to a massive home explosion caught on amateur video Monday night, a suburban Washington, D.C., man discharged a flare gun into his neighborhood dozens of times, police said.

By the time the blast occurred during a standoff around 8:30 p.m., reportedly scattering debris throughout the area, police had been on the scene for hours, having received reports of shots fired around 4:45 p.m. Arlington County, Virginia, police had obtained a search warrant and were attempting to talk to the resident using a loudspeaker and phone.

When authorities tried to enter the home, the man reportedly fired several shots their way.

Then the duplex suddenly exploded in fire, spewing smoke and leaving rubble. It is unclear if the suspect died in the blast or if others were present inside the duplex, said Ashley Savage, a spokesperson for the Arlington County Police Department.

Three officers left the scene with minor injuries, but no one was hospitalized.

The duplex was in the Bluemont neighborhood in a northern Virginia suburb across the Potomac River from Washington.

More than 3 kilometers (nearly 2 miles) away, Carla Rodriguez said she heard the explosion and came to the scene, but law enforcement kept spectators blocks away.

“I actually thought a plane exploded,” Rodriguez said.

Bob Maynes, who lives in the area, said he thought the loud boom was the crash of a tree falling on his house.

“I was sitting in my living room watching television, and the whole house shook,” Maynes said. “It wasn’t an earthquake kind of tremor, but the whole house shook.”

Local firefighters were able to control the fire around 10:30 p.m. but continued to manage smaller spot fires into the night, police said early Tuesday.

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said its investigators were at the scene assisting local police.

Some information for this report was provided by The Associated Press.

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Maryland Residents Run Nonprofit to Save Senior Dogs

In 2021, Maryland residents Georgia Dodson and Jade Conner started a nonprofit that rescues aging dogs. So far, Miri’s Haven Senior Dog Rescue says it has helped more than 280 dogs, all of which are over 7 years old, many with medical issues. Masha Morton has the story. VOA footage by Alexey Zonov.

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US Republican Presidential Candidates Look for Edge in Final Debate

Only four Republican presidential candidates have qualified to take to the stage for a fourth and final debate of the year Wednesday, meaning the audience will hear more from each candidate before the U.S. primaries begin in 2024. VOA’s Senior Washington Correspondent Carolyn Presutti tells us what else they need to do to “break out from the pack.”

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More Than $950,000 Raised for Palestinian Student Paralyzed After Being Shot in Vermont

More than $950,000 has been raised for the recovery of one of the three college students of Palestinian descent who was shot in Vermont and is currently paralyzed from the chest down, according to a GoFundMe page set up by his family.

One of the bullets that hit Hisham Awartani on Nov. 25 is lodged in his spine, his family said.

“Hisham’s first thoughts were for his friends, then for his parents who were thousands of miles away. He has demonstrated remarkable courage, resilience and fortitude – even a sense of humor – even as the reality of his paralysis sets in,” the fundraising page, which was set up on Saturday, states.

Awartani, Kinnan Abdalhamid and Tahseen Ali Ahmad are childhood friends who graduated from a private Quaker school in the West Bank and now attend colleges in the eastern U.S. The 20-year-olds were visiting Awartani’s relatives in Burlington for the Thanksgiving break. They were walking to the house of Hisham’s grandmother for dinner when they were shot in an unprovoked attack, the family said.

The young men were speaking in a mix of English and Arabic and two of them were also wearing the black-and-white Palestinian keffiyeh scarves when they were shot, Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad said. Authorities are investigating the shooting as a possible hate crime.

“In a cruelly ironic twist, Hisham’s parents had recommended he not return home over winter break, suggesting he would be safer in the US with his grandmother,” the fundraising page states. “Burlington is a second home to Hisham, who has spent summers and happy holidays with his family there. It breaks our hearts that these young men did not find safety in his home away from home.”

All three were seriously injured. Abdalhamid was released from the hospital last week.

The suspected gunman, Jason J. Eaton, 48, was arrested the following day at his Burlington apartment, where he answered the door with his hands raised and told federal agents he had been waiting for them. Eaton has pleaded not guilty to three counts of attempted murder and is currently being held without bail.

The shooting came as threats against Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities have increased across the U.S. in the weeks since the the Israel-Hamas war erupted in early October.

Awartani, who speaks seven languages, is pursuing a dual degree in math and archaeology at Brown University, where he is also a teaching assistant, the fundraising page said. He told his college professors that he is determined to start the next semester on time, according to the fundraiser.

“We, his family, believe that Hisham will change the world,” the fundraising page states. “He’ll change the world through his spirit, his mind and his compassion for those much more vulnerable than himself, especially the thousands of dead in Gaza and many more struggling to survive the devastating humanitarian crisis unfolding there.”

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Red Sea Attacks Raise Tensions as US Kills 5 in Iraq

U.S. forces killed five Iran-backed militants as they prepared to launch a drone attack in Iraq, as the number of attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria rose to 76 since mid-October.

Pentagon Deputy Press Secretary Sabrina Singh told reporters Monday that U.S. forces saw the militants Sunday as they were beginning to launch an attack drone and fired a precision munition from a U.S. drone to take them out.

“We felt that … it was going to be a threat to U.S. forces, and because we have the inherent right to self-defense we took action,” she said.

Iranian-backed proxies launched two multi-rocket attacks against U.S. forces in eastern Syria over the weekend; one targeting Rumalyn Landing Zone and another targeting forces in Shadaddi. The attacks resulted in no casualties or damage to infrastructure.

“Iran, we believe, is the ultimate party responsible” for attacks on ships transiting near Red Sea, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Monday.

“This is an issue for the entire world,” he added.

The latest violence in Iraq and Syria comes as Iranian-backed Houthi insurgents in Yemen hit three commercial ships in the Red Sea with missiles Sunday, in what could be a further escalation in a string of maritime attacks in the Middle East linked to the nearly two-month-old Israel-Hamas war.

“Houthi forces attacked multiple commercial vessels in the Red Sea,” the Defense Department told VOA. “The USS Carney lended aid in some circumstances and shot down Houthi drones that were headed in its general direction.”

According to U.S. Central Command, after the first ballistic missile hit the waters near M/V Unity Explorer, the USS Carney, a guided missile destroyer, responded and took out a drone heading in the direction of the two ships.

Less than an hour later, M/V Unity Explorer was hit by a Houthi missile, causing minor damage. While the USS Carney was responding to the ship’s distress call, Houthis fired another drone at the ships that was shot down by the Carney crew.

A few hours later, missiles launched from Yemen hit two more commercial ships, the M/V Number 9 and the M/V Sophie II, damaging both vessels. While responding to the Sophie II’s distress call, USS Carney shot down another drone heading in its direction.

Singh said the Pentagon assessed the Carney was not the target of any of the attacks, but when pressed by VOA, she acknowledged that this was an initial assessment and the Pentagon had not ruled out the possibility that the Carney might have been a drone target.

“It came close enough that the commander of the ship felt that it was a threat and needed to engage and shoot down that drone,” she said.

Singh added that the attacks were “very concerning” but would not say how or whether the U.S. would respond. In 2016, the U.S. launched Tomahawk cruise missiles that destroyed three coastal radar sites in Houthi-controlled territory to retaliate for missiles being fired at U.S. Navy ships.

A Houthi military spokesperson, Brigadier General Yahya Saree, claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying the rebels hit one vessel with a missile and another with a drone while in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait that links the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden.

“The Yemeni armed forces continue to prevent Israeli ships from navigating the Red Sea [and Gulf of Aden] until the Israeli aggression against our steadfast brothers in the Gaza Strip stops,” Saree said. “The Yemeni armed forces renew their warning to all Israeli ships or those associated with Israelis that they will become a legitimate target if they violate what is stated in this statement.”

Saree also identified the first vessel hit as the Unity Explorer, which is owned by a British firm that includes Dan David Ungar, who lives in Israel, as one of its officers. The Houthi spokesperson said the second hit was a Panamanian-flagged container ship called Number 9, which is linked to Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement.

Israeli media have identified Ungar as being the son of Israeli shipping billionaire Abraham “Rami” Ungar.

For more than a month, Iranian-backed militias have conducted drone and rocket attacks against the 2,500 American troops based in Iraq and the 900 troops in Syria.

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“The First Lady I Knew”: VOA Reporter Reflects on Rosalynn Carter

VOA Correspondent Kane Farabaugh has covered the life and legacy of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter for nearly 20 years. After attending the former first lady’s funeral on November 26, Farabaugh shares his personal reflections of Rosalynn Carter, who helped redefine the role of first lady in and out of the White House.

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Spotify to Lay Off 1,500 Employees

Spotify says it is planning to lay off 17% of its global workforce, amounting to around 1,500 employees, following layoffs earlier this year of 600 people in January and an additional 200 in June.

The music streaming giant is continuing its effort to cut costs and work toward becoming profitable, said Spotify CEO Daniel Ek in a prepared statement.

“By most metrics, we were more productive but less efficient,” he said. “We need to be both.”

The layoffs come following a rare quarterly net profit of about $70.3 million in October. The company has never seen a full year net profit.

“I realize that for many, a reduction of this size will feel surprisingly large given the recent positive earnings report and our performance,” Ek said. “We debated making smaller reductions throughout 2024 and 2025. Yet, considering the gap between our financial goal … and our current operational costs, I decided that a substantial action to right size our costs was the best option to accomplish our objectives.”

With the new layoffs, the company now expects to see a fourth quarter loss between $100 million to $117 million after previously anticipating a $40 million profit.

A majority of the charges will go toward severance for laid off employees, who will get about five months’ pay, vacation pay and health care coverage for the severance period.

Spotify did not clearly state when the layoffs would become financially beneficial but said that they would “generate meaningful operating efficiencies going forward.”

Spotify is following many companies in the tech industry trying to cut costs after growth in the industry slowed following a surge during the COVID pandemic.

Tech giants including Meta, Microsoft, Amazon and Google parent company, Alphabet, all have plans to cut 10,000 or more people this year.

Spotify began informing affected employees on Monday.

Some information in this report came from Reuters, The Associated Press and Agence France-Presse.

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