Obama Administration

This Is What Eric Holder’s Legacy Will Be

The Huffington Post

Attorney General Eric Holder, the first African-American to hold the top law enforcement position in the United States, announced on Thursday that he plans to step down from his position as soon as a successor can be confirmed. If he remains in office until December, Holder will become the third longest-serving Attorney General in the history of the United States. Here are some key components of his legacy.

He decided not to defend DOMA

The Obama administration initially defended the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which banned federal recognition of same-sex marriages. At first, Holder maintained that while the administration disagreed with the law, it was the Justice Department’sresponsibility to defend the laws that Congress had passed. (Some of the briefs written by Justice Department lawyers arguing that DOMA was constitutional were considered offensive by gay rights organizations.)

But Holder’s analysis changed. He announced in February 2011 that the Justice Department would no longer defend components of the statute because DOMA “contains numerous expressions reflecting moral disapproval of gays and lesbians and their intimate and family relationships — precisely the kind of stereotype-based thinking and animus the (Constitution’s) Equal Protection Clause is designed to guard against.” Ultimately, the Supreme Court agreed, ruling in June 2013 that key portions of DOMA were unconstitutional.

He lost the fight to bring the Sept. 11 trial out of Guantanamo Bay and into New York City

In one of the biggest disappointments of his tenure, Holder ultimately lost the fight to try the key perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks in federal court in New York City. The plan, first announced by Holder in Nov. 2009, faced stiff resistance from many politicians in New York who feared the impact a high-profile trial would have on the city. Others objected because they believed that a military commission was a more appropriate venue for the terrorism trial. Holder ultimately announced he was reversing his decision to try the cases in New York and moved them back to the military commission in Guantanamo.

While the process in Guantanamo has hit numerous roadblocks, Holder’s Justice Department has gathered a string of wins against other terror suspects in federal court. Holder has remarked that the Sept. 11 defendants “would be on death row as we speak” if the case had been allowed to proceed in federal court.

He helped turn around the Civil Rights Division and fought for voting rights

The Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department was heavily politicized during the Bush administration. A 2008 inspector general report found the conservative leadership had hired lawyers with little to no civil rights experience into positions due to their ideological beliefs. The environment caused a massive exodus in the Civil Rights Division: more than 70 percent of its attorneys left between 2003 and 2007. Holder, who has long made civil rights a top priority, was widely credited with overseeing the turnaround of the division.

“I think Eric Holder put the ‘J’ back in DOJ, and in particular he restored the luster of the crown jewel which is the Civil Rights Division, and I had the privilege of having a front-row seat for that,” Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who headed the Civil Rights Division from 2009 to 2013, told The Huffington Post after Holder’s announcement on Thursday.

Holder oversaw several of the Justice Department’s successful voting rights lawsuits during President Barack Obama’s first term, as well as the agency’s continued efforts after the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. DOJ is currently involved in several voting rights cases, including high-profile suits against voter ID laws in North Carolina and Texas.

He addressed racism head on.

Shortly after his confirmation in 2009, Holder delivered a speech to Justice Department employees at an event commemorating Black History Month. In his remarks, he called out the U.S. as a “nation of cowards” when it comes to addressing race. He said Americans believe that “certain subjects are off-limits and that to explore them risks at best embarrassment and at worst the questioning of one’s character.”

Those words echoed throughout Holder’s tenure at the DOJ as he fought back against laws that suppressed voting and defended the Voting Rights Act. He stepped in to request federal oversight of the New York City Police Department’s stop-and-friskpolicy, a program that has overwhelmingly targeted black and Latino individuals. More recently, he ordered a civil rights investigation into the largely white police force in Ferguson, Missouri, following the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson.

“Will we yet again turn a blind eye to the hard truths that Ferguson exposed?” Holder asked during a speech this week, echoing his 2009 remarks. “Or will we finally accept this mandate for open and honest dialogue?”

He oversaw a crackdown on leaks and disappointed civil liberties advocates

Under Holder, the Justice Department has aggressively — some would say obsessively — pursued government leakers. Eight have been charged with violating the draconian Espionage Act of 1917, more than under all previous administrations combined. Journalists have also come under the gun: Holder’s DOJ subpoenaed AP reporters’ phone logs in a leak investigation, named a Fox News reporter as an “un-indicted co-conspirator” in another case, and is still trying to force Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter James Risen to testify about his sources under threat of jail time.

All of that led Risen to call Holder’s boss, Obama, “the greatest enemy to press freedom in a generation.”

One of the leakers charged, Edward Snowden, revealed another disappointment for civil liberties advocates: the DOJ’s intimate role in coming up with the legal rationale that underlies the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of American phone records.

The FBI’s frayed relationship with Muslim communities, meanwhile, has seen little improvement under Holder. The bureau has continued to use sting operations, which critics say are tantamount to entrapment, to arrest Muslims involved in bogus terror “plots.” And NPR reported on Wednesday that the racial profiling guidelines set to be released soon will still allow the FBI to “map” the demographics of Muslim communities.

Perhaps most worrying for many across the spectrum, it was Holder’s DOJ that came up with the “drone memos” — the legal justification that the Obama administration leaned on to kill al Qaeda propagandist and American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen without a trial.

He released the so-called “torture memos,” but didn’t go after their authors — Shadee

Two months after assuming office in 2009, Holder moved to publicly release a series of previously classified “torture memos” from the Bush administration that sanctioned specific acts of torture, including waterboarding, for CIA use against al Qaeda suspects.

“There is no reason we cannot wage an effective fight against those who have sworn to harm us while we respect our most honored constitutional traditions,” Holder said in March 2009 after releasing nine previously classified Justice Department memos.

Despite the release, which faced significant pushback from senior intelligence officials, the attorney general’s office never brought criminal charges against any government officials investigated for their involvements in over 100 cases of severe prisoner abuse.

While crediting Holder in other areas, American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Anthony Romero issued a statement on Thursday noting “profound disagreements with the Attorney General on national security issues.”

“During his tenure, DOJ approved the drone killing of an American far away from any battlefield, approved the NSA’s mass surveillance programs, failed to prosecute any of the Bush administration torturers, and presided over more leak prosecutions than all previous Justice Departments combined,” Romero said.

He became the first-ever cabinet member to be held in contempt of Congress

In 2012, Holder became the only sitting cabinet member in history to be held in contempt of Congress after the White House claimed executive privilege over documents subpoenaed in relation to Operation Fast and Furious, a botched federal investigation intended to combat gun smuggling. The documents that the Justice Department refused to turn over related not to the actual operation, but rather to how DOJ responded once Congress began investigating the matter.

Holder later dismissed the vote — led by the Republican-controlled House — as political theater, calling it “a crass effort and a grave disservice to the American people.”

The White House also indicated in 2012 that Holder would not face any criminal charges in the matter since the documents being sought were protected by executive privilege.

He took on “draconian” drug sentences and slowly but surely scaled back the war on drugs.

In what Obama described as a “gutsy speech” in front of the American Bar Association in 2013, Holder outlined his plan for “sweeping, systemic changes” to how the Justice Department prosecutes drug-related offenses. While Holder initially faced a lot of internal resistance from career federal prosecutors as he attempted to rein in the so-called war on drugs, he pressed ahead, pushing for changes like allowing low-level and nonviolent drug offenders to avoid “draconian” mandatory minimum sentences and permitting the early release of some elderly defendants.

He continued to push for sentencing reform in March, lending his support to aproposal that would reduce penalties for some drug offenders and help cut prison costs.

“This overreliance on incarceration is not just financially unsustainable, it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate,” he said.

Holder has also urged first responders to carry the heroin overdose antidote naloxone.

He oversaw a crackdown on marijuana shops, but allowed state legalization to move forward

During the first term of the Obama administration, Holder oversaw an expansive federal crackdown on hundreds of state-compliant medical marijuana dispensaries in states like Colorado and California, which was spearheaded by the Drug Enforcement Agency and several U.S. attorneys.

But in a historic step, Holder announced in 2013 that DOJ would allow for Colorado and Washington to implement their groundbreaking new laws legalizing and regulating the possession, use and sale of recreational marijuana.

While Holder never explicitly came out in favor of legalization or decriminalization, he has been more open to rescheduling marijuana, which is still classified by the federal government as a Schedule I substance like heroin. Holder said the Obama administration would be “more than glad” to work with Congress to re-examine how cannabis is scheduled federally. He even said in April that he’s “cautiously optimistic”about how the historic changes in marijuana law were working out in Washington and Colorado.

And now, as he plans to step down from his post, he appears to be more open than ever to the possibility of classifying marijuana as a less dangerous drug. He said in an interview just this week that “we need to ask ourselves, whether or not marijuana is as serious of a drug as heroin” adding that science should be used to make that determination.

He reached big settlements on pollution cases

The DOJ reached a record $4 billion settlement with BP in November 2012 over criminal charges stemming from the 2010 oil spill, which dumped 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. That included charges related to the deaths of 11 workers on the rig and the “misconduct or neglect of ships’ officers.” The DOJ is still pursuing civil charges related to the spill, but the agency recently scored a big win when a federal judge ruled that BP was grossly negligent in allowing the spill to occur — a ruling that opens the door to up to $18 billion in civil penalties that could be levied against the company.

The DOJ topped its own record fine this year, however, with a $5.15 billion settlementin April 2014 with Anadarko Petroleum over a decades-long legacy of pollution left by one of its subsidiaries.

He failed to hold Wall Street accountable for the financial crisis

Holder’s legacy is likely to be marred by what critics view as DOJ’s lax approach to investigating and prosecuting the alleged crimes that sparked, or exacerbated, the 2007-09 financial crisis.

Few Wall Street firms, and even fewer senior financial executives, were officially charged with breaking the law for conduct related to the crisis, despite what experts contend is a wealth of evidence — thanks to civil lawsuits brought by aggrieved investors, prior investigations by state authorities, and probes by Congress and the federal Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission — that at the very least should have prompted the Justice Department to investigate further.

Holder’s approach to crisis-era wrongdoing stands in stark contrast to the playbook followed by federal prosecutors contending with the fallout of the savings-and-loan debacle of the late 1980s and early 90s.

“In striking contrast with these past prosecutions, not a single high-level executive has been successfully prosecuted in connection with the recent financial crisis, and given the fact that most of the relevant criminal provisions are governed by a five-year statute of limitations, it appears likely that none will be,” Judge Jed Rakoff of the U.S. District Court in Manhattan wrote earlier this year in the New York Review of Books.

The lack of public evidence that Holder’s Justice Department thoroughly investigated crisis-era wrongdoing has contributed to the perception — one eagerly promoted by the defense bar — that perhaps few crimes were even committed in the runup to the financial crisis.

“But if, by contrast, the Great Recession was in material part the product of intentional fraud,” Rakoff wrote, “the failure to prosecute those responsible must be judged one of the more egregious failures of the criminal justice system in many years.”

10 things you need to know today: September 25, 2014

Obama raises his glass in the UN. 

Obama raises his glass in the UN. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Surely the Right Wing talking-heads will find something wrong with this UN ritual…wait and see.

The Week

The U.S. bombs Syrian refineries controlled by ISIS, Islamists behead a French hostage in Algeria, and more

1. U.S. bombs Syrian refineries that were financing ISIS
The U.S. and Arab allies on Wednesday bombed a dozen small Syrian oil refineries controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, in an attempt to cut off the Islamist militant group’s funding. ISIS was estimated to be making $2 million a day from the facilities. The Obama administration also labeled 11 people and one so-called charity as terrorists, accusing them of aiding ISIS. President Obama chaired a United Nations Security Council vote approving a resolution compelling countries to stop recruits from joining ISIS and other terrorist militias. [Los Angeles Times, BBC News]

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2. French hostage beheaded in Algeria
Algerian Islamist extremists released a video on Wednesday in which they appear to behead French tourist Herve Gourde to retaliate for France’s airstrikes against ISIS. Gourdel, a nature guide and photographer, was kidnapped on Sunday as he drove into a remote mountain area to go hiking. French President Francois Hollande said Gourdel, 55, had been “killed cruelly and in a cowardly way,” but his murder would not shake France’s resolve to help defeat ISIS. [Reuters]

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3. Judge denies defense request to move Boston Marathon bombing trial
A federal judge on Wednesday denied a request by lawyers for Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to move his trial out of Boston. U.S. District Judge George O’Toole said that despite extensive media coverage, it “stretches the imagination” to suggest that it will be impossible to find 12 fair and impartial jurors in a metropolitan area of five million people. O’Toole did delay the trial’s start from Nov. 3 to Jan. 5, 2015. The defense wanted a longer delay to go over the large volume of information in the case. [CNN]

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4. Court tells Ohio, a key swing state, to expand early voting
A federal appeals court on Wednesday upheld an Ohio judge’s order expanding the time people will have in the swing state to vote this fall. Under the ruling, early ballots can be cast as early as next Tuesday, instead of Oct. 7. A federal judge had temporarily blocked a state law narrowing the early-voting window, and told election officials to give people more options. State officials had argued Ohio already offered more time for early voting than many other states. [The Associated Press]

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5. Navajo Nation to receive $554 million under settlement with government
The Obama administration has agreed to pay the Navajo Nation $554 million to settle a lawsuit accusing the federal government of mismanaging funds and resources at the 14-million-acre Navajo reservation in Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. The settlement — the largest ever for a single Native American tribe — will end disputes dating as far back as five decades. Attorney General Eric Holder said the deal shows the government’s “firm commitment to strengthening our partnerships with tribal nations.” [The Washington Post]

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6. Colorado students protest anti-civil-disobedience proposal
Hundreds of Colorado high-school students walked out of their classrooms on Wednesday to protest their school district’s conservative-led school board’s proposal “to focus history education on topics that promote citizenship, patriotism, and respect for authority.” The students waved flags and held up signs reading, “There is nothing more patriotic than protest.” The Jefferson County school board is considering establishing a committee to review history texts and weed out materials that “condone civil disorder.” [The Associated Press]

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7. Grand jury clears police in shooting of Walmart shopper carrying air rifle
The U.S. Justice Department will investigate possible civil rights violations in the shooting death of a Walmart shopper carrying an air rifle he had apparently taken off a store shelf, the state attorney general said Wednesday. The announcement was made after a special grand jury ruled out charges against police officers who shot the 22-year-old man, John Crawford III, on Aug. 5 as he talked on a cellphone and walked around the store. [The Cincinnati Enquirer]

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8. More than 100 Boko Haram fighters surrender to Nigerian forces
Nigeria’s military announced Wednesday that more than 130 Boko Haram Islamist fighters had surrendered to government forces. Defense Ministry spokesman Major-General Chris Olukolade also said that in a recent clash soldiers had killed a man named Mohammed Bashir, who had claimed to be Boko Haram’s late leader Abubakar Shekau. The army has increased operations in the remote areas which Boko Haram declared to be “Muslim territory” after taking over several small towns. [Reuters]

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9. Apple scrambles to fix glitch in software updates for iPhone 6
Apple issued an apology Wednesday after some users of its newest iPhones ran into software glitches that prevented them from making or receiving calls. The news came as other users reported the popular iPhone 6 models were vulnerable to bending. Apple said it would stop distributing the software update that caused the blocked calls — iOS 8.0.1. Some users also reported problems with a feature allowing them to unlock the phones with their fingerprint. Apple said it would issue advice on a fix “as quickly as we can.” [CNET]

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10. Grand jury clears race-car driver Tony Stewart in fatal crash
A grand jury on Wednesday decided there was no evidence to justify filing criminal charges against race-car driver Tony Stewart in the death of fellow driver Kevin Ward Jr. at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in New York. A toxicology report said Ward had marijuana in his system when he crashed into a wall and got out of his car before Stewart’s right-rear tire struck him. Ward’s family said “the matter is not at rest.” [Yahoo! Sports]

10 things you need to know today: July 25, 2014

The aftermath of an Israeli airstrike. 

The aftermath of an Israeli airstrike. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

The Week

Israeli tank fire kills 15 in a U.N. school, Obama calls for closing overseas tax loopholes, and more

1. Protests rock the West Bank ahead of a “day of rage”
Israel deployed thousands of security forces around Jerusalem after Palestinian leaders called for a “day of rage” on Friday following massive overnight protests in the West Bank. Israeli tank shells reportedly hit a United Nations school in the Gaza Strip on Thursday, killing at least 15 people. Dozens of Palestinians had sought shelter there from fighting between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian faction that runs Gaza. Israel said it did not target the school. [NBC News, USA Today]

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2. Obama urges Congress to close overseas tax loopholes for businesses
President Obama on Thursday called on Congress to close loopholes allowing businesses to use foreign partnerships to avoid taxes at home, even when their headquarters and main operations remain in the U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who is the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, said he was all for asking companies to pay their fair share, but that Obama administration policies were “punitive and restrictive to businesses.” [CBS News]

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3. Ukraine’s prime minister submits his resignation
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk resigned on Thursday after two parties quit the government coalition, forcing new elections to renew a parliament unchanged since the ouster of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovich in February. The country’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, backed Yatseniuk’s departure, saying forcing new elections would purge the chamber of “Moscow agents.” [Reuters]

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4. Air Algerie wreck blamed on weather
The wreckage of a chartered Air Algerie jetliner was found Thursday in Mali. The plane was carrying 110 passengers and six crew members when it left Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, for Algiers early Thursday. There did not appear to be any survivors. Burkina Faso’s top military leader, Gen. Gilbert Diendere, said fierce thunderstorms that were pounding the Sahara as the plane flew over probably played a role in the crash. [The New York Times]

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5. Amazon losses climb due to big investments to woo customers
Amazon.com reported its biggest quarterly loss since 2012 on Thursday. The world’s largest online retailer lost $126 million, far higher than the average analyst’s forecast of $66.7 million. Amazon’s sales climbed by 23 percent to $19.3 billion, but CEO Jeff Bezos’ strategy of investing heavily in services and gadgets to inspire customer loyalty hurt profits. Amazon stock fell by more than 11 percent on the news. [Bloomberg News]

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6. One killed, two wounded in Pennsylvania psychiatric hospital shooting
A gunman killed one person and wounded two others during a Thursday shooting at the psychiatric unit of Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital in the Philadelphia suburb of Darby, Pennsylvania. The suspect — a patient — entered Dr. Lee Silverman’s office with a female caseworker and allegedly opened fire. Silverman, who was wounded, pulled his own gun and wounded the assailant after the caseworker was killed. [The Associated Press]

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7. Arizona officials defend controversial execution
Arizona prison officials denied Thursday that the two-hour execution of double-murderer Joseph Rudolph Wood had been “botched.” State officials said that Wood was brain-dead during 90 minutes of gulping and snorting before he was declared dead. Wood’s attorneys unsuccessfully asked a judge to stop the procedure as Wood got a second round of lethal-injection drugs. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called the process “torture.” [The Arizona Republic]

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8. U.S. considers screening refugees in Honduras to discourage illegal immigration
The Obama administration is considering screening thousands of young people in Honduras to see if they should be allowed to enter the U.S. as refugees or on emergency humanitarian grounds. It would be the first such move involving a country linked by land to the U.S. The White House is seeking ways to discourage young Hondurans from joining the wave of undocumented child immigrants streaming over the U.S.-Mexico border. [The New York Times]

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9. Pope meets with Sudanese Christian sentenced to death for her faith
Meriam Yehya Ibrahim, a Sudanese Christian woman sentenced to death by an Islamist judge for refusing to renounce her faith, met Pope Francis at the Vatican on Thursday. Ibrahim was convicted for apostasy for allegedly converting from Islam to Christianity. She insisted she had been raised Christian, and was released last month under international pressure. The pope thanked her for staying true to her faith, a Vatican spokesman said. [The Washington Post]

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10. Fifty Shades of Grey trailer debuts
The first trailer of the film adaptation of author E.L. James’ wildly popular, bondage-themed Fifty Shades of Grey books made its debut on NBC’s Today on Thursday. NBC only aired part of the steamy clip, in which the Christian Grey character tells paramour Anastasia Steele to stay away from him because she wouldn’t understand his quirky tastes. “Enlighten me,” she replies. The film opens Feb. 13. [AceShowbiz]

10 things you need to know today: June 21, 2014

The U.S. is sending additional judges and attorneys to Texas to expedite asylum claims.

The U.S. is sending additional judges and attorneys to Texas to expedite asylum claims. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, Pool)

The Week

The Obama administration addresses illegal immigration, an Egyptian court sentences more than 180 to death, and more

1. Obama administration announces new measures to counteract illegal immigration
The United States will not tolerate a surge of women and children crossing the Mexico border into Texas, administration officials said on Friday as they announced new measures to stymie the recent immigrant influx. Many of those crossing the border are from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, and the White House said it will invest $9.6 million to help those countries repatriate their citizens. The administration is also sending additional immigration judges and attorneys to Texas, in order to expedite asylum claims. More than 52,000 unaccompanied minors, and 39,000 adults with children have been apprehended along the border so far this year. [The Washington Post]

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2. Egypt court sentences more than 180 to death in mass trial
In what is considered the largest mass trial in recent Egyptian history, a court handed down more than 180 death sentences today, stemming from an August attack on a police station that killed one officer and one civilian. Those sentenced to death include the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, Mohammed Badie. However, the international community has condemned the mass death sentences, saying Egypt’s government is becoming increasingly politicized. One man sentenced, Mustafa Youssef, “was born blind,” noted his lawyer. “How would he kill, burn and loot?” [The Associated Press]

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3. Ukraine begins unilateral ceasefire as Russia redeploys troops to border
Following weeks of fighting, new Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko instigated a week-long, unilateral ceasefire on Friday, although he was quick to note that while forces would not take offensive action against pro-Russian militants, they would still defend themselves against any attacks. During the week, separatists have a chance to turn in weapons, although the Donetsk People’s Republic gave no sign of relenting as the ceasefire began. Meanwhile, U.S. officials said that Russia had sent tanks and heavy artillery back across the border on Friday, although Moscow claimed it was merely bolstering troops on its side of a border steeped in fighting. [The Washington Post]

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4. U.N.: Number of displaced people reaches more than 50 million
For the first time since World War II, more than 50 million people are living under forced displacement, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. At least 51.2 million people, roughly the equivalent of the entire population of Spain, are currently seeking refuge or asylum, and at least half of that number are children. And with renewed violence in Iraq, the U.N, says the number may increase this year. “We are seeing here the immense costs of not ending wars,” Antonio Guterres, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees says. “Peace is today dangerously in deficit.” [NPR]

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5. Iran, six powers remain in stalemate after nuclear settlement talks
Saying Iran will not reach an agreement until six big powers “abandon excessive demands,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif left this week’s nuclear talks in a stalemate. The United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany met with representatives from Tehran in an attempt to broker a deal to lift sanctions on Iran in exchange for more regulations on the country’s nuclear work. The major powers are aiming for a July 20 deadline, in the midst of renewed fears of Middle East wars. [Reuters]

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6. Report: Pentagon, VA not assessing success rate of PTSD treatments
A report released on Friday by the Institute of Medicine says neither the Department of Veterans Affairs nor the Pentagon is tracking the success of PTSD treatments offered to troops. The VA spent more than $3 billion on PTSD care in 2012, but it failed to study whether the treatments actually helped soldiers. Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s treatments “appear to be local, ad hoc, incremental, crisis-driven, with little planning devoted to the development of a long-range approach to obtaining desired outcomes,” the IOM reports. While five percent of all troops report cases of PTSD, the number is much higher for those who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. [Time]

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7. Presbyterian Church will allow ministers to perform same-sex marriages
Changing its constitution’s definition of marriage from “a man and a woman” to “two people,” the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted on Thursday to allow ministers in states that have legalized same-sex marriages discretion to perform the nuptials. Actually changing the language in the church’s Book of Order to reflect the amendment requires a year-long ratification process, and conservative members of the General Assembly may still push against that measure. “There were some of us with tears of joy, and some of us with tears of grief,” Rev. Susan De George, a lesbian minister of the Hudson River Presbytery, in New York, said of the vote. [The New York Times]

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8. Scientists discover new species of Neanderthal in Spain
Researchers published a description in the journal Science on Thursday of a new, Neanderthal-esque prehistoric human species. The remains, found in a cave in northern Spain, do not dramatically alter the current theory of human evolution. They do, however, suggest that there were several isolated, unique human species existing at the same time in different parts of the world, which may have eventually fought for the same land. [The Washington Post]

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9. Disney taps Rian Johnson to write, direct Star Wars: Episode VIII
With production just barely underway on Star Wars: Episode VIIDisney and Lucasfilm have already selected director Rian Johnson to helm the next film in the series. Best known for Looper, a sci-fi action film featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis, Johnson also directed several episodes of Breaking Bad and was on the shortlist for the Star Trek reboot. [Variety]

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10. Peanut the mutt wins ‘World’s Ugliest Dog’ title
As far as titles go, “World’s Ugliest Dog” sounds like one most canines would rather not win, but that’s too bad for 2-year-old mutt Peanut. Peanut’s owner, Holly Chandler, entered the dog in the 25th annual competition in California to bring attention to the traumas of pet abuse, and she said she will use the $1,500 prize to pay for other injured animals’ veterinary expenses. While Peanut is healthy now, he was seriously burned as a puppy, resulting in the unsightly, hairless patches all over his body that earned him Friday’s victory. [The Associated Press]

Shinseki resigns…

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki pauses while speaking at a meeting of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, Friday, May 30, 2014, in Washington. | AP Photo

Politico

President Barack Obama said Friday that he had reluctantly accepted the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, giving in to growing calls from lawmakers and veterans’ advocates that he step down in the wake of widespread reports that VA hospitals falsified waiting lists.

“I want to reiterate: he is a very good man,” Obama said of Shinseki. However, the president said the decorated retired Army general concluded “he could not carry out the next stages of reform without being a distraction…I regret that he has to resign under these circumstances.”

The secretary had set in motion several firings and disciplinary actions, the president said, and more changes were coming — significant ones. “There is a need for a change in culture …that makes sure bad news surfaces quickly so things can be fixed,” he said.

Shinseki “is deeply disappointed in the fact that bad news did not get to him and that the structures weren’t in place for him to identify this problem quickly and fix it,” the president said. “His priority now is to make sure that happens, and he felt like new leadership would be — would serve our veterans best, and I agree with him.”

Obama said Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson, who’s only been in that job for three months, will step in temporarily as VA secretary while the administration looks for a permanent head for the department.

In that post, “I want someone who is spending every minute of every day figuring out, have we called every veteran that’s waiting?” the president said.

Obama also he recognizes that, regardless of personnel moves, he is the one ultimately responsible for the failures at the VA.

“This is my administration; I always take responsibility for whatever happens,” he said, adding that he’s been deeply concerned about veterans’ issues since serving on the Veterans Affairs committee in the Senate.

Key lawmakers said they welcomed Shinseki’s departure, but had no warning of it before the president spoke.

“Leadership matters; calling for Secretary Shinseki’s resignation did not come lightly to me, but accountability starts at the top and the step taken today is just the beginning,” Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Ks.) said. “We now need accountability and true reform within the VA all across the country. For this to occur, we need a fresh perspective and a leader who is willing to shake up the VA’s bureaucratic culture.”

House Veteran Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said he’d received no heads up from the administration or Shinseki about the announcement, which Obama delivered at a hastily-called press conference just after meeting with the VA secretary.

Shinseki becomes the highest-profile member of the Obama administration to be forced out — a major departure for Obama, who has consistently stuck by aides in crisis.

But from the beginning, this one was different: a CNN report revealed efforts to conceal the extent of the backlog processing veteran’s health claims at a facility in Phoenix, casting doubt on the success often touted over the past year by Shinseki and the White House about VA efforts cutting the backlog in half. CNN’s report cited up to 40 veterans’ deaths as attributable to not being seen in time at health facilities, with thousands more left waiting for care while VA officials racked up bonuses by appearing to move cut the backlog.

Heading into the midterms, the GOP has been trying to use the controversy as the latest reminder of what they say is a dysfunctional, failed Obama administration — which they’re looking to hang on Democratic Senate and House candidates across the country.

Filling the spot won’t be easy. Between the depth of the problems and the scrutiny over fixing them, there’s no clear path to success.

Obama’s statement came immediately after what the president had earlier described as a “serious conversation” he had planned to have with Shinseki about the secretary’s “capacity” to adequately handle the problems in the department.

“I’ll have a serious conversation with him about whether he thinks he’s prepared and has the capacity to take on the job of fixing it, because I don’t want any veteran to not be getting the kind of services they deserve,” the president said during the excerpt of an interview with Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan that was taped on Thursday and aired on Friday.

Shinseki on Friday delivered to the president an internal audit on the situation at the VA.

Obama had come under increasing pressure to fire Shinseki over the VA scandal. An interim inspector general report released this week detailed “systemic” problems in the department, prompting a flurry of lawmakers on the left and right to call for the secretary’s resignation. The IG review came after reports that said at least 40 veterans died while waiting for health care in the Phoenix VA system.

During a speech earlier Friday morning at the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans annual conference in Washington, Shinseki had apologized for what he acknowledged were systemic problems inside the VA health system but gave no sign he would step aside amid calls for his resignation.

Shinseki said then that he was removing the leadership of the Phoenix VA center that has been ground zero of the scandal, suspending bonuses for senior leaders and endorsing action by Congress to enhance VA’s ability to fire some workers.

“This situation can be fixed,” he said.

The secretary also acknowledged that it has been a “challenging” time for the department.

“The past few weeks have been challenging for everyone at VA because we take caring for veterans so very seriously,” he said near the beginning of his remarks. “We’ve done tremendous work together these past five years.”

Fox News Finds A Way To Blame Obama For Conservative Filmmaker’s Confession To Breaking The Law

megyn kelly d'souza

Think Progress

Fox News’ Megyn Kelly had conservative filmmaker and author Dinesh D’Souza on her show for his first interview after he pleaded guilty to breaking campaign finance law. Calling it a sympathetic interview would be an understatement, because Kelly used nearly the entire time to suggest that President Obama is the real person to blame.

“[T]he Obama administration gets to call one of its top critics a convicted felon,” Kelly began the segment. “Is this what they wanted all along?” In January, D’Souza was indicted for illegal donations to a Republican’s campaign, where he used fake donors to exceed donation limits.

“Your defense in this case was not I didn’t do it,” Kelly said. “It was, I didn’t do it with intent, I didn’t do it with the right requisite of mind, and it’s selective prosecution of the government who doesn’t go after anybody for this kind of crime except coincidentally one of the president’s biggest critics.”

Watch part of the interview:

An array of Fox News hosts have come to the conservative activist’s defense in the past, including Sean Hannity calling him a “victim,” The Five panning the charges as liberals “redescovering their inner Stalin,” and Neil Cavuto calling it “conservatives under attack.” But that was before D’Souza pleaded guilty himself to the charges in federal court, admitting he “knew that causing a campaign contribution to be made in the name of another was wrong and something the law forbids.” Kelly’s interview only made one passing mention of the fact that D’Souza had actually knowingly broke the law. Kelly asked him, “why’d you do it.”

“I shouldn’t have done it,” he said.

Cenk Uygur Flips Off GOP, Fox over Benghazi (Explicit Language)

Cenk Uygur

Mediaite

The Young Turks’ Cenk Uygur is getting sick and tired of Fox News and the Republican Party focusing so much on Benghazi, launching into an incredibly profane tirade last night telling them to maybe focus on bigger Obama administration problems and shouting “Fuck you, move the fuck on!”

Uygur started out by saying he is “so fucking bored by this.” He made it clear he’s been critical of the White House on Benghazi in the past, and believes they likely fudged talking points here and there, but in the grand scheme of problems the Obama administration has, this doesn’t crack the top five.

He cried, “Get the fuck outta here with Benghazi! It’s a tiny little fucking thing, man! ‘Oh, they changed it from ‘attacks’ to ‘demonstrations.’ Who gives a fuck about that?! Move the fuck on already, man!”

Uygur turned the table on Republicans, asking, “How about the fucking nearly 3000 people who died under your fucking watch?!” He said the “gross incompetence of the fucking Republicans” should at least have warranted Benghazi levels of curiosity and told the rest of the media to just “stop talking about what Fox News is talking about!”

Watch the video below, via The Young Turks:

House GOP Leaders Take Up The Banner Of Obamacare Trutherism

China-currency-boehner

AP Photo / J. Scott Applewhite

Anything to cast aspersion on the POTUS’ signature achievement.  Looks like a simple case of ACA envy to me…

TPM DC

“After two delays by the Administration, on March 31st Obamacare’s health insurance exchanges ended open enrollment with a purported 7.1 million signed up,” McCarthy’s release begins. “President Obama declared that ‘the debate over repealing this law is over. The Affordable Care Act is here to stay.’ But this is hardly the end of the story.”

McCarthy’s office then outlined five data points it wanted to know about, alleging that the Obama administration “has refused to provide key information that would shed light on the true number of enrollees.” Those are:

  • How many effectuated enrollment (signed up and paid a premium)
  • How many paid their first month’s premium but not their second or third
  • How many were previously uninsured
  • How many young and healthy signed up (affecting rates)
  • How many received a subsidy (raising concerns about fraud)

At least two of those have been explicitly explained in the enrollment reports released by the Obama administration — and updated data will presumably be included in the March report expected Thursday.The February enrollment report included information on the last two: the demographics of enrollees and data on how many were eligible for financial assistance. First, 25 percent of the 4.2 million people who had enrolled through February were ages 18 to 34, the crucial “young and healthy” group. Second, 83 percent of those who signed up for a plan were eligible for financial help.

On the premium question, the administration has insisted that, because people pay insurance companies directly, only insurers have that information. Outside estimates have put the number at 80 to 90 percent of enrollees have paid. As for how many enrollees were previously uninsured, HealthCare.gov and most of the state websites didn’t collect that particular data point. Independent estimates put the number at one-third or so, although it seems that the uninsured comprised a bigger share of the late enrollment surge. They were also covered via Medicaid, which isn’t included in the 7 million number.

The question about whether people paid their second and third premiums appears new, and it’s unclear why that has now become a concern for the GOP.

Some of these questions are not wholly without basis. The demographics of Obamacare enrollees are important for the law’s long-term fiscal sustainability. People do need to pay their premiums for their coverage to take effect. One of the law’s stated goals was covering the uninsured.

But the framing of the House GOP’s release — “Debunking Obamacare’s 7 million Enrollees ‘Success’ Story”, insinuating that “the true number of enrollees” isn’t known — makes clear that its goal is to undermine the law’s unexpected patch of good news since open enrollment ended.

TPM raised these issues with McCarthy’s office, which still asserted that the administration “cannot let the American public know how many were previously uninsured, how many actually signed up for coverage they need, and how many weren’t kicked off of coverage they previously enjoyed.”

“Just because they gave us some data two months ago does not mean they gave us any clear and final data on enrollment when the President trumpeted the law as a success in the Rose Garden on live television,” Mike Long, a McCarthy spokesman, said in an email. “To proclaim ‘Mission Accomplished’ based solely on the number of clicks, without regard of knowing how those 7.1 million were affected, makes light of the seriousness that is health coverage of Americans.”

“House Republican leadership and various Committees have requested this information through hearings and by passing legislation. We’ve been stonewalled each time.”

Fox News Pundit Shuts Down Network’s Hysteria Over Benghazi: ‘It’s Gone, Baby. It’s In Your Head’

Juan Williams

Fox News contributor, Juan Williams

It’s about time Juan Williams stop playing a “shill” and stand up to Fox News’ pundits.

Think Progress

Fox News’ Juan Williams tersely dismissed the GOP’s year-long effort to implicate the Obama administration in a so-called “cover-up” of the attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya on Sep. 11, 2012, telling off a panelist who suggested that the debate over the incident was still ongoing.

During a heated discussion on Fox News Sunday, former Bush administration official Karl Rove regurgitated GOP claims that “someone constructed a lie” that the incident resulted from “a spontaneous reaction to a video no one saw” and suggested Obama refused to scramble necessary military assets to save the U.S. personnel. Conservative commentator Brit Hume agreed, adding, “the list of questions that remain unanswered to this day are what make this a legitimate topic of conversation. I’m sorry to say this is not over.”

Williams disputed these charges point by point and explained that months of Republican-led Congressional hearings had been unable to uncover any evidence of a cover up. “It’s gone, baby. It’s in your head. That’s the only place,” he added. Watch it:

Rick Perry Seeks Obamacare Funding For Texans – While Continuing Attack On Obamacare

rick perry obamacare funding

Texas Gov. Rick Perry continues his strident attack on Obamacare as he seeks funding under the law for Texans. (Photo by Stewart F. House/Getty Images)

Ooops

The Huffington Post

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), a longstanding Obamacare critic, is negotiating a $100 million health care deal with the Obama administration, Politico reported on Tuesday.

The Community First Choice Program, aimed at improving the quality of health services for the elderly and disabled, was approved by the Texas legislature earlier this year. Perry health aides are now looking to the Obama administration for funding.

Perry has been a strident Obamacare critic from the beginning, but his spokesman explained that the funding pitch is about aiding people with disabilities, independent of a health insurance mandate.

“Long before Obamacare was forced on the American people, Texas was implementing policies to provide those with intellectual disabilities more community options to enable them to live more independent lives, at a lower cost to taxpayers,” Havens said in a statement. “The Texas Health and Human Services Commission will continue to move forward with these policies because they are right for our citizens and our state, regardless of whatever funding schemes may be found in Obamacare.”

According to Politico, 12,000 Texans are expected to benefit from the program in its first year, beginning in September 2014.