Washington, Jun 19 (AP/UNB)— President Donald Trump's pick for new Defense Secretary is an Army veteran who served in the first Iraq war and also has experience as a national security adviser on Capitol Hill as well as a defense industry lobbyist.
Trump on Tuesday said Mark Esper, his current Army secretary, would lead the Defense Department on an acting basis.
"I know Mark, and have no doubt he will do a fantastic job!" the president tweeted.
He later told reporters that he would most likely nominate Esper for the permanent job.
"Frankly this could happen very quickly for Mark Esper," Trump said. "He's very experienced. He's been around all of the things that we've been talking about for a very long period of time."
The move came after acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan withdrew from the job before his formal nomination ever went to the Senate, citing a "painful" family situation that would hurt his children and reopen "wounds we have worked years to heal."
Esper was sworn in as Army secretary in November 2017 following a seven-year stint as vice president for government relations at defense contractor Raytheon. That lobbyist background raised immediate alarms from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which said that Raytheon had recently won multiple government contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
"While Esper may not have had sway over these types of deals as Secretary of the Army, as acting Secretary of Defense he will have potential influence over such deals," as well as a proposed merger between Raytheon and United Technologies Corp., CREW executive director Noah Bookbinder said in a statement.
Esper previously served a national security adviser for former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.
He was policy director for the House Armed Services Committee and a professional staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations committee and also advised former Obama administration Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel when Hagel was in the Senate.
He's also served as a deputy assistant secretary of defense and was a war planner on the Army staff.
Esper spent more than a decade in the Army, including serving in the Persian Gulf War in 1990 and 1991 with the 101st Airborne Division. He has won the Bronze Star Medal and other awards.
"He has a great background. I know him and I think he'll do very well in the acting role," said Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., a close Trump ally who speaks frequently with the president.
It is not clear whether Esper's defense industry background might complicate any confirmation prospects.
Shanahan, for instance, came under scrutiny because of his prior career as a Boeing executive and persistent questions about possible conflicts of interest.
The Defense Department's Inspector General cleared Shanahan of any wrongdoing in connection with accusations he had shown favoritism toward Boeing during his time as deputy defense secretary, while disparaging Boeing competitors.
But even so, Bookbinder said Shanahan's past work at Boeing overshadowed his decisions at the Defense Department.
"His successor will likewise risk being tainted by his previous work for a major defense contractor," Bookbinder said.
Geneva, Jun 19 (AP/UNB) — A record 71 million people have been displaced worldwide from war, persecution and other violence, the U.N. refugee agency said Wednesday, an increase of more than 2 million from last year and an overall total that would amount to the world's 20th most populous country.
The annual "Global Trends" report released by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees counts the number of the world's refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people at the end of 2018, in some cases following decades of living away from home.
The figures, coming on the eve of World Refugee Day on Thursday, are bound to add fuel to a debate at the intersection of international law, human rights and domestic politics, especially the movement in some countries, including the U.S., against immigrants and refugees.
Launching the report, the high commissioner, Filippo Grandi, had a message for U.S. President Donald Trump and other world leaders, calling it "damaging" to depict migrants and refugees as threats to jobs and security in host countries. Often, they are fleeing insecurity and danger themselves, he said.
The report also puts a statistical skeleton onto often-poignant individual stories of people struggling to survive by crossing rivers, deserts, seas, fences and other barriers, natural and man-made, to escape government oppression, gang killings, sexual abuse, militia murders and other such violence at home.
UNHCR said 70.8 million people were forcibly displaced at the end of last year, up from about 68.5 million in 2017 — and nearly a 65% increase from a decade ago. Among them, nearly three in five people — or more than 41 million people — have been displaced within their home countries.
"The global trends, once again unfortunately, go in what I would say is the wrong direction," Grandi told reporters in Geneva. "There are new conflicts, new situations, producing refugees, adding themselves to the old ones. The old ones never get resolved."
The phenomenon is both growing in size and duration. Some four-fifths of the "displacement situations" have lasted more than five years. After eight years of war in Syria, for instance, its people continue to make up the largest population of forcibly displaced people, at some 13 million.
Amid runaway inflation and political turmoil at home, Venezuelans for the first time accounted for the largest number of new asylum-seekers in 2018, with more than 340,000 — or more than one in five worldwide last year. Asylum-seekers receive international protection as they await acceptance or rejection of their requests for refugee status.
UNHCR said that its figures are "conservative" and that Venezuela masks a potentially longer-term trend.
Some 4 million people are known to have left the South American country in recent years. Many of those have traveled freely to Peru, Colombia and Brazil, but only about one-eighth have sought formal international protection, and the outflow continues, suggesting the strains on the welcoming countries could worsen.
Grandi predicted a continued "exodus" from Venezuela and appealed for donors to provide more development assistance to the region.
"Otherwise these countries will not bear the pressure anymore and then they have to resort to measures that will damage refugees," he said. "We are in a very dangerous situation."
The United States, meanwhile, remains the "largest supporter of refugees" in the world, Grandi said in an interview. The U.S. is the biggest single donor to UNHCR. He also credited local communities and advocacy groups in the United States for helping refugees and asylum-seekers in the country.
But the refugee agency chief noted long-term administrative shortcomings that have given the United States the world's biggest backlog of asylum claims, at nearly 719,000. More than a quarter-million claims were added last year.
He also decried recent rhetoric that has been hostile to migrants and refugees.
"In America, just like in Europe actually and in other parts of the world, what we are witnessing is an identification of refugees — but not just refugees, migrants as well — with people that come take away jobs that threaten our security, our values," Grandi said. "And I want to say to the U.S. administration — to the president — but also to the leaders around the world: This is damaging."
He said many people leaving Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador through Mexico have faced violence by gangs and suffered from "the inability of these governments to protect their own citizens."
The UNHCR report noted that by far, the most refugees are taken in in the developing world, not wealthy countries.
The figures marked the seventh consecutive year in which the numbers of forcibly displaced rose.
"Yet another year, another dreadful record has been beaten," said Jon Cerezo of British charity Oxfam. "Behind these figures, people like you and me are making dangerous trips that they never wanted to make, because of threats to their safety and most basic rights."
Washington, Jun 19 (AP/UNB) — The United States and Iran said Tuesday they were not seeking war with each other as tensions simmered between the two in the Persian Gulf and President Donald Trump vowed the U.S. would respond to any attack.
"We have a lot of things going with Iran," Trump told reporters as he left the White House for a campaign event in Florida. "We'll see what happens. Let me just say this: We are very prepared."
Trump's comments came just hours after he announced the sudden departure of acting Pentagon chief Patrick Shanahan, jolting the Defense Department only a day after he signed off on sending an additional 1,000 troops to the Middle East to counter Iran.
On a visit Tuesday to U.S. Central Command in Florida, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he was confident the U.S. is taking the necessary steps to confront any challenge from Iran. He said the military is ready to respond to any attack by Iran on U.S. interests or Iranian disruption of international shipping lanes through which much of the world's oil supplies flow.
Pompeo said Trump only wants to reestablish a deterrent to Iranian threats.
"President Trump does not want war, and we will continue to communicate that message, while doing the things that are necessary to protect American interests in the region," he told reporters.
Pompeo said he made the trip to meet with commanders who would be responsible for any operations in the Gulf to ensure that America's diplomatic and military efforts are coordinated "to make sure that we're in the position to do the right thing."
The "right thing," he said, "is to continue to work to convince the Islamic Republic of Iran that we are serious and to deter them from further aggression in the region."
Similarly measured sentiments of resolve came from Iran, where President Hassan Rouhani said, "We do not wage war with any nation," but Iranians will withstand mounting U.S. pressure and prevail in the brinksmanship.
Iran announced on Monday that it could soon start enriching uranium to just a step away from weapons-grade levels, a challenge to Trump's assurances to allies that the U.S. withdrawal from the deal last year made the world safer.
The Pentagon responded by ordering the additional troops to the region, including security forces for added surveillance and intelligence-gathering.
The U.S. accuses Iran of attacking two tankers near the Persian Gulf; the Iranians deny responsibility. With details murky and no one owning up to the attacks, the Pentagon released new photos intended to bolster its case.
In Congress, some lawmakers expressed worry that the gradual buildup of U.S. troops in the Middle East could become a slippery slope.
"We expect the administration to seek authorization (from Congress) prior to any deployment of forces into hostilities or areas where hostilities with Iran are imminent," said a statement from a bipartisan group of senators led by Democrat Tim Kaine of Virginia and Republican Mike Lee of Utah.
Yet some Republicans argued that rising tensions necessitate a more forceful response from the White House. "You can't have provocative acts by a rogue regime go unanswered," Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said, adding that he doesn't believe the president would need to come to Congress before striking Iran. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas said he favored a "retaliatory military strike."
In announcing the new deployment before he resigned, Shanahan said the forces are "for defensive purposes to address air, naval, and ground-based threats" in the Mideast.
"The United States does not seek conflict with Iran," Shanahan said, describing the move as intended "to ensure the safety and welfare of our military personnel working throughout the region and to protect our national interests." He said the U.S. will continue to adjust troop levels as needed.
Shanahan abruptly stepped down Tuesday before his formal nomination ever went to the Senate, citing a "painful" family situation. Trump said Army Secretary Mark Esper would be the new acting Pentagon chief.
Washington, Jun 19 (AP/UNB) — Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan stepped down Tuesday before his formal nomination ever went to the Senate, citing a "painful" family situation that would hurt his children and reopen "wounds we have worked years to heal."
President Donald Trump announced Shanahan's departure in a tweet, and said Army Secretary Mark Esper would be the new acting Pentagon chief.
"I believe my continuing in the confirmation process would force my three children to relive a traumatic chapter in our family's life and reopen wounds we have worked years to heal," Shanahan said in a statement. "Ultimately, their safety and well-being is my highest priority."
His withdrawal from one of the most critical positions in the government comes at a time of escalating tensions in the Middle East, a day after the U.S. authorized sending additional troops to the region, and after months of unexplained delays in the confirmation process.
The acting defense secretary did not provide specifics, but court records show a volatile family history around the time of his 2011 divorce. The couple had been married since 1986.
His ex-wife, Kimberley, was arrested several times on charges that included burglary, property damage and assault. The assault charge was a misdemeanor for domestic violence in August 2010 when, according to police records, she hit Shanahan a number of times, giving him a bloody nose and black eye. The police report said she was not injured, and he was not charged.
There was also a separate November 2011 incident in which the couple's son, who was 17 at the time, struck his mother with a baseball bat in the home where he lived with her in Sarasota, Florida, according to court records. He pleaded guilty to battery and was sentenced to four years of probation.
In an interview with The Washington Post shortly before Trump announced that Shanahan was withdrawing his nomination, Shanahan spoke about the circumstances surrounding his 2011 divorce and said he didn't want to drag his children through the experience again.
"Bad things can happen to good families ... and this is a tragedy, really," Shanahan told the Post.
In his statement, Shanahan said he asked to be withdrawn from the nomination process and would work on an "appropriate transition."
The Pentagon, in a statement, said Esper will take over the job at midnight Sunday. Esper and Shanahan met at length Tuesday to begin transition planning.
In his tweet, Trump simply said Shanahan had done "a wonderful job" but would step aside to "devote more time to his family." Later, Trump told reporters at the White House that he heard about the problems for the first time Monday.
"I didn't ask him to withdraw, but he walked in this morning," said Trump. "He said it's going to be a rough time for him because of obviously what happened."
In noting Esper's move, Trump added, "I know Mark, and have no doubt he will do a fantastic job!" He said it's "most likely" he will nominate Esper for the job "pretty soon."
The post atop the Pentagon has not been filled permanently since retired Gen. James Mattis abruptly stepped down in December after delivering a blunt letter to Trump outlining a list of foreign policy differences and a warning that the administration should not allow relations with allies to fray.
Shanahan was put in place as acting secretary, but it wasn't until May that Trump announced he would nominate Shanahan. That formal nomination has never come, inexplicably delaying the Senate process.
On Capitol Hill, the Shanahan news was met with mixed reactions.
Top Democrats said his sudden withdrawal underscores the shortcomings of White House vetting for key Trump administration jobs.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Tuesday that "this Shanahan fiasco" shows that the administration's national security policy is "a shambles."
Senators said they were largely unaware of allegations involving Shanahan's family situation when he was confirmed as deputy defense secretary in 2017.
Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal raised the possibility that Shanahan deliberately concealed the domestic problems, and he called for an investigation by the Defense Department's inspector general. Shanahan, he said, "had an obligation to reveal it himself. This is potentially a violation of law."
Trump defended the vetting process, calling it "great," and said the Shanahan issues were "very unfortunate," and they "came up a little bit over the last short period of time."
Sen. James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Trump called him about Shanahan on Tuesday. The president didn't offer any specifics, Inhofe said, but mentioned "allegations that would be very uncomfortable and really not worth making sacrifices for."
Shanahan, a former Boeing executive, has been leading the Pentagon as acting secretary since Jan. 1, a highly unusual arrangement for arguably the most sensitive Cabinet position.
His prospects for confirmation have been spotty due in large part to questions about his lengthy work as former Boeing executive and persistent questions about possible conflicts of interest.
The Defense Department's Inspector General cleared Shanahan of any wrongdoing in connection with accusations he had shown favoritism toward Boeing during his time as deputy defense secretary, while disparaging Boeing competitors.
In Shanahan's tenure at the department he's had to deal with a wide array of international hotspots, ranging from missile launches by North Korea to the sudden shift of military ships and aircraft to the Middle East to deal with potential threats from Iran.
Shanahan, 56, had extensive of experience in the defense industry but little in government. In more than six months as the acting secretary, he emphasized a shift from the resources and tactics required to fight small wars against extremist groups to what Shanahan called "great power" competition with China and Russia.
Washington, Jun 19 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump could have a tough time making good on his threat to deport millions of people living in the U.S. illegally. But maybe that wasn't his point.
Trump's late-night messages Monday promised that starting next week his administration "will begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States. They will be removed as fast as they come in."
That was a pronouncement likely to excite his political base just as he was formally announcing his reelection bid Tuesday night. It also scared immigrants in the U.S. illegally — and could deter others from coming.
But it came at a cost.
Trump blatantly exposed an upcoming enforcement operation, potentially jeopardizing the kind of sensitive effort that takes months to plan and relies on secrecy. The president's tweets put new, fresh demands on Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency in charge of removals, which is already overwhelmed, lacking staff, funding and detention space for its current work. And any massive roundup that includes deportation of families would be sure to spark outrage.
The tweets suggested the start of Trump's reelection campaign is likely to have much in common with his 2016 announcement, when he accused Mexico of sending rapists to the United States and pledged to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it. The rhetoric was widely denounced, yet the tough anti-immigration message struck a nerve with many Americans and ultimately helped carry Trump to victory.
At his rally Tuesday night in Orlando, Florida, he said millions of low-wage workers who come to the U.S. illegally are competing for opportunities against the most vulnerable Americans.
Trump also claimed that schoolchildren across the country are being threatened by MS-13 gang members and blame "Democratic policies." He said if Democratic officials "had to send their children to those overcrowded, overburdened schools, they would not tolerate it for one minute."
Trump's tough talk hasn't led to a drop in border crossings since he took office. The flow of Central American migrants has risen dramatically during his administration. He recently dropped a threat to slap tariffs on Mexico after the country agreed to step up immigration enforcement efforts.
The "millions" in his tweets referred to the more than 1 million people in the United States with final deportation orders, meaning a judge has decided they be deported, according to an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to explain the president's tweets.
Pew Research Center has estimated there are about 10.5 million people in the U.S. illegally, with long-term residents outnumbering recent arrivals. The record for deportations over a full year is 419,384 in 2012, under the Obama administration.
Some in Trump's administration believe that decisive shows of force — like mass arrests — serve as deterrents, sending a message to those considering making the journey to the U.S. that it's not worth coming.
The new acting director of ICE, Mark Morgan, recently signaled a willingness to deport families during enforcement sweeps, though past Trump immigration officials hesitated over concerns about logistics and the public reaction.
U.S. officials with knowledge of the preparations say the operation wasn't imminent; it was to begin in the coming weeks and be nationwide. But ICE officials were not aware the president would make public sensitive law enforcement plans, and it's unclear whether the operation now will go off as planned.
Enforcement sweeps require months of planning. Officers work from recent addresses and don't have search warrants. Immigrants are not required to open their doors, and increasingly they don't. Officers generally capture about 30% to 40% of targets.
Plus, ICE needs travel paperwork from a home country to deport someone, so immigrants often end up detained at least temporarily waiting for a deportation flight. The adult population of detainees was 53,141 as of June 8, though the agency is only budgeted for 45,000. There were 1,662 in family detention, also at capacity, and one of the family detention centers is currently housing single adults.
Also, publicizing law enforcement operations can jeopardize officer safety and tip off potential deportees.
When Oakland, California, Mayor Libby Schaaf learned of an operation in Northern California and warned the immigrant community, Trump railed against the disclosure. He suggested prosecuting her for obstruction of justice. And the head of ICE at the time, Thomas Homan , said his agency could have arrested more people had she not warned them, calling it an "irresponsible decision."
Lawmakers from both parties raised concerns about Trump's plan. Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said his threat of a "mass deportation dragnet is an act of utter malice and bigotry, designed solely to inject fear in our communities."
Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, part of the GOP leadership, said, "I think our energy is better exerted, one, taking care of people at the border who need to be taken care of and, two, looking at securing the border as our principal obligation."
Immigrant advocacy groups across the country are already getting terrified phone calls from people worried about raids.
"People are always on edge," said Cesar Espinosa, executive director of the Houston advocacy group FIEL. "This obviously reinforces that fear and in a lot of cases it paralyzes people when they can't continue to live their daily lives."
Between 2009 and 2012, the Obama administration deported 1.6 million immigrants. About 2 million were deported during the eight years of the George W. Bush administration.
An effort to rapidly deport more than a million people is "a fantasy," said John Sandweg, a former ICE head under Obama.
"ICE is always working at 100 percent of its capacity. The president wants to create this illusion that he's let go of the reins that other administrations were holding but that's just not true."
ICE did not comment on Trump's tweets, but said in a statement it "will continue to conduct interior enforcement without exemption for those who are in violation of federal immigration law."