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Trump Officials to Brief Congress on Iranian Threat

WASHINGTON- Michael Bowman on Capitol Hill contributed to this report.

Senior Trump administration officials are due to brief members of Congress in closed-door sessions Tuesday about the military threat the White House says Iran poses in the Middle East.

Among those going to Capitol Hill are Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford.

They are planning to talk with lawmakers after days of suspicions expressed by U.S. officials that Iran was responsible for attacks last week on two Saudi oil-pumping stations and an earlier sabotage of four oil tankers.

Trump said Monday that Iran has been “very hostile,” and that the United States will have no choice but to respond to Iranian aggression “with great force.”

Earlier in the day, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded to what he called “genocidal taunts” by reminding Trump that “Iranians have stood tall for a millennia while aggressors all gone,” including Genghis Kahn and Alexander the Great. “Try respect. It works,” Zarif tweeted.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said Monday that after a briefing from national security adviser John Bolton, “It is clear that over the last several weeks Iran has attacked pipelines and ships of other nations and created threat streams against American interests in Iraq.”

Graham tweeted, “The fault lies with the Iranians, not the United States or any other nation. If the Iranian threats against American personnel and interests are activated, we must deliver an overwhelming military response. Stand firm Mr. President.”

​Monday in the Senate chamber, Democratic Senator Tim Kaine said, “It would be absolute lunacy for the United States to get involved in another war right now in the Middle East. I think it would be devastating to be in a war with Iran and, in my view unconstitutional to be in a war with Iran at a president’s say-so … It’s Congress that declares war, not the president. It’s not for a president to say it and start it. It’s not for a president to, by a series of provocations, blunder us down the path where war becomes inevitable.”

Later, Democratic Senator Chris Murphy tweeted: “No one should defend the actions Iran has taken – they’ve been out of control for years – but dumb wars start when each party mistakenly believes that the other party’s defensive or reactive actions are actually offensive and proactive.”

The U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet said it has increased maritime patrols and exercises in the Arabian Sea that highlight the “lethality and agility to respond to threat.” The Pentagon has already sent bombers to the region.

Iranian leaders say they do not want war, but have shown no interest so far in talks with the United States. 

As the war of words between the two countries showed little sign of cooling off, Iran said Monday it has quadrupled its uranium enrichment capacity.

Iranian officials say the uranium will be enriched for civilian energy uses, far below weapons grade as spelled out in the 2015 nuclear agreement. Enriching uranium means concentrating the element’s radioactive component. Natural uranium has less than one percent U-235, while uranium for electric power production is around four percent pure and weapons-grade material is refined to contain about 90 percent of this active ingredient.

Iran could soon exceed the amount of material it is allowed to stockpile under the deal. 

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced two weeks ago he is pulling out of some parts of the six-nation nuclear deal, including the condition that Iran sell excess amounts of uranium to other nations.

Rouhani has threatened to move Iran closer to weapons-grade enrichment unless it sees promised economic relief from the deal by early July.

Trump pulled out of the nuclear agreement deal one year ago. He re-imposed sanctions on Tehran and has threatened other sanctions on countries that still do business with Iran. Trump’s decision has made the Iranian economy, already in tatters, even weaker.

Trump’s moves have helped set the stage for the current increased tensions between the United States and Iran.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia said Monday it intercepted two missiles it says were fired by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. One missile was stopped over the city of Taif and the other over Jiddah.

The Houthis deny involvement. 

The Saudis have said they do not want war, but will fight and fight hard to protect their interests. 

The Saudis also blame the Houthis for a drone attack on two Saudi oil-pumping stations last week and the United States says it suspects Iran was behind the sabotage that damaged four tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates last week. Two of the tankers were Saudi.

Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition helping the Yemeni government fight the Houthi rebels. Iran has not denied supporting the Houthi cause, but has said it does not supply weapons to them.


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House Committee Warns of ‘Serious Consequences’ as Trump Tells Former Counsel to Ignore Subpoena

WHITE HOUSE — Patsy Widakuswara at the White House contributed to this report.

U.S. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler says the committee is “prepared to use all enforcement mechanisms at its disposal” if former White House Counsel Don McGahn does not comply with an order to show up for testimony Tuesday.

In a letter to McGahn released late Monday, Nadler objected to an order from the White House instructing McGahn not to testify, and to a Justice Department legal opinion stating that Congress cannot force him to appear.

“The committee has made clear that you risk serious consequences if you do not appear tomorrow,” Nadler wrote.

He said President Donald Trump was seeking to “block a former official from informing a coequal branch of government about his own misconduct,” and that the White House order did not excuse McGahn from his obligation to testify.

Nadler further dismissed the opinion from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel as having “no support in relevant case law” with prior court rulings rejecting the arguments presented.

He said the committee wants to ask McGahn about “instances in which the president took actions or ordered you to take actions that may constitute criminal offenses, including obstruction of justice.”

McGahn’s attorney, William Burck, however, confirmed Monday evening that his client would not appear Tuesday before the House committee.

“Mr. McGahn remains obligated to maintain the status quo and respect the President’s instruction. In the event an accommodation is agreed between the Committee and the White House, Mr. McGahn will of course comply with that accommodation,” Burck said in a statement.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders explained in a statement that the Justice Department “has provided a legal opinion stating that, based on long-standing, bipartisan, and Constitutional precedent, the former Counsel to the President cannot be forced to give such testimony, and Mr. McGahn has been directed to act accordingly.”

The Justice Department, in its legal opinion, states: “We provide the same answer that the Department of Justice repeatedly provided for five decades: Congress may not constitutionally compel the President’s senior advisers to testify about their official duties.”

“They’re doing that for the office of the presidency for future presidents,” said President Donald Trump of the Justice Department legal opinion. “They’re not doing that for me.” 

​”I think we’ve been the most transparent administration in the history of our country,” replied Trump to a reporter asking why not just let McGahn testify so the public can have full answers to executive action regarding the Russia investigation. “We want to get on with running the country.”

Trump spoke on the White House South Lawn before boarding Marine One for Joint Base Andrews. From there, he headed to a political rally in Pennsylvania on Air Force One.

In a letter to Nadler, the current White House Counsel to the President, Pat Cipollone, stated that Trump has directed McGahn not to appear at Tuesday’s hearing. 

“This long-standing principle is firmly rooted in the Constitution’s separation of powers and protects the core functions of the Presidency, and we are adhering to this well-established precedent in order to ensure that future Presidents can effectively execute the responsibilities of the Office of the Presidency,” Cipollone writes.

The Democrats have been eager to hear from McGahn, including questioning him about potential obstruction of justice by Trump based on episodes outlined in the report of special counsel Robert Mueller from his investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

Nadler, last week, stated he was prepared to have his committee vote to hold McGahn in contempt of Congress if the former White House counsel defied the subpoena.

One member of the committee is calling for an impeachment inquiry against the president to commence if McGahn does not testify Tuesday. 

“We simply cannot sit by and allow this president to destroy the rule of law, to subvert the Constitution,” Congressman David Cicilline of the state of Rhode Island said during an interview on U.S. cable news network MSNBC. 

McGahn’s name is mentioned on more than 65 pages of the 448-page Mueller report.

Monday’s pushback by the Justice Department and the White House is the latest instance of the executive branch trying to challenge for power the legislative branch of government with Trump betting the third branch – the judiciary – will back him up with rulings by federal judges, including the Supreme Court. 

“That’s a dangerous game to play, though, because the judiciary is also not going to want to see erosion of their power, even if they see congressional power getting eroded,” predicts Shannon Bow O’Brien, a government professor at the University of Texas. 

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California Eyes Health Care for Immigrants in US Illegally

California lawmakers are considering proposals that would make the state the first in the nation to offer government-funded health care to adult immigrants living in the country illegally.

Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed covering immigrants 19 to 25 years old.

A proposal in the state Senate would expand that coverage to include people 65 and older, while the Assembly is considering a bill that would extend benefits to all low-income immigrants 19 and older.

California already covers immigrants 18 and younger regardless of their status.

A final decision on wider coverage may come down to cost.

Newsom estimates his plan covering young adults would cost $98 million a year. Legislative staffers estimate the Senate’s plan could cost $304 million and the Assembly proposal $3.2 billion annually.

Newsom estimates California will have a $21.5 billion budget surplus. But he has urged lawmakers to constrain spending, warning the next recession could cost the state $70 billion in revenue.

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The Man Behind the Morehouse College Surprise

Robert Smith shocked the students at the historically black, all-male Morehouse College Sunday when he announced during his commencement address that he would be paying off student debts of all 400 graduates.

Here is a look at the man behind the gift, estimated to be worth $40 million.

Early life

Robert F. Smith was born and raised in a mostly African American, middle-class neighborhood in Denver, Colorado. Both his parents were teachers who had earned Ph.Ds. While attending East High School in Denver, Smith applied for an internship with Bell Labs. He was told the program was intended for college students, but Smith refused to take no for an answer. He called every week and finally was allowed into the program when another student failed to show.

He attended Cornell University in New York, studying chemical engineering. He got a master’s degree in business administration from Columbia University.


Before attending graduate school, Smith worked at Kraft General Foods as a chemical engineer, where he earned two U.S. and two European patents. After graduating from Columbia, he worked at Goldman Sachs in San Francisco, advising tech companies, including Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Yahoo and Microsoft. He was the first person at Goldman Sachs to focus solely on technology mergers and acquisitions.

In 2000, he founded Vista Equity Partners, a private equity and venture capital firm. According to Forbes, Vista is worth more than $46 billion, owns over 50 software companies and has 60,000 employees worldwide. It is believed to be one of the best-performing firms in the country.

According to Forbes, Smith is worth $5 billion, making him the richest African American in the U.S.

Personal life

Smith is the first African American to be named chairman of the board at Carnegie Hall, America’s most prestigious concert venue. He is also the chairman of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights organization, a nonprofit human rights advocacy group.

He is one of the founding donors of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, committing $20 million to the museum before its opening.

Smith also founded the Fund II Foundation, which provides grants for causes such as human rights, the environment, music education and “preserving the African American experience.”

In 2017, he signed The Giving Pledge, an effort spearheaded by billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates to enlist wealthy Americans in giving away half of their fortunes. Smith said he would invest half of his net worth during his lifetime to causes that support equality for black Americans and the environment.

He is married to Hope Dworaczyk, an actress and former Playboy model. They have two children together, and Smith has three other children from a previous marriage.


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US Ambassador to China Visiting Tibet This Week

U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad was scheduled to visit Tibet this week, a U.S. embassy spokesperson said, the first visit to the region by a U.S. ambassador since 2015, amid escalating trade tensions between Washington and Beijing.

The visit follows passage of a law in December that requires the United States to deny visas to Chinese officials in charge of implementing policies that restrict access to Tibet for foreigners, legislation that was denounced by China.

“This visit is a chance for the ambassador to engage with local leaders to raise longstanding concerns about restrictions on religious freedom and the preservation of Tibetan culture and language,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

Branstad was traveling to Qinghai and neighboring Tibet from May 19 to May 25 on a trip that will include official meetings as well as visits to religious and cultural heritage sites, the spokesperson said.

In December, China criticized the United States for passing the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act, saying it was “resolutely opposed” to the U.S. legislation on what China considers an internal affair, and it risked causing “serious harm” to their relations.

The U.S. government is required to begin denying visas by the end of this year.

The visit comes as tensions have been running high between the two countries over trade. China struck a more aggressive tone in its trade war with the United States on Friday, suggesting a resumption of talks between the world’s two largest economies would be meaningless unless Washington changed course.

On Saturday, China’s senior diplomat Wang Yi told U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that recent U.S. words and actions had harmed the interests of China and its enterprises, and that Washington should show restraint.

While the Trump administration has taken a tough stance towards China on trade and highlighted the security rivalry with Beijing, it has so far not acted on congressional calls for it to impose sanctions on China’s former Communist Party chief in Tibet, Chen Quanguo, for the treatment of minority Muslims in the Xinjiang region, where he is currently party chief.

A State Department report in March said Chen had replicated in Xinjiang policies similar to those credited with reducing opposition to Chinese rule in Tibet.

Beijing sent troops into remote, mountainous Tibet in 1950 in what it officially terms a peaceful liberation and has ruled there with an iron fist ever since.


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Trump Attacks Fox News in Latest Sign of Strain

President Donald Trump criticized Fox News again Sunday in the latest hint that he is souring on what has been his favorite and most faithful news outlet.

As part of a flurry of afternoon tweets, Trump took the conservative network to task for interviewing Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana.

“Hard to believe that @FoxNews is wasting airtime on Mayor Pete, as Chris Wallace likes to call him. Fox is moving more and more to the losing (wrong) side in covering the Dems,” Trump wrote, alluding to the Fox interviewer.

Trump added: “Chris Wallace said, ‘I actually think, whether you like his opinions or not, that Mayor Pete has a lot of substance…fascinating biography.’ Gee, he never speaks well of me.”

Trump again mocked Buttigieg, referring to him as Alfred E. Neuman, the goofy, gap-toothed cover boy with protruding ears of U.S. humor magazine Mad.

“Alfred E. Newman will never be president,” Trump wrote, using a more anglicized spelling of the name.

Sunday’s comments were Trump’s most forceful of late against Fox, until now the president’s preferred U.S. news outlet and the one that most often gets to interview him.

Another Trump interview was scheduled on the network for late Sunday.

Trump has been critical of Fox’s coverage of candidates in the crowded race for the Democratic presidential nomination in the 2020 election that will pit one of them against Trump.

Last month, Trump took a swipe at Fox after it hosted a town hall meeting with Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

“So weird to watch Crazy Bernie on @Fox News,” Trump tweeted.

Trump said the audience “was so smiley and nice. Very strange,” and alleged that it had been packed with Sanders supporters.

The president’s ties with the most Trump-friendly U.S. television network have hit a rough patch since the departure from his administration of two former big names at Fox.

These are Bill Shine, a former Fox News executive who served for nine months as White House communications director — Trump’s fifth — and former Fox news anchor Heather Nauert, who was spokeswoman at the State Department.

Nauert had been promoted to a senior State post and then considered for a while as a potential candidate to replace Nikki Haley as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.


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Five Foreigners Die in Plane Crash off Honduras

Five foreigners including the pilot died Saturday when their private plane crashed into the sea shortly after taking off from Roatan island, a tourist destination on the Atlantic coast of Honduras, local authorities said.

Officials gave conflicting accounts of the victims’ nationalities. Armed forces spokesman Jose Domingo Meza said four of the victims were from the United States and the fifth victim’s nationality had yet to be determined.

Local emergency services initially said the victims included four Canadians and another victim of unknown nationality.

Local authorities did not immediately offer a cause for the accident.

The Piper PA-32-260 plane was headed to the tourist port city of Trujillo, about 80 kilometers (49.71 miles) from Roatan, a picturesque island frequented by tourists from the United States, Canada and Europe, authorities said.

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Radio Telescope Explores Cosmic Mysteries

Every year astronomers are seeing farther and more clearly into the cosmos than ever before. One of the ways they are doing it is by linking telescopes together to make them more powerful. The Very Large Array in New Mexico supported by the National Science Foundation is one incredible example. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.

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Saudi Crown Prince, Pompeo Discuss Mideast Developments

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman discussed regional developments, including efforts to strengthen security and stability, in a phone call with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Saudi Media Ministry tweeted on Sunday.

The announcement came hours after Saudi Arabia’s King Salman invited Persian Gulf and Arab leaders to convene emergency summits to discuss the implications of this week’s attacks against the kingdom and neighboring United Arab Emirates, the Foreign Ministry said.

The meetings are set for May 30 in Mecca, the ministry said on Twitter. 

Four commercial ships were sabotaged off the coast of the United Arab Emirates on May 12, and two days later drones attacked oil installations west of the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

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Chinese Entrepreneurs Assess Impact of Trade Tensions with US

Trade tensions between the United States and China are deepening. After months of talks, the two sides appear no closer to reaching a deal. VOA spoke with business owners in southern China about the toll from the prolonged standoff. VOA Mandarin Service reporter Ye Bing has more from Guangdong.

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Acting US Defense Secretary Faces Challenges Ahead of Confirmation

Acting Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan is President Donald Trump’s pick for the next U.S. defense secretary. He will need to lead the Pentagon through many military challenges in the coming weeks but will have to make it through a difficult confirmation hearing first. VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb reports.

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‘Constitutional Crisis’ or Confrontation? Democrats and Republicans Disagree

Democratic lawmakers say the Trump administration’s refusal to provide additional information and testimony relating to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report has plunged the U.S. into a constitutional crisis. The fight over just how much oversight the U.S. Congress should have over the White House has triggered a debate about the balance of power in the U.S. government. VOA’s congressional correspondent Katherine Gypson reports from Capitol Hill.

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