US and Germany have Nord Stream 2 deal, but lack authority to implement it

“A day after the U.S. and Germany announced a deal allowing the completion of the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, top officials conceded that neither the White House nor the Chancellery have the authority to implement some of its most crucial components.

As a huge outcry went up from opponents of the Russia-led pipeline project, Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledged that her agreement with President Joe Biden hardly settled their political disagreements, and that much remained uncertain.

“The agreement with the U.S. government does not cement the differences, but it does not overcome all differences either,” Merkel said at a news conference. “The differences remain.” Of the deal, she added: “It is an attempt between the U.S. government and us to set certain conditions that also have to be implemented.

“I am glad that we have succeeded so far,” Merkel continued. “And we also have a lot of tasks ahead.”

Those tasks are hardly small and include overcoming fierce opposition from some members of the United States Congress, persuading some extremely dubious EU countries to get on board, and convincing Russia to liberalize its energy sector, divest itself of the €9.5 billion pipeline, and pay Ukraine some additional €20 billion through 2034 to make up for the loss of gas transit fees — which the new pipeline would effectively render unnecessary.

While some influential Germans — notably former chancellor and current Nord Stream 2 chairman of the board Gerhard Schröder — have been instrumental in securing the pipeline’s completion, Berlin may have little to no influence over Moscow once construction is done and gas is flowing.

U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat on the foreign relations committee who co-authored U.S. sanctions legislation targeting the pipeline, said she was “skeptical” of the deal given that “the key player at the table — Russia — refuses to play by the rules.””

Biden’s Cuba policy is suddenly in the spotlight

“Cuba’s economic problems largely predate the pandemic, but the coronavirus sharpened them. It decimated Cuba’s tourism industry, a huge slice of the island’s economy. Trump-era sanctions — which the Biden administration has not rolled back — have added to the pressure. And the pandemic itself is taking a toll: Cuba is currently experiencing a record surge in cases and deaths.”

“Biden said the US supports Cuba’s “clarion call for freedom and relief.” Both Democrats and Republicans have backed the protests, but US lawmakers are split over how to approach the demonstrations and acute humanitarian crisis on the island.
Biden promised during his 2020 campaign to roll back Trump’s sanctions on Cuba, but he hasn’t acted. Now, the issue is urgent — both for those who want to see the sanctions gone and for those who feel Biden must keep them in place to continue pressuring the regime.

Biden’s best-laid plans on foreign policy didn’t include Cuba as a priority. But now a crisis in Cuba is here. What the US should do is always a complicated decision, but it’s clear Biden can’t just ignore Cuba.”

“After the protests, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel blamed much of the unrest on the United States, claiming US-backed mercenaries caused the unrest. He called on supporters to also go to the streets and “defend the revolution.” About 100 people were arrested, according to human rights groups.”

“The specter of United States interference remains powerful in Cuba, given, well, a very long history of US intervention there. Fast-forwarding to the Cuban Revolution in 1959, communist revolutionary Fidel Castro overthrew the US-backed dictator and began to pursue closer ties with the Soviet Union — an absolute no-no for the US during the Cold War.

The US tried to overthrow Castro during the Bay of Pigs invasion in the 1960s, but after that failure, the US strengthened an economic embargo that largely blocked Americans from doing business or trade with Cuba. There have been tweaks on the margins since, but the embargo has long outlasted the Cold War.

In 2014, then-President Barack Obama began a historic diplomatic opening with Cuba, and as a result of the process, rolled back some economic restrictions tied to the Cold War-era US embargo and opened up travel.

Trump, as president, vowed to reverse those policies; he did throughout his time in office, significantly stepping up the pressure starting in 2019. He imposed renewed travel restrictions and other sanctions, including designating Cuba as a “state sponsor of terror” in his final days in office. A key pillar of Trump’s sanctions severely limited remittances to the island, which cut off another economic spigot.

As experts said, Cuba’s problems are deeper than US sanctions alone, but the Trump-era policy, especially coming during the pandemic, is adding to the strain. And that is creating a dilemma for Washington.”

Alabama governor says ‘it’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks’ as pandemic worsens

“Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey issued an impassioned plea for residents of her state to get vaccinated against Covid-19, arguing it was “time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks” for the disease’s continued spread.

“I want folks to get vaccinated. That’s the cure. That prevents everything,” Ivey, a Republican, told reporters in Birmingham, Ala., on Thursday.”

“Alabama remains the state with perhaps the lowest vaccination rate in the country, according to the CDC: Only 39.6 percent of its residents 12 and older have been fully vaccinated, compared to the 48.8 percent of Americans nationally who have gotten their shots.”

“The Delta variant now represents more than 83 percent of the virus circulating in the United States, according to the CDC, and unvaccinated people account for 97 percent of coronavirus-related hospitalizations and deaths nationally.”

Joe Manchin’s sweeping new voting rights proposal, explained

“Manchin did something unexpected: He released a long list of voting reforms that he does support, potentially scrambling the congressional debate over voting rights as the Senate prepares to vote on Democratic leaders’ proposal.

Manchin’s list includes many reforms drawn from the For the People Act as well as from a companion voting rights bill known as the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. Significantly, Manchin endorsed banning partisan gerrymandering — a high priority for both small-d democrats and large-D Democrats, who want to prevent the GOP from seizing control of the House of Representatives with rigged congressional maps.

Not everything on Manchin’s list will delight his fellow Democrats. He proposes a nationwide voter ID law, for example, although not an especially strict one. And he wants states to be able to engage in “maintenance of voter rolls”— purging names from the state’s list of registered voters — using state and federal documents to identify which voters should be purged.

Manchin would also water down the John Lewis Act, a bill that seeks to restore voting rights protections that the Supreme Court gutted in 2013 — though Manchin’s weaker version of the John Lewis Act would still be much more protective of voting rights than current law.

The West Virginia senator’s proposal, in other words, falls short of the dreams of Democratic leaders and voting rights advocates who rallied behind the For the People Act, which passed the House in March. And it is still almost certainly doomed unless Manchin agrees to eliminate the GOP minority’s ability to filibuster voting rights bills — a move Manchin has thus far rejected — or somehow miraculously musters support from 10 Republicans (in addition to all 50 Democrats).”

An epic Supreme Court showdown over religion and LGBTQ rights ends in a whimper

“Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, a case involving a Catholic group that objects to placing foster children with same-sex couples, was widely expected to be a sweeping victory for the religious right, and a correspondingly significant defeat for LGBTQ rights. Instead, the Court’s opinion dodges nearly all of the important issues raised by the case.
It’s still a small win for religious conservatives and a similarly small loss for the LGBTQ community in Philadelphia. But the Court’s decision is unlikely to have many implications outside of that city. And it hits pause on a fight to overrule a landmark Supreme Court decision from over three decades ago — most likely because, as Justice Amy Coney Barrett notes in a concurring opinion, several of the justices aren’t sure what to do next if that decision is overruled.”

“The plaintiffs in Fulton, moreover, also asked the Supreme Court to overrule its seminal decision in Employment Division v. Smith (1990), which held that religious objectors must follow “neutral law[s] of general applicability.” Under Smith, a religious objector typically is bound by a state or local law so long as it applies with equal force to non-religious actors — so, if secular organizations are forbidden from discriminating, the same rule will generally apply to religious organizations.

But neither of these important questions was resolved in Fulton. While Justice Samuel Alito penned a lengthy opinion calling for Smith to be overruled, that opinion was joined by only Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch.

The remainder of the Court joined a much narrower majority opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts, which rules in favor of CSS, but on grounds that are unlikely to have many implications for future cases.”

“this argument relies solely on the text of Philadelphia’s particular ordinance.”

US investment alone won’t solve Central America’s migrant crisis

“Vice President Kamala Harris recently announced a partnership with 12 private-sector companies and organizations to support “inclusive economic development” in the Northern Triangle of Central America, which includes Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. US government agencies, including the State Department, will also work with governments in the region to remove impediments to international investment and foster new private-sector partnerships.

Among the commitments, Mastercard is supporting 1 million small businesses in the region; Chobani is creating a startup incubator for food entrepreneurs in Guatemala; Microsoft is expanding broadband access to up to 3 million people by next July; and Nespresso is starting to source coffee from El Salvador and Honduras and expanding its existing operations in Guatemala with a minimum $150 million investment by 2025.

Though the lack of foreign investment is far from the only factor driving people to make the journey north, the idea is that improving economic conditions will contribute to overall stability in the region, which has long suffered from persistent corruption, weak government institutions, and high levels of violent crime.”

“there’s a long way to go in persuading would-be migrants that the economic opportunities at home are better than what they might find in the US.”

“direct foreign investment in the region has been minimal in recent decades. In 2019, the last year for which there is available data, foreign investment to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala was just under $2.2 billion combined, according to data from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. By comparison, migrants who left those countries sent a total of $22 billion in remittances back home that year.”

“the levels of foreign investment required to change the calculus around people’s decisions to migrate is much larger than what the region has received in the past. Harris’s initiative, therefore, only represents a starting point.”

““In order for Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala to really compete for good jobs, there is a bit of a homework that needs to be done in terms of preparing the actual workforce in these countries to be in a position to assimilate the possibility of a Microsoft or Google or any other technology company that wants to do heavy investments in these countries,” Chacon said.

That means improving education — and not just formal education, but also vocational training that can set up students to fill niches sought out by international investors.”

“Costa Rica, which brought in $2.5 billion in direct foreign investment in 2019 — more than all of the Northern Triangle countries combined — can serve as a potential model in that respect. Unlike the Northern Triangle, it has invested in preparing a qualified workforce to be competitive, and not just for low-paying jobs, Chacon said.

“Investors in Costa Rica are very confident that the rules are there solidly in place, that they have a very good system of checks and balances, and that there is hardly any corruption anybody can point to,” he said. “That is very different from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.””

““In the Northern Triangle countries, we don’t really have any democratically-minded or reform-minded [government] partners,” Angelo said. “And so I think it’s only natural that the US government would seek to partner with the private sector, and particularly with American companies that we know generally abide by the rule of law.””

The Senate’s infrastructure gamble, explained

“Senate Democrats are navigating a tricky balancing act: attempting to simultaneously advance both a $600 billion bipartisan infrastructure bill and a $3.5 trillion budget resolution full of Democratic priorities that’s only expected to garner partisan support.

This plan, which has colloquially been referred to as the “two-track strategy,” is intended to demonstrate that lawmakers can actually work across party lines to get something done on “hard” infrastructure, like roads and airports, and that Democrats can also deliver on “human” infrastructure that’s a party priority but that Republicans won’t support, like funding for long-term caregiving and paid leave.

It is a somewhat circuitous approach to approving infrastructure legislation, driven by the focus that moderate Democrats, and President Joe Biden, have put on bipartisanship — as well as their refusal to alter the filibuster.”

‘Potential crisis for democracy’: Threats to election workers could spur mass retirements

“State and local election offices fear they are set to face a wave of retirements and resignations after confronting the dual burdens of a pandemic and a rise in conspiracy-fueled threats.

A new survey of over 200 local election officials — the people responsible for running polling places, maintaining voter rolls and counting and certifying the results of elections — found that roughly one-third were either very or somewhat concerned about “being harassed on the job” or “feeling unsafe” at work during the 2020 election cycle. Nearly 4-in-10 respondents in the survey, which was conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice and Bipartisan Policy Center, reported the same level of concern about “facing pressure to certify election results.””

““What is normally a fairly obscure administrative job is now one where lunatics are threatening to murder your children,” said Al Schmidt, one of the three members of Philadelphia’s city board of elections. Schmidt, a Republican, announced in January that he will not seek reelection to his post in 2023. “That is not something anyone anticipates or signs up for.””

““It’s a big challenge and, I think, a potential crisis for democracy,” said Lawrence Norden, the director of the election reform program at the Brennan Center, a left-leaning think tank. “The real question is: Who replaces them when they leave?””

““I think that the big danger here is especially if those positions — which, again, are typically pretty obscure — are targeted to replace those professional election administrators with partisan political operatives whose job it is to undermine confidence” in the electoral system, Schmidt continued.”

“Election administrators are also concerned about new laws in several states that exposed election officials to more criminal and civil penalties for wrongdoing. A bipartisan pair of prominent election attorneys warned in a New York Times essay that the laws could be used to intimidate election officials or punish them for honest mistakes.

“The people that are involved in elections are civic-minded individuals who just want to be part of a democracy, to make it fair and equitable. Nobody’s there for the pay,” said Roxanna Moritz, a Democrat who recently retired early from her position as Scott County, Iowa’s chief elections official, citing a lack of support. “I think that the criminalization in these states are going to cause people to say ‘Okay, it’s time for me to leave. I could make a mistake.’””

The Geophysicist Who Stormed the Capitol

“Sabol’s actions on January 6 and the days afterward have left many in his life confused and grappling for answers. How did a highly educated, middle-aged man with so much to lose participate in what FBI director Christopher Wray called “domestic terrorism,” and then try to kill himself? How did someone with strong views about government overreach, but also plenty of friends and neighbors outside his political bubble, end up on the steps of the Capitol, in attempt to stop the certification of the 2020 presidential election results?

In some ways, Sabol’s radicalization mirrors that of other insurrectionists, a group that collectively has put a new face on American extremism. While many of those arrested for political terrorism in recent decades have been young, underemployed and socially isolated, the majority of the 465 (and counting) defendants in the Capitol attack are much like Sabol—older individuals, mostly white men, with well-established careers.”

“Understanding Jeffrey Sabol’s transformation reveals how radicalization can happen under the radar, while offering lessons for those who want to combat it going forward: about how personal challenges can collide with political messages, and how a person’s job, education level, community and even their social media profile aren’t reliable predictors of extremist behavior. Thousands of people descended on the Capitol terrace, with thousands of individual routes taken to get there.”

“Over the past decade, several parts of Sabol’s life unraveled, according to interviews and court records. In 2011, Strotz filed for divorce. In an interview, she said Sabol began drinking heavily and acting “strange.” Then, in 2014, Sabol’s older brother died suddenly of a heart attack, leaving him devastated. “I believe at this point Jeff lost his bearing and allowed himself to be led by others that steered him down a negative path,” his sister wrote in her character letter filed with the court. She didn’t specify who the people leading her brother astray were, and she did not return phone calls or respond to emails.”

“Sabol found a large measure of stability with a woman he met while back home in Waterville one summer with his kids, according to the character letters. A neighbor to his parents, she and Sabol immediately connected. After a year of dating, she quit her job at a nursing home to re-locate to Colorado, moving into Sabol’s modest, split-level, four-bedroom rental in Kittredge.

By this point, Sabol’s strong political views were already well established. According to Strotz, they took root after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. She denies race had anything to do with it: “It was Obama as a person. He would freak out. He hated that Obama became president, and he hated Democrats. He became obsessed.” Strotz, herself a registered Republican, says Sabol, a registered independent, wrote multiple emails to the Obama White House, though she doesn’t know what they said. Around this time, John Bergman, Sabol’s friend and former co-worker, remembers Sabol attaching a “Don’t Tread on Me” sticker to his old blue Ford pickup truck and running an American flag off the back.

Strotz says when she and Sabol were together, she witnessed what she refers to as his “bad side”—an angry streak and moods that would change quickly. She suggested that Sabol might want to talk to someone about this, but “there was nothing wrong with him in his mind,” she says. In 2016, according to county court records, Sabol was charged with misdemeanor child abuse; Strotz says Sabol had injured their then-15-year-old son. The charge was dismissed after Sabol paid fines and completed probation, a mental health evaluation and counseling. In 2018, he decided to give up custody of his son to Strotz, she says: “Jeff stood in my home and told my fiancé and I that he could no longer continue to do his 50 percent of parenting time with his son, or he would end up in jail.” Sabol did, however, consistently pay child support for his son, according to Strotz.

Whatever was triggering Sabol’s anger at home didn’t appear to carry over into other circles. Bergman says he didn’t experience his friend’s mood swings, though he describes an unusual intensity Sabol brought to his work at ECC. “I would leave the office at 5 p.m., and the next morning he’d still be there when I got in at 8 a.m. Sometimes he’d be there for two nights. He’d get into something and then just go.”

In 2020, Sabol’s fervor found new political outlets. As a geophysicist working on government contracts, Sabol had long been troubled by what he saw as the unchecked power and waste of military spending, or the “military industrial complex,” according to Kerbs. “Because of his work, he saw the other side, how corrupt it is,” Kerbs says of Sabol’s job cleaning up unused or discarded U.S. taxpayer-funded military weaponry and explosives. After the 2020 election, Sabol grew focused on another perceived abuse of government power, this one perpetrated by groups Sabol already harbored mistrust of: A strong supporter of President Donald Trump, Sabol believed the then-president’s claims that liberals and Democrats had “rigged” the election, according to prosecutors, and flew to Washington in December to attend political rallies.”

“he spoke openly to investigators about his views while recovering at the Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, New York, after his arrest, telling agents, “There was no question” the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” from Trump. He had seen videos of ballots being mishandled, he said, and knew voting machines had been tampered with, even though more than 100 judges around the country have determined that no credible evidence of fraud exists. He said he was a “patriot warrior” who had answered “the call to battle” and was “fighting tyranny in the D.C. capital.””