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O'Brien announces Navy ships and subs will be outfitted with Trump's favorite missile

Politico -

KITTERY, Maine — National security adviser Robert O’Brien said on Wednesday that the Navy will eventually put hypersonic missiles, a new weapon frequently touted by President Donald Trump, on all Navy destroyers.

The weapons fly faster than five times the speed of sound and are the kind of missiles China is developing to destroy U.S. Navy ships. Defense leaders frequently mention hypersonic weapons as a priority for the administration.

“The Navy’s Conventional Prompt Strike program will provide hypersonic missile capability to hold targets at risk from longer ranges,” O’Brien said at a speech at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. “This capability will be deployed first on our newer Virginia-class submarines and the Zumwalt-class destroyers. Eventually, all three flights of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers will field this capability.”

Trump has mentioned the missiles at rallies as he ticks off accomplishments on military spending, incorrectly referring to them as "hydrosonic" weapons.

"We have hydrosonic missiles that go seven times faster than a normal missile," Trump told a crowd in Arizona on Monday. "We have the best hydrosonic in the world."

O'Brien gave the speech amid an election season visit to New Hampshire and Maine on Wednesday, where he underlined the importance of expanding the size of the Navy, one of Trump’s key campaign pledges.

O’Brien has made building up the Navy a priority of his tenure as national security adviser, while shrinking the rest of the National Security Council, a group that drew fire from Trump after its role in his impeachment. O’Brien, who was a potential Navy secretary if Mitt Romney had been elected president in 2012, sees naval issues as crucial to America's competition with China and Russia.

While on the trip, O’Brien did several local radio interviews previewing his visit to the Portsmouth shipyard and General Dynamics’ Bath Iron Works.

In his speech on Wednesday morning, he also recognized senators from New Hampshire and Maine, including Susan Collins, who’s facing a tough reelection challenge. O'Brien praised her and other senators for working “tirelessly to protect and support these shipyards, whether it be fighting sequestration or securing millions in appropriations dollars for military construction for Portsmouth.”

O’Brien said previous methods of investing in new ship classes and weapons systems “led to insufficient investment for the systems necessary to maintain peace and deterrence today.” He also touched on how lightly manned and unmanned vessels that use artificial intelligence are likely to play a role in helping supplement big ships and submarines that the Navy is famous for.

The fleet has 296 ships now, and Defense Secretary Mark Esper recently announced plans to expand it past 500 by 2045.

“The pursuit of these new systems, however, cannot be allowed to cause a ‘trough’ in force structure, whereby the nation endures reduced capability while we wait for future technologies and new ships to come online. Any such plan that trades current capability for future ‘out year’ promises is not acceptable to the president.”

Along with some other senior staffers, O’Brien was accompanied by Lucien Niemeyer, a top national security official for the Office of Management and Budget, and Mark Vandroff, the NSC’s senior director for defense policy and strategy, who was the head of the destroyer shipbuilding program in the Navy before retiring.

New Hampshire is not the only swing state O'Brien is going to visit before the election; he’s due to visit Wisconsin as well, home to the Marinette Marine shipyard. He’s also expected to make at least one foreign trip related to the president’s priorities in the next two weeks, according to a senior administration official.

Late Tuesday night, O’Brien returned from a three-day trip to Brazil, where he met with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who endorsed Trump during a news conference and said he wanted to attend Trump’s second inauguration as a fellow populist.

AstraZeneca close to restarting Covid-19 vaccine trial in U.S.

Politico -

AstraZeneca is likely to restart its late-stage U.S. coronavirus vaccine trial "very soon," possibly later this week, according to one of the researchers leading the study.

Ann Falsey, an infectious disease doctor at the University of Rochester School of Medicine, said that the Food and Drug Administration and the drug safety monitoring board overseeing the trial are in talks about resuming it. AstraZeneca's vaccine is one of four that have reached the final stage of testing — Phase III — in the United States.

The company halted all trials of the vaccine worldwide in early September after participants in a U.K. study run by Oxford University developed unexplained neurological symptoms. The company has since restarted that trial and others in Brazil and South Africa.

Falsey's remarks come amid other signs that the American trial could soon get going — including a draft letter from scientists at Oxford University to their U.K. trial participants.

"We are writing to let you know that the US drug regulatory authority (Food and Drug Administration or FDA) has also now completed their analysis of the information relating to the participants concerned and has come to the same conclusion as the other drug regulators including the MHRA," said the letter provided by the U.K. Health Research Authority, which was first reported by Reuters. "Vaccination will therefore shortly resume in the USA."

The agency said it did not know whether the letter had been sent to U.K. trial participants.

AstraZeneca said in a statement that the document is not an AstraZeneca communication and "we cannot verify the content of it. We also cannot comment on a pending FDA decision."

The FDA declined to comment on the matter.

Second dose questions: AstraZeneca's vaccine is given as two doses four weeks apart. Since the U.S. trial has been halted for longer than four weeks, it's unclear what will happen to participants who have received the first shot but not the second. AstraZeneca said it expects "minimal impact based on the trial plans for 2nd dose timing."

The second dose of a vaccine is often times "more effective if there’s a longer interval between the first and second dose," Falsey said. But she said it would be up to AstraZeneca to decide how to handle delayed second doses.

What's next: If the U.S. trial restarts, AstraZeneca will look to finish enrolling 30,000 participants. The ongoing trials in the U.K., Brazil and South Africa have now enrolled almost 20,000 participants, according to Oxford. But Falsey said she did not think that AstraZeneca would seek an emergency authorization in the U.S. based on the trial data from other countries — "the data would have to be incredibly compelling," she said.

Poll: Biden, Trump locked in tight race for Iowa

Politico -

Joe Biden has pulled even with Donald Trump among registered voters in Iowa, according to a new survey that also shows the Democratic nominee ahead of the Republican incumbent in likely voter models.

A Monmouth University poll released Wednesday reports that 48 percent of Iowa registered voters support Trump and 47 percent support Biden — a diminished lead for the president compared with last month, when half of registered voters preferred Trump and 44 percent backed Biden.

But a Monmouth model forecasting a relatively high level of voter turnout has Biden overtaking Trump by 3 percentage points, 50-47 percent. Another model based on lower turnout widens Biden’s advantage over Trump to 5 points, 51-46 percent.

Trump won Iowa’s six electoral votes by 9.6 percentage points in 2016. Voters there have toggled between Republican and Democratic presidential nominees in previous election cycles, with Barack Obama carrying the state in 2012 and 2008.

According to a RealClearPolitics average of Iowa surveys conducted between Oct. 1-19, Biden leads Trump by 2 percentage points in general election polling.

The latest Monmouth poll also shows a competitive race for Senate in Iowa. Both incumbent Republican Sen. Joni Ernst and Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield are supported by 47 percent of the state’s registered voters.

Greenfield leads Ernst, however, under the high likely turnout model, 49-47 percent, as well as under the low likely turnout model, 51-45 percent. The RealClearPolitics average of Iowa Senate polling also has Greenfield out in front of Ernst by 5 percentage points.

The Monmouth poll was conducted Oct. 15-19, surveying 501 Iowa registered voters with a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

DOJ announces $8B-plus settlement with OxyContin maker

Politico -

OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma has agreed to a settlement worth more than $8 billion to resolve a federal probe of its marketing practices for opioids, the Justice Department announced Wednesday.

The company, which has been blamed more than any other for fueling the nation's opioid epidemic, will also plead guilty to three charges connected its role in the drug crisis. Purdue's owners, the Sackler family, will also pay $225 million in a civil settlement.

Key context: Wednesday's announcement will allow President Donald Trump to claim progress in tackling the drug epidemic less than two weeks before Election Day. Four years ago, he campaigned heavily on ending a crisis that's killed over 450,000 Americans in the past two decades, but the issue largely been overlooked in the 2020 election even as drug overdose deaths hit historic levels.

Preliminary CDC data show that drug overdose deaths, after a brief dip in 2018, hit a record high in 2019, with nearly 72,000 fatalities. The toll continues to climb this year amid the coronavirus pandemic. Opioids, which account for most drug deaths, were involved in two out of every three drug overdose fatalities in 2018, according to the CDC.

Controversy over the agreement: The resolution with the Trump administration also includes a mandate to dissolve Purdue, with the Sacklers relinquishing all ownership and control. The company's assets, pending the approval of a bankruptcy court, will be redirected to a government-owned "public benefit company" that will still produce OxyContin and opioid addiction treatment.

Last week, 25 state attorneys general wrote a letter urging the Justice Department against making such a move, saying the government shouldn't benefit from sales of OxyContin, the 25-year-old drug that helped power the addiction crisis. Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen defended the plan against those criticisms.

“It was also our judgment on this that while prescription opioids can be abused, diverted, misused in very harmful ways, it’s a prescription pharmaceutical that does have some positive uses, and maintaining supply of those is itself something that could be beneficial,” Rosen told reporters Wednesday.

Rosen declined to say why DOJ didn’t pursue criminal charges against the Sacklers, noting only that the civil resolution doesn’t absolve them from other legal claims.

Purdue will plead guilty to conspiracy to defraud the government and kickback schemes involving payments to prescribing doctors and an electronic health records company.

What's next: A separate sprawling mass litigation effort to hold Purdue and other drug companies accountable for the opioid crisis continues to drag on. That yearslong legal battle involves thousands of U.S. counties, cities and towns that have sued drugmakers, pharmacies and drug distributors. A coalition of state attorneys general is pressing for a proposed $48 billion global settlement as quickly as possible, while other attorneys general and lawyers for the municipalities want to hold out for more.

Purdue last year filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last year to freeze lawsuits while figuring out a separate settlement with them.

The drug firm Mallinckrodt earlier this month filed for bankruptcy protection and set aside $1.6 billion to resolve all its pending opioid-related legal claims.

Brianna Ehley contributed to this report.

What the Google suit may look like if Biden wins

Politico -

If Joe Biden wins the presidency, he’ll get the opportunity to shape the future of the Trump administration’s landmark antitrust suit against Google. And that could mean even more trouble for the search giant.

Many in Biden’s party are pushing for strong action against Google. Democratic state attorneys general refused to join the case the Justice Department filed Tuesday because they want to file a broader and more aggressive complaint. Biden is expected to take his cues for how to handle the case from those same Democratic AGs.

And with the progressive wing of the Democratic party increasingly calling for breakups of Big Tech, there will be pressure on Biden to go after the core business models of the massive internet companies that have come to dominate both the U.S. economy and everyday life.

“There is just so much momentum moving against monopoly power, particularly in tech,” said Sarah Miller, executive director of the American Economic Liberties Project. Biden will be “inheriting not just a single case from the DOJ. They are inheriting a major turning point in the way the public understands how public institutions relate to corporate power.”

While the DOJ suit is focused on allegations that Google’s contracts create unfair barriers to competitors in online search, Democratic-led states like Colorado, New York, North Carolina and Iowa are part of a bipartisan group of about 37 states that are drafting a separate suit challenging the way Google uses its search engine to favor its other businesses, along with its dominance over advertising technology.

The states’ suit is designed so they wouldn’t be forced into a settlement if the Justice Department backs off from pursuing a breakup or significant changes to how Google’s business is structured.

A settlement is a possibility under either administration and the most concrete sense of how the suit would be treated by Biden will be who he picks as attorney general.

The Biden campaign did not respond to requests for comment for this story, but has said previously they don’t intend to make any personnel decisions before the election.

There are names circulating however, and they range from trustbusters to some with strong tech ties. Among those are Sen. Doug Jones, the Alabama Democrat who is running for reelection and expected to lose; New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who says he isn’t interested; and Tish James, New York’s attorney general. James, who has been a leader in the state antitrust probe into Google and Facebook, would likely push for DOJ to aggressively pursue Google. During his tenure as New York AG, Cuomo also pursued a major antitrust case against Intel, while Jones is more of an enigma having spent his legal career on civil rights.

Karen Dunn, a former associate White House counsel under Obama and a longtime antitrust attorney for Apple is also said to be in consideration to head antitrust operations at DOJ.

Should Biden win the election, his administration will have three possible options with the Google lawsuit: continue the suit as is; broaden it; or settle it.

Continue it

Because antitrust cases tend to take several years, it’s not uncommon for them to span administrations. IBM’s antitrust case was filed on the last day of the Lyndon B. Johnson administration and wasn't resolved until more than a decade later, when President Ronald Reagan took office. The antitrust suit against telecom giant AT&T was filed in 1974 under President Gerald Ford, and continued through the Carter administration before it settled in 1982, also under Reagan.

And the Google suit as filed has been embraced by those on both sides of the aisle.

Some had worried that it would be much more contentious. As news emerged last week that the Justice Department planned to file its suit without Democratic support, some Google opponents feared DOJ was pulling its punches to get a lawsuit out the door. Tuesday’s complaint largely assuaged many of those concerns.

Jeffrey Jacobovitz, an antitrust partner at Arnall Golden Gregory, called it a “straightforward” monopolization case and likened it to the DOJ’s Microsoft case, where he represented a company that complained about the tech giant.

Microsoft's case “was similar allegations involving exclusionary contracts,” he said. “This tracks that.” The case against Microsoft targeted the company’s contracts with computer manufacturers and AOL, which required them to bundle its Internet Explorer browser with the Windows operating system. The Google case focuses on the search giant’s contracts mandating that its search engine be the default in Android smartphones and in browsers such as Apple’s Safari and Mozilla’s Firefox. Jacobovitz is not involved in the Google suit.

Broaden it

If Biden wants to follow the states’ push to go broader, he may have a template in hand well before January.

Colorado Attorney General Phillip Weiser, who served as a top DOJ antitrust official under President Barack Obama, has been leading the states’ investigation into how Google uses its power over search to advance its business. Colorado is a lead on the probe alongside Democratic prosecutors from Iowa, North Carolina, New York and Republican prosecutors from Nebraska, Tennessee and Utah.

In a joint statement, the states said they are continuing their investigation, which they hope to conclude “in the coming weeks.”

“If we decide to file a complaint, we would file a motion to consolidate our case with the DOJ’s,” the states said. “We would then litigate the consolidated case cooperatively, much as we did in the Microsoft case.”

The states have been skeptical of strategic and legal decisions made by Attorney General William Barr and his DOJ team investigating the search giant and hope to file a broader case challenging how Google uses its search engine to promote its own products rather than rivals’, an approach known as “self-preferencing.”

Both the Justice Department and the states are also separately investigating Google’s dominance in the advertising technology market. Google is the No. 1 player in the $162.3 billion global market for online display advertising and sweeps up as much as 42 cents for every dollar spent on those ads, according to a recent U.K. study.

Once the states file, a Biden Justice Department could look to that complaint as well, Jacobovitz said.

“They could amend the complaint and add counts and also add parties,” he said. “It also could all end up one big lawsuit if the states want to go along with DOJ.”

Gary Reback, a lawyer with Carr & Ferrell, said the current DOJ complaint has “sufficient flexibility” in the way it was written that prosecutors could try to bring in other aspects of Google’s business, such as self-preferencing.

They are “giving themselves considerable wiggle room,” said Reback, who represented several companies in the Federal Trade Commission’s Google probe in the early 2010s but isn’t involved in Tuesday’s investigation.

The Justice Department’s complaint doesn’t allege that Google’s self-preferencing is an antitrust offense itself. Rather prosecutors argue that ability to prefer its own products is an effect of Google’s monopoly power, Reback said.

“If you made a complaint that listed self-preferencing as an antitrust offense, that would be broader than what we have,” he said. “It would be a shot across the bow of Amazon, which has been accused of the same behavior.”

Gene Kimmelman, a senior adviser for Public Knowledge, also said a Biden DOJ could broaden their approach to Google in a way that could impact other tech titans.

“Launching this case doesn’t end up just being about Google,” said Kimmelman, who served as a DOJ antitrust official under Obama. “It opens the door to more aggressive intervention across multiple tech platforms.”

Settle it

Under President Barack Obama, Google representatives met with White House officials on average once a week, according to the nonprofit watchdog Campaign for Accountability. And Obama’s Justice Department challenged just one acquisition out of the hundreds Big Tech made during his eight years in office, a recent House report said.

Some tech critics fear the Biden administration could return to that friendly approach when considering the Google suit. They note that the Biden team is seeking advice from Obama administration veterans and drawing donations from tech industry leaders. Kamala Harris also served as California’s attorney general from 2011 to 2017, years Europe spent actively investigating Google’s growing power and the tech sector while the U.S. failed to take any meaningful antitrust action.

Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, who as Missouri’s attorney general in 2017 launched his own antitrust probe into Google, expressed concern during a call with reporters Tuesday that a Biden administration could “shut this suit down or just pull it back and pursue a settlement.”

Both the Justice Department and Google representatives declined on Tuesday to discuss whether any settlement talks have already taken place.

It’s not uncommon for prosecutors to propose settling antitrust suits that aren’t popular with a new DOJ. The George W. Bush Justice Department reached a settlement with Microsoft in 2001 after inheriting the case from the Clinton administration.

“The change of administration can have a large impact on antitrust enforcement,” said Jacobovitz, who recalled how a monopolization case he worked on as a young DOJ prosecutor was settled by the incoming Reagan administration.

Any settlement though is likely to face stiff scrutiny from Congress. Even as Democrats dinged the suit’s timing two weeks before the election, many hailed the suit as long overdue and indicated they will be closely watching as it proceeds into the next administration.

House Judiciary Chair Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) promised Tuesday to continue “robust oversight of the antitrust laws and the antitrust agencies.”

In extreme situations, the Justice Department might opt to kill a case entirely, but Economic Liberties’ Miller, who has been involved in antitrust working groups for the Biden campaign, said that’s unlikely here.

“If this was a one-off thing coming from the middle of nowhere” maybe, she said. But the Google probe “is bipartisan and the investigations completed in the House and DOJ complaint are not only sound, but historic in their scope and level of detail.”

Menendez, with eye on committee chairmanship, blasts Trump in new report

Politico -

Shortly after Viktor Orbán visited him in the White House, President Donald Trump called one of his biggest critics in Congress to defend his decision to meet with the autocratic Hungarian leader.

Orbán is a “good guy,” Trump told New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, following the May 2019 meeting. The president also noted that Hungary had agreed to buy a lot of U.S. military equipment.

Trump’s assurances did not comfort Menendez, who has remained a fierce critic of the president throughout Trump’s first term. On Wednesday, the New Jersey senator released a blistering report detailing what he characterized as four years of foreign policy chaos under Trump.

The report, which describes Trump’s call to Menendez about Orbán, also signals what Menendez may prioritize if Democrats win control of the Senate and he becomes the Foreign Relations Committee chair next year. For one thing, the report calls, albeit somewhat vaguely, for holding the Trump administration “accountable for its attacks on democratic norms and values.”

“The state of the United States in the world hangs in a tenuous balance,” the report declares. “Our allies are weary and alienated; our own diplomats struggle to uphold the values we have promoted to the world for decades; and a U.S. president’s eschewing of democracy has helped to fuel autocratic trends abroad.”

The report, pulled together by the Democratic staff of the Senate committee, relies heavily on news accounts from the past four years, as well as interviews with dozens of former U.S. officials, foreign policy experts and foreign officials.

The report largely reflects positions repeatedly articulated by Menendez and other leading Democrats, including presidential nominee Joe Biden, throughout the Trump presidency.

For instance, it castigates Trump for imposing tariffs, belittling and otherwise undermining U.S. allies such as Germany. It argues that even countries friendly to America now view it as a “destabilizing global force they need to manage.”

It alleges that Trump’s domestic policies, such as separating migrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, have dramatically undermined U.S. credibility when it comes to promoting human rights and democracy abroad.

It also insists that foreign leaders feel freer to oppress their people because they do not fear blowback from a Trump-led America. Leaders in countries such as Turkey, the Philippines and Cambodia even use favorite Trump phrases such as “fake news” to try to suppress journalistic freedom, the report states.

The report’s recommendations include calls for Congress to be more involved in helping set the terms for U.S. foreign policy.

“Decades of Congress underinvesting in its own structures, expertise, and personnel have left it unprepared to effectively stand up to the Trump administration’s rampant disregard for laws and norms, and overt circumventing of Congress,” the report states. “Congress must be an effective partner and counterbalance to the Executive in charting a whole-of-government path forward to reestablishing the United States as a credible ally and principled world power.”

The report also calls for the executive branch to try to gain bipartisan support from Congress for its foreign policy actions. “Although difficult, it would demonstrate to international partners that U.S. policies and positions will endure from one administration to the next,” it states.

Trump and his aides have been accused of everything from corruption to discrimination. The report does not get specific on how to deal with those allegations, but it also doesn’t ignore the widespread desire among Democrats for some accountability.

“While the U.S. will need to move forward and set a strong example, it cannot ignore the damage done by the Trump administration to democratic institutions and values,” it states. “Our country must engage in some accounting of the damage done and take steps to protect our democracy from future abuses.”

Menendez may be in a rarefied position to build bridges with Republicans should he become the committee chair. Although he’s a vociferous critic of the Trump administration’s overall foreign policies, he at times sided with Republicans during the years Barack Obama, a Democrat, was president.

In particular, Menendez opposed the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and Obama’s efforts to improve relations with Cuba. Menendez also has joined forces at times with the current committee chair, Republican James Risch of Idaho.

Prior to Orban’s visit to the White House, for instance, Menendez and Risch both signed on to a letter to Trump expressing concerns about the Hungarian prime minister’s growing grip on his country.

White House leans on Pentagon to fulfill Trump’s Afghanistan pledge

Politico -

The White House is turning up the pressure on the Pentagon to carry out President Donald Trump’s directive of a further withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, as the commander in chief looks to deliver on a campaign pledge ahead of next month’s election.

National security adviser Robert O’Brien said that the Pentagon is “executing” a White House order to reduce the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan to 2,500 by early next year, brushing aside comments by the nation’s top military officer that have cast doubt on the new directive.

“We have a plan that’s been in place for some time going to 4,500 by this month, and being somewhere around 2,500 to 2,800 in early 2021,” O’Brien said Tuesday in an interview as he traveled back to the U.S. following meetings in Brazil. While he noted that the drawdown is “conditions-based,” he stressed that “that’s where the president wants to be … that’s what the Pentagon is executing.”

The comments mark the latest in an unusually public back-and-forth between O’Brien and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, who told NPR last week that reductions beyond the near-term 4,500 number must be made based on the security situation in the country and that O’Brien was engaging in “speculation” by discussing specifics beyond that.

They also come as the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan warns that a “distressingly high” level of violence could derail peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, which is one of the conditions for a complete U.S. withdrawal by May 2021.

The violence is also stoking concerns among military planners who believe the withdrawal timeline O’Brien laid out is too fast, according to two senior U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the situation.

Officers at U.S. Central Command believe the situation in Afghanistan is still too volatile to go below 4,500, and that the Taliban are not negotiating in good faith with the Afghan government, one of the officials said.

Still, the White House has relayed to Defense Secretary Mark Esper and other senior DoD leaders through a series of meetings that the president wants the troop level to drop by another 2,000 by early next year, O’Brien said.

This puts O’Brien at odds with Milley, who told NPR last week "I think that Robert O'Brien or anyone else can speculate as they see fit. I'm not going to engage in speculation," about the timeline for withdrawal. Milley said the troop withdrawal must be based on conditions on the ground and not dates on the calendar.

Asked directly about Milley’s comments, O’Brien said “I’m not going to get into a public debate with General Milley,” who he called “a friend” and “a great American.”

“I really can’t comment on what General Milley was saying. I wasn’t in the interview, I didn’t read the whole thing,” O’Brien said. “All I can tell you is what I understand the plan is, and I understand the Pentagon is executing the plan. I talked to Secretary Esper and I think we are all on the same page.”

Chief Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman released a statement saying the Pentagon is following through with the drawdown. “DoD is implementing the President’s direction regarding a conditions-based withdrawal from Afghanistan that will advance the peace process, protect our forces and prevent enduring threats to the homeland,” Hoffman said.

But when pressed specifically on whether the Pentagon was on board with drawing down to 2,500 troops by January as laid out by O’Brien, Hoffman declined to comment.

Spokespeople for the Joint Chiefs and U.S. Central Command also declined repeated requests for comment on the January goal.

On Sunday, at least 12 civilians were killed and more than 100 people wounded after a car bomb exploded outside a police headquarters in Afghanistan’s western province of Ghor. That same day, the Taliban accused Washington of violating their February agreement by conducting airstrikes in Helmand and Farah, a claim U.S. Forces Afghanistan immediately rejected.

U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said the developments are putting the peace process in danger.

“The belief that says violence must escalate to win concessions at the negotiating table is very risky,” Khalilzad tweeted Monday. “Such an approach can undermine the peace process and repeats past miscalculations by Afghan leaders.”

O’Brien condemned the violence, saying the U.S. has communicated its concern to both the Taliban and the Afghan government. However, he noted that America has made “tremendous sacrifices in blood and treasure” for the people of Afghanistan and Iraq, another country where Trump has reduced the U.S. military presence, and now needs to focus “on defending the American people.”

“I think the American people want us to focus on the existential threats, what I call the generational threats in our country,” O’Brien said. “The world that we live in has changed and it’s not a unipolar world where America can dictate and has the luxury of fighting these smaller wars for endless amounts of time and spending endless amounts of money.”

O’Brien also noted that thousands of NATO and coalition forces will continue to augment the U.S. presence in Afghanistan even after the drawdown.

Asked whether announcing a further drawdown just weeks before the election was politically motivated, O’Brien said Trump campaigned on getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan and the continued withdrawal should not come as a surprise.

Ending conflicts in the Middle East and Africa and pivoting to defending the homeland as well as countering China and Russia will be part of Trump’s “legacy,” O’Brien said, noting that Trump is the only president since Ronald Reagan who hasn’t started a new conflict.

O’Brien also confirmed a recent Bloomberg News report that the administration is also in talks to withdraw 500 to 700 special operations forces stationed in Somalia focused on fighting terrorists.

“To the extent that it’s political — because that’s a promise the president made when he ran for election and unlike many other politicians, whether it’s moving the embassy to Jerusalem or cutting taxes, the president has actually kept the promises he’s made to the American people,” O’Brien said. “We’re going to draw down carefully and safely and do our best to bring peace to those countries and end those endless wars.”

Herd Immunity Could Mean Millions of Dead Americans

Real Clear Politics -

The United States has just surpassed 64,000 coronavirus infections daily, a high not seen since July. We are about to surpass the threshold of 220,000 Americans dead from the COVID-19 pandemic. The president has contracted the virus after holding a "super spreader" event at the White House in honor of Judge Amy Coney Barrett where at least 34 White House staffers and others connected to the event -- more than originally thought -- became infected.

Are There Reasons for Indicting Russians Now, or Ulterior Motives?

Real Clear Politics -

Why, in the days before an election fraught with political squabbling over Russia and computer hacking, would the Justice Department weigh in on Monday with indictments of six Russian state hackers? The hackers in question are officers in the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate. They are not, we can all agree, friends of America. But the threat they pose is hardly new: One of the GRU officers freshly indicted - Anatoliy Sergeyevich Kovalev -- has already been under indictment for years, He was charged along with a couple of dozen of his colleagues two years ago. Adding a new set of...

Media Elites Want You To Shut Up About Hunter Biden

Real Clear Politics -

What happened to Joe Biden? Remember him? Longtime senator, Obama's VP, now running for president and on the ballot in two weeks? In fact, Joe Biden was last seen a couple of days ago buying milkshakes in North Carolina. Given Biden's present condition, that is worrisome. If you see him wandering in a park or lost in the crafts aisle at Wal-Mart, be sure to alert authorities.

Did Joe Biden Take a Bribe?

Real Clear Politics -

Did Joe Biden take a bribe? The tech giants and legacy media have taken extreme and unprecedented measures to silence news accounts that probe this question. Beyond Twitter and Facebook, there are reports of TikTok censoring contributors attempting to share the New York Post reporting on Hunter Biden.

Why Ice Cube Talking To Trump Is So Dangerous

Real Clear Politics -

Ice Cube's words and actions imply that Democrats and Republicans are interchangeable on race, says Peniel Joseph. In taking that position, Cube is doing more than discounting the GOP's racist track record, argues Joseph; he is joining a long and troubling history of Black activists attempting to negotiate with racist White politicians -- and he's implicitly dismissing the Black women who have been working within the Democratic Party and leading the Black Lives Matter movement to make transformative change.


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